Friday, August 04, 2006

Wild in the city?

Think you need land to live like a farmer? Think again.

By Joe Eaton

It's a fantasy for some city dwellers -- to someday move to a piece of land in the country, maybe buy a tractor, grow corn or raise animals. But as some Roanokers are proving, you don't need a large space to find your inner farmer.

David Dodson never meant to be a beekeeper. Thirteen years ago, the retired 78-year-old tractor-trailer driver took a few hives to deliver to a friend. The friend got sick, and the bees wound up in the back yard of Dodson's 11,000-square-foot lot in Northwest Roanoke. "I've been foolin' with bees since then," Dodson said on a recent morning as he searched through a hive for an underperforming queen bee.

Dodson has four hives in his back yard this year. Usually he has five, the maximum he can keep by law. There are benefits to keeping bees in the city over rural areas, Dodson said. There are more flowering plants and shrubs in the city for the bees to collect nectar from. Dodson sells honey from his home. This year, he expects he'll have 240 pounds from his backyard hives for sale. He sells for $4 a pint and $8 a quart.

Keeping bees isn't as much work as people think, Dodson said. He spends an hour a week inspecting the hives and then a few days in the fall extracting and bottling the honey.In the past, neighbors complained to the city when Dodson's bees swarmed their humming bird feeders. But an inspector found he was not breaking the law. Dodson said most of his neighbors don't mind the bees. They help pollinate their gardens.

The hardest thing about raising bees is getting stung, and Dodson doesn't mind that much. "It helps my arthritis," he said. "There are a lot of medicinal purposes around bees. A lot of it is folklore. A lot of it works."

Just eggs, for now. Joe and Jennifer Carnes own just over an acre in Northwest Roanoke. It's not huge, but for the Carneses who grew up in tight neighborhoods, it's a farm.

Soon after they moved to the house in 2005, they began filling it up. First came a garden, with tomatoes and cucumbers. Then, in April, Joe Carnes bought two hives of bees. Later that month the 27-year-old bought six Rhode Island Red chicks."This is just a wild feather that caught me," Joe Carnes said, adding that friends at the architectural firm where he works have been giving him a hard time about his farming.

They live in a coop he built from scrap wood and eat from an automatic feeder. He spends three hours, usually on the weekends, cleaning the coop and changing the straw. Next year, the Carneses plan to add at least one rooster and maybe a few ducks. They are nervous about what the neighbors will think of the rooster's morning crow. "I don't want to be a nuisance or anything, but it would be nice to repopulate," said Joe Carnes.

The Carneses will soon have fresh eggs and honey. They plan to give much of it away to friends and family. But they won't be eating fried chicken anytime soon. "We waited too long. My wife named each of them, which knocks the current six candidates out of the running," Joe Carnes said.

The yard farmer. At first glance, Rick Williams' back yard in the Williamson Road neighborhood looks like a suburban fantasy, complete with a swing set and an in-ground pool.But the pool no longer holds chlorinated water. In 2004, Williams turned it into a cistern to collect rain water for the yard he is turning into an urban farm. For Williams, a 51-year-old who serves on the city planning commission, grass is the enemy. His yard is now a jungle of vegetables, berry bushes and fruit trees. It is more than a common garden. Williams practices permaculture, a design-based philosophy of growing food naturally.

Williams uses no chemicals on his crops and is obsessed about promoting rich soil. His crops are not planted in neat rows. Butternut squash peek out from below blueberry bushes. Eight-foot tomato plants climb bamboo poles. For Williams, yard farming is an experiment in community building. He eats most of his produce, but he also sells some to neighbors. He hopes to start a system in which neighbors will buy into the garden each year and get fruits and vegetables in return.

He thinks his backyard farm can someday feed up to six families and make the neighborhood more of a community. His advice for those dreaming of moving to the country to farm is to look at their own yards. "Everyone in this city has land that is being used for nothing right now except to grow grass," he said.



Keeping chickens at home

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