Growth is a double edged sword. Unchecked, growth can be cancerous and destructive. It is this type of ceaseless expansion that has put our society into the precarious environmental and financial positions in which we currently find ourselves. On the other hand, growth can be regenerative and life-giving. Following a forest fire or a bitter winter, the first green shoots to emerge from the earth bear witness to the earth's ability to restore life in the wake of disaster.

My goal for this blog is pretty simple and open-ended: I want to document and share with family and friends my efforts to incorporate an ever increasing degree of self sufficiency, voluntary simplicity, and environmentally-conscious design into my life as a would be urban homesteader.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Prepping and Pocketknives

Rob - who blogs at One Straw- recently posted a genius, if somewhat generalizing, thought about how to tell people who are interested in preparedness and self-sufficiency from those who are not.

"I have often thought that one could draw a loose, but fairly accurate, line through male society along the line of Those That Carry Pocket Knives and Those That Do Not. Go to any birthday party and when the stubborn ribbon hits, there is always one or two people there that quickly reach into their pocket to produce a small tool to do the job."

I grew up around men who carried pocketknives, almost to a person. It seems like a silly little thing to make note of, but it really is indicative of a broader mindset - when push comes to shove, I'll try to do things for myself. I always carry a small folding pocket knife and a leatherman-type tool. I think it's also indicative of the mindset of young people raised in a dependent, frightened, urban environment that most of my students express fear or anxiety when I get my knife out to use it for something. In most of their eyes, a knife is a dangerous thing, and the only reason that someone would have one on them is to do bad things. I hope to raise my kids to understand how to properly use and appreciate tools, and to have an "I'll do it for myself" attitude. In short, I want them to be pocketknife carriers.

Monday, December 13, 2010

132 pages of Spring

Last year' Baker Creek Seed Book

Winter kicked into high gear this past weekend here in St.Louis. On Saturday night, a cold front came through that dropped a couple inches of powdery snow and frigid temperatures on us. The high today was 19 degrees, with a low of 3 degrees! For the next 7 days, the high temperatures aren't expected to get above freezing. While this may not impress anyone from the mountain states or the great white north, it feels pretty damn cold to this Missouri native. Not unseasonably so, mind you. We seem to get a couple of these cold snaps a winter, although they usually don't show up until January or February. Never the less, everything is pretty frozen around here. The heat lamp in das Cluck Haus went on yesterday, and the girls got some extra straw to help keep them warm.

In spite of the cold, however, it feels pretty sunny in the house right now. Today I got the 2011 seed catalog from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. I order pretty much all of my seeds online, but there's something about holding an actual magazine in your hands that's nice. It reminds me of looking at old Burpee catalogs at my Grandma Lorenz's house as a kid. The Baker Creek seed book trumps anything Grandma ever had though. It's large formatted, square bound, and chock full of big, beautiful pictures of a bazillion different kids of fruits, vegetables, flowers, and herbs. It's like a coffee table book. And the kicker is, they send one to you for FREE. In a day when most places will charge you $5 or more for a raggedy black&white catalog on newsprint paper, Baker Creek gives away something that you might buy at a bookstore. Go to their website and look around. Then request one of their catalogs. I guarantee it'll take the edge off of winter's cold when it shows up in the mail.

Jere, Sasha, and Emilee Gettle, and the single ugliest outfit ever worn in human history

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Butchering Day 2010

Last year on the day after Thanksgiving, my family revived a tradition that I remembered from my childhood: A family hog butchering. We hadn't done one in 20+ years, and it was a ton of fun. I was happy earlier this year when my dad talked about making plans to butcher again this year. We butchered 4 hogs this year instead of 3. It made for a full 1 1/2 days of work, even though we had a local processor kill and gut them for us. In spite of all that had to be done, it didn't feel like hard work, and it certainly wasn't drudgery. Instead, it was a day of telling jokes and old stories, giving each other a hard time, and doing meaningful work together. Und viel Deutsch gesprochen wurde. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't easy. Friday lasted from 6:30am to 9:30pm. By 10pm, we were tired. But it was gratifying to know what we had accomplished.

