AMY & FRANK
BIG YELLOW FARMSTEAD
Urban Haven in Portland, Oregon
Down a side street in Portland’s SE neighborhood an unusual bleating of goats can be heard above the dull white noise of the city. A cheerful yellow craftsman adorned with Tibetan prayer flags beckons you. Amy White and Frank Webster’s Big Yellow Farmstead welcomes guests and passersby to explore the creative way they’ve maximized an oversized urban lot and transformed it into a haven for food production. It was late November when Urban Exodus visited but their garden was still overflowing with tomatoes, herbs, greens and more. In just two years Amy and Frank have transformed their ½ acre lot into both their primary source of income and their primary source of food. Although they both work the occasional odd job to help pay the bills, they sustain themselves through renting rooms of the historic home on Airbnb. During the warmer days of summer, they erect a yurt in their garden to rent out as well. Before meeting Frank, Amy had been “guerilla-style” urban gardening on vacant lots across the city. After their serendipitous meeting, Amy and Frank stumbled upon this unique property and pitched their urban farm stay idea to the owner. He embraced the concept and handed it over to them to manage. Portland, known for being a Mecca for creativity and embracing the odd, has been the ideal city to build their urban farmstead. Walking their goats down to the nearby park delights their neighbors and anyone passing by. They’ve managed to charm any neighbors annoyed by morning rooster crows and goat bleats by gifting fresh eggs and produce. Although both Amy and Frank’s families had generational farms, both are still learning the ropes of animal husbandry and maintaining healthy and mineral-rich soil. The biggest challenges they’ve faced while building their Big Yellow Farmstead has been learning how to keep goats – finding veterinary care, going through the permitting process to legally keep them and sourcing affordable hay and supplies. They now drive a couple of times a year to buy these supplies in large quantities at rural Oregon feed stores. Another huge adjustment has been finding their rhythm of farming and running a guesthouse full time. Their days now feel like an enormous departure from the normal 9-5 existence of their friends and neighbors. Although it feels like they work harder now than they ever did before, they love how they’ve been able to transform this lot into a place that inspires others to venture into growing their own food. To Amy and Frank, their Big Yellow Farmstead is still in its testing phase and they look forward to seeing how it evolves and grows in the future. Until then, they just feel lucky that they are able to return from a bike ride to the city center and retreat to their backyard haven to hang out with their herd of friendly goats. (Click to jump to their interview)
Did you grow up with vegetable gardens, chickens, bees, etc. or was it something that you came to on your own?
Amy grew up with grandparents on both sides that grew vegetables but not having a garden or farm animals at home. Frank’s father’s side had a farm in New Hampshire, but it stopped producing in the ‘60s. The farm was and still is beautiful and inspires the values and aesthetic of hard work. As we know, family farms dramatically declined in number during the last century and with them it seems some of the values of the home economy disappeared. We’d like to help bring that economy and aesthetic back into focus. When we met, Amy was tending bee hives and growing gardens in a guerrilla-like fashion, trying to reclaim a corner of soil here or there. It was infectious! Seed bombing the city! So, of course we moved in together.
What inspired you to bring farming and gardening to your city existence?
We have both lived in semi-rural environments with far less “farm-like” additions to our lives. We have been exposed to the idea of producing our own, and just needed to find a place to do it and a partner to do it with. Many people in Portland have beautiful gardens and chickens, and it was easy to push the idea a little further. We found this property and approached the owner with something resembling a business plan, and it turned out that he had wanted to do something similar, but had too many other things going on to do it himself.
We like the juxtaposition of the urban and rural, the built and the natural elements thrown together. It’s a challenge, and we like flying in the face of convention.
What we are doing is an experiment. We’re not sure everyone would call this “farming”, but it is close to it in the sense of producing for one’s self and family, and maybe a bit extra for the neighbors. Our location enables us to share the experience of our "farmette" with other urbanites, visitors and neighbors. People walking by or staying at our guesthouse are fascinated by the menagerie of animals and plants and people. It shows them what can be done on a relatively small lot in the urban area.
What has been the most challenging part about bringing elements of country living to your urban environment? What has been the most rewarding part?
