Saturday, July 31, 2010

Farm Journal: Abundance of the Harvest

I went to the Farmers Market this morning and suddenly realized the abundance of the harvest at this peak time in summer.

How amazing that the earth yields so much food for us to eat! And what a great mystery it is! This certainly evokes in me the feeling of thankfulness for the harvest now that I know something about what it takes to grow food. This is a new experience probably due to the fact that next week I’m presenting a talk about the sacredness of food, which emphasizes the gratefulness for the abundance rather than taking it for granted. This connection to food doesn’t come so easily when it is purchased from the grocery store.

Of course, the abundance of the harvest is dependent on four things: sun, water, good soil (made from animal compost), and cultivation. The first two elements are obvious but we often forget the third. Plants don’t merely sit in soil; they get their nutrients from it. I’m trying to become more knowledgeable about the role of soil and am now reading Sir Albert Howard’s book, The Soil and Health: A Study of Organic Agriculture. It was written before industrialization of agriculture took hold as “conventional” method. Wendell Berry was greatly influenced by Howard’s book and Ron said he bases his farming methods on the book. Howard contends that our health is tied to the health of the soil. He recommends animal and plant compost as a means of regenerating the soil and keeping it healthy. That’s what has allowed India (the site studied for his thesis) to farm crops for thousands of years. Unfortunately, the United States has only grown crops for a couple hundred years and our soil is depleting and eroding. Industrial agriculture is largely responsible for this problem.

But there were other angles to this theme.

My own harvest at the farm is now commencing. I picked a row of onions today and shared half of them with the Kleins. They smelled so good and onion-y! The potatoes are actually ready to be dug, but I want to put off taking them until they grow a little bigger. They will surely be ready for late August when Texas Township holds its first annual community picnic. Donna asked me to supply part of my crop to Asiago’s Restaurant, which is participating in preparing food for the event, and she’d give me credit for growing them in the published bulletin. This is indeed a new development—and a new identity for me. A byline for growing and harvesting food!

The potted plants in front of my house are also sprouting, even though I was very late in transferring them from their little pots into the big pots. The purple flowers of eggplants and the yellow flowers of the tomatoes are appearing and so beautiful. It seems the roots appreciated the roomy spaces the pots offered and really revived the plants after they had been in their little pots for way too long. I wasn’t sure they’d make it. Some of the tomato plants’ leaves were turning yellow. Now they are green and full and tall. That is a lesson in believing in the plant’s growth and giving it a second chance to do so. It reminds me of the fig plant Dad had in our backyard decades ago. He thought the scrawny thing was dead but he gave it another year to grow and voilĂ : it produced fruit. This is also a lesson that comes right out of the Bible, although I can’t remember where.

Goats and Water Buffaloes
After I finished weeding today, I joined Ron for an evening pasture walk. The goats were in the barnyard and they followed us to the south pasture where the buffs were grazing. As usual, I hugged and petted them. Ava was especially responsive to me as was Lola and even Elle, who usually blows me off. It isn’t that she isn’t friendly she is otherwise occupied.

LeBo was the first to greet us, as usual. The animals like to be brushed so Ron takes the hairbrush with him to the pasture. It’s another human to animal contact that they enjoy. “The reward is in the brushing,” says Ron. He let me brush a few of the buffs, including one that I haven’t ever encountered: a great big girl with very curly horns. She was so sweet and gentle and her skin was very soft. It’s still difficult to realize that such big animals can be that way. She licked me (they communicate with the tongue and nose) as we got to know each other a bit.

This is the third or fourth time I’ve been out on the pasture with the buffs and my confidence is growing. They are getting used to me and I to them. That is a major accomplishment!

In three weeks the goats will be ready for mating, says Ron. How time flies! It seems they just had their babies not that long ago in January but time runs in cycles on the farm. Planting these seeds produces baby goats and that is another kind of harvest abundance and we have been blessed with nine healthy and vibrant baby goats. They won’t be bred this year but last year’s kids will. That will help increase the number of total goats for the new farm. Ron wants a total of 40 goats. That will take a doubling of the present herd.

Shadow and Gabby were going at it head to head when I arrived earlier this evening. Ron says that it is a dominance challenge. It’s also about mating and being in heat even though the does don’t seem to enjoy it as much as the bucks. Mating is the only thing I haven’t seen on the farm so I hope I don’t miss it this year.

