October 2009

For the latest update on helping the honey bee, please see: This post from February 1st, 2010.

As we sat down to lunch at a Manhattan diner last week, my friend said simply, “I’m worried about the honey bees.”  I knew exactly what he meant: our honey bees are dying out and people are not sure why.  The scientists call it Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).  In some instances, commercial beekeepers say a full third of their hives have died in the past few seasons.  It can seem like a small matter, but in earning their reputation as diligent workers, bees build the world we know.  But what can we do?

Luckily, in the words of the poet June Jordan, “We are the ones we have been waiting for.”  We have a world to fix and it’s time for the Do-It-Yourself approach.  In the case of beekeeping, people like Sam Comfort will show us the way.  I heard his talk last month at the Germantown Community Farm Skillshare, an all-day event that put the rubber to the road for sustainable farm practices.  This month he’s in a Discovery Magazine article entitled, “Who Killed the Honeybees? We Did.”  The “we” here are large-scale beekeeping businesses that routinely send out hundreds of hives to pollinate a single orchard or crop.  By lumping all the bees together and not giving them diverse species for pollination, the bees get sickly and die.

Comfort refutes this system and instead sees the solution in creating “an infrastructure of small-scale beekeepers.”  His company, Anarchy Apiaries,  is about letting “the bees do their thing.”  Take them out of the monoculture environment and open up their food sources again.  To learn more — and be inspired — see the Discovery Magazine article linked above.  Then perhaps we’ll see each other in Sam’s circle next spring.

Sam Comfort addresses a crowd at the Skillshare; one woman inspects a honeycomb

Sam Comfort at the Germantown Community Farm Skillshare

Handmade Hives of Anarchy in the Grass

Handmade Hives of Anarchy by Sam

Garlic with your toothpick?

Toothpick with your garlic?

I’m not sure why, but this came as news to me:  Plants and vegetables go extinct just like animals.  In her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver writes, “In Peru, the original home of potatoes, Andean farmers once grew some four thousand potato varieties, each with its own name, flavor, and use….Now, even in the regions of Peru least affected by the modern market, only a few dozen potato varieties are widely grown.”

This story is being replayed in fields around the world as our global crops condense.  Industrial corn and soy beans lead the way, knocking many colorful lineages out of the dirt.  The good news is we have organizations like the Seed Savers Exchange of Decorah, Iowa, a “Fort Knox” of heritage seeds, to help undermine the monoculture crops.  The best road to salvation for heirloom produce is fun to travel:  We need eat it!  Get a demand going for these unique characters, keep their seeds, and plant them again next year.

With this in mind, I headed to the 21st Annual Saugerties Garlic Festival in upstate New York.  I’ll admit that I always figured there was only one kind of garlic.  Turns out there are hundreds…ahem, several (see sign below) varieties available in the Northeast.  Nor is garlic just for stir-frys and staving off vampires.  My friend and I tried garlic chowder, mozzarella cheese infused with garlic, a garlic-stuffed pretzel, garlic-sauteed mushrooms, garlic ice cream–and he did a garlic shot.  Also, nearly every farmer promotes his garlic with a hosting trick that’s hard to imagine in one’s own home:  Little plates of garlic to be sampled with toothpicks.  Through it all, I learned that my favorite garlic is Spanish Roja.  It’s earthy and warm without the pungency that I never knew I could skip.

As we were discussing our discovery of heirloom varieties, my friend summed it up:  When we were kids, we recognized diversity in food “based on cans and labels.”  Tomato sauce was Prego vs. Ragu.  Who knew what type of tomato went into it?

Thinking of how our next generation will know their food, I plucked a slice of German White garlic off the plate and savored the abundance of our heritage.

Ahem, Correction

Ahem, Correction

Garlic Shot: Old Friend = New Man!

Garlic Shot = New Man!

After this grimace, came a new outlook on life. A spring in his step and a declaration that the rain was "pure liquid sunshine."

After this grimace, came a new outlook on life...a spring in his step and a declaration that the falling rain was "pure liquid sunshine."

See It to Believe It

See It to Believe It

Who was it that said…?

“Speak to a man and his ears will listen. Laugh with a man and his heart will listen.”

