Friday, July 31, 2009

Innovative urban agrarians

This is an exciting time for local food. Over the last fifty years, our farmers have been convinced, via government encouragement, regulations, and corporate manipulation, to get big or get out. Most got out. The remaining got big, and the rest of the holdouts now can't even make a living farming, instead usually relying on government subsidies and off-farm income to make ends meet. Locally produced food became a very niche market in the form of CSA's, Farmer's Markets, and some cooperatives.
But local food (even though threatened by such insanity as HR 2749!!) is making a comeback. Many farmers, gardeners and ranchers have gotten creative, such as Joel Salatin and Will Allen, whose stories, and others, have been told in such books as Everything I Want to Do is Illegal, The Omnivore's Dilemma, A Nation of Farmers, and new movies like Fresh and Food, Inc. One of our local Oklahoma City innovators is named Matt Burch of the Urban Agrarian. He's not a farmer himself, but instead he's a facilitator, bringing together Oklahoma farmers and Oklahoma restaurants and cooks.

The Urban Agrarian brings local food to our OKC area markets in several different ways. Matt works with about 40 local restaurants, including Coach House, to supply some of their in-season vegetables. He also operates aVeggie Van on biodiesel made of waste oil - obtained from these same restaurants! The Veggie Van, which is kind of like a traveling farmer's market, can be found at the SE corner of NW 23rd and Hudson, across from Cheevers, on Sundays from 11 am to 3 pm.

Having missed the OSU Farmer's Market on Saturday, I got the chance to visit the Veggie Van on Sunday. It's nice to have options so that if you don't make one Farmer's Market, another is available on a different day. When I arrived at the Veggie Van, they were offering fresh zucchini and yellow squash, several different peppers, luscious tomatoes, garlic, cantaloupes, blueberries, a variety of freshly-baked goods and canned jams from Earth Elements, free-range eggs, and more. Matt reported he will also soon be carrying local cheese from Hardesty Farms.

Matt Burch and Jassen Smoot

Earth Elements display at the Veggie Van

If you don't catch the Urban Agrarian on Sundays, Matt is one of the few people offering local produce at the infamous Edmond "Farmer's" market, and also one of three vendors at the brand-new Department of Health farmer's market on Tuesdays from 3 - 6 pm. This variety in market channels is one thing that we may see more and more of as people seek to diversify away from only having one source of income (namely, a corporate or government job).

Another innovative agrarian in our area is Ron Ferrell, who builds raised bed gardens with a ready-to-plant combination of straw bales for the edges, composted horse manure for the soil, and cardboard to smother the grass/weeds. As he says, just add seeds and water! This is great for people who don't have the energy, time, resources, or physical strength to start a garden, but who are easily able to plant seeds and transplants once a garden is built. I also love the very deep rich soil this must create - great for any root or nitrogen-hungry veggie.

Instant garden

Americans love innovation... it's just that we've been innovating in all the wrong ways for the last fifty years. Moving further and further away from sustainability and resilience, we've managed to become completely dependent on just a tiny number of companies that control everything from our seeds, to our animals in gigantic confined operations, to our grains that are the feedstock for almost everything in our grocery stores. All run on massive inputs of chemicals, oil, and cruelty.

Now is the time to innovate our way out of this unhealthy dependency. It's not enough to "go back" to the way our ancestors did things - they lived in very different times and circumstances, and although we've made massive mistakes since then, we've also developed and discovered great information resources and technologies. We have to use the wisdom of our forefathers, along with the wisdom of the native people who knew this land so well before we invaded, but also the new innovations and ideas we've gained since then.
We are going to need more and more of these creative agrarian people to re-build a food system so lacking in nutrition and flavor that we douse everything with fat, fried and high-fructose funk just to get it down our throats. We need innovation at every level of the process. Along with farmers and ranchers, we need seed savers, transplant sellers, backyard chicken wranglers, cooks who can work with whole ingredients of in-season foods, and local food brokers.

