Micro-Farming in the Backyard
by April Paffrath
The soft click-click-click of a bicycle derailleur along the residential streets of Arlington, Lexington and Belmont is often the most noticeable sound of local micro-farmer Charlie Radoslovich, the man behind Rad Urban Farmers. He often hauls farm goods and produce on his bike and its 300-pound-capacity trailer.
The quietness of biking, and the environmental responsibility it implies, are part of Radoslovich’s method of farming. Radoslovich is one of a small number of micro-farmers, finding tiny plots of land to cobble together into a functioning and well-run farm. His “farm” is spread out across the lattice of the map, dotting across those three towns in 500-square-foot parcels of land and backyards.
The concept of micro-farming is established on the West Coast, with places like My Farm in San Francisco, but it’s still a relatively new idea in the Boston area. Farmers like Radoslovich and Kate Canney of the Neighborhood Farm in Needham have found a new way to re-introduce farming into modern cityscapes, by farming on unused lawns. Over the decades, towns that used to be largely farmland have given way to houses and lawns. But Radoslovich and Canney have created a foothold, reclaiming some of the land for farms, right in and amongst the houses of the town.
“Arlington used to have something like 77 farms,” says Radoslovich. Now it’s a residential community without farmland or, he worries, much connection to where food comes from. But when the farm is right out your window, in your own backyard, you see an ever-changing palette of colors and plants instead of a “grassy wasteland, a monoculture,” as Radoslovich calls it, bubbling with laughter.
You also see the effort involved in food. “It takes a lot of work,” he says. “You don’t just plant a seed and walk away.”
Radoslovich grew up in New Mexico, and moved to Portland, Oregon, for college. His sister is a landscape architect, and he worked in landscape after finishing his history degree. Eventually, he made the transition from landscape to edible-scape. When he and his wife moved to the Boston area, he returned to academia for a bit: He got his teaching degree and taught in Belmont for two years. He soon realized that the kids he taught were disconnected from the natural world, which motivated his return to working outside, this time bridging the natural world and food sources with our manicured lawns.
Inspired by the micro-farming out west, Radoslovich went about finding backyards in his target towns. Thanks to local CSA (community-supported agriculture) fairs, he found plenty of families volunteering their expanses of lawn, eager to transform grass into farmland, in small bundles. Radoslovich decided to pair his micro-farming with the CSA model. When people volunteer parts of their property, he pays them with a weekly share of vegetables, grown in their own yard and others like theirs.
“In backyard farming,” says Radoslovich, “you’re not only selling the veggies, you’re selling the experience.” He’s also providing people with vegetables as fresh as they come—from their own yard.
Not only does he have enough produce from these small bits of land to offer the CSA to homeowners, but to sell at the Lexington farmers market, too—all from a quarter-acre of land. He has 17 total land shares and a farm out in Carlisle, where he grows sprawling crops like squash, pumpkins, potatoes and more. His experience in landscaping has shown him how to get the most out of the land. He spends three years ramping up production in any growing space, and this is the third year for many of his micro-farms. The first year, the soil is tested and organic amendments are added if necessary. The next year, the sun-shade balance and crop choices are sorted out. The third year, the micro-farms are up and running at capacity, wresting nutrients from the soil for the produce and returning them again through proper land use and crop rotation.
Both Rad Urban Farmers and the Neighborhood Farm shun chemicals, but organic certification is a practical roadblock. Because the land is residential, the farmers have little control over the actions of neighbors or the verifiable constraints required for certification. However, Radoslovich points out, the homeowners that are drawn to the models he and Canney have set up are already thinking about their relationship to the land.
“Most of the folks are already on board [with organic uses]. They aren’t doing anything synthetic,” says Radoslovich. “They’re already on the same page when they come to us. It takes a certain respect for what you’re doing [to get involved].”
Radoslovich’s landscaping background and his desire to get as much as he can out of the soil, while respecting and protecting the land, lead him to rotate crops quickly, address germination time and even try new plants. At a micro-farm in Margaret Malek’s Belmont yard, he’s growing tomatillos, an unusual crop for the area. That’s where his landscape experience overlaps with the benefits of small-scale farming. He knows how the soil will react by location on a yard-sized plot. He can plant tomatillos right next to a brick house because the bricks will retain heat and release it overnight. “It keeps them toasty in the nighttime. They like to keep their roots nice and warm,” he says.
“My kids call them ‘Charlie’s Vegetables,’” says Malek. “Sometimes they’re excited, sometimes they’re not; sometimes they have to go to the Internet to figure out what they are.” While she gets plenty of chard, a staple that any local CSA shareholder recognizes, she also gets unusual choices, such as tomatillos and purslane. For Malek, the purslane recalls dozens of family recipes from her childhood in Texas, where people would forage for the succulent leaf. Finding it in her CSA prompted her to get out her family cookbook and try recipes she had left behind.
