I’m stealing this idea from my co-author, Aaron Newton – but it was so cool I couldn’t not write about it. In the process of writing our book about how to de-industrialize agriculture A Nation of Farmers Aaron suggested that instead of one 100 mile (or 200 mile or whatever) diet, we think in terms of a bulls eye model, which emphasizes bringing as much of your diet as possible home to your local area.
This would look like a dart board, with a bullseye in the center. That center dot would be your home. And the first question is “how much of my food can I produce here.” For some people, the answer will be very little – only sprouts and a few windowboxes, perhaps. For people like me, the answer will be ‘a lot’ – but the first step is to evaluate your home for food production possibilities. Be imaginative. You think you can’t keep any livestock, right? What about rabbits for angora wool, or meat. How about bantam chickens, kept in cages like pet birds for eggs? What about bees or worms?
You can’t garden out front, because of zoning restrictions? Well how about replacing your front yard lawn with ornamental edibles – beautiful blueberry bushes, grapevines trained to an arbor, a pecan tree. Got shade? Rhubarb and gooseberries will tolerate it, as will many medicinal herbs. And the bottlebrush beauty of black cohosh will look just like you planted it for pretty.
We all know that growing food is important, but it is necessary to realize just *how* important. Industrial conventional agriculture is an ecological disaster. Industrial organic agriculture is increasingly organic only in name – and is just as doused in petroleum as conventional. Agriculture of all kinds is a major contributor to greenhouse gasses. But moreover, food yields are levelling off and falling due to climate change. North Africa lost 2/3 of its grain crops this year, the Australian grain crops dropped by more than 50%. The world has its lowest food reserves since measures have been taken. This is a recipe for famine – large scale, worldwide – even here.
The smaller the plot of land you work, the more productive it is (after some practice). A person with one garden bed who manages it inch by inch can produce yields per square foot that dwarf anything a conventional farmer can produce. A farm of 2 acres is often 200 times more productive in total output (according to Peter Rosset’s Paper _Small is Beautiful__) than a conventional farmer’s use of land. Industrial agriculture is far to *inefficient* in its land use for us to risk continuing it, when human lives are at stake.
Up to now, we’ve thought of efficiency in terms of less labor – if few people could produce more food, that was an efficiency. But it was only efficient because energy was cheap and abundant, and we’re at the end of those days. Now, with a growing world population, climate change and falling yields, we need to return to efficiency PER ACRE – the project of generating the most possible food from each bit of productive land we engage with. Doing so means land for wildlife habitat, the chance to restore stripped soils, the hope of arresting some of the ecological crisis we’ve encountered.
The key, then, is getting as many people involved in farming and gardening as possible. My own assessment is that we need 100 million new Farmers, broadly construed. That is, we need about 1/3 of the American population to take real responsibility for producing some of their own food. It isn’t enough just to create demand – more is going to be asked of all of than simply wanting. Because one out of three means taking responsibility. If we’re to raise food on a small, highly productive scale, we need much more participation. I’ve written more about this here:http://casaubonsbook.blogspot.com/2006/12/50-million-100-million-200-bazillion.html.
The next ring would be the food in your neighborhood. Is there a community garden? Could you create one in a public park or on a vacant lot? Is anyone else growing food? Could you get someone else growing food? I got my neighbor to start a food producing garden by offering to put one in for her as a thank you gift. Aaron gardens on the land of his elderly neighbors, growing food and sharing it with them. My old friend Laurie is growing a garden on her church grounds. Are there churches, businesses, or other folks with land you could engage with? What about getting the neighborhood teenagers involved?
What about foraging in your neighborhood? Even in Manhattan, Wildman Steve Brill offers foraging classes to teach people to eat their local weeds. How much of your food could you get from the neighborhood that way?
Ok, next step would be your town. Are there right to farm laws? Could you get some instituted? How about changing zoning to permit livestock or front yard gardens? Are there any farmers there? Can you patronize them? Have you considered advertising? Put up a sign saying “I would like to buy organic produce from within my community” – maybe someone will start up a market garden. Check into local immigrant communities – many brought their agricultural traditions with them, and they may have surpluses for sale if you ask. Are there old farms with retiring or aging owners – does your town have a plan for protecting that land from development?
So the first three bullseyes are probably all within 10 miles of you. The goal is to get as much as possible, as close as possible. For me, that would be quite a bit. I can get milk, eggs, meat, and most of my produce locally. That isn’t normal – but a gardening movement that gets food back on people’s properties means that this will be increasingly possible.
The next step would be your immediate bioregion – perhaps 25 miles from your town. And then outwards to 50 and 100 and 250. But remember, every community, every region has a foodshed (like a watershed) that has to feed it. The further out you go, the more likely you are to bump into someone else’s foodshed. For example, if you live in Manhattan, by the time you get 100 miles in any given direction, you’ve bumped into the foodshed for at least one other medium to large city, as well as a number of heavily populated suburbs and small cities. For example, if you look towards Connecticut, the foodshed for Manhattan at 100 miles is also the foodshed for New Haven, Hartford, Providence (in the sense that it is less than 100 miles for each of these), as well as Bridgeport, Stamford, Waterbury and a host of suburbs and cities. Go north towards me, and you’ve run into the foodshed for Poughkeepsie, Albany, etc…
I’m not criticizing the notion of a 100 mile diet, which has been a powerful tool in teaching people to look locally for food sources. And now, at the beginning of this movement, the 100 mile or 250 mile diet is a great tool. But what if the movement grows, as we hope it will. Can 8 million New Yorkers (or 8 million people in Tucson/Pheonix – I’m using NYC as an example here) have a 100 mile diet? The answer is probably not – it means the foodshed for the region will have to expand. But the only way we can do that fairly is to ensure that as much food as possible is being grown where the people are. That means Victory Gardens on every lawn, in city parks, in neighborhoods. And it means prioritizing food from your very immediate foodshed – from the center circles of your bullseye.
That won’t be easy for many people, and it is a long term project. We can’t necessarily do it today. But the local food movement is growing fast, and demand alone won’t ensure that hunger never strikes Americans, and that we always have enough excess to offer succor and hunger relief to the people who are running out of food because of climate change we caused. If we’re to burn carbon sending grains around the planet, they should be going to the world’s hungry, not to us, whenever possible.
Like a darts game, you won’t always hit your circle. But with practice, you can get a little closer every time. The more food you create in your community, the better off we all are.