I always thought I would raise my kids on a farm, or at least on a big piece of land out in the country.
We’d have dogs and cats running around and maybe some goats and cows, even a horse.
I’d grown up on a long dirt road surrounded by open space—it cultivated in me a great affinity for nature—the forest with its features and creatures, gardens, tranquility and spaciousness.
I wanted the same for my kids.
Like many things you imagine you will cultivate for your children before you actually have them, the reality of living this way, while making an actual living seemed an impossibility. In the same way I longed for access to open space, I also needed easy access to an airport and other urban amenities, without spending precious hours driving to get to them.
So, uncharacteristically, when our kids were very small, we relocated to an urban area.
When we arrived we were a family of four…with a cat and two goldfish. We started with another cat. Now, you might be thinking that a cat is not a farm animal—though many farms keep cats around to manage the rodent population, more accurately, a cat is a gateway drug to more animals.
Next, we added a compost pile.
It doesn’t sound like a big deal—a place where you dump your food scraps and yard waste—but living in the city, you need to worry about attracting rats that even the aforementioned cats don’t want to mess with. And, it’s one thing to dump your scraps; it’s a whole other art to actually turn those scraps into something useful—rich compost for your garden, instead of a stinking pile of rotting stuff.
It makes little sense to make compost without anyplace to spread it, so we tore out a fountain and ancient boxwood shrub that had dominated our front yard for decades; we turned the soil.
We brought in a truckload of compost and turned it some more. We built the beds and planted the garden. We ambitiously added an amazing variety of plants, and wow, did we have a garden! Rhubarb leaves so big the kids made a fort out of them.
Enough greens that we didn’t buy any at the store for almost half the year, tomatoes, beans, peas and my beloved tea garden. We were in business!
What followed then naturally was a bad case of chicken fever.
We read everything we could get our hands on about poultry and visited some local coops and farm supply stores; who knew there were so many breeds of chickens to choose from?
We started with five, two-day old chicks who lived in a box in our bathroom under a heat lamp. By spring, they were ready for the great outdoors.
Early on, we figured out that it’s a myth that raising your own food will save you much money. But more importantly than the eggs they provide, chickens tune us in to the seasons, to the incredible effort it takes to bring things from farm-to-table, and the symbiotic nature of growing food in your garden and raising farm animals. We feed them garden scraps, they give us eggs and compost we need to nourish the soil.
Round and round it goes.
There’s only so much you can do in an urban environment…but it can be a lot. Adding additional farm animals is virtually out of the question, but wrangling up some more growing space and lengthening the season is possible.
We learned you can grow raspberries, blueberries and kiwi in some pretty tight spaces; that apples and pears can thrive in containers, tomatoes can grow hanging upside down and that whatever you’re doing, there’s usually room for one more.
Fitting things in where you couldn’t imagine they did previously is a good metaphor for urban farming.
In our five years of this experiment-turned-practice, three things have become abundantly clear: our capacity to nurture life has expanded, our awareness of the natural rhythms of the seasons and where things come from has heightened, and gratitude for our many conveniences has grown.
Our kids know that chickens don’t lay eggs when it’s cold and dark in the winter, and that blueberries don’t grow then either—yet we are lucky enough to be able to buy them both at the store.
We have learned to navigate together the attachment and letting go inherent in life cycles, and to interact with what comes and goes with the seasons.
Ultimately urban farming allows us to more fully experience our universal interdependency…right in the middle of the city.
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Ed: Bryonie Wise