Archive for June, 2008

Four groceries and a farmer’s market

June 28, 2008

Not too long ago I was in a bit of a hurry and a couple items short of a batch of blueberry pancakes, so as an experiment I grabbed my backpack and bicycled over to a small crummy looking grocery called something like “Save-A-Lot” that’s just a couple blocks from the apartment we rented in Portland. It’s the sort of place that always makes be depressed to go inside, but under the circumstances I was prepared to give it a shot. I locked the bike to a handrail and went to go inside, but the door was blocked by two Vietnam-era homeless dudes who were butchering a couple sixpacks of Natty Ice and stuffing them into the manifold pockets of their dusty green coats. Once they were on their way, I stepped inside and headed for the baking aisle, but I was accosted by a bagger of about 300 lbs displacement, who told me that I would have to check my backpack at the service window before shopping. Perhaps it is unreasonable to expect the presumption of innocence from one’s grocer, but I will admit that I have become accustomed to being treated with a certain degree of respect in the establishments I shop, and I am afraid that I was not as polite as I might have been to the poor lady as I stormed out and remounted.

Figuring that the morning was shot anyway, and determined to go someplace where I wouldn’t be treated as a criminal for shopping with an old backpack and a banged-up bike helmet, I pedaled all the way over to the east side of town (not that far actually) and sought refuge in the new Whole Foods.  There I felt I was among my people, almost – but not quite – a bit too much of the doublemochachooieflyinglatte power-yoga-yuppie vibe.  But I was surrounded by reassuringly large stacks of verdant produce and opulent displays of cheese from faroff places.  Not only did I find the frozen wild blueberries I sought, I was further inspired to buy a quart of fresh organic strawberries, a half pint of organic whipping cream, and a sack of wheat germ from the bulk section to fortify the cakes.  I loaded up the panniers and pedaled home, my karma much improved and my wallet considerably thinner (an engineer I used to work with called it “Whole Paycheck”).

At approximately equal distance from the apartment lies a fairly recent Hannaford’s, occupying the broad middle ground between Save-A-Lot and Whole Foods.  The main line groceries have been making a significant effort to pull business away from the health food stores, and lots of them offer organic dairy and soymilk and a wholesome-looking crunchy aisle, featuring earthy brands and sometimes a modest bulk section.  I also enjoy the broad swath of humanity on display there; especially in my home state of Maine there is something unmistakably nostalgic about the dialect and mannerisms on display in an ordinary grocery.  In the case of the particular store I’m describing, the old mixes delightfully with Portland’s new international flavor – nopales and habaneros in the produce section and veiled women in the aisles, bantering cheerfully with one another or padding quietly along with man and child.

While we were in Portland I also checked out the Saturday Farmers’ Market, in the beautiful Deering Oaks park.  Though it was early in the season I was quite disappointed to find practically nothing on sale there except flat upon flat of seedlings for transplant.  I understand that farmers’ markets are all the rage these days, and I am all for local foods, but I have to say that the whole concept strikes me as grossly inefficient in most places, except for those few glorious weeks in late summer when everything ripens at once.  It seems far more efficient from the shoppers perspective for whatever regional produce is available to be marketed via the local co-op grocery.  I have found that I am much more likely to buy local and/or organic if I can buy it in a store that is large and broad enough that I can buy everything I need at one go – bulk organic rolled oats on one hand and a tub of chocolate shyse-cream on the other, if I feel so inclined, as opposed to making multiple stops.  There are those tiny, ascetic health food stores with a little refrigerator case offering a few wilted beets, some lettuce, and a couple trays of pathetically enthusiastic wheatgrass, but I never seem to find what I want there, and leave despairing, trying to avoid eye contact with the sole anorexic-looking employee, in search of a Stop-and-Shop.

Which brings me to my final point, which is to put in a plug for the Lebanon Co-op grocery.  Of all the places I have lived and shopped I think this fine establishment is the most satisfying, offering both crunchy and conventional selection, lots of local food, reasonable prices, good beer/wine section, and bikeability from where I live.  I don’t think I understood just how cool this operation is until I went back to Flagstaff on business and found New Frontiers to be about a quarter the size I remembered it, infested with ear candles and homeopathic remedies (though as I look online, it appears that NF has since relocated to a much larger store, and it’s probably much improved).  The Lebanon Co-op also compares favorably to Harvest in Cambridge, and has better prices and less attitude that Whole Foods.  We are very lucky to have the Co-op here, almost as lucky as we are to have Poverty Lane orchards three miles away.  I can only hope that there will be such a  grocery  wherever we live next.