You can contribute to that renaissance. As I was leaving the Veggie Van, I joked that I should have brought some of my Mom's banana peppers. She has so many she doesn't know what to do with them all. Matt said to bring it on - he buys from small gardeners, too. That's good to hear... maybe he'll take some of my lemon balm and chocolate mint?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

One-month solar dryer anniversary

I've been air-drying my clothes, towels, sheets and cleaning rags for a month now, and I seem to still be going strong. I had my doubts that I would be able to stick with the routine since it takes slightly longer than just throwing them in the dryer. However, with practice I have cut down on the time it takes to put up and take down my laundry and found that I enjoy the excuse to get outdoors. Luckily, the clothesline is in the shade so it is enjoyable to be out there almost any time of day.

I have noticed that some clothes are slightly more wrinkly, and towels more stiff. I try to give them a quick "snap!" as I am first hanging them up, and I've learned to hang shirts up by the bottom and pants up by the waist. The wrinkles seem to ease out as they are hanging up in my closet. Also, the laundry has a faint outdoorsy scent when the clothes come off the line. But that fades and I don't notice it when I wear them.

The main benefit has just been the satisfaction that I get from using less energy, although at this time of year a close second is avoiding the additional heat from the dryer, which stresses out my geothermal HVAC system. I'm sure I'm saving some money, but it's probably $10 a month, at most. However, if my dryer ever broke it would be nice to know I didn't need to pay that $300 - 400 - 500 expense. An unexpected benefit has been the fun my two-year old son has playing with the laundry on the line. He likes to hide behind the sheets and run in and out of the clothes. It's actually kind of a fun activity to do together.

The only issue is making sure to do the laundry when there is no rain threatening. I have to do laundry on a certain schedule, because I run out of certain items rather regularly, and so I have only a short window of opportunity - if I miss it due to rain, then I'll have to use the dreaded dryer. So far that hasn't happened. And in Oklahoma City, I don't see it as being too frequent of a problem. We'll see how I hold up with my routine during fall and winter...

If anyone is interested in starting to sundry their laundry, but doesn't happen to have a former kiwi trellis boondoggle around just begging to be used as a solar dryer, you could check out this article for some clothesline options.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Fall tomatoes

Most people associate fall planting with the cold-hardy vegetables - broccoli, brussels sprouts, spinach, garlic, and kale. But here in Oklahoma, we can plant fall tomatoes in July and August, because we have a pretty long growing season. Last winter our early planted tomatoes recovered after their mid-summer slump and lasted until about early November, when we harvested all the green ones and wrapped them in newspaper so they could ripen on our counter.

However, this year the tomato plants are looking pretty tired, spidermite infested, and not too many new tomatoes are on the horizon. Except for the cherry tomatoes and Juliets, which are still giving me a relatively good crop. The Tulsa-based Tomato Man's Daughter reports that in the past three years, her fall tomato crop has done better than her spring-planted tomatoes, due in part to the warmer weather during planting and also more consistent weather after planting - no early freezes or torrential rains.

So Sunday morning I planted three supplemental fall tomatoes, all I had room for in my garden. My parents brought them down from Tulsa where the Tomato Man's Daughter (TMD) sells heirloom tomato transplants. I planted a Cherokee Purple, a Sioux, and a Soujourner according to the special instructions in the TMD guide.

I hunted down some spots in the garden that had not had tomatoes in the past two years (this year or last) that were at least three feet from another tomato, and would get a good amount of sun despite the shadows from the pecan tree that creep ever closer to the house as the summer wanes. On these spots, I tossed 1/2 cup bone meal, 1/2 cup greensand, one cup worm castings, and a banana, and dug them into the ground. (Actually TMD recommends good-quality manure, but I didn't feel like going out and buying it, so I just used the alternative I had available.) I placed the tomatoes in the ground so that most of the stem would be buried, and watered and mulched the plants. According to TMD, I should mulch with a foot of straw. Maybe this is my problem - I certainly don't have a foot of mulch covering my garden.

I hope the tomatoes do well in these locations; they are not in ideal spots because I had to work around other plants already in the garden. We're expected to finally (!) have some rain off and on for the next week, so I think these plants will get a good start in life. But if it gets too blazing hot and sunny, which is not unlikely this time of year, I will need to set up some kind of temporary protection, like shade cloth or a little afternoon shade teepee.

