We’ve entered a new normal. One that is marked by its lack of normalcy. And all we know is that we do not know how much is going to be disrupted by this pandemic. Eventually the world will start up again, but that will be tentative. People may be hesitant to go to crowded places and additional periods of social distancing will certainly disrupt things again, before a vaccine is released in a few years or before herd immunity ensues (i.e. because most of us got COVID-19).
In the meantime, there are some shortages now—toilet paper, computers and webcams, flour and yeast, and of course, personal protective equipment—but there is another shortage looming just over the horizon. Food.
First, there have been disruptions from shipping and trade restrictions. As planes have been grounded, some crops are no longer making it to their destination (like Indian onions heading to Canada). Plus, some countries—concerned for their own supply—have been banning exports. Vietnam, the world’s third largest rice producer, banned rice exports temporarily. Now Russia is limiting grain exports.
Worse, as food production workers get sick, there will be further disruptions. Just one example: a pig processing plant in South Dakota, which produces about 18.5 million servings of meat a day (as unbelievable as that is), had to shut down after hundreds of workers tested positive for COVID-19. (And new plant closures keep showing up in the news, including Smithfield facilities in Wisconsin and Missouri.)
And the third element: the millions of migrant workers on which our unjust food system depends, a percentage of these has been prevented from crossing borders and thus farms have fewer laborers to pick their crops. Even those laborers who are available, they, too, may succumb to the virus and that would lead possibly to the quarantining of their whole troop, thus disabling yet more agricultural labor. These individuals, who we depend on for our food supply, are highly susceptible to COVID-19: they are poorly paid, living and working in tight quarters (usually dormitories), and have minimal (if any) social and health protections.
So there will be food disruptions, made worse by people—and countries—worrying about that and hoarding food now. Egypt, the world’s largest grain importer, has boosted grain importation, for example, which is already leading to price spikes in poorer countries. And of course, we’ve seen the emptied supermarket shelves. Along with the macro-level solutions needed, there is something we can do (along with not hoarding food): Yardfarm.
Most of us have lawns growing useless grass. In fact in the United States, turf lawn is the fifth largest crop by acreage, covering 40 million acres. So plant a garden this year. Or expand yours if you have one. Or better yet, tear up your whole yard and make it into a yardfarm. Plant edible things of all sorts, including easy to grow ‘weeds’ like dandelions, plantains, clover, wood sorrel, chickweed, and purslane. Who cares what it looks like? All of it is tasty and nutritious. Add to that, crops like kale, spinach, tomatoes, peas, carrots, onions, sweet potatoes (the greens are also edible), peppers, and so on, and you can have fresh produce available at least for a time (and even share some with neighbors and can a bit for the winter).
While this may sound naïve—and don’t get me wrong, this will not completely feed you and your family—when a lot of people grow food it can make a difference. Forty percent of US vegetables were grown in yards during World War II in Victory Gardens (admittedly, after America took a large portion of farm workers and put them in internment camps).
And when one focuses on yardfarming, one can produce a lot of food. About six years ago, in the lingering aftermath of the Great Recession, I attempted to create a reality TV show to make it cool for Millennials to move back in with their parents and turn their parents’ and neighbors’ lawns into yardfarms. Why? Many reasons:
- Increase community food security and resiliency (the more food we produce locally the more it buffers us against disruptions),
- Increase access to fresh and not just sustainable but restorative food (as unsustainable lawns become organic yardfarms),
- Shift those unsustainable lawns into more biodiverse, carbon sequestering landscapes (especially as households shift to composting their organic waste as a yardfarm input),
- Reduce our growing obesity rate, as people eat better and move more,
- Get people outside and connecting with nature,
- Increase the number of people living in oversized unsustainable homes,
- And perhaps most importantly, help renormalize the idea of multi-generational households with some members in the formal (consumer) economy and others in the informal or what Juliet Schor calls the “Plenitude Economy” (which by its nature is far less unsustainable than the former/formal).
While the show was never made, we did get a trailer produced and through the call for contestants process I got to talk with many interesting Millennials who not only wanted to try yardfarming but were already pioneering yardfarmers. One, Julie Pierre, living in New Jersey with her parents, had already been yardfarming for a season when we shot the trailer. She had planted several neighbors’ yards and even a large swath of lawn owned by her town, adding up to over an acre and a half of land. She was producing healthy food—and even had a CSA that was helping to feed 45 families. She was a real farmer—with land simply spread out over more area (which is actually seen in Indigenous communities as well, as that minimizes the risk that freak storms could destroy their entire crop).
And now Millennials have come home from college (like many did after the Great Recession). They didn’t come by choice but because of social distancing, and they won’t be heading back to school until the fall (and maybe not even then—depending on when the virus next surges). And many other people are temporarily unemployed or teleworking. What better time to turn your yard into a farm, or at least set up a little garden?
Of course, the coronavirus has brought some new challenges. Just like with baking, many people are suddenly getting into gardening—so buying seeds is becoming challenging (although a quick look online shows at least some varieties are available on at least some websites—though with some shipping delays).
One new project, Coop Gardening, might be of help too. This initiative is encouraging communities to share gardening resources—seeds, land, soil, tools, and experience. So if you have extra seeds, or are looking for a place to garden, the website suggests putting ads on Craigslist and labeling it with #CoopGardens. (Doing a quick search in my area, I found one ad in Hartford offering free seeds and mentoring.)
Don’t expect miracles the first year you plant a garden. It’s not easy (though planting edible weeds increases success rates significantly as they are much hardier than garden plants). But, this pandemic is revealing that disruptions are part of the now not just the frightening future that sustainability experts have been warning about for decades. There will never be a time when your garden isn’t worth its weight in gold, or at least, gold zucchini.
Special Thanks to Tom Read for putting the looming food shortages on my radar.