September, 2010 browsing by month


Changing seasons?

Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010

It seems time for one of those newsy updates about life here.

We awoke this morning to a cool steady rain. It was the kind that really soaked the ground, much better for the plants  than the storms that whip through here, though less entertaining for us. The rain gauge this morning held a little over 1/4″ (three-tenths as they would say here), and there are still low clouds holding rain all around us.

Yesterday, huge thunderclouds loomed all around us, and by sunset, there were huge downpours falling to the north and south of us, but only a few drops here. So it was nice to wake up to the sound of a steady rain.

Other than that, the weather has still been hot during the day (90s), but it has been getting very cool at night (high 50s). Fall seems to be in the air. (At the farm, we are harvesting pumpkins and winter squash, more signs of changing seasons.)

We haven’t quite started the second house yet, but have been working on some changes to the plans. Now that we’ve lived here for a while, we have a better feel for things. In particular, while we’d been warned that we probably designed with too many windows, we are adding even more windows to the second house. The summer heat hasn’t been too bad (especially with the ceiling fan and shades), and we love the views more than we ever thought we would.

We are also getting new quotes on materials. We’ve heard that prices have gone up considerably in the last few months. I can’t imagine why — has there been a resurgence in the building economy that I’ve missed? At any rate, we should start ordering and then building soon. (By the way, what do you all think of “Gila” — pronounced heel-uh — as a name for the second house? I’m not sure it means anything by itself but there are many things named for it, including a river, mountains, a county, a fish, and obviously a monster lizard sometimes seen in these parts.)

In the meantime, we’ve had time to finish up some detail work in Tumbleweed that we hadn’t gotten to previously. Not that there won’t always be more to do, but things are very livable and mostly finished looking now.

Our garden, though late in coming to its prime, is producing a lot now. We’ve had tons of green onions and cucumbers, and yesterday I counted 12 green tomatoes of varying sizes. (We’ve harvested four so far.) We’ve also had a good amount of green beans. I’m currently planting a fall crop of spinach and lettuce, and we are also planting garlic and Egyptian walking onions. I feel like I’ve learned enough this year that we’ll really have a good garden next year.

Summary thoughts [foodchoices]

Tuesday, September 21st, 2010

If you haven’t had time to read the many voluminous posts on food issues I’ve written lately, perhaps you would have time to watch this short video that summarizes some of the main points.

(For those interested, I did my presentation on this topic at our local “Heritage Days” event this weekend. It was very well received, and I think it will make a difference in how people think about their food choices.)

This concludes this series of posts…for now. I can’t promise I won’t write more about food politics in the future though. ;)

When it all seems like too much [foodchoices]

Monday, September 20th, 2010

At the end of the book The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter, the authors say:

“When one ethical concern is heaped upon another and we struggle to be sure that our purchases do not contribute to slave labor, animal exploitation, land degradation, wetland pollution, rural depopulation, unfair trade practices, global warming, and the destruction of rainforests [all issues that the authors explore], it may all seem so complicated that we could be tempted to forget about everything except eating what we like and can afford.”

They go on to say that it is important not to lose heart. Doing something…doing whatever you can do… is important.

Here are some ideas for things you can do that make a difference.

  • Make the best choices for you.
  • Vote with your dollars.
  • Know your food!
  • Start a garden.
  • Visit a farm stand or farmer’s market.
  • Look into the local food co-op.
  • Buy local.
  • Get to know your neighbors.
  • Eat local (non-factory-farmed) eggs.
  • Support your local farms.
  • Eat completely local food one day a month (or week).
  • Eat organic.
  • Try Meatless Mondays.
  • Buy local and seasonal.
  • Learn to cook something new.
  • Compost
  • Visit a local farm.
  • Eat food that you love!
  • Freeze, pickle, can, dry.
  • Think about selling or bartering things you make or grow.
  • Have a local potluck.
  • Eat heirloom.
  • Buy whole food.
  • Learn more about community self-sufficiency.
  • Find out about community-supported
    agriculture (CSA).
  • Help build our local farmer’s market.
  • Get to know others who are interested in food choices.
  • Share what you’ve learned with someone else.

