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Priorities in growing food?

Posts: 28
Location: Midwest USA
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I'm always interested in the Why.  Why do we grow what we grow?  I've been thinking about the differences in priorities people have in their food growing efforts.  I'd appreciate this communities input/ideas in helping me mature this thought process.

How do the priorities of a industrial farmer differ from a small home veggie gardener or other growers (eg, small/hobby farmers, csa farmers, subsistence farmers, others?) in the selection of what to grow and how to grow it?  

All are growing food, but what are the different priorities behind their food growing efforts, that will affect their selection as well as methods and approach to the process of growing food?

Here are some of the factors that I think would come into the decision making of an individual deciding what and how to grow...

- Mechanized harvest-ability
- Uniformity of product ripening/timing (Related to mechanized harvest-ability)
- Productivity / Output per space used
- Shelf-life of product
- Ability to transport product without waste, eg, distribution to consumer.  (Related to shelf-life)
- Quality of micro-nutritional content, vs macro-nutritional content (Mass/Calories)
- Desire for Variety vs. Staple
- Quality of Flavor of product
- Disease and Pest resistance / reliability of production / need for interventions
- Distributor and Consumer demand for product, vs personal demand
- Dollar value of product, either in selling product, or reducing household expense

Anything to add?  Any other thoughts, or recommendations on resources/articles/books that address this concept?

What would be your top 5 priorities from this list as you grow?  (And what type of grower are you?)

Posts: 1719
Location: Los Angeles, CA
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Great list.  Let me suggest a couple additional things that cross my mind when I'm planting stuff.  Most of these broaden your question of "growing food" --- it's more about creating an entire system that works well to not only produce food, but promote soil health and garden health.

- Grows well in the cold season months, giving me 12 months of productivity on any given piece of soil.  (Cabbages, collards and other cole crops do this well).
- Produces a lot of biomass in addition to the food crop which is necessary for mulch and compost.
- Fixes nitrogen (various legumes, peanuts).
- The chickens also like to eat it (beets are one of their favorites, both greens and roots—so we plant way more beets than we need or want.  Watermelon and cucumbers are the same.)
- Serves as a living mulch (peanuts are great for this, but also sweet potatoes).  
- Plays well with others: companion plants that will be more than I can eat, but the sum of the whole is greater than the individual parts, so we plant in guilds and harvest what we want, while composting the rest.
- Attracts beneficial insects (buckwheat, dill, various flowers that are intercropped within the veggie garden).
- Pollinizes other fruit trees (I keep a couple of Japanese plums around for that purpose).
Posts: 44
Location: Lexington, KY
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Jeremy, I think this is a very interesting question to ask. I would also be curious to hear others' responses. I realize this is the large farm forum, but I will respond anyway despite not having a large farm. I have a small home vegetable garden in my backyard in an urban area. I grow food because I enjoy it and want my family to have more healthy fresh vegetables, not really to save money or make a profit. Here are the priorities that influenced my seed selections a couple weeks ago when I placed my seed order:

1. Familiarity - I've always grown tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, summer squash, and kale without many problems, so I just keep growing them.
2. Adapted to my growing region - I don't have time to fuss over plants, so I only grow things that thrive where I live.
3. Family preferences - I grow what my family likes to eat.
4. Space - With limited space, I can't grow the winter squash and other sprawling vegetables that I'd like to. I squeeze a few vines in on trellises.
5. Flavor - I usually prioritize flavor over productivity or resistance to an unlikely pest/disease.
6. Productivity - I want to maximize what I reap from my small space.
7. Variety - I squeeze in as many varieties as I can to keep things interesting.
8. Story - Whenever possible, I like to plant heirloom varieties that I know the history of, like "Aunt Betsy developed this bean in Madison County in the 1930s."

It's funny to think about all the priorities that battle it out in our brains when we choose what to grow, and we sometimes aren't even aware of it.
Posts: 465
Location: San Diego, California
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Drought Resistance!

Water is at a premium here and many other places - I want to find and grow crops on rainfall alone; even with rainwater harvesting, hugels, mulch, and swales,  this is still not a lot of water to work with.