This year's work netted us the following: 8 hams, 8 huge slabs of bacon, 60 lbs of pork steaks, a tub of pork chops, 4 big packs of tenderloin, 175 lbs of pork sausage, a few ham shank roasts, 9 sticks of liverwurst, about 100 lbs of gritswurst, and 4 1/2 gallons of snow white lard. Not too shabby, if you ask me.

Herrick Kimball's awesome blog, The Deliberate Agrarian, had a bit about a webpage for the Virtz family who held an annual hog butchering. Mr.Kimball noted that all of the photos appeared to be circa the 70's or early 80's, and also that there were virtually no boys in the pictures, only grown men. When he contacted the family to see if they still butchered, they said that they hadn't done so since 1998. If the younger generation isn't taught how to do things and made a part of family traditions, then those traditions will die with the last people who learned them as children. I mentioned last year that I hoped this would become a regular event with my family. If we keep this up, instead of saying "I remember back when I was a kid..." my children will be able to say, "Butchering? We've done this ever since I was a kid..."

My mother wasn't her usual shutterbug self this year, so unfortunately there aren't the plethora of pictures like last time. I'll leave you with a picture of this morning's breakfast: 'Burbstead eggs, homemade bread with my brother's apple butter, and fresh gritswurst. Delicious!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

My Grandma's Coffee Cake

Working in a school, there are often snacks or treats around at faculty meetings and in our small devotion groups. They are almost always either doughnuts or store bought snack cakes. The doughnuts vary in quality. I hate Krispy Kremes with a passion, but if we're lucky someone will stop by Donut Delight. They make the best doughnuts in St.Louis, especially apple fritters. I refuse to eat the Little Debbie cakes that kids insist on bringing to small group. I find a twisted sense of humor in reading the ingredient list and nutritional information to the kids while they're joyfully cramming swiss cake rolls in their mouths.

This past week I volunteered to bring food to our morning faculty meeting, and I decided to use the opportunity to introduce my coworkers to a long time tradition in my family - home made coffee cake. One of my earliest memories of my Grandma Lorenz is the baked goods that were always at her house. Cookies, rolls, bread, and especially coffee cake. I'm embarrassed to admit that this was the first time that I've ever used her recipe myself. The family cook book has a basic coffee cake dough recipe that can be topped with just about anything. One batch is enough for about 4 coffee cakes at 11x14 inches each. You can also use this dough to make her amazing pineapple cinnamon rolls (which I did). One coffee cake's worth of dough will make 8-10 rolls.

Once the dough has been kneaded, it needs to sit and rise for about an hour (or until it doubles in size). I dusted the counter with flour and covered the dough with a damp towel.

Once it has risen, you need to divide the dough and roll it out. I try to roll it to about 1/4" thickness. I placed it in greased baking pans and pressed around the edges to create a crust. You then let the dough rise again until it has doubled in thickness. This took about 45 minutes. If you are using a fruit topping, then you can put on the fruit and crumb topping after it is done with the second rise. If you are making Peanut Butter coffee cake, then you would poke a bunch of holes with a fork to prevent large air bubbles from forming.

At this point you can put the coffee cakes into the oven. The recipe is rather vague about baking time saying only, "bake until done". Mine were in there for about 30-35 minutes.

The finished product. Peach is on the left and Peanut Butter is on the right. I spread the peanut butter topping on the cake after it had cooled. Cut into 1.5" strips and demolish them with coffee or elderberry tea.

To make pineapple cinnamon rolls, roll the dough out the same way that you would for coffee cake. Brush some melted butter onto the dough and sprinkle liberally with cinnamon and sugar. Use a pizza cutter to cut the dough into 1.5" strips and roll them up. Pinch the end smooth.

Once the rolls are rolled up, they need to sit and rise for about 45 minutes. I scooted them closer together on the pan, and spooned the pineapple topping over them. Bake them for 35-45 minutes, depending on how thick they are.

It's hard to tell in the picture, but after the rolls come out of the oven and have cooled down, I poured a simple powdered sugar glaze over them. Delicious for breakfast, lunch, supper, snack, in the car, in the shower, middle of the night...

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Winterizing the garden

The chickens had fun rummaging around in the remains of the tomato beds.

