When the white bus trundled into the parking lot and turned toward us, the message written across its face read like a portent of the journey to come. In stark black type it said, "Be Wilder."
The bus was part of a new program created by the Boise Farmers Market and the Ada Soil & Water Conservation District. Throughout August and September, it picked up groups Boise Farmers Market shoppers and aspiring farmers from the urban landscape of the BFM parking lot and shuttled them to the comparative wilderness of farms across the Treasure Valley.
"It's important for people to have a connection to farmers and their food, to understand the challenges that farmers face, and see how important agriculture is to our region," said ASWCD Programs and Administrative Coordinator Jessica Harrold, who led the tours. "By stepping onto a farm, you can better grasp the effort it takes to produce food, and see firsthand the value in keeping local farms in our community."
The farms on the list that chilly morning were Feathers & Horns, Global Gardens and Dream Farm Flowers, and unlike the other farms the tours visited, they're microfarms, located smack in the center of town, hidden in neighborhoods and carved from backyards.
Both MaximumYield and The Lexicon of Food define a micro farm as urban or suburban farmsteads operated on less than five acres. And in the era of big-ag homogeny and urban food deserts, a growing faction of sustainability advocates, locavores and academics consider them the future of food. When I climbed onto the Be Wilder bus, I wanted to get a look at that possible future and see just how viable it might be.
- Lex Nelson
Feathers & Horns: A Step Toward Sustainability
At first glance, the only sign that the low-slung house we'd pulled up beside might be a farm was the front yard garden, a plot exploding with cucumber vines, corn stalks and tomato plants. From the conventional neighborhood and cream-colored siding of the house, you'd never guess that 50 chickens, three cows and one yearling lived there.
Eighteen-year-old Anastasia Crosthwaite was raised on this farm, and greeted us wearing work boots, jeans and a long-sleeved pink T-shirt. She and her twin sister (two of the nine Crosthwaite children) do the bulk of the farm work, everything from feeding chickens to milking cows. Anastasia is taking a gap year before going to college to study veterinary medicine, and is so devoted to Rose, Clarabelle and Clover, the family's Jersey milk cows, that she gave up eating meat.
"I feel lucky for growing up with animals ... they're buddies, you know? It's like growing up with a dog you're really close to," she said.
In 2009, the Crosthwaites became farmers in a bid to opt out of big food, but soon the 1.5-acre plot originally intended to feed their family was producing enough milk (roughly 13-14 gallons per day at peak times) to start a small business. Today they make yogurt, kefir, fromage blanc and more for the BFM in their home kitchen. They're allowed to keep so many animals because technically their property is on county, not city, land.
"My mom really wanted to get into sustainable living, and decrease what we bought from the store," Anastasia said.
The cows were eating breakfast when we arrived, and let us get close enough to stroke their velvet noses. Nearby, another garden was rampant with peppers, and dozens of chickens—a mix of Red Sex Links, Black Australorps, Rhode Island Reds, Araucanas and Polish—had the run of the yard. Though the space is small, the Crosthwaites still practice rotational grazing, moving their cows between six paddocks every two days.
"They give crazy delicious milk when they're on grass. It makes the cheese very creamy even though it's not made from cream, it's made from whole milk," Anastasia said.
The cows rarely escape their paddocks, and Anastasia said the most rambunctious they get is when the Mormon church next door has outdoor events and people bring their dogs along. Then, they'll charge up and down the fenceline, eager to play with their small, furry friends.
- Lex Nelson
Global Gardens: Planting Seeds of Entrepreneurship
Olga Nlemvo charged off down a narrow berm, the hem of her bright blue dress catching on the knee-high rows of crops that crowded in on either side. Every five feet or so, she stopped abruptly to wade into the field, gesturing to one plant or another and explaining, in clear but imperfect English, why she'd felt so strongly about growing it.
We followed her bobbing red headscarf like so many goslings tagging after their mother, and stretched out behind her in a ragged line, peering over each others' shoulders. I wasn't at the head of the line, but I was near enough to hear Nlemvo invite us to taste a bushy plant called sour leaf that was growing near our feet.
I plucked a red-edged leaf, bit in and chewed. It was like sucking on a lime, tart but tolerable. Ahead of and behind me, more than 20 other people were doing the same. Nlemvo explained that in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where she grew up, sour leaf is considered medicinal, often made into tea and sipped in lieu of modern medicine.
"You boil it in water and you drink it," she said. "It's healthy for the blood."
