Saturday, January 31, 2009

Food for Thought

Lately I've been thinking about food, but not because I'm hungry. I'm interested in how best to raise it -- for a family, for a community, and for society. There is little doubt that current farming practices are both highly destructive and highly productive.

The so-called Green Revolution of the 20th century delivered the large scale, mechanized model of agriculture to much of the world, and as grain harvests grew, so did population. This model of food production has been extraordinarily, almost miraculously productive. So it is not surprising that it has surpassed traditional, lower impact methods of agriculture as the preferred method of raising food.

But, as always, agriculture comes at a cost to the land base. Since the dawn of agriculture some 10,000 years ago, intensive cultivation of the soil has been an ecologically taxing endeavor. Farmers have always walked an agricultural tightrope -- it's a balancing act between producing enough to feed a growing population and exhausting the soil upon which the entire system depends.

Traditionally, farming societies would have been forced to periodically rotate crops to avoid pests and disease, and they replenished the fertility of the soil through simple but effective forms of fertilization, such as slash and burn agriculture and the application of animal manures. And even with this relatively low impact, low yield system, population had a tendency to outstrip food supply and there were occasional famines due to variable harvests from year to year. These early farming societies also sometimes exhausted the land base to the point that agriculture became impossible or inexorably changed for years to come.

Examples of ecological mismanagement leading to such collapses abound (e.g. deforestation on Mediterranean islands, soil salinization due to over-irrigation in the once-fertile crescent, damming and diversion of the Nile leading to loss of seasonal alluvial deposits). But modern farming has changed the rules of the game (at least in the short term).

The use of manufactured, ammonia-based fertilizers and petro-chemical pesticides enables us to grow the same crop year after year without giving the land a rest and without actively managing the health of the soil through natural processes. You can see the results if you drive through Kansas (which I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy) -- county after county of monoculture plantations of grain.

This is the factory mentality of economy of scale and assembly line production applied to farming. The soil is reduced to an inert, lifeless recepticle for a host of soil additives, and farming itself is reduced to a highly monotonous form of trucking. After all, hopping on a tractor and driving around in circles all day is closer to long-haul trucking than it is to true land husbandry. And let's not even talk about the cramped feedlots where our animal protein comes from (just read "Fast Food Nation" for a short cut to veganism).

Traditional farming demanded a wide range of skills and careful management of the soil to ensure a healthy, balanced system. Now there are very few such farmers left, and the majority of our food comes from thousands of miles away as a result. God how boring must it be to grow nothing but corn! And to do it in complete solitude with nothing but heavy machinery and chemicals to keep you company. It is a sad bastardization of farming and agrarian life. This alone is an outrage, but it gets much worse!

Consider for a moment the longer term, cumulative effect of these practices on the environment, and you won't just be a little aggravated, you'll be justifiably frightened. The great irony of modern farming is that while it is amazingly productive in the short term, it actively undermines our ability to feed ourselves in the long term. If we don't catch a clue, modern farming may be setting up the world for widespread famine (particularly in places like Haiti, sub-Saharan Africa, Indian sub-continent, etc. which depend on grain imports to feed their populations).

What happens when the Ogallala Aquifer finally gets sucked dry? What happens to all that wonderful agricultural land in the California desert when soil salinization finally reaches the surface? What happens when we no longer have the cheap, abundant fossil fuel necessary to keep the fertilizers, tractors and pesticides on the fields?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Queen of Soul

The soul of America.....

the coming social shift.

Brought to you by Clusterfuck Nation, the blog:

"The "change" we face in agriculture dwarfs even the death throes of Happy Motoring (and is not unrelated to it either). A lot of people are likely to starve in America if we don't get our act together pronto in terms of how we produce the food we eat. Petro-agribusiness faces a set of disturbances that are certain to induce food shortages. Again, the Peak Oil specter looms in the background, for soil "inputs" and diesel power to run that system. But all of a sudden even that problem appears a lesser danger than the gross failure of capital finance now underway -- and petro-agriculture's chief external input is credit. Credit may be in extremely short supply this year, and hence crops may be in short supply as we turn the corner into spring and summer. Just as in the case of WalMart versus Main Street, the reform of farming in America is one of those "changes" much larger than most of us imagine. I'd go so far to say that a large proportion of young people now in college will find themselves not working in office cubicles, but in some way or other in farming or the "value-added" activities connected to it." -- jim kunstler 1-19-09

This is a severe scenario, I admit. But assuming for a moment that some version of it is true -- the result being that more of us inhabit the countryside, adding value to natural materials, and producing healthy local food. Suppose fewer of us make a living sitting at a desk all day, and more of us actually make our living by being good stewards of our collective land base. Is that a bad thing? I embrace this future.

Black First Family Changes Everything

Here is a copy of a very interesting article from CNN

CNN) -- Jamaal Young was watching Barack Obama and his family greet an ecstatic crowd in Chicago, Illinois, on Election Night when he realized that something seemed wrong.
Obama didn't shout at his wife, Michelle, to shut up. The first lady didn't roll her eyes and tell Obama to act like a man. No laugh track kicked in, no one danced, and no police sirens wailed in the background.

Young had tuned in to celebrate the election of the nation's first African-American president. But he realized that he was witnessing another historic first. A black family was being featured as the first family, not the "problem family" or the "funny family.

