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Taking a Class, Joining a Tribe

Anne Raver, New York Times
WHEN I signed up for a master gardening class last fall, I knew I would fill some of the gaps in my self-education as a gardener, but I didn’t know that I would find such an eclectic family of like-minded souls.

Or how about some naked ladies – pink lilies (Amaryllis belladonna), not real ladies – that bloom in the fall on curiously leafless stems? Pamela White, 64, a garden designer in Glyndon, Md., gave them to me. They are big, fat, wonderful bulbs, to be planted in the ground just like narcissus. About a month ago, after a terribly hot, dry summer, a little forest of naked stems nosed out of the ground, grew to an incongruous two feet – and opened their pale pink trumpets.

Now I’m working with Ms. White and another master gardener from my class, Winona Peterson, 44, a historian for the National Park Service, to create a composting workshop for the new batch of master gardener students who are starting this fall. Mrs. Peterson, the mother of three young daughters, also keeps the household running while her husband, Steven, farms with his father on 400 acres in Taneytown.

Maryanne Turner, 58, a retired nurse and mother of four, is another composting nut.

And it turns out she’s from Queens.

“I’ve been gardening since I was a couple of years old, helping my grandmother in Queens,” Ms. Turner told me once as we weeded under a hot sun.

“She had a beautiful rose garden, and I never saw her use anything on those roses except coffee grounds and dishpans of dirty dishwater.”
(13 September 2007)
Master Gardeners is a surprisingly vibrant network – like permaculture for a different demographic. If ever comes a time when people need to grow food, Master Gardeners will be an invaluable resource. And as Anne Raver’s column says, it’s a great place to meet other gardening fanatics. -BA

Vegeculture: Further Rethinking How We Eat

Sharon Astyk, Casaubon’s Book
In his book African-American Gardens and Yards in the Rural South, Richard Westmacott notes that a good bit of Southern African American agricultural practice derives from West African and Caribbean practices of “vegeculture” as opposed to European style-seed agriculture. The term, coined by D.B. Grigg in his classic Agricultural Systems of the World is based primarily on root crops, including manioc, sweet potatoes, yams, taro, arrowroot, and in cooler climates was adapted to potatoes as well.

Vegeculture has several advantages over grain culture. For example, you don’t have to till up a lot of ground at once, since these crops are adapted to “patch” culture. They often can be stored in the ground and dug up as needed, and can tolerate being integrated with perennial tree plantings. The tradition of planting in patches and leaving grown fallow to restore fertility in West Africa translated well in slave garden in the US and Caribbean islands because such gardens often had to be hidden. Often slave and later share-croppers had only hilly or otherwise difficult to use land, which is best served by being kept in perennial or semi-perennial root crops. Because slaves and tenant farmers had very little time to work their land, they needed high yielding crops that could provide nutrition and caloric density together.

In her essay “They have Saturdays and Sundays to Feed Themselves: Slave Gardens in the Caribbean,” Lydia Pulsipher observes that there is considerable evidence that islands that included many slave gardens didn’t suffer the classic malnutrition of slavery.

…What struck me about this is how small an impact we would on the industrial agricultural juggernaut even if we were able to replace every single vegetable, fruit and nut we eat with locally, sustainably produced produce. That is, if we are looking to home production to help end the tragic power of industrial food production with its heavy greenhouse gas outputs, water consumption and soil degradation, we need to start thinking in terms of producing more of our total calories at home. Growing our lettuce and tomatoes is a good start, but the next step is a return to home production of calorically dense foods, and to that, I am more and more convinced that vegeculture is part of the answer.

…While most of us would rather live on a diet slightly more varied than the one that Duhon describes in One Circle what is remarkable about all of these agricultural systems is that they represent a high yielding, extremely nutritious, good tasting diet that can be produced easily by ordinary people on comparatively small pieces of land using hand tools. Hand production of potatoes, for example, outyielded corn well into the industrial age. Hand produced polycultures of one acre that emphasize roots integrated with perennial plantings a la permaculture or vegeculture and include animals to eat wastes and maintain fertility can dramatically outproduce existing monocultures of grains.
(15 September 2007)
Not exactly root vegetables, but could I put in a word for greens? They’re another **magical** group of vegetables that has been ignored.

Collards, kale, beet greens, and swiss chard, for example, are easy to grow and are about the most nutritious vegetables around. In our area (SF Bay Area), swiss chard grows like a weed. I grew tree collards which shot up to about seven feet and produced abundantly for years.

They can be cooked in a number of ways. One way is to cut out the stems, place several leaves on top of one another, roll them up like a cigar, then cut in about 3/4-inch slices. You can parboil, boil, steam, put in soups, stir-fries. I like them mixed with onions, garlic and olive oil. Maybe a few little chunks of bacon.

They may take a little while to get used to, but if prepared well they are addictive. Collards, corn bread, a little pork. Mmmm!

P.S. Don’t throw out the ribs of Swiss Chard. In France, they are considered the best part.

Taste, nutrients decline as size of crops grows

Andrew Schneider, Post-Intelligencer
When it comes to eating fruits, vegetables and grain, bigger is not better for you.

