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January 13th, 2012

Gardening for Slaves

BY Christian Ford

Once upon a time, back when Colonial Americans were pining for freedom, their slaves were pining for freedom and a decent meal.  Sometimes, those two things turned out to be the same thing.

Begin with the fact that slaves were dependent upon their masters for their food.  This, as you may suspect, was a problem.  Plantations were economic engines, and food was the fuel which powered them.  Much like the modern motorist uses a smartphone to find cheap gas prices, slave-owners hunted for ways to spend as little as possible on fuel.  This meant that slaves got what was cheapest, or least desired.  In the rice-producing South Carolina lowlands, “dirty” rice was the the staple.  In Frederick Douglass’s experience, food was nothing but corn and pork, and you can bet that the good cuts (that is, the hams, as opposed to the feet) wound up on the owner’s table.  Combine this with laboring six days a week and you have a nutrition trainwreck.

The way out of this mess arrived with the slaves themselves.  Though the slaves arrived from West Africa with no belongings, they did carry with them traditions and one of those is what’s come to be called “vegeculture.” Basically, it’s an agricultural system based on root vegetables instead of grains and it has a number of advantages, especially if the farmer has disadvantages, like being enslaved.

Where a wheat farmer needs a large spread of land and the ability to till, plant and harvest it in all-at-once bursts, the vegeculturist has more freedom of maneuver.  These are plants that can be scattered, hidden, interplanted.   They do well in small patches, and have no trouble with hillsides, rocks or being tended when the farmer has time for it.  They can make do with low-fertility soil and, over time, can actually improve the fertility of the soil.

What would we find growing in a slave garden?  Beans, field peas like black-eyes, squashes, greens such as collard and cabbage, calorie crops like onion, potato and yam, along with peanuts, gourds for making dippers and the like, and some fruit, too, on the lines of apples, stone-fruits and melons.  There was even livestock, mostly in the form of chickens.

Slave gardens were often called “truck patches,” a name which bears examining.  In the pre-automotive 18th and 19th centuries, “truck” came to mean market-garden produce, a definition which leads directly to the description of today’s farmers market vendors as “truck farmers.”  But before that, in the time when these slave gardens were being described, it had a different meaning, namely the payment of wages in goods instead of money.   That definition itself emerged from an even older sense of “truck,” meaning commodities for barter.

So what did “truck” mean to the slave-owner who uttered the word?  A little bit of all three, I think.  Some truck patches were so successful that the slaves would sell their excess to their masters.  This happened all over the south, and in the slave-holding islands of the West Indies.  It doesn’t seem to have been a small thing, because we can see the impact of this on the health of the white population in those islands.  In short, the whites who had access to the vegetable production of their slaves were significantly healthier.  Apparently, even One-Percenters should eat their vegetables.

Something similar was happening on the mainland, because many truck patches also found substantial white markets in places like Virginia. Here, truck patches expanded to include large livestock, like pigs, cows and horses, and some were large enough to grow actual plantation crops, such as corn and tobacco.  A few determined and energetic slaves managed in this way to earn enough money to purchase their own freedom.  Or at least they did until 1692, when the Virginia General Assembly put an end to it with a decree that prevented slaves from owning large animals or growing staple crops.  Apparently in antebellum market society, some pigs were more equal than others.

So, for the majority of the United States’ colonial history, slave gardens were vegetable gardens.  Because a slave’s “free” time mostly consisted of Sundays and the hours of darkness, they favored plants that could take care of themselves without too much tending.  There were other commonalities, too.  They needed high-yield plants, ones that could produce a lot of food in a small space.  Succession planting was important as well, the ability to sew seed every couple weeks or so, to ensure that something would always be ready to pick.  Storage and preservation was essential for the wintertime, but slave gardens didn’t need anything as fancy as canning.  Many of the root vegetables could be stored safely in the ground, and others, such as the peas and beans, were preserved by drying.  Collards and kale would survive rooted throughout winter, and chickens kept the pests down and provided eggs.

When I look at this list, the thing that strikes me most strongly is how familiar it all is.  Basically, these are the plants being grown in backyard and community gardens all across the country right now.  And, as we know, the resurgence of family gardens is big and getting bigger, spurred by the onset of hard times in 2008.