The new kids are growing strong and tall. Martha and Mary are filling out in width. Lucy is still the smallest but the most curious and interactive. She acts like an ambassador between the humans and the animals and among the animals. She got up on her hind legs to kiss Ron today. She has also showed the other goats how to walk on top of the buffs while they are lying down resting. This is extremely dangerous because they can get hurt if a buff rolls over on them in fun or in agitation. Lil Man can tell them that story because it happened to him and it’s caused him to hobble around on three legs.

I came to the farm this evening and am I glad I did. It’s so different at this time with the coolness of the air, the winding down of the day. It reminds me of childhood on Flint Street where even we kids slowed down our pace and just took time to talk with each other after a day in the sun with baseball, bike riding, and other activities. At home, Dad would often water the garden and flowers and the smell of the water became one of those comfort odors. It’s all so very meditative and delicious.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Travelogue: Stratford Festival Theatre

Kurt and I will go for our annual creativity transfusion in Stratford, Ontario, this week. We plan to see three plays:

"The Tempest" with Christopher Plummer as Prospero
"For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again" starring Lucy Peacock

One of the pure joys of Stratford are the wonderful restaurants. Our favorites include The Old Prune, Pazo's, Fellini's, Ten, Balzac Cafe, York Street, and Boomers French Fries.

The artistic quality of Stratford surrounds you not only with the plays but with the food, bed and breakfast places, the grounds, the Avon River, the people. For a more extensive discussion of the wonder of Stratford, see my article, "A Place Where Beauty Matters."

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Why I Garden

These days, whenever I introduce myself, I say I'm a professor, a freelance writer, and a volunteer on a non-commercial organic farm and goat dairy. That last identity is a new one since a year ago last April when I began working with retired Upjohn/Pharmacia senior research scientist Ron Klein who owns Dancing Turtle Farm.

Dancing Turtle Farm has eight milking does, four bucks, nine doelings who are a year old and nine kids, two of which I “caught” last January when they were born. We also have eight water buffalo, two turkeys, two llamas who watch over the goats, a dozen guinea hens, a quarter acre of land for gardening and a huge pile of compost that has been affectionately named after me: Mount St. Olga’s.

Although my new venture is not a typical academic endeavor, learning how to garden and farm was a conscious and deliberate choice that came out of several considerations.

First of all, I was inspired to do this by Detroit’s urban gardens. Detroit is my hometown and I’m still proud of my city even though conventional wisdom tells us that it is one of the most devastated places in the world without much hope of recovering. However, in June 2008 I discovered a new narrative there: Detroiters involved in the urban garden movement are determined to rebuild, re-generate and re-spirit the city as it provides the people in the neighborhoods with fresh fruits and vegetables.

I heard about this movement from Grace Lee Boggs, age 95, a philosopher, teacher, activist and one of the founders of the movement. She previously was involved in the union and civil rights movements in Detroit with her husband James Boggs, now deceased. They started the gardens movement in 1992 because James could see from his work on the Chrysler assembly line that downsizing and automation would put people out of work and shrink the resources of the city. To do something about this he applied what he had learned growing up as an African American in Alabama: when things get tough, start a garden.

What James was also recognizing was the end of the industrial era and the beginning of the post-industrial era. It is significant that this was happening in Detroit, the once-proud capital of industrialization via the automobile. The city is now the symbol of de-industrialization and urban decay.

As 30 percent of the land in Detroit became vacant through out-migration and the clearing away of old houses, factories and buildings, people began to “adopt” small plots of land to grow their gardens. Since 50 percent of the city is unemployed, gardening is a particularly good idea because it provides fresh produce that is otherwise unavailable in the city. Gardening also gives people something to do, it enables them to interact with their neighbors, and more recently, it trains them for new ventures in marketing their agricultural products. It is an amazing sight to see these beautiful gardens in all shapes and sizes with very proud people of all ages tending them!

One day two years ago, I met Megan Cohen, one of the members of Greening of Detroit (, an educational and resource network that helps people with their gardens. She was working with a couple neighborhood kids at the Romanowski Park Community Garden on Detroit's Westside while I interviewed her about the garden movement. When we finished, she asked me if I gardened. I hemmed and hawed for a bit until I eked out a response that I used to help my father with our backyard garden. The truth was that I didn’t garden and never thought of doing it. However, her casual question, along with what I had seen in Detroit, somehow inspired me to learn how to garden, my second reason.

But there was a third reason. My husband, Kurt, has been studying and writing about oil and energy resources for the past six years. Not a day goes by that we don't talk about peak oil or the transition into the post-industrial era. Peak oil is a point on a bell curve that indicates we have reached the plateau of all the known oil reserves available in the world. When you hit this plateau, the only way to go is downward. Kurt contends that a change of only one percent in the oil supply will make a huge difference in our lives, including high oil prices. So, we decided to live in a place that is close to a grocery store and the downtown where we have bus access and can walk or bike easily, even in winter. In other words, we have arranged our lives geographically for peak oil.

