The Hidden Value of Gardens   (September 13, 2014)

Much of the community economy is invisible to market discovery of price/value.

Long-time readers know I tend to see the big issues of our era in small things. For example, I see capitalism's primary flaw--the market's inability to value whatever markets cannot price--in our society's blindness to the full value of vegetable gardens.

An example of capitalism's inability to value what cannot be priced by the market's supply-demand mechanism is the loss of the wild fisheries, for example, blue-fin tuna. The market can price the last wild blue-fin tuna caught, but it cannot price the loss to the sea's food chain and web of life, nor the eventual costs of this loss to humanity. As a result of this ontological defect, we cannot possibly make fully informed or wise decisions based solely on the market value of things.

If we rely on the market to value a vegetable garden, we would weigh the garden's harvest and calculate the wholesale value of the vegetables, or perhaps the price that could be fetched for the veggies at a local farmer's market.

Let's say the market determines the "value" of the garden's output at $200. If we calculate the hours of labor needed to maintain the garden and harvest the output, this appears to be a very low return on the investment of labor (time) and capital (seeds, soil, water, compost, etc.)

But does this market-calculated value truly capture all the value intrinsic to a thriving garden? Even the most superficial survey of the spectrum of value created by a garden would find that the market captured almost nothing of a garden's true value.

Just off the top of my head, here is what a garden generates in non-market value:

-- A soothing green oasis that offers visitors immediate health benefits: lower bood pressure, calming the mind, re-establishing a connection to the natural world, etc.

-- A natural gathering place for those living nearby. A rooftop garden, for example, becomes a magnet for residents of the building, even if they express no interest in raising vegetables.

-- A source of meaning and pride for those caring for the garden

-- An irreplaceable "classroom" for learning about interactive, dynamic systems, biology, ecosystems, insects, pollinators, soil, micro-organisms

-- A source of inspiration for culinary education, art projects and other expressions of creativity and beauty

-- A workplace where participants can learn perseverence, a work ethic, how to nurture natural processes, etc.

-- An opportunity to learn the social skills of sharing and working with others

-- A healing place for people who have never had little experience with the natural world and with the healing powers of caring for something other than one's own narrow self-interest

-- A natural rallying point to form a community out of disparate individuals or deepen the bonds between neighbors

-- The joys of harvesting fresh, organic vegetables

These ten sources of value unrecognized by supply-demand pricing of marketable output do not capture the full value of a vegetable garden, but they reveal how much of what I call the community economy is invisible to market discovery of price/value.

A volunteer sunflower in our small, messy garden, towering in front of our peach tree:

A potato plant, flowering beneath the scarlet runner green bean trellis:

A stir-fry of veggies from the garden:

A batch of peach pies, four of the 23 pies we made from the peach harvest:

How do we value such things? Certainly not just on their market value.

This essay was drawn from Musings Report 33. The weekly Reports are emailed exclusively to subscribers ($5/month) and contributors ($50+/year).

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