My Tiny Home, all 400sft of it!
I've been waiting for the one-year anniversary of one of my most favorites posts so I could rerun it. Ironically, just in the last week, it has been getting lots of views. The post, entitled, "Social Security,"  originally ran on January 29, 2012 (I'm early by one week). Soon after it ran, I moved into a tiny home where I continue to reside...I live on the same property as the Growing Dome that I manage learning everyday about the trials and tribulations of 4-season gardening. I love my little shelter. It's like my own fort or playhouse but really...it is just practice for when I build one of my very own and start saving for my "Social Security." The complete story has been reposted below.

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.

Eliot and his wife Barbara on their farm in Harborside, Maine
Now that I've officially been indoctrinated with the principles of 4-season growing, I wanted to give tribute to my sensei, Eliot Coleman and replay a post from last February when I got to hear him speak for the first time. Give it a read...

The only thing holding Tahoe back from being like its food abundant cousins down the hill, are its winters. Tahoe gets the same amount of sun - nearly 300 days of it - but has cold temperatures. We just need to harness the sun's heat and were golden, literally!

Fortunately, there are good people like Eliot Coleman of Four Season Farm. He has been perfecting his 4-season growing techniques for the past forty years. He gleaned most of his information by visiting and studying the traditions of French and British farmers. He would come back to his farm in Maine adapting what he learned and further refining the skill of year-round farming.

Reno, Nevada had the fortune of a 2-day workshop this past weekend with the father of cold-hardy vegetables. As a budding farmer myself, I was eager to hear the voice behind the words in the books I had been reading.

Row covers inside an unheated greenhouse
"Simplicity! That's our motto," preached Eliot. "Low-tech and high quality "real" food are our guiding principles." He wants his systems to be replicable. If they are complicated, they will never gain traction. And he's succeeded! To get in the game, however, you have to be okay with cold weather and hard work. But the systems he has designed aren't elaborate or overly expensive.

Here are a few basic winter gardening concepts:
  1. The cornerstone of Eliot's process is the "double-cover." Take an unheated greenhouse which serves as the first cover. And then place a lightweight row-cover over the crop. The insulating layer is the double-cover. it can increase the temperature near the plant by 25+ degrees!
  2. Focus on growing cold-hardy vegetables like salad greens and root crops. The matriarchs of the bunch are spinach and arugula. But leafy greens in general are the mainstay: mache, claytonia, endive, escarole, minutina, lettuces, watercress, parsley, raddichio, sorrel, mizuna, Asian greens, as well as chard, collards and kale. Other go-to winter crops include carrots, leeks, broccoli, garlic, radishes, turnips, beets, potatoes and kohlrabi.
  3. Strict planting schedules and crop rotations play an intregal role. Seeds must be planted well in advance of the first frost so plants can get established and keep producing throughout the winter. The bewitching hour is 10-hours of daylight. Once we fall below 10-hours/day, plant growth slows down. But by the time the last of the winter crops have been harvested in February, the clock has turned and we've rounded the corner and have started to exceed 10-hours of daylight. Crop rotations ensure that what comes out goes back in by enriching the depleted soil with nutrients from a different crop family each planting. There are 13 crop families!

Picture Inexpensive low-tunnels can still utilize double-covers
Eliot reminded the audience of a scene in the movie, The Graduate, with Dustin Hoffman, "My hope is that one day, a respected elder will take a promising young graduate aside and say, son...I've got one word for you, farming!" He believes in what he is selling and the future that small-scale farming can offer our communities, economy and environment through 4-season growing!

Me at Swanton Berry Farm - July 2011
The Food Chronicles turns 1-year old next Thursday, May 17th. Hard to believe this adventure started a year ago. I feel like I've just begun. I'm constantly rounding new corners, learning different things and getting spun down new paths. But the goal is the same...building a regional and sustainable food system that supports local economies!

