Saturday, January 31, 2009

Alberta trails

Have been whistlin' through Alberta, helped along with the westerly wind that is blowing all the nice warm air over the mountains and into the prairies.

Last night it turned mean and whapped high speed salt and gravel in our faces when we stepped out into Jasper Ave

after the otherwise warm and cosy reading at Audrey's Books, still an excellent independent bookstore in a shrinking universe of independent bookstores.

Thursday's food day at Augustana was great: it began with one of my favourite speakers, Nettie Wiebe, who gave a splendid overview of the subject of food sovereignty, using to good advantage her multiple aspects as philosopher/ethicist, feminist, farmer, political candidate and ex-farmers' union head. Starting with the theme of dis-integration, she gave a good overview of the unhealthy influence exerted by corporations, the loss of farmers' cooperatives, failures in policy that removed the humanity from farming, the removal of accountability from wasteful and destructive means of food production, and much more.

And I was also very taken by the producers' panel, presided over by the dean, Roger Epp

Representing grain and beef were Harold Warkentin and Wyatt Swanson

and dairy by Jan Slomp

They gave their sobering views on the state of business for Alberta farmers today; they were all grim on the scale of today's farming, which puts huge swaths of land in the hands of too few farmers. Swanson talked about the upheavals in the beef industry which have been radical over the past thirty years: from an epic high of production and sales in the seventies and eighties, to the advent of feed lots in the eighties and nineties and the transition to a beef export business to the US, the collapse of Alberta beef processing, to the death blows dealt by the first BSE case in 2003 and the credit crisis last year. His family is entering the fifth generation of farming and he's not sure how long it will be able to continue on the land.

Slomp gave a more optimistic talk, about his evolution from conventional high-yield dairy producer to enlightened producer. He spoke of the damage the green revolution had done to the Netherlands, causing insane fertilizer use and insupportable requirements for feed and medication where once farms were self-sufficient and self-sustaining. He feels his milk yields are impressive despite his decision to top using agrichemicals on his fields and cattle; he's worked wonders on the water system on his land by pasture management; and he's thwarted veterinary wisdom by refusing to use prophylactic antibiotics (normally used to prevent the mastitis that is chronic among overtaxed dairy herds). The result he says, is that he lives on a pristine piece of land with healthy animals and a profitable business.

Warkentin spoke about the complexities of seed breeding and the joys of developing new varieties to meet the challenges of growing. He produces high quality seed for other seed breeders (he gave a helpful explanation of seed qualities, which are diffferent according to whether you are developing seed or sowing it for crops) and has enjoyed experimenting with different varieties along the way. He took a firm stand on the question of GM crops; said he'd tested some Roundup-ready canola once, and decided to stay away from it after that. The risk to human health, he says, is too unknown, and he could breed seed with better yields through traditional methods. He gave an interesting bit of information about Alberta's rat-free status. I'd heard long ago about the rat patrol that kept the numbers down along the border; what I hadn't realised is that government policy on weasel trapping had also played a part: weasels take care of the rest of the rat population.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Think I'll go out to Alberta's good there in the... er.. early.. spring??? Please make it so.

I'm looking forward to seeing my Albertapals, and my whirlwind tour this week, including my class visit at the U of C, Wednesday's reading at Red Deer College Library, what sounds like a fabulous food day on Thursday at the U of A's Augustana Campus, and Friday's reading with Bert Almon in Edmonton.

Here's a movie I want to watch when I get home (thanks for mentioning it Tom!)

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Never too late for new year resolutions; and a bit about worms and candles

Yesterday's Sustainability Fair in the town of View Royal was small but perfectly formed, with displays about waste & recycling, composting, water conservation, land conservancy and other plans, achievements and services. The town has also created a fabulous document called Steps to Sustainability. You can choose from a sprawling list of things to do to live more ethically and sustainably, with helpful links to sources of more information. There are, as in all such lists, a few items I'd disagree with, but a lot more things I hadn't thought about which would be easy to do.

For example, even apartment dwellers can vermicompost their kitchen scraps in a worm bin, which comes in small enough sizes (like this Worm Factory) to can sit on a balcony or porch. I don't know how well red wigglers would endure northern winters but you could even bring them inside, as one advantage they have over other compost bins is that they keep smells down.

(If the View Royal list isn't long enough for you, another way to inspire yourself with new resolutions can be found in this book, Change the World for Ten Bucks. Or you could celebrate Buy Nothing Day on a weekly or monthly basis instead of confining it to an annual event; if you're really tough you could do as others have done and try it for a year.)

