In Harriet Fasenfest's Northeast Portland backyard, she's growing strawberries, potatoes, beans, and rhubarb, to name a few crops. The day I came to visit, her carrot seedlings had just emerged. I wanted to see how she manages to grow so much food, and whether it's possible to feed an entire family from an urban backyard. Fasenfest stretches her harvest throughout the year, by canning or freezing much of it—skills she teaches other people, along with her business partner Marge Braker, at Preserve (portlandpreserve.com). She also makes yogurt, kefir, bread, and other staples. To me, this all looks like a fantastic way to spend your time. But is it a good use of a family's budget?
Fasenfest reframes the conversation, talking about "a backyard economy and what it means." For her, the concept of whether or not growing her family's food "pencils out" is meaningless—she avoids "doing the pencil work," and points out that such language is tied to the current economic structure—a system that "continues to objectify the human world." She's working in an alternative economy, one where cash price isn't a good measure of success. What's she's doing is worth it, she says, "in all kinds of ways, but I can't give you the numbers."
For different numbers, Fasenfest points me toward the Dervaes, a family of four who coaxed 6,000 pounds of food out of their urban lot in Pasadena, California, last year (and write about it at urbanhomestead.org/journal). That's enough to supply more than half of their food (they buy things like wheat, to make bread), plus sell $25,000 worth to local restaurants. And they're aiming for 10,000 pounds this year.
I'm not quite there.
In my garden—which I just started two months ago—the peas are just starting to climb a trellis. The lettuce is almost big enough to start clipping for salad. And I think I'll be pulling up the radishes in a few days. When I'm not in the garden, I'm plotting which piece of lawn to eliminate next; I hope to replace most of it with edible plants.
And like last year, I'm counting the days until berries, pears, peaches, and apples are ready to be picked at Sauvie Island and Hood River farms. Until they are, I'm clearing out the basement freezer, and eating the last of the fruit I stored last year.
This year, between the garden, and a better sense of where to locate low-cost you-pick produce, I'm hoping to store enough food to last us until next spring. I might even find a farm where I can buy beef, pork, or chicken directly, to stuff in my freezer and eat all year. And if I could just make it a habit—it doesn't take much effort, but timing is key—I know I can make a great loaf of bread for less than a dollar. If I can put all of these pieces together, I tell myself, I might be able to avoid the grocery store and its volatile prices all together.
This isn't a new idea. During both World Wars, people were encouraged to start gardens and preserve their own food—not necessarily to save money, but to relieve pressure on the country's food supply.
And it's not all that much trouble, either.
"All it takes is tapping into the local resources, and being able to wean yourself off processed foods," says Monique Dupre, a woman in Vancouver, WA, who feeds her family with food she grows, buys directly from farmers, or in bulk from a natural foods distributor. She also teaches classes about how she's been able to slash her family's food budget that way (they're booked up well in advance, but you can find out more at sustainablebudget.com). "It's a lot easier than people think, and we live in the most incredible area for it. We can garden year round."
I wouldn't call my spread an urban homestead—yet. Growing 6,000 pounds of food is a full-time job for people like the Dervaes. Fasenfest, too, talks about the need "to stop working for others," and instead devote your time to being a home steward, if you're serious about self-sustenance.
Dupre takes the opposite tact, pointing out that she's a working mom who's worked these principles into her life. "It is doable if you're working full time, if you've got kids. It is doable to have that backyard garden and just start small. Then, like I do, every year it gets bigger, but it stays nice and balanced," she says. She suggests that people keep two things in mind: "It's so much easier than you think, and don't go overboard."
The Portland area is also rich with resources. There's lots of community supported agriculture (or CSAs), for those who don't have time or space to garden. For as little as $20 a week, you can get a box full of local produce—enough to feed a family of four, according to the farmers (find them at localharvest.org). Edible Portland (edibleportland.com) documents the local and sustainable food movement, and points you toward delicious sources. And the orchards of Sauvie Island are practically in Portland's backyard.
Then there are groups devoted to raising chickens for eggs. Growing Gardens (growing-gardens.org) hosts an annual Tour de Coops, where the curious get to peek at other people's urban backyard chicken coops—this year's tour is July 26. I have so far been unable to convince my other half that we should host a few chickens of our own—even though prices at the grocery store shot up 29 percent last year, thanks in part to higher corn prices, and they're $6 a dozen at the PSU Farmers Market—but I might have found a different solution: The Eastside Egg Cooperative. Zenger Farm and the 47th Avenue Farm CSA have paired up to raise 50 hens. Volunteers who spend an hour a week helping with the chickens will walk with some of "the best eggs ever." Perfect.
So, why go to all this trouble? For starters, "urban homesteading"—or striving for self-sufficiency in the city—is fun: I like checking on the garden every day, to see what's sprouting, and heading out to a farm is a great weekend trip. I'm also hoping to make a dent in our weekly food bill, while still eating locally grown (and pesticide-free) food. And, frankly, when everything from fuel and housing prices are uncertain, and there are food shortages popping up—eco-anxiety has me wondering how much worse it will get—it's comforting to strive for self-sustenance. There may be a rice shortage in Asia, but there will be pounds and pounds of tomatoes in my backyard later this summer.