Sunday, August 4, 2019

Uncertainty, equality, guinea pigs, mushrooms, making pasta, and spring

The mole rats are driving us crazy by eating through our vegetable garden, but we're managing to keep morale up with microgreens, peas, gooseberries, granadillas, guavas and naive determination. Also by rescuing Guinea Pigs. Four of them. And by learning more about mushrooms, and starting to eat more varieties foraged here and there. 

I've been thinking about equality, specifically equality between food producers and consumers. I think this relates deeply to the economy and to who is poor and who is not. As our society has become more and more urbanized, the division between producers and consumers seems particularly profound and problematic, and we have come to undervalue the people who make our existence possible. 

Speaking from a South African perspective, it is incredibly hard to be a producer, so we/they really need help to keep producing good food at a small scale (or even at a large scale). We require capital to start, or some other form of privilege. So the small scale producer arrives as the underdog to the fight. Not only that, we are not always the type of underdog you want to root for. Because the stakes are so strongly stacked against us, we sometimes develop a victim complex. We can be unreliable, defensive, scrappy, a little desperate, tired, rude. And the consumer is accustomed to high quality, palatable (processed) food available for the taking, the externalities to the ecosystem or our bodies rendered invisible by the sheer convenience of the supermarket.

At the same time, consumers also really need transformation within the food system. Those invisible externalities: the damage to our planet and our bodies, an economy based on endless growth-- these things may be invisible but they are still there. So we need a quasi-miraculous shift-- where we still have consistent food but it is local, nourishing, non-exploitative, not implicated in NCDs. Where we're the consumers, we're the overdog, and we want to root for us because... we are all consumers. Yet we can be demanding, entitled, and hedonistic.

Somewhere in between, there is hope of averting the fight completely. Of confronting the worst characteristics of both the producers and consumers and learning that the fight was something completely different from what we thought. I think somewhere there, is a viable alternative to the neoliberal capitalism I have inhaled since birth.

How do we get there when we're here? It's a minefield: who gets land titles? Should we eat animal based products? If we don't, where are we getting our food from-- what is the collateral damage? If we do eat animal-based products, how do we justify it? Who is empowered or disempowered by our eating? How healthy do we have a right to be?

For those of you who come at this from a faith perspective, I like Wendell Berry's take on how faith and food intersect: the recognition that our daily bread is provided, not earned. That, at the same time, meaningful, productive labour is one of the most powerful ways we can be connected to one another and to the earth. That natural beauty can be a farm as much as it is the mountainside or the ocean. At the same time, that our capability, our competency, is not a measure of our worth, nor is it a measure of what we end up having. Rather, in farming (farming the way we farm, anyway) we learn that we are not Gods. We are small, we are stewards, and we are subject to the laws of nature, and nature always takes its share. We are never fully in control. We also learn we do not need too much to live, grow, love. It is this perspective that I find helpful in embracing the death, loss, sadness, and inevitable joy of the cycles of bringing our farm from bare land to fruition. 

I see the trending phrase: "cruelty-free eating" and my hackles are raised. Not because our farm is cruel, but because in life there is always death, we are always making difficult choices that impact ourselves, our families, our communities, our world. To ignore that in favour of a sterilized version of our lives is to avoid deep change, and deep change is so urgently needed.

At the same time, we find ourselves back in the minefield: of what to eat, when, and how. Part of the reason I am gradually retreating from academia is that I find these questions incredibly compelling, but at the same time I really feel one just has to step out into the minefield, or the thin ice, or whatever metaphor you want to use, and just start walking. One can study almost endlessly, and share ideas from our study-- imagine a different world, even. Without diminishing the value of study, I believe that we talk with more authority when we have skin in the game, when we have a lot to lose, when we've tried and failed. 

By walking, you learn what is right for you. Rather than saying that as a cop out (oh I am just too stressed to do x), or to avoid critique, I mean to say that when something is between us and God (or between us and our conscience), we do not move forward to impress anyone or to secure our future. Sometimes I think I write to keep myself accountable to the trajectory and the journey we are on.

Small-scale production, small scale farming is important and more people need to produce food. We need to find ways towards community, and those ways are not always intuitive-- our route is not clear and straight. Yet we are accountable for the time we have on earth-- not accountable to others' measures of truth and justice, but to our own. 

Sometimes producers do not have easy entry into the market, and so there are intermediaries who bridge these gaps, and power differentials loom large. I'm thinking particularly about the phenomenon in Cape Town of trying to "uplift" farmers in the Cape Flats to farm organic veg for middle-class city dwellers. In general, I think highly of both the farmers and the people trying to be the intermediaries.... and yet I have strong reservations about this model, because I dream of producers selling to those with whom they can negotiate, communicate, and learn with. For this reason, I believe that in a place like Cape Town, there is a big need for middle class people to take up the plough (figuratively only... we're all no-till nowadays aren't we?). That, in short, is a big reason we are farming the way we are: farming in a way we always put in the most physical labour, even though we have staff in our nursery. We only understand the value of physical labour if we have been out there and put our bodies on the line. I feel more inspired by models that actively try to link poor farmers to poor consumers-- to bridge that gap. That is the gap that is very difficult to bridge in a sustainable way; but it's important to recognize that in South Africa, the buying power of the poor is massive.

In our journey of farming (part time, but farming nevertheless) we step back, we strategise, we find better ways to do things, we figure out what is essential and what is optional, and we keep going.

When we produce food, there's some level of epicurianism, but there's also quite a bit of frugality, holding back, learning that basic food is good enough. Learning that very basic food is a blessing, that we do not need endless choice, constant supply, perfection. This is where I find myself out of place in foodie gatherings, much as I appreciate the need for foodies. I feel deeply that restraint and care by the middle and upper classes is essential to change in the food system, to changes in capitalism. Food can be lovely, tasty, nourishing. But not every meal. Some meals can be weird and mismatched, with bits of rubbish leftovers, because that is what you had. Sometimes we don't need to eat very much, sometimes we need to eat a lot. 

I do not mean that we should tolerate a life devoid of joy, but that our tastes may need to change in the transition from this food system to another one. We can't turn back the clock, of course. We cannot become our great-great- grandparents. But we can reinvent what it means to live joyfully in this 21st century of climate change. 

Living where we do in the times we do, our future is always uncertain and we can never feel completely at peace with our choices when so many of our (literal) neighbours are hungry and cold. This is at once very scary, disconcerting, and ... well, a real and important reality. The uncertainty forces us to be brave with the resources we have: resources that are not ours forever. They are just ours for a short time- we are stewards, for as long as we can be, with few guarantees. 

Looking out on the aquarium.

Beautiful and poisonous...

first blewitt 
with a lot of eggs from our ducks and chickens, pasta making has become a big part of our day.


cross section of an unopened bit at the bottom, opened alien-looking mushroom at the top.

midwinter- the 12 apostles and the back of Table Mountain. 

Horse dung fungus, or dye ball. I wish it had been more mature as I'd have loved to spread spores over the farm. These fungi form a relationship with almost any trees, and could support our food forest. Still, we are spreading spores of so many different mushrooms, that eventually, those saprophytic relationships will be cultivated.

earth stars shooting spores into the air

giant porcini...

Our first Porcini. We gave this one to another forager, but got another one for ourselves.

Fly agaric- a kind of magic mushroom. We learned that reindeers eat this mushroom, and people in the Northern hemispheres used to drink reindeer pee in order to experience the high without the toxic effects. 


Bubbles finally has friends. There are lot of guinea pigs needing rescue in Cape Town. We took 4 girls, and got Bubbles neutered (he has to be next to them in a different cage for 6-8 weeks though :( . Poor guy.)




mushroom spores.

midwinter swimming...


Taking a shelter dog to an adoptathon. We were supposed to take a puppy but instead got this massive dog who wanted to drive.

a lot of guinea pig cuddles. 

Also got a second hand trampoline. I've been on the lookout for cheap one with a net for about 2 years-- it was worth the wait!


Turkey tail bracket fungus-- apparently medicinal.

The acquarium is a little far away from us now, but we decided to get membership again because it feels like a season where we're going to be getting out more.


Friday, July 19, 2019

July update: Italy, Mushrooms, composting

Here are some pictures from what we've been doing recently. It's been a busy few months, with me traveling more than usual, and now it feels like we're able to gradually settle more, and prepare for the larger spring garden (I usually like gardening in winter because we don't need to water, but the mole rats' put their tunnels much higher and end up eating everything, so this winter has been really hard vegetable wise). We've also been experimenting with microgreens, with a boon of expired lettuce and spinach seed we acquired (usually the expense of seed is a major reason not to do microgreens in South Africa). We have a consistent system set up for the chickens and ducks with barley grass, and we're eating spinach and lettuce microgreens, and thinking of selling some.