Nlemvo and her husband, Marcel Mpassi, are among several hundred refugees from around the world who have taken up farming in Boise thanks to Global Gardens, an entrepreneurship training program that's part of Jannus, under the Idaho Office for Refugees. The four-acre, City of Boise-owned farm at 2908 S. Pond St., where they work their tract is one of nine community gardens run by Global Gardens across the state. It serves six families, each of whom farm a quarter of an acre.
"There's an application process, and basically what the application is looking for is, we want to make sure everyone who applies to the program will be successful, that they have the time to farm, and that they have enough English or somebody who can help them—especially if they're joining the farmers market—so they can communicate," said Idaho Office for Refugees Director Tara Wolfson.
Abdi Haji, who moved to Boise from Kenya in 2004 and joined Global Gardens in 2010, started farming a tract on the Pond Street property in part to earn additional income (he works as a custodian at St. Joseph's School) and in part to stay active.
"If you work eight hours and just come home, watch TV, lay down, we don't like that," Haji said, pointing to cultural differences between the U.S. and his home country of Somalia. "We need more exercise."
Farmers like Haji sell their produce in community-supported agriculture systems, at the Boise Farmer Market and the newly opened Roots Zero Waste Market, and directly to local restaurants.
"It's a way to connect with community, not only people from their home countries but the Boise community," said Wolfson. "It's a way to increase their income, to eat the food that is from their home countries, and it's really a way to bring their own families together that crosses generations."
- Lex Nelson
Dream Farm Flowers: A Hobby in Bloom
After the orderly crop rows, pickup trucks and tool sheds of Global Gardens, stepping into Dream Farm Flowers felt a bit like falling down the rabbit hole to fairyland. Everywhere I looked my eye landed on color: vibrant purple hyacinths vied for space with bushy-topped burgundy celosia, red and yellow-ringed black-eyed susans, and dozens of other organically grown, heirloom flowers. Smack in the middle of it all was a coop full of chickens.
"This is my second season of growing flowers," said Sarah Lunstrum, gesturing around her at the Eden growing in the backyard of her tiny one-bedroom house on North Hawthorne Drive in Boise. "My first season, I basically gave everything away. I donated all of it to the Interfaith Sanctuary and the Ronald McDonald House."
When Lunstrum and her husband, Russ Stoddard, bought the land for their farm, it was being used to grow vegetables, not flowers. After struggling with excess produce, they pivoted to make flowers the centerpiece and started a small business selling the blooms for special events and at the Boise Farmers Market. This month, they'll also start hosting flower arranging classes in their backyard workshop.
Looking around at her flowers, Lundstrum said, "It's always growing, growing, more more more—it's an addiction."
When I stepped off the bus for the last time, just over five hours after I'd first climbed on, my mind was swirling with color.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, in 2017 there were 6,673 farms in Idaho run on nine acres or less, up from 4,861 in 2012. Over that time, the only other farm sizes that grew were 10- to 49-acre farms (the next smallest category measured) and farms 2,000 acres or more. But the growing popularity of small farms doesn't mean that more people are making their livings as farmers.
Of all of the farms that I'd visited, none were the sole sources of income for the farmers who ran them.
At Feathers & Horns, Anastasia explained that her mother works for a local church, she and her twin sister have jobs in downtown Boise. When the two of them leave for college, the future of the farm is uncertain.
Meanwhile, at Global Gardens, organizers are preparing to launch a push for local funding when the USDA grants that support the program—which are getting harder and harder to earn—run out. Program Coordinator Katie Painter told the group, "We do a big financial analysis every year and so farming was, on average, 19% of [our refugee farmers'] incomes last year, and the U.S. average is 18%. Almost all farmers have off-farm jobs, no matter the scale of their farm."
At Dream Farm Flowers, Lunstrum is no exception. She works full time as a speech-language pathologist for the Boise School District and considers her flower farm a hobby, though she'd like it to be more.
"Although we're bringing in a small income, I'm definitely spending more than I'm bringing in," she told the tour group. "... I don't know that I'd ever quit my in-town job because I don't know that I'd ever be able to support my husband."
That said, each of those farmers was getting something in exchange for their labor, whether it's extra income, an opportunity to start a new life, food for their families, or simply a bit more beauty to add to the world. They were making large gains in small spaces, and as Boise continues to grow, trading farmland for subdivisions in Dry Creek and beyond, people looking to source their food close to home might want to consider a new system—perhaps one with a chicken in every toolshed, and a cow in every yard.