Browsed by
Category: farm startup

Progress report: February 2017

Progress report: February 2017

This report was a little late (it is March 4th). This is partially because the end of February snuck up on me – whose idea was a 28 day month, anyway? It is partially because I’ve been busy working on stuff. This report will be much shorter than last months for both reasons. You can read last month’s report here, and next month’s report as it is shaping up here.

I mention a lot of things in here that I could go into much greater detail on. If you are curious about the reasons behind any of this, or want references or resources, let me know in the comments. I don’t have time to go into detail on everything right now, but I certainly have time to go into some of the topics if it would be helpful to anyone.

[The picture is some seeds from Baker Creek, and from a local seed swap. This is a small portion of what we are planting this year!]


Overall, this is incredibly exciting. Spring is coming, and things are very quickly falling into place and becoming real. It is also very intimidating – there are so many unknowns, so many things to learn, and so much work to be done. Sometimes I feel like we are on top of the world, and sometimes I feel like I am in waaaay over my head and that the entire project is going to collapse in complete failure. I’ve done the entrepreneurial roller coaster before, so I’m pretty good at acknowledging the feelings for what they are and keeping my head down and just getting the work done.

But it would be dishonest if I didn’t admit that this is a roller coaster, and that it is hard. I’m looking forward to next year when we will be spending a higher percentage of our time refining things rather than beginning everything from scratch. 🙂

Expenses: $216.18

The only expenses this month were for seeds and other plant material. Overall, the seed budget is significantly higher this year than it will likely be in the future because (1) we are trying a bunch of varieties to see what grows best and sells best here, and (2) in the future we will primarily be growing seeds we saved ourselves, or swapped for. This month brings our total expenses to $579.18.

$32.95 Seeds from Mariseeds bred by Chris Homanics

$51.24 Seeds from Baker Creek Rare Seeds

$55 Seeds from Carol Deppe/Fertile Valley Seeds

$32 Seeds, Sunroots, and cactus pads from Joseph Lofthouse

$18.50 Purple Tree Collard cuttings from happycatseedandc0mpany on ebay

$16.49 Daubenton kale plant from park5500 on ebay

$6.88 Green Giant tree collard cuttings from 888forsale888 on ebay

Work Done

  • Stumbled on some interesting ideas that combine community development and marketing: packaging food as meal kits, and organizing supper swaps. I’ll write more on this later, but the basic idea is to get our community eating more food made from scratch by organizing a cooking co-op, and providing food in bulk packages with recipes designed to be convenient as meals for those co-ops. It is more affordable to cook food from scratch, and as farmers if we can sell food in fewer transactions of larger sizes we can provide a better price, and if we make it convenient for people to eat our food then people can spend less money on expensive processed foods, and afford our produce more easily. It all adds up to making the food more affordable and accessible from a number of angles, and is a key part of our strategy to compete with Walmart.
  • Planned out permanent cover crops for the vegetable beds.
  • Mostly finished choosing varieties and ordering seeds: I poured over catalogs from all the local seed companies I could find, looking for crops that would likely grow well in our cool maritime climate, and that would hopefully sell well. I’ve also gotten some seeds from independent plant breeders that I’ve met online.
  • Worked out a ton of details with Mary Anne about the land use and how operations at the farm will go. It is a bit more complicated than just using someone’s yard, because we will be using a pasture at their equestrian facility, and are hoping to have the farm be as open as possible as a demonstration site, and those two factors combined mean that there are a lot of logistical details to make it all safe and smoothly operating. We are just about ready to sign the paperwork and get moving.
  • Researched legalities and logistics. We will not need a permit for the farmstand, but it does need to have legally adequate parking and offset from the road. I need to research the laws about signs a bit more to see what exactly we are allowed in terms of roadside signage.
  • Made progress planning the installation of infrastructure. We found a source of inexpensive crushed concrete to make the driveway and parking area for the farm stand, and an inexpensive source of compost to jump start the garden beds.
  • Made progress planning and researching dry farming and microbe inoculations, which we will be experimenting with heavily as a way to potentially bring areas into garden beds with extremely minimal inputs from outside. Many more details on this later!
  • Planted some onion seeds in milk jugs… and decided that we don’t want to plant anything more in milk jugs because it is kind of a bother, and not going to scale anywhere close to what we will need.
  • Brought on our first partner – Neil will be helping out on the farm. We’ve known Neil for almost a decade, and he is a very good worker and very smart, so are tickled pink to have him on the team. His primary goal is to learn, and was willing to work for no money, but for us, operating sustainably means that we should pay people who are working on the farm. Also, we don’t want to get nailed by the government for violating labor laws. The sticking point was that we don’t have money coming in yet, and therefore don’t have money to pay him with. After digging into the laws, we found a simple solution to keep everything in line with our values and the laws of the land: add him as a member to the LLC, with a percentage stake based on the estimated percentage of the work he’ll be putting in this year.
  • Found some excellent resources for bed planning. Unfortunately haven’t been able to make as much use of them as I wanted to because there are so many unknowns right now. Hopefully we will be able to do more of this next year:

