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Nov 10, 2015

Michelle Bridges is right, people who grow their own food are freaks

Growing your own food makes no economic (or even taste) sense, and those (like me) who do it are in fact freaks. But believing what you see on TV as real is far, far worse.


In recent days, retail behemoth Woolworths has attracted criticism for a series of online ads featuring prominent personal trainer Michelle Bridges. Bridges, hitherto a hard-bodied brand best known for yelling at fat people on TV, has partnered with Woolworths to offer a range of frozen meals to consumers as, she has said in press opportunities, a kind of public service.

Bridges says the point of her healthy freezer range is to provide a shortcut to better living. She knows the high-calorie, low-nutrient temptations of the market and she knows the time demands of our working lives make these even more difficult to resist. And so she’s made quinoa, or whatever grain we’ve fetishised this decade, available in a handy box.

None of this is especially troubling. It’s really just retail as usual. The market unwittingly produces a problem, such as obesity, and then consciously finds a means to solve it. We live as consumers in this gap between estrangement, in this case from our waistlines, and the promise of reunification with ourselves. Or we live, as Bridges has more or less said, in the gap between the ideal spectacle and hopeless reality.

These shorts might not have been terribly funny, but their intention was fine. Bridges has said that people like herself, publicly committed to a strict program of pure eating and punishing exertion, do not tally with real experience, and she’s tried to show that difference. She awakes in obscene but ascetic luxury before dawn while performing a Pilates move, performs deep lunges while walking her toy dogs and, in the moment that offended the internet, eats a handful of dirt from her hyper-organic vegetable patch.

In the second part of each of these ads, Bridges talks frankly to the audience as herself and not as the media spectacle she knows herself to be. She says “let’s get real” and addresses the topic of her own unreality by explicitly admitting that life is hard and you don’t get rock-hard abs as a gift from the goddess. If she’d been a slightly better comic actor or employed a director with a better eye for camp, the ads might have worked to show this intention.

Then again, they might not. Even if someone like Bridges wants to, um, bridge the reality gap between life and aspiration, many consumers actually no longer care to.

It’s mildly interesting that Bridges tried to address this gap in her ads, but it’s quite a bit more interesting that many people no longer care to acknowledge that such a gap exists and so refuse to see Bridges’ efforts to describe it.  She is saying “there is a difference between images of reality and reality itself” but increasingly, audiences can’t cop this, believing that the thing depicted on television is the thing in itself.

It’s perfectly obvious, even if it’s not perfectly funny, that Bridges is taking the piss in the ad where she “offended” home gardeners by calling us freaks. Actually, as an avid but avidly unsuccessful home gardener, I know that I am, in fact, a freak, and I doubt that many of those protesting against Bridges’ critique of our ridiculous practice have ever had their hands in the dirt.

It is actually freakish, in an economic sense, to produce vegetables at home. And I say this not just because I am a shit gardener whose no-dig experiments have cost a week’s wages this past financial year in lucerne hay and produced, maybe, 10 edible cauliflowers. This is the opinion of horticultural science.

John Rayner of Melbourne University’s prestigious horticultural campus, Burnley, told me: “The economics of small-scale, backyard production will never stack up against commercial production systems.”  Stu Burns, proprietor of urban cultivation business The Garden Doctor, agrees. “Delivering all the required nutrients, water, organic matter, etc. to a house is always going to be more expensive from the outset than just buying the edible parts of the produce.”

We don’t garden to save money and, despite the claims of organic fundamentalists, we don’t really garden to deliver more nutritious veg to table. Supermarket produce might not always taste terribly good (although, to be honest, much of it tastes better than my heirloom Calabrese broccoli, which is a hideous variety I can offer you the explicit advice not to grow), but there is little evidence that whole foods commercially available have a relatively poor nutritional profile.  We don’t really garden as a means of reducing emissions, either. If a home gardener tells you she is “enhancing biodiversity”, “getting back to nature” or “saving the planet”, she is either deluded or a liar.  (Having said this, if you use pre-emergent herbicides or soil sterilants, you are a dick.)

