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Small-Time Growers, Major Cash Cow

Krissy Clark

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I once lived in a very small town where people took their vegetable gardens very seriously. The joke was that the only time you really had to worry about crime was at the end of summer, when there would be a rash of car and home break-ins, when someone would sneak in and leave a pile of home-grown zucchini behind.

"And then of course there's the competition about zucchini and chocolate chip cookies, or zucchini and this, zucchini and that," says retired teacher David Eichorn.

Eichorn's been gardening in his East Bay, California backyard long enough to be well acquainted with the joy, and also the panic that kicks in around harvest time. One starts cursing the heavy-hanging fruit on the raspberry vine, the rapidly-growing summer squash. Eichorn remembers years when he would look at his bountiful home-grown produce and ask himself "what the hell am I gonna do with them? Hit somebody over the head with them?"

That would be a sad way to go: bludgeoned to death by cabbage or zucchini. But there is only so much homegrown fruits and veggies that one can handle. What to do with it all? Eichorn has a modest proposal:

"Think about this," he says, slamming his hand on his backyard picnic table for emphasis, "You grow good produce of any kind, I don't care whether it's fruit or vegetables, people will buy it."

Eichorn is not a professional farmer. His backyard is small, yet packed with plum trees, raspberry bushes and boysenberry vines.

"Try this one. This is a good one," he says, popping one into my mouth.

Eichorn and his wife gorge themselves on all their backyard bounty until they can't eat anymore, then they sell the rest. He has already made $1100 so far this summer. Alice Water's swanky bistro Chez Pannisse is his best customer. He guesses he's been treated to at least 70 free meals there, in exchange for his berries.

Eichorn says it's easy: Just pick your best home-grown stuff (better if it's something a little exotic), do some research at the grocery store to see how much it's going for, and then start knocking on restaurant and grocery store doors.

Star Grocery in Berkeley is one place to sell some weekend warrior produce. Family-owned stores are generally more likely to buy backyard fruits and veggies than bigger chains.

"It's fun to write a little sign to tell people, 'This food came from a couple hundred yards away,'" says Star Grocery manager Adrian McEvilly. "People want to fill their table with things that are local, and that have a story behind them."

Plus, recent scares surrounding contaminated peppers, tomatoes, spinach and lettuce have made the ability to track one's food to a neighborhood garden comforting.

Stores can also stock up on rare fruits that don't usually ship well, or that are just too finicky to grow on a large scale: hachiya persimmons, pomegranates, heirloom tomatoes...

There is a neighborhood kid who sells pounds of home-grown Meyer lemons to Star Grocery every year.

McEvilly tries to treat the transaction like any other. "You just look at market value," he says, "and when it's a 15-year-old kid, you probably give them a little sweeter deal than you would to a farm."

But even if you aren't 15, there may still be hope for your backyard enterprise. Even if you aren't currently growing anything in your backyard, and posses a thumb that's black as coal, folks like Donna Smith may still provide some measure of hope. Smith co-founded the Portland, Ore.-based Your Backyard Farmer. She and her partner will come to your house once a month and teach you how to grow your own food for about $100 per visit.

"Did you put some fertilizer on these guys?" Smith asks client Robert Norton about some sad-looking corn stalks on a recent visit to Norton's backyard.

"I've been having some trouble with the fertilizer," he responds.

"They need some help," a firm but cheerful Smith replies, adding, "and they need more water."

Smith and Norton stand in a backyard that once had a patchy lawn that Norton never really liked mowing. He says he envisioned a lush organic garden that he could harvest for his family but was clueless about how to create one.

"Some people can read a book or go on the Internet and get the information, and know exactly what to do. But I'm the kind of person that needs somebody to actually guide me," he explains.

Aside from the sad corn plants, Smith's tutoring sessions seem to be working. "Tomatoes over my head, cabbages bigger than my head, cauliflower bigger than my head," Norton says, showing off his garden. "I've harvested beets, carrots, cucumbers."

Even if you have neither the time nor the inclination to garden, but still want to eat stuff from your own yard, Smith will provide you with a weekly supply of fruits and veggies that she grows on your property for $1500 a season (or more for big backyards).

Whether you are yard-farming all by yourself, or with the help of a personal trainer, or paying someone else to do it for you, there is always the risk of growing more than you can handle.

Norton says he has not yet resorted to selling his giant lettuce, or breaking in to people's houses to leave them home-grown treats. He likes using a more direct approach: he walks up to a neighbor, peels off a leaf, bites into it and smiles. "I always do that," he says. "I say 'yeah, it's good, you want it?' And they say 'yes.'

"I haven't been turned down yet."


  • Comment | Refresh

  • By Sally Finch

    From Portland, OR, 08/17/2008

    Food banks can be a great place to take your too-bountiful harvest. I just volunteered at my local food bank and they told us about their system, called Share Your Harvest. They even have refrigerator magnets with the phone number!

    By Kate McDevitt

    From San Diego, CA, 08/16/2008

    Krissy, I loved this story! Hope you'll be doing more along these lines in the future. For those that were intrigued by these concepts I hope they will consider attending Slow Food Nation in San Francisco over Labor Day weekend. I'm attending and it sounds like an incredible event . . .possible story topic?

    By Dina Rudick

    From Medford, MA, 08/16/2008

    Hi! I'm actually spearheading a real-time experiment involving my lawn, my time, and lots of trial and error. It's my first city garden, and next come the chickens (look out, City of Medford!) The goal is to grow as much of my own food as possible. I'm chronicling this experience at my blog, www.citylovescountry.com. Come see!

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