Coming up

  • Build the basic infrastructure at the farm: clear the access way, put in a driveway, build the farmstand, prepare planting areas.
  • Start outreach and marketing to build community around the farm. Put together a Facebook page and website, and start posting content.
  • Design the farm branding: logo, brand name, mission statement, business cards, etc
  • Make posters and flyers
  • Plant early spring greens and herbs, probably with low tunnels for quick and easy season extension.
  • Research Good Agricultural Practices and make sure our operations are following them and are safe.
Progress report: January 2017

Progress report: January 2017

This is the very first monthly farm progress report! These reports will serve two purposes: first, they will help me stay organized and on track, and second, they will open the doors on the creation of a new farm. This blog is the primary place where I will be keeping plans, to-do-lists, data, finances, etc. In other words, the kinds of documents I would normally keep on my computer as text files and spreadsheets will simply go on this blog. It doesn’t make much difference to me, but that way the information is available for you to learn from.

During the month, the reports in draft form will be published as a live-journal of what is going on. You can see February’s report here.

When I do use spreadsheets, I’ll put them up on Google Drive and link to them from this blog.

These reports will follow a format of Expenses, Work Done, To Do, and Wrapup.

Before we get to the meat of it, a minor disclaimer about the title of this post. It encompasses farm activities in January of 2017, and all of time preceding it. I didn’t do all the reading this month. ; )

Expenses: $363

$83.93 for SPIN-Farming Basics book

$49.99 for SPIN-Farming Crop Profiles (This is one part of their second book. I didn’t need the other part of the book, so I figured I’d save some money. They have the individual sections of the book available at, or you can buy the whole thing at Amazon.)

$200 for registration with the Washington Secretary of State. We are now holders of a UBI for JM Padvorac Farm LLC! That means I can apply for the business license, which will only be $20. We’ve held off spending money on anything else for the farm, because we can’t deduct expenses that occur before we actually get the business license. That’s one of my very next tasks.

$10 for shipping some seeds a kind plant breeder gifted us!

Work Done

Land Access

We don’t have enough land ourselves for this, so getting access to land was crucial. I had mentioned in a comment on Facebook that we were planning to start some kind of neighborhood farm / garden, and my friend Mary Anne Campbell saw it and said we needed to talk. She runs the National School of Academic Equitation about a minute down the road from us, and has some pasture space she is willing to let us farm on. She has a lot of enthusiasm about the project, and it is great to have her energy adding to it. I’ll write more later about how the process went between “hey, let’s talk about this” and deciding the nuts and bolts about where exactly to situate the site, access, water, legalities, compensation, etc.

Bed Planning

I’ve been through the SPIN farming crop profiles, and am going through them again more carefully to start working up a plan for the beds and the relays (i.e. which crops follow others after harvest). This first year we don’t really know what the market is like for the different crops, so I expect we’ll probably significantly overproduce some things and underproduce others. We’ll track what happens and make corrections for next season.

This is complicated a little bit because the land we will be farming is not a flat, monotonous rectangle. It is on a slight, lumpy hill, with a tree or two, and some dryer areas and some muddy areas. This is fantastic, though. The natural variations mean that we will be able to align crops to zones where they will naturally be happier, and will need to do less irrigation or drainage work ourselves.

