Category Archives: homesteading

Jack-booted Garden Thugs

Well, the jack-booted thugs that LP is always complaining about came calling yesterday in the form of a letter to our landlord from the management company that “manages” our subdivision.

The compost bin has to go.

We placed the bin under a low-hanging pine tree so that it was darn near invisible and it never stunk or drew animals or otherwise was a “nuisance” but apparently rules are rules…

Our landlord thought it was pretty stupid too. (We got off to a great start the first time he saw the statue of Mary outside our front door—he’s Egyptian and his father was a Coptic Orthodox priest.) He’s got a compost pile at home and has offered to give us some of his whenever we need it.

Now I’m wondering what happened—whether a neighbor complained or whether some employee encountered it and am wondering what this may mean for our container gardening plans. And I’m trying to figure out if a potato-filled stack of tires would fly!

Putting the Tech into Home Ec

I’m thinking that the perfect tech app for the up-to-date New Depression kitchen would be a recipe cost calculator.

It shouldn’t be too hard to build a database that contains:

  • the ingredients for the family’s most commonly cooked meals
  • the quantities needed for the recipe
  • the quantities in which the ingredients must be purchased
  • an average cost for the ingredients

A basic html/php interface would allow you to:

  • select a meal from a searchable drop-down
  • do a one-time exclusion of any of the ingredients from the total if you already had them in the pantry
  • handle basic substitutions (say sausage for hamburger, etc.)
  • allow you to enter a one-time or permanent price modification (to account for sales or price increases)

Of course, it would be optimum if there were a readily accessible and continuously updated dbase of grocery store average prices out there that you could periodically download but I doubt such a thing currently exists.

Thus when it came time to plan menus for the week, you could use the tool to get a more precise sense of how much everything is going to cost before you get to the grocery store. I’m always amazed when I do a one-off trip to see how much a basic meal can run you…

Such a thing may already exist. I don’t know; I haven’t checked yet. But it sure would be cool if it did…

Thoughts on Food via Lee

Lee’s put up a review of a review of a cookbook which inspires me to think out loud a bit about food.

The points raised about cooking are spot on—that is, cooking is an essential skill that Americans need to know. My mom made me learn when I was young and I got experience in Boy Scouts in planning meals, buying food, and cooking it over propane and open fires (and starting said fires, of course…). Both M and I love to cook and we try hard to make the grand majority of our food from scratch.  The result is food that tastes good and where we have  control over the ingredients.

There’s no question that it takes longer to prepare than take-out—but it also costs less and that’s been a huge factor in the course of our life together given our various situations. Again, workinmg from home gives me some flexibility there; I’ve chopped onions and stirrd risotto while on conference calls.

To get back to Lee’s post and the book to which it refers, I was struck by one of the sensible criticisms of it:

It can be easy for someone like me to forget that many people would see Bittman’s plan as untenable, since the kinds of foods he recommends aren’t sold in affordable chain or fast-food restaurants or available prepared or frozen in every suburban supermarket. Some of his advice — carry nuts and fruit around with you for snacks, so you can avoid vending machines — may be tenable for them, but some of the rest will seem even less practical than the Atkins Diet.

This got me thinking about some of the cookbooks I’ve acquired recently that seem to focus on what I consider novelty foods—fruits and vegetables not easily acquired or found outside of run-of-the-mill food stores.  I wonder what we happen if we took sober account of what actually can be grown locally and what foods would be available at various times of the year. Yes, I can cook quite well—but I’ve never looked at recipes weighing whether I could get their ingredients easily locally at all times. I’ve not given much thought to food preservation cooking. Using fresh veggies is great and preferable—but where do cucumbers come from for a January salad? I see three main options if you’re going to remain committed to low-energy, local food options:

  1. You don’t make salads in January, or
  2. they’re called “pickles”, or
  3. start building your greenhouse…

Now I’ve always been a fan of cooking “peasant food” which I define as basic ingredients with big flavors (we don’t go in for delicate flavors so much here). A perfect example is one of our cold-day favorites: potato soup. Potatoes, onions, and garlic sauteed in bacon fat with broth and the cut-up rendered bacon and croutons. Hmm—all ingredients that could be stored and/or harvested through the winter… Imagine that…

Yes, I think it’d be a good idea for people to start acquiring cooking skills, but I wonder if it wouldn’t help to orient them—and even those of us who already know how to cook—back toward the basic recipes and ingredients that make sense based on where you are and what your climate is.

