Archive for January 13th, 2009

Reasons for Good Cheer

Sharon January 13th, 2009

In the last couple of months, several major peak oil activists have confided to me that they have had moments of despair.  In each case, these were not ”doomers” or people who have long since thrown up their hands - instead, these are people making a difference, with viable plans for shifting the way we live, and they suddenly came up against painful economic reality - that the investments they’d hoped we make, many quite modest - simply aren’t going to get made. 

For many people who imagined peak oil as a steady build up in energy prices, or marked volatility, but trending upwards and leading only eventually to an economic collapse, the sudden shift into credit crisis is a crisis indeed - all of the signals that high energy prices were sending are erased now, and while demand is falling, so is the ability to invest in infrastructure.  

On the other hand, since I never thought most people or governments would be able to make massive infrastructure changes, I’m probably less traumatized.  And  in the vast and traumatic mess that we are facing, I’m seeing some surprising signs of hope - not that we’ll magically reshape our society into the renewable paradise a lot of us would like to see, but that people are well, not acting like complete idiots - that they are responding to things fairly appropriately, even wisely sometimes.

For example, yesterday, NPR reported that the CEO of Walmart noted that people were spending a lot less - and most remarkably, they were saying how good they feel about not spending that money. In the context of a convention of American retailers, this was not good news.  In the context of the human future, this news should have been trumpeted from the rooftops.

In fact, the people are turning out to be rather clever (as long as we don’t look to closely at SUV sales) - that is, even though every freakin’ economist and policy advisor, not to mention CNBC were lying to us and saying the crisis wasn’t much and if it was much it was practically over, Americans actually figured out what was going on, stopped spending so much, and started the hard and painful work of retrenching.  Even at Christmas they managed to resist the increasingly plaintive calls of retailers to spend more money on stupid crap.  It is easy to understate how radical this is - the people understood we were in a crisis that required a massive behavior change long before almost everyone else did.  This is the sort of thing that restores faith in the value of democracy. 

Meanwhile, in a speech, Barack Obama, who isn’t even President yet, actually used the “S” word - the one I’ve been begging people to use for years now.  He called for sacrifice from the American people - and the response so far was heartening, as I expected - people think that this is being taken seriously, because, after all, they are being asked to help out. 

Oh, and Obama is moving his mother in law into the White House with him and his family. Not only is this a really good thing for his kids, since the parents will be on the busy side, but it is also a damned good thing for the nation, which is filled with people who have been told over and over again that they couldn’t possibly live with their families - that doing so means you are pathetic and worthless, and that families are awful.  And now they will have no choice - so seeing someone do it voluntarily can only help.

Meanwhile, gardening is booming - seed companies are topping last year’s records, and there are more and more people looking to food production as a strategy for weathering the tough times. 

Nearly everyone I know who has spent the last few years talking about coming tough times is starting to hear shifts in the culture - people are taking this seriously, and that means that it is possible for many of us to find someone else in our neighborhood or community to share the burden with.

 Now there’s plenty of awful news.  The economy sucks.  The situation sucks.  A whole lot of stuff is going badly - this is not meant as mere cheerleading.  But the point is this - on some level, we all know we’re probably on our own.  And there are some real signs that ordinary people, left to themselves, are responding more gracefully and imaginatively than might have been expected.  And that is reason for cheer.


Getting to Know Your Community Food Security Resources

Sharon January 13th, 2009

We’re never going to be able to do it alone.  That is, none of us can hold back hunger in our towns or cities by ourselves.  None of us can ever store enough food to feed everyone - heck, most of us with reasonably wide circles of friends and relations probably can’t even store enough for them.  The only option is that we put food security on the radar at every level, from the personal to the neigborhood, to municipal, state and federal.  But that, of course, is a big project, and not one that will happen overnight.  So where do we get started in working on food security?  We talked last week about bringing the subject up with friends, family and neighbors.  This week, I want to focus on bringing it up at the community/city level and what kind of existing institutions might aid you, might already be doing this work, or might be hijacked errr… encouraged to help bring community level food security to the table.

Quite honestly, the very first step is to get to know your community and its institutions.  If you are already very involved, this won’t be a big deal.  But, if, for example, you are new in town, or have been too busy to get engaged, now is the time to see what’s out there.  In a tiny rural area like mine you may be able to find the entire community organization structure by going to one town meeting, whereas in a large city, you may have dozens or even hundreds of organizations and programs to work with. 

