The Future is Insight

The title of this blog works on many levels- it plays off of my belief in hybrids being a critical step towards our future, the fact that introspection and mindful planning are critical to our future, and that the future is literally in sight for those that are willing to see it. Here I chronicle my attempt to Be the Change I wish to see in the world-and to help make that Future a Reality.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Supreme Debate

According to NPR's Update the Conservative Contingent seems to be reveling in their ability to belittle some Attorney General's, but one wonders how much of this is the typical Supreme Court routine, and how much is actually the Justice's opinions. I am still stunned that individuals of such high intelligence are actually arguing in a manner of my 4 yr old's favorite tactic "Bird isn't doing it so I won't either". We are talking about the fate of Manhattan here, not eating your celeriac. It would be almost funny if it weren't so bloody important.

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Future on Trial

Here is a story from NPR and something to keep your fingers crossed for today. The Supreme Court is hearing the case where a dozen states are suing The Federal Government for not upholding the clean air act.

This one could be big for several reasons. Like ruling whether CO2 is a pollutant or not. Looks like a main argument from the defense is that "Co2 is natural and necessary for life-it simply can't be a pollutant!"

That is like saying Hemlock is a plant, and therefore can't really hurt you...

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Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Winter Reading

So we are heading into the Big Chill. The gardens are calming down. Hopes of topping 100mpg are to be shelved until late spring's mild temperatures return. Time to hunker down and do some Big Reading. Mia was concerned that I may be maxing out the hard drive between my ears, but then I reminded her all I have forgotten about turbo chargers, automotive suspension dynamics and tire tread compounds and she felt a little better.

Here is the current Winter Reading Interest List for 2006-7:

Deep Mulch Gardening
Currently en route through Amazon are Ruth Stout's classic The No-Work Garden Book, who by some accounts is the American equivalent of Japan's Fukuoka, a folk hero of mine. For a more modern take I also have Lee Reich's Weedless Gardening coming and the library is tracking down Patricia Lanza's Lasagna Gardening. I also intend to read F. H. King's Farmers of 40 centuries. Tracking 4000 years of organic farming should take care of some of my hubris. Finally J.E.B' Maunsell's Natural Gardening looks to be a must read if I can find it. I am making Big Plans to No Till my gardens next year, which begs the question on why I am buying forged hoes and shovels imported from Europe... Once a tool guy always a tool guy I guess.

I have really only read 3 or 4 works on Permaculture, and only one by the founders. The fact that I have yet to read anything by Bill Mollison is shameful and needs remedying. So from his works I look to read An Introduction to Permaculture, and then move onto Smart Permaculture Design and if I fall backwards into a giant pile of money I will source the Big One: Permaculture: A Designers Manual.

Sustainable Landscaping
Seeing as I will be charging for this next year, I should really bone up some more. Near the top of the list will be Gayle Weinstein Xeriscape Handbook, followed by Sally Roth's Natural Landscaping. Others will certainly pop up, it seems that every book I read leads to three more "must reads".

This should be easy- I made 2 cu yards last year. But I plan on hosting classes in both my Village and our Unitarian Church in 2007 so I should really become more of an expert. Rodale's Book of Composting is the standard and again is en route. I will also be fabbing up several styles of bins ranging from my preferred uber simple wire fence $10 model to more socially acceptable cedar models in both one and 3 bin versions. Amazon rocks-I have 4 books coming and am only out $20 including shipping!

Well I think that these 2800 pages will be a good start seeing as I will doubtless read the seed catalogs from Seed Savers Exchange and Johnny's Seeds about 4 dozen times each by February.

Are all gardeners this psychotic? No need to answer that...

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Monday, November 27, 2006

Green Local Business

This past month a young couple opened a small natural foods store, named Wholesome Harvest, in the town just south of us. Their premise is simple-to provide whole organic foods, leaning towards local when possible, at reasonable prices. That last piece is no joke. I had expected ,and been willing, to pay10-20% more than I do at Whole Foods due to the economies of scale, but their prices on organic stone ground flours, and most canned veggies (not much fresh here right now) were actually lower. When I commented on this, they responded that they aren't trying to get rich, just wanting to provide nutritional foods to rural customers. Come Spring they will be using the store to market their produce from the 7 acres they farm. Nice! Until then they market a wide selection of local grass fed meats, and literally the best grass fed eggs I have seen. Stables like flour, peanut butter, and canned veggies-all organic are also available.

