Gardening In Depth

The NEW American yard: monoculture grass farm or organic food farm?

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Close your eyes and picture the “American Dream” in your head. Got it?

If you’re like most people, part of that dream might include a nice home and a laughing family frolicking together on their lush green grass lawn while a dog yaps away underfoot.

In today’s world, there’s a pretty good chance that this same idyllic family might go inside to share a meal comprised of local, organic ingredients that the parents carefully selected to ensure that their family wasn’t eating all the various pesticides on conventionally grown foods—and because the parents understand that their personal food choices impact the health of the planet perhaps more than any other single factor they can control. After all, people are increasingly becoming aware that the combination of modern chemical monoculture and industrial animal production is a short-sighted, rapacious system focused solely on producing the most food calories per acre for the least amount of money—externalities be damned.

If it’s bad, why do we allow this system of food production to persist?

  1. We Don’t Calculate the True Cost of Cheap Calories – We, the “consumers,” pay for the true cost of all the problems this system creates in financial transactions that take place outside of the grocery store (e.g. environmental remediation, medical bills, pharmacy bills, etc);
  2. A Broken Relationship – If we equated the relationship we have with our food to a human relationship, it would be prostitution not marriage. Care, concern, compassion, respect, love—all are completely absent from the relationship. “I don’t care where you came from or what your story is, I just want you to be cheap and pleasure my taste buds right now! Shut up… nom, nom!”
  3. It’s the “Only Way” to Feed All These People – As the argument goes, the only way we can continue to feed a population of 7 billion people increasing at an annual rate of 0.5-2.5% is to hire a handful of international chemical companies who: a) patent all the food, b) sell synthetic fertilizers and pesticides comprised of decreasing/finite natural resources; c) poison the air and water while ravaging the world’s fertile, living topsoil. Does that sound like a system you want to scale to 10 billion people? No? Same here.

So, if we could just get enough people to start buying local, organic food and stop providing financial support for the chemical companies that are increasingly monopolizing our food system, then things would be ok, right? Well, that’s certainly a big part of the equation, but there are other big pieces of the puzzle too. Or, as a lawyer would say, “that’s necessary but not sufficient.” Odds are, you’re living on one of those puzzle pieces right now.

Lawn “Care”: Introducing the American Grass Farmer

Let’s check back in on the American Dream family to see what they’re up to…

After the parents have put little Bobby and Jane to bed for the night, a sense of deep satisfaction falls over them like a warm blanket. After all, they’ve done everything they can to ensure their children will be able to enjoy healthy bodies and a verdant, sustainable world when they grow up by buying local organic food for them.

The next day, while the kids are at school and the parents are at work, a lawn care company shows up at their American Dream home. A crew of $5/hr semi-slave labor hops out of the pickup, quickly unloads their equipment and goes about their specific tasks in the Dream yard. To get the job, the lawn care company had to be cheap—after all, the American Dream family’s only concerns are who can make their yard look “good” for the cheapest possible price. They asked the Joneses who they used for lawn care company, and that was that.

Within 20 minutes, the yard crew has mowed the grass to a quarter-inch nub removing all the mulched grass which would otherwise act as a natural fertilizer. They doused the yard in synthetic chemical fertilizers to feed it. They’ve carefully sprayed every errant “weed” (e.g. non-grass plant) and insect with gallons of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. For the next 10-14 days, there is no possible way that any living organism can survive in the monoculture grass yard other than the specific type of grass selected by the parents.

Before leaving, the yard crew checks the sprinkler system to make sure that each morning at 5am the sprinklers come on and give the yard a nice drink of water. This is supposed to make the grass look healthy, even though it actually makes the grass less healthy and more dependent on frequent waterings which in turn wash the fertilizer away from the roots, making the grass require more frequent fertilizing. The yard crew supervisor leaves the bill in the mailbox and moves on to their next job at the Joneses.

Why On Earth… ?

Do you see the parallels between modern American lawn care and modern American farming? Have you ever considered that they’re basically the same exact thing? The modern lawn care company is a monoculture grass farmer (as are you if you perform similar lawn care practices in your own yard).

Who do you think the upstream financial beneficiary of both grass farming and food farming is? You might recognize the names: Monsanto, Dow Chemical, DuPont, Syngenta and Bayer. Sound familiar?

DDT is good for me advertisement

Actually it’s not. Neither are the chemicals we’re putting on our yards (despite what the ads might tell you).

Grass Farming Is Even Worse Than Food Farming

Other than growing different crops, another difference between grass and food farmers is that grass farmers are even more abusive to the land than their food-growing brethren. American grass farmers have been culturally acclimated so as to believe that yards should be perfectly coiffed green fields containing a single type of grass accented by a few sterile, non-food-producing bushes. We don’t care about the when’s, why’s or how’s of this lawn design—as far as we’re concerned, it’s been this way since the beginning of time and will be that way until the end (in reality, the American lawn was popularized in the late 1860s by Frederick Law Olmsted and Frank J. Scott, although the chemical accompaniment would come much later).