Well, the most apparent challenge to city farming is the limited space. Land is expensive in the city. We work on half an acre, and we know the goats are voting for more pasture. A half acre however is big enough to grow a lot of food and keep a small herd of production animals. We seriously underestimated how great goats would be. We think goats should be the new dog, seriously! However, having five or six larger goats (we have standard and mini-Nubians) means they go through a lot of hay, among other supplies, and we couldn’t reasonably afford to shop at our favorite urban farm store. So, now we buy, haul and store a ton or more of hay at a time in the basement. And pallet loads of grains and other feeds. And there aren’t many urban large animal vets. And permits. And that kind of thing. It isn’t easy to scale up the operations in the city, and in many cases, we have to go back to the rural areas for supplies and know-how. But Portland seems to have the interest. Local suppliers, vendors and such might give us a funny look when we describe what we’re doing, but then they say, ‘oh, this is Portland’, and get on with it.
Another challenge comes from not really knowing what we’re doing - we didn’t grow up in the 4-H club. However, we do have the desire to bring some of the knowledge that our earlier generations practiced into this modern environment. There is a lot of information out there, and we seem to have just enough previous experience to put it together. In Portland especially, it lines up nicely with the maker movement and the resurgence of the home economy practice, grow-your-own, non-corporate consumer, self-reliance kind of thing, so we do get the support.
On the business side of things, the farm is one half of what we do here, and at this point is still in the start up phase. It doesn’t have a lot of quantifiable revenue. Urban real estate values preclude having real farms in the city, and we do need other income. The second half of our operation is our guesthouse. Since most of our guests come stay here because of the farm, because they want to see what we are doing and if they can do something similar where they live, or just because it makes them feel comfortable, we know the farm and the guesthouse support one another.
What has been the reaction of others to your urban farm?
Portland loves eccentricity! Our neighbors are some of our greatest supporters. Goats (thankfully) just make people happy. The (accidental) roosters were not so popular, but goats are pretty entertaining.
We were worried that the occasional bleating might upset folks, so we have made peace offerings - a dozen fresh eggs to our immediate neighbors, and we approached them in the beginning to let them know what we were planning to do. So far we haven’t offended anyone too much. Our large vegetable garden is right near the sidewalk and regularly has people stopping to stare or have a chat with us. Mostly we seem to serve as an inspiration to the passers-by. Of course, walking the goats to the neighborhood park gets a wonderful reaction from drivers, children and dog walkers.
The county clinic down the street knocked on the door one day after noticing the garden and goats, and we are currently working on a relationship where patients can come work in the garden a few hours a week and take home fresh produce. And we have done that same exchange with other neighbors and friends.
When we first moved onto the property, we noticed a lot of school kids would cut through the yard. This is an unusually large piece of land in this neighborhood, and it had no perimeter or privacy fencing. We decided to keep it that way and encouraged an inclusive rather than exclusive relationship with the neighborhood.
What do you appreciate the most about life in a city?
There is something comforting about having the ability to hop on your bicycle and go out for just about any ethnic food you could ask for or head out for the night to a great theater production. The city provides cultural experiences at our fingertips. Portland also happens to have just about every homesteading tool a person could need as well. Ironically, it’s the farm supplies that we have to drive for. We had joked about the ideal life of having a country house and a town house, and this really does that for us. Again, it’s that wonderful juxtaposition of old and new, organic and artifice. It’s lovely to return from the city to the sound of bleating goats welcoming us home (really they’re asking where the heck we’ve been and can they please have more hay). We are rewarded by being the only folks on the block with a herd of goats; we do get a lot of attention for something that in the country would be rather ordinary. On the other hand, it’s kinda hard to away from the farm and run off for a weekend holiday. We have been working on that by building up a support group of extended family and neighbors who love the opportunity to occasionally take care of the animals. It’s vicarious farming for them.
Would you ever consider moving to the country?
We fantasize about it sometimes, especially so the goats could have pasture, but it is usually a spot that is still in close proximity to a city. We have put together a working prototype at this point and we could move it with a few adjustments to rural location, but we certainly aren't planning a move anytime soon.
What advice would you give to someone thinking of growing his or her own food in the city?
Do it! Start with a little raised bed or a few pots if you have no space. Read a little on soil management. Acquiring soil in the city usually means buying plastic bags at the nursery or hardware store, but many cities have a composting program and sell it back to residents for a reasonable rate. Look on craigslist for a nearby farm selling or giving away manure. Mix that with some store bought soil. Veggies can take a lot of nutrients out of the soil, and you’ll need to feed it to keep it, and you, healthy. Think about the watering schedule though; veggies really like a consistent moisture level. And, they like company - plant companion flowers for nutrients and attracting beneficial insects. Create a whole ecosystem! Get the kids involved! If you have one, go big and mulch over your lawn! It’s liberating!