Noah is really into mushroom identification (and where possible, eating) at the moment.

Not edible but very beautiful.






discovered an old phone can play radio...

I got to see my high school roommates in Milan, then present at a conference in Prato. It was one of those unique once-in-a-decade opportunities to reset. I have the best high school roommates in the world.



On the (very hot) train.

Roommates!!!

vegetable garden. Getting ready for a big spring garden.

Tiny baby mole rat. Relocated to the mountain. Within the general theme of failing as farmers: We're breeding mole rats. Great.
River construction in midwinter.


The kids love watching the geckos climb all over the blinds.

Catching tadpoles...



Mushroom identification
We're getting ready for goats... well sortof. We're taking it pretty slow and doing some serious composting in their pastures, using it as a way to feed chickens as we prepare for goats in about a year's time.



Thursday, July 11, 2019

Where your local food is connected to your waste stream





Our little farm gets gardening waste from a local gated community, and a surprising amount of plastic waste comes along for the ride. Dog poop, cat litter— all things that can’t be composted safely in a small farm system (and also can’t be composted at the local dump). I wonder how this came to be. As I pull bits of plastic and dog poop out of the pile while I’m building it, I feel tired, sad and worried.

It got me thinking about where our food comes from, and how things are connected in surprising ways. When we try to buy local food, these connections are all the more apparent. I’d argue even when we’re eating non-local food, the connections are there in significant ways.

The primary different between organic and non-organic farming, relates to the soil, and thus to the scale of the farm. If a farm is using inorganic fertilizers, it’s a lot easier to scale up because you can calculate and purchase the exact number of kilograms of N-P-K you need for your farm, and it’s basically infinitely scalable until your soil is destroyed or gets blown away. That is, while fossil fuels are cheap and plentiful: so not forever. The quality of that fertilizer, and the food chain in general, is important-- we have fairly good evidence to say that food that is grown on poor quality soil is not as nutritious.

Attention to soil health and to the circular nature of all our existences is a central driver for farming and a central driver for small scale farming. Soil health is what keeps organic farms small, if labor is valued correctly.

So when it comes to organic operations, it’s not simply that we don’t use pesticides (often the focus of people’s interest.). It's all about the soil: we require fairly vast quantities of compost. For example, our small 1 acre (probably only ½ acre actively cultivated) farm makes 15- 20 tons of various kinds of compost a year.

Getting this compost adds either a very significant cost or a tremendous amount of labor, depending on one’s circumstances, and I wanted to talk a bit about this process, and how it relates to the cost of vegetables and fruit, as I think organic produce is still hugely undervalued and unsustainable at the prices you often see— at least in the sense that it is impossible to adequately value the labor of workers at the current costs. 

Right now people are willing to pay more to avoid pesticides— which has reached the public consciousness as important. That is, I am not sure we have not necessarily made the connection back to soil health, or to hugely increased labor costs, or to relatively smaller farm sizes, and the ways these are valuable and important, but not accounted for in a free market economy.

When I think of leveraging for change at the local level, I feel it may be valuable to keep picturing, imagining, enacting a different economy. This is what we do, to an extent, when we sell our produce for the same price as the supermarket: we say, perhaps we are the ones who have been given much and so are also the ones who can sacrifice a little. Or maybe we are simply going along with market economics where consumers are overwhelmingly the beneficiaries: you get to have your organic cake and eat it too.

Anyway, back to the compost story:

Firstly, in a highly specialized farm there is more likely to be waste. In a family farm with a little of everything, all the parts can stand a reasonable chance of working together. For example, waste from the kitchen can be cycled through the small number of chickens, whose waste is an asset, not a toxic waste. Tree branches and leaves are similarly an asset, not a waste product. In a family scale farm, the family is eating what you are eating- we have every incentive to grow the best possible food we can. In a smaller scale business, the success of the staff are up close and personal, not distanced from our reality.

