Why I Farm — A City Version: Barbara Ayers


I hope everyone won’t mind if I contribute my story. I have often wanted to comment on this wonderful, thought provoking site, but felt too shy because I don’t have a farm. My husband works in the entertainment business, hence we live in Pasadena, part of the giant suburban sprawl of Los Angeles, California. I didn’t grow up on a farm either — suburbs, again, outside of Washington, DC.  But my maternal grandparents were farmers who emigrated from Romania to Western Canada. I believe the urge to farm must be passed down in one’s genetic code.

I’d always made flower gardens, and I’m a good cook. Somewhere back during the culinary revolution, I came upon a cookbook by Alice Waters, who can’t help but be inspiring. So I planted a pot of basil and parsley on my apartment balcony. Alice was right — picking that super fresh basil whenever I needed it, instead of spending two dollars for it, half wilted from the grocery store, was absolutely life changing. I spent the next fifteen years growing fruits and vegetables wherever they could be squeezed in, and dreaming of life in a more rural setting. Then, one happy day, my young children were accepted by a school that had, among other attractive features, a small organic farm. I spent the summer driving stealthily past the school’s farm property, stalking it, wondering if there would be any space for me to sponsor a project or two. It turned out to be a dusty acre of weeds with a pretty, tiny pond at the center, a big mulberry tree, and a few straggly plots left over from the year before. My children’s kindergarten teacher told me there had once been a farm manager and the property had been well used, but in recent years it had been left up to parent volunteers, with mixed results. Somehow, without a lot more conversation about it, the two of us decided to try to get it up and going again.

We put those kindergarteners to work — child labor can be a powerful thing. They dug beds, and we built trellises. They planted blackberries, raspberries, apples, pluots, and pears, and culinary herbs. We grew sweet peas and daffodils, and made a big bed of California wildflowers. We planted popcorn.

We grew a “pizza sauce” garden of tomatoes, onions and oregano, made some sauce, and threw a party at the farm where we grilled up a lot of pizza. Everyone liked that, so the next year we grew a sauce garden again, and made the cheese for our pizza in the classroom. A parent joked, “How come you didn’t grow the crust?”

So the next year, after reading Gene’s Small Scale Grain Raising, we grew three kinds of wheat, milled it in the class, and had a big pancake breakfast, and a bigger Italian feast with lasagna noodles hand rolled by the kids.

We kept on adding more fruit trees, put in a little vineyard of table grapes and planted a lot of blueberries.  That year, we had enough produce to have a small in-house farmer’s market at the end of the school year, run by the students. The Head of School was quite pleased, and asked that we hold one every month, so this past year we busily planted more vegetables just to support our market, and started making marmalade, jam, jelly, and soap. The monthly markets have made enough money to pay the farm’s expenses — definitely proving the sales advantage of having a few bright-faced elementary students running the stand.

Next year, we plan to add a hedgerow of apple trees, save up for a cider press, and if I can manage to convince everybody, install a bee hive. (Wish me luck with that last one!)

I dream of a homestead of my own, and would love to join the ranks of all of you lucky enough to farm. Every Wednesday I read Gene’s blog (every comment, too) — for the practical advice and philosophical wisdom, of course, but also as a window onto the rural life I feel so drawn to. But until that day, I will be content with our school farm. If the aim is joy, then I am given a full helping of it from our crop of children and the great delight they take in the work and play of our little one acre.



This is a great story and very inspiring. Thank you for this!

What a great story! You are doing more good this way than if you had your own place. My reason is here. http://kootenaygarden.blogspot.ca/2010/08/growing-food-bottom-line.html

We are one of the families that have benefited for many years from Barbara’s Farm Program. For my two active boys it’s a haven where they can run and build tree houses with their friends, dig, plant, weed and eat the fruits of their labor and it’s a place where they can let their imagination run wild.
When the old mulberry tree bears fruit at the end of the school year, they climb up as high as they can to harvest as much as their cheeks and purple stained hands can hold. Then make mulberry pie and smoothies with the leftover crop.
Last year my sons class studied the Middle Ages and Barbara organized the planting of an entire medieval garden of potatoes, onions, wheat and fennel protected by a wattle and daub fence which the kids also made. They buried a cow horn of manure which was months later dug up to fertilize the crop. That was just one class’ project! My kids are learning and taking pleasure in growing food and oh, are they ever happy on their farm. Thank you Barbara, you have been going above and beyond for many years now teaching us and our kids how satisfying it is to see things grow. You’re a goddess!

Barbara why am I not surprised to read this post. Your amazing and should be proud of your school farm project. The bee hive shouldn’t scare you, what could be more natural. The garden is full of bees now right? Just put them inside a fenced area to keep the little fingers at bay. I spent a summer on my uncle’s farm in Iowa when I was 12 and along with chores I loved to fish in the pond. One thing that made me nervous was all the bees. My uncle was full of great advice and taught me is that if you don’t bother the bees they won’t bother you. After that whenever a bee would land on me I’d just say “Hello” and ignore him and soon off he flew. I also learned that the best frog bait was little pieces of red cloth, but that’s another story.
When are you guys moving back to Virginia? You’re the best!