One of the items I wasn't sure about on the View Royal list was the suggestion to save power occasionally by using candles. I'd heard there was some kind of environmental issue around candles, but I was surprised when I looked it up to discover it's largely to do with the wick, which may contain lead, which means you're creating lead vapour when you burn candles. There's no ban on using lead in candle wicks in Canada, so we're advised to be wary when buying candles; most of those made in North America (or sold at Ikea, surprisingly) are considered safe. BC Hydro's fact sheet can tell you more, including how to test the wick for lead.

Bruce has just reminded me to mention the other half of the candles issue: there are health concerns over the hydrocarbons (burned and unburned) in candles, which are not designed to burn clean like a modern car engine or EPA wood stove, so the pollutants go straight into the air in your home.

Friday, January 23, 2009

If you're in Edmonton next Friday January 30....

Thursday, January 22, 2009

A musical interlude with JTE

Just bought me a new cd by this young feller. How I wish I could catch his gig at the Borderline tomorrow, where once I saw young up-and-comer Sheryl Crow, and another time our own James Keelaghan.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

More on meat , a bit about honey, and lots more local eating and drinking

No sooner do I post the entry on meat than it's all around me, practically slapping me (as it were) in the face.

Merna had kindly sent me this interesting review of Mark Bittman's book Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating, which is being billed as the natural extension of Pollan's In Defense of Food - only with recipes. So I rushed out and bought it and the first page says:
Two years ago, a report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) landed on my desk. Called Livestock's Long Shadow, it revealed a stunning statistic: global livestock production is responsible for about one-fifth of all greenhouse gases - more than transportation.
So that caught my attention, as did the review's praise of his simplified approach to cooking (he does after all write a column for the NYT called The Minimalist: he wants to teach you How to Cook Everything!). Then it turns out there's an interview with Bittman in the Globe and Mail today as well.

Maybe you'd like to practice your French listening skills by watching this video which Jo-Anne kindly sent me, of people who risk man-eating tigers to harvest wild honey each year. Like all good eaters, they thank the forest gods for their bounty at the end.

In other more local news... I noticed a poster for a Sustainability Fair in the town of View Royal this weekend, on Saturday January 24 from 11-4; or you can catch Don Genova's perky short course on coffee from 10-4; Lorna Crozier reads at the Planet Earth reading series, 7.30pm this Friday 23rd. It seems we're also in a time of warming beverages: this weekend we have the Victoria Whisky Festival, complete with tastings and masterclasses. The more abstemious can hold off until February 14-15 for the Victoria Tea Festival. From February 19th to March 8th there's an opportunity for serial dining with the Dine Around & Stay In Town Victoria event.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Local eating & learning & reading

This course, about defending yourself from bear and cougar attacks, offers a whole new vision of locavore.

Our local continuing studies calendars are full of courses about sustainability, organic gardening, permaculture, vegetarianism and food issues: all very heartening. There's an Introduction to Food Culture course, led by Don Genova, that begins this Wednesday night at UVic, discussing food safety, food security and sustainable food development among other topics. Don is also offering an Exploring Local Foods course starting February 25th, featuring tastings and education about seafood, wine+beer, foraging and dairy products. Check out UVic's 'Sustainability' offerings or, call 250-472-4747 or register online (click on "Nature, Environment, Sustainability")

A reading coming up tomorrow: Open Word: Readings and Ideas, Open Space's downtown Victoria literary series, features Toronto poet Sue Sinclair reading from her new collection Breaker (Brick 2008). Following the reading, Victoria poet Steven Price will interview Sue Sinclair. Tuesday, January 20 at 7:30 pm, Open Space Arts Society, 510 Fort St.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Meat, protein and human kindness

I've just finished reading a book I started ages ago, The Way We Eat: Why our food choices matter, Peter Singer/Jim Mason. Now I'm cogitating about protein consumption, meat sources and humanitarian practices around meat production. And I listened again to a recent Food Programme episode on quality meat while I was thinking, which - among other things - revealed some ugly truths about how supermarket buyers choose the meat they sell us.

Overwhelmingly, the meat available to Canadian carnivores is from factory farms; I see next to nothing of organic or humanely reared meat in my local markets (in truth, I've see none at all, but I want to leave a margin for error in case there is the odd token item somewhere I hadn't noticed).

