Ministry of Controversy

Attacking Kitchen Gardening on Grounds of Inefficiency Is a Huge Waste of Time

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Should I be at the laptop writing instead?

Okay, all forms of bourgeois smugness are enraging, including, I suppose, the locavore movement and the sudden new interest in farming the backyard. I’ve noticed contrarians popping up in the media with increasing frequency, wanting to stick it to my ilk by arguing that the real virtue lies in the alleged efficiencies of massive factory farms.

The most recent example of this was a Freakonomics blog post of a few days ago by Stephen J. Dubner titled "Do We Really Need a Few Billion Locavores?" Dubner moves in an eye-blink from his own inability to make orange sherbet at home to the conclusion that food-growing is best left to professionals. No, not to the adorable, dirty-pantsed 25 year-old idealists at your farmer’s market, but to super-efficient agribusinesses.

Well, what can you say about a guy who would add food coloring to homemade sherbet, as Dubner admits to doing, apparently without shame?  Except that he is

  1. Probably not interested in or knowledgable about food, and
  2. Possibly too trusting of corporations, including the one that convinced him that a vial of orange chemicals is a foodstuff.

I suspect that these two blind spots explain certain flaws in Dubner’s thinking when it comes to pulling food out of the backyard.

Here’s what’s wrong with the economic argument against kitchen gardening employed by Dubner:

1. It assumes an equivalence between homegrown produce and industrial produce when there is none.  Dubner quotes approvingly from an email he received from a reader: "I love gardening, but it takes me more time and overall investment to get inferior produce to what I could buy from a professional farmer nearby."

This reader is no gardener, and the giveaway is "inferior." Homegrown is almost never inferior–not in terms of flavor, nutritional quality, or energy and environmental costs–certainly not when compared to a factory-farmed product. The homegrown is vastly superior on all counts, and supremely efficient in that it converts land that would otherwise be wasted into productive use. Until economists start working all of these factors into their models, any equation proving the supposed efficiency of bulk-shipped industrial food over locally-grown or homegrown is total nonsense.

2. The argument assumes that extreme specialization is the ideal way to organize human society.  In other words, it’s a waste of time for non-farmers to garden instead of doing whatever brain work it is that they do best. Don’t get me started on the sense of entitlement underpinning this argument.  Nobody who cleans floors for a living ever rhapsodizes about the beauty of specialization.

But there is another problem with the idea: It assumes that it’s good for society, for all of us to be utterly powerless outside our own areas of professional expertise. 

It’s possible to see this of ideal of specialization fully realized in the American suburbs of 2008, where there are vast numbers of people who literally cannot do anything for themselves. They cannot cook, or lift a hammer, or garden, or walk–made so helpless by our culture that they have no life skills at all other than the few demanded by their employers. As a result, they are as dependent as babies on the big corporations that house them, feed them, transport them, climate-control and amuse them.  And they like it that way and think that this is how every right-thinking person ought to live.

The problem with a society of such super-specialists is that it is not adaptable.  Apply any strain at all–a dog peeing on the manicured lawn, children making noise on the street, somebody dinging the car in a parking lot–and super-specialists, in my observation, become as panicky as toddlers. 

Well, given that we now appear to be running out of cheap energy, this is a world where serious change is almost certain. Cheap factory-farmed produce is already no longer cheap. Adaptability may very well be key.

Personally, I like knowing how to do stuff, especially how to grow beans and cook them beautifully. These activities are extremely enjoyable, and so meaningful that I would no more outsource them than I’d outsource the raising of my children. They connect me with the whole of human history, which, let’s face it, has been largely about scrambling to find the next meal. 

Such primitive knowledge gives me a certain confidence that if our cushy civilization should ever fail me, I am ready for anything. Undoubtedly, this readiness is an illusion. But let’s just say that I’m readier than people who consider themselves too highly evolved to garden.

Posted by on June 13, 2008 at 4:42 am, in the category Ministry of Controversy.
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43 Responses to “Attacking Kitchen Gardening on Grounds of Inefficiency Is a Huge Waste of Time”

  1. That’s what I need. A row of inefficient bush beans to go where the radishes were. I’d like to think I am adaptable enough for a smooth transition to the future. My view of myself as an expert at nothing and a dabbler in lots of things may just prove to be a good thing.

