The Miracle of the Micro-Farm
Anyone can farm at home. Doing so could save your life, and that of others.
When I was a young child, my father used to walk over from his apartment, three blocks away, for no reason other than to water my mother’s front lawn. They had been divorced for several years by then, but regardless, whenever he came to see me, one of the first things he’d do is walk outside and do what my mother never did: water the lawn.
My father was an intense man, doing everything with intention, and rarely sitting still. In fact, when he did sit down, more often than not, he’d fall asleep, within seconds. I still think that this was the price he paid for surviving off of four hours of sleep a night for decades, and burning more energy over each eighteen hour day than most of us expended over twice that long.
So here he was, watering a lawn that wasn’t his, wearing an expression on his face that I could only describe as ‘at peace’. It was as though his prefrontal cortex switched off, and the ‘lizard’ part of his brain — the part that remembered its origins as a part of the planetary ecosystem — took over. It is largely because of this memory that I started watering the lawn myself, as my father spent more and more time in New York, where he had ‘planted new roots’, and was cultivating those.
I noticed that I, too, felt different as I watered the lawn. I projected myself into the grass, plants and trees, imagining them quenching their thirst; paying attention to the wind, as it made its way across the blades, and leaves; feeling the temperature and the humidity in an unexpected way; listening to the crickets hidden in the grass, and the birds perched on the trees; and watching bees and butterflies make their way methodically, from bud to blossom, in what could only be called — collectively — a choreography.
In short, I Zenned the f*ck out.
It wouldn’t be for another thirty-five years that I’d have a patch of green at my disposal to tend to. That’s because after I left my childhood home, I spent the next three-and-a-half decades in high-rise apartment buildings in cities, where greenery was at its minimum, and where a balcony was a luxury I couldn’t afford.
It all changed last year. Newly armed with a house — a whole house! — and a back yard in Toronto, my family decided to give gardening a go; so just two months ago, we constructed two gigantic twelve-foot long, two-foot deep planters in our back yard — a yard that had received a makeover last year when we ripped it up and created a Zen garden I’d designed for us, anchored by a stately Japanese Red Maple and large boulders, surrounded by pachysandra, lined with boxwoods, serviceberry, astilbe and assorted wild grasses, and which is now brimming not just with plant life, but also critters like racoons, rabbits, cardinals, squirrels, and of course, the insect kingdom. To them, a garden is a homing beacon, and they install themselves in one just as soon as it exists.
Nature is astoundingly resilient that way.
So, in service of this morning’s watering, and last night’s produce bounty, I thought I’d write a bit about the broad benefits of growing a garden; because they extend well past the obvious.
First, a history lesson.
In World War II, the redeployment of some six million American farmers to the war fronts meant that fields lay fallow. Two strategies were employed to make up for the loss, to continue feeding people at home and on the battlefield. The first of these was the victory garden. The USDA estimates that twenty million non-farmers planted gardens in back yards, empty lots and city rooftops. Moreover, individual families pooled resources to diversify their ‘farming’ activities, so that a broader variety of foods could be cultivated, and shared. They formed food cooperatives, whose bounties, workforce and membership all blossomed to counter the hardships — the paucity of nutritious foods — during the war.
In all, nine or ten million tons of produce were grown in these victory gardens, nearly equaling the entire national yield from commercial production, according to Farmer’s Almanac. It was a resounding success, turning a large share of the urban and suburban public into farmers, and expanding the palates of Americans everywhere, to then-unknown plants like Swiss chard and kohlrabi, to name just two.
In the book Food Co-ops in America: Communities, Consumption and Economic Democracy, author Anne Knupfer discusses how the Great Depression created the need for alternative economies due to high unemployment, spearheaded by advocates of the New Deal, which “hoped to stimulate economic growth to tame unbridled capitalism” thereby “linking consumer activism to labor unions’ concerns for higher wages and increased purchasing power.” In other words, food co-operatives were a way to link activism to employment and economic health.