Versatility(in cooking/preparing) is also key for me; if it can only be cooked one way, or only works in one type of recipe(per my family's tastes), it's not worth it to grow.
Posts: 1071
Location: Denmark 57N
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Jeremy R. Campbell wrote:
- Mechanized harvest-ability Totally unimportant
- Uniformity of product ripening/timing (Related to mechanized harvest-ability)slightly important, I need to know roughly how long things will take and how long they will produce.
- Productivity / Output per space used Space isn't really an issue for me.
- Shelf-life of product Totally unimportant
- Ability to transport product without waste, eg, distribution to consumer.  (Related to shelf-life) Totally unimportant
- Quality of micro-nutritional content, vs macro-nutritional content (Mass/Calories) Totally unimportant
- Desire for Variety vs. Staple Variety each time
- Quality of Flavor of product Highly important
- Disease and Pest resistance / reliability of production / need for interventions Very important
- Distributor and Consumer demand for product, vs personal demand Very important some things I only grow for us.
- Dollar value of product, either in selling product, or reducing household expense Important but varies, some things are needed as a draw but themselves make little money

I grow and sell a small amount of vegetables, last year we did delivered boxes (like a CSA but not pre-ordered) This year we will do some boxes but also a road side stall. How I decide what to grow goes thus..
1. What do I have to grow to get customers? (Potatoes and peas for the stall, and a balanced mix over 20 weeks for the boxes at least 7 different veg each week)
2. Look at my records from last year, which varieties did I grow and did I like them, if yes they get grown again, if no I look for another variety
3a. for some plants like potatoes I need a succession so maturity times are important.
3b. Disease resistance, no point planting something that won't survive to harvest.
3c. Taste, last year I grew some "tigrella" tomatoes, really pretty, great yield no disease and totally tasteless, not to be grown again.
Posts: 99
Location: Kitsap Penninsula, WA
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Hi there!

I would characterize our farm as a small hobby farm - we are growing for ourselves and our buddies and have a good trading system going with other farmer friends.

Our priorities on our farm are growing the right foods for our microclimate, and growing enough to bulk out our pantry so that we need to buy less at the store. We also prioritize non-mechanical ways of growing - I want to be able to run my farm with no electrical/fossil fuel input at all. So all of our systems are geared towards this end - gravity fed water, no-till gardening, soil building, using animals and sheet mulching to turn pasture into garden beds, diversity of crops and species, etc.

Since we are not growing for market, I couldn't comment on that.

I am also hyper aware of the kind of food we grow - drought and cold tolerant varietals are prioritized, as well as varieties of plants that can add to the soil (such as nitrogen fixers or soil mitigators). We have a heavy rotation of short season crops as well as root crops and things that store well. On our farm MORE IS MORE, so we plant all the things, all over the place, all the time to help with crop loss due to climate change and uncertainty.

But above all, we prioritize WATER OVER EVERYTHING. And I live in the soggy boggy northwest that, in 10 years, will not be soggy boggy anymore. Everything I just wrote can be summed up by a over arching awareness of how global warming is changing our maritime climate and what I can do to change with it. Prioritizing water means paying strict attention to tilth and soil fertility, building beds using hugel methods and with lot's of biomass and nutrients. Animals integration and pest management strategies. Flexibility and diversity in my mind as well as my seed saving.

Oh, and potatoes. Gotta have my spuds. All the spuds. All the time.

One great book I just found by accident and now absolutely want to marry, is Gardens of Use and Delight by Jigs and JoAnn Gardner. If they can run a farm on Cape Breton Island, you can run a farm anywhere. Plus there are excellent ideas in there for a variety of ways to use the harvest - ways I've never even thought of. So, so good.

master steward
Posts: 13067
Location: Pacific Northwest
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My priorities, in rough order:

(1) That it grows well! If it's going to hate me and then die, I don't really want it. I want things that will produce with limited effort, if possible. What grows well for me:
  • Short Season Varieties:  I'm on a north-facing slope and get limited light aside from a few months around the summer equinox. So, I go for the shortest-season carrots and squash and cucuumbers and beans that I can find!
  • Natives, or plants that are similar to natives: I grow a lot of berries, both native ones and cultivated and non-native ones. Berries like my shadier conditions and my climate, so I grow a lot of them! And, if it's a weed and edible, I'll let it multiply as much as it wants. Free food!
  • Potatoes--these like me! Yay!
  • [list]Perennials: They're more resilient in the face of change, and need less effort as they grow older[. I try to get plants that can handle wider ranges of heat and cold. I tend to buy ones that are recommended by other's in this area, or I go for drought-tolerant plants that do well in colder zones. I like a big variety here, so that hopefully something will always be producing.

