New Times / Cover Story
The following articles were printed from New Times [newtimesslo.com] - Volume 28, Issue 48
Urban farmers bypass corporate agriculture and take control of their food system
BY GLEN STARKEY
Everyone eats, but more and more people are beginning to question where their food comes from and how it’s produced. “Natural,” “gluten free,” “organic,” “rbST free,” “free range”—what do we make of all these labels? Are they marketing ploys? Do we really know what’s in our food?
A rising trend in food production is actually a throwback to what was commonplace decades ago: growing and raising one’s own food. Want to know what kind of pesticides and fertilizers are on your fruits and vegetables? Grow them yourself! Want to know your eggs came from happy, well-treated chickens? Raise your own chickens!
It’s a sunny June day when I visit George Griffin and Liz Rhoads Cordoba, who have devoted about half of their spacious backyard to food production. When I walk in their front door, I smell beets. George has cooked them for the beet salad he’s making for their dinner group, and he’s also prepared butternut squash for the meal—all from his garden, where they grow a wide variety of vegetables and fruits, as well as maintain a four-chicken coop to produce eggs.
For the record, Liz clarifies, George is the farmer. She’s just the beneficiary. When George first moved to San Luis in 1991, he lived on Lincoln Street.
“I was around the corner from a community garden, and since my house was in a shady spot along the creek, I rented a plot,” he explains. “My dad gardened, and my dad was a hunter, so I grew up hunting and fishing in a small town in northern California.”
“Marysville,” Liz pipes in.
“We’d have sleepovers, and my friends and I would get up with the light and go fishing,” George recalls, who now limits his hunting to chanterelle mushrooms.
“I have a few spots,” he confides.
“He’d tell you, but he’d have to kill you,” Liz jokes.
Looking around the huge expanse of George’s garden and all the work it clearly takes to produce this much healthy food, the obvious question is why? Why do it? We have the most advanced food system on the planet, and our food is cheap. The average food cost for Americans is less than 7 percent of their income. A Pakistani can expect to spend more than 45 percent of his or her income on food. Mexicans spend almost 25 percent. Canadians spend nearly 10 percent, and most European nations are also in the low- to mid-double digits.
“I don’t know,” George ponders. “I guess it’s more about knowing what’s in your food. We use no pesticides, and our fertilizer is horse manure. And it’s fun! I just enjoy it. Liz says I sort of zone out in the garden.”
“Bliss out,” Liz corrects. “I say he’s blissing out.”
“And if you’re going to have a hobby,” George says gesturing out to his verdant backyard … he doesn’t finish his sentence. He doesn’t have to. The results are obvious.
George doesn’t go in for pesticides or chemical fertilizers either. His garden is truly organic … it’s fertilized solely by horse manure.
“We go to a couple different horse stables, and I take the trailer and they fill it up with their skip loader for free,” George says.
“And it’s steaming,” marvels Liz. “That’s shit steam! It’s fun to watch. Hot shit!”
“The horse manure is one of the most important things for us because we have clay soil and the manure is a necessity for working with it,” George adds.
OK, so the fertilizer is free, but when you add in the seeds or starts, the water, the time, does it still make economic sense?
“I don’t know,” George admits. “I’ve never quantified it. I mean, right now I have between $60 and $70 worth of beats out there, and I grew them from a $2 seed pack.”
Their household water bill in the growing season is about $150 a month, and they do have some lawn they water as well. But it’s not so much about cost as it is taste, and anyone who’s tasted the difference between a store-bought tomato and, say an heirloom tomato grown in a backyard knows there’s a big difference. George has a lot of tomatoes—two long rows of them, staked and growing about 6 feet tall.
“Liz makes this puttanesca with tomatoes, olives, and capers, and it’s completely different from puttanesca made from store-bought tomatoes,” George claims.
“And it’s fun to experiment,” Liz chimes in, “like making tomato bisque.”
George and Liz took a very practical approach to laying out their backyard garden.
“When we first moved in, we first planted the things we knew would be there forever—the fruit trees and grapevines,” George says. They also put sod over the entire backyard because they were going to be married on it. After their backyard wedding, they left some of the grass, but gave the rest they didn’t want to friends to patch their lawns, and then they started their garden. Does George have some advice for the beginning gardener?
“Yes, dig a hole and plant a plant in it. Start with something you like,” George deadpans.
He installed an inexpensive drip irrigation system, plants much of his garden in raised rows, and stakes tomatoes, squash, and cucumbers to maximize space.
“I like the raised rows because the roots zone is 2 or more feet deep,” George says.
