Archive for April, 2008

Ok, I'm Dorkily Excited…

Sharon April 30th, 2008

I’m not asking anyone to buy it (and it will be available for preorder through this site shortly) - I just want to show off the really neat cover.  I know, I’m supposed to be handling this gracefully, and trying to look as though I have books come out every day,  but there’s a part of me bouncing up and down and saying…”A book…a real, live book… and my name is on it!”  I never was good at looking cool.

 Anyway, that’s really all.

 Oh, except I’ve finally updated most of the pages on this site, including information about classes I’ll be offering over the summer (I’ve had about a zillion requests to reoffer the food storage class, and will be doing so in July), my next appearances (I’m going to be on a panel with NoImpactman and James Kunstler in NYC in July, which should be a blast, and I’m going to be a guest lecturer at the permaculture class I mentioned in my “Four Brothers” post), and various other odds and ends. 

Ok…Must. Stop. Looking. At. Shiny. Thing.



Independence Days: My First Challenge

Sharon April 29th, 2008

I’ve quoted Carla Emery’s wonderful passage about Independence Days and how she plants on this blog before, but it bears repeating.  She wrote,

All spring I try to plant something every day - from late February, when the early peas and spinach and garlic can go in, on up to midsummer, when the main potato crop and the late beans and lettuce go in.  Then I switch over and make it my rule to try and get something put away for the winter every single day.  That lastas until the pumpkins and sunflowers and late squash and green tomatoes are in.  Then comes the struggle to get the most out of the stored food - all winter long.  It has to be checked regularly, and you’ll need to add to that day’s menu anything that’s on the verge of spoiling, wilting or otherwise becoming useless.   

That was Carla’s version of “Independence Days” - a world where every day was part of the food cycle.  She wrote more about this in one of my favorite

 People have to choose what they are going to struggle for.  Life is always a struggle, whether or not you’re struggling for anything worthwhile, so it might as well be for something worthwhile.  Independence days are worth struggling for.  they’re good for me, good for the country and good for growing children.

Now there’s a Declaration of Independence for you.  Or perhaps the Constitution of the United Food Sovereign People of the World.  It is so desperately needed that we do declare our independence from the globalizing, totalitarian, destructive, toxic, dangerous agriculture that destroys our future and our power and pays to destroy democracy.  And so, when in the course of human events it becomes necessary for people to divorce themselves from a system that has become destructive, and thus:

We the people, in order to form a more perfect union of human and nature, establish justice and ensure food sovreignty, provide for the common nutrition, promote the general welfare and ensure the blessings of liberty, for ourselves and our posterity do ordain and establish this constitution for the United Food Sovereign People of the World.

I’ve never really run a challenge before on this blog, but I thought I’d start one - the Independence Days challenge!  We’re already sort of doing this over at the food storage group (if you want to subscribe send an email to [email protected]), but I thought I’d bring it here, because I think it is a thing worth struggling for.

I challenge myself and all of you to work on creating food Independence Days this year - that all of us try to do one thing every day  to create Food Independence.  That means in each day or week, we would try to:

1. Plant something.  Obviously, those of us who live in the Northern Hemisphere and having spring are doing this anyway.  But the idea that you should plant all week and all year is a good reminder to those of us who sometimes don’t get our fall gardens or our succession plantings done regularly.  Remember, that beet you harvested left a space - maybe for the next one to get bigger, but maybe for a bit of arugula or a fall crop of peas, or a cover crop to enrich the soil.  Independence is the bounty of a single seed that creates an abundance of zucchini, and enough seeds to plant your own garden and your neighbor’s.

2. Harvest something. From the very first nettles and dandelions to the last leeks and parsnips I drag out of the frozen ground, harvest something from the garden or the wild every day you can.  I can’t think of a better way to be aware of the bounty around you to realize that there’s something - even if it is dandelions for tea or wild garlic for a salad - to be had every single day.  Independence is really appreciating and using the bounty that we have.

3. Preserve something.  Sometimes this will be a big project, but it doesn’t have to be.  It doesn’t take long to slice a couple of tomatoes and set them on a screen in the sun, or to hang up a bunch of sage for winter.  And it adds up fast.  The time you spend now is time you don’t have to spend hauling to the store and cooking later.  Independence is eating our own, and cutting the ties we have to agribusiness.

