Americans finding soaring food prices hard to stomach are battling back by growing their own food. Home vegetable gardens appear to be booming as a result of the twin movements to eat local and pinch pennies. Although the 2008 planting season is still largely in the planning stages, it appears vegetable seed sales will be up significantly from year-ago figures, said Barb Melera, president of D. Landreth Seed Co., in New Freedom, Pa.
`I just came back from the Southeastern Flower Show in Atlanta and we sold three to four times the amount of seed packets we did the previous year,` Melera said. `This is the first time I`ve ever heard people say`I can grow this more cheaply than I can buy it in the supermarket.` That`s a 180-degree turn from the norm.`
Roger Doiron, a gardener and fresh food advocate from Scarborough, Maine, said he turned $85 worth of seeds into more than six months of vegetables for his family of five.
In mid-February the family still had `several quarts of tomato sauce, bags of mixed vegetables and ice-cube trays of pesto in the freezer; 20 heads of garlic, a five-gallon crock of sauerkraut, more homegrown hot pepper sauce than one family could comfortably eat in a year and three sorts of squash, which we make into soups, stews and bread,` he said.
As founding director of Kitchen Gardeners International, a nonprofit group promoting home gardening and healthier food, Doiron pays close attention to pocketbook issues. Food prices, gasoline prices and oil prices are all up sharply compared to a year ago, making it more challenging to put a meal on the table, Doiron said.
`I see home gardens as a way of broadening and democratizing the local foods revolution which until now has been more of an upper-class phenomenon,` he said by e-mail. `Home gardening allows people to have their fresh, organic salad greens and pay for them, too.`
At $3.80 a gallon, whole milk cost more through November of last year than the $2.99 average for unleaded gas, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and AAA.
Egg prices were 19.5 percent higher in June of 2007 than they were the previous June, the U.S. Department of Labor said. Over that same period, the cost of whole milk rose 13.3 percent, fresh chicken was up 10 percent, apples 11.7 percent, dried beans 11.5 percent and white bread 9.6 percent.
And the worst may be yet to come. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization said retail prices would continue to climb as more agricultural crops, primarily corn, are processed into biofuels. Greater demand from India and China also are contributing to what likely will be long-term food cost increases, the agency said.
Those conditions are ripe for an increase in gardening, said Rose Hayden-Smith, a garden educator and historian with the University of California-Davis.
`You always see an uptick in gardening activity in keeping with economic conditions -- consumer-driven waves that emulate recession and inflation-driven economies,` Hayden-Smith said.
Hayden-Smith compares the current period of market uncertainty with that of the early- to mid-20th century when the concept of `victory gardens` became popular in the United States, Canada and Europe.
`A lot of companies during the world wars and the Great Depression era encouraged vegetable gardening as a way of addressing layoffs, reduced wages and such,` she said in a telephone interview. `Some companies, like U.S. Steel, made gardens available at the workplace. Railroads provided easements they`d rent to employees and others for gardening.`
During World War II, gardens were pitched as an important part of the war effort -- by war`s end, the victory gardens were turning out 40 percent of the nation`s produce, freeing up big farms to supply the troops. And they were important at home in a time of rising food prices and rationing, Doiron said.
`Home gardens made the difference between people being well-fed and going to bed hungry,` he said, adding that the gardens increased consumption of fruits and vegetables to historic highs.
Now, as then, gardeners are getting serious about what they`re planting; the gardeners who Melera met at the recent trade show were not just interested in flowers or hobby plants.
`They came to me with things like, `How can I maximize what I put into a small plot?`` she said. `They`re beginning to think in the old-fashioned way about vegetable gardening not just being there for entertainment purposes. They need it to yield stuff.`
Jim Gerritsen, co-owner of WoodPrairie Farm, a certified organic, family-run operation near Bridgewater, Maine, said his sales are up.
`This year, we`re getting more questions tied into self-reliance,` he said. `We`re hearing new gardens are being prepared for the first time, former gardeners are coming back to the garden and existing gardens are being enlarged.`