Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Who Is Eliot Coleman, And Why Should You Know Who He Is?

Who is Eliot Coleman, and why should you know who he is?

He is an American farmer, author, agricultural researcher and educator, and proponent of organic farming. Back around 1969, he taught himself how to farm organically in the sometimes harsh Maine climate and developed the cold climate farming techniques that he's known for. In 1989 he wrote his first book, The New Organic Gardener. It would be one of many that would change the minds and methods of gardeners everywhere, including myself.

Eliot advocates for feeding the soil, thereby manipulating weed growth, disease, plant health and our eventual health as a result. You might say he was organic cool before it was cool. Eliot taught me what sustainable agriculture was, and the hook was set. I've been an enthusiastic student of his ever since, even when I couldn't garden in the traditional sense. In his quest to understand the land better, he has often turned to published works on agriculture in an effort to continually improve his farming methods. A method of learning I've adopted from time to time. Over time, Eliot has become a mover and shaker in the organic world, as well as the market farming community. He is a mighty voice and a well-respected advocate for healthy soil.

So what difference does this make to you, a humble blog-reader?

No matter if you have a backyard garden or a collection of pots where you grow some salad greens on your balcony, Eliot Coleman's wisdom can teach us all about how simple soil can make us healthier people. Over the next few weeks, I'll be studying as much of his written works as possible, discussing them here and trying to understand how I can utilize his wisdom here on our less-than-an-acre property.

Along the way, I'll be writing to Eliot here on this blog, as if he and I were on such terms where correspondence back and forth might be possible. (Yes, I know it isn't) Much like the foundation for 'Letters To A Young Poet' in which ten letters were written to a young man about to enter the German military. His name was Franz Kappus, he was 19 years old, and he wrote to R. M Rilke looking for guidance and a critique of some of his poems.

Or more for my purposes here, 'Letters To A Young Farmer'. This book was written by some of the most influential farmers, writers and leaders of our time. They share their wisdom and insight in an anthology of 36 essays and letters. Barbara Kingsolver speaks to the tribe of farmers—some born to it, many self-selected—with love, admiration, and regret. Bill McKibben connects the early human quest for beer to the modern challenge of farming in a rapidly changing climate. Michael Pollan bridges the chasm between agriculture and nature. Dan Barber, Temple Grandin, Wendell Berry, Rick Bayless, Marion Nestle and more offer advice and inspiration. And in the spirit of this endeavour, I'll be writing the next series of blog posts to not just Eliot but to all these other learned and wise proponents of the land and farming.

So as we settle in for an interesting conversation with Eliot, Barbara, Michael, Marion, Wendell and the rest, tell me...do you garden?

Sunday, September 23, 2018

It's Time To Look At Agriculture Differently

Sometimes certain posts, with bits of wisdom that needs to be recovered, bears repeating. Here's one that I've had a lot of comments on...

My partner and I were talking about our future one day when she made a statement that still has me thinking weeks later. I was telling her about my plans for the not-quite-an-acre property, and how I plan to eke as much food from it as possible. She nodded and said, "Your job will be growing the food and mine will be preserving and cooking it" Now, obviously there will be more to it, but she has the essence of it right. With the core of our new roles put like that, I realized I can't take a break from learning all I can about agriculture.

John Michael Greer talks about two agricultures in his blog entry, Two Agricultures, Not One 
He talks about how the mega-farming as we know it today is an industrialized and chemicalized version of the intensive farming that fed our ancestors, and he also shares the opinion that intensive gardening is going to help us pad our food shortfall, 

