Archive for February, 2009

Wanna Come Meet Me?

Sharon February 27th, 2009

I’m going to be giving two talks in the coming weeks that I thought I’d let you know about.  The first is in Tucson, AZ, where I’ll be next week at the PAG Sustainability and Energy Fair on March 6-7.  There’s info here.  I’ll be appearing on the Sustainable Lifestyles panel from 2pm-3:15 on Saturday, and signing books at some point also.  I don’t normally range so far from home (another obligation brought me out that way) so this is a rare chance for me to cross the country and meet new people!

The second will be back here in Albany, where I’ll be part of the speakers series at the New York State Museum.  It looks to be a remarkable lecture series, and I strongly recommend not just my own (which I only hope will be remarkable ;-) ), but Dr. Smith’s and Gowdy’s lectures as well.    I’ll be speaking on “Why You Should Think About Peak Oil, Climate Change, and Economic Collapse When It Seems Much Nicer Not To.” on Wednesday, March 18 at 7pm.  But I’ll definitely be attending as many of the talks in the series as I can - I’m particularly looking forward to next Wednesday’s ““The Global Predicament: Increasing Consumption, Decreasing Abundance of Resources.” by Dr. Taury Smith - I’ll be there, and I hope my local readers will be too.

Check out the whole program series here:



Getting Dirty

Sharon February 26th, 2009

Ok, the planning phase is now over.  Time to get dirty.

 Oh, it isn’t really - as I wrote in my last post, planning never ends.  But planning also can’t immobilize us.  There’s no “but my farm plan isn’t done” when the seeds need planting or the chicks are waiting at the post office.  Life goes on, man plans, G-d laughs, we try again.  If you are lucky, you take 3 steps forward and only one back - and not that every time.  But the net gains get bigger once you get dirty.

A lot of the answers to questions in my class are “well, it depends…” or “well, you could try…” or “I personally think but some people disagree…” - growing plants is like that.  Things that are right in one place are wrong in yours, the answer one person swears by is a miserable failure for another.  Some things you can only figure out by experimentation, maybe even a little screwing up.

You’ll never recognize your seedlings from the weeds until you grow some, and probably not until you accidentally pull something up that you intentionally planted.  You’ll never know when to harvest until you grow something and take a bite - and perhaps not until you bite into something way over or under ripe.  You’ll never know if you can germinate peppers in your cold house or if jasmine will overwinter for you until you’ve tried it.  You can guess, you can collect all the information you’ve got, and then, you try.

The good thing, is that things mostly want to live.  For every Himalayan Blue Poppy you have to nurture along and coax into bloom, mulch with a foot of straw and feed manure tea with a straw, there’s a big pot of gold nasturtiums that says “pooh!” to crappy soil, bad weather and everything you throw at it and tries to take over the next pot, the deck and your yard.  Despite the degradation of our world, the world is full of vital life that wants nothing more than burst forth in life.  You don’t have to fight it, you can just let it go and marvel at its energy. 

So the next step is to get dirty. If you haven’t seen your dirt under cover of snow since November, take heart and start some onions or peppers indoors.  If you are in full spring swing, well, you know where to go.  Get the stuff under your fingernails - I have it on good authority that it penetrates straight from there to your brain, and grows new ideas, peace and joy.

Happy gardening!


Bearing Fruit: 8 Years of Farm Planning

Sharon February 26th, 2009

In June, we’ll have lived here at Gleanings Farm for eight years.  As the garden design class winds up, I thought it might be useful to think about how our planning and design goals have changed over the years. What we want and are working towards now is somewhat different than what we began working towards - for us, as for everyone, design is an ongoing process.  Each year, we begin planning again in the spring, and each year, we find in our planning that what we don’t do, or how our plans have changed is as revealing as what we intend.