One of the reasons for people with kids to garden, IMHO, is that it seems like agriculture is something that usually has to be developed early on. It’s kind of like Fairy Tales. People appeciate fairy tales only when they were exposed to them as a child. I don’t know of anyone who came to appreciate fairy tales as an adult. It seems that most people who garden or farm had an early exposure–though not all.

I agree with you about farming being in our genetic code. My father was a dirt farmer in Virginia during the depression. He farmed out of necessity. He continued to do so while raising three children after the necessity passed. Today I take great pride in my little back yard patch. While it is nothing compared to the scale of yours, I hope we are both passing something on to our children.

Bill Dean, Prince Edward Island, CA September 14, 2011 at 5:34 am

Just a flat out, great account of what can happen when one or two people stick their fingers in the dirt and get to it. To get the kids’ noses out of the computer or off their phones is a feat of no small proportion! Thanks for taking the risk and the time to not only engage in the growing process, but also investing in your (and other) kids’ lives!

Wow, what you are doing there is extremely important. Those kids are learning lessons that will stick with them their whole lives.

I’m just starting to get a school kitchen garden off the ground at my kids’ primary school, so it’s really encouraging to read success stories like yours!

Barbara, you certainly are an inspiration. Since circumstances have meant that you can’t really have your own plot and piece of paradise you have still gone out and instilled in young absorbant minds the value, pleasure and skills that this kind of living is capable of. That is one of the most unselfish things I have heard or seen for a long time. The ramifications of what you have done will continue long after we are gone and not just in those children either; their parents and relatives will also be touched in some way by what you have done.

You are as much, if not more of a “farmer” than any of us and there is no need to be shy or hesitant about. Please don’t stop. Tell and show anyone who will listen what you are doing and don’t, whatever you do, don’t stop.

Barbara, you rock. The ‘force’ is strong in you!!

You are such an inspiration. I am forwarding links to this post to all the teachers I know.


What you’ve done there is flat out wonderful. Thank you Thank you! KEEP GOING!
How lovely. How absolutely lovely.

Enjoyed your post! Like you I’m an “urban farmer”. I bought a 1/4 acre lot ang got busy. Here in southwest Louisiana urban property costs are pretty low compared to CA, I’m sure. Have you thought about “farming” in the backyards of your neighbors? Check this out: http://hyperlocavore.com

I’m on the fence as to whether to move out of the city since I do work here. You may enjoy the book FARM CITY by Novella Carpenter. Although she and I are worlds apart in terms of political and religious views, the book was a real hoot. She raised all kinds of animals and vegetables on a vacant lot and fed all the animals with food she got out of dumpsters behind organic/gourmet resterants and grocery stores in Oakland, CA.

That was inspirational and very well written. Grow where you are planted applies to people as well as plants. I’m particularly impressed with how you have taken your own unrealized longings and made them a source of great benefit to so many. I’ve spent my whole life in close proximity to the soil and today you taught me something about farming and life.

I completely feel your genetic love for the land. My father has always been a farmer, and I would love to have land of my own in which to grow a garden, chickens, etc. But for now, I’m too busy jetting around the world, and have just moved to your neck of the woods. Luckily, I have been able to find student run gardens (in college and grad school, and now again a program with elementary kids nearby) to keep me going.
Thanks for your story.

I also believe the love of farming/gardening is/can be genetic. My mother’s father was a farmer, and she gravitated to the city and later the suburbs. Her flower garden was always important to her. Late in life, my father grew vegetables and was protective of the black rat snake that lived in his garden. I, after having lived my adult life in the city, find myself on ten acres with a deep in-my-soul love of the land.

Barbara, like Laura, I teared up when I read your post (I’m still swiping at errant tears!). Darn tootin’ you’re a farmer; it’s not where you do it, but what you do. I used to love to get new-graduate RNs to teach although the other nurse managers hated it. I kept telling them, “Look, this is their first job in nursing. If we do it right, we will influence their practice for the remainder of their careers. If we do it right, we are seeding the profession with excellence.” You are doing the same thing with those children in relation to farming and raising food; you’re doing it right. You go, girl!

Oh Barbara, your post brought tears to my eyes. You’re growing so much more than wonderfully fresh produce. You are growing children who know through all their senses what it means to work with nature. This is wisely planted with joy as well as purpose. It will blossom throughout their lives in ways more bountiful than any of us can imagine. Bless you.

Hello Barbara
No reason to be shy. There’s no such thing as an expert farmer/gardener. Mother nature will always be glad to teach you that lesson.
Farming isn’t about size. Just getting outside, work with what you have and definately teach the kids.
I loved your article and I love the photos!

Great to hear from you, Barbara Ayers. I might disagree with you, though: you are indeed a farmer. You are growing some pretty important things. Most of our agribusiness people nowadays are too busy to grow food for their own tables. Those children will have memories of the things they helped plant, too.

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