"A team of researchers at pioneering organic-gardening group Ecology Action found, on the basis of extensive tests, that it’s possible to feed one person year round on a spare but adequate vegetarian diet off less than 1000 square feet of intensively gardened soil... In the more troubled parts of the future ahead of us, some of us may have to do just that; a great many more of us will need to be able to garden in order to pad out potential irregularities in a food supply that’s desperately vulnerable, over the short term, to fluctuations in the price and availability of fertilizer feedstocks and fossil fuels. The victory gardens of past wars are likely to be a useful template for the survival gardens of the deindustrial future."
I completely agree, and I've begun to see it already. All of that only frustrates me on another level, because here, I can hardly grow anything, facing north and being in shade. So on one hand, I could sit and whine about it, or I could shut up and do something. Months ago, I chose the latter. So it has become my secondary job, if you will, to learn everything I can about growing as much as I can on very small acreage. Starting with the soil. I already knew that compost is better than any chemical fertilizer we can manufacture. It's better all round, for the plants and for the environment, and it goes hand-in-glove with the various micro-environments in one's garden. I've been learning exactly how earthworms break down plant matter, how plants use the nitrogen from the air and how the no-till method is better than churning up our soil every spring and fall. I've also learned quite a bit about why seaweed is a better fertilizer than one that relies on ever diminishing oil supplies. Did you know that plants require not only the big three (nitrogen, phosphorus and calcium), but also micro-nutrients? Without those micro-nutrients, the plant cannot grow to it's true potential, and the resulting food lacks in nutrients also. Hence the mystery of the tomato with less Vitamin C.

So, the answer then I think, is to go back to farming, or at least gardening, the way we used to. Those that can need to turn away from chemical fertilizers, away from row gardening, away from the way 90% of all gardening books tell us it should be done. We need to learn all we can about organic gardening, intensive gardening, square-foot gardening, composting, vermi-culture, soil tilth, extending the growing season no matter where we live, and the value of the old-style farmsteads. The inter-relations of soil, air, food, animals, trash and what our culture has done to our planet cannot be overstated. But in the end, we will all come to a point where we must put down the books, turn away from the computers and do something about it. More of us need to focus on food production in a way that will not poison ourselves and our environment. We need to get back to basics, we need to take that first step.

Once we take control back over our food, we can begin to take more control over our lives and hand less of ourselves to the government. Once we get back to basics, many of us will need less and be happier with less and realize the folly of our culture's demand for the latest, best and fastest gizmo of the week. (I write this while admitting I spend more time on my computer than I probably should) I also admit that getting back to basics will inevitably improve our health, give us clearer vision when we look at what's going on around us, and in many cases, shift our priorities.
This is only the tip of the iceberg, it's true. We all need to start thinking about what's coming and how we might each be responsible for changing our corner of the world.

What do you think?

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

The Future Will Belong To Those Who Prepare For It

(I thought I'd re-post a popular installment today that maybe some folks haven't seen. I'd love to know what you think, leave your thoughts in the comments!)

"Do your best to change the world, Do your best to be ready for changes in the world"
~Chinese proverb~

When was the last time you had a power outage that lasted for more than three hours? Has your neighborhood ever flooded or come through a landslide? Have you ever been laid off and unsure where grocery money was going to come from? Has wildfire ever threatened your home? Have you ever been suddenly thrust into an unsafe situation?

The world as we know it is different for everyone. The many ways our world can, and is, changing is staggering. So a radical change to our world as we know it can be anything to suddenly being without power for days (which happens to more people than you may realize), to a massive flood (been there, done that), to an unforeseen job loss, nearby chemical spill (which yours truly has lived through) ... you get the idea. Even in a minor power outage, we cannot pump gas, pay for anything electronically, and eating out if there's no power at home is likely not an option either. You will not be able to cool your home by either A/C or fan in a power outage, you won't want to be looking in the fridge every 15 min, and what about flushing the toilet? Let's not forget food shortages brought on by a massive snowstorm or being cut off without transportation after a flood or snowstorm (been there, done that too). So, the number of ways our world can change radically is staggering. But we don't have to wring our hands and moan, we can do something, lots in fact.

I am well known for having backup plans on top of backup plans. Once, it was only for childcare, but as the kids grew, having a Plan B, and Plan C, and so on, spread throughout my life. In these challenging times, we can plan for many life surprises, and not only end up in control of our lives but also change our mindset. Think about it, if you can plan for a sudden layoff, your attitude changes. Let's say one day, you and 150 of your co-workers are informed your factory is closing next month. This has happened to so many people, I can't count that high. So, how do you plan for this BEFORE it actually happens to you? Times are hard financially and you're only living two paychecks ahead of panic, so investing $200 in stocks isn't going to happen anytime soon. But let's set aside the investing, money security for a minute. Let's think about something more basic. Food.

