Monday, December 31, 2007

Reflections on Sustainability: Gasoline

Well, folks, I saved the worst for last because, let's be honest, what makes all of this possible is Jim's job down in the "technology corridor" of D.C., which means that he commutes about 50 miles each way, every day. So, just like the rest of the world, cheap oil is what currently makes our lives possible. Time for brutal honesty and a serious reality check.

I can rationalize that usage in a number of ways, not the least being that the kids and I stick very close to home and use very little gas in our daily lives, thus offsetting Jim's usage significantly. All of our shopping is within 5 miles with all of it neatly clustered together, enabling me to do whatever errands I need done once a week, if that, for only 12 miles worth of driving, at most. So while Jim commutes further to work than he used to at our old home, as a family we drive significantly less because of our proximity to everything and our change in lifestyle. The fact that the kids don't commute to school every day offsets that number even further. Nor do we do any running around to various activities multiple times a week, as so many families do because that's not what the kids choose to do with their lives. So, Jim's driving really does constitute nearly all of our family driving, except when the kids and I go on road trips, which we do 2-3 times a year. What we don't do is fly...ever. Well, Jim does for work, but as a family we simply don't fly, making our car miles our total transportation miles.

I did a bit of investigating... yes as much to make myself feel better as to put it all into perspective. The average gasoline usage for Maryland is 447.5 gallons per person per year. No, you didn't read that wrong: that statistic is per capita, meaning every man, woman, and child, and best I can tell, those are basic transportation numbers without factoring in food miles, etc. You can check out the numbers for your state here if you're interested.

So, while Jim averages about 700 gallons per year, as a family of 5, we stay well under the 2,237.5 gallon average. Wow! Think about it, an average family of 5 in Maryland uses 2, 237.5 gallons of gasoline per year! We use 1/3 of that on a regular basis, or at worst less than 1/2 even when factoring in road trips, which probably average about 4,000 miles per year at about 26 miles to the gallon in the van. Jim's car, a Honda civic, gets about 34-35 mpg during his commute, which is all highway driving, again an important factor in the equation in terms of emissions and mpgs. All things considered, our gasoline habits are far better than the average American's usage, despite the length of Jim's commute.

What are we doing to make it better? Very good question. Jim's negotiating a 9/80 work week for the new year, which would eliminate 2 days of driving per month, saving roughly 65 gallons per year. I'll continue to try to talk him into finding someone to car pool with—as the only one he's found is currently full—a simple change that would help significantly. At this point, his car gets pretty good mileage, so buying a hybrid makes no sense, considering the kind of driving he does, though that may be a distinct possibility in the future once this car gives up the ghost.

Around the farm we use very few fossil fuels, and we're reducing our dependency on those even further each year. We got the tractor with the farm, and in the past, we've used it to plow the new gardens, doing the tough job of ripping up pasture sod. Now, we have our piggies to help with that. While they've done a great job prepping the new garden space by rooting and removing the vegetation, we've seen what an incredible job they're able to do on previously plowed ground, which means that by locating the market garden in a permanent plot, we'll be able to avoid plowing/ tilling altogether by letting the pigs do the work for us, which was part of the plan.

Sending the chickens over the garden to follow the pigs helps break the big clods and remove insect pests, further reducing the need to disc or rely on any kind of fossil-fuel-based chemical insect control. In fact, the organic growing methods we practice completely eliminate any dependence on fossil-fuel chemicals for our farm. Our sheep and goats do the bulk of the mowing for us, which means we're no longer using the bush hog, so no tractor hours there either, and our rotation system spreads the manure pretty evenly, eliminating the need for a spreader.

What do we use the tractor for? Turning compost. Hauling water barrels out to the pasture twice a week. Most everything else we do by hand, but having water available to spray down the piggies is a must during the hot season, and I'm grateful to have a central water source out in the pasture to aid in hand-hauling the water. If Jim's able to get the driven well in place, hopefully we'll eliminate that need as well, making the tractor nothing more than a pretty toy on the farm.

I still mow the lawn on occasion, but we've been working towards eliminating as much of the lawn as possible, while still leaving a nice patch in the back for play. Our plan this spring is to plant over the front lawn entirely, turning unused space into productive growing and edible landscaping space. This is something I've been talking Jim into for years now, and I'm so excited to finally be able to do it! I'll be planting some filbert trees, for sure, and I'm still looking into what else I'd like to get in there—probably a few more blueberry bushes, and maybe I'll transplant some raspberries and blackberries out there as well. Of course, I'll also intersperse all with flowers, finally getting that cutting garden I've always wanted as well.

There's much to be done to reduce gasoline dependence, no doubt, but lifestyle changes can and do make a significant difference. And like so much else, there's no easy answer. Jim's commute has enabled us to make so many other significant changes in our lives that wouldn't be possible living closer to D.C. We've certainly come a long way from the single car family we were when we lived in New Mexico where Jim was able to bike to work every day, but that's the down side of regional differences, for sure. My hope is that our nation will turn towards improving our public transportation system as the price of oil continues to rise. Should that happen, we're located in a pretty good spot for a commuter rail, though by that time, maybe long term plan will kick in and the commute will become obsolete.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Reflections on Sustainability: Food

Food is another area I feel good about. Of course there's always more to do, but overall we produce a tremendous amount of our own food and rely very little on grocery stores or the industrial food chain. The few exceptions to that would be some of the kids' snack food and cereal, though even that we buy in bulk, and of course, the staples like flour and other grains. Most of what we don't produce ourselves, we try to get locally, and we've been pretty successful at making that happen, meaning that grains aside, most of our meals are 90% local or better.

This past year, even with the drought and the new CSA, we managed to preserve a fair amount of food. I processed many pounds of tomatoes, making paste and
dried tomatoes, as well as green tomato salsa, chutney, and pickles, which I'd never tried before. I made cucumber pickles, which turned out kinda soft unfortunately, but they make great homemade tartar sauce I just found out. Cool! I put up several pints of jam, which is still holding out despite the fact that we eat a lot of it. We have grape, strawberry, and black raspberry—my personal favorite. I also froze quite a bit of cantaloupe, basil, and string beans from the garden. This year I learned how to cure meat, and you can see our hams hanging in the larder. They're now sufficiently aged, and we plan to cook our first one soon. The hard part is finding time for the lengthy process: my grandmother's country ham recipe calls for a 4 hour soak, a brief cooking period followed by an 8 hour resting period, which then gets repeated, making for a whole day worth of prep! Of course what's missing this year from this photo is the huge potato bin we had the year before—a problem that will be rectified in '08.

While I did a fair amount of water-bath canning, I still haven't tried my hand at pressure canning. My goal next year is to process most of our tomatoes that way, freeing up more freezer space. I have tons of quart jars that I got from my neighbor when we moved in, but I have to say that I really prefer the pint jars, I think, for many things, paste included. We just don't go through a whole quart at first opening, and I'd rather open another jar if I need it than risk letting any of my precious food go bad. I also prefer freezing things like beans because they just taste better to me, and I think the freezing preserves more of the nutrients than canning. So while I have the luxury, I'll freeze.

Here, you can see our freezer filled with broilers, turkeys, homemade beef stock, local apples, and, now, goose as well. Our other freezer is filled to the brim with a side of local, grass-fed beef, our tomatoes, melon, beans, heritage chickens, duck, and what little pork we still have. It's just about time to take our tamworth feeder pig into the butcher, and boy are we looking forward to having sausage again! We have plenty of ham, so this time around we'll be turning all the ham into sausage, and maybe even a shoulder, too, though we do love our pulled pork.

