There’s no such thing as too many gardens.

June 12, 2012 at 4:49 am (Eleanor, environment, Gardening, Other, parenting, permaculture) (, , , , , , , , , , , , )

I’ve been saying for the last month and a half that perhaps I’ve over-extended myself with all the gardens I’ve been involved with lately, but they’re all so dear to me, that I can’t possibly think about not participating in one of them.  Closest to home and to my heart is my own backyard garden, where despite the slugs eating all the seeds I’ve tried to start outdoors, I’ve enjoyed lots of greenhouse-grown spinach and lettuce salads, the asparagus has finally sprung forth, the apples are the size of quarters, the flowering kale is 7 feet tall, and the sage is ablaze with purple flowers.

woven wood bean trellis in my home garden

The Family Center where I take my son for a children’s play group finally received a plot in the community garden next-door and, knowing that I am a gardener and student of permaculture, the newly-formed gardening group asked me to come and help out with garden planning and seed starting.  It was a fun morning and I think I even blew a few minds with my explanation of “weeds” as helpers and indicator species.  For example, when asked what to do about dandelions in the garden, I pointed out that, not only are all parts of the plant useful in a myriad of ways as food or medicine, but that the plant itself plays a vital role in rehabilitating worn and compacted soil by reaching deep down with its thick tap root and drawing up water and nutrients that are out of reach of other plants.  After reflecting on this, most members of the gardening group were “wowed” by this new perspective on a plant which has undeservedly earned the ire of gardeners all over.

garden art by landed learning students

Also, I was involved in helping plan the 10-year Reunion of the Intergenerational Landed Learning Learning Project at UBC Farm.  This is the third year that I’ve been involved in the project, so I volunteered to run an activity booth to share with others my passion for permaculture.

activity booth set-up

I worked very hard over the last couple months working on a card game aimed at educating people about the myriad connections between elements of natural and man-made landscapes.  I created a deck of fifty-two cards (and counting…), each one featuring a different element (for example: chicken, human, bathtub, rain) with their inputs and yields listed on the back.  As with dominoes, game play involves laying one of your cards down next to one that’s already been played, but it has to link up–that is, where a connection of resource use or energy flow can be made, or, where the output of one card serves the needs of the other.

permaculture card game

It’s more of an educational toy than a winner-takes-all game, but I think it’s a fun way to illustrate the interconnectedness of man-made systems with those of the natural world.  How well the point came across, I don’t really know, but I do know that people had fun thinking outside the box.  More than one participant caught on to the fact that all the excess heat and steam produced by taking a shower or using a clothes dryer could, with good design, be directed for secondary use to heat a greenhouse, for example, instead of simply being released into the atmosphere.  This is exactly what I wanted people to get out of the game: an understanding that thinking differently about how we design our homes and lay out our neighborhoods and cities, we can create landscapes that both serve the needs of humans and reduce energy and resource consumption.

I have learned so much myself from my involvement with Landed Learning, but I’ve also gained an incredible sense of confidence and pleasure in my role as a mentor and educator, which brings me to my third garden engagement, the Children’s Garden at Charles Dickens Annex.  My daughter started kindergarten this year at this wonderful little neighborhood school.  It’s K-3 and very small, which we like a lot, but the garden, which was established over 30 years ago, has experienced an unfortunately high variability in maintenance and parent involvement over the years.  I’d like to change that by tailoring some of what I’ve learned through my involvement with the Landed Learning Project to working with the younger kids of Charles Dickens Annex.  This year, we have a group of at least 6 parents dedicated to cleaning up the garden and getting the kids from all six classes involved in planting the garden.

At the beginning of the spring, the school owned no seeds, tools, or gloves to even get started in the garden, so one of the parent volunteers who writes for a living submitted a very well-written and thoughtful application for a Small Neighborhoods Grant that will supply the funds for these items as well as pay for someone from the Environmental Youth Alliance to visit our school and speak with the kids about bees and the importance of their role as pollinators.

