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May 25, 2017

An unconventional farmer: Tilling the backyards of suburbia

Suburbs Farming
Carroll - Suburban Farming Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

Suburban farmer Julie Pierre poses for a photo in the germination greenhouse in the backyard of her parent's house in Audubon, Camden County, on May 18, 2017.

Julie Pierre grew thousands of pounds of South Jersey tomatoes and produce last summer.

Without a single acre to call her own.

Instead, she toils and tills in your backyard.

Trade at least 1,000 square feet of sun-kissed lawn for a garden, and you get to share in the bounty. Plus, you'll need to mow less and water much less – grass needs four times more water than produce. Most of all, you can feel good about the environment and eat much better food.

Pierre's concept is simple and quirky – Our Yards Farm. The name says it all. It is the name of her website and her Facebook page.

Pierre is, for now, a part-time farmer who also works behind the bar at Farm and Fisherman in Cherry Hill, a restaurant where you’ll also find her produce on the table. Her career is a mix of serendipity and creativity sparked by dissatisfaction.

Chef Todd Fuller explained that Pierre's been an "invaluable member of our staff as a hostess, barista, drink runner and bar assistant, all the while maintaining her own business.

"I have encouraged her, both as a chef and a gardener, to grow certain things that I feel are lacking in this area but are also adaptable plants, to which she responds with energy and excitement," he said.

"We purchase any excess produce for the restaurant and implement it in our menus. It's high quality stuff, obviously low-scale grown, which we really love, both from a communal aspect as well as a sustainability angle."

Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

Pierre holds the first harvested beet of the season in one of the backyard plots she farms in Audubon. Her cooperators, those who permit her to plant fruits and vegetables on their properties, get to share in the weekly bounty.

Now 28, when she graduated from The College of New Jersey, there were few jobs to be had in biology.

“I was young and naïve,” she said, a phrase she will repeat several times as she recounted her self-created avocation turned vocation.

With a biology degree in hand, she had taken an office job in sales and marketing with an environmental firm.

“But I wasn’t happy. I wanted to do something that I cared about. Do something for good that I enjoy,” she remembered.

But what?

Noodling around the internet for something that would use her interests in biology, Pierre happened upon Brooklyn Grange, where the social urban hipster meets farming.

That urban farm community sells to several restaurants, two markets and a small CSA – community supported agriculture – subscription program.

"Her produce is perfect. Her love for what she does is obvious in everything she sells...." – Susan Lynch, loyal customer

And yes, it is based on 2.5 acres of "farm" on the rooftops of two Brooklyn buildings. She volunteered for an apprenticeship there and realized agriculture is feasible in small spaces.

Next came a gig closer to home: Fernbrook Farm in Chesterfield, South Jersey. In 2014, she worked there April 1 to Thanksgiving and felt mentored enough to strike out on her own.

She put her plan together and started assembling nearby plots she could tend within five-mile drive to keep down costs and limit her burning of fossil fuel.

"Her produce is perfect," said loyal customer Susan Lynch. "Her love for what she does is obvious in everything she sells from worm tea (for your home garden) to vegetable plants (again for your home garden) to delicious tomatoes, greens, radishes and teas." 

While Pierre's had lots of support within the local agriculture and organic farming communities, traditional South Jersey farmers are not quite certain what to make of her.

Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

Pierre inspects the four varieties of beets she is growing in the backyard of an Audubon residence on May 18, 2017. She also grows tomatoes and produce.

“They would call what I do ‘gardening,’ not farming,” she said with a giggle and an eye roll.

But there is a hybrid word for the kind of farming she does – market gardening.

There’s even a Market Gardening Success Group on Facebook with more than 16,000 welcoming members. As they explain on their page, “This is a space for small acreage market gardeners to share innovations & stories. It's also a place where you can ask an experienced group of farmers for advice and ideas. New farmers are welcome here!”

She says the group is a great resource.

Pierre is based in her parent’s backyard in Audubon, Camden County, a typical South Jersey suburb – a few shopping blocks, a police and fire station, a tiny downtown surrounded by homes.

She has a small plot planted there in Audubon, but the heart of her operation is a greenhouse where she cultivates a succession of seedlings for replanting on the suburban lawns traded by homeowners for productive farms.

Pierre began as a subscription CSA, delivering a box of goods each week in return for use of those lawns, but delivering the produce proved too time-consuming. Now, she doles out produce to her cooperators at the Collingswood Farmers Market on Saturdays. She also sells her produce there to others in the South Jersey community.

Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

In front of Pierre's parents' home in Audubon, a plot of chamomile that will be later dried and used as an herbal tea.

She follows organic ag guidelines, but her produce is not certified as organic, a cumbersome process. Because her plots are small, she has little control over how adjoining land is maintained.

She practices ‘low-till’ farming, does much of her soil conditioning by hand, uses compost she produces and adds only organic fertilizer. While a tiny woman, she is careful not to compact soil, growing out her transplants in raised mounds.

Signing on isn’t for everyone. Not only do cooperators give up land, they also give up a bit of privacy. “I just show up,” she says of her roving work schedule.

Pierre has 10 parcels where she is growing now and could add and manage maybe five more.

If you are interested in trading land for produce, Pierre said to look her up online.

And while she only needs a few more nearby properties, she is also willing to consider working as a backyard farm consultant to others outside her target zone, including perhaps the rooftops of Philadelphia and more distant suburbs.