The seed catalogs recently started coming in the mail. Most mornings there’s still frost on the grass and a thin layer of ice on the chicken water. Yet the catalogs are filled with pictures of ripe tomatoes and juicy watermelons, reminding me that it’s time to start preparing for the warm jolt of early spring.
Just this past week I went to make my online orders only to discover that a whole host of varieties were already sold out. This never happens so early. Sure, you have to be quick on the draw to get some of the rarer items, though, even then the pickings are still good until at least mid-March. But this year my favorite company, Southern Exposure Seed Company, was all out of peanut varieties, my favorite watermelons, and the long beans we experimented with last year (thankfully,I saved some from my own crop). I’ve heard the same scarcity is happening out west.
This situation actually started early March of last year when COVID fears caused almost all of the heirloom seed companies to run short on their inventory. People who seldom paid attention to food supply lines started their small plots. And those of us who already gardened started wondering if we needed to up the production to share with our neighbors. I may or may not have ordered a little more than I needed. Thankfully, none of the major food supply lines were drastically disrupted, but we were all aptly reminded that supply lines are a fragile thing —one of those many things you don’t really notice until it’s broken.
Now, to be clear, I don’t want to give the impression that seeds are universally in short demand and you need to freak out. The shelves are fully stocked in Walmart and Atwoods. But if you prefer to shop with seed-saving organizations who sell varieties that are best suited to certain regions and are open pollinated — meaning you can save your own seeds for the coming years — you better get to ordering. But ultimately this isn’t a column where my sole intention is to remind you to get on top of that to-do list. What I really want to talk about is the importance of taking a scary situation and turning it into a cultural shift that supports our community’s futures.
I sometimes hear people joke about how if things get really bad they’ll just plow up their backyard and feed the family. Or they’ll just move further out and work the land. I find myself laughing at the thought because I think I probably felt the same way years ago. But if gardening has taught me anything, it’s that you don’t master the art of growing in one season, and you sure don’t start meeting the nutritional needs of a family in just one season. A bumper crop of summer tomatoes does not equal a well balanced winter-long food supply for the humans and the pets. I’ve been gardening for more than a decade, and I’ve learned that I’ll be learning for the rest of my life. Could I keep my family from starvation if I had to? I can answer that with a resounding… maybe. But it’s taken me 10 years and a lot of trial and error to get to that shaky “maybe.” At this point, our skills can ensure that we probably wouldn’t die from starvation. But we sure wouldn’t be awash in abundance. There’s a reason that our elders who had to rely on the garden are not so enamored with our romantic notions of getting “back to the land.”
The good thing is that we live in community. We aren’t meant to be islands only feeding ourselves. We need each other. If we think about feeding our family as a relationship only with the dirt, and you’re ready to isolate yourself in the literal or metaphorical woods, you’re gonna stay hungry. But if we think about raising a little food as a sacred community contract with our literal and metaphorical neighbors, new doors open up.
We can all be part supply-line and part of the solution. And now is the time to start figuring out what roles you can play. If you’re totally new to this, start with growing your favorite tomatoes. See if you and your neighbor can try different varieties and share. If you are an experienced gardner, reach out to a hunter or a meat grower you know and see if you can work out a creative trade. If you have the room, get a few chickens. And if you’re in the country, try ducks. They’ll lay even in cold weather. If you are someone who doesn’t grow anything nor want to, but has access to good growing land that’s just sitting empty, consider working out an ethical relationship with someone who wants to grow on it. Or maybe you can purchase the seeds for someone who could use the help. After all, you don’t have to be the gardener. You may just be the person sitting on the dirt or the financial access. I promise you, there’s something unique and essential you can bring to the collective table. Figure out what it is.
And rather than stay scared and hunker down, let’s recognize the fragility of our systems and take creative action to bolster them at the local level. Take stock of your own skills and resources and put them to work. Recognize that in times of fear people tend to silo themselves, which often makes things worse. Know this and get ahead of it. We all need each other. After all, no one wishing to build a real future grows a garden of only one crop.