Wednesday, May 22, 2013


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Back aches. Thighs burn. Sweat drips down my jawline. The sledgehammer in my hands rises and falls in a slow rhythm, pounding a wooden stake into the earth. As the hammer rises, the muscles in my back contract from lumbar spine to shoulder blade. I uncoil and let the tool fly, watching it drop earthward with all the urgency of gravity unchecked. My forearms shudder with the force of each blow: potential converted to kinetic energy, and back again.

There is a meditative quality to this. As I lift and drop the hammer, my eyes fix on the boots protecting my wide-planted feet. I take in their well-worn leather, and trace up the tall white socks wrapping my sturdy, hairy calves. How long has it been since I've shaved? Three weeks, maybe longer? "Gosh, you're a delicate flower" I chuckle to myself, and hurl the hammer once more.

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Monday, May 20, 2013

On Pesticides


Pesticides are used to kill or control the organisms that damage crops. Herbicides, fungicides, disinfectants, and rodent poisons all fall under this umbrella. These chemicals are widely used in commercial agriculture to maximize efficiency in production.

Although pesticides are applied externally, they can accumulate in the edible tissues of the plants we eat. According to the EPA, “studies show that pesticides can cause health problems, such as birth defects, nerve damage, cancer, and other effects that might occur over a long period of time…pesticides also pose unique health risks to children.” 


Last month, The Environmental Working Group (EWG) released its annual Shoppers Guide to Pesticides in Produce. The document is based on USDA tests of pesticide contamination in 48 popular produce items, and ranks these items accordingly. From this list comes the well-known “Dirty Dozen”: the 12 most pesticide-laden fruits and veggies of 2013, and “The Clean 15- the produce least likely to test positive for pesticide residues”.

Through their annual guide, The EWG “aims to give consumers confidence that... they can buy foods with fewer types of pesticides and lower overall concentrations of pesticide residues.”  On their website, the EWG also provides videos including an interview with Dr. Alex Lu of Harvard.

Dr. Lu enumerates the health risks of pesticide exposure, particularly to children. He notes that children are “the most vulnerable population” to pesticide exposure because they are still growing, and lack many adult mechanisms of detoxification. Dr. Lu goes on to say, “I would recommend families look into information provided by  The Environmental Working Group…to select foods to buy organically or [to determine] when conventional would be fine.”


But is conventional ever fine? How exactly does the EWG detect and rank pesticide contamination, and what qualifies as “clean”? 

To compare the 48 fruits and veggies of interest, The EWG considered six measures of contamination:

1. Percent of samples tested with detectable pesticides
2. Number of pesticides found on a single sample
3. Maximum number of pesticides found on a single sample
4. Percent of samples with two or more detectable pesticides
5. Average number of pesticides found on a single sample
6. Total number of pesticides found on the commodity

Fruits that made The Clean 15 list did not test positive for more than four types of pesticides, and vegetables rarely had more than one type of pesticide residue. 

To me, that doesn’t count as clean. Relative to the dirty dozen, the clean 15 are much less likely to contain a diverse array of pesticides, but they’ve still been sprayed with poison. This list is problematic because it implies that these 15 items don’t need to be purchased from organic growers. As Dr. Lu says, The EWG is providing consumers with a comparative method to decide when it’s necessary to buy organic.


Realistically, ALL produce should be grown organically. Even root crops and fruits with protective outer skins can accumulate pesticides internally. Chemicals leach into groundwater and can enter our waterways as runoff, even for foods that made The Clean 15 list this year.

I agree that The EWG’s aim to “give consumers confidence [to] buy foods with fewer types of pesticides and lower overall concentrations of pesticide residues” is useful, but we must consider what binaries like “The Dirty Dozen” vs. “The Clean 15” imply to consumers in the big picture of building a more sustainable society. 

Thursday, May 16, 2013


It's tough... Double dig it! #gardening good morning.

The other day, I was peeling long onion stalks to sell at market. They were freshly harvested and bundled beside me in the grass. Kneeling, I gently pulled away the dry and dirty outer leaves to reveal clotted red bulbs, streaked with white and deep purple. The onions seemed to throb in my hands, bodies carved from the soil. I felt deeply human then; intimately bound to the process of death and rebirth that defines life on this planet.