    (2) That my family eats. I'm not spending my time and money trying to grow something that my family only kind of eats. If it self seeds and it's edible, I'll let it grow (like dandelions, nipplewort and daikon radishes), but I'm not spending time growing eggplant...

    (3) It's expensive. I grow a lot of berries. They're expensive, grow well in our area, and everyone loves to eat them. If we didn't grow berries, we wouldn't be able to eat very many. The same applies to herbs. They're expensive to buy fresh or in bulk, but I can grow them and save a lot of money, and get a lot more flavor.

    (4) It's hard to find in my area. I want to eat kiwi berries and pawpaws...and the only way I can do that, is if I grow them! So, I'm going to try to grow them. Maybe they'll be like the sunchokes and hate me for no reason. If so, I probably won't try again, but I'm going to try at least once!

    master gardener
    Posts: 1669
    Location: Zone 7b/8a Temperate Humid Subtropical, Eastern NC, US
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    Mine are...

    1) What my family likes to eat. Yummy

    2) Easy to grow- I garden in my spare time and like planting stuff that doesn't take a lot of time. I've migrated to planting more perennials as a result, especially fruit trees and berries.

    3) Vigorous- disease and pest resistant. Kind of goes with number two.

    4) Flavor over looks and shipping ability- I don't mind if it's the ugliest thing in the world, if it tastes good, it's a winner in my book!

    These are my top ones. Really enjoying seeing everyone's list!
    gardener & hugelmaster
    Posts: 1743
    Location: mountains of Tennessee
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    My priorities are typical. Will it grow here? Does it want to grow here? Do we like to eat it? Can the animals eat it? Does it preserve well? Can we save the seeds or is it a perennial? Does it have a function here? Is it something that's super awesome fresh & expensive to buy? Asparagus comes to mind with that.

    For about 20 years I had a fairly typical kitchen garden. I concentrated mostly on the things that grew reliably & that we liked to eat. Tomatoes, peppers, squash, peas, beans, broccoli, chards, asparagus, herbs,& figs mostly. Usually open pollinated & heirloom varieties. Every year I experiment with a few new varieties or plants.

    That has changed since moving to TN. I have more time & land available this year. Basically a start up hobby farm. Got a kitchen garden started last spring. That space will be dedicated to various corns this year. Another acre or two is in progress of becoming a much larger food supply. (if it ever stops raining) Sweet potatos, peanuts, Seminole pumpkins, black eyed peas, & watermelons grow very well here. So any bare lawn in that area will be smothered in those large edible plants. It is as much about smothering lawn & building soil in that old pasture as it is about growing food for us. Have many wild blackberries around the perimeter & added about 20 elderberry last fall. One struggling wild raspberry plant I had to move twice now. More soon. Some large nut trees already on property. A few more fruit trees will be added soon. Some dwarf moringa trees too. If even half of it grows as planned there will be enough for family, friends, neighbors, farmers market, & food banks. For many more generations to come. Next year will be more food forest oriented. This year it's about eliminating lawn & building soil.

    Experiments this year are several types of gourds, moringa, & pomegranate. Oh, and rice.

    There's also bio-accumulator, critter food, & wildflower projects this year. Food for the soil. Food for the pollinators. Food for the worms. It's all good.

    Water. That is a very different situation between a flat kitchen garden & an acre or two on top of a steep hill.

    This too.

    Posts: 3050
    Location: Central Texas zone 8a
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    Variety of a specific fruit comes to mind. Big ag is gonna grow the specific variety the store wants. If kroger's stocks three types of apples they probably dont want your 4th variety. No sales history, no bin space, new sku setup in their computer (upc code etc. )

    I want as many varieties as i can within a single fruit. This year my early blooms froze on one peach tree. My other 6 peach trees havent bloomed yet. Next year the last to bloom may not get peaches because of a lack of chill hours. I also dont look at this years fruit production to determine what new trees to buy. I keep it random. This years success doesnt equal next years success.

