The Urban Homesteading Movement Comes of Age
Story and photo by Jess Watson
Original art tiles by K. Ruby Blume
K. Ruby Blume is in her element. Standing in front of a packed cheesemaking class, she waves her arms, jokes, asks questions, and calls for volunteers. She is all coiled energy and dynamic movement.
Within the first 15 minutes, one student is mixing an enzyme powder into a vat of milk that will become feta. Another is at the stove, standing over a pot of milk that will become yogurt, stirring in a slow figure-eight motion as directed and intently watching a huge thermometer that protrudes from the milk. Every minute of the three-hour class is optimized so the students can produce at least three cultured milk products, and by the end, everyone is swooning over the tasty results. Blume’s goal is for each student to return home with the skills to reproduce the process in his or her own kitchen.
We are at an Institute of Urban Homesteading class, where the term “homesteading” undertakes a shift from its original 19th-century context. Blume explains, “To me, the difference between the original homesteading and urban homesteading is that urban homesteading is about reclaiming land within an urban environment for use for creating local resources. It’s about reclaiming space, not about appropriating space that’s already claimed.” Urban homesteaders aspire to the skill set of a 19th-century farmer with the environmental consciousness of a 21st-century urban dweller.
An artist and former radical puppeteer, Blume is a mostly self-taught homesteader, learning her skills through years of trial and error. Four years ago, after getting continual requests from friends who wanted to learn canning and other skills, she founded the Institute for Urban Homesteading, running it out of her kitchen and bringing in additional expertise from a core group of teachers.
“Rather than calling my friends together and just teaching the class, I came up with a fancy name.” She relates with a laugh that calling her little school “the Institute of Urban Homesteading” was her idea of a joke. “I made a fancy postcard and did a little press campaign, just like I was running a theater show, and suddenly the school was born. It was an instant success.”
Little did she know that the school’s name would eventually land her at the center of a heated trademark battle that would stir up a “microviral revolution” and rally homesteaders across the country.
Teaching the “Art of Life”
A walk through Blume’s garden and kitchen on an intensely green Saturday morning is like perusing a catalog of her course offerings at the Institute of Urban Homesteading (IUH). The garden is producing chard, lettuce, and artichokes, with garlic shoots poking up in orderly rows (Organic Gardening 101). The quail cage sits empty, waiting until the late spring when she buys new pairs (Micro-Farming: Quail). Beehives are visible in the side yard and on the roof (Put a Bee in Your Bonnet, Intermediate Beekeeping, and Honey Harvest). A repurposed bathtub filled with water plants filters her graywater before it is used on the garden (Greywater Primer).
We visit her rabbit pens in the back corner of the garden. Lately, her bunnies have been busy reproducing (as rabbits will do), resulting in a new litter of eight babies, as well as several young rabbits ready to be harvested (Raising Rabbits). Blume is an enthusiastic rabbit farmer.
“I believe that this year people are going to finally discover rabbits. When I decided to have animals, I looked at chickens, and was kind of, ‘meh,’ but then I looked at rabbits and was like, ‘Yeah, rabbits!’” They provide garden-ready manure, can be kept in small spaces and, of course, are very productive. We make our way to her art studio, where a foot-high pile of rabbit pelts is waiting to be made into intensely soft slippers and hats.
A peek into Blume’s larder reveals another world entirely. Almost everything there, from condiments to preserved meats and dairy products, was made by hand. There are jams, fruit butters, and canned tomatoes (Canning Extravaganza), lacto-fermented natural sodas, and jars of pickles and sauerkraut (Ferment! or Living Cultures Kitchen), a bottle of mead with a beautiful hand-printed label (Mead Making), and jars full of brining feta and carefully wrapped Camembert (Cheesemaking 101 & 102). A large cast-iron pot in the fridge holds some Lavender Mead Rabbit Stew ready to reheat for the evening’s dinner (see accompanying recipe).
Cheesemaking, her most popular class, has proved to be a gateway to homesteading for many. As an early adopter, Blume was in the right place at the right time with a supply of classes to meet the recent upwelling of interest in canning, cheesemaking, and a host of other heirloom homemaking skills.
Oakland resident Karen Rezai, 40, who attended Blume’s cheesemaking class, exemplifies the hunger to acquire these lost skills that many people seem to be feeling these days. “We’re just starting venturing into making our own things . . . I’m a homesteader wannabe. I learned none of this as a child. We’re starting small, growing our own food, making our own herbal medicine. It’s only been lately that we’ve been adding raw milk products and more of the fermented stuff. We’ve tried yogurt, kefir. I have a five-year-old son that I homeschool, so we’ve been exploring all of this together.” Rezai’s slow increase in interest over the past few years is typical of IUH students, many of whom also cite Michael Pollan’s books as inspiration for wanting to be more in touch with the origins of their food.
Since its opening, the Institute has trained over 2,000 people in the homesteading arts. When a pursuit transitions from niche-interest status to wildly (or even mildly) popular, the moment is full of opportunity for its early adopters, but also inspires others to try to profit from controlling access to the information. The Institute has recently been at the center of a trademark battle that has stirred up self-identified homesteaders across the country, and in many ways helped to coalesce a movement.