Compounding the American grass farmer’s moral dilemma: all of our neighbors are grass farmers, so heaven forbid we should dare defy convention. After all, we’re not humans capable of making informed, dissenting choices. No, we’re lemmings adhering strictly to the social norms of our day (*your sarcasm detector should be beeping loudly right now).

The Results Are In – Yippee!

The results of our collective cultural lawn delusions are stunning. Here are a handful of quick “grass farming” stats to share with your friends:

  • Size – There are 40 million acres of grass farms (e.g. “lawns and yards”) in the US—more acres than any single agricultural crop;
  • Lawn Maintenance Cost – Collectively, American grass farmers spend over $30 billion per year on lawn care, or about $260 per household;
  • Quantity – Grass farmers dump 10x more synthetic chemicals per acre (3,000,000 pounds of fertilizer/year + 30,000 tons of pesticides) on their yards than the average food farmer;
  • Time – The average homeowner will spend 150 hours per year maintaining their lawn, but only 35 on sex (*we’re not blaming lawn care for unhappy marriages, but one can’t help but wonder how much happier married couples would be if these stats were reversed. Ironically, by mowing their turf so low and so frequently, grass farmers are also preventing their grass from having sex and producing new grass.);
  • Environment – The pesticides used by grass farmers include endocrine disrupters, reproductive toxins, carcinogens and other goodies. 41% of these commonly used US lawn chemicals have been banned or restricted in other countries. 800 million gallons of gasoline are used mowing grass farms and 17 million gallons of gasoline are spilled each year in the process. A 2001 Environmental Protection Agency survey showed over 50% of community drinking water system wells and rural wells tested contained nitrates from fertilizer and 15% contained lawn pesticides. Yes, there really is something in the water.
  • Health – Children and pets are far more susceptible to the health effects of pesticide exposure than adults. According to the EPA’s Guidelines for Carcinogen Risk Assessment, children receive 50 percent of their lifetime cancer risks in the first two years of life, and a University of Southern California study showed that children whose parents used lawn pesticides were 6.5 times more likely to develop leukemia.

Basically, grass farming is wasting huge amounts of our pay checks while causing massive harm to human health, our children, our pets and the environment. But, hey, who cares about that stuff? What’s important is conforming to the notion that a 1″ tall uniformly green yard surface containing one type of plant is beautiful.

While we’re at it, we should starve ourselves and start taking heroin so we can all look like supermodels too.

I’m Tired of Being a Grass Farmer… Is There Help For Me?

Buying organic foods from local, organic and/or permaculture farmers is great. Please keep doing it!

However, if you know and care enough about all the reasons you should choose local organic food, then please choose a new, better way of maintaining your lawn while you’re at it. Being a grass farmer really isn’t very smart, and your all-grass yard looks pretty silly when you really start to think about it (Emperor has no clothes).

So, what are our alternatives to grass farming? In our opinion, there are at least two good options:

  1. Join the GFA – Join the local chapter of your GFA (Grass Farmers Anonymous) to help break your sickness (we just made that up, sorry). In all seriousness, you can start turning your yard into a visually beautiful, organic food-producing machine. Here’s a post we wrote with our Top 10 Tips to help you start growing food in your yard today.
  2. Grow Grass Smarter – Keep being a grass farmer, but stop growing it in self-destructive and collectively-destructive ways. Here’s a good 2-sheet overview from the Pesticide Education Center that can help you easily get going under this approach.
The dirt at Tyrant Farms telling us "thank you."

Organic food from our yard at Tyrant Farms. Much tastier than grass.

Food Is Beautiful

Don’t just take our word for it, here are some of our favorite edible landscapes on the interwebs that might help you visualize your new, better American Dream yard (these are our descriptions not theirs):

Got another great edible landscape photo to share? Please share a link to the photo in the comments section below.

Thanks for reading!


Resources & References:

Other articles to help get you growing in the right direction:

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  • Reply
    February 22, 2013 at 10:01 am

    I totally agree with your thrust here (grow food, not lawns), but was knocked off course by your use of the term “grass farmer” as a pejorative applied to lawn-obsessed suburbanites when it’s more frequently used in sustainable agriculture circles to denote positive, grass-fed and pasture-based livestock operations. (The Stockman Grass Farmer, a well-known periodical among sustainable livestock producers, has been using the term since the late 1940s.) I understand what you were going for, but it’s a jarring bit of cognitive dissonance in an otherwise lovely article.

    • Reply
      February 22, 2013 at 10:36 am

      Thanks for the feedback Em, and sorry for the cognitive dissonance! We certainly don’t mean to entangle the two terms in readers’ minds. Actually, if people grew “grass” in their yards in the same way that the free-range cow farmers we know around our town grow their grass (with dozens of varieties of grass, clover and other “weeds” all equally welcomed living in the same untreated fields for their cows to munch on) it wouldn’t be a problem.

      Again, we certainly didn’t intend to disparage our grass-growing brethren practicing sustainable livestock management. Our primary intended audience are folks like us who live in a house with a yard and may not yet realize that they have a choice in what (and how) they can grow in their yard. Please feel free to suggest a term(s) that you think might be a workable substitute and we’ll certainly consider editing the post accordingly.

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