The Homestead Bank Yields Dividends

As it seems most months are around here, May was interesting.  A family health emergency came up and the Skipper was needed; he ended up being away for three weeks and away from work for almost a month.  Then, as May wound down and June ramped up, work at his employer went through a quiet phase (as sometimes happens as projects complete and new ones haven’t begun yet).  He’s ended up home more often than at work over the last six weeks.  Although he’s using up some vacation time, and we’re tweaking to accommodate the smaller paychecks, and though we know it’s a temporary lull, there have been moments where I’ve looked at the bills and wondered how all this was going to work.

I have a distinct memory of attending an introduction to Permaculture workshop some years back, when we were new to this community and the idea of the homestead project.  During a Q and A session, a participant put up his hand and asked the Permaculture teacher, “is there a point at which this all pays off?  I mean lately it feels like all the money is going out—irrigation, seeds, building supplies, soil amendments–is there a point at which we start to see some financial savings?!”

I’m sure the answer was some version of “Yes”, but I actually only remember the question and how it spoke to likely what so many people were anxious about.  Over the years, I’ve participated in lots of discussions about whether growing food or raising chickens saves you money; mostly the answers look something like “Yes, but not if you compare it to the cheapest food you can buy;” “Yes, if you don’t factor in the cost of the original infrastructure, only the ongoing costs of maintenance;” “Yes, if you consider this a hobby/entertainment and don’t think of your time invested as something that should also have a $ value;” “Yes, if you factor in the health care savings of a healthier diet/lifestyle.” You know.  It does save you money, sort of, in the abstract.

I don’t track and quantify our homestead outputs.  For me, this homestead work is part resilience project for possible decline scenarios, and partly just how we want to live, how we want to spend our time.  We have the luxury of two “off-farm” incomes and don’t worry too much about “breaking even” with our products; for me the community-building social capital of sharing our surplus has become as important a part of the fun and resilience-building as any financial gain would be.

That said, there is no question that we save money thanks to our homestead production.  I don’t know about where you live, but around here food prices have noticeably increased over even the last year, and that’s only expected to continue.  The homestead keeps me out of the grocery store enough that I suffer sticker shock periodically when I do need something.  This past winter/early spring I remember balking at an $8 organic cauliflower and it’s $5 conventionally grown counterpart and wondering how on earth other people are coping!

So, over the last year or two, as I have backed away from the goal of self-sufficiency, I have nonetheless been regularly grateful for the way our homestead acts as a financial buffer.  Our stored foods and ongoing production have meant that the things that we still need to buy–and there are many–are still *supplementary* to our comfortable lives; they are not essentials.  Sharon Astyk talked about this in one of her books (Depletion and Abundance I think?): that it’s important to do whatever you can to make your home a productive one, in whatever circumstances you find yourself in, because every bit you can do for yourself *extends* the ability of your income to stretch further than it otherwise would.  Word.

Anyway, payday came and went last week, with Skipper’s cheque much reduced again.  I looked at the bills, paid what I could, shifted and strategized some other bits, and realized that, for the next two weeks, we needed to get by on…$125.  Ouch!  Now don’t worry, we do have a variety of safety nets, but I don’t like to draw on them if I don’t have to.  And because we don’t like to, I wasn’t thinking about them in that moment, I was just thinking about our bottom line.  Which looked depressing.

I stepped away from the computer and started to putter around the house, talking myself down from the panic of that moment.  I started to tidy and move through the fear, reminding myself where the money had gone, that this was temporary, that we were fine.  I thought about what we might need to buy over this next week or two.

And then it hit me.  We didn’t need to buy anything.  We had enough food stored and coming in from the garden to last us for months.  Neither one of us needed to drive anywhere, and both vehicles were full because Skipper was rotating through some stored gas and had just emptied the stored fuel into the truck.  There are two months worth of chicken feed in the shed, stores of homemade soap in the bathroom, I even just bought 2 large packages of toilet paper that was on sale, lol.

It suddenly sunk in that so much of the disconnect that I have often felt between watching the bank account shrink and yet knowing that we’re not spending money on anything frivolous was because this was where all of our money is going: into the homestead bank.  We ARE saving and investing.  It’s just that the savings don’t tally up on numbers on a spreadsheet.  They’re outside in the garden, in the soil, in the berries and the fruit trees, in the chicken run, in the stocked pantry, in the piles of wood on their way into the woodshed, transformed into the butter, pork and fish in the freezer (and whose purchase had in turn gone into the savings accounts of the friends and colleagues who had provided us with them).

Without really paying attention, we have taken significant steps out of the money economy.  Not by eliminating money, but by using it to invest in a real, tangible savings bank, rather than investing it in financial vehicles that are intended to grow more money.

Isn’t this what resilience actually means?  We’ve spent years building up this savings account.  Now, when the money economy is more fragile for us during this particular time in our particular circumstances, it’s time to draw on that account.  Rather than spending money on continuing to build our infrastructure and pantry over these next few weeks, we can coast on our savings for a little while.

So this is the answer to that question from years ago.  Yes, setting up a homestead takes money (though as with all things, the spectrum of how much is needed is vast).  But at some point, magically and mysteriously, the homestead reaches a point of dynamic stability (I know that’s an oxymoron, but it’s true!) and becomes a bank of stored value.  And then it really starts to yield dividends.

