Ignoring a Solution
Living on the Earth, March 14, 1997: Ignoring a Solution
"Gardens are viewed as 'hobbies' by most politicians/bureaucrats and
administrators and are seldom taken seriously as real sources of real food,"
says a UConn agricultural extension specialist, speaking of the United States
Department of Agriculture. This attitude represents a serious impediment to a
healthy, and sustainable food supply and society.
Feeding a growing population with shrinking resources without polluting the
planet is one of the greatest challenges facing us, locally and globally. The
USDA is the world's largest agricultural research and extension organization.
If it doesn't take gardens seriously as "real sources of real food," we are in
Although we know that organic food sales are growing at over 20 percent
annually, the USDA hasn't collected statistics on organic farms. In
Connecticut, there are about 40 certified organic farms, which, like many of the
farms in this country, tend to be small and part-time. They probably produce
and sell less than a million dollars worth of produce a year.
But there is also an abundance of vegetables and fruits produced in home and
community organic gardens. A skilled home-gardener can produce amazing
quantities of food, using only hand tools, compost from kitchen and yard wastes,
and human energy.
The more than 20,000 subscribers to Organic Gardening magazine here in
Connecticut provide a rough estimate of the scale of organic food being produced
in gardens for home consumption. Although some subscribers may not have gardens,
that number is probably offset by organic gardeners who don't purchase the
Eighteen years ago, author and activist Marny Smith,created a 250 square-foot
garden out of part of the asphalt parking lot at "Save the Children's" Westport
A 250-square-foot garden is about the size of an average living room, which
isn't that big. It would take 174 of these small gardens to equal to one acre.
But, study after study has shown that per unit of land and energy, small,
hand-tended growing areas can be many times more productive than large farms
Marny kept careful records of the produce harvested from her garden. In a
pamphlet published by "Save the Children," Marny wrote that, according to 1979
supermarket prices, the produce from that living-room-sized garden in a parking
lot was worth over $ 320. And, that was nearly two decades ago!
Now, if 22,000 organic gardeners in Connecticut produced only as much as this
small, first-year garden in a parking lot did, they would grow organic
vegetables worth over $ 7,000,000, again at 1979 prices. Without even counting
for inflationary effects, home garden produce here certainly dwarfs commercial
organic agriculture. If fact, it looks like home organic production may have
about half the monetary value, and many times the social and educational value,
of vegetable sales from all the farms in Connecticut. There are fewer than
4,000 farms in this state.
The home-grown produce is even more valuable, though, to the gardeners. They
would need to earn more than $400 in order to have $ 300 left with which to buy
vegetables, after paying income taxes.
Those home-grown vegetables also have value for the rest of us. They don't need
all the packaging that produce from Mexico and California requires. They also
don't need roads, trucks or transcontinental highways; home-grown food doesn't
leave a trail of pollution across the country and around the world.
A home garden directly connects children and adults to a productive and
sustainable relationship with the Earth.
By ignoring these "real sources of real food," the USDA misses an opportunity to
promote agriculture that not only is the most environmentally friendly, but that
also produces the freshest, and tastiest food possible.
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth
(C) 1997, Bill Duesing, Solar Farm Education, Box 135, Stevenson, CT 06491
Note: Perhaps one of USDA's well-funded and capable economists could update
The USDA apparently now considers everything from input suppliers to retailers a
part of agriculture. So for example, potatoes engineered by Monsanto, grown by
Simplot, sprayed with Ciba's herbicides, processed by Nestle and sold by
McDonalds are all agriculture ( as are tractor makers, truckers, retail
packaging companies, advertising agencies, etc.), but a potato grown in a home
garden and boiled for dinner isn't.
Seems nearly impossible to get to a sustainable food supply with USDA's
Do we need to eliminate the USDA? Its bias against gardens is untenable. The
only gardens it recognizes, according to my source, are ones tended by poor and
minority folks. Perhaps that's to try to make up for its extensive past
discrimination against African-American farmers.
See also Fred K's note today re: hobby cattle farms.