A Practical Food Security Plan
Now that the dust is starting to settle from the emergency response to the pandemic, many of us are starting to think about what lies ahead. In our little island community, that means people have their attention fixed on food security.
The pandemic has pointed out how fragile our globalized food system is. The least disruption and suddenly we have bare shelves and can’t access many of the things we’ve come to expect and rely on.
When I look into my crystal ball even the immediate future is very murky, but one thing seems certain: there’re going to be a lot of disruptions. The response to the first wave of the pandemic has already affected food production and distribution, the ripples of which will continue to affect food availability and cost for at least the next year – probably longer. The current rush to “open things up” will almost certainly lead to a second wave of infections. Often, the second wave is more severe than the first, but even if it only requires the same level of response what happens if that’s layered on to what we’ve just been through? It seems likely that there will be even greater disruptions to supply chains as things get stretched to the breaking point a second time in a short time.
Even without a second wave of infections, it’s unclear how (and uncertain if) the global economy can ever “bounce back.” The idea that it could be somehow “like before” without a vaccine (or herd immunity) is pure insanity and that’s at least a year or two in the future.
And all the while, we are still in the middle of a climate crisis. It hasn’t been cancelled by the pandemic and while lockdown is showing us a glimpse of what might be possible, it hasn’t fixed the problem.
So, now is the time to start thinking seriously about how to ride out the next couple of years. A group of people in my community have started conversations about how we can respond as a community and the broad outlines are starting to coalesce. I am sharing my personal version of what that plan might look like to (hopefully) spark a broader conversation about what we each can do to increase our own and our community’s food security.
Now, soon, later
We can divide the plan into “now” “soon” and “later.” In most places in the Northern Hemisphere, we are right at planting time. As a result, there are a few things to do ASAP. Everything else can wait a bit.
Community Garden Matching / Seed Swap
In “normal” times, a lot of good garden space goes underused. Right now, we want to maximize the use of available resources, so we’ve started a garden matching program that asks people with garden space they aren’t using if they would be willing to share with a keen gardener looking for more space to grow food. There is also a provincial effort in British Columbia through Young Agrarians. Check it out here.
If you’re creating one for your community, I suggest that you also think about ways to connect those who have extra seeds or plant starts to those who need them. Older seeds lose their viability, anyway, so this is a great time for people to clear out their old seeds and see what they might still produce. This is especially important for seeds that can be grown out (and you should always focus on seed saving) to increase the availability of seeds for next year. A few plants nurtured as seed plants this year can represent a whole field of that crop next year.
Plant Pulses and Staple Crops
Most people have romantic ideas about what to plant in their veggie gardens. If we are thinking specifically about food security, you need to curb the impulse to plant lots of leafy greens and the showier garden veggies.
Focus on crops that are:
- High in carbohydrates / calories
- High in protein
- Easy to store
- Easy to grow / low maintenance
- Soil builders
- Seeds can be saved
Pulses (beans, chickpeas, peas, broad beans, etc.) tick off all the boxes here. There is a reason why many traditional cuisines feature beans and peas so much. Plant lots of pulses. Other staples to consider are winter squash (butternut, acorn, pumpkin, turban, etc.). Winter squashes require space (or a trellis if you are willing to put in the effort), but are pretty much “plant and leave” – plus they will act as an effective ground cover in the garden.
At Highgrove, we are doing a mixed patch of beans and squash 16X16 metres as a Covid-19 response. Since it’s our first year here, we haven’t had a chance to develop proper gardens yet, but our bean and squash square will hopefully condition the soil while providing an important stash of dried beans and storable winter squash. We aren’t expecting a bumper crop given the poor conditions, but at least it’s something and it’s building towards the future.
Depending on where you live, potatoes and other root groups like carrots and turnips are good options and can be left in the ground until you need them. Unfortunately, we have a problem with wire worm locally, so this isn’t an option that works well for us.
You will also want to plant a whole whack of onions, tomatoes, and basil and a few peppers (if they grow well in your area) to be able to add some flavour to all those beans and squash.
Should I start a garden?
Lots of people are thinking about gardening for the first time. Many people living in the suburbs probably have space in the yard that could work as a food garden and long-term we will want to turn a lot of space currently wasted in lawns into food production, but there are also a few important things to keep in mind before you start.
It takes more work to prepare a garden than to tend an existing one.
It takes more than tilling a patch of grass or throwing some potting soil on cardboard to create a productive garden. First year gardens usually involve an heroic effort to remove grass and weeds from the newly disturbed ground. You are much better off finding currently un- or under-used garden space in your neigbourhood if possible. A new garden is always more work than you think.
It takes more work to water, weed, and harvest than you think.
Planting is the fun part. Spring is in the air and it feels so satisfying to dig a little hole and pop in a few seeds. But then comes the follow-up care – making sure the plants get enough water, dealing with weeds, pests or diseases before they take over, protecting them from unexpected frosts or summer storms.