We got to talking, and they ended up purchasing a rain barrel for a Christmas present. Also, they have access to agricultural equipment, and expressed interest in assisting if I ever am asked to do large scale prairie restoration thru our Someday Gardens business. We will also be talking more about using their store as a retail outlet for my rainbarrels, with perhaps a model of each on hand. Their location is great. Literally on the other side of the block is the Organic Feed Store that supplies seed and sundries to the growing organic farming contingent.

I am freaky excited that I am seeing exactly what I hoped to-Green Small Business as a driver for rural growth. And it is doing so through cottage industries-all three of these businesses are offshoots of other enterprises: a large farm, a small vegetable farm, and a hobby. They are not the main income source for the families, but provide supplemental benefits. Truth be told the ability to source staples at wholesale prices, or in my case, provide a venue to upgrade to trailers and better tools, is a real economic driver behind all of these start-ups. But now the Feed Store has grown enough that they are hiring their first outside employee, thereby generating more impact into the economy. And given the growth that Wholesome Harvest is seeing on zero marketing budget in the past month they will need help soon. I am not sure Someday Gardens will ever get that big, but subcontracting out to local farmers for tractor use and mulches definitely won't hurt things.

It's working.


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Sunday, November 26, 2006

Sustainablity Library

I had the last week off. That means in addition to spending an awesome amount of time with family I also read too much-including 2-3 books on how "you too can farm!". And we aren’t there yet, so to it had the end result of ramming me into a funk. I cruised BCS tractors (I would go with the 732 modified for diesel from Earthtools), priced soil block makers and wheel hoes on Johnny’s Seeds with my brain running 150mph the entire time on how we can do this!... But then I grounded myself. I am not ready to farm. For starters I am clueless in regards to hands one knowledge, and more importantly I have a huge backyard that I need to fully utilize before I go out renting land. So since I can't do much other than look at seed catalogs right now I focused on my Sustainability Library recommendations. Here is the list so far:

Green Building
Green Remodeling: Changing the World One Room at a Time, David R. Johnson, Kim Master
The New Ecological Home: A Complete Guide to Green Building Options, Dan Chiras

Green Living
It's Easy Being Green: A Handbook for Earth-Friendly Living, Chrissy Trask
Timeless Simplicity, John Lane
The Integral Urban House, Farallones Institue

Civil Engineering
Toward Sustainable Communities: Resources for Citizens and Their Governments, Mark Roseland
Food Not Lawns, H. C. Flores
Edens Lost and Found, Harry Wiland and Dale Bell
The Natural Step for Communities, Sarah James

Gaia’s Garden, Toby Hemmenway
Successful Small-Scale Farming: An Organic Approach
Five Acres and Independence by Maurice G. Kains
Introduction to Permaculture by Bill Mollison
PERMACULTURE: A Designers' Manual by Bill Mollison and Reny Mia Slay
Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands Vol 1, Brad Lancaster
Family Friendly Farming, Joel Salatin
The Contrary Farmer & Living at Nature's Pace, Gene Logdson
The New Organic Grower & Four Season Harvest, Elliot Coleman

Natural Capitalism, Paul Hawken/Amory Leins/L. Hunter Lovins
Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability by David Holmgren
Serve God, Save the Planet: A Christian Call to Action, J. Matthew Sleeth, MD
Dr. Art’s Guide to Planet Earth, Art Sussman Ph D.
Mid-Course Correction, Ray Anderson
Plan B 2.0, Lester R. Brown
State of the World 2006, The Worldwatch Institute
An Inconvient Truth, Al Gore

This list is by no means complete-I mostly just browsed Chelsea Green's publications for their less fringe books, and then typed them into Amazon to see their suggested readings. This list is very incomplete, but I am trying for accessibility to the average citizen and also to bridge a variety of disciplines to reach more people.

I am meeting with the librarians on Tuesday-again any suggestions are appreciated!


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Wednesday, November 22, 2006


As you prepare the Turkey and perhaps watch some ball, it might pay to take a brief visit to
global rich list. I am embarrassed to say that I am in the top 1% of the richest people in the world. We are truly blessed.

The kicker is that with great power comes great responsibility. I can either use my wealth to continue farting up the world, or leverage that power to create sustainable change.

Be the Change!

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Back in the Saddle


Not a number I think of much, but given the fact that it represents the miles per gallon on the trip home with my refurbished and beloved Insight I am elated to see it shining back at me from the dash. It was also literally double the number that the rental Chevy HHR put up on the same trip.

