I attended Nevada County's Sustainable Food & Farm Conference this past weekend in Grass Valley, CA and enjoyed an all-star line-up of keynote speakers...Temra Costa - author of Farmer Jane, Will Allen of Growing Power in Milwaukee, topped of with a little Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms, a.k.a. poster boy for sustainable farming practices...otherwise known as the farmer made famous in Michael Pollan's book, Omnivore's Dilemma and the Oscar nominated film, Food, Inc.

Getting to see Joel was just a warm-up for his upcoming lecture at Olympic Valley Lodge in Squaw Valley on Wednesday, February 13th; hosted by Squaw Valley Institute and in support of the Tahoe Food Hub and Slow Food Lake Tahoe. If you live nearby, reserve your tickets today at squawvalleyinstitute.org.

Knowing he was speaking to a choir of sustainable farmers and foodies, Joel handcrafted a new lecture on the fly for his audience of 300. I thought that was pretty thoughtful and it brought everyone to an even more alerted attention when he announced he had new material. He wanted to speak about people's "Fear of Success" and that people are actually less fearful of failure because so many people fail and "what's the harm in trying?" His request was for radical thinkers to take a chance on a passionate idea. As his Dad use to say, "We'll know more in 30-minutes that we do right now." In other words, you won't know if you'll succeed unless you try and trying is the fountain of youth.

Joel Salatin and his kids: Daniel and Sheri.
Joel outlined the FIVE R's of being an entrepreneur:
1. Risk...gotta be willing to take a chance
2. Renegade...be an original thinker
3. Reliant...reliant on oneself and not dependent
4. Ruckus...get rowdy and stir things up
5. Rigorous...its going to be hard work but stay focused and unwavering.

Putting the "FIVE R's" in the context of agriculture, Joel made it seem pretty cut and dry, "If you want to become a farmer...be a farmer." And proceeded to discuss the 5 WAYS TO SCALE-UP TO SUCCESS and "be a farmer."

1. How do I get land?...Joel expressed there is a lot of land out there and you don't need to necessarily own it encouraging aspiring farmers to approach landowners with farmable land which can be leased. And with 50% of the farmers about to retire, the market is about to become flooded with food producing acres so we need to connect young farmers with aging farmers.

2. Be a people person!...Being a farmer is a pastoral life but it doesn't mean necessarily an introverted, unsocial life. To be a successful farmer, you can't be afraid of people because growing food is about growing community and you need to cultivate the relationships with your neighbors just as much as your crops because they are your market.

3. Management...Not everyone is the best manager but to be successful, you can't be afraid to try. The only way to be successful is to become a manager so you can grow your business but also so you can have a "life" and do other things versus never leaving your farm because you have no one else to do it. Joel's suggestion, "Hire your first person right after you go crazy!" I think we all know what he's talking about there, haha!

4. Regulations!...With success comes regulations whether it be workmen's comp or grower certifications. They can seem daunting but resources are available to make it easier. Don't let regulations be an impediment to success because it's just another hurdle like learning to farm.

5. Business...You're in business to be successful so get set up for success. Have an action plan no matter how simple it is and strive for those goals.

From the mouth of Joel!

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.

Recently, I was asked to be a guest blogger for Handpicked Nation, an authentic food & farm site. I wandered around in a field of possible stories and settled on one of my hot new topics...the realization that  CSA doesn't stand for a "weekly box of veggies" but rather "community supported agriculture." And what does it mean to help farmers get their food to market before it gets to your fork. Below is an excerpt from the article and for the complete article click here.

“Farm-to-Table” has recently become a buzzy catchphrase. It has done a wonderful job of promoting the harvests of small-scale farms and helping people conceptualize a local food system. But before food can go from farm-to-table, it has to get to market. And that can be a huge step for a lot of small-scale farmers.

Many farmers have great business and marketing skills but all lack time; the time to get their food to market. It takes a lot of energy and money to cultivate and maintain retail relationships, develop and disseminate promotional materials for direct-to-consumer programs, not to mention the travel required to attend farmers’ markets. Infrastructure needs to be established to help small-scale farmers get over this hurdle. And food hubs provide this opportunity. They not only help farmers get over the farm-to-market hurdle but help the sustainable food movement get over the proverbial Big Ag hurdle.

For the complete article go to Handpicked Nation...

For every action there is a reaction. But I think we forget this sometimes. Or, is it because something doesn't get talked about or reported, that we don't think critically about all the repercussions. As is the case with fracking for natural gas...Fracking: the water-intensive, carcinogen-laden practice of unlocking deep reservoirs of fossil fuels in the earth's crust. Films, books and articles have exposed what fracking can do to the water, air, land and people living near these drilling sites. One thing is missing from this line-up, our food!

On December 17th, Elizabeth Royte, published an article in The Nation entitled, "What the Frack is in Our Food?" It pointed out the obvious, or perhaps not so obvious...the action of injecting high-powered chemicals into the earth creates a negative reaction that ripples well past the water and people it directly impacts but one that extends throughout the food chain. If you didn't think fracking affects you because it isn't in your backyard (yet), look no further than the food on your plate (queue the Pyscho movie tune, ehehehehe).

