Friday, November 16, 2007

More Will Be Asked of Us: Revisiting 100 Million Farmers

A lot of people ask me why I don't can food and put it up for sale. I've had people say "Wow, I love your kitchen full of jars of home-canned food - where can I get food like that?" I had a woman ask me if I'd raise my chickens as complete vegetarians so that she could eat the eggs - I pointed out that chickens who have the opportunity spend a lot of their time eating bugs, but she said that she only wanted eggs from vegetarian chickens.

My friend, Beth Hook just emailed me about the same issues - one of her customers eats fish as a primary protein source, and wanted to know why Beth couldn't raise some tilapia in tanks for her in her copious spare time while she runs her CSA, and another customer wanted her to stop using flouridated town water to water her garden.

I think one of the biggest problems we have as a society is that for 50 years, we've been told that the most important role we can have in changing our options is to "create markets" - that is, to tell people "I want this" so that someone else will do it for us. And to an extent, that's true -I'm very grateful to people who buy local food and want to provision themselves locally. But I also believe that the notion tha our primary contribution to the world is to make markets has handicapped us.

The simple truth is that no matter how wonderful the local markets, your local farms probably won't support most of the populace. Thus far, local food is a luxury item, for those in the know, and those who have access to it. Because of the sheer number of interested consumers, markets are indeed expanding rapidly - and that's absolutely wonderful.

But the blunt truth is that if the time were to come fairly rapidly that we needed to *rely* on our extant food and agricultural systems, we'd be in deep trouble, very quickly. The current models are nowhere near large enough or resilient enough to meet present needs, much less enable surpluses to be produced in regions that can produce them to protect us from famine.

So how do we get more local agriculture on the ground? Part of that is the creation of new markets - which means the creation of new eating patterns. Farmers do not exist in a vacuum - they grow foods people want to eat and to buy. That means we need to eat locally, create markets for local foods, and start relying on local markets for staple foods as well. We need to start making and modelling local cusines and diets.

There are limits, however, to markets. For example, unless you are prepared to pay $20lb for potatoes, it will be difficult to make ends meet growing fields of potatoes in Westchester County for New York City - if there are any fields left. The cost of land and living are simply too high. It isn't that you can't grow staples in Westchester - but where real estate market meets farmer's market, real estate wins, at least in high value areas. So no matter how much desire you create for local staple crops in Manhattan, you are unlikely to create sufficient markets unless we do more - encourage agricultural land to be set aside from development, for example, encourage communities to manage their open land agriculturally, transform parts of public parks into farms.

And it means that those of us who want local food have to do more than simply create markets. In order to create a resilient food sovreignty, a local food system that can handle crop failures, floods, droughts and bad years, that can feed its population and in good years provide surpluses for food reserves and for other communities, we have to maximize the use of our land. And that means growing food ourselves whenever possible - getting out to that community garden, putting those containers on rooftops, turning your yard into a food producing area.

A year ago I called for 100 Million farmers, and I've had the pleasure of seeing that idea enter the mainstream. Richard Heinberg gave talks about 50 million farmers, in part based on my idea, and put it in his latest book. Pat Murphy at the Community Solution is calling for 25-50% of the populace to be involved in agriculture. But what does "involved" mean here? Does it mean that half of everyone in the workforce has to quit their jobs and get a farm with a capital F?

No, it doesn't. In fact, I suspect the vast majority of the people who will be growing food will not be doing so on a field scale - the way we've subdivided our agricultural land, turned it into suburbs and put houses on it means that almost half of our land, much of it extremely good farmland, is set in small lots of a quarter acre, half an acre, two acres with houses on it. We must farm that land - by 2050, we will only have 0.6 acres per person of arable land in the US. Our current diet requires 3xs that much land. If we ate vastly less meat and more beans and grains, we could reduce that to 1.2 acres per person. But 0.6 acres means that under the present system, people will starve - unless at least half of our 100 million farmers are people in existing housing, turning existing land into food producing spaces. We are going to depend on our home farmers absolutely - that means everyone who possibly can be must become one.

