By Leita Walker
I grew up on 12 acres, the daughter of a large-animal veterinarian and part-time farmer. My parents raised Christmas trees, my sisters and I earned college money bottle-feeding calves, and today my dad has a small cattle lot and owns one of those hog buildings that most sustainable farmers find distasteful (he rents the building to some hog producers from down south). My parents’ acreage is surrounded by corn and soybean fields. It was the sort of community where kids learn to drive only shortly after learning to ride a bike–so they can help get the harvest to the elevator, of course.
My parents instilled in me a love of the outdoors, of self-sufficiency, of making something beautiful out of dirt and sunshine. But there are many differences between their farm (and the farms of their neighbors) and my little patch of land, which is decidedly un-farm-like.
The difference that has been most front-of-mind of late? Neighbors.
My parents’ closest neighbor is 1/4 mile away. Ours is more like 12 feet. This is a material difference when it comes to the dirty business of food production.
Here are four lessons I’ve learned from raising food in close proximity to neighbors:
First, invest heavily in wood chips. We have six chickens. Our compost can really stink in the spring, and the wood chips help stifle the smell.
My dad has a pile of composting cow manure so big and so steamy that he once used a skid loader to put an entire dead cow inside it. A few weeks later, the carcass was gone. I’m sure this violates some sort of organic farming mandate. It would violate a lot more than that on Upton Ave. in the heart of southwest Minneapolis.
Our neighbors have been extremely tolerant of our adventures in backyard agriculture. But we did get our first poop-related complaint this spring. Funny story, actually. The neighbor initially thought the smell was coming from a dead squirrel who had electrocuted itself during the winter and was hanging by its tail from a powerline and beginning to thaw. When Xcel Energy came to cut down that carcass (this post, inadvertently, involves lots of references to carcasses—sorry about that), the real culprit was discovered. It was us. We bought all our neighbors $10 gift cards to the coffee shop and have been trying to shower them with eggs. The smell has gone away, and I think they’ve almost forgiven us.
Second, get an expert involved. We also recently acquired 7,500 bees (which hopefully will multiply to 60,000 by the end of summer). As with chickens, we could not get bees without getting sign off from our neighbors. Let me tell you, people like the idea of chickens but typically do not like the idea of bees. Enter our neighbor, Pat, who has been keeping bees for years and was able to assuage every worry. We’re thinking that the honey we distribute around the block come Christmas may be called “Pat’s Persuasion” honey.
Third, your stuff is gonna get trampled. Get over it. There are about 10 kids on our block; most are under age 10. Two of them — ages almost 5 and 2 — are ours. I want our house to be a place where they congregate, and I don’t want them shut indoors, playing video games. My heart breaks a little bit every time they crush one of my tender seedlings. But that’s the cost of being neighborly, and it’s totally worth it. Plus I keep the local greenhouse in business buying both seeds and replacement seedlings.
And that brings me to my fourth point: between buying gift cards and replacement seedlings, you city dwellers are probably going to lose money. That’s why it’s called “hobby farming.” Because it’s a hobby, and hobbies are expensive. We basically are going to have to get a million eggs to justify the cost of our homemade coop. And if you count the heat pads and grow lights I invested in this spring, each tomato I get is probably going to cost me at least $1. So don’t fool yourself into thinking your backyard garden/livestock is economical. It might not even be environmental. But it is really fun. It’s tasty. Maybe it’s healthier.
And along the way maybe you’ll teach your kids and neighbors something about where their food comes from. If you don’t alienate them first with that big pile of steaming you-know-what.