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.

Model for Success: How Vermont Towns Can Contribute to the State’s Renewable Energy Portfolio

This guest post is from Jamison Ervin, a member of Waterbury LEAP, the only Vermont town energy committee to become a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. You may have read my earlier post about Jamie and her family, What One Vermont Family Did to Massively Reduce Their Climate Change Impact. She lives in Duxbury and can be contacted at jervin@sover.net.

A solar installation in Waterbury, from suncommon.com

A solar installation in Waterbury; photo from suncommon.com

The towns of Waterbury and Duxbury are one rooftop away from achieving the goal they established last April: to double residential solar capacity. The increase to 338 residential kilowatts has moved Waterbury and Duxbury into fifth and second places, respectively, for residential solar per capita across all Vermont towns. At the same time, business solar installations have increased nearly 80 percent, to 363 kilowatts.

This means that Waterbury and Duxbury now rank among the top ten towns statewide for total per capita solar production.

What has driven this progress? As predicted by the Vermont Comprehensive Energy Plan, four factors are critical — public outreach, technological advances, innovative financing options and favorable public policies.

To educate the public, Waterbury LEAP (Local Energy Action Partnership), the energy committee serving both towns, holds an energy fair that draws more than 600 people every April. This year, dubbed the  Waterbury/Duxbury Solar Year, we ramped up these efforts to include a summer solar fest with free music, pizza and ice cream; radio ads and newspaper articles; brochures, flyers and posters; window displays; farmers’ market booths; open houses; and direct outreach to businesses, select boards, school boards and schools.

You name it, we tried it.

We are not certain that we can claim credit for any of this year’s installations. But we do know that most residents in our town have heard about the benefits of installing solar panels — increased savings on electricity, decreased carbon emissions, more local jobs and greater energy independence.

The second critical factor is the improvement in technology. The efficiency of solar panels has increased dramatically. Some of today’s panels can generate twice as many watts compared to those of only a few years ago — and the price of solar panels has decreased by half. Solar installation companies and their customers both have benefitted from this improved technology.

The availability of innovative finance options is also a key factor driving the growth of solar capacity. For example, the Vermont State Employee Credit Union has a new low-interest solar loan allowing homeowners to finance the cost of solar at reasonable rates. And SunCommon, a new solar installer in Waterbury responsible for 23 of the 30 new installations in Waterbury and Duxbury, has a lease model wherein homeowners install solar panels with no money down, at monthly costs equivalent to or less than their electric bills.

Green Lantern, a Waterbury-based green investment company, has created a solar tax-equity fund that allowed the owners of Cold Hollow Cider Mill to install a 149-kilowatt array — saving them more than $2,000 annually in electric bills, without any up-front costs.

The fourth factor is a favorable policy environment. Virtually everyone who installed solar panels in 2012 took advantage, either directly or indirectly, of the 30 percent federal tax credit. Most businesses were also able to depreciate their solar investment over 5 years instead of 30, leading to a much faster payback period.

On top of this, most customers who installed solar panels received a state rebate of 55 cents per watt, as well as a sales tax exemption.

In addition, all Vermont electric companies are required to purchase up to 100 percent of the solar-generated power produced by their customers at 20 cents per kilowatt hour — even if they sell electricity at a lower rate, which most do.

How does this local success story fit into the broader context of local and state energy consumption and production? Since Waterbury consumes some 58,000 megawatt hours annually, the town’s 589 kilowatts of solar power provide less than 1 percent of Waterbury’s total electricity needs.

The state’s goal, as articulated in the Vermont Comprehensive Energy Plan, is for Vermont to switch from its current use of 23 percent renewables to 90 percent by 2050.

Even with electricity companies adding renewable energy to their portfolio, towns will have to shoulder some of the burden of contributing to this goal. That means we must radically increase the number of residential, municipal and business solar installations statewide.

Four policy changes could make this happen. First, allow homeowners and businesses to sell back excess energy to the grid at wholesale rates, above and beyond their own electricity consumption. This step, which allowed Germany to become the global solar leader, encourages homeowners and businesses to add extra panels to their arrays because they are virtually guaranteed a modest but reliable return on investment.

Second, help subsidize the cost of upgrading outdated electric lines. South-facing roofs and open fields are in limited supply. Investors in large arrays of 150 kilowatts or more should not have to bear the burden of upgrading electricity lines, simply by accident of geography. Renewable energy should be considered a public good, and we should subsidize the full cost accordingly.

Third, simplify and streamline current permitting processes. Raise the residential permitting threshold of 10 kilowatts to allow larger residential arrays. Streamline the Section 248 process, which is triggered by arrays of 150 kilowatts and larger. Allow arrays of larger than 500 kilowatts to sell their excess energy back to the grid. And raise the cap of 4 percent for companies to purchase solar energy from their customers. These changes would help bring larger and more systems online faster.

Finally, towns should be proactive in identifying potential sites for large solar installations in their town plans and should encourage municipal, business, residential and school solar installations.

With these modest policy changes, Vermont’s role as a national leader in renewable energy would be secured — and we might even achieve our ambitious energy goals.

What One Vermont Family Did to Massively Reduce Their Climate Change Impact

Jamison Ervin of Duxbury, Vermont put together a great presentation with photographs, sketches, and easy-to-understand financials (including return on investment) for how her family took advantage of a septic system problem to make radical changes in their impact on the environment through a family garden, solar electricity, and solar hot water. It’s fun, easy to follow, and very informative. Check it out here: http://www.vecan.net/index.php/one-vermonters-leap-to-energy-independence/

Ervin home

By the way, if you’re thinking “solar … in Vermont?”, I don’t blame you: after all, we’re ranked 47th among U.S. states in annual days of sunshine at 49% (compared to first-place Arizona, which gets nearly twice as much sunshine at 85%). Yet solar is becoming increasingly popular in Vermont, and as Ervin demonstrates, it’s quite cost-effective. Germany, possibly the most energy-progressive country in the world, already supplies more than a quarter of its energy needs through wind and solar, much of it in the form of small home solar installations–though these have been made more affordable by government policies on buying renewable energy from small producers. Vermont, with 23% renewables, doesn’t lag far behind.

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.