A group of farmers from Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska hosted a remote agriculture happy hour. There were a few dozen attendees. …In total, they farm more than 30,000 acres of cropland, most of it planted in soy, corn, or cotton destined for the global commodity market.
…They primarily sell the same short list of crops that blanket most U.S. farmland: soy, corn, wheat, and cotton. These commodities are turned into a vast array of products with only a fraction fed directly to humans. (The bulk of corn and soy is fed to animals, and a great deal of what’s left gets turned into processed sweeteners and vegetable oils.)
…Cannon, who farms and ranches 10,000 acres near Blackwell, Oklahoma, was already feeling the squeeze from the trade wars with China when the pandemic hit.
The situation has disrupted many parts of the supply chain and left Cannon unable to move his products off the farm.
…“Even farmers are dependent on our fragile food system—and a lot of us are four days away from hunger,” said Cannon. As a result, he’s decided to start growing a variety of fruits and vegetables for local consumption.
…Tom Cannon, for one, is planting six acres of vegetables. He calls it a “chaos garden” and it’s essentially a cover crop, a crop that is planted in between cash crops. But while a standard cover crop may contain alfalfa, ryegrass, or sorghum that can be used for building soil organic matter or grazing, a chaos seed mixture might include peas, squash, radish, okra, melons, sweet corn, and other edible plants. In other words, it contains groceries.
It’s the perfect way for a commodity farmer like Cannon to grow fruits and vegetables without changing farming practices. “I just load my drill [planter] with 50 plus species, and don’t ever go back until it is time to harvest. Cannon plans to let community members pick their own produce. “After the people get everything they want, you turn out cattle onto the field.” Whatever remains serves as “green manure” to fertilize the soil.
……Cannon will give his customers the option of foraging in the maze or simply driving up to the barn to collect their produce. But he worries that many of his new customers won’t know how to use the fresh produce.
…“The country is just full of corn and soybeans. Why would you want to grow more when there is such a surplus and revenue is so terrible? I just try to grow what people want.”
…Some of the produce goes to his own kitchen but most of it gets donated to local community groups—the food bank, youth groups, and churches—with the agreement that they do the harvesting. Emmons estimates that each acre of chaos generates 4,500 pounds of produce.
…In addition to ease of planting, Emmons described other benefits of a chaos approach: The blanket of plants crowds out most unwanted species, including weeds; the cucumbers and squash and other flowering species attract beneficial insects that keep pests like “squash bugs” at bay; the dense foliage increases soil moisture retention and reduces the need to water; and the plants tend to mature at different rates, allowing for several months of a diverse bounty rather than a monocrop that gets harvested all at once.
…The effort could run into some red tape if it were scaled up. For example, federal agriculture policy makes it hard for commodity farmers to start growing vegetables on land that is enrolled in the USDA’s crop insurance program. However the program does allow cover crops—and chaos gardens could easily fit under that category.
…If every commodity farmer chose to dedicate 1 percent of their land to a Milpa garden, it could result in 2 million acres—providing a 50 percent increase in national vegetable production and distributing it more evenly throughout the country. Farming regions across the U.S. may be growing plenty of crops, but rural communities have long had limited access to nutrient-rich fresh food.