Going to work to make money, driving to the grocery store and dealing with a terrible vibe and assault on the senses to buy a jar of salsa—that is a shit-ton of bleh,”says James Loomis, who with his wife Michelle and two kids has an urban homestead on 600 East in Salt Lake City’s Liberty Wells neighborhood. “I want to shift the paradigm of how people view self reliance—to get away from [the idea of it] being a ton of work to realizing it is a ton of fun.”
James paints an alterative scenario: “Walking through the garden harvesting food that the plants did most of the work to make, mixing cocktails with close friends while canning picante sauce and the joy of opening a jar of it in January—well, that seems so much more fulfilling and is, actually, a lot less work.”
He describes the property that his family resides on as an urban micro farm, but the term is deceptively diminutive. This “micro farm” includes the yards of three homes, of which he and Michelle own two. Here, James has developed an awe-inspiring homestead incorporating raised-bed gardens, chickens, rain water harvest, bees, and more. This is just one part of the Loomis food mini-empire, which also incorporates an aquaponic system and a soon-to-be project in Idaho.
A furniture builder/shop foreman by day and a dubstep DJ/producer —DJ illoom—by night, James took home the City Weekly DJ of the Year award in 2012. He releases worbly, bass-heavy cuts both nationally and internationally, and his studio sits just to the north of the herb garden on one of the family plots. James is the host of the third-longest-running dubstep evening in the country, Dubwise, which is held the first Friday of each month at the Urban Lounge. Michelle is a 7th-9th grade school teacher with a Master’s degree in education and is, more recently, a stay-at-home mother.
This context is important, because their lives don’t strictly revolve around homesteading. “The fact that we maintain the gardens we do on top of the rest of our activities shows how possible it is, not how amazing we are,” James says. “What I want to get across is that it is not because I have some heroic work ethic, it is because I just get out there and do it. It really is not that difficult. I get off work, crack a beer and walk through the garden. A little putzing here and there and it is amazing how those little actions can add up to results.”
“I always had it on my mind to be sustainable and do this sort of thing,” says Michelle. “I started going down the path in little ways, and the gardening was something fun to do together.”
James and Michelle are not about preaching the rights of sustainability and homesteading and the wrongs of going to a national chain grocery store; rather, they are about leading by example. At their core, the Loomis family is all about education.
The sun is setting on a warm summer’s evening. As I’m poured a glass of cider in front of a home-cooked meal, I’m warned that we’ll see the bees come out but to not pay them mind. One Loomis kid, Zaia, 5, is running around the lawn Her younger brother Isaakai, 1, is bubbly and hungry. It smells like fertile earth and beets. We sit down at Michelle’s house—a few doors down from James’ but where the couple currently live—to discuss how 12 years of gardening have led James and Michelle from being amateurs to going “deep organic” and being able to provide their surplus to other families; it’s a history that will serve them well as they catapult into careers as farmers this fall.
The pedigree on dinner
The notion of running a homestead can be daunting, especially when looking at a swath of barren backyard. But when viewed through the lens of this dinner set before me—90% of which came from a 100-foot radius of my seat—the work seems almost inviting. To see the end is to see the beginning. To eat a quiche is to believe that you can build a coop and keep a little flock. And then by the time the salad comes around, you become inspired.
1. The last of the Lorax cider
James and Michelle tell an anecdote about tonight’s libation, what they call the Lorax Cider, named after Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, where the characters speak for the trees. It’s a little long, but illustrates the Loomises’ dedication to food preservation and connecting to the community. In the house next door to James’ lived an elderly British woman. She became too old to take care of the place herself, so she moved in with her family, and the house was bought by a property manager. As Michelle tells it, “One day we heard chainsaws, and James said, ‘He better not be chopping down that apple tree,’ which is totally weird, like he just knew.”
James continues, “I went over there—it is a big, big ol’ tree—and this fella was hacking it down. I got him to stop, but he said his boss told him to cut it down, so he had to cut it down. Long story short, we located the new purchaser through a real estate friend. We Googled them, and called them. I said [yelling], ‘I’m a concerned neighbor. Everyone in the neighborhood gets that fruit.’ He came over and stopped homie. The tree looks like shit, but it’s still alive. We harvested all of those apples that were still on the limb—it was just loaded. So we made this cider.” And the three of us drink the last bottle of it from the cellar.
2. Quiche with kale and onions, topped with salsa
The chicken complex consists of an alleyway on a neighbor’s adjoining property. There is a chicken “nursery” made from a recycled camper top and another area for the baby chicks to grow. The Loomis system of buying one variety of chicken breed each year is ingenious: This way they know which ones to slaughter each year for stew meat. The chickens are generally killed after peak production time. In total, the Loomis family gets dozens of eggs each week.
3. Roasted beets, carrots & walnut salad
“Our little garden plot provides us with nearly all of our fresh, seasonal vegetables,” James says. They are planting something new and rotating crops out just about every week. In total, there are 21 raised-bed planters, which come to an approximate 1,100 square feet of grow space. The Loomises use planters to make walking the garden easy (it’s lovely to take a stroll after dinner) and to hide the irrigation system. Their grow season is 12 months out of the year, thanks to cold frames.
4. Sourdough with honey butter
Xia hands me a roll, and says that I’m going to want lots of butter, because it’s really good. And it is. The sourdough (one of many projects fermenting on the property) comes from a starter, and the honey butter is made of honey from their backyard bees. The Loomises have one hive—down from several after a devastating winter for the pollinators and gifting other hives to friends to get them started.
