Category Archives: Food and Agriculture

High-Speed Permaculture

My daughter’s high-school presentation about permaculture; she was tasked with solving “a problem in agriculture”. She might have solved them all. I would change a word or two here and there, but on the whole I think she’s nailed it.

Soil Erosion—A Crime Against Humanity?


Water has cut about 2-feet deep, right down the the hardpan.

Water has cut about two feet deep here, right down to the hardpan.

Take a look at these pictures of soil erosion that I took right here this week in relatively-progressive Vermont. I’ll just sprinkle them in liberally here…


Try running a plow over that stone. The more soil washes away, the close all of these stones are to the surface.

Try running a plow over that stone. The more soil that washes away, the thinner the topsoil becomes, and the closer these stones are to the surface.


It’s quite the string of pictures. These farmers plowed last fall, as they do every year. Since then it has rained enough times, and hard enough, to cause this. Tons and tons of fertile soil are GONE. Then, this coming year, I’m guessing these fields will get plowed (or disked) and harrowed again, and the remaining soil will be spread around so that these gullies are filled in, and… then the same erosion will happen again, a year from now. Year after year after year, more topsoil washing away. The loss will probably even accelerate— Continue reading

The Promise of Permaculture, Part Two

“Permaculture needs to be based on reality… that’s real design, vs. play design. We need to get real…” —Mark Shepard, author of Restoration Agriculture.

The soil---the foundation of nearly everything.

Rich, fertile, soil, full of life—the foundation of nearly everything.

I was talking to a friend about soil yesterday, and describing that industrial-ag, soil-destruction sequence that I was discussing in my last post. He was really following along with me, and then, after much discussion, asked the question—“So what do we do about it?” Well, that part is complicated. And here’s where we get to the permaculture part, because permaculture is really at the exact other end of the spectrum from that industrial cornfield.

An example—if you take a piece of land, and manage the flows of water across it, and plant it with a wide variety of plants, and quit tilling the soil, and make sure that nutrients aren’t leaving the system, then that system will become progressively richer, more fertile, and more full of life. Life begets life. If left alone, nature will do much of this on its own. But, and here’s the “a-ha” moment that Bill Mollison had a half century ago that led him to develop what we call permaculture today—with just the right interactions, humans can accelerate this process. And, with proper design choices, the system can be made to provide abundantly for people, at the same time it grows richer and more diverse. From these ideas came Bill Mollison’s three ethics of permaculture—earth care, people care, and the return of surplus to the system. By the way, a trailer for a new film about the subject—

Now, I won’t try to explain all of permaculture here (though the trailer above actually gives a pretty good overview), but suffice it to say that permaculture methods can indeed be used to create little Gardens of Eden. The systems can vary in size, from small urban balconies, to homesteads with enough acreage to approach food self-sufficiency, to larger farms run by many people. The dream of the permaculture community is for these paradigms to become the norm, and for the human presence on the planet to become regenerative, healing the planet and all the life on it. Permaculturists typically seem to envision a reduced-energy future, with reduced consumption, much fewer material goods, but with a richer and more meaningful existence.

And, it is at this point in the train-of-thought that I begin to grimace just a bit, because the narrative begins to break down. For those of you that have been with me for a while, you’ll recognize the issue right away, because I’ve written about it repeatedly, from the very beginning. In short, we can’t all be self-sufficient (see post, “The Amish Question“). We can, with lots of work and plenty of knowledge, and if we happen to have land, approach food self-sufficiency. But we can’t be self-sufficient in clothing, and metals, and electronics, and solar panels, and PVC pipes, or electric fence chargers, or window glass, or any of the thousand others things that go into a food-self-sufficient homestead, not to mention medical care and education and government. Now, some of us can approach food self-sufficiency, and that’s good for the planet. The more permaculture yards and homesteads and farms we have, the better (see my post, “The Role of Self-Sufficiency“). But we can’t all spend our lives on permaculture homesteads, we still need doctors and teachers and researchers and people making clothing and shoes and steel, etc. And, those people will likely live in or near cities. City-dwellers can grow some of their food in urban balconies and street medians and empty lots, but this production won’t come close to feeding the urban population. Cities, as they have throughout history, will depend on the countryside around them. Food will flow in, and wastes will flow out (and, in the future, renewable energy will also be made in “the country”, and flow in).

So, it follows logically that we will therefore need farms that can produce food. And they can’t be like today’s industrial farms, because these methods are ruining the soil. What we need is for the ideas of permaculture to be scaled-up, and for the labor productivity of permaculture to be increased. Humans with hoes and wheelbarrows are usually lucky to feed themselves; we need mechanized farming operations that can feed many times more people than it took to produce the food. Fortunately we have some moves in that direction, moves that answer my friend’s question of “So what do we do about it?”.

I can best illustrate this, I think, with a series of videos. The first of these— “The Difference in Tilled and No-till Soils”. If you’re in a hurry, fast forward to 3:30, though what you’ll see will be amazing enough that you’ll want to back it up and get the details.