Growing our own food provides us with yet another means of accommodating our lives to peak oil. Actually, I believe that eventually we will all have to learn how to grow our own food so I am getting a head start by learning how to garden now. This is no joke. People like Sharon Astyk (2009), a peak oil writer and gardener, are literally advocating that our nation recruit 100 million farmers and 200 million cooks.

Having enough oil to support our food supply is especially problematic for our country since most of our food is transported in big trucks over an average 1300 miles from our farms to our grocery stores. Under this “just-in-time” inventory-style system, cities have enough food to last only about three or four days. Agriculture itself is highly dependent on oil for its chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and high-tech equipment. You can quickly see the problem of cost in operating our food system, especially if you remember what it was like living with $4 a gallon gasoline just two summers ago.

But there are other reasons why I decided to learn how to garden. My husband developed a lot of food allergies, which at one point amounted to about 40 different foods. As you can imagine, this made cooking for each other nearly impossible. Eventually, he started eating organic food, which costs 20 to 30 percent more compared to “regular” industrial food. I regarded organic food as extravagant gourmet food until I recognized that it was more costly to go to doctors than it was to buy organic food. When I started gardening I suddenly realized that if I grew organic vegetables, I could cut down on our food expenses. At Dancing Turtle Farm we grow potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants, cabbage squash, and beans so during four months of the year so I not only save a lot of money on food but I obtain fresh and tasty organic food. I’m also learning how to can food to extend our food supply into the winter months.

But growing and eating organic food was not just a health issue for my husband. It became a preventive health as well as an aesthetic issue for me. Why should I eat pesticided food just because it is cheaper? That metallic aftertaste is just not pleasant to eat. Food should be a pleasure and a delight, not fuel to keep our bodies going! Then I heard about genetically-modified organisms or GMOs and became very alarmed.

Genetic engineering (GE) or the genetic modification (GM) of food involves the laboratory process of artificially inserting both genes and genetic control mechanisms into the DNA of food crops or animals. The result is a genetically modified organism (GMO). GMOs can be engineered with genes from bacteria, viruses, insects or animals-including humans. GMO-derived foods are pervasive and, due to current U.S. laws and regulations, difficult to distinguish between foods that are GMO and those that are not.

One significant problem with GM seeds is that through the GE process, mutations are generated throughout a plant’s DNA, such as deleting or permanently shutting natural genes on or off, thus changing the complex interactive behavior of hundreds of genes or changing or rearranging either natural or inserted genes that may create unique proteins that can trigger allergies or promote disease.

In his second book, Genetic Roulette (2007), GMO activist Jeffrey Smith presents irrefutable evidence of 65 health dangers linked to GMOs including allergens, carcinogens, new diseases, antibiotic resistant diseases and nutritional problems.

Children with young, fast-developing bodies face the greatest risk from the potential dangers of GM foods for the same reasons that they face risk from other hazards like pesticides and radiation: they are susceptible to allergies and have problems with milk, nutrition and antibiotic resistant diseases.

Nevertheless, genetically modified seeds are gaining ground in usage—and they are winning law suits in the courts because they promise crops that not only resist insects and have extremely high yields per acre, but they also produce crops with high levels of desirable nutrients and vitamins (

So gardening became my defense against ingesting GMOs. But there’s more. As the world’s problems seem to be increasing with climate change, economic downturn and now the environmental catastrophe like the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, I find myself overwhelmed by things that I can do nothing about. Growing food and caring for farm animals, however, are not only essential skills to learn for the post-industrial, post-peak-oil era, but they give me things that I can control in my life. Besides, I feel accomplishment after I milk nine goats, clean a barn, plant a quarter acre of potatoes, or weed a field and I never leave the farm without these satisfactions no matter how tired I feel or how dirty and sweaty I get. Of course, there is the pure delight of eating the food—a gratifying payoff for what it took to grow it.

Gardening is also fun and it has opened up new relationships for me with local farmers and a whole community of urban people who are focused on addressing sustainability and food justice issues as well as gardening. These relationships are engaging because they involve people who are actively thinking about and planning for our uncertain future.

Over this past year I have been developing a new relationship with food through the time I spend and the muscle I apply to milk a goat or grow a potato. This all requires care, practice, patience, responsibility—and a little luck from Nature. It is my great hope that more people have the opportunity to gain such insight in their own way because food is basic to everyone's needs and essential to the quality of life.