Profiles in urban homesteading

February 22, 2011

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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Sundari Kraft and company garden up a mess of goodies in Denver. Photo:

Across the Web yesterday, citified farmers united en masse to stake their claims to the age old art of urban homesteading.

After reacting with horror and dismay over a move by the well-known Dervaes family of Pasadena, California, who issued an informational letter on their website—and to individual outlets—announcing that they had secured trademarks for the terms “urban homestead” and “urban homesteading,” the larger community of urban homesteaders flash organized, setting up a “Take Back Urban Homesteading” Facebook page.

While the Dervaeses have said on their Twitter feed that they do not intend to sue bloggers who use the term as long as they’re not making money off of it, for urban homesteaders, that wasn’t the only point.

The larger issue was that the Dervaeses had sought and won trademarks for what is a cultural phenomenon, not a product, nor the original work of any one influential individual or organization.

Folks in the movement say that no one is, in essence, the “father” of urban homesteading. Instead the art and science of it comes from a combination of natural inheritance over the generations along with many folks over the last century who embraced the back-to-the-land movement, whether in rural or urban locales.

So from their Facebook hub, objectors agreed to do a blog-a-thon on President’s Day, calling it the Urban Homesteaders Day of Action. On this day, bloggers across the US and the world would write on urban homesteading, whether in reaction to the Dervaes’ move, or to tell their own story of DIY sustainability.

Crunchy Chicken blogger Deanna Duke kept an ongoing inventory of many of these entries, making for one-stop shopping if you want to get the low-down on who said what and where they’re from.

Noting that the specific term “urban homestead” was in use as far back as the mid 1970s (if not earlier) the group also launched an online petition at calling for the Dervaes Institute to cancel their trademarks. Others have said that all terms associated with urban homesteading should belong in the Creative Commons.

Who’s an urban homesteader?

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Sundari Kraft cozies up to one of her “kids,” PB. Photo:

We caught up with a couple of these metro manure mavens via email to get their reaction to the Dervaes’ letters and to learn more about their own roots in the movement.

Sundari Kraft lives and farms in the Mile High City, Denver, Colorado. She does a combination of city farming, teaching, advocacy and government advisory work. She’s also kept a blog of her adventures in food production and city farming since 2008.

I run a multi-plot urban farm and Neighborhood Supported Agriculture (NSA) program called Heirloom Gardens…We convert unused yards into organic vegetable gardens. The vegetables are distributed through a share program, and we also bring them to our neighborhood farmers’ market. I also volunteer my time running Sustainable Food Denver, which is an advocacy organization. Right now we’re in the home stretch of a 2-year process of improving Denver’s food-producing animals ordinance. I serve as the co-chair of Denver’s Sustainable Food Policy Council.

Kraft drew her influences in sustainability from a variety of sources, from book authors to bloggers to a nearby urban farmer in Boulder—Kipp Nash—who ran Community Roots, doing the type of urban farming that Kraft also practices. She doesn’t even know where she first heard the term urban homesteading. “It seems to me to be ubiquitous — it’s just everywhere.”

But she cites as her biggest influence the writings of Barbara Kingsolver. “She writes so eloquently about the importance of bringing the things that sustain us closer, and weaving them into our daily life.”

Inspired, involved, connected

Writers in general spark Kraft’s imagination of the possible, and some have changed her life.

I found Farm City: The Education of an Urban FarmerImage Removed by Novella Carpenter to be both entertaining and wonderfully inspiring. I enjoyed the determination and practicality of Joan Dye Gussow’s This Organic Life: Confessions of a Suburban HomesteaderImage Removed…I decided unequivocally that I wanted to own goats after reading The Year of the Goat: 40,000 Miles and the Quest for the Perfect CheeseImage Removed by Margaret Hathaway and Karl Schatz…I really enjoy reading the writings of — and writings about — Joel Salatin. He speaks with pure conviction about the value of knowing where your food comes from.

Sometimes Kraft attends gatherings of her local Transition Denver group, which she says includes a variety of “wonderful urban homesteaders and sustainability advocates” from whom she learns a lot. But this, she says, isn’t unique to our times.

I think it’s important to recognize that urban homesteading isn’t something new. It’s not some original movement that’s suddenly sweeping the country. People have been gardening, raising animals, canning, making soap, etc, for as long as people have lived in cities. However, we are seeing a resurgence of interest in the practices of urban homesteading.

This, she says, is because people are more and more being confronted with the scale of the world’s food system and its implications for energy, health, the environment and security, especially when food travels a long distance.

People are realizing that the way our modern society does things is quite literally unsustainable, and so they’re taking steps to integrate sustainable practices into their lives. And, since more people now live in cities than in rural areas, it sometimes means challenging conventional definitions of what it means to live in an urban environment…I’ve never been one to pay much attention to conventions, so it never occurred to me that I couldn’t grow and raise my own food on my little piece of land — even if it happened to be located in a city.

In light of both its ancient history and current resurgence, Kraft says she finds the Dervaes’ trademark ridiculous. “I think it’s a shame that this family feels the need to attempt to control and own something that is old, pervasive, and an important part of so many people’s lives.” Citing the push to turn the terms over to the Creative Commons, she says the Dervaeses need to give the trademarks up.

Kraft has written a comprehensive book on the many aspects of urban homesteading, from animal keeping to soap making to energy production and gardening. And you don’t have to be a Ph.D in botany or engineering to explore urban homesteading. Her The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Urban HomesteadingImage Removed comes out in June of this year.

Heirloom Skills

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Rachel Kaplan is a food grower, food preserver, animal keeper, bee keeper, medicine maker, healer, educator, organizer, and writer. Photo:

Rachel Kaplan, an author and somatic psychotherapist, has her own little urban homestead — Tiny Town Farm — in Petaluma, California. She credits her Permaculture training for influencing her lifestyle.

