farming, gardening

Monoculture, Agriculture, Permaculture

Continuing on the theme of talking about food, farms, and cultivation methods, I wanted to settle down on my soap box and talk about one of my favorite things. I grew up with parents who were very interested in gardening, producing our own foods, preserving it.. in other words, quite old-fashioned and what would now be trendily called ‘preppers.’ Some of what drove this was that they were a single income family with three kids and a USAF sergeant’s salary. They worked it out one time, when I was small, that it would actually cost them money for Mom to go to work rather than taking care of the three of us, especially once we realized my youngest sister was special needs. A part of it was Mom being unable to drink cow’s milk, which meant I grew up with goats. And chickens, and cats and dogs and horses and rabbits… The sheep were much later, when I was in my teens.

I can remember sitting in the garden eating sweet corn raw off the stalk (it was good!) when I was about six. That was in the Willamette Valley in Oregon where if you push a dry stick in the ground, next week it’ll have green leaves, and the week after, fruit. The next garden was in Alaska, where the growing season (frost-free days) might have been a week long. Zone 2 is not for the faint of heart. Or tomatoes, for that matter. In my late teens, the garden became a market garden in New Hampshire, with a heavy crop of rocks annually…

The consistent thread through all those gardens were a pair of books. One was the Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening, the other is Bill Mollison’s Permaculture. I own the first, but not the other. Dad promised to leave it to me when he dies. I’m joking, a little, but it’s a great book if you want to work your gardening into something more serious, and it’s very difficult to find a copy, much less a copy that isn’t an arm and a leg. Mom now recommends Gaia’s Garden, for home-based permaculture, and we have a copy for the homeschooler along with Square Foot Gardening.

if you aren’t familiar with the concept of permaculture, it’s a method of gardening (and on a larger scale, farming) that uses the land and natural methods to create the best growing situations for the plants, rather than trying to force a plot of land into supporting the crop you want on it. I’m being very general here, if you want to learn more there are forums and podcasts galore, one of my friends recommends Permaculture Voices, which will lead you into others who are intensively growing in small, urban spaces. You can, in theory and with a lot of dedication, feed your family on a tenth of an acre. Permaculture is about sustaining the soil, while getting the most out of your space, while minimizing the effort you put into it. Once of the earliest lessons I remember from the Mollison book is that he understood the inherent lazy nature of humans. The things you use most, you should plant closest to the house. If you put the garden a hundred yards from the house, it will be neglected, no matter how well-intentioned you are about it.

For some reason, we (culturally speaking) tend to put flower beds right around our houses. Because they are pretty. I can’t fault that, I was a proud gardener in years past and did a lot of landscape design when I had my first job working in a nursery, until I had a garden that would make people stop their cars to look at it. Even then, and definitely now, when I have little time and not much space, I gardened with decorative edibles. Herbs are great for this, usually having pretty flowers and tidy growing habits. Slipping a tomato plant into the flowers won’t show much, and you don’t have to set up a whole ‘vegetable’ garden if you aren’t so inclined (or live in a neighborhood that frowns on such antics).

One of the things emphasized as I grew up was sustainable gardening. We saved seeds from year to year, we composted, we planted perennials which would bear year after year. I can remember poring over the seed catalogs, marking up our wish lists, and avoiding the hybrid seeds because I knew they wouldn’t breed true. Mom discovered heirloom varieties, and the Seed Savers Exchange, and later, after I was in college and away, she was involved with preserving ancient species of livestock, too. I’ll have to see if she will write something up about that. I enjoyed the challenge of finding new (to me!) varieties, the old cultivars being rescued appealed to me, and even now I enjoy the look and flavors of the heirloom tomatoes best.

Which brings me to the monoculture part of this post (another day of long post. Sorry.) and the drawbacks of it. If you look at the produce section of your average grocery store, count how many varieties you see on display. Carrots? usually one. Tomatoes? three or four, now that grape tomatoes are popular. Apples? maybe five or six, and that’s up from the maybe three that I remember as a girl (red delicious, yellow, and granny smith or maybe Macintosh depending on season). Why? Why so few varieties of these things? Is that all there are?

