Monday, March 30, 2009

Post-fuel farming

A Farm for the Future is an excellent documentary (shown on BBC last month) by farmer-film maker Rebecca Hosking, on how farmers can overcome total dependence on fossil fuels.

It does a great job of explaining what the problem is with current farming methods, and what the fuel crisis will do to them and to our food supply, and how biodiversity, low-energy methods and good planning rather than back-breaking labour can increase food production enough to feed the world.

The picture's pretty choppy in places (at least on my screen) but the sound is good, and the story it tells, of alternatives to fuel-heavy farming, and hope for a truly sustainable future of food production, is more encouraging than almost anything I've seen lately.

The solution offered is, of course, an English one, suited to an English climate. Cuba's success story in dealing with a fuel-less agriculture is that of another small country with a different climate from our own. The bigger question is how large countries with more extreme climates - Canada, the US, Australia - and well-entrenched and protected industrial fuel-based agricultures can adapt to the loss of fuel.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Agriculture on the Peninsula and the Agricultural Land Reserve

...or: what I learned in my last class at Dunsmuir. I had signed up for three linked courses on local agricultural issues. The first was a talk by local organic farmer Brian Hughes, who described a typical year's activities.

The second, last week, was a talk by Brent Warner about the state of play in agriculture these days, with much discussion about the effects of poor nutrition (whether from bad food choices or from poorly nourished plant or animal sources) on health: obesity and its related health costs through type 2 diabetes and other diseases (one in three BC children are now deemed clinically obese). There was as well talk about farmers' markets and new opportunities in food retailing and agricultural diversification, if the market and issues such as food traceability and food safety (particularly for older, younger and immune-compromised populations) are properly understood.

Tuesday's final class was a sobering talk about the Agricultural Land Reserve, and its governing body, the Agricultural Land Commission, by Bob Maxwell, an agrologist and farmer, and Ivan Mishchenko, an organic blueberry farmer. Maxwell walked us through the soil and climate categories - the agriculture capability measures - that are used to determine agricultural land values, preparing the ground as it were for Mischenko to tell us about uses and abuses of the ALR in its current form.

Established in 1974 from various campaign promises made by competing political parties (thank heavens in this case for election rivalries!), the ALR sets aside agricultural land so that it can either be preserved as farmland or farmed. In a time when the planet is facing unprecedented loss of arable farmland through soil degradation, deforestation and population growth, this has saved a lot of good quality land in British Columbia which would otherwise have been paved over long ago.

Statistics familiar to me from the Farmlands conference explain the extreme competition for three percent of the province's land, where 80 percent of the population lives and which also produces 80 percent of the gross agricultural receipts.

What has happened is that in these two much-desired areas (the Okanagan and the lower mainland/south-eastern Vancouver Island - retirement meccas for Canada because of mild climates and pretty scenery) developers and speculators have managed to make money and do deals to get their way in too many (but not all) cases. There are a number of ways of dodging the rules.

Firstly, there is a mechanism whereby land can be traded out of one area and into another, which is why 90% of the ALR land traded out of the ALR is in northern BC, and not in those two more desirable (climate and soil quality) areas. Some 72% of land has been taken out of ALR protection in the south of the province since 1974.

Put another way, for every acre (.404 ha) of prime farmland added to the ALR, 2.8 acres (1.13) have been taken out for urban development. This matters if the world is to feed itself, since we need .5 ha (1.2 acres) per person for a nutritious and diverse diet that includes both plant and animal foods. At present in BC, where the population is 4 million, we have .63 ha/capita land (not all of it being farmed); the population is estimated to be 6 million by 2035, at which point our ALR land will work out to .42 ha/capita.

A second way land gets removed from the ALR is to make it unusable for farming. Owners can apply for soil fill permits, which sound harmless enough. But this is tied to urban development: undesirable fill from excavation sites (which may include clay, gravel, rock and concrete) is being dumped on top of arable land. Disposal sites for this kind of rubble are very scarce, which makes buying land and getting people to pay you for dumping a lucrative sideline. But this activity covers and makes unusable the agricultural land beneath, and it also damages the drainage in surrounding farmland, making the neighbouring lands less productive as well. Once the land is unusable for farmland, you have good reason for removing it from the ALR and building another development on top.

Good growing soil takes centuries to develop, but can be destroyed in days by this kind of activity; even low-grade agricultural land is useful and necessary to farming, whether for placing farm buildings or pasturing unlikely animals like llamas. And yet we live in a short-sighted society that allows people to profit from this kind of activity, which robs our own future of the ability to feed itself, instead of charging its perpetrators with crimes against humanity.

