F.A. Farm

  (Ferndale, Washington)
Postmodern Agriculture - Food With Full Attention
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Why Should I Grow Food?

This is the fifth in a series of "Who, what, when, where, why and how." As for the lead question, notice how I didn't ask, "Why Should I Become a Farmer?" That's because the real key to solving our food crisis is many people growing food on small plots. In other words, "Many hands make light work." Focusing on mainstream views of what farmers do, what agriculture is, and how you can compete will suck you into the mainstream growth business model, and that is quite the opposite of what we need now. Modern industrial agriculture has failed and postmodern sustainable farming/gardening is working, right now, as we speak. 

From a hunter/gatherer perspective, the ideal is to just harvest what is already there. However, there are too many of us on the planet so we have to grow food. In order to grow food, we have to prepare the ground, control the water and weeds and put our labor into production. Modern farmers also have extra responsibilities. If they are doing direct-marketing, they have to spend a significant amount of time and money doing farmers markets, delivering their product and developing more markets. If the farmer is selling commodities instead of selling right to the customer, they have to take what the market gives them. Direct-marketing allows you to become a price-maker, but the downside is the time and money spent on marketing and selling. Commodity, or indirect, marketing means you have to be a price-taker. Either way, you are at a distinct disadvantage, given the way markets are controlled by corporations who are not only driving UP the cost of farm inputs, but driving DOWN the price of farm outputs. The farmer is caught in between. 

The easy way to get around this dilemma is to grow your own food and then see if you have extra. In other words,change the focus from growing for market to growing for yourself. If you have extra production, you can then shop it around to your neighbors or at the nearest farmers markets. This is one of the reasons I have been involved in starting three farmers markets here in NW Washington in the last five years. In the modern business model, the farmer has to assess the market and then grow what he/she can sell. In the postmodern business model, the farmer will be able to sell all he/she can grow. The dynamic of being able to sell all you can grow might be upon us as early as this summer, if I read the problems coming out of the Middle East and North Africa correctly. It won't hurt to be ready AND growing your own food has immediate benefits. 

I am giving a presentation to beginning gardeners at the end of this month and I am going to start out with the following question, "Why grow a garden?" The short answers for this presentation are:
1) It is pleasant - many people find it relaxing and fun to grow their own food.
2) It is economical - you can grow quite a bit of food in a small space and this helps your food bill.
3) It is nutritious - food from your garden hasn't been sitting in a store for several days, losing nutrients.
Some people may not realize it, but the subjective sense you get of well-being when you have your hands in the soil is a primary (and primeval!) driver for gardening. It really is a simple endeavor and even the rhythm you get into when you are weeding has beneficial effects - lower blood pressure, beneficial exercise, etc. When you add in the economic and nutritional effects, it really becomes a no-brainer. If you have the time, you should garden.

There is another aspect to gardening that is underappreciated. When you are using your own labor to grow something that you eat, you are actually leveraging your energy. The calories you use in weeding carrots can come from the carrots you are eating, or the raspberries you had for breakfast, or the wheat you grew that was in your toast that morning, etc. This is significant. For example, I grow about 55% of the food Toni and I eat. I found this out by keeping store receipts for several months, inputting the data and then trimming it in a statistics program to get rid of outliers, and then doing an average. The average was right around $275 a month, or $3300 per year. I arbitrarily assigned the value of what I provide for the house at $4000, so this works out to 55%. You might note that this includes wine, beer, ice cream, chocolate, and other simple luxuries, so if we had to we could lower our food costs quite a bit. Also, our food costs are about 16% of our combined income, well within the ballpark range for our "progressive" social status and above the overall US average of 13% for 2010 (US Dept. of Labor statistics). 

But I digress - back to leveraging. If I spent $4,000 a year on food, or 8-9% of our combined income, that would be a significant cost. BUT I am not spending $4,000 on food because my costs are only about 10% of the value of the food I grow, so I save $3600 right there. That is a leveraging factor of 1:10. Also, the calorie aspect is significant in leveraging, as I mentioned above. In 2009, the dollar value of food for the house was about 12% of what I produced and the calorie value was about 464,000 calories. To produce those calories for the house required 12% of my energy calories in production, which were 3000 hours for the year at 125 calories per hour, or 45,000 calories to produce 464,000 calories. This is a leverage ratio of over 1:10. [Sidebar: I have written at length on how I calculate this 125 calories per hour, so I won't go into it again. Suffice it to say that I start with 2500 calories per day, subtract 500 for 8 hours sleep and then divide the remaining 2000 by 16 hours for 125 calories per hour all day long.] So, using two methods of calculation - dollar value and energy value - I can leverage my time and energy at a ratio of 1:10 by growing my own food. 

My final point about the value of growing your own food involves risk analysis. There are four levels of risk analysis in thinking about food safety and they are based on how close you are to the source of your food.
Level 1 - the highest level - You grow your own food. Here you control almost everything because you make the decisions. You may get some pesticide drift from your neighbor's rose bushes, for example, which you cannot control, but for all practical purposes, you know what goes into your food and how clean it is.
Level 2 - You buy food from someone you trust. You get your food from a second party and you know how he/she grows their food. You have taken a farm tour, for instance, and you have a high degree of confidence in the methods used to grow your food.
Level 3 - You buy food from a third party that has some form of certification that you find significant. This could be organic certification or the normal state health rules that all supermarkets have to abide by. They really are all the same because what you are doing is trusting the 3rd-party certifier. Many people don't quite get that organic certification is just a paper trail marketing device and hardly any different from what supermarkets are already doing. This is a logic error, of conflating safety and marketing, testing and paper trails.
Level 4 - Don't worry about it and just eat what you can get. This is the lowest level of risk analysis.
If you think of food safety in terms of lowering your risk, obviously you gain by growing your own food.

The bottom line in this blog post is that you gain significantly by growing your own food. As I said in regards to my upcoming presentation for beginning gardeners, it is pleasant, economical and nutritious. Once you are growing your own food, it is but a simple step to grow a little more.  

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Hi, Walter! Deep thoughts, thanks for writing - we love your blog. Do you think that money drives commercialization of agriculture? In a barter economy, would food cost less of our "income" when purchased? The training, infrastructural and mechanical requirements to grow food might also need to be accounted for, they take time, calories and even cash to acquire. Lots of thoughts. Thanks!

Posted by TwoInTents on March 18, 2011 at 08:53 PM PDT #

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