The Other Pitchforks

34 thoughts on “The Other Pitchforks”

  1. Anyone who ever read Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen would understand it. Conspicuous leisure and conspicuous waste is a status symbol.

    1. Yep. Anything that is self evidently productive is dirty and low class by nature. Yet society needs productive activity. But we actively shun it…

  2. Hi Johnny!
    Each year I stick a few vegetables and herbs in the yard and get a good deal of enjoyment out of it. But it isn’t really an economically viable activity for most people (outside a hobby) considering the overhead of a suburban home and opportunity cost of spending the time in the yard. Micro-farming in general is energy and labor intensive and not competitive with large scale farming. Hanging clothes outside is another one of those high opportunity cost activities. Now if I could find someone willing to farm my yard and leave some tomatoes on my porch, that would be nice.

    1. This is the classic economic argument about specialization. Everyone should do the one thing they’re good at and use the cash income to buy everything else they need from other specialists. It’s highly efficient.

      The problem comes when the larger systems break down and stop functioning properly. Then no one has the ability to provide any of their own needs and buyer’s can’t connect with sellers. Yet everyone still has debt to service and everything seized up.

  3. I can’t believe that I missed this post. It’s awesome. We’ve made some baby steps in the past five years, going from 8 square feet of raised beds to 56 square feet, plus a half dozen containers and a box for native flowers to attract bees.

    Growing food has been such a reward in so many ways, and we are continuing to add little by little, even though our yard is pretty substandard for gardening. We are fortunate, though, that we can use our side yard, which gets the most light, due to the fact that we live in a lower-middle-class neighborhood and don’t have an HOA.

    I’m going to watch those videos this weekend.

  4. I live in a townhouse, so I don’t have much room for a garden. I have a few flower pots with herbs near my doorstep though. Fresh herbs cost about $4 at the grocery store, so if I use fresh herbs 25 times per year, that’s $100 right there. Putting some fresh dill on salmon or some fresh rosemary on steak before grilling makes all the difference, and I love bringing mojitos made with fresh mint to a party. The one issue I have is that 1/3 cup of minced parsley pretty much destroys an entire plant. Tough to keep that one in stock.

  5. Is anyone else here seeing website photo download low bandwidth problem lately?
    Text renders quickly but the photos consistently take forever; started a few weeks ago.


    1. Yes. The interwebs are super slow everywhere these days. There’s more than the usual amount of traffic due to the quarantine with lots of people Zooming and Netflixing and such. I think the servers are choking.

  6. Isn’t it depressing about the Homeowners Associations taking away the everyday freedoms & creativity of so many people. Small-minded petty individuals with so much power.
    About Richard Weaver, you write in the past tense, and I wondered if he is still alive. Kirsten has a recent article about him, so I guess he is OK. I know your visit was in the past, but you might consider putting some of his writeup in the present tense if/since he is still active.
    The article about the guy who grows lettuce is interesting & salad is nice in a meal, but for nutrition and good calories, an article about someone who keeps 3 backyard hens would be a good fit for your readers I think.

  7. Hi Johnny,

    What are your thoughts on moveable, tiny houses? Would you recommend them over renting if it could be paid for in cash?

    1. Yes and no on the Tiny House.

      The big problem is security of tenure. Will the authorities knock on your door one day and force you to move? Not good. The other is who will let you park on their property – and for how long?

      If you can satisfy those two questions I say yes. If not, no. Best scenario would be to park on family land you will inherit someday in a rural location where it is legal. That’s a very specific arrangement.

      I have friends who live in very comfortable Sprinter vans and Tiny Houses. But it’s a constant search for the next parking spot just about everywhere. The larger culture sees you as “cheating” and “not paying your share” and “criminal” and so on.

      Good luck.

  8. Rob Greenfield recently (late last year) finished a project where he grew, hunted, or foraged 100% of all his food an an entire year, including salt and oils. He did it based in South-Central Florida, but he has plans to do it again somewhere more northern like Wisconsin.

    1. Yes, I’m familiar with Rob Greenfield. He’s demonstrating what’s possible at an extreme. What I advocate is a deep pantry of store bought staples, coupled with a big garden and home preserves.

