Meet the farmer next door
Ruby Blume’s Oakland backyard is home to a menagerie of flora and fauna. Fruits, vegetables and flowers grow alongside quail and rabbits, all amid the hum emanating from her two beehives.
For many years, gardening was a side project for Blume, but when she found herself with a large new lot and a desire to take her career in another direction, it took on new life.
Gardening paved the way for beekeeping when someone donated a hive, and animals followed suit. Friends began to ask how they could emulate her garden oasis, so Blume, 49, decided to open a school.
In 2008, she founded the Institute of Urban Homesteading, which offers classes in everything from beekeeping to cheese making to herbal medicine taught by local experts.
Next Sunday, the institute will offer tours of five backyard farms of varying sizes to demonstrate various sides of urban sustainability and show people how they can use the land they have, said Blume, co-author of “Urban Homesteading: Heirloom Skills for Sustainable Living” (Skyhorse Publishing), written with Rachel Kaplan and released earlier this year.
Blume’s own backyard – Beegrrl Gardens – will be among the destinations on the tour, which will also stop at Esperanza Pallana’s Pluck and Feather Farm, Kitty Sharkey’s Havenscourt Homestead, Jeannie McKenzie’s PineHeaven Farm, and Chris Shein’s Permaculture Institute of the East Bay in Berkeley.
Urban agriculture is a trend that has picked up considerable momentum in recent years. Still, the wave isn’t without controversy as cities struggle to balance the needs of growers, animal-rights advocates and residents not keen on feathery neighbors.
Oakland is in transition from a zoning code that dated to 1965 to a modern set of regulations that will address the issues raised by urban agriculture’s newfound popularity, city planner Eric Angstadt said.
As of April 14, Oakland residents are permitted to sell produce grown on their property with conditional-use permits. A final policy, though, is still in the works and should include “an even more permissive set of regulations,” Angstadt said. And while there is little controversy over allowing residents to grow vegetables, the issue of raising animals is more contentious.
According to Blume, concerns over the treatment of animals are often misguided.
“Look at the number of people who take really poor care of their cats and dogs, and yet it’s completely legal to have six cats,” she said. “People who want to have goats or chickens are generally really informed as to what they need.”
Kitty Sharkey raises goats, rabbits, chickens and ducks on her backyard farm, Havenscourt Homestead. Although some people take issue with the fact that Sharkey eats animals she raises, it is a choice that Sharkey, 47, is comfortable with.
“It really bothers me when people bury their head in the sand about it and then go to the grocery store and buy a chicken,” she said. “They don’t want to know how that chicken was raised.”
While the issue of raising animals is not covered, San Francisco adopted a law in April that allows residents to raise and sell vegetables permit-free – a policy Angstadt said Oakland probably will emulate. The issue of livestock in Oakland will continue to be discussed at a series of public meetings over the next few months.
Urban agriculture is hardly an issue exclusive to Bay Area policymakers. Last year, New York City overturned a citywide ban on beekeeping in response to protests from undercover urban beekeepers.
The necessity of these recent legislative efforts reflects the energy the urban agriculture movement now possesses.
“Even just in the last year, I think there have been a lot more people who are venturing to convert their space more intensively to grow food and keep animals,” said Esperanza Pallana, 36, who runs Pluck and Feather Farm in Oakland.
According to Blume, many people are drawn to the movement as a corollary to Bay Area food culture.
“One of the primary things people want to get out of (farming) is a connection to their food source,” Pallana said, “and a sense of confidence that their food source is clean and as free as it can be from a corporate market that has created an unhealthy food system.”
Others get involved for environmental reasons.
“People feel very powerless when it comes to environmental concerns,” Blume said. “They can’t control what the president is doing, but they can control what’s going on in their own backyard.”
Urban agriculture, Blume said, is not so much a new discovery as a revival of a tradition that was lost in the move to the cities and the birth of what she calls “convenience capitalism.”
“Since the beginning, people have always been excited about talking about their bees and their cows and their squash,” Blume said, “but it’s something that we got really separated from.”
While gardening and animal husbandry were once skills that were passed down generation to generation, today groups like the Institute of Urban Homesteading, Biofuel Oasis and the Bay-Friendly Landscaping and Gardening Coalition are stepping in to fill the role.
