Vegeculture and the Season of Roots

My mother in law ate a roasted turnip at my house the other day. It was unfamiliar enough to her in that form (she'd had mashed turnips before) that she had to ask me what it was, and it was a reminder of the fact that this time of year truly is the only time that many Americans come in contact with the lesser-known root vegetables. While carrots, potatoes and onions are part of our daily lives, and sweet potatoes and beets are at least intermittenly familiar (if commonly hated), few Americans know celeriac, turnips, parsnips, taro, rutabagas, yams, jerusalem artichokes or many others well enough to pull them out of lineup, much less include them in daily life.

If they do have some familiarity with these foods, it is on the once-a-year thanksgiving table in most cases, rather than as part of daily life, and that's a pity. Most are prolific, cheap if you are buying therm, easy to grow, nutritious, filling and delicious. Moreover, for those in cold climates they will keep a long time in natural cold storage or in a winter garden. Moreover, if we imagine needing to live in part from our gardens, these crops, along with the familar roots, are likely to be central.

In his book _African-American Gardens and Yards in the Rural South_, Richard Westmacott notes that a good bit of Southern African American agricultural practice derives from West African and Caribbean practices of "vegeculture" as opposed to European style-seed agriculture. The term, coined by D.B. Grigg in his classic _Agricultural Systems of the World_ is based primarily on root crops, including manioc, sweet potatoes, yams, taro, arrowroot, and in cooler climates was adapted to potatoes as well.

Vegeculture has several advantages over grain culture. For example, you don't have to till up a lot of ground at once, since these crops are adapted to "patch" culture. They often can be stored in the ground and dug up as needed, and can tolerate being integrated with perennial tree plantings. The tradition of planting in patches and leaving grown fallow to restore fertility in West Africa translated well in slave gardens in the US and Caribbean islands because such gardens often had to be hidden.

Often slave and later share-croppers had only hilly or otherwise difficult to use land, which is best served by being kept in perennial or semi-perennial root crops. Because slaves and tenant farmers had very little time to work their land, they needed high yielding crops that could provide nutrition and caloric density together, with little attention.

In her essay "They have Saturdays and Sundays to Feed Themselves: Slave Gardens in the Caribbean," Lydia Pulsipher observes that there is considerable evidence that islands that included many slave gardeners didn't suffer the classic malnutrition of slavery. In fact, the available data on the history of produce sales by slaves (who sold their surpluses to both white and black customers), suggests that white people were considerably healthier on islands that had large numbers of gardens grown by enslaved people. The implication seems to be that the starchy, vegetable poor diet of Europeans on these islands was significantly inferior to the root vegetable and green rich, nutrient rich diet of the slaves, and the influence of slave gardens improved the European grain seed diet enormously (probably to the less-than-total delight of the slaves themselves).

Only 2.5% of American agricultural land produces vegetables, fruits and nuts. The other 97.5% is largely devoted to the production of grains and seeds for things like feeding livestock, feeding cars (ethanol and biodiesel) and transformation into processed food.

What strikes me about this is how small an impact we would on the industrial agricultural juggernaut even if we were able to replace every single vegetable, fruit and nut we eat with locally, sustainably produced produce. That is, if we are looking to home production to help end the tragic power of industrial grain production with its heavy greenhouse gas outputs, water consumption and soil degradation, we need to start thinking in terms of producing more of our total calories at home. Growing our lettuce and tomatoes is a good start, but the next step is a return to home production of calorically dense foods, and vegeculture is part of the answer.

Now the majority of that 97.5% of agricultural land is producing feed for meat, so obviously, and as I've said before, we simply must stop eating feedlot animal products - period, no negotiation. All of us need to eat less meat altogether, but also must, if we continue to eat meat at all, choose better sources of grassfed local or home produced protein.

In addition to producing some of our animal products in cities and suburbs from food waste, we may want to get more of our calories from our own yards and from local farmers wherever we are, we need to choose high-nutrition, calorically dense, satisfying foods - root vegetables fit the bill here.

