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.


The global food crisis

The specter of another global food crisis on par or worse than the events that shook parts of the world in 2007 and 2008 has once again reared its ugly head. Drought and fire in Russia have combine with poor harvests and reduced yields elsewhere in the world to dramatically increase demand even as the supply is tightening.

From my point of view, these events are neither unpredicted nor surprising. For decades now, the global food system has been built on fragile, faulty premises that concentrates food production in too few places, utilizing too many resources, and employing too few people. Especially in the industrialized world, enormous populations demand more and more food from less and less land and workers.

Meanwhile, industrial monoculture steadily exhausts the land still dedicated to agriculture, and industrial agricultural byproducts poison the land that grows the food it is supposed to help. Even with modern farming techniques, in many places infertility in the soil and chemical resistant pests are gaining the upper hand. The cost of producing food continues to increase even as the prices fail to keep pace, meaning that circumstances force farmers to sell more land, take more shortcuts, or get out altogether. Compound this problem with the occurrence of natural disasters like the recent drought in Russia, and all of the elements for a crisis of biblical proportions are present.

While this situation seems bleak, and it is for many people, it does not have to be. There is another way, but it is a way that requires people to change their view about where their food comes from.

Less than a century ago, even in the industrialized world, the largest area of employment was agriculture, either directly because people farmed or indirectly because people worked in businesses that supported farmers. Small town America, as an example, was also farm town America because those towns existed to support the farms that surrounded them. Certainly, there were hard times, but such times were usually brief and limited in geography.

Less than a century later, less than 1 percent of the American population farms, and the number of people working in industries supporting farming might total 1 percent. This means that, in the United States alone, 294 million people depend on the efforts of 6 million people for their daily bread. If something untoward happens, like drought or yield decreases, suddenly those 294 million people have nowhere to turn for their food.

That is, unless they turn to themselves.

Throughout history, even in the most specialized and stratified societies, most people directly invested some kind of effort into feeding themselves. At the least, they had gardens, kept small animals, or leased out plots of land for agriculture in return for part of the proceeds. Summer and autumn kitchens were filled with the efforts of preserving food for the winter, and most people relied on the larder rather than the grocery during the long winter months.

Most of us still have relatives that remember those times, and most of them will tell you that, even in the lean times, no one really starved.

What changed from those days was attitude. Governments and individuals decided that farming was beneath them. Instead, they decided that farming should be someone else’s job, and the number of those people willing to farm continued to decline even as the demand for the farm’s produce continued to increase. Now, there are not enough farmers, there is not enough productive land, and natural events threaten to upset this fragile balance.

That is, unless people do something about it.

About a month ago, I challenged readers of my weblog to do something simple: stake off a 10 foot by 10 foot section of their yard or of someone’s yard who was willing to let them, and plant wheat. This little plot, if all goes well, has the potential to produce enough grain to make bread for a year from its produce. Even with diminished yields, it can produce a sizable crop. Yet, hardly anyone responded to my challenge, and that lack of response is the problem.

About a year ago, I began reading that economists expected the average price of food to rise 20 percent in the next year. Now, some watchers believe the price of certain kinds of food could double before the end of 2011. The factors behind these price increases are complex, but they cannot help but strain the budgets of the 294 million people who choose year after year to trust someone else to feed them.

That is, unless people start feeding themselves.

Make no mistake: food production is hard work, but hunger strikes me as being even harder work. Besides, small-scale food production in a back yard or a small, borrowed lot is hardly the undertaking people imagine when they try to compare it to industrial agriculture. Further, small-scale food production has the added benefit of accomplishing all of the things people need to be doing anyway: getting outside, getting exercise, spending time with family and friends, breaking the tyranny of the TV and internet.

All that small-scale food production requires is a will to do it. Perhaps the crisis has not grown enough for enough people to care, but why wait until it has?


Food as a fungible commodity

All around the internet, you can find vigorous discussions about how, with the impending risk of international economic meltdown brought about by massive overspending, the smart bet is to invest in things like gold, which is a fungible commodity that will retain its value even if the rest of the economy self-destructs.

While, in some ways, this exhortation to invest in things like gold makes all kinds of sense, typical economic-downturn commodities like it have many disadvantages: they’re expensive, hard to move in quantity, limited in availability, and difficult to produce. These disadvantages mean that, even if one accumulates quite a bit of them, they will be harder to use when the time comes and will eventually run out.

On the other hand, food is also a fungible commodity, and while it often lacks the durability of other commodities, it has the significant advantages of being cheaper, easier to move in quantity, largely available if you want it to be, and surprisingly easy to produce. In fact, before precious metals, gem stones, and oil, food was the currency de jure in most parts of the world for millenia.

