Thursday, September 15, 2011

Growing Excuses Not Food

A must-read book about
our relationship with food.
In theory, I’m big on the whole “grow your own food” trend.  I passionately believe that doing so makes sense on so many levels.  It’s economical, it’s environmentally healthy, it’s a source of exercise, it provides the grower with a better sense and appreciation for what it takes to get food on the plate, and (for the Mad Max scenarios of my imagination) it will be what keeps us alive when the whole world goes to hell.  I follow Michael Pollan on Twitter, I have King Corn on my Netflix queue, and I refuse to support Monsanto so, you know, I totally get it

In practice, however, I’m basically a hypocrite.  It’s not that I don’t grow any of my own food; I do.  But it’s more of a novelty than a bona fide food source.  For example, I have a mature peach tree that produces more fruit all at once than we could ever hope to eat.  So for about 10 glorious digestively-regular days we have peach milkshakes, peach cobbler, and grilled peaches but that’s where it all ends.  We don’t can our extra peaches to extend our bounty and we don’t have any other trees that produce fruits or nuts for us to eat until December when the oranges are ripe so we'd probably develop scurvy should the world as we know it come to a screeching halt.  You can basically repeat this scenario for all the other things I grow.  A lot of my tomatoes end up in the compost bin.  Much of the lettuce I grow in the spring winds up there too.  I chewed on one single piece of broccoli (and spit it out) before I pulled up this year’s plants in favor of the warm season bell peppers I planted a couple months ago (and have yet to harvest).  I have every intention of increasing my homegrown food yield, but when it comes right down to it, I haven’t devoted the time and, more importantly, the garden space to doing it right. 

Part of the problem is that we just don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables in my household to make it worthwhile.  My three-and-a-half year old recently interrupted a conversation we were having about what we needed from the grocery store to note that "we eat a lot of potato chips".  The other part of the problem is that I’m still hung up on growing ornamentals and perennials in my yard.  I don’t want to apologize for that.  It’s just where I’m at in my evolution as a gardener.  But at the same time, I am apologizing for that because I disagree with myself philosophically and it’s about time I confessed before it ate me up inside.

You see, for years I’ve found excuses not to become a more self-sufficient link in the food chain and my excuses are growing (unlike my neglected butternut squash). 

My friend, Brian, took me along on a fact-finding trip to a bee shop a while ago.  He was interested in starting his own hive and I was curious about the whole thing too.  Who doesn’t love honey?  And more bees in the yard would be great for my plants.  Besides, bees need a little help with that colony collapse disorder, right? 

I could stretch my dollar by also using one of these suits to play paint ball in.  If I played paint ball.

Well, in spite of being gung ho about it all initially, I found ample reasons not to pursue bee keeping myself.  First, my wife is allergic to bee stings; a fact that, by itself, should have precluded me from even thinking about keeping bees.  Plus, I’d be signing up for regular trips to Walgreens to restock EpiPens and after the first ER visit I have a feeling that my Queen Bee would make me look for a hive/apartment of my own.  Second, it’s not exactly cheap getting set up as a beekeeper.  It could easily run a couple hundred bucks after you get the robotic looking netted-hat contraption, a smoker, the wood boxes for the hive, the bees, and the equipment to extract the honey from the honey combs.  And really, it seems like a whole lot of effort for just a little bit of honey.  And that's the real reason.  I don't have the time or the energy to do it right.  So I chose instead to spend $10-$15 a year to buy local honey and support those dedicated farmers who’ve already got the set up and depend upon customers like you and me to keep them in business. 

Not sure exactly what the message was,
but this was part of "Chalk It Up"
in downtown Sacramento last week.
"Besides," I told myself, "I’d rather have chickens."  Which was a convenient thing to tell myself, because I already knew that Sacramento County prohibited keeping chickens unless you had a lot that was at least 10,000 square feet (which most homeowners in this area don't even begin to get close to).  Oh, and one minor financial consideration: in case you did have a 10,000 square foot lot, you still had to submit an application along with a non-refundable $4,500 application fee.  Yes, that’s four-thousand-five-hundred United States dollars.  And just because you applied did not mean you would be given approval.  So you could either fund your Roth IRA for a year or apply for the privilege of keeping a couple chickens.  Clearly, Sacramento’s City Council was just egging us on to follow the old adage “it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.” 