We were offered some ways to work to preserve the ALR and agricultural land:
1. Support local food systems by buying and growing locally.
2. Advocate to the ALC and local government: do not allow them to say they heard no community concern when they made decisions.
3. Organize your community to protect farmland.
4. Encourage local government to form an agricultural advocacy committee and an agricultural area plan.
5. Ask your local government to develop buffer policies, to provide green strips between urban developments and agricultural land, to allow the sometimes dusty and smelly work of agriculture to go on without conflict.
6. Ask food retailers to carry locally grown food.

Monday, March 23, 2009

End of Dunsmuir

On Sunday I attended a meeting of more than 100 local residents who squeezed into a meeting room to learn more about the closure of Dunsmuir Lodge which is scheduled for this Saturday. The facility has long been a venue for continuing studies as well as a conference centre boasting one of the most reliably good restaurants around, not coasting on its unparalleled views of the Saanich Peninsula or its proximity to John Dean Park.

The University of Victoria had been left this property in 1985 and decided to close it last October, but without any discussion with the local residents; and it was clear from the tone of the meeting that the university has sucker-punched its own fortunes through its handling of this and other legacies which it had sold off in the past.

Though the university says it's not selling Dunsmuir, at least not right now, it is certainly costing a bundle to close the doors and put its 70 employees out of work. A meeting had been planned for earlier this month but the university said it was 'not ready' to answer questions yet, so it waited until six days before the closure to face the music. A fact sheet was distributed which said
"While the facility is covering day-to-day costs, it does not generate enough income for much needed upgrades...UVic has made significant upgrades to the facility over the past few years but it cannot continue to divert resources from its core educational mission to operate the lodge to make it viable for the long term."
I think one woman - an adult course-taker - spoke for almost all those present when she said "we too are your core educational mission". Other points made included the observation that North Saanich had waived property taxes on the facility because of its educational status; what would happen now? And residents were livid that no local consultation had been taken on ways of raising the estimated $2million upgrading bill; the costs of closure are about $100,000 to close the doors and another $100,000 per year to keep it on mothballs - that is assuming no tax bill suddenly lands on the doorstep.

The attendees got downright angry when the spokeswoman described Dunsmuir as "remote" - as was pointed out, the airport is practically on its doorstep, with the ferry terminal some ten minutes up the road; any replacement venue - and facilities of this size and suitability to purpose simply do not exist - is unlikely to be any closer to UVic, if that is the measure of remote. The spokeswomen declined to say where they'd been looking for replacements, but I gather everything from theatres to church halls have been looked at.

The staff who lose their jobs, many of them after 20 years, were told that the timing was arranged just for them, so they could jack in boring old job security and seek exciting new seasonal work in the tourism industry.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Food security on the Island

I went to Courtenay to attend a day of meetings on food security last Friday, organized by VIHA and held at the Crown Isle golf club. Not the most appropriate setting - all that farmland covered with artificially managed turf is a bit troubling to say the least - but it was comfortable, and the food was good.

About 90 of us, I'm told, made the trek from all over Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands to sit together and talk about food security. The concerns were many and of considerable weight: though there's been questionable record-keeping on our food supply on this island, it's considered accurate to say that only 5-7% of our food is raised here; the rest is ferried over from the mainland. There are widespread concerns about the water crisis in California which will inevitably affect our food supply over the coming year. Like the rest of the Western world, we have food quality challenges - and the correspondingly poorly nourished and increasingly overweight population - that are increasing the strain on our health systems. And we as a planet sit on the edge of predicted world-wide shortfalls in food.

So there is huge impetus to improve the island's self-sufficiency in food production, against the economic and political weight of real estate development. The agricultural vote has historically been too low to get the attention of politicians -- but there is a provincial election coming.

We broke into groups to tackle food security ("A situation in which all community residents obtain a safe, culturally acceptable, nutritionally adequate diet through a sustainable food system that maximizes self-reliance and social justice" --Hamm & Bellows, from a 2003 article in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior) by discussing three questions. Firstly, what knowledge, skills and abilities are needed in communities to become food secure and work towards sustainability, and how are these to be identified and shared; secondly, how do communities move towards long term food sustainability while dealing with short-term and immediate needs; and finally, how do we work together to become a collective voice on food security, and what steps can we take today to improve the security and sustainability of our food supply?

