Plant a Garden, Get a Tax Break?

Personal Health

From times immemorial, gardeners throughout the world have endured hardships of all kinds: floods, droughts, blights, swarming locusts, and, in the case of Dutch growers, centuries of uncomfortable footwear.

As a gardener from Maine, I have my own share of climate-related issues. Scientists have been noting that spring arrives earlier each year in the Northeast, a phenomenon I've been observing in my own yard. Last year, for example, spring started in Maine on May 2, almost two weeks earlier than usual, and ended on May 7.

For those of you who haven't been to Maine before, we have a fifth season -- mud season -- which is sandwiched between winter and spring and which helps explain why babies here are born wearing miniature LL Bean boots instead of pink and blue booties. Summer begins in Maine with the arrival of the first mosquito or out-of-state tourist, whichever comes first, and officially ends when all of them, tourists and stinging insects, have left.

I've been thinking a lot these days about the seasons and how I and others can gently coax more food out of them. An article in the British paper the Guardian last summer captured the enormity of the task ahead. In order to feed a projected population of 9 billion people, we will need to grow more food over the course of the next 50 years than has been grown over the course of the past 10,000 years combined. That's a lot of rutabagas.

My job as a sustainable foods advocate is to convince people that family farms and gardens not only can feed the world, they're the only thing that can in the long run. Big, industrial agriculture has enjoyed quite a ride over the past 60 years and has put a lot of food on a lot of tables, my own included. This bounty would not have been possible, though, were it not for the cheap and easily obtained inputs on which industrial foods depend, the most important of which is oil. It has been estimated that our highly industrialized food system in the United States requires 5-10 calories of fossil fuel energy to create 1 calorie of food energy. With oil and food prices now at historic highs and many reputable geologists claiming that we have reached peak global oil production, that ratio is sounding less and less palatable.

In recognition of planting season and the intersecting geopolitical crises now upon us, I am proposing that home growers finally catch a break. Not from bugs, weather, or clunky garden shoes, but from taxes. It's not as silly an idea as it may sound. We give tax breaks to people to encourage them to put hybrid cars in their garages and solar panels on their roofs, so why not offer incentives for solar-powered, healthy food production in their backyard?

It wouldn’t be the first time that our country encouraged its citizens to grow some of their own food. The government’s wartime “Victory Garden� campaign was a success by every measure. By 1943, 20 million gardens were growing 8 million tons of food (an amount comparable to that of the nation’s farms), and Americans were eating more healthy fruits and vegetables than ever before.

More home gardens would offer us victory not only over rising food and health care costs, but also foreign oil dependency and climate change. Researchers estimate that locally grown foods use up to 17 times less climate-warming fossil fuels than foods from away. And when it comes to local foods, it doesn’t get any “localer� than one’s own yard.

There are different breaks that local, state and federal governments could offer home gardeners. Sales taxes on seeds, seedlings, fruit bushes and trees could be removed. Better still, an income tax break could be administered as is done with home offices where people measure and deduct the square footage of their houses used for business purposes. The bigger your garden, the better the tax break. Those with no yard could deduct the rental fee for a community garden plot.

Tax break or not, I'll soon be outside fighting climate change, rising food prices and mosquitoes in my own modest backyard. Last year, my family and I converted our $85 seed order into six months' worth of delicious, fresh vegetables. This year, if we're lucky, that should take us right into winter, which in Maine starts in mid-November, except for those years when it comes early.

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