Saturday, May 31, 2014

How Sustainable is the Essex Farm Model?

Kristin Kimball's memoir, The Dirty Life, is a page turner. It is also so deep in insights about economic philosophy, culture and community, life transformations, and of course, farming, that it bears rereading over and over again. The most beautiful part of their story is the character of the relationships they forge in the community. Kristin refers to a "larger loving-kindness" at work in the center of their community, their farm, and their own lives.

Kristin and her husband Mark are deeply committed to making their farm truly sustainable. Mark asks passionately "who can catch the most sunlight and keep it?" "All life is fueled by the sun. How can we sustain seven billion people using available sunlight?  Can we do it here on this farm, for 100 people, or 200 people, or 8000 people? ... We capture the sun with plants and we let go of that sun with breath and fire.  All we need to do is make sure we are capturing more sun than we breathe or burn."
"We live on the sun’s savings account: fossil fuel. That’s sunlight in plants that just didn’t get to be breathed or burned when those crazy microbes and plants of the Cambrian and post Cambian eras died and went into the earth. We discover this coal and oil and it makes it so easy to be us.  A barrel of oil can do the work of ten years hard physical labor.  Only one drawback (just kidding, there’s lots of drawbacks): suddenly we’re letting all of that CO2 into the air...So back to the challenge: who can catch the most sunlight and keep it?  A farm has the ability not only to be carbon neutral – that is, catching as much carbon as we release – but to be a carbon sink, so our net energy capture exceeds our net energy release.  Net energy profit will live in the soil organic matter, which makes for healthier soil, which makes it easier for us to grow more plants and catch more energy."

How well has Essex Farm been doing in capturing the most sunlight and keeping it? How can we tell? Essex Farm, with its use of draft horses, seems to be mainly inspired by the Amish model. Is the Amish farming model good enough since it predates machinery powered by fossil fuel? How does it compare with the Permaculture design model?

The case of the Misato Rose:
In the book, Kristin describes their first planting of Misato Rose radish. They had a beautiful bountiful harvest. By 2012 week 45, in the Farm Blog, Kristin mentions that the Misato Rose was unusable, riddled with worm holes. Hmmm...this is a bad progression, a growing imbalance between predatory insects and their plant prey over time with the pests winning, an indication of a nonsustainable design.

The Soil and the Fields:
Kritstin notes that plowing is an act of violence, ripping into the Earth, disrupting whole communities of soil life. Planting annual crops in plowed rows means (1) lots of bare ground and (2) a maximum of only one or two crops per season. Permaculture on the other hand copies Nature in keeping the ground covered year round with sun catching, water retentive, nutrient building, plants. These plants stack in space and time to yield multiple crops.

The Water:
The Essex Farm fields are sometimes too wet and drainage was installed. Permaculturists like Sepp Holzer, in contrast, would use the excess water as a resource, building swales for water retention and seasonal ponds to raise fish. The fish in turn would feed on insects that would otherwise be pests.

The Farm Animals:
Kristin is refreshingly honest about their problems with farm animals. The prevalence of injuries among the cattle due to goring led to them to disbud (remove the horns) from young animals. Their chickens occasionally descended into cannibalism. These are signs of overcrowding. Sepp Holzer gives his animals sufficient space in rugged outdoor shelters and is able to leave their horns and beaks intact.

Kristin and Mark rotated their grazing but violated Joel Salatin's "Law of the Second Bite" by leaving thier animals too long on the same grass, a practice that damages pasture.

The Farm Membership:
Mark's vision of a whole diet, free choice CSA charged on a means-based sliding scale going down as low as zero depends on 100% mutual honesty, trust, and cooperation. (Can't see this working in NYC, lol!)Ten years later, has it proved to a sound idea? Kristin writes that almost everyone they knew thought the project would fail, although they continued to be helpful. The outstanding character demonstrated by all the parties involved, from the landowner Lars Kulleseid, the Essex community, the farm Members, the farm workers, even the farm animals in some instances, and of course Mark and Kristin, has been a fulfillment of Mark's "wingnut" ideal of human goodness and generosity. In many of Kristin's Blogs, she is extending thanks to someone or other for their helpfulness. Essex Farm grew from feeding 7 members in 2004 to over 200 members in 2014. 
Yet a nagging question remains...has the cost been consistent with sustainability?
2004 Full Price - $2700 per year for the first adult in a household.
2014 Full Price - $3700 per year for the first adult  in a household.

