Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Eat the Suburbs

This is a short Australian film about dwindling energy supplies and the importance of home gardening.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Signs of different times

We just came across this collection of old World War II propaganda posters at Treehugger. Many of them promote the Victory Garden movement, but the most interesting ones are all about thrift and anti-consumption.

These posters have a deep appeal to people our age, even beyond kitsch. They symbolize the passing of a generation that still knew how to can, still knew how to grow food. That kind of knowledge is now dangerously rare, from our point of view.

In Shop Class as Soulcraft, Matthew Crawford says American education has trended away from hands-on learning in the trades, agriculture, and other foundational types of knowledge, and have instead favored training for white-collar work. He's not convinced that this is a good path for American society.

We are deeply anxious about what we don't know about the things that sustain us -- and marketers are aware of this. Crawford describes a recent ad for a motorcycle that shows an owner working intensely on his bike; the ad tells buyers that they can "build" the motorcycle according to their vision. But the ad merely hawks "custom" features that are ordered at the dealer and built at the factory, not applied by the rider-owner. (Crawford points out that the newest luxury cars and motor vehicles don't even let you check the oil or diagnose other problems in the engines; a computer at the dealer has to do that.) It's a bit like Betty Crocker cake mixes, Crawford says: Homemakers felt better about their "cooking" if they could add an egg or two to the mix before popping it into the oven.

This anxiety might explain the explosion in vegetable gardens this year. (Vegetable gardening one of the "back to basics" skills mentioned in this story about this very topic in The New York Times.) When things get tough, people seek out that foundational knowledge -- growing food to sustain their families. These days it's hard to find someone who actually knows how to make vegetable plants thrive. That is the main reason these posters and this generation carry a nostalgic appeal. These people knew something about how to make a living. Even though we live in better times, do we need this knowledge, too?

Monday, August 10, 2009

a farm for the future

This documentary, produced by the BBC, is a classic -- essential viewing for anyone who wants to see what we are facing with regards to food and energy. If you have an hour, sit down and watch.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

more on late blight and tomatoes

At a birthday party for my daughter this evening, I was talking to one of my neighbors. "You have to come over and look at one of my tomato plants," he said. "Something's up." He said the bottom leaves were beginning to shrivel. Could be some kind of run-of-the-mill wilt, but of course I thought it could also be Late Blight, the tomato disease of 2009. My neighbor's news felt especially bad, because I've started to notice some shriveling on one of my plants, and it's spreading at an alarming rate.

We're hobby gardeners, and I have come to accept that tomato plants are going to get hit with one thing or another by the end of the year. They don't live forever. But this year has been especially bad for tomato growers. Is there a lesson that we can learn from the Phytophthora infestans plague of 2009?

Here's one: Consolidation of agriculture in the United States is not just a problem of Big Ag and far-off farmers. It spreads to all of us.

Let me explain: The tomato (and potato) disease of 2009 came from concentrated, factory-farm-style nurseries that supply Big Box retailers, which then spread to the home gardener. This was explained well in a story today in The New York Times:

According to plant pathologists, this killer round of blight began with a widespread infiltration of the disease in tomato starter plants. Large retailers like Home Depot, Kmart, Lowe’s and Wal-Mart bought starter plants from industrial breeding operations in the South and distributed them throughout the Northeast. (Fungal spores, which can travel up to 40 miles, may also have been dispersed in transit.) Once those infected starter plants arrived at the stores, they were purchased and planted, transferring their pathogens like tiny Trojan horses into backyard and community gardens. Perhaps this is why the Northeast was hit so viciously: instead of being spread through large farms, the blight sneaked through lots of little gardens, enabling it to escape the attention of the people who track plant diseases.

