These 21st century eco-pioneers
practice living simply and self-sufficiently
by producing their own food and other
By Daina Kraai
by Michael Buck
Long tendrils of pepper plants weave their way around the small corner of the kitchen where homeowners Pete Spring and Nancy Yagiela have been trying to contain them. The roots spring up out of bubbling water while long lights hum overhead. “One year, I had one tomato plant take over my entire kitchen,” said Yagiela, who is experimenting with an indoor hydro-garden that produces tomatoes as early as mid-December.
Spring and Yagiela are two of the city’s new urban homesteaders — 21st century eco-pioneers who practice self-sufficiency by producing some or all of their food and other basic needs.
It’s a twist on the Homestead Act of 1862, when undeveloped land west of the Mississippi was populated by homesteaders who braved the elements to carve out a life for their families. They were offered 160 acres in exchange for a five-year commitment to improve their piece of land by building a house and cultivating crops.
Today’s urban homesteaders choose to cultivate their land and home within the city limits, while maintaining a simpler, more sustainable, slower-paced lifestyle that many would associate with rural life.
“We do this in the city because we love the density of people and the culture that comes with a city of our size,” said Rick Beerhorst, who lives on a “micro urban farm” with his wife and six children at 106 Fuller Ave. SE. “We also love nature and seek to cultivate that yearning right here where we live.”
Pete Spring and Nancy Yagielawalk or bike almost everywhere in their East Hills neighborhood.
Besides keeping chickens and rabbits and maintaining a garden for food, the family sells their artwork and crafts as a means of support. “We like pulling up carrots and picking Swiss chard and going right into dinner prep with these beauties from the garden,” he said. “All of this makes us not only physically healthy, but living this way makes us feel more alive.”
Around the block, Spring and Yagiela have been cultivating every inch of their land on Benjamin Avenue for the last 25 years, including the kitchen hydro-garden. In the tightly compact neighborhood on the eastern edge of the East Hills neighborhood, they have a small 40-by-15-foot backyard with no grass in the front. Yet they have managed to create a 30-by-15 garden plot, fertilized by a rabbit. They chopped down a tree to provide more sunlight so they can grow plants in pots along the driveway.
“It’s enough for us,” said Yagiela. “My parents grew up in the city during the war, when a lot of people grew food to survive. People my age and younger are so used to having everything available to them, but it was not always that way.”
The two are not only committed to their land, but also to the sustainability of their home. They had their home inspected for energy efficiency and have invested in high-efficiency windows, furnace and insulation. They also are looking into solar panels and a wind turbine for back-up power, especially for the hydro-garden, which Yagiela admits uses more energy than she would like.
In the winter they keep their heat turned down, and in the summer generally live on their screened-in porch. The couple also walk or bike almost everywhere in their neighborhood.
“I can walk to five coffee shops, the credit union and a grocery store,” said Spring, who at 70, just retired from the Grand Rapids Symphony and now frequents local coffee shops and volunteers at West Michigan Environmental Action Council — also within walking distance. “Life in the city allows us a social time with others we normally would not talk with.”
The couple is committed to investing their entertainment dollars into local restaurants and venues.
“We place value on good food,” Spring said. “We are definitely in the minority in so many ways: We rarely go to movies and we have no TV. We buy our clothes at Goodwill because it is cheap and a form of recycling. We don’t have fancy furniture — most of it has been handed down. We split up the housework equally. We don’t have a lot of toys, outside of bicycles, but I feel very lucky. We have a home paid for, I was in the arts all my life, and food is available.”
Yagiela agrees. “I have never looked at it as homesteading,” she said. “I have just considered it as the way I want to live.”
Holly Bechiri, who lives with her husband and five others in a multi-unit community near the Baxter neighborhood, sums it up simply: “The way life should be.”
“People think it is strange the way we live in community and share a backyard garden. They think that I am a hippie, but I am not,” she said with a laugh. Bechiri, who is in her 30s, grew up on a farm in Iowa. “To know your neighbors and be connected to your food just seems normal to me.”
When the Bechiris moved into a duplex near the intersection of Franklin Street and Eastern Avenue, the building needed lots of work.
“When we first bought it, this apartment was a drug hole,” she said. “The walls were yellow from cigarette smoke and full of holes.”
Above, from left, Greg Grutman, Holly Bechiri, Massi Bechiri, Lindsay McHolme and Carolyn Schief.
Today, the house stands as a testament to the months of hard work the two put into restoring it to its original 1900’s charm, complete with wood floors and original kitchen cupboards.
Bechiri calls her property and the two-family house next door, which they also own and restored, the Franklin Farm. The farm was a way for Bechiri and her family to spend time in a community while maintaining their own space, making it sustainable over time. The seven members eat meals together once a week and share things such as crock pots and transportation.
“It’s not too intense,” Bechiri said. “The only requirement is that you are willing to be a good neighbor and share in the garden work.”
The “farm” consists of green space surrounding both houses, including a front yard with apricot trees and flowering squash, and the combined back lot converted into a full-scale garden with vegetables, herbs, grapes, a patio and future greenhouse. Members freeze, dry and store foods, allowing them to eat off their land into February.
“Because we have this garden, we can eat local and organic with a significantly lower budget than the average family,” said Bechiri.
Members also practice the forgotten art of urban foraging. “We hear of people’s yards that have fruit trees like mulberries and Juneberries or apples,” she said. “It is amazing how much you can find in this city just through word of mouth.”
Connections like these are something Bechiri truly appreciates about homesteading within an urban environment as opposed to a more isolated rural environment.
“The appeal of urban homesteading seems to be more focused on not leaving the city,” she said. “It’s this desire to remain a part of society, but still try to live a more sustainable life.”
After eight years of renting in Vancouver, British Columbia, where housing prices are expensive, David and Helen Aupperlee recently returned to Grand Rapids. As parents of an infant son, they’re in search of affordable land to farm in the city.
“A lot of people see a vacant lot or even their own backyard as a place they have to manage or tame. They may even see dollar signs, like, ‘How much is it going to cost to landscape my property?’ or ‘How long is it going to take me to mow the lawn this weekend?’ It is almost as if it is a chore as opposed to seeing it from a different angle of creativity, like ‘What can I do with this space?’ and ‘How can I see this as a gift and use it to share with others?’” he said.
The Aupperlees hope to find a double lot that will allow them to grow food for their family and sell what is left over.
“Farming in the city means farming in a really small space, and I think we are ready for that. I don’t know if we are ready for the country and the isolation,” said David. “And we have grown to appreciate and love the culture that the city offers.”
“We are urbanites really,” added Helen, who is originally from England. “It is difficult to imagine ourselves outside the city.”
Grand Rapids also offers them closeness to David’s family. “The goal is not to be self-sufficient but coupled with hospitality and inviting others in,” Helen said.
In Vancouver, the couple was inspired by people growing food and raising chickens and bees in small spaces surrounding their homes. Helen also was inspired by what people were doing inside their homes.
“As humans, we live out of a sense of place,” said Helen. “So for me, urban homesteading is a way to live out of the home that reclaims this idea, and it affects everything: transportation, what we wear, how much we work, our definitions of family and relationships.”
They hope to continue living simply and working part-time in order to contribute more time to their future home, doing things such as gardening, knitting clothes, raising their son, hand-making things like soap and candles and getting to know neighbors. They also hope for a two-family home to help generate income.
“It’s been a gradual shift for us to see our work as in the home and also out of the home,” said Helen. “We might not get paid for it, but we will get paid for it in lettuce and honey and tomatoes.”GR
Daina Kraai is a freelance writer and urban homesteader in Grand Rapids.