We've also been slowly adding to our repertoire. This year Jim butchered one of our goats, adding chevon to our freezer downstairs, and we're slowly gearing up for lamb produced on farm as well. My plan is to purchase a ram in '08, which will hopefully mean lamb in spring of '09. We raise Navajo-Churro sheep, known as a triple purpose breed for their meat, dairy, and wool. Considering my ewes are incredibly skittish, the dairy part is highly doubtful this go 'round, though we do get dairy from our goats (the small fact that no one here will drink it... yet... notwithstanding).

What we still don't do here on the farm is beef, and I keep going back and forth on whether that's possible with the little land we have. At this point, I've moved away from wanting a Jersey and am now enamored with Dexter cattle, a small, heritage breed known for both dairy and beef, as well as its ability to work. Jim, however, remains unconvinced that he wants to be further tied down to the farm with a dairy cow—a hesitation I totally understand and often share. Currently, I'm considering starting with a young heifer calf, which will enable me to train her from the start ("yeah right," everyone's thinking, "remember how hard it was to train Latte to milk?") . Yes, I remember how hard it was to train my little Nigerian Dwarf goat to milk, but hey, that's experience under my belt, right? Having a cow would round out our homestead nicely, allowing us to run them with the sheep and take advantage of the symbiotic pasture relationship between the two ruminants. It would provide meat and dairy for us as well as off-setting feed costs for the other animals. The biggest downsides are the time-commitment and the winter hay costs since we can't produce our own hay (there's that long-term plan again). So, who knows what '08 will bring on that front, as we continue to mull and debate.

Another huge leap we've taken for 2008 is building our own 14' x 34' high tunnel to try our hand at year-round gardening. Built from rebar, pvc, 2" x 4"s, and 6 mil greenhouse plastic, our high tunnel is planted with sorrel, turnips, foliage turnips, parsnips, bok choi, green onions, kohlrabi, cilantro, arugula, spinach, and several cold-hardy lettuces. Our biggest disadvantage this year was having to wait for the space, as our tomatoes were planted in the kitchen garden. With the expansion of our market garden, the kitchen garden will now be given over exclusively to winter garden space, allowing us to start our crops much earlier and have them full-grown by this time of the year. Of course, Jim's not thrilled by the fact that my goal for next year is to build a companion hoop house for the other side of the garden where I have my herbs, now under a low tunnel. This one will only be about 10' x 34' though, meaning it should shed snow even better than this design. If he doesn't want to do it, however, the kids and I will be perfectly capable. He just usually takes over once we start something along those lines. (evil grin here)

Another goal for 2008 is to figure out how to integrate edible cover crops into our pig rotation, allowing us to produce more of our animals' food on-site. Any suggestions or success stories on that front would be muchly appreciated!

I also plan to begin grinding my own grains for '08, increasing nutrition and taking one more step away from industrial processing. Yes, I know, I'm a hold out, but I just haven't found it within me to justify the expense and the time before now.

Food, glorious food! Here's to great eating in 2008!

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Reflections on Sustainability: Waste

Waste is arguably our best area. We have very little garbage waste, producing on average about 1 kitchen trash bag per week for five people, if that much. In fact, we now have so little waste that I need to rethink my kitchen garbage set up because it begins to smell from sitting too long before getting filled. One great side effect of this has been canceling our curbside garbage collection and saving quite a bit of money. We were going to the dump for the recyclables anyway; now, Jim just throws the trashcans in the truck along with everything else when he heads up there. For a minimal fee, we can take our own garbage to the dump rather than paying someone else to do it for us and without adding an extra trip.

Pretty much anything that can't be reused, recycled, composted, burned*, or fed to the animals, winds up in the garbage—primarily packaging plastics, unfortunately. We buy in bulk whenever possible, which cuts down significantly on the waste, as does growing most of our own food. Cooking from scratch eliminates an enormous amount of waste from all those prepackaged foods. Meats, of course, we do package ourselves in freezer bags that can't be reused, but we're still saving tons on the styrofoam and other packaging that comes along with grocery meat, not to mention all the waste inherent in the industrial systems that produce that meat.

We have a multi-tiered system that makes perfect sense to us because we live it every day, but which seems to confuse the hell out of visitors—at least those who don't really get the ideas behind the separating. All meat scraps and bones go to the dogs and cats. Fruits, veggies, dairy, and grains go to the pigs and chickens. All other kitchen waste—rotten foods, eggshells, onions, banana peels, etc.—go into the compost pile.

Paper waste either gets recycled or used as kindling to start fires. Plastic, glass, and cardboard get taken to the recycling center. Plastic bags get reused or taken to the grocery store to recycle. Unfortunately, our county recycles only #1 and #2 plastic, something I plan to actively lobby to change in 2008. Last year, they began accepting paperboard in addition to corrugated cardboard, and that made a huge difference for us in the amount of waste we produce. For now, I reuse small yogurt containers for planting and the large ones for food storage. Large orange juice type containers can be reused for oil changes or goat's milk storage, for instance, or can be cut into nice scoops for feed, seed, or whatever.

We've eliminated much of our waste simply by changing our habits. We haven't used tissues, for instance, for years, but this past year we finally switched over to cloth napkins and paper towels, and that's helped. I've found that the cloth napkins and rags really don't take up much room in the loads of wash I'm already doing, and one goal for '08 is to be better about using our napkin rings, reducing the number of times I need to wash napkins.

Laundry in and of itself is a huge area that can be reduced for lots of folks. Napkins, towels, pajamas, and some clothes don't need to be washed after every use, and that's something I've just started working on with the kids. We've always hung and reused our towels: after all, we're clean when we use them, for heaven's sake. For napkins, as I said, we've gotten rings to differentiate each person's, allowing us to reuse them several times before putting them in the wash. For clothes, the kids are finally getting old enough that their clothes aren't always covered in... something... and so can be reworn, an idea that's sinking in slowly. Funny how they can wear the same shirt for days when they like it, but to think about putting something back into the clean clothes is another step they're just not ready to take. Kid logic just doesn't think about clothes and laundry the same way adult logic does. Kind, gentle reminders go a long way towards helping them think in those terms. By the same token, reusing cups, glasses, and snack bowls can help reduce the number of dishes that need to be washed—anything that's not greasy, sticky, or milky.

Something that kids are great for, however, is their ability to repurpose things, and we can all learn something from them here. When kids look at trash, they see treasure. They see infinite possibility for creativity and invention, and this is something we actively encourage in our home. Often, things still get thrown away in the end, but not before they've been used and reused as art supplies and imagination fodder. Just recently, for instance, my youngest daughter and my mother-in-law sorted through my recycled food containers in a fit of frustration after Thanksgiving. They paired every container with its appropriate lid and piled all the remaining mateless pieces on the counter, all of which I put down in our art center. The containers without lids will hold tiny bits and baubles, and the lids can be used any number of ways, from circle templates to Chinese stars, which my oldest daughter made for her brother for Christmas. Kids can reuse just about anything!

Freecycle is another great way to reduce waste, allowing lots of things to find good homes rather than ending up in a landfill, from old appliances to left over building supplies to unwanted craft supplies. It's amazing what people find homes for on that list.

One of my personal goals for '08—and sorry about this fellas—is to switch over to a menstrual cup. I've been considering this for a couple of years now without quite getting myself to make the switch. I've considered washable products, but that hasn't happened either, and the cup seems so much more sensible than having one more thing to wash. So, this is another personal hurdle for me to jump in '08.

What are your goals for 2008?

