Oiling a Slippery Slope Toward Economic Ruin or Turning Suburbanites Into Farmers?

I’ve been doing a lot of driving these past few months, after not driving at all for several months. Driving a pickup truck – without hauling goods – and using it like a passenger car is ridiculous and expensive. I’m not the only one weaned on cheap oil. For the past half century Americans fell in love with their pleasure vehicles as rural countryside was transformed from farmland into a landscape of suburban and urban sprawl crazy-quilted together with roadways and super highways. Along the way we’ve gotten lazy, fat, and now suddenly poorer. Goods and services once deemed essential (listen up landscapers) to our personal lifestyles and the economy are becoming unaffordable non-essentials. When W took office a barrel of oil was $26.00; today the price is $112.00/barrel and heading for $200.00.

agri chemicalsClearly, from this day forward, fossil fuels – and all the everyday essentials that depend upon them, such as transportation and food – will grow increasingly costly. Our current land pattern of living in single-family suburban homes, working in cities and getting to and fro via the private automobile has us in a real pickle: how can we transition away from our petroleum guzzling infrastructure and toward a more sustainable future? We’re not going to blow up our current suburban model, right? So let’s look at one issue we might all be able to actually influence – our food.

A century ago almost 40 percent of the US population worked on farms. After industrialization, the rise of cities and the growth of agribusiness — fueled by cheap fossil fuels — less than 1 percent of the US population still farms for a living. One study points out that today one farmer grows enough food for 100 other people. But at what real cost and what exactly is the quality of our food? Mega farming in most cases equals mega reliance on chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. Sure, we have made inroads with organic farming practices as many consumers clamor for a healthier diet and environment but Americans aren’t going to run back to farming as a way of life. Without some miraculous new energy source, might someday soon muscle power again be a cheaper alternative to fossil fuels for growing food? Could blunt economic pragmatism turn the average joe/jane into farming their suburban plot?

The silver lining of suburban sprawl is that suburbia occupies vast swaths of former prime US farmland. According to studies by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s ecological forecasting research group, suburban land already in use as lawn that is irrigated totals about 30 million acres. That’s three times the amount of land planted in irrigated corn. These lawns average between one-fifth and one-third of an acre. Intensive food growing proponents such as John Jeavons have proven that a substantial amount of food can be grown on small tracts of land. Suburbia has the land and the infrastructure and it’s right where the vast majority of people live. It would not be an overstatement to say that growing as much of your own food as possible can be the cornerstone for fiscal well being for many households. And you can grow the varieties of food you prefer and utilize sound sustainable practices to boot!

I’m not naïve enough to believe that 50 million Americans suddenly will become part-time home farmers or that our entire country’s food supply can be derived from former lawns, parks and golf courses. Rather, we need to rethink what we mean by “farming.” Is “farming” the cultivation of a mono crop (like corn for food or fuel) on thousands of acres of land powered by gigantic diesel-guzzling tractors? Or can it be vegetable gardens, edible landscapes and chicken coops incorporated within platted suburban neighborhoods? Surely I’m not the only one who sees that “farmers’ who grow substantial amounts of food for home use, and perhaps for sale to neighbors, as supplemental income, will be better equipped to thrive in our petroleum addicted culture – in the short term and beyond. So, as spring arrives, plan, then plant your new garden of hope: the edible yard!

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