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.
“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.”
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.
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.”
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(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.