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Cooking a Heritage Turkey

We’re having a slightly different sort of Christmas this year.

A few months back, close friends called and said, “we’re coming for Christmas!”  “Great!” We replied.  A few weeks ago, as we started to make preparations, we thought, “What the heck.  Let’s see if our favorite farmer down the road has any turkeys left.”

Adele and Michael Gelling raise heritage livestock and garlic.  What could be better?  We LOVE watching their beautiful Narragansett turkeys grow up; they’re such mellow, friendly, and stunning birds.  We’ve often come home from a visit scouring our yard for a spot we could tuck a few.  No luck so far.

This year, we were in luck; there were a couple of turkeys left, though the smallest she could do was 15lbs.  We thought we’d be 5 adults, and would be able to make a suitable dent in that much meat.

A week or two later, we got the text–our dear friends couldn’t get away and weren’t going to be able to make it down after all.  So sad.  And slightly daunting–what would we do with our big bird?

Last week, we got a text from another friend, who was travelling with his blended family of 6 across the island for Christmas.  Could they stop in on their travels for a quick visit?  “Great!”  We said.  “How about a turkey dinner?!”

So yesterday, December 23rd, we had a fabulous Christmas dinner.  We went all out: our potatoes and rutabagas from the garden, stuffing made with our potatoes, apples, onion and bacon.  Brussel sprouts, gravy, Skipper made a pumpkin and an apple pie (both from our garden), and of course, the bird.

First things first: It was the best turkey we’ve ever eaten.

Second things second: we were incredibly confused about how to cook it, based on all the contradictory information on the interwebs and other various sources.  So we took a deep breath, combined some of the better tips and instincts based on cooking our roosters over the last year, and dove in.  Because it turned out SO well, I thought I’d share, and because we likely cooked our turkey days before anyone else, I thought it might be helpful to get the recipe out now!

Roasting a Heritage Turkey

The big goal is to end up with crispy roasted skin, a cooked-though bird, and super-moist meat.  Not an easy balancing act.  The trick with non-supermarket poultry, according to my new bible, The River Cottage Meat Book, is to do a hot initial sear, and then a longer, low-temperature roast.

We started with a very fresh, never frozen turkey (15.6 lbs).  Obviously not everyone can do this, but I’m sure it made a difference!

Chefs roast a bird that is dry and at room temperature.  After our bird sat in the fridge for more than 24 hrs (which also makes a difference with a fresh bird), we took it out of the fridge, dried it off, and let it sit on the counter for an hour or so to warm up.

The next key thing is to add fat to the bird which helps to crisp the skin and to retain the moisture.  So the Skipper buttered the dry bird, and then added salt, pepper, and herbs.  We also quartered a couple of our apples and stuck them in the cavity (my father always used to do this with oranges, which is also delicious).   Butter inside and out.

Then we realized that our turkey wouldn’t fit in our roasting pan.  Luckily, because it wasn’t actually Christmas yet, the neighbours had something we made work.

The turkey then went into a preheated, 400 degree, hot oven for 20 minutes.  Then, to the hot pan, we added a half-cup or so of white wine, and on went the roasting pan lid, tightly.  We turned the oven down to 325.

Recipes had varied as to how long to roast a turkey, from 20-30 minutes per pound.  With 15 lbs, though, that’s a huge range!  There’s also some debate about what the final temperature of the turkey should be, with the USDA guidelines at 180, but many cooks saying this is WAY too hot, and a guaranteed way to get a dried-out (though safe to eat!!) roast.  Chefs argued for 160-165, especially if you were comfortable with the provenance of the bird, which we were.

We decided to go with 20 mins per pound, and aim for 165, and see what we ended up with.  That math would have given us 5 hours, and we were expecting our guests at 5pm.  So we put the bird in at 12pm, and then decided we’d check on things at 3pm or so, to see if the turkey needed basting, uncovering to crisp or brown, etc.

At three o’clock, we pulled the bird out and uncovered it.  It was stunning!  The skin was crispy and had pulled away from meat in places.  The meat looked juicy, and there was lots of yummy smelling juice at the bottom of the pan.  We stuck the thermometer into the thickest parts of the meat–it was off the charts!  The bird was way over 180.  Ummm, that meant it was done.  2 hours early.

We crossed our fingers that the high temperature didn’t mean a dry bird, texted our friends to see if they could come a little sooner, and left the bird covered in the pan to rest while we pulled together the side dishes.

An hour later, our friends were here, and we had 8 hungry people to do justice to the most succulent, moist, flavourful turkey any of us had ever tasted.  And today, as Skipper and I nibbled on leftovers, we can report that even after a day in the fridge, the meat is STILL MOIST.  Amazing.

So tips we’ve learned about cooking heritage turkey:

Free-range, heritage birds have less meat and more bone for their weight compared to their fattened counterparts.  This throws the cooking times off.  Be warned!

Next time, we will again do the hot initial sear, and we will again cover the bird for the rest of the cooking, after adding a little liquid to the pan.  But Skipper says next time he would lower the heat even more, down to 315 or so.  We’d still use 20 mins per pound as a general guideline, just in case (especially at a lower heat), but again, we’d plan to check the bird early, after 10-15 minutes per pound.  Our bird took 3.5 hours for 15.6 lbs.  But the point is that there is a lot more variation in the heritage, free-range birds, and you can’t just plug in a formula.

