Monday, March 30, 2009

Good for what ails you

Maybe it's the excitement of the birthday weekend, or the truly freaky weather we've been having, but we are once again down with the flu or something like it. This has been a rough year, virus-wise, for our family and just about everyone else we know. Hindsight is 20/20 - we should have gotten flu shots.

Our family relies on 2 different chicken soup recipes when we are feeling our lowest. Both are spicy, one Mexican and one Indonesian. The first comes together with relatively few ingredients and requires very little culinary finesse; the second builds a curry from scratch, so is more involved. Both will get your endorphins kicked in and your immune system humming. You can find the Mexican version below; I'll tackle the Indonesian one another time.

Whenever we roast a chicken, we ziplock the remains and throw them in the freezer until we have 2 or 3. The next afternoon we'll be puttering around the house, we dump the frozen carcasses plus a couple onions, carrots, celery ribs and various herbs into a pot and let it all simmer for a few hours. The chicken does double-duty and we rarely have to buy chicken broth.

Green Chile Chicken Soup - Adapted from the Santa Fe Hot and Spicy Cookbook.
If you live in the southwest, you know where to get frozen green chile as hot or mild as you like. If you live anywhere else, your options are very limited. You can order it from here: or you can settle for canned. Ortega has finally come out with a canned version in "hot," available in some grocery stores, that is not bad.

Take a 3-4 lb free-range chicken (I vastly prefer Colman Organic, available at some Costcos, to any other commercial brand), pull out the innards, then rinse the chicken and pat dry. Put the chicken in a large, deep pot and just cover with either broth or water or a combination. Chop up a yellow onion and toss in; throw in 2 bay leaves. Bring to a boil and then simmer for 45 minutes to an hour.

While the chicken cooks, scrub and quarter 8-10 small potatoes, such as dutch babies or yellow finn or new reds. Cut 2 zucchini into spears, then quarter-rounds. Pull a bag of peas from the freezer and a bag of "baby" carrots from the fridge.

When the chicken is falling off the bone, take it out of the soup using tongs or a strainer, and let it cool on a plate or wide bowl. Leave the soup simmering and throw in the potatoes and as much green chile as your palate dictates. If you are using frozen green chile and are unfamiliar with it, measure it out in tablespoons. If you're using canned, you'll probably want 2-3 of Ortega's 4oz cans. Add 3-5 chopped garlic cloves and continue simmering while the chicken cools.

When ready, pull meat off the chicken and put back into soup. Throw in your carrots and zucchini and peas, plus a 1/2-1 C chopped cilantro. Simmer for about 10 minutes. Ladle about a half cup of whole milk or half-and-half in and just heat, perhaps 5 minutes more. Test for seasoning and add salt and pepper to taste.

Serve with warm tortillas or ciabatta bread.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Growing Up

We hosted Dylan's 11th birthday party today. 11. I know it's cliche, but how did THAT happen?? Every year is significant of course in its own way, but somehow 11 seems to me a true coming of age. 11 is the year I recall beginning to have a personal life, of having thoughts and feelings and relationships that I did not share with my parents. I developed friendships with people my mother didn't know. I did things on my own.

Dylan leads a more sheltered life than I did (and I led a pretty sheltered life, at least until then). My parents split up pretty much the week I turned 11. My mom packed the car with everything that could possibly fit into a Pinto station wagon - my physical space relegated to roughly 2 small dimensions - we waved good-bye to south Florida and made our way to a small town in New Mexico where she had lived before and had friends.

So, 11 for me meant a new town, a new school, new friends, and, as I was to discover, new enemies. It meant my mom went from full-time stay-at-home parent to full-time working mother. It meant going from a 3-bedroom house with a pool in the suburbs to a 2-bedroom slump block duplex just before the paved road petered out to dust.

So, some of my growing up at this age was environmental and necessary - but 11 is still 11 and it's the beginning of a new era. Gone are the party games of birthday parties past. I needn't have fretted about how to fill the time on this rainy day.

Our good friends, Dylan's god-parents, made the trip, as always, from Seattle to help and witness, with the youngest of our crowd, their son little 3-year old Pi. We devoured bison burgers and turkey dogs, the adults choking on the spicy lentil stew I brewed up and opting to stick around rather than drop off - always nice. Then, since all kids had been asked to arrive with any Harry Potter paraphenalia they had lying around, a spontaneous bout of wizardry broke out about the place, and the grown-ups just laid low so as not to be expelliarmussed or what have you.

Then it was ice cream pie time (party tip: if you make and serve ice cream pie, whatever else happens at your kid's party will be forgotten and the whole shebang will be deemed a rousing success. There will be 10 minutes of reverential silence as the pie is devoutly devoured. This is our third year on the ice cream pie - recipe below). A little more fun and games and then presents. 2:30 came and went and most folks were still here. How special is it when kids and their parents all genuinely enjoy each other?

