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In my previous Building Moxie article, “Staying On-Grid Part I: A Hybrid Approach to Sustainability“, I described a vision of sustainable energy production that consisted of remaining on-grid while still attempting to generate as much of your own energy as possible. I argued that by remaining connected to the grid, one had an opportunity to sell surplus energy back to the grid, thereby enhancing the sustainable production of energy, while mitigating overall stress on the grid.

But I didn’t discuss how my hybrid, on-grid vision addressed the problem of sustainable, local food production, something that off-grid proponents frequently advocate as another key benefit of committing to living off-the-grid. This article attempts to paint that remaining aspect of my sustainable on-grid vision.

Now, to start, here’s a personal anecdote that largely initiated my thinking on these matters. I’m a relatively inexperienced gardener. I’ve only been doing it a few seasons, and while I’ve not yet met the degree of success I’d prefer, I’ve at least managed to see first hand how relatively simple, natural approaches to soil management can produce extraordinary results in compact spaces. Provided, of course, you’re willing to invest the required sweat equity and forethought in the garden management process.

citizen farmer :: a wire mesh sieve I use for separating rocks from soil

Construction of “old sluice” — a wire mesh sieve I use for separating rocks from soil.

My mothers home, where I grew up, is not far from where I live today. Her yard is not particularly large by contemporary standards, probably about 3/4 acres in total area. But once upon a time, there were beautiful, award-winning, English gardens planted there. My own home likewise has the remains of a sunken, terraced garden in the side of a large knoll sporting a burgeoning apple tree. Both gardens over the decades fell into disuse, and for a long time, revealed only the most subtle traces of their original plans.

A few seasons ago, I decided to attempt to revive both. Only, rather than purely decorative plantings, the idea of a more traditional kitchen or door-yard garden appealed to me greatly. At some point along the way, I also read an interesting article about John Bartram, often regarded as the first American botanist, and the magnificent gardens he created (and which are still maintained to this day) at his estate in Philadelphia. I also became aware of the notion of a potager, or a French-style kitchen garden, an artfully configured garden that includes both decorative and edible plantings. The idea of a potager is to have a food producing garden that is pleasing to look at, rather than simply having columns of row plantings.

citizen farmer :: Cutting-down and tiling-in winter cover crops in the early spring

Cutting-down and tiling-in winter cover crops in the early spring.

So, I set about planning new kitchen gardens that I hoped would fully synthesize all these ideas. Having very limited time, I started off by digging only very small sections of my planned layout. I double-dug some small plots, a challenge here in New England, as you can only go about a foot down before you encounter hard pan, which consists of highly compacted soil and rocks. I constructed a large sieve and attempted to remove as many of the rocks as possible, while breaking up the hard pan as best I could. I heavily composted the lowest layers of each plot with leaf mold (which I am fortunate to have an abundance of), and, given that it was already late in the season, planted a variety of late season cover crops to sequester nitrogen and hold the beds together throughout the winter. These included vetch, winter rye, and several clovers. The next spring, I planted lot’s of bush and pole beans, soybeans, collards, squash, and a few other vegetables. I also planted many herbs, and of course, a plethora of readily available decorative plants (sages, hyssops, sedums, etc.).

What impressed me the most about this undertaking was the incredible yield I got from these relatively small plots. My early plots constituted not even a twentieth of the total space I planned to use, and yet I was able to regularly harvest many edibles from them. It struck me that when I finally do manage to complete these gardens as I’ve planned, both houses could easily supply far more vegetables than what a typical family could consume in the course of a growing season. All resulting from some very carefully thought-out soil management and efficient use of available space via relatively compact plantings (something particularly advocated by the French in the construction of their potagers).

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citizen farmer :: early pantings of citizen farmer

One of my earliest plantings, a few seasons ago…

A question that struck me then, was, if that were to be the case, what would I do with the excess yield? Would I give it away to friends and relatives? Give it to a local food bank?. Attempt to sell it at a local farmers market, despite the relatively small quantities? The idea of some mixture of donation and sale actually appealed to me quite a bit. Even though I probably wouldn’t realize any significant income from the sale, I’d be contributing to the local food market. I’d be doing it precisely because it’d be the right thing to do (paying it forward, contributing back, whatever you choose to call it). And the idea of earning a nominal income for my efforts had a strange and persistent appeal — it would mean this tiny-scale, local food production had some tangible value to it, that it would become part of the broader, secondary economic system. It was an idea that continued to incubate in my head for some time to come.

Now, while I was writing the “Staying On-Grid, Part I” article, a friend of mine in North Carolina forwarded me a link to an interesting article that had just been published in The Charlotte Observer. Entitled “Fresh Approach: New Business Taking Root“, it described an avid backyard gardener who turned her hobby into a small business by harvesting micro-greens and selling them fresh each day to local restaurants and markets, capitalizing on the increasing demand by consumers for locally grown produce. What impressed me most about this undertaking was that, while it was inherently “hobby-sized”, it was being pursued diligently as a serious business, and was actually turning a reasonable profit.

It was at that point that the idea of a citizen-farmer finally came to mind. What is a citizen-farmer? Well, in a very broad sense, some one who engages in deliberately and conscientiously producing door yard -scale food, with the intent of feeding both themselves and providing back to their larger community, whether for profit or donation. In my opinion, the sales possibilities of such an activity should never be disregarded. Profit isn’t a dirty word. And income and participation in the local economy (no matter how small) implies that an activity generates some meaningful, concrete value to both producers and consumers of the end product.

citizen farmer :: a squash plant and its blooms provide decorative greens and colors in my planned kitchen garden

Who says vegetables aren’t beautiful? Here, a squash plant and its blooms provide decorative greens and colors in my planned kitchen garden.

It also occurred to me that the citizen-farmer concept fits in very well with my hybrid approach to sustainable living. If performed on a sufficiently large scale — “large scale” meaning a large number of people engaged in a relatively small-scale activity, rather than a small number of people engaged in a relatively large-scale activity — then significant and positive contributions to the broader community could be realized. Just as having large numbers of people generating small quantities of their own energy and selling it back to the grid increases the sustainability of the global energy supply, bringing many small, physically separate parcels of land together in the production of food likewise enhances the overall sustainability of the local food supply.

So, that completes my vision for a sustainable world — citizen energy producers and citizen farmers largely addressing the common need for shelter, warmth, and sustenance, and free of any preconception that everyone must first go off-grid to make it all happen. Rather, just the opposite: the greatest benefit is realized by the greatest numbers of people when most of us remain on-grid, and combine limited grid use with other, various, sustainable practices.

citizen farmer :: Kale and collards can survive the most extreme winters, as long as their root systems are protected by a heavy layer of mulch and their leaves by a cover of snow

Winter doesn’t necessarily mean a complete end to gardening. Kale and collards can survive the most extreme winters, as long as their root systems are protected by a heavy layer of mulch and their leaves by a cover of snow. They can be harvested through out the winter. They’ll then bolt come spring, and their seeds can be collected for planting the new season’s crops.

As a final point, it should be noted that door-yard -scale food production once played a big role in our agricultural past. When communities were centered mainly on agriculture, door-yard gardens were relied on extensively to supply the farm family with fresh produce, a role not necessarily satisfied by the farm’s cash crops, which were usually specialized and destined for sale. It is my opinion that door-yard gardening may once again play a significant role — in fact, would have to play such a role — in any truly sustainable, future world.

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Note from the hosts: All I will say is . . . pretty powerful stuff here.  Hats off to John (aka The Technician) for sharing his experience and vision. Please hop back to Part 1 (if have not already) to see how it all comes together. jb