Archive for April, 2009

All Better Now?

Sharon April 20th, 2009

The song being sung by the public faces of our economy is the old refrain – the one we heard in late fall, when stocks rallied “It is definitely better now, it wasn’t that bad anyway, and we’re sure this time is for real.” President Obama now does infomercials hawking great deals in refinancing and stocks, and the cheerleaders are telling us that fundamentally, we’ve turned the corner, happy days are, if not here again, coming soon, along with the new Green Economy.

In New York City for Passover, I could see on people’s faces how badly they want and need this to be true.  Even though they’ve been burned and lied to before, even though the people telling the lies were the same ones telling the story now – it doesn’t really matter, because all their hopes of the long term future they’ve imagined for themselves, on the whole life they’ve conceived for themselves and for their children depend on these investments to fund their retirements, education plans, etc….  Or rather, it does matter that these people lied – no one expressed trust, or belief in anyone who was saying this. Instead, they expressed hope that this one time, the liars are right.  And that’s something rather different.

James Howard Kunstler has written about the ways that the “psychology of previous investment” ties us into projects that are fundamentally doomed – and I think there’s no better place to see that operating than the stock market.  Look around you – despite the fact that the stock market is (even with the rally) down 6000 points, give or take for today’s adjustment, over its peak, most people are holding their money in the markets.  Even though many of them might get a greater rate of return, even with penalties, by taking the money out and paying off their mortgage, or using the money to invest in infrastructure that would lower their costs they don’t.

And they don’t because psychologically they can’t.  We’ve been told that the market always, always goes up.  And this is true – but up over what?  It took nearly 30 years for markets to return to adjusted 1929 highs, and more than 20 to pass them absolutely. How many baby boomers can wait that long?  How many people saving for college have 20 full years before their kids are freshmen?  And yet, as I’ve pointed out before, there is no rational backup plan for the long term future of ordinary people but the stock market – our entire society’s long term sustenence is based on the stock market will always go up, and that everyone will always believe this, and thus ensure near-universal participation.

And it is the expansion of participation, more than anything else, that fueled the last few tenuous years of growth – fundamentally, the real estate bubble was, as we all know, created by our now deplored cheap and predatory lending.  But what most people fail to think about is that the real estate bubble, and the larger growth that fueled it, *could only have happened* by pulling more and more people into the market, by convincing them they could have a house, and that real estate values would rise forever.  That is, the very things we deplore about the market were necessary to keep the economy booming.

And this is true across the board – the other things that fueled growth, on a world scale, was the industrialization of agrarian people in the Global South – the moving of people off their land and into slum housing and factories in cities – the much vaunted process of “development” that people like Larry Summers and Thomas Friedman claimed would “lift all boats.” 

But of course globalization’s root mechanism was cheap fossil fuels – and the process of industrialization of poorer nations inevitably results in a lot of new competitors for fossil fuel supplies.  This drives up prices, creates exciting new bubbles for people who see something going up just as things begin to destabilize, creates a host of new “eaters” as food turns into fuel to meet growing demand, and, at least according to James Hamilton, crashes the global economy, not to mention pushing us very near to a climate tipping point.  The very thing we most need to constrain, for a host of reasons – ie, rising use of fossil fuels – is precisely the thing needed to get us out of the hole.

Which leaves us with a big problem – in order to get economic growth going again, it will have to be based on something. If something could actually be done to lift us out of what seems to be an increasing spiral of deflation, and it is based on expanding Global South development, we will have deal with rising fossil fuel use there, rising climate damage and food insecurity, and rising food and fuel prices from increased demand – ie, precisely the things that drove us into our present crisis.  The expansion of participation is itself the root cause of the boom and deep bust.  And it is a boom and bust cycle of diminishing returns – we’ve all seen the figures that show that most ordinary people didn’t get much better off on anything but paper during the last period of growth – and while paper gains make us feel good, it is real gains that will be needed as the baby boomers hit retirement, and start drawing down those resources.