We simply have to change our diets, and eat more whole foods. We also have no choice but to live off a much smaller amount of agricultural land. In a 1994 paper, David Pimmental and Mario Giampietro document the falling amount of available arable land in the US per person.

Between desertification, the transformation of agricultural lands to housing and a rising population, by 2050, there will be less than half as much arable land available to feed each person in the US - a total of 0.6 acres, as opposed to the 1994 1.8 rate. The current American diet requires 1.2 acres. We cannot hope to continue deriving many of our calories from "shadow" acres in other nations, in part because it would be unethical, and in part because it is likely that China, which is right on the cusp of being unable to feed itself. So while we may have the luxury of a considerable amount of land per person, our children will not. It would be unconscionable, however, for us not to begin to transition to living on a fair share.

Which means, if our children are to eat, we have to change the current American diet. One way we can do this by adding land to our stock of "arable" lands - that is, we can start growing food on lawns, in public parks and anywhere else we can fit it. There are millions of acres of lawn available to be transformed into food producing land, much of it in housing built on the planet's best farmlands. And if there is to be enough food to go around, those gardens will have to include root crops.

Traditional West African gardeners, growing food in hot, dry areas of comparatively low fertility emphasized perennial vegetable crops as their base food crops, as have many Latin American farmers. Indeed, despite their tendency to rely on grain crops, Northern Europe made much of its agricultural prosperity on the turnip, and later, the potato.

Large scale root cultivation enabled the milk culture of northern Europe, and there is archaeological evidence that in areas where turnips were cultivated, people grew taller and healthier than in areas where wheat and barley alone were emphasized. Root crops were higher yielding than grain crops, particularly when grown on a small scale. Hot weather root crops like sweet potatoes were tremendously drought tolerant and could be grown on ground of low fertility.

A few centuries later, John Jeavons at Ecology Action would pioneer an intensively grown diet for a human being based largely on calorie and nutrient dense root crops. In his book _One Circle_ David Duhon documents his life on a diet that could average less than 700 square feet, and heavily based on parsnips, potatoes and sweet potatoes. By eating these in place of grains, it becomes possible to imagine a hand-cultivated, nutritious diet. Now few of us would want to live on as limited a diet at Duhon chose to, but he closely monitored his health and tracked what he ate in such a way as to demonstrate that most of us could do so - and that a more moderate diet in a larger space could offer both balance and less dependence of industrial grain production.

What is remarkable about all of these agricultural systems is that they represent a high yielding, extremely nutritious, good tasting diet that can be produced easily by ordinary people on comparatively small pieces of land using hand tools. Hand production of potatoes, for example, outyielded corn well into the industrial age. Hand produced polycultures of one acre that emphasize roots integrated with perennial plantings a la permaculture or vegeculture and include animals to eat wastes and maintain fertility can dramatically outproduce existing monocultures of grains in terms of total caloric and nutritional output.

But this involves getting more comfortable with roots. That doesn't mean we won't eat bread or rice or other grains. But it means that most of us need to encounter roots more often than at Thanksgiving.. And the perfect time to begin such a dietary adaptation is in the autumn, when roots are at their finest. Now is the time to think in terms of beets and parsley root, salsify and carrots (where I am) and in terms of sweet potatoes and taro in hot places. By integrating vegetable proteins or very small quantities of meat with these roots, we can have sufficient protein, excellent nutrition, comparatively low levels of fat and a great deal of food satisfaction.

My family counts root meals as among their favorite - parsnip chowder and root vegetables pot pie, turnip pickles and turnip kimchi, and the ubiquitous-at-our-house pans of roasted vegetables that fill sandwiches. We eat potatoes with cold-weather greens and spicy cheese sauce, or stuff our potatoes with bean chili. Celery root soup and carrot pudding, borscht and roasted beets with tahini, salsify fritters, sweet potato pie and onion soup, the list goes on and on and we'd mourn indeed if we were limited to these things only at Thanksgiving.

