It’s Spring Outside. It’s Scary Out There. It’s Time to Yardfarm

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).

This came out just yesterday, so I couldn't resist including it!
This came out just yesterday, so I couldn’t resist including it!

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).

You don't need much space to start your yardfarm.
You don’t need much space to start your yardfarm.

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).

No, Julie couldn’t have done all that if she had to pay rent. But that’s the point: our houses are so big that they’re a wasted asset. Why not refill them with people, so all that oil, gas, and electricity, and lumber, concrete, and bricks, aren’t being wasted?

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.

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4 Responses

  1. Tom Read

    G’day Erik!

    Yes, there’s nothing like a pandemic and global economic crash to focus the mind on food. Especially in USA, can political and social turmoil be that far off as well? Your essay this week beautifully captures the compelling logic for practicing greater individual and collective food self-reliance. We don’t know for sure that significant food shortages will occur in our respective communities, but an educated observer can see it coming so it’s prudent to take action now: it’s Springtime in North America, so grow a garden.

    There must be some way to link this effort to Gaian practice. Along with using regenerative agricultural techniques, perhaps one’s food garden would qualify as a good place to purposefully meditate on healing Gaia, and ourselves as part of Gaia. Not quite like connecting to the ground in a forest or meadow, but still the same spiritual intent.

    Back to food: in my experience from 2010 to 2015 as a novice full-time market gardener on 10 acres here in coastal British Columbia, I went through a steep learning curve. In spite of my many mistakes, I gradually got smarter and by my fifth year managed to grow plenty of good vegetables for a loyal clientele. This accomplishment felt immensely satisfying and despite the long hours and low (actually non-existent) pay, these years were among the best of my life. Right livelihood is real!

    Unlike Julie, in your inspirational video, I had to pay rent in the form of fixed land costs: mortgage, lease on adjoining acreage, insurance, taxes and maintenance of infrastructure. When I had skilled helpers I paid them slightly more than minimum wage, while paying myself nothing. It was “uneconomic” and when my savings ran out I stopped farming.

    Now that I’m retired and living on US Social Security and my Canadian Old Age Pension, money is not an issue. So this year I’m growing a garden for myself, but I’ve still got the infrastructure to grow lots of food: about 2.5 acres of fenced, irrigated, good land. That’s enough to feed 80 – 100 people their vegetables if the right amount of skilled labour could be applied.

    With possible food shortages looming, I’m trying something different this season: free allotments (and expertise as needed) offered to friends and neighbours who want to grow an expanded garden but don’t have the space. The allotments are about the same size as proliferated in Great Britain in World War II (I researched this!)

    So far, this is a word-of-mouth opportunity with less than half-a-dozen takers, but I expect more will join soon. I haven’t advertised because there are a limited number of allotments available and I’m selective about who will regularly come and go on the property (something Julie referred to as well in your video). As for crops: this year I’m emphasizing potatoes, dry beans and brassicas for their ample caloric and nutrient benefits. I’m sharing my surplus of seed for these crops which I’ve saved from past seasons.

    I’ll close with this: Gaia doesn’t guarantee humans anything, including a plentiful harvest from our gardens. We will have to accept uncertainty about what this season may bring, and do our best to help each other prosper.

    Grateful for every day,

    –Tom

    • Erik Assadourian

      What a wonderful comment Tom. Thank you. Yes, Gaia guarantees only the chance for life–but with that chance comes lots of uncertainty.

      So glad you’re on your way to having built this allotment community. Sounds like it’ll grow more than just food.
      And let’s hope more people recognize the wisdom you make succinct–it’s spring. There may be food shortages. So grow a garden!

      –Erik

  2. Paul Steer

    Erik Assadourian, and Tom Read,

    Well done! It’s good to know that there are others ‘out there’ who are thinking longer-term and are taking action to assume more responsibility for the cultivation of food. A few years’ ago, we pressed the ‘RESET’ button and left the ecological disaster area known as The Lower Mainland of British Columbia and relocated inland. Here in South Central BC, I am attempting the largest Food Security garden I have ever tried. With determination, effort and perseverance, I hope to make a small but powerful difference in the way this small community defines itself in terms of its food supply. Tom, like you, I will be emphasizing the production of brassicas, root crops and small beans and peas this year. It’s not a mistake; it’s necessary, and I feel a growing sense of urgency to these tasks. Now I know what put me into my father’s newly turned over garden, sowing Buckwheat by hand with him and Mr. Johnson in 1963!

    • Erik Assadourian

      Thanks for your comment Paul. Glad to hear of your farming efforts. Best of luck with your garden–hope it’s fruitful!

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