Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Food shipping not that bad?

"We find that although food is transported long distances in general (1640 km delivery and 6760 km life-cycle supply chain on average) the GHG emissions associated with food are dominated by the production phase, contributing 83% of the average U.S. household’s 8.1 t CO2e/yr footprint for food consumption. Transportation as a whole represents only 11% of life-cycle GHG emissions, and final delivery from producer to retail contributes only 4%. Different food groups exhibit a large range in GHG-intensity; on average, red meat is around 150% more GHG-intensive than chicken or fish. Thus, we suggest that dietary shift can be a more effective means of lowering an average household’s food-related climate footprint than “buying local.” Shifting less than one day per week’s worth of calories from red meat and dairy products to chicken, fish, eggs, or a vegetable-based diet achieves more GHG reduction than buying all locally sourced food."

From a recent article in Environmental Science and Technology by Christopher L. Weber and H. Scott Matthews of Carnegie-Mellon.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Wendell Berry on the value of small farms

"The fact is that most farmland requires close care to be used well. That is the agricultural justification for the small holding. It permits close care in a way that large holdings farmed by hired people or even owners on large machines can’t be farmed well. The moral benefit of independent small farmers is that it broadens the connection of the whole society to the land, and it increases the number of self-employed people. This is the political value that Jefferson saw in the small farm. People who are economically independent can think and vote independently."

In contrast to the development model that looks to increase the size of farms to reduce poverty from an industrial economic vantage point, Wendell Berry here raises a point about those aspects of small farms that contribute difficult-to-quantify value to society - strengthening democracy and promoting equity in relation to the natural world.

Interview by Anne Husted Burleigh on CERC site.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

"Industrial Revolution or Agricultural Revolution?"

Podcast/presentation from the London School of Economics.

From Mark Rosenswag(?): "The overarching question is, we're interested in having an economy developed, to reduce poverty, hunger, to have human capital increases, increase incomes in a country, and the question is how best to do that...

"the basic idea increase agricultural productivity and because of the inelasticity of price for agricultural goods it actually leads to incomes of farmers going down as output increases, and it naturally leads to pressures for people to exit from agriculture, it increases the demand for - from the surplus that occurred from the productivity increase - the demand for non-agricultural goods, and that generates both a labor force and a demand domestically for industrialization to take place...

"It would be impossible to have industrialization - to have workers not engaged in farming - if there weren't sufficient productivity that very few people could be producing the food that all the other industrial workers could consume while they're producing these manufactured goods, so it's surely good for the world..."

(H'mong village in Vietnam, author's photo)

From Professor Sutton: "Growth and development means that the proportion of people in agriculture is going to fall. It's just an outcome. It happens universally."

Video here.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Farming/Permaculture Training

On Orcas Island, recommended:

Black Dog
Maple Rock (punk farm? - "cigarrettes at dawn, tequila by noon")
Once in a Blue Moon ("the best farmers in Washington state", on Waldren Island?)
Bullock Brothers Permaculture Homestead

Across the Sound:

Nash's - long time, pro, everything, structured internship, near Port Townsend (Squim?)
Linnaea - Cortes Island, paid tuition school

This side of the Sound:

Full Circle - structured, makes minimum wage, 5 days 10-12 hours/day. For serious farmers


Esalen Institute - 3 and 6 month programs; small tuition, room and board covered.

What's the Carbon Footprint of Cycling a Mile?

(Guardian article here).

"Two people cycling along using energy from cheeseburgers is equivalent to those same people sharing a ride in an efficient car."

"Powered by biscuits, bananas or breakfast cereal, the bike is nearly 10 times more carbon-efficient than the most efficient of petrol cars."

"Bananas are brilliant, largely because they are grown in natural sunlight (no hot-housing required) and because they keep well, which means that although they may be grown thousands of miles from the end consumer, they are transported by boats, which is a hundred times better in terms of emissions than air-freighting. As a bonus there is hardly any packaging, if any, because bananas provide their own."