There was a lot of discussion, of course, from nurses, nutritionists, farmers, students, chefs, food retailers and more. Some points I found interesting:
  • Education has in a way been our food supply's nemesis: the farmers' children leave the farm to get an education so they can have a better life than their parents. Schools feed this removal from the land and the ensuing loss of respect for farmers which helped to rob them of a livelihood; as did the cultural and economic shift to commodity production over market gardening or backyard food production.
  • Half of the province's ALR land is apparently not currently farmed.
  • Taxation that is set according to a minimum return from farming sets an impossible hurdle for new farmers.
  • Greenhouse growing, a viable way to produce food, was initially encouraged on the Island, using coal heating to support the local coal industry; but now coal is a carbon tax bad-guy and the capital outlay to start over is crippling for nonprofits.
  • Food preservation is a central, much-needed skill which seems to be much in demand.
  • The school system badly needs a mandatory agricultural component, but cracking the curriculum is very difficult.
  • Government policies should include mandated backyard food growing.
  • We need to start thinking of food as medicine.
Some interesting organisations, places or sources of information I encountered at the meeting include:
And all that talk about food makes a person hungry. We had started off with a good breakfast - smoked salmon hollandaise, house muesli, fresh yogurt and so on - and broke for an even better lunch. I don't think I've been at a meeting that had such a good one. Fresh local greens, lots of seafood - including beautifully cooked planked salmon, Fanny Bay oysters, crab legs, spot prawns, tuna carpaccio and several smoked fishes - and apple-rhubarb crumble and local cheeses to finish.

Well deserved kudos to the chef.

In the last of the three sessions I was in, about steps that can be taken now to help the food security situation, we had a participant who floated the idea of an Island food infrastructure investment fund - a fund that could be drawn from in order to tap the many matching grants that are out there but beyond reach since few have the money to kick things off. So by the time we left the room the fund had begun at $60. By the end of the wrap-up plenary, it had jumped to $250.

As we left, there on the golf course was a small crowd of wild food to wish us farewell.

I couldn't leave town without visiting Brambles, the new (3 months old) market

which sells only local (Vancouver Island or BC) products. I'd had some gorgeous beets (golden and rainbow) at the reception on Thursday which had come from here, so I made a beeline for the produce (a lot of which comes from my local farm shop hangout, Michells). They had many other tempting things too, including tins of line-caught albacore tuna, an amazing looking meat counter (they make all their own sausages), lots of great fruit juices, local cheeses and chocolates. Lucky for my food budget I was taking the long way back to Victoria so had to pass on the perishables.

That night we said a proper farewell to Courtenay at Locals, an exceptional restaurant tucked away in a strip mall.

As its name suggests, it serves local foods and wines. Everything we had was excellent, from the smoked tuna salad with its natty daikon sash

to the fresh sablefish - baked in a cloak of fennel

or pan-seared in sesame seeds with a bit of black bean, and some nice fresh vegetables - more pretty beets -

and since the dessert menu is abnormally tempting, they offer a boon to the indecisive, a sampler that includes pumpkin-chai latte brûlée; a chocolate tower; lavender ice cream with oregon grape jelly; and a kind of apple crumble which was much better than that may sound.

After a last stroll along Fanny Bay - where we experienced the other side of the herring run, which is the herring roe that washes up on the beaches

in such quantities you think at first there's been a spill of sawdust - it was time to head back down the island.


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Mindful consumerism and the joys of precycling

The Story of Stuff - pass it on and watch it with your kids! We saw this short 'n snappy number last night in an instructive meeting of the BCSEA, on the topic of The Mindful Consumer.

But first, our speaker, Michael Nation, talked about spending a year of trying not to buy anything new - that is, new consumables, like clothes or gadgets or machines. He repaired, improvised, bartered and did without; he darned his socks, had his shoes resoled, borrowed books from the library, mended his garden tools, replaced the damaged cord on his iron instead of buying a new one; and at the end of the year his bill for personal consumables was in the neighbourhood of $700, including a flight to Calgary to be at the ceremony of a friend who became a Canadian, and a pair of new shoes (he's a runner).

There was some discussion then about the irony (or do we mean madness) of governments telling us we must buy our way out of the recession, when surely this of all times is the moment to change our values and give up on consumerism, which is a dead-end road if ever there was one. Though nobody uttered the word, we were deep in the territory of precycling, where you simply don't acquire packaging and disposable items, including recyclables - particularly wise strategies nowadays when even the recycling industry is in crisis.