*A note on burning: I'm very conservative about what I burn, being sure it's comprised only of paper. Unfortunately, I have some neighbors who are willing, or so my nose tells me, to burn plastics. *sigh* On our burn and kindling list are: toilet paper rolls, flour bags, newspaper, those little magazine inserts, paper-based animal food bags, and the occasional paperboard box when we're running low on other starters. Most waste office paper gets reused for art before heading to the mixed office paper recycling bag.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Reflections on Sustainability: Electricity

We've been slowly reducing our dependence on electricity—slowly in large part because it's so hard to do when we're home all day, making most of our food from scratch, producing and preserving it here on our homestead, and using electric fencing to help protect our livestock. We definitely use more electricity because of those things, and we have a harder time taking some of the shortcuts that are easy for folks who work outside the home. Worse or better, depending upon how one looks at it, our home is all electric, which means our electricity use is high while our oil and natural gas usage are zero.

This past year we've cut our electric usage by at least a third, though we need a few more months before we can really come up with a hard number. I'm hoping for closer to half. The biggest change we made was eliminating our dryer use entirely and switching to cold water washes only. The photo to the left shows the wonderful indoor clothesline my honey made for me to use over the winter, which has been especially useful during the recent spate of cold, cloudy weather.

Honestly, I was amazed at how much electricity that dryer was sucking down! Such a simple change has had major effects, and I really encourage everyone to make the shift. Turning off the dryer is to electricity what eating local organic is to fossil fuels. It's one, simple difference that everyone could make, even those unable to have outside lines. Lehman's has some wonderful non-electric/gas clothes drying options, and even though some are a bit pricey, they offer great ideas for designing something low-tech at home.

We've also been edging back our temperature range, what I was trying to show in the photo of me by the fireplace. Fashion's an interesting thing, and it grows up alongside other changes—in weather, in comfort zones, in cultural beliefs. People used to wear hats and gloves...and layers, a whole lot more layers than we do now. It's amazing how much body heat wearing a hat preserves, and my big prediction is that as temps change and heating costs rise, hats will come back in style with a vengeance. For now, I'm embracing my inner grunge.

We've been keeping the heat set at 60° and the air conditioning set at 78° during the real heat spells. I'd like to continue to push those boundaries, but at the moment, no one in my family is on-board with the idea of going without our central air during the dead of summer. Everyone, however, has been fine with the lower winter temps, especially since Jim installed a new wood-burning stove down in the basement. That stove is far more efficient than our fireplace, and it helps passively heat the whole upstairs as well. Jim plans to install an air-intake downstairs that will enable us to circulate the air efficiently with the heat pump fan when we want to heat the whole house more actively.

Wood, of course, is a mixed blessing. It's a renewable resource, but slowly renewable, and many figures are pretty grim in terms of the current population switching to wood as a viable fuel source. Deforestation and pollution are obvious pitfalls with wood, make no mistake. It does, however, do nicely to take the chill off of rooms and offer a practical solution to heating small spaces.

As with most sustainability solutions, however, it's not a 1:1 trade. We're going to need to relearn sustainable habits rather than simply replacing or changing out less sustainable sources, and that gets back to fashion, architecture, and the redefinition of "comfort" itself. As a culture, we've gotten so used to certain comforts that we've come to feel entitled to them, especially if those around us are still blindly enjoying them, something I'm certainly guilty of myself. It's this sense of entitlement that's going to be so hard to root out.

Solar is certainly one option to reduce dependence on electricity, but it's no panacea. Too often, solar is touted as the solution to all our energy woes, but it's hard to imagine anything that could equal the reckless decadence of cheap oil. Both solar power and wind power offer ways to reduce grid reliance, but to go totally off grid brings a whole host of necessary changes and challenges in terms of reducing energy usage in the first place. A week of cloudy weather might mean little to no hot water—making solar a less viable option in certain areas of world at least until storage capacity improves.

The other drawback to solar is the initial outlay of money required to retrofit a home, putting solar neatly in bed with consumerism. Americans, in particular, come from a culture known for throwing money at problems rather than addressing the underlying causes. So, while I certainly wouldn't write off solar or wind power, I think it's too easy to throw up one's hands and say, "until I get solar, there's nothing I can do." It's too easy to fall into the trap of needing to buy, buy, buy in order to live the simple life—a message that's all around us now, as "simple" becomes the new black in consumer messages.

Truth is that there are loads of things folks can do on the way to solar or wind or other alternatives, and it's these steps and changes that matter most in the long-run viability of alternative energy. Changing the way we think, the way we live, the way we act and interact is possible, and it's possible right now, regardless of who we are or where we are.

Doing more things by hand, relying less on machines, choosing to buy non-electric tools as we purchase or replace, going back to age-old techniques, all of these steps make a difference. Rather than throwing money at the problem, confusing consumerism with sustainability, we're working on making changes one at time as they come up here at our homestead, making energy-efficient choices within the context of our every day life.

Some resources:
Lehman's Catalog


Thursday, December 27, 2007

Reflections on Sustainability: Water

Water is huge for us—or maybe it feels huge because we suffered such a drought last summer. The good news is that we have officially emerged from the drought and appear to be firmly planted in normal conditions with our aquifers doing well. Of course, all of the following begs the question of what one does when there is no water available to harvest, and drought sure puts a twist in the sustainable consumption of water resources, so I'll try to address that as well. And, of course, suggestions are welcome, too—let me know what you're doing and what's working for you.

Last year we focussed money and energy mainly on fencing, but for 2008 our focus will be water. Harvesting more, storing more, and moving it around more efficiently. We're planning to install hard-irrigation lines out to the market garden this year, and Jim's talking about trying a driven-well out in the pastures. Because our well-pump is electric, we need to install some kind of back up hand pump for use during outages, and the driven-well will be the first try. If that doesn't work, and it very well may not considering our water-table and soil structure, we'll need to investigate having one dug.

In 2007 we began harvesting rainwater in earnest, though we're still not storing as much as we'd like. We have three 55 gallon barrels that catch off our barn, and we're able to fill those from only about 1/3" of rain, which is great. We have two more that we fill from those and use to water the animals in the pasture. We were also able to harvest rain from the run-in shelters in the field to help water the animals.

What's not so great to consider is the amount we could be harvesting if we had more storage, and that's a big goal for 2008. For the past year we've been rinsing some large cubes (400+ gallons) that held a chemical flocculant for the county water treatment, meaning it goes into the public water supply, but it's taking a long time to clean those thoroughly enough that I'd feel comfortable using catch-water from them to irrigate my edible gardens or livestock. We're planning to put those at the house this spring to harvest water, which we'll use to irrigate ornamental gardens, allowing us to take another year to really rinse and clean the cubes. They may, however, make their permanent home there while I use some money from the CSA this year to purchase new water tanks for the barn catch. Jim's plan is to mount them on raised platforms in order to take advantage of the natural slope for gravity feeding whenever possible.

This year's drought was particularly instructive—a trial by fire year for sure. One of the biggest lessons I learned was the importance of efficient and regular irrigation versus trying to eek through till the next rain. By the time the plants are looking drought stressed, it's usually too late. Stress from lack of water makes them susceptible to disease and insect pressure that would be easier to minimize in strong, healthy plants, making any water saving a false economy in the long run. Better to focus on efficient irrigation and ramp up other ways of conserving water. (Yes, Jenny and Madeline, some of us need to learn this the hard way.) We'll be using a combination of drip tape and soaker hoses to deliver the water precisely where we need it, which we did last year as well, we'll just have more of it this year and be able to do it more efficiently.