And the fact that it is on a hill would be an erosion problem for a tilled garden, but not for us. It’ll be fun to demonstrate how adaptable and performant farming can be when done in alignment with nature.


Up till this point, the vast amount of time has been spent in reading, researching, doodling, and dreaming. It has been very useful time for building a foundation. Here are some of the resources that have been the most useful in doing the background research and learning in preparation for starting our no-till farm…

Forums and Groups

I have learned an incredible amount from lurking in the shadows of groups and forums online, and by asking questions. I recommend joining and browsing some of these, and looking for more on your own. If you find the right watering holes, you can ask a question and get a number of well thought out answers and perspectives, not all agreeing with each other! These are my go-to places for when I need help:


I’ve read some of these cover-to-cover, and skimmed others for particular bits. I highly recommend all of them, but if you are short on time I recommend the the first three: SPIN farming, One Straw Revolution, and The Lean Farm.

[No links here, affiliate or otherwise. Check your library or do a web search for the titles if you want to find the books yourself.]

  • SPIN-Farming Basics and the crop profiles bit from SPIN-Farming 2.0, by Wally Satzewich and Roxanne Christensen.
    I spent a few months in analysis-paralysis mode trying to figure out where to start. These two books were the answer. They are a bit pricy, but well worth it. They are concise, and lay out exactly what steps you need to take to start a successful sub-acre farm. They also have tables of data to help estimate expenses for different scales of operations, lists of materials and supplies with typical price ranges, and basically all the other numbers you need. For making a quick, rough plan for a business it is an incredible timesaver. It won’t teach you how to grow plants, but it does talk about how management practices of growing plants factor into a responsible, realistic business.
  • One Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka
    When soil is disrupted, it demolishes the incredibly complex web of life that is required to effectively store water and deliver nutrients to plants. The SPIN books above only talk about managing a farm by tilling, so if you want to go no-till, other resources are required. Because the author was farming in Japan, the specific techniques and planting schedules he talks about cannot directly be applied here, but the management approach he takes is revolutionary.
  • The Lean Farm by Ben Hartman
    I come from the software world, where lean practices are very common (or at least, very commonly aspired to). I’ll quote from “Simply, lean means creating more value for customers with fewer resources.” In the case of a farm, value means food that is ready for people to eat, and resources means your time, energy, money, seeds, water, tools, etc. In my opinion this book is absolutely required reading if you are starting a farm.
  • The Market Gardener by Jean Fortier
    This is in roughly the same category as the SPIN books, but a bit different. The author has a 1.5 acre farm in eastern Quebec, and has a very successful business of it. This book has a lot to say about the business practices of a farm, but spends more effort discussing the actual growing of plants than the SPIN farming books. He practices minimal tillage, which I like better, but I’d much rather go for no tillage. This is a much longer book, which makes it more useful for giving a feeling for what a small farm might be like – but it lacks the conciseness and immediately actionable data of the SPIN books. An invaluable resource, but if I had to pick just one to start with I’d go with SPIN.
  • How to Grow More Vegetables and Fruits Than You Ever Thought Possible by John Jeavons
    An important goal for me is to learn how to grow food in a way that is sustainable – and one of the clearest ways to do that is to minimize the inputs that you get from land outside your farm. If you can turn sunshine, rain, and soil into food, and also turn it into all the things you need to grow food, then you’ve got it made. Most of the market gardening books rely heavily on tillage (importing machines and oil), plastic mulches, large quantities of compost, and all kinds of other external inputs. Jeavons’ book is all about how to intensively manage beds to build fertility with almost no external inputs at all, and almost no tilling except when first creating beds. And the possible yields per space are impressive.However, his book as about growing a complete diet for oneself and family. It involves growing a lot of grains, which is not a practical moneymaker on a suburban farm, and the methods for growing vegetables are quite labor intensive. There is much to learn from it about minimal / no-till, and about inexpensively growing out transplants yourself.
  • Will Bonsall’s Essential Guide to Radical, Self-Reliant Gardening by Will Bonsall. No duh, right?
    Similar to How To Grow More Vegetables, this book is all about minimizing external inputs. Bonsall has come up with a variety of innovative techniques, and has a lot about weed management, creating trellises and supporting plants with resources on farm.
  • The Resilient Gardener by Carol Deppe
    She has an incredibly practical perspective on things. Like Bonsall, she has a lot of innovative techniques and perspectives on growing food on the human scale. She tills, but aside of that uses very little or no fancy tools or equipment, and grows a lot of food. Like Bonsall’s book, she talks about growing food for personal use, so a lot of it is not practical for a market farm, but in terms of managing the land with simple tools and human ingenuity it is a gold mine.

