Monday, July 20, 2015

Sooke Farm Tour part 1

Yesterday, 19 July 2015, was the annual Sooke Farm and Food Tour, organized by Sooke Region Food CHI (Community Health Initiative). There were eight stops on the tour, and it seemed like a good way to get to know some of our new neighbours and start to integrate into the community.
We, Paula and I, started our tour with a visit to Saltwest Naturals, our local salt production headquarters. Jessica and Jeff Abel have a small, artisanal operation producing a range of salt products from local sea water. When we arrived, a little after 11 am, the temperature in the “greenhouse” was already 55°C, and the day hadn't really got going yet.
Jeff walked us through the process of making salt: collecting, concentrating, evaporating, washing, and then any final preparation.  Collection is done a few hundred litres at a time, filling a 1600 litre tank. The first step is to concentrate the seawater. Jeff mentioned that our local waters are only about 2.5% salt, much lower than is common. This is an artifact of the tremendous amount of fresh water than pours into the ocean. The local waters are also higher in magnesium (which, if left in the salt in the amount it comes naturally, makes salt taste bitter), and also a broad spectrum of other minerals (a broader spectrum, but lower concentration than Himalayan pink salt blocks that are so popular).
Saltwest uses a small reverse osmosis system to concentrate the brine from 2.5% to about 5% (nifty tool: the refractometer. A few drops spread on a screen, and you can check the salt content of the water).
Handheld Refractometer
Fernando G. (FGM)

CC BY-SA 3.0

 The demineralized pure water that comes from the system is bottled and sold as Canada's first desalinated bottled water.
The brine then gets split between two processes; the first is the raw boil, where large aluminum stock pots are filled and brought to a boil. Aluminum is used because it resists salt damage even better than stainless steel (I had no idea....). Once the brine is concentrated to about 80%, the heat is lowered to ~155°F and held, until flat crystals of salt begin to form and clump on the top of the water. This is salt flowers, fleur de sel, the prized, ultra-fine salt.
Jeff explaining the fleur de sel process
The other process is to fill trays with the brine, and spread them out in the... well, greenhouse is the word we used, but perhaps brine-house would be more accurate. Very quickly, the brine concentrates and the salt crystallizes out. Once the water is gone, the pans are left overnight, and the salt re-absorbs some moisture from the night air (salt is hydrophilic), making it softer and easier to take out of the evaporation pans.
The greenhouse where the brine is evaporated

Salt forming on the brine

At this point the salt is not yet ready for prime time. The next step is to wash the salt. Yes, in water, which seems to defeat the whole purpose of evaporating the water out in the first place. But a brine solution of 25% salt is the most salt water can carry, so washing salt in this brine means the salt doesn't dissolve. Who knew? Washing also removes much of the excess magnesium from the salt, making it taste much better.
Raw salt before washing

For some of the salt, this is the end of the line; dried in an oven to quickly take the last of the moisture out, packaged, and shipped to one of over 350 distribution points (or “stores” as the lay public calls them ). Other salt is re-brined and cooked with onions and garlic or other plants, and the flavours are infused into the salt. Yet more salt in run through a smoker, adding scent and flavour. Salt is bottled, bagged, or tinned up and shipped out, keeping Jessica and Jeff (and a mother-in-law two days a week) very busy.
Now, if you had asked me four years ago if I wanted to get into the salt-making business, I'd have stared at you like you were nuts. I didn't see it coming—there was Sifto and Morton and that was about it. I'd have been interested in learning how to make salt, but not as a business. Four years later, there's several local salt-works; Saltwest, Vancouver Island Salt Co., and Sea To Sky—which makes “Vancouver's Hottest Salt,” a claim I absolutely believe after having tried some (it's infused with ghost chilies, cayenne, habaneros, and pepper sauce). Jessica was saying that the market had gone from zero to highly competitive in a very short time.
So far, most of the salt makers have remained smaller, artisanal operations, very hands-on. But I fear for the future. Too much competition brings the fear that you might be missing out on something you could have—and that brings concentration rather than co-operation. It becomes easier to buy businesses and fold them together to maximize profit, rather than to co-operate and maximize the number of producers and grow the market. Or the lure of profits brings in outside money to do the damage.
Most of our salt these days is mined salt—salt dug from massive underground deposits or washed from deep deposits. Salt-making is one of those processes that goes way back in human history. Salt-pans are common through much of Europe and the Middle East. Salt is one of the ways Gandhi showed the insanity of colonialism—the British passed laws against Indians making salt from ocean water, in order to maintain a profit-maximizing economic control over the country. Salt is what opened up the Canadian east-coast cod fishery—without salt, European fishermen could not have transported fish from the Grand Banks back to the continent. 

