The New Normal

A great TEDx presentation on using livestock to reverse desertification and climate change.

Except for 4 years while I was away at college, I’ve lived pretty much my entire life in the San Francisco Bay Area. Even when I was in college I still was living near the California coast, albeit more in Southern California. You get pretty used to the climate around here. My birthday is mid June and I always knew that my birthday would be a beautiful sunny day. I also could depend on Halloween being dry. Our climate is warm and dry in the summer starting in May and we have cool, wet winters starting in November. The weather was dependable.

Well, at least it used to be. And everyone I have talked with that has also lived here all their lives seem to agree. Our weather patterns are no longer predictable. Our warm, dry summers are not totally dry. The last few years we’ve had rain in July which used to be unheard of. And our cool, wet winters? Well, we now get one of two extremes. It’s either flood-stage rain for an extended period of time, or it’s like this year where it’s rained maybe two or three days since December. January and February this year were the driest on record. We received just over half of the water we got during the second two driest months on record (in 1991). Half. Seriously. Half of the next driest.

This is serious.

In February we got a stunningly low 0.09″ of rain.  The average is 3.9″. In January we only got 0.6″ when we should have been closer to 5.4″. We don’t get a lot of rain to begin with so when the numbers are this low it’s quite alarming.

In the four years we’ve lived here, this is the first time I’ve ever had to water in the winter. We usually disconnect all the irrigation so we can dig freely without hitting lines and also to keep lines from freezing. Unfortunately we’re going to have to hook it back up this weekend because I’ve found that it takes much too long to hand water even the small amount of plants we’ve got in right now.

But this isn’t just about our garden. This is effecting almost the entire country (except for those lucky to live in the Pacific Northwest). One of the biggest victims of unstable climate is agriculture and without agriculture we cease to exist. We cannot live without food but we, as a species, are shortsighted. Our unwillingness to take action now to make changes to our behaviors will end up being our downfall.

 

 

Putting a Value on That

Recently I tagged along with my mom to the grocery store. She was in town visiting and she’s a fantastic cook and was planning on making an amazing meal for her best friend who she was staying with.

It wasn’t just any grocery store, though. We were entering the yuppie-hippie grocery store. A full third of the store was just produce so I figured this was a good time to check out prices for the in season, organic produce.

I haven’t updated it in awhile – here it is February and I still haven’t finished 2012′s totals – but on the right hand column we keep track of what we spend and save running our urban farm. I base the prices on the unit costs for a similar item if I was purchasing it elsewhere – whether it was the farmers’ market, the grocery store or a roadside stand. If I see similar items at different prices I take the average.

Since I don’t make it into a grocery store very often, especially one with such a large selection of (organic) produce I figured I’d start jotting down some of the prices of items I normally don’t find at the farmers market (or the normal grocery store, for that matter) but that I grow at home. If the produce came in a bunch or was priced individually I weighed it to figure out the cost per pound.

As I went through row after row of vegetable, weighing and jotting down prices I quickly began to realize that there is no way in hell I would ever spend that much money on produce. Cute little of bunches of arugula that only weighed a 1/4 lb were going for $2.49 or $9.96/lb. Nearly $10 for a green that practically grows wild in my yard with no known pests. For realz? Do people actually spend this much for arugula? Well, now that I think about it, a similar amount sold at my local farmers market goes for $2 a bag or about $8/lb. That can’t be right. The dandelion greens (yes, they even had those) were half the price of the arugula, and in my (not so) humble opinion they are harder to find commercially. They too grow like a weed in my yard, and I can say I wouldn’t pay $5/lb of them either.

There’s a balancing act when you grow food yourself. I grow it because I wouldn’t pay what this yuppie-hippie store charges for the items that cost me just a couple of dollars in seeds for a year’s supply. If I didn’t grow it I probably still wouldn’t buy it so am I really saving money? Probably not. But there are items that I would buy, like apples (they have them for $3.99/lb, but at the farmers’ market they are $1.50/lb for organically grown), I just wouldn’t buy them at that particular grocery store. So which price do I go with? The farmers’ market price, of course.

