Food: A Political Act

“I didn’t know food was so political,” was my Dad’s comment after reading Michael Pollen’s In Defense of Food.  Dad like the vast majority of people, ate when he was hungry.  He was eating food long before the  calories from fat or grams of sodium were found on food labels.  Food for Dad was pure pleasure and of course, a necessity!  Like my Dad, I ate what has put in front of me, and my diet included not only the wholesome foods my mother or I cooked, but also calorie-laden sweets and snacks, until my once upon a time skinny person metabolism changed.  I now have to be much more mindful of what I put into my body, so I don’t become classified as overweight by today’s U.S. Department of Health Standards.

Unlike my Dad, eaters born since the advent of the television age are more readily trained on what and how to eat by food company advertising, journalism and the government.  There are countless commercials on television, the internet, in the movies, on billboards, covering t-shirts, on race cars and buses and everything else you can imagine.  There are daily articles in newspapers, blogs, radio broadcasts, and conversations with friends about what to eat or not to eat.  Different parts of government, whether it is the US Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, the local county government, or a classroom teacher provide information to willing listeners on food policy.  No longer are we just eating the wholesome food of earlier generations but instead consuming foods, as Pollan says, our “great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.”  Paying attention to the constant food babble on our meal choices is never-ending.

Typical Food Company Advertising

McDonald's Bus Advertisement

McDonald’s Bus Advertisement

An unrecognizable concoction in earlier generations now advertised on the sides of buses, are the ubiquitous Chicken McNuggets®–a breaded, processed chicken chunk–created by the giant food company McDonald’s.  The chicken chunk does include the well-known fowl as its first ingredient, but also a myriad of other ingredients not found in my kitchen including “hydrogenated soybean oil with TBHQ” and “dimethylpolysiloxane.”

TBHQ also known as “tertiary butylhydroquinone” is a petroleum based preservative product added to edible vegetable and animal fats, to prevent spoilage.  The US Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) has legally limited the quantity of TBHQ to 0.02% of any product’s oil and fat content.  According to A Consumer’s Dictionary of Food Additives, as little as a single gram (1/30th of an ounce) of TBHQ consumption, can cause “nausea, vomiting, ringing in the ears, delirium, a sense of suffocation, and collapse.”

The other mysterious ingredient is dimethylpolysiloxane, an anti-foaming agent similar to silicone products found in cosmetics and the childhood toy, Silly Putty.  While no known harmful effects have been found from dimethylpolysiloxane’s use in foods, I’m sure my great grandmother did not add it to her cooking repertoire.

Food Journalism

Journalism has also added immensely to the politics of food.  Newspapers have long included recipes and feature articles on food in the Wednesday paper with the inserts of the tantalizing, money saving coupons.  Now discussions on food issues are just as likely to show up on the front page of the paper or have dedicated websites such as Food Safety News.

Newspapers chronicled the late 1980’s rise and quick decline of oat bran as a health fad to lower cholesterol levels.  In 1993, it was Jack in the Box’s turn where under-cooked, fecal-infested, hamburgers were served with four children’s lives lost.  Beginning in 2001, there have been compromised honey imports into the United States from China via other countries.  Now in the honey scandal, people have been charged, fines have been paid,  and the saga continues to this day.  [I know I can trust my local honey producer Snoqualmie Valley Honey Farm.]  There is the continued diet craze where recommendations on what to eat and how much to eat are made.  There is the Atkins Diet, Weight Watchers, DASH, and numerous other diet programs to consider and evaluate.

Journalism is invested in keeping us well-informed, aware, and perhaps sometimes afraid about what we ingest.

Government’s Food Policies

Our U.S., state, and local governments also dispense a stupendous wealth of food information.  The Center for Disease Control, local health departments, and schools are working to implement wellness programs and physical activity guidelines to reign in the obesity epidemic.  The Farm Bill authorized by Congress approximately every five years, impacts rural farming communities, international trade, food and nutrition programs (also known as Food Stamps in the old vernacular), conservation programs and a myriad of other food policy and agricultural issues.

