Sustainable Living, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Urban Farms

In Oakland, California, not far from where I live, urban homesteading – growing food on private land for small-scale trade and consumption – has become so common the city government was forced to back off for once. In a rare triumph for sanity and freedom, anachronistic zoning ordinances from 1965 were liberalized to accommodate the city farmers. Molly Samuel explained at KQED:

“The city has already made some changes; it’s now legal to grow and sell vegetables on an empty lot with a conditional use permit. . . . Oakland North reports one of the hotly debated topics [at a city meeting] was animal husbandry: Should Oaklanders be permitted to raise, slaughter, and sell animals? Or not?”

Despite the remaining government bureaucracy, we have to cheer on the homesteaders. They are so impossible to ignore, hundreds of them flooding a city meeting, that the tyranny of zoning is being ratcheted back for once.

And although it has a leftish quality, libertarians ought to take notice of this counter-cultural movement, whose localizing agenda poses profound implications for the future of liberty. With the economic forecasts dire and the corporatist system of mega-farms firmly gripping the Obama administration and all federal politics for the foreseeable future, our rights and perhaps very lives may depend on the freedom to farm at home.

Libertarians often straddle radically different, sometimes seemingly opposed, stereotypes. We are simultaneously atomist rugged individualists and slaves to the anonymous division of labor found in modern cosmopolitanism. This seeming paradox is reconciled in our simultaneous love of political localism and integrated economics, self-sufficiency and the contemporary blessings of a thriving voluntary community. And as admirers of both the frontier and the integrated city life, we can see much to relate to in the urban homesteaders and their hybrid lifestyle of city-slicking, strenuous agrarianism.

The urban farmers too suffer from being pigeonholed as the type you’d find in quasi-socialist hippie communes. Their community’s language and cultural habits can be jarring to a free market radical, but they need not be as dissonant as they first sound. When a libertarian hears the term “sustainable living” – another common theme in urban homesteading – he might first think of the central planning-nightmare called “sustainable development” or EPA-mandated encumbrances on his track housing. But we can as plausibly interpret the meaning to be: “freedom from the vagaries of the public utilities system and state-subsidized mass agriculture.”

Even in the larger sustainable living communities, we see a diversity of social organization. “Most cohousing communities with gardens use organic gardening practices, but just as the culture of cohousing groups varies widely, organizing and running a cohousing garden is a highly individualized project,” writes Jenise Aminoff in the Fall 2010 issue of Urban Farm magazine. Indeed, while voluntary communalism is totally compatible with libertarianism, even shameless capitalists can find much to love. Eno Commons, “a suburban cohousing community on the outskirts of Durham, N.C.,” initially ran its “garden on a standard allotment model, where each unit was assigned a garden plot,” but this led to problems: “there was a disconnect between a small handful of people doing work but the whole community picking,” explains garden manager Katherine Lee. And so what did they do? Aminoff explains:

“Last fall, Lee proposed a radical change: a market model. With Lee as the manager doing most of the gardening work, residents now pay for their garden produce. On the night of the community’s weekly common meal, Lee harvests the garden’s produce and brings it ‘to market’ in the common house.”

Surely, most other approaches to communal gardening involve a bit less commercial exchange, but from a quarter-acre urban homestead or an integrated sustainable living community to a produce co-op and the farmers’ markets that have gloriously emerged in every major city, we see there is no conflict between the market economy and sustainable farming in a municipal context. The way of life is no less libertarian than living in a condo or homeownership association.

Agricultural Independence and Urban Farms vs. the State

What are in conflict, however, are sustainable living and city pastures up against the agricultural bureaucracy, the USDA, FDA, and government at all levels. Certainly, those who offer major competition to Big Ag are targeted. There have been at least fifteen raids of raw milk farms during this administration alone. The federal government has cracked down on independent farmers in gruesome ways. Huge corn and soy subsidies have distorted our food supply, putting corn syrup in nearly every processed food, warped migration patterns and impoverished third-world economies. Even patents play a role in the farming hegemony: Monsanto, the corporate food giant with influence in the last three presidential administrations (including the current one), owns genes that can be found in 90% of America’s soy. Wind inevitably blows the seeds from Monsanto crops to those owned by smaller farmers, after which the company claims intellectual property rights over the land and forbids farmers to save seeds – a traditional agricultural practice – and even sues farmers for merely “encouraging” the violation of these patents.