The other side of the coin is when I think an item is worth more than what they sell it for. Potatoes, corn, onions, garlic and winter squash should be more than the $0.99-$1.99/lb just because they require so much more space, time and skill to grow. But the cost is what it is so in fairness that’s what I use in my spreadsheet. I’ll be honest though, it pains me to enter the low numbers.

As I peruse the farmland listings and calculate how much it would cost us to have a farm I really have to wonder how the hell we would ever make enough money selling vegetables to pay for the farmland it’s grown on? While that $10/lb for arugula sounds like it could do it, it’s important to realize that the farmer that’s growing it is lucky to get $2/lb for it. The remaining $8 goes to transport, distributors and the grocery store. Direct sales would have to be the way to go and lots of high value crops (*cough* heirloom tomatoes *cough*) to make up for the lower value crops.

 

 

Where Have I Been?

I have to admit, I’ve been missing in action lately and for that I apologize. But I do have some good reasons, I promise!

I may have mentioned before that I was doing a permaculture study course through Homegrown.org. It’s going slowly and there is a lot of reading involved, which is taking up most of my spare time on the weekends. While it’s informative, I’m not sure if this study course is right for me. It’s very philosophical and what I need is something more concrete.

In addition (because apparently I’m crazy), I’m also taking an online course through John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health on the U.S. Food System. It’s a good course with a lot of (mostly) thoughtful discussion. What I like about this course is that you can take it at your own leisure (all of the tests are due at the end of the course) and the lectures each week are broken up into 15-20 min sessions so it’s not overwhelming. The required reading is also online, which makes it a lot cheaper than most courses.

My day job is picking up substantially and where I was once working only part time, I’m now working overtime. I’m not complaining though! Some of the past few years have been really rough and I’m glad that they are behind us now. For those of you that don’t know, I work in the construction industry – one of the first industries to collapse in the economy – and it appears that we’re leading the charge into the new economy.

I think the biggest change around here though is my stepson has come to live with us. What was once every weekend has now become all week and 3rd and 5th weekends. He just started high school so we’ve been busy transitioning him during this huge time in his life. Not only is he now living in a new town and going to a new school but he’s now in high school, something completely new. Fortunately he made friends quickly. And what they say about teenage boys having a hollow leg is true. Very true.

Of course we’re still growing and raising food! We definitely haven’t stopped doing that. So here’s what’s going on around here via photo essay (the best picture is at the end, trust me):

artichoke plants

The artichoke plants are getting nice and big and should be giving us blooms in no time.

artichokes

I also started some seedlings from our artichokes which I will have available soon.

The pepper seedlings are up and getting close to being repotted.

I also started pepper, tomato, eggplant, and tomatillo seedlings.

cauliflower

The cauliflower is already the size of a softball.

fava beans

The fava beans are blooming.

chard

We’re harvesting chard several times a week and we even have it growing wild in our yard now.

garlic

We’re trying 4 different varieties for garlic. From left to right: Red Toch, Bogatyr, California Early and Metechi. I think it’s clear which one is doing the best.

oranges

We’re getting lots of citrus this year. It’s the first year we’ve gotten fruit off of every citrus tree.

olives

The Arbequina olive tree is LOADED with olives this year. This tree is a biennial producers, meaning it only produces a crop every other year. It’s first year it gave us 15lbs of olives. I’m betting we’ve got over 25lbs this year.

outside barn

This is probably the last photo that will be taken of the goat barn. No, we’re not getting rid of the goats, but we are moving it this coming weekend and expanding it. Yes, we are ambitious.

inside barn

Last weekend we took out all the interior walls and back exterior wall which makes for some interesting milking this past week. Part of the new barn will be a much larger milking parlor.

