Dependence – it’s really the name of the game, isn’t it? Big Ag wants you dependent on them for your food and the government wants you dependent on them for everything else. Urban and suburban sprawl has overtaken much of what used to be farmland in this country, and people feel less and less empowered to take care of themselves.
Isn’t it time we pushed back? Isn’t it time that we rebelled against this paradigm?
On today’s Off the Grid Radio Show, we have Roger Doiron, the founder and director of Kitchen Gardeners International (KGI), a Maine-based nonprofit network of over 20,000 individuals from 100 countries who are taking a hands-on approach to relocalizing the global food supply.
Off The Grid Radio
Released: March 16, 2012
Bill: And greetings and welcome everybody. It’s Bill Heid and my buddy Nick, the botanist here at Heirloom Solutions. Nick, welcome.
Nick: Thank you Bill. How are you doing today?
Bill: Well, you know what? Thanks for asking. I’m starting to feel better. As we were saying, the weather is warming up. Here comes the sun, as the Beatles would say. And I’m thinking gardening. I’m thinking it’s time to get out there and at least measure off some area that we’re going to do some planting. I know we’re going to do that here.
Nick: And various other places as well.
Bill: Yeah, we’ve got a lot of planting scheduled so we’re looking forward to doing that as the weather warms up. Today we’ve got a great guest. Our guest is Roger Doiron and he is he founder and director of Kitchen Gardeners International or KGI for short, a main base, non-profit network of over 20,000 individuals from 100 countries who are getting a little dirty trying to relocate gardening and make gardening local. So Roger, welcome to the show today.
Roger: Well thanks. I’m really happy to be with you.
Bill: You are an advocate of being subversive and creating subversive plots. I love your video. Do you want to tell our audience on the single best way to create a revolution and start a subversive plot?
Roger: Sure. I think I’ll give a little bit of background about what I mean by a subversive plot. I was very fortunate a few months back to be invited to give a TED talk and I was looking to use it as an opportunity to stir the pot a little bit. And I started off my talk by saying that I think of gardening as a subversive activity. There is a well-known farmer and author who once referred to agriculture as… or eating as a form of agriculture—an agricultural activity. It’s Wendell Berry. And that sort of stuck in the back of my mind. Eating as an agricultural act.
And I started playing around with sort of my own version of that, which is that gardening is a subversive act. And when I say it’s subversive, you can sort of interpret it as you wish but the fact of the matter is that I think we do need to shift the power within society—power over who feeds us and power over health matters—and I think that when we are encouraging people to grow some of their own food, we’re actually encouraging them and enabling them in certain cases to take more power over their diet, more power over their pocketbook and more power over their health. I think that’s subversive just because if people are taking those sort of new forms of power into their own hands, that automatically means that somebody else is losing that power.
And you can sort of identify the enemy of your choice, depending on where you lean, politically. Some people will say, “Oh, the government is the big problem when it comes to the food system. They’re the ones who control how money is spent at the USDA.” Other people will point their finger at the corporation of their choice. And I tend to, I guess, point in a number of different directions and I say to myself, “To the extent that we can get more people growing more of their own food, that’s going to be a good thing. It’s going to be good for our physical health. It’s going to be good for the health of our communities. And because we’re a global organization, it’s ultimately going to be a really good thing for the planet.”
Bill: It’s going to be a good thing for everybody and the beauty of it is it can start with what you do as an individual. So you don’t have to rely on government. You don’t need a government program to take control of your own life. And I think what you’re advocating is people doing just that—Taking some control of the things that they can. And some things you can’t take control over. I don’t run our agriculture department’s budget or any of that. I can vote and I can be a participant in government but at the end of the day, there are things that I have control over. I guess a question that I have for you, Roger, is what do you think happened? In other words, we used to be a nation of farmers. And then with the division of labor, which I love modern dentistry and I’ve got an iPhone and some other things and so I have to say that I’m not going to throw everything out—but why do we continue to just want to outsource and farm out every aspect…? It seems like there’s no rheostat, that it’s either an off or on button. Either we’re going to farm everything out to other people—our food supply, our education for our kids, whatever it is—or we’re going to just do everything our—You know what I’m saying? What happened along the way? Where did we go wrong?
