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Suburban farming might not be as crazy as it sounds

July 08, 2008|By JEFF SEMLER

I have suggested from time to time that you grow at least a small portion of your own food. My reasons are many but the main ones are as follows:

· First, you gain an appreciation for what it is like to toil in the soil. While on a small scale you have the same battles as larger agrarians with weeds, droughts and insect pests. After you spend time in your garden, whether it is a window box or half an acre, food prices don't seem so high.

· Secondly, you get to eat fresh, nutritious food grown by your own hands. There is a caution here, if you have never eaten a local or home grown tomato you are in for shock and disappointment. The shock is how great it tastes. The disappointment is you will now disdain the tomato you purchase in January. That began its travel as a green orb ripening as it journeyed to your local supermarket, burning that liquid gold we know as diesel.

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With Maryland now covered with as much lawn as farmland, you can imagine what a charge I got out of a piece I viewed on the evening news about a couple farming their front yard in suburban Denver. These folks were serious. They started by tilling both their own front and back lawns and later expanding by taking on their neighbors' lawns. They now have a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) and many of their CSA members are in fact the neighbors whose lawns they are farming.

The Denver couple is not alone: I have also read articles in the Wall Street Journal and on ABC News Internet about such urban farmers. From the latter comes the story that seems even more unlikely since it comes from Southern California.

John Dovan of ABC News puts it this way, "Is it neat or is it slightly odd that in this Los Angeles community called Pasadena a suburban mix of nice restaurants and well-tended front lawns there is a home wedged in with the other houses where the entire front yard is edible?"

Yes, this is the same place that is famous for its Rose Parade, not its produce. You would not have been surprised to hear a story about Jules Dervaes if he were growing onions or kale in California's central valley, home to a substantial amount of the U.S. vegetable production. But, his farm is at 631 Cypress Ave. Another thing that sets him and his family apart is that the Dervaes Family Farm is on one-fifth of an acre.

On the Dervaes spread, kale, chives, peppers, guava, Swiss chard, even edible flowers can be found growing along the side of the house and into the backyard. To say the least, this family has been looked upon as odd on more than one occasion. However, Jules gets the last laugh as he along with the help of his children (now in their 20s) not only feed themselves, but support the family from the sale of the surplus.

They make their deliveries to their local restaurant customers in their bio-diesel powered vehicle. And yes they do make their own bio-diesel from waste vegetable oil.

I am sure by now you are waiting for me to make my point, since most of you do not want to live on the lunatic fringe where you probably believe the Dervaes family lives. Maybe it is not the lunatic fringe; surely you don't have to take it as far as the Dervaes.

You need to think of this concept of suburban farming in a different context. Wylie Harris writing for the Land Institute's Prairie Writers Circle says this, "Suburbia occupies vast swaths of former prime U.S. farmland. NASA's ecological forecasting research group reports that the people living there already water about 30 million acres of lawn, three times the land planted in irrigated corn."

Harris isn't saying that the 50 million farmers-to-be should grow all their own food, or that the entire country's food supply can come from former lawns, parks and golf courses.

Rather, he points out that growing as much of one's own food as possible can be a cornerstone of sound household finance. The necessary land and water are already in the same places as many of the people who now participate only in the demand side of agriculture.

Now before you trade your lawn mower in on a rototiller, take small steps. Grow a few tomatoes or herbs. As with any new endeavor, walk before you run.

CSA is short for Community Supported Agriculture. This model is where customers buy shares in the farm at the beginning of the season, which gives the grower money up front to pay for inputs such as seed and fertilizer and in return gets a bag (share) of produce every week through the growing season.

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