If you're laid off and you have some food put by, your attitude towards this crisis will be different than the outlook of someone who has not planned for just such an occasion. It will still be a huge upset, but you won't have to wonder how you'll feed the spouse, two kids, and the family dog. I've been there, and I can tell you that visiting a pawn shop to trade in jewelry so I can feed the kids isn't fun. So, when you go grocery shopping, make a list. If your grocery list calls for three cans of kernel corn, buy four cans. If you were going to get two pounds of ground beef, and you can afford it, get three. I know you might not be able to do this all the time, very few people can. Every time you go shopping, look realistically at your list. One week get a couple extra cans of vegetables, the next shopping trip, get a bit of extra meat. The next shopping trip, consider getting a home first-aid kit or improving on one you may already have.

The next thing you need to do is keep track of these extras. I work in retail, and we have a system of rotation that is summarized by FIFO. "First In, First Out". If it's easier for your family, get a permanent black magic marker and write on the can or box the date you bought it. Meat can be wrapped and sealed in a freezer bag. Be sure and write the date purchased on the bag before the meat goes in. If someone in your house bakes, consider buying an extra bag of flour. (TIP: if you can, freeze it for a few days before putting it in a storage container. That way you won't be unpleasantly surprised by small, black, wriggling things. We found this out the hard way)

Using this method of buying a few extras as we could, we've been able to set aside large tubs of coffee, drink crystals, peanut butter, meats of all kinds, yeast for baked goods, pasta, a variety of sauces, and the list goes on. Now, I'm employed, but it's been less than a decade since I had to visit the pawn shop before the grocery store. I remember all too well that feeling of fear, depression and hopelessness. I also remember living in Northern Ontario and being snowed in with my spouse-at-the-time being gone already for a few days. I didn't drive, but I had a toddler to feed. Again, having food stores made all the difference in my attitude and outlook.

The wisdom of food storage cannot be overstated. Everyone, regardless of income level, tax bracket, location or age should consider doing what they can to put some food by. The more, the better. Give careful thought to storage, record keeping and how all that can be achieved cheaply. 

Monday, May 28, 2018

A Canadian Culinary Conundrum

While reading an essay this morning on food in the South, it occurred to me that I haven't spent much time exploring food here in the North. Do we even have what can be described as 'Northern Food'? With Southern food, it's easy. Grits, collard greens, okra, Creole, and the list goes on. For the record, the only item on that short list that I've not tried is collard greens, and I hope to rectify that as soon as the baby collards on my front porch are big enough. My Southern partner has educated me well in the ways of shrimp creole, handmade biscuits so soft you think they're a religious experience and proper sweet tea.

But back to Northern food...do we have any food that we can point to and say is a good representative of our Northern experience? If you ask my sons, they will tell you that bacon is the quintessential Northern food. If you ask any "good" Ontarian, they'll likely tell you that the most Canadian food is the humble butter tart. (It was invented here in Ontario, you know) Some folks will tell you that Beaver meat is a Northern food, others will point to poutine. You know what poutine is, don't you? A plate of french fries (cut from russet potatoes if you're looking for quality fries), smothered in beef gravy, salted and peppered and covered in cheese curds. Not grated cheese. Cheese curds.

Certainly maple syrup is a proper Canadian food. We produce some of the best here in Ontario, and I'm not talking about the weak-tea coloured stuff you buy in a plastic bottle! No, I'm talking about the dark, sweet liquid that can only be produced after someone has trekked through the bush for hours collecting sap buckets under dripping taps hammered into trees, and then spent many more hours boiling the stuff down over a smokey fire, slapping away the earliest bugs. There's a reason entire tractor trailers loaded with Grade A maple syrup have been stolen away. Good maple syrup has a certain quality...it's the taste of all that time and smoke and dedication.

Other folks will argue that Canadian cuisine is a collection of foods that were brought to our great land from its first immigrants. The Dutch, the Mennonite, the Ukrainians, the displaced Creole, the French, the Japanese, the Germans, and let's not forget the Jewish influences on Montreal Smoked meat!