Undaunted but uncommitted, I researched the quietest chicken breeds (Black Australorps, apparently) and some covert coops designed to look like garbage cans and herb gardens so nosy neighbors wouldn’t have enough audio visual evidence to turn me into the chicken coppers.  I was really into the idea and thought it would be great.  Free, nutritious eggs and an ongoing source of manure for the garden?  Plus they would make fun pets for my daughter.  How awesome would that be?   

But I never followed through with it.  I told myself it was because I didn’t want to break the law.  And now, in my revisionist historian ways, I’m telling myself it was also because of my wife’s debilitating ornithophobia, but we all know my sympathy for that has its limitations.  The truth is probably closer to the fact that I don’t want to add taking care of chickens to my list of things to do right now.  Not without a good place to keep them.  Not with an aggressive shepherd-mix dog that would harass them non-stop.  Not with dreams of going on vacation and not wanting to ask my neighbors to water the plants, take in the mail, turn on the porch light, get the dog water, AND feed the darn chickens. 

So last week when the City Council finally came to their senses and lifted the backyard ban on chickens I knew that it wasn’t going to change anything for me.  I’m really, really thankful that people in my county can now pay just 1% of the former application fee to keep up to three chickens.  They have to pay $15 upfront and then $10 for each hen – no roosters allowed!  Still, in spite of the drastic reduction, $45 in up front costs for a few chickens, not to mention the cost of the coop and the feed, reduces the economic benefit when a dozen eggs is only $1.89 right now.  Even if you consume a dozen eggs a week, half the annual money you'd save by having chickens of your own would be lost due to the fees.

Of course, once those Mad Max scenarios come to pass, those chickens are going to be worth their weight in gold.

*For a really great chicken related blog, check out Scratch and Peck.  And do yourself a favor.  Start reading from the very first blog entry.  


  1. Chad I think a lot of people are like you and have good intentions but economically it's not always feasible. I'd love to grow a few veggies but you know what - I am not giving up my flowering space to feed the rotten squirrels. :)
    Cher Sunray Gardens

  2. Hey Cher - thanks for that. It's good to hear that I'm not the only one that feels this way. Besides, the squirrels already get too much of my bird feed. They don't need my vegetables too!

  3. I'll probably get in trouble for this, but your post basically sums up my feeling about all of the "green" "sustainable" whatever-you-want-to-call-it movement. It is all a lovely concept (it really is!) and makes all of us feel good, but it is just not reality for the average American. Do we just intentionally destroy the earth? Of course, not. But we all don't live where we have 20 acres of great farmland where we can grow all of our food in a climate that allows us to grow whatever we need year round, not to mention having chickens and bees and cows (oh, my), live in a windy enough environment or a sunny enough locale for alternative energy (and use only PC lightbulbs, of course). And if we did have all of these fantasy land living arrangements, we'd go broke just trying to sustain it. Being "green" just costs a lost of green! Can sustainability really be sustained? So I hear you, I'm with you. We all just try to do the best we can with our little plots of land and raise our families to be as responsible as possible. Your "hypocrisy" is my reality, as well.

  4. I was just like you, until this year. No, I don't have chickens or bees or any of that stuff. But after reading "Vegetable, Animal, Miracle", I realized I could buy from the local farmers market what I couldn't grow (which, this year, was practically nothing). I started canning, buy my meat from the farmers market, eggs from the farmers market, and bake my own bread (bread machine). I go to the grocery story for yes - potato chips (though I've started frying my own most of the time) and flour, butter, etc.

    Do I still eat out? Yes! Will I return to my old ways? I don't have enough put up for all winter, so yes again. Could I be self-supporting? No, I'd starve! So, don't feel bad. I just wish we could trust all the food offered to us. That's really the issue for me.

