Back-Yard Romance

If you read Wordsworth's dirge, The Leech Gatherer linked in my last piece, you will know that it is pedestrian drivel enlivened only by the last two lines, which are a tribute to the Leech-Gatherer's stoicism in the face of very limited means (and would seem to apply equally well to my Sage-Gatherer). But it is sometimes salutary to read the Romantics: heaven knows, I'm still mining the vein!

Growing your own food (in 21st. century America) is a Romantic endeavor. The yearning for the simple life is understandable, but it's actually (wouldn't you know) quite complicated.

There's every reason to 'grow your own' in Upper Ojai. I visited a neighbor recently who had reclaimed some bottom land on his property on the flood plain of the Sisar Creek as it wends down the 150 to join the Santa Paula Creek and he had laid out perhaps 1000 square feet of vegetables. It was fully irrigated and clearly very productive. There is a good sized vegetable patch at Happy Valley where some of the produce is provided to the school in lieu of land rent and otherwise is operated as a csa (community supported agriculture). Margot inherited a wonderful orchard on her property where she has oranges, lemons, grapefruit and avocado; these she plans to irrigate with roof run-off via underground storage cisterns. The lay of the land is such that a gravity drip feed is feasible.

We were early adopters of the csa concept, as consumers, signing up in Los Angeles twenty years ago. This was a bio-dynamic csa and we joined because of our association with Highland Hall, a Rudolph Steiner 'Waldorf' school in the San Fernando valley. Steiner's Romanticism was of the German persuasion - he was fundamentally reactionary; his development of the bio-dynamic protocol represented a return to medieval agricultural practices and certainly the wizened rutabagas and wormy parsnips we received from the csa provided a vivid window into the gruelling subsistence of the middle ages.

More successful was and continues to be, the garden at Findhorn where direct communication with the vegetable fairies or devas along with herculean efforts at soil building have resulted in famously prolific crops. I am reminded now that the farmer at Happy Valley uses some elements of the bio-dynamic principles in the gardens at Happy Valley - at least to the point of sprinkling ground stag's horn onto the vegetable beds. The addition of animal products to the soil, in the form of manure or bone meal, gets to the heart of the organic dilemma, whether practiced in your back yard or commercially.

Organic farming, if it were to exclusively feed the world, would require both a massive die-off in the human population and a massive breeding program of farm animals to provide fertilizer. The global population has outstripped the ability of the planet to support organic-only food production.

I grew up in a small village in the south of England that was surrounded, like most of its kind, by farmland or where the soil had historically been poor, by what we called 'common' - it was just that, public land that may have served earlier as rough grazing. Much of the farmland immediately around the heart of the village belonged to a farmer who practiced market gardening - large scale growing of vegetables and flowers which he shipped by train to Covent Garden, the great produce market in London.

He believed that tractors over-compacted the soil so he retained, right through the early 1960's, a stable of shire horses that assisted in the field work; I remember their stately progress through the streets as they moved from one section of the farm to another, towering over me and seeming altogether more interesting than the motley selection of post-war english cars in the traffic parade that they led. When his sons took over, much of the operation was sold as a golf course (on the land where I had picked daffodils for 2 shillings an hour during my school's Easter Holiday) and more was developed for housing. We can all be grateful that by the time I was driving my father's car (an Austin A-40 and later a Morris 1100) through the village at break-neck speeds the streets were no longer encumbered by these elephantine animals.

Removing the internal combustion engine from the farm has a beneficial impact beyond providing ad-hoc fertilizer and retaining a friable soil. Anyone who has dropped down into the central valley from the grapevine will be familiar with the pall of smog that hangs over California's vast 'market garden' - much of it produced by farm machinery. But the efficiencies of GPS guided, auto steer tractors and laser leveled fields (using grading machinery) to prevent irrigation run-off, are a part of what ensures bountiful and cheap food.

Were all of America's croplands to go organic there would need to be a five-fold increase in cattle to provide the current levels of nitrogen fertilizer. Their grazing lands would consume much of the available land in the United States resulting in massive deforestation. In California, the impact would entirely eclipse the introduction of Iberian cattle in the eighteenth century. If Europe tried to feed itself organically most of the remaining forests in north west Europe would disappear. Now, introducing Clydesdales as the prime movers for agricultural machinery would make a small dent in the nitrogen requirements, but they too need pasture or hay.

While Ojai's horse population probably ensures an adequate supply of manure in the short term for those of us who organically grow at least some of our own food, the longer term back-yard solution is to run chickens and perhaps a goat or two to create something resembling a closed system.

An organic garden is a wonderful and Romantic goal. It is not however, going to save the world. As Robert Paarlberg points out in 'Attention Whole Foods Shoppers', Foreign Policy, May/June 2010 "..the mantra that sustainable food....must be organic local and slow...doesn't work. Africa already has such a system....and one person in three is malnourished".

We have got as far as creating a 4' x 16' concrete block raised bed (empty) with a hardware cloth gopher screen at the bottom. I am currently fully engaged in trying to meet the County Fire Department's brush clearance requirements. Once the weed wacking, grubbing and raking abates I will turn my attention to Laurel Sumac control. Then I will begin the soil building exercise....perhaps around early July. Meanwhile, I guess, we'll keep buying the cheap and bountiful food available at our local (not always organic) markets.