While Blume would someday like to take the homesteading institute on the road to bring the group’s message to other cities, for now her priorities are local.
“We really want to be firmly established as an educational resource in the Bay Area,” she said. “A lot of my visions are less about growing the school as a business than protecting and enhancing our community resilience.”
Age 36; writer and consultant on urban farming; gardening for seven years.
Started with: A failed broccoli harvest in 2004, which inspired her to learn to grow food.
The farm: Pluck and Feather Farm, Oakland; 5,000 square feet.
What’s growing: Warm and hot season plants: squash, strawberries, tomatoes, fruit trees, legumes, brassicas, lettuce, raspberries, herbs and medicinals.
Livestock: Chickens, quail, rabbits; turkeys seasonally (summer-fall). Also bees.
On the clock: Daily maintenance of at least 15 minutes and more varying with the plant cycles.
Gardening philosophy: “I think that the soil is the foundation of all life.”
Age 40; landscaper and permaculture instructor; gardening for 20 years.
Started with: Peas and broccoli and tomatoes – easy food crops.
The farm: Permaculture Institute of the East Bay, Berkeley; 6,800 square feet.
What’s growing: Sixteen fruit trees, tomatoes, squash, beans, peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, collards, Swiss chard, red mustard, lettuce, herbs, blueberries, strawberries.
Livestock: Twenty-one hens, four ducks. Also bees.
On the clock: One to two hours a week.
Gardening philosophy: “Ecological gardening. I like to think of it as applied ecology, or good common sense. We missed out on sustainability in our culture, so we’re trying to connect people back to natural patterns.”
Age 50; music teacher; gardening for four years.
Started with: Bees.
The farm: PineHeaven Farm, Oakland; 1/2 acre.
What’s growing: Perennial vegetables (cape gooseberries, goji berries, yacon, sunchokes, artichokes, asparagus), fruit trees, vegetables (cucumbers, tomatoes, potatoes, lettuce, squash).
Livestock: Chickens, four goats. Also bees.
On the clock: 10 hours a week.
Gardening philosophy: “Permaculture design is what I base my practice on, and I try to have as many perennials as possible to help make it be as little work as possible.”
Age 49; headmistress of the Institute of Urban Homesteading; gardening as long as she can remember.
Started with: Bees.
The farm: Beegrrl Gardens, Oakland; 4,800 square feet.
What’s growing: 200-250 types of plants, including 18 fruit trees, berries, vegetable garden, herb garden and lots of flowers to attract pollinators.
Livestock: Rabbits and quail. Also bees.
On the clock: One to 12 hours a week, depending on the demands of the season, plus 30 minutes a day for the animals.
Gardening philosophy: “One: Feed the soil, not the plant. Two: When in doubt, just add compost. Three: Start small.”
Age 47; marketing print production manager at a financial institution; gardening for three years.
Started with: All the standard vegetables: tomatoes, chard, radishes, carrots, lettuce.
The farm: Havenscourt Homestead, East Oakland; 4,000 square feet.
What’s growing: Tomatillos, sugar snap peas, 13 types of tomatoes, four types of potatoes, assorted leafy vegetables, seven varieties of peppers, pole beans, bush beans, passion fruit, squash, melons, assorted berries, herb garden and several fruit trees.
Livestock: Four adult Nigerian dwarf goats and two kids, three Welsh harlequin ducks, eight adult laying hens, four meat hens, seven young meat hens, seven chicks, three adult breeding rabbits, seven baby rabbits, four quail. Also bees.
On the clock: 45 minutes to an hour a day.
Gardening philosophy: “Anyone can do it. I moved here three years ago, and I’d never grown anything before in my life. For me, it’s all about being sustainable, local, eco-friendly.”
Urban farm tour
The Institute of Urban Homesteading’s Urban Farm Tours take place at 1, 3 and 5 p.m. next Sunday in Oakland and Berkeley. Choose up to three farms to visit; each tour lasts up to 45 minutes. $5 per tour; $3 for children under 12. To register and receive maps and directions, contact the institute at www.iuhoakland.com/farmtour.html