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.