To Do

My, oh my. There is a lot of work to be done. It quickly feels overwhelming, and I have to constantly remind myself that if we just do one piece at a time, it will all happen. Starting a new business is very intimidating and scary, even if it doesn’t have a ton of risk.

This is our first year, and we are starting later than would be ideal. If I’m not careful, that stresses me out. Fortunately, we are not in a financial pinch where we need to make a certain amount of money from the farm – we’ve got our other income to live on for now. The goal for this year is to put all the pieces into motion, so we are running a real, honest to goodness farm business.

If we run out of time and don’t manage to get the tomatoes started early enough, or if we can’t prepare as many beds as we wanted, or if the farm stand is nothing more than a folding table for two months, it will be very disappointing. I’m worried that those particular things will happen. And I know that even if those things don’t happen, something important is going to fall between the cracks or otherwise mess up. We are complete newbies at this.

You know what? That’s what entrepreneurship is like. Sometimes it is exciting and a lot of fun, and sometimes it is disheartening and makes you feel like an abject failure of a human being. If you can push through the lows, incredible things can happen.

Anyway, I wrote that because I’m procrastinating about actually putting down in a list all the things we need to get done… because I know it is going to scare me. Oh well. 🙂

Most time-sensitive tasks to do

This is the stuff that has a time window. If we don’t do it by the appropriate time, either we lose an opportunity, occur expenses, or start making other stuff back up and have to wait.

  • Apply for the business license
  • Plan out beds that require transplants, so we can order seeds and get them started. Most important are onions, followed by the tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, and the other hot crops that have trouble maturing in our climate.
  • Dig a trench and cover with floating row cover to provide a sheltered, frost-protected place for starting seedlings.
  • Build or buy seedling trays
  • Start seeds
  • Put together and sign a formal contract with Mary Anne so that everything is 100% aboveboard before we start doing stuff on the land
  • Get tarps/cardboard to smother weeds where the beds will be
  • Lay out and secure tarps/cardboard to smother weeds where the beds will be

Most urgent tasks to do

This is stuff that we have to if we want to run a successful farm this season. We don’t have to get this stuff done right now, but if we aren’t working on it now, there’s no way it will all get done and we’ll be in trouble somehow.

  • Ensure legality of a site for farm stand / parking
  • Clear out the overgrown driveway that would be the best site for the farm stand (if that site is legal)
  • Design the farm branding: logo, brand name, mission statement, business cards, etc
  • Make posters and flyers
  • Build a website that both sells and educates
  • Set up an email list
  • Set up a Facebook page
  • Start marketing through various channels
  • Build a farm stand
  • Paint a nice big sign to go with the farm stand
  • Acquire and set up hoses / sprinklers / drip irrigation
  • Set up a post-harvest processing station
  • Research Good Agricultural Practices and make sure our operations are following them and are safe
  • Go through the legalities of volunteers/interns on the farm so we can make it a community project, not just our project
  • Organize sound financial records so taxtime doesn’t sneak up and obliterate us

Smart stuff to do

This is stuff that isn’t going to create any kind of emergency if we don’t do it, but would be wonderful if we did. Little downside, decent potential upside stuff.