1943 USDA --7 Basic Food Groups

1943 USDA –7 Basic Food Groups

Of course, the U.S. Department of Agricultural has a vested interest in food issues, too, and took on a critical role during World War II, when the U.S. last experienced food scarcity.  By November 1943, sugar, meat, butter, coffee and a multitude of other food products were rationed, because of shortages and to supply food to the troops.  Concurrently, the government created the first food poster with 7 equally important food categories.  The 1943 categories, Group One–Green and Yellow Vegetables…, Group Two–Oranges, Tomatoes, Grapefruit…, Group Three–Potatoes and Other Vegetables and Fruits, Group Four–Milk and Milk Products…, Group Five–Meat, Poultry, Fish, or Eggs…, Group Six–Bread, Flour, and Cereals…, Group Seven–Butter and Fortified Margarine, look silly today.  Who today would recommend butter or fortified margarine (to which Vitamin A was added), on par with any of the other six food groups?

From 1956 to 1992, my formative years until adulthood, the seven food groups were reduced to the basic big four; meat, dairy, grains and fruits and vegetables, in equal amounts.  It seemed simple for my grade-school mind to grasp.  Beginning in 1992 until today, recommendations on what we should eat has changed three more times, twice in a triangular form, more commonly known as a food pyramid and now as My Plate, where a dinner plate is divided into four portions with an added dairy product.  Most likely, the recommended food offerings will continue to evolve.

Back to the Politics of Food

Dad was flummoxed by the often contradictory noise about what, when and how to eat.  He couldn’t be bothered with it.  Why would Dad have wanted to pay attention to all this information, when he could just enjoy eating?!

Dad always found my passion for good food and the farms an interesting curiosity.  He taught me to pick strawberries, plant a garden, and stop at the roadside stand to purchase fresh tomatoes and corn.  But, what was different, was that I spent time making deliberate food choices, eating vitamin-charged kale over an iceberg lettuce salad and serving whole wheat spaghetti.  I wouldn’t always eat the ice cream or piece of cake that was served, but was more judicious in my choices.

Yes, Dad, what we eat is a political act, whether we like it or not.  Each item we eat is supporting a farmer that grew the food.  Purchasing nuts, grass-fed beef or cider at the farmer’s market directly supports the farm operation and local economies and farmland preservation, while eating Chicken McNuggets® does not.  Even so, with all the food choice hype, we need to get out of our heads and just enjoy simply eating.

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., local food advocate, a land use expert and owner of Gardow Consulting, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities.   Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production.   Kathryn’s blog will muse on ways to create a more sustainable world.

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Skagit County: Creating New Food Production Models

What’s happening just north of Seattle in agriculture?  Who is bucking the trend of urbanization in the Interstate 5 corridor in the Puget Sound region?  What new agricultural innovations are being created?

Skagit County, Washington, located one hour north of Seattle along the burgeoning Interstate 5 corridor is fighting the nationwide trend of converting prime farmland into stripmalls and subdivisions, more commonly known in traditional appraiser’s parlance as the “highest and best use”.  From 1950 to 2007, Skagit County lost more than 52,000 acres of prime farmland, but looking at the numbers more carefully, during the boom real estate years from 1997 to 2007 the County actually had a net increase of 6.6% or almost 6,800 farmable acres.  In the same boom years all of Washington State lost just over 800,000 acres of farmland about three-quarters the size of Skagit County.

Skagit Farmland

Skagit Farmland

Granted Skagit County has its Walmart, outlet mall, freeway businesses, and housing developments, but Skagit County Commissioners had the foresight 17 years ago to enact the Farmland Legacy Program to protect valuable farmland resources as its “highest and best (agricultural) use.”  Skagit County now boasts agriculture as its number one industry according to Washington State University (WSU)-Extension despite being on the forefront of counties threatened by intense urban/suburban development.

Skagit County farmers currently cultivate 108,500 acres generating more than $300 million in sales of produce, horticulture, livestock and dairy according to WSU.  The County is widely known for its potato production generating 95% of all the red potatoes grown in the state and is the largest tulip and daffodil bulb grower of any county in the country.  As with any business, after 100 years in the County, 2010 saw the demise of green pea cultivation and processing.  Despite this loss, growers are eagerly looking for new opportunities and methods to maintain the rural agricultural economy.

Viva Farms

In 2009, Viva Farms put their first spade in the ground.  Viva Farms, a local non-profit started by Sarita and Ethan Schaffer, a husband-wife duo started revolutionizing the possibilities in local food production, attacking the local foods challenge with a vengeance, creating partnerships and leveraging opportunities.

