Contact Us Advertise! Newsletter
21 Mar 2008

A Call to Hoes ~ Sowing the Seeds of Hope

A Rallying Cry for Food Sustainability

“What is hope, what is expectation,
but a seed-time whose harvest cannot fail,
an irresistible expectation of the mind,
at length to be victorious?”

~ Henry David Thoreau

“But the environmental crisis rises closer to home. Every time we draw a breath, every time we drink a glass of water, every time we eat a bite of food we are suffering from it. And more important, every time we indulge in, or depend on, the wastefulness of our economy—and our economy’s first principle is waste—we are causing the crisis. Nearly every one of us, nearly every day of his life, is contributing directly to the ruin of this planet… Most of us, for example, not only do not know how to produce the best food in the best way—we don’t know how to produce any kind in any way. Our model citizen is a sophisticate who before puberty understands how to produce a baby, but who at the age of thirty will not know how to produce a potato. And for this condition we have elaborate rationalizations, instructing us that dependence for everything on somebody else is efficient and economical and a scientific miracle. I say, instead, that it is madness, mass produced. A man who understands the weather only in terms of golf is participating in a chronic public insanity that either he or his descendants will be bound to realize as suffering… A person who undertakes to grow a garden at home, by practices that will preserve rather than exploit the economy of the soil, has set his mind decisively against what is wrong with us. He is helping himself in a way that dignifies him and that is rich in meaning and pleasure. But he is doing something else that is more important: he is making vital contact with the soil and the weather on which his life depends.”

-An excerpt from Wendell Berry’s Think Little

found in A Continuous Harmony; Essays Cultural and Agricultural

“If we don’t turn around we’ll end up where we’re going,” has no truer (nor more frightening) an application then to the current state of our food production and consumption. An average meal takes a voyage of 1500–2500 miles from the farm to your fork. An average food calorie, after the fertilizing, processing, packaging, and transporting, takes 7 to 10 ‘calories’ of fossil fuel energy to produce. The implication of these statistics and how they reflect pollution, global warming, and the all around destruction of the earth, should make us more than a little uncomfortable. Trumpeting is a wake-up call to ‘turn around,’ reestablish our connection to the land, revive the self-sustaining ways of our past, while, as Alisa Smith, co-author of Plenty explains it, “We [can] immerse ourselves in the here and now, and the simple pleasures of eating [will] become a form of knowing.”

Choosing to reduce our impact on the environment by the way we eat, is an important (and delicious!) place to enact change. But you don’t need to take our word for it. Here is a collection of lists, suggestions, excerpts and quotes from those who have taken up the shovel to create a better tomorrow.



Fossil Fuels and Industrial Farming

Conventional food production and distribution requires a tremendous amount of energy—one study conducted in 2000 estimated that ten percent of the energy used annually in the United States was consumed by the food industry. Yet for all the energy we put into our food system, we don’t get very much out. A 2002 study from the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health estimated that, using our current system, three calories of energy were needed to create one calorie of edible food. And that was on average. Some foods take far more, for instance grain-fed beef, which requires thirty-five calories for every calorie of beef produced. What’s more, the John Hopkins study didn’t include the energy used in processing and transporting food. Studies that do, estimate that it takes an average of seven to ten calories of input energy to produce one calorie of food.

Accounting for most of this wasteful equation are the industrial practices upon which our food system is built. These include inefficient growing practices, food processing, and storage, as well as our system of transporting foodstuffs thousands of miles between the field and the end consumer.

Growing Practices

The biggest culprit of fossil fuel usage in industrial farming is not transporting food or fueling machinery; it’s chemicals. As much as forty percent of energy used in the food system goes towards the production of artificial fertilizers and pesticides. Fertilizers are synthesized from atmospheric nitrogen and natural gas, a process that takes a significant amount of energy. Producing and distributing them requires an average of 5.5 gallons of fossil fuels per acre.

