Good Fences

It’s not the first question everyone asks us about our farm. It’s the second one.

The first is, “What are you going to grow?” The second is maybe not too surprising when you look at the lot, there in the middle of a residential neighborhood, its scant 40-foot width yawning northward.

“Are you going to fence it off?” Or some variant. Sometimes its the slightly more insidious, “What about the neighbors?” with a nervous darting of the eyes to the left and the right.

not much of a security fence
A bit of old barbed-wire fence beside Dew Point Farm

We knew, of course, we’d have to fence off the land. We won’t be living there, and the lure of big slicer tomatoes, gleaming in the streetlight, would be too tempting for someone in any neighborhood in the nation. So, with apologies to Robert Frost and his “Mending Wall,” we’re more in the Carl Sandburg camp, when he said, “Love your neighbor as yourself but don’t take down the fence.”1

Still, we were worried how our new neighbors would view a fence. Would it be a glaring sign of distrust or general unfriendliness?

The daily walkers by we talked with, though, actually encouraged us. Here’s an early conversation, which has been mirrored about a half-dozen times since:

FRIENDLY NEIGHBOR: Whatch’all gonna build back there?

ME: Nothing, actually. We’re going to plant a big garden.

FN: That’s nice! A community garden?

ME: No, it’ll be a private garden, but we’re hoping to sell some of it here in the area.

FN: Oh, that’s good. That’s real good. [pause] Y’all gonna fence it off?

ME: I guess so. We want to keep the critters out and such.

FN: Good, good. You know these folks will pick you clean.

This guy was speaking from experience. He couldn’t harvest vegetables from his own backyard garden before his neighbors nabbed them for themselves. And he told us a story of a former community garden in the area that was cleaned out by an area drug user. He apparently was going to try to sell the veg to get a few hits of something.

“They finally arrested him,” the guy said. “They didn’t get him for drugs. They got him for selling stolen vegetables.”

We’ve never felt unsafe in the neighborhood. To the contrary, everyone walking or riding a bike past us smiles and waves, and many will stop for a chat. The worst thing that’s happened is one neighbor dumped a big pile of leaves over her side fence instead of bagging, but that was before she realized we were improving the land, and I’m guessing old habits die hard. Our land has been vacant and in languish for years.

Securing perimeters is an extremely difficult prospect, no matter what the context. Hadrian’s Wall was a failure, it didn’t work for the Great Wall of China, and it’s not working with Mr. Trump’s border wall, either, no matter if you’re on the team that wants it to or not.2

Complicating matters was Jenn’s and my own dialogue about how much we actually wanted to keep folks out of Dew Point Farm.

We’re making the farm to help the community it’s in as much as we are to buttress the inventory at the farmers market across town. We’re cleaning up a piece of land, injecting a little development into a stagnant neighborhood, and hopefully selling some of our crops at a good price right in the neighborhood. So if someone in that neighborhood needs food so badly that they’re breaking into our farm to get it, well, I guess we just hope they got a good meal from it instead of turning it for a $20 hit of Krakatoa, or Mollyhugger, or whatever the kids are doing these days.

We’re not a community garden, though, and we know we have to keep the honest people honest, as they say. We’re sinking a bunch of our own money into this project, with the primary goal of doing the things I just said. But we need to at least break even. Forget about us ever getting paid for our time; we need to cover the start-up costs, the water bill, the truckloads of soil, the amendments, the seeds, the irrigation systems, the trellising, the row cover. And then, in a perfect world, down the road cover the construction of a wash station, and a greenhouse, and maybe a cold storage room, and a power bill. For all this to be sustainable, for us to provide food for this town for the next 10 years or so, we can’t keep losing money. If our crops are cleaned out before we can sell them, then it’s pretty clearly not a working model.

The compromise position we landed on was to put up a fence, but not a 10-foot razor-wire prison-like enclosure. Instead we installed a 6-foot field fence, something like what you would expect to see on a farm out in the country. It’s coated with black vinyl to make it even less obtrusive. In fact, if you’re not paying much attention, you might not even see the welded twines.

To me, it’s actually more aesthetically pleasing than not having a fence there at all. “Oh, round fence posts. Oh, a little wooden gate. It’s a quaint little farm!” When we’re working in the fields there, it now feels like a farm. And, as a bonus, we have a handy surface on which to hang a little Dew Point Farm sign.

We’re going to be good neighbors, and we really do trust that our new friends will too.

Urban farm field fence!
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1Lest that sound too harsh, in the same poem, he wrote “When someone hits you with a rock hit him with a piece of cotton”. And, in terms of more practical fence construction, he offered, “A fence should be horse-high, pig-tight, bull-strong”. It’s from his book-length poem, “The People, Yes.” Read a very short excerpt at The Poetry Foundation.

2There’s a running theory that Hadrian’s Wall wasn’t really meant to stop immigration of the “barbarians” in the wilds north of England into the Roman empire, but a means to help soldiers find immigrants and traders coming in so that they could be properly taxed.

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