We are so grateful for the wonderful, kind, beautiful, unique and self-possessed kids we are honored to have in our life and count as Dylan's friends. These are exhilarating and trying times coming up. Lots of decisions - decisions we now make as a threesome, instead of twosome - loom. Good, gentle, smart, and funny friends and their amazing parents will be the glue that holds adolescence together.

Happy birthday Dylan. You're the best.


Ecstasy for Kids of All Ages: Fine Cooking's Ice Cream Pie

This is easier and faster than any cake you could come up with, including store-bought mixes. Bake the "crust" in the AM and forget about it until your party guests are chowing, then bring out the ice cream and it's ready in less than 5 minutes. You seriously have never seen anything disappear so fast.

Ask your child to pick his or her 3 favorite ice cream flavors. You'll need at least 2 pints of the very favorite, 1 each of the other two.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

You'll need 1 bag of Newman's Own chocolate wafers and about 6-7 tablespoons of melted unsalted butter and a bottle of squeezable chocolate sauce.

Pour the chocolate wafers into a food processor and pulse until you have fine crumbs (you can also put them in a big ziplock and roll a rolling pin over it). Pour the crumbs into a bowl and drizzle the melted butter over them and work the two together until you have have no dry crumbs left.

Butter a glass pie pan, pour the buttered crumbs in, and work the crumbs into a crust all around, pressing them.

Bake for 10 minutes, then cool on a wire rack until people are eating.

Take the ice creams out about 10 minutes before you're ready to serve, unless they're softer already. You want them scoopable. Take the favorite flavor and smear it about 1/2 inch thick over the crust as your foundation. Then scoop that flavor and the other two in alternating scoops across the whole plane of the pie. When all the space is filled, squeeze chocolate sauce in a pretty design of your choice across the whole thing. Serve right away!

Don't forget to save a bite or two for yourself.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Going Green - Shutting Down the Vampires

SSF is undergoing a tectonic shift in the personal computer arena. We had the opportunity to buy 2nd-hand MacBook Pros for a fraction of their retail value, so jumped on the deal and are switching off the desktops and powering up the laptops. The beefy Mac we bought 2 years ago to handle Mark's musical recording needs will now be used almost exclusively for that purpose. The Mac Mini that's been handling my stuff and serving as the family's calendar and internet is about to become Dylan's, used fairly sparingly, at night.

I am curious to see if this switch is readily obvious in our upcoming electricity bills. Newer laptops use something like 30% less energy than their desk-bound counterparts. Also, people - including us - are more likely to turn their laptops off at night. A study out this week estimates that corporate employees waste $2.8 billion each year simply by leaving their computers on at the end of the workday.

We are lazy, and I am ashamed to admit that even with good intentions often left both our Mac Mini and our energy hogging Pro on while we slept. Which is ridiculous. So, we'll see if our numbers bear out the statistics.

But, there's another, stealthier, energy thief at work in most homes. In this mobile life we all lead these days, we carry cell phones and digital cameras and cordless razors and iPods and who knows what else. The revolution that moved us away from disposable batteries into rechargeable electronics is significant - the throw-away nature of battery-operated devices is obviously unsustainable.

But, these devices are generally made as cheaply as possible and that means there's no mechanism that tells the charger when the device is good - nothing to indicate that it's time to stop sucking electricity out of the socket. So. Whether your device is charging, or, in fact, is even plugged into the charger, the charger continues to pull electricity.

A cell phone here or there, probably doesn't really amount to much. But look around your house and take stock of how many outlets have little black boxes attached to them. Hmm. So, you might want to try your own experiment - unplug those guys every time you grab the devices attached to them. Then look at your bill. Any difference? We'll be doing that on top of the leaner computers and seeing what the numbers are looking like.

Finally, if you're interested in seeing how community can come together while being scattered across the globe, consider participating in Earthhour this weekend. A global demonstration to illustrate how much power we have to reduce their carbon footprint, Earthhour simply asks people to power down their homes for one hour this Saturday, from 8:30 to 9:30PM.

We'll be having a small birthday sleepover, so we plan to bring out the candles and the board games and have a ball. Who says sustainability can't be fun?

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Fowl Company

One thing about SSF - one is never alone for long. No matter how one might wish to be. With an Australian Shepherd - also known as the "Velcro breed" for the way they stick to their person - 2 curious cats, 30-something hens, and 2 too many roosters, someone is always interested in whatever I might be tackling.