If you’ve ever seen the farm designs from John Seymour’s excellent _The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live It_, you can probably imagine what I was planning when I moved to 27 acres in rural, upstate NY.  The cow would go here, the sheep (for the yarn I would hand spin) would go here, we’d have every kind of poultry and every creature under the sun.  The garden would be at least an acre, the orchard 2 or 3….  I had it laid out on paper, and boy, was it beautiful ;-) .

But reality kicked in.  We added three more kids in the first five years we were here.  Our first gardens were so successful that in a moment of delirium, we started a CSA, which ran for four years, so most of that time was spent with me pregnant and/or recovering from pregnancy, while building up and expanding our CSA, which eventually got to 20 members.    Oh, and while I was having babies and we were doing our CSA, we also built the addition onto the house, had Eric’s grandparents moved in, and cared for them at the end of their lives.  We held our breaths and ran, with time only for the essentials.

We put in a very small orchard’s worth of fruit trees the first two years - and lost a lot of them due to not understanding our property.  We moved in at the end of a drought, and so we didn’t realize that the area where we planted many of our trees would flood, and kill them during the spring.  Another was taken out by a plow when we underestimated the snow load here up in the hills.  A few had to be removed when the original plan for Eric’s grandparents (a small cottage of their own) got changed over to building onto the house, and we needed land for the addition.  Some of them survived, but it didn’t look like an orchard.  We started again, knowing our place better.

The garden started out small, got big with the CSA, and shrunk again when I became a writer and ended the CSA for lack of time.  I eventually became tired of the design errors we made at the beginning, and after a while of being just tired of them, finally got  excited about starting anew. We started selling eggs, expanded to keep our CSA customers in eggs, and are now considering going back to egg sales.  The kids got big enough to have opinions about what we should grow, I got more interested in grain and tree crops and subsistence agriculture.  I decided I really didn’t want to spin all my own yarn, although I like my wheel just fine.  I met Elaine, she of the sheep, and bartered our pasture for meat and wool, and met Jamey and Carol, they of the teeny weeny goats, and got seduced from my cow dreams (which still linger). 

Inge and Cyril (Eric’s grandparents) passed away, and we found ourselves with a huge house, and more space than we needed.  We mourned them and then we began again, redesigning how our home works.  Now we look for housemates to share our land and space and imagine trying again.

After the loss of Eric’s grandparents, their garage was now ours for storing tools and such, and we saw in the old one a solution to our dislike for hauling 50lb sacks of feed up a steep, icy hillside to the old stable.  The garage became a barn, and we discovered the need to fence the chickens and goats (who were now nice and close to the house, and would like to come visit) out of the garden beds on the lawn. 

Inge and Cyril’s garden became my courtyard garden, the ornamentals replaced with fruit trees and tender plants that otherwise couldn’t grow here, mixed with the flowers they loved.  The landscape bloomed with apricots and quinces, too tender for this place, now warmed by the addition walls and flourishing.

The front yard acquired a fence when it became clear that our autistic eldest would roam otherwise, and now vines twine the fence I never dreamed of until it was necessary.  The kids demanded more strawberries and more raspberries.  Nature provided the latter, growing wild raspberries abundantly undr the front yard spruce trees without my intervention - and I planted more strawberries.  The forest encroached, and got pushed back in some places and let it grow in others, the lawn evolved from a grassy monoculture to a weedy mess that we rather like. 

I learned where the hawkweed and yarrow grow, and when the wild strawberries bloomed.  We found the perfect place for watching tadpoles and the climbing trees. I found the old apple orchard back in the woods, across the creek, that went with the property of old, and where the burn piles had begun.  I found where the yellow warbler made her nest, where the barn swallows lived in the rafters and where the owls nested in the spruce.  We now have spots where beloved pets are buried, and spots we know will be home to wild things, if we don’t brush against them too hard, try too hard to bend our space to our will.

The boys grew bigger and ate more, the parents embarked on occasional attempts to eat less, we lost Eric’s grandparents, we got older, the boys stopped eating dirt and started digging in it.  Our life cycled - and it will cycle more.  Will we adopt more children?  Finally find the perfect homestead housemates and reshape the landscape around their needs?  Need to work smarter as we age?  Perhaps all of the above - we do not know. 

