The Milkweed Diaries

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Winter Reading

Chalk it up to being raised by a librarian. No matter how busy, tired, or overextended I am, I'm always reading at least a book or two or five or six. Even if it is just a page or two in the last few bleary, half-conscious minutes before I fall asleep, reading happens almost every day.

Reading is sort of a basic element of life for me, like eating well or getting enough sleep. And I'm talking about reading books, though I spend plenty of time reading things on the internet tubes too of course. My bedside table has always been more of a bedside book cascade, with stacks of novels, poetry, and nonfiction piled up for my reading pleasure.

In recent years, I've read a lot more nonfiction than anything else - essays, practical guides to everything under the sun, books about politics and history and food - but fortunately my sister Mary keeps me supplied with fiction. She works at a used book store. Can you sense a theme in my family?

My mom is a retired librarian who reads voraciously. She read to us all from the time we were in utero, and someone once described entering my childhood home as "being in danger of being hit by a falling book."

Even though I've been ridiculously overextended with off-farm work these days, I've squeezed in some really satisfying reading lately.

Here are a few recent favorites.

Carol Deppe

I love this book. Carol Deppe's quirky, opinionated, and garden-geeky personality comes through on every page. Her informal, conversational tone and cheeky attitude make for a quick and enjoyable read. I felt like I was chatting with the author in her kitchen while she popped up some popbeans (special strains of garbanzos she's selected for their ability to pop like popcorn). Or maybe hanging out with her in her garden watching her flock of Ancona ducks chow down on banana slugs nearby.

I don't agree with all of Deppe's methods or opinions, and some of the approaches she discusses are geared toward the particular climate of the place she lives (Corvallis, Oregon). But I came away from her book with immense respect for the author's perspective. She has spent years experimenting and meticulously documenting her experiments. The level of detail in her book is amazing. I have read a lot of gardening books over the years that make vague, grand claims about various techniques and methods without getting down to brass tacks.

Khaki Campbells on our farm: slug-eaters extraordinaire....but how?

For example, I can't tell you the number of times I've heard people talk about using ducks to control slugs in the garden. But how? How do you prevent them from eating all of your greens while their hunting for slugs? How do you get them to stay in the garden if there's somewhere they'd rather be? What about their high-nitrogen manure - how do you avoid a projectile application of duck manure to every plant in the garden? Ducks in the garden are a nice idea, but as we've spent more and more time with our small flock, we've begun to question how practical the idea of using them in the garden really is.

Enter The Resilient Gardener. Deppe begins her section "Ducks for Garden Pest Control" like so: "That ducks are supreme for garden pest control is widely recognized and mentioned in many books and articles. Exactly how to use the ducks and still have a garden left afterwards never quite seems to be mentioned. This section is a summary of my experience." She describes her method of using portable fencing to create temporary duck pens adjacent to the garden or even just near the garden to control slugs. With years of experimentation and careful observation under her belt, she offers the most detailed and helpful overview of ducks in the garden that I've ever seen.

Deppe's basic premise is that we need to garden not just as a hobby but as a way of life, and as a way to prepare for hard times. She points out that many gardeners (and garden blogs and garden writers, I might add) are focused on expensive inputs, equipment, and gadgets and what I would call "glamour crops" rather than learning to grow basic, everyday food to support themselves and their communities.

She puts it this way: "Traditionally, gardeners have played a major role in sustaining themselves, their families, and their communities through hard times of many kinds. Would you be able to do likewise?"

After investigating that question herself for many years, Carol Deppe has a wealth of highly-detailed and practical information to share. From growing your own feed for chickens and ducks to soil fertility and seed-saving, The Resiliant Gardener is packed with useful information. I know I will be referring back to this book for years to come.

I also appreciate Deppe's perspective as a gluten-free gardener and her insight as a plant breeder - she manages to weave these aspects of herself into her book in a way that seems to make perfect sense. She thinks of special dietary needs, for instance, as a personal variation of "hard times" - and continually returns to the framework of preparing for hard times. She mentions climate change, peak oil, natural disasters, and economic instability, but doesn't dwell on the catastrophic possibilities.

Instead, she places her faith in gardeners:

"I believe that the potential role of more important today than ever before. In times past, a large portion of the population knew how to grow and preserve food and could survive on what they could grow and preserve. In the United States today, only about 2 percent of the population farms, and they farm largely in ways that are totally dependent upon imported oil and gas, electricity, irrigation, roads, national and international markets, and an intact financial and social infrastructure. In many kinds of mega-hard times, those farms would not be functional, and the knowledge of how to farm in those ways would be useless. In...the future, what food we have may be the result of the knowledge and skills of gardeners. I challenge all gardeners to fully accept their role as a source of resilience for their communities in mega-hard times, and to play and adventure in good times so as to develop the kinds of knowledge and skills that would most matter."

You can visit Carol Deppe's website for more....I just signed up for her newsletter and am looking forward to following her further adventures in resilient gardening.

Sharon Astyk & Aaron Newton

A related book that's been on my bedside table for about a year is A Nation of Farmers. I've been dipping into A Nation here and there over the months, but got inspired to get serious and really read it when my friends on the staff and board of the Organic Growers School started buzzing about it.