  • Network with local people / community organizations / leaders
  • Talk with the restaurant down the road
  • Look into selling “farmstand credits” to help with cashflow before the crops come in
  • Find a property owner or two who is willing to let us put up a sign in their yard on the road pointing ahead to the farmstand
Why we are starting a suburban farm

Why we are starting a suburban farm

I’ve wanted to have a farm for years now, and we are finally taking the leap – albeit a very careful, bit-sized leap. We are starting small, with the absolute minimum of expenses and complication. Our goal for this first year is to learn how to produce and sell food commercially, so that we can scale up intelligently next year. I’ve been the co-owner of a small software company for the last 7 years, and we have learned a lot about running an efficient, lean operation: lessons I’ll be bringing to the farm, and lessons that I’ll be sharing here as they apply. Below in this post I’ll share what we have done to date, our expenses, and what is coming next.

The focus of this documenting will be to show how to make a decent living doing regenerative farming in a suburban area.

But why are we starting a farm? Oh, where do I start…

I plan to write a series of posts (or a book, or books!) about why I think it is important for us to be growing food. I’ll just give a few quick reasons here. There is way, waaaaay more to say than I have space for here. I hope to go into much more depth on each of these topics in the future, and include many more as well.

Farming because I love my kids

Right now, when I work, I have to shoo my two little daughters away (they are 1 and 3 years old). And my professional work is not something they can even understand, much less participate in. It frustrates them, and it frustrates me. But growing plants? They love plants! Almost every time we eat a meal my 3 year old picks one of the foods we are eating and says we should grow it. They both love being outside, they both love looking at seed catalogs… and they both love spending time doing things with their parents.

Look at any culture before industrialization – children were not only able to understand what their parents were doing to provide a livelihood, they almost always were involved somehow! I strongly believe that children are meant to grow up engaged with their world, learning directly how to live from their parents and other close adults.

Meggan and I want to give our children the best childhood we can, to give a foundation for lifelong flourishing. For us, the best we can give them is growing up farming.

Farming for our health, and our community’s health

Food that is raised well is incredibly more nutritious than food raised poorly (there is plenty of scientific evidence for this, by the way). If a person eats vegetables purchased from the store, it is difficult to get all of the phytonutrients and micronutrients that are needed to be healthy. This even applies to most organic food, too – the label “organic” means far less than what it might seem.

The short story is that healthy soil hosts an incredibly complex system of insects, microbes, and fungi that deliver a stunning array of services and nutrients to plants. Heirloom varieties of plants do far better at accumulating nutrients than the bland factory farm varieties. Modern industrial agriculture, including most organic farms – use nutritionally deficient varieties and engage in practices that destroy the life of the soil, reducing it to little more than sterile dust and sand.

In the United States, we don’t even grow enough industrial vegetables for everybody to eat 5 servings a day. And there are very few truly nutritious fruits and vegetables being produced. To be healthy, my family needs this kind of food to be available, and the same for my community. I want to be a foot-soldier in the efforts to provide it.

And for us personally, tending the fields in clean, fresh air, rain and sunshine, is just about one of the healthiest forms of exercise that there is.

Farming for future generations

The way food is currently grown, with tilling and chemical fertilizers and pesticides and herbicides, we have an estimated 60 years before there is no more topsoil in the world. We can’t grow food without topsoil, and the way we currently grow food destroys topsoil – it literally blows away as dust. That is 100% gone in 60 years, and we should expect massive hunger and starvation if we don’t get our act together quickly, because every year we lose more and more land. We have already lost a third of the land that was capable of growing food.

The way we have gardened, and the way I will farm, actually creates topsoil, and also sequesters carbon from the atmosphere. Soil and dirt may seem boring – until you realize that almost everything you have ever eaten came from topsoil.

There are plenty of people working on figuring out how to produce food not just sustainably, but regeneratively. The process of farming can actually make the soil better, it can make habitats better, it can make the air cleaner and the rains more consistent. If done wrong, farming will literally starve us all within decades. When done right farming is an unbelievably powerful force for good and wellbeing.

And you know what? It has been shown that is possible to produce more food when farming properly than when people farm with the most modern chemicals, machines, and genetic engineering. And proper farming is far more resilient in the face of drought, pests, diseases, and changes in climate, whether manmade or natural.

