Organic Gardening

Get dirty, have fun and grow more food with great gardening tips from real-life gardeners.

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Grow Where You Are

Effects of Drought on Agriculture

A drought can achieve results that years of protest could never achieve. As California’s water dries up, our whole nation can seize this opportunity to build a new local food system that is equitable and productive. Many committed folks have been organizing against corporate agribusiness and genetically modified organisms for years.

At this time, it seems the global climate forces have aligned with us to initiate a change to a more ecologically sustainable system of food production. As a native of Southern California, it is stunning to witness the environmental devastation that is the result of the expansion of metro Los Angeles and the surrounding counties. The highways, buildings, homes, lawns, swimming pools and golf courses have contributed to insane amounts of waste, toxicity and imbalance.

Still, this massive drainage of water use is only 20 percent of the human usage in California, 80% of the water is wasted in the corporate monocropping of a desert and factory farming to feed folks across the nation. Thirty percent of our country’s produce comes from this one state. Is that wise? The drought and irresponsible water management are putting a stop to this unsustainable corporate lust.

On a national scale, this is our opportunity to develop strategic systems for supporting local and urban growers. Small-scale farmers are struggling in poverty. At the same time, we see a steady increase in local food advocacy nonprofits in various states with some of their executive directors earning $80,000 and more.

Naturally, young people are directing their efforts to working as advocates rather than learning the skills of agroecology or veganic agriculture. Would this trend change if more local growers were becoming landowners and viewed as valuable community entrepreneurs?

Generational wealth in this country has been built on free labor and land ownership. These practices were both foreign and unlawful to the Indigenous stewards of this land. Still, it persists and is accompanied by a storm cloud of racism and financial servitude.  The epidemics of homelessness, vacant properties and lack of fresh food access in underinvested urban communities are connected to issues of land ownership. With access to land comes access to food and wealth. That is the history and the present.

Grow Where You Are

Grow Where You Are is a social enterprise focusing on assisting communities in creating local food abundance systems. After creating and studying small-scale urban food systems nationally and internationally for over 15 years, we see that even the most effective systems can be easily dismantled without land security. For this reason, we propose supporting local growers in a transition to home ownership with a dynamic web of community partnership.

In many urban areas, police and school teachers are offered homes with no down payment if they commit to serve the community for an agreed number of years. We see this model as a great place to begin for evolving our local food movement forward from the growers up. We have tried years of organizing, policy making and consumer lead advocacy to get systemic change in our food system. These tactics have limited success and time is quickening. At this critical moment, we can have maximum impact by directing resources and support to the small-scale growers and elevating them to a status of respected, valued civil servants. Do you value healthy food in the same way you value education for our children and public safety?

Creating a Generation of Urban Food Producers

By identifying committed local growers and placing them in refurbished “green homes” in underserved communities, we demonstrate real value and solution-based action. In Atlanta, where we have been involved in urban agriculture for nearly 10 years, we have fairly established urban ag training programs through organizations like HABESHA Inc. and Truly Living Well Center Natural Urban Agriculture. These programs have graduated hundreds of certified growers and still the number of committed urban food producers has increased very little in comparison.

A few of the graduates enter the nonprofit school garden arena, some look for another ‘training internship’ program and more simply continue their ‘job hunt’ in another more stable field of employment. These attitudes will dramatically shift as we witness urban farmers become landowners and continue to feed our communities at precisely the moment in our nation's growth when illness, poverty, homelessness, racial reparations and the inevitable collapse of corporate agribusiness are converging in the collective consciousness.

How effective can school gardening programs be if there is no real investment in creating infrastructure for vibrant local production? How much more voice do homeowners have in the political decision making throughout our major cities when compared to the voice of renters in neighborhoods threatened by gentrification?

This is possible. This can happen. With this proactive step toward lifting up farming as an occupation of respect and value, we can encourage a flood of growers in our urban and peri-urban communities where it is most needed. As these small-scale, intensive practices become fully operational, we will be fearless in creating food sovereignty as the wasteful system of monocrops and factory farming of animals collapses in the west coast desert farmland. We will witness health and generational wealth in the communities where millions of foundation dollars have been evaporated by nonprofits implanting social programs and service projects that do very little to make these areas productive.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


 principe borghese tomatoes

Once seeds are on your radar to save for the coming year it would do you well to plan ahead to ensure you are doing the best you can. More specifically, that means to make sure the varieties you want to save from don’t cross pollinate with other varieties of the same crop. There are many books and Internet sources available that will help you with that and you will find some of the things to keep in mind at Homeplace Earth.