We need more professional farmers, and more and better markets for them that will enable them to achieve a fair wage. But we also do need people to farm their own bits of land - because the smaller your farm is, the more productive it generally is. All of us who garden know this - manage a pot and you can manage it by the centimeter, a garden bed can be managed by the inch. Small scale home agriculture on a half an acre or so can produce yields that will put professional farmers to shame. There are some crops that aren't especially efficient to grow on that scale, but hundreds more that are.

That means that the responsibility for eating a local diet has to lie with those of us who believe in doing it - so if you want your chickens to be vegetarians, that means maybe going to your zoning board and changing the policies about poultry, building a coop and a run, and raising your own chickens on grains and grass with all the bugs picked out. If you want your state or region to be able to feed itself, you need to be at the forefront of this, working to transform existing open land into gardens, and using the bit land you own, if you own any, optimally.

It means that if you want to eat local, seasonal food all year 'round, if you aren't so disabled you can't cook, you'll have to do your own food preservation. It is more work - but just in case I've given the false impression that I want everyone here to eat local so badly that I'll come to their house and put up their peppers for them, let me clarify - I don't want it that badly ;-). I do believe it is essential for our future and survival - but my goal is to persuade you to believe it and do your share of the work ;-) - most years, I can barely get my own food preservation done.

The tiny percentage of the American population who are professional farmers cannot do it alone - they can't because farming is a tough job, but they also can't because the places we most need to grow food are places with little or no farmland available. That is, we need grow the most food in densely populated areas - this is common sense. If peak oil means transportation problems (duh), we're most secure if we have a lot of food grown where we live.

This is perfectly possible - many cities, including densely populated Hong Kong, grow signficant portions of their produce and meat within the city limits. The average suburban lot could provide half the calories for a family of four plus surplus to sell for neighbors. But home prices are high in places near urban centers, and farmers can't afford to buy land - because it is much more valuable with houses on it than potatoes. So one of the essential factors - perhaps *THE SINGLE MOST ESSENTIAL FACTOR* in our food security will be small scale farmers (and I prefer to call small scale producers farmers - it is far too fine and significant a word to leave to the Con Ag folks) and gardeners who do the work *in addition* to the work they do for their economic support. Those are the only people who can afford to farm high value land near cities - the people who live there already. And that also means that we have to find ways to keep people in their houses as the economy tanks and the transition begins - because in areas where home food production is feasible, it must go forward, and food production requires a degree of stability - you cannot build soil, nurture fruit trees, design for permaculture without staying place. This may not be perfectly possible for everyone, but to the extent that it is possible, most of us need to find a place to stay, and to advocate to for ways to keep people in their houses.

And we must farm that land - as studies demonstrate, there will be less and less available arable land over the next few decades, and more and more people eating. The truth is that if we don't make the suburbs, cities and exurbs into food producing areas, we will most likely know real and serious hunger. We cannot afford to lose the best farmland we have, just because we put houses on it. And we cannot afford to lose our sense of perspective, and to trust that if we just make markets, other people, different people, will do the hard work of producing the food for us. More will be asked of us than that.

Green consumerism is a growing phenomenon - my current favorite ad shows a man standing in front of his McMansion, with arrows pointing to his "sustainably harvested wood trim" and garage made out of rare tropical wood harvested by hand by native tribesmen of Indonesia with stone axes (ok, I exaggerate a little), with a big smile and a comment underneath about how proud he is that he can have what he wants, and what is right.

And underneath the message of green consumerism is an enormous lie - that our major job in the world is to open our mouths like baby birds and wait for markets to feed us a big, juicy, environmentally-friendly worm. The simple truth is that none of us are served by being told that we don't have to do anything. In fact, I wonder sometimes if that isn't the reason that Americans suffer so much from depression, anxiety and other disorders - because we are told that we are powerless, and thus not obliged to contribute anything so very often. That is, I wonder if the absolute most destructive thing we can do for people is to lie to them and say "just buy better stuff" rather than "get to work." The message of "get to work" involves inconvenience, of course, but it also involves power, and autonomy, and making meaning - things that human beings value and indeed, revel in. We like to do a good job. We like to find meaning in what we do - in fact, that latter may be the most fundamental human project. And we are not so stupid that it has escaped the notice of at least our unconsciousness that there is no deeper meaning in opening one's mouth and waiting for a worm.

