Monday, June 04, 2007

Keeping You Safe

A few weeks ago I saw author Wendell Berry in person at ISU. Wendell Berry wrote The Unsettling of America, a powerful book that's rearranged more than one reader's priorities (including mine). This book was about culture and agriculture in America, and though it was written 30 years ago, all of its issues are relevant today. When I saw Wendell Berry I asked him what inspired him to write the book. He said that he wrote it because he wanted to start a dialogue on issues in agriculture. While he didn't start the wide-reaching dialogue that he intended to begin, he has reached individuals all over the country who are willing to take this dialogue and run with it. Including me. I plan to write a lot about Wendell Berry's ideas in this blog.

Wendell Berry was sitting on a panel when I saw him at ISU, and one of the great questions that the audience asked the panel was, How do we help young farmers get into sustainable ag these days? How do young farmers make a living from farming without going the conventional route?

The answer: Tell people (the government) to get out of their way.

Amen! It seems that everywhere I turn in I run into regulations that will set me back a lot of time and cost me a lot of money. One example the panel gave was for wine making in Kentucky. According to distribution laws in Kentucky, a small family winery was required to hire a distribution company to move their wine bottles from their storage building to their wine tasting room (no more than 50 feet away). Apparently the distribution business has quite a racket going in Kentucky. FYI--To get around these rules (which would introduce an unneeded middleman that would set them back a lot of money), the family started up a distribution company of their own.

Tim and I have experienced regulations firsthand when making our herb-infused oils. We have to rent a commercial kitchen and apply for an annual permit (which comes with annual fees and an annual inspection) in order to produce our oils. People have been making these oils for years without any problems, but in this century they're considered "potentially hazardous."

A lot of farm-related regulations are set to protect consumer safety. And I think consumer safety is a good idea. However, what most people don't realize is that numerous small local operations have been put out of business in the name of "consumer safety." Meanwhile, the big companies (the ones with influence in Washington) are the last to be touched (GMOs, aspartame, pesticides, CAFOS: health hazards that apparently we can all live with). In fact, sometimes these big ag companies can actually influence law making to specifically put niche producers out of business. For example, Monsanto is trying to get the government to make it illegal for dairies to label their milk as "rBGH-free." rBGH is a growth hormone big operations feed cows to make them produce more milk. I consider rBGH as being one more hormone than my body really needs to see. Aside from that, do I want milk that comes from artificial abundance? It has been my experience that there are natural ways and there are manufactured ways to increase production. Natural ways increase all aspects of production, ensuring that all the nutrients that should be in milk are in your milk when it hits the store shelf. Meanwhile, manufactured abundance tends to lead to nutrient-deprived foods. Do I think rBGH-free milk is inferior milk? The odds are yes. Check out this small article from Acres USA:

Monsanto, the creators of the artificial growth hormone rBGH, are complaining about the increasing number of dairies that label their milk "rBGH-free." In letters to the FDA and to the Federal Trade Commission, Monsanto claims that consumer are being duped into believing that milk from rBGH cows is somehow inferior, and that such "misleading labeling" should be stopped. The FDA approved the hormone in1993, saying that it is safe and undetectable, so at press time it remains to be seen what, if any, action will be taken.

Go Monsanto.

The next time I post, I'll wax poetic on NAIS, one of the best examples I can think of how industrial ag is influencing our government to not only hurt small local producers but also hurt all U.S. consumers. Stay tuned!

Sunday, May 20, 2007

What Am I?

Sometimes identifying a vegetable in the field can be tricky. Sure, we know what the vegetable looks like on the store shelf, but are we sure we know what it looks like in the garden? Frankly, I haven't always been able to recognize the vegetables in their natural state. Here are some of my favorite "clueless vegetable" moments:

The first time I saw a Brussels sprout plant, I had no idea what I was looking at. That was back when Tim and I volunteered at Angelic Organics, a big CSA outside of Chicago (if any of you saw the The Real Dirt on Farmer John, then you've seen Angelic Organics). I had to ask a farm intern what it was. Later that day I also had to ask what the celeriac was.

In our first CSA year, my sister and I weeded out all the mizuna (a spicy green) from our mesclun mix. When we had just finished up, Tim came along to set us straight!

That first CSA year we also lost the tags out of a couple of vining plants. So we planted the vines in a special little patch next to the greenhouse. Eventually we determined that the plant was a melon, and it was growing some huge fruit! Every day in August we eagerly thumped a watermelon, eager to eat it. Finally Tim pronounced it ready. We pulled it off the vine and chilled in the refrigerator. At last it was time to dig in. It took me 5 minutes to cut my way through the monster melon! I opened it up and was in for a surprise. The inside was white and dry. We were still clueless until we tasted the thing. It turns out we had harvested a green pumpkin. That was the worst...melon...ever!

