Archive for September, 2009

A Vision for local agriculture

Friday, September 18th, 2009

As the gardening season draws to a close, it is sometimes good to reflect on why all of this growing and eating seasonally is so important.  There are the obvious benefits of taste, quality of food, and true enjoyment of the whole process.  But as we become more aware of the effects of our food system on the world around us, I believe we have to look at issues of environmental degradation and pollution.

Modern agriculture is very heavily dependent on oil and as such, contributes significantly to global greenhouse gas emissions.  It is estimated that in the past 50 years, the amount of oil used in agriculture has increased 80 times, while yields have only increased four times.  A 2oo1 British study done by PowerSwitch UK estimates that the average British family of four is responsible for about eight tonnes of CO2 emission through the food that they eat in a year, while this same family only emits about four tonnes of CO2 through the car that they drive in that year.  Similarly, an American study shows that the average person consumes 10 barrels of oil per year through the food that they eat, 9 barrels per year through the car that they drive, and 7 barrels per year for household consumption.

Oil is used in agriculture for many things – the production of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, mechanical cultivation, irrigation, processing, packaging, storage, and distribution.  By far the biggest consumption of oil occurs in the refrigerated transport of fruits and vegetables, by both plane and truck.  To give an example, it is estimated that it takes 127 calories of energy to fly one calorie of lettuce from the U.S. to Britain.  Changing one’s diet to include a high percentage of local and seasonal foods can go a long way to making a real difference when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

If we want to imagine what a truly l0cal agricultural economy would look like, we can look to Cuba for inspiration.  A 2006 video entitled ‘The Power of Community – How Cuba Survived Peak Oil’ (produced by Faith Morgan, Pat Murphy and Megan Quinn Bachman and available through New Society Publishers) gives some very powerful images of a society transformed.  Before 1990, Cuba exported 80% of its agricultural outputs – primarily sugar cane and tobacco – and imported 80% of the food it consumed.  With the fall of the Berlin Wall, Cuba lost access to oil imports, export markets, and capital.  Today Cuba produces 80% of the food that it consumes, farmers are among the highest paid workers, and the Cuban diet has changed to include a large variety of fruits and vegetables. Throughout the country every inch of vacant land has been turned into gardens, producing both food and cooling shade.  Cubans consume only 1/10th of the energy that North Americans do and they are the only country to come even close to meeting the World Wildlife Fund’s targets for sustainable living and development.   Today Cuba’s largest export is ideas, and people come from around the world to learn what can be done.

Winter Storage Vegetables

Thursday, September 3rd, 2009

It has been more than 10 years since I had a large garden and grew all of the vegetables for my family.  I currently live on a tiny lot in a small village and my garden is about 400 square feet.  This small space has been incredibly productive for me, supplying myself and my family with fresh vegetables from mid April to late in November.  But I am still committed to eating locally and seasonally and so for the past 10 years I have bought a supply of winter storage vegetables from a local organic farmer.  I have a small cold storage in my basement and this has worked amazingly well, despite sharing the basement with an oil furnace.

Buying from a local farmer has many benefits – the vegetables taste so much better than those available in the grocery store, they are often organically grown, and you can develop a friendship with and support those who grow our food.  I try to order my vegetables sometime in late summer so that the farmer knows what to expect from me.  In late August I make a trip to the farm and buy about 1/2 bushel of paste tomatoes which I either can or freeze for the winter.  I also buy my storage onions and garlic and  1/2 bushel of early carrots.  If the onions have not been cured (ask the farmer) then you must do this yourself.  Curing dries the outer skin of the onion and is essential for successful winter storage.  To cure, find a shady spot and lay the bulbs out so that they are off the ground but also have some air ciruculation.  I use an old wooden pallet and leave the bulbs out for about two weeks.  If the sport is sunny, you can cover the bulbs with a light cotton sheet, held down by some rocks.   If there is going to be a lot of rain, cover with some plastic or bring the bulbs inside until the weather clears.  Once the bulbs have dried, put them in an open basket or better still, a mesh bag.  The more air circulation, the better they store.

The rest of my order I pick up in late October or early November, once the weather has really cooled off and my cold storage has cooled down.   The following list should give you an idea of what I order for a family of now 3.

  • 1 1/2 bushels onions
  • 2 bushels carrots
  • 1/2 bushel beets
  • 1/2 bushel parsnips
  • 1/2 bushel leeks
  • 2 bushels potatoes
  • 6-8 rutabagas
  • 8-12 cabbages
  • 30-40 bulbs garlic
  • 15-18 winter squash

This order usually costs me about $200 but it is far cheaper than buying the same amount of vegetables in small quantities from the grocery store.  It takes me the better part of a day to pick everything up, bring it home, and get in all into cold storage.  There are some tips for successful cold storage, that I can cover in a later blog.  For now, find a farmer and transform a small corner of your basement to a cold storage area.  You only have to eat ‘real’ carrots once to realize that it is well worth the effort!