Cultivate a Better World

Our food system has to change to be more sustainable. It has to respect the farmer, it has to respect the soil, it has to respect the animals, and it has to respect the fact that there is just way too much carbon in the sky already, to justify shipping food all around the world. In most places, food can be grown near where we live. We need to eat what is grown close, we need to eat what is grown without polluting the sky and earth, and we need to eat more whole foods to improve our health.

In short, we need to go back to the start. We need to go back to the way people used to farm, the way people used to eat. People used to eat food grown close to home, from their own backyards, from the neighbour’s farm that also sold to the local grocery store. Fertilizer was not used, GMO foods did not exist. Large and powerful food corporations did not exist.

Chipotle, an international food chain, thinks we need to go back to the start as well. That is why they filmed this short video.  To be honest, it left me a little misty, as it is an issue so near and dear to my heart:

*thanks to Scott at Batshite for sharing this video!
 

What do you think? Do we need a reboot to go back to the start?

Apple Tree

I feel like I am finding my way. Things are coming together, unfolding more or less how I hoped they would. I had a dream and a desire to localize my eating, and now that the growing season is underway, I am learning more and more about how it actually can be done.  I can play an active role in provisioning food for my family.  I started on this journey last year, wanting to make a difference for the environment, for climate change, for our future.  This has progressed into looking at the world differently, looking at nature differently, and looking at how we sustain ourselves with food differently.

I want to go and pick an apple tree. Last year, the idea of picking an apple tree that was not even mine, would have seemed ridiculous and even a waste of time. Why would I spend time in a tree, when I can buy as many apples as I want at the grocery store? Besides, what would I do with all those apples anyway? Where would I put them, how could they possibly not go to waste?

My neighbours have a beautiful old apple tree that they inherited when they bought their house, and it produces hundreds of small, sweet, crispy apples. Last year they picked a few but left the vast majority of them up on the tree to rot and shrivel. All winter I looked up at the dried fruit on the branches and wondered – could I pick their tree next time for them? Could I split the harvest?

In the spring my neighbours and I were chatting about gardening as I planted my vegetable seeds and seedlings. They mentioned their tree in passing, and that I could pick it this year if I wanted. I gladly agreed. This weekend I noticed that the apples were now turning red and that they should probably be picked soon. While I was watering my plants my neighbours came up to the fence and mentioned that I could pick the apples now, if I still wanted to. I did not even have to ask them about it again, something I was working up the courage to do… it’s like they read my mind or something! I thanked them and told them I would pick them a box as well. They did not seem that interested… Then I told them I was going to make apple sauce and apple butter – would they like some jars? They jumped at the suggestion and were really excited about the exchange.

So last night I looked up at the tree, with its big dark green leaves and rosy apples dripping down in clusters from every possible branch, and thought of the possibilities. This afternoon I hope to be up in that tree, with leaves in my face and the smell of live apples all around. I will come down from that tree with more apples than I can imagine – boxes and boxes of them. They will represent a good portion of my fruit stores for winter, when local fruit will be impossible to find.

I can see this tree from my bedroom; I watch it through all the seasons. I can stand in my garden in spring as the blossom petals flutter down over me and my yard. I look up at the limbs in the summer as I pick my own raspberries along the fence, and notice the little green globes growing bigger and bigger on the heavy boughs that droop down over. I see its bare branches for most of the year, reaching upward and out, in stark contrast to the snow all around and the bright blue sky. Now this tree is heavy with apples, ready to be picked, ready to be stored. How many boxes can I harvest? How long will it take? How many little red spheres will prove impossible to reach from my ladder? I have no idea.

The plan? Dole them out as crispy, sweet snacks to my children for as long as they will last fresh. Make apple crisp. Make apple butter – something I have never tasted but have heard amazing things about. Make apple juice perhaps? The vast majority though, will be converted into apple sauce. My kids love the stuff, and I hope to be eating homemade apple sauce in January, when the memory of this green tree bobbing with apples is all but a distant memory. I even bought a food mill last night to make the work easier and faster. Peeling and coring? Not required with a food mill, apparently.

I have never done any of this before, but plan to have fun trying. How many jars will I be able to put up? Time will tell.

In the meantime, if you will excuse me, I have a date with an apple tree.

The Way We Green

This is a panorama of the downtown Edmonton Sk...

Edmonton Skyline, image by Steven Mackaay

I wrote before, about the green developments going on in my city. One of the most important and exciting items is an environmental strategic plan for the city, called the Way We Green. It is a very important vision for the future, and a vital step toward sustainability. I was so excited when I read it, and have been following its developments closely.

