A Journey Back to Sustainable Agriculture
There are many reasons why people are drawn to the homesteading lifestyle; there is the lure of living simply and sustainably off the land, the satisfaction of eating home grown food, the possibility of a better life quality or for the support of the green living movement. These are all romantic ideologies and to those dreaming about the possibility of changing their lifestyle, it is important to reexamine exactly where their motivation lies. I had to figure out why it was that I felt the need to homestead and what I discovered was that I had gone full circle. My desire to live off the land was rooted in my cultural upbringing in East Africa; in how Africans deal with rising unemployment rates and increased food prices. It had to do with me being a generation removed from Africans that lived and thrived successfully in homesteads.
Growing up in Nairobi, Kenya was where my journey began. One would think that living in the suburbs of a capital city would mean that my gardening skills are lacking but just the opposite. I grew up in atmosphere that nurtured the importance of living off the land. I understood that well tended gardening plots can help stave off hunger; I understood that Mother Nature was unpredictable, denying crops rain when they need it the most; and because of our reliance on the environment for our food security, I learned how to collect rainwater for irrigation, and the importance of recycling nutrients through composting and manure usage for healthier crops. These lessons when put together become my most important first lesson; when given a chance nature provides.
The City Did Not Take Over the Farmlands… the Farmers Took Over the City
I grew up in Nairobi, which at the time was a good example of a developing city in the third world. It was there within the city limits that I learned about homesteading. At the time I didn’t know what my family practiced was homesteading, I understood it as a part of life. The words used to describe our agricultural lifestyle were “urban agriculture”. Urban agriculture is defined as a type of agriculture (crops and livestock) within the boundaries of a city. It is a common practice within the city limits in developing countries. This type of subsistence sustainable agriculture is practiced by a large percent of city dwellers. It produces a substantial amount of food, subsidizing store bought food. In some cases poorer or entrepreneur urban farmers sell their produce for profit. The cultivated plots can be found all over the city; not only in back yards but also on public lands, along roadways, in the roundabouts, in empty lots downtown and along river banks. Urban agriculture does not only include growing produce but also the raising of domesticated animals such as chickens, goats, ducks, sheep and cows.
Urban Sustainable Agriculture as a Lifestyle
To understand the urban agriculture phenomenon in developing countries, it is important to understand some of the cultural and traditional background of the urban dwellers. Kenya was at one time a British colony; it was the British that built the cities and brought their societal ideologies to the Kenyans. In order to obtain goods and services, Kenyans, who had maintained generations on subsistence farming in rural homesteads were forced to move to urban centers to seek employment and better opportunities in the changing and developing world. My parents were first generation city dwellers; both grew up in rural communities where farming was paramount. My mother’s father was a commercial farmer growing maize and other cash crops, while my father’s father was a subsistence farmer producing barely enough for his family. In both cases the only farming practices they used were environmentally friendly methods. Culture and lack of industrialized farming aids mandated it.
When the immigrants moved to the city, they carried with them hopes of a new life; a life of high wages that did not include the daily toiling of the land. However, that was not what happened. It turned out that urban life was uncertain. With rapid urbanization the city’s population soared and with those changes came inflation along with unemployment, decreased food availability and distribution problems. Soon the majority of the city dwellers started finding themselves unable to feed their families and it became imperative for them to find ways to subsidize their earnings and provide for their families. Gradually the new immigrants to the city quickly realized that they could turn to farming; after all there was a lot of available land. Those living in poverty who did not have land, planted crops on public lands, while those who were better off planted crops in their back yards.
When the country finally gained independence from the British, many of the foreigners left. The local population took over their homes and jobs; creating new class of city dwellers. They moved into the well manicured and fenced in compounds that the colonialists left behind. Beyond those tall fences of the well to do residences, homeowners planted crops and kept animals. Even though it seemed that some of them did not need the food security, they still turned to backyard gardening as farming was something they knew and felt connected to.
Picture of Backyard in Nairobi (1990). Turkeys and chickens were housed together in a chicken run behind the “servants quarters”.
Growing Up as an Urban Agriculturalist
My parents were typical immigrants to the city. They bought a house in a middle class neighborhood and beyond the gated entranceway they hand cultivated a vegetable plot. It was planted with maize, beans and a wide selection of greens. The seedling and seeds come from a variety of sources but most came from friends and family. At some point chickens were introduced into our urban homestead. Keeping chickens was an incidental decision; chickens are given as gifts to visiting families and after visiting relatives in the rural country we were always handed chickens. These free range chickens soon become an integral part of our urban homestead. They supplied us with fresh eggs and meat. Their droppings were used as manure to replenish the nutrients in the vegetable garden plot. The free range chickens were eventually joined by commercial chicken layers. The layer’s eggs were collected and sold for a small income. As a child, I spent time cleaning the chicken house, chasing chickens that had escaped from the chicken run and tending to the garden plot. Looking back I now realize how necessary it was to homestead; knowing that when a food shortage did occur (which did happen occasionally) we would be fine.
