Kevin Arndt, Contributing Writer
Most new homeowners envision their ideal backyards as having lush, green lawns with meticulously manicured grass, professional landscaping, a fire pit, and a patio for grilling out with friends. For Kristin Dennis, the perfect backyard is one that utilizes the land for the purpose of sustainable farming. Situated in St. Louis’ Benton Park West neighborhood, Dennis’ quarter-acre plot is in the beginning stages of becoming a small, yet productive farm; for now, it’s home to four chickens and six ducks.
“I think a lot of people who raise poultry, especially in the city who are doing it at this hobby level, have a little bit of a distorted view about these animals. Not that they can’t be pets, but that’s not what they’re bred for. You can enjoy them and give them a great life,” Dennis said.
Urban farming, or “homesteading” as Dennis calls it, is the practice of cultivating, processing and distributing food in or around urban areas. While she does have plans to eventually raise ducks and chickens for their meat, she currently only harvests their eggs. Every morning before going to one of her three jobs, she gathers them from their coop and lists them for sale or trade on social media.
Dennis spent some time living in a small town in Oregon when she was introduced to a trade economy, where members of the community exchanged their goods and services with one another instead of paying for them in cash.
“It was a really beautiful system,” Dennis said. “I’ve applied that to what I’m doing now but, because of the size of the farm, I’m not going to have a commercial operation in which I’m going to be able to distribute these products on any kind of a large level, so what I’m focusing on is boutique distribution.”
Dennis currently works with several local chefs who trade gift cards to the restaurants where they work in exchange for her eggs.
“I do have a few customers who pay cash, but I prefer gift cards because that way I’m connected to the food scene that I’m part of in a cool way. And I’m cheap,” Dennis said.
How does one get away with keeping poultry animals in the middle of a bustling metropolitan area? Well, the City of St. Louis allows its residents to keep a certain number of chickens and ducks depending on the size of the lot. And while Dennis’ farm fowl do provide her with a consistent supply of eggs and a source of income, she has bigger plans for her operation.
“I’m working with the alderman and a neighborhood developer to pass a more inclusive homesteading law that would allow people to keep other livestock, like goats,” Dennis said. “Now, they’re a lot of work—that’s leveling up. It’s manageable and still scalable, but you can’t just have one goat.”
Scalability and sustainability are Dennis’ biggest priorities. Not only is her farm organic, but it produces no waste. A local brewery supplies her with spent grain from the brewing process, which she feeds to her ducks and chickens. Then, the nutrient-rich manure, along with the birds’ bedding that breaks down over time, serves as compost for the farm. The system not only supports growth but improves the overall quality of the soil.
“The ducks also have a pond, which I use the gray water from to improve the soil and to water the plants. It’s a nutrient cycle and you have to capture as much as you can,” Dennis explained. “I’m going to work on some water containment systems this year.”
While Dennis and I were taking a quick lunch break in her neighborhood, Lisa Houdei, a fellow urban farmer, walked in and the two shared photos of their birds, coop configurations and plans for expansion.
“I just got two new ducks!” Houdei said proudly. “Hopefully this time they’re girls.”
When asked what happens when you realize your ducks and chickens aren’t capable of laying eggs, the two had conflicting solutions.
“Eat ‘em is what I think” Dennis said. “You can pay the Amish two dollars a bird to come over and properly slaughter your birds,” she added.
Houdei’s, whose farm is on its fifth year, disagreed.
“Everyone says I should eat them, but I can’t. I gave them to this old man in Troy, Missouri. He said his grandchildren would love them.”
The coincidence of having two urban farmers in the same room had me questioning the popularity of a seemingly niche hobby.
“The thing I like about South City, is that there are so many people doing what I’m doing. What I’m doing isn’t unique,” Dennis explained. “It is a little Instagram trendy, but if that’s what it takes for you to create a more sustainable eating pattern, then fine, Instagram those chickens.”
Self-sustainability as a lifestyle is gaining traction in the Midwest, but Dennis is no stranger to providing for herself. Her grandparents had a Christmas tree farm in northern Michigan and grew almost all of their own food on an adjacent piece of property. Her parents also had a large garden that produced food for the family year-round.
“We were big canners. We grew up really poor, and so with five kids and no money, my parents had us pick blueberries, blackberries, peaches and apples,” Dennis said. “Then my mom would can everything- tomatoes, cucumbers, beans…I’ve been a gardener on different levels my whole life.”
Even though Dennis’ farm is only a quarter of an acre, it takes a lot of time, care and dedication to keep the plants and animals happy and healthy.
“It’s a lot of work, but I will say that my philosophy is that automation is the key to success,” Dennis said.
By the time Dennis wakes up at 7 a.m., both her front yard and garden have been watered, and the chicken and duck water has been refilled and exchanged. This efficient system is all thanks to a hose timer that runs four different hoses, programed for two different cycles for each day of the week.
“It goes through this cycle every day,” Dennis said. “I’m treating myself this year to automatic chicken doors that are solar powered. I have a huge yard, and I’m utilizing 75 percent of it, so anytime I have the opportunity to automate, I do.”
Ultimately, the small size of her plot of land will limit her ability to expand, but Dennis’ goals go beyond root vegetables and eggs. She’s focusing on scalability and creating a model for what she wants to do in the future.
“I want to retire a gentleman farmer. Something like a hobby farmer vibe but someone from the city that became a farmer, not born in the blood.”