“We must cultivate our garden.” Voltaire

The crack of the bat. The soft shoosh of the shovel blade sliding into the yielding earth. The satisfying humpf of a baseball smacking a leather mitt. Coming out of its winter hibernation, the wheelbarrow squeaks its way across the backyard, signaling resistance to the heavy load of manure. Cool and moist, the early morning dew settled across the local baseball diamond, then rose in a mist before the sun’s early rays. The garden bed thawing in the April warmth exhales a last cold breath followed by hints of richly scented fecundity. The dirt is already under my nails; the first beads of perspiration bubble across my brow.

Whether scooping up ground balls or plunging garden implements into the ground, spring’s necessary rhythms ground me. The weekend’s choices boil down to two: do I spend the day in my favorite sun-drenched seat, ten rows back from first base at the nearby minor league baseball park, or, wrapped in my ill-fitting, unfashionably ripped denim work jacket (it was roomy 40 years ago), do I push snap pea seeds knuckle deep into the moist soil until my fingers grow stiff with cold.

For a moment, fantasy gets the best of me. I see myself moving with balletic grace around my living room sofa to spear a sizzling hot groundball. With a pivot that would put Derek Jeter to shame, I make a whiplash sidearm throw to my television set across the room turning the double play. The crowd erupts; the fans are on their feet; I tip my cap.

Then reality sets in. The garden won’t plant itself. Those hundreds of seedlings I started indoors under Gro-lights are screaming for more space. Night temperatures still hover around freezing, but the days are warm and welcoming. The planting instructions on the Johnny’s seed packet issue a Calvinist warning, “Begin sowing in spring as soon as the garden soil is prepared,” implying that those who are lazy and negligent will bring shame upon themselves and endure a long, hungry winter. Bouncing a rubber ball off my back wall does little to advance my food security; a hotdog-chomping day at the ballpark creates a mountain of opportunity costs I can’t afford. And in spite of my wildest hopes, The Baseball Encyclopedia has no record of someone my age ever being called up to the majors.

But even stronger forces eclipse the garden’s seasonal imperatives, my fantasies, and the fable of the grasshopper and ant. Taken individually and spread out across the globe as they are, any one event now impinging on food production or distribution may elicit our sympathies but may not necessarily raise a personal alarm. Food inflation is one item that makes shoppers skittish, especially as it did this past summer when it was rising faster than the foam on a badly poured beer. Though the upward food price trend has moderated substantially, the Republicans love to gin up their base with fears of mass starvation based on months-old data. However, they give little attention to the underlying and shifting causes of food inflation that don’t often find their way into our daily newsfeeds.

For instance, the war in Ukraine has thrown grain markets for a loop, droughts in India, Indonesia, and other Asian food exporters have reduced harvests, and Pakistan lost much of their crops to torrential flooding in 2022. The litany of man-made causes of hunger and food insecurity (war and the real starvation in Gaza due to the near-genocidal behavior of Israel), and the man-nurtured causes (natural disasters that have a close climate change link) can send world food supplies and prices into a tailspin. Some of these forces were responsible for driving up the Asian benchmark price for rice by 25 percent last winter. Hiral Patel, the head of sustainable and thematic research at Barclays in London, summed up the world food situation this way: “There’s a range of new external shocks. The range of factors make it even more challenging to predict how volatile it will be going forward” (The New York Times, 8/11/23). In other words, there’s an interconnection of international economic, political, and climatic events that send ripples of food system pain, large and small, across the globe—and don’t expect to receive a notice early enough to be well prepared!

On the domestic front, it’s probably not prudent to expect American food corporations to restrain food prices for the benefit of the American consumer. That’s asking too much. But some recent research has raised the question as to whether food companies used the excuse of the Pandemic’s impact on disrupted food supply chains a little too long—after those disruptions had been resolved—to keep prices artificially high for consumers. And recently, the Federal Trade Commission has announced its opposition to the proposed merger between the two food retail giants, Kroger and Albertsons because it will increase food prices. The corporate argument—they need to get bigger to compete with Wal-Mart—is one of those disingenuous claims that always fails to bring a tear to my eye.

As if I needed more reasons to roll off my couch and turn over the garden’s back 40 (square yards), I only have to look at the beautiful mountains and basins that surround me. Like the rest of the West, they are drying up. In the Southwest, our stingy 12 inches of annual precipitation rises and falls slightly based on which La Nina/El Nino cycle we’re in, but more people mean more water demand and more competition between developers and farmers for our region’s most precious asset. In an outstanding series on the decline of groundwater across the U.S., The New York Times (9/2/23) documented a frightening picture of aquifers that irrigate vast expanses of farmland being so severely depleted that they may never recharge, hence becoming unusable. “Groundwater loss is hurting breadbasket states like Kansas, where the aquifer beneath 2.6 million acres of land can no longer support industrial-scale agriculture,” The Times reported.

A recent fund solicitation letter from the American Farmland Trust reminded me of what environmental movement was ultimately about. It said, “Imagine celebrating Earth Day in a world where everyone can access affordable, nutritious food. It’s a shared goal, but one that is truly becoming more elusive as record-setting droughts, floods, storms, and other extreme weather wreaks havoc on our agricultural systems — causing crop failures and livestock losses. Climate shifts also disrupt pest and disease patterns, posing additional challenges to food production” (4/18/24). According to the Trust’s data, for most of this century’s first two decades, America has been losing or compromising 2,000 acres of farm and ranchland every day (AFT_FUT2040_AbundantFuture_ExecutiveSummary.pdf (farmlandinfo.org). This simply can’t continue if America is to feed itself and a world that is frequently upended by catastrophes—what I would increasingly call natural man-made catastrophes—in ways we couldn’t have even imagined 20 years ago.

In view of these events and the likelihood that they’ll only grow more severe, my whining about garden work is unlikely to elicit much sympathy. After all, the return on my annual investment of about $125 in seeds and composted cow manure more than justifies the many hours of glorious exercise I get from gardening. By my most conservative estimate, the annual net savings in fresh fruit and vegetable purchases for 2023 was $1,000. This is what I ate fresh, canned, and frozen, and shared with friends and a local food pantry. I even took a portion of that food savings and donated it to the New Israel Fund to help alleviate food shortages in Gaza. All in all, this was a satisfying payback for doing something that I inherently love.

So, I put my shoulder to the plow once again. My motivation is reconstituted, and the spring’s priorities are clear. The garden must be prepared, seedlings transplanted, and direct seeding begun. This doesn’t mean, of course, that I don’t succumb to the occasional whimsey, as when a non-decomposed avocado pit is surfaced by my hoe. Tossing the ping-pong sized pit up in front of me—a bit high and to the outside—I swing the wooden-handled garden tool connecting with it solidly. The pit clears my garden fence by a wide margin but lands a little too close to my neighbor’s new truck. Fortunately, they don’t notice, but I make a mental note to give them a few more tomatoes this year.