When you write a blog, you can't help but geek out on the traffic stats. It's fun to see which posts get the most hits. And one post continues to be the most popular, "Where Do Strawberries Come From." Every month since it was published on July 12th, it continues to top the leader board. I was taking an agroecology course at UC Santa Cruz at the time and we visited a farm where the young owner shared this fun fact...

    "Strawberries are a hot crop where plastic tarps cover their raised beds to generate heat and cut down on weeds. It acts as a mulch. Back in the day, they didn't have plastic mulch so they used "straw" around the base of the plant to trap heat and reduce weeds. Get it?  Straw-berries!"

I apologize to all the people doing a Google search for "Where Do Strawberries Come From" and finding my measly post in the Top 10. It hardly gives the whole story. Now, if you want the real skinny on strawberries, check out the site Strawberries for Strawberry Lovers. It appears strawberries originated along the coastlines of North and South America as well as the Hawaiian Islands. Their notoriety hit the big time when a Chilean variety reached France in 1714. Some of strawberry's foremost authorities debunk the sweet story that was told to me about its moniker. The more widely accepted story for how the scrumptious fruit got its name is because it resembles straw when it is strewn about on the ground. Booooring! I'm going to stick with my story. Way better!

Interestingly enough...I have a couple more posts about strawberries. And each was written during my course in Santa Cruz. There are lots of strawberries grown in those parts. One post profiles Jim Cochran of Swanton Berry Farm.  Jim pioneered the techniques to grow strawberries organically. He was ostracized in the 80's being told it was not possible and the only way to grow strawberries commercially was to follow conventional practices which rely on toxic fumigants to eradicate soil pathogens. Chemical fumigants like methyl iodide are still widely used today poisoning field workers and most likely those who consume the tainted strawberries. My second post about strawberries depicts a startling, photo commentary of our current agricultural system. Check out the link! And if you think it is just strawberries that we need to worry about being dosed with skulls-n-crossbones, think again!

Amish farm in Ohio
I recently saw a documentary on PBS about the Amish way of life called, "The Amish." It reminded me of my own unique experience this past summer when picking up veggies for a CSA program in Cleveland. I wanted to share the story again. Don't read ahead but my favorite part is the ending.

It was just past 8am as we rumbled along country roads through the rolling hills of Amish country south of Oberlin. The humidity index was already pushing 80% as thunder clouds hovered above treetops. It was going to be a hot and muggy day. We would spend the better part of the morning visiting seven Amish farms and picking up vegetables for Northeast Ohio's progressive CSA program, City Fresh. And that's just for today. Four days a week, collections are made from a pool of 25 farms which supply shares to over 800 members throughout City Fresh's three counties. it progressive because...scaled pricing helps more privileged neighbors subsidize the cost of a share for low-income neighbors. Pick-up locations are called "Fresh Stops" which basically puts a farmers market where a farmer's market would not normally exist...in the inner city. It is just one way that NE Ohio is striving to improve access to healthy, quality, local food especially in economically deprived, urban areas where availability is the weakest..

Pictured here is the farm of Reuben and Mary, our first pick-up. Dogs barked and kids peaked around barn doors as we entered the yard. Never had I had cause or reason to enter the property of an Amish family. I felt honored and humbled. Honored to have the opportunity to visit and meet members of this private community at their home. And humbled by their sustainable lifestyle and the culture they have preserved amongst modern-day temptations.

A City Fresh Stop near a vacant lot in Cleveland.
I approach modestly after climbing down from the truck making eye connect with a cheerful smile. While reserved, their reception is warm and genuine.The little ones stare wondering, "who is this person?" I wink back hoping to catch a closer glimpse of their beautifully, uncomplicated life. Reuben was rinsing and packing the last of the eggplant order with the help of his two eldest daughters. He lingered after by the truck talking with me and the driver, Roger. Roger hands Reuben a letter. it is from Reuben's brother, Joe, who lives a couple miles away....mail delivery! And Reuben gives us something to take back. We go there next. Reuben and Joe look like brothers with their big, blue eyes and curls which roll up under their straw hats. Joe and Rachel are part of a certified organic, Amish co-op called Greenfield Farms. They've been organic pretty much from their start in 2005. And were one of City Fresh's first suppliers. They farm 11-acres testing their soil throughout the spring and summer for what organic fertilizers they need to input. But they plan to wean themselves off any applications and just go with straight manure and compost. Rachel nods and confirms, "yields are higher and the produce is bigger and tastier when we amend with manure in the fall and no organic fertilizers in the spring."