That feeling- of laying hands on my food from field to table- is uncommon in the frenzy of urban life. Most everything at the supermarket is so packaged and processed that we wouldn't recognize the creature it came from. And that's a problem folks.

The disconnect between producers and consumers has enabled environmental irresponsibility on a mass scale. Monocropping is one glaring example. In this ubiquitous form of agriculture, a plot of land is used to produce a single crop year after year (think rolling fields of wheat, corn, or soybeans). Economically, the system is advantageous because it is high-yield, and allows for specialization of equipment to maximize efficiency. However, there is no rotation of crops between seasons, so crucial nutrients are not returned to the soil. As of 1994, it was estimated that modern agricultural practices strip the soil of nutrients up to 80 times faster than they would be replenished in an undisturbed system.

Be mine, onion flower baby.

As soil quality degrades over time, chemical fertilizers are often used to replace a few key nutrients. These fertilizers don't rebuild soil structure, or promote soil fertility. They target isolated problems rather than the big picture, and can cause even bigger issues downstream as they leach into groundwater or enter waterways through runoff. Crops grown in poor soil are also more vulnerable to pests and to diseases, promoting the use of dangerous chemical pesticides.

We're shooting ourselves in the proverbial foot here. In the long-term, stripped soils become deserts. If this continues, our farmlands will fall fallow by our own hands. But it doesn't have to be so bleak! Rebuilding the connection between producer and consumer is key here. If we know where our food comes from, and if we choose to support small, local, and organic farms, our communities will be healthier, and irresponsibility will have a smaller hand at the dinner table.

No chemical fertilizers or pesticides + proper soil maintenance = fertile soil = healthier plants = healthier people= healthier ecosystems= healthier societies= healthier planet

Garden sauté with eggs laid this morning. Kale and collards not pictured. Really stoked on the food here! Our sweet little #hens in their dust bath

Friday, May 10, 2013



The second law of thermodynamics states that every system tends toward increasing disorder. That's as true for the universe as it was for my apartment back in Santa Cruz. It's true here on the farm too, for the soil and for the soul.

I came into this month with a whole slew of goals (meditate, read, exercise, eat well), and adopted a rigid daily practice to fit everything in. After two weeks, I feel great, but my routine has slackened considerably. These days I'm wondering if it's in the allowance of change, rather than in the discipline of routine and the meeting of goals, that we find lasting happiness. 


Along the same lines, I'm still thinking about soil too. Like happiness, good soil structure can be challenging to maintain. Nutrients and carbon are lost to microorganisms and growing crops, and must be replenished over time. When plant tissues and wastes from consumers (ie: urine and manure) are composted, nutrients and humus are returned to the soil. But since most of us don't pee on the garden, those fertilizers often come from outside sources and are produced with nonrenewable resources. 

Because systems tend toward disorder, no farm (organic or otherwise), can be sustained indefinitely. However, with proper soil maintenance (adding cured compost grown in your own garden), complete self-sufficiency is possible long-term.


To maintain soil fertility, The Biointensive method follows the 60:30:10 ratio:
In a given growing area, 60% of land is devoted to carbonaceous and calorie-rich crops, which produce food for you and carbon for the compost pile. Examples include grains such as wheat and corn, sunflowers, and grapes. An additional 30% of cultivated land goes to highly caloric root crops like potatoes and leeks, with the final 10% for relatively low calorie vegetable crops to add variety to the diet, or to sell at market (soybeans, onions, carrots, and beets, to name a few). This growing style is meant to optimize the health of the gardener and of the garden. As always, see Jeavons' How to Grow More Vegetables and the Ecology Action website for more detailed information. 

Last but not least, I'm loving Nahko & Medicine for the People these days. Calm, catchy, and uplifting:

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

On Method.

The oldest #organic farm in Washington

Today we took a trip to the oldest organic farm in Washington. Tom, the owner and head gardener, has hair like dandelion seeds and eyes that smile. We drove out along the Willapa Bay (famous for oysters), to buy lettuce seedlings from him.