Besides increasing our rain-harvest storage, we'll also be looking into ways to recover some of the gray water inside the house. Currently, we reuse all water from water cups to water our houseplants, which may seem small, but with five people in the house, I always have plenty of "old" water for my rotation. We also reclaim most of the water lost in the kitchen while waiting for it to get hot, one of the most notorious water-wasters in our home. By keeping a bucket or pitcher near the sink, I'm able to capture that water instead of letting it go down the drain. It's also useful for rinsing dishes that are headed for the dishwasher. By the time I'm done rinsing those, the water's hot enough to wash the big pots and pans. Simple things like not flushing every time, taking shorter showers, and not allowing the water to run while brushing teeth or washing hands help as well. We're also planning to replace our washing machine this year with a more efficient model in terms of both energy and water-usage.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Reflections on Sustainability: countdown to the new year

The new year's almost upon us, and I'm feeling particularly reflective—maybe it's the gray weather giving me too much time to think. Who knows, but this week, I'll be doing a series of posts titled "Reflections on Sustainability" that will cover the six big areas we've been working on, in no particular order: consumption, water, electricity, waste, food, and gasoline.

I've been thinking about what steps we've taken this past year, where we still need to go, and how long we might have to get there. I vacillate between wanting to stay put, making our current home as sustainable as possible versus wanting to start from scratch, which in some ways is easier than trying to retrofit. Essentially I have two plans rattling around in my mind: one short term, one long.

However, the important part about working towards making this homestead as sustainable as possible is that we have a chance to learn and make mistakes along the way, and we'll have a relatively sustainable farmstead should a move never materialize. Of course, there's no such thing as an ideal property, but there are changes I'd make if we move some years down the road, which is still the current plan—not the least of which would be building a green home.

More important, even, is the work we do to make our lifestyle more sustainable in the present. That's the danger with focusing on ideals and long-term plans: they allow us to remain complacent in the present, to fall into that all-American trap of believing we'll be happy in some illusive future and forgetting to live within the moment, forgetting that happiness and change and action all happen only in the present.

Since it's the day after Christmas, I'll begin my reflections with the related big "Cs"—

Consumption, Consumerism, and Commercialism:

This is a really tricky area for me as I try to live my own values without imposing them on my family. My choices are just that: my choices. What I don't have is the power to make choices for others in my family, nor do I want that power or the judgment that goes along with it. While this world may well be heading to hell in a hand-basket, no one really knows for sure what the descent will look like, or how far or how fast we'll plummet. So, for the time-being, I'm working on changing myself and resting content with the ripples that produces in my family.

Consumption is a tricky category to parse, too, because it encompasses so many of the other categories in terms of resources, which is why I've chosen to pair it with consumerism as a way of focusing on consumption particularly in terms of buying and spending. What I've been concentrating on in the past year is trying to spend our money in ways that matter and in places that matter: refocusing our efforts on buying less for sure, but also buying smart and sustainably.

Whenever possible, we've worked to cut out the middleman, giving our dollars directly to those who did the work. When we can't produce something for ourselves, we go directly to a local producer and give them our money. We've bought local beef from two different farms; we've switched to a local creamery for most of our dairy; and when we used up our own produce stores this winter, we've gone to the farmer's market to replenish. I'm still no where near completely independent from grocery stores, but we're trying, and we've gone back to buying through the local United co-op, cutting out at least one step in the supermarket chain.

For many years now, I've refused to buy retail clothing, a frugal habit that started more because of our own impoverishment than because of any political statement. When I buy new, it's rarely over $10 and never over $20 unless it's something designed for a particular job and to last for a long time. For instance, footwear: we don't buy many shoes, but we do buy good, relatively expensive shoes. I'll buy a new pair of Birkenstocks, for instance, every 7-8 years, and Jim will get a new pair of Timberlands every 4-5. I have a nice pair of Timberland work boots that my father-in-law bought me about 6 years ago, and they're still wonderful. Other than that, we primarily wear our $16 muck boots and knock-off croc-mocs around the farm.

For clothing, we've shopped second-hand and outlet sale-racks exclusively, and we've had a long-standing circle of clothing exchange where ever we've lived, limiting even further the clothes we need to actively purchase. Jim and I keep our clothing for a long time, basically wearing it until it falls apart. That neither of us needs to buy work-clothes tremendously reduces our clothing budget. What Jim can no longer wear to work, simply becomes work-wear for around the farm, and I don't buy something I can't wear on a walk through our pastures, plain and simple. I have some nice clothes that I wear out and that I wouldn't work in, but they still need to hold up to a walk out to check on the animals when we get home, for instance.

Take the outfit I'm wearing in the photo above, which is very representative of the way I'm normally dressed: the hat is a hand-me-down from my nephew, the shirt is from Goodwill, and the pants were a $10 buy 10 years ago. The scarf and the shoes are new. The shoes were a big splurge because they act as slippers that don't look like slippers, letting me answer the door on CSA day in something that felt respectable since we just don't wear shoes in the house.

The fact that the kids don't go to school is a mixed blessing in terms of consumerism. It certainly helps with clothing—they don't need a lot and they're blissfully ignorant of all the current fashion trends and the consumerism that fuels. But we do need to spend money on learning materials, fueling passions and supporting interests. This means that we buy museum memberships, books, toys, games, computers. The kids have a fair amount of money at their own disposal that is their's to spend, giving them the means and space to experiment with their own relationship to consumerism. This approach has provided invaluable empowerment and learning opportunities that I wouldn't trade for a more sustainable approach.

We've all vowed to do more yard-sale-ing this upcoming year. As loathe as I am to drive around looking at other people's junk, there are a couple big ones that we'll definitely hit. We've participated a lot on freecycle this past year, finding it a wonderful resource for getting rid of stuff, but not such a great one for getting what we need. We buy used video-games exclusively, and have found Netflix and the library to be wonderful tools for reducing our consumption. We're also considering memberships in audio book and video game clubs, which would reduce consumption in those areas as well, though we don't buy audio books.

Our Christmas this year was low-key, and the kids were thrilled with it nonetheless. I was unsure whether there would be evident disappointment, but there was none. Last year was low-key as well, which probably helped prep them. From us, the kids each got a used gamecube game, and jointly, a beautiful, new full-size acoustic guitar and a raincheck for some kind of drum since I couldn't find anything I liked—maybe a djembe or some bongos. From Santa, they got an amazing set of snap-circuits, the new Harry Potter dvd, and new art and beading supplies. Sam received the ant farm he'd been wanting, Jules got stained-glass paint, and Em got a Fashion Angels design kit. We gave Jim a couple great books on meat and a bottle of single-malt scotch. Me? I get that beautiful farm painting I blogged about a while back as soon as our friends arrive this weekend.

Are we still consumers? You bet, but we're working on it, moving steadily away from commercialism, and trying to consume in a way that's mindful, sustainable, and filled with abundance and gratitude at the same time. A certain amount of consumption and trade are necessary; the key is to get off the endless treadmill of commercialism, consumption, and waste.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Dark Days Eat Local Challenge: Week 10

Considering it's the week before Christmas, and I've had geese to butcher and a new CSA year to gear up for, this has been a tricky week to keep up with totally local. There were some definite short-cuts along the way, though most of our stuff still falls into 0-50 mile.

Honestly, I'd say the busy holiday season is the biggest challenge with these meals. More so than the dark days. (Welcome back sun!)

This was one of my 30 mile meals, minus the potatoes, though even they were roasted in homecooked goose fat. Ohhhh, divine!

The pecans were from my friend Madeline, so they count as local under my local-if-visiting-anyway clause, which were combined with sauteed mixed greens from our garden and bleu cheese from our local creamery.

Homemade drop biscuits...say no more.