Our last stop is David' farm. He is a shrewd businessman. He keeps Roger on his toes as they discuss prices and next week's order. When appropriate, I introduce myself. He asks if I work for City Fresh. I tell him about my independent study and interest in helping local, organic food to move better through a regional, distribution system. I wasn't sure if he got what I was saying. But a little while later, he asks Roger and I if we would like a watermelon to take home. He had extra. He hands it to me and says, "that's how food moves!" He gets it :)

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.

Nathan Harkleroad, Incubator Program Manager, with Pablo Perez of J & P Organics
Every since I learned about the ALBA farm model, I haven't been able to stop talking about it. At least once a week, I find occasion to preach it's gospel. It definitely deserves a re-post. I visited ALBA while I was taking a 2-week Agroecology course at UC Santa Cruz this past summer. The post originally aired on July 16, 2011.

I want to hand a blue ribbon to all the programs and initiatives I've been learning about this past week but my  favorite so far is where we visited today, ALBA! The ALBA growing and education center is in the fertile valley of Salinas, CA. Bottom line, we need more of these centers all over the country, the world in fact! ALBA stands for "Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association."

Here's the skinny...ALBA not only trains people how to farm organically but helps them get started by leasing them subsidized land from their 110 acre property. The biggest risk in starting to farm is taking that financial leap of faith. Even if you can afford to buy land, you have a huge learning curve in developing best practices. ALBA's collaborative approach provides continued field education for all its graduates. At ALBA, you start with 6-months (150 hours) of training then lease .5 acre at 20% its market value. After five years, you are paying 100% of the market value but may have increased your capacity to 5 or 7 acres. It is an "incubator" for small farms. The model is brilliant! But that's not all...ALBA also has a distribution component, ALBA Organics, to help their farmers get their food to market since marketing can be the toughest hurdle of all - you may be a good farmer but not a very good sales person. ALBA Organics is the engine which funds the entire project first paying their growers for their harvest and returning profits back into the program.

Many of the graduates who lease land from ALBA opt out of ALBA Organics. With the help of ALBA staff, they develop their own economically, viable businesses with CSA's and farmer's markets...like Pablo Perez of J & P Organics . We had the fortune of meeting Pablo in the fields and hearing his story...Pablo had started out working in a chemically, dependent nursery years ago later leasing .5 acre and then 7 acres where he grew flowers conventionally. When his irrigation pump broke, the landowners refused to help fix it. $70K in lost income later and Pablo had also lost his lease and was back working in a nursery. His American dream crumbled. A couple years later, Pablo's son, Juan, was on field trip to ALBA and saw an opportunity for his family. He encouraged his dad to take the bi-lingual course offered at ALBA. Together five years ago, they formed J & P Organics. Juan handles the marketing and Pablo farms their now 5 acre plot which supports 500 CSA shareholders. It's enough to bring a tear to your eye. But not to Pablo. He is all smiles and full of stories. Including this story, or is it a parable...

A man asked Pablo, "Why are your strawberries $1 more than that guy's strawberries over there?" Pablo replied, "Because mine are organic and I don't use chemical fertilizers and pesticides." "I don't care about that," the man responded and proceeded to buy the cheaper, poison laced strawberries. A few days later, than man came back to ask Pablo why the strawberries he bought were dry and tasteless. Pablo explained, "because the chemicals take out all the nutrients and flavor." And with that, Pablo cut one of his strawberries open and handed it to the man. It was juicy and exploding with taste. The man never bought a conventionally grown strawberry again. The End!

