I come from a farming place and farming people. My grandfather raised decades of crops and provided for four children with hard work and know-how and more hard work. I’m sure some part of him would have been proud to see me follow in his muddy footsteps. But as a kid, I never wanted to have anything directly to do with the family occupation, despite my fascination with large machinery. Not for me the early mornings, the dirty hands, the sweaty brow, the sweaty everything. Despite my best efforts, though, agriculture has caught up with me.
My wife and I live in Oakland, California, on a small lot a few miles north of downtown. A hundred and fifty years ago it was productive ranching and farmland, like nearly all of what’s now Oakland. In the last quarter of the 19th century, the land was cut up, sold off, and built on. The 1906 earthquake and fire forced 200,000 people out of San Francisco and across the bay, where they finished the business of replacing cultivation with habitation in my neighborhood and all over the city. The crop of houses that sprouted in the post-quake years established the area’s enduring monoculture.
Though the last farmers sold out and moved on more than a century ago, the gardeners remain. My wife is one of them. She’s gradually returning our little south-facing backyard to the kind of fecundity it once knew.
My involvement has been largely infrastructural. I built the simple raised beds, filled them with fresh soil—went with the unleaded variety—and laid out the drip irrigation. Every now and then I move a plant from one spot to another or dig a hole for something new, according to my wife’s instructions. Sometimes I clean up the small, repugnant gifts our local stray cats leave in the mulch. I also mow the patch of grass in the center of the yard, because otherwise I wouldn’t really feel like I was living the American Dream.
My wife makes all the choices, though: what to plant, when to plant it, how it’s tended. She reads books and websites and exchanges notes with friends about how to make the most of our local climate zone, what varieties work best for her constraints, and how to handle pests or deal with other problems that attend the growing of things.
In other words, she farms. She’s not up before dawn, unless it’s to catch an early flight for work. She has no tractor, no barn, no crop insurance policy or federal subsidies. But in her devotion to the craft—to figuring out the best ways to manage the land and what she grows on it—she is more like my grandfather than I am.
At the moment, she’s farming 32 square feet in the raised beds, a corner berry patch (black, blue, rasp), three citrus trees in pots on the deck, herbs scattered around the yard, and the two old fruit trees that were here already, one of which graced us with 40 pounds of apples last year. The farm grows year by year as we gradually fill in more of the unplanted areas and tear up chunks of grass.
(Oh, but don’t worry. Someone else in the neighborhood is growing a different kind of grass, the kind you can smell on warm, breezy days and that is, under current state law, for medicinal use only, or what the meddlesome federales might call Schedule I grass. It’s farming all around.)
I have a lot of respect for what my wife has done with our little yard. She was an enthusiastic but space-limited gardener of ornamental plants when we met, making the most of a tiny, north-facing, pretty much always shaded apartment balcony. Now she’s immersed herself in an activity that deserves the name agriculture. She’s an amazing woman in a lot of ways. This is just one of them.
But sometimes I stand on the deck, looking down at her planting this year’s tomatoes or pulling off cabbage moth worms by hand, feeling, as I watch, no more pull toward the actual work of growing things than I did as a kid, and it hits me that I have married a farmer. I think my grandfather would be proud, but a little perplexed. Now that I’ve written that, I’m pretty sure that’s how he always felt about me.
Garden photo by Chris Rochelle