Gardening for Groceries

Despite our long, COLD spring, the veggie garden is coming along nicely.  I did put most of my tomatoes in the ground a week or so ago (and thanks for all the reassurance that tomatoes like to be in pots!) and they are continuing to grow nicely.  The peas are starting to appear on the vines–next time I’m trellising them even if they are dwarves; it will be much easier to find the peas themselves in the curly tangle!–the carrots seem to be coming along, and the chard, kale, and beet greens are growing inches a day.  I planted more spinach, lettuce, beets, and mesclun mix in a slightly less sunny spot probably 3 weeks ago, and they are also coming along fine.  Most exciting–the strawberries are getting riper, and the fava beans are loaded with pods that should also be ready within the week.  Hurray!

I had some hopes for the ways in which having a big home garden would impact our lives.  Besides some emotional, ecological, and spiritual goals, I have been hoping that our grocery budget will decrease significantly through the summer and into the fall as we mostly eat out of the garden.  I’m still working on that assumption, though I’m going to really have to keep on top of the succession planting.  Succession planting is when you have a crop that takes a specific number of days from seed to maturity, and when it’s mature, you eat the crop and it’s done.  So a carrot, for instance, grows to the right size, and then you pick it and eat it.  This is different than peas or beans or vine tomatoes, where as long as you keep picking, the vine will keep producing, sometimes for months on end.  In order to keep eating the former crop regularly throughout the season, you plant a patch every couple of weeks, so that you have crops ready to eat consistently for months.

The problem so far for me has been partly busyness, but also partly that after 2-3 weeks the previously planted seeds don’t look particularly inspiring.  As a new gardener, some crops have surprised me in how long they take to germinate, and it’s been at times an act of faith to keep planting.  Then, a month or so later, the first planted crops look AMAZING, and I’m kicking myself for not planting 3 times as much and for succession planting  like crazy!  Lessons learned :).

One of my friends suggests that all of my university training, combined with some inherent personality traits, makes me a person who’s very concerned about doing things “right”.  I know that she’s right–although I fight the tendency intellectually because I don’t believe that most of the time there’s only one right way to do things.  But it’s true that I tend to be fairly conservative when I approach something new; I want to learn the rules/conventions first, and then when I’m comfortable with them and the reasons behind them, then I start changing things according to my own instincts.

Such has been the case with the garden.  As I’ve begun, I’ve read a ton, asked lots of questions, joined some online forums.  But much of gardening is so changeable and fluid, with variables like weather, temperature, micro-climate, goals, varietal choices, etc etc.  So at times it’s felt like I’m stumbling around trying to pin the tail on the donkey.  I’ve had take everything I’ve learned, and then take action according to all that information and my best educated guess.

To my surprise, I’ve been reasonably successful.  Certainly I’ve learned some lessons–both to take more risks and to be more consistent 🙂  in planting.  I will be a little more reckless with my seeds from now on, planting more and earlier because eventually stuff does grow, and it is a treat to have a gamble pay off (see the self-sufficient gardener on the garden tour testing the limits below).

How else do I know that I’m on the right track?  Because of how my grocery shopping habits are already changing.

I love to shop at the farmer’s market, and Duncan has a great one.  When we moved to the valley last year, I started learning as much as I could about where the local farms are and how they operate, because following the un-beaten path down to the farm gate is one of my great pleasures.  As the garden has been new, and the crops not yet ready in the last couple of months, I’ve eagerly headed to the farm markets to supplement the backyard feast-to-be.  And so I’ve experienced one of many D’oh! moments.

I’ve come home empty handed from most of my trips.  Why?  Because the produce that the farms have for sale, I’ve clued in, is the same produce that I have growing in my garden, and at roughly the same phase.  I’ve been doing things (mostly) right!  That’s the good news.  The bad news (and the D’oh!) is that we’re all–home gardeners and farmers–growing the same stuff at the same time, because we’re all subject to the same growing conditions.

Eliot Coleman has built a substantial farm business based on selling produce through the winter in Maine when no one else is farming at all.  I’m a little surprised, actually, that no one’s doing that here.   Or perhaps they are, but it’s really greens and fairly simple things being grown under simple covers, rather than large overwintering crops.  Surely some farmers could have been selling broccoli, brussel sprouts, and cauliflower for a couple of months with enough planning?  That’s what I’m planning for us to be eating next spring.

