The synergy of energy and food

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President,
Illinois Renewable Energy Association

With urban gardens becoming more common and abandoned factories being transformed into commercial organic gardens, a historic review of gardening and family food production provides perspective.

Through WWII many backyard gardens and fruit trees in medium-sized Midwestern cities provided fresh, locally grown seasonal foods. Apple, plum and pear trees were common in neighborhoods. Farmers’ markets existed where families could buy locally grown fruits and vegetables.

Those lucky enough to have contacts with owners of what were known as truck farms were often allowed to harvest crops that were too mature to sell at existing markets. Being still edible meant the family ate the same food for several days or canned the excess for the winter. Such products were available during the growing season; fresh produce consumption was seasonal.

Families with relatives on farms or with farmer friends might purchase fresh eggs, chickens, ducks or young pigeons, half a hog or a quarter of beef and can the meat for future meals. Some families would buy 12 dozen eggs and immerse them in a thick liquid to keep them fresh.

Following WWII, dramatic changes occurred both on the farm and in the supply of food available in communities. Farms consolidated and became industrialized; a greater diversity of foods and more processed foods were available in ever larger grocery stores often referred to as supermarkets. As this happened, some customers became concerned over the quality of foods. They were also concerned over the high level of fossil fuel, chemical and antibiotic use in the food industry and their adverse environmental and health impacts so increasingly turned to organic and local foods.

Currently over half of Americans purchase organic food when it is available. Visits to local stores reveal that many items of seasonal produce are from local growers.

Farmers markets are increasing. They have grown from being a highlight of a few environmentally conscious cities and now are expected features of many towns. Roadside stands for seasonal produce are common sights.

During the past several years, the Illinois Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair has included more food workshops and now has an entire thread dedicated to food and gardening. The Fair’s first presentation on food was the Hundred Mile Diet which illustrated how energy could be used more efficiently by supplying locally grown food. Its story chronicled the difficulties and humorous adjustments made to daily life by the couple following it.

This year’s fair offerings include a session on vegetarian cooking made simple. Those who want to eat less meat for health, humanitarian or environmental reasons or are interested in trying vegetarian recipes, but put off by the long list of difficult to find ingredients and complicated instructions, will find that vegetarian, vegan and veggan food preparation need not be difficult. The presenters, who have fascinated Fairgoers for the past several years, stress their individual pathways to not eating meat and how it’s worked for them. A self-taught hunter and fisherman will present updated advice on hunting, home butchering and preserving meat, fish and poultry.

Two other long-time favorite presenters who have provided habitat for wildlife and grown innovative gardens through abundant, biodiverse, energy-saving human landscapes will present Bringing Your Yard to Life and Practical Permaculture.

Innovative ideas including straw bale and bag gardening will be on display.

There will also be a free Seed Exchange. Visitors are invited to share their favorite vegetable, fruit and herb seeds with others. A free Farmers Market Table will allow gardeners to share their excess veggies, fruit or herbs with other fairgoers. Small packages are requested.

Major sponsors of the Fair are the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation, The Rock River Times, Northern Public Radio and the Ogle County Waste Management Department.

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