Effects on the world [foodchoices]

Tuesday, September 14th, 2010

Now for the big picture: how our food choices affect the larger world. For some, this will seem less relevant. To others, this is what it is all about. I think that the consumer choices we make are one of the biggest ways we can affect the world. In the era of governmental dysfunction that we live in, voting with our dollars is potentially the best way to make our voices heard.

Food choices we make affect many parts of the larger world, including:

  1. Economic priorities
  2. Treatment of animals
  3. Labor conditions
  4. The environment

From an economic standpoint, the choices we make affect businesses, both large and small. In the U.S., most small farmers don’t earn enough to make a living without other sources of income. The big ones only make it because of huge government subsidies. As a consumer, do you want to support big agribusiness or support small family farms? Do you want to encourage social responsibility or low prices at any cost? All of these are directly affected by the food purchases we make.

I haven’t talked much about the treatment of animals in factory farms, but suffice it to say that it is appallingly horrible. I can’t imagine that any caring person could see the way animals are treated in factory farms and still buy meat or dairy products produced that way.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of food in chain grocery stores comes from factory farms. It is a very sad thing.

If going vegetarian/vegan isn’t your thing, at least consider buying from a small farm where you can see how animals are treated or somewhere like Whole Foods that has Animal Compassion standards.

I’ve already talked about the fact that low food prices are often made possible by passing on the costs to someone other than the consumer. In many cases, the cost is passed on to workers, who are paid substandard wages and benefits or are working in unsafe conditions. Outside of the U.S. (at least we like to think it doesn’t happen here), this can extend to child labor, indentured servitude, and other manners of abuse.

One way to try to avoid this is to buy “fair trade” food which ensures decent wages, compliance with health, safety,and environmental standards, labor organization, and no child or forced labor.

Finally, the environment — this is perhaps the most important area our food choices affect.

Significant environmental degradation is caused by factory farming practices like chemical fertilizers and animal waste run-off. It is well documented that grain-raised beef is one of the worst calamities for the environment, worse it is said, than all our vehicles’ carbon emissions. If you want to do one thing that will make the biggest single difference for the environment, it is not to buy a hybrid car or even quit driving all together — it is to become a vegetarian.

There are many other ways to use food choices to help the environment. Choose food with less packaging. The amount of wasteful packaging that goes into our food is crazy. Or bring your own reusable bags to the grocery. This is a really small easy thing that everyone can do. And it makes a difference.

In addition, buying local (and seasonal) makes a big difference. Food raised overseas not only takes large amounts of fossil fuels to transport, but it is often raised using unsustainable methods. (Another area that I was unaware of previously is how damaging most “farmed” seafood is to the environment.)

But in addition to buying locally-produced food, it is also important to buy seasonal food. Food that is not seasonal (such as tomatoes grown in the winter…or rice grown in California where there is not adequate water) often takes so much extra energy to raise (even locally), that it would be more environmentally sound to fly it in from somewhere it can grow seasonally.

All of this may seem like a lot of burden to take on ourselves as individuals. But if we as individuals don’t think about these things, who will? Our governments surely aren’t. If we don’t make some changes, we’ll all ultimately pay the price. And isn’t a little thought with regard to our food (and possibly some occasional extra expenditures and inconveniences) worth it?

If I can do it… [foodchoices]

Sunday, September 12th, 2010

Often when I talk about food, the subject of cooking comes up. People say something like “Yeah, well, if I could cook like you, I’d eat better (or make better food choices).”

Well, I’m here to tell you that anyone can cook.

When I think about people who I know that are reading this, they mostly fall into two groups: people who knew me before I could cook and can’t imaging me cooking (pre-Africa) and people have known me since and therefore think I have always been a good cook. The truth is that for most of my life, I did not cook. I ate out a lot, and when I tried to cook, it was mostly to heat up simple already-prepared food (and even that didn’t always work out).

So what turned me into a good cook? I have no idea really, except for a desire to learn and lots of good resources (Food TV, YouTube, many good cookbooks, great magazines).

Now that I can cook, I can’t imagine what all the fuss is about. With only a few exceptions (e.g. souffles), most of the stuff I make is very basic. Many dishes involve only a few ingredients and follow the same basic steps. For example, all the soups I make are basically the same. Start with sauteing onions and garlic; add a tablespoon of flour; whisk in broth or milk; add whatever the soup is (potatoes, squash, tomatoes, leaks, etc.) and use an immersion blender.

