In the way stubborn daughters do, I didn’t listen enough to my dad. He had years of agricultural experience, and his knowledge spanned the spectrum, from cuts of beef to the price of sheep. I, however, was hellbent on city life. I wasn’t interested in the difference between filets and chuck roasts, or the benefits of vermiculture, but oh how time laughs at the plans we have made for ourselves!
My journeys led me to take a deep interest in food, not only how it affects my body and wellness, but how the food is grown or raised and how it finds its way to me. Suddenly, I found myself questioning pasture-raised cows versus grain-fed, why buying raw milk feels like partaking in a drug deal, why a field of corn isn’t necessarily environmentally beneficial, and what is the process from goat to cheese? Even as I tried to make up for lost questions with my dad, my involvement in the agricultural world was still as a buyer and a maker. Then I met the Urban Farmer.
Using wood and a tube of water as a level, the Urban Farmer and his father were able to map out the future garden beds.
Like me, the Urban Farmer asked many of these same questions, changed his diet, read the requisite books and watched the documentaries showing how we have destroyed so much of our food system. While I stuck to promoting how to use local and organic foods, he turned to the soil for his involvement, and gradually, he thought more and more about a farm of his own.
After time in the sunny paradise that is Hawaii, he returned to his native Pittsburgh (lucky for me!), and after seeing so many vacant lots right in the city, he began seriously considering an urban farming venture. I am so fortunate to observe this process up close and from the very first seed. I have him to teach me about planting, weeding, mulching, even cardboard collecting! His farm is now such an integral part of our lives. I would be remiss not to document it here, on With The Grains, where I use the stories of food to tell my own story and explore the world, so now we begin in earnest to share this farming tale.
The Urban Farmer chose these parcels for several reasons: there were numerous abandoned lots in close proximity, which makes the possibility for expansion quite feasible. They were south-facing, which is ideal for growing in our region, and the soil tested non-toxic, which was surprising for a neighborhood once fueled by a steel mill. Had you driven by these lots six months ago, you, like everyone else, would have reached the dead-end, perhaps appreciated the view, and then very quickly redirected to wherever you meant to go without a second thought.
Bending fence posts to create the structure of the Hoop House, a type of greenhouse.
Had you driven down that dead-end road, you would have seen abandonment, decay and the rampant vines, weeds and urban trash of a vacant lot, but the Urban Farmer looked at that land like a mother looks at her newborn. He saw beauty and potential, and he knew with the right nurturing, that land would serve a purpose bigger than just him. I saw what he saw, when his eyes glimmered, and he looked over the property, pointing and motioning where rows would be, where chickens might one day cluck, and where a hoop house would warm seeds through the last of the frost. You, like the neighbors, might have called him crazy, but if you saw that look in his eyes, you would have believed he’d do everything he said he’d do.
While it still snowed outside, the Urban Farmer stood before an audience to describe his farming endeavor. His goal was for the audience members to invest in improving the food system by supporting his local, organic farming through CSA shares (Community Supported Agriculture). In the most humble and gracious way, he uttered a statement that struck me, “It’s really hard work, but I’m fortunate to love the work.”
I can’t emphasize his words enough. Urban Farming can be hip and glamorous when seen from afar, but the up-close truth is, it’s a ton of work, especially at the outset. Several friends and family members have joined the efforts, but day in and day out, the only consistent laborer is the Urban Farmer. Each day boasts its own challenges, weather obstacles and hurdles. April’s to-do list was grueling and took its toll on him physically, but the progress was immense, and he began to take the stresses in stride, realizing he was well on his way.
The construction of the Hoop House provided its fair share of stressors, as it was a very pressing and time-sensitive step. Without a hoop house, there would be no seeds before the last frost. With the help of an old friend and the moral support of one very happy Julep dog, the Urban Farmer did the math, shopped around, purchased the fence posts, stabilized them deep in the ground, bent the others with brute force (and a rail bender), and before long, a very integral skeletal structure emerged, as did the very first signs of spring: daffodil bulbs!
April showers bring May flowers as they say, but April was eager to enchant us with bursts of yellow and early signs of spring. With the Hoop House fully in tact, the Urban Farmer began planting seeds in trays and directly in the dirt under the protective plastic’s warmth. That dirt was not always so dirt-like. Part of March’s physical toll was the constant vibration of a tiller, removing rocks, bricks, glass, fence posts…what urban agriculturists have collectively come to call Urbanite Soil, i.e.: be prepared to work muscles you never knew you had in an effort to break urbanite soil apart and make it plantable. At times, his land felt more like an archaeological dig than a farm in the making.
There are sides to urban farming (and rural farming for that matter too), you might never imagine. These intense labors require a lot of resourcefulness, such as sourcing cardboard from a local recycling drop-off point, picking up spent brewers’ grains from local brewers and coffee grounds from local coffee shops. Never did I imagine I’d be so excited to find furniture boxes in a dumpster, but sure enough, those boxes are a gold mine when it comes to this permaculture practice. The cardboard and wood chips combine to weigh down the grassy/weedy trails between beds. They also prevent deer, since walking on slippery ground doesn’t strike their fancy. Weeds are persistent buggers though, so once we complete this process, we’ll probably be starting again. The coffee grounds help balance nitrogen levels directly in the soil, and the spent grains are part of an ever-growing mound of compost (as are all the eggshells from my baking- woohoo!).
The Urban Farmer let me plant some seeds with him, and watching those first signs of green was like watching baby Julep sit on command for the first time. Those little greens grow up so quickly! Nature is not one to linger in nostalgia, which brings us to the growing abundance of May.
In addition to seeing the Urban Farmer’s growing sense of pride and fulfillment in this endeavor, seeing Julep on the farm fills me with a happiness I can’t put into words. As part Australian Shepherd, her DNA craves a working role we have yet to fully harness, but she has chased away deer, and gathered logs like a Boy Scout. When the Urban Farmer puts on his boots in the morning, her tail wags energetically, and she paces by the door, not wanting to be left behind.. I could watch her on that farm from sunrise to sunset. Seeing passion in the ones I love fills me with inspiration, and in May, I saw that passion brimming in the Urban Farmer.
In May, a group of volunteers from the community convened at the farm to help with whatever he needed. Each of these volunteers contributes in his or her own way to the local agriculture scene, from tending local gardens, to teaching kids to grow food, to making fresh produce available to the food desert that is the surrounding community. Each of the volunteers easily could have been too busy, but there they were, with encouraging words, tools to share and hands to help.
We spent a few hours, from that very golden hour until sunset, forming assembly lines, digging, raking, trash-collecting, Julep chasing, etc. Their giving attitudes made me realize how I’ve been so closely focused on my creative track, I haven’t paused to give back to my community. The progress and the positivity was so overwhelming, I felt a contentment I haven’t experienced in a long time. As the Urban Farmer wheelbarrowed by me, we exchanged smiles, and I saw in him a beaming happiness like I’ve never seen before. All the doubts, all the exhaustion, all the stresses melted away, and he felt his dreams growing beneath his feet. “You’re doing a good thing, Kyle,” I told him, as we settled on one of the newly cleared hillsides and watched the last bit of light sink below the city skyline. Here’s to the farmers who brought me into this world. Here’s to the dirt, the seeds, the hands & the bees that one day at a time are repairing such a broken system.
p.s: Stay tuned as the spring unfurls before us, and if you’re curious about elements of this urban agriculture world, leave me a comment. I’d love for these posts to be a dialogue. You can also follow the farm on Facebook to learn of events and vegetable opportunities!