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Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Joel Salatin on Soil, Earth Worms, & Why We Need Farmers

This evening I attended a talk by Joel Salatin at the Santa Cruz Rio Theatre. I had heard of Joel Salatin through the Mother Earth News magazine, which I’ve been reading thanks to Green Guy’s step-mom and dad who have been passing their read copies along to us. Salatin works for PolyFace Farm in Virginia, where he not only grows food and raises animals (among many other things), but in his words, approaches his farmland, plants, and animals as one would a lover—caressing, caring for, and loving them so that they will be happy and thrive. He made a point to explain that he’s a romantic, a poet, and that even to use the word sunlight is too scientific for his liking. He prefers sunbeams, and I have to agree.

Joel Salatin (Image source)

Thus, in addition to being a stellar farmer, he’s funny and poetic, and he had the audience laughing and smiling throughout the evening. But within and between his jokes, which featured many imitations, funny faces, and metaphors, Salatin told a story of our nation’s and our planet’s history featuring the choreographed dance of megafauna and birds from season to season that nourished—"caressed"—the ecosystems of our planet and most importantly, the soil.

The story told of the grazing of megafauna—animals larger than humans, he defined—who roamed to new places with the changing seasons—and the migration of birds, who filled the skies so that the sun wasn’t visible for days. These animals traveled for miles and miles, in huge packs, and they grazed on grass—which converts sunlight into energy more efficiently than trees and therefore helps with carbon sequestration in amazing ways—and pooped and then moved on, which gave the land a chance to rest. For millennia these animals danced in sync so that the land was nourished and the circle of life could thrive.

No longer, however, is it possible for the remaining wild animals of our world to do this in most places, thanks to our buildings and cities and freeways—and ice cream parlors, he reminded us. Not to mention we don't have animal populations on that scale anymore. We know this, and yet we don’t think about what it means for our soil, our earthworms, and the many living beings (microbes) who live in the incredible soil ecosystem beneath our feet. One thing Salatin encouraged us to do is ask ourselves in the shower in the mornings, “What am I going to do today to help the earth worms?” Laughter of course followed, but this really is a question that we should be asking, in addition to the question, “How will my actions affect the earthworms of my region, of our planet?” The answer to the question is important for the future of food.

In his creative and funny way, Salatin made the story of our topsoil depletion weave directly into a solution that he practices on his own farm: grazing animals and chickens on a rotating basis in a managed, structured way. The cows eat the grass when it’s at the end of its productive growth (he went into detail about the lifespan of grass), they poop digested grass onto the soil in a way that nourishes the soil extremely faster than if the grass had decomposed where it died (I had never before realized that composting is biomimicry of ruminating animal stomachs), and then they move on. Then come the chickens, who help also with the pooping and the squishing of the poop into the soils, and also eat the insects. And then they move on, the grass can grow again, the soil microbes dance and sing, and when the grass is ready to be grazed again, the animals come back. With the human intervention of helping migrate the pasture raised animals on the land, the farmer not only grows livestock but nourishes the soil ecosystems and earth worms that make growing food possible and sustainable.

Salatin also spoke about the issue with environmental abandonment, the belief that because humans have caused so much damage to our ecosystems over time, that the only solution is to not let humans access or participate in wild or open spaces. Salatin suggested that instead of just leaving land like this alone—or all land like this alone—that we conserve not only the land but also the farmer. The farmer is the one who can participate as a manager of land so that soil can be replenished with the help of other animals. The farmer of our era in many people’s minds is the farmer of industrial agriculture, depleting soil and polluting with chemicals—but this is not the only kind of farmer there is. It’s not the farmer I think of, thanks to the abundance of organic farms in the region where I live. The small scale, local, organic, agro-ecologically knowledgeable farmer is the farmer of our future—if we support farmers like this in our purchases and lifestyle choices.

A huge takeaway message from this talk was that we need more farmers, young farmers. Salatin said that the average age of farmers in this country is 60 years old, and that an industry is typically considered in decline when the average age of its “practitioner” is over 35 years old. Yikes! This message, though, resonated with me and felt affirming of what I’ve been thinking about lately. You all, my lovely readers and friends, have read and seen photos of my garden for the past seven or so months. You’ve seen photos of culinary experiments I’ve made from scratch. You’ve seen the beer fermenting carboys and sourdough starters and kombucha SCOBYs in my kitchen. The trend in the last seven or so months of my life has pointed toward food, the growing and eating and experimenting and fermenting of food. It’s been exciting and fun, and the more I do it, the more I realize how so much of my life’s work in sustainability education and community building and leading a life aligned with my values converges in the world of food--where it comes from, how it's put together artistically and culinarily, the community around the table, social justice and equity in healthy food access, and what our food does to nourish health of self and environment. Sustainable agriculture, gardening, "homecentric" local food, farming. Woah! So I’m thinking about what that means for my future, and where it might take me if I pursue it. My cousin recently began the farm apprenticeship program at UCSC, so I have a wonderful opportunity to live vicariously through him and find out what kinds of things he's learning and enjoying and finding challenging about the field (ha, get it?) of agriculture.

The Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems farm where my cousin is an apprentice at UCSC. It overlooks Monterey Bay, and it's one of my favorite places in the world. It's where I met Green Guy, actually! (Image source)


But since we can’t all become farmers tomorrow, Salatin encouraged us to keep in mind the many ways we can support sustainable, land-caressing, sustainable farmers. The major way is that we have the power to choose what we purchase at the market. He said we need people who are excited about buying seasonally, locally, cooking that local seasonal food in their own home, participating in community supported agriculture programs, and finding other ways to use our own unique skill sets and passions to support the needs of farmers. He spoke in-depth about why organic, small scale farms have more expensive produce and products—long story short, the permitting and approval system is rigged in favor of enormous corporations and monocultures that focus on only one crop or product. A small farm that wants to do a variety of things, which is what we really need for sustainable and resilient communities, has to pay unreasonably enormous costs due to policies that have been enacted in the era of industrial agriculture. Local, small scale farmers don't have higher prices because they want only rich people to access their food or because they want to make more money.

First, they are producing food that is humanely raised and sustainably grown and therefore representing actual costs that are hidden when you've got massive feedlots with antibiotics or pesticide-laden crops--yuck. But the higher costs are also due to an even more complex and frustrating story that provides a glimpse into the dangerous and scary direction our industrial agricultural complex has taken us. But, there's hope, and not only that, but good people are making change happen every day. And to be part of that starting now, when those of us who can currently afford to support small farms do and do so consistently over time, we can collectively support changes in the larger system.

All of these little snippets that I share are part of a larger story, one that you can research or probably read about in one of Salatin’s books, so if my statements seem confusing or unsubstantiated, believe me that Salatin made a solid case that left me astounded in my seat. And then a minute later, I was laughing along with a full house at the Rio Theatre, among farmers and community members who want to join Salatin in creating a sustainable future through happy soil and the many ways that happy soil creates better lives.

In looking Salatin up to write this post, I found out that he has a BA in English and is a writer--kinda like yours truly! An English degree-holding farmer? That’s awesome! It gives me hope and encouragement that there might be a place for me in the future of sustainable agriculture. We'll see where this inspiration and interest leads me on the path ahead...

In related news, this weekend is the UC Santa Cruz Bioneers Conference, which I've been a lead coordinator for over the past couple months. It's going to be incredibly inspiring and fun, and if you live in the area, I highly encourage you to attend this free event. My sister Jeune Gal is speaking and leading a workshop about social justice, feminism, body positivity, and intersectionality! Learn more at commonground.ning.com/ucscbioneers.

Until next time,
Green Gal

P.S. Thanks to my friend Maryna, also a UCSC sustainability alumna, for joining me at Joel Salatin's talk tonight! It's always better attending events with friends, and it was wonderful to have a chance to see you!