We’ve had two garden clean-up parties so far, at which we transplanted the blueberry bushes, and prepared the raised beds for planting by weeding and adding compost to them.  There are two mature apple trees in the back of the garden from which the children harvested fruit in the fall to make apple pie for their Thanksgiving celebration lunch.  The trees, however, were quite overgrown, making it difficult for people, even little people, to move around them.  I made it my project to prune these trees during the garden clean-ups and, although it was a bit late in the year to prune fruit trees and we did lose a lot of the flowers, the trees are now producing a lot of fruit and look much better.  I think the increased air flow and light that will penetrate through the branches will help keep these trees healthy for a long time to come.

annex kids started pea seeds on classroom windowsills

We’ve also submitted a grant application to the Vancouver Greenest City Fund to supply the school with funds for some additional projects.  For starters, we need to build a new composting system.  At this point, there is no flow to the compost system; new organic material is simply added willy-nilly to one of four separate black compost bins and the result is a big mess.  Composting is an important part of organic gardening, as it completes the cycle of nutrient flow, returning to the soil what has been removed.  But, if we’re going to educate kids and participating parents, we need to do it properly so that it results in a nutrient-rich compost that is safe and effective, not smelly and harboring potentially dangerous pathogens.  So, we’re asking for materials to build a single three-bin composting system with clearly-labelled compartments for adding new material, turning in-process material, and completed compost.  We’ll add labels with instructions on what can and cannot be composted in a small backyard system.  Additionally, our grant application requests funds for rebuilding the raised garden beds, as some of them are starting to rot and they’re all quite low to the ground, which makes them inaccessible to students that use wheelchairs and walkers.  The paths through the garden are also prohibitively narrow for children who use mobility devices so it would be nice to redesign the layout of the beds to accommodate those students.

Another project I’ve been brainstorming for the Annex is the creation of a food forest play space on the back side of the school.  The idea came to me when I observed my daughter and her friends playing under the overgrown bushes.  They had formed a club called the “Nature Nuts” and were hiding out in their “clubhouse.”  It brought to mind a book I read a while back: Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit-Disorder, in which author Richard Louv argues that urban children suffer from a lack of natural spaces in which to play freely and imaginatively.

Looking around the grounds of my daughter’s school, I notice exactly what Louv describes: fancy modern (and no doubt expensive) play equipment that offers a limited array of ways to play and a large grassy field ringed by some nice shade trees.  There’s no denying that the latter affords ample space for running around, playing sports, and having picnics, and the former aids children’s development of skills and coordination, but neither offers much for the imagination.  By contrast, natural spaces with varied topographies, trees for climbing and swinging from, overgrown bushes to hide in and around–these allow children to escape to other worlds and play anything they want.

I realize many parents feel that it is unsafe for a child to be out of sight in a public place because there are bad people in the world and tragic things have happened to children in places where they should have been safe, like on school grounds.  That being said, children shouldn’t be denied a connection to nature because their parents have been fed a dose of media-hyped paranoia about child predators.  And maybe, just maybe, access to nature for all members of society can have a humanizing effect and engender more sensitivity and compassion in all people.

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City-Wide Composting: Going Green or Going Backwards?

January 14, 2012 at 11:59 pm (environment, Vancouver) (, , , , , , , , )

A while back, I wrote an article for the Vancouver Observer about an electric composter dubbed the Red Dragon that was on trial at the Vancouver Compost Demonstration Garden.  I talked at length with the Garden’s director, Mike Levenston, about this particular composting appliance and about composting in general, as an effective way to reduce the city’s waste and how the city has handled compost historically.

At the time, the City of Vancouver had just rolled out their kitchen scraps collection program, whereby any resident with yard waste collection service could start including vegetable kitchen scraps in their green bin for bi-weekly curbside pick-up.  The program was supposed to eventually be able to handle meat and dairy products (good, since it isn’t recommended to compost these in a backyard bin), but two and a half years later there’s been no movement to expand.  Also, there was talk about expanding the program to benefit those living in apartments and high-rise condos (where the greatest need for composting en masse exists), but who knows what will come of it.

The city’s kitchen waste collection program is a fine way for the city to appear to be taking a strong stand for the environment, but in fact, accomplishes little.  Mike of City Farmer (the organization that runs the Compost Demonstration Garden) pointed out that the City of Vancouver has actually had a program in place for over twenty years to subsidize residents purchasing black plastic compost bins for their backyards.  Any Vancouver resident can go to the garbage transfer station in South Van and pick one up for just $25 (compared to $75 or more for similar models available at home improvement stores).  If food waste generated by single-family homes is still heading to the landfill in unacceptable quantities, it’s because the city has failed to advertise the subsidization program to maximize its efficiency.  I’ve lived in Vancouver for six years and would never have known, until speaking with Mike, that those black bins you see everywhere are part of a city-wide program.  Obviously, not everyone in the city has outdoor space suitable for composting, but for those who do, on-site composting is a lot better for the environment than increasing the number of diesel-burning collection trucks on the roads.