A report issued this week examined several recent studies by food scientists, nutritionists, growers and plant breeders. It found clear evidence that as the produce we eat gets larger, its vitamins, minerals and beneficial chemical compounds significantly diminish, as do taste and aroma.

Growing bigger tomatoes and ears of corn leads to a bigger yield for the producer, but the trade-off is the lower nutritional value.

Some say the gutting of the nutritional value of what we eat could affect public health, particularly in poorer countries.
(12 September 2007)

Can China Clean Up Its Food Exports by Going Organic?

Mara Hvistendahl, WorldChanging
This spring and summer, reports of tainted pet food, cough syrup, and seafood from China entering the US market have focused attention on China’s sub-par export standards. Following a barrage of negative press coverage, fully two-thirds of Americans now have little or no confidence that food from China is safe to eat. But what about average Chinese, who don’t have the luxury of buying food imported from other countries?

Most people here still buy their groceries in crowded wet markets or from vendors who display vegetables on blankets laid out on the street. Such areas are difficult to regulate. But even in Chinese supermarkets along the developed eastern seaboard, it is common to find poorly wrapped slabs of week-old chicken anchoring the meat refrigerator. Now there is news of secret farms for Olympic-grade pork and vegetables intended to provide China’s athletes with high-quality food — which wouldn’t be necessary, of course, if the country had in place a system that guaranteed good food to all. The World Health Organization estimates that illnesses caused by tainted food cost China $4.7 and $14 billion a year in medical care and loss of productivity.

After a schizophrenic series of reactions that included executing the former head of China’s food and drug safety agency and producing a laughable television series titled “Believe in Made in China”, the Chinese government finally seems to be addressing its domestic food safety woes.

…Gaoming Jiang, a botanist with the Chinese Academy of the Sciences in Beijing, has been active in the domestic food safety debate, attracting attention earlier this summer with an article explaining how dead chickens end up in China’s food supply. He now espouses organic farming as a solution that will both produce high-quality food and reduce pollution in rural areas – and bring higher incomes to Chinese farmers. As China’s middle and upper classes demand high-quality food, Jiang says, what makes ecological sense will make economic sense:

…Jiang’s argument seems to suggest that the market alone can take care of the problem. Farmers will need a lot of help from the government as well. But in switching to sustainable agriculture, China has an advantage over, say, the US, in that most of its agriculture is still small. It has the chance to get things right the first time around.
(13 September 2007)

Study: Farm runoff feeds dead zone
Oxygen-starved Gulf area now closer to shore

Mike Hasten, Daily Advertiser (Louisiana)
BATON ROUGE – Soil erosion and runoff from farms along the 2,300-mile-long Mississippi River and its tributaries are feeding the algae that create the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, a study compiled by environmental groups shows.

Hypoxia, a lack of oxygen in the water, occurs yearly when a combination of warm weather and nutrients from farming operations, urban runoff and sewage dumped into the Mississippi River cause algae and microscopic organisms in the water to flourish. This year’s dead zone is predicted to be the third largest on record, threatening Louisiana’s fisheries.

At a gathering of fishermen in Grand Isle this week, crabbers complained that all along the coast they’re pulling up pots of dead crabs and fishermen said their catch has little fight left in it. Some shrimpers said they aren’t even bothering to take their boats out.
Crabs, eels and other creatures usually found on the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico are swimming on the surface because there is too little oxygen in their usual habitat.

Louisiana’s dead zone usually is farther out into the Gulf, but satellite photos show this year’s is much closer to shore. The 7,900-square-mile area – about the size of New Jersey – has almost no oxygen.
(12 September 2007)

Is eating local the best choice?

David Morris, Gristmill
Strengthening community is an important benefit of eating locally

…My experience with distant solar came to mind when I read James F. McWilliams’ recent column in the New York Times about food miles. McWilliams, a “passionate” advocate of “eat local,” discussed new studies that conclude local is not always environmentally superior. One study he cites found the life-cycle impact of a lamb raised in New Zealand and shipped to the United Kingdom was lower than a lamb raised and consumed in the U.K. Another more comprehensive study by University of Wales professors Ruth Fairchild and Andrea Collins found that transporting food from farm to store accounts for only 2 percent of the overall environmental impact of food systems. Food grown locally could have a considerably bigger footprint than food flown halfway around the world.

… McWilliams thinks the new studies are beneficial, even for locavores, because they force us to adopt a more sophisticated and nuanced approach. … For McWilliams, globally efficient food systems trump local food systems. “We must accept the fact, in short, that distance is not the enemy of awareness.”

A few days later the Times published six letters to the editor in response to McWilliams’ article. All disagreed with him, on environmental grounds. But none mentioned the word “community,” which, to me, is the most important reason to prefer local food. Distance kills community.

Buying and using local food creates a tight-knit interconnection between producers and consumers. It makes us more intimately aware of the impact of our buying and producing decisions on our neighbors. I live in Minneapolis, a few blocks away from a shallow lake. My neighborhood has learned that what we put on our lawns ends up in the lake. We see the impact in increased algae blooms and reduced fish that results from our own individual obsession with perfect lawns. This has led more and more people to grow nonpolluting gardens rather than manicured lawns. That same awareness leads us to frown upon local farmers who use pesticides and fertilizers that run off into our water table, and support those who don’t.
(12 September 2007)