Friday, August 27, 2010
Earlier this week we went to an organic dairy farm. That also nearly made me vomit. A former DDR collective farm, the operation is now a private one that sprawls across 1,700 hectares. Their immense herd spends some time in pasture, but is often in confined feeding barns. Even though the operation goes beyond the EU's animal welfare laws, I felt a deep sadness as I watched the animals lean through the bars and eat their organic, closed-system silage. The barns smelled foul. There was a parallel system for these humble bovine to be fattened up for slaughter.
It all is entirely unnecessary. We often hear this same argument from vegetarians: about how a huge amount of arable production going to animal feed could much more efficiently go to feeding people plants directly. The same is absolutely true for dairy. But somehow the rejection of animal exploitation cannot overcome cravings for animal fats. Cheese and butter compel us, regardless of its necessary intertwining with meat systems. Moreover, dairy extraction operations are at least as tragic in and of themselves.
It wasn't just that farm either. The next day we visited another certified organic facility, this one at an establishment training adults with handicaps. I saw the same tragic scenes, smelled the same awful smell, and could feel the subtle stress of the mama cows as they shuffled around on cement floors.
Although heifer husbandry doesn't appeal to me in any fashion, I can definitely see when it would be appropriate. As accessories to arable systems, large ruminants can really help soil fertility. Many farms have fine systems of free-roaming cattle. What really turns me off is a system that is clearly exploitative. The industrial model, no matter how 'organic' it claims to be, is devoid of the essential element of intimacy. I refuse to support the treatment of animals as production systems. When any organization industrializes, our diverse and incommensurable values are dominated by production motives. This is not healthy for cows, children, and other living things.
Wednesday, August 25, 2010
In the afternoon we talked about life-cycle analyses (LCA) for bread, and so having seen the working bakery just previously was very good. Das Backhaus is different from the bakery in the LCA reading though, because instead of buying flour from an industrial miller, they buy whole grains from five local farmers and mill them at the mills in their building. Thus the transportation energy required in the production is especially different from the bakery in the LCA model, but it was still useful for me to have a real-life example in my mind.
We had a lot of discussion about both the good things but also the shortcomings of life-cycle analyses. What seems on the surface like a very good tool for assessing the impacts and sustainability of products and production cycles is actually quite simplified and depending on the boundaries of the assessment put forth the outcome could potentially tell very little, if it fails to account for the complexity of system. I think that the LCA model is very useful and actually can tell a lot, if the assessment parameters appropriately take into account aspects at deep enough levels. Whew, that was very theoretical, and hopefully not too dense, but after writing these past few sentences I now understand how Ifeel about LCAs as an assessment tool.
Tuesday, August 24, 2010
The moon was bright and almost full.
Drove ¾ of an hour to a shining building.
Knocked on the door, we’re early. Grumbling
thinking what did we come all this way for?
A smiling man came to the door, brought us in and gave us blue plastic slippers to put over our shoes. We left our jackets in the lounge/dining room and went through a set of doors into a hub of activity.
Das Backhaus, die Biobäcker
Mechanical arms were gently twisting large amounts of dough. Delicious smells and warm wafted from the large ovens. Six men wearing white shirts and checkered pants moved around quickly with ease and confidence. My bone weary body could not relate.
We went on a tour of the facilities, starting in the back room where the flour is milled. My hazy mind began to clear – they mill their own flour here! Backhaus buys all the grain from about 5 farmers from the region and each morning, they use their small stone mill to grind it into flour.
Next, we went into the storage room. They purchase as many ingredients as possible locally, but many things still have to be shipped from far away. I was standing next to a box of dried apricots from Pakistan.
One hour passed in a mix of weariness and amazement. Then, the man giving us the tour (his name has slipped from my memory) offered us a selection of the bakery’s products: hearty sourdough rye, yeasted sesame rye bread, a white bread with some lovely spices, a cheese and spice twist to die for, and cinnamon buns that tried to further convince me that I was still dreaming.
Afterwards, we watched two bakers pour the slow-moving dough from its large bowl into a machine that splits it and spits it out on a conveyer belt. They took these pieces of dough, stretched them out and deftly twirled them into donut-shaped loaves. They were olive bread, I watched one olive escaped its dough encasing and fell onto the floor.
I was astounded by the amount of bread being made. I can’t recall the exact number of loaves made each day but I remember that they produce over 1,000 buns per day and buns are not Backhaus’ main product. Needless to say, a vast quantity of beautiful, local grain, onsite milled, properly fermented (the dough is allowed 20 hours to rise) and delicious bread is made 6 days a week in Gliechen, Germany.
