A version of this article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate, 16.8.14
My travels continue at what at times feels like a break-neck pace. I have spent a week in each of Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit and Toronto, and have just arrived in Argentina. Last night I stayed in Buenos Aires, then flew this morning to the northern province of Tucumán, where I will be till Friday night, when I take a bus to Córdoba. This week – and indeed the whole month – promises to be one of intense learning, as I immerse myself in coming to an understanding of the scope, scale and importance of the national Pro Huerta program, that reaches 500,000 families across the country, including 45,000 in Tucumán. Every day has brought so many new people, projects and places into my life that I will need a considerable amount of time to process it all. My commitment is to write a brief report for the Churchill Trust (minimum 10 pages), but it feels like a book. Or a number of books. There are just so many wonderful stories. And I already have in the order of 100 hours of recorded interviews. So I’m actually going back to Chicago this time, to share some observations from one of the most remarkable people I have met so far. Someone who has been practising urban agriculture for more than 15 years, making her one of the ‘elders’ of the movement in North America. And someone who has embraced it with a passion and dedication that has to be seen to be believed.
I am talking about Nicky, of VK Urban Farms, in East Caufield Park, Westside Chicago. She and her husband Eric, a policeman and trained chef, are working two vacant lots adjacent to their home, where houses formerly stood. Their focus is animals, rather than fruit and veg, and Nicky explains why: “When I had my children, that’s when I decided to get the chickens. I come from the city and I want my children to have culture, but I think there is an irreparable disconnect when you don’t have the space to put your hands in dirt, and land to live and look, and grow your own food. You can theoretically learn about it, and think about it, but when you have a tangible connection to your environment, it does something that connects you to your universe and your environment that you can’t just do in a book.
You can grow fruit and veg, and you can know to take care of your environment, theoretically. But when you have a live animal that eats up that ground, and then you’re going to eat off of what it gives you, it’s a different conceptual reality. So that was why I got the chickens. .” Nicky refers jokingly to her chickens as a ‘gateway drug’, because goats followed in their wake, and this year two pigs were added. Now their urban homestead includes 15 chickens (10 eggs per day), eight goats, and two beehives in addition to the two pigs. Nicky told me how wonderful it is to have goats: “ I love the fact that we milk every day, and we make cheese every third day. So I make feta and chevre, and farmhouse cheddar. I get a gallon and a half of milk each day.” “A gallon of milk yields about a pound a half of cheese [so that’s about 20 pounds of cheese per week – somewhere in the order of 8 kilos]. We work together with a remarkable woman in Austin, Carolyn Yoder, a remarkable human being. We ship in the hay together for the goats and split the freight charges. We care for each other’s goats when we go on vacation. She had a birthing crisis and I had to help her with the midwifery of her goat, which was ridiculously fantastic. We had to reach in and turn the kids, we had a 2% chance of birth and we did it, it was quite lovely.
“Urban ag people – we have to do everything, we have to midwife, we have to castrate, we have to disbud (burning off the horns), it’s a high calling that you have a responsibility for these animals, and you better educate yourself, because there’s no-one to call for help.” Nicky speaks lovingly of how the animals work together, in harmony with the land and the growing of vegetables and fruits: “There’s a beautiful symbiosis with all of the animals and the farm. The goats produce a ton of manure, and that’s direct feed for the soil, you don’t have to age it. It’s enough for all of my gardens and a lot of community gardens in the neighborhood. It’s the difference between a few tomatoes, and a LOT of tomatoes, and they’re delicious! Especially in this table city soil. It’s exactly what you need to amend your soil. There’s a place for the goat poop to go, which is necessary.
Nicky with her chickens
“So they feed the garden, the garden feeds us, and the compost goes right back into the composter. They give me all this beautiful milk. I make cheese, and there’s a by-product of cheese – whey – which is the most magical thing in the world. You can wash your face with it, it cures acne…what we don’t use here, we feed back to the goats and the chickens and the pigs. Between all of the animals there’s no waste at all. We have no food waste at all. Everything gets eaten, between the goats, the chickens, and the pigs will eat whatever’s left over.
“If you just have chickens, you’re going to have more waste – but the goats, the chickens and the pigs create a beautiful balance. 8 goats, 2 pigs, 15 chickens, 2 beehives, and a mass of gardens.
