Food & Water featured

Growing food is work!

By Sharon Astyk, originally published by Sharon Astyk blog

July 11, 2023


I was reading some essay about gardening on the internet, and it sent me an advertisement for someone’s cool permaculture-inspired system that “produces a huge amount of food for only a few hours of work each month.”

I’ve seen that claim before, and I ever time I see it I laugh. Because, yes, it is much less work to grow perennial foods and you can definitely have an extremely productive garden while devoting only a fairly minimal amount of time to it, if you know what you are doing, but there’s a catch. Or, rather, several of them. Big ones.

First of all, there’s the learning curve to know what you are doing. As far I know, there’s no system in the world that will save you from making mistakes, so the odds are very good that it is going to take you a number of years of gardening to get any good at it, and you are going to devote more time to it at the beginning because you aren’t as good at it.

Growing food is just like every other exercise – no one learns to rock climb, knit, box, embroider, run, dance, make art, build things, etc… without a LOT of time being less productive than they’d like to be to get the skill set. Gardening and farming is the same. Yes, technically you can do a lot with a little. But optimization is a product of competence. And competence takes time.

And for the purposes of this post, even more importantly, let’s just say that there IS some magic system that will allow you to grow tons and tons of food, all you want, with minimal labor in soil preparation, planting, weeding, etc…. It is still going to be a metric fuckton of work, because THE HARVESTING, PREPARING, PRESERVING AND DEALING WITH THE FOOD IS A TON OF WORK. At least half.

So what cracks me up is the idea that growing a lot of food is going to be no problem, because the problem is then that you’ve grown a lot of food and you need to deal with it.

The reason we ignore this, of course, is that cooking, preserving and dealing with food and what to eat and how is women’s work. And we devalue women’s work enormously. The historic division of labor in agriculture recognizes that planting and hunting are actually no more onerous than harvesting and cooking and preserving – otherwise, it wouldn’t have taken multiple people to do it – but because women’s work doesn’t “count” we erase it. And now that erasure is leading people to miss the critical 1/2 of the agriculture work historically done by women, that needs to be done now by everyone.

Imagine writing that about any other activity “We teach you our simple system to help you take down any tree and ensure that you will have enough wood in that tree to get a ton of firewood!” “We teach you our foolproof hack that lets you get to work in half the time so that your day is basically over when you get there!” “We help you produce an almost infinite amount of code fast that you can just apply to any program!” So. Much. Bullshit.

You see the problem, right? Making a lot of stuff is only good if you know what to do with it, and the work is in the doing things. But we don’t “count” that as part of gardening or farming.

That doesn’t mean you have to cook or can everything – maybe you want to give your surplus away? Maybe sell it? After all that’s what a lot of farmers do, right? But THINK ABOUT IT. All those things take time and energy and resources – going to market is a ton- of work, so is preserving food.

Even finding appropriate places to *distribute and donate and making sure the folks who get it have access to what they need to preserve and prepare it is a lot of work (when I ran Schenectady Urban Farms and when I ran a CSA, this was a very large portion of my labor.)

My own garden year really starts the previous fall, but let’s pretend it starts in February when I start the first seeds, and ends in November when we clean up the garden. From February to June, most of the work is planting, weeding, tilling, transplanting, fertilizing, bed preparation, staking, trellising, etc…

Somewhere in June, the workload shifts to weeding, of course, and to harvesting, cooking, and preserving (and donating, because we also give a lot away) our food. And I work just as hard making sure the food doesn’t go to waste as I do getting the ground worked in the spring. The work is hard, hot, tiring and stressful – and also rewarding, delicious and wonderful. And it is a ton of work.

Now most gardeners really only want a small amount of food to eat fresh as side dishes – a few tomatoes, salad greens, a few favorite vegetables, and there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as you recognize that this is just growing salad, and bears the same relationship to growing your own food that making one scarf does to making all your clothing.

If you want to make a meaningful dent in your own diet, or your community’s diet, if you are concerned with longer term food security or think you might need to grow some quantity of what you eat, (and we are not going to grow all our food, folks, so let’s be realistic) this is a really important part of this. When I ran our community farm, I often saw people who would work diligently at the production of food – but were completely mystified by what to do with it. And that leads to a lot of waste.

