Massive cultural shift?

Abby and I have been having a web conversation about what it would take to get people growing their own food. Most recently she cited skyrocketing food and fuel prices as something that might cause a major shift in how people feed themselves. I think there are two separate questions here – first, will high food prices cause people to start gardening; and second, will they ever derive a significant fraction of their calories that way. At least from anecdotal evidence the answer to the first question is yes – Fedco (a Maine seed co-op) had a banner year, and lots of people seem to be taking at least some steps in that direction. I think it is really cool that people are doing this, and I anticipate that it will have lots of benefits – folks will get out in the fresh air, meet their neighbors, and sink significant chunks of their free time into non-fossil-fuel-powered activities. And some of them will manage to grow what seems like a lot of food – I remember when I was a kid the time of year in late summer when the entire kitchen counter space would be paved with ripe tomatoes. I am one of these people, and I’m proud of it. But I don’t see the resurgence of conventional vegetable gardening as a “massive cultural shift”.

On the other hand, if a significant fraction of people actually managed to feed themselves by gardening, that would in my mind represent a massive shift. They don’t literally have to grow all their own food; I basically mean they would produce enough calories of food (that goes on to be actually eaten directly by humans) to feed their household. For example, swapping vegetables with the neighbors counts, but growing foofy hothouse flowers (or pot in the basement) and selling them for money to buy rice and beans in bulk does not. As I have said, I don’t think this is going to happen, because the numbers don’t work out – most people don’t have enough suitable land, they don’t have time, and I believe they don’t have the stomach for the diet that they could readily produce.

First the land. In a previous post I calculated a shade under 1/2 acre per person to eat what I would consider a good vegan diet – it will take a lot more land than that to provide meat, eggs, and dairy – that would be worth a post to estimate. The bare minimum is a tenth of an acre if you want to subsist on nothing but potatoes, and you don’t mind starving if the potato harvest fails. Most people don’t have this much land per person available. A quarter acre is a very big city lot, and many suburbs aren’t much larger. The entire state of Massachusetts (including a seemingly vast expanse of second-growth forest in the western half) works out to only 0.8 acres per person or so. And maintaining productivity on intensively-cultivated soil requires serious inputs – now these come from industrial inorganic fertilizer, but the costs of these can be expected to skyrocket along with food and fuel prices. Much more land is required to provide quasi-sustainable yields, for instance by pasturing animals on a large area and concentrating their manure on a smaller section of cropland. And if a bunch of people attempt (as I find myself doing) to grow food in the country while keeping a foot firmly in the urban economy, they will find themselves driving around an awful lot, which adds to the pressure on food and energy.

Next the time. If as Eliot Coleman estimates a person can tend 2.5 acres, in theory a person could hold down a job and tend their half-acre in one day a week – there goes Saturday. If they have a child or infirm parent to provide food for, that’s Sunday. That’s not to mention that the benefits of specialization are not to be repealed, and it’s unlikely that part-timers will ever be as time efficient or productive as experts. One of the characteristics of the modern economy is that a lot of people work really long hours, multiple jobs, etc, just to make ends meet, so it’s not clear that there’s enough time for people to work and also tend crops. And while some money could be saved by growing food, man cannot live by bread alone, and an income will be necessary, if only to pay on the land that’s growing the food. A lot of people in my parents’ generation went to the country to grow peaches and find Jesus on their own (or Buddha etc) , but mysteriously pretty much all of them ended up getting jobs and shopping at the grocery. Not to say it can’t be done, but the evidence I see suggests that it probably won’t happen this side of a catastrophic restructuring of society.

Finally, the diet. A lot of ink has been spilled encouraging a local diet, which as far as I can see is generally a good idea, but with the caveat that in order to be truly ecologically sound that diet needs to be aligned with what the land can actually produce. And in this part of the country what it can produce is pretty much nothing for half the year. I went to Portland’s large farmer’s market a couple weekends ago and there was exactly one person selling foodstuffs – some guy had some greens that he probably produced in a greenhouse (almost everybody was selling flower and vegetable seedlings for transplant). In the local grocery they are making an effort to offer local foods, and among other things they sell Maine-grown tomatoes. I just saw an article in the local paper about a guy who has a small hothouse tomato business not far from here, and he burns 80 gallons of oil a day just to keep the greenhouses warm enough to produce an early season crop. That may be local, but it’s sure as hell not sustainable. It’s possible to eat a local diet (people did it for hundreds of years after all), but it would be a far cry from what we eat now. Late summer would be fantastic, but a lot of the rest of the time would be pretty tiresome – lots of potatoes, turnips, carrots, parsnips, heavy rye bread, and interminable winter squash. Myself I like this kind of eating pretty well (I like it a lot better with sharp cheese and good butter), but I also like fresh tomatoes, avocados, fruit, and crisp lettuce all year around, and a sustainable local diet is going to be pretty short of those things most of the time.

So, while I will cheer the rebirth of gardening as loudly as anyone, I’m not holding my breath for people to actually start providing the bulk of their own calories. But perhaps it would be enough – and a worthy goal indeed – if people could offset the majority of their food expense. That’s because the bulk of calories can be purchased relatively cheaply in the form of grains, dry beans, and spuds, while the expensive, tasty stuff can be produced in extensive (by today’s standards) home gardens. For instance, a couple of large apple trees could produce several hundred pounds of apples per year, and provide the bulk of a family’s fruit needs for the cost of pruning, fertilizing, and preserving. This will require a resurgence of classic home economics such as canning, drying, and cidering, and a serious effort in menu planning, but perhaps not that elusive massive cultural shift.

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One Response to “Massive cultural shift?”

  1. Not half the calories, but half the dollars « Five Islands Orchard Says:

    […] half the calories, but half the dollars Not long ago I suggested that while it was unrealistic to suggest that most people produce the majority of their food […]

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