(Author’s note: this is an edited version of the summary report I wrote for my faculty adviser. It was a good opportunity to look back on the year and figure out what I’ve learned.)
I wanted to pick this project up where I had left off after the winter break, but with a shift in emphasis from what we were doing at home to how we fit the bigger picture of society at large. However, the part-time job I took late in the winter began to encroach more heavily on my school time, which then bled over into the time I needed to take care of family matters while my wife was very busy with her graduate program. Like many low-income families, I struggled to make wise choices about what to buy and where to buy it while our available funds diminished. My new income reduced our SNAP benefits by the equivalent of one week’s pay, so in effect I was working four weeks and getting paid for three.
We were going through what many low-income families face, dealing with the challenges of keeping it all together with limited resources. Working nearly every day, I felt the pinch of time as I struggled to keep up with everything that I needed to do. I also felt the burden of guilt when I let myself, or someone else, down. We got through a week with no grocery money, thanks to a well-stocked cupboard, thus verifying that we were not officially “food-insecure.”
We had also planned to start a vegetable garden, but it wasn’t until late in May that we actually got it started. Winters can run late here in the Inland Northwest, and I had been warned about late frosts that could wipe out a new garden. We experimented with a method of bed-building called “lasagna gardening”, so named because of the technique involves building layers of compost and mulch, such as food scraps and grass clippings, over a base of wet newspaper. It seemed ideal for our situation as renters who didn’t want to tear up part of the backyard.
We had considered renting a plot in a community garden here in town, but decided against it due to the greater likelihood (we thought) of our paying attention to something right in our own yard. Little did we realize how wrong we would be. After four weeks of semi-regular watering through a wet late spring, we had nothing growing in our garden but a few stray clumps of grass. I suspect that the compost mix was too “hot” for the seeds, and that I should have fixed it somehow. But how? I didn’t know. By then it was too late, anyway.
As it turns out, the community garden is an easy walk from our house, and my wife and I stroll there fairly often. Several people we know in town have rented plots there this season. I even looked after a friend’s plot while he was out of town recently, as a return favor for his taking care of our dogs while we were out of town. I’ve gotten to spend a fair amount of time there this summer, and I’ve realized that renting a community garden plot would be an excellent way to access the skills, knowledge, and experience of other gardeners; in other words, the capital that they possess.
Another gardener doesn’t even have to be around for this to take place, if one is observant enough. Simply walking through the place and seeing what others are doing and how it is working (or not) can be very fruitful. There is a subtle but unmistakable difference between reading about a thing, or watching a video demonstration, and wading in hip-deep and surrounding oneself with the thing in action. This immersive form of learning has other benefits as well, not the least of which is the building of community around a common interest, and it is that community-building which may be the greatest benefit of a locally-oriented approach to living.
As summer arrived, we realized that we were going to be out of town for quite a while, and it was just as well that we didn’t have a garden to worry about cultivating. The few container plants on our deck could be watered by our house-sitter. We poured a fair bit of our tax refund into repairing our aged minivan, and thought long and hard about replacing it with something larger and more suited to extended trips. In the end, though, we realized we couldn’t both buy a newer vehicle and take the trip, and we opted to travel.
That was a wise decision; the trip was fantastic. I had never been across the Great Plains, or really through the Midwest at all, and I had my eyes opened. Traveling from one region to another helped reinforce in my mind how a distinct sense of “place” can emerge and evolve among a people. I also gained an appreciation for how vast the distances are in this country, especially in the West. Through it all, we tried to find local products and shop at local or regional stores, though it wasn’t always possible.
Take Beloit, Wisconsin, for instance. We passed through there on the way to Chicago and decided to stop and resupply before arriving at our campsite for the night. What a hard time we had finding a supermarket! The requiste Wal-Mart Supercenter lay just off the freeway, but we wanted a simple grocery store, preferably a regional or local chain. We drove several miles through town to finally arrive at a Save-a-Lot, a discount store which turned out to be a big disappointment. Most of the food there was off-brand, heavily processed convenience food with odd and unpronouncable ingredients. We could not find mayonnaise without high-fructose corn syrup, and the meat could have been from anywhere. It was less about providing ingredients than purveying product-the “value-added”, heat-and-eat fare that dominates the shelves of discount stores. I’m sure it was no coincidence either that this store was in an obviously low-income neighborhood, serving a low-income clientele. On our way back out of town to the freeway, I couldn’t help but notice the Hormel procesing plant and its signature giant chili can, which put our shopping experience into better perspective.