Back at Green Angel, we watered and aerated the soil in preparation to plant. Here, we follow The Biointensive farming methods pioneered by Alan Chadwick and Ecology Action 40 years ago. Starting from the ground up, literally, these methods focus on soil health. They take a personal approach to food, proposing that the major challenges of world hunger and dwindling resources can be solved through small-scale organic agriculture rather than broad and unsustainable solutions like the use of genetically modified high-yield crops and synthetic fertilizers.

When a seedling sprouts into the sunlight and begins to photosynthesize, its roots also go to work. They release specialized chemicals that attract beneficial bacteria and fungi, which protect the plant and help it access otherwise unavailable nutrients (like nitrogen and phosphorus). These relationships are extremely complex, and very specific. Without a diverse soil community, crops end up malnourished, yield less food, and are more prone to disease.

Here, we amend the soil with cured organic matter (compost) to feed the microorganisms that keep the whole dance going. Over time, the mutualism between plants and microbes improves the soil structure, and in doing so, yields increasingly nutritious and hearty crops. Et voila! A productive organic farm is born, and a living, breathing soil is its crucial foundation.

More to come on methods of soil prep and composting. Please see Jeavons' How to Grow More Vegetables for a stepwise guide.  

Sunday, May 5, 2013


Good morning #farm

Every morning, I throw my legs from beneath a warm quilt, and wake from farmhouse dreaming. The chickens need feeding, the greenhouses need ventilation, and I need coffee with a dash of NPR. I click on the solar radio, and tend to my chores in the cool of dawn.

This month, I live at Green Angel Gardens, an organic farm and sustainable living center in Long Beach, Washington. We are on a peninsula a hair north of the Oregon border, where bald eagles perch just beyond the garden gate. The place is run by Larkin Stentz, a self-described "Gardener, musician, father, spouse, poet, author- all of these have been like tools for the work of living on Planet Earth." He offers a wealth of knowledge about sustainable agriculture, and trades room, board, and education for a bit of help on the property. I'll be here for four weeks, lending a hand and learning. 

This experience was made possible through World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF). The organization pairs visitors with organic farmers, "to promote an educational exchange, and build a global community conscious of ecological farming practices." Volunteers trade their efforts for a relatively inexpensive way to travel, and to learn about the reality of organic food production. For more on WWOOFing in the US, check out the website here.

My personal goals in this are to slow down and seek balance before heading into Manhattan's roar and into the impending stresses of graduate school. As a student of conservation biology, I strongly believe that lifestyle should reflect the same principles of environmental stewardship that we promote through research and policy. That means living my beliefs beyond the classroom, and sharing what I learn with you! 

Morning prep for #farmersmarket
Saturday fun day. Welcome to Ilwaco. #farmersmarket

Wednesday, May 1, 2013


Whats growing in #oakland 
Seven days ago, L. and I loaded up her aquamarine Prius and hit the road. Covered in dust and tanned by the desert sun, we were both pretty spent by the Coachella festival experience. The marriage of exhaustion and filth launched us into that slaphappy state where everything is hilarious, and the giggling just won't stop. Golden hills slid by the open window as the breeze caught our laughter and carried it over the highway, northbound from Indio to Oakland.

It was a few great days romping in Oakland, after which I caught an unexpected ride further up the coast into Oregon. My dear friend K. was headed for Newport, and asked if I wanted to join. Hell yeah!

K. drives with her knees, keeps a mattress in the back of her minivan ("The Gypsy van"), and drinks coffee like water. She's blonde, bold, and crazygreat. We pulled off the highway in Leggett California, following signs for "The Drive Thru Tree." And a drive-thru it is! The Chandelier Tree is an imposing old redwood, with a rectangular tunnel cut through its base. I find something a bit unsettling in driving through a living thing, but for $5, you too can pass through this ancient organism.

Untitled Humboldt county #happinessUntitled

Beside the Chandelier tree is the real boon of Leggett though. Behind the giftshop, there is a meadow flanking a pond and everything is in bloom. Huge bumblebees and damselflies hum to and fro, while frogs croak in the water. Yep. You heard me. Frogs!


Those poor canaries in the proverbial coal mine are disappearing rapidly worldwide, and yet, there are still California natives here (pseudacris sierra?), ribbiting in froggy abundance. The surprise swelled my misanthropic environmentalist's heart to bursting.


Thank goodness for small surprises along the road, and thank god for best friends.