  9. In the Sacramento area there are oodles of fruit trees (mostly citrus but also fig, cherry, etc.) that are left to drop fruit onto the ground because no one bothers to harvest them. So even the easy pickings to to waste. And the local parks and wildlife refuges may have wild grapes or various berries that likewise go unappreciated (by humans anyway). A grandmother’s house had a loquat tree that made a very tasty jam. The other grandmother had Pecans. A high school acquaintance made Dandelion wine. While in Santa Fe I would fill jars with delectable wild Piñon nuts. Sometimes the bounty is already there for the taking.

  10. Back in 1939, when I was three, my folks bought an acre on the edge of town that had a garage on it and not much else. We, my folks, my three older siblings and I, moved in and began a saga that lasted through WWII and several years beyond. Over the years the garage grew into a real house, albeit small by today’s obscene standards, and the empty land sported a huge, almost year-round garden, a small orchard and a large fenced chicken yard with a substantial chicken house/rabbit hutch shelter/storage shed. We pretty much lived on the products from our mini homestead during the time we were there. It was hard work for the folks and my elder sibs, but I was indoctrinated into the ‘crew’ before I started school and learned that such hard work won’t kill you – what’s more, it’ll pay you back handsomely.
    I no longer really garden or mini-farm except for a few patio pots of tomatoes, cukes, lettuce and some herbs, but even that much is very satisfying to undertake.

  11. I appreciate the video links, some of which I’ve already seen, some I haven’t.

    I live in a small house in a neighborhood where I got in trouble w/ the township (a warning) for now keeping the land tidy enough. However, no HOAs here, and although I’m the only one who ever hangs laundry out, there’s no rules against it.

    I also have a little backyard orchard and some berry plants, etc. I don’t have the space or energy for massive gardening, but to me trees are the “low hanging fruit” because I love trees so much, and the fruit is like a freebie IMO.

    I live in a good climate for growing; farmers don’t have to irrigate, and I don’t have to water anything unless there’s a severe lack of rain. Sometimes it feels like paradise. Yet I see a lot more lawns than productive stuff, and I feel like people put a lot of stock in property value and prettiness, not what you can do working with the land.

    I’m learning to walk that line between “pretty” and “useful” (and my own preferences which is WILD, baby). I love watching different permaculture backyard projects, to see the way people tackle the challenges and opportunities.

    For me, energy and money really are limited. I have to do the “low hanging fruit” and let everything else wait. There are many things in your blog suggestions that are completely beyond me. Yet, I almost always find them encouraging. So, thanks for what you do here. Spreading ideas, making people think.

  12. I go by the swimming pool test. Everybody likes to cool off on a hot day. The rich can have their heated, in-ground, salt water pools with the pool house & wet bar. It’s a nice luxury, but it’s a ton of work. Cleaning, pumps, taking the cover off & on, scooping out animals (alive & dead), mixing chemicals, etc. So they outsource most of it.

    The middle class has two acceptable options. Buy the rich person’s house after about 30 years, when the pool liner, like everything else, it beginning to leak. Or buy new with amenities emulating rich at an order of magnitude lower price: the above ground pool. Either way, it’s the same drudgery of cleaning, pumps, covers, and chemicals, not to mention hundreds or thousands in annual operating costs.

    Where I prefer to be is 2 notches below: the 9.99 sprinkler from Ace hardware. Takes about 3 minutes to set up, no cleaning, no chemicals. Zero risk of anyone drowning. Negligible operating costs. And after the dozen or so days of summer fun, it all discretely packs back up into a shelf in the garage.

  13. I’m a city dweller. To me, more space for solar panels and a vegetable garden are the only possible argument for living in the suburbs. Enough density for things to be in biking distance, if not walking distance, and high speed internet, and it could work.

    But you have to know how to do it. I’ve never succeeded in producing much of anything in our small yard. Perhaps some out of work farmers could become suburban consultants.

  14. I grow perennials thyme, rosemary, lavender and sage because they’re easy and I use it. I grow annuals cherry tomatoes, lettuce, and basil from seed, mostly because I like just going out and picking it although basil is pretty expensive so there’s a a definite cost savings by growing it vs. buying it.

