Oh, FarmVille

Can you really grow things without getting your hands dirty?

Alison Rood a freelance writer who gardens in a 4-by-10 planter box in her front yard, and neighbors who stroll past offer favorable comments.
The public is invited to participate in another bee count on August 20. Contact The Great Sunflower Project at www.greatsunflower.org for more information.

I wonder what George Washington would think about plowing the soil with a little pink tractor. Founding Gardeners, a new book by British historian Andrea Wulf, describes the passion for horticulture shared by our first four presidents, who believed a connection to the land would ensure a strong republic. Following on the heels of its publication was the news that Zynga has made a fortune with virtual farming.

Zynga’s FarmVille is reaping millions from people who grow plants and trees and raise livestock without stepping outside and getting their hands dirty. This Facebook social game is free, but according to a recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle, the sale of virtual items to game participants—such as special crops, pastel-colored tractors and accelerated crop production—has helped boost Zynga’s 2011 first quarter earnings to more than $235 million.

Apparently, users purchase 38,000 virtual items per second.

Now the company has gone public, and investors are poised to cash in. Has it really come to this? Plopping down real money for fanciful equipment to decorate our imaginary acreage?

George Washington and Co. would undoubtedly applaud the efforts of Gretchen LeBuhn, a San Francisco State University biology professor whose aspirations are firmly grounded in nonvirtual soil. LeBuhn started The Great Sunflower Project in 2008 as a way to track bee populations, both native and exotic (honeybees), by enlisting the help of anyone who gardens. About one-third of the fruits, vegetables and nuts we consume are pollinated by bees—or, as LeBuhn notes on her website—one of every three bites of food we take probably comes from a plant pollinated by a wild pollinator. But suburban sprawl has replaced the habitats where bees once thrived, and agricultural practices, which often include widespread pesticide use, have been just as destructive.

LeBuhn hopes to improve bee populations with the information she receives from backyard gardeners. According to her site, “The data you collect from your sunflowers will provide an insight into how our green spaces in the urban, suburban and rural landscapes are connected, as well as shed light on how to help pollinators. What we need are innovative strategies to maximize the benefits of our wild and semi-wild remnants.”

Logging my bee counts online and knowing the input might help keep my produce bin filled is gratifying, but there’s also the therapeutic benefit that’s associated with any bond to the natural world. I never experience more peace of mind than the occasional 15 minutes I spend observing the bees that land on the blooms I’ve grown from seeds.

George Washington would understand.

It’s unfortunate that nonvirtual sunflowers don’t generate as much interest as the virtual variety. A packet of seeds and a small bed of soil—even a decent-sized pot—is all it takes. But then, if the urge to help bees were as much of an obsession as the urge to play FarmVille, pollinators probably wouldn’t be in trouble in the first place.