No! There are literally hundreds of varieties that have been in cultivation but have failed to make it on the commodity market. Reasons vary, but generally speaking, commercial produce is selected for the ability to last a long time and look good. Flavor, you will note, is not a factor there. As we ship our produce in from further and further away, the need to have cultivars that store well with little fuss (refrigeration, for example) becomes even more important. And this is where the locavore movement has been great. Not for some nebulous concern over ‘chemicals’ which is usually hogwash, but because you can find tomatoes (I know, I’m hung up on tomatoes. But really, there’s nothing better than a warm ripe one right out of the garden with nothing but a little salt on…) that actually taste like something other than wet cardboard. Finally you can have more than one kind of carrot, or an obscure herb, or…

The other drawback to a monocultural agriculture is the risk involved. The Irish Potato Blight, the modern threat to the banana, the near-collapse of the world’s harvest of wheat… all of those were due to a monocultural approach. Clonal reproduction has become even cheaper and easier as technology has advanced, and it’s going to be more of a problem moving forward in time. We are more and more dependent on corn, for instance. Not the sweet corn we associate with 4th of July and barbecues, but the hard field corn that is made into…well, everything from food to fuel to starchy pellets we pack fragile items into boxes with. What happens if a pathogen sweeps through all those green fields around my house here in Ohio? I’m pretty sure the versatile soybean (second only to corn) is no more genetically diverse than the corn. A blight, a viroid, a fungus… It doesn’t take much. Look at the impact of the Black Death on humans, and then think about that in our crops. We’d be screwed.

Which is why I look at permaculture, and the heirloom cultivars, and encouraging anyone who can have a window-box to plant a garden of some sort. Dad and I, working on experimental aquaculture/polyculture in NH, knew that on any given day there was only two days worth of produce in the state relative to population, and were trying to come up with ways to coax more food out of the rocky fields of that cold state. We were using a high tunnel to extend growing season times, coming up with silviculture plans (forest garden, a fascinating but very long-term plan since it takes many years to reach maturity), and intensive gardening methods to build up the soil and make it bloom for us. It was a labor of love, and a lot of labor. You don’t do it on large scale unless you really love it. But on a small scale it is quite manageable – it does, after all, emphasize a reduction of effort for yield – and I highly recommend it as a garden method.

This got really long and I still had more to say, but I’ll save the bees for tomorrow.

4 thoughts on “Monoculture, Agriculture, Permaculture

  1. We were actually in Zone 1 when we were gardening in Alaska (and if there was a Zone 0, it would have been pretty close to that, LOL! Maybe a Zone 0.5!).

    I actually didn’t find out that I couldn’t tolerate cow milk until about twenty years ago (although I’d had some symptoms much earlier). The reason we started out with goats, rather than a cow, was because we could afford the goats (we traded a rug for the first two goats we had), and cows were expensive. Also we didn’t have a lot of land, although the two acres we were living on in the Willamette Valley when we got those first two goats could easily have supported a couple of cows. I recommend goats for people with small families, or small amounts of land, or land that is mostly brush and weeds — goats can thrive on that where a good cow would starve. Goats are also great if you are in the desert, or on steep, rocky land. There is a reason they are called the ‘poor man’s cow.’

    And I will be glad to write something up about ancient and land-race breeds of livestock!

    1. Thanks Mom!

      I did not know that about two goats for a rug. For some reason it sounds like the run-in to a joke! I know that before I knew I was lactose intolerant, someone offered Dad a Jersey heifer, free, and I talked him out of taking her. We didn’t have a barn, or hay, or… it was just too expensive even without the initial investment of the animal.

  2. Permaclture is something I have become interested in. This was a great article I’d love to hear about your farming adventures. We had two big gardens down by the river. I used to trudge 1/4 mile from our house to the garden with my baby sister on my hip to pick veggies for supper. The big picking days had all hands on deck. Those gardens fed at least 6 families with the leftovers being canned or sold.

    1. Thank you 🙂

      I used to keep a farm blog, and those articles are appended to this blog, but they are years old now, I’ll dig out some links. If you have specific questions, let me know and I’ll be happy to try and answer them.

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