Rings so true, doesn’t it?  Yeah, it’s good.  What can I say?  I like to make up proverbs.  I speak them slowly and deliberately, and in this case, clenching my chest at the word, “heart.”

This proverb came to life after watching the marketing campaign, “EatFreely.org.”  In the videos, young people speak of societal harassment when they try to eat their food on the run.  Soft piano music plays in the background.  I particularly liked, “Deep Dish,” the one posted here, that includes the line, “I can’t imagine life at a table.”

Don’t let me mislead you:  This is marketing for Hot Pockets, the disastrous processed food that goes from frozen to “boiling lava hot” (Jim Gaffigan’s words) in 60 seconds.  They are made by Nestle, the world’s largest food company.  I’m not dancing with the enemy here; the band isn’t even in the building.  But the biggest crime has always been taking ourselves too seriously, regardless of the message.  So, let’s look at the Nestle silliness.

In their mock food movement, the actors speak in revolutionary language and repeatedly advocate for “freedom.”  They portray the people who want to sit down and eat as old and crotchety.  In one clip, an elderly mob tries to chase down a proponent of Eating Freely, but they are too sluggish with their oxygen tanks.  There’s ample evidence to the contrary in the real food movement, but it makes for slapstick.  The campaign website even ends with dot org, as if it were a foundation with a noble cause.

To explain my regard for this campaign, all I can say is, “Play oft accomplishes more than toil.”  Now that’s two proverbs for today.

Meet Vitaliano Saravia.  How do I know him?  He grew the cocoa beans in my chocolate bar.  At first glance, he seemed a little grouchy, but after trying the chocolate, I know he had my best interests at heart.
Continued below
Pleased to Meet You:  Vitaliano Saravia

Pleased to Meet You: Vitaliano Saravia

Our introduction came by way of the Country of Origin Label law (COOL).  Congress passed it last year in the wake of several public food scares, including e-coli outbreaks.  It requires food producers to be able to trace the sources of their products.  (There are loopholes, but let’s go with the basic premise for now.)

Some companies, like Askinosie Chocolate of Springfield, Missouri, know to use this rule to their advantage.  As my friend Alex Mandl says, consumers are “over processed and over marketed.”  So many messages come our way, who knows what to believe?  The origin of our food often seems remote and suspect.  Add in the rough news about our usual means — pesticides and Concentrated Animal Feed Operations (CAFO’s), for example — and we demand to know more about what we’re eating.  Smart companies are starting to communicate the transparent path to their growers and process.

With an Askinosie chocolate bar, there’s a Choc-o-lot Number.  In this case, it’s #060909, and when I go to askinosie.com, I learn the step-by-step stages of how this chocolate bar came into being.  It began when they shipped Vitaliano’s beans to the factory in December 2008 and ended when the bar was shipped out on June 10th, 2009.  I bought it at Rubiner’s Cheesemongers in Great Barrington, Massachusetts on October 3rd.

Now I’m tempted to get that update to Vitaliano.  Perhaps he’ll see this post.

Knowing where our food comes from is about slowing down.  So let me begin with the fog.

It comes in the night and settles into the mountain.  When daylight opens, it lingers to watch.  On this autumn morning, the fog is the quiet keeper of the garden, Project Sprout, at the base of Monument Mountain in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.

Morning at the Garden

Morning at Project Sprout

The garden was started in the way of many lesser ambitions:  high school students talking in the hall between class.  Yet one student’s simple observation was the catalyst for something extraordinary.

“I realized that our biology class never went outside in the whole year.  It didn’t make sense.  And food is our closest connection to the natural world,” said Sam Levin, Class of 2011 at Monument Mountain Regional High School.

Sam, along with two other students, Nathalie Akers and Sarah Steadman, started the garden two years ago as a way to relate to their environment.  With the encouragement of Mike Powell, a guidance counselor who also leads the school’s Green Team, they partnered with a local non-profit group, Project Native.  Since then, they have gained one part-time staff member, Bridghe McCracken, a landscape designer who specializes in organic gardens, and a team of regular volunteers.  Project Sprout now grows fresh produce for the nearby elementary, middle and high schools.  At the height of its recent harvest, the garden produced 200 pounds of vegetables each week for the school cafeterias.  On average, the garden yields anywhere from 50-100 pounds weekly.

