Farming the asphalt jungle

Once upon a gas shortage, Bill and Helga Olkowski had a dream -- an inner-city farm. Old McDonald would have scowled at their site plans. For on this farm (an 1/ 8 acre city lot), along with the rabbits, alfalfa, honey bees, orchard, fish pond, and here-a-chick, there-a-chick, everywhere-a-chick-chick, they also have solar panels, a gray water recycling system, a Savonius rotor (wind machine), a solar oven, and a Clivus Multrum (Swedish composting toilet).

What sounds like a rather bizarre marriage of "new age" technology and traditional farm life makes perfect sense when you meet the Olkowskis. "I have always wanted to live on a farm. But I have always lived in the city," says Helga.

The Olkowskis are biologists who taught at the University of California, Berkeley. Though they have alway lived in the city, they behave in an endearing way like a couple of farm kids, a pair of sophisticated hayseeds, you might say.

Bill, a whiskered hybrid of Euell Gibbons and Buckminster Fuller, twirls a toothpick between his teeth while rhapsodizing on the musca domesticam -- housefly to the rest of us. Bill is an entomologist; he likes bugs.

Helga, a short, stocky woman with an ever-present kerchief on her head, talks like a Russian peasant raised in Haight-Ashbury. When we first met, she excitedly rushed up and thrust at me what could have been here grandmother's Borscht recipe. It was, in fact, here latest IPM (Integrated Pest Management) newsletter, detailing pesticide use in Massachusetts apple orchards and examining composting in the People's Republic of China.

Bill drawls in a Bronx nasal brogue. Helga's sentences spill out so fast they trip over each other. She constantly interrupts her husband to brag about him.

"The Integral Urban House was Bill's idea," says Helga from across a long table in their dining room, which doubles as a gardening library. "Bill was telling everybody 'Hey, wait a minute! The problems are in the city dwellers live in a more environmentally sound way there won't be any country to retreat to.'"

The Olkowskis set up the urban farmhouse as an experiment to show city dwellers how to raise their own meat and vegetables, save on water, electricity, and fuel, and waste nothing. When I saw the plastic sandwich bags clothespinned over their kitchen sink to dry, I began to understand what they meant by "waste nothing." Long before the word "environmentalist" was in vogue, the Olkowskis became deeply troubled by the wastefulness of America.

The average American flushes, showers, and spills away more than 200 gallons of drinkable water daily. In addition, he creates about 4.5 pounds of garbage each day, which totals about 3 tons of garbage per family, per year.

The heat energy contained in the garbage thrown away by a Boston family of four in the course of a year would provide one third of their house's winter heating requirements.

It takes as much energy to cool and heat America's buildings over a period of three years as it took to construct those buildings in the first place. Household utility bills, in some cities, already exceed the mortgage payments.

In the early 1970s, for the first time since the Depression of the 30s,rising income in the United States did not keep pace with the cost of goods and services.

The Olkowskis were among the first to read the writing on the wall. They plowed under their backyard, planted carrots and cabbages on their roof. Soon they were raising all their own vegetables and meat and eventually co-authored the handbook, "The City People's Book of Raising Food." Bill Olkowski had already helped start one of the nation's first community recycling centers in a supermarket parking lot. Within two years, there were 75 such centers in the San Francisco Bay area.

The Olkowskis were trying to find a better way to spread the word when, in 1972, they began to brainstorm with a small group of biologists, architects, and engineers "every second Tuesday in some Chinese restaurant," recalls Helga. Several hundred eggrolls later, the group formed the Farallones Institute and named as its president Sim Van der Rym, subsequently California's state architect.

In 1974, the group bought a dilapidated 1896 house on Fifth Street in the poorer section of West Berkely. "We wanted something that would typify the worst of American cities," says Helga. They found what they were looking for.The 2 1/2-story Victorian home had been scheduled for demolition. City officials waned to raze the entire neighborhood (already cluttered with light industry) to make way for an industrial park.

The Olkowskis and their friends cleared the tangle of weeds enveloping the Fifth Street house and "retrofitted" the structure with insulation, solar heating, a chicken coop, rabbit hutch, composting bins, a windmill, fish tank, green-house, and seminar room. They planted a backyard garden modelled on the Olkowskis'.

In the three years following the renovation of the house, eight other abandoned houses in the neighborhood were rehabilitated and occupied by families. The city eventually shelved its plans for the industrial park. Similar "integral houses" began to spring up around the country: the Ouroborus House in Minneapolis, the East Eleventh Street project in New York City; the Institute for Self-Reliance in Washington, D.C., and the New Alchemy Institute on Cape Cod.