  2. Dave M says:

    Economists, like many other ists who can grab an extra check for being public talking heads, selectively ignore the factors that undermine their arguments- which is why the true costs of environmental degradation are never factored into an analysis of factory farming, or building a corporate campus 100 miles from mass transit, or anything else.

    One of the uphill battles with organic gardening has been that for my clients (many of whom are older and conservative voters), anything with the word “organic” is chained to a scary liberal agenda. Apply compost once a year, not 10-10-10 every four weeks? That’s hippie treehugger crap, Dave! Never mind that it saves them money…

    It seems like the resurgence in home gardening is facing the same problem, primarily because of the demographic that’s most excited about it. Which is stupid, because when I was planting my garden this spring, who did I turn to for advice on plant selection? My 80 year old neighbor. I mean, come on. I’m saving money, taking better care of my property, getting more exercise AND eating better? Too bad none of those have a tangible payback attached that we could share with the economists.

  3. El says:

    Woot! Thanks Ms M.

    (I specialize in dirty pants, I think.)

  4. James says:

    First of all, I think his premise is flawed. I think it’s very possible to save money growing your own food. Especially if you focus on easily grown fruits and vegetables that do well in your climate. Even factoring in opportunity costs, at least once you have an established garden and have built your soil.

    It takes me less than a hour to throw aside the mulch in my garden in spring and plant a bunch of watermelon seeds. After putting the mulch back I may have to water and pull a few weeds out once in a while. Maybe another three hours out of the season. If I get two watermelons per plant in 50x25ft watermelon area I’ll get around 30 watermelons. I’ve seen organic watermelons for over 8 dollars a peice. $240 worth of produce for maybe 3-4 hours work and $5.00 for seeds? Considering my other ‘specialized’ job makes me 14 bucks an hour I think that’s pretty good.

    Of course, then I’d have to eat thirty watermelons…

  5. Ananse says:

    Thanks for responding to this article. I read it, and couldn’t even muster the energy to respond. In addition to all the excellent points made, food production isn’t something where “efficiency” is easily calculated. It would be grossly inefficient for me to try to grow oranges. On the other hand, it takes approximately no effort to grow a decent quantity of salad greens – compared to driving to a grocery store and purchasing greens shipped across the country from California in a clamshell box, how efficient is that? Also, monoculture (a natural extension of this factory efficiency, since you don’t want to have to purchase machines or train workers or find markets for more than one crop) is an invitation for enormous problems – environmentally, but also in terms of supply. What happens if you only grow corn in, say, the middle part of the US, and it gets flooded out? In terms of food security, I couldn’t feed myself (some gardeners can – I’m not that talented yet), but there’s numerous farms nearby, in case something happens to other sources of food.

  6. susan harris says:

    A little factoid on this subject: Barbara Kingsolver’s family spent about 50 cents per person per meal for the year they went local, growing most of their food themselves.

  7. Hamster says:

    “Do we really need a few billion locavores?”

    We already have a few billion locavores. They’re not the ones screwing up the planet.

  8. queenie says:

    You go, girl!

    Brava!

  9. tai haku says:

    I loved freakonomics the book (which had some interesting and enlightening bits of analysis). Freakonomics the blog seems to frequently make these kinds of over simplistic analysis. I wonder if its the need to produce blog posts regularly?

  10. squirrelgardens says:

    Kudos on this great article. Somehow I think that it is unacceptable to some that manual labor (gardening is that)is declasse. My neighbor told me he would never work on his yard, he pays people to do it.

    His comment made me feel defeated.

  11. Karen says:

    I have nothing of substance to add, just that I love it here so very much, and this post and the comments to it make me ridiculously happy.

  12. Cindy says:

    What a great response to a growing trend of dissing the local or home grower. The same occured on a website called egullet.com. The assumption was that food miles are a crock. If that’s true, then why according to Business Week Magazine, are Wal-Mart, Target and two nationwide food chains changing their distribution methods and models and purchasing produce from producers closer to the stores the stuff is destined for? The answer is cost of fuel. And the more fuel you use the more emissions you have. So while they aren’t starting organic produce farms close to their stores, or going hystercally green, they are adapting in any way they can. Every little bit helps.

