Category Archives: Local and fresh

Naturally Enough

If there’s one thing you can’t complain about in the State of Florida (although some would disagree), it’s the weather. Even our recent two-day winter was good for a laugh, and the cozy, unaccustomed feel of a wool sweater against the skin. And today, we’re back to the high 70s and sunny, the kind of day that puts a smile on the faces of winter-weary travelers and cash into the local economy.

It’s the sort of day that has me wondering why kids raised in the Sunshine State spend so much time indoors, eyes locked onto their screens and favorite video games (many of them violent).   It’s the always-on culture, you might say, addictive behavior modeled by parents and peer group alike. You could blame the irrational, media-fueled fear of just about everything, from hidden perverts or kidnappers in the neighborhood to vaccinations. By now you’ve read about scientists, Danielle and Alexander Meitiv, in trouble with the law because they allowed their children, age 6 and 10, to play in a local park and walk home unescorted. Here’s a thoughtful piece from The Daily Beast: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/02/15/free-range-kids-are-healthier.html.  So were things ‘safer’ for kids back in the day when I sent my 14-year-old son to school in New York City by commuter bus and subway, and my 10-year-old daughter happily walked with friends a few blocks to her classroom? Statistically, no.

Whether it is due to benign neglect or parental control on steroids, living under a rock is bad for kids and bad for the rest of us, too. We can’t expect children to love the world and want to preserve it if their only experience of it is a mediated one. Test this out for yourself. What’s better? Adventure travel or a television show about it? So kudos to Lenore Skenazy of Free Range Kids, (How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children Without Going Nuts With Worry), the Boy Scouts and Girls Scouts of America, and the new White House initiative to get kids reacquainted with nature in our National Park System. http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2015/02/19/let-s-get-every-kid-park.  Yes!

And, although I’m basing this on my own observations and instincts as a grandmother (a relatively tiny sample), small children are ready for the real thing. They dig dirt, given half a chance. They know BS when they encounter it. They are naturally wild and free. They like to hang out in trees. They want the freedom to skateboard home from school long before they get a license to drive a car. They want to fix their own snacks, as unusual as their tastes may seem to my palate. An entire pomegranate? Sure. Broccoli sandwiches, barbecue sauce on pizza? Why not?

Swiss chard tastingAnd I think they are hungry for adults who are giving them their full attention. So let me describe my class in pollination, organized for the elementary grade children and part of their religious education (you bet!) I came prepared with some visual aids from the fabulous Xeces Society, and I had brought some pollinator nests fashioned from bamboo sections, string, and a couple of ready-made birdhouses.  Apparently, insects like every other form of life, need rest and respite.

The first thing I noticed was how happy these kids were to be outside, sitting on the grass, looking around, breathing fresh air.  Maybe more classes should be held outdoors. Each wanted to be the first to answer my question: What did you have for breakfast? Eggs, fried cheese, cereal, fruit. And they were attentive when I explained how pollinators like bees and other insects, birds and bats interact with plants, and how that contributes to the food we eat. School age kids have been trained, like puppies, to stay even when clearly, they’d rather be moving their bodies. I was grateful that there were no hand-held devices in evidence (perhaps it’s a rule), except for a camera, and that for the most part, they made eye contact with me.

But they really wanted to run around, chase each other, and climb trees and even the AC equipment (until called down).  I corralled them into the raised vegetable bed area by saying they could pick anything they promised to eat. That’s when the religious education class really came alive. Even the camera-toting boy who said he hates tomatoes and didn’t want to know they are the main ingredient for ketchup, was in.   Cherry tomatoes, beans, Swiss chard, all enthusiastically sampled and pronounced good. Maybe they’ll remember what just-picked vegetables warmed by the sun taste like.  Perhaps it will inform their own choices when they grow up.  I know I will remember their bright faces in that moment.

It’s experiences like these that reinforce my conviction that we must stop forcing our kids into our narrow views of what success in life looks like.  We could be wrong, especially in the future many scientists foresee. We need to nourish their imaginations and sense of wonder about the Earth and all life. We need to get kids back into the woods and swimming holes, into tents under starry skies, cooking over campfires, on hiking trails and whitewater rafts, where they can discover what they are capable of. We need to let them learn, to paraphrase poet, Theodore Roethke, by going where they have to go.

