Gardening, farming the same but different

Apr 22, 2020

Urban farming. Community supported gardens. Victory gardens. Commercial agriculture.

Food production has several different names. No matter what you call it, large and small farms have a place in our food structure. However, it is imperative we do not equate one pursuit with the other because they serve different needs.

Definitions for gardening and farming are troublesome to pigeon-hole. The entries in Merriam-Webster describe a garden as a location used to grow fruit and vegetables and a farm as a tract of land used for agriculture but needing animals.

The lack of specificity and scope – many farms do not have animals while several gardeners happily keep goats and chickens – makes pinning down the differences between gardens and farms especially challenging.

That is where the USDA comes in handy. To qualify as a farm, the production of food isn’t enough. Food production must go a step further and be sold as part of a business venture. So, to transition from a garden to a farm, the product must generate an income of $1,000 or more annually.

In times like these, when consumers see gaps in grocery store shelves and consider turning to gardening as a means of filling their grocery requirements, it’s important to remember the differences in gardening and farming. Both are critical to our food structure, but they need to be delineated for consumers and lawmakers alike. Gardening can no more supplant commercial agriculture than learning how to change a tire can replace auto mechanics.

While quarantine orders remain in effect indefinitely, gardening provides several benefits beyond the obvious payoff of a household harvest. Several studies have highlighted the physical and mental benefits of gardening including the daily necessity to go outside, tend to the plants, and the ability to see the fruition of a project.

In terms of what a garden can provide for a consumer, numerous variables come into play including experience and environment. One study suggested an experienced gardener could expect to get an average of half a pound of produce per square foot of garden. Similarly, while many people expect to save money when growing their own produce, it rarely pencils out.

When it comes to keeping people fed year-round and providing produce products inexpensively, commercial agriculture has a clear advantage over gardening.

The United States has an agricultural system that produces food nearly year-round and offers an array of choices such that most consumers are rarely aware of seasonal or regional eating patterns. If consumers in Washington state are accustomed to purchasing berries in late winter or early spring, it is because those berries are coming from California or outside the United States.

Additionally, commercial agriculture has the advantage of economy of scale to help keep the cost of produce down in ways that gardeners are not able to do. Rather than buying small containers of seed, pesticide, or fertilizer, like small producers, large producers are able to buy those items in bulk at a reduced rate to help them compete in the marketplace. 

Food producers in Washington are fortunate to have both macro- and microclimates that allow for more than 300 crops to be produced around the state. Our bounty is remarkable and helps to make us competitive as a commercial agriculture powerhouse, even in uncertain times.

With approximately 36,000 farms and ranches in our state and an uncounted number of gardeners, it is safe to say food production in Washington is going to comfortably move forward as long as we all bear in mind that we need both to answer the needs of everyone.