As a refresh, over 3 weeks ago a field mouse had eaten thru much of the engine harness on the Insight, taking out a fuel injector in the mix. That little rodent ended up causing over $3000 worth of damage-even with used parts. The wiring harness was toast, so that was replaced. When it was all hooked up it became apparent that the ECU unit had shorted. Another week to source one, and then after that was in and we discovered that the bad ECU had sent enough nastiness thru the system to fry the first catalytic converter. The first 2 repairs were under my comprehensive insurance (thanks State Farm!) and the third was under my Honda Certified Warranty. Let it not be said the hybrid caused the 3 week turn around-each part had to be approved by the insurance-adding 4-5 days each time.

Of course the battery was dead when I picked it up, but once it was recharged (20 miles under light charging) it appears to be running smoother than ever. Like 110mpg around town in 4th gear, and a steady 75mpg while accelerating up the very slight incline in town.

It's good to be back!


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Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Pizza Perfect

Tonight I feel we finally drove the stake through the heart of the plaintive "organic is tooooo expensive" argument. The picture above was dinner tonight. The photo is grainy, and jaundiced (10 yr old digital camera) but it shows a roughly $1.73 100% organic pizza. Making it simultaneously the least expensive and, perhaps, best tasting pizza I have ever had.

But before you get freaky excited, there is a price, though again not so steep: Time. This was all from scratch (OK I bought premade cheese and sauce) From the time the water hit the bowl to pizza on the table was about 2.5 hours. That is no Dominoes, but in the down time while the crust rose I was able to read 60 pages of Eliot Coleman's The New Organic Grower, play with the kids, and help cube up fresh-made sour dough bread for Thanksgiving's stuffing. Not too shabby. Actual prep time was about 40 minutes.

But back to that $1.73 number:
3 cups organic flour ($.60)
1/2 can of Muir Glen Pizza Sauce ($1.15)
1/8 Bag Org. Spinach ($.60)
1/5 pound of a brick of some local Org Mozzarella ($1.00)

Plus some water, a pinch of yeast, 2 tbsp olive oil and some corn meal but those are almost free.
This made 2 pizza's-and as the crust was about 1" thick with real whole grains I ate about 1/2 as much as normal so we have lunch premade for tomorrow. Glazing the crust with olive oil made the entire pizza divine!

Comparable pizza's would have been $8 each. But they aren't organic, or as good, and my kids can't help knead the dough!

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Monday, November 20, 2006

Eco Municipality Update

So here are some of the latest and greatest for our little Village as it becomes more Green.

1) Stormwater. We will be submitting a request for proposals to implement our Water Resource Management Plan now that we have secured the grant. This would be a Drainage Plan in other communities, but we are looking to treat our water not as a problem to send downstream, but as a resource that is absolutely vital to everything from, well, living, to commercial enterprises as varied as agriculture, textiles, and your local car wash. One of the coolest things that we want to see come out of this is the installation of a Stormwater Utility. That's right, we will be taxing runoff as well as sewer. You put up a big Discount Retail store and a 1000 car parking lot and you will be helping us monthly to readjust our watershed to compensate. Or you can install permeable paving, percolation rich detention ponds, and a green roof and you might even get a monthly credit. Same goes for residential. Money talks. Think carbon credits but on a storm sewer level.

2) Community Gardens. I had this added for next month after I became aware that we have 16 acres of what will be a future park rented out to a local farmer. I will be presenting a plant to see about 2-4 of those acres split off into 1/8 acre chunks for the whopping sum of $25/yr to anyone who wants more land. Revenue will go to our Green Committee, and any remaining land that is unused would be donated to the local Master Gardeners who would run a market garden on it to support charities. This would also give us a nice venue for holding regular seminars on things such as composting, organic/biointensive gardening, mulching, xeriscaping, etc. for public education. Biggest concern is that no one is interested in a market garden as 95% of our community has a large backyard. Still if even 5 signed up this would be a win.

3) Sustainability Library. I have posted before that I am concerned that we need to educate our community more on Sustainability issues if we are to Succeed as a Eco Municipality. To that end I will be meeting with our Librarian next week to discuss the feasibility of creating a library section of cross discipline books to help our community learn more about the problems and more importantly the solutions. Hoping to start with at least 20 volumes and have it grow to 100+. With our library being so small, even a small display gets noticed in a hurry so this could generate some buzz.

So here is a homework assignment for my faithful readers:

Post a comment with some of your favorite books on Sustainability. Books that gave you an "Aha!" Books that you talked about with family or co-workers. Books that made you change.
I will then do my best to get them into our library.

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Sunday, November 19, 2006

Human all too Human

A humorous piece on the insanity of Suburban lawns, brought to you by the Scythe Supply.