Saving seeds can be as broad and as limiting an activity as you make it to be. I know people who are really exact in their methods with the notion to keep the line of seeds they are saving pure. Others plant out their crops with a more relaxed attitude, paying some attention to isolation distances to keep things from crossing; but it isn’t the end of the world for them if it does. Actually, you can develop your own varieties that way—unique to you and to your place. If you are saving seeds only for yourself, whatever works for you is okay. If you are saving seeds to share with others, you need to make your methods clear so there are no surprises. Some people receiving your seeds may be up for an adventure and some may not.

Seed savers have the power to change a crop just by the criteria they use to choose which plants to save from. You could choose to save from certain plants because of earliness or lateness of harvest, size, color, shape, taste, etc. I was familiar with all of those things, but not so familiar with someone choosing to save from a plant because of the number of seeds produced.

If you grow paste tomatoes you probably know that they often have fewer seeds than other tomatoes. That is an advantage if you don’t want to deal with seeds in your tomato sauce. When I can tomato sauce the seeds get strained out in the process with a Foley Food Mill or a Victoria Strainer. When I dry tomatoes, however, the seeds are still there when I put the dried pieces in the jars in the pantry. Tomatoes that are easy for me to put in my solar dryers are Principe Borghese. Although the seed catalog states 78 days to maturity for this variety, it is my experience that the harvest starts in about 60 days from transplanting and continues at a fast pace for a month. By that time my other tomato varieties are producing well and I dry those, but am comforted by the amount I was able to put up already with Principe Borghese. As you can see in the top photo, this variety has a lot of seeds.

Long Tom tomatoes

I was moved to try Long Tom tomatoes because it is a meaty tomato, good for drying, and the catalog named the grower—it was my friend Barbara. Long Tom takes much longer to start producing (85-90 days), but has very few seeds, which is an advantage when using dried tomatoes for sauce. Of course, if seeds are your harvest to sell to a catalog, it would take a lot more Long Tom tomatoes to make your quota of seeds than it would a tomato like Principe Borghese. I’m glad I only need to save a small amount of Long Tom seeds to plant back each year. I ran into Barbara at a farm field day and took the opportunity to tell her that I was growing Long Tom for drying and liked the fact that it had few seeds. She responded that, since she has to have enough to sell, she had been selecting for more seeds per tomato. I had a good laugh about that. I can see her point as a seed grower, but was happy that I could control the criteria used to save the seeds at my place.

The first week in May I’ll be meeting up with serious seed savers and sharers at the First International Seed Library Forum in Tucson, Arizona. No doubt, there will be a lot of seed stories to share. Seed saving and sharing has become quite popular and seed libraries are opening all over the U.S. and beyond. If you haven’t been saving seeds, I invite you to begin this adventure in your garden this year.

Cindy Conner is the author of Seed Libraries and Grow a Sustainable Diet and has produced DVDs about garden planning and managing cover crops with hand tools. Learn more about what she is up to at Homeplace Earth.

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Planting A Future: Profiles from Oregon’s New Farm Movement spotlights 18 Oregon farms and farm supporters who are committed to a return to ecologically sound agricultural practices. This group reflects the diversity of people, both young and old, who are reshaping our state’s food system and reclaiming our right to eat well. In their stories you will hear how they came to be where they are, learn something about the challenges they face, and share their happiness at the successes they’ve enjoyed thus far. The following profile has been excerpted from Planting A Future.

Mary and Vince Alionis

Mary and Vince Alionis have been working together at digging in the dirt since the day they first met, which happened when they were working on a community garden project for the Green Party down in Dallas, Texas. I don’t know what happened with that community garden, but the relationship Vince and Mary shared blossomed, and they began to look for a place to begin putting down roots.

After Dallas, they moved to California to help intensive gardening guru John Jeavons with a building project. Unfortunately, the funding for that project fell apart, so they began to look around for other opportunities. According to Vince, they met a lot of interesting people in California, but it just didn’t feel like the right place for them, so they looked north and liked what they found in Oregon. More specifically, they liked the remote and rugged feel of southern Oregon along the Rogue River. So in 1991 they made the move to a nine acre plot in Shady Cove, Oregon, a doorway to Crater Lake country.

