Archive for February, 2008

Some Kind of Help is the Kind of Help We All Can Do Without: Getting Things Done with Children who Don't (or Can't) Help

Sharon February 29th, 2008

Zachary Zugg took out the rug,

And Jennifer Joy helped shake it.

And Jennifer Joy, she made a toy

And Zachary Zugg helped break it.

And some kind of help is the kind of help

That helping’s all about.

And some kind of help is the kind of help…

We all can do without. – From “Helping” on “Free to Be You and Me”

When I speak of children who can’t or won’t help, I am referring to two groups of children. The first are babies and toddlers, who lack the capacity or temperament or understanding to be at all helpful. That is, they either are babies, who can’t do much, or they are toddlers and sometimes the youngest preschoolers so busy learning to be people that they cannot accomplish much else.  These groups often have a lot in common, despite their significant differences, and I’m going to treat them together.

The age at which children become generally helpful, and both want to participate in your daily life and can without making much more work for you varies a great deal – some especially calm and mature 18 or 20 month olds might actually fit the bill, although I have personally never raised such a child. In other cases, a child as old as three and a half might be unable to focus on helping as much.   Or, in the case of disability, helpfulness might come at 8 or 15, or 30 or never – I call these children, but some adults will, in their own way, always be like these children and some of my readers presumably care for them.

But generally, in developmentally typical children,  it seems to me that the major transition occurs sometime between 2 1/2 and 3. At this point, they may still slow you down, because they demand to help make the pancakes, hang the laundry and would like to drive the car, but they at least can participate, to some extent, in home and garden life, where for the most part, younger children, delightful and sweet as they are, fall the category of “hindrance” in one’s attempts to grow and preserve food, keep a home that will not be condemned, or get much of anything else done.

The second category of children who can’t or won’t help are those with serious disabilities. Some of these children are those with neurological impairments, that limit their common sense, impulse control, ability to understand danger, or simply their interest in participation. Other such children are so severely disabled in a physical or mental sense that their participation, while perfectly possible, requires enormous amount of investment of time and energy by their parents or other caretakers.

I have one of each of these types of children. Asher is two, and about as classic “terrible two year old” as can possibly be imagined. I recall that when his older brother Isaiah was about the same age people used to say when he spoke, “What a sweet little voice he has.” Asher, on the other hand, regularly garners good natured comparisons to longshoremen.

My older children were always a little shy and reserved around strangers. Last week, in synagogue, Asher was marching with all other children in the “Torah Parade” when, as is traditional, one woman reached out her prayer book to receive the blessing of touching on the little children’s heads. Asher stopped straight in the middle of the march, and yelled “You don’t touch me!!!” at full volume at the kind elderly woman who had dared to gently brush her prayerbook above his head. Asher believes he should run the world, and when (as is often the case) he discovers that he is not in charge, the results are screaming display of temper and blind fury that ends in thrown objects, discipline and tears. The world is very difficult when you are small.

Then, there’s Eli. Eli is autistic, and that means that his priorities and ours do not always match up, or even make sense to us. At least in our experience there’s nothing tragic about having an autistic child – Eli is sweet natured, with a merry sense of humor and a great deal of energy – but it is rather like going to the shelter to adopt a kitten, and getting a puppy. That is, Eli’s worldview is different in fundamental ways from our own – thus, he’s not much interested in my attempts, say, to engage him with stacking wood – he’d rather whack the ice covered branches that have fallen from the tree against the house. No persuasion of mine will convince him of the necessity of helping – he’ll do it, if I stand over him, but he simply cannot understand my own interest in this activity, and will abandon it the moment something else catches his interest.

It isn’t that Eli is trying to be difficult, it is that he genuinely doesn’t yet grasp what is wanted or needed, or why we would care about these things.  His world, his mind are different, and it is hard for him to work through the distractions of autism to understand our perspective.  He does, and we require him to do so, but there’s only so much of that we can do in any given day, and have anyone have any fun.