Will we need to survive on our garden and farm produce alone?  Will we need to find new employment and make more money from what we produce?  Will I write more or grow more?  In what season?  In what time?  What will our boys want to do on the farm, as they grow to manhood, if anything?  These things we cannot know - and even when we do know them, when we have a moment of transient certainty, things may change yet again.  One thing we can all promise ourselves in the coming years is change, sometimes wild and startling.

Our dreams have changed too - after a few years of CSA farming, writing books seemed exciting and new. Now I’m wondering if I’d rather go back to the CSA - and thinking of a whole new model, a winter only CSA that might go well with the books.  At first, we thought we’d never butcher our own livestock - now we are accustomed to the cycle of life and death on our farm.   I dream of bees for the first time, and geese again.  I wonder if I want my own sheep, or simply to keep the fruitful partnership we’ve begun with a friend.  I wonder…and wonder. 

Planning is a constant process.  Design is eternal.  The dreams that one has one day are not the dreams of tomorrow, the realities we face shift over time. Today our gardens are our hobbies or pleasures, hedges against perhaps coming disaster, tomorrow they may be real hedges - or something different.  The meaning shifts as much as our intent - what was “home” once stops being home when the children grow and it becomes a burden, or when the bank forecloses.  What was once temporary becomes permanent when the times change and the realities shift.  We may never move from a spot, but what that spot means to us may change and shift a dozen times - and so our dreams for it.

One morning, I rise up and I see only the weeds, the projects left undone, the things I have no yet accomplished stand out - I wonder what I was doing all these eight years, that I’ve still let the drainage and the cistern go.  On the next morning, I rise up and the weeds are still there, getting taller, and the failures still evident in the unfinished projects, but what I see is different - I see how much we have accomplished in eight short years, the new barn, the addition, the growing boys, the fruiting trees.  I see abundance and insufficiency alternately in the same landscape, depending on who I am that morning, and what I choose. Sometimes design is about redesigning myself, and who I choose I will be - the optimist who appreciates what I have done, the dark pessimist who deplores my failures and laxities.  Perhaps the first place to redesign is myself.

Neither my husband nor I come from a family that has roots in one place - oh, in regions, yes, but not in houses.  We moved and moved. It made me a person who always wonders whether somewhere else might be better, and Eric into someone who takes root hard, and fights any attempt to dig him out of his place.  I am mint, opportunistically travelling into new spaces whenever they appear, he is burdock, so deep rooted you can never dig him out.   I dream of starting anew - whether in my place or in another, he dreams of continuity and consistency.  Both dreams transform our landscape - his certainty that this is the place for us and our posterity, my occasional uncertainty and dreamy reading of real estate listings.

But there is no stability in this life - even generations in the same place do not see or experience it the same way. The woods that your great-grandfather cut back to make a farm, that surrounded him in endless miles of forest, are now interstate and suburb, and your woodlot is to be nurtured into life, protected by its difference from the surrounding landscape.

Because there is no stability does not mean there is no reason to plan, nor moments of completion.  The plans will change - but each set of plans teaches us something, something about what who we are now, and something about what we dream of.  And in the summer, when the garden is at its fullest and the cherries fall ripe from the trees, at the moment of harvest when all your combined work and dreams are embodied in the perfect, dripping tomato, when the first hen lays or the first babies of spring are born, when the tree leafs out anew or the wild birds fledge, when the bumblebees mumble their summer song or when the snow covers your plantings, tucked in for winter, and only the spinach in the cold frame survives, these moments are fullnesses, times when the design is complete.  The garden in these moments is done - it is here, it is realized, it is perfect.  Its imperfections are its perfections, because you have taken life, transcribed a dream to paper and back again, and made it bear fruit.


Adapting in Place Update

Sharon February 25th, 2009

Just a few details as I move between Garden Design and Adapting-In-Place classes. 