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Saturday, November 18, 2006

Eco Vegetarianism Part IV: To Veg or not to Veg

So if you have followed the previous several posts you will be aware that I am struggling with my former belief that eating local organic vegetables was the most ecological way to receive sustenance. I no longer think that is true. Perennial pastures build soil fertility, lock carbon in the soil, and grass fed meat can be raised with virtually no petroleum inputs. But I also think that the difference between eating whole, local produce exclusively and getting a percentage of your calories from grass fed meat is very small. If I had to make an unscientific spectrum from least ecological to most, I would have CAFO meat (and if it doesn’t say 100% Grass Fed-it’s almost certainly spent at least some time in a CAFO) and processed foods (if you have to open it- it counts [processing adds another factor of 10 to the embodied energy]), then imported fruits (typically flown in), to processed organic foods, then a huge jump up in eco-friendliness to regional Organic Produce in season, local produce, then local organic foods and finishing with Grass Fed Meats. Further more, raising animals on an integrated farm actually makes local organic produce more ecological by producing the fertilizer on site. Plus animals add enough profitability to actually make a livable farm-only income feasible for a thrifty family. Sustaining a populated rural countryside is very important for biodiversity and our ability to produce our own food as a nation. Supporting these enterprises is a patriotic as well as ecological act.

But here is the kicker. I am still a vegetarian. The largest reason is that, for cattle and hogs at least, there simply are no humane slaughterhouses. Because the USDA and FDA mandate that their must be an inspector in each facility, and those inspectors are expensive, only the big One Size Fits All slaughterhouses can run. Guess who sets the ethical standards for these facilities? McDonald’s. No, I am not kidding. In an effort to forestall PEDA, they have set some ‘minimum’ standards:

Potentially graphic content warning-but if you want to eat meat you need to know this: Readers of Michael Pollan will find this familiar. When the cows are led into the slaughterhouse, they are sent through a chute that has them enter single file. Each cow is then killed by a piston shot into their forehead. When it works, it really isn’t too bad a way to go in my book: brain dead within seconds. But the piston misses. A lot. Because of McDonald’s there are now inspectors watching as the now dead cows are strung up for processing. It is typical that they shake around as their nerves fire, but these are not still alive. However, some of the cows will be visibly trying to get upright again. Those cows aren’t even stunned and they head in to the processing, which starts with skinning, very much alive. McDonald’s standards are maximum 5% still alive. That is about 1 out every 20 cows, and I refuse to support that industry. Though I do not find eating meat immoral, I find immense problems with torturing animals in our care. Therefore I do not eat beef.

Chickens are not as regulated and it is feasible to find local grass fed chicken. I can think of three farms off the top of my head within 10 miles where I could drive up to their door and buy a humanely slaughtered chicken. So why am I not doing it? Frankly, I am not sure if even I know why. Perhaps after all these years I find animal carcasses distasteful. Perhaps I am lying to myself and I do have an ethical issue with eating meat. Maybe it is just culinary inertia. But I do think that there is enough reason that given our current situation we have the means to eat vegetarian so we will continue to do so. I guess it is best summed up that I can think of no reason to start eating meat in our current lives. I also know that if we move out onto a farmette, we will need to keep animals to build soil fertility. At that point I will eat meat-animals will be necessary in our lives and I will personally be able to oversee their ends ensuring a quick, clean death solving most of my concerns. This is still untidy in my mind, which bothers me, but that is where I am right now.

Hopefully this has helped some in their quest for more ecological eating, or at the least spread some knowledge on sustainable agriculture. Those interested in further reading on that topic can check out:
Gene Logdson’s The Contrary Farmer and All Flesh is Grass. Gene is a cool guy.
Joel Salatin’s books are designed for those wanting to farm, but he is a blast to read.
Periodicals to check out include Acre’s USA, and the Stockman Grass Farmer

And those interested in ethical eating shold check out Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma. The book is great, but he gives Whole Foods a raw deal.

Remember-eating is a political, ethical, and ecological act.
Be the Change.

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Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Eco Vegetarianism Part III: Grass Farming

So I have poked some significant holes in my once solid convictions that eating vegetarian with whole foods was the most ecological choice. But since no man lives on an island, I would like to continue to delve into the economic and ecologic possibilities of this new (old?) small scale farming. I speak to the economics in this post because an ideal that is not a fiscal reality is just arm chair fodder. I prefer to espouse workable solutions that will help move our country toward a less energy dependant future.

