Over the past 10 years there has been a steady movement toward urban agriculture and reclaiming heirloom skills. People have renewed interest in growing food, raising animals and practicing home food preservation.

The Oakland-based Institute of Urban Homesteading, founded by K. Ruby Blume, believes urban farming makes a lot of sense, not only to raise healthy food for one's family and beyond, but also to learn to conserve natural resources and reduce the carbon footprint.

To promote these ideas, the institute is hosting its fourth annual Urban Farm Tour on June 7, featuring eight properties in Berkeley and Oakland.

A visitor milking the kids at Green Faerie Farm.
A visitor milking the kids at Green Faerie Farm.

"This year's farms show a range of different sites, a diverse group of farmers and different focuses," Blume said. "The tour ranges from tiny spaces, such as a 600-square-foot front yard, to some significantly larger spaces like the 1/3 acre that is three backyards joined together. Tour goers get to see what established farmers are doing and what small-scale productive agriculture looks like."

Each homestead is unique in how space is used for productive food gathering and small-scale urban livestock, including goats, chicken, ducks, rabbits and bees.

The sites include vegetable gardens, urban orchards, food forests and mushroom beds. There are wetlands, composting systems, aquaponics, graywater conservation and rainwater catchment systems.

The tour is self-guided as to the number of sites visited and tours take place on the hour at each farm.

"The idea is to be educational. When people arrive they're taken on a 30- to 45-minute tour where the farmer shows what's going, what's unique about their site and really educates on how the public can do the same themselves," Blume said.

"Then there's an opportunity to ask questions and get a little sample of what's produced there."

The tour acts in part as a benefit for IUH, allowing it to offer sliding scale tuition for classes and free events during the year; to pay its teachers and the participating farmers for their expertise, all accomplished without outside funding.

An email to IUH via the contact page on the group's website is needed to register for the tour. The week before the event, participants will be notified by email of the farm addresses, given driving directions and advised of event etiquette.

Tour goers can pay individually at each site or purchase a day pass in advance, an option that includes raffle tickets for farm-themed prizes such as tours, consultations, and goody and health baskets, among others.

Wanda Stewart of Obsidian Farm shows off some of her bounty.
Wanda Stewart of Obsidian Farm shows off some of her bounty.

Four of the urban farms are in Berkeley and their focus and sizes reflect a diversity of possibilities.

At the small- to medium-sized Obsidian Farm in South Berkeley, host Wanda Stewart has created a food forest and installed vertical gardening and graywater system, and hopes her model will inspire others.

In her small space Stewart boasts 20 fruit trees and berry bushes and is growing perennial Caribbean crops, such as callaloo and "chocho," to continue her African American culture and traditions.

A second South Berkeley site, the Permaculture Institute of the East Bay, is a medium-sized farm whose host, Christopher Shein, has a vast knowledge of ecologically focused agriculture and has adopted it at his site, complete with chickens, ducks, bees, mushroom habitat and food forest of perennial vegetables.

Also on site is a straw bale building, rainwater catchment, timber bamboo and a massive composting system.

As head of the permaculture program at Merritt College, Stein is extremely knowledgeable and happy to share his experience on the tour.

Green Faerie Farm, a large site in Berkeley, is a must-see for anyone interested in goats.

Host Jim Montgomery has worked in animal husbandry for more than 30 years and has a unique perspective about caring for animals.

His farm also boasts a large vegetable garden, mature fruit trees, numerous chickens, rabbits, bees and quail; a graywater system and a milking parlor constructed from natural and scavenged materials.

South Berkeley's Earthly Arts Farm, another large property, demonstrates how farming and aesthetics can happily coexist. Host Sequoiah Wachenheim employs her years of garden design in irregularly shaped beds for vegetables and has planted 26 varieties of fruit trees around the site's perimeter, creating an oasis of beauty.

Wachenheim uses a 1,500-gallon rainwater catchment tank and two graywater systems to conserve water on this highly productive farm, and has also included chickens and bees to complete the farm tableau.

The tour is popular and that's not surprising.

"People are excited and the tour inspires them to think that they could do the same in their gardens," Blume said.

"We invite the public in to see what normal folks, just like them, are doing to live more sustainably in an urban situation."

If you go
Urban Farm Tour is 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (last tour at 3 p.m.) June 7 in Berkeley and Oakland. To register send an email to iuh@sparkybeegirl.com with Urban Farm Tours in the subject line. Cost is $5 per person per site, children under 12 years $3. Advance day passes are $30 to $75 and include raffle tickets.
Event Page: iuhoakland.com/events.html#farmtour
Site Descriptions: www.iuhoakland.com/uft2014sites.html
Tickets: www.brownpapertickets.com/event/628998
Facebook page: www.facebook.com/events/1402227003385708/