In the spring, or in the winter for those in warm climates, we can begin to grow them as well. Of course, in most places, potatoes, onions and other roots are cheap and plentiful - it seems so much more sensible to focus in on high value vegetables like tomatoes and lettuces. But some potatoes on the ground, or sweet potatoes in the backyard not only are a source of security, they represent the beginnings of something important - an old new kind of agriculture, suited to a world in which fossil fuels must be replaced by human power, and old priorities must be replaced by the notion of a fair share.

Happy Thanksgiving folks - I'll be offline this week making my own root pies, but back next week!


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Love it! Now I want some recipes! For me, it's worth it to grow potatoes because organic aren't readily available and conventional are so steeped in chemicals and stored for who knows how long before retailing. I read something promising recently about sweet potatoes in cold climates too...

Dear Sharon

Thanks so much for that. I've been wracking my brains trying to remember where all that stuff about the benefits of root crops was. Now you've gone and gathered it all together for me and put it succinctly, which was never my strong point. Wish I'd had all that info to hand for my post on Chinese yams the other week. As much as I've enjoyed growing small scale cereals, there's nothing quite as convenient as a potato in terms of preparation. I'm aiming to encourage the cultivation (and breeding!) of a few other root and tuber crops in the hope that a wonderful, high-yielding root polyculture will be available to those of us in temperate latitudes.

We grow beets, carrots, parsnips and potatoes - and then only seem to eat the carrots and potatoes. Beets mostly get vinegar pickled since that's preferred. We tried jerusalem artichokes last year and while we ended up with piles of it, no one would eat it because 1) it was weird and 2) it caused rather unfortunate flatulence. While we don't grow them, we will purchase turnips and rutabaga (along with parsnips, carrots and potatoes when we run out of our own) during the winter. Gosh, I miss root vegies! Americans aren't the only ones who need to reexamine roots; the British are possibly less open to them despite the efforts of Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall. The potato is King with carrots and beets much farther down the list. However, I've been told that next year we will be including turnips and rutabaga to our planting schedule. Yay!

By Kerri in AK (not verified) on 21 Nov 2011 #permalink

Right now we have about three wheelbarrow loads of potatoes stored indoors -- from their own patch, which has three locations, two being fallow at any time. About 150 square feet of sunchokes. 10 quarts pickled beets. More beets in the cold room. More in the ground. The poultry are cleaning up bugs and dandelions in the garden, but they don't seem to bothering the kale, chard, beets, cabbages or bok choi much, or the sunchokes and stray potatoes at all. There's plenty of dissicated and crumbled veggie leaf matter in jars, which we give away a lot of during the holidays, and which goes well sprinkled on diced roots, squashes and pumpkins all winter. This is actually down some from previous years, in line with our empty nest syndrome. Over and over we have talked about home grains, and time and time again planted a fruit tree or some potatoes instead.

I want recipes too!

By Cynthia McWilliams (not verified) on 21 Nov 2011 #permalink

One thing about this post -- and indeed much of the writing on this topic -- is that it simultaneously points out *very* real problems (especially the part about China grabbing "shadow acres") and presents solutions that, I would hazard to say, most Americans are not interested in. Whether or not those solutions are valid is not relevant if you can't get buy-in. Prescribing a solution up front has the appearance of advocating for a particular way of living rather than solving a real problem.

I would recommend augmenting the approach in this post, which preaches to the choir and potentially to fence-sitters, with more of a discussion of the problems without prescriptive solutions. The one you have hit on for yourself may work and may even be the best approach but it may not be paletable for many people. Describing the conditions of the solution in terms of the potential issues it will address is another approach that may eventually yield a diverse variety of solutions that will ultimately have a better chance of solving the problems.

