I handed the postmaster my yellow slip and he returned with a package from Amazon. I hadn't ordered anything so while he processed my other mail, I opened the box to find the book, Tiny Homes, Simple Shelter. I started flipping through it and was immediately enthralled turning the book so the postman could see the color glossy images of the cutest small homes, I'd ever seen. Some were made from earth, mud and other natural materials sourced on site. While others were made out of recycled scraps, repurposed materials, backyard sheds as well as old trailers, buses and gypsy wagons.

On the drive home, I was wondering how this book came to be in my possession. Perhaps it was from a publisher for whom I was doing a book review and they had sent me the book by mistake. It would have been such a coincidence to send this book, of all books, to me...I've had a fascination with cottages for as long as I can remember starting when I was eleven years old with Julie Andrews' book, Mandy. The reply from the publisher read, "no, they had not sent me the book," I rustled through the box that was now in the recycling bin to find a wee slip of paper that said, "From your brother-in-law, Mike." A smile grew across my face. So cool! I had forgotten our conversation from a few months earlier where I had told him how I wanted to build a simple, 500 sq. ft. cabin on a lovely piece of land and call it home. He, however, had remembered our chat and when he saw this book, sent it along for inspiration. Those are the best presents of all!

Later that week, I was attending the first day of a permaculture course with Northern Nevada Permaculture and Urban Roots Garden Classrooms in Reno. The whole premise of permaculture is to create land-use systems which utilize resources in a sustainable way. Nature is permanent agriculture so in permaculture you are basically mimicking nature's design to grow food,  harness energy and live in connection to place. It is more than sustainable it is regenerative because a large part of permaculture is stacking functions which create cycles to reuse energy like the sun and water. 

People are a part of nature so in permaculture, they live in more ecological structures. When our instructor started flipping through examples of "tiny homes, simple shelters," I was even more amazed by the timing of this book in my life.

For a long time now, I've realized my life choices may never make me millions and I will more than likely have to work well past retirement age. But my life choices could be my social security! And a small, energy efficient, sustainably sourced, off-the-grid home could not only provide me a simpler life in later years but be kind to the environment as well. These homes are as beautiful as they are unique and their ingenuity is intoxicating. We talk about reducing our carbon footprint. Perhaps it starts with literally reducing the footprint upon which we live. The costs associated with eco-homes can be expensive but when scaled for smaller structures and when supplemented with natural cycles to capture energy, it can be affordable. Granted, not everyone is going to move to the country and go Daniel Boone but it does give pause for reflection. But for me, my financial future just got a whole lot brighter with this as a possibility.

Last week, I was sad to read an article on Yahoo news that said agriculture was the #1 useless college degree. Last time I checked, I still needed food to live. How can farming be useless, if that's how we get our food? Maybe the author thinks food just comes from a big factory.

The author based the claim on the fact that land grant universities are cutting their agriculture programs and mega farms are becoming so efficient that they don't need workers. Both are true! But shouldn't statistics like this give alarm for concern instead of being taken for face value to steer students away from this career. Leaving our food supply to less than 1% of the population to grow is a pretty big risk. Meanwhile, if re-branded, farming could be the green job of tomorrow...Sustainable agriculture programs could be training food producers, land stewards and soil carbon ranchers. And by decentralizing the farming industry, smaller farmers would begin to populate rebuilding agricultural ecosystems and putting people back to work.

Adding insult to injury...On Monday, January 23rd, the Supreme Court overturned California's 2009 law which required that non-ambulatory (a.k.a. "downed") livestock be euthanized before slaughter. These are animals who can't stand on their own  because they are too sick and weak. Seems reasonable and humane! How could this even be contested? It seems sometimes that our judicial system gets so caught-up in the process that they forget their common sense.

The despicable, harvesting practices of unethical slaughterhouses were magnified in undercover videos released by the Humane Society in 2008. If you have ever seen these videos, it will make you sick just thinking about it. California took swift action to set new guidelines which were by no means transformative but were at least better than before. The California law left the heart strings out of the court room and just focused on the food safety concerns of meat from sick animals; knowing social and health issues were the best way to get the bill passed. But  for animal rights activists, it was a huge win and a step in securing more, humane, husbandry practices. Pork producers sued saying, "it interfered with federal laws that require inspections of downed livestock before determining whether they can be used for meat." They just wanted more money. And they obviously had the money to get this Supreme Court decision. House of Representative Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-NY, and Rep. Peter King, R-NY have "introduced legislation this month which will hopefully close a loophole in federal laws that allow the slaughter of some types of non-ambulatory animals." Hard to believe this much time is needed to address an otherwise black and white issue.

Sorry to be a Debbie downer with this news report. i usually keep it pretty bright and hopeful. But sometimes it rains on my parade.

Building blocks to a Sustainable Food Community
I've often referred to my independent study on sustainable food systems as my un-accredited PhD program. Over the past seven months, I've handcrafted an education program that brought together learning experience and opportunities that would be the most meaningful to me...interning on organic farms, taking short courses and workshops and interviewing experts in the field.