 1. I still have two spots left in the class, so send me an email at [email protected].  The class is online, run Tuesdays and Thursdays in the month of March, with participants following along as they are able, on their own schedule.  Adapting In Place concentrates on helping people find a way through coming events where they are now - or perhaps at a family site that they are familiar with.  Cost of the class is $150.

I also received a kind donation of an additional scholarship spot - so if you are a low income person or family who wants to participate in the class, please send me a quick email. 

Edited to add: Scholarship spot is now taken, sorry.

2. Here’s the class syllabus:

Week 1 (March 3 and 5) - How to evaluate what you have.  We’re going to concentrate on figuring out what the major concerns are for your place and your community.  We’ll talk about your region and its climate, culture and resources, your house itself, your community and neighborhood - the challenges you foresee and maybe ones you haven’t thought about yet, and your personal circumstances - how much money, time and energy you have to deal with it. 

Week 2  (March 10 and 12) This week  will focus on your house itself - we’ll talk primarily about low energy infrastructure for heating, cooling, cooking, lighting, washing, etc… About costs and options and choices for both private homes and for communities.

Week 3 (March 17 and 19)  We’ll focus on Community Issues - sharing resources, building collective infrastructure, cannibalizing existing options, security, privacy, consolidating housing, dealing with the brother-in-law on the couch.

Week 4 (March 24 and 26) - We’ll focus on larger regional issues, especially foodsheds and watersheds, and on employment and economic issues.  We’ll also try to pull together an organizational plan for each household with strategies for the short, medium and long term.

3. As seems always to happen, I send out the class emails and a couple of them bounce or get sent back.  If you are registered for the class and have not received the AIP class information, please send me an email, again at [email protected].  Sorry for the hassle.



The Answer is in the Trees

Sharon February 25th, 2009

This is a guest post by Elaine Solowey, an Israeli orchardist and the director of sustainable agriculture for the Arava Institute for Environjmental Studies, who has been kind enough to share her work on this blog before.  She’s a wonderful writer, doing remarkable research on the ability of perennial tree crops to feed and sustain us.  This essay was published in Haaretz, for Tu B’Shevat, which is the Jewish New Year of the Trees which was a couple of weeks ago (yup, we have a holiday for trees).  Thanks, Elaine, for letting me reprint this!

I found this essay particularly important in light of Joseph Romm’s decision to begin a series on “biomass co-firing” as a replacement for coal.  Translated into english (and the language matters here), biomass co-firing means “using forests to generate electricity.”  Note the near absence of the words “trees” and “forests” from Romm’s piece, and the reference to non-existent plantations of fast growing trees or switchgrass.  This is a way of legitimizing deforestation, and one that I’ve been worried about for a long time.  In “The Ethics of Biofuels” written some years ago, I wrote:

And as we must take care with what we label “waste” products, we also need to think carefully about how we regard our remaining resources. For example, we in America could easily choose, over the next decades, to exploit all of our remaining forests, watersheds, and even-remotely tillable land to produce bio-replacement crops for the fossil fuels we’ve come to depend upon. The first step in this disastrous exercise is the linguistic transformation of the whole and varied ecology of a forest into “biomass production” or of a bushel of corn into “ethanol in its raw state.” Let us not forget that what we are speaking of is forest and food.”

I admit, I would never have anticipated that this language shift would come endorsed by climate activists.  I understand the desperation to stabilize the climate that underlies this move, but it is a potential disaster.  As Peak Oil Hausfrau has documented in her “Preventing Deforested Moonscapes” series, and as Nate Hagens describes at The Oil Drum, we’re already using virtually all of the sustainable output of our forests.  Deforestation is a disaster waiting to happen, and one that it is essential to avoid - in part because the advantages of burning trees to generate electricity are likely to be outweighed rapidly by the release of carbon as soils erode and forests decline.

So Solowey’s call for aboreal agriculture, and a focus on trees is especially urgent - because clearly even those most concerned with the future have a  tough time seeing the forest.