The national conversation on natural gas is dominated by the energy independence it can provide the United States. It's like an ostrich with its head in the sand. If it can't see the water it is contaminating, the environmental degradation it is causing and the people and livestock it is making sick and killing, then it is happening. Well, its happening. We say we are addicted to oil & gas, but we have to remember that addiction kills.

There are conflicting reports whether the Volatile Organic Compounds found in fracking fluids such as benzene can  accumulate in animals and plants. The reason so little is known is because not enough research has been completed to evaluate the long term effects of these chemicals and how they move through the food chain. But there is definitely enough evidence by the number of illnesses diagnosed in the people who drink the water and inhale the air around fracking wells as well as the number of dead cows and farm animals living in close proximity.

In the article, Elizabet reported, "The World Wildlife Fund identified 632 chemicals used in 
natural-gas production. More than 75 percent of them, could affect sensory organs and the respiratory and 
gastrointestinal systems; 40 to 50 percent have potential impacts on the kidneys and on the nervous, immune and 
cardiovascular systems; 37 percent act on the hormone system; and 25 percent are linked with cancer or mutations."

If we want to believe that these chemicals aren't working their way up the food chain, then we might as well stick our head back in the sand.

Christmas Eve harvest @ Truckee Community Farm
As we gather together this happy day and celebrate with a cornucopia of holiday foods, we should pause and assess the seasonality of our winter plates.

Are there eggplants, tomatoes, peppers, berries, or beans at your table? These are warm-weather, summer crops. To help build a sustainable food system, we have a responsibility to be aware of non-seasonal foods. If we don't buy them, then grocery stores won't stock them helping them focus on seasonal foods which are often accessible within  regions 150-250 miles away versus 1500 miles.

Yesterday, the Growing Dome at the Truckee Community Farm produced an 8lb harvest of leafy greens: arugula, curly kale, Siberian kale, Swiss chard, butterleaf lettuce and romaine lettuce.

The aftermath - neatly trimmed rows of greens
Outside was four feet of snow with more in the forecast. Inside, the Growing Dome was busy raising winter veggies keeping them warm like an incubator does for its baby chicks. Other winter crops will soon come into harvest like spinach and mache and a variety of rooted vegetables such as beets, turnips, radishes, carrots, leeks, garlic and potatoes.

Tis' the season to be merry both in our hearts and in our stomachs! Keep the warmth in your thoughts and the cool-hearty foods on your plates.

Photo courtesy of Jamie Kingham
The winter edition of "edible Reno-Tahoe" just hit newsstands and pasted below is the beginning of an article I wrote about some fascinating farmers along the East Side of the Sierra...a portion of the story had to be cut from the print version in order to make word count so I've included it here. The omitted section shares how the farmers, Dan and Rachel McClure, met and got started farming. Knowing the background and history of a farmer is just as important as knowing what they grow and how. Because really...how can you know your farmer if you don't know their "story"? And often, it is the best part as you will find out below. For the complete story, go to the edible Reno Tahoe" website.

As we walked through the greenhouse, clipping and sampling leaves and flowers, it felt a little like a scene out of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, where everything seemed edible. It was magical as licorice exploded from the French Tarragon and the taste of cucumber from the Starflower made my eyes widen in surprise. 

I wasn’t on a movie set; rather, this was the small, specialty-crop farm of Dan and Rachel McClure with Sierra Edibles and Nevada’s Own. On 10 acres of land below the beautiful Sierra Nevada mountains in Wellington, Nevada, the McClures produce more than just edible flowers but also a variety of herbs, hardy perennials, native berries, heirloom tomatoes, free-range eggs, and one unique variety of mushrooms.

Dan and Rachel first met in Palm Desert, California in 1996 and moved to San Luis Obispo a year later to attend Cal Poly. There, they sealed their fate together...Upon graduation in 2000, they stood on life’s frontier. With youthful enthusiasm, they wrote their mutual goal together and displayed it on a sign in their backyard greenhouse. The sign read: “In five years, we will be growing food for market.”

Dan’s love for plants and flowers, however, began long before, when visiting a sick relative who was on an extended stay in the hospital.

“I noticed that people only smiled two times when in the hospital … when they heard a baby was born and when they received flowers,” Dan recalled. “I knew then, I wanted to be in the garden business and make people happy.”

Dan’s horticulture science degree took them to Oklahoma after graduation where he pursued a career in commercial greenhouse production. But a conversation that began at Cal Poly itched at them through their early profession...A college lecture discussed the threshold of pesticide use in the field. Dan and Rachel struggled with this industry practice, knowing it was not how they planned to fulfill their goal. And when they had their first son, Roark, with brother Atlas following six years later, they knew the game had changed; they wanted to pursue a type of farming that was good both for their family and the earth. By 2005, it was time to move and start their own more ecologically sound practice.

Dan had grown up in the Sierra, so it was a natural choice to return home and settle in a place that was both scenic and in close proximity to several consumer markets where the McClures could sell their food. As they unpacked, they discovered the sign they had made five years earlier in San Luis Obispo...something to be said for the power of intention.

