Tag Archives: organic

Planning a Garden and Mother Earth News

El Nina is still pitching a fit and her tears keep landing in Oregon leaving us with soggy soil and an unpredictable frost date. The problem isn’t just for the gardeners but this year some food banks are losing their steady supply of fresh veggies once donated by thriving community gardens.

But here just like the rains we must be relentless. Northwesters either develop ways to cope with cabin fever or move to California. My way is usually a dose of medicine and a few good words with my computer but lately my heads been freezing on me, a savage and unpredictable wave writers block.

Reading the anthology of Sherlock Holmes stories wasn’t  enough to inspire me to do much more than watch an episode of house. Alright, two episodes. But thanks to a brief spell of A.D.D. I found myself browsing the cyber pages of Mother Earth News and before I knew it I had subscribed.

With prices dropped to $10 a year I had a hard time refusing the offer of the magazine that more than once I considered paying full price for.

I started to look over my purchase via their online copy and ended up discovering a garden planner program and decided to give it a test run.  I had already made a few garden maps earlier this year and took the opportunity to recreate one of them on the garden generator.

The program has a very easy to use interface and makes planning  out a garden child’s play, think Farmville. Reading the back of seed packets becomes worthless because the Vegetable Garden Planner is made to automatically show the spaces needed between plants. Navigating the Flash based software is similar to using a paint program and if a user can work their way around a word processor this shouldn’t be anything too technical. It isn’t as full functioned and intricate as auto cad and after the 30 day trial it becomes a $25 a year convenience after the first year.  For now though this is the perfect way for the lazy gardener to map out their yard in the least painful way.

This weeks step will be to scour my new copy of Mother Earth News, sustainability doesn’t always gotta mean sacrifice 🙂

Links:

Community Gardens Battle Relentless Rain

Vegetable Garden Planner

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Dandelion coffee and the act of foraging.

A pest to some but to others, includeing medieval nobility, dandelion has proved its worth as both a medicine and a food.

I’m a junkie there is no doubt about.  When I wake up two things cross my mind usually, do I have to move and if so, where’s my coffee!?!  Lately the morning miracle nectar has been giving me some stomach problems and I’ve been forced to reduce my ravenous thirst to just a cup a day. This is not good.
Instead of getting multiple cup boosts throughout the day I’m stuck with one drink and a day full of yawns. I have heard that you can make a coffee substitute with the roots of dandelion and yesterday when I was weeding the thought had hit again, providence. I finished up hoola hoeing my garden and then moved up towards the dandelion weeder.
My neighbors probably didn’t understand the desperation that filled my act of weeding.  People are used to seeing me out in my garden and even in the light rain it wasn’t anything abnormal. But the time and patience I took to preserve the dandelion roots while pulling them out would peg me as a lunatic in some circles, but to me I was just prepping another cup of brew.

After being roasted and ground the dandelion root looks more like tobacco than any sort of coffee.

After collecting and roasting the dandelion roots, they were ground into a fine powder and brewed like coffee. I took a sip of the black “coffee” and was surprised. It was a little lighter in color and tasted slightly burnt to the everyday coffee drinker. Unfortunately this coffee alternative is caffeine free, something I was hoping wouldn’t be the case, but a little online looking it confirmed it. Although the chemical support isn’t there I was still a thousand times happier to drink this mix than to attempting decaf.
I’m realizing this post sounds more like a confession about caffeine abuse than any sort of statement about the earths long term preservation but I assure that is not the case.  My hunt for dandelion root is one of the first acts of foraging that I have carried out.
This is the initial way humans used to gather food. Before restaurants and grocery stores, before even farming, there was hunting and gathering.  At this point human populations lived based on what nature provided, not on what could be done provided despite  nature. Although this was a great way to make sure that the land remained strong and the earth healthy, it wasn’t the best way to ensure a future. Some would argue we evolved, others would argue we devolved.

When the flavor ihit my tongue I couldn't have been more upset. It wasn't bad, and actually, the acrid root tea actually tasted like tea. I wouldn't drink it normally but in 1858 I could see turning to this in a pinch.

The main benefit to gathering food is that it doesn’t require an agricultural system that rearranges the landscape to make certain food stuffs available.  The flip side is that a long time ago many tribes figured out that about 30 people are perfect for living off the land in most areas (StuffYouShouldKnow pod casts are my source for this).  If a tribe grew much bigger than this it became more difficult to support.  If we all tried living off the wild now I fear we would overwhelm it.
But when there are opportunities to harvest from the wild instead of buying from the store I still plan to take advantage of them. And instead of throwing my dandelions in a garbage can or even a refuse bin I’m going to eat the suckers. Not only are dandelions completely edible at some point of the year, but revenge against weeds has never been below me, ask the corn.

