Over the course of almost a decade, Sheila Cassani and Matthew Yungert built a backyard farm in the middle of Oakland. They dug vegetable beds, built a chicken coop of reclaimed wood, installed a beehive and planted fruit trees. They shared vegetables from their lush garden with neighbors and dreamed of someday harvesting them alongside their newborn daughter. Their urban homestead was featured on a farm tour, in the media, even in a book.
Then their landlords gave them notice that their son was moving in. The family and their chickens, bees and vegetable garden all had to go.
For a period starting around 2009, excitement about urban farming was everywhere. The media was agog over backyard bees and chickens. Frothy stories about goat milking proliferated. People in the grips of the recession, newly awakened to acting globally and eating locally, eagerly pursued control of their food through urban farming.
The Bay Area was ground zero for urban homesteading fever. A dedicated cadre of serious urban homesteaders were hard at work here, bringing visibility to urban agriculture. Not only were they creating mind-blowing farms in their backyards, they successfully worked to change laws barring city folk from keeping goats, chickens or bees and to simplify regulations allowing the sale of vegetables grown in urban areas.
But it’s tough maintaining an urban homestead with livestock and a large garden in one of the most expensive areas of the country. And as economic pressures in the Bay Area have increased, many of the original advocates of urban agriculture have left the Bay Area, downsized or even stopped farming.
Some, like Ruby Blume, have escaped to a cooler climate. The founder of the Institute for Urban Homesteading and the moderator of the Bay Area Homesteader’s email listserv left the cauldron of the Bay Area real estate market for a 22-acre farm in Grants Pass, Ore., where she keeps sheep, cows, chickens, rabbits, pigeons and bees. “Many of the people I started out with in urban homesteading are moving out of the Bay Area,” she says. “People who really want that lifestyle are leaving to create it.”
Others, like Rachel Hoff and Tom Ferguson, have downsized. When the 2008 recession hit, their income from construction-industry jobs plummeted and they started growing produce and raising livestock on the land surrounding their Vallejo home. Their family gained national attention when they decided to forgo the grocery store for a year and live on what they were able to grow or buy from local farmers.
A single year turned into three, but the pressure of Bay Area economics and the need to work full-time jobs made a return to the shopping cart inevitable. The rabbits had to go, as did a number of the turkeys, chickens and goats. The vegetable garden was scaled back as the time to harvest and preserve dwindled, though they now run a business providing vegetable seedlings to other local gardeners.
Cassani and Yungert tend a vegetable garden at their new Oakland home, but they haven’t re-created their beloved urban homestead. Cassani, who wrote her undergraduate thesis on Bay Area home food production, says, “We want to do more, but we’re jaded and less motivated because we felt the burn of having to leave all that hard work behind.”
As Shirley Bassey sang, “It’s all just a little bit of history repeating.” According to Eli Zigas, who works in food and agriculture policy for the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association, we’ve been here before.
“Historically, every few decades there’s a wave of interest around growing food in cities: the victory gardens of the war effort (in World War II), the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s, and so on,” he says. “We saw a wave of projects get started in the past 10 years. I think some of that interest has waned, but out of each wave we get lasting institutions.”
Last decade’s surge of excitement around urban farming may be following the inevitable arc of history, but the seeds the movement sowed have taken root.
“Urban homestead seeking mature, responsible, delightful roommate,” read Jeannie McKenzie’s advertisement for a room in her Oakland hills home last fall. “We’re a good fit for someone who wants to try their hand at goat milking and cheese making.”
Like other longtime urban farmers who remain in the Bay Area, McKenzie is finding creative ways to maintain an urban homestead. She and her housemates each put in around two hours per week sharing chores and goat-milking duties.
Collective efforts like McKenzie’s are on the rise. “People are being really resilient and creative in maintaining the ability to grow food,” says Yolanda Burrell, who co-founded Oakland’s Pollinate Farm and Garden Supply. “Families have taken down their fences to make collaborative gardens, and there’s lots of chicken co-ops with people who take turns caring for the chickens.” Interest in permaculture, a farming methodology that incorporates long-term edible crops, is increasing, too, as people search for ways to grow food that fits busy Bay Area lifestyles.
Immediately post recession, the breathless media coverage of urban homesteading seemed to depict it as a completely new field dominated by white women, overshadowing the non-white communities who brought their own micro-farming traditions and cultural foodways to the Bay Area.
While there’s still work needed to remedy that imbalance, community and school-based urban farming efforts in communities of color are on the rise.
At Acta Non Verba, where children and families from East Oakland participate in farming activities, the program has a wait list and has added staff to accommodate growth. Other food justice organizations like Valley Verde in San Jose, Phat Beets Farm and City Slicker Farms in Oakland, and Planting Justice in Oakland and El Sobrante are all broadening their reach.
Community- and school-based urban farms are expanding their reach as well. On an early spring day at the University of San Francisco’s urban farm, located on the edge of its campus, oxalis flowers the color of a yellow highlighter nod among rows of fava beans and leafy greens as a cluster of backpack-toting students filters in for their class on community garden outreach. Since the university started offering a minor in urban agriculture in 2010, the school has barely been able to keep up with the demand for classes.
Novella Carpenter, whose bestselling 2009 book “Farm City” helped ignite the urban farming fever, teaches at the university. The pigs, rabbits and goats that she once kept at GhostTown Farm, her West Oakland household, are gone now, though she still keeps chickens. She’s in the process of leasing the farm to a group growing herbs from the African diaspora.
“The urban farming movement isn’t about ‘Hey, look what I’m doing by myself in my own backyard’ anymore,” Carpenter says as she waters baby tomato plants in the USF greenhouse. “It’s about what we’re all building together.”
Samantha Nobles-Block is an East Bay freelance writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Instagram: @radishandfig