Embracing Urban Homesteading with Sundari Kraft

October 5, 2011

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and we’re so honored today to have Sundari Kraft with us. She’s on from Denver, Colorado. Welcome to Green is Good. SUNDARI KRAFT: Thank you. Glad to be here. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Hey, you know, Sundari, you’re going to be talking about urban homesteading today, which is just such a new and fascinating topic in so many ways with regards to our modern society, not new historically, but new in terms of when you think of modern living and everybody needs a cell phone or an iPad or whatever’s the latest and greatest technology. You have a fascinating journey and story to share with our listeners today about urban homesteading. Can you share a little bit of your own personal journey before we go into exactly what is urban homesteading and what does that mean and how our listeners can get involved? SUNDARI KRAFT: Sure. I’ll say I’m talking to you on a cell phone right now, so all these wonderful new technologies that people may enjoy having in their lives, their cell phone or their iPad, are not necessarily incompatible with urban homesteading. In fact, that’s what makes urban homesteading so neat, is that you don’t need to uproot your life. You don’t need to move out into the boonies and start dressing in prairie clothes and start doing things like that to live a more sustainable, fulfilling life. I just have to make my cell phone confession right off the bat. For me, this journey of urban homesteading, it started the way that I think a lot of people’s journey started. It kind of starts small. I was raised in the suburbs of Denver. We didn’t even have a garden when I was growing up. We had a suburban house and two cats and a dog. I wasn’t raised in any sort of a rural or farming environment, but once I finished college, I became really fascinating in the process of growing food. Everywhere I lived, I tried to grow some of my own food. Even if I just had a little strip of land outside my apartment and six tomato plants, that’s what I would do. As I was able to grow as an urban homesteader, I would use more of the land available more and more and more, until I was using my entire backyard. What the heck? Why not use the front yard too? That’s just land that’s sitting there. We got tired of taking care of the grass, so we tore that up and put in a garden. Then I started looking around and saying it’s great to grow all these vegetables and have that available, but that’s really only a portion of your diet. What about things like eggs? What about things like milk? I knew it was possible to raise chickens or ducks and these little dwarf dairy goats, these little girls that come up to your knee. So, I started doing that in my backyard. Then I had the goat’s milk, so maybe I want to start making soap with it. Just more and more, you become interested. One thing kind of leads to another, and you become comfortable with one aspect of urban homesteading. It becomes easy and kind of routine, and so then you start to branch out. Maybe you decide to start making your own cleaning products, or you decide to start recycling your used bath water, or just things like that. Urban homesteading looks a little different for everybody that does it. Usually people start kind of small, and then they just become more and more interested as they go on. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Perfect. For our listeners out there, both in the United States and around the world, what does it really mean? Define urban homesteading for us. Let’s start at the blocking and tackling of how this really lays out. SUNDARI KRAFT: Well, again, urban homesteading, the way that I like to think of it, is it’s a collection of practices that has to do with living more sustainably and self-sufficiently wherever you happen to be, whether that’s in the city. The reason why I call it a collection of practices is because urban homesteading is not just one thing, and it’s also not a special defined list that you need to check all the boxes if you want to be an urban homesteader. Nobody gets to say that you have to meet a certain standard to be an urban homesteader. It’s really about just doing things that fit your life where you are. Maybe it means that you grow herbs on a windowsill. Maybe it means you keep a couple chickens in your backyard. Maybe it means that you use solar energy or capture rainwater. Those are all acts of urban homesteading, so it’s just things that you can do to live more self-sufficiently in the city. JOHN SHEGERIAN: In the city. That’s fascinating. How about for our listeners in New York City in an apartment or in Denver in an apartment, for that matter, or here, anywhere, in a high-rise? Can you really be an urban homesteader in an apartment building? SUNDARI KRAFT: Absolutely. That is a really good question because so many people do live in apartments and maybe the chickens in the backyard isn’t quite what they think that they can do. In my book, everything we talk about in The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Urban Homesteading, there’s always a component for people who don’t