There were pleasant surprises, though. We found a blueberry farm in southwest Michigan that sold fresh-picked berries for under $2 per pound, and some of the best deli turkey we’ve ever had at a butcher shop in the Amish country of Nappanee, Indiana. I could have spent much time studying the Amish and their oddly effective ways. They’ve taken quite readily to bicycles, especially ones with large rear baskets; at least the plain folk of Napanee have. All in all, they seem to grasp instinctively what Thomas Princen (2005) calls “the logic of sufficiency”: the idea that enough is, in fact, enough, and that the natural world has limits which must be respected.
We tried to travel the byways of America as much as possible: the county and state roads which link town to town, roads a neighbor can cross if need be. On these roads, we saw our fair share of small farm stands selling produce and eggs, though time constraints and a lack of cash forbade our stopping at most of them. Out on the interstate, however, it was a different story. From rural Virginia to northern Nebraska, the only crops I saw being cultivated along the highway were corn and soybeans. Other than a few stands of hardwood here and there and the swaths of wildflowers along the edge of the freeway, there was nothing else to comfort the eye.
Passing through the Midwest back into the Plains, we passed by feedlots as well as cornfields. The distinctive smell reminded me that industrial agriculture has turned cow manure, once a beneficial soil amendment, into toxic waste, and I resolved again to try and eat less beef. That’s easier said than done, especially on a road trip; but somehow we managed.
Seeing the contrast between the two extremes played out across the landscape started me thinking again about the scope and scale of food production, and at what point does an operation tip from “small” or “local” to “large.” During agriculture’s formative years, survival and sufficiency were the name of the game. Success led to communities, surplus, trade, and profit. Now profit is a worthy goal, as it enables both security and trade. However, when it becomes the dominant end, it has the power to destabilize.
Other elements and indeed entire systems can suffer damage as the profit-makers seek more efficiency and higher returns. Natural systems which are held to a fixed value or output regardless of varying inputs tend to crash in alarming fashion (Holling et al., 2001). Thus, when agriculture was wedded to capitalism and adopted the habits of industrial efficiency, problems were inevitable. The real need to feed a fast-growing population was overshadowed by the endless cycle of increasing production in order to reduce per-unit cost, creating more products to use up inventory, and pushing for shelf space to move more product.
The attendant ecological problems of erosion, pollution, and acquifer draw-down are making the current model harder to justify, but it is equally hard to see a viable alternative. A booming world population with a growing demand for a high standard of living will continue to put pressure on finite resources. Much of this country’s land mass isn’t good for anything but raising livestock or dryland commodity farming, and backyard wheat gardens just don’t seem feasible.
Economy of scale plays a role in perpetuating the industrial agriculture model as well. While a small-scale farmer might feel great about getting 20 miles per gallon out of their diesel pickup, their per-ton-mile cost is 40 cents for a 3/4-ton load of sweet corn. An 18-wheel truck can haul 20 tons over 500 miles at a per-ton-mile cost of 4 cents. And trains? Forget about it. 1 gallon of diesel fuel in a locomotive engine can haul a ton of corn-or anything else, for that matter-468 miles. But try getting that freight train to stop at the local IGA or farmer’s market; it’s not going to happen. There is a role for each to play in this complex system, if the system is properly balanced.
The tricky part is going to be turning away from the growth-centric paradigm that has held sway for so long, and so re-balance the flows of energy and capital into smaller orbits. Will we as a society realize that continued growth in a closed system is not possible? That by counting consumption in our GDP instead of conservation, we are spending our way to oblivion? Or will it take a crisis of inconceivable magnitude-an epic system crash-to wake us? Meanwhile, we must do what we can to reduce our own demands on vital resources and build stronger, more resilient communities.