Sunday, March 27, 2016

Garden & Other Updates from February & March

I've been so busy trying new things and experiencing life that I haven't posted here since early February! Today, I'll share about the garden and some other odds and ends from the past two months.
It's been raining a lot here in California thanks to El NiƱo. Above is the San Lorenzo River in Santa Cruz, full of water gushing toward the bay. This is a very welcome sight to us all in California, but we have to remember that one wet season does not solve a years-long drought on its own.
The nasturtiums in my yard have been enjoying the rainy weather and have grown numerous beautiful yellow and orange flowers. In fact, the nasturtiums have somewhat taken over the garden!
I got a bike trailer back in December, and I finally used it recently to go to the garden store. Now I can transport soil and heavy items up to 100 pounds without using a car! It's amazing how light items feel when they're in a bike trailer versus on the bike rack and especially when compared to having those items in a backpack! Yay physics!

Also pictured here is the tomato cage/trellis that I am using to grow peas. I also carried that home in the trailer. As I set about potting new plants and re-arranging the garden, I enjoyed a bottle of our homebrewed beer.
Speaking of bicycling, I've spent many Sunday mornings and early afternoons bicycling along the Los Gatos Creek Trail on my way to and from the Campbell Farmers Market. It's an awesome trail that follows Los Gatos Creek and lets me avoid car traffic nearly my whole journey to the market.
I added something new to the garden! This old closet door had been left by the previous tenants at our house, and it's been sitting by the garbage cans out back since June! The other day, I decided to repurpose it and incorporate it in the garden. I dug a trench so it would fit in at an angle and not tip over, and then I popped some of the shutters out so that the nasturtium can climb it. As the nasturtium grows, I'll pop more out and weave it throughout. I also have plans to paint some flowers or quotes on it! And I've been able to use the popped out shutter slats as garden dividers.

I have to give credit to my dad for the idea. His backyard garden has a door and a window hanging on a fence. I probably wouldn't have thought to put a closet door like this in my garden if it weren't for his creative repurposing!
I've got a lot of little plants growing in the garden! You can see where I used the shutter slats as dividers. That little plot has a bunch of flower seeds planted, and I wanted to make sure I didn't accidentally step on them or put pots on top of them. You can see how the nasturtium is encroaching on everything on the left.
I also repurposed an old, strange table that was left by previous tenants. I split the table in half and placed it against the house so that the circular side faces out. It makes for a raised mini-deck so that I can have two layers of potted plants. I also have the peas growing happily on the trellis.
Here's the full visual of the backyard garden. It sure has grown!
The oranges on our tree in the backyard are finally sweet enough to enjoy! Yum!
I've been trying to keep freshly cut flowers in the house every week because they add a sense of springtime, aliveness, and beauty. Above are some that I picked up at Whole Foods Market, and the ones below are from a flower shop/bakery down the street from us.

I also made a mini-bouquet of kale, broccoli flowers, and arugula the other day when I picked some from the garden. I need more ideas for recipes with arugula and kale because we have more than we really eat!
The rice flower plant that I have turned pink and has been thriving with all of the wet weather.
My broccoli plants have been doing great, and they are such a treat to eat straight from the plant raw.

Thanks for reading! Happy Easter and Happy Spring!

Green Gal

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Symphony of Sounds in San Jose

This morning I share with you an ode, a poem, a painting in sounds that I wrote on January 27th after biking home from a Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition San Jose Team meeting.

"Tonight's City Symphony"

On two wheeled journeys
through this City's streets
I hear a symphony of sounds,
sounds muffled by car doors and windows,
so that perhaps many do not know what they sound like, really.
So I will tell you what I've heard, so you can listen, too.
The murmur of freeways crossed under and over, they hum and buzz, white noise that doesn't go away but fades and grows as you move between neighborhoods.
The creaking and rumbling of light rail trains, reminding you with a bell that they are on the move; watch out for their tire-eating tracks!
The honking and revving of cars passing by--sometimes louder and closer than you want. Yikes!
An airplane's thunder and light show in the sky; brake to a stop and experience it through your sky without a roof.
The squeak of bike chain, which says for you, "I'm here!" until you shift gears and it stays silent until the next red light.
And gloriously, happily, if you listen closely, you just might hear the ribbeting of frogs singing from the thrist-quenched Guadalupe River, grateful for the rain and chance to celebrate.
All this you hear, and more, if you listen closely--sans headphones, sans car walls, sans the sound you make in your head when you think too much.
Listen, there's a symphony of San Jose sounds; they play for you when you tune in.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Brew Day: Organic Red Ale