“We landed on nine acres of an old walnut orchard with a farm house and two wells, and that’s where we got started,” said Vince. “We immediately got a rototiller and worked up a little three-quarter acre spot and started doing any growers markets we could find. We gave ourselves two years to figure out what we were going to do longer term.”

Two years later they were living and farming on forty acres farther up into the mountains on Elk Creek. “Cold country” is what Mary called it. They loved the ten years they spent there building their farm business. “That was a beautiful place,” continued Vince, “a creek, a spring… a lions and bears kind of place, you know. Not necessarily a good production space, but an awesome homestead space.”

There were challenges, though, like the shorter growing season found at higher altitudes. And the distance and difficulty of getting to markets. But it was the combination of a forest fire and the birth of their daughter that prompted these hardy farmers to seek a safer and more productive location somewhere in the valley. Which brought them to their current location on twenty-two acres of prime farmland beside Highway 238 in the Applegate Valley, where they’ve lived, farmed, and raised their daughter, Zosha, and son, Kazi.

Farming on highly productive soil in the valley was quite different from farming on marginal soil on the upper Rogue. So when Mary and Vince continued to apply the same methodologies they had developed to accommodate previous challenges, they were faced with more produce than they knew what to do with because everything grew so well. The abundance enabled them to quickly expand their markets, as well as helping to pioneer better farming techniques in their part of the state.

“Coming from the colder climate, we had been forced to develop techniques that simply weren’t being applied down here in the valley,” explained Mary. “There was no one doing greenhouse culture or intensive succession plantings. And only a couple of farms were beginning to stretch the season. These were all well established methodologies, but it was just that people weren’t doing it here because they didn’t have to. Plus I suppose it’s like anything else… people don’t do it until they see it happen, and being on the highway, we’re very visible. So we feel like we were able to bring some positive influences to growers down here.”

Vince laughed as he continued the story… “Of course we flipped out all the locals when we showed up because we immediately started putting up greenhouses and preparing the soil and selling product. When we landed here, there was no house. We were living in a yurt up in Williams. But we got here in December and had a crop out of the ground by April.”

farm store exterior

“But we understand that the real pioneers were the people up in the Willamette Valley doing things like this in the mid to late 80s,” Mary acknowledged. “We actually gleaned some of our information from them, and of course anyplace else we could find it. It wasn’t easy to get information back then. There wasn’t any internet.”

Both Vince and Mary believe that successful farming requires compulsive entrepreneurship. The way they developed Whistling Duck shows that. They also believe that nobody survives as an entrepreneur unless they’re willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done, and that you can tell pretty quickly who’s going to make it and who’s not based on their willingness to do that. But as I listen to them tell their story, it sounds like information and flexibility might be just as important as hard work. The ability to get the information, figure out how to apply it to your own operation, and adapt your plans and processes based on what you learn and what you encounter.

They both like to use the term “game changer” when they talk about new discoveries or new ideas. Like how their discovery of the Allis Chalmers G cultivating tractor was a game changer that enabled them to farm more efficiently on larger acreage. Their refrigerated truck was a game changer because it served as a walk-in cooler when nobody around them had walk-in coolers. “That truck gave us a real qualitative edge,” said Vince. “We were always keen about getting product out early, getting it in water to get the field heat out, and then getting it cold. That extends shelf life, which means our customers were getting a better quality product.”

And though they didn’t use the term, Vince being diagnosed with cancer several years after their move to the valley also was a game changer. It meant that he would be doing less, Mary would be doing more, and their need for good quality, reliable workers would increase. It also meant that their long-term plans for the farm would need to be adjusted to remove some of the stress.

They’ve been lucky with their crew. “We have about ten people right now, and three or four are year-round employees,” said Mary. “That doesn’t mean they’re full-time during the winter months… more like twenty to thirty hours on average, but they are year-round and they’ve been here for quite a few years now. If we lost our key people, I’m not sure what we’d do. But for now, we’re good.”

