Figure it out

Let’s get something out of the way: growing food to feed yourself is not rocket science.

Now, I understand that in the last half of the 20th century, a lot of rocket science found its way into growing food, and I think that fact is responsible for so many of the problems we face in food production today. Growing food and sending things into space are different kinds of magic, and what is good for doing one well is rarely good for doing the other well.

Over the past two years, I have learned as much about what I am doing and about myself as I think I have in the rest of my life up to this point, and I owe most of that education to a simple fact about the way I’ve taken over the farm I run: I’ve had to figure out most of what I am doing on my own.

Don’t get me wrong, I have had lots of help and advice along the way, most of it good and some of it bad, but at the moment when the work actually needs to be done, its usually me, the task, and my brain participating in accomplishing it. It has been mind expanding in ways that are hard to describe unless you’ve undertaken something similar.

What does this have to do with you? Well, if I can figure out how to run a 185 acre farm–and don’t get me wrong, I still have a lot to learn–you can figure out how to plant a salad garden in your back yard. If I can learn to master the raising of as many as 40 head of beef cattle, you can figure out how to plant a small plot of wheat for making bread.

There is a lot of talk these days about the cost of food, food security, and the threat hunger poses to national stability. One of the things nearly every policy maker and pundit gets wrong as they fret over these kinds of things is that they assume the solutions will involve massive expenditures of government programs that centrally manage food production. They get it wrong because they are trying to use political magic to solve a food growing problem.

The solution instead comes from when individuals establish food independence by growing it themselves. During the last days the Soviet Union, as the central government was collapsing and central food planning had reduced agricultural output to a fraction of what was needed for the Soviets to feed their citizens, as much as 70 percent of the calories consumed came from the roughly 4 percent of the land dedicated to small, individual farm plots tended by people after work and on weekends. To this day, as much as 50 percent of Russia’s agricultural output comes from about 2 percent of the land under cultivation.

What remains, then, is for people to figure it out. You can grow your own food and feed yourself and your family, and you don’t have to have a degree or a green thumb to do it. But, you do have to do it.

What are you waiting for?


Broadforking, gardening, and growing your own food, expanded and refined

Earlier this week, I discussed the idea of using a broadfork as a method for tilling the ground instead of using a tiller and and why this method is superior to traditional tilling. Of course, this method still has its own related expenses and may seem like a daunting investment of resources and time to some.

Yet, it doesn’t even have to be that complicated. Most people can get away with no till gardening by simply using a pitchfork, a garden trowel, and a pointed hoe. This method is especially good for small plots and raised beds.

It is possible, and in fact preferable, to plant directly into a yard that has never been tilled. Simply select a plot, loosen the soil by sticking the pitchfork into the ground and tilting to about a 30 degree angle. Then dig holes or rows for the plants or seeds. You can control the grass between the plants with a pair of hand garden sheers.

Now, I will grant that some kinds of plants do better in this kind of planting environment than others. Tall and climbing plants do very well, as do densely sewn cereal grains. You might have to add fertilizer if you do this with corn, but then again native cultures planted in ways similar to this for a long time with great success.

If you’re nervous about this kind of planting, consider starting small. Buy a locally grown tomato plant (or whatever kind of vegetable you might eat) and plant it. Starting small can help build confidence, and before you know it, you could be growing a lot of your own food.

The point is to do it. Try it and find out what you can do.


What’s your excuse for not growing your own food

I’ve heard most of them already: it’s too hard, too expensive, takes too much time, takes too much space, etc. The worst excuses run along the lines of why should I grow my own food when I can pay someone else to grow it for me. Of course, all of these excuses are worth far less than manure-based garden fertilizer and represent all kinds of things wrong with the way non-food raisers think about food.

My challenge to you is what it has always been: grow your own food! You may not be able to grow very much, but what you can grow will provide benefits that will pay for themselves multiple times over down the road. The only thing standing between you and that payday is you. Get out there and do it!


Broadforking and policulture

Over the winter, I came across an interesting concept while reading Eliot Coleman‘s Four Season Harvest: the idea of using a broadfork to loosen soil instead of a tiller to grind it.

As it turns out–and anyone who has played in the dirt for any length of time probably already knows this–what we call “top soil” exists in strata that has very specific and different properties based on depth. In a wild environment, plants  take advantage of each of these strata in entirely different ways, but when we till our gardens, we blend these strata together and deprive our garden plants of the ability to use them. Further, by blending these layers, we churn deeply buried weed seeds to the surface and create an environment where broadleaf weeds can thrive.

The damage tilling does is not finished with just the previous effects. Tilling exposes deep dirt, that because of its organic content holds moisture, to the air and sun, which causes it to dry and lose some of its properties, hence the reason so many gardeners have to water so intensively during the summer and fall. In addition, exposing this deep dirt exposes fragile compounds usually protected from oxidization and sunlight to both, causing them to decay into other compounds that are not as beneficial to plants.

As if all of that wasn’t enough, and this idea goes further than even Coleman does, tilling destroys soil covering plants like sort grasses, clovers, and other ground plants that help prevent soil erosion, help maintain a proper ground temperature for growing, help retain water in the soil, and help prevent weed plants from taking root.

Now, I understand that most gardeners will balk at what I am suggesting here, yet the conclusion is almost unavoidable: tilling our gardens (and our agricultural fields) is bad and counterproductive. And, the evidence is all around us.

Find a wild grass area and study it closely. What you will find is an amazing policulture environment containing dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of individual species of plants that all somehow managed to grow together without tilling, fertilizing, herbicides, pesticides, or mechanical watering. They are able to do so because they work together in a meaningful way to produce soil conditions constantly receptive to new growth.

Using a broadfork to loosen ground, in addition to other techniques such as intensive and cooperative planting, help a gardener (and a farmer) come much closer to mimicking natures course than anything machines might be able to do. By using such techniques, a gardener  promotes soil health and soil growth without having to add too much to what is already there.

Of course, this kind of technique comes with a price, as does everything: it is far more labor intensive than the garden tiller, yet I cannot help but imagine most of us could use the extra work.