Thanks to the city’s “eco-density” development plans, more Vancouverites than ever now live in high-rise apartment and condo buildings.  Arguably, residents of high-density areas stand to benefit the most from a compost collection service, since space is a limiting factor in how much compost an on-site system can handle.  But, if rooftop gardens can become a valued asset in residential buildings, why not on-site compost systems?  Even if they’re not planned for and integrated into a building’s design from the start, there’s something to be said for grassroots activism.   Click here for one NYC apartment dweller’s story of how she started an on-site composting program for her building.  When neighbors, Strata counsels and building managements just can’t be swayed, there’s still plenty that you can do to divert your organic waste from the landfill:

First, the object of my visit to the Compost Demonstration Garden, the Red Dragon electric composter, a sleek, modern-looking appliance that eats organic waste and churns out usable compost in under 48 hours–impressive, but Mike and I agreed it seemed silly to use electricity to do a job nature would gladly do for you, albeit a bit slower.

The Bokashi fermentation system is another possibility for condo-dwellers.  The result, however, is not fully composted; food waste still has to be added to an active compost pile, but if you’re a condo-dweller with a community garden nearby or a friend with a compost pile in their yard, the fermentation process will keep food waste odor-free on your balcony until you can deposit it elsewhere.

Last, but certainly not least, composting with worms in compact, odor-free bins.  Vermi-composting, Mike informed me, has also long been a part of the city’s program to encourage residents to compost their own kitchen scraps.  You’d never know it for the lack of information out there, but the City of Vancouver also subsidizes worm bin purchases made through the Vancouver Compost Demonstration Garden.  Included in the low cost of $25 is the ventilated bin, bedding material, worms, a handbook, and a one-hour tutorial to get you started.  In my experience, worms definitely have their food preferences but will eat through most kitchen scraps in a couple weeks.  The bin remains surprisingly odor-free, requires little to no time or effort to maintain, and produces a high-quality fertilizer that can be used to start seeds or give houseplants a boost.  The only drawback is that a single bin is hardly enough to process the kitchen waste of a family of four–we’d need three or four worm bins to handle all our scraps!  (Or a big dog…)

Given that the City already has this subsidization program in place for getting people to compost on their own, I just don’t see the need for trucking kitchen scraps around the lower mainland.  Certainly, there’s no reason why they couldn’t step up the program, advertise it a little, educate city residents about the need for handling some of their waste–just like they bought ad space in all the Skytrain stations before Christmas urging people to “give memories, not garbage.”  Then, they could more effectively deploy collection services in high density areas where the need is greatest and only pick-up items like dairy and meat wastes that can’t be properly handled in a backyard compost system.  Heck, the city could start a Go Vegan campaign and eliminate the need completely, if it really wants to be the “Greenest City in the World.”

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How time flies…

November 7, 2009 at 7:29 pm (environment, food, Gardening, permaculture) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Is it really November already?  Seems like just last week the tomato vines were laden with heavy ripe fruit and we were eating garden-fresh salads daily… oh, and it wasn’t raining every dang day!

Yes, November is one of the wettest months in Vancouver, so when the sun is out we have to make good use of it.  Already this month I’ve dug up two patches of the front lawn for new veggie garden beds.  One, the garlic bed, is about 15′ x 2′ and it’s up against the hedge row on the east side of the house where it will get good sun for much of the morning and mid-day hours.  After two beautifully sunny days of working on this project–removing all that grass, and digging in 3 very full 5-gallon buckets of compost into the top 10-12″ of soil–Day 3 saw rain, rain, and more rain.  Nevertheless, I trudged out to the yard in full rain gear to plant 54 of the largest cloves of garlic I could get my hands on.  I finished off with a layer several inches thick of decaying leaves collected from my own yard, my neighbor’s yard, and even the street.  About the garlic, some 20 cloves are a hardneck type called Music that I purchased from one of my favorite Farmer’s Market vendors–Brian from Sheffield Farm.  The rest are supermarket garlic–smaller, less pungent, but guaranteed to be organically-raised and as local as you can get.  I know, I know, 54 heads of garlic sounds like a lot, and maybe it is, but I’d rather have too much than too little.  It’s fun to share!

