Backyard Farming: Food Close to Home

February 24, 2009

Written for The Oregonian newspaper and published May 8, 2008.

Martin Barrett and Dan Bravin stand next to tidy rows they’ve planted with spinach, lettuce, carrot and other seeds — and at the edge of a new take on urban farming.

Their idea: to farm in city backyards of people who donate the land in return for a share of the harvests, and to sell the rest to nearby consumers and at farmers markets.

The plan took root in Barrett’s backyard and blossomed into City Garden Farmers. The motto: “Live Urban, Eat Local.”

“We’re not reinventing the wheel,” says Barrett in his Scottish brogue, recalling a childhood of meals from his family’s garden in Edinburgh.

“This is the way people used to do it,” Bravin says. “They want to do it again, and we want to tap into that.”

The goal is to grow and ship fresh organic food without high energy consumption, a subject Michael Pollan examines in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

Barrett, 41, says the book changed his life. A world traveler before settling in Portland, he manages three airport stores for Powell’s Book’s, a job he’s keeping while working on City Garden Farmers part time.

Bravin, 37, a longtime home vegetable gardener, quit his job as a database administrator. He has the blessing of his wife, Jenny, who’s gone back to work full time. They have two young children.

Barrett praises Bravin for “swinging out on the trapeze and leaping for the rings.”

Beer-sampling and bicycling partners for about two years, they realized they shared a passion for food, have complementary skills and wanted to start a business that would make a difference.

They considered planting and maintaining vegetable gardens in people’s yards for a fee, then learned that others have filled that niche. They settled on a farming process called SPIN, or small plot intensive, that shuns the traditional, highly mechanized cultivation of rural tracts.

They advertised for city dwellers with 1,000 or more square feet of sun-drenched, south-facing, tillable land. So far, Barrett and Bravin plan to use nine yards, including their own –Barrett’s in the Beaumont-Wilshire neighborhood, Bravin’s in Woodstock –with plots totaling 11,000 to 12,000 square feet. They figure rising food prices will increase interest in their venture.

Among those donating his yard –front and back –is Daniel Mondok, chef and co-owner of Sel Gris restaurant on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard. He’s arranged for Barrett and Bravin to grow lettuces and herbs, in part for Sel Gris.

“This is really big, getting to choose what to grow for the restaurant and keeping it sustainable,” Mondok says.

Barrett and Bravin are also leasing an acre on Sauvie Island. They’ll sell at four eastside farmers markets (Interstate, Lloyd District, Parkrose and Lents) and to those who buy subscriptions of weekly baskets.

As the sun tries to burn through morning clouds, the business partners laugh while explaining their nicknames: Barrett is Moss and Bravin is Broc (short for Broccoli Whisperer).

The laughter stops as they discuss what it will take to succeed. “There are long, long days ahead,” Bravin says.

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