On my desk, books stacked as tall as a bantam rooster celebrate backyard chicken coops in suburbia, rooftop gardens in Queens and a dairy farm on Washington state's Vashon Island. They're filled with photos of people caressing bunnies, nuzzling horses, cuddling chickens.
Call them agri-lit, if you like. Titles often include the words "hobby farm," "urban farming" and "homesteading." Some of the authors have had minimal exposure to farming's realities; others bring decades of farming experience to the pages.
While most of the books are how-to volumes, with charts, color photographs, discussions of manure management — as well as the occasional drawings of, say, a cow's reproductive system — three of the 15 books are memoirs recounting the day-to-day challenges and joys of partnering with Mother Nature.
That so many books (and websites and blogs) are geared to those who want to do more than grow tomatoes and pumpkins shouldn't be surprising. In this country, the number of farmers markets has grown steadily in recent years (to 6,132 last year from 5,274 in 2009, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture). Words such as "sustainability," "organic" and "farm-to-table" pepper conversations and restaurant menus. Why, even Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg pledged this year to eat meat only from animals he had killed.
None of this surprises Pamela Riney-Kehrberg.
"Americans have this enormous nostalgia for the land, but it does come and go in cycles," said Riney-Kehrberg, head of Iowa State University's history department, who teaches agricultural and rural history.
"We want to know where our food comes from, to have some responsibility for producing it, and there's a nostalgia for the way food used to be," she said. "When budgets are tight and people start thinking of ways to try and improve their standard of living, you start thinking about turning the backyard into a garden."
Victory gardens sustained families through two world wars. In the 1970s Euell Gibbons' "Stalking the Wild Asparagus" preached a gather-your-own-food mantra, while Mother Earth News urged people to plant their own food, Riney-Kehrberg said. In 1976, the Mennonites in Doris Longacre's "More With Less Cookbook" counseled readers to "eat right, not just for your body but for the world."
The memoirs deliver straightforward talk about farming's realities (slugs, manure, birth, death); occasional tips (check local laws, and don't name baby chicks if you plan to eat them); and the distinct voices, sentiments and humor of the authors' tales as they climb the learning curve to farming.
A sampling follows.
The Quarter-Acre Farm: How I Kept the Patio, Lost the Lawn, and Fed My Family for a Year
By Spring Warren
(Seal Press, $16.95)
Fascinated by victory gardens and troubled by food recalls, Warren announced to her husband and two sons she would grow in their Northern California backyard much of what they would eat. They told her she was crazy. Warren, who wrote the novel "Turpentine," tells her story with good humor, whether it's describing her pursuit of the culinary potential of garden snails or her invitation to a local farmer to check out her "farm."
Of finicky tomatoes, she writes, "In a not-so-funny twist, while the zucchini looked bad but kept up production, my tomatoes appeared fantastic — the Chippendales of the garden, sporting strong limbs and good color, throwing blossoms left and right, and seemingly bursting with virility — but they were giving me no satisfaction. There was nary a tomato on most of the plants."
Growing a Farmer: How I Learned to Live Off the Land
By Kurt Timmermeister
(W.W. Norton & Co., $24.95)
Twenty years ago, home ownership lured Seattle restaurateur Timmermeister to Vashon Island in Washington's Puget Sound, where Mother Nature and 4 acres of land seduced him. His prior farming experience? Spending two weeks at a summer horse camp and watching TV's "Green Acres." He devoured books on farming, working his way from vegetables to bees, fowl, pigs and his first cow, a Jersey named Dinah (fodder for a section on cows in heat). Today he has a dairy farm (Kurtwood Farms) with a focus on cheese-making. He wrote the book "to add a perspective on the food we eat."
Of honeybees, he writes: "Each small hex cell is minute, a half inch by three-eighths by three-eighths and might contain a quarter teaspoon of honey. Miraculously at harvest time the pail at the base of the honey extractor is filled with golden honey; the miracle of the loaves and fishes lives on."
Chicken and Egg: A Memoir of Suburban Homesteading With 125 Recipes
By Janice Cole
(Chronicle Books, $24.95)
Former chef, restaurant owner, food writer/editor/stylist and cooking instructor Cole became a "chicken wrangler" when she was "downsized from her food magazine job." Her account of living with three chickens in the backyard of the St. Paul, Minn., home she shares with her husband and two sons is a mix of charming stories, tips and recipes.
Of the three chicks, she writes: "We were like parents of newborns whose lives are abruptly turned upside down. It was a blur of constant feeding, cleaning, watering, pooping, more cleaning, checking bottoms for pasted bums, holding, cuddling, and feeding some more. I was enthralled. I was also exhausted."
More farming literature
•"Self-Sufficiency for the 21st Century," by Dick and James Strawbridge (DK Publishing, $30). Detailed effort from father-son pair of English farmers.
•"Modern Homestead: Grow, Raise, Create," by Renee Wilkinson (Fulcrum Publishing, $26.95). How-to by blogger who is a sixth-generation gardener-homesteader.
•"The Backyard Homestead Guide to Raising Farm Animals," edited by Gail Damerow (Storey, $24.95). Learn it all, from milking a cow to birthing a kid.
•"Urban Homesteading: Heirloom Skills for Sustainable Living," by Rachel Kaplan with K. Ruby Blume (Skyhorse Publishing, $16.95). Reality check for dreamers.
•"The City Homesteader: Self-Sufficiency on Any Square Footage," by Scott Meyer (Running Press, $20). Simple, straightforward piece from former Organic mag editor.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun