Sunday, December 18, 2011

Suburban Homestead

It should say how much land you need to live off of with a typical American diet.

Compared with what some urban homesteaders are able to get away with this seem like more than enough land.  Mind you, the chart looks more like mimicking conventional agriculture and crops than what could be optimized in ones own climate zone.  An aquaponic operation would cut down on the square footage dramatically and increase the protein production as well.  Rabbits en lieu of chickens for protein and adding bees for honey and pollination would cut inputs (feed) and boost production with the bonus of extra calories from honey.

Protecting National Security

Here is a WW II poster from the National Archive encouraging food storage for the war effort.  Today we have record enrollment on food stamps yet not a widespread government campaign for backyard food production.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Cost of Lawns

Some interesting perspective on the cost of planting lawns at the detriment of producing food.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

GMO Factsheet

You can look at this from many angles.  Are there health concerns?  Are there environmental concerns?  Are we comfortable with the idea of being able to patent food?

Friday, April 29, 2011

Thank our ancestors we are not starving.

Right now it is easy to see how dependent we are on modern technology to keep the world fed.  Larger, productive farms replacing subsistence farming around the world.  These practices for better or for worse keep mouths fed and bellies full.

But step back for a moment, just as the world couldn't have succeeded in growing the population to such enormous levels without improvements in farming methods, we wouldn't be here if it were not for our ancestors.

Many crops were domesticate through thousands of years of selective breeding and only exist today due to human intervention.  Take the brassica family:

About 2000 years ago Brassica oleracea was first domesticated and grown in Mediterranean gardens.  Growers kept seeds of the larger leafed plants and eventurally it became to what we know as kale today.  Following the developement of kale growers selected ever and ever more tight bunches of leaves at the top of the plant that in turn led to the formation of heads of cabbage over successive generations of selection.

About the same time cabbage came into existance successive growing of large rooted kale plants led to kohlrabi.

Later with a penchant for eating the flowering buds of the plant growers later developed cauliflower and broccoli.

Still later after that in Belgium the selection smaller buds on cabbage led to the cultivation of brussel sprouts.

So between 2000 years ago and 300 years ago 6 distinct vegetables were painstakingly developed by our ancestors.  This is but one plant that developed into several food crops, 2000 years in the making.  The full girth of this worlds population weighed heavily on the shoulders of our ancestors, without them we would probably not have variety cultivars to grow in many parts of the world and we would not have the variety to as easily make a balanced diet.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Talking to Strangers: honey birds

This is amazing that a wild bird becomes so tame and willing to help fetch honey.  If I could only find an eagle that would help me fish.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Who Killed the honeybee.

Great piece by the BBC on the die off of honeybees worldwide.  When trying to get to the bottom of what is going on I particularly like the analogy of going to the pharmacist and being asked what other medication you are taking to find out if there could be any negative interactions.  I think this approach gets to the crux of colony collapse disorder.  It is not one single thing in the environment but several working in congress and becoming toxic.  Unfortunately this gives cover to the pesticide and GMO manufacturers since by themselves they are not directly toxic to honeybees.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Links on Food and Bees

Victoria farmer working to bring back buzz of native bees

Alarmed at honeybee colony losses that reached 80 to 100 per cent last spring on Vancouver Island, a Victoria farmer is abuzz over a program she says will boost native bee populations that could replace the threatened honeybee.
Working with the Victoria-based land trust, The Land Conservancy, as an agricultural program assistant, Nathalie Chambers is leading the just-launched Pollinator Enhancement Program. The provincewide plan aims to improve conditions for native bees so that farmers are not as dependent on the honeybee, the dominant pollinator, originating in the Mediterranean area and brought to B.C. in 1858.

US food prices could surpass 2008 levels, says USDA

US food prices could surpass those seen during the 2008 food price crisis this year, as higher commodity and energy prices cause food makers to pass on costs, according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The USDA predicted late last year that food prices would rise during 2011, and in recent weeks several major food manufacturers have said they intend to raise prices on the back of stronger commodity costs. The USDA had been saying since July that food price inflation – after dropping to its lowest rate in 18 years – would accelerate during 2011, by 2 to 3 percent. But it is only in the last week that the agency revised its forecast, saying that it predicts the Consumer Price Index (CPI) to rise by 3 to 4 percent during the year.