In the meantime, I’m realizing that my grocery shopping and approach to eating seasonally is going to change in ways that I’m still processing.  If we’re growing what the market farmers are, then we’re not going to be supporting them financially.  And what we’re supplementing our produce with–some greenhouse-grown crops like tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers are available reasonably locally, but it’s mostly soy milk, dry staples (rice, pasta, flour, etc; I am growing dry beans, and we’ll see what size crop we end up with), nuts, cheese, and sometimes oranges, etc in the winter–is not easily produced locally and will probably always need to be purchased at a chain supermarket.  Although we’ve shopped at farms for years, and considered ourselves seasonal eaters, it’s a very different feeling to look at the garden in the backyard with many crops almost, but not quite ready and to realize that this IS what’s locally available–not just to buy, but also to produce.  Again, I suddenly understand the pleasurable gardening obsession with pushing the zonal boundaries!

After years of feeling like part of the consumer movement, where personal purchasing choices are the daily political statements that comprise much (if not all at times) of my activism, I’m going to have to re-think my strategy.  Gardening for some level of self-sufficiency has long been appealing as a way to opt out of the bind of consumer choices that sometimes seem always already tainted by global capitalism.  But I’m realizing that opting out is also giving up the consumer currency that feels like a voice and practical action within that system.  If I am invested in changing the system, and opting out removes one way to effect change, then I’m going to come up with some new ways!

If anyone has any suggestions, I’d love to hear them! 🙂

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Ode to the Columbine…

When we started getting acquainted with our garden in earnest this year, I wondered how I would know the difference between the weeds and the flowers.  It’s amazing, though, how distinctive the perennial leaves and shoots look; I’ve almost never been confused.  And if I am, I just wait and see.  So far, so good!

One of the first, most prevalent leaf patterns to emerge in the spring was the lacy, circular leaf of the columbine.  They had, as the seed packets like to say, self-seeded prolifically.  We knew that they would be pretty, and generally we are happy to have more flowers, so we let them grow pretty much wherever they wanted.  And now, deep into spring, we’re so glad we did.  Who knew there were so many different kinds?!

These lovely, delicate flowers are beautiful, apparently attract predatory insects, and provide our many resident hummingbirds with yummy food.  And for some weeks at the beginning of the spring, they were the only blooms.  And so, without further ado, enjoy the pictorial ode to the columbine.

Hmmm…I’m missing photos of the deep, dark purple ones.  Hey Skipper!  Where are the purple columbines?

In other garden excitement, the roses are blooming!  More on those coming up…

Cowichan Vally 2010 Garden Tour: Observations and Inspirations

So I’m turning into a gardening geek (or maybe I passed that phase a long time ago? :)) .  It was my birthday on Sunday, and all I wanted to do was go on the garden tour.  It was a great day, despite a downpour in the middle of it!  There were 6 gardens on the tour, all very different: a couple of conventional, 1/2 acre sized properties, a large, but still conventionally styled garden that specialized in rhododendrons, two neighbouring beautiful ocean-view properties with integrated veggie and flower gardens, and a hobby farm.  Something for everyone!

The Skipper was in macro-flower-photography heaven, with stunning and unique specimens galore.  The irises, in particular were amazing:

Dirigo Black Velvet Iris
Frilly!
Batik Irises
My Favorite!

The first few gardens were lovely, with some really interesting plants.  But we were also there to look at design choices, as we continue to learn about our own garden, and to think through some of the areas that we know we want to change.  What struck us more than anything in those first few homes was that our garden is not a conventional garden already, and we like it that way.

The conventional gardens have perfect lawn spaces, carefully edged.  The flower beds have precisely defined borders, and each plant in the bed is carefully positioned with plenty of space around it, so that it can be appreciated by itself.  The beds look like they are first covered in landscape cloth, then bark mulched, so that there are few, if any, weeds, and each plant is striking against the brown backdrop of the mulch.  Everything is beautiful, but feels, to us anyway, sterile and manicured.  Definitely not what we’re going for.

Gardens like these require strong attention to detail, a value of precision and uniformity, and above all, chemicals.  Killex on the lawn, Round-up on the weeds, fertilizers on the plants to keep them “healthy”.  We’re not interested in these complex artificial life support systems.

