Based in Portland, Oregon, Harriet Fasenfest gardens, cooks, writes, teaches, and speaks on the issues of food security and justice. Her book, A Householder's Guide to the Universe, was published in fall 2010. She is currently working on a new book and curriculum guide for teaching householding and householding economics.

Self-reliance in the city

Is urban homesteading about politics? Or skills?

By
January 30, 2008

“I don’t care what it’s called, I just want to learn skills,” she said. It was a forceful statement. It took me aback. I questioned my agenda in organizing the first tentatively dubbed Urban Homesteading meeting at my home.

Evidently, for the 20 or so folks crammed into my tiny living room, the sentiment was mostly the same. This was not political; this was about skills.

Clearly, my desire to participate in a distinctly defined movement that would gain momentum and create cultural shock waves and alternatives to the political and economic inertia of our time would have to wait. We were just getting to know each other. We still wanted to talk about soap.

Not that I don’t love soap or learning how to make it, or sausage, or spinning wool, or herbal tinctures or cheese or any of the other skills we offered up for trade. I do. Goodness knows I do. It’s just not exactly an either-or situation for me.

The fact that I have embraced this burgeoning concept of self-reliance within the city (a.k.a. urban homesteading) with an eye towards equitable economic and environmental systems is not to say I can keep it simple. Well, I guess I can’t keep anything simple, given my brain waves and natural proclivity for tangential logic, but do I really have to?

My question is, aren’t there others out there nearly choking on the smut of corporate logic? Aren’t there others who are raising chickens or making cheese or wine or soap in response to the breakdown of a system of food production and distribution that has gone to the dogs?

“Aren’t there others mad as hell and not wanting to take it anymore and so, in a hopeful gentle effort, canning their own tomatoes instead?”

Aren’t there others who see this effort as a distinctly political and social movement and who want to define it as such? Aren’t there others with their panties in a bunch over cloned foods making their way into the marketplace without consumer notification? About lead in toys, mercury in food, E. coli in spinach, prions in beef, slavery in factories?

Aren’t there others mad as hell and not wanting to take it anymore and so, in a hopeful gentle effort, canning their own tomatoes instead?

OK, that felt good. I needed that. You see, I am all about sitting at the table with others interested in defining this movement as a clear position of alternative economics. I understand others may not want to, and that for many, creating clearly articulated alternatives is a somewhat daunting task.

It’s true that you must first sniff out the fallout of the traditional model. Some do it through an academic search, reading books, going to lectures and taking clear and decisive stabs at the economic status quo. Others face off with the fallout through the allergies their children are plagued with or the paycheck that will not make ends meet, or the jobs that are downsized or the food that is recalled, or the health issues borne of fast food and the medical coverage that will not cover it.

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Not that I don’t like tomatoes or growing food or putting them by for the winter. It’s just that I’m outraged by the wildly unregulated, unsupervised, mismanaged, misappropriated, backroom-dealing, lobbyist-manipulated, corporate-greedy, agriculturally-subsidized, fat-cat, Wall Street, trickle-nowhere global economy with all the tricks and trade of an administration and culture that has long forgotten the responsibility of caring for the environment, and whose systems of management are nothing more than support for their reckless indifference to a world outside their comfort zone.

What’s in a name? Not that I want to compare this proposed urban-homesteading effort to other great movements of our time, but the women’s-suffrage movement started around kitchen tables, the civil-rights movement started in churches and in the streets, and the anti-war movements percolated among students and citizens disturbed by the status quo of empire.

And so it is that movements are defined, that movements gain momentum, and that movements seek to shift a consciousness and way of living that is in specific opposition to a world we previously considered reasonable.

So I say we call it something. I know I am calling it something. For me, urban homesteading is about living in distinct opposition to the status quo of mainstream economics. I am declaring my opposition by creating different systems within my home and hoping that in joining forces with others, we can speak as a movement against reckless corporate policy and painfully dysfunctional global economic systems.

And if anyone wants to join me at the table to discuss the hows or whys or anything else, I’ll be at home, canning tomatoes (well, at least in summer). I welcome the opportunity, because in the end, the personal is always political.

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There are 19 comments on this item
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1. by Oren Floyd on Jan 30, 2008 at 12:13 PM PST

You clearly forgot to mention “reckless government policy” but it is understandable. Does a fish know it is wet?

Oren Floyd

2. by tikimama on Jan 30, 2008 at 12:14 PM PST

I’ve always done “urban homesteading” things (gardening, canning, etc) because it is more fun and tastier. It’s an end in itself.

I think making it a Big Political Statement takes the joy from it, then it’s work.

