The Optimistic Futurist: Seeds of change

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 20, 2012

By Francis P. Koster
Even Futurists have to eat, so last fall I am digging in my garden when along came a happy pair — granddaughter (aged about 8) and grandma (we won’t go there). The shy little girl asked what I was doing. I told her to watch, and gently turned over my first ever sweet potatoes — which were huge! I don’t know who was more thrilled — the little girl or me.
She then stunned me. She said, “I did not know potatoes came from the ground.”
I dug some more sweet potatoes to find several she and grandma could take home, and she set off with a big smile, arms loaded, promising to come visit again. I hope she does.
During World War II, 40 percent of all fruits and vegetables were grown outside farms. All that food was produced in backyard victory gardens. The required gardening production knowledge was handed from grandparent to parent to child. This know-how provided an important part of our food supply during a major challenge to our country’s survival.
And it could not happen today. When bright kids don’t know that sweet potatoes come from the ground, we are in trouble.
We are in trouble now because (by volume), 79 percent of all fish and shellfish, 32 percent of all fruits and nuts and 13 percent of all vegetables are imported via airplanes and large trucks from other countries. In addition to rapidly rising transportation costs (which raise the cost of food), this creates a “potential disease vector” — a way for bugs, diseases and critters from afar to sneak into our neighborhoods and infest plants, which reduces our food supply. For example, the Wall Street Journal recently carried a story about an insect-borne disease that kills citrus plants. This disease is threatening to erase both Florida’s and California’s citrus industry, at a potential loss of billions of dollars and thousands of jobs, as it already has in Brazil and China.
Simply put, if you raise food close to home and in many smaller plots, you avoid what military strategists call “putting all your eggs in one basket” risk. You also hand down vital knowledge from generation to generation for use when needed.
There is a movement afoot to both increase local food resiliency and create more children educated about where food comes from. Whether called “community gardens” or “school gardens” or something else, what we are seeing is local efforts to reclaim skills before their loss is so great that our society is put at further risk.
One interesting dimension of the centralization of food growing is that agribusiness does not want crops that produce their harvest spread out over many weeks or months, for two reasons. First, if they are going to import farm labor, they want to have a short period of harvest so payroll can be less. Second, because mechanized harvesting picks green fruits with ripe ones, having a field full of crops at various stages of ripeness reduces the short term edible harvest. They want food crops that ripen at a determinable time. And they got them.
Go to the garden store and examine the seed packets. You will see some labeled “determinate.” The number of blooms is genetically preset (or determined). This means that the food ripens at a specific narrow window in time, suitable for mass harvest or mechanical picking. Other seed packets are marked “indeterminate.” Indeterminate means the number of blooms depends on the weather conditions and is not genetically determined. These produce food that ripens a piece at a time and will be more suited to a family garden where several tomatoes a week over months is better than hundreds in a single week.
As a nation, we need children who know where potatoes come from, and corn and milk and fish. Distance from basic systems of life support creates a form of national vulnerability that is quite subtle, and very dangerous, because without this knowledge, the need to protect the purity of those systems is not understood.
You can make a contribution to spreading food production knowledge by teaching neighborhood kids, and also help hungry neighbors. Contact your local soup kitchen or homeless shelter and ask what they need planted, and when they need it. A few more seeds in your yard can make a huge difference in someone else’s life. Contact your local agriculture extension office for guidance about what grows well in your area. You can help nourish our nation’s future.
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Francis P. Koster, Ed. D., lives in Kannapolis. For more information, visit