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Off and running

Friday, April 8th, 2016

So our new farmers market started last week to great fanfare. We had great attendance and sold nearly everything we took. It’s a little early in the year for much from the garden so I took a lot of microgreens, bread, and other baked goods.


There were so many people there the first week that I wondered if anyone would come the next week. But then this week was just as good. A little different traffic pattern — a few less people and nearly everyone in the first 20 minutes or so — but we sold just as much. The community has shown great support.

This week I added dried beans, focaccia, and pizza dough to what we were selling. (Others are selling asparagus, but we’re opting to eat all of ours. :) One thing I’m seeing clearly is that prepared food sells faster than anything.

It will be good to have more produce available to sell as we get more into the summer.

Border food summit

Friday, September 21st, 2012

This week, Brad and I had the opportunity to attend the 2012 Border Food Summit, a conference to explore sustainable agriculture in the southwest. The audience was a combination of growers, farmers market managers, policymakers, and community organizers.

We got there Sunday morning for an all-day, pre-conference tour of some local sustainable farms. We visited many interesting places, but the highlight for us was a trip to the farm from Native Seeds/SEARCH. This non-profit organization is involved in the important work of “conserving, distributing and documenting the adapted and diverse varieties of agricultural seeds” of the southwest. (For those of you not up on this, industrial agricultural practices have dramatically reduced the number of species of plants cultivated, resulting in a reduction in biodiversity that causes all kinds of other problems. Seed saving and growing diverse native crops combats this, and Native Seeds/SEARCH are pioneers in this area.)

The young people who work on this farm are amazing, and we learned all kinds of things about not only seed saving, but growing in general. More about this later.

Evan at the Native Seeds/SEARCH farm

All day Monday and Tuesday through noon, we attended a variety of sessions on topics that included food systems, growing, cooperatives, small farming concerns, community organizing, and social justice. It was very interesting and thought provoking. Here’s a short clip from Dr. Ricardo Salvador, who keynoted the conference.

The sessions at this conference had a lot of relevance for us, in terms of our own growing and food production and consumption, our work with the farmers market, and our larger interest and concerns with the global food system. At the end of the conference, we were asked to reflect on how we’d take what we learned and apply it personally and as a part of a community. Here’s what Brad and I are committed to doing.

What we can do as individuals:

  • Put some small gabions on our land in the washes to create some new micro-climates and possibly make a place for a permaculture food forest in the future (This had come up at Heritage Days last year too.)
  • Plant more mixed beds with crops growing among cover crops (We got some amazing tips on this at Native Seeds.)
  • Save more seeds and start a local seed library here in Portal. (More to come on that.)

What we can do together:

  • Emphasize the benefits of buying local, natural food at the Harvest Festival at the farmers market in Oct. This event will also include a seed exchange and seed saving education for kids.
  • Begin some small local community networks here to advance these issues

After the conference, we returned to the Native Seeds farm. They had had a bunch of pumpkins available for a donation, and we decided to get a whole bunch of them to use in our Harvest Festival pumpkin decorating contest next month — supporting two good causes at once. We also got a giant bag of rye/vetch seed, a few other goodies, and some advice and encouragement. What nice people!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 25th, 2010

This year I am especially thankful for:

  • spending the holidays in our lovely house
  • Brad
  • having wonderful family and friends
  • being at a point in my life to tackle writing a novel
  • living the good life in a beautiful place
  • eating healthy and making good food choices
  • the farm and other providers we’ve found that produce sustainable, compassionately-produced food
  • our health
  • enjoying eating, watching football, relaxing, and not being on an airplane today!

Wishing you all the very best for this Thanksgiving!


Thanksgiving Eve sunset

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.

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.

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.

A tale of retail [foodchoices]

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010

Let’s go back a few posts and look at the various retail options we have for buying food.

I’ve already written enough about Wal-Mart, and I imagine that most people have their own thoughts for or against them at this point.

