ImaginAcres

Our Farm in the City

ImaginAcres: Our Farm in the City

When people find out that we raise chickens and rabbits, tap our trees to make our own maple syrup, re-use food and yard waste through compost, and grow a plethora of herbs, fruit and vegetables, they always ask what part of the country we live in. When I tell them we live in the middle of the city, there are dozens of questions to be answered. I'm here today to answer those questions and show you what we're all about here. Follow me along on a tour of ImaginAcres!

Who we are:

I’m Meredith and my husband is Michael. We got married in the summer of 2013 on a beautiful farm. There were chickens and goats running around, a folk band to delight our guests, delicious food from local farms, and beer and wine made right on the farm. For our honeymoon, we took off to the Adirondacks for a camping trip where everything that could go wrong, did.

Mike and Meredith

Michael and I are both artists, writers, and teachers. He teaches English and Composition courses at a local university, and I teach art at an alternative school for at-risk youth in the city.

When we aren't teaching, we love to write, paint, sculpt, work on the house and garden, and sometimes just sit in the backyard, beers in hand, watching our chickens run amok.

We live in a big old house in the city of Rochester. Most people hear we're from New York and assume we're from the big city. Rochester is a very small city, but rich with art, culture, and community. Urban farming is encouraged in our city and many residents have chickens, honey bees, and raised bed gardens on their property. We’re also very lucky to have understanding neighbors that see us chasing chickens and tapping trees in our yard and just shake their heads in confusion instead of picking up the phone to call the authorities.

We share our 1800's abode with a wacky Australian Shepherd named Nico, a spitfire cat named Moose, a hyperactive rabbit named Dolly, and 10 very entertaining chickens.

Nico

Moose









Where did the name ImaginAcres come from?

ImaginAcres = Imagination + Acres

I chose to name our homestead and my blog ImaginAcres for several reasons. First, this blog is a combination of my love of art and my love of homesteading. Photography is one of my biggest passions, and I do my best to provide my lovely fans with beautiful photographs to accompany these posts. I'm also into ceramics, painting, drawing, and knitting. Posts about my artwork pop up every now and again amongst the musings on chickens and plants.

Cedric

Gnome

ImaginAcres was fitting for another reason. We are urban homesteaders. Everything we do and create is in a big house on an average sized lot. ImaginAcres is my aching desire to live on a huge plot of land, surrounded by wilderness. It's my Imaginary Acres. We do the best we can with what we have, but until we can move out to the country, our acres will remain imaginary.

Here's the breakdown of what goes down at ImaginAcres:

Our Patio Raptors

We love our chickens. I call them patio raptors because they're so much like tiny dinosaurs running about on my patio. We raise our birds for eggs, meat, and endless entertainment. At the moment we have ten layer hens, and will be getting some new chicks in a few months. We've had lots of great adventures with our flock, including hatching eggs in an incubator and giving one of our hens the opportunity to be a momma.

Mother Hen

Foghorn

Dee Dee

Gardening in the City

We have 5 raised beds in our backyard. We don't have any full sun areas, so our beds are used to grow partial sun crops. We've been spending a lot of time building up our crappy city soil and experimenting with different plants to see what will work. Our green thumbs are getting greener every year!

Beans

Crops that require full sun are grown in containers on our patio, front yard, and on the top of our chicken coop. Almost everything in our garden is free or cheap. We use random containers for planters and make our raised beds and trellises out of free materials like logs, sticks, and discarded lumber.

Squash

Compost

We've been composting in the city for three years. It's so nice to take all of our food scraps, yard scraps, and chicken and rabbit waste to the compost pile where it turns into wonderful soil for our garden. The compost has helped to build up our soil naturally. We also use it to make compost tea to fertilize our plants.

The chickens love to help out with the compost when they can. They stir it up for us and search through it for tasty bugs!

Compost

Foraging

We also do quite a bit of foraging for food in the city and in the surrounding suburbs. In our own backyard we have plenty of edible weeds and black walnuts. We've also found blackberries, grapes, juneberries, and mulberries in surrounding parks. We even found wild grapes last fall and used them to make our first batch of wine!

berries

Nuts

Tree Tappin' Good Times

We're lucky enough to have three maple trees in our backyard. In the springtime we tap them to collect buckets of sap. We use a turkey fryer powered by propane in the backyard to boil down the gallons of sap to turn it to maple syrup. Who knew you could make maple syrup in the city?

