Coronavirus provides a chilling lesson about crowding. The disease originated in a densely packed Chinese City. As it moved worldwide it struck most heavily in crowded places where people live and work in proximity.
Medical experts advise us to stay home and keep fellow humans at a distance. Isolation works. If a pathogen can’t reach us it can’t cause harm.
The same holds true for food. Years ago farmers planted diverse crops in relatively small fields, and raised modest numbers of chickens, pigs, and cattle. One cornfield or chicken coop was, essentially, isolated from the next closest counterpart, making it hard for a disease to jump from one farm to the next.
Modern Agriculture, in contrast, raises hundreds of thousands of chickens and turkeys crowded together in single buildings. Hogs and cattle are also crammed together, as are crops. Essentially the Midwest is one continuous cornfield stretching from Ohio to Nebraska. Once a pathogen mutates a new disease can easily sweep across vast fields or through crowded growing buildings, leaving a path of death and food shortages in its wake.
Modern mass agriculture is efficient, providing consumers with inexpensive eggs, milk, vegetables and meat, but it is vulnerable. Today’s farmers recognize disease potential and practice scrupulous biosecurity to keep pathogens away from their crops and animals. Still, all it takes is one mutation or introduction of a foreign microbe and a high percentage of American food is lost.
Families can reduce their vulnerability to mass food production by growing some at home. During The Second World War the government encouraged families to plant victory gardens and keep one to two hens per family member. Many households were able to grow up to 40% of their annual dietary needs, even in small yards. It freed commercially produced food for the military. Yards remain capable of growing significant quantities of nutritious food using three techniques.
Gardening: An amazing quantity of nutritious food can be grown in even a small sunny backyard, especially when intensive gardening techniques are used.
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Foraging: Delicious wild foods grow in unsprayed yards and are free for the picking. Our family, for example, enjoys nettles, lambsquarters, purslane, acorns and dandelions. Learning to identify, harvest, and process them is not difficult. Ironically spraying a yard kills plants people can eat to favor inedible grass.
Chickens: A six hen backyard flock will produce two dozen eggs a week. They need some commercial feed but recycle kitchen scraps and garden weeds into eggs. Cedar Rapids and other towns allow families to keep chickens with a few restrictions.
Families unable or unwilling to grow backyard food can boost food security by buying vegetables, meat and eggs from small local producers.
Coronavirus has taught us about contagion and helps clarify the threat that mass production poses. Raising backyard food enhances resilience. It’s satisfying and helps ensure there will be something to eat.
Rich Patterson of Cedar Rapids is a writer, former nature center director and ecological consultant who co-owns Winding Pathways LLC with his wife, Marion.