4. Prep something.  Hit a yard sale and pick up an extra blanket.  Purchase some extra legumes and oatmeal.  Sort out and inventory your pantry.  Make a list of tools you need.  Find a way to give what you don’t need to someone who does.  Fix your bike.  Fill that old soda bottle with water with a couple of drops of bleach in it.  Plan for next year’s edible landscaping.  Make back-road directions to your place and send it to family in case they ever need to come to you - or make ‘em for yourself for where you might have to go. Clean, mend, declutter, learn a new skill.  Independence is being ready for whatever comes.

5. Cook something.  Try and new recipe, or an old one with a new ingredient.  Sometimes it is hard to know what to do with all that stuff you are growing or making.  So experiment now.  Can you make a whole meal in your solar oven?  How are stir-fried pea shoots?  Stuffed squash blossoms?  Wild morels in pasta?  Independence is being able to eat and enjoy what is given to us.

6. Manage your reserves.  Check those apples and take out the ones starting to go bad and make sauce with it.  Label those cans.  Clean out the freezer.  Ration the pickles, so you’ll have enough to last to next season.  Use up those lentils before you take the next ones out of the bag.  Find some use for that can of whatever it is that’s been in the pantry forever.  Sort out what you can donate, and give it to the food pantry.  Make sure the squash are holding out.  Independence means not wasting the bounty we have.

7. Work on local food systems.  This could be as simple as buying something you don’t grow or make from a local grower, or finding a new local source.  It could be as complex as starting a coop or a farmer’s market, creating a CSA or a bulk store.  You might give seeds or plants or divisions to a neighbor, or solicit donations for your food pantry.  Maybe you’ll start a guerilla garden or help a homeschool coop incubate some chicks.  Maybe you’ll invite people over to your garden, or your neighbors in for a homegrown meal, or sing the praises of your local CSA.  Maybe you can get your town to plant fruit or nut producing street trees or get a manual water pump or a garden put in at your local school.  Whatever it is, our Independence days come when our neighbors and the people we love are food secure too. 

I’m not suggesting you should do all these things on any day (heck that’ s impossible) - but every day try and do one of them - or every week, or every weekend, if that’s what your schedule allows.  It takes practice to live and grow and eat this way - so let’s do it now while we’ve got the time and energy and each other for support. 

I’m going to try to do this, starting now, and running all year long.  If you sign up in the comments section, I’ll try and set up a cool sidebar thingie, like all the funky challengers do.   We’ll do weekly updates, and I want to hear how you are doing too!  Who’s in for in Independence Days?


Kindergarten Ethics and Disasters No Longer Waiting to Happen

Sharon April 29th, 2008

Want to know how the world ends (ok, not ends, but changes in a really hideous way)? 

 Here’s what Russia says about climate emissions

“Energy must not be a barrier to our comfort. Our emerging middle class… demands lots of energy and it is our job to ensure comfortable supply,” he said.

“We don’t plan to limit the use of fuel for our industries. We don’t think this would be right,” he said, referring to the current round of Kyoto.

Asked if Russia would resist capping the use of fossil fuels, which emit the planet-warming gas carbon dioxide when burned, under a new climate deal after 2012, he said:”In the foreseeable future, this will not be our model, no.”

He pointed out that the United States had also declined to impose emissions caps.

Yup, as long as we’re not going to do shit about cutting our emissions, no one else is either. India made the same case - they’re poorer than we are.  They already use less.  Why, the nations ask, should they stop making emissions when the US won’t?  And meanwhile, the North Pole may lose its ice this summer, and the methane is bubbling out, because America cares about global warming - but not enough.

And this, I fear is what will destroy us all - the simple inability we have to stop lying to ourselves.

What do I mean by lying?  Well, the lie is that we’re special.  And don’t think I’m indicting anyone here but myself - despite my Rioting efforts, I don’t consume a fully fair share of the world’s resources.  The thing is, I need some more to live within the society I live in - I really do need them.   People might well take my kids away if I gave up too much more - it has been known to happen.  And, of course, I couldn’t make my living or do this without them right now.

 But that doesn’t change the fact that other people need what I use  too - or need me not to use so much.  So the lie is this - that others won’t mind if we use just a little extra.  After all, we’re not used to doing without.  Those people in India and Ecuador and Egypt, they are.  They are used to just eating rice, just rice - so it doesn’t matter if I have to take the kids to basketball and the all of my trips there and back use as much grain as a person would eat in a month.  After all, I *need* it.  And even though no rational person would ever suggest that my kids’ need to play basketball is greater than someone in Bangladesh’s need to eat and not drown in rising seas, we still do the math that way.  Even me sometimes.