    A prevailing argument on that Egullet thread was that those of us who grow vegetables in our back yards are all self deluded into thinking we are actually making a difference. We are all yuppies or hippies which conjures up such diametrically opposed images I’m not sure what they were driving at. Maybe we’re Yippies! One person actually argued that it cost more and used more energy to live in a single family dwelling, grow vegetables in your yard, and drive your car all over the place than it would if you lived in a major city in an apartment and took public transportation everywhere and ate “normal” stuff. I got annoyed at that since I put less than 10,000 miles on my car each year, use less energy I did when I lived in New York and eat better than ever for far less. And if you take a cab, isn’t it just someone else’s car?

    I’m actually starting to think that all this sudden negative press about growing your own or buying locally is being pushed by the corporate food industry. When I read a statistic that 60% of all produce consumed during World War II came from Victory Gardens, the threat to corporate food growers became obvious. Imagine any one company capturing 60% of the market share of a product that must be consumed every day. Little wonder they don’t like our garden plots. And as soon as our neighbors start tasting some of the stuff coming out of our yards, there will be converts. Oh Horrors.

  13. Bruce F says:

    I’m getting used to being called a “hippie” for growing vegetables on my city rooftop.

    I’ve never been around actual (?) hippies. That’s not exactly true. Let’s say I’ve been around Hippie version 2.0. And it’s been in a slightly different context, political media, the war, public policy etc.

    First let me say that I started out a nice suburban boy who went to a State School to be an Engineer. That was a long time ago.

    I think the idea of the “dirty f-ing hippie” persists because it’s useful.

    It’s an effective rhetorical tactic. Associating an idea with the cartoon Hippie, who is unserious, smelly, and poorly dressed, is a way to marginalize that “thing” in the eyes of many. That includes people who aspire to one day lord over (at least some) others, the demographic that includes plenty of Times readers. I put most of the reporters and editors from the NYT, whose byline shouldn’t be All the News That’s Fit To Print but The Establishment Speaks, in that category. With one or two exceptions, say Charlie Savage and Paul Krugman. I realize to use a word like Establishment immediately puts me in the hippie category and that fact alone tells you what you’re up against. If you take a look at George Orwell’s short essay “Politics and the English Language”, you’ll have a better idea of what I’m trying to say.

    Combine the hippie caricature with the equally pernicious lie of The Liberal Media and you’ve got a big problem. Anything that actually makes it past the self (or other) imposed censorship of the news production business gets waved away with the “Oh, what do you expect them to say, it’s the Lieberal [sic] New York Times!”.

    This way of thinking is pervasive and powerful. Say to someone that other countries have better, statistically measured broad health care outcomes and they pay, collectively, less money. The response is predictable. Socialist! Hippie! Commie! All of a sudden you’re on the defensive and the subject of Health Care is nowhere to be found.

    Thanks for making it to the end. This blog is called the Garden Rant for a reason, right?

  14. Kitt says:

    The argument for greater efficiency is akin to saying it takes too long to read a good book. Let a professional do the reading so you can buy the Cliff’s Notes and save a lot of time.

  15. Claire Splan says:

    I totally agree with the spirit of this post, but I have to quibble with one argument–something I think is a bit of a garden myth–and that’s the idea that homegrown is always superior in quality. I’ve grown some really crappy produce, stuff that wouldn’t have been good enough to be sold by the local grocery chain for sure. There is a learning curve to this, for starters–from choosing the best varieties to plant to knowing how to grow them and how and when to harvest. It’s not rocket science, but it’s not always as intuitive as people assume either. And then, stuff happens–bugs, freakish weather, water rationing, unexpected time constraints that limit your time in the garden, and so on. So I would never claim that my homegrown produce is always superior, and to be honest I have so far found only a few varieties that I would say produce truly superior flavor, although they may be superior in other ways. I still think it’s worth it to grow my own, and I’m hopeful that I’ll get better at it. But especially with so many people now getting into vegetable gardening for the first time, I hate to give them expectations that are unrealistically high.