The carbon footprint of cycling a mile:
65g CO2e: powered by bananas
90g CO2e: powered by cereals with milk
200g CO2e: powered by bacon
260g CO2e: powered by cheeseburgers
2800g CO2e: powered by air-freighted asparagus

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Toilet paper rolls for starting seeds

(photo courtesy of

Ah, sweet, simple solutions.

Cut tp rolls in half (or leave them whole), stuff a wad of newspaper in the bottom (or fold the bottom up, squash the bottom, or just pack the soil), and fill them with seed starter or sifted compost. They can be plopped right in the ground when ready, and will decompose as the roots spread.

Other thoughts: "You can also leave some of the tube above ground to act as a cutworm collar." "Put them in something to keep from flopping" - watertight tray, plastic berry container (mini-greenhouse), etc. "If you get a bit of mold/fungus on the seed medium, pinch it out."

From this thread on gardenforum. Alternatively, Bonzai Aphrodite has a visual how-to on her web site.

Guerrilla Gardening

According to wikipedia, guerrilla gardening is a political act, a form of direct action related to land rights and land reform. For the record, I intend nothing of the sort. Around the corner from my house is a vacant lot that's been vacant a long time. I want to grow things. I heard the owner is a European man who once begrudgingly gave the stamp of approval to gorillas he discovered gardening on his land (according to the storyteller, the man said he couldn't stop poor people from growing food, "must be a European thing"). Rather than ask and get no for an answer, I wound my way back through the broom and hacked out a clearing.

(photo courtesy of

I tore up 30 square feet of sod and planted broccoli, cilantro, beets, carrots, radishes, and chard. I used cut grass as mulch around the base of the starts, and covered the whole bed with a sheet of Reemay to keep the cats from digging around and the seeds from washing away. I also cleared the turf around the base of some broom and planted peas, to see if they will grow up it like a trellis. I did not amend the soil, so we'll see.

In the bed, I mixed in a wheelbarrow's worth of compost and a sprinkling of fertilizer. It's chemical fertilizer, but not too much (Steve Solomon approves) and I figured it would be helpful to jump start the plants until I can build up the soil further. I mounded it up and raked it level. The broccoli was a little root bound, but I tore the seedlings apart and they were only root bound on one side, so we'll see how they grow; supposedly root bound brassicas tend to remain stunted.

The garden was planted March 22.

Friday, March 19, 2010

blooming now

Magnolias. The earliest - with white, starburst flowers - are finished, but the lushest are in their prime. The upturned buds, just before opening, deep purple at the base, the shape of mussel shells. The flowers they become - blown open and widely receiving, deeply relaxed, nearly drunken in their sensuality. They are cat spirits lounging at the twig-ends of the tree. The swooping branches with their swept up buds would be a beautiful model for a handblown chandelier.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

I'm having a survivalist moment

My friend B has a great scene in her new novel where a couple of hippies are talking about self-sufficient homesteading after the collapse of industrial civilization, and one of them makes the point that people with guns can always just take what other people grow.

The point is - and it is made in a different way in this article by Toby Hemenway - that it is myopic to look at self-sufficiency in terms of being able to provide food, fibre, fuel, and shelter for oneself.

It is clear to me that were the shit really to hit the fan, waves of violence could disrupt all well-laid plans. The first line of defense is, of course, keeping the shit from hitting the fan, which is where my commitment to social work - which I conceive of as the empowerment and wellness of all individuals and communities for the sake of political and environmental stability - comes in. Should that not work out, long-term thinking (which is what I am increasingly convinced "sustainability" comes down to) would be the last thing on most people's minds. So what would it mean to really be prepared?

I have some thoughts:

1) Community. People organized into communities stand a much better chance than people alone.
2) Openness. Tolerant people living interconnectedly and in relationship to one another are much less likely to experience division.
3) Fighting. This is complex, because the whole act of training as a fighter or fighting force - and planning a community accordingly - only reinforces fear-based thinking, and it is reasonable to believe that the very act of preparing for such an eventuality might contribute to the reality of its occurrence.
4) Wilderness skills. In a pinch, people would need to be able to hunt, fish, trap, forage, track, hide, and survive minimally in the wilderness. This could be an important stopgap measure for weathering the worst WROL periods.