My friend Ruth Gonzalez wrote a great piece on A Nation of Farmers for the Organic Growers School e-newsletter recently with some fabulous old-timely photographs of front-yard farmers. I'll keep it brief here and refer you to Ruth's more in-depth article.

A Nation of Farmers proclaims itself "a call for more participation in the food system" and draws a clear distinction between "farming" as it is mostly practiced today and the kind of farming that the authors believe can transform our food system and thereby "stop the harm industrial agriculture is doing."

Astyk and Newton envision a food system made up of small-scale polyculture, with millions of small farms, homesteads, and gardens raising both animals and vegetables, providing for community needs. Calling to mind the image of a farmer that most children have, they point out: "What you dreamed of, if you were anything like most children, is the kind of small, mixed farm that hardly exists anymore. It would have some animals, a big garden, pasture, orchard, and fields. This is the farm of children's books, the farm of stories, and 75 years ago, this was the farm of reality. But gradually, as we all grew older, such farms disappeared from the landscape." In contrast, the authors point out wryly, "you probably didn't imagine yourself debeaking chickens, building a hog manure lagoon, or riding in a giant tractor while spraying Roundup."

The premise that the authors return to again and again is that "It turns out that the old sort of farm, the one we dreamed of as children, really is the best way to feed the world. Small-scale polyculture that mixes animals and multiple plant crops together is vastly more productive that industrial row crops."

In a way I see Deppe's Resilient Gardener and A Nation of Farmers as espousing the same message, one that's dear to my heart: gardeners can save the world. The line between a small farm and a big garden is a fine one, and I believe that Deppe's "gardeners" and Astyk and Newton's "farmers" are the same people - those of us growing food on a small scale for ourselves and our communities all over the world.

Nation is more about the politics -- the why-- while Resilient is more about the how. I recommend them both as good companions to one another.

Simon Fairlie

On the subject of small-scale polyculture farm systems that raise both animals and plants, another book that's rocked my world recently is Simon Fairlie's Meat.

Its cover, which looks like a somewhat cheesy hippie cookbook or maybe a children's book of the sort A Nation of Farmers references, belies the dense, academic nature of the book.

Fairlie's work is deeply detailed, thoughtful, and meticulously researched. He challenges some of the long-time core assumptions of the food justice and ethical eating movements and answers the question, "should we be farming animals" with a resounding "yes."

In my own transition in the past few years from vegetable grower to small-scale poultry and dairy goat keeper, seeing the ways that animals and vegetables are complimentary parts of a small farm or homestead system, I've experienced a dramatic shift in how I think about domestic animals that have been traditionally raised for food.

My experience as a producer of both vegetable and animal foods has given me a very different perspective on food, and in particular on foods from animal sources (milk, eggs, and meat). Producing vegetables, I've witnessed how animal inputs are essential to organic vegetable production, and thought about the fact that vegans eating only plant-based foods are quite possibly eating plant tissue that was fed with animal inputs (blood meal and manure, to name two). I've also killed thousands of insects as a vegetable grower, which has contributed to my shifting perspective on killing and food production. My experience producing eggs and milk has helped me understand the way that small-scale meat production is related in an essential way to sustainable dairy and egg operations.

Reading Fairlie's book was perfectly timed for me. I started reading it the week that I ate my first chicken in 22 years. After 20 years of strict vegetarianism and 2 years of adding fish back into my diet, I bought a whole, pastured, organic chicken from my friend Val's farm and ate it. I expect I'll write more on this subject soon, but suffice to say: it has been a big transition in my life back to the world of the omnivore. Simon Fairlie's respectful, careful, and thoughtful book has been a real gift in this transition. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the ethics of food.

Harvey Ussery

Speaking of eggs and meat, I am thrilled in my first year of chicken-keeping to discover Harvey Ussery's amazing manual, The Small-Scale Poultry Flock.

This post is already on the extra-long side, so I won't go into great detail about this book, but suffice to say it is thorough, detailed, funny, smart, and grounded in immense respect and care for the animals that he's describing.

Ussery wastes no time in dispensing with the myth of industrial "organic" and "free-range" eggs and chicken and then gets down to the business of detailing exactly how to raise your own small flock. He covers topics I have never seen in other poultry how-to books, and like Carol Deppe, allows us to benefit from his many years of innovation, observation, and experimentation with poultry.

Not for the faint of heart or for those more on the "chickens as pets" side of the divide that runs through the chicken-keeping world, Ussery's book includes detailed (and graphic) information about butchering and processing chickens.

Returning to the theme of Fairlie's Meat, Ussery's book reminded me that we are not really being honest with ourselves if we think we can have eggs without chickens dying. Chicken lovers ordering day-old chicks from hatcheries are either contributing to male chicks being killed at the hatchery (if ordering pullets only) or will have some extra roosters to deal with down the line (if ordering "straight run" or unsexed chicks). In terms of true sustainability with farm and homestead systems, the issue of culling has to be addressed. We can either outsource it, which is what we're doing if we buy female chicks from a hatchery, or we can be responsible for it ourselves.