  5. Toni - very well said. Thank you for contributing your thoughts to this discussion.

    Holley - Thank for your thoughts on this as well. Eventually I'd like to get to the point that you have reached. Someday I will. It's just not my "reality", as Toni said. Not yet anyway. And I agree, it is disturbing what goes into what we blindly call "food". And now we're hearing rumors about arsenic in apple juice? It's a crazy world . . .

  6. As Toni so eloquently said, you're not alone in your habits and intentions! I tried growing a vegetable garden 2 years ago (drought year) and leaf cutter ants invaded and threatened to carry away my entire (not just veggies) garden. I still grow my own herbs but veggies in this climate are a big commitment. As for the chickens, I'd still like to have a few...didn't know about the existence of the clandestine coops but now that I know...hmmm. We live in an area with a strong HOA and I'm married to a board member ;/ Think I can keep the chickens from him too?! I have the perfect spot for them.

    I'm trying to learn as much as I can so that everyday is hopefully better than the previous one. Like Toni said, trying to be as responsible as possible.

  7. All I can say is, Rome wasn't built in a day...nor was any garden. I agree though, growing your own food takes a lot of time, a very precious commodity in our modern-day lives. Even here the chickens occasionally get an entire row of greens because I didn't make it out to the garden in time to harvest before the Tatsoi or Spinach bolts, and I don't have an excuse ;)

    We did start beekeeping this year, and yes, setup isn't cheap, and honestly, I feel like I've spent most of this year painting hive bodies, top feeders, nucs, and building hive stands. It is addictive once you start, and therein lies the problem. One hive simply isn't enough, hence the empty wallet. Bravo to you though for supporting local bee-keepers that produce a quality, and uniquely flavored product. That stuff in the stores has come from who knows how many different hives, and been blended in a vat by a mega-honey distributor. Blech.

    We used to live in Davis, before moving here, where I kept a duck under the radar, and chickens were taboo too. Heck, changing a light bulb practically needed a planning permit. I didn't realize Sacto had banished chickens. That $4,500 fee is more absurd than Santa Cruz's $1,200 beekeeping permit! Sheesh! Glad Sac at least saw the error of their ways. Santa Cruz needs work, and still operates on the better to beg for forgiveness principle. Fortunately we're not in the city limit. Whew!

    No, you don't produce your own eggs to save money. Anyone who thinks they do, is deluding themselves. Massive CAFO facilities will always be able to do it cheaper than you. However, homegrown, organic eggs are better tasting, have better yolk color, overall texture. I didn't see what all the fuss was about, until we produced our own. I think a few black australorps would be a lovely addition to your garden.

  8. Cat, I grow a few herbs too. They are really easy to grow here thanks to the heat in the summer and rain in the winter. If you are serious about keeping chickens but want to avoid prying eyes, I would look further into the disguised coops. I found some pretty clever ones online. But I think you might have pay off that one board member to keep him quiet.

    Clare, from what you've said, it seems like I made the right decision not to pursue keeping bees. My other responsibilities and hobbies take up all the time I have as it is. So I'm glad that I can support local farmers. Is it true that locally grown honey can help people with their allergies? As for Sac finally seeing the error of their ways, it took several years and a lot of public outcry.

  9. Chad, I'm always enchanted by the efforts and experiences of those like Clare at Curbstone Valley Farm who are producing food for themselves in a committed way -- but I long ago figured out that this didn't make much sense for my one-person household. So I focus on creating beauty with flowering plants and then support local farmers by buying as much of my food as possible (including eggs and honey) from them. -Jean

  10. Jean, judging from the pictures of your gardens that I have seen, I'd say that your focus has paid big dividends!

  11. Chad, I grew up on the farm I still live on and have 10+ acres that is not rented out to my neighbor where I could grow a humongous garden. But I don't for the same reasons you mentioned.

