A new frugality is sweeping the country. It is posed as a movement towards thrift, a response to the downturn in the economy. But I want to posit that it is a movement towards self-reliance and an assertion of control over one’s fate. If one can no longer rely on the big law firm or the big corporation for sustenance; if one can no longer rely on appreciating home values; if one can no longer on growing 401(k) plans; then one must rely on oneself. And so as I prepare the beds for my vegetable and flower gardens, I think about the implications of this movement.
Digging up the Sod
This year we have expanded our small garden plot. In previous years, we had a 10 foot by 12 foot vegetable garden (cucumbers, peas, tomatoes, string beans and zucchini) and an 8ft by 6ft herb garden (basil, oregano, tarragon, mint, cilantro, parsely and sage). This year, we ripped up a sunny patch by the garage (3ft x 12ft) and have planted fingerling potatoes and yukon gold. We took another patch of dormant soil by the herb garden and planted 24 perennial everblooming strawberries plants. We took a fence border that had previously been the home of weeds (quite successful) and turned it into a bed for wildflowers. We even took some extra potato eyes and planted them in the front yard between the azaleas.
All plants use humous, peat, and cow manure, enhanced with bone meal… all natural ingredients. We would qualify as an organic farm. To fight off the most common garden pest in our neck of the woods, deer, we have purchased wire fences and posts to put up today around the new garden beds. And so, as the soil thaws, the days get longer, and the air gets warmer, we consider the effort we take and enquire, as rational capitalists, what are the implications for the U.S. and world economy of our actions.
Economics of the Home Garden Plot
First we enquire from the perspective of the family budget: are we saving money? In previous years we have calculated our bounteous crop against the cost of sowing. If we include only the sunk costs, out of pocket expenses, and none of the labor, we have either had a net loss or broken even. In other words, the decision, from a purely economic perspective to plant a garden, has always been a poor decision.
Second: we inquire from the perspective of the experience, the enjoyment: Consider the taste of fresh vine-picked tomatoes (sweet, tart and tender), the aroma of freshly plucked oregano and basil, and the savory crunch of oven-roasted pumpkin seeds. These are worth savoring. In the words of the Mastercard commercial, seeing your child pluck a tomatoe off the vine and bite into it (not having to sanitise and ripen it on a shelf). That is priceless.
Third, we look at the labor: There is the family effort in seed-starting, planting, tending, and ultimately harvesting the crop. Here the family works closely together, with a shared responsibility and reward. We can teach the value of work, since there are clear tangible results from the labor. By contrast with real work, where the result is an exchangable and fungible currency, in gardening the work results in tangible outputs that can be held, admired and consumed.
Lessons from the House Garden
So what does gardening teach us; and are there lessons for business? Gardening teaches us self-reliance. Last summer, I remember an article about people in California hiring garden specialist to plant and maintain private gardens in their backyard. These Californians were overseers of organic gardens where they could wander in and harvest, but did not share in the labors of the planting or tending. I can see the value of assistance, but such “hired gardeners” misses the point of the family plot. My son wants to harvest the cucumbers and sell pickles on the street in front of our house. If the success of the neighborhood lemonade stand or homemade cookie booth is any measure, this will be a losing proposition. Rather, we will share our harvest with friends and family over a few bottles of chardonnay.
Going beyond that garden, I am seeing my friends, colleagues and clients taking stock of their own lives; seeing what they can do for themselves, searching for stability and dependability in some form of self reliance. Some have been willingly, or unwillingly become entrepreneurs. Some, business owners, have shelved their growth plans and plans for world domination and looked to cut costs and moderate growth. Others have tried to do it all, as I have done in planting my garden, I have tried to grow plants from seed ($1.25 a packet) rather than buy a pre-grown plant ($3.50/plant).
In advising these friends and clients, I ask them not to consider the home garden in their business equations. Rather, they need to recognize that this is a time of examination and reinvestment. We cannot assume that all efforts will turn to gold. Nor can we sit back and try to do everything ourselves. There are specialists who can effectively aide us in our efforts and we should draw on their expertise. Yes, we should look at how efficiently we operate our business.
There is one lesson from the home garden. Years ago, during the days of communist rule in U.S.S.R. and the days of the collectivist farm, I was told a statistic, that the big farms of the Soviet Union, which occupied 95% of the arable land in production, produced 20% of the consumable food, and the 5% uncollectivised home farms produced 80% of the consumable food. If you look at the production per square foot of tended land in the typical home garden, the output will be 4-10 times the output of the same land in a commercial farm (go read Michael Pollan). And the lesson in the home farm is how to take that limit space, and with proper inputs and tending, make a sustainable business.