What is so amazing about food production is that almost anyone can do it, even on marginal land or land often presupposed not to be agricultural. As I have challenged everyone to do in my “10-10 Challenge” and is discussed in a variety of books like You Can Farm, Small-scale Grain Raising, and The One Straw Revolution, just about anyone can produce quite a bit of food on small plots of land with minimal investments of time and effort. Historically, families in the East have fed themselves and sold surplus off plots as small as a quarter of an acre, which includes raising livestock.

The beauty of small-scale food production is that, if the economy does tank, the food you produce will still have value–perhaps even more value than it did previously. Further, unlike traditional economy beating investments, producing your own food means that you do not have to rely on someone else to produce that food for you, which then means that the other fungible assets you might have accumulated are now available to procure all sorts of other things.

Even if you don’t want to produce your own food, you can still invest in food as a commodity against economic disaster. The company Heirloom Organics sells investment grade seed packs designed for long-term storage and that contain open-pollinated, heirloom crop seeds that will become very valuable if the economy collapses. Companies like Emergency Essentials sell supplies of long-term storage foods like cereal grains and legumes. Even if one does not use these food items himself, they can become a valuable commodity in the case of economic hardship.

Of course, my underlying argument here is that everyone should establish a higher level of self-sufficiency by growing their own food, one of the benefits of such activity being that it can act as insulation against economic hardship. Doing such a thing seems like a double benefit and an easy choice to me.


10-10 Challenge update

Well, my seeds are in, and I staked out the area in my yard I plan to plant. Now the trick is to watch the weather. As I stated earlier, the goal is to plant by 10-10; however, weather can always be a mitigating factor. Generally, we want to plant wheat before the first frost, so impending frost is a good sign to plant now. Also, watch the rain forecast because too little rain can stunt the wheat, but too much rain can drown it.

All of that being said, most wheat is very hearty and will grow even in the most inoptimal circumstances. Usually yield is what is affected most by circumstances, but the wheat will grow.

Also, if you’re going to plant in an area known to be weedy in previous years, consider overseeding the area with something like white clover before and/or after you plant the wheat. Most white clovers grow early and can help crowd out the weeds while giving the wheat a head start.


My 10-10-10 challenge

I often hear a lot of people claiming that the world cannot feed itself. They say there are too many people. They say there isn’t enough land to grow all that food. Some, even recognize that there aren’t enough farmers to grow the food we need. They throw up their hands and lament that we somehow need to reduce the population if any of us are going to survive.

I call bullshit on their entire line of reasoning.

There’s plenty of arable land and plenty of people to grow on it. When I say plenty of land, I mean your yard. When I say there are plenty of people to grow food, I mean you.

In other words, I challenge you to grow your own food, starting right now.

It’s really simple, and it doesn’t even require you to plow, till, or anything else. Find a 10 foot by 10 foot section of your yard. Mow it like you normally would at this time of year. Get a stick and poke holes in rows in that 100 square food patch about 5 inches apart with the rows around a foot apart.

Into those holes, plant Maris Widgeon Wheat or Hard Red Winter Wheat. If you live in an area where the winters are warmer, consider planting Hard Red Spring Wheat the same way in the spring. If you live in an apartment, consider asking your landlord or a friend with a yard if you can plant there. Do all of this by 10 October 2010.

Do nothing else.

Do nothing else, at least until next summer, that is. I cannot guarantee your little plot of wheat will grow or thrive, but statistically most of you will grow some amount of wheat in the coming year. Further, you won’t have to mow that patch of grass at all, and the combination of grass and wheat will keep down the weeds, attract beneficial insects, and improve the fertility of that section of yard. It is entirely possible, come next June or July, you will have a harvest of wheat that will fill a five gallon bucket.

From there, you can cut your wheat down with a weed cutter, garden sheers, or even a weed wacker (you’ll probably lose some that way). You can thresh it with a pillow case and a plastic bat and winnow it with a sheet and a box fan. You can dry it for a few minutes in a low temperature oven. You can grind it with a blender. From there, it’s flour and you can do whatever you want with it.

What you could very well have done, by next summer, is have grown enough wheat to make a loaf of bread a week for a year. You will have also prove that you can grow your own food and feed yourself without a lot of extra work. If you can do that, what else can you do?

It all starts by 10-10-10.


Why do you have grass?

One of the arguments I hear often about why we have to continue modern industrial farming practices is because there just isn’t enough arable land to grow enough food for everyone. I almost always wonder what the latest person who said such a thing is doing with his or her yard.