Temps are starting to dip a bit here in St.Louis. October 30 is our average 1st frost date, and last Thursday the 28th Jack Frost showed up right on time. This past weekend was the first time in over a month that we weren't out of town or doing something at school, so I finally had time to clean up around the 'burbstead. I puled out the last of the tomato plants, put the cages and hoses away, and put up a row of hoops over the bed of winter greens. I mowed the grass, leaves and all, and filled the two semi-raised beds with the clippings so it could all compost in place over the winter. Das Cluck Haus is back in the garden where it gets moved around all winter long. It's kinda odd to look out at the space that was so packed full of vegetation just a few weeks ago and see it more or less cut back and bare now. Everything is cyclical though, and my mind has already started planning for the end of winter and the beginning of next spring. Oh the possibilities...

The last haul of tomatoes and peppers from the garden.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The other side of crazy...

57 days ago I noted that I was officially entering my crazy time of year. I haven't posted anything since then. To be honest, there hasn't been a whole lot going on around the 'burbstead during that time. Football season has a way of sucking up every last moment of spare time. In 2 short days, I'll be done. THANK GOD!

Fall planting wasn't quite as robust as I would have liked. I got in a bed of lettuce, chard, and spinach, but no peas, beans, or carrots. Next year I will do better. I picked up some blackberry plants for 50% off a couple of weeks ago. I got 6 of them for $15. They're going to be trellised along the fence down one side of the back yard.

I also found a food dehydrator on Craigslist for $15. I've run apples, bananas, and yellow pear tomatoes through it so far. It works like a champ, and it's so much easier than canning. I still want to build a solar dehydrator, but one thing at a time I suppose.

Tomorrow I will turn 31. Honest to god middle aged. Holy shit. Oh well. Tonight the Boy and I are going to see Hank III. It oughta be a damn good time!

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Sunset for the Summer garden

The sun setting behind das Cluck Haus

Tomorrow is the 1st day of September. Holy hell. I have officially entered my crazy time of year, as evidenced by the lack of posting. Once the month of August rolls around, I get swept up in back to school meeting, football practice, teaching class, football practice, student council activities, football games, the boys going back to school (1st grade this year), and occasionally coaching football. All of that cuts my available free time down to about nothing. This, ironically, all happens at one of the busiest times of the gardening cycle as well. The garden is pumping out food everyday and the farmers markets are full as well. Its the time when you start to put away the excess bounty of summer for the colder times to come - canning, drying, freezing, etc. This is also the time to plant your fall garden so that you can have another harvest of peas, lettuce, spinach, and chard; as well as getting your winter crops in order so that they can sprout and grow before the days get short and the temperature dips too low.

The garden or work, kids or canning...which do you think gets left on the back burner? So rather than being an abundant source of nourishment for my family that is transitioning smoothly from one seasonal cycle to the next, my garden is a weedy-ass mess complete with over grown tomato vines, okra that's way beyond harvesting, cantaloupes that have been pillaged by squirrels and bugs, beds that should have been cleared and replanted 1 or 2 weeks ago, a mosquito swarm that puts the Congo to shame, and precious little food actually coming out of it. Yeesh!

And yet, all I can really do is keep plugging away. While I know that it's not technically the end of Summer yet, September and back to school time have always make feel like Autumn is here. I really want to get my Fall garden stuff in order this weekend so that it can at least have a chance to get started. Once (if) I get everything planted, I'll do a run down of what I'm trying out, and a recap of how different crops did this past summer.
One of my Beam's Yellow Pear Tomato plants, still going strong

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Homesteading as art

Being an artist/art teacher by trade, I have the opportunity to create and be surrounded by beautiful drawings and paintings and sculpture all the time. But while fine art is something that I love, I think that the creative spark that resides in all people extends far beyond paintbrushes and pencils. One of my favorite quotes comes from Dada artist Marcel Duchamp, and I think it distills nicely what the creative spirit is all about:

"It's not what you see that is art, art is the gap"

Art is recognition, the ability to make connections between things and ideas, to appreciate beauty in the world around us. And when it comes to beauty, a functioning homestead (or 'burbstead) is resplendent with it. Humans have a pretty hard time holding a candle to nature's ability to create things of aesthetic value. What we do have a knack for, if only we slow down and open our senses a bit, is the ability to appreciate the beauty - to see the gap. Gardens, kitchens, farms, markets, forests, all of them contain a wealth of sights, sounds, scents, tastes, and textures. Our job is merely to care for the world that makes them all possible.

