Where Food and Nature
Written by Jessica M. Stone in 2009 for Voices of Tomorrow
Despite their relative anonymity, community gardens are cropping up in rural and urban Americana. And, judging by the way the typical American now spends her grocery dollar, we’re changing the way we think, act, and eat.
Recent economy woes have shaken consumer trust in big business, and this trend is certainly true in the agricultural sector of our economy. In the last two years alone, food prices have risen dramatically, and Americans are increasingly looking elsewhere to get the foods they want at affordable prices. This trend, combined with the so-called “green movement” and the myriad food contamination cases in recent years, have given rise to a generation that wants to know exactly where its food is coming from.
And thus, the community garden. So what exactly, is a community garden? It is but one form of small-scale agriculture, whereby local residents participate in both the production and consumption of a community plot. It’s a very communistic idea, but, as radical as it may sound to capitalistic-minded ears, the community garden exists primarily because its participants are willing to ante up the time and the cash to make it work.
Another form of small-scale agriculture has historical roots, so to speak. It is known as the victory garden. In order to support the war effort during the Great War, many individual landowners began planting gardens for personal consumption. At its peak, victory gardens accounted for almost 1/3 of all vegetables consumed in America.
Nowadays, the victory garden is having a Renaissance of sorts. The practice of growing vegetables in the backyard remains an attractive option to those who would gladly place their sweat-equity in the field rather than at the checkout counter.
Not all small-scale operations are meant for personal consumption, however. In fact, most small-scale operations are profit-making enterprises in which local growers take their produce to market.
Regardless of the intention, small-scale agriculture keeps food costs down by avoiding the “middle man” so often present in large-scale operations. But that’s not the only difference.
Large-scale farms tend to invest in agricultural practices that produce a high yield at the expense of soil degradation. In other words, large farms feed the plants, not the soil, and that’s exactly what they get.
The crop plants soak up the fertilizers applied by large-scale farmers, and the soil, already depleted of essential nutrients from heavy annual tillage, gets nothing. When the crops are harvested, the soil is left bare again and whatever fertilizers remain, run off the surface of the soil with the next rainstorm.
Most of this water run-off enters wells where households’ water supplies come from. This contaminated water pours out of kitchen sink faucets and showerheads, and is ultimately consumed by humans. It is easy to understand how the perennial reliance on pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides creates a litany of long-term medical concerns and environmental hazards.
But big business is big business, and it’s difficult for the small-scale farmer to compete when the government subsidizes the non-sustainable growing practices of large-scale farming operations.
Nevertheless, all is not lost for the small-scale operations. The little guys have their own dedicated lobbyists in Washington, and their concerns have gained some traction with policy-makers. As it turns out, elected officials share the same concerns as many of their constituents in regards to food safety.
But even with the support of Washington insiders, small-scale farms will thrive in the long-term only by fusing a solid business plan with human creativity, which considers both the plants and the soil. Necessarily, small-scale farms will find success in the array of niche markets deemed “small potatoes” by large-scale agricultural standards.
As an example, a small-scale venture known as Community Supported Agriculture or CSA allows consumers to become shareholders of a farm and take a percentage of the weekly harvest. This venture works because consumers purchase their shares prior to the growing season to offset the farmer’s initial costs.
Other niche markets include sales to specialty food stores, high-end restaurants, farmers’ markets, and farm stands. Some farms even generate additional income by offering educational programming geared for the general public.
Perhaps the most essential element for the success of small-scale farming is its connection to the communities it serves. Community members invested in their local farms will be sustained by them, and in return they’ll sustain the farms. It’s a synergistic process, and one that mirrors the self- sustaining practice that is the hallmark of small-scale farming. And it’s also a process that allows a community to know just where, exactly, their food is coming from.