Roger: Well I think there are a lot of different things and you’d probably get a more complete answer if you were asking a historian but I think that at some stage, we identified growing food as being a chore, essentially, and an unpleasant one. And I suspect that some of your listeners can perhaps relate to that, in that if you do have to weed a large garden on your own, you’re not necessarily going to have a lot of fun. But I think that we need to sort of redefine what gardening is about. Certainly, there is some hard work involved with that. But a little bit of hard work never did anybody harm. I certainly am continuing to make that case to my own teenaged sons, that getting out back and pulling some weeds and harvesting and planting—It is hard work but it’s good work at the same time.
But I think society sort of painted gardening and perhaps agriculture in general, with a bit of a broad brush, saying that this is not something that successful people do. Successful people—like you said before—hire this work out to less successful people. So that once you’ve made it, you shouldn’t have to do this type of stuff anymore and you can just go shopping or you can have other people grow your food for you. And I’m not going to say that’s not okay. I suspect that for some people, that’s fine. But what I guess I try to communicate to people is that when they start to reconnect with their food and reconnect with the earth, that there are a lot of good things that come from that.
And my own experience is an interesting one. My personal experience is that I’m married to a European, a Belgian woman, and I actually lived abroad for quite a few years. And I had this sort of eye opening experience over there. Even though I grew up in close proximity to a garden as a boy in Maine, when I went abroad and saw how gardens were treated in Europe, they have this reverence for growing their own food there. My in-laws are successful people and they certainly don’t need to grow their own food for financial reasons but they simply chose to do it and I thought that that was very interesting.
Bill: And this is in the suburban areas, right Roger? You’re talking about… You’re not talking about very rural people but you’re talking about suburban folks?
Roger: Well really all sorts of people. You see gardens in all kinds of places in Europe. You see them certainly out in the countryside but there is also a movement to grow more food in cities and it’s really fun to travel by railroad in Europe and to see all the gardens that are just kind of lined up against the railroad tracks. In many cases, these are just tiny little plots so I think basically, Europeans have this view that where the sun shines, that’s a fair place to plant a garden, whether it’s behind the house or in front of the house. So I think, to get back to the original question, I think we sort of decided that gardening was something that successful people shouldn’t have to do anymore. And so I think we have to redefine that and I think we’re on our way as a country. There’s certainly a garden revival taking place in the United States and not a moment too soon, in my view. But we need to make it sort of shoot its roots out, both wider and deeper in society. I think there are a lot of people that haven’t been brought into the movement yet and I think we have a lot of work to do to make that happen.
Bill: What I like about what you’ve done is you’ve encouraged this local community individual level but you also did something quite unique a few years back. You—I won’t say literally forced—but you were kind of the encourager behind the White House garden. Let’s talk a little bit about gardens at the White House, maybe as a little bit of an indicator of how culture has changed. The original White House garden—Who had the first White House garden? Was it Abigail Adams?
Roger: I think it would have been, yes. I think if we really want to give credit where credit is due, when it comes to… I’ve had this question before, “Who deserves credit for the latest garden at the White House?” I tell people, “Well, sort of the inventor of the White House garden was indeed, John Adams’ Abigail Adams.” When they first moved into the current White House in the year 1800, it was just unthinkable to do anything but plant a garden. Presidents, at that time, were responsible for feeding themselves, feeding their families and it’s simply what people did. So it was just a complete no-brainer that when the Adams’ moved into their house, our house, they were going to plant crops on the lawn. And it’s been an interesting sort of journey since then, just because for a certain amount of time after that, of course, crops were found on the White House grounds but then once again, they sort of fell out of favor, were seen as not in keeping with what a President should do. It’s not very Presidential to have to grow your own food. But it’s something that has sort of come back, here and there, over the course of history.
Sort of the next big moment, when it came to the White House lawn being an edible landscape, was back in World War I and there’s an interesting story about this. It was President Wilson at the time, who was looking to make a gesture that would excite the American people and motivate them and inspire them. And he decided to turn the White House lawn into an edible landscape but for sheep. And it was, you could say, was just a bit of a media coup but it really worked out quite well. They essentially said, “We’re a nation that is trying to conserve fuel resources, human resources, financial resources and one of the ways that we can do this is we can at least temporarily retire the power mowers and let those men and women who are taking care of keeping the lawn—put their labor to a better cause. And he brought a herd of sheep onto the White House lawn, who were responsible for mowing for a while. And to make it even better—make it even a better PR story, they were able to sell the wool from those sheep and auction it off and make some money for the Red Cross. I just love that story. I’d love to see a flock of sheep back on the White House lawn. But I don’t think I’m going to be the one making that campaign happen.
