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Food and agriculture - Apr 27

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Food Preservation 101: Putting Canning In Perspective

Sharon Astyk, Casaubon's Book
I wrote Independence Days: A Guide to Sustainable Food Preservation and Storage because when it came time for me to take the next steps in eating locally and homegrown - to holding some of summer's bounty for the long winter, there wasn't any book that really covered what all I needed to know. After writing A Nation of Farmers about the "Why" of growing your own and eating locally, I ran into hundreds of people who had the same problem. They wanted to keep eating the same great food after the CSA boxes stopped coming or the farmer's market closed down, but they didn't know how.

One of the things I found as I became more expert at food preservation, and started to spend more time teaching and talking about it is that most of us have a mental image in our heads when we hear "preservation" mentioned. We think about canning, and about our grandmothers standing over a kettle in August, often for days on end. Indeed, when I did interviews they almost always began with someone's memory of putting by food - and always by canning.

Now canning is a great technique for certain foods, and if it is done right at home, it is both safe and yields a much better tasting product than any industrial scale food could ever offer. And how would it not - instead of a company buying a whole orchard's worth of peaches, all standardized to produce good canning quality but little flavor, shipped for several days after green picking, and then industrially processed, you can take peak-ripe food, often bought very cheaply at the height of the season or grown in your own garden, and process it to your own taste. I do a fair amount of canning, and I enjoy it - in part because I also don't spend weeks over a hot kettle.

But assuming that canning is the main form of food preservation available to us doesn't serve us all that well. People who have that mental image of grandma with a hot pressure canner (or worse, the image of an explolding pressure canner - old ones did explode sometimes, but they don't anymore) immediately leap to the conclusion that storing and preserving food is too much work. Plus, for those of low income there's the barrier of acquiring equipment - you do need to by lids new, and it takes time to build up a supply of used canning jars - and new ones are pricey.

Now all of these issues can be overcome - it is possible to shift the season of some canning. For example, I plant my main crop of cucumbers in late June or early July, rather than in May, like my neighbors. This means I'm not making pickles and running the stove in August, but doing it in late September, when the heat of my stove is wanted anyway. By using other food preservation techniques, and only canning when that's the best way for my family, I get more free time, and cooler. Laying out sweet corn in my solar dehydrator in August means that after a short bit of cutting, I go in and drink iced tea and allow the sun to do my work for me. Preserving food doesn't have to be hard - although there is some work involved, of course. But as long as we've got the assumption that it must be, we won't experiment.

Moreover, the other reason this bothers me is that canning is a fairly new technique, developed for Napoleon's army in the early 19th century, we've had canning for less than two centuries. On the other hand, human beings have been putting food by as long as there have been human beings - in cold or dry periods where crops do not grow, and for years of crop failure, drought or disaster, taking the excess of summer and autumn and putting it aside for times to come is one of the most basic and necessary of human activities. While canning is very useful for some things, if human beings couldn't store up food for dry or cold seasons and eat well without canning, we'd all pretty much be dead. I don't like to give canning pride of place simply because doing so crowds out the other ways we can preserve food, and our long and deep history of holding summer through the winter or the dry season...
(26 April 2010)


In Connecticut, Community-Supported Agriculture Gaining In Popularity

Shawn R. Beals, courant.com
Once a week, people drive out to the farm to pick up their prepaid share — a bag or a box of fresh produce grown right there. They chat with the farmer who has planted the seeds and turned the soil that produced their tomatoes or peppers or squash.

These customers are partaking in community-supported agriculture, known as CSA. Ten years ago, there were fewer than 10 CSA farms in Connecticut. Today, there are more than 40.

There are organic and non-organic CSA farms. But all are evidence that this model of growing and selling and buying local produce has become more than a fad. As farmers sell shares of their farm in exchange for a cut of their products, it has evolved into a viable business model. CSA is helping farmers stay in business while responding to the national trend among consumers to eat more food that is locally grown.

With the 2010 growing season underway, state agriculture officials say it looks like CSA will keep its momentum.

"To me, it's the future," said Fred Monahan of Stone Gardens Farm in Shelton. "It's a good way to connect the grower with the consumer."

The CSA model is fluid. Each farmer decides what works best for his or her customers or community: Sometimes customers pay upfront for only a weekly or biweekly share; some farms require pickup, some will deliver; some sell half-shares while others sell only full shares.