It will not, of course, be an easy transition. You cannot tell people for fifty years that they have nothing to contribute but their wanting without them having some difficulty with the message that now, we want more from them. But I also believe that those who say that sacrifice and commitment are not possible, that we're so spoiled and lost that we don't have the capacity for those things are completely, utterly wrong. In fact, I would argue that we long to make our work matter - in every study I've seen, most Americans express pride and a desire to do well when at work. We want to matter to - the overwhelming message after September 11 was "what can I do." And the answer, of course, was that we could go shopping. We did, but many, many people expressed their dissatisfaction in that answer - they wanted to do more, give more, find an outlet for their desire to help. Now some might argue that the momentum of September 11 is long gone - that's true. But I don't believe that September 11 made us different than we are, I believe it forced us to confront for a moment our deep desire to make meaning, to be part of something meaningful - and that if that lurks back in many of us, waiting for a crisis, it could be called forth, exposed to the light and made beautiful and transformative.

We need to buy local food and support local farmers, to create markets for local economies. That is good and important work. But MORE WILL BE ASKED OF ALL OF US THAN THAT. It is time to get comfortable with that reality. As my friend Beth said, "Gesh, Grow It Yourself!" It is time for all of us who can to move from simply buying local, to producing local.



Anonymous said...

My neighborhood (which, I have learned on 90% reduction may or may not be a suburb) has lots that are 175 feet in lenght, with the house set back only 20 feet, (the houses tend to be 20 x 20 feet)giving almost 100 feet of back garden. Per the late oldest inhabitant, whose father build (literally, he was a bricklayer who'd build a house, sell it, and then build another) about 1/2 of the houses in the three by three street area that comprises the neighborhood, it was because that was how much land a family needed to grow enough food to put up for the winter. Of course, this was supliemented by brought grains, diary, meat, though many people kept poultry and rabbits, and a few raised a pig.

She died 10 years ago at the age of 98, and remembers the last 2 time people really used the gardens for food were the Great Depression and WWII.

We used to me a million farmers. We can, and must be, again.


olympia said...

Wow, people are buggy, with the way they think you can raise food. It's understandable, I guess- the market has been our bitch for so long we can't envision it any other way. Still, it's astounding, to see how deep out denial of the laws of nature now runs.

Consider me convinced- I'm going to get serious about that garden (I've grown tomatoes, basil, and some very ill-thought out catnip over the past couple of summers, but I paid very little attention to my garden after the planting). As I read more about permaculture, I wonder if it's possible to grow a self-sustaining garden without introducing some livestock into the mix. I'm not sure if I'm ready to raise chickens and bunnies, though. Does anyone have any advice on this, perchance?

homebrewlibrarian said...

Here in Alaska, local food isn't just a luxury item, it's a very scarce item. Finding the folks who produce vegetables, breads, poultry, meats of all kinds, fish products, dairy products, birch syrup, jams and jellies and whatever else can be made are difficult to find. It takes a concerted effort to look and keep looking before being rewarded with discovering a hidden gem. My chicken wrangler is one such gem. Today's Great Find was the organic bakery (that only uses sourdough starter for leavening with their all organic products) that does a weekly delivery to a coffee shop around the corner from where I work. I was so excited by it, I bought a loaf that I brought to work and we all stood around the break room munching absolutely fabulous bread. There are now four of us who will be supporting their business in the coming days.

But I agree that the responsibility of feeding oneself falls upon oneself. This coming season will a first for me and my little group of community where we try some raised bed gardens in a community member's backyard. The first trick is to find the yard under the dozen or so years of junk all over it but we should be able to clean off enough for three or four small raised beds and a few apple trees. Hopefully, we'll successfully raise some foods and figure out what works and doesn't work. I'm thankful I have friends who have successfully grown vegies in this part of Alaska so at least we don't have to recreate the wheel so to speak.

The neighborhood where we plan to do this has seen backyard gardens and flocks of chickens over the years so it won't shock the neighbors. There was one garden that was an entire empty lot on a corner cultivated by an elderly African American gentleman and his middle aged son. I'd see them out working or resting on a free standing porch swing they'd put next to their rows on afternoons in the summer. This past year nothing was grown and it makes me wonder why. If nothing gets grown this year, I'm going to look into asking to use some of it for our food production. Hopefully they won't sell the lot anytime soon. The neighborhood was gentrifying for a while but that seems to have stopped. In fact, I'm seeing a lot of houses for sale that aren't selling very quickly. Maybe that's good news for us.