Manure could be a more energy-efficient alternative to synthetic fertilizers, but because it is heavy this applies only when it can be used a short distance from where it is produced—and our industrial system precludes this option. The problem is over-consolidation: We raise large numbers of livestock in one place and raise the grain they eat in other places. This means that the livestock produce an excess of manure where there’s no cropland for it to be spread on, making it a pollutant rather than a tool. Meanwhile, the fields that grow feed must draw their fertility from synthetic sources. We end up with concentrations of unusable manure in one place, and concentrations of chemical fertilizers in the other—and a whole lot of fuel wasted trucking feed and fertilizer around the country.

The extent of this waste is underscored by the fact that it’s largely unnecessary. Small, pasture-based livestock farms take advantage of natural cycles: the animals feed themselves on grass and distribute their manure themselves, fertilizing the pasture as they go. Rather than fossil fuels, they need only rain and sun to make the system work.

Packaging, Processing, and Storing Food

Approximately twenty-three percent of the energy used in our food production system is allocated to processing and packaging food. Another thirty-two percent is burned in home refrigeration and cooking. While no study has quantified the potential energy savings of buying locally, the practice of eating whole foods generally decreases the use of fossil fuels for processing, packaging, and storing foods. (Compare all the energy and packaging behind, say, a can of tomato sauce, to simply buying some tomatoes, basil, and garlic, and making it oneself.) If the consumer chooses to store foods for long periods of time at home, this can often be done in a more energy-efficient manner than commercial packagers choose to use. One estimate suggests that reusing a glass jar five times at home can save about half of the energy a commercial packager uses to make five disposable containers.

Food Transportation

Because industrial farming draws on the economy of scale, our food is increasingly grown in concentration in specific areas of the country. This is so common that it has shaped much of our country’s geographic identities—the Western Plains are wheat country, the Midwest is the Corn Belt—but it has reached extremes. For instance, approximately ninety percent of all the fresh vegetables consumed in the United States are grown in California’s San Joaquin Valley.

This national-scale system is possible only because it uses large quantities of fossil fuels to transport food products to the consumer. It is now common practice to ship food not just around the country, but around the world. (In 2005, more than $120 billion of agricultural products crossed U.S. borders as imports and exports.) As a result, the average American foodstuff travels an estimated 1,500 miles before being consumed.

Sustainable Farming and Fossil Fuel Savings

The most obvious way that small, sustainable farms help reduce the nation’s dependence on fossil fuels is by selling their products locally. The less food has to travel, the less fuel is needed to transport it. But sustainable farming practices also have the potential to reduce fossil fuel dependence by eliminating wasteful production practices. The USDA estimates that making all our farmland’s irrigation systems just ten percent more efficient would annually save eighty million gallons of diesel gasoline spent on pumping and applying the water. Similarly, reducing repetitive fertilizer application on the 250 million acres of major cropland in the United States would save approximately one billion dollars worth of petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides (not to mention prevent soil and water pollution). These kinds of dramatic reductions in resource consumption can be achieved through management-intensive, sustainable farming practices.

Exercising proper soil conservation techniques can also help reduce fossil fuel usage. For example, the USDA estimates that no-till farming can save about 3.9 gallons of diesel fuel per acre of land. As the name suggests, no-till farming means eliminating (or in some cases reducing) the tilling of soil, which decreases the use of diesel-powered heavy equipment.

No-till can even reverse some of the damage caused by fossil fuel use. Plants absorb carbon from the air and bring it down into the soil, but when farmers till, they release the carbon back up into the air. By not tilling, that carbon stays underground. USDA scientists estimate that if proper soil conservation techniques were used, U.S. cropland could store between twelve and fourteen percent of the nation’s annual carbon emissions. As pollution from fossil fuels and other sources continues to grow, environmentally friendly practices such as no-till farming are more necessary than ever.

Sustainable farms also take advantage of animal power to fuel their operations. When animals graze, they feed themselves and spread their own manure. This eliminates the need to truck feed to the animals and then truck their manure out to fields where it is sprayed. Thus the practice of grazing animals on pasture also decreases the amount of fuel used to produce our food.

What You Can Do

* Buy foods grown locally. The equation is simple: the closer the farm is to you, the less fuel is needed to transport its food to your table. Join your local food co-op or Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) group. And while you’re at it, ask your grocery store to supply locally grown produce.

* Want to have lettuce that’s truly local? Plant a garden and grow your own fresh produce!