Looking to what is possible, and sharing the process with homeowners, market customers and the community, is a large factor in Radoslovich’s work. After his years of teaching, he knows that kids need nature and food sources folded into their education and experiences.To that end, he contributes to the Kids Cooking on the Green program run in Lexington. The Lexington farmers market manager teaches kids about food, where it comes from and how to cook it. Radoslovich is a guest farmer for that program and with similar in-school programs. He has also planted out the bed of his ’87 Ford pickup as a roving farm, working with Wicked Delicate Films (producers of King Corn) on their Truck Farm film.
“It is a crazy farm on wheels touring the Boston area encouraging kids to eat healthy and grow their own food in their own containers, with or without wheels,” he says. Not only does he have a farm spread out among some of the country’s most historic towns—and driving through them—but he is showing people the beauty and the functionality of growing food. Children learn where their food comes from; adults see how little space it requires to grow a substantial amount of food.
Education is a driving force for Kate Canney and the Neighborhood Farm, too. She loves showing off how tasty and easy farming is. She even helps some people set up their own gardens. “We want to be a resource to people,” says Canney. “We want to educate people about farming.”
To that end, she and her wife, Jude Zmolek, encourage people to grow their own gardens by providing information at farmers markets and by serving as an example of what you can accomplish on a residential scale. People realize that if Canney and Zmolek can run a fullfledged farm on little backyards, then certainly they should be able to manage a garden. “Even just by planting a little bit,” says Canney, “you could end up with some amazing fresh food. It can change the character of your food, and of your summer.”
Canney always wanted to be an organic farmer when she was a kid. She apprenticed for Keith Stewart, whose garlic is a star at the Union Square Greenmarket in New York City, and was introduced to the ways of garlic and growing it well. After some time away from the soil, and when she and her family returned to Needham, she found herself craving the outdoors and the reconnection with farming. “I would say, ‘How am I going to farm without access to land?’” says Canney. “If only people would let me dig up their yards, I could grow so much food there.” When she mentioned her dream to divert some yards from what she calls the “chem-lawn look,” her friend let her dig up her yard and get farming. Before long, they had a couple dozen offers from homeowners who thought it seemed like a good way to use their property productively, especially those whose kids were grown and weren’t using the lawns for pickup soccer games.
Canney and Zmolek started the farm in 2008. “The first year we had five gardens. Now we have 12 sites we grow on; 10 are private yards,” says Canney. Two are jumbo plots, one on land from the Trustees of the Reservation and another on someone’s parcel of land in Westwood. Last year their farmland totaled one acre. This year, one of the jumbo plots is an acre, so they’re up to 2½ to three acres, total.
“I thought this would be a hobby,” says Canney. It quickly became clear, however, that there was enormous interest in it. “We don’t use any chemical inputs,” she says, “and people just got really excited about it. Now, she works with Jude, her mother, her brother and her sisterin-law. “We’re a very nontraditional traditional family farm,” she says.
With plots in Needham, Dedham, Westwood and Medfield, they’ve had to be judicious with how they work. They load up the farm truck and try to plan so they don’t have to stop at every micro-farm. “We realized early on,” she says, “that if we didn’t organize an efficient way to get around, then we’d negate the local benefits.” Luckily for them, many of the farm plots are clumped in the corner where the towns meet, with another grouping in downtown Needham, easing farm management.
So how does it work with the homeowners? She lets the homeowners harvest here and there. “We’ve never had problems. Nobody harvests the whole thing,” she says. The homeowners get access to the farm food at their leisure, in exchange for the use of the land. That way, says Canney, people who are land-rich but cash-poor can participate. Like the homeowners who work with Rad Urban Farmers, the homeowners at the Neighborhood Farm get a portion of what they grow in exchange for the land use. Where Rad Urban Farmers uses a CSA share model, the Neighborhood Farm is less structured. Homeowners are out in the mini-fields sometimes, even weeding and updating Canney on the status of crops.
The rest is harvested and brought to market, with plenty of signs and informational resources to share. Luckily for those shopping at the farmers markets, Canney and Zmolek are fascinated with the garlic that started it all. In fact, they grow several different varieties, bringing Creole garlic and Thai fire to the market that is usually populated with Russian Red and other well-deserved, but standard, classics.
Both Radoslovich and Canney hope to change how people think of their land and the food it can grow. Not only are they creating farms by carving out pockets of produce fields, but they’re also changing how people feel about food—empowering them to grow their own, recognize the craft that goes into growing and the abundance that can be created when people turn away from grass lawns and embrace a ground cover that can feed a community.
Canney isn’t focusing on expanding her farm too much at the moment, but she does see a movement far larger than her own farm. “I think the model [of micro-farming] is going to expand. There are so many people who want to host a garden.” The land that lies out the back window could be used productively, and Canney is convinced that there are many other micro-farmers out there, waiting to transform lawns into farmland, dotting our urban landscapes with producegenerating mini-acreage.
They both also show how it’s possible to get so much from a small plot. In our modern cityscape, there are no more gigantic fields available, but the small ones connect together to bring farming back into modern urban life.
April Paffrath is a writer in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She wishes she had a yard that she could turn into a micro-farm.