Bumblebees' disappearance 'alarming' 

Four species see 96-per-cent decline

- Four previously abundant species of bumblebee are close to disappearing in the United States, researchers reported yesterday in a study confirming that the agriculturally important bees are being affected worldwide.
They found a 96-per-cent decline in the numbers of the four species and said their range had shrunk by as much as 87 per cent. As with honeybees, a pathogen is involved, but the researchers also found evidence of inbreeding caused by habitat loss.
"We provide incontrovertible evidence that multiple Bombus species have experienced sharp population declines at the national level," researchers reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, calling the findings "alarming."
"These are one of the most important pollinators of native plants," said Sydney Cameron of the University of Illinois, who led the study.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Improving honeybee populations?

I came accross this article and still haven't been able to find the USDA survey release associated with it.

The number of honey-producing bee
colonies in the U.S. rose 7.4 percent last year
and honey production was up 20 percent,
the Department of Agriculture said.

About 2.684 million colonies were reported
by beekeepers with five or more hives in
2010, the USDA said Friday in a report.
Honey production rose to 65.5 pounds per
colony, up 12 percent from 2009, with
overall output at 176 million pounds. The
average price at the private and retail levels
was $1.603 a pound, an all-time high and up
8.8 percent from the previous record last
year, the USDA said.

If this is the full story this is very good news.  I would like to find the full survey to see if it mentions the size of colonies.  Beekeepers could be maintaining more hives that are smaller colonies by splitting colonies into two hives as population rises in the summer.  Also honey prices have dramatically increased in the last few years, so it is possible that more beekeepers are focusing more on honey production than just making their money on pollination.  Bee colonies were still being flown in from Australia last year for pollination, which tells me along with continued high pollination rates that farmers are still struggling to get bees for pollination.

Hopefully we are turning the corner or at least things are getting less worse.  But with many surveys like this the devil is in the details.  While colonies may be improving and honey production is ramping up, pollination could still be in peril.  I would like to get the full story.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Permaculture and Polyculture.

Paul gives a good run down on how interconnected plants can be in agriculture.  Also he shows the pitfalls of monoculture where only one type of crop is grown in an area.

Agriculture measured in barrels not bushels.

With the recent run up in oil it is particularly timely to look at the impact of higher oil prices on agriculture.  Long term our current structure of industrial large scale agriculture is not sustainable to keep prices low on commodity crops.  Since WWII production has been increasing per acre quite dramatically.  Pesticides, cheap synthetic fertilizers and a low cost transportation system boosted yields at the same time crop prices moderated even as populations globally soared. 
(ratio of corn out/energy in):
Ratio in 1945 = 3.5
Ratio in 1983 = 2.5
Between 1910 and 1983, corn yields in the US increased by 346% (on a per area basis), which the energy inputs increased by 810%, also on a per area basis!
That is, we are putting more and more fossil fuel energy into production for a given level of output! Viewed slightly differently, we're not getting as much more corn out as we are putting extra energy in; the efficiency ratio is worsening over time!
As you can see the large gains in agricultural yields has been on the back of an expanding oil supply and better technology.  While I am not in the camp that we are running out of oil, we are running out of "cheap" oil namely light sweet crude which is easier and cheaper to refine than heavier varieties.  Also many of the land based oil fields are maturing making oil more costly to extract in new areas such as off shore.