We have other reasons to garden. “Probably the psychological and social benefits of gardening are more valuable than any economic advantage,” said Burns. Rayner says that “social outcomes and health benefits of ‘home’, small-scale production are generally undersold in any analysis.”

Often, we garden as a way to overcome a sense of estrangement. My neighbour Kon produces a surplus of brandywine tomatoes each year, he tells me, to connect him to his past in the Peloponnese and to the future of his grandchildren’s sandwiches. (Note to potential tomato gardeners: you can use a container and you can probably still get away with planting established tomato seedlings this week, and you could even germinate some of the later fruiting varieties such as Black Krim or quick growers like Tommy Toe). I garden as a conscious experiment in overcoming alienation, and I am hardly alone in taking this sort of labour analysis to the backyard. The nation’s greatest home gardening communicator, Peter Cundall, once told me that he takes horticultural instruction from the first volume of Capital.

Gardening gives you time outside the everyday pressures of exchange value. When you’re out the back with your hands in material, you leave behind, just for a moment, all the complex relations between time and productivity and reality and its image.  In other words, I garden because I am an anxious “freak” who often feels estranged, and the practice of growing a thing that I can eat but never actually own — you can never claim a plant as your property and you’re forced to tip your gardening hat to the clouds — gives me a mild sense of reality.

I am not insulted by being called a freak because, like most home gardeners, that is what I am. Gardening is an impractical compulsion that may be frustrating, but not so frustrating as the widespread belief that something like an online ad is even worth considering.

Australian consumers have plenty of reasons to revile the nation’s Big Two supermarkets, and these include (a) the rigour with which these giants squeeze food producers, and their sauces, dry; (b) labour camp conditions in which migrant worker wages are driven  down, down; or (c) just the sheer heft of the buggers. To say the success of Coles and Woolworths, whose dominance of a national market is, at around 70%, unmatched anywhere in the world, is the natural success of the free market — and, of course, the IPA does — is to ignore the very close relationships these companies have enjoyed with that other duopoly, the Coalition and the ALP.

The least of Woolworth’s problems is that it has called home gardening freaks freaks. The least of our problems is that visual media does not always represent us in the way we would like to be represented. But our belief that what appears is real and that what is real appears is now so absolute that when anyone points out the difference between reality and appearance, as Bridges rather clumsily did, we have a fit.

Online ads have no more necessary connection to me than I do to a commodity. If you happen to find yourself genuinely troubled by the gap between Bridges’ representation of the real and the real itself, I have an antidote: get out into the garden. It’s the only place I know where commodities dissolve.


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31 thoughts on “Michelle Bridges is right, people who grow their own food are freaks

  1. Carlene Colahan

    I find the fact that you successfully grow anything freakish, that you are a gardener not so much!

  2. Carlene Colahan

    I mean not that you personally growing stuff successfully is freakish but in my limited gardening experience successfully growing stuff is freakish. The process of gardening, on the other hand, I find most satisfying

  3. Graeski

    “The economics of small-scale, backyard production will never stack up against commercial production systems.”

    Undoubtedly – when 90% of the inputs required to support commercial growing (such as the environmental impact of carting tonnes of food every year from one end of the continent to the other, or even from one side of the globe to the other, and the hidden public subsidies such as the road system used to transport it on) are exorcised from the comparison …

    Sorry. I call ‘bull s***’ on this one.

  4. Helen Razer

    To say that exploitative practice is economically efficient is not to endorse it. It’s more expensive to grow your own food. This is a sad fact, but still a fact.

  5. Porcinette Littleburra

    No. It may be more expensive for to grow your own food, but any competent gardener can produce first class food, cheaper, fresher and with better flavour than the supermarket crap. I am somewhat obsessive, and have tracked the cost of my food production over several years.

  6. Helen Razer

    I make these statements on the basis of directly sourced academic opinion.

  7. Chris Hartwell

    Now now Helen – you should know that expert opinion ever falls by the wayside when someone is armed with the power of anecdote.

  8. Helen Razer

    I foolishly forgot myself, Chris.
    Expert opinion is elite!

  9. Liamj

    Love the central point, this ‘appearance is not the thing’ drum is worth banging thrice a week for the next decade. The preference for symbolic relief over reality is the chronic pathology of our time, co-occurring with hyper-consumerism, climate change denial, labia-plasty, you name it. ‘Tend to your garden’ is excellent advice, no genuine gardeners will be bothered by anything a stupormarket ad says.

  10. Barking

    So Helen can actually discern real from representation? Kant would be all ears!

  11. mark petrolo

    Growing your own anything is a terrible idea unless you genuinely love doing so. I find it nauseating when some hipster with several outstanding loans and credit card debt tries to suggest that growing their own organic vegetables saves money. Who are they kidding?!

  12. Bob the builder

    “The economics of small-scale, backyard production will never stack up against commercial production systems.”

    Such bullshit. There is so much evidence that small-volume gardening on a widespread scale is far more efficient than industrial monocultures. I can’t even think why you would say something that has been disproved so often, so thoroughly.

    Just because you’re a shit gardener, doesn’t mean home gardening is inefficient. I’d take a bet you’d be a pretty poor monoculture farmer too.

  13. Norman Hanscombe

    Blaming the market for creating obesity is a bit rich, Helen. Obesity has been one of the unfortunate by-products of affluence and cheap production methods. As for growing our own foods, it was a taken-for granted in my extended family, including among those of us who lived in urban areas, and even the young kids were competent.
    It may become common again, but only when cheap fossil fuels and fertilisers run out. In the meantime dreamers will dream, even if it ends up in a nightmare.

  14. Helen Razer

    Bob. The quote with which you take issue is that of a respected scholar at what is arguably the nation’s best regarded horticultural college, Burnley. It’s not my view. It’s the opinion of both the people interviewed, a professional and an academic horticulturist. I wouldn’t make such a statement without having it told to me. Honestly, I was hoping the opposite were true and it was just me. From the text: “And I say this not just because I am a shit gardener whose no-dig experiments have cost a week’s wages this past financial year in lucerne hay and produced, maybe, 10 edible cauliflowers. This is the opinion of horticultural science.”
    I did not base my statement on anecdote. Please don’t base your response on a poor reading.

  15. Helen Razer

    Norman. I base this statement on works including Stuffed and Starved, Raj Paten, a former functionary of the World Bank who collected and analysed data to an emerging consensus among dietitians and economists that obesity is increasingly the disease of the poor. This may not tally with your own view and it may not even seem like good common sense. It is, however, the dominant opinion that obesity has poverty as a primary risk factor. Since Hilde Bruch wrote about it in the time of the Great Depression and noted that children from the most impoverished families were likely to be in an unhealthy weight range, this has been discussed. I understand you have your views. But, to say yours are informed and mine are based on nothing but frivolity, and this is something you say nearly every time I publish in Crikey regardless of how many references I provide, is perhaps a practice you may wish to reconsider.

  16. Robyn Gilbert

    thanks Helen, my gardening also costs way more than the food it produces, but the pleasure of getting my hands in the dirt and admiring my fruit trees is priceless.

  17. Liamj

    “The economics of small-scale, backyard production will never stack up against commercial production systems.”

    Economics is a form of brain damage that leaves one knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.

  18. JimDocker

    I bought a fig tree for $12 about 3 years ago. I water it at the same time as the rest of my vegies because I planted it right next to the vegie patch for this reason. I use a bag of sheep manure for about $12 twice a year of which about 10% of that goes around the fig tree. When I Seasol, the garden, every 6 weeks, the fig tree gets a dose. Last year, I estimate that the tree produced over 200 (not counting the number lost during games of backyard cricket. Handy mid on, the fig tree.) fresh, juicy, tasty figs. How much are figs in the shops ?

