Mental Barriers to Backyard Food Production
by Daniel Botkin
It’s time to ask millions of well-intentioned eaters to themselves become micro-producers of healthy food -- wherever they live -- in cities, suburban neighborhoods and backyard plots, everywhere. But curiously, the lack of time, space and growing skills may not actually be the most intransigent obstacles to more widespread, popular food gardening.
There’s an unmistakable new consciousness in America and beyond about the important connection between food, the environment, farming practices and the energy we all need to survive. Part of this awakening comes from a more nuanced understanding of the effects on our health and our climate of our modern, industrial food system. Today, supporting organics, buying local and joining a CSA are three popular ways that savvy consumers are pitching their support behind a fairer, healthier and saner food system. But this is hardly the end of the story. Notwithstanding the steady growth of community gardens, farmers markets and CSA’s around the country, there are still untold millions of American families with limited access to nourishing, fresh food.
Given the recent buzz around Peak Oil, economic collapse, local and organic food, etc, you would think that concerned consumers in all kinds of neighborhoods would be at least attempting to grow some (more) of their own food. And some are. However, here is the question that's piqued me for years: why don't more "foodies" -- and indeed food consumers of all stripes -- have productive home gardens?
The practice of home-based food gardening, food storage and processing has ebbed and flowed in popularity through US history, whether as hobby, therapy or a serious part of the American home economy and diet. But other than briefly during World War II, there has never been a comprehensive, national campaign to promote micro-farming as part of our overall domestic food policy.
Skeptics and factory food apologists are quick to point out the inherent limitations of backyard food production -- measured against the huge and serious task of feeding our nation. And it is true, we Americans are more used to industrial sized "solutions" and to measuring "value" in terms of dollars per hour, not home-stored carrots, potatoes or garlic (much less environmental safety, soil health or social justice!). Admittedly the rate of return, especially at first, from the typical backyard, organic micro-plot is not "lucrative", per se. Even backyard growers and market gardeners that succeed must work very hard to maintain that success year to year. And micro-agriculture is, by definition, generally labor intensive.
But, no matter your food politics, it is clear we're going to soon need many more micro-producers to take up the slack from the problem-laden and unsustainable industrial food chain. Some experts claim that number is ten, thirty, or as many as fifty million new American farmers who’ll be needed in the coming decades to feed our population. But whichever number you believe, the question remains: who will these supposed millions of new, small plot farmers and local food producers be? And what land will they farm, and with what methods, tools, practices and support?
In my own micro-farming and teaching career, I meet scores of healthy food advocates and other reasonably conscious consumers who claim that they would grow (more) food at home if only they... 1.) had a green thumb, or 2.) had enough room, or 3.) had enough time. Many of these are working class or professional folks with busy lives and families, and so, at first glance, few would fault them for their modest, pitiful or wholly nonexistent gardens.
Another explanation for the paucity of serious backyard production might be found in the relative scale of salaries compared with the relatively “cheap”, mass-produced food still available in supermarkets, stores, and discount centers, etc. To date, it remains compellingly easy for many of us (even “politically correct”) cooks, homemakers and consumers -- to keep rationalizing our personal, guilty pleasures and outdated shopping habits. But, the convenience and allure of industrial (fast) food only partly answers my question.
Backyard horticulture has been long esteemed for its aesthetic, therapeutic and recreational benefits. However, until now, outside of the hardcore "foodie" culture, the notion that millions of American consumers should be expected to actually produce a sizeable slice of their edible sustenance as part of a comprehensive food policy has never been seriously considered.
We do see some historical evidence of serious home gardening campaigns, motivated variously by patriotism, economics or just common sense, in places as diverse as Cuba, Soviet Russia... and even the USA. The backyard “Victory Gardens” inspired by Eleanor Roosevelt’s wartime call to the nation temporarily generated an estimated 40% of America’s produce and the “back to the land” and “hippie” movements of the last century saw more landless urbanites and previously unconscious consumers finding new connections with the soil, the environment and the home production of good food. But these movements have been largely ephemeral and transitory.