Our current economic situation isn’t that different; and if overnight, victory gardens resulted in a yield of highly nutritious foods equal to the total commercial yield in the nation, on a grassroots, have-a-patch-and-grow-stuff-on-it platform, then it could happen again today, just as easily.
What a novel concept. All it took was a patch of land, some seeds and the will to use both to create a form of economic independence.
HistoryNet.com cited USDA official Meredith C. Wilson, who wrote that “manpower for agriculture is of equal importance with manpower to produce combat weapons for our fighting men.” Farm worker recruitment materials from the Office of War Information insisted that “bread is ammunition as vital as bullets.”
The notion that “bread is ammunition” goes far beyond the killing fields. As we saw, it was ‘ammunition’ for empowerment at times of high unemployment, growing economic inequality, political game-playing and other societal stresses associated with urbanization, such as cultural hierarchies and marginalization. Farming, as it were, could be done by anyone, anywhere, as long as you are able-bodied. It is a way of leveling the playing field in spite of the political and commercial trend to consolidating power in the hands of ever larger corporate interests.
There is, and has always been, a bright line in the sand when it comes to food production. For individuals and families, the driving concern of growing, procuring, preparing and eating food has always been, and always will be, the health of their families; whereas for corporations or commercial entities, the principal impetus has always been the maximization of profit. Unfortunately, those two aims stand on opposite sides of the nutrition equation.
Today, we once again have economic inequity. Again, a record number of people are out of a job. And for the first time, a crisis has been created an all-powerful and incredibly sophisticated profit machine, in the form of Big Agriculture, whose market penetration and nutritionally bankrupt product line is complete. The quality of the foods they sell us are not only making us sick; they are killing us. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, 678,000 people die each year in the United States alone, from nutrition-related diseases — a rate that has doubled in adults, tripled in children, and quadrupled in adolescents.
If there is a more insidious epidemic, I don’t know of it.
Bluntly put, ‘living’ should be a good enough reason to recalibrate our relationship to food. But obviously, that’s difficult. The odds are stacked against us. Glossy advertising, a near-ubiquitous addiction to sugar, carbs, saturated fats, and taste bud-tickling franken-ingredients; the utter affordability of junk foods; the ubiquity of fast foods outlets, and the paucity of quality (i.e.: profit-poor) alternatives; our increasing outsourcing of food preparation to businesses; and the government’s outsized subsidy of the biggest, most profitable, yet most nutritionally bankrupt foods of all — corn, wheat and soy. As Michael Pollan wrote in the seminal The Omnivore’s Dilemma, the average McDonald’s meal is overwhelmingly comprised of corn — at least, one of the two thousand by-products that are created from it, in the US. When measured by a mass spectrometer — which goes beyond the visual to analyze the molecular signature of a compound — a McDonald’s soda is 100% corn; a milk shake: 78%; their salad dressing: 65%; their chicken nuggets: 56%; their cheeseburgers: 52%; and their French fries: 23%. When you eat at McDonald’s, you are essentially eating a meal of corn, refashioned to look like other things.
They are not alone.
Beyond the horror of nutrition and the fact that it’s killing millions of us, there are a number of excellent and far more uplifting reasons to consider gardening.
Reconnect with ‘Natural Time’
We have largely forgotten how to live outside of mechanical time; that is, to recall and calibrate ourselves by the ebb and flow of nature’s cycles. This is about more than the sun’s rise and set — a generic but rigidly adhered organizing principle for the global workforce that ignores the not-insignificant fact that time zones don’t align, nor does the substantial swing between summer and winter’s daylight, especially if you live in a northern clime. Produce follows an entirely different set of timelines; and unless you’re building a year-round ‘hot house’, gardening helps reconnect us in dramatic fashion with nature’s complex interrelationships with climate and weather. Simply put, in farming, we are forced to understand nature and work on its schedule; and what’s at stake isn’t just our own feelings of connectedness, but whether or not our ‘wards’ bear fruit, or die. Gardening forces us to pay attention. It also requires us to slow down, and relearn how soil, sun, water and weather conspire to coax magic out of seeds. To watch crops grow is to witness divinity: the creation of life. And in the case of the ‘home farm’, this form of alchemy feeds both the body and the soul.
