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By Helen Zuman (member, Safe Food Squad’s Brooklyn Backyard Brigade)

As a Park Slope Food Coop member, you already have access to an abundance of succulent local produce. Maybe you supplement Coop purchases at your local farmers’ market, or belong to a CSA. Great! You still have lots to gain from growing food at home. Read on for the top five benefits of turning your yard, roof, patio, or windowsill into a farm.

1. Increase vitality and variety in your diet. The two greatest determinants of what foods are available for purchase in a store (or even, to a lesser extent, at a farmers’ market) are how well they hold up to being transported and how broadly they’ve been integrated into the Standard American Diet (SAD, for short). This means that of the thousands of edible varieties capable of thriving in our climate, only a few dozen ever show up on the shelves. To eat Dragon’s Egg cucumbers, or Crisp Mint lettuce, or Cream Sausage tomatoes, you might just have to grow them yourself.

Part of eating better is eating fresher. Sullivan County farmer John Gorzynski (of Gorzynski’s Ornery Farm) says that greens (for example) lose 40% of their nutrients within three days of harvest. Even as a Coop member, benefiting from our quick turnover, you’d have to shop every day to get those veggies in your mouth within that three-day window. Why not skip the crowds and checkout lines, and plant your own produce aisle at home?

2. Get to know our allies in the plant kingdom. When you buy food, you glimpse one part of the plant (the edible part) at one stage of its development. When you grow food, you witness every stage of the plant’s life cycle: seed, sprout, seedling, mature producer, seed bearer, mulch. Despite its reputation for inducing boredom, you might actually find it fascinating to watch plants grow.

Earth Island Journal Editor Jason Mark, speaking at the 2008 Chicago Green Festival, used a short slide show to illustrate one widespread side effect of detachment from food-growing: First, he flashed images of three corporate logos; then, he showed the foliage of three common food plants – including the potato – growing on a farm. Everyone in the audience could identify the logos; only a few could identify the food plants. Which body of knowledge is more vital to our health and survival?

3. Experience our food system as a web of relationships. Shopping at the Coop, you sometimes know what farm your produce is coming from; shopping at a farmers’ market, you always do. That’s a start on linking what you eat with the living network that brings it into being. Still, much remains invisible: the soil the food’s grown in, the farm ecosystem, the work of farming, the choices and forces driving how and with what materials that work is done.

Growing food at home offers a hands-on intro to the world of the farmer, in microcosm. As you tend your crops, you’ll notice how your site and its flows – of sun, wind, water, pets, insects, wildlife, people, vehicles, pollution – influence your plants’ health and productivity. When seeking materials such as mulch, soil, and fertilizer, you’ll get a feel for the market’s tilt towards “cheap” inputs made possible by “cheap” oil. You’ll need to form a strategy for relating to “weeds” and other “pests.” Chemicals? Compromise? Cooperation? Best of all – and especially if you compost – you’ll witness the activity, and learn the quirks, of the countless creatures who build the soil your plants call home.

4. Gain essential competence. Not so long ago, we were a nation of farmers. Along with the three Rs, most children learned the basics of food-growing. Only in the past few generations, as the gush of oil into agriculture has crested, have we come to assume that we’ll be able to eat without understanding how food gets to us, or participating in the process.

This assumption – like the oil age – is an anomaly. We’ll be far more confident in our ability to thrive amidst the propportunities (problems recast as opportunities) accompanying “peak everything” once we take the vital step of reclaiming our agricultural heritage.

5. Save money. How much it costs to start growing food at home depends on how much you already know about food-growing, how much your friends and family know, how creative you are at repurposing materials from the waste stream, and how much time and energy you’re willing to invest (see Dave Hamilton’s Grow Your Food for Free (Well Almost) for an extreme DIY perspective). Your home-farm installation could cost anywhere from zero to thousands of dollars.

Once you’re up and running, you’ll find it’s even easier to keep costs low, especially if you’re able to mine the waste stream for fertility (e.g., make your own soil out of food waste and fallen leaves). You may need to buy only seeds – and you can eliminate even that cost by saving your own or swapping with neighbors. (For seed-swapping in Park Slope, attend the April 21st Seed Celebration at the Old Stone House; visit permaculture-exchange.org for more info.)

Of course, all the above benefits accrue to those who grow food in a community or school garden, as well as to those who grow food at home. Do both! Let the two pursuits support each other. Enjoy both the sociability of farming with others and the intimacy of daily interaction with your live-in plants.

Are you a Park Slope Food Coop member who’s already growing food in the city? Are you eager to teach others? You might enjoy working with the Safe Food Squad’s Brooklyn Backyard Brigade. Email brooklynbackyard@gmail.com. FTOP credit available. For more on urban food-growing, visit brooklynbackyard.wordpress.com.

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