Have they ever considered turning their front yard into a garden?
“George grew a cabbage in the front yard of our last house, but I wouldn’t eat it,” Liz says. “Dogs peed on it. That’s the problem with front yard gardens.”
There are a few things George won’t grow due to space or lack of luck.
“I don’t grow onions because they’re inexpensive and they take up too much space. Corn’s the same. Right now I’ve been pulling up a lot of corn shoots that I assume are coming from the horse droppings from their feed. I just pull them up and give them to the chickens.”
He’s also had a hard time with eggplant, cauliflower, and broccoli.
“Those are more cooler season plants, and I don’t grow much in the winter.”
He does have a lot of huge sunflowers, mainly because he likes the way they look. He waits until they’re completely dry and again uses them as chicken food. In fact, one of the best things about George and Liz’s garden is the use of flowers throughout. Everywhere you look, they’ve managed to sneak in gorgeous blooms, and with the white butterflies buzzing around, it’s beautiful and inviting, even though those white butterflies attach eggs on the undersides of George’s leafy greens, and they eventually develop into caterpillars that eat the greens. Picking them off is all part of the organic farming process, and again, chicken feed!
And what about those chickens? In San Luis Obispo, a residence can have chickens but no rooster, and there are restrictions on the number of hens (five or fewer) and how far the coop has to be from the residence (50 feet). The coop must be 75 feet from the residence if you have more than five hens (but no more than 25 total except by permit). They can’t run wild in the streets, and the coop can’t be smelly—which is complaint driven.
George got into chickens when he saw a friend’s coop and saw how easy it was to maintain them.
“You give them scraps and they give you eggs,” says George, who sometimes amends their food supply with chicken feed.
According to Liz, the flavor of their eggs is what makes the difference: “When I get a regular egg, it just looks colorless and has less taste.”
Their four chickens all have names and are color-coded. Nutmeg is brown, Paprika is red, Ginger is yellow, and Pepper is black and white.
“She’s what’s called a Barred Rock,” George says of Pepper. “They’re all semi-heritage birds.”
They average about three eggs a day in summer and zero to one in winter. To make use of all the eggs, “we end up cooking things that are egg heavy,” Liz says.
“Plus, people love getting a dozen eggs as a gift,” adds George, who mentions another reason he likes raising chickens and getting fresh eggs. “Commercial chicken operations use chemicals to clean the eggs. We just clean them in water, dry them well, and put them in the fridge.”
Are the chickens noisy?
“They’re happy noisy,” George says. “They’ll announce if one has laid an egg or is about to lay an egg.”
“At night they’re totally silent,” Liz adds. “When we came back from Live Oak [the music festival—they’re both volunteers] we had 16 eggs waiting for us.”
And what happens when one stops laying, is injured, or just dies?
“If it just died, I wouldn’t eat it because I don’t know what killed it, but if it stops laying or is injured, we kill it,” says George, whose former experiences of hunting or fishing for his own food and then cleaning and eating it no doubt helps.
“Chickens want what’s safe, so every night they climb right into their roost, and our coop is completely enclosed,” George says. “The chicken wire goes right underground.”
Twice now George had to kill one of his chickens, scald it, pluck it, and stew it. One had a broken leg, courtesy of a neighbor dog that got in through a hole in the fence; a possum had traumatized the other. George puts the chickens in a cone shaped sack with a hole for the head to come out, hangs it upside down, and cuts its throat until it bleeds out. It’s not for the faint of heart.
A laying chicken isn’t the same as a meat chicken, and usually by the time they stop laying, they’re pretty old and tough, hence the need for stewing.
“It’s going to die anyway, so why not eat it?” Liz asks.
So they’re not pets, eh?
“No, they’re not pets, though one I really like,” George admits.
“That depends on who you talk to,” Liz says. “Our friend Jeff Bague had a sick one and put it in a diaper and brought it into the house to keep an eye on it.”
Jeff and Cathy Bague’s backyard is dominated by a lagoon-like swimming pool and spa surrounded by boulders. But tucked into one corner is a very productive vegetable garden, and in the other back corner is what can best be described as a chicken palace! They have a total of six chickens—Thelma and Louise, Ethel and Lucy, and Betty and Wilma.
“We got the chickens a little over a year ago,” says Jeff, an architect who agreed to show me around on his lunch break. “Cathy and I have wanted them for years, and the opportunity finally arose … meaning I finally built the coop.”
And what a coop it is!
