I have learned how to grow healthy crops,” wrote Sir Albert Howard in his 1940 book An Agricultural Testament, “without the slightest help from mycologists, entomologists, bacteriologists, agricultural chemists, statisticians, spraying machines, insecticides, germicides, and all the other expensive paraphernalia of the modern experiment station.”
If Howard had gone on to write what he took for granted everyone understood — that he had also learned how to grow healthy crops without any help from politicians, economists, churchmen, government subsidies, oil companies, and charitable foundations — he would then have written the perfect farmers’ Declaration of Independence for the twenty-first century. For, in truth, not one of these experts is necessary to the production of food. We know how to grow healthy crops from the experience of intelligent gardeners and farmers of today and centuries past. Experience is the best science. There is no big mystery to it. We also know how to craft houses and furniture and clothes and musical instruments and machines and all the necessary accoutrements of civilization without any help from the above-mentioned bureaucratic parasites on the body politic. Howard knew. He was trying to work through the British bureaucracy in India to help that country’s small farmers attain a sustainable, self-reliant, independent system of food production — Gandhi’s dream. But he soon realized that “help” from the bureaucracy was not needed.
Nor is it today. In America, governmental “help” has only separated us from the necessary knowledge of survival. Abraham Lincoln naively believed people needed a bureaucracy to help them grow food, so he created the Department of Agriculture. Now that we have a Department of Agriculture staffed by thousands of experts, we have two generations of citizens who cannot find a potato in a garden, and who, as Richard Nixon candidly admitted of himself, do not know what a soybean looks like.
Horticulture and husbandry on a small scale are quite a bit more enjoyable and interesting than sitting in front of a computer screen for twelve hours a day, or standing on an assembly line for sixty hours a week, or circling O’Hare in an airplane for what seems like half your lifetime, all the while waiting for downsizing to take away your job.
The knowledge granted us by our current coterie of university magicians is vastly overrated. The man who built my house never went to college — never read a book, to my knowledge — but you will look long and hard before you’ll find a house as well built for the money. With all our vaunted expertise, we are not even sure how the pyramids were built. Only a tiny number of archaeologists have ever studied the wondrously sophisticated garden farms of the ancient world, which endured for centuries in Mexico, Cambodia, Africa, and Babylon, without even a whisper from our land-grant colleges of agriculture.
I am not a revolutionary; I utter only a plain truth. My wife and I produce most of our food, and some for our children’s families, using knowledge we gained from our parents, and they from their parents, and they from their parents. Not one of our forebears ever cracked an agronomic textbook or knew the Latin name of a single plant. My father and mother, grandfathers and grandmothers, and father-in-law and mother-in-law all held agricultural-extension advisors in disdain. Tradition, supplemented by our own experience and that of other gardeners and farmers, is the key to our food-growing success. Thousands of expert gardeners and farmers are waiting to pass this knowledge on to anyone who wants it. To this day, after forty years of avidly searching the realms of “modern” agricultural science for information, I have found extremely little new knowledge that helps us to better produce food. The keys to agricultural success, apart from common sense, were articulated by Virgil, and he got them from the Greeks, who in turn got them from the Orient, where for forty centuries China supported a population far denser than ours today, with gardens.
Gardening as it is popular today — that is, as a mere pastime or hobby — is an effete offspring of wealth. The ultimate example of this is Marie Antoinette’s herding a few sheep on her castle lawn, or Louis XIV’s growing orange trees in his Versailles greenhouses while the people of France starved. There are 40 million gardeners in America only because we are the wealthiest nation in the world; half of these gardeners are interested only in flowers and landscaping as an expression of their monied leisure. These are the people who make laws forbidding vegetable plots in suburban front yards.
Effete horticulture is worlds apart from the gardening of Russian peasants, who kept their country from collapse during fifty years of state-run agriculture, and of the working people and aborigines of three-fourths of the world, who practice small-scale horticulture and husbandry to stay alive comfortably. It is high time that we begin to make this distinction between gardeners and garden farmers in America. Garden farmers are not horticultural dabblers but practitioners of an economically sound food-production system that has many advantages over the current agribusiness economy.
Having keenly followed the world of modern agribusiness for fifty years and having been personally involved in it at least part of that time, I am convinced that the present rush to industrialized farms and animal factories of almost unimaginable size cannot sustain itself, and that forced downsizing will occur, as it has in other bloated businesses. It seems entirely possible, based on history and on shifts already in motion, that the food garden and orchard, broadly defined to include small-scale husbandry and forestry, are capable of taking up the slack and staving off a food crisis if or when the present system falters.