It is possible to make money on a purely vegetable farm, but the farming is amazingly intense making it virtually impossible to be long term sustainable due to the amount of resources removed from the land in produce versus what is given back from imported fertilizers. Much of the land is cultivated every 4-6 weeks for 8 months of the year leaving it exposed to erosion more often than it is covered. Furthermore, small vegetable operations often focus on niche markets like micro greens, herbs, edible flowers, etc and less on rows of spinach, radishes, beans or tomatoes that most vegetarians eat everyday. Even in Organic production the economies of scale favor industrial production of these ‘commodity’ items. And then you get into all the ecological messes inherent in large scale agriculture-massive soil erosion, processed fertilizers (like pelletized chicken manure), and long range transportation. Look at it this way: it takes a lot of radishes at $1.50 bunch to make the rent on a 40 acre farm ($350,000) farm. The fields of radishes at left is no ecologically better than a field of corn. The largest local vegetable operation I have visited was 30 acres, but it took a team of 5-10 workers 6 days a week to harvest the 200 CSA subscriptions and it was not profitable. Mixed vegetable operations for farmers markets are typically from much smaller farms, say 5-10 acres.

Last post I wrote about integrated farms-the kind of operation that virtually all farms were before 1950 and the rise of Industrial Agriculture. The bucolic scenes I painted of waves of different animals going over the vegetable field begged the question of where the heck the cattle, chickens, and hogs were prior to their dance thru the corn and melons. The answer is that the vegetable ‘fields’ are just one or two paddocks in a rotational grazing system as espoused by Allan Nation at the Stockman Grass Farmer, Jo Robinson at, Gene Logsdon in All Flesh is Grass, and others. These are just a few of hundreds of farmers that are fine tuning the art of grazing to out compete the CAFO’s. I will spare you all the details-which are legion and beyond my expertise and present just a high level overview to give you an idea, if you want to learn more, as I feel any omnivore should, the Eatwild site is fairly user friendly.

Grass Farming

In my unhumble opinion Grass Farming is the future of farming. (I love that turn of phrase-the philosophical importance in the shift from calling oneself a Cattle Rancher to a Grass Farmer is immense.) By rotating grazing animals (yes, poultry and hogs graze!) through paddocks you greatly increase the holding capacity of the land. This is done by pulsing the pasture, much as the bison of old did. The farmer ‘mobs’ the field forcing the animals to eat everything, including the weeds, and then moves them to the next paddock before they can do any permanent damage from over grazing, while also keeping them there long enough to not just eat the tasty plants which encourages weed growth. The farmer keeps enough paddocks to rotate the animals while letting paddocks recoup, and this diversity also allows him to keep some paddocks sown with summer tolerant grass, and others with cold hardy varieties. There is even enough surplus in spring that the farmer can cut hay enough to tide them over thru the month or so of deep winter where the pasture may not be available. Other than moving the light electric fencing (easily run on solar) and animals daily the farmer can spend their energy on other areas like the vegetable patch or wood lot while the animals do the weeding, harvesting, and fertilizing for him. This is the animal husbandry equivalent of Masanobu Fukuoka’s “Do Nothing” rice farming: let nature do the work for you.

The reason that Grass Farming seems to me to be the holy grail of ecological eating is this: once the pasture is established, the land is never cultivated, never fertilized, never herbicided, and you can grass farm a small 20-40 acre farm without a tractor because the animals are doing most of the work. The farmer isn’t importing feed, or exporting waste-it is essentially a closed system. It works for beef and dairy operations, for goats, sheep or cattle, as well either broiler chickens or laying hens and with some tweaking I think hogs might work as well.

My main concerns with large scale agriculture are erosion from regular cultivation which also uses massive farm equipment, and the need to import resources-seed, fertilizer, and herbicide supporting a grossly polluting chemical industry. A grass fed animal system can literally grow calories 100% on solar power in a 1) closed system that 2) heals the soil (permanent pasture can make 750-1000lbs of topsoil a year) and actually 3) removes carbon from the atmosphere (some studies have shown that established prairie can capture as much carbon as the same acreage of hardwood forest). These 3 factors are something that growing annual vegetable crops cannot accomplish-even on small scale 2-5 acre farms. The only approximation I have read about would be a Permaculture Garden, which I have never seen presented in a workable commercial system. And frankly, if it isn’t profitable, at least enough to support a modest family income, it will never work in society as a whole.