So I leave you with a picture of something that caught my eye this morning as I was waterig the garden. For my money, an okra blossom is probably the prettiest flower that will show up in a vegetable garden. Squash vines have big, showy, bright orange cones, and melons, tomatoes, and cucumbers are covered with petite yellow ones; but an okra plant puts out a real flower with petals. They are the most subtle shade of pale greenish yellow, almost white. This contrasts wonderfully with the dark, rich, blood-red center, black stamen, and intense yellow orange pollen grains. Simply beautiful, especially when situated amongst the large, sap green stalks and leaves of the plant. Enjoy!

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Book Shelf : The Big Picture

I like to read quite a bit. I don't watch TV, and I hardly listen to the radio, so I get the vast majority of my information and entertainment from magazines, newspapers, and books (and of course, the good ol' internet tubes). I regularly haunt the St.Louis County library, and I'm slowly building a personal collection of books that I find inspiring, informative, or otherwise worthwhile. This is the first in what's sure to be a sporadic and informal series of book reviews and recommendations.

For the installment, I've picked 5 books that aren't really "how-to" guides, but rather are inspirational stories about their authors' lives. Some of them are instructional in parts, but overall, they deal more with the big picture of living a more self-sufficient life.

Gene Logsdon is a farmer from Ohio who also happens to be a gifted and very prolific author. He's written over 20 books that range from novels to informational non-fiction. 'The Contrary Farmer" is about common sense, small scale farming that is rooted in a genuine love for the land that is being stewarded. Logsdon balances practical know-how with beautiful prose to create a book that informs while still being a pleasure to read.

Perry has an easy going and humorous way of relating the ups, downs, and corkscrews of rural life. While not a farmer by trade, his stories and anecdotes deal with his attempts at raising chickens and pigs, fixing up an old farm house, and the birth of a new child. He filters many of these episodes through his memories of growing up on his parents farm. It's a warm and funny read that is sure to have at least a few parts which any aspiring homesteader can relate to.

The premise of this book will be familiar to people acquainted with the local food movement. For one year, the author and her family attempt to only eat food that a) they grow themselves or b) they get from farmers and producers in their bioregion. Along the way they realize just how difficult (if not impossible) it can be to get many of the foods that we consider staples from a local source. As a result, the Kingsolvers broaden their diets, acquire new skills, and develop a deeper appreciation for many of the culinary luxuries that we take for granted. The recipes and sidebar additions from her daughter and husband make this book truly a family project, and it is a lot of fun to see them work their way through it.

In "Better Off", Eric Brende asks a very thought provoking question: How much technology is necessary in a society for its members to enjoy full and leisurely lives? He chose to address this query for his Masters thesis at MIT by moving with his new bride to an ultra conservative, Amish-style community. For the next 18 months, the Brende's lived without electricity, a car (mostly), and virtually all of the other conveniences that make up the fabric of day-to-day modern American life. In doing so, he comes to understand the multi-faceted value of doing things the "hard way". He also notes the inseparable nature of manual labor and genuine community. In the end, a surprising allergic twist seems to be the only thing that keeps the couple from joining the community for good. I picked this book up without realizing that the author lives in St.Louis, and is active at Soulard Farmers Market. I've since met his wife and would love to have the opportunity to talk to him personally. I read the book in two days (I couldn't put it down), and I would highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in self sufficiency, technology issues, or simple living.

The previous four books all deal with, or at least take place in, rural settings. "Farm City" appealed to me because it focuses on this seemingly oxymoronic concept of urban agriculture. Also, Novella Carpenter is funny as hell. She and her boyfriend move to the ghetto in Oakland, California. She proceeds to carve a farm out of an abandoned lot with bums, gangbangers, and crackheads for neighbors. While I don't exactly live in the 'hood, her exploits here really resonated with me. I saw myself in many of her triumphs and failures. She exposes the incredible amount of waste that a city generates, and puts it to good use raising animals and plants. She tackles the issue of eating sustainable and ethically produced meat by raising and butchering her own chickens, ducks, geese, rabbits, and hogs. She breaks down many of the common stereotypes about what it means to live in the city and what it means to be a farmer. It's genuine, hip, hilarious, and very inspiring. I can't recommend this book enough to anyone who aims to be an urban homesteader.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Tomatoes come rolling in...

