From panic planting to cooperative gardens, farmers focused on equity and food justice know that ‘if you can feed yourself, you can free yourself.’
Last weekend, Kristin Davey received an unexpected shock upon entering her local nursery in Sebastopol, California, north of San Francisco. “The shelves were picked over. The vegetable starts were almost gone. And the seed racks were completely bare,” she said, “I’ve been going to nurseries for 15 years and I have never seen them so empty.”
Davey went home empty-handed that day, and she is far from alone. Just as panic buying is emptying grocery shelves around the country, “panic planting” has overrun nurseries and seed companies alike as people flock to stock up on seeds and seedlings to grow food at home. Nurseries, which are considered essential businesses in some states, are scrambling to keep up with demand, and some have begun to offer curbside pickup and delivery to respect social distancing guidelines.
Seed companies are also inundated. Late last month, Baker Creek Heirloom Seedsclosed their website to catch up on a record number of orders, while Johnny’s Seed Company co-CEO Gretchen Kruysman reported that the company has seen a 300 percent increase in orders since early March.
“If you could see our graph of orders as a stairway to heaven right now, it’s going straight up,” Kruysman told Civil Eats. “We’ve never seen this happen before.”
On March 31, Johnny’s Seed Company announced they were halting sales to consumers for a week, focusing on sales to commercial growers while they catch up on a backlog of home garden orders from across North America.
As coronavirus keeps millions of Americans at home, anxiety and foresight are driving people to start or expand gardens as a real means to feed themselves. We may be on the verge of a resurgence of World War II-style “Victory Gardens.”
“People are thinking, ‘If I can’t get toilet paper, am I going to be able to get food?’” said Rose Hayden-Smith, a longtime community gardener and a Victory Garden historian, who recently retired from the University of California.
But many now have a steep learning curve ahead of them. For example, when Oregon State University (OSU) opened up their online Master Gardening series to the public in mid-March, the demand was unprecedented. Lindsey Shirley, the associate director of OSU’s extension service, said that more than 13,000 people signed up to take the course—compared to 105 people in 2019.
For this reason, many gardeners are also beginning to see food production as a collective effort—and one that has the potential to respond to historical inequities and re-frame yesterday’s Victory Garden in the vein of today’s food justice movements.
“People are trying to take responsibility and action to ensure their own health and well-being in the uncertainty in the future,” said Nate Kleinman, the founder of the Experimental Farm Network (EFN). But, he added, that will only truly work if they work for the health of their community as well.
Beyond the Victory Garden
Many have pointed to this new demand as a revival of the Victory Garden, which became popular during the two World Wars of the last century. Hayden-Smith noted that the idea of home gardening as a way to help the country shift its resources dates back to the economic depression known as the Panic of 1893, and really took off during World War I, when the U.S. mobilized millions of soldiers—largely drawn from the ranks of farm families. Everyone else was asked to ration food and grow a garden to fill in the gaps.
Hayden-Smith notes that, despite the fact that the coronavirus pandemic came on much more suddenly than either World War, individuals and communities are once again turning to gardening to create food security.
But Kleinman, and others, take issue with the use of the term “Victory Garden.” They point to the fact that part of the gap these gardens were intended to fill during World War II actually came about after many Japanese Americans farmers were forced off their land and put in concentration camps.
Yet, the practices of community gardening and farming has also long been an important key to survival and independence for marginalized folks.
“We have always seen, and continue to see, food sovereignty as linked to freedom for people,” said Leah Penniman, co-founder of Soul Fire Farm and author of Farming While Black. “If you don’t have any control over your food system,” Penniman stressed, “it essentially puts you at the whim of a racist, capitalist food system in terms of your basic survival needs.”
“Mama Fannie Lou Hamer said, ‘If you have 400 quarts of greens and gumbo soup put away for the winter, no one can push you around or tell you what to say or do,’” said Penniman. “And that was huge during the civil rights movement.”
But many Indigenous people and other people of color have been separated from their land, worsening systemic inequalities, such as access to fresh food, in a crisis like this one. These frontline communities are the same ones Soul Fire Farm has worked with long before the pandemic, but now they are seeing an overwhelming outpouring of interest in gaining access to home food production—primarily single parents, the elderly, refugees, people with an incarcerated loved one, and those who are living in food apartheid ZIP codes.