All this bread is baked and packaged by 6:30 when the truck comes to bring the bread to 35 (ish?) local shops. We left before the bread did though, at about 5 AM. We took off the blue slippers, trundled back into the van, drove home, and fell asleep until the late morning hours.
Whoa, I've never seen rocks like that before, I wonder what they're called.
Do you have bears in the UK?
I wonder if men wear their beards that way because it's in style or because the gene pool makes it physiologically necessary.
(Answer: It's rather attractive, either way.)
If I throw my gum in the woods on a visit to an organic farm, am I negatively impacting the ecosystem? How would I feel differently if I were on a "conventional" farm?
(Answer: Michael Marriage's pigs will eat it.)
How old is that tree?
(Answer: A few hundred years.)
What did the Buddhist monk say to the hot dog vendor?
(Answer: Make me one with everything.)
How do you say beer in German?
How did they come up with such an ingenious design for canal locks?
(Answer: Hundreds of years of experience.)
Can we hitch a ride to the next village on your canal boat?
(Answer: Would you like some pork pie?)
Isn't it interesting how water buffalo can sense fear, and they'll pick on you if you dont act confident? How does that inform the way we act when we visit Berlin after two weeks in the English countryside?
(Answer: Especially when you don't speak the language of words, speak confidently in the language of the body.)
Do you know any myths about...
Is that a blueberry? Can I eat it?
(Answer: No, try it.)
Why does the sky look so deep?
(Answer: I want to study clouds.)
What am I going to do with my education?
(Answer: Spread joy.)
Please add to the list, because how could any one person ever be comprehensive?
Answer: With the help of others.
Saturday, August 21, 2010
The class met him at the windmill. This impressive structure was built in 1812. It is pieced together out of unbelievably huge pieces of timber. Stairs from the ground take one up to a two story house that rotates freely on a central axis. The stone pieces, the crank wheels, and every timber is from the original construction. The central axis is from a 400 sear old oak, and so dense one can't drive a nail through it. The masterful geometry was assembled with no nails.
Our miller was constantly playing jokes on us: slamming around wooden stoppers so as to startle, cracking jokes about this or that component of the mill, having us stay in the mill house while he gets in the tractor and turns the whole thing in a complete circle (It rotates freely, as one never knows which way the wind might blow (anyways, we don't need a weatherman)). At the watermill, he convinced Barbara to reach inside the mouth of a mask, billet onto the flour vent, then he snapped the flour bag-patting battle real loud and made her jump. At the hand-crank grain cleaner he suddenly blew a fierce wind at jill and made her squeal.
All this is to say, I think it's the kind of job I'm cut our for.
Friday, August 20, 2010
I believe the way we eat is explained by nurture, not nature. Our genes don’t eat, after all, our mouths do. And at the hand of our parents. The other day in class we sat around the table and polled how many of us present in the classroom were influenced by the way our parents raised us, especially in regards to food and the choices we now make. The majority of us raised our hands. We drifted into memories of family dinners and their importance in instilling respect towards the food we eat, and being thankful for it. Our families each gave us an understanding of where our food comes from, how to prepare it, and what is good for us. Woven into these sometimes unspoken teachings at mealtime was daily conversation and the general appreciation for each others company after busy days of school or work. In some way, those meals now only shared over holidays or occasional visits home, brought us here- studying human ecology in a small German town for our last summer month. Our childhood propels us into future relationships with food. That is, in so far as we will allow it.
When we finally escaped (as it is seen in modern day culture) from our parents grip, into the world of academia, us new ‘adults’ were left to our own devices when it comes to food. We all know the infamous story of the ‘freshman 15’ or the image of eating microwavable macaroni and cheese day in and day out, because hey- powdered cheese in packets doesn’t go moldy. Our new social surroundings tend to guide our food choices and most of these times these surroundings are dictated by convenience, time efficiency, and a price factor. Those of us conscious of food choices look at the labels. This is where we must pause and ask ourselves- what do the labels tell us? How, really, can we trust them if they are based on false nutritional information supported by multimillion dollar companies. Without parents or role models in sight- who will teach us? The answer: our bodies. We shouldn’t have to be dependent on a label if under all this skin is a whole organ system equipped to tell us weather or not we should eat that bread, drink that milk, or indulge in flesh of another beast. If my intestine starts kicking itself, that is a bad sign, despite what the ‘No trans fat!’ sign might say. Listening to our bodies is the new key to staying healthy. And with a restored knowledge of our own bodies, hopefully there will be a reintegration of family values, an understanding why mom always made me take ‘just one more bite!’ of my broccoli.