So, a dramatic demonstration of what tilling does to the soil. Now, here’s a video about the “no-till” part, where farmers sow cover crops, and then “terminate” them just prior to planting their cash crops–

These methods are much better than tilling, BUT, if you didn’t catch it, these farmers are still using glyphosate (“RoundUp”) to accomplish the “termination” part; to kill the cover crop prior to planting the main crop. But, there are other ways to do this—cover crops can be crimped or rolled, they can be mowed, or they can be grazed. Here’s the next step in my series, a farmer named Gabe Brown, from North Dakota, who has become something of a guru in the world of those concerned about soil.

Now, I don’t think Gabe Brown thinks of himself as a “permaculturist”, but he’s getting pretty close whether he realizes it or not. Nearly all of the elements are here—diversity, design systems that imitate nature, earth care, return of surplus. But he’s a large-scale farmer and rancher, and he farms for a living. Now, Gabe Brown mostly uses grazing to terminate his cover crops, but he also still uses some glyphosate (in another video he discusses how how is trying to quit using herbicides altogether, but still uses some, what he described as “one pass every few seasons”). Nevertheless, his system is amazing, and could, and should, be widely implemented. (Among other things, it could eliminate the confinement feeding of beef, and all the environmental damage that flows, literally, from that industry). So, is it possible to farm like this, and completely eliminate the use of glyphosate? It is indeed, and it is being called “pasture-cropping”. It was developed in Australia by a farmer named Colin Seis. Watch him tell his story—

Here we are approaching a system that is natural, holistic, diverse, and can be accomplished without the use of chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Again, very close to permaculture.

One last video here, a farmer I’ve written about before, Mark Shepard (post, “An Important Piece of the Puzzle“), who actually does refer to himself as a permaculturist. This one is long, but really explains the entire ball of wax—

So, to sum up—cover crops, mob grazing, plant and animal diversity, care of the soil, pasture-cropping, silvopasture, alley-cropping, regenerative systems, all on a larger scale. These are all being done today, for profit; these aren’t homesteaders trying to approach self-sufficiency. In the words of Mark Shepard, these farmers are “getting real”, and that’s the real promise of permaculture.

Earthworm image credit: “20071017_123755” by yama_hokkaido, Flickr Creative Commons.

The Promise of Permaculture, Part One

In a post the other week, I mused about where soil fertility comes from. In fact, what I was really wondering was, “where does the soil itself come from?” I suppose I knew the basics, but I’ve gotten a firmer grasp on it, and it’s pretty amazing. The very short version—physical processes like wind and water and glaciation grind or wear down base rock into sands and silts, and then when living things take root there, they put roots down. These roots harbor and foster myriad soil life, from bacteria and fungi to nematodes and earthworms. This soil life actually extracts minerals from the tiny particles of rock. Then a symbiosis begins, where the plants provide the soil life with sugars exuded from their roots, formed by photosynthesis, and the soil life in turn provides the plants with minerals and nitrogen. Then, when the plants (and the soil life, for that matter) die, still more bacteria and fungi decompose the remains and recycle the carbon and nutrients right back into the soil. The more green things that are growing on top, the more soil-building is happening below. Over time, such a system just gets richer, and more fertile, unless outside forces break the cycle. A beautiful film on the subject, “Symphony of Soil”; is available on Vimeo. Here’s the trailer—

The film costs a few dollars to rent, but it’s well worth it.

If you want to see a great example of how this soil creation works in real life, check out another film, “An Oasis in the American Desert”, where Geoff Lawton visits a swale system installed in the middle of the Arizona desert in the 1930s as part of one of the New Deal programs. It’s nearly unbelievable. It’s not in this shorter clip, but in the full version he digs down with his hands and pulls up soil that appears to rival what you could find in Iowa. AND—other than building the large swale that has captured water runoff, humans didn’t do anything at all to create this soil; nature created it without any human intervention, in eighty years, out of desert gravel and sand.

Now, the more one understands where soil comes from, and how it underpins nearly all life on earth, and certainly the existence of humankind, the more destructive, or even suicidal, our current agricultural methods appear. We are used to thinking of industries like mining and fishing as “extractive”, but a great many agriculture techniques are just as extractive. We grow many crops at the expense of the soil, and we use that soil up. Nearly all Industrial agriculture fall into this category, but so do the subsistence farming methods of many of the world’s poor.

As an example, take a typical industrial cornfield in the US. Everything that happens here is a disaster for the soil. The field is usually first sprayed with glyphosate in the spring, (“Roundup” or the like) which kills every living plant on it (here in Vermont, I’ve seen them spray as many as three times in the spring, before the soil is finally warm enough to plant corn). All those soil organisms, if not killed outright by the glyphosate, start to die when the plants above them quit growing, and quit exuding sugars. Then comes the plowing. The soil structure is pulverized, and the fungi hyphae that move minerals and sugars through the soil are physically cut and disrupted. The plowing also introduces large amounts of oxygen into the soil, and the soil carbon begans to “burn up” into CO2, which is released into the air. No plants are present to replace the carbon in the system, so the carbon content of the soil drops. As it drops, the soil can’t hold and retain as much water. At this point, thoroughly disrupted and devoid of plant life, the soil is wide open for erosion, from wind and water.