WROL is a term I've recently discovered. It seems to be used mostly by militaristic Christian types, some of them homesteaders, some of them not. They are planning for the eventuality of a world "Without Rule Of Law" should the shit hit the fan. Unlike the permaculture and left-leaning homesteading folks, they emphasize machines and guns and fighting skills in addition to (or instead of) other homestead skills. In fact, their idea of food needs seems to come down to packaged food reserves.

What would it mean to be prepared in every possible way? To explore this, I need to brush aside the fact that the whole exercise is fear-based and fear-perpetuating. But what the hell, here goes:

(a) Knowing how to fight. Military training would be best, but of course would involve serving in dubious American military campaigns overseas. In lieu of this: learning how to use a gun and shoot, reading up on guerrilla tactics and defense, skirmish practice paintballing, and small arms urban combat classes at the local shooting gallery.
(b) Owning weapons. Small arms. An AR and a good pistol. Plenty of ammo. Good gear. Repair kit.
(c) Planning a homestead for defense. Thinking tactically about how one would defend one's land and home, or how a community would defend it's lands and homes. Have a plan, several plans, and rehearse them. Have an outer line of defense and an inner line of defense and an escape strategy.
(d) Know your water source and how to protect it. Poisoning water is the ultimate seige tactic.
(e) Know your neighbors. This goes without saying. Build trust. Work at as large a scale as possible without sacrificing direct relationship.
(f) Wilderness skills. Learn how to hunt, track, hide, and move in the wilderness. Know wild edibles and how to make fire and shelter.
(g) Mechanics. Know how to fix machinery. Machines may go eventually if shit stayed bad long enough, but motorized vehicles and fuel reserves would last a while. Keep fuel reserves.
(e) And, of course, were one able to hold on to it, the most fundamental resource would be good land on which to grow enough food for oneself and one's dependents. And knowing how to work it.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

"Can Britain Feed Itself?"

The nice thing about a small island nation is that it feels possible to actually account for everything and make plausible calculations. Simon Fairlie makes a go at it here, in a fascinating article on British self-sufficiency that breaks down land use and land needs on the island for multiple diets and types of agriculture.

1 hectare = 2.5 acres (approximately)

One hectare, chemically-farmed, feeds a bit under 6 omnivores.

One hectare, chemically-farmed, feeds 20 vegans.

One hectare, organically-farmed, feeds 8 vegans or a little over 3 omnivores.

One hectare in permaculture supplies about 4 omnivores or 8.5 vegans. Supplies includes textiles, fuel, and timber in addition to food.

Thus, a quarter acre could feed, clothe, and warm less than half an omnivore (.4 people x 10 quarter acres = 4 people). Five acres could sustain 8 of them.

"...could the UK become more self reliant, not only in food, fodder and fertility, but also in fibre and fuel? Our environmental footprint currently stretches across untold ghost acres around the world; if suddenly we had to shoehorn it into the 22 million hectares of non-urban land we have in this country, how would we cope? Could this be done organically, whilst keeping a reasonable amount of meat in our diet for those who wanted it, and ensuring that a reasonable proportion of the country is reserved for wildlife?"

The article touches on ag subsidies, land use policy, details of livestock and dairy herds, and concludes with a one-page statement on the viability of orthodox organic agriculture as a method to feed the world. The last sentence: "Blind adherence to doctrines and standards which cannot feed people will brand organic goods as a niche product for the privileged in a world dominated by agribusiness."

Monday, March 1, 2010

Quarter Acre Farm, circa 1895

From this article in the New York Times, 1895, about quarter acre farms being supplied to the poor:

"It is estimated that by working twelve days of twenty-four hours each a season's crops can be raised. The men, women, and children who work the farms come at all hours of the day from 4 o'clock in the morning and remain as late at night as they can see."

Also mentioned in the article: compost ("all the old leaves she gathers and puts around her vegetables to enrich the soil") and succession planting ("He is a farmer by profession, and managed his crops so that they matured one after another in succession").

