Photo By Tom Vannah
At Margaret Christie's home, there are goats and sheep and chickens and, periodically, pigs. Her family raises almost all of the vegetables, and most of the fruit, that they eat over the course of the year—fresh in season, frozen or canned or otherwise preserved out of season.
As a society, Christie says, "in a lot of ways, we've separated ourselves from the basic work of feeding and clothing and sheltering ourselves." For her family—which includes a 13-year-old and nine-year-old twins—it's important to reclaim that connection, to have hands-on involvement in the sometimes messy, sometimes difficult, but rewarding work of providing for some of their own basic needs.
Christie's family is especially ambitious in its DIY efforts—helped, in no small part, by her professional background (she's the special projects director for Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, or CISA) and the fact that they live on a large plot of land in traditionally rural Franklin County. But right behind them are a growing number of people with a more modest, but still sincere, commitment to removing themselves, to varying degrees, from the global food production system.
In the Valley, as in many places around the country, farmers' markets and farm share programs have seen a dramatic rise in popularity, as more and more people embrace the buy-local ethos; according to CISA, there are now 31 farmers' markets in the Valley, and 33 farms that sell harvest shares directly to consumers. Alongside that is an apparent increase in people who are bringing the local commitment even closer to home—growing large vegetable gardens, planting fruit trees, raising chickens on their property, tapping their maple trees for syrup, setting up beekeeping operations in their back yards.
Their motivations are myriad: to opt out of the dominant food distribution system, with its energy-guzzling planes and trucks sending goods across the country and around the world; to support local producers; to feed themselves and their families fresher, more nutritious food. High-profile crises—from Hurricane Katrina to recent contamination problems at large-scale agribusinesses—have also made many people question the wisdom of a food system that relies on so few producers, often thousands of miles away from their own tables.
"There's so many reasons to want to grow your own food, whether it's animals, vegetables, fruit," says Meg Taylor, founder of the Pioneer Valley Backyard Chicken Association and co-director of the Farm Education Collaborative. "It saves money. It's lowering your carbon footprint. Fresh air. Teaching your children the values you hold close, or teaching them to be self-sufficient. Learning about ecology and horticulture."
So where to begin?
"Start with what appeals to you most," Christie advises. "What makes you think: this would make me happy? That you could go out and pick strawberries every morning for your cereal? Is it fresh salad every night?
"There are a lot of reasons to do it, in terms of saving money, or teaching your kids to do some work. But if you don't enjoy it, you won't keep doing it."
Some people, Christie says, will begin by growing those things they hate overpaying for at the supermarket (she admits to a particular pleasure when she compares the cost of her home-dried tomatoes to those sold in the store). Others start with what's easiest, based on their particular constraints of time or space.
For years, novice and experienced home gardeners alike have turned to the UMass-Amherst Center for Agriculture (more commonly known as UMass Extension) for advice on working with recalcitrant soil, or fending off crop-eating pests, or properly pruning their backyard apple trees. Financial constraints mean the center no longer has the staff to handle individual calls for help, says Associate Director Joe Shoenfeld. Instead, it trains educators who conduct public programs, and offers referrals to other sources of help. The center's website, meanwhile, is a treasure trove of fact sheets, information on seminars, and links to other useful sites. UMass also offers a soil and plant tissue testing lab and a plant diagnostics lab. (See sidebar for more information.)
This year and last, says Shoenfeld, the center has fielded many questions about the infectious blight that in 2009 wiped out so many tomato and potato crops. Staffers have also seen an increase in the number of calls from new gardeners seeking advice on getting started, such as the best place to plant, what things can be grown in small spaces or containers, or how to transplant seedlings.
Shoenfeld credits the combination of a flagging economy and a growing interest in eating locally with the increase in home gardeners in the last year or two; newbies who planted their first gardens last year experienced a "sort of trial by fire," thanks to the blight and heavy rains, he notes.
Whether home gardeners—new ones in particular—actually save a lot of money on food costs is debatable, Shoenfeld adds, although putting food aside for the winter (through canning, storing in root cellars, or other means of preservation) is a great way to economize.
Gardening might be the most obvious, and easiest, route to backyard food production. But if the experience of the Pioneer Valley Backyard Chicken Association is an indication, more and more people are also branching out into raising their own animals—chickens, goats, sheep, ducks.
Taylor, who has raised chickens for more than 15 years and currently has about 20 hens and chicks in her back yard in Williamsburg, founded the PVBCA in 2008. Of the roughly 350 members, she reports, about 50 have joined in just the last few months, and the majority of them are new to raising chickens.
Taylor calls chickens a good "starter livestock animal."
"Anybody can do it," she says. "You don't need a lot of land." Or a lot of money—while some people might shell out as a couple of thousand dollars for a large, state-of-the-art coop, a basic coop costs about $300, and Taylor knows people who've built their own for less than 100 bucks, using scrap wood.
And once you've got your coop set up, raising chickens doesn't require a huge time commitment. "There's not much to it—they eat and grow," Taylor says.
