Tag Archives: small cities

Economy of the Miniature?

Five Weeks’ “Growth”

Dear Reader:

Okay, so I moseyed on down the road a few miles with my good friend, Sandi, to check out a MOFGA (Maine Organic Farmer’s and Grower’s Association) certified farm stand. Piper’s Knoll Farm in Newfield, Maine exemplifies what I consider an ideal local business. Yes, they are certified organic, but according to their website, farmers Karl and Cynthia Froelich use farming methods that go BEYOND organic…including permaculture and biodynamic techniques, managing natural woodland and wetlands for native species of medicinal plants, and using season-extending methods such as hoop houses for greater productivity (they’ve had carrots already, started in the hoop houses in February! Amazing!).

Karl is a stonework landscaper. Cynthia is a Master Gardener and herbalist, and she also conducts workshops on eco-spiritual topics. In addition to their farm-stand, the Froelich’s participate in the farmer’s market in Saco, Maine. They are diversified…just like their farm.


This week I’ve been reading a new book on sustainable life called SMALL, GRITTY, AND GREEN by Catherine Tumbler. A journalist and historian, Tumbler spent a few years researching and touring small cities, specifically “Rust Belt” cities–the old industrial cities left crumbling and emptying in the wake of suburban development, highway-bisection of neighborhoods and downtowns, and the de-industrialization of the American economy as trade agreements launched the flight of production to cheap labor overseas. Tumbler agrees with people like James Howard Kunstler (author of the New Urbanist book, THE GEOGRAPHY OF NOWHWHERE) who believe that in a post-oil world, our small cities–not our small towns or metropolises–are best suited for a new way of life, one that is sustainable, human-scale, and doable in a low-carbon future.

These cities–in Maine, I think of places like Biddeford/Saco, Sanford, Waterville where the textile mills once ran three shifts a day–still have infrastructure intact that could be used when we inevitably must begin producing things here in the U.S. of A again. These small cities are surrounded by smaller rings of suburban and exurban development than the big metropolises–meaning the farmlands are closer to the urban center. Taking a look at the numbers, Tumbler makes the case for small-scale farming over commodity farming, retrofitting empty retail “malls” and concrete big box structures into sustainability centers–even hydroponic farms and raised-bed crop-raising on top of the parking lots, and the breakdown of highways instead of the constant necessity of maintaining them.

So, imagine a small city with parks and mixed-use architecture and Broadways and downtowns. Imagine a bus system, walkable neighborhoods, sidewalks, and fewer cars. Imagine suburbs with community gardens and backyard chickens. And then imagine a ring of fertile farmland cultivated by thoughtful, intelligent people like the Froelichs who provide food and medicine for the people in the city and suburb. Imagine a city without a Walmart but instead a bunch of locally-owned shops–a Plummer’s Hardware, a Betty’s Dress Shop, a bakery, a butcher shop, a bookstore–not just downtown but in many neighborhoods. Imagine a downtown district with a department store, a theater, a park, upscale shops, a music hall, City Hall, art galleries, restaurants…and lots of interesting people to watch when you sit down for a latte at the cafe.

Early Girls

Okay, so I am drifting into a utopian fantasy. Or else I’m reminiscing about a time in America just before I was born, before the rise of the cookie-cutter suburb, the two-car family, the two-income household, NAFTA, GATT, off-shoring, and the shrinking of the middle class.

What about today? What am I doing living in a single-use exurban housing development that is really like living at camp year-round? How can I work toward that other, larger vision? I garden, and I tell myself I am keeping some knowledge alive. Honestly, though? The economy of my miniature garden box garden is really pitiful!

I spent about $100 on “ingredients” for my straw-bale tomato experiment. The bales were pricey, considering. Then I had to add in the nitrogen fertilizer–not exactly organic farming practice there, folks. I bought three heirloom tomato plants, and if all goes well I may actually be able to save some seeds for next year. The other three (Early Girl) are not heirloom, and I have no idea if the seeds are viable or not. If these six plants produce thirty or so pounds of tomatoes all together, I suppose I may break even.

As for the other garden boxes, these are really nothing more than fun. I might as well have planted all ornamentals, since the small (miniature) scale of my garden-box garden will produce nothing more than a few servings of each kind of veggie, even if the plants produce well.

For instance, my peas are beautiful and blossoming, but really I may end up with a pound of snap peas at most. At Piper’s Knoll today, I bought a pound of snap peas for $3. The radishes have been fun, but I could have bought a bunch for $2.50. A large bag of greens was only $4. Sigh. My greens boxes have been the biggest disappointment of all: the spinach went to seed at two-inches tall, the arugula hasn’t even sprouted, the micro-greens did no better than the spinach. There is probably something wrong with the pH balance in the soil (all those pine needles?), though the romaine and green leaf lettuces are still growing if slowly, slowly…

The basil plants look great. The cucumbers are blossoming, and I’m hopeful for a good harvest. And if the zucchini and summer squash don’t end up with that gray mold stuff, I COULD have squashes coming out my ears in another month or so. Let’s hope! But in the end, this sort of gardening will never feed the family. Another $100 for ornamentals and cuke, fennel, basil, cabbage, sage, and pepper starts will, if I’m lucky, provide enough produce to pay for itself. If I’m lucky. Otherwise, I can put it down on the books as “entertainment” or maybe “education.”

Really, economically-speaking, I would be better off putting that $200 toward membership in a CSA farm like Piper’s Knoll. Maybe they’d let me come over and do some weeding now and again because…

I attempt to garden because I want to keep the rhythm of the growing season beating in my heart. I want my daughter to see me digging in the dirt and pulling a round, purple radish out of the ground, grown from a seed I planted. I want her to taste a cucumber right off the vine so she can appreciate the difference between it and the tasteless thing that rode on a truck from Mexico all the way to Maine and landed on a supermarket shelf.

Will I do this again next year? Yeah, I probably will. I’ll also buy as much produce and meat and eggs locally and in-state as I can…because those farmers are the people who will feed us in a low-carbon future. I encourage you to search out small-scale, diversified, biodynamic farms in your area and support them with your food dollars and your friendship. I think you’ll be glad you did.