In This Case, a Quiet Blog Means Progress

You may have been wondering why it’s been almost two weeks since I’ve posted–or more likely you’re thinking “Oh, he didn’t post for two weeks? I hadn’t noticed.” Regardless, the reason, I’m glad to say, is that I’ve been walking the proverbial walk more than talking the proverbial talk lately. Here are a few things that have been going on lately with our family:

  • Built a tool to help people find CSAs. It only has information for the Champlain Valley of Vermont and New York so far, but the CSA Matchmaker walks you through a few simple questions to suggest the best fit for you in finding a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) plan that works for you. With CSAs, you make a deal directly with the farmer, paying up front or over the course of the season in exchange for regular (usually weekly) shares of produce and sometimes other products (cheese, bread, eggs, meats, prepared foods, etc.).
  • Joined a new CSA. We’ve participated in two great local CSAs in the past, but were looking for the widest possible variety of food and a pickup location that we could manage more easily. I used the CSA Matchmaker myself, and we’re now enrolled in a year-round CSA that provides not only produce, but also bread, cheese, honey, a few prepared foods, grass fed and organic meats, and more–all locally raised.

Solar design

  • Went solar. After hearing about SunCommon from Jamie Ervin, we got in touch and had our site evaluated for solar panels to meet our electricity needs. Even though our house is surrounded by trees and our best roof exposure is essentially west-facing rather than south-facing, the solar possibilities there are good, and we’re in process for getting solar panels that will supply almost all of our energy needs (sending extra electricity produced to the grid and taking energy back from the grid when we need it and aren’t producing enough). The cost for us is a fraction more than our normal monthly electricity bill, though for other people who don’t have some of the same constraints we do (a vent pipe that has to be moved, another house connected to ours that makes us require special permitting, south-facing roof, etc.) the cost might be at or below your monthly electricity bill.
  • Started our gardens. I have never been a gardener: the best I’ve done is a little weeding here and there. We’ve had a garden the past two years, but Janine has been doing all the work and hasn’t been able to keep the whole thing up on her own. This year, having become much more conscious of the importance of local food, I found a garden teacher (Peggy, Head Gardener at the local cooperative garden business Gardeners’ Supply) and am replacing the fence, moving the compost system, starting worm bins, weeding like crazy, and otherwise moving forward on getting our vegetable garden in place and some gardening knowledge in my head.

CCTA

  • Cut back on driving. For a long time I had considered cutting back on driving essentially impossible. There’s a commuter bus from my home to my workplace, but it takes an hour longer in travel time every day and leaves on a schedule that’s difficult for me to work with. Also, almost every work day I have somewhere I have to be after work, so I can’t take the bus–except that, of course, I can. I’m moving my work schedule earlier in the day so that by getting up a bit earlier, I can work a slightly earlier shift and still be back to my car in the commuter parking lot before I need to pick up my son, get the CSA share, show up at Taekwondo, or whatever it is that day. I’m able to use the extra time I spend commuting working–because I don’t have to drive while I’m doing it. The cost is comparable to the gas and wear and tear on my hybrid car.
    I’ve also gotten together with the parents of a couple of friends of my son to carpool for after school activities, lowering car usage more. This will be an ongoing process, but there’s already less gas having to go into my car.
  • And this, and this, and this and this and this … Beyond these projects, I’ve been planning out a Kickstarter designed to implant a vivid image of what our communities need to become to withstand and fight back climate change, am adding some very substantial new local foods tools and resources to the Localsourcers.org site (more on that soon), and am otherwise trying to push back against climate change in every way I can.

If you don’t hear from me for another two weeks or so, assume it’s all going great … not that I’ve dropped dead of exhaustion.

Food Everywhere: An Urban Orchard in Burlington

Last night I went to the regular meeting of the Burlington Food Council, where food and sustainability organizations from around the Greater Burlington area meet to share information and collaborate on sustainable food projects.

There’s a lot going on in sustainable foods in the Champlain Valley, but the most inspiring topic for me was the Urban Orchard. To give you an idea what I’m talking about, there’s this 13-minute TED talk by Pam Warhurst from Todmorden, England. It’s not only kind of wonderful what they’re doing, but Pam is a lot of fun to listen to, and not just because her accent echoes a couple of the characters from Downton Abbey.

Man, what a great talk. I need to steal some of her slogans, e.g. this one on who can participate: “If you eat, you’re in.”