Switching to natural gas could help blunt the impact of an oil price spike.  New natural gas fields are being found and new technology has greatly increased recovery rates.  Natural gas is cleaner than oil but we are still looking at supply constraints to keep up with the current trajectory of food production needed for population growth.  Natural gas is used extensively in ammonia fertilizer production.Ammonia production depends on plentiful supplies of natural gas, a finite resource, to provide the hydrogen. Due to ammonia's critical role in intensive agriculture and other processes, sustainable production is desirable. This is possible by using renewable energy to generate hydrogen by electrolysis of water. This would be straightforward in a hydrogen economy by diverting some hydrogen production from fuel to feedstock use. For example, in 2002, Iceland produced 2,000 tons of hydrogen gas by electrolysis, using excess electricity production from its hydroelectric plants, primarily for the production of ammonia for fertilizer.[3] The Vemork hydroelectric plant in Norway used its surplus electricity output to generate renewable ammonia from 1911 to 1971.[4] In practice, natural gas will remain the major source of hydrogen for ammonia production as long as it is cheapest.
As you can see keeping ammonia inexpensive and plentiful will be difficult.  If we look to electrolysis for hydrogen production we need to produce more clean electricity.   Cost of new energy for electricity will become more expensive as fossil fuel prices continue to rise.  My feeling is that until alternative energy picks up the slack for higher oil prices, natural gas will step in as an acceptable alternative.  Increased natural gas demand will keep fertilizer prices  increasing. 

What are the alternatives.  Swing the pendulum back towards more small farms, less monoculture and more local production.  It may cost more to grow a tomato in the north than in Mexico but the increasing price of transportation will keep smaller local farms economically viable.  Much more study must be done to improve a poly-culture approach to agriculture.  What crops grow best together?  What can be used on the farm to provide its own fertilizer? 

I am very optimistic on agriculture and farming in the long term.  It will be a struggle to deal with higher fossil fuel cost but eventually we will be more sustainable and less dependent on fossil fuels.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

More Top Bar Hive Plans

Here is another set of plans to build your own top bar hive. Top bar hives do a good job replicating a hive design closer to what is in nature like a hollow log. The advantage to the bees drawing out all of their own comb is that it helps prevent mites. Mites have a hard time climbing back on to the combs and bees with the much larger gap below than commercial hives. Mites carry viruses and disease that spreads through the hive. Minimize mites and you will have a healthier hive all around. You can see a previous post of plans here.

Visual Step-By-step Construction of a Kenyan Top Bar Hive

Commercial Pollination going forward.

The honeybee is not native to North America.  Europeans had been keeping bees for centuries before bringing them to the new world.  The first colonies of bees were brought over by the colonists for honey production and pollination.  Beekeeping became more important to agriculture to boost crop yields.  Farms initially had diversity in the crops that they produced.  Farmers were raising their own food and a surplus to sell at market.  Bees were kept at the farm and had a diversity of flowers and blossoms to forage. 

As agriculture became more specialized and more reliant on economies of scale to production costs low, bees were moved around the country to pollinate one crop after another as they bloomed.  This is done on a large scale with bees only having one type of blossom to forage for weeks at a time.  Until the last hundred years bees were never used like this, transported on semi-trucks to one field or orchard after another.  It boosts crop yields but bees never evolved to be dependent upon a monoculture, they aren't designed for the industrial agricultural paradigm. 

We shouldn't be surprised of the large bee losses lately inclusively known as CCD or colony collapse disorder.   Beekeepers that don't follow the blooming of crops around the country aren't having the same problems.  Comparatively the losses of small natural and organic beekeepers are minimal.    As an analogy imagine that you are a traveling salesman going to a new city each month but the catch is that you can only eat one type of food breakfast, lunch and dinner.  Bacon one month, pepperoni pizza the next, plain rice the next and dry salads the next.  After a season like this you would probably be malnourished, even though if you mixed it all you would be fine.  Same things with the bees monoculture and traveling are making their immune systems diminished and more susceptible to disease.

Honeybees have done well for centuries on farms with diversity and farms set within a natural environment of diversity.  As honey bees and some native pollinators like bats and wild bees continue to die off, industrial agriculture will have to change or be forced to change.  Crop yields will continue to suffer until a more integrated approach is made towards pollinators.

Some alternatives are:

Set aside an easement on a farm for native and commercial pollinators to forage.  This allows more diversity in pollinators for better pollination.  Some pollinators do better in cool or wet weather than honeybees allow even better crop yield.  More forage for bees will allow pollinators to be kept in the same area year round.

Vary the crops being grown, much like crop rotation diversity of crops will cut down on one single pest that thrives in an environment of their favorite plant to vex.  Bees can fly up to 3 miles to forage so large farms can grow several tracts of crops giving some diversity to pollinators.