Tree Tap

Food From Scratch

We do our best to make our food from scratch here. It saves tons of money at the grocery store and we can be sure we know exactly what's going into our food. I love to share my recipes for home made goods on the blog, and have a tendency to embarrass myself by telling stories of my home making failures. You can read all about how I spent a year failing at baking bread on our website.

eggs

Angora Rabbits

I’ve wanted to raise rabbits for wool for years, and jumped at the chance to take in a pure white Angora rabbit from a local breeder. She was dubbed Dollypop, because her wooly coat so resembles the look of a dandelion gone to seed. When she sheds her coat, I harvest her wool to spin into yarn. Dolly is a lot of fun and currently has the run of our sunroom, where she tends to get into a lot of trouble. You can read all about how she ate her way through every plant we had growing there on the blog.

Dolly

Future Projects:

This year we're going to venture into some new and exciting territories! In the spring we'll be getting some new chickens – I'm most excited about getting some Ameraucanas and Wyandottes.

Pattern Design for Knitting

There are several fun ImaginAcres knitting patterns in the works! I'm really excited about finally making my own designs. This week I'm working on some foxy mittens and washcloths inspired by the 70s.

New Garden Plans

I'm determined to grow enough food this year so we have some to put in the pantry for next winter. We're heading into year three with the garden and I've officially determined what will and will not grow on our property. Instead of being so diverse with our gardening, this year we're going to focus our efforts on growing only a few types of crops. Potatoes, hot peppers, spinach, tomatoes, and herbs do especially well here, so we'll be cranking up the effort on those crops. You can read all about our gardening failures here.

Spin and Dye

This is the year for me to learn how to spin and dye wool. We have a giant bag full of Angora wool and several books on the matter that I can't wait to start using. I'm learning how to dye wool using crazy things out of the spice cabinet, foods, and even weeds! I think I'm going to use some of the black walnuts in our backyard for the dye on my first batch.

Hops

We've been having a lot of fun brewing our own cider and wine so we're going to try our hand at beer this year. We’ll be attempting to grow our own hops in the front yard and using them for our heavenly creations.

Bees!!

We're finally getting some bees this summer. I've been studying up on these lovely little critters and can't wait to get started.  The honey will be wonderful and making our own beeswax candles will be a new adventure.

I hope you've enjoyed the tour of our homestead. Please journey on over to our blog at ImaginAcres to read more about our farm!

-Meredith

How to Make Vanilla Extract

ImaginAcresStanding in the baking aisle of the grocery store and staring at the choices for vanilla extract put me into a weird thinking trance that made other shoppers look at me like I was insane. I stared at all the choices for a good long while trying to figure out which was right for me. Yes, I do this with practically every purchase. It takes me hours to shop for groceries. 

I know that imitation vanilla is really just a bunch of gross chemicals manufactured to taste like actual vanilla. Real vanilla is pricey, and for someone who bakes as much as I do, it's enough to put you in the poorhouse. I looked back and forth between the organic vanilla extract and the organic vanilla beans and thought: Hold the phone, I can extract that vanilla goodness myself!! Vanilla beans at our store are eight bucks for two. A four-ounce bottle of vanilla extract is almost $10. Some quick iPhone research told me that I could make a cup of extract with two beans and save myself a decent chunk of change.

When I returned home from my grocery shopping extravaganza hours later, I set to making my extract. The process took about 5 to 10 minutes, but then I read I had to let it sit for two months before I could use it. Back to the grocery to buy some extract! I can't wait two months to bake cookies. That's ridiculous!

Here are the steps all graphically laid out for you so you can do it too! Just don't make the same mistake as I did and remember to make yourself some extract approximately two months before you're going to run out.

Step 1: Go to the store and buy 2 to 3 vanilla beans in this nifty little glass canister.  Struggle way too hard to open the cap without letting the beans come flying out at a velocity only seen in space. Fail miserably.

Vanilla

Step 2: Utilize five-second rule, scoop up beans off the floor, blow off dust and hair, and place them on the ultra cool robot cutting board your pops made for you.