* Avoid purchasing processed foods. These foods take more energy to produce (and have less nutritional value than whole foods). In addition, choose foods with minimal packaging. This reduces the energy used to produce the packaging and eliminates these materials from the waste stream.

* Cut back on meat. As much as Americans love to eat it, meat is the least fuel-efficient food we have. Large quantities of energy are required to cultivate, harvest, and ship animal feed, house, transport and slaughter animals, process and package their meat, and refrigerate it until it’s cooked.

-Excerpted from Fossil Fuel and Energy Use,

See this article, in its footnoted entirety at:



“Victory Gardens came in every shape and size. Governments and corporations promoted this call for self-reliance. People in all areas, rural and urban alike, worked the soil to raise food for their families, friends, and neighbors…

These concepts are very foreign to us in our post-war, global economy. For years we have been bombarded by marketing messages of consumerism, [and] reliance on others… A whole generation of young people know it no other way. As our population ages, the experiences and knowledge of the Great Depression and WW II is being depleted from our society’s psyche.

History is cyclical—the strong economy of the 1980s and 1990s has begun to weaken, and there are lessons to be learned from the past. It is always a good time to plant your own “Victory Garden.”

-Excerpted from

During World War I and World War II, the United States government asked its citizens to plant gardens in order to support the war effort. Millions of people planted gardens. Emphasis was placed on making gardening a family or community effort—not a drudgery, but a pastime, and a national duty…

I have no backyard, what can I do? You can combine vegetable plants with flowers in your front yard. You can plant containers on your porch, patio, or balcony and can grow sprouts indoors. You can also choose to purchase foods which are grown close to home by visiting your local farmer’s market. If local foods are not available to you, choose foods which use fewer chemical pesticides (such as organics), are in season, or have minimal packaging.

-Excerpted from Revive the Victory Garden – for victory over global warming



“Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.”
~ Henry David Thoreau

When people grow and save seeds, they join an ancient tradition as stewards, nurturing our diverse, fragile, genetic and cultural heritage…

What are Heirlooms? Seed Savers Exchange defines an heirloom as any garden plant that has a history of being passed down within a family, just like pieces of heirloom jewelry or furniture. Some companies have tried to create definitions based on date, such as anything older than 50 years.

The genetic diversity of the world’s food crops is eroding at an unprecedented and accelerating rate. The vegetables and fruits currently being lost are the result of thousands of years of adaptation and selection in diverse ecological niches around the world. Each variety is genetically unique and has developed resistances to the diseases and pests with which it evolved. Plant breeders use the old varieties to breed resistance into modern crops that are constantly being attacked by rapidly evolving diseases and pests. Without these infusions of genetic diversity, food production is at risk from epidemics and infestations.

Just how dangerous is genetic erosion? The late Jack Harlan, world renowned plant collector who wrote the classic Crops and Man while Professor of Plant Genetics at University of Illinois at Urbana, has written, “These resources stand between us and catastrophic starvation on a scale we cannot imagine. In a very real sense, the future of the human race rides on these materials. The line between abundance and disaster is becoming thinner and thinner, and the public is unaware and unconcerned. Must we wait for disaster to be real before we are heard? Will people listen only after it is too late?”

-Excerpted from Seed Savers



The easiest thing to do is search for local farmers’ markets, local farm stands, and local farm shares. You can find them all at these sites:

Local Food

For national listings of local food:



Farmers’ Markets

The USDA keeps a reasonably comprehensive list of farmers’ markets in the US. Most states also list markets on their agricultural pages.


Farm Shares

You pay in advance for a farm share, which is a weekly delivery of local food all season. Most farm shares include produce and flowers. Some include meat, dairy, poultry, and eggs. Also called Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), a term I don’t care for. It’s hard to say and to understand without explanation, and it sounds like a government program. But it is a direct link to the food producers that cuts out the middle man, i.e. the food distribution and retail system.


Earth Pledge runs an excellent regional site for local food in New York.


~ List provided by Nina Planck, author of Real Food: What to Eat & Why
and owner of farmers’ markets in London and Washington, DC

    Leave a Reply




    You can use these HTML tags

    <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>