VEGGIE TALES: Home Gardens Grow In Popularity
J.C. Harper smiles proudly as she pulls out the sketch of her very first vegetable garden. There’ll be yellow crook-necked squash here, tomatoes here, cucumbers there and over there, some green beans “because I’m told they’re easy and I can’t mess those up.””I’d like to do watermelon on this last row, but that needs a lot of space, and I don’t have a lot of space,” she says. “So, I may do a few rows of cantaloupe.”Harper, a 30-year-old mother of two who’s never gardened in her life, figures it’ll be good experience for someone like her — a self-described city girl who’s been selling seed for Decatur’s Agri-AFC (Alabama Farmers Cooperative) for the past four years.She likely won’t be alone. All across the nation this spring, Americans young and old are rushing to seed stores, garden centers and farm suppliers in numbers not seen in almost four decades with plans to plant their own backyard gardens. So strong is this resurgence in backyard gardening — even the First Family planted one at the White House — that seed suppliers are running short on seed, and garden centers are reporting unusually brisk sales of equipment like tillers and sprayers.For some of these neophyte gardeners, it’s just a longing for the “good ol’ days” when grandma and grandpa grew their own; for others, it’s because they want fresh, safe produce that they say tastes better than what they can get at the supermarket.Still others — those who count themselves among America’s 13.5 million jobless (or fearful that they will soon join those ranks) — are hoping a backyard garden will help them through tumultuous times like the “victory gardens” of yesteryear.Trouble is, in today’s economic climate and at today’s prices, the odds of actually saving money are pretty slim, according to the Alabama Cooperative Extension System which reports a significant increase in calls related to gardening this year.”When hard times come, people think they are going to go out and raise produce and livestock and eat poke salat, (but) it is a lot more difficult to do than they think,” said Jim Langcuster of ACES’ news and public affairs office, which has launched a campaign called “Thriving In Challenging Times” to help educate consumers on how to weather tough economic times.It’s a familiar role for Extension, which advocated home gardens and canning during World Wars I and II and the Great Depression as a means of stretching home budgets as well as the nation’s food supply. In fact, just three years after the formal establishment of the Extension system in Alabama, its “Can All You Can” effort resulted in the canning of almost 2 million containers of fruits and vegetables. “From that, a model emerged that has been used time and again to respond to other critical needs,” said Langcuster.However, home gardens don’t make as much economic sense at current prices because processed food is so much cheaper today. When the stock market crashed in 1929, Americans were spending almost 20 percent of their disposable income on food. Today, they spend less than half that because of increased farm productivity and the establishment of a global distribution system.”If you’re relying on that garden for just fresh produce and you’re going to go out and pick it and eat it that day or that week, you might save a little money. I would say, at the most, you would break even,” said Kerry Smith, coordinator of the state’s Master Gardener program and co-leader of the Home Grounds Team. “Now, if you get into the canning and preserving and freezing and all that and the expenses and time involved there, you really are not going to be saving money. If you buy a can of beans on the shelf, it’s cheaper than canning it at home.”Dr. Jean Weese, an Extension specialist and professor in food safety, preparation and preservation, says a first-time gardener could fork out $80 to $300 for a pressure canner, $4.50 for a dozen lids or $7-$9 for jars with the lids included. Then, you must also figure in the cost of energy it will take to do the canning, along with time and costs associated with growing the food in the first place.”Mass production — that’s what happened. Since the Great Depression, food processing has gone huge,” Weese added. “Used to, I could bake a loaf of bread and save money, but now I can’t bake a loaf of bread cheaper than I can buy it at the grocery store. It’s a whole different world than what I was brought up in. My mamma used to say to me, ‘If we don’t can 120 quarts of green beans this summer, we’re going to be eating snowballs this winter.’ But today, even my mamma will tell you that it’s cheaper to go to the grocery store.”Regional Extension agent Shane Harris echoes those sentiments, saying the grocery or farmers markets may offer more savings.”If you don’t have major investments up front, I think you can probably save more by buying fresh fruits and vegetables at the farmers market or at the store,” said Harris who is among several Extension agents conducting a series of “Home Grown” workshops around the state for backyard gardeners. “But even with that, I don’t think you’ll make a huge dent in your grocery bill just because there’s such a wide variety at low prices.”In fact, Harris said saving money is NOT the main concern for many of the gardeners he sees. “Many folks claim the homegrown fresh fruits and vegetables taste better,” he said. “They take pride in the fact that they grew it, and know what kind of pesticides or products have been put on it.”Whatever reason, backyards across Alabama are teeming with gardeners young and old this year. It’s a phenomenon Bill Reedy, a co-worker of Harper’s at Agri-AFC, hasn’t seen since the mid-1970s.”Before, you could go to the garden center and you’d see people in their 50s and 60s in there buying garden seed. This year you’ve got folks in their 20s. Everybody wants seed,” said Reedy, who sketched out Harper’s garden and will help her plant.Demand for seed is so sharp, Reedy said, that it has caused shortages for Agri-AFC, which sells seed to about 80 Alabama Farmers Cooperatives in Alabama, Florida and Georgia. “We knew it was going to be tough, but we didn’t have any idea how tough it was going to be. It’s been pretty awesome. I don’t know what percentage of sales increase we’ve had, but I can see us possibly selling completely out of everything, and we used to have $40,000-$50,000 worth of inventory at the end of the year.”Harper says demand for seed potatoes in particular has been incredibly high, explaining that one store went through a 500-pound shipment in a single day. “They told me, ‘If I’d had 2,000 pounds of potatoes, I could’ve sold them. We thought there was about to be a fight in the store because customers would get upset,'” said Harper.That enthusiasm also extends to AFC’s gardening equipment, says Jerry Ogg, director of hardware, tires, batteries and accessories who reported a “huge surge” in sales of tillers. “By the 15th of March, we’d already reached the number of sales we had through all of last year,” Ogg said. “That’s huge!”Langcuster says it isn’t just backyard gardens, either — consumers are also calling county Extension offices about growing their own chickens or buying sides of beef. Of course, a few more stock market gyrations and a big spike in food prices at the grocery stores could change the equation and make home gardens more worthwhile.In the meantime, some gardeners are less concerned about cost savings than the availability of food should shortages arise due to global economics.”Whether it’s reality or not, it’s the perceived reality,” said ACES’ Smith. “So, it’s more than just the money. I think the entire political climate has brought up some thoughts — and I hate to say it, but fears — in people that they haven’t considered in quite some time. All of these things, I feel, have mixed together to make them more interested in self-sustainability: How can I feed my family if I have to? If I have to rely only on me to feed my family, can I do it?'”Harper thinks she can — even on a small patch of her neighbor’s property. “My neighbor is going to let me put my garden out there. He’s even going to till it for me,” Harper said. “I’m going to have to climb over a barbed wire fence to get to it, but I think it will be fun. I think I can do it.”<b.For more information on backyard gardening and a
soon-to-be-released ACES publication dealing with the basics of managing through the current economic downturn, contact your county Extension office. The ACES Web site, www.aces.edu, also offers helpful advice in its “Thriving In Challenging Times” campaign as well as a list of upcoming “Home Grown” workshops at aces.edu.homegarden/HomeGrown.php.