 I suspect I am not alone in struggling to get things accomplished with multiple small, cute hindrances around.  And while I do take the time to include them, sometimes we just need to find a way to get things done around them.  I’m excluding paid childcare as a choice here – I’m assuming that whoever is doing this either is the paid childcare provider working out of their home, or is the parent.  I figure “get a babysitter” is something you can figure out without me ;-) .

So here are a few suggestions I’ve come up with.  Most of them probably involve a degree or two of bad parenting – but they get the jam made ;-) .

1. Let them make a giant mess.  There’s nothing that attracts either Eli or Asher more than water.  They both love to “help” with the dishes, but can’t actually do them.  So if I need to do a whole load of dishes, my favorite project is to put one of them in the tub with a dishpan of warm soapy water, some unbreakable dishes (enamelware cups are great) and let ‘em go at it.  They love it, and I might actually get a full load of dishes done. 

I also feel strongly that sometimes it is worth letting the kids do make messes, if cleaning them up will not be too onerous, and it gets me a few minutes to work.  So I am probably repulsively laissez-faire on this subject – recently three of the boys were kept happily occupied slicing my husband’s old exams into shapes (Simon and Isaiah) and shreds (Eli) and then throwing the shreds up and yelling “snow.”  I realize good Mommies stop their children from doing this.  But all I could think was “fine, I’ll pick up the snow later, I get to make bread.”

2. Don’t look them in the eye ;-) .  I have noticed that my children will be happily and productively self-entertaining while I am busy doing something else and nowhere in sight, but my toddler especially (but my other kids too) thinks that Mommy in the line of sight, or, say, talking to him, means “Mommy wants to pick me up.”  When you get those blessed moments of self-engagement *STAY OUT OF VIEW* – if there are safety issues, that’s one thing, but try and make sure there aren’t – or recruit an older child and bribe them to come running if anything untoward happens. 

This also applies to children with disabilities doing things themselves.  I find that much more help is needed if I’m available to do things for them.  That’s not to say we should allow children to struggle to the point of suffering to do something they are genuinely incapable of on their own, but I notice how creative they get when they think they are responsible.

3. Make use of big siblings – or even developmentally normal younger ones.  I know this is a somewhat fraught issue.  In some societies, siblings have enormous responsibility for one another, but in ours, we are less inclined that way.  Still, I haven’t noticed any negative effects – and have seen some positive ones, from giving Simon andIsaiah the responsiblity, say, of helping Asher up and down the stairs, or keeping an eye on him in an enclosed space.  Obviously, one has to be realistic about this – 5 year olds have limited powers of rationality.  But I do think that the practice of being responsible for one another – mutually – is a good one in building family unity.

For children with physical disabilities, having a sibling be eyes or hands or feet can be empowering and positive for both of them, as long as it is done carefully.  I have a friend whose 10 year old with cerebral palsy cannot walk in the woods – so her brother brings her the woods, each day returning with a collection of woodland artifacts – acorns and sticks, small dug up tree seedlings, etc…  They then make woodland fairy houses in the corner of their yard together, and wait for acorn seedlings to sprout.

4. Create enclosures.  Particularly for toddlers, and roaming older children this is essential.  We spent an awful lot of our inheritance from Eric’s grandparents fencing 1/4 acre of our front yard – and it may be the best money we have ever spent.  Eli cannot be trusted not to roam, but he also is an almost-8 year old, with a low tolerance for his parents following him around all the time.  This allows him some freedom – and I know that grants are available in some areas to low income families seeking to keep disabled kids safe.  I’ve heard of several people who fenced with such grants. 

In the barn, we only have small livestock, so we don’t worry too much about the kids, but a friend of mine who has draft horses and cows tells me that one of the best things she ever did was simply allot a spare horse stall to her kids.  There are kid sized barn tools, some toys and bales of hay to sit on, and a few old chairs and horse blankets to make tents on.  That way, when she was working, her younger kids were out from underfoot.  We don’t have enough space in our barn for this, but if you did, it is a great idea.  Even a small gated area can help, or playpen.  I know some people feel strongly about “baby jails” but as long as the kids spend short times in them, I don’t have a major problem.

