Gardening as an Act of Political Independence

Republican lawmakers continue to leave me wondering what planet they're from. During the Iowa legislative session that just ended, I offered what seemed like a simple yet constructive proposal to help small family farms and enhance the quality of food offered at state institutions and departments. My bill would have required all state agencies to purchase a meager 10% of the food they use from local farmers.

The Republican farmers who "lead" the House Agriculture Committee originally expressed enthusiasm for the proposal. Department staff also shared their interest. But when two bureaucrats objected to the proposed 10% target, deeming it a burden and a hassle, my Republican farmer friends quickly slunk away and headed off to attempt less controversial legislation, like making Iowa safe for mega-hog factories. I regret to report that, on this front, they were successful.

"Be the change you wish to see in the world," said Mahatma Gandhi over a half century ago. With that advice in mind, and my options for affecting legislative change on local food security thwarted again, it's time to turn my food initiatives to the home front. Time to dig out the shovel, hoe and rake. Time to dig out the seeds, seedlings and tubers. Time to dig out my large fruit and vegetable garden, and again attempt to fashion my own private version of Eden.

My garden surrounds our home in the inner-city of Des Moines, on the site of a former clay parking lot. Truckloads of compost, leaves and sweat have gone toward restoring productivity to what was once a case study in nutrient depletion and soil compaction. Ten years after purchasing the lot, we grow some of the juiciest, tastiest fruits and vegetables ever to grace our table.

Those of us who garden for a living know it can be a relaxing way to put good-quality, low-cost food on the table. But gardening also makes a political statement of no small value and significance. It provides a means to assert our uniqueness and serves as a sign of our independence. It puts us, our children and our neighbors in direct touch with the all-important process of food production.

Call me old-fashioned but I believe a mom-and-pop grocery store, or a farmer selling produce at a farmers' market, has more aesthetic value and democratic appeal than a huge modern "convenience" store. Better yet is the family that doesn't have to buy lettuce in May, strawberries in June, sweet corn in July or canned tomatoes in December because they've planned and planted in March and April.

Our societal hunger for convenience has become an epidemic. We feel we gain time, but we take no notice of the many intangibles that we lose.

We lose our sense of community. Convenience stores inevitably spell doom for most mom-and-pop stores. They also spell doom for the small family farmer struggling to grow for the local market. The accompanying accelerated pace of life robs time we might have used to plant and maintain a family garden plot. In his book, In Absence of The Sacred, Jerry Mander writes about the advent of convenience stores in the 1940s, saying "[They] were owned by conglomerates, not people. Shopping stopped being fun. No longer a social event, no longer a community event, it was now a business transaction."

We lose our independence, our self-sufficiency and our ability to know that we can fend for ourselves in meeting one of the most basic human needs. Just think of how people flock to the convenience store to "stock up" before a big blizzard. This shouldn't happen, not even in winter, and especially not in the midst of summer's abundance.

We lose contact with the earth, and in a modern city, such contact is already far too minimal. Once, when I was working the potato patch, a 14-year-old boy expressed horror to learn that potatoes grew in the ground, all covered with dirt, with nasty worms squiggling about. For all he knew, potatoes appeared bagged and ready to buy on the shelf at the supermarket.

We almost certainly lose freshness, flavor and nutritional value. We need to begin to make a distinction between "food" and "something to eat". If it's the latter you're looking for, anything will do. Heck, I've seen folks eat dirt. But if it's food you want, it doesn't get any tastier or healthier than what you can grow yourself or get from a conscientious local producer.

So, if you're aching for some political involvement this spring, you might start by grabbing a spade, heading to the backyard and asserting your independence. Next January, I'll be back at the Iowa State Capitol with one or more legislative proposals advancing local food security. Until then, it's time to be the change I wish to see in the world.

Ed Fallon is an Iowa state representative and executive director of 1000 Friends of Iowa. He can be reached at 515-288-5364 or sprawlczar@juno.com.

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