Next on my fall planting list: bush beans and zucchini. And in late August / early September, lettuce, spinach, kale, and garlic. I may even get crazy and try some broccoli and brussels sprouts. I just really want to grow those wild looking brussels towers. However, I'm not sure if I can accomplish this feat since I have not started any transplants, and no one really sells fall garden transplants here in OKC. So if I want them, I may have to start them from seed.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Open Space

Transition Town OKC hosted our first retreat last weekend. We had about 25 participants who gave up their Saturday to teach each other about peak oil, climate change, and the Transition Town framework, and to brainstorm ideas (using Open Space) on how to raise awareness about them.

Our retreat had a strict budget of $0. The labor to create all the materials was free. The facilities location was loaned to us, along with printing services (Thanks, V!). Catering was potluck. Easels, post-its, and markers were donated by our "parent" organization, Sustainable OKC. The optional showing of the short documentary Energy Crossroads was provided by the Sierra Club, and wine was provided by three ladies of our group.

We used the "cards" method for our morning sessions. We had three sets of cards - peak oil, climate change and the Transition Town framework. Each card has some information or a graph on the front, with the explanation on the back. The cards are divided up among the members of each group and each person takes turns sharing the information with the rest of the participants. It's a great way to avoid showing a Power Point presentation :), as well as stimulate debate and interaction. Most people had some in-depth knowledge on either peak oil or climate change, but usually not both, so I think everyone learned something. I plan to use this cards method in the future at other presentations - it's a nice change from the usual, although it does have it's shortcomings as well (e.g. less control over explanations).

After a delicious potluck lunch, we reconvened to experience Open Space. In this method of organizing, the sponsors only have to set the question and provide the facilities. The rest of the work is done by the participants. In our case, the question was "What are some ways to raise awareness about peak oil, climate change and Transition Town OKC?" (Reminder to self: In the future, WRITE the question up on the wall where everyone can see it.)

The Open Space method has only four principles and one law. The four principles are:

1. Whoever comes are the right people.

2. Whatever happens is the only thing that could.

3. Whenever it starts is the right time.

4. When it's over, it's over.

And the Law of Two Feet says: If at any time you feel like you are not learning or contributing to the session, you should use your two feet to go to someplace where you are. The idea is that people should participate in whatever they are passionate about. Some people will float about, others will stay put and take notes, some will just learn.

We set up four rooms and two session times, for eight time slots. Seven of these slots were filled. Here were some of the ideas:

1. Working with neighborhoods

2. Envisioning an abundant future

3. Selecting a theme / logo

4. Growing the local food movement/ growing local food

5. Fuel rationing?

6. Using movies for outreach

7. Permaculture education courses

I only got to participate in three of the sessions (I floated around a bit but mostly stayed put). I particularly enjoyed the Neighborhoods session, since this is an ultra-local way to make change. I have written a few articles for my neighborhood newsletter, gone to a few meetings and I can see that if people got motivated, we could create a lot of change right here in Suggs Park. Phone trees (for information distribution), emergency management plans, crime watches, community gardens, bulletin boards, tool sharing, barter networks, and baby-sitting co-ops can all be at such a local level. And when an entire neighborhood gets mobilized, city government starts to take notice.

After the sessions, we gathered as a group to hear about the other ideas that were discussed. Although the debriefing wasn't as brief as I'd hoped, there was plenty of enthusiasm to go around. I hope that we can sustain this energy as our TTOKC group starts to evaluate these projects and allocate our resources towards them. As a positive omen, several people expressed an interest in coming to our next meeting.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Drought and heat resilience

As I write this, we've just had a crazy deluge, complete with lightning and hail, in my part of Oklahoma City. For the four weeks prior, however, we've had nothing but sun, sun, and 100+ degree heat. My poor garden is scorching, even though I have mulched it with straw and water it every morning.