The Urban Homesteading Trademark Battle
On February 13, 2011, Blume received an informational letter from the Dervaes Institute informing her that the Dervaes family had trademarked the term “urban homesteading” and “urban homestead” and described how to properly credit them when using their trademarked material. Similar letters were sent to 15 other homesteading groups across the country. Over the next two days, the Facebook pages of IUH, the Denver Institute of Urban Homesteading (a farmers market), and several homesteading-related books were taken down at the request of the Dervaeses.
Up to this point, the Dervaes family had run a widely respected urban farm in Pasadena called Little Homestead in the City, with an active online presence. As word began to trickle out about the letters from the Dervaeses and Facebook page removals, angry and incredulous posts began to appear on homesteading blogs. Negative comments streamed into the Dervaeses’ website and Facebook page, where the family stated that, “Of course, urban homesteading is ‘old’ but we used it in a new and unique way” and defended what they called in their press release their “normal right to defend their trademark.” Within days, the family had suspended all comments on their site and taken down their Facebook page (they have since restored them).
The controversy has had a silver lining for Blume, due to the national attention IUH received and the widespread public support the incident garnered for it. Blume quickly reopened and renamed the Facebook site the “New Institute of Urban Home-steading(s),” which at last count had more than 1,100 “likes,” whereas before the challenge from the Dervaeses, the Institute had only a few hundred. Another blogger, April Krieger of Eureka, California, was so outraged by the Dervaeses actions that she started the Facebook page “Take Back Urban Home-steading(s),” which now has over 7,000 likes. Through the page, Krieger regularly coordinates “days of action,” in which self-identified homesteaders across the country post photos, videos, and blogs describing their activities, in an attempt to “re-gain these terms for our community.” The Electronic Frontier Foundation is filing suit against the Dervaeses, challenging their trademarks, and several petitions are in the process of being filed with the US Patent Office to revoke the trademark.
The trademark battle has had another target that has been, for Blume, even more of a concern. When the controversy was emerging, she and friend Rachel Kaplan, who homesteads in the North Bay, were awaiting the imminent publication of their new co-authored homesteading book, Urban Homesteading: Heirloom Skills for Sustainable Living. The book’s publisher, Skyhorse, has received a more formal cease and desist letter from the Dervaes’ lawyers, but so far it has had no effect on the book’s release or launch parties scheduled in the East Bay and North Bay throughout the spring and summer.
Blume is the first to note that she and Kaplan are not the only people publishing a book on the subject. There are other homesteading books available, many by couples detailing their personal experiences and offering plenty of “how-to” advice and instruction. Blume explains what’s different about the book she and Kaplan wrote: They include a lot of “why-to . . . really eloquent rationale for why to do this—it’s about a movement.” The two interviewed 24 individuals and families who have found innovative solutions for conserving resources and maximizing space, which the authors feel allows them to represent not just scattered ideas, but the larger homesteading movement.
Kaplan elaborates, “We think this is a good way to live. It brings satisfaction and joy, and is more responsible than [the way] Americans are mostly taught to live. There are a lot of different types of people doing this. That’s the biggest hope of the book: all the energy—it’s catching. People get it. This is why you can’t own this. It belongs to the people.” •
Jess Watson is a freelance journalist on the urban farming beat and a PhD candidate in Cultural Anthropology at UCSC. She spends far too much time fermenting, foraging, canning, and blogging about it all from her North Oakland home. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org, or just check out her blog at www.quirkyurbanite.blogspot.com.
Info and Opportunities
More information on the Urban Homesteading book can be found at www.urban-homesteading.org.
A full list of Institute of Urban Homesteading classes can be found at www.iuhoakland.com.
On June 19, the Institute is coordinating some urban farm tours. It will be an opportunity to go out and observe a whole host of urban homesteading projects, with fruit and vegetable gardens, composting systems, rabbits, goats, bees, graywater systems, and more. Look for more information Look for more information by clicking “Urban Farm Tour” on the left side of the Institute’s homepage.
Ruby’s Lavender Mead Rabbit Stew
1 tablespoon butter or olive oil
1 whole rabbit
2–4 cups mead or white wine
2–4 cups water or stock
½ cup sun-dried tomatoes
1–2 heads garlic (peel and use as individual cloves or leave whole and unpeeled)
Lavender, fresh or dried (Fresh lavender can be tied in a bundle. Dried lavender should be made into a potpourri with cheesecloth.)
2–3 whole root vegetables of your choice or availability, such as carrots, turnips, potatoes, or rutabaga (winter squash works too), scrubbed and cut into chunks
Salt and pepper to taste
Melt butter or warm olive oil over medium heat in a 6- or 8-quart Dutch oven. Add the rabbit and brown on both sides.
Add enough mead (or wine) and water (or stock) to just barely cover rabbit. Add sun-dried tomatoes, garlic, and lavender. Bring the mixture to a simmer and turn the heat to low. Cover and simmer for 1–2 hours or until the rabbit starts to get tender. Turn the rabbit occasionally and make sure the herbs are submerged.
When the rabbit meat is tender, add the root vegetables. Add salt and pepper to taste and continue to cook until the meat starts to fall off the bone. You can then ladle the stew into soup bowls to serve. Serves 4–6.