Many of us foster the dream of owning a small farm somewhere, the garden bursting with ripe vegetables and well-fed animals providing milk, eggs, and meat. The COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on people’s lifestyles may be cultivating that dream for more and more people. At the end of 2020, Gallup found in a poll that almost half of Americans (48 percent) say they would prefer to live in a small town or rural area, up significantly from 39 percent in 2018.
But no matter how many people carry this dream, the realities of living in a rural area and taking care of a farm are just not practical for everyone. So what if you choose to stay in an urban or suburban area? Is your dream over?
Stan Slaughter and Linda Chubbuck found themselves facing this dilemma in early 2020. After years of living in the suburbs, they finally got serious about their plan to buy a plot in the country, raise a few animals, and plant a huge organic garden. Then, with the pandemic bearing down, they faced a decision: either overextend themselves to buy a mostly perfect property, or stay put on their suburban lot and find a way to flourish on the land they already called home.
Stan first met Linda in 2004 at a talk he gave in Salina, Kansas, through his environmental education work. Linda, a music educator and singer, felt an instant connection, and they quickly fell into conversation about compost and the circle of life. After a year of long-distance dating, they bought a house in suburban Kansas City — a great place to start their lives together, they thought, but always intended as a pit stop on the way to a farmhouse and several acres.
They settled in and started making improvements. In the meantime, several of their adult children moved to the Kansas City metro area, got married, and started families. Soon, 15 years had passed, and Stan and Linda were still cultivating their corner lot, which was beginning to feel constricting.
Their neighborhood homeowners association (HOA) prohibits keeping chickens, and they were navigating neighbors with large shade trees, as well as a limited amount of growing space. And squirrels. “You can’t trap them fast enough, can’t bring in coyotes,” Stan says, pointing out that more natural predators help keep the population under control in the country.
They weren’t feeling the squeeze from just the surrounding neighborhood. Linda recalls the heightening tension and frustration between her and Stan’s gardening techniques. “He was putting [the baby plants] too close, and I could feel their stress,” she says. Like the crowded plants, Stan and Linda were finally ready for more space. In January 2020, they made improvements to their house to ready it for the market, and got serious about looking for a farm. Their wish list included several acres (Linda says their conversations went something like, “We need 10 acres. Well, 5 acres would do. Well, maybe even just 1 acre.”), close proximity to Kansas City and their grandchildren, and a livable house.
With the help of a real estate agent, they found a few promising options, but the COVID-19 pandemic was quickly approaching. On March 17, 2020, the Kansas City metro area went into lockdown. “That day, we actually made an offer on a space,” Linda says. It was a little over 3 acres in the Kansas City limits and closer to their grandkids. But there were some issues. The property was over their budget, and though the house had been recently remodeled, it hadn’t been done well. There were no outbuildings, so constructing some would require additional money once they moved in. Even their real estate agent wasn’t excited about the idea. But they put in an offer anyway. Forty-eight hours elapsed (an offer typically expires after 24 hours) while they waited to hear back from the seller. Finally, he responded with a request for more money. Stan and Linda decided against a counteroffer. Since the property had been on the market for over six months, they thought the owner might accept the original offer anyway, so they spent a few more days in limbo.
Questions like, “What about our dream?” swirled between them during the wait. But instead of accepting defeat, they found themselves looking at things differently. “We made a list,” Linda says. “Even though keeping our current house means we can never have this, this, or this, the reasons to stay became really powerful.”
Their farm dream wasn’t easily tossed aside. “I grew up in the country; lived in the country most of my life,” Linda says. “Stan grew up on a 100-plus-acre farm. Both of us love the country.”
Stan’s family worked their land east of Lee’s Summit, Missouri, for generations. “My grandmother was the first woman to get a degree in agriculture at the University of Missouri,” he says. The family raised chickens, hogs, and cattle for meat, and Stan’s mother canned “hundreds” of quarts of beans and tomatoes for the winter. “Well over half of our food came from the garden,” Stan adds.
Linda grew up in north-central Kansas near Concordia. “When I was a little girl, I quite literally followed my dad around in the garden. He didn’t entirely like that, because I would ask him lots of questions,” she says with a chuckle. Aside from a few chickens, they didn’t have farm animals, but Linda still found ways to connect with wildlife. She and her dad rescued baby birds, bunnies, and more. “I was just completely in love with toads. They let you catch them,” she says. “I think the neighbor ladies thought it was odd for a little girl to be catching and playing with toads.”
Together, Stan and Linda had imagined owning acreage to raise their own food, connect with nature, and teach their grandchildren the joys and miracles of working the land. But with life not falling into place the way they’d planned, they had a lot of hard discussions during the days they waited for the seller’s response.
During that time, Stan remembered some years in the 1970s when he quit his teaching job and moved with his then-wife to a farmstead in the Ozarks. It wasn’t a particularly happy time. He put in a lot of backbreaking labor and still wasn’t able to make the farm successful. “It left a painful memory of overextending,” he says. “I was still willing to try it on a small acreage.” However, that experience kept coming up during their discussions. He pointed out that the garden and yard in their suburban lot took a lot of their time. How much would be required to start all over on a new 3-acre plot?
