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May 19, 2010

Farming is sexy (and coming to a backyard near you)

Louisville’s 15Thousand Farmers initiative promotes the art of growing your own food

Early one Saturday morning in February, a new gardening initiative held its introductory meeting. I wanted desperately not to go. But, my wife coaxed me to the Clifton Unitarian Church where, to our surprise, foot traffic was already backing up the basement stairs. Feeling in no particular need of compost tips with old snow still on the ground, the lure of hot coffee is what got me through the door. As I wormed my way to the urn, would-be gardeners continued to pack themselves in, even after the meeting began. Judging from the quick depletion of informational handouts (there were 75), it seems the organizers also were expecting a smaller crowd. There were an estimated 250 attendees, but with people struggling to listen from the staircase and vestibule, several latecomers were not counted, as they could not even get in the door.

“What is this again?” I whispered to the wife as we were pushed closer together.

And so began “15Thousand Farmers,” a group intent on fostering 15,000 organic easy farms in Louisville backyards over the next five years. It’s a lofty number, but judging from the turnout that Saturday, the concept appears to be a fertile one. Impressive as the attendance was, the crowd’s energy is what made the event feel like it was about more than growing a better tomato.

Many have come to think of eating as a political act, and February’s launch did have the feel of a rally, like when one speaker insisted that a video camera be stopped before she registered her scrutiny of genetically engineered seeds. The demand lent intrigue to an already politicized room, where ideas on how to run this new organization came in faster than could be recorded.

Points were raised about reaching out to the West End, connecting with school programs, and forging an online community that would naturally evolve into a real one. One guy asked about the legality of raising chickens within city limits and another, goats. An advocate of “zoo poo” excitedly informed us that each April, the Louisville Zoo pedals rhino, giraffe and elephant manure at dirt-cheap prices.

Where I grew up, the closest we came to gardening was occasionally hosing down the sidewalk. Our New York harvests usually involved overpriced arugula from Dean & Deluca or, on a good day, NASA-engineered basil from something called an Aero-Garden. I’m more foodie than food activist, but I was moved that Saturday by what struck me as a groundswell. Wanting to learn more about what was feeding this renewed interest in working the land, I arranged to meet with the founders of 15Thousand Farmers.

Everybody Eats

Valerie Kausen came to town as a healer, and two years ago, took Gary Heine on as a client. Asked if the treatment worked, Heine clasps his hands together and proclaims, “Praise Jesus!” With a roll of laughter, Kausen says I should ask him that again in a month. Not long after meeting one another, the tandem discovered a shared interest in advancing sustainability. Heine, his friend Steve Vice, and business partner Mike Mays had already developed “Breaking New Grounds,” a successful composting program at Heine Brothers’ Coffee. Now, along with Kausen, the team was eager to build something new with the hope of engaging more of the community.

“But how do you get everybody involved?” Heine asks. “You’re not going to get solar power on every roof. That’s not going to work. So, what do you do? Well, everybody eats. And, most people have a backyard, or a front yard, or a deck, or know someone with a yard.”

15Thousand Farmers was designed to be what Kausen calls a self-organizing organism. There’s no clear hierarchy, and much of the experience is dictated by the user. The group offers something to gardeners of all experience levels, with special focus on those who are breaking ground for the first time. The founders themselves claim not to be gardening experts and hope to develop a collective green thumb along with everybody else.

“We really did make this in the light of our own ineptitude,” says Kausen. “But we wanted people to feel like they could make the jump from not knowing, to knowing how to start growing their own food.”

I’ve heard 15Thousand Farmers’ 4-by-4 easy farms described as “antiseptic,” and personally, I can see how not everyone would want to garden this way. I actually cherish those trial-and-error mishaps that occurred when we built our first garden, almost as much as I enjoy a good harvest. My wife and I still laugh about the warm afternoon we spent collecting century-old horse manure on her family farm, only to realize we couldn’t lift the 50-gallon drum into the back of our station wagon. With some sweat and a little brainpower, we found a solution to this and most of the minor frustrations that make gardening feel like a succession of triumphs.