    That doesn't mean new products don't make it through. Donut peaches are a thing now. Peaches that look like they have been smashed flat like a donut.
    Posts: 5133
    Location: Cache Valley, zone 4b, Irrigated, 9" rain in badlands.
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    Why do I grow what I grow? That is a tremendously beautiful question!!

    When I was a teenager, I grew sweet corn, and pickling cucumbers. Because I was young, full of energy, and I could sell everything that I could grow, because my neighbors were interested in freezing large quantities of corn, and in pickling baby cucumbers.

    For the past decade, I have been been a market grower. Mental health problems in my  family consumed huge amounts of my time and energy, therefore, I started growing crops that produced the maximum amount of food for the least amount of effort, so that I could be available to nurture my loved ones. The crops that thrived under those restraints were big seeded things that germinate quickly, grow vigorously, and can out-compete weeds: Corn, dry beans, and winter squash. They have the added bonus of only needing to be picked once a season. Dry beans, dry corn, and winter squash are not highly perishable, therefore I can take them to market week after week until they sell, unlike other crops which I consider perished by the end of market.

    As a market farmer, I grew tomatoes, because they are popular, and people love them. I grow tomatoes for myself, cause I love cooking with tomatoes during the winter. I grow and freeze sweet corn for myself, because I know that it comes without -cides. (I know that about everything that I grow.)

    I grow apples, plums, raspberries, peaches, cherries, asparagus, walnuts, sunroots, etc, because they are perennial, and continue to produce food whether or not I care for them, and whether or not I harvest the food. I think of them as my emergency survival stash. Something that will still be producing food regardless of my health or ability to care for them.

    I grow lots of unique crops that other farmer's at market don't grow. So I get a reputation for having unusual stuff. The medicine women come to visit, just to see what new and interesting medicinals I'm growing. The foodies come to visit, and will buy anything new I have to sell, just because it's me that grew it. There isn't much money in medicinals for foodie things, but little things add up.

    I grow varieties that taste good to me. That automatically eliminates a huge swath of commercially available varieties.  

    I grow some varieties only because they are weedy in my garden, and I couldn't really prevent them from growing even if I tried.

    For myself, I grow every species that I can get to grow in my ecosystem. I do that for purposes of food security. I grow like a dozen species of beans, 6 species of squash, 9 species of tomatoes, a number of species of corn. I grow interspecies hybrids. I figure that if I am growing lots of different species, then as the weather/diseases/pests change from year to year and decade to decade that something is bound to thrive. I grow cold weather pulses, warm weather pulses, and hot weather pulses. Something is likely to thrive regardless of growing conditions.  

    I often ask myself the question: "What am I buying from the grocery store that I could be growing?". Then I plant those crops. Mustard spice and tomatillos are crops that I grow for this reason.

    I grow flax, chia, and camelina for the sake of adding more omega-3 oils to my diet. It seems to me like myself, family, and society are suffering from omega-6 oil poisoning, so I consider it a good thing if I can add more omega-3 oils to our diet and to the diets of the animals we eat. I grow for idealism.

    Even though there is not a market for it, I grow flour corn, because it seems like the right thing to do, and because my tribe adores flour corn.  And because I do a lot of long-term planning, and flour corn is a highly viable crop in grid-down situations.

    I grow cantaloupes and strawberries because what they grocery stores sell by those names are some sort of unpalatable imitation of food. In other words, I grow for flavor, aroma, and to please my inner primate.

    I grow medicinal foods and herbs, because I believe that medicine should come from food, and not from a laboratory.

    I grow decorative flowers for beautiful sights and smells.

    I allow a tremendous amount of weeds to grow in my fields for the sake of biomass, genetic diversity, and feeding people, animals, and microbes. And to minimize labor for weeding.

    I grow some species for birds, insects, pollinators, or microbes.

    I grow some things because they thrive for me with little care: turnips, Swiss chard, small grains.

    I grow some things for the prestige that they bring to me for being an innovator. I grow some things merely for scientific inquiry and exploration.  

    My basic strategy is that I don't grow things that take tremendous labor, or that provide little return on investment. For example: raspberries sell quickly for high prices at market, but I don't like how fiddly they are to pick, therefore, I only pick them for friends and loved ones, and only as gifts, never for sale. There are like 250 raspberries per pint, which might sell for $5. But in the time I can pick a few raspberries, I could pick one squash which would sell for the same price. Hmm. I'm lucky if I can get the raspberries to market in one piece. The squash will last for months. Hmm. That math gets really simple.

