So let me ask…..how many of you have vegetable gardens? How many of you frequent farmer’s markets? Until I lived and worked on a farm, I was pretty clueless about growing food. So why should we be concerned?
Food gardens and orchards were once common in the western world, but have been replaced by manicured lawns and a few ornamentals. How is this possible when surveys show gardening as our favorite pastime? Yet when it comes to whole food, the closest most of us get is the local produce section of our grocery stores. The enlightened might venture out to the farmer’s market and hopefully spend their food dollars with a genuine farmer.
Not long ago we were an agricultural rather than industrial society. Most farms were family farms until the 1940’s. These farms were not mono-cultures, but grew and raised a variety of vegetables, fruits and livestock. These were largely self-sustaining farms that grew their own feed grains to feed their livestock, using field rotation and organic methods. They would compost and return their manure to their fields to fertilize the soil. Pests were controlled by having multiple crops in smaller fields. Although it was labor intensive, the hoe and the plow were the weed control methods of the day.
Enter WWII. Many left family farms to serve, creating an exodus to the cities by many who no longer valued agrarian life. There was opportunity in the city. With this change came the battle cry of bigger is better; mono-crops replaced the thoughtful and common sense approach to farming. Cheap petroleum, along with new science, created the world of pesticides, to address the new push of agribusiness for mono-crops. Commodities replaced food. Herbicides were the preferred weed control method. Free range animals were sequestered into feed lots, resulting in the need for preemptive antibiotics. Chemicals were more cost-effective than manual labor. The family farm was lost.
Rachel Carlson was before her time when she wisely commented: “Future historians may well be amazed at our distorted sense of proportion. How could intelligent human beings seeking to control a few unwanted species by a method that contaminated the entire environment and brought the threat of disease and death even to their own kind?”
Our food system is more fragile than we realize. Dr. Vandana Shiva stated, “Seeds controlled by Monsanto, agribusiness trade controlled by Cargill, processing controlled by Pepsi and Phillip Morris, retail controlled by Wal-Mart–is a recipe for food dictatorship. We must occupy the food system to create food democracy.”
As these concerns play out, organic farming and the local food movement has tried to respond by educating the consumer about how to change our food system to become more sustainable. Concerns about quantity over quality, profit over sustainability and the environment, will need to be seriously addressed in our lifetime. Our current industrial practices are not sustainable.
I had never put up food before I came to the farm over 5 years ago. I would simply purchase whatever I needed whenever I needed it. I was not conscious of the connection between food and health. When fresh became my motto, I learned that if I planted it, raised it and harvested it, it’s going to taste better than if I bought it. Fresh herbs and whole foods became my passion.
Becoming a partner of a 5.5 acre vegetable truck-farm was what it took to turn the proverbial corner. Growing food has changed my life in a multitude of ways. Now I can tomatoes in all their various guises: sauce, whole, chopped, salsa, as well as my own Puttanesca relish. I freeze dozens of trays of roasted tomatoes to use in future recipes. I can homemade apple sauce and fruit butters, pickle beets and ginger peaches. I freeze fresh corn and pole and shelling beans, along with strawberries and blueberries for smoothies. We harvest eggs almost daily from our laying birds and feed them our vegetable scraps. Val has learned to make home-made bread, and has turned into an excellent baker.
Now you might ask, “How in the world do you find the time?” My response to that is twofold; one, we are NOT television watchers, and two, it’s a labor of love. The flavor of home-grown vegetables is so superior, I literally find the time. Since doing this we have cut our grocery food budget by more than half, saving thousands of dollars annually. But the monetary savings is only one form of wealth. We are so much richer for the life on our farm. The sound of birdsong, the physical labor, the smell of fresh earth, the excitement of watching seeds grow into mature plants, which produce vegetables so good that you close your eyes when you eat. This is not a need for nostalgia, but a prayer of gratitude for seeing with new sight. Knowing what is possible when food is home-grown or grown locally, makes me want to sing its praises and encourage others to dynamite their lawn and put in a food garden.
Family relationships become deeper when you work together and a family food garden is a great place to start. When seeds are planted, there is a sense of purpose; a stewardship of your plot of land. With attention to what’s needed your efforts will be rewarded with food grown with your own hands for your own table. I know each spring when row after row of seeds are sown, there is nothing quite like the thrill of seeing rows of tiny green seedlings breaking ground and reaching for the sun. It’s a birth and there you stand like a proud parent.
Then it starts. You read, you experiment, and you want the best for those seedlings. How much water is too much; how much too little? Those little seedlings will inform you whether or not you are on the right track. You will weed and weed again. Each day you will observe. Didn’t it grow twice as big after the last rain? You will curse the cut-worm or slug that caused it to fail. You will take it personally. You will uncover your creativity and discover solutions for problems and challenges. All the while, each of you will be invested in the outcome. With shovel and hoes in hand, your investment will bare fruit as you slowly become closer to the earth and each other. You will find that you do indeed reap what you sow. If your space is limited, you might consider incorporating vegetables in your perennial garden as borders or backdrop. Many vegetables offer both color and texture to the aesthetic eye.
So start now. Whether it’s a few pots on your balcony or deck, or planning a small 10 x 10 plot; learn what it takes to grow food. The learning curve is immense, but the reward will more than match your efforts. What I have learned about farming and growing food is not planted in the soil, but in the heart. In these fields of plenty, we are all asked to the table.
“Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow circles of nature, is a help. Gardening is an instrument of grace.” –May Sarton