Read the rest of the story at edible Reno-Tahoe magazine!

Food artisans at the Truckee Tahoe Food Swap
I just went to my first food swap on Sunday night and I'm super fired up about this idea. A food swap is where you make food and trade it with other people who made food. Instead of cash, you barter...a jar of salsa for a loaf of bread or half-dozen eggs for some granola. It is the ultimate recipe for community...take a group of people, add handcrafted foods, stir slowly, sprinkle laughter, ideas and inspiration. Let rise for two hours and take home a basket of assorted culinary creations. 

It's the Christmas morning of grocery stores...It is a total surprise what you will find but everything is edible and stocks your shelves with an array of goodies. Some items are pantry staples like jam and pasta sauce and others, are items that you may have never otherwise bought like goat cheese marinated in rosemary infused olive oil or pumpkin hummus.

The way it works is...you bring enough of something to share. The more you bring, the more you get to take home! Once everyone has arrived, checked in and displayed their artisan foods, the trading begins. You mingle around the room sampling tastes and connecting with neighbors in a cultural exchange. It doesn't get any more real or personal than that.

Building a local food system takes a long time but it starts with simple steps and a food swap is a great first start. They are easy to launch but be sure to follow a few critical guidelines to keep the health department at bay. Since most of the food will have not been prepared in a commercial kitchen, their is an inherent liability in how the food was handled. But as long as everyone is trusting that participants have used best practices, all you have to do is ensure attendees register in advance acknowledging the risk they are assuming and that they too have followed proper food safety in the kitchen.

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!

The holidays are always a good time to revisit the amount of waste we generate in this country because probably at no other time during the year is more waste produced than during the holidays. Its a good reminder too that no longer is recycle the operative word but REDUCE! If we consume less, there's less energy and resources used to produce and less stuff to throw away.

NPR's Science Friday with Ira Flatow had a great interview this past Friday, November 23rd about the amount of food wasted in the United States. Here is a link to the podcast. On the show was Dana Gunders, Project Scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council and Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland.

Over 40% of the food produced in the US gets thrown away and only 3% of it gets recycled or composted .When you consider that 50% of the land in the US is in agricultural production, we are squandering a lot land not to mention a lot of food. In the process, we are exploiting the natural resources used to produce that food such as fossil fuels for farm equipment, water for irrigation and soil fertility. And with water becoming a finite resource, its scary to think that 80% of the water used in this country goes to growing food.

To bring that into perspective, Project Scientist, Dana Gunders, made a great reference point, "Throwing away half a hamburger is equivalent to taking a one hour shower for the amount of water needed to produce that half a hamburger." Jonathan followed that up with another staggering statistic, "The amount of food wasted each year in the United Sates could fill up Crater Lake twice...TWICE!!

Food gets wasted at every step along the supply chain starting on the farm then at the grocery store and in our homes. On the Farm, food goes unharvested in the fields either because there was a surplus with no buyer or the price per bushel is too low to make it financially feasible to harvest. In the grocery store, tons of food gets thrown away each day simply because it has past a "suggested" Best If Used By date. Documentaries like DIVE expose this wasteful scenario and the dumpster divers who feed their families "well" off this trash but also rescue it for food banks and pantries. And we know all too well the amount of food that we each waste in our own homes. We buy in bulk because it is a good deal and then it goes bad in our refrigerators. And we don't plan meals properly. We buy a bunch of carrots when we only need one or buy a bunch of cilantro for one recipe but don't find a recipe later in the week which will use up the rest of the cilantro.

We are all trying to save money. But before we say we can't afford organic, think about all the money we are throwing away in the food we buy. Over $165 billion dollars gets thrown away each year in the United States. With food costs rising, consumers need to be more conscious, grocery stores need to be more thoughtful in how they transition expired food and our agricultural  industry needs to efficiently manage their land and water resources.

In this context, when we talk about feeding the world, we don't have to look much further than the end of our forks!

By Now, most everyone has heard that Hostess Brands -  producers of synthetic, sickly-sweet, gastro-hideous, eco-terrorist, snack foods - has filed bankruptcy and is going out of business after 82 years. Many things contributed to the company's demise but Hostess claims, an employee strike was the straw that broke the camel's back hobbling an already frail company to the ground. Pretty lame that they blamed their own employees for the closure making them feel like they shot themselves in the foot when standing up for their rights. If the quality of their products wasn't bad enough, their human resources department is just as crummy.

It won't be long before their assets, brands and recipes are gobbled up and transferred over to another food industry dictator so we must cease this fleeting moment and revel in its delight. When I first heard the news, I thought, "Ding Dong the Witch is Dead." It made me want to write something about this current event just so I could use the headline.

Unfortunately, acquisition of the brand is inevitable. But until then, it feels like the monarchy has been overthrown and grassroots agtivists have inched one step closer to agricultural reform. Because what if...the toppling of this empire was the beginning of the end for Big Ag? In a small way, it does signify a weakening in the food industrial complex. And is a metaphor for unsustainability...the business model for companies like Hostess is just as unsustainable as their products and the methods used to grow its ingredients. It will eventually "Ho-Ho" itself into extinction.