The author of this essay, Dan Barber, at times seems on the verge of blaming the amateur home gardener for this problem. ("Here’s the unhappy twist: the explosion of home gardeners -- the very people most conscious of buying local food and opting out of the conventional food chain -- has paradoxically set the stage for the worst local tomato harvest in memory.") But he eventually acknowledges the real problem: a super-concentrated agricultural system that gets its supplies from mega-growers is not very resilient. Disease spreads quickly through these systems, as it would through any monoculture.

For the most part, Joe and I didn't get our plants from nurseries. We grew them from seed, starting indoors in the early spring, and we planted a bunch of different varieties (more variety means more genetic diversity, and maybe more disease resistance). For those reasons, our tomatoes have fared pretty well this year, while some of our neighbors' plants have completely wilted, as if doused in rubbing alcohol and lit on fire.

We have yet to see whether we'll make it to the end of the season disease-free. But one thing is certain: We will again be growing from seed next year, and growing many different kinds of tomatoes.

--Scott Carlson

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

the RFFI presents: FRESH

Update 9/10/2009: Ana Sofia Joanes, the director of FRESH will be on the Marc Steiner Show tonight, along with panelists who speak at the screening. City Paper is also running a glowing review of the film in this week's issue.

The Rodgers Forge Farm Initiative, the Hamilton Crop Circle, the restaurant Clementine, Urbanite magazine and the Center for a Livable Future at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health present the Baltimore screening of FRESH at Creative Alliance on September 10.

FRESH is a movie about what's wrong with agriculture in America -- and what we can do to fix it. The film has sold out screenings in cities across the country and garnered rave reviews.

A local-food bazaar will precede the screening and a discussion with local and national agriculture experts will follow. Tickets won't last long. Get yours today on the Creative Alliance Web site.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Zucchini! Zucchini! Zucchini! (or, what to do with all this food)

Sorry to be out of touch. We've been busy with some Rodgers Forge Farm Initiative stuff that we're planning for the fall, so this is our first post in a while.

I guess we've also been busy with the harvest. It seems that every day we go out into our RF yards, we're finding something that needs to be picked and cooked up. That can be an oppressive feeling sometimes -- the notion that you either use these vegetables that you worked so hard to grow, or they rot. (For an interesting story on that topic, see this from The Sun.) A friend of mine once said that her family used to grow tons of beets. She loved the earthy flavor of beets, but she inevitably came to a point in the year when just the thought of eating another beet made her want to cry.

Zucchini is another one of those vegetables that is so prolific that you run out of things to do with them after a while. And you can do damn near anything with them: put them in chocolate cake, make them into muffins, fry them as fritters, put them in soup.... Yeesh. A friend once told me a story about a town, maybe somewhere in Pennsylvania, that has a tradition: On one night of the year, you sneak over to the neighbors' houses and put zucchinis on their doorsteps. The idea is that everyone has so much zucchini that you can't give it away easily.

There are a number of books out there that might help with the glut of vegetables you're getting. First of all, you might want to find ways to store these veggies into the winter months. We gotten two books here recently that cover storing vegetables, but I have to admit that we haven't had time to review them properly. (Maybe you can and let us know what you think.) Both books are distributed by our favorite gardening publisher, Chelsea Green.

How to Store Your Garden Produce: The Key to Self-Sufficiency (Revised Edition), by Piers Warren, lists foods alphabetically and offers a number of options for storing them. I learned about "clamping," or burying some foods, like potatoes, from this book. Regarding zucchinis -- or "courgettes," as this author is British -- the book says that you can blanch and freeze them, or make them into "courgette pickles."

There is also Preserving Food Without Freezing or Canning: Traditional Techniques Using Salt, Oil, Sugar, Alcohol, Vinegar, Drying, Cold Storage, and Lactic Fermentation, by the Gardeners & Farmers of Terre Vivant. (Chelsea Green describes Terre Vivant as "an ecological research and education center located in Mens, Domaine de Raud, a region of southeastern France.") Among the zucchini recipes offered by this book: boil in vinegar with herbs, then pack in oil.

If your harvest is coming in, congratulations -- and good luck.

--Scott Carlson