My tomato plants are starting to do their thing (which is good, because everything else is taking its' sweet time). Here are a few of the ones that are ripening up so far: left to right, Silvery Fir Tree, White Currant, and Beam's Yellow Pear

Friday, July 9, 2010

My current nemesis

Above is an adult Japanese Beetle. These iridescent little vermin are native to Japan (duh). They first showed up in the United States in 1916. Since then, they have been working their way west out of New England. St.Louis is about as far west as the beetles are currently established in large quantities. The peak season for Japanese beetles is June and July. During that time, they can be incredibly destructive to plants in your yard or garden. Ironically enough, they're not considered pests in Japan because predators control their population naturally. Here in America, however, they run rampant.

This is the first year that I've noticed them in large quantity in my garden. While there are a number of different organic methods for getting rid of Japanese beetles, including a certain strain of Bt and Milky Spore bacteria, I've opted for picking the adults off by hand this year. The beetles give off a pheromone when feeding that attracts more beetles. If you pay attention, and stay on top of it, squashing the bugs as you find them seems to help keep their numbers from getting out of hand On a couple of occasions I've killed a dozen or two at a time, but more often than not it's only 6 or 7. It's worked so-so thus far, but if they are as invasive next year (which is likely) I may have to look into something else. You can also buy Japanese beetle traps, but studies have shown that they actually attract more beetles than they catch.
You can see how completely Japanese beetles will destroy the vegetation of a plant. This is what they've done to some of my Kentucky Wonder Pole beans.

Now the little bastards are moving on to some of my red Amaranth. Arrrgh!

Friday, July 2, 2010

Another post, another month

Just as I was getting back in the swing of things, my computer goes in the shop for a month. At that point, summer was just getting started. Now, we're head long into the meat of the heat and humidity that define Summer in St.Louis. (That said, the past 3 days have been gorgeous) The garden is looking good, but the lack of vegetables actually coming out of it right now is evidence of the late start that I got on a lot of things. It is amazing the difference that one month can make. The tiny green blob that I was so excited about back at the beginning of June now looks like this:

The cucumbers, melons, and squash that were such spindly little strings 4 weeks ago are now sending their vines creeping through garden beds and up trellises. They're covered with blossoms that will (hopefully) turn into lots of good food.

The best part about summer, though, is getting to hang out with the kids. Between football and art camps, I'm usually at school during most of June, and we start back again in August. By contrast, July actually feels like summer vacation. We're in the middle of rehabbing their clubhouse and there are still plenty of projects to do around the 'Burbstead, but sometimes it's good to just play around.
Alex, Tater, and Erik beating the heat in style

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Eating Seasonally and the 1st Tomato of the year

The notion of eating seasonally if a pretty foreign concept to most people these days. Thanks to cheap oil, misguided agricultural policies, and a population increasingly disconnected from natural cycles in general, we have access to "fresh" produce 365 days a year. By shipping in fruits and vegetables from California and Florida, Central and South America, and various places in Asia, we aren't constrained by what plants will actually grow in our climate at any given point in the year. The truth is, that your average American grocery shopper has little, if any, understanding of what is growing locally when they go to collect their weekly vittles from the nearest Try 'n Save. This is bad for a variety of reasons that range from social to environmental to gustatory.
The environmental downside to shipping perishable produce around the world in refrigerated planes and trucks should be fairly obvious. It's often stated that we burn 10 calories of hydrocarbon energy for every 1 calorie of food we eat. Even if we ignore the ecological ramifications of that figure, the impact it will have on the cost of our food as we enter a future of fossil fuel depletion isn't good. Simply put: scarce and expensive oil and natural gas will equal scarce and expensive industrially produced food. Trade agreements like NAFTA and GATT victimize farmers in Mexico and elsewhere, while subsidy programs here in America encourage the over production of corn and soybeans and shut out small, diversified family farmers.
As for your taste buds, just ask anyone who has ever eaten a fresh, ripe, heirloom tomato how it stacks up against a hothouse tomato shipped from halfway around the world in February. There is no comparison. In the words of Michael Pollan, the February tomato is a "notional tomato". It looks more or less like a tomato, but it's lacking all of the tastes, smells, and textures of a real tomato. It's a tomato with no soul. And yet we settle for it because we have shifted the responsibility for providing ourselves with food to industrial producers and grocery chains. We let them dictate what we get to eat.
Tomatoes are an easy place to start eating locally and seasonally because 1). Out of season, grocery store tomatoes suck so bad, and 2). Growing tomatoes at home is virtually idiot proof. As a result, I haven't purchased a tomato in over two years (jesus, I sound like a recovering addict). This means that from late November/early December through early July-ish, I don't eat tomatoes! I know, that sounds crazy huh? I can up a bunch of sauces and salsas and tomato preserve, but no fresh tomatoes. That's why I was so excited to see the following green, marble-sized lump on my Silvery Fir Tree tomato plant today.