Possibly, this is a lesson we could all use.  See Guardian columnist and author of Feral, George Monbiot’s Civilization is Boring.  And my future blog posts on re-wilding.

Symphony of the Soil, Part II

When I teamed up with fellow activists, Mary Jo Aagerstoun of EcoArt South Florida and Brian Kirsch of Gray Mockingbird Community Garden, to bring Symphony of the Soil, Deborah Koons Garcia’s documentary, to a packed Muvico cinema in West Palm Beach last year, I had no idea that 14 months later, I would be up to my own elbows in dark, rich-with-compost soil and a new community garden.

This project, a first-of-its-kind partnership between CROS Ministries, the gleaning organization that supplies thousands of pounds of food to local food pantries, and my home congregation, 1st UU of the Palm Beaches, is itself symphonic in that it is composed of many different elements blending harmoniously.  As our minister, Rev. CJ McGregor, realized that 1st UU has plenty of well-drained open land on the congregation’s property, most of it bathed by 6-8 hours of sunlight, year round, he didn’t need much persuading to take the next logical step.  CROS Ministries brings dedication to feeding people in need, experienced volunteers, and growing knowhow.  Gleaning director, Keith Cutshall, has the patience and kindness of someone with deep practice in soil management, growing vegetables, and working with volunteers of all ages. CROS Ministries also supplied its own truck for transport of soil, mulch and other necessaries.

garden expansion1We received a gift of dark, compost-rich soil from Green Cay Farm, the life and work of Ted Winsberg, farmer, soil scientist, and local philanthropist.  Ted and his wife, Trudy, are well-known in their community of Boynton Beach as instrumental in the creation of Green Cay Wetlands and Nature Center on 170 acres they sold to Palm Beach County for one-third of its appraised value in 1997, specifically for that purpose.  Ted also provided our project five sturdy wood frames for the raised beds, all built of recycled lumber on his farm.

This enabled us to follow the no-till method of raised bed growing, developed by the University of Florida Extension, originally introduced to us by the garden founder, the late Wayne Reynolds, after whom the garden is named.  In addition to saving enormous amount of labor, albeit supplied by an enthusiastic team of volunteers within the congregation, a not unimportant side benefit of the no-till method is that no heavy earth-moving equipment is needed so the surrounding area is left unscarred.   When you’re planting among established trees and shrubbery, the value of this is obvious. First, we had to determine an overall layout for the garden.  For aesthetic reasons, we decided to organize the boxes in a semi-cigarden expansion17 step 1rcle around existing vegetation, mulching around them so the whole becomes a no-mow area. Mulching on the planted areas after seeds sprout, will also help conserve water. Thanks to another generous gift, we will be investigating drip and soaker hose type irrigation. Ground cloth goes down first, right on the grass, followed by the wooden frame which helps anchor it.  Keith Cutshall had picked up the wood boxes from Green Cay Farm earlier in the week and delivered them to our site.

garden expansion 18garden expansion 20

Recycled cardboard — the kind of sturdy box-stock movers, supermarkets and liquor stores have in abundance for the asking, get split and laid over the cloth next.  This also helps keep the soil moist and the grass out of the growing area.  Soil was hand shoveled from the truck and hauled over by wheelbarrow and bucket.

You can see a little bit of our earlier experiment with cinderblock for a raised bed in the above photo.   Wood looks more attractive, but cinder block can be painted and the open areas can also be used for planting complementary herbs or marigolds to control pests without artificial additives.  Here is the sugar snap pea bed, readygarden expansion5 for the time when they need a place to climb.  Just look at the color of the soil! Seeds — pole beans, peppers, tomatoes and sugar snap peas — were also donated by Eden Organic Nursery Service, and El Sol‘s Sunshine Community Garden, already a partner of the congregation, supplied us with hardy tomato seedlings.  El Sol’s weekday hot lunch program will be the beneficiary of our harvest of fresh, locally-grown vegetables.  CROS Ministries will remain on the project, Keith assured us, their volunteers helping ours to tend the growing beds from now through harvest time, and beyond.  When the work was done for this sunny, cool Saturday, we celebrated with an ample lunch supplied by another 1st UU volunteer.  It’s a win-win situation for everyone — just another day in the life of a constantly surprised convert to the power of growing food and community.