21st Century Animal Farm

So here is my version of the Utopian Organic Farm-and it is not, nor could it be vegetarian. A 20-100 Acre plot divided into 15-30 paddocks containing everything from traditional pastures of alfalfa, clover and fescue, to fruit orchards, vineyards, brambles and 1-2 paddocks of vegetables grown on a rotating basis in paddocks that need replenishing. The pastures that are being put out of rotation next season would house the hogs which would tear them up sufficiently thru their rooting, while the orchards would be mown by sheep and geese, and the vineyards weeded by chickens. Dual purpose goats or cattle would graze thru the remaining pastures providing a surplus of both milk and meat to help make the mortgage along with the seasonal income of fruits from the perennial orchards and small fruit diversifying the farm’s income enough that a blight in the beans won’t bankrupt them. Costs would be kept down by having no, or a very small, tractor-and possibly just using some oxen (I am not kidding-most tractor use would only be for moving hay and harvest wagons) and no imported fertilizer. Efforts would be made to establish a local market that could meet many needs in one place-meat, dairy, fruit, veggies, eggs, and possibly even fiber from the goats or sheep. Niche markets could be established in artisan cheeses, goat milk soaps or heirloom vegetables for restaurants depending on the inclination of the farmer. A profitable agriculture enterprise is thus created (I realize how idealistic this is…) that is 100% solar driven on a closed system that builds community and cuts food transportation miles from 1500 to about 15. Joel Salatin is doing this on his farm and producing more surplus than I had ever thought imaginable off of 100 acres-so maybe I am not too crazy after all.

I am becoming convinced that Organic 100% Grass Fed meat and eggs, along with perennial fruits are the ecological ideal. And that blows massive logical holes thru my stance on vegetarianism for ecological reasons. In the final post in this series I will wrestle with that.

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Monday, November 13, 2006

Eco Vegetarianism Part II

Here is the second installment on my delving into the perhaps weakening factual basis for my eco/sociological vegetarianism. If you are an Ethical Vegetarian, or Gaia help me… a Vegan, you will find little to agree with here, and possibly even become spitting mad, because we are starting from different ethical worldviews. Personally, though I do not find killing animals for my food pleasant, I also feel that humans are omnivores and I have no moral objection to eating meat. So for the curious among all groups, please read on.

In our quest to reduce our ecological footprint, and eat healthier to boot, we have spent muchenergy attempting to eat as local as possible. This trend has gotten us out to talk to several more farmers and tour their farms. All of this keeps pointing me to one conclusion: that farms work best, maximising yield and minimising inputs, with an integrated relationship is fostered between plants and animals. Our grandparents knew this to be self evident, Permaculture espouses it, and nature wouldn't function any other way. The best way to cycle nutrients on a farm is to use our microbial friends (soil and compost) and animals to make nutrients available in a form that plants can use to create surplus calories from the sun which can then feed us humans and the animals. It’s a nice tidy system. Without animals on the farm, you invariably need to import fertilizer or organic matter to make the needed tons of compost, incurring transportation costs and burning more fuel. And even then, raw manure, especially urine, is still the best fertilizer. By splitting the system we are wasting energy to poorly mimic what nature will give us for free.

Permaculture gardening stacks vegetables in tightly to grow as many calories in as little acreage as possible to maximize yields and minimize inputs. One can grow corn, melons, and beans in the same area you could grow any one of the three and drastically increase your yield. Taking some of the learning’s I am getting from Permaculture, Joel Salatin, and Gene Logsdon I am beginning to think there is an even better way. Taking this out another step you can run geese thru the field while it is in production to eat slugs and weeds, and then post harvest run cattle or goats through to eat the roughage we can't-increasing the yield of edible calories. But we aren’t done yet, while the cattle are in send in chickens and they will graze on weeds, eat insects, and keep the cows healthier by eating parasites out of their manure. Before you’re done send the swine thru to churn up the whole works for next year while they eat grubs and other pests. All four will add healthy quantities of manure (cows as much as 50lbs/day each) to replenish the soil with zero petrochemicals spent in processing or transport. Animals make sense on a farm, or even in the garden, as they increase on site resource use, food production, and cut back on imported resources: keeping it local and closing the resource loop.

The cold truth is that farms don’t make a lot of money-they never have and they never will. That means, unless you are living off grants or subsidies, every single item on a farm needs to make money-and the more ways the better. This also means that you can’t afford to keep geese just to eat slugs-you also need to eat/sell the meat to make up for the added expense of their housing and care. Dairy cows (interchange goats as needed) once seemed like a great vegetarian alternative to me as you could make money off of them without the whole blood and gore piece. But this just proves that I am an ignorant city slicker-and a male one to boot. Why do cows give milk? Same reason all mammals do-to rear their young. That means that once a year you need to “freshen” the cow through having her “throw” a calf and then keep her in lactation for the rest of the year after you wean off the calf. If that calf is a heifer-great! You just expanded your herd. If it’s a steer or if you don’t need any more dairy cows, well it gets raised for meat. Some farmers, like Gene Logsdon, will raise those calves all year on pasture and sell them in the fall as grass fed Baby Beef-very different than a veal calf raised in a 16 sq ft pen all its very short life. This fact has pushed Mia even closer to giving up dairy completely. There really is no way around this-no one really keeps cows for pets-too darn expensive.

