FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Our Veggie Gardens Won’t Feed us in a Real Crisis

Massive flooding and heavier than normal precipitation across the US Midwest this year delayed or entirely prevented the planting of many crops. The situation was sufficiently widespread that it was visible from space. The trouble isn’t over yet: Hotter-than-normal temperatures predicted to follow could adversely affect corn pollination. Projections of lower yields have already stimulated higher prices in UN grain indexes and US ethanol. Additionally, the USDA is expecting harvests to be of inferior quality. Furthermore, the effects of this year could bleed into 2020; late planting leads to late harvesting which delays fall tilling, potentially until next spring, when who knows what Mother Nature will deliver.

Accuweather’s characterization of this as a “one-of-a-kind growing season” is literally true only in terms of its exact circumstances (given increasingly chaotic events) but not in its intensity (which will surely be exceeded). Prudence would dictate that we heed this year’s events as a warning and get serious about making preparations for worse years. Literal cycles of “feast or famine” have marked agriculture since its birth and sooner or later we will experience significant shortages here in the US, if not from the weather, than from war or lack of resources.

The Midwest floods and their possible repercussions for the food supply got some attention in the news (though not enough). One of the most common suggestions I saw on social media was: “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 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.

I suspect that the warning we’ve received from Mother Nature this year about the vulnerability of our agricultural system will go unheeded. 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.

Kollibri terre Sonnenblume is a writer living on the West Coast of the U.S.A. More of Kollibri’s writing and photos can be found at Macska Moksha Press

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
Weekend Edition
January 24, 2020
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
A Letter From Iowa
Jim Kavanagh
Aftermath: The Iran War After the Soleimani Assassination
Jeffrey St. Clair
The Camp by the Lake
Chuck Churchill
The Long History of Elite Rule: What Will It Take To End It?
Robert Hunziker
A Climate Time Bomb With Trump’s Name Inscribed
Andrew Levine
Trump: The King
Jess Franklin
Globalizing the War on Indigenous People: Bolsonaro and Modi
James Graham
From Paris, With Tear Gas…
Rob Urie
Why the Primaries Matter
Dan Bacher
Will the Extinction of Delta Smelt Be Governor Gavin Newsom’s Environmental Legacy?
Ramzy Baroud
In the Name of “Israel’s Security”: Retreating US Gives Israel Billions More in Military Funding
Vijay Prashad
What the Right Wing in Latin America Means by Democracy Is Violence
Jeremy Kuzmarov
Biden’s Shameful Foreign Policy Record Extends Well Beyond Iraq
Louis Proyect
Isabel dos Santos and Africa’s Lumpen-Bourgeoisie
Nick Pemberton
AK-46: The Case Against Amy Klobuchar
Evaggelos Vallianatos
Promtheus’ Fire: Climate Change in the Time of Willful Ignorance
Linn Washington Jr.
Waiting for Justice in New Jersey
Ralph Nader
Pelosi’s Choice: Enough for Trump’s Impeachment but not going All Out for Removal
Mike Garrity – Jason Christensen
Don’t Kill 72 Grizzly Bears So Cattle Can Graze on Public Lands
Joseph Natoli
Who’s Speaking?
Kavaljit Singh
The US-China Trade Deal is Mostly Symbolic
Cesar Chelala
The Coronavirus Serious Public Health Threat in China
Nino Pagliccia
Venezuela Must Remain Vigilant and on Guard Against US Hybrid Warfare
Robert Fantina
Impeachment as a Distraction
Courtney Bourgoin
What We Lose When We Lose Wildlife
Mark Ashwill
Why Constructive Criticism of the US is Not Anti-American
Daniel Warner
Charlie Chaplin and Truly Modern Times
Manuel Perez-Rocha
How NAFTA 2.0 Boosts Fossil Fuel Polluters, Particularly in Mexico
Dean Baker
What Minimum Wage Would Be If It Kept Pace With Productivity
Mel Gurtov
India’s Failed Democracy
Thomas Knapp
US v. Sineneng-Smith: Does Immigration Law Trump Free Speech?
Winslow Myers
Turning Point: The new documentary “Coup 53”
Jeff Mackler
U.S. vs. Iran: Which Side are You On?
Sam Pizzigati
Braggadocio in the White House, Carcinogens in Our Neighborhoods
Christopher Brauchli
The Company Trump Keeps
Julian Vigo
Why Student Debt is a Human Rights Issue
Ramzy Baroud
These Chains Will Be Broken
Chris Wright
A Modest Proposal for Socialist Revolution
Thomas Barker
The Slow Death of European Social Democracy: How Corbynism Bucked the Trend
Nicky Reid
It’s Time to Bring the War Home Again
Michelle Valadez
Amy Klobuchar isn’t Green
David Swanson
CNN Poll: Sanders Is The Most Electable
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Our Dire Need for “Creative Extremists”—MLK’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”
Jill Richardson
‘Little Women’ and the American Attitude Toward Poverty
David Yearsley
Watching Star Wars in Berlin
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail