Tammy Curry greeted me with fresh homemade bread, slathered with butter, and a glass of cool sweet tea. It was in the high nineties outside at 4 pm, and I was grateful to postpone our garden walk for a while. I sat on one end of the couch in her small living-room, and she lounged at the other end with 20-month-old Morgan curled around her. Occasionally her husband Jay would try to wheedle “Monster Man” Morgan away so we women could talk, but Morgan was having none of it, and to his credit, stayed quiet throughout our conversation.
Occasionally too, seven-year-old Claire would breeze in, displaying her stick-on fingernails or offering to put the dog out. “She’s kind of full of herself today,” Tammy told me. “Her picture’s in the paper.” Claire’s color photo, outstretched arms in front of her 4-H garden plot, was just a sidebar that day, but the following day it would be the out-sized feature photo, highlighting an article about Tammy’s homestead in the Mt. Airy News.
Mt. Airy News is not exactly the big time, and Mt. Airy itself is strictly small time and proud of it; it makes a living off being the fictional Andy Griffith/Taylor home of “Mayberry”. But one senses that Tammy Curry, an organic gardener, is going places. Soon she may literally be going, as she and Jay hope to purchase a large farm near Pinnacle, about 15 miles down Highway 52. It was a working farm up until a few years ago, Tammy tells me, and includes an 80-year-old farmhouse. Tammy can envision life there already, commenting, “A certain dog will have more room to run.” Claire, who rejected home-schooling this year, will stay in her current elementary school after the move, with Tammy, who is a stay-at-home mother, providing transportation out of the district. Jay, who used to be a computer technician, will keep working when and where he can to provide a basic income. Right now he puts in shifts at the local candle factory. He’s no longer committed to a career, and the family looks forward to becoming full-time organic farmers.
As she said in the news article, “We do pretty well with the limited space we have and the Community Shared Agriculture and farmer’s market.” To me, Tammy acknowledges that her CSA income is a key factor. With several customers paying $300 per year, she can rely on “seed money”… literally. Tammy told the News interviewer, “CSA is a relatively new idea in the United States. The idea is that the producer and the customers share the risks and expenses of food production. It began in the 1960s in Japan, Germany, and Switzerland. The idea is to reduce financial risks and food losses for farmers.” The CSA movement and one of its more famous American proponents are depicted in colorful detail in “The Real Dirt on Farmer John,” a documentary film that was aired on PBS, and in an article about the film at Homestead.org.
Tammy is a sturdy woman with a clear gaze, a ready smile, and a well-developed vision for her family. Daughter of a Marine father and a hippie mother, who put Tammy to baking bread as soon as she could reach up to the table, she is a domestic powerhouse who manages the homesteading side of the family income.
But how does she balance all this—two kids, meat ‘n’ pet bunnies, chickens for eggs and baked bread and veggies for customers whose boxes must be restocked weekly—on a postage stamp of rented land?
Answer: very well.
The Challenges of Urban Homesteading
Urban homesteading carries its blessings and its challenges. An academic treatise, Agropolis: The Social, Political and Environmental Dimensions of Urban Agriculture (Earthscan, 2005), is a collection worth reading. It’s full of research papers on how small-scale city gardeners cope throughout the world. In England, for example, the allotment system has been a part of urban culture for “donkey’s years,” a curious expression meaning a long, long time. I heard it only in England, sometimes shortened to “yonks.” People who live in a certain area or on a certain “estate” (what we would call a housing development or an apartment complex) have the right to rent, if available, a small plot forming part of a large garden space. There they may garden at will—orchards, greenhouses, apiaries, topiaries, whatever strikes the fancy of the lessee. Most allotment gardeners are retired, though younger folks occasionally take up the activity, often seeing it as a Cause. Some use their plots to grow vegetables and fruits for home consumption and some make small money off selling their produce at farmer’s markets. The plots are generally within a few blocks of home and provide, among other benefits, recreation and exercise. Very often, the allotment “quilt” provides a green swath in the midst of urban blight and therefore serves the purpose of natural beautification. It is rare to see an unused allotment plot or a neglected one. If you get one, you tend to hold on to it for yonks.
