Going organic: Harvest home (all you do is hire the farmer)

Green entrepreneurs are helping America's backyards produce vegetables. Leonard Doyle reports
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The Independent Online

Anne Vollen jokes that when she began running her own business from her San Francisco home, "the backyard was soon more neglected than my husband and children".

But then a man called Trevor Paque bicycled into her life and everything changed. He turned the overgrown tangle of bind-weed into a productive organic garden. Trevor or his partner now shows up once a week to plant, weed and maintain it for a modest fee. He harvests what's grown and discreetly places a basket of home-grown fruit and vegetables on her back porch, before closing the gate behind him.

Americans are suddenly deeply worried about food. An unidentified salmonella outbreak, initially blamed on tomatoes trucked thousands of miles to supermarkets, gave rise to a massive scare this summer. As more than 1,100 people fell desperately ill, the jalapeno pepper was then blamed but tomatoes have somehow lost their appeal.

The advice from around the office watercooler is to eat locally grown food. But who has time to get to the farmers' market or plant their own garden?

And what about the perfectly clipped lawn of America? For generations, they have been a symbol of middle-class respect-ability. Are they to be dug up as well? A recent Nasa satellite study determined that, including golf courses, lawns in the US cover nearly 50,000 sq miles – an area more than half the size of England. Growing this vast lawn requires an amazing 200 gallons of water per person, per day (a third of all residential water use in the US goes on gardens) as well as vast amounts of herbicides and fertilisers.

For much of America, the acme of middle-class living is the perfect green sward. There are even laws to ensure that they are properly maintained. An outfit called The Lawn Institute once declared: "Some feel that a person who keeps the lawn perfectly clipped is a person who can be trusted."

But the American lawn may have had its day. Last summer, a 70-year-old widow in smalltown Utah was taken off in handcuffs after letting her grass go brown.

The Lawn Lady became a pin-up for America's first grassroots anti-lawn movement. Calling itself the Wild Ones it has chapters in 12 states from coast to coast and is dedicated to turning lawns into "edible estates."

If America is good at one thing, it is finding convenient solutions to the problems of consumers. Something called the "lazy locavore" problem has been identified as awareness about the environment grows by leaps and bounds. Everyone wants to be part of the slow food movement but few have the desire to get mud under their fingernails and grow it for themselves.

Starting in Portland, Oregon, two years ago, two university graduates Donna Smith and her partner Robin began "backyard farming" to produce food for those who either cannot be bothered to grow it or can't afford to buy it from Wholefoods Market.

Driving around the city, they realised how much land was being wasted in gardens and started a company called Your Backyard Farmer. Within a year, they had dug up 25 lawns to create what Ms Smith describes as "farms". "We never had to look for people, they found us," she said, "and now we have a waiting list of 67 people who want our service, so we are hiring two more farmers to work with us next year."

It costs about $1,300 (£600) to have a garden supplying enough for two people, year round. "That compares favourably to the supermarket and you know what you're eating," she said.

She and Robin do all the work, including trucking, bringing in soil, setting up the irrigation system and maintaining it. They also run a consulting service for those who want to go it alone.

"Both of us are passionate about urban food security," she said, "and there are lots of like-minded people out there who are concerned about their food source and the damage being done to the land and their bodies by the pesticides being used."

"What we find is that people are really interested in getting pure real food and this is a way to make it happen. My vision is that an acre of land be set aside with every new housing development, so that a farmer can be hired to grow food for the local householders."

Ms Smith stresses that her customers in Portland are mostly poorer people rather than the wealthy homeowners she expected to be hired by when she launched her business.

"Only a couple of our customers are professionals," she said, "most of our farms are in lower income neighbourhoods. In some cases, students prefer to hire us to grow their food rather than spend it in the grocery store. We are delighted to discover that we are not a service for the rich."

Back in San Francisco, Trevor Paque, 29, has given up working as a mortgage broker to set up a network of backyard organic vegetable gardens under the name MyFarm. Clients who live in the sunnier Mission District grow tomatoes to be traded with those who live in fog-bound parts of the city, where broccoli and other cool-weather vegetables thrive.

He offers a personal plan, where you consume all your produce and an owner-member plan which allows some of your crop to be sold on to others. His back to the Garden of Eden vision sees vegetables delivered around the city by bicycles, rather than trucks.

Two months after putting up some flyers, Mr Paque has already put in 10 garden farms and has signed up more clients. Since a story about him appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle his phone has hardly stopped ringing.

Ms Smith is a friend and adviser to Mr Paque, as she is to other offshoots in Boston and Washington DC. She is helping Gabriel Erde-Cohen, 24, who is setting up in Boston after working as a ranch hand in the West.

"I've already got one in the ground and several more on the way," he said with the enthusiasm of someone who has stumbled on to something for which there seems to be limitless demand.

"It may not be the new Google," but it's absolutely the next great thing to hit the city environment. And it's growing like crazy."

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