Friday, June 24, 2011

Things I Can Do in a Day

Surviving the Apocalypse in the Suburbs: The Thrivalist's Guide to Life Without Oil is based on the premise that we have twenty-one days until some catastrophic event takes place, the result of which will be the loss of all of the modern amenities we've come to expect and which many of us (believe we) can not live without.

While it is completely true that I've spent years transitioning my family and myself from complete dependence on modern conveniences, and while we still enjoy those things as much as anyone else, if the power goes out for an extended period of time, if I couldn't get to the grocery store, if the faucet went dry, if there were no more heating oil deliveries, if the garbage truck didn't come down my street anymore, if I couldn't put fuel in my gas tank or in my chain saw ... if any of those things happened, my family would continue living our lives, with only some exceptions to what we do on a daily basis. In particular, we wouldn't be spending hours on the computer ;).

But if I hadn't done any of those things, and I only had twenty-one days to get ready for this catastrophic event, there are a number of things that I could do that really would only take one day to accomplish. Like planting a garden. It doesn't take more than a day to do the actual planting. Certainly, it takes a lot longer for the food to grow, but for the most part, once it's planted, there is only so much I can do to make the plants grow, and mostly, I just have to wait until they're ready to harvest.

It's not about becoming an expert in a day - or even becoming proficient - but rather about starting to plan for a future of less, and the only way to do that is one day at a time.

So, with that in mind, here is a list of some things that I could do in a day that would go a long way toward helping me to be more prepared in the event that some catastrophic event does occur.

  • Walk around my neighborhood and see if there are any fresh sources of water, and if there are none, find a local source for rain barrels (or food grade barrels that can be converted into a rain barrel with a simple water spigot from the hardware store).

  • Learn to build a fire. Learn how to start a fire using friction. Build a simple fire pit in the yard.

  • Build a simple hobo-stove/rocket stove for cooking with minimal fuel.

  • Go to the PYO strawberry (or apple or blueberry) farm with my kids, pick 40 lbs of strawberries (or apples or blueberries), and preserve them in canning jars as jam or sauce.

  • Buy some seeds and start a garden - and I wouldn't even need a "garden" to do this one. My mother-in-law has started an amazing container garden and is currently harvesting four salads per day from her garden. The garden won't grow in a day, but it only takes an hour or two to get it planted.

  • Acquire two rabbits - a boy and a girl - and build (or buy) a place for them to live - preferrably separately. Go to the library and find a book on breeding rabbits for meat and study up on how to take care of my new "suburban" livestock (and the bonus of having rabbits is that they make the most awesome fertilizer for the garden ;).

  • Find a 5 gal bucket (which can often be aquired for free from bakeries and delis) with a lid and an unused plunger and make a manual clothes washer.

  • Make a canning jar oil lamp.

  • Build a bicycle generator.

  • Harvest some herbs to make a tincture.

  • Find a simple recipe for lye soap.

  • Learn to sharpen an axe blade.

  • Stop by Goodwill and pick up some books and games.

Once we set our minds to something, we can accomplish an incredible amount in very little time ... just like we can grow an incredible amount of food in a very small space. There's that saying, it's not what you got, but what you do with it, and it applies to all of our resources, including time.

In short, even if I were starting from scratch as a typical American suburban soccer mom, I could have my family pretty far along the path toward self-sufficiency in less than a month taking just one step, one day at a time.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Imagine the Possibilities

Even in a lower energy future, it will still be possible to have ...

... fresh cut flowers on our "farm" table.

The flowers pictured were given to my girls by their friends and our neighbors after their dance recital. Some are store-bought, but one bouquet each came from a friend's garden - Lilies, aptly from our friend "Lily."

Not having oil doesn't mean that life has to turn ugly or dirty, and there is incredible beauty to be found in the simplest of things.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Low-Tech Toys

We don't have to go back very far (or better put we could back thousands of years) to find some pretty high-tech/low-tech solutions to our energy problems. We have this image of people living in caves and scratching in the dirt to eek out an existence, but that image couldn't be further from the truth.

With regard to technology, we're not as advanced as we like to think. A battery-like contraption was found in an achealogical dig of a 2000 year old village in Baghdad. With regard to a knowledge of the natural world and how it works, we are as dim as a candle by comparison. Many ancient cultures had an intimate relationship with the sun and knew how to use it for heating and cooling and lighting, even cooking and preserving food - things we think are so innovative these days. They also knew how to time their plantings with nature so that there was less of a loss, and they knew how to use the resources around them, in their local area, to live a comfortable and sustainable life, having an intimate knowledge of both edible and medicinal plants from which our modern pharmacology is derived, but which even the developers of many of our modern drugs simply don't know or understand.

The ancients also had some pretty cool gadgets ... like the Samovar, which is a metal container used to boil water for making tea. According to the linked wikipedia article, a 1989 archealogical dig found a samovar that's believed to be over three thousand years old.

