In their quest to reduce their food bills, many Mainers look no farther than their own backyards.
With a little sweat equity, planting a vegetable garden can provide a healthful alternative to purchasing food at the grocery store.
It’s impossible to say how many Mainers have gardens, but the anecdotal evidence indicates the number is growing, said Roger Doiron, founder of Scarborough-based Kitchen Gardeners International, which promotes home gardening.
The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association said it has more than doubled the number of its classes teaching people to grow their own organic gardens. Seed companies continue to report brisk sales.
“There’s definitely an upward trend,” Doiron said of the number of home gardens.
Johnny’s Selected Seeds spokesman Ben Sturtevant said sales at his Winslow-based company have spiraled upward in recent years. Sturtevant declined to give specific numbers.
“We’ve seen good, strong growth the last five years and we expect that to continue,” he said. “One of our primary customers are small commercial growers. We think there’s a lot of growth there because you see so many more farmers markets than you did three or four years ago. There are more start-up farms. I think that’s true across the country.”
But the eat-local movement might be driven by reports of contaminated food in recent years as it is by a desire to save money.
“It’s hard to say,” Sturtevant said. “People are more interested in where their food comes from.”
Still, Sturtevant said, having a garden can help reduce families’ grocery bills — even in Maine, where the growing season is relatively short.
“It’s a very good way to reduce grocery bills,” said Mark Hutton, vegetable specialist with the University of Maine.
There are start-up costs associated with gardening, such as tools, tilling and seeds; but each seed packet has potentially hundreds of vegetables and seeds properly stored in a refrigerator can be used the following season.
“The cost for seed … may look high for an individual packet, but the multiplication, the amount of food you get, is tremendous,” Hutton said.
Doiron said he and his wife kept a tab of everything that came out of their 1,600-square-foot garden one growing season.
“We found we saved over $2,000 by growing our own food,” Doiron said.
Doiron said it is possible, even in Maine, to become self-sufficient — but that’s not the goal for most people.
Part of Doiron’s mission is helping gardeners understand which crops offer the most savings, such as salad greens, which often carry a hefty price tag at the grocery store.
“That’s an area the average Mainer can make some savings,” he said. “If you have limited space, it’s best not to grow squash or potatoes, because they can be found cheaply in supermarkets or farmers’ markets. You should grow the amount that fits with your lifestyle.”
The average bit of food consumed by Americans travels 1,500 miles from field to fork, Doiron said. That number is even higher in remote Maine.
That shipping, and the fuel associated with it, help drive up fuel costs.
“The things we grow well, we should be growing well,” Doiron said. “We shouldn’t be eating California carrots this time of year.”
Growing food can also help fill the void for area food banks, said Caragh Fitzgerald, educator for the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.
Harvest for Hunger, which is run by the extension, this year hopes to collect 250,000 pounds of food from gardeners, farmers, schools and civic groups that grow, glean or donate fresh fruit and vegetables.
“It’s been well-received by food pantries,” Fitzgerald said.
There are challenges, however, including storage.
“Timing is important,” Fitzgerald said.
“If a food pantry is only open on Thursday afternoon and they don’t have refrigeration, you can’t have a volunteer show up with 15 romaine lettuces on Monday.”
Craig Crosby — 621-5642