Farming for conservation

We are in the middle of a mass extinction, and could lose 75% of all species on our planet. There are now many rural places where you can drive for miles with a clean windshield, while not many years ago it would have been covered in bugsplats. Butterflies and bees are being lost. Mammals, reptiles, birds, fish, amphibians. It is not only incredibly sad to lose all this beauty, but it is incredibly dangerous. Ever study the food web in school? Remember how everything is interconnected, and when pieces start going missing stuff can fall apart? Remember how clean air and oxygen come from healthy forests and oceans? We are putting all of that at risk.

Of all the reasons for this, one of the very largest is… wait for it… industrial, chemical farming. We have demolished millions of square miles of habitat, and replaced it with extremely simplistic, single-crop fields that are sprayed with poisons to kill everything except the desired crop. This is unbelievably short-sighted.

And all this unnecessary to feed the world. I’ll quote myself from above because this is important:

And you know what? It has been shown that is possible to produce more food when farming properly than when people farm with the most modern chemicals, machines, and genetic engineering. And proper farming is far more resilient in the face of drought, pests, diseases, and changes in climate, whether manmade or natural.

The way I’ll be farming, a significant amount of habitat will be preserved. Moreover, given that the land I’ll be using is currently a grass pasture, I’ll be able to significantly increase the amount of natural plant, insect, and animal life on the land.

Farming as an example

Good farming can do so much good for so many people. I want to join the growing number of people who are helping show the way. My contribution will hopefully be to provide a free, carefully documented example of a startup farm that would be practical for almost anyone to do. An example that shows how to start with very little capital investment (no need to buy land, and hopefully under $1,000 for supplies which could be funded from community support). I’ll be putting together a practical, doable roadmap/plan that covers a span of years and shows how start with gardening, then on to farming part time, then farming as a full time career.

Farming for a good life

Think of a bear in the woods. It is always rumbling around doing things that it needs to do to survive… but is it working? No, it isn’t working. It is just being a bear, doing what a bear does. Fundamentally we are no different, and the troubles that come with work are our own doing.

We have a flawed mindset that divides our life into different kinds of things – work, family, church, community – and then if we spend time on one piece, it subtracts time from all the others. And then we lay awake at night stressed because we are too busy and don’t have enough time to do all the important things we have to do, much less the things we want to do.

We also often have the problem of making a livelihood in unnatural ways. We do work at tasks that are highly abstract, tasks that are far removed from what we are built to do. For example, with my software work I spend a lot of time sitting still, staring at a pane of glass, wiggling my fingers.

Look at any pre-industrial culture. Imagine a Maori warrior, or tribal Scot, or an indigenous American. How many of them sat still everyday, just wiggling their fingers? How many of them needed to isolate the bulk of their energy and time from their children, their community, and their religion?

Here’s what a farm-centered life will hopefully look like for us. We’ll wake up as a family, and share breakfast, the head out to the farm. We will plant, tend, and harvest till lunchtime, as a family. We will often sing hymns and other songs while we are in the fields, and we will (hopefully) often have members of our community stop by to visit, and to learn. We’ll spend more time in the fields in the afternoon, and some of us will hang out in our little farm stand by the road to sell our produce to the people driving home after work. We’ll get a chance to meet, talk with, and provide nourishment for our neighbors.

It will not be work, it will simply be life. Living. Doing the kinds of things we are meant to do, outside in the fresh air, sunshine and rain. Spending our time and energy with the people we are meant to live with.

On Sundays, we will stay home from the fields and have rest, worship, and fellowship.


There are so, so many benefits to farming. It will let us be whole as a family, better connected with our community, closer to our God, keeping ourselves healthy and helping those around us to be healthier, stewarding our inheritance for the generations to come, and helping show a better way to a world that desperately, desperately needs it right now. For the life of me I can’t think of a better way to spend our lives.

I should note that farming can be backbreaking and stressful work. But it does not have to be that way, and it should not be that way.

I have studied agriculture and farming for years now, and have found many, many examples of people who are farming properly and it is neither backbreaking nor stressful. When done right, farming does not involve farm loans, expensive machines, and chemicals. Good farming is very resilient, and is much more able to handle the pests, diseases, and market fluctuations that would ruin a conventional farm. All that good farming requires is responsible business practices, industriousness and commitment. I view responsibility, industriousness and commitment as very important components of a good life, so no loss there!

