• Thefts undermine community
    September 03,2014
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    The Northwest Community Garden is located at the corner of Baxter Street and Park Avenue in the northwest neighborhood of Rutland. The proprietors of the Rutland Discount Food Market lease the land to the city of Rutland for a nominal annual fee.

    What is the tragedy of the commons?

    Garrett Hardin’s essay, titled, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” was first published in the journal Science in 1968. Hardin’s hypothesis states that the problem of global overpopulation cannot be solved by technical means. Therefore, a paradigm shift in morality and public values is necessary to control global population growth.

    Hardin concludes that the solution to the problem of the tragedy of the commons is “mutual coercion mutually agreed upon.” In other words, users of a shared resource must agree to regulate growth. The most common methods of regulation are private property rights and taxation. Although neither of these systems is perfect, they are preferable to the total destruction of the shared resource.

    How does the tragedy of the commons relate to the Northwest Community Garden?

    Even though Hardin’s essay addresses the specific problem of overpopulation, his hypothesis can be extrapolated to community gardening. In the case of the Northwest Community Garden, private land has been designated for public use. Therefore, the problem of allocation of a public resource to private individuals presents itself.

    The Rutland City Recreation and Parks Department manages the Northwest Community Garden. Our goals are to 1) promote local food production and 2) enhance the aesthetics of the neighborhood. In the words of British philosopher Jeremy Bentham, we are trying to serve “the greatest good for the greatest number.”

    Last year was the first year of operation at the Northwest Community Garden. Our original policy allowed any member of the northwest neighborhood to claim one of the 16 private plots. Twelve individuals and organizations signed up for one plot each last year. The remaining four plots were designated as “Grow A Row” for charity. A couple who live across the street stepped up to manage the neighborhood plot.

    The result of this free access policy was a tragedy of the commons. Only six out of the twelve assigned plots were actively managed, in my opinion. The Grow A Row plots grew nothing but weeds, because no one was assigned to manage them. The neighborhood plot produced a few zucchini but no tomatoes.

    Last year was not a failure, but it was a learning experience for the management team. This year we decided to institute a policy of plot rental for a fee of $10. This policy has limited public access but has increased personal investment in the garden.

    This year we have rented 15 plots to 12 individual members. Thirteen private plots are actively managed, in my opinion. I manage the 16th plot as a memorial flower garden for Keith Page, who was a garden member last year and passed away in March this year. Scott Malinowski and I manage the neighborhood plot together. We decided to plant white Stuttgarter onion sets and donate all of the resulting onions to the Community Cupboard Food Shelf after harvest in early September.

    Persistent problem

    On the morning of Thursday, Aug. 7, during my daily rounds, I noticed that roughly one dozen onion bulbs were missing from the neighborhood plot. A sign at the garden appeals to the general public not to pick the onions and announces that they will be available for distribution at the Community Cupboard after harvest.

    Potential solutions

    When a garden member complained to me about the theft of his broccoli crown in early July, the garden management team decided to post signs at the northern end of each row facing Park Avenue. The signs state, “The plots in this row are privately managed. Please do not pick produce without permission.”

    When theft continued after the addition of these four signs, a garden member who lives across the street offered to watch out for any suspicious activity. She has apprehended several potential vegetable thieves, but the onion marauders somehow evaded her watchful gaze.

    Scott told me that we need to fence the entire garden parcel in order to prevent theft. There are two problems with this proposition. First, cost would be prohibitive. Second, it would reduce public enjoyment of the garden. My girlfriend suggested that we designate four plots for gleaning next season. I responded that we already tried that idea last year with the four Grow a Row plots.

    Paradigm shift

    Taking produce from the private plots without permission may serve the interest of the individual in the short term, but it clearly harms the interest of the group in the long term.

    If individual garden members are prevented from enjoying the fruits of their labor, they will become disenchanted with the community garden movement and discontinue their investment. A decrease in private involvement will result in a failure to meet the two objectives of the garden as stated above.

    Perhaps only individuals will suffer from a lack of local produce, but the aesthetic value of that corner will decrease if the majority of the individual plots are left unmanaged like they were last year.

    Private theft of a public resource, such as the onions in the neighborhood plot presents another problem. Economists define “opportunity cost” as the trade-off that occurs when a resource is not used for its next best use. In this case, harvesting onions early from the neighborhood plot is an opportunity cost. The onions have completed their growing stage at this point in the season, but they still need to harden off for storage. Immature onions tend to rot quickly and therefore get wasted.

    When Sue Bassett, the coordinator of the Community Cupboard, asked me how many pounds of onions we were planning to donate, I answered 50 pounds at the beginning of the growing season. Due to the cumulative theft of about 20 immature onions during the growing season so far, I have reduced my estimate by 10 percent to 45 pounds. That’s five fewer pounds of onions that Sue can distribute to hungry families living in Rutland City. Therefore, private theft of public onions may serve the interest of the individual, but it does not serve the interest of the group as whole.


    Garrett Hardin’s essay “The Tragedy of the Commons” relates indirectly to the problem of vegetable theft in the Northwest Community Garden. Like the problem of global overpopulation, this specific problem is a member of the class of human problems that Hardin refers to as “no technical solution problems.” In order to solve the problem of produce theft from the garden, we must all adopt a community conscience that promotes the greatest good for the greatest number.

    Bruce Warren Herforth the community garden organizer for the Northwest Community Garden.
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