The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Gardening for health and peace

Cost of food as a percentage of American income over timeIt probably seems a bit strange to some of you to commit so much energy to thinking about agriculture as the root of societal woes.  After all, most people in the developed world are so cut off from food production that a cashier at our grocery store this spring had to ask me to identify the asparagus in my cart before she could ring it up.  Thanks to government subsidies and externalization of the true environmental effects of agriculture, modern agribusinesses feed Americans at a cost of only about 9.8% of our income (5.7% for food eaten at home), a rate that has been steadily declining since 1970.  Modern agriculture means that food is easy and cheap --- who cares about the historical problems associated with farming?

We should care.  Because, as the National Institute of Health wrote, "Over the next few decades, life expectancy for the average American could decline by as much as 5 years unless aggressive efforts are made to slow rising rates of obesity."  Because that cheap food in the grocery store also results in malnourishment and starvation in the world's less developed countries, where peasant farmers grow our shrimp and beef but can only afford to eat our cheap corn.  Only the truly short-sighted can believe that the ketchup we buy for pennies at Food City doesn't have strings attached.

Paleo dietLuckily, there is a solution.  We can overcome many of the evils associated with mainstream agriculture by planting our own backyard garden.  Most of us will plant vegetables, perhaps some fruit and nut trees, and keep a few pastured poultry --- if we subsisted solely on produce from such a homestead, our health would improve markedly.  Permaculture and organic gardening --- while only moderately suited to industrial scale agriculture --- work perfectly for the home grower, allowing us to create a sort of hybrid farmer/hunter-gatherer paradise in our own backyard.  If we raised our own pastured meat and killed deer to fill in the gaps, those Third World farmers wouldn't be stuck in a trap of spiralling malnutrition.

A couple of weeks ago, Mark and I met a man who regaled us with the tale of his struggle to conquer diabetes.  He was 80 pounds overweight when his doctor prescribed insulin, but through daily exercise and a strict diet, he dropped the excess pounds and avoided medication.  We ran into this determined soul as he worked his second job --- a weekend addition to the usual 9 to 5 grind that he took on not for the spare cash but because he needed a way to mentally escape the pressure cooker of his main job.  "You must have a big garden?" we asked him, thinking of how the fresh food would make his strict diet more palatable, how he could put some of those hours of excercise to work building something tangible, and how planting and weeding would help him release the stress of his office work.  The man looked at us as if we were crazy.  No, of course he didn't have a garden --- he simply didn't have time.

Community gardenLack of time to grow our own food is the neverending refrain I run into among people who care deeply about world peace and the environment.  We have been lulled into a false belief that gardening is simply not important, that our personal actions make no difference in the grand scheme of things, that our time is better spent pecking away at the keyboard in pursuit of a buck or relaxing in front of the TV.  Even Mark and I fall into that trap from time to time, and we admit that we are still a long way from the food self sufficiency we crave.  But we know that every successful experiment is a step in the right direction and every failure is time well spent.

By the way, if you live in zone 6 or warmer, you can still plant fall greens if you hurry.  Or just put down a cover crop or kill mulch to jump start the spring bounty.  Gardening does matter, and we can each be part of the solution...if we have enough time.

Why work 40+ hours a week when you can make a living in 6?  Our ebook shows you how.

This post is part of our History of Agriculture lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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For another great post - I'm once again in total agreement with you.
Comment by Jessica Fri Sep 24 13:24:32 2010
I love the positive reinforcement. :-)
Comment by anna Fri Sep 24 13:37:07 2010
Isn't gardening a kind of agriculture? The distinction between people who hunt/gather, vs people who grow food, seems different to me than the distinction between people who grow huge amounts of grain on huge corporate farms and people who grow small amounts of many different vegetables on small homesteads. In particular, both of the latter seem to be doing agriculture, and not hunting and gathering...
Comment by irilyth [] Fri Sep 24 13:38:48 2010

That's a very good point, and I've been thinking a lot about that. I agree that gardening is, technically, agriculture. But the result of backyard gardens seems to be the exact opposite of the results of industrial agriculture, and even of early traditional agriculture. Rather than putting power into the hands of a few, backyard gardens disperse that power. Rather than feeding us lots of grain and making us unhealthy, backyard gardens feed us vegetables and make us healthy.

Even the way we interact with our gardens is different if you use a permaculture and organic gardening perspective. My daily routine in the garden does involve lots of weeding (just like early agriculture), but other parts of my routine are a bit like the routine of Amazonian hunter-gatherers in their anthropogenic food forests. I stumble across a plump cucumber while feeding the chickens and stick it in my pocket for lunch. I nibble on ripe raspberries on my way to the outhouse. (And then there are the wild mushrooms I gathered while walking Lucy this morning, but that wasn't even in the garden.) Especially as our garden becomes heavier on perennials, our lifestyles more closely mimic hunter-gatherers.

I guess my point is that even though backyard gardens grew out of agriculture, they can keep growing until they are sustainable and more like natural ecosystems.

Comment by anna Fri Sep 24 13:55:40 2010

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