This is all for now. The next post will be a very practical one – a list of the steps we have taken so far, what we are working on now, and the general plan to take us from pasture to a working farm in the next few months. Stay tuned!

The farmer in the arena

The farmer in the arena

Feeding billions of people is a very difficult task. My hat is off to the people who have been doing it and keeping pace with explosive population growth. We have big problems with how we make our food, though.

Most importantly, the industrial way we make food right now is simply not sustainable. Organic or not, industrial agriculture ultimately leads to wastelands and deserts. There is no question about this — every year we lose arable land to topsoil loss, salt buildup, and etc. We literally cannot keep doing things the same way or we will run out of land.

And this does not even mention all the other problems like the abuse of harmful chemicals, ensuing collapse of honeybees, the economic strangleholds exerted on farmers by the multinational chemical and ag companies, the dependence on fossil fuels for equipment and fertilizer, disappearing aquifers, etc.

But the problems (and solutions) go a lot deeper than new tricks for growing and harvesting things. We need farms that can *sustainably* produce food, yes, but also farms that can pay livable wages to workers. We need a lifestyle and workstyle such that more people will *want* to have those jobs. And even then, most modern people won’t want to do farm work. So we need agriculture that is de-industrialized but still efficient enough that the work of a few people can feed many, many others. We need grain and vegetable cultivars that fit this, and we need to embrace currently uncommon crops.

I could go on, but I will stop there.

I do not see the industrial system addressing it’s fundamental problems until it reaches a breaking point. And while alternative agriculture has come a long ways, there is still a ton of work to do figuring out how to deliver those things that I just said we need. Market gardens and CSA programs and the like are an important and necessary step in rebuilding agriculture, but few of them are successful businesses, almost none of them provide affordable staple crops, and they don’t produce enough food for the labor input. There are critical pieces that are still missing.

I do not claim to have those pieces, and maybe they do not exist. Maybe the agriculture we have now is the only kind that we can have with the culture and society and economy as it is. I honestly don’t know. But I’d like to try my hand at putting the pieces in place.

I haven’t been able to articulate it quite like this, but this is on of the very core reasons that I’ve become so obsessed with “gardening” lately. Now that I’m coming to understand more what it is I’m trying to do, I intend to start getting serious about it. Starting with the little garden we have, I’m going to start learning to farm.

Exactly what that means will be the subject of future posts…

Finding free gardenspace in your community

Finding free gardenspace in your community

We are going through a gradual process of getting more access to land to grow food on — and not just from buying our own land. Here is how we (and a few others) have found space. But first, I want to take an idealistic diversion to talk about why this is not just a practical way to grow food, but also a deeply important and good thing to do. Feel free to skip this section if you want to get straight to the practicalities…

The rightness of gardening any available land

In the Bible, there is a passage pretty near the start that says we are to fill the earth and subdue it. I do not take this to mean pavement and strip malls. This blessing was given in a garden, and it seems to me that the idea is for us to fill the earth with abundance, wisely tending the land to make it teem with useful life.

Most of the food that is created in our modern world is ruinous to the health of the people who eat it, and ruinous to the land. The deeper you dig into where our food comes from, the more you find adulteration and greed. It is so far backwards of what the original commandment and blessing that we were given.

We were created to tend land, in community with others, and share in the abundance. Not to dominate it by ploughing million-acre cornfields, but to subdue it with gardens teeming with every kind of natural life. The bible says — and I believe — that this is literally what we are made for. When properly subdued, all land can become made more productive by any measures, more diverse, and more beautiful.

Gardening anywhere, and especially in partnership with others, is fundamentally worthwhile. If you can eat the produce, that is wonderful. And given the scarcity of real food today, any of it that you can share is a blessing. I count it a privilege if I can get food growing anywhere, that anyone will eat.

At our apartment

After we filled our small deck with containers, our first tiny step towards expanding our garden was to approach the manager about letting us use a tiny (and I mean tiny!) little piece of ground at the bottom of our external flight of stairs. It was out of the way and we were granted permission. We grew a few potatoes and raspberries. Had we stayed there another year, I would have asked for more space – there was plenty of ground that could have been gardened there.

