“The Integrated Homestead”
We are fortunate to live in an age of scientific agriculture and technologically advanced food processing. As a result, the American food supply is assured, in all its abundance and endless variety. Because of scientific agriculture and food technology, Americans enjoy the safest, highest quality, most convenient, and—most amazing of all—cheapest food supply of any nation on earth.
What is wrong with this picture? I will suggest four reasons to revise this rosy view of our food system, four reasons we might prefer to go against the grain and actually grow our own food, which to most of our fellow citizens is on a par with knocking two rocks together in the age of the Zippo lighter. Why all that messy effort, when supplying whatever we want to eat from the supermarket and fast-food restaurants has never been so easy, so cheap—and best of all, doesn’t slow us down?
Perhaps the easiest challenge to mount against the upbeat assessment of our food supply is the question of food safety, since it has been so much in the media lately. If the American food supply is the safest in the world, why is it that spinach contaminated by E. coli in a single field in California sickens consumers in twenty-six states in this country, causing several deaths? Why is it that food imported by the shipload from countries not under our inspection is contaminated sufficiently to kill, as demonstrated last year by the death of thousands of pets and hogs from eating canned pet food from China? Why is it that contamination by botulism in a single industrial processing vat results in the panic recall of hundreds of thousands of cans of meat products from supermarket shelves? Botulin is one of the most toxic substances on the planet—you could carry on biological warfare using botulin as your weapon. Food safety?
As for food quality, our foods are grown on increasingly depleted and demineralized soils, and processed to the last degree, with consequent losses of much of whatever nutrients do remain in those primary ingredients. Many food products on offer in the supermarket are “pseudo-foods,” imitations of traditional foods (such as real cream from real cows) made from cheap commodity ingredients but bearing no relation to the original (such as Cool Whip, made from water, vegetable oil, and corn syrup, but containing nothing that ever saw the inside of a cow). Such foods offer virtually nothing the body can use to support growth and health. Finally, modern ersatz foods are laced with a witch’s brew of chemical additives that are likely implicated in a range of disorders, especially among children.
An issue to which the average American eater has given entirely too little attention is that of food security. Our economy, both national and global, is dependent at every point on lavish use of cheap, abundant, easily accessible fossil fuels. Nowhere is this dependence more obvious than in our industrial food systems: Agriculture is heavily dependent on energy-hungry machinery, chemical fertilizers made from natural gas, and pesticides made from petroleum. The excessive processing and packaging of most modern foods are energy and resource intensive. The average bite of food on the American table has been transported 1500 miles from field to fork.
We reflect far too little on the fact that geological deposits of hydrocarbon fuels are limited; and that we are at or very near the peak of their extraction. That is, at the point of our maximum dependence on fossil fuels, and exploding demand from major new players in the global economy such as China and India, the global supply is about to start shrinking. Historic trends toward ever-greater anonymity, centralization, and energy intensity in food production will reverse. Access to food that is local, decentralized, and less dependent on hydrocarbon fuels will become more desirable as the supermarket/fast-food system becomes increasingly subject to disruption by uncontrollable changes in the global economy. There is no more local source of food than our own backyards.
A final reason we might choose to grow more of our own food is our despair over the Big Problems of our time—destruction of prime agricultural soils, pollution of groundwater and other water systems, loss of species, climate change. These are no longer distant threats on the tongues of crackpot doom ’n’ gloomers, but terrifying present realities. We all feel the urge to do something to reverse the tide of destructive change, but experience it as a tsunami of such magnitude that our individual actions cannot possibly deflect it.
Consider this statement from Wendell Berry, one of the wisest voices of our time: “How we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used.” That statement is a potent reminder that many of the problems we have created for ourselves derive from the fact that eating in our time has become a great act of forgetting. Forgetting foremost our sacred responsibility to nurture and safeguard our land, abrogating that responsibility instead to a faceless, anonymous juggernaut which tills the land with no thought to its preservation, pollutes our drinking water and natural water systems, devastates wild habitat, and contributes to the accumulation of greenhouse gases. All in our name. All for our dollars.
But Wendell Berry’s statement contains also the promise of hope. Each of us individually can help reverse this awful tide by choosing to eat in ways that are more sustaining and nurturing of the land and of natural systems. Choosing “food with a face,” food with which we have a personal relationship and which we can once again revere as a sacred gift, will be a real step toward better health not only for us and our children, but for our world.
The Foundation: Diversity and Integration
If we conclude that there is wisdom in growing more of our own food, what is the fundamental perspective that should guide our efforts?
I take it as a given that our efforts to nurture living plants and animals will be the greater, the more closely we imitate natural systems. The complex interplay of natural communities has evolved over billions of years—human agriculture represents but an eyeblink. Truly, we should “behold the lilies of the field” as we begin the task of cultivation.
Imitating natural systems means first and foremost seeking diversity. Modern “scientific” agriculture is enormously reductionist, with the conscious goal of cutting out most of the messy complexities of natural systems and reducing the work of agriculture to a few simple components. Its great fallacy is the delusion that we can improve on nature, that we can conquer her through pigeonholing the world.
Negatively, imitating natural systems means avoiding the sorts of one-for-one solutions that are the hallmark of industrial agriculture. Soil fertility? That’s something you buy in a bag. Crop damage by insects? Spray something stinky from a bottle. Such one-for-one solutions, each adopted in isolation from one another, are almost always destructive, because they ignore the broader ecological context in which our food growing needs and practices play out, and from which they cannot be separated. Purchased, highly soluble chemical fertilizers are destructive to soil life and leach as serious contaminants to groundwater. They also grow vegetables and fruits that are less nutritious than those grown using more natural soil fertility practices. Toxic insecticides are destructive of soil life, pollute groundwater, leave residues on the foods we eat, and disrupt natural balances in insect communities, leading in the long term to a greater problem with insect predation, not less. We should not garden as if there is or can be a wall between our garden and the Garden surrounding it.
Adopting one-for-one solutions is also inefficient. As long as we approach the challenge of soil fertility and insect damage in isolation from each other, we will never discover synergies in which the same strategy can serve both purposes.
The reductionist approach shuts off avenues of thought that could lead to more creative solutions. If we think that fertility is something to buy in a bag, we are unlikely to explore the miracle of natural soil fertility. If we buy a power tiller as the major component of our soil care strategy, we are unlikely to ask a fundamentally important question: Why till at all?
Positively, an imitation of nature means that we seek integrated patterns in which each element of the food production enterprise supports and enables others. We do not see any goal, challenge, or problem in isolation, but seek to put into place broader patterns in which the same project or effort answers several needs. This article focuses on strategies the homesteader can adopt to achieve greater integration of the various elements in the homestead, leading not only to bountiful harvests of wholesome food, but to emergent synergies, more efficiency, and ever greater diversity and ecological health.