Throughout the evening, others shared their mindful consumer ideas: buy everything from clothes to building supplies at thrift and salvage shops or at ReStore; bring thrift store china and cutlery into the office kitchen instead of paper plates and plastic cutlery; take tupperware or other refillable containers with you if you buy takeaway foods; cut off television service; explore Transition Towns; refuse bags and packaging at grocery stores and demand to have your meat wrapped in paper instead of embalmed in styrofoam; buy your new stove from a second hand store (the new ones are designed to be replaced rather than repaired if they short out); recycle junk mail as computer paper, shopping lists or usable envelopes; use washable fabric ( "family cloth" for toilet paper (or for pity's sake, at least recycled paper brands!); replace shot zippers on otherwise usable clothing (the replacement zippers are usually better quality/longer lasting anyway)... and on and on it will go.

Someone did mention the need for people to regain lost skills in food preparation. One start might be in learning to deal with leftovers. Or take some notes from this article, about San Francisco chefs - and chefs are under more pressure than most of us to throw away all but the best bits of anything - trying to be more conscientious in the kitchen.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Alices have it

Thanks to Mary's tip, I was able to watch this clip, recently featured on 60 Minutes, to see Alice Waters talk about why good, clean and fair food is worth the investment.

And Alice Major will be reading in Sechelt this week, and after that points east, as she promotes her lovely book The Office Tower Tales.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Return to Haliburton, and some cool spaghetti

Katie sent me this beauty. A cooking video that will not make you hungry, at least not for food!

Meanwhile, I spent a pleasant afternoon shovelling dirt, pulling weeds and moving strawberries around on my first Wednesday work party of the year at Haliburton Community Organic Farm, where things are looking readier and readier.

There's a demonstration garden

going in on the Terralicious plot, to show people how they could manage to grow food, keep chickens and still have room to play in a standard sized city plot; there are seedlings sprouting and a big beautiful new veggie stand waiting for action.


Monday, March 09, 2009

Springtime in Canada

It was just over a week ago I said goodbye to Saskatchewan,

touched down briefly in Calgary...

and then returned to Victoria where the herring run is in full flow, which brings out the fishermen

and the seabirds, including mergansers,

as well as harbour seals --and the odd otter.

Meanwhile, thoughts turn to plantings; I have some wading pools and car tires ready to roll. I'd heard that you can plant lots of potatoes using a stacking method and car tires, so I'm going to try that. On the other hand, this guy has had pretty good luck growing everything from corn to eggplant to okra in his Tennessee garden using 163 car tires. The wading pool idea came from this article about inner city gardening, which says they last at least 6 years in Chicago, so hopefully will prove even more durable here. The article also describes using car tires (with plastic liners), feed bags (you can use big burlap sacks as well) or other discarded containers like wooden crates, bricks, barrels, and plastic pails with holes in them.

But at present I don't have to do anything more than plan, since we had a surprise snowfall this morning - though it is melting as best it can.

Luckily there's poetry to keep us warm. I'm looking forward to David Cavanagh's reading at Planet Earth Poetry this Friday.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Greed is good?

I was at a talk the other night by an investment company in which the head of research spent a lot of time extolling the virtues of 'high quality companies' and suggesting in the strongest possible terms (by naming it at least three times, for its steady growth, its popularity in times of recession, and its admirable gifts in job creation) that we should buy into one in particular. And the name of this wonderful opportunity was Wal-Mart.


Quite rightly, the first question he got after finishing was whether he ever looked at the social record of companies he recommended. After some shuffling of his papers he admitted that no, he didn't look at that at all. You folks, he said, pay me to find you companies that will give you good returns, not to examine how they behave. Shades of Gordon Gekko.

This chap had also spent some time explaining how lessons had been learned from the Depression so we couldn't possibly end up back there.

But what have we learned really, if we're being encouraged to put our money down into the same environment of amorality that caused the collapse of companies like Lehman and Bernard Madoff? If we are told it's ok to overlook how companies behave, and never mind how they earn their profits, as long as they continue to pay us our investment income, then are we not responsible for kicking morality further into the gutter?

And holding Wal-Mart up as an investor's paradigm? A company that can create all those McJobs precisely because it's beaten its competitors into the dirt through use of sweatshops, tax dodges and keeping its pay scale right along the poverty line. And whose business strategy is to kill off small, independent and family-owned stores; the very stores that hire people who know their products and can provide intelligent advice when selling them. A company that wants to bite off the biggest chunk of our shopping dollar by driving down quality standards - nurturing public hunger for cheap, disposable goods; exporting our manufacturing industries to the cheapest supplier - and through opportunistic expansion into areas like organic foods.