The recipe I used to make the “coffee” was from ehow.com

How to Make Dandelion Coffee

This weeks step was to take up foraging.

Seed Savers Exchange: They’ve Arrived!

It's finally time to get some seeds in the ground and they have just arrived! We're still at risk for frost here so at least for the time being it's going to have to be an indoor operation to get this years crop going.

With Seed Savers Exchange giving a quick delivery I have finally gotten to start planting my garden, indoors albeit.

I’m working as a goal this year to reduce my food budget by planting a sizeable garden that will keep producing until the end of the growing season.  The little parcel of land that comes with the townhouse we are renting doesn’t get enough light to really be of much use for food production of any scale but for $35 and 6 hours of volunteer work I have been able to secure a community garden spot within walking distance of my house.

To get seeds to turn into transplant vegetable starts doesn’t take very much I have discovered. A cold fluorescent light hanging from the ceiling on a chain gives an adjustable height light source that will cost less than $35 dollars for the whole setup.  I bought start-up trays with covers that provided extra moisture for plants and a spray bottle to occasionally blast them with mist.

A Compact fluorescent light, a tray or even yogurt containers and some potting soil is the recipe to and early garden.

This year when I planted my seeds I didn’t even cover them with soil in their trays. One of my eccentric professors, Elizabeth Howley, explained to our class that the soil is really just their to provide even moisture to the seeds. True to form the germination rates have been nearly one hundred percent for me so far.

These trays and optional greenhouse covers can be purchased almost anywhere this time of year.  Just stumble into any store with a garden center and look around.  Prices for the trays wont be more than a couple of dollars.

My step for this week is to create a detailed plan to reduce my food budget for this year.  To start working towards this I have mapped my garden and will need to make a crop schedule.  I have bought a few varieties of storage onions and garlic that should last in storage and I have started succession planting greens for early spring.

Overwintering: The Year Round Experience.

Black opal

I bought this African Blue Basil last year. After waiting for seeds to be produced for the entire summer, I learned that this plant is a hybrid and has the reproductive potential of two mules. With a little cloning this plant has lived on the last three months in my bedroom.

Looking out the window I can finally see the sun’s arch reach over the neighboring apartments, a signal of the approaching spring. Pretty soon gardeners all throughout the Northern Hemisphere will be elbows deep in dirt preparing for another year of foodstuffs.

This year, instead of heading to the nearest Home Depot for the cheapest seeds I can find, I’m utilizing one of the coolest concepts that I have heard of in a long time. I am buying my seeds from a company called Seed Savers Exchange(SSE).

So what I’m buying brand name seeds?

The Exchange realized that as agriculture become more standardized the plethora of seeds that were saved within families for generations were being lost.  The mechanical mass extinction event was taking place and the exchange felt it had to act. The company started an exchange based seed bank.  Members throughout the world share their seeds with the company and other members around the world. Through the organization members are encourage to either buy and sell with each other. SSE also sells to the general public although it only offers an sampled selection of the vast variety of seeds at their disposal.

The seeds they save are all heirlooms, meaning they have been reproduced continually for at least 50 years.  Although these seeds are going to prove to be more expensive than my old shopping habits, I’m going to be winning in the long run. Since all of these will be non-hybrid plants, the seeds will be viable for saving and hopefully regrowing next year.

This weeks step is to buy heirloom seeds.

Seed Savers Exchange

Smoking the “good” stuff: A search for America’s most sustainable smoke.

Smokers in this picture,4. Currently smoking,3. Currently rolling,1. Total viewers of 2010 World Cup Final,700 million. Smokers Worldwide, an estimated 1.2 Billion. Smoking is still the Earth's pastime.

I’ve made a pledge in my head a while back to have my weekly updates posted on Sunday’s. I figured it’s about time I actually said that.  The reason for this is mostly so I can keep track of what week I pledged to do something and so I can remember to keep up with my goal of taking one step towards sustainability each week.

Now that I have that out of the way, it’s time for this weeks step.

For a while I have been attempting to quit smoking, the reasons aren’t really related to this blog or sustainability in general.  I’m just tired of  the subtle sickness that comes along with the burning pleasure of a good cigarette. I’ve had allergies for a while without knowing what they were and realized that whenever I smoke the allergies get worse and my head goes from being slightly uncomfortable to the point where I feel like laying down, ignoring the world and napping my way to the end of the day. In summery, I’m an addict.