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Summer is the time…

June 23, 2008

…to eat well in New England.  Not much in the garden is pickable yet, but greens are the exception, so on Saturday I made a breakfast of fried potatoes and scrambled Five Islands eggs with fresh kale and spinach.  It’s a great time to clean out the freezer, so then I made a big batch of veggie lasagna with last year’s garden veggies, and some of the last pints of tomato sauce I canned.  Having recently blogged about the importance of eating low on the food chain, I was pleased to see an article in Science News (which now thankfully arrives only once every 2 weeks) confirming that it is meat (and dairy) that make the biggest climate impact.  So I stretched the usual amount of cheese between two big pans, and added some TVP to the sauce.  I also threw in a tub of last year’s frozen pesto, which made the lasagna richer and more flavorful.  Alexis is on a brief vacation between rotations, so to celebrate I made a chocolate cake to go with.

Sunday dawned pleasant and it’s strawberry season here in NH, so we went across the river to Cedar Circle Farm, a beautiful organic farm right on the banks of the Connecticut.  The berries were plentiful and perfectly ripe, so we stayed an hour or so and picked about 35 pounds.  There can’t be a much better deal than $2.25 per lb for perfect organic strawberries, with the experience of picking at the water’s edge among happy Vermonters from every walk of life thrown in with the deal.  We got about 50/50 of Mesabi (small, dark red, tart, flavorful) and Cabot (bright red/orange, sweeter, good flavor, HUGE).  Just as we finished a thunderstorm broke, so we ran for the car with our haul and spent part of the afternoon washing, hulling, and freezing berries.

Then of course we had to make waffles for dinner, to go with the fresh strawberries, and a shortcake for dessert.  The only thing I can say in justification of this hedonistic lifestyle is that we can claim we’ve earned it, by surviving last winter’s yard-deep snows.

Home again, really good bean burgers

June 15, 2008

After 8 weeks in Portland, we are back home in NH, and it’s good to be home.  Portland is a great place, very scenic and bikeable, at once big enough to have real city character (unlike Flagstaff, where we used to live) but with a much homier feel than Boston (where we lived before that).  The waterfront and Old Port districts are fun, and there are a lot of young people in town.  Ships and trains came and went, giving a real sense of commerce and vitality.  I could walk to the bus that goes to Boston (useful when I go there once a week for work), walk to a hardware store and any number of restaurants, and walk or bike to several groceries.

We arrived home to find the remaining lawn almost high enough to harvest for hay; I beat it back with the mower so that the laundry on the line wouldn’t dangle in the grass.  I also did some weeding; the squash, corn, and beans are up, and the potatoes are almost ready to flower.  The tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants don’t look so good; a friend was keeping them while we were out of town and we transplanted them the one weekend we were back, so they never got hardened off.  Most of the maters look like they will make it through, and I will get peppers and eggplants at the garden store to replace the fallen.

The first cabbage and broccoli transplants are starting to get some size, and the first lettuce was ready to harvest, so I picked a bunch to go with dinner.  That got me in a cooking mood, so I started a big batch of the usual Sherwood Inn multigrain bread I’ve described here before, and I made some bean burgers.  These are really good, so I’ll post the recipe here.  We pretty much never buy frozen veggie burgers at the grocery anymore; these are tons better and more substantial, and probably a fifth of the cost.  I’ll give a double recipe, which makes 18 or 20; enough to freeze a big tub for microwaving on a whim – the amount of work is not much more to make a passel of them all at once.

Alexis’ Favorite Bean Burgers (not sure where the recipe is from, and we’ve modified it somewhat)

  • 2 big onions – chop finely
  • 4 tbs oil – as much or as little as you want.  Heat in a frying pan, sauté till translucent
  • 6 cloves of garlic, minced (maybe 2 tbs?)
  • 2 tbs chili powder
  • 1.5 tbs cumin
  • 1-2 c grated carrots (I usually use 2 big ones; it makes a substantial difference to use a fine grater, with maybe 2mm openings, so the carrots act like reinforcement rather than weak points in the burgers)
  • 2 tbs tamari
  • 4 tbs ketchup – add these ingredients after a while and cook for a while longer
  • 4 cups of cooked black beans – I do these in the pressure cooker; substantially cheaper than buying in a can and they aren’t salted.  You don’t want salted beans if you can help it, since the ketchup and tamari have plenty.  It helps if the beans are cool/cold to start, to avoid cooking the egg too soon.  I mix the beans with the cooked up onion mush using the kitchenaid, then add
  • 2 eggs (omit for vegan, they won’t hold together as well but will still taste fine)
  • 4 cups regular rolled oats – mix till the eggs and oats are good and mushy.  You want to adjust the amount of bean liquid you include so that the mix seems just a bit too wet; as the oats hydrate it will stiffen up
  • After it sets 10 or 20 mins, form into burgers (of whatever size you like) and cook in a frying pan with a little oil over medium low heat (30% on our stove).  Cook until nicely browned on each side; maybe 5-7 mins per side.