    This in a 4’x10′ plot in the city. Probably 10%–20% of the properties in my neighborhood have similar small gardens.

  15. My parents are children of the Great Depression. Both of my grandmothers (one suburban, one country) had vegetable gardens and fruit trees. (The pies!)

    The (subsistence) farm also had wild berries and sugar maple trees, and my grandfather had a very small dairy herd to sell milk to the cheese factory. He also had a pig or two for pork, and my grandmother kept chickens.
    He managed his woodlots and sold timber periodically. (I have a table I made from a walnut tree he harvested in my childhood.)

    While it was “sustainable”, it was a completely different experience than my parents’ (and my) comfortable middle class life.

    The part of that life my parents kept was gardens and fruit trees (and a clothesline). When they bought a new-build house in a metro with a long growing season, the topsoil had been scraped and sold, so yours truly spent hours of teenage quality time with a rototiller and sand and oak leaves and horse manure on “the back 40”.

    Like some of your other readers. I’ve done the math on personal food production…and I can only eat so much zucchini, squash, leaf lettuce, and tomatoes (I dislike kale and chard).

    Bottom line: I’ll support the farmers market because the farmers have more scale and the actual desire to do the dirt work. It may not be a real Plan B but it’s where I am.

  16. This web page takes several minutes and megabytes to load on a rural broadband, this could cost a sattelite or mobile internet customer several dollars to view, please consider resizing the 2048 × 1349 pixel photographs to the actual 68% size that they are scaled to.

  17. I garden some; hedging against harder times was my initial motivation and remains part of it, thanks to you and JM Greer. On my tiny plot it is certainly not economically rational in the short term. But there are other compensations, which I hope some of those trying gardening for the first time will come to appreciate. The pleasure of purposeful outdoor labor; the sweetness of just-picked produce; the ability to grow raspberries and other items that are rare, expensive, and perishable, if they are available at all; cultivating a closer relationship with one’s food, and teaching children to appreciate and understand their food (not to mention that kids who refuse greens will eat them raw from the garden to the extent that they threaten the health of the plants).

    And as you said, if you have any land you can grow things on, why not pick plants that produce something useful and enjoyable? No need to sacrifice beauty either – my sour cherry tree produces heavily and is gorgeous in bloom.

  18. I’ve been on a quest to eat more locally here in San Mateo County. My backyard produces fruit and veggies almost year round. It’s very satisfying, but not a significant source of calories. I shop farmer’s markets and am a member of a CSF (community supported fishery). One of the more interesting local sources I found was a winery that farms residential vineyards: The Cabernet is excellent by the way.

    This experiment led me to the question: what is “natural” for any given city to eat? For San Francisco: a lot of seafood, cool weather greens and perhaps some rough grains like cornmeal or acorn porridge, which is exactly what the Ohlone ate, as evidenced by the shell mounds. Expand the circle a bit to include the warmer microclimates and much more is possible, but still our diets would be radically different if we had to eat only local, seasonal food and the rare import.

  19. The main thing that I’ve learned from 20+ years of gardening (including fruit trees) on my 1/4-acre lot is respect for the food system that we rely on. Yes, it’s nice to pull some frost-sweetened carrots just in time for Christmas dinner, to take a well-ripened butternut squash out of the cellar, and to pick kale, chives, and parsley for a Saturday-morning omelet, but if the work of the soil weren’t its own reward, the produce/effort ratio would be trivial. The new crop of gardeners making some seeds scarce is probably about to learn the same lesson.

    1. Lathechuck, for someone on a professional income, that produce/effort ratio might be trivial, because the alternative is buying kale at the farmers’ market. Nothing wrong with that. But for the person on a very low income that kale they grow in the backyard is the only kale they are ever likely to see. My low income makes every bunch of greens, all the herbs, all the summer vegetables, and the fruit a significant part of my food budget. Plus, it makes me feel rich to be able to give away big bunches of produce and jars of jam and salsa. And this is on 1/8 acre with very low inputs. It all depends on one’s perspective. And either way, yours or my 20 years gardening experience is the real bonus here. I always think that whatever life throws at me and wherever I may find myself, give me some seeds, soil and three months and I will be putting food on the table..

