Sharing and Self-Reliance in a Sustainable Economy

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Tompkins Weekly July 18, 2011. By Gay Nicholson

It was another serene summer evening as I joined TeeAnn Hunter, Town of Ithaca board member, for a tour of the town’s West Hill community garden near the Linderman Creek Apartments. TeeAnn was the driving force behind the garden, leading the effort to win a Park Foundation grant for the garden’s impressive deer fence. The large garden now serves a diverse mix of residents working the soil to grow their own organic fruits and vegetables. Sustainable Tompkins had supported the garden with $750 in mini-grants to buy tools, seeds, and fruit trees; and I was pleased to see the red raspberry bushes donated from my garden in full bushy splendor, loaded with ripening berries.

All across our community, people are stepping into their gardens to weed and water, and to revel in the joy of harvesting fresh, healthy food for their tables. During our visit, two older Ukrainian residents beamed with pride as we gestured our praise for their thriving plots of potatoes, tomatoes, currants, and dozens of other vegetables. I believe we all shared that curious mix of feelings that gardening brings: of soul satisfaction from the beauty of the textures, scents, and physicality of being in the garden; alongside a bit of pride about the exquisite taste and good health shared with those who will eat our harvest. But woven throughout the gardener’s emotions is the sense of safety that arises out of the ability to feed oneself.

There are many reasons for the rapid increase in popularity of community gardens, but fundamental to the trend is the economic impact it has on households made vulnerable by the teetering global economy. For so many modern Americans, the garden is where they are rediscovering the oldest form of household economy – self provisioning. The more you can provide for yourself, the less money you have to spend on hiring others to do things for you, and the more autonomy and freedom you experience in your life because you are less dependent on a paycheck handed to you by somebody else.

When we garden, we reduce our need for grocery dollars in our household budget, but we are also likely to save a bundle of money on doctor bills down the road because of the outdoor exercise and healthier diet. Learning to sew and refashion clothing is another time-tested act of self reliance, as is learning to preserve food or repair your house, appliances, furniture, cars, and bikes. All of the above activities are well supported by local citizen groups and nonprofits providing training and support (see the Tompkins Sustainability Map at There is a really rich local movement toward reclaiming skills that our grandparents typically possessed.

Right alongside the trend of “Do It Yourself” has been the instinct for sharing and trading as ways to replace cash flow in a household economy. Sharing comes naturally within families, among neighbors, and between gardeners; which often leads to swapping and trading. Extra garden produce, tools, knowledge, tips, child care, pet care, clothing…. the list is long of what people typically share or swap. Locally we’ve witnessed a boom in much broader sharing and trading networks as our community becomes ever more creative at using social media for shifting economic value away from cash transactions (for example Ithaca Freecycle, Share Tompkins, Ithaca Freeskool, crop mobs, Swidjit, Harvestation). The ethic of sharing is being rediscovered as people discover the good feelings of mutual aid and a lighter footprint on the earth.

The stock market is reeling again, Europe is nervous, U.S. democracy is on the ropes. Gardeners carry their harvest inside as the fireflies begin to dance, and feel comforted that this, at least, is within their control.

Gay Nicholson is President of Sustainable Tompkins and a long-time gardener.



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