The act of smoking, it has recently been pointed out to me, isn’t sustainable in itself seeing as it destroys the user over time instead of helping them. My focus on a renewable world has never factored in personal health. I’ve figured as long as I’m not hurting anyone else, it doesn’t matter what I do. I’m not here to preach and I’m not here to get preached at. Informing is a different matter, however, and I never mind getting details I didn’t know before or understand (thanks Trista).

The point of this blog isn’t to tell the world how to live; the point of The Sustainable Student is to show how one person is attempting to live a life that won’t impact the future for others and it doesn’t mean that my way is right but it’s an attempt. Smokers I’m not attacking. Non-smokers don’t attack. It’s common knowledge now that if you smoke health problems fallow.

Disclaimer aside this week I am pledging to become actively involved in a search for finding the most sustainable cigarette. Unfortunately I get the feeling this means I’ll have to kick my old drinking buddy, Camel Light, into the gutter.

Finding information about the production of cigarettes hasn’t been an easy task so far. These companies have developed powerful marketing teams and know how to soften almost any blow. Finding negative information on farming practices for companies like this will be the equivalent to finding a ninja in his home town. Searching by brand names is ineffective, all that pops up for these are websites that require a user to log in.

For now I’m going to be focusing on a couple of Americas power players, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company and Philip Morris and American Spirits manufacturer Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company.  As long as I continue smoking, I’ll keep updating the list of companies I have researched.

My research so far shows the hipster and hippie mainstay of American Spirits is winning out.  Their website submerges viewers into a world where you’d think that American Spirit’s manufacturers, Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company(owned by RJ Reynolds Tobacco, the creature behind Camels) are a co-op of small time organic farmers, not a major U.S. tobacco subsidiary.

All three of these companies try to harness the image of eco-conscious, caring and community oriented members of your hometown. Slick tongues and vague statements help them drive this idea home.

Right now I’m focusing on the  agricultural processes used in growing the tobacco for the cigarettes.  Later I will tackle the other slippery processes that gets a leaf from a field to my mouth.

Philip Morris – This link guides to what Philip Morris says it is doing to promote sustainable agriculture.

R.J. Reynolds – On their website R.J. Reynolds does not have any information regarding the growing processes of their tobacco, at least none that I could find.

Santa Fe Tobacco Company – The creators of American Spirits put a lot of emphasis on image. Considering themselves a “green” company they put a lot of work into showing their growing processes.

So far American Spirits are the leading pack, when it comes to finding America's most sustainable cigarette.

I’ve realized that this journey to find the most sustainable cigarette is going to be long. It’s like flowing down an uncharted river, never knowing whats around the bend and constantly wondering if that last move to the left was the correct side to pick when the river forks. For now I’m smoking spirits and emailing the companies to see what percentage of their product is organically grown.

The life and death of a small farm hog.

Early in the summer these young hogs were living the good life, one day change it all. From pen to pork

Pigs are dirty, smelly, rotten animal,s unworthy of a good life or a large space because they will foul up any piece of earth that you give them.  Although this description fits a majority of politicians, my experience with pigs has taught me they are not the unclean, bestial organisms that I’ve heard a lot of people write them off as.

In that last few months I’ve watched four hogs go from small critters to slaughter-sized meat producers.  We’ve taken two off to the butcher and two more are awaiting their end of days. At first it was almost sad sinking my teeth into the first pig we’ve ever raised for food but as the thoughts started drifting through my mind I took comfort in the fact that these were probably the happiest pigs I’ve ever digested.

I’ve only seen hog operations a few times throughout my life. The first operation I saw was an indoor cage, complete with spillways that allowed for the animal waste to wash into the center of the pen so it could be easily cleaned. The only other operations I have seen were online and the pigs didn’t seem to have very much space to move and breath, let alone stay clean.

The operation that Purring Dog Farm has running for hogs is a humane one. I have spent a little under an hour a day the last two months working side by side the hungry, misunderstood creatures.  Every morning feeding them their daily allotment of corn and whatever else may be on hand.  Throughout the weeks I have watched how the animals think and interact and laughed at the way they’ll  trip over each other like kids on cake, to get the prized commodities of eggs and watermelon.

The last meal for future food.

Rolling in the mud and getting dirty is the way they stay cool, similar to elephants and dogs.  The faint smell of their waste isn’t the first scent that hits when entering their 100 ft by 100 ft enclosure.  In fact the first month and a half that I was on the farm, I only smelled the foul odor of their digested corn once.  Pigs are similar to dogs in the sense that they prefer not to wallow around in shit and urine if they don’t have to. If given enough space they will gladly deposit waste in a far corner of their structure, the only spot left that is green from under use.