Besides, I was inspired to try growing enough for a whole year when I recently attended a workshop on the long-term storage of raw foods like squash, pumpkins, onions, garlic, potatoes, tubers and root vegetables.  The class focused on how to cure veggies for storage and how to decide where to store them so that they receive appropriate amounts of moisture, warmth, light or dark–just as you decide where to plant what in the outdoor garden based on the “micro-climate” of a given spot (how much sun it gets, how well-drained the soil is, or whether the spot is warm and protected from wind due to a nearby wall, for instance).  The workshop, taught by Robin Wheeler (whose book Food Security For the Faint of Heart I devoured in a matter of days and ultimately got her to autograph!) was a nice complement to my recent interest in other types of food preservation such as canning and drying.  This summer saw my first rough attempts at hot water bath canning.  I did some whole, peeled tomatoes, tomato sauce, applesauce (from some beautiful Ambrosia and Gala apples obtained at the Farmer’s Market), huckleberry jam (a failure due to bad recipe calling for waaaaay too much sugar), blueberry-rhubarb jam (a winner), and spicy dill pickles.  I love the look of all those colorful jars up on the kitchen shelf and the feeling, not just of security and comfort knowing it’s all there waiting to be eaten, but of satisfaction and pride in having put it all by, all by myself:)

Oh yes, back to the garden work I’ve been up to… The other new bed that I created in the front yard is a large round area tucked up against the west side of the porch stairs, a perfect spot, some would say, for some lovely ornamentals and perhaps a colorful flower border.  But not me!  I transplanted my rhubarb crowns there and look forward to seeing their bright red stems and broad green leaves displayed next to the lilac bushes, tucked in with the perennials as if they belong there–and they do!

Since I’m renting, I’ve inherited a yard that is well-planted, but somewhat over-landscaped (for my tastes and purposes) in bushes, bulbs, and ornamentals.  My plan is not to commit to any major earth-works and not to invest too much time and effort in tearing stuff up and starting over, but to work with what I have, even if it means that I end up mixing veggie plants and berry bushes into the established perennial borders.  In fact, maybe the result will be all the better for being nice-looking as well as edible.  Edible landscapes are a recent phenomenon, you know… As an aside, I picked up a circa-1970’s gardening book from a thrift store over the summer and I was amazed (in a horrified kind of way) and kind of saddened to see the vegetable gardens all tucked away in hidden, unused corners where they do not detract from the look of the landscaped yard.  Interesting how times have changed…

Other stuff that’s changed since last I wrote–I know, I know, I’ve been really bad about updating this blog lately…  Well, I completed my yoga teacher training program at the end of June and taught two classes over the summer.  The first was nerve-wracking; the second went so smoothly and the response from my students was so positive, it was a major confidence booster.  I came out of that class feeling like I had really achieved something and had really made a major transformation from the beginning of the training program to the end.  I still don’t know if I want to pursue being a yoga teacher as a profession; that was never really my intention in deciding to enter the program.  I wanted to challenge myself to do it for the deeper understanding of yoga philosophy and physiology, as well as to push myself into a deeper commitment to my own yoga practice.  Unfortunately, summer visits, trips and the lack of free time due to no more Happy Hands for Eleanor have all conspired against my sustaining a regular yoga practice and, because I feel out of practice myself, I do not feel like I’m in a position to teach.  However, I’m trying to get back into a regular practice and I have noticed in the brochure of classes offered in the new community center that there’s no one teaching a mom-and-tot yoga class or a class for moms with child-minding available (it was for want of these types of programs when Eleanor was a toddler that I first got it into my head that I could become a teacher and offer them myself), so we’ll see what the following year holds…

Deciding to do the yoga teacher training program in December of last year also held out the hope of possibly being employable if Stephen’s job ended up taking us to Switzerland, where his boss was and presumably still is trying to start up an office.  Well, I don’t know if you all have noticed, but the economy hasn’t been that great lately and financial services companies have been especially hard hit.  Stephen’s employers are apparently doing just fine, but certain things like opening offices in Switzerland have taken the back burner for now.  That’s okay, though.  Stephen has decided that he wants to go back to UBC and complete his PhD.  He can continue working for his current employer nearly full-time and incorporate his work-work into the work he’ll be doing for the PhD so he can continue to be paid as he currently is and we can consider ourselves settled for the foreseeable future–which is a good thing for me since I just went to all the trouble of digging up two new garden beds and I’m sprouting asparagus from seed this winter and I won’t be able to harvest it for at least two years!