I’m trying though.  I really am.  The Riot for Austerity helps.  The reminders of hunger and misery help.  And kindergarten ethics helps.  I don’t need to come up with a perfect definition of sustainable, or figure out every detail to know this - we have 6.6 billion people on the planet.  There is enough to go around - enough food, enough energy.  But the way it goes around changes as there are more of us - we have to get better at living together.  The old rule of kindergarten is this - you can’t have it unless there’s enough for everyone to have a fair share.

Believe it or not, that’s pretty much sufficient.  You can’t have it unless there’s enough to around - and if you do have some, you have to leave enough for everyone else to have their share.  And what’s really funny is that you can have a lot with that - one ton of carbon annually, for example, would give you wealth beyond the dreams of avarice by the standards of most people who live today - just not us.  We’re inured to plenty by excess.

With kindergarten ethics there’s enough food for every person in the world to eat to fullness, enough water to have everyone drink their fill and still a bit more to grow good things.  There are fish enough in the ocean for each of us to celebrate and enjoy a lobster or fish dinner once in a while.  There’s enough oil in the wells for us to visit beloved family and friends on occasion, and hold a huge family reunion feast.  There are enough trees for each of us to sit in the shade - all 6.6 billion.  There’s enough wealth for all of us to have clothes enough and shoes and a little house.  There’s enough space for all of us to have public parks and most of us to have a little garden somewhere.  There’s enough.  Not as much as you or I might want, having gotten accustomed to more, but enough to make people in Nigeria cry out with delight.  Enough to impress your own great-grandparents.  And if we don’t honestly believe that the only lives worth living are our own - and thus that no one else’s life is worth valuing - enough for us and our posterity.

The US cutting back its emissions might not work on China, Russia or India.  But there is truly no hope if we don’t decide to cut our emissions - and radically.   The elevator is going down, and fast.  Someone can either stop the fucking staring contest and notice what is going on, or we’re all going to the basement, which is an ugly, scary place to be.

 I’m hoping I have a frost tonight. I live in rural upstate New York, and at this point my last frost date looks to be April 13.  Now if you don’t live around here, maybe you don’t know, but my normal last frost date is May 22.  It is hard, of course, to make any generalizations over a couple of years about new normals, but the last three years have had last spring frosts on April 30, May 6 and now maybe April 13.   Don’t get me wrong, I want to plant tomatoes out in April, I really do.  I just don’t like how this is going.  I like my climate, my seasons.  Most of all, I like knowing what I’m leaving my children.  And on some level, even the idiots who lead governments know that Russian and Indian and American children will all inherit the same future.  They just don’t care enough.


Peak Farmers: A Guest Post by Elaine Solowey

Sharon April 28th, 2008

This is a guest post by my internet friend, Elaine Solowey.  She sent me this piece and I liked it so much that I couldn’t resist publishing it here:

Elaine Solowey is a displaced orcharder who went into agricultural research in 1985. She has been researching low water use, sustainable crops for arid and saline areas for the last twenty years and domesticating desert plants for use as food and medicinals. She has worked cooperatively with MERC/AID, the IALC, the FAO and the Natural Medicine’ s Unit of Hadassah Hospital. She lives, works and teaches at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies with her husband Michael. Her books _Small Steps Towards Abundance_ and _Supping at God’s Table_ are both available through Amazon, and highly recommended - the latter, though is a bit more technical.

Here’s her wonderful essay on yet another thing we’ve thrown away as though it were garbage. 

Peak Farmers— “Not a Bibbed Overall In Sight”
That was the title of a particularly obnoxious article written in the late 1990′s extolling the wonders of agribusiness and agri-tech — promising fertilizers delivered by guided rocketry, fields plowed by smart lasers and huge computer run combines cultivating and harvesting whole counties for crops that would not be touched by human hands.
And not a bibbed overall in sight.

That was the point of the whole shallow, arrogant, machine-worshipping paen to the destruction of the countryside-.

The article was promising production without producers, an ultimate free lunch.

Would anyone write a piece like that now in 2008?

Joel Stein, the Angelino columnist said just last fall. “Agribusiness feeds us. Farmers are obsolete. They are one step above fire starters and cave painters”.