Viva Farms located on Highway 20 at the entrance to the Port of Skagit County

Viva Farms located on Highway 20 at the entrance to the Port of Skagit County

Early on, Viva Farms secured 33 acres of prime farmland owned by the Port of Skagit County to create their sustainable agricultural vision.  Why would a Port District intent on creating economic growth and strengthening local economics lease property to farmers?  As the Port’s Executive Director, Patsy Martin said, “Leasing property to an up and coming farmer just made sense.  The Port Commissioners wanted to make a difference in the community.  With the Viva Farms model, which trains new farmers, creates value-added products, and distributes products to the community through box deliveries, it had the potential to contribute immensely to the community.”   Patsy saw not only the possibility of growing food, but a drive to generate value-added food products and distribution systems that could expand into new markets and opportunities.  The Port of Skagit County facilities would be there to support these endeavors.

With the Viva Farms model, a minimum one acre and up to 5 acres of farm ground is leased to a new or burgeoning farmer, (often with Latino heritage,) with the ability to use shared equipment, on-site infrastructure such as irrigation water, and acquire low-interest loans.  Courses are offered in tandem with WSU-Extension in Sustainable Small Farming and Ranching and Agricultural Entrepreneurship and Farm Business Planning.   Farmers are encouraged to find their own markets for product sales, and some farmers have even created closed loop businesses, growing food and preparing and selling their finished products from their own mobile food truck.  Surplus produce can also be sold through Viva Farms’ association with Growing Washington, a company offering boxed delivery service along the I-5 corridor from Seattle northward.  Once farmers are confident in their agricultural skills and implementation of their marketing plan, they often look for larger parcels in the Skagit flatlands to expand their business.

In another step towards strengthening the local food economy, Viva Farms recently leased available warehouse space in the Port’s industrial complex to build a processing, cleaning, aggregation, and distribution warehouse for the growing box delivery service confirming Patsy Martin’s intuition.  Farm goods from Viva Farms as well as from other farms in the region, will have a central, easy access location to quickly distribute the freshest products to the discerning palettes throughout Puget Sound.

Sustainable agriculture is also getting recognition from Washington’s newest congressional representative, Suzan DelBene.  Washington with a statewide $6.7 billion agricultural economy according to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, now has representation in the House Committee on Agriculture, which is critical to fostering the economic importance of food production in our state.  In recognition of the possibilities available in the Viva Farms model, Representative DelBene visited the farm in January 2013 to expand her understanding of the County’s innovative agriculture economy.

Skagit Farmland Legacy Program

As Viva Farms is expanding its presence, so is the County’s Farmland Legacy Program.  Established in 1996 by the Skagit County Commissioners, the Farmland Legacy Program assesses a 6-1/4% per $1,000 of property valuation Conservation Futures tax on all properties in the County.  Conservation Futures monies are leveraged with Federal, State, and private donor funds and distributed via a rigorous evaluation process to worthy farmland preservation projects in the County.  Farmers are compensated for the removal of the right to develop their farm and to maintain its “highest and best (agricultural) use”.

Raspberry plants getting prepared for summer production

Raspberry plants getting prepared for summer production

Since 1996, the Farmland Legacy Program has year by year removed development pressure on valuable fertile ground and now protects 7,000 acres or 6% of the County’s farming land base in perpetuity.  This was accomplished by engaging the farming community, neighboring cities, non-profits and citizens to form and advocate for the program, by collaborating with the government and private donors for financing, and developing a viable, strong farming community vision.

As the program has progressed, once skeptical farmers see the benefit of a thriving agricultural community, of being paid for their development rights and now want to participate, too.   With ever increasing community support and enthusiasm for protecting Skagit’s agricultural economy, the Legacy Program submitted half of all farmland protection projects to the Washington State’s WWRP-Farmland Preservation Program (Page 2 of the document) for funding in fiscal year 2014.  Skagit projects are in the top two-thirds of all projects as ranked by a farmland advisory board comprised of farmers and agricultural experts, but are only asking for 10% of the total WWRP-Farmland Preservation Program’s request.  Funding for these Skagit parcels are dependent on constituents asking their senators and legislators to grant support the WWRP-Farmland Preservation Fund.

Skagit County is a happening place where political leaders, entrepreneurs, farmers, and citizens are ensuring the strength and well-being of the rural agricultural economy and bucking the trend of losing agricultural land.  The benefit is fresh, locally grown food for now and in perpetuity.