Some of the organizations you might want to look for/look into are:

- Food pantries and Soup Kitchens (these people are on the front lines of dealing with hunger in the community and may have some suggestions about what’s needed).

- Food Coops or buying clubs (if you don’t have any of these in town, this might be a good place to start with bulk purchasing)

- Poverty Relief Progams (these may have existing rubrics you can work with, grants available, or you might be able to talk to them about potential ideas)

- Zoning and Land Use Committees (if your area limits front yard gardens or chickens, they are the folks to talk to - and they may have control over empty lots and public space that could be transformed to community or food pantry gardens, edible orchards, etc…)

- Schools - they often have land that could go to school gardens, would welcome participation in food production, and offer an important access point to getting agricultural and food education into the general populace.

- Emergency Planning Programs - your town or city probably has to have some kind of strategy for dealing with a crisis or emergency - you can bring up issues of food and water here.  This is the beginning point for getting that water pump or putting a reserve of basic foods aside for an emergency.

- Gardening clubs and cooking clubs - these are people already dealing with the issue of food production, and can often be encouraged to take up new issues.

- Churches, mosques, temples and civil social clubs like Lions, etc… - These organizations usually have charitable programs and an interest in working with the community - they can start local food storage programs, make use of open greenspace and expand existing programs.

- Town water management groups - these are the people that will ensure you have safe water that comes out of the tap.  They are a great resource to tap.

 I think one of the most important things about this is that you remember two things.  First, don’t assume too much.  It is easy to assume that the garden club is all old ladies and their lilacs - maybe it is,  old ladies can kick ass sometimes, and a lot of them lived through tougher times than we have.  Don’t assume no one in your town’s organization cares about hungry folks - they may just be overwhelmed. 

 Second, remember that the reality of working in a community is that when you identify a problem, the next sentence will be “great, why don’t you….”  That is, be prepared to get to work on whatever project you care most about.  If you can’t do it yourself, come with help in mind, or talk to other people.

Ok, more on exactly what we can bring to our community meetings, and what we might shoot for.


Foraging and Preserving Foraged Foods

Sharon January 13th, 2009

A lot of people don’t have gardens, and some never will.  Or perhaps they have small community gardens, small yards or containers that won’t allow them to produce as much food as they need.  One of the strategies you can use to increase your available space is to forage - to make use of edible plants that are growing wild. 

I’ve written a bit about how foraging for food is actually quite contiguous with agriculture here:

I thought it would be useful to think about ways to preserve foraged foods.  But first, let’s start with the basics of foraging.

My three favorite foraging books are these.  First,  Samuel Thayer’s _The Forager’s Harvest_, which focuses on a band of about 40 common wild plants. He also includes a discussion of storing and preserving those foods.  Very useful, great pictures, lots of details, honest discussion of what tastes good, rather than being merely edible.

Next, there “Wildman” Steve Brill’s great book _Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places_.  Very clear, very well written, lots of good common sense information.  Despite the line drawings, he’s very good on identification.  He also has a great website here:

My third favorite isn’t a foraging book at all - it is _Weeds of the Northeast_ by Uva, Neal and DiTomaso.  This book is obviously only useful to people who live, well, in the Northeast, although there are similar books for other regions.  The book doesn’t discuss edibility at all - its virtue lies in its pictures and detailed information about hundreds of weedy plants, some of which are edible.  It shows plants at every stage of growth, and is a great supplement when you are trying to figure out “is that a….”

A good internet resource is the USDA plant database:  This source has some good info as well:

 It is also worth noting that not all “wild” plants are truly wild (in fact, many plants that enjoy disturbed environments were brought for agricultural or ornamental purpose) - foraging doesn’t necessarily mean figuring out what wild lettuce is - it can mean knocking on the door of that house with the apples or oranges that is letting them drop on the ground and asking if they mind if you pick up the drops.  Many people don’t make full use of edible foods that they plant on purpose - or they may not realize that ornamentals produce edibles. 

It goes without saying that you should use common sense - don’t forage in areas that are routinely sprayed (you can call your town or city to get this information), wash everything under running water to remove traces of icky things, don’t eat anything you aren’t sure is safe, take lessons if you are going to mess with things for which there are a lot of toxic equivalents (I stay away from all mushrooms I’m not intimately familiar with and all of the wild carrot relatives (cow parsnip, water hemlock, poison hemlock, wild carrot, fool’s parsley), because it is possible to end up eating something very poisonous by doing so, and unless you are way better at this than me, I suggest you do the same), be polite and ask if you are using private property, try a little of something before you dive into it whole hog, to test for allergies, don’t take all of any plant or forage for rare plants.