We did not brine our bird, and opinions on this for heritage birds varied.  But given that our bird was so fresh, and so potentially tasty, we were worried about over saturating the turkey with water and salt.  After all, in theory a good quality, traditional turkey shouldn’t need to be altered too much to add flavour where there might not be any…We have no regrets.  We think that keeping the bird covered while roasting with extra liquid took the place of brining, and was much simpler.

So there you go!  Hope that helps someone else have a very merry turkey-mas, and whether you’re having a turkey feast, or, as we’re doing tonight, a Ukrainian wheat-free vegan Christmas even dinner, have a wonderful holiday.  On to the garden goals of 2013!

Surviving the Age of Transition

Yesterday’s top news stories:

In Eastern British Columbia, a toxic mining tailings pond threatens to spill its waste in a small community, potentially contaminating everything in its path including rivers and drinking water.  The cause? Record rains straining the dam.

Extreme heat..well, you know..everywhere (except the PNW), and still almost 100,000 without power almost a week after an extreme weather event on the East coast.  And, of course, forest fires burning up Colorado and neighbouring states.

In BC and Washington, the shellfish industry is scrambling.  Ocean acidification means that shellfish hatcheries’ seed stock cannot form shells.  They are now rearing the seed stock in places like Hawaii, where, for the moment, the acid levels are still tolerable.  The companies then ship the young shellfish back to grow in local waters when they are older and can tolerate the conditions.  The commercial industry is adapting.  Unfortunately, wild stocks don’t have that option.  Mussel beds are not reproducing.

Ocean acidification happens because the oceans absorb 30% of our atmospheric carbon.  Unfortunately, the acidification that we’re experiencing now is from C02 absorbed 30-40 years ago.  So even if there was no atmospheric carbon left to absorb, we still have 30-40 years worth of absorbed carbon on its way.  Goodbye marine food.

The global economy is still flailing 4 years after the major collapse in 2008.  No sign of recovery in sight.  Canada was one of the least affected nations in the world, and we are an energy exporter.  But in this global economic climate, the best we’re seeing is flat “growth.”  Guess what one of the major causes of the meltdown was?  According to the Wall Street Journal, the 2008 spike in oil prices may have been the tipping point.

…To recap: massive species die-off, extreme weather events straining our infrastructure, rising cost of living and flat wages, long economic recessions (when does this qualify as a Depression?)…

Umm, folks?  All those scary scif-fi-like predictions of a world affected by peak oil and climate change?  We’re already living it.  And there’s a concensus building that the tipping points that scientists have spent the last decades warning us about are now visible in the rear-view mirror.

I know I haven’t been posting much over the last few months, and this is one of the reasons why.  I’ve been immersed in the latest research into Peak Oil and climate change in preparation for a course I’ll be teaching in the fall, and the conclusions I’m coming to are leaving me in a thinly veiled panic.  In a nutshell?  We’re screwed, and it’s time to start thinking about how we’re going to survive.

Now, I am not a survivalist.  I am a skeptical academic who is suspicious of fear mongering and who has a sunny, optimistic personality.  And part of what is troubling me right now is just how difficult it is to predict the future.  There are experts out there warning us about the apocalyptic collapse of civilization, and there are others who take the long view of history and suggest a slow, grinding, decline is more likely.  After all, as John Michael Greer points out, after suffering two devastating world wars and a great depression, Europe still did not collapse entirely.

However.

We are looking ahead to a very different future.  Every country in the world is holding massive debt, which in theory falls on its taxpayers to repay.  Money that used to be in government trust has been funneled into and centralized in corporations, and is therefore unavailable.  Each extreme weather event that requires massive emergency funding sucks money out of the public coffers, and thus out of the rest of the economy.  With oil prices staying high (even allowing for modest fluctuation), rebuilding and maintaining our infrastructure gets harder and harder.  Food production is threatened by the double whammy of extreme and unpredictable weather coupled with high fuel costs that impact the cost of fertilizers, pesticides, running farm equipment, and distribution.  The cost of every consumer good continues to rise with the rising costs of production.

In the meantime, at the community level, my provincial government has started to sue its local municipalities to try to recoup healthcare costs.  Umm, fighting over scraps anyone?  I used to look to the natural landscape and systems to help supplement my attempts at self-sufficiency–hunting and fishing–to provide the protein that my small homestead cannot produce.  But those natural support systems–if the ocean acidification example is any indication–can not be counted on for much longer.

The burning question for me at the moment is: how long do we have?  And of course, that’s an impossible question to answer.  Way too many variables.  And this makes planning and preparing and adapting tough.

Right now, in this moment, everything is great.  Skipper and I have good jobs, we can afford our mortgage even if costs increase or wages go down in moderation.  The garden is in full swing, and happy, adorable chicks are racing around exclaiming over every new leaf they find.  We and our families are healthy, and our network of wonderful friends continues to grow.  I count our blessings every day.

But I’m looking around our homestead and lifestyle with fresh eyes.  If the economy (globally and locally) continues to shrink and prioritize, we will need to become increasingly self-reliant.  Right now, all of our water and septic needs require electricity.  Rain catchment is moving up the list of priorities, as is the “pizza” oven, which I initially considered a luxury.  But wood-fired ovens need small, hot fires from small brush, of which we have lots from our prunings.

