Food Less Traveled

Suppose you consider it anathema that your next bite of food should journey fifteen hundred miles from its source to your plate. If you live in metropolitan Portland, Oregon — a city, like most, not exactly famous for row crops — you can beat that lamentable average by calling Donna Smith and Robyn Streeter and hiring them to farm your land. All that’s required of your city lot is at least one hundred square feet of growing space, six hours or more of direct sunlight, and an outdoor spigot. You can then join a pioneering cousin of community supported agriculture (CSA) and dial a significant share of your household’s food miles down to zero.

Typically, CSA customers buy shares of produce from a local farm and receive a weekly carton packed with whatever’s ripe for picking. Your Backyard Farmer, Donna and Robyn’s two-year-old business, takes the idea in a new direction. In effect, customers purchase shares of Donna and Robyn’s horticultural smarts.

Households hire the two women to prepare raised beds and rows for planting right in the backyard. They sow organic seeds and transplant seedlings selected by their customers from a list of more than four dozen vegetable crops. They tend, weed, and water each farm through the growing season. They deliver a harvest basket to the back porch once a week.

I visited two backyard farms on a cool June morning when the leaf lettuces were flourishing and sweet pea pods offered crunchy temptation from string trellises. The first farm was located beside the home of a young couple in one of Portland’s densest neighborhoods, a short bus ride from City Hall. Two raised beds and a patch of rows mulched with straw produced salad greens and vegetables sufficient to feed the couple and their three children plus two neighboring households. The second farm, by contrast, was a 150-square-foot oasis next to a modest cottage near strip malls and a freeway interchange. The owner, a single woman, shares the surplus from her postage-stamp plot with neighbors and colleagues at work.

All told, Donna and Robyn farm about forty such parcels, plus a quarter-acre property where they grow organic vegetables for the local Pastaworks grocery and the Arleta Library Café. Three dozen backyard farms may merit nary a footnote in state agricultural statistics, but if considered as a whole, the land cultivated by the two women would likely rank near the top of Oregon’s farm sector in output and gross value per acre.

If you suspect that this arrangement is tailored to the foodie elite, think again. These backyard farmers work with food-stamp recipients as well as lawyers, with lifelong gardeners short on time and neophyte locavores eager to learn. The common thread is a desire for healthy food raised in topsoil one can crumble between one’s fingers at the end of the day.