For years the Olkowskis were swamped with "how-to" questions about the Integral House. To meet the demand, the Sierra Club has just published the Olkowskis' success story in "The Urban Integral House," a do-it-yourself handbook which they wrote (with the help of former Integral House manager Tom Javits). It is filled with diagrams, charts, and just-add-water recipes for farming in the city.

Armed with a copy of the Olkowskis' new book, I mounted my three-speed Schwinn and headed down toward Fifth Street to see if urban farming was as easy as they made it look.

Pedalling from the university towards the bay, one leaves behind the Berkeley hills, their rustic brown shingle houses and streets with pastoral names like Walnut, Spruce, and Rose. Heading west the neighborhoods in the "flatlands" become increasingly black, Asian, and Chicano. Stucco bungalows straddle small but manicured plots of grass.

Fifth Street is within earshot of the Southern Pacific tracks and the drone of commuter traffic on the freeway into San Francisco. Parked on Fifth Street the day I arrive are two flatbed semi-trailers. A young man who looks like Frank Zappa's kid brother is delivering firewood with a red forklift. In front of the Urban Integral House is a Ford pickup with a "No Nukes" bumper sticker. A flimsy basketball hoop is nailed, about a foot too high, to the nearby telephone pole. Garbage and wood scraps from the neighbor's yard pile up against the fence.

I leave my bike inside the front gate on the south side of the house where a brick path bisects a ground cover of strawberries. The Farallones Institute calls this its "edible lawn." Outside the gate in two curbside rectangles is the scruffy stubble of what looks to be the remains of the alfalfa crop. I remember reading in the Olkowskis' book that a 20 square-meter grass lawn takes three times as much energy (in fertilizers, pesticides, gasoline, and human labor) to tend as the same area of alfalfa. While lawn clippings are tossed into the garbage, alfalfa can be fed to your rabbits -- if you raise rabbits.

Along the front fence, a stand of mulberry trees is beginning to bud. When their leaves, appear, the grand scheme is to feed mulberry prunings to silkworms in the greenhouse, use the silk as insulation in quilted clothing, and feed the pupae to the chickens and fish.

In the workshop behind a sign: "Please Fail to Enter. Staph only," I find Andy Sykes, the house manager, putting away his tools. Sykes is one of the house's three pemanent residents. In addition, the Integral House is staffed by nine full-time employees, who give classes, lectures, tours, and collect data from projects in the experimental farmhouse.

Sykes has just finished a lunch of solar-baked yams. He confesses the yams didn't come from the house garden but asserts the beets on tomorrow's menu will be "Integral beets."

"On a day like this the oven gets up around 350 degrees," says Sykes in a honeyed Texas twang. He is a lanky man with straw blond hair falling below his shoulders. He studied entomology with the Olkowskis. He offers: "You can put on a pot of soup in the morning, point it toward the noonday sun and have it ready for dinner."

Sykes suggests we take advantage of the sun. He heads toward the back door leading into the garden. I follow on the heels of his Adidas. We pass by the Clivus Multrum, a waterless toilet, used throughout Sweden. It has no moving parts. Ninety-five percent of its waste decomposes and is vested off into an odorless gas. The remains are shovelled out after two years and used as compost on fruit trees and ornamental plants in the garden. "Whenever I give the Saturday tours of the house I always open the lid of the Clivus and show people the compost. For some reason composting waste is a real taboo in this country," says Sykes.

On the rafters over his head hang several rabbit pelts.I remember Bill Olkowski's mouth watering when the subject of rabbits came up two days earlier. "I always give a big pitch for raising rabbits," Olkowski told me. "It's good, lean, inexpensive meat. The animals are perfect for the city. They are quiet and will chew up all the organic material in the garden. A ten-pound female is capable of producing 120 pounds of progeny each year. And you can use the fur for covering pillows and things."

The rabbit skins hanging that day in the Integral House were as stiff as beef jerky and didn't look like anything I'd want to put my head on at night. Sykes explained the furs had been there for some time. The present residents of the house were all vegetarians and had given up raising rabbits. "The other thing about rabbits," one Integral tour guide confided, "is that no one likes to slaughter the cute little things."

The Integral house members do, however, consume a good deal of eggs, and Sykes says they were planning to expand the chicken coop. "We call it the chicken condominium, and soon we'll have three dozen chickens." At the going cost of chicken feed, Sykes and his colleagues harvest eggs at 30 cents a dozen.