And now that I do cook, I’d almost always rather cook something that eat out.

I am so convinced that anyone can cook that I have thought about starting my own line of cooking videos. All it takes is a little time and the willingness to succeed. (A few other people I know who have recently started cooking more have verified this.)

And the pay-offs are worth it. Not only will you save money, but you’ll enjoy your food more and eat healthier.

The food served in restaurants is loaded with extra fat, sugar, and salt. Even store-bought prepared food is not the healthiest. The further you get from whole foods, the harder to know where your food came from and what exactly is in it.

If you are interested in making healthy and satisfying food choices, but don’t currently “think you can cook,” give it a try. I think you’ll be glad you did.

Labeling – organic and more [foodchoices]

Saturday, September 11th, 2010

I grew up learning that it is important to read labels in order to be an informed consumer, but the truth is, in today’s marketing buzz-happy world, labels don’t mean a lot.

Some of the things we might look for that sound good include “organic,” “natural,” “cage free,” “free range,” etc.

Let’s start with organic. The original spirit of organic farming was to use methods that were environmentally, socially, and economically sound and sustainable. A key tenet is building soil fertility (through natural crop rotation, composting, and planting cover crops, not through chemical fertilizers). Most people think of small farms in association with organic farming.

In 1990, the USDA created a legal “USDA organic” certification. The main requirements of this are that crops are grown without synthetic fertilizers, and most pesticides are also banned. Animals must eat organic grains and cannot be given growth hormones or antibiotics. Genetic modification is banned. Anything labeled “USDA organic” must meet these standards.

However, as “organic” has become hot with the market growing substantially over the last couple years, most large factory farm operations have developed an “organic” line. They do meet the requirements of not using chemicals and not including any GMOs. However, they are often still factory-farmed using methods that cannot be considered sustainable. For example, animals can still be kept in inhumane conditions, crowded into small indoor spaces with barely enough room to move naturally.

Some feel that the industrialization of organic food is necessary in order to increase availability and decrease prices. Others think that factory-farmed organic food isn’t really organic in the true sense.

Another variable is that many small producers, including the small organic farm that I work with, choose not to get the organic certification even though they meet all the requirements. For some, it is a matter of cost. For others, it is a protest against the increasingly corporate view of “organic.”

So while “organic” can be a good thing, it is not always indicative of sustainability or social responsibility, and sometimes food that is not labeled “organic” may actually be better than food that is.

On other labels terms, “natural” means absolutely nothing. It is purely a marketing term.

“Cage free ” doesn’t mean much. The vast majority of “cage free” chickens are crowded into giant metal buildings with no access to outdoors, given less space per bird than an 8-1/2″ x 11″ sheet of paper, and have their beaks cut off (without anesthetic) to prevent them from their natural pecking behavior. Is that better than being in a cage? Frankly, with what I’ve learned about chickens (which along with pigs are the most inhumanely treated), I am reluctant to buy any eggs from a store. (Thank god for our local farm. You can also buy small farm-produced eggs at most farmer’s markets. At first I thought it was a little weird and potentially scary. Now I love the eggs and the fact that chickens aren’t abused.)

Unfortunately, the bottom line on labeling is that you really have to do your homework. “Organic” isn’t everything. You have to know your food — where it comes from, how it is produced — and make good choices that reflect your own values.

Thoughts on Calculating Solar Power Needs

Friday, September 10th, 2010

I’ve talked about planning and calculating solar equipment/batteries before: here and here. Read these first if you’re planning for solar. Now that we have made all our decisions and are living daily with result, I have a few thoughts on the whole calculation business. These thoughts are affected by the realization that you really have to get a generator and that ours will turn on and off automatically as needed.

Why do you need a generator? No matter how well you plan, something could go wrong. A couple of my neighbors discovered this recently when one lightning strike took out both their inverters. If you agree about needing a generator, calculating what you need in the way of solar power should take this into account.

1) You absolutely need enough battery power to last 24 hours. (In three months we have never failed to charge the batteries each day.) I don’t know where they came up with get enough batteries to last three days. It’s nice, but batteries are very expensive.

2) The most important thing to calculate is the continuous average wattage you expect to use. Things that are rarely used like vacuum cleaners really don’t need to be calculated except for a maximum watts at one time calculation.

