Project No-mow

We have four grass-hungry sheep, some empty spaces between gardens and house where the grass grows raggedly, and one guy who hates weedwhacking. Permaculture has a principle “the problem is the solution”… so, this weekend we rigged up chicken wire with t-posts and rebar, and closed off half the yard, and the sheep attacked the grass like ravenous wild beasts. Assuming that 3′ of dainty mesh keeps them in that area and out of the garden, we’d like to protect the small trees in the rest of the yard, and let the sheep really take over mowing duty.

(The sheep have no business being quite that hungry, by the way. They are fat enough that they jiggle when they run; real sheep people tell us the girls need to be on a strict diet).

Sustainability

Towards more sustainable community

Turn away from consumerism – almost every object around us was manufactured from finite raw materials using energy; we had to earn money to buy it, usually by driving to work in our cars; and it must eventually be disposed of somewhere on this planet, likely to be there forever if it’s plastic. Do we need all this stuff? Turn off the television, keep marketing out of your head!

refuse – reduce – reuse – repair – recycle

Reconnect to nature – look around you at the beauty of nature, and experience the feeling of being part of it. Care for it as if it was part of you, your arm or leg. Plant a tree. Avoid using chemicals and poisons.

Use energy wisely – gasoline, natural gas, and most electricity is not renewable, and by definition not sustainable. Buy green tags. Insulate your house. Turn down the thermostat (or up, in summer). Install compact fluorescents, and still don’t leave them on. Don’t buy vehicles with poor gas mileage. Consider your commute; can you carpool, take the bus, work from home?

Relocalize – Spending your money locally, at locally owned stores strengthens the local economy – money says in the community rather than feeding a faraway corporation. And it avoids the wasted energy of transport.

Become less dependent on the system – most of us are entirely dependent on food that arrives every day on trucks. Start a garden; if everyone in Jackson County grew one lettuce plant, think how many truckfuls of lettuce wouldn’t need to be trucked. Store a few day’s worth of food and water. Buying in bulk saves packaging. Learn about edible weeds and wild plants.

Community – no one can go it alone. Get to know your neighbors; share tools, books, and the extras from your garden. Encourage, inspire, and help each other. If we all share these tips (and new ones we come up with) with just one person, it doubles the impact.

The Community is the Solution

Sustainable Food Choices

This is an area where the individual can do a great deal. We all eat, and collectively our eating habits have a huge impact on the world. 10% of all the energy used in the US goes to producing, processing shipping, and cooking food.

Eating more local and more in season is the biggest impact. The average food item travels 1500 miles to your table. Eating out of season almost guarentees that the food will have come from far away – I’ve seen peppers from Israel and Apples from New zealand in the store, just in the produce section. Does our food need to travel more than we do?

It can be hard to find out if grocery store food is local; reading labels helps. Buying something made in Portland rather than New York isn’t huge but it’s going in the right direction. If you are inclined, asking the grocery store where items come from. Making it clear that you, the shopper, wants local food, will eventually push the stores to respond, although I’d expect the Co-op to be more responsive than Albertsons.

Buying from the grower’s market and asking the farmer will assure you have local food with minimal transportatation. It will be fresher and therefor more nutritious. It supports the small farmer who needs it more than agribiz. You could also join a CSA and get a weekly basket of fresh vegetables – this is easier for the farmer who can plan ahead.

Even better, grow your own! That reduces the transport of your food down to a few yards. Grow basic crops in the right season and they are easy to grow. Again this is where if we all do it, it makes a huge difference – one lettuce plant isn’t much, but if everyone in Ashland (pop. 26,000 or so) grew one lettuce plant each, that is a whole lot of lettuce.

Plus you know exactly how it’s been grown. Even those so-called organic standards now have loopholes you could thow a dog through. The most healthy food is the fresh food you’ve grown yourself and picked moments before eating. It’s also the most delicious.

Speaking of organic, buying organic is a good thing. It may cost more but voting with our dollars is important and food is cheap in the big picture. But don’t feel too warm fuzzy about it in the big picture of sustainability and climate change. A lot of this organic food is grown on mega-farms where they use twice as much machinery and oil to make up for not using chemicals. It’s certainly better for you to eat, and poisons the planet less, but a lot of organic food production isn’t in any way really sustainable.

The less processed the food you eat, the less processing (which equals energy use and factories) is needed. This does involves changing our preferences – raw apples or applesauce or frozen apple pie? Making your own soup rather than buying soup is a tricker calculation, but eating more foods raw as nature provided, or barely cooked, is a sure win.

As an aside, you can make your own solar oven, or buy a nice one for about $250, which will bake and steam very nicely and not use any extra power at all.

Changing our preferences isn’t fun, we like what we like, but we can do it if we think about the true costs. You can eat all the in season strawberries you like, but when they aren’t in season you have the choice of trucking them from Mexico or processing. While strawberries are delicious, we don’t really *need* to eat strawberries in January. Waiting for a special food to come in season used to be one of the special delights of the year. If you can always get them, they aren’t special, right? So while it feels like giving up something we enjoy in life, it’s also putting that something on a pedestal and perhaps enjoying it a little bit more as a result.

This applies to non-local foods too. Tropical foods like mangos are less special when you can buy then any time – so think of the airplane fuel and don’t buy them. If you love mangos, buy them only for special occassions, you will enjoy them much more for the waiting.