A Monk on Climate Change, Sustainability, and Moral Theology

Go read it now!

The key to addressing sustainability, he suggests is a return to the roots of of our moral theology.

Virtue: Justice, temperance, fortitude, and prudence exercised in harmony. Cultivating these and collaborating with others who seek them is the goal. The church’s distinctive touch are the three theological virtues: faith, hope, and love.

Furthermore, he points to the Transition Towns initiative as a way forward, with which I heartily agree. The Transition Towns concept is not about legislation or top-down change but local networks doing what they can to spread awareness and changes. The governments, the systems, are not going to save us.

The Platform I Wish I Could Vote For

Well, I went and did my civic duty. Can’t really say I “dropped the handle”; “touched the screen” doesn’t really have the right ring to it…

This election for me was a lesser of two evils decision. If only McCain had run the platform he ran in 2000. If only Lieberman had been his running mate. Oh well—we rarely get what we want…

But I did start thinking about what I want. I think it’ll be a term for that. With—most likely—a Democratic president and Congress, it’ll should provide space for thinking about the shape of politics to come. Here’s what I’d like:

  • A moderate coalition
  • fiscally conservative (pay as you go only)
  • economically moderate with a focus on conservation and localization

To expand a bit on that last point, I’m not a free-trade capitalist. Some interference in the markets is necessary. And, for the desperate cause of moving away from a cheap energy economy that means  tax credits and incentives for:

  • business and households that reduce energy consumption/are fitted for demonstrable energy conservation (including incentives for telecommuting and mass transit use)
  • emphasize local industries
  • support a move away from service industries and cultivate local food production and small manufacturing industries
  • tax out-sourcing for investment in local community colleges/vocation programs 
  • stop fuel subsidies by taxing fuel to the real cost of production and use the tax gains to work towards a lower energy infrastucture (electrified railways, et al.) 

Would this look like protectionism? isolationism? On the first, yeah—it would. On the second—not in principle but in practice. 

On social issues? Give me a break… We’re tired of the culture wars. I have yet to see a cogent argument for how gay marriage is an attack on hetero marriage. If you want to protect marriage, then make marriage counseling mandatory for couples of all sorts.

I don’t know—it’s still stuff I’m kicking around. And it’s not like anyone’s going to ask my opinion anyway—it’s just what I’d like to see…

To the Farmer-In-Chief

bls points us to this article in the NY Times magazine–a letter from Michael Pollan to the next president. The whole thing is worth a read and here are some juicy excerpts to whet your appetite…:

There are many moving parts to the new food agenda I’m urging you to adopt, but the core idea could not be simpler:we need to wean the American food system off its heavy 20th-century diet of fossil fuel and put it back on a diet of contemporary sunshine. True, this is easier said than done — fossil fuel is deeply implicated in everything about the way we currently grow food and feed ourselves. To put the food system back on sunlight will require policies to change how things work at every link in the food chain: in the farm field, in the way food is processed and sold and even in the American kitchen and at the American dinner table. Yet the sun still shines down on our land every day, and photosynthesis can still work its wonders wherever it does. If any part of the modern economy can be freed from its dependence on oil and successfully resolarized, surely it is food.

. . .

We emptied America’s rural counties in order to supply workers to urban factories. To put it bluntly, we now need to reverse course. We need more highly skilled small farmers in more places all across America — not as a matter of nostalgia for the agrarian past but as a matter of national security. For nations that lose the ability to substantially feed themselves will find themselves as gravely compromised in their international dealings as nations that depend on foreign sources of oil presently do. But while there are alternatives to oil, there are no alternatives to food.

. . .

