Front Yard Disobedience: How to Boost Food Security without Really Trying

Of the threats climate change and peak oil pose, we should be most worried about the threat to food.  I have young nephews, and there’s not much I wouldn’t do to keep their bellies full if you catch my drift and I think you do. God knows what I’d be willing to do for my own kids. It’s good I don’t have any.

Food prices are high and rising and driving unrest the world over. One cause is crop damage due to climate change. If one degree Celsius (the warming so far) is enough to cause problems, what will 2 or 3 more degrees do? It’s unlikely to be linear; the second degree will do more damage than the first. If so, hello food shortages and unhinged uncles.

If climate change and peak oil aren’t threatening enough for you, there’s also peak phosphorus. If only one of the three threats hits hard we’ll have trouble. If two or all three hit…I’m not going to finish this sentence (sad pun).

Americans aren’t yet feeling it – our food prices haven’t jumped much, we’re rich, and we spend only a sliver of our income on food. But the blessing’s also a curse, since while other countries see the threat and prep for hardship, we sit and whistle. It’s time to get resilient. That means you, individual reader who’s busy and pretty sure there’s no time for it. I’m too busy deal with cancer but if I get cancer I’ll find the time. That’s our situation, even if you don’t believe it yet.

One of our weaknesses is that few of us know how to grow food. Among the factors keeping it that way are laws against food-production on our properties. Many cities bar residents from keeping chicken coops or beehives, or growing front-lawn vegetable gardens.

These laws are wrong. The right to grow food is as fundamental as the right to speech.  We’ve allowed ourselves to become helpless on the assumption that truly hard times are over. The assumption would be shaky even without the looming threats of climate change and peak oil – history’s riddled with societies who thought they had it made just before pooping out.

We shouldn’t honor any law against safely and responsibly growing food. We should disobey.

What makes such laws good targets for civil disobedience is that breaking them isn’t a big deal. Our chickens won’t land us in the clink. Instead we’ll face whiny neighbors and maybe fines, both of which we can use as a platform from which to educate others. We’ll bring attention to our cause without heavy sacrifice. It’s got to be one the easiest kinds of civil disobedience we can do.

If you want only a little attention, put up a chicken coop/ beehive/garden where it’s not allowed and just wait for a kerfuffle. But there’s also an opportunity for the bold among us to get big attention. Here’s how:

  1. Put your coop/hive/garden in the most public spot on your property. If you live on a busy street, perfect.
  2. Put a big lawn sign up next to your transgression explaining why it’s there. Emphasize that you don’t break the law lightly.
  3. Don’t yield. If you’re fined, don’t pay, and be clear and open about why.
  4. Find kindred souls among your neighbors and break the law together. It’s easier to dismiss one person as a lunatic than it is to dismiss a group. You might even launch a city-wide effort through or your local transition group.
  5. Offer to help neighbors grow their own food and advertise that offer in the sign in your yard.
  6. When a kerfuffle happens, don’t tamp it down. Let it evolve. Then alert local reporters about it, arrange for interviews, etc. Good activists invite publicity.
  7. Protip: send baskets filled with food you grew to those who most object to your project. Deliver the baskets in person. Don’t be ironic or snide. Be kind and respect their views. This was one of Gandhi’s go-to moves. He’d go hang out with enemies until they liked him in spite of themselves.


Two words of caution:

First, before committing civil disobedience, try to have the laws removed by legal means first. Otherwise you lose credibility.

Second, safety and aesthetics matter. The laws you’ll break have reasons for existing, be they lame (all front lawns must have grass so the neighborhood looks “nice”) or not-lame (public health risks).

So if you decide to break food-production laws, avoid accidentally justifying them. Make sure that what you do is a) pretty; and b) safe. It’s not hard, but you should do research, especially about safety. Example: before raising bees, make sure no one in your neighborhood is badly allergic to bee stings. We must look after our neighbors.

Double finally, civil disobedience only works if you’re both respectful and respectable. Be dignified and patient, never angry, never petty.

Triple finally, some inspiration: a load of mulch dumped in a kind of ballsy location

From the Sea

Posted May 18, 2011 in Smashing Ideas | 10 Comments on Front Yard Disobedience: How to Boost Food Security without Really Trying


Post a Comment

  1. Dustin says:

    Did you REALLY just link to an Onion article? I enjoyed your article and would like to put some of your advice to use, but linking to the Onion doesn’t help your credibility.

  2. Nick Bentley says:

    I try to talk about serious things and enjoy myself at the same time, but sometimes I just come off like an idiot. Apologies if this is one of those times.

  3. Jennifer, TX says:

    My front yard vegetable garden has drawn nothing but compliment, despite the fact that I live in a small-yard suburban area. I styled it more like landscaping than boxes/rows. Everyone is happy.

  4. Nick Bentley says:

    That’s great. But is it illegal?

  5. Danstermeister says:

    You’ve forgotten the one element that would lend credibility in the sense of true civil disobedience… at least make an attempt to change your local statute first. Then when you flaunt the law as you suggest, it will truly be seen in the light that you would intend for it to. You’ll be seen as a responsible citizen attempting positive change.

    The problem with bees and chickens and veggies in the front lawn is that it can invite pests (rats, etc.), and it can make a neighborhood look rundown and all hillbilly if it isn’t done right. If you want to win at this, strike a compromise that would account for standards to be followed when doing this. Put your neighbors at ease instead of throwing bees in their face and telling them to just deal with it. If you unilaterally decide what’s right for your neighbors, don’t be surprised when they do the same to you. You won’t like it.

    So approach your neighbors with sound reasoning, and listen to them. Attempt to craft an agreement- draft a proposal of legislation that includes agreed-upon guidelines from both sides of the fence. Then approach your local government with that proposal for legislation. If it passes, you win right there. If it doesn’t, THEN you protest. And if you protest, you do so according to the proposed statute you tried to pass.

    Just protesting without actually engaging in the mechanics of our civic life first is a waste- you’re not a protester, you’re just a loudmouth that’s going to get others in trouble. Will you pay their legal fees and fines for following your foolhardy advice?

    Don’t complain about government and then make zero attempt to positively engage it.

  6. Nick Bentley says:

    I agree and I should have included that. Civil Disobedience isn’t credible unless legal channels are exhausted. I’ll edit the post soon and mention it, if you don’t mind that it will make your comment seem odd.

    While I’m at it, I’ll emphasize that it’s important to have a full understanding of the law and a legal strategy in place prior to disobedience. Nobody should have to suffer from my foolhardiness but me.

  7. kobyn says:

    lol great skills and word choice putting this together

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