By Dan in HI (not verified) on 21 Nov 2011 #permalink

It is a couple of days old now, so I imagine you have seen this. One hedge broker for grain and cattle, Barnhardt Capital Management ( has called it quits. Most agribusiness deals with futures and options on their crops to make a good part of their annual income. According to Ann: "The reason for my decision to pull the plug was excruciatingly simple: I could no longer tell my clients that their monies and positions were safe in the futures and options markets â because they are not. And this goes not just for my clients, but for every futures and options account in the United States. The entire system has been utterly destroyed by the MF Global collapse. "

This isn't the beginning, by any means, but it is a dramatic signal that one of the signal underpinnings of modern agribusiness is broken. That raises the spectre that some may not be able to afford to plant crops, or all their crops, next spring.

Most of us are still dependent on modern agribusiness. It is too soon to be want it all to dry up.

I had a very interesting and long conversation last year with a 'financial engineer' (mastered in engineering and finance) near frankfurt, germany, about the whole peak thing, geopolitical history, EROEI, discount curves, etc etc.

His perspective, close to the pulse of european financial administration, was that there was ample room for converting european food production away from meat to this kind of veg.

(I of course counter-argued with lead-times in agricultural switch-over, labor intensity differences, and a few other quibbles like nutrient cycles and transport issues).

In short, this kind of thinking is to be frequently found in the wild amongst the intelligent cognoscenti, away from the blare of mainstream media ..

Yes!! and Thank you!
A good post and one of your most *valuable* because backyard gardeners like myself often wonder what we'll do for calories without grains.
My repertoire expanded this year with my first successful beet harvest and I'm primed for more roots. Have started using parsnips in my cooking; as soon as I know what I'm doing in the kitchen I'll start planting them as well.
If only I had the courage to try potatoes again ...

2.5 acres/adult is the minimum needed for your calories assuming a plant based diet ... more acres is needed if animal products are used.

I have excellent turnips and storage radishes this fall, I'm glad to say. Though some folks find the Round Black Spanish radish too spicy (not me!), the Red Meat radish almost always gets raves for looks and flavor both. It keeps for many weeks in cold storage - how many weeks I don't know, but mine have kept for 8 weeks and would have gone longer if we hadn't eaten all of them by then. What I need to do now is grow enough to save seeds. Because they are biennial, I have to grow enough extra to hold on to till late March and replant them so they can flower and set seed. I can buy the seed, but few companies sell them because they are not currently popular. If more people grew them, more seed companies would make the effort to contract with farmers to supply seeds.

Similarly, I save part of my potato crop to replant for seed, and did so with sweet potatoes one year, only to lose the sweet potato crop during an excessively rainy and cold October when harvesting would normally occur. That soured me a little on sweet potatoes. Maybe I need to look at them again, and expand my garden some to include them. Thanks for reminding me about the potential of vegeculture!

I would also like recipes!

By matriarchy (not verified) on 21 Nov 2011 #permalink

Sounds like a great idea, but does it really work where the soil is a clay-type, and has quite a few rocks in it? The natural vegetation in the Atlanta area is trees, mostly. Or do you have to amend the soil so it is much better?

i'm also wondering if small scale growing of grains might be possible in home gardens without tillage. i have long wanted to try growing oats. i haven't the foggiest idea how i'd get the hulls off, if i succeeded in growing them, but i'd like to try.

I've always called my parsnips the "stealth" vegetable for when the zombies come. They hide in the garden all winter and will be there meltdown or not. You just need a little fortitude to get them out of the ground when they are covered in snow and frozen mud! For satisfying caloric content per square foot, parsnips are hard to beat. They are pretty good on marginal ground; their long tap root pulls nutrients and water from deep down.
Winter squash, although a space hog, can be allowed to run across the lawn or into the flower bed and up the fence and also provides great storable winter calories. This time of year I'll roast a squash and throw a bunch of parsnips and other root vegies in the oven at the same time. I'll take them all week in my lunch, to the envy and puzzlement of my co-workers!

Ahhh- fall veggies... yum!

