Extreme Housewives

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The Urban Homesteader

Kelly Coyne and her husband, Erik Knutzen, have a chicken coop, two beehives, and a produce section's worth of vegetables behind their home. It may not sound like much until you consider that the couple's backyard is a mere 1,800 square feet in downtown Los Angeles. "We couldn't have predicted this when we moved into our house 10 years ago," says Coyne, 43. "It started with one tomato plant. But as many gardeners know, tomatoes really are the gateway drug to more and more vegetables. We realized that whatever we grew would taste better than whatever we bought."

Today their small lot is crammed with a bounty of vegetables and fruit trees, which they irrigate with runoff from their washing machine. A chicken run stretches along one side of their yard, most of which is dedicated to growing edible or otherwise-useful plants. The sloping front yard is terraced and is home to fruit trees and edible cactus. There are also four vegetable beds out front. Hops (which the couple use for brewing beer) grow next to the front porch and grapes cover the arbor off the back one. What they can't grow themselves they get at local farmers' markets. But even those purchases are limited because Coyne also makes her own bread, yogurt, and cleaning products. She even makes jelly out of the cactus fruit and fashions her own lip balm out of beeswax and olive oil.

The husband-and-wife team say their decision to live the pioneer lifestyle is as much about healthier living as it is about a healthier planet. It's more time-consuming to grow their own food, for sure -- in addition to the daily garden chores, they must compost, irrigate, tend the chickens, and replant for each of their two growing seasons. But the couple say they don't want to support companies that sell genetically engineered foods or give their money to corporate farms that treat animals inhumanely. "Every day I'm voting with my actions by not buying foods from irresponsible companies," says Coyne. "I think the more we make these kinds of choices, the better the world will be."

Coyne, a former administrative director for the Museum of Jurassic Technology, now makes a living by writing about her urban homesteading life. With Knutzen, who left his job as a researcher for an arts organization two years ago, she's written books on living simply (The Urban Homestead and Making It) and cohosts the blog Homegrownevolution.com. The site is a go-to spot for like-minded families, and there you'll find conservative Christian homesteaders and off-the-grid liberals posting comments on everything from pickle crocks to peat moss. "In the past we would have learned these homesteading skills at our grandmothers' knees, but that's not the case anymore," says Coyne. "We now learn from books and other people. We advise each other on sick chickens and the best seedlings, and help one another out on big projects."

There's another component to the couple's unorthodox lifestyle that drives Coyne. It's that sense of exploration -- and accomplishment -- that comes with living somewhat off the grid. "This is a way to keep learning throughout life," she says. "I don't believe this kind of in-home labor is demeaning. I believe it's the most important labor that can be done. Sewing, fermenting, these things are all arts and it's their inherent nobility that keeps life interesting."

Continued on page 3:  Down on the Farm


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