If a recovery were based on growth here in the US, the problem would be that because we have even fewer actual resources now than we used to, any expansion of the economy is going to depend on giving credit to people who can’t pay it back.  For all the talk of increased regulation, in the end, if we’re to push an aging population who seems to be rediscovering thrift into spending like mad again, we’re going to do it by convincing them not to care about whether they can pay things back.

Either way, if it is possible if extremely unlikely to postulate that we will experience a recovery now (and I think most of the people doing so are simply trying to restore market confidence rather than describe a real and long term improvement), but even if we do, it isn’t going to be very long before we’re back in the same situation – worse, because climate change and fossil fuel depletion will have continued, while our population continues to age.

But what about Green Jobs and the new Renewable Energy Economy?  Isn’t that going to give us a boom?  Well, there are a couple of problems with this.  First, as we’re seeing now, the renewable energy economy simply can’t be created purely with government spending – so the economy has to recover if we’re to get a really significant percentage of our energy, worldwide, from renewables.  In order to do that, we probably have to go back to burning more fossil fuels – because investment capital and factories cost money.  Some of that money could come from the US government – indeed, some of it probably will, and that’s all to the good.  But there are so many other basic needs that at this point, much of what’s coming from the government is sliding back into coffers simply to keep things going – for example, California teachers want stimulus money to avert layoffs – but it can’t, because California needs the stimulus money to offset anticipated debts coming next year. 

It is conceivable that we could enter into war economy model, where the one and only project the US engaged in was the creation of renewable energies and public service to that goal – conceivable, although not likely.  But the Obama administration, despite its radical improvement on the subject of climate change over the Bush administration, simply hasn’t placed climate change or peak oil or any other justification at the center of its reasoning, so imagining that happening soon seems like a stretch.   The justification for doing so would have to preceed the acts – and this seems unlikely.  Moreover, the Obama administration has avoided any suggestions of using the troubled auto-industry as a means of manufacturing needed renewable enery or public transport equipment, as was done in WWII. 

Without a war economy model, competing priorities are likely to prevent a government-created renewable economy.  If renewables are to be created, they depend on growth – and it will be a long time before we start to see that growth offset by the renewables themselves either ecologically or economically.  While renewables can and should be scaled up, doing so quite gradually seems more likely than rapidly, unfortunately – and the hope of the green economy is again, circular – it depends on growing everything else, including fossil fuel usage, including consumer spending, and the rest of the engines of the economy as a whole – but each of these things brings us back to the precipice of another collapse.

And that brings us back to ordinary people in the stock market, whether things are improving, and the psychology of previous investment.  One of the reasons that the markets are doing as well as they are is that most people have simply not removed their retirement and college savings.  Instead, they’ve adopted the “just don’t look” strategy.  The question is how long they will go without looking.  Certainly, as long as there are small rallies, and as long as they can be convinced to forget all the other times it looked like it was going to get better, sure.  But how long is that. How long before the message, which some honest financial advisors already give – that you will get a better return from paying down debt, reducing heating and energy costs, or paying off mortgages and reducing expenses than from just keeping your money in the market?  How long before they start to give up.

Because that’s when all hopes of rallying end – when ordinary investors finally give up on the hope that they will be able to retire early, spend their later years playing golf, and send their kids to college, and realize they have to find a new vision for the future.  Will this come, sooner or later?  I think so – because overall the American public has generally proved itself to take this present economic crisis *more* seriously, not less, than the average economist.  Most of us knew we were in a recession even when the US government denied it.  Americans radically cut consumer spending and rapidly upped their savings rate in response – these are huge behavioral changes, undertaken quite rapidly, even as the old song was playing “It isn’t a big deal, just go on buying.” 

So the question becomes whether anyone listens to the new song. My own observation is that people are listening, at least a little – because no other vision of their future has been presented in the mainstream media (which so stigmatizes thrift as causing the problem and self-sufficiency as crazy survivalism), people still very much want and need things to get better, and are reasonably susceptible to the claim that it is happening.  But I also think they will be enormously susceptible to a sense of monstrous betrayal, when, as seems very likely, it turns out that things aren’t better, that foreclosures and unemployment aren’t just lagging indicators, but fundamentally reshaping their landscape and their future. 