Our garden was clearly designed as a riotous English country garden, and that’s what we love about it.  It needs some tending–the mature perennials need to be tidied up and divided, the soil needs to be improved, and in the last few years the weeds weren’t really dealt with, so we’re infested with grass, creeping buttercup, morning glory and horsetail.  The Skipper has been rebuilding pathways that had become overgrown and in some cases almost impassable.  We will probably add some bedding edging over the seasons to come.  But we love the roses that are climbing over everything, the mature daylilies, crocosmia, peonies, and irises.  Now if we can just figure out how to tame the Bishop’s Weed!

So that was good to learn about ourselves and our garden.  Anyone surprised that we’re not conventional? 🙂

On to the veggie gardens!  To my surprise, everyone had one.  In some gardens they were a small aside, in others a main focus.  But I was pleased to see that even the most manicured space had some food in it.

Here are some of the more prominent veggie plots:

The elaborate, decorative veggie garden

This spot was beautiful; given as much care as the rest of the garden.  I loved that it had prominence and attention to aesthetics.  On a practical level, I liked that there were flower beds close by and integrated, and a large herb bed.  I also thought it was very clever that some of the beds had the tall frames that you can see in the back.  These frames were permanent, and meant that plastic could be easily attached to make instant cold frames, or netting could create instant trellises.  Very smart.  I’m also a sucker for the wooden obelisk for runner beans and climbing peas.  I haven’t figured out how to get one of those in my garden yet!

Here’s exhibit B:

A Self-Sufficient Plot

This garden was one of the stars of the show.  On a sunnier day, I would have cornered the gardener and tried to learn all of his secrets.  Unfortunately, this is when the downpour hit, and the photographer was not happy, so our visit was brief.  But I’ll try and find a way to get back!

This is a garden tended to by an English gardener who is legally blind.  He writes that they are self-sufficient in vegetables, and I believe it.  This wasn’t a super-large space, and there were some fruit trees and berry bushes outside of it.  But his vegetable garden was WEEKS ahead of anyone else’s.  He had actual ZUCCHINI on his plants!  Peas!  Flowers on his potatoes!  It was shocking!  I (and when I chatted to the Master Gardener on site, she said the same thing) haven’t even planted my cucumbers and zucchini yet, because it’s been so cold!  The power of a micro-climate.  The Master Gardener suggested his secret was two-fold.  The lot is closer to the ocean, so that creates a warmer zone, and the veggie plot is in a very sheltered area of the lot (note the solid fencing around the sides, too).  It’s possible that he was growing substantial transplants for some of the veg too.  But wow!  The inspiration to really go for it in terms of micro-zones, etc, to just keep pushing the envelope and to keep experimenting.

Also interesting to me, for our space, is that the size was not that big, and yet the plot didn’t seem to be really intensively cultivated.  One key was that even though it’s a raised bed system (the owner commented that he’s on rock), there is really only one main pathway, and pretty much the rest is cultivatable, with depressed areas used for temporary pathways where necessary.  An amazing space that definitely inspired me to be more organized and timely in my planting schedules, regardless of what the weather looks like outside.

Veggie Plot number three was the hobby farm, which was also an interesting place.  The farm is run by a small family, and has a small commercial production that they sell for a few weeks at the Duncan Farmer’s Market.  They also say that they are self-sufficient in produce.  But their set up is much more elaborate:

Raised Bed Section 1

They have inherited an unbelievable greenhouse; note the ROCK beds–perfect for keeping tomato and other tropical roots toasty year round without heat.

In the Greenhouse--those are olive trees in front of me

Then they have a second, large hoop house–good construction tips here:

Winter veggie production in the hoop house

The hoop house is built to allow ventilation and is unheated, and serves a couple of useful purposes: winter salad and other greens are kept at the right temperature to hold well through the cold season, and this is also where tomato and other warm season seedlings are hardened off, or perhaps grown in?  Not sure if they move them out or not.

The farm also has a second, very large raised bed space:

Very large Garden #2

One of the things that was interesting about the farm was that as idyllic as all this looks now, in fact it was clear that they had had some pretty serious challenges when they went to set up their growing area.  The paths to the raised bed areas are over dykes or ditches; it looks like they had to built up significantly to get above the water level!  This would have been a reason not to buy the property for me, if I was looking for a small farm, but they have done the work and with amazing results.