It's a long way from eating, but it's a sign of what's to come, and it's out a lot earlier this year than in years before. Silvery Fir Tree is (I believe) a Russian variety that I first read about in Barbara Kingsolver's "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle". They have a listed harvest time of 58 days from transplant, as opposed to 80-90 days for most other varieties. I got my seeds from Seed Saver's Exchange. I'm growing a total of 9 kinds of tomato this year, but Silvery Fir Tree was my pick for first fruit out of the box. Next year we'll try a row cover/hoop house combo, and see if we can't get them producing before June.
Would it be easier to simply go to the store and buy a few tomatoes in May? Sure, but as far as I'm concerned that's not an option. Besides, doing it yourself is too much fun.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

'Burbstead Supper

As Spring gives way to Summer, the garden is beginning to produce more food, a little at a time. As I've said before, the more you get into the habit of eating out of your own backyard, the more routine it becomes. Let's take a tour of a recent supper we had, to see just how easy it can be (cue the upbeat, elevator music intro)

We begin in the garden, where the Fordhook chard and Winter Density lettuce are looking good. The Sugar Snap peas are almost done, but the Green Arrow shell peas are just coming in. *By the way, if you're looking for a good shell pea to grow, I can't recommend the Green Arrow highly enough. It's super sweet, and puts out tons of long pods that average 9-12 big peas each. Good stuff* The girls generally pump out 1 or 2 eggs a day, so we had the better part of a dozen.

Winter Density Lettuce

Detroit Red Beets and Fordhook Chard hiding in the back

The fixin's for supper

All of that was cleaned, chopped, mixed, cooked, and, with a little help from the grocery store (hey, we're not the Dervaes family or anything), became a delicious meal of beef and chard quiche, peas and carrots, and a salad. It was simple, nutritious, and 75-80% came from right outside our back door...not too shabby for a Sunday night.

Monday, May 31, 2010

It's a Madhouse!!!

Holy Crap! It's been over 3 weeks since I posted anything on here. Between the end of my school year, my boys finishing kindergarten, an out of town family get together, a painting commission...yeesh. The 'burbstead has taken as much of a backseat as the blog. The garden got weedy, the chicken run was about a week and a half behind schedule getting moved (and it began stinking worse than it should have), and the yard got so overgrown that we could have baled hay if we'd have had a tiny little baler.
So I've been trying to catch up this past week. The garden is close to where it almost should be, the grass got mowed, and the chickens got moved to a less fragrant area. With school being over (finally!), and my summer activities a little less involved than the past couple years, I'm hoping that I'll be able to get rolling on a lot of things that need attention. Let's go summer!

Also, now that I've posted a link to this site to my co-workers, I'd better be on top of my game lest I come off as an irresponsible slacker. Hi guys!

Friday, May 7, 2010

Dinner Movies

This past week I had the chance to go see a screening of the movie “Fresh” at a local brewery (Schlafly’s). It was presented by the St.Louis chapter of Slow Food International. It was described as the sequel to “Food Inc”, and I’d been wanting to see it for while. If you haven’t seen either film, I’d highly recommend both. They’re similar in the sense that they both hit the same major points: Interviews with Michael Pollan (author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “In Defense of Food”) and Joel Salatin (owner of Polyface Farms and author), unsettling hidden camera footage of CAFO’s and meat packing plants, portraits of farmers trapped in the industrial agriculture system, and breakdowns of just how unhealthy and unsustainable the American diet is. There is, however, a noted difference in the focus of each movie as well.