So in the human pattern, the next step in our lives after getting a job and all that jazz is to procreate. And procreation, leads to children. Children with incredibly impressionable minds. We see brightly colored food advertisement with cute cartoon characters aimed at children every day. We see them so often we are almost numb to their conniving objectives behind the smile of Tony the Tiger or the bound of the Trix rabbit. Children’s’ minds however don’t perceive the lack of nutritional value if they have never been exposed to other ways of thinking. As the current generation studying the value of food, it is our responsibility to educate the next generation, changing the social surroundings for them. Farm to school programs are essential in connecting children with their food, and, keeping in the chain, to the soil. Also, through educating children in school, the children have a huge potential to bring new values back home, teaching the parents who perhaps are part of the ‘lost generation’ we have referenced in class discussions. The stream of knowledge flows both ways. Through the impressionable comes potential, children are a tool of positive change in our food system.
The changes we make in our food system regarding human health and nutrition must expand all generations and all steps of life. We all need to eat, and judging by human population estimates for the next 20 years, there will be plenty more mouths to feed. Lets do so with the values our parents, and their parents parents, stored in us, trusting our bodies to decipher commercialist schemes as we unearth once more the importance of real food.
Friday, August 13, 2010
we went on a field trip to see John Letts, and the work he’s doing that undermines this crazy system. An anthropologist by training, he was studying the thatching industry in the UK some years ago. Thatching depends on long wheat straws, which make beautiful, waterproof roofs that will last 40 years. When the roof needs to be re-thatched, more is added to the top. This means the thatch on the bottom of some of the roofs was hundreds of years old. During his research, he found seeds of ancient varieties of wheat. This was quite fortuitous. Most modern wheat has insufficient length in the stalk to be useful in thatching. Modern wheat was bred to be short so that loads of nitrogen could be applied and the grass wouldn’t fall over.
Essentially, what he started doing was growing large, mixed populations of ancient varieties of wheat. By taking 300-450 different kinds and planting them all together he would stimulate self-selection for a certain parcel of land. Whichever varieties grew, he would save the seeds and plant them there the next year. Within a few seasons he had a population that was completely adapted to the land they were planted on. They were not stable, but constantly adapting. And they would only grow well in the very worst soil he could find—any nitrogen and they would get too heavy and fall over.
What John is doing is creating landraces. Before hybridization and great seed trading, everyone had grains suited for the land they were on. And genetic diversity was huge. To me, this is immensely inspiring and philosophically freeing. We do not need to rely on seed companies to verify cleanliness of seed and variety performance. We do not need to be hung up about speciation and corporate control of diversity. We can grow food crops that thrive on whatever soil we have, for whatever tools we have. Instead of orderd, rigid, scientific manipulation of genetics, we can co-create with the plants that feed us.
However, beginning Wednesday afternoon and extending through Thursday, my heart lifted as people who touch the physical grain taught us. People who grow the grain, evaluate the grain and create beauty and mouthwatering splendor out of the grain.
The first of these people was the man who began the Real Bread Campaign. Around 2:15 Andrew Whitley showed up bearing seven loaves of bread. He asked us to be his companions for the afternoon while we delved into the world of bread. We passed around slices of deliciousness, while he told us that one of the loaves had a mystery ingredient and the person to guess it would win a portion of his sourdough, which originally came from a peasant woman in the Soviet Union. Andrew has maintained the sourdough for many years and is now spreading the fungal network. He went on to teach us about the lactic acid bacteria within the sourdough culture that breaks down some of the proteins in wheat – leaving it much more digestible for us. We have decided to spread the sourdough network further by splitting it up between us in Germany.
The next morning, Hannah Jones, blew us away with her lecture/lab on cereal grain quality. We learned the nutritional aspects of wheat and examined diseased grains. We learned about protein strength and how the two proteins that make up gluten – glutenin (elasticity) and gliadine (extensibility) affect the dough quality. It is hard to understand this without experiencing the rheology – how the dough actually feels and looks, so we got our hands messy.
Thursday afternoon we went to the Collins Hanger farm where John Letts leases a plot to grow his landrace varieties. To say that this farm is overflowing with history would be an understatement. The straw from John’s wheat is used to thatch roofs in the old English style. We practiced the old method of harvesting called scything and visited a barn full of ancient equipment. We drank tea and ate biscuits in the Collins Hanger small museum where Roman coins, Victorian buttons, and dinosaur bones that were dug up in nearby fields now reside.
