When Chris Hiryak was 19, he decided to start digging. He didn’t know anything about gardening, he didn’t know how to compost, but he felt compelled to carve out a garden patch in his backyard and start growing something. As he put those first tomato and pepper plants in the ground, he says, “I just fell in love.” Next came the chickens, just a few lodged in a backyard chicken coop. Before long, he was taking over his backyard with more garden space. And it all had to be shared, the food he was growing, so he started having potlucks in the garden. “From the beginning, I saw how so much community was being built around the garden,” says Hiryak.
Ten years later, that same property is Little Rock Urban Farming, a tiny oasis of agriculture that sits just behind Fletcher Library, less than a mile from Little Rock’s Park Plaza. A recent visit to the farm revealed rows of garlic, leeks and onions covered with frost-protecting cloth. These beds sit beside a house that’s home to three interns who work on the farm in exchange for free rent and good food. On the other side of the garden, there’s a workshop with garlic drying from the rafters and big washbasins where the farm’s produce is processed. Upstairs, there’s an apartment—spotless and neat—where Hiryak lives. The walls are covered with blackboards, where colored chalk provides an outline of vegetable production and discussions of an upcoming film series the farm is producing with a chef from the Capital Hotel. Behind the workshop are several rows of shiitake mushroom logs hidden in a patch of bamboo. Finally there are the high tunnels—two large greenhouse structures where lettuce, fennel, brassicas and some early-season starts are growing.
All of this is on just more than an acre in the middle of an average Little Rock neighborhood. “Big farmers can’t believe how much food we’re growing,” says Hiryak, shaking his head. “It’s amazing what you can grow if you do it intensively.” To grow so much in such a small space, Hiryak and his crew have to pay attention to the details. Looking at the plants in the high tunnel, Chris explains that instead of pulling brassicas—plants like collards and broccoli—when they go to flower, he’s letting them stay so they attract beneficial insects. It’s that kind of systematic thinking that’s allowed him to become a leader in the urban agriculture scene of Arkansas, even consulting with Heifer International to help farmers in the Delta learn from his methods. Chris and his interns sell his farm’s produce at several farmers’ markets, including Hillcrest and The Bernice Garden. They also have a small Community Supported Agriculture program (CSA) in which customers pay at the beginning of the growing season and get a weekly “share” of all of the farm’s produce. This model helps give farmers some of the upfront money they need to operate and ties customers into a closer relationship with the farm.
All of this, and Chris just turned 30. When he planted that first garden, he never expected those first tomato plants to tether him to the soil, but they did. “I always thought I’d go into the corporate world,” he says, “but every time I got an interview and they asked, ‘If you could do anything, what would it be?’ I always found myself saying, ‘I’d just be a farmer.’” Although he got the corporate job, it wasn’t six months before he was back outside. He had to get back to the dirt, and now he’s there to stay, showing us all what we can do with a backyard and an empty lot.
Go see it, taste the food. It’s more beautiful than any grassy lawn.