Modern samovars are usually electric, but traditionally, the water was boiled using coal or charcoal, and since the device was designed to make tea, there was often a resevoir on top to hold the tea. They sound similar to our teapots or perhaps one of those coffee percolators, but they are so very different. The difference is in the design, and the samovar is actually a beautiful, intricately designed piece of functional art.

And that would be where the key difference between our modern society and ancient cultures lies. We like to think that we're more advanced, and if by advanced, we mean that we can be almost completely sedentary while machines do all of the work, then I would agree, but if we mean that we are smarter or more creative, then I would have to staunchly disagree. Ancient socieities were rife with incredibly impressive beauty and art and culture, and feats of engineering that make our modern attempts seem rather sad by comparison. Further, they gave us knowledge of our world that has not been proved false over the centuries. The Roman aqueduct system, for instance, is the model for our modern sewer system. In thousands of years, we haven't found a better way than the Romans developed in the 312 B.C.

We would do well to look to those cultures for two reasons: to figure out why they failed and not repeat those mistakes (and it may be too late for that now); and to understand how they managed to survive ... and "thrive" ... without the massive inputs of energy that we rely on today.

As for me, someone on freecycle has offered a "Russian samovar", and I'm thinking I might ask for it. The only hitch is that it's a European device designed for a different electrical system (220 as opposed to 110), and it has a "funny plug." If I wanted to actually use it, I'd need to get someone who is an electrical engineer to make some changes ;).

I wonder if I know anyone like that ... hmmm ....

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Stepping Outside of the Comfort Zone

Two amazing things happened to me yesterday that made me pretty sure I've bitten off more than I can chew. As an INFJ, I find things like being in the public eye very difficult. It's one thing to sit here at my computer and talk about my life. It's something wholly different to contemplate standing in front of a group of very influential people at a conference like the upcoming ASPO - Peak Oil and Energy Conference and giving a talk about solutions to the coming challenges that will be a result of our dwindling energy supplies.

I have to come up with something intelligent and witty to say.

My first thought is - I'm just a suburban soccer mom. I'm not sure what I have to offer.

So, I went to the ASPO website, and I found videos of past speakers at previous conferences, and I was excited and thrilled to watch Jeff Vail talk about "Rescuing Suburbia." Throughout his talk, I just kept nodding my head and saying, "That's what I say!" It's so cool to hear your own conclusions validated by some prestigious person at a very prestigious conference.

Certainly, I don't articulate the ideas as well as he does, but we say, essentially, the same things:
  • Whether or not suburbia was a mistake is kind of moot at this point. The fact is that we built them, and now we need to figure out how to live in them in a world without cheap, abundant energy.

  • It is possible to grow a lot of food in a small area (and Mr. Vail gives an example of a suburban farmer on one-sixth of an acre in Tucson, Arizona who grows 50% of the food his family of four eats).

  • The suburbs are uniquely adaptable (in ways that more densely populated urban areas may not be) to being energy self-sufficient (IF they first reduce the amount of energy they use).

He even talks about my pet topic, which is home-based businesses, and the fact that, in the suburbs, we have these large houses (at an average 2000 sq feet as compared to the average 900 sq foot apartment in urban areas) with adequate yard space for growing food, a big roof for power generation equipment, and often with additional "storage" space that could accommodate a business. Mr. Vail mentions that the home-based business, even very technologically advanced businesses (like genetic engineering) are not some new-age futuristic idea. A number of businesses are being operated out of what is, essentially, garage space. He gives the example of Apple computer. My house is only 1500 square feet with no additional storage (no garage, basement or storage shed), and I've been operating a home-business since 1998. Patti Moreno, a.k.a. Garden Girl, operates an independent film studio in her backyard garden shed.

In short, the future of the suburbs that I've been envisioning, and that Mr. Vail discusses in his ASPO talk, isn't too farfetched. It's happening now.

The most interesting point Mr. Vail makes - something I have been trying (and failing) to articulate for some time now - is that, mistake or not, the suburbs have given us, for the first time in history, an egalitarian society. In the suburbs, we all are land owners. We may not own much, but it's ours. This is in contrast to fuedal societies, for instance, in which peasants lived and worked on a "Lord's" land.

In much of the post-apocalyptic literature, and on most of the survivalist blogs, the future is envisioned as returning to a feudal-type of world, with the peasants (most of us) returning to working the land for someone else. Mr. Vail claims that if we start working now to save and transition our suburbs, we could, actually, avoid that kind of scenario, and for the first time in the history of human-kind, develop a totally egalitarian society in which everyone owns a little piece of land and we all work together to build our communities.

And that's the other thing that happened to me yesterday. I attended my first meeting as a member of the Board of Trustees at my local library, and I have been elected as the Secretary of the Board. I think it's an honor just to be asked to serve on the Board, but to also be given a role as one of the officers. It's a little overwhelming.