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., local food advocate, a land use expert and owner of Gardow Consulting, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities.   Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production.   Kathryn’s blog will muse on ways to create a more sustainable world. 

 

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Ensuring Food Security: Wade’s Vision

Food and water are necessities.   If we don’t have food to eat, we go hungry.  Hungry people are bad for society.  We take food for granted.

Setting the Stage: Puget Sound

In Seattle we often live up to our reputation and it rains.  This December, it’s been cold enough that the precipitation in the mountains is snow.  Too much or too little rain has huge impacts on food availability.  Even when there is heavy rain, the grocery store is open and there is plenty of food to buy; except when there isn’t.

Asian Pears at Rockridge Orchards

Asian Pears at Rockridge Orchards

Four years ago getting produce to Seattle was practically impossible.  January 7, 2009, Seattle was isolated by Mother Nature with a warm tropical rainstorm from Hawaii, also known as a pineapple express.  Gallons upon gallons of water fell on saturated lowlands and melted fresh snow in the mountains causing hillsides to collapse, rivers to overtop their banks, and levees to break.

Storm statistics recorded seven inches of rain falling in Olympia in a 72-hour period and up to 20 inches of rain pummeling the Cascade Mountains.  Interstate 5 was closed for a 20-mile stretch between Olympia and Portland due to flooding.  All the major mountain passes were closed, blocked by avalanches and mudslides.  The outcome of the storm; no truck deliveries could be made from the east or south.  Seattle was virtually isolated.  Grocery stores had signs posted apologizing for produce shortages and anticipating their next shipments, held hostage by the reverberations of the storm.

It took three days for the storm obstructions to be cleared.  The three day inconvenience does not make it into the record books as a notable Western Washington storm, but the significance of such an event could be prescient for the future.

Setting the Stage:  Michigan

Another blip in disaster records happened in Michigan in March 2012.  Winter 2011-2012 had been unseasonably warm with average temperatures 4 to 8 degrees Fahrenheit above normal.  But even without the typical lower winter temperatures, the trees had met their seasonal chilling requirements, preventing early spring growth and priming the tree to begin blossoming with any indication of spring-like weather.  Trees begin their yearly fruit cycle when temperatures reach 45 degrees Fahrenheit and growth rates double with every 18 degrees Fahrenheit increase.  Continued cool days and frosty nights typically moderate blossoming rates.

Beginning March 11, 2012 and continuing for 12 days, Michigan experienced unseasonably warm temperatures teasing fruit trees and accelerating the blossoming schedule.  Night time temperatures did not suspend fruit development, as they were 10 degrees above normal.  The 2012 Michigan heat wave reported new climatological records with daytime temperatures up to 40 degrees above normal, dramatically increasing growth rates.

Fruit trees when dormant can withstand significant freezes, but once blossoms appear temperatures below 28 degrees damage yields and below 24 degrees can obliterate the harvest.  March 24th the warm weather pattern broke and Canadian cold returned.  Across Michigan there were subsequently at least 15 freezes below 28 degrees and 5 events below 24 degrees, savaging blossoms and reducing the summer fruit harvest to 20% of normal.

Rockridge Orchards—Enumclaw, Washington

Wade Bennett, owner of Rockridge Orchards located just outside of Enumclaw, Washington, is a regular vendor at the University District–Saturday farmers market, always found in the southeast corner.  As a regular customer, I purchase honey crisp apple cider, raspberry apple cider vinegar, and seasonal specialties such as Asian pears, Macoun apples, and Japanese cucumbers.

Rockridge Orchards farmer Wade Bennett

Rockridge Orchards farmer Wade Bennett

Wade started farming after receiving a severance package from Universal Studios, purchasing his first farm at $1,500 per acre, and only anticipating taking a short break from the corporate world.  He planted juicy, sweet Asian pears, because it was his wife’s favorite and he was unwilling to spend $3/pound for the orbs.  Some local Korean women happened to see his crop and purchased it all.  He was hooked and planted more.

Now 20 years on the farm, additional acreage most recently purchased in the mid-2000s at $40,000 per acre, and in his late 50’s (the average age of a U.S. farmer), Wade has the opportunity to ponder on the future of farms, food, and local agriculture.  He operates a year-around farmstand outside of Enumclaw, sells at multiple farmers markets, and engages in the future of western Washington food production as a King-Pierce Farm Bureau and a Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance board member.  (Even with this level of commitment to farming, he readily admits if someone offered him $100,000 per acre, he would take it in a heartbeat.)

