Whether it’s urban or rural, agriculture is hard work

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Connie Swenson Brousell has been raising chickens on her farm in Illinois for decades.

Urban agriculture is a practice that has taken off in recent years as more people make the move towards sustainable living. This yard-to-table mindset has taken concepts from rural agriculture and transformed them to use smaller spaces effectively. One motivation for those involved in these efforts is to create a closer connection to where their food comes from.

“It’s a good feeling to be able to create your own environment where you don’t always have to go to the grocery store,” said Kim Baer, urban farmer and local business owner.

Kim Baer and her husband Craig currently have four chickens in their backyard. They ordered three of their current flock at Orscheln’s Farm & Home chick days right around the time that Columbia, Missouri, passed an ordinance about raising chickens within city limits.

Two of the original chickens eventually died from natural causes. They bought three more, and kept one of their original chickens, Gidget, who is the inspiration for their local business’ name, Gidget’s Garage.

They built their own coop out of recycled materials. The coop has a flowerbed on top and is nicknamed “Chick Mahal” where the hens lay around three to four eggs a day in the spring and summer.

“We consider them our pets,” Kim Baer said. She and her husband were surprised at how easy it was to take care of the chickens once they knew what they were doing. “Having them has been a real learning experience,” she said.

The Baers also have a beehive in their backyard. They do not consider themselves beekeepers, but rather people who have built, “a spot where bees have a safe haven.”

The honeybees usually come back into their hive around 4 o’clock in the afternoon after pollinating flowers and plants around the area. The chickens follow suit around dusk.

“They instinctively know to go into their coop at night,” Baer said.

The Baers have found a connection between their comfort level with what they eat and knowing what the chickens are eating.

“It’s a good feeling to know what they’re eating,” she said, talking about the chickens.

The relationship between humans and food is one that has become more complex over time, and is one that can have detrimental effects on the food sources when it is not understood.

Although the urban farming movement has sustainable intentions, certain practices have come into question.

For instance, the Flow Hive recently created some controversy among beekeepers. Some even claim that the Flow Hive oversimplifies beekeeping and is not necessarily the most “affordable, sustainable” choice according to a Huffington Post article.

Baer plans to use professional resources when cleaning out her hive and harvesting from it to make sure everything goes smoothly and correctly.

Sheep on the Swenson Brousell farm.

Sheep on the Swenson Brousell farm.

Connie Swenson Brousell is a rural farmer from Sandwich, Illinois. She is a shepherdess and sells free-range chicken eggs and garlic among other goods. Her work runs throughout the four seasons and is a balancing act between her sheep, chickens, guinea fowl, quail, alpaca, vegetables and orchard.

Swenson Brousell believes in treating her animals humanely and thinks it is a “responsibility to keep a safe environment” for them.

The work she does is full time and requires much devotion. This past year, one of her pregnant sheep displayed unusual behavior when she stole a lamb that wasn’t hers in the middle of the night. When the sheep finally gave birth to twins, she abandoned them, and Swenson Brousell was left to figure out how to fix the situation.

After spending 72 hours attempting to get the lambs back to their original mothers, she finally told herself, “I’ll raise these lambs,” and has spent weeks bottle-feeding the twins. This work ethic and passion for her animals has been with Swenson Brousell since she was a child.

“I grew up in a strict household where it was ingrained in you,” she said. She remembers coming home and doing chores with her siblings after school and not knowing anything else.

For much of the population, there is a disconnect between the labor and process that goes into rural agriculture in order to get food to grocery stores and onto the tables at home.

“They think that chicken comes on pink plastic containers,” Swenson Brousell explained. “They don’t realize the amount of work that goes into an egg.”

Any form of agriculture requires some amount of work and dedication. Some urban agriculture methods have been advertised as “no mess, no fuss” but it is naïve to think any method does not also carry with it a level of responsibility.

In an article published by National Geographic, Mary Beth Albright questions whether or not the labor of love is optional when it comes to understanding and appreciating food systems.

Understanding food systems requires education and has a learning curve for those not aware of its complexities. Educational and hands-on experience can be gained, however.

The Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture (CCUA) supports sustainable urban agriculture that will benefit generations to come. Their mission is to “facilitate the development of local and urban agriculture food systems and their community, environmental, economic, and health benefits,” as stated on their website.

According to Adam Saunders, developmental director at CCUA, sustainability is upheld by the “triple bottom line” where social, environment, and financial ends are equally met. With these values balanced, it is easier for people to realize the connection to their food.

“Connection should happen where there are people,” Saunders said, supporting urban agriculture. And according to Saunders, people “learn by doing, observing, asking questions.”

CCUA provides a variety of services such as edible landscaping, urban farm tours, and opportunity gardens. The focus on education and outreach to the community is the foundation of their philosophy.

The urban farm also focuses largely on children and low-income families.

They have schools K-12 tour the gardens to educate them about the “loop of fertility and life that’s demonstrated here,” as Saunders described. It helps kids and adolescents grasp where food comes from.

The focus on low-income families can be seen with their opportunity garden programs, which help people integrate gardens into their lifestyles and provide follow-up mentorship for three years.

This chance to have food readily available in central Columbia is good considering that the USDA declared the downtown area a food desert as of 2009.

It is harder for low-income families to access fresh foods, but with changes such as the opportunity gardens and Lucky’s Market, there is hope for progress.

The future of urban farming is wide open because of its versatility.

Urban, indoor and vertical farming may even be the inspiration for certain “locavore” astronauts to start farm-to-table movements in space one day.

Whether or not the table is in space or back at home, food production takes time, energy, and dedication. It is a growing and evolving process that constantly has people biting for more.

Photos by Megan Tyminski
Megan Tyminski

About the Author Megan Tyminski

My name is Megan Tyminski. I’m from a smaller suburb of Chicago called Oswego, which is near Aurora, Illinois, where the famous Wayne’s World was filmed. I’m a freshman studying Science and Agricultural Journalism at the University of Missouri; I also plan to minor in Spanish. It is my goal to one day be doing some kind of fieldwork. I have always been passionate about communicating through writing, exploring nature, and meeting new people.