Be realistic about how much time and energy you can commit to the garden in the middle of August in a heat wave. Add in mosquitoes to paint a more accurate picture.
Make sure you have ample water to irrigate your plants properly.
Where I live, we have a consistent summer drought for the main part of the growing season. Every square meter of garden requires 250 litres of water a week. Over the 16 weeks of the main growing season, that’s 4,000 litres – over a 1,000 US gallons. For reference, that’s more than the holding capacity of a 10ft high / 8 ft diameter cistern just for a square meter. Don’t plant what you can’t water.
Make sure your local critters won’t eat everything you plant before you.
We also have a plague of deer where I live. If you aren’t planting behind a deer fence, your plants won’t live long enough to produce fruit. In other places, it’s raccoons, rabbits, or gophers. Fencing is as much a part of a garden as raised beds. You aren’t the only one who dreams of biting into a juicy tomato or crunchy carrot.
Make a plan of what, where, and how much you want to plant – including appropriate spacing.
Most first time gardeners plant too much, too close together or the wrong plants. You need a specific plan for your needs and your garden. Think about what you will actually use and plant accordingly. There’s a joke in many a small rural community that the only time people lock their cars is when it’s summer squash season to prevent people from dumping their unwanted zucchini on their unsuspecting neighbours. One family rarely needs more than a single squash plant but will plant ten because one little seedling looks so lonely.
And research appropriate spacing. Plants start as little things but they grow into big things really quick. Make sure they aren’t competing with their siblings for light and water.
There are shortages in key supplies because of the pandemic – you might not be able to get things you need later.
We usually recommend lasagna gardening as the best method for creating new gardens. The cardboard base does a good job of keeping the grass out of the beds, and the mix of compost and soil provides a good start for the first year. But it requires copious amounts of compost and soil and both of those are running in short supply at the moment.
Tilling a new garden requires equipment that most people don’t have sitting around (though your neighbours probably do) and still usually requires amendments to the soil to get good results.
Shortages might significantly limit the productivity of a new garden vs. an established one.
Bottom line: yes, start a garden if you feel inclined, but start small and don’t lose heart if it’s not as productive as you would have hoped this year. You’re still building your resilience and long-term food security. Ultimately, a garden is always a work in progress.
Once we’ve gotten as much planting happening as possible, there are a few slightly less time-sensitive things to focus on. Many of these start to build deeper community and individual level resilience and focus on organizing and coordinating efforts.
Organize Provisioning Clubs
It’s great to have locally grown food available, but no matter how turbulent things get, we’re still going to access some of our food through the existing food supply chains. But, as we’ve already seen, it will probably get more challenging to access that supply chain. A provisioning club builds on buying club models that many people already participate in. It simply expands the idea to respond to our current situation.
We have an informal network already starting on our island. One farmer is doing bulk buys of animal feed, hay and farm supplies. Another local coffee shop provides access to their wholesaler. Someone else is taking care of online ordering for bulk grains, etc. By dividing up the work, each person can focus on developing the relationships with food growers, wholesalers, or even retailers to find the best, most effective way to secure the things we need to keep going.
As a side benefit, it’s easy for these provisioning clubs to coordinate with local growers to create a sort of CSA (community supported agriculture) on steroids. (See below.)
Plan A Winter Garden / Expand Existing Gardens
Now that we are past the rush of planting time, there’s more time to think about what we can do now to be better prepared for the next growing seasons. We are lucky where I live to have significant winter growing opportunities and with a little ingenuity, winter gardens are possible in all but the most arctic places.
Think of your winter garden as a supplement to your larder. You are going to want to focus on things that can add flavour to your staples – your stored beans and squash – so alliums (leeks, garlic, winter onions) and flavourful greens like arugula, Swiss chard, even (god help us) kale. It’s also a good time to plant lots of perennial herbs. Nothing will feel as luxurious as fresh herbs in the middle of winter.
It’s also a good time to think about where else you could put more food growing spaces. There are approaches for container gardens, backyard food forests, raised bed gardens, permaculture gardens, hugelkultur beds and edible landscapes that can work in almost any circumstance. Take the time to think through what works best for you, then get to work building it.
Organize Garden Mentor Work Teams
In the “Now” wave of organizing, we want to focus on getting people who know how to garden into space they can use. It’s not quite the time for training up new gardeners, because the experienced folks are busy, you know, growing a garden.
After that, though, is a great time to start to invite people with an interest in gardening along for the ride. The best way to learn is to do and in the garden especially “many hands make light work” so the best way to do this is to organize garden helper teams composed of one mentor and, say, three or four people who are hoping to learn. These teams can rotate through each others gardens (or volunteer to help in the gardens of older people or people with limitations) doing the routine maintenance required throughout the season and learning through the experience.
As a side benefit, it provides social connection and a mental health boost while everyone is still able to maintain safe physical distance.