    I have been picking lettuce every couple of days from my vegie patch for about a month for a salad for our family meals. Cost was $4. Provided about 15 serves so far with plenty more to come.

    My tomato plant which I bought for $8 currently has about 30 tomatoes on that are not yet ripe. I can guarantee, if previous years are to go by, that they will be tastier than anything that I can buy from the shops. Not quite at the level of the tomatoes I ate on holiday in Croatia, but bloody good.

    Parsley, coriander, chives, leeks, mint, chillies etc. All tasty, fresh, organic and cheaper than in the shops.

    This is not anecdotal. This is costed very carefully. The taste factor is subjective.

    As for waste, I have none. The food never goes off, because we pick it as we eat it.

    Getting chooks soon, so the sheep manure will not be needed.

  19. Rainer

    You don’t have to start with a full garden. Try growing Parsley, Chives and Dill in some pots and you will find that the taste of them freshly cut a couple of minutes before use is just phenomenal compared to the old and sometimes cold-burned (why keep it on ice?)stuff from the supermarkets.

  20. Bob the builder

    Dear Helen,
    yes, you may have based your statement on “horticultural experts”, but that’s a measure of how blinkered your views are. Given your usual insightful scepticism, this is both surprising and disappointing. And perhaps an indication that you don’t mix with people seriously involved with sustainability (rather than say, hipsters, who feel superior because they grow their own kale) or search out non-mainstream food production perspectives.

    I don’t have time to do it for you, but you can look at the example of Russian cottage (dacha) gardening – “Dacha gardening accounts for about 3% of the arable land used in agriculture, but grows an astounding 50% by value of the food eaten by Russians” (1)

    There was also a recent study of food gardening in Melbourne (2).

    And there’s masses of websites giving practical advice on growing enough to substantially feed a family in very small areas (3).

    (As crikey sometimes blocks comments with links, I’ve put them in next comment.

  21. Chris Hartwell

    Well, no Jim, but that’s entirely anecdotal. It’s a story. Your story. It’s an anecdote.

  22. JimDocker

    No Chris. It is a costed exercise. I produce the food in my back garden cheaper than I can buy it. I have done a cost analysis. That stops it from being merely an anecdote.

    If I had not costed it and just said, “What would a professor know ? I can do it cheaper. Typical bloody academic. That’s bullshit”. That would be an anecdote.

    Or do you only believe mathematics when an ‘expert’ does them for you ?

  23. mark petrolo

    200 figs is pretty good sure but once i flee the country and settle into my Russian cottage I’ll be able to plant a fig tree whose yield is so great it can be measured in figs per second. Then it’s only a matter of time before Putin hands me the keys to the Kremlin.