We're heading into a future of less, less energy, less stuff, perhaps even less food and water ... but it doesn't have to be the horrific post-apocalyptic vision we're being fed. We may not be able to stop this run-away train, but I submit that we can still steer it, and that gives us a lot of control over whether we crash and burn over the cliff or keep it on the tracks until it slows enough to let us get off.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Will Work for Money

John Michael Greer has recently written and published The Wealth of Nature, which explores and addresses the problems we're facing as a society with our money-centric focus at the expense of the natural world. He explains that wealth and money are not the same thing, and that wealth comes from something other than an accumulation of lots of zeroes following dollar signs on our bank statements.

On the New Society book forum he asks the question "what's the difference between money and wealth" to you, the reader? And for those of us who have an answer, to discuss when we came to the realization that they were different.

For me, it's a very complicated issue. I know that I've always known there was a distinct difference between a "rich" life and a life that included large sums of money. I don't know when, exactly, that I figured it out, but I can recall saying as much when I was as young as twelve (which is also, ironically, the year I knew that I wanted to be a writer "when I grew up" :).

That year was a really tough for my parents, because my family was significantly and negatively impacted by the 1970s recession. That year, my dad took a significant cut in pay, and it really hurt us - to the point that one day my mom sent me into the store with four rolls of pennies with which I was instructed to purchase a 2lb package of corn meal. I grabbed, what I thought was corn meal, but by mistake, bought flour. It was a HUGE mistake, because I spent her last $2 on the flour, and it was no longer possible for her to cook what she'd planned for dinner as the corn meal was a key ingredient (my mom, being an incredibly creative and versatile person, however, rebounded, and I had my first taste of homemade crackers ... delish!).

Christmas was rather sparse that year, but being the optimistic child I was, after we'd shared our few gifts and had a lovely breakfast, I told my family that we were rich. My father disagreed and said that we were definitely *not* rich. I countered that we were all together and that we had a nice house and that we had food, and because of those things, I felt rich.

Unfortunately, things changed as I got older, and my belief that it was possible to be rich without money was replaced with the typical American attitude that the only way to succeed in life was to have a "good" job and earn "good" money, and I worked very hard for a lot of years to do just that.

What no one ever wants to say, though, is the fact that the more money one earns, the more money one spends, and the more money one spends, the more money one needs to earn. It's a vicious cycle, and nearly everyone I know is either caught up in it now or has been at some point. I have never met anyone who completely escaped that trap.

The problem is that we never have enough, because the more time we spend working for money, the more money we need to spend paying people to do the things we could do for ourselves if we didn't have to earn so much money.

In reality, there really are not that many things that we *need* money for. The one thing that comes to mind is housing, and while there are ways to get around the need to pay for housing, for those of living here in the US, paying a mortgage or paying rent is the reality.

But the other stuff we work so hard to have aren't "necessities", and frankly, we could live without paying for them.

Like what?

Well, cars, for instance, which means we also don't have to pay for insurance or gasoline, which knocks off about $500 per month of expenses we think we "need." Yes, having a car is very convenient, and for my family, if we didn't have a car, we would be having some very different life experiences.

We have a car now, but I can say with perfect certainty, having been there, done that, that it is possible to live without a car.

We don't have to pay for food, and we don't have to depend on the grocery store. If we have the one item that we do need to pay for - housing - then it's possible to grow some substantial portion of our own food. For things we can not grow, foraging and barter are options. I posted a commentary a few days ago about the difficulty some farmers are having in finding people to help harvest the crop. Perhaps some of those farmers would be interested in trading some portion of the harvest for labor. In fact, some local farms here in my area offer a work option to their CSA members. In addition, some farms allow gleaning, which means that after the farmer has taken all of the produce he needs to sell, he will allow people to come into the field to take whatever might be left. Sometimes the vegetables and fruit are damaged or overripe or just not "perfect", but most of the time it's completely usable.

Many of the things we take for granted in our society as being "necessary" really are just luxuries that have been afforded to us by cheap energy. People lived for thousands of years in very complex societies without electricity, without refrigeration, without a Wii. The problem is that cheap energy doesn't mean "free", and we have sold our freedom, our independence, and our self-sufficiency so that we can have all of this luxury.

The irony is that we have less time to engage in really meaningful activities (because we're so busy working to pay for all of these luxuries - many of which we never have time to use) than we would if we would realize what Mr. Greer discusses in his book that money and wealth are no synonymous, and in his words, wealth in the broadest sense consists of real, nonfinancial goods and services that people can actually use in their lives.

As an engineer, Deus Ex Machina designs very complicated machinery used in the manufacturing industries. These machines must be built and tested in the facility where he works, and so we've often been able to see the machines in various stages of completion, and it's always really cool to see the machine doing what it was designed to do. Many years ago Deus Ex Machina asked Big Little Sister what he made at work to see if she understood what it was that he did. Without hesitation, she answered, "Daddy makes money."

It was a really funny moment, but also not so much, when we realized that she was right. When we boiled it all down to what it actually was, what Deus Ex Machina did for a living was 'make money' and all of the other stuff that comprised his day was to achieve that singular goal.