Egg laying chickens are better, they are much more feasible for the gardener as a small flock is inexpensive, relatively low maintenance, and apparently their egg production goes on regardless of breeding. I have read of numerous families treating these chickens as pets, and burying them out behind the Oak tree by Mildy the Cat when their days are done. But for a money making enterprise you need a lot of chickens. Organic Valley won’t even pick up your eggs unless you have over 2000 birds (though this is manageable on as little as 4 prime acres), and that is a lot of chicken graves to dig. More likely you will sell them for low quality meat after they have lived out their egg laying lives because now you need to extra revenue to pay for all that extra fencing, feed, medication, and housing. The long and short of it is that unless you are raising animals for show, the only way to have most animals on a farm is to raise them, at least in a final gasp of revenue, for meat.

This is not to say that I think of all things on a cost benefit analysis, but with arable land prices in much of the country escalating past $3000/acre, and here in WI at more than $5000/acre if we want small family farms to succeed they simply must be profitable-and nothing on a farm will make as much money with as little effort (read family-not corporate- farm) as integrated, diversified livestock management alongside a vegetable and grain/pasture operation.

In all of the above I am utilizing Natural Capitalism, and accounting for the real costs of things like effluent flows from Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO’S) at right, transportation from buying your cattle feed from Argentina because its “cheaper”, or in dumping petrochemical fertilizer onto your field to increase yields while destroying the soil. You can make money off land that way, even at $3-5000/acre, but you are forcing future generations to foot the environmental bill-which should be criminal. Plus that is not the kind of farming I want to save anyhow. From one point of view farmers are artisans, combine operators are drivers, and CAFO operators just might be Evil.

If I became a vegetarian to reduce my ecological footprint it is becoming more clear that what I am protesting was not meat-but the eff’d up way that we are raising meat-growing the food thousands of miles from the cattle, and then forcing the cattle into CAFO’s to create massive effluent issues and intolerable living conditions. The degradation of energy argument losses some momentum if the energy being degraded was never in a form humans can consume-like fouled melons or corn stalks.

As I said in the beginning, raising meat humanely and offering the animal a clean death is not morally wrong to me. What we do to animals in CAFO's makes me fighting mad and want to join PETA. This bears thought.

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Sunday, November 12, 2006

Eco Vegetarianism: no free lunch.

The kicker about become Eco Aware is that you lose ignorance. Things as simple as eating and driving can become moral choices. And the choices are never nice and tidy. My current issue is food... my vegetarianism in particular.

Mia and I have been virtual veggies for years, getting more and more hardcore until the past 2 years Mia has been all but 100%-only very rarely breaking ranks to avoid being rude when we are eating at friends or family with myself about 98%. While we both eat very similarly, we do so for different reasons. I started eating less meat for ecological reasons-I want to eat lower on the food chain to reduce the amount of acreage it takes to feed me fat arse. Mia is all about the ecological side as well, but is also an Ethical Vegetarian-she believes that killing an animal for her own food is wrong. Not to mention she has an at times irrational repugnancy to turkey necks and chicken feet. I credit her greatly for stopping well short of condemning others for not doing so-its a personal choice for her.

So I sat safely ensconced in my ideals for several years, but my recent rash of agricultural reading is shaking my convictions. The acreage argument is still wicked strong. Drive I-80 across Iowa and you will see farms for 800 miles, and nary a single plant that humans can eat. Corn on Beans for mile after mile. The ecological impact of that much genetically modified monoculture is unprecedented. Erosion alone is averaging over 5 tons per acre per year to the extent that the silt field in the Gulf of Mexico is visible from space. But as I research large scale organic agriculture the more I am convinced that industrial anything is unsustainable. So we have switched to mostly local foods grown on small Wisconsin farms using the European slogan of Eat Your View as a motto and cutting about 1250 miles off the transport of much of our food in the process.

This is much better, but my resolve is weakening. The more I read about small scale agriculture, the more farms I tour, and the more books on Permaculture I research-the more I think that a vegetarianism based on pure ecological grounds is misplaced. So as is my wont, I'd like to explore these thoughts in a series of posts.

Stay tuned!

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Long Time Readers will know that we have made a concerted effort to naturalize our suburban home and property. We grow native plants, use virtually no chemicals on our lawns or gardens, and compost as much as we can-even importing hundreds of pounds of organic matter a year. All of this means that in some extent we have become a small .5 acre sanctuary for the displaced fauna of this former farm field.