Making points of access is also important for children – if you can, it is well worth spending money to bring the wheelchair into the barn, or move the chicken house to where you child can get to it themselves.  Your child might not yet be able to go get eggs herself, and it may even be hard to imagine that she ever could, but making the coop accessible means the possibility is there, and many disabled children accomplish remarkable things. 

5. Nurse toddlers as long as possible.  I say this for two reasons.  The first is that when they are in their “I am only sort of a person” stage, they have a lot of complicated feelings that they cannot yet express.  Often, the world just seems unbearable.  Somehow, nursing is a less fraught experience.  And it is amazing how much time you can save if you can short-circuit a tantrum.

It also has a powerful tranquilizing effect on some kids – that is, you can get a kid to nap by nursing them even if they will no longer nap any other way.  Since two of my kids gave up naps long before I felt they should, this was very important. 

If you don’t  or can’t nurse, create sleep routines and comfort routines.  The idea here is to have short ways of sending various mesages “It is ok, the world is not falling apart just because you can’t hold the credit card” or “Now it is time to go to sleep, even though it seems like it would be much more fun to throw the dog food.”  Think about it as keyboard shortcuts for your children ;-) .

6. Toddler-wear.  Not one of my four kids would ever tolerate a sling, backpack or other constraint after they could walk – not one.  But I know many people all over the world do this.  And it is good way of keeping your child about and contained.  I laud those who can do it.  Me, I never could pull it off.

7. Put them to bed early.  We have a firm 7 pm bedtime at our house.  They don’t have to sleep, and they often don’t.  Eli often stays up as late as 9pm.  But barring an emergency, all children go upstairs and read or play quietly in their room at 7pm – period, no discussion, no negotiation.  Actually, there’s no battle here – my kids look forward to bedtime, and their time together.  We check in occasionally, they have water and plenty of books and toys, and often I find Simon reading aloud to the other three, or elaborate games being made up.  But to bed they go – and Mommy and Daddy get to work on whatever project awaits us, until we collapse together.  Alternately, if your kids are night owls, you can get up early.

On a related note, I’m a firm believer in tiring children out – all kids need plenty of physical exercise to get them ready to sleep, and I think kids who spend too much time indoors or sedentary often have more behavioral issues.  We find that lots of exercise is good for everyone – if everyone is too cranky, taking a long walk or a run around the local school track is good for Mommy – and for the boys.  For children with physical disabilities, finding good exercise can be difficult – but it is important, nonetheless.  And it is good to find a fun form of exercise – which can be tought for kids who do lots of physical therapy and are wary of such things.  A friend of mine’s wheelchair-bound son is very resistant to anything that smacks of “theraputic” exercise, but will happily play catch from his chair.

8. Get a good dog or an alarm.  For those children with escape urges, you need a way to protect them, and still be able to look away from them now and then.  Some kids really push those limits.  There are both cheap and expensive options.  One would be a well-trained dog, that was trained to give the alarm if a child goes beyond a particular perimeter, and to go with the child.  We’re working on this with Rufus, our American Working Farmcollie.  Not all dogs could meet this need, but many might. 

Some children with disabilities might be eligible for an assistive dog – these are now available for a range of disabilities, not just blindness and deafness.  I’ve even heard of miniature horses and monkeys being used in these capacities – obviously, such a thing is a large decision, and up to each family, but it is something to think about.  Strong relationships with animals, and the experience of being in “charge” of something is very important for kids.

Otherwise, you might consider either an alarm system in your house (if that’s the issue) or an emergency alarm that attaches to the child and sounds when the child goes more than X distance from there. 

It is also worth teaching your children ”cue words” – many kids with disabilities may have trouble with language, but can learn a few key terms.  All of my children, by 2 years, knew that STOP meant stop *NOW* without discussion.  Any child capable of learning these things should have words or signs that indicate stop, stay, come, and if possible, mastering these should be a huge priority.

9.  Integrate the child into the task at their level.  We go berry picking, and Eli and Asher eat berries.  They are participating.  We are happy they are there.  Both also occasionally contribute a squashed berry – they are lauded and praised extravagantly for this contribution (after which, the berry is discretely disposed of most of the time ;-) ). 

