Got Nothing Against the Big Town: The Yeoman Farmer’s Urban Adventure

We’ve been living on rural properties for nearly sixteen years now (hard to believe it’s been that long), and at this point I’m not sure I could ever again live or work in a city – or even a suburb. Once you get used to having this much open space, this much quiet, so many wonderful country roads, such beautiful night skies, and such terrific home-produced food … it’s not an easy thing to give up. We’re especially fortunate in that we live just outside a small town. Our township is rural and unincorporated, but we’re still close enough to town for high speed DSL internet — and we’re still just minutes from a hardware store, a grocery store, and a freeway to even more resources.

As much as I love country life, I do look forward to — and thoroughly enjoy — visiting bigger cities. Business travel takes me mostly to Washington, DC; when I’m there, I try to carve out some time to see the Smithsonian or other historical sights — or rent a bike and explore even farther.

And there is no other city quite like New York. I could never live there, or even work there on a regular basis. It’s far too large and too crowded for me — and not to mention extremely expensive. But what an amazing place to visit! What I’m always most struck by when I go there: New York seems to have a little bit of everything, and it’s all mixed together, and it’s all happening all at once. Every street is a kaleidoscope of sounds, different ethnic groups, languages, shops, restaurants, and activity. There never seems to be enough time to see everything, or to take everything in.

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Post Halloween Pumpkins

Until I had a farm and livestock, I never really thought about the degree to which pumpkins go under-utilized in this country. Pumpkins are ubiquitous in October, but chiefly as decorations. Not just the ones that are carved into Jack-O-Lanterns, but the ones that are put out intact on porches and storefronts to sit like giant orange balls. I used to think these kinds of displays were a nice artistic contribution to the fall/harvest mood. Now I see them and think, “Look at all those great pumpkins, going to waste.”

New York City never lets itself be outdone in anything. So I guess it didn’t surprise me when I was recently visiting there on a business trip and saw this:

over and over again, as I walked down 34th Street. Dozens of pumpkins and other fall squashes, filling every one of the large rectangular planter beds that separate the sidewalk from the roadway. There I was, in the shadow of the Empire State Building, dressed in a jacket and tie, unable to think of anything but how many weeks my sheep and goats and poultry would be able to feast on all of these “decorations.”

Will these things be left out until they rot? Will the sanitation department eventually throw them into a trash truck with the rest of the city’s garbage? Or will an enterprising farmer be allowed to take them home to feed to his animals? He’d need a dump truck to carry all of them; there were many many more planters filled with pumpkins all along 34th Street. I wish I knew who in NYC government to contact with these questions, because I’m genuinely curious as to the fate of all this good livestock fodder.

Back here in rural Michigan, the answers are much easier to find. A mile or two from us, there’s a farmer who grows an enormous garden and sells produce from a roadside stand. The Yeoman Farm Children and I stop by there nearly every day in the summer, riding our tandem bicycle, and chat with them as we load up our rack pack with summer squash, zucchini, tomatoes, green beans, and everything else our own garden may be lagging in production of. They do not have any livestock on their farm, but they know we do. Not wanting anything to go to waste, they came out and told us we should take all of their unsold pumpkins remaining after Halloween. For free. Ditto — during the summer — any tomatoes or other produce that are too blemished to sell. We should come on over with buckets and help ourselves.

We were naturally very grateful for this offer, and this morning I was finally able to swing by their place. They had several enormous pumpkins left, and I loaded all of them into the back of our minivan. They’re wonderful pumpkins, totally intact, but admittedly not very attractively shaped for carving or display.

But who cares? Certainly not our sheep. Dot (our leader ewe) saw me unloading these treasures from the van, and was the first of the flock to make a beeline for the gate. Note the geese, preparing to swoop in and poach some of the treat.
Within minutes, the whole flock had followed Dot’s lead. I think the first pumpkin vanished in under five minutes.
I’ve packed the rest of them into the barn, and will smash one per day until they’re all gone. Too bad there were only five.
Next time I go to NYC in the fall, maybe I’ll take a dump truck instead of an airplane.

380 Million Reasons to Own Your Own Hens

380,000,000 is the estimated number of eggs now being recalled in response to a salmonella outbreak.

Grocery stores across the state yanked eggs off their shelves after one of the largest U.S. producers recalled 228 million eggs connected to a salmonella outbreak that sickened hundreds of people across the nation, including as many as 266 in California.

On Wednesday the Associated Press reported that the recall had expanded to 380 million eggs.

