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Stefani Leto, urban homesteader

Submitted by on 1, October 19, 2010 – 4:50 amNo Comment

Stefani Leto in her backyard garden. Photo by Heather Lyn Wood.

By Heather Lyn Wood

Julia Child would have loved Stefani Leto’s backyard garden, if you can call it that. The word is really inadequate to describe the one-woman farm hidden behind Leto’s spacious home in West Alameda. While neighboring properties feature daffodils and decorative shrubs, Leto’s is packed with ripe apricots, succulent limes, blushing apples and fresh herbs. And that’s just the front yard.

In the kitchen are tubs of tomatillos and racks of honeycomb, and in the backyard, honeybees and laying hens compete for space with 40 other varieties of produce. Leto rattles them off matter-of-factly: fry peppers, white cucumber, fingerling potatoes, butternut squash, buckwheat, clover and soybeans. Mallow, persling, kale, and broccoli. Five kinds of tomatoes and four kinds of pole beans. And the list goes on. The thriving miniature ecosystem more than proves her statement that “the variety that grows here is astonishing.”

Leto blends modern eco-sensibility with an old-fashioned homemaker fortitude that a few years ago might have seemed eccentric. Now, however, her vision of a self-sustaining existence is gaining ground in the mainstream. She is just one of a growing number of American urbanites expressing interest in food as a way of life.

With books like Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and Barbara Kingsolver’s “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” on the bestseller list, do-it-yourself food and homesteading are officially trendy. Skills formerly consigned to pioneer grandmothers – small animal husbandry, beekeeping, sewing and canning, to name a few – are now being enthusiastically embraced by the Facebook generation.

Leto’s heart and soul are in her urban homestead, which she regards with the enthusiasm of a kid. “These are Mexican Sour Gherkins,” she exclaims. “They look like watermelons for elves!”

But Leto is no starry-eyed Utopian. “I may look like a happy garden fairy, but I’m hard-nosed when I have to be. If I have to kill a rooster, that’s what I do. And I have a rule: I don’t grow it unless I can eat it or put it in a vase. Ornamentals don’t do it for me.”

From Leto’s perspective, any interest in healthy local food is a positive thing, trendy or not, and she knows that different aspects of the urban sustainability movement will appeal to different people. Leto’s own motivations are obvious as she gently handles one of the little green ‘elf melons’: “I can give you a thousand political reasons to grow your own food, because there are a thousand. But the real reason for me is that I can’t not do it. Everywhere I go, I’m looking for the garden. I would do this even if I didn’t have to.”

Recently, Leto has been focusing on foods with staying power: kale, broccoli, potatoes and fruit that can be turned into preserves. These efforts seem to reflect Leto’s overall practical approach.

The mother of four home-schooled children is quick to explain that she does not have time to waste on endeavors that do not make economic and nutritional sense for her family. While her love of the land was a significant motivation for her move toward self-sufficiency, Leto’s other main goal “was to see how much I could not buy.”

Leto had always noticed when fruit fell from trees in Alameda, and cringed when it went to waste. A few years ago, she heard about Forage Oakland, a local community group that advocates the exchange of neighborhood fruit and the redistribution of excess produce. Knowing that Alameda lacked a comparable organization, Leto did something at which she appears to excel: started one herself.

The Alameda Fruit Exchange was active for about a year, during which time it hosted a citrus swap and marmalade workshop, among other produce-centered events. During this time, Leto also helped design several local, community-supported agriculture (CSA) gardens with hardy plants like chard and zucchini, which grow fast and do not require daily picking. She volunteered her front steps as the exchange site, hoping that Alameda residents would use the opportunity to share extra produce. While the Exchange had a few supporters, lack of widespread interest in the community made it impossible for Leto to continue the project. She still has hopes that one day soon, Alamedans will join forces to recreate a thriving food exchange system.

In the meantime, Leto has more than enough to keep her busy. She sells her backyard honey at the Alameda Natural Grocery, saves and stores her own seeds, and forages for blackberries behind Godfrey Park on Bay Farm Island. She is an active member of Alameda Backyard Chickens and Alameda Backyard Beekeepers, each an active group with its own Internet forum. Leto’s home was featured in this year’s Alameda Backyard Chicken Coop Bicycling Tour, which drew more than 500 people from the greater Bay Area to see Alameda’s take on urban sustainability.

In Leto’s hard-to-imagine “free” time, she and sister Denise run the blog Sicilian Sisters Grow Some Food, which asks: “Two sisters, two urban gardens, and a question: How much of our families’ food can we produce ourselves? Moving toward sustainability on urban farms.”

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