But even for the small, non-commercial city farmer, the state has become a threat. Even the mildest displays of homegrown produce have run into legal trouble. In July 2011 news traveled fast of the plight of Julie Bass of Oak Park, Michigan, who was threatened with 93 days of jail time for the crime of planting vegetables in her front yard. A mere five raised beds featuring corn, tomatoes, squash and other vegetables constituted her great offense. Amid a massive public uproar, the city dropped the charges. In most areas of everyday life, the state has become ever more intrusive and invasive. On growing our own food, however, Americans appear sick of being on the defensive. The mainstream adoption of urban homesteading can lead to one of the great retrenchments of state power and influence in our times, echoing the homeschooling movement that has grown so impressively in recent years.

Much of the urban farm movement can be traced to the World War-era victory gardens – what we might call a market response to a statist emergency. The phenomenon of growing your own food (among other consumables) took off in the 1960s and 1970s and is now back in the cities, taking them by storm. Once again, they are coming in response to institutional crisis. In cities suffering in every other way, urban farms might save the day. The Detroit Agriculture Network’s Kristine Hahn points to the city’s “113 community gardens. . ., 18 school gardens, and 220 family gardens” as signs of hope for that suffering city’s future, writes Elizabeth Wahl.

It is a global phenomenon: The USDA estimates that urban areas grow about 15 percent of the food worldwide. In some countries, socialist regimentation has made private gardens absolutely necessary for survival. The Soviet government’s attempts to feed the masses were infamously disastrous, particularly in the calamitous era of Lyskensoism from the 1920s to early 1960s, when the Russian government imposed bizarre standards of agriculture along “proletarian” lines – the forced collectivization of farming and the rejection of genetics and mainstream botanical practices as being based in bourgeois pseudo-science. As the government began looking the other way, its citizens were finally able to feed themselves. By the late Soviet era, 90% of the nation’s fresh vegetables and a good deal of its animal products were from “unofficial sources” – meaning dacha gardens and the small private plots that collective farmers were permitted to work in their spare time,” according to the Christian Science Monitor. These private gardens became crucial in the post-Soviet upheaval as well. A 2008 survey conducted by the Public Opinion Fund found that 56% of urban Russians had a dacha or “kitchen garden.” The American government is still not as dysfunctional as Russia’s but the laws of economics apply universally. Should another financial collapse come, American dachas could be our lifeline.

At least implicitly distrustful of Washington, the urban homesteading movement gets bigger every day. With bigness, however, comes the threat of politicization, and in particular the threat of these farms being harvested by government, the co-ops being co-opted by the state. As with the bureaucratic nationalization of the word “organic” and the trouble we see with farmers running into Monsanto’s patent police, the voluntarism of sustainable living may one day be supplanted by regimented control and corporatism.

A Diversity of Meanings and Conflicts

A hint at one might come, and how urban homesteaders, without some guidance on the ethics of liberty, might make themselves vulnerable to a corporate-state takeover, arrives in the story of a trademark skirmish from this February. The Dervaeas Institute, an organizational arm of the Dervaeas family well known throughout the community for its pioneering work, its respected farm in Pasadena, and its website, sent out cease and dissent letters to sixteen groups warning them about their appropriation of the term “Urban Homesteading.” According to Jess Watson, writing in the Summer 2011 edition of Edible East Bay, the letters immediately resulted in “the Facebook pages of IUH, the Denver Institute of Urban Homesteading (a farmers market), and several homesteading-related books [being] taken down.”

According to a Dervaeas press release, their cease and desist letters were only meant to inform the sixteen organizations of “the proper usage of the registered terms. No threat was made against anyone’s first amendment rights; yet, there has been a heated argument in the media against what should have been the Dervaeses’ normal rights to protect their trademarks.”

But perhaps “normal rights” must be rethought if they involve controlling how others use such a phrase as “urban homesteading.” Libertarians have unique insights on intellectual property’s incompatibility with traditional property rights, and maybe some radical free market thought is what this community needs. There is also the practical consideration: “Urban homesteading” yields 610,000 finds on Google. Some entries concern not just sustainable farming but actual homesteading – squatting on seemingly unclaimed property. This squatting can be both farm-related and libertarian: with the state neglecting huge swaths of so-called “public property,” community farming can be an act of revolutionary Lockeanism.