    I do keep a flock of eight hens and one rooster, but where I live, no one would care if I kept a pet elephant, since our neighbors are far away. The 'girls' keep us in eggs, at least for now, but once winter comes, they stop laying so much, so then I have to buy eggs and chicken feed and tend them in snowbanks up to my nether regions. Not fun. I could raise a steer for beef, but despite my best intentions not to get attached to it, I know I would (this coming from a farmer is blasphemy, you're not supposed to get attached) I could also raise a horse to get to and from places, but there's those pesky problems with parking one of them at the grocery store.

    My girlfriend grew up with a bee farmer for a dad, and they had plentiful honey, but she was also allergic, so that was an exercise in caution, too.

    Could we be self-sustaining here? Yes, we could, I grew up that way, making our own soap and harvesting fire wood and growing all our own veggies and meat, etc. The only problem with it is the amount of Work involved, tilling, planting, weeding, harvesting, mucking out, baling hay, picking corn, on and on and then when would I have time to grow the beloved flowers and haul rocks? Everything is a trade off, isn't it? It is easier to go to the grocery store, truly it is. Not as healthy, but a whole lot less work. If the Mad Max scenario came to pass, oh, boy........I'm goin' back to my plow.

  12. Karen, would you say that keeping chickens is worth it, given what you have to do in the winter? You touched on one thing that bothered me when I considered raising chickens. From what I understand, their egg-laying days only last a few years, right? After that they lose their utility and it seems like they either become pets at that point or they become dinner. I really don't think I could detach myself enough to slaughter one of my pets . . .

    If the Mad Max scenario comes to pass, I'm moving to Wisconsin - I'll stay in your round stone "ruins". It'll be a perfect defensible space.

  13. Well, keeping chickens has it ups and downs...depending on the breed, they tend to go broody several times a year, meaning they'll stop laying eggs and concentrate on hatching chicks even if they don't have any eggs under them, or a rooster in sight, and the broody session can go on for weeks, which means No Eggs. What I do to discourage it is put the broody hen in a 'time out' cage with food and water, but in the bright light so she has no place to set. After about a week of time out, she's completely forgotten her urge to raise new chicks and is ready to go back with the flock. Not all breeds 'go broody' though, so you may or may not have a problem with that. And, yes, as they grow older, they also lose their productivity and you end up with basically a pet.

    The reason I keep them around, for the most part, is for their antics and for their pest control ability, which is really quite impressive. But then, there's the other trade off, they love to scratch and dig and sometimes they get so exuberant about it, they actually take the plants right out of the ground. I let them 'free range' around here as soon as we have a killing frost right up until it snows and then they're in the coop for months on end. They'll need fresh, unfrozen water and feed every day and cleaning out the coop, and as far as the fertilizer goes, I guess with only a small flock, there's not much manure to deal with, but they do love to toss their feed around which also brings on rodents. Sigh. They do a great job keeping ticks down and slugs and other pests, but when they are free range they are also targets for exuberant dogs, so on and so forth. And you have to lock them up safely at night, because there are always varmints that will kill them for you, raccoons, opposums and fox (along with aerial assaults from birds of prey during the day) round out the list here.

    Wait, you only asked me if it was worth it, sorry, ran off at the keyboard again....looking at the big picture, it's way easier to buy a dozen eggs at the grocery store or from farmer's markets. I am attached to all eight of the 'girls' and I think right now, only five are actually laying eggs as the other three are too old. They're fun to have around, but to be honest, a challenge to take care of, especially if you're already a busy person. And when they run free range, you're guaranteed to step in more than your share of poop. They are cute, though!

  14. Your post hit home with me, and I had a chuckle or two. I live inside a small city, but a neighbor has a single rooster. I think it is his connection to his own idyllic dreams of farm life. I enjoy listening to him as I putter about my small vegetable and herb bed. I wish I had the time to grow more. We do freeze some of the produce, but we mostly just eat it all as it comes in, in multiple forms until we are sick of it.

  15. Karen, thank you so much! You are a wealth of information and you can "run off at the keyboard" any time!

    Deb, I can relate to eating until you get sick of something. I often think of Bubba Blue from Forrest Gump . . . how many ways can you prepare a carrot anyway? Steamed carrots, raw carrots, carrots with ranch dressing . . .