A relatively new phrase—though hardly a novel concept—has surfaced in the wake of the triple trends of pursuing sustainability, sourcing food locally and avoiding overly processed products: “Urban food.”
It refers to the growing numbers of city folks who are raising backyard chickens (or rabbits) planting fruit trees and expanding their garden plots with a vengeance. The goal really isn’t self-sufficiency, but rather finding ways to supplement supermarket fare with healthier—if not cheaper—food that can be procured merely by stepping out the back door.
And that can (partially) detach consumers from dependence on Big Food in the form of mega-producer-processors and multinational supermarket and fast-food chains.
It’s happening all over America. In my residential neighborhood of some 250 square blocks—located in a mid-sized, blue-collar community of about 125,000 people—there are at least two dozen chicken coops, hundreds of backyard gardens, a pair of rooftop gardens and a four-acre community field alongside the Snohomish River where residents tend to everything from goat pens to grape vines to multiple garden plots exhibiting varying degrees of attention as summer lengthens each year.
Nationally, there are more than 43 million household gardens, which return an average of $500 worth of produce for the approximately $70 annual investment in seeds, fertilizer, tools, etc., according to 2010 data from the National Gardening Association.
But the trendiest aspect of urban food production isn’t growing veggies, it’s raising livestock—primarily chickens (with an estimated 700,000 practitioners nationwide, according to Backyard Poultry magazine) but now including pigs, as well.
Which is more than interesting, because chickens are famously low-maintenance; pigs are not. Chickens can be kept in a small, low-cost enclosures; pigs cannot. Chickens never grow beyond a small, easily manageable size; pigs, not so much.
In a recent series of articles in Mother Earth News, for decades the self-proclaimed “bible” of household self-sufficiency, blogger Kyle Chandler-Isacksen detailed the experience of raising a couple pigs in the backyard.
As soon as the family began considering urban pig farming, Chandler-Isacksen wrote that friends, neighbors and social media contacts emerged to share their (allegedly) horrific experiences, including such “pig wisdom” nuggets as:
- They stink!
- They’re mean
- They’re noisy
- They’ll eat anything
I’m sure that readers actually engaged in raising pigs commercially are laughing right now, because much of those scare stories are a direct result of trying to manage large, intelligent farm animals in your backyard. In fact, I’d argue that the entire list is moot—if you’re a farmer who makes use of the modern production methods that natural/organic/eco-friendly back-to-the-basics homesteader wanna-bes typically denounce.
Exploding the myths
But Chandler-Isacksen admitted that “the advice and stories proved to be way off the mark.” Yes, the newly arrived piglets had a “smell,” but after several weeks out in the air, “the stench was gone.”
So much for myth No.1.
As far as being mean and noisy, when pigs reached a size of several hundred pounds apiece, yes, they can be intimidating and aggressive about obtaining food. That shouldn’t be surprising. But mean? Not really. Nasty? That’s different: Try getting between any 200-lb. animal and its dinner, and the results usually are predictable.
As for the “Pigs will eat anything!” belief, that also proved to be wrong, and in a way that provided some insights about the dietary choices we humans tend to make.
“We fed them mainly off school lunch leftovers and boy, what they didn’t eat sure does speak volumes,” Chandler-Isacksen wrote. “[The pigs] hardly touched bread (save really sweet muffins, pies, or cakes) including pizza, bagels and rolls, sandwich bread and even pasta. They barely touched potatoes (cooked) but loved raw sweet potatoes and yams. They also avoided cafeteria sloppy joes and meatballs, [although] these same pigs devoured real meat, loved eggs, rabbit entrails, greens, lettuce, cabbage, tomato vines, melons and corn. Especially corn!”
The story goes on to detail how the family set up a mobile pen using electrified wire that can be moved around, including to one spot where a garden space was put in after the animals had broken up the ground. In the fall, the pigs were allowed to roam through nearby woods (confined with the electric wire) to browse on acorns, spruce cones and moss. The family claimed that such foraging saved about one-third of the cost of feed.
From the overall description, it certainly appears as if Chandler-Isacksen’s property is way more rural than mine or any of my nearby neighbors, so I’m not sure that pork production is in my immediate (or distant) future.
But whether for ecological reasons, as a way to control one’s food supply, or simply because having livestock adds a dimension of reality to otherwise manicured, often sterile residential neighborhoods, urban farming is a positive trend I believe will only continue to expand.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.