It is not approved yet by city council. Last week there was council discussion on it, which was open to the public. Not surprisingly, new home developers came in droves to speak out against it, and one local paper ran a front page story with the caption “Green Plan Hammered” and a picture of a hammer on the cover. Yes, I know, really original, read the story here.

Edmonton is a sprawling city. Spraaawwwwling. Of course the developers don’t want the city to give up its sprawl, it is to be expected. So we grow straight out, unchecked, instead of developing our communities from the inside. Everyone puts up a big fuss when the odd apartment building is erected outside the downtown core. Not surprisingly, taxes climb higher as the city struggles to maintain the vast network of roads and the related snow removal and pothole fixes that go along with it. Utility distribution fees are also higher, as more gas lines, electrical lines, water lines, cable lines and phone lines are built. Indefinite sprawl is irresponsible to the taxpayer and the ratepayer, let alone the environment.

The Way We Green strategy is going to be presented again tomorrow to Council. Scared that it actually might not be passed, I decided to fire out a quick email to my council representative, Ben Henderson. I voted for him last fall, had his sign on my lawn and talked to him on my door step. It was worth a try:

Hi Ben,

I emailed you a couple months ago about the gravel pit in the river valley. Thanks so much for your reply. I have another concern regarding The Way We Green.

I really believe in this strategy for Edmonton. Several major Canadian cities are implementing similar strategies, as you are probably aware. Vancouver wants to be the greenest city in the world by 2020. Calgary is making strides. Toronto has some great things going, with zipcars and bixi bikes available everywhere, as well as a vibrant local food plus program that verifies and labels local food in the grocery store. Many municipalities around the world are stepping up to the plate when their provincial and state and national governments are not.

Climate change is an issue that I worry about a lot. What kind of world are we leaving to my two young children? I know that most scientists agree that we have to act now, we have to act soon, and that there is no more time to mess around. Bringing in a progressive strategy like the Way We Green is a very, very important building block for our city. The climate change problem is a global problem, but requires local governments and local communities to solve it. The way we build homes, the way we plan communities, the way we get around, the way we produce our food – these are all local issues and need the leadership of the local government for solutions.

Urban sprawl cannot continue indefinitely, it is irresponsible to both the taxpayer and the environment. I think you agree with me on this one, as we had this conversation during the election campaign on my doorstep! We need to look at new ways of growing our city, perhaps up and in, as opposed to out, out, out. In the meantime we might get to know each other better, build our communities and feel like we are part of something great. We need to support our local food systems for food security in the long term, and this cannot happen when we continue to pave over our precious arable land with more suburbs.

The Way We Green is so very important, I really hope that Council will see it and continue with their vision of a bright future for Edmonton and Alberta. I understand that the document is going before Council again tomorrow, and I just wanted to let you know that I wholeheartedly support it, and would ask you to support it as well.

Sincerely,

Sherry

Economics of Happiness

 Last week I attended a screening of the Economics of Happiness. The film is about how our current mode of life in the West is unsustainable and is not making us any happier. In fact, we are more overworked and stressed out than ever before. We are disconnected from our communities and from our natural world and whether we realize it or not, we need these connections to feel happy and fulfilled.

The root cause of all this disconnection? The movie claims it is due to our highly consumptive lifestyle where we define the sense of ourselves within the image of this consumption – I am defined by the car I drive or the house I live in, by the designer clothes I wear, the furniture in my house and the smart-ness of my phone. What if instead – we were defined by our place in our local communities, our families, our contributions and joy that we bring each other? What if we saw ourselves as part of nature, and realized that we are nature? Right now we are so disconnected from nature and from each other that it’s making us lonely and sad.

What is driving this consumerism and disconnection? The movie claims that it is big companies, big banks, big media. We are increasingly homogeneous on this planet of ours, as we all feed into the same images of beauty, wealth, affluence, success. Local customs, cultures, even languages, are being lost to the Western culture of consumerism.

The solution? Localism – lessening the distance between buyers and sellers, so much so that we can look the seller in the eye knowing that he has produced what we are about to buy, and have a conversation with him and build trust. We will perhaps then better respect the natural materials that went into build it, grow it, and the human effort it took. My goods don’t have to travel across the globe to get to me, I don’t have to contribute to poor working conditions in halfway around the world to get my product. It may cost more, yes. But what if the cost to me was the true cost of the product, including the cost to the people who made it and the cost to the environment?

This movie has really struck a chord with me. It goes against what I was taught in business school, and everything I thought I knew about free trade and globalization.