But then even more recently, back during World War II, First Lady Roosevelt decided to sort of make her gesture, which was to plant a small victory garden on the White House lawn. And that really caught people’s attention. This was 1943. Once again, we’re at war as a nation. People are looking to the White House for leadership and for some inspiration. And a lot of people noted when First Lady Roosevelt planted that garden and followed her lead. So I think we do have a long history of the White House lawn being an edible landscape. We have a long history of certain Presidents and perhaps more often than not, First Ladies stepping up and saying, “I’m going to make this my cause.” So I just thought that it was something that we needed to try to revive and I was very happy to be part of a larger movement of people that I think together, we’re able to really catch the attention, not only of the American people about this idea, starting back at the beginning of 2008 and going through the start of 2009, but we ultimately seem to caught the attention of First Lady Obama.
Bill: Which was really cool. She had to go out there now… When I looked at the pictures, it didn’t really seem to me that that was something… I mean, the clothes that Michelle was wearing didn’t strike me as kind of the clothes that you or I or Nick would wear when we’re gardening but you’ve got to start someplace. Do you know for a fact that the Obamas… Did they eat some of the food that they grew?
Roger: Well, I do know for a fact that they are eating regularly out of that garden.
Bill: Very nice.
Roger: I think the First Lady did catch some flack for her garden attire and perhaps rightly so. I think she was perhaps showing that she was indeed, a real newbie in the garden. But that’s okay. We all have to start somewhere.
Bill: We’ve got to start somewhere.
Roger: And I suspect that most of us, when we went out into the garden for the first time, whether it was our garden or somebody else’s garden to do some work, there’s a pretty good chance that we weren’t wearing then what we’d wear now. So I cut her a lot of slack when it comes to that. So I think that she is actually involved in the garden itself. Clearly, she’s not the person who is pulling most of the weeds but her primary role is really to provide that inspiration, to be there clearly when the cameras are rolling and some people will criticize that, I’m sure, as being just a PR stunt. But I know for a fact, just because I had the good fortune to get a guided tour of the garden with Chef Sam Kass, who is really the person primarily responsible for the garden, that they’re really cranking out a lot of food and that food is going into the White House kitchen. It’s feeding the First Family. It’s also being served at some state dinners and things like that. And perhaps even more inspiring is that a fair amount of that food is actually going to feed needy people in Washington DC.
Bill: Which is a really cool idea that not just the Obamas and their helpers there at the White House can do but anybody can do that. In other words, it’s time to grow some food. A little plug in for a garden here, before we move on. Here you’ve got a chance to measure out your subversive plot. Plan on growing some food for more than just yourself and your family.
Roger: Yeah, I think that’s the really important message for all kinds of gardeners at this time of the year. We’re all thinking about getting out there. We’re itching to go. Some of us are starting to maybe do a little sketch on a piece of scrap paper, about what’s going to go where and to the extent that we can all find a little bit of extra space. That would be a great thing, in terms of being able to share some of our produce with some people in need in our community. I think we really need to not only move towards more self-reliant households but we need to move towards more self-reliant communities. And that means understanding that not everybody has access to a plot of land and to the extent that those of us who do have a little bit of extra space that we can plant so so, that’s certainly going to result in healthier and better fed communities.
Bill: Roger, I want to tell you a little bit of a story here, from something I read locally. And I think it was someplace in Chicago. This really interested me because there is all kinds of troubled youth in Chicago, as you probably might suspect, as there is a lot of places. And they have this boot camp. And so you have a choice if you’re… What do they call that? Juvie, right? If you’re…
Nick: It’s Juvie, yeah.
