Thursday, August 21, 2014

Living on an Acre

Living On An Acre 2nd edition: A Practical Guide to the Self-Reliant Life
U.S. Department of Agriculture Fully edited and updated by Christine Woodside
Lyons Press, © 2010
Guilford, Connecticut
ISBN: 978-1-59921-885-4

Originally published as Living on a Few Acres, and published in 1978, the original of this book was published to provide practical information and assistance to the back-to-the-land movement. This new edition is intended for the same audience although it focuses on smaller acreage. Living on an Acre walks a fine line between being encouraging and cautionary. It opens with a chapter titled “Pluses and Minuses” and the sub-section “Face the Realities” opens with a checklist:

  • Do you want to be a part-time farmer on a few acres and keep a full-time job in town?
  • Can you find a farm that suits your needs in a place where you are willing to live? 
  • How much will it cost? If more than your savings, can you obtain financing? 
  • Do you have the knowledge and skills needed to operate a small farm? 
  • What about financing the production process?
  • How and where will you sell your produce?
All are fair questions when contemplating moving out of the city. Particularly the “do you want to be a part-time farmer on a few acres and keep a full-time job in town?” question. With (in the US) 90 percent of farm income coming from off-farm sources, buying a farm (as opposed to a house in the country) is buying a second job that pays poorly if at all. Which is why we're seeing renewed interest in urban agriculture, as detailed in Farm and the City.
When I worked off-farm, back in the day, I frequently found myself driving 5000 kilometres (3100 miles)/month—which drove me crazy. But the income paid for school supplies, utilities, and (of course) the ever increasing price of gasoline and car repairs. The insanity of working to afford the transportation costs of working is what lead us to the joyous moment of getting rid of our car and joining the Victoria Car Share Co-op.
I've considered the question of low farm incomes and have long wondered why farms don't take more of the process into their own hands. Selling, as we did, our production directly to the public through farmer's markets and the connections we made there, allowed us to receive a far more reasonable return. There were problems; getting up at 5:00 am to drive an hour and a half to Vegreville to have our chickens and turkeys processed (it has to be done at a licensed and inspected facility in order to be able to sell to the public rather than home use). The butcher we liked being forced out of small animal butchering by the lack of return, meaning we had to haul lambs to a abattoir we didn't really like in order to keep selling them. But, we could set a fair price for free-range animals and keep more of the money in our hands. And we ate like kings. But the loss of small, local slaughter operations isn't mentioned in Living on an Acre.
One of the great things about this book is the practical information it contains. How much land is needed for pasturing a horse? What are the housing requirements for goats? Should you build your own house? These are questions addressed here by the various writers. The must-read chapter is Growing and Raising: How to do it. The topics covered are great—from growing fruit trees, to nursery operations, to raising small and large stock, and even vacation farms. Traditional and non-traditional ways to provide yourself with an income get a good overview/introduction. The only lack is in marketing instructions. The sections on raising rabbits and chickens would be good reading for anyone contemplating raising these animals in the city.
Overall, this is a book that provides an introduction to many of the problems and concerns with moving to a rural life. The chapter The big picture offers short (often too short) essays from people who have made the transition. But Living on an Acre does offer the information you need in order to answer the questions the book ask. At the end of it, you'll have a better idea whether rural life is for you.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Jennifer and the City

Food and the City: Urban Agriculture and the New Food Revolution
Jennifer Cockrall-King
Amherst, New York
ISBN: 978-1-61614-458-6
available as an e-book