Even though they arrive in a cardboard box at 1 day old and are bred and shipped in a fairly factory setting, chickens nonetheless develop remarkably unique and quirky personalities. Do a little Googling and I bet you will turn up myriad personal odes to the chicken. They are just a hoot. When they are fist-sized fuzzballs scurrying around an old plastic wading pool or a cut-down fridge box, jostling for position under the heat lamp, it is tough to envision the comic, and at times elegant or even regal, individuals they will soon become.

Our accidental rooster has thus far shown himself to be a gentlemen and therefore has earned himself a place in the SSF family as long as he behaves himself. He is all things Excellent Rooster: stunningly beautiful, proud, quite covetous of his flock, gentle in his...couplings - relatively speaking anyway, courteous to his humans, and he has a magnificent cocka-doodle-do that so far he has limited to respectable hours of the day (unlike the 3AM performances of his predecessor). And, like his girls, he is intensely interested in whatever I am doing right now.

His 2 accidental male counterparts, however, not so much. They are not regal, nor nice, nor particularly interested in protecting the flock. They are, very much, interested in what being a rooster around a bunch of beautiful hens, gets them. They are mean to the hens and oblivious of everything else around them. So, in short, they annoy me immensely. We look forward to enjoying them in Coq au Vin.

So, these guys flounce around chasing and harassing all the hens, but Owl (our Excellent Rooster) and the Girls migrate to scratch and sniff the general vicinity of wherever we happen to be working. I joked yesterday as Dylan, Mark, and I prepared a potato bed inside our deer-fenced veggie garden, that we were like zoo animals - the hens, cats, and dog were all parked just on the other side of the 8-foot fence, watching our goings-on keenly (except the 3 intrepid hens who'd tunneled in and were "helping" us by snatching up every precious worm we overturned). Jessie whined and harumphed occasionally to express the unfairness of it all, and the cats were just generally unimpressed with the whole thing.

So, it's never lonely here. Whatever's on your mind, there's someone to talk to and plenty of fowl gossip to hear. The multi-specied gals and guys of SSF are always up for a good huddle.

Clean Green Meat, part 2

Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times spent 2 recent columns synthesizing US and European research regarding an alarming increase in the presence of MRSA (the sometimes-fatal strain of staph infection) in pigs and even retail pork products. A Dutch study found that hog farmers were 760 times more likely to test positive for staph than the general public. An even more recent American study suggests that between 25 and 39 percent of American hogs carry staph.

No one's proven yet that any of the 18,000 fatal cases of MRSA each year were contracted from eating pork, but staph is clearly no longer confined to hospitals.

And why are staph and other "superbugs" showing up in numbers that are ringing alarm bells in doctors' offices across the country? Well, it might just have something to do with the fact that factory meat lives its whole life on antibiotics - something your family doctor would lecture you at great length about if you suggested such a preventative approach at home.

I know I can be pedantic about local food. But, I just can't say it enough: Meet your meat. Know your spinach. Make sure there's a farmer in your life - even if they just drop off that box of delicious fruits and veggies once a week. This isn't just a food issue - it's a serious public health issue. We are allowing industrial food producers to not only sell us inadequate, sometimes dangerous, food - we are paying them to destroy one of the most powerful human health advances in history: the miracle of antibiotics. Let me be clear: We are losing the ability to treat infections with antibiotics.

But, Mr. Kristof says this all much more eloquently and powerfully than I can. Here is the 2nd of the 2 articles:

Pathogens in Our Pork

Published: March 14, 2009

We don’t add antibiotics to baby food and Cocoa Puffs so that children get fewer ear infections. That’s because we understand that the overuse of antibiotics is already creating “superbugs” resistant to medication.

Yet we continue to allow agribusiness companies to add antibiotics to animal feed so that piglets stay healthy and don’t get ear infections. Seventy percent of all antibiotics in the United States go to healthy livestock, according to a careful study by the Union of Concerned Scientists — and that’s one reason we’re seeing the rise of pathogens that defy antibiotics.

These dangerous pathogens are now even in our food supply. Five out of 90 samples of retail pork in Louisiana tested positive for MRSA — an antibiotic-resistant staph infection — according to a peer-reviewed study published in Applied and Environmental Microbiology last year. And a recent study of retail meats in the Washington, D.C., area found MRSA in one pork sample, out of 300, according to Jianghong Meng, the University of Maryland scholar who conducted the study.

Regardless of whether the bacteria came from the pigs or from humans who handled the meat, the results should sound an alarm bell, for MRSA already kills more than 18,000 Americans annually, more than AIDS does.

MRSA (pronounced “mersa”) stands for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. People often get it from hospitals, but as I wrote in my last column, a new strain called ST398 is emerging and seems to find a reservoir in modern hog farms. Research by Peter Davies of the University of Minnesota suggests that 25 percent to 39 percent of American hogs carry MRSA.

