Liveblog: Urban Farming

BlogHer Original Post

Welcome to the liveblog of the BlogHer Food '10 panel "Values - Urban Farming."

Here's the description:

What started with a few chickens in a couple of urban backyards has turned into a national phenomenon that is changing the way Americans relate to and consume their food. This panel brings together some of the bloggers leading this revolution. Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook Hank Shaw moderates the conversation with Agrarianista Joshua Stark, Margo True, Sunset Magazine editor and "One Block Diet" blogger, and Novella Carpenter, author of "Farm City". They'll promote plant, garden and animal husbandry, and can inspire you to create a deeper connection to and more personal relationship with the food you eat and serve. Join this session discuss how to get started and what you should consider beforehand.

Your liveblogger is Sassymonkey. Check back during the panel (10:00am - 11:15am October 9) for the liveblog!

Can't make it to BlogHer Food? Get the virtual conference pass and don't miss a thing!

HS: The way we're defining things today is that you are an urban farmer if you are thinking about or planning to grow something to sell at a market. Urban homesteading is raising or wanting to raise livestock or have a garden that provides a substantial portion of food for the year. I don't raise livestock but I have my big-ass garden.

NC: I'm an urban farmer in Oakland and I raise goats and other animals and I have a big-ass garden. I do sell to my produce to people, I teach to people and I'm part of BioFuel Oasis.

MT: I have a one-block diet blog, Sunset.com, and the premise is that we try to grow every ingredient for a seasonal feast. We have a medium-ass garden. We also have chicken, bees. We've made olive oil, wine and beer. We pick the snails out of the garden because they annoy us and cook them. The few imports we had to bring in we tried to change into another food. We've being doing this for about three years.

JS: we bought a house and wanted a garden. We have about 1/10 of an acre and we're allowed four small animals on our property so we have three ducks and dog. We have a medium-smallish ass garden. What I was aiming for was to do a meal a week from something we grew, gathered or caught.

HS: Did any of you have rural backgrounds?

JS: I did. Not on a farm but I grew up in the middle of nowhere so there was always food and gardens around. I wanted to keep that.

M: I grew up in cities but I had a duck as a pet when I was 8. I was always interested in how food was raised but didn't have hands on experience.

N: I was a child of back-to-the-land hippies. That didn't work out for them and we moved off the farm when I was really young. I'm a squatter. I squat on land to farm.

HS: I grew up in quasi-urban New Jersey. My family are foragers and fisherman. No farming background,

We all start this for different reasons. Novella, you mentioned your parents and realizing they had a good thing going with the farm.

NC; We all become our parents at a certain age. I know, you don't want to hear that.

MT: We started the one-block diet but we had to have other people to go along with it. It started as a way to do one story about a summer feast. How do grow and produce all that food? We didn't even know it was called urban homesteading. And then it just kept going.

JS: I wanted to raise something we could eat and the easiest protein I could get was laying ducks. Meat ducks are labour intensive and can be loud and the breed we got for layers are good. They are good layers and they are quiet.

Question from audience - How many eggs a week do you get from three ducks?

JS: We get either two or three eggs per day from our ducks when they are laying. They were born in May of last year and then they started laying in September They molt in the summertime (when they drop their feathers and then replace them) and then it takes about 8 weeks for them to start laying again.

HS: How long do the eggs last?

JS: I have no idea. I usually give them away. We can never eat them all.

HS: How are ducks different from chickens?

MT: I always thought that ducks need water?

JS: They don't need swimming water. They had a kiddie pool at one point. They love water but they don't need to have swimming water.

MT: The one thing with ducks is that you can't use duck eggs the same way you use chicken eggs. They don't have the same leavening power. Just on their own duck eggs are delicious.

NC: I've raised both. The difference I've noticed is that ducks grow fast. They reach independence faster than chickens. You can get ducklings and they are ready to go outside within two weeks, with chickens it can take longer. They need to be more coddled.

Audience - Can you talk about killing your animals? Can you talk about the first time and does it get easier?

NC: [To the others on the panel.] Do you kill your animals?

MT: We haven't. We have a mixed group (it's not just us) and some people don't want to. We've had them for three years. I'd like to get experience before I have to kill my own animals.

JS: I've never killed something I've grown. We didn't name our ducks but we learned that doesn't make it any easier.

NC: I said I was never going to name my farm animals but my vegan neighbors immediately came over and named them. I came to the philosophy that every day you are dealing with them think, "I'm going to be eating you." It's their job to be our food. It's hard for city people but rural people are more accustomed to it. Livestock are not pets. They are a farm animal. At some point they reach their meat plateau and it doesn't make sense to keep them around. You need to teach yourself how to do these things or find someone how to do it for you. I teach a chicken killing class and it's very intense. When I'm really thinking about it I recognize that meat is a sacrifice and it's really sacred.