At first glance, it might appear that the lack of land, time, seeds, tools and skills are the main deterrents to more widespread and serious home gardening. However, I would suggest that an even greater impediment are a series of negative assumptions and limiting beliefs embedded in the public consciousness about home food production. Recognizing and dissolving some of these insidious mental barriers might just advance the cause of citizen food production more than heirloom seeds, fancy tools or organic compost. Let’s take a look at some of these widespread, "limiting beliefs" and how they potentially hurt the would-be backyard food grower.
1. "...A 'real farmer' has a tractor and 40 acres..."
2. "...You can't grow 'real' amounts of food in a tiny backyard plot..."
3."... Gardening is a magical affair, some are gifted, some aren't..."
4. "...Gardening begins in spring with a rototiller and a seed catalog..."
5. "...Gardening is a contest, with ‘winners’ and ‘losers’...”
Although these entrenched superstitions and false assumptions in the public mind can be powerful inhibitors, upon closer examination, most are readily dissolved by the simple truth.
Number 4 is my personal "favorite". I've observed that perhaps the most significant mental breakthrough of the novice food farmer is realizing that you don't have to wait for spring and a rented rototiller to begin. In fact, the entire idea of waiting and rototilling our gardens to prepare for planting has been challenged and replaced more and more by more sustainable, ongoing, “permacultural” methods which emphasize continuity, coverage and cooperation with soil flora and fauna. While many gardeners still pass the colder months poring over catalogues and fantasizing about spring, the backyard permaculturist can keep gathering and spreading leaves, rotten hay, manure and organic mulch through much of the off season. Permanent “sheet” mulching of our soil beds encourages worms, builds tilth and raises fertility while protecting the living soil and offering considerable weed suppression to boot. In fact, the really serious backyard grower can, using cold frames and unheated hoophouses, practice "four season gardening" and enjoy cold-hardy vegetables straight through the "off" seasons, even in chilly New England.
Another destructive myth about backyard food farming is number 3, that some people possess a “green thumb” while others do not. Once demystified, serious backyard production of real food is neither complicated, magical nor requires large acreage, fancy tools or a fat wallet. Success in organic micro-farming follows a few basic principles related to soil building, soil protecting and crop successions. And, one needn’t understand everything to begin racking up successes! Using various "permaculture-friendly" methods such as raised beds, intensive composting, heirloom seeds and permanent mulch, a motivated gardener with access to even a tiny yard (or sunny rooftop!) could, in fact, begin to grow surprising, even amazing amounts of healthy food. Otherwise intelligent people persist in ignoring this basic truth with all manner of excuses, caveats and superstitious rejoinders.
The lack of free time is another major reason many foodies and others give for not growing their own. How many hopeful backyard food farmers do you know who have started with a bang, grown disillusioned and quit within one year? Many would-be food growers don’t accurately understood the patience and vision required to enter micro-farming at the "slow end" of the growth curve. Committed permaculturists, however, understand that building a successful food garden is an ongoing process which accelerates and deepens over the seasons and years, sometimes in fits and starts. Even working people with limited free time can make incremental, long-term progress over the years. For example, last November, I noticed my next door neighbor, Chris, a full time web designer by day, out clearing and repairing his raised beds and cold frames by flashlight, at odd hours of the night. The truth is, no matter how busy we are, we humans always make time for that which moves us, whether it's love, art, sex, sleeping, eating or NFL Sunday.
From this perspective, crop success or failure on the first season, or even the first few seasons of the backyard food garden, is overrated. Measuring net pounds of harvest should be tallied along with the long term health and potential of the soil, the psychic health of the gardener and the overall "vibe" and momentum of the garden and the neighborhood where it grows.
