Most of us have heard the reasons for consuming food with origins closer to home: fresher food tastes better, it contributes little to global warming, and supporting your local farmer keeps food dollars in the community. But Hatchville resident Earle Barnhart wants Cape Codders to go the extra mile for their produce, by “growing fresh, growing local.”
In his paper, Barnhart makes the case for food self-sufficiency, which he argues will reduce the cost of food, lower the region’s carbon footprint, and increase food security on Cape Cod.
“One of the advantages of living on Cape Cod is that we can very clearly see the source of our food supply. Most of our food is imported over the bridge in trucks,” wrote Barnhart.
“Food produced regionally would provide a degree of insurance against the volatility of international economics and the disruption of food supply in turbulent times.”
Most supermarket produce is shipped thousands of miles to get from the farm to the dinner table. Due to energy-intensive transportation and fertilizer production, deforestation and concentrated livestock farming, agriculture is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, according to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. Meanwhile, fresh produce and eggs from a backyard garden require absolutely no fossil fuels and have higher nutritional value to boot, said Barnhart.
While many residents enjoy gardening as a hobby, few would be able to live on what they produce at home. Using his own yard and greenhouse as tests for decades of research conducted at the New Alchemy Institute, Barnhart and his wife, Hilde Maingay, have found that intensive gardening and permaculture methods have resulted in a shorter grocery list year-round.
The Cape Cod Ark
By planting crops with varying root depths close together and rotating crops with different nutritional needs, even a small garden can produce a hefty amount of vegetables, Barnhart said.
The couple’s large greenhouse makes use of passive solar heat to grow crops 12 months a year, and cold frames can do the same on a smaller scale.
A few water tanks inside the greenhouse serve a dual function. Filled with algae-rich dark green water, they host catfish and goldfish, types of fish that digest the green algae to produce high-nutrient waste that Barnhart feeds to the lemon trees and nursery plants in the greenhouse. The fish themselves could be eaten, but in this case, they serve a more decorative purpose.
Barnhart and Maingay eat a vegetable-rich diet, but they also rely on eggs from a number of hens they raise in a fenced-off, shaded area.
If more people kept hens, food waste that is otherwise incinerated, buried, or sent to septic tanks and sewers, would be diverted back into the nutrient cycle, he said.
Citing research conducted at New Alchemy and in his own back yard, Barnhart said that a year’s worth of fresh vegetables per person can be grown on as little as 1/100th of an acre—or 450 square feet, equivalent to a 15-by-30-foot garden. To grow grains, a quarter of an acre per person is necessary; if chickens or livestock are raised, at least 3/10ths of an acre are required.
A sustainable equation
Considering that Cape Cod has 226,000 year-round residents and about 250,000 acres of land, self-sufficiency could hypothetically be achieved under this model.
The problem is that a majority of that acreage is covered by roads, buildings, or conservation restrictions, notes Barnhart.
Acknowledging that the Cape does not have enough available land to feed its year-round population with land-intensive crops; nor is it sufficient to feed the millions of tourists who visit each year, Barnhart suggests that the available land be used to cultivate fresh fruits and vegetables, and that residents continue to import staple grains, meat, sweeteners, and oils.
Waste or Asset?
Another challenge of intensive gardening is the need for fertilizer to replenish nutrients in Cape Cod’s sandy, clay-filled soil. Instead of relying on petrochemicals, Barnhart suggests that Cape Cod’s biggest environmental problem—nitrogen pollution—could be turned into an asset for agriculture, by developing a system to process human waste into fertilizer.
Putting waste into clean water, where it then has to be processed out with chemicals, does not make ecological sense, Barnhart points out.
“It is an ecological error to put waste into water in the first place,” he said.
The couple has a composting toilet in their home, which collects waste in the basement, allowing it to decompose while a fan directs odors through a pipe in the roof. The result is about four bushels of compost a year, which must be buried nine inches underground, according to MA law.
(For more information on composting toilets, please see a previous post, Turning Waste Into Compost)
In his paper, Barnhart proposes an even more manageable system: packaging toilets.
“These are conventional-looking toilets that direct the post-eaten food into an absorbent, deodorized, biodegradable package in the toilet that is sealed after each use and is stored in the base,” Barnhart wrote.
The isolated unit does not use any electricity or water, and satisfies hygienic sensibilities, Barnhart said. Packaging toilets are marketed by the Swedish company Pacto, and are often used in wilderness areas.
“There will inevitably be a need for the creation of new businesses, new occupations, new skills and improved ecological education,” Barnhart wrote.
“The personal and political change required to facilitate the transition is likely to be slower and less certain, but will be just as necessary to achieve the kind of world we want to live in.”
The views and opinions in the Enterprise blogs are those of the author and are not neccessarily shared by Falmouth Publishing.