You know, it occurs to me now, that I eat just as 'Northern' as I do 'Southern'. Perogies, Rueben Sandwiches, heaping plates of Poutine, I've had venison a number of times and enjoy it greatly, and I've even tried bear meat sausages. I can appreciate a fine bottle of Northern Ontario maple syrup, and I've frequently made enough Perogies to feed a branch of our Canadian Armed Forces.

I guess I'm safe in my culinary Canadian-ness after all.

What food does your home region point to proudly?

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

McBride on Medium!

I'm pleased as punch to let you all know that I'm writing on Medium now! I'll be writing more often about preparedness, increasing self-sufficiency, gardening and relying less on the grocery stores.
I plan on branching out into some less discussed topics as well.

I invite you all to come and visit me there. I look forward to engaging and productive discussions on how we can all increase our self-sufficiency.

(P.S: I'll still be updating here as well, I just wanted to let everyone know where else I can be found online)

McBride On Self-Sufficiency at Medium

Sunday, March 18, 2018

What Next After People, Part 2

Previously, we engaged in a little thought experiment (Brought on by sleeplessness via the dog laying on my arm. Thank you, Harley)

In my ‘what-if’ scenario, I lived in a world with a much-reduced population. One where there weren’t enough people left to keep the power and internet on, and priorities were food, water and shelter. Once all the food in my nearby city was gone, there was nothing to hold me there and I had left the concrete for the bears, rats and coyotes. In my thought experiment, I retreated to the woods north of the city and began to build a refuge there.

I imagine that while I walked, I would desperately try and remember the Survival Rule of threes.
  • You can survive for 3 minutes without air
  • You can survive for 3 hours in a harsh environment without shelter
  • You can survive for 3 days without water
  • You can survive for 3 weeks without food
(All of these assume you’re not in icy water)

So let’s assume I have a backpack containing a wool sweater I found somewhere, a 2 layer weatherproof jacket scrounged from the back of a truck (the dead man at the wheel wasn’t going to be needing it anymore) and enough food for a week. In the pocket of the coat, I found a lighter, a bottle of water, a bandana, a battery operated flashlight, a 6” folding knife, and the dead man’s keys. On that keychain is a small strike-a-light thing that create sparks when you scrape it. From a survival standpoint, this is a potentially life-saving discovery!

Ever vigilant for wild animals, I suspect it would take me a couple of days to reach my destination. I’m in fairly decent shape for a walk of that length, but I don’t consider myself fit. I’m conscious of where I put my feet, because a sprained ankle would seriously limit my safety. I stay warm at night in the sweater and weatherproof jacket, and I’ve been lucky enough to find safe places to sleep at night, albeit fitfully. Let’s assume I made it out of town without incident.

I come across a small village seemingly uninhabited. I stay in the bush waiting and watching for as long as I can. Yes, it might be nice to have someone to talk to, but I can’t assume only the good people survived. So I’m cautious. I finally decide to approach one of the houses that looks in good condition. I can see a few crab apple trees in the yard and what looks like an overgrown garden nearby the house. I see no signs that anyone has been there in some time, so after a whole lot of internal debate with myself, I finally decide to check the house out.

Close inspection shows all the windows and doors intact and not a single human print in the dirt driveway. I look in all the windows I can reach, half expecting to hear a shout of alarm or warning. There’s no one inside and I find the backdoor unlocked. With a whispered apology to whoever owns the house, I quietly slip inside and explore. There are two levels, a basement with a walk-in pantry, a cold-room and various appliances. Knowing how long the power has been off, there’s no point in looking inside the freezer. Its contents would have thawed and rotted long ago. But the cold room is situated in such a way that it is kept cool by the earth itself, and the heavy door that protects it. My flashlight shows built in shelving stocked with all sorts of cans and jars of food, and I breathe a sigh of relief. On the floor are crocks and bottles. The crocks are full of sand that holds potatoes, carrots and apples. The bottles are all labelled ALE. It looks as if the previous occupants knew a thing or two about preserving and home brewing. The walk-in pantry holds a variety of buckets. They’re all labelled according to their contents, and if the labels are all correct, the house is well stocked with rice, flour, dried beans, bottles of spices and dried fruit. Leaving the basement, I return my attention upstairs.