Bill: Juvie. Thanks. My specialist in teen crime, Nick. So anyway, these kids have the opportunity to spend their time… Now let’s say you get two years. And so you have to spend two years doing things around the prison or whatever it is, in Juvie, whatever it is. Or they have this like a three or four month boot camp. And Roger—They have this thing where you’ve got to go out and garden as part of it. It was in one of the Chicago papers. And they have an amazing success rate with the kids that go out in the garden and actually work. They feel like they’ve done something. They get a little dirty and sweat and they watch something grow. It’s never happened to them before. They take ownership. So I thought that was another great idea that it actually looks like you can see the difference in people when they’re done with it. So you see the difference in your teenagers. And your teenagers probably aren’t spoiled brats because they have to go out and work. And you see the same thing with some of these young troubled kids. Man, you get them in that garden. A good percentage of them graduate from their detention or their prison term early, with high ranks in gardening and then they’ve watched these kids afterwards and they’re even spending more time… So instead of having to do it, now they’re kind of just wanting to do it.
Roger: Exactly. They want to do these things. I’ve noticed with my kids, I can make them weed my plots and they will grumble about it and be unhappy about it but I’ve found that when I give them their own piece of land—and just a small plot where they can grow their own things—they take that ownership and they start to become responsible—or irresponsible, depending on how much guidance the child needs. But they get into it and then they start to understand this is how this works. Squash flower explanations to a six year old and how that works and suddenly they understand it. They get it. And they own it. It’s theirs.
Bill: And there’s some magic there. I think when the Pilgrims came here, Roger, if you’ve ever looked back; they came here thinking they were going to be corporate communists for a big Ag company. People don’t realize that’s how it all got started. They were going to throw all of their resources into a pot. And they quickly learned that they did better when it was their plot and they could grow their own food. And if they wanted to grow extra for people—their friends that didn’t have any—then they could but still it was under their hands. There’s something about that. You want to comment towards that a little bit Roger?
Roger: Yeah, well I want to actually sort of circle back to the whole motion of kids and gardens. First, I think another really important life lesson that kids learn, especially when they have a little plot of their own is that they have to make some choices. I remember telling my boys a few seasons back, when I had given them a little piece of land to work with. Of course they started looking at one particular part of the feed catalog more than the others, which is where the Atlantic Giant pumpkins are listed. And I said, “Well, if that’s really what you guys want to do, that’s great.” At this point, I think the most important thing is just to get kids out there playing in the dirt. But I also said, “If you want to get something that you’re going to be able to eat, you’re going to have to make a choice between maybe getting a smaller pumpkin variety and being able to put in some peas and something else that you guys would like to eat.” So I think there are all kind of life lessons.
The other thing with kids is that we’ve done a fair amount of research now and we have actually found we have the data that shows that when kids grow some of their own food, they’re much more likely to actually eat the stuff afterwards than if they were just presented in sort of a mushy form on a cafeteria tray. So I think the comment was made before about sort of taking ownership. When you are an owner or a co-owner of something, you do have a different reaction to the end product. And I guess I tend to agree with this notion that we do tend to cultivate best what belongs to us.
But I also want to encourage this concept of sharing as well, just for the reason I mentioned, that not everybody has access to land. There are some interesting things happening in the country at the moment with co-gardening—the idea that if you don’t have land, well you can share a yard with somebody else. And I think those things can happen in a very organic way and we don’t need a lot of structure in place to make those types of connections happen at the local level. But a little bit of organization is necessary, just so that people can find each other because just in the case of my own neighborhood, I suspect that there are some people who really aren’t connected with one another. You can proactively try to make those connections. You can knock on doors and all that but I’m also a believer in there being certain structures in place. It can be a non-profit organization at the local level, for example, that could serve as a matchmaker between people who have land and people who don’t. People who have the physical strength and agility to garden and those that don’t. I think that part of the solution is going to be pairing these people up so that we grow the food that we need.
Bill: Let’s also talk a little bit about reasons why. Some other reasons why—We talked about children and the advantages that there are. I think that you’ve broken down some of what’s happening globally in your video. And that’s on your website and it’s a good breakdown but I think… Let me tell you the problem that’s happened to me. And while I agree with you, I think the complacency—and this is kind of Wendell Berry’s complacency thing and one of the reasons why he criticized folks—is that we see the world kind of breaking down around us and we don’t really do anything.
But I started reading these Club of Rome reports when I was a kid and I think that they were so far out there that I just started to ignore them. In other words, when I was in eighth grade, I read one that said there would be one person standing in every one square foot and so I kind of dismissed a lot of this stuff but I think that the world has changed to the point where we have these issues of peak water and peak oil and peak land—peak a lot of things. So I think one can actually start to chart this out and say, “We can’t just be promiscuous with our resources anymore, irrespective of our political party or who we think has the right story.” We can kind of see ends in sight to some things if we trend them out. So what I liked about your presentation was we have to grow more food with less and with less of a lot of different types of resources. You want to break that down a little bit?