Research.  More research needs to be done in finding better farming techniques that look at farming as a series of systems that all work together to be more self-sufficient.  Growing crops to help fertilize others, growing crops to help pollinate others and growing crops to help conserve water in the field. 
The problem with this type of research can be summed up in one phrase "follow the money".  There will never be the economic incentive to do in-depth research into dynamic farming as producing the next block buster billion dollar GMO crop or pesticide.  The financial incentive is just not their in research and more and more funding at the university level is coming from the big chemical and modified crop companies.  Companies help fund research that they can use while other funding gets cut due to budget constraints. 

Eventually a few enterprising individuals will show success and profit with a fully integrated permaculture method of farming.  This will be about the same time oil becomes so expensive that conventional agriculture will be looking to alternatives to petroleum based fertilizers and long distances transport.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Controlling Pests with Bugscaping and Healthy plants.

Natural Pest Control in the Organic Garden

Honey bee collateral damage from Clothianidin "poncho" acceptable to EPA

A few months ago a memo leaked from the EPA (not a Wikileak counter to some claims) exposes clothianidin as toxic to honey bees.  Clothianidin produced by Bayer crop sciences as "poncho" is in the  nicotine family of pesticides.   Poncho has been banned in several European countries so far, Germany, France, Italy and Slovenia.  It is used on corn, canola, beets, wheat, sunflowers  and Soy. 

Neonicotinoid family pesticides work by being taken up into the plant and making it poisonous to 'pests" and other insects that happen to be there.  Poncho has been found in the pollen and nectar of plants.

From the label recomendations :
This compound is toxic to birds and mammals. Treated clothianidin seeds exposed on soilsurface may be hazardous to birds and mammals. Cover or collect clothianidin seeds spilledduring loading. This compound is toxic to honey bees.  The persistence of residues and potential residual toxicityof Clothianidin in nectar and pollen suggests the possibility of chronic toxic risk to honey beelarvae and the eventual instability of the hive
And from a PhD entomologist
According to James Frazier, PhD., professor of entomology at Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, "Among the neonicotinoids, clothianidin is among those most toxic for honey bees; and this combined with its systemic movement in plants has produced a troubling mix of scientific results pointing to its potential risk for honey bees through current agricultural practices. Our own research indicates that systemic pesticides occur in pollen and nectar in much greater quantities than has been previously thought, and that interactions among pesticides occurs often and should be of wide concern." Dr. Frazier said that the most prudent course of action would be to take the pesticide off the market while the flawed study is being redone.
The EPA knows all the evidence and the toxicity but it still stays on the market.  One has to wonder who is the EPA working for.  No wonder bees are showing much higher losses in big agricultural areas.   Eventually the fall of bee populations will catch up to the point that farmers won't worry so much about increasing yield with chemical pesticides if they don't have pollinators for their crops.

The full EPA memo is here.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Green Cities: time to walk the talk.

Being that I live near a city that is very concerned about its carbon footprint, (so much so streets get shut down to cars and beach bonfires are banned) I am rather surprised how little is done on their own part to improve the environment.  There are literally square miles of parks, parking strips and medians that lie fallow or are planted with ornamental plants.  My hat is off to the many hundreds of intrepid gardeners that convert parking strips and roundabouts for gardens and plant diversity. 

If cities really wanted to make changes to become greener, the low hanging fruit that doesn't impose laws on what people can or can't do is to utilize city land for plant diversity, carbon sequestration and food production. 

The average American meal travels over 1500 miles to reach their plate.  The transportation costs are offset by doing agriculture on such a large scale it produces food long as oil and natural gas prices stay low.  What happens at $150 a barrel oil?  Food becomes more expensive as it costs more to fertilize and transport. 

I understand it is not feasible for a city to produce all of its own food but, what is the logic behind planting municipal land with ornamental and typically with little diversity.  Just phasing in some hardy fruit and nut trees and shrubs would provide some food for those who want it at no extra cost to taxpayers.  There is also more of a sense of ownership for people.  If you have a fruit tree in front of your house that you eat from you will be more likely to look after it than a tree that you don't get anything from. 