When we make a quilt, Asher can find the red cloth.  When we fold laundry, Eli can bring me the towels.  The trick is to find jobs sufficiently engaging to keep the child busy, while also not actually adding any time on to the project.  This can be enormously difficult – but every investment of time and energy is an investment in future helpfulness.  Your child may not be coordinated enough to pour the cat’s water yet – but perhaps they can turn on the faucet while you hold the bowl.

10. Accomplishment is relative.  The glorious thing about having a disabled child is that you learn to appreciate every step – however small.   Toddlers do that too – one day they can’t button a button, and the next day they can get it halfway in.  One day they can’t put on their underpants, the next day they can – and on their heads.  But the truth is, they are steps forward.

If you are the parent or caregiver of a small (or large) beloved hindrance, remember that for you too, the small accomplishments count.  You, like them, do a little tiny bit more each day – some days.  Some days it feels like you are taking a dozen steps back.  But the truth is this - seven dishes done, up from six yesterday morning, is an improvement.  9 eggplants harvested before the tantrum is better than 5 last week.  You, like them, are taking small steps.  And just as the moment when the toddler who will never nap smiles and says “I go sleep now, Daddy.” and the moment when the child who cannot speak says “Mama” are moments of glory, joy and wonder, so too is the day when the jars of jam are on the shelf, or the laundry waves in the breeze like a salute and praise.


What I'm Growing – Part I – Things I Start Ahead

Sharon February 24th, 2008

I thought it would be fun to talk about favorite plant varieties.  When I get sick of winter, I start seeds – there’s something so magical about the process.  And one of my favorite projects is choosing varieties.  Perhaps some of what I grow will be useful to you.  This is going to be long – I like a lot of plants, and so I’m doing it in pieces as I get around to it.  The first one will focus on tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, ground cherries and tomatillos, among the first things that I start indoors.  I actually start much, much more than this, but one thing at a time.

 BTW, as we discuss this, we should probably note locations and what your garden is like – the plants I have success with in my cool, wet, heavy soil in upstate NY might not suit your arid, cold high plains garden or your humid, warm midwestern loam, and vice-versa.  Still, almost anything is worth a shot!

 First, there are tomatoes.  Everyone loves tomatoes, and discussing tomato varieties is one of those things that no gardener can get enough of.  I have quite a few favorites – I could never choose one or two.

 My favorite OP (open pollinated, that means not a hybrid) cherry tomato is right now is a variety I tried for the first time last year, “Black Cherry” – I’ve always liked black tomatoes, and this one has the rich flavor of a large black tomato in a prolific cherry. 

I’ll admit, my favorite cherry tomato of all time is Sungold, a hybrid.  Baker Creek Heirlooms was offering a dehybridized version of this for a while, and I grew it, but it was definitely inferior to the tropical taste of the original.   But sooner or later someone will create a good dehybridized version, and in the meantime, I love it and so do my customers.  For containers, I was growing “Red Robin” which is good (although I got a batch from Tomato Growers Supply that was *terrible* so not all strains are equal), but I’m even more excited by “Balconi Yellow” from Thompson and Morgan which tastes really good.

I don’t grow grape tomatoes – most are hybrids, and I’ve usually found them inferior to cherries.  Anyone found a non-hybrid grape tomato worth growing?  My CSA customers asked for them last year.

The best early tomato I’ve grown hands down is Glacier – I don’t bother with anything else at this point.  Not quite as early, but slightly better tasting is _Cosmonaut Volkov_  – generally my goal is to have potted tomatoes by June 10, and my first decent sized tomato by July 4, which is pretty good in our climate.  I start these in February, along with a few sweet and hot peppers.  I don’t always succeed – this year I was running late on my seed starting – but I usually make my July 4 goal.

Ok, big tomatoes.  My favorite multicolor is pineapple – I got my seed from Pinetree seeds - it is a wonderful tasting tomato, and I’m wildly in love with it.  My favorite big red is Costoluto Genovese – weird crinkly, terrific flavor.  Smaller tomatoes I’m fond of are “Rose de Berne” “Jaune Flamee” and “Red Bobs.” (That last is a great container tomato – and I’m excited to try “Paul Robeson” this year in containers, after they were praised by Pat Meadows).  Of the Brandywines I’ve tried, I like the “Black Brandywine” quit a lot although it doesn’t yield spectacularly for me.

