question: what is horticulture?

Defined by the American Society for Horticultural Science as, “the art and science of producing, improving, marking, and using fruits, vegetables, flowers, and ornamental plants,” horticulture is an important component of society that positively impacts citizen’s quality of life. Such improvements can take the form of, for example, increased nutrition, more attractive living environments, or a demonstration of cultural identity.

From an economic perspective, horticulture is a $17 billion [USD] industry that produces more than 2.4 billion tons of goods annually as well as provides employment and income to various participants of horticultural supply and value chains. It is also a growth market with enterprises that vary vastly in size.

the horticulture supply chain
Source: International Society for Horticultural Science, exerted from ‘Harvesting the Sun’, 2012

Each supply and value chain has a number of different stakeholders who are affected by the flow of goods. The actions taken by each link of the chain influences the other members. Therefore, cooperation plays a strong role in the effectiveness of a supply or value chain.

supply chain history
Source: International Society for Horticultural Science, exerted from ‘Harvesting the Sun’, 2012

With such a wide-range of stakeholders, the types of employment provided by horticulture are many. The end-products of these services provide aesthetic, sociological, and psychological benefits. Such benefits range from being able to enjoy fresh fruit on a daily basis to drinking a fine bottle of wine with friends to being able to send a sick family member flowers to sitting in a well-tended park on Sunday afternoon. Horticulture is able to provide these benefits because it differs from other plant sciences and botany as it it incorporates both art and science.

employment sectors in horticulture
Source: International Society for Horticultural Science, exerted from ‘Harvesting the Sun’, 2012

In response to massive consumer demand for horticultural products and a quickly growing population, it has been argued that large-scale production, which is generally vertically integrated, is the only production system capable of consistently meeting global demand. This capability is grounded in the shift from the use of manual labor towards the expansion of the use of machinery and robotics. It has also been asserted that large-scale production is more efficient. However, evidence contrary to the aforementioned assertions has been produced, indicating that small-scale production is as productive as large-scale production. However, due to widespread modernization in the horticultural field, it is often much more difficult for small-scale producers to compete in the market which in turn allows for a concentration of economic power.

Nonetheless, changes in consumer demand may work in favor of small-scale producers as consumers seek out more authentic food experiences, diversity, and are more interested in supporting their local communities. If small-scale producers can effectively exploit such demands as well as provide high-quality products at reasonable prices, they are likely to be able to capture a greater market share. Specific opportunities can be found in tropical fruit production and the diversification of vegetables – two areas where both demand and consumption has steadily increased.

Current issues being faced by the horticultural industry, regardless of size, include controversy associated with seed production, changing weather patterns and climate, soil and fertilizer management, disease and pest control, rising energy costs, and water scarcity.


the food system approach: assessing food security from a holistic perspective

“The world now produces enough food to feed its population. The problem is not simply technical. It is a political and social problem. It is a problem of access to food supplies, of distribution, and of entitlement. Above all, it is a problem of political will.”

-Boutros Boutros-Ghali, November 1993

925 million people were food insecure in 2011. It is easy to assume that the travesty is the result of a production gap as much of the modern literature focuses on how much more food will need to be produced by 2050 in order to feed the burgeoning population of the world. This is, however, not the case. There is currently enough food produced for all of the world’s inhabitants. In fact, there is enough produced to feed even more people. Instead, there are a myriad of other factors that result in logistical issues and inequitable distribution of output, including:

  • A wide range of research challenges
  • Issues related to the political economy
  • Political inertia
  • Poor funding decisions
  • Misunderstanding/wrong explanations of the issues

Contributing to the misfocus of energy is the notion that food security is exclusively a ‘developing world’ problem. Based on this false premise, little effort to address the root causes and the majority of effort towards the alleviation of global hunger has been the work of development agencies who are limited in the scope of their efforts and scientists who focus only on production and agronomic factors – many of which have high environmental costs. However, the gradual shifts in the social and environmental construction of the world have resulted in a shift of focus and a reluctant acceptance that the actions of the ‘developed’ world have consequences on food security throughout the world. Moreover, a great number of people residing in ‘developed’ lands lack access to appropriate sources of nutrition. Accordingly, this has led to a new discussion surrounding food and a new approach – a food systems approach – that serves as a tool for better understanding the complex interactions between the diverse actors in a food production system.

A food system is a type of system that relates to all activities to food:

  • Production: how the food is grown
  • Processing: how the food is transformed from raw materials into other products
  • Distribution: how the food is dispersed and appropriated
  • Preparation: how the food is handled to prepare for the consumption phase
  • Consumption: how the final food product is (or is not) ingested

The outcomes of which contribute to food security AND:

  • Access: who can obtain the food and how it can be obtained
  • Affordability: who can purchase the food
  • Allocation: who will receive the food
  • Preference: whether the preferences for food
  • Use: how and if the food will be used
  • Value: nutrition, safety and social
  • Security: environmental and other, e.g. income

Using the concept of a food system which addresses not only the economic but also the social component of food production, a more complete and holistic picture of the circumstances at hand can be developed, which can be used to:

  • Provide a framework for structuring dialogs
  • Integrate food systems analyses with analyses of food security outcomes
  • Assess GEC impacts on food systems
  • Identify feedbacks
  • Identify intervention points for the enhancement of food security
  • Analyze trade-offs between food security, ecosystem services, and social welfare outcomes
  • Highlight research gaps

In achieving these results, efforts can be focused on the most appropriate allocation of resources. Likewise, more resilient food systems that use resources in a more intelligent and equitable manner can be developed – something that is universally beneficial in the world.