This could work to augment efforts to help the homeless the hungry and city supported food banks.  Schools could put in a few trees to show that food doesn't come from a store but a farm or garden.  Eating publicly grown produce is not for everyone of course but just that it is there millions of calories will get eaten by somebody and that is one less trip food has to make.

Many cities are already doing this, there has been a groundswell of interest in urban gardening, pea patches and converting your front yard into a food source.  The emphasis now should be to stay on city governments to make sure they are good stewards of the earth and our tax dollars at the same time. 

Friday, February 11, 2011

Gardening in small spaces with high yield. Intensive gardens not intensive labor

Intensive gardening has been around for centuries. Maximizing your food production has always been a goal of farmers and home gardeners. Taking a holistic approach to your planting can give better yield and lower labor. Let the plants do the work for you when possible.

1 Plant to build the soil. Plant non-edible plants that build the soil in the off season to till in in the spring time to build the soil. Or you can intersperse nitrogen fixing flowers in your garden for added color. Most importantly you are building the soil and stealing space from the weeds.

2 Plant to minimize watering. Know your plants. Some plants that like partial shade will do well under your tomato trellis. This will both shade the soil which keeps down the evaporation, and this will compete with weeds. Plant vegetables with deep taproots like carrots to help pull up the moisture from deep and use shallow rooted crop for shade.

3 Plant to maximize pollination. Flowers and vegetables can be added to the garden to attract pollinators and your other plants will get the benefit. You can find some garden vegetables to plant for pollinators here and flowers to plant here

4 Plant to prevent pest and disease. There are many companion plants out there that help prevent pests. Garlic for example helps repel slugs and aphids. So instead of planting a nice row of garlic, plant throughout the garden as long as the other plants get along with garlic.

5 Plant to maximize calories. If you are growing a garden to feed yourself and reduce your grocery bill, look to calorie rich produce like potatoes, sweet potatoes and leeks.

There are so many combinations of plants, coming up with what works in your garden and climate can be a daunting task. You can find a good basic list of companion plants here on wikipedia.

Intensive gardening nirvana is when you design a garden that requires minimal work, the plants help water themselves, fertilize themselves, pollinate and prevent pests in the garden.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Floating gardens of the Aztecs.

Centuries ago the Aztec created a intricate system of canals and waterways to farm enough to feed a population of about 1 million. No modern technology just adapting and utilizing the environment to meet their needs.

A more scholarly description can be found here.
How the Aztec Empire fed the burgeoning population of its capital, Tenochtitlan, has long intrigued researchers. Most of Tenochtitlan’s estimated 150,000 to 200,000 inhabitants at the time of Spanish contact were not food producers. The system, known as chinampas, of draining swamps and building up fields in the shallow Basin of Mexico lakebeds, was a remarkable form of intensive agriculture that Jeffrey Parsons of the University of Michigan suggests provided one-half to two-thirds of the food consumed in Tenochtitlan.

It is quite impressive that so many people were fed without being subsistence farmers.
Keeping a historical perspective on agriculture can often teach more than just scientific research into better plant varieties and fertilizers.

Beehive home tour.

This is great overview of different hive designs as well as options for urban beekeeping. I have plans for a top bar hive here.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Save on produce: Root Cellaring

To add to ideas to save money on fresh produce found here, you can take a page from the pioneers playbook and install a root cellar. This is not for everyone or even possible with where you live. If you are able to use a portion of your property to build one or even utilize part of your basement, you can take your gardens bounty and enjoy it through out the winter. Root crops like carrots, beets and potatoes are fairly easy to grow and keep well as do many of your gourds and squash. If you are unable to build a root cellar but have room for a garden, don't fret, many varieties of beets, carrots etc. do fine over winter just keeping them in the ground. Winter keeper varieties give you fresh produce in parts of the garden that aren't being uses during that season.

A basic walk through of building a root cellar can be found in Mother Earth News.

The wine cellar idea give a great dual purpose to the root cellar. As a brewer/vinter/meadmaker I like the idea of a place to ferment that will keep a fairly constant temperature as well as a place to keep produce.