I suspect that there are limits even to retirees praying for a boom, even for indulgent parents desperate to send tehir kids to college – there comes a time when the dreams of the future will change in the face of new realities.  And then, the day comes when putting your money in the stock market doesn’t seem like such a good deal any more.  And that’s the end of the game of endless market growth.


Mascots, or Why I Should Not Be Permitted to Roam Unattended

Sharon April 17th, 2009

I don’t mind the ferret, I do like the bee

All witches familiars’ are friendly to me

I’d share my last crust with a pigeon-toed rat

and some of my closest relations are cats

 - Nancy Willard _Pish, Posh, said Hieronymus Bosch

 So the other day, we visited a local animal shelter to meet a dog we thought might be a good match for our family.  The dog turned out to not to be what we need, but we started in chatting with the shelter workers about the financial situation and the state of animals in general.  While Eric and I were chatting, the three younger boys were looking at the new kittens, and I was absently petting a grey and white older cat, hearing about the number of dogs and cats being abandoned.

The shelter employees are wonderful, animal loving people who ummm…know suckers when they see them.  So out came the adorable long haired kittens, and each boy got to hold one.  Out came the sad story of the kitten’s abandonment, and of the reduced number of people coming to adopt.  Out came the children’s big eyes, promises to be angelic and the word “please” transformed into a six syllable song.  And well, we had planned on a kitten, eventually…to keep company with our two year old cat, who is a little bored by our two older cats now in their teens. 

Eric’s job in these situations is to say no to things, and he tried, although there was a visible lack of firmness.  My job as mother, of course, is to support my husband, but there’s a problem – I’m cat people, and well…I’m a sucker.  My husband found himself without a backup singer.

The shelter worker and I had been chatting about cats, and we’d both found ourselves agreeing that our own favorite cats were big, older cats, the kind with lots of personality and a sense of humor.  That’s when the woman spotted a superb opportunity.  It turns out that “Prince Albert,” the grey and white cat I’d happened to be petting was an older guy, who loves attention.  Oh, and they can’t keep him much longer – he’s been kind of a shelter mascot, but they are experiencing increased pressure to transition either to homes or euthanizing.  At 9 years old, Prince Albert wasn’t nearly as attractive to most people as the kittens – if she waived the adoption fee, and gave us a “twoforone” on the cat, wouldn’t we want to take him home? 

Eric rolled his eyes.  I said no, but it lacked conviction.  The shelter worker ignored me and scooped the cat up and put him in my arms, confiding that he was a personal favorite, she’d take him home, except she’s already got 6…  And of course, I didn’t want to see him euthanized.   The cat was placed in Eric’s arms, and my husband (who is actually at least as big a sucker as I am) was losing resistance fast.  And now I was making puppy eyes and stretching out “please” as long as I could.  The outcome was no big surprise.

In the car, we decided that “Prince Albert” would be renamed “Culpepper” (since cats don’t care about their names, mostly), and would be the official mascot of the new seedling and herb business I’m starting on the farm.  After all, that justifies everything – everyone needs a mascot, ideally one for each insane new venture.  Zucchini, our two year old cat is already the official mascot of the vegetable garden, while Minnie, our 15 year old grande dame is the official sponsor and mascot of naps, long novels and sitting around on your butt not doing anything (our household’s favorite sporting event).  So we’ve got a theme going.

In a fit of completely fake pique, Eric decided hte kitten would be named “Dayenu” – which means “It is enough.”    It is his hope that this will max out our cat ownership for a while, and it probably will – I have no real desire to hit “crazy cat lady” status until I’m at least in my forties ;-) .  And this is a real danger – I’ve written more about our dogs recently, but my husband and I both have long histories with cats, and if it is possible, are even bigger cat devotees than dog.  The very first act of my adult life, when living independently, was to get a pair of cats, and I simply can’t imagine living without them – a terrible fate that I’m clearly in no danger whatsoever of facing.

