As I follow the stories of others as excited as I am about growing food, I’ve often wondered if we qualify as a movement yet. Actually, I’ve been wondering this for a few years, and the media coverage of a “growing movement” of folks rediscovering the joys and value of growing food at home has definitely increased in the last year. But I’ve been wondering lately if the reason that this movement remains so grassroots (or feels like it to me, anyway) is that like many upswells in the environmental movement, it doesn’t have a name.
Or rather, everyone who comes to this place in their lives seems to be giving what they do their own name! Over the last year or two, I’ve seen and heard folks describe what they are doing as gardening, victory gardening, yardening, backyard farming, urban homesteading (although apparently that name is now trademarked and I shouldn’t use it without permission!), homesteading, self-sufficient gardening, backyard homesteading, mini-farming, micro-farming, sub-acre agriculture… and that’s not even including the different variations on the names for the methods chosen: organic, beyond organic, biodynamic, biointensive, permaculture, food forestry, synergistic gardening, … what have I left out?!
In my own journey, I started by just wanting to grow some food and to have a garden at all. For whatever reason, I’ve never been an urban gardener. Even when I knew that I desperately wanted to do this, I couldn’t bring myself to do containers on the patio or take advantage of the rooftop raised beds in our last condo. I equated gardening with–literally–roots. And until I felt emotionally settled–rooted myself–I couldn’t plant anything.
When we were househunting, it became clear that I wasn’t looking for a garden. I was looking for a GARDEN. I didn’t want to just enjoy growing a few tomatoes or some fresh salad greens. I wanted to grow everything we ate. I knew I probably wouldn’t be able to do that in my first year (especially given some pretty limited experience!), but I would have argued with you if you had tried to convince me I couldn’t! Go big or go home, apparently, is my personality (this will not be a surprise for anyone who has known me for any length of time).
I wanted to garden for self-sufficiency. And I wanted to do it in the most ecologically harmonious way possible. Along the way, I began to feel uncomfortable with the idea of vegetables and fruit as commodities at all. I felt drawn and connected to my homesteading ancestors, and got interested in heirloom vegetables and heritage breeds of livestock. More importantly, I felt drawn to the way a homestead was once an ecological system, with complex, four-dimensional (time being very much a factor) integrated relationships between every aspect: plants, pasture, livestock, water, humans (women, men, children, teenagers), weather, labour…
But I realized over this past winter that the problem with the homestead model, for me, is that it feels isolated. I’ve been through this cycle before, feeling independent and wanting to go off and do my own thing apart from everyone else, and then realizing that there is no way to do anything apart from everyone else! The homestead model existed only when the first wave of pioneers/colonial settlers in North America headed out to impose their ancestral farming knowledge on “new” lands. They did this, in many cases, with almost no supporting infrastructure, and many, many failed because it was so difficult. But those who succeeded are icons of North American culture, and the model of the independent, hard-working, resilient individual who relied only on themselves for their success has been held up by our Protestant civilization for generations.
But now I’m on another stage in this journey, and the independent homesteader name with all the individualism it connotes just isn’t working for me. And in fact, it’s another model that’s taken hold of my dreams: the small farm.
Now the definition of “small” has changed a lot, too, over these generations. The traditional small family farm was still comprised of tens of acres, if not hundreds, and it was a synergistic fit with other aspects of the culture of its time: the large family and the tight-knit community. In our industrial culture, we idealize those days and romanticize those who keep them alive, like the Amish and the Mennonites.
As I’ve dreamed about making my own property along these traditional lines, though, I’ve run into all kinds of problems because that synergy just isn’t in my current variables. We are two people with no children who have other full-time jobs (much as we’re willing to downsize those!). Our small property has no pasture (no lawn!) and few flat spaces. Our garden beds (apart from the raised beds we just built) are not flat, laid out in any kind of grid or even in the ground (!), so many of the tools that are designed to help with production on a small farm are not viable here. And according to some calculations, there’s no way we would ever produce enough income from the land size we have to make our labour at it worthwhile (except as a hobby).
At the same time, it’s become clear to me that I have an unbridled passion that longs to be let loose as farming. I cannot relate to those who putter and grow a few things for fun. I want to provide food and relationships for my community, not just for my husband and me. I had an epiphany a few weeks ago when I realized that other people, even those invested in food security issues etc, do not necessarily want to talk for hours about planting peas (shocking, but true!). I have finally clued in that I have the heart of a (small) farmer and it’s time to embrace my secret passion.
Now I’ve struggled this year with this compulsion taking hold. I knew that I wanted to name myself a farmer and my property a farm. But so much seemed to stand in the way! The word “farm” is a significant one, with many implications–social, historical, commercial, legal. And a farmer is someone who gets up before dawn, milks cows, works insane hours physically, barely makes a living, is in mountains of debt, and is too busy with farming to do anything else. Right?
Well I hope not. Because I don’t want to move house, I don’t like to get up before daylight, and I have no upper body strength. But I still want to farm. And the amazing thing is, once I stopped fighting how impossible it was for me to farm here and started thinking about how I might be able to make it work, the possibilities seemed to open up dramatically. So stay tuned… Backyard Feast is becoming something old and something new all at once. And I have a name already picked out. I’m just not quite ready to share it yet.