Equal parts historical document, confessional memoir and social critique, this book tells the story of “Sunroot Gardens,” a bicycle-based urban farming operation that the author founded and cultivated in Portland, Oregon, in the early 2000’s.
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Equal parts historical document, confessional memoir and social critique, this book tells the story of “Sunroot Gardens,” a bicycle-based urban farming operation that I founded and cultivated in Portland, Oregon, in the early 2000’s.
Made famous by the local media—including the Willamette Week, Sellwood Bee, Portland Monthly, KBOO, Oregonian and In Good Tilth—Sunroot Gardens blazed trails and pushed boundaries. The text is drawn from my voluminous writings at the time and has been supplemented with freshly composed narrative and commentary.
The Introduction and Table of Contents follow, below.
“When a well-packaged web of lies has been sold gradually to the masses over generations, the truth will seem utterly preposterous and its speaker a raving lunatic.” (Dresden James)
This book is about my experiences as bicycle-based urban farmer in Portland, Oregon, U.S.A., from 2004 through 2010 (with a brief reprise in 2013). The arc of the narrative begins with wide-eyed idealism and ends with disillusioned acceptance. If you’re looking for a message of “rah rah, look how sustainable we are!” you won’t find it here. If, on the other hand, you are genuinely concerned about our collective future and are interested in how urban farming could play a part, there are lessons here to glean.
Mainly, this book tells the story of “Sunroot Gardens,” an agricultural experiment that I created and directed from 2007-2010. Sunroot, as it was called for short, took the form of a “CSA,” which stands for “Community Supported Agriculture.” CSA is a business model in which customers pay a lump sum of money to a farmer at the beginning of the agricultural season in exchange for a share of fresh produce throughout the year. The idea of CSA was invented in Japan and started gaining popularity in the U.S.A. in the early 2000’s. For the farmer, it has many advantages, primarily that a certain amount of monetary income is guaranteed. For the customer, a close and even personal relationship with a farmer can be enjoyed, as well as fresh, local food—very local in the case of urban farming.
How is “urban farming” different from “gardening”?
The majority of people who garden enjoy the activity as a hobby but are in no way dependent on it for their diet. The most ambitious ones might cut their summer produce bill significantly and put by an impressive amount of preserves for winter, but they are exceptional, and what they are doing is still not farming. Farmers are trying to provide for themselves by providing for other people, and to succeed, what they provide must be substantial. It is a matter of both scale and seriousness. With Sunroot Gardens, we were earnestly trying to provide for ourselves by providing for other people and at the peak of the operation we had over three acres in cultivation and were providing for over two dozen households. That’s why we felt justified in calling ourselves “urban farmers” and in describing our activity as “urban farming.”
There were (and are) home gardeners who like to call themselves “urban farmers” or refer to their yards as “mini-farms.” While that might be cute, it is trivializes real farmers. Re-localizing our agricultural production system is a real need that will require real effort and real urban farming was what we were seeking to accomplish through Sunroot. For a handful of years we managed to do it, but in the end we found that our efforts could not be maintained, not for logistical or financial reasons, but for social ones.
A particular place in a particular time
Portland, Oregon, between 2004 and 2010 was in transition. Of course, no city is static, and each one is always between phases that are often accurately seen only in retrospect, but the “City of Roses” in that period was a particular place in a particular time that made it especially fertile ground (no pun intended) for the urban farming experiment known as Sunroot Gardens.
Passing away was “Little Beirut,” a city given that nickname by George H. W. Bush’s advisors in the early 1990’s because of the energetic protests the President faced there. This Portland was a center of unabashedly leftist politics but was also a homely, low-rent backwater that was perennially overshadowed by its more urbane and glamorous siblings, Seattle to the north, and San Francisco to the south. “Little Beirut” was the city I hoped to find when I moved to Portland in early 2001, hot on the heels of the explosive anti-WTO protests in Seattle in late 1999. I immersed myself in political activism, primarily Indymedia and forest defense. Indymedia was a global network of autonomous alternative media centers based in different cities, including Portland, where the atmosphere led to a particularly dynamic effort. During these years, I met and collaborated with hundreds of people, many of whom became supporters of my urban farming in part due to the reputation I had earned as dedicated and hard working.
As is told in the chapter, “The Call of Katrina,” I ended up switching my focus from Indymedia to agriculture in 2005. In 2007, the U.S. economy began imploding, though the “Great Recession” wasn’t declared until 2008. Over the next couple years, financial institutions failed, gas prices hit an all-time high, and Climate Change crept into the news. Against this backdrop of the system’s suddenly apparent fragility—and perhaps even imminent collapse—people in Portland were open to new ideas and big concepts. It was within this milieu, and in directly-stated response to it, that I founded Sunroot Gardens.
As is told in the chapter, “The Media Blitz,” local publications from newsprint entertainment weeklies to glossy lifestyle magazines took an interest in Sunroot Gardens and in other, similar projects, and made a meme of “urban farming.” People in Portland who were hungry for creative solutions—especially ones with the stamp of “cool”—proved enthusiastic to lend their help. Resources flowed in, in the form of money, land, labor and more. Thanks, ironically, to corporate media, I was given what I needed to put my ideas into action.
But by 2010, “urban farming” as a meme had lost its luster and the practice itself had been relegated to the role of one more quirky thing that existed to “keep Portland weird.” It was assumed, incorrectly, that urban farming had become an established, successful endeavor and that no more attention needed to be paid to it. This was the final year of Sunroot’s operations.
