Growing food for self-support in rural areas

posted June 7, 2016 1:04 p.m. (CDT)
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by / Ray Mueller

Your May 25 front-page story on the growing need for food pantries in rural communities prompted all kinds of thoughts.

While it is commendable that food pantries, charitable groups and entities in the private sector are addressing the needs of the hungry, may I suggest that some of their time and energy and that of others concerned with serving those struggling to overcome hunger be channeled in a different direction.

I’d like to see food being grown on the land owned by at least some of the people who are being served by food pantries. Space in a community garden is also available in many places. Far too much of the landscape in Wisconsin and elsewhere is covered by biologically inert lawns that resemble golf course greens when vegetables and fruits could be grown there instead.

The 90-ton donation of seed potatoes — to be used as food — mentioned in your story could have been converted to many multiples of that volume if arrangements had been in place to have some food pantry patrons grow the potatoes instead.

Let me cite my own example. In the spring of 2015, we uprooted the lawn — less than two-tenths of an acre — that was probably in place for 80 or more years in the backyard of the house that my step-daughter and her husband had moved into a few weeks earlier.

For the first year, we planted potatoes, green beans, peppers, leeks, a few tomatoes and vined plants. Among the results were potatoes weighing up to 25 and 27 ounces without the application of any fertilizer, excellent green beans and a bountiful crop of peppers from the 90 some plants.

In that space this spring, green peas were looking great in the last week of May, radish and spinach are showing promise, three varieties of potatoes were planted, and 23 young mail-order black raspberry plants are alive. Tomatoes and peppers were set out once the warm weather arrived after May 22.

This spring we obtained a few young elderberry plants from a man who lives west of Neenah. He also grows many other varieties of berries along with apple, pear and plum trees in the yard at his home.

He told us that his neighbors, all of whom have the typical boring grass lawn, consider him to be an oddball. I’d say we need many more oddballs like him.

How can people who are depending on food pantries grow at least a share of their own food, you might ask? Here are some of my ideas.

Start by identifying existing lawn space that isn’t shaded for most of the day. Obtain a tiller or other device to remove the grass sod. Check with utilities to avoid hitting any buried wires.

For those physically unable to handle that task, there are FFA chapters, 4-H clubs, scout groups and other youth organizations willing to perform community service projects (they rake leaves in the autumn). County Master Gardener chapter members will be helpful in providing advice and perhaps in supplying some free seeds or plants.

Near the end of their primary spring sales season, greenhouses, big-box garden centers, nurseries and other sellers of plants and seeds might be willing to offer products for reduced prices. Another practice for which community support might be available is to install rain barrels to catch water from eave trough outlets for watering one’s plants as necessary during any hot and dry periods throughout the summer.

There are many food plants, especially vegetables, which are very easy to grow. Among them are potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, onions, leeks, beans, beets, Swiss chard, peas, spinach, radish, raspberries and zucchini. It’s more risky with brassicas and the vined fruit plants.

Somewhere along the way the owners and managers of too much of our landscape have been inculcated with the idea that a lawn which imitates a golf green is the ideal use of that acreage. That ought to change.

Ray Mueller is a freelance writer from Chilton.

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