The eggs, produced by Wright County Egg of Galt, Iowa, also were linked to a number of illnesses reported in June and July in Colorado and Minnesota, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The outbreak led to a surge in reports of infection with the bacteria salmonella enteritidis this summer — at least four times the expected number, the agency said in a statement Monday.

Salmonella can cause fever, diarrhea and abdominal pain, and can be fatal to young children and older people. No deaths so far have been reported in connection with the egg recall.

I’ve posted about egg factories before, and have often extolled the virtues of free-range or cage-free eggs. There isn’t much I can add in this regard, other than to say: this is one of those times when we really, really appreciate having our own healthy livestock and knowing exactly where our food is coming from.

A few quick thoughts, however:

First, if you want an eye-opening experience, do a Google search on the phrase “DeCoster Farms,” which is the agribusiness conglomerate of which Wright County Egg is part. Pretty remarkable how many different controversies this one company has been involved in. But I guess that’s not surprising, when a “farm” (sic) gets so large and disconnected from its customers.

If you can’t keep your own laying hens, I’d strongly encourage you to buy your eggs directly from a small farmer who does. Yes, those eggs can be a little more expensive, especially if the farmer is trucking them in to an urban farmers market. But they don’t have to be, if you’re able to go directly to the source. Around here, there are several farmers selling eggs for $1.50/dozen. The biggest hassle is making an extra stop, not coming up with extra money. But make that extra stop. Have that extra conversation with that extra person. See how their chickens are being kept. And I bet you’ll never worry about your eggs making you sick.

And if you think you can’t have your own chickens…think again. You’d be amazed at how creative some folks have become at keeping them stealthily in urban or suburban environments. And to my readers back home in Seattle: kudos to your city council for just unanimously voting to allow the keeping of up to eight hens on properties within the city limits! It really is becoming possible to be a yeoman farmer nearly anywhere.

Wither Detroit?

A theme we’ve discussed on this blog before, restoring swaths of Detroit to farmland, is resurfacing in the news again.

Detroit, the very symbol of American industrial might for most of the 20th century, is drawing up a radical renewal plan that calls for turning large swaths of this now-blighted, rusted-out city back into the fields and farmland that existed before the automobile.

Operating on a scale never before attempted in this country, the city would demolish houses in some of the most desolate sections of Detroit and move residents into stronger neighborhoods. Roughly a quarter of the 139-square-mile city could go from urban to semi-rural.

Near downtown, fruit trees and vegetable farms would replace neighborhoods that are an eerie landscape of empty buildings and vacant lots. Suburban commuters heading into the city center might pass through what looks like the countryside to get there. Surviving neighborhoods in the birthplace of the auto industry would become pockets in expanses of green.

Detroit officials first raised the idea in the 1990s, when blight was spreading. Now, with the recession plunging the city deeper into ruin, a decision on how to move forward is approaching. Mayor Dave Bing, who took office last year, is expected to unveil some details in his state-of-the-city address this month.

“Things that were unthinkable are now becoming thinkable,” said James W. Hughes, dean of the School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, who is among the urban experts watching the experiment with interest. “There is now a realization that past glories are never going to be recaptured. Some people probably don’t accept that, but that is the reality.

I intended to discuss this subject more last fall, after putting up my initial post. However, very soon after that post, our family found itself in the frenzy of final preparations for Yeoman Farm Baby’s birth and adoption. Mrs. Yeoman Farmer and I did discuss the “farm Detroit” idea back then, after my post (and I received insightful emails from some readers), and came to an unfortunate conclusion: as attractive (even romantic) as returning Detroit to farmland sounds, there are some extremely big problems with it in practice. Number one, which is prohibitive for us, is even bigger than the threat of losing livestock to drive-by shootings: it’s the condition of the urban soil. Quite simply, we can’t know everything that’s accumulated in the Detroit soil over the last hundred years — but you can bet that most of it isn’t good, and most of it goes very deep.

Think of all the automotive emissions (including from leaded gasoline), industrial pollutants, spilled heating oil, runoff from parking lots and building roofs … and that’s just a start. Any forages you plant for livestock grazing, or vegetables you grow for human consumption, will likely draw all kinds of nasty stuff up through their roots. And this can’t be remedied by adding new layer of top soil; nearly every kind of plant that farmers grow sends roots many feet into the ground. Or does someone out there know a way to do urban soil remediation without spending a fortune?

