This is My Farm: From the City to the Country and Back Again

What I stand for is what I stand on. - Wendell Berry

Note: You've got to give the Dervaes' some credit - their asshattery has inspired a wholel lot of focus on urban sustainable agriculture, homesteading and making a good life in the city! Today is "Urban Homesteading Day" and in its honor, here are some meditations on the relationships we need between city homesteaders and farmers, country homesteaders and farmers and everyone in between.

Urbanization is the biggest trend in history. For the first time, more human beings live in cities than in the country. More than 50,000 farmers worldwide leave their land or are driven off of it every single day, most of them moving to cities, often to slum dwellings on the outskirts of growing megacities.

In each family that makes this journey, there will be a recognizable pattern that emerges from that shift in culture.. The first generation who moves from the farm to the city remains agricultural in mindset and practice. They will never fully assimilate into urban life, but will be the grandparents who embarass their children by picking edible plants from the side of the road and giving nutritious soups instead of vitamins.

Their children will want to fit into the urban life. They will disdain and reject the skills of their parents, in many cases, or at best view what their parents know as irrelevant. This second generation recognizes that what the first generation knew is now gone, and wants it as far out of the way as possible. The second generation will be taught how to pick and use those plants, but they will see such knowledge as old fashioned, embarassing or even "dirty."

Then comes the third generation removed from the land. They may have eaten grandmother's soup, or seen her pick the greens, but they will also have absorbed their parent's rejection of these things - at least at first. And only when they are grown will the grandchildren begin to see the value of what their grandparents knew, and to try and recreate it a little. If they are fortunate, they will have noticed their lack before the first generation is gone. If not, they will try and recreate what is lost as best they can, knowing that it is never the same as the first. They will start searching for the echoes of their agrarian past everywhere, and begin trying to remake the world from echoes, growing fainter every year.

This process, with variations, gets enacted everywhere that people move out of the country and into the cities. Sociologist Lynda Kim argues that this is pretty much universal in the transition from rural to urban cultures. But does it have to work this way? Is there a way for the shift to urban life to add a dimension, without taking away and devaluing what you knew?

We may not be able to reverse the tide of urbanization, in the nearer term. We simply don't have enough land to allow every single person on earth an agrarian life on many acres. But how do we keep the link between city and country? It is a link that is important to both parties - the exploitation of farmers who are underpaid and disregarded is only possible when you don't know any farmers, when you don't care what they have to do to make your dinner. And urbanites who have lost touch with natural rhythyms need to get in touch with them, to have access to the best food on a reasonable budget, to have the knowledge to meet their own needs.

America has an unusually vast gap between city and country. In many places in Africa, Asia and Russia, even urban people have a "country place." But this does not imply a recreational second home, as it does here, but a simple shack or other shelter designed to allow you to gather or grow food during the correct season. In much of southern Africa, middle class urban dwellers keep cattle, and go out the land to tend them during the weekends. In Russia, summerhouses allow people to collect mushrooms and wild plants and grow gardens.

In America, there are still vestiges of this culture. Hunting and fishing camps are now recreational to a large degre, but there are still millions of Americans who rely for deer and fish for primary sources of food. The community garden in the undeveloped areas of urban centers might be a metaphoric version of this - the reminder that food does not have to be grown only on land your house rests upon. But the overwhelming assumption is that the first step to agriculture is ownership.

That's wrong. It is wrong because many of the people who most need to grow food cannot afford to own land, and it is wrong because it isn't about any one piece of land. It is about all the land. Our society can only survive the coming crises if we make the nation, and the world bloom, if we use land productively, wisely and carefully. That means using the land under the feet of urban and suburban dwellers, as well as the land in the countryside. In most of the places people live, you simply cannot abandon the best farmland - now under rows of houses. While we will not grow our calorie crops there and no one has yet invented a combine that can go around the playset, miss the neighbor's cat and the clothesline....;-), what we can grow there is a lot of high value crops, the kind of thing that many poor people struggle to afford - fruits and berries, meats raised on scraps and food that would otherwise fill landfills, fresh greens and vegetables.

Understanding where we stand depends on having a populace that is connected to its own agriculture. That is, we cannot afford the status quo in which millions of city and suburb dwellers are left wholly out of the project of creating a sustainable agriculture. And since few people can afford to live in expensive cities and also own large quantities of rural land, we need to think of more creative ways than traditional ownership to draw those connections.

We cannot afford to wait two generations for people to reclaim the land each time they are uprooted and their lives are transformed. Changing the story in which Grandmother's knowledge is disdained until it is too late begins from the recognition that leaving the country is not the same as leaving the farm - the farm travels with us, it is reconstituted in new ways, large and small, as we go. It travels into window boxes and community gardens, it becomes part of the farms of friends and the markets we patronize. instead of saying "we are not like those people we came from, concerned with what and how we eat" we must begin to say "This is my farm. This small piece of earth, this kind neighbor's dirt, this farm outside my city with which I am in relationship...all of this is my farm."

