What Happened to the Home Garden?
"I think we could feed the world on small farming." This was a fascinating statement I heard recently from a neighbor. Her concept was that if a majority of people put their hands in the dirt and grew their own food, we'd have a less vicious cycle when it came to granting the population access to good food. One of my favorite examples to prove this theory correct happened right before the major industrialization of agriculture, during both World Wars, when the United Kingdom and the US pushed a movement of "growing food for victory." During the peak of the second World War, it was reported that there were over 18 million home gardens in the US alone. These gardens, grown in the backyard, in containers, on rooftops, and in public parks accounted for more than one-third of the United States' produce and reached a production of over 1.2 billion dollars. At the time, the population was around 132.1 million. Today, the amount of people has almost tripled which means we are eating a lot more food! The average American eats 35 pounds of food per week. Could you be growing and supplying that yourself?
What happened to the home garden? As a nostalgic, I tend to picture life as simple and rustic when it comes to the people of the past. In the early days of our country, it makes sense that every colonist was growing their own food, right? I was fascinated to read and learn that this fact was false. Most colonists living within a community had a garden, but it was more for show than for sustaining nourishment. In fact, most settlers from England and other parts of Europe hardly ate vegetables at all at that time. In an account from 1614, Giacomo Castelvetro, an Italian who wrote of the English diet said, "I often reflect upon the variety of good thing[s] to eat which have been introduced into this noble country of yours over the past fifty years . . . Yet I am amazed that so few of these delicious and health-giving plants are being grown to be eaten.” This was no different in the American colonies. It appears that kitchen gardens were simply grown to impress guests and neighbors, showcasing flowers and edible plants that were not prepared for the table. It's important to mention as well that a majority of the items being purchased, over 15%, in towns like Williamsburg, Virginia were for fresh produce. The rest of their diet? Meat and grains.
In the early 19th century, more people began gardening as settlers moved out west and purchased land in unsettled parts of the country. The variety was nothing spectacular, filled with basics like potatoes, carrots, lettuces, and a few culinary herbs. By the later part of the century, homes were constructed and towns settled which led edible gardens to fall out and ornamental gardens to grow in popularity. However, it was more common for home gardens to be placed in the front yard rather than the back at the time. As the popularity of growing your own food dwindled, we were met with WWI. Home gardens were at an all time high... then what happened?
It appears, on a historical perspective, that everything changed with the coming of the 20th century. The first self-service grocery store was opened in 1916 in Memphis, Tennessee, a Piggly Wiggly created and owned by Clarence Saunders. Rather than take your entire shopping order to a clerk, you could pick out the items you needed yourself and check out later. This of course started a chain of events including but not limited to: the need for more food. In the 1920s the first chain grocery stores began: Kroger, American Stores, Safeway, and National Tea among others. These chains began popping up nationwide, creating a much larger demand for cheaply made products. What does that lend to? Commercialized agriculture. Did you know that livestock account for 40% of global air pollution emissions? This comes comes from the ammonia in their waste. Not to mention that a large part of pollution in our water is due to various insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides. It made sense at the time to figure out a solution for the growing demand for faster food. Our population was steadily growing; in 1940, one farmer could only feed 19 people. In fact, on our own small acreage, we have hopes of being able to feed up to 25 people, including ourselves. That's not very many in light of all that we could potentially feed... but look at it this way: 200 years ago, over 90% of the US population lived on farms and produced their own food. Today, only 2% of the population grows food for everyone else, including the rest of the world. And they're using conventional practices to do so, as only 0.7% of all crops and pasture are certified organic.
I did read, however, that there has been a spike in recent years of Americans, a lot of them millennials, growing household gardens. They say that 35% of households in the US are growing things to be eaten. Here's a fun statistic:
- From 2008 to 2013 the number of home gardens increased by 4 million to 37 million households, while community gardens tripled from 1 million to 3 million, a 200% increase.
That gives me hope. In fact, the Old Farmer's Almanac stated in their 2018 publication that a rising number of farmers, around 30%, were women, though were still considered a minority. I know that most of you here, actually 92% of you reading, are women. Women who want to achieve something from their land, whether that is producing your own food, buying more locally produced and ethically sourced food, or simply trying to live your life more slowly when you are at home. Thank you for being here, for growing in this journey alongside me. When I first started this blog, I knew that I wanted to connect women, I just did not know how. At first, I thought that might have been through motherhood, but I can see now that it is through the choices we make when it comes to living more sustainable lives... for ourselves and for the planet as well. I witnessed a great live talk several months ago from Scott Koepke of Grow: Johnson County. He asked, "What is sustainable living?" to which everyone sat silently, not sure how to answer. "It's growing your own food, right? I don't think so... No, it's the ability to take something and then give back." He was talking about the soil. As an organic educator, he wanted to showcase that when you take food out the soil to eat, which has taken the soil's nutrients to grow, that you need to replenish those nutrients with an amendment like compost... I think it works well for other areas of life as well. To create a sustainable planet, we must first learn to give back what we take. I think more of us are figuring out how to get there. I don't know if I will ever be perfect, but I don't want to waste the time I have here taking all that I can without replenishing what I leave behind.
Do I think that we can feed the world on the small farming? I hope so. I think we could feed it now if we stopped wasting so much of what we already have, if we took the time to stop being scared of our own potential to get back to working the land. It's not about putting big farms out of business. It's about lessening the load so that we don't have to use so many chemicals, so many unethical practices. I don't have all of the answers; I just read a lot and try to soak up what I can. Here are some ways that you can get back to sustainable living:
- Grow your own food! Even if it's just one plant, try growing something yourself. It's cheaper, easy, and better for you than anything you could purchase at the big box supermarket.
- Buy local meat, eggs, and dairy. And produce, too, if you cannot grow it! To me, it does not matter if it is certified organic or grass-fed or raised with conventional practices. Buy it locally from a small farm; the more we can support small scale pastured meats, the better we are at lessening the amount of factory farms and all of the emissions they produce, plus better livelihood of the animals themselves.
- Recycle your waste. Lessening it altogether is good, too! Recycle your waste and learn to compost. 40% of our waste in the US is food. Rather than place your vegetable scraps into the waste bin, turn it into compost. If you don't garden, give it away to friends or sell it! Turn the banana peels and onion skins into beautiful organic matter. Or into vegetable stock and bone broth!
- Consume less. We constantly talk about minimizing. Honestly, we're just tired of all of the stuff that somehow accumulates in a home over time. This one is hard, especially if you have never tried it before! Break the habit of buying things that are not useful. Ask yourself, will this end up in a landfill? It's silly. I know. I feel like a snobby jerk saying it, but we do this all of the time. Will this item last in my family for years to come, even onto Tad and beyond, or will it end up in a landfill sooner rather than later?
Let's get back to the home garden! I think we can do it.