I spent years trying to grow vegetables in reclaimed patches of ground outside various rental houses and apartments. So when I finally had the means to buy a tiny house in Montana, it was the one with the 20-by-40-foot garden plot that called out to me.
The people I bought my house from raised eight children here. As far as I could tell, they’d fed them out of that yard. By the time I bought the house, the garden was thick with runaway sunflowers, but even so, when I went out to turn it over that first fall, there were carrots and onions hiding out among the wildflowers. There was also an old rabbit hutch in one corner of the yard, four apple trees, and two different kinds of plum tree. It’s not the farm of my dreams, but it’s about as close as I’m going to get living in town.
During that first winter, I scoured books for kitchen-garden designs, and with stakes and fluorescent surveyor’s twine, I outlined a series of raised beds loosely based on a traditional French kitchen garden, or potager. When spring came, my brother and our friend Bill built the beds for me, and I ordered seeds and a truckload of compost. In summer, my brother would come back from walking our dogs in the morning and find me out back watering the chard and lettuce and tomatoes.
“How’s the farm?” he’d tease. “Ready for a booth at the farmers’ market yet?”
“Give me a break,” I said. “I finally have a hobby, like a normal person.”
The thing is, my family already had a farm, located about 70 miles southwest of Chicago. When we were kids, it was an ongoing mystery to me why there wasn’t a single thing on that farm that we could eat. This was the 1970s, during those years when the Department of Agriculture, led by Earl Butz, convinced American farmers to plant commodity crops from “fence row to fence row,” urged them to use any means necessary to grow the highest possible yield of corn and wheat and soybeans, and essentially waged a campaign to de-diversify the family farm.
When my mother was a child, she says, there was a tenant farmer on the family place who had a milk cow, and chickens, and a big vegetable garden. During World War II, my mother and her siblings were made to memorize the directions from their apartment in Chicago to the farm; in case of invasion, they were told to stay together and start walking. If they could get to the farm, they were told, they’d be OK, because the farm still produced enough food to support Omie the farmer, his family, and my grandmother’s four kids.
But by the time all of us cousins were rattling around on the farm in the 1970s, the sheep barn and dairy barns were abandoned and falling down, and there wasn’t a vegetable growing anywhere on the place. I remember asking my grandmother as we drove to the grocery store in the next town over why she didn’t have a vegetable garden.
“It’s cheaper to buy vegetables at the store,” she answered.
That’s the line they were all fed. And they all swallowed it. It was more expedient to put your family’s time into growing commodity crops for cash, cash you could then spend at the store on vegetables from somewhere else — probably California or Florida — than it was to keep a vegetable plot.
Indeed, my grandmother’s neighbor Mrs. Gustafson, who grew famously good tomatoes in that deep Illinois loam, was considered an oddball because she insisted on growing her own vegetables when everyone knew you could get perfectly good ones at the store without going to all that trouble. But me, I still remember standing in Mrs. Gustafson’s tomato patch on a hot August day and eating a tomato that dribbled down the front of my shirt. It was absolutely delicious.
My grandmother’s farm was also a food wasteland because my grandmother is a terrible cook who gave all of us food poisoning more than once. She’d been raised with servants, and her attitudes toward both cleaning and refrigeration were casual at best. We mostly survived on astronaut sticks, snack packs, Ho Hos, Ding Dongs, and those mini-boxes of cereal, eaten dry because the milk at her house was always off. Anything that came individually sealed and with a lot of preservatives was the safest choice.
We sort of loved it because we weren’t allowed to eat that kind of processed or sugary food at home, but after a while, even a little kid longed for some real food. That’s usually when our grandmother would break down and cook something. To this day, the mere smell of corned-beef hash from a can is enough to turn me green.
So there we were, in the middle of the most productive farmland in the world — the topsoil in that stretch of Illinois and Wisconsin runs three and four feet deep — and there was nothing to eat. There were ears of hard feed corn everywhere, but as far as me and my seven boy cousins were concerned, they were only good as weapons in our ongoing war games.
The food desert that was my grandmother’s farm was one of those confusing facts of grown-up life that I found impossible to fathom. The farm has been in our family since the 1860s, and it was clear from both my mother’s stories and the archeological evidence of the disintegrating barns that it had, at one point, been the kind of place that fed actual people.
As an avid reader of the Little House books, it seemed to me that the job of a farm was to support the people who lived on it, not to grow commodity crops that were traded in those pits in Chicago by the screaming fathers of my suburban schoolmates. It seemed to me that something essential about farming was upended when farming became about producing cash in the form of bushels of corn and beans whose primary value was as fungible assets. A farm was supposed to be the kind of refuge my mother was taught to go to during wartime: the place where, if you could get there, you could at least grow enough food to feed yourself and your family. A farm on which there was nothing to eat seemed like a perversion of the very idea of a farm to me.
And so, in almost every place I’ve lived since I left home, I’ve found a little patch of ground or a container, and I’ve grown something I can eat. My first real garden was in Telluride, Colorado, which was a challenge. Telluride is 8,750 feet above sea level, and while the official frost-free season is 45 days, there’s really no time of year when you’re not in danger of a frost. I rented one of two tiny little houses, 300 and 500 square feet each, on a corner lot. We had a tiny triangular garden patch on the high end of the lot where I managed to grow spinach and lettuce and onions; the onions were a perennial strain of walking onion that had been brought to Colorado by my landlord from his grandmother’s garden.
In graduate school in Utah, I grew cherry tomatoes in containers in a sunny space along the alley and cosmos flowers in the patch of dirt by my front door. In California, I dug and re-dug the little patch of clay soil surrounding the back deck of our rented condo; my tomatoes never did much, since we were in a cold and foggy microclimate, but the green beans and herbs did really well. That was the garden where I discovered by accident that green beans are delicious with tarragon and lime.
On a visit to my grandmother a couple of years ago, I was pleased to see that the influence of Earl Butz is beginning to fade. Mrs. Gustafson still grows the best tomatoes in town, but she’s no longer considered such an oddball. My grandmother has a few chickens on the place now, and the Mexican hired man and his wife who run the stable my cousin built have put in a vegetable garden. Many of the smaller farms in the area are re-diversifying, growing organic vegetables and organic meat for Chicago’s increasingly viable restaurant trade and farmers’ markets. And I’m in my fifth year of keeping a garden in my back yard, a garden that’s capable of supplying about 75 percent of my annual veggies if I’m diligent about putting things up in the summer.
So in some strange way, I think I have Earl Butz and the food desert that was the family farm of the 1970s to thank for my ongoing interest in gardening, and food, and how our food is produced, and who is producing it. If American agriculture hadn’t gone to such an extreme of industrialization, then perhaps I’d never have gotten interested. I’d have never figured out that, since the farmers of America seemed to be forsaking us, I’d better learn how to grow actual food.
Having a garden has turned out to be one of the saving graces of my adult life. My garden has not only fed my body but my soul during some very difficult times. And the knowledge that, given a plot of soil and some water, I have the ability to feed myself is an ongoing source of not just comfort but of joy.
The author of the novel Place Last Seen, Charlotte Freeman blogs at LivingSmall. She lives in Livingston, Montana, where she hikes and gardens and is learning to put up as much of her own food as possible.
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Change in our kitchens
Reflections on cooking — and a career that’s based largely at the stove.
The Food Corps co-founder
Flatbreads from around the continent
Beyond a supporting role