Here’s a thought…  Renters are hesitant to do much in-ground gardening and they certainly don’t bother to plant things like berry bushes and apple trees that take years to produce their first crop, mainly because they regard their adobes as temporary shelter, they know it’s only a matter of time before they move on and they don’t want to make long-term investments of which they’ll never reap the benefits.  Imagine, though, if every renter who felt that way went ahead and planted those long-yielding perennials anyway.  Then, every time they move, they wouldn’t have to mourn the loss of those raspberry canes or that strawberry patch, because they’d have fresh blueberries, and an established, productive asparagus patch to look forward to.  It would take a change of attitude on the part of renters everywhere: namely, to stop thinking of their gardens in terms of what it produces for them, or how much money it saves them, or that it’s even “their” garden.  A garden does not serve the gardener.  A garden is self-creative and self-renewing; planting one and cultivating it is a service to the earth and to one’s community.  Renters should go ahead and plant anything and everything that strikes their fancy, knowing that they’ve done their small part to heal a little piece of earth (and more, the more they frequently they move) and that one day down the road many, many people will enjoy the benefits of their labor, as as they themselves will go on to enjoy the benefits of someone else’s labor at their new place… Just a thought…

In other news, Eleanor’s doing great.  She’s as smart as a whip and very clever, too.  She’s got a real sense of humor these days and, though she doesn’t shy away from poot jokes, she’s also very mature for her age.  She’s in a combined three- and four-year-old preschool class for two hours two days a week.  Her favorite thing to do at preschool is dress up in the beautiful dress-up clothes.  She’s a real girly-girl.  She was also doing ballet and gymnastics once a week and a program called Happy Hands, which is just like preschool, all at the community center.  The center has been slated to move into a new location for a long, long time and the time had finally come… or so we thought.  The old center closed and took reservations already for classes at the new center, but they’ve just informed us that construction delays at the new center have held up the move once again, so everything is canceled for the rest of the year.  Boo hoo…  That community center was like a second home for me when Eleanor was young and we were new to Vancouver and to parenthood.  I started taking her there when she was just a baby; I met a lot of my neighbors and other moms there; Eleanor’s practically grown up at the tot gym there… and now it’s all over… and we’re stuck waiting around for the new center to open.  The new center will be very nice and I like that it has a library in it and it will be easier to get to from our new house.  In the meantime, Eleanor and I have been forced to find other things to do on the days that she doesn’t have preschool.  We’re discovering free drop-in playgroups and strong start learning centers all over the place.  Vancouver’s publicly-funded services for families cannot be beat!

Well, there’s a lot more I could write about.  Seeing as I haven’t blogged in well over half a year, I have a lot of catching up to do.  Knowing myself, I won’t make promises to be back often and fill in all the details of the summer months or recent projects taken up around here, but I’ll do my best.  Even if I never get into the habit of blogging about everything that goes on in my life, I would like to share more of my thoughts and philosophical ideas about the world and what in it is important to me–my family, community, good food, the environment, my garden, sustainability, politics… I could go on and on and on…

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Capitalism’s Not-So-Secret Dirty Little Secret

August 26, 2008 at 12:34 am (environment) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Once, when we were kids, my brother and I accompanied my dad to a new public golf course in town.  He assured us we could drive the golf cart.  What he failed to mention until we got there was that the course was built on top of a landfill and that there would be “smell showers,” as my brother and I came to call them, all over the place–literally 6″ PVC pipes sticking up out of the ground, taller than a grown man, and curved at the top in such a way as to keep rain from entering but also to literally shower passersby with the noxious odor of civilization’s excrement.  I haven’t thought of that golf course in a very long time…

That is, until yesterday when I had the distinct non-pleasure of visiting Vancouver’s Transfer Station.  The Transfer Station is not exactly a landfill, but close enough; it is a small (as far as warehouses go) warehouse-like building with a huge garbage pit in the center.  Supposedly, trash gets sorted and packaged there to be sold to reclamation companies.  Some trash is treasure, but I’m guessing most is still just trash.