If it weren't for the money, how many of us would keep doing the jobs we do?

Perhaps, as we slip down this slope of resource depletion, we'll discover the answer, and if we're lucky, we'll find work that doesn't have as a final end goal the making of money, but rather that enriches our lives in ways that paper bills never can.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Lovin' My Local

I love supporting my local businesses, especially when the people who own them are here year-round and are not just here for the money that the tourists bring, but, like me, make this their home.

We went to the Farmer's Market for the first time this year. When we walked up to the first vendor, he says, "You finally made it. This is your first time here this year, right?" I said, "You noticed." Which I think surprised him, but he took it all in stride.

Today was kind of coolish and drizzly, and so there weren't many people at the Farmer's Market. I'm glad we went. It was good to see some old friends, and I love supporting my local farmers.

The best part about today's foray, however, was the knowledge we gained. While I was chatting with "Grammy" (of Grammy's Gramola, our favorite baked goods vendor) about my book, Deus Ex Machina took the girls over to the dairy vendor for some flavored milk. He told me later, when we were in the car, that they had wheat flour. They have WHEAT FLOUR! They are the only farm in the southern Maine area that grows wheat. You bet your buns I'll be buying their flour - every weekend for the rest of the summer, and storing whatever will fit in the freezer for use this winter. Local, REAL local (grown and ground) wheat flour.

Yes, I am a little giddy.

Later, we went to our favorite local used bookstore , The Book, CD, and Movie Exchange. It's an awesome little store with a warm and inviting ambiance, and it's very rare that we go in and leave empty handed. Tonight, I found a great used copy of Lucifer's Hammer (which I've been wanting to read for a while), and everyone else found a couple of books and/or movies to bring home.

While we were there, I walked by this life-sized cut-out of Dorothy, from the Wizard of Oz, and Toto. The owner had added a thought bubble to Toto.

Reading the caption was a, literal, laugh out loud moment for me, and I asked Big Little Sister to take a picture so that I could post it here, because it's fun to find like-minded people. Obviously, The Book, CD, and Movie Exchange values their "local" customers. Given that 80% of the businesses in my town cater to the tourist trade, it's a nice change to realize that some businesses are happy to serve us local guys, and I really do appreciate doing business with people who appreciate my business.

Like the Cheese Iron. Several months ago, my girls went there on a field trip with their French class, and then, we hadn't been back until just a couple of weeks ago. When we walked in, both of the people who were working remembered us from the French class.

The other day, I was back in there, and I was standing at the cash register having my purchases totaled. I started to cough a little, and Vincent, the owner, told me to hold on a minute. Then, he ran to the other side of the store and came back with a small cup of water for me.

Now THAT'S customer service! And he really is like that with all of his customers, which is why he has such a loyal customer base.

I'm very lucky to have such an amazing selection of local farmers and shop owners.

How's your local?

Friday, June 10, 2011

Saving the Water

I'm not a fan of Facebook. There I said it. Let the bashing begin.

The problem is, whether it's something on my end or some quirk of Facebook, that my connection is incredibly slow, and I'm too impatient and too busy to wait for it. As Deus Ex Machina says, "Facebook is a dog."

Today, there was a message posted to my Facebook Wall about water usage and water saving tips, but I can't answer on Facebook. It's just too frustratingly slow. As an alternative, I thought I'd put my thoughts here.

First, I don't know if our usage is really that low. Our last water bill was less than $40, and that represents three months worth of usage. When I was working on my book, I figured that our daily usage was about 54 gallons for our household. According to this website average usage is between 80 and 100 gallons per person, per day which seems like a lot. This website claims that the daily per person usage for Americans is between 525 liters and 600 liters (which is over 138 gallons), which seems really excessive (especially considering we use only 54 gallons/day for our whole family), and so I'm not sure I believe those numbers.

But if they are true, my family uses 10% of the average daily usage, which just doesn't seem likely to me.

So, what do we do? Nothing really unusual or extraordinary ... really.

  • We practice the "if it's yellow let it mellow' principle ... and some members of my family don't ever flush toilet, regardless of the color or consistency of the deposit. This is probably the biggest water saver, because we don't have low flush toilets, and with four of us here most of the day, the toilets would get flushed a lot.

  • I always do a full load of laundry, and only once a day, at most. I don't know if this saves any water, but I do know that one load of laundry in my top-load machine uses 40 gallons of water. So, I try to be conservative with the laundry.

  • We have rain barrels for watering the gardens and giving our animals water, although we do use the hose to full up the duck pool during the summer.

  • We wash dishes by hand, and now each of us has a special cup/plate/bowl, which reduces the amount of dishes overall which means less water is needed to clean them.

  • Whenever possible, we share showers, which is my favorite tip (it's nice to have someone to wash my back ;).

  • And then, silly stuff like, we don't leave the water running when we're brushing teeth and we make sure all of the leaks are fixed.