Bella

I’m convinced that Bella is a pygora with her crazy thick coat this year. She wasn’t in milk this winter so she turned into a walking gray marshmallow.

daisyDaisy has emotional issues, which is why she’s got that funny thing around her neck. It’s actually a 1 gallon plant pot that keeps her from self sucking – something she started doing when she went into labor with Panda (it’s a comforting behavior for her apparently).

whiskeyWhiskey and Bailey are all grown up! Whiskey will soon be learning how to be a cart goat for events.

henWe’ve got some young hens that just started laying finally.

pulletsSoon on their heels we’ve got some pullets that should be laying soon.

cockerelBehind them we’ve got some more pullets and cockerels that are about a month younger but are growing much faster. These are Light Sussex crosses that we bred and were raised by Speckles (many of them are already larger than their mom).

Mr JenkinsHere’s the dad, Mr. Jenkins. We’ve been very lucky as he has a wonderful personality for a rooster. He watches over and protects the hens but is not aggressive towards us. He’s a huge bird and it’s a trait he passes on to his offspring making them great dual purpose birds.

hankOur other awesome boy is, of course, Hank the Tank. He’s been spending a lot of time wooing Tater but she’s still holding out. Duke, however, is already sitting on a clutch of eggs that should start hatching in about 2 weeks.

rabbitLast but not least we’ve got the cutest members of our farm right now. Baby rabbits! Yasmine’s (aka Tummy) kits are a few weeks old now and growing fast. They definitely have their mom’s curious, very friendly personality. It’s funny to see the difference in litters’ overall personality. These guys were out of the box the second they could see. Some litters won’t leave the nest unless you force them.

Plans for 2013

GreenhouseA new year and a new set of projects. But first I’d like to see where we were last year at this time and see if we got anything done that we wanted to.

  • More productive in the garden? This year wasn’t nearly as productive in produce. We produced about 300lbs less produce than 2011, which was 600lbs less food than 2010. This was most likely our fault because we didn’t amend the soil as much as we should have.
  • Black plastic? We did use it and found that it worked well for some crops but was a failure for the rest. Next year we will only use it for melons and watermelons.
  • Separating livestock feed? We did that for awhile until the turkeys started living with the chickens. The chickens were slackers this year, laying less than 1/2 of what they laid in 2011, and we lost money on them. The turkeys did better than I expected and the goats pretty much broke even. Surprisingly, even though we lost our queen late in the year so we couldn’t replace her, we still ended up with nearly 50lbs of honey. We didn’t breed the rabbits very much this year and we brought in new breeders so we lost money on them as well.
  • Greenhouse built? Not completed 100% but it is usable now.
  • Extended goat barn? Didn’t get to that.
  • Rabbit hutch rebuild? Didn’t get to that either.
  • Water tower turned into a pantry? Kind of. We are storing some food in there.
  • Hunting and foraging? Yes! Well, most of 2012 was a bust for mushrooms (though we did get some this past fall) and Tom got several turkeys and a wild hog.

So what is on the horizon for this year? Much of the same probably. We still need to get the greenhouse finished and rebuild the rabbit hutch. We are now planning on not just expanding the goat barn but also moving it to a new location. We want to increase production, this year we’ll be more than generous adding soil amendments. And, of course, add more foraged and hunted foods into our diet.

We MUST reduce our outside obligations. Another year of having every single weekend planned out to the last hour leads to no time to work in the yard. This might have a lot to do with our lack of produce.

We’ve added more younger chickens to our flock. In the spring we’ll reevaluate who is laying and who is not, and cull those that aren’t producing or otherwise offering us a service, such as raising broods for us. Last year we only had 3 new flock members while the rest started to age out of laying. This year we’ll have at least 11 new pullets, possibly more depending on how many of Speckles’ brood are cockerels and how many are pullets (my guess is 3 and 3 but I could be wrong).

Keep the birds out of the garden in the summer! They all but destroyed our brassica seedlings so now we won’t get much of a crop this year.

Guerilla garden a 1/2 acre easement with orchard grass and alfalfa. We’ll see how well that goes.

Remove Turkey Town. Turkey Town has served it’s purpose well, but the turkeys no longer sleep in it as they prefer the chicken coop, so down it will come. We will use some of it to upgrade the chicken coop, in particular the roof, which will be put over the part of Chicken City where the turkeys like to sleep.

