My father always kept a small garden in our suburban DC backyard. We regarded it as a rather messy place – a source of embarrassment and reason to avoid the backyard altogether. It was not the tidy kind of garden our imaginations conjured. It looked nothing like the landscaped places we found in the backyards of our friends and neighbors.
The garden was not square or rectangular or frankly any recognizable geometric shape. It grew over the years like the plants it was meant to contain: organic and misshapen. There were raspberries that shot up in thorny unkempt fashion, a radish patch, mounds of asparagus plants, cucumbers grown in hay bales that he would bring home one at a time in the backseat (infuriating my mother), and caged peppers and tomatoes. Rather oddly we thought, marigolds and mint formed a frothy border around the whole perimeter.
Behind the garden and next to the fence was “the rotting place,” what I would later learn to call the compost pile. Despite my mother’s protests, all manner of kitchen scraps, weeds, leaves, grass trimmings and garden detritus would be piled up there. It created a fecund and puzzling heat – often steaming up in wafts during cooler weather. In the summer, when the rotting pile was most unbearable, he would spend more time there, turning it over in shovels full, pausing to pick up and inspect the worms and insects that he found there.
Dad would spend most weekends endlessly puttering in his messy garden, too often by himself. On those occasions when I agreed to help, he would quietly work alongside me trying to teach me without scaring me away. He told stories about his Great Depression-era life on my grandparents’ farm. He told stories about rain – too much and too little. He told stories about the joy that he, my grandparents, and my aunts and uncle would get from their farm and garden in Iowa. How the soil sustained them. Most often then, his stories inspired a derisive laughter from me. There was a Safeway blocks from our home; we could walk there for goodness sake. Most often now, and most certainly in this act of writing, I struggle to remember his stories as he is no longer here to tell them. These memories invoke as much shame as they do fondness.
When we were too young to refuse, we would summer on that family farm in Iowa. My Swiss grandparents were well into their seventies then, but still worked harder than most urban adults I now know. Days started early and ended late. Sleep was profound and fresh-air filled. Their farm, that home, was what I now know to be a family farm, a subsistence farm. It was eighty-eight acres – “there’s eighty-eight keys on a piano,” Grandad would say. It was enough land to grow grain for the animals and vegetables for family. And in good years, there was enough surplus grain to sell for cash and the inevitable but carefully-managed purchase of “catalog goods.” There were cows, pigs, chickens, rabbits, dogs, cats, and all manner of field vermin.
After years without making a single visit, the last time I visited that farm in Iowa my grandfather was in his nineties and I was a recent college graduate. He had fallen from his tractor and broken his hip. It was time, everyone said, to sell the farm. None of us grandchildren wanted to farm; I think that broke his heart. He sold the farm to the neighboring mega-farm and took a week-long vacation to Hawaii. He died shortly after.
Decades later, my partner Pablo and I bought a forlorn and crumbling 133 acre family, subsistence farm in Garrett County, Maryland. It is a hilly, rocky place with about 25 acres of tillable soil. We bought it from the ninety-something-last-remaining-child of its owners who had died there in the farmhouse. Pablo and I sense their spirits in the house still. The nineteenth century farmhouse and barn had all the same smells and sounds that I had finally grown to miss. We started our business there, there in the rural mountains of western Maryland. We work with farmers there, and I no longer deride the feelings of joy that well up in front of a table laden with locally grown and locally produced food.
The data on local, sustainably scaled farming is dire. In Garrett County, Maryland alone, an average of close to 3 acres of farmland have been lost everyday since 1997. Nationally, According to the USDA, between 1945 and 1975 the total number of farms decreased from around 7 million to 2 million while the average farm size more than doubled from 200 acres to 500 acres. And from 1987 onward, the median farm acreage has grown consistently while the median cropland acreage has stayed constant, reflecting the dramatic shift of cropland from smaller farmer for larger ones. In fact, the nation’s largest farms, containing 500 or more cropland acres, account for more than 70% of total cropland in the United States and the top 2.2% of farms constitute 34.3% of all national cropland. Despite the much written about food movement, between 2001 and 2011 growth in agriculture has come almost entirely from large industrial farms with minimal growth in smaller, environmentally sustainable farms.
Friend and FRESHFARM Markets’ board member and accomplished businessman, Herb Miller, has said repeatedly to me, “Stay on the supply side, Mike.” I confess: until recently I received this advice rather generally, in a macro-economic sort of fashion. Over the past few months as I have reflected on my new place in this life, the meaning of Herb’s advice has deepened.
With global population likely to reach 10 billion souls in the next generation, his advice is indeed quite specific: stay on the supply-side, stay on the side of the farmer and the food producer. By investing in their survival, we are investing in a future that offers the joy of knowing a vine-ripened hand-picked tomato, hand made cheese, tree-ripened fruit, and an abundance of grains, produce, fruits and foods that are delivered to us by the hands of a neighbor.
I’m long on the supply side, Herb.
Written by Mike Koch, Executive Director, FRESHFARM Markets