The answer is in the trees 

As we celebrate Tu Bishvat, the holiday of the trees, we need to take a critical look at our cultivation and production methods. Whereas tree crops represent one of the most sustainable forms of agriculture, they are outnumbered by modern agriculture’s megacrops, which badly damage the earth. The latter waste nutrients, pollute the water and allow topsoil to be blown away, while the chemicals they are sprayed with contaminate food. And modern agriculture uses more energy than it produces in the form of food. Amid a global energy crisis and world hunger, we cannot afford such carelessness.

Perennial crops are inherently more sustainable than the annual crops of modern agriculture, which need to be replanted each year. Sustainable agriculture can help heal the earth - if we recognize its value in boosting the quality of our food and land.

Erosion is the enemy of both agriculture and civilization, according to J. Russell Smith, author of “Tree Crops,” a classic text on arboreal agriculture. Smith took a series of trips in the 1930s to the Mediterranean, Far East and Middle East to study land use. He was appalled by the vast stretches of destroyed and depleted land he encountered: ” Forest - field - plow - desert. That is the cycle of the hills under most plow agricultures.” Between the water erosion on hilly and sloping lands and the wind erosion on flat plains, the world’s fertile topsoil continues to drift away or be washed away. So it is no exaggeration to say that topsoil erosion is as big a threat as climate change, a problem not as visible as the coming oil shortage but a far greater danger to humankind.

The world’s population is bigger than ever, and all humanity needs food. But depending, for our food, on a system that systematically ruins the land simply means that sooner or later we will not be able to produce food for ourselves.

The megacrops (the most important commercial crops) of the 20th century are all weak competitors - they have to be planted in environments where other plants have been eliminated. Grains, for instance, are grown on bare fields with every weed sprout sprayed or harrowed out of existence. Rice is cultivated in flooded, intensively weeded paddies; soybean and rapeseed are grown in fields stricken by chemicals; and corn is grown in huge blocs as big as small countries, where no other living thing is allowed to survive.

A terrible ecological price is paid for this kind of cultivation, all over the world. Communities wither, wildlife disappears, and the land dies. Unfortunately, almost every modern crop is cultivated this way.

That is, every kind of crop except trees. Their bounty of fruits, nuts, fibers or pods is a blessing to the earth, and their cultivation is not inherently damaging. Trees do not need annual plowing and can be fertilized with organic materials like compost and mulch. Diverse orchards can be kept pest free with sensible strategies.

Just about every damaging factor in modern agriculture is absent from arboreal cultivation. Tree crops can actually yield significantly more food, including carbohydrates and animal feed. Once upon a time, in ancient Greece and among Native Americans in California , for example, the main source of bread was oak trees. The bottom line is that there are many alternative options that need to be explored.

Moreover, the ecological benefits of trees are profound: They make food and oxygen, and manufacture topsoil by breaking up rocks in the subsoil and releasing minerals later stored in fruit, seeds and leaves. Their roots stabilize the soil and protect it - creating microorganisms and insect homes. Trees stop erosion, store water and are magnets for rain. A mature deciduous tree may give off 500 liters of water from its approximately six acres of surface area on a warm summer day. The cool air under the trees, drawn upward as rain clouds glide over, often leads to rain. The trees then absorb water through their leaves, and the raindrops settle among their roots.

With all the benefits of arboreal agriculture, why then are plowed crops the most prevalent form of cultivation? Perhaps modern agriculture has narrowed its sights to things that can be bred quickly and provide produce quickly - things that can be done in an instant. Agriculture is focused on quick annual crops.

On this Tu Bishvat, we should remember trees’ environmental benefits in mitigating and stabilizing the climate: The air and the earth are several degrees cooler under a tree in hot climates and several degrees warmer in a cold one. In addition to acting as the world’s lungs, trees are the earth’s air conditioners. Deforestation, something of a throwaway line when global climate change is discussed, is most likely one of its main causes. Public debate over climate change must address alternative cultivation methods and embrace arboreal agriculture as a key solution.

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