MarkKurlansky's Salt: A World History is an exhaustive look at the effect salt production has had on world history, and is certainly worth a read. 

The chapter on salt in Twinkie, Deconstructed: My Journey to Discover How the Ingredients Found in Processed Foods Are Grown, Mined (Yes, Mined), and Manipulated into What America Eats is also an interesting look into modern North American salt production. 

All uncredited photographs are by me and released under CC BY-SA 3.0 except the covers of Salt And Twinkie Deconstructed, which are copyright by their respective publishers.

Friday, March 27, 2015

The Word: It's Worse Than We Think

via Simon and Schuster

Looking at the UCL-Lancet Commission on Managing the Health Effects of Climate Change report and one thing becomes clear; the future is going to be so much worse than we think.
As the project summary says:
A major report on managing the health effects of climate change, launched jointly by The Lancet and UCL, says that climate change is the biggest global health threat of the 21st century.
The commission reviewed the likely health impacts of climate change on human societies – and documented ways to reverse those impacts. It concluded that there is a need for policymakers, practitioners and the public to act urgently on the human health effects of climate change.
The report is already six years old, and the major problems identified still haven't made it into public discussion in North America. As the Lancet editorial opens:
Climate change will have its greatest impact on those who are already
the poorest in the world: it will deepen inequities and the effects of global warming will shape the future of health among all peoples. Yet this message has failed to penetrate most public discussion about climate change. And health professionals have barely begun to engage
with an issue that should be a major focal point for their research, preparedness planning, and advocacy [...].
Climate change and the projected effects of a changing climate develop quickly into a highly complex group of  inter-related problems: including disease, food, water and sanitation, shelter and settlements, extreme events, population and migration, and politics.
In the Commonwealth Health Ministers briefing on food [pdf], the study points out the following:
  • Climate change will worsen any existing food insecurity--anything bad now will only get worse.
  • The changes brought about by global warming will necessitate changes to agricultural practices--this is everything from what is grown, where it is grown, to how it is grown. But when it comes to the necessity of using GMOs, "the Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (also known as the World Agriculture Report), which was written by over 400 scientists, rejects that view. It sees ‘...a major role for agricultural knowledge, science and increase adaptive capacity and enhance resilience through purposeful biodiversity management’. The options set forth include ‘...irrigation management, water harvesting and conservation technologies, diversification of agriculture systems, the protection of agro-biodiversity and screening germ-plasm for tolerance to climate change."
  • The globalised food and agriculture system serves the interests of large
    corporations, while neglecting the needs of the increased numbers of
    hungry people. Can't say that much clearer, can you?
  • Agricultural practices and the global food system are major contributors to global warming. So, business as usual is just not an option.
  • The current methods of dealing with disaster and distributing food
    aid tend not to alleviate the long-term situation, often resulting in
    dependency upon aid. And that doesn't solve any long-term problems.
  • The impact of climate change on global food security, and in turn the public health risks, need to be tackled holistically. Simply put, there's no single solution. Because the problem is the system, the system must be attacked simultaneously from multiple angles in multiple ways. Which is good, because the only way the system can be taken down is to hit it hard, hit it fast, and hit it in so many ways that the corporations cannot respond effectively.
Six years on, and this still isn't in the everyday discourse. Frankly, every news report should be seen through the lens of climate change. Collapsing economy? Probably good news, as people in economic trouble burn fewer fossil fuels. In Canada, Bill C 51? A tool to prevent concerned citizens worried about climate change from interfering with the corporate right to profit while destroying the world. As Naomi Klein says, This Changes Everything.
Film: ‘Managing the Health Effects of Climate Change’