Changing the food culture must begin with our children, and it must begin in the schools. Nearly a half-century ago, President Kennedy announced a national initiative to improve the physical fitness of American children. He did it by elevating the importance of physical education, pressing states to make it a requirement in public schools. We need to bring the same commitment to “edible education” — in Alice Waters’s phrase — by making lunch, in all its dimensions, a mandatory part of the curriculum. On the premise that eating well is a critically important life skill, we need to teach all primary-school students the basics of growing and cooking food and then enjoying it at shared meals.

To change our children’s food culture, we’ll need to plant gardens in every primary school, build fully equipped kitchens, train a new generation of lunchroom ladies (and gentlemen) who can once again cook and teach cooking to children. We should introduce a School Lunch Corps program that forgives federal student loans to culinary-school graduates in exchange for two years of service in the public-school lunch program. And we should immediately increase school-lunch spending per pupil by $1 a day — the minimum amount food-service experts believe it will take to underwrite a shift from fast food in the cafeteria to real food freshly prepared.  

These last points are vital. We need to teach our children about gardening, cooking, and food in general. We’re trying at home, but school reinforcement is always good. I’ve been looking quite seriously at these resources recently at the National Gardening Association’s site and have been wondering what it would take to get an organic gardening/composting project started at Lil’ G’s school.

A Thought on the Economy

Fr. Haller writes good sense based on working in the Pit. Let me add my negligable two cents worth.

This credit crunch and market crash corresponds—as far as I can tell—concurrently with the end of cheap oil. Yeah, it’s bouncing around $100 a barrel now, much lower than the summer’s $140’s—but do you ever think we’ll see $20 or $40 again? Me neither…

We need a new economic paradigm that takes seriously both communication technology and the energy reality. Here’s my take: Keep data global; keep stuff local.

Finding Patterns

Life adjustment is proceeding here… There’s still chaos in the form of unpacked boxes, unorganized living spaces, and incomplete funding streams. Nevertheless, some good patterns are taking shape.

M and I are in a good fitness routine now; we’re hitting the YMCA six days a week with weights and cardio. She’s taking yoga, I’m doing tai chi. (I used to do quite a bit of martial arts before wife and kids–I’m just now getting back into it…)

We’re all sitting at the table to eat breakfast and dinner together. Lil’ G has recently insisted that we start doing abbreviated morning prayer at breakfast and we’re happy to oblidge her. 

This weekend I put in new screens on the back door and in the girls’ room, replaced incandescents with compact flourescents, and did a bunch of lawnwork which included some good additions to the compost pile. The mint and lavendar are in the front bed now, and are looking much better for it. 

M’s maternal grandfather is ailing and probably won’t be with us much longer. We had a scare last week with his heart and one of the true blessings of our new location materialized: SIL swung by after she finished classes and she and M went to visit their grandparents spending a lengthy–and potentially final–visit with her grandfather. Neither of those things could have happened at the old place…

So things aren’t perfect, but they’re going quite well. Already our rhythms here are much better than they were before.

Electric Scooters and Short-Range Transport

Here’s an interesting post on The Oil Drum on electric scooters

Just as interesting as the article are the comments. What I find especially useful is the discussion about a new transportation paradigm. The current paradigm is the road-tripping vehicle. As notd by the commenters, both the industry and consumers seem focused on range and how far a vehicle can go before being refueled. Perhaps that shouldn’t be the central criterion. Localization is a sensible way to go in terms of overall conservation and sustainability. Why not split our paradigm into long-range and short-range vehicles? (Obvious issues here would include the current practice of the long-range commute; in the ATL most commutes were between forty minutes to an hour–things aren’t too much different here…) My favorite over the scooter is the electric-assist bike, The technology is still in process but is getting better all the time. And if your batteries do give out, you can just pedal it….

Our grocery store is maybe a half-mile from the house. I don’t know about our preferred single major weekly shopping trip, but for the one-off trips (Lil H’s soy-milk in particular), I’m thinking the bike is the way to go. I spent Labor Day Weekend with a bike repair manual from the library going over my old beater to get it back into road condition. (It’s currently sidelined as I discovered a tire puncture I haven’t patched up yet.) It’s cheap and isn’t something I’d want to race or take long trips on (my SIL is thinking about getting into triathalons and would like us to join her…) but would be great for a short-range cargo bike given some basket, panniers, and a decent lock.