Monday, March 29, 2010

Reflecting and Redirecting

I started this blog in July of 2009 as a way to write about my experiences of, and ideas about, a Backyard Nest Egg – an investment in food security. The idea gradually came to me, after a difficult period of my life. I had lost my second grant-funded job in three years, health problems that had been festering for awhile demanded my attention, and the stock market crashed, with many people losing a chunk of their retirement savings - some up to 40% of their 401Ks. It seemed to me then, and still does now, that investing in one’s own food security is one of the best nest eggs one can establish.

After all, I reasoned, what are our most basic needs to sustain life? We need food, shelter (a low-cost, low energy-consumption home is my next project – one that is in the beginning stages at this point), and clothing. Inspired by gardeners like Ruth Stout, who devised labor-saving strategies for producing, well into her eighties, all the vegetables she, her husband, and her sister required, I began thinking about how I could provide for Rick and myself. Three general principles emerged from my thinking and work: minimizing purchased inputs, labor-saving, and sure bets.

Minimizing purchased inputs means to me finding ways to produce food each year without buying tons of seeds, plants, fertilizer, and other garden amendments. Anybody who has done any gardening learns very quickly how fast these things can add up. When gardening is just a hobby, you don’t mind too much. But when the goal is to actually provide food for your family in hard times or during retirement, spending more on your garden than you would spend just buying food at the grocery store makes no sense.

Seed-saving, taking cuttings, rejuvenating a strawberry bed by training new runners and removing “mother” plants each year as I described in
Wednesday’s post, making your own compost, keeping chickens or some other small livestock, like rabbits, for fertilizer, planting perennial food crops like walking onions, asparagus, fruit trees and berry bushes are all ways to minimize your purchased inputs so that you can truly realize a return on your investment in food security.

Labor-saving, obviously, means finding ways to make the work easier. Initially, I was thinking about my health issues and inspired by Ruth Stout’s ideas for a “no-work” garden. I realized that serious gardening to put food on the table was possible even with physical limitations imposed by disability or advancing years. My goal was to investigate and write about gardening practices that enable gardening throughout one’s life. When I read Masanobu Fukuoka’s One Straw Revolution, my notion of labor-saving expanded from simple work reduction to encompass the need for free time in order to become a full human being. (Read more on Stout and Fukuoka’s ideas about “no-work” and “do-nothing” gardening and farming in
this post.)

Labor-saving strategies I’ve written about include no-till strategies of Ruth Stout, allowing your chickens to turn your soil a la
Garden Girl, sheet composting or latter day “lasagna” gardening (Patricia Lanza), returning organic matter to fields to compost there (Fukuoka) and the benefits of compost tumblers.

Finally, sure bets refers to the principle of diversity – planting a variety of crops and using multiple strategies to ensure that you are able to harvest something even in a bad year. For example, last summer I planted Juliets, Amish Paste, and German Queen tomatoes.
I harvested many Juliets, which are elongated cherry-type tomatoes that ripen early. However, we had a cool summer and “late blight” hit just as my beautiful Amish Paste and German Queen tomatoes were starting to ripen. Had I planted only the paste and slicing tomatoes, I’d have harvested virtually no tomatoes at all. As it happens, Juliets work well in salsas and we enjoyed many batches of that from our garden before the late blight.

How did we do that in a cool summer? Don’t chilies require warm weather? As I
described here, we grew the chilies in clay pots, rather than in the ground, and were harvesting fruit right through the fall.

I plan to continue writing about these three elements of a Backyard Nest Egg, and my experiences of gardening and keeping chickens, but the focus of this blog will expand to reflect my evolving sense that the right and responsibility of individuals to produce their own food needs to be articulated and even defended.

All social movements eventually experience push back of some kind, or counter-movements. The return to producing at least some of our food for ourselves will be no different. It’s a loose movement, certainly, composed of many people with many different motivations.

Some gardeners and chicken-keepers want to eat food that they know has been produced healthfully, others are concerned about our economic predicament and want a back-up food source, still others simply want to be more self-sufficient. For many, it’s a combination of these reasons. Nevertheless, I see it as a movement, not a “fad,” and as growing in size and strength.

The opposition is, at this point, is not organized or strong. However, the signs of opposition are everywhere, from people in middle class neighborhoods who resist community gardens and public orchards, to animal rights groups lobbying city officials to disallow chicken-keeping, to University extension agents concerned about the “threat” backyard chickens pose to industry. These are the issues I will be writing about, in addition to the usual chicken and garden topics, in the coming months.

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