Nothing we do is particularly novel or original. It's stuff that everyone recommends, and I don't know that any of my examples are particularly helpful.

It might be helpful for me to explain why we started our water conservation efforts in the first place, and it has a lot less to do with reducing what comes into than house than it does reducing what goes out.

In January 2004, some brakish water backed up into the shower. We called the plumber and discovered that our leach field was failing. It was originally built to 1970s standards for a smaller house with fewer people. The original house was expanded from one bedroom to three and from an elderly couple to a growing family. At one time, we had seven people living in our house. The original septic system was never meant to handle the wastewater of seven people (two who were in cloth diapers) - a fact we did not discover until it was too late.

We had to have the entire septic system replaced, but it took several months to gather the proper permits, get the septic design for our non-conforming lot, and save the money for the project. In the meantime, we had to be very careful what we put into the tank - and VERY careful not to dumpt too much water down the drain at one time, because it drained into the leach field very slowly.

Through that experience, I've learned more about septic systems than I ever wanted to know (which is really the biggest reason I want to switch from toilet paper to cloth wipes and why I use a Diva cup and cloth napkins rather than disposables, and why we never dump coffee grounds down the drain, and why we're careful to scrap grease into the trash or give it to the chickens rather than dumping it down the drain). I also learned a lot about the average usage. Like it was the plumber who told me that the average washing machine uses 40 gallons of water.

When the new septic system was installed, a pumpstation had to be included, because of the lack of grade (the leach field couldn't be gravity fed). Essentially, we had two tanks, one that fills from the house and one that serves as an overflow. When the overflow tank is full, the electric pump kicks on the pump the excess water into the leach field. The pump using electricity, and in the interest of conserving electricity, we don't want to use the pump very often, and so we have continued to be aware of how much water goes out of the house.

The result is that less water coming in means less water going out.

In short, for us, it was not about saving money on what we were paying for water, because our water bill has never really been that high, but rather on saving the $10,000 septic system that we had to have installed.

That's it. I know ... not very helpful, but what might be helpful is to think from the opposite end from trying to limit what comes in to reducing what goes out, because the natural consequence of controlling what goes out is to reduce what comes in.

And that's true for a lot more than just water ;).

Uncomfortable Realization

Some pieces of information take longer to hit my radar screen than others. Like this map Deus Ex Machina found. It shows how much the residents of each State pay per kilowatt hour for electricity.

Frankly, I'm a little surprised, and actually, a little irritated to discover that Maine has the fourth highest per kilowatt hour rate in the country with only Vermont, New York, and Hawaii paying more. We pay 12.37 cents per kilowatt hour for electricity compared to say, Oregon, which has a similar population density, but pays 7.71 cents per kilowatt hour (Kentucky pays the least at 5.81 cents per kilowatt hour).

I guess I knew the cost of living was higher up here, but I didn't realize that we paid so much more for electricity than nearly everyone in the rest of the country.

The uncomfortable realization comes from the fact that I've been telling anyone who'll listen that our average electrity bill for the past several months has been around $50 - like that's some awesome thing, and in my opinion and experience, it is. If we used the same amount of electricity that the average US household uses, our electric bill would be $123. We pay $50/month. Our average usage is 350 kwh/month, which is about one-third the usage of the average US household. With five people living in our house, it works out to about 70 kilowatt hours per person, and if one were to calculate out the "business" usage (which we don't) and the homeschool usage, our per person rate would be even lower.

I've had the habit over the past few years of breaking things down into dollar amounts, because it's been my experience that when I'm talking about the changes we've made, the one thing that seems to most often get people's attention is the cost savings. What the map made me realize, though, is that if I'm talking to someone from Oregon about my eletric bill, that person could be using twice the amount of electricity we use, but paying the same amount. If I only say, our last electric bill was $50, that person might think, "Big deal! So was mine!" Not realizing that not all electric bills are created equal.

My dilemma, now, is how to talk about the changes in a way that anyone in any part of the country can understand how big the differences are.

Perhaps the best option is to keep that map so that when I'm talking to my friends and family down south, and I'm telling them about our electric bill, I can convert the numbers.

Me: We just got our electric bill. It was $50.

FamMem: So was ours! Guess we did pretty good this month if our bill is the same as yours.

Me: Oh, wait. I just looked at the chart, and if we had the same usage, but lived down there, our bill would have been $20.

FamMem: Hmm ... maybe you should move.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Greening Your Business

My business is already pretty green.

For those who don't know, I have owned and operated a (home-based) virtual office service since 1998 - starting my business at roughly the same time as we bought our house. In fact, when the decision was made that one of us (me) would be a full-time, stay-at-home parent, we also realized that being a work-at-home mom (WAHM) would be even better, as that extra income would come in handy (and it has). So, I became a WAHM.

As a home-based business, my job is already more energy efficient. I didn't need another building (which required massive energy inputs just to build). There are no additional costs for utilities - no second building to heat/cool and keep at a constant temperature to avoid things like burst pipes.

