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.


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?


1st Anniversary

The beginning of the new school year reminds me that I have reached a milestone: one year since I started farming full-time.

It’s been a bumpy year, with big successes and catastrophic failures along the way. I’ve learned more in the past year than I think I have in the rest of my life put together, and for the first time in a very long time, I think I can say I am not the person I was a year ago.

Overall, I think I would give myself a D+ for this year. I had huge ambition and huger plans but very little concept of what I was undertaking. That’s not to say that my ambition and plans for next year are any less grand, but frankly, I was clueless last year at this time, and the past twelve months revealed that lack of understanding for everything it was.

I could go on for a long time about what I have learned, what I have realized, and what I plan to do, but I think the details of those things are best left for different posts. In the mean time, here’s to another year!


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.