Water erosion of plowed farmland in the Red River Basin. Once plowed, such erosion under “conventional” agriculture is virtually unavoidable.

Because soils with reduced carbon content can absorb and hold dramatically less water (the carbon, or humus, acts like a sponge), the water runs off far more readily, and takes soil with it. Then, also because the soils hold less water, they dry faster, and once dry the wind takes yet more soil away.

Eventually the field is planted, usually with GMO seeds that allow yet more applications of glyphosate (just as a clarification, I don’t necessarily hold that GMO plants, by themselves, are horrible things. But in the case of GMO plants that resist glyphosate, they enable a form of farming that is quite destructive). The soil, lacking much of the life that gave it its original fertility, now needs to be dosed with fertilizers, which are nearly always derived from petrochemicals, as are the pesticides that are also applied. So, throughout the season, the soil endures the likes of anhydrous ammonia and Atrazine. The chemicals make it nearly impossible for soil biology to thrive, and the once-living soil begins to revert to “dirt”. Then, once the corn is harvested, the fields are bare yet again, and will stay that way until the next season.

Once land has been through this cycle a few times, its fertility begins to drop, and the crops become naturally weaker. At this point a truly vicious cycle ensues, with the crops needing ever more fertilizer and chemical supports, which is more and more destructive to the remaining soil biology. Over time, more and more carbon is lost, which contributes to global warming, and makes the soils ever more erodable. As the soils become more erodible, not only does more soil end up choking rivers and streams, but more chemicals go with it, and aquatic life suffers as well. In the US, the entire process is a disaster, from the soil in a Midwest cornfield, all the way to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico caused by the runoff of chemicals and fertilizer. And as the soil disappears, inch by inch by inch, the future of humans on the planet gets puts into greater and greater jeopardy.

So, what to do? We do have some options, and as you can tell from the title, they have something to do with permaculture. I’ll discuss those next time, in “Part Two”.

 Erosion image credit: USDA, by Keith Weston.

Making a Permaculture Plan

Chanterelles, blueberries and lingon berries

Permaculture: nutrition and abundance and soil creation, all at once… Picture of chanterelles, blueberries, and lingonberries.

Because I don’t have enough to do (kidding!), I’ve started taking an online permaculture course taught by Geoff Lawton in Australia. It’s a 12-week course consisting of hundreds of videos and quite a bit of reference material, combined with a Facebook-like interface for discussion. The students are from all over the world, literally— Malta, Laos, Kenya, Australia, the US, Canada, Britain, and China, just to name a few. The comments and questions from these students (and their enthusiasm), combined with the answers from Geoff and his staff, add a tremendous amount of depth to the course. But, perhaps what has surprised me the most is how the combination of the two has been causing a constant streams of questions to coalesce in my brain. I had to get up at 2 a.m. this morning and jot some of them down, just to keep them from running through my head. Last night’s scribblings went something like this–

“Where exactly does soil fertility COME FROM? And why do we need swales, if your land is already reasonable not-arid (Vermont). OR, does water wash off fertility? And what would the mechanism for that be? And is fertility synonymous with carbon content, or a close equivalent? And if very small farms make the most food per unit of area, then they can only do this with inputs of compost or fertilizer of some sort, because the nutrients in the food are being removed from the system. Which takes me back to that first question, where does the fertility come from in a closed system? And why do some soil gurus swear by subsoil plowing, and others seems to hold that any introduction of oxygen into soils causes carbon to burn up?”

I’m sure I’ll be able to wrap my head around all of these, and their answers, as we all proceed. And, I’m sure these questions are only the tip of the iceberg; I might be in for a mentally-busy few months.

Now, to back up a bit, if you aren’t familiar with “permaculture”, I saw a good definition the other day in a news article, which described it as “…agricultural methods that maximize land production by emulating natural systems”. In short, growing a huge variety of mostly perennial plants in ways that enhance soil fertility, and managing water on a property in ways that keep that fertility from washing away. It is often described as a “food forest”, with many layers of plants, from tall trees right down to vines and shrubs and even mushrooms. Though, that being said, there isn’t really just one “permaculture”, because the basic systems can be adapted to tiny urban settings as well as huge rural ones, and in nearly all climates. In fact, permaculture seems to be as much about attitudes and ethics as it is about actual methods, as the actual methods can vary widely depending on where they are being applied. And, speaking of large areas, one of the reference links in the course was to this video about a restoration project on the Loess Plateau in China, in which 35,000 sq. kilometers were taken from near-desert conditions to almost completely vegetated. It is nearly unbelievable.

For my own property, I did make a list of goals, though some of them might end up being mutually exclusive. But as a starting point, I’d like to end up with conditions that increase soil fertility, increase biodiversity, provide wildlife habitat, produce food, have low maintenance requirements once established, provide forage for bees and other pollinators, and not cost too much. And, if possible, I’d like to rework the hydrology of the property in ways that would provide running water (it currently runs off in one fell swoop…).

As for the labor for some of this, my other crazy idea is to start a hippie commune. But, on a slightly more serious note, I have felt for a long time that one of our great hopes lies in permaculture (see my post, “An Important Piece of the Puzzle“). And, if the enthusiasm and optimism in this worldwide cadre of students is any indication, it is hope indeed.