I just made the Butternut squash w/quinoa recipe from your new book- and WOW! It was awesome! I made it this afternoon in order to have dinner ready early (as long as I was making up a bunch of squash for the week anyways)- and I ate about half of it throughout the afternoon:)

My comment is not exactly a request for recipes but rather . . . a general overview of how root veggies can replace, in a sense, grains, in our diets. We had a ton of root veggies in our winter CSA last year, 5 20-lb deliveries, and I cooked each and every one of them, with lots of tasty recipes. But, I don't feel like they replaced the grains in my family's diet. How do the West African and Latin farmers you describe use the roots of their vegeculture? I feel like to do this I need to rethink the composition of a meal . . .

I have perennial sweet potatoes in large pots but the tubers will explode and rot if there are rains after 2-3 weeks of dryness- we had dryness in Early August but the rains resumed and we are still getting rain 3 months into our Dry Season. Not complaining, we need it, but sweets in any of the viney pots I have dug. . I have usually dug sweet potatoes in October, and replanted the vines. Only a few got frost-killed in 2009-2010 winter and those were at the base of the seawall-lowest point of our small property.
Meanwhile making staggered plantings of potatos, from the grocery, planted after their eyes grew out, purple-gold-redskinned- and white- turnips, beets, onions, red and purple carrots, and parsnips. Broccolli are productive, we have a few other brassicas and green leafies. I have been trying to guidd the goodman towards more soups and stews but he dislikes because of the aura of "convalescence" that hangs over them. reeducating the palate is difficult- I really wish to try both hot (winter) borscht and cold (aspic-summer) borscht but as before- it's a soup so it is bad. Period.
As for the figures about how much space it takes to support one person's vegetables. I have read that most agricultural First Nationer's crop requirements were only 3/8 acre per person. And they didn't have the benefits of raised beds or lasagna gardens or even earthworms...

By Grandmotherbear (not verified) on 22 Nov 2011 #permalink

I like root veg put I really didn't think they could replace the protein in grains. I must do some research. I though it far more important that we eat legumes (peas/beans/...) for protein or lentils (can't grow them in the UK though), but we're probably getting far too much protein from grains anyway. Must check out John Jeavons' diet.

Made me want to roast some root vegs, have parsnip and turnips sitting in the garden.

I'm still wondering what to plant next year, given the successes and failures of this summer. I like your advice and so it seems I will be rethinking 'high value' crops and further changing my diet.

One nice upside of this is that by bucking the trend, I can grow the solid veg and the parents can grow tomatoes and strawberries etc... so we both benefit from a wider range of foods once the inevitable sharing occurs.

Jimmy, 2.5 acres is way too much for just food/person. There are plenty of books on how people have lived on less than that. Of course "minimal" and "comfortable" are very different words.

By Richard Eis (not verified) on 23 Nov 2011 #permalink

I am watching 3 meals frolic in the leaves outside as I type this. You might know them as squirrels :)

If you plant a garden, you will find that a lot of protein comes to visit in the form of squirrels, rabbits, birds, even mice and deer. You do not have to raise your own meat, nor do you need a gun, camo, or pretty much anything marketed in a 'hunting' magazine. Think hardware store- set out a few snares, or just have a few rat/mouse traps handy. A bow is useful too; relaxing to use, it improves eye-hand coordination, provides some strength training, and sometimes, dinner.

By ChrisBear (not verified) on 23 Nov 2011 #permalink

I recently found out about Jerusalem Artichokes, and more or less found yet another favourite root veg considering that it apparently grows like a weed and has a nice taste. Never ever heard of it where I'm from so quite tempted to try to take some along when I move back up north in a few years and plant some indoors (I'll be living in a flat, so would have to find a big pot or box...)

Just a random thing to throw in here, but if you put 1/4 cup of vinegar in with your beans while they soak it will signficantly reduce of them when eaten. It doesn't really change the flavor as far as I can tell. Its gone a long way toward making beans a regular part of our diet.

By FarmerAmber (not verified) on 30 Nov 2011 #permalink