How might we reconnect urban dwellers to their own agricultural traditions and begin to speak about our farms? CSAs have provided an excellent beginning, giving patrons a direct connection to "their" farm, but up until now, most CSAs are providing only in-season produce to their members. There is no reason why urban dwellers shouldn't also get their grains from CSGs, signing up in the spring to receive a fair share of wheat, beans, corn or rice. There is no reason why we shouldn't get our yarn, sweaters, mittens, gloves, tshirts, socks, tablecloths and blankets from CSFs, that produce fiber goods, or yarn that someone can bring to their neighborhood weaver or sock knitter to be made up. While this would be more expensive than buying sweatsocks from Walmart, it would also be putting our money where our principles are.

But it isn't just enough to have a relationship with farmers. There are some things you can only learn by touching and smelling and living. We need to bring urban dwellers out to the land, at least some of the time. Train and boat lines that run from cities to the countryside could take teenagers who need summer work out to farms. It wasn't so very long ago that many teenagers barned tobacco, baled hay or picked cherries every year. It could be that way again. In much of London, the hop harvest was the call for families to go out to the countryside for a working vacation. This reflects the fact that more hands are needed on farms at some times of the year than others - and that those times are often when city dwellers most long to get out of the hot, polluted cities.

While buying your own dacha in the countryside is a pricey proposition, there is no reason why urban dwellers might not invest in local farms. They might buy some sheep that will be theirs, paying to have them fed, tended and grazed, receiving lamb and wool at the end of the year. Horse people routinely stable horses this way - there is no reason we could not do so with food animals. The owner, of course, would have a relationship with the animal. Or perhaps urban dwellers might join together to buy a plot of land with a farmer. The farmer would farm the land, paying out the owners in produce and food in perpetuity. Thousands of young people would like to get on some land - there is no reason they should not. Such arrangements are new, and potentially come with difficulties, but normalizing them would go a long way to making them easier to navigate.

The movement to limit development has meant that towns and cities often now hold parcels of land that cannot be developed. There is no reason why such community resources should serve only the tax rolls - there is no reason why cattle cannot graze the local commons again, why farms rescued from the bulldozer should not be transformed into smaller truck farms, or farmed by tenants, or turned into community gardens. Many already are - the intervale in Burlington Vermont being a stunning example. We should wave it like a banner, this is not a vacant lot, this is not empty space, this is our farm!

Thousands of urban homesteaders are standing up this week and saying "this is my homestead, my farm in the city." We must encourage that. Moreover, we must encourage urban dwellers and country dwellers alike to work on the larger project of making sure that everyone can say "this is my farm." Whether they point to a community garden project, to an urban homestead on which they help out, to their own little plot of land in the city, to an exurban farm that brings food to their city market, to a place in the country where they go to help with harvest, to grow gardens or forage for wild foods, to a large farm that they return to year after year on the train....all of these relationships should be leading to the point that each of us has the right to a farm, a right to a relationship with the thing that they stand on...and for.


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Oooh, Sharon, thanks so much for writing this!!

I could say a lot about your introductory paragraphs. My father grew up on a farm during part of his childhood years. So I guess that I'm part of that second generation you mention. Dad didn't have the opportunity to inherit or move onto a farm, though (it's the result of a rather complicated family history involving a divorce, a death, and two remarriages on his mother's part), so after he married my mom, they moved into town and he took a job as an accountant for a local manufacturing plant. But just like you wrote, I don't think the farm ever left him. I can still remember going to his mother's and stepfather's farm during summers and holidays. We kids would play in the hayloft and fish in the pond. We hunted for arrowheads in the plowed fields. The farm was a mixed enterprise--raising both grain crops and animals--the kind of place people instinctively think of when they think of a farm. Even though Dad's stepfather used a tractor, Wendell Berry would have felt largely at home there, I think.

But unfortunately, we kids never really learned any farming skills and were never really taught any farm knowledge. And eventually my grandparents sold the farm and moved to town themselves, living partly off the proceeds of the farm sale for their retirement.

I don't know whether I consciously ever rejected rural life or not, because I can remember trying to grow vegetables at home (not very successfully) while growing up. I also raised pigeons--I was a little better at that. As soon as my wife and I bought our first house, I set out a mini-vineyard (in fact, I planted the vines before we even closed on the property), and we grew vegetables as well as grapes during the time we were there. Now I'm starting to do it again in our current location, only a bit more seriously and with a bit more sense of urgency than before.