Step 3: Use a sharp knife to cut the beans in half and then down the stem, so they look like a pair of shiny, smelly trousers for a very skinny 2-inch-tall human.

beans cut

Step 4: Place the tiny pants in a classic vintage jar that has a tight fitting lid. Or if you only have lame, new glassware, I suppose that would work as well.

Step 5: Open up your most favorite plain flavorless vodka. Take a few swigs to ensure it's not poisonous.

Step 6: Measure out a cup of said vodka, set aside. Measure out another cup of vodka and pour it over those beansers.

beans

Step 7:  Twist that cap onto the top of the jar and stash it in the cupboard. Let it sit for at least two months, shaking it up on occasion. Pat yourself on the back and admire your handiwork. Remember that glass of vodka you set aside in the last step? Use it to reward yourself for all of your hard work. Making vanilla sure is tiring, but reaping the rewards is well worth the effort.

Your vanilla is finished when it reaches the color and taste you desire. Ours sat for about two months before we used it. The best part? You can go ahead and top off the vanilla with more vodka when you've used enough of it! 

done

Have fun, friends!

– Meredith

(((ImaginAcres)))

If you're into doing it yourself when it comes to food, check out my post on how to make your own brown sugar!

Pop on over to our blog for more incredible adventures on the homestead!

Sow for Victory

Meredith SkyerLet’s take a little field trip back to 1943.   Go ahead and hop in those time machines!  We’re going to explore the day and age when the world was at war and our food supply was in peril.

American Life in 1943 

Think about this: the average family in 1943 was living on $29.00 a week.  Food staples were rationed out to families in order to provide for the troops.   As you can imagine, fresh fruits and vegetables were in short supply.  In order to keep the nation from starvation, the US Government encouraged folks to help out in any way that they could.  Propaganda posters popped up in every town urging families to plant ‘Victory Gardens’ to provide their own produce. 

vitamins
War Gardens for Victory 

food fight
Our Food is Fighting 

sow seeds
Sow the Seeds of Victory 

Over 20 million American families took up the call for ‘victory.’ They collaborated with friends and neighbors and took control of their own food supply.   Even schools got involved in the cause by planting gardens in schoolyards to provide supplemental food for school lunches.  The number of canning supplies sold more than quadrupled from 1943 to 1944.  Eleanor Roosevelt encouraged her fellow citizens by planting a Victory Garden at the White House in 1943.

The plan was a wild success across the nation. As the National WWII Museum website indicates, “By 1944, Victory Gardens were responsible for producing 40% of all vegetables grown in the United States. More than one million tons of vegetables were grown in Victory Gardens during the war.”  

FORTY PERCENT of all vegetables? Holy moly! Can you imagine if we did that today??

After the War 

After the war was over in 1945, Victory Gardens began to steadily disappear from backyards and rooftops. Grocery stores popped up across the nation and buying everything we needed from them became commonplace. Commercial foods became more widely available and Americans didn't see any reason to continue growing their own anymore.  New and different problems began to crop up in our nation’s food supply…

“The effort of the victory gardeners was directed toward the defeat of an easily identified enemy - the Axis powers. Today, our ‘enemy’—the eco crisis looming on our horizon—is more elusive and complex and is potentially a greater adversary.”

-Phillip Wenz, San Francisco Gate 

 

Food Today 

All right, let’s hop back in those time machines and return to the present day. 

Today we live in a very different world than that of the 1940’s. With the opening of commercial grocery stores in towns across the country, the food system has adjusted to meet the ever-increasing demands of the public. Scientists have genetically modified our food in labs.  Farmers have resorted to using industrial methods of growing food and raising livestock.  Vegetables are now coated with poisons in the fields. Animals are kept in tight quarters where they lead miserable lives. All of this happens even before the food is packed onto a truck, shipped across the country, and stocked in a supermarket. During the long journey almost half of this produce will spoil.

Producing food isn’t what it used to be, and our bodies and wallets are taking the toll.

GMO 

The next time you’re at the grocery store, take a closer look at the produce section.  Do some investigation.  Become a food spy.  You can even wear a trench coat and a spiffy hat!

