The colorful Victorian-style homes along Race Street don’t make up the usual scenery for a farm. But tucked behind Austin resident Seamus Ford’s home on the oak and elm tree-lined property is just that – an urban farm equipped with vegetable gardens and hens or chickens clucking away in the background.
Ford, a self described urban environmentalist, turned his backyard into a mini-farm to reduce his carbon footprint, but also to help others improve their food production IQ.
Ford, a public relations specialist by trade, noted most consumers rarely know how food is produced, grown or shipped. His backyard farm gives him a platform to discuss those issues. Food cost, he explained, is directly tied to the cost of fuel, which is used in every link in the food production chain.
Fuel, he said, is used to plant crops, spray pesticides, harvest crops, and transport the crops to manufacturers and warehouses before ending up in a grocery store and then finally on someone’s dinner table.
“By the time you eat one calorie of food that you purchase at the grocery store, you’ve used 10 calories of fossil fuel energy to get it to your stomach,” Ford contends.
Raising chickens does just the opposite. The chickens, he said are a good food source that require little effort to produce, and they give back more than what they take from the environment.
“The chickens eat the grass. They eat the lawn. They eat a small amount of feed and six out of seven days a week they produce an egg,” Ford said, adding that his three hens produce between 25 and 30 eggs a week.
“A chicken is probably the most cost efficient way to produce animal protein for people to eat,” he added.
To further reduce his carbon footprint, Ford “re-purposes” or recycles materials dumped in alleys to sustain his farm. He recycled stone from demolished buildings to construct raised flower beds to plant his 500-square-foot garden.
He fashioned his chicken coop from a used dog house and used discarded cabinets and floorboard to make nesting bins for the hens, which he rescued from slaughter houses.
He composts the chicken “droppings” along with food scraps and grass clippings to make organic soil. His garden boasts strawberries, corn, radishes, lettuce, string beans and some native editable plants like day lilies.
“My ambition is not to sustain myself. My ambition is to demonstrate what is possible,” Ford said.
Ford, who created his farm in 2007, is part of a growing movement of backyard chicken farmers. Several cities, including New York, Los Angeles and Portland allow residents to have backyard chickens. Chicago has no laws prohibiting chickens as long they are not used to process meat.
For Ford, his backyard farm serves a deeper purpose than providing fresh produce. He wanted it to be an impetus for community engagement.
“Using the novelty of the chickens … has created a way to break the ice with people and to get people to break the ice with each other,” Ford said. “We just have this weird thing where you need an excuse to talk to a stranger.”
To further break the ice, Ford hosted a meeting on creating a community garden. The meeting drew 30 residents to Ford’s home where they toured the backyard farm. The response was overwhelming and Root Riot, a network of community gardens, was born.
Soon after, two gardens opened, one in Oak Park and another called Harambee in Austin on the corner of Race and Waller. Ford wanted the garden to be a space that brings people together as the name Harambee suggest in Swahili. The garden contains 35 raised planters where residents grow onion, potatoes, green beans, peppers and carrots.
The donated space for the Harambee garden was a vacant lot, which Ford said seemed to separate the community. A high school, two churches, a firehouse and a senior citizens center “were islands onto themselves” until the garden opened this year, Ford said. Residents from the senior citizens center come out to help the students plant their vegetables.
The garden does connect community, Austin resident Dean Nickerson said. Until the garden, Nickerson said he has never met his neighbors who have lived behind him for seven years. “Just mixing and getting to know your neighbors” through gardening is gratifying, Nickerson said.
“What this is about is it is a place where people can come and learn and get educated about the process of growing your own food,” Ford said.