Between playing and sleeping all day our hogs still make time to attempt eating gloves and boots while they are still on the wearers feet and one has developed an affinity for using my aunt April as a scratching post. When the first roast was made up, April was having a hard imagining how she could eat it after spending the time watching, feeding, scratching and admiring the 200 lbs of fat and muscle. We all agreed that she made the right decision, in a pan with gar

lic and butter.

The day before we took the black-speckled pink walls of meat to the butcher, my uncle Bill and me made a practice run of getting them into the horse trailer, making sure the next day went smoothly.  Our plan was to herd them, by pinching them in with two doors forcing them forward. After 3 minutes of getting pushed around, we headed indoors defeated and feeling weak. After

The stalkyard and final hours.

tearing through farmers books and scouring the internet more thoroughly than any porn addict, we resigned to faith that the next morning would pan out, expecting the worse. It was a six-o-clock morning, early for us lazy farmers, the pigs had to be in by 9 a.m. or else the official “pig killer” would go home, a man paid by commission not by the hour and who didn’t like to wait.

After backing up the trailer, we went with honey instead of vinegar. By cutting watermelon in half and throwing them to the rear of the transport we found the pigs loved the food enough to jump on in. After two filed in we closed the doors. The day before had taught us not to be picky. We fed them a last meal of their favorite treat, eggs, and left for Morgan’s Meat Processors.

On arriving we had to remove the pigs, this time force was our only option. Getting them out of the trailer was less of a task than getting them in, if you did it right. Hogs do not respond to being pulled but they will eventually let pushing them make a difference. The last time we saw our hogs they were playing together and wallowing in the puddles of mud, in a stalk-yard like coral.  After filling out the cut-sheets before their eyes, we took off waiting for a call telling us the deed was done. Hanging above the entrance to the slaughterhouse a sign reading “absolutely no unauthorized personnel allowed.”

Later, when we picked up the freshly processed pork, 127 lbs of the tastiest, best kept meat was waiting for us. Ethically speaking the practice was sustainable but on a level of understanding that everyone can agree with, I can say, home-grown pork beats anything you’ll ever find on a shelf. The twinge of guilt I felt while watching the pigs play out their last few minutes of life was only a reminder that every meal involves a life and suffering. I don’t doubt for a minute though that if the roles were reversed, those hogs would have been more than happy to call me a meal. And life goes on …

What the “F**r trade” does sustainability mean anyways?

Green is the new everything.
It’s no secret that the recent cultural turn towards sustainability has met its vast success because it’s now cool to “go green”. When a Pabst drinking hipster will yell at someone for not recycling, we are looking at a strange, confused, yet hopeful future.

The words green and sustainable are inescapable part of our daily lives for many now but the terms have become empty because of the amount of times and reasons for their use.

So what does sustainable mean?

For the amount it is used, finding a clear-cut definition of what sustainability means isn’t the easiest task.  Words like organic, local, green have all become closely associated with sustainability and people who use anything with those tags seem to think that the product their associated with is sustainable. You can’t trust a label to authenticate that a product isn’t harmful to our future.  Instead, you have to carefully consider the different aspects of what the product is and how it is made

While searching for the definition of online I ran into a sight Ecoedge.ca.  Douglas Barnes, a permaculture designer from EcoEdge Design, a company that creates sustainable systems for homes, farms, gardens and water systems, seemed to have nailed down the wobbly question of what the word means.

“A system is sustainable if over its lifetime it produces or stores more energy than it consumers in its creation, operation and maintenance.”

At first this definition may seem overly complicated or thick but later in his definition Barnes gives an example of how this can be applied.

“Think of a bank account as an analogy. How long can you continue your lifestyle if you are continually spending more money than you earn? Sooner or later, that lifestyle will come to an end.”

This is just one corn farm I encountered going cross-country. As of 2007 PBS stated that 20 percent of U.S. produced corned is turned to ethanol but is that good? Two articles at the bottom of this post contradict each other in an attempt to answer this question.

Before stumbling upon this definition of the word, I was using a different view for looking at sustainability.  My definition was that if something isn’t causing harm to earth or people then it was sustainable but the statement was vague and left a lot to interpretation.

Barnes interpretation of sustainability gives an in-depth description of what to consider when purchasing products or creating sustainable systems.  But sustainability has absorbed so much and the word has swelled to such giant proportions, with arms reaching so wide, that it cannot be bound by one definition alone.

Merriam-Websters dictionary defines sustainability in the way that I have seen it used frequently.