I am getting a handful of Roma and cherry type tomatoes every day, the Swiss chard and okra are still growing, and the sunflowers are 12 feet high (!!) but so far bubkes from the zuchinni, pole beans and just one or two lousy jalapeno peppers. It also appears that the butternuts have stopped growing. Strangely, the malabar spinach I planted has never really gotten started. I think most of the seeds were washed out in the early spring floods we had.

If we are going to stay in Oklahoma City, we are bound to encounter this type of weather more and more often, along with other freakish weather shifts. So if I ever hope to get anything out of my garden, I am going to need to put in a little more resilient design effort. Otherwise I may end up with nuttin'. Here are some ideas to drought and heat proof my garden:

1. Add more organic matter. I need to get a load of horse manure and cover my raised garden beds with it. This will help my soil retain more moisture. And this fall I will switch from regular composting to trench composting in the garden (wherever there happens to be room).

2. Mulch with newspaper and straw. I have already done this, but plan to get more next year so I can get better, deeper, coverage.

3. Try to find more heat and drought resistant or even loving plants. For this, I might try calling the OSU-OKC extension service.

4. Plant a big, late garden. I am going to try to plant a mid-summer, early fall and late fall garden this year, if I can find the room. I will try to plant short-season faves like beans, zuchinni, and greens along with fall regulars like the brassicas and garlic. If this year's heat is any indication, this may end up being my "main" time to garden. Last year, if I remember correctly, we pulled the last tomatoes out in late November.

5. Use ollas. Ollas, which are large buckets or pots buried in the ground, deliver water right to the roots of the plant as needed. Often, people can just water the bucket/pot a few times per month and just let the water slowly seep out. I planned to make some ollas this year, but somehow it just got away from me...

6. Rig up shade protection. This year, I interplanted my butternuts with sunflowers, thinking that it would be like a "two sisters" configuration. However, I didn't figure on the fact that they are both very hungry plants. I think they may be competing. Still, the general idea is good. The Swiss Chard that is getting some shade from a bean trellis seems to be doing well.

7. Invest in rainwater harvesting. In the case of drought, restrictions may be imposed. Occasionally that will even extend to gardens. Having a backup plan will help make sure I can keep my garden watered - and supply backup water in the case of municipal water interruption (pipe breaks, etc.). I have about 800 gallons of water storage, enough to supply water to my family (at 6 gallons per day) and a garden for a few weeks.

How about you other hot-and-dry climate gardeners? Can you give me a few tips?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Sweet dreams are made of this

As some of you know, I experience occasional or, let's-just-admit-it frequent, insomnia. There are multiple reasons people have insomnia, (although it seems to be a mystery to science) but one of the reasons I can't sleep through the night was because of my 10+ year old mattress and bedsprings.

Sleep is important to me. I enjoy my dream-time, and I have to admit I get more than a little snarky when I don't get my 8 hours. So last week I bought my first-ever mattress. We decided to go with a latex mattress, made here in Oklahoma City by the Oklahoma Mattress Co. Of course, the latex is imported, but it's supposed to be from a renewable resource (latex drawn from rubber trees). And when it arrived, I noticed it was covered in a bamboo-material exterior!

I had never heard of a latex mattress before. Apparently, latex is naturally antimicrobial and mildew and dust-mite resistant. The mattress I picked is 6 solid inches of firm latex (no springs) plus 2 inches of soft-top (memory foam). I laid down on it at the store for a few minutes and it felt very comfortable. It supported my spine but still relieved pressure points.

What really convinced me, though, was the assurance that these mattresses last a good 20 - 25 years. As a principle, I have been trying to either buy used goods or ones that are very durable. So I was happy to find a mattress that I won't have to flip, rotate or replace for the next 20 years, at least. If I can't have electricity or avocados when SHTF, at least I can have a good night's sleep ;).

The price was more than I wanted to pay. However, I apparently had a misconception about what mattresses cost. We visited a big-box store to get a comparison, and the sets there were at a minimum, $500 more than the locally-made, environmentally-friendly, 20-year-lasting latex mattress, and generally the name-brand ones seemed to cost $1000 more. And when we amortize out the cost of the mattress over 20 years, it came out to about $55 per year. Our choice was pretty easy. Oklahoma Mattess Co. delivered it last week, and as a bonus, the delivery person told me that they donate the used mattresses that they pick up to churches and other emergency shelter places. Yay, reduced landfill waste!