Self-Sufficiency 3

A quarter acre is a fun and fairly realistic quantity to work with. Though it's increasingly impossible to find lots of this size anywhere near the city center, they are still available in Seattle a few miles to the south.

How to use a quarter acre best?

I don't think it's practical nor necessary for a person in the city to grow all their own grains. Grain is easily grown nearby on a large scale. Nor do I think it is necessary to have much in the way of grazing land, though a lawn of some sort (for kids and animals) might be nice. Finally, I believe it necessary to include ornamental plantings. I broke down a quarter acre into the following portions:

House (5-6 people, 2-3 stories): 1,200 sq. ft. footprint
Shop, shed, greenhouse, driveway, patios: 800 sq. ft.
Row crops: 3,000 sq. ft.
Orchard and Chickens: 1,200 sq. ft.
Ornamental plantings, shade tree, lawn: 2,500 sq. ft.
Natural habitat: 1,500 sq. ft.

This use of the land grows at least one third of the vegetables and fruits necessary to feed 5-6 people (according to Fukuoka). That is a significant contribution by city folk to their own sustenance. In Seattle, one could legally keep eight chickens on this much land, supplying roughly six eggs/day, supplying half if not all the house's egg needs.

"Resilience" according to Rob Hopkins

"I think in many ways the idea of resilience is a more useful concept than the idea of sustainability. The idea of resilience comes from the study of ecology, and it's really about how systems, settlements, withstand shock from the outside; when they encounter shock from the outside, that they don't just unravel and fall to pieces.

"[Resilience] is about building modularity into what we do; building surge breakers into how we organize the basic things that support us."

From this TED Talk.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Self-Sufficiency 2

My dream in the city:

A quarter acre, with a small house and a couple small outbuildings (shed, shop, greenhouse). Preferably within a good bike ride of the city and of work.

Rows of vegetables. Fruit trees. Berry patch. Chickens. A couple goats. A field of rice. An ornamental border.

Grape vine on a trellis. A place to sit right outside my door and drink tea and look at the garden.

A corner lot - combining a streetside stoop on one side with a big yard on the other that is visible from the street. I would like to chat with neighbors when they walk past.

A big, deciduous shade tree on the south side of the house.

Self-Sufficiency 1

Briony is keeping a great blog on all this: The Blended Lifestyle

Of particular interest is this fun post on the amount of land necessary to support a family.

.1 acre?


Refer here for the source of this. I'm doubtful. I believe a family of four could certainly grow all their produce on a quarter acre, but throw in cereal crops and animals and I don't buy it. Moreover, we need to expect certain crops to fail certain years. And, of course, we need to rotate our crops, so we should plan on having twice as much land as we need for growing at any given time (though the effect of this is offset by grazing animals on fallow land).

Early Spring, 2010

I was theorizing we were about a month and a half ahead on Spring this year. Sure enough, last week the Seattle Times quoted experts saying we were about five weeks ahead.

I am noticing that not all plants are ahead of schedule. I wonder if this is because some respond to daylight hours rather than temperature, as an indicator of when to bloom.

At this point, most spring things are blooming. The Forsythia is gorgeous, and has been for about three weeks. The plums burst about ten days ago, right in sync with my allergies. Camelias have been going for some time and look fantastic this year, though a little battered after the frost last week. Magnolias began last week as well. The kale in the p-patch is bolting.

I planted peas outside a couple weeks ago and they are just bursting through the soil, wearing their pea-helmets on their heads. I have started chard indoors.

Thoughts for green mulch: dwarf white clover. Plant some around the shrubs and perennials in the front bed and see how it does. Will it hinder the growing perennials? Will it go rampant? Also, this year I intend to leave all the cut plant material from the perennials in the bed, chopped small enough to look neat where it falls, a coherent mulch. This is what my brother has begun doing. It looks good in a very natural way, but moreover it is simple, in line with Fukuoka's vision, which I've really been appreciating. Plus, all the mulching is becoming a pain in the ass, and I no longer think bare dirt looks healthy and trim.