To help expand their year-round workload and keep workers busy, Whistling Duck added seed garlic to its product list. They grow approximately twenty varieties of garlic, which requires monitoring and care throughout the winter. Vince commented that seed garlic is their export crop, meaning that the majority of it leaves their valley and new money comes into their valley, which is critically important to the local economy. In fact, organic seed production is becoming a key economic driver in the Applegate and Rogue Valleys, especially since both Josephine and Jackson counties voted to ban GMO crops, which can destroy organic seed operations.

To be continued…

Order your copy of Planting A Future: Profiles from Oregon's New Farm Movement.

(Top) Photo by Lisa D. Holmes: Mary and Vince Alionis have built Whistling Duck Farm into a successful organic farming business.

(Bottom) Photo Courtesy of Whistling Duck Farm: The new on-farm store is a key part of Mary and Vince's long-term business strategy.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


Tall Winter Rye In Garden

Planting cover crops to build soil fertility will benefit any garden, big or small. Each season seeds are sowed and the plants are watered and taken care of with the eventual goal to harvest and eat. The soil is what gives the plants the necessary nutrients to grow strong, fight off pests and disease, and produce the best flavored, most nutrient-dense food possible and it requires those nutrients to be given back. Cover crops will give back to the soil.

Some cover crops are capable of adding nitrogen to the soil while others are intended to add a great deal of biomass to the soil; some do both and all of them will help prevent well-built and well-earned soil from eroding. Here we’ll go over the benefits some cover crops provide and give a brief explanation on how and when to plant them.

Green Manure

Cover crops are also referred to as ‘green manure’. At Mad Love Organix we do not have access to manure. We do compost but compost only goes so far. So we stretch out the compost and plant cover crops. The main goal in planting cover crops is to get massive growth in a minimal timeframe when or wherever land is not being used. Rather than having nutrients leach out, nutrients will be stored and preserved and healthy, strong soil will be built.

According to How to Grow Vegetables and Fruits by the Organic Method written by J.I. Rodale, both the plant being grown to harvest and the cover crop should be grown in one season. The cover crops can be grown either before or after the harvest crop. This goes back to taking from the soil then giving back. Or as Rodale points out, giving to the soil then taking the harvest. Either way, the cycle will continue.

Nitrogen-Fixing Cover Crops

Legumes, alfalfa, and clover are known for their nitrogen-fixing capabilities. They’re also some of the cover crops I’m most familiar with seeing in Pennsylvania. They possess this magical ability to take nitrogen out of the air with their leaves and transfer it back into the soil with their roots. They also add organic matter to the soil.

According to the Encyclopedia of Gardening by the American Horticultural Society, the amount of organic matter these plants can add may add as much nitrogen as a regular feeding schedule. Due to its low carbon-to-nitrogen ratios, the organic matter breaks down fast making the nitrogen quickly available.

Planting Winter Rye to Add Biomass

Winter rye is a great cover crop to plant in order to add a lot of biomass to the soil the following season. It’s especially great here in the northeast because it protects the soil from eroding over the winter. To get the full benefit of rye it must be planted before September 15th, according to Rodale in his book. If planted after that it will result in too limited of growth to be of benefit.

Last winter our winter rye was less than 12-inches in height. After a few warm days in March and April it sprouted to more than double that. I used a hoe to chop the majority of the plant off the base of the stem, listening to and enjoying the sounds similar to popcorn popping on a stove top. There was so much biomass I had to carry most of it to the compost heap before turning the remaining – and much shorter – winter rye into the soil.


One other cover crop I enjoy growing is buckwheat. Last year a plot of blossoming buckwheat saved some potted golden berries from Colorado potato beetles. But that was just an added benefit. The main benefit of planting buckwheat as a cover crop is its good for “re-building poor soils or restoring acidic soils,” according to Rodale in his book. It also attracts a lot of bees.

Blossoming Buckwheat Plot

How and When to Plant Cover Crops

Cover crops are thrown over the soil, lightly raked in, and watered, but the art of planting cover crops lies in the timing. Other than wanting cover crops to grow massively tall in a short amount of time, cover crops also need to be turned into the soil at the right time. This will maximize the nutrients availability to the plants being grown next.

According to Monty Don in his book The Complete Gardener, three to four weeks should be waited between turning the cover crops into the soil and planting the crops meant to harvest. This is how long the soil will be busy breaking down the cover crop into available nitrogen and other nutrients for the next crop. He also warns to not wait too long because after about a month “most of the benefits will no longer be available.”

