The reality is that most people have never grown their own food. But throughout history, humans have spent thousands of years as agriculturalists tending gardens. It’s only in the last 150 years or so, since industrialization, that fewer and fewer people have grown any of their own food. And it’s starting to look like the powers that be want to keep it that way.
In 2012, two headlines rang out as warnings to freedom lovers and gardening enthusiasts.
The first was the story of Gary Harrington of Oregon, who served jail time for collecting rainwater on his own property. You read that right – rainwater was the forbidden substance in this case. Apparently, in some cases, the government will decide who owns the rain.
Harrington is a 64-year-old man collecting water on his own property. Now, it should be noted that Harrington collected a lot of rainwater on his 170 acres of land. He has three huge pond-sized reservoirs that collectively hold about 13 million gallons of water; one of them is stocked with largemouth bass. But still, it’s only water. Harrington is far from a hardened criminal. However, that doesn’t mean he isn’t tough.
The authorities in this case gave Harrington time to empty his reservoirs and avoid jail time. Not one to buckle under pressure of government bullying, Harrington stuck to his guns and decided to do his bid in the slammer in the name of protest and to raise awareness. Now Harrington has become something of a folk hero in the public’s opinion. Unfortunately, that hasn’t done anything to change the laws in Oregon.
Around the same time Harrington was having the book thrown at him, 2,300 miles east in suburban Michigan, Julie Bass faced 93 days in jail for another criminal misdemeanor: growing vegetables. Bass has a small garden consisting of five raised beds where she grows tomatoes, squash and other vegetables in the front yard of her Oak Park home.
Apparently, the vaguely worded city law allows for unpaved areas of people’s yards to be decorated with “grass or ground cover or shrubbery or other suitable live plant material.” This demands the question, since when are vegetables not “suitable?” It sounds like some small-minded person at city hall is looking for some arbitrary way to flex some muscle. What other explanation could there be for this law being interpreted and enforced this way?
Before threatening jail time, the city of Oak Park issued Bass numerous warnings and fines in an attempt to compel her to remove her vegetables. Like Harrington, Bass balked. She was luckier than her Oregon counterpart: The charges against her were dropped following public outcry. But the message was clear – beware of what you grow!
These are just two stories to make the news, but it’s not only Oregon and Michigan with draconian laws. For example, Washington, Colorado and Utah also have laws against collecting rainwater. In Kentucky, citizens have battled for their right to buy and sell raw cow’s milk, while in California, three people were arrested in connection with selling unpasteurized goat’s milk.
Most head-scratching of all was the case of the Food and Drug Administration launching a year-and-a-half-long undercover sting operation that resulted in the arrest of an Amish farmer from Pennsylvania for selling raw milk across state lines.
The FDA is so convinced that unpasteurized milk poses a health risk that the agency is willing to go to great lengths and spend significant resources to bring down the Amish. It sounds like the kind of farce you would see in a bad movie, with the bumbling authorities falling over themselves to take down a member of a sect dedicated to peaceful simplicity. In the meantime, the U.S. continues to struggle with poverty, illiteracy and violent crime, but the powers that be somehow decided that they so badly want to protect you from raw milk that our nation’s resources are better directed toward taking down a small farm.
It’s not just the United States clamping down on the gardening and agricultural freedom of its citizens. In British Columbia, Canada, Dirk Becker recently faced a six-month jail sentence for refusing to shut down the 2.5-acre vegetable garden he raised on land he owns. The government said the area was zoned for residential, not commercial purposes and began threatening Becker. The irony is that Becker had rehabilitated the land, which was previously a barren gravel lot, into a luscious garden. In other words, the powers that be don’t mind an ugly, useless chunk of land, but a lush green one that produces nutritious food? That’s criminal.
Fortunately in Becker’s case, as in Bass’s case in Michigan, public outcry was enough to keep him out of jail. In fact, the public went one step further, voting out the incumbent mayor in the next election, prompting the ousted city official to address Becker’s supporters directly in his closing written address. Can you say sore loser?
The stories of Gary Harrington, Julie Bass, Dirk Becker and the Amish farmer brought down by the FDA are equal parts absurd and unsettling. But if there are positives to be taken away, it’s that in two of the four cases, the will of the people was recognized, which is the essence of democracy. The laws of the land should work for us, not against us.
Unfortunately, the flip side is that these types of nonsensical laws and arrests appear to be increasing. They don’t seem like the type of thing our grandfathers would have had to deal with. Arrested for growing food? It seems unthinkable.
After all, look at what the government does allow. It’s baffling that Monsanto can sell genetically modified, pesticide-ridden foodstuffs all across the country, but the law forbids a number of examples of down-home agriculture. The result is that citizens have to fight on one hand to get GMO foods labeled and on the other to keep hobbyist vegetable gardeners out of jail. Why would the government want to make it so easy to put money into the pockets of corporations selling garbage food, but so hard for citizens to take care of their own nutrition?
Let’s not rush to label anything a conspiracy, but you can start to see why some people are unnerved by the idea that lawmakers would limit our access to information about the food we buy and forbid us from growing healthy, nutritious food ourselves. A conspiracy theorist might point to how Big Agriculture is in bed with government, and how government has a vested financial interest in having its citizens consume certain foods rather than others. A conspiracy theorist might also point to how Big Pharma is in bed with government as well, and how government might have a vested financial interest in having us consume certain medications to treat the diseases we got from eating certain foods. But that’s crazy talk, isn’t it?
No matter what you think about the meaning behind these cases of agricultural outlaws, it could be that gardening, while an old tradition, is the newest form of civil disobedience. For those of us who love our freedom and love our gardens, whether they’re in the front yard or in our closets, the course is clear: we’re going to keep growing.
© Copyright RosebudMag.com, 2013
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Friday, 01 March 2013