Roger: Sure. Yeah, I think this is an important message. You know, I set out in my talk and in a lot of the communications work that I do, the challenges that we have and sort of the… I joke to people that because I’m from Maine, I’m automatically a Stephen King fan and don’t mind getting scared from time to time at things that I read. But I have to say that one of the scariest things that I ever read, a couple of years back, was that in order to keep up with population growth—global population growth—it is estimated that we’re going to need to produce more food over the course of the next 50 years than we have grown and produced over the course of the past 10,000 years combined.
Now you can say that’s Chicken Little talk. But there are some pretty serious scientists who have done the math on this and it’s not that difficult math to do. You can just sort of project things out and figure out that if we have 10 billion people by the end of the century and all those people are eating a certain amount of calories per day, you can sort of do the math on that. So if you accept… You don’t necessarily have to accept that particular data set but if you accept that we’re going to need to grow more food than we currently are, then you have to start saying to yourself, “How are we going to make it happen? And with what resources?” And we aren’t, unfortunately, in the process of discovering other planets that we can start to mine so this is the one that we have to work with. So when I talk about growing more food with less, I’m talking about some of the things you already mentioned—the idea that we are fast approaching—if we haven’t already approached—that point in time known as peak oil. You mentioned peak water as well. For some of us, it’s more of a critical issue than others.
Bill: Well stop right there. Can I interrupt you? In Texas, haven’t they just been… And before we go onto the next thing. Haven’t they just been pumping all the aquifers out in Texas, Oklahoma? So underwater, these farmers that used to irrigate just as if there was water forever, are now getting to the bottoms of these aquifers. And then you have the question of whose water was that and whose water is that? This doesn’t go on forever.
So the point that especially conservative Republican types need to understand and who sort of want to dismiss some of the Chicken Little stories as just being cries from the left, need to realize that when you do these things—when you have to feed more food—I have every belief that technology… We’re not very far from John Deere. That technology and big ag can feed those people but the point is then we have to make really bad choices on how we feed all these people. Isn’t that the key issue too? I don’t want to start a crazy rabbit trail but the idea is can technology do it with peak water? Can we grow weird, genetically modified plants that don’t need as much water? Possibly so. But then we don’t understand what is going to happen when we do that. So do you have more health bills? More medical bills? And so on.
Roger: Yeah, genetically modified foods—you could argue that we’re in the process of conducting the largest experiment on human subjects that civilization has ever known with that. And the data is still not that clear. But I think the other thing about technology—I too am not a Luddite. I use a computer and if there’s an easier way to do things, I’m happy to consider it but when you start talking about some of the technologies that are involved in increasing agricultural production, some of that is all well and good but you do have to kind of get back to this question of who owns that technology? And is Monsanto actually talking about giving their technology away? Certainly not. And to the contrary, they’re actually in the process of suing farmers whose crops have been contaminated by genetically modified seeds on a neighboring plot. So I’m not a really big believer that Monsanto and some other companies are going to be the knights that are going to ride in on their white horses and save us all. I really think that we’re going to have to save ourselves and to the extent that we can find solutions that we have control over, resources that we have control over. That’s going to be the truly sustainable way of doing things.
Bill: So we’ve got less water, less oil, less farmland—Obviously we do a lot of… Not only do we specialize in doing a lot of concreting here and paving—we pave a lot of our farmland up—but we also have a tremendous amount of erosion. And I kind of like to get your feedback from both you guys on this—I attribute some of that just to this idea of debt and this idea of, “I have to make this existential payment now.” At least that’s the zeitgeist among the farmers where we live, Roger. And this is farm country here. We’re right on the border of Iowa. All your corn and soybeans are grown right here. Farmers borrow money to buy land and then they have to make a payment. So what do they do? They plow up the fence lines, right? And they treat the ground in a way that they can maximize utility value out of that ground that year. There’s nothing about future generations. They’re making a payment. Right?
Nick: They are making a payment.
Bill: Nick, why don’t you address that a little? What are your…?
Nick: Well I think it’s funny that we think that we’re the only… And I’m sure this was common in past generations. Maybe less common than it is now. That we are the only generation that happens to matter at the moment. And that nobody is really thinking of the children or the future.
