Kari Ainsworth is like many Americans navigating high inflation and expensive food prices.
Ainsworth lives in North Carolina. She does remote work for Delmarva Board Sport Adventures on the Delaware shore and has her own business, Moonbeams Unlimited, making soap, candles and lotions.
Beyond coupon clipping and stocking up on sale items, Ainsworth and her husband, Paul, are also looking to make more of their own food and potentially have their own homestead as high grocery store prices and supply chain shortages vex consumers.
“The strawberry season just ended here and I made strawberry jam for friends and our fridge. We also have herbs growing in our backyard for cooking and making pesto as well as for tomatoes,” Ainsworth said.
But she has potentially bigger “grow your own” plans as high prices and shortages spark DIY responses from aspiring green thumbs and homesteaders across the country.
“We are currently renting a home here and look forward to the day when we will have our own homestead to have a larger garden, chickens and honeybees. We are currently in the process of getting certified to become beekeepers. I am particularly excited about raising bees as the wax will come in handy when making candles and some of my other products,” she said.
Four-decade highs with inflation along with continued supply chain shortages are sparking a wave of new DIY gardeners and farmers growing their own produce, herbs and other food.
Other DIY food producers are making their own dog and cat food, preserves, sauces and other items to help ease their supermarket sticker shock.
The pandemic has also seen disconcerting shortages of toilet paper, baby formula and other essential items. A reliance on imports from China and other markets means that pandemic shutdowns on the other side of the world can disrupt the supply of goods to store shelves in America.
Greg Peterson is the founder of the Urban Farm, a leading online resource for new farmers and gardeners. He’s been in the farming and “grow your own food” arena since 1991.
Peterson said it often takes major upheavals and turbulence to compel significant changes in consumer and everyday behaviors.
“People change when they get hit by a Mack truck,” said Peterson, who now lives in Asheville, North Carolina.
American households might feel like they’ve been hit with a Mack truck, between the impacts of the Coronavirus pandemic and the highest levels of inflation seen since 1981.
The overall inflation rate is 8.6% with grocery items up 11.9% from a year ago, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Across grocery aisles, prices are up 13.7% for flour, 12.8% for rice and pasta, 14.2% for meat, poultry and eggs, 15.3% for coffee and 15.9% for milk. Prices for pet food, soda, cereal and produce are also up across the country.
Peterson, whose Phoenix-based group offers classes and other resources for budding backyard farms, said a small raised bed garden can cost $150 to start while a more expansive tower garden can run between $800 and $900.
But Peterson contends the savings are recouped via less trips to the grocery stores, using less gas and the nutritional and health benefits of growing your own or making your own food.
“It’s more nutritious,” he said.
Peterson said some new farmers and gardeners are looking for healthful and more sustainable alternatives to processed food at supermarkets.
“They’re seeing the bankruptcy of our institutional food systems,” said Peterson.
New wave of green thumbs
Since the start of the pandemic in 2020 there have been an estimated 18 million new gardeners with many of those from the X and millennial generations, according to the National Gardening Association.
“People are turning to their gardens. It’s really a cheap way to get produce,” said Nikhil Arora, co-founder and co-CEO of Back to the Roots, an Oakland, California-based developer and maker of organic gardening kits and components.
Arora said part of that wave are new green thumbs looking to stave off sky-high prices and empty supermarket shelves because of supply chain problems.
“We’re seeing a lot of the traditional tightening,” Arora said of higher prices encouraging gardening and DIY food.
Arora said new gardeners also are more racially and ethnically diverse. That moves gardening away from its traditional demographics (older and predominately white) as well as what those new entrants are growing.
“Gardening is becoming more of a source of wellness,” Arora said.
More new gardeners are focused on growing food rather than flowers and have a mindset of sustainability and nutrition.
“They are growing stuff with purpose,” he said.
Back to the Roots seeds, gardening kits and other organic products are in home improvement stores.
The DIY food movement was initially revved up during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 when economic shutdowns, social isolations and working from home spurred interest in gardening and urban farming.
“I would say during the pandemic there was the biggest surge in interest. The pandemic shook all of us,” said Jeanne Nolan, founder of The Organic Gardener Ltd.
The Chicago-based company provides designs, equipment, consulting and construction services for backyard farms and gardens — as well as commercial customers.
Nolan said her business focuses mostly on the Midwest but her group has also done work to help with new gardens and urban farms in New York.
Nolan said the startup costs for a backyard garden or small farm can be as low as a few hundred dollars — but more expansive efforts with aesthetics can cost as much as $10,000 to $15,000.
She said pandemic and other contemporary stresses are raising questions such as “is our society falling apart?” and “is it the Apocalypse now or might it be?”
That is sparking self-empowerment and “primal” instincts to have more control over diet and nutrition, she said.
Those “prepper” and more survivalist instincts are combining with the appeal of local, organic and homegrown food among young people, city dwellers and suburbanites.
The result is the “grow your own food” movements traverse the partisan, social and cultural divides that permeate politics and civil discourse.
“We’ve had more people approach us to help them create not just a small backyard garden for some vegetables but instead rather something more substantive,” she said.
Nolan said budding green thumbs should just take the plunge and see how it goes.
“You can start small,” she said. “My main advice is just go for it and start and don’t let some idea in your mind of the perfect way of doing it stop you from doing it.”
Peterson said carving out the time to commit to gardening and backyard or patio farms is often the biggest challenge.
But he and other ‘grow your own’ proponents point to the work-at-home trends that allow for more time to grow your own food, connect with the earth and disconnect from social media and smartphones.
Farmers markets across the country are seeing increased interest in locally grown and DIY food.
“I have been hearing more about people starting gardens for the first time and going back to gardening and expanding garden plots. Also, I’m being contacted by a lot more home bakers and people wanting to start food stands and trucks,” said Deidra Barrickman, market manager for the Eau Claire Downtown Farmers Market, in northwest Wisconsin 90 minutes from Minneapolis.
“I feel it primarily stems from COVID, people staying home and exploring activities they didn’t have time for pre-COVID. They’re finding out they have a good product and thinking about selling it,” she said.
Barrickman is seeing more DIY interest in bakery items and sauces but said translating home growing and cooking into a farmers market stand or food truck business requires traversing some bureaucratic and operational hurdles.
“Many are just finding out about the regulations that need to be followed to make or sell to the public. Such as, they have to make their product in a commercial kitchen that they need to be inspected and licensed through their local health department. It’s a little more than some can take on, “ Barrickman said.
Other market managers are also seeing increased interest.
“We’ve had a lot of growth this year,” said Jeralynne Bobinski, market manager for the Nampa Farmers Market in Idaho. The market has 180 vendors.
Bobinski said there is increased interest in organic, local food and more consumers might turn to local and neighborhood farmers and local markets rather than expensive fuel trips to suburban supermarkets or warehouse clubs.
Gas prices have hit record highs multiple times this year with fuel prices nearing or already above $5 per gallon. Fuel prices are up 48.7% compared to a year ago, according to the most recent Consumer Price Index.
Inflation of their own
DIY gardeners and farmers also face their own set of inflation challenges.
Fertilizer prices have skyrocketed after U.S. and NATO sanctions against Russia and its ally Belarus over the invasion of Ukraine. Russia and Belarus are top exporters of fertilizer and its main ingredients.
Bobinski said she is seeing local vendors and new food startups also be confronted by higher prices and shortages for key ingredients and packaging materials.
She said a rise in mustard seed costs is impacting some of her vendors and others are missing out on sales because they don’t have packing and other products materials.
“Some just can’t even come to the market. They will just be out for two or three weeks,” Bobinski said.