Kristen notes that they struggle to pay their workers and to cover their costs. If a farm is able to store "net energy profit" in the soil and improve fertility from year to year, shouldn't stable or lower prices be the trend?

The Energy Challenge:
From Kristen's Sept 19, 2012 Blog - "Our current conclusion is pretty simple. If we pay our employees a living wage with health insurance, and use draft horses for our work, then we need some sort of external subsidy. This is an issue, by the way, even on farms that are not powered by horses – so many small local producers are economically viable only because of free or cheap ‘intern’ labor; health insurance, which we began offering our employees this year, is almost unheard of. And certainly we are not alone in trying to find ways to pay for an environmental benefit that is usually externalized, invisibly, through the use of fossil fuel. To quote Bill McKibben’s striking statistic, one barrel of oil contains the same amount of energy as ten years of manual labor. The oil costs about a hundred bucks. Ten years of a living wage is somewhere between a quarter and half a million."
Can this energy challenge be surmounted? Permaculture's answer lies in letting Nature's wealth building processes be the subsidy...not robbing from the past in the form of fossil fuel and not borrowing from the future in the form of public and private debt.

Kristen writes "Farmers toil. Nature laughs. Farmers weep. That's your history of agriculture in a nutshell."
Does it need to stay this way? In future Blogs, we'll profile farms and gardens that are designed to cooperate with Nature.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Can We Be Proactive in Improving Our Health?

Our nation is embarking on a controversial health care experiment. Can the Affordable Care Act aka. Obamacare succeed in reducing overall costs while covering more people? Or will it accelerate our country towards bankruptcy without improving our overall health? It remains to be seen. Meanwhile the biggest elephant in the room is largely ignored - namely that we can take proactive steps as individuals to improve our own health and keep our healthcare costs down.

Dr. Colin Cambell's research on diet and health started in 1980, culminating in the publishing of The China Study in 2005.

The book:

The cheatsheet:
1. American health statistics are scary. You may feel fit as a fiddle, but the country is unwell. Almost a third of adults over 20 are obese; one out of thirteen people have diabetes; and heart disease kills one out of every three Americans. We also pay more for our health care than any other country, and we don’t have better health to show for it.
2. Animal protein promotes the growth of cancer. The book author T. Colin Campbell, PhD., grew up on a dairy farm, so he regularly enjoyed a wholesome glass of milk. Not anymore. In multiple, peer-reviewed animal studies, researchers discovered that they could actually turn the growth of cancer cells on and off by raising and lowering doses of casein, the main protein found in cow’s milk.
3. Pesticides are gross, but none switch on cancer like poor nutrition. The food you eat affects the way your cells interact with carcinogens, making them more or less dangerous. “The results of these, and many other studies, showed nutrition to be far more important in controlling cancer promotion than the dose of the initiating carcinogen.”
4. The study findings are bulletproof. After years of controversial lab results on animals, the researchers had to see how they played out in humans. The study they created included 367 variables, 65 counties in China, and 6,500 adults (who completed questionnaires, blood tests, etc.). “When we were done, we had more than 8,000 statistically significant associations between lifestyle, diet, and disease variables.” In other words, there’s no arguing with the findings, Meat Council of America. Sorry.
5. The results are simple: Eat plants for health. “People who ate the most animal-based foods got the most chronic disease. People who ate the most plant-based foods were the healthiest.”
6. Heart disease can be reversed through nutrition. Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr., M.D., a physician and researcher at the best cardiac center in the country, The Cleveland Clinic, treated 18 patients with established coronary disease with a whole foods, plant-based diet. Not only did the intervention stop the progression of the disease, but 70 percent of the patients saw an opening of their clogged arteries. Dr. Dean Ornish, a graduate of Harvard Medical School, completed a similar study with consistent results.
7. Carbs are not the enemy. Highly-processed, refined carbohydrates are bad for you. But plant foods are full of healthy carbs. Research shows that diets like the Atkins or South Beach can actually cause dangerous side effects. While they may result in short-term weight loss, you’ll be sacrificing long-term health.
8. Plants are powerful. It’s not just cancer and heart disease that respond to a whole foods, plant-based diet. It may also help protect you from diabetes, obesity, autoimmune diseases, bone, kidney, eye, and brain diseases.
9. You don’t have to tailor your diet for specific health benefits. Eating healthy can seem segmented—broccoli will prevent breast cancer, carrots are good for eyes, did you get enough vitamin C today? “Nutrition that is truly beneficial for one chronic disease will support health across the board.”
10. Plants do it better. “There are virtually no nutrients in animal-based foods that are not better provided by plants.” Protein (YES, PROTEIN!), fiber, vitamins, minerals—you name it, they’ve got it, and the health benefits. —by Lisa Elaine Held