In 2006, the city government moved in to seize a plot of public land that had been effectively homesteaded by 350 farming families in central Los Angeles. The city had caved to public pressure not to place a garbage incinerator there in 1987. “The lot remained abandoned for seven more years, when [around 1994] working folks from the neighborhood set up on the unused land, established gardens and cultivated the land in the lot,” writes Charles Johnson. Ten years after they began homesteading the lot, the city sold it to a wealthy businessman who had owned a fraction of it before it was stolen by the government through eminent domain in the 1980s. Here again we see the state creating a mess of property rights and producing conflict where none need exist.

Thankfully, most urban homesteads simply involve city farming and sustainable living practices that rest comfortably on private land that isn’t disputed, putting aside the invasive limitations of zoning law. “Urban homesteading” can also refer to government programs of home ownership – this is of the least interest to the libertarian. Given all these various meanings of “urban homesteading,” perhaps we ought to reject the whole notion of controlling the term through intellectual property law.

We Must Cultivate Our Garden

The trademark heat did not deter Ruby Blume, a recipient of one of the letters, from moving ahead with the book she helped Rachel Kaplan write. Skyhorse publishing this year printed Urban Homesteading: Heirloom Skills for Sustainable Living, a little manifesto that explores the principles of permaculture, gardening methods, the intimate bond between what we grow and what we eat, and how to build sustainable homes. The politics, economics, and environmental values that creep in the text might be a bit hard for a libertarian to take, but there are a few insights we can relate to:\

“If we wait for government action before jumping on board, it will be too late. Change like this has to begin. In Congress. In the boardroom. In your home. You only have control over one of those things. Exert it.” (p. 9)

Indeed, today’s urban homesteaders are acting directly, taking responsibility in their own sphere of influence, to improve their lives and escape the limitations of the state-infested world – and they do so without isolating themselves, but rather by expanding upon their ties to their community.

Kaplan and Blume give a sense of the individualism of this movement, one not necessarily loyal to enviro-leftist conformity. San Francisco permaculture teacher Kevin Bayuk is quoted with something mightily similar, in substance if not tone, to one of my favorite George Carlin routines on the futility of trying to “save the planet”:

“I’ve seen people approach this type of lifestyle or message as something they must do. Climate change, species extinction! Do something now! We must! I’ve had those feelings of urgency, but when people approach this kind of lifestyle with a sense of [urgency], it’s just a few years before burnout. That type of energy leads directly to failure; it doesn’t fit with the economy of a healthy system. I advocate for a different metaphor for why you’d live like this. I remember a story that comes from science that says the G-type star we’re flying around on is five or six billion years old, and it might live another twelve billion years. If humanity makes it, twelve billion years down the road all the hydrogen will have fused into helium in that star and it’s going to erupt and expand and envelop the Earth and all the life on it will be gone. In this story, you can’t save the Earth or humanity, so there’s no must about it. The story’s written; it’s just a matter of time. Is it twelve billion years from now, fifteen years from now, 100 years from now? It doesn’t matter to me; I just know the story of trying to ‘save’ the Earth is foolish.” (p. 20)

In the long run, we’re all dead, said Keynes. Nevertheless, the Austrian school of economics to which I subscribe suggests we should think about the future, at least as far as we can see ahead. With a financial system in tatters, utility systems poorly maintained and due for a major disaster, a government neither inclined nor able to handle emergencies natural or manmade, and a corporatist food system bringing us continually lower quality sustenance at ever higher prices, the state-approved way of life can sometimes appear to be a race to the bottom. For the sake of surviving, to say nothing of protecting our freedom from the state, those of us who have yet committed to a flight from the cities must begin taking urban homesteading seriously. Meanwhile, those already in that movement, disenfranchised from the nationalist system and thriving as a growing, localized economic force, need to hear about the intellectual revolution of peace, voluntary economics, and liberty known as libertarianism. It’s a match made in heaven. Let the courting process begin.

Thanks to Nicole Booz for her help and inspiration on this article. An earlier version of this ran at Freedom’s Phoenix

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