So anyway, what’s going on in Burlington? Well, the idea is to start introducing food-producing shrubs, trees, and other plants into available green space in the city: parks, lawns of public and commercial buildings, by the road, and anywhere else that the residents of the immediate neighborhood want it. The food is free to anyone who wants it, and residents get involved in maintaining, pruning, and planting on a volunteer basis. This has been so successful in other cities around the world that volunteers end up harvesting thousands of pounds of produce to give away to food banks and shelters, to say nothing of all the free food that’s available to local residents and anyone walking by. The idea of food without a price tag is a little mind-boggling in the present day, but in city after city, it is already working. It’s a wonderful idea.

Since this is Vermont we’re talking about, I say “orchards” and you probably think apples, like I did, but it turns out that apples attract pests like nobody’s business, and that there are a lot of other crops, both ones that are commercially viable and ones that aren’t, that are well-suited to our climate and could be grown instead. This includes garden vegetables and herbs, but also stone fruits like plums and peaches, pear, berries, nuts, and much more.

For instance, consider the slope behind Battery Park. In case you don’t know Burlington, Battery Park is on a high area in the North End overlooking the lake. A steep slope is covered with miscellaneous wild growth kept cut back by the city to maintain the gorgeous view of the waterfront that Battery Park affords. At the bottom of the slope is another park area along with a theater, restaurants, the ECHO center (a lake and science museum), a boat that runs tours around the lake, the bike path, and much more. The city government wants to follow through on a decades-old plan to build staircases down the slope from Battery Park to Waterfront Park, and they’re looking for ideas. One magnificent idea (if you ask me) that was discussed last night is a terraced orchard of fruit and nut trees, fruit shrubs, berries, and other edible foods. Alternatively, another location could become home to a kind of botantical garden of all-edible foods, a Food Forest.

These kind of initiatives beautify the city, attract tourism, help feed local residents and visitors, and create more community connections. They also sequester carbon and lessen dependence on food from distant locations, which also lessens dependence on all of the oil that goes into fertilizing, pest-fighting, transportation, storage, packaging, and marketing. Next to a backyard garden or family farm, food doesn’t get more local than just down the street.

These kinds of plans are just in the exploratory stages right now for Burlington, but maybe you could consider whether there might be an easy way to start getting edible foods into public spaces in your own city or town–or if you’re in our area, maybe you’d like to eventually get involved with this effort. If so, stop by www.localsource.org and join the group there, or watch this space.

A Follow-Up on Vermont Smoke & Cure

Vermont Smoke and Cure products

In a recent post about my novice’s experiences trying to shop local I mentioned Hinesburg company Vermont Smoke and Cure and our dismay at finding out that the meats that went into the products of theirs that we saw didn’t seem to be sourced in Vermont. I got in touch with the company for clarification, and it turns out, many of their meats are sourced in Vermont. CEO Chris Bailey was kind enough to respond to my inquiry with some information about their products lines:

  • Natural from DuBreton (Quebec), Coleman, Pineland Farms.
  • Conventional from Quebec and US. [This is the non-local kind we saw — Luc]
  • VT Grown from Greg Finch in Franklin is under the 5Knives label.

He also provided some more information on their operation as a whole:

We also provide processing services for 500+ VT farmers, both custom and commercial (USDA inspected).

Our branded product sales pay for the equipment and facility so that the highly seasonal and relatively thin services business can continue and grow.

So – please encourage everyone to vote with their dollars and buy our natural/uncured/humane or Vermont Grown / 5 Knives items – we would be happy to move entirely into selling only these items and are moving in that direction.

Apparently City Market does stock their Vermont-sourced products, so they must have been out the day we were there. (Like I say, I’m new to this, so that was the first time I ever spent a whole shopping trip focusing on where the food came from.)

What’s ironic about all this is that I haven’t eaten red meat since 1985 and have no special plans to start. However, Janine, my son, and Janine’s daughters all do eat red meat, so it’s important item for us to source locally.

Making Teenagers Eat Local Foods

Mutsu apples

My son and I were passing by City Market in Burlington last night and stopped in to get some apples, because Ethan snacks on them pretty regularly. Here’s what happened, more or less–but understand I’m reconstructing the dialog from imperfect memory, so if anything Ethan says sounds goofy, assume it’s my fault.

Our family is just starting to work hard at eating locally (see Is “Eating Local:Too Expensive for Regular Folks?“), so we went to the produce section and looked for local apples. This is something that City Market has really nailed: they had six or eight varieties of local apples–but the granny smiths, my son’s favorites, are from Washington.

“You can get any of the local kinds,” I said.

“What do these taste like?” he said unenthusiastically, pointing to some imperfect-looking, Vermont-grown green apples. They had a name I’d never heard before.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Should we get some and find out?”