Public health experts worry that pigs could pass on the infection by direct contact with their handlers, through their wastes leaking into ground water (one study has already found antibiotic-resistant bacteria entering ground water from hog farms), or through their meat, though there has been no proven case of someone getting it from eating pork. Thorough cooking will kill the bacteria, but people often use the same knife to cut raw meat and then to chop vegetables. Or they plop a pork chop on a plate, cook it and then contaminate it by putting it back on the original plate.

Yet the central problem here isn’t pigs, it’s humans. Unlike Europe and even South Korea, the United States still bows to agribusiness interests by permitting the nontherapeutic use of antibiotics in animal feed. That’s unconscionable.

The peer-reviewed Medical Clinics of North America concluded last year that antibiotics in livestock feed were “a major component” in the rise in antibiotic resistance. The article said that more antibiotics were fed to animals in North Carolina alone than were administered to the nation’s entire human population.

“We don’t give antibiotics to healthy humans,” said Robert Martin, who led a Pew Commission on industrial farming that examined antibiotic use. “So why give them to healthy animals just so we can keep them in crowded and unsanitary conditions?”

The answer is simple: politics.

Legislation to ban the nontherapeutic use of antibiotics in agriculture has always been blocked by agribusiness interests. Louise Slaughter of New York, who is the sole microbiologist in the House of Representatives, said she planned to reintroduce the legislation this coming week.

“We’re losing the ability to treat humans,” she said. “We have misused one of the best scientific products we’ve had.”

That’s an almost universal view in the public health world. The Infectious Diseases Society of America has declared antibiotic resistance a “public health crisis” and recounts the story of Rebecca Lohsen, a 17-year-old New Jersey girl who died from MRSA in 2006. She came down with what she thought was a sore throat, endured months in the hospital, and finally died because the microbes were stronger than the drugs.

This will be an important test for President Obama and his agriculture secretary, Tom Vilsack. Traditionally, the Agriculture Department has functioned mostly as a protector of agribusiness interests, but Mr. Obama and Mr. Vilsack have both said all the right things about looking after eaters as well as producers.

So Mr. Obama and Mr. Vilsack, will you line up to curb the use of antibiotics in raising American livestock? That is evidence of an industrial farming system that is broken: for the sake of faster-growing hogs, we’re empowering microbes that endanger our food supply and threaten our lives.

Friday, March 20, 2009


From yesterday's New York Times. Thank you Michael Pollan and all the local food advocates who pushed for this fantastic model!

Obamas to Plant White House Vegetable Garden
Published: March 19, 2009

WASHINGTON — On Friday, Michelle Obama will begin digging up a patch of White House lawn to plant a vegetable garden, the first since Eleanor Roosevelt’s victory garden in World War II. There will be no beets (the president doesn’t like them) but arugula will make the cut.

While the organic garden will provide food for the first family’s meals and formal dinners, its most important role, Mrs. Obama said, will be to educate children about healthful, locally grown fruit and vegetables at time when obesity has become a national concern.

In an interview in her office, Mrs. Obama said, “My hope is that through children, they will begin to educate their families and that will, in turn, begin to educate our communities.”

Twenty-three fifth graders from Bancroft Elementary School in Washington will help her dig up the soil for the 1,100-square-foot plot in a spot visible to passers-by on E Street. (It’s just below the Obama girls’ swing set.) Students from the school, which has had a garden since 2001, will also help plant, harvest and cook the vegetables, berries and herbs.

Almost the entire Obama family, including the president, will pull weeds, “whether they like it or not,” Mrs. Obama said laughing. “Now Grandma, my mom, I don’t know.” Her mother, she said, would probably sit back and say: “Isn’t that lovely. You missed a spot.”

Whether there would be a White House garden has been more than a matter of landscaping. It’s taken on political and environmental symbolism as the Obamas have been lobbied for months by advocates who believe that growing more food locally could lead to healthier eating and lessen reliance on huge industrial farms that use more oil for transportation and chemicals for fertilizer.

In the meantime, promoting healthful eating has become an important part of Mrs. Obama’s agenda.

“The power of Michelle Obama and the garden can create a very powerful message about eating healthy and more delicious food,” said Dan Barber, an owner of Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, N.Y., an organic restaurant that grows many of its own ingredients. “I don’t think it’s a stretch to say it could translate into real change.”

The Clintons grew some vegetables in pots on the roof of the White House. But the Obamas’ garden will have 55 varieties of vegetables — from a wish list of the kitchen staff — grown from organic seedlings started at the executive mansion’s greenhouses.

The Obamas will feed their love of Mexican food with cilantro, tomatilloes and hot peppers. Lettuces will include red romaine, green oak leaf, butterhead, red leaf and galactic. There will be spinach, chard, collards and black kale. For desserts, there will be a patch of berries. And herbs will include some more unusual varieties, like anise hyssop and Thai basil. A White House carpenter who is a beekeeper will tend two hives for honey.