I really like these bean burgers, they are super convenient once you make them, and everything in them can be grown in New England (except cumin maybe, and olive oil is tasty).  Last night I turned a quarter of my bread batch into buns, and we had the bean burgers on warm whole grain buns with sharp cheese and lettuce from the garden.  At the grocery I had noticed that they were starting to have local fresh strawberries, so I bought some rhubarb and made a big 12″ strawberry rhubarb pie with the last of the berries I froze from the organic pick-your-own place over in Vermont last year.  In a week or so it will be time to go picking again.

I also learned a new waltz on the fiddle, a really beautiful, harmonious Swedish tune called Josefin’s.  It’s in the Waltz Book 3, or you can get it on http://www.thesession.org/  I also have been picking around with the mandolin a bit; since it’s tuned the same as a fiddle I figure it will only be about half as hard to learn as another instrument.  This afternoon I went for a walk up the hill across the road from our house; it was a perfect early summer day in the 70s with a light breeze; you could almost smell the trees photosynthesizing, and imagine that all was right with the world.  At the top is the remnants of an old granite quarry, which if one is in a philosophic frame of mind offers a quiet commentary on the works of man.

pedal-powered log splitter

June 12, 2008

Just a quick note on another pedal-powered sustainability idea. Whilst sitting on the can and leafing through a Northern Tool catalog not too long ago, I ran across a hand powered log splitter. Now, a splitting maul is actually a pretty good balance between dirt simple technology and efficient use of human labor. But the work is slow and a bit awkward; you have to get the log up on the block, then when you split it the pieces fall off; you have to put the maul down, pick up the pieces, put them back on the block, grab the maul, swing it, etc. and there’s the danger of chopping into your foot.

Gas-powered log splitters are very effective, but they are loud, stinky, and use a fair amount of fuel. The actual amount of mechanical work necessary to split wood is relatively modest, but I can imagine it would get tiring to work the reciprocating levers of the hand hydraulic splitter – leading to the idea of a hydraulically coupled pedal-powered log splitter. The key would be coupling two pumps, one a high volume, low pressure pump that engaged to quickly advance or retract the piston, and the other a high pressure, low flow unit that would come into operation when the wedge engaged the log, effectively “gearing up” the pedaling effort to deliver the several thousand pounds needed.  Most annoying thing is, it would pretty much be a 2-person device – one to load and stack, one to pedal.

Anyway, I’ll probably never build one, but it seems like a pretty cool idea, so I thought I’d post it. And I’m not the first to think of it; a web search turns up a pedal power book that includes the idea at least as a concept. Featured prominently is David G Wilson, an MIT pedal enthusiast who I by chance actually met at one point, in the context of his high-tech regenerator company.

Massive cultural shift?

June 9, 2008

Abby and I have been having a web conversation about what it would take to get people growing their own food. Most recently she cited skyrocketing food and fuel prices as something that might cause a major shift in how people feed themselves. I think there are two separate questions here – first, will high food prices cause people to start gardening; and second, will they ever derive a significant fraction of their calories that way. At least from anecdotal evidence the answer to the first question is yes – Fedco (a Maine seed co-op) had a banner year, and lots of people seem to be taking at least some steps in that direction. I think it is really cool that people are doing this, and I anticipate that it will have lots of benefits – folks will get out in the fresh air, meet their neighbors, and sink significant chunks of their free time into non-fossil-fuel-powered activities. And some of them will manage to grow what seems like a lot of food – I remember when I was a kid the time of year in late summer when the entire kitchen counter space would be paved with ripe tomatoes. I am one of these people, and I’m proud of it. But I don’t see the resurgence of conventional vegetable gardening as a “massive cultural shift”.

On the other hand, if a significant fraction of people actually managed to feed themselves by gardening, that would in my mind represent a massive shift. They don’t literally have to grow all their own food; I basically mean they would produce enough calories of food (that goes on to be actually eaten directly by humans) to feed their household. For example, swapping vegetables with the neighbors counts, but growing foofy hothouse flowers (or pot in the basement) and selling them for money to buy rice and beans in bulk does not. As I have said, I don’t think this is going to happen, because the numbers don’t work out – most people don’t have enough suitable land, they don’t have time, and I believe they don’t have the stomach for the diet that they could readily produce.

