Sometimes it is daunting to think about global climate change and what, if anything, we might do about it on an individual level. Here is a wonderful example of what one person is doing.
How did you initially get started on your path of becoming an urban farmer? Were your parents gardeners? How did you first become interested?
When I was a kid, my Dad always had a spring/summer garden that my brother and I helped out with. It was a big bite for a simple backyard garden, at least 15' x 25'. Each year we tried one new crop in addition to the general fare. My older brother took it on as a teenager and so did I when it was my turn. But I really hadn't had a serious vegetable garden since 1977.
In 2008 my Dad was diagnosed with lung cancer and I moved back to my childhood home to take care of him. By now he'd put together an impressive garden space with an underground watering system and perfect top soil. I took over managing his garden while he convalesced and I enjoyed getting my hands dirty again after a few decades as a cubicle monkey. Being a full-time caregiver also meant that I was spending nearly all my time like a 1950s housewife; cooking from scratch, cleaning, nurturing, nursing, running a household; all that domestic stuff, except I traded in the apron for cargo shorts.
When I eventually moved back to my home and my life, my savings were wiped out from a year of unemployment. In the meantime the economy had tanked, as well; there was very little work to come back to and my income was a fraction of what it had been in recent years. It was time for some serious belt-tightening here in the “new normal,” and part of that process was ripping out the boring flower beds and doing something useful with them. Pretty soon I was growing food, getting exercise, being entertained, learning something new and relieving stress. Perhaps the most important benefits the garden gave me were self-reliance and a sense of control. Having a steady, predictable income was no longer a given. Neither was having a Dad as my support and champion. I had to take care of myself. Now I have 11 fruit trees, a year-round garden, chickens, bee hives, four composting bins and a worm bin, all in the middle of L.A. And I make a decadent lemon curd.
In September 2009, I read a New Yorker article by Susan Orlean about her hens. In it she wrote “I suddenly found myself wanting chickens, and wanting them with an urgency that exceeded even my mad adolescent desire to have a pony.” This actually sums it up perfectly. Once the idea gets in your head, you become utterly obsessed with it and can’t rest until you have your chooks.
I researched chicken breeds, built a chicken run and coop behind the garage in my backyard and had four pullets (teenage hens) by Thanksgiving. I'd never researched an animal so much before getting it. In addition to the uncontrollable obsession to have them, I also wanted organic eggs from happy chickens. They have a nice life here and I adore them. Now I have six hens, the neighbors buy the eggs and the chickens pay for themselves. I’m also one of the organizers of the Los Angeles Urban Chicken Enthusiasts, a chicken meetup.org group that meets once a month to talk about our flocks. We’re Chicken Tenders!
I always say that chickens are the gateway drug to bees. Almost immediately after the chickens were running around my backyard that fever subsided, only to be replaced with Bee Fever. Now Bee Fever is a different obsession in that you don’t get over it; it only gets more intense. I can’t say exactly what put the idea of bees in my bonnet other than that they were a natural next step and that I have always had an affinity for them. My first tattoo 15 years ago was of a bee and I’ve found out since that bees are my Celtic totem animal. In addition to the obvious need for bees on the planet and colony collapse disorder, these insects are fascinating. You either love them or you don’t. And if you love them, it can be all-consuming. You can’t stop at just one hive; you’ll quickly find yourself with three or five colonies, reading bee books and websites, talking about bees and going on bee rescues. Beekeeping is an especially flexible hobby in that you can spend very little money and be hands-off or you can be totally into the entomology, microbial levels, housel positions, and so on. Now I see bees everywhere because I’m attuned to them.
What challenges did you have when you first started composting? raising chickens? bees?
Waiting was the biggest challenge in composting. Tap tap tap tap tap. Now I have four bins going at once. I leave a kitchen scrap bucket with my egg customers and I change it out when I make their deliveries. There are so many things that can go in your compost bin or to feed the chickens. Very little goes to waste around here and I only put my trash can out for pick up about every six weeks. Being less wasteful is only a matter of sticking to a simple new routine, nothing more than that. When I get one routine down I add in another new little one, and so on. Now I also do vermicomposting, which is a worm bin.