Well, consider me one of the million farmers starting next season as well as a supporter of local food businesses. And out doing my darnedest to convert the masses!


Anonymous said...

Good as usual Sharon. Actually tilapia lady was a prospective customer (of tilapia) :).

I enjoy growing food for others but at times the lack of understanding on what it takes to "make" an ear of corn or egg gets to me when a consumer reads off a list of requirements for such ie vegetarian chickens or organic and bug free corn (my CSA customers get trained to deal with corn worms some of the kids look forward to feeding the worms to the chickens).

Until recently I used to simply get annoyed by folks with food issues, gesh if you are that delicate take the bull by the horns :) and raise food for which you know how its raised. But I now realize I won't be able to feed my entire town, but there are many acres of lawns here I'd be more than happy to give gardening and chicken lessons.

Olympia what would you like to know about chickens? :)

Beth Green Hill Farm

ideasinca said...

Whenever I see news or documentary photographs illustrating life in urban Asia, I am always struck by the fact that every last square inch of visible available space is being used to grow food. This is never what the photos are meant to illustrate, but it's what I always notice!

And it's a beautiful sight, even judged strictly aesthetically. All that color, texture, variety. Americans have been so conditioned to conformity and cultural monotony that we're afraid to stand out. So everyone's front yard is green grass and shrubs, everyone's coffee is Starbucks, every middle school kid has to wear the "right" clothes or risk ostracism.

May this change soon. And thank you, Sharon, for all your effort and writing. For all your positive energy in the face of a hideously depressing onrushing calamity. Sometimes you and that second cup of (non-Starbucks, home-roasted) coffee are the only things that get me off my horrified behind in the morning and out to meet my own challenges. That's why I save your blog to read *after* the rest of the gloomy, doomy news.

Anonymous said...

This summer we planted a whole lot of veggies in proper beds, whereas before we had a few things tucked in here and there amongst the perennials without too much thought. I discovered a local community garden in August that we can walk to in 10 minutes. (It's rather hidden and right near the police station.) So I've signed on for a plot for the spring and we're excited at the prospect. We're also going to turn over more of the garden to veggies (just have to rent the roto-tiller, having covered the area in plastic all summer.)

My only concern is the time factor. We will have a lot more area in production, and we found that it was tough at times keeping up with what we got this year. As well, I'm starting back to work permanent part time, so even less time. Time management will be put to the test....but any suggestion will be well appreciated ;-)

Susan in Ontario

Anonymous said...

Regarding photos of cities in Asia...virtually every account I read of rural education in Africa seems to include children tending a school garden.

My dd's school in NJ has one, which third graders take care of, but for libility reasons, they can't grow food.

Anonymous said...

Our economics is in so many unsustainable squeezes. There are many things that any family can do to lower their dependence on others, if they have the skills and the time. Growing food on you own small family lots doesn't just take work, it also takes skills and time. But America's gardening skills are badly eroded, and more importantly Americans work much longer hours than in the past. Indeed, many families need two money-incomes to make their ends meet and keep their land.

The professional farmers can't afford to grow potatoes in high property-value markets. But the households may not be able to either, because they also need to devote too much of their time to cash-jobs to continue to afford the land. Americans are squeezed for money AND time.

Now if things get bad, there is likely to be unemployment and underemployment, and some people will suddenly have time again. But that won't solve things for 2 reasons. 1) Many of those people will lose their property, and be unable to farm it. 2) Many of those people have never had the time to develop the appropriate skills, and are unlikely to get good crops their first season or two.

I agree that we need to encourage home farming. But there are real structural reasons why more people don't home farm already, and it isn't just the existence of cheap markets to buy food at.
-Brian M.

Tasterspoon said...

This is a beautifully written call to arms, and the comments you attract are thoughtful and thought-provoking. (I linked over here from your beautifully written comment on No Impact Man cautioning him not to downplay the sacrifice true environmentalism demands. Oddly, I find your perspective invigorating rather than discouraging.)