Here are some useful links on root cellaring:

Build a Basement Root Cellar

Home grown fruit and vegetable storage.

The return of root cellars.

Using a root cellar for restaurant storage and eating local all year long.

Small scale root cellaring with food grade barrels. This is a simple easy solution for surplus crops.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Agro-forestry + Aquaculture = Permaculture

"Sepp and Veronica Holzer, Austrian mountainside permaculturalists from before the term was invented, at their farm the Kramaterhof, became well known only after publicity in 2000. Sepp Holzer narrates the history of synergistic ideas that have made his farm a high production combination of agroforestry, aquaculture, terraces and raised beds, water heat exchange, self-produced electricity, pig raising, and fish farming without toxic pesticides, herbicides, or having to buy additional foods to feed the pigs and fish. The Kramaterhof farm is more biodiverse than his surrounding "pine tree desert" landscape and it generates its own Mediterranean microclimate through ingenious techniques--despite being 1500 meters up in the Austrian Tyrol. The Tyrol, with some of the finest skiing in Europe, under Sepp's care can grow lemons and kiwis. The film and his discussion provide a treasure trove of abstract techniques you can use. Learn how to integrate these techniques based on his 40 years of experimental expansion across 45 acres. He has turned marginal, erosion-prone mountain lands with poor, acidic soils into a stable Eden on Earth with rich soils, high biodiversity, and high productivity. This is done without irrigation, without expensive pesticides and herbicides, and without any imported fish, cattle, or pig feed. Instead it utilizes well chosen ecological cycles to expand production naturally. Sustainability and high productivity are elegantly conjoined."

Another good video of Sepp Holzer and his methods of sustainable forestry, agriculture and aquaculture. The most impressive part is how carefully woven every system is and how well one keep the next in check as well as improving it. What I like about Sepp is that so much of his knowledge is based upon observation not having several PhD's in engineering and materials science. Just spending time watching how water drains, heat being held in and the directions of winds then manipulating the landscape to take advantage of the traits that you want.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Growing your own salad, save money eat fresh.

This is easy and can be done almost anywhere. A little bit of sun and you can have salad all season. Mix it up a bit in the fall with kale and chard and you can have four season greens in many areas.

Community supported agriculture. Eat your local economy.

Community supported agriculture allows direct marketing for farmers but just as importantly you can talk to the person who is growing your food. If you have a taste for a wide variety of vegetables a CSA may be right for you. You can purchase a share at the beginning of the season and get fresh veggies all summer long.

If you want to find a CSA near you follow the link.

Gardening for pollinators: Win-Win-Win

If you already have a kitchen garden, you diversify your crops and attract more pollinators.  You may already have some of these plants in your garden, but may want to encourage and expand plantings.  Bringing in more pollinators will help boost your production in the rest of your garden.

Squash, gourds and pumpkins.  These productive plants already give more than enough surplus that neighbors and co-workers start hiding from you when they are in season.  There are limits to how much summer squash one can deal with.  My best advice is pick early and pick often, even the squash blossoms which are edible.  Hard shell squash keep very well, for months even, so a large harvest may not be so difficult to deal with.
Sunflowers are large color spots.  Even if you don't want to deal with harvesting the seeds you can save them as birdseed during the summer.  Make sure they are planted with their size in mind, they grow quite tall. 
Mint.  Be careful with this one, mint has a way of taking over and just a few pieces of root can quickly spread over the garden if you till under each year.  Mint can be dried, makes a refreshing tea and an attractive garnish.  Mint can also deter some pests in the garden the oils act as a repellent.
Blueberries, cranberries and huckleberries.  This is a good one all around, as long as you give it the acidic soil that they need.  There are many varieties to choose from and they all freeze well and without processing. 
Some others to consider: Dill, fennel, carrot, mustard, artichoke, strawberry, lavender, apple, oregano, rosemary, raspberry, and blackberry.

The full list can be found here.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Buying Organic on a Budget.

With ever increasing food prices, the often more expensive organic produce is not an option for folks to go "all organic".  Here are some tips in getting the most for your money.