Why should this matter? If you read Singer & Mason's book (or any other piece of writing about factory farming), you'll learn the following about factory-farmed meat:
" inflicts prolonged suffering on sows who spend most of their lives in crates that are too narrow for them to turn around in; on caged hens; on chickens kept in unnaturally large flocks, bred to grow too fast, and transported and killed in appalling conditions; on dairy cows who are regularly made pregnant and separated from their calves; and on beef cattle kept in bare dirt feedlots."
From a consumption point of view, the meat quality is not good either. Antibiotics fed to meat animals, as well as hormones and inappropriate feed all make the meat we're sold unhealthy. The people working in Canadian slaughterhouses tend to be poorly trained and badly paid to do a job nobody wants, and to do it for speed rather than with considerations of compassion to a fellow creature. Demand for organic meat and dairy means that there now exists the unlikely enterprise named 'organic factory farm' where the feed is organic but the rearing may be just as brutal as on regular factory farms.

There's an environmental issue too, of course, identified decades ago by the likes of Frances Moore Lappé, which is that meat production is simply unsustainable on our crowded planet: meat costs the world dear in the excesses it requires of water, land, cereal crops and fossil fuels; the methane produced and the soil erosion and pollution caused by beef farming are a whole other area of concern. Anyone who's worked in a restaurant or supermarket can attest to the amount of meat our spoiled Western diners simply waste.

In Canada, we have no federal labelling that would identify meat as humanely reared. Small producers, who would be more likely to raise their animals with care and kindness and have them slaughtered by smaller, kinder abattoirs, have been sucker-punched by the BC government who instituted new slaughterhouse regulations aimed at large industrial operations but which are financially insupportable by small scale operators.

Considering the public costs of unhealthy eating (through health care and taxes), and offering a pretty painless and practical solution, Singer & Mason observe:
"The average American today eats 64 pounds more meat, poultry and fish a year than his or her counterpart in the 1950s. That's almost a 50 percent increase - and Americans were not undernourished then... Choosing an unhealthy diet may seem like a personal choice, but it's not fair to the people who ultimately have to pay for it. If Americans were to cut back to the meat-eating levels of the 1950s, that would improve health and slash health care costs. It would also reduce the number of animals suffering on factory farms by about the same amount as if roughly 80 million Americans became vegans." (Emphasis mine)
I found that so encouraging, and so simple! We can have a vegan effect without even being vegan!

Acknowledging that the scale of the wrong we are trying to right in our food choices is simply staggering to most of us, they kindly add: "When we feel overwhelmed, it is important to avoid the mistake of thinking that if you have ethical reasons for doing something, you have to do it all the time, no matter what... Ethical thinking can be sensitive to circumstances."

They do urge us, though, to make our voices known regardless: what companies and governments don't know bothers us, they have no reason to change.

Another cheering observation they made is in quoting the position of the American Dietetic Association on vegetarianism, and the specifics of the human need for protein:
"Plant protein can meet requirements when a variety of plant foods is consumed and energy needs are met. Research indicates that an assortment of plant foods eaten over the course of a day can provide all essential amino acids and ensure adequate nitrogen retention and use in healthy adults, thus complementary proteins do not need to be consumed at the same meal."
So the bottom line is: if factory farming disturbs you for ethical or health or environmental reasons, which I think it should, you can do something about it by making a conscious effort to cut your meat consumption. You don't have to cut it all, or all at once, but you really can make a difference by cutting it regularly to some degree. You can also pester your supermarket, if that's where you shop, for some action on organic and humanely reared meat: if we don't buy it, they can't sell it.

But if you, he, she, they never say anything to anyone about it, there's no reason for factory farms to stop doing what they're doing.


Saturday, January 17, 2009


Have received a couple of notices now about the Google Book settlement. Anyone who owns a US copyright interest in a book that might be included in Google's mass digitization enterprise (apparently this is any US author (or heirs) and any author (or heirs) whose country has copyright agreements with the US = so, just about every published person I'd know) is invited to read the settlement notice and get their forms in by the relevant deadline (to opt out and reserve the right to sue Google, it's May 2009; those wanting cash settlements for digitized works have until January 2010). Members of Access Copyright can sign up for web seminars to learn more.

Thursday night's Malahat Review reading to celebrate The Green Imagination - the environmental issue - and tribute to former editor Constance Rooke, was exceedingly well attended. Audience members were plied with cake and offered fair trade coffee and Silk Road teas; palms were crossed with chocolate to fortify us in our quest for seats in an overflowing 150-seat theatre.

The event began with a song

and then an intro by the issue's editor, Jay Ruzesky,

followed by readings of prose and poetry. A question and answer session followed, with all available contributors

back on stage. Here, Lilburn speaks

Tim Lilburn; Malahat's editor supremo, John Barton; Carol Matthews.

