For four years, beginning in 2006, I spent every spare minute working in my yard. I eradicated dandelions, ivy, blackberries, and plantain, and did all I could to nurture the dead lawn back to life. I had a landscaper create plans for a formal ornamental garden. I spent hours, my baby in my arms, gazing out the window and dreaming of fountains and boxwoods and flowers. But midway through this all-consuming project, I suddenly had a change of heart. Soon I was ripping it all out like a woman possessed. What in the world happened?
My first son, Max, had terrible acid reflux as an infant, and my concern for him led me to spend hours researching the connection between diet and health. As he grew into a highly intense toddler, my focus expanded to include the effects of diet on behavior.
When Max’s weight plummeted from the ninety-fifth percentile of average body weight for his age group to the fifth (he had a habit of boycotting food), I reached a turning point. Our pediatrician sent us to Children’s Hospital for help from a nutritionist. Her advice was to feed Max special canned drinkable meals made entirely of synthetic ingredients. I listened politely, but when I got home I was irate. How could isolated synthetic nutrients compare to the natural nutrients humans had evolved with? I knew that what Max needed didn’t come in a can. I crumpled up the nutritionist’s recommendation slip and threw it away.
Instead, I set out to create my own special diet for Max. Rather than synthetics, this one was loaded with rich organics: butter, heavy cream, pastured bacon, egg yolks. I served them in forms that no toddler could refuse, such as eggnog, pudding, and smoothies.
In no time at all, Max’s weight was back up. At the same time, he started trying new foods, and from there he has never looked back. Now he’ll try anything once, and he’s come to love anything sour or salty or sweet or all of the above. He sips shots of local apple cider vinegar like a wine connoisseur and craves pickled or lacto-fermented foods.
Max’s younger brother, Lander, was a different story: He started off as a great eater but at some point just stopped. He reached a stage where he would eat any kind of processed snack food but steadfastly refused meals. But with the peanut recalls, and more and more snack products being added to the daily recall list, I stopped buying snack foods entirely. As a result, Lander unwittingly became my second mentor in the search for the most nutrient-dense foods possible. With snack foods unavailable, he refused to eat anything but pancakes. I decided that if he was going to eat only pancakes, then I would make them the most nutritionally packed pancakes possible. Only I didn’t yet know how to make pancakes without a mix.
My research into diet and health continued, and eventually I arrived at the conclusion that it was impossible to buy processed foods with entirely benign ingredients, regardless of corporate stewardship pledges or organic labels. I resolved to look for a different framework: I was done supporting the mainstream food industry, both conventional farmers and the large organics that operated like them. No more giving money to companies whose processed foods contained ingredients I couldn’t buy myself, or livestock raisers who didn’t pasture their animals or feed them based on the animal’s natural diet. I vowed from that moment on to grow as much of our food as possible and buy the rest from local farmers… (story continued in the Urban Farm Handbook)
When Gavin turned one, my wife, Emily, and I bought a house with a yard. In the brief two-hour window during Gavin’s daily afternoon naps, I planted nearly a dozen apple, pear, and plum trees by growing them flat against the property lines. I created a blueberry patch and a kitchen garden. When Gavin woke up, I’d set him down in the garden and lie next to him in the grass. I’d watch as he wandered through the garden rows, eating snap peas out of hand. Over the course of the summer, we spent almost every afternoon in this fashion.
After the snap peas, he moved on to shelling peas, then blueberries, strawberries, and tomatoes. Gavin brought me berries and bugs. He watched ants and dug holes. His simple joy made me feel at peace.
A few years later, the global economic crisis kicked us in the butt. Our work dried up and we started eating through our savings. We considered dropping out of society and moving to a farm, to live off the land as many others had before us. We now had a second child, Luella. We imagined a farm would give our kids room to run freely, instead of being confined to our small city lot. But moving to a farm would have meant permanently abandoning our careers, as both our jobs were tied closely to the city.
Each evening after the kids went to bed, we combed online real estate maps looking for a way out. Within our internet browser window, we’d fly high above an agricultural community, then drop down out of the sky onto a farm for sale. “Do you think we could live there?” I’d ask, pointing at a property near the meandering oxbow of a river in the middle of an agricultural valley. Emily zoomed in until we could make out a quaint farmhouse and a big red barn. From the realtor’s photographs, the fields appeared to be overgrazed, with patches of weeds poking through. “We could restore the pasture, let a few other organic farmers lease the land, open a small bed and breakfast. We could help turn the area into a hub for agritourism.”
“That property looks like it floods every year,” said Emily.
“Oh, you’re probably right. Not a good thing for a bed and breakfast, huh?”
Emily zoomed out and we retreated back to our view from the sky. We flew around the state like birds looking for a nesting site. We imagined lives filled with a small barnyard of animals and a field full of fruit trees.
But even as we dreamed, we knew this wasn’t right. It felt like retreating, like entering an early retirement. And we knew that waves of city folk dreaming of the country would only contribute to suburban sprawl, a blight that threatens to turn our agricultural land into culde sacs.
One night, I lay in bed with a copy of the poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay. There was a poem in there I’d read once, that had been nagging me for some time.
The trees along this city street
Save for the traffic and the trains,
Would make a sound as thin and sweet
As trees in country lanes.
And people standing in their shade
Out of a shower, undoubtedly
Would hear such music as is made
Upon a country tree.
Oh, little leaves that are so dumb
Against the shrieking city air,
I watch you when the wind has come,
I know what sound is there.
Careful not to wake Emily, I grabbed a flashlight and walked out the back door in my slippers. As I opened the door, I heard Luella stir. She has no tolerance for parents leaving the house, for any reason. When she made no further noise, I crept across the back deck, through the yard to the southern property line. There our first crop of apples slowly ripened on carefully espaliered apple trees. The French method of pruning fruit trees flat allowed us to fit in several heirloom varieties without giving up much garden space. I pulled an apple off the tree and examined it in the moonlight. It was a Karmijn de Sonneville.
An unusual apple, with a bizarre extra set of chromosomes and an intense flavor to match. The apple’s interior was ripe and delicious. I bit carefully, avoiding a small worm that had eaten a trail to the apple’s core and back out the other side. I crunched through the spots where the flesh had crystallized, like old honey, creating the aberration prized by Japanese apple connoisseurs.
My grocery store had nothing like this… (story continued in the Urban Farm Handbook)