JS: I grew up hunting and fishing.For me it's a little more instinctive but every time it's sad for me. That's not the case for everyone but if I'm going to keep eating meat it's a personal thing.

Audience - Even a lot of farmers don't necessarily kill their own animals. I grew up on a farm and we didn't eat our chickens. They were for eggs. But whenever we were taking a cow to market it wasn't like we were killing the cows ourselves. Hunting and farming are different categories.

MT: It seems like it would be easier to have a plan going in. We knew we were having chickens for eggs so talking about killing them is hard. If you get to the point where you need to harvest your own chickens, at least try to practice with not your own chickens first because you'll be traumatized.

JS: Two quick tips - the first is that you can't give ducks antibiotics or they'll die. Look at picking rare meat breeds. And you need to build a fence around your garden if you have ducks.

HS: In terms of chicken raising what do you need to know?

NC: Build a coop that is predator-proof, even in the city. Keep out the raccoons. Don't underestimate the use of hardware cloth. Don't use chicken wire - raccoons can reach through the wire and you don't want to see what's left in the morning.

MT: We have chicken wire! Guess we just got lucky!

HS: What I understand is that you can let chickens into a garden that is mature but not a young one. Is that right?

MT: Yes. We do that sometimes. They get to eat the bugs around the rosebushes (and the kale). You definitely want to predator-proof your coop. We have a roof and we sunk the chicken wire into the ground so things can't dig under. And it seems obvious, but don't let them go without water. They drink a lot of water when it's hot, more than you would think they would drink.

Audience - Is there a tipping point where you went from something else to deciding this is what you want to do?

NC: I guess for me when I was working in downtown Seattle and we we working on a book called the Encyclopedia of Country Living by Carla Emery. I remember looking through the book and laughing and thinking this has nothing to do with me. Then I started noticing things that she did do that I could do, like raising chickens and bees. Chickens and bees are gateway livestock. I started doing those things. Getting the bees was life-changing. It was one of those moments where you are so excited and you feel like you are getting away with something. It's empowering.

HS: If you go to an immigrant Italian or Portuguese house their yards are full of things you can eat. If you have land you fill it with things you can eat. It's normal where I grew up in NJ. When I bought a house, it had 1/3 of an acre on it. The first thing I did when I moved there I planted a fig tree. It was part of me putting roots down and in California you are so blessed by climate. I planted a hedge of artichokes. Then another of rosemary. I have a rosemary bush the size of Volkswagon. All of this stuff, having lived in a cold climate before, it was just, "I can do this." In Minnesota your life changes with the cold. In Sacramento I don't really start my garden until August when the heat is done. I barely lose anything and in December my garden is thriving.

MT: At Sunset I think we all got hooked on doing it and it transplanted to our homes. It's all about "what ifs"? What if made our own salt? What if we grew crops for our own beer? It's all very fascinating. What if plant saffron? We planted tea bushes. We brewed one cup of tea. We just create a menu that seems plausible. We look at what we want to eat and then grew things. It just keeps growing b/c you find out you can do these things.

JS: I grew up in a small rural town and everyone had gardens. The older Filipino men would have enormous beautiful gardens. Wherever I moved I put stuff in the ground just to see what was grew. I picked up a book "Five Acres And independence." It's older and doesn't have much information for today but for 1935 it was all about how to do things. It os chapter after chapter of projects that could work. It was the mentality that you could do it.

HS: Books that you can recommend to people?

MT: The book Novella mentioned - The Encyclopedia of Country Living. It's this huge book and her life story at the back is just so great. She came from a place of conviction and desperation and just did it.

NC: She's the original DIY person. The book I like is the Unprejudiced Palate. The way that he writes about the gardens is so fantastic. It's gorgeous. And I'm personally working on a how-to urban homesteading book.

HS: Anything by Eliot Coleman. He's the most amazing, skilled cold-weather gardener. He has a couple of books I really recommend - "Four Season Harvest" and "The New Organic Grower." He's a market gardener that sells most of his produce in the winter and lives in Maine. If you want to grow seriously in all weather conditions and climates I recommend his books.

MT: Also Mother Earth News online. Sunset just bought a cow but we don't really know how to keep a cow. She lives on the farm right now as we learn how to keep a cow. It's hard to learn how to keep just a single backyard cow but MEN has stuff information. Also UC Davis has some good information.

HS: Every state has a cooperative extension. UC Davis and Cornell have good ones.