What about the other big chains like Safeway, Kroger’s, Ralphs, etc.? I’ve regularly shopped at all of them at one time or another and used to think that as long as you bought organic foods, it didn’t really matter where you bought them.

The other choices are “specialty” stores with the big three national chains being Whole Foods, Wild Oats, and Trader Joe’s. We always loved shopping at Trader Joe’s when we had one nearby. Their food is fresh, natural, delicious, and a fair amount cheaper than Whole Foods and Wild Oats.

What I didn’t know until recently is that these specialty stores make a real effort to stock ethically produced foods. They look at things like how their suppliers treat their animals and how they address other areas of social responsibility, like the environment and fair trade.

And now that “organic” has become a marketing buzz word, all the larger chains like Safeway, et al (even Wal-Mart)  have organic lines of product. However, the food they sell as organic is still produced in factory farms. While they adhere to the technicalities of organic labeling law in the U.S., they don’t adhere to the spirit of it. (There are a few exceptions like the dairy products from Organic Valley, which are produced ethically on small farms. The also-organic Horizon line, though, is factory farmed with all its horrors. It’s not what many of us would consider “organic.” Without a lot of research, it’s hard to know the difference.)

The bottom line is if you want to avoid factory-farmed foods, avoid the big chains.

There is one other choice, and it’s one I’ve become more familiar with now that I’m thinking more about food and we have no local Trader Joe’s. It’s local food co-ops. These are cooperatives that provide natural, organic, and ethically-produced food. In some towns, there are retail store-based co-ops. (We have one in Bisbee and one in Silver City. Contrary to what I thought, you don’t have to be a “member.”) There are also small informal co-ops. We have one in Portal that we can order from each month. The only drawback is that you have to order in cases, but we’ve found that that is really not a problem. Here is a directory for co-ops. You can also order a lot of organic, non-factory-farmed foods online. For example, most of what we get through our local co-op is available through Amazon at very good prices. The only challenge is that you have to know what you want….and research what brands meet your own considerations for good food choices.

Food prices and policy [foodchoices]

Sunday, August 29th, 2010

Good article in the NYT last Sunday about using policy to improve Americans’ health by influencing food choices. (I have mixed feelings about this. I’m all for free choice, but with the health care system becoming completely unmanageable — whether you favor a public system or an employer/employee-supported one — something needs to be done. I guess I think that as long as the policy is designed to influence choice and not mandate it, it’s a good thing.)

One of the points of the article is that subsidies have created an environment that greatly favors unhealthy fat- and sugar-loaded fast food. Subsidies on corn and soy (used for animal feed and oil) are huge. (Some day someone will explain to me why the people who supposedly stongly favor the market economy favor subsidies.) As a result, in the last 15 years or so, the inflation-adjusted price of a Big Mac has dropped 5.4% while the price of whole fruits and vegetables has risen 17%.

Everytime I see fast food pricing, I’m amazed by how cheap it is. Tacos for $.33? Burgers for under $1? It defies logic.

People are very sensitive about food pricing though. As a friend pointed out to me recently, someone who chooses the cheapest eggs or milk because of a dollar or so difference might easily spend $100 or so on dinner out and a movie. When we buy food at the grocery, we think it should be cheap and often don’t equate price differences with differences in things like health, the environment, or humane treatment of animals.

Milk is milk, and it should be cheap. Or so the thinking goes.

In a lot of ways, this is the same way most Americans view pricing of gasoline and even water. It is as though we have a god-given right to these things being cheap. In all of these cases, it is subsidies that have made the commodities historically cheap. And it seems unlikely that this is sustainable.

Interestingly, in Europe, food, gasoline, and water are all priced at something closer to a real market price (and are much more expensive than they are here). I rarely read about food or the environment (including the above-mentioned NY Times article) where the significant differences in European and American policy aren’t discussed.

Longer term thinking would serve us all well. In the meantime, individual choices do make a difference.