The hardest time to identify a plant is in the spring--that's especially true when I plant something I haven't grown before. Sometimes I'll find myself a couple of weeks afterward staring at my plot, wondering what's weeds and what's not.

Earlier this month I ventured out with my camera and took pictures of plants that were just starting to pop up. I've posted some of the pictures below. See if you can guess what they are!

I'm a potato!

Soon we'll be producing succulent strawberries.

We're red and yellow spring shallots.

I'm a future head of lettuce.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Fast Food...Fast Clothes?

I'll confess to eating the occasional Chicken Whopper from Burger King or the always classic McDonad's cheeseburger, but like everyone else, I know all about the dangers of fast food--it's highly processed, highly fattening, and bad for the environment. But one thing I'd never considered was fast clothes--cheap clothes that fall apart quickly and end up in the landfill--until I read "Fast Clothes Versus Green Clothes," an article published by the International Herald Tribune.

It's not just that the clothes fall apart quickly; it's also how they're made. According to the article, "Clothes — and fast clothes in particular — are large and worsening sources of the carbon emissions that contribute to global warming, both because of how they are produced and how they are cared for."

Some stores, like the British store Marks & Spencer, have found success emphasizing green clothes. When I looked online, I found several stylish items; the only problem was the price. Like organic food, for now it seems organic clothing is out of reach for many Americans. For example, Levi's new organic jeans are more expensive than its regular jeans--the cheapest eco pair costs $59 and the most expensive is $245. Still, it's something I'll think about the next time I need a new pair of jeans--including whether I really need that new pair in the first place!

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Could You Go a Year Without Toilet Paper?

I don't think I could, but that's exactly what the Conlin-Beavin family is doing in an attempt to live for a year without leaving an impact on the environment, according to this article.

Here's the scoop:

Welcome to Walden Pond, Fifth Avenue style. Isabella’s parents, Colin Beavan, 43, a writer of historical nonfiction, and Michelle Conlin, 39, a senior writer at Business Week, are four months into a yearlong lifestyle experiment they call No Impact. Its rules are evolving, as Mr. Beavan will tell you, but to date include eating only food (organically) grown within a 250-mile radius of Manhattan; (mostly) no shopping for anything except said food; producing no trash (except compost, see above); using no paper; and, most intriguingly, using no carbon-fueled transportation.

It helps that they have a book deal to write about their experience, but deal or no deal, I don't think I could do what they're doing! The article details their current lifestyle, which is pretty intense. Maybe they're taking it a little far, but it made me think about my lifestyle and ways to lessen my impact on the environment. If you want to follow their journey, check out their blog,

Thursday, May 03, 2007

A Year of Eating Locally

Enough articles from the New York Times--here's one from about author Barbara Kingsolver (you have to watch a short ad before entering the site). Kingsolver has written many books, the most popular of which is probably The Poisonwood Bible. Now she (and her husband and daughter) have written a nonfiction book about the year she and her family spent producing their own food:

Part memoir, part investigative journalism, part cookbook, "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" is co-authored by Kingsolver's environmental scientist husband, Steven Hopp, and their then-19-year-old daughter, Camille... Together they tell the story of the year the family spent eating only food produced on or near their southwest Virginia farm. The central narrative rings with Kingsolver's characteristic biting humor; Hopp's sidebars focus on the industry and science of food production. Camille's passionate essays, informed by youthful idealism and by her sharp intelligence, also include meal plans and recipes.

The interview with Kingsolver covers a lot of interesting questions about the approach she took to writing the book as well as about the disconnect between Americans and the food we eat. I particularly like her answer to the last question of the interview, what she hopes readers will take away from the book:

Food is the one consumer choice we have to make every day. We can use that buying power in a transaction that burns excessive fossil fuels, erodes topsoil, supports multinationals that pay their workers just a few bucks a day -- or the same money could strengthen neighborhood food economies, keep green spaces alive around our towns, and compensate farmers for applying humane values. Every purchase weighs in on one side or the other....

It's not necessary to live on a farm to eat mindfully, but it's necessary to know farms exist, and have some appreciation for what they do. It takes a little background to recognize the social, biological and epicurean differences between CAFOs [Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations] and pasture operations, extractive vs. sustainable farming, or even what will be in season each month of the year. Amazingly, the outcome of responsible choices can be good health, money saved and a happy palate. Really, it's good news.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Mary Mary Quite Contrary...

How Does Your Garden Grow?

With apple trees

And baby peas

And asparagus/rhubarb in rows

Red or White...or Green?

Here's yet another article from the New York Times about organic food--only this time, the focus is wine. "When the Wine is Green" talks about the growth in organic wines.

I found this quote to be particularly relevant to what we're trying to do with the CSA (emphasis mine):

Green has not yet replaced red or white or even pink as the most important color in deciding which wines to buy, but people have started to think about it. Words like organic, biodynamic, natural and sustainable are increasingly resonating with consumers, not just because they are concerned about health and the environment, but because they are beginning to associate them with great wine, the way organic has become a synonym for high-quality produce.