I’m struck by how much bigger this space is than the other self-sufficient veggie garden, too.  The difference between the serious home gardener and the hobby farmer, perhaps?

One of the big lessons for us in studying all these spaces was that although we’ve been tempted to think that our plot is too small for some of the dreams that we’ve had, it actually suits us well, and that it’s worth the effort to keep tweaking it to make it work better.  We know that we want to re-work the main veggie area, and between those changes and other places where we can continue to take out lawn and put in more veggie beds, I think we can really get the space we need.

Another lesson was that everyone has raised beds.  We had been struggling with the idea that maximum use of our main space meant taking out the raised beds and moving to a more traditional “farm-like” plot in the ground.  The problem is that the main growing area is actually right over our septic treatment system section (hard to explain quickly, but actually great!), which means that about 8″ (?) below the raised beds is a plastic liner, and then in those 8″ is sand and some imported topsoil.  So we’d been trying to decide what to do.  Seeing all these raised beds gave us a better idea of how bigger and deeper raised beds could work well for us, and we’re happily imagining the possibilities.  Stay tuned for the big winter project!

What I didn’t see was a lot of permaculture-style planting, but I’ll save that for another post.  For now, I’m pleased that touring these beautiful gardens in fact made us happier about where we are, and has inspired us with visions of how we might be able to make our own garden even more joyful and productive.

Thrifty Foods and local produce: A Telling Tale

A quick follow up post to The Pros and Cons of Local.  Yesterday, Gregor Craigie, on On the Island, interviewed a representative from Thrifty Foods about a local controversy.  It has come to public attention that Thrifty’s, which does make an effort to source and sell Island produce, is often buying that produce on the Island, shipping it to a Vancouver warehouse, and then shipping it back to the island to sell.  As this seems a counter-intuitive move for efficiency’s sake, CBC wanted to investigate. (Podcast available for June 7)

The resulting information shared by the Thrifty’s rep, though, I think is really telling–because it illustrates both the misconceptions around transportation carbon impact and the issue of efficiency as well as the craziness of the supermarket/global food market industry that we’re stuck with at the moment.

First, the rep clarified that the Vancouver warehouse distribution centre was not a decision made by Thrifty’s’ new corporate owner, the much larger grocery chain Sobey‘s.  In fact, Alex Campbell himself made the decision when it became clear that their current Saanich peninsula warehouse was not big enough for their needs.  Mr. Campbell apparently looked all over the island for space, but finally realized that it made more sense to buy a space in the lower mainland.  Why?  Because that’s where 90-95% of their produce comes to the Island from!  Not necessarily from Vancouver, but everything comes through Vancouver on it’s way to the Island.

The rep also said that the Island produce that they are able to source–and consumer demand is high, so they’re trying–is only available in small quantities, 3-4 months a year.  Creating a distribution plan around that tiny percentage (6-10% during peak season) doesn’t make sense.

So then they talked a little more about the actual distribution process, and again, the realities of the current shipping environment emerges.  It turns out that, as most of the time Thrifty’s has big refrigeration trucks bringing goods from the mainland to the Island, most of the time those trucks were returning to the mainland empty.  Once upon a time those trucks used to transport newsprint off the Island to California for the paper industry, but that market is now 1/4 of what it once was (!).  So in fact, under the new system, those trucks are now taking Island produce over to the mainland on the return trip–no extra cost, and in peak season they are reasonably full 50% or so of the time if I remember correctly.  When the trucks come back to the Island stores, even though they are bringing back that Island produce as well, it’s a tiny percentage of what’s being transported overall, so it has little impact.

The rep did make the point that this system only works for produce that is going to be stored; SunWing tomatoes, for instance, don’t get caught up in this system; they are shipped only on the Island to the Island stores.  But other local food producers are getting the added benefit of growing their businesses, as their produce is now being made available to the lower mainland stores as well, and this is where Thrifty’s is growing.

AAACK!  So what do we make of all this?  Do tell.  Here’s what strikes me.

The story illustrates the efficiency vs local issue.  The rep makes the point that you don’t want a dozen small trucks coming from the various farms and arriving at the distribution centre wreaking havoc.  I can imagine that this kind of transportation is also expensive for the farmer, and it’s probably a barrier that they are relieved to pass back to the buyer.

