Friday, April 4, 2014

Is Food too Cheap?

It’s not easy getting behind the idea of purposefully making food more expensive.  Industrialized food production, global transportation networks, and the concentration of food distribution into mammoth corporations have made food cheaper than ever in developed countries. 

This can only be a good thing, right?  Particularly for poor people, who have to make every dollar stretch as far as possible.  But with endless articles about the new American farmer movement and the need to build a “sustainable food system”, we have to wonder if food is too cheap to make being a small-scale organic farmer financially sustainable.

China and the Coming Urban Waste Crisis

China is currently undertaking an unprecedented effort to repopulate 250 million people from rural to urban areas, with the goal of creating a “more sustainable” economy driven by urban consumerism rather than large-scale state investments.  Beyond the scale and state-orchestrated nature of this urbanization program, the plan is not particularly surprising: the world’s wealthiest countries are all primarily urban with economies that are driven by domestic consumption.

For the first time in human history, the majority of us live in cities.  One hundred years ago, 2 out of 10 people lived in cities, as of 2010 just over 5 of 10 people live in cities, and it is projected that 7 out of 10 people will live in cities by 2050.  One could say both positive and negative things about this development, but regardless of what you think of urban life, it is undoubtedly here to stay for the near future.

The process of urbanization has largely been caused by the transition from agriculture-based economies to modern economies based on manufacturing, technology, and services.  As farms have become largely mechanized and consolidated into large-scale operations, farmers without work have moved to cities to find new jobs.  This process has repeated itself in developed countries throughout the world.

From an ecological point of view, the urbanization of society presents a real dilemma. Humans need a fair amount of basic resources to survive: adequate food, fresh water, and homes with basic heating and sanitation.  At a Western standard of living, these needs greatly multiply.  Urban areas consist of great concentrations of people living in small geographic spaces.  These concentrations of people cannot produce the resources they need to live from within the area where they live, so they must be brought in from outside of the city. All of these needs must be met with resources and once used all of these resources produce waste.

Why Buying American Could Help Solve Our "E Problems"

What started first -- our addiction to cheap goods or the exodus of American manufacturing jobs overseas?  It’s hard to say, as each feeds the other: the more cheap goods we buy, the poorer we become and the more demand we create for cheap goods.  If left unchanged, this dynamic must inevitably trap a growing number of Americans in a low-wage economy and accelerate our environmental problems (the “E” problems). 

Most of us don’t think about the story behind each thing we buy. This is not surprising, as the story is both complex and it’s often not in the best interest of the producer to tell it to us.  A recent National Public Radio initiative, “The Planet Money T-shirt Project”, attempts to unpack one of these stories by following an order of 25,000 t-shirts from cotton farm to manufacturing to final delivery.  The project goes a long way towards explaining how our current consumer culture supports an unsustainable global economy.  

In a forthright interview, the CEO of Crystal, the Columbian company that makes the women’s Planet Money t-shirts, sums up the operating principles of modern production concisely: 

The garment worker commute in Bangladesh.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Spring's first salad

One of the hardest tasks for me is "thinning."

I've spent many minutes sowing delicate little seeds into our homemade-soil blocks. I read the germination rate on the seed package and sometimes sow extra seeds in each hole to be sure at least one of them germinates. Then we wait, trying to maintain optimum soil temperature and humidity.

And the plants start to come up.

But then that sad day comes when I have to thin the seedlings, when I have to terminate the life of the seemingly weaker plant so that the stronger one can have the space and nutrients to thrive. Those cute, perky little kale and collard green starts look so fresh and so hopeful - but some of them have to go. In previous years it had been so difficult for me to thin that I just didn't do it. And what we ended up with were two spindly seedlings in one tiny space whose dense root systems were ripped apart upon transplant. Not good.

Spring's first salad
So I've reframed our art of thinning this season for peace of mind: spring's first salad.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Sausage stuffing

That fine-looking 5-lb-capacity sausage stuffer had been staring me in the face for too long. Despite the long winter, we hadn't yet attempted to transform our ground pork into the delicious thing we call sausage. But the time had come... spring was here, the snow was melting, a good friend was in town to join in the festivities, and we had planned an over-the-top stuffed leg-of-lamb dinner for the weekend that called for Mexican-style chorizo.

So 11 pounds of ground pork went through the processor and we mixed up 4 flavorful sausage stuffings: a classic Sicilian-style sausage with fennel seeds; a garlic sausage; a luganega sausage that included freshly grated orange and lemon zest in it; and, of course, the chorizo, which had ancho chile pepper, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, cloves, pepper, bay leaf, nutmeg, cinnamon, paprika, cayenne, garlic and salt in it. We got our hands dirty, deep in pork fat and spices. We mastered those natural pig intestine casings (how cool to see them expand under the faucet water as we rinsed them of their salt preservative). We figured out the timing and pressure on the sausage stuffer. And we froze about 50 sausages for the future.

Best of all, we had a delicious dinner in front of the fire, trying each kind, and really appreciating the art of sausage making.

Friday, March 21, 2014

On the first day of spring

On the first day of spring, my true love gave to me a beautiful day to be working outside.

I saw ground for the first time on our vegetable beds. The snow melt from the mountains is now gently trickling down our seasonal streambed. We pruned our fruit trees with a great friend of ours visiting from overseas. We tidied up the greenhouse, anticipating being able to put our tomato, eggplant and pepper starts out there in just a few days. We unloaded the 2000 pounds of organic potting soil we bought from a local farm. We trekked up to the compost pile for the first time in weeks. And back inside the house, we made some delicious homemade sausages (more on that in a later post).

We are officially delayed in our planting now (usually we get the peas in the ground today), but I feel hopeful that it will start soon. We've adapted to the weather and we're anxiously enjoying our last few days of "vacation."

Saturday, March 15, 2014

In the greenhouse

We've moved into the greenhouse. Well, the seedlings have moved in (although I might like to, too... it boasts temperatures in the 90s during mid-day with the sun).

This will certainly be a learning curve for us. We're using heat mats to keep soil temperature around 70, but daytime temps can be over 100 degrees and nighttime temps dip to near 32. It's amazing the wide temperature range one structure can produce. So we're using our go-to technique of "hooping up" - we put greenhouse plastic tunnels over the seedlings at night to trap in heat and moisture.

After this week's forecasted snow (?!) passes, we're hoping more spring-like weather will settle in, so water sources can be turned on, the ground starts to thaw and we can get our shovels in the soil.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

The season begins

This snow is getting depressing. We've still got a foot of it covering our fields, and today's 48-degree temperature forecast made me smile until I looked at next week's and saw that we will again barely climb above freezing during the day.

But the seeds must start. Our beautiful new greenhouse is just waiting to be put to use - and once nights don't drop too far below 32, we'll be able to move all of our starts out there.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Holy homemade bacon

This is one of those times when you try something and you really, truly know you will never, ever go back to the way it was.

We cured our fresh pork belly last week with sugar, blackstrap molasses, salt and pepper, following this recipe, and just cooked some up this morning. Wow. It was so delicious. We were planning on smoking the slabs, but have decided against it because it is just too darn good. This stuff won't be for sale, friends... we are keeping it for special dinners (like tonight's V-Day homemade pizza-by-the-fire), lazy Sunday mornings, and maybe a lucky Supper Club or two.