Small victory, but you've motivated me to sign up for a community gardening plot for next spring, too. (And to investigate whether there's anything I can do with my shady back patio. My "garden" this year was pretty crummy.)

RedStateGreen said...

"...underneath the message of green consumerism is an enormous lie - that our major job in the world is to open our mouths like baby birds and wait for markets to feed us a big, juicy, environmentally-friendly worm. The simple truth is that none of us are served by being told that we don't have to do anything. In fact, I wonder sometimes if that isn't the reason that Americans suffer so much from depression, anxiety and other disorders - because we are told that we are powerless, and thus not obliged to contribute anything so very often. That is, I wonder if the absolute most destructive thing we can do for people is to lie to them and say "just buy better stuff" rather than "get to work."


Anonymous said...

Brian M wrote:
Our economics is in so many unsustainable squeezes. There are many things that any family can do to lower their dependence on others, if they have the skills and the time. Growing food on you own small family lots doesn't just take work, it also takes skills and time. But America's gardening skills are badly eroded, and more importantly Americans work much longer hours than in the past. Indeed, many families need two money-incomes to make their ends meet and keep their land.

The professional farmers can't afford to grow potatoes in high property-value markets. But the households may not be able to either, because they also need to devote too much of their time to cash-jobs to continue to afford the land. Americans are squeezed for money AND time.

I am going to somewhat disagree. I wasn't born knowing how to grow veggies although I did learn fairly young. I did not however learn about chickens until 10 years ago when I aquired about 6. I read and observed.

I've learned things about growing via repetition.

Are many people in a tough situation landwise yes. But I bet there is more land available than they think similar to the Asian city gardens mentioned.

Actually IMHO potatoes in ones backyard maybe one of the easier things to grow. Trench throw in some seed potatoes, cover, wait, cover a bit more, wait etc. Apply water and fert. as needed. Weed a bit Dig. Tomatoes can be as easy.
Keep it to a managable scale few plants, learn, expand.

I think a small plot 12 x 6 ish could be managed simply working a few hours on ones day off. Throw in a quick tour on the way out the door to work (outrageously enjoyable) and bam veggies for the table.

A few chickens say 3 aren't any harder than a dog.

Beth Green Hill Farm

Anonymous said...

People don't realize how much they can grow on a small lot. My family of four lives on 1/4 of an acre and we grow a lot of our food. We produce all of our meat, dairy, and eggs. Most of our veggies. And some of our grains. We even have a little pasture.

We have 6 hens and 1 rooster for meat and eggs. Chickens ARE bug eaters asking them not to is like asking kids not to play. It makes them happy! And it keeps the bugs out of the garden.

We keep 4 mini goats. Three females one male. that does not include babies. They provide us with milk cheese, butter etc. Also meat and cooking fat (lard). Goat tallow which is not good for cooking makes great candles.

We have only been on this property for a few years, so the garden doesn't produce as well as we would like. But I put up 200lb of each potatoes and tomatoes this year. As well as tons of zucchini, eggplant, onions, garlic, etc... We have a lot of concrete that I hope to reclaim next year.

We have a short growing season(90 days or less) so the summer veggies are gone by August and I plant turnips, kale, and winter wheat. The turnips and kale are mainly for the animals (they love them). The wheat can be harvested as grass for animal feed throughout winter. And if you don't over harvest you get a grain crop by mid June. Which is my frost free date any way. Oh I can't forget the garlic, yum.

I also planted 2000 sf to pasture grass and mulberry trees. I was already able to harvest a good amount of grass for the goats and chickens the first year. The mulberry trees are also for animal feed (once they are big enough).

We have no neighbors so we can get away with having stinky billy goats and noisy roosters. But the idea is the same. Say instead of a lawn and a dog, you have a pasture and a dairy goat. Or just get a garden going. It doesn't take any more time to tend than mowing that same patch of lawn. What could be easier than dwarf or mini fruit trees (they only make a mess if you don't harvest the fruit). You getting the picture?


Melinda said...

Lovely post. We have managed to very quickly turn a barren piece of land into food enough to provide more than 3/4 of our diet, so it can be done, and we also believe it will be necessary.

One thing to add, though, in response to:

"If you want your state or region to be able to feed itself, you need to be at the forefront of this, working to transform existing open land into gardens, and using the bit land you own, if you own any, optimally."