We have achieved a saturation level of about one vole per 200 sq ft of garden bed, and each fall field mice families burrow into the ready made winter habitat of our compost and worm bins. Running up the food chain we now have garter snakes in the prairie and a Kestrel uses our home for hunting. All of these things are taken as sweet fruits of our labors over the past years-the 2-3 low hanging tomatoes that I lost to the voles were a small consequence compared to the joy of seeing them scurry out from under the basil during harvest.

I am also a huge proponent of hybrid automotive technology, driving my 2001 Honda Insight with pride and preaching to everyone that won't walk away that I get 70mpg with plenty of power, etc. I love my car.

Last week both of these worlds collided. I had been rearranging the garage for winter to fit both the cars, the new trailer and the 6 remaining whiskey barrels. For a week or so the Insight sat out of doors at night. During that time some of my little friends took an interest in it. One morning I fired it up, and it ran like hell. I limped it to work and then home, but the next day it was a harrowing drive to Madison to get it looked at. It was only running on 2 of the 3 cylinders with no electric assist. The Insight makes 63hp on its gas motor with another 17 from the electric. As the electric motor gives sick torque at low rpms the tranny is geared very tall for good mileage. A 40 mile drive on 35hp and no electric assist with those tall gears was.... interesting. For once it was driving like all the naysayers think it does.

Verdict? Field mice had eaten thru my engine harness taking out a few fuel injectors in the mix. The Insight will be out of commision for a week as the parts get installed, and we have set up some live traps for my, ahem, friends.

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Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Compromise-its OK.

What has driven me to the computer this morning is the lack of sense in the America of Today. And this is not about the erosion of constitutional rights, mercenaries fighting our wars, or the unprecedented rise of The Corporation. It is about people learning to get along-I think we may be slowly forgetting how to live in civil society. 2 items have driven this to the fore for me. This past Sunday I attended our Unitarian Church and was struck by several unfortunate instances of bad 'progressiveness'. One of the largest failings on the Left is our apparent need to out Extreme each other, perhaps seconded by an unwillingness to compromise which is beginning to smack of liberal fundamentalism. I'll delve more into the latter.

We were sitting in a meeting after the service listening to thoughts on whether or not our congregation should begin application for Green Sanctuary status, and also a brainstorming session on ways to be more energy efficient as a congregation. The beauty of the Compact Fluorescent Bulb is virtually self evident-easily saving 4-500lbs of emissions per bulb, and repaying the small initial investment 7-10x over in its lifetime. But what should have been a no brainer languished 10 minutes in a fruitless debate over the hazardous levels of mercury in CFL's. Do they have more Mercury than incandescents? Yes. However we are talking 4mg per bulb, and considering the largest emitter of Mercury is coal fired power stations, each CFL actually reduces mercury in the environment by a factor of 2, and if properly recycled by a factor of 5. Due to his lack of research before hijacking the discussion he did damage (several nodding heads) that I will have to repair next week instead of progressing ahead on useful items that will create change.

The kicker is that I learned something because of this guy. I didn't know about the mercury issue until he brought it up, but the Google search to answer it took all of .25 seconds. The problem wasn't the concern (scepticism is good) but the knee jerk reaction to a solution. I think that a very vocal minority on the left has become so used to saying NO! to everything that they are forgetting how to say yes-or at least "we'll see". They have become so antiestablishment that they can't trust Honda to make a clean car, GE to make a clean bulb, or the Democrats to front a decent candidate. When I have been mulling this over the past few days I think it comes down to compromise. Electric Cars are cleaner than Hybrids, CFL's have Mercury in them, and no electable politician can be perfect. But my Insight is a hell of a lot cleaner than a Taurus, CFL's reduce net Mercury, and I'll take a mispeaking Kerry over a world conquering Bush anyday. There are better options to all of these, but the likelihood of convincing people to trade their Impala's for Hybrid Camry's is far greater than getting them to bicycle to work. But get into a batch of liberal fundamentalists with this crazy talk and you'll be a Sell Out.

Just because I consider the status quo wrong I refuse to believe that what I am proposing is the only Right way. While I use a reel mower I would be perfectly happy if my neighbor's would just use less chemicals and put a catalytic converter on their mower. But the fact that for 1090 meals of the year I am vegetarian but eat about 8 ounces of meat a year in social settings where refusing my relative's meals would be rude, is enough to get decried as having "blood on my hands".

The cup will never be full or empty. Much like the Hell and Damnation wacko on the streetcorner will never convert the masses, if we liberals can't celebrate progress we'll never achieve any.

PS even if you disagree with me,
please vote today.
The democratic tradition is dying in this country and your commitment to the process is more important to me than the issues.

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