Friday, August 3, 2012

Why the Drought Means You MUST Garden

As you are no doubt aware (even if you've gotten a break from hearing about it by the wall-to-wall Olympics coverage), most of the country is fighting a serious drought.  Farmers are predicting low yields on the corn and soy that seem to find their way into every grocery store product, and prices on meat and dairy are expected to go up because factory-farmed cattle (unnaturally) eat mostly the corn that is in short supply.

Frugality blogs and news stories are responding with hints about ways to stock up and find deals in the coming months.  While these tips are generally very helpful, I'm going to take a different position and say that, in difficult growing times, you MUST plant a garden.

Why do I think you can succeed where large farms cannot?

  1. Your microclimate:  Even if you are sitting in the middle of the worst of the heat wave and drought, your own microclimate may lend itself to production of vegetables large farmers can't grow.  A shade tree, a porch for your container garden, or just a slightly low spot in your yard can all make a degree or two difference in temperature and can have different water needs.
  2. Your irrigation needs:  Factory farmers simply can't irrigate as much as they would need this year, and they sometimes are growing crops so closely spaced that their water needs are even more. You, on the other hand, can surely pull out the watering can or hose to douse your small garden.  If you are putting in a fall crop, space your plants a little farther apart so they have more root space to dig for water.
  3. Transportation:  Once farmers harvest their paltry drought-damaged crops, the crops have to be transported multiple times for processing and sale in your area.  In case you haven't noticed, fuel prices aren't dropping either, so you will also pay your portion of those increases.  Why pay to transport crops out of the drought area to your store if you can just go outside and grab your dinner from your yard.
  4. Flexibility:  The large farmers have to grow certain varieties of crops that can grow densely and can withstand the treatment they get, which in many cases mean they grow GMOs and other questionable hybrids instead of heirlooms.  A lot of this is driven by economics and scale on which they operate.  You, as the small gardener, are not confined in this way.  This year alone, we have grown carrots over the winter in a raised bed protected by a cold frame, are growing more carrots in the main clay-y garden by choosing a short, stocky heirloom variety, have a crop of leeks that will probably mature in winter (again protected by a cold frame), and are growing potatoes in a container with plans to repeat the process over the winter.  You can do likewise with your space. 
None of this is meant as a diatribe against individual farmers in the large farm system.  In many cases, I think these hard-working men and women wanted to hold onto a traditional way of life and have been slowly squeezed by governmental, economic, and corporate pressures into farming highly-modified varieties of crops in monoculture -- ironically, exactly the recipe for failure in any kind of temporary shift in the weather.  It will take a culture change to fix those problems.

In the meantime, those of us with small gardens can relieve some of the demand and help our own budgets by growing locally.  If you are a southern gardener, now is the time to plan for your fall/winter gardens; middle and northern gardens should be planting crops that will mature before frost or be safe under row covers or in cold frames.  All of us can be thinking of crops that we can put in large containers in sunrooms, in sunny windows, and under grow lights.  But now more than ever, you really need to garden.
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