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Does growing your own food matter?

Abingdon OrganicsRoland sent me a link to an intriguing article in the New York Times called "Math Lessons for Locavores."  The author argues that locavores need to take a harder look at the facts and realize that the distance food travels before it reaches their plates accounts for only 14% of the total energy costs of their eating habits.  While I like Stephen Budiansky's focus on numbers, the author's conclusion doesn't make as much sense to me.  He ends his article by saying, in essence, that our current agricultural system is just peachy.  I couldn't agree less.

Compost pilesHere's a quick example to help you see one small reason why I think that even mainstream organic farming is fatally flawed.  While touring Abingdon Organics, I was shocked to hear that Anthony tosses 200 pounds of culled tomatoes and peppers in his compost pile every week.  Mark and I once attended a few meetings as potential growers for Anthony's organic gardening marketing association, and I can personally attest that those culls aren't nearly as bad as the tomato I chewed Mark out for throwing to the chickens a few weeks ago.  Chances are, the culled vegetables had a slightly odd shape, were too big or too small, or had a minute blemish.  A hundred years ago, those culls would have been known as "food", or, at the worst, would have fed pigs or chickens that would quickly become human food.

Farm size over timeIn my opinion, the problem with mainstream agriculture is not the miles food travels to get to our plates; the problem is sheer size.  Over the last hundred years, farmers have been forced to grow food on larger and larger acreages or go out of business, with the result that they simply cannot keep the farm ecosystem balanced.  Pollution from concentrated animal feeding operations is yet another example.  Just as today's culls used to turn into yesteryear's soups, today's problem manure used to be yesteryear's black gold.

Nellie and I ponder tomatoesAlthough the average eater can't shut down factory farms or change the policies that make the typical American farm a 400 acre monoculture, we can take simple actions that will start to change the system.  Forget the greenwashing labels on the food from the grocery store and start thinking about your own growing, cooking, and refrigerating habits.  In "Math Lessons for Locavores", Stephen Budiansky wrote that 32% of food energy costs come from refrigerating and cooking that food at home.  If you grow your own vegetables, you won't need to run one of those huge refrigerators that grace the modern home --- you just take the food out of the garden, cook gently, and throw it on your plate, putting the leftovers in a smaller, energy-efficient model.  A rocket stove is on our winter project list to further lower our energy footprint.

Pondering cucumbersTruthfully, though, I think that even those steps are a bit cosmetic.  The real way to make your eating habits an asset to the planet rather than an oozing sore is to grow your own food on a small enough scale that you can put all of the "waste" back into the farm to feed the soil.  Although you don't hear it bandied about much, I see no reason why adding compost to your soil and growing cover crops wouldn't count as carbon sequestration --- after all, humus can take up to a thousand years to decompose.  Add in some livestock to make the ecosystem more complete, and you've got a simple permaculture farm that feeds butterflies and birds as well as humans.

An urban vegetable gardenIf growing your own food is so great, why don't we see more people jumping on the bandwagon?  Well, there's very little profit in it, for one thing, so marketers feel no need to spread the word.  Growing your own food also takes time and effort, and we're all inherently lazy people who would far rather think we were changing the world by paying double for a zucchini marked "organic" than putting down a kill mulch in the backyard and getting to work.  To top our reasons off, everyone knows that the average American is far too busy to commit 15 hours a week to growing crops, even though we easily spend that much time in front of a TV.  And, heck, what can one person's actions do?  How quickly we forget that during World War II, little backyard victory gardens produced 40% of Americans' food.

I'll step down off my soapbox now.  Thanks for reading a post that got way too long!  Feel free to tear my reasoning apart in the comments.

Our homemade chicken waterer makes the permaculture system easy and fun.


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Thought provoking as always. Sometimes I feel exhausted just reading all you two do. Laziness does scare me out of gardening at your scale. I am hoping to find a balance where I can still get some good results on a smaller scale with less work and less time. At the same time, I'm debating whether it would be better environmentally for us to grow a large garden or support local sustainable farmers. Similar to you, we live in a economically depressed region but can bring in funds from outside the region that help support good practices in the local economy.
Comment by Lisa Sun Aug 29 11:18:38 2010
Taste a locally grown tomato and compare that to one that was probably picked green and shipped across the country to your supermarket. That alone should make anyone want to buy local - despite all the other benefits you mention. I also think it is better to keep your money in your local economy. I love your blog by the way.
Comment by AB Sun Aug 29 12:35:20 2010

Lisa --- we probably make gardening look harder than it really is. We're always trying out so many different things that we do fill up about half of our days with farm work, but the actual time spent growing all of the vegetables and some of the fruits that two people eat takes up only about 10 hours per week. That figure includes growing and freezing enough food to take us all the way through the winter, so if you wanted to start out by just growing enough fresh food for your family during the main growing season, I'll bet you could put in as little as 1 hour per day! A commitment that small could probably fit much more easily into your schedule, I suspect.

AB --- Taste is a very excellent point, as is the nutrition that the taste represents. I wasn't really going there in this post because it already got way, way too long, but there are clearly benefits to local eating that don't get touched on when you merely look at the energy consumed to get the food from farm to plate. As both you and Lisa pointed out, supporting small farmers is also another bonus of eating locally --- not only are you putting money into the local economy, but you're also voting with your wallet to keep farm sizes small and the environment more pristine.

Comment by anna Sun Aug 29 15:41:13 2010
I totally agree with all your points. We have two raised beds and a 'flock' of three chickens. We also have a half share at a local CSA. I spent yesterday canning for 13 hours with a girlfriend. Knowing where your food comes from and/or growing it yourself is so smart and it feels good to move along the sprectrum towards self-sufficency. We have a LONG way to go but we are improving our garden size and skills every year!
Comment by Jessica Mon Aug 30 12:02:17 2010
That's the wonderful thing about gardening --- even putting one tomato plant in the ground makes a difference. We're still working up to where we want to be too, and the progress is delicious.
Comment by anna Mon Aug 30 15:04:44 2010

Actually, wrt regfigerator efficiency bigger is better. Suppose you have a refrigerator that is a cube (all edges the same length) for the sake of easy calculation. Consider that for a given temperature difference between inside and outside and a given insulation material and thickness heat infiltration is lineairly dependant on surface area (which scales with the square of the characteristic length), while storage volume scales with the characteristic length cubed.

So if you make the edge twice as big, the surface area (and therefore energy usage) grows by a factor of four, but the volume grows by a factor of eight! So the cooling energy needed per unit of volume is cut in half.

Comment by Roland_Smith Mon Aug 30 19:38:39 2010
"..per unit volume" seems to be the relevant part here, though. If you really only need to cool a very small area, surely it's better to get a smaller fridge than a big one even though the latter is more efficient per unit volume.
Comment by anna Mon Aug 30 19:55:44 2010
Of course. But that's not my point. Today it is pretty common for frozen foods to be stored in big warehouses. That is likely to be more efficient than in a small fridge. Also because those warehouses probably have a better incentive to be efficient; keeping energy costs down.
Comment by Roland_Smith Tue Aug 31 13:43:21 2010
I think we're talking at cross-purposes. :-) I've been talking about the NYT article, and how it says that home refrigeration and food preparation is such a huge part of the energy footprint of our food....
Comment by anna Tue Aug 31 19:32:40 2010

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