The Stuff I Bring Home

by , posted on Tuesday, July 20th, 2010 at 7:31 pm

Working at a library I see all sorts of books pass through that I want to read – way more than I am going to be able to read in a normal lifespan – but this doesn’t keep me from checking them out and taking them home with the best of intentions. Some I get to, some I renew them three times (renewal limit at my library) and am forced to return unread. I could pretend that I make a list of this stuff to get back to, because that would be the logical thing to do, no? But I honestly don’t even try, because I have a constant stack of 30-40 library books making me feel guilty at all times.

Anyway, one such book that I haven’t gotten to yet is Living on an Acre: A Practical Guide to the Self-Reliant Life which caught my eye at once when it came up from Tech on a new book cart, as it instantly made me think: is that even possible? Hey, I live in the Midwest, where even if you have a small family farm (and there are very few of these left) it’s quite definitely more acreage than that. My own grandfather farmed forty acres in Missouri and that was considered a very small farm. So I was instantly doubtful anyone could live on an acre. Probably authored by some far-right survivalist or some far-left vegan, right?

And then my eye fell on the author line, which reads: U.S. Department of Agriculture, fully edited and updated by Christine Woodside.

Well, okay then. Perhaps this is not about either stockpiling for the apocalypse or going vegan, neither of which extremes interests me.

So I checked it out and took it home. And yes, have yet to read it. But I did mention it to a planner friend who told me she knows an organic farmer in western Kane County who she believes started on two acres, and has now doubled that to four. Or at least she intends to be an organic farmer – there is a time period where you have to work the land pesticide-free before you can be certified.

This farmer, according to my friend, is running a garden farm, producing products that are intended for sale in season, and in local venues. This interests me enormously, because here in what has been called the richest farmland in the world, it’s rare to find anyone growing anything but corn or soybeans in mass quantities, both of which they are growing not for human, but for cattle consumption.

Don’t believe me? Go ahead and try running a farmer’s market in the Midwest sometime. I have, and can tell you it’s not customers you will lack, it’s farmers.

All of which is very, very problematic for the region and the planet. If everything we eat in the Midwest – the richest farmland on the planet – is shipped in from the West Coast or Mexico or Florida or the Southwest, and it pretty much is, then this must apply pretty evenly in other locales.

Well, ok, I know it does. There’s a growing conversation among planners about “local food, locally grown” eating food in season that is grown locally. It doesn’t just provide us with a healthier food supply, it will probably be, from a planning standpoint, vital to saving the planet.

And as someone who was for a good decade obsessed with her garden I can attest to the fact that you can indeed grow tomatoes in the Midwest, and peas and beans and, yes, even corn meant for human consumption, and you can do it without reliance on pesticides. But we don’t anymore because of large industrial farms mass producing feed corn and soybeans to feed cattle crops. Truly that is a good reason in and of itself to go vegan.

And, ok, I should probably admit here that I am next door to vegan. I was raised by a vegetarian and might get around to eating red meat about twice a year, not because I fall off some wagon – I’m not on any wagon – but because I’ll be somewhere and someone will offer me a burger off the grill and it will really, really hit the spot. And I’m a big fan of Thanksgiving turkey, so there is that annual poultry binge. But I habitually eat a lot of vegetables and fruits, just because they were the foods I was raised eating, and I will eat them for months on end without realizing I have quite failed to eat any meat for a considerable length of time.

Anyway, food really is healthier if its organic and pesticide free and you don’t get that from food shipped by truck in mass quantities from the coast. And then of course you have to consider the damage to the environment of all the energy consumption used in such shipping efforts, and all the exhaust fumes.

But here in the Midwest we have some even nastier potential problems looming, related to our poor farming habits. For instance, did you know the American Midwest has been identified as a hot stain? A hot stain is an area that has been identified as running out of potable water.

Yep, we are on the list, along with northern China, large areas of Asia and Africa, the Middle East, Australia, and some sections of South America and Mexico. You may be thinking, well, yeah, I can see why the Middle East and Australia and other such dry places are on the list, but how the hell did we get there?

The answer is simple: we are using up our aquifers and/or contaminating our groundwater (both of which are, or at least were, huge and plentiful in the American Midwest).

You may think, as I once did, that you can make a difference here by putting a brick in your toilet and not watering your lawn or putting weed and feed on it, but like I was forced to, you may want to think again about that.

Know how much of the water consumed in the Midwest is consumed by residential uses? 3% Nope, not a typo, definitely 3%, and yep, that does include watering our lawns and taking showers and washing our cars.

The rest is being consumed by: agriculture. By which you can feel free to insert the methods and means employed by large scale industrial farming operations.

So, yeah, it’s an issue of the catastrophic variety. And it has had me worried since I read Maude Barlow’s Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water – a book I highly recommend, especially if you’re looking for a good horror story to scare the hell out of yourself with on Halloween night.

So I’m very, very interested in Living on an Acre, in the overall concept that you or I (or possibly a family of four – who knows, I haven’t read the book yet) can be sustained on an acre. As opposed to perhaps a single hamburger patty being produced by means of feed corn grown on a Midwestern acre and using up all our groundwater in the process.

I have moved it to the top of my stack, so should be able to get back here with a review before I run out of renewals and have also wrested a promise from my planner friend to arrange for a tour of the four-acre organic farm in western Kane County, so hope to be back to blog about that as well.


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