Folks used to “homestead” — raise gardens and livestock, milk their own cows and gather eggs from their own hens — until it became easier and sometimes cheaper to purchase mass-produced foods from a store.
As people moved from the country into the city, many left their animals and their gardening skills behind. During the 1950s, cities across the nation began to outlaw animals within their boundaries, and the concept of sustainability seemed to disappear from the collective consciousness.
Now, some say they miss the homesteading lifestyle and want it back. Some say they should have the right to grow their own food. And some big cities are re-evaluating their stances and permitting food-producing animals in residential zones.
“When Wal-Mart, the largest retailer in the U.S., is selling little chicken coops and chicken feed, that shows (urban homesteading) is a long-lasting trend,” said Gretchen Anderson of Eagle, a leader in the urban homesteading movement, a former Magic Valley resident and author of “The Backyard Chicken Fight.” “It’s a paradigm shift back to where we were.”
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Idaho Statesman
Anderson, whose family owns Pomerelle Mountain Resort near Albion, blogs for Mother Earth News, the self-proclaimed “original guide to wiser living” that began as part of the 1960s counterculture movement. Her message is about taking on City Hall, fighting for the right to be more sustainable.
It all started in 2009 when she read a story in The New Yorker about the contentious fight between cities and residents over keeping animals. She signed on with an email alert system that notified her to news stories of such backyard squabbles.
While writing her book, Anderson heard from many who want to grow their own food. She’s now writing “Secrets of the Lazy Urban Gardener,” a guide to edible gardening.
Sustainability is more than an concept, Anderson said. It’s a lifestyle.
‘We went really big’
Anderson figures there are half a dozen reasons to raise your own food:
It all starts with sustainability, she says. It’s more affordable. Homegrown food tastes better. It reduces the food-mile — the distance from farm to table. It’s a property rights issue. And it’s about food security: what chemicals are in your produce or what hormones and antibiotics in your meat.
“It’s all of those things and more,” said Steve Bruns, citing the work ethic his three children are developing from raising sheep, chickens, honeybees and a garden.
Bruns, an earth science teacher at Jerome High School, got his work ethic early.
“I was mowing lawns at 6,” he said. “Later I moved hand lines.”
Convinced their three children were missing out on a lifestyle they both cherished, Bruns and his wife, April, moved the family four years ago from Twin Falls into a home just outside the city limits east of town.
In town, they grew tomatoes, peppers and strawberries in raised beds. They would have liked to raise a few chickens, but Twin Falls requires chicken owners to get written approval from several blocks’ worth of neighbors.
“The neighbors probably wouldn’t have been against the chickens,” April Bruns said. “But it was just too much.”
So in 2013, the Brunses found themselves with two acres to fill, and when they started their garden they made a mistake typical of beginning homesteaders.
“We went really big,” April Bruns said. “The weeds grew too fast, and we had to plow it under in the fall.”
A few years later, the family has a better grip on the workload and has settled comfortably into a routine of school, soccer, piano lessons and farm chores. Emily, 14, and Jack, 12, care for the sheep, while Brogan, 8, tends his own garden, cares for the chickens and gathers eggs. The whole family pulls weeds in the large garden and helps with fall canning.
The children grew spinach one year and sold enough to pay for church camp, April Bruns said.
Last year, the family canned 40 total quarts of their own tomatoes, grape juice, beets and peaches, froze 9 pounds of spinach, stored 30 pounds of spuds and 20 pounds of onions and bottled 4 gallons of honey.
Of all the chores, her husband clearly favors the honeybees.
“The kids say I geek out talking about bees,” he said with a satisfied smile.
‘They go on this
Steve Bruns isn’t alone in his love of honeybees.
On April 29, Doug Walton left Bee Day at Tubbs’ Berry Farms with a new colony of bees and a big grin.
“Bees make me happy,” said Walton, who harvests a little honey from his hives but leaves most for the bees.
Walton, 74, is one of many who want to give back to the earth instead of taking from it. It’s an old trend born out of necessity that is taking many new shapes today.