Produce more food at home for our dogs and cats. Yep, that means increasing production of meat.

Cart train Whiskey. We’ll be keeping our wether, Whiskey, and I’d like to get him in a harness and teach him how to pull a small cart.

What plans do you have for 2013?

Knowing Your Food

There is something fishy going on.

I love sushi. I mean LOVE sushi. It’s not cheap so I don’t eat it very often so it’s a real treat for me. Imagine my surprise when I read an article earlier this year about how more than half (55%) of the fish sold in Los Angeles was mislabeled, or in other words, you think you’re paying for an expensive type of fish but you’re getting a cheaper fish instead. Besides being downright fraud, this is a dangerous game. Some people are allergic to specific species of fish, while some other species are more prone to have high levels of mercury which can be especially dangerous to pregnant women and children. Some of the fish was being substituted with Escolar, which can make people sick. Escolar is banned in Japan for this very reason but apparently it’s a-OK for us to eat.

Part of me thought that this must be an isolated issue. Deep down I knew it probably wasn’t. Unfortunately the deep down part was right. I recently came across another article doing tests on the east coast. Again, half were mislabeled. White tuna, which is one of my favorites, turned out to be Escolar 100% of the time. This study was what prompted the L.A. study. In the L.A. study, Red Snapper shared the same fate as white tuna, being substituted by either pollock or tilapia. The most appalling number, though, was that 87% of 10 species of fish tested in sushi restaurants across L.A. were mislabeled.

Romanesco cauliflower starting to head

Romanesco cauliflower starting to head at Foggy River Farm.

But what about other food besides fish? We shop at farmers’ markets for the majority of our produce. In California, we have protections in place to keep unscrupulous people from scamming consumers (California is looking to pass a law about correctly labeling fish currently). Certified Farmers’ Markets require that farmers have a producer’s certificate showing that they do indeed grow what they are selling.  But even that isn’t foolproof as shown back in 2010 in Los Angeles. Scammers were selling produce they purchased wholesale as local and certified organic when neither was true. Their fields were empty except for weeds and yet here they were selling immaculate produce. I know in other states this is a common practice at farmers’ markets because those states don’t have any protections for the consumer. From what I’ve heard from people in other states, this is actually a huge problem. And not only is it fraud, but it also hurts the real farmers out there that are doing good work. They lose out on sales because they are being undercut by these con artists.

So how do you figure all this out? Unfortunately, I really don’t have a solution on the fish issue other than being really familiar with it. I know one place in my town that for sure doesn’t correctly label their fish so I avoid that place. I just hope the one place I do like to go to is being honest.

But with other food there are some steps you can take that will help you figure out who is legit and who is trying to pull the wool over your eyes. Talk to the farmer. Ask them lots of questions including what they spray, where it’s grown, how they avoid pests and most importantly, can you tour their farm. If they say you can tour, do it. Go visit their operation if you can. We try to do this on a regular basis. See what the quality of their produce looks like in the field. Does it coincide with how their produce looks at the farmers’ market? Are they growing everything you’ve seen at their stand that season? If it’s not on that site, ask where that specific produce comes from (many times farms lease land in other locations). If they are not willing to tell you, let alone show you, then don’t purchase their produce. If you can’t tour their farm do some research on them (but ask if you can tour anyways to see if they are amicable to that). Contact their county to make sure they have that producer’s certificate for everything they are selling. Google their address to make sure it exists and to see what their land looks like. It will require some work on your part, but in the end you can feel secure in the fact that you aren’t getting ripped off.

Of course the other option is to grow and raise your own food if you’re lucky enough to have the space to do it.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

From all of us here at Dog Island Farm to you! I hope you have a wonderful time!