Top image credit: Kim Ahlstrom, “Chanterelles, Blueberries, and Lingon Berries”, Flickr Creative Commons.

Soil Carbon and Its Disincentives

“The most meaningful measurable indicator of the health of the land, and thus the long-term wealth of the nation, is whether soil carbon is being accumulated or lost.” —Courtney White, from his book Grass, Soil, Hope: A Journey Through Carbon Country.

3710702365_ab030b381a_b tractor plowing cropped

Plowing is, by many accounts, soil-carbon destruction in action.

Courtney White has written an interesting book. Here’s a very short overview—plowing is destructive to soil. It exposes it to erosion from water and wind, ruins its structure, kills microbial life, and burns up the carbon. The more we plow, the worse the soil gets. Add chemical inputs, as modern industrial farming does, and the problem worsens still further. As White puts it, “Turning soil into dirt . . . is quick and easy. Just follow the recipe: Plow. Add chemicals. Mix well. Repeat.” With less carbon and microbial life, soil loses much of its ability to support plant growth and to absorb and retain moisture. In addition, minerals leach away and become less bio-available. Worse, all of that carbon goes into the atmosphere (30% of recent centuries’ increase in atmospheric CO2 is from human changes in land use—deforestation and plowing). Carbon isn’t inherently bad, as White points out repeatedly—carbon is absolutely vital for life; “carbon IS life”. But, we’ve gotten our carbon cycle out of whack, and conventional agriculture is making the situation worse, year after year, plow pass by plow pass. We’ve got too much carbon where we don’t need it, in the sky, and too little where we do, in the soil. It’s quite an insiduous feedback loop—when farmers degrade the soil, the result is that even more soil-killing applications of chemicals become required, just to get the land to produce. The longterm implications of this are somewhat dire; it’s a situation that might imperil humans’ very survival.

So if plowing isn’t a good idea, then how do we grow food? Isn’t plowing “how it’s done”? Well, it turns out that there are indeed other ways to produce food, and the bulk of White’s book is in the form of a travelogue, as he goes from place to place and meets farmers and restoration specialists who are doing things differently. He call them all “carbon farmers”, and some of them aren’t growing food—some restore riparian areas, or wetlands, or mangrove swamps, or beaver habitats, all in ways that increase soil carbon and improve environmental health. But many of them are farmers and ranchers, who have learned to produce food in ways that also improve the soil. Their techniques include rotational grazing, the use of native or perennial grasses, grazing herds of mixed animal types, carbon-zero farming with biofuels made on-site, year-round cover cropping, pasture cropping, organic no-till, composting to recycle nutrients, and edible forest gardens, among others. As White says, many of these ideas aren’t new. In fact, the idea that plowing damages soil isn’t new, either; White discusses Edward Faulkner’s 1943 book, “Plowman’s Folly”, that warned (and was ignored) of soil depletion caused by plowing (and this was largely before the problem was made that much worse with pesticides, herbicides, and harsh chemical fertilizers).

plowman's folly cover

First published in 1943, and still in print.

Trying to increase soil carbon and humus isn’t a new idea either, and has been practiced since Roman times. Today, farmers like Joel Salatin and Mark Shepard, and organic farmers everywhere, are using many of the same techniques as the farmers in White’s book, and for the same reasons (see my post about Mark Shepard’s work, “An Important Piece of the Puzzle”). Unfortunately, a great many more are plowing ahead (pun slightly intended) with business as usual.

White concludes with a somewhat radical idea—since more carbon in soils can only be attained by regenerating the land, and increasing carbon in soils has the potential to be a huge step in reducing atmospheric CO2 as well as safeguarding our ability to feed ourselves, why not pay landowners to increase the carbon content of their soils? The money could come from something that I, and White, and nearly all environmentalists think is a good idea—a carbon tax. (See post: “A Price for Carbon: Ask and You Shall Receive”). Such a tax would let market forces reduce carbon pollution on one end, and the revenue that would result could be used to provide incentives to restore the land and sequester carbon on the other end. And according to White, soil carbon is relatively easy to measure, and the numbers don’t lie; you can’t fake it. Doing the right things for the soil increase soil carbon, and abusing the land decreases it.

Compare this system to what we have now in the U.S.– agricultural subsidies that incentivize farmers to do just the opposite—in effect, we pay farmers to plow more, by rewarding short-term production over long-term stewardship of the land. (Some quotes from Earl Butz, the architect of many of  today’s agricultural policies- “What we want out of agriculture is production…” and “Plant fencerow to fencerow, boys…” )This results in cheaper food, but at the expense of the environment and nutrition. And, as a result, too many farmers are following White’s soil-to-dirt recipe as fast as they possibly can– plow, add chemicals, mix well, repeat. For now, chemical inputs mask the gathering problems, but the time will come to pay the Piper. (Typical article in this vein, “Loss of Soil Threatens Food Production, UK Government Warns”).

