When the Great Recession rolled upon the country in 2007, it sparked a silver cloud – a rekindled interest in homesteading. In recent years, a growing appreciation of varying levels of self-sufficient living has swept into mainstream society and given many Americans a fun, new and sustainable hobby.
There’s far more to urban farming than enjoying the fruits (or eggs) of one’s labor. Growing and cultivating at home offers emotional nourishment and peace of mind. Just ask local urban farmers Eric Sevigny, Terri Price and Katie Free.
The Gardener Professor
Eric Sevigny, an assistant professor in criminology and criminal justice at the University of South Carolina, cultivated his love of growing at an early age. “My father was a gardener who grew tomatoes and other veggies. I’d get right there in the garden with him as a boy,” says Eric. “Years later, when Emily, my wife, and I were living on the third floor of a triple-decker in Somerville, MA, I decided to grow tomatoes in pots out on the fire escape,” he says.
As the seasons passed, Eric’s vegetable garden aspirations grew with new homes and larger backyards. However, as he battled aphids and other infestations, a slight frustration surfaced. When they moved to Forest Acres in 2007, Eric ran into a problem that completely dampened his enthusiasm.
“That year, I started a garden in the backyard. I cleared the space and checked the sun, but it was a total disaster. I think I got two tomatoes,” he says with a laugh.
The best sun Eric could find was directly in the middle of the front yard, near the corner of a fairly busy neighborhood intersection. “I didn’t know if it was socially acceptable to plant a vegetable garden in front of my home. But I did know one thing: I needed my garden placed where the sun was! So I did it.”
As Eric tended his bountiful front yard vegetable beds, he received an interesting response. “People started stopping in their cars or visiting on a walk to ask questions,” he says. “At first it didn’t seem like anything other than people being friendly. But over time, I realized it was people expressing positive support.”
Within a few years, Eric’s passion cultivated more than just a garden on his own property. There are now more than eight vibrant front yard vegetable gardens on his street. “Our little micro trend here is really part of a bigger national movement toward sustainability,” he says. “People are realizing the freshness and quality of locally grown foods are bar none. The flavor and texture is so much better than what you find at most grocery stores.”
Just as his father did, Eric is passing his skill on to his two growing boys, Neil and Alec. “They are very interested and excited about our garden,” he says. “Neil gets home from school and runs to the garden to see how much his green beans have grown!”
As he waters towering tomato plants, Eric ponders the hesitation some may have to home grown vegetables. “I think people get excited about the prospect of having a garden, but often don’t know where to begin,” he says. “They don’t want to fail. They don’t want to waste time and effort. But if they were to start small with only a pot or a small raised-bed garden using seedlings, they would find it’s a great way to test the water. It’s actually easy to grow just a few things you like. And you certainly don’t have to use the whole corner of your front yard like I did!”
The Accidental Beekeeper
When Terri Price met a beekeeper who was interested in giving away her hive, she had no idea what was about to happen to her life. “She wanted out, and I knew the chance was too good to pass up,” Terri says with a smile. A week later she owned her first hive and was a dues-paying member of the Mid-State Beekeepers Association. “The first year was so easy,” she says. “The hive was established and was already set up with honey.”
Backyard beekeeping, which peaked in the 1970s, is still a popular pastime for many hobbyists. Keeping a hive doesn’t involve much space, money or time but it does, of course, require bees.
“Many beekeepers buy their bees through the mail,” says Terri. “Most people in our area have Italian bees because they’re very gentle and productive. Russian bees are raised in other areas but are not commonly kept here.”
While some communities require permits to keep bees, Columbia does not. Beekeepers, by nature, often tend to be good stewards, keeping hives away from the public and out of popular areas of the yard. Bees prefer hives in sunny, quiet areas.
“I enjoy having them in the yard,” says Terri. “When everything blooms, they go crazy! They fly away, but then they come back and make honey. This year during the spring bloom, we extracted 15 gallons of honey. The fall is another bloom but it’s always a smaller harvest.” After starting off with just one hive, Terri now has five.
The massive colony deaths of recent years greatly concern Terri. “Bees are pollinators,” she says. “When we use dusts and pesticides, we have a great deal of impact beyond gardens and flowers. We don’t realize that most pesticides can potentially kill all pollinators.” An important mission of the local beekeepers group, of which she is an officer, is to share information with non-beekeepers in an effort to keep neighborhood bees healthy. For more information about beekeeping visit scmidstatebeekeepers.org.
The Mother Hen
Katie Free is a busy woman. A speech language pathologist at Palmetto Health Richland by day, Katie is also a wife and mother. Lauren, a rising third-grader at Satchel Ford Elementary School, is Katie’s daughter, but then there are the family’s other two girls, Ginger and Margaret — the chickens.
The Frees learned about urban chicken farming through their neighborhood. “Our neighbors around the corner had three hens, and they’d share their eggs with us,” says Katie. “The taste of those scrambled eggs was so fresh and so simply amazing that we decided to try it as a fun project for Lauren. We’ve had our hens for more than a year now.” It also helped that David, Katie’s husband, entered into the project with experience. David and his brother raised baby chicks as a hobby during their youth.
“Ginger is a Rhode Island Red,” says Katie. “She’s a reliable layer of large eggs, and her temperament is good with children. She loves worms and is fearless. She has discovered several baby snakes and promptly turned them into treats!”
Margaret, the second chicken, is a Red Star and has proven to be a bit temperamental. “She seems to be the more dominant hen and even pulls out Ginger’s feathers to assure her position in the pecking order,” says Katie. “Her eggs are usually medium-sized, and she’s sensitive to temperature change, so she quits laying when it’s hardly cold. Margaret doesn’t forage as well as Ginger does, so she tries to steal the worms Ginger digs up!”
While the eggs have proven to be the most outstanding benefit, the family delights in “the girls” for other reasons as well. “We’ve thoroughly enjoyed getting to know their personalities,” says Katie. “They’re often like two little squabbling old ladies. We also love watching them scratch around the yard. Websites I have researched call it, ‘Watching chicken television in your backyard,’ and I totally agree.”
The hens are also improving family recycling efforts since leftover and over-ripe produce, with the exception of citrus, are given to the hens. Katie says that training chickens is a bit like training dogs. They know two or three words that are related to food and their treats. Then there’s the clucking.
“They make different sounds at different times,” says Katie. “You can tell when they are in conversation on a worm hunt or just scratching in the yard.” The hens also have an alarm squawk, something the family learned one afternoon when Margaret was much louder than usual. When Katie looked outside she saw a good reason for the fuss. An owl was perched on a bird feeder leering at the chickens in their pen.
While Katie has been pleasantly surprised over how clean the hens are, she notes that keeping the coop tidy and fresh takes regular cleaning. This chore, among the many other details of their new hobby, has been a comprehensive learning process for the entire family.
“You have to get your chickens from a breeder who knows how to properly sex them,” she says. “We had four chicks originally, but two started crowing after about three months. We relocated them to friends’ farms outside the city.”
Katie says that it’s also important to know and follow local regulations. “The city allows four hens per yard and no roosters. There are also coop regulations so they can guarantee neighbors that the cleanliness standards and humane conditions are being met.”
As urban farming changes yards and lives in Columbia, it’s also impacting communities across the nation – which is a trend that’s still rising. That means more people than ever know and enjoy the most flavorful taste of all: the homegrown advantage.