There are a few ways to get the quantity of compost we need to grow food:
1)    Buying it in: Here, the cost of the compost will be part of the cost of the vegetables. The advantage of this is that the quality of the compost is not your responsibility in the same way. But the more I compost, the more I feel that large scale operations are either using a lot of fossil fuels to produce their compost (e.g. through large chippers or turners), or are having to pay people poor wages to go through and try to remove plastic and poop. There are simpler possibilities for compost out there (particularly in more rural areas): horse or cow manure. While these are great sources of compost, it’s unlikely that most sources can vouch for the horses or cows’ own feed, at least in South Africa, where most farms are informally organic rather than certified as such. The challenge with buying in compost is not only that the quality is often quite poor, it is that it also means you have to grow much more intensively to make sure you recoup your costs.
And/or
2)    Make your own compost using farm waste (I.e. cycling back kitchen scraps, humanure, animal manure): I think this works as long as you are not exporting any food off site— ie it only works your soil is starting from a relatively good place, and if you aren’t selling anything to anyone.) The advantage to this is that you can vouch for the quality of the compost based not only on making it, but also based on knowing the quality of the individual components (e.g. you know the chickens and humans were healthy and not fed anything that would impact their manure).
3)    I think most organic farmers try to make their own compost in order to try to price their produce more competitively. I make lots of different kinds of compost, and I think ultimately this will contribute to much better produce than if I just used horse manure, for example. 

This is where it comes back to the gated community I mentioned at the beginning: either the families or their gardeners do not think it is a big deal to put plastic or dog poop into landscape waste, but when they do, a few things might happen: 
1) I might pay someone to set up the compost pile for me, because I can’t afford a higher wage given low prices. I cannot expect that that person will carefully remove plastic and paint chips etc, no matter how much I pay them: it is simply very undignified work.
2) I might make the compost pile myself, carefully removing the plastic, because I’m not quite sure how to navigate talking to a worker about encountering dog poop etc. When selling the produce, I’d either have to vastly undervalue my own time, or increase the cost of the produce still more “artisanal” comes to mind. 

The easier option: For the resident of the gated community to realize that their landscaping waste comes back as their organic, local produce, and they have choices that will help enable the organic farmers’ work. That is: it truly is a circle, whether a small local one, or a huge global one: what you do matters. How you pay your workers matter, but honestly no worker, however well paid, will remove small pieces of plastic chucked into your waste stream. How attentive you are to issues of plastic waste matters, matters for a long time.

I struggle with concepts of artisanal food, because sometimes it seems like shorthand for paying hipsters more than farm workers, for the same product. At the same time, I want to suggest that in a family farm, the level of skill required to farm in an ecological way is extraordinarily high. I think there is value to farmers laboring on their own land, and selling the same food they eat and labour for, even though they could produce food more cheaply if they paid someone else to do the labour for them.  I have read as much about permaculture and about small-scale farming as I read for my PhD, and still farming challenges me in significant ways. So while I don’t expect an academic salary as a farmer, there’s no way minimum wage will work for new urban farmers, even frugal ones. So it’s something I’m pondering— not necessarily with clear answers. Perhaps there is something in there for finding ways to respect all work?

In practical terms, I dream of using our farm, and the Good Food Club Valley, as a place to experiment with a wellness economy. To grapple with our needs and wants as farmers with skin in the game, while thinking practically about what it means to access nourishing food. Perhaps it looks like bartering, perhaps it looks like something else. But definitely, imagining a future in which food is nutritious and sustainable involves some fundamental shifts in how we relate to one another. Maybe it involves getting into uncomfortable situations— I know I am in the midst of this as we grapple with how to pay our staff when we are not yet making any money at our nursery. 

No farm is an island— even the most holistic family farm needs inputs, and a network of supporting structures. We all specialize a little bit: for example it is impractical to simultaneously grow seed, seedlings, trees, full grown vegetables and fruit, eggs, and meat (I don’t even consider grains here, as I think on an urban scale grain is largely impractical) compost, and then market and sell all of these directly. .

The immediate issues of how we pay an individual farmer for a set of goods may seem like a very tiny set of questions in a world of Takealot, Amazon and the free-market. I’m not sure I have the answer for that, but I convinced that if we pay attention to small, daily, actions related to food: where we’re willing to change both our taste buds and our buying patterns, that this can make significant local (though scary) changes.