George Monbiot‘s brilliant (though perhaps out of date as soon as published) book Heat comes to the conclusion that we need fewer small, inefficient supermarkets, and more large distribution warehouse centres that the public shops online from and that deliver goods via large, full, efficient means.

Buying direct from the producer does circumvent this whole crazy system, and we handle the “storage” issue at home.  Growing even a portion of our own food also circumvents the whole distribution issue, and is really the best option.  But I’ve also not really come to terms with the impact of growing our own food on the farmers that we would otherwise be supporting.

It’s also CRYSTAL clear from the Thrifty’s piece that there is not enough local produce to be had.  They are dealing with some of the largest operators on the Island–scale-sized very non-organic producers like Vantreight, Mitchells, etc.–and the results are still really just a drop in the bucket.  I’m really starting to see the reality of the importance of a new explosion of young farmers.  More on that in a future post.

This situation does also illustrate the need for an Island food distribution system, something that’s being worked on by a group in Nanaimo, the Heritage Foodservice Cooperative.

Are there other things that strike you about all this?  Are we just overwhelmed by the size and self-perpetuating nature of the current process?  Do stories like this make you think about where your food comes from and where you want to buy it?  Or is this, as some have argued, the actual resiliency of the food system we have?  Remember that it used to be if a community had a drought or other agricultural disaster, it simply suffered.  Now we have a global food system that can respond, albeit with all kinds of price tags and mixed bag impacts.  Thoughts?

New Lesson: Plant less!

No, not plant-less. Quite the opposite. I have recently come to the undeniable conclusion that I have made a terrible mistake.

I started tomatoes indoors for the first time this year, and I followed the instructions in Steve Solomon’s very sensible Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades. I put 3 seeds into each seed cell, because not all the seeds would germinate, and then I was supposed to thin to the strongest seedling in each cell.

I mostly followed that–but it was hard! Some cells had two (or three) healthy-looking sprouts, and others had none come up at all! And then I had to choose which babies were going to survive, and which ones were going to be snipped! And they were all so pretty!

When they were old enough, I transplanted them into pots. Then I learned the heartbreak of separating some of the twins that I had left together–their roots were all intertwined, and I could hear them rrrip as I tore them apart. I had learned my lesson: I hadn’t done them any favours.

But, surprisingly, all of them seemed to recover, and I can’t tell them all apart health-wise. Which is great.

Now, though, they are all desperate to get out into the garden. They are pot bound and suffering, and I can hear them crying in the night. I have to harden them off and get them out, but the weather is not cooperating, despite the fact that IT’S JUNE! (Steve Solomon warned me about this. But I remain resentful.)

So I’ve been looking around the garden trying to figure out where my tomatoes will be going. (my Steve-Solomon-instructed-garden-planting- plan had to be thrown out when the Skipper picked a nice-looking bed to start planting early potatoes in 🙂 )  And thus did I finally realize the seriousness of my situation.

I have raised more than 75 80 tomato plants.

Can you even picture what that many tomato plants looks like? Here’s an attempt at a photo, but this isn’t all of them.

Too many tomato babies--and this isn't all of them!

I can fit MAYBE 12-15 plants in one of my 4 x 8 raised beds. ALL of my beds will be stuffed full of tomatoes! Where will the cucumbers, the peppers, the endless beans go?  How will I rotate crops next year?! Already I am planning to mix the pole beans with the hops along the fence, and some cherry tomatoes will go in planters on the deck. The bush beans are supposed to be interplanted with the tomatoes and cucumbers–is there room for them all?

I’m having visions of sticking tomatoes ANYwhere I can find room–pull out some weeds and put them next to the roses? Eliminate some paths between beds, mound up some soil and throw them in? Skipper has vounteered to make me some planters, and we have discussed the possibility of moving to a bigger piece of property…

I may need to send some out for adoption give some away, but that my be a hard sell around here. The Skipper is dreaming of canning our own sauce in the fall, and he’s definitely on the “can’t have too much of anything” Dionysian abandon side (I blame his Catholic upbringing that clashes regularly with my Scottish Presbyterian frugal constraint). So I may have to sneak some out the back gate and blame the deer.