 let food be thy medice

The cookbook:

Some sample meals and recipes:

I tried out the Campbell/Esselstyn/China Study way of eating for 5 weeks as a Spring detox. Reading Dr. Campbell's book, Whole, finally convinced me. It wasn't easy to eat only whole vegan foods without added salt, sugar, or oils, lol. Which did I miss the most? Ice cream? Chocolate? Meat? Cheese? Fried foods? I missed all of the above but...I did feel noticeably better. I've made some permanent changes in my ongoing food habits and plan to revisit the whole food vegan approach periodically.

Is the China Study the last word on how to be healthy? Hardly, here's one of the many interesting critiques Still, the responsibility of seeking healthier lifestyles rests on us as individuals and our choices will undoubtedly affect the outcome of the ACA.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Water, Water, Everywhere, How About a Drop to Drink?

Have you gotten a set of Paul Wheaton's Permaculture Playing cards yet? Many of the topics featured on these beautiful and sneakily educational cards have a bearing on natural water management strategies. Order on Amazon here

Ace of Clubs: Hugelkultur

King of Spades: Sepp Holzer

Queen of Clubs: Greening Deserts
Jack of Spades: Mike Oehler
Jack of Hearts: Willie Smits
Jack of Clubs: Allan Savory
Jack of Diamonds: Art Ludwig
Ten of Spades: Paddock Shift Systems
Ten of Hearts: Greywater
Nine of Clubs: Jean Pain
Eight of Spades: Natural Swimming Pool
Eight of Clubs: Tefa
Eight of Diamonds: The Man Who Planted Trees
Seven of Hearts: Pigs
Seven of Clubs: Pee
Seven of Diamonds: Replacing Irrigation with Permaculture;
Six of Spades: Ben Law
Five of Clubs: Beyond Compost
Five of Diamonds: Wind and Berms;
Three of Spades: Food Forest
Three of Clubs: Dry Outhouse

The difficulty of accessing fresh potable water in many parts of the world including our West Coast has become an increasingly serious problem. Can this problem be solved with Permaculture inspired solutions?

Friday, February 28, 2014

No It's NOT About the Delta Smelt!

The current water crisis in Southern California has been many years in the making yet many of the parties involved still miss the point that water is a precious resource that needs to be managed wisely. It's shocking to see misinformation all over the news media. Here is a compilation of resources to clarify the situation:

There really isn't enough water to go around. Northern California had only 6.12" of rainfall last year, LA had only 3.6". Contrast this with the approximately 50"s of annual rainfall we get in NYC.

The story about the Delta smelt is a red herring. The core question is "are we growing the right food in the right places and with the best technology possible to reduce water use?"

