By Annie Spiegelman, the Dirt Diva
“I’d rather be on my farm than be emperor of the world.”—George Washington
My dad, a diehard New Yorker, enjoys telling me that “kale tastes like dirt.” This is usually after I force him to taste my morning green smoothie or wander around my backyard picking homegrown lacinato kale. So I remind him of the stories that he told me about his aunts who grew their own backyard edible gardens and didn’t brunch at Dunkin’ Donuts on 34th Street, like he does most mornings. In fact, as part of the war effort in the early 1940s, the U.S. government turned to its citizens and in the spirit of patriotism, encouraged all Americans to plant edible gardens in private yards, on public land and in vacant lots. Between 1941 and 1943 the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that more than 20 million Victory Gardens were planted in the United States and 40 percent of our total food was produced by those gardens.
One hundred years ago, one in four Americans worked on farms. Today, it’s closer to one in 50. Jim Normandi and his crafty crew of family members are looking to change that. Wishing to blend modern lives with a rural-retro farming arts experience, he opened the Fairfax Backyard Farmer just a few months ago.
“Like the family farms of yesteryear our shop is also family-built, owned and operated,” Normandi says. “One hundred years ago, in 1917, my great-great-grandfather Riziero Traversi, an immigrant from Switzerland, operated a dairy on Old Adobe Road in Petaluma. His California dairy license from that year, along with his portrait, hangs on the wall behind the counter at our modest shop, a reminder of our family legacy.”
After closing down the family wholesale electronics shop during the Great Recession, Normandi returned to the interests of his youth and undergraduate education in environmental studies and horticulture. He set out to create the backyard farming vision he had been focusing on for a few years prior.
“When we tend backyard chickens or bees, or make beer, sauerkraut or yogurt, or grow sprouts or mushrooms on our kitchen counters, we are practicing the ancient art of backyard farming,” he says.
Family, friends and even strangers enthusiastically joined in with support and encouragement.
“My 85-year-old father picked up his toolbelt and lent 50 years of retail experience and advice,” Normandi says of Jimmy Sierra, the retired, renowned treasure-hunter, metal detective expert and author.
“My daughter, Maya, an undergraduate in environmental studies at the U.C. in Santa Barbara and a graphic artist extraordinaire, designed all the logos and store artwork including the custom wall mural,” he continues. “The front room of our warehouse was transformed into a ranch-style showroom with hand-painted murals and custom-built shelving.”
Normandi’s wife, Carol Normandi, a licensed psychotherapist, and cofounder of the nonprofit Beyond Hunger, and his 22-year-old son Traver, sought out products and designed an inventory system. His mom, watercolor artist Win Normandi, and youngest daughter, Iona, created rustic, handmade notecards and jewelry. Various friends built walls and stocked shelves while local residents regularly poked their heads in the front door to applaud and approve of what was emerging inside his bucolic magic shop.
“The community itself really has claimed the store,” Normandi says. “A lot of people come in to visit and are immediately offered help, advice and encouragement not just by me, but by other customers as well. We offer a safe place and environment where people can share their knowledge with the greater community.”
Inside, customers find do-it-yourself kits, agricultural projects, puzzles and innovative ideas for everything
“farmy:” Beekeeping, fermenting, sprouting, kombucha crafting, beer brewing, raising chickens—you name it, and Normandi’s got it. And if he doesn’t have it, he knows where to find it.
“You don’t need to own 100 acres and a tractor to reclaim your farming roots,” Normandi says. “You can practice farming on your kitchen counter or in your own backyard. So much of our modern life is dominated by our role as consumers. When we are able to change hats and become a producer even in a very small way, the satisfaction is tremendous.”
Award-winning author and farmer Wendell Berry asks us to not just be passive consumers who accept the cost and quality of food, but to ask, “How fresh is it? How far was it transported? What kind of farm was it grown on?” Once we choose to be informed food consumers, we gain appreciation for our local farmers. Once we understand the farm-to-table food cycle, we may also choose to become a small-scale food producer at home. A successfully grown, sunny, window-box full of cooking herbs is enough to get you hooked on growing and gardening. Before you know it you’ll be a full-fledged hortiholic like yours truly, drooling over the Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds catalogue, roses and succulents. Fairfax Backyard Farmer and I welcome you with open arms and dirty hands.
If you’re not quite ready to plant a vegetable garden, maybe the 7 Bridges Easy Brew Organic Beer Kit is more your style? Or the starter pack for making your own kombucha. Both kits have everything you need to start home brewing, including step-by-step directions, tips and ingredients to brew your first batch. Just like your high school chemistry teacher, Normandi is on hand, full of knowledge, sitting you down and thoroughly explaining each step of the process to you before you leave his shop.
“I believe that the microbrewery explosion, the rise in popular culture of kombucha, hard cider, kefir and even the probiotics of sauerkraut are not separate, unrelated trends and fads but perhaps an unconscious recognition of our farmer roots,” he says. “When we view ourselves as farmers we allow ourselves for a moment to be part of, rather than outside, the cycles of the natural world.”
The store has plenty of fun gifts for upcoming Mother’s Day and Father’s Day—the Shiitake Mushroom Mini-Farm by Far West Fungi, the handcrafted cobalt-colored brown glass nectar feeder, the 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall puzzle and the rooster-print apron with pockets for eggs. The Fairfax Backyard Farmer also offers regular educational Farm Arts classes and workshops, in groups of up to 10 students, presented by local experts.
“We invite you to reclaim your roots and call yourself a farmer again,” Normandi says. He and his wife attend the workshops as well, so they can share farming tips with their customers and the community.
Just last month, the store hosted its first Backyard Farmer Festival. The theme centered around how to reclaim your farmer roots in your kitchen, garden and backyard, and had a prestigious group of expert speakers. Novella Carpenter, author of Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer, discussed urban farming, while author and professor Gretchen Lebuhn spoke about pollinators and how to become involved with the “Great Sunflower Project.” Author and the San Francisco Chronicle’s garden columnist, Pam Peirce, addressed climate change in the garden, and Karen Wang Diggs, classically trained chef and author of Happy Foods, explored the human microbiome.
“Even the word ‘farm’ itself has a deep history,” Normandi says. “The ancient European roots of the word translate to ‘breath, wind and spirit,’ reminding us that to farm is to engage directly with the original life force. Dig deep enough and everyone’s family would at one point be found on the farm. Our farming roots are calling to us.”
Fairfax Backyard Farmer, 135 Bolinas Road, Fairfax; 415/342-5092; fairfaxbackyardfarmer.com.