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Book Review: "The Urban Farm Handbook"

urbanfarmA professor in college once told me that "a revolution can begin in your flower beds," and in the case of urban farming, this statement could not ring more true. Annette Cottrell and Joshua McNichols, authors of The Urban Farm Handbook, are perfect examples of busy city folks who imagined more for their families — even if it meant thinking big within a small urban plot.

There are many reasons why city dwellers are jumping on the urban farming bandwagon. For some (McNichols), the decision stems from financial matters, which makes sense when you look at its increase in popularity during the last few years of the recession. For others (Cottrell), it begins with food security. However, though McNichols and Cottrell may have signed on initially for different reasons, they're most certainly journeying towards the same goal — that of being able to provide healthy, nutritious foods for their families, while living sustainably and putting their spending dollars back into the community, rather than handing them over to billion-dollar corporations. As Cottrell and McNichols would always recommend for anyone getting started, both of their farm-in-the-city dreams began small, inching their way into full lifestyle transformations as the years went on.

Cottrell's original needs were based around the health and well-being of her two young sons. She spent hours searching for information on the connection between diet and health when her first son was an infant — later she expanded to the effects of diet on behavior as he entered his toddler years, and finally, with her second son, the whole concept blossomed into a complete overhaul of her family's diet, health, and standards for living. (As Cottrell puts it, she developed a midlife food crisis.)

Eventually I arrived at the conclusion that it was impossible to buy processed foods with entirely benign ingredients, regardless of corporate stewardship pledges or organic labels.

I resolved to look for a different framework: I was done supporting the mainstream food industry, both conventional farmers and the large organics that operated like them. No more giving money to companies whose processed foods contained ingredients I couldn't buy myself, or livestock raisers who didn't pasture their animals or feed them based on the animal's natural diet. I vowed from that moment on to grow as much of our food as possible and buy the rest from local farmers.

This may sound extreme to some — it did to her husband, and he originally referred to the whole scheme as "her crazy bus." (And keep in mind, this was only the beginning!) But, he eventually came around.

For McNichols, the beginning of his family's own "crazy bus" began with a yearning for living off of the land in the country, though it was paired with the worry of permanently abandoning their in-city careers. Staying in the city proved to be the wisest choice, and he soon learned after joining an online forum for Seattle backyard farmers that they were not alone in their dreams of living simply. From the forum, Cottrell and McNichols became fast friends, and she offered to give his family a "locavore makeover." Looking back, McNichols writes:

As she discussed with me the problems with the American diet, I saw the truth in much of what she said. Internet research pushed me further into her world, to the point that I came to feel ill at ease in grocery stores. I'd lost my appetite for their stiff green bananas and vast banks of frozen pizzas. One day, I stood still in the middle of the grocery store with an empty cart. I had thirty minutes until dinner and I couldn't think of anything I wanted to buy.

In some ways, this is what it means to be human in the twenty-first century. We know too much about the problems of the world around us... We can't go back to accepting the world as it is. The burden of this responsibility can paralyze us. And so, we look for ways to move forward.

McNichols' family started small with their own urban farming plans. His mother, a marriage and family therapist, would talk a lot about "good enough parenting" — doing the best you can and forgiving yourself of the rest. "Researchers in her field, including Dr. John Gottman, have discovered that being a good parent just 30 percent of the the time is enough to help your kids develop emotional maturity," McNichols writes. "I decided to apply this attitude to what I'd learned about food from Annette. If I could feed my family this way just 30 percent of the time, we'd be better off than if I'd done nothing." Though, as we noted earlier in Cottrell's case, McNichols was only taking his first step into what would later become a full lifestyle renovation.

Having both of the authors' points of view in mind while reading The Urban Farm Handbook is essential — and I actually appreciated the book more for coming with two different opinions, or, "different levels of crazy" as the pair call it. While their original issues and the levels of commitment that influenced their desire for a simpler lifestyle varied, their overall goals remain the same, making their advice and strategies more accessible for a wider audience.

Throughout The Urban Farm Handbook, you'll find notes on "opportunities for change," laying out the authors' different levels of crazy — venturing from the most subtle changes (buying organic) to the more advanced (making your own) and everything in between. McNichols deems himself as being "crazy," while Cottrell is "very, very crazy" (in a good way, of course!). Think of it as a choose-your-own-adventure DIY manual on urban farming — but be prepared: You might also just find yourself dangling off of the edge of the crazy cliff as well!

The book's chapters are based around each season, featuring helpful lists for fruits and veggies available during that time, along with a variety of delicious seasonal recipes. Throughout, McNichols and Cottrell do an excellent job of covering all things you might need while getting started (depending on your own desires and goals) — keeping chickens, grinding your own grains, keeping goats and making your own cheese, raising small animals for meat, preserving your harvest, managing your edible garden, and beyond — with plenty of encouraging stories from their own experiences and factual research from experts.

Whether you're beginning your own journey into urban farming, or simply just love reading about food and the politics that go along with it, The Urban Farm Handbook truly has something for everyone — even if you're just looking to grow a veggie patch in your small urban space for the first time. Personally, I loved the sections on making your own cheese and grinding your own grains — two seemingly daunting tasks that I have been thinking about for some time, yet just wasn't sure where in the heck to begin. I may not be able to rush out and buy my own grain mill just yet, but the seeds have been planted, thanks to Cottrell and McNichols' shared wisdom.

To learn more about The Urban Farm Handbook, visit the book's website. Cottrell's blog, Sustainable Eats, also features a variety of urban farming topics, and McNichols can be heard regularly on NPR's Weekend America.

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