I’m going to be experimenting with dehydrating in the greenhouse, which is otherwise too hot and dry to use in the height of summer.  Dehydrating is less power intensive than freezing or even canning, although I’ll still do that too.  I’ll be working at building my capacity to keep us in food year-round, but I won’t be investing in grow-lights.  As one friend put it: you can replace heat cables.  You can’t create light without power.  A small solar panel won’t power even a cfl grow-light at this point (and covering the greenhouse roof with solar panels defeats the purpose! 🙂 ).  But YMMV–depends what happens to our sunshine over the years to come.

Oh and permaculture?  I’ve been reading and admiring for a few years, integrating a technique here and there.  But I’ve been stuck in the idea that there’s little that’s “natural” about permaculture–you’re basically trying to imitate a natural system with imported plants in order to create something productive for humans.  But now I get it–permaculture is essential, and I will be picking up the new Garden Farming for Town and Country asap.  Because although working WITH natural systems is the only way to be productive without oil, climate change means that the ecosystems that we’re used to integrating into will be changing dramaticallly.  So we need to work with more resilient perennials, maximizing diversity, and creating food systems (even basic ones with annuals to supplement) that require few if any inputs in the future, when it counts.  In the long term, we will need to go back to living off the surplus of the land, but the land as it is is too degraded to support us.  Permaculture is the way to rebuild that support system.

I’m also reflecting on our chickens.  Our flock is very productive and useful; they will stay.  But the backyard chickens movement has really focused on dual-purpose birds, and I’m starting to question that.  Dual-purpose birds are calm, don’t fly much, and produce both eggs and meat.  Awesome!  But they were really bred for the integrated farm, to live off the farm wastes and surpluses, like grains.  They could also often forage over the whole farm property, which could provide lots of food.  Neither of these scenarios describes our situation.

The vegan argument around livestock has long revolved around the feed conversion ratio: even the most hybridized birds eat 2 lbs of grain to produce 1 lb of meat, which is a waste of grain that could be feeding people directly.  Now there are lots of reasons why this is not a useful argument, but the core principle remains: if grain prices continue to rise and my forage space is limited, are dual-purpose chickens the right livestock for us?  I will be investigating the Mediterranean breeds and the Euskal Oiloa to see if the more traditional third-world backyard bird–the scrawny egg producer that needs much less feed–is a more viable option.

Over the coming months, I’ll be considering every aspect of our lifestyles for their resiliency, and I’m prepared to make some radical changes if necessary.  After all, our family has a window in which to get better prepared, and I want to make the most of it.

 

 

 

Is Eating Meat a Sustainable Choice?

Judging by the content of the many homesteading blogs that I read, there are MANY of us wrestling with the place of meat in our diets.  Anecdotally, it seems that those of us who have been working with food issues for decades went vegetarian or vegan in the 1990s, when animal rights, the realities of feed lots, and concerns about feeding a growing global population entered the collective middle-class North American consciousness (or when I headed off to university!).  Fast forward twenty years, and so much has changed in the world of alternative food production and our understanding of what sustainability means that many of us are taking another look at our food choices.

At the moment, I’m uncommitted and actively wrestling.  For the last twenty years, I have eaten seafood, eggs and dairy and in the last ten I’ve made sure those were ethically sourced.  I’ve had years where I ate in a more vegan style and years that were more fish-heavy.  There have been times where I have been repulsed by the meat my dinner companions were eating (the first time the Skipper ordered chicken in front of me I freaked out) and times where I have asked to taste the meat on their plates.  I have had no weight or other health issues stemming from this basic diet.

My sister, whom I love dearly and respect hugely, has been vegan for almost as many years.  For her the choice not to consume any animal products is extremely personal and comes from a deep place of compassion and love for animals.  I have always respected her ability to put those principles first, before all other immediate needs that might come up, whereas I tend to bend to culture and tradition when that feels more important to me.  I feel very temporary and small on this planet, and often feel like there are more important factors at play than the choices I might make at a meal in my own home.

My sis is extremely healthy, and had zero issues even when pregnant.  Her now five-year old son has also been raised essentially vegan thus far, and is the sturdiest, tallest, most physically vigorous child you could ever meet.  In fact, he was so robust as a youngster that the “fragile vegan baby” comment became a running joke!  They are also content and thriving in their food choices.

I cite this personal information because many of those in the “post-vegan” ethical eating ranks often comment that they just never did do well on a vegan diet, got tired of the “you’re just not doing it right” criticisms, and felt hugely better when they started eating meat again, even in small quantities.  In my family, we obviously do just fine on lower protein, plant-based diets, and our health is not really playing into these decisions, except in the sense that the standard info that suggest that the average global citizen is healthier eating less or no meat seems to apply to us.  I absolutely believe that everyone, physically, is different and needs to find the balance that is right for them.

My sis recently wrote that she believed that there would be less animal suffering in the world if we all moved to a vegan diet.  We talked a little about that point, because at my stage in this journey, I just don’t believe this to be true.  But she raised issues that did get me thinking, and rethinking some of the commonly held wisdom in homesteading circles these days, and I wanted to sort out my thoughts.