Now with food prices rising, food riots in 35 countries as of this writing and the concerns about peak oil, peak food, peak phosphorus, peak fertilizer finally crashing into mainstream consciousness it is surprising to me that no one connects the current crisis with a peak that was passed long ago.

Peak farmers.

But that peak should not be a surprise to anyone.

For the last 100 years there has been a world-wide effort to get rid of farmers…
Some were eliminated for political reasons the way that Stalin starved the Ukrainians to death and shipped the kulaks off to Siberia.

Some were driven off their land by the vast illegal enclosure actions of wealthy landowners in South American nations.

The Nazis in WWII swept up the farming inhabitants of Russian and Polish and Jewish villages and worked them to death in the factories that fed their war machine.

Millions of farmers were displaced by dams financed by the World Bank

Millions more were removed from agriculture by the policies of the WTO.

Some had their farms were taxed out from under them and the land tuned over to developers who built cheap houses and strips malls on it.

And more were eliminated by agricultural globalization, the belief that every farmer should specialize and produce as much of their single product as possible (to the neglect of everything else) - then we would all merrily cross- ship these things to each other for ever.

Still others were “sanitized” out of business. The small dairies and animal husbandry operations could not afford the large and expensive machines needed to raise animals and process milk and meat under the rules of “modern” hygiene.

These small operations were declared to be inefficient and dirty, never mind the fact that modern “hygienic” production units for meat and milk are nightmarishly cruel, filthy, and squalid.  (Indeed, a backyard pigpen or chicken coop is a relative paradise compared the confining “crush” pens of the modern pig farm or the cage batteries of the modern poultry house.)

So farmers were eliminated, one after another, by murder, displacement, bankruptcy, by taxes that would not let land be passed from generation, by on- farm prices that left farmers unable to feed their own families, by subsidies that favored farms beyond human scale.

Many studies over the years showed that the small farm produced much more food with less environmental damage than the larger “economic” models. But the “economic” models produced more of their one product and looked good on paper, never mind the cost to the locale, the water or the soil or the people who lived in the area.

Get big, said the US secretary of agriculture.

Or get out.

So we got out.

Not that we had much choice in the matter.

I escaped into agricultural research, I will probably never own a piece of land that I can improve and cherish, but at least I have had the privilege and pleasure of taking care of trees and medicinal plants, tasting strange fruits, working with other people who love the green growing things of the world.

There is not much financial support for the kind of work I do and grants are hard to come by-I may have to go through the tiresome scientific rituals of recorded observation, boring empiricism and endless paperwork-but I regard that as an acceptable price to pay.

Most of us were not so lucky and had to make do with whatever job a dumb farmer who lost the farm could get.

And for many of us there were no jobs at all.

Though the peak for farmers was passed long ago there is still a persistent strain of anti- farmerism in the world, reflected by rules and laws that coddle GM technologies and outlaw open pollinated seeds, that allow modern dairy farmers to burn out their animals in a few years by giving them growth hormones but outlaw the keeping of a few goats or chickens in a rural yard.

In the US the average farmer is 55. And there is no one to follow.

Exactly my age by the way.

And I am getting tired of the endless, thankless work I do, the reports no one reads and the policies that never change and thinking longingly of a little garden somewhere where I can grow my own food and do what I have always wanted to do while I still have the time.

We are almost gone-and now that we are as the modern world has wanted us to be.
Extinct, obsolete, one step from the fire starters and cave painters.

Who will grow your food for you?

Just when you need them—there is not a bibbed overall in sight.

What's It Like At Your Place?

Sharon April 27th, 2008

My readers have been so great about reporting shortages and prices, I thought I’d expand this and start a discussion of what things look like in your neck of the woods, and through your budget.  How are you all doing making ends meet?  How are rising food and energy prices affecting your household?  What are you most concerned about?  What are you seeing when you go the store?  I admit, I’m curious to hear more about what this looks like through the eyes of more people.

Today’s New York Times reports that people are changing their dietary habits in response to the recession, buying cheaper food, cutting back on some luxury items and cutting red meat from their budget.  I have to admit, the last quote in this section struck me - this is, after all, the New York Times. 

Home prices are sliding, wages are stagnant, job losses are growing and the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index, a broad measure of stock performance, is down 6 percent in the last year. So consumers are going on a recession diet.