My husband and I don't own any land - we are renters, and probably will be for quite some time (student loan debt, low incomes, and not wanting to add to our debt in a bloated housing market). But we still grow our own food. Even in an urban apartment, we grew some of our food. Renters can - and should - be a part of this solution!

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately going green in our materialistic society still means consuming products that take much energy and raw materials to produce and which ultimately rape the planet. It seems like sustainable endeavors in our culture tend to be hijacked by the profit-crazed private sector with their focus on economic growth, in turn not allowing us to quit coveting stuff.

We should realize that simplifying one's lifestyle and even reducing consumption of high tech "earth friendly" products is the true meaning of going green.

Less of everything is more.

~Vegan/Leaving So. FL

Chuck said...

Does anyone have any experience with Edible Forest Gardening?"

The link explains it much better, but I'll say here that the emphasis is in imitating the forest ecosystem in order to maximize the total yield of the plot of ground. Fruit and nut trees and shrubs, and perennial and self-seeding vegetables are preferred. Low maintenance is a principle goal. For example, you never dig in the soil except the initial planting and to remove root vegetables. You don't try to maximize the output of any one plant, but of the plot as a whole. Grow plants that attract beneficial insects, etc.

Does anyone have any experience or comments about this sort of gardening approach?

Karen said...

I am not much of a gardener...well, I should say that I am a beginning gardener and plan to really expand my garden in the next year as time and deer fencing allows. For now, I am having a great time learning to eat the WEEDS that are all around me: dandelion, mallow, chickweed, plaintain, dock, purslaine...they just grow, without any water or care...they are delicious, high in many vitamins and trace minerals and abundant. I encourage everyone to find out about the wild things growing around you and learn how to use them! My goal is one wild meal a day without over harvesting any one area. Weeds grow through everything including drought and odd weather, and don't ask for any fancy fertilizer or care. You just have to find them, and well...I always ask their permission before I pick them:)but that's just me. If you don't have any of these wonderful plants growing around you, I suggest you plant a few. It's worth it.

Deb G said...

Wonderful post! I have grown veggies on balconies when living in an apartment, and I've had large vegetable/fruit gardens on city lots. It takes very little time to maintain a small vegetable garden and a few small fruit trees and/or some berries, a little more time to grow enough to preserve foods. I think because I do enjoy the process of gardening, I don't find it hard to find time for it at all. Of course, I don't have the tidiest of garden all the time either :)

Beth said...

I love and respect my CSA farmers, they have inspired me to grow my own food that is as beautiful as what they grow.
I have dug in my heels and have learned to love my rocky patch of a yard. Where I live, it is all about building up your soil, that's this winters reading project.
I find that many people have resources and ideas to share, gardening tips, a few chickens ( a friend is babysitting 5 lovely hens for me untill I can build a coop).
Many people know someone who grows their own food in a little yard and brings in the extras to share at the office. There are hidden gems and nuggets of knowledge everywhere when you just start up a conversation with someone, waiting in line at the post office. I still think times will be hard for many, but I am always happy to talk to someone that has always grown their own food.

Green Bean said...

Inspiring post, Sharon. I am in and I think we all need to be. I'm finding it very enjoyable and easy to add more and more "food" space into my yard - which used to just be a bare expanse of lawn. Doing so helps put us back in touch with where our food comes from and "grounds" us - both literally and figuratively.

Plus, the kids LOVE it! My boys stripped the snap pea vines of snap peas quicker than they could grow and my 5 year old pronounced "These are better than the ones at the farmer's market mom. Do you know why? They are fresher!" He's right. The food does taste better than the farmer's market and the farmer's market food blows the big box produce out of the water. :)

I'd love to see every house on my street with a victory garden in front. :)

CC said...
These women started a CSA in Portland OR to address small-scale gardening - they come to your property and plant, tend and harvest in your backyard. They leave the veggies on your back step and are trying charge similar fees as a farmed CSA, based on how big a plot you would like them to tend.
I think it's a really interesting model: they saved on the start-up cost of buying a farm, and it works for urban sized backyards/too busy lives.

Wendy said...

We're there. We've been "farming" our quarter acre since we purchased our home in 1997, although it wasn't until this year that we actually started looking toward sustainability with our homestead.