I have been sleeping on my new mattress for the last six days, and I believe it is helping with my insomnia. I used to wake up at night, back or hips aching, not able to get comfortable, and not be able to fall back asleep for hours. Since I have been sleeping on this mattress, I have not had that problem. I did have one night of insomnia, but that's not because I was uncomfortable. It was because I can't manage to turn off my brain.

Mattresses are a very individual preference. Not everyone is going to like a latex mattress. And, of course, if you don't want to buy something made of imported latex, a latex mattress is not a good choice for you. But if you are having back or hip pain or arm/hand numbness and tingling, you might consider looking into a new mattress - and I think latex mattresses are a pretty good choice. 'Course, that's just my 2 cents.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Transition Tidbits

For those of you following our Transition Town OKC adventures, we have several events coming up. Ever since our training in Albuquerque, things seem to be gathering steam. Two weeks ago, several of our members met with a local former minister to brainstorm on the best ways to engage the faith-based community with Transition Town and "going local". Then, one of our team members invited us to speak to the Board of one of her projects, and we were invited to speak to a local university class about TTOKC.

But wait, there's more! This Sunday, my co-chair is screening the DVD of Energy Crossroads at her house so our group can decide if it is suitable for public consumption :). Next Tuesday, we will be tabling at the Local Food Fair, sponsored by the ever-active Sierra Club and Buy Fresh Buy Local, at the historic Harn Homestead. And next Saturday, one of our members is hosting us at her ranch in Jones, OK for a day-long strategic planning retreat.

The retreat is key, because our group needs to determine the best ways to allocate our energy, money and time over the next 6 months - 1 year. We are an all-volunteer organization, with no paid staff members, and most people have jobs, families, gardens, and other volunteer obligations. We want to get more people involved, and empower the people we already have to pursue their passion and ideas. And finally, we need to start reaching critical mass in the next 6 months!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Power of Dissent

Almost everyone has experienced the intense pressure to conform to a group decision, social norms, or directions from the authorities, despite deep misgivings or doubts. All around us are examples of societal expectations that are completely irrational, unsustainable, or even blatantly immoral - but we must conform or be marked as an outsider, bizzare, unworthy.

Researchers have attempted to measure the intensity of group pressure. In a landmark study in 1951, Solomon Asch asked groups of five people which of three lines matched a fourth line. Four of the people were actors, and gave the same (seriously obvious) incorrect answer. Study results found that the fifth person, the subject of the study, also gave the same incorrect answer at least one time in 75% of the experiments in order to agree with the group.

Another study, by the same researcher, found that subjects gave wrong answers up to 97% of the time - when the group was unanimous in supporting the incorrect answer. But Asch also found a way to break the spell. When one of the four actors reported a different answer than the other three (even if it was not the correct answer, even if the actor appeared incompetent), the subject was able to break away from the group consensus in one out of three times and give the correct answer.

Along with pressure to conform to the group, Americans also feel incredibly compelled to obey authority. Stanley Milgram, at Yale University, performed a set of experiments in the 1960's after the trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann. Milgram designed the experiments to test whether people would be willing to give painful electrical shocks, in increasing increments of voltage, up to 450-volt shocks to other people as a part of a "memory test".

Milgram found that 65% of subjects (26 of 40) administered the final 450-volt shock, despite the actor in the next room screaming, banging on the wall, pleading to be released, complaining of a serious heart condition, and eventually stopping responding completely (simulating heart attack, coma or death). Although many of the subjects asked permission to stop the shocks, and some began laughing hysterically, crying, or shaking, they continued when the "researcher" told them to. Only one person stopped before the 300-volt level. This experiment was repeated in 2009 and researchers found almost the exact same rate of compliance.

Milgram, in a Harper's article, concluded:

This is, perhaps, the most fundamental lesson of our study: ordinary people,
simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can
become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the
destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to
carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality,
relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority....