have any access to land. First of all, there are a lot of things that you can do even just in an apartment, in terms of growing food in containers in windowsills. You can grow food under your bed. Did you know that? You can grow mushrooms in a box under your bed. So, there’s a lot you can do right in your apartment, but one of the wonderful things about urban homesteading is that we have an advantage that rural people don’t have, in that there are so many resources available to us that we can share with other people. There’s a section on growing food on other people’s land in the book, so if you’re an apartment dweller and you’ve kind of maxed out on your containers and you’ve maxed out on your under the bed space for your mushrooms, you can do a land share agreement with someone else in your general neighborhood who does have some land. It could be a person, it could be a business. Somebody who has a little patch of land. You could grow food there. You can grow in a community garden. You can even use communal spaces for keeping animals like chickens or goats. So, we are really lucky because in the city, we have so much that’s available to us and we can share with each other. I grow food in 11 different yards here in Denver as part of my urban farming project, and I only own one of those yards. MIKE BRADY: Wow. So, you have an agreement with 10 other people. Is part of that agreement kind of like barter? Is that what you do, Sundari, just say, “OK, I need this much space,” kind of like sharecropping a little bit? SUNDARI KRAFT: Exactly. It’s a land share agreement, and you can work it out any way that you want to, but what we do is these people have unused land space. They don’t want it. They’re sick of taking care of it. They’re sick of mowing their grass, so they say, “Please put a vegetable garden in here.” So, we plant it, we take care of it, and the homeowner gets a portion of the vegetables that are grown there as a thank you from us, and then we’re able to take the rest and distribute them through our share program and distribute them in the neighborhood. We have farm on 11 different lots here in Denver, and we don’t pay for any of that land. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wait a second, now. First of all, I want to give a shout-out to your book. Talk about what is your book called again? SUNDARI KRAFT: The book is The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Urban Homesteading. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And where can our listeners find that? SUNDARI KRAFT: Well, they can find it on my website. They can find it in their local bookstore. I know there’s a lot of places they can find it online, maybe at their library. JOHN SHEGERIAN: The website that you have, what’s your website? Eatwhereulive.com? SUNDARI KRAFT: It is eatwhereulive.com. JOHN SHEGERIAN: For our listeners out there, if you want to get into urban homesteading, you could buy Sundari’s book, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Urban Homesteading, on probably idiotsguide.com, for sure amazon.com, and also your own website, eatwhereulive.com. I’m on that website right now. You can buy your book right there. SUNDARI KRAFT: That’s right. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, let’s talk about Eat Where You Live. Wait a second, now. So, now, besides being an urban homesteader, you’re really, in many ways, also an eco-preneur because you have these farms that you farm, and you have this website that promotes the knowledge and the information that you have. You have eatwhereulive.com, so truly you are, besides an urban homesteader, you’re an eco-preneur helping to also spread the mission, spread the message. SUNDARI KRAFT: Well, you know, the neat thing about urban homesteading is that you can make it kind of as small or as big as you want. Sometimes people just do it just to sustain their own family, but if you wanted to take your urban homesteading and make it financially self-sufficient too, you’ll find that there’s a lot of different ways to do it. I mean, if you’re farming two plots of land that you’ve worked out with neighbors to support your family, if you decide to expand that to four plots of land and sell a little bit of the food to pay for seed money, you can do that. If you want to set up a website and use that as a way to share information and maybe make a little bit of extra money, you can do that. If you want to teach classes, you would not believe, once you learn how to take care of chickens or raise plants in containers or harvest gray water from your house, boy, there’s a lot of people that would love to have you teach them how to do that. So, if you choose to, you can expand your urban homesteading to make it financially self-sustaining as well, or you can just kind of keep it in your home and use it for your family. There’s no need to make it any bigger than that. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it. What is Heirloom Gardens, your LLC? What is that exactly? SUNDARI KRAFT: Heirloom Gardens is the urban farming project that I run. It’s a multi-plot urban farm, so we say it’s not a community garden or anything like that. It’s a farm, but it’s just a farm that’s divided into 11 different locations here in my neighborhood in northwest Denver. I have a group of urban farmers that I work with, and together we turn the yards and the gardens and we plant them. We take care of them and we harvest them, and then we distribute the food through a CSA model, community supported agriculture model, where we have shareholders that buy a share of the farm at the beginning of the season, and then every week during the harvest, they get a share of the vegetables. We also take that food to the farmers’ market here in our neighborhood every Saturday, and we also distribute it that way. So, that’s what Heirloom Gardens is. That’s the urban farming project that I run. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wait a second, now. You’re very humble. You also sit on the Denver Food Policy Council. SUNDARI KRAFT: I do. We’re very excited about that. I’m the co-Chair of the Denver Sustainable Food Policy Council. Denver has an extraordinarily vibrant sustainable food community, and what has sprung out of that from the bushes of the city to continue to explore ways to make the city more sustainable and more eco-friendly. They had looked at ways to do this energy and transportation, and now they’re looking at the food. The mayor appointed this committee to help make various policy recommendations and help different people in the sustainable food community come together and to really work more efficiently to really make sure that we’re doing what we can to help support sustainable food projects within our city. It’s a new council, and it’s growing, but we’re very excited about it. JOHN SHEGERIAN: How does that interrelate with Sustainable Food Denver? SUNDARI KRAFT: Sustainable Food Denver is an advocacy organization that I founded with the primary goal of advocating for sustainable food issues. It was formed around trying to get new rules passed in Denver for the keeping of what we call food-producing animals, which in this case were backyard chickens and ducks and dwarf dairy goats. It was about a two-year process that Sustainable Food Denver, with tons and tons of help from people in the community and other sustainability organizations. After two years, we managed to pass a new ordinance in Denver that makes it about 1,000 times easier than it used to be to keep backyard chickens and ducks and dwarf dairy goats. It was really exciting because there were so many barriers before for people to do this, and now they can do it, provided they follow a few commonsense rules. They can keep these animals in their backyard without a lot of expense and hassle, and it was a really wonderful thing for our city. It’s one thing that I do talk about in the book a lot that I think is important for urban homesteaders, that you can be really excited about growing food in your front yard or someone else’s front yard, or keeping chickens or ducks or goats, but if there are zoning laws where you live or your covenants don’t allow you to do the things you want to do, then it makes it really difficult. So, sometimes the byproduct of being an urban homesteader is becoming really well acquainted with your zoning laws and your local officials. We talk about that in the book. We talk about a ten-step process to change your zoning code. We talk about how to work with your zoning code. We talk about how to change your covenants because sometimes our zoning codes are 50 or 60 years old, and they need to catch up to where we are today. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it. Mike, right now I can’t figure out when Sundari sleeps. Can you figure this out? She’s an author. She’s created many of these Boards and Councils. She’s a farmer. She’s an urban homesteader. MIKE BRADY: She’s running a herd of dairy goats. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Mike, what’s going on? What are we not eating or drinking appropriately to keep up with her? MIKE BRADY: I don’t know. SUNDARI KRAFT: It’s all very fun, and it has a lot of community support. It wouldn’t be able to happen without community, and that’s the other thing about urban homesteading. Sometimes people who are urban homesteaders, if they live in an apartment or they just have a small yard, they act kind of apologetic. “Well, I can only do this much. If I lived out in the country, I could do so much more.” It’s almost like they think of themselves as homesteaders lite. But really, with urban homesteading, we have so much available to us that rural people don’t have, like community, like the wonderful urban farmers who help me run Heirloom Gardens, like all the community members who showed up to meetings and wrote e-mails to get this ordinance passed. I could never do these things by myself, never. But there’s such community that’s available to people who live in cities, that you don’t need to do things by yourself. You can reach out and get a lot of help to get things done. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Sundari, so now we’ve given a huge breadth of amazing things that you’re doing in Denver, and I know we’re going to have listeners out there that are excited or inspired by what you’ve said today. For those who want to learn more, obviously we want to support them buying your book, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Urban Homesteading, and also go to your great website. Mike and I are on it right now, eatwhereulive.com. Sundari, let’s talk the last five or six minutes or so about practical steps, because that’s what Mike and I always want to leave our listeners with, of how to. We have so many great guests, and the question is what’s the first foot in front of the other for our listeners to become an urban homesteader? How do they start? SUNDARI KRAFT: Well, the thing is it’s going to look different for everybody how they start. One person may start with the herbs on the windowsill. One person may start by getting a plot in the community garden, but I think that really the question for the person to ask themselves is, “What do I want to happen? What’s the one thing I really want?” Do you really want to capture gray water? Well, maybe not, but would you really like to have some caprese salad, some fresh grown tomatoes and basil? Yes, that is something I would like. So, you kind of look around and decide whether that means in pots on the patio, or that means a community garden plot, or that means digging up a little bit in your backyard. The important thing to realize is that you can do this, and to realize that there’s a learning curve as part of the process. It’s OK to try to learn from others. It’s just great to get started wherever you are, whatever you want to do, whatever your skill level, just do it. Start small. I tell people the first year you’re going to do a garden, that is not the year to tear up your whole front yard. Start small. Make it fun. Make it manageable. You can always tear up more of your yard next year. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Perfect. So, start small, just get going, and it’s going to look different for all of our listeners out there. That makes so much sense. What types of non-food things can our listeners produce as an urban homesteader? SUNDARI KRAFT: You can produce, for example, soaps are a great thing to do, homemade cleaning products. I love doing that. Boy, just stuff you have in your cupboard. You can also do things like lotions, shampoos, all kind of body care stuff. And then there’s the whole aspect of energy, where you can do different things with solar energy to help power your home and reduce your bills. You can capture rainwater and reuse gray water to help reduce your water needs. Then there’s also things like composting, which essentially composting does turn into food, but there’s all kinds of ways to recycle and reuse and repurpose. We talk about foraging; not just foraging for food like fruit from fruit trees, but foraging for things that you may need in the city. So, there’s all kinds of things that you can produce, just depending on what you’re interested in. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it. So, again, it goes to the interests of the person themselves, but there’s really lots of step-ins for people to get involved and become urban homesteaders. SUNDARI KRAFT: Absolutely. JOHN SHEGERIAN: OK. On this show, Green is Good, Mike and I always talk about people, planet, and profits. How does urban homesteading save money? Your lifestyle compared to the neighbor down the street that really wants to write a check for everything and not be involved with the movement. How does that look, do you think? SUNDARI KRAFT: In terms of saving money? JOHN SHEGERIAN: Yeah. SUNDARI KRAFT: I think that it’s absolutely true that urban homesteading, if you do it sensibly, you should be saving money in whatever aspect you’re doing. If you’re growing food, your grocery bill should go down. If you’re making your own cleaning products, you will definitely save money. Trust me. Baking soda and vinegar cost a lot less than all those bottles of Lord knows what that they sell you at the grocery store. Now, sometimes people get this impression that urban homesteading is kind of this yuppie hobby that only people with too much time and money can afford. They see these designer chicken coops that cost $800. That’s a lot of eggs for $800. There are ways always to do things more inexpensively, to do the soaps, to reuse and recycle the foraged materials, to have friends help you. You will see your bills go down, and also the other thing too is saving money is great, but also the quality of what you produce is so much better. You can’t really buy very easily food that’s as good as the food you just go out and pick right off of your plants. The soap you make yourself is just so much better. The quality of what you’re consuming goes really up, and your costs go down. It’s great. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it. You have a family, right? SUNDARI KRAFT: Actually, I’m eight months pregnant. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, you have a family, but you have a husband. You have a baby on the way. Congratulations. For our listeners out there who have families, husbands, significant others, children, everyone has usually a household with others. If they’re motivated after listening to you, if they’re inspired, how do you bring the others along? How do you bring the doubters or the resistant along into this journey? SUNDARI KRAFT: Sometimes people are lucky enough to live in a household where everybody is on the same page and everybody is onboard. But my experience is a lot of times, like in my classes, I’ll get the wife who comes in and says, “I want to keep chickens, but my husband doesn’t want me to.” It’s a really common dilemma. I have a couple pieces of advice. The first is if your family, the people you live with, are not fully onboard, go ahead and start doing some urban homesteading things, but try to make sure that they’re projects that you can manage more or less independently because it’s not fun to do urban homesteading if somebody is forcing you to do it. You start doing it, and once they start experiencing the fruits of what you produce, it’s going to soften them up considerably. My husband didn’t really want chickens or goats, but I kind of talked him into it and it was kind of my job to take care of it. Now he loves the animals because, first of all, he loves the animals, but also he loves the food we get from them. So, you start with what you can manage. Then the other thing too is try to familiarize them. If you want chickens, find some people who have chickens and bring your partner along with you to visit them because often people have an idea in their head of what it means to have chickens or what it means to have a front yard garden, but they don’t really know what it is like. So, the more you can familiarize them with them, I think that they’ll find that it’s really not such a big deal, it’s not such a problem. You kind of soften the ground. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is just great advice. That’s just tremendous. What’s the next step for you? Besides having a baby and being a mom, which is obviously the next step a month from now, what is the next step professionally with what you’re doing, with your Heirloom Gardens and everything else with regards to Sustainable Food Denver and Denver Food Policy Council? Where are you taking this movement? Are you dealing with other leaders in other states? Is there an urban homesteading movement in other states similar to your movement in Denver? Or are you inspiring others to get going, or are other states even ahead of you? SUNDARI KRAFT: Oh, yeah. There are urban homesteaders that I know of all over this country, great homesteading communities, and I’m sure all over the world as well. As much as Denver wants to be a leader, there are definitely some other places in the country that are ahead of us, but that’s OK because they’re blazing a trail. I think that in terms of what I want to focus on next is continuing to look at various laws in Denver that kind of hamper people in their urban homesteading and look at working with our administration here in the city to help tweak the laws a little bit so that we’re being more supportive of sustainable food. I also am interested in looking at some sort of national right to grow legislation because we have, for example, right to dry laws, that allow you in certain states, they say that your city or your HOA can’t prevent you from hanging a clothesline. They’re called right to dry laws. Something that’s happened, there was a woman in Oak Park, Michigan, who put a garden in her front yard, and her city threatened her with jail time for that, even though it was a really well tended garden, just because they didn’t consider that normal. We have right to dry laws. I would really love to see some sort of national right to grow laws that say that you’re allowed to plant food on your land, very simply. And so that’s something I’m actually going to meet with my congressperson about because I think that where we’re heading as a country, we’re looking at healthier food, less obesity and problems for our children. We’re looking at saving money. We’re looking at living more green. There’s a lot of conditions that would support something like this that really allows people to grow food on their land, if that’s what they want to do. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s amazing. We’re unfortunately down to the last minute or so. Do you have any last thoughts to share with our listeners, as we have to sign off in a minute? SUNDARI KRAFT: Well, I would just tell them that it’s OK to start small and your skill level and what you can do is going to grow from there. It’s just what we’ve talked about. Just start wherever you are, and you’re going to make urban homesteading weave into your life the way you want it to. You don’t have to make huge changes. You don’t have to give up the things you love about living in the city. You can make this work for you and your family and your life. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Thank you for that. We’re going to have you back on to continue your journey at another time. For our listeners out there, please, if you’re interested in urban homesteading, buy Sundari’s book, Complete Idiot’s Guide to Urban Homesteading. You can get that on her website, eatwhereulive.com. Sundari Kraft, you are a sustainability visionary and leader, and truly living proof that green is good.