Politics of Growing Food

An encampment at the South Central Farm in LA.

(This was initially published on Doug Oster’s blog, “Gardening with Doug.” It got me in a bit of trouble.  But that’s an excellent reason to have it here. I’ve clarified this slightly since initial  publication. )

A suburban gardener in the brimmed hat pushing a wheelbarrow into a vegetable patch may not seem like a political act.  But increasingly, it is. Last fall, I had the pleasure of meeting Tezozomoc, one of the South Central Farmers.  He suggested that there was similarity between their  fight for their Los Angeles farm and the occupy movement.  As I thought about that, and as I learned more from Tezozomoc, the connection between access to land and the struggle for control of your life became clear.  Of course, growing food is political.  It’s the rebel root of Punk Rock Gardening.

Like the occupy movement, gardeners who grow food are taking action to increase personal influence over our well-being.  We want to know our food is safe and appealing and we want to take small action to protect the environment.

While currently more mainstream, this isn’t new. Reviewing the trailer “The Garden” – I noticed the similarity between images of occupy encampments and images in the film.  “The Garden” is a documentary about the South Central Farmers who fought from 2004 to 2006 for access to land they’d been farming since 1994.  Come late November, social media was heating up with discussion about politics and gardening.  Colleen Vanderlinden suggests we Occupy Our Gardens with a fab Tree Hugger Article .  On twitter, A gardener with the handle @MrBrownThumb used the hashtag #OccupyOurGardens.


Uniquely attuned to nature’s interconnectedness, gardeners have keen ability to see connections between money, soil, politics, our food supply and our gardens. Even those of us who aren’t political see reasons to garden other than beauty. We might say we garden simply because we like the taste of a certain kind of tomato that our family has grown for years, among other homey reasons, but if we take a minute to honestly examine why we as vegetable gardeners do what we do, the reason broadens.

If we reduce gardening to the most simplistic, we venture out to plant our seedlings in hopes of harvesting the tastiest, freshest food. But what does the fact we are willing to undertake hours of labor in search of good food, say about the quality of food that is easily available to us? Increasingly, we grow food in our gardens to take a little of the control over our food supply and – ultimately – our lives back.

To be meaningful about my garden trend predictions, I join others and predict more of us will be #OccupyingOurGardens.

Numerous urban gardeners and backyard homesteaders have been growing food out of political conviction for years. I know a literal rocket scientist who dropped out of the rat race and started farming 8 years ago. I argue gardeners got the occupy bug early.

If you’ve seen that Oscar nominated documentary “The Garden” from 2008, you’ve seen a story of a precursor of occupy. The Garden follows the South Central Farmers as they fight to keep sleazy backroom politics and the City of Los Angeles in hope of preventing their eviction from their 14-acre garden that they’d farmed for 12 years. The group – arguably first – occupied their gardens. They did so in an effort to protect the largest urban farm built from a desire for good food – back before urban farms were chic.

While my teenage daughter tells me I’m the only wingnut that has these odd thoughts, almost everyday I find more evidence that I’m far from the only one who sees growing my own food to be a rebellious act. I nearly did backflips when I found on Facebook, the wonderful Roger Doiron TED piece about Gardening as a Subversive Act.  It seems the combination the economic downturn, (euphamism) the cultural realization that food has been degraded to something you consume – as fuel only – between soccer practice and violin lessons, and the societal concern about a small number of companies owning all of our big food and big Ag, has over the last 6 years created a massive shift in the collective consciousness.

As with much social change, this shift has bubbled up from the grassroots, and is often due to people who brave the streets in protest because their way of life is threatened and, perhaps, because they have so little to lose.

From images from The Garden to 2011 images of college kids whose loans amount to more than they could ever pay – even if they could find a job –the message is the same. People in our US streets are fighting for fairness in their lives. We have a long history of people dropping out and returning to the land as a protest and as a way to find security in their lives. Multiple crises in our history have led us to our gardens – the victory gardens of our grandparents in WW2 are a good example.  Some of our parents embraced this in the 1970’s

Unlike the 70’s – activist and occupier, Benjamin Ketchum, attributes the current green passion to people understanding the fact the earth can’t sustain gross consumption any more. “All of the things the hippies were raging about in the 70’s are coming to the forefront now,” Says Ketchum, “People are seeing real tangible consequences our irresponsible industrial food and agricultural practices and our irresponsible environmental stewardship. They are finally coming to an awareness the we can’t continue to live like this.”

Personally, as I kiss 2011 goodbye – the year that the included multiple defeats for solid agricultural policy – including dubbing pizza a vegetable – I still have a couple of bushels of real vegetables I grew– some potatoes, more squash – in a cool spot in my basement. I’m firing up my oven to make a gallon or two of soup. In the process, I take back just a little tiny bit of control of my life. That soup will have no connection to the five companies that currently control our food supply

When I recently re-watched the trailer of The Garden, I was struck by how much the tents the farmers slept in while awaiting the city’s bulldozers resembled occupy encampments.

During the documentary, Tezozomoc, says to City Hall officials in reference to taking the farm away from 350 families, “You are taking away our way of life.” Occupiers are fighting for a way of life. In a small way, we gardeners can fight for our way of life – at least more food sovereignty – by occupying our gardens.

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About the Author

Laura Mathews

Laura is a garden writer and photographer. She writes online content for gardening websites, writes for gardening publications and blogs for three gardening blogs. Her interests are local food, organic gardening, backyard homesteading and native plants. She assists gardening related clients with social media. And occasionally, she'll offer a solicited opinion as a garden coach.


  1. grow it, everywhere!

    # Posted on May 31, 2012 at 2:13 pm by Dru
  2. You hit on so many strong points, Laura. When I step back and take a huge breath before looking at the “big picture”… bottom line, I see an entity of darkness that feels threatened. We now have, at least, 3 generations… maybe even 4… being born without ever knowing there was a time when grocery stores and restaurants did not exist. Nor do they know there was a time when … maybe… only 1 percent of the entire population in the country woke up each day and left their home to go work a job for a paycheck. This dark entity does not want the generations of today to know this. Nor do they want them to ever gain an interest deeply enough to pursue. The ultimate goal is for our children to grow up with only having the knowledge to walk in a line with all the other sheep – and grow up becoming completely dependent on the one with all the money that can tell them how to breathe… or else… before they begin pulling the rug out from under them. We have already witnessed perfect examples of such blackmail over our lives – by the huge onset of unemployment in this country. It is up to those of us that remember… to teach the kids of today… the truth… so they’ll have a chance to survive on their own.

    # Posted on May 31, 2012 at 5:42 pm by Teresa Schoellkopf

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