Home Commentary Farm and Garden Measures for Food Security

Farm and Garden Measures for Food Security

Main Street Middle School students Elena Guadagno, Phoebe Bakeman, and Isabel Moorman look over the school’s Sustainability Garden. Photo by Mary Cole Mello.
Climate chaos, war, and disease drive up the prices of foods by decreasing their abundance. Major agricultural regions of the U.S., for example, are increasingly hammered by drought, floods, extreme wind storms, and in some regions, all three. The U.S. is already experiencing a migration crisis, so we are gaining more people to feed with less total capacity to grow food. As climate chaos worsens, migration to Vermont will increase. How will we feed everyone? 

As a region with a long history of agriculture and a tradition of self-reliance, we are positioned to partially mitigate the effects of climate change (and wars) on food prices and, perhaps, shortages. For the past few years some 600 Vermonters have been designing Vermont Farm to Plate (vtfarmtoplate.com) with an astonishing completeness of scope. I highly recommend that everyone concerned with food security, self-reliance, and costs visit their site. In this commentary, I will limit myself to a few measures that half a century of personal experience has found to improve community food self-reliance.

Home Gardening

Home gardening is not rocket science. If you didn’t grow up around home gardens, start small, get advice from gardening neighbors and the UVM Extension Service, compost, and start with easy crops such as green beans, tomatoes, summer squash, and lettuce. Buy starts from local plant stores, or start plants from seed, which is cheaper and you get more choice of varieties. Find out about potential deer and woodchuck problems in your area and adjust accordingly. Even windowsill herbs save money. You will feel good about whatever food you grow.

The late environmentalist Bill Mollison described a system in which elderly homeowners allow younger, landless gardeners to grow food in exchange for a share of the harvest. (If you are interested, email me at permaculturemail@aol.com and I’ll send you a public domain copy where Mollison described the arrangement.) 

Look for a Seed Library

Sometimes a local library will develop a seed library where donated seeds are given away. The Montpelier High School has one, and the Vermont Garden Network lists 18 others throughout the state. Most seed packets are shipped with more seeds than commonly needed, and the seed can sprout for a few years (with the exception of the onion/chive group and parsnips; their seeds last a year or, at most, two). Seed companies such as High Mowing Seeds in Wolcott, Vt., often donate leftover seed packets to seed libraries and other groups. Local seed swaps can be another way to save money on seeds. If you hold one, announce it in The Bridge calendar.

Fruition Projects

Some municipalities, including Montpelier, plant fruit and nut trees, vines, and shrubs on public land for free harvest. I was on the advisory board of the Massachusetts Fruition Project. We had a set of requirements for fruition sites to ensure the plantings would be properly cared for, especially when young and vulnerable. If you are interested, email me and I’ll try to dig up the requirements from one of our back journals. Sometimes, homeowners have fruit or nut plants that they do not harvest or get more yield than they can use. A knock on the door will get you an answer one way or the other. In my experience, people don’t mind being asked.

Institutional Gardens

In some states, prisoners work farms to grow some of their own food. I was a consulting horticulturist at a prison facility in Massachusetts where I helped reintroduce this practice, which was very successful. At the request of inmates, I negotiated with the prison superintendent permission for interested prisoners to have their own community gardens on site. He liked the program because it saved money in the cafeteria. In my experience, it was beneficial in too many other ways to go into here. It is worth checking to see if any Vermont institutions have discontinued use of farmland. Converting it to community gardens saves the agency maintenance costs and can be a boon to local residents. 

Partial Repurposing of Parks

During World War II, many municipal parks across the U.S. were partially converted to ‘Victory Gardens’ that were assigned to be used by individual families. In the 1980s, I visited the oldest such garden remaining. The park retained seats and paths and the gardens were attractive additions. Besides growing needed food, the gardens provided positive socializing between gardeners and other park users. I suspect a friendly park user went home with a summer squash or a few tomatoes from time to time. Community gardens grow community as well as food and flowers. In Montpelier, the city-run FEAST farm grows food for seniors and food insecure neighbors at 203 Country Club Road.

Youth Garden Projects

Vermont schools have had garden programs for some time. They are great! The Vermont Garden Network provides a list of school gardens throughout the state. Once students produce food and get recognition for related achievements, they acquire confidence that, I believe, they carry through life. They can grow their own food and they know it. Often young gardeners pass the gift along and get their relatives and friends gardening. The same benefits hold true for the rest of us — growing even some of our food bolsters our feeling of competence, self-reliance, and achievement. And it is always damn tasty, too.