Philip Kevin Paul, Melanie Siebert, John Harley, Sonnet L’Abbé.


Monday, January 12, 2009

Obama's food agenda (not) & grrrl power at the Eliot

In the wave of optimism surrounding Obamarama, it is sad to discover that he's not as smart about food as one might hope. His appointment of pro-GM, pro-biofuel former Iowa (the corn state) governor Tom Vilsack for secretary of agriculture doesn't suggest a mandate that actually addresses food issues (in fact, as Michael Pollan observes, the word 'food' wasn't mentioned at all when the appointment was announced). And what is agriculture but food production? This business seems to push us farther down the road of viewing agriculture as a commodity industry, like bricks or metals, instead of a means of producing our most basic need -- and right.

The absence of "food" in the US agricultural discussion leaves unaddressed so many important things -- including the use of food for fuel (and how corn-fed biofuel production contributes to world food prices, as well as the waste of fuel involved in producing this environmentally-unfriendly product), and the damage to food production of corn subsidies and genetically modified foods. Though we know how many thankless challenges he'll be facing, may Obama live and learn and manage to impose some kind of positive action on the situation before he's done.

Though I managed to be out of town when she visited, UK poet Jen Hadfield made a bit splash among Victoria's poetry community. And there will be more dancing in our snowless streets now that she's won the TS Eliot prize, whose manly tendencies were irreversably altered after its first eight years by our own Anne Carson, the first woman to win it since its inception. Others have written their way through the breech since then: Alice Oswald, Carol Ann Duffy, and now Hadfield.


Sunday, January 11, 2009

Filling that 2009 calendar

A few idle moments lead me to start jotting in my nice clean 2009 diary... Here are a few items to pencil in.


Tuesday 13th
Another chance to catch one of three fundraiser screenings of Island on the Edge, a locally produced film about farmland & food security for Vancouver Island. Meet others and hear the latest news on The Farmlands Trust's bid to acquire historic Woodwynn Farm.
Tuesday January 13; 7pm; Mary Winspear Centre (Charlie White Theatre), Sidney.

Thursday 15th
The Malahat Review offers an evening of readings and discussion by contributors to The Green Imagination issue, including Tim Lilburn, Jan Zwicky, John Barton, Arleen Pare, Nicholas Bradley, Patricia Young, Jay Ruzesky, and many others.
Thursday, January 15; 700-9.00 pm; Metro Studio (corner of Quadra and Johnson), Victoria.

Monday 19th
BC Sustainable Energy Association Victoria Chapter Meeting. Featured speakers are Guillaume Mauger, recent PhD in climate science, presenting the latest on clouds and their effect on climate, plus geoengineering projects that have been proposed for altering the climate. Trevor Williams, PhD candidate in mechanical engineering presenting research on plug-in hybrid electric vehicles and investigations into flying on biofuels.
Monday January 19; 7-9pm. Burnside Gorge Community Centre, 471 Cecelia Rd. Victoria.

Saturday 30th
The Path to Eco-Conscious Living, with Ed Begley Jr. Talk and book-signing from the actor-activist who aims to turn Hollywood green.
Saturday January 30; 7.30-9.30pm. Farquar Auditorium, University Centre, UVic.


Thursday 5th
Screening of Island on the Edge, and fundraiser for The Farmlands Trust's bid to acquire Woodwynn Farm.
Thursday February 5; 7pm; David Lam Auditorium, MacLaurin Bldg, UVic.

Tuesday 10th
Launch of Acumen 63, featuring Leah Fritz, Sara Boyes, India Russell. All profits to Cold Weather Shelter for Homeless.
10th February, 2009; 6.30 for 7.00pm; Lumen United Reformed Church and Community Centre, 88 Tavistock Place WC1, London

Saturday 14-Sunday 15th
3rd Annual Victoria Tea Festival. Tea tastings, exhibitions and more, to raise funds for Camosun College Child Care Service.
14th - 15th February; 12-5pm; Crystal Gardens, 713 Douglas Street, Victoria.

Saturday 21st
Seedy Saturday has become a hugely popular event in Victoria (one of many across the country) where people can buy and trade seeds and pick up tips, hear speakers (Frank Morton and Thomas Hobbs this year) and generally mill about getting fired up for spring planting. Schedule will be posted later this month at James Bay Market's website.
21 February 10am-4pm; Victoria Conference Centre, 720 Douglas Street Victoria.


Tuesday 3rd
Screening of Island on the Edge, and fundraiser for The Farmlands Trust's bid to acquire Woodwynn Farm.
Tuesday March 3rd; 7pm; Ambrosia Centre, 638 Fisgard, Victoria.