Now the good thing is that your instincts about what you’d need to do to deal with this might not be right. Almost everyone immediately sees the word “preservation” and thinks “canning” – and quite a lot of people are overwhelmed by the idea. And you CAN preserve a lot of things that way.

But let us remember that for most of human history, canned food didn’t exist, and it is by no means the best or only way to preserve every food. Honestly, I advise people who are new to food preservation to start with dehydration and fermentation, and expand from there.

But there’s another step most people miss before that – learning to really eat the food – changing your diet. Now if you are growing it, you may already know you like carrots or tomatoes or peppers, right? But do you know how to eat these things AS MAJOR PARTS OF YOUR DIET?

Do you know how to preserve them, and eat the thing you preserve as a substantial source of calories and or nutrition? If you think you will only eat a lot of what you grow best in an emergency, that’s a problem, as we all know from covid, in a stressful situation you will want more familiarity, not less. If the foods you need to eat aren’t part of your diet and a source of comfort to you already, you are going to have a problem.

If you want to grow food (or even buy and eat primarily local food), you will need to do a bunch of things differently.

1. Recognize that it isn’t enough to plant stuff, that fully half the work happens when the stuff comes in. That means you need to plan for and figure out who will do the work of harvesting, cooking, preserving and figuring out meals that work with this. That is WORK and it takes TIME and it deserves to be treated as such. If you don’t have time to eat your eggplants and green beans and are buying fast food most days, that’s not growing your own food.

2. That serious gardeners and small home farmers eat differently. That the work of changing your diet to actually use all this food is a big job, and takes time and practice. If you grow food and don’t actually eat it most of the time, you aren’t growing much of your food. You need to spend time learning things, trying out recipes, techniques and ideas to make food palatable to your family. And that takes time and is work.

3. 1/4 of all food in the world is lost to food waste. Reducing waste IS AS IMPORTANT as producing food. It is lost to waste at multiple points in the system – in the field, when things can’t be harvested in time, in transport, at the point of preservation, and in your fridge when you don’t eat them for the fourth day in a row. Someone who grows food needs to be alert to all the stages (and no, there is no future with zero food waste – we can reduce it, but not eliminate it.)

4. If you think of food preservation and cooking unusual ingredients (or unusual parts of ingredients) as less important than the exciting, dramatic work of planting, you are probably internalizing some big fucking sexist shit, and should get over it right this minute. If you are a dude (or dude-like) and implicitly assuming your wife or girlfriend or some chick who works full time too will be better at doing this work than you are, or it is less important than your more manly projects, you are being an asshole. The truth is that if you look at agricultural societies they ALL share the heavy labor of harvesting and preserving, and even if women do the majority of cooking they do that AS A JOB. We need to count the unseen labor and openly evaluate who will do it and how they will be recompensed.

5. Growing food is literally a year round job. December and January are basically my only months off. If you think gardens are grown between May and September, unless you live in Alaska, you are missing a lot of food growing opportunities. But to do it, someone has to have the time, resources, knowledge and know how.

So yeah, when someone tells me “I can make a shit-ton of work for you to do in only a few hours a month” I recognize that they are either a. a cis white dude with a wife who he thinks magically does it for him or b. an idiot. Or maybe both. And if you are starting to grow food and thinking that dealing with all that eggplant looks like work…, you are catching on.


Photo by Sandie Clarke on Unsplash

Sharon Astyk is a Science Writer, Farmer, Parent of Many, writing about our weird life right now. She is the author of four books: Depletion and Abundance: Life on the New Home Front, which explores the impact that energy depletion, climate change and our financial instability are likely to have on our future, and what we can do about it. Depletion and Abundance won a Bronze Medal at the Independent Publishers Awards. A Nation of Farmers: Defeating the Food Crisis on American Soil co-authored with Aaron Newton, which considers what will be necessary for viable food system on a national and world scale in the coming decades, and argues that at its root, any such system needs a greater degree of participation from all of us; Independence Days: A Guide to Sustainable Food Preservation and Storage which makes the case for food storage and preservation as integral parts.