June 23, 2011

Book Review: The Omnivore's Dilemma

I recently devoured a terrific book by Michael Pollan entitled The Omnivore’s Dilemma.  Now, this book was released in 2007 so I’m a bit behind the ball, but Pollan’s message strikes such a deep chord with me that I feel I need to spread it around.  Last summer, I crossed this great country on a motorcycle (read about it here) and, having never seen the Midwest except from the seat of a jetliner, was shocked and more than a bit dismayed to experience firsthand the American industrial agricultural machine.  I witnessed field after field, mile after mile, and DAY after DAY of nothing but corn and soybean!  Yes, I understand that we are a nation of 300,000,000 people and need vast amounts of food, but the utter lack of biodiversity across an entire region just confounded and contradicted every bit of knowledge that I have gained in my studies in biology and environmental science.  Now, I know that as kid from the suburbs of Connecticut, my critique of American farming may ring hollow in the ears of those living in the farm belt, but for crying out loud, do we really need to be injecting pure anhydrous ammonia into our soil to fertilize our crops?  How could we have gone so far astray?

Well, apparently I’m not the only one who pauses to think about our food in such a light.  In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan essentially investigates the various ways in which Americans produce, process, and consume food.  Naturally, he starts out with a bang and dives right into a dissection of the vast corporate agri-business that supplies the majority of our food, with the discussion centered on the exploits of the humble (or not so humble) corn plant.  Through the “miracle” of modern agricultural and food science, the corn plant has become the foundation of our processed food system in which a grain of corn is broken down into basic molecules and synthetically reassembled into much of the “food” available at the local supermarket.  Take a look at anything with a nutrition label and a list of ingredients – much of the stuff that you can’t pronounce is probably manufactured from corn.  I won’t even get into his descriptions of industrial meat production, but I’ve seen the feedlots in Kansas and can vouch for his tale.  Why so much corn, you might ask?  Pollan hints, no, jabs at various government policies and market conditions that drive farmers closer to the brink of financial extinction to supply large corporate grain processors with ever cheaper raw materials.  The unwritten message is, “Gee, I bet these processing corporations can afford to purchase some pretty influential congressmen on Capitol Hill”.  The written message is that the industrial agricultural system, with the backing of the United States government, endeavors to transform petroleum into food at the expense of fair economy, the environment, and our health.  Do heart disease, obesity, and diabetes ring a bell?  They're all linked to industrial food.  Pollan takes the stance not that of the typical tree-hugging enviro-conspiracy theorist, but of a horrified, intelligent observer looking into the system as an outsider.  Skeptical?  Read it.  Your library probably has a copy on the shelf right now.

Pollan ventures next into the burgeoning "organic foods" market, with a focus on the type of organic goods that you might buy at Whole Foods.  The results of his investigations are disappointing but not surprising.  As you might suspect, the organic food industry is, for the most part, just that - an industry.  Yes, lettuce may be grown without petroleum-based fertilizers and chickens may not be fed antibiotics, but the system still suffers from monocultured fields, crowded animal feed lots, and intercontinental transportation of foods (carbon footprint, anyone?).  Pollan cites the example of an “organic TV dinner” as the ultimate hypocrisy of the organic food movement.  There is redemption, though, in his exploration of the “beyond organic” food movement.  In the most enlightening chapters, Pollan visits a Virginia farm where one visionary farmer studies and applies the rhythms of nature to his cattle and chicken operation.  The farm, by Pollan’s description, is really such a beautiful ecosystem that I won’t attempt to paraphrase – just read the book already, eh?

The last chapter focuses of Pollan’s efforts to serve a meal entirely of his own creation, and by that I mean he hunts the boar, picks the mushrooms, grows the lettuce - you get the picture.  Delicious yet time consuming and, he admits, just as impractical for modern life as the industrial system is deleterious to the environment.  The compromise, he argues, should be somewhere in between. 

My overall take on the book is that it confirms what I already suspected about industrial food, but Pollan blows me away with his detailed research and engaging writing style.  The Omnivore’s Dilemma left me disgusted with the current state of affairs, hopeful with the promise of ecology-based local farming, and fearful of the government’s reaction to alternative food movements that challenge their corporate partners.  (In what backwards world do live when locally-produced vegetable, dairy, and meat is considered “alternative”?)  So what are your thoughts on this subject?  Do you eat?  (That’s a rhetorical question, folks…)  Do you know where your food comes from?  Are you a thoughtful consumer?  How do you rate the tradeoffs between nutrition and cost?  Would you be willing to support local farms?  Do you believe that your food dollars may be more influential than any vote you cast in a ballot box?

June 10, 2011

Farmer Hippie, How Does Your Garden Grow?

Two posts in two days, wow, kid's on a roll!

It's only early June but the garden beds at the Woods Hippie homestead are covered in lush vegetation and we've already enjoyed some of the spring crop.  I feel as if I have been working the garden for months, because, as it turns out, I have!  The early season bed was seeded in late March and early April with peas, carrots, radishes, chard, and lettuce...the usual cool season contenders.  The peas were content to stay snug in the soil until well into April when they all apparently got the memo and sprouted with vigor.  Now, the "bush" peas stand nearly three feet tall and I'm constantly pinching the growing tips to inhibit further upward growth and to promote flowering.  We've enjoyed several weeks of SPICY radish slices in our fresh romaine salads.  I will never voluntarily purchase a store radish again after tasting these little red delights, the flavor is incomparable.

