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Down and dirty

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Wednesday, June 24, 2009
Oregon_Business_090605_0027Robyn Streeter, left, and donna Smith turn a Southeast Portland backyard into a vegetable garden. Demand is high for their business, Your Backyard Farmer.
Donna Smith and Robyn Streeter founded Your Backyard Farmer on the principle that everyone should be able to eat fresh, local food. And if you’re too busy or too clueless to grow your own, they’ll do it for you in your own back yard and leave a basket of vegetables on your doorstep.

A backyard farm is the natural next step for people who eat organic, says Smith, who has been growing food as long as she can remember. Smith taught gardening through AmeriCorps and keeps a row in her garden for the local food bank. Streeter grew up on a farm in Idaho. They met in the horticulture program at Clackamas Community College.

Your Backyard Farmer has grown rapidly since it began two years ago, as if guided by an invisible trowel, into a multi-faceted business with a waiting list of 50 hopeful clients. Most of the clients are couples, families or neighborhoods, where the kids like to ambush their farmers and learn the names of the vegetables.

Last year, Smith and Streeter hired an employee to take care of 25 of their 32 backyard farms so they could spend the growing season teaching 20 clients in the Portland area how to plant and care for their gardens. The price of having a garden installed and tended starts at $1,675 and goes up depending on the size.

On a recent misty Friday afternoon, Smith, 51, and Streeter, 31, tend a 150-square-foot plot in Southeast Portland. Dressed in hooded sweatshirts, shorts and baseball caps, they are ready to get down in the dirt where kale, tomatoes, potatoes, cauliflower, basil, parsley and more are taking root.

A backyard farm is a feat of agriculture. The soil composition and sunlight vary, and Smith and Streeter learned on the job how to manage the various microclimates and sundry pests.

“Look at all those worms — beautiful!” Smith says as she overturns a shovelful of dirt in the course of burying potato plants that are climbing too high. Streeter is on her knees weeding when Smith lets out a yell at discovering a root maggot under the potatoes. She turns the pest over in her hand. Then she drops it and the farmers wrathfully stomp on it.

The rain starts, but the rain is a friend to the farmer. They work through rain, wind, sleet or hail, Smith says. “We put up a trellis in the snow during that weird little blizzard in March,” Streeter says. “That was fun.”

Instead of hiring employees immediately to take care of the backlog, the two are scouting meticulously for the right farmer to train. They also were growing food for two restaurants, a market and a home cook, but those clients are on hold while they search for the perfect plot. Some might say they’re missing out on profit, but Smith and Streeter won’t impose their will on the business. It’s their garden and they’re letting it grow organically.

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