GROW YOUR OWN - DREAM - Growing Beautiful Food: A Gardener's Guide to Cultivating Extraordinary Vegetables and Fruit (2015)

Growing Beautiful Food: A Gardener's Guide to Cultivating Extraordinary Vegetables and Fruit (2015)



In an age of industrialized distance from real food, the local, sustainable farm is one of the few places to reconnect to the old way of eating, where you knew where your food came from, knew it was fresh, and knew it was sustainably produced. Of course, commodified, processed food is cheap, protected by crop insurance, Farm Bill subsidies, and well-paid lobbyists, so it sells, despite its toxic effects on human health and the environment. Yet imagine how different our landscape would be if the Farm Bill supported local, organic farming with economic incentives: Small farms would once again flourish because you could actually make a decent living from the land, national health would improve, and environmental degradation would slow.

If the price point for local, organic produce could be driven down by the same subsidies that keep industrial GMO soy, corn, and wheat—which is 75 percent of what’s in supermarkets and fast food, according to the Center for Food Safety—so cheap, then organics could compete on the shelf at the local Stop & Shop with their cheap, petrochemical cousins, as shoppers would be more likely to choose affordable organic. (Economics is almost always the tipping point for consumers.) The economic incentive could be ramped up further if the negative externalities of processed food came at a price; if tariffs, almost like a carbon tax, were levied against environmentally harmful production processes and high-risk foods, people might make better choices. It’s been working for tobacco, so why not the daily meal?

If how we eat can change how the world is used (and, according to a 2009 Worldwatch Institute report, 51 percent of climate-changing greenhouse gases come from livestock production), then farming and eating an earth-friendly diet of mostly organic vegetables and fruit, and not supporting the industrial feedlot or the drive-thru, is not only about human health but also about healing the planet. The stronger argument against eating meat might not be whether or not you consider killing animals inhumane, or CAFO factories (confined animal feeding operations) obscene, but how you feel about destroying the only atmosphere we have.

Organic farming nourishes both the biosphere and the body, pushing back against the mainstream culture of fast and hyperprocessed food and exploitive agriculture. By deciding to grow your own, you are taking a stand against an almost-numbing list of perils that have made diet-related disease the number one killer in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than a third of American children are now overweight or obese, while 67 percent of adults are overweight, their obesity eating up 10 percent of the nation’s health-care costs. Our food culture since the 1980s has become toxic and evolved into a very efficient killer of people, and perhaps—through land degradation, loss of biodiversity, air and water pollution, and climate change—a killer of the environment itself.

In the next few generations—by the 2080s, to be precise—the Milken Institute states that when we’re close to 10 billion crowded, hungry souls on the planet, we’ll need to be producing almost three times as much food. Thomas Robert Malthus, the 18th-century cleric and scholar of demography and political economy, wrote, rather disturbingly, that “the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.” Unless checked by some kind of earth-altering event or Malthusian catastrophe, we’re going to need to figure out how to grow a lot more food more efficiently without destabilizing the climate and continuing to rape the world of its resources. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, 80 percent of the world’s people already have no food safety net. “When disaster strikes—the economy gets blown, people lose a job, floods, war, conflict, bad governance, all of those things—there is nothing to fall back on,” says Josette Sheeran, former head of the UN World Food Programme. “Forty-nine million Americans are hungry today, up almost 20 million from 1980. Every 10 seconds, we lose a child to hunger in the world. This is more than HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined.”

These are the startling facts, not some hysterical, alarmist rant. They make an urgent, pragmatic plea for change, moderation, and balance. It doesn’t mean you have to turn your life upside down or become a juice-fasting vegan zealot, but rather that you might become more mindful and proactive about how you eat and the resources you use. Ideally, you’ll begin to grow some of your own food.


When my small farm began feeding others, I had a haunting dream one night that my neighbors were all walking down the middle of the road and staggering through the gates to my farm. The air was still. There was no sound from cars or trucks or distant hum of industry, just the slow shuffle of their feet down my drive. They looked haggard and hungry and were coming in droves to see if I could spare some eggs or a few vegetables so that they could eat. It seems the oil had run out, the supermarkets were empty, and my farm was one of the few local places that had any food. As unsettling as this dream was, it was also an affirmation that what I had built and cultivated mattered, that I was providing a small measure of food security for my community. Imagine if my efforts could be multiplied a millionfold, and if small farms were growing food everywhere as they used to, how different our outlook for the future could be. How different would our future look if our local suburban land were shaped by an appetite for organic food, not by the ubiquity of the chemical lawn or the strip mall, and we learned how to think of food as an ordering principle in our lives—one that defined our relationship with nature and with others?

Growing your own beautiful food is a way to restore some of what’s been socially and physically depleted in our culture, a way to bind and mix deeply with a place. It’s a personal, creative, courageous, political act; a way to effect multiple levels of change, one small farm or backyard plot at a time. But like anything worth doing, it begins with the idea, the dream of doing it, the seductive wish to reconnect with forces more important and larger than our own.

As the social scientist Edmund Bourne perceptively observed: “Despite all of its positive contributions to modern life, 300 years of scientific-technological development has left our civilization in an untenable position—at odds with its natural environment and ultimately its own deeper, collective soul. Only a global shift in fundamental perceptions, values, and corresponding actions will allow humankind to resume an evolutionary path in alignment with nature and the larger cosmos.” If farming your own food makes sense to you, and you’re interested in some realignment and value shifting in your life for any or all of the above reasons, then you’ve started to cultivate change and are ready to take the next step.