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Profits First, You Know

"RawBacon" by Jonathunder - Own work.
Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

CBC is reporting on how food manufacturers are handling their desire to maintain their profit margins. Because consumers are "sensitive to price increases," manufacturers are shrinking volumes rather than pushing a higher price at the till.
While this allows prices to be kept stable, it also allows for massive profit increases.Shrinking a package of bacon from 500 grams to 375 grams is the equivalent of a 25% price hike. You may also have noticed that the slices are thinner as well--to make it look like the same number of portions.
Lay's potato chips--already renowned as being more bag than chips, has also shrunk their portions from 200 grams to 180 grams; a 10% change.
And even in the world of milk, where producers (at least in Canada) are generally guaranteed a fair price for their production by provincial milk quota, dairies are messing with standard sizes. Instead of 1, 2, and 4 cup volumes (250, 500, 1000 millilitres), they have begun selling 237 and 473 millilitre volumes.
From an historical perspective, we are paying a remarkably low portion of our income for food. And here in BC, we depend on California for an amazing amount of our produce. So with the extended drought in Cali and the neglect of our local production, consumers here have been getting progressively squeezed. It just happens to come at a time when corruption in the financial industry has left the real economy reeling worldwide. Massive speculation in food markets led to price spikes in 2008 - 2009, and had various countries stopping exports of various foods (such as wheat from Russia). Since then, things have settled down, but both the race for profits and climate change have kept consumer prices for food on an upward trending line.
Things are not going to get better. Research in Canada has shown that farmers growing patented seed may see production of up to $350/acre, but may see net profits as low as $1.50/acre. This is not a recipe for bringing more farmers on-stream (although it will continue to maintain the massive profits seen by their suppliers and those buying their product).

Monday, March 23, 2015

Spring Garden, 2015


Well, the strawberries are replanted, the raised bed has more soil in it, and there should be plenty of berries by June. Spring is officially here!
I'm feeling pretty good this year, because while I'm not pushing the season, at least I'm not dragging behind it. A couple of weeks back I got the cabbage sets in, planted a small amount of radishes, and then planted broccoli a week or so later. So as of Equinox, there is stuff growing in the garden!

Sure, it's a small bed. But it's growing!
The goal is to grow enough radishes each week to supply the family Monday night dinner salad. As you can see, the cabbage (on the right) has already had a run-in with some slugs. The terracotta saucer has run out of beer and needs replenishing already (and, I suspect, changing over to a deeper plastic saucer).

Yeah, it's been raining again...
The kale (on the left) has done reasonably well over the winter. Of course, it was a drier and warmer winter than usual. The rhubarb (on the right of the bed) recognizes spring--it's doubled in size over the last week. Soon there will be that glorious sour, astringent taste from eating rhubarb. I'll have to save some for mixing with the strawberries in a pie.

Love all the spring green.
I've also started the trellising for the beans and peas. Scarlet Runner beans again (why mess with success), and Oregon Giant snow peas (same reasoning). I'm hoping for an all-time early crop of each this year. Now if we can just get back to those sunny +15ºC of February....