I have to say that Canadians have produced a lot of really great books on food and food systems in the last decade or so. And Jennifer Cockrall-King has taken her place in the ranks of Canadian food writers.
The book opens with a (mercifully) brief overview of the modern food system that focuses on the varied challenges the industrial food system faces; from climate change to peak oil and peak water. JCK then gets into the meat of the book, a tour of urban agriculture in France, the UK, the US, Canada, and ending up with two tours of Cuba. Each section (broken down by city) opens with some history of the city, farm, or person being visited. From the perpetuation of urban agriculture through the history of Paris, to a brief and inspiring bio of Will Allen, JCK offers us something special about her visit.
In Paris, for example, she opens with an anecdote about seeing a police station, “an excellent example of 1970s Brutalist architecture, designed to intimidate and terrorize,” where someone had planted grapevines in the street-level window wells. She “burst out laughing at the juxtaposition of these vines struggling to soften the intentional harshness of this impersonal, aggression-inspired building. Neither the vines' efforts nor the efforts of the gardener who planted them were in vain. The vines were winning.”
Because the book is meant to be inspiring rather than depressing, these are the stories she tells; stories where “the vines [are] winning.” And it's nice, as a Canadian, to read of cities here as well. So many books concentrate on what's happening in the US—understandable, as the potential market there is ten times larger than here in Canada. But Canada is at the forefront of thinking about food and feeding people. From Graham Riches work on the birth of food banks and his prescience on how they would become part of the fabric of feeding people as the social safety net here is slowly hacked apart, to Fraser and Rimas' Empires of Food showing how agricultural production forms the basis of civilization and empire (and the inevitable collapse of both), to Lorraine Johnson's City Farmer: Adventures in Food Growing which offers up the polite Canadian way of urban agriculture (as opposed to Novella Carpenter's more guerilla approach in Oakland). So JCK's overview of the urban ag movement in Vancouver and Toronto is welcome.
Of course, she does refer to Vancouver as being on Canada's “Left Coast,” a stereotype we could probably do without. She does live in my old home town (Edmonton, Alberta), in a province where politics have been silenced by big oil money, and the only movement is on the right to make the province even more of an American colony. To anyone coming from a petro-state, British Columbia's politics would look crazy. But all it means is that politics still matters out here, people still care.
And they care about food. Vancouver's large Asian and Indian communities have invigorated both the flavour palette and the urban agriculture movement. The same has happened in Toronto, which is fitting as the cities are both the largest in Canada, and the most unaffordable. So there is more pressure to think about, and get involved in, urban agriculture.
After her developed-world tour, Jennifer Cockrall-King ends up in Cuba, the epicentre of post-peak thinking and a world leader in agro-ecological research. JCK's visits to Cuba supports much of what I said in an earlier post (Cuba, Si!). Cuba is not perfect, but they are the essential test-bed for a post-consumerist, post-oil world. In Cuba, rationing mixed with local free-market farmer's markets provide a limited but universally accessible food system.Interestingly, a system that worked well in the UK during and after the Second World War. Cuba also upends our traditional thinking about social status and pay; top-level farmers earn considerably more than “white collar” professionals. Here in Canada, of course, the easiest way for a farmer to become a millionaire is to start farming with two million dollars. You'll have a million soon enough.
Jennifer Cockrall-King's book is an excellent overview of the variety of approaches to urban agriculture in the developed world. From the unbroken (though badly damaged) historic production systems of Paris, to the allotment garden and the memory of the Victory Gardens of the Second World War in the UK, and the North American experiments, we see everything from guerilla gardeners to the entrepreneurs and SPIN (Small Plot Intensive) urban farming movement. Most are farming for love, more than expected farm for money, and all of them bring an element of hope to the people around them. And, slowly, all are helping restore the agricultural knowledge-base we're going to need in the not-so-distant future.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Vampire Squid and the Garden

Drought map via NOAA
Yellow is lower level drought, dark red is higher

The Globe and Mail Report on Business (01 August 2014, p B1, B8) ran a report on how rising prices are starting to impact consumer meat choices, and how that's affecting the bottom line of Maple Leaf Meats (who are currently restructuring). The article points out how bacon prices are up by about 26 percent and pork chops are up 18 percent, even though Statistics Canada claims prices are only up 3 percent from a year earlier.
There are a number of reasons offered for the rise in meat prices; the arrival of a piglet-killing virus (porcine epidemic diarrhoea) which has driven up the cost of a pig by 24 percent, the drought of 2012 that drove up the cost of feed and led to herd culls, and a 5 percent depreciation of the Canadian dollar pushing prices higher north of the border. BMO Capital Markets economist Aaron Goertzen takes the “most obvious statement of the year” award by pointing out that consumers are avoiding the now-pricier beef and pork by buying chicken or cheaper kinds of protein.
But one reason for higher prices gets no traction in the article at all—or indeed pretty much anywhere else with the exception of the New England Complex Systems Institute (NECSI). NECSI has been warning about the influence of futures traders in the food system for several years now. As did Matt Taibbi in Griftopia: bubble machines, vampiresquids, and the long con that is breaking America (2010), upon which I'm relying for for describing the system.
In a functioning commodity market, there are three players; buyers, sellers, and speculators called futures traders. Buyers and sellers (farmers and food companies) can arrange contracts with each other to guarantee the price of a commodity like wheat or corn (or pretty much any other physical substance, like platinum or oil). A producer wants to ensure that they get a fair price for their wheat, so they offer a future delivery for an agreed-upon price. This works for a buyer, as they want to have a certain and non-fluctuating price for the commodity they need. Called physical hedging, these contracts allow an amount of certainty in an uncertain world. If the price of a commodity rises unexpectedly, the producer forgoes some profit in exchange for a guaranteed price. If the price drops, the buyer forgoes some profit in exchange for a guaranteed price.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Everything Is Connected (Water Edition)

Beluga photo via

A while back I found out the whole story about why Beluga whales were washing up on the shores of the St. Lawrence around Montreal--whales whose carcases were so contaminated with toxins that they had to be handled as toxic waste. Turns out it had to do with farmers in the American Midwest applying fertilizer to their fields. Excess nitrogen and phosphorus was washing into the rivers in the (rather immense) Mississippi catchment basin, concentrating in the waterways, spilling out into the Gulf where it was creating a dead zone. Algae from the dead zone found their way up the Atlantic coast in blooms, generating the neurotoxin found in red tide. Various predators concentrated the toxin up the food chain as the bloom moved north, finally resulting in dead whales in the St. Lawrence. Everything is connected.
Lake Erie photo via National Oceanic Service
As I write this, Toledo, Ohio, is under a "do not drink" order for their municipal water supply. The reason? Contamination with microcystin, a toxic by-product of blue-green algal blooms. Toledo draws its drinking water from Lake Erie (above, showing algal blooms visible from space), along with 11 million other people.
microcystin-LR molecule via Toxmais,
mostly because it's so frickin' cool!
Cyanobacteria produce microcystins, and when they bloom, there's enough of the toxins (particularly microcystin-LR, the most toxic of the group) to affect humans drinking the water. Standard water treatment doesn't affect the presence of the toxin, or its toxicity.