So, Why Retain the Local Farm?

Rural estate adjacent to Rockridge Orchards

Rural estate adjacent to Rockridge Orchards

Wade acknowledges that the I-5 corridor will continue to attract business investment and accordingly people, pressuring currently vacant land (also known as farmland and forest land) to be converted to its “highest and best use.”  In appraisal parlance, raw land as it is converted to housing, commercial, or industrial use, creates higher economic value.  The act of development generates jobs, increases taxes paid, producing economic growth, thereby creating wealth.  Food lands do not generate these significant increases in wealth, as food is a commodity.  But, without food, we have nothing, as it is the sustenance of life.

Wade’s vision is to create permanent agricultural corridors west of the Cascade Mountains sandwiching the cities from the Canadian to the Oregonian border.  Each urban area would be confined with the specific intention of protecting our long-term food security.  This is a bold idea beyond the simple economics of real estate, as the agricultural value of the dirt would be considered rather than just its “highest and best use.”

Wade’s vision is relevant to the floods in Washington and freezes in Michigan.  During different weather calamities, we can be dependent either on a local or a distant farmer for our sustenance.  Having local farmers is critical to feeding ourselves when disaster strikes, Seattle is isolated and food cannot be trucked in.  Alternatively, when Mother Nature devastates our local foods, having distant suppliers is important.  With the damage of the Michigan 2012 fruit crop, wholesalers trolled the west coast markets for fresh, available fruit to feed the mid-west populace.  Wade enjoyed a stellar year selling fruit to mid-west distributors and prices even higher than direct marketing in Seattle.

Conserving western Washington’s agricultural corridors are vital to our region’s long-term economic and food security.  By guaranteeing continued Puget Sound farming, we are more secure against the vagaries of nature that could impede our ability to eat.  It takes a bold, forward-thinking populace demanding and financing protection of our sustenance lands to never lack food.

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a local food advocate, land use expert and principal of Gardow Consulting, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities. Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include local food production.

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My Well-Stocked Pantry: Nourishing the Future

Italian Prune Plums Sweetening in the Sun

I can, dry, and freeze some of the food I grow or purchase from the farmers’ market.   I do not live a life like Barbara Kingsolver as described in her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, where she purchased or grew (almost) all of her food locally and put much of it up for winter.  My winter food stash gets built for pleasure, enjoyment and being able to say to my family, “I canned this last summer.”

My forays in the garden make me realize the perils, challenges, and joys of being a farmer.  This summer, I was beginning to wonder if I would ever get a green bean crop, as we didn’t get any warm, sunny days until the middle of July.  Summer started with June Gloom, but more than two months of sunny days since have generated less than a millimeter of rain.

Even with the continued gorgeous days and trivial amounts of rain expected in the near term, I can tell our Seattle summer is coming to an end.  The shadows are getting longer, as the sun begins to edge back towards the south and my plants are starting to get tired and slowing production.  I pulled my only zucchini plant out last week, as it was covered with powdery mildew having completed its useful life.

I continue to harvest snap beans, but their production is dawdling, which makes my kids happy since they are tired of the nightly bean dish.  How many ways can you serve beans and keep teenagers happy?

Endings

My Dad–Ernie Gardow

As my garden season is ending, this is also a season of personal change and new beginnings.  For endings, my Dad, after 6 months of cancer treatments, lost his battle with lymphoma this summer.  I was fortunate to be able to spend time with him before he died.  The harvest season brings many memories of Dad, as he was the person who taught me how to grow a garden and gave me my Italian prune plum tree, because he noticed how untended plum trees grew wild adjacent to the Burke-Gilman Trail.

This season, I harvested over 100 pounds of Italian prune plums, from the tree blessed in the sunniest location in my yard.  Last year, not a single plum grew on my tree because of a pest infestation.  With plum abundance this year, I made my yearly zwetchendatschi, that Dad made every summer.  My kids wait in anticipation for their yearly zwetchendatschi, too!  And this year, they helped!

Zwetchendatschi–Bavarian Plum Cake

Zwetchendatschi is a Bavarian treat made with a butter, flour, egg, and sugar sweet mellow dough decorated with plums, sprinkled with cinnamon sugar and baked in a hot oven.  I also dried several gallon bags of plums to nibble on through the winter. With the remaining plums, I made 16 pints of plum chutney from Linda Ziedrich’s The Joy of Pickling.