  16. Jenny says:

    On a much less serious note than all the other excellent responses that came before me–I have also put food coloring into homemade ice cream. Specifically, into lemon ice cream, to differentiate it from the pineapple and the apple-cinnamon we were also making. Homemade ice cream is easy and delicious (and much less expensive than he made it out to be–ours is about $3 a quart), and whenever I get the slugs to stop eating my strawberries so I can make homemade ice cream with my own strawberries, I may well have achieved nirvana.

  17. Michele Owens says:

    Jenny–you must answer this question for me! What brand of ice cream maker do you use?

  18. You just wrote (so well might I add) what I have been thinking for so long. I am glad you are bringing this up. This is important stuff. We are all “evolving” ourselves to the point where we wont know how to survive without “the man”. Thank you! Thank you thank you thank you!!! I have been struggling to put this into words…I hope you won’t mind if I link to this on my blogs:)

  19. Michele Owens says:

    Please link away. We’d be honored.

  20. Charlotte says:

    Thanks for bringing this up — the other thing no one notes in these articles is that start-up costs aren’t the same as long-term costs. For instance, I put in 2 new raised beds this year — it was about 60 bucks for the wood and another 60 bucks for some peat, compost and topsoil to fill them. That makes for expensive tomatoes this year perhaps, but not next year or the year after — I’ve been growing veggies in this garden for 5 years now, and feel like I”m just starting to get reasonably good at it. But like Michelle, I like knowing I can *do* something for myself — grow food, sew a skirt, make jam. Oh, and you can’t beat today’s lunch — salad from the garden: spinach, arugula, radishes, green onions, pickled mushrooms I foraged myself, feta from my local milk lady. Yum.

  21. Reading Dirt says:

    I’m sure my grandmother would scoff at the sort of learned cultural helplessness that this guy advocates. She was gardening, canning, sewing, knitting, and living independently well into her 80′s. I was raised in that tradition, and I have to have some earth to dig in to feel truly at home.

    I get so irritated by these city-boy pundits who prattle that gardening is “inefficient.” And the time they spend on the golf course isn’t?

  22. Reading Dirt says:

    And a P.S. — I just finished re-reading “Kitchen Gardening in America: a History” by David M. Tucker, and every time the U.S. went through an economic downswing or a war during the 20th century, people turned to vegetable gardening to help with the rising cost of food. Each and every time the pundits — including government agencies — pooh-poohed the whole idea, calling it “hysterics” and “inefficiency,” and told adorable stories about how they spent big bucks trying to garden, only to have the whole garden savaged by a woodchuck. That is, until the gardening movement gains momentum, and they they finally scramble belatedly on the bandwagon and shout, “Gardens for Victory” or some such, until the crisis has passed and they can go back to snickering at the rubes who grow their own food.

    So this sort of thing is nothing new.

  23. Ed Bruske says:

    The starting premise is flawed. Small-scale agriculture produces vastly more food per acre than industrial farming does. The only thing industrial farming has going for it is economies of scale, which are irrelevant to the kitchen gardener. But those very same economies of scale are wiped out by the huge collateral costs of industrial farming in the form of water and air pollution, soil destroyed, depletion of fossil fuels and water, etc.

  24. Stacy says:

    *polite applause*

    I am convinced those enamored with being a locavore are simply masochists in martyrs’ clothing. Feh.

  25. As I am reading this, I am also eating the first few strawberries (about 24 of them) from my ‘Ozark’ everbearings this year. Sitting on my counter is a 4qt container of strawberries picked at a local farm. There is absolutely no comparison in flavor here–the quarts are going to be turned into jam, while the Ozarks are going to be put directly in my mouth. So there, Mr. Puts Food Coloring in His Homemade Sherbert! :)

    Nice post, Michele. Keep up the good work!

  26. Linda says:

    Great post! And surely there will always be a mix of people who grow their own, people who buy everything at the supermarket and (hopefully) more and more people who do a little of both. I’m going to go out now and pick two quarts of blackberries from the vines that I’ve put $0 into for the past 5 years.