Bill: Very good Nick. Roger, you want to comment on the children being our future?
Roger: Well what am I going to say?
Bill: Nick wanted to sing that, I think.
Bill: I believe the children are our future. He almost broke into song there.
Roger: Yeah, you resisted Nick and I thank you for that.
Nick: You’re welcome.
Roger: To get back to the whole land use question, I think that something bizarre happened where the suburbs sort of took over in our country and I think that it’s sort of time for us to bite back. You could say that the suburbs have been eating up nice pieces of farmland for a few decades now and I think it’s time that we sort of bite back on that and say, “Wait a minute.” We’re not going to necessarily get the farms back the way that they were a decade or two decades or three decades ago but there is a way to reintroduce agriculture into urban and suburban areas. And that’s really what we need to do. So I think I’m an optimist. It’s hard to be a gardener and not be an optimist, especially when you’re in Maine at this time of the year.
Roger: And you’re still looking at a couple of feet of snow out back. So I have a lot of faith that people are going to wake up to these realizations as well. And I’m really inspired this coming season to be making some connections with people. I happen to live on a piece of farmland that’s no longer officially considered farmland. My backyard used to be the former site of the Scarborough Cape Elizabeth Agricultural Fair. I’ve actually looked the photos up.
Bill: Oh, very cool.
Roger: Yeah, it is really cool. I’ve looked the photos up at our local historical society and I guess part of what I’m doing is trying to get the farm back but parcel by parcel in the form of all these gardens. I think that’s good work and I hope that other people are going to be doing the same things in suburban areas.
Bill: And you’ve done a good job of encouraging people, both individually and at the national level. Going back to kind of your chart here or your list of things that kind of impair us, I think—You talk about being Stephen King scared—What scares me probably more than anything else is the time issue. Remember that Guess Who song, “No Time Left For You?” “On my way to better things?” The average household—and I’m not speaking eschatological. I think I’m a long-term optimist, as Roger is.
But what I’m seeing is the average family—everyone needing to work—Mom works, Dad works and then how much time is there to prepare a meal? How much time is there to garden? So we’re so busy running that we no longer have time together as a family. I think if you look at all of these things—and I know water is important and oil is important—but I think that whole idea has probably had a more damaging effect on our culture than almost anything else because the family’s now atomistic and separated. Do you want to speak to the atomism of the family and how that relates to gardening? As a Phi Beta Kappa Holy Cross guy?
Roger: Well it does all connect. I think that the time issue really is important. It is something that I sort of struggle with as a garden communicator because on the one hand, you want to be upbeat and you want to be encouraging and certainly be nice to be able to say that you can grow all the food that you need for your family in under five minutes a week. But if you’re an honest person, you also have to tell it straight to people. And the reality is that we are being pulled in all these different directions. I see it up close and personal in my own house and in my own community—this suburban area next to Portland Maine.
So the reality is—the statistic that I’ve come across—is that the average American family spends about a half an hour a day preparing and cleaning up after meals. So you can already guess what type of food they’re producing in a half an hour a day. It’s not the home cooked meals of your childhood or of your dreams. It’s a lot of processed foods that have been microwaved or have been reheated, cooked perhaps by somebody else and you’re simply performing the last step. And we have to, I think, reorder our priorities. That’s really what it comes down to. And we have to see… Something needs to give somewhere. And I do think that we can create the space in our days and in our weeks for good food. I think it’s what we need to do. I know we can do it. It’s what we’ve done before. Food had a much more important role in society than it does now. So we do have some history that we can draw upon. And with my organization,
Kitchen Gardeners International, we have some other folks that we can take some inspiration from—other parts of the world where food continues to be quite important and they show that it’s important, not only by the amount of time that they invest in preparing food but also by the amount of money that they put into it. There is some really interesting data out there about just how much the average American family spends on food compared to other families around the world. I think the statistic is that the US tends to spend about 7% of household expenditure goes towards food. If you were to look at another country—for example, Italy or France, both of which are considered to be places where people eat really well, it’s almost twice as much. Now you could say that that sort of goes against the notion of self reliance and all that but I think in many cases, the French and the Italians are also growing a lot of their own food but when they’re buying food in, they’re buying high quality stuff and they’re also making sure that the person or people who have produced their food are paid a fair wage.