Last night, I had the chance to present my findings and solutions for building a sustainable food community at the Tools for the Table speaker series in Truckee hosted by the Genesa Living Foundation. It felt like I was defending my thesis but fortunately, the audience took it easy on me and didn't challenge my proposal ;)

The pyramid to the left sums up my theory in a nutshell. To have a sustainable food system, you must have the building blocks to support it. First, you need a foodshed assessment in order to measure your community's food security against its dependence on the national food system. A foodshed assessment will provide a food policy council the information they need to develop a food plan for their society. The formation of a regional food hub will provide a market which will encourage more local food production. And those new food producers will be born from farmer and specialty-food incubator programs.

Once there is a solid foundation, equity will start to be seen in the supply chain starting with the grower all the way to the consumer. As more land is put into agricultural production and partnerships are developed with food, abundant, regional neighbors, the community will become more food secure. Financial incentives which encourage consumers and businesses to spend money locally will be implemented to build the regional food system. Regional networks  keeps money circulating locally. When money stays local it stimulates the local economy to make it more prosperous and resilient. Whatcha get is a sustainable food community!

One of the venues at the Wild & Scenic Film Festival
Six years ago, I went to my first Wild & Scenic Film Festival in Nevada City, CA. At the time I was there representing festival sponsor, Patagonia. During one particular film, Broken Limbs, I was hit with an a-ha moment..."I had to take these films around the county." Eight months later, I quit my job at did exactly that. Over the next five years, I watched 1200 or more films as tour manager using the stories presented on screen to inspire audiences nationwide.

I went back to Wild & Scenic today as a spectator and had another one of those moments. I chose one of the seven venues and arrived just as the film, From the Mara Soil, was starting. I felt my way through the dark hall to a vacant sit against the back wall. The film's message quickly became clear, "sustainable food systems are possible anywhere."

Using subtitles to translate his heavily-accented English, the native dread-locked, Tanzanian spoke directly to the camera and said, "In Tanzania, we don't have a dictator, we don't have war. We just have poverty!" With conviction, he continued, "we must change the way poor people live."

Tanzanian permaculture at Kinesi Orphanage
For years, Tanzania has been gripped by the inherent woes of its harsh environment making them dependent upon global support. Permaculture and better management of their natural resources is turning the tide. People have mostly eaten rice and beans because a short rainy season makes it nearly impossible to grow vegetables. At the time, vegetables had been grown using western, monoculture methods which left the soil dry and a nutrient deficient. Permaculture is demonstrating that the lack of rain and hot sun are not the problem, it is the farming practice that were wrong. Now they harvest water holding it in ditches next to their crops, they interplant a mix of vegetables to cycle nutrients in the soil and employ dry farming techniques which utilize ground covers like straw and green manure to insulate the soil keeping moisture locked in and conserving the precious, collected water.

With the help of Global Rescue Alliance, small villages are evaluating everything they do through a new lens...solar ovens are replacing indoor, open-fires for cooking; and wells are finding the rain from the rainy season water trapped in bedrock near the ground surface. Instead of feeling like victims on a hot continent, they are finding ways to grow and cook food by harnessing the the sun's energy and the water delivered once a year..

Every growing region comes with its own host of constraints, it is a matter of working within those constraints to figure out how to stabilize a community's food security. In Tanzania, it requires working with the sun not against it. In the mountains, it requires working with greenhouses, low tunnels and cold frames to extend the season or better yet, grow all year long.

Tanzania, however, is acting out of necessity and survival. In America, we just go to the supermarket. Our survival is not as visceral or palpable. Any vegetable we want is available anytime we want it throughout the year. Western cultures have little incentive to change because we are disconnected from the repercussions of our broken food system. Ironically, developing countries could be more sustainable if they so chose because they can adapt faster to sustainable farming methods and be rewarded immediately with better health, improved lifestyle and a more resilient community.

American communities, however, don't have to be victims of their inequitable food system. They too can be empowered to take control and address their own food security needs and build a stronger local economy in the process. It starts with community!

Lisa's Organics' slogan
I've been back in Tahoe two months now. In the absence of snow, I've been hard at work shaping what will hopefully be a bountiful career in food activism. It is only the beginning but I can feel the momentum gaining.

First up is a philanthropic campaign for Lisa's Organics. Lisa's is based in Lake Tahoe and are producers of organic, frozen vegetables. They are taking their "Eat Your Veggies" slogan and helping schools and hospitals improve their meal programs.

School gardens are sprouting up all over the country,  lunch programs are becoming healthier and more hospitals are sourcing sustainably grown food. Lisa's Organics' "Gardens to Hospitals," hopes to keep that momentum going.
The program’s goal is to bring awareness to the role of nutritious food in raising and nurturing healthy children. The children themselves will help lead the effort advocating for healthier meals both in their schools and in hospitals. Students with a school garden will grow food for children in a hospital. They will come together in a food and information sharing event at the hospital snacking on the food grown. Together, all the kids will gain a better connection to their food and healthy eating habits. In the process, the food buyers at both the school and the hospital will be forced to look into the eyes of the children they are feeding and answer to the choices they are making. 