Total cost for the seeds, mulch, etc., is $200.

The plots will be in raised beds fertilized with White House compost, crab meal from the Chesapeake Bay, lime and green sand. Ladybugs and praying mantises will help control harmful bugs.

Cristeta Comerford, the White House’s executive chef, is eager to plan menus around the garden, and Bill Yosses, the pastry chef, is looking forward to berry season.

Sam Kass, an assistant White House chef who prepared healthful meals for the Obama family in Chicago and is an advocate of local food, will oversee the garden. The White House grounds crew and kitchen staff will do most of the work, but other White House staff members have volunteered.

“First of all,” Mrs. Obama said, “there’s nothing really cooler than coming to the White House and harvesting some of the vegetables and being in the kitchen with Cris and Sam and Bill, and cutting and cooking and actually experiencing the joys of your work.”

Mrs. Obama, who said that she never had a vegetable garden before, said the idea for it came from her experiences as a working mother trying to feed her daughters, Malia and Sasha, a good diet. Eating out three times a week, ordering a pizza, having a sandwich for dinner all took their toll. The children’s pediatrician told her she needed to be thinking about nutrition.

“He raised a flag for us,” she said, and within months the children lost weight.

For children, she said, food is all about taste, and fresh and local taste better.

“A real delicious heirloom tomato is one of the sweetest things that you’ll ever eat,” she said. “And my children know the difference, and that’s how I’ve been able to get them to try different things.

“I wanted to be able to bring what I learned to a broader base of people. And what better way to do it than to plant a vegetable garden in the South Lawn of the White House.”

The country’s one million community gardens, she said, can also play an important role for urban dwellers who have no backyards.

But, sitting in her office in the East Wing, Mrs. Obama stressed that she doesn’t want people to feel guilty if they don’t have the time to have a garden: there are still many small changes they can make.

“You can begin in your own cupboard by eliminating processed food, trying to cook a meal a little more often, trying to incorporate more fruits and vegetables,” she said.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Learning from others

One of the things I picked up right away on this farming business is that there's no point in re-inventing any wheels. I've yet to stumble across a problem or challenge that someone somewhere hasn't solved already. In fact, that was a major goal in beginning this blog - to in some small way provide insights to other folks thinking about starting up with chickens or raising meat or growing their own veggies. Or just learning where food comes from and how and why.

But, still, I am continually amazed at how much I pick up each time I visit someone else's operation or even just talk to folks who've been at this for a while. The last few days have been a veritable crash course.

I spent Saturday in the company of probably 100+ amazing women (and one amazing man) who come from all over the Northwest to spin together once a year here on our island. The first thing I learned was how to set up my wheel, which took a respectable amount of time. The second thing I learned was that my wheel was not functional. And while I spent most of the rest of the time trouble-shooting, it was still a very enjoyable and educational day.

Just seeing all the different types of spinning wheels and catching snippets of old friends' chattering were worth the day's commitment. And, I am happy to report that Mark has successfully fixed the wheel - no small feat, it turned out - and we are all looking forward to mastering this skill over the next decade. It's not only Rome that took more than a day to conquer. But, developing the skill to turn our sheep's outer layer into a marketable product is incentive indeed.

Monday was the third in a 3-part series of small-scale farming workshops here on our island. All 3 have been instructive, but this final class was especially useful. Farming 5 or 10 acres is a completely different animal to farming 50 or even 20. Diversification is the name of the game, and few resources out there really address what a successful 5 acre farm really looks like - mostly because there are few places in North America where you could actually hope to have a productive farm on such little land.

The big question for us, I think, is how much of our property are we willing to develop into a working farm versus a pretty spot? After running some sample numbers in class yesterday, I was heartened to see that there really is a way to make this financially viable - but a garden plot, one greenhouse, and a couple acres devoted to pasture isn't the path to getting there.

So, I've been trying to do some wandering about with fresh eyes. We can grow mushrooms in our forest, instead of viewing it as a good place for tent-pitching. We can link 3-4 greenhouses side-by-side out front to produce at the best time of year the high-value fruits and veggies Puget Sounders are willing and eager to pay for. And our animal operations should probably stay about where they are, in number. For now anyway.

But, all this requires seeing our little piece of paradise in a whole new way, through a very different set of lenses. And it precipitates some choices. So, that's the hard part - but I have to admit that it was inspiring to see inputs and outputs up on the white board with significant dollar signs - on the plus side - at the bottom. With 40 or 50 farmers markets within an hour of our little island, any island farmer who's willing to travel can do well - if they do it right.

Time + money + experience + hard work + a little bit of good fortune. Like most things, that's all it takes...

