The Urban Farmhouse: Living off the Land while Living in the City

Story by Michelle Hueser
Photos by Carole Topalian

barn.jpgWhat is it about farming that seems to give us urban dwellers a romantic notion of how idyllic life would be if we lived out in the country and lived off the land? Well, perhaps not all of us feel that way but I would bet that the majority have had those thoughts occasionally, even if it’s only during a particularly bad commute or when eye fatigue has set in from staring at a computer under fluorescent lights all day. Then there is a small minority of that majority (such as my husband, Ken, and myself) who actually take the country dream one step further. We decided to start casually looking for our own little piece of solitude out of town with only a nebulous notion of what we would do on our small parcel of land to replace our humble, yet steady, city incomes.

Fortunately for us (and probably all of our would-be country neighbors), the more we looked at property, the more we became aware of some fundamental elements of our city-psyche that may not be compatible with making our living so far out of town. Romantic notions of being snowed in after a blizzard surrounded by nothing but an endless blanket of snowy stillness began to be pushed aside by thoughts like, “How would we get out of our long country driveway if, say, we did have to run an errand?” Imaginary summer days spent tending a large country garden full of plants yielding armfuls of beautiful, fresh produce turned to the reality of how little we know about growing anything. And, although I’m sure farmers will tell you there are plenty of moments when being surrounded by nothing but fresh air and nature is heaven on earth, I’ll bet it gets offset by lots of sunrise to sunset hard work in all types of inclement weather. We finally abandoned our country dream due to the slow realization that my South Minneapolis disposition would make it hard for me to trade quick bicycle rides to my favorite diner in the summer and streets plowed by someone else in the winter for the reality of hard work and isolation.

So how does a city girl like me capture some of the spirit of self-reliance that comes with living off the land without giving up easy access to my favorite coffee shop? Well, Ken and I thought we would try to bring some of the aesthetic of daily farm life to our city existence by trying to learn a few of the basic farm skills from which we are one or two generations removed.

Learning the skill of canning sounds exciting to us but also a bit mysterious. Growing and preserving most of the produce one eats is not a foreign concept to many, but the thought of pulling a jar of beans off of the basement shelf and serving up a heapin’ helping of our own homemade botulinum is enough to make us a bit nervous. We turned to my grandma, the older generation being the authority on such matters. “What if we do it wrong? Can’t you, like, die of botulism?” She chuckled, pitying the inexperience of youth. “No…you can tell if it didn’t seal properly when you look at it. Then you just don’t eat it.” Oh.

hoe.gifLast summer Ken and I stumbled through our first season with a community garden plot. Surprised by the news in late winter that a two-year waiting list had turned into only a few months, I hastily started a bunch of tomatoes from seed in a sunny south window. We ended the summer having harvested lots of tomatoes from our 27 plants, some spindly fennel, one or two peppers, a couple of nice spinach salads and lots of weeds. We spent the summer trying to figure out what to do with tomatoes because, although we both like to cook, we are not very creative in the kitchen and we often found ourselves turning to cookbooks for simple ideas on how to prepare tomatoes.

This summer we are no more prepared than last summer, except for having learned not to jump the gun when putting tomatoes in the garden in May. Faked out by late April warmth and spurred on by the large plants that evolved from once tiny seeds, we planted our tomatoes in early May last year only to be met a week or two later with a wet, cold snap which nearly cost us the majority of our plants. This year, the tomato plants happily spent the middle weeks of May in the basement under fluorescent lights, safe from yet another mid-May cold, wet spell.

Although our cooking and gardening skills fall into the “beginner” category, I can already detect a slight shift in our city mind-set. The neighborhood bunny we took such delight in seeing in our backyard, to the extent that we fed him carrots all winter, is suddenly seen as a potential adversary. At one point this spring he was spotted surveying a newly tilled garden patch in our backyard as if he’d discovered a nice new restaurant and would have to come back sometime when it was open. I imagined him merrily hopping along rows of sprouting spinach leaving nothing but bare stems in his wake. That’s the first sign, I suppose, of my transformation from someone who’s used to going to the grocery store before cooking the evening meal to someone who plans on growing most of what they eat.

We are definitely entering into this endeavor in a modern-day, urban frame of mind. If our efforts to grow a large portion of the produce we want to consume fail, we know we can go to any number of local farmers’ markets and get fresh, picked-the-same-day produce that was grown nearby. And, although I love my grandpa’s description of how they used to smoke meat and store it in the oats bin over the winter, I don’t think I’ll be turning our garage into a smokehouse this summer. We certainly aren’t going to start raising beef or dairy cattle or chickens in our backyard, either. Fortunately, there are plenty of local suppliers of all of these things and they are easy to find at local farmers’ markets and co-ops.

People tell me there will come a time when the bunny will not be cute anymore, but I don’t believe them.

The bunny fence is now up and the canning equipment is being purchased. Time to start climbing the learning curve.

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