"They are not here to entertain us," says Young, a New York Press columnist. "Michelle Obama is not sitting around with her girlfriends saying, 'My man ain't no good.' You're not seeing this over -sexualized, crazy black family that, every time a Marvin Gaye song comes on, someone stands up and says, 'Oh girl, that's my jam.' "

The nation didn't just get a glimpse of its new first family when Obama and his family waved to the crowds on Inauguration Day. The Obamas are offering America a new way to look at the black family, Young and other commentators say.

America has often viewed the black family through the prism of its pathologies: single-family homes, absentee fathers, out of wedlock children, they say. Or they've turned to the black family for comic relief in television shows such as "Good Times" in the '70s or today's "House of Payne."
But a black first family changes that script, some say. A global audience will now be fed images of a highly educated, loving and photogenic black family living in the White House for the next four years -- and it can't be taken off the air like "The Cosby Show."
Don't Miss
Obama's girls about to go into the fishbowl
Michelle Obama's urban chic heads to D.C.
Washington abuzz about Obamas
"The last time we had an image of a black family that was this positive it was "The Cosby Show," but this is the Real McCoy," says Jacqueline Moore Bowles, national president of Jack and Jill of America Inc., a predominately black organization for youths.
A new vision of black intimacy
The new first family could inspire some of their biggest changes within the black family itself, some say

In 1965, the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a Democratic senator from New York, warned the nation about the rise of fatherless black families. The "Moynihan Report" concluded that many black families were caught in a "tangle of pathology."

The relationship between Obama and his wife may help untangle some of that pathology, some black commentators say.

It could start with black intimacy. The American public is routinely exposed to sexually charged relationships between black men and women. "Street lit" books with titles such as "Thugs and the Women Who Love Them," and "A Project Chick" now crowd bookstores and public library shelves.

Yet the new first couple offers America an example of a black, passionate, marital relationship, says Jennifer Brea, a writer for
"They are the most natural and accessible first couple this country has ever had," Brea says. "You see a politician give a peck on his wife's cheek after a speech and often it looks staged. When you look at them, you feel like that there's this chemistry and spark."
Several black women actually sighed as they talked about how much Obama seems to touch his wife and exchange soulful glances with her in public. They said Obama will show young black men how to treat women -- and young black women how they should be treated.
"We don't get to see black love," says Heidi Durrow, the prize-winning author of the forthcoming novel, "Low Sky Dreaming."

"But every time you see them [the Obamas] on stage, it's been super," she says. "It's an amazing image to see these dynamic, smart, progressive people just openly affectionate. I'm all for it."
Obama's apparent closeness to his wife may help untangle another pathology -- the preoccupation with skin color and "looking white," Bowles, president of Jack and Jill, says.
Bowles says some powerful black men marry women who are white or fair-skinned. Obama's decision to marry a darker-skinned woman like Michelle Obama shows black women that black can indeed be beautiful.

"Too often successful black men look for other things ... a white woman or someone who light, bright and darn near white," Bowles says. "She [Obama] is a true sister, and she makes no bones about it."

'They're not 'Bebe's Kids' '
But what about those blacks who haven't been considered "true sisters" or "true brothers." A black first family changes that script as well, some say.
Obama's family shows that there is not one way, but many ways for someone to claim membership in the black family, some say.
Brea, the writer for, is the daughter of white mother and a Haitian-American father. She says she felt pressure to claim one race growing up. She never quite felt like a full citizen.

Obama's biracial background and his "exotic" upbringing relieves her of that pressure. Obama will help other blacks who come from multiracial backgrounds and immigrant communities to be comfortable in their own skin, she says.

"It's changed everything," she says. "You can sort of be whatever you want in all of its complexity, and it's something to be proud of."
The Obama's two daughters, Malia and Sasha, also offer America a new way to look at black kids, others say. Throughout Inauguration Day, the two girls stood before the cameras and waved, smiled and played to the cameras.

Durrow, the author of "Low Sky Dreaming," says it's refreshing to see well-spoken black children on television who act nothing like "Bebe's kids," the unruly black kids from the ghetto immortalized by the late black comedian Robin Harris.
"It's wonderful for people on the world stage to see young black kids who are so poised and vivacious," Durrow says. "They're not 'Bebe's Kids.' I see them and I get the sense that they're going to be OK."

Though the new first family may seem like a novelty to some, but for others they are familiar.
Barbara McKinzie, international president of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, says she grew up in a small town in Oklahoma surrounded by black couples, and an extended family of teachers and neighbors, who were knit together like the new first family.
She didn't need to look at the Inauguration Day festivities to see a vibrant black family.
"It's not new, but it appears new," she says. "The president and his wife and children are not a novelty in the African-American community.
"It's the only family I've know in my life."

Friday, January 16, 2009

The PodChef!! My New Hero!

I found this guy on YouTube, and he's doin' it all the way. He runs an organic smallholding up in the beautiful San Juan islands off the coast of Washington where he raises a diverse variety of livestock, veggies and grains. Check out all of these videos -- very informative stuff. This is a picture of the future of farming, ironically many aspects are ancient agrarian traditions that have been dusted off and re-labeled 'sustainable'. Whatever it's called, it's good farming.

Baking Bread In A Wood Oven

Tour of the PodChef's Smallholding


Farming With a Chicken Tractor

Winter on PodChef Island

Pasture Pigs Part 1

Pasture Pigs Part 2