The garden, circa May 16.
Starting to fill in!
The summer bed was seeded with bush snap beans and basil just after Mother's Day.  Around the same time, I prepared my very first Three Sisters garden, which is a Native American companion planting technique with corn, beans, and squash.  The theory has it that the corn provides a trellis for the pole beans (I chose runner beans), the beans provide nitrogen for the heavy-feeding corn, the corn provides shade for the delicate squash, and the squash, with their broad leaves and prickly vines, serve as a living mulch and critter deterrent for the garden.  For the squash, I planted a variety including butternut, pumpkin, zucchini, cucumber, and melon.  I started some seeds indoors under a grow light and planted some seeds directly in the ground.  The plants started indoors met with mixed results once hardened off and planted outdoors; I'd say 60% survived the transplant.  The direct-seeded plants were nearly universally successful, though the surviving transplants have a bit of a edge, size-wise.  The corn, as evidenced in the photos, have almost 18" of height at this point.

I am blessed in that I have two neighbors with green thumbs, both of whom cultivate heirloom and odd-duck varieties of tomato and gift me their extra seedlings.  I can't keep track of the varieties growing in my beds, but I think I have some Cherokee Purple, Sweet 100, Yellow Pear, Big Boy, and Better Boy.  The bigger plants are already flowering!

Perhaps a weedwack is in order, but those weeds are tasty Lamb's Quarters!
As you might expect from a guy who's blog moniker is "Woods Hippie", the garden is cultivated organically.  I apply quite a bit of compost every year, though this year I did add some bonemeal-based fertilizer to add some other nutrients, and I recently applied a hydrolized fish fertilizer.  The plants have responded well to the light fertilization, and I have yet to see any significant insect problems (knock on wood).

So, for now, things are looking good as the spring crop wraps up and the majority of the garden is settling in for the long haul.  The seedlings are now established, which takes off some of the initial worry, now just as long as everything withstands the powerful thunderstorms that have been rolling through and I remember to water every now and then, hopefully we'll be looking at a nice harvest in a few months!  
Grandma keeps an eye on the house in the form of a rose bush...

Have a great weekend!

June 9, 2011

A Day's Hike into the Clouds

Moist breezes swirl through the intricate spruce forest, carrying a sweet, delicate fragrance to my nose...a fragrance that is not pine, not mist, not soil, but a gentle concoction of all earthly pheromones that strike deep into some primordial nerve center, and a sense of home washes over me.  Momentarily bound in a cosmic plane, I shift my focus back to my physical reality and resume picking a slow and methodical path through the jumble of schist and granite boulders that dot the mountainside.  The path, and the surrounding forests, are constant sentinels of a medieval world that we, as travelers, struggle to comprehend on our recreational forays into the kingdom.  

There is magic afoot here, ancient powers that conspire to anchor trees in bare rock and send their woody antennae skyward in a silent quest for light.  Water, the lifeblood, the oil in the cylinder, seeps from every imaginable and unimaginable crevice from springs unseen, pulsing through beds of moss before submerging into the soil matrix, to emerge some months later in a river destined for the sea.  Meanwhile, secretive flowers advertise their genetic ribbons to a selective audience, perhaps to the one particular breed of insect that has evolved a quiet symbiosis with its floral brethren.

"Focus," I again remind myself, "or your tired feet will stumble and pitch you headlong into a rock!"  Oh, but for that intoxicating balsam perfume!  Onward we climb into a cloud, a literal ascent to the heavens.  Here, the weather has shaped trees into boreal statues crafted of gnarled fiber and resilient waxy needles; deformities, we might infer, but to the trees, all the better to withstand to ceaseless winds and brutal winter snows. 

Today, the bold rock and resolute statues of wood play second fiddle to the atmosphere, which, to the unaccustomed, at first appears to be a featureless sheet of white but, upon further inquisition, we find that the aether forms a vaporous canvas for the broad brush strokes of meteorological happenings.  Tendrils of cloud break free from the main body of fog filling the valley to whip past our faces and race through the trees, stripping us of the mountain views for which we came, but garnishing our climb with a much more surreal and contemplative vista.  What else but fog could free us from our preconceived expectations and usher us into an ego-less appreciation of the mountain as it presented itself to us?

It is only much later when, on the drive home, we see the entire ridge and solve the meteorological mystery that leaves our little mountain enshrouded in mist.  The ridge intercepts a moist northbound air mass that speeds through the valley.  The invisible freight train careens into the the ridge and climbs as did we, only much, much faster, compressing against the mountain then cooling in a flurry of instantaneous condensation which gives birth to a transient toupee of cloud over the barren rock.  On the summit, we surmise that the entire Presidential Range was enveloped, but our later observations show us that the clouds merely break over our mountain like an ocean wave before absolving themselves of existence in the lee of the rock, evaporating as uncountable numbers of water molecules warm imperceptibly and vanish.  

Mother Nature captures us again with her sorcery as she forms and destroys clouds at will in front of our eyes, but she graces us with benevolence today as neither rain nor sleet mar our passage; we journey home, tired as always, but ever more transfixed...