  27. Jenny says:

    Michele, we use a cheap Hamilton Beach ice-and-salt ice cream maker for big batches, and it works great. We are also spoiled by a wedding present from one of my oldest friends, a Lello one-quart machine with its own built-in compressor freezer. It’s the best thing ever.

  28. Matilija says:

    I’m irresistibly reminded of P.G. Wodehouse’s character, Sir Roderick Spode, a would-be fascist dictator whose method of rationalizing British agriculture would have one shire devoted entirely to the production of turnips, another to the production of potatoes, etc.

    I wonder if Dubner would get the joke?

  29. Linda says:

    Bravo, Michele!

    Homegrown (or farmers’ mkt) fruit is great in ice cream or sorbet. I have the Cuisinart model that looks like a bucket and it works like a charm.

  30. Uncle B says:

    If every lawn in America with a southern exposure was planted to potatoes, we could make enough Vodka to solve our energy crisis, or at least drink enough to not give a Damn!

  31. Dan says:

    I think the problem here is that you are somewhat misunderstanding exactly what the Freakonomics blog is trying to say. I don’t believe that the author was directly opposed to backyard agriculture. Rather, he is simply stating the inefficiency of the United States converting from large-scale farming to small-scale farming at a massive level.

    Now, if everyone had the ability to grow delicious crops that are both better AND cheaper than what the large industrial farms can grow, then world-wide small-scale farming will be a raging success.

    However, the fact of the matter is, there is a large majority of individuals out there who simply cannot do so. I personally know quite a couple of folks who have put in very admirable efforts into farming their own little plots of land but have failed miserably. Their crops have either failed to pests, unforeseen weather conditions, or simply lack of agricultural knowledge.

    Sure, I absolutely do not doubt that you, and many others who have posted comments here can produce spectacular crops year after year with great efficiency. However, I am also certain that you guys make up a relative minority of the population in the developed world. From what i’ve read, it appears that those of you who can do so do not farm simply to feed themselves, but you guys view it as a sort of a hobby.

    I think this quote from the blog sums it up nicely:

    “it is a curious fact of modern life that one person’s labor is another’s leisure”

    You guys backyard-farm because you guys enjoy it. Thus, you get good at it and are able to master the art.

    In essence, that’s the “specialization” the blog was taking about. You took that argument apart a bit too harshly. “specialization” certainly does not mean that every human being should be pigeonholed into one profession, end of story. Rather, it means that in order to increase the overall well-being of society, an efficient allocation of resources (including labor) is ideal.

    The point is, it might be very efficient for you to farm your own goods but it could be extremely inefficient for a doctor, a lawyer or even janitor to do the same. Just as how you might not have the skill set to perform brain surgery or to be able to clean an entire building within the span of a day, others do not have the skill set (or the sufficient interest to learn those skills) required to farm efficiently.

  32. Wyzyrd says:

    I would suspect that the “bottom line” is if you grow one tomato, or cook a meal for yourself, or, deities-forbid, fix something broken rather than replace it, you cut minutely into some mega-corporation’s profit margin, and we can’t have that, can we?

  33. John says:

    I grow a big veggie/herb/berry garden. I’ve been gardening most of my adult life. My parents gardened and so did my grandparents. Some would say I know a thing or two about gardening. I am often the first person to point out that my produce isn’t always as flavorful as other people’s produce (even store bought). I’ve never had its nutritional content analyzed so I have no idea how it rates. I garden because nurturing a plant from seed to seed is enjoyable and because having stuff to eat right outside the back door is damn convenient. No one ever mentions the convenience factor.

  34. greg draiss says:

    it is a relief to finally see some support for kitchen gardening and localism without it being called trendy.
    I do feel the writers here are coming around to see that gardening is not artificial noe trendy

  35. Joyce in Pa. says:

    If I facter in the better taste of most :) of my home grown produce, the physical labor that is a different sort of physical labor I do at my job, the cost of the supplies…chicken wire to keep the bunnies out, the neat garden hat to keep the sun off my sweaty flushed face etc….the loss of job efficiency while pondering which set of weeds, err, garden area to get into on my next day off. Well I really don’t know how efficient it is to grow my own garden truck. However I don’t entirely garden to save money or to make a statement. I do garden for the sheer joy of wandering out to my garden and grazing on my now ripe raspberries, the last of the strawberries and eye balling the brocolli that is just now heading up. I like sniffing my roses and brushing my fingers thru the thyme. And did I mention the joy I take in gardening? Oh and I shouldn’t forget the best part. It’s fun!
    Take that Washington Post!