“Can’t we just get these?” he said, meaning the Washington Granny Smiths.

“These were transported all of the way across the country, probably on a truck!” I said. I was aware I sounded a little fanatical, but I haven’t figured out yet how to temper that and still get my point across. “They used a huge amount of fuel to get these here.”

“Yeah, but they’re already here. What difference does it make?”

“If we don’t buy them, then it makes it less likely they’ll run out soon and reorder them. We want them to order more of the local apples, so we should buy some of those.”

“Well, I don’t think it makes very much difference if we’re the only ones doing it.”

“That’s true … but if we want other people to buy local foods, we have to be buying them ourselves first. We can’t expect people to do things we want them to when we’re not willing to do them ourselves. We can have an impact that’s a lot bigger than just our family.”

We ended up getting some crisp, local Empire apples, which will probably be fine, but aren’t Granny Smiths.

I realized as we were on our way home that I probably should have gotten a few of those Vermont green apples, and in fact should have gotten a variety of apples so that we could try them all and choose our local favorite. It turns out City Market has a whole Apple Variety Guide page, and looking there, I recognize the apples we saw. They were Mutsu apples, and the flavor is listed as “tart,” which sounds a little like a Granny Smith.

One of the real benefits of changing our diet to much more local foods is that we’ll encounter a lot of new options, some of which are sure to become favorites. Speaking in terms of our enthusiasm for a local diet, the sooner we find those wonderful new foods, the better.

Eating Local: Too Expensive for Regular Folks?

mostly-local groceries

$116.30 worth of mostly-local groceries

I guess this eating local thing isn’t for sissies! (No disrespect meant to sissies, by the way.)

If you happen to have read some of my recent posts, where I talk about the surprisingly huge negative impact of cheap meat on climate change and about the amount of oil that goes into growing and transporting typical grocery food, you won’t be surprised that I’m trying to change my food-getting to a hard-core localvore approach.

The conversation with my girlfriend, who’s a pretty remarkable person, went something like this:

ME: I’m terrified by how bad the climate change problem is. We have to go localvore right away. It will probably be expensive and a huge pain in the butt.
JANINE: I get where you’re coming from and understand all your concerns. I’m in.

OK, we didn’t literally talk like that, but Janine, who is emphatically and blessedly not the kind of person who does something just because someone else says to, already understood a lot about the problem and was willing to make whatever sacrifices were necessary. May every one of you who reads this have a significant other as smart and supportive as Janine.

So this weekend we headed out to buy some local groceries. We already tended to buy sustainable and organic products and cage-free eggs, all with as minimal a level of packaging as we could get, but we haven’t in the past paid very much attention to how far away our food originated. Now, suddenly, that’s our primary concern. According to Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma,

… growing the food is the least of it: only a fifth of the total energy used to feed us is consumed on the farm; the rest is spent processing the food and moving it around.  At least in terms of the fuel burned to get it from the farm to my table, there’s little reason to think my Cascadian Farm TV dinner or Earthbound Farm spring mix salad is any more sustainable than a conventional TV dinner or salad would have been.

So if it’s between organic food from across the country and conventional food from across the county, I now know which one must win if we’re going to fight off climate change. It has to be local.

Photo by Church Street Marketplace

City Market in Burlington – photo by Church Street Marketplace

You would think that in Burlington, Vermont, at the wonderful City Market/Onion River Coop, eating local would be easy. Vermont has a strong localvore movement, and Burlington, though small, is the biggest center of commerce and innovation in the state.

Was it easy? Hell no. Was it cheap? Hell no. Was it even possible to find all the foods we wanted to get, foods that are we already know somebody somewhere does produce in Vermont? No!

The process was more complicated than we expected. Fortunately, practically every kind of food we looked at had some kind of labeling that let us know whether it was from Vermont or not. (In a couple of cases, we also bought foods from nearby New York and New Hampshire. Parts of Quebec would also be fine.) However, the label often told us only where the food was packaged and (where applicable) processed. For instance, we were excited about being able to get some Vermont meat products from a company called Vermont Smoke & Cure, and we got practically all the way to the registers before we realized that the products we had from that company all had an announcement on the label stating that they were sourced in different locations in the United States and Canada, but smoked and packaged in Vermont. For all we knew, the livestock in question could have been raised in the Midwest. We put the products back and got others that said specifically on the label that the livestock were raised in Vermont.