But a declaration of food independence such as I suggest would depend upon a deeper and more profound declaration of interdependence. A nation primarily of garden farms (some large industrial farms would and should continue to operate) would mean a realignment of people into smaller and more local trade complexes based upon personal contact between consumer and producer, and upon biological technology rather than machine technology — a new economy, in other words: the economy of Eden. Then we would understand that people matter, and not only people but all living things upon which people depend. Common interest and self-interest would become one, and that is the definition of a real community.
I may appear to suggest a future that is far more idyllic than we are capable of creating. But I coddle no utopian dream when I envision a nation studded with millions of tiny garden farms and small shop factories — where countryside and city are almost indistinguishable. As an economy, this type of “unglobal” village has stood the test of time not only in China, as mentioned, but in Japan, which, on the basis of an average farm size of under ten acres, has become one of the world’s most financially powerful countries. Asia’s economy is supported by one of the largest numbers of small shopkeepers per capita in the world.
In America, we are groping in that direction now. Many of those millions of gardeners and an unknown number (about 5 million would be my guess) of garden farmers — some so small they are not counted by the USDA census — are out there working unwittingly toward a new economic paradigm. Architects and builders are desperately trying to design new housing developments to look like, and be like, the rural villages that once supported strong, decentralized trade complexes. In manufacturing, large factories are having an increasingly difficult time staying efficient. More and more, the auto industry is “farming out” the manufacturing of parts to independently owned satellite factories (often in villages) because these smaller factories are more efficient. People without land are contracting with small, community-supported farms to buy — and sometimes to help grow and harvest — their seasonal supply of fresh fruits and vegetables. The mail-order produce business, which allows farms to remain decentralized, continues to flourish.
I came to my strange notion of garden farming as an economic, if not political, movement not from any of these observations, however — or even from reading the Wall Street Journal and the Economist, which are full of stories about the trend toward decentralization — but from attending classes in my chicken coop for fifty years. My little red hens understand the meaning of economics far better than humans. For example, they get up at the crack of dawn and roost at twilight so as not to waste electricity on lighting — although utility companies managed to convince several generations of farmers that keeping lights on in the henhouse all night would mean significantly more profit. All it meant was significantly more profit for the utilities. The hens knew. They didn’t ask for lights. They wanted a full night’s sleep so they could live longer and healthier. In thirty years without night lights, I have had exactly one sick hen and have produced just about as many eggs per hen as the experts claim for lighted coops — actually more, because my hens enjoy two or three more years of productive life than public-utility hens.
Yes, the hen is a model of economy. She eats bugs and worms and weed seeds and grass and table scraps and half-digested grain from cow manure. There is hardly anything she won’t eat, in fact, except citrus. She will keep the barn free of spilled grain that otherwise would draw mice. She will even eat mice if she can corner one. She will eat pests in the garden. Three hens can make their entire living off a medium-sized yard plus table and garden scraps and maybe a handful of corn every day. All they need is water, and they can get some of that from dew, rain puddles, and snow. They are much easier to care for than a dog and don’t bark all night. In return, a trio will provide a human family with an adequate annual supply of eggs.
The hen’s chief form of entertainment is singing, and, while she’s no Streisand, her music is so redolent with contentment as to supply more consolation than a hundred-dollar-an-hour psychiatrist. She likes to take dust baths to protect herself from lice, and will make a suitable tub wherever she can find some dry dirt in which to wallow. She goes to her coop dutifully as dark approaches, without any help from her human caretaker other than closing the door so foxes, raccoons, and coyotes don’t get her. (She will even roost in a tree if allowed to.)
In her coop, the hen is a recycler without peer, making better compost of her manure and bedding than a hundred-thousand-dollar compost turner. By scratching furiously in the bedding under her roost, she mixes her droppings over and over again until the manure and the bedding become an earthy, granulated, dry, odorless compost that you can handle with your bare hands. Chicken-manure compost is so rich that it will increase the yields in your garden and thereby decrease the size of the plot you need to grow the hens’ corn. Is her scratching just a nervous habit? Not a chance. With knowledge no dietician taught her, she scratches through the bedding to consume tiny specks of litter that provide her with vitamins and minerals, especially vitamin K. If you feed her eggshells back to her, she also gets the extra calcium needed to keep her future eggshells strong. When, at three to five years of age, she ceases to lay enough eggs, she makes her final contribution to the economy: heavenly coq au vin such as you can find only in famous French restaurants like Parker’s in Cleveland, Ohio. (Parker will supply you with his recipe if you ask.)