  36. Dan, nobody is assuming that there will be a decree from on high ordering everybody to grow their own crops–so what’s Dubner worried about?

    People are growing more vegetables than they did just a year ago because it makes microeconomic sense.

    And on the macro scale, what could it possibly hurt if more Americans planted backyard gardens? As Ed Bruske pointed out, homegrown beats factory farmed food on every possible measure of efficiency and sustainability, including energy use, water use, food safety, pest and disease control, longterm soil health, pollution, productivity per acre, etc., etc., etc.

    I’d argue that growing one’s own food doesn’t even take more man-hours than pushing a cart around a supermarket twice a week. And when we’re talking about backyard gardening, we’re generally talking about leisure hours that might otherwise be spent watching ‘Gossip Girl’ reruns–not about converting journalists and doctors into inept professional farmers.

    So what could it hurt? It might lower the country’s obesity, diabetes, and heart disease stats–because making a garden for the first time is inevitably hard labor.

    It might make us a nation of more disciminating eaters, which would have a positive influence on the same numbers.

    And it might give the food-starved third world a bit of a break–by depressing the prices of factory-farmed food and converting land currently devoted to outgrown swing-sets into productive use.

    So where’s the harm?

    Dubner’s just irritated, I suspect, because he loves ordering take-out–and hates any suggestion that there’s a better way of living.

  37. Kate says:

    Just as each gardener has a learning curve of their own, producing sub-par results the first few tries, the “locovore” movement can only get better and more efficient. The more people involved (as in the wartime gardens), the stronger the movement can become, in techniques, resources and quality.

    And for all those who claim to be defeated by backyard vegetables better left to the birds- just think of all the moldy, misshapen produce tossed into dumpsters by every local supermartket, because of the same flaws or worse!

  38. suzq says:

    When they start charging for garbage disposal by the pound and when gas is at $5 a gallon, the cost-benefit ratio for gardening vastly improves.

    I cannot garden as much as I would like because my yard is mostly partial shade. But I can grow a few herbs here and there and we have an apple tree. It’s so nice to just walk out and pick what I need when I want it.

    We just added a beehive as well. So the yard is becoming more productive.

  39. Kathy says:

    As a highly educated biochemist, I think about this all the time. What is my rational for spending time in my kitchen vegetable garden? Its beautiful. And the lettuce is really nice right now, and the spring radish, and heirloom tomatoes to come. And as a community gardener, I enjoy greeting my neighbors, giving away vegetables. And a garden is a family project. And I have fun participating in the seasonal progression of produce….

    Vegetable gardening is not time I spend for direct value. If one appreciates a kitchen garden, it has a value that far, far exceeds the supermarket.

  40. PlantingOaks says:

    hear hear!

    but

    I agree strongly with Kitt.

    The answer to ‘but the stuff I grow tastes nasty compared to the stuff in the grocery store’ isn’t ‘nuh-uh’ like you said.

    People can tell when their melons are moldy, their broccoli is full of bugs, or their lettuce is a bitter mess. And, no, that stuff isn’t as good as the stuff you can buy.

    The answer is to help them figure out how to fix it – did they plant peas in June instead of March? Have they amended the soil?

    Saying ‘no, you’re wrong, the only way is the one true way of local growing, and nothing can ever be better in any form’ isn’t helping the wacko hippie image.

    -C

  41. Erik Knutzen says:

    Amen! Well said. The laziness of Dubner’s locavore blog post calls into question the rest of his work!

  42. misanthropope says:

    gardening isn’t a boolean condition. the real question to be answered by each person is which items can be produced cost-effectively and with an acceptable amount of effort at home.

    suggesting that produce engineered to be able to be stacked on a table at room temperature for a week without softening or discoloring, has “food characteristics” superior to produce grown at home, is asinine.

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