The parallel is kind of eerie, and the more I think about it, the more I can’t shake the feeling that the slave plantation is, somehow, a kind of historical food-and-economics premonition.   On one hand, you’ve got vast acreage devoted to cash crops, either grains or fiber, with the profits funneled to the the very few at the top of the system.  Meanwhile, bulk of human beings in the operation scrape by on the cheap stuff the plantation produces to keep them going, their time entirely swallowed by the need to supplement their inadequate “wages.” We, of course, have gussied up the basic model, expanding from an agricultural world to a manufacturing one, and so we get Wal-Mart offering cheap stuff alongside its cheap food.  But the basic mechanism is the same and the inequity (if you’re feeling philosophical) or the blunt injustice of it, while different by intensity, are amazingly similar in shape.

The food deserts that lurk in the poor districts across the country deliver “food” that is just as much the waste product of the industrial food system as chitlins were the waste product of plantation slaughter traditions.  Just as slave gardens only survived at the whim of the plantation owner, we, too, have civic ordinances prohibiting such things as cabbages in the front yard or chickens in the back (ostensibly because of the noise, though the neighbor’s deafening Harley, which is too loud to be sold in the EU, is perfectly legal.)

But most of all, then as now, the “plantation owners” fixate on grains and we hunker down in the vegetable garden.  That means something, and it has for a very long time.  Inhabiting, as we do, a world of refrigerated cargo containers and high speed supply chains, it’s hard to understand just how fundamentally different a grain of wheat is from a potato.  Ask an ancient Roman, though, and they’d be able to tell you.  In the seeds vs. roots equation, seeds are the food of empire.  Or the fuel of empire which, for most of history, was the same thing.

Though time, across space, grains move.  They are, after all, seeds, tiny condensed packets of nutrients, coated in armor.  They’re tough and stable.  Protect them from rodents and moisture and they’ll last for years, long after your carefully stored root vegetables have turned back to earth.  What that means is that a society dependent upon grains can withstand entire years of bad harvests, as long as they’ve got enough socked away in the granaries, which Ancient Rome almost always did.

They can also gather their food from great distances, which means that they can support a large, expensive civilization with agriculture in far away hinterlands.  Rome’s empire was both the cause and effect of its need for the wheat that powered the whole thing; wheat fed the Legions that conquered places like Gaul and North Africa, which then grew wheat to feed the Legions.

Rome’s immense fleet of grain ships sailed from all points of the Mediterranean rim, funneling wheat into the granaries of Rome, 420,000 tons every year.  The Roman Legions burned a further 150,000 tons per year.  The Roman navy —  familiar to you from Ben-Hur, “ramming speed” and that big guy with the big drum — was primarily about protecting the grain fleet from pirates.   As long as Rome’s empire of wheat survived, so did Rome.  When a modest shift in climate ended most of Gaul’s ability to provide wheat, Rome’s decline turned to fall.

We, of course, inhabit a world of commercial empires founded on oil.  We love our oil so much that we use — in forms ranging from tractor fuel, to insecticide, to fertilizer and so on — 10 calories of oil for every 1 calorie of seeds we produce.  We might pause here to consider the ramifications of using those ten calories of oil to produce one calorie of corn that we then process into ethanol to replace oil.

But that only makes me dizzy, so I’ll confine myself to commenting that even if oil is the foundation of our commercial empire, seed/grain is still big league.  The ABCD group of grain traders (Archer Daniels Midland, Bunge, Cargill and Dreyfus) control between 75-90% of the market (actual figures are trade secrets, don’tcha know) and have a combined revenue of nearly $300 billion.  So the legions are long buried, but wheat’s army marches on.

The slaves are gone, too, but not the wage-slaves, which is why I think there’s wisdom to be found in the slave garden.  It’s an example of what to do when you find yourself mired in an economic arrangement that insists you take part, but doesn’t really give a damn about your well-being.  The slave garden suggests that we take control of something essential, do something of undeniable value, to make ourselves recipients of the fruits of our own labor.  Sure, very few of us are going to produce all our own food.  But it’s honest work, and it comes stocked with moments of delight and even beauty and who knows?  Do it long enough, and you might even purchase a bit of your own freedom.


Slave Garden Fence by Sarah Stierch
Slave Garden and Cabin by Melissa Wilkins
Wage-Slave Garden by Ars Electronica
Fortified Tunisian Granary by James_Gordon_Los_Angeles
Ruins of Roman Granary by Phil Holloman
Field Pea Blossom by Gerwin Sturm