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How You Can Start a Farm in Heart of the City

Sick of flavorless, genetically modified, pesticide-drenched frankenvegetables? It's time to start growing food in your back yard.

The following is an excerpt from The Urban Homestead: Your Guide to Self-sufficient Living in the Heart of the Cityby Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen (Process Self-reliance Series).

Imagine sitting down to a salad of peppery arugula and heirloom tomatoes that you grew yourself. Or a Sunday omelet of eggs laid that morning, served with a thick slice of fresh sourdough, butter and apricot jam -- all homemade, of course. Or imagine toasting your friends with a mead made from local honey. Where would you have to move to live like this? A commune in Vermont? A villa in Italy?

My husband Erik and I have done all of this in our little bungalow in Los Angeles, two blocks off of Sunset Boulevard. We grow food and preserve it, recycle water, forage the neighborhood, and build community. We're urban homesteaders.

Though we have fantasies about one day moving to the country, the city holds things that are more important to us than any parcel of open land. We have friends and family here, great neighbors, and all the cultural amenities and stimulation of a city. It made more sense for us to become self-reliant in our urban environment. There was no need for us to wait to become farmers. We grow plenty of food in our backyard in Echo Park and even raise chickens. Once you taste lettuce that actually has a distinct flavor, or eat a sweet tomato still warm from the sun, or an orange-yolked egg from your own hen, you will never be satisfied with the pre-packaged and the factory-farmed again. Our next step down the homesteading path was learning to use the old home arts to preserve what we grew: pickling, fermenting, drying and brewing. A jar of jam that you make of wild blackberries holds memories of the summer, and not the air of the Smucker's factory.

When you grow some of your own food, you start to care more about all of your food. "Just where did this come from?" we'd find ourselves asking when we went shopping. What's in it? At the same time, we began to learn about cultured and fermented foods, which have beneficial bacteria in them. Few of these wonder-foods are available in stores. The supermarket started to look like a wasteland.


A little history

The idea of urban farming is nothing new. Back in the days before freeways and refrigerated trucks, cities depended on urban farmers for the majority of their fresh food. This included small farms around the city, as well as kitchen gardens. Even today, there are places that hold to this tradition. The citizens of Shanghai produce 85% of their vegetables within the city, and that's just one example of a long Asian tradition of intense urban gardening. Or consider Cuba. Cubans practiced centralized, industrial agriculture, just as we do, until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. Overnight, Cubans were forced to shift from a large, petroleum-based system to small-scale farming, much of it in cities. Today, urban organic gardens produce half of the fresh fruits and vegetables consumed by Cubans.

The United States once was a nation of independent farmers. Today most of us do not know one end of a hoe from the other. In the last half of the 20th century, a cultural shift unique in human history came to pass. We convinced ourselves that we didn't need to have anything to do with our own food. Food, the very stuff of life, became just another commodity, an anonymous transaction. In making this transition, we sacrificed quality for convenience, and then we learned to forget the value of what we gave up.

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