Being an Urban Farmer…What Does That Mean?
By Greg Peterson
Just what is an urban farmer, you ask? That is the question that Shaina, our marketing person, asked me this week and I was at a loss for words. My first answer was, well, I’m an urban farmer… and I did not have much more. So, she and I sat and brainstormed a bit about the topic and this is what we came up with.
Let’s start with a quiz…wait, don’t go away—this is a fun and very simple quiz.
- 1. Do you grow food?
- 2. Do you share it with people?
And if you answered yes to both of these you ARE an urban farmer. It is that simple: grow food and share it, as that is what farmers do.
There is a very important number 3 in the list, however.
Don’t be shy, come up with a great name, come up with your urban farm name. Why? Because naming your farm begins to create a space for it in the world. Think for a moment about the farms that you know in your area. Once upon a time, they did not exist but someone decided to move their dream forward and now you know about them. Essentially, you are building a brand—even if you are not ‘officially’ running it as a business. Plus, you are furthering the food conversation by getting people to think about your farm name when you share it with them.
Recently, I was the winner of the Bring Your Own Bag weekly drawing at our local grocer. I signed my name as Urban Farmer Greg and added my phone number. As the winner apparently my name was on the winner board and wouldn’t you know that someone at the farmers market the other day said to me, “Hey you won.” People know me and the work I do because of my name. This also significantly furthers local food/grow your own conversations. It is a really important piece of the local food puzzle.
Front yard garden bed at The Urban Farm
Passion also seems to be a significant piece of the pie for all of the urban farmers I know. Passion for the love of food, for growing, preparing or maybe just eating food. Passion for raising chickens, for milking goats, for growing beans, corn or squash, passion for the love of food in some form or another. This is just a given.
Urban farmers also mine resources that nature and the city have to offer. It might be a curious way to look at this, but there are so many things that we can gain from both sectors. Think about this concept: In nature (and so by default in permaculture) there is no waste—only usable resources that are left over from one process to feed another. The curious thing is that humans are the only species that creates this thing called ‘waste,’ and boy do we create a lot of it. So, as an urban farmer, one of your big jobs is to become the MacGyver of your household, farm and the area around you, searching for and utilizing whatever your surroundings have to offer.
Starting with the obvious, let’s talk about the tradition of planting a seed and growing something. Here, we are harvesting sunlight, water and perhaps the leftover plant and animal surpluses for compost to grow a plant or animal that we can raise and share. This might look like growing plants or animals to prepare and eat directly or it might look like creating value-added products like kale chips, baby food, salsa or jam. Don’t forget that plants are grown for: botanicals such as soaps & lotions, medicines such as essential oils and remedies, and seeds because you know that without seed there are no plants.
Another place to harvest natural resources is the sun, wind and water that intersects our space. Here at the Urban Farm we harvest sunlight in the form of three different types of solar panels. One set of solar panels that converts sunlight directly into electricity, and two types of thermal solar panels, one that heats our hot water and the other that heats hot air in the winter and blows it inside to help with our heating bill. All three work quite effectively at reducing the amount of electricity that we need to purchase. Then there is always the possibility of harvesting the wind.
Urban Farm back yard, with reused urbanite wall topped with reclaimed pool edging for seating, decorative bells made from old metal air tanks, outdoor shower behind the metal panels on the right, metal rainwater harvesting tank right behind the tree, reuse of pavers for pathways, an old concrete sink as planter just to the right of the cottage door and an old storage shed converted into a cottage with a sleeping loft. Plus, as an added bonus, notice that the plant growing up the trellis is a snow pea plant going to seed.
Water can come from the city meter (one of the more expensive ways) or we can get more creative and look outside of the box for our water needs. Rainwater harvesting collects a free resource and directs that runoff to a place in your gardens where it is useful. This is a free resource that falls somewhat regularly on your property, use it! Greywater harvesting is a resource that we are already paying for. It reuses water by directing water that would normally go down your drain into the landscape. Another source of water for reuse is collecting condensation from your air conditioner. You might be surprised by how much you can get. Or, perhaps like The Simple Farm here in Phoenix you have a well on your property.
As we step into purchased electricity and water we are stepping into the realm of human-created products to use. One place to look for your resources is the waste stream produced here in the city. Your job as an Urban Farmer is to look for these leftover resources and imagine what you might create with them. Creating and transforming (also called “upcycling”) waste products into useable and even consumable products is where it gets fun as there are so many places to look and harvest.
One of my all-time favorites is what is called urbanite. Not to be confused with a person that lives in the city, urbanite is broken up concrete that can be used as a building material. From herb spirals to patios and retaining walls, this free and very versatile material can literally be found everywhere. I look for it on construction sites or better yet on Craig’s List or FreeCycle. People that have it will love to have it hauled off. Silly people, they don’t know what they’re missing out on. The back patio here at the Urban Farm has over 5,000 pounds built into it and it looks quite nice if I do say so.
Here the possibilities are endless, and all you have to do is let your imagination go. There is free wood and other building materials—the pathway on the south side of the Urban Farm is made from wooden 2x6s that I harvested from a house that burned down in the neighborhood. Interestingly, this was something I did 15 years ago and, when it was time recently to replace, it there was wood that I harvested from a different home that recently burned. Another place to look is at the food waste stream. Check with your local coffee shop for coffee and tea grounds, juice shop for pulp or local restaurant or grocer for spoiled food. These make great compost, worm food or animal food. I could go on but I will leave it to your imagination.
Then there is what I would consider the ultimate job for you as an urban farmer…to educate. The cool part of this is that really all you have to do is share what you create, and that can be as easy as sharing the product of your efforts with your family and friends. Or, you can take it to a bigger level: educate at the farmers market, offer classes in your living room, school, yoga studio, or where ever else you can get people to listen to you.
Do what I have shared above and that will start you on the road to join the food revolution and change the world. Really, though, the bottom line is that simply claiming yourself as an urban farmer will make the biggest difference. This will enable you to interact in a different way with the world around you. So, just for today, tell someone that you are an Urban Farmer and see what happens.
Enjoy the day and go garden.