The Giving Nature of Plants

(view more articles in SOS Tompkins Weekly)

Tompkins Weekly 3-24-21

By Eric Banford

One of the issues that this pandemic has made very clear is how precarious our food system is. As soon as businesses started shutting down, there was a general panic, and people started stockpiling food and other essentials.

Shortages quickly became apparent as the sight of bare shelves appeared at every grocery store. This served to heighten people’s anxiety, causing them to hoard even more stuff. Would we run out of food?

Luckily, these shortages didn’t last long. Stores limited the number of certain items that could be purchased at one time, manufacturers kicked into overdrive, and essential workers stepped up their heroic efforts to get needed supplies to the public. Shelves slowly were restocked, and life returned to “normal,” at least as normal as life can be during a global pandemic.

But the lessons laid bare are important for us to pay attention to going forward. When one learns that there is only a three-day supply at any grocery store (the Just In Time theory of supply), how should we prepare for the potential breaking of our supply chains?

A local harvest of hazelnuts. Photo by Eric Banford

We’ve all lived through short disruptions like storms and, now, the start of this pandemic. But are there things we could be doing to prepare for longer disruptions, in case something worse comes our way?

Currently, we don’t grow all of our food locally. The growing season is fairly short, conditions vary year to year, and our temperate zone only supports certain cold-hardy plants.

Local farmers have done an amazing job of extending the growing season via greenhouses, high tunnels, hoop houses and other methods. If you visit the Winter Farmers Market, you already know that a beautiful variety of greens and root vegetables are available in the winter. How can we support even more of this?

The more we grow locally, the better off we are. Food travels fewer miles to get to your plate, and the potential to visit the farms that supply your food means you can know your farmer and how they manage their crops.

Buying local supports families who live here, who send their kids to a local school, pay local taxes and also shop at local stores. This recirculates the money you spend back into the community you live in, rather than sending it to some corporate headquarters thousands of miles away.

Something that is starting to take root here (pun intended) is plant and seed exchange groups. Perennial plants like currants, elderberry and hazelnuts (to name a few), are incredibly generous in their ability to self replicate.

I was given cuttings from one red currant bush a few years ago, and now I have rows of currants growing in my yard. I have started taking cuttings and giving them away to friends, sometimes as trades but often just for free.

Likewise with the elderberry I bought years ago. Every March, I take cuttings from last years’ growth, stand the cuttings in water and watch the roots magically appear. I’m slowly planting out rows of currants, elder, hazelnuts, mints, raspberries and many more plants that come back year after year. Each new plant can eventually be split, and you can see how over time the yields you can obtain keep growing and growing.

A new Facebook group was recently started called “Tompkins Plant and Seed Exchange,” and in one month, it has already grown to over 200 members. I started an exchange group in my town of Danby, and during last year’s exchanges, I came away with a lot of flowers and vegetable starts and the following edibles: Jerusalem artichokes, elderberry, lemon balm, apple mint, Chinese chestnut and goji berry.

You don’t need a lot of space to get started. Even a small section of yard can support a wide array of plants. I find great inspiration on YouTube by following the local Edible Acres channel.

Sean and Sasha Dembrosky describe their setup as “a permaculture nursery and forest farm research space focused on low and no tech solutions.” They manage a larger site near Trumansburg, but at their home on Ellis Hollow Road, they grow a lot of food on just a 1/4-acre space. You can learn a lot by watching their videos!

The Learning Farm runs educational programs for children, teaching kids about local, sustainable agriculture, where food comes from, and how to grow, make and eat healthy food. They even started a juicery to “craft a healthy juice alternative with fruit and vegetable components that is tasty, hydrating, and sweet — without added sugar.”

The Learning Farm is Black- and woman-owned, and its founders have African American and Indigenous farming histories.

Another local effort focused on food sovereignty and equitable food access is the Traditional Center for Indigenous Knowledge and Healing.

It is collaborating with Healthy Food for All, West Haven Farm and Fort Baptist Farm to provide a limited number of CSA shares to qualifying low-income households identifying as Indigenous, Black, people of color, including immigrants, refugees and people in reentry.

These are just a few examples of local efforts working to make our community more equitable and food secure. Thankfully, there are many more and the movement in this direction is gaining energy.

In times of crisis, more and more people start to garden, and the potential to make our local food system more secure is huge. During World War II, there were as many as 20 million Victory Gardens that supplied 40% of all the fruits and vegetables consumed in the U.S. Our parks and open spaces could be planted out with fruit and nut trees accessible to everyone.

How much could we grow locally? If we each started a few hardy perennials, and then started sharing cuttings with our neighbors, who then shared their future cuttings, could we eventually grow much of our food right here in Tompkins County?

Small things like this have a ripple effect. People save money, locally grown food has a smaller ecological footprint, and exchanging plants with neighbors grows community. Every plant exchange I have done strengthens my connection to others.

When I’m harvesting my beautiful currants, I think of my friend Fay, who gave me the initial plant. When I see Marianne shopping at GreenStar, she tells me how the elderberry I gave her is doing. Plants by their very nature are incredibly giving, and once you tap into that energy, it can become a passionate hobby, one that could lead to a more food secure future for all of us.

If you liked this article, you may want to check out our complete archives of SOS Tompkins Weekly articles