In Cuba, another hot grow-spot included in Agropolis, urban gardening has taken on guerilla status. Cubans, like their Iberian forebears, have always been inclined to grow flowers on their patios and hang cages with canaries and budgerigars in their cool window casements. A full-scale nutrition gardening movement burst forth in reaction to food shortages in 1989. Despite government embarrassment, the home-growers of Havana would not be suppressed. They put containers of veggies and boxes of rabbits and chickens on their roofs and patios. “They creatively used objects like tires as planters for vegetables and constructed small, manageable warrens for raising animals for food. They struggled with issues such as obtaining animal feed and official objections…the authors imply that because Cuba once again considers itself food self-sufficient, there will be a more stringent attitude on the part of authorities toward this urban guerilla effort to keep families fed and operate micro-business.” (Counterpoise Magazine, Volume 10, Winter/Spring 2006, review by Barbara Bamberger Scott).
These examples dovetail with Tammy’s assertion that “anybody can be an urban gardener, even if they don’t call themselves that.” Maybe you have a few containers of tomatoes on the deck or an avocado plant growing in the kitchen window. You would be, by Tammy’s definition, an urban gardener. Tammy is an idealist.
One of the Curry family’s recent challenges occurred when they had to go out of town for two weeks. When they got back the garden was a jungle. Following fast on the heels of this emergency (recalling that weekly orders had to be filled for CSA consumers) was an attack by a roving dog or perhaps a wild animal (foxes abound in the peri-urban southland), which wiped out numerous bunnies and hens. This resulted in a move indoors. The bunnies now reside in cages as before, but their mobile homes have been transported to the house’s climate-controlled basement. Luckily, many critters are content in cooler conditions and this uprooting has not ruffled any feathers or stirred any fur. The day I visited, I “captured” the bunnies quite contentedly living the basement life, and caught a snap of two hens and two adolescent guineas almost, as it were, frozen in place next to the HVAC generator, soaking up some serious breeze.
Tammy’s mobile life began in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, an area once rural and now taken over by urban DC sprawl to the point where, to Tammy, it’s become unrecognizable. From there she edged on down to Blacksburg, Va, to attend Virginia Tech. After she’d been there for a while she was followed by her parents when her father “just happened” to get a job in the Roanoke area. “We’re a close family,” Tammy smiles. Tammy and Jay then migrated to Floyd, Virginia where she began to exchange emails and then real-life visits with Dori Fritzinger whom she “met” on an organic farming website. Dori, who farms near Mt. Airy, is the subject of another article at Homestead.org: “How Does a House Become a Homestead”. Floyd, for those who’ve never been there, and that will be most of you, is located in a county with only one “red light,” as the locals call it. It’s an indigenous farming locale that’s been invaded by hipsters of various stripes and is noted for its enclave of excellent old-time musicians, making it a stop on Virginia’s “Crooked Road Heritage Music Trail.”
But that was not a sufficient draw for Tammy. After Jay was laid off from work, more than once the victim of downsizing or corporate sangfroid, she realized she’d been spending nearly every weekend visiting Dori. “So I decided, why drive 45 minutes each way when I can move down there and see her whenever I like?” That’s how she ended up in Mt. Airy.
It was a meeting of great female minds. Dori and Tammy created a monthly publication, Country Family Magazine, aimed at working farm moms like themselves (soon to be reborn as a quarterly newsletter since they realized how much work went into producing an issue monthly). The two went to small livestock sales and “when we came home we’d just divide up whatever we bought.” Mostly bunnies. Tammy can’t raise goats now, though her landlord has given her permission, just not enough space. Tammy’s desire for goats will have to wait for the move to Pinnacle. Both Dori and Tammy sew and Tammy has made children’s dresses a feature of her many enterprises, such as the entity Menagerie Farm Dress Shop. Until the big move, she sells mainly through the website http://menageriefarm2.tripod.com. Claire’s dresses were the inspiration for this wing of Tammy’s business.
One notable difference between the two women is that while Dori is careful to proclaim that everything that leaves her charge is “on the hoof, on the hop, or on the wing,” her comrade Tammy will eat her rabbits once production is up, and can sell them butchered. “I grew up on a farm. We kids used help with butchering and packaging for the family freezer.” Tammy is tough.
