Dirt Rich
Planting the seeds of happiness

By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, March 18, 2007

When I was growing up in Florida, my mom and stepdad planned to save the world through organic gardening. Go find the counterculture and make a hard left: There we were, virtuous, alternative, crunchy before crunchy was cool. We labored under a brutal sun, hacking the earth, yanking weeds, swatting bugs, beseeching the gods to let food emerge from sandy soil that only a pine tree could love. We had discovered the future, and it looked strangely like a scene out of the Old Testament.

To grow one's own food was a political act, and some foods were more righteous than others. Sweet corn was a hybrid, too closely affiliated with corporate agriculture, so we experimented with "Aztec corn," the small, hard, black kernels of which radiated so much earnestness that you could almost overlook the fact that they were inedible.

For a while, we sold bean sprouts in little plastic bags at the local farmers market. They cost only pennies to grow -- just add water to some mung beans or lentils -- but we could sell a bag for, what, 75 cents? Multiply that profit margin by 10 or 12, and we might pocket a sum that approached the low two figures.

Business, unfortunately, was slow, as bean sprouts are a "niche market," which is what you call something that most people don't like. Even the pro-sprouts faction of society never truly craves them. This was like trying to sell little bags of hay. The sun would climb higher in the sky, beating down upon our pickup truck, and invariably, by noon, I would vow to become a marijuana dealer.

Eventually, we started a nursery and got into landscaping, which meant more hacking away at the ground, but with actual income. Cash! Like snow, it was something I'd heard about but had never seen.

We grew our plants in the one-gallon cans discarded by the school cafeteria. We'd sell an azalea for a dollar, plus an extra dollar if we planted it in your yard. We worked hard and made people happy, and at the end of the day had tangible proof of our industry. On the way home, we often stopped at the drive-through beverage market to buy a six-pack of the good stuff: Tuborg Gold.

We turned to hauling furniture, 25 bucks a load, everything piled high and roped down in the back of our 1963 Chevy pickup. We bombed around town looking like the Clampetts on their way to Beverly Hills. We branched out: Somehow we found free sources of sawdust, wood chips, horse manure. Often it would be just a pile of stuff out in the piney woods. We'd shovel it into the back of the pickup and sell it to someone as mulch for 25 bucks a load. We went to the place where they made telephone poles, loaded up the discarded stumps, split them back at the house with an axe, then sold the stuff as firewood for, yes, 25 dollars. Arguably, we were kind of stuck on 25. The breadth of our entrepreneurial vision was awesome, though perhaps not the height.

Back in those days, I dreamed of having my own farm. I'd draw pictures of it: nice frame house, big barn, windmill, henhouse, pigpen, horse paddock and an orchard where the trees were constantly in fruit. My corn had fabulous tassels. My chickens clucked merrily, and my pigs would have the highest test scores in the neighborhood.

Now, mature and wise, I know that this was a silly, juvenile vision. Food is most efficiently produced not potato by potato and apple by apple, but in factory farms and on impossibly vast laser-leveled fields that can be cultivated robotically by huge corporations. You can't make money in this culture selling one azalea at a time; you want to be the landscape architect or, better yet, the person who creates the computer software used all over the world by landscape architects. You'll never get ahead if you do something as old-fashioned as come into contact with dirt; even contact with other people is inefficient. You start losing money and market share the moment you step outdoors.

So, as spring arrives, I'll be in a fluorescent landscape, sitting at my desk near the photocopier, making a living with a keyboard. The windows are so far away, the view so attenuated, that I can barely tell whether it's night or day, and to find out whether it's raining, I have to check the Internet.

But down South, my mom and stepdad are still plant people, tooling around in a pickup. At the end of every day, they sit under the grape arbor, pop open a beer and admire their Edenic surroundings. Spring will be full throttle by now. The azaleas and dogwoods will be glorious. My parents know that to save the world, you first have to appreciate it.

Read Joel Achenbach weekdays at washingtonpost.com/achenblog.

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