Where do you draw your inspiration and passion from for your work?
I (Amy) think a lot about how food was produced 100 years ago. It must have been difficult to travel long distances with food back then. Some of our “modern” conveniences seem to me like part of the problem as opposed to the solution. I have fantasies about open space being left inside of cities specifically for food production for residents. It makes us happy that Portland is a city that already recognizes that bringing small farm animals back into the city is good for its people.
We are also constantly encouraged by the curiosity of the guests we have come to stay with us. It is important that we share this experience of goats, chickens and gardens with them. They are some of our greatest cheerleaders.
Have you noticed a change in yourself, your family and/or your work since building this urban farm?
When we first started it was challenging to schedule our days. We were torn, as though we were “supposed” to be doing something else with our time, something more productive. Slowly, we have found a rhythm and peace with our days. Now when we visit the grocery store we feel a sense of pride that there is so much for sale that we simply don’t need to buy because we have produced it at home. A tangible validation of why we work so hard. Really, that applies to buying or acquiring things of any kind - do we really need this thing (or is it worth trying to make it ourselves), how long will it last, and what will we do with it when it breaks…
Walk us through a typical day in your urban existence?
First of all, let me reiterate, we don’t really know what we’re doing! We have a routine, especially with our animals and our guests, but quite often, the rest of it can involve a lot of improvisation. This is still a startup!
Ok, the typical day begins when one of us rolls out of bed (usually Amy, lately) at daylight to release the hens, and hay and water the goats. The other goes straight to the coffee making apparatus. Another great thing about this city… we have amazing coffee, and it’s a great incentive (as is the beer)! When we first started this effort, we had other work that helped pay bills. As the farmstead and guesthouse has become our central focus, we’ve been able to concentrate solely on this project. Frank still rides a cargo trike part-time for B-line Urban Delivery, and is occasionally absent from farm duty. Otherwise, we usually plan out our day over coffee, sharing observations about the animals’ health or the moisture level of the garden (Portland water is expensive!), checking the guest list for arrivals and departure, scheduling vehicular trips, et cetera. It’s like any small business, and we are the main partners directing that business.
Especially during the busy seasons, mornings and evenings are when we bump into our visitors and chat. As we mentioned, a lot of guests stay with us because they are curious or they are doing something similar. We especially love to hear about the things others are doing, and our lives are much richer from these exchanges. We do at times have to curtail a conversation because the days are short and there is much to be done. We also try to reserve a little private time, especially for a nap during the long summer days!
By mid-morning it’s goat feeding time, which takes about an hour, and if we have weaned goat kids, we’ll be milking. When we have milk, we are usually selling some to neighbors, and the rest goes into yogurt and a variety of cheeses. We’re looking forward to making butter next year.
The day’s direction will vary depending on the season - we are certainly more attuned to the seasons and weather now. Spring is rainy but color starts to appear in the garden and on the trees - so exciting after the grey Northwest winter! We’re cleaning up the winter’s debris, harvesting winter crops, planting seeds for crop starts, amending soil, If it’s summer, the garden gets a lot of attention, and we may have extra hands in the garden to direct. We may have an intern or WOOFer to help us out - a challenge because it means we have to have things planned in advance! This summer we hosted a few community events such as movie night on a homemade big screen, music performances, and potlucks. Fall means cleaning up garden, cover crops, roof repairs before the rain comes, winter crops, more mulch and wood chips, another load of hay, breed goats,… Winter is dark and grey and wet, but we’ve gotten used to it. Goats hate the rain, chickens don’t lay as much. We work in the basement a lot.
Do you have a specific space or place that helps you feel inspired?
For Amy it would be the library full of books with the concise thoughts of others who are a part of this movement. Oddly enough, a lot of our best ideas come when we are doing our routine chores… For Frank it is the old barn on our farm in New Hampshire. It’s like a cathedral, and I based my university architecture thesis project around it… so many years ago.
What are your future plans/goals for the coming year?
We plan of producing goats milk soap to delight our guests and the residents of Portland. Amy wants to become a great cheese maker as well. Maybe run some workshops? world domination? urban barns? urban farm revolution!!!!!