“No unemployment insurance can be compared to an alliance between man and a plot of land.”
“A lot of … us … have been kidding ourselves, believing that if we just buy the organic apples we’re doing something to make the world a better place, believing that we can consume our way out of the problem by buying the right things.
But we cannot buy our way out of peak oil – all of us [will] need to take more responsibility…”
Sharon Astyk, 2006 Peak Oil and Community Solutions conference
At the beginning of World War II resources of all kinds were diverted to support the war effort. Because only processed foods and dry grains could be reasonably transported to our troops and allies, canned foods and meats were heavily rationed. As the war began, America was in the middle of an agricultural revolution and productivity was increasing dramatically due to mechanization and the introduction of pesticides, herbicides, new hybrid crops, and synthetic fertilizers. However, the conversion of farmers into soldiers and the rationing of gasoline was putting a strain on both food supplies and our ability to transport fruits and vegetables to market.
A grass roots home gardening movement has begun to take hold, but Claude Wickard, the Secretary of Agriculture believed in a top down, industrial approach to food production and that home gardens would be an inadequate “feel good” attempt to feed the country and our war machine. However, one woman would change the course of the war and prove that massive amounts of food production could quickly and efficiently be de-centralized. Eleanor Roosevelt would plant a “victory garden” on the front lawn of the White House.
Under the not so subtle political pressure of this extraordinary woman, Secretary Wickard would relent and 20-million “victory” gardens planted and nurtured by 50 million inexperienced, first time citizen farmers would soon produce 9 to 10 million tons of fresh fruits and vegetables, providing nearly 50% of the nations needs. Pressure cooker sales would grow from 66,000 in 1942 to 315,000 in 1943 as a new nation of urban and suburban “food producers” would can their own fruits and vegetables. Ironically, the euphoria of the war’s end would cause us to abandon our victory gardens resulting in the worst food shortages of the era.
What does the example of Eleanor Roosevelt and the lesson of WWII victory gardens mean to us today? What hope does it provide in a time of bountiful choice and plentiful food?
The agriculture of today has reached the point of diminishing returns as brute force technology is no longer able to produce any meaningful increases in productivity. We have created a highly centralized food delivery system that has rendered us both obese and completely vulnerable to disruptions in the fossil fuel supplies that power our farm equipment and provide the feed stocks for our pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizer. On average our food travels 1500 miles from farm to table. We currently input 10 calories of fossil fuel energy for every one calorie of food energy we produce and as we pass over the peaks in both oil and natural gas production and slide down the slope of rapid depletion and diminished supply the disruption of our existing food delivery systems will be prolonged, painful, and severe. $100 per barrel oil, the loss of agricultural land to bio-fuels, and the rising costs of food are just the early warning signs.
Dismantling and transforming our centralized, monocultured, industrial agricultural complex will take considerable time and expose us to the very real potential of severe food shortages. However, hope lies in America’s 37 million suburban homes built in many cases on what used to be prime agricultural land. With a median lot size of 0.38 acres, we can bridge and soften the painful side effects of this inevitable transition by turning the ornamental landscape of suburbia into an edible permaculture of self reliance and community spirit. Much like the home generated PV and wind power that will democratize our national grid, home food production will democratize our food delivery system.
Imagine a new suburbia. Imagine backyard chicken coops, rabbit hutches, and fruit and vegetable gardens nurtured by tens of millions of part time, suburban farmers. A true and sustainable garden community of homes generating its own power and food.
Eleanor Roosevelt would be proud.