They can also be planted during the growing season by planting them in-between the rows right before harvesting time. Or planted in early summer and allowed to grow then be turned into the soil just in time for a fall planting. Or if the garden is real big, half of it can have cover crops growing for a full season to build soil fertility while the other half is used for heavy vegetable production, and vice versa the following year.

At Our Home

Here at Mad Love Organix, we limit our consumption of outside resources to grow food in a self-sustaining manner the best we can. Even though we buy the seeds we make sure to support small businesses and they’re relatively inexpensive in comparison to many other certified-organic fertilizers available on the market.

My favorite benefit of growing cover crops is the simple ability of watching something else grow. After watching a season’s worth of green growth, blossoming flowers, and buzzing bees it can feel lonely looking out to a garden mostly empty, bare, and seemingly life-less. Cover crops keep the action going while the gardener can take a break.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


 2013 garden on March1

Every few years it is good to reevaluate what you are doing. Take a step back and try to look at things with new eyes. Think to yourself --What would happen if I did this? or How would things be if I moved this over to here? That’s what I did with my compost piles and they went from bins made from pallets along the north edge of my garden to piles with no bins on a garden bed as part of my garden rotation. This change began with thoughts of harvesting all the goodness that leached from the piles. Also, my garden methods had changed over the years and once I was harvesting all my compost-making materials from my garden using biointensive methods, it made sense to have the piles on the beds. You can read more about my compost rotation plans at Homeplace Earth.

Each year I plan to have more than 60 percent of my garden planted to cover crops and compost crops that will provide material for compost making. The stalks and straw from corn and small grains are my main carbon sources and the biomass from legumes, such as clover, alfalfa, and winter peas provide material rich in nitrogen. All through the winter my garden is green with cover crops. In the spring I let them grow to maturity, or almost to maturity, and cut them with a sickle, rather than tilling them in earlier and not getting as much as I can from them.

Plants have reached their most biomass when they are flowering and that is the time you would cut (harvest) the legume plants for compost material. The carbon sources of stalks from corn, sunflowers, and Jerusalem artichokes or straw from grains such as wheat and rye are cut at the end of their life cycle. The compost crop I might cut early is winter rye interplanted with a legume. Rather than let it grow until the grain is ready, I cut it when the rye is flowering and leave the plants lie in the bed to provide mulch for the next crop, which is something transplanted, such as corn, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, or squash. The mulch suppresses weeds and composts in place, gradually feeding the crop now growing in the bed. My DVD Cover Crops and Compost Crops In Your Garden shows me in action through the season managing these crops with hand tools.

Once compost piles were no longer along the north side my garden, other ideas started presenting themselves to me. I could bump out the fence and add a hazelnut hedgerow. There was also room for basket willow, another couple garden beds, and an apple tree. My outdoor washing station moved to that side of the garden. There is still a spot that I’m reserving for a small pond along that north side. You can see all these features on my permaculture map in my book Grow a Sustainable Diet. What will your imagination conjure up for your garden once your compost moves out of the bins and onto the garden beds?

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page. 


Rosemary And Shed

My husband and I moved into our current residence about 11 years ago, and with the slightly less than a half-acre property came a blank slate in which to add landscaping, a veggie garden and whatever else we wanted to do within the confines of our city’s municipal code. About a year or so after we moved in we had a 120 square-foot shed built (the largest we could have without a building permit) to store and protect our assortment of gardening equipment and other yard essentials. What the area needed from an aesthetics point of view was some kind of plants around the exterior and base of the shed – some shrubs that did not need a lot of maintenance or water, could handle the sandy, alkaline desert soil, and was fairly fast growing. What I ended up choosing were five Tuscan Blue Rosemary plants.

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), a member of the mint family, is a native plant of the Mediterranean region and comes in both upright and prostrate forms making it great as a shrub or groundcover depending on what is needed. Tuscan Blue is a variety of the upright form. Rosemary is evergreen, quite fragrant, has needle-like leaves, and clusters of small flowers in pink, blue, white, or purple depending on the variety or cultivar (guess what? Tuscan Blue has blue flowers).

As it turns out, Rosemary is not only aesthetically pleasing and low maintenance, it also offers a number of other desirable qualities – here are a few of them:

Low-Water Use / Drought Tolerant

I only water the Rosemary via a drip irrigation system with 4-gph emitters, which runs about once per week for about an hour and a half. This is especially good with the current California drought and recent state-wide water restrictions.

