Gardening and Emptying the Breadbasket

February 7, 2013
Essays of Travel
February 7, 2013

Gardening and Emptying the Breadbasket

Passage 1

Written in 1917

(1)     The food we eat, the clothes we wear, and the house which shelters us, are three great necessities of life. Of these three necessities, food is by far the most important. The ordinary family plans to spend a large part of the daily wages for food. If times are bad, we can live in smaller houses and be very comfortable. We can wear the same clothes twice as long as we expected to, and still not suffer from the cold. But with food it is very different. We must constantly provide ourselves with a nourishing diet, or our strength fails, health gives way, and great suffering is the final result. For a useful and happy existence, nourishing food is of the first importance.

(2)      During the past few years we have heard more and more complaints about the hardships which millions of people in America have suffered because of the high cost of nourishing food. During the period when the country was young there was plenty of food. The vast fields of the South and West were covered by the richest earth, which rewarded a small effort with a wonderful harvest. On the plains beyond the Mississippi, millions of cattle and sheep wandered and fed at will, providing us with the best of meat which cost little but the effort to bring it to market.

(3)     Gradually this has changed. The great cattle ranges are no more. -Villages and farmhouses dot the prairies where, a few years ago, there was not even a fence. The fertile fields of the South and West no longer produce rich harvests almost unaided, as they did before. Now they must be fertilized and given careful culture.

(4)      At first one might suppose that this left a poor prospect for our future food supply. It does not; the prospect is as good as ever. It means that the whole plan of the family in regard to its food supply must be changed. What Mother Nature freely provided, almost of herself, she will continue to provide as bountifully as before, but now she must be helped in the work. Hereafter man must study the problem of his food supply and must stand ready to give the aid that Nature needs to insure an abundance of nutritious food.

(5)      Americans have just begun to understand the meaning of the high cost of food. For many years workmen hoped to relieve their condition by demanding higher wages. Step by step wages advanced, but the general food condition did not improve. The larger wages bought no more food than the small wages had. Indeed, frequently they did not buy so much.

(6)      The men on the farms had to feed the men in the factories and in the cities. As the farms became less easy to work, and harvests required greater labor, the number of those in the factories and cities who produced no food became greater. Food became scarcer and cost more. Then the men in the factories said, “We cannot live and buy food on the wages we get now. We must have more wages.”

(7)     They got more wages. Then the factory owners had to raise the price of the shoes and hats and clothing they made, to pay the higher wages. Soon the farmer found that he had to pay more for everything he bought, and the men he hired refused to work unless he paid them more, because their friends in the factory were getting higher wages.

(8)     There was just one thing for the farmer to do — pay his greater expenses and charge still more for the food he raised. It is perfectly clear that it makes no difference in this food question how many times the wages are raised. The farmer must meet the new expenses each time and get enough more for his food to pay the difference, or go out of business.

(9)     What can be done to relieve this situation? There is one way, and only one way, out. The number of those who grow food must be greatly increased. All must join hands and help solve the food problem. If this had been proposed ten years ago, the city people and the factory people would have declared that they had no chance to do this, that they had no gardens to work, and no opportunity to get any. But the terrible calamity which has fallen upon the world has proved all this untrue. City people and factory people can get gardens to work and must work them.

(10)     Even in our largest cities many acres of ground have been found available for gardens, and thousands, who formerly longed for something interesting to do through the idle hours of long summer days, have discovered the delight of planting seeds and sharing in the miracle of the growing and ripening crops. They are also learning that health and vigor come through hours of happy labor in the garden. There is no pursuit which brings more blessings in its train.

(11)     Every man who makes two blades grow where one grew before helps reduce the high cost of food. There is no other sure way. In the small gardens, which we now realize are, after all, available to all who really want them, enough can be grown to swing the balance and bring the cost of food within the earning power of the ordinary working man. This will relieve the pressure on the farmer, who can produce special foods, not suitable to the small garden, at a profit to himself and at a price within the means of the people in the factories and cities.

(12)     The terrible conditions which have opened the eyes of all to the possibilities around them for gardens and food production will soon pass away, but the food problem will never pass away. Unless the more bulky and perishable varieties of food are produced near home the same hardships which have beset the American people will return in double measure, till at last they are forced to a full realization of the food problem and how it may be solved.

Passage 2

Emptying the Breadbasket

Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, April 29, 2008

(1)     At Stephen Fleishman’s busy Bethesda shop, the era of the 95-cent bagel is coming to an end. Breaking the dollar barrier “scares me,” said the Bronx-born owner of Bethesda Bagels. But with 100-pound bags of North Dakota flour now above $50 — more than double what they were a few months ago — he sees no alternative to a hefty increase in the price of his signature product, a bagel made by hand in the back of the store. “I’ve never seen anything like this in 20 years,” he said. “It’s a nightmare.”

(2)     Fleishman and his customers are hardly alone. Across America, turmoil in the world wheat markets has sent prices of bread, pasta, noodles, pizza, pastry and bagels skittering upward, bringing protests from consumers. But underlying this food inflation are changes that are transforming U.S. agriculture and making a return to the long era of cheap wheat products doubtful at best.

(3)     Half a continent away, in the North Dakota country that grows the high-quality wheats used in Fleishman’s bagels, many farmers are cutting back on growing wheat in favor of more profitable, less disease-prone corn and soybeans for ethanol refineries and Asian consumers. “Wheat was king once,” said David Braaten, whose Norwegian immigrant grandparents built their Kindred, N.D., farm around wheat a century ago. “Now I just don’t want to grow it. It’s not a consistent crop.”

 (4)     In the 1980s, more than half the farm’s acres were wheat. This year only one in 10 will be, and 40 percent will go to soybeans. Braaten and other farmers are considering investing in a $180 million plant to turn the beans into animal feed and cooking oil, both now in strong demand in China. And to stress his hopes for ethanol, his business card shows a sketch of a fuel pump.  Across the Red River and farther north, in Euclid, Minn., Don Strickler, 63, describes wheat as “a necessary evil.” Most years, he explained, farmers lose money on it. Still, it provides conservation benefits and can block diseases in soybeans and sugar beets when rotated with those crops.

(7)     Wheat’s fall from favor, little noticed when it was cheap, has been long coming. Though still an iconic symbol of American abundance — engraved on currency and praised in song — the nation’s amber waves of wheat have been increasingly shoved aside by other crops. The “breadbasket of the world,” which had alleviated hunger and famine since World War I, now generally supplies only a quarter of world wheat exports.  U.S. farmers are expected to plant about 64 million acres of wheat this year, down from a high of 88 million in 1981. In Kansas, wheat acreage has declined by a third since the mid-1980s, and nationwide, there is now less wheat in grain bins than at any time since World War II — only about enough to supply the world for four days.

(8)     Science, weather, economics and farm policy have all played a part in the changes. U.S. wheat yields per acre have increased little in two decades, partly because commercial seed companies have all but abandoned investments in improved varieties, preferring to focus on the more profitable corn and soybeans. Subtle warming changes in the climate and the recent availability of new plant varieties that thrive in cold, dry conditions have pushed the corn belt north and west.

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