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Harpooned, harrowed, seeded, watered

June 9, 2008

We’re headed back to Leb for the rest of the summer, so I took Friday off to make it a three day weekend of agricultural madness.  I ended the day Sunday utterly whupped but hopeful that the orchard is in good shape, thanks to generous help from my parents, Alexis, and my aunt Lucy, and enthusiastic oversight by my grandparents.

Friday I took apart the tubing that formed the siphon from the farm pond to the orchard, reassembled with silicone and better hose clamps, and put another ball valve on the pond end, so even if there’s a vacuum leak at the top the system can’t drain down. The only trick is to remember to open the pond side valve first and close it last. The siphon makes an impressive flow at the bottom of the orchard, filling a 5 gallon pail in perhaps 15 seconds. Sadly the top of the orchard is actually above the pond, so lacking a pump (plan to build bicycle version someday and I’ve got a small 4-cycle honda pump on order as backup) it’s fill buckets and lug in the meantime.

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Gardening, land area, etc.

June 2, 2008

Abby wrote to say hello from Madison, and wondered how much land is necessary to grow your own food.  Her first concern was about the cold weather in Wisconsin, but I don’t think this is a big deal.  Good yields of wheat and potatoes are grown further north and west of that area, and whenever I’ve been there in the summer it has been a riot of green.  On the subject of space requirements, my last post was aiming in the direction of saying that it’s not possible in practice for most people to grow most of their own food, but let’s run the numbers, just for the heck of it.

The technique I’ll use is basically the same as before – I’ll figure out how many people per acre can be fed by different types of food, then I’ll estimate what fraction of a person’s calories would come from that type of food, and add up the required space. Here it is in tabular form:

Category Area to feed 1 person Fraction of diet Area required
Spuds 0.1 0.25 0.025
Grain 0.2 0.25 0.05
Oil 0.33 0.1 0.033
Vegetables 0.5 0.2 0.1
Fruit 1 0.1 0.1
Sweetener (1.2) (0.1) (0.12)
TOTAL 1 0.43

This is obviously very rough.  The fractions are by calorie, and represent what seems to me a reasonable tradeoff between what is space-efficient and what I personally would want to eat.  The oil is canola (can’t grow olives where I live); perhaps a more palatable option would be to have a cow and make butter etc, but this takes a lot of land – probably an acre or two of nice pasture plus some hay ground to keep a cow – not something you can pull off even in Madison.  The sweetener is figured based on maple trees, which aren’t really a garden crop but they take up a lot of space.  Of course to sugar off the maple sap you need a bunch more land that you can harvest wood sustainably from, but that’s a whole other story.  Also need a good bit more fruit land for cider if (as is quite possible) you decided you really wanted some alcohol to help wash down all those spuds.

So, counting for rabbits, aphids, bad weather, and the like, you’d want a bare minimum of about a half an acre per person.  That’s a lot more arable land than most people have access to.  Doing just the vegetables is more reasonable – that’s about 0.1 acres or 4400 square feet per person.  So if a couple with no kids had a quarter acre lot with a small house at the north end and turned the entire balance of the land into garden, they could cover a fifth of their calorie needs and eat a lot of terrific organic vegetables.

There’s more to the story than this though.  Gardening is very nutrient intensive, and while composting the non-edible portions helps a lot, something must be done to replenish the nutrients that are removed (in the form of food) to the soil.  Nitrogen can be replenished by fixation of atmospheric N2 vi leguminous cover crops, but phosphorous and potassium are harder to gin up.  I’m reading a book that discusses this from a historical perspective for the eastern Massachusetts area, but generally speaking it is very difficult to maintain yields without inputs of some kind.  And some places just literally don’t have enough land at all.  Massachusetts only has about 0.8 acres per person for the whole state.  If you cultivated fully half of the state (leaving the rest in forest and houses/roads etc), you could only just barely pull it off, and you would need massive inputs to keep the fertility up since there would be no space for green manure, cover crops, etc.

There’s also the question of how much time it would take.  Eliot Coleman (who is something of an expert in this field) says one person can tend about 2.5 acres in intensive production.  This means that one person doing high intensity small scale organic agriculture could feed only about 5 people – that means we would need 60 million people working at agriculture in the US – as it stands we only have maybe 3 million (just a rough guess based on what I’ve heard).  This would be a remarkable cultural shift; not a passing fad but a social earthquake.  I believe my usual rule of thumb holds here – anyone who predicts (or advocates) massive change needs to identify the sufficiently powerful forces and demonstrate how they will bring about that change.

So while I will continue to grow my garden and tend my orchard, I’m not holding my breath for the entire nation to join in the fun.