This was an important discussion back when I wrote it in 2007, and somehow, I’ve never re-run it (although it does appear in Aaron and my book _A Nation of Farmers_). It is definitely time to talk more about this model, and I’m hoping to enlist many of you in doing an evaluation of the real productivity of our home gardens and farms – using this as a model. So time to run it again, as a starting point for seeing how much progress the local food movement has really made in the years since it began!
The 100-mile diet has gotten trendy – but there’s a problem with this model. The idea that food from 95 miles away is just as good as food from your garden blurs important distinctions. Moreover, the 100 mile diet doesn’t actually scale – let’s imagine millions of Northeasterners, say, doing the 100 mile diet – and discovering that the 100 mile radius of 8 million New Yorkers runs solidly over the radius of New Haven, Hartford, Newark, Philly etc…. It is a great and original idea, but it isn’t possible except as an educational tool – we need an eat-local diet that works in the real world, not as an experiment, but as a way of life. We have to cut the ties between oil and agriculture, both to ensure our food security and also to ensure the food security of a billion poor people in the world who are made terribly vulnerable by the tracking of food prices with the price of oil.
Aaron Newton first proposed the “bullseye” model. This would look like a dart board, with a bullseye in the center. That center dot would be your home. And the first question is “how much of my food can I produce here.” For some people, the answer will be very little – only sprouts and a few windowboxes, perhaps. But almost no one will say “none.”
For people like me, the answer will be ‘a lot’ – but the first step is to evaluate your home for food production possibilities. Be imaginative. You think you can’t keep any livestock, right? What about rabbits for angora wool, or meat. How about bantam chickens for eggs? What about bees?
Food is at the center of this paradigm, but don’t forget the other things you can produce that reduce our dependency – wood for building, firewood or carving. Fiber for clothing. Fertility to capture carbon. Medicines, soap, personal care products – all the things you do not need shipped to you from a distance, built and made at high energy cost often from irreplaceable fossil fuels. Our bullseye diet needs to be expanded to include other resources – and it will be. But let’s think more about all we can do.
You can’t garden out front, because of zoning restrictions? Well how about replacing your front yard lawn with ornamental edibles – beautiful blueberry bushes, grapevines trained to an arbor, a pecan tree. Got shade? Rhubarb and gooseberries will tolerate it, as will many medicinal herbs and, of course, mushrooms. Remember, there are a lot of beautiful plants out there – the bottlebrush beauty of black cohosh will look just like you planted it just for pretty.
We all know that growing food (and producing your own other needs) is important, but it is necessary to realize just *how* important. Industrial conventional agriculture is an ecological disaster. Industrial organic agriculture is increasingly organic only in name – and is just as doused in petroleum as conventional. Agriculture of all kinds is a major contributor to greenhouse gasses. The world has its lowest food reserves since measures have been taken. This is a recipe for famine – large scale, worldwide – even here.
We’ve seen over the last few years the way the tight intersection between energy and food prices have impoverished many and driven billions into hunger – we must cut those ties. And an important part of that work begins in the hands of the developed world – it is we who compete with the world’s poor for grains when we put them into our cars or our livestock, we who mostly drive the tight connection between oil and food prices. Agricultural production has been the key to harming others – but it can be the key to freeing many of us.
The smaller the plot of land you work, the more productive it often is (after some practice). A person with one garden bed who manages it inch by inch can produce yields per square foot that dwarf anything a conventional farmer can produce. A farm of 2 acres is often 200 times more productive in total output (according to Peter Rosset’s Paper _Small is Beautiful__) than a conventional farmer’s use of land. Industrial agriculture is far to *inefficient* in its land use and too fossil fuel dependent for us to risk continuing it, when human lives are at stake.
Up to now, we’ve thought of efficiency in terms of less labor – if few people could produce more food, that was an efficiency. But it was only efficient because energy was cheap and abundant, and we’re at the end of those days. Now, with a growing world population, climate change and falling yields, we need to return to efficiency PER ACRE – the project of generating the most possible food from each bit of productive land we engage with, while also restoring that land, providing habitat for wildlife and making the land serve many purposes. Doing so means land for wildlife habitat, the chance to restore stripped soils, the hope of arresting some of the ecological crisis we’ve encountered.
The key, then, is getting as many people involved in farming and gardening as possible. My own assessment is that we need 100 million new Farmers, broadly construed. That is, we need about 1/3 of the American population to take real responsibility for producing some of their own food. It isn’t enough just to create demand – more is going to be asked of all of than simply wanting. Because one out of three means taking responsibility. If we’re to raise food on a small, highly productive scale, we need much more participation to ensure real food security.
Back to the bullseye. The next ring would be the food in your neighborhood. Is there a community garden? Could you create one in a public park or on a vacant lot? Is anyone else growing food? Could you get someone else growing food? I got my neighbor to start a food producing garden by offering to put one in for her as a thank you gift. Aaron gardens on the land of his elderly neighbors, growing food and sharing it with them. My old friend Laurie is growing a garden on her church grounds. Are there churches, businesses, or other folks with land you could engage with? What about getting the neighborhood teenagers involved?
What about foraging in your neighborhood? Even in Manhattan, Wildman Steve Brill offers foraging classes to teach people to eat their local weeds. How much of your food could you get from the neighborhood that way? How many invasive plants could be controlled by eating? How many fruit trees go unharvested?
The next ring would be your town. Are there right to farm laws? Could you get some instituted? How about changing zoning to permit livestock or front yard gardens? Are there any farmers there? Can you patronize them?
Have you considered advertising? Put up a sign saying “I would like to buy organic produce from within my community” – maybe someone will start up a market garden. Check into local immigrant communities – many brought their agricultural traditions with them, and they may have surpluses for sale if you ask. Are there old farms with retiring or aging owners – does your town have a plan for protecting that land from development?
So the first three bullseyes are probably all within 10 miles of you. The goal is to get as much as possible, as close as possible. For me, that would be quite a bit. We produce almost all of our own milk, eggs and meat, and about 70% of our produce. We get almost all of the rest of our produce, except for a light use of tropicals (lemons, limes, bananas mostly) from our neighbors. Not everyone can do this – but a gardening movement that gets food back on people’s properties means that this will be increasingly possible.
The next step would be your immediate bioregion – perhaps 25 miles from your town. And then outwards to 50 and 100 and 250. But remember, every community, every region has a foodshed (like a watershed) that has to feed it. The further out you go, the more likely you are to bump into someone else’s foodshed.
The more we depend on our local food, the more the foodshed for the region will have to expand. But the only way we can do that fairly is to ensure that as much food as possible is being grown where the people are. That means Victory Gardens on every lawn, in city parks, in neighborhoods. And it means prioritizing food from your very immediate foodshed – from the center circles of your bullseye.
That won’t be easy for many people, and it is a long term project. We can’t necessarily do it all today – but that’s no excuse for not getting started. The local food movement is growing fast, and demand alone won’t ensure that hunger never strikes Americans, and that we can decouple oil and food from one another in an era of increasing volatility.
Like a darts game, you won’t always hit your circle. But with practice, you can get a little closer every time. The more food you create in your community, the better off we all are.
More on this shortly,