“I would never have expected to do this before.  I find it fun coming to the cafeteria knowing that I helped harvest and grow this food.  It just boggles my mind.  Now I feel sure of what I’m eating,” said garden volunteer Isabel Mitchell, Class of 2012.

Project Sprout is also an outdoor classroom for the middle school gardening class and the high school greenhouse class.  The elementary kids make regular visits, too.

“It’s powerful for a young person to watch a seed become food.  A kindergartener will try a spicy radish, for example, when they have been a part of growing it.  They would have never eaten one before,” said Bridghe, “I think growing food is essential to understanding our place in the world.”

On the day I visited, the volunteers were planting leeks and arugula, among other things, to be harvested in February.  As the winter comes in, they will protect the garden with a moveable hoop house.  Every aspect of the garden–organic planting and rain water irrigation, for example–contributes to its mission of environmentally-conscious living.  “We’re beyond carbon neutral,” explained Bridghe with a chuckle.

Now the team is armed with a 10-year plan; in six years, this will include fruit from their newly-planted apple tree orchard.  The students of Project Sprout will do it all: plantings, fund-raising events, field harvesting at 6:45 am, and more.

“What means the most to me is that it’s student run.  People think we just sit around and play video games all day,” said Sam.

Shelling Soybeans & Learning Early

Shelling Soybeans & Learning Early

Planting for Winter Harvest

Planting for Winter Harvest

Rainbow Chard Ready To Go

Rainbow Chard Ready To Go

These Apple Trees Will Have Fruit for the Class of 2015

These Apple Trees Will Have Fruit for the Class of 2015

I never cared about baseball until Game 7 of the 2004 American League Championship Series: Red Sox vs. Yankees.

A dear friend from Boston had spent weeks explaining the trials of his beloved Sox to our crew.  Without him, Game 7 was just another game in a little known perennial season.  But our friend gave it context, and thus, we cared.  When Johnny Damon hit a grand slam and shot the Sox towards the World Series, we all leapt up and embraced like the war had been won.

I had a similar experience – minus the hugs – on Saturday while listening to Rafter Sass talk about mushrooms.  Sass’ passion reminded me that when we share our knowledge of something we love, we inspire others to care, too.

His lecture was a part of a day-long Skillshare at the Germantown Community Farm.  The farm, located in the Catskills, held a series of workshops under the guiding principle of Do-It-Yourself Agriculture.  The audience listened in a barn classroom; as the crowd grew, people overturned buckets to make seats.

What’s cool about mushrooms?  Answer: the potential for cultivating them ourselves.  As people bring our food sources closer to home – digging deep in our gardens, hosting cheese-making parties, and keeping bees on the rooftop, for example – we’ve overlooked mushrooms.  To get them so far, we’ve either 1) foraged in the woods, which is fun, but unpredictable and uncommon or 2) bought the cellophane-wrapped products of industrial processing.  There has yet to be a middle ground.

Sass has a new approach and he calls it “mycoscaping.”  It is the Do-It-Yourself manner of mushrooms. It comes from his appreciation of permaculture, or the observation of wild eco-systems and our recreation of them.  Mycoscaping means cultivating mushrooms somewhat systematically (and locally) while simulating the environment in which they thrive.  As one example, he demonstrated a case where he had grown wine cap mushrooms in the mulch of a client’s garden.  In another, he grew them in the tree crevices of a new orchard.  A different slide showed elegant wood logs in a client’s kitchen growing mushrooms like organic artwork.

In Sass’ words, it’s time for mushrooms to be a part of our “local food sovereignty,” and he’s bringing the food to its “growing edge.”

Rafter Sass Presents in the Barn Classroom

Rafter Sass Presents in the Barn Classroom

Image of Farm Sustainability: Electric Fence via Solar Power

Image of Farm Sustainability: Electric Fence via Solar Power

Nighttime on the Farm & Dinner is Served; Grab the Fiddle - Contra Dancing is Next!

Nighttime on the Farm & Dinner is Served; Grab the Fiddle - Contra Dancing is Next!