If someone wants to get started - how do they start?

NC: Just grow food that you eat. Think about what you buy and grow that. Don't think you'll magically start liking kale if you grow it. Pay attention to amounts you buy to figure out how much to grow.

MT: Figure out how much time you have and figure out projects that you actually have time for.

JS: If you haven't ever raised or been around animals, get to know some animals. See how they behave, see how you react to them. When you just think about them in your head you'll tend to anthropomorphize therm. Don't neglect what's working. Don't neglect what you are good at. If you are growing tons of something and you like it, don't stop doing it. Keep going back to it - it will boost your confidence and moral.

HS: Think very hard before you plant a tree. Everyone in California has fruit or nut trees.

JS: I have a huge walnut tree and we have squirrels, rats, crows, etc. It's a mess. They are messier than my ducks.

MT: The thing with a tree is it casts a lot of shade and you might not be able to grow as much in your garden because of the shade.

HS: How much time you spend planning your garden (for location). If you are going to break ground you should think about it.

NC: For me, my garden is in an abandoned lot. I don't think there's way to really decide. I'm going to make mistakes and then rectify them. One of the more important things about urban farming/homesteading is that you are feeding other people and building community. It's not about "I ate so well b/c I grew my own food." I'm feeding other people. I'm building a community.

Audience - I would like some advice on convincing reluctant spouses. I have 2 small children and would like to raise chicken but my spouse says no.

JS: It is easier to apologize than to ask permission.

MT: Maybe what you should do is have a family field trip to a farm and he'll see how the kids react to it. And in our experience chickens take almost no care. They aren't that hard.

NC: Take and show him places that you've sussed out and show him people are doing it and it's not crazy.

HS: Get the kids on your side!

Audience - I live in Brooklyn and don't have yard but I could container garden or hydroponic for my own consumption?

HS: I'd do greens in containers. I don't grow anything that I eat a lot of unless it's expensive to buy. I eat lots of parsley but eat more than I'll ever grow. I grow Italian greens that are really hard to find. Create something that's special to you rather than something you can buy in a market.

MT: Check seed catalogues. There are lots of things that you won't know what they are but you can grow them.

JS: With containers you can choose you own soil but you have to supplement them. Maybe look into a worm composter for soil supplements.

HS: How has social media and internet made it easier for you to connect with other people? What are the pros and cons of online communities?

JS: I never would have got ducks without the internet. Backyardchickens.com was a great site for me. A lot of people on the forum knew what they were talking about. I looked through dozens of breeds before I decided on Welsh Harlequins. They are great for urban homesteading. They are great layers and they are quiet. Any of those sites where they are breeding, there's a rare breeds site . The biggest help for me is search engines. WHen my walnuts started dropping early because of the squirrels I googled green walnuts and found things to do with them, like a green walnut liquor.

MT: I'm always looking for stuff. I found it was easy to figure out who had good info and who doesn't. I try to find the name of a person who seems to be the expert on a sites and then try to track down their contact information and ask them question. There's a lot of willingness to share information. Just on our blog, our readers have given us great advice and steered us to solutions we never thought of.

NC; For me i think about my parents. They had one book when they had the farm. I am so grateful for how much info is out there. I never would have gotten Nigerian dwarf goats without my readers. I watched a youtube video for how to figure out how to kill a rabbit. The bad side of things? I've had a lot of hatred from people who have pet rabbits. It's normal for me eat rabbit because I grew up doing it but a lot of people have them as pets. I also use twitter so I tweet when I have my open farm stand and people show up for it.

HS: I do a lot of things and no one can be an expert at everything. I use listserves and forums. Read the questions and answers. I use Twitter. It's excellent source for saying "Hey, I'm trying to do this. Any suggestions?" You'll get lots of answers.

Audience- I want to raise chickens in downtown chicago but I'm worried about attracting rats.

NC: The problem is the feed. A lot of people use giant hanging feeds and it attracts rats. I keep the feed in the house in a metal container and just feed them once a day so there's no extra food out there. It doesn't attract rats.

MT: We had a giant hanging feeder and had rats. We got a giant garbage can that the rats can't chew through. We put the feeder in there at night. We also hose down the yard every day (and the chickens like that).

JS: My dog will kill rats occasionally but for me the biggest problem was the rats would come into the feed at night. I decreased the amount of food so there's no extra food to attract them.

Audience - Do rats eat the chicken/duck poop?

JS: No.

Audience - We lock the feed into the pen at night. But about convincing the spouse - we joined 4-H. Spouses like the educational component of it. And when you working with a group of kids and they are going to the country fair together it's a great experience.

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