But the crux of the system is that, as one University of Connecticut commercial agriculture expert explained, "The customers share the risk instead of putting it all on the farmer who, usually when Mother Nature strikes, takes it all on the chin."

Because customers are paying upfront for their vegetables, said UConn's Jude Boucher, the farmers are able to cover costs for the season.

Boucher said that farmers throughout the state are starting up CSAs to complement their other marketing avenues.

"There should be at least a CSA in every single town," Boucher said.

...Monahan has also noticed a shift in the focus of his customers, who seem more enamored of the locally grown aspect of CSA shares than with the organic principles, which had fueled the CSA fire for years.

"We use organic measures, but we're not certified organic," he said. "It's more important [to some customers] to know that it's grown here and that you're protecting farmland."

The organic customers are still a vital part of the CSA structure, but the appeal has broadened in the past few years, said Steven Reviczky, executive director of the Connecticut Farm Bureau Association, an independent organization of farmers.

"There is a huge demand for consumers to know their farmer and know where their food is coming from," he said. "It's an amazing turn of events where people are willing and able to buy local..."
(13 April 2010)



Gardening by community growing in appeal

Alicia Robinson, The Press-Enterprise
Community gardens are poised to spring up around Riverside.

Residents of the Wood streets plan to collaborate with Magnolia Elementary School to start a garden neighbors can work in and share, said Pat Silvestri, a board member for the volunteer Wood Streets Green Team.

In the University neighborhood, Crest Community Church is working with residents on a fledgling garden they hope will win an online contest to get free fruit trees and help with planting and irrigation, said Gurumantra Khalsa, who represents the area on the Riverside Neighborhood Partnership board.

On the UC Riverside campus, today is the one-year anniversary of a quarter-acre student-run garden that boasts about 40 plots growing corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, pumpkins, lettuce, peas, and even some experimental sugar cane -- though that's not working out too well, said Fortino Morales, a fourth-year environmental science major who helps manage the garden.

Helping tie all these efforts together is Growcology, a nonprofit founded in 2008 that offers education in sustainable gardening and helps gardeners network. Growcology board chairman Nick Heyming said he's preparing to launch a project that will locate existing community gardens in Riverside, find out what resources they have and what they need, and connect them with each other.

Local gardeners said their dirt patches help the environment, bring the community together, and they're a good way to get people talking about healthy food...
(15 April 2010)



A garden on every block

Meg McConahey, Press-Democrat Fed by a growing national fervor for vegetable gardening, a countywide movement has sprouted to conscript as many yards, public spaces and empty lots as possible into service for food production.

The “Grow Healthy Food” initiative, or “iGROW Sonoma,” officially launched in February with a Web site, iGROWsonoma.org. It is serving as a cyber-meeting spot to share information and promote gardening efforts all over the county.

And with the spring planting season swinging in to gear, supporters are ramping up their efforts with a weekend planting blitz on May 15 and 16.

The “350 Garden Challenge” has a goal of planting 350 gardens in a single weekend.

“It could be something as large as ripping out your lawn and putting in a food garden or edible landscape, or it could be something as small as planting a fruit tree or putting a drip system into existing raised beds,” said Beth Radko, a point person for the challenge.

...The larger goal is to eventually see “a garden on every block,” or at least in every neighborhood.

Supporters want each community to have at least one higher profile model garden to showcase eco-friendly gardening techniques, from low-water-use irrigation to organics to greywater applications.

iGROW is similar to “iWALK Sonoma,” which was launched last year to get people exercising. Both are projects of Health Action, a multi-agency consortium which the county Board of Supervisors formed to promote public health through a range of prevention and education programs. iGROW is aimed at improving what people eat by galvanizing them to start gardening wherever possible.

...The Web site is a one-stop shop for information on how to start a garden, a calendar of classes and events, gardening blogs, volunteer opportunities for gardening and gleaning, contact information for groups that sponsor or maintain gardens, places to volunteer and a registry of existing and new gardens to capture the collective food-growing power in the county.

The project is tapping into a growing global interest in vegetable gardening, both privately and collectively...
(2X April 2010)

Thanks to kalpa for the articles above. -KS



Cuba’s urban-ag revival offers limited lessons

Andy Fisher, Civil Eatsvia Grist
Many of us in the U.S. sustainable-food movement idolize Cuba's experience in building a vibrant urban-farming sector. This idealization is due to the lack of information available on the Cuban system, as caused by the travel embargo and media blackout there. Compounding this situation is the vast difference between the Cuban and American political and economic systems.