Statistically, gardeners live longer. This is an entirely different criterion from the quality of the foods we eat. No, really. Dan Buettner, the author of Blue Zones about the longest-living communities in the world — and a holder of three world records in endurance cycling, incidentally — identified just a single common denominator to the healthiest communities on Earth: they all gardened — well into their 80’s, 90’s and beyond. It’s worth repeating the point: anyone can garden. Old, young, poor, rich: unless you’re trying to feed an entire village, a home garden is a very, very light lift. In our own house, my eleven-year-old daughter is as much the gardener as I am. In fact, like any good child, she doesn’t listen to me; and so, when I returned home after a two-week quarantine in New York with my other daughter, I discovered that a new crop of arugula, dill and tomatoes had been planted in new pots, and were already thriving.
She’d never even discussed it with me.
In one blue zone — Okinawa, Japan — the twin concepts of ikigai, or “reason for living”, and yuimaru, or a “high level of social connectedness” are credited with much of their super-centenarian reach. Dr. Bradley Wilcox studies the Okinawans. As in so many other parts of the world, he says the market is the central organizing hub of social activity for the gardeners, helping them “feel grounded and connected.”
“A Harvard University study showed that people who were surrounded by lush greenery lived longer, with a lower chance of developing cancer or respiratory illness,” according to a 2018 article published by BBC. It adds that Australian researchers found 36% lower risk of dementia among gardeners, and a 40% drop in chronic illness.
Improved Nutritional Health
Part of the benefit of growing food is that we eat better, delivering more good nutrients to our bodies than outsourcing does. There are many reasons for this. One is the time it takes for food to move from farm to table. When you pick food from your garden, it was living mere seconds ago. This means it is at maximum nutritional value. If you’ve ever bought greens in a store and brought them home, they are already half-decayed. They’re limp, which is the telltale sign of the breakdown of the plant’s own fibrous structure. The first time I picked spinach, kale and arugula from my own garden, I was shocked at how rigid the leaves were. Simply put, they were fresh — as fresh as fresh gets. Once we pick them, a process called respiration breaks down its carbohydrates, proteins and fats. Livestrong says that “the longer produce has to breathe before it is consumed, the less likely it is to retain nutrients.” Harvard Medical School’s Center for Health and the Global Environment concluded something none of us should need an Ivy League school to teach us: “food transported over long distances is not likely to be as nutritious as food grown and consumed locally.” They advise people to choose produce that is as fresh as possible; and add that “If you can’t grow your own,” (hint hint), “look for local farms or growers.”
It’s interesting to note that the average apple one buys in a grocery store has been kicking around in warehouses for a whopping 9–12 months. Read it again. The apple you just ate was picked a year ago. Gross. Commercial farming uses hypoxic environments — where produce is surrounded by nitrogen gas to reduce oxidation. While it slows down the decay significantly, a year-old apple is a far different food source from one picked from a tree minutes or days earlier.
Lastly, there’s the choice of what to grow itself. A 2013 article in the New York Times that I’ve quoted from liberally over the years led me to the shocking realization that industrial food — even the seemingly unmolested fruits and vegetables that we buy, and which represent nature’s healthiest foods — have been engineered for one purpose only: shareholder profit. In the case of fruits and vegetables, that comes in the form of selective breeding: using only the most robust, highest-carbohydrate, highest-yield sub-species of any food, and tossing the rest. What is tossed—and lost—in that decision is nutritional value — as in, the core reason our bodies consume food. They evolved to require specific amounts, over variable time frames, of 14 separate vitamins, 7 macro-minerals, 9 micro- (or trace) minerals, amino acids, fatty acids, phytonutrients, carbohydrates and fiber. Without the proper mix of these in the body, plain and simply, it becomes sick. And the farther off center it is, the sicker it gets.
