There are many reasons to grow your own food. As many different global events have showed us, relying solely on a fragile food chain to feed the citizens of a country can be disrupted almost immediately with a crisis. From war, pandemics, weather events and more there really has never been a better time to take control of your own food. In this article, we will explore how agriculture, new and old traditions, inform how we can grow our own food at home.
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There are many different ways that gardening and agriculture go hand-in-hand. The local vegetable farmer has similar issues as the gardener but with the main difference being scale. Any pests you may have they will likely have as well or have tackled before. Lots of lessons from agriculture can be applied to your own garden.
To help reduce disease and pest pressure, many farmers participate in crop rotation. On of the best ways is to move your crops of annuals yearly to different location or even leave a bed empty or filled with cover crop to give the soil a break. According to the Rodale Institute, crop rotation is the practice of planting different crops sequentially on the same plot in order to “improve soil health, optimize nutrients, and combat pests and weeds.”
In practice this means, on many acres, this can go from corn to soybeans, to wheat and so on through either an entire year or from season to season. The concept is definitely applicable to the home garden or homestead. For example in raised beds or a small row plot, you could have your brassicas one year, root crops (beets, carrots, etc.) the next year and then nightshades (tomato, eggplant, pepper, etc.).
For integrating flowers and perennials can be a little trickier as they either return every year (such as bulbs) or they are woody and will not die back. In those cases, you can take a more permaculture approach where these permanent plants support the life of annuals and rotate them such as bean vines climbing sapling apple trees interplanted with short root crops such as radishes.
Stacking functions is the practice of having multiple applications or tasks in the garden to happen together or work in concert. For example, you could make it to where you have a compost pile that reuses waste, provides nutrients when used, covers the bare soil. It also refers to one task doing two things such as a tree providing fruit and shade.
Building efficiencies into your garden is an absolute must in farming. Farmers are regularly reassessing their strategies and looking for cost-effective and efficient methods to farm. This includes getting multipurpose tools, reducing labor, automation
In farming, water flow, water management and irrigation are integral to growing crops on a large scale. Most farms cannot rely on rain alone and need to assist their plants during times of drought or wet and dry periods. Plants need a relatively consistent amount of water, even the big forests, in order to thrive and provide food.
Some farms use swales and cover crops in the landscape providing water the crops can access. Many indigenous communities have been using these techniques for millennia and been able to remain resilient through extreme weather events.
Essentially, you need good, healthy, microbial soil that is not bear and open to the elements. It should be able to exchange oxygen, capture carbon and grow the crops you need to eat or sell. To do that an ecosystem needs to be established but can take time. In order to preserve water in the interim there are several techniques you can employ:
This is a series of tubes with a steady pressure that is turned on and off automatically with small holes or tiny spray heads that keep the water near the roots of the plants. This reduces evaporation which is a huge issue with the normal irrigation you see on landscaping.
These are essentially contours in the natural topography that are used to capture water during heavy rains. Small pools form and hold water in the soil to slowly release over time to the landscape around the area.
Generally you will not find big water tanks to capture water in agriculture. Even the largest tanks tend to be too small. Instead, some farms like Apricot Lane Farms, employ either man-made or natural ponds. These have such a large surface area that they can capture a lot of rain at once. That is then pumped and used as irrigation throughout the area. This is not as practical at a home garden, so many people do use things like roof runoff to help irrigate their gardens.
Integrated Pest Management
Pests are a common issue in agriculture that many farmers have to deal with. One of the ways they do this is through integrated pest management which is usually a combination of natural, organic, non-organic and traditional ways to keep populations of certain pests under control.
In an ideal world, you have created an ecosystem that is in harmony. In my own garden I have attempted to do this in one of the following ways. Every year for about 4 years, I would have a huge tomato hornworm problem. This year, I decided to not get rid of the wasps in my yard. Despite being stung and worrying about my children. For the most part we were mutually avoiding each other. But I immediately noticed there was a huge drop in the hornworm population. I even found a few dead, from wasps.
This is to illustrate that you can try to encourage natural predators and balanced systems in order to not have to use chemicals but it does not always work. Then you can bring in organic and non-organic pesticides. I will say many farmers have noted after stopping use, sometimes the pests come back with vengeance before tapering off. Some good options include neem oil, pyrethrum, diatomaceous earth and BT. I use a little dawn dish soap diluted for small issues like fire ants and aphids.
Fertility in Agriculture
Living soil is the backbone of a garden or farm. For many years, since industrialization, farms have relied on heavy machinery and chemical inputs to essential mimic a healthy biodynamic ecosystem in order to scale up. The way farmers add fertility to the main staples in the United States (corn, soybean and wheat) is through specially designed NPK (nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium) chemical mixes distributed on such a large scales we are talking in the millions of acres.
In fact, the EPA says “contain the three basic plant nutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium” but as any farmer will tell you, there is often more to the story. Those are macronutrients plants needs, but they also need micronutrients. These include some of the following: manganese, magnesium, copper, boron, chlorine, zinc and others.
There are entire books written on soil. Definitely check out this book from Farmer Jesse about how to keep soil alive. However, the basics are “minerals, organic matter, water and air. The typical soil consists of approximately 45% mineral, 5% organic matter, 20-30% water, and 20-30% air” according to the University of Hawaii.
This includes the packaged soil you buy from a big box store as well as the “dirt” in your lawn. The biggest distinction is that soil is ALIVE. It includes bugs, creatures, rhizomes, mycelia, fungi, etc. You as a gardener want to encourage this life. If your soil is alive, your plants will thrive.
Going from a home garden to a farm does essentially include all the costs and issues of scaling up. Many people are limited on space so scaling up may not be an option for you. However, if you do have a bit of land you need to consider the benefits of adding plants. That all boils down to your ultimate goal.
My goal is to feed my family off of what I grow. This is monumental and almost impossible in the my space but I can do things like go from one green bean plant (enough for a meal every few weeks) to 10 (canning and freezing excess to use in later meals).
In agriculture, especially industrialized this is an exact science in many ways. Unlike maybe a casual gardener, you need to know exactly where all your plants are, how many you have of each kind and variety growing, when they need to be put in the ground, when they need to be pulled, when to harvest and what season is best. With all of that information you can learn this way as well on a smaller scale.
The most important component is excellent note keeping. You should be referring to the farmer’s almanac, your local extension office, soil testing, reading seed packets, planning the garden through every season and measuring your spacing well in order to go from a few plants here and there to enough to provide.
Efficiencies are the best way to do that. Say for example you have a row of broccoli. That provides you with 10 heads of broccoli and then the harvest is over. Well if you are scaling up you may consider succession planting. Put one row a week a part of 3 rows and you will have 30 broccoli. Each row harvested is ready to plant something else in the place of the first one immediately.
What other lessons can you learn?
There are entire schools and colleges devoted to teaching horticulture and agriculture to thousands every year. These are just a few examples you can explore for your own garden. What else can you learn from agriculture?