The Portland that emerged next was “Portlandia,” a caricature of itself, a destination no longer for scrappy activists—or starving artist, their sometimes partners-in-crime—but for the app-driven digerati, with their oh-so-refined tastes and non-confrontational blue-state politics. Rents skyrocketed, hipsters pushed out hippies, and by 2015, Portland was the most quickly gentrifying city in the U.S.A. In short, no longer a hospitable place for unconventional experiments.
In retrospect, it is clear that Sunroot Gardens, took advantage of a particular time and place for as long the period lasted, neither arriving too early nor leaving too late (like an engaging work of fiction).
About this book
Stylistically, this book is equal parts historical document, confessional memoir and social critique. Most of the text is quoted directly from the voluminous amount of material I composed at the time, most of it posted to the Sunroot Gardens email list, whose subscribers were CSA shareholders, volunteers, landlenders, and other friends of the farm. I was a very active writer during those years. How active? From the first message, transmitted on April 24, 2007, to the last, on December 10, 2010, the total number of words I sent out totaled just over 100,000. Much of it was routine, relating to CSA pick-up times, work-party announcements, and other logistics, but a significant chunk focused on big picture issues and personal reflections.
I used a very light touch in editing this primary source material. Other than changing names (for reasons noted below), I did nothing except correct spelling and standardize punctuation, and only so the reader will not be distracted by mistakes. Otherwise, every excerpt is intact, as originally composed and sent out into the world, “warts and all.” By preserving the text as-is, my intention was to lend a legitimate vérité to the story of the evolution of my farming efforts, political awareness and personal growth.
The chapters in the book follow chronological order with the exceptions of the “In Depth” sections, which dig deeper into a particular topic—the gardens, the landlenders, the volunteer scene, for example—and span the entire four season time-line in scope.
Sunroot Gardens was often accused of being a “cat-worshipping cult.” We never confirmed nor denied these charges, but it is true that cats played a very special role for us. While biking from one garden to another, if we spotted a cat sitting on a fence post, lying on a sidewalk, or hiding under a car, we would always stop to offer Catnip and see if we could pay tribute with an ear-scratching or a belly-rub. It didn’t matter if we were “late” or “in a hurry”; in our opinion, spending time with a cat was the best possible way to spend time, and those moments existed independently of the clock.
Therefore, I issue an apology that this book does not speak more than it does about the many felines who graced our lives during these adventures. Giving them their proper due would necessitate doubling the number of pages in this volume. That this amount of attention, though rightfully deserved, might be tedious to the more boorish readers out there is not the reason for the omission; rather, simple economics at this time preclude me from producing a project of that length. I will take solace in the fact that the cats themselves don’t care about whether they are in this book, but I must express my most sincere regret to the humans who are missing out. May Bastet forgive me!
The events in this book are all “true”: that is, they are factual, about real people and real places. Nonetheless, I have changed the names of most people and some places. This is not avoid being sued for slander; I’m not lying, so there’s no libel. Rather, I want the reader to focus on the “big picture” of the social factors that I am illustrating, not on the particular personalities who happened to express them. Readers who were present for any or all of the events therein are invited to enjoy themselves trying to guess who is who. Maybe one of them is you!
Table of Contents
- 05.27.2004: “A porch garden in Portland produces delicious bounty”
- The Call of Katrina
- 2007 Season: Forced Landing
- 06.19.2007: First Broken Bike Cart
- 08.20.2007: “Where are the tomatoes already?!”
- The Firepit Garden
- 08.31.2007: “the gophers got the taters”
- 10.04.2007: A Word on ‘Organic’
- 2008 Season: Backyard Booty
- “Urban Farming” as Meme: The Media Blitz
- 04.08.2008: Cultivating a moonscape (The Staple Crops Project begins)
- 05.17.2008: “orgiastic growth-spurting bliss” (and quinoa)
- 05.23.2008: Speech Delivered to the Village Building Convergence
- 06.15.2008: “Big Push Time”
- In-Depth | Havens from The Grid: All About the Gardens
- 06.24.2008: The Ultra Magnetic Stop Light Crop Circle
- 07.18.2008: “Nutria Emergency!”
- 09.21.2008 + 09.26.2008: “Report from a DIY local wheat harvest”
- Sunroot Gardens FAQ
- 2009 Season: A Call to Pitchforks / 50 Gardens (and counting)
- 02.08.2009: “Hairy Little Heart”
- 03.03.2009: Still Paying Taxes?
- 04.26.2009: Farmers without phones / What’s going on
- 05.25.2009: “Labors and love happening in multiple locations every day”
- 07.10.2009: “The Hobbit Meal Plan”
- In-Depth | The Versailles Syndrome: All About Landowners
- 09.02.2009: Invitation (to Terra Incognita)
- 09.17.2009: “The Farmer Life”
- 09.27.2009: “Back from the Forest (but not Out-of-the-Woods)”
- 10.09.2009: Quinoa Consciousness
- 10.15.2009: Set Your Own Prices / The Dollar-a-Year Farmer
- In-Depth | Beyond Salads: All about the Staple Crops Project
- 2010 Season: Love & Loathing
- 04.05.2010: “Don’t You Ever Take Time Off?”
- 06.11.2010: “How To Eat Local & Enjoy It”
- 06.14.2010: “Download re. Community”
- In-Depth | “Skip work and come play”: All About Volunteers
- 07.30.2010: “Sunroot Gardens up for grabs”
- 08.27.2010: “Sabotage”
- Wasted Seed and Murdered Bees
- 09.18.2010: “2010 Farm Year notes”
- 10.10.2010: “Staple Crops Report 2010”
- RIP Sunroot Gardens
- 2013 Season: Slight Return
- Afterword: Where Did I Go Wrong?