Seriously, what are you doing with your yard? How much did you spend seeding it, weeding it, mowing it, and fertilizing it this year? For what? Because it looks pretty?

See, my farm has several dozen acres of grass: grass that cows eat right off the ground or that we mow and bale for hay. For me, grass is a foodstuff for animals and part of a system that promotes good soil health and fertility. Frankly, other than a patch of grass around the houses and other buildings that we mow to keep the critters and building destroying plants at bay, the rest of our grass is food for something or unmowed meadow.

What about you?

I’ll grant that, especially in cities, controlling the places that pest animals tend to congregate is an always pressing problem, but does the answer have to be grass? What about vegetable gardens? What about replacing grass with attractive–and edible–stands of wheat or oats or barley? What about fruit trees or creeping vines like squash, pumpkin, or watermelon?

Heck, you wouldn’t even have to do all that work yourself. I’m betting that, if you advertised your yard as available for planting, someone would be willing to do the work for you for rent or in return for part of the proceeds.

Imagine all the arable ground that would suddenly become available if yards became, essentially, micro farms. This isn’t a new idea either. In many other parts of the world, entire large, extended families feed themselves every year on a fraction of an acre.

Now, I know that people have all kinds of aversions to this kind of idea, most of which I do not understand. But, beyond the perceived images of degraded status and the irrational fear of one’s home looking like a farm, what is the real problem?

To me the idea of growing one’s own food under one’s own control represents the height of independence. If your yard is a garden, do you have to worry about the price of food or the gas needed to get it? If things go badly and you lose your job or the economy goes south, will you go hungry if your yard is full of food?

Of course, for what I am suggesting here to have any real meaning, all sorts of things would have to change. People would have to be willing to do the work. Cities would have to realize that small plot raising of fruits, vegetables, and grains will not diminish the property values in their borders any more than the bursting of unsustainable, speculative housing value bubbles might. Communities would have to believe that a fundamental level of self-sufficiency is  a far better way to ensure their continued existence than begging for grants from state and local governments might appear to be.

And once those changes occur, then even more radical practical ideas can move forward. Ask yourself what’s worse: the occasional cluck or crow of a chicken or the incessant barking of your neighbor’s yippy dog?


Feeding the world

I’ve begun to wonder when the idea of feeding the world first became a moral imperative among farmers. Why is it that farmers have inherited the responsibility to feed everyone who has decided to do something else no matter what the personal cost?

I think I know how this idea came into being. As scientists and governments conceived of the idea that there were “too many farmers” back in the 20s and after, more and more people stopped farming to do other things. Yet, these people still needed food, so they came to rely on the people who continued to farm more and more. Now, the number of people who farm has decreased to less than 1 percent of the population (which also begs the question what the more than 99 percent of everyone else is actually doing), so the rest of the population is desperate for the farmers to keep farming, whether they realize they are or not.

Further, the non-farmers are often terrified of any suggestion that farming might need to be done differently, because changes that fail could spell no food for them. In a lot of ways, farming has become like social security: let’s not change it because changes might affect me, even though I am doing nothing to contribute to the system’s success as it currently exists.

Meanwhile, the system itself is failing. Because so few people farm, very few people know what it actually takes to feed the world. And what it takes is a huge amount of equipment and fuel, both of which are becoming so expensive that fewer and fewer farmers can afford to continue doing it. If things continue the way they are now, eventually farmers won’t be able to feed the world because the world will have made farming to expensive to be done by anyone.

I understand that many, many people will counter what I am saying here with variations of the argument: “how is paying a farmer to raise food for me any different than paying anyone else to do something for me I can’t or won’t do?” To me, the answer is that most other things you pay people to do for you don’t necessarily have to be done and you probably won’t die from them not doing it.

So now, the question for me is why am I doing this? I know the answers, and I have come to realize that I am not doing it to feed the world. I’m doing it because I want to convince the world to feed itself.


The cost of food

I recently came across an article on about AeroFarms urban vertical aeroponic systems. I found the article to be an interesting and exciting description of yet another way for humans to grow food in environments where food production has been traditionally difficult or impossible.

What caught my attention more than the article, though, were the comments. The first comment was by someone blasting the technology because the commenter assumed the technology would not help make food production cheaper and more accessible to non-food producers.

Frankly, as someone who has recently entered the food production business, one of the conclusions I reached at the very beginning is that the idea that food production should be cheaper and more accessible to non-food producers is part of the reason why food continues to get more expensive, more inaccessible, and more scarce.