 

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I Love My Life…No Really

Image by Lori Eanes

Sometimes as I’m trudging down to the goat barn in the dark, wet from rain and mud, to do my twice daily milking chore I have to wonder why the hell am I doing this? Why the hell am I working full time during the week and spending all of my free time doing chores? Doing chores in the dark, in the rain, and perpetually muddy. I plant stuff on the weekends but have no idea until the following weekend if anything has germinated. Worse yet,  I don’t know if I’ve successfully kept the slugs and snails at bay or whether everything has been destroyed.

This time of year I always question this lifestyle. The weekends are the only time I get to see the goats, rabbits, chickens, turkeys, and garden during daylight hours. So all the big chores get crammed into the weekends. It seems that we work just so we can work some more.

A side effect of having animals? Urine, feces and vomit no longer faze me. Hard work and lack of sleep are the rule rather than the exception. Stick my hand in chicken shit? No problem. Step barefoot in cat puke in the middle of the night conveniently deposited right outside the bedroom door? That’s life. Goat feed in our bed? Yep. Being the only person at the Halloween store with real blood on their boots? It’s happened. Medicating a goat every 2 hours for 2 days? Check.

But then, as I stand in a grocery store aisle searching for that one packet of cheesecloth that I know they must have in a sea of random crap, I quickly realize why I do this, even in the dark of winter. And it’s not just because I hate dealing with the grocery store, which I do. Doing things our way make life easier. Not physically easier, obviously, but I don’t have to think about where our food comes from. I don’t have to stand there and stare at labels trying to figure out which product is the lesser of two evils. All the meat in our freezer is from animals that we raised or hunted. The milk is raw and always fresh and clean. There’s no BHT, BHA or high fructose corn syrup. There’s no transfat, no GMOs, and no soy. No factory farmed animal products or industrial farmed crops. No methyl iodide, 2-4,D or glyphosate. No Red #4 or castoreum.

Watching things grow, evolve, and change creates a sense of accomplishment. Pride swells, like a new parent, when your goat kids, your chicken/turkey hatches a clutch of chicks, or your rabbit kindles. Pulling carrots and digging potatoes are like opening presents on Christmas morning or going on a treasure hunt. Nothing tastes better than food grown through a labor of love. Everything is fresh and healthy and happy. Yes, even the carrots are happy.

Our life is interesting, it is fulfilling and it has meaning. And sometimes, on those dark, stormy mornings I need to remember that.

 

Introduction to the GMO Challenge

I wanted to wait to discuss this until after I went to a talk by Michael Pollan about the aftermath of Prop. 37.

While the votes are still being counted Proposition 37 – the Right to Know initiative that would have labeled GMOs in our food – has been called as defeated. We can hold out hope but we still need a lot of votes headed our way to change the looming outcome.

But just because it might be defeated doesn’t mean that we stop fighting. It means we need to fight more but maybe we need to change our direction, become more unified and make changes in our own lives. My friend Pam, from Peaceful Valley Farm, and I discussed an idea that I think people might be interested in doing with us.

As you may know, my family went a year without going to the grocery store starting back in October 2010 and which we are still continuing with today to a slightly lesser extent. That was just a challenge that we did here and documented but it wasn’t a team challenge.

What Pam and I are proposing is a team effort. We want to help others take on a challenge with us. The challenge we are proposing is to live a month without GMOs starting January 1st 2013. While Pam and I will be making this a forever-and-a-day challenge we would like you to join us for the first month. Learn with us and exchange information.

The next post will be about what GMOs are and how to somewhat spot them even though they aren’t labeled.

An Education in the Garden

Our Just Food event went really well. The speakers were fantastic, the food was wonderful and the movie was great. My good friend, Esperanza, was one of the speakers. Her talk was about her life and the struggles she faced growing up and then her discovery that she could connect with her ancestors through producing food. She had a funny anecdote about her first experience growing broccoli and how, even though she was a smart, educated woman, she was so disconnected from her food that she couldn’t figure out when to harvest it. Today she can laugh about it but it really did make one think about food and how most of us just don’t know as much about food as we think we do.

I was fortunate that my grandfather taught me about gardening when I had fewer years under my belt than fingers on one hand. even though I had early childhood education in growing food it wasn’t until I was out of college that I had seen how Brussels sprouts grew, so I can kind of understand where Esperanza was coming from.