So, I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again—fix energy, and we’ll fix half the planet, fix agriculture, and we’ll fix the other half. And to fix agriculture, we could do worse than go down the path that Courtney White outlines. We can all do our part, by supporting organic agriculture with our food dollars, by composting, by planting trees, or by refusing to put chemicals on our land, lawns, or gardens, and by voting for representatives who hold land stewardship in high regard.

grass book cover

(Courtney White also has a blog, “The Carbon Pilgrim” , that has a great deal of additional information about “carbon farming”.)

Top image credit: “Tractor Plowing Fields” by Sam Beebe, Flickr Creative Commons at Image has been cropped.

The Very-Healthy, Trash-free, $1 Organic Breakfast

A meal that falls within my cost guidelines.

A meal that falls within my cost guidelines.

Ok, my first meal attempt that actually meets my two-dollar per-person budget criteria (see previous two posts, “Food: It’s Complicated“, and “Not With Your Mouth Full“). I’ll add a little detail about the ingredients for this one—

– 1/3 cup steel-cut, organic oats. From the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op, from their bulk food department. I bring my own container, a Mason jar, and when it gets empty I go refill it. Zero-trash, zero-recycling… The oats were on sale this week for $1.19 lb, but I think sale prices are fair game for my effort here. Cost of oats– $ .15

– 1 Teaspoon local, raw honey from Singing Cedars Apiary in Orwell, VT. Raw honey is really good for you…  $.06

I bought a digital scale to make it easier to figure out these food costs.

I bought a digital scale to make it easier to figure out these food costs.

– 1 egg, fried. These eggs came from a friend in Lincoln who raises a variety of livestock and vegetables. Her chickens lead idyllic farm lives, and they’re fed organic feed. She charges $4 a dozen for the eggs, which works out to $.33 for the one egg. We all reuse our cardboard egg cartons, and trade them back and forth, so no trash or recycling is created here, either.

– .2 ounces organic olive oil to fry the egg, bought in the bulk department of the Co-op, another case of filling-the-Mason-jar. $.08. No trash, no recycling.

superfoods cover– 1 Fair-Trade organic banana. $.37. Peel goes in the compost (worm food). The extra few cents in price go straight to a farmer somewhere who probably needs the money.

– salt and pepper $.02

– one cup of organic, Fair-Trade, Nilgiri Blue Mountain tea, brewed from .1 oz. loose-leaf tea from the Co-op. Some of the best tea in the world, for only $.11 a cup. The tea is sold from bulk serve-yourself jars, and I bring my own container—zero-trash, zero-recycling.

…and a cloth napkin. (My wife’s idea. Though, we compost all the paper napkins we use.)

Ok, so it’s just slightly over a dollar– $1.12. But that’s cheap, and oatmeal is a “superfood” (and so is tea, for that matter). Cheap, organic, healthy, all the major food-groups, Fair-Trade, trash-free, virtually recyclable-free, and within my (somewhat arbitrary) budget. Ka-ching—meal #1 for my list.

And while we’re at it—the 39-cent, even cheaper, even healthier, even more sustainable breakfast—

thrity nine cent breakfast– Sauteed asparagus. Perennial, popping up in the garden daily, and will soon be coming in so fast in the 30-foot bed that I’ll be giving it away. Lots of food for not much work; the joy of permalculture systems. Cost—free.

– 2 eggs, scrambled in my cast iron skillet (I have to throw in the skillet part—cast iron lasts forever,  and imparts no strange chemicals into your food; I love my skillets). We’re down to two older hens, but they still pop out eggs from time to time. It’s probably time to get some chicks and start a new flock…). I’m not sure what it costs to feed to birds, but it can’t be too much (they free-range for some of their food). Ten cents an egg?

– .2 ounces organic olive oil to fry up the asparagus and eggs, $.08.

– hickory nuts. From the trees in the yard and woods; the kids and I gathered them up by the bucket-full last fall. Free, perennial, carbon-sequestering, decoupled, AND a super-food. The perfect ingredient. I’m going to plant more but they don’t bear until they’re about 40 years old. Hmmmm; I may or may not be around then… my kids or grandkids might be, though.

– $.11 cup of tea, same as above.

Fair-Trade tea---a few extra cents for a really good cause.

Fair-Trade tea—a few extra cents for a really good cause.

So, some good progress. Now I just need to come up with about 50 more meals… :)


Not With Your Mouth Full

One big bee problem--pesticides.

Organic food is produced without bee-harming pesticides.

Hmmm, I think I gave up too soon on the idea of not supporting the pesticide industry, and the herbicide industry, and the cruelty of factory farming, etc. (see my last post, “Food, It’s Complicated”) . You’ve probably heard that saying, “Don’t complain about farmers with your mouth full”. Well, I suppose my caveat should be, “Don’t complain about unsustainable agriculture with your mouth full of industrial food”. So, I think I need to double down on this, even though it’s a tough task. It’s not that our family buys all that much industrial food, but, rather, I think that we could indeed buy only the “best”, most sustainable choices if we put our minds to it, and manage to keep the costs within reason. The whole endeavor is important—because food is a large portion of what we spend money on, our food choices result in an out-sized effect when it comes to how we vote with our dollars, and voting with our dollars is by far the most powerful thing we do. And, I suspect that this is true for the vast majority of families out there—we all spend money on food, day after day, our whole lives. So, while I don’t think I can pull off a cold-turkey switch like I attempted the other week, I think I can chip away at this problem and eventually achieve success.