Soul Fire Farm hopes to help to meet the demand, ramping up their “Soul Fire in the City” program to connect city-dwellers with volunteers to install home gardens in urban areas. Usually they only install a handful of gardens per year, but as a result of the pandemic, they’ve received 50 requests already this year.
“As people see these supply chains crumble, and grocery stores empty, the importance of hyper-locality is being underscored,” said Penniman. “But I know that we will meet the need—we will make sure they all get gardens.” To reach even more people, Soul Fire Farm is hosting a weekly live chat, “Ask a Sistah Farmer,” to share basic gardening skills to everyone who is interested.
As with community gardens, urban home gardens can be a temporary solution to give control over food production to the people who most need it, while larger policy shifts are still needed to address systemic inequities.
“I don’t see a huge distinction, whether we’re talking about community gardens, home gardens, or school gardens—we just really need to localize our food and include more people in these relocalized food systems,” said Penniman.
She hopes that this crisis will lead to a huge food-system transformation, and that more people are able to be involved in feeding themselves, their families, and their neighbors.
“If you can feed yourself,” she says, “you can quite literally free yourself.”
Cooperative Gardens as the Way Forward
As individuals, nonprofits, and families rush to establish home gardens in the coming weeks, there’s a larger collective movement brewing to harness the momentum of the moment.
On March 18, EFN’s Kleinman created and widely shared a call to join a cooperative garden movement, supporting people to build “Corona Victory Gardens,” by matching people who need resources including seeds, clean soil, land access, or volunteer labor to those who can offer those resources.
The response was tremendous: Almost 1,000 people filled out the form in just a few days, and is now at nearly 1,500 responses. “It was kind of overwhelming. I did not expect to have so many people to come out of the woodwork so quickly,” he says. For Kleinman, who was involved in the Occupy movement, “it’s the biggest collective action I’ve seen in a very long time.”
Kleinman believes the rush to garden in community with others stems from a tangible fear that we will soon face severe food shortages in some parts of the U.S., based on these early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic—not to mention the 20 percent hike in food prices in China after COVID-19 disrupted the supply chain. From migrant workers not being able to enter the U.S. to work, to people being too scared or too sick to work, to untold closed businesses, there are a number of potential upcoming shocks to our food system.
“Millions of people around the world are thinking about growing food now,” Kleinman said. “We are starting this movement to support them. And we stand on the shoulders of the giants who’ve already been working for a movement like this for decades.”
Penniman underscores that sentiment, and points out that there have been thousands of Black and Indigenous people working tirelessly for decades, most without resources to ensure fair food for their communities. She names a long list in addition to Soul Fire Farm, including the Black Church Food Security Network, D-Town Farm, and Pauma Tribal Farms of the Payómkawichum Nation, to name just a few. She stresses the importance of supporting these groups right and ensuring that they can continue to do their work.
Kleinman quickly organized open conference calls that have been attended by hundreds of people from leading seed companies, farms, nonprofits, and food movement activists, and he anticipates ceding leadership over to them to others on the ground in various parts of the country. The loose coalition, fiscally sponsored by EFN, aims to stay extremely community-centered, focusing on the people who have needed food long before this pandemic.
“We’re clear that this movement will not be successful if we don’t center this on people of historically oppressed communities as leaders,” Kleinman said. “There are many, many leaders from those communities already and we’ll be so much stronger with them. This will take broad-based community efforts.”
They are calling the movement the “Cooperative Gardens Commission,” and they’re seeking 50 million volunteers to help bring it to life. “We are focusing on creating a movement built to last beyond the pandemic,” Kleinman said. Unlike Victory Gardens, he added, “Cooperative Gardens speaks much more to building something together, not just defeating something.”
Hayden-Smith also sees this as the start of a new movement in society. “Gardens right now are about comfort, inspiration, food security, connecting with nature, and learning a life skill that everyone should have,” she said. “But these will also be points of integration when we come out of this social isolation. Gardening is going to be a really important activity, and people are not going to let go of it.”
Looking to the future, Leah Penniman doesn’t think it will be possible to return to normal after what Americans are going through now. “I think there will only be a moving forward. This pause, I pray, is a reset button for us to realize what is actually essential and most important to our society,” she said, naming the treatment of farmers and healthcare workers in particular.
“We need to move forward informed by what we’ve learned in this crisis [about] what’s important in terms of our survival as a nation and as a species.”