On top of the chicken coop is a metal mesh fly trap. The Olkowskis estimate that even in "nice" American middle-class neighborhoods, a single garbage can is capable of producing a thousand flies in one week of warm weather. How does the Integral House cope? Since the insects are high in protein, they trap the flies , dry them in the solar oven, and feed them to the chickens who naturally digest them. (The fly trap is delightfully simple: the flies are lured through an opening at the bottom by the smell of bait, but keep flying upwards to escape, where there is no exit.)

As we leave the chicken coop composting area, Sykes suggests we "talk over by the aquaculture." We walk between rows of Swiss chard, sweet peas, celery, carrots, beets, spinach, and broccoli. Trays of cabbage seedlings have just been transplanted from the greenhouse. In the greenhouse, he tells me, tomatoes and cucumbers are raised during the cool Berkeley winters. Whiteflies, mites, and aphids are pests common to any greenhouse but the Integral House has solved that problem by introducing parasites to control the first, and predators to control the other two.As in Britain and Scandinavia, the Integral House controls greenhouse pests biologically, and avoids toxic, polluting pesticides common in the United States.

In the garden, Sykes stoops to pick up a discarded carrot top. He twirls it between his fingers. "This will go back to the chickens," he says.

We pass a row of dwarf fruit trees, espaliered against the north fence. They are breaking into blossom. Yellow Delicious apple. Pippin. Native plum. Apricot. Lemon. The blackberry vines are neatly trained on twine trellises.A single purple iris is potted in a white porcelain toilet, once used inside the house. The Integral House staff confesses this is a heavy-handed reminder to visitors that "trash is beautiful."

Nearing the fish tank, Sykes remarks: "We've designed the whole system so that people with 40-hour-a-week jobs could do this too without much effort. It usually takes me about 15 minutes to do my chores. This month I've got feeding the chickens, weeding the garden. Larry has recycling the glass, and checking the fish. Carol waters the greenhouse.

"Oh," he remembers, "I also take care of the bees."

As we talk, a squadron of honey bees skim over our heads on their way to the hive above the fish tank. Andy harvests about 100 pounds of honey each year and the dead bees (in the spring the hive loses about a thousand bees a day) fall back into the fish tank and are eaten by the catfish and Sacramento blackfish.

I stare into the fish tank. Its rubberized sides and bottom are blanketed with algae. The water is so murky that I am unable to see any fish at all. Sykes assures me, "They're down deep. If we put a worm or snail in, you'd see them pop right up." Not finding any fish food close by I take his word for it.

The day is particularly gusty, and the Savonius rotor, a windmill taken from a Finnish design and made of salvaged lumber and 55-gallon oil drums, spins with a soft mesmeric whir. The rotor powers a pump which derives water in the fish tank through a series of spillways containing crayfish and oyster shells. They filter and aerate the water.

I cannot resist asking Sykes: "When was the last time the house had a fish dinner?"

He hesitates, searching for an answer Finally, he explains that while the aquaculture is an experiment that interests visitors, it has not yet been terribly productive.

After talking to Sykes for an afternoon, I realize that in addition to being a research station and home for him and two others, the Integral House is also a museum, a display case for household appropriate technology. The thousands of people who annually tour the house make privacy a rare commodity for the residents. Living in a fishbowl seems to be an occupational hazard for Sykes and the others, but perhaps that was part of the Olkowskis' dream of showing the world that the Integral House works.m

"An awful lot of people have come through here recently. Our popularity always seems to grow with each rise in gasoline prices," says Sykes. "The Farallones Institute now has members all over the world, people in Germany, England, Sweden, Venezuela, Japan, and the Philippines. And there are people in this country who just call us up and say they're sick and tired of high utility bills, and what can they do about it?"

One of the things the Integral House did about its utility bills was install a solar heating system. The solar panels on the slanted south roof heat water up to 160 degrees F and provide 95 percent of the house's hot water. In addition, meals not cooked in the solar over are prepared on a wood stove in the kitchen. Adjoining the kitchen is a "bottlewall": racks of one gallon apple juice containers filled with blackened water. Shutters are opened for the water to collect day-time solar energy which warms the house at night.

After completing "The Urban Integral House" book, the Olkowskis recently retired from the board of the Farallones Institute to devote their full time to advising city, state, and federal agencies on their "urban integrated pest management" system. These days, the two biologists may be found doing anything from saving shade trees in Fresno to ridding the parks of Washington, D.C., of their rats. Still, whenever they get the chance, the Olkowskis toot their horns for what has become one of the most successful and innovative "urban homesteads" in the country. "The concept of the Integral Urban House is catching on," says Bill Olkowski.

"The things we started that seemed so crazy ten years ago now make sense to a lot of people. The project is five years old, and it's still 10 years ahead of the rest of the country."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Farming the asphalt jungle
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today