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Clothesline Therapy

I was frustrated earlier this beautiful March day, having midday words with Mark and annoyed that my to-do list got thrown under the bus. I'd told myself upon reviewing Wednesday's weather last night that today would be the year's first laundry load to be dried in the precious sunshine. So, before joining my husband to make some headway toward completing Dylan's nearly two-year-old Almost Finished Treehouse, I stomped outside to hang the wash.

Something funny happens when you are snapping clothespins on clean damp fabric under the warmth of that bright glowing orb. Fresh wash flutters all around you, drying even as you hang it. Like other elemental tasks, there's no hurrying it - it is what it is and "efficiency" only robs you of the satisfaction it can bring.

Birds are singing, our dog and cats casually case the joint, chickens saunter up to see what surprises I might be hoarding. I hear the neighbor's faraway chain saw hard at work at its first Spring project and the soprano baa's of our newest flock member.

Undies and socks on the inner lines. Next come PJs. T-shirts and track pants hold the middle ground, and finally, towels and napkins show themselves to the few neighbors who might pass this way. 1, 2, 3, 4. 1, 2, 3, 4. 1, 2, 3, 4. 1, 2, 3, 4. And, we're done.

It takes longer than tossing everything into the giant front-loading dryer, but when you take into account that each item is folded as it comes down, the total differential is probably less than you might predict. And, it's time well-spent - excellent for humming that funny song from high school or solving the world's problems or even just planning out the rest of the day.

It is easy in this small farm life, and I suspect most others, to rush to get through the chore that sits in front of you. But, then in its place sits another and another. If you rush to get through them all, all you get is tired. On the other hand, take a deep breath and enjoy what must be done and you can sometimes discover that it leads to unexpected pleasures.

Like taking joy in building a treehouse with your husband.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Minimizing Made in China

Not long ago, I picked up a sort of personal journey memoir called A Year Without Made in China, by Sara Bongiorni. An expedition in the vein of Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle experiment and others that have sprung up in the wake of Kingsolver's runaway hit, Made in China follows the first-person account of a young woman and her family that commits to purchasing no Chinese imports for one calendar year.

I was interested in see how her experience would compare to mine. I'd made a similar commitment after our son was born - but that was a decade ago and it wasn't easy then. I knew that Chinese imports had skyrocketed in the meantime. I dove into her pages with zeal and empathy.

But, as one chapter bled to the next, I found myself getting more and more frustrated - not just with the predictable loss of non-Chinese alternatives in many product lines, but the fundamental approach Bongiorni took. Time and again we find ourselves in the aisles of Wal-Mart and Target, lamenting the lack of choice and the overwhelming domination of the Chinese manufacturing machine. The giant grocery and warehouse chains offer no reprieve. China China China. Sunglasses become a crisis because of a serious eye condition, a desperately-desired plastic swimming pool almost precipitates divorce. Shoes for growing feet prompt financial angst and philosophical reflection on what we owe our children. And birthday parties for the kids are nearly crises.

Again and again, my reaction is: Well, where have you been the last 10 years? But, even more fundamentally, the question all but screamed itself: Why on Earth are you conducting this experiment at big box stores? I kept turning the pages, searching for the epiphany wherein Bongiorni would begin to discover the small wooden toys shop across town, the excellent resale store down the street that had toys from 20 years ago when plastic was not yet ubiquitous.

What about a few clothes that cost more but are simply styled and longer-lasting than trendy rags that look ridiculous soon and fall apart even sooner? Even more radical - how about using the internet to find people nearby who make and sell some of what you need and possibly even figuring out a way barter something that you make or do?

It cannot possibly come as a surprise that big box stores can only sell what they sell for what the sell it for by buying goods made of the cheapest materials and made by the cheapest hands. Those hands do not live in North America and those materials will often contain traces of even cheaper, toxic, elements.

Can we live a full, modern life without any Chinese imports? No. That is where we are today. There is, however, an almost endless rainbow of ways to minimize the presence of China in your household economy.

But, part of the answer is, again, something Bongiorni never contemplates: It's much harder to raise kids in a house filled with fewer trendy cheap gadgets and toys if they are exposed to those items endlessly. Part of allowing alternatives to Chinese products to present themselves is to not buy into the whole must-have, disposable culture we live in in the first place.

It's OK to give gift certificates to the local bookshop at birthday parties. We do. And we love getting them too. We also give out one nice toy or sciencey-thing in lieu of the absurd bag of plastic crap that has somehow come to be expected as your child's guests depart. Trust me, parents are overjoyed.