3. by Fasenfest on Jan 30, 2008 at 1:11 PM PST

If making a statement, big or otherwise, makes it harder for you to continue then by all means do not attach yourself to the notion. Everyone comes to things as they want to and as they can. So carry on tikimama cause if you can’t dance at the revolution then find another partner.

4. by Becca on Jan 30, 2008 at 1:15 PM PST

Harriet, you have just articulated so much of what I am thinking and feeling these days about the economic system of which I have been, up until now, an unwitting participant in. Through your canning class, my summer days picking berries and growing tomatoes, the brilliant words of Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver, and my memories of my own urban homesteading mom, I have come to the daily stuggle to change my habits, little by little. I do NOT want to be a cog in this wheel and it is political for me, as well as environmental and personal. I would be honored to visit your home again and talk about ways we can challenge the system. I think the revolution just might start at a kitchen table over homemade jam and biscuits.

5. by Fasenfest on Jan 30, 2008 at 5:40 PM PST

Hey Becca,

What I think is so beautiful is exactly the way it can be as easy as a conversation and communion over jam and biscuits (which you make so well). My heart gets fuller and my conviction to work in the orbit of my home, neighborhood and garden stronger when I share stories, thoughts and possibilities with others. So thank you for continually showing up and for taking it as seriously as I know you do. Rock on.

6. by Fasenfest on Feb 1, 2008 at 8:43 AM PST

Becca,

I forgot....give me a call. I think you have my number. We can talk more then.

H

7. by cafemama on Feb 1, 2008 at 11:47 AM PST

As someone who’s studied marketing and knows her way around a operations management cost optimization model (it’s 10 cents cheaper per pound to get organic vegetables from california than to get them from the farmer right outside of the city! and why NOT send shiploads of grain to China, and have them send some other shiploads of the same grain back to us?), I’m a very willing participant in your revolution. I don’t take the bus because of the fringe benefits (like getting to feed my baby right away if he gets hungry), but because I’m angry about how lightly we take our use of fossil fuels. I don’t garden because it’s a meditative process (though it is), but because I’ve suddenly become stricken with remorse that I’ve left this productive, open land produce weeds and volunteer blackberry bushes -- not even taking advantage of all the plentiful wild produce -- for too long, while I feed my family on the fruits of the marketing machine. why buy cereal because it includes marshmallows shaped like tv characters, tv characters which are bankrolled by my purchase of the cereal, and the government’s subsidizing of cheap corn that robs the heartland of its valuable soil, encouraging my children to watch tv instead of digging their fingers in the beautiful dirt? no, my dirt will give me an escape from that whole cycle; I want to learn to can tomatoes because it’s a small voice, a few dollars less, that choose convenience over connecting, health claims over whole foods, a few dollars that say “I can do this.”

8. by Fasenfest on Feb 1, 2008 at 3:51 PM PST

Dear Fellow WonkMama,

I’ve come to think that systems analyst type folk come to the silliness of our current model through the combined lense of logistics and environmnetalism. It is part about the birds and bees and part about fuzzy math. At least that is how I come to it and I suspect, you as well. Frankly, I am offended(both intellectually and spiritually)that THIS is the best we could do. I was and am offended when Bush refused to sign the Kyoto protocols because “The American standard of living (would) not be compromised.” I thought right then, who was he talking about?. Was this really being done in my name?

Wanting to replace one system for another suggests the need to dissect the prevailing model which is both exhaustive and confusing. What do we keep? What must be thrown out? Who really likes the study of economics other then economists?

Which brings me to my initial position that some folks keep it with form and others attempt go to a study of function. Is one better then the other? Can’t say but I do think you got to know who you are and who you ain’t.

So let us call it the localvore movement or urban homesteading, or nothing at all, but I suspect we are joined in understanding that while the motive force for challening the status quo is not solely academic or political, it ain’t exactly just organic, free-range, pasture-fed, locally raised chopped liver either.
Thanks for your vote of support and kinship.

9. by Becca on Feb 2, 2008 at 5:36 PM PST

Harriet, I would love to talk more, but I don’t have your number close at hand. (It’s more than likely buried in a stack of canning instructions and recipes.) Please shoot me an e-mail at bburda@hotmail.com. I look forward to seeing you again!

10. by anonymous on Mar 20, 2008 at 9:34 AM PDT

Have you read Sandor Katz’ book The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved? In addition to having the best title ever, he describes all the different ways people have chosen to opt out of the mainstream American food system. It’s very interesting.