The stench made me want to retch; it also made me hope that the guys working there are well-paid.  The rope I had used to tie my old box spring to the top of the car for transport there fell in a puddle of trash juice and when it got on my hand, I totally freaked.  I’m not a germ-a-phobe by any stretch of the imagination; it wasn’t even the dirt and germs I wanted off my hands so much as the guilt that accompanies participation in this cycle of waste, consumption, and more waste.

Waste pervades our culture; we cannot escape it.  Indeed, waste turns the wheels of the capitalist economy.  There is so much more money to be made in selling people the same cheaply-made goods over and over than there is in selling a few well-made goods to consumer-collectives.  It just isn’t in the interests of the capitalist owner/producer to build his product to last or to encourage it to be shared amongst consumers (think anti-piracy laws).  No, he wants each and every consumer to buy his product an infinite number of times (either because it is made to be disposable or because its construction is so shoddy that its use-pattern is virtually disposable); in this way does he insure the future of his business.  Does he care what ultimately happens to his products?  No; the fact that they wind up in landfills, on beaches, or in the stomachs of unsuspecting marine mammals–and the cost of cleaning all this up–is not accounted for in his books.  For all its free market rhetoric, Capitalism’s blatant disregard for true accounting is an abysmal shame.

And yet, it is me who bears the burden of shame.  My visit to the Transfer Station, that stinking garbage pit on the south side of town, left me with a feeling, not just of nausea, but of guilt and overwhelming sadness at the thought of every consumer good I’ve ever bought and had break on me far before its time.  There’s the lamp I just bought at Ikea the other day, off of which a plastic clamp broke as I pulled it out of its package.  (When I go to exchange it tomorrow, there’s no doubt in my mind they will give me a new one and toss the broken one, having never been used once for its intended purpose.)  There’s the fancy Cuisinart coffee maker with the automatic timer I got two Christmases ago, the clock-set function of which ceased to work within six months.  With some simple math, I could still utilize the automatic timer function… that is, until it, too, stopped working.  (There’s nothing more disappointing than waking up to find the coffee you prepared the night before did not brew as intended.)  Then there’s the electronics kit my partner ordered to help him learn the basics of circuitry; it arrived with malfunctioning switches (no good for a beginner who spent a full day pulling his hair out trying to figure out why his closed circuits weren’t making the dang light light up).  There’s the reusable coffee mug I spent a whopping $16 on to save all those paper cups from winding up in a landfill.  I ask you: Whats worse: throwing away a paper cup every day or a heavy-duty plastic and metal mug once every six months?  If the “reusable” mug isn’t built to last, I’d just as soon toss the paper–at least its made of a renewable resource.

By far, the worst instance of business-as-usual waste that I’ve encountered in the last year comes from, of all companies, Snugli, the original maker of baby-carrying devices.  I was given one of their backpack-style carriers when my daughter was not quite a year old.  By the time she was eighteen months old and a scant twenty or so pounds, a snap had broken off the adjustable waist belt.  I contacted the company for mailing instructions, assuming I would have to send it back to the factory for repair; in all the two pounds of canvas-type fabric, nylon straps, plastic buckles, and metal rods and fasteners, all that needed replacing was one measley little half of a snap–a single cmponent the size of a dime.  Their instructions?  Destroy the product, send us the cut-off straps as proof, and we’ll send you a brand new one.  Customer service replaces craftsmanship.  Un-freaking-believable!!!  When I sent in the straps of the hardly-used and hardly-broken first carrier, I enclosed a letter to the company stating my severe disatisfaction with their wasteful policy.  Their response?  Silence…

And nothing to break the silence but the ping-ping of balls and clubs on a smell-showered golf course…

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Organic vs. Local

October 24, 2007 at 5:25 pm (environment, food, Other, permaculture) (, , , , )

You’ve probably heard of the “100-mile diet.” It seems it’s on everyone’s lips lately–at least everyone in the high-end natural foods stores in which I work. I frequently do demos in the local Capers markets (I also shop there for some things since there’s one so close to my house) and I’ve noticed that they do a great job of clearly marking which products are locally grown or locally produced. They know that their shoppers want to support local growers and the local economy.