Why Compost?

Because it is a zero waste strategy ~ Because it restores and remediates the soil  ~ Because it is quiet activism you can do without leaving home or carrying protest signs

Today, thousands of young people like Rachel Walsh of Transition Tallahassee are in Washington to protest against the KXL Pipeline, much as my spouse and I did last summer in the Walk for Our Grandchildren.  Standing up, speaking out, boycotts, even subjecting one self to arrest, are effective ways to oppose injustice in all its forms.   If enough people participate, e.g. Gandhi’s march to the sea, the March on Selma, even the original Boston Tea Party, these actions can rock the known world.

Jean's compostWhat if take-to-the-streets activism of this nature isn’t in your nature?  Food activism, in which composting is a key element, is the perfect local DIY project that contributes to a healthier, more sustainable community right away.  As the documentary, Symphony of the Soil (now available in DVD) showed us, reclaiming our soil even on a small-scale can be effective because everything is connected.   Doesn’t it make sense to convert yard trimmings and organic food scraps – yes, even conventionally-grown vegetables – into next growing season’s soil instead of paying to have them removed?  Not that I’m advocating any more lawns for South Florida however much carbon they might sequester, but this is Green Gold just waiting to happen.  Take a look at Composting 101 from the US Composting Council, a national, non-profit and trade association, and see how this all works.

Composting is very much on my mind these days because, thanks to Margaret and Norm Robson, two revered elders and pillars of my UU faith community, we are going to soon have a place where we can put these ideas about composting into practice – a mini-revolution in the making.   We do a fair amount of food service already, some of it prepared in our commercial-sized kitchen, and every Sunday there is an ample deposit of coffee grounds.   Habits are sticky, so I don’t have any illusions that it will be easy to get everyone on the composting bandwagon right away.  Even if we convince half of our congregation to participate, this will be – like our vegetable patch and butterfly garden – another small model to practice and experiment with.  Nonetheless, I am optimistic because activism is a core principle; we already support Fair Trade coffee and chocolate with our purchases; we recycle clothing and household items through our thrift shop.   Small, committed effort works; it is “the only thing that ever has.”

If you are among the shrinking number of people who grew up on a small family farm, the value of composting will not be news to you.  I didn’t, yet managed to glean a little bit of knowledge from my generous next-door neighbor who grew the most flavorful, succulent New Jersey tomatoes in a small bed in the middle of his back lawn, using coffee grounds and egg shells as fertilizer, and picking off the bugs by hand.  Another source was a family elder who would enrich the soil around his citrus trees with ground up fish bones.  I experienced my first Victory Garden in the UK, carefully tended  by my aunt and uncle, who would bring what they couldn’t consume to the weekly farmers market in the main square.   It was a small supplement to their modest income, and a social time for them.  It’s no surprise that the Transition Movement is flourishing in the centuries-old small town cultures of Europe.

Most of us of a certain age have memories of food coming directly from local producers, unmediated by supermarkets, which is one reason I believe our compost benefactors are so enthusiastic about this project.  Possibly they share many of my environmental passions although it’s hard to imagine them hugging a tree or chaining themselves to a fence.

It will become increasingly important that we share our memories of where food comes from with our grandchildren, especially if they are urban- or suburban-raised and can’t tell a carrot from a cabbage when it’s in the ground.  Accompany them to the farmers market – better yet a real farm! — and let them see, smell and taste for themselves.

Let’s all remind ourselves that, as Wendell Berry wrote: “Eating is an agricultural act.”  It is also an act of social activism.  Composting completes the cycle, transforming our so-called waste into next year’s crop.  So it has been, and could be again, but only if we understand and act accordingly.

End Factory Farming; Stop Runaway Climate Change

Will Allen, organic farmer ~ Change Your Diet ~ Buy Local

… the largest elephant in the room of climate chaos is our food and farming system. And hardly anyone is talking about it … We need to change our food habits. We need to stop eating factory-farmed meat and milk products. Since over 90 percent of all non-organic meat, dairy and eggs in the U.S. come from factory farms, we need a nationwide boycott and marketplace pressure, in the form of a CAFO labeling campaign.