Try this: Check out the labels to see where the produce comes from. Consider the massive amount of fuel it takes to get a piece of produce all the way across the country. Consider the nutritional value of food that traveled on the road for two weeks before it arrived at your store.  Also consider how hard it is for your local farmer to compete with industrial produce from overseas.  Farm workers in other countries are paid pitiful wages and food safety practices are lax, which makes it cheap and easy to produce low quality, sometimes down right poisonous foods.

poison
Poisonous Pesticides 

Food is our energy source; it is what we give our bodies to run on.  Food matters. And everything that is done to it before it gets to your mouth matters too.

So, what can we do about it?   

Our agricultural system is a mess, it is enough to make your head spin.  There’s a slew of information available to cover the various problems we’re facing. It’s not my goal today to depress you, it’s my goal to give you hope. If you’d like to research on your own, please check out the links at the bottom of this page. I’m here to tell you there is something that we can do about this. 

So, keep reading!

Our problems today may be different from that of 1943 but our solutions are in many ways the same.  We can take a lesson from the wisdom of the past and go back to our old ways.  We can take control of our food: where it comes from, how it’s produced, and what goes into it.  This power can be in your hands, and let me tell you, this is the most almighty of powers!

Bring back the victory garden!  

Even without food rationing and propaganda posters, people all across the nation are taking notice of the condition of our food supply and choosing to do something about it. Consumers are starting to look more closely at food labels and are refusing to buy things with unpronounceable ingredients.  Organic foods are becoming an increasingly common sight on grocery store shelves. Farmer’s markets are popping up in neighborhoods across the country.

Even Michelle Obama got into the act and planted a kitchen garden on the lawn of the White House as part of her campaign to end childhood obesity and advocate healthy eating.

Obama
Michele Obama gardens to inspire Americans 

white house garden
The White House Kitchen garden 

Our collective outlook on food is changing for the better.  Once again, families are taking control of their food, and you can too!

What you have to Gain: 

Personal Gratification 

There is nothing, nothing so gratifying as walking out your back door to cut some lettuce, pick a tomato, and dig up some carrots to throw together a salad. 

You know that the food was grown in sustainable conditions.  You know that the laborer was treated fairly.  You know you're not eating poison in the form of pesticides and herbicides.  You know that it took zero energy resources (no gas and no oil are used in transport) to get your food to your plate.  Unless of course you're counting the energy you spent walking into your backyard!

More Money for your Pockets 

Skyrocketing food costs are due in part to the increase in gas and oil prices.  The vast majority of our food isn't even coming from within our states, and all that food has to get to your store somehow. The food you eat is often shipped from farms and factories all over the country, sometimes even all over the world!  New studies show that more than 40% of food is thrown away before it even gets to the consumer, much of that because of spoilage during transit.

Local food advocate Joel Salatin writes on the subject, “The average morsel of food sees more of America than the farmer who grows it, traveling fifteen hundred miles from field to fork."

Growing your own food on your property cuts out the middleman.   You can take pride in knowing that very little food is wasted when you grow it yourself.  You also don't have to pay the farmer, the truck driver, the gas company, the cashier, the produce manager, or any one else.  You only pay yourself, and you get paid in a glorious bounty of foodbest paycheck ever!

salatin

Control your own destiny  

Growing your own food makes you feel powerful in a world where lack of control is commonplace.  Knowing that the food you’re eating is safe and full of nutrition is priceless.  Don’t get lost in the shuffle and leave your fate in the hands of others. You can pull yourself up by your bootstraps and take control!  Families in the 1940’s made an effort to provide for themselves, and you can too!

Be Prepared… (Cue singing hyenas and scar faced lions) 

Another reason to grow your own food is for preparedness.  Food is a necessary resource, and we can't live without it.  In times of need, be it an emergency, or getting laid off from work, it’s important to know that your family can still eat. Having the knowledge and ability to grow food will never let you down.  You'll never find yourself saying, 'Dang! What a useless skill!’  Unfortunately, the knowledge and skills for food production are getting lost more and more as each year passes.

Educate the Youngins’ 

If you talk to many children these days, you'll find that they’re quite confused about foods that don’t come in boxes and bags.  Many of them can’t tell you that a carrot is the root of a plant, or that mashed potatoes are made with a vegetable that's grown underground. 