Michelle says that James is more obsessive over the soil and composting than all of the home projects—this is his baby. “Over the years, we’ve gone from amateur to semi-pro. We’ve gone beyond ‘organic’ to ‘deep organic’ where, rather than attempting to replace chemical fertilizers and pest solutions with ‘organic’ ones, we try to cultivate an environment where our ecology is so strong pests cannot gain a foothold,” James says. “Islands of beneficial-attracting, nectar-producing plants harbor insects that are on our team. Our soil is full of organic matter and is so teeming with microbes, it produces its own nutrients, fueled by compost created from our food and garden waste.”
A brief timeline to now
In 2001, when James and Michelle first began dating and co-habitating, one of the first things they did was to create a garden together. “When you grow something together, you are growing a relationship,” Michelle says. “I still think about that, and I’m still in awe every time I watch a plant go from seed to fruit.”
“[The first year] was a near bust as the plants were tortured under the scorching Salt Lake City summer sun,” James says. “Despite the minimal results, what we did accomplish was to stumble upon something that we continue to pursue to ever deeper levels, and that is the joy of fully interacting with the biology of the planet.”
Their second grow season, they planted straight in the soil and the outcome was “an abundance of edible chaos. We were proud of how tall our tomatoes were—amateurs,” James says. The fall of that year, James bought a house, and over the next three years, the couple xeriscaped the front yard and developed the back yard into a more fully constructed garden with raised beds. James says that, then, he “stumbled onto one of my most important innovations: individual water spigots contained in each box. This allowed for a much cleaner vibe, with no hose traffic. Automated watering system: Now, we became amateurs with experience.”
Soon after, Michelle purchased a house two doors down, and the couple set about clearing out the property’s wild yard. They tamed it to what was reasonable, and put in more grow boxes made from recycled lumber and international shipping pallets, which is still the method and aesthetic they prefer. They were now “amateurs with several projects under our belt.”
Around 2005, the natural progression went from the couple’s space as a personal garden to them inviting friends into the mix, and they “went community garden with it. This was a fantastic approach, as it allowed us to speed up our soil-building efforts and was a ton of fun farming with friends,” James says. “We began to really study the tricks of organic gardening—composting, mulching, companion planting, crop rotation.”
In the summer of 2007, Michelle and James were married. “We grew all of our own flowers here—around 13 species of sunflowers and another six or eight other species to complement,” James says. This led to an unintentional lesson in soil fertility: “Sunflowers are a heavy feeder and sucked our soil empty. At this point we started to get really scientific about what we were doing, and started to eye our plants for nutrient deficiencies.”
Over the next two years, the couple says that they really began ramping things up, with a pond in the back yard, installing a rainwater collection unit (which grew each year for the next three), adding bees into the mix and a large coop. To round things out, the Loomises have hop vines, myriad fruit and nut trees, and brew much of their own alcohol. They also began using cold frames to extend the grow season. In 2010, Michelle was awarded a grant, and they built a greenhouse at Hillcrest Junior High, where she taught science. “I had been interested in aquaponics for some time. In 2011 we got another grant and built a small 250-gallon system with 32 square feet of grow bed space. Seeing the reaction of everyone to the technology, and the fantastic rate of growth of the plants and fish, I’ve been scheming to go big ever since,” James says.
And that brings us up to now. “It’s exciting when you reach that tipping point. Then things just start getting easier,” Michelle says.
What’s after dinner
2014 would have been the year that the Loomises redesigned their garden to maximize output and leased land elsewhere to continue on a trajectory of becoming farmers. But an opportunity arose that they couldn’t refuse: They are moving this fall to Buhl, Idaho, where they will oversee the year-round farm production at Onsen Farm. It’s an impressive set-up with hot spring-heated greenhouses, fertile land and all the water they need for free (no small thing). Jumping into the opportunity to go fully professional with their sustainable food production, their goals are to break new ground. “The big goal is to eventually generate all of our fertility and farm inputs on site, as well as the food for our chickens and other livestock. We hope to break new ground in the field of aquaponics by generating all of the power for the system renewably on site, as well as regulate the water temperature using our hot and cold springs.”
The importance of education
The Loomises have inspired more than a dozen of their friends and acquaintances to become gardeners, if not homesteaders, one of whom, Golden Gibson, will be taking over the Loomis homestead. James jokes that his family will be moving to Idaho to get a doctorate in food growing science, and Gibson will get the opportunity to earn his master’s.
Throughout our dinner, the idea of education—while not explicitly stated by the Loomises—loomed large. And once they are settled at Onsen, this is what they hope to contribute to the world of farming.
“Our focus for teaching in the future will be hands-on Aquaponic System Construction, as well as hands-on Deep Organic Training and Permaculture workshops,” James says, emphasizing the importance of hands-on training. “We want to really dial in everything in the form of a financially viable working model of sustainable food production, with all of the key components of a model permaculture property, from food forests to greywater processing—all healthy and thriving for people to experience and participate in, not just hear about.”
“If we let ‘permaculture’ and ‘sustainability’ pass as trendy buzzwords,” Loomis continues, “without the deeper experience and connection that occurs with action, we are doomed to fail.”
So… Despite James’ intentions to the contrary, it does seem like a ton of work. But the ton of fun is undeniable. Self reliance may result in fewer connections to major corporate entities, but it builds connections on a much more intimate and vital scale. The fruit of the Loomises’ labor is a community and a landscape made richer for their efforts.