Another ending will be my webpage name, landmattersfoodmatters.com, which will be transitioning to gardowconsulting.com.  Land and food matter, as does clean water, breathable air, community, friends, and family.  As a society, we must focus on those items that are most important to our health and well-being, rather than those that are transient in our lives such as the next best cell phone or tablet computer.   Gardow Consulting will continue to address quality of life and liveability issues through project completion, which are critical when considering land use matters.

Beginnings

For a new beginning, I have enrolled in the year long Urban Land Institute’s Center for Sustainable Leadership course.  One of the objectives of the class is to “build the intellectual foundation, strategic thinking, business and policy infrastructure, and professional tools to improve the resilience of our region.”  This inaugural class is expected to develop a cadre of up and coming leaders who will be poised to tackle the region’s future real estate, land use and environmental challenges.

And as with every end there are new beginnings.  Now is a time for new beginnings.  I bring the past with me, as a well-stocked pantry, able to nourish me for tomorrow and what the future will bring.

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a local food advocate, land use expert and owner of Gardow Consulting, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities. Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn’s blog will muse on ways to create a more sustainable world.

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Strawberry Heaven: Growing Organic Strawberries in Korea

Strawberries growing in a Korean hot house

When I was making my spring break Korea travel plans, I asked Beverlee Einsig of Korean Heritage Tours to help me find options to learn about Korean agriculture.  Beverlee, a stellar guide with her Korean counterpart, Mr. Chae, had taken our family on a homeland tour in 2010.  An agricultural tour was a request that they had never gotten, but Mr. Chae found us a unique Korean opportunity.

South Korea has a climate similar to the mid-Atlantic states in the United States with temperatures reaching up to 70 degrees Fahrenheit in mid-April dropping into the 40’s at night. Summer temperatures reach into the 90’s with high humidity.  In mid-April the farms are already buzzing, and farmers are beginning to make a little money to support their operations, while preparing for their summer crop season.

Farmer Cho’s strawberry operation

Our destination was a strawberry farm owned by 60-year-old Farmer Cho, the youngest farmer in the 37-acre farm community of 30 farmers in Yangpyeong, about a one-hour drive east of downtown Seoul on the Han River.  Farmer Cho grows rice, strawberries and beef cattle on his two-and-a-half-acre farm.  All three of his products are certified organic by the Korean government, as are all of the farmers’ products in this small valley.

Visitors are invited to tour his farm, fill (but not overfill) a one-quart container with strawberries, and eat as many strawberries as desired — all for $18 per person.  Housed under extra-insulated hoop houses for those brisk early and late season days, the ever-bearing strawberry season begins in mid-March and ends in October.  Rows of strawberry plants are grown on foot-high mounds that have been wrapped in plastic.  Strawberries drip down the sides but never touch dirt, so they are ready for immediately popping into one’s mouth.  Overhead and under-row sprinkler systems are fed by an on-site well, and each of the three hoop houses support their own discreet bee colony.  The larger strawberries are picked by his customers.  Farmer Cho picks the smaller berries and makes them into refrigerator jam, which is sold for about $9/pint.

PearlB's photo

Farmer Cho with his cattle

Farmer Cho’s strawberries are nourished by his 63 head of beef cattle.  Since land is at a premium in Korea, there are no pasture-fed beef on his farm!  Farmer Cho regularly cleans out the pens, places sawdust on the floors, and returns the cattle to the pen.  The cattle are fed the greens and hulls from last year’s rice crop, which is augmented by a purchased grain mixture.  The 100% organic manure material is used to fertilize his strawberry crop, keeping the circle of inputs and outputs tight.

The Korean staple:  Rice

Korean farmers building the hoop house over rice starts

Farmer Cho’s rice season had not started, but a neighboring farmer was preparing his starts.  Rice seeds were placed in square starter boxes.  A hoop house was being constructed with what appeared to be the farmer’s son who had returned from the city to assist his aging parents.

Since the rice plots appear to be small, little equipment is needed to grow the crop, which was especially fortuitous since their mini-tractor was stuck in foot-deep mud!

The starts will be planted in May with harvest in early October.  Korea’s rice growing season is through the summer with upwards of 20 inches of rain over the three month wet season. Paddies are flooded to reduce weeds, but organic rice production may require hand weeding, since herbicides are not used.