Finally, pastes.  Polish Linguica and Opalka are the best in my garden, without a doubt, although Orange Banana is very popular here – the kids thing bright orange tomato sauce is a kick. 

 Ok on to peppers – it is very hard to get peppers to ripen fully in my climate. I’m up at about 1400 feet, and in a cool region, and summer nights are routinely in the 50s – and sometimes in the 40s.  Peppers really don’t like cool nights, and most of the ones that mature best are hybrids.  I’ve been growing some because of the customers, but this year I’m going to try and restrict myself entirely to OP peppers.

 Ace hybrid has been a reliable, reasonably early red turner here, as has Jupiter and Sunbell.  King of the North is my favorite OP, which I get from Fedco.  Albino Bullnose, a very old heirloom has also done well here, so these will probably be my main crop peppers.  I’m also going to try using my pop-up greenhouses this year over some peppers and melons to retain night heat and give them the warm temps they like.  Perhaps I’ll even be able to get the super-hot habaneros I love so much, but can’t mature here.  Growing in containers is also important for us – because the containers get warmer than the soil in the summer, peppers mature faster and better.  “Fish” hot pepper is a stunning container plant, and a delicious pepper.

Eggplants, oddly aren’t nearly as much of a problem for me as peppers.  I have no idea why – so many people have it the other way around.  The only hybrid I bother with is a mini-variety called “fairy tale” which grows in containers.  Eggplants in containers are more prolific and earlier for me than in the ground.  In the ground, I’ve done very well with “Lousiana Long Green” (lovely flavor) Rosa Bianca, and Italian White. 

 We love tomatillos here, and eat a ton of salsa verde both fresh and canned, and I mostly grow the common green variety.  But I tried “Purple de Milpa” last year, and really liked it – it was a bit sweeter and more complex.  Tomatillos and Ground Cherries are no fuss crops – plant ‘em, ignore ‘em, harvest ‘em.  Both are so prolific that I just don’t bother thinking much about them.  I like straight Ground Cherry jam pretty well, but my family mixed ground cherries with fall raspberries, about 50-50 last year, for something truly transcendent.  Not only is it good jam, but it tastes really good with meats, and a little less sweet would make a great ketchup – something to try next year.

 Ok, more soon – greens and lettuces!  Boy will that take a while!



How Expensive is Food, Really?

Sharon February 24th, 2008

There is no doubt whatsoever that rising food costs are hurting people all over the world. More than half of the world’s population spends 50% of their income or more on food, and the massive rise in staple prices threatens to increase famine rates drastically.  We are already seeing the early signs of this in Haiti and in other poor nations.

 It is also undoubtably true that rising food prices are digging into the budgets of average people, including me.  And I’ve got it easy. The 35 million Americans who are food insecure (that is, they may or may not go hungry in any given month, but they aren’t sure there’s going to be food) are increasingly stretched.  Supportive resources like food pantries are increasingly tapped.  And regular folks are really finding that food and energy inflation are cutting into their budget substantially.  The rises in food and energy prices alone have eroded real wages by 1.2 percent.  The USDA chief economist has announced that overall food prices will probably rise by another 3-4% this year, and grain products will rise considerably more. 

But there’s another side to this coin.  Rising food prices are to some extent  good for farmers.   Certainly, large grain farmers in the US, Canada and many other rich world nations have been experiencing a well deserved boom.  And there are plenty of people, me included, who have been arguing for years that we don’t pay enough of the true costs of our food.  So who is right?  How do you balance the merits and demerits of food prices?

One way would be think historically, as Jim Webster does in an opinion piece in The Farmer’s Guardian.  He observes something that has long struck me, that historically, it is completely normal to spend a lot of your money on food:

“It probably took 150 years for our civilisation to swing from a man’s annual wage being the yield of one acre, to that same acre paying him for a week. I wonder how long it will take to swing back?