Now, bear with me as I make a significant point (after all, it took me fifty years to understand this): A three-chicken garden farm requires very little work and makes no negative demands on the environment, yet adds to the ecological health of us all. Assume three chickens are kept by each of 100 million people in the U.S., about two-fifths of our population. Add to that number another 10 million thirty-chicken farms (like mine) calling for two- to five-acre homesteads. Then add to that 3 million hundred-chicken farms, operated just like the smaller ones, on ten- to twenty-acre homesteads. You can still substitute labor for capital for a hundred hens — even if you raise all the grain for them yourself (about an acre’s worth) — without any punishing physical work and with minuscule out-of-pocket costs. Unlike big agribusiness, you are not lashed to the world of finance: no payroll to meet; no interest on investment to pay; no stockbrokers to please; and no fear of what the Chicago Board of Trade or the farm-policy politicians will do tomorrow.
I believe my figures add up to 900 million chickens, or approximately 225 billion eggs a year — at a conservative estimate of 250 per hen annually — and an awful lot of coq au vin and chicken soup. Actually, half of those hens could be butchered young and provide every man, woman, and child in the country with nearly two chickens apiece, and there would still be more than enough eggs to go around. Less than half the population — 113 million — would be involved in production. Many people aren’t able to raise even three chickens for various reasons, and many, I’m sure, could not be persuaded that doing so can be a pleasant, interesting experience. They are the ones to whom the other half sells surplus eggs. Most eggs would reach the consumer never having seen the inside of a truck.
The value of this garden economy becomes clear when you compare it with the animal-factory economy we currently have. About ten miles south of where I live, an international company born in Germany is building a complex of egg factories, each of which will house 2.5 million hens, with four or five such factories planned within about a twenty-mile radius. Counting pullets for reproduction, a total of about 14 million chickens will be needed. Each 2.5 million-hen factory will require forty thousand bushels of corn and 420 tons of soybean meal a week. For 14 million hens, that’s nearly 12 million bushels of corn per year, more than the 8.5 million-bushel annual output of my entire county. Fourteen million hens produce about eighty-four thousand tons of manure a year — as much as 2 million people do. Approximately seven hundred chickens per 2.5 million will die each day from “natural” causes, according to the historical averages of operating such facilities. (The Humane Society reports that 9.4 million factory fowl died unnaturally in the heat wave of 1995. And one of the egg factories this company’s owner operates in Germany lost some sixty thousand hens to salmonella last year.)
All the grain for these hens must be hauled in and waste hauled out at an enormous cost in fuel, and truck and road maintenance. Odor pollution, judging from other large henhouses, would be considerable. If manure is handled properly, there should not be any great risk of water pollution, but past experience with animal factories indicates that is a very big if. Even when regulations are followed, eventually the manure must be hauled farther and farther away, to the point where the practice becomes unprofitable.
A 2.5 million-hen factory uses 180,000 gallons of water a day, plus three thousand gallons a day for egg washing (the latter necessitating a waste-water lagoon, another potential pollution problem). All that water will come from wells, so neighbors fear that their private wells will run dry. More than that, they fear that their property values will decline because of odor pollution. Worst of all, perhaps, is the strife in the community between those who think they will profit from the huge operation and those who think they will be financially and environmentally harmed. This conflict has unleashed a hatred that I fear will never go away.
The payoff? Large commercial egg producers currently clear about a nickel a dozen. My cost is hardly five cents a dozen. In fact, my operation might actually save me money because, if I weren’t garden-farming, I would probably be out spending it on travel.
It doesn’t take a genius to begin to see that a garden economy might not be as preposterous as it first sounds.
I ’m a great believer in the pessimistic observation that humans collectively won’t do the right thing unless the right thing also happens to be more pleasurable than the wrong thing, or unless they have no other choice. I do not believe that a significant number of Americans are suddenly going to roll up their sleeves and start garden farms. But eventually we are going to have to learn to produce food on a small scale, because the alternative is obviously not sustainable. Once the change is forced upon us, people will realize that this new economy isn’t so bad after all. As millions of gardeners will tell you, horticulture and husbandry on a small scale are quite a bit more enjoyable and interesting than sitting in front of a computer screen for twelve hours a day, or standing on an assembly line for sixty hours a week, or circling O’Hare in an airplane for what seems like half your lifetime, all the while waiting for downsizing to take away your job. All the new economy will require is that you develop a higher regard for manual arts and replace twenty hours per week of your TV-watching time with working in a garden or shop. Those who have made that change already know their lives are better for it.