There's a lot more to say on this subject, a topic for another time, but for now I will leave you with a hearty recommendation of Harvey Ussery's book and the website he maintains with all sorts of interesting information, updates, and articles (The Modern Homestead).

So that's my wrap-up of my winter reading list...with a big thank-you to Ann Trigg for cultivating in me a love of the written world, and for some really great Christmas presents this year from Chelsea Green.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

On Milk: Dear 16 year-old Me

Mona and baby Moonpie, two of our beloved Nubian dairy goats

Dear 16 year-old me,

Hey you, pulling your PETA literature out of the family mailbox on the rural route. Good for you. You're doing your best to do the right thing. I'm proud of you for realizing that food is important, and for grasping that the way most of the food you've been eating is produced is brutal, unhealthy, and morally repugnant.

Good job saying goodbye to your beloved quarter-pounder with cheese. I'm proud of you for believing with all of your heart that our small, daily actions are important and that personal decisions have the power to create social change. You are right. You will probably be happy to know that your 38 year-old counterpart still believes in that power. I so appreciate your passion and your conviction, and your desire to know the truth and do the right thing.

Specifically, you're right about the meat industry as it exists. The meat and milk and eggs you can find on the shelves of your supermarket in the late 1980s are beyond bad. But what you don't know now is that by the time you're in your thirties, the range of food options available to you will be very different. And your perspective will be more nuanced and complex. Things will have changed, and you will have changed. We could have a long conversation about meat, animals, vegetables, and health - I would love that and it would be spirited, contentious, and fun.

Maybe I'll continue to write to you here in this format that wasn't invented (the blog) on something called the internet, which was just a glimmer in Al Gore's eye back when you were reading Peter Singer's Animal Rights.

But for now, there's one thing in particular I hear you saying that I'd like to respond to: "humans are the only animals that drink another animal's milk." I know you think it's disgusting and unnatural, and it's also wrapped up in your new-found insight into factory-farmed dairy - where sick, exhausted milk cows are hooked up to milking machines, pumped full of antibiotics and hormones, and living miserable lives. Twenty years later, there are still articles circulating on Facebook (something else that hasn't even been dreamed of yet - Mark Zuckerberg is probably in preschool) about how unhealthy and unnatural milk consumption is for humans.

Yogurt from our goats' milk

But here is the answer that pops into my head twenty years later to your impassioned, heartfelt, and true statement:

Yes. Humans are the only animals that drink the milk of another animal. We are the only animals that do many of the things that we do. Let me name a few: cultivate gardens, plant seeds, cook, build fires to keep warm. There are many more examples.

Some of the things that we do that no other animals do are destructive and morally questionable. You and I do some of them anyway. An example in this category would be driving in cars on highways. Some of the things we do that no other animal does are not destructive or morally wrong just because they are unique to us. For example, we plant potatoes.

Would you be surprised to know, dear teenaged me, that the you of the future owns dairy animals? Our animals our healthy and happy, we milk by hand, and we drink the milk raw. I also plant potatoes, something no other animals do. I believe that the milk our goats produce, like the vegetables we grow in our gardens, is healthier and more nutritious than food you can find on supermarket shelves.

Potatoes au gratin with our goat milk and goat cheese. Cooked on a woodstove - note that no other animals chop firewood, construct woodstoves, or invented the cast iron skillet. Or have cameras or "The Joy of Cooking."

Oh dear sweet, sharp, scrappy, strident, loving, and well-intentioned me, here is what I'd most like to say to you: be as gentle with yourself and others as you are with the planet. Be open to change. Be open to changing your mind.

If you could know that after 20 years of strict vegetarianism and intermittent veganism you would suffer from debilitating health problems that very likely were caused or exacerbated by your diet, would you still make the same choices? Maybe so. And maybe those choices were the right ones at the time. Looking back, I think they probably were given your options at the time. But as clearly as you know that factory-farmed meat and dairy and eggs are wrong, I know that raising animals for eggs, milk, and meat can be part of an ethical way of life.

And as for milk, I say YES, humans stand alone as a species in having domesticated other animals in order to drink their milk and make cheese, yogurt, whipped cream, and butter from it. I'm so glad we do! Milk in its natural state - not factory-farmed, processed, and lifeless but fresh from the goat (or cow) is good food. Protein. Fats. Healthy bacteria. You can read a lot about it these days when information is so very accessible compared to the way it was in the late 1980s. (Here are a few things I've posted in recent years involving milk.)

I'm fascinated by the history of this relationship between humans and our domesticated animals, and grateful to be part of the continuing tradition of caring for these animals well on a small, homestead scale.

So there you have it, 16 year-old self. You will one day make butter. No other animal does that. And you will love that butter and know how good for you it is. You will know the animals that produce the milk you use are happier in your dairy-loving care than they would be just about anywhere else. And you will believe with all of your heart that it benefits the planet for people to produce their own food, including raising dairy animals for milk.

Oh, and you'll get to see R.E.M. live four or five times in the future (which is now my distant past), the prospect of which I know is pretty thrilling to you. Enjoy!

Love you!