It's OK to shop at your local thrift shop or charity second hand store. Almost all our clothes come from ours - and my son is proud of what he considers the ultimate in recycling. It's OK for your children to receive a few high quality hand-crafted items alongside a few cheaper, trendier ones at Christmas. And, of course, it's more than OK to buy fresh vegetables grown by a local farm than to grab the frozen variety that's been cultivated half-way around the world and then shipped in high-cost refrigerated containers to your country, state, and town.

Our summers are nowhere near as suffocatingly hot as what Bongiorni endures in Atlanta, but we go to our local pool to swim. My son doesn't seem scarred by this. He likes running into other kids he knows. Not everything has to take place in your back yard.

Now more than ever, we all want to watch our wallets and spend where it helps our local economy the most. That makes looking for creative ways to keep China's residence in your closet and pantry to a minimum a challenge we might embrace with gusto...and a little creativity.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

On the other hand

There's nothing like the first lamb of the season...healthy and beautiful and eliciting maternal grunts and nickering from his mama. Welcome to the world little guy! Born Tuesday morning, the little bubbie and his mama are doing just fine.

Yes, as my far-away friend Martha Lou Bob says, We are the lucky people. Indeed.

Long Day

Yes, I do have days when I question the wisdom of the whole enchilada. Today was one of those days. It is 8:08PM and I am just now hanging up my proverbial hat for the evening. My hands are shaking with exhaustion and I am ironically eating a deli pizza dressed up with rehydrated Costco mushrooms after having spent the past 2 and a half hours grinding my own lamb meat. It isn't all pasture-raised meats and organic eggs here at SSF.

Between a half-day small-farming workshop on Monday and losing all of Tuesday to driving my mom into Seattle for her cardiology appointment, the rest of the week has felt like running a marathon to catch up.

Spring is intense, for small-scale farmers and for stay-at-home parents alike. Taxes, baseball, lambing, a spike in egg-laying in conjunction with a sudden island glut in eggs, getting the ewes back up to weight, a local election I'm involved in both professionally and as a volunteer, Dylan's homework, swimming lessons, piano, transition from cub scouts into boy scouts, and helping my mom with her current and future art class and shows...these (in addition to the mundane grocery shopping and everyday household chores) frame my days and leave precious little time for strategic thinking about which project comes next: finish Dylan's treehouse, start building his cottage/the guest house, fence off a production garden, get the ram separated or slaughter the ram, prune the trees and shrubs trashed by the winter and overcome with horizontal growth, expand the chicken run, build a proper fence for the veggie garden, establish a fruit tree orchard. What's most urgent first?

And every day I wake up with "finish planting seeds" on the top of my to-do list and every night I go to bed with "finish planting seeds" on the top of tomorrow's to-do list.

Now I'm really tired.

Tomorrow we head to Seattle for another rare city evening of dinner and symphony with our dear friends. But, when I bought the tickets in January, I didn't think about our ewes dropping lambs right now and didn't know my mom's first full art show would open tomorrow night. So, even though I know I will enjoy it and be glad we did it, right now the idea of going off-island for 18 hours or so just fills me with anxiety and fear. Every weekend seems a battleground for farm/family/couple/musician obligations and attractions. Mark and I spent 15 minutes on the phone today, walking through our calendar for the month to figure out how to pull it all off.

One of the main reasons we went to a single-career family model was to free up our time and make sure that our family spent most weekends recreating and enjoying each other's company. Right now it doesn't feel like we're meeting that goal very well.

I know this isn't anything close to a unique situation - we all struggle with time management, whether we're two-career couples or one, urban or rural or suburban. Farm commitments can be uniquely frustrating, however, because they trump everything - spending time on homework or other parental activities, for instance, b/c if you don't attend to your animals, they die. So, your kid handles his homework on his own while you're out throwing hay.

On the flip side, of course, there's working together on weekends and long afternoons as the days lengthen. Building the property and the business side-by-side as a family carries a satisfaction that's tough to match. And those times do happen - pretty often.

But, we all have long days.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Haiku from my son

This sits taped to my monitor, created by Dylan almost 2 years ago. He amazes me.


What came before me
A knowing woman of love
A mom strong and true


Is there anything more amazing than our children?

Eat? Then call!

If you eat meat of any kind, please consider joining us in our fight to keep small-scale farmers alive.  No melodrama needed - the very existence of small farms is on the line as the NAIS - the National Animal Identification System - makes its way into law.  

It's a long story - one you can google or follow links herein if you're interested, but the bottom line is this:  Under the guise of needing to act in cases of Bird Flu-type emergencies, the federal government, under Bush, began to draft legislation that would require all small farmers - please note that large argibusiness is exempted - to ID each of their animals and track them throughout their lives.  