I sometimes wonder whether all my work on food and farming isn’t really just a complicated way of getting to play in the dirt and with animals all day long, the way I wanted to do when I was eight.  This is a lowering reflection, but probably true – and it is definitely true that the eight year old in me is awfully close to the surface sometimes. Ah well.


Friday Food Storage – and Food Pantry – Quickie

Sharon April 17th, 2009

Yet another thing I’ve been neglecting – my weekly food storage suggestions.  And I’ve wanted to restart these because of something really cool that struck me recently, about how I might use this project not only to help people build up their pantries, but also to enrich local food pantries that are desperately in need.  For those new to this, my “Friday Food Storage Quickie” is an attempt to break down food strorage into a manageable project, reminding you to pick up a couple of items each week to build your stores.

I’m stealing a new idea from my mother’s church.  Every week, they call for donations to the food pantry, and what they found was that donations were fairly inconsistent from week to week.  But when they changed their call from “please bring canned goods” to “this week we are going to buy peanut butter (or cereal or soup or whatever) and donate it” nearly everyone remembered to contribute.  While generalities didn’t stick, it was really easy for people to remember to bring a few jars of peanut butter.

So I thought I’d try this here – to make at least one of the items that I encourage you to get something that is a good donation to your local food pantry.  And for those who are not yet struggling, I would encourage you to pick up a couple for your family – and one or two to donate.  As we all know, food pantries are really feeling the pinch, with dramatically increasing need and lower donations, and these are our neighbors we’re feeding.  Obviously, if you are already giving your limit, you shouldn’t feel any pressure – but if, like me, you aren’t always good about consistent donations, maybe this will help a little, and I’m going to try to post one every Friday.

 One note – a lot of the foods that food pantries need most are not extremely healthy foods, or ones that I generally recommend as major parts of food storage.  The reason is that many lower income families are working multiple jobs, some have no cooking or refrigeration facilities, for example if they are living in subsidized motels, or the person doing the cooking is extremely disabled or very young.  It may well be that the best they can do is open a tuna can or heat up canned soup.  And while I’d like to see people eating higher quality food, if you can’t give it away because people can’t or won’t eat it, those people won’t be fed.  So there’s a balance to be found here, but the priority should be on making sure families don’t go hungry.

 So this week, we’re going to concentrate on two items.  The first one is one we’ve done before, but that bears repeating – popcorn.

Why?  Because popcorn is the one whole grain that even people who won’t eat whole grains will usually eat.  It is a snack food, which makes it valuable if you ever have to produce 3 meals plus snacks from scratch – it is quick, easy and delicious.  You can use it as breakfast cereal, you can grind it for cornmeal. 

You do not want microwave popcorn for this, but the regular stuff, as local as you can find.  If you want to donate some, pick up the microwave kind, though, since most people don’t know how to use regular popcorn anymore, sadly.  I’d skip the artificial-butter-flavored-grease, though. 

The second thing we’re going to buy this week is peanut butter.  Why?  It is good, it is high in protein, it is high in fat (this is actually an advantage in food storage, if not in daily life), most people without allergies will eat it happily, and it makes them happy – like popcorn it is a taste of normalcy.  Moreover, it is your best friend in a crisis – the peanut butter sandwich is a low time, low energy, benign survival food.

 If you have a manual grinder, the easiest way to get the best tasting and freshest peanut butter is to store whole peanuts.  Otherwise, look for shelf-stable peanut butters without transfats in them – Skippy has a brand.  You can keep using natural peanut butter for daily use, but having some emergency backup is good.

If you are allergic to peanuts, and can afford/eat other nut butters, those are good too.  If you are not, as they say “from peanut butter” and like marmite or something like it better, more power to you.