For us, this is about 450 watts. At night we often creep down to 200 or so watts; never under this. During the day it’s usually between 400 and 500 watts. If the refrigerator is working hard, it can go up to 800 watts or so for awhile.

3) You need to have an idea of the maximum watts you’ll ever expect to need at one time. Inverters are rated by the maximum number of watts they can deliver. Our inverter can deliver 6000 watts. I doubt we’ve ever used 3000 watts at one time. We for sure have used 2000 watts.

4) Plan your system so you don’t go broke running your generator, but also plan your system so you don’t go broke trying to live without a generator.

Other thoughts on solar power-

No one ever talks about this- (I realize it’s probably because it’s a bad idea, nonetheless…) I increasingly feel that a few panels facing east and west would be of value. For us I think 600 watts each direction would be pretty useful. Basically it would extend the number of hours a day you produce power–you start generating power earlier in the day and later into the evening.

I’ve thought a lot about wind energy and I’ve given up on the idea. We have great wind quite often; however, it’s not reliable enough that you could count on it. If you can’t count on it, then you need another plan.

Living with off-grid solar power

Wednesday, September 8th, 2010

We’ve been living full time on solar power for three months now. We’ve never had an outage or any trouble at all–good news.

You can generalize about life on off-grid solar power to some extent, but each situation is different and depends on its own environment and equipment. Common to everyone, I think, is that you use as much power as you can during hours of sunlight, and you conserve the rest of the time. We seem to have planned pretty well and so far there’s not been the slightest reason to think we’ll empty our batteries. I very much doubt we have the three days of battery power I planned on, but I have thoughts about why this is OK.

On sunny days, which is to say about 95% if the time,  our batteries are usually fully charged by 10:00 AM to 11:00 AM. For the rest of the day, the solar array is in a stand-by (I’m over simplifying) mode supplying power to the house and keeping the batteries charged until there’s so little sunlight that we’re on batteries until the next day. On cloudy days, it can take until 1:00 or 2:00-ish to fully charge the batteries, and we’re often on battery power before the sun has gone down.

We have never had a day in which the batteries didn’t get fully charged. Note that we have not bought a generator yet. This is especially surprising because it’s been a very rainy year, and there’s been a strong monsoon season. Even on quite cloudy days, I’ve seen 1000 watts or more being produced by our solar array. One starts to think that one could get by without a backup generator.

Either we’ve done really well planning our electrical needs, or we’ve had favorable conditions; I can’t be sure yet.

We have a device from the Xantrex people that lets you monitor the solar equipment from a computer. According to it, we’ve never had less than 65% of battery power available. I am suspicious of this number. Every morning it says 65% remaining. I’ve started watching the battery voltage as perhaps a better guide to how much battery power is remaining. Most mornings it reads in the range of 50.8 to 50.2 volts.

One thing I’ve noticed is the the voltage drops in a decidedly non-linear fashion. It drops quickly from 53 volts (that’s the maximum) to 52 and to 51 volts. After that, it slows down. We often go to bed at say 50.4 volts and find it’s only dropped to 50.3 volts in the morning. This makes it really hard to know how much power we really have in the bank. The manufacturer of our batteries says that 48.4 volts is that halfway point that you’re not supposed to drop below. The Xantrex people say that when they say there’s 50% left, that is the point you’re not supposed to drop below. These two don’t jive. Still working on understanding.

It would be pretty easy to figure things out if I want to just turn off the solar array and watch the power slow run out. I don’t think it’s worth the bother of ending up temporarily out of power – especially since we don’t have a generator to bail us out.

They tell you to plan your system for three days without power. I have ambivalent thoughts regarding this. On the one hand, using this as a guide yielded a pretty good system. On the other hand, it’s misleading. There’s never been a day we did not generate a fair amount of solar power. On the other hand, I think you have to get a generator. If you have to get a generator, then running it once in awhile is probably cheaper than buying enough batteries to last three days.

Do you need a generator? I think that you do if you are living full time in your off the grid home. The main reason is the refrigerator/freezer. I think there’s a fair chance that we will never feel desperate to use a generator. Still, as our neighbors can attest, if your inverter fails you’re in the dark without one. One neighbor has been living on his generator for three or so weeks ow while his inverter is being repaired.

