What will we eat?

Leslie Carlson

Almost every weekend, our family visits my father-in-law at his house in SW Portland. His house sits on just over 1/4 acre on former farmland near Alpenrose Dairy, and visiting during the growing season is like a trip to a mini-farmers' market. Depending upon the time of year, we come home bearing bags, boxes and tubs of strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, one-pound tomatoes, giant zucchini, herbs, apples and grapes.

My father-in-law is like a lot of older people: he still remembers a time when your ability to grow your own food meant the difference between good health and bad, as well as more income for your family if you were lucky enough to grow a surplus. Today, when so much of what we eat is grown, processed and packaged far from our homes, few people know how to grow their own food.

Of course, that means a lot of knowledge about how to grow food is getting lost as well. My father-in-law (and many of his peers in their 80s and 90s) have what seems to be an innate ability to know when to plant something, how to plant it, what to feed it and when to water it, and how to fight pests. This knowledge is built on 10,000 years of tradition from the farmers of the Holocene period, the stable climactic period that is now probably ending.

News in the Oregonian today that Greenland's ice may melt completely in decades, rather than centuries, is worrisome in a number of ways. Greenland's ice melt may have direct consequences on West Coast weather; in particular, scientists now think we may have more rain and California less.

For me, there's one great unknown about global warming, and that's whether we will we be able to grow and reap enough food to feed everyone.

Of course human beings have been engaged in sowing and reaping food around the planet, moving crops from one continent to another, for millenia. I'm sure there people trying to figure out how to grow and sell different crops in new areas as I write.

And yet we have built up a huge body of knowledge about climactic zones and what grows best where. You can see this in Oregon's crops: pinot noir grapes in the Yamhill Valley, Syrah grapes in the Umpqua. Wheat in Eastern Oregon and pears and apples in the Columbia Gorge.

If it's wetter and warmer, do these crops still grow well in their respective areas? If not, what will we grow in their place? As Al Gore says, maybe there's another dangerous national security issue that we should be addressing in addition to terrorism.

These are dark thoughts, and I don't allow myself to dwell on them much. But still, when ominous signs like today's report on Greenland surface, I wonder if I should start stocking up on canned goods and powdered milk. Maybe those kooky survivalists will turn out to be right after all.

  • Ian (unverified)

    My wife and I grow our own vegies durning the summer. We also can them for the winter for our use. Both my wife and I learned from our parents and grandparents when to plan and what to feed the plants. It is a science that is passed down from generation to generation that is being lost to the throw away society that we live in. With global warming our area we will have a longer growing season that will actually in a real twisted way be behnificial to our food crops. While other areas of the country will face severe droughts and other major water shortages. Now some crops will not grow in warmer climates like some grapes etc. We will see some our crops move north or up in altitude for cooler temps. There is going to be big changes but from what I have read the changes here in the northwest wont be as severe as in other areas of the country.

  • Sarah C (unverified)

    We also grow some fruits and veggies in our yard - not much but some. I also got the knowledge of how to do this from my parents and I am passing it down to my kids. My five year old knows where food comes from - a lot of her classmates do not. Just like I did, she plants the peas. It is great to see her and her sister outside enjoying a snack of pea pods while they play.

    I had the opportunity to talk to a woman who was living in our house as a child during the depression. At that time her father turned the entire yard into a garden and that is what they lived off of. Our yard is very small but it would be enough. At this time we have more play and flower space then that would allow. Even so we do get veggies from it year round and we are expaning our fruit selections (bought trees yesterday) so that we will be able to have fresh fruit for six to nine months. I also do a little canning and freezing.

    Instead of devoting the entire yard to garden space we get a weekly delivery of mostly locally grown fruits and veggies. I think this is another way to fight the potential terrorist attack on our food source, keep the environmental impact down, etc. Buying from local farmers keeps their business alive.

    I agree with Ian that we will see a shift in crops and where they are grown. I am from the Midwest where summers are a lot hotter then they are here. My parents are able to grow a lot more corn, tomatoes, peppers, etc then I am. My FIL on Whidbey Island is only able to grow these with the help of a greenhouse. It will be interesting to see in the next few decades how that shifts.

  • Doug Dingus (unverified)

    We do this too. The next door neighbor shares a strip of yard with us, seperated by a small fence. So, we do beans and peas on that.