We finished the day at an Indian restaurant in Newbury. All of my fellow travelers on this path of grain, smiling, laughing and eating good food.
I have been thinking about ripples lately. Really, geography is ripples. We are born one place, we study in another yet still return home, we find new homes, our spherical space grows bigger and bigger. Love is ripples vibrating up our spines till we are filled with a circle of compassion for those all around. Learning is ripples. We began here, isolated stones of students from 3 different countries (4! Caro!), introducing the hand we were thrown from and those seeds that hand has sown. Together, however, we have rippled through topics with specific to all encompassing names such as “Wheat, Trade, Productivity and Food Security” or “Organic Arable Systems”. In our notebooks we have drawn circles connecting it all, ven diagrams or doodles circling around our brains, these circles emulate the holistic view of thinking we leave this country with.
I will miss singing in 4 part harmony in the bus, stealing carrots from the raised beds outside the classroom, attempting to do a head stand (I did today! Finally! Stayed up for 3 seconds!). But we must keep dropping stones into water to understand the crossings of different ripples. Let the only “new frontier” we try to conquer be one of knowledge, to never stop exploring. From the stooks of yesterday, into the taste buds of tomorrow! I look forward to the next two weeks in Germany.
After a day and a half of economics, calculating energy inputs and outputs, and accessing food security in terms of these odd counting units, as well as studying the commodities market, I officially (announcing it in the form of this blog) decided I don’t like numbers. They are constricting, they lie, and they ignore any power of the spiritual involved in eating swiss chard and bread. But stopping at “not liking them” is a form of defeat. How can we think about numbers so they are constructive?
Numbers isolate aspects of a study, ignoring holistic thought. Human ecology is the study of interconnectedness, the way I have come to think since studying at COA. I find it hard to integrate numbers into concepts if I feel like I can’t trust them. As one of our speakers said “not all the solutions are in one place”. What if we recontexualized the importance of numbers? Instead of seeing them as the reason, they instead can form around reason. Help us understand reason.
Numbers make things seem static in time and space, as if they never change. That they are the only answer. But is there really a right and a wrong? Lady Gaga wasn’t talking about a game of love when she wrote “Poker Face”. She is singing about the commodities market. The cards are splayed out with a variety of hands to play, whether that hand is played based on value or only for paper money, there are many ways to play it. Through charts we are lead to believe that numbers are proof of something. But right and wrong are not a numerical value. They are a human value. How can we use numbers so they work with the human nature of change and shifting views instead of against it?
My last questioning surrounds this idea of the spiritual. There is no number that can determine and communicate the beauty that is shared over the breaking of bread. The falling numbers or protein percentage can’t really tell the taste of the final loaf. A bakers hand kneads and breathes life into the flour, and is assisted with these numbers the miller tells them. The spirit of a loaf of bread can not be added up, the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts. When it comes to grain on our plate in the form of a loaf, it is a balancing act of magic and logic. Numbers can only play a part.
Long story short, in some of these classes lately I have struggled hard not to just throw my hands up and go frolic in the fields of clover and wild grasses outside and dream of homemade pesto. We have one thing to thank the numbers for, they make us question our idealism and ethics. If it weren’t for the existing market, and the fear of applying all the conventional market to the organic one, we would have nothing to change. Though scary they may be, these constricting, devoid of emotion, falsities make us angry and we can replace through constructive conversations about how, really, we can enact change. So lets ask questions, demand answers, and thank the numbers.
Thursday, August 12, 2010
We talk about organic agriculture all the time, and it is a buzzword that is thrown around in many contexts, but it doesn't always mean the same thing and certainly could be used to mislead people. What I am talking about is the difference between talking about organically certified products, organic certified agriculture, etc. versus talking about organic values and organic farming systems. I think a lot of people tend to think that a product which is labeled organic means its wholesome, healthy, good for the environment and in general the perfect product, but what they might not realize is that the label only really means that the product was grown in a certain way, without chemical fertilizers and pesticides, or that the ingredients in a product were produced in that way. People might equate organic with healthy, but nothing about the organic certification process guarantees that a product is healthy, only that it doesn't have pesticide residues. A recent article on The Elephant Journal, titled "An organic pop-tart is still a pop-tart" is exactly what I am talking about. In it Candice Garret says that just because an ingredient such as sugar is organic, it doesn't mean it has the same effect on you that non-organic sugar does. For anyone interested, the article can be found here.