Will-Allen-01-200x200Will Allen, Ph.D., organic farmer/teacher/activist and author of The War on Bugs, isn’t one to mince his words, and his keynote at the second Healing Our World and Ourselves Conference at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Vero Beach last week, documented exactly what kind of mess we are in and what we have to do to get out of it.

Like Vandana Shiva and the permaculture community, Allen delivers a clear message: since agriculture as it is currently practiced is “the single largest contributor of greenhouses gases,” we must eliminate the products of factory farms and create new markets for local, organic, sustainable agriculture by voting with our food dollars. That such a shift in diet could also eliminate some of the diseases of the so-called rich world is already in the popular culture via books (Michael Pollan. “Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.) and television shows (the ubiquitous Dr. Oz).  (And yes, it will reduce belly fat.)

Compared to some of the latest techno fixes for “energy shortfalls” (some euphemism!) that come across my desk regularly, e.g. the moon as a solar plant, the switch to organic, locally-sourced crops and humanely-raised livestock seems like a reasonable strategy. The myth that organic food is too costly has been debunked, see my post Externalities.  And it wins the taste test, hands down.  But it would be naïve to imagine that Big Ag will give up without a fight, any more than Big Oil will suddenly switch to renewables.

What to do?  For one thing, you might post the link (see below) to Will Allen’s article to your social media circles.  You could pay a virtual visit to Cedar Circle Farms and see how he is training the next generation of farmers.  Perhaps you can fund a scholarship or two while you’re at it.  Educate yourself on the subject (see More Reading).  If you want to join the next march against Monsanto, have at it!  But look into your own eating and food-sourcing habits first.  With a 4°C warmer world already looming, we can’t afford the decades it took to make cigarette smoking decidedly uncool, or to get folks to routinely recycle.

Here are a few more things you can do today: check labels in your own pantry of staples and make a plan to eliminate all GMOs; don’t eat or minimize consumption of processed foods; ask your supermarket for more organic produce; let the meat and dairy departments know you want products from pastured, humanely raised livestock.

Here are a few things you can do in the coming weeks/months:  Go meatless as much as possible (here’s a great recipe for Hummus); grow something, however limited your space.  It just feels good; when you buy organic produce, SAVE YOUR SEEDS; compost your vegetable wastes; get familiar with the laws in your community – on the books or unspoken – against backyard vegetables and/or small livestock.   You don’t know until you check.  For example, most of us think we don’t have the right to solar panels if we live in an HOA.  Actually, this is not true.  Use your farmers markets to support the farmers and ranchers in your area.  Get to know your farmer.  Some, like our CSA Kai-Kai Farms, use pesticide-free sustainable methods, but are not certified organic.  We trust them.  That’s good enough for us.

If you have an idea for a good PSA on this or related topics, let me know.  If the idea of using social media to spread the word lights you up, let’s collaborate.  Let’s plant some virtual seed bombs around our neighborhoods and get this started.

More reading:

Climate Chaos: Boycott Genetically Engineered and Factory-Farmed Foods, Will Allen and Ronnie Cummins
Organic Consumers Association
Cedar Circle Farm
USDA Organic
Food Growing Summit 2014
Beyond Pesticides

In Search of a Transition Town

totnespoundfinal_02This week, I was out meeting with people to talk about the Transition movement, none of them in my home community.   Why is that? You may ask, and I’ve asked myself.  Some answers.

First, though mine is a pedestrian- and bike-friendly town, we drive far more than we walk or bike.  Whether or not one is conscious of it, cars make us feel rushed and busy.  Most drivers tear up to a red light.  Our 25 mph speed limit is routinely broken.  I’m no social scientist, but from my observations, people who depend on their cars for every errand, do not make good neighbors or stronger neighborhoods.  In my townhome community, it is the dog-walkers and the young parents out with a stroller who get to know each other.  We don’t have to become best friends, but friendlier and more helpful would go a long way.

