Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Get Inspired: Tour an Urban Farm (or Two or Six)

By Luke Tsai
Tue, May 29, 2012 at 8:00 AM

A visit to K. Ruby Blume’s backyard garden is like stepping into a lush vegetal paradise — not what you’d expect to find hidden away in a decidedly urban, working-class ’hood in North Oakland.

Viewed from the street, Blume’s modest pistachio-green house is unremarkable in appearance — a bit cheerier-looking than its neighbors, perhaps. But walk through a side gate and the yard opens up to a garden lover’s dream: flowers everywhere you look, eighteen perfectly pruned fruit trees, and so many different kinds of edible green things — growing on the ground, along the fence, in planters, and up wire support frames — I couldn’t write fast enough to get them all down. (There were tomatoes, pole beans, cucumbers, lettuce, summer and winter squash, artichokes, asparagus, tree collards, hops, six types of berries, at least 20 types of medicinal plants — the list went on and on).

K. Ruby Blumes backyard garden
  • K. Ruby Blume's backyard garden
Blume’s North Oakland hideaway is just one of seven urban farms that will be available to be toured next Saturday, June 9, as part of a once-a-year-only event sponsored by Blume’s organization, the Institute of Urban Homesteading. The tours will run from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and will start every hour on the hour at each site.

When I met Blume last week, she told me she’s always loved plants. But for her, tending to her 4,800 sq. ft. lot — which she’s dubbed Beegrrl Gardens — isn’t just a hobby now; it’s a calling. After 15-plus years spent running an arts organization that did puppet theater activism, Blume burned out. While taking a break from the nonprofit world, she studied plants, did a lot of gardening, and planned her next move. She thought, What would change the world? And what would be sustainable for her?

Recycled laundry water irrigates this bathtub bog.
  • Recycled laundry water irrigates this "bathtub bog."
The answer, it turned out, was sharing knowledge — the kind of practical, back-to-the-basics knowledge that has been all but lost in a modern world where “a lot of things are designed to dumb everybody down,” Blume explained. So in 2008, Blume founded a loosely organized school called the Institute of Urban Homesteading (IUH), which now offers dozens of classes (held mostly at sites in Oakland and Berkeley) not just on urban gardening, but also beekeeping, animal husbandry, and assorted DIY skills like food preservation and soapmaking. The classes are offered on a sliding tuition scale; no one is turned away for lack of funds. (The Express profiled Blume shortly after the school opened, and Jesse Hirsch detailed several of the Institute’s edgier course offerings in a recent story on "next-level" urban homesteading.)

Meanwhile, Blume started the tours last year, in response to overwhelming interest. She charges a small fee — a tax-deductible $30 advance payment for access to all seven farms, or else $5 (or whatever you can afford) paid at each site. In exchange, the hosts show off the unique features of their farm, do some formal teaching, and give visitors a chance to ask questions or seek advice about their own projects.

Baby rabbits!
  • Baby rabbits!
Folks who visit Blume’s garden, for example, will have a chance to see her two alternative beehives (designed to be more natural and less intrusive for the bees), her “bathtub bog” (a landscape feature that’s irrigated with recycled laundry water), her container orchard (a collection of fruit trees grown in a cluster of planters on her patio), and her adorable litter of baby rabbits (which produce excellent compost, Blume explained, because they “double digest” their poop — eating it after it comes out the first time.)

According to Blume, a diverse mix of people attended the event last year — everyone from parents who wanted a fun activity for their toddlers, to green-thumb wannabes, to hardcore homesteaders. Her hope is that all of them came away from each tour with one or two specific ideas they might implement at their own homes.

“It opens possibilities to people,” Blume said. “It serves as an inspiration point … to show what’s possible and what’s appropriate in an urban setting.”

Even though the East Bay has plenty of serious gardeners, Blume noted that there aren’t a lot of people operating full-on farms — distinguished from gardens, in part, by the presence of animals. Thus, she stressed the uniqueness of each of this year’s seven participating sites, which range from a tiny goat farm in Glenview (where the goats can run up a ramp leading to their very own tree platform) to a collaboration between an urban farmer and a North Berkeley homeowner that resulted in a “CSA”-type backyard micro-farm that grows enough food to feed five families.

Jeannie McKenzie and Mina
  • Jeannie McKenzie and Mina
Another tour site is Jeannie McKenzie’s sprawling PineHeaven Farm, in the Oakland hills, where what I thought was a large dog wandering in front of the house turned out to be one of the four (exceedingly friendly) goats that McKenzie raises, along with several chickens. Aside from the steady supply of milk and eggs that she gets from her animals, McKenzie also grows a variety of fruits and vegetables — many of them slightly exotic: cape gooseberries, goji berries, yacón (a root vegetable similar to jicama), and oca (tubers that, according to McKenzie, taste like baked potatoes with sour cream).

For McKenzie, the tours have somewhat of a political purpose as well: They’re a way for urban farmers to garner support in the community. While Berkeley’s planning commission recently passed legislation that will permit residents to sell or donate fruits and vegetables grown on their own property, Oakland’s regulations for urban agriculture are still a work in progress. According to McKenzie, the city’s de facto policy is essentially a complaint-based system: “They’re supportive of whoever complains.” She noted that she has one neighbor who files a complaint to the city every day, presumably about the noise and smell of the animals.

For the record, at least during my brief visit, I found McKenzie’s goats to be remarkably quiet and not-too-bad-smelling. An added bonus? Two of them are massively pregnant, which means if you go on the tour next week, you’ll have a chance to see baby goats — more cuteness than a person can bear.

To read a detailed description of each tour site, or to buy a $30 advance ticket (via Paypal), visit the IUH website. Even if you only plan on touring one or two of the farms, you’ll need to register for the event in order to get the specific location for each site. Send an email to iuh@sparkybeegirl.com with “Urban Farm Tours” in the subject line. Blume will write you back with the addresses a week before the tours.

Got tips or suggestions? Email me at Luke (dot) Tsai (at) EastBayExpress (dot) com. Otherwise, keep in touch by following me on Twitter @theluketsai, or simply by posting a comment. I'll read ‘em all.

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