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Roots of an Urban Farmer

I recently began blogging for Mother Earth News. My first post described our unique property and how I became an urban farmer. You can find the story here,

Pa and I watching his cows graze
around 1975
 It was one of the few times I had actually taken a moment to reflect upon the unexpected path my life has taken. I tend to be rather private and am wary of exposing myself on the internet but the more I thought about it the more I started thinking it may be of interest to you, the reader, to know a bit more about my history. Everyone likes a little glimpse into the lives of others from time to time, don't they?

If I really want to go back in time I suppose it should be no surprise that I am an urban farmer. My last name means "Wheat Acre". It refers to the plots of land that existed in English cities where wheat was grown for consumption by the residents of the densely populated areas. This is not to say that my family was responsible for growing the grain but rather more likely they resided somewhere near it and it was a way to designate a family's whereabouts.

Genealogy is a passion of mine and you can only imagine my surprise when I found that a distant relative, who was a colonial farmer, is buried 300 yards from my current property.

In truth I know very little of my fathers side of the family. I was raised by a single mother and her relatives. Though my fathers bloodline left the genetic blueprint for a future farmer it was my mothers relatives whose practice of the ancient art left a lasting impression.
One of our first gardens nearly 10 years ago

If memory serves me correctly I believe that one of my first references would have been my maternal grandmothers father. I remember as a child walking through the dense foliage of his gardens. Peppers and tomatoes the size of an adults fist. People would come from miles around to buy his produce I was told. As my family has grown and it has become necessary to be more frugal I remember his practice of reusing ordinary items around the house to prolong his harvest, for example, half gallon milk cartons with frozen peppers in them. I sometimes wonder while digging through the soil in early spring while occasionally referring to his Dick Raymond gardening book what he would think of my plot.

Even before my father left I spent a lot of time with my maternal grandfather. He was a man of extreme values, to put it lightly. He had a tendency to treat me kindly but I do believe I may have been the exception. He preferred the solitude of his land to that of other people, something I can certainly relate to.

Our kids and our gardens have grown 
He had livestock off and on throughout my childhood. He would raise beef cattle and the odd pig here and there. I can still remember as a youth chasing a hog that had gotten loose with my uncle and grandfather. Needless to say the pig was not interested in being captured and if the truth be told I was not particularly keen on being the one who tackled the hog.

We would also go to livestock auctions. A funny twist of fate is that I recently started attending the same auction house with my own children so that we could sell some of our rabbits when the need arose.

My parents planted a rather large garden one year at my grandfathers. They only did so once. To this day I do not know if they simply did not like the labor involved or if they chose to abandon the venture for some other reason. Personally, I fell in love. It was my first opportunity to work the soil and it has held a place of nostalgia in my mind. I can still taste the baby carrots washed off in the aluminum watering can, the peas fresh from the vine. I can even remember the wind bending the pines that bordered the plot.
More lovely than any flower

My uncles gardened as well. One was what we would most likely call a "guerrilla gardener" back in the 80's. He introduced me to the concept of gardening by the moon phases and the science of soil health. Both of which I now realize are Steiner influenced methods of biodynamic gardening. In fact, soil health is the foundation of my practice at this point. Though it is gaining popularity among modern farmers and gardeners such a method would have been pushing against the social norm back in the 1980's.

His younger brother and sister-in-law used to have me spend the night at their farm house in Sidney Center. One very hot summer day we planted 100 trees, just my uncle and I. We planted 99 blue spruce and 1 weeping willow. I always considered this a lesson in environmental longevity.

There were a number of other influences along the way great-aunts and uncles who let me explore their chicken coop at a young age for example.

The flood of 2011 devastated our community
but we were able to be somewhat self-sufficient
with our gardens 
All of this basically brings us up to speed. My wife and I bought our home 10 years ago right before the housing market collapsed. We spent far too much time dreaming of a big place in the country before we realized that we could really make a small 1/16th acre extremely productive if we tried. Our gardens fed us through a number of financial difficulties. They saw us through the loss of two jobs in three years. Two "hundred year" floods. Now, they give us sanctuary and food for our growing family. They provide a space for our children to play. They give us the opportunity to interact as a family and truly know one another. Our gardens tempt us through all seasons and weather and I am thankful for the time spent in them with the people I love.

Our homestead still provides in the depth of winter
I suppose the point of this piece is that it is in my blood to nurture the land and receive its gifts. Some people find the ease of a paint brush to their liking, others take naturally to mathematics or masonry. I have been fortunate enough to hear the siren song of the Earth. This is not to say I have not made numerous mistakes along the way, rather that somewhere deep inside I already know the answers. I am always surprised to use a technique that makes sense to me while in the garden only to discover some fancy name for it months or years later. As an urban farmer I am thankful for the strong roots on my family tree. I am eternally grateful for the opportunity to watch another branch on this tree bloom through my children and look forward to what the future holds!

Tobias Whitaker blogs for Mother Earth News and Grit Magazine. Click on the Mother Earth News logo at the bottom of the page for all of his post. You can also find him on Facebook at Seed To Harvest: Bossy Hen Homestead which is a central location for his homesteading blogs and his homeschooling blog, A Mile In Her Shoes: Tales Of A Stay-At Home Dad found here


  1. Nice post..Next month ..time to start seeds wll be here again!


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