Interview: Erik Knutzen

ErikKnutzen.jpg Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen grow food, keep chickens, brew, bike, bake, and plot revolution from their 1/12-acre farm in the heart of Los Angeles. They are the the authors of The Urban Homestead and Making It. Avi Solomon: How did your urban homesteading adventure begin? Erik Knutzen: I've always enjoyed making things and understanding how stuff works with many hours spent in lower level two of the LA public library - where all the howto books are shelved. Kelly has always been interested in urban survival and foraging. But our urban homesteading adventure began with the search for a decent tomato. Kelly and I were living in an apartment at the time so we started growing tomatoes in pots on our front porch. We were amazed that it worked. When we bought a house in 1998 and had some yard space to play with, we started growing more vegetables and herbs. As we went along, we kept adding things to our toolkit: composting, greywater, chickens, bees, etc.-and there's always more to do. The adventure never ends, really.
Avi: What motivates you to make all this effort to help others? Erik: All of the projects we write about in our books are tangible, household level activities that everyone can do. Things like vegetable gardening, food preservation and cooking from scratch also lend themselves to community building at the neighborhood level. We can get together as neighbors and share meals, learn to bake bread or care for each others' chickens. Doing so creates bonds in an otherwise fragmented culture. The hermetic expression "as within so without" applies here. Our actions on a personal and household level ripple outwards. When we change ourselves, and our home, we change the world. When we change our neighborhood we change the world. Hopefully when we teach and write, this also helps make our inner reality our outer reality. In any case, the work we do puts us in contact with so many amazing people. Some we teach, some teach us, and most often it's a little of both. All in all, it's a deeply fulfilling way to live. Avi: How has your quality of life changed since you started to provide part of your food for yourself? Erik: I love being part of a community of people interested in growing food. Again, I can't emphasize enough how many wonderful people I've met since I started doing this. Growing food has also brought me closer to the mysteries of nature. It's amazing how much you can learn in your own back yard. There's a certain humility that comes from realizing that I'll never even begin to comprehend the complex symbiotic relationships inherent in natural systems. This very complexity, though, is what keeps both Kelly and I engaged with the process, and promises to enrich our lives for years to come. Avi: How did you get started with hens and eggs? Erik: Kelly insisted on getting laying hens because she liked eggs, but didn't like how chickens are raised in the industrial food system.This was especially true once we figured out that marketing terms like "free range" and "cage free" didn't mean the chickens were happily ranging around a sunny farm. We pretty much learned from books. Tending chickens is not at all complicated--much easier than keeping a dog, actually. With chickens it's mostly about figuring out a good housing arrangement for them: i.e. excluding predators like raccoons and keeping the chickens from running rampant in the yard. Avi: How did you get started with bees and honey? Erik: I owe all of my beekeeping knowledge to the amazing Kirk Anderson of the Backwards Beekeepers. Kirk is one of very few all natural no-treatment beekeepers in the world. Conventional beekeepers treat their bees with all kinds of toxic chemicals, use artificially inseminated queens and all kinds of other interventionist strategies. Kirk's approach is really the way we should approach all complex systems such as nature or the economy. We should admit that we don't know much about the way they work and keep our interventions to a minimum. Kirk has taught us how to capture swarms of feral honey bees that have managed to survive all the problems that have beset conventional beekeepers in recent years. In short we let the bees "keep" themselves figuring that they know better than we do how to get along. Avi: How did you get started with brewing your own beer? Erik: I took an inexpensive class at a local home brew shop. Then I did some reading. Beer making is a lot less complex than most people think. I've since met more experienced home brewers who have shared their techniques and tools with me. Avi: Who's your community? Is it primarily local or virtual or a mix? Erik: Our community is a mixture of both. Los Angeles is a great place to practice urban homesteading. There's people here from all over the world and a great climate for growing food. We've managed to meet many people here and have formed lots of face to face connections. Our blog has also been a great virtual community. In some ways I enjoy blogging more than writing books. I like the feedback we get in the form of comments. I value both our face to face and our virtual communities. Virtual affinity groups, in our case, have often led to new face to face friendships. Avi: What's the importance of being tactful with your neighbors (e.g. sharing produce like eggs and tomatoes)? Erik: It's critically important to be on good terms with your neighbors. Many ridiculous laws have accrued in municipal codes over the years like barnacles on a neglected ship. In Los Angeles, for instance, the municipal code stipulated that you could grow vegetables in your backyard and resell them, but not fruit flowers or nuts. Along with some friends and neighbors we helped get that law changed. If you feel oppressed by your local laws, change them! But all in all, we always say it's easier to ask forgiveness than permission. As long as you're on good terms with your neighbors and share your backyard produce, the odds of the city coming around to enforce forgotten municipal codes drop drastically. Avi: What's the single most important piece of advice you would give to someone who hasn't done any of this before? Erik: Start small and be patient and persistent. There's a fairly high learning curve to things like growing vegetables. You'll never really master it of course - nature always throws a few curve balls - but even when you fail, it's a lot of fun to sit around with your friends, bitching about your gardens and drinking homebrew.