  24. Helen Razer

    Bob. I am a really evangelical gardener and, honestly, I was hoping to offer the view that is potentially cheaper IN AUSTRALIA FOR AUSTRALIAN GARDENERS to grow-their-own than to purchase produce from supermarkets.
    Now, I wasn’t talking about community gardens. I wasn’t talking about organised agriculture. I certainly wasn’t talking about Russia which, as I am sure you know, has a very different history of capitalist modes of food production than Australia. Russians went straight from feudal to collective modes of food production and have only taken a capitalist approach in the last quarter century. We dove straight into capitalism. We have two centuries on these guys. And as anyone, either capitalist or Marxist will tell you, capitalism is a very efficient way to produce most usable commodities.
    Of course something is going to be cheaper if you use, as has been documented, cheap labour. I know ideally it would be great to think that the home gardener could “hack” the system and produce an ongoing food supply at a fraction of the cost for which it could be bought. I know it would be lovely to think that economies of scale are a lie and that it’s-cheaper-to-make-it-yourself. This is no more true of cultivation as an individual (again, I am not talking about large scale community projects, of which we have few in Australia) than it is for knitting. Or cooking. I mean, I like to make lasagne. I do so with handmade noodles and, on occasion, from sauce derived from my own tomatoes. Even so, I can’t make it cheaper than the supermarket version. I could make my own mozzarella, I guess. But, FFS, time is money and every hour I give to the epic production of a meal—and yes, it tastes nicer than the supermarket version—I do not give to my specialised labour and so, in the end, it is way more expensive for me to make a wholesome, handmade meal than it is to buy a commercial version.
    It’s true that there are some DIY things that are cheaper. Fruit trees need little care and offer great return over time. Tomatoes and home-grown herbs probably score well in a cost analysis. But the view of the people I interviewed, and I write regularly about horticulture for another outlet and I know these horticulturists, both from Burnley, to be highly regarded by a range of quite “organic” gardeners and thinkers, is very much that DIY just doesn’t stack up against the purchase of a commodity.
    I am NOT saying this is a good thing. And, no I haven’t swallowed the Monsanto kool-aid. I am a person who does not use artificial fertiliser (if we don’t count sulphate of potash) or glyphosate (okay, a few times.) I buy open-pollinated seeds and I save them, where viable. (Not all seeds can be meaningfully saved.) I grow species of flowers to attract “good” bugs and I take a broad interest in both commercial agriculture and community projects. I have bucket shoulder from dragging water from the shower. In other words, I am on the side of home cultivation, I impose restrictions on my shopping and make the personal decision not to give any money to the duopoly for long periods (sometimes, it’s difficult to avoid them, because of my other labour) and have written broadly about the use of low-impact solutions to home cultivation.
    In the time I have been gardening and writing about gardening, I have come to realise, through increased familiarity with the nation’s horticultural community—most of whom are profoundly active where questions of sustainability are concerned and all of whom want to turn us all into gardeners—that there is an idealised view of gardening. I know you say you are not a hipster, and neither am I. I mean, I find them hilarious with their roof hives and I have noticed a lot of them have bee stings. ( am also grateful to them, as they are interested enough in gardening so as to provide a market for me to write on it. Bless them and their heirloom obsessiveness. It means I get paid to talk to horticulturists and puddle about in the yard.)
    The people to whom I spoke are by no means pro-industry. I approached this particular question by asking Rayner, an academic who is well-known for his own experimental home gardening plot and who runs courses for the public and an absolute champion of home-grown produce, and Burns, a former academic and consultant to Gardening Australia, whose commercial business it is to fix everyday people’s vegetable gardens.
    I don’t just “trust” them due to a lack of scepticism. I am a sceptic, but I am not a denialist and the data available on the cost of home-grown produce—and again, we’re talking individuals here and not potential groups of people whose collective buying power and labour (which is likely to be unpaid) could significantly reduce costs—versus commercial produce is clear.
    It doesn’t have to be this way, but it is this way. And I am sure that the people who have costed, weighed and factored in lost labour time, water, chook maintenance etc have managed to beat the system. But the big picture tells a different story about most individual gardeners.
    I am not being a dummy, here. And I am not saying that all products are cheaper to buy that they are to grow. Anyone who has ever planted a rosemary cutting would know that. You can propagate straight from another plant and have years of flavour at virtually no cost from this hardy, drought-resistant decorative herb that would otherwise cost you three bucks a pop at Woollies. But, over time, it’s just not cheaper.
    That’s not going to stop me from doing it. It’s not going to stop me, and others, thinking about the possibilities of community projects. But, honestly. It’s idealism to say that it is cheaper to garden than it is to buy for the average gardener.
    And, yes. A personal account is anecdotal. Even if you have costed every drop of water.

  25. AnisaS

    The bit of this article that I am totally with is that, as Helen says, even with better acting or directing is that there was such a collective hissy fit.