The beef: oh, the beef! This was a chuck roast from Legacy Manor, about 15 miles up the road. I rubbed it with salt and pepper, and browned it together with some yellow onions, garlic slivers, and 2 tbsps of butter. I then deglazed the pan with 1 cup of undrinkable red wine and 2 cups of homemade beef broth slow-cooked with soup bones from the same cow. I braised all at 325° for 3 hours and reduced the liquid for the gravy while the beef set.!

This meal was amazing. Not just amazing, but suck your lips amazing. C'mon, admit it. When you've had something so savory and tasty, don't you find yourself licking, sucking, and smacking your lips for at least five minutes afterwards?

I do.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

I'm in Awe!

I started to title this post, "I'm Not Worthy," but didn't like the negativity of the comparison. Of course, when one visits an organic farming celebrity of sorts (Nicolas does have his picture in the local Whole Foods, after all), it can be hard not to feel small and inadequate and keenly aware that there's still oh so far to go.

I knew I'd be amazed and couldn't wait to see the farm, but I wasn't prepared for the scale I was about to see. Honestly, I can't even imagine what industrial organic must look like! I was like a kid in a candy shop, bouncing from place to place, dying to get my eyes on what lay inside those fabulous tunnels and to learn as much as I could in such a short time.

Nicolas was incredibly gracious and patient, and he even took time out of harvesting for market to show me around when we arrived. I'm sure I'll get some of the details wrong, and hopefully Madeline will correct me, but I counted 12 high tunnels in production I think, in addition to at least 3-4 open fields. When I asked how much land he had in production, Nicolas said he wasn't sure, but I'm guessing at least 4-5 acres when considering how all those fields and tunnels would fit on my property. Wow! And he does all this with help from just 1-2 other guys! (Starting to get a sense of that unworthiness now?)

****editing to add that Madeline told me he has 12! acres in cultivation, and that we never had a chance to finish my tour that day before heading on our walk. Boo-hoo! Now, I definitely have to go back!

His operation really isn't that large all things considered; it just drove home how incredibly small our CSA is and what it would take to expand in any kind of meaningful way. For now, however, I'm quite satisfied with my humble little farm, as it suits me and the kids just right at this time in our lives. It's the perfect size to learn and grow and make mistakes that don't cost too much. Of course, both Nicolas and Madeline kept telling me not to compare, kept reminding me that they'd been at this for 12 years, kept pressing the point that this isn't what they looked like when they started out.

Still...look at all those gorgeous plants!

I don't think of Maryland as all that far north, but considering we'd just had our first snow the day before and it was in the 70s at Nicolas's farm, there really is a huge difference in growing season. Yet one more reason I shouldn't compare what's going on at my farm to these luscious photos—but I mean really, how could one not!

I loved seeing all the little details of Nicolas's harvest—from how he brings it in from the field to how he washes and spins and packages and stores. I got some great ideas while there, some of which I'll be able to implement next season, others of which will rattle around in the back of my head until the time is right. Most especially I got some great suggestions for varieties to try, along with some sweet potatoes to take home and grow my own slips this year, and I'll definitely be planting those tasty little sweet white turnips he let me try! That's what I love so much about growing food—things are so incredibly delicious right out of the ground that I've discovered a love of so many vegetables that I never thought would touch my lips.

Thank you, thank you Nicolas and Madeline for hosting us at your lovely home and farm. It was such an amazing experience and well worth the drive! Now, we just need to get you guys up here for a visit...

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Dark Days Eat Local Challenge: Week 9

Our breakfasts continue to be our zero mile meals, with tasty eggs, toast, and preserves, as well as the occasional breakfast burrito.

One of our quick staples around here is taco salad and burritos. For this meal I made tortillas, which the kiddos devour. I had mine over tortilla chips instead—non-gmo, sourced from Manassas, Virginia. Salad ingredients all from our farm. Grass fed beef from up the road. Cheese from our local creamery.

Also on the menu this week was shrimp quiche, salad, and a local Chardonnay from Boordy Vineyards, located within a 100 mile radius, but many of the grapes were grown right here in the Catoctin mountains. The shrimp were caught off the Gulf Coast by a local shrimper where my mom lives, and we brought them home frozen after our last visit. The baby swiss came from our local creamery, and all greens, herbs, and eggs were from our farm. Yes, the crust is made from scratch, and mmmmm, was it tasty.

This week, we've also enjoyed two roast chickens, one of which Jim cooked for us the night we returned from our vacation. The other, shown to the left, I roasted with garden fresh herbs, and accompanied it with homemade biscuits, and sauteed swiss chard. The chard has crumbled feta from our local creamery. The carrots and potatoes are admittedly not local, but they rounded the meal out nicely.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Dark Days Eat Local Challenge: Week 8, Bachelor Style

The kids and I were away last week, so we missed week 8 of the Dark Days challenge. Not to be outdone, however, my honey took up the gauntlet and created this bachelor-style local meal: steak and eggs. Gotta love him!

In the Dark Days spirit, however, I did travel with all homegrown food for my contribution to a potluck dinner and house concert hosted by the Lovejoy's down in South Carolina. I took a jar of my homemade green tomato chutney and 20 eggs to make deviled eggs for the crowd, which went in, oh, about 15 minutes I think! Love those eggs!

We'll be back on the ball this week for Dark Days week 9.

Friday, November 30, 2007

We've hit the big time!

At Touch the Earth Farm, that is. We're officially on the state's radar for turkey sales, which means that today, I received my first telephone call from a state inspector in the Weights and Measures department to schedule an appointment to test and register our scales. Because we've sold turkey and chicken by the pound (regardless of how much, mind you, which is far less than $1000 gross this year, never mind net, we are now in the same category as the resident big chain grocery stores, gas stations, and super stores.

So while our meager poultry sales are exempt from agribusiness butchering standards—i.e. concrete buildings with stainless steel, hot and cold running water, and employee lockers and bathrooms—due to a small farm poultry processing exemption, we are not, it seems, exempt from having to own a legal for trade scale, certified by NTEP and NIST, that is subject to annual licensing fees and inspections. Lovely. Just one more reason why small farms become economically inviable.

Just want to take a moment to plug Joel Salatin's latest book, Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal. Here's a link to his introductory essay, which first appeared in Acres, USA: Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal. You can read a bit about the book at this website and order it from Chelsea Green Publishing by clicking on the icon there.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Dark Days Eat Local Challenge: Week 7

Sunday night, we had delicious organic grass-fed beef fillet (from a farm 37 miles up the road) topped with crumbled bleu cheese, sautéed swiss chard and kale with caramelized onions, country potatoes with the last of our green peppers, herb foccacia and a delicious mixed green salad. Alas, the potatoes weren't local.

No photo, but we had some delicious turkey soup this Tuesday with homemade spatzen, or German drop noodles, along with pannini sandwhiches on homemade bread with local baby swiss cheese, caramelized onions, and swiss chard. Mmmmmm, tasty! So good, in fact, that I could eat another right now.

I'm laming out on my zero mile meals again, I know, though almost all our breakfasts really do fall into that category. But how many times can I post a photo of fried eggs, bacon, and homemade toast with grape jelly? Problem is a combination of a lousy potato harvest and the fact that I am a walking cheese commercial. I simply cannot cook without dairy of some sort, and I wouldn't even try. Seriously, I'd pout, and possibly refuse to eat out of sheer spite.

"Don't forget the cheese" is my motto.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

From Foodie to Farmer, or Things I've Learned

Liz and Christy asked about turkey sales and general farm start up issues, and my response became unwieldy, begging for its own post. I've had something along these lines brewing in the back of my mind anyway with the new year looming as the inevitable task of taking stock ensues, so here goes...

