I originally posted this essay in July, 2019, in response to massive flooding in the US Midwest that had the potential to affect food supplies. I am reposting it now because food shortages could result from the war in the Ukraine. As in 2019, I am seeing suggestions on social media to “plant a garden.”
If only it were that simple.
I used to be a small-scale organic farmer so take it from me: totally feeding yourself from your own efforts is very, very challenging. Though some friends and I tried over multiple seasons, we never succeeded, or even came anywhere close.
First of all, consider what you eat. Yes, you. What do you eat at home? At work? When you go out? Okay, what percentage of that can be raised in the bioregion where you live? If you have trouble answering this question, don’t feel bad. I would guess that the proportion of the US population with practical agricultural knowledge is lower than in any other society in history.
Looking at the subset of your current diet that can be grown in your area, is it enough to live off of? Is it well-balanced and does it provide enough calories? If not, what will you add to fill it out? This is purely an exercise of course, but there’s the rough draft of the menu you’re going to survive on. How will that work? I mean logistically?
Let’s take carrots. They’re popular, they’re nutritious, and they can be grown all over the US without too much trouble. What’s a year’s worth of carrots look like? How many ten-foot rows would it take to produce that many? When are they best seeded? How much space, water and amendments do they require? What tools do you need? Are there diseases or insects to worry about and what’s the best way of dealing with them? When do you pick them? How long will the harvest keep?
Now go through all those questions for everything else on your list.
Then add it up: all the space, hours, and equipment.
Does it look daunting? If it doesn’t, you left something out.
Without going through all of the above, here’s what you’re probably not thinking of right now: The typical US American diet is only 10-20% fruits and veggies―like you might grow in your backyard―and the vast majority is made up of grains and proteins in one form or another.
What vegetable does nearly everyone grow in their home garden? Tomatoes. How do they eat them? Often enough, on a sandwich or in pasta. That’s wheat or rice or some other grains. How many people have ever planted rice or wheat in their back yards?
Meat is also grains because that’s what’s fed to animals. This includes the majority of grass-fed cows, who are “finished” (fattened up) on grains on a feedlot prior to slaughter. So if you want meat in your home-grown diet, you’ll need to plant for those mouths too. You might end up concluding that you don’t need as much as you thought you did. (BTW, historic paleolithic diets were supplemented by hunting meat but were dependent on gathering roots, seeds, berries, etc.)
When my friends and I tried the grow-all-your-own-food challenge, we quickly got educated about the difficulties of grains and other staple crops. I’m not just talking about planting and raising, which are hard enough, but harvesting and processing. Wheat, for example, is easy to grow, but there’s a number of steps from mature spikelets in the field to flour in the kitchen, including threshing and winnowing. In 2008, we attempted to harvest and process a third of an acre of wheat entirely by hand. Over two dozen people participated during a two week period. I kept careful notes and after all was said and done, each hour of labor produced 2.6 lbs of wheat berries, cleaned and ready to grind. To put that into perspective in the context of our current Capitalist mode, if you were paying people $15/hour, the labor cost of each pound would be $5.77.
We also experimented with quinoa, dry beans, flour corn, millet, buckwheat, flax, and other crops. Each one required its own set of techniques. Overall, our yields were much lower than we expected and the work much harder than we wanted. (For an accounting of our efforts, including tables of data, see this report.) Not to say I didn’t enjoy it; I did. But I also wasn’t actually depending on it.
When I think about the possibility of some kind of food supply crisis in the US, all I can do is shake my head. We do not have a safety net to catch us if we fall. If we want one, we needed to start working on it yesterday. Just putting in another raised bed in your backyard ain’t gonna do it. You can’t live off of spinach, cucumbers and green beans. (You can survive just on potatoes if you have to, but guaranteeing year round availability is tricky.)
I’m not saying we shouldn’t plant veggie gardens. We should put in as many as we can and fight to keep them when they’re threatened. But let’s not kid ourselves that a few heads of broccoli (or even a wheel barrow of zucchinis) will get us through an actual breakdown of the agricultural system. It won’t. If we want a shot at doing that, we need to put in some meaningful time and effort, and it will necessarily be outside the system.
I gave it a try for a few years with a bicycle-based urban farming operation in Portland, Oregon. It was a helluva lot of fun (see this excerpt from my book, Adventures in Urban Bike Farming), but had no lasting effect. Of the forty-some gardens we got going, only one remains that I know of.
We are being reminded this year that our agricultural system is easily disrupted by political events, but the climate events that are coming will be far worse. If we were smart, we would be reorganizing the whole kit and caboodle around small-scale operations in localized foodsheds. It wouldn’t be rocket science. But it wouldn’t be making Cargill, Tyson and Monsanto rich.
Which goes to show again: if we want to survive, we need a revolution.