I continued to enjoy my stash of strawberries the rest of our trip, savoring each drip of sweetness, knowing that I had experienced strawberry heaven!

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a land use expert and owner of Gardow Consulting, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities. Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production.

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Patience yields sweetness: The art and science of producing pure maple syrup

Gathering sap in a Connecticut sugarbush

In agriculture patience is a virtue, and producing luscious, sweet maple syrup is the embodiment of that patience.

Growing up in Connecticut, I was lucky to be raised on 100% pure maple syrup and never had Aunt Jemima’s pancake syrup until I was a teenager. Maple syrup comes predominantly from the sap generated by sugar maple (Acer saccharum) or black maple (Acer nigrum) trees and is grown across the northern tier of the eastern United States and eastern Canada. Pancake syrup is a mixture of corn syrups, caramel color, salt, artificial and natural flavors and other ingredients I would not serve on my breakfast table. No wonder I can taste the difference.

Producing maple syrup is one of the simplest but also most complicated sugar treats. The 2012 maple syrup season tested the patience and perseverance of the farmer.

Maple syrup had its start prior to the white man coming to this country, when the Native Americans tapped trees and added the liquid sap to stews and roasts. The act of cooking the meat evaporated the water and left a sugary syrup in the meal. The New England settlers refined the process to create the stand-alone maple syrup product that is revered and sold today.

Collecting maple sap with the tubing system

Syrup production begins in the dark of winter, when farmers trudge out into the snow to tap their trees, place their buckets or connect their trees via plastic tubing that drain to a main collection spot. Improvements to sap collection, such as vacuum systems, have been made by the larger farmers, but for most, gravity methods prevail.

Trees in the sugar bush, the collection of maple trees, are tapped when they are a minimum of 12 inches in diameter and have already lived for 30 to 40 years. Now that’s what you call patience and perseverance: waiting almost two generations for a tree to be ready for production in our “want it now society.” Trees are known to produce for at least 100 years.

Knowing when to tap is a science, but also an intuition. Tree sap flows when the daytime temperatures are over 40 degrees Fahrenheit but the nights are still below freezing. Once the trees bud, sap collection stops, because the change in hormones in the tree alters the sap’s flavor.

Inside the sugar house

Sap is gathered and placed in the sugar house in large evaporator pans that boil the sap until it is 7-1/2 degrees Fahrenheit above the boiling temperature of water. The sugar house is a structure that is built specifically for maple syrup production on a family farm. It takes 30 to 40 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of syrup.

The syrup process is completed in the finishing pan, filtered and color-graded with Grade A Light Amber, the premium product. Producing maple syrup has simple instructions, but it is an art to do it right.

An early spring in Connecticut

In the middle of March, I got to see the end of the sugar season. Connecticut had a week of record-setting temperatures and no nighttime freezes, which cut the optimal two-month season short.

It wasn’t until I explored the stately maple tree and its gifts to our dining tables that I really learned that patience is a virtue and sweetness is its cousin.

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a land use expert and owner of Gardow Consulting, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities. Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production.  

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Local food systems require broad policy support

By Kathryn Gardow and Joanne Hedou
Previously published in the Capital Press

Ames Creek Flood, 2006

Ames Creek Flood, Snoqualmie Valley, November 2006. Photo credit: Stewardship Partners.

Washington state is losing farmland at a rate of about 21,600 acres per year. That’s the equivalent of 1.7 million bushels of Palouse wheat. One hundred thousand people are moving to Washington annually. Changing weather patterns have modified the seasonal distribution of water in ways that significantly impact farming.

Local food movements may feel strong here but they are actually fragile. To continue to have local foods, we have to have local farmland. We must prioritize a new, more forward-thinking approach to preserving agricultural land that balances food production with growth pressures and changing climate.

In the early 20th century, throughout the United States, zoning codes designated land in floodplains for agriculture. Urban development was impractical where water inundated large areas. Over time, communities built systems of levees and dams to protect agricultural land. Reducing flooding caused some lost soil fertility, but it didn’t stop production of food.

A massive change in floodplain use was pushed forward by the 1968 National Flood Insurance Act, a federal program to provide low-cost insurance for buildings in the floodplain. The act facilitated rapid and extensive loss of farmland to the powerful economic engine of urban development. Further, with federal changes in the agricultural commodities program in the early 1970s, cheap food came from an average of 1,500 miles away.