The single biggest lesson I've learned is that with everything we try there will be both success and opportunity to learn and improve. What there won't be is perfection or a standard, predictable set of circumstances—farming is fluid and the ability to be flexible and roll with the current set of circumstances is crucial.

Other lessons:

  • Our first designs/ ideas almost always need to be tweaked, and what seemed like a great plan starting out, doesn't always remain a great plan as we grow and expand. Thinking in terms of the big picture at first rather than the smaller picture may be a better long term investment as long as it's not so big and so expensive as to make it seem impossible or be debt-dependent to pull off.

    For instance, fencing. Jim pulled fencing when we first moved because the existing horse tape wasn't good for either chickens or goats—both notoriously difficult to fence and our two starter animals. We didn't have many initially, so we focused on fencing just one pasture. But because our property borders neighbors on two sides, we soon needed to pull boundary fencing as well to try to keep our animals from wandering if they got beyond the first fence (which they will). This winter, we'll finish fencing the entire perimeter, and Jim will be yanking and reconfiguring one line of original fencing because he doesn't like its placement. In retrospect, hard fencing the perimeter first may have been a better expense of time and energy, and that would've given us time to grow a bit and see where and how we wanted to break up the different pastures and paddocks as we added animals. But don't be afraid to change things to make them work better in the moment, and most especially, don't be afraid of hard work—sometimes brutally hard work.

  • No amount of reading or research can replace actual experience, but it does give you something to do when you can't be working, as well as providing an arsenal of ideas to try as others fail. The learning is in the doing, so jump in with both feet on a scale small enough that your mistakes can't be too big.

    For instance, with the poultry in particular, I don't raise much more than I'd be willing to have in my own freezer in case sales don't materialize. Building a market base can take quite a while, especially when playing a niche market like I am with the organic-fed, free-range. Finding a market willing to pay premium prices on a regular basis for chicken, for example, is far more difficult than finding one willing to pay for a special occasion like Thanksgiving. Such are important considerations.

  • To avoid debt, it's helpful to begin with one or two enterprises that are likely to make a little bit of money that you can reinvest in infrastructure. (Of course, having an off-farm source of income doesn't hurt either.) Eggs are easy but not very lucrative on a small scale, in my experience. I have between 30 and 40 laying hens, which just about cover organic feed costs with the sales. The CSA and turkey sales have been my two biggest money makers thus far.

  • Have clear long-term goals. Because my goals are self-sufficiency and sustainability, that changes the way I'll farm. My land might be able to carry more animals (sometimes the stocking density I hear from others boggles my mind) but at what cost? Either I'll be paying for it in extra feed or in declining pasture quality, most likely both. Grass-based systems are tricky, and what works in a wet year won't work in a drought year, and what I've learned thus far is only a fraction of what I have left to learn.

    I'm not trying to make a living off my farm, but rather to have our farm support us, so that eases pressure a bit. My husband has no desire to quit his day job, which frees me considerably from household bills and expenses, which we'd be paying on or off the farm. If I can make the farm end of things self-supporting and provide most of our food, then the rest will take care of itself. If and when the other income dries up, well, hopefully we'll be in a solid position to up the stakes a bit in terms of farm income.

  • Have a solid ethical foundation and know what's important and why within those principles. Know what's involved in raising and harvesting livestock so as not to approach it cavalierly. We know exactly what's involved in butchering because we've done it here on the farm. While we send our sale animals out to experienced, USDA-inspected butchers, we have no delusions as to what goes into the slaughter of one of our animals, and we approach it as humanely as possible.

    Along those lines, too, we know how we want the animals to live, and confinement in any shape or form does not factor into that plan. We seek to provide our animals with free, happy, natural lives here on the farm, which means no chicken tractors for us and lower animal density to ensure quality pasture, browse, and instinct-fulfillment. We strive to work with our animals and the land rather than against them, meaning we beef up perimeter security to keep our animals safe rather than resorting to confinement, even at night; meaning we have redundant systems to help further secure our animals and factor in some lossses; meaning we use our pigs as plows to nurture their natural rooting tendency, and our chickens as natural bug and parasite control, our sheep as natural mowers, our goats as natural hedge and weed control, our geese as natural guardians and early warning system, and all our animals as natural fertilizer. Where ever possible, we have our animals do the job for us instead of relying on heavy machinery to do the work.

  • Be knowledgeable about your products. Good customers want to know what they're eating and how to prepare it, so be ready to offer that information. Know how many pounds of raw poultry a host(ess) should allot per guest, for example. Know the differences between your product and those typically available and be ready to proclaim (not justify!) the quality differences. Know the different cuts of meat and how each one works best on the table. With vegetables, especially, be sure to offer recipes and information when stepping outside the five or so readily recognizable ones. One of the biggest parts of my job has become consumer re-education, so I need first to know what I'm talking about and second to be able to convey that information quickly and convincingly. I'm still working on that, but I'm getting better each time I do it.

    I found easing into a market with a trial season to be really helpful towards building my own knowledge base. We started out with tamworth pork, for example, by buying some cuts our first year and trying them. That fall, we purchased two feeder pigs to get used to raising them before buying breeding stock. That gave us a chance to learn about raising pigs from start to finish and plenty of time to try cooking all the different cuts. This year we purchased breeding stock and hope to have our first litter in the spring. Patience is a virtue.

  • Be available and make things easy for the potential customer. Customers shouldn't have to work to find a phone number, address, or farm. Have bags and change on hand. Two things I'm considering for next year are a cell phone and paypal, to take advantage of impulse buys around the holidays. Even while I may be working to move away from technology and a consumer-based lifestyle, those folks are my customers, so I need to keep a foot in each camp to a certain extent.

  • Be neighborly and give stuff away. I don't try to make customers out of my neighbors, but I do try to share, be kind and considerate, and make amends for any perceived incursions. Maintaining good relations is important, as every person who comes in contact with the farm is part of our word-of-mouth network.

  • Stay small and focused. Don't just start small; stay small even as you grow. This has to do with knowing how much land, body, and finances will support and not growing beyond that just because there's customer interest. Getting swept away is easy but impractical if it means being stretched too thin or suffering declining quality—of life or of product. I'll be raising prices and expanding minimally, maximizing what I have without sacrificing quality.

  • Finally, know the laws and work within them as much as possible without driving yourself mad with the bureaucracy (that so often chases its own tail and contradicts itself between local, state, and federal levels and from one department to the next), and have good insurance.

Those are my general principles and observations after our first two years, though I'm sure those will change and evolve. Now to the specific questions, which you'll see are based upon the above generalities to a large extent.

Yes, Liz, there are egg regulations in Maryland; the degree to which I follow them is variable. I have an egg packer license number, which is clearly printed on our label, along with all requisite info except packing date, which I could hand write, but no one really cares since they've all been packaged within 1-3 days of landing in the customer's hands. I buy cartons with all the requisite nutritional and handling information preprinted—whether it adheres to the font-size regulations or not, I don't care. I don't grade or size my eggs, nor do I advertise them as such. Folks purchase farm fresh eggs in all their varying glory. This is a luxury of selling direct to the consumers; I imagine restaurant sales would demand more consistency. I do wash and nicely package all my eggs, and I use fresh cartons as required by law unless otherwise requested by the customer.

As far as turkey sales: this year we raised a total of about 30 turkeys in two off-farm batches and one on-farm hatch. We lost 2-3 early on and 2 more to our dog, who is no longer allowed even in adjoining pastures (which is how it happened). We butchered 23 birds total—6 ourselves and 17 by the processor. We sold a total of 12 birds fresh for Thanksgiving, reserving the Royal Palms to try ourselves since this was our first year raising them, and I'd read less-than-favorable reviews. We also gave away 2 of the Royal Palms.

