Why I Farm — A City Version

The Contrary Farmer

I hope everyone won’t mind if I contribute my story. I have often wanted to comment on this wonderful, thought provoking site, but felt too shy because I don’t have a farm. My husband works in the entertainment business, hence we live in Pasadena, part of the giant suburban sprawl of Los Angeles, California. I didn’t grow up on a farm either — suburbs, again, outside of Washington, DC. But my maternal grandparents were farmers who emigrated from Romania to Western Canada. I believe the urge to farm must be passed down in one’s genetic code.

I’d always made flower gardens, and I’m a good cook. Somewhere back during the culinary revolution, I came upon a cookbook by Alice Waters, who can’t help but be inspiring. So I planted a pot of basil and parsley on my apartment balcony. Alice was right — picking that super fresh basil whenever I needed it, instead of spending two dollars for it, half wilted from the grocery store, was absolutely life changing. I spent the next fifteen years growing fruits and vegetables wherever they could be squeezed in, and dreaming of life in a more rural setting. Then, one happy day, my young children were accepted by a school that had, among other attractive features, a small organic farm. I spent the summer driving stealthily past the school’s farm property, stalking it, wondering if there would be any space for me to sponsor a project or two. It turned out to be a dusty acre of weeds with a pretty, tiny pond at the center, a big mulberry tree, and a few straggly plots left over from the year before. My children’s kindergarten teacher told me there had once been a farm manager and the property had been well used, but in recent years it had been left up to parent volunteers, with mixed results. Somehow, without a lot more conversation about it, the two of us decided to try to get it up and going again.

We put those kindergarteners to work — child labor can be a powerful thing. They dug beds, and we built trellises. They planted blackberries, raspberries, apples, pluots, and pears, and culinary herbs. We grew sweet peas and daffodils, and made a big bed of California wildflowers. We planted popcorn.

We grew a “pizza sauce” garden of tomatoes, onions and oregano, made some sauce, and threw a party at the farm where we grilled up a lot of pizza. Everyone liked that, so the next year we grew a sauce garden again, and made the cheese for our pizza in the classroom. A parent joked, “How come you didn’t grow the crust?”

So the next year, after reading Gene’s Small Scale Grain Raising, we grew three kinds of wheat, milled it in the class, and had a big pancake breakfast, and a bigger Italian feast with lasagna noodles hand rolled by the kids.

We kept on adding more fruit trees, put in a little vineyard of table grapes and planted a lot of blueberries. That year, we had enough produce to have a small in-house farmer’s market at the end of the school year, run by the students. The Head of School was quite pleased, and asked that we hold one every month, so this past year we busily planted more vegetables just to support our market, and started making marmalade, jam, jelly, and soap. The monthly markets have made enough money to pay the farm’s expenses — definitely proving the sales advantage of having a few bright-faced elementary students running the stand.

Next year, we plan to add a hedgerow of apple trees, save up for a cider press, and if I can manage to convince everybody, install a bee hive. (Wish me luck with that last one!)

I dream of a homestead of my own, and would love to join the ranks of all of you lucky enough to farm. Every Wednesday I read Gene’s blog (every comment, too) — for the practical advice and philosophical wisdom, of course, but also as a window onto the rural life I feel so drawn to. But until that day, I will be content with our school farm. If the aim is joy, then I am given a full helping of it from our crop of children and the great delight they take in the work and play of our little one acre.