Desert Soil Tolerant

Rosemary grows very well in our native desert soil, meaning I don’t have to add any amendments or fertilizers – saving money for these products as well!

Heat, Cold, and Wind Tolerant

The High Desert climate can get fairly hot in the summertime – I’ve seen it as high as 117 degrees F, although normal summer temperatures are in the upper 90s and low 100s. Winters can get chilly – usually down into the 20s, but often enough into the upper teens, and rarely into single digits. Wind happens in the desert a lot, and this time of the year it seems to be non-stop! Whether it is hot or cold, wind can be drying to many plants, but Rosemary isn’t phased at all.

Attractive to Honey Bees

The flowers of Rosemary are very attractive to honey bees. The fact that it blooms in late winter and early spring is a great way to provide bees with nectar during a part of the year where few other flowers are available other than my fruit trees.


My Ducks Love It

About five years ago I acquired a couple of female ducklings. Ever since they have been old enough to lay eggs, their favorite nesting spot has been under one of the Rosemary plants. It provides awesome cover and shade, and an added bonus is that the ducks smell really good.


My Chickens Don’t Eat It

When I started acquiring chickens about five years ago, it didn’t take long to discover that they will devour almost anything that grows – great if what they are eating are weeds, not so great when the plants are part of your landscape or garden. Evidently Rosemary is one of the few plants that is not on the preferred chicken diet. The chickens do occasionally lay eggs along with the ducks under one of the plants.

Culinary Uses

Rosemary is an herb, and with five large plants, I have an almost unlimited supply to cook with. A little bit can go a long way though. It goes great with chicken, and potatoes. One of my favorite ways to use Rosemary is with my own recipe for

Crockpot Chicken


• 1 whole chicken
• 2 sprigs of Rosemary
• 1 lemon or lime sliced
• 2 or 3 cloves of garlic
• Salt and pepper to taste


1. Place the Rosemary sprigs and garlic under the skin of the chicken.

2. Place the lemon or lime slices inside of the chicken cavity.

3. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.

4. Place the chicken in a crockpot/slow cooker and set it on low. I usually cook the chicken all day – 8 or 9 hours more or less.

Health Benefits

According to a number of websites, Rosemary, which is high in iron, calcium, and vitamins B6 and E, has many antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agents that may lower the risks of stroke, Alzheimer’s, ALS, breast cancer and leukemia, skin damage, memory loss, asthma, liver disease, heart disease, and type II diabetes. It may also help to enhance memory and concentration, regulate menstrual cycles, ease cramps, lower blood sugar, increase blood pressure, treat migraines, stimulate sexual organs, improve digestion, and stimulate the appetite.

Some Warnings

It is advised to use Rosemary sparingly and get advice from a qualified doctor. According to an article in Medical News Today, Rosemary, in high doses, can cause miscarriage, and it can affect some medications such as anticoagulant drugs, ACE inhibitors, diuretics, and lithium. High doses can also trigger side effects like vomiting, spasms, coma, and pulmonary edema.


Remarkable Rosemary! The Benefits of Herbs, Extracts, and Teas!
Medical News Today

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Planting A Future: Profiles from Oregon’s New Farm Movement spotlights 18 Oregon farms and farm supporters who are committed to a return to ecologically sound agricultural practices. This group reflects the diversity of people, both young and old, who are reshaping our state’s food system and reclaiming our right to eat well. In their stories you will hear how they came to be where they are, learn something about the challenges they face, and share their happiness at the successes they’ve enjoyed thus far. The following profile has been excerpted from Planting A Future.

Read Your Backyard Farmer, Part 1.

Donna Smith and Robyn Streeter harvesting produce

“There have been a variety of people come into the Portland market and try to do what we do – we actually taught a couple of them – but they were in and out. This is very different from regular farming where you have the same piece of land to farm for 20 years and you take care of that soil and have something that’s stable.

“In urban agriculture the way we do it, although we do have a number of farms we’ve been farming since 2006, we also have new customers coming every year, which means we are continually faced with a certain amount of unstable soil. I think that’s a big difference.”

Robyn expands, “It also takes a lot of organization. You’ve got 25 locations and each one of them needs something different. You have to remember each task, as well as keeping everyone on schedule so all farms are growing crops optimally.”