We will surely get the kind of world we deserve, if this is the kind of company we choose to support with our investment money. And, it goes without saying, with our shopping dollar.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Of sausages, sauerkraut and sorrel

I had opened a jar of sauerkraut the other day and was pondering what to do with it. I still have some beets from my bumper Christmas organic box, and I started thinking about some borscht I once had that included both beets and sauerkraut.

But in looking for this recipe I stumbled upon several others for sauerkraut borscht which call for smoked sausages (like those St Gregor ones I have stashed in my freezer).

Which reminded me that borscht, to many of us, means a kind of beet soup, but that is a woefully limited view of a term that, like paella, can mean an almost infinite range of dishes under a common culinary umbrella.

Which led me to look further at the page I'd happened upon, which was a collection of Mennonite recipes. Last summer I made sorrel soup (here called Zummahborscht) out of some weeds I'd pulled at Haliburton Farm. The soup was delicious and lemony; the labour involved was a bit tedious, as I had to rinse and sort the leaves rather more than I would a grocery store bag of greens, but I think it was worth it and I'll be volunteering for weeding duties again this year.


Monday, March 02, 2009

Grass and grass-eaters

Nancy gave me the most wonderful book: Table Talk, by the overwhelmingly acerbic AA Gill. The chapter on rice starts seriously enough, though:
The grass family (Gramineae) is extraordinary. From its largest member, maize, to one of its smallest, teff, grass provides the staple diet of humans. If you believe that you are what you eat... you can divide the world neatly -- indeed, almost exactly -- in half between two Gramineae-philes: wheat-eaters and rice-eaters.
The wheat world and the rice world are better definitions of our most fundamental division than the myopically geo-political 'first' and 'third', the mealy-mouthed 'developed' and 'developing', or the plainly geographical north/south.
He makes some interesting points about the two halves:
In terms of wholesomeness, rice and wheat are remarkably similar. Wheat has slightly more protein, rice more carbohydrate. For labourers, rice alone is just enough for sustenance... you can feed more people with an acre of rice than an acre of wheat.
...rice will sustain a dense population, but it is also more intensive to grow than wheat. Look at how many people are needed to plant a paddy field compared with a wheat field. It needs elaborate water management; it's high maintenance. Rice may keep a large population just above starvation, but it also needs that population to grow it. Paddy fields become a closed circle of work producing the energy to work.

Wheat, on the other hand, feeds a smaller population, but allows them more space and time to do other things, such as develop a social system and technology that ends up colonising rice-eaters. After breakfast, space and time are everything.
By coincidence, a day or two after reading this, I heard the first part of a week-long dramatisation of a rather grim radio play called The Death of Grass, part of a Science Fiction series. It's only available online for a week. Worth a listen.

With apologies to the mutton campaign, I'd like to share a more characteristic moment from AA Gill:
The ingénue vegetables were midgets and dwarves, boiled so that they held their natural shape only by a collective act of nostalgia. But they were ambrosia compared with the mutton. The colour of a gravedigger's fingernail, it was a mortified curl of muscle form some unknown extremity of ancient ovine. It resisted knife and fork, being mostly translucent, sweaty gristle and greasy fat. It was inedibly disgusting, without question the nastiest ingredient I've been served this year.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Of Sausages and St David's Day

I do not, so far as I know, have a drop of Welsh blood in me, but I wish those of you who do a happy St David's Day. I read that Welsh recipes have something in common with poetry (not surprisingly I suppose!) in that they were saved from dying out during the Industrial Revolution, when farmers turned from the land to the factories and mines, by oral tradition, one generation passing them to the next, until they were written down. As food does get caught up in class struggles too, I guess these more humble dishes would also have risked loss by having given way to more 'elevated' fare cooked in French-influenced English kitchens of the time.

If you want to celebrate today with a particularly good dish, I recommend Glamorgan Sausages, which you can probably make well enough with Feta or Lancashire if you are in a Caerphilly-deprived area.

Speaking of sausages, before I left Saskatchewan, I was directed by two independent and reliable gastrophiles (Dee and Glen) to the town of St Gregor

and the red and white striped home of Prime Meats.

Glen has been a loyal customer for at least 30 of the 31 years the company has been offering local employment and high quality smoked locally-reared meats to smoked German sausage fans far and wide, and so I accepted his judgement. The odour of woodsmoke, which Dee commented on, was most appetising, and you can peek behind the counter to see men in action on sawdust floors. Long may they continue!.

And for those who wish to celebrate Welsh heritage in poetry, why not try your hand at three classic Welsh poetry forms? (Though I am a bit dubious about the Welshness of Terza Rima... was Dante a Welshman?)