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America, How Does Your Garden Grow?

This is a great time to be in the seed business in America. Middlebury College economist Bill McKibben reports that Burpee, America's largest seed company, sold twice as many seeds this spring as it did last year. And that members of the Seed Savers Exchange, a cooperative organization, sold more packets to each other in the first four months of this year than they did in all of 2007.

What's going on? Is the government giving away land? Did some rock star turn gardening into a fad? Or are food prices suddenly so monstrous that Americans by the tens of thousands are getting out the old hoe and work gloves?

It's high prices, all right. According to a study by the Boston Globe newspaper, growing one's own produce has become an attractive option to paying shocking prices at the store.

Soaring food costs are tied to exploding oil prices. It's much, much more expensive to ship pineapples from Hawaii to Georgia, blackberries from Michigan to New Mexico, and lettuce to New York from California these days. Weather disasters and the diversion of cropland to biofuel enterprises have jacked up food prices, too.

So consumers are slipping on their jeans and taking matters into their own hands. The Globe reports that hundreds of people are on waiting lists for community garden plots in the Boston area. And no wonder. The newspaper calculates that 15 healthy tomato plants can produce 45 kilos of luscious tomatoes in a season. At today's prices, such a bounty would cost almost $400 at the store. Who has $400 to spend on tomatoes?

And if gardens are booming, it's not hard to imagine at least a modest revival ahead for small, financially struggling family farms — long the heart of American life but now growing less than a fifth of the nation's food bounty.