“Food Inc” is primarily a scathing indictment of our modern food system. It spends the bulk of the film exploring the nutritional, environmental, and ethical shortcomings of how we get our daily sustenance. Monsanto’s role in promoting GMO’s and monopolizing of the seed industry is condemned (something that has provoked a rather vehement response from Monsanto). There’s a heart-breaking scene involving a woman who became a food safety advocate to congress after the death of her son due to tainted meat. Over all, it’s a pretty bleak picture. Salatin’s Polyface Farm and the corporate organic dairy Stonyfield Farms (which is owned by Dannon corporation) are held up as two examples of how things can be improved, but the thrust of the movie is more heavily on what’s wrong with the system.

“Fresh” starts off with a condensed version of much of the material that is covered in “Food Inc”, but it then shifts to highlighting examples of people who are working to change the system. Polyface Farm is again featured, and rightfully so. Salatin has positioned himself as one of the chief spokespeople for small-scale, diversified, ecologically sensitive agriculture. He’s developed a fantastic system, and his passion for what he does is clearly evident when he speaks about his farm. The Ozark Mountain Pork Cooperative, a collection of small-scale pork producers in Missouri and The Hen House Grocery Stores in Kansas City are also featured. The highlight, for me though, was Will Allen’s Growing Power organization in Milwaukee, WI.

Will Allen is a former professional basketball player who began Growing Power in the early 90’s on 3 acres in urban Milwaukee. Since then, it has grown into a network of city farms that cultivate something like 100 acres in Milwaukee, and they’re expanding into Chicago. Will is putting together an organization that grows food, teaches skills, and builds communities. While I don’t think that there is one, right solution to the problems that we are facing, Growing Power is certainly on the right track.

As I said, I enjoyed both films. Neither one really presented me with much new information. I had already read books by Pollan and Salatin. I was familiar with the local food movement. Mostly it was neat to see an issue I was interested in and passionate about presented in an engaging and entertaining format. However, if the only people who see these films are those who are already committed to changing the status quo, then not much is going to change. We need to use movies like these to introduce our friends and family members to this very important issue. In that respect, I think “Fresh” might be more effective at persuading otherwise uninterested people. “Food Inc” is full of good information, much of it likely shocking to folks who haven’t given their food much thought. However, I think “Fresh” does a better job of showing the problem, and then giving lots of inspiring examples of alternative systems (and without alternatives, you’re just bitching into the wind).

So go get some snacks that you grew yourself, invite some friends over, and watch something that will spark more thoughtful conversation than 90% of what comes out of Hollywood these days. It might just be the start of a meaningful change in your community.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

'Burbstead Breakfast

Eating fresh, local food can seem like a hassle if you're not used to doing it. Convenience is the primary focus of most Americans' eating habits. We're not used to thinking about where our food comes from, and most people don't really care so long as it's easy to fix. If your cooking routine is typically placing a frozen meal in either the oven or microwave and walking off, fixing food from scratch can look like a real pain in the ass. "Wait you want me to grow the food myself? Forget about it! "

The funny thing about eating locally is, once you get started, it keeps getting easier. Or rather, you adopt new habits; so that what was once going out of your way is now the new normal. You think about your food choices more than you used to, but you begin doing it unconsciously. It's a process that you're never finished with, but it's enjoyable and worthwhile...and each step makes the next one easier to take. My breakfast this morning is a good example. Without trying, I made a meal that (excluding the ingredients for the bread) came entirely from the 'Burbstead: fresh eggs, homemade bread, and tomato preserve from last year's garden. Fresh, local, and as Mr.Food used to say, "Oooh it's so good!"

'Burbstead Breakfast

Monday, April 26, 2010


I thought that I had gotten an early start on planting this year, but it doesn't seem like it's translated into much by way of early eating. I finally harvested some radishes this past week, Cherry Belle's and French Breakfast. I had a bed of Winter Density Lettuce that looked pretty nice, and a nasty thunder storm with spotty hail tore it up pretty good.