A big concern has become the lightning that is so frequent here — especially during monsoon season. One lightning strike about a quarter a mile away from us took out the inverters of two of our neighbors. It also blew out our cable modem – we were lucky. It seems the phone wires carried the power from the lightning strike to our doorsteps. To combat this, I bought a lightning surge protector for the incoming phone lines. When I installed it, it looked to me like the cable that the phone lines come in on is surrounded with copper. I can’t help but think that the lightning runs along this copper to all the houses in the area and “why isn’t it grounded?” OK, it’s grounded where it comes into our house, but I wish it were grounded further away as well.

All in all, living off the grid for us is no different than on the grid except that if you’re on the grid they tell you to run your appliances at night, and we run ours during the day. Well, there is the fact that our power never goes off. Around here, people living on the grid spend a lot of time cursing the frequent, though usually short, power outages.

[A postscript from karen: From my perspective, there is very little that seems different about living off-grid. That is in large part because of all of Brad’s planning and the purchase of a robust system and a lot of new energy efficient appliances. We really don’t avoid using appliances at night — I am writing this after dark; we use the stove and oven every evening (they are gas but the oven uses some electricity); we watch several hours of TV most evenings (it’s still baseball season, though it’s been a dismal one). The biggest difference to me is that Brad is always fussing with watching the system figures. Oh, one more thing — I don’t feel guilty about standing in front of the refrigerator with the door open since we are using no fossil fuels in doing so. I am looking forward to getting a generator (which we will do soon) but only to have one more level of backup. You can’t have too many backup plans in my book.]

Effects on the community [foodchoices]

Monday, September 6th, 2010

We’ve looked at how food choices affect our own well-being, so let’s look now at how food choices affect our community.

First and foremost, our collective food choices have an impact on small family farms. In the 100 years or so, there has been a huge move from small family farms to large agribusiness. In 1900, almost 40% of the nation’s population lived on farms. Now, less than 2% does. In the same period, the number of farms has shrunk from 5.7 million to 1.9 million. The average farm size has gone from 146 acres to close to 500 acres. Most notably, large farms produce about 75% of total agricultural output.

Intensive farming or factory farming became popular after World War II with the advent of new chemical fertilizers, pesticides, antibiotics, and lots of government subsidies to encourage high productivity mono-cropping. Some of the advantages of factory farming are higher efficiency and lower food costs. Some of the disadvantages are environmental degradation, public health concerns, a decrease in biodiversity, and animal cruelty.

Some may think that bemoaning the demise of small farms is a hearkening back to days of old and that the modernization of farming is for the nation’s overall benefit. The more I learn about factory farming practices, the more I disagree.

Beyond the big picture outlook, I now have a much keen sense of how an individual purchase decision affects an individual farmer. Like any small business, but more even than most, a farmer who is deriving most of their income from farmer’s markets or CSA purchases depends on individuals in the community. For us, deciding to buy carrots at Safeway vs. the local farm stand seems like a minor trade-off between cost, quality, and convenience. For the farmer, those minor decisions add up to whether they’ll be able to farm again next year.

Having a small farm is a very tough way to make a living. I think I’m a hard worker and a great marketer, and frankly I don’t think I could do it.

In addition to farming, food processing has become very centralized. I recently heard that a post-9/11 threat assessment by the government ranked food processing as one of the greatest areas of vulnerability. (After deciding they couldn’t really do much about it, they apparently stopped talking about it.)

Buying food from small local vendors also helps support the local economy. Most of us probably feel better putting money into the pockets of a small farm family rather than a multinational corporation if we have a choice. And the dollars you spend locally are more likely to stay in the community and make life better for everyone. Again, I have more of a sense of this living where I live now.

Lastly, there are the issues of sustainability and self-sufficiency. I am not personally one who thinks “the end is near,” but the world is an uncertain place. Living out here in the middle of nowhere, I am more aware of how dependent we are on the global distribution chain. The thought of a break in the chain is disconcerting. For a whole variety of reasons, I find it comforting that, at our house, we make our own electricity and have our own small garden. Being somewhat self-sufficient is always empowering. From a community standpoint, I like the idea that we are not totally dependent on outside forces for survival as well. On the short list of things that people really can’t live without, food is up there.

Most importantly, if the local farmers we come to love decide that they can’t farm next year, it’s a loss to all of us. And one that is unlikely to be undone.

For those interested, more reading and local sources in your community are available here.