The Backyard Farmer

Leona Palmer

Leona Palmer › Leona Palmer was a native of rural Wisconsin before becoming a time-tested New Yorker. After having ...


Farming on the Road: Visiting The Backyard Farmer in Eugene, Oregon

In Eugene, Oregon, a land of vegan and gluten-free cupcakes, homemade teff tortillas and local, free-range meats, where do you go if you want to raise your own chickens in town? Who is your number one ally in urban farmsteading? Bill Bezuk of The Eugene Backyard Farmer, that’s who.

Bezuk was born in Munich, a self-confessed “military brat” who was growing “a little something” in every place he can remember, for as long as he can remember, in yards or pots on windowsills. The lifelong gardener describes his time in the dirt as “my church, my therapy.” He notes how empowering it is to be sitting down to a dinner you grew yourself, the patience and gratitude that it inspires, how miraculous it is to be a part of this cycle of life and growth. That the benefits of quality and taste, so far outweigh participating in a system that does harm and creates suffering and inequality internationally and locally from beginning to end, make growing just a total no-brainer. Why wouldn’t you eat your gorgeous sun-warm tomatoes instead of unwrapping something mealy from plastic that even on sale at a conventional supermarket is more expensive?

But Bezuk is not just an impassioned grower, he also has over 20 years of retail management experience and defines himself as a “business guy”. So when this 1987 graduate of the University of Oregon noticed the number of backyard chicken books moving off the shelf at the Barnes and Noble he was working at, something clicked.

He realized there was a huge demand for information and supplies in terms of urban homesteading, and perhaps simply being sustainable consumers wasn’t enough anymore. That it was time to take things into our own hands, literally, and provide our own sustenance and sustainability, especially as the urban and suburbanization of America continues to grow. Eugene probably couldn’t support more than one of these types of outlets, and so Bill “had to be the first guy to do it.”

In the springtime he sells vegetable seedlings and hopes to build a greenhouse over the coming winter that would be operational by next spring. From gifts like candy-colored egg-shaped French soap and urban homesteading books and magazines to basic livestock supplies, his store runs the full gamut of backyard offerings. Everything you need to keep chickens or ducks, foster a hive (handmade in Eugene), begin composting, or start a garden is available in a clean and attractive layout. A variety of different baby chicks breeds arrive weekly. Ducklings and meat chicks are also available as well as blueprints for coop designs or locally built coops. The feed and bedding are incredibly locally sourced. He offers a range of feed for any budget including a store-exclusive organic-milled blend, GMO-free mash, organic or conventional. Incredibly forthright about conventional farm and feed stores outside of town, he caters to his niche by selling the feed by the pound (which some of his bike-commuting customers especially appreciate) and personally packaging five-pound bags of oyster shell, which is still sold cheaper than the bigger stores.

After applying his experience of fishing and steely stomach to researching and practicing some basic butchering methods, he took a small-flock class at a University of Oregon extension and now offers demonstrations for onlookers at his store when he butchers his personal fowl. Other classes include the Backyard Chicken starter. He hopes to begin offering canning and preserving classes in the near future (the growing season here in Oregon provides year-round produce).

While 80% of the Eugenites who are experimenting with in-town sustenance are women who have access to disposable incomes and many of which have children for which this process is nutritional and educational, Bezuk is adamant on not overlooking the diversity of his customer base, from schoolbus-turned-home roof-top chicken coops to million-dollar backyards. People are attracted to this from a variety of economical, philosophical, political and cultural motives: whether recovering lost generational practices, saving money, preparing for a possible zombie-apocalypse, or keeping corporations off their plates.

Bezuk is also careful not to romanticize or exaggerate either the realities or benefits of an urban farming project and always  approaches the subject matter in the most factual and honest way—especially when offering information about keeping chickens. The difference between a pet and food can be a hard lesson in retrospect. His intention is to offer as many choices as possible and let people decide which approach and methods are best for them without dictating any specific one. To do this, he asks as many questions as he answers: How long will you be on your property? What is your plan when your hens stop laying? On average, chickens lay an egg a day at the height of their productive age. On average, a dozen eggs will cost you around two dollars after your initial investment.

Bill is also involved in the evolution of urban agriculture in Eugene. Right now the city allows two chickens and no roosters per property, but the residents petitioned for an enforcement agreement that is complaint-driven to allow some elbow room in flock size. They are also trying to get the city to allow for “micro-livestock” including guinea-hogs, mini-cattle and pygmy goats as the current law requires 20,000 square feet of property for livestock ownership.

While places like nearby Portland or Seattle have a selection of stores similar to The Backyard Farmer, cities around the country are catching on to the demand for them. Through Link’d In, Bezuk is offering consulting to people in Oakland, California and Providence, Rhode Island in starting similar businesses and sees no reason why he couldn’t, in the future, turn his own into a franchise and reproduce the same business model in at least 30 cities around the country such as Madison, Wisconsin, Austin, Texas or Boston. A testament to the ingenuity and possibilities to growing green and sustainable local economies, while most people say that it takes five years for a small business owner to break even, Bezuk will likely finish his third year in the black. But this has taken his entire life savings, 70-80 hours a week of time, energy and education and total commitment to community development and involvement.

He makes every attempt to be a positive part of his community and speaks about part of his personal motivation in supporting the health and happiness of the residents around him, describing a bizarre and depressing scene in which a pear tree bent under fruit on city property sits across the street from a man holding up a sign begging for food and notes, “We can do better than this.” He asks in earnest what better way to introduce yourself to the rotating cast of college students in the neighboring rental house than with a dozen of your own eggs? Or offering to harvest a neglected fig tree in a nearby yard and split the bounty with the owner with “I’ll pick ’em, we’ll split ’em.” He is well known by his customers for his generosity and honesty in not just selling you a product but telling you how to make it yourself and then offering to show you. He describes his interactions with his customers as a community learning exchange saying that he learns as much from them as they go as he hopes to offer in exchange.

He and his wife moved back to Eugene about eight years ago, their kids are out of the house and in college. But their son worked in the store for the summer and is very enthusiastic about the family business. Their personal backyard farm includes 3.5 chickens (the half is a little runt of a thing), 2 ducks, beehive, compost bin and a 600 square foot garden with traditional produce like eggplants, greens, peppers, carrots and tomatoes. The cold-weather plants will go in the end of this month. He looks forward to getting guinea-hogs when the city approves. The yard is well-organized and generously portioned for the fowl, who drink out of an old canoe turned trough. But it still leaves plenty of grassy space for lounging, grilling and eating outside. While most people may think of a stinky and crowded menagerie when they hear “urban farming,” this was the opposite.

This one-stop-shop for backyard farming is thorough, well-stocked and overtly educational. The humility and integrity of the owner are a bonus.

Photo Credit: Leona Palmer