Walton, a retired building contractor, and his wife, Diana Whiting, live in a log home he built on five acres along the Big Wood River in Hailey.
He first visited the Wood River Valley in 1962 while on the University of Minnesota ski club. Eight years later, he bought a house in Ketchum. “But I always wanted riverfront property.”
While on a Memorial Day drive in 1977, Walton spied a real estate sign advertising riverfront lots for sale in Hailey.
“That was back when you didn’t need a trust fund to live here,” he said. “We saw this lot and signed the papers the next day.”
He and his wife continued to live in Ketchum while they built their home in Hailey. They also built a greenhouse and put in garden space, keeping the landscape as close as possible to nature’s intentions. They moved into their riverfront home in 1984.
The couple grows tomatoes, tomatillos and squash in raised beds. Their friends gather at their garden to harvest the produce, and Whiting cans the bounty.
“I keep honeybees to help the pollinator population,” Walton said.
But the fruit of the bees’ labor draws in some unwanted guests.
“Bears may come around anytime in the summer,” he said. “But then they go on this super feed in the fall before hibernation.”
At night, the bears travel a certain route along the river, hitting Walton’s honey on their way to dine in Hailey trash cans.
The Idaho Department of Fish and Game gave him rubber slugs to shoot at the bears. He has also been advised to put up an electric fence to keep bears away. Walton didn’t care for either measure.
One swat with a powerful paw can level a hive, so after losing a few Walton built his bees a fortress. He enclosed his colony in a jail of sorts, with 2-inch steel pipes that extend below ground into 800 pounds of concrete.
It’ll take a big bear, he said, to destroy this hive.
‘The land will provide’
Cassidy Robinson doesn’t waste water or time growing a lawn in his Twin Falls backyard. He grows food.
“I would rather grow functional landscape,” the 33-year-old said.
For the past 10 years, Robinson has worked as a credit specialist at a small, locally owned car dealership in Jerome. At the home he bought in 2010, his landscape is filled with raspberry bushes, strawberry plants, chamomile, potatoes, blackberry bushes, lettuce, onions, kale, tomatoes, squash, peppers, carrots and Brussels sprouts.
“This is my little sanctuary,” he said. “It gives me peace.”
His friends like it, too, and so do their children. He entices the kids to help with the chores without calling it work.
“I don’t have things for them to play with,” he said. “So I’ll tell them, ‘Hey, I bet you can’t break this stick up so we can burn it in my firepit.’”
That firepit is where it all started.
“There were all these concrete blocks laying around when I bought the place, so I gathered them up and made a firepit,” he said. The rest of the garden grew up around it.
Robinson’s raspberry bushes were starts from his neighbor’s patch. His garden arches are constructed of recycled boards or tree branches.
“Free is great,” he said. “And it’s better than something made in a factory.”
If something isn’t free, he tries to get more than one use from it.
“Instead of spending $60 on a cut tree at Christmas, I’ll buy a live tree and plant it in the spring,” he said. “I take every opportunity to plant something.”
Working on his edible backyard has opened his eyes to the benefits of urban homesteading.
“It’s definitely work, but it’s healthy work,” he said.
Robinson claims the food he grows tastes better than anything he can buy in a store.
“There’s a sense of satisfaction I get from growing food,” he said. “Maybe that’s why it tastes better.”
His brother, Trampas, and his mother, Glenda, help Robinson harvest and preserve the food he grows. He makes tea from his chamomile, stores potatoes and carrots through the winter, dehydrates veggies and cans jelly, jam and syrup.
“I run dehydrated vegetables through the blender, then use it like vegetable stock,” he said. “It’s great in soup or stew.”
His long-term goal is to work slowly toward self-sufficiency, then eventually move to a 13-acre farm he bought in 2014. His mother lives on the farm now and takes care of the animals that Robinson can’t keep in Twin Falls.
“I’ve always had a deep respect for the land,” he said. “If you care for and nurture it, the land will provide.”