For many people around here, it seems buying local is a social thing and they never stop to think that they’re also doing something good for the environment. They buy Canadian- rather than American-made products to keep Canada strong economically, and therefore, politically. They prefer something made in British Columbia over something made in Ontario, Quebec, the Maritimes, or the Prairie Provinces because, in order, nobody likes Toronto, the Quebecois don’t like Canada, nothing comes out of the Maritimes but people, and the people of the plains are way too conservative for the likes of Canada’s “left coast.” None of this comes close to the real reason, the best reason, my reason for buying local: the environment!

For years, health and environment experts have been touting the benefits of eating organically-grown foods. For those who said organics were too costly, they came up with the “dirty dozen” list (I still have my copy mom and I do use it!), which named the top twelve pesticide-and insecticide-laden fruits and vegetables so that we could at least be buying these organic even if we had to buy conventional in other areas to cut our overall spending on groceries. I suppose if your number one priority is your own health and you buy organic for the sole purpose of keeping mysterious chemicals out of your bloodstream, then you’d be doing well to find a grocery store that stocks the widest variety of organics, regardless of how far those foods travel. On the other hand, maybe your concerns are not so much for your own health, but for the well-being of the planet. Environmentalists prefer buying organically-grown foods because their production doesn’t entail the use of deadly chemicals that end up in groundwater, their producers use more sensible shading, irrigating, and composting techniques, and because they generally are grown on smaller farms that have more respect for biodiversity (i.e. because they’re better for the environment).

If given a choice between an apple grown on a small family-run orchard that practices organic, sustainable farming methods and an apple grown on a large industrial farm that has maximum-output-for-maximum-profit as its modus operandi, the environmentalist and the health-nut would probably both go for the first apple. Surely, its production was easier on the earth and it probably has more flavor and nutritional value even if it doesn’t have the blemish-free waxy exterior of the second apple. It would be my choice, too. But, what if the organic, family farm is in New Zealand and the industrial farm is located just 10 miles outside your hometown? Then which apple is better for the earth?  The way I see it, there’s just no point in supporting organic agriculture if it requires polluting 5,000 miles of ocean to get the food to market.  Of course, if you absolutely can’t survive the winter without tropical fruits and polluting the ocean is the only way to get them to North America, then please do go for the organic ones.

“Food Miles” is a term I’ve heard a lot lately, having recently immersed myself in the local-food movement through my new job; it refers to the distance that a given piece of food travels from field to plate. Processed foods rack up food miles faster than fresh produce because you have to take into account the distances traveled by each ingredient and the fact that such foods are rarely grown, processed, packaged, sorted, and sold all in one geographical region. For example, cranberries are locally in-season right before Thanksgiving and are commonly packaged and sold under the Ocean Spray name. If you buy them directly from a local farmer at a farmer’s market, you’ll spend a little more money, but you’ve saved the earth all the fuel and emissions that are spent transporting locally-grown cranberries to a processing plant on the east coast for cleaning, sorting, and packaging and then shipping those same cranberries in pretty blue and white be-waved bags back to their birthplace. I recently read that the average North American meal travels 1500 miles before it reaches our tables. Isn’t it sad that our food gets to see more of the world than we do?!

Ideally, we could always get organic, locally-grown foods, but that’s just not the case. It wouldn’t be natural if we could. Having come to the realization that a globalized food (or any other commodity for that matter) production system is having an adverse effect on the environment, I’ve resorted to buying local over organic if I can’t get both. Ultimately, though, if we want more local food, we have to get used to a limited variety of offerings, as we have to buy within the bounds of the natural growing season.

Alternatively, and this seems to be pretty popular around here, there’s always the option of growing your own fruits and vegetables in a backyard garden–that way your food miles are zero–and eating less processed and pre-packaged foods. This year, I grew swiss chard in my backyard. I attempted broccoli, but it didn’t do anything. With fond memories of helping in my grandmother’s garden, I will attempt to diversify next summer’s garden. I want fresh herbs and salad greens. Some tomatoes would be nice… mmm…

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