Organize Food Preservation Work Bees for the Fall
With the explosion (we hope) in food growing, soon we’ll need to get ready for the inevitable wave of people trying to figure out what to do with their bumper crop of [fill-in the blank]. There are lots of foods that we will need to be preserved one way or another. Unfortunately, most people don’t know how.
Fortunately, some of us still do.
When it’s time, find the people in your community who know the ins and outs of canning, pickling, drying, fermenting, or (in a pinch) freezing. Take the time to think through when the major foods are likely to be ready (always a moving target) and the resources that might be necessary to do some preservation at a community scale. Are there any local commercial kitchens that could be pressed into service? Many churches or community groups like the Lions or Legion have a community kitchen they are happy to make available. Similarly, do you need canning supplies? Storage containers? Special equipment? Anything you can get in place and on-site sooner will avoid the last minute crisis of “everything’s out of stock” when there’s a run on these supplies in the fall.
An aside: Two Community Assets to Build
If you’ve followed our advice and focused on beans, you’ve saved yourself a lot of time right there. You can just leave the beans in the field until they completely dry and harvest the whole plant at once. But husking all those beans by hand will take you most of the winter. That’s why the summer is the time to build one of these bicycle powered threshing machines to make available for all the cycling enthusiasts and bean-lovers in the community.
At the same time, you might want to build one of these solar dehydrators, too. The weather for solar dehydration matches perfectly for when tomatoes are ripe and is a huge savings of effort over saucing and canning tomatoes (and can often be used as a simple substitute in recipes). Plus dehydrated fruit makes a great treat throughout the winter.
Eggs and Dairy – stretch goals
There is a reason why eggs and dairy feature so predominantly in traditional farms – they are incredibly efficient ways to get nutrient-dense, high-protein, year-round food. And you can produce both with relatively little acreage (with an important caveat) or materials.
Backyard chickens are already common in most places, but we could use a lot more of them. It’s easy to build a small chicken house to shelter a dozen or so laying hens. The rule of thumb is three hens per two people, so each house could serve a few families. So, in most places we need a chicken coop for every few houses.
Dairy, of course, is a bit more complicated and often heavily regulated in ways to privilege only industrial (i.e. inhumane) producers but there are many options available at the community level. Dairy goats have traditionally provided the small-scale dairy needs of a farm or small community. Goats thrive on less than ideal forage on small acreage and produce high-quality milk (depending on the breed, of course). Spend some of the summer looking for locations (and operations) in your community who might be a suitable home to dairy goats.
While definitely one of the more complex undertakings on the list, the potential benefit to community food security makes it worth considering as a stretch goal.
A final caveat: Most backyard chicken farmers or goat herders depend on purchased animal feed for production. It is reasonable to assume that the availability and price of animal feed will be just as susceptible to supply chain disruptions, so anyone taking on animals should be actively thinking about truly free-range alternatives. (Here’s a great link supplied by Julie Johnston on how to raise chickens without supplements.) There are things you can do to prepare, including planting forage crops or supplements, but you definitely don’t want to be caught figuring out how to feed your animals enough to keep them alive.
While the pandemic was a shocking wake-up call to many, there are quite a few of us who have seen something like this coming for a while. The pandemic highlighted the fragility of our food (and economic) system; it didn’t cause it. The fragility has been caused by the same forces that are causing the climate crisis and exacerbating our ability to respond adequately to the pandemic. Long-term food security will only be possible if we also attend to these complex problems now.
Advocate for Universal Guaranteed Income
UGI (universal guaranteed income) is not only a social justice issue, it is also the most effect tool available to government to keep the old economic system alive long enough while providing the flexibility and adaptability necessary to create whatever comes next.
UGI will also have a direct benefit on developing local food security. Many people who have wanted to farm but couldn’t make the finances work will be freed to pursue their dream of feeding their neighbours. UGI will provide a graceful career transition for the many, many people who suddenly discover that their current jobs are far from essential to choose work that is healing, sustaining, and essential.
Reinvigorate Local CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture)
The time has come for us to put our money, time, and effort where our mouths are. North America has experienced half a century of attacks on local farming. Now is the time to reverse that trend and re-build our local food security. The best way for that to happen is through direct support of local farmers and farmer-wanna-bes.
CSAs have the potential to not only grow local food security, they can fundamentally help heal our relationships with food, nature, and our neighbours by bringing us together around what we all have in common; the food that makes life possible.
Long-term we need to relocalize our food systems in sustainable, regenerative ways. That will require re-thinking what we grow, how we grow it, and how we support the whole ecosystem for human, animal, plant, insect, and fungal health and thriving.
Some ideas include:
- Protecting and promoting bee health
- Growing small-field grains
I hope this provides some ideas for practical ways to grow your personal and community food security. I know it’s an incomplete picture but it’s a place to start. Please leave any additional ideas or questions in the comments. What can we do together to grow our food security, heal the planet, and move towards the future we all dream of?