Like I said the other week, food is complicated, and goes far beyond just the word “organic” (a good article on just this topic— “Leave ‘Organic’ Out of It”). While an organic label is a pretty good indicator, carbon footprints, affordability, whether or not something is grown in huge monocultures, other agricultural aspects like soil conservation practices, social justice, etc., are also factors. Two such factors, that I didn’t discuss last week, are the health aspects of a food, and the amount of non-recyclable, non-compostable waste that a food item generates (otherwise known as “trash”!).

To discuss that latter issue first, that of trash—this really came to my attention when I saw this video last week, about a Chicago restaurant that only created one bag of trash in two years (from Time Magazine article “This is How a Chicago Restaurant Went 100% Trash-Free“)—

Could we accomplish this same thing in our homes, and cook and eat in ways that produce zero trash? Some of this issue of trash pertains to how we consume food (foam disposable plates and Styrofoam cups?), but much of it originates from how the food we buy is packaged. If I bring my own container and buy in bulk at the local Co-op, (and bring my own shopping bags!) my waste from packaging is zero. When food is packaged, much of it is recyclable, but, as I’ve discussed before, even recycling is the “third-best option“, so the less we have to recycle the better. At the “bad” end of the scale there is packaging that isn’t recyclable, and goes straight into the trash.

A concise eating guide...

A concise eating guide…

Then, there are the health aspects of a particular food, which are in most ways unrelated to the sustainability of how that food was produced. It’s not really the purview of this blog to wade into that argument, but I think Michael Pollan sums it up pretty well when he says, “Eat food, mostly plants, not too much”. Organic ice cream, well, it’s probably still junk food.

So, to sum up, here’s perhaps what perfect food is, that Holy Grail of spending dollars to good effect—healthy, sustainably and humanely produced, low carbon footprint, affordable, and trash-free.

Nothing hard about achieving that. Ok, just kidding. To make it more difficult, every single type of food item needs, to some degree, it’s own evaluation. Within these overlapping and sometimes mutually exclusive standards (the best food sometimes isn’t affordable, etc.) a decision needs to be made about the best milk to buy, the best bread to buy, etc. More difficult still, my evaluation can’t be a substitute for yours, unless we live next door to each other, and perhaps not even then. What I can afford and what you can afford, what I can find locally and what you can find locally, etc., are likely to be different for different people in different situations or locations.

So my own particular task as I go forward—to identify, food item by food item, the best items according to my above criteria, and then, to be able to assembly tasty and affordable meals using these ingredients. My gut feeling is that I can do this, but that it’s going to take just a bit of practice, and more time in the beginning than once I get it mastered. And, I won’t be able to get by through subsisting on only dandelion greens and beans; I have three kids who sometimes think their dad’s ideas are kooky, and who can only be pushed so far in the food department before a general family revolt would surely occur. My wife, though an outstanding cook, is pretty busy, and isn’t a fan of daily shopping (my preferred food-acquisition method), so she probably won’t be leading the charge on this. So, it’s going to be up to me.

So here’s my thinking; my general plan of attack—we have a family of five, and currently budget about $800 a month for food. In the past we’ve tried to reduce that amount from time to time, but spending less seems to start dramatically impacting the types of food we buy, and we just aren’t willing to step back to Wonder bread and the very cheapest hotdogs. So the plan—if we spend $2 per person, per meal, then the family could eat for $10 per meal. This comes out to $30 a day, which is $900 a month; a bit more than we budget now. But I think it’s a reasonable aiming point. So the question becomes, what kind of meals can we fix with ingredients that meet all the criteria above, and yet don’t exceed the $2 per person per meal affordability cap? Or, are there meals that cost even less than this,  that would leave room in the budget for more expensive food from time to time?

I don’t have time to do this all at once, so I’ll experiment and calculate costs as I have time. I’ll start a recipe list, and when I come upon a great meal that hits all the goals reasonably well, then I’ll add it to the list. Eventually I’ll have a whole repertoire, so to speak, of go-to meals. If I can come up with enough of them, then we can “switch over”, and achieve this goal of only buying sustainably-produced food.

So, last night after I wrote that paragraph above, I did a proof-of-concept attempt for last night’s supper, which I felt would come close to meeting the goals—

Attempt #1-- I don't think I made it.

Attempt #1—Linguine with mussels and cream sauce. I don’t think I met the cost goal.

Last night’s menu—linguine with mussels and cream sauce. The cost of ingredients—

-1 lb. organic linguine                                                        $3.19
-sustainably raised Prince Edward Is. mussels, 2 lbs.       $4.90
-8 oz heavy cream*                                                            $1.25
-organic peas                                                                     $2.30
-Parmesan cheese                                                              $ .75
-2 cups white wine                                                              $1.75
-1 tbsp. butter                                                                     $ .20
-2 tbsp. flour                                                                        $ .05
– 1/4 of an onion, organic                                                    $ .40
– other spices                                                                      $ .15

* (side note—opinions about the health aspects of cream and butter are changing)

This made enough for almost exactly five plates like the one in the picture (enough for the whole family, with no leftovers), and it was a tasty meal. I thought the costs looked ok, but when I added them up— $14.94. As in, over my $10 goal. This, and the cream and the wine were conventionally produced. In terms of trash it came out ok, though the mussels got put into a plastic bag at the store so they wouldn’t drip, and the pasta came in a thin-film plastic bag that the local recycling company won’t accept.