1 Why are you wanting to eat organic?  Worried about pesticides? Wanting higher nutritional value,( documented here)?  Wanting to support local sustainable agriculture?  Concerned about your impact on the planet? Determine what is important to you and make your purchases to reflect you values instead the mindset of "it is organic so I want to buy it".

2 When you are in the produce section trying to decide whether the extra 10-30% is worth it, consider the fruit or vegetable.  If pesticides are the concern the extra price is worth it for thin skinned blueberries, tomatoes, greens etc.  The chemicals are sprayed and can remain on the skin, so a fruit like a banana or orange that you peal the skin is less worth the extra investment of buying organic when you are on a budget. 

3  Shop at a local farmers market.  Many times the organic prices can be less or very competitive with conventionally grown at supermarket.  Most importantly you can talk to the farmer.  Many times farmers don't get certified as organic because they don't believe it goes far enough for their philosophy of what agriculture should be.  Also the produce may just be pesticide free which is your biggest concern.   And most importantly for the budget minded, you are often talking to the boss; haggle.  Ask for a quantity discount if you eat a lot of something, see something in great abundance at their stand, maybe they will be more willing to off load it at a better price.  The worst that they can say is no, but remember they often deal with tight margins so offering half price may not get their consideration (maybe a scowl) when 10-20% will get their attention.

4 How long does it take to get to your store.  Over time fruits and vegetables lose their nutritional value over time, and the clock starts ticking when it is picked.  An organic apple that spent a month or more travelling from another hemisphere may not be the best value if you buy a freshly picked apple at a farmers market and know something about how it is grown.

5 Grow your own.  Not every one has the space for a kitchen garden but even a balcony can give you enough room for a pot or two to grow tomatoes, greens or herbs.  Tomatoes are a great value especially the sweet cherry tomatoes that just don't taste the same from the store.   Herbs can get very expensive to the budget minded but often can be grown easily even as a companion plant in the tomato plant in the same planter.  Evaluate what herbs you use, what herbs cost the most that you use, and what can be dried for later.  A few square feet may not yield 100's of lbs but could save you $100 over the course of a year.

6 Buy in season, prices go down when local produce is in season.  Look to freezing, canning and other methods of preservation if you buy in bulk.  You may lose some of the nutritional value but more on preserving can be found here.

7 On packaged organic goods are becoming more common at warehouse clubs and at restaurant supply places.  You may find organic pasta, cooking oils, flour , sugar etc.  They all can be purchased in bulk because the keep well. 

8 A CSA (community supported agriculture) works by purchasing a share of a farmers bounty at the beginning of the season.  They often cost sever hundred dollars for weekly baskets of fresh locally harvested produce many times 4-5 months worth.  If you like your veggies and like to find new ways to prepare them this option is for you.  You don't always get the largest variety produce but the shares are usually more than ample and beat supermarket and farmers market prices.  You can find a CSA in your area here.

Feel free to comment with your ideas to save money while supporting sustainable agriculture.

Friday, February 4, 2011

and the Pendulum swings toward...Permaculture?

It really becomes a paradigm shift to think of agriculture and nature in terms of finding natures own checks and balances to solve problems in agriculture.   I love what he says about not having a grasshopper problem but a poultry deficiency.   Using poultry to control insects to control pests as a holistic approach to agriculture does not fit with the current paradigm of modern agriculture.

Modern business like modern agriculture is focused on doing one thing and doing it well and doing it on a large scale.    Large production gives economies of scale which lower costs and gives you fewer competitors.  It takes ingenuity and insight to look at lowering costs and improving margins by finding solutions to your problems by creating a self-sustaining system.   It requires dynamic thought.  Maybe having an orchard and a poultry farm takes a very special person who can do both well, or maybe it doesn't.  A mediocre fruit tree farmer and mediocre poultry farmer may be out of business quickly, but if both were done on the same plot of land, costs could be lowered and the mediocre could be not only diversified but profitable.

Gardeners have known this all along.  Certain plants make good companion plants.  Garlic helps repel pests, tomato and basil thrive together.  Applying this to modern agriculture on a large scale is what requires thinking in an entirely new fashion.  Relatively cheap fertilizers, pesticides, hybrids or GMO's have given many alternatives to problems at relatively low costs.

