Every morning at 5:15, Kevin Farrington gets out of bed to wash the dishes, make breakfast for his wife and daughter, and feed the chickens, ducks, and goats that, along with a 1,200 square foot garden, make up his “backyard homestead”—the source for a large portion of his family’s food supply. With a county population exceeding three million, most busy locals scurry through a daily landscape of freeways, fast food, and office buildings; but on this day, Kevin was planning to till the garden for the next season of crops.
Kevin is not like most Orange County residents; a strong sense of tradition and a desire to preserve life the way it used to be is what motivates him to live a natural, meatless, and consciously simple life. An affinity for antique tools, cars, furniture, and home distilling, among other things, are a way for him to identify with a period of time that has been seemingly washed from the American landscape. It is also a way for Kevin to resist the political and big business forces that promote an agenda of constant consumption, and a too-rapid pace for change.
The Farrington home sits at the front of a one-quarter acre lot in “unincorporated Tustin”—a fancy way of saying not Santa Ana. Kevin’s uncle’s father and grandfather finished construction on the house in 1947 where it was placed along the east side of a ten-acre orange grove not far from the Tustin Branch of the Southern Pacific Railroad. Today, a church and an elementary school separate Kevin’s house from the oldest house in the neighborhood—his parent’s home, built in 1919.
Throughout the neighborhood are several newly constructed, stucco super-mansions, which have been erected on tiny, subdivided lots. In an older looking neighborhood characterized by small custom built houses sitting on large plots of land, these new homes are hard to miss; the absurdity of this juxtaposition is humorously exhibited every evening when Kevin and his wife leash the goats for a walk down the street.
“It wasn’t long after the construction of my house that the area began to grow, and, to our collective detriment, Orange County is now ‘The OC.’”
Inside, Kevin’s home is small and cramped, but from behind handmade drapes, a large, open window allows an orange glow to flood a spacious and cozy living room adorned with custom renovated couches and end tables from the 1950’s. A small, V-2 replica, rocket ship lamp sits on one table, and an “A Christmas Story” inspired female-shaped leg lamp rests atop the other. Along the right wall, collections of old and first edition books fill several wooden bookshelves; in the small dining area to the left of the living room, adjacent to the kitchen, is a refinished, antique dining table that sits neatly between a retro-styled bar and a corner hutch with family stemware and home-blown glass cups and dishes. Even the kitchen, with a retrofit 1950’s Wedgewood Stove, follows the retro pattern, an aesthetic Kevin has long admired.
“I don’t really want to live in the actual past, but I mourn the loss of designs and manufacturing that gave us those things we now see as antiques.”
In the backyard, there is a multitude of hand built fence posts and chicken wire partitions that separate the garden, beehive, duck pond (a large, circular, aluminum trough), and chicken pen from a grassy strip of traditional “backyard” leisure space. Along the rear wall, in the chicken coop, is an “English-styled, pitched-roof, lean-to” that Kevin built for the ten chickens. On the side of the house near the elementary school is a shelter and pen for two pygmy goats, where everyday, children walking home from school peer into Old Man Farrington’s backyard to bleat at the bleating goats. On the other side of the backyard, behind the detached garage and workshop, the garden flourishes with an avocado tree, apricot tree, two navel-orange trees, a blood-orange tree, a nectarine tree, peach tree, plum tree, apple tree, pear tree, and a native grape vine, as well as an ever-changing rotation of tomatoes, potato’s, beets, broccoli, arugula, wild cilantro, corn, onions, squash, beans, and a bell pepper plant.
For the last nine years, this backyard homestead, which started with a few herbs, became Kevin’s increasingly obsessive, but functionally realistic experiment with veganism—the result of a persistent stomach illness, a desire to support small, local, and independent farmers, and a growing revulsion for big business’ unethical treatment of animals for human consumption.
“Any marginally well-adjusted human being cannot watch a slaughterhouse operation without wincing or turning away. It is a natural human behavior to react in such a way to suffering and pain, because what is out of sight is out of mind.
“The vegan thing was progressed into gradually while I was reading about the continued death of American farming. I decided that if I wanted to say I supported family farms, I actually needed to. And after years of not even thinking about it, I could not continue to say I was a Jeffersonian Republican and support the massive corporate welfare of the modern farm bill. It just doesn't make sense in a logical way, to support the small business verbally, while doing everything one can to destroy them with one's dollar vote.”
Behind the avocado tree, a shovel strikes the earth. It slides in, half buried, and pulls out a winters worth of compost and soil. Against the shared perimeter wall, next to Kevin’s only adjacent neighbor, the soil turns up a curiously thick, green beetle—a larval June bug, known locally as a “Japanese Beetle.”
“Take a flat blade shovel and dig down. You’ll see all these tube-like holes—and these larval beetles will poke out and stare up at you. The quantity of these things is staggering, and if I don’t get rid of the ones I see, they’ll eventually eat whatever I plant.”
Again and again, the shovel brings more beetles to light—in just a few minutes of work, over two-dozen are found. Nearby, a small, plastic trashcan lid is lying upside down on the ground. For every beetle he finds, Kevin picks it up and tosses it into the lid. In the sun, the beetles, each roughly the size of a man’s thumb, wriggle helplessly like upturned roly-poly’s. Their undersides are strangely translucent and their muscles squirm with the agony and tension that comes with fright. Some are able to ascend the inner surface of the bowl, but ultimately slip near the rim before sliding back to the bottom—a Sisyphus-like punishment until enough are collected and thrown into the chicken coop. There, the cock puffs up and blitzes toward a victim, and the hens, too, scatter madly for the mid-afternoon treat.
As Kevin yanks back on the cord to start the tiller’s motor, he scampers at the sight of a large, listless tree rat lying belly up in the grass. After a brief visit to the garage, he returns with a pump-action pellet gun and a rusted tin of pellets.
“I’m assuming it was poisoned—you just don’t see them out in the day. It didn’t even move.”
Six point-blank shots later, partly the fault of a malfunctioning and powerless weapon, the rat’s eyes roll back, and the gun is exchanged for a garden spade.
“Ah! I hate this! You know… two or three years ago, I couldn’t have done that.”
In the backyard homestead, Kevin’s moral passion is displayed most earnestly. One simply doesn’t wake up one day and decide to become a vegan or to enact a drastic change in lifestyle. How does a man raised on cream puffs and Pepsi eschew the convenience of modern foods for the rigorous and self-sustaining practice of growing his own?
“I have always been resistant and suspicious of change, and that is an elemental earth quality. There's not much more earth bound than horticulture. I remember trying, as best I could, to make a garden and grow stuff when I was maybe seven or eight years old. It was where someone had recently washed out paint, so my mother, who was very irritated with me, promptly said that if anything grew she wouldn't eat it. It's odd, but I really do feel that these qualities, while certainly augmented by skills I've learned in life, were deep in my blood well before I was aware. I think it's a combination of the German farmers and the English aristocrat that makes it up. I have a lot of Welsh in me too, but that's mostly manifested in depression and a love of whiskey.”
After a wet winter, the garden is overrun by wild cilantro; various shapes, sizes, and colors of squash lay forgotten in the sun, and dozens of pimply, near-ripe avocados hang from the bowed branches of an overgrown tree, but the tilling is finished, and exactly when the next round of crops will be planted is unknown. Lately, with schoolwork, and an eight-month young daughter, the garden hasn’t received as much attention as it needs—an obvious thorn in his side—but he makes do, and perhaps in that is an understanding that all can relate to, regardless of whether the work is in the office or in the garden.
“There is not time enough in a day, and I feel the crushing weight of everything I can't do.”