But she also has a political bent, particularly after what she calls the “negative cultural influences and degradation of the Bush years.”

Her reaction to observing the Bush Administration’s choices was to want to conserve resources and to grow even more of her own food.

She had heard about the Dervaeses a couple of years ago, in the course of writing her forthcoming book. However, whenever she looked at their website, she says it was always under construction so she never got to see it. “I was always told they had an ‘inspiring’ site, but I have never visited it.”

Great minds think alike

But it appears that Kaplan, along with many others in the movement, have been doing parallel work.

At least two articles on urban homesteading from the 1970s came out in Mother Earth News — the same magazine that Jules Dervaes cites as an influence on him. Both articles detail family sustainability across fronts as diverse as food and staples production, energy sources, maintenance and food preservation:

There’s also the book, Urban Homesteading, a Guide for Local Officials, published in 1978 by the University of Michigan.

Another guide prepared for government, issued around 1983 (date unclear), gives the historical roots of homesteading, a concept unique to the American frontier in terms of law, with the American Homestead Act of 1862. But the term “homestead” was in use in the US as early as 1693. It was defined as “a lot of land adequate for the maintenance of a family.” Not necessarily a lot of land, as in much land, but a lot of land, as in a parcel that would sustain you and yours.

That a homestead might be rural or urban has never been an issue in terms of the natural way people lived throughout history — and US history — when land in cities was more plentiful. And that more people sought to be resourceful in a world of increasing automation, and wanted to do so not only in rural enclaves, but in the heart of the city, clearly pre-dates any singular concept that Jules Dervaes or his family might lay claim to.

According to Wikipedia, Bill Mollison, one of the co-founders of Permaculture, tried to trademark that term, too, but was unsuccessful. This precedent may prove useful to those trying to challenge the “urban homestead” trademarks now.

Grow your own

Kaplan thinks that the reasons for urban homesteading are the most obvious ones, and that even though people may be reacting to different circumstances today than our forebears might have faced, the underlying needs are the same.

People need to eat, manage their resources, share with their neighbors, grow their own medicine, sing their own songs, dance their own dances, tend their own chickens, herd their own goats, etc. The contemporary movement, which has its roots in the 70s back to the land movement, arises out of the severe cultural impacts of global warming, peak oil and economic instability, and the seeming indifference of our political leaders to actually lead around these issues.

Another issue for many urban homesteaders is the need, the desire, the urge, the passion to do things for one’s self again. To be capable of the basic tasks that have sustained people throughout the ages and across cultures. To garden, cook, prepare for different seasons, to create warmth, repair things, provide shelter and clothing and relate to animals. Kaplan feels these are strong motivators today.

I think the movement is trying to accomplish the work of bringing production back into the home, rather than having the home just be a unit of consumption (which began with the industrial revolution and continued through the 70s with the advent of so many “conveniences” and the general corporate take-over of food, medicine, and municipal control of water, waste and energy.)

What works, what doesn’t

In addition to the many hats she wears, Kaplan, a mother and activist, is becoming more involved with local Transition projects. She also volunteers for Daily Acts, a local sustainability organization, coordinating backyard farmers and gardeners. “Our mission is to support one another towards homegrown self-sufficiency.”

But beyond her many roles, there is an integrated approach to all of Kaplan’s work. As a marriage-and-family therapist, with an expertise in somatic psychotherapy and the resolution of trauma, she sees the link between helping people heal themselves and the need for us all to heal the earth.

“Somatic psychotherapy is to the body what permaculture is to the earth–it’s a process of understanding what’s has happened and redesigning for a better future.”

And as for the effects on the public spaces we all share, Kaplan argues that

It is beyond time for us to re-tune our lives, our homes and our cities to sustainability. We are consuming and polluting at a completely unsustainable rate, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Urban homesteading is a way for individuals to get involved in the production of our basic needs, to lighten the load on the garbage heap, to learn to work with one another towards a more just, equitable future. Hopefully, it’s the same for the wider public as well.

Kaplan’s response to the Dervaes’ trademarking success is the same as Kraft’s and the apparent majority of folks involved in or supportive of urban homesteading. She argues that no one can claim “urban homesteading” as their own.

“I think the Dervaes are trying to consolidate power for themselves and are doing so in a fraudulent way. The conflict should be resolved by the Dervaes’ releasing their claims on these marks and acknowledging their mistake to the community.” While she would like the apology to the greater community, Kaplan is willing to just see the trademarks given up, or revoked.

This is a people’s movement and the information about urban homesteading can and should and does belong to everyone. We do not want to spend our time fighting the Dervaes’ over this, but if we have to, we will. Our goal is to ‘spread the good’ word about urban homesteading, especially in light of the serious cultural issues we are facing. This is what is important.

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K. Ruby Blume is the founder of the Institute for Urban Homesteading in Oakland, California. Photo:

Like Kraft, Kaplan has a book out this spring, Urban Homesteading: Heirloom Skills for Sustainable Living
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Blume, an urban gardener of 20 plus years, founded the Institute for Urban Homesteading in 2008. Both hope the book will inspire and inform the growing sustainability movement, particularly among city dwellers.

I think the probabilities of that are high. At least among everyone except the Dervaes family. Unless they remember that urban homesteading doesn’t mean hunkering down alone. It means shoring up in the midst of community.

–Lindsay Curren, Transition Voice Magazine

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Lindsay Curren

Lindsay Curren is Editor-in-Chief of Transition Voice, the online magazine on peak oil. She also writes Lindsay's List, the women's conservation blog. She's the co-founder of Transition Staunton Augusta for which she leads a community garden. Lindsay is the mother of two daughters.

Tags: Building Community, Food