What has Tammy turned on right now is the Mittleider Method.
She tells me her plans as we take the garden walk and gander at her small but thriving veggie plot and the smaller but thriving better plot belonging to Claire. “Claire’s is doing better because she waters it more. Once she starts something, she’s very focused,” Tammy tells me with maternal pride. “She waters for maybe 45 minutes every morning and every evening.” Claire isn’t old enough yet to compete for a 4-H prize, so she’ll be getting a ribbon in the mail Claire is already planning her garden for next year.
Tammy’s plan for the fall growing season (Tammy, like Claire, is a planner), is to prepare one traditional bed grown with bunny manure and bedding for compost, and the other “strictly Mittleider”. Tammy tells me this experimentation will be precise, scientific, and suggests I come back in a month or so and see how the two beds are coming along.
Jacob R Mittleider (1918-2006) is noted for developing a “grow-box” system of agriculture, a distant cousin to hydroponics, that method much touted in sci-fi space exploration movies but not greatly embraced by the farming mainstream. His method is sometimes referred to as “poor man’s hydroponics”.
Jacob R. Mittleider is sometimes called Dr. Mittleider, though evidence for his having a doctorate that is other than honorary is unavailable through my many web searches. I did learn that he sojourned in post-Communist Russia helping to establish an agricultural program at a college founded by the Seventh Day Adventist Church. Mittleider was a devout member of the church and he and his wife reportedly spent years in foreign climes setting up experimental stations in self-sacrificing efforts to test and promote their agricultural methodology. It was not an overtly evangelistic mission, but church members were proud of the Mittleider’s presence overseas and felt it had a positive impact on the religion. Whilst at the college in Russia, Mittleider was referred to in the prospectus as simply Jacob R. Mittleider. Had he had advanced degrees one assumes they would have been underscored. Later, it seems, “during the time he was teaching in the developing countries, Dr. Mittleider was honored with two Doctorate degrees—one from Florida Beacon College, and the other from Timorazi University in Moscow, Russia (reputedly the most prestigious school in the Russian Commonwealth).” This quote comes from a biographical sketch at Amazon.com, from an uncredited source.
Mittleider was born in Idaho and later went to live in California. The one biographical blurb I was able to find, partially quoted above, states that in California, Mittleider “concentrated on a scientific and practical study of agriculture, which he mastered.” I am reserving my judgment about the extent of this accomplishment, assuming that the hubris implied was contributed not by Mittleider himself, who seems to have been a modest person, but by his enthusiastic acolytes.
The best-known Mittleider booster is Jim Kennard, a Mormon who heads an organization called Food for Everyone (his baby, not Mittleider’s). Before he became a Mittleider gardener, Kennard was a businessman and CPA. Kennard was given rights to many of the books of Mittleider, whom he met in Russia and who later became his gardening guru in the U.S. Kennard is now referred to as a “master gardener.” Mittleider’s books include The Mittleider Gardening Course, Mittleider Grow-Box Gardening, and Gardening by the Foot. These three and others are published by Food for Everyone. Jim just returned from a gardening visit to Armenia. According to Tammy, he pays for most of his travels out of his own pocket.
Try as I did, I could find almost no references to Mittleider which did not loop back to Kennard and Food for Everyone.
It should be noted that the Mittleider devotees don’t try to sell you grow boxes or specially-charged water molecules. FFE is not apparently selling much except books (though mind you, there is good money to be made in the perennial sales of glossy gardening books). They do market nutritional soil supplements for a modest cost on the FFE website, ostensibly to save you a lot of trouble mixing them yourself. The main goal is to make you a happy super-productive gardener. And to spread the gospel of good growth to the entire world.
Here’s Kennard’s spiel on tomato production by the Mittleider principles, often reproduced on websites that tout the Mittleider Method:
“Just a quarter-acre of tomatoes grown properly, and selling for only $.50 per pound, would yield $25,000 per year! Have I got your attention? Let’s see how it’s done.