So here are some of the issues and premises that I believe to be true at this point.

1.  No food product that is produced through large-scale mono-cropping that requires lots of heavy machinery, fertilizers, herbicides/pesticides, other drugs (for animals), uses gmos, produces toxic waste products, and destroys topsoil and soil fertility is sustainable.

At the moment, I would argue that this includes most (organic and not) livestock production, all non-organic soy, corn,  (I’ll have to do more research but I suspect) probably most non-organic grain production, much of the non-organic and according to Michael Pollan much of the large-scale organic vegetable and fruit production.  This is also true, in my mind, of most processed food production, and that includes organic processed foods like fake meats and cookies, and also much of the commercial canning industry which uses metal, plastic, and international shipping to get cans of chickpeas and tuna to my local supermarket.

I believe that eating a diet that consumes the above products causes animal (and human!) suffering whether we eat the animals or not.  Whether it’s habitat destruction, carbon emissions, or combines harvesting hundreds of acres and killing untold numbers of animals in its teeth, this system is horrifying.  A vegan eating exclusively from this system, I belive, is deluding themselves that they are helping.  With perhaps the caveat that CAFO animals are living a nightmare and that at least the wild animals destroyed in other ways got some natural experience in their short lives.  Ugh.

2.  A traditional, diverse family farm before industrialization was pretty close to a closed-loop system with animals playing a symbiotic role with all the other parts of food production for the community.  The more I research this, the more amazed and inspired I am by the way the systems inter-related and worked together.  There was no waste, no loss of soil fertility, animals could be raised and killed humanely, and every part of them was consumed.  Much less meat was also eaten in that system than is eaten today in a Standard American Diet in terms of overall quantity.

There are people out there today farming according to these practices, and I love the idea of participating in such a system myself.  But I can’t delude myself, either.  This model takes land (especially for pasture and fallow fields), and it takes labour.  It worked then because families were big and land was available for reasonable prices.  The land-size and system can be scaled down some, we can use goats instead of cows, or mini/heritage cows, for instance, but we still need some acres.  I don’t have acres, can’t really afford acres where we live, and live in a family of 2 who both work full-time.  Much of this blog has been about figuring out how to make the dream fit our reality!

3.  Much of the world’s population lives on small amounts of land, which they do not necessarily own, and eats vegetables and staple crops that they produce with hand tools in small plots.  Meat in small amounts from small animals that co-exist with them provides crucial nutrient-dense calories, fat and protein.  These communities have very little environmental impact in the world and are probably the model that is sustainable on a global scale.

4.  To produce plant foods sustainably takes good soil fertility, which means returning nutrients to the soil in exchange for those that we remove through our food crop harvesting.  That fertility can come from two major places (though it usually comes from both): plant sources as compost, or animal sources as manure.  Jon Jeavons’ work in California has demonstrated that plant sources are adequate and a vegan diet can be sustainably produced, and his system requires that a significant part of your land be used to grown compost crops each year.  I can’t remember what the percentage is, but the whole system requires 4,000 square feet per person.

Small-scale livestock on a homestead can produce major amouts of fertility through manure and bedding compost in a very small space–arguably less than it would take to grow enough compost crops and on poorer land.  My 8 chickens have a generous 200 sq’ of of predator-proof enclosed space in an area of the yard that would be challenging if not impossible to grow in (under trees), and then can forage in the rest of the yard, allowing the orchard, for instance, to do double-duty.  They allow me to stretch my other garden waste to produce the soil fertility I need, as well as eggs and eventually…well, soup stock anyway.  Or more fertility in a garden grave if I didn’t have the heart to eat them. 🙂

5.  Many animals are raised with grain-based feed.  Not all need it–pigs and cows don’t, and pigs produce more manure and consume more waste foods.  But these animals also require more space than we have, so we’d have to buy them from someone else, which means they’re not adding anything to our own system.  But I have yet to meet or hear about anyone who is raising chickens–particularly meat birds–without grain.  In fact, when I decided to look into meat birds as a possible next step in our food production, I quickly realized that much of the conversation around pasturing birds (ie meat birds in a chicken tractor) as an economically sustainable system revolves around the Feed Conversion Ratio–ie, how much grain feed does a bird require to reach a reasonable slaughter weight?

The current dominant Cornish Rock hybrid birds, the ones who have been bred to grow so quickly they can’t stand up by the time they are slaughter-weight at a mere 8 weeks old and who start having heart attacks if you keep them alive much longer than that, have a low feed-conversion ratio of 2.5 lbs of grain for 1 lb of meat.  Many people are horrified by the Cornish broiler and are actively looking at other options; those other options are more expensive because their FCR’s are much higher, if only because they live longer as they put on weight at a healthier pace.  I have seen FCR’s as high as almost 5:1.  This clearly creates a better life for both the birds and the people eating them, but is growing grain for livestock feed at those conversion rates really sustainable?

6.  Growing grain crops to feed livestock to allow more people in the world to eat more meat is not sustainable.  This is well documented.  There are numerous countries in the world who were once exporters of food who are now importers because of the demand for meat and the grain required to produce it.  Undeniable.  However, it’s the industrial system and scale of raising meat that creates the problem; given that all large-scale traditional and sustainable societies ate meat, this imbalance is clearly not necessary.