I remember in one economics class in University, having a debate about globalization. Is it better for large companies to have their goods made in the developing world, under poor working conditions with a barely livable wage, or to have them made in the developed world, under good working conditions with a fair wage? If the goods are made in the developing world, the end price of the product will be cheaper for the consumer. Also – it gives people jobs, without which they might have nothing. Are we doing them a favour by exporting these cheap labour jobs? Who benefits more? The western consumer for the lower prices, or the poor migrant worker with poor working conditions and a poor wage (but without the job, could perhaps be in even a more dire situation)?

In that economics class, I argued that it was better to give the person the job; that it was more efficient to have the goods made there than here as they have more resources of cheap labour, and that this combination brings the most good to both parties.

A poor job is better than no job right?

Now I am not so sure. What right do we have to export all the crap jobs over to China, where there are few worker safety regulations? In the West we could not force people to work in these same conditions, in some cases it would be against the law. How ethical is it to buy our goods from these places, knowing this might be the case?

Back to those people who need the job – if we don’t give it to them what will happen to them? Well this movie argues that people are being taken off the land, away from farming, and moving into large urban centres to work in these large factories to make stuff for us in the West. This is happening all over India and China right now. Migrant workers move away from their families to work in the city, and lose their connection with their communities and with the land. But they are getting a job right? But wait a minute – isn’t farming a job? The movie argues that it is okay to be a farmer; we must not look down upon it, we must not see the mass migration from sustenance farmer to urban factory worker as necessarily a good thing. The sustenance farming communities are often very sustainable, and employ much of the community in the work. Just because people don’t have a lot of material goods and drive cars and have a lot of money, does not mean that they are not happy. In fact, the movie claims that some communities are happier in that they have a deeper connection with their community, with each other and with nature.

So why is success defined through economic prosperity, instead of through a measure of happiness?

The movie also commented on the power large corporations have over governments these days, and how much power they have over us as citizens (consumers). They form incredibly large and well-funded lobby groups; they fund political campaigns and buy off politicians to further their own agendas. They mesmerize us with their commercials and billboards and magazine images. Who exactly is in control here anyway?

This is also something that goes against what I have always believed in. Corporations are key to capitalism right? And capitalism is the most economically prosperous type of system right? Corporations are efficient, they are working towards innovation, they create jobs for people; create wealth for pensions for people. Right?

Now I am not so sure. Why do they have so much control over governments? This is so evident on the issue of climate change. The scientists tell the government that we need to change to avoid disaster and oil companies tell the government that we don’t have to change. Who have the governments of the world listened to? 97% of climate scientists? No. Oil companies? Yes.

This is precisely the reason that 350.org is launching a campaign against the US Chamber of Commerce, which is a large and well-funded lobby group for big business that has been persistently trying (and succeeding) to block action on climate change in the United States. 350.org is asking businesses and people all across the US to sign up and say that the “US Chamber does not speak for me“.

So what can I do? Well I can choose local food, locally made goods, handmade goods made right here in my city, or in my province. Perhaps these goods will better reflect the true cost to the people and to the environment.  I can support local industries, help them flourish. I can be part of the solution. I can limit my purchases of consumer goods I don’t need. I can think twice about buying products from places where the working conditions may be questionable.

Getting local, getting back to our roots, connecting with our communities, with our families, each other, and with nature – it has to be a good thing!

100-Mile Challenge Show

I just discovered a 100-mile diet reality show produced by the Food Network in 2008, and it is currently airing again on Global TV. It follows the lives of several families in Mission, BC. This small town signed up 100 people to eat within 100 miles for 100 days. The show features the authors of the 100-Mile Diet book Alisa Smith and James McKinnon, and they give ideas and moral support to the challenge participants.

Here is the trailer:

You can watch all the episodes online here. If you live in Canada you can also tune in Saturdays on Global at 7 pm.

The last episode featured a family taking their two young daughters to a farm. They wanted to show their children where their food came from, how it grew, how it was raised. The kids collected fresh eggs from a nice, clean, free-range chicken coup. They toured the sunny fields. The parents wanted to impart on their children a love and respect for food, and the time, effort and passion that went into growing it and raising it. This really resonated with me, as it is exactly how I feel and what I want to teach my children. I found myself with tears during this segment.

Another challenge participant noted that he used to buy whatever he wanted from the grocery store, without even thinking about it. He did not consider where it came from or how it was raised. Now he has a new awareness and a new appreciation. This is exactly my story as well.

The 100-mile diet is not easy. It is not something you can just switch to, overnight. For me, I think it will take a full year before I can eat mostly local foods. However, as I do more research I continue to find new products offered here locally. For example in the last week I have found:

  1. Local wine producer en Santé Winery (the first and only wine producer in Alberta!)
  2. Local beer producer Alley Cat Brewery
  3. Local pasteurized cheese from Smoky Valley Goat Cheese
  4. Local yogurt from Bles-Wold Dairy

 I have also found the Eat Local First site, where I can order local groceries online and they are delivered directly to my doorstep. How easy and convenient is that? An Avenue Homesteader tried it and blogged about it here. I am going to try it for the yogurt!