Sunday 31st
A local food festival, "Defending our Backyard"; the Island Chefs Collaborative celebrates Vancouver and Gulf Islands produced foods, beverages and the people who work to defend our back yard.
Sunday May 31; 12pm-4pm; at Fort Rodd Hill, Victoria.


Saturday 4th - Sunday 5th
The 4th annual Organic Islands Festival and Sustainability Expo is a rallying community-based event providing a look at who's who in the green community. Food, music, talks, exhibition in the gorgeous surroundings of Glendale Gardens.
Saturday, July 4th, 2009 - Sunday, July 5th, 2009; 10:00 am to 5:00 pm; at Glendale Gardens & Woodland, 505 Quayle Road, Saanich.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Film and food

The Victoria Film Festival's on our horizon. Now that we can see the horizon between lashings of rain.

It has some food elements, including Mad City Chickens, a film about (what else?) Mad City Chickens, urban poultry farmers in Madison Wisconsin. There's a wonderful link from the film's web page, to a really helpful website: which has some amazing examples of chicken coops and tractors for people to copy.

And Know Your Mushrooms promises to reveal "the miraculous, near-secret world of fungi". Apparently it all started with a mycocidal conversation with Jim Jarmusch, followed by a visit to the Telluride Fungifest, and ends up like so:
Combining material filmed at the Telluride Mushroom Fest with animation and archival footage along with a neo-psychedelic soundtrack by the Flaming Lips, KNOW YOUR MUSHROOMS opens the doors to perception, takes the audience on a longer, stranger trip and delivers them to a brave new world where the fungi might well guide humanity to a saner, safer place… with extra cheese…

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Professor President and Whopper Virgins Remix

BBC Radio 4 provides me with most of my entertainment these days (I bless the internet that brings it to me) and I was spellbound the other day by a documentary called Professor President, which explored Obama's intellectual and teaching life. Well worth a listen while it's available (will only be up for a week from broadcast date).

I'm also a fan, it's been said before, of Kootenay Coop Radio's Deconstructing Dinner radio show; they've done a very special remix of the Burger King 'Whopper Virgins' atrocity on Youtube. The soundtrack is quite amusing: George Bush finally says what he means (all he needed was a good editor).

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Food and politics

You can start the new year off in an activating sort of way by exercising some civic muscle on the new federal budget. We, my fellow Canadians, have been invited to offer some guidance to our country's budgeteers, and share our views and priorities to help Federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty pull together the federal budget for 2009. So, if you want food and culture on the table, you'd best let him know.

The budget will be delivered January 27, and you have until January 9 to send him your ideas:

For ideas on culture, check out the brief submitted by the Writers Union of Canada.

On Tuesday, January 13 at 7 pm, if you are anywhere near the Mary Winspear Centre (Charlie White Theatre) in Sidney you have another chance to catch Island on the Edge, a locally produced film about farmland & food security for Vancouver Island. It's an event to meet others and hear the latest news on The Farmlands Trust's bid to acquire historic Woodwynn Farm. They have a couple of other events coming up as well, in February and March, as they continue to try to raise funds to purchase the farm.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Good grubs

We're glad the snow is mostly gone, but it's still frosty on the Gorge in the morning, with odd wraiths rising from the deep.

There's nothing like starting off the new year with a good meal somewhere new. I'd wanted to try Smoken Bones Cookshack since hearing the chef, Ken Hueston, talk at the Farmlands conference in November. The place is simple, the ingredients high quality and well prepared. My beef ribs (with local yam fries and collard greens) had the happy double purpose of bringing light to Anton's new year as well. Should have stopped after the main course - which was substantial but not excessive - because a heavy hand on the cinnamon meant the organic peach cobbler was overwhelmed, and the cobbler itself wasn't great. Would like to try the brulée du jour next time; although the desserts did look a bit too big to wrangle after a plate full of meat. Maybe they are designed to share.

Anyway I liked also the fact that Smoken Bones has local eating and drinking nights three times a year; the next one's coming up in March. Gonna try to be there.

Much to my regret I won't be making the Grub mingler and fundraiser for LifeCycles this week, but it sounds like a wonderful thing.

Started reading from the back of the latest Poetry magazine which featured a great interview with Seamus Heaney; I'm thinking it was probably an excerpt of a recently released book of interviews by Dennis O'Driscoll, Stepping Stones, which they say is a biography by any other name. He has interesting things to say about the sources, for him, of some of his well-known poems, and the value to him of form, which he says brings poems on more quickly and easily than free verse does.