"History tells us that a defining moment in our use of the earth's water came with....the harnessing of fossil fuels during the Industrial Revolution...water mining took hold in arid and semiarid orgy of consumption ensued...amid alarming signs...that the supply of underground water is finite and not being replaced at anything like a sustainable rate. Yet most of us...still take water for granted and live in a state of denial...California is a case in point..." 
Elixir: A History of Water and Humankind by Brian Fagan

Soil plowed for monoculture of annual crops - a recipe for disaster
 On a brighter note, in Davis, California, ecologically designed Village Homes benefits from bioswales that capture rainwater runoff and support a forest of fruit and nut trees.

Photo from (23122266)

This is a recent interview with the Village Homes architect, Michael Corbett

From the Village Homes website:
Natural Drainage — The common areas also contain Village Homes' innovative natural drainage system, a network of creek beds, swales, and pond areas that allow rainwater to be absorbed into the ground rather than carried away through storm drains. Besides helping to store moisture in the soil, this system provides a visually interesting backdrop for landscape design.
Edible Landscaping — Fruit and nut trees and vineyards form a large element of the landscaping in Village Homes and contribute significantly to the provender of residents. More than thirty varieties of fruit trees were originally planted, and as a result some fruit is ripe and ready to eat nearly every month of the year.
Orientation — All streets trend east-west and all lots are oriented north-south. This orientation (which has become standard practice in Davis and elsewhere) helps the houses with passive solar designs make full use of the sun's energy.

Government subsidies for farmers and consumers just send fake money chasing scarce goods. It will only raise prices while exacerbating the Federal Debt. Can we turn more of our neighborhoods into ecologically well designed food forests like Village Homes? Can we design with Nature to create and preserve lasting wealth? A look at some of the projects underway worldwide will be the subject of a future Blog.

*Related: The Aug 2013 post addressed the pattern of drought/forest fires/flooding/erosion in California:

Friday, January 31, 2014

Is this Winter's Icy Weather a Reprieve from Global Warming?

The term Polar Vortex has been on every newscaster's lips recently. Is the cold a reprieve from global warming?

Here's Rush Limbaugh's take:
I want everything to be legit, you know, up and up. Global warming is a great example. It's a full-fledged, now documented hoax. Yet if you listen to the news media, it's still in full swing, and it explains this cold snap. I have here in my formerly nicotine-stained fingers a website. It's Business Insider, of all things, that explains the polar vortex. Now, I want to read this to you. "As tundra-like temperatures and wind chills as cold as 70 below zero fan out across the country, everyone is blaming the 'polar vortex.' Polar vortexes, though, are nothing new. They occur seasonally at the North Pole, and their formation resembles that of hurricanes in more tropical regions: fast-moving winds build up around a calm center.
"Unlike a hurricane, these are frigid polar winds, circling the Arctic at more than 100 miles per hour. The spinning winds typically trap this cold air in the Arctic. But the problem comes when the polar vortex weakens or splits apart, essentially flinging these cold wind patterns out of the Arctic and into our backyards. NOAA scientists have suggested," which means they don't have the foggiest idea.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration "scientists have suggested that warming temperatures in the Arctic may be responsible for the weakening of the polar vortex." So, you see, it's magic! Supposedly, man-made global warming is causing record cold, because warming temperatures may be responsible for the weakening of the polar vortex -- and when the polar vortex weakens, it's more likely to break apart and become a factor in our winter weather.
Rush Limbaugh is so sure Arctic ice hasn't diminished that it sounds as if he has been there to see for himself, lol. Unfortunately for those of us who wish we didn't need to face a global Climate Change crisis, there is thorough and reliable documentation of Arctic ice melt. In addition, there will be many opportunities to view displays of weakening vortices when the figure skaters perform in the upcoming Winter Olympics.

