Vegetable Gardens Are Booming in a Fallow Economy
Garden plots are dug into the green hills, laid out in fuller force than people have seen in years. People call them sturdy patches of protection in uncertain times.
“You see a lot more people turning up ground,” said Wanda Hamilton, 61, a lifelong gardener who sells her surplus vegetables at the farmers’ market in West Liberty, a small town in the Appalachian foothills. “It’s the economy. You just can’t afford to shop at the store anymore.”
It is not just eastern Kentucky. Vegetable gardening has been on the rise across the country, according to Bruce Butterfield, research director at the National Gardening Association, driven by rising food prices and a growing contingent of health-conscious consumers. Garden-store retailers have reported increased sales over the past two years, he said, and many community gardens have waiting lists.
“Our sales have skyrocketed,” said George Ball, chief executive of Burpee, one of the largest vegetable-seed retailers. The jump, he said, began around the time Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008, when anxiety about money started to rise.
In urban areas, the words “locally grown” conjure images of affluent shoppers in pricey farmers’ markets. But in rural America, consumers are opting for locally grown food — from their own gardens and neighboring farmers — largely because it is cheaper.
Rebecca Frazier, a teacher here, said she had cut her food bill in half by growing her own and preserving and by buying in bulk from local farmers. She recently paid $10 for 40 pounds of sweet potatoes, a fraction of the store price.
“I’m getting twice the food for a whole lot less money,” she said.
Timothy Woods, a professor of agricultural economics at the University of Kentucky who has studied the evolution of farmers’ markets in the state, said more rural residents were selling surplus out of their gardens for supplemental income, a pattern that has helped double the number of farmers’ markets in eastern Kentucky since 2004.
Those markets are geared to shoppers who want to buy in bulk at the lowest possible price in order to pickle, can, dry and freeze, Mr. Woods said — unlike urban markets, where customers pay double rural prices and typically eat what they buy right away.
“You won’t see certified organic products or any fancy marketing,” he said of rural markets. “It’s a very different world.”
Ms. Hamilton began selling about 10 years ago when her garden produced more than she could handle. She knows she could charge more but doesn’t, because her customers “are struggling just like me.” Nearly two-thirds of her sales are to elderly residents who are using government food vouchers.
Another motivation for bigger gardens: the financial uncertainty that comes with retirement.
Brenda Engle, 56, an apparel factory employee, and her husband, Leon, 64, a former telecommunications company employee who works at Wal-Mart, are trying to squeeze their budget down to the size of their future retirement check.
They grew a year’s worth of beans. “We want to be self-sufficient,” said Ms. Engle, who has even started making her own laundry detergent.
Her garden is also therapy.
“When I’m in the garden,” she said, “the world is gone.”
Sarah G. Fannin, an agriculture educator who works with the University of Kentucky’s cooperative extension service to take research to people in the county, said calls for gardening assistance had doubled in the past three years, many from young people. Gardening classes have been full, she said, as has a class on canning taught by a colleague.
At J. A. Oldfield & Son, a country store in the area, vegetable seed sales have doubled in recent seasons.
And eastern Kentucky has a keen interest in cooking. Mr. Woods said residents were more likely to watch food shows on television than people in the more affluent, western part of the state, citing a survey he conducted in 2009.
“Ten years ago, we hadn’t really been thinking about where our food was coming from other than the drive-through or the grocery store,” Ms. Fannin said. “Now there’s more concern.”
That is because — at least in the opinion of Ms. Frazier, the teacher — health has become a bigger issue for more people here, partly as a hedge against rising health care costs. She said she planted her garden in 2008 after her daughter started having health problems.
Gardening doesn’t necessarily lead to better health, of course. But Bridget C. Booske, a senior scientist at the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, said Morgan County, where West Liberty is, seemed to be better off than its neighbors.
People in the county live longer, and fewer babies are born underweight, she said, citing County Health Rankings, a ranking of American counties, published this summer, that she helped compile. Better trauma care in the county would contribute but not entirely account for better rates, she said.
Still, the rates of obesity and diabetes remain high, and a significant improvement in health will be possible only when the joblessness and poverty here ease, locals said.
Ms. Fannin said vegetables could be part of this area’s economic future. She has urged farmers to start growing sweet potatoes, a hardy crop in vogue in urban kitchens. Robert Bradley, a coal worker turned farmer, said he had been laughed at when he first planted them, but his crop turned out so well that other farmers want to try.
His ultimate insurance policy, however, is his own garden.
“When I go to my cellar and get my own green beans and potatoes, I know I won’t go hungry,” he said.
Via: The New York Times