The world is progressing, populations are growing and there can be debates on peak oil, but there is no debate that the cheap easy to reach oil, easy to refine oil is disappearing rapidly.   The higher the oil prices the higher the inputs for agriculture and the less economies of scale give the farmer in competitive advantage.   Food will cost more to fertilize, cost more to transport and cost more at the grocery store.

A holistic local and organic approach to agriculture will become more needed and cost effective.  A farm with its own supply of organic fertilizer that doesn't have to be reliant on petroleum based fertilizers will have an advantage over conventional agriculture.   Local produce won't have to be shipped as far and will have an advantage over mass produced crops shipped thousands of miles.    Higher oil price will continue to be a issue to wrestle with.  The pendulum needs to swing back toward what farming was like 100 years ago; more localized, more self sufficient and more diversity of production.

Planting flowers to help Bees and Pollinators

The sheer magnitude of what is afflicting bees and other beneficial insects should give us all pause to think "what can I do". Even if all you have is a flower box outside of your window you can still keep our pollinators in mind and help boost the yield of herbs, fruits and vegetables that you may also grow.

A long list of plants is available on the USDA website and can be found here.

I will list some native and common plants that you may already have growing on your property; if so you can encourage them to thrive.

Goldenrod, native to many areas, helps encourage native pollinators.

Sedum or Stonecrop as its name implies thrives in rocky areas and fairly drought tolerant.

Mexican Sunflower as you can see is great for pollinators, heat and drought resistant it makes for a wonderful color spot in ones yard.

Russian Sage, Filigran another nice color spot that grows large enough suitable for a background plant in a bed. 

Batchelor's button or cornflower, can be a weed but with that said you may not want to discourage it as much as other weeds as it does offer nice color.

Black eyed susan. Another native wildflower that can be encouraged.

Bluebells scorpion weed, grows in many soil types.  Some people may be allergic (rash) to it.

Permaculture and agro-foresty

A more in-depth look at agro-forestry, perma-culture and Sepp Holzer.

Sepp Holzer, the Austrian farmer and forester practices "permaculture" a different kind of farming on his mountain property. With this certain form of organic-agriculture, he is very convincing and successfully. Contrary to all conventional rules and despite annual average temperatures of 4.5°C and an altitude of between 900m-1400m, he cultivates cherries, apples, mushrooms, kiwis, lemons, pumpkins, potatoes and zucchinis. This year he also started big permaculture-projects in Brazil, Columbia, Peru and Venezuela.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Native pollinators: divide and conquer

Farmers or just home gardeners can use native pollinators to increase crop yields by diversifying species. Honeybees are prolific pollinators but can fall short when it comes to weather, time of day and temperature. Encouraging native pollinators by enhancing habitat and providing native plants for forage can give crops the most opportunity to fruit. There have been years where all the stars align and we get a variety of honey that we rarely get. It is totally dependent upon weather. If it rains when a certain tree or flower is blossoming there may not be much of an opportunity for pollination and therefore honey production. Encouraging native species like bumble bees, mason bees and butterflies can extend pollination time. Bumble bees can operate at cooler temperatures than honeybees, making for more chance of pollination during a cold snap or a late spring. Bring in a hummingbird feeder, build a home for mason bees or even bats and your odds increase.

Keep a holistic approach and there are even more advantages. More habitat for insects and wildlife means more predatory insects and wildlife to control pests. Fewer pests less need for pesticides or the effort of controlling them naturally.

For more information on native pollinators follow the link. Even more resources here.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Native Pollinators = $3 billion to Agriculture

Native pollinators are responsible for $3 of $20 billion of pollination each year. Farmers are utilizing vacant land for diversity to enhance native pollinators as well as predatory insects to help manage pests on their crops. Abandoning monoculture and embracing diversity on otherwise unused land boosts crop yields and helps boost habitat of native species.

11 Year old talks about what is wrong with modern Agriculture and Marketing to Kids

He has a great since of humor and delivery.

We are so divorced from where our food comes from and how it's grown, it is refreshing to hear such a young voice share his perspective.