A pretty bunch of French Breakfast radishes

My Sugar Snap Peas are climbing their trellises nicely. If they're played out by time the Kentucky Wonder Pole Beans are up and running, I might repurpose them there. Tomatoes and Eggplants are in the ground underneath cold frames or low tunnels. That's a solid 2 1/2 weeks earlier than last year. If I can get those two working together ala Eliot Coleman, I'm going to shoot for a full month early next year. The weather has been pretty soggy for the past weekend, and the rest of the week looks like more of the same. I might try starting Cukes and Squash indoors this year, as opposed to direct seeding them. We'll see how that goes.

Home made Peas Trellis. I think it looks nicer than the chicken wire I've used in the past.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Mending Fence pt.2

The new fence from our front yard. All of the white slats were salvaged from the original fence.

Way back in March, I undertook what I anticipated to be a weekend-sized job: replacing the worn out and collapsing fence on the South side of our back yard. The actual demolition only took a couple of hours. The rebuilding, on the other hand, took a bit longer. As per usual, conflicting schedules caused the process to stop and start multiple times. It proceeded very slowly. I finally finished building it within the past week or so. It still needs to be painted white, and I'll have to play with the grade at the gate so that it opens smoothly; but other than that I'm pretty happy with it. Pushing it forward to the front edge of our house has added about 30'x23' of space to our back yard.

Right now it's a great space for the kids and chickens to rummage, and will hopefully have raised beds going around the edges in the near future. Down the line, I'd like to put a trellis or arbor over the gate and some fruiting bushes on the front side of it. For now, though, I need to dig up some exterior paint and let the twins get their inner Tom Sawyer on. At the current rate of progress, that'll happen sometime at the end of summer. We'll see...

Inside the fence, I've got eight 2'x3' pop-up raised beds that are going to be filled and planted .

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Flashback: Hog Butchering 2009

The Crew: Buster, Jon, Uncle Rick, Me, Tater Tot, Dad, Uncle Dean, Wingnut, Alex, Jackson, Erik, Rob *DT is missing

Last Fall, on the day after Thanksgiving, while most Americans were participating in the vulgar ritual of conspicuous consumption known as "Black Friday", I had the pleasure of helping my family to butcher 3 hogs that my dad had been fattening up since the previous Spring. It was a lot of work, but it didn't seem hard working with brothers and cousins and uncles. I vaguely remembered butchering from when I was little, but that was almost 25 years ago. It was fun and gratifying to be involved in the process as an adult.

By the end of the second day, we had 6 hams, slabs of bacon, ribs, shoulders, a tub of chops, mountains of sausage, gritswurst, sackwurst, and a bucket of rendered lard. Everyone got to take some home, and there was a ton in my parents chest freezer. My uncle Dean smoked one of the shoulders for our Christmas get together. It was phenomenal. We've have the bacon a few times. It was good, fattier than most store bacon, but good none-the-less. My mom baked one of the hams for Easter. It was awesome. The sausage has made its way into breakfast and pizzas on multiple occasions. The lard makes the most amazing (if dietarily incorrect) fried chicken and pie crust. Theribs are going to be barbequed when school is over. As for Gritswurst, if you don't know what it is, then you haven't lived a full life.

All of the delicious food pales in comparison, though, to the great memories and sense of accomplishment that came from doing honest, meaningful work with friends and relatives. My children, who witnessed the entire process from start to finish, now have an understanding and appreciation for where their food comes from that virtually none of their peers do. Our culture's disconnect from the source of our sustenance is one of a handful of issues that form the root of most of the problems we face as a society. Giving my kids the chance to experience this sort of thing connects them to our family's history, and gives them the grounding they will need to thrive in a future where we will have a much more visceral connection to our food. I sincerely hope that butcher day (and things like it) be come a more regular feature of our family's life.

One last treat before the excitement begins...

The kettles were cooking early in the morning

The hogs were hung from a tree for skinning

Rob is trimming out a slab of ribs

The cuts of meat awaiting packaging

DT prepping a ham for wrapping

Yours truly sewing up a ham so it can hang and cure

Some of the fruits of our labor