sharecropper, Growing Food in the Inner-city

Birgitt Evans has been gardening since she was a child.  Now a resident of Alameda—an eleven square mile island in Northern California’s San Francisco Bay—she’s transformed the 33×40-foot backyard of her urban home into a Master Garden and gourmet’s paradise.  At the peak of the season in Birgitt’s garden, it’s almost impossible to believe you’re in a city of 70,000 people, just a few miles from the mega-sprawl of the East Bay cities of Oakland and Berkeley, with San Francisco just across the bay to the west.  The birds, bees, and butterflies are abundant; and so is the produce.

Apples, figs, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, squash, basil, beans, lemons, turnips, kohlrabi, parsley, onions, asparagus, rutabaga, fava beans, potatoes, tomatillos, sage, marjoram, thyme, oregano, and zucchini are just a few of the things she’s grown—and learned to cook and preserve over the years.

Inside a Sharecropper's Garden: Growing Food in the Inner-city

“I’ve really been inspired by Joan Dye Gussow, and her life,” explains Birgitt.  Often called the mother of the sustainable food movement, Gussow has been promoting locally grown food for decades.  From her home in Piermont, New York, she’s demonstrated that year-round eating from 1,000 square feet in a suburban riverfront village is possible, life-sustaining, and delicious; and has written about it.  “I’ve always grown a lot,” says Birgitt, “but Gussow’s work has really invigorated me to rethink a number of things, including what I can grow that I can store for use to use in the winter time, and what I should be planting in the fall for winter and early spring harvest.”

In an essay for the 2005 book, Farm Aid: A Song for America, Gussow wrote: “while there continues to be pain and grief and loss on farmlands across the nation, there is also hope and determination to make a different system, one where vibrant local economies are based on thriving family farms, small-scale business enterprises, and markets featuring fresh local food year-round—economies that will make farming once again a desirable lifestyle, so that handing down the farm to one’s children will no longer seem like a punishment but a privilege.  If we level the playing field for producers by taking away the policies that support the present industrial food system—cheap fuel and water, public funding of high-tech agricultural research, massive public investments in infrastructure (including overbuilt highways to handle giant truckloads of traveling food)—we can invest the money saved in a food system that conserves soil, water, air, and human resources, and produces reasonably priced food.”

Birgitt concurs, heartily:  “Our entire food system is dependent on fossil fuels, so prices are rising.  Small farmers, who cannot compete with large enterprises, have been driven out of the system, and now food is being shipped incredibly long distances.  It doesn’t help that consumers want summer produce like grapes, strawberries, and watermelon in the middle of winter, so these are shipped from places like Chile to meet our demand.  But as the price of transportation makes this less economically viable, at a certain point only the wealthy will be able to afford imported food.  At some point in the near future, we are going to have to learn to eat seasonally and locally, and grow our food and put it up for the winter.”

With this on her mind, Birgitt got involved with the Alameda Backyard Growers, a group that encourages members to grow food in their backyards and donate their extra fruits and vegetables to organizations that serve low-income and food-insecure residents such as the Alameda Food Bank.  “The group was on just getting up and running then, but it still had more than forty people show up to the first meeting,” she says.

Inside a Sharecropper's Garden: Growing Food in the Inner-city

The fact that so many people showed up is a testament to how interested people are in growing food for themselves and others, but on Alameda—a compact island comprising sandy drained marshland and, in places, bay fill—there is very little community garden space, and many of the home lots like Birgitt’s are small.

“We’re on a pretty densely populated island where good land is at premium.  I’ve wanted more space for a really long time,” explains Birgitt.  “I can grow enough for two people to eat during the summer, but to grow enough to get us through the winter, I needed more land.”

Fortunately for Birgitt, one of the people who showed up at the meeting was Gladys, who unlike Birgitt, had lots of land, but not the time, energy, or knowledge to garden it in the way her mother had years before.

Inside a Sharecropper's Garden: Growing Food in the Inner-city

“Gladys’ mother was Mandarin Chinese, and had grown fruits and vegetables in their backyard.  When her mother passed away, the vegetable garden became neglected, since Gladys and her husband didn’t have the time to keep it up,” says Birgitt. “But she did have an emotional resonance with the idea of the land being used for something productive.”

Gladys’ garden is located in an older neighborhood of Alameda where the lots are comparatively large.  After visiting Birgitt’s home garden for ideas, they planned one large bed that encompasses about 550 square feet of Gladys’ land, which includes some mature fruit trees.  “I wanted to make sure she understood that a productive garden doesn’t always look pretty,” Birgitt adds, “And I was really hoping that this wasn’t an idea she had because of sentimentality for her mother.”  She laughs as she remembers she knew Gladys was committed when they mutually agreed on the perfect spot for a compost heap.

The idea of sharecropping—where a landowner allows a tenant to use the land in return for a share of the crop—has been around for thousands of years, although it’s considered controversial since it often benefits the landowner, while the sharecropper remains in poverty with little or no access to social or cultural development or growth.  A contract for métayage, a type of sharecropping, dating back to about 533 BCE is on display in the Louvre in Paris.