My mom, for what it's worth, was born in the rural, impoverished, Appalachian region of southeast Ohio. Most had given up trying to farm the poor soils of Monroe County by the time she was born (these were also the Depression years, after all), so her father took up--you'll never guess--oil drilling. That eventually allowed them to leave the region. So although she was born into a rural family, she didn't grow up with strong agricultural roots.

My wife, on the other hand, comes from a thoroughly urbanized family that had no rural knowledge so far as she can remember; I don't even know how many generations we would have to go back to find a farmer somewhere. Her father grew up in urbanized the North Shore of metro Boston (Lynn, to be specific), and her mom was from Providence.

So I guess that means that it's up to us to try and keep what little agricultural knowledge we have alive. One of our sons has some interest, so perhaps he'll be the one to carry on, especially if TSHTF rather soon and we're forced to rely at least partly on what we grow for our own sustenance.

How about suburban guerilla gardening? There are lots of foreclosed/vacant houses out there. Go 'round back and look for 'ornamental' fruit trees. I once got a bucketful of avocados from a tree in my apt. complex. While you're back there, plant some seeds in the flower beds. Seeds are cheap. Even if you only harvest 10%, you're ahead. There are quite a few office building that grow ornamental cabbages in their landscaping. They taste the same as regular cabbage.

Great post.

By Bob Sonnenberg (not verified) on 21 Feb 2011 #permalink it!!

Ah, yes. I have a 45 inch production loom sitting in my living room that is specifically designed to produce large volumes of cloth in a short period of time; it is presently set up to produce the type of durable long wearing fabric jeans are made of. If only I could ditch my nursing job and weave full time. Not that nursing doesn't have its good points, it's just that the industrial production line method of nursing isn't really what I signed up for.

I can honestly say we're not urban homesteaders, we're rural suburban homesteaders. We're waaay out there, but in a subdivision all the same.

You ask "How might we reconnect urban dwellers to their own agricultural traditions and begin to speak about our farms?" One inspiring idea:

Our recent Peak Moment TV conversation "Menu for the Future - Bringing Farmers to the Table" (episode 189) is about some folks in Port Townsend WA who brought a food producer to join urbanites in each of their 25 6-week study groups. Links to the "Menu for the Future" guidebook of short readings, plus the video and audio are at

Sharon, I don't understand why you use the word "asshattery" when you write about the Dervaes family. The term means "one whose head is so far up their rear end it could be used as a hat". Is that what you really mean to say about these courageous people?

By Helen Highwater (not verified) on 21 Feb 2011 #permalink

Lovely post. City kids still go out to work on the farms every summer in some areas. I started working the cornfields at 12 in Nebraska. When I go home to visit my parents, I still see the buses pull up after the workday is over, dropping off the mud drenched teens with their water coolers.

@ Helen, I believe Sharon is referring to their recent behavior. Regardless of their achievements, they have shown themselves to be more than a little unaware of what is going on around them (pretty much summing up your definition of asshattery). It is an unfortunate hole that they have dug for themselves. The rest of us, however, will continue on with our urban homesteading projects, sans trademarks.

"But how do we keep the link between city and country?"

Answer: We don't. Ultimately, we can't.

The reality that fails to seep into the collective human consciousness is that farming, which I define as the growing of food by the few for the very many, is not a sustainable paradigm.

The farming paradigm requires the expenditure of large amounts of energy for the transport of food often over long distances.

Humans, just like all animals, must live adjacent to or among their food sources. Virtually all must be involved in the direct acquisition of food.

Farming has never worked for longer than a moment in the history of the earth. The best that humanity can hope for in this is the few growing food for maybe a few more - this, I call gardening.

The unwind from this paradigm will be marginally slower than the impending abrupt total collapse of industrialized human society. There will be pockets of power for awhile.

I do weary of the prattle/wishful thinking/self-rationalizations. For example, somebody once said that the starving hordes of NYC will never reach upstate to wreak their havoc.

But my lifeboat is no more seaworthy than the worst. There simply are no answers to the impending dieoff. That's why Kathy McMahon calls the situation a dilemma.


Enjoyed the post, lots of good stuff here.

I'd like to look a bit at your statement about not doing calorie farming in urban/suburban areas. This seems to me a bit too strong a statement, or maybe better to say that I think there is more potential than you offered to grow a significant portion of calorie crops in urban/suburban areas under at least some conditions.

I agree that you won't be using a combine or other big farm equipment in urban/suburban areas. But that doesn't preclude calorie farming, at least not if one's goal is to produce for one's own family and possibly a very small number of other people. It does mean it'll have to be done in a different way, with different crops, and with different people in mind than would be done on a rural farm.

I've grown substantial quantities of corn, dry beans, and potatoes in a few hundred square feet each: 5 pounds of black beans in 60 square feet (dry weight); 32 pounds of popcorn in 200 square feet; 117 pounds of potatoes in 200 square feet. I might be able to do better as I get to be a better gardener. Even at this level, my DH and I have eaten only our own potatoes from last July through now, and we should be able to eat them into next month. With this small square footage, hand planting and harvesting methods are sufficient. We shell our beans and corn by hand; we enjoy the work.