Anyone have a birthday coming up? 🙂

The Pros and Cons of Local

Last night, I became a new member of Slow Food Vancouver Island.  Hurray!  It was the AGM, and I think I can safely say it was the most fun AGM I’ve ever been to.  No agenda was distributed, the meeting started with a simple, yummy meal, there was a cash bar, and the meeting even took place at Hilary’s Cheese and Deli!

I’ve thought about joining Slow Food for many years.  I’ve always supported the concepts, but when I looked into the organized movement itself, I had a hard time seeing a real place for myself.  Slow Food International, based in Italy, began with a couple of key initiatives that came from the ideal of preserving traditional food production and traditionally produced food ingredients.  The Ark of Taste was a kind of mega-catalogue project of these ingredients and foods that I found confusing.  I supported the ideals of preserving local and traditional food knowledge, but the concept of the Ark of Taste had a very European focus when it began, and it seemed, from a distance at least, like another kind of fetishization for the rest of the world of the special, expensive, superiority of European products like Italian olive oil, real Parmigiano Reggiano, etc.

At the meeting last night, it became clear that there had been some of that attitude in the founding years, but that there have been some major shifts in the Slow Food movement in tandem with the changes in public awareness about the industrial food system, its sustainability, and its relationship to climate change.

The new focus of Slow Food is Local Food.  Most of us in the room are already converts to the idea that local food is better food: it’s fresher, tastes better, can be more ethically produced–particularly when produced on a small scale–and creates rewarding relationships between consumers and producers. (Slow Food apparently wants to re-label “consumers” as “co-producers”, but that’s another discussion!)

But I was struck as I listened to the discussion at the meeting by a tone that suggested that local is ALWAYS better, and that more local is better–that we should be striving towards a 100% local economy, at least when it comes to food.  And this is where I start to get wary.

There are some very compelling reasons to “buy local” when possible.  Putting your money into small business, or into local products, keeps that money in the community; Wal-Mart head office doesn’t take a cut.  And when that money stays in the community, the whole community gets the benefit of that investment in important ways.  Supporting food producers on Vancouver Island (in my case) is a key step in building food security on the Island, which builds resistance to a whole host of potential disasters (earthquakes at least seem likely) which might keep supplies from the mainland at bay for days or weeks.  Resiliency comes from depth and diversity, not from a single industrial food distributor when 90% of our food is imported.  And if we want to re-create the global industrial food system, then buying directly from our local producers seems a great place to start.

But.  Is local always better, and is all local all the time the right goal?  I’m not sure it’s that simple.  Let’s take the food miles issue, the assumption that local food has a smaller carbon footprint than imported food.

It turns out that most of food’s carbon footprint does not come from its transport, but from its production.  How food is produced matters, and whether it’s produced with petroleum-dependent fertilizers, chemicals, and heavy equipment or not has the biggest impact.  There are GMO’d, large feedlot, unsustainable food producers locally as well as internationally.  Just because they’re making their impact closer to you doesn’t make it more sustainable for you to buy from them.  I struggle with this commercial side of things.  Local, often family-run farming businesses are trying to make a living and I want to support them.  But the scale of producing that’s often required to make a living can require practices that I’m not comfortable with.  It’s much easier for the lady down the street who’s raising a few chickens on the side to produce free-range eggs.  The farmer who’s in the egg business needs to keep tens of thousands of chickens to make a living at it (and not a very good one at that), and as soon as you are trying to keep tens of thousands of chickens, there have to be trade-offs made in their care and quality of life–you are part of the industrial food system, for better or worse.

Then there are the food miles and the efficiency issue.  Intuitively, it just makes sense that it should have less impact to buy food produced a few miles away than to buy food that has been flown or shipped in from half-way around the world.  But, unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case–at least with the options available to us today (I’ve chosen this link because it has links to the studies that have been done; there are others making these very interesting points in a variety of places).

In fact, small and local often means the least efficient use of fuel resources; think about the small-scale farmer who packs his or her not-very fuel efficient old panel van with a few bins of produce to take it to the farmer’s market or local store, where all of us drive our sort-of fuel efficient individual cars to go and buy it.  At an even smaller scale, Skipper and I used to buy most of our produce from a farm on the Saanich Penninsula.  We loved to do it, and loved the connection with the family farmers.  But we recognized that this was not the most efficient practice; each individual driving his or her car out 30k to the farm made even less sense than the farmer packing up everyone’s produce and taking it to the farmer’s market that we could walk to.  I have the same hesitations about the CSA‘s usual set up.  It actually makes sense to me that the global food distribution system would be economically viable (and cheaper than local) in part because it is so efficient.  Which isn’t the same thing as sustainable or ethical, of course!

