29 October 2009

Organic Seed Alliance

I'd like to draw attention to an organization, the Organic Seed Alliance, not because it's new, but because they have been doing some amazing work in the last few years. And because they have a model for collaborative seed saving, education and advocacy that could easily be emulated by regions outside of the Northwest.

To give a taste of their ideology, I've copied this from their Vision Statement...
VISION: Seed is both our common cultural heritage and a living natural resource fundamental to the future sustainability of food production. Proper stewardship of our genetic resources necessitates not only its conservation, but careful management in a manner which allows seed to continually evolve with challenges of the environment, cultural practices of sustainable agriculture and the need to feed people. Through advocacy, collaborative education, advisory services, and research we work to restore and develop seed varieties for current needs while safeguarding invaluable genetic resources for future generations.
They have recently won a court challenge against the introduction of Round Up Ready Sugar Beets in the Northwest, which can be read about on their blog, seed broadcast. But most interesting to me are their publications, (which by the way have been licensed under the Creative Commons, allowing the information to be freely distributed and used, as long as no money is made by doing so). Their field guides on seed production are the most detailed, specific seed saving publications I have read, with truly good applied science and organic cropping techniques. Not only that, but they are an alliance, or collective, of organic farmers in a bio-region who organize to pool their resources, land, time and expertise to breed vegetable, herb and grain varieties that meet both the changing climate conditions, as well as the low-input techniques of organic food production.

Their model is participatory, re-engaging farmers in our once openly held seed heritage. To quote them again, on education...
In addition to this loss in genetics there has been a concurrent loss in the base of knowledge and skills necessary to properly steward and improve plant genetics in a ecologically and ethically sound manner. Farmers, once the primary seed stewards around the globe, have rapidly been removed from the seed circle - no longer participating in plant breeding or conservation. Only a few generations ago, the practices of on-farm seed saving and basic crop improvement were not only common, but necessary.
And their ethics incorporate social justice, environmental stewardship and food security through the advocacy of maintaining intellectual property in the Public Domain, and out of the hands of private or corporate ownership.
Organic Seed Alliance believes that as humans, we hold an important responsibility to steward resources in a manner that is just, equitable and recognizes the needs of current and future generations. We are working with farmers, breeders, lawyers and ethicists to develop a philosophical approach to seed development and stewardship that will include recognition of the valuable contributions of traditional agriculture and indigenous communities, promote farmer's rights to save and improve seeds, and support the long term integrity of the genetic resource of seeds. We believe this can be accomplished while recognizing and compensating for the investment of breeders, research and development.

We believe that the public good can integrate with commerce and that conservation can coexist with innovation. This approach will incorporate elements of the Open Source software movement, applications of the Precautionary Principle, and recognition of the value (social, economic, nutrient sustaining) of natural resources to future generations.

23 October 2009

First Snow

Conversation with a local farmer

by (the elusive) Beringian Fritillary

This week we helped a local farmer with his carrot harvest. He practices Integrated Pest Management, and I asked a few questions about his transition over the last 10 years, away from the high levels of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides recommended in spray programs. On the carrot crop we were harvesting, he had used a post-emergent herbicide when the carrots were about 2" high to control the grass coming up in the crop, (we had very wet cold spring and mechanical cultivation was not possible, even on his sandy loam soils). The crop had moderate grass and weed pressure, and minimal pest or disease pressure. I asked what kind of crop loss he tolerates in his Integrated Pest Management program before spraying a crop, he answered between 15%-20%, I would have expected between 5-10%. I was surprised at this level of crop loss, on a cost-based analysis. I was curious whether his rational for this kind of practice was ideological, economic or consumer driven demand. His answer was short, it was basically an economically based decision that evolved into his farm management approach over the last 10 years. He started out wholesaling carrots at 3 cents a pound (less cost), and now gets about $1-$1.50 pound at the farmers market by transitioning to a direct-sales model, growing less volume, and keeping his machinery/labor costs down. He has noticed in the last few years, a lot more younger families are demanding better quality produce, in particular local produce.