I cooked 2 birds for Thanksgiving, have 2-3 more frozen to sell at Christmas time in addition to fresh goose, and the remaining 4-5 birds we'll eat over the next year. Some of the birds we reserved for ourselves had bruises or really prominent keel bones, making them inappropriate for sale, so definitely don't over sell. The palms, by the way, were delicious and had plenty of breast meat.

Christy, as far as control over the size of the birds, one could raise separate batches, though I don't think that works quite as well with heritage breeds because they take longer to grow out than the hybrids, and the mid-size breeds that I work with can take two years to reach the 20-30 lb range. My birds all ranged from about 7.5 lbs to 17 lbs. I roasted a 17 lb tom and that barely fit in my oven—they are long birds! These are the kinds of things I tell potential customers, and I often recommend buying two smaller birds as opposed to one large bird to ensure meat quality. Analogies work well: just like a bigger lobster may be impressive, it's also much less tender and sweet than the smaller ones. I recommend folks brine the birds at least overnight, and that makes a huge difference. Our birds were moist, flavorful, and delicious—hands down better than a commercial bird.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving, or Dark Days Eat Local Challenge: Week 6

For Thanksgiving this year we managed to pull an almost totally local, nearly zero mile meal—if it weren't for the lousy potato harvest this year, we would've done it. As it was, however, dinner was pretty magnificent. I made two heritage turkeys this year, one for dinner and one for leftovers. (Remember that gluttony post?) This one is a 17lb Narragansett tom, and the other was an 11 lb Royal Palm hen, both of which I brined for about 36 hours. The heritage birds have such incredibly long legs that they're impossible to truss in the bird, and they hang over my largest roasting pan. Next year, I'll have some twine on hand at least.

For the stuffing, I made two loaves of country white bread (made with half whole wheat pastry flour), diced them into cubes and tossed them with several garden herbs—rosemary, thyme, oregano and Italian parsley—and crisped them in the oven for about an hour and let set out overnight. Thursday morning I browned our last package of sausage that I'd been saving together with green onions, garlic, and swiss chard stems, and of course fresh herbs then drenched it all with homemade turkey stock.

For sides, we enjoyed roasted butternut squash stuffed with onion and parsley; kale and chard wilted with olive oil and caramelized onions; sautéed mixed beans; our three Beauregard sweet potatoes baked with cinnamon and brown sugar; the requisite mashed potatoes and a beautiful deep brown gravy; and a lovely side salad with mixed greens, a red wine vinaigrette, onion, one of our last storage tomatoes, and crumbled gorgonzola.

For breads I made our standard ciabatta as well as mini Gruyère gougères—a small, light puff pastry. Dessert was a homemade pumpkin pie with puréed pumpkin from our freezer. I'd also planned to make apple crisp with local apples, but by the time dessert rolled around, we were all totally stuffed. So we limited ourselves to the pumpkin pie and the deserts my mother-in-law brought down, showing uncharacteristic restraint, considering we've been known to have one desert per person at the table.

Everything was homegrown or homemade. Non-local items: the flour, potatoes, olive oil, vinegar, Gorgonzola and some spices. The milk and Gruyère were both from our local creamery, and I could've had a bleu as well if I'd thought ahead.

The pièce de résistance...

Supermarket Mentality

We sold our turkeys this holiday season, which means that I've had far more public exposure than in the past, which in turn means dealing with the public far more than I have in the past. This has been an interesting experience on a number of levels, and while I had a sense of what to expect—I'd been one of those unwitting consumers myself for a number of years, after all—I wasn't prepared for the sheer level of ignorance now that I've moved to the other side of the great grocery divide.

Most consumers simply don't get that a) food comes in all shapes and sizes, and b) there's not an endless, controllable supply of food. That's how far we've come as a society from our food sources.

Consumers are so used to going to a grocery store and having a grand variety to choose from that they've come not only to expect that kind of food availability but also to feel entitled to it. I can hear the irritation in some of the voices as I tell them we'll do our best to honor preferences but cannot guarantee a particular size bird. Some folks want to know exactly what I have available and are surprised to learn that the birds are still out walking around in the pasture. . . even though they're calling to order a FRESH bird! One fella wanted to know if I included the little pop-up thingies that tell you when the turkey's done. With some, I could almost hear that lightbulb going off as they made the obvious connections; they're just so used to the supermarket norm.

Our eggs come in all shapes, colors and sizes—just the way the hens lay them. And it seems our customers love them for precisely that reason. Well that and because they taste so good. I don't grade them or size them. We just keep the stained or cracked ones and sell the rest.

Getting used to all the variations in real food is an interesting journey. Milk changes based on what the animals are eating, changing from farm to farm, from season to season. Even meat changes flavor from the feed, from the breed. But factory farms remove all the variables--feed never changes, seasons don't change in the carefully controlled environments, breeds most definitely don't change, and any variation is culled from the final product. Eggs that are too small, cracked, stained, funny shaped all get pulled for distribution to various other industries lest one dozen look different from another.

Perfect homogeneity is not our goal here at our farm.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Dark Days Eat Local Challenge: Week 5

Yes, I know, I'm a few days late, but we've been crazy busy heading up to Thanksgiving, what with the last of the broilers, the turkeys, and visitors. My apologies to fellow challengers. Since I never got around to posting my meal from last week, I figured I'd better get it up before posting about our Thanksgiving.

Last week, besides zero mile breakfasts, I made a 25 mile frittata—all zero mile but for the local cheddar. I just can't live without cheese! This frittata was made with leftover herb foccacia bread, salted bacon, chives, parsley, garlic, and caramelized onions. On the table it was joined by a delicious mixed green salad with a red wine vinaigrette.

Saturday, for our guests, we made a stunning meal of twin roast chickens stuffed with onions, garlic, rosemary, thyme, and sorrel, drizzled with caramelized onions and the last of our fall carrots. As a side, I made potatoes roasted in goose fat, and although the Yukon golds were not ours, I did use in the mix one of our precious sweet potatoes, the rest of which are being reserved for Thanksgiving. We also had homemade ciabatta bread and a delicious mixed green salad topped with balsamic vinaigrette, homemade goat cheese, and non-local walnuts. Not to mention lots of great wine, and of course, no one thought to get a picture. For desert, we enjoyed a homemade apple crisp made with a mix of local apples both from our area and upstate New York where our friends live. Ooooh, and we pulled out a jar of the green tomato chutney I made for an appetizer, and it was yuuuummy!

Life has just been too filled with work, friends, laughter, and great food. Just one more reason I'm grateful to be alive!

Friday, November 16, 2007

The Long Emergency

Surprisingly enough, I found the book rather more heartening than disheartening.

The way I read it, Kunstler's main argument is that current technology is not adequate to sustain our current level of energy consumption. Honestly, I thought his discussions on technology were interesting but also represent some of the weakest points of the book. His recourse to sarcasm when discussing the limitations of some alternative technologies betrays the shaky rational grounding of the arguments in those sections. I'd have to go back to the book to actually find the sections I'm thinking of here, but there are moments when he falls back on trying to make something look laughable rather than taking it apart logically.

I think, too, he fails to consider two really salient points when it comes to current technology: a) we don't necessarily know what potentials have already been discovered and are being suppressed by the oil industry, which let's face it, is a far more evil empire than Monsanto, a company that alone has managed to suppress all kinds of science; and b) these fields are notoriously underfunded, and not just kinda underfunded, but ridiculously underfunded when compared with research budgets for defense, for example, never mind direct military budgets. The 5% increase that Bush requested back in his State of the Union for alternative energy funding is pittance compared to what defense projects receive from the DOE and the DOD for research with even a slight potential somewhere in the distant future for military application.