Institutional food, like at schools and hospitals, represents a significant percentage of the food consumed in the United States. Harnessing the collective buying power of institutions to  purchase more nutritious and ecologically grown food could dramatically alter the US food economy. Their critical mass could provide the organic market the weight necessary to tip the scales away from conventional agriculture.

The grow dome at what hopes to be Truckee's community farm
Next up, is a farming project in Tahoe. Yes, Tahoe! I will be helping to launch a program to explore mountain farming techniques in a 1000 sq. ft grow dome (geodesic greenhouse). The practices utilized are those perfected by the 4-season, hoop-house, guru, Eliot Coleman. This is my first step in helping my high-elevation community achieve food security. If successful, more grow domes will be built and perhaps even a grants program developed to help citizens acquire smaller, 350 sq. ft. domes for their backyards. My goal...20% of Tahoe using grow domes by 2020.

The grow dome hopes to be an extension of the community garden in Truckee Regional Park. In a demonstration setting, people can get acquainted with agriculture and learn about the growing methods used at the dome. The grow dome(s) would be the community farm growing food not only for schools, hospitals and a CSA program but more importantly the local hunger relief program, Project Mana. The grow dome and the possibility of feeding Tahoe with food grown on its own soil, is the vision and inspiration of local entrepreneurs, Bill and Kevin Kelly.

Gene with one of his 16" ears of corn
I feel truly honored, The Rodale Institute reposted one of my most favorite posts on their website today. It is an interview I did with Gene Logsdon entitled,"A Field day with Gene Logsdon." It was originally published here at the Food Chronicles on October 2, 2011. Gene has been a mentor of mine throughout my food journey. I deeply respect his wisdom, writings and contributions to sustainable agriculture. Enjoy the rerun!

In 1974, a book of poems came across Gene Logsdon’s desk  while working for the Farm Journal in Philadelphia. He read four poems and closed the book. He got up from his desk and marched straight into his editor's office and said, "I'm going on a trip." "Where?" replied his editor.“ “To interview Wendell Berry!” The two have been good friends ever since. They are kindred, agrarian spirits. In Gene's living room is a shelf of Wendell's books. Below is a shelf of Gene's books. "We have a friendly competition going." says Gene with a smile.

I can relate to Gene’s affinity for Wendell’s writing. After reading an essay by Gene Logsdon in the book, "The New Agrarianism," I knew I wanted to meet Gene. In no way, can I compare to his and Wendell's literary excellence nor years of dedication to a pastoral life but his writing struck a chord with my food system aspirations and I knew I had to meet him. And that wish came true this past weekend...

To read the rest of the article got to the Rodale institute site, Click Here. Or go back through the Food Chronicle archives. But clicking the link is much easier, plus you get to visit the website of the premier research station on organic agriculture.

This morning I saw the sunrise! No, it's not what you think. I was not out all night celebrating New Year's. Although, that would have been fun too. Instead, i was clear headed and full of hope and possibility.

I was up at 3:45am to work a side job with a private limousine service taking people from Tahoe to the Reno airport. It meant going to bed by 9:30pm and required missing my first ball-drop in Susie recorded memory.

At 6am, I had already delivered my first of five passengers for the day to their curbside destination. I was driving back to Tahoe on I-80 looking over my left shoulder to the horizon. The first light had started to illuminate the sky to the east silhouetting the pine trees along the ridge tops. The sky to the west was still asleep in darkness. House lights speckled the wooded hillside and sparkled in the distance. The sun would not crest for another hour but pink and orange were already kissing the scattered clouds overhead. It was one of those memorable sunrises. Made even more symbolic by the New Year. Hence, the feeling of hope and possibility for the pursuit of my new food career.

1976 Scamp trailer
Looking for further inspiration, I turned to one of my favorite sources, the podcasts on the The Dirtbag Diaries. With earbud in one ear, I scrolled to the appropriate app on my iPhone and clicked play. Show host, Fitz Cahall, was taking about life transitions. Considering I am in the middle of such a transition, my attention was immediately captured. He and his wife Becka, are expecting their first child. To ensure they still had an "escape hatch" for family adventures, he purchased a 1976 Scamp trailer to refurbish and ready for weekend mountain retreats. Pending fatherhood was feeling bittersweet. He anxiously awaited the next phase in his life and all the new stories it would bring but lamented the untethered freedom to romp in the hills and climb craggy peaks at will. The scamp was an effort to bridge those two worlds.

I don't have kids. And if I don't have a family in my lifetime, it doesn't mean I can't completely and selfishly devote myself to something that will last longer in this world than me. My commitment to changing the food system is 'my baby." Hearing Fitz characterize his transition validated my own.