Obviously we can try and push for increased yields, but to match the scale of increase we have seen since they huddled in gloomy bars and decided the Egyptians were liars if they said they got over 400kg an acre, we would have to hit 20 tons an acre. GM is not going to deliver that.

So personally I don’t think that wheat is dear, I don’t think it is dear at all.”

High food prices are obviously a matter of perspective.  By long term historical analysis of agrarian socities, food prices are undoubtably low, despite their current rise.  But when we talk about low food prices we tend to be implying that we could and should spend more money on food.  That is undoubtably true of middle class and above rich world denizens (who constitute a tiny percentage of the world’s whole population).  Many of these people already voluntarily spend more on food than most people, for pleasure or as participants in food movements of various sorts – specific diets, high culture food preferences, or environmental reasons.   But can most of the world endure higher food prices? And are all high food prices created equal?  We already know that poor urbanites and small scale subsistence farmers who buy some of their food are likely to be badly hurt.  But what about everyone else?  And are rising food prices the best way to create agricultural justice? 

As Helena Norberg-Hodge, Todd Merrifield and Steven Gorelick argue in _Bringing the Food Economy Home_ that the supposed low price of food masks several other truths.  The first is that percentage of household income spent on food comparison is based, to a large degree, on concealed costs. 

 The first is the reality of the two worker household.  When we compare the decline in percentage of US income spent on food between 1949 and 1997, a decline from 22% to 11%, the difference seems stark indeed.  But in that same, the single earner household went from being a norm to an anomaly – that is, it now took two people to support the family.  So yes, the percentage has dropped, but that represents in most cases, the percentage of two people’s working wages. 

But more importantly, as Norberg-Hodge et al point out, as the percentage of income spent on food fell, the percentage spent on housing skyrocketed.  And these two things are entirely related.  As the authors write,

 This is a direct consequence of the same economic policy choices that supposedly lowered the cost of food.  Those policies have promoted urbanization by sucking jobs out of rural areas and centralizing them in a relative handful of cities and suburbs.  In those regions, the price of land skyrockets, taking the cost of homes and rentals with it.

Thus, the proportion of income spent on food today may be less, but since total income needed is so much higher, people pay much more for food now than the statistics would lead us to believe.” (Norberg-Hodge et al, 73)”

I think this point is especially important, because it means we cannot view food prices in isolation from the society as a whole. 

 The reality is that industrialization creates not just costs, but real dependencies.  It isn’t just the high price of concentrated housing (housing whose value is now utterly divorced from the productive value of the land itself), but also upon a host of other things – urbanization means increased dependencies on energy, because large populations in close proximity can’t meet their own heating and cooling needs with locally sourced solutions, and infrastructure must be created to handle outputs.  As areas become more tightly populated and work is centralized, transport to those regions (agrarians may need to transport to sell and shop, but they often don’t need to “go to work” in the sense of daily transport dependencies) starts creeping up in cost, whether public or private. 

The process of industrialization and urbanization then creates the need to compensate for the rise in price to meet needs that were not previously monetized.  One way is to take more labor from either a single breadwinner, or add more breadwinners.  Juliet Schor, in her book _The Overworked American_ has documented that 19th century industrialization represented the longest hours ever worked by any people, despite our overwhelming perception that farmwork is unnecessarily hard.  The next most overworked people in history are us – we come right after the 19th century factory workers and coal miners, and well before any agrarian society.  But the rising costs of meeting basic needs mean that we must work harder than many agrarian people have.

For example, in _1066: The Year of the Conquest_ historian David Howarth notes that the average 11th century British serf worked one day a week to pay for his house, the land that he fed himself off of, his access to his lord’s woodlot for heating fuel, and a host of other provisions, including a barrel of beer for him and his neighbor on each Saints day (and there were a lot of him).  How many of us can earn our mortgage payment, our heat, and our beer on a single day’s work? 

The long hours required by industrial society also have the further “benefit” of ensuring that it is extremely difficult for those embedded in it to meet their needs outside the money economy.  It is difficult (not impossible, just difficult) to feed yourself from a garden when economic policies supporting urbanization create incentives to build on every piece of land, and when one works long hours, or multiple jobs.  As we see now, it is difficult even to feed your family a home cooked meal, much less grow one. 