But I would never call myself a "farmer." I'm not. I consider myself a homesteader and in the great tradition of those who first settled the extreme northeast, where I make my home, I "farm" to feed my family, but I never intend to earn money from what I grow. Selfishly, that food is for us to consume, and the "work" I do as a freelancer earns the money I need to pay bills.

I'm not particularly talented or experienced in gardening, either, and everything I know about gardening, raising livestock, soil building and landscaping I've learned within the last ten years. It makes me sad to hear things like "I don't have time, because I have a job," and frankly, it's a little insulting, because I have a job, too. I own a business that has nothing to do with farming or gardening or homesteading. I can't even do my "job" outside, as it requires my computer. But I manage to find the time to grow food, tend my chickens, can what I've grown, bake all of my own bread ... and homeschool, too.

On top of all of that, I'm lazy and disorganized. But somehow I manage to get it done, and truly, if I can manage to homestead my quarter acre, anyone can!

Phil said...

Sharon, thank you for this post. I've been in the wilderness, garnering very strange looks, for the last thirty years when I've adamantly stated to all and sundry that it is criminal to build new homes without gardens. Because, given the 50-year plus lifetime of a modern home, it has to be built with an eye to its usefulness 50 years down the line. Nothing's so obvious as that which we do not wish to see.


Anonymous said...

I am often miffed by people expecting you to want to sell off your carefully grown produce. Tens of kilos of root crops may seem like a lot but if you are actually cooking with it on a regular basis it doesnt go all that far. And why would I sell my produce, just to use the money to buy something else? (probably of a lower or dubious quality). The amount of time spent harvesting a lot of fiddly crops like peas and beans is highly under appreciated as well.

Heather G said...

Wow, great to read about all the folks here who are gardening or who will be gardening!

Kerri, I think what you're doing is awesome -- and smart to bring that bread to work and garner some converts that way, for whatever local foods are available in Alaska.

Brian M, it's true that lots of people don't have growing skills and that there are going to be some rough transitions (more in some places than others). But the more people who are able to grow gardens, the better. It means that more people will transition more easily than others. It means that some latecomers have a slightly higher chance to learn from some of the folks who are growing food now. And even for those who end up having to move, they may end up somewhere where their knowledge of useful skills may give them a better chance to fit in to their new location. It isn't a cure-all by any means, just one of many things that will help to soften the transition overall.

For the newer gardeners, I'd suggest mulching your gardens. You can use grass clippings once they're dry, or you can use straw/hay from a local farm if there's one anywhere near you. It helps keep the weeds down so you don't have to do as much maintenance, and helps retain moisture so you don't have to water as much. Also keeps the soil from being blown away by the wind (and whatever CO2 is currently stored in the soil goes into the air when that happens). Also, the bottom layer of the mulch will decompose into the soil, so it feeds nutrients into the soil for you. My FIL got into this some years back when I gave him a copy of Ruth Stout's No Work Garden book. He doesn't even clear his garden anymore, just cuts down whatever plant matter is left at the end of the season and lets it lie on the ground over the winter. Then in the spring he pokes a hole in the ground for each seed/plant, and adds some more chaff wherever there's a thin spot in the garden. If you're buying hay, ask for 2nd cutting as it's cheaper. Or, bring a big garbage bag or two with you, and ask the farmer if you could maybe clean up some of the chaff off the barn floors -- you might even get it for free :) I use the chaff because hay does shake loose from the bales regularly, and piles up on the floor, so it needs to be removed anyway.

On permaculture/edible forest gardening, I don't have much experience at all. But it sounds like a good option if you have enough land to grow trees. At the farm here we have a wooded hillside (where the wood for the furnace comes from - yes, it's a proper furnace, not a short stack), I'm hoping to start planting some berry bushes and other edibles in it. No doubt the deer and bear will get some of it, but if I plant enough, we'll get some as well. And I won't have to do much maintenance.

I'm also thinking about the liquid fertilizer thing for next year... I don't know if I dare share what that is with my in-laws, but I'd like to try it anyway (for the new folks, it's human urine that is mixed one part urine to 10 parts water). We don't use chem fertilizers but the soil could stand to get some improvement, and that would give them a lot of what they need -- and for free!