Remarkably, this even includes documenting in real time - ie, emailing or posting on a government website - each time your horse leaves the property when you go riding or a goat goes to the vet.  Every animal in America would have an ID number and would be tracked cradle-to-grave...except for those those that are part of large operations - for whom (no kidding) this would constitute an undue burden.  Not a burden for me and my pals; just a burden for Cargill and your 1000-head rancher.

What this really does, because of the way the bill is structured (ie, the way agribusiness has crafted it and lobbied to mold it) is spell the end of small farms.  Monsanto loves this bill - so does Cargill.  If you're a large corporation growing animals on feedlots and exempt from tracking them - yippee!  But, no small farmer will be able to withstand the costs and other burdens of constant tracking and/or the fees and penalties failure or ignorance will produce.

Make no mistake.  This is not hyperbole.  If you care where your food comes from.  Even if you can't buy small-scale meat for financial or location reasons, but can't abide the idea of only multi-national corporations producing the food America eats, please call your congressperson and insist that they stop this.  It passed the U.S. House of Representatives on Friday.  Please call your Senators and tell them you want small farmers to survive, you want local food production to thrive, and you want local control over food, nutrition, and disease issues in your area.

Go to for more info.


Ewe are not who I thought ewe were

Fairly often, something comes along that reminds me what total neophytes we are at this sustainable farming business. There's the eternal struggle to produce a garden of course, but just when I think we might have the livestock side of the house vaguely under control - the big rancher in the sky rains down a little humility on me.

I got an email this week from our friends who started their fledging Icelandic sheep flock off with sheep from our farm last year. They started with a full-grown ewe, who was pregnant, and her ewe lamb from the previous season. And then they came back and purchased 2 of the new lambs in late summer.

We were all especially impressed with the ewe lamb out of our only white Icelandic, Icey. Yes, indeed, we all agreed, the fact that Icey had not borne a lamb her first year clearly gave her the strength and vitality to produce this exceptional ewe lamb her second year. Why, look at Icey's udder - udder-ly fabulous. She must be producing some wonderful and plentiful milk! And wow wasn't that beautiful new ewe lamb just growing by leaps and bounds? Goodness. She'll surely produce some wonderful babies!  We felt proud and accomplished as the happy new farmers drove off so satisfied with their final ruminant purchase from our little operation.

Fast forward to last week - six months later. Turns out our friends had recently spent a couple months quite perplexed about Icey's lamb, whom they'd named Tinkerbell. Tinkerbell's horns were growing differently than the other ewe's horns. When the vet came on a routine call for their dairy goats, they had him take a look. Nope, she seemed fine.

Then, in need of a ram, they found just the perfect guy down on a farm in Oregon. A real beauty. They drove down and brought him back to the island. Only, Tinkerbell didn't seem to much care for this young man. Why, the other ewes got along with him just fine, but Tinkerbell seemed to feel he was some kind of upstart invader. Fights were had and blood was drawn. What could Tinkerbell possibly have against this sweet little yearling ram?

Now, you've already guessed where this is going, but it wasn't until our friend got out the shears one morning last week to get the flocked cleaned up, turned Tink over and nearly, well, nearly had a lot of blood on his hands, that our friends made the cognitive connection and all those pieces fell into place.

So, an all too true story of how we "fleeced" our friends by selling them a ram we thought was a ewe and our friends blithely carried on that myth for half a year. Humility. On all sides.

The good news for Tink is that he lived a lot longer than he probably would have had his gender been properly identified. That came to an end today, however, as our friends had to get him out of their place before he harmed their intentional ram and he wouldn't have lasted 5 minutes in with our now seasoned and rather aggressive ram. It was his time.

Ordinarily, we would not choose to harvest a single sheep. Slaughtering and butchering is tough and exhausting work, as it should be. But, this had to be done today and so we did it. This is our third time we have slaughtered and today we did it without help of any kind. Just a mom, a dad, and a 10-year-old.

One of the things that strikes me about slaughtering and butchering each time we do it is that it's one of those jobs that cannot be halted, cannot be shelved to finish later, cannot, even, be put off for a few minutes of rest. Once it is begun, it must be finished. If it rains, if someone gets hurt, if you're tired or forgot (or chose not) to eat - oh well. There is nothing to be done but soldier on. Time is critical and all hands are on deck 100% of the time until everything is wrapped and in the fridge and freezer and all equipment and surfaces are broken down and washed. In our multi-tasking world, I think there are fewer and fewer tasks so elemental, so one-directional.

That's a main reason it's so exhausting. Between the relentless race against the clock and the emotional context of taking a life, we were pretty much mush by the end of the three hours.

Now at least we have the fruits of our friends' labor to give back to them for our mistake. They were very gracious and wanted no repayment of any kind. But, it is a small village; it takes everyone pitching in and making things right to keep us in this together.

And I think we'll all take a closer look, probably more than once, at this year's babies.