But demanding more labor to meet these needs is only one part of the coin of industrializing economic policies – it is also necessary to move people who would prefer to stay there off their land, and to reduce prices for food, so that those now paying much more of their income into housing and energy can afford to eat.  As George Kent exhaustively documents in _The Political Economy of Hunger_, the main beneficiaries of the Green Revolution were not the world’s poor, the supposed recipients of our help, but the food buying members of the urbanized rich world, who got increasing quantities of cheap meat and food products.  This study was backed up by a 1986 World Bank study that concluded that increased food production in itself does not reduce hunger. 

What it does do, however, is reduce food prices paid to farmers, thus meaning fewer people can make their living successfully in agriculture.  It does create surpluses to dump on markets, thus increasing market volatility, and it does create incentives to turn farmland into urban land, and to increase the size of cities and their suburbs.

 Moreover, the industrial economy that strips value from food shifts that value, and the health of the economy to other things - thus, the ability of consumers to stop buying plastic crap and entertainment and shift their dollars to food is extremely limited – their jobs often depend on the plastic crap, not the food economy.  So we create powerful incentives to keep food prices low. 

There’s a tendency to look at the world through progressive lenses, and the story that Jim Webster tells is part of that.  It is true that food was far more hard earned in the past than it is now.  It is also true that other things that were comparatively low cost in an agrarian society were buried in the cost of food – the cost of land was tied to what it could produce.  Thus the cost of land was constrained in ways it cannot be when those ties between land and what it produces are broken.

Thus, when we think about the distinction between what is good for farmers and what is good for the population as a whole, we need to shift our thinking from short term analysis to long term, societal thinking.  That is, a short term boom in ethanol is undoubtably good for some farmers, but booms are followed by busts in many cases – given that biofuels produce more greenhouse gasses than fossil fuels and risk creating famine, the bust is nigh-inevitable.  And what farmers do not need is a boom and bust cycle that leads them to invest in land and equipment, only to find the value of their dropping again.

It is true that farmers benefit from rising per bushel prices for grains – or at least some of them do.  Many struggle as land taxes rise, fertilizer costs rise and the price of livestock feed goes up faster than the prices for their products.  But some benefit.  But it is worth noting that this represents no real shift towards enriching farmers – we are still using the same agricultural policies that give farmers the tiniest percentage of the cost of a loaf of bread.  To put this in perspective, agricultural writer A.V. Krebs observes that the Philip Morris corporation alone receives 10% of every single dollar spent on food in the US.  ConAgra alone gets 6%.  All the farmers in the US put together get just over 4%. 

 It is true that we underpay farmers – but the biofuels boom does nothing in that regard.  In fact, it inserts farmers into another boom and  bust cycle.  What farmers need are stable food prices, probably slightly higher than they have been, and to receive a decent portion of the price of the food we grow. And that will only happen if we start cutting out the corporate middle man, and working with farmers – giving them incentives to sell directly to consumers (who have to start eating whole grains instead of processed crap) because they know that the consumers who buy from them will not stop eating when the ethanol plants have to close down. 

 More importantly, we cannot create an agrarian economy without shifting back, on some level, to land and housing prices that are tied to the value of the soil underneath it – that is, having artificially inflated the cost of housing, we must, in the devaluation of housing, shift value back to agriculture.  As we lose other jobs, we must concentrate on creating agricultural jobs – and pushing the economy towards efficiencies of land use, not a reduction of human labor.   The price of food here is only a small part of the massive retrofitting of our economy required to pay the real price of our agriculture – and receive the real value.



Sharon February 21st, 2008

One of the very first blog posts I ever wrote on the original, blogger-based Casaubon’s Book was to mark the crossing of the $50 per barrel mark for oil prices. That was in the fall of 2004. 3 1/2 years later, it seems oddly appropriate that I would open up this site with the observation that oil hit $101 per barrel just a few days ago, and closed above $100 dollars for the first time.

