One of my deepest passions is not only gardening, but urban sustainable agriculture. Our urban homestead, Wild Prospect Urban Farm, is a quarter acre residential lot within the city limits of Helena, MT, zone 4b. After buying the Prospect House in fall of 2019, we proceeded to begin the long [long] process of converting our lot into wildlife habitat, annual vegetable garden, food forest, and small scale animal husbandry operation [so far just chickens for eggs]. This year, 2020, marks the first year of the urban farm and the 100th year since the house itself was built.
This site will be a place to view the progress of our urban farm, but not only the “tips and tricks” and the slight FOMO of a currently rather hip lifestyle. This is NOT a lifesyle blog.
My* interest in urban sustainable agriculture began with food. I grew up on food stamps [like not the whole time, but enough of the time] and WIC food is cheap food. My parents worked A LOT [like most people on public assistance do] and were not particularly great cooks. In my mother’s case this is specifically because she thinks of food as something you consume so that you do not die, which makes both eating and preparing food a thankless chore that should have been fixed by science by now. In my father’s case, he was born at a time when men didn’t do such things and it sort of never occurred to him to start until after my parents divorced. Dinners were therefore strained affairs filled with exhausted people. Everything was always cooked to the point of least palatability, which now that I am a decent cook astounds me with it’s anti-precision. No one in my house enjoyed food because it tasted terrible and we knew we couldn’t afford [either in time or money] to make it better.
Fast forward to young adulthood: I wasn’t a picky eater, but I was a thoughtless eater, and I didn’t know that the majority of humans use meals as tools for social connection. I had federally subsidized room and board, so I started to go to the dining hall with friends and neighbors and learn about things like vegetables and how they could taste like not lukewarm baby food. Normally, a college meal plan is not the thing that most foodies credit with turning them on to fine cuisine, and I would not say it was in my case either, but the community aspect of food was the gateway drug to eating at restaurants where they served things like curry and sushi and babaganoush.
In my first semester of college I ate more varieties of food than I even knew existed. Food was AMAZING. But [isn’t there always a but?] then I took an historical/restoration ecology class that just happened to have a unit devoted to the industrial food supply and its myriad downstream affects for ecosystems [which include humans]. And suddenly, the thing that had brought me the most joy I’d managed in my short life was at the center of this awful destructive force on the planet [downer].
As an aside, this experience and the subsequent accidental/involuntary hunger strike that followed, are probably the reason that young adults need to get a [free] liberal arts education. We need to hit those young people pretty hard when their brains are still squishy and full of ideals, because if you wait until their brains are hardened into middle age the cognitive dissonance just prevents critical thinking. It is also possible that I am simply a person who takes bad news very hard, in the same way that Greta Thunberg talks about not eating when she discovered the facts about the climate crisis.
About a month into barely being able to eat to live, out of such supreme guilt over my unknown participation in the industrial food supply, I [wisely] concluded that there was nothing I could do about this enormous problem if I was dead. I started to eat food again. But I never forgot what it felt like to realize that the Green Revolution, and maybe even many aspects of agriculture generally, were responsible in so many ways for a deterioration of plant, animal, human and ecosystem nutrition, health and function. Also but, I was still poor.
Poor people can’t make good food choices because good food is expensive. I didn’t know the word food desert yet, and I didn’t live in one [I was in Chapel Hill, NC – there is some great food there], but I was in an economically imposed food desert. I remember making lots of poor people choices like spending my like $5 on a two-pack of Camel lights and a black coffee [cigarette taxes were still VERY low in NC at this time] so that I wouldn’t be hungry and $5 was not going to buy me a meal. I think lots of college students have this sort of experience, in that they temporarily are very poor. For me the difference was mostly that if I did not make myself not poor there was no one else to do it for me [and yet I majored in anthropology and religious studies? Ah, those early 2000s, when we didn’t really understand that the student debt crisis was looming].
During the intervening years of attaining adulthood [we do not all succeed] I ended up in Montana and spending a great deal of time with other adults who not only knew all these dreadful things about the food supply, but had always known them because they had grown up around it. They also knew about 10,000 useful adult things like how to bake bread, grow vegetables, can preserves, and the many uses of mysterious kitchen implements. From these great mentors I went from a poor kid who could barely boil water and had never grown a single plant to a baby urban farmer giving advice to other urban farmers [it’s the circle of life]. By the time all those friends had moved back to where they were from, I had my first little garden, some chickens, a pile of library books, and a water bath canner.
I can’t talk about my passion for urban sustainable agriculture without talking about my journey to get here. I’m glad that it is a messy story of public assistance, food insecurity and the crushing blow of learning that humans have made a damn mess, instead of something romantic and self-actualized that one might read in a book by Elizabeth Gilbert. I didn’t grow up middle class, read The Omnivore’s Dilemma in a book club and then decide to post pictures of my organic tomatoes on Instagram, #blessed.
For the record, I know that is ugly and judgmental [and a little funny]. I have both read The Omnivore’s Dilemma in a book group and posted pictures of my organic tomatoes on Instagram [and have read several books by Elizabeth Gilbert, though I skipped Big Magic, sorry/not sorry]. I am not saying that white, middle-class women [in which I am now included] can’t be passionate about the same things I am because their story was less dramatic. Or that spreading awareness of food systems to people who don’t know about them [as I once didn’t] isn’t important. Or that all environmentalist, tree-hugging, hippie freaks [of which I am included] need be austere, self-denying, purists who can’t eat butter or wear mascara because then we all die in a climate apocalypse [I love butter. Mascara not so much. Climate apocalypse not at all].
But what I am saying is that a lifestyle blog exists to sell people something that is usually a bit of a lie [follow me and learn how to save the earth during carpool! or Buy my shampoo bars and assuage sinking feelings related to your carbon footprint]. Lifestyle blogs are telling you that you can be a “good” person without making any substantive changes in your life [untrue]. They sell an ideal about guilt free, color-coordinated, organic food on a budget because selling [and buying] is the only way our particular society has contrived to manage unmanageable emotions related to manageable systems that might require addressing our addiction to buying [and selling].
For many reasons that will become clear on this blog in time, there is more to me than the hope that I may one day get internet famous and fund my hobby farm with the ad revenue [though I get that in the dystopian present such career aspirations make about as much sense as any other path]. I thought about having a blog that was specifically about Wild Prospect Urban Farm because I enjoy sharing information about my passions, but I knew that all the other stuff was going to creep in.
In advance of writing a single word, I anticipated some interlocutor being like, “look lady, I am here for the kale chips and tips about how to engage my tween without a screen, not all the nonsense about Universal Basic Income and ancient religions that don’t exist. Stick to your brand.” I struggle with the notion of branding myself for easier consumption by people who may be interested in some of my ideas but not all of them [feel free to be entirely uninterested]. I’m not a brand, I’m a person. Being a person means wrestling with the kale chips and the long dead heretical Christian sects.
This stuff is all connected.
*I am going to say “my” as opposed to “our” because even though this urban homestead business is definitely a joint effort in that my partner does PLENTY of the work and visioning, I rather detest the we-ification of pronouns for a couple, especially in the case of their being only one writer. I get that we own the place together, but he’s his own subject and I’m not here to speak for him like he doesn’t have his own point of view. There is a zero percent chance my partner is going to want to post things on my blog.