    I thought the message here from MB or the ‘creatives’ was that home grown is good but there are limits due to our busy perfect/glamorous lives and you don’t have to go crazy extreme ie ‘be a freak’. Oh! and by the way, this product can bridge (no pun) the gap for you. The meltdown in response suggests that some are, indeed, ‘freaks’.

  26. Chris Hartwell

    No Jim, you claim to have costed it – but provided no evidence of said. Thus, anecdote.

    By all means, run the numbers here for me – I’ll gladly recant my previous statement.

  27. JimDocker

    Actually Chris. Helen who you are defending has just stated in her post above yours that clearly there are certain items that are cheaper to grow.

    Helen, “It’s true that there are some DIY things that are cheaper. Fruit trees need little care and offer great return over time. Tomatoes and home-grown herbs probably score well in a cost analysis.”

    So it appears your attempt at sycophancy has failed (“Now now Helen – you should know that expert opinion ever falls by the wayside when someone is armed with the power of anecdote”.) as Helen has backed up my statements. In fact Helen’s clarification above makes a lot of sense. It would be crazy for me to try and grow potatoes, sweet potatoes, peas and corn if the dollar value was the only criteria.

    You may have noticed, nowhere did I actually suggest that there was no merit in the original article. I merely pointed out that I grow some products that are cheaper than if bought.

    As for running the numbers by you anymore than I did in original post, I cannot be bothered. My point is made.

    We could get into a debate about what constitutes anecdotal and what is a considered opinion, but semantic wank is not my specialty.

  28. Bob the builder

    Ok, part mea culpa Helen, and thanks for taking the time to demolish my argument. I am really glad to hear that you actually know what you’re talking about – and do it!
    Your style sometimes *seems* dismissive, so I greatly underestimated the amount of knowledge and practice that you have.
    … nevertheless, I think you’re still overplaying the ‘gardening is a silly fad’ thing and I still disagree that it’s ‘freakish’ in an economic sense to produce home food. It might be if you’re highly paid, but if your labour doesn’t attract a lot of money (or no-one is buying it) home food production makes sense – and if you’re skilful and use permacultural or similar principles, you don’t need to import lots (or any) of your inputs.
    I also still can’t see how this statement by Rayner can be justified: –
    “The economics of small-scale, backyard production will never stack up against commercial production systems.”
    While it *may* be true that in the current system of huge agribusiness subsidies it’s cheaper to buy mass-produced food, I’m still sceptical – of course, as per above, it depends on how much, if anything, you’re getting for your labour.
    And, as you intimate, lots of atomised home food producers, re-learning old skills are going to be pretty poor at it (I certainly am), but what I think a lot of people who are into this are fumbling towards, is a society where there’s a critical mass of people doing it, so the connections and skills are there to make it work – which is part of the point I was making about Russia. Lots of people do it, they’re good at it, they exchange or sell the surplus and it’s highly productive. The same is true of home and small-scale food production the world over. I don’t think it’s true of all food production, especially the grains that are grown in monocultures, but most food grows better at a small-scale in a diverse setting and the overall productivity / sq. m is much higher that broadscale monoculture.
    And before I take a breath! – home food production is way better for the environment. Apart from the fact that there is way less waste and spoilage from farm to wholesaler to retailer to home fridge, the food miles are zero and the embodied energy / waste / emissions in food transport and storage in particular is really significant.

  29. Chris Hartwell

    I asked for something very simple from you Jim – numbers. You gave me words. I couldn’t care less about the article at this point. I simply want evidence of your claim. If you’re unable to do this, then your argument has no merit.

    As I have said – I will happily recant. I just need evidence first.

  30. JimDocker

    As I said in my previous post Chris “As for running the numbers by you anymore than I did in original post, I cannot be bothered. My point is made”.

    If you cannot work out from my rudimentary figures that I save money on certain products, not wasting my time on you. I don’t care if you recant or not.

    I part own and totally operate a business that employs 20 people. I know how to do a cost analysis.

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