Take one example: color. Purple carrots have about 15 times the phytonutrient (anti-oxidant, anti-cancer) content of an orange one. Purple potatoes have one hundred and fifty times the same, over a white potato. Spinach: 8x that of iceberg lettuce. Wild chokeberries: 16x that of those you buy in the store. And blue corn has 40% more anthocyanins (a phyto-nutrient) than yellow corn, and nearly 60x that of white.
It’s no small deal. When we say “eat the rainbow”, that’s one key reason. A rule of thumb is: wild is healthier; and the darker it is, the more phytonutrients the food has. Sometimes, the difference is shocking.
One more: let’s look at vitamins. Holistic wellness company The Biostation reports that according to both the CDC and USDA, 92% of the US population has vitamin deficiencies. The cluprits are twofold: diet, as we’d expect, but also nutrient density. It comes back to breeding for profit, not nutrition. I wrote about it in 2015 for another website. I’ll repeat a bit of it here, to give a quantitative complexion of what is ailing us, and why growing your own food is largely advantageous:
“Produce crops grown by small-farm, local business owners [or ourselves] is by every measure more nutritious than their conventional counterparts. From soil charging to mono-culturing to doubling crop cycles to breeding nutrient-inferior breeds to using synthetic pesticides to harvesting ‘sub-ripe’ foods to transporting long distances to pre-processing foods, the choices made by factory farms at every step diminish the nutrition in their food products. An excellent report from the Organic Center called Still No Free Lunch — one I’d encourage you to read — illuminates dozens of studies across the US and UK on the subject of nutrient decline in our food system over the decades. One such UK study found that we would have to eat three apples in 1991 to supply the same iron content as one apple in 1940; and that broadly, British spinach’s potassium content dropped by 53%, its phosphorous by 70%, iron by 60% and copper by 96% over the same period. In the US, a 2004 University of Texas study sifted through 50 years of USDA food composition data for 13 nutrients in 43 garden crops — comparing what we grew at home with what is now commercially farmed. Their conclusion? Declines in concentrations of 6 key nutrients: 6% for protein; 16% for calcium; 9% for phosphorous; 15% for iron; 38% for riboflavin (B2); and 20% for vitamin C. By contrast, not one nutrient in any food measured over a 50-year period increased in value.”
We are, as the New York Times article warned, “breeding the nutrition out of our food system”. A freshly picked cucumber, or fistful of kale, or tomato, or any other thing one can grow at home, will do more for your body, at minimum decay and at maximum nutrient density, than a good margin more of supermarket produce ever could, and infinitely more than a boxed product without an expiry date will ever even pretend to.
With so many people today out of a job — many among them the same people who longer keep a healthy or balanced diet, and are so removed from the psychological healing power of environmental connectivity — the stuff of blue zones — the idea of starting a home garden is a large step toward addressing all of it. But how could we possibly do more than grow some token herbs at home to sprinkle on our meat or fish, really? Well, notwithstanding it’s in California — a land without a winter — let’s visit the home of the Dervaes family. They live in one of the US’s largest cities — Los Angeles — on a 1/5th acre lot, 50% of which they have given over to growing food. In all, on 1/10th of an acre, they grow and harvest 350 different vegetables, herbs, fruit and berries, yielding 7,000 pounds of organic produce each year. 96% of their front lawn is “edible”. The family modeled their farming off Japanese and European precedents, because for thousands of years they’ve grown food in small places. The Dervaes’ garden provides 75% of their food needs, 99% of their produce needs and yields profit from an organic produce business from which they fund the rest of their lives.
Their bid for self-sufficiency goes well beyond gardening to include solar panels, biodiesel, a solar oven, wastewater reclamation and a composting toilet.
Whether or not you have the desire (or sunlight) to feed yourself fully on your own garden, or live off grid, as they do, the point to be made here is simple: a lot of food can be produced at home. In our own garden, I was shocked to see just how quickly and how easily a naïve family could produce food. We aren’t serious farmers by a long shot, but we are growing kale, spinach, arugula, tomatoes, dill, basil, cucumbers, carrots, snow peas, zucchini, squash, beets, and broccolini. And we just started two months ago. For us, it is all an experiment. We have already agreed we need to allocate more space to the effort next year. It is addictive, it’s fun, and every morning finds me outside, inspecting the garden, looking to learn more about how to coax the soil to do more.