Second, we have no walkable downtown or town center with the mix of diverse small merchants to draw residents in for those casual encounters and conversations that connect us.  Manufactured downtowns are no substitute, no matter how many musicians they hire or networking events they sponsor.  (I’ll save my riff on networking vs. community for another time.)

Shoppers conditioned to the mall atmosphere with mind-numbing music are not generally interested in other people.  We are a fairly affluent town dominated by the largest shopping mall in the region.  Big Box stores, fast food and restaurant chains, line a major thoroughfare, offering impersonal service, at best.  I would trade them all for a friendly chat with the guy at my local hardware store about which hose won’t kink up on me.

In a sense, we’ve designed for things like privacy, personal space and comfort, and security – the number of gate-secured communities here is astounding given the relatively low crime-rates —when, the truth is, what the world needs is people who are more trusting, capable of sharing (e.g. the Open Source revolution), creative and flexible.

On Wednesday, I had lunch with a young permaculture teacher who was about to launch a four-week course.  We agreed that we both do our best thinking outdoors, so although it was a day of heavy rain, we sat in a Tiki hut in an environmental education center where she is a graduate assistant.  As you may know, the Transition movement was founded by Rob Hopkins, a permaculture teacher himself.  It draws on many of the principles of this nature-centered discipline, so I am excited by her invitation to talk about Transition with the students in the course and to learn from them.

That I had to drive nearly a half-hour to have this meeting wasn’t lost on me, of course.  I live in a county the size of Rhode Island, with a population perhaps even more socio-economically diverse.  Also like RI, much of our wealth is a fact of location: the Atlantic Ocean washes both our shores, bringing us tourism and high-end real estate, and all the services that support both.  To have the two major sources of our wealth at risk from a rising sea should be a fact that brings us together to search for solutions, right?

My next meeting with a veteran community organizer took me to a town also some distance from mine.  I was there to explore the possibility of introducing the ideas of Transition.  This community more closely resembles the small towns and cities where the Transition movement has caught on, all around the world.  It is walkable, with a vibrant downtown, many festivals, an up-and-coming community garden, and a lot of civic pride.  As an outsider, albeit an enthusiastic and frequent visitor, I am at something of a disadvantage here as I would be anywhere I don’t have roots (though I do have friends). So I was really grateful for the honest assessment I took away, that the Transition message might not be welcomed by all, that is could be controversial.  I couldn’t help but remember Rob Hopkins’ caveat: there were no guarantees that Transition will work everywhere…or at all.

I decided this morning to research sources other than my Transition texts on  what makes a community respond to climate change with action, rather than denial in one form or another.  The answers (from a NASA study) may surprise you.  In some cases, a community gets activated because of an obvious problem like flooding or drought or a Sandy-size storm.  The 911 response, you might say, where people who may not agree on what the underlying causes of the crisis are, can still come together to rebuild smarter and prevent or mitigate future crises.  In other words, they are not waiting for action from the government.

” Successful groups take action against climate change even though they don’t completely understand everything that might be needed to reach their long-term goal. They proceed by trial and error to make progress step by step. “— Dr. Ron Brunner, University of Colorado

But in many others, economic opportunity is the impetus.  There are numerous examples, but one of my favorites is the Danish island of Samsø which began working on reducing its carbon foot print in 1998 (via locally-funded wind turbines) and today produces excess energy it can sell.  Closer to home (and pre-Transition movement), there is the Ithaca Hour, a form of currency invented in 1991 in Ithaca, NY, that keeps money circulating in the community, about $100,000 at the moment.

Communities that support local businesses, grow (or raise) much of their own food, find ways to save money on energy, and clean up their air, water and soil, are not only better positioned to withstand future uncertainties.  They are places most of us want to call home.

Visit Samsø

Creating Economic Democracy

Revolution: Orderly and (Mostly) Quiet

As revolutions go, the local foods movement is relatively well-behaved and filled with activists who are not afraid to get their hands dirty.  Its goal is ambitious: to get people to  switch their allegiance from farm products shipped thousands of miles at an unsustainable carbon cost, to locally-grown and raised foods.  If enough of us do this, the reasoning goes, we will not only have fresher, healthier foods to eat, we will develop community resilience that can withstand disruptions in the food supply chain many foresee as inevitable as the climate changes.