Cuba's accomplishments are undeniably astounding, inspiring and a testament to the country's flexibility and pragmatism: 350,000 new well paying jobs (out of a total workforce of 5 million) created in urban agriculture nationally; 4 million tons of fruits and vegetables produced annually in Havana, up ten-fold in a decade; and a city of 2.2 million people regionally self-sufficient in produce. These accomplishments have been supported by an extensive network of input suppliers, technical assistance providers, researchers, teachers and government agencies.

Yet, Cuban urban agriculture, no matter how inspiring, is largely irrelevant to Americans. The state is pervasive throughout Cuba and controls virtually all aspects of the official economy. The government can mobilize quickly and massively around its priorities through an array of powerful policy tools at its disposal. After 50 years of socialist rule, Cuban institutions, as well as the mentality and expectations of the Cuban public, differ vastly from those in the U.S. By way of example, the ruling motto of Cuban urban agriculture states, "We must decentralize only up to a point where control is not lost, and centralize only up to a point where initiative is not killed" embodies the vast differences between their planned economy and our free market system.

The fundamental differences between the Cuban and American systems as they relate to the success of urban agriculture are vast and, for the most part, are insurmountable.

Land ownership key

Case in point, the success of urban agriculture in Cuba has been grounded in the distribution of public land for food production. For example, a law passed in 2008 allowed any citizen or entity to request idle lands up to 33 acres to be passed out in usufruct for 20-40 years. This law resulted in 16,000 persons requesting land in the past two years. Since all land in Cuba - with the exception of private homes - is the property of the State, the government has resources at its disposal to support its policies far beyond that of any American jurisdiction.

On the other hand, in the U.S., land use laws and private property land tenure represent a very real challenge to the expansion of urban farming. While some cities have made their minimal idle lands available for urban farming, when they do so, garden land tenure is not assured. For example, in New York City, hundreds of community gardens were threatened with destruction and dozens were ultimately plowed under when city government prioritized housing developments.

...In Cuba, virtually everyone works for the State. The State sets salaries; economic incentives are controlled by the government. To incent fruit and vegetable production, the government has allowed urban agricultural enterprises to distribute part of their profits back to the workers. These quasi-free enterprise farming operations have led to some unique salary structures wherein farm workers can earn two or three times the salary of the local physicians. These incentives have thus allowed urban farms to retain high quality human resources and maximize production.

U.S. policymakers have few tools at their disposal to shape the earnings of urban agricultural producers, beyond the nigh-impossible extension of commodity subsidies. Urban farms have to compete with the rest of the labor market for qualified workers, with immigration policy also playing a large factor in agricultural labor supply.

...The economic conditions under which Cuban urban farms operate are extraordinarily different than the conditions of similar enterprises in the U.S. For example, since they do not purchase or rent the land, they have no mortgage or rental costs to pay. Inputs and technical assistance are subsidized by the government. (A visit from a technician to assess a pest problem costs one cooperative member the equivalent of two bits.) They enjoy little competition from other sources for their fruits and vegetables, which they may sell at farmers' markets or at on-site farm stands. While capital may be difficult to access from the government, there is no private banking sector and no interest charges to bear. As a result, the urban farms in Havana are profitable enough to redistribute a significant portion of their earnings (85 percent in one case) back to the workers. In a country where the basic wage is $10 per month and a monthly incentive of $50 per month is quite substantial, these farms clearly do not need to be making enormous profits to make a difference in the lives of their workers.

Running a profitable urban farming business in the U.S. entails a much more complex set of calculations than in Cuba. In the U.S., small farms struggle to break even, under the weight of high monthly payments for land, inputs and machinery. On the wholesale level, they face difficult access to markets for selling their products and typically receive prices near or below their cost of production. Small farms selling directly to consumers frequently face stiff competition from other farmers or other retail outlets, which are typically better capitalized. The more socially-minded farming enterprises subsidize their operations with grants for educational programs or through agri-tourism schemes. To be profitable, urban farmers must find a market niche at which they excel, such as providing ultra-fresh micro-greens to high-end restaurants or through cause-related marketing.