Best of all, I now recall what fruits and vegetables are supposed to taste like, when they are truly fresh and nutritious. In and of itself, that is enough reward. The bonus of knowing we grew it ourselves? Another notch in psychological independence.
Help the Environment
Growing your own food reduces the ‘environmental footprint’ of foods (associated with chemical use, industrial processing, transportation, storage, retail operation, packaging production and waste). Waste from the things we buy — all of it wrapped in plastic, or bagged, or boxed, or all of the above, is causing an environmental crisis of global proportions.
Furthermore, it sponsors biodiversity, in your own back yard. The critters who use ours are just the tip of the iceberg. Bees are pollinating, insects and birds are thriving in their own food chain, and so far, we haven’t lost more than our tomatoes to the raccoons. Nature thrives on diversity and seeks to re-establish it at every turn.
Lastly, the ‘heat island effect’ is what happens in the absence of trees and groundcover: the ground heats up, contributing to ozone production, air quality reduction, rainfall and tornado strength and frequency, and global warming. Gardens not only reduces the effect, it stabilizes soil, and groundwater runoff — one of the greatest stresses to urban stormwater systems.
A 2011 study by the USDA used Nielsen Homescan Data to determine the average cost of 153 commonly consumed fresh and processed fruits and vegetables. They found that the average American could satisfy the USDA’s dietary recommendation for fruits and vegetables for just $2 to $2.50 per day. At the bottom of each list: watermelon — at $0.17 per cup, and pinto beans, at $0.13 per cup. The 244-calorie beans are an excellent source of 7 vitamins and 9 minerals; while the watermelon is a good source of 6 vitamins and 3 minerals. And that nutritional powerhouse, broccoli? A single 55-calorie serving would cost about $.30, while delivering excellent amounts of nine vitamins, seven minerals, plus fiber, protein, and omega-3 fatty acids. In short, your $2 could go extremely far in supplying you with all of your dietary needs.
It is not expensive to eat well. It is simply a choice.
A final bonus: I spent nearly three years doing a deep dive into nutritional health, because what exists online is invariably biased, insofar as nearly everyone with something to say is selling a product, book or service, or is being funded by a biased source. I created a ‘master list’ that included the 81 foods that I believe to be the healthiest on Earth, and produced a spreadsheet that ties a serving size of each to its comprehensive nutritional content. I provide the data on all vitamins, minerals, fats, protein, fiber and sugar, as a percentage of one’s daily recommended intake (DRI). I’m including a link to that article, for those who’d like the empirical data, here. In the article, there is an opportunity to directly download a high-resolution of the giant spreadsheet, under the thumbnail image.
I produced it for one reason only: so that I could finally understand what the foods I ate did for me, molecularly and to guide my choices, including what was missing in my diet, and where to find it.
Zen the F*ck Out
Back to my initial story. To sit in a garden is to commune with something that resonates with us at a deep level. Said another way, we are nature, and so being in nature is, in a way, coming home. Every morning, I now spend time looking at my garden, inspecting what happened since the day before: what grew, how much, watching ‘natural time’ march ahead, in all of its variable speeds, from patch to patch; I see what the raccoons left us; how the spiders ‘bridged’ between stalks to spin their webs, so that they could eat, too; listen to the wind, watch the cardinals play on something — in a sense — that we made for them; and on more mornings than not, I’ll be found foraging in my own back yard, grazing on arugula flowers (who knew?), basil leaves, zucchini blossoms and the firmest produce I can remember having had the pleasure of sinking my teeth into.
While I do this, I am re-aligning my internal circadian rhythms, I can feel my shoulders unknot, my awareness of the surroundings increases, my breathing slow, and the experience makes the tea in my cup taste that much richer.
In short, gardening, for all of its health benefits, environmental salves, economic contributions, psychological soothes, and feelings of accomplishment, just Zens me the f*ck out.
What more reason do you need to start making one?
Thanks, dad, for opening my eyes.