In addition, because I work from home, there is no cost to me or the environment for my travel. While I do have to go to my client's office three times a week, I can pair those drive times with other errands/appointments I'm doing, and instead of making a trip to work, and then, doing additional driving to run errands, I do it all at the same time, which saves gasoline.

As a home-based entrepreneur, I have a lot of control over the resources and equipment my business uses. Most of the work I do is on the computer, and over the years, my computer has gotten more and more energy efficient. These days, I have a laptop, which uses about half the power of a comparable desktop (in memory and hard-drive space). When I'm in my office, I plug in an optical mouse, an ergonomic keyboard and a LCD monitor, and so, for the most part, it has all of the feel of a desktop with considerably less power usage ... and if I have to be on the road, my laptop can come with me.

In addition, when I have to use paper supplies or other office supplies, I get to be in charge, and it's been interesting to watch the different choices as they appear at the local office supply store. For example, for a long time I was completely enamored of those plastic-coated paperclips. One day, I realized, plastic-coated = bad, and I started looking for different options. When I have to use paperclips, now, they are all metal, no coating, and I buy them in bulk, the largest quantity with the least packaging.

Paper is another office supply that has caused me to take pause and look at my choices. There are several brands, all different weights and brightnesses. I used to use a very fancy, heavy-weight linen paper, which is mostly used for resumes. This paper was really expensive, and sometimes the print looked fuzzy (my client told me). So, I switched to a regular copy paper, and then, I discovered that for about the same price I could buy copy paper that is made from 30% recycled consumer waste. SCORE! The recycled paper, even the store-brand, is slightly more expensive that regular copy paper, but sometimes it's better to spend the extra and keep true to one's values. In short, it's not always about the money.

The whole "green movement" has created a slew of new products, and some of them are really not very useful, but for eco-conscious business owners, some of them are very welcome. Recyclable ink-jet printer cartridges are pretty awesome, especially considering I can donate them to my library, and they can get cash-credits to buy supplies they need.

Then, there are other, necessary products like the ones I found at a recent trip to the office supply store.

The envelopes are 100% recycled, and the pens are made from plastic bottles. I love the idea of being able to buy a product I'm going to use anyway that has been made using resources that would have just ended up as garbage.

We are moving into an energy-poor society and making new stuff will become more difficult. While it's true that recycling, repurposing, and reusing also require some energy inputs, it just makes good sense to reuse these things, remold them, and make something out of them that we would otherwise have wasted precious resources making. It's a win-win for all of us.

Some day doing the job I do may no longer be possible, but while I still have this job, the very least I can do is to make the impact of my work as small as possible.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Last week, there was a - sort of - debate on the New Society Publisher's book forum. I'd posted my, typical, we can survive in the suburbs spiel, and one commenter added that he felt there would be a mass migration out of the cities and suburbs and into our rural farmscape. His exact comment was: As the prevailing order continues its disintegration, I have this vision of tens of millions of Americans pouring out of the cities and suburbs and returning to a rural farm life.

Of course, I, initially, rejected his ideas, thinking that he was saying the suburbs would be unlivable, but that's not what he was saying, at all. I (finally) got what he was saying (although, I still maintain that we could remain in the suburbs living in close-knit, interdependent, post-industrial, homesteading, communities, and that moving to rural farms would be an option, but not a necessity :). He wasn't dissing my ideas about the future of the suburbs (Phew! Put down your sword and shield, Wendy). His point was that as we deindustrialize, we'll *need* more farmers, and more farm laborers, because without them, we won't have food - even to feed those people who work the land. Like the bumper sticker says, "No farms, no food."

An article I found today brought his argument right into the present day. The headline is Twin immigration laws create labor crisis for American farmers.

The article was a very sad commentary. It says things like: Our economists have estimated that in the U.S. economy there are 10 million-plus people who work at wages lower than what they could make in agriculture because they aren't attracted to the work. The long hours, irregular employment and physical demands of farm jobs mean Americans would rather work elsewhere for less. The Governor in Georgia, after passing his State's immigration law, claimed that with unemployment rates being what they are, people should be flocking to any place that offers work, but that doesn't seem to be the case.

Maybe it's not about the hardwork. I know a lot of very hardworking people, who would be happy to work on a farm, but can't move to Georgia for a seasonal job. Sure, they work for a couple of months, and they make great money ... and then what? They're stuck in Georgia with no job, and no way to pay the bills, and no place to go "back" to (unlike some of the immigrant farm workers who can "go home" when the work is done - trying to maintain a household in one community and work a seasonal farm job in another community would be too expensive for most Americans).

It's not that people don't want to work hard, but rather that they recognize when the farm job ends, they'll need to move on to someplace else. Pack up the car with all their stuff and go to the next job (if they're lucky enough to have a 'next job'), and when they get to that someplace else, they'll need to set-up residency, find an apartment, pay utilities deposits, sign-up the kids for school, and all of the other necessities those of us who have long-term residences don't have to deal with. And for migrant workers, it's every few months. Can you imagine moving every couple of months? Been there, done that. It sucked.

If those land owners who need farm laborers could rethink their relationship with their employees, perhaps it would be different. For instance, instead of hiring 300 temporary employees, just to get the harvest in, and then, giving them the pink slip and sending them on their way, mabye the land owners could offer their laborers some greater sense of permanance, like housing and/or year-round wages and employment.

Or, at very least, perhaps land-owners could set-up a (free) campground for RV parking. The campground could include all of those amenities that RV campers like to have, including a pool, hook-ups for utilities, and laundry facilities, and for families with children who are not school-aged, or when school is not in session, perhaps the campground could include a daycare option. There are people who would love the opportunity to live the camper life. Perhaps, with the right incentives, those interested in the RV-adventure life could be our next generation of migrant farm workers.

Perhaps (instead of paying unemployment and welfare benefits) the government could be convinced to provide an incentive like an exemption on the gasoline tax for "registered" RV-traveling migrant farm workers, and maybe, like other homeowners incentives, the government could provide some sort of rebate program for the purchase of an RV home for those interested in registering to be migrant farm workers. Or, if the government is going to be involved, maybe State and Federal parks could provide free RV/camper parking for migrant workers hired at farms in their areas.

I don't think Americans don't want to do farm work because they're lazy or "not attracted to the work." I think Americans want a steady job with a fixed income and a safe place to live, and I don't think that's too much to ask.

Unfortunately, as the article points out, without people to harvest the blueberries (or lettuce or spinach or whatever the crop), the food is rotting in the fields, and that will have a direct and dramatic impact on all of us.

In the end, maybe both Mr. Hermann and I are correct. Maybe there's room in our vision of the future for both the mass migration out into the rural farmscape and the suburban homestead, but it will definitely take some rethinking of our present state of things.

There aren't any easy choices, really, and there is no one right way, but what's very clear is that we need to have more farmers, now ... not in the future ... and that includes me, on my quarter acre, but also those people who work the fields, and we should really be considering ways to make their jobs easier and more attractive - because it's very clear that we need them a lot more than they need us.

Reasonably Confident ... More Polit-Speak

The article states, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is "reasonably confident" that U.S. consumers are safe from the European E. coli breakout.

"Reasonably confident."

Wow! I feel so much better.

All kidding aside, I'm completely confident that my family is safe from the sort of E. coli breakout that's happening in Europe. We don't buy raw vegetables from the grocery store, and this event is the final straw that has convinced me to eschew any raw vegetables from take-out.

Last night's dinner: bread pudding (our eggs, frozen blueberries from PYO last year), bacon (from last year's pig share), and sauteed wild greens foraged that day.

Don't stop eating, but do know where your food comes from, and if there's any question, cook it. Cooking will kill most food-borne pathogens.

Monday, June 6, 2011

And Still More Questions Than Answers

At some point they're just going to keep quiet until they have better answers.

Sprouts Unfairly Malaligned!

Still, it's so easy to do-it-yourself when it comes to sprouts, that even if the store bought ones aren't bad, there's just no reason to *not* DIY.

When DIY Could Save Your Life

I've been watching the food poisoning story from Germany with a great deal of interest.

The potential for food-borne illnesses is one of the things that prompted me to turn our diet to local sources, and while we still eat out (usually a locally owned restaurant, but probably not local ingredients), I am very comfortable with the safety of the food we eat here at our house.

At first, officials had pinpointed Spanish cucumbers as the possible source for the bacterial contamination, but now it appears that the actual culprit is bean sprouts grown at an organic farm in northern Germany*. One of the comments on the article I read stated, simply, "so much for 'healthy' organic food."

As an aside: I find that comment so sad. Illness from a bacterial infection happens rapidly - within hours of eating the food. Further, the source of the infection can usually be pinpointed and eliminated, and more often than not, food poisoning is mild and not deadly, but the "deadly" cases are almost always sensationalized. By contrast, illness from pesticides and sprays used on non-organic foods are quiet killers. It takes years for the ill-effects to occur, and by then, it's much harder to figure out what caused the cancer or organ failure, and to raid that farm and seize their deadly produce. We have no statistics to state how many people die from food-borne chemical poisoning, because no such studies have ever been conducted, and there's no way to accurately pin down a fertilizer or pesticide as the *absolute* cause.

Back to the bean sprouts, though. I can recall being warned against eating bean sprouts when I was pregnant for this very thing - commercially grown bean sprouts have developed a reputation for being contaminated with bacteria. I never knew why, and so I looked it up, and I found this information in an article about bean sprouts:

Raw sprouts may become contaminated with bacteria, including Salmonella and E. coli, when beans come in contact with animal manure during growth or storage.

