The recession brought with it a tremendous toll on our citizens. Property values dropped precipitously, millions of Americans lost their jobs, the wild, credit-fueled spending spree we have been told was the cornerstone of our economy ground to a near halt and people started re-discovering, oftentimes through necessity, the wisdom of frugality and self-sufficiency. For the most part, however, this has been a citizen-driven movement almost entirely devoid of any bold political leadership.
Here in Montana—and across the nation—part of that re-discovery took the form of home gardens. Suddenly, throughout our cities, backyard lawns were turned over to production of fruits and vegetables, raised beds sprouted in even the tiniest urban lots and the simple miracle of home food production made a tremendous resurgence.
Accompanying the wave of private gardens has been a significant increase in community gardens. Churches and other institutions suddenly decided the best way to take care of people was to give them the opportunity to grow their own food and share in the harvest—building both a sense of community and a sense of personal accomplishment in tough times.
What it means in the long run remains to be seen, but what it means in the short run is definitely good news for both consumers and the environment. Consider this: The average distance standard commercial foods have to travel from feedlots and farms to your kitchen table runs somewhere between 1,500 and 2,500 miles. In an age where petroleum can suddenly skyrocket in price, the cost of fuel alone can often double the market price for the product while adding to global warming and air pollution. And, of course, if we use less petroleum, we're likely to find ourselves in fewer wars whenever we feel our supply of foreign oil is threatened.
Then there's the benefit of safer food. Do you know what they put on the produce grown in Central America? Most likely you have no idea and sadly, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) isn't about to tell you thanks to lame food labeling laws. Sure, you know it's not organic if it doesn't say so, but few realize that many dangerous chemicals that have been banned in the United States continue to find widespread use in other countries that continue to ship their produce to American markets. This is one area, along with the bane of genetically modified "Frankenfoods" where Montanans expected Sen. Jon Tester, perhaps the only organic farmers in the U.S. Senate, to lead. But he has so far been virtually invisible on the issue of preserving the integrity of organic foods and protecting them from cross-pollination with genetically modified crops.
Or how about quality? Studies have found that mass-produced vegetables do, in fact, contain fewer essential nutrients and minerals than those produced on a more natural, sustainable basis. Why? Simple: The goal of corporate mega-farms is to squeeze as much production from every acre of land as possible. To do this, enormous quantities of fertilizer and pesticides are used, which gives us lower-quality food and often sickens those who have to work in the chemical-drenched environment of "modern" agriculture.
Nor is the chemical input associated with mass-produced food the only variable in the quality of what you feed to your loved ones. The typical corporate tomato, for instance, cannot be allowed to ripen on the vine because it would never survive the shipping process intact. Consequently, like many other fruits and vegetables, they are picked well before they're actually ripe. The fruit is artificially ripened through exposure to ethylene gas, producing tomatoes that look beautiful in the store, but often taste like cardboard at home.
Luckily, more people can buy homegrown tomatoes these days thanks to the resurgence of farmers' markets. Anyone can cruise down to the market on weekends and get everything they need for the coming week from a friendly local producer. Not only will you get better and often cheaper foods, but you can actually talk to the people who grow or raise the products. Want to know what they use on the crops? Just ask. Curious about what they fed the pigs, chickens or beef? Just ask. By and large, local producers are proud of what they grow and more than happy to tell you how they did it.
When he first took office, Gov. Brian Schweitzer asked me what he could do to be remembered as a good governor. I told him, "Take care of the people of Montana first and foremost and they will love you." One of my suggestions was to take into account the looming retirement of the Baby Boomer generation and put in place a program to help fund and build community greenhouses. The logic was simple: As people age, they enjoy warmer surroundings and, since a large slice of the population would be going from revenue producers to revenue consumers, it would be a good way to give folks a chance to enjoy the company of their peers in warm and beautiful greenhouses and ease their financial burden by growing their own food. Instead of embracing the concept, the governor laughed and said, "You're not seriously worried about food supply, are you?"
Well, here we are all these years later and there's still no large-scale program to promote community greenhouses at either the state or federal level. Yet, amazingly, politicians continue to harp on our security, and continue to spend hundreds of billions on high-tech weapons of war while ignoring the simplest of things that can bring great security to millions of citizens nationwide—local food production.
The recession has been hard on us, but if there's a silver lining to this dark cloud, it's the rediscovery of our capabilities for self-sufficiency, an enhanced sense of community and the taking back of control of our own lives. We should be proud that our people are leading the way—and we can only hope that some day soon, the politicians will follow.
Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at email@example.com.