The problem goes deeper than what a broccoli head or stalk of Brussels sprouts looks like though. There are a lot of people, it seems, that don’t even know what a chicken looks like. Joel Salatin mentions in Folks, This Ain’t Normal how he runs into people all the time that don’t realize chickens have bones because they always buy boneless, skinless hunks of chicken meat. The microwave is the only used appliance in the kitchen, if they even have a kitchen. You can have money, and be educated but you can still be food insecure because you don’t know how to feed yourself, or even use foods appropriately.

In Search of a Purple Peach

Indian Free Peach – Is this the Purple Peach?

This past weekend we attended an event at the Acta Non Verba Urban Farm. Kelly Carlisle, who runs it asked us if we could bring some of our chickens and we happily obliged.

There was a woman that taught a cooking demonstration about how to make Sweet Potato Butter that was so very delicious Tom couldn’t stop eating it. Due to Tom constantly being at her table to snag another sample he struck up a conversation with the instructor (I wish I had caught her name). She told Tom about a purple peach she used to get for processing. It was so purple it dyed her hands purple when she processed them. She said it was a peach that was once fairly common in the South but rare elsewhere. According to her there was only two people she knew in the Bay Area that grew it, one in Oakland and one in Vallejo. He quickly ran over to me to tell me about it.

He knows me too well. I’m OBSESSED with unique, rare varieties of plants (and breeds of animals). A purple peach? I must find this variety and when I do I will be finding space somewhere in my yard to plant it. Of course Tom doesn’t want me adding more plants so by sharing this with me he was doing himself a disservice. I think he secretly wants one of these peach trees too.

I started researching online for purple peach varieties. Here’s what I’ve been able to find. Winegrowers used to plant peach trees with their vines. The peach trees were extra susceptible to mildew so when the trees got infected winegrowers would be able to stop the mildew problem before it effected their vines. These peaches were called “vine peach,” “wine peach,” or “blood peach” because of their red-purple flesh. From what I can deduce, this was primarily done in France though, so not exactly what I’m looking for. Or is it?

I then found this gem:

One “Blood” peach tree was sent Jefferson in 1807 by the Washington nurseryman Thomas Main. In 1810 Jefferson planted forty-one stones of the “black plumb peach of Georgia” in the “New Nursery.” These likely came from William Meriwether, who had passed on “black soft peaches of Georgia” in 1804 and “Georgia black” peaches in 1809. When pomological writers such as Philip Miller, William Coxe, A. J. Downing, and U. P. Hedrick discussed the Blood Cling peach, they attributed its origin to a French variety known as Sanguinole, a curiosity suitable mostly for preserving. Today the peach is known as the Indian Blood Cling, a name that unites the “Blood” peach of the French Sanguinole with the “Indian” peach that grows wild in the southeastern states of Georgia and Florida and was obtained by Jefferson as the “black plumb peach of Georgia.” The fruit, entirely splashed and mottled with scarlet, tiger-like stripes, is sometimes twelve inches round. The skin resembles a beet: scarlet, tough, and meaty, although pleasantly flavored and brisk. Blood Cling is a fine peach to eat out of hand but is mostly used for pickling and preserving. It was commonly listed by early nineteenth-century nurseries and is still offered in the trade.

There appears to be 4 varieties of peach that might be the purple peach I’m in search of. The Indian Blood Peach, the Indian Free Peach, the Sanguinole Peach, and the Sanguine de Manosque Peach. The funniest thing about all of this is that I have an Indian Blood Peach in my yard already. I originally bought it as an Indian Free Peach but it is not a freestone, but rather a clingstone, so I’m certain it’s actually the Indian Blood Peach. While it wasn’t as dark as the peach above, it was very dark red and it did indeed stain my hands as I ate it. Apparently the color can range from white with red stripes to the dark purple color above from year to year.

I’m sure Tom is relieved to know that I won’t be planting another tree in our yard.