7.  Wild meat is likely an overlooked and sustainable part of our diets that needs to be reconsidered.  I really think this is a piece missing from both sides of the debate, although the hunting movement is apparently growing.  Around these parts, we have an overpopulation of deer partly due to habitat destruction as a result of urban sprawl which is also arguably unsustainable.  But it’s also because attitudes around hunting have removed predators.  And the overpopulation of deer is a massive environmental problem that we need to take responsibility for.  There’s a great source of locally produced food with an environmental benefit and few ethical issues that would beat a can of chickpeas from Morocco any day.

With all this said (and more to be said–I haven’t touched on fat or fish yet, but this is getting epically long!), I still haven’t changed any of my eating habits yet.  But while I’m still not eating meat at the moment, I’m also not NOT eating meat. 🙂  Because my position right now is that we live in a highly imperfect world enmeshed with an unsustainable industrial food production system.  And although we are personally working our way towards eating only ethically produced foods, there are still gaps, when we look REALLY closely.  I do believe that we have created enough resilience on our own property that we COULD survive if we needed to off what we produce or what is available here.  But that’s not what we’re doing at the moment, which is fine.

But the point I wanted to make is that when I look at all of these facts, what I see is that eating meat or not, in and of itself, is not the deciding factor of whether a particular diet is sustainable.  Very few of us in North America are eating a truly sustainable diet either way, and there is work to be done for all of us to improve the systems.

And I think it’s true for all of us working on environmental issues  that there are easy changes to make–like growing lots of your own produce–and then there are much harder, and potentially higher impact things that need changing.  And if we keep slapping ourselves on the back for opting out of the easy things, we may not end up really doing the work to change the more difficult ones.  And that’s a challenge I think it’s time I took up a little more seriously.

 

 

 

Watching for Bees

There was a brief item on the news this morning that caught my ear.  Blueberry farmers in the Fraser Valley (which produces a LOT of berries for North America) are three weeks behind in their crop and harvest because of the cold weather.  No surpise there.  But they are also concerned because even though the plants are now flowering, the temperatures have been so much colder than normal that farmers aren’t at all sure that they will get normal levels of pollination, which could also mean a much smaller crop.

Here I am, trying to wrap my head all the time around the intricate interconnections of the natural world, and I hadn’t even thought about the bees!  I saw bees around our place a while back, probably the last time we had a warm day.  According to the farmer on the radio, bees start flying around at about 15 degrees (C).  Just yesterday, the Skipper and I were exclaiming over the beautiful showing of apple blossoms erupting on our many trees.  Last year, crazy weather meant that we were hit hard by powdery mildew and most of the blossoms didn’t open at all–they were stunted and rusty and we got about 5 apples total from several trees.

This year, my theory has been that even though it’s been cold, it’s been consistently so.  No wild temperature swings between February and May to fool plants into thinking it’s safe to come out and then getting blasted by winter once more.  So I was hoping that we might get lucky with the slow creep toward warmer temperatures that might be more normal from a plant’s perspective.  And so far so good–the trees are covered in perfect pink blossoms, and the blueberries, strawberries and cherries are all starting to flower up nicely.

But now that I think about it, I haven’t seen a single bee in those beautiful flowers in days!  And when I have noticed one, it’s been remarkable, which means that there aren’t many around.  Usually I’m not noticing bees one at a time, I’m remarking at the sight and sound of swarms over the available blooms.  And as I’ve been getting ready to plant all of the summer “beneficial insect attractors” from seed in the newly cleared beds, I hadn’t even thought about these early plants that will be long past flowering by the time those new annuals come up…

So there’s another reason to keep our fingers crossed for warmer weather.  Come on out bees!

Gardening in an Uncertain Climate: Technology and Scale

The latest long-term weather prediction that I heard yesterday was for a warmer than usual summer everywhere in the country except perhaps Vancouver.  Here’s hoping we’re included in the heat!  Come ooonnnnn Tomatoes!!

On the other hand, this has been a much colder than normal spring.  Farms around here are announcing that they are 3 weeks behind schedule, and that veggie sales won’t start in earnest until June.

Bottom line: in food production, weather trumps everything, and our weather is more unpredictable than it used to be.  (I read a great British garden book last year where the gardener told newbies not to be afraid, because in a good weather year, even the worst gardeners can’t go wrong, and in a bad weather year, even the master gardeners can’t do well!)  So what to do?  We are prioritizing more and more our food security, and the weather isn’t making those steps easy.

I’ve noticed, though, that those best equipped to deal with unpredictable weather are home gardeners.  By virtue of being smaller and therefore more carefully tended, the home gardener has all kinds of options for mitigating weather issues that the farmer simply doesn’t have the time or money to put into place.

I shared the story a couple of months back about talking to the farmer as I was ordering my seed potatoes.  She solemnly told me that they had lost a huge percentage of their potatoes last year because of the August and September rains.  For a moment, I didn’t know what she was talking about.  Then I remembered that we had grabbed a tarp and covered our potato patch, saving our harvest with little effort.  I mentioned this to the farmer; her response was, “we have 200 acres!”

