Jordan Shay maintains her yard with 80,000 hired hands. She pays them with a place to crash — two wooden bins in her backyard. They make excellent gardeners, exploring Broadmoor flowerbeds for up-to-snuff pollen. It's a mutually beneficial relationship, as long as they don't mind a twice-yearly gassing and a starring role on Shay's blog.
Since March 2008, Shay and her boyfriend, Albert Walsh, have been urban beekeepers, maintaining two hives with growing numbers in them. The bees were a gift from friend, exterminator and bee aficionado Jeff Armstrong.
"If you have a random swarm that collects in a tree or a yard or the side of your house, attic, wherever, [Armstrong's] the guy you're going to call," Shay says. "He doesn't like killing them, so a lot of times he ends up keeping them. He's got millions of bees.
"When he found out we were interested in bees, he called us when he collected a swarm. He had them in a little cardboard box — full of 8,000 bees — so we dumped them out into the hive."
Shay and Walsh only remove the honeycomb habitat once or twice a year when the bees don't need the honey to keep the colony alive. In December, the couple donned their beekeeping suits and lulled the bees from their hive with a gentle smokeout. After removing the honeycomb frame, out came the honeycomb, which they processed in their kitchen with common household utensils: mixing bowls, cookie sheets and pots and pans.
"They're very efficient for backyard farming, or as urban livestock," Shay says. "You don't have to put much work into them. They kind of just do it themselves and you get this wonderful product."
The result — several months' worth of honey — offered the Broadmoor couple a taste of the neighborhoods' pollinating plants and fodder for Shay's blog, Front Yard Farmer (http://jordaneshay.wordpress.com).
A transplant from Santa Cruz, Calif., Shay moved to New Orleans in January 2006, just months after Hurricane Katrina.
"I've always been interested in gardening," she says. "That area's pretty receptive to local farms and urban farming. I like producing things. It's a nice challenge on a small scale to see just what you can do."
Shay started her farming blog Aug. 7, 2008, but she didn't have a mission statement until the following November. Her entry dated Nov. 22, 2008, offers this thesis for her on- and offline farming project: "The whole reason I'm doing this is so I feel better about what I eat," she wrote. And what she eats isn't strictly honey. In fact, the bees are just a taste of her backyard farm.
"Death is a steep price to pay for trespassing," she wrote in the same entry, "but I value my peas, and this backyard is not a democracy."
Shay did not hesitate to use capital punishment to protect her property. A small family of Muscovy ducks roosting in her backyard was up to adolescent hijinks, and by last Thanksgiving, the ducks made for a feast of no small proportion.
"I felt good about it," she says about her decision to raise and eat the ducks. "It's nice to have a freezer full of meat that you know exactly where it came from. It just seems like it's worth more to me. I'm going to use as much of it as I possibly can, since I know what went into raising it. I'm not just going to eat the meat and throw it away. I'm going to make stock out of the bones, eat the liver, the gizzards ... everything I can. It's more valuable to me since I know how long it took to raise it, how much it cost, and all the work involved."
Inspired by Barbara Kingsolver's book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle — A Year of Food Life and its thesis "you are what you eat," Shay took on the challenge of eating foods raised within a 100-mile radius, as Kingsolver did.
"I was a vegetarian for a long time," Shay says. "It doesn't really work for me. What I really had a problem with is how animals are raised, so I thought it would be interesting to see if I could raise some of my own meat and just make sure if they're ducks, they get to be ducks, and they get to do what they like to do and die peacefully.
"Now I'm at a period where I can make more educated choices — not eating meat produced on big factory farms, pumped full of drugs and fed a lot of corn, that never see a blade of grass."
"And then there were three ..." The blog's subject line for duck harvest day sits above a picture of an axe-wielding Shay. "Harvesting food is not for the faint of heart," she writes. Surely no warm-blooded farmer revels in harvest day, but putting it online was easy for Shay.
"I like to write," she says. "I didn't know anyone else who was doing it in this urban setting. I know people who raise their own meat, but I was excited about seeing what I could actually accomplish in a moderately sized backyard. I kind of liked the personal aspect of the blog, and also it was easier and faster for me to set up. Things were changing really rapidly — ducks grow really fast."
Shay's duck roost is empty, but she still has her beehive, which she sees as an easy model for others to replicate. "It's hard to estimate how much time I put into it," she says, "but the bees are dormant, and we're not even using all of our space, so I definitely think it's something feasible for other people."
What urban gastronomic adventure is next for the Broadmoor couple? "Rabbits," Shay says. "And I definitely want to get chickens again."