11. by Fasenfest on Mar 21, 2008 at 5:56 AM PDT

Hi Anonymous,

Yes, I have read Sandor’s book and I have even taken a class with him when he was in Portland at the Tyron Community Farm. I love him along with what, how and where he teaches as well. All very progressive, alternative and radical. And since writing this piece I have joined with a number of others who are working in different ways towards creating alternatives. So you and Sandor are right - there are lots of them out there. My hope is that the movement will gain clarity and public exposure for the concerted and articulated alternative that it is. This ain’t just a couple of hippies (old and new) trying to make sauerkraut!!!!! Thanks for reading and writing.

12. by Elizabeth on Apr 1, 2008 at 12:11 AM PDT

“Aren’t there others who see this effort as a distinctly political and social movement and who want to define it as such?”

Yes! yes and yes to your questions. Teaching someone--EMPOWERING someone--to take charge of part of their own food production--is deeply and profoundly political!

But, depending on the group, you might have to settle for actions instead of words...

You may be familiar with a saying attributed to St. Francis: Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.

Elizabeth

13. by Fasenfest on Apr 2, 2008 at 11:03 AM PDT

Yes, teach and learn and act. All things that occassionally start with conversations, or so it was for me.

14. by anonymous on Apr 5, 2008 at 8:40 PM PDT

But for some of us, it is about skills. Your “movement” is not earth-shaking for American Southerners still connected to their roots. We don’t trust big anything (government or business) because they have abused our resources and/or our lives for centuries. We remember history through the lives of our predecessors, and it’s all been said before, time and again...We want to maintain the skills that kept our ancestors alive through Reconstruction and the Great Depression- and the avoidance of political ballyhooing that kept them alive as well. Respect that.

15. by Fasenfest on Apr 6, 2008 at 6:45 PM PDT

I totally respect it. I think it is just for those of us living in the city the motive force is a little different. Or maybe it is for me. I am certainly not expecting others to come to this way of looking at the world the way I have - it is a personal motivation to be sure. But in the end, I agree, it is not about reinventing ways of living but returning to them. It just looks and works a little differently when you are living on the grid.
Thanks for the perspective.

16. by anonymous on Apr 23, 2008 at 2:24 PM PDT

Oh I love it! I only have one other friend in the area that thinks this way. We are getting our first chickens on Thursday 4/24, have a huge garden, fruit trees, lots of garden, and plans to put in an additional almond and fig tree this year. I can, dehydrade and freeze all the produce from the yard. The lawn is getting smaller and smaller in favor of herbs and veggies. We have recently begun to research making our own cheese, and home brewing. The less I have to buy from “the man” the better I like it. Crunchy granola folks unite!

17. by Fasenfest on Apr 26, 2008 at 6:47 AM PDT

Dear anonymous,

I don’t know where you live but if it is in Portland know that there are many of us out there. I invite you to check out the www.pdxurbanhomesteaders@yahoo.com to find your brothers and sisters. We meet once a month. Let the movement begin!

Harriet

18. by marie on May 20, 2008 at 10:59 AM PDT

It’s great to see urbanites take control of their lives and make changes towards food security, self-sufficiency and independence. I know that reading the Dervaes website at pathtofreedom.com and urbanhomestead.org/journal has inspired me to look at things differently and start seeing what is possible where I am now. The family purportedly coined the word “urban homesteading” years ago (early on around 2001 I think because that’s about how long I have been reading their journal). This amazing family has literally “written the book” on urban homesteading by walking down the sustainable path and have become the model urban homestead for so many of us who want to follow in their steps. They have made me see (and now others ) that it is possible to do something without moving out of the city. It’s good to see that their longtime outreach efforts and inspirational lives have had made such an impact on the lives of others.

Check out their amazing journal at www.urbanhomestad.org/journal and be inspired to be the change by living the solution.

19. by marie on May 20, 2008 at 10:59 AM PDT

It’s great to see urbanites take control of their lives and make changes towards food security, self-sufficiency and independence. I know that reading the Dervaes website at pathtofreedom.com and urbanhomestead.org/journal has inspired me to look at things differently and start seeing what is possible where I am now. The family purportedly coined the word “urban homesteading” years ago (early on around 2001 I think because that’s about how long I have been reading their journal). This amazing family has literally “written the book” on urban homesteading by walking down the sustainable path and have become the model urban homestead for so many of us who want to follow in their steps. They have made me see (and now others ) that it is possible to do something without moving out of the city. It’s good to see that their longtime outreach efforts and inspirational lives have had made such an impact on the lives of others.

Check out their amazing journal at www.urbanhomestad.org/journal and be inspired to be the change by living the solution.

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