Screen Shot 2014-01-13 at 10.23.17 PM caption

Anyhoo, my hopes for a Winter garden full of chickweed, Asian cabbage, and fava  beans have been iced. Something of concern to all of us regardless of political views is that extreme weather is bad for our ability to grow food. I've been paying closer attention to Sepp Holzer's Alpine farming methods:
Visit Sepp Holzer's amazing, biodiverse farm 1500 metres (almost 5000 feet) on an Austrian mountain. Most neighbouring farmers mainly 'farm' monocultural spruce plantations, Sepp is able to produce an incredible range of crops through the creation of microclimates and his unique water management systems. Sepp builds water retaining ponds and lake systems high up on the mountain which have become thriving aquacultures producing fish for the table as well as wildlife habitats teeming with biodiversity. The water creates microclimates around the banks where Sepp is able to grow an abundant edible landscape of fruit and nut orchards plus heritage vegetable and grain crops planted along the banks. In a cold Alpine climate you can find oranges, lemons and kiwis growing, as well as numerous other fruits and vegetables.

In my little urban garden, I'll be able to use stones, mirrors in lieu of ponds, and small scale Hugelkulture. What changes are needed in our commercial farming system? Where there's food there's hope ;-)

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Aiming for a Happy, Healthy, and Prosperous New Year

At this time of year, many of us are sending and receiving wishes for a Happy, Healthy, and Prosperous New Year. What can help us achieve and maintain these desirable states?


The late Dr David Servan-Schreiber lists positive social connections and an active interest in matters higher than ourselves as essential human needs on a par with the physical needs for food, water, and shelter.

Let's use our Green New Yorker Meetup group to increase our connections and our involvement and thereby our happiness ;-)


Dr Servan-Schreiber's observation;
"Every single place where American diet has spread has seen massive increases in obesity rates and cancer rates. Japan is increasing consumption of red meat and dairy products and seeing an enormous increase in obesity and great increases in prostate cancer and breast cancer, which were extremely rare before."

Dr Schreiber, who kept his own brain cancer at bay for 19 years, gives us 19 simple anticancer and prohealth rules:

His book:

(Dr Servan-Schreiber has been roundly crticized by the medical establishment for "going over to the woo". Despite this I remain a very big fan of this version of "woo"!)


Does it seem as though our current economy is geared towards wealth destruction? Is it easy to think of ways our society increases the GDP in the short term while actually decreasing human living standards in the longer term?

In contrast, designing a way of living based on the way natural systems capture and use resources leads to prosperity that is genuine and sustainable.

Wishing everyone an exciting and successful journey towards Happiness, Health, and Prosperity in 2014!

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Investing in Agriculture for the Long Term: Finding Hope in a Hungry World via Permacuture Design

Stefan Sobkowiak has been designing a permaculture orchard at Miracle Farms in Quebec:

How different is Stefan's orchard from conventional monoculture?
There is an explosion of biodiversity. In the 5 acre orchard, soon to be extended to 12 acres, there are over 100 cultivars of apples, plus several types of plums, pears, cherries, and countless other fruits and vegetables. Pests and diseases, which are typically host specific, are limited in their ability to spread. Natural predators of the pests are flourishing because of the welcoming habitat. There is no need to use expensive and toxic chemicals. The trees are partnered with plants that are nitrogen fixers and nutrient accumulators. There is no need to fertilize. Productivity and quality increase as costs decrease. A miracle indeed!

A documentary film based on Stefan's work, The Permaculture Orchard : Beyond Organic, about this type of farming is on the way. Let's be sure to catch the release of this film next Spring.

The paraphrasing of Howard Buffett's new book, Forty Chances: Finding Hope in a Hungry World, is intentional. Howard, sadly, is a fan of big machinery, fossil fuel inputs, irrigation, Monsanto, and monoculture.
Perhaps there is a glimmer of hope for enlightenment in Howard's references to "biologically-based nutrient management, and use of legume-based cover crops".

In any case, the most convincing way to promote sustainable regenerative agricultural design is to demonstrate it in real orchards, farms, and gardens the way Stefan is doing! We can participate in a small way by dropping off our food waste for composting to improve our soil. Have you taken a composting class yet?

Stefan Sobkowiak