Sharecropping in the United States became widespread during the post-Civil War period of reconstruction (1865–1877).  Then the mass influx of immigrants in the 1900s again increased its popularity during the First World War. Being a sharecropper was one of few options for penniless freedmen and immigrants with no other trade to support themselves and their families.

Croppers were assigned a plot of land to work, and in exchange owed the landowner a share of the crop at the end of the season.  Though the arrangement protected sharecroppers from the negative effects of a bad crop, many sharecroppers were economically confined to serf-like conditions of poverty.  Annual contracts often allowed the sharecropper to keep less than half of the crop, and the sale price was usually set by the landowner.  Because the landowner wielded so much control, there was little or no profit for the sharecropper.

Unlike the circa 1900s sharecropper arrangement, the new millennium understanding is that there has to be benefit on both sides.  “We’re both sufficiently generous and dedicated to having this be a viable operation,” Birgitt says.  “We didn’t set out to set up any formal arrangement; we’re inventing the relationship as we go.”

“My advice is to be flexible and have a mutual understanding of your needs and expectations,” she adds.

dried corn

In February 2010, Birgitt began clearing the weeds from the soil, building a new compost pile as she went.  It took her about eight hours to clear an area that’s roughly 18×30 feet.  She worked on her hands and knees, pulling by hand so she could get to know every inch of the soil, a process that she describes as indispensable when starting a new garden from scratch.  She then marked out her three-foot-wide beds with 18-inch paths between and spread about an inch-and-a-half of purchased compost across the surface.  The beds run east to west to maximize sunlight to all the plants.  Turning the compost, several boxes of organic 5-5-5 fertilizer, plus Brix Mix foliar feed (which had solidified into an unusable brick) that is a 1-1-22 + trace elements into the beds, again by hand, took a couple of weeks.  At the east end of each bed, Birgitt planted herbs or flowers to attract bees and other pollinators as well as beneficial insects.

“Gladys paid for the compost and helped me layout the pathways; in addition, her brother set up the irrigation system with a timer.  I do all the growing,” Birgitt says.  “I leave crops for her on the porch, but we don’t have any set agreement.  I’ve asked Gladys if she wants me to grow anything in particular, and she suggested some Asian vegetables.  I don’t know if it’s because the soil is not as rich as it needs to be, or that they need more heat, but we didn’t have much success.  It’s a learning process, but we’ll keep trying.”

Birgitt believes one of the keys to success here is that both she and Gladys love to cook.  “If you’re going to put lots of energy, time, and money into a garden, you’ve got to love to cook,” she emphasizes.  “If nobody eats what you grow, you’re throwing that energy, time, and money away on a nice idea.”  Last year, Birgitt, Gladys, and their families and friends harvested and ate winter squash, sugar pie pumpkins, Tomboncino summer squash, potatoes, black turtle soup beans, popcorn, tomatoes, Romano beans, basil, zucchini, bok choy, and arugula.


When asked if there’s anything she grows that she doesn’t like to eat, Birgitt laughs:  “Well, my husband doesn’t like green beans very much, so I have to disguise them when I cook.” She then explains why she also plants drought-tolerant ornamentals and herbs.  “All vegetable gardens need to have flowers to attract pollinators.  And studies have proven that you need permanent habitat and food sources for all beneficials.  The more natural and diverse you can keep your ecosystem, the more beneficial insects you’ll attract.  Along one edge of her garden, rosemary, lavender, borage, cosmos, and oregano are swarmed with bees to prove her point.

However, she also admits that gardening can be frustrating.  “The birds pick the peas to pieces, the bitter melon failed, and my carrots have been completely eaten by slugs six times in a row.  There’s just no such thing as a perfect garden environment.  But we adapt and learn.  And with the changing environment, who knows: our seasons could be extended or contract.  Things we previously grew won’t do as well, and other new things will grow.”

Inside a Sharecropper's Garden: Growing Food in the Inner-city

“We have to change where we grow our food and buy locally-grown produce,” she adds.  “It scares me that our food security is in the hands of a few corporations that only have profits in mind.” According to the USDA, farmers get less than 20 cents for every dollar spent by consumers. The rest is spent on processing, wholesaling, distribution, retailing, and marketing.  “For all their work and for their huge investments in seeds and equipment, farmers get practically no reward, so their options are limited by economy.  Affordable choices of certain seeds are rapidly disappearing, which is scary, because if the seed fails, for whatever reason, people will starve to death.”

According to researchers at the University of Michigan’s Center for Sustainable Agriculture, on average more than seven calories of fossil fuel is burned up for every calorie of energy we get from our food.  “We have to start asking ourselves where our food is going to come from in twenty or thirty years,” Birgitt says, “Local food, eaten in season, is the only way we are going to become food secure, and I hope I’m pioneering that in my small corner of the planet.”

“Although I’m still buying onions, but I’ve planted about twenty plants, so we’ll see,” she adds, “and those peas …”

To find out how the peas fared, you can visit Birgitt’s gardens online.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.