    It's a fun time of year. Often we will just go out and eat stuff, right from the plants. Fresh pickings of green beans, cooked slow for that evening dinner is just great too.

    IMHO, we need more people doing more of this, not less.

    With all the skinny houses, flag lots, etc... it's going to become even more of a lost art.

    Then there is all the things that go with that. Making Jam, canning, pickling, freezing... A family that works for a month can significantly reduce their food bill over the year. Well worth it, but for the always rising water bills.

    Drip feeders can help with this, BTW.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)

    I grow most of the produce my family eats. Warmer temperatures and more rainfall may sound beneficial, but that extra precipitation will likely come mostly in the already rainy season, and the warmer temperatures will mean less snow pack to supply summer runoff for irrigation [and other uses], while increasing the amount of water needed to irrigate crops. So, residents of Salmon Nation should not dismiss the problems of global warming.

    Since I mentioned salmon, we should also realize that warmer air leads to warmer water leads to fewer salmon in upstream waterways.

    On the plus side, I would not mind growing lemons and almonds in a California-like climate.

  • Sarah C (unverified)

    There is a new nursery in N Portland on N Vancouver and Skidmore that sells citrus trees. They are drawfs so in the summer they are outside and moved indoors for winter. If I had a spot indoors I would have a few. The same nursery is specializing in selling edibles that are also decorative.

    Yesterday we picked up columnar apple trees to grow in our small space. I think even people in skinny houses or flag lots can grow some of their food - these apples would work fine in a pot on a deck or patio. I know people in both situations and they find a way to work food into their landscape. Often it is planting trees and vines that produce fruit instead of decorative ones.

    We also have wonderful community garden spaces in Portland - a program that should get a lot of support. They have put gardens in some creative places that might not have been used otherwise (think by the water towers in NE). With creativity a lot of people can feed themselves. When I think that a family of four lived off of our backyard it is amazing - our back is only 30 by 40.


  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)

    It is difficult to be too worried about global warming. Did you hear the one about massive bubbles of hydrogen sulfide bubbling out of the oceans to cause mass extinction?

    "ain't no time to wonder why, whoopee, we're all gonna die"

  • j_luthergoober (unverified)

    May I recommend How to Grow More Vegetables by John Jeavons as a resource for all those skeptical of the quality of the American food supply?

    The mild Willamette Valley winters also allow for spectacular winter harvests of cool weather crops as well. See Winter Gardening in the Maritime Nortwest by Binda Colebrook and Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades by Steve Solomon for more info on growing high--quality food for all those around you...

    George Washington Carver is one of my all-time heros because of his insight into the benefits of small plot family farming. He clearly articulated the monetary and political advantages derived by not supporting the "company store."

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    Leslie, this is a great post.

    On your bigger picture points, you have hit the nail on the head -- the issue isn't just global warming but its interactions with human social structures.

    Part of what's implied in your post but could be drawn out more is the importance of the urban revolution of the past 200 years not only as a source of human-induced climate change, but as a source of vulnerability to it. Urban & suburban loss of food-growing knowledge is one example of a much larger phenomenon.

    Our societies are intensely and intricately interdependent with highly elaborated specialized divisions of labor. To a point this may make us better able to cope with climate change -- one of the key reasons for declining infant/child mortality rates which is the main factor in global expansion of lifespans is that markets get food to places that otherwise would suffer famine.

    (Of course, this depends on people earning money in a wage labor economy. John Iliffe, in The African Poor [Cambridge, 1987] makes an interesting case for how this changed punctuated famine episodes with deadly starvation and more importantly disease consequences into persistent and endemic poverty in Africa over the 19th & 20th centuries.)

    But beyond a point, if change is severe enough or fast enough, it is going to pose massive challenges to our interdependent systems. The effects of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans and other Gulf Coast communities illustrates all at once the vulnerabilities, the potential resilience of our complex systems to respond, and the limits of those abilities as presently organized.

    Another interesting book on how climate and food systems interact is Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts: El NiƱo Famines and the Making of the Third World (Verso, 2001.

  • (Show?)

    Sorry, I meant put in a close italics before the previous post.

  • michael (unverified)

    trevlig artikel L


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