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Published July 12, 2010, 12:12 PM

Rent a farmer? Growers visit city backyards

Anders Gurda hops off his bike at various backyards in Minneapolis, grabs his garden tools and starts weeding.

By: Sheila Mulrooney Eldred, Associated Press

Anders Gurda hops off his bike at various backyards in Minneapolis, grabs his garden tools and starts weeding.

When he's done checking for garden pests, adjusting the irrigation system and harvesting the vegetables (which he puts in the home's refrigerator or cooler), he cycles to his next plot and starts over.

He's an urban backyard farmer, one of a growing breed throughout the country thanks to programs like Minnesota's Backyard Harvest.

"It's like having a CSA (community-supported agriculture program) in your own backyard, and you're supporting a farmer without a farm," Gurda said.

The goal of Backyard Harvest, said coordinator Krista Leraas, is to encourage the growing of local foods. The group, under the nonprofit umbrella organization Permaculture Research Institute, is in its second year. Although it is rare in operating as a nonprofit, dozens of programs with similar missions have sprung up around the country and worldwide.

In Portland, Ore., a group called Your Backyard Farmer began in 2006 when Donna Smith and Robyn Streeter were growing weary of driving through the city's outskirts looking for affordable land to farm. The thought struck them: "Why aren't we bringing food to the people?"

They drove back to the city and printed out flyers advertising their farming services in urban neighborhoods. By the time they got home, they had 11 messages inquiring about Your Backyard Farmer. That's the most advertising they've ever had to do.

Fast-forward four years: Your Backyard Farmer is thriving with 58 backyard farms — and a waiting list for 2011. At least 27 other programs around the country and 15 abroad have consulted with Smith and Streeter.

People love the program for its convenience, the food's freshness and the ability to customize, Smith said.

"People could choose what they wanted — every single farm is different," Smith said. "Typical yards include tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and people thought it was pretty cool to have those in your own yard. Then everybody started going, I'll try arugula or radicchio. We have 42 vegetables, and they can choose them all or just a few. If you don't like it we'll pull it out of the ground."

In many backyard-farming programs, homeowners can choose from a wide variety of vegetables and fruits, and can choose full service (a farmer plants, maintains and harvests the garden) or a consulting service (the farmer teaches the homeowner how to maintain the garden so the homeowner can take over the next year). Farmers may also give advice on how to use, cook and store the produce.

Prices depend on the growing season and the square footage. In Minneapolis, prices average around $1,250 for the season, or about $11-$13 per square foot, and in Portland, prices start at $1,675 per season. Services are often available only in certain neighborhoods to reduce the farmers' commutes.

The programs often focus on sustainability and organic foods. The ultimate goal, said Leraas, is to create urban homesteads where people raise chickens, reuse rainwater and keep honeybees, for example, in addition to gardening.

"We're spokespeople, pushing the local foods movement just by being there," said Gurda.

Urban gardens carry challenges: carting tools and materials from yard to yard, working in confined spaces that can make it harder to organize plants, using soil that is sometimes contaminated with lead. The work is often seasonal.

For the farmers, however, the rewards often go beyond money. Smith and Streeter have made enough from Your Backyard Farmer to support themselves, but Gurda works three other jobs to support his part-time work as a farmer.

"There's a disconnect here. It feeds the soul, but doesn't add much heft to your bank account," he said. "No one does it to get rich. We do it because it feels good. It makes sense. It's a statement that speaks not only to our dedication to good food for all people but it addresses our land ethic, our sense of priority, or moral code, our need to do something of positive consequence."

Gurda works 10 to 15 hours a week for Backyard Harvest; farming full-time, he said, would be his dream job.

"The best days are when I'm just finishing seeding as the sun is setting, or get to watch a spring thunderstorm roll in as I'm thinning the beets," he said. "And I feel pretty damn lucky to be able to make a living doing this."

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