Buy in bulk, too, whenever possible. Packaging is pure waste, even if some of it is recyclable, that doesn’t excuse all the energy and materials that went into manufacturing it and printing all sorts of designs on it and shipping it empty, filling it, shipping it to the store… you get the picture. If you do have the opportunity to buy bulk, bring your own containers or bags. And of course bringing canvas bags whereever you shop means less packaging.

If you can’t buy bulk, you can buy in larger containers – those individual small packages of raisins or juice have a great deal more package for the same amount of contents than a large single box. Usually the larger quantity costs less too, so it’s win-win, as long as it’s something you will use before it goes bad. Or freeze it.

Figure out how to not waste food. A study in Scandanavia found more than half the food that’s purchased is thrown away. This seems to disagree with the buy large packages suggestion, but it’s really depends on what you are doing now, where the easy wins are for you and your family – if a lot of food spoils in your fridge, maybe consider making some effort in this area. Observe your shopping and eating habits. Take a few things out of the grocery cart before you check out; supress your impluse to buy food. Make an extra effort to eat what is in the fridge before it goes bad. You can also get a dog, or chickens, or start a worm bin, or even just a compost pile, to deal with the waste – but far better not to have that food grown somewhere, shipped all around carefully refrigerated, handled in the store, and cooked: just for the worms.

Eating “low on the food chain” – plants rather than animals – is also good. There’s an inherent loss in feeding a cow or chickens, they use a fair amount of the food to walk around and moo or squawk. Industrially produced animal products (including milk and eggs as well as meat) come from animals that are treated very badly and is neither sustainable, moral or healthy.

However, animals can also eat things that we don’t care for (like grass) and scraps like carrot tops. Animals can lead enjoyable lives on small farms. If you eat meat, seek out animals raised in these more sustainable ways.

Learn to cook from more basic foods. For example, while canned beans are handy, it’s not that much more work to soak and cook dried beans – just a matter of learning and practice. Baking bread isn’t hard either, and the results are better tasting, cheaper and much more rewarding than store bought.

Try new kinds of foods – sustainable local foods – learn about native and wild edibles. Try unusual things in your salad; sorrel soup is a french delicacy that’s made from a perennial weed. Try serving millet with dinner. Go wild and learn how to process acorns for food. I don’t know that this is so really a suggestion for individual action for sustainability, but it’s a way to get in touch on a whole new level with food and history and the land that supports us.

Permaculture

I first heard about Permaculture around 2000. I actually got the idea when I was thinking about planting my first fruit trees, and getting my first chickens – and the loop between the chickens eating the fruit and the poop being fertilizer sprang into my mind. As I went around telling everyone about this, I was pointed to permaculture and Bill Mollison’s “Introduction to Permaculture”. I think I photocopied half the book. I tried some of the ideas, mostly with rather indifferent success, and I didn’t think about it too much.

I finally took the official PDC (permaculture design course) last year, in 2005. This did change my perspective quite a lot.

Since then, I’ve had some seemingly endless discussions about what permaculture actually is. It’s kind of like arguing with myself before I took the course . Some things about permaculture, or at least the culture surrounding permaculture, really bothers a lot of people. And some of the techniques sound great, but it’s unclear how practical they really are if you just want to feed yourself and others. And I can understand all this, since these same thing used to bother me. Now I can ignore the sillier suggestions, and ignore the “culture”, and just apply permaculture and use the skills, in as many ways as I can.

Permaculture is a way of looking at the problems and working on solutions that are nature-derived and inspired (water flows downhilll, bugs eat plants); rather than the rather deterministic, authoritarian way that is embedded in our culture (the water will flow where I want it, or else! Kill all the bugs, no matter what the cost!). There is a simple ethic; and some principles (between 10 and 50, depending on who you listen to) that are useful thinking points (like each element should perform multiple functions, or edges are the most diverse and productive parts). That’s what I use of permaculture. There are also any number of ideas and techniques, and many people seem to associate these techniques with Permaculture and insist these techniques are the by-all and end-all of it. But if that was all, well, they are fine and grand ideas but they must take quite a bit of tuning to get the technique actually working right.

It’s been a year since my course, I was helping with registration for the 2006 course that’s started, which has got me thinking about what differences the course might have actually made, on the ground. Most things are about the same, frankly – the biggest change was involvement in community, we met a number of interesting people who have similar interests, which is wonderful. I started a website for the local permaculture group (the siskiyou permaculture resources group): http://www.sprg.info; and a yahoo mailing list (sprg). I’ve tried a few more techniques, with indifferent success 🙂 Planted a lot of trees and plants in hedgerows. I feel more strongly about eating diverse plants and that weeds may be edible too. More encouraged to leave areas wild, rather than neatening everything up. I examine and care about various individual weeds. Some has been validation and deeper understanding of why some of the things we’re doing already is good. The most useful part has been in thinking about the layout issues – deciding where to put the garden, where to put rainwater cachement tanks, how to handle drainage ditches, is easier with some design criteria.

And I’m more aware of this particular place, of Fairweather Farm, as an entirely unique place, not like any place described in any book, so I should observe carefully and consider what I see and experience as more important than what I read in books or find on the web. Who knows our soil, who knows the wind here, who really understand how dry it gets in summer? Even other parts of Ashland are quite different in soil and water and wind. We all have to observe our own gardens, and learn from them, there is no book or teacher that can replace that.