Monday, January 13, 2014
East Dallas resident turns backyard into urban farm
Ali Morgan has chickens, goats and ducks, and her landlord doesn't mind.
DALLAS “I call that one Booty. You can see why.”
Ali Morgan nonchalantly nods her head in the direction of one of several chickens milling aimlessly about her backyard. The bird in question seems unexceptional from the others, save the bright pink spot of bare naked skin smack in the middle of its hindquarters.
“One of the ducks used to just follow her around and bite her tail feathers – it looks like they’re growing back, though. That duck has been taken care of, though, so she shouldn’t have any more problems.”
As Morgan recounts the rather macabre saga of death, tailfeathers and poultry-related nudity, she drops a bin of fruit pulp into some feeding trays for the chickens. The pulp, left over and saved from Roots Juices, is a favorite treat for her feathered flock. In return, they’ll reliably gift around an egg per day – per chicken – while they watch over a brood of chicks and keep the three goats, Taco, Milkshake and Moonshine, company. It is a working farm, and it can be found within the chain-link fence of her smallish, East Dallas backyard. It is Ali Morgan’s own personal, urban homestead.
“Look how big Milkshake is!” She points at one of her Nigerian goats. “I’m going to have to deliver them when they come out. Hopefully there will only be two. That’s going to be interesting.” Morgan continues the feeding process by dumping cupfuls of black sunflower seeds into the goats’ feeding troughs. “But let me finish this and we’ll talk all about the farm. What do you think the story should be about?”
I tell her I’d like to go over how she planned this, how she planned the farm, and how she got it to run so efficiently.
“Sh*t, I have no idea.” She looks astounded that someone thought she might have. “I’m learning this as I go.”
Ali checks the chicks – they’re nearly ready to go on their own – and heads inside to her kitchen, where the bevy of books and tomes about goats and chickens undermine any concern that her whimsical demeanor should be interpreted as unsteady or easily deterred. A basket of eggs awaits some culinary final destination. She moves on into her dining area, where the table is also covered in books, many of these about cheese – she is a Certified Cheese Professional. She attempts to answer the previous question, or to at least clarify her answer.
“I like to say it’s all about the cheese, because let’s get right down to it, I love cheese,” she says about the goats specifically. “And I also love animals. I spent almost five years working at an animal hospital through and after college. Growing up, I was always the one with the snakes and the Guinea pigs and the dogs and the cats – 'please mom, please!'
“But I never at any point lived on a farm. So no, I don’t know what I’m doing but my grandparents had a farm (laughs). My dad’s dad was a cow farmer – for meat – and he also had huge gardens. My dad’s brothers ended up staying and living there – in a little town called DeLeon, about two-and-a-half hours West of here. Growing up, we’d always go out there and I loved it! I remember riding around on the three wheeler with my grandfather in the cow fields and I loved it. I remember that they had a whole barn full of bales of hay, and we would all have relay races up and down these. I loved the farm. I’ve always loved the farm.”
That love may well be the catalyst for the menagerie currently plucking, clucking and meandering about her backyard. But, more than just a nostalgic reach into her fond childhood memories, this miniaturized farm has grown into a dedicated habit – or, perhaps, a full-fledged lifestyle.
First, there’s the responsibility required of feeding 26 animals every morning. Twenty-six. Between the chickens, chicks, ducks, goats, a cat and two dogs — not to mention her own need for a bit of sustenance — it’s not a job for the faint of heart. There’s bags of feed and coop maintenance. There’s even required defense against the chupacabra that she is convinced is out wandering the alleys and killing chickens at night – “It may have been my cat Cheeseburger that killed them,” she says, “But I think it was a chupacabra.” Regardless, the pen has been proofed of predatory animals mythical or real – so far. It is, as she is quick to observe, a constant learning process.
“The most important thing I have learned with the animals is about a good, clean water source. The freeze, that was the biggest pain in the ass – I had to hand-carry all the water out because it would continually freeze,” she says. “The animals get really upset when they don’t have water. Really upset. I mean like really upset! Like, the the whole street knows it that the animals are upset.”
