He owns a construction business. Manages jobs. He’s a designer and an engineer. He’s a builder. A farmer. Keeps chickens and geese and rabbits and goats. Grows vegetables. He’s a husband. A father of 10. Grandfather of 19. He’s an activist and a writer and an active member of the Ypsilanti community. He’s a landowner, a homeowner. A grower. Peter Thomason is a Mover. A Doer. I think it’s pretty safe to say that it was a rare sight to see, when we waltzed into his backyard this past Sunday, to find him snoozing in the crisp autumn sunshine.
I can’t blame him, to be honest. He sat in a chair sandwiched, if you can bear with me here and imagine a three sided sandwich, among his homemade chicken coop, towering Victorian house, and vegetable production beds. The crisp autumn winds swirled above, through the neighboring maple trees as the sun dipped in and out of view behind irresponsibly transient clouds.
With a mild start, Peter woke to my presence. In his defense, I was hovering. Without a skipped beat, we began a very enjoyable visit, chatting about Peter’s life, his operation, the Thomason Family Farm, and, among other things, Esmerelda the chicken.
Since 1987, Peter has been slowly transforming his 50’ x 140’ backyard into a rich and productive farmspace. He grows a variety of vegetables along with a collection of animals. Let’s hold there for just a moment. Let that sink in…. Fifty by one-forty is not your run of the mill farmland. Fifty by one forty is smaller than a regulation croquet court, which, according to the World Croquet Federation, is 84’ by 105’. Fifty by forty is nary large enough to fit a slip’n’slide worth the trouble of unrolling it and figuring out how to get a continuous water flow to ensure maximum enjoyment. Shall it suffice to say, for now, that Peter’s space is rather small for the magnitude of his operation.
Magnitude. Here we’ve got ourselves a nice little metaphor (get it?). Stupid joke. Anyway. Small physical area of land. Small growing operation, at least in terms of exchangeable monetary value. Large man, large visions. Large impact. Splendid.
Throughout the course of our conversations, Peter touched on some ideas that I found quite interesting, all of which served to reinforce certain themes that I’ve been seeing replay over meetings with various players and project proprietors in this ‘urban’ movement I’ve been exploring.
Most notably, His vision for TFF is not about the food that comes out of it. Not about the product. Certainly, the production and distribution aspects are inseparable from a growing operation, but in Peter’s case, selling a trivial number of dollars’ worth of vegetables at a weekly market is not his end.* Rather, he describes his space as a laboratory. A space in which he can, and is continually, conducting an experiment in regenerative living. Closing down the waste-stream. He is living his life as an experiment of a low impact lifestyle. This, for the record, is awesome.
It is a ‘lifestyle choice’ that Peter cites as the nature of TFF, as opposed to anything else. Profession. Hobby. Labor. Cultivating vegetables and raising animals and building structures and developing composting systems are simply activities that nourish Peter equally as much as the fruits of this style. The most notable concept to come out of this part of the conversation was Peter’s distinction between considering himself a member of the Ypsilanti community that manages a farm, and a farmer.
“I’m not a farmer,” he told me. “This is simply my lifestyle, it has flowed naturally from my interests and my actions.” Check. Already discussed. But this is a very important topic, one whose implications are widespread, because one reason he does not consider himself a farmer is that he could never support himself, his family, and his community’s appetites on the land he works. He could not generate enough income.
With this in mind, a feast of questions emerge: can backyard farming be profitable? Does it need to be profitable? What would be the implications if everybody on every neighborhood block were keeping a garden and chickens? Then would backyard farming need to be profitable? Can urban agriculture be profitable?
Here is the thing. Within this last question lies a gaping fallacy. A sweeping generalization that virtually every cognizant person is guilty of. Victim to, perhaps would be a more appropriate phrasing. Myself included. Yourself included.
“Can urban agriculture be profitable?” implies that ‘urban agriculture’ is a single entity. A single formula, a single type of operation. Growing vegetables and selling them. Unfortunately it seems that ‘urban ag’ is quickly treading the path so well worn by ‘local food,’ ‘sustainable,’ and ‘organic.’ It is becoming a buzz word, or phrase, which of course, one can extract positive meaning from this phenomenon, comes at the cost of considering what urban agriculture actually means. What it can be and how it will be actualized. **
I believe that the root meaning we intend to address when uttering the words “urban agriculture,” is that of an urban agricultural system. Within an agricultural system, there are myriad specialized processes – farms, distribution, storage, various inputs, blah blah blah, the list goes on. When we are talking about urban agriculture, in particular, talking about making ‘urban ag’ a viable and prosperous sector of communities, we must necessarily consider it a system.
Here’s where it gets less cynical and accusatory, and herein lies the beauty of the urban agricultural movements. Within an urban agricultural system, there are nearly infinite niches to be filled, especially at this stage of development. This is a young movement, there is a high ceiling. We’ve got room to grow. As a result, there are infinite distinct roles to play. There is the role of Peter Thomason, a contractor by profession, farmer by lifestyle, who experiments with his backyard inspiration education laboratory; and there is the role of the educational youth farm, and there is the role of the for-profit vegetable farm and the compost management business and the taco truck using corn from the for-profit farm and tomatoes from the youth farm and lettuce from Peter’s laboratory.
To return to the question from which this diatribe sprang, ‘can urban agriculture be profitable?,’ if we tweak the question with the newly defined, diversified nature of an urban agricultural system, the question then becomes, “can an urban agricultural system be profitable?”
I would argue yes to this, though further questions arise about the nature and intention of necessitating profitability as an end to an agricultural system. Lets stay on track, though. The beauty of this new question is that within the greater framework of a system, individual lifestylists don’t necessarily need to be profitable in and of themselves. The whole point of this being that within this movement there are roles to be filled. That Peter’s is not profitable, and could not be profitable is OK because there will be others that are. The point is that space dedicated to growing food and raising animals is space dedicated to growing relationships and spreading knowledge. The point is that the urban agricultural movement is rapidly spreading its roots, building farms and making moves. And occasionally, very occasionally, breaking for naps.