    When I grew for CSA, I tried to have a wide variety of things to go into the basket each week. I hated being in debt to people for a basket of assorted vegetables every week, therefore I stopped doing CSA, and only sold at farmer's market because I could pick what I wanted, when I wanted, and people at market could take it or leave it. I quit farmer's market last week. Hmm. Gonna be interesting to see how that plays out.

    Apples are the most prolific, carefree, and easy fruit to grow in this area, therefore, apple is the fruit of choice. That makes them extremely common and inexpensive, so it's hard to make a living growing apples.
    Posts: 921
    Location: Western Washington
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    This is a related thread that is also very interesting to read:

    For me, I tend to choose things that I can scale easily so that I grow enough to make a difference in my diet and animal feed. Squash, corn, greens, onions, peas, and garlic are some of the things that I have learned how to grow enough of to make them practical. I tried growing soup beans last year but honestly, without mechanization, it just wasn't worth it. Now that I've gotten my farm's foundation built, I'm looking more into planting for pollinators. I've also planted a lot of fruit and nut trees, though they're only just starting to produce
    Posts: 440
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    High on my list.

    1) Calories.      If I had to live on my garden alone, could I live off of the calories this makes.?

    2) Nutrition.     I grow Moringa for the many many many health benefits in nutrition.     If you are sick and in the hospital, you are not enjoying life.

    3)  Ease of growing.          How much time does it take to grow this crop?   Time includes watering, pest control, and to be considered how much space does it require to grow?

    4)   Taste.       Taste is the spice of life, having bland food can make one want to give up on life.     Growing foods that enhance the flavor of food and improve the  nutrition of the food is important.

    5)  Trade value.       Is this food something  others would exchange for goods / money?     This is good when times are good, but when times are bad, then growing food that people don't know is valuable is better as they won't steal it.

    6)    Does this plant enhance pest control?     I grow plants for birds that pull them in.   Birds deposit fertilizer, and also do pest control.      I grow some plants as sacrifical plants that the bugs goto first before they goto my prized crop.
    Posts: 131
    Location: Prairie Canada zone 2/3
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    We are not farmers by any stretch - more like homestead gardeners.

    Here's the list of my main considerations:

    1) Locally adapted.  We have a 90(ish) day growing season, and it is dry here.  I prefer to avoid watering as much as possible, so drought-tolerant short-season crops are a big deal.

    2) Easy to store.  I am pretty lazy, and don't enjoy canning that much.  We do have a root cellar, though, so we weight our garden toward things we can store there, rather than having to dehydrate or can them.

    3) Flavor.  Of course.  This includes things that don't ship or store all that well, like asparagus and strawberries, where you need to grow them locally to get good flavor.  

    4) Things that are hard to find here, or hard to find organic versions of here.  We can buy potatoes easily enough at the store in town, but I never see organic potatoes for sale.  We just grow our own.  Similarly, we don't see pie pumpkins for sale very often.  We grow those, too.  

    5) Perennial.  A lot of what we currently grow/eat is not perennial, but we're working on it.  Some of this goes back to my own laziness, as perennials often need less care over the longer term.  Also, we like planting trees and shrubs, and we have plenty of space, with no pressure to make it profitable, which means we can plant lots of trees without needing them to produce right away (or at all).  It is not my main consideration, but it is definitely on the list.  
    Jeremy R. Campbell
    Posts: 28
    Location: Midwest USA
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    Thanks everyone for the feedback and ideas.

    I've taken your input and tried to summarize it across 17 distinct 'values' that describe ones priorities in selecting what to grow.  See attached.

    Why do you grow what you grow?

    How does that differ across different types of growers?  I made 4 general classifications:  "City Grower", "Hobby Farmer", "CSA Grower", "Industrial Grower", and tried to balance priorities appropriately for each type (0 meaning no importance, 3 being critical importance).

    This, to me, illustrates why we grow, and why we don't completely delegate our food supply needs to industrial growers and modern day food distribution systems as is standard in the most 'industrialized' civilizations.


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