Watching the beginners’ workshops, though, it is impressive what’s being offered here. Short of hiring a gardener to do the work for you, 15Thousand Farmers makes getting started about as easy as it can be.

Victory Garden 2.0

The early success of 15Thousand Farmers is rooted in something that long precedes it. Even before First Lady Michelle Obama broke ground on the White House victory garden, seed sales had been climbing across the country, showing 20 to 25 percent growth in some places. Steve Paradis offered to shed some light on this uptick and urban agriculture in general. As owner of Fresh Start Growers’ Supply — an East Jefferson Street store with an adherence to organic and sustainable practices — Paradis is well immersed in the local fruit and vegetable scene. He serves both commercial and “square foot farmers,” and was in attendance that Saturday in February.

Asked for his take on groups like 15Thousand Farmers, Paradis says, “After 5,000 years of agriculture, farming is finally sexy!”

He goes on to say that although some career farmers bristle when they hear the term applied to backyard gardeners, 15Thousand Farmers is getting new hands in the soil and will heighten awareness of food independence. Paradis does touch on an important distinction, though: It should be noted that raised bed gardeners are not farmers. We may put a lot of energy into what we do, but a tomato blight blowing through town this summer is not going to ruin any of us. Even Paradis, who has spent his life around farms, considers himself a land steward. It’s a valid objection, and it would seem that some (myself included) have bought into an idea of playing farmer.

Which is OK in Paradis’ estimation, because groups like 15Thousand Farmers clearly serve a greater good.

So, how did farming become sexy? There are a host of factors, but Paradis points to 2006’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” He calls this Michael Pollan book a “cloudburst” that brought food awareness into the mainstream. It’s a title that came up with amazing frequency while researching this article. Pollan quotables have so pervaded the gardening lexicon that I discover I’ve cited him without even realizing it. In fact, the very idea of 15Thousand Farmers was inspired by a lecture Pollan gave at the 2009 Bluegrass Bioneers Conference, in which he theorized that 20 to 30 million farms will be needed to feed our country sustainably. I’ve not substantiated the math, but Heine and Kausen assure me that, at least symbolically, 15,000 is Louisville’s share.

Pollan and his ilk believe that if planting carrots and radishes doesn’t save the world, it will, at the very least, limit illness, shorten the food chain and sequester carbon. Right now, the average meal in the United States travels 1,200 miles from farm to table, but there are some nearby trends that indicate this number will drop.

Inspired by White House Victory Garden 2.0 (and the Eleanor Roosevelt original), homegrown produce is sprouting up in local government. Kentucky First Lady Jane Beshear launched the state’s first “Governor’s Garden” last summer. The bulk of its tomatoes, root vegetables and melons are donated to Access Soup Kitchen, but, as is stressed in a letter from Jane Beshear on the garden’s website, the bigger part of the mission is to offer Kentuckians a model of what’s possible in their own backyards and to spread the idea of healthier, more sustainable eating.

Closer to home, we’ve seen mayoral candidates integrate better eating into their campaigns. Democrat Greg Fischer took time out to answer some questions about urban farming or, as he prefers, urban agriculture.

“I tend to use ‘urban agriculture’ over ‘urban farming,’ because I don’t want folks to think they’re going to have barnyards next door to them in city neighborhoods. I can’t begin to count how many times I have explained what a hoop house (a low-cost greenhouse) is in the last six months.”

Fischer says he’s excited by the prospect of 15Thousand Farmers, which he believes can play a part in making Louisville a national leader in urban agriculture. It’s an issue that, along with slow food and locavorism, is important to the candidate. Asked how these issues found their way onto his platform, Fischer points out that better food availability is not only the right thing to do, but also a “health equity issue” for many Louisvillians.

Farmer Joe

The Germantown home of Joe Franzen offers an example of what’s possible on the urban farm. In addition to a number of vegetable beds, the self-contained Franzen has raised chickens, ducks and rabbits for food, in addition to growing his own tobacco and brewing his own beer. I first met Franzen upon being invited over for farm fresh eggs, but sadly, no rabbit.

“I’d run into a lot of people who’d say, ‘Joe, you’re a heartless bastard for killing rabbits,’” Franzen says. “But, the way I look at it, if you can’t kill it, should you be eating it?”