So it’s not sort of this race to the bottom where we’re all trying to spend as little as possible. Because when we spend as little as possible on food, we’re getting what we paid for in the form of low quality, low nutrient food that doesn’t necessarily inspire you. And if you want to try to visualize that, I think you can simply imagine that cafeteria tray that I mentioned before with all the mushy vegetables on it. That’s really cheap food and it’s not that tasty.
Bill: It’s not that tasty at all. And I think in your presentation too, you said, “You could walk into a big box grocery store and there are 30,000 items there, all in various stages, as you say, of preparation. And these marketing groups among food companies, they know that women are harried from working and carting the kids around to soccer practice and so forth. And so they have focus groups and they want you to feel—at least especially the women that cook—they have special products that want you to feel like you’ve accomplished something without accomplishing anything. So it’s a psychological thing and these companies study this and they’re going to appeal to you to buy this product and to make you feel like you’ve done well for your family by heating this up or whatever it is. You’ve done well by them. So don’t think that there aren’t shrewd marketers out there trying to… And good for them. It’s a free country.
The point I’m getting to is that we don’t have to make bad choices. We can make—or you can make better bad choices if you want to even phrase it at the lower end of the strata and say… Look, we’re not all going to have the attitude of—I was going to say Epicurus—I think Epicurus gets a bad rap. I think it was Aristippus that kind of said grab all the gusto. The beer companies stole that from him. And we don’t all have to think that way. We don’t have to be ancient Greek thinkers that way in that respect. We can start more examining our lives. So I’m a big believer instead of… And I know I’m a little ranting here.
Instead of assigning evil to President Obama, to President Bush, to someone else, try to start making decisions that would affect you. Like Dostoyevsky said, “You want a better world? Clean up your garage.” Roger should start saying, “You want a better world? Plant a rutabaga.” Or whatever it is. We have to start at the small level and not assign evil in other places and take control over your own decisions, which in order to do that, we have to encourage each other, which is what I like about Roger’s stuff. What goes into your brain ends up coming out. We input things and so the more we read about these things, the more we encourage each other, the more we meet locally, the more we encourage community gardens and talk to people, the more we’re going to do. As ye believe, so shall it be done unto you—to get theological, right?
So I think you’re really on it when you’re talking about how can we make decisions right away but guys, I would pose this question to both of you. Knowing that moms are busy. Knowing that dads are busy. We don’t want to overwhelm the folks that are on the margin, that are just thinking about starting a garden. So maybe Roger, you go first and then Nick can join in. What’s the easiest way for someone to get started so it doesn’t overwhelm them and they say, “The heck with it? I’m not going to do it at all.”?
Roger: Well, that’s a really key question and I always tell people to start small and to scale up. To get a few successes under your belt, figure out what worked, what didn’t and take stock and try to do a little bit more in the coming year. I mentioned that this is old farmland that I’m on. Scarborough—so you and your readers can situate it a little bit on the map, we’re located on the coast, just about ten minutes south of Portland Maine, which is the big city in Maine. And this used to be one of the areas that was supplying a lot of the lettuce to the Boston market back in the day.
So we happen to grow really good salad greens here and I’m sure that other parts of the world might not have some of the same success that we do but having said that, I think that starting off with a little salad garden is a really nice way to start, just because it doesn’t take up a lot of space. It’s quite profitable financially, in the sense that you for $5.00 worth of seeds, you can grow all the salad that you and your family are going to need over the course of the season. In fact, you can get several harvests out of the same area if you’re growing cut and come again salad varieties. So I think that that’s a really nice way to start. It just doesn’t take up that much space, that much time and you have that immediate result in the sense that most salad greens take about 30 days or less to go from seed to salad bowl.
Bill: Nick, you want to throw something in there quick?
Nick: Well, I think it’s interesting. I tell people basically the same thing. Stay small. Don’t exceed what your capabilities are. Don’t even come close. Do it in a container. Grow carrots. Grow spinach. Like Roger said, lettuces are great. Most of them are 30-50 days before—even the head lettuces are less than 50 days. Grow a little plot of bush green beans. Everybody likes fresh green beans. Then slowly move up to tomatoes, peppers, and potatoes.
Bill: You know what I like about green beans? They force you into something. You either have to make some new friends and give some away or learn how to can, right? Because the beans will just make you crazy.
