The garden of good and evil

I am sorry to report that one of my tater tots has died. I don’t know what caused the problem, but it doesn’t look like the dreaded late blight (especially since the one right next to it is doing fine). It all started after a heavy rain which flattened the plant. Some of the stalks and leaves never popped up again and turned yellow. Because this is an Experimental Potato Station, I did nothing but observe this time around — I seriously wasn’t expecting to get anything edible out of the plants this year.

I’m conducting cruel experiments on potato plants partly for sentimental reasons. This spring it occurred to me that the only person who never tried to dissuade me from growing vegetables was my grandmother. Where other people would respond to my “let’s grow [something]!” by peppering me with doubts (“You can’t grow [something]! It’s too hard! The soil’s not right!”), my grandmother would just shrug and say “OK, let’s.” I still have fond memories of the scabby and inedible marble-sized potatoes I dug up one fall from the yard under her watchful eye. Gee, growing stuff is really hard.

Next year, I hope to do better — in an environment without deadly fungus lurking. The New York Times has a new report on the ramifications of this year’s outbreak in the Northeast. In addition, Paterson has moved to have 17 counties declared “agricultural disaster areas” not just due to the late blight, but due to the crappy summer weather in general. Organic farmers are really in trouble: playing by the rules, they can’t use any effective fungicides. Growing stuff organically — it’s hard.

I have to wonder if, for a lot of middle-class Americans (even those with some gardening experience), the expectation of “getting back to the land” and supporting one’s family with backyard gardening or even small farming might be as — dare I say — childish as my potato experiment? If farming was easy, why are so many farms failing? Farms do not exist in a self-sufficient vacuum, as any farmer can tell you. It’s all part of an economic and social web that is and has always been directed by people way more powerful than you. During the 1940s, my grandfather owned one of the largest poultry farms in western Pennsylvania, and all it took was one or two years of disease to wipe him out completely. (Urban Buffalo chicken farmers, be warned!) He moved back to Utica, bitter about the tainted feed he suspected was the cause, and especially about the people who ran the feed supply chain.

Backyard gardening alone cannot feed a family efficiently (or without a great deal of risk — see: the current outbreak of late blight, or just read your history books about the Irish famine since oppressed Irish farmers were forced to essentially “backyard-garden” with potatoes.) If you squint at it just the right way, the suburbanization of former farmland looks an awful lot like the land-enclosure process in old Ireland. Absentee landlords (developers) wrung profit from the land and subdivided it into tiny parcels for exorbitant rents (mortgages), and politicians and other powerful interests eventually forced the Irish to potato-garden (tomato-garden) on those little plots for subsistence. How far we’ve come since the bad old days, huh?

But in a way, agriculture itself created this situation. Agriculture can only feed people most efficiently when it is large-scale (up to a point). And large-scale agriculture requires specialization of social roles, i.e., modern complex society. And when you have specialized roles, you have differing levels of social status. We’re all still wrestling with the ramifications of that every day. Agriculture pretty much created civilization as we know it — including nearly all of its successes and injustices.

People today who dream about self-sufficient backyard farming are also maybe dreaming about the kind of personal independence, peaceful habit and social egalitarianism that really only exists in hunter-gatherer societies. So, if that’s what we really want, better start looking for local nut and berry patches, even to go along with our tomato gardens. Consider how much of them it takes to make one meal, and how far you will have to travel from your home (i.e., spend energy) to gather them. Now you understand why hunter-gatherers tend not to have permanent villages — much less walkable ones. Are we sure we want to pay the real price for peace, independence and egalitarianism?

Sad to say, if this summer’s blight is as bad as is being reported, more than a few marginal farmers are going to either abandon organic practices, or go out of business altogether. I wonder how that will affect the back-to-the-land narrative in certain middle class circles. I also marvel at how many aspiring middle-class small farmers don’t seem to be very up on the political struggles of today’s farmers, except in a very general “down with evil Monsanto” way.

Just remember: for two weeks in July at least, blackberries are free.

4 Replies to “The garden of good and evil”

  1. I would bet that more farms, particularly smaller or “organic” ones, are failing due to the policies of US Agribusiness, as enacted by our favored representatives!, than by any blight or pest.

    The tomato blight is nothing, in how destructive it is, compared to Monsanto.

  2. Yup– agree w/Josh, the pests are only a bit of a much bigger problem. And, of course, the blight and pests are, in fact BRED by the bigger problem: monoculture creates super-pestilence creates famine is the lesson of the potato famine, that we fail to grasp again and again. Yes, there are economies of scale in centralizing and mono-tonizing farming… but, there are associated losses in biodiversity, and the overall resiliency of plant and animal populations suffers. The big problem with this in this country currently is NOT the tomato blight…. it is stapholococcus aureous, which kills more Americans annually than HIV/AIDS, and is bred in industrilaized hog farms.

    As far as the average impulse to garden, yeah, people underestimate how difficult it is, just as they underestimate how difficult home improvement jobs are, etc., etc. But, to grow food, even just a little of your own, is an immensely comforting and satisfying thing. It speaks to a primal need, and, ya know, just feels really good. And, the more you know how and get good at it, the more good it feels.

    BTW– potatoes really aren’t very hard most places. Try getting and following some instructions. Not every potato needs to be a science experiment, some can be art, exercise and recreation.

  3. One (large) planter died, the other is fine. Both sets of seed potatoes came from same source. Both got the same care (FWIW). Same location. However, I trimmed the seed potatoes on the healthy one a little smaller. And I think I used different bags of soil. hmmm. (I was unable to locate used tires for this operation so I used a deep planter)

    Monsanto IS pretty evil. I recently learned that it’s possible to patent plants in the U.S. which you didn’t even make any genetic modifications to. That you just found somewhere else and brought into the country.

    http://www.boingboing.net/2009/07/27/what-real-piracy-loo.html

  4. Heck, Ellen, it is possible to patent the DNA of PERSONS whom you did not even inform you intended to patent. DNA prospecting is the new slave trade, metaphorically. Frankenstein is a classic of our age, the Shelleys were prophetic to the max.

    There are lots of wilts and rots that can get into potatoes, not just late blight. Sometimes it is just like when you catch a cold, while others in your office do not… just the luck of the draw or the way the wind blows.

    A good gardener accepts that almost nothing is under his/her control.

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