This post, again, is part of this month’s Spirit of the Poor
I have thought about so many ways to approach this subject, but think I’ll limit myself to the topic of growing your own food.
Several years ago I saw a movie about how Cuba survived when the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba lost it’s petroleum source. Cuba, although internally was a socialist society, was dependent on market capitalism. It imported cheap Soviet petroleum, used it’s land for large mono-crop farming, like sugar cane, exported these crops, and imported food. Cuba had to change, and change fast. The film documented the radical change in agriculture in a three year period – from mono crops to co-op farms; and what I remember most was the small agriculture projects in the cities. At the end of this three year period, 50% of all food eaten in the city of Havana was grown in the city limits!
This film inspired me. I decided I would try to grow as much food on my very small lot in Cambridge, and grow more food on some land in western Massachusetts which we owned with two other families.
I decided that any part of my property in Cambridge that got sun would grow food. Here is a plot plan of my yard, house, and where I am now growing food.
Most of my summer vegetables are grown in the “front yard” which is about 8’x10’.
My pole beans are my best crop. I let them grow as high as they can so they get more sun. On the side of the house I built a passive solar window which heats the upstairs in the winter. In mid-winter, I put three racks in the window and start all my seedlings.
I grow my greens on the side of my house. It is also where I have a grapevine that grows along the split rail fence, then ascends to a grape arbor which covers the back 24 feet of the side of the house. I get 30 bottles of wine a year from the one grape vine.
The other side of the front is where I grow fruit – mainly an apple tree, strawberries and raspberries.
On our place in western MA, I have a bigger garden which is where I grow my winter food – potatoes, winter squash, onions, garlic, and anything else that the wood chuck won’t eat. I also have started a small orchard which also contains a good raspberry patch.
It really is amazing how much food one can grow in a small patch of earth. Even with my physical limitations now, I will have a full crop this year. I went to our land last month for a week by myself, to weed the garden which was fallow last summer because of my back surgeries. In 10 minute increments I was able to weed about 100’ of beds, enough for the basic crops of potatoes, squash, onions, and garlic. Barbara and I went out Memorial day weekend to plant and fix the fences.
Working in the earth is healing. It is hard physical work, but it is good work – sacred work. I think we need to go back to our roots – in all of our traditions and all of our cultures. There are models that we can learn from in our histories. It is true that some feudal lords were tyrants, but in the feudal system there was the concept of common land – a system that traces back to the Greek culture – where the slaves and commoners could grow their own food. In the Spanish hacienda system it is called ejidal land. It is where the campesinos lived and grew their own food. In our New England system there was “the commons” where everyone was permitted to graze their family cow.
Food scarcity caused by our “advanced capitalism” affects all of us, and we need to learn from each other.
For almost 20 years I have been going to what I call a subsistence village in Nicaragua. There are no motor vehicles in the village. But it is not really a subsistence farming community. They all grow corn, which is synonymous for food in the campesino culture, but their main crop is sesame seeds which is processed in mexico for oil. They use the money from this crop to buy their rice and beans. When I first went, rice, beans and tortillas were all they ate for every meal, with a few eggs and every once in a while, chicken. After a couple of years we brought a delegation to visit us. Mariana was very impressed with my tomatoes. They saw my garden (which wasn’t as extensive as it is now.) It had an impact. The last time I went, it was during my birthday and at the birthday party they had a piñata in the shape of a tomato. . In the past 15 years they have planted fruit trees, and many families have family gardens with vegetables in their yards. Last year I wasn’t able to travel, but the delegation came back with a picture for me of Ruber, Mariana’s husband, holding a large squash that he had grown in his yard. We do learn from each other, and we all have much to learn.