The organic agriculture movement began in defiance to chemically-heavy industrial agriculture, to provide an alternative food for people worried about all kinds of negative effects on human health and the environment that conventional agriculture was becoming associated with. I don't know for sure, but my idea is that early proponents of organic agriculture envisioned farms that were organic being very different from conventional farms, being much more diverse, employing techniques such as crop rotation and animal/animal product integration to build fertility in their soils. Today, however there are many organically certified farms that are simply chemical-free versions of their conventional selves. Instead of being farms that are different on principle, they aren't all that different from conventional farms.
This brings into question what organic has meant, what is means now, and what it should mean in the future. It also brings into question values of the organic movement versus the values of the organic business sector. The organic movement was and is largely driven by consumer desire for a higher standard of food safety, the need for environmentally friendly farming, and by local food movements. When I think of the organic movement I think about farmers who grow on a smallish amount of land, on a sort of "human scale," sell to customers in the local economy through markets, CSAs, and marketing at locally owned groceries and co-ops rather than to large organic suppliers, supermarkets or simply into the organic trading market, and who educate the people of their communities about what they are doing and why people should care. In general, they are connected with the community that they are a part of. Perhaps more importantly I think of farmers who are in tune with the ecology of their farm, who deeply understand the complexities of the natural processes that take place while they grow and harvest their crops, and genuinely care about the present and long-term health and wellbeing of all aspects of the agroecosystems.
The farmers of the organic movement are very different from the farmers who grow organically because of the business side of things. Organic produce and products obviously have a premium price, as well as a potentially lower cost of production, and many large-scale farmers grow organically simply for the money. It is hard to have a large farm and still know it as intimately as the small grower does. This intimacy of knowledge is key in sustainable agriculture systems. So what it comes down to for me is that large-scale, money focused organic versions of conventional farms, while they do prevent the possibility of chemical contamination in our food and in the environment, they cannot be sustainable in the long run because impossible to understand the underlying systems so closely, and because they are not integrated with the local community.
Wednesday, August 11, 2010
And it’s a vicious world in the marketplace. Supermarket conglomerates would have your mill bid against itself to get the best price, then almost arbitrarily reduce your payment when the invoice comes. Organic grain futures can be bought and sold like currency is, and you don’t know nor care where it comes from or who buys it.
Flour that is a raw resource is demanded with the highest possible gluten content by bakers in stainless steel factories, who don’t give their yeast time to breathe. The bran is removed and sold back to us as vitamin tablets (largely inaccessible nutrients) and the agro-chemical inflated gluten causes allergic reactions in many. The yeast is produced in a chemical-intensive process. The bread, perfectly engineered to be maximally indigestible, will stay fresh-looking on grocery shelves for eons.
Bread can be food and medicine. Bread can link us to our ancestors and our intestines (and through the soil, our ancestors’ intestines). At this point it is unrealistic to expect everyone to grow their own grains, or even bake their own bread. But we do need to make those practices closer to everyone. We need many more people baking with sourdoughs and grains they are close to. We need many more growing unique varieties of wheat, spelt, rye. We need the bakers, brewers, and picklers banging out tunes together on the same corner. When bread matters more than money, values that support such loaves will be allowed to flourish regardless of the market’s movement.
And how about these organic grain markets? Internationally traded grains that comply with organic standards. Is it benign, perhaps even helpful to the cause?
I’m reminded of the notion of ‘dismantling the master’s house with the master’s own tools.’ However, the tools of the master are whips and chains, and if we use them will become the master ourselves. Our tools are different. They are the scythe, rolling pin, and oven. If we use them with all of our strength we will be free.
Tuesday, August 10, 2010
Did you know that:
Less than 5% of food products continue to be produced for more than 25 years? Our attention span is short. Consumers like to see new products. For Doves Farm this translates into looking towards selling ancient wheat varieties such as einkorn where as for other companies this means the development of 3-D Doritos.
Iceland is a net exporter of bananas. Some of the products that Doves Farm produces are made with bananas. The closest source would be Iceland, Michael predicted, but it doesn’t have a big enough supply. He buys fair trade bananas and will continue to do so until shipping them becomes too costly.
30% of the cost of a loaf of bread is in its distribution. Doves Farm contracts out the baking and distribution of the bread that bears their company name for just this reason. Their bakery is also not set up for bread baking.