‘A Really Rich Jewel’
Linda and Stan began to see their ¼-acre suburban lot as a treasure they’d been taking for granted. “We realized how much we’d be saying goodbye to if we left,” Linda says. When they first moved in, Stan delved deeper into what he already knew about soil enhancement. “I immediately started making the [garden] beds and adding compost from the local yard waste drop-off,” he says. “Then, about 10 years ago, I started adding charcoal from the fireplace.” Similar to biochar, that charcoal combined with the compost to enhance the nutrients in their backyard. They also added gypsum and sand to mitigate the hard clay beneath the builder-grade backfill.
“It worked magnificently for the first three years,” Linda says. “Then it began to gel back into clay.” At the same time, the neighbors’ trees were creating too much shade, and the whole garden had to be moved to a different part of the yard. But it wasn’t a lost cause. “The soil is amazing there,” Linda says. It’s easy to see the enhanced fertility; they replanted grass in much of that area, and the lawn there is lush, green, and healthy, no harmful chemicals involved.
During the 15 years in their home, they’d also replaced the windows, enhanced the insulation, installed a wood-burning fireplace insert, and redesigned the HVAC for separate climate zones. But the house still felt too small for family gatherings; it didn’t have a guest bedroom or a room large enough to hold the whole family for a meal.
Instead of focusing on what they couldn’t have, they turned their attention to what they could do. “[We realized] we could turn what we already had into a really rich jewel instead of overextending ourselves and constantly being depleted,” Linda says. When the seller of the property finally responded with a definitive “no,” she and Stan felt relieved. She adds, “We realized if we could qualify for a loan for a new house, we could qualify for improvements here.” Over the summer of 2020, they built an addition with a high-ceilinged great room and a guest bedroom with its own outside entry.
A year after their decision, both are happy with it. While they acknowledge what they’ve lost by staying in the suburbs, they focus more on what they’ve gained. “We can’t have chickens,” Linda says. “That will probably never change. But we could have rabbits. And we do have worm bins, so we have animals who produce manure.”
Stan says he’s always wanted fruit trees, but they’ve had mixed luck with those. They nurtured a prolific plum tree for a few years before it succumbed to Japanese beetles. They’re trying again this year in a new location.
The neighboring shade trees– normally an asset in the suburbs — have also caused some problems when they’ve tried to grow sun-loving plants. “We just decided to stop fussing about it and find things that can be grown in the shade,” Linda says. She’s been trying her hand at mushrooms, though she hasn’t had much luck yet. But they do have luck with plenty of other plants. Most summers include an abundance of heirloom tomatoes, kale, swiss chard, trombone squash, eggplant, and more. The grandkids love to roam the garden, and even the 2-year-old knows where to look for the best raspberries.
With the energy they once put toward dreaming about owning a small farm somewhere, Stan and Linda are now challenging themselves to better manage the suburban property they have. One current project involves utilizing as much of the water that falls on their land as possible. They continue to enhance their rain barrel system, and this year, Stan is terracing their garden beds. “The idea is to collect the water that comes down off the roof in the soil and not lose any of it,” he says.
A second goal this year is improving their garden planning to avoid a glut of produce. “We’re trying to diversify our crops so that they’ll produce at various different times,” Stan says. Turns out, staggering plantings is harder than it sounds, so they’re putting energy into developing multiple planting windows combined with a larger array of crops. And, as they have in previous years, and as their families did before them, they’ll can, dry, or freeze most of the excess. The rest they’ll give to family, friends, and neighbors.
Making Friends Over the Garden
The garden has been a prime source of connection for Stan and Linda. A visit from the family usually includes a garden tour, with sun-warmed snacks all summer, and plenty of interesting aromas and critters.
For years, Stan has built community through the Lee’s Summit Farmers Market, buying from local growers, educating, selling compost, and doing musical performances. “When you do that kind of stuff, you get more than you bargained for,” he says. “You learn about [the other growers’] methods.” He talks with them about connections he’s made with local community gardens; small-scale butchering and locker operations; community composting and canning groups; and his educational work at Missouri Organic Recycling, a large Kansas City compost company.
Linda adds that they’ve also formed community closer to home. “Front-yard gardening has limitations, because you have to take into account what the neighborhood will tolerate, but it’s a great way to meet [people],” she says. She focuses mainly on flowers, and giving thought to what the community children might like. A couple of summers ago, a young girl (accompanied by her mother) rang the doorbell to apologize for picking one of Linda’s irises. They’ve stayed friends, and Linda now puts out a bucket of water with free irises for passersby each time she picks some for herself.
Recently, the city of Lee’s Summit purchased two houses deemed uninhabitable because of recurring flooding. The houses were razed, and the lots now sit vacant. Linda contacted the HOA and suggested using the space for native plantings and a community garden. The board members were thrilled; they offered to help, and invited Linda to join the board.
Who knows? Now that she’s on the HOA board, she might be able to do something about that chicken restriction too.
Jessica Johnson Webb is a writer, artist, and research administrator. She’s working on her own suburban oasis near Kansas City. Follow her at Jessica Johnson Webb.