This week, a local farmer was writing about last year’s tomato harvest–they had lost hundreds of pounds of tomatoes (and consequent income) in those same late summer rains last year.  I can’t imagine what it must have felt like to watch those plants nurtured from seed rotting in the fields.  When the rains started threatening here, I panicked about blight and ripening, and the Skipper promptly rigged up poly covers for all the tomato beds.  Despite a lousy tomato year, we still had lots to eat through November, and we’re still eating our way through our home-canned jars.

On the other hand, I wonder sometimes about how we home gardeners are really adapting to this uncertain weather.  Laura, over at the Modern Victory Garden, has pacific northwest vegetable production down to a science.  She recently blogged about her tomato process, influenced by her very short growing season.  She starts pretty much everything “ultra early” under grow lights inside–tomatoes in January!–and then plants out as the weather allows.  As a result, she gets unbelievable production out of a modestly-sized and modestly sunny space.

I’m learning from her experience–and those of many others–but I have this niggling worry about whether this kind of self-sufficiency really equals resiliency.  There seems to be a paradox for me that in order to produce the foods we want to eat in the climate we’re living in, we need to use high levels of technology and a lot of plastic: row covers, greenhouse film (plastic hoophouse covers), plastic heat-reflecting “mulch”,  heat cables and mats, grow lights, pvc pipe or metal conduit, plastic irrigation tubing, drip tape, timers… Clearly few of these technological advantages will be ours in a low-carbon future.

Now, just because we won’t have these things down the road, does that mean we shouldn’t use them now? I’m not sure.  I’ve tried to stay fairly low tech.  I don’t use grow lights, and I’m learning to use the unheated glass greenhouse that I inherited on the property.  I’ve switched to soil blockers from plastic cell packs, which is wonderful, but, in fact the cell packs were all recycled anyway.  But I did use a heat cable in a sand-covered tray this year, rather than starting all my seeds in the house (we don’t have a great south-facing window space for setting up everything I’m starting) that’s already being kept warm.

And then there’s the reality of the technological advantage!  Last year we bought a Costco-sized bolt of row-cover fabric that we never used.  A few weeks back I was transplanting out lettuce, spinach, etc, and decided to try a row-covered hoop-house over one of the beds.  The difference in size and maturity between those planted in that hoop-house and those not is amazing!  Yet again, I was ready to cover the whole raised bed section of our garden in a giant greenhouse!

When I start talking to the Skipper about germination temperatures and days to maturity and minimal night temperatures and nutrient balances, his eyes start to glaze over.  He shakes his head at me and says, “we just used to put seeds in the ground!”  He thinks I’m way over-complicating things!  And remember, this is from someone who grew up in a very short growing season, one complete with “Fogust”.

His mom’s rural garden in the 60s and 70s would have been pretty low tech.  They started seeds in the window.  They mulched with seaweed and buried their seafood shells.  Whatever they grew in that short summer season supplemented a pretty simple staple diet of fish and potatoes.  And his mom grew up down the road in what would have been a pretty self-sufficient world by necessity–they were pretty remote, and had lived pretty much the same way for several generations.  They raised some sheep and used the fleece for wool clothing.  They used horses for their woodlots and other heavy lifting.  They fished for themselves and for some cash, and did a huge variety of other things for themselves and for the income they needed for those things they couldn’t provide on their own.  And generally–except for the smoking!–they lived pretty long and healthy lives.  I’m sure many of us have similar stories in our family history–we all do, I guess, if you go back far enough.

What’s not in the Skipper’s story and memory, though, is all the local knowledge that would have allowed them to live like this.  He remembers a lot, but mostly about the things he cared about: fishing, his uncle’s mill, anything with a motor, using the horse in the forest.  But all the knowledge that I suspect went into his mother’s garden?  I think that’s where “we just put seeds in the ground” comes in!  I’ll have to ask her on this visit!   When to plant what, what crops not to bother with, did they save seeds, what to start early and what to direct sow, what grew well, did they cover anything, etc, etc.  I suspect there was a little more going on than the busy boy remembers!

So if the low-carbon past is also our future, and if we need to produce as much as we can because of industrial food insecurity, where does that leave all of this high-carbon technology?

Well, personally, I’m not boycotting it just yet.  As a new gardener, I need to gain experience and knowledge, and using technology is helping me to understand important relationships between plants and temperature, pests, days to maturity, and more.  If I didn’t use any fossil-fuels right now, I’d be pretty limited in what and when I could grow.  I could experiment with varieties, and I could use my south-facing window as best I could.   I could try to create micro-climates outside through permaculture design instead of with plastic (which I should be doing anyway!).

But the technology is allowing me to really understand the difference that warmer night temperatures and soil temperatures make.  And my hope is that understanding that principle means that when I can’t justify using the fossil-fuels, I will get creative with manure and water sinks and all the other ways that might be available to get the same effect with less technology.

Of course, Sharon Astyk writes convincingly that right now we should “Do it Anyway”; that we should be trying to live “as if” the low-carbon future was here.  We have flexibility, we can still go to the store.  We should learn to garden the resilient way while we can afford to make mistakes–before our survival depends on it.

So what do you think?  Are we fooling ourselves that we can produce food in abundance as long as we’re relying on fossil-fuel technology?  Or is the technology a tool to build security and knowledge in the short-term?  Are you taking advantage of the scale of the home garden to do mitigate things that farmers couldn’t?

What’s in a Name?

