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Close-up: Bill Tall

Resurgence in urban farming helps City Farmers grow

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Bill Tall has spent the last 40 years doing what he loves. As the owner of City Farmers Nursery, he gardens, raises animals, teaches classes on site and seems always available to answer customers’ questions.

Over the years, City Farmers has grown from offering a few plants and bagged manure to now including various animals, bees and bee keeping supplies, a goat co-op, canning and dehydrating supplies, aquaculture, and everything you’d need to manage your garden.

Customer service, education and a certain down-home charm differentiate City Farmers from other nurseries.

Tall and his staff of nine employees are very knowledgeable and take the time to thoroughly help customers with their gardening questions and dilemmas. They love what they do and it shows. They offer free classes and workshops on topics such as pruning, raising urban chickens and olive preserving.

“I just get excited when people get excited,” Tall said. “I get excited that they’re going to try something new.”

Tall, whose “uniform” consists of a green City Farmers T-shirt, bright yellow suspenders and jeans, also teaches free cooking classes in his own 400-square-foot kitchen. His house is located right on the 1.5-acre property in City Heights.

“I have a big kitchen, and one of my hobbies besides woodworking and gardening is cooking,” Tall said. “I also do lot of canning, dehydrating and preserving. So since I was doing this, I thought I should carry supplies and teach other people how to do this.

“And who knows what’s next?”

A small barn on the property houses goats, chickens, ducks and turkeys. There’s a rabbit hutch, turtle pond and fish tank. All the animals play a part in the nursery’s “recycling program,” as Tall calls it. The animals eat the vegetable scraps, and their manure goes into the worm bins. The worm castings then go back into the garden.

The educational opportunities draw teachers from area schools. Field trips to the nursery might consist of simply wandering the grounds and visiting with the animals, or may involve a guided tour to learn more about gardening and plant and animal life cycles.

“There’s not lot of places in the city for kids to visit animals without having to pay for it,” Tall said. “We are able to provide that. It’s a really good educational thing for parents and kids.”

Tall has constantly evolved City Farmers based on customers’ needs and desires, as well as his own burgeoning interests.

In recent years, there’s been a revival in urban farming and community gardening. More people want to grow their own food, and Tall said the interest has greatly affected business. He’s seen an uptick in the attendance of the nursery’s classes and workshops, and sales of chickens and bees are on the rise. Edible plant sales now outpace sales of decorative plants.

“A lot of people are taking their lawns out and putting gardens in,” Tall said. “And it’s nice to see, because an edible landscape doesn’t have to look like a farm.”

More than just a fad, gardening is a “huge change in lifestyle,” he said. “It’s a calm, peaceful thing.” Eating food you grew right out of your own yard is a bonus. You know what’s in it -- and what’s not.

City Farmers maintains every plant organically, without pesticides. Tall said the renewed interest in growing your own food is due to food insecurities.

“There have been a few food scares in the past. The imported foods. What’s in food, what is it made of? The whole GMO (genetically modified organisms) thing is a little bit scary. I personally want to know what the heck is in my food, and if it’s been changed in any way,” Tall said. “All those things have wisened people.”

Tall, who doesn’t call himself an environmentalist but just a “regular guy concerned about my footprint in the world,” has always grown plants organically. At first, that was partly out of necessity. “We didn’t have money for sprays and all that,” he said.

Tall is nothing if not resourceful.

The San Diego native was just 16 when he started the business in 1972, with $200 he had saved up working at SeaWorld and a plot of land his father let him use.

He took plants people didn’t want anymore and went through the trash at nurseries, picking out plants he thought could be revived. He made his first dollar by taking manure from a local dairy farm, bagging it in empty sacks from a bakery up the street and selling it, three bags for $1.05.

When he graduated high school, Tall had a business to run, so he attended the only horticulture program available in San Diego at the time. At Mesa College he met a lot of people in the industry and began slowly expanding the business.

Soon he married, and the young couple moved into a mobile home on the City Farmers property. At the time, Tall also did landscaping and yard maintenance to supplement their income.

Although the marriage didn’t last, Tall and his ex-wife had three children, who have all worked in the business to help put food on the table. They still help out here and there, but all are pursuing other careers.

At 56, Tall isn’t ready to think about retirement, though he concedes he has had the conversation with his children. It’s becoming more of a possibility that one of them will take over the nursery, he said.

“They know my heart’s into it and I love it, and they would hate to see it not be here. I’m sure when I pass on they’re not going to close it up and sell the property,” he said. “They know how hard I’ve worked to get what we have, so they look more at that than the finances of it. But if don’t want to do it, that’s OK, too.”

For now, business is doing very well.

“The success of a business is when people love what they do and express that,” he said. “You can have a business and look at the dollars and cents only. You can look at them both. I look at them a little less than equally. How many nurseries would take valuable square footage and put a piano in there for people to play in the middle of the dry goods section?”

Probably just one.

-Klam is a San Diego-based freelance writer.

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