Cecil Bohanon & Nick Curott: Even do-it-yourselfers require some assistance

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There is something very satisfying about food from one’s own home garden. The gardener enjoys the produce of his own hands. He escapes the dreary dependence on others and achieves a sense of independence and self-reliance.

Bohanon reveled in that feeling last weekend when he harvested eight pounds of mustard greens from his small garden plot sowed forty days earlier. He proceeded to pack up the crop in 18 Ball half-pint jars. Oh Pioneer! Oh, rugged self-sufficient soul!

Well not really. Adam Smith noted in “Wealth of Nations” that in a “civilized society” humans “stand at all times in need of the cooperation and assistance of great multitudes.”

The home gardener/canner is pretty much just as reliant on his fellow humans and market exchanges as those who get their produce at Walmart.

Start with the mustard seeds acquired for pennies from the local hardware store which in turn, acquired them in bulk from a commercial seed company. Think of all the people involved in the cultivation, harvesting, packing, shipping and storing of this year’s seeds. Moreover, think of the generations of farmers and agronomists who selected and bred the ancestors of this year’s crop.

Once nature has done her magic and the backyard crop is ready for harvest, the home gardener gathers up the leafy greens.

Given their sheer bulk, they must be washed and cleaned in rather sizeable containers.

Bohanon used large plastic tubs made in China, acquired for just a few dollars. The petroleum byproducts used to make those tubs could have come from anywhere in the world. Undoubtedly, thousands of workers from around the globe, speaking mutually unintelligible languages cooperated to make and distribute the tubs that allowed Bohanon to clean his greens quickly and efficiently.

The greens were then cooked in a large pot made in France, packed into glass jars made in Tennessee, sealed with lids made, interestingly, in Bohanon’s hometown of Muncie, Indiana, and processed under ten pounds of steam pressure in a canner made in Manitowoc, Wisconsin.

Smith was right: multitudes contributed their efforts to get this to happen. The home gardener-canner does not need to know these individuals to secure their cooperation. No central planner could possibly coordinate all this effort, only a price system gives the multitudes both the incentive and ability to serve others. So it ends up that the home production of food allows the hobbyist to have his cake and eat it too! Self-reliance facilitated by market cooperation.•


Bohanon and Curott are professors of economics at Ball State University. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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