Friday, March 13, 2015

Grease My Palm With Oil

 Via Al Jazeera English

Palm oil. Already a $40 bn/year industry. You can find its derivatives in chocolate, shampoo, toothpaste, detergent, ice cream, floor polish and a host of other products filling supermarket shelves. And, just as you'd expect, that kind of money brings with it capitalism, corruption, and colonialism.
Al Jazeera has produced a series on the effects expanding palm oil production is having in Africa. To quote from the article:
(...) palm oil cultivation does not come cost-free. If not done sustainably, say conservationists, it can have disastrous consequences for people and the environment. In Indonesia, for example, it has played a major role in deforestation which has seen the loss of more than 6 million hectares of primary forest over the last 15 years.
As rainforests are home to least half of this planet's species of plants, animals and insects, the negative impact on global biodiversity can only be imagined. In addition, indigenous communities are also destroyed as people who have lived happily off the forest's resources for generations, often do not own the land (at least not in a form recognised by governments, corporations and their lawyers) and are frequently displaced to make way for new plantations.
There's also the problem that as foreign corporations look to create oil palm plantations, they are finding that indigenous communities have much wider ranges than previously thought or understood, traditional use of territories frequently overlaps between different indigenous groups, and indigenous peoples are often more difficult to buy off or remove than originally thought. Precisely the same issues facing the exploitation of British Columbia's natural resources by multi-national corporations: First Nation's have been here all along, have claim to the land, and aren't really interested in making colonialists richer at their expense.
Having seen the "benefits" of forcing the Inuit off their land and into towns, and the exploitation of resources in the north, this Al Jazeera documentatry looks all too familiar.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Re-Cycle

From Al Jazeera English

Phosphorus is one of those elements necessary to plant growth, but also seriously abused by modern farmers. Excessive fertilization contaminates runoff, causing algal blooms and killing off lakes and rivers (and, during the Eighties, lead to the deaths of beluga whales in the St. Lawrence river).
Technology, developed in Canada, looks to make us less reliant on mining phosphorus, instead allowing us to recycle it. Amandeep Bhangu, an Al Jazeera reporter in London, UK, visits Europe's first facility that is turning raw sewage into fertiliser.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Why Modern Farmer Rocks...

Because of articles like this. Sarah Baird spotted an old Tex Avery-directed cartoon and decided to have fun with it. My kind of people.....

Wednesday, February 18, 2015


That's what economics calls services that business doesn't pay for. Katherine Paul has an excellent article at Common Dreams called Who should clean up Big Ag's mess?
An excerpt from the opening of the article should suffice to get you over there to read it:
A “Cow Palace” in Washington State threatens public health with its acres of untreated animal waste.
A city in Iowa spends nearly $1 million a year to keep illness-causing nitrates, generated by farm runoff, out of public drinking water.
And who can forget the plight of Toledo, Ohio, residents whose water last summer was so contaminated by farm runoff that they couldn’t even bathe in it, much less drink it?
For decades, America’s chemical-intensive, industrial farming operations have spewed nitrates and other toxic chemicals, animal waste, ammonia, antibiotics, carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane gases into public air, waterways and communities.
How do they get away with it? Largely because lobbyists have seen to it that Big Ag is exempt from many of the rules and regulations that other industries, and even municipalities, are required to follow under the Clean Air Act (comments on exemptions here), the Clean Water Act (comments on exemptions here), the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), the Safe Drinking Act, and others.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Landrace Preservation

Landraces of Andean maize
credit: Karl Zimmerer, Penn State

Science Daily is reporting that what is left of the world's crop diversity is being held by small farmers--that is, farmers who hold between three and seven acres (1-3 hectares) of land.
To quote from the Penn State news release:
What the census shows is that small farmers, in many cases women, are the ones preserving landraces of food crops. A landrace is a locally adapted, traditional variety of a domesticated species. Depending on the crop, farmers may plant anywhere from one to 15 different landraces. While the livelihoods of small land users are often precarious, these landraces provide vital farm and food resources. 
 Small farmers tend to plant different landraces in the same field, encouraging hybridization. Maize, for example, hybridizes quite easily, while potatoes do not. This means a farmer may plant 3 or 4 landraces of maize, but up to 30 or more landraces of potatoes.
But the landraces are not just preserved by farmers in remote rural areas. Frequently they are found also in peri-urban areas--where people live near, and depend upon urban areas--where people are growing local food for local consumption.
The press release alone makes for fascinating reading, and leaves us with some hope for the diversity of foods.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Plus ça Change c'est la même chose. CBC news is reporting that, while we may think that infant and toddler foods are made to the highest nutritional standards, in fact, they are still being made to shape tastes as the kids grow up. As the article puts it: "The sodium concentration in infant and toddler savory snacks in the latest study was comparable to plain salted potato chips." Are we surprised? We shouldn't be. This first came up back in the 1960s, with exactly the same problems, for exactly the same reasons, and with exactly the same defense.