Urban farmers turn city blocks, backyards into new movement

Urban farmers turn city blocks, backyards into new movement

jneff@newsobserver.comJuly 9, 2012 

  • What’s a CSA?

    Community Supported Agriculture has become a popular way for consumers to buy food directly from local farmers. Typically a farmer will sell shares to the public, who sign up for a weekly box or bag of seasonal produce, usually fruit and vegetables. Farmers benefit by better cash flow and the opportunity to market their produce early in the year. Consumers get to know their farmers and eat very fresh food.

    You can sign up for a CSA with vendors at a local farmer’s market, or try the website of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association at localfood.carolinafarmstewards.org

Collier Reeves has worked long enough in East Durham to know who the real bad guys are.

“Squash vine borers, Japanese beetles, tomato fruit borers,” she said. “Harlequin bugs – they’re really pretty, and really big jerks.”

Reeves is a member of a small but growing tribe in the Triangle – the urban farmer. She and her partner, Maryah Smith-Overman, run Homegrown Urban Farm, a quarter-acre of East Durham land bursting with beets, beans and bumblebees. They sell the produce to restaurants such as Vin Rouge in Durham and Panciuto in Hillsborough. They grow enough to run a small CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture site.

Reeves isn’t getting rich off the land – she also works in a restaurant and as a counselor at a rock music camp for girls. But the pleasure of farming is almost priceless.

“It feels so good to send someone home with food that I grew,” she said.

Reeves was one of a half-dozen of Durham’s urban farmers who met Sunday at Fullsteam Brewery to discuss their work. The brewery was an apt place to meet – Fullsteam calls itself a “plough to pint” brewery that uses local basil, sweet potatoes or pawpaws in some of their brews.

Rob Jones of Woodfruit Farms had the most interesting stage prop, a plastic bag stuffed with wheat straw and cottonseed hulls. Large clusters of oyster mushrooms grew out of slits in the bag, twisty white clusters straight from the pages of Dr. Seuss.

Jones got hooked on things mycelium when he began picking wild mushrooms in the Pacific Northwest.

“It’s exciting to try to turn a passion into a business,” said Jones, who grows the oyster mushrooms in a Durham basement just a few blocks from the downtown brewery.

There aren’t any reliable statistics on the number of urban farmers, defined as someone who grows food for sale inside city limits. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines a small farmer as someone who sells $250,000 or less.

By that measure, Durham’s urban farmers are teeny-tiny farmers.

Just a few blocks north of downtown Durham, Rochelle Sparko and Will Durham have been farming their backyard on Cleveland Street for four years. They’ve run a small CSA out for the past two years, but are giving the business a break this year. They both work fulltime as lawyers, and this year they are

Durham estimates that about 80 percent of their diet is grown in their garden. The couple moved to Durham from Hawaii, where they didn’t feel connected to the food they ate.

“Just about all the food in Hawaii is shipped in,” Sparko said. “We decided to live somewhere where we could grow our own food.”

Besides a riot of squash, cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers, the Darko Farm boasts a newly planted fruit orchard, two beehives, four ducks, and small patch of quinoa, a grain mostly grown in the Andean highlands of Bolivia and Peru.

Perhaps the most urban of the urban farmers is Keith Shaljian, who helps run Bountiful Backyards, a worker-owned cooperative that specializes in edible landscapes – putting food crops in parks, backyard gardens and community gardens.

Their latest project is a half-acre vacant lot on a stretch of Angier Avenue known for drug dealers and street walkers. Shaljian used kickstarter – a crowd-funding website for creative projects – to raise the money to buy the lot. He’s employing kids from the neighborhood to get the farm going.

“The goal is not a community garden that brings people to the garden,” he said. “Our ultimate goal is to get the members to go home and set up a garden at their house, to take the farm home.”

The project is just getting going: there are a handful of compost piles, some so steaming hot that they almost burn a hand. They’ve put in a few beds of sweet potatoes and sunflowers.

“The more I come, the more I learn,” said Ralph McCombs, a 19-year-old who lives nearby. “This is an opportunity to learn and better myself.”

McCombs said he started a tomato garden at home, but the plants are struggling. He realized that he hadn’t prepared the soil correctly.

“Next time will be much better,” he said.

Neff: 919-829-4516

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