So…what could a farmer do with Detroit soil? Maybe plant a Christmas tree farm, as one reader suggested. It’s hard to think of any other crop that would be purely decorative. One might be able to plant trees for firewood, but even then I wonder what would be released into the air when one burns those trees.
Any other suggestions?

Farming Detroit?

It’s difficult to describe just how hollowed-out the City of Detroit has become, or how cheaply vacant land (and even houses) can be had. As I like to tell people: if you ever have a little time to kill and want some entertainment, get on Google Earth and fly around Detroit for awhile. You’ll be shocked at how much open space there is. Then get on and see how much land you can buy there, in some cases using the coins you can probably dig out of your sofa or from under the front seat of your car.

This piece from The Urbanophile takes an in-depth look at what’s been happening to Detroit, and explores the possibilities available to entrepreneurs who are willing to think creatively about what to do with a city whose population has shrunk but whose boundaries have not. There is now some serious, organized urban gardening going on inside the city limits, and many have been exploring possibilities for more serious farming. The piece has a number of excellent links to other stories and bloggers who have also looked at other farming-related projects in and proposals for Detroit.

His conclusion bears reprinting verbatim:

As the focus on agriculture and even hunting show, in Detroit people are almost literally hearkening back to the formative days of the Midwest frontier, when pioneer settlers faced horrible conditions, tough odds, and often severe deprivation, but nevertheless built the foundation of the Midwest we know, and the culture that powered the industrial age. No doubt in the 19th century many of those sitting secure in their eastern citadels thought these homesteaders, hustlers, and fortune seekers crazy for leaving the comforts of civilization to head to places like Iowa and Chicago. But some saw the possibilities of what could be and heeded the call to “Go West, young man.” We’ve come full circle.

Urban Chickens Have Issues

Living in an urban or suburban area, and thinking about raising some stealth chickens? Today’s NYT has a nice rundown of “issues” that others have encountered. And you know what? Many of these “issues” are difficulties you’ll encounter in raising chickens, and other livestock, no matter where your house is located.

An excerpt:

They get diseases with odd names, like pasty butt and the fowl plague. Rats and raccoons appear out of nowhere. Hens suddenly stop laying eggs or never produce them at all. Crowing roosters disturb neighbors.

The problems get worse. Unwanted urban chickens are showing up at local animal shelters. Even in the best of circumstances, chickens die at alarming rates.

“At first I named them but now I’ve stopped because it’s just too hard,” said Sharon Lane, who started with eight chickens in a coop fashioned from plywood and chicken wire in the front yard of her north Berkeley home. She’s down to three.

Ms. Lane, who is close friends with the restaurateur Alice Waters, wanted exceptional eggs, plain and simple. But her little flock has been plagued with mysterious diseases.

She has not taken them to the vet because of the high cost, but she goes to workshops and searches out cures on the Internet. She has even put garlic down their throats in hopes that the antibacterial qualities of the cloves might help.

“I’m discouraged but I’m determined to figure this out,” Ms. Lane said. “I still get more than I give.”

The last line I quoted might be the most important one in the story: Raising chickens, or any other kind of livestock, is often discouraging. But there is a wonderful reward that comes from the very struggle to figure out what the problems are and in trying different solutions. And along the way, you learn that — despite pouring your heart out and doing everything you can imagine doing — animals die. But you keep going. You learn. You do things differently the next time.

And you know what? Whether your next batch of chickens dies or thrives…you get more than you give. Because you’ve learned, and you’ve grown, and no one can take those experiences away from you.

And, yes, you will eventually get some really really good eggs. Just keep at it and never give up.

Chicken Underground

My apologies for the slow posting of late; work turned extraordinarily busy, but looks to be clearing up in the next day or two. I have a few things I’ve been thinking about and planning to post.

In the meantime, I must share this wonderful story about urban chickens:

The “chicken underground” is on the march.

Gay-Ellen Stulp and Stephany Miskunas are lobbying the Lafayette City Council to allow them to keep pet chickens at their homes in the historic Highland Park neighborhood.

Stulp said she wants city council members to amend the ordinance that forbids having chickens in the city. The city council’s Public Health Welfare and Safety
Committee plans to consider the matter.

“It’s been a blast,” Stulp said of her quest. “I can’t believe the discussions I’ve gotten as I go around with my petition.

“It’s a little hobby. They are pets. I guess I’m now part of the chicken underground.”

Go read the whole thing here:
‘Chicken underground’ emerges in Indiana The Indianapolis Star