Another key mental shift regarding today’s micro-farming is that it isn’t a contest (number 5) and that every farm/garden can be a good one, no matter how new, amateur or small. The wide diversity of micro-farming and related enterprises we're witnessing today is teaching us to broaden our concept of “successful farming". In fact we’re now witnessing a whole new realm of local, "micro-batch" enterprises and added-value food and farming projects of all kinds!
In farming as in life, you're only ignorant until you're not and you're only stuck until you start. For those who would take a step into home food production, the plants and soil readily point the way with equanimity. You don’t need a mysterious “green thumb” or an acre of land to succeed, just the willingness to observe and learn -- and to peck away at it. The so-called “magical” potential to produce exquisite, tasty food at home belongs not only to Findhorn or Rodale or Coleman… or your elderly neighbor from the Italy -- but to everyone and anyone who wants it.
For a decade, my own family has been powerfully caught up in this micro-farming imperative -- not only because we enjoy eating the finest, heirloom fruits and veggies and other naturally produced farm products like goat cheese, tree fruits, hot peppers, garlic and pesto -- but also because we value it as a unique and joyful vehicle to educate, celebrate, build community and spread awareness about sustainable food and its connection to global survival and social justice.
The question really shifts from “how can we afford to grow food in our backyard” to “how can we collectively afford not to become neighborhood micro-producers and savvy, backyard food growers, everywhere?” The truth is, we really have no idea how much valuable, staple food an ongoing national campaign of intensive backyard food farming could generate across America, because the idea has yet to be tried.
Indeed quite the opposite. The twentieth century gave rise to a world view that our kids should grow up and get a good education -- partly in order to escape the marginal and arduous life of the "peasant" farmer. In a world driven by progress, growth and modernization, choosing farming, especially micro-farming, as one’s vocation was seen as slightly backward, perhaps also equated with a lack of opportunity and/or motivation. Higher learning has been seen as a ticket to transcending a life of hand labor, to realizing higher accomplishment, prestige ...and economic security. Working the land by hand has been seen, conversely, as a ticket to... well, gnarly, weather-beaten hands!
In the view of factory food apologists, a return to micro-production at home is a quaint, nostalgic, feel-good concept, an anachronism, not a substantive solution for the massive food issues we face today. But these are the same people who, while supporting the general idea of “conservation”, still believe we need nuclear power plants because "we simply need to get all that electricity somewhere..." In both cases they miss a key piece of the energetic equation, that is, the uncanny, cumulative power of many conscious people taking small steps, in consort.
The ability of one single backyard garden to seasonally grow, store, process and preserve a supply of staple food can significantly improve the food security of one family, perhaps one neighborhood. But a movement that harnesses and reproduces that phenomenon virally, in other minds, neighborhoods and communities across the nation, cannot help but make our democracy stronger.
Exchanging the power of modern technology for that of many citizens’ labor and stewardship, a growing network of intensive food gardens and organic micro-farms are already beginning to feed and energize diverse urban and suburban communities worldwide. But there's so much more potential here yet to be harnessed!
This is the moment for us to throw open the national “arsenal” of heirloom seeds, fallow land and food knowledge to orchestrate a grassroots, national movement of local food growers -- including disaffected youth, homeowners, students, the unemployed, incarcerated, etc… The time has come for millions more citizens to become active food producers right in their own neighborhoods and backyards.
Good food is our birthright, the indispensable fuel that we must grow, distribute, store, prepare and eat each day. But lacking yet a cabinet level Secretary of Permaculture dedicated to promoting local food security and bio-regionalism, we'd all better put on our work gloves, gather our relations, and start spreading mulch! Failure to undertake such a campaign today represents a collective myopia of the power of grassroots, citizen-based enterprise. It is surely time to share our knowledge and best resources with the people who can really build our “homeland security” -- that is, the citizen farmer. Let us honor and protect the earth and each other by teaching the masses to grow their own.
Daniel Botkin is an unrepentant fan of organic, home-grown food and a joyful practitioner and teacher in the "small farm", "local foods" and "sustainable agriculture" movements.