...Cuba's shift to urban and organic agriculture was driven by necessity. As the Soviet bloc fell in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Cuba lost the primary market for its products and its source of subsidized agricultural inputs and petroleum. The crisis that ensued was referred to by the Orwellian term, "the special period," and they were hungry and dark times for Cuba. To its credit, the Cuban government found partial solutions to this emergency by pushing the country toward organic and urban agriculture. As one highly placed Cuban official said about the decision to support urban farming and farmers' markets, "We moved food production and the markets as close to the people as possible because there was no oil for transportation to get the people out to the food." This policy decision came at an ideological cost. It entailed a partial opening of urban food production to the free market, which resulted in increased social inequality through income distortions. It also was a 180-degree turn from the capital and input-intensive, Soviet-influenced production methods valued in Cuba at the time.

American interest in urban agriculture has been influenced by the state of the economy. Backyard vegetable production and seed sales for 2009 spiked significantly over 2008 levels, and urban farming in Detroit has grown rapidly as a means to deal with acres of vacant land. But, by and large, increased policymaker and public interest in urban agriculture is traced to concerns about food literacy, urban sustainability, community building, obesity prevention and - to a lesser degree - economic development and job training. These goals are important, but they are not driven by a state of emergency as Cuba suffered...
(26 April 2010)
Some much-needed realistic perspective on the Cuban food revolution stardust -KS



The Triangle: The South’s Locavore Gem

Sarah Wechsberg, Civil Eats
The South is a traditional and friendly culture. Albeit folks down here are known for being set in our ways, but we would do anything for our neighbors and we definitely love our college basketball. I’m from the South and have also lived in the Northeast and California where I fell in love with the locavore culture in San Francisco and Sonoma county. However, after moving back to North Carolina recently, I have found the Triangle area to be quite a gem for a locavore lover.

Our southern regional culture may not be as progressive as San Francisco’s, but the South should not be excluded from the progressive food movement. To clarify, the terms “local food supporters; organic; sustainable agriculture; heirloom; free-range; locavore; and small farm” are a growing part of the dialogue here in NC. And it’s not a challenge at all to be a foodie and sustainable agriculture advocate in Tar Heel country.

Sure we are known for our tobacco and giant hog industry (thanks Smithfield Farms), but we also have hundreds of amazing small sustainable farmers, local food restaurants, foodie and farm advocates and organizations, and many local products that are doing a great deal of good.

The Triangle, or known as the Piedmont region, includes three main cities, Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill. It also includes several wonderful small towns, like Carrboro, Hillsborough, and Pittsboro. Famous for the Research Triangle Park, the area is home base for IBM, SAS, Bayer, Glaxo Smith Kline, RTI, Burts Bees, as well as three outstanding colleges, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Duke University, and North Carolina State. The area has one of the highest rates of PhDs in the nation and our public school system is nationally known for diversity and excellence. This region is educated, progressive, accepting of change, and the beautiful rural country is right at our elbows.

It is easy to find a local farm, visit a farmers market, join a local CSA, and eat out at incredible restaurants that buy form the local producers. There are more than 120 small farms within a 50-mile radius of Chapel Hill alone and over 200 restaurants in the Triangle that buy from local farms. In fact, in October 2008, Bon Appetit named Durham-Chapel Hill America’s Foodiest Small Town. Andrew Knowlton, the article’s author, was so pleased that he was tempted to leave New York City for the laidback culture of the Triangle.

...Where did this locavore culture come from in North Carolina? Farming has always been a significant vocation in NC, but similar to all other agricultural regions across the US, big agricultural businesses have taken over in the past 50 years which put small farms out of business. However, in the past 10 years, there has been an emergence of young farmers and more small organic farms. The Crop Mob young farmer movement that North Carolina’s own Trace Ramsey reported on for Civil Eats started here, and it is definitely proving to be a powerful force sweeping the nation.

As one local writer, Molly Dougherty, states in her article The Triangle: A locavore’s oasis, “a recent emergence of hip, young farmers in combination with numerous venues and events that build strong bonds between those farmers and the rest of the community, are making North Carolina’s Triangle area a locavore’s oasis...”
(15 April 2010)



The AKG Sustainable Living Project podcast episode #4 transcript- Rain Water Harvesting

C Robb, Homescale Food Growing blog
In our last post we mentioned our plan to create a rainwater harvesting and management system on our site. Why would we do this? The public water system is a surprisingly inexpensive way to get your water when the supply is plentiful and local. One of my instructors on my masters course was adamant that investing money into rainwater harvesting was pointless from an economic perspective as it would never pay itself back, and perhaps in the mountains of west central Wales she is right, I’ve never seen a rainier place. But this fails to address several issues with public water systems; they use large amounts of fossil fuel generated electricity to pump, purify and process water. They leak vast quantities of this energy rich water. The water they deliver has had a chemical cocktail of treatments added to it to make it “safe” for human consumption, more on that in a moment. In the US, the drinking water in many locations contains rocket fuel from the defense industry, pesticides from industrial agriculture, e coli from concentrated livestock feeding operations, heavy metals from sloppy mining practice, and in may cases is too acid to be safe for long term exposure. And of course there are the obvious inefficiencies of mixing sewage with treated drinking water and then having to clean the whole mess up again. In addition, depletion of ancient aquifers is a looming problem, threatening our future food and energy supplies.