If you are donating the food pantry, you probably want regular old shelf-stable peanut butter, but if you can, don’t get one with trans-fats.   It will be gratefully received. 

In addition to stocking up each week on a couple of food items, I also try and remind people of one “preparedness” item or project they might not be up to date on.  This week’s reminder is about fire safety equipment.  First of all – batteries for your smoke detectors (and carbon monoxide detectors if necessary) are a good thing to store. Real Goods sells a 10 year smoke detector battery, but some extra backups are extremely valuable.  You do not want to lose power and lose your smoke detectors. 

 Also, if you don’t have an ABC fire extinguisher, you need one.  If you have one, and have never read the manual, and don’t know how to use it, do it today.  Remember, in a power outage or extended crisis, you may be using candles, kerosene lamps, oil stoves, wood heat or other less familiar things that increase your risk of fire. 

Finally, you need a fire safety plan.  Have you practiced getting out of your house?  Taught the kids?  Do you have an escape ladder on the second or third floor, if necessary?  Do you have a family meet up plan?  One of the single most likely-to-happen crises is that you have a fire.  Make sure you also have a plan for it, and that everyone is familiar with it.


The Dog Search

Sharon April 16th, 2009

When I wrote my first dog piece, Rufus, our American Working Farmcollie, had just died.  We knew we would want another dog - indeed, we didn’t want to leave Mistress Quickly, our other AWF alone long, but we also didn’t know what we wanted.  We’d talked in the past about a dog who would be bonded to Eli, and the children wanted a small playmate dog, perhaps a corgi, but we hadn’t really thought it through.  I really appreciate all the advice we got from people here – it helped us sort out our desires.

After a little more time, we’ve clarified our desires and needs – we may eventually get a dog that will be specific to Eli, perhaps a washout from guide dog training (thanks to those who suggested this), and while I like Corgis too, I’m pretty sure “because the boys like Tasha Tudor books” is probably not the best reason to choose a dog.  Our family consensus is that what we want and need is a Livestock Guardian dog, who will be a farm guardian.  We’ve seen the coyotes crossing the high pasture already this spring, and a close neighbor got to see more of the black bear that lives in our woods than she really liked – while Mistress Quickly is a great house and herding dog, she’s not the most dominant or intrepid creature – Rufus was the one who ran the predators off fearlessly, while she provided barking moral support from the rear. 

That said, we want an LGD to be a homestead dog – bound to our family as well as the livestock, protective of both kids and goat kids.  And now I’d love some help – I’m sure some of my readers have working LGDs that are general family and homestead guardians – if you can tell us more about your experience with that we’d be grateful.  We’ve gotten a lot of advice about what breeds are best – we’re leaning towards Great Pyrenees or Anatolians, but willing to consider other options, or not-quite-LGD but multipurpose dogs like Newfoundlands.  We’re also looking either for the right adoptive dog, or the right breeder – we’re in touch with local shelters and breed rescue groups, but I thought there was a good chance that someone out here would have experiences that were useful, or suggestions, or might even know of an appropriate dog needing a home.

 Unless we knew that the adult had been a family/homestead dog (ie, both exposed to livestock and also accustomed to family life and children) and we knew the status of its hips, we’d prefer a puppy (even though I really like adult dogs much better ;-) ), but again, would consider the right older dog.  I’m a little lost in this process, since both of our dogs were bred by people we knew and had relationships with.

I’d be very grateful for the wisdom, advice, help or connections anyone wanted to offer.  While we’ve obviously had dogs before, this is new territory for us, and all the research in the world sometimes isn’t as good as good advice.  Finding a new family member is quite a project!

Thanks so much,


What Your Neighborhood Needs is a Seed Library

Sharon April 15th, 2009

A while back I got an email from a guy named Ken Greene, asking if I knew about his enterprise – the Hudson Valley Seed Library.  I didn’t, actually, and I was just plain thrilled to hear that it existed.  Their farm and seed catalog are dedicated to preserving seeds with historical ties or specific adaptations to our agricultural region.  And I can’t think of a more valuable project.