“It’s a nice coop,” he admits humbly. “We wanted something that would look good in our backyard—not just a box with a hole in it. Cathy and I both like traditional architecture, so we went with an agrarian design. The impetus was really Cathy—she really wanted chickens.”
Jeff studied chicken coop design online, looked into chicken behavior, how much space they need, and used all the info to work in practical design ideas. For instance, he purposely made their roost height low.
“Chickens lay sitting down, but they poop standing up, so if they can’t stand up, they’re less likely to poop on their eggs,” Jeff says. Like George and Liz’s chickens, Jeff confirms that they’re silent at night.
“If you open the coop and reach in and pick one up, it wouldn’t even squawk,” Jeff says. “It’s almost like they go into a coma at night, which is why if they were in a tree in the wild and a cat came along at night, they’d be dead. During the day, they may announce for 30 seconds or a minute that they laid, or they may give out warning squawk if they see a house cat or a hawk, and we have a lot of hawks around us, but they rarely make noise.”
The Bagues get three to five eggs in the summer and two to three in the winter from their six “girls,” as they call them. What do they do with so many eggs?
“We eat ’em and sell some,” Jeff says. “The chickens are fed an all-organic diet. They get probiotics to keep them healthy. The whole salmonella scare came about because commercial egg producers were loading them up with antibiotics. They get fresh greens from the garden every day, and they’re free range. They’re out for two hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon or more.”
Chickens can fly a bit, which is why some urban farmers clip their wings, but Jeff hasn’t had a problem, and his fences aren’t especially high.
“I think it’s that they don’t realize they could fly over,” Jeff says. But let’s admit it, with a life like this, why leave? The coop is even insulated, and get this: Jeff has a motion sensor chicken camera inside, so he can see who’s laying.
“It’s important to know, because sometimes an egg becomes lodged, and that can kill a chicken pretty quickly,” Jeff says.
And when they stop laying, will Jeff and Cathy eat them?
“Oh God, no,” Jeff exclaims. “We’ll just keep them as pets. No one could have told me how much I’d enjoy them as pets. They’re so funny and goofy; it’s like having permanent kittens.”
OK, so how about this diapered chicken story?
“What?” asks Cathy, who has since come home for lunch herself. The story’s not true, sadly.
“We cordoned off a corner of our kitchen in a mini coop, sort of a medical recovery center,” Jeff says, “just to keep an eye on one that had gotten sick, but there was no diaper.”
It turns out, it was Jeff’s fault it fell ill.
“I was pulling weeds from the garden and throwing them in the coop, and it turns out long weeds are bad for chickens. They can get caught in their crop and they can’t process them,” Jeff says.
So what prompted Jeff and Cathy to jump into the urban farmer movement?
“The main reason we do it is it’s important for me to know where our eggs are coming from,” Jeff says. “We’ve seen the videos online of commercial chicken operations, and if you have any love for animals … well, it’s just atrocious! And then the chemicals, hormones, and antibiotics.
“The egg yokes are bright yellow, almost orange, and you can really taste the difference,” Jeff continues. “Store-bought eggs are usually pretty bland. We have a Meyer lemon tree where the girls like to forage, and I swear sometimes the eggs even have a hint of citrus taste.”
Though their garden plot is small compared to George and Liz’s, it still produces food that can last year round.
“We get a ton of tomatoes, and we de-seed, de-skin, and freeze them and use them for spaghetti sauce all year long,” Jeff says. “We also get a ton of lettuce. I eat broccoli pretty much every day, lots of carrots and beats. We do winter crops, lettuce all year long, lots of vertical gardening with stakes.”
Jeff says the Internet has been incredibly helpful, and recommends dare2dreamfarms.com for buying your chickens.
“You can look at the various breeds and how many eggs they lay, how friendly they are,” Jeff says. “You can buy chicks or poulets, and they deliver from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Chicks can be really hard to raise. You have to brood them under a heat lamp with a very specific temperature, and the temperature changes every day. A poulet is 12- to 16-weeks-old, can take care of itself, and you can get to know them as young birds and get them hand friendly. If you buy a chick and it grows into a rooster, you have to get rid of it.
“I had a health scare, a heart problem awhile ago, and since then we eat really healthy,” Jeff confides. “You almost can’t get away from GMOs or pesticides. Whenever I see the word ‘natural’ on a package, I can pretty much guarantee that means it contains GMOs. We know exactly what goes into our girls and into our garden.”
And what goes into themselves. More and more people are beginning to understand that food is medicine, and nobody knows that better than urban farmers.
Glen Starkey is a New Times staff writer. Contact him at email@example.com.