Breakfast cereals (other than granola), mustard … a variety of prepared products couldn’t be found with Vermont sources at all. We completely failed on our breakfast cereal, buying products sold by Barbara’s Bakery, a California company. Going forward, I think we’ll need to find some locally-made products that aren’t available in most stores or else simply switch the kids to oatmeal and that kind of thing. Local oats, we can get–and that’s less processing, too. Maybe that’s the way to go.

We did find mustard from New York. It’s weird mustard (dark brown in color and kind of sticky), but it tastes good.

I wanted to buy some whole chickens, but the local ones (from Misty Knoll Farms, which has a great local reputation) cost $20-$25 each, and we just can’t afford that. We did buy some local ground turkey and such, but at prices that we may not be able to continue to pay on our middle class incomes. Obviously non-meat sources will be important, too; we’re working on that.

Dairy products were a bit easier than others, although still painfully expensive. One of the delights of the shopping trip was re-discovering Strafford Organic Creamery milk: it’s a local product produced by pastured cows (instead of cows fed subsidized agribusiness corn) and sold in returnable glass bottles; you pay a deposit on them. No plastic except for the cap! We also had some pretty good yogurt and cheese choices, as you can imagine. Local eggs from free-range, pastured chickens were available but expensive.

Produce was a disappointment, and it’s a reminder that we’re going to need a winter CSA share and/or some edible plants growing in our house and/or a little greenhouse. We found bags of romaine lettuce, three heads per bag, with such a small amount of lettuce in each head that the three of them together didn’t amount to as much lettuce as one normal head. This cost over four dollars. After some continued shopping, we discovered that the four dollars and fifty cents or so that they wanted for those three tiny heads was a discount because the lettuce was getting near its time; normally the heads are $1.89 each! We sucked it up and bought the shrinky-headed discount lettuce.

We talked a lot about other options. That greenhouse might be a good idea for winter produce, and despite the electricity expense, we think we can probably achieve a substantial net carbon savings by getting an efficient chest freezer for produce and pastured meat bought in bulk from local farmers. (Pastured, local meat doesn’t have anything like the terrible carbon impact that corn-fed meat from a distant source has.) We might even try keeping some chickens in the fortunately-large back yard we have at our disposal. This is made a little more plausible because we have children who can help us grow food and maybe look after small livestock.

So we still have a long way to go, and at some point we’ll have to make difficult choices about things like citrus and the delicious fake coffee we buy (Teeccino … not my favorite name for a product, but it sure is good). We have taken the first step, though, and as long as we keep pushing forward, I think we can make huge changes for our family … then maybe help other local people do the same.

We’re Eating Oil–Literally

plastic_food

I came across a disturbing statistic today: ten to one. This was in Bill McKibben’s book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet:

It takes the equivalent of four hundred gallons of oil annually to feed an American, and that’s before packaging, refrigeration, and cooking. In 1940, our food system produced 2.3 calories of food energy for every calorie of fossil fuel it consumed. Now, says Michael Pollan, “it takes ten calories of fossil energy to produce a single calorie of modern supermarket food. Put another way, when we eat from the industrial food system, we are eating oil and spewing greenhouse gases.”

I think I had actually read this once before and been disturbed by it then, but at the time I was still in blissful ignorance of how fast and how hard climate change would be coming down on us. Reading it this time was painful–but it also made clear an enormous opportunity. Look at this information from a 2009 sustainability report from NYU:

A 2002 study from the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health estimated that, using our current system, three calories of energy were needed to create one calorie of edible food. And that was on average. Some foods take far more, for instance grain-fed beef, which requires thirty-five calories for every calorie of beef produced. What’s more, the John Hopkins study didn’t include the energy used in processing and transporting food. Studies that do estimate that it takes an average of 7 to 10 calories of input energy to produce one calorie of food.

So that’s painfully depressing. It’s at least possible to imagine not driving a car everywhere and turning off extra lights, but how exactly do we survive without eating?

Fortunately, as I said, there’s a huge opportunity there–three, actually.

  1. Because most food production energy goes into transportation and packaging, eating local, minimally-packaged foods drastically reduces their negative environmental impact.
  2. The figures above are for mainly conventional farming methods. Sustainable methods have a much lower impact.
  3. Eating lower on the food chain (less red meat, more beans and veggies, etc.) also greatly reduces environmental impact.

I’m ridiculously relieved that there’s at least something I can do about this. We’re already following some of these practices, but it looks like this will be the first area of changes for our family, tentatively: going localvore, reducing packaging, and eating low on the food chain. We were going in the right direction, but we need to step our efforts way up. We can do that. Actually, practically everybody could do that. I wish everybody would–but I’d better start with myself.

Photo by C Jill Reed