The point is not to stop buying local, or to question the value of that practice.  My point is that the food system today is complicated, and the solutions need to take into account those complexities.  Trade is as old as human history, and food trade has enriched our human lives forever.  As anyone raised before the 1970s (somewhat arbitrary date)  in Canada will tell you, food was not usually exciting, tasty, or varied in the “good old days”–and if you were poor, it wasn’t particularly nutritious either.  Canned peas or cream of mushroom soup anyone?  Gardens were more important, and each region did have its delicacies.  But few people are really advocating a return to that kind of pre-industrial (ok, I know deciding when pre-industrial begins is a whole ‘nother kettle of fish) food life.  And I’m also not convinced that it’s better to drink local tea from herbs in my garden than it is to support fair trade organic  coffee, tea, chocolate, sugar, etc.  Michael Pollan via Peter S. Singer makes a compelling case in The Omnivore’s Dilemma that it is ethically important to not be parochial and protectionist and only consume those products locally produced; that those in the so-called developing world need those of us who can afford it to buy their ethically produced products.

Slow Food’s Ark of Taste is now contained within the Foundation for Biodiversity, and it is actively working with activists and food producers in the developing world to support their work, survival, and ideas to reconfigure the industrial food system.  Part of that process is supporting those trying to re-build local food economies which have been destroyed over the last 50-60 years in the paradox that was “de-colonization” (but that’s another post too!).  So all of us benefit when every local community is able to build more local food resiliency and depth.  But I’m not sure that’s the only component of a better food system, and I think it’s important that we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Thoughts?

Flora and Fauna 2: Close the Gate! (or, The Barriers are Psychological)

In southern Vancouver Island, the biggest garden threat–by a lot–is the deer.  Adorable, especially at this time of year, when the spotted fawns are at their most Bambi-like, they can destroy whole gardens in a single night.  When we were house hunting last summer, we used to drive through suburban neighbourhoods in the evenings and marvel at the deer munching the window box flowers right next to the front doors!

The ONLY reliable protection is deer fencing, which is usually 6-8 feet high and sturdy.  In many places, you’ll see “deer-resistant” gardens (lots of rhodos, heather, and daffodils) around homes, with small, caged areas for vegetable growing.

One of the big selling points of our home for us was that the whole backyard is deer-fenced along the perimeter–probably about a third of an acre.  Suddenly, we’re freed from small caged boxes, and the whole yard is a spectacular, edenic, lush piece of paradise safe from munching fawns and sharp hoofs.

So imagine our surprise one evening, to look out into our backyard feast and see someone else enjoying the bounty:

Buffet!

Yup.  The deer fencing doesn’t work if you leave the gate open.

I stepped out onto the back deck, and the Skipper made his way around to the back, and we both hoped to gently convince the deer to make his/her way back through the gate.  The last thing we wanted was panic, because a frighted deer in the garden is really like a bull in a china shop.  He/she did take a few steps in the right direction, but then, instead of moving peacefully out the gate, he/she doubled back down the fence line and side path toward the back of the yard.  Except that then he/she noticed the Skipper standing at the end of the path.

The next thing I knew, there was a loud bang, and I could see the young deer on the other side of the fence, racing into the yard next door!  I yelped, open-mouthed, expecting to see the fence ripped to pieces, the plants trampled, and deer bits everywhere.  Or maybe adrenaline had enabled it to leap over the fence?

Skipper walked toward me dragging his jaw over the wood chip path.  “The deer went THROUGH the fence!”  “What do you mean?  Is the fence torn through?” I asked.

“No, the deer went THROUGH the fence!”

The deer, in a panicked split second, had jumped completely through a 6″ x 10″ space in the deer fencing.  There was nothing left but a tuft of hair stuck to the wire, wafting in the breeze.

So far we haven’t been invaded by hungry fawns–we’re hoping there’s enough tasty grass surrounding our property that they won’t think the effort is worth it.  And we’re hoping that the word won’t get out among the deer community that our deer fence is only a psychological barrier!