‘An ordinance in place’
Twin Falls’ restrictions are too narrow for Robinson’s dreams, but some cities are loosening their codes to allow some farm animals.
Consider Chicago. Modern Farmer calls the Windy City “the only large urban area in the country that never explicitly outlawed the rearing of farm animals.” Chicago is now using farming to rejuvenate 11,000 abandoned lots in its South Side, part of its Green Healthy Neighborhoods initiative.
Seattle has allowed residents to keep goats, sheep, cows and horses since 2010, which city leaders declared the Year of Urban Agriculture. One animal is allowed per 10,000 square feet.
And Somerville, Mass., a suburb of Boston, was one of the first to embrace urban homesteading. Boston was soon to follow.
Austin, Texas, not only allows chickens, it even pays residents a $75 rebate to attend its chicken maintenance courses and keep chicken coops in their backyards. It’s part of the city’s goal to eliminate waste.
The city of nearly 1 million hopes to reduce waste that goes to a landfill by 90 percent, spokeswoman Memi Cardenas said. A recent city survey revealed that 45 percent of what was going into the landfill is compostable, while much of the rest is recyclable.
“Since urban farming has become so popular, the city thought residents would try composting through chickens — feed them scraps,” Cardenas said by telephone from her office in Austin.
The city announced the chicken course in April, and the classes filled in two hours. From there the city hopes the benefits of keeping chickens will put residents on the path to growing their own food.
Back in south-central Idaho, meanwhile, some residents are completely without the chicken option.
Burley’s no-chicken rule, Anderson said, isn’t likely to change soon.
Burley’s City Council debated the chicken issue in 2013 but in the end sided with a giant poultry incubation corporation.
Hy-Line North America, the largest producer of laying hens in the nation, operates a bio-secure facility west of town and opposes any proposal to allow chickens in the city.
The company contracts with local chicken operations to provide fertilized eggs to its incubation facility. After the chicks hatch, they are shipped from Burley to commercial egg operations to be raised as laying hens.
As a condition of their employment, Hy-Line’s workers are not allowed to keep poultry or fowl at home because of the avian diseases they could carry into the incubation plant.
“One of the reasons that we moved into this area is we knew the majority of our employees would be drawn from the city and it has an ordinance in place that prohibits owning poultry,” Mike Privett of Hy-Line said at a 2013 City Council meeting.
A disease outbreak in a barn full of breeding stock — that’s about 36,000 pullets and 4,000 roosters — would be devastating to the company.
‘The best fertilizer’
Marvin Christenson lives in a Mini-Cassia city that doesn’t allow any farm animals, but he raises something that Paul’s animal ordinances don’t address.
Christenson, 78, raises red wigglers — tiny red worms that consume organic waste — for their manure, or castings. He uses the nutrient-rich castings as a soil amendment.
He first purchased red wigglers and a worm bin from a grower in Coeur d’Alene. As the worms multiply, he moves them to new bins he made himself.
Christenson feeds his worms a blend of dairy feed and Purina Worm Chow, a commercially produced food. He then harvests the castings and makes “worm tea” from the moisture that drips from the bins.
“Worms make the best fertilizer there is,” he said.
Christenson won’t get any argument from Amy Gunderson, a 28-year-old Boise native who calls herself an urban “worm wrangler extraordinaire.”
Gunderson cares for thousands of red wigglers in the basement of Red Feather Lounge and Bittercreek Alehouse in downtown Boise. She sells the castings at Boise’s farmers market.
Urban Worm, as her operation is called, is an offshoot of a 12-year-old sustainability program implemented by restaurant owner Dave Krick. The worms eat vegetable scraps from his kitchens, and the bedding consists of menus that were printed on recycled paper.
The program has developed into an educational opportunity to spread the word about recycling, vermiculture and sustainability.
“We are very open and share all our information,” Gunderson said. She teaches composting classes and gives tours of Urban Worm to high school and college students.
“I adore the worms,” she said. “They are all named Steve.”