Some people might be interested in container gardening (like if you have a lot of concrete on the property and can't take it up), and/or square foot gardening -- both of which tend to also have less weeding to do.

Sharon, are there any web sites out there that have a list of good starter crops and how to grow them? I have a gardening book that lists a bunch of food crops by difficulty (how much fertilizer/care they need), but I don't know if there are web sites that do this. If I ever find the book again (it's in a box, somewhere...), I'll post the info on it.

Anonymous said...

There are about 3,000 sq. mi. of golf courses in the country, admittedly not a lot of land in a continental nation, but hey, they're where the people are (often in folks' back yards). We can hope that this land will not be paved over between now and when we need it.

Anonymous said...

My husband and I have expanded our garden to 500 square feet, not including patches with blueberries, blackberries, two pear trees, one cherry tree, two apple trees, a crabapple tree, three scrub oak trees that produce acorns (which you can eat!) and rugosa roses for rose hips. We plan on putting a couple more beds in next spring and currently have a mini greenhouse with lots of winter greens growing. We live in an urban neighborhood in Denver. It is possible to grow most of your food in the city, whether it is with your own yard or through a neighborhood gardening program. Thanks Sharon for encouraging such a great movement.

andy said...

great article. we've been farming a piece of land in portugal now for 4 years, and have found that growing most of our veg, eggs, beans, potatoes is a lot easier than a 9 to 5 job.
we use a permaculture raised bed system, and manage to bottle lots of tomatoes and veg for winter.
to survive, everyone is going to have to get away from seeing themselves as consumers, and start producing either purely for themselves or also to create truly local trading systems. not everyone has the knowledge or ability to grow, but everyone has something they can contribute to the local community - unfortunately mortgages, rent and debt will make it harder for individuals to completely step out of the 'work, buy, consume' worldview - but i am sure most can to some degree, perhaps using weekends to garden?

Susan Och said...

I occasionally bake bread for fundraisers, where it sells for 3 or 4 dollars a loaf. I'm happy to donate my time for a worthy cause. But I have women (younger than me and no less busy) begging me to bake for them on a regular basis. I have offered to teach them how to bake, and have even posted an entire bread baking tutorial online, but they want me to bake for them and they don't get it when I say "no".

And I stopped raising Araucana chickens because of the ladies that wanted to sort through the cartons to find "their" color blue.

I guess I'm kind of out of it. Today I ventured into the local (20 miles away) for the first time in a long time. It has doubled in size and offers every product imaginable, from politically correct baby wipes to odd menopause remedies to "brain building tea", and it was packed with people buying it all, despite our dismal local economy. Who are all these spoiled people? Why on earth would I want to do business with them?

So now I trade my eggs to neighbors and coworkers for rides to work or other favors. Some of my neighbors who are living on commodity foods trade me cornmeal or or dry milk or bran flakes for eggs and garden produce. (I keep threatening to stockpile the bottles of high fructose corn syrup and make some hootch, but now that corn is so expensive they'll probably stop trying to make poor people eat the stuff.) I'd rather trade food away to people who appreciate it than sell it to people who are turned on by buying my time.

The one crop I keep selling is rhubarb. The people who buy rhubarb tend to be elders with good stories and good recipes who are tickled to get the stuff, and who never dicker about the price.

Amazing to hear that they original optimum size of the suburban lot was "big enough to garden."

Lucy said...

I am soo happy to find this blog. Robin steered me towards it.

Like some of you I have been raising food for the local market (for 15 years). I used to do a CSA but I live in an area that is 20 years behind the times and after struggling for 12 years I dropped the CSA but still do farmers markets and have a farm stand/store.

It frightens me how little regard people give to their food. Around here price seems to be the main consideration, not quality. people want cheap overly processed foods. few understand organic, sustainable, local. though with each food recall more and more open their eyes and see that the industrial food stream is neither safe nor sustainable. So they seek out local food sources, me being one of them.

Of course, the newbies too often complain about price (people who are committed locavores do not) or want some pie in the sky such as the 100% vegan pastured chickens or produce watered with only purified water or produce that has never touched plastic. Such ideas will go away once people take a real responsibility toward what they eat, i.e. grow half of their own food instead of expecting some else to feed them.

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