When I started writing about peak oil, it was a minority viewpoint. The other day, New York Times Columnist Paul Krugman suggested that peak oil really might be here. That’s pretty mainstream, and he’s not the only one. Articles have appeared in most major media recently discussing the possibility, and I’m getting regular calls, not from alternative presses, but from reporters for major media outlets (recently the AP and the Wall Street Journal among others.)

When I started writing about climate change, most people (including me) thought that climate change was a long term problem, one that required us to make changes, but which we had time to address. Now we’re learning just how wrong that was – and how imminent a climate crisis really is.

When I started talking about the shaky nature of our financial system, things were booming, and my claim that we were on shaky ground seemed nuts. Now we’re learning that total losses may exceed $1 Trillion dollars – the total liquidity of our banking system.

When I started writing about food shortages, and the danger of even rich world inhabitants being stalked by hunger, it seemed impossible to most people that we could ever experience shortages. But the biofuels boom has meant that hunger is a real and serious likelihood for billion’s of the world’s poor – and for millions of Americans (look at the graph particularly here) and local food and gardening may literally be what we depend on – and fairly shortly.

Setting up this new site has caused me to look back over the last few years, and my own take is that our situation is quite a bit more serious than I thought it was back when I started blogging. And I wasn’t an optimist then, except by peak oil standards.

That said, I’m still optimistic in many ways. I still believe that it is too easy to look at the current situation and see the end of the world. The reality is that many things come to an end – but the loss of a particular way of life, difficult as it is, is not the same as the loss of our lives. We’re human, adaptable, creative, imaginative – we can go on, as human beings always have, from where we are.

Our success in mitigating the worst effects depends on early action, on creating the seeds of a response that can then be adapted into a larger system when the time comes that change is seen to be necessary. So we wait, and build. We start our garden movements and our local food coops, we talk about energy to our neighbors and work on community health care and education. We put our time and our energies where they count – to ensuring quality of life and a decent future.

When I started blogging 3 1/2 years ago, I never thought anyone would actually read my blog – I didn’t make any effort to publicize my writings, really, and I never expected to become someone read by a host of people. I’m flattered and moved that people think what I say is worth reading. I hope it stays that way (and y’all will let me know if it doesn’t, I’m sure). But I didn’t start writing because I thought people would listen to me – I started writing because it helped to clarify my thinking, and my actions. I’m delighted that it may have done that for others. And I hope all of us (me too, because I get caught up in the writing sometimes) will remember that the ideas are great, but it is the work that matters.

Welcome to my blog!




Sharon February 19th, 2008

A couple of notes for y’all:

1. There are still four spaces left in the online food storage class. The in-person one (much less in depth than this) was a lot of fun – I really enjoyed it, and can’t wait to get into more detail about food storage. That class concentrated almost entirely on bulk purchasing and dry grains, but I’m looking forward to getting into preserving your own and a host of other things. So if you were hoping to join, but presuming the class was full up, please send me an email at [email protected].

I’ll also be putting up preliminary materials for those following along online next week. I’m looking forward to the blog conversations we’ll have about this.

2. So only a short time after I premiered my latest blog, I’m shutting it down – and this one too!

But that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop blogging (give up my rantings – never!). After I premiered Depletion-Abundance, an online friend of mine, Deb, kindly emailed me to say that she thought the site sucked ;-) .

Note: Edited to say Deb didn’t actually say it sucked. She said she thought it was kind of underwhelming. I don’t want to give anyoen the impression Deb was rude – but it sounded funnier this way ;-) .

But she had a cure for this – she offered to help me set up a brand new website that would cover blog, books, and other materials. She wouldn’t even take my firstborn son in return – so I hope she’ll take my profuse public thanks!

So Deb has designed a gorgeous new site for me, and kicked my behind into taking it seriously. She’s been working like a dog on it, and I’ll be premiering the site sometime next week. All the material from here will be available there (link coming), including the older archived posts from both sites. Plus there will be new material.

In the meantime, there probably won’t be many new blog posts in the next few days, as we transfer stuff over. Bear with us – it should be a short term problem.I’ll put up an announcement when the time comes, but I just wanted you to know that it is in the offing.



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