Roger: It depends on how many children you have.
Bill: That’s true. All right. So Roger too, another thing as we kind of start to wind down a little bit. Another interesting part of the number here is what was your savings estimate? So a family that wants to garden—and my guess is this number will get higher and higher as food inflation continues to be pervasive here—how much can you save by having your own garden?
Roger: Well, you can save quite a bit. And I only know that because my wife was a lot smarter than me about this a few years back and sort of prodded me into not only crunching the vegetables one year but crunching the garden math. Over the course of the growing season we kept track of it all, which was a bit of a pain in the butt, I have to say. We literally weighed every leaf of lettuce, every carrot, every strawberry; you name it—that came out of the garden over the course of several months. But when we got to the end of the tally, it was certainly worth it. What we did was we took all the crops that were weighable. We didn’t include some of the herbs.
But for all the ones that we could weigh, we came up with a total weight and were able to get an average price for those crops, not only from just sort of the local big box supermarket but also from farmers markets and from sort of a high end organic super store like Whole Foods or something like that. And what we found is that we had saved over $2,000 by growing our own food and the statistic was even higher, of course, if we were comparing it with Whole Foods or something like that. So it’s a significant chunk of change that the average family can be keeping in its pockets. And I think it’s even more significant these days with the economy still struggling. But I also will just emphasis that it’s not just about the financial savings. That particular year when we were keeping track, I just remember us having quite a bit of fun as a family, engaging in a common project and sort of seeing that what we were doing was really adding up. We ate really well that year.
Bill: Yeah, and like you said, my guess is that within the next few years it may end up being $5,000 that you can save. And that means probably more than $5,000 because that means you don’t have to make $10,000 and pay 40% of taxes in order to end up with $5,000 or $6,000 to pay for your food. So it’s a bigger number than what you think it is. Plus you have the added advantage of engaging your family and doing all those things, which as Roger said—you can’t assign a price to that. That’s something that’s enduring. So as we kind of close up a little bit, Roger—What would you like people to do? What site…? You’ve got a number of places for people to go. Do you want to kind of encourage people to go…? Let’s encourage people to go hear your encouragement and pay attention to what you’re doing. What sites would you like people to go to?
Roger: Well, I would be a bad executive director of my own organization if I didn’t send people to www.kgi.org. That’s where our community hangs out. We’re actually on the verge of re-launching our website in the next week or so. So do check that out. Bill, you had mentioned my talk, which I think a lot of your readers or listeners will find of interest and that can be found at www.SubversivePlot.com. It will just sort of redirect to the video. If people want to watch that and share that, that would be great. There are all kinds of great sources of information about food and gardening out there. I think I would just encourage people to sort of tune into the local sources of information in their area because that’s where they’re going to get some of the best guidance about gardening. Gardening is more of a local science so you want to make sure that you’re getting your crops in at the right time for your area. So those would be my suggestions.
Bill: Those are good suggestions. And lastly, just a personal one for me– What affected you and your life… Did you read Wendell Berry? Did you read The Southern Agrarians? When did the light bulb go on for you for this whole thing? What are maybe some of the books that affected you?
Roger: I think the light bulb went on for me when I was living on the fifth floor of an apartment in Brussels Belgium and was itching to grow food and had no ground to scratch. And it got so bad that I ultimately found some areas where I could grow food. I guess I was doing some subversive gardening of another sort in the sense that I was growing some food on a rooftop. That particular operation was ultimately shut down by the landlord but still it got me out there. It got my hands in the dirt. But yeah, over the years I’ve been influenced by a number of people.
I remember reading Helen and Scott Muir about becoming much more self reliant and how they set up their homesteads in Vermont and in Maine and finding that quite interesting. And also reading some of the people that have been influenced by them—namely Eliot Coleman, the famous Four Season gardener from Maine who happens to married to an excellent gardener and writer in her own right, Barbara Damrosch. So there are all kinds of people who have been influencing me and I think that that’s one of the things that we all need to do. We need to make sure that we have our sources of inspiration as we’re trying to push all this forward.
Bill: Well said and I think that’s a good place to close. We want to say a special thank you to you, Roger, for hanging out with us. We love what you’re doing. Keep it up. Keep encouraging folks. And for the listeners, we want to thank you for spending your hour with us. We know that your time is important and we just really thank you for spending it with us today. Thanks again.