I've also tried growing wheat and got about 4 pounds out of 100 square feet if I recall correctly (I can't find my data sheet right now). Wheat isn't near as productive as corn in my conditions (St. Louis area), however. I harvested, threshed, and winnowed it by hand and ground it into flour with a grain mill. It can be done - but based on my experience, I wouldn't want to do this for more than a few hundred square feet of wheat in a year, and that wouldn't make enough wheat for us to keep eating most of our grains as wheat, as we do now.

Based on what I've been able to do so far, it seems to me that I could grow a significant portion, maybe 50% or more, of the grains, beans, and potatoes we (2 adults) need on roughly 1000-2000 square feet if we switch from a wheat-based to a corn-based diet. That isn't so big an area that it couldn't fit onto a 1/4 acre ( about 10,000 square feet) lot. It could even fit onto a 1/8 acre (5,000 square feet) lot if sited carefully. Lots around 1/8 acre are pretty common in the urban part of the greater St. Louis area, and many suburban lots are 1/4 acre or bigger. Granted, there wouldn't be anything left to sell at this small plot size. But it would provide a lot of calories, reducing the pressure on farmland outside the metro area to provide. Plus there would still be some room for veggies and fruits if the calorie crop area were kept at around 1000 square feet.

@ #8: Amen, and thank you Michael. Carry on gardening!

I've also tried growing wheat and got about 4 pounds out of 100 square feet if I recall correctly (I can't find my data sheet right now). Wheat isn't near as productive as corn in my conditions (St. Louis area), however. I harvested, threshed, and winnowed it by hand and ground it into flour with a grain mill. It can be done - but based on my experience, I wouldn't want to do this for more than a few hundred square feet of wheat in a year, and that wouldn't make enough wheat for us to keep eating most of our grains as wheat, as we do now.

link to Facebook by nadiaa
Terrific blog I never miss reading. Nuggets of wisdom even if you are not yet ready to plant a vegetable, grow an herb or check your chicken nests for a few eggs. Sharon Astyk is a lovely writer and I think you will be stabilized and comforted by her thoughts, no matter where you live or to what you aspire.

Great post...I'm working on neighbors and town to get going on use of empty lots. Also, just a word of encouragement for our friends in NZ who are having floods, earthquakes etc right in the middle of their growing and harvest season.

By Sue in Pac NW (not verified) on 23 Feb 2011 #permalink

Cities are going to have to choose what they emphasize in terms of crops - because you aren't going to be able produce all of what you eat there. At this point, I think it probably makes the most sense to emphasize high value, high nutrition crops and buy staples. It isn't the case that cities couldn't produce any of their staples - and they might have to at some point. Potatoes and corn are obviously the most productive options in most regions.

But no city is going to make a huge dent in their calorie crops for everyone - and in an era where grain crops are not in immediate short supply, it is probably much more productive for most people to produce animal products on scraps and high nutrition vegetables than staples.


I checked into what you meant by "asshattery" when referring to the Dervaes family. That is really bizarre that they are trademarking/copyrighting the term "Urban Homestead". Asshattery for sure. I wrote them and told them I think they they are going to lose all their hard-won credibility for something so silly.

By Helen Highwater (not verified) on 26 Feb 2011 #permalink

It's too bad I'm so late with this comment that no one may notice it, but in all the fooferaw about the trademark issue, I haven't seen anyone make note of the book "Urban Homesteading: Programs and Policies" by Mittie Olion Chandler, published in 1988. Yes, that's 1988, twenty-three long years ago.

The blurb (there are three copies available there)indicates that to some extent, urban homesteading was a government-supported program. How, then, can the term be trademarked? I think I have to agree with those who suggest there was a screw-up at the trademark office.

Here is an excerpt:
"As a means of reclaiming declining neighborhoods, urban homesteading enjoyed fleeting popularity since the early 1970s when, for a brief period, the notion of urban pioneers salvaging communities received exposure in the media. However, enthusiasm waned as the reality of operating the program tempered the idealism of the implementing agencies and prospective beneficiaries. Chandler examines urban homesteading programs from their beginnings at the local level in 1973, through federal enactment in 1974, and operation until May 1986."
The rest is at…


Sharon - usually I read more and comment more on your other blog, but since you hadn't mentioned anything over there about all this, I came looking over here.
This is totally hitting us out in Denver too. Our only indoor farmers market is run by a small business called Denver Urban Homesteading. I know the owner, and all his marketing/contacts were on his facebook page... Which was taken down due to all this. Heartbreaking.
Thanks for writing about it.