“A quarter-acre, or 10,390 square feet, will accommodate 78 30-foot rows of plants, grown in 4′ X 30′ Grow-Boxes, with 3 1/2′ side aisles, and 5′ end aisles. Planting 9″ apart gives you 41 plants per bed or 3,198 total. Of course, this requires growing vertically with T-Frames, and pruning your plants. By growing a tomato that averages 8 ounces (some varieties are even bigger), and growing vertically, each plant should produce 16# of fruit from July through October. How? Good varieties produce a cluster of 3-7 tomatoes every 5-7” up a 7′ stem in 4 months of production. Using 4 per cluster and 12 clusters gives 48 tomatoes, and at 8 ounces each, your yield would be 24# per plant. Let’s reduce that by one-third, to be conservative.
“This amounts to 51,168 pounds of tomatoes (16# X 41 X 78) — or $25,584 at $.50 per pound. Who said you couldn’t live out of your garden!”
Because this reads like an ad, I kept looking for the hook, the sales gimmick, but found none. Yet still, it reminds me of the old blurbs you used to see on the inside flap of matchbooks: “Learn to play the piano in 10 easy lessons!” “Grow mushrooms in your basement for fun and profit!” “Don’t be a ninety-pound weakling!” “Learn to draw and make millions!” One wonders if the good Doctor Mittleider would have agreed wholeheartedly to the marketing of his books, had he known they would include catchphrases like “mini grow-boxes for maxi yield.”
I am accustomed to a softer sell. In general, I’ve observed that most organic food growers live in a magic circle of anti-commercialism, their toil in itself comprising a religion. Tammy professes no special religious belief, is not a Mormon or a Seventh Day Adventist, but acknowledges that as a child of flower children, she grew up under the cozy multi-colored umbrella of Organic. Organic is about respect for the planet, a natural path to health, a love of heritage, and a sense of sharing well-being with our Earth neighbors.
So I am leery on her behalf. Because Kennard’s presentation is so slick I have to keep looking and looking and looking for the angle.
But why shouldn’t it be true, all true, and why shouldn’t I want it to be? What if there was a simple, cheap way to save the planet by supplying us all with the easy wherewithal to produce our own edibles? Tammy says that Kennard emphasizes tomatoes because that’s what most people want to grow. Yet if spreading a happy message about the method is all that FFE is about, why does Kennard feel a need to grab our attention by appealing to the greed side, the profit angle, from the get-go?
How many tomatoes can one family eat, can, sell, or give away?
Answer: in my case, not too many. The year my husband and I decided to go heavily into tomato growing, using little more than stakes and cages and haphazard weeding, we were bombarded with tomatoes, had far too many tomatoes to eat or can or give away, and most fell neglected to the ground to be consumed by birds, beetles, and slugs.
Jim Kennard and Tammy Curry are in communication and she has volunteered for a place on his marketing board to help “promote Food for Everyone and the Mittleider Method.” Again, I suspect a hook but none gleams bright enough for documentation. Tammy believes she can improve his website presentation. Tammy is loyal.
I want Tammy to be able to grow 51,168 pounds of tomatoes in heavy clay soil in her backyard in Surry County if that is her dream. I want all to be well, and very well.
I believe Tammy Curry has her head on straight, and will not pursue an empty endeavor. She can turn a negative situation around. If Mittleider grow-boxes are The Way she will follow; if not, she will move on. She has much at stake: the mortgage on the new farm, the money for gas to get Claire to her chosen school, her seed capital, and start-ups for the “old-fashioned farm events and celebrations” she hopes to offer once the farm is up and running. Tammy is a realist. She’s also a visionary. She wants a business that brings in money to support her and Jay and Morgan and Claire, gives inner satisfaction, makes a contribution to the life of the community, and will be sustainable for yonks.
I am hoping to visit Tammy next summer, perhaps at her new farm near Pinnacle, and with her, complete a satisfying sequel. Will Claire win the 4-H prize and get her picture in the paper again? Will the old dog get to run free in the shadow of Pilot Mountain? Will there be celebrations in the old farmhouse at the Autumnal Equinox? Will there be cider, music, and plenty of tomatoes? Stay tuned.