The essence of obedience is that a person comes to view himself as the instrument for carrying out another person's wishes, and he therefore no longer regards himself as responsible for his actions. Once this critical shift of viewpoint has occurred, all of the essential features of obedience follow. The most far-reaching consequence is that the person feels responsible to the authority directing him but feels no responsibility for the content of the actions that the authority prescribes. Morality does not disappear -- it acquires a radically different focus: the subordinate person feels shame or pride depending on how adequately he has performed the actions called for by authority.

But again, Milgram found a way to either strengthen or break the leash of obedience. He later replicated the experiment, including accomplices who acted as assistant teachers to the subject. When accomplices administered the shocks without protest, compliance increased from 65% to 93%. When accomplices refused to administer the shocks, compliance decreased to an astonishing 10%.

What do these experiments mean for us? On the face of it, the results are depressing. 65% of people readily abdicate morality - to the extent of potentially killing a person who is guilty only of giving wrong answers - by submitting to the will of authority. But we can turn the lessons of the experiment around. 65% of people let go of their morals in order to obey authority, but only 10% do so if they have someone to provide the right example, who stand up for what is right. If we are willing to dissent, we can inspire others to stand with us.

The power of dissent is the power to break the spell. How many other people around you are living their lives in a trance, simply following what they believe is group consensus, simply obeying authority? How many are living their lives in a way that they know is unsustainable and unjust, but they don't have the strength or the knowledge to resist on their own? The Milgram and Asch experiments suggest that just one person can make a difference when many people have their doubts about what they are being told to do.

Powerful change can occur when just one person dares to disagree with authority, dares to go against the crowd, dares to say "No." Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Rachel Carson, Michael Pollan, Colin Campbell, and M. King Hubbert are all contemporary examples, but they draw on the historical precedent of such dissenters as Jesus Christ, Martin Luther, and Galileo. The form of their dissent varied. Not all of them led protests or died for their beliefs. Some simply published the truth. Some refused to step aside. They sparked movements, transformed religions and changed history. Their dissent inspired millions.

So who will you be? Will you be the person who dares to give a different answer? The person who refuses to proceed with the shocks? Or will you conform to the group and submit to authority, even though you suspect they are sickeningly, maddeningly, heart-breakingly wrong?

Friday, July 3, 2009

Sierra Cubs

One of my friends is helping to start a new Sierra Club program here in Oklahoma City - the Sierra Cubs. The goal is to provide opportunities for family-friendly outdoor activities, teach basic Sierra Club principles (i.e. leave no trace), and foster enjoyment and appreciation of the outdooors and nature. The basic idea is to organize outings appropriate for young-ish kids (and their parents) once a month. Outings may be to state parks, nature centers, areas for hiking, museums, even local farms.

I really love this idea because I think that today's urban kids get way too much time indoors and not enough outdoors. They tend to be absorbed in electronic media and unfamiliar with the physical reality around them. Parents are overprotective because of the perceived threat of "child predators" and so kids can no longer roam neighborhoods as they once did. Even when parents can overcome the fears instilled by the media, the social reproach from other parties is often too much to deal with. So kids end up stuck in backyards and supervised playgrounds instead of finding the excitement and discovery for themselves in empty lots, niches of wildness, and local parks (as I did when I was young - only 25 years ago!).

I am a fan of Free-Range Kids, which promotes giving kids more freedom and less constant parental supervision (helicopter parenting). However, I think it is also helpful to have organized outings to actual wild or wilderness areas - a lot of these places don't exist in the suburbs and cities where many kids live anymore. As Last Child in the Woods author Richard Louv points out, it's important for children to experience the sights, sounds, smells, and sensations of nature. Without those formative experiences, children don't grow up to appreciate, love, and thus protect natural places.

I'm also excited about the new Sierra Cubs program (may it get off the ground!) because of the opportunity to meet other parents of young kids who are interested in nature and the outdoors.
As we progress through the energy descent, I think we will need all the public support we can get for protection of wild places and open spaces within cities. I hope, and I believe, our kids will get the chance to appreciate these places as they grow up.