In Palm Beach Country where I live, the movement is embryonic compared to, say, the San Francisco Bay Area or most of the state of Vermont.  But on a sunny Saturday at Gray Mockingbird Community Garden, with the lively sounds of the Lake Worth High School Steel Drum Band making my feet tingle, it was possible to dream big.  The occasion was Local Foods/Local Gardens and I was on hand Brian and Marikawith partners, Brian Kirsch of Gray Mockingbird Gardens, Mary Jo Aagerstoun of EcoArt South Florida, and my spouse, Howard, to talk up and sell tickets to a special screening of Symphony of the Soil, a  documentary by award-winning filmmaker and Palm Beach County native, Deborah Koons Garcia,  November 17 at the Muvico Parisian in City Place, West Palm Beach.  The film makes a powerful connection between reclaiming our soil (and farms) from Big Ag and food security for all of us.

The timing could not be better.  In about a year, Solid Waste Authority which has been providing free compost to local backyard and community gardens in Palm Beach County, will phase out of this service.   The screening, and a Q&A with the filmmaker and other local soil and gardening experts, is intended to help launch a conversation with all parties concerned on how to address our composting needs in the future.

Robert and Paula FarrissWhen I wasn’t in the Gray Mockingbird booth, I was schmoozing with people like Robert and Paula Farriss of Farriss Farm who offer free-range eggs that taste like eggs, and  100% grass-fed, pastured livestock.  The term ‘pastured’ denotes animals that have been raised humanely, without hormones and antibiotics because, simply, they do not need them to thrive.  It is encouraging to know that there is a burgeoning market for products like this, for both health and ethical reasons.  I’m not likely to be a convert to mammal meat (though I have recently sampled pastured duck), but I do come away from conversations like this with a better understanding of why large herbivores are necessary for sustainable agriculture.

I had a good chat with John Zahina-Ramos of Just One Backyard about the challenge of getting the foodservice industry, restaurants included,  to understand how composting their vegetable scraps could actually impact their operating budgets.   John is an ecologist and  makes a convincing case for a more holistic way of agriculture.  JoJo Milano of Goodness Gracious Acres was also there, promoting her goat-milk based soaps.  Currently, unpasteurized goat’s milk cannot be sold as food for human consumption, a situation that I hope will change.  Joanna Aiken, Community Service Coordinator of Solid Waste Authority, also stopped by the Symphony of the Soil table and I feel confident we’ll work together well on a composting solution.  I bought some honey sticks from the Palm Beach County Beekeepers Association booth (yum!), and met Facebook friend, Susan Lerner of the Rare Fruits Council.

A fun morning invested in a cause I am passionate about.  Let the revolution spread!

(Photo credits: Leonard D. Bryant, 2013)

Raising Kale in a Raised Bed

laying out the garden
When I was a kid in England, I was well fed from vegetable garden my aunt and uncle planted each year on their ‘allotment.’ They had married at the end of World War II and just about everyone grew vegetables either on their own property or in a shared community space. It was one of those acts of keep-calm-and-carry-on patriotism that most certainly contributed to the Allied victory.

As we discover that small (and local) is indeed beautiful, the time for such kinds of community enterprise is most certainly here…again.

The photo shows our church community garden getting started. While it is small as veggie patches go, just 10 cinderblocks arranged in a rectangle 2.7′ x 5.2′ on a bed of ground cloth and cardboard, filled with bagged cow manure or compost, it has been planted intensively with kale, broccoli, onions, tomatoes, peppers, squash and marigolds around the rim (to keep the bugs at bay). The directions for the raised bed garden are from The University of Florida IFAS Extension and it came together quickly with four pairs of hands and a lot of enthusiasm.

As an experiment in community gardening, it has attracted more curiosity than volunteers willing to get their hands dirty (though I’m hopeful that may change). And even though the squash sort of ran away from home and the peppers got all leggy, I’m calling it a success nonetheless. Every few days for the past couple of months, we have harvested some kale and broccoli and occasionally a tomato or onion. Obviously, one cannot rely on a patch this size to supply one’s vegetables needs — our CSA does a great job of that. But it does demonstrate what is possible with very little effort and a small plot of soil. May you be so inspired.