The global pandemic pretty much confirmed everything that Greg Peterson has been saying for decades, except that the scenes of panic buying and empty supermarket shelves that we saw playing out around the globe last March were, in fact, even more dire than what he’d long been predicting.
“For 30 years, I’ve been saying we have a three-day supply of food in any urban area,” said Peterson, a home farmer in Phoenix, Arizona, and whose site, urbanfarm.org, is a resource for would-be home farmers the world over, offering an array of online courses on everything from water harvesting to permaculture to aquaponics. “But it turns out that we all saw in March that we actually have a three-hour supply…. That really opened people’s eyes. ”
“People’s interest in home farming is skyrocketing,” he said, adding his courses have gone from attracting dozens to many hundreds of attendees, the world over. What was once fringe – particularly when Peterson himself got serious about home farming back in the early 1990s – is now, if not mainstream then certainly cutting edge, ushering in the way of the future.
Broadly defined, home gardening simply means taking the reins of at least part of our consumption by growing food at home – but the scope and scale of such operations vary widely and include everything from modest windowsill herb gardens, stocked with parsley, cilantro, or mint, to ambitious backyard spreads, to indoor growing towers, to sophisticated vertical and/or hydroponic or aeroponic operations. And even those living in dank apartments with little to no natural sunlight can become home farmers by cultivating mushrooms in closets, kitchen cabinets or even under the bed. It all depends on each individual’s space and the time he or she is willing to commit, says Peterson, adding that you probably need less of both than you might think.
After all, Peterson manages to produce a prodigious amount of produce on a relatively small plot in central Phoenix, the sweltering capital of the southwestern American state of Arizona, where in 2020 temperatures hit or exceeded 38 degrees Celsius a record breaking 144 days. On a plot measuring just 24 X 49 meters, he has some 70 fruit trees, a vegetable patch bearing, at different points throughout the year, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, oregano, garlic, peas, strawberries, mulberries and several varieties of lettuce, and a chicken run with laying hens.
Their garden’s bounty not only covers the bulk of Peterson and his partner Heidi’s diet but also helps keep their friends and family flush with fresh produce and fruit from the trees, which are mostly citruses.
“We have so much that I could sell it, I suppose,” Peterson acknowledged, adding quickly, “But I prefer to give it away.”
An adherent of so-called “regenerative gardening,” which entails allowing part of his annual crop to go to seed, so that the next year’s seedlings thereby “plant” themselves, Peterson estimates he and Heidi invest just 10-15 minutes a day in upkeep – watering and weeding and the like.
In addition to the extra layer of food security that comes with cutting out the grocery store, as well as the complex supply chain that grocery stores depend on, home gardening offers a host of other benefits – including nutritional, environmental and social advantages.
“When you’re harvesting your own food, you’re by definition harvesting healthier food,” said Peterson, adding that the average piece of produce sold in the United States has traveled between 1,400-2,400 kilometres to reach the supermarket shelf. Because those distances mean days or even weeks of travel time, fruits and vegetable are routinely picked well before they reach maturity, thus depriving them of many of the nutrients that develop throughout the ripening process. Not only that, but produce begins to degrade immediately upon harvesting, meaning that long-distance travel further leaches it of nutrients. Farm- (or home garden-) to-table eating is immensely richer in micronutrients, Peterson says.
Home gardening often brings a series of other, less quantifiable benefits, such as increased physical activity and exposure to the outdoors and, crucially for families with small children, a potent weapon against pickiness. “I’ve never seen a child who spent weeks tending a tomato plant from seed refuse to eat a tomato,” Peterson said, succinctly. And that’s not all. A recent study conducted by researchers from Princeton University suggested that home gardening, like walking and cycling, is among the most effective leisure activities in promoting mental and emotional wellbeing.
The coronavirus pandemic is not the first global emergency to spark public interest in home gardening. In the United States, both World Wars I and II saw government campaigns inciting the public to take advantage of even the smallest plots of fallow land to plant so-called “victory gardens.” And as global population continues to burgeon, with two-thirds of people expected to live in urban centers by 2050, according to a United Nations projection, home gardening looks likely to play an increasingly important role in our sustenance going forward, even outside times of global conflict or pandemics. A 2018 study published in the Earth First journal estimated that urban agriculture could, eventually, account for as much as 10 percent of vegetables produced globally.
Communal gardens are already becoming selling points for developers of condominiums and vacation properties. In these so-called “agrihoods,” communal vegetable patches are increasingly replacing the golf courses or swimming pools of yesteryear as the central community touchstones, with some new developments even capitalizing on their harvests through on-site farmers’ markets, and others donating a portion of their production to local food banks. Better-known agrihoods in the U.S. include Agritopia, in the greater Phoenix area, Serenbe Community outside of Atlanta, Kukui’ula in Hawaii, and Bucking Horse in Colorado. International agrihoods include the One&Only Mandarina in Puerta Vallarta, Mexico, and Oceanside Farms, on Ecuador’s Pacific coast.
On-site gardens have also become major selling points for vacation residences, as well. The high-end Six Senses chain of resorts and hotels has long made self-sufficiency a key element of their philosophy, with gardens at many of the properties that are the source of much of what is consumed there. At Six Senses Kaplankaya, near the Turkish seaside city of Bodrum, a 1,000 square meter garden not only supplies the resort’s restaurants but also provides interested guests with soul-cleansing contact with nature.
“It’s our best selling point,” said Elif Rana Yavas, the resort’s sales and marketing coordinator. “People of all ages get real joy from harvesting their own produce.”
In addition to the fruit and vegetable patch – where each year they grow a substantial amount of produce, including fresh tomatoes, lettuce, broccoli, strawberries and cucumber – the resort also includes an olive grove, which is the source not only of much of the olive oil consumed at the resort but also an olive soup that’s a perennial guest favourite. “100% of the food grown at Six Senses Kaplankaya is used on site,” says Conny Andersson, General Manager of Six Senses here and formerly the resort’s Executive Chef, “and with the addition of a chicken coop in the near future, we’ll be adding even more produce to the pile.” The pandemic, which has seen many guests take retreat to the resort for longer-than-usual stays with many buying their own villas for sale in Kaplankaya, has also deepened interest in the on site-farm.
The same is true at Greg Peterson’s Urban Farm in Phoenix.
“Even before the pandemic, the public at large was already beginning to become interested in urban farming,” he said. “But now it’s blossomed into a real phenomenon.” Pun, no doubt, intended.