The Micro Farm Project:
Q&A With Urban Farmer Kari Spencer
What is The Micro Farm Project?
The Micro Farm Project is a family-owned urban farm and informational outreach in the heart of Phoenix, Arizona. We believe in growing our own food! On a quarter-acre parcel, we produce:
- Naturally grown vegetables and fruits
- Farm-fresh chicken and quail eggs
- Heritage turkeys
- Raw goat milk and cheese
- Pickles, relishes, jams and jellies
- Artisan breads
- And whatever else sounds good at the moment…
We are in the cultivation business: nurturing the environment and the land, growing wholesome food, restoring the economy, and reviving hospitality. Our purpose is to inspire, train and support gardeners
and urban farmers through sharing our experiences, offering training and classes, as well as providing resources to the community. Farm tours offer the public a demonstration of how much food can be cultivated, using natural and sustainable practices, on a standard city lot.
How long have you been backyard farming? What got you started?
We certainly did not start out as urban farmers. In 2009, my husband, a Navy reservist, was deployed and I found myself with some free time and a huge, empty backyard. Though I believed that I had a brown thumb, I desperately wanted a garden. I was introduced to the Master Gardener program that is offered through our local university extension office and signed up for the classes. With a little knowledge, my thumb began to turn green. My husband returned home to a different yard; lush and green instead of dry and dusty.
Rubbing shoulders with other gardeners, I became acquainted with people who were not only growing food, and also raising small livestock. The idea of keeping chickens in the city began to intrigue me, but Lewis was not as excited as I was about the prospect. And so, the idea was pushed to the back burner.
I couldn’t stop thinking about chickens, however. I cannot remember why we were visiting a feed store on the day that changed our lives, but when we got out of our car, we were drawn to the peeping sounds coming from a pen by the entrance. My girls and I took one look at the tiny chicks in the brooder and we were hooked! Initially cautious, we brought home two of them. They were so adorable! The next day, with my husband fully on board, we expanded our flock to 9 chicks and began renovation of an old playhouse into a proper coop.
To learn more about raising chickens, I turned to the internet for advice. When I saw all of the amazing things that urban farmers were growing and raising in the city, my ideas about what I wanted to accomplish on our property expanded. I ravenously absorbed any and all information that I could find about urban farming, and doing it in a sustainable and regenerative manner (of particular importance in the desert!) The ornamental gardens shrank and the vegetable gardens grew on our property. Soon, we were building pens for Coturnix quail and turkeys, and the lawn was surrendered to two tiny lambs. Dairy goats were next, and they quickly endeared themselves to our family with their spunk and delicious milk.
Things have certainly changed around our place in the last few years. My oldest daughter recently commented that when she was young, I wouldn’t even let the dog in the house. Now I allow tiny sheep and goats to follow me around my kitchen, and poultry chicks of various sorts are common indoor residents. I never would have foreseen this lifestyle for us, but we are having the time of our lives!
Why do you believe that it is important to grow your own food?
For my husband, Lewis, and me, the answer is simple. The food we grow ourselves or buy from local farmers is far superior in taste and nutrition to the food found in most grocery stores. I estimate that 75 percent of the food we eat at home is either grown in our own garden, or purchased face-to-face from local farmers whom we have enjoyed getting to know personally. One step at a time, we are growing, raising and making more and more of the food that we eat. We are enjoying the journey and sharing what we have learned with others,
What has been your biggest success and biggest mistake?
Our biggest mistake has been a lack of planning and preparation in our excitement to add animals to our farm. As relatively new urban farmers, we were having so much fun with our chickens that we had the bright idea to add five broad-breasted turkeys to the mix. We had an 8’x8’pen that we thought would be perfect for housing them. I didn’t realize when they were babies just how big they would get, and how quickly it would happen! The pen was too small, so we let them run on our property during the day, and what a mess they made of my gardens! Before we realized that the males were fighting and needed to be separated, we lost our largest tom, which was very disappointing. When processing day came, I was a little bit nervous because it was my first attempt at processing, but all of us were a little bit relieved to send them to “Camp Deep Freeze.” For our second batch of turkeys, we built a proper pen and raised heritage breeds, which were easier to manage.
We have had shining moments, as well. In 2012, we adopted a ewe lamb name Eleanor from a friend who received her as a Christmas gift. Although we knew little about sheep, we brought her home and began to do our research to figure out how old and what breed she was, and how to care for her.
Friends gave us goat milk to feed her, since our goats were not in milk at the moment. For the first few days, she would not take a bottle or eat anything. I was becoming very worried. On New Year’s Eve, I found myself home alone, cuddling Eleanor and coaxing her to nurse a bottle. Out of frustration, I filled a bowl with milk and began to dip her nose into it gently. Nature and thirst took over, and she began to drink greedily, but awkwardly, sneezing as she sniffed liquid into her nose. She finally got the hang of it, and is now thriving.
Eleanor was the first of our sheep, and Oliver was the second. The two of them are a breeding pair, both mutton breeds that have hair instead of wool (a definite advantage in our hot environment.) Eleanor is due to lamb this month. We are hoping for healthy lambs, and are actively looking for land as our small city lot will not be suitable for them as they grow.
What plans do you have for the future?
My husband and I are very excited about the future of The Micro Farm Project. Recently, we graduated from the Master Farmer program offered through the University of Arizona Extension, but we are far from being masters at our craft. Right now, we are practicing agriculture as much as is possible on our small lot, but we are looking for a larger property that can support more livestock, perhaps even some mini cattle, with which we are currently enamored.
Opportunities for raising sheep and goats have opened up to us, if we can procure enough land. Whether we are growing for market, for our own family, or with our students, our dream is to model and to teach urban farming skills, and to equip others to grow and raise their own healthy, delicious foods.
You can catch up with Kari and The Micro Farm Project at http://www.themicrofarmproject.com/