To add some background, his model of farming is viable because he has inherited land and farming machinery, and has access to low-interest loans and government funding because of his established status in the region. He has seen his share of young start-up farmers collapse under the debt load of building a farm from the ground up. He also has access to hundreds of acres of traditionally farmed land for crop rotation, which contributes to his success with IPM. He also has access to quality seed from the best European plant breeders and seed producers.

To contrast, on the home front we had a 60% crop loss (based on a 25 tonne/acre carrot yield) in our carrot crop, using our saved seed and no sprays, organic or chemical, grown in poor soil improved with composted horse manure. Our ground is very poor and run down, with little hummus or soil depth. We had a infestation of cut worms which contributed the majority of crop loss. We are still going though the science of it all, studying soil sciences and the relationship between pests and soil nutrients, to sort out the probabilities and causes. We have enough crop to get though the year, with adjustments in the pantry, and a late planting of carrots left in the ground to overwinter, and harvest in the spring.

The feeling I have about backyard/small homesteading gardens is that you can look after yourself in good times, and possibly survive the bad, but what about the times when most of these methods of growing food fail? Here's the rub: local organic and conventional farmers will profit greatly from this, in fact they are speculating on this outcome. A classic scenario that Naomi Klein, in her book Disaster Capitalism, outlines. The unofficial farming conversations that I hear going on over the last 15 years, is that they are waiting for the full impacts of climate change, and protective farming practices to bring greater profits to agro-business, survival of the fittest or the chosen. I think its an old struggle between profit, self interest and cultural tradition.

So what started out as a good news story, which it is and no malice on behalf of the farmer, but the forces that are driving his decision are market based. I would go on to say that he provides a large quantity of produce to the local food bank, and has helped us out greatly as many local farmers do. This is the hard part, it's not personal in so far as it is a social/political culture that demands market opportunity and welfare support. What I find interesting is the interplay between doing something good, and yet the temptation to profit from unequal distribution of land and resources.

So if you are a farmer/homesteader/backyard gardener, what is the food growing future you see?

19 October 2009

Wintermilk: making soymilk and tofu

Well, I suppose we're not totally out of things to blog about, on the homefront...

Since we will be leaving the farm in the spring, and winters are a hardship on animals up here, we won't be keeping any livestock this winter. And since dairy and egg production are on hold through the dark and extremely cold months of January - March, we won't be missing much. Last winter we purchased rice and soy milk, in bulk, to carry us through the goat's milk drought, since the only other option within our range is commercial cow's milk. But we got to thinking about making soy milk and tofu this year instead.

Now, we have each been through the spectrum of diets, from vegan to vegetarian to Weston A. Price traditional-meat-and-dairy based diet. For the most part, veganism and vegetarianism grew naturally out of an urban environment, and we got interested in Weston Price and the well-known cookbook, Nourishing Traditions, as we started raising our own livestock.

We now have a hybridized diet. Since raising meat, eggs and milk is still resource expensive in the North, requiring large amounts of land, and grain/hay supplies to last at least 7 months a year, we do not entirely rely upon meat and dairy to supply our protein. In fact, to raise these products out of season, we need to grow high-protein legume feeds for the animals... legumes we could just as easily grow for ourselves. I enjoy the milk and egg glut that comes with the spring and early summer, but treat these foods as seasonal items. And for meat, we consume 10 lbs a month, for two adults, plus as much gelatin rich broth as I can put away. Legumes make up the rest of our protein requirements.

Along with learning about such nutrient rich foods as a good bone stock, and lacto-fermented vegetables advocated by the Weston Price foundation, we also became weary of soybeans. And in the process, did some in-depth research for myself. From what I have read, on both sides of the issue, and even from the livestock perspective, I understand the dangers of a heavily soy-based diet to be primarily from improper preparation, or from an imbalance of calcium when replacing soy for milk. Soy, along with other legumes and grains, is heavy on the side of phosphorous, and low on the side of calcium, the opposite of milk. So as we phase out dairy products, and begin using more properly prepared soy-based foods, my main concern is fulfilling our calcium requirements. Especially in the winter months when our "green" foods are at the lowest.