I could probably make the cost of this particular meal work if I substituted milk for some of the cream, bought only one pound of mussels, used half the wine but more water to steam the mussels, or made my own pasta. Making pasta is a bit more work, though.

Then, almost on a lark, I did the same calculations with my breakfast this morning, which was a fairly typical one for me-

fairly normal breakfast; also over budget.

Fairly normal breakfast; also over budget.

-two slices of organic, local bread from Red Hen Bakery  $ .64
-one organic egg*                                                              $. 33
-small slice of local cheddar cheese                                  $ .36
-glass of organic orange juice                                          $1.80
-Fair Trade banana                                                           $ .37
-organic mayo                                                                   $ .20

* the egg was actually from our own chickens, but this is about what eggs cost when I buy the organic ones from the Co-op.

Boom, missed the mark again; this small breakfast totalled up to $3.70; way over my $2 goal. The orange juice was clearly the budget-buster here (but the organic OJ is really good!). I suppose I could drink less than this large glass full, though that alone wouldn’t bring the cost to below $2.

So I’ve got some work to do, and I might start at the other end of the affordability spectrum, with the likes of oatmeal and soups and bean burritos. And though it’s going to be difficult, it’s a worthwhile goal. I’ll keep tinkering with it. Like I said in my last post—it’s important.

 Top image credit: Occupy Monsanto, via facebook.

Food: It’s Complicated

Recent organic food purchases. Some of this is local, some fair-trade.

Recent organic food purchases. Some of this is local, some fair-trade.

I’ve had another bout of being busy, and haven’t been able to get to blog-writing for the past two weeks, but perhaps the time has added some perspective to my recent mini-hobby—food. How do our eating habits affect the planet? Can my food choices change things for the better? My feeling was that our choices do indeed matter, so the other week I decided that I needed to step it up, and to completely quit supporting the pesticide industry, and the herbicide industry, and the cruelty of factory farming, by making sure that all of the food I bought was organic. It only lasted two weeks. But, it was an interesting experiment, and it underscored how complicated our life choices can be in the real world.

So, the short version—the organic, all-natural, and local foods were really tasty. They all seemed to be of very high quality, in addition to being organic. Fresh baked bread, fresh fruit and vegetables, milk and cheese from cows that graze on grass, creamy yellow butter, local eggs from free-range birds living natural lives. In addition, many of the companies producing this food are socially-conscious, and pay fair wages, or donate to the World Wildlife Federation, or protect African elephants. We are also lucky enough to have an amazing store here, the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op. Upon starting the all-organic experiment, I had wondered what ingredients I would have to do without if I chose to buy only these types of foods. I was pleasantly surprised, however, to find that virtually all normal ingredients have a locally-available option that’s organic or sustainable—flour, rice, beans, fruits and veggies, milk and eggs, olive oil, beer and wine, teas and coffee, cheese, and locally and naturally raised chicken, pork, and grass-fed beef, and, at other stores in town, sustainably caught seafood from the Gulf of Maine. A small downside—slightly more cooking and planning was required under the new, all-organic food plan, but we were eating like kings. We eat well anyway, but these were all fantastic, near-gourmet meals. Great food, family time cooking together, and purchases that were supporting people who were doing some really good things, in all manner of sustainable ways.

Responsibly Harvested Logo Website

Sustainably caught seafood…

But, despite all of this wonderfulness, a few problems began to creep into the plan. First, while available, these foods cost more. As a family we were already purchasing quite a bit of organic and natural food, but we also buy a fair amount of “conventional” industrial food at the bigger stores. And while we’re fortunate to make good incomes, food for our family of five, even as we normally purchase it, is one of our larger monthly expenses. While I was surprised to find some organic options at nearly the same price as “conventional” (bulk olive oil and freshly-ground peanut butter are two that come to mind), most organic options, either due to the scale at which they are produced, or the extra costs of production, cost significantly more. Organic milk, cheese, most meats, and apples are nearly double the price of conventionally produced options. Taken as an entire group, organic items seem to run about a third more than conventional. For any given item the extra cost might only be a dollar or so, but over the course of a month, a 30% higher grocery bill could cost hundreds of additional dollars.

Now, there’s a chance that this extra cost could be offset by buying in bulk, and carefully choosing meal options, and buying local foods in season, and taking lunch to work instead of buying it there, etc. But, for the time being, the cost alone forced me to abandon the 100% organic plan, at least until I have time to give it some more thought.