As to chlorine, it is a chemical designed to be antithetical to life. It is used in water for one thing, whether in swimming pools or drinking water, to kill micro-organisms. Perhaps it is the best choice for large municipal water systems but there are many indications that consuming chlorine and its by products, notably trihalomethane, is not good for your immune system. The basis of healthy soil and thus healthy plants is a thriving, diverse ecosystem of micro-organisms. Thus, chlorine is designed to eradicate the very foundations of healthy soil. Rainwater is better for your plants as it is naturally soft and contains no chlorine. Rainwater can be purified for human consumption without chlorine.

So we have decided to harvest rainwater. Rainfall in Hickory averages around 4 inches per month. However, prior to the current El Nino cycle there were extended drought conditions. Water levels in the reservoirs in the SE fell to historically low levels causing jurisdiction and ownership disputes, threatened hydropower production, and brought on water usage restrictions...
(15 April 2010)



Ancient orchards restored to save fruit and wildlife

BBCnews
The National Trust and Natural England effort follows a 60% decline in ancient orchards in England since the 1950s.

Some 27 orchards have been restored and replanted and 12 new ones created, with some 2,200 trees planted.

The National Trust is celebrating the first year of the project with a "full bloom festival" starting on Sunday.

The major decline in ancient orchards has been the result of urban development, conversion to other uses and the pressure on small-scale producers from commercial fruit growing.

Wildlife habitat
The UK biodiversity action plan now lists traditional orchards as a conservation priority as they are home to local varieties of apples, plums, pears and damsons, and provide an important habitat for wildlife.

A series of wildlife surveys have been undertaken at the new and restored sites, with one location found to be home to 37 different bird species, including mistle thrush, bullfinch, green woodpecker and kestrel.

...The project's orchard officer, Kate Merry, said: "You can't fail to appreciate what they add to our landscape.

The project also aims to find ways to help orchards pay their own way, including repairing and using old equipment such as harvesting ladders and cider presses.

The project is also training people in traditional orchard management skills in order to ensure the orchards are maintained beyond the scheme's two-and-a-half year lifespan...
(23 April 2010)



Community Land Sharing

Amanda Reed, Worldchanging
We’re all for community resource sharing and product-service-systems here at Worldchanging, and yesterday a new land sharing website was launched called SharedEarth.com. SharedEarth is a free service in the Craigslist mold with a dash of online dating; a globally geared tool for connecting landowners and gardeners in both rural and urban environments (and is similar to Seattle’s local Urban Garden Share, which we wrote about last year in this article on urban farming).

SharedEarth.com was created by Adam Dell after personally experiencing a successful relationship between himself as a landowner and a gardener whom he met on the internet. After enjoying fresh fruit and vegetables from his new garden, he envisioned an online matching site to link land with gardeners in the community, and SharedEarth.com was born...
(23 April 2010)



Global biofuel drive raises risk of eviction for African farmers

University of Edinburgh, Science News
African farmers risk being forced from their lands by investors or government projects as global demand for biofuels encourages changes in crop cultivation.

Research from the University of Edinburgh has found that livelihoods may be put at risk if African farmland is turned over to growing crops for biofuel.

With growing pressure to find alternatives to oil, global biofuel production trebled between 2003 and 2007 and is forecast to double again by next year. In Africa, countries including Malawi, Mali, Mauritius, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe have enacted pro-biofuel national strategies.

Dr Tom Molony, who contributed to the research, said that the allocation of land for biofuel production by government projects or wealthy investors could mean that the rural poor would be forced off their land.

He added that biofuel projects had also raised accusations of 'neo-colonial' behaviour, with wealthy countries acquiring vast tracts of land in poorer nations. In Madagascar, South Korean company Daewoo Logistics has attempted to buy an area half the size of Belgium to farm corn and palm oil for biofuel...
(23 April 2010)

Editorial Notes: photo credit: flickr/juliejordanscott

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