For a product to be considered fair trade, a fair trade ingredient must comprise at least 20% of the product. In their snack bars, sugar is this ingredient, thus they ended up a tad unnecessarily sweet because of Doves Farm’s desire to have the product be fair trade certified.
The company is involved in the Real Bread Campaign. Real Bread is bread with no artificial additives, which are common in many massed produced loaves. It concerns me that we are feeling the need to let consumers know when products or ingredients are real—shouldn’t they be able to judge that on their own? It is hard for them to do so in many cases because of the lenient labeling laws. Ideally everything would be real. I’m real. This blog is tending towards un-real.
It costs Michael more to shear his sheep than he can get from selling the wool. Much of the wool produced in the United Kingdom is used in rugs and wool insulation.
The toes of pointe shoes in ballet are made with rye flour. Who knew?! Not I. Said the fly. Someone proposed that people use of it once the shoes wear out. A tiny pancake, perhaps?
On that note—I must bid you adieu, so as I can rest my head and finish my book.
Monday, August 9, 2010
I feel hopeful…Maybe the 'human ecological' approach would help us addressing the most accurate strategy to defeat Goliath! ;)
Talking about food…it is time to eat! Heather and Jenny just made a delicious pasta dish with vegetables and a fresh salad.
This entry is notebook-scrawled as I sit upon the dirty bricks on Platform 1 at
Hitched out of Newbury bright and early. Old boy with a nearly indecipherable Welsh accent picked us up. He was driving to purchase a cat in the south. Cat breeder. He makes lavender ones.
Personally I prefer the landraces. Strays that adapt themselves to the neighborhoods they tramp through. Like old Fred at the ORC. He’s an ancient one who survives off exactly the chow and ear scratches the centre provides.
Clara and I were dropped off on an A-road with no shoulder to speak of. Breakfast consisted of highway-side brambleberries and momentum. Are we becoming landraces?
After a treacherous walk, another ride, a train cruise, and two fatty cranberry-and-brie sandwiches, we found ourselves boarding the Red Funnel ferry to the
Finding it was relatively simple, but allowing it to swallow us was no easy task. Most of the waterfront is built up with marinas and houses. However, the vibe was undeniably island and cool, so we trucked with smiles up and down hills of beautiful neighborhoods inspired by our own motion.
Finally caught a ride to the beach. And it was plenty to wade in the warm water of thick, red sea vegetables. The beach was certainly a proper substrate for relaxation to grow on, amongst smooth rocks and bubbly apple cider. We dug out toes in and spoke of love, communication, and, of course, growing food.
On the train home, combines out the window were harvesting immense fields of wheat. Behind them, the sun set pink on the horizon; like the juice of brambleberries, like our own thirsty lips. The sunset is every night unique and perfectly adapted to every hectare it touches.
Saturday, August 7, 2010
As they say, time flies when you're having fun. So, since time is flying I must conclude that we are having fun! I know I am! And we're having fun learning, thats the best part! We've spent each day talking about different issues so far, and we've also gone on one field trip, but the really important part is that we also spend time putting the puzzle pieces together.
Today we took a trip to Oxford, and to Avebury. For me, visiting Avebury was the first time I have been in a place with so much visible human history. It is a site similar to Stonehenge (but less of a tourist trap) with an ancient stone circle monument, a 17th century church and many other historical artifacts.
Oxford was a very fun place to go, with lots to see and do. It is a beautiful city! We were able to find a couple of quieter streets to walk on, which was a nice break from the crowds of High Street, Cornmarket St, etc.
Tomorrow a group of us are going to see London, which will also be very exciting!
Oxford is beautiful. We stepped off the train to a sea of bicycles. Good sign. We strolled into the city center, which was far more crowded than I had anticipated. I find crowds simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying. The crowds dispersed just a bit outside the center. It was enjoyable to have time to stroll wherever we pleased. I mainly wandered and shopped a bit too. England is much colder than I had thought it would be. Packing in the Maine heat caused me to leave far more sleeves at home than would have been ideal.
The architecture throughout Oxford was quite impressive. The university is woven into the town or perhaps it is the other way around. Highlights of the day were coffee and tea on the grass, a walk down Pembroke Street, and people watching.
I also discovered that, you may need to sit down for this, Maine is internationally fashionable. While in a store in Oxford today, I came across this display saying “MAINE New England” surrounded by plaid and other outdoorsy clothing---I was beside myself. So, to all you plaid wearers, Londoners are emulating you. I also encountered a dress that had the print of deer heads mounted on a wall. Maine doesn’t feel so far away after all.