“A method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged.” Or “Capable of being sustained.”

No matter how you choose to look at sustainability, it becomes a matter of perception whether or not something is sustainable. I asked Barnes to break down sustainability into categories, hoping to somehow make a shortcut to deciding whether or not something is sustainable.  What he offered me was something less than I expected, the unadulterated truth.  There is no idiots guide to sustainability or 8 fold path towards a renewable world. To be a  sustainable consumer it requires individuals to be well-informed and think independently.

“Sustainability is a very holistic concept … artificially breaking it down into categories has inherent problems. Consider grain-fed, shed-raised dairy cattle versus pasture-raised cattle. If you look at the methane emissions from the grain-fed cattle, they are lower than that of the pasture-raised cattle. Considering the cost of this release of a greenhouse gas that has 22 times the heat storage capacity of CO₂, one might be tempted to say that grain-fed dairy cattle are more sustainable than pasture-raised cattle. But this ignores the costs in fuel, soil, and water table damage (and associated health costs that go with polluted groundwater) involved in growing, processing and transporting the grain – not to mention the costs involved due to increased instances of E. coli in grain-fed cattle.

“So, you can see the difficulty in categorizing sustainability. Things are so intertwined that one really needs case-by-case consideration.” Barnes stated.

When I consider my future and think about steps I’m taking towards a sustainable existence, I’m realizing the importance of research.  I’m also starting to get the concept that if I truly want to explain my journey to the end of my destructive ways, I’m going to have to justify why the steps are important, both to myself and to whoever reads this.

Buying a product or starting a practice solely because it’s generally accepted as sustainable isn’t enough. If my mind ever seems to miss a detail, I’ve killed enough brain cells to make this happen more often than I’d like, I fully encourage anybody to fill me in. I don’t know everything and I’m quickly realizing that I almost know nothing.

On that note it’s time for a weekly step.  Lately I’ve been filling my head full of all sorts of anti big ag propaganda, “King Corn”, “Food Inc.”, “Fed Up” etc … in all of this listening and learning I have realized one of the big enemies in our world comes from corn. The sprawling fields of corn that cover the waist of our nation and produce one hell of a boring scene to any road trip, are one of the United States sustainable curses. In more ways than one this corn breaks dooms our world to a poor existence.  Having crops grown in the midwest and shipped to all parts of the country means that by the time consumers can get their hands on this corn, it has taken more energy to ship the carbon based gold than it can produce.

I admittedly have a bias when it comes to corn. After watching crop after crop of the sensitive food source get wiped out by bugs and soil problems, I can only imagine what goes into making thousands of acres of perfect, weed free corn.

This isn’t the only breach in the definition of sustainability that corn has made.  Many of the methods used to produce a majority of American corn spit yellow phlegm in the noble face of sustainability.  The soil used to grow these crops have often become depleted of nutrients required to grow natural corn leaving us with a chemical hybrid, ever heard of crop rotation?  It would seem that a lot of farmers have not.  Instead of letting the ground restore itself, chemical fertilizers powerful enough to level buildings are added to the crops and as a result our environment takes the hit. A result of soil not getting organic substances, such as compost, is that our land is slowly being hit by desertification, leaving a future dust bowl within reach.

While the lawyers and the companies behind the chemical fertilizers will vehemently fight the gloomy light that has been cast on their products, their ploys at reassuring the public are about as convincing as big tobaccos argument that cigarettes don’t cause cancer, just fun.

Now that I’m finished with my long-winded rant this is my step

The beauty of capitalism is that we can make votes that count.  Every item we choose to purchase effects what companies will start offering. If consumers demand sustainable products then businesses will start to sell them. This week I’m voting, no, on one of big corns major products and no longer buy products containing high fructose corn syrup.

I personally like taking elimination steps because by cutting something out, you aren’t required to spend any money and right now I am broke.

Corn syrup definitely makes us fat, but is corn ethanol good for us? Again I find myself tripping over my own feet trying to find an answer.  Ultimately, I’m still stuck within the hazy fog of whats important and realizing that E-85 is shadowed area, perhaps lacking the green tint that it promises.

It takes less energy to create than it produces according to the USDA’s article Net Energy balance of Corn-Ethanol. This fact alone seems to stand up against the Eco Edge definition, but this is only one aspect of the crows nest

The doublethink kicks in when you do a little more research however.

A team of researchers from the University of Minnesota and Stanford University as well as a few other organizations say that it may be energy efficient but it isn’t sustainable in a paper entitled, Climate change and health costs of air emissions from bio fuels and gasoline.