Last Saturday, we brewed our second homebrew, a red ale using all organic ingredients from Seven Bridges Organic Brewing Supply in Santa Cruz. This time, we are fermenting it in a 6-gallon glass carboy instead of plastic fermenting bucket, and the results are way more fun because we can see the activity!
To go along with our all-organic ingredients, I also began reading Sustainable Homebrewing: An All-Organic Approach to Crafting Great Beer by Amelia Slayton Loftus. You'll notice that the individually wrapped packages on the table aren't the most sustainable, so as we get better at this and begin designing our own recipes, we can begin buying in bulk and reduce waste. Maybe someday we'll even grow our own hops!

 The malted barley grains after steeping.
 The red ale brewing on the stove!
 The view of our backyard orange tree through the backdoor while brewing.
Shortly after this photo was taken on Saturday, the gardener came and pruned the tree, so there's far fewer oranges hanging now. The last time we tasted these oranges, they were very sour, so we're waiting to try them again.

Here's our beer bubbling away in its glass carboy in the closet. It's hidden behind a blanket and the closet door to protect it from sunlight, which can cause chemical reactions that make the beer go bad. The blow-off tube that goes into that vase is in place to avoid foamy fermenting beer from exploding in the closet. As the tube bubbles into the vase with released carbon dioxide from the active yeast, it makes a soothing bubbling noise. Almost like a lullaby!
And like last time, I made cookies with the spent grain. Yum!

The brewing process went much smoother this second time. We had a better idea of what we were doing and planned ahead better, with clean water to use for adding to the wort and plenty of ice for cooling the wort after brewing. Perhaps next time we'll try something more complicated!

Later this week, I'll post recipes for kimchi I made recently, as well as sourdough pizza dough, so talk to you then!
Green Gal

Friday, January 29, 2016

Bottling five gallons of homebrewed American Pale Ale!

Today we bottled our first batch of homebrewed beer, an American Pale Ale. You can read about our experience brewing it a few weeks ago here.

The first thing we did was read the directions that came with our kit from Brewer's Best, which told us to boil two cups of water and then add the 5 oz of priming sugar that came with our kit. We boiled the sugar water for five minutes, and then added it to our bottling bucket, which we had sanitized with StarSan earlier. Everything has to be sanitary for brewing beer to go well, so we had Star San on hand throughout the entire bottling process. Priming sugar is used when bottling beer to create some fermentation to occur inside the capped bottle which causes the beer to become carbonated.

Then we popped the lid off of our fermenting bucket. The smell of beer emanated from this dark liquid--our beer! First we siphoned the beer from this fermenting bucket into our bottling bucket.
 We left behind the trub, or nasty hops and other gunk left behind from fermentation.
Then we siphoned the beer into sanitized bottles, which we'd cleaned and removed the labels from using OxyClean. The racking cane we have automatically stops allowing beer to flow when you lift it up from the bottom of the bottle, so it was pretty easy to get the right amount of liquid in each bottle and still leave room for air.

We did taste some beer directly from the bottling bucket, and although it was flat (since the priming sugar hadn't caused carbonation yet), it tasted like beer! It was decent tasting beer at that, and we jumped for joy that we had successfully made beer in our kitchen! Amazing!
Green Guy was on capping duty, and I filled the bottles will beer.

Here's all of the beer we bottled! Five gallons of delicious American Pale Ale, which should be ready in about two weeks. It's sitting in the hall closet, now covered with a beach towel, to keep it in the dark. Light can cause weird reactions in the beer that can make it go bad.

The plastic club soda bottle on the right will help us gauge when the carbonation pressure is sufficient. It's possible for beer bottles to burst when carbonation becomes too much for the glass to handle, so we want to avoid that. When it's ready, we are supposed to refrigerate it, which will be interesting since we only have one fridge. We'll certainly have to make room by sharing with friends and family!
Here's the un-carbonated beer, straight from the bottling bucket. Yum!

Thanks for reading! Tomorrow we are making our second batch of homebrew, a red ale. Photos and story coming soon...

P.S. Just a reminder that you can follow my posts on Facebook for even more photos, recipes, and thoughts about living a green life: https://www.facebook.com/greenbeangal/

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