What comes from the land

14 Dec 2019 Jake Harries

 

When we began this project, we had in our minds a kind of forest garden where we’d let the species of plant which already inhabit this place grow without much interference from us. It would be a counter to both the industrial farming which surrounds the half acre plot, and the usual kind of food growing people do at home (which would be more akin to an allotment). We wouldn’t dictate which species grew, and we would learn about the plants that did without help from anyone, the indigenous species if you like: it would be a kind of natural permaculture.

Over time I have needed to shed a huge amount of cultural baggage that comes with traditional ideas around food and food growing. One of the most pervasive is that one is thinking of food plants as occupying a particular space of the surface of the land, and that space will yield only what that particular plant will yield for our consumption. The amount of food, waste and by-products can then be calculated and given an economic value.

The small piece of land we occupy has nothing growing on it for a human beings’ specific consumption. However it contributes not only to our diet but provides the diet of countless birds, animals and insects. It is a natural ecosystem, and we took it upon ourselves to discover how that ecosystem might feed us. What is striking is that each plant has other species growing right next to it, maybe growing to be a different height, maybe having a different kind of root so they don’t interfere with each other, and this changes over the year.

What motivated us to try this experiment was the fact that for every calorie of food grown on the land by modern farming, ten calories of energy, usually fossil fuel, are used in its production. This energy calculation shows how dependent on petroleum products the food industry is and has been for creating its raw products. Of course, more energy is used in processing, packaging, transport, refrigeration, marketing etc, and that is reflected in what we pay for our food.

The energy demands of modern agriculture are vast, and they have a vast carbon footprint to go with it, although sustainable energy technology is changing this now. But what if we needed to expend only the energy for one of us to walk out of the house, walk thirty feet and pick a piece of food? No energy is used by us in planting, fertilizing, watering and mechanically harvesting. It comes only from the Sun. There is no economic calculation attached to the food either. It is outside the market place. All the energy that creates it is free, and there’s no actual monetary cost attached to the food. In fact, these plants are what most people would want to pull up and destroy because we are led to believe they are not food and get in the way of food production. So, early on we began talking to each other about food economics, the way food is grown and how the market place dictates to us so much of what we take for granted as reality.

We have seen commercial crops failing in the fields next to us every now and again because of adverse weather conditions, rain or drought, or sometimes insect pest infestation. Each time, we look at our ‘weeds’ and see that they are thriving. The narrow climatic conditions demanded by cultivated species aren’t needed by these naturally resilient plants, and the ecosystem in which they grow has a natural way of balancing pests.