And, cost wasn’t the only complexity. Upon reflection, I realized that an “organic” label alone doesn’t tell a complete story about the sustainability of a food option, although it certainly helps. Here’s an example—milk choices. In order of price, I seem to have about four different levels of milk options when I go to purchase milk. For roughly $3.50 a gallon, I can buy mass-produced, store-brand milk from the local big-name grocery store. For $3.99, I can buy a gallon of conventionally farmed milk from the local dairy, or for $3.99 I can buy a half-gallon of organic milk from Wisconsin, or, for $4.99, a half-gallon of local, organic milk from really happy cows pastured on grass from small-scale farms just up the road. That’s quite a range of prices—from $3.50 to the equivalent of $9.98 a gallon. But, to just take the middle two options—which is better, organic milk from 900 miles away, or more “conventional” (but rBGH-free) milk from a local confinement dairy? I don’t actually know—how do the carbon footprints of these two choices compare? How unhappy are the well-cared for cows in the barns up the road, even though they don’t get out much?

Similar difficulties arise with other items. Organic asparagus or raspberries might be great, but if they’re out of season and have been flown in from Peru, then it’s probably not a good environmental choice. Likewise with, say, organic almonds. The organic part is great, but if they’re raised in gigantic mono-culture orchards with no habitat for natural pollinators, then that’s perhaps not the best choice, either. Then there are the items that aren’t certified as “organic” but are produced using methods that are very close to that standard—how does one judge? Or, what’s better—organic production of crops that are annuals and require tilling and therefore result in soil erosion, or near-organic production of perennials? What’s better, Fair Trade wine from South Africa, or local wine from down the road? No matter how you slice it, it often comes up more gray than black and white.

Fresh berries--- better from a farm near you.

Fresh berries are better choices if they haven’t had to take a plane ride.

Then, in addition to all of these factors, there’s another, perhaps even bigger, question—what if organic was hands-down the most sustainable option, but organic yields per acre were lower—could we feed the world this way? Even more difficult—could growing food organically also feed the addition billions that will be joining us in the next few decades? If the answer to either of these questions is “no”, then we need another plan, and we need it pretty fast. I’ve heard this charge before—that organic can’t feed the world, that it would simply require too much space. So, I did some reading, including articles in Scientific American (“Will Organic Food Fail to Feed the World?“),  WorldWatch Institute (“Can Organic Farming Feed Us All?“), and a Huffington post overview of the recent UN report on this topic, among others. The bottom line seems to be this— that organic yields would go down compared to the most chemically and carbon-intensive farming in the industrial world, but might go way up in the developing world. BUT—this question of yields seems to be, on the whole, something of a red herring. Continue reading

Bee Addendum


A short post here, an addendum to my last (Bees: Our Problems in Miniature). I just read another book about natural beekeeping, “The Thinking Beekeeper”, by Christy Hemenway, and was struck by how some of her ideas matched those of this blog, particularly this passage—

“In the U.S., we’ve grown tired of expecting that the government will take charge, behave responsibly, and do the right thing. But—we don’t need to wait for the government to make the right move! We can make the needed changes, and the government, well, they can catch up. We can insist on organic food, and we can shop at the farmer’s market, and we can choose never to put anything in a beehive but bees… these are all viable options, and thinking people are doing them, and they are making a difference.

“That’s why I believe that the paradigm truly has begun to shift. In fact, I think we’re close to the tipping point. And I also believe we don’t have to find a cure—a new treatment, pesticide, or antibiotic—for Colony Collapse Disorder—we just have to quit causing it. . . What you do matters. Never doubt it.”

I couldn’t agree more about the part about demand—it’s the mechanism that will change the system on all fronts, and it will precede political change, and it will be enacted by millions and millions of individuals, voting with their dollars. (See posts “A Potential Path Forward“, and “Me and Ma and Globalism“.)

But beyond this note about demand, her book is a great introduction to the philosophy and mechanics of raising bees using treatment-free beekeeping methods in top-bar hives, and she presents her case eloquently and passionately. In one passage she expresses a thought that I was trying to express the other day, but she did it far better, so I’d like to add that quote here, too—

“For industrial beekeepers, especially large-scale migratory pollinators, Colony Collapse Disorder has been a devastating fiscal tragedy, not to be wished on anyone. And I have never, ever, met a beekeeper—commercial, backyard, or otherwise—who did not love their bees, so there is personal heartbreak as well in every vanished colony.”

This was so clear to me in the interviews with industrial beekeepers in the “Vanishing of the Bees” documentary—they may treat their bees, but they love them too.

So, inspired by all my bee-reading, I set out the other day to buy some bees. Some treatment-free bees. This was harder than I thought, and I wasn’t having much success. A fair number of people keep treatment-free bees, but not all that many appear to sell them. An added difficulty was that it seems that nearly all people who sell nucleus colonies (“nucs”) do so in Langstroth hive frames, which don’t fit into a top-bar system. So, almost on a lark, I went to Christy’s website (Gold Star Honeybees), and, ta da, she now sells packages of treatment-free bees that have been raised on small-cell foundation (a more natural-sized bee). They seemed to be more expensive than industrial packages, but worth every penny to me. Now, with three pounds of bees on the way, I just need to  get to work on a top-bar hive. I’m a good woodworker, that part will be a snap. Learning about bees—well, like gardening, that one might take a lifetime.