Our two-acre urban plot also had numerous fruit trees. There were a variety of mango trees, guavas, loquats, bananas, custard apples, mulberries and a type of berry I still have yet to identify. Snack time as a child involved grazing the backyard’s bounty of fruits. Back yard fruit orchards were very common; in fact I remember one of my friends in the neighborhood had a hedge made of passion fruits vines. I remember looking forward to a tasty glass of freshly squeezed passion fruit juice whenever I paid her a visit. I did not realize how much I missed that aspect of my life until I became a mother and realized the expense associated with buying fresh fruits all year long.
Front yard of yard in Nairobi (1990): This view includes a view of a loquat, banana and guava tree, hidden from view are mango, custard apple and a mulberry tree.
Coming to America
When I turned 18 years old I came to the United States. I was excited and looked forward to living in the land of unbridled food security. All through my young adult years, I never once thought of growing my own food or becoming a homesteader. I lived in college dorms and apartments; nothing with a backyard. After college, I was way too busy climbing the corporate ladder and sinking deeper into consumerism to think about being self-sufficient. The first turning point occurred when my husband and I bought our first home in Northern Florida. It do not remember making a conscious decision to grow a vegetable garden what I remember doing is looking at the backyard and wondering what could be done with all that space. The house was located on about half an acre and had little landscaping. Incorporating a vegetable garden seemed like a good use for the yard.
While in Florida I took advantage of the abundance of citrus fruits and learnt how to make marmalade and preserves. That was also the year I became a work at home mother. This meant that I spend most of my time at home. I filled in my time learning more about gardening. I grew beautiful hot peppers and experimented making hot sauces which I gave away as gifts. Our stay in Florida left me yearning for a huge back yard to grow a wider variety of vegetables.
Laying the Groundwork
The next turning point came as a realization of the fragility of our food security. It happened when the family moved to upstate, New York. It was at this point that my gardening transitioned from being a hobby to a sustainable necessity; our financial future faced uncertainty. That year I purchased a copy of “Square Foot Gardening” by Mel Bartholomew; I wanted to make sure I made the most of our small gardening plot.
By reading that book, I learnt about crop rotation, soil conditioning and how to make the most of a small gardening space. I added a strawberry patch to my small garden in the hamlet. The patch produced enough fresh berries for the season and enough to freeze for the rest of the year.
My gardening techniques and methods improved, and as a result my garden flourished. I gave away much produce to friends and neighbors. When we purchased a second freezer, I learned about freezing the harvest.
Upstate New York is also apple country. It was here that I learned about cider making and jelly making. Every fall we picked apples at a friend’s farm. I canned apple sauce and apple butter. I found that I enjoyed taking control of what I feed the family. Not only was it enjoyable, but my new preoccupation was great for our bottom line.
One of three garden plots Upstate New York 2003
Pioneers Were the Real Inspiration
Being in rural New York also allowed me to learn more about American history; I learned to appreciate the life that the early pioneers lived. They had to traverse and tame the rugged landscape of the Catskill Mountains, its steep slopes and rocky ground. The winters must have been extremely harsh and they must have had to spend most of the year preparing for the winter. My interest in the early pioneers seemed to intensify after we decided to switch from heating with natural gas to wood (it was much cheaper). I broadened my vegetable garden to include winter squashes, greens and root vegetables; the kinds of produce that could be stored for use in the winter. It was now necessary to not only store food for the winter but also to make sure we had enough wood to stay warm in the winter.
Learning other sustainable country living techniques started to follow. I bought another book titled “Country Wisdom & Know-How”. The book was full of information about homesteading. It was then I knew that it was my goal to reconnect with a sustainable lifestyle. I remembered the lessons from my childhood; saving money by growing our own produce and teaching our children the value of farming.
Planning a Homestead
At this point in my life, all the knowledge that I have acquired from my childhood through to my adulthood has come together. With it, I plan to create our perfect homestead that has been a lifetime in the making. As I look back on my life so far, I am grateful for my African roots; it was there I learned about simple subsistence living and how important having foresight allows you to be prepared to deal with anything life sends your way. I am also grateful for the American pioneers; it was from them that I was able to translate what I learned as a child into a new style of simple living.