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The Olkowskis inspired City Farmer 34 years ago


Photo of Bill in his backyard in Acton St, Berkeley, California around 1975. In March 1975 the Olkowskis published “The City People’s Book of Raising Food”.

And we’ve just heard from Bill and Helga Olkowski!

From Bill’s email:

You may remember us as the authors of the “City Peoples Book of Raising Food” back in the 1970′s.  We gave a talk in Seattle for the Pea Patch Group then encouraging people to set up community and backyard gardens.  I remember this talk as one of the high points of our life because it went like this:

We were giving a rousing talk about how important urban agriculture is and could be for the following reasons:

1) it can save money,
2) it can save gasoline normally spent going to the market and traveling for fun,
3) it produces clean food without pesticides,
4) it’s good for the ecosystem since it uses compost from food wastes, and
5) it reduces the amounts of waste vegetable matter thus saving space in dumps.

At the end we asked for questions and the great question arose: “Who is going to do all this?”

Helga replied [Now here I must insert something for people who were not there because it is needed.  The room we were in was a large dance studio with a mirror down one side - a big mirror.]

So Helga says back to the questioner: Why you are! and points to the right and everyone turns to look in that direction and they see themselves in the mirror- well the reaction was tremendous — I felt like we could have marched the whole crowd down to city hall to demand more Urban Gardens.  I will never forget that time and the great people we met on our visit to your area. [… in Vancouver BC. City Farmer invited the Olkowskis to Vancouver twice in the late 1970’s. They spoke on national radio, to municipal leaders and at workshops. Mike]

I am happy to see you have continued the good work.  We have had gardens now for almost 40 years and I feel the same way. Now I also like some flowers to feed the beneficial insects, bees and hummingbirds.

[Helga’s now 80, Bill is 70.]

Link to Bill and Helga’s website full of history and videos here.


Introduction to “The City People’s Book of Raising Food” – March 1975, Rodale Press

By Helga Olkowski

I have always wanted to live on a farm. But I have always lived in the city. In this country, most people live in cities. In fact, all over the world, with a few exceptions, the trend is towards urbanization.

City people are a funny lot. They don’t spend much time thinking about what keeps them alive — their life-support systems. There was a time when I didn’t think about it much either. Oh, of course, I knew people need air to breathe, water to drink, and food to eat. But fresh air was obviously free and available and I didn’t worry about the water that came through the pipes to my house, or the food that I bought at the store. If the vegetables and meats looked attractive, if they were a reasonable price, if they didn’t look too hard to prepare, I bought them, took them home, prepared and ate them.

Well, we’re all a bit more sophisticated now. We’ve heard about pesticide residues on foods, fertilizers contaminating water, lead in the air we breathe, the energy crisis, and other environmental disasters. If you are like me, you may have reached a point where the list is too long and upsetting to confront. You don’t want to hear about another problem unless at the same time someone suggests what you can do about it. This is such a book — about the problem of producing food for city people and what you can do about it.

Consider the tomato. It takes large amounts of energy to produce the synthetic fertilizers used by the tomato farmer. Fossil fuels are heavily involved in modern agricultural technology and in the production of pesticides that such farming methods may seem to demand. Fossil fuel energy is also necessary to bring the tomato to the store where it is sold. How many of us walked home with our groceries this week? No doubt most used a car to bring the tomato to the kitchen, thus doing our bit directly toward energy consumption and air pollution, too.

And at the end of all that environmentally disastrous activity, what have we got? A tomato that hasn’t seen the farm in many a day, a variety with a skin tough enough to withstand lots of mechanical handling, hopefully with pesticide residues below the FDA allowable tolerances. Nothing exactly to cheer about.

So what’s a city person to do? Grow some of your own. I think that one can grow a good deal of food in the city, and have fun doing it. It was done during World War II — they were called Victory Gardens. The apartment dweller can grow tomatoes and cucumbers inside in a sunny window, citrus and bell peppers too. A window box salad, of loose-leaf lettuce, radishes, green onions, cress, baby carrots, and turnips, is a real possibility.

There may be room for a planter box of food plants on the roof or in a courtyard, and even room to raise meat rabbits. You may be able to share a backyard or patio with a friend who has some outdoor space, or join forces with your neighbors in working on an empty lot, unused city-owned land; or you might talk your local parks and recreation people into letting you use a portion of a city park. Other city people have found a way. You can too.

Of course, not every city dweller wants to raise his own food. Even if you want to, you would have a hard time trying to raise all of it. But you can raise quite a lot. I know, because for the past four years my family has raised all of its own meat and vegetables in the middle of the city. We have taught hundreds of others to do the same. You can do it too. This book is to tell you how.

This is a record of some of our personal experiences and some of the “book learning” we found essential to our success. We hope it will be useful to you.

P.S.: We’ve had a lot of help and encouragement from many friends and acquaintances, students, other teachers, and associates. To all these people whom we cannot thank individually we dedicate this book, but particularly to Drs. E. Williams, James Vlamis, and Bob Raabe, who helped us develop the Urban Garden Ecosystem class at the University of California; Tom Javits, who helped carry on the class and spread the word about city food growing; and all future urban gardeners.

You can get used copies on Amazon here.

1 comment

1 SeattleCD { 11.29.11 at 9:03 pm }

Just as inspiring now!