In this case, being out-of-the-way or aesthetically pleasing was important. Fortunately, there are a lot of herbs and vegetables that are absolutely beautiful and can fit in fine with ornamental plantings. If we had asked for more space, we would have approached the conversation with “let us maintain this area for you, for free, and here is how we will make it look nice.”

Many herbs are beautiful, and are sometimes grown purely for ornamentation. Rosemary, sage, and lavendar, for example. Mint, lemon balm, bee balm, and other mint family plants can fill areas with aromatic, attractive foliage. You can even plant a lot of things that are generally considered ornamental that are actually great edibles: for example, hostas have edible spring shoots, and nasturtiums have edible leaves and seeds which can be pickled to serve as capers.

In our neighborhood

We have a neighbor with a great big lawn (probably a half an acre) that gets mostly full sun. So we asked them if they would be okay with us planting an orchard there, and sharing the fruit with them. It would increase their property value, give them a variety of fresh fruits, and it would give us space to grow fresh fruits. A win-win.

And they said no, because they are planning to build something there someday. That was disappointing.

We have another neighbor, maybe a quarter mile down the street, who has a 40 acre lot that was clear cut a few years back. I asked him if I could scatter some seedballs on his land to see what varieties worked well in our area for doing that. And he told he that I could use an acre for that this year, and we are talking about planting rootstock apple trees from seed over a lot of the land. Hopefully we will grow hundreds of seedlings, give a ton away and have enough left for a nice big orchard. This is very exciting!

It took more than a year between thinking that I should talk to the person who owned the clearcut, and finally having the guts and followthrough to do it. And if the owner was not as friendly and open as he turned out to be, the answer probably would have been no. But if he had not said yes, someone else would have. Talk to your neighbors!

Guerilla style

My style generally includes asking for permission to do things. I have a friend (you know who you are…) who occasionally, and by that I mean regularly, indulges in guerilla gardening. There was an empty lot that he operated a community garden on for years. When the owner of the lot finally noticed, he thought it was a neat idea, and put together a $10 a year lease for the land. Sadly, a year or two later the lot was developed.

Now my friend is gardening in a strip of grass alongside the road that runs by his apartment. He is making a series of keyhole beds as he gets his hands on organic matter to fill them with. Search for “keyhole garden” if you are unfamiliar with the idea, they are fantastic drought-friendly garden beds. The crew that maintains the grass simply mows around his beds, and there has not been a problem. Only fresh, real food.

Tim Peters, something of a legend in the plant breeding world, would use the sides of roads for isolating different trials of his perennial rye project. Periodically along the roadside he would plant a few rye plants, and they would simply blend in with the various grass and weeds along the road. He was able to significantly expand his ability to experiment by doing this.

On the internet

I have tried a few different ways to arrange garden space over the internet. There are several yard-sharing websites designed to connect people who have extra yard space with people who want to garden. Those did not work for me, because they either didn’t cover my region, or the people I contacted never responded. That was disappointing.

What worked the best was posting to my and adjacent neighborhoods on, a social network for neighborhoods. I posted to ask if anybody had yard space for a project to breed drought resistant vegetable varieties, and said that I would share what was not needed for saving seeds. There were somewhere between a half dozen and a dozen responses, about 4 or 5 people who stayed in communication, two people who were ultimately interested, and one person who I had time to actually work with before we left.


  1. Think about what you can offer — free maintenance, beautification, produce, teaching, or improvement of property value. Or all of the above!
  2. If you want to find some space, be willing to talk to a number of people. Some will say no, some will be interested but fall by the way. If you are persistent, you will find somebody who says yes.
  3. And if you are thoughtful about it, you probably don not need to be afraid of turning unused public-ish space into gardens.
  4. If you can have a project for the space you are seeking, it can help you get interest. For example, a seed breeding project, or maybe sharing with a food bank. One of the best things about gardening is that it opens a world of abundance. It does not take much effort to grow a large amount of food to share.
  5. It is okay to garden for purely esthetic and practical ends (i.e. getting good food). It is also okay to garden with lofty, idealistic notions about changing the world (a little bit) and living the life we were created for. And it is especially okay to do both. : )