Here's the thing, though. I've sprouted beans. Of all of the food growing techniques I've used, sprouting is probably the easiest, least intensive way to get fresh food into one's diet, and frankly, during the winter, having bean sprouts in the kitchen is pretty nice.

But I don't know how those commercial sprout growers do things, because when I sprout beans (and there's a quick sprouting tutorial in my book on page 85 ;), there is no soil, no compost and no fertilizer involved - in short no animal manure. I use a container with a small hole in the bottom. The beans are placed in the container, and I fill it with water. The water slowly drains out of the bottom. And I repeat every day for several days, until I have sprouts. Another, very simple way to sprout is to put the beans (or seeds) in a jar with a perforated lid. Add water, shake, drain, rinse, drain; repeat for several days; enjoy sprouts.

In my method, the only sources of contamination are the sprouting container, the water, or the beans themselves.

Sprouts are touted as being a super healthy food, and while such claims aren't validated, the fact is that, depending on how they're grown, they are an easy way to get fresh food into one's diet, especially at a time of year for those of us who live in a four-season climate, when that's not always possible.

And anyone, living in nearly any situation, can have sprouts. The only challenge would be to find the seeds/beans, but in reality, a packet of seeds (many of which can be sprouted) is less than $2.

Many years ago I participated in a discussion about food safety, and one of the people who was commented got very frustrated with the discussion and declared that the only way we can be completely sure that our food is safe is to grow it ourselves - which she also declared was not possible for those of us who don't live on large acreages.

If I want beef and dairy products in my diet, I have to trust my farmer, but for a good portion of the rest of my diet, I can do-it-myself - including bean sprouts, and with as easy as they are, it's silly not to.

*The source of the contamination appears to be sprouts served in restaurants. Given the shear volume of food that is handled on a daily basis on the food service industry (much of it from large, corporate farms), it's no wonder that many cases of food poisoning originate from consuming restaurant food. If I were the advice-giving kind of person, I would encourage those who listen to eschew uncooked food from restaurants - including that lovely first-course salad with house dressing. Get the blooming onion, instead ... but consider skipping the sauce.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Come Chat with Me ...

... at the New Society Publishers' book forum.

Today's question under the heading "Fire and Ice" (with a nod to Robert Frost): if you could pick how the world will end, what would it be and why?

Wednesday, June 1, 2011


Here's something we don't see every day.

I'm nearing the end of Ronald Wright's A Short History of Progress. In the book, Wright points out that the only reason we, humans, have been able to establish our very complex and far-reaching civlizations is that for the past 10,000 years the Earth's weather has been, relatively, stable.

Is that changing?

I can't say, but I can say that hail is not something we see every day here in coastal Maine. It's one of those things that happen that's rare enough to make us stop ... and take pictures.

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is ... Literally

The quote of the week has to be this one that I saw today in an article I was reading: It's going to take the people of America to stand up and buy local.




If *we*, the People, want "change we can believe in", *we* have to take control, and the best way to bring jobs back to our country is to start buying products that the people in our country produce.

Like food, for instance.

I was reading an article this morning about a couple of entrepreneurial Moms, who've decided to capitalize on the whole local foods movement. First, they've been operating a local foods co-op for a couple of years, but they looked more closely at the issue and at our State (Maine), and they realized that we have
  • a lot of really great farms that are growing a lot of really great food;
  • a really crappy distribution system.

So, they decided to do something about the second item, and they've started a company that will process the "Maine grown" vegetables into forms that American shoppers like to see, like those yummy, sweet and kid-friendly "baby carrots" (which are actually just whittled down big carrots, but don't tell the kids who might like to think that carrots really grow in that shape ;). Their company "Northern Girl" will also sell things like cut and peeled packages of root vegetables and will package other vegetables to be sold from the grocer's freezer (like frozen broccoli).

Maine's Aroostook County has long been a severely economically depressed agricultural area. The problem is that many of the farms are too small to compete on an international level, but, until now, they haven't had much of a domestic customer-base. Their typical customer is the commodity buyer who wants high volume, but is only willing to pay very low prices. Many farmers out west (especially those who grow corn) have found the same problem, and this sort of business practice has resulted in the loss of most of our family farms to suburban sprawl, as large land owners can no longer grow enough food to even pay the taxes on their land, and small land owners can't afford to pay the mortgage.

For Maine's farmers, at least, Northern Girl hopes to change all of that by concentrating on mid-sized farms and offering farmers a professional wage.

A friend of mine has just finished reading Barbara Kingsolver's wonderful book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. She's new to the whole local foods movement, but is interested enough to contemplate giving it a whirl ... with one problem: she's been a vegetarian for twenty years, and both of her teenaged children were raised as vegetarians. Most of the locavores she knows, and indeed most of the authors who discuss their locavore lifestyles, are not vegetarians. She was, kind of, musing outloud if being a vegetarian locavore was possible in a climate like ours.

With a company like Northern Girl behind her, I think her chances of maintaining a year-round, local, vegetarian diet just got easier ;).