Not even 50 years ago, most people were involved either directly or indirectly in food production. In the United States, a majority of the population still lived in places considered rural and either worked on farms or at businesses that supported farms. Then came along the modernist idea that said we had too many farmers who did not produce enough cheap food, and the government and scientists engaged in an aggressive campaign to transform agriculture into what their modernized thinking believed it should be.

The result was that the number of people who list their occupation as “farmer” has dropped to less than 2 percent of the population. Meanwhile, most agricultural production in the United States has degenerated to just five major food sources: corn, soybeans, beef, chicken, and milk (yes, there is also pork, but it is not nearly as big as the top five). Further, most of the “food” sold in most grocery stores no longer comes from a farm but from a factory where the constituent components are processed, rendered, and reconstituted into things that look and smell like food but are more like a chemistry experiment gone awry.

And this method of food production has come with a hefty price tag that the world is only just starting to pay. Massive use of chemical fertilizers and killing agents have poisoned the ground, water, and air. There are places that are simply dead because of farm runoff. New, potent super weeds and bugs have come into existence as a result of forced selective breeding from the use of chemicals and medicines in food production. In some places, the obsessive focus on scientific food production (the NPK model) has resulted in farms that have “farmed out” due to the unavailability of the thousands of trace nutrients and soil components plants actually need to be healthy. Compact feeding operations create environmental damage on par with major chemical spills.

All of these problems factor back into the “cheap and accessible” model. Because people still demand inexpensive food they did not grow, modern agriculture must respond with more chemicals, more damaging cultivation methods, more concentrated food production systems, all of which compound the problems even more.

Unless everyone considers another way. AeroFarms, and the thousands of companies like it, are attempting to do something that the modern farming mythology cannot do: return mankind to a society centered around feeding itself–the theme of all of human history–without demanding that modern people give up their urbanized lives to return to rustic farm settings.

Of course, at first such technologies will be expensive and hard to come by, but over time, the best technologies will take hold, become more prevalent, and become less expensive. Further, the locally or self-produced model circumvents the “cheap and accessible” model and adds the benefit of increased local and individual independence from the vagaries of the worldwide economy and commodity markets.

So, if people really want cheap and accessible food, the best way to ensure that goal is for them to grow it themselves or to support those growing it specifically for them. Everyone can have enough food if enough people are growing it, but all of us have to start supporting that idea first.


The one thing everyone can do

This morning, I read about a bill under consideration by the US Senate that would, if the language in it holds true, essentially criminalize local food producers by forcing them to register with regulatory agencies in the same way that industrial food companies must.

Reading about this bill once again struck home for me how far Americans have drifted from simple, elegant truths about life. In this era of high unemployment and ongoing economic instability, the one thing that everyone can do is grow their own food. I know this is a remarkable idea to millions of Americans, but it is also true.

Anyone with a patch of grass or a place to set up a few pots of soil can grow their own food, sometimes amazing quantities of it if one does it right. A seasoned garden grain farmer can grow enough wheat on a 100 square foot patch of ground to make 100 loaves of bread from the resulting harvest. That’s a 10×10 or 20×5 foot patch of wheat that can provide bread for a family of four for a year.

Unfortunately, most Americans recoil at the idea of providing their own food. They recoil at the labor. They recoil at the dirt. They recoil at the insinuation that growing their own food implies they can’t buy it.

So, what they get instead is 100 little emperors crafting a law that will force them to buy their food from sources approved by a federal agency, sources one can never visit, whose processes are industrial secrets, and whose products are dubious as food at best.

Meanwhile, the 20 percent or more of Americans who are un- or under-employed continue to depend on the same government to let them go to the imperially mandated food sources to get their daily allotment of government inspected and approved foodstuffs never realizing that, in the time it took them to go to the unemployment office and the grocery store, they could have cultivated a wonderful, nutritious garden for another day. Plus, they would have gotten some badly needed exercise and exposure to sunlight along the way.

I understand that, especially with the interstate transport of industrially produced food, the government needs to regulate the safety of what industrial food producers manufacture, but what does that have to do with small food producers whose products often travel less than 100 miles and usually not out of the state where they were produced? I understand that growing one’s own food may not pay the bills, but if the law is passed, even if one is good at it, one won’t have the chance to try because Imperial Washington has decreed one cannot.

Of course, they way to fix this problem is to contact one’s senators and ask them to scrap this terrible legislation then, if one really believes in the idea behind why it is bad, go home and plant, cultivate, and harvest. Everyone can do it, even if the government does not get the idea.