The progression continues 40 years later. The challenges of farming in floodplains are now seriously exacerbated by changing, unpredictable weather patterns. River volume fluctuations in both timing and quantity have been dramatic, impacting the ability of valley farmers to grow food.

Notably, in the summer of 2011, Puget Sound farmers planted lettuce late because of cold, wet ground. It grew slowly because of the coldest summer in decades and, in July, bolted when warm nights abruptly returned.

Berries ripened all at once and had a short season; the end of summer brought an abundance of squash. With typical resilience, farmers sold what they grew when it was available and consumers appreciated it as it came. But the economic impacts of the season were severe.

A strategy, willingness and commitment to proactively sustain a local food supply within this difficult context do not currently exist. However, there is hope that new paradigms in land use, agriculture and water resource management will ensure long-term community food security.

Planners, water resource managers, disaster managers and economists must acknowledge the combined impacts of zoning, population increases and climate change to agriculture and implement new responses to pressures on farmland in a dynamically changing world.

Examples of ways this can be done include:

  • Using transfer of development rights, or TDR, programs — in which rights to develop land are moved from farmland to cities.
  • Creating conservation easement programs to reserve properties in diverse locations and microclimates for farming.

TDR programs have already been established in some Washington counties, and cities have been encouraged to participate. With more flexible thinking many other techniques for building a better agricultural land base can be developed.

Proactively responding to variable weather patterns must happen in advance of more severe changes. Adaptive practices can range from water conserving techniques such as gravity-fed drip irrigation, intercropping and contour planting. These lower technology solutions can forestall more drastic measures like building new dams and levees.

Indeed, lower cost, lower technology methods widely practiced and developed in shorter timeframes are agile responses that cost less than huge infrastructure.

We need to accept that the natural world is not static. While we have lived and planned our built environment and economy on perceived stability in natural systems, we are now learning that the concept of normal may be a false assumption. We may never again be given the grace to live in defiance of nature.

We need to preserve agricultural land to sustain community food systems and to live with and adapt to a dynamically changing world. We Americans and, more specifically, the hugely creative residents of the Pacific Northwest, have the ingenuity to envision and secure a different future of food.

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a civil engineer, and Joanne Hedou is a fluvial geomorphologist. Both live and work in Seattle.

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What can I do to create a more sustainable community?

Local Seattle Summer Produce

By increasing your plant-based diet, you can decrease your food production footprint.

I know that creating change in the world begins with me. As with many people, I want someone else to be the change. It’s easier to think that someone else needs to be educated or someone else will ride the bus. But, more often than not, I can help develop a more sustainable world, just by changing my own habits. So, what can I do?

Eat less meat… Meatless Mondays, for example. I must admit, I eat meat, because I like it. Maybe it’s my German heritage. I have limited my meat intake over the years by adding it as a flavoring, such as meatballs in spaghetti sauce or chicken in a stir fry, rather than meat as a centerpiece of the meal. I also make sure the meat is more sustainably grown, by purchasing grass-fed beef or organic chicken.

I know that I can step it up and eat less meat so I am making a new commitment to eating less meat by starting Tofu Thursdays. So often my children want to eat what their friends eat: highly processed foods, filled with sugar, fat, and salt! Last Thursday, I made Orange Ginger Tofu, and for Meatless Mondays I made Tuscan Bean Soup all from Terry Walters’ Clean Food. My teenage children liked them!

Why is it important to me to eat less meat? If I ate a high-fat and meat diet, I would need just over 2 acres of land to be fully fed each year. If I ate a low-fat vegetarian diet, I would need less than a 1/2-acre of land to be satiated every year, according to a study in the Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems (2007) journal. For my family of four, there is a significant difference between needing over eight acres each year to feed us versus only two acres to nourish us. By increasing my plant-based diet, I’m decreasing my food production footprint.

There are many other reasons to eat less meat including inordinate amounts of water, increased methane gas production, and huge quantities of grain grown just for meat production. The quantity of land alone needed to produce my food is enough for me to decrease my meat intake.

Please join me by changing your habits, too! If each of committed to eliminating (or at least reducing the quantity of) meat from one or more meals a week our world would be better — one…incremental…step… at a time.

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a land use expert and owner of Gardow Consulting—Land Matters Food Matters, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities. Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn’s blog will brainstorm on ways to create a more sustainable world.

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