8 essential questions to ask before installing an irrigation system

Photo credit:

Irrigation systems offer a variety of benefits.  They allow for the growth of a wider variety of crops.  They can be timed so that the hands-on portion of crop production is a little less cumbersome.  They protect crops from irregular and dry weather conditions.  They support leaching, which can remove harmful, crop-damaging salts within in the soil.  Crops that are supported by irrigation tend to be much more productive.

To reap said various benefits, several considerations must be made and an assortment of essential questions must be answere

1. Why do you want an irrigation system?

2. What type of soil do you have?

      Do you have sandy, loamy or clay?  It could also be (and often is) a combination of the           three.

Photo credit:

3.  What is the amount and distribution of the precipitation?

  • When does the growing area receive the most rain?   
  • Is the rain equally distributed throughout the year?
  • Are there rainy and dry seasons?
  • How much precipitation does the area receive annually?
    • Arid: less than 200mm/year
    • Semi-Arid: less than 400mm/year
    • Humid: more than 1000mm/year
    • Semi-humid: more than 800mm/year

4.  What are the temperature ranges and averages?

Are there hot and cold seasons?
Are there temperature extremes?

5.  What is the climatic water balance?

How does water flow in and out of your environmental system?
Is there a renewable source of water that can support the irrigation system?  


6.  What are the soil conditions?

  • Water storage capacity/Available water capacity (AWC)
    • This is the range of available water that can be stored in soil and be available for
      growing crops

      • formula: (water content at field capacity) – (permanent wilting point)
  • Field capacity (FC)  
    • This is how much soil moisture or water content is retained in the water after the excess water has drained and the rate of downward movement (free drainage) has decreased.  This typically takes place 2 – 3 days following rain or irrigation (assuming the soil is pervious and uniform in structure and texture).
  • Soil depth
  • Humus content
    • Humus is composed of decayed organic matter (plant and animal).  As it decomposes, it provides plants with many nutrients required for their growth.
  • The slope of the growing area
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7. What crops do you want to grow?

  • What are the water demands of the desired crops?
    • Are the crops perennial (trees, vineyards) or annual (tomatoes, beans)?
    • How do the chosen crops react to water stress and irrigation?
    • Will cover crops be used?
    • How and when will crops be rotated?

8. What water will be used for the irrigation system?

  • Is there renewable water (not old water)?
  • What type of water will be used?
    • Recycled, waste or fresh
  • In what condition is the water?
    • Salt levels
    • PH levels
    • Presence of heavy metals
    • Are there hygiene issues (disease, effluence)

Once these questions have been answered, the next step is deciding the type of irrigation system that will be used.  

See also:

agricultural irrigation

food deserts defined and examined

What exactly is a food desert?

The term food desert was first coined in the 1990s in Scotland.  It is used to describe locations where there is little or no access to healthy foods. This is often due to a lack of “normal” and “safe” food sources (i.e. supermarkets). When residents do not have regular access to healthy foods, they become classified as food insecure.

food mart

The term food desert has come to be the embodiment of urban decay. In America, approximately 10% of the population lives in a food desert. For an area to be considered a food desert, at least 20% of inhabitants must be below the poverty line and 33% of the population must live more than a mile from a supermarket in urban areas or 10 miles in rural locations. In food deserts, individuals must expend greater resources to reach normal food sources and these are the areas that often have the fewest resources to use.  The most significant limitations include financial restraints, physical ailments and a lack of transportation.

Who is affected by food deserts?

The negative effects of food deserts disproportionately affect locations primarily populated by the elderly and the poor with age, income and educational levels being the factors that are most strongly related to food insecurity levels.  It is theorized that this has been caused by the consolidation of food retailers which has driven smaller retailers from these locations at a greater rate.This trend can be seen in both urban and rural locations.

no car no supermarket

Why are some areas more dramatically affected?

This is a difficult question to answer, but it can likely be attributed to the cycle of poverty that restricts the quality of life in many poor areas. However, there are other factors that need to be more thoroughly examined and the question, “Is the issue of food deserts a problem of supply or demand?” needs to be addressed.

There may be in fact little or no demand for healthier options which stems from varying sociocultural views on food, rather than food access. Additionally, simply providing healthy food options does not change consumer behavior. Some people just do not care about their dietary health. These factors are typically influenced by age and gender.

cost difference

Furthermore, it may not be that there is a lack of access, but the lack of necessary funds needed to purchase healthy foods (it is estimated that fruits and vegetables cost up to 36% more than the national average in food deserts). There is also the issue of not having the necessary skills or knowledge to prepare many fruits and vegetables after several generations of dependency on fast and convenience foods.