Ok, now, what do you do with your foraged foods once you’ve got them? 

 Well, for some foods, it will be possible to store them in their natural state in a root cellar, or even on a shelf.  Nuts, for example, can be stored, well, like nuts, in the shell, or shelled and frozen.  Acorns can be stored as is.   Wild apples and pears are stored like apples and pears, although generally the wild varieties aren’t great keepers, I find - maybe better to make dried apples or applesauce.  Wild berries are often good made into jam, dried or made into wine.

Many wild foods are greens, and the greens generally have more nutritional value than comparable conventional greens.  This makes them great candidates for preservation by lactofermentation - the bitterness of some wild greens is actually a lovely counterpart of the sourness of lactofermentation.  We make dandelion and nettle kimchi in spring for example.

The other good use for these greens is drying - many of the most nutritious greens make an excellent, highly nutritious decoction or tea for herbal health.  We store both of the above greens as tea herbs by hanging and drying them.  I dry some burdock leaves for the bunnies and goats who love them (they are awfully bitter to human tastes) as well.  Lambs quarters dries gorgeously and can be tossed back into soups or mixed into mac and cheese, and chickweed is great thrown into soup. 

Wild herbs often dry well too - mint runs wild in my damp backyard, and wild thyme through a neighboring park.  Put them up for tea - often they have more essential oils than the cultivated version.

Many wild berries are extremely seedy and small, and often extremely sour.  The best use for them is either wine (chokecherry wine is great!) or jellies, where the fruit itself is strained out.  You can also cook them with a thickener and use a food mill to strain out pits and seeds, and make pie filling that way and can it.   

Making juices is another option - sumac lemonade, for example, can be made by soaking sumac berries before they get bitter (just after they turn red) for a while, sweetening it, and then canning the juice for 15 minutes in a water bath canner.  We’ve been known to make wild grape juice as well, and a friend of mine make highbush cranberry juice.

Many mushrooms are good dried - the only mushroom I really feel comfortable foraging at this point is morels, and we dry them.  I need to take a mushrooming class - but for those with a better skill set, many can be dried or pickled.

You can dehydrate ramps and wild garlic for a lovely, strong garlicky flavor.  I’ve made wild garlic vinegar also, which is terrific. 

Siberian Elm samaras, when harvested dry can be left to dry a bit more and stored like any legume for a months in a jar.  So will ground peanuts or ground beans. 

Burdock roots will keep for some weeks in a cold spot, and also dehydrate extremely well.  Cattail roots can be dried and pounded to create an edible starch.  Wild jerusalem artichokes keep like the fresh ones, in a root cellar.  Wild ginger roots can also be dried and used as a seasoning.

Rose hips keep large quantities of vitamin C even when dehydrated, as will elderberries berries.

Common plantain seeds dry well when the “rattails” are cut off and hung to dry.  We give a lot of them to the birds in winter, but a related species is the main ingredient in metamucil, so you can guess what purpose they serve.

Chicory root can be roasted, and then dehydrated, to make a long keeping coffee substitute. 

I’m told that fiddleheads freeze extremely well (thanks Kathy!)

Ok, I’m sure the rest of you have suggestions that I’ve forgotten - what wild foods do you preserve and store?


Mooing and Quacking at "The Barnyard"

Sharon January 13th, 2009

Just a quick post before the food storage stuff starts flowing (a class day, dontcha know).  I thought I’d mention that Hen and Harvest is slowly coming back to life, and coolest of all, the social networking/discussion/chat groups “The Barnyard” are now up and running.  Excellent, huh?

The only problem is that with a few exceptions, the executive herd (that is, the 8 of us who started it) are mostly talking to ourselves.  Which is fun, and all, particularly when we get into those games of “truth of dare” (You know, the ones that start:  ”Hey Crunch, which phallic shaped vegetable…”), but we could use some more people to talk to.  

And I thought…”I know where there are more people!”  Sooo…if you are so inclined to come chat, we’re working on getting lots of new content up, but we’d also really love it if you’d come play with us.  Head over to and click on ”The Barnyard” - registering is easy, and it is a great place to ask questions, start arguments and discuss the erotics of agriculture.