Neighbors. The unescapable fact of urban farming. The windows of Morgan’s neighbors to one side look directly onto the animals, while those on the other side are within 20 feet of where the chickens roost. But it wasn’t her nearby habitators that caused her the greatest concern – “they don’t seem to mind at all” – it was a much more important person than that. The thing is, Ali doesn’t own this house whose backyard has the farm she built. She rents it.
“So when the landlord found out, she was pissed! I was freaking out because I didn’t know if she was going to tell me I couldn’t do all this,” she says. “So I wrote her a letter explaining everything I was doing, how I’m not like this crazy person who’s just filling her house with animals – that I’m keeping everything super clean and nice and raising the chickens and goats as a matter of principle – to be as ethical and sustainable as possible. Once she read that, she was pretty cool about all of it. But man, that was a little scary.”
It was a note unusual not just because of the content, but because of the stated conviction. Morgan does not proselytize the farm – she will tell you she loves doing it, but if she’s trying to lead a movement, it doesn’t show. She doesn’t ramble and exhort about how everybody needs to be urban farming, or how much better her choice of passions is than those of others. She will answer any and all questions enthusiastically, but she seeks no soapbox. But do ask the questions. Her answers will tell you as much about the kind of person she is as the passion she’s pursuing:
Where’d you get the idea to do this?
“Jokingly, a couple of years ago I’d always tell people, 'Oh, I want to have a farm in the city,' and everyone was like, 'Yeah, right! You can’t have a farm in the city!' But I want to live on a farm without having to be far away from all my friends and all the people and all of the happenings. I don’t want to have to drive 30 minutes just to come in town and do something.”
How did you build your chicken coop?
“So, it started off with the chickens. I was like 'I want fresh eggs.' So I got together with my buddy Chris, who’s a carpenter, and I was like, 'Look, let’s drive around on large trash pick up day, pick up a bunch of free stuff and try to make a coop out of it.' So we spent a whole day collecting and then he built the original coop out back. The chickens have been an adventure in and of themselves – I’ve got so many chicken stories. Let’s just say the turnover rate on a city farm is substantial. I mean, it’s truly survival of the fittest. And again, I do everything I can, but I don’t tend to look before I leap, and I just assume it’s always going to turn out right. Well nine times out of 10 it doesn’t go exactly as you planned. And that’s just that. But yeah, it started off with the chickens.”
What’s been the biggest surprise?
“There was this day that I came home to a note on the door that was like, 'We have your goats.' Apparently the goats broke out and didn’t know what to do, so they were kind of just hanging out in the front yard like, 'Well, here we are,' so the neighbors managed to lure them into their backyard until I returned home.”
The anecdotes run a mile long. Standing above the fray is Morgan’s take on her rising apocalyptic value:
“I always joke around, like, 'Well, when the apocalypse happens, you may want to come here. I may not have any guns or anything like that but I’ve got food! Goats not guns!' One of my buddies jokingly asked, 'What’s going to stop me from shooting you and taking all of your food?' I asked, 'Well, do you know how to make animals make food?' And he just said, 'Ohhh – good point.' I was like, 'Yeah! I’m valuable!' My value increases because I know how to make these animals continue to make you food. My apocalyptic value is increased.”
Her farm is a source of endless stories and urban farming insight. Perhaps the fact that she is learning on the go makes her lessons seem more understandable – or maybe it’s the way she explains them. Regardless, Ali Morgan’s farm in East Dallas is inspiring to those hoping to do the same, delightful to those who enjoy animals, and entirely confounding to those without a desire to learn where their food comes from and how it’s made.
We choose inspired. This is The Urban Homesteader, and as the series progresses, we hope you chime in with questions and anecdotes of your own as we walk through city life with a farm in the backyard. Reluctant leader though she may be, Ali will be showing the way.
Pegasus News Content partner - Entree Dallas
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