Each spring right after my garden beds thaw, little green spears of garlic poke through the leaf mulch. The warmth awakens my compost and the smell begins to draw the neighbors’ ire. I love it: to me it’s the smell of sedition. By producing some of my food I fancy myself a revolutionary refusing to yield to the easy trip to the store for all my needs. But, sadly, this is a fantasy. I’m no farmer: I rely on the(shops for nearly everything my family eats. In this country today, most farmers do too. I do learn a lot from my garden about where food comes from, how that affects us, and why I should care.
The production of food matters; not only that we make enough calories, but how we make them. The choices farmers make, too often forced by government policy and the marketplace, contribute to whether our soil, sky, water, and selves are healthy. My garden and our valley’s farms appear local, but with few exceptions they draw from an international network to help get nutrients from the soil and sun and into our bodies. My garden and most farms have lots of inputs. I use chicken manure fertilizer from a company in Bradford, VT. I buy crushed limestone that’s trucked in from somewhere out west. Each fall I order several yards of compost from over the river in Hadley, but the oil in the truck that drives it to me comes from all over the world. Though I don’t like it, I rely on the international petroleum economy to fuel my little hobby. Agriculture in modern American relies on petroleum for fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides and fuel. If memory serves, there’s been some blood shed to keep the oil coming. The irony of this does not escape me as I muck about in garden. My production and consumption of food entangle me in reprehensible economic choices that my nation makes. The food we buy matters because, in the words of Howard Zinn, we “can’t be neutral on a moving train.”
Farms have gotten larger as more and more small farmers have been forced out. Now huge swathes of monoculture deeply tilled can produce erosion that fills the Mississippi and the gulf of Mexico with topsoil and nutrients. These promote an algae bloom which in turns sucks oxygen out of the water creating a dead zone that grows each year. This is just one of many examples of how our choice to have tremendous, input intensive corn and soy farms is destroying our farmland and thus giving away the future of agriculture.
Mostly, my garden represents a lot of labor. I do get some help(harvesting from hungry children, but most of the weeding, pruning, carting and bug picking is my job. On many late summer evenings I can be found hunched over my broccoli with a flashlight looking for caterpillars, or scooting along under the potatoes looking up at the leaves so I can catch the Colorado potato beetles before they emerge. I’ve given quite a shock to more than one dog walker.
For the majority of my food I don’t do this labor, but somebody does and they surely don’t get paid nearly enough. We expect, quite unreasonably, that our food will be cheap. I work in my garden by choice, but right now in America farm labor jobs are going unfilled because the work is too hard, it pays too little and the people willing to do it are “illegal.” Furthermore, in order to remain profitable, farmers demand much more than forty hours a week. This situation exists because we, in aggregate, demand cheap food. Indeed, in this very wealthy country our food costs a shrinking amount of our earnings. Yet more and more people are going hungry. None of this seems right.
We are no longer a nation of yeoman farmers. Commerce, not agriculture, is the lynch pin of our economy. Though a tremendous struggle and one currently almost unfeasible financially, farming is good work. Rather than employing so many of our people in commerce, perhaps our country would be in a better place if more people farmed. It wouldn’t be anywhere near as efficient and it might cost more at the grocery store. Instead of less than one percent of America farming and ten percent being unemployed, we’d have a lot of people growing enough food for themselves and selling their surplus. They’d care for their land because their own food came from it too. Ultimately, our land is what we’ve got. I very much doubt our country would have become what it is without the wealth of our land. Our food choices deplete this land and we will pay for this.
Usually, the food I get out of my yard tastes better. Serving a dinner made entirely from produce I’ve grown makes me happier than most anything I do. It’s even better if my three-year old eats it. Recently I had to go out and pull up an extra beet for dinner, because the little guy ate the one I had already chopped. Hopefully he’s learning that good food comes from labor and it’s worth a good bit of our hard earned cash or some sweat — perhaps even both.