Farm Abbondonza...Rich, & Shanan and family in front with me. The crew sitting behind!
I'm feeling a little reflective and decided to repost one of my very, first blogs. The following rerun originally aired on July 1st when I finished my first farm internship. It was entitled, "Graduation Day!"

160 hours and four weeks later and I have graduated from the School of Abbondonza. Yesterday marked my last day. I can't believe how hard and fast I fell for this place. I slipped into a special time on this farm and could easily see myself never leaving. My departure is bittersweet, however, because I'm excited to see what my next experience brings. Thanks to Abbo, I'm even more committed to this project and know I've made the right decision to take this food journey to the next level.

The day started like any other day gathering in the nursery outside the greenhouse to get our action plan for the day. As a team of eight, we descended upon the onion field to rescue the crop from pig weed and Purslane - a day or two more and we could have lost the whole thing. We moved down each row wrapping up one side and down the other in smooth efficiency looking back on a clean row of onion greens which reached toward the sun with stems in the air. The weeds pulled gratifyingly sweet from the soft soil which uplifted the morale encouraging a vibrant conversation of life stories and deep philosophies. Rich (farm owner) recalled the epic year of 1999 down on a a farm in New Mexico. He was adding 5 acres of 15-year old pasture land to an already 20-acre farm. The sod was a foot deep of tightly woven grasses. They tilled it five times and still the field was not ready for planting. Rich stood up from his place in our chain gang and reenacted the process of watering the land intensely to loosen the grassy weave. We listened like we were watching an episode of "The Greatest Catch" as his arms waved and his peppered hair sprouted up from his visor. Rich animated the mud bog which the water created and how they were up to their knees hurling large sections of sod in an attempt to break the soil for seeding. It was a beautiful moment and will forever stand vividly in my memory. The whole day was in technicolor. I was very present, living in each moment and archiving everything with mental snapshots.

In the afternoon, dark clouds moved in and it began to rain lightly. Lightening threatened to close in but stayed on the horizon for an impressive light show. A farm field is even prettier when mixed with stormy, afternoon light and a warm breeze which carries the scent of wet earth, distant lilacs and peonies. It makes you stop, sit up and breath deep. At the start of our last project, Rich gathered the crew. Shifting skies lingered and we circled together at the head of a new row. Standing in the green grass between fields, Rich made a small presentation to recognize the farm's deep appreciation for my service over the last month. He was holding a cut-off sleeve of an old Carhart jacket. Wrapped inside was my own personal trowel and clipping shears. The enclosed note which I read aloud left my voice waffling on the verge of tears. Hugs all around! I wasn't expecting to become so emotionally attached to these people and this land. I'm so glad it did, because my internship was much richer as a result. It is truly one of the most powerful and transformative experiences of my life.

As the clock struck 5:30pm, I stood up from my position in the planting line signaling the time for my departure. All the guys rose. I put my newly, initiated trowel to my forehead and gave a trowel salute. They returned the gesture and we smiled at its symbolism. One last hug and I made my way down the furrow one last time.

There are over 230 chickens on the farm. Together they produce over 80 dozen eggs each week. Some 20+ breeds cluck openly around the barn yard each day...Booted, Catalana, Dominique, Rhode Island Red, Sussex and my personal favorite...the White-Crested Black Polish (pictured here). They look like a showgirl in Vegas with their feather boa infused head dress. Learn more about different breeds of chickens here. And take a virtual tour of our hen house with Shanan and the incubation period of baby chicks and the relationship with their mom.

And without whom none of this would have been possible...the simply fabulous, Mel and Mark Glen of Conscious Coffees, connected me with Rich and Shanan at Abbondonza. Love you guys! Pictured here on my last day when they came out for my bon voyage lunch and some pea picking.