I asked her what it was like when she first moved to Chicago, and to the west side: “20 years ago it was very different here. Culturally. I was told I was crazy. I was the only white girl here, for years. We were raised, in Maine, that everyone is the same, doesn’t matter if you’re poor, or white, or black. But it’s easy to be raised like that when you live in a homogenous area. It’s easy not to be racist when everyone’s white. So people thought I was crazy when I moved here, to an all-black ghetto. They told me I was going to be cut up into little pieces, and raped every day.” Yet her experience of hostility came not from the westside of Chicago, but from its predominantly white north: “I lived in the north side of Chicago for a little while, but I found it very hostile. Nobody spoke to each other when you walked in the streets. You had to look down at the pavement, because God forbid you smiled at each other. They would recoil from me if I said ‘Good morning.’ The white people were just not friendly, whereas the black people are. I felt so lonely and isolated. The rent was very high. I looked into buying a place, here, on the Westside. I paid $30,000, and my mortgage was $234 a month, as opposed to $1600 a month, to rent a place with no backyard.
“So I came to this block and I asked the neighbors, what would people think if I moved in, and they said ‘Oh honey, you’ll be fine’. And I felt so much more at home, among black people. They don’t look at you funny if you look them in the eye. People would come and knock on the door if it was street cleaning and I hadn’t moved my car. It’s so much more – it’s southern hospitality, and I felt embraced, even though I was the anomaly.” Nicky and Eric also tapped 66 maple trees from the streets surrounding their property, and boiled up 7 gallons of home-made maple syrup – possibly the first such product from an urban farm in North America. This was a great bonding experience for the community, Nicky says, because it ‘started so many wonderful conversations, because people didn’t know what maple syrup was. People have conversations that they never would have had otherwise. It really unites people.” At the end of the process, which lasted a couple of weeks, they had a big community pancake breakfast.
Nicky is unsure about the future of her urban homestead, because the neighborhood is slowly becoming gentrified, and that could lead to tax rises. It could also lead to the City wanting to sell the vacant lots, which Nicky and Eric are trying to buy, so far without success, to a developer. A main issue for her are the constraints the current rules place on the ability of urban farmers like her to commercialise their produce, when it’s mainly derived from animals. So she and Eric are looking for creative ways to monetise some of their labour: “Our plan is farm to table dinners – we started this year with an urban wedding, a 100-person wedding, and those you are allowed to do. You are allowed to feed people with the food we produce here. So that’s why we’ve added the pergola, and why we’re doing the landscaping. We’re going to put down old pavers from the old City of Chicago streets. We can do events here, and there’s a lot of money doing that. That is an idea that we’re going to hope to keep things going. And maybe if we make enough money, the City will sell us this land. Having spent over an hour with Nicky, I asked her what the urban farming meant to her:
“For me it’s like the core of my happiness. Being out here and digging in the dirt, it connects me to the most fundamental space in my heart, which is nature. It gives me peace, and it calms me down, I’m not listening to podcasts, or news, or music, or looking at my cell phone. It’s just connecting with my environment. And it gives me back something for doing this!”
Urban agriculture is becoming a movement, she says, because it speaks to a deep yearning amongst many people for (re-)connection: “ A lot of people involved in this are younger than me, they’re in their 20s and 30s. I think there’s a way in which we’re so disconnected – we have Facebook instead of actual friends, we have screens instead of human interactions, that people, especially in that age demographic, are starving for a real experience, in the world.” These words chime very much with my own feelings about urban agriculture, and the fair food and food sovereignty movement more broadly. Whereas the big, globalised and industrialised food system is premised on a series of disconnections and separations, everything about urban agriculture speaks of connection and healing: communities, minds, bodies and souls. Often this is also expressed through cooking and food preparation, as Nicky notes in relation to Eric: “My husband is a city boy, never grown anything in his life. When he first moved here he mowed over my herb garden. He’s like if it’s green it’s grass…No! Watching the transformation in him has been miraculous. Now he loves the gardens, he loves the animals, he’s proud to tell people about it. As a trained chef, it woke something up in him, that was even more than I have. For me, it connects me to my universe and myself, but for Eric, cooking for people is his connection to his world. To be able to have it be so real for him, is pretty beautiful.” Nicky says that urban agriculture is a diverse and grassroots movement and phenomenon, but it’s the basic desire for connection that unifies all those who are involved in it: “I think the people who stumble upon urban agriculture – because everybody does it for different reasons – and it does seem like a ‘stumble upon’ thing – you had a neighbor, who had bees, and you got into it; or you took a class in college, on agriculture, and got into it. But it’s not being passed down, it’s not like a farming technique, so everybody’s coming at it from all these crazy different directions. Some people like to brew beer, so they ask, well, where do my hops come from? And you grow your own hops, and then you start growing everything. “But I think it all stems from that same place of just been starving for an actual interaction with your universe.