Right now we are listening and dancing to Roger sing and strum on his guitar. Jake has just joined him on the ukulele. Simon and Garfunkel sounds excellent in a Welsh accent. This is a terrific conclusion to a lovely day.
Friday, August 6, 2010
At the Kneading Conference, Dr. Fred Kirschenmann brought up the year of 1859 when the first oil well was drilled and when Charles Darwin published On The Origin Of Species about evolution and ecology. In the year of 1859, humankind made a choice that affected our agricultural system. We did not choose the complex ecology of life-sustaining soil. Instead, we created an agricultural system that depends on oil-derived pesticides, fertilizers and other inputs.
Today, our society still depends heavily on this disappearing resource. Our conventional food system is especially dependent on oil. One of the missions of organic is to maintain soil health by closing the nutrient cycles – using cover crops that fix nitrogen, compost, and manure. We want to build the soil up to maintain nutrients, to grow strong healthy plants to feed ourselves. Healthy soils lead to healthy people. To conclude, I believe it is time to move beyond the system of holes (drilling of oil wells) to a system of wholes (based on the ecology of the soil). Never underestimate the significance of a single letter.
The Revolution is in the Backyard: the Importance of History and Small Scale Gardeners in the Present and Future Wheat Movement
The Kneading Conference was the perfect kick-off to this class. From the very beginning Dr. Fred Kirschenmann put this movement of growing grain in Maine into perspective. His distinction between industrial eating and ecological eating really hit home as I began to think about how ludicrous some of our basic staples in our eating habits are in relation to our environment. Bread is our sustenance, yet we don’t grow the wheat- oil does. Through workshops on the techniques of growing ones own wheat and the logistics in the wheat market, we learned the foundation to ecological eating in respects to this food staple in the US. The many workshops on artisanal bread making, highlights being Jonathan Stevens with crackers/ flatbreads and Dusty Dowse demonstrating sourdough, furthered these concepts to a point of accessibility for the home baker with no land. More importantly, they made me question bread on a level above a “staple” and instead as a luxury. One of the speakers asked, why can’t we think of bread as we think of wine? Different regions of local grain each with a different smell, taste- how do winos say it- Bouquet? Also, so much work for one loaf of bread! Every speaker at the Kneading Conference emphasized the communication between the farmer-miller-baker-consumer connection. In class thus far (Dear Parents, I am learning something…) we have recontextualized idealism to question infrastructure and how to realistically go about creating a new food system valuing each step of the bread chain.
So to build a new infrastructure we must fully understand the infrastructure as it currently stands, and its historical significance. The history of wheat in Maine is one of loss. The state used to be considered the “Breadbasket of New England”. In 1825 there were more than 15,000 small mills in ME, VT, NH, and NY powered by the rivers and tides. In the 1860s and 70s the local grain economy supplied all the flour for the bread consumed in Maine. In fact, in the Civil War, Maine provided much of the bread for the Union soldiers. World War I was the last time (before recently) Maine grew wheat on a large scale, and even then it was exported to European countries. Intense wheat farming quickly picked up in the Midwest, in places such as Kansas and Missouri wheat, due to longer season and better soil condition. Wheat is now traded on the stock market just like any other commodity. Maine gave up entirely. There has been no official recorded tally in federal records of wheat grown in the whole of New England since 1946. Up until recently, the small amounts grown in Maine have been for animal feed. Now, thanks to efforts of a Jim Amaral at Borealis Breads, Aurora Mills in Aroostook county, and Matt Williams, just one grower who took the plunge, there are 240 acres of organic wheat out of 600 acres total in the state of Maine. New mills are popping up, like right in Skowhegan, where the Kneading Conference was held, to meet the increasing demand for locally grown wheat. There is hope for the future although the local wheat movement is still small.
This new localized, radicalized approach, as can be expected with anything outside of current day happenings even if it is touching on history, comes with its fair bits of politics. Wheat growing has become a political statement. With a change in mindset comes the set of knowledge to refill that impressionable mind. If we let go of fear of change, and instead embrace innovation, we can and will eat bread that once again is a form of nourishment. Health that extends from the body to economy. Here is where the Will Bonzall’s and John Letts’ of the world come in. Fighting the government while growing one to replace it, based on soil.