Donna adds, “And you’ve got to consider microclimates. On a big farm there will be several places that have different microclimates that must be dealt with. For us, every single place we farm has different microclimates and soil structure. So urban agriculture has some unique challenges a lot of farmers don’t want to deal with. Plus, they don’t want to bring soil in to every new place each year.

They don’t want to carry their tools with them everywhere they go. In some ways this is like being a small contractor who hauls their workshop with them. There are a lot of unique requirements. And even we have our limits. If we had to do all year long what we do in the Fall and the Spring, we wouldn’t be doing this, because that’s not the fun part.”

Robyn: “Soggy days aren’t that fun.”
Donna: “When you’re hauling huge amounts of soil.”
Robyn: “Moving soil eight hours every day.”
Donna: “That’s where it can be really physical work. We don’t use any really big machinery so everything is done by hand.”
Robyn: “Grunt work.”
Donna: “And people go, ‘wow, how do you do that?’
Robyn: “You just do it.”
Donna: “And then you’re done with it. A lot of people don’t want to work that hard. But I can’t imagine, and neither can Robyn, doing anything different than what we do. Yeah, it’s hard sometimes and we don’t like each other sometimes, but ninety-nine percent of the time we do, and that’s what it takes.”

Your Backyard Farmer CSA garden

So these two women, year after year, keep putting in the work. The benefits are substantial. One fixed fee covers everything for a 37-week CSA running from the first part of March to the last of October. The farm agreement includes preparing the soil, setting up the trellising and water systems, the weeding, transplanting, seeding, and harvesting, as well as helping customers set up their compost systems. All this at a cost which makes it clear Donna and Robyn aren’t running a get-rich-quick scheme.

Plus, because Your Backyard Farmer’s customers keep all the food produced in their yards and no mechanized harvest or distribution energy is involved, the company’s carbon footprint is actually quite small.

The things that Your Backyard Farmer don’t do are any type of non-food-producing landscaping or raising animals. In both cases, the business would require different licensing. They can, however, offer suggestions.

Donna explains, “We don’t do animals but we guide people on becoming more sustainable on their own property. That’s our goal. We’re going to provide you with your food source. In addition to that, we’ll tell you, ‘This is how you compost. This is how you raise chickens.’ And because they don’t have to worry about producing their food, we’re giving them the opportunity to create some of these other things on their own. We can’t do it for them, but we’ll talk to them about it and help them understand what they need to do.”

With all the health and ecological benefits available to people who own a farmable yard, it seems like the world could use a lot more backyard farmers. Donna and Robyn have pointed out some of the challenges, and they also emphasize that this is not an endeavor designed to make you rich.

Rather, it is a passion project. A way of life focused more on the journey than the gold. A perfect fit for those who love to get their hands dirty and work with nature to bring the world to life.

Your Backyard Farmer CSA squash

So for those who think this sounds like a love affair they could embrace, how could they get started? What steps should they take? Is it possible to become a backyard farmer anywhere in America?

Donna cuts right to the chase, “People should just call us. If they tell us they want to do this in their community, we’re going to do what we can to help. There are a lot of ways to go about it. All of the people we’ve taught do things a bit differently.”

Robyn says, “None of them are identical to what we do, which is how it should be. It’s not a matter of this is how it should be, because every place has unique requirements.”

Donna continues, “Portland’s pretty progressive, so what we do may not work in more conservative communities. It can still be done there, but maybe a bit more contained. We can usually help people through the beginning stages, although they’ll have to know what their community will allow. We feel like it’s a fairly simple concept, but that’s partly because we know it so well.

“It’s time to stop thinking of a farmer as only someone who has 400 acres and a cow or 4,000 acres of corn. There are all kinds of farmers. Some of them are urban farmers, and the world could use a few more of them.”

Order your copy of Planting A Future: Profiles from Oregon's New Farm Movement.

(Top) Photo by Lisa D. Holmes: Donna Smith and Robyn Streeter, owners of Your Backyard Farmer, harvest produce from one of their urban farms.

(Middle) Photo by Lisa D. Holmes: A backyard farm in suburban Portland. Your Backyard Farmer uses organic methods to grow vegetables of all types. Plus, they can train homeowners to grow their own food.

(Bottom) Photo by Lisa D. Holmes: Summer squash helps make every garden feel extra productive.

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