Franzen discontinued this part of his operation, because the work of keeping a 22-rabbit litter far exceeds its yield. Listening to Franzen, I also get the impression that butchering a bunny is not all it’s cracked up to be. There’s a touch of regret in his voice when he describes that last trip to the slaughterhouse with a colony of rabbits in the back of his Toyota Matrix. As if sensing apocalypse, Franzen says, a rabbit orgy broke out.

For Franzen, who was raised in an agrarian, Mennonite community in Pennsylvania, going to a supermarket and purchasing a piece of meat presents an equal moral dilemma. Beyond the connection he prefers to have with his food, Franzen says butchering is not fun or easy, and passing that responsibility on to someone else shouldn’t be either. Ensuring the adequate treatment of his food is one part of it, but the accountability Franzen feels toward the conditions faced by meat packers is another. He says one in four workers retire from the slaughterhouse with debilitating injuries or illnesses, a stat he seems not to want on his conscience after a meal.

I’m soon introduced to the product of Franzen’s backyard: eggs so large that when they are placed in a conventional, cardboard container, the lid cannot be closed. When I crack one open, I’m surprised to find two yolks and am told this is normal around here — the result of happy birds with room to spread their wings. The chickens really don’t require much space, though. Franzen’s plot looks big enough to park a couple of station wagons. Actually, including the front yard, which is growing greens, berries and other produce, Franzen says he has about 780 square feet of outdoor space and is working all of it.

When I mention that I’m compelled by what motivates gardeners to garden, I’m taken aback when Franzen says people often try to assign altruistic intentions to the work he does, but that his efforts are entirely selfish. It’s clear Franzen loves what he does, but also that he’s being a little disingenuous when he says this. Why else would he have made a sign that reads “Free gardening consultations for Germantown residents”? Why else would he have proposed and successfully pushed for the creation of a food awareness course for 6th and 7th graders based on the youth version of “Omnivore’s Dilemma”?

I’m sent home with chicken and duck eggs, a six-pack of home brew containing something called the “Kim Jong Il Birthday Stout,” and a cutting of Southernwood, a bush proven to repel insects. My wife soon converts the eggs to fresh pasta, and when I bring Franzen a portion, I stumble onto perhaps the coolest part of this movement: bartering.

On May 15, Steve Paradis at Fresh Start Growers’ Supply began hosting weekly bartering sessions for anyone who wishes to trade crops. Also being held at Fresh Start is a monthly 15Thousand Farmers’ function called “The 15th Day,” occurring on the 15th of each month. These events will be social and educational, featuring a commercial farmer Q&A, as well as canning and seed-saving seminars. On July 15, 15Thousand Farmers will self-evaluate as a group and decide the next phase of their existence together.

I checked in with 15Thousand Farmers at a recent “Very, Very Basics” workshop, where rookies asked all the important questions, like, is it OK to grow tomatoes next to other types of tomatoes, and can you compost dog shit? (That’s a yes and no, respectively.) The group now boasts more than 700 farmers (or Dirt Card members), a number that has been building since the passing of the last frost in early May. As the weather continues to change, they expect to chew up more of that 14,300-farmer deficit, inching ever closer to their magic number.

The group’s first meeting came at a time when historic blizzards crippled our nation’s capital and the health care reform bill was said to be “dying on the vine.” Regardless of where you stand on the issue, it’s likely you viewed government as frozen stiff in those days. I think this mood is part of what motivated so many people to drop in on a gardening club in the dead of winter. Putting a seed in the ground is a way of taking control of something; it’s change anyone can effect.

In an earlier interview, organizer Steve Vice told me that for him, 15Thousand Farmers is about not letting the largeness of the world’s problems paralyze you within your own community. Vice, who works for Dismas Charities, a nonprofit provider of prisoner reentry services, says the most important thing was starting something, anything.

“If not me, who? If not now, when?” Vice says. “I’m interested in how to make Louisville a better place to live. And I’m just doing it where I am, with what I have right now.”

 

For more information, visit www.15thousandfarmers.com.

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