Your Backyard Farmer Transforms Yards into Organic CSAs, Part 1

Reader Contribution by John Clark Vincent

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.

“We showed up at a client’s home, and they had pulled every one of their pea plants out of the ground. So we asked them where the pea plants went, and they told us they were looking for peas. They thought they were in the roots, and we were like, holy cow, you don’t know what peas are? So we told them they should go to the grocery store and look at the produce and figure out what all these vegetables actually look like,” says Robyn Streeter.

“People don’t know these things, you know. They know what food looks like when you eat it… usually. They go to a restaurant and maybe they get this great Swiss chard dish, and they know what that looks like, but they don’t know what Swiss chard looks like in the dirt. So we realized that we needed to teach some more on that.”

Robyn isn’t making fun of her clients when she tells these stories, although she does laugh a lot while she’s doing the telling. It’s just her way of commenting on the fact that people today are disconnected from their food. Her business partner, Donna Smith, the more talkative half of this agricultural team, has even more stories.

“Sometimes when I’ve worked with kids I’ll ask them where carrots come from,” says Donna. “And they look at me like I’m crazy and say… ‘from the store.’ And I tell them, ‘no, carrots don’t come from the store, they come from somewhere else and then someone takes them to the store.’

“And then you take those kids through the process of growing carrots and when they finally pull one up, they’re so excited because that’s their own personal carrot and they clean the dirt off and take a bite. Then they understand where carrots come from.”

Donna is clearly compassionate and understanding as she conveys that people simply don’t know much about their food. For most people, food comes bundled with a rubber band around it. It’s clean, and there are no bugs and no holes in the leaves. And that’s the small amount of real food that people buy… you know, the stuff that’s not in a box.

One of the goals for Robyn and Donna is to stay with their clients long enough to show them real food. Teach them from the beginning of the growing season all the way through. Even though it may take more than a single year, by the end, their customers truly understand and can even teach their neighbors how to put a tomato into the ground. And therein lies one of the many underlying benefits that Donna and Robyn bring to urban agriculture. They’re not only growing food… they’re also spreading information as much as they can.

Donna and Robyn met while attending the horticulture program at Clackamas Community College. Robyn recalls, “We met the first day of school and became friends pretty quickly. As we got closer to graduation, we liked the idea of doing something together, but we couldn’t settle on what that was going to be. Eventually we decided to start a CSA so we started looking for property, but we kept running into problems.”

When Robyn graduated a semester early, they still had found no land to farm, so she returned to her home in Idaho until something materialized. It was then Donna had her epiphany.

“It was one of those moments in life when you say, hey, why are we beating our head against the wall looking for land when everywhere we look, there’s land all around us. So we just came up with a variation on Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). Usually, a farm produces and delivers a box of food. We eliminated the box. We just took ourselves right to the customer… to that family or group of families who own the food they hire us to put in the ground and harvest for them.”

Donna started putting up flyers and immediately began receiving inquiries, so she called Robyn, who remembers it like this… “She called me and said ‘hey are you in, because I’m getting phone calls from this.’ So I said, I’m in.”

Donna continues… “Two days later she’s back from Idaho and we’ve already sold our first farm. The Oregonian got hold of that and wrote a two-page spread on us, which was really beautiful, and the day it came out we got over a hundred emails. Within six weeks we had 25 farms.”

So these two urban farmers hit the ground running in 2006 when they launched Your Backyard Farmer, and they’ve farmed at least 25 yards every year since.

According to Donna, they learned a lot during that first year about a whole lot more than just how to grow food. Turns out that urban farming was so new, the State of Oregon wasn’t sure there was such a thing. Running a business that had no legal definition turned into a challenge.

“We fought with the state about a lot of things, but in the end we managed to define what a farmer is and isn’t. That definition didn’t exist prior to us working through this process. Our problem was that even though we fell within federal guidelines, Oregon had no definition of what constituted a farm or a farmer.”

In essence, by struggling through that process, Donna and Robyn were able to legally protect themselves, and all other urban farming businesses, moving forward. Their pioneering effort did not go unnoticed, either here or abroad. As early as their second year in business they began receiving inquiries from people all over the world.

Robyn says, “We had people come visit us from Australia and from Spain. They actually came to Portland to hang out with us here, and we taught them what we do so they could take it back and do it wherever they were from. We’ve also helped people in the U.S., from California, Washington, other places. I think a lot of them are still at it.”

Donna continues, “Seattle Urban Farms is doing it. Farmscapes in L.A. is doing it. Most of the people we’ve taught are still active. Green City Growers in Boston is doing very well. Then when we started getting calls from Barcelona, Spain and Hobart, Australia and these other places and we actually had people flying in and Robyn and I were like…”

Robyn: “What’s going on?”
Donna: “This is really bizarre!”
Robyn: “And remember the Spanish magazine they put us in?”
Donna: “No, it was Italian.”
Robyn: “Was it Italian?”
Donna: “It was Italian.”
Robyn: “Italian magazine… it was like their main scientific agriculture organization and they flew two guys in to interview us and take pictures.”
Donna: “And we’re in the UK’s urban planning guide about how you can bring your food right into your cities. It was bizarre to be propelled into the spotlight when we’re both people who like to stay in the background, but we definitely have had a lot of fun with it. We still teach people, but we teach them in the off-season now, and a lot of the overseas people have seasons opposite what we do anyway. So we teach people to do this in the off-season rather than during our craziness.”
Robyn: “Now, most of our time is spent farming rather than teaching.”Donna: “And we like spending time with our hands in the soil better than anything else anyway.”

Exchanges like that are not uncommon when talking with this pair. Robyn’s natural reticence momentarily fades and a bit of jocular chatter rises to meet Donna word for word. But soon her quiet smile returns and she sits back in her chair, content to simply take it all in.

Donna remains sitting forward, however, always willing to lead the conversation. In this case, she speculates on why so few urban farmers are able to duplicate and maintain what she and Robyn are doing.

Click here to read Part 2

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. Donna and Robyn originally created the company Your Backyard Farmer and began CSA farming operations in the backyards of their clients because they were having trouble accessing land to start their farm.

(Middle) Photo by Lisa D. Holmes: 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: Donna and Robyn harvesting for CSA clients.

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