None of that takes into account the idea that necessity is the mother of invention. As long as we can continue the cheap ride fossil fuels offer, there's little cultural incentive to develop and switch to alternative energy sources. I think as the oil dries up and becomes more expensive, corporations will begin pumping more money into research. Will that money be there to reallocate, or will big business be caught with its pants down? Well, that's an interesting question I think. Being the closet conspiracy theorist that I am, I don't think corporate greed is stupid enough not to cover its own a$$. Although neither do I think free market is a panacea, but I do think money will follow power in what ever way it can.

What Kunstler did seem to say that I found somewhat heartening is that electricity is not nearly the problem as oil currently is, as it accounts for only a small percentage of our culture's total energy use. His basic argument is that our lights will likely stay on, but we won't be able to drive. Of course, that's a gross oversimplification, but that's the general gist of it. That's not to say that the impossibility of driving, not to mention the impact of oil depletion on petroleum-dependent industries, won't have huge ramifications for life as we know it and potentially on the availability of electricity as well. Surely it will. The big question is how gradual that change will be and how able we are as a culture to adapt to those changes.

Kunstler describes some very interesting convergences of potential disasters, but personally I think much of what the doom and gloomers talk about depends on several converging worst-case scenarios. Sure a nexus of war, famine, and disease could happen on Katrina-disaster and worse proportions, but life tends to be somewhat less extreme than that. I do tend to believe that the changes will be gradual enough to allow people to adapt, and adaptability and problem-solving are two of our greatest strengths as a species. Will 6 billion people adapt? Probably not, and surely we'll see a rise in poverty as well as drastic decline in the standard of living as the true costs of living fall on the developed world like a ton of bricks. Other parts of the world are more likely to go on living as they have for hundreds of years.

At the moment, I'd argue that the single biggest problem we're facing in terms of adaptation is the American government's steadfast refusal to acknowledge there is a significant problem combined with the artificially low prices of gasoline in this country. Compare a US gallon of premium gasoline this month at the pump for $3.33 to the Netherland's $8.39 or Britain's $7.87 or Germany's $7.97 ( Add to that the insistence that biofuels like ethanol are the magic bullet, and there's an interesting shift of government subsidies for gmo corn as Monsanto climbs into bed with the fuel companies. What proponents of biofuels fail to consider is the vast petroleum input required to produce the ding dang corn in the first place. Sure the ethanol could conceivably be used to power all those big machines, but what about the vast amount of petroleum-based fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides needed for the corn fields, not to mention the petroleum necessary to produce all that big equipment in the first place. Why not consider producing ethanol from hemp, which is a cellulose-dense plant that takes fewer resources to grow and produces more per acre, potentially lowering the current disparity of energy in/ energy out of corn and other sources, which is highly controversial in the first place ( Because that would constitute a double-whammy against agribusiness and the Puritanical powers that be.

As far as climate changes, again I think that a lot of the gloom and doom is based on worst-case scenario kind of thinking and much of what I've read seems to indicate that Europe will be hardest hit by changes in the Gulf Stream. The way I figure it, Maryland could be the next Georgia or the next Vermont, neither of which is too drastic. Another ice age is pretty dramatic, and most sources say the loss of thermohaline circulation is likely to result in temperature variations of about 10-29° F based on past numbers, but even that would likely be offset by the overall effects of global warming thus mitigating those temps. We're also far enough inland where we live that we won't be affected directly by rising water levels, though that could improve our water tables. So that doomsday scenario doesn't trouble me all that much.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Hard Frost

We've had several hard frosts this past week—significantly later than last year, when we were covering lettuces before Halloween. I still have lots still growing in the garden: several herbs, carrots, radishes, beets, lettuces, raab, kale, tatsoi, chard, green onions, and broccoli, in addition to several seedlings that I hope to be ready for an early spring crop. The parsley on the left fared fine without any cover, as did the carrots to the right and the beets even down by the lettuces in the market garden. Although they were weighed down by frost, they bounced back quickly during the day time temps that are still in the 40s and 50s.

I'm learning quite a bit this year about the microclimates down in the market garden, not surprising considering this is my first year planting down there. The lettuces are planted in a frost hollow, and they got zapped a bit the night of our first frost. I quickly covered them with old bed sheets, and that got them through a few more nights. Luckily I've had the greenhouse plastic on them for the hard frosts we've had this week, so they've gone untouched. Up in the kitchen garden, which sits atop an East facing hill, all the lettuces were fine with the first frost and have fared well since even with just a light covering of sheer curtains. The chard, sorrel, other herbs and all the seedlings already in the ground have been fine as well with no covering at all. This weekend, though, we're working on getting the high tunnel up, which will hopefully allow us to grow throughout the winter. More on that soon.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Red Wine and Poetry

Every so often, I get a hankerin' for some poetry, usually when I'm feeling introspective and enjoying red wine. So, here I am to subject you to one of the poems that's been on the forefront of my mind lately by W. B. Yeats.

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Monday, November 05, 2007

Dark Days Eat Local Challenge: Week 4

Once again, I'll be updating this post throughout the week rather than creating separate posts.

My beautiful zero mile meal Monday night, otherwise known as "Where's the Beef?"

Butternut squash soup: roast butternut squash with onion, garlic, chives, rosemary and thyme, pureed with homegrown chicken stock and a dash of nutmeg. Herb foccacia bread, and a delicious three lettuce salad with green and red salad bowl lettuces and thai oakleaf lettuce, oxheart heirloom carrots, second year green onions, and Brandywine heirloom tomatoes. Tasty and filling...unless of course, you happen to be my husband. Hence the dinner's name.

So, here's the meal we actually ate, which ended up including small twin fillets from a few miles up the road. Delicious, no doubt, but they definitely bumped my beautiful zero mile meal up to the 15 mile category. But, if I'm perfectly honest, I'll fess up to that lovely little swirl of sour cream in the soup that already knocked me out on a technicality.

Tuesday night: zero mile

Chicken stuffed with herbs and roasted with carrots and green onion. Roasted baby acorn and butternut squash stuffed with sauteed green zebra, Brandywine, Amish paste, and San Marzano tomatoes, green pepper, delicate spring garlic greens, minced garlic cloves, onions, basil, and parsley. Two-green salad with tomatoes, onion, and a balsamic vinaigrette, and a braided loaf of French bread with sesame seeds, dipped in olive oil, garlic, and basil. Everything from Touch the Earth Farm but the olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt, and pepper.

Wednesday Night: 25 mile taco salad

Wednesday night for dinner I made tortillas, which disappear almost as quickly as I can make them. Having spent two years out in Albuquerque, we grew accustomed to light, tasty tortillas, which East coast tortillas resemble in name only. So, I learned to make my own, and I really need to start doubling the recipe because the kids eat them so fast. For this salad I fried my tortillas, topped them with rice, local ground beef, green chili brought by friends from New Mexico, cheddar cheese from our local dairy, and vegetables and herbs from our garden. So simple, so tasty!

Thursday Night: 25 mile meal

"Nothing goes better with cabbage than cabbage." So says a character in Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which I always think of as I use Tuesday's roast chicken for a meal of chicken soup later in the week—two meals for the price of one. The weather has finally cooled enough to relish soups and salads as meals that feed body and soul. The chicken soup is entirely homegrown, from chicken to stock to herbs, and Jim made drop noodles to add, which were quite tasty. We had salad from veggies grown here on the farm, topped with our very own goat cheese that I made the night before. What bumps us up to 25 mile are the grilled cheese sandwiches on homemade bread, made with cheddar cheese from our creamery.