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From vegetables to chickens, backyard farming on the rise

Thursday - 3/6/2014, 7:13am  ET

Robyn Streeter works in a residential front yard vegetable and flower garden she helped create in Portland, Ore., Friday, June 18, 2010. Your Backyard Farmer began in 2006 when Streeter and Donna Smith were growing weary of driving through the city's outskirts looking for affordable land to farm. The thought struck them: "Why aren't we bringing food to the people?" (AP Photo/Don Ryan)
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WASHINGTON -- The number of farms in the United States continues to decline in what has been a concerning trend in the past 25 years. In the U.S. Department of Agriculture's 2012 Census of Agriculture, the number of farms in the country dropped to 2.1 million, down from 2.2 million in 2007 and 2.48 million in 1982.

Susan James' family has farmed in Virginia since 1725. Throughout the years, she has seen a response to the disappearing farms: backyard farming -- a term used to encompass everything from independent vegetable gardens, to at-home beehives, backyard chickens and more.

"For us now, it can [take place anywhere], from a plot in an urban setting to suburban backyards," says James, who runs the Stonyman Gourmet Farmer in Washington, Va., a farm that specializes in farmstead cheese and customized meats.

And while backyard farming is on the rise, it is nothing new.

"It's had a long and revered tradition in our country," says James, who says that even people in bustling cities used to keep cows and other livestock.

"During World War II, there were victory gardens so that people could have fresh produce because the production of food was going to the war efforts. And those gardens, by the way, still exist today. It's taken an evolution, and it's different now than it was in the past, but you see each generation -- it's been something that Americans really like, and right now it's really going through a resurgence as people rediscover the rewards of doing this."

On Saturday, March 8, James will chair a session titled, "The Facts of Backyard Farming Life" at Celebrating FOOD!, the Les Dames d'Escoffier symposium saluting women in gastronomy.

With a panel of four other urban agriculture experts, James will discuss the trends and techniques taking place in backyard farming.

One trend she's noticed is the change in demographics in at-home harvesting.

"Backyard farming seems to be an activity that women are really interested in," James says. "In the past two census periods we've seen a dynamic rise in women in farming. And the interesting thing about women in farming is that they tend to farm smaller acreage, and they make that productive."

James believes that a huge driver in the backyard farming trend is education and ownership.

"A lot of parents are doing backyard farming so their children can see how food is grown and how it's handled They learn that they can grow it themselves, that they can eat it, that they can take it home and have it on the table for their family. It gives them a sense of independence, of real knowledge and a sense of empowerment," she says.

Another important aspect of backyard farming, she emphasizes, is community. James says it brings together different people, interested in making their food and their land better.

"Everything is so interconnected. It's very satisfying in a world that has been kind of depersonalized having bees increases the yield of the vegetable gardens. So it's interesting, this interconnection of these activities."

Celebrating FOOD! is an all-day food experience, with more than 40 culinary speakers, cooking sessions and conversations. It will be headlined by Carla Hall, co-host of "The Chew" and will be followed by a wine-tasting reception.

In addition to "The Facts of Backyard Farming Life," other sessions focus on a variety of topics, such as making flatbreads, to food writing and food photography.

Celebrating FOOD! will take place on Saturday, March 8 at The Universities at Shady Grove in Rockville, Md., from 8:30 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. For information on details and tickets, visit the event's website.

WTOP's Rachel Nania contributed to this report. Follow @WTOP and @WTOPliving on Twitter and on the WTOP Facebook page.

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