Burt Flickinger, a longtime retail consultant, said the last time he saw such significant changes in consumer buying patterns was the late 1970s, when runaway inflation prompted Americans to “switch from red meat to pork to poultry to pasta — then to peanut butter and jelly.”

It hasn’t gotten to human food mixed with pet food yet,” he said, “but it is certainly headed in that direction.”

So how does this look to you?  To your friends and family?

 Our region is one of the few that hasn’t had a major downturn in housing prices - the greater Albany area has slow sales but is still hanging tough.  Still, we were finally able to get the house reassessed after a ridiculously high assessment (redone after Eric’s grandparents moved in near the peak of the market), and will see our property taxes drop by 30%.  We’re actually benefitting from everyone else’s suffering, and so are some elderly neighbors.   It is tough on others as well - one of our neighbors lost her husband recently and wants to sell the house, but can’t.

The other big savings has been getting rid of the van.  We’ll save nearly a 1000 keeping it on the road.  Cramming in the little car is quite uncomfortable, but then again, having riding in the car be a bit uncomfortable isn’t bad for us.  Someone asked what we were driving - it is a 1993 Ford Taurus - we inherited it from Eric’s grandmother and it has been our commuting car ever since.  We can put 2 boosters and a carseat side by side in the back. 

We’ve definitely slowed our stock up rate, and at this point are just trying to maintain on everything (we’re actually letting our rice supplies slide a bit).  But we’re rapidly approaching our six months of grocery-store free time, where we live primarily off our own home produce.  Even better, the goats will arrive in July and we’ll be able to cut back on milk runs to the local farmstand.  Meanwhile, we’re getting the property into order - fixing the leaky roof (grrrr…we had it replaced 3 years ago and the $&#@*! who did it did a bad job), replacing attic insulation, putting drainage on the back field so we can expand the gardens that way, building more raised beds close to the house, setting up fencing for goats and sheep.  The hoophouse is going up this year, come hell or high water - I’m determined to produce all of our greens over the winter.  If we can afford it, I might even put up two, and start a winter CSA this year.

 We’re betting on the fact that as the New York State budget collapses, Eric, who isn’t tenured (intentionally so) and is much cheaper than tenure track faculty with similar qualifications, will probably keep his job, even if he’s stuck with more courses.  Last recession, they encouraged older profs to retire, had a hiring freeze and added more adjuncts rather than tenure track faculty, so we think Eric’s status may serve him well.  We’ve got dentist appointments for everyone and tetanus boosters for us planned, since we won’t be shocked to see benefits cut at some point.  Definitely working on *staying* healthy.

 I’m going to intensify my efforts to find birthday and holiday presents at yard sales, so that we aren’t buying much of anything new.  Also Eli’s feet jumped three sizes this year, and since he is drawn to mud puddles the way metal is drawn to magnets, more bigger shoes are on the list.   I figure at some point, things will get so expensive people stop using things lightly and discarding them so easily - so might as well look a little further ahead and pick up clothes a couple more sizes up.

We’re going to suck it up and fill the oil tank (which runs backup heat to keep the pipes from freezing when we’re out of town and the hot water heater) this spring, since I don’t think the price will be any lower in the fall.  We’re already splitting and hauling wood for winter.  May will be a tight month, given the price of oil.  But a tank full should, at our present rate of use, last us two years, so better do it now.

I’ve upped my plans for growing our own chicken feed and alfalfa hay for the bunnies and goats.  Feed prices are way up.  Not a lot of ways we can cut our food budget, except by producing our own milk and perhaps by giving up some seasonal fruits we really like and don’t grow enough of.  If we had to, we would.  For now, it is worth keeping them.  I’m already canning rhubarb and drying nettles and dandelions.

We’re going to start a homeschooling coop with two neighbors, to cut back on everyone’s trips to various activities.  And we’ll do all our swimming one day a week, to cut back on trips to the pool at the next town over. 

I’ve decided not to sell eggs this year - I have noticed in the last few years that the things we give as gifts sometimes profit us more than what we sell, so I decided that this year, we’d give the extra eggs away - to the food pantry, to neighbors, Eric takes them to work and hands them out.   

So far, things haven’t really penetrated hard into our lives - we’re lucky - and we’re reaping the fruits of a long time of being called nutcases ;-) .  But I don’t expect it to stay that way for the longer term.  How are you doing?


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