Now Playing:


local | Economy

Rethinking the Front Yard: Cities Make Room For Urban Farms

Michelle Obama isn't the only one turning her family's front yard into a garden. 

Throughout the Northwest, people are looking at ways to farm inside city limits. 

These small-scale operations aren't likely to put grocery stores out of business.  But they are bringing neighbors together, and changing the way we think about urban agriculture. Deena Prichep reports.

 Urban Farms 3
Rather than growing a lawn, this homeowner's front yard is being prepared to farm, as part of the Sellwood Garden Club.

Two women are running a rototiller, breaking up the dirt to plant fall crops.  But this isn't a field in the country - it's a front yard in Southeast Portland. 

The Sellwood Garden Club grows more than 200 varieties of crops, and sells to several local restaurants, using just a few dozen front lawns.

Co-founder Marie Richie got the idea from outer space.

Marie Richie:  "The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence inspired my garden you could say." 

Now, bear with me here.  Back in the late 90s, scientists were sorting through telescope data, looking for a message from another planet.  But they had more data than their computers could handle. 

So ordinary people volunteered to let their computers crunch the numbers at home. 

Sadly, researchers didn't find an alien signal.  But they did show how this system, called a distributed network, could work. 

 Urban Farms 2
Portland Fruit Tree Project volunteers harvest apples from a front yard farm.

So Richie thought if unused computers could cycle through data, why can't unused yards grow vegetables?  The club uses a distributed network of yards to put a new urban spin on a very old idea.

Marie Richie:  "We call it sharecropping, but it's a modern take on it.  It's sharing.  I mean, the key word in there is share."

Members of the Sellwood Garden Club offer up their lawns and foot the water bill.  In exchange, they get a delivery of produce every week. 

Farms like this are changing the definition of urban agriculture. 

Steve Cohen coordinates food policy programs at Portland's Bureau of Planning and Sustainability.  He says having urban planners think about food at all is a fairly recent development.

Steve Cohen:  "They thought about transportation, they thought about open space, they thought about housing.  But food, which is a very basic requirement for all of us, it was never really on the radar." 

Now that's changed.  Cohen's agency has started teaching sold-out classes on beekeeping, food preservation, and chickens. 

Cities all over are looking at their planning codes, to make sure there's a place for agriculture in urban life.  Some existing regulations will stay in place - nobody wants to hear roosters crowing or tractors revving up at six a.m. - but codes are changing to recognize front-yard farming.

In another Portland yard, a dozen volunteers are learning about the urban bounty firsthand.  They're here for a harvest party with the Portland Fruit Tree Project, and they're picking apples.

Katy Kolker:  "Oh, this one's perfect."

Fruit tree owners with more plums, pears and persimmons than they can handle register their trees for a harvest with the Fruit Tree Project. 

When the picking is done, half of the fruit goes to a food bank.  The other half gets divided among the volunteers. 

This year, the Project is on track to harvest an estimated 10,000 pounds of fruit from yards.  Katy Kolker founded the group two years ago.

 Urban Farms 1
Box of apples, picked from a front yard by the Portland Fruit Tree Project.

Katy Kolker:  "We're kind of hitting on a need in the community, both from tree owners who aren't able to harvest their fruit, and see that fallen fruit is a nuisance as well as just a shame, and hundreds and hundreds of people who want to come out and help harvest with us."

When the group started, Kolker only knew of a few similar organizations.  There was Lettuce Link in Seattle, and the Fruit Tree Project in Vancouver, BC.  Kolker doesn't think the geography's a coincidence: much of the Pacific Northwest was built on orchards.

Katy Kolker:  "The land that we're on is actually farmland - there's just a lot more houses on it."

Kolker has seen a greater need for the project during the current recession.   But like Steve Cohen at the Food Policy Council, she hopes efforts like these lay the groundwork for future harvests, even when the economy improves.

Urban farmers see agriculture in the city not just as a money-saver, but as a way to connect people to their food and their neighbors.  And, as Kolker puts it.

Katy Kolker:  "The fun of just being out and harvesting fruit." (sounds of apple biting, chewing)

Katy Kolker: "That's a good apple."


Sellwood Garden Club

Portland Fruit Tree Project