That’s largely because the growing number of producers who practice some form of natural grape growing and winemaking do so not just because they see it as environmentally responsible but because they believe these methods make better wine.

For all the reasons to eat organic (and, I would add, local) vegetables, the best one is the taste (and nutrients)!

Another interesting point the article explores is biodynamic methods, which we've experimented with. Even if you're not into wine, the article is worth checking out for its explanation of terms like organic, sustainable, biodynamic, and natural.

The King of Green

Prince Charles has been the butt of a lot of jokes, but it seems he has quite a following among the American "food elite." According to an article at, he has his own organic food company (think of a royal version of Newman's Originals) and a farm where he has a 15-acre garden. Here's more:

At the entrance to Home Farm, a short drive from his house, rustic signs proclaim the land free of genetically modified organisms. Rare breeds of British cattle eat red clover. Heirloom ginger Tamworth pigs roll in royal mud. The prince (actually, the prince’s people) grow vegetables from heirloom seeds, and raise organic oats that are baked into the thin, crisp crackers that are the flagship of the Duchy Originals line.

“Given another life, I think he’d have been a farmer,” said David Wilson, the manager of Home Farm.

Who knew?

Friday, April 27, 2007

Super Natural Cooking

It can be challenging to come up with new and delicious ways to prepare our vegetables--all I can say is thank goodness for the Internet! One site that I like to read for ideas is a food blog called 101 Cookbooks. Heidi Swanson, the author of the site, says "The premise this site was built on is best summed up in two sentences: When you own over 100 cookbooks, it is time to stop buying, and start cooking. This site chronicles a cookbook collection, one recipe at a time."

Even better, now Heidi has a cookbook out called Super Natural Cooking, with not just recipes, but also advice on natural sweeteners, different kinds of grains, building a pantry of natural foods, and so on. I can't wait to try the recipes for black tea spring rolls and sweet potato spoon bread! For now, though, I would settle for savory asparagus bread pudding. Be sure to check out her site for more great ideas!

You Are What You Grow

If this title is true, then we're feeling pretty good! I came across the article "You Are What You Grow" by Michael Pollan, author of The Ominvore's Dilemma, at the New York Times online (free registration required at to read the full article). If you've ever wondered why "the most reliable predictor of obesity in America today is a person’s wealth," look no further.

For the answer, you need look no farther than the farm bill. This resolutely unglamorous and head-hurtingly complicated piece of legislation, which comes around roughly every five years and is about to do so again, sets the rules for the American food system — indeed, to a considerable extent, for the world’s food system. Among other things, it determines which crops will be subsidized and which will not, and in the case of the carrot and the Twinkie, the farm bill as currently written offers a lot more support to the cake than to the root. Like most processed foods, the Twinkie is basically a clever arrangement of carbohydrates and fats teased out of corn, soybeans and wheat — three of the five commodity crops that the farm bill supports, to the tune of some $25 billion a year. (Rice and cotton are the others.) For the last several decades — indeed, for about as long as the American waistline has been ballooning — U.S. agricultural policy has been designed in such a way as to promote the overproduction of these five commodities, especially corn and soy.

That’s because the current farm bill helps commodity farmers by cutting them a check based on how many bushels they can grow, rather than, say, by supporting prices and limiting production, as farm bills once did. The result? A food system awash in added sugars (derived from corn) and added fats (derived mainly from soy), as well as dirt-cheap meat and milk (derived from both). By comparison, the farm bill does almost nothing to support farmers growing fresh produce. A result of these policy choices is on stark display in your supermarket, where the real price of fruits and vegetables between 1985 and 2000 increased by nearly 40 percent while the real price of soft drinks (a k a liquid corn) declined by 23 percent. The reason the least healthful calories in the supermarket are the cheapest is that those are the ones the farm bill encourages farmers to grow.

The article is well worth a read. The farm bill has far-reaching effects that most people never even think of, from obesity to the environment, global poverty, and even immigration. Of course, we feel the farm bill is in obvious need of an overhaul, but it's hard to compete with commercial operations when it comes to lobbying!

Spring is in the air, and the media must be feeling it too, because it seems everywhere I look there's a new article related to organic farming, local produce, and eating healthy.
I'll be posting regularly about other articles, books, and news related to the CSA, so stay tuned!

The New Farm

I love our barn! The farm is called Pickle Creek. That's the name of the creek running along the south and east edges of our 10 acres. For years the area along the creek was used to used to grow cucumbers (pickles)--hence the name!

The farm we moved to last fall is only 5 miles from our previous garden location, and so we're currently growing for the CSA at both locations. Our new farm is nice because the house is about 100 feet from our garden area--in the past we lived about 15 miles away from our garden! We've got lots of plans for our new farm--we'll invite everyone out to visit for the fall Harvest Party this year.