While it's important to clean bird droppings out of the nesting boxes and perching areas—a quick task that can be performed every few days—Taylor's coop only requires a deep cleaning twice a year. That's because she uses a "deep-litter system" in which the birds live on top of a compost pile. As with any compost pile, new materials can be added to keep it in balance—for instance, to prevent a high level of ammonia in the coop, which can be bad for the birds' respiratory systems.
Some chicken owners—especially beginners—"are really fastidious. They go in there and clean up every turd every day," Taylor says. "I imagine Martha Stewart has someone doing that every day. But it's not necessary."
A five-minute daily visit to the coop, to collect eggs and make sure the birds have enough food and water, is adequate, Taylor says, although many owners like to spend more time with their birds, especially if they have kids. "People tend to watch them and hold them," she says. "They're cute."
Some owners, like Taylor, raise birds for meat. "I want to know where my food is coming from," she explains. "I want the experience, and ethical dilemma, of slaughtering my own animals." But while many Valley communities allow residents to raise at least a limited number of chickens in their yards, fewer allow backyard bird slaughtering.
The majority of backyard chicken farmers are in it for the eggs. A hen, in her prime, will lay about five or six eggs a week, depending on the breed and the season, Taylor reports; as she ages, her production will slow down.
For many chicken owners, the birds are also pets. They give them names, and unwind at the end of a long day by watching their birds. "We're so drawn in by these personalities," Taylor says. "They're really entertaining, and they're such individuals.
"Chickens are very charming," she adds. "There's not much cuter than a child holding a chick."
In 2009, First Lady Michelle Obama oversaw the creation of a 1,100-square-foot vegetable garden on the South Lawn of the White House. At harvest time, the media gathered to record Washington, D.C., school kids helping Obama harvest the yield, which totaled more than 1,000 pounds of sweet potatoes, broccoli, lettuce and other produce. The backyard garden movement had officially arrived.
But while backyard food production might be a bit of a trend these days, the practice, of course, has more than a few miles on it.
For Christie, who grew up in urban and suburban areas, her first backyard "farming" experience took place in the large victory garden planted by her grandparents, who would pay the grandkids to squash the Japanese beetles that harassed their asparagus. When she got older, she ended up living on a farm in Vermont—"It was something I did to avoid college"—where, she says, "I kind of fell hard for how great it was to grow food."
Today, her own kids have that same appreciation. "I think they take a lot of pleasure in the fact that we grow our own food," she says. And helping out at home has taught them some very practical skills: how to weed, to cook, to herd animals. ("We always used to say, 'Wouldn't it be great to have a herding dog?' But it turns out a kid on a bike can do a very good job.")
It's also helped them understand exactly where their food comes from, and when. While Christie's family aren't strict locavores—"Coffee and chocolate are staples in our household," she points out—they do limit food that has to be shipped from far away, like bananas and citrus fruit. The kids, she says, "think of those things as treats, which I think is a good thing." So, too, is their appreciation for food when it's fresh in season, and their acceptance of the fact that when, say, the berries they froze last summer are gone, there won't be any more until next summer.
"We eat what we grow every day of the year, at every meal," Christie says. "That feels good to me."
But that certainly doesn't mean that every would-be backyard farmer needs to tackle it on such a large scale. There are lots of entry points, from container gardens on the back deck to more ambitious garden plots to animals. "One of the things I think is exciting about this is you can do lots of different things, in different ways," Christie says.
Resources for the Backyard Farmer
The Pioneer Valley Backyard Chicken Association
Offers workshops and individual consultations for would-be and active chicken owners, as well as an online discussion board where members can trade information and seek advice. The website includes a directory of local feed stores and a list of chicken-related websites, books and magazines. PVBCA founder Meg Taylor particularly recommends Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens by Gail Damerow, the Bible of backyard chicken farmers.
While CISA mostly works with large-scale producers, the non-profit's website includes a "Garden Local" section, with links to resources for home gardeners.
UMass Extension Center for Agriculture
The Center for Agriculture's website includes an extensive section on gardening and home horticulture, with dozens of fact sheets that will take you from choosing the right spot for your garden, through planting and composting, to harvesting. It also offers information on organic gardening, pest management, plant disease and other topics.
The university also offers the UMass Aggie Seminar series for home gardeners and small farmers (www.umassgarden.com) and a seasonal monthly newsletter for home gardeners called "Garden Clippings" (www.umassturf.org/publications/newsletters.html).
Finally, the UMass Soil and Plant Tissue Testing Lab (www.umass.edu/soiltest) will test soil, plants, compost, water and fertilizer samples for small fees (a standard soil test costs $9).
The Western Mass. Master Gardener Association
WMMGA has an email hotline for gardening questions, offers public workshops and clinics on a range of topics, performs soil testing, and runs a speakers bureau on gardening topics.
The Massachusetts chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association
Offers numerous workshops on topics including gardening techniques and food preservation, an online forum and social action campaigns, all, of course, from an organic and sustainable perspective.