If you plant your own victory garden, this can be your way of showing your food independence, but you can also teach your kids valuable lessons. 

This next generation is going to have to bear the burden of our current food system.  Change starts with these kids, and raising them well is the best thing you can do for our future. Your kids crave knowledge; they want to learn, so teach them! Allow them to form a connection between the earth and their plates.   Working together in the garden can strengthen your family culture. Cook together, eat together, and you will grow together.

This clip from Jaime Oliver’s Food Revolution documents this issue perfectly.  I can only hope this is a very extreme example of kids’ food knowledge.

You can do it too! 

You don’t need to be a farmer to grow a victory garden, and it’s okay if you don’t live on seven acres in the country. You too can grow a victory garden with just a little creativity and persistence.  For city dwellers, you'll need to think outside the box…or inside the box, rather.   

You can grow a lot of food in little containers- boxes, cartons, buckets, bags, even in old tires—the sky’s the limit!  My fiancée and I live in the heart of the city and we still manage to keep chickens and a garden. 

Think about how helpful it would be if you could grow even just one of the plants you regularly eat.  You could cut that right out of your grocery bill, and I guarantee it will taste much better than store bought. To read more about growing in small spaces, check out the link on city gardening at the bottom of this article.

No Garden? No Problem! 

If growing your own food is an absolute impossibility for you, but you still want to do something to make a difference, there are still several things that you can do.  Consider buying your produce from a farmer’s market, or a CSA (community supported agriculture) instead of from the grocery store.  This food is not only cheaper, it almost always comes from a local farm, and you have the opportunity to talk to the farmer first hand! 

buy local

I’m all about putting my money directly into the farmer’s hand for the food they grow, rather than paying several companies in between farm and table.  If your farmer’s market isn’t an option, start making calls to your local grocery store and ask them to carry more produce from local farms.  If they are eager to keep you as a customer, they will do what it takes to make you happy.

I truly believe that every action made to improve our food system makes a difference.  Even if that action is simply shopping at the farmer’s market once a month or starting an herb garden on your windowsill, every little bit of change helps.  These things add up, and before you know it, you may start a food revolution in your own neighborhood.  You can change the world; all you have to do is take that first step.

superhero
Be a superhero, grow a garden! 

Sowing for victory in this day and age has a different connotation than it did in the 1940's.  Growing your own food may not help in the war effort, but it will help save the environment, strengthen family bonds, save money, and increase your independence.

The time is now, so get out there! Sow some seeds! Sow for independence! Sow for knowledge! Sow for victory!

References for further education: 

On Victory Gardens: 

National WWII Museum
http://www.nationalww2museum.org/learn/education/for-students/ww2-history/at-a-glance/victory-gardens.html 

Victory Garden Foundation
http://www.victorygardenfoundation.org/victorygardenshistory.htm 

Living History Farm
http://www.livinghistoryfarm.org/farminginthe40s/crops_02.html 

Bring Back the Victory Garden
http://www.sfgate.com/homeandgarden/article/Bring-back-the-WWII-era-victory-garden-3288297.php#ixzz2NquYT6vt 

On Gardening and local agriculture: 

Find a CSA near you:
http://www.localharvest.org/ 

Find your local farmer’s market:
http://search.ams.usda.gov/farmersmarkets/ 

Small Space, Low Skill Gardening
http://imaginacres.com/small-space-low-skill-gardening/ 

Michelle Obama’s Kitchen Garden
http://www.motherearthnews.com/organic-gardening/white-house-garden-zm0z13amzmar.aspx#axzz2PAxw7wrf 

Gardening Basics for Beginners
http://simplehomemade.net/5-gardening-basics-for-beginners/ 

Vegetable Gardening for Beginners
http://www.gardeningknowhow.com/edible/vegetables/vgen/vegetable-gardening-for-beginners.htm 

On the condition of food: 

Milk: America’s Health Problem
http://www.preventcancer.com/consumers/general/milk.htm 

Joel Salatin
http://www.polyfacefarms.com/principles/ 

Food Inc.
http://www.takepart.com/foodinc 

Center for Ecoliteracy
http://www.ecoliteracy.org/discover 

Sustainable Table
http://www.gracelinks.org/940/the-issues 

The Food Trust:
http://thefoodtrust.org/