S.E. women farm in your back yard -- and do all the work

by: Merry MacKinnon, Donna Smith (left) and Robyn Streeter, both of Southeast Portland, were surprised by the overnight success of their business called “Your Backyard Farmer”. Their mission is to set up kitchen gardens throughout the Portland metropolitan area.

Within eight hours of posting her business flyers, Donna Smith began getting inquiries.

'At seven that night, when the phone calls started, I thought, 'we're onto something',' recalls Smith.

That day about a year ago, Smith was testing her idea to create vegetable gardens in other people's backyards. 'It was by the seat of my pants,' recalls Smith, who lives in the Mt. Scott neighborhood.

After thumb-tacking slips of paper on local community bulletin boards, including those in the lobbies of Woodstock's Hollywood Video and U.S. Bank branch, she was pleasantly surprised when her guerilla marketing paid off. 'I didn't expect the response,' Smith says. 'Two days later, our first farm was sold.'

Last year, 25 households, including two in Sellwood, one in Reed, and several in Woodstock, purchased the service that 'Your Backyard Farmer' offers. For about the price a family would spend from spring to late fall if they bought organic produce from a store, 'Your Backyard Farmer' sets up and maintains small, customized vegetable gardens in people's yards, similar to what used to be called kitchen gardens.

Together, Smith and her partner Robyn Streeter assess each customer's property, build the soil with natural fertilizers, create bio-intensive mounded beds, plant organic seeds and vegetable starts, tend the garden once a week throughout the season, and then--over a period of nine months--hand over bushels of pesticide-free produce to the owners.

'We guarantee vegetables,' Smith says. 'Our clients don't have to do anything.'

Initially, Smith and her partner Streeter, who is also from Southeast Portland, set out to start a community-supported-agriculture (CSA) farm. The two had met at Clackamas Community College's horticulture school, where Streeter and Smith learned how to amend soil without chemical fertilizers and to grow pesticide-free starts.

Though the college focuses on ornamentals, after they graduated Smith and Streeter gravitated toward vegetables. But their CSA never got off the ground because, for one thing, they couldn't secure water rights for a large plot of land. Instead, now they cultivate dozens of small urban, residential plots, with the square footage of each determined by the number of people to be fed.

'For a family of four, we want at least 400 square feet,' says Streeter. But they'll do smaller plots, too. They calculate that a 10-by-10-square-foot plot will provide enough vegetables for an individual or for a family of two.

And when the workday is done, what do they do? The partners grow their own vegetables at the Brentwood Darlington Community Gardens!

Meanwhile, the business partners are getting inquiries from people in Europe and elsewhere, interested in pursuing the same idea. 'We're pioneers of this model,' says Smith.

'Your Backyard Farmer' is currently accepting signups for the 2007 season. Over half of last year's customers have purchased their services again this year, notes Smith. For more information, call 503/449-2402 or 971/506-6508, or visit the Internet website: www.yourbackyardfarmer.com.