So I did a calcium "audit" of our typical winter diet, and found that the base-line is at about half of a recommended daily intake of 1000mg. In further researching calcium rich foods, sesame seeds and poppy seeds pack the highest boost of calcium, way above the alfalfa sprouts I had expected to close the gap. Another great surprise was that many of the spices I use in our winter foods, the kinds of spices often found in curry or gharam masala, are also some of the most calcium rich foods. These spices are mostly of the umbrelifa family: cumin, caraway, anise, fennel and coriander. It seems that calcium comes in small packages.

Well, after a lengthy pre-amble, here's some of the delicious foods we prepared with our bulk sack of soybeans...

First of all, here's a link to some tofu and soymilk recipes, since I won't be giving detailed instructions here. Basically, the beans are soaked and blended with water, then the slurry is boiled for 15 minutes to destroy the enzyme that makes raw soy indigestible. When it is filtered, the liquid is soymilk, and the pulp is called okara.
One pound of raw soybeans, which I bought in bulk for 75 cents a pound, made 3 Quarts of soymilk (in later processing I was more careful not to let the soymilk reduce like it did in my first batch below), along with about 4 cups of okara. I added a touch of sweetener and a pinch of salt to each Quart of soymilk, and I'm really pleased with the result. More about the okara below.

In my next batch, beginning again with one pound of raw soybeans, the filtered soymilk is re-heated and curdled, very similar to cheese-making, to form tofu curds. There are a few curdling agents, including calcium sulfate which would fortify our tofu with calcium, but I couldn't find it locally and used the more commonly found magnesium sulfate, or Epsom salts (be sure to use the salts made for internal purposes... read the label).

The curds are pressed in a cheese-press type of contraption, forming a nice firm tofu. One pound of raw beans produced 1 1/2 pounds of pressed tofu. The whey is mild tasting and makes a nice soup base or bread making liquid.
First tofu fry... tossed with a kale, red pepper and onion stir-fry... yum.

Now back to that okara. It retains most of the fiber and carbohydrates, and about half of the fat and protein from the beans. Here's a link with some really inspired recipes to use and enjoy this unfamiliar by-product of soymilk/tofu making. The patties below are made from the UnChicken Nuggets recipe in the link above.
Since the okara is high in soy-oil, it can be used to replace some of the fat in baked goods. It is also a fluffy type of grain, and can replace eggs for a slightly firmer texture in cakes or muffins. I tried the toasted okara recipe, which has a lightly nutty/coconutty flavor that can be used to replace toasted coconut in recipes, and it smelled so good, I decided to try a granola. I mixed half rolled oats and half cooked okara, omitting oil/fat, sweetened to taste, spiced to taste, added sesame seeds (for calcium!), and toasted in the oven as granola. It's absolutely delicious, better than traditional oat granola. I have no doubt we will find many ways to incorporate this new ingredient in our diet. Okara can even be dehydrated and ground, for easy storage, or to make your own soy protein powder.

Making tofu and soymilk at home requires about the same amount of time as dairy milk and simple cheeses. But the cost-return is higher than dairy products. 75 cents worth of soybeans yielded $6 of soymilk or $8 of tofu, not counting the okara and whey by-products. Soy milk can also be made into soy-yogurt, using the same dairy yogurt starter. Growing our own soybeans would no doubt, require less time and land than maintaining a single dairy goat, year-round, in our bio-region and climate. So for now we have soymilk next to the goat's milk; tofu 2-3 times a week and goat's meat 3-4 times a week. A happy hybrid.

