Coping with the craziness with backyard gardens and sourdough


“Like, why is everyone making sourdough now?” asks the AT&T spokeswoman in a commercial that started airing recently. The customer on video chat gives her a quizzical look. It’s an ad promoting new 5G service. Years from now we’ll come across the commercial on YouTube and say, “that’s so 2020”.

Baking bread is just one of the activities many people turned to while staying home in early spring under the lockdown orders. I cooked up a couple of whole wheat loaves myself. They came out pretty good. Finding yeast was difficult though, Walmart and Hannaford were out for weeks. That’s why people turned to making their own yeast with sourdough starter culture.  

Why bake bread? I can’t speak for anyone else except myself, but for me it was an instinctive reaction to the disruption to the food supply chain we saw as the crisis was beginning. It felt just a little comfort in knowing I could still make something from raw ingredients if I had to.

I think it was also a response to the question we all ask when faced with a difficult situation, “what would mom or dad do?”

Growing up, my mother baked bread for our family every week. I remember there was one lunch aid at school who always marveled at seeing me eat peanut butter and jelly on homemade bread. It wasn’t as fantastic as she imagined though. Mom baked straight-up whole wheat bread that was super nutritious and tasted like…well something super nutritious. And sometimes the dough would rise too much, and we’d have bread that disintegrated under the onslaught of chunky Smucker’s peanut butter. Or other times it would fall flat, and we’d be gnawing on three-inch-wide sandwiches like it was raw hide, with peanut butter and jelly squirting out the sides under the pressure.

She also made homemade granola sweetened with honey. That was great, except occasionally the grains would get burned in the oven, and then we’d have “grouch flakes” for breakfast.

I can’t say there weren’t times that I longed for Wonder Bread and Cocoa Puffs. But I certainly appreciate now the example she set for showing what it meant to be at least partially self-sufficient and the value of being thankful for what we had, even if it was burnt or falling apart.

She also gardened. She still does. And raises goats. I have no desire to get a goat, but I did try the backyard garden thing as many others also did. Same thing as with the bread. Instinctively, I needed to know I could produce food on my own if I had to, even if it was just a little bit. Although I knew the basics from watching her for so many years growing up, I found myself scratching my head as to how to start. Luckily I remembered the Square Foot Gardening book she had given me for Christmas probably five years ago that I had tossed in the magazine rack and never read. All of a sudden this was the most valuable book I had.

Although no one could have predicted how 2020 was going to turn out, the problems we are seeing now are ones that were already on their way. The pandemic just sped up their arrival.

For years, people had been warning about how the continuous consolidation and concentration of our farms and food processing plants was leaving us vulnerable. Add to that the introduction of “order-to-shelf” fulfillment techniques increasingly used by supermarkets to reduce backstock as much as possible, and you have a recipe for a very efficient, but very fragile system.

The same problem could be seen with manufactured products. The shutdown of Chinese factories for only a few months not only caused shortages of consumer appliances and electronics, but left us realizing we could not produce many essential devices and supplies needed to combat the pandemic on our own. While the United State is still the second biggest manufacturer in the world behind China, many factories are still dependent on Chinese parts and supplies for production.

A silver lining to this is that many people are beginning to realize that maybe the sustainability and reliability of goods and services might be worth factoring into our buying decisions. In other words, consumers and commercial buyers alike are learning the hidden cost of depending on cheap goods from a single far-away supplier.

And then there’s governments. With the drop in tax revenues because of everyone staying home, New York State is having financial problems. The most immediate effect we see here in Amsterdam is the delay and possible withholding of state aid for our school district. With 67% of the revenue needed to fund our $75 million school budget coming from the state, we have learned we are vulnerable in the same way that grocery stores and manufacturers are vulnerable by relying on cheap but fragile supply chains.

Take a second and think about it – even though some of that state tax money also comes from our own pockets, we are a community that cannot support our current education system on it’s own.

Schools are an integral part of our community’s culture. Academics are at the heart, but we also value our arts and sports programs. Above that, we value connection and tradition. You only have to see a Friday night football game at Lynch field to see proof of this.

So realizing how valuable these things are and how easily threatened they are by what happens in Albany, maybe it’s worth asking – could we as a community educate our own children,  if we had to, without outside help?

I’m not talking about homeschooling, although I fully support that option for parents who want to. I believe in the value of public education, with all the variety of experiences and difficulties that come with it. But could we do it as a community if we didn’t have $75 million?

What would a dramatically less expensive school district look like? Could it be done? Probably not under the current system, but who says we can’t create a new one? Maybe it would require parents to invest more time. But if one finds one’s self with more time than money, maybe that’s not such a bad thing? Maybe parents and teachers could work together better without the complex and often inflexible bureaucratic administrative oversight.

Maybe it takes a few experiments to test the waters to get a sense of the possibility. Like baking a few loaves of bread or planting a few vegetables in the back yard for the first time.  I wonder how many other new things we could also try and succeed at and what kind of community we could build together, if we decided to commit the time and energy?

Tim Becker

Tim Becker is the owner of Anthem Websites Inc. which publishes The Compass. He serves as both editor and a writer.