Are there other food sources that can help alleviate problems caused by food deserts?

There are three major categories of food sources:

  1. Normal sources: retailers
  2. Government food assistance: WIC, school lunch programs, nutrition assistance for the elderly
  3. Alternative food sources: gifts, private charity

What are some possible solutions for addressing the issue of food deserts?

In the past, many of the solutions have been solely focused on the number of calories that receivers of assistance consume, rather than the quality of food they are consuming.  In order for solutions to be long-term and “worth” the investment this perspective must change.

Among the variety of options, the most viable solution that will be the most broadly beneficial is strengthening the social infrastructure of a given area.  This is accomplished by encouraging social connections between families, friends and neighbors as studies have shown that increases in social capital decrease the likelihood that members of the community will have hunger issues.

The most common methods for developing social infrastructures are traditional options which include opening low-cost/free food pantries (often associated with religious institutions), visiting farmers markets and offering senior meal programs.

Other options include:

  • Building up support for local retailers: shopping at Wal-Mart may seem like it is cheaper, but the real cost of dependency on businesses with little empathy for the community is more often than not detrimental in the long-run.
  • Developing transportation networks: beneficial not only to those using the service but to the environmental, too.
  • Encouraging the retail sale of locally produced food: the revenue stays in the community where it is really needed
  • Establishing gardens to plant enough food to share: produces local (and often organic) food and provides an opportunity for social interaction.
  • Expanding civic organizations (ex. VFW, churches, rotary club): these types of organizations were once pillars of communities and provided opportunities for social networking.
  • Investing in living wage industries: should anyone really be working full-time and not have the ability to buy food?
  • Volunteering time at local farms in exchange for access to meat or other goods produced: the average age of farmers is increasing while interest in farming wanes.  Renewing the connection between communities and their food sources may help to reduce the centralization of the food system and redistribute consumer power.

Those solutions sound great, but what type of problems might be encountered when applying them to real-life situations?

The very definition of food deserts can cause problems when working towards long-term, positive solutions. This is due to the fact that the USDA excludes farmers markets, small farms, smaller retailers and road stands from its definition of a food desert. This means that solutions are being developed without access to all of the pertinent information which can spur resentment from the existing infrastructure. Such an issue is particularly pertinent when attempting to develop decentralized and locally beneficial options (why couldn’t small corner store serve as viable replacements for traditional grocery stores?).

Then the fact that only about 15% of people shop for food in their census area.  It is hard to estimate whether consumers will change their habits if new infrastructure is developed. The type of infrastructure also plays a role as many individuals in food deserts resent alternative food systems as they represent the idea that where they live is not good enough for a conventional supermarket. This issue is often amplified by the romanticized “if they only knew” logic which does not typically reflect the values of those being affected. Often organic, farm-fresh or vegetarian is considered less than palatable and even dirty or disgusting.

When discussing social factors that could hinder efforts, the racial and cultural relationship between various groups throughout the country need to be considered. For example, in areas primarily populated by minorities (in this case Blacks), there is the notion that the efforts being made are an attempt to inject white food values into the community and are the embodiment of white privilege (alternative food options tend to be perpetuated by Whites). Issues of former land stewardship make the idea of growing their own food unpleasant and does not appeal to this demographic. This group also seems to prefer the anonymity of grocery stores and resents the eugenic nature of “knowing where your food comes from”. Furthermore, the mere definition of a food desert can also be considered disrespectful as it invokes images of a location beyond repair (see: Bringing Good Food to Others).

Finally, there is the issue of governmental priorities.  Should people be fed or should tax breaks be given? Is a new truck for the sheriff or a community garden more important? Voter apathy allows a very small percentage of residents to make that decision.

If there are so many problems and people resent the type of help offered, why bother caring?

The simplest answer is because we are all humans in a time of great uncertainty and inequality.  If thoughtful measures are not made now, problems with food access will only continue to grow. As the insecurity grows, it will affect more and more people. It will also balloon into problems in other areas of life (ex. riots in the Middle East).

Moreover, there are economic incentives. It is estimated that a $1 of investment in grocery stores equals $1.50 in returns which means that such an investment has the potential to benefit several different groups simultaneously. As an added bonus, it creates a way to bridge private and public interests.


Barker, ME., Campell, MJ., Pearson, T., Russel J., Oct 2005. Do food deserts influence fruit and vegetable consumption? — a cross-sectional study. Appetite. 45(2) 195-197.

Gordon, S. 2011. Urbanites cry foul on USDA definition of food deserts. Earth Eats.

Guthman, J. 2008. Bringing good food to others: investigating the subjects of alternative food practice. Cultural Geographies, 4, 431-447.

If you build it, they may not come. 2011. Economist.

Wright, M. L., Bitto, E. A., Oakland, M. J., Sand, M. 2005. Solving the problems of Iowa food deserts: food Insecurity and civic structure. Rural Sociology, 70, 94-112.