13 October 2009

The wrap up

The garden is all but finished for the year, just a lonely row of cabbages, kales and Brussels sprouts, along with a patch of frost hardy parsley, and a few late onions in the ground. Everything else has found a place in the pantry, the spice rack, or the cool room. Tomatoes of all stages from green to yellow to pink are ripening, an abundance of green, yellow and red peppers will keep for a few weeks at least. The potatoes are in their bins, carrots and parsnips in their sacks, pumpkins and squash on their shelves. Even the rooster and the bucks have found their way to the pantry this weekend, as canned meat and rich broth. Well, the rooster only got as far as the table really, one of the many harvest feasts we enjoy this time of year. So it's quite a bit quieter around here.

It is interesting, wrapping up the season, but this time, not making those thousand preparations in anticipation of next year's garden. No seed saving since we want to start again with bio-regional varieties, although I am a thousand times tempted to stash away a few packets, out of a reflexive sense of preservation. But we have no rare varieties in need of salvation. And the practical consideration of moving cross-continent by bicycle keeps our load light. (Of course there are some things we will be shipping across like my trusty pressure canner, my treasured spinning wheel, our solar panel, etc.) But there is no safe passage for seed, so I let them scatter, and smile at the thought of all of these volunteer vegetable seeds, springing up in the re-planted pastures after we are gone.

When we go, no one will take over our garden, it will go back to pasture, cut for hay once a year. But I take heart in knowing we have made some small improvements to the soil, we leave our treasures for the worms, the insects, the invisible biota living out their secret lives, and for the birds that have become our constant companions in the garden.

The kitchen this time of year has the feel of industry: the pressure canner sputtering, wood stove chugging along, and food, always food, in every stage of preparation and storage. There's always a job to do, but not in a bad way, each job has it's pleasure and satisfaction. I sometimes feel as though I have a thousand clocks in my head, or rather kitchen-timers, each one set sometime in the spring, when seeds were planted, kids born, each one with it's own duration. This is the time of year when everything ticks down, I'm constantly scanning the timers, and tending the tasks that are nearest to completion. I just have to scan my overflowing kitchen (spilling out into the living quarters this time of year), to see herbs in various stages of drying, baking beans to shell, curing pumpkins behind the wood stove, shrivelled ground cherries in the warming oven nearly dry, ripening fruit to sort and process.

It used to be quite overwhelming, in my first few fledgling years as a, well, a housewife. I no longer object to this word because I understand the skill, competence and dedication it demands. Well, truthfully, I'm only a part-time housewife, and only when it's too cold to pleasurably work outside! Now, I don't mind the small circuit of my daily routines, always in proximity to the warm stove, the heart of the household. But as soon as spring breaks, I'm a caged bird, set loose, I'm a gardener, a homesteader, and grudgingly maintain the house, emptied of it's stores of food, hollowed out, dormant.

But this winter feels different, we are spinning a cocoon this winter, weaving new dreams, with new adventures. And making room for a new beginning. Instead of the thousand preparations for next year's garden, we have the thousand preparations for a move. And mostly what consumes our immediate interest is our cycling adventure. We are bike obsessed. Researching tandems, anything we can find about them, and touring gear and routes and tips.

A tandem bicycle is perfect for us, I love the idea of the cooperation and coordination required. On a tandem we will be so much more in tune with one another, and working together on tough climbs, the same way we work together in the garden and household, coordinating our efforts, working with efficiency, and enjoying the companionship. Besides, tandems are fast!

I've also realized that I've come full circle with this blog, I've written about a 12 month cycle of growing and preserving our food. It has been good, it is a good record of what we have achieved, on a bare piece of land, on an empty road. And I hope it has been informative, after all, I know how much I have learned in the process. But we have come to a natural end, realizing there is only so far the two of us can go on this road to self-sufficiency, without turning to capitalism's infrastructure to support us: the ironic hypocritical conclusion to the independent quest of self-reliance. From where we are, we can see that communalism, collectivism, eco-socialism, whatever tag you want to put on it, is the least destructive way forward, perhaps the only way.

So this blog may find it's natural conclusion, or it may evolve, or we may move on to a new blog, leaving this one to archive the food-skills we acquired, perhaps returning to it when we plant our next seeds. Either way, we'll let you know.