As I follow the stories of others as excited as I am about growing food, I’ve often wondered if we qualify as a movement yet.  Actually, I’ve been wondering this for a few years, and the media coverage of a “growing movement” of folks rediscovering the joys and value of growing food at home has definitely increased in the last year.  But I’ve been wondering lately if the reason that this movement remains so grassroots (or feels like it to me, anyway) is that like many upswells in the environmental movement, it doesn’t have a name.

Or rather, everyone who comes to this place in their lives seems to be giving what they do their own name!  Over the last year or two, I’ve seen and heard folks describe what they are doing as gardening, victory gardening, yardening, backyard farming, urban homesteading (although apparently that name is now trademarked and I shouldn’t use it without permission!), homesteading, self-sufficient gardening, backyard homesteading, mini-farming, micro-farming, sub-acre agriculture… and that’s not even including the different variations on the names for the methods chosen: organic, beyond organic, biodynamic, biointensive, permaculture, food forestry, synergistic gardening, … what have I left out?!

In my own journey, I started by just wanting to grow some food and to have a garden at all.  For whatever reason, I’ve never been an urban gardener.  Even when I knew that I desperately wanted to do this, I couldn’t bring myself to do containers on the patio or take advantage of the rooftop raised beds in our last condo.  I equated gardening with–literally–roots.  And until I felt emotionally settled–rooted myself–I couldn’t plant anything.

When we were househunting, it became clear that I wasn’t looking for a garden.  I was looking for a GARDEN.  I didn’t want to just enjoy growing a few tomatoes or some fresh salad greens.  I wanted to grow everything we ate.  I knew I probably wouldn’t be able to do that in my first year (especially given some pretty limited experience!), but I would have argued with you if you had tried to convince me I couldn’t!  Go big or go home, apparently, is my personality (this will not be a surprise for anyone who has known me for any length of time).

I wanted to garden for self-sufficiency.  And I wanted to do it in the most ecologically harmonious way possible.  Along the way, I began to feel uncomfortable with the idea of vegetables and fruit as commodities at all.  I felt drawn and connected to my homesteading ancestors, and got interested in heirloom vegetables and heritage breeds of livestock.  More importantly, I felt drawn to the way a homestead was once an ecological system, with complex, four-dimensional (time being very much a factor) integrated relationships between every aspect: plants, pasture, livestock, water, humans (women, men, children, teenagers), weather, labour…

But I realized over this past winter that the problem with the homestead model, for me, is that it feels isolated.  I’ve been through this cycle before, feeling independent and wanting to go off and do my own thing apart from everyone else, and then realizing that there is no way to do anything apart from everyone else!  The homestead model existed only when the first wave of pioneers/colonial settlers in North America headed out to impose their ancestral farming knowledge on “new” lands. They did this, in many cases, with almost no supporting infrastructure, and many, many failed because it was so difficult.  But those who succeeded are icons of North American culture, and the model of the independent, hard-working, resilient individual who relied only on themselves for their success has been held up by our Protestant civilization for generations.

But now I’m on another stage in this journey, and the independent homesteader name with all the individualism it connotes just isn’t working for me.  And in fact, it’s another model that’s taken hold of my dreams: the small farm.

Now the definition of “small” has changed a lot, too, over these generations.  The traditional small family farm was still comprised of tens of acres, if not hundreds, and it was a synergistic fit with other aspects of the culture of its time: the large family and the tight-knit community.  In our industrial culture, we idealize those days and romanticize those who keep them alive, like the Amish and the Mennonites.

As I’ve dreamed about making my own property along these traditional lines, though, I’ve run into all kinds of problems because that synergy just isn’t in my current variables.  We are two people with no children who have other full-time jobs (much as we’re willing to downsize those!).  Our small property has no pasture (no lawn!) and few flat spaces.  Our garden beds (apart from the raised beds we just built) are not flat, laid out in any kind of grid or even in the ground (!), so many of the tools that are designed to help with production on a small farm are not viable here.   And according to some calculations, there’s no way we would ever produce enough income from the land size we have to make our labour at it worthwhile (except as a hobby).

At the same time, it’s become clear to me that I have an unbridled passion that longs to be let loose as farming.  I cannot relate to those who putter and grow a few things for fun.  I want to provide food and relationships for my community, not just for my husband and me.  I had an epiphany a few weeks ago when I realized that other people, even those invested in food security issues etc, do not necessarily want to talk for hours about planting peas (shocking, but true!).  I have finally clued in that I have the heart of a (small) farmer and it’s time to embrace my secret passion.

Now I’ve struggled this year with this compulsion taking hold.  I knew that I wanted to name myself a farmer and my property a farm.  But so much seemed to stand in the way!  The word “farm” is a significant one, with many implications–social, historical, commercial, legal.  And a farmer is someone who gets up before dawn, milks cows, works insane hours physically, barely makes a living, is in mountains of debt, and is too busy with farming to do anything else.  Right?

Well I hope not.  Because I don’t want to move house, I don’t like to get up before daylight, and I have no upper body strength.  But I still want to farm.  And the amazing thing is, once I stopped fighting how impossible it was for me to farm here and started thinking about how I might be able to make it work, the possibilities seemed to open up dramatically.  So stay tuned… Backyard Feast is becoming something old and something new all at once.  And I have a name already picked out.  I’m just not quite ready to share it yet.