Does Local Food Start at Home?
Over the past couple of decades, there has been much discussion of “local food” in the community and in the media. Often local food is discussed in terms of farmers markets, food co-ops, new farmers, or restaurants that specialize in fresh local foods,
A relatively new approach in local food is the CSA, which is short for Community Supported Agriculture. Rather than a straight retail exchange, consumers are buying a share of the upcoming harvest and assuming a part of the risk. In exchange for their payment, the buyer receives a share of the harvest, usually on a weekly basis. Here in St. Lawrence County upwards of 500 households may participate in a CSA arrangement. Whether it is the farmers market or a CSA local food is often about face-to-face relationships between the public and growers.
What is not part of the public discussion is the role of the home garden in the local food movement. This is very puzzling since gardening is still common in rural areas such as ours. Every spring there are brisk sales for seeds, plants, and soil amendments, as well as canning and freezing supplies. Cooperative Extension provides reliable information and workshops on gardening and preserving the harvest. Yet, there is very little information available on how many households are gardening, and what they are growing or preserving. Even Cornell University has little statistical information on the current level of gardening in New York State.
Closer to home, GardenShare, a local non-profit in Canton, did a food security survey in 2014 that showed 29% of households obtained at least some of their food from home gardens. The survey had some limitations due to its small sample size and being weighted toward low-income households. There are about 40,000 year-round households in St Lawrence County and that would mean 11,600 households have gardens. That is potentially a lot of food being grown and consumed at home.
Clearly, a larger more in-depth survey would give an updated and focused picture about the extent of gardening, and its role in local food production. Hopefully one of St. Lawrence County’s local food stakeholders will take up the cause, and a survey will be completed in the foreseeable future. It could well turn out that the home garden is an overlooked and undervalued community asset in the effort to build a vibrant local food sector.
There are a number of reasons to think that could be the case. The North Country has a strong tradition of home gardening and home food production, Those foodways extend to cooking and baking as chronicled by Traditional Arts in Upstate New York. Gardening is important because people are constantly experimenting with new crops and growing methods, and that makes local food more productive and interesting. Gardening is also a potential source of new farmer/growers, and local food enterprises, and value-added food-related businesses.
There is also a historical precedent to think that the home garden could become a powerhouse in the lives of local communities and economies. Today’s Covid-era ‘security gardens” recall the victory gardens of World War II. By 1943 nearly half of the fruit and vegetables in the country were being grown in home and community gardens. With all the advances in seeds and tools, could that be done again? Gardening on such a large scale would make local food a major force in our regional economy.
A robust survey of gardening in St. Lawrence County would be a good start in better understanding the role of the home garden in our local food system. Perhaps just as important is developing a narrative that connects gardening and the hard work of thousands of people to something larger. And that something is the way gardening not only nourishes us, but also connects us to the natural world, the community, and each other. It is time to share our gardening stories and bring these relationships out in the open. The home/garden has been hidden under a basket for too long.