  20. Great piece. Really on point. If we extrapolate trends like automatization and more contemporarily robotization that have been with us in some form since the dawn of the industrial revolution if not the history of toolmaking, we can expect that the cost to plant and harvest will get increasingly inexpensive. Currently combines that perform this function are very expensive but if people were to say aggregate their yards and then rent out those yards as a group or just rent the machinery as a group much could be accomplished today. This requires legal and cultural innovation, but in a pinch or if fashion changes such innovation would not be far fetched. Going forward personal machines for personalized planting, weeding and harvesting don’t look like they are too far off. 3d printing could make them very cheap and the sharing economy could also make renting them for a week or to eminently profitable and easy.

  21. I enjoy gardening, but growing all of one’s food is not for the faint of heart. I have lived on my current lot for 12 years in a town of 12,000. No one around me grows a garden, but most of them spray the yard to kill weeds. (We don’t.) We also typically have some level of drought, so watering is required. Even so, multiple days of 100-plus temperatures can be deadly to a garden. Finally, the first year I planted squash I had a great crop. Every year since I have had a great crop of squash bugs! Yes, there are all sorts of ways to deal with all the issues I have cited. This is merely to point out what great respect I have for the people who grow my food, because, at my current skill level, I would starve otherwise! Finally, Americans (myself included) will have to learn to eat following the growing cycle. When I was a kid (50-plus years ago), the only kind of strawberries you could get in the winter were in the frozen section at the store.

    1. All true. I’m not saying otherwise. And I’m not suggesting that anyone attempt to grow “all” their own food. My point is that we’re all currently critically dependent on all sorts of outside forces that leave us vulnerable. These systems will either continue to perform or they won’t. We’ll likely find out the hard way which is more difficult – growing a garden or absorbing the consequences of letting others feed us. At the very lease more people need to have more store bought food set aside at home than is currently the case. Producing a portion of food at home would supplement the items that can’t be grown in the garden.

    2. Excellent points…..As Johnny points out – it’s at least worthy of consideration. Even if it’s nothing more than a couple tomato plants in pots on the patio. A start.

      I can recall visiting my Grandmother’s youngest brother who lived with his wife in a small house on about an acre not far from Johnny – the eastern fringes (50 or so years ago) of Santa Rosa. Rincon Valley, on the road towards Sonoma. Probably the happiest 70 year old man you ever saw……he intensely farmed that acre growing just about everything that will in Sonoma County (which is just about everything except citrus, I guess. There’s a reason Luther Burbank set up shop there). Apart from meat, dairy and grains I bet 90% of what they ate they grew themselves.

      As to your last point – about seasonal eating – I’ll never worry about that, as I am a cheap SOB by nature……LOL. I’m still pretty seasonal. Strawberries in spring, tomatoes and melons and stone fruit in summer, apples in fall. It’s nice you CAN get fruit in mid-winter from Chile….but I still ain’t payin’ it. LOL

  22. The fact that most people are renters today doesn’t help. If you live in an apartment you’re kinda SOL unless there’s a community garden (which are still too small). If you’re renting a house you’re typically not allowed to touch the lawn or change anything, though you might be able to get away with some pots. And in any case you’re always discouraged from putting any work into the place since you never know when you’ll have to move.

    1. True. But it’s complicated.

      In hyper expensive part of the country renting is the only option for many people. But outside those crazy bubbles (the overwhelming majority of the physical national territory) are plenty of genuinely affordable places where owning is as affordable as renting even for lower income households. It just depends on which trade offs work for which people.

      Then again, in many parts of the country it’s essentially illegal to build a subdivision without a hard line HOA dictating the landscape so even home owners have limited control over their own gardens.

      The trick is to intentionally cherry pick the right neighborhoods in the towns in the right region in order to achieve your personal goals. It’s all about compromise.

    2. Nearly 2/3 of US households are homeowners. So, most of us own our homes; as Johnny points out, the coastal bubbles are not the whole country.

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