Motivated by her baby’s digestive problems, Seattle-based Annette Cottrell set out to investigate the connections between diet, health and behavior. And after avoiding a nutritionist’s advice to feed her kid with processed foods to make him gain bodyweight and finding that rich organics like butter, heavy cream, meats and eggs did the trick, she had what she calls “a mid life food crisis” and set out to change her family’s diet completely and become a prolific urban farmer.
It was the beginning of a journey that led her to replace a traditional grocery list with a new one that goes several steps back, to the source: local grains instead of bread and flour, chicken feed instead of eggs, goat mineral supplements instead of milk (refer to the growing backyard-goat-keeping trend), and seeds instead of vegetables.
The journey was later joined by trained-architect-turned-journalist Joshua McNichols, who was considering leaving the city with his family when he thought he might just be able to live off his backyard-land. Both documented their findings, recipes and resources at the blog SustainableEats.com, from which the book The Urban Farm Handbook branched.
The thick volume, published by Skipstone, is your typical urbanite-outraged-by-the-processed-food-industry-turned-food-producer tale, although what makes the pair’s style unique is the balance created by the two approaches: Cottrell makes her own bread by hand, whereas McNichols uses a bread machine. Thus, the book offers resources for different levels of commitment.
In 17 chapters organized by seasons and filled with personal stories, instructions, recipes, graphics, and pictures, they cover subjects such as getting and grinding grains for flour, raising chickens for eggs, experimenting with goats for dairy, growing vegetables, land keeping and restoration, garden seeding, preserving harvests, building food communities, and even preparing your own cleaners and beauty products.
They also touch on getting food from the source if you don’t want to produce your own or don’t have a backyard. And, yes, this is a book impressionable-vegetarians should browse with care: it includes two detailed chapters on getting and preparing whole animals (read hogs, cows) and raising small animals for meat (rabbits, chickens, ducks, and even pigeons and backyard-fish are covered).
A frequent TreeHugger reader will find some subjects familiar, but every theme is covered thoroughly and in depth. I found the opening chapter the most interesting: while urban farming vegetables, backyard chicken keeping and even backyard goat raising are usual subjects in the green world, the importance of grinding your own flour is not such a popular one (although Sami has commented on growing your own grains and our mighty archive does hold a grinder review).
Why should you? According to Cottrell, when grains sit in silos after the harvest, they might get mold, bugs and rodents attracted by the sweet smell, which you can only hope inspectors spot before grinding. Additionally, just like an apple oxidizes when peeled, grains also oxidize and loose properties when ground a long time before consumption. She goes on to point the importance of varying the kinds of grains we consume and to state that buying grains from farmers helps them keep independent from grain elevators, able to set their own prices, and choose which grains to grow.
“Twenty-five years ago, coffee grinders were rare, while now they are almost a necessity by some drinkers,” she says, hoping that will be the case for grains.
As a vegetarian I read the segment on backyard meat with a bit of disgust, but I have to admit Cottrell and McNichols have a point in including this subject. Eating roosters or old hens makes sense if you’re keeping chickens for eggs, and if you have goats for milk, they have to keep reproducing for them to have milk so they propose eating the offspring. The authors also add to the growing trend of considering rabbits as a sustainable meat source: they convert food into meat very efficiently and reproduce, well, like rabbits. Although after reading the part about learning how to kill and prepare a bunny for consumption, I’m pretty sure that’s not something in my bucket list.
The volume is filled with glossy photos and hundreds of recipes which include the ingredients discussed in each chapter, and it comes with a long list of plants specifically good for the Pacific northwest climate.
It is a vast, thorough, interesting tool for those into food production and homesteading. And even if you’re not going to become a hardcore urban farmer, it’s useful to understand how the urban and farm worlds can collide in a time in which we need to redesign the way we produce and consume food.