The City of L.A. has a great gardening education program where residents can get composting and worm bins at a greatly reduced price.
Safety is the biggest concern with the chickens, because everybody loves to eat chicken. I read up on how to keep my chicken coop safe at night when predators are out and the girls are sleeping and off-guard. So far, so good, but I’ve been really lucky. Last year I had a mama hawk and her youngster using my backyard as training grounds for hunting missions. On occasion I would see them swoop in and down to check out my free range girls—but thankfully there were no casualties. Once a predator discovers an easy meal in your yard, she’ll wipe out your whole flock lickety-split. I panicked and was going to extreme measures to protect my hens until I realized that no matter what I did I could not change a bajillion years of predator/prey behavior.
Now I do the best I can and leave the rest for Nature to handle. If you’re going to have chickens you’re going to have death eventually, either from predation or disease. I haven’t experienced either yet, but I have gotten instruction on how to humanely and quickly dispose of an injured or severely ill bird.
My own stupidity is the most difficult thing to overcome with the bees. It’s been said that a beekeeper knows absolutely everything about bees during the first year and then less and less after that. Getting in there and making mistakes is crucial to learning about beekeeping and trying to unlearn our innate fear of being stung. I made so many mistakes during my first hive inspection (30 stings in all, 15 on my face) and I developed such a constant fear that I soon realized the only way to fix it was to go through it. So I bought a proper bee suit and offered my help to other beekeepers during their hive inspections or feral bee rescues. Getting over my fear means going through my fear, over and over again. When you have to stick your hand into a colony of 100,000 pissed off bees to grab their brood and honey stores, you find your zen.
Now I go on at least one bee adventure a week and I learn something new every time.
What have you learned from your experience?
Different sides of the same coin, I guess. I believe that we’re each in this life alone. Starkly alone. I do everything I can to fully take care of myself on those terms without one day turning into some weird toothless misanthropic animal-hoarding shut-in. In taking this urban farmer path, I’ve also met an incredible and incredibly diverse group of people. I never got into any of this as a way to connect; I already have lovely, perfect friends and family. Yet the people I’ve met in the past two to three years have changed my life. The garden/chicken/bee groups overlap a lot and we connect on a tribal level: we help each other out with all sorts of projects, learning excursions, equipment sharing, chores, you name it. Nobody talks about what they do for a living. We don’t hang out together to socialize or kill time, we do stuff. It’s a wonderful hodgepodge community of caring, kind, giving, helpful individuals in a city where there are supposed to be very few. I'm extremely fortunate that, starting out, I stumbled onto an organic, treatment-free beekeeping practice and club here in L.A., the Backwards Beekeepers. (http://beehuman.blogspot.com/ That has made all the difference. Our goal is to change the world, one bee at a time.
If you were going to start today, what would you do differently?
I’m still only at the beginning. Still so much out there to learn, which is really exciting. That’s such a hard question to answer. My wish is that I would have proceeded more methodically and thoughtfully, but that’s not my nature. I have 10 different projects that are each 10% done. If I’d stick to one at a time I’d at least have something completed. And my backyard wouldn’t be so messy.
Would you encourage others to do what you have? why?
I believe that people usually have time or they have money; rarely do people possess both simultaneously. So when I didn’t have money, this is how I spent my time and now it’s how I spend my life. This sort of thing isn’t for everybody. I think it’s like a calling, in a way. Either you want to go to the effort to do these things or you don’t. Maybe you like bowling a lot better, so do that. Whatever it is, don’t spend your time or your money without meaning.
For additional information, Vanishing Bees is a site that explains why bees are so important for the planet. The American Beekeeping Federation is a good resource and there are many bee keeping clubs and organizations - just search the internet for a club near you.
And if you're craving more chicken talk, Mill House Publishing in Boise, ID has just published a book entitled, "The Backyard Chicken Fight" ; it's a fun and entertaining, as well as full of practical information.
If you would like to reach out to our ace urban farmer, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org