I was lucky enough to run into Ken Greene and the Library’s founder, Doug (whose last name I was told and can’t remember, and can’t locate on the site – sorry!) at the Schenectady Greenmarket a few weeks ago, and I got to not only introduce myself, but also see their seed selection, including the flat-out stunning seed “art packs” that they sell some of their seeds in, showcasing a local artist’s works.  I took home a packet of Hank’s X-tra Special Baking Bean in a gorgeous package, and now I just have to wait for the soil to warm up enough to plant them.

I have two intentions in this post.  The first is to draw attention to their work, and membership to their seed library.  Their work is incredibly important – for most of us not lucky enough to live near a major seed company, finding really local seed sources is tough – and even if we do live near a seed company, often most of their varieties were grown a long distance away.  The commitment of the HVSL to growing out seeds locally, and choosing ones that are particularly well adapted to our region is deeply important – it isn’t just one resource, in some sense, seeds are the master resource of any regenerative future.  As Vandana Shiva writes in _Earth Democracy_,

“The seed, for example, reproduces itself and multiplies.  Farmers use seed both as grain adn for the next year’s crop.  Seed is free, both in the ecological sense of reproducing itself and in the economic sense of reproducing the farmers’ livelihood.

This seed freedom ia major obstacle for seed corporations.  To create a market for seed the seed has to be transformed materially so that its reproductive ability is blocked.  Its legal status must also be changed so that instead of being the common property of farming communities, it becomes the patented private property of the seed corporations.

The seed is starting to take shape as the site and symbol of freedom in the age of manipulation and monopoly of life.  The seed is not big and powerful, but can become alives as a sign of resistance and creativity in the smallest of huts or gardens and the poorest of families.  In smallness lies power.”

If you have seed orders yet to place, and live in this general region, I would encourage you to order through them.  If you are a small local farmer, perhaps you might raise out a seed crop for this wonderful project.  Even if you don’t garden, consider supporting them and donating their seeds to local community gardens.

But not only do I want to support this wonderful project, but I want to encourage other people to think hard about establishing local seed libraries, seed saving cooperatives and small seed companies.  We are at the beginning of a fundamental shift towards home agriculture – we see it in the garden on the White House Lawn and in the rising sales of local seed companies.  We see it in the sheer number of people who are recognizing that an access to food that depends on jobs in the public economy represents a vulnerability.

Having access to safe, affordable and most of all, adapted breeds of seed that thrive in your climate and location is a first step in gardening.  Seeing those seeds multiply in your own garden from year to year is the first step in gardening as a means of saving money – when you realize that two lettuce seeds tucked into an old yogurt container provide you with a large salad and a thousand more seeds, you begin to see the hope of real economic growth – the capacity to enrich without theft from the future. 

Fundamentally, seed is not an industrial product – it is a living thing.  It is easy to say “oh, I want to grow Black Brandywine” and order seed from a company that got its seed from a farm somewhere.  But the truth is that two strains of Black Brandywine, one grown out in a long, warm growing season in Missouri and another in a cool short one in Minnesota, will have fundamental differences.  Save it long enough, and your strain of tomato or bean will become something genetically distinct from the one you obtained, as the plants genes work to adapt to the conditions it finds.  We have become accustomed to seeing seed as something that can be standardized and produced like a factory product – but it is not – seed is local, seed is specific to its place and time and circumstances.  And thus, there is no way to get the best possible results from an industrialized agriculture that treats all places as though they were the same and all seeds as though they were destined to the same future.

I think there is no doubt that saved seed, whether bought or traded, will be a large part of any hopeful future.  So I would encourage those with the power to do so to invest their time and energy in supporting institutions like this one, and national and local seed saving groups.  And I would encourage you all to learn to save at least one or two varieties of seed, to trade and share them, and perhaps to establish local seed libraries that can hold the seed, the site of so much possibility, resistance and bright hope, in its right place of honor at the center of our communities.


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