I did not realize that there was such an undercurrent of local eating here, with a growing list of choices. All I had to do is look a little harder and bam! They were right here under my nose all along. Who knew?

I want to support to this movement. I want to support these local producers and farmers with my dollars, and add my voice to conversation. I have some lofty local eating goals for myself in 2011, which I will elaborate on a little later!

Hmmmm. “Think globally, act locally.” Now I am starting to see what this actually means!

Farmer’s Market

This weekend I managed to get to the large farmer’s market. Last weekend I could not go as there was record breaking snow fall, which has continued all week. I cannot remember when we have had this much snow, it is unreal. I heard on the news today that we have not had this much snow since 1989. That is 22 years people! It is all piled high off the roads and sidewalks and driveways. It is supposedly was caused by La Niña, the same weather pattern that caused the horrific flooding in Australia and Brazil. Luckily for us, it did not come in liquid form. But there is just so much of it. In some areas you feel like you are walking in a canyon, it is piled so high. It is becoming such a chore to shovel the driveway, you have to throw it way over your head. Our roof is groaning under the weight of it. I am so sick of it, so tired of the cold… I often get annoyed at the weather this time of year, the heavy slog of January when spring seems so far away. The days are so short. Today I got out at lunch time in hopes of feeling the sun shining upon my face, and was sadly disappointed that it was still so low in the sky that it could not make it over the downtown buildings. Sigh.

The point is though, that I made it out to the large farmer’s market this weekend. It was -25 C (-13 F) but I made it out. It was great. Here is my story:

I walked in and first stopped at Sunworks Farm, a local meat producer who I now think is a leader in this industry. They are certified organic, certified local sustainable, certified by the SPCA. The man who runs the operation was cooking up samples of chicken sausages on a little barbeque. I told him that I saw him on a video online. He laughed and started talking about it, talking about his operation. It felt good talking to the person running this farm, raising the food that I am taking home to my family. He told me that he has a family farm day in September and invites all his customers to come see his farm, see how the animals are treated, see how they are raised. I looked down at their brochure. At the bottom it read “We do not inherit the land from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children“. Yes, I thought, so true. I purchased 2 dozen eggs and some chicken sausage. I had some initial sticker shock over the chicken breasts (more than double the price!) so left those for now.

I wandered on. I purchased beets and cabbage from a certified organic vegetable grower, thinking I would make borscht soup. If you have never had it, borscht is the perfect comfort food in winter, it warms you up inside.

I passed the honey vendor, not purchasing since I already had 1 kg of organic local honey at home.

Next I came to a vendor selling canola, hemp and flaxseed oil. They call themselves Mighty Trio Organics, with the trio representing the farmer, the producer (them) and the customer (me). How great! They are a husband and wife team that produce oil using natural methods, largely mechanical with no chemicals or alcohol. As the man explained it to me, his wife sat behind the booth with their baby son fast asleep in her arms. This is a family, I thought. They are doing this together to provide people with a local, chemical-free choice. As I looked on at their sleeping baby, I felt gratitude. It is because of them, that I can choose better for my family. I purchased a beautiful bottle of canola oil.

Next I came across the BC fruit vendor. I noticed that besides fruit, they also had hazelnuts. I decided to ask the guy if he knew if any nuts grew in Alberta. “Yes!” he replied. He went on to tell me a story about a time last summer when he and his friends found a huge crop of wild hazelnuts, growing in the city’s river valley. The nuts were a bit smaller than what you find in BC, but they managed to fill four grocery bags. They got them home, shelled them and then ground them up into hazelnut butter. They ended up with one small jar. Hmmm. That is a lot of work for one small jar. Next time I see him I should ask him where this hazelnut patch is found – perhaps I will take the kids on a nut hunting adventure this summer. I told him I wanted to eat more local and asked him if pears grew in Alberta. “Yes!” he replied again. They are small, but they grow. Next time I see him I will ask if he knows of anyone who sells these little pears in the summer. In the meantime I bought the best BC pears that he recommended. Yum.

I came across another organic grower and purchased some beautiful cherry tomatoes and a jar of homemade pickles. I found some leeks and bought them too. I have never bought leeks before. What the heck, I thought, let’s try something new and make potato leek soup this week.

I carried my stash back to my car and felt good. I learned more about my food, had some interesting conversations, and came away with my arms heavy with local products.

I made a quick stop at Bulk Barn and then headed home. I happily realized that I did not need to go to the grocery store this week. I had everything I needed.

my Farmer's Market food
my Farmer’s Market food