WASHINGTON, D.C. — Sharon Astyk is concerned about the problems facing our world, from climate change to the food crisis. The farmer and social activist says everyone can be part of the solution if they start growing their own food and change the way they eat. Astyk, who practices what she preaches, believes this approach can provide better food, lead to better health and ensure a higher level of food security.
Agriculture, once the most common of human activities, must move back to the center of our lives, says Astyk. She calls on Americans to start growing their own food. She says the country needs 100 million new farmers.
"When I say farmers, I'm not necessarily assuming that people will go out and get a large tract of land in the American Midwest, which is our big agricultural area," she says. "I'm assuming people grow gardens or small-scale farms."
That's what people around the world do, she says, noting the practice has become increasingly more common across the United States, as well.
"Eighty-five percent of the farms in the world are small farms under 5 hectares," she says. "Small-scale agriculture is the norm in most of the world. Even in the United States, small farms are enormously productive and produce a lot of food. But we have this perception that our food must be grown on a huge scale."
Smale-scale farming could bring big changes
In their new book, A Nation of Farmers, Astyk and her co-author Aaron Newton argue that small-scale farming provides the answer to the challenges our planet faces today, from reversing climate change to conserving energy to restoring economic stability.
"Most of the largest producers in the developed world are heavily industrialized, and they are simply dependent on supplies of fossil fuel that may not be available to them in the long term," she says. "Unfortunately, the larger the scale, the more petroleum we use to substitute for things like human labor and attention. And almost everybody, whether they have fossil fuel agriculture or not, is of course vulnerable to climate change. We're facing an enormous shift in our ability to grow food, because as the world warms, it reduces the yields of the grains we mostly depend on, and it also drives out a lot of land."
Gardening still possible, even in urban areas
A Nation of Farmers also offers guidance on how to grow vegetables and fruits in the smallest plots of land — urban gardens.
"It isn't rocket science," she says. "At least many people will have, when they were in school, pushed a bean seed into a little plastic cup and tried it once before. It's really a lot like that. I think the best thing to do would be to just start. A lot of Americans spend a lot of time and energy maintaining their grass lawns. You can take the time and energy you're spending on that and now spend it on getting food from your space.
"If you don't have land, most cities have community gardens. They have public spaces that have been turned into garden allotments. And certainly that's a good place to look, but also, people should start thinking about roof tops, about balconies, about what they can do in containers."
But for the urban gardening movement to expand, Sharon Astyk says, Americans must develop a new perspective on agriculture.
"This work has to be valued," she says. "For a long time, I think, in the United States, agriculture was something that other people were supposed to do for us, and we were better than that and we didn't need to act like our grandparents anymore. I think one of the ways to make it a movement is to start in the schools with children when they're young, with everybody making the point that this isn't the old way. This is the new way. This is how things once were, but it's also how we want things to be."
The joys of homegrown food
In addition to growing their own food, Astyk says Americans must also change the way they eat. She recommends a diet that emphasizes seasonal produce and local foods.
"Over the last 100 years, Americans have shifted to this model where all their food is trucked in from long distance; everything is available all year round," she explains. "It's really a very strange way to eat. We don't think of it as strange anymore, but it is very weird. And so I think one of the things that's gradually happening is that Americans are starting to wake up [and say,] 'You know, even if you can get strawberries in February, they don't taste like strawberries!' They are starting to recognize that what matters here is the nutritional value of our food, the healthfulness and the flavor."
Astyk speaks from experience. Nine years ago, her family started to grow their own food on their small farm in upstate New York.
"My husband and I had absolutely no experience in this," she says. "I mean, I'd had little gardens up in my city balconies, but other than that, I had no farming experience, and all the farmers in our family were several generations back. So, it was a kind of a crazy thing to do, and yet we picked up. We made a lot of mistakes, but we found that we were getting ahead [learning] pretty quickly at it.
"We raise our own milk and eggs with chickens and goats and most of our own produce. My kids eat almost every vegetable you can imagine because they get to help plant them and play with them. We get to eat food we could really never afford any other way — I mean, the best food there is — simply because those ripe strawberries and those delicious tomatoes are coming from our yard."
Sharon Astyk says she hopes A Nation of Farmers will help people understand the importance of becoming more self-sufficient in raising their own food. With more part-time farmers across the nation, she says, there will be an abundance of locally grown organic produce and a huge savings in resources and health care.