Will Bonzall talked about the actual techniques of growing ones own wheat in the backyard. As his gray blue eyes drew me in, I saw the pastoral dream through his eyes and it became my own. He provided listeners with in depth details on how to grow all ones grains needed within a year so one doesn’t need to rely on an outside source, an outside economy which supports the dealing of crop as a commodity. His main message for Mainers was to be flexible and innovative. He showed us how to flail, bending his older body over a pair of converted broom stick handles. He showed us his grain sickle. These were the tools of a hundred years ago. No tractors, no gasoline. His discarding oil dependent technique makes him a fighter. An advocate for the simple life. Or as Helen and Scott Nearing put it, “The Good Life”.
John Letts is one of the characters we have met in our short time (so far) overseas. Beginning as an archeology based botanist, he is studying the simultaneous harvest of thatching wheat for roofs in the UK and that of heritage grains for human consumption. Thatching practices and the wheat seeds he plants, a mix of many varieties, attempts to meet both of these present day needs. However, these varieties are not on the National Seed List, a list approved by the government based on DUS standards (Distinct, Uniform and Stable). Instead his active seed bank supports genetic diversity, naturally prepared for changing climates and whatever disease will strike. What he is doing is technically against the law, and he wants you to know that. More than that. In fact, it seems as if his real purpose is to laugh in the governments face while eating really really good bread. Through breading seeds of the past Letts has found a way to rebuke the present, and support a sustainable future.
In order to solve our present problems, we must return to the past. As current infrastructure stands we water our plants with oil, we eat oil, we live by oil. In order to heal ourselves of bread kneaded with oil, we must knead in the strains of our past, heritage wheats. At the Kneading Conference we learned about and tasted wheats such as Einkorn, with such a hardy taste of years and years of existence. Its strong persistent aftertaste also said something like “Don’t forget me. Plant me again. Carry me through the generations.” Ohhh talking wheat berries. When it comes to learning issues surrounding the food system I like to concentrate on the proactive rather than the solely negative perspective of where our world currently stands. I believe the technical blended with the critiques and future theory will lead to actualization of these goals. In my mind the backyard, both as a reflection on history as well as a space to grow wheat, is the way out the front door.
Wednesday, August 4, 2010
The first day’s keynote speaker, Fred Kirschenmann, appropriately kicked off the conference with an overview of the challenges of modern agriculture, and some solutions. One of them: eat what the ecosystem can produce, not what industry and consumers demand.
Three of us did end up going to “The Philosophy of Baking,” where we were given the best of all the good breads we tried at the conference. While we chewed, we were treated to an etymological history of bread: the word means “that which is broken off the loaf.” Bread is something that has to be broken to be made—it is broken before it is consumed, and it is broken when it’s kneaded and punched down. The speaker, Stephen Lanzalotta—broad-chested and fit in his mid-fifties—likened this process to the building of muscle. Muscle is torn during exercise, and get thicker as it is rebuilt.
Wheat seeds also are broken—cracked in the mill and turned into varying grades of flour, some more hearty than others. The speaker talked about the importance of complex carbohydrates in a balanced diet. We know how simple carbohydrates—high-fructose corn syrup, fruit juice, white bread—are so easily digested by the body that they go directly from the stomach into the bloodstream, and, consumed consistently over a long period of time, they can throw off the balance of a properly functioning digestive and circulatory system. What some nutritionists have begun to discover is that complex carbohydrates, like whole grains, are so difficult to digest that they pass through the stomach intact and come to rest in the intestines, where they become food for the communities of bacteria living in our gut who are essential to the regulation of proper bodily function (including our emotions).
I was feeling pretty happy after the hearty dark rye I had been fed as a midmorning snack, but I was reconsidering my academic focus. I wanted to be a nutritionist.
The trip had already begun and we would be flying to
My next favorite talk: “Finding, Restoring, and Using Grain Seeding and Harvesting Equipment on Small Farms”, with Dave Mostue. He said “I grow wheat, because that’s what the land I have is good for.” Dave Mostue takes 70 year old machines apart and puts them back together before he even tries to fix them up, so he knows what he’s talking about. At his talk, I learned how a combine worked. I forgot all about nutrition. I wanted to be a mechanic.
One theme that stood out to me at the Kneading Conference was an acceptance, almost a positive emphasis, on the power of a challenge, and the importance of doing what we can with what we have, and of breaking and building. I think that theme is going to develop a little more fully during my first trip abroad—I’ll see if I can continue these thoughts and connections, and doubts, in future posts.
I would have felt defensive if it hadn’t been 7AM my time and if I hadn’t been terrified that this woman my age would have me shipped back to the States if I didn’t give her a confident answer.
So I gave her a confident answer.