My Friends, the Backyard Farmers

By Zach Hawkins

The late summer sun streams into the room, warming up the blankets on the guest bed. I push them off and swing my feet to the floor, rested—as rested as one can be in the middle of a road trip full of late nights and long drives. It feels good to wake up in Minneapolis. It’s been a few years since I moved away, but as a musician I have the pleasure of passing through every now and then to visit old hangouts and catch up with friends. I creak down a case of wooden stairs in search of Sam and Marja, who are graciously putting me up in their home near Lake Nokomis.

I find Sam in the backyard, sitting on a lawn chair, reading the Sunday paper and sipping coffee from a mug. He relaxes in the morning sun by ten garden beds that line the north side of the yard, each one heavy with harvest: basil, beans, eggplant, onions, zucchini, and heirloom tomatoes. Near his feet, four heritage-breed hens—Black Australorp, Ameraucana, Barred Rock, and Silver Laced Wyandotte— scratch and peck at the grass, clucking softly. Not exactly a sight you’d expect to see just off the Minnehaha Parkway.

Inside the house, Sam and Marja brew coffee and make a quick breakfast of toast and fried pullet eggs, fresh from the chickens in the yard. I sink my fork into an orange yolk and savor the rich, lingering flavor. We talk about their little backyard farm. In addition to constructing a small chicken coop, Marja and Sam spent the summer expanding their gardens. They tell me about their successes (they tried cuke-nuts for the first time with good results) and failures (they just can’t seem to get the bell peppers to thrive). I bask in the kitchen smells, the garden stories—the pleasures of being at home. But all too soon it’s time for me to hit the road. My friends send me off with a jar of homemade pickles to snack on in the car, waving goodbye from the front steps.  

I met Sam and Marja in college. In one of my first memories of Sam, I see him standing over the flower bed outside our freshman dormitory, plucking a few weeds from a clandestine row of radishes he’d covertly planted among the landscaped flowers. By the time we were seniors, Sam and I were working with other students to tend an on-campus garden and organize “local food nights” in the cafeteria. We also both signed up for a seminar on Agrarianism. There, we encountered Wendell Berry’s essay, “The Pleasures of Eating,” which contains his oft-repeated proposition that “eating is an agricultural act.” As I crunch on a homegrown pickle in the car, I think about how seriously Sam and Marja have taken Berry’s words, how genuinely they strive to answer the same question that prompted Berry to write the essay: “What can city people do?”

Sam and Marja got engaged within a year after graduation (during which Sam and I shared an Uptown apartment and failed in our attempt to coax vegetables from the shady backyard). After getting married, they moved into an apartment building in St. Louis Park. “We tried to container garden,” Marja tells me, “but we only had north light so it was really pathetic.” Sam chimes in, “I planted some stuff in the parking lot… against the fence where it got good sunlight. It was all sprouting and getting ready to go and then, you know, they mowed it.” Experiences like these made Sam and Marja all the more grateful when they purchased their house in the Keewaydin neighborhood, a two-story bungalow with a good-sized backyard.

In their effort to grow some of their own food while living in an urban setting, Marja and Sam are living out the proposals Wendell Berry makes in “The Pleasures of Eating.” At the end of the short essay, he composes a list—“probably not definitive,” he adds—of ways to eat responsibly.

First off is a directive to “participate in food production to the extent that you can.” Berry explains, “Only by growing some food for yourself can you become acquainted with the beautiful energy cycle that revolves from soil to seed to flower to fruit to food to offal to decay, and around again. You will be fully responsible for any food that you grow for yourself, and you will know all about it. You will appreciate it fully, having known it all its life.” In talking with Marja and Sam over the years, I understand that their motivations are deeply rooted in this principle. Marja tells me, “I think it’s kind of an empowering feeling to be able to provide for yourself … but also to know so much—to know everything, really—about the way your food was grown and produced. I think that’s kind of comforting.”  

Also, it’s fun. Sam and Marja admit that they didn’t get their hens simply to know more about their breakfast. “The chickens were mostly for pets,” says Marja, laughing. “You know, eggs as well. And it’s worked out really well with the fertilizer they provide.” But she and Sam both bring attention to the “entertainment value” of the small operation in their backyard. “We enjoy gardening, and we enjoy futzing around with the chickens,” says Sam. “So, it saves us from having to purchase entertainment elsewhere. A night spent puttering around the garden and eating a meal outside is cheaper than a movie.”  

I enjoy watching my friends take such pleasure in raising food. When their hens (named Shirley, Hazel, Olive, and Pearl) first started laying eggs, Marja posted a picture to her Facebook profile of Sam and herself each holding an egg, their faces beaming, almost like proud parents. Shortly after taking the picture, they ate the eggs. “We poached ‘em,” says Sam. “We wanted to make sure we could just taste the egg.”

“Which is funny,” adds Marja, “because we had really never poached an egg before!”

By growing their own vegetables and keeping a few laying hens, Sam and Marja have entered into what Gene Logsdon calls “the little red hen economy.” In his book, The Contrary Farmer’s Invitation to Gardening, Logsdon imagines a national “garden economy” nurtured by the “spare time, recreational labor, small and inexpensive tools, and land paid for as part of the homeplace and lifestyle” of homesteaders. Instead of resigning themselves as passive consumers in the industrial food system, Sam and Marja take an active role in the entire food cycle: production, consumption, and the return of nutrients to the soil. They don’t produce all of the food they eat, but many of their meals come from the garden during the summer, and their chickens lay eggs for a large part of the year. In addition, Sam and Marja compost their kitchen scraps and chicken manure and use it to fertilize the garden beds. It’s a modern take on what Berry calls, “the husbandry and wifery of the old household food economy,” and it all happens in their backyard, within the city limits.

Now, spring is upon us. Sam and Marja are making notes in their garden journal and preparing for their annual trip to the Friends School Plant Sale, held in the State Fair’s Grandstand building during Mother’s Day weekend. And they’re not the only ones on their street who are busy planning a garden. When Sam and Marja moved into their house and started raising vegetables in the backyard, they received frequent visits from the ten-year-old girl next door. “It was really fun to see her interest in [the garden],” says Marja, who is an elementary school teacher. “That first summer that we were here, she was over all the time, asking, What is this? What is that? And munching on whatever was up.” The next year, the girl demanded that her family have a garden, too. “So, they tilled up their sandbox, and put down some good soil, and had a garden,” says Sam, smiling.  

The four-year-old boy across the street often comes over to see the chickens, and his family occasionally takes care of the hens when Sam and Marja leave town. “I think we probably got to kn
ow that family better because of this thing we have going on back there that’s a little out of the ordinary,” says Marja. “It’s fun to have that social part of it, that shared experience with your neighbors.” They don’t take credit for it, but Marja and Sam have noticed other gardens—small plots of corn, carrots, and tomatoes—springing up behind the houses along their street.

This spring, Sam, Marja, and their neighbors dream of warm soil and germinating seeds. As they step into their yards to work up garden beds and plant rows of vegetables, they are answering the question, “What can city people do?” Wendell Berry reminds us that the best answers to this question bring pleasure to those who ask it. “The pleasure of eating should be an extensive pleasure,” he writes, “not that of the mere gourmet. People who know the garden in which their vegetables have grown and know that the garden is healthy will remember the beauty of the growing plants, perhaps in the dewy first light of morning when gardens are at their best.” When I read those words, I think of my friend Sam, sitting out among his gardens in the morning sun, his chickens scratching in the grass next to his lawn chair. And I think of his neighbors enjoying that early light, too—and others, throughout the city—kneeling by the exposed earth, breathing the spring air, sowing the seeds of joys to come.

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