There is a kitchen, whose cupboards are well-stocked with dry goods in large glass jars. Dishes still rest nestled inside each other in another cupboard. Down a long hallway I find a bathroom and two bedrooms, all empty of people. There are no bodies of the dead, no signs of panic or violence. It looks like the people who lived here just vanished. Curious, I explore further. Back in the kitchen, I take a close look at the table and find my answer. A notice of mandatory evacuation.


Next time: What would I find out in the barn that might help me stay alive?

I’d love to hear your impressions of my little thought experiment. Let me know in the comment section!

Friday, March 09, 2018

What Next After People?

I have just finished reading a novel that focuses on surviving in a future ripped apart by war. It's never made explicitly clear how long after the war, but I got the idea that it was a couple of generations at least. It was an entertaining book, and there were a couple of parts that nearly made me put the book down. I was impressed with the level of editing the book had received, only finding one mistake in a novel these days is pretty remarkable. My copy of Harry Potter has more than one typo! Anyway, I stuck with the book until the end and only have one niggling little quibble with it. 
The setting is New York City, specifically a greatly expanded Central Park. Now, even 25 years after a population-altering event, the underground pumps would have stopped working, and New York would be very, very wet. New York is actually already very wet. A team of men and 753 pumps struggle every day to keep the underground river from rising, and their efforts become even more focused and determined when it rains hard. Even as little as 2".

According to Alan Weisman, a man long considered an expert in what might happen to our world without us, 650 gallons of water rush not too far below ground in Brooklyn.  One supervisor of Hydraulics Emergency Response has been quoted as saying that without electricity those pumps would shut off and stay off. In a half hour, the subway tunnels would become so flooded, trains could no longer run. Within 20 years, Lexington Avenue would be a river.
Trees change faces too. The Chinese ailanthus tree would take over, as would weeds and native greenery. Seeds of weeds would blow in from various parks and take root. With no one to maintain the weeds and grasses, New York would not remain a sterile, concrete world. There would be more than just herds of zebra, bears and wolves for any remaining humans to deal with.

So while I recognize that the novel I finished yesterday is only fiction, and meant to be entertaining, I do wonder if the setting might have been better researched.

Regardless, all of this got me thinking while I couldn't sleep at 2 A.M.

Let's say for the sake of conversation that something horrible happened and mankind was not completely wiped out, but our numbers were dramatically reduced. Life has become day-to-day survival. Due to that same reduced population, there is no more power grid, no one to keep the internet running, not enough people to man the oil refineries, or make steel, or cigarettes or music, or any of the other dozens of things we've become accustomed to living with. Because I live in Northern Ontario, I, of course, turned my pre-dawn thoughts to how such a scenario would play out up here.

The closest city to me, an hour away by vehicle, would be taken over by the woods that surround it. The city was originally carved from the bush (as we Canadians call it), and a substantial wood-lot still resides at its heart today for educational purposes. (It is owned by a local college) It isn't unusual to see bears in town, or fox, cougars have been known to come calling, coyotes and even a lynx has been spotted. So the local wildlife isn't waiting around for human-kind to relinquish our grasp on the city. They're already staking their claim. There is already a rat problem, and while some theorize that without our trash, the rats would die off due to an altered diet and hungrier predators...I'm not so sure.

I think the city would quickly become wild and while there is a river on one side, there's not a lot of farms. Some, yes, but even if we had a well-established agricultural presence, those farms need people to till and plant and water and harvest. With a reduced population, farming would become subsistence-driven. Every survivor for themselves, as it were. For the sake of this mental exercise, I imagined I would survive (somehow), and then further tried to imagine exactly how I'd live.

Day-to-day existence would become a constant search for water, food, shelter, and safety. No more coffee, no more bananas or avocado. Once the trucks had ceased bringing food in, there would be no more shipments to the grocery stores and quite likely no one to run the stores anyway. After a while, there would be no more need of town and I would quite likely attempt to establish a refuge in the woods north of the city.


What comes next?

What do you think would happen with a drastically reduced population? Let us know in the comments!