the-garden-1024x682The first piece of swag to come out of writing this blog hit my mailbox this spring, when I was asked to review Jean-Martin Fortier’s book The Market Gardener. Sadly, they did not also send me a broadfork.

Carmen and I were also able to enjoy a one-day workshop with Jean-Martin, put on by the Young Agrarians as part of the Rockstar Farmer Tour—and we even drank a beer with him afterwards. So, I got the inside scoop for you.

In short, if you have dreams of serious gardening or small farming, buy this book. Beyond that, the big question for me was why would I buy this over the Coleman classic, The New Organic Grower? I think you should buy both, but I think you should read Jean-Martin first.

I will go into more detail, but Jean-Martin makes starting a profitable small farm (grossing over $100,000 from 1.5 acres) seem possible. I could identify with him in a way I can’t with the Grand Old Silverback Coleman; Jean-Martin and his wife Maude-Hélène are young; they didn’t start with a lot of money; they live in Quebec, which is noted for winter; they have chosen a farming system based on hand tools to avoid the expense of tractors.

To explain why I think you should have The Market Gardener near to hand, I need to talk about Eliot Coleman, the Guru of modern smallholdings. Fortier is an admirer and student of Coleman, the two of them have gone on speaking tours together—their philosophies are very complementary. Coleman is a researcher, an inventor and a philosopher. He tells you what he knows, what he thinks and what he doesn’t know. He does not skimp on detail—his books are thick and packed with information.

And for me, trying to garden a few urban plots and imagine a more agrarian future, Coleman is overwhelming. There is so much detail I drown. Coleman also uses a folksy illustration style I find obscures the information—this really stands out, for example, in his discussion of crop rotation.

IMG_0872-1024x768Jean-Martin has cut to the chase and tried to produce a handbook, a plan for the new small farmer to follow. He is more detailed about budgets and costs, and yet presents topics like crop rotation in a more simple way—a way I was able to apply in my own garden this year.

Fortier, like Coleman, is very aggressive about weeding out inefficiency—even if a little Coleman goes with it. The New Organic Gardener strongly promotes soil blocks. Fortier says, in his charming French way, that soil blocks are too much work, and they get perfectly good results with standard seedling cell trays.

Coleman is great—he is much more detailed on soil amendments. He also includes more history and philosophy. Coleman is a popularizer of winter gardening—whereas the Fortier family simply plans to take time off in the winter and go to sunny places.

It is comforting to me to have Jean-Martin demonstrate successful and profitable farming with different methods than Coleman. It makes me feel like any small variance on my path might not necessarily result in a disastrous garden failure. Fortier proves what Coleman advocates—observe, experiment, and do what works for you.

So I think you should buy both books, but I would buy Fortier’s first. Coleman’s The New Organic Gardener is excellent to read by your winter fire, when you have time for reflection, or feel you have incorporated enough you want to raise your game.

Jean-Martin Fortier’s The Market Gardener is the book to have at your hand, on the table while you eat lunch, on your bedside table for the few minutes before sleep. This is a direct, clear, guide for day-to-day operations of your small farm.

 

 

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In the calmness of bees.

Bee bombWe have honeybees flying in our backyard again, and they have brought our family a noticeable sense of comfort.

Our bees died last fall. Likely it was the varroa destructor mite, archvillain of many news stories. Carmen has noticed our bees die before we move, and she thinks this is no coincidence. I hate moving too.

So yesterday I picked up a new package of bees from an apiary just a few miles up-island from us. A ‘package’ is the most common way to buy bees. It is a mesh-walled box full of adult bees and a mated queen in her own little mesh cage. Packages are often sold by the pound–this one ended up being over three pounds of bees, so probably over 10,000 bees. The queen is in her own little cage because she is not necessarily these bees’ queen, so they might kill her as an usurper. Keeping her in the cage for a few days allows her Queen Pheromone to spread through the colony and bend them all to her service.

Actually, they bend more to the service of the continued spread of the colony. You can easily introduce a new queen, so obviously they are not loyal to genes. The reproductive strategy of bees is to grow large hives and then send off swarms to colonize distant hollow trees or other nooks, and as long as they are doing that, they are happy.

I realized as I was driving back with this package that it was almost exactly four years ago that I picked up my first package of bees. In fact, as I drove away from my weekend bee workshop I was listening to the 2010 olympic gold medal hockey game as the winning goal was scored.

Four years with the bees. My first package came out of Chile, shortly after their devastating earthquake. Apparently only three packages from that entire shipment made it to Vancouver alive. Who knows how long they sat, under what conditions, as Chile struggled to rescue people. Needless to say, that colony did not last long. The next succumbed to a wasp invasion. Then we were beeless, as we knew we were moving to Victoria, which until recently has had a moratorium against off-island bees.

The next bees to join us were a huge swarm. My phone rang as Carmen and I were raising cocktails before our third-anniversary dinner, and I was off, with my red jumpsuit (bad) and my straw cowboy hat with a cheap veil (bad). But when I got to the swarm, burled on a suburban branch, I stood underneath it and felt the soothing hum of the bees wash over me. This is a strange thing. Bees buzz, and buzzing is often scary. Bees are also insects, and so are incomprehensible to humans. But I find the sound of the bees to be very soothing, very calming, and my family has grown the feel the same way.

That colony was strong, and gave a couple of good splits. I thought we had a good thing going as they drew white wax and raised their own queens. But then they died last fall, a blessing only in that I didn’t have to move a large colony of bees, which is always stressful. So, this year I went looking for bees again. I prefer local, in the hopes of finding bees acclimated to our region, as opposed to the packages from Chile or New Zealand. There is a queen breeder who has been part of government study in breeding hygienic behaviour in response to the varroa mite, so maybe I will buy one of his queens later.

But I brought home the package last night—absolutely stuffed with bees—and shook them onto frames of good, drawn wax, even a little honey from last year. I tucked them in and wished them a good night. And this morning, as we unlocked our bikes for the ride to school, we all commented on how good it felt to live with bees again.

We joke about our 50,000 head of livestock, the language is all about “keeping” bees. But, as J.B. McKinnon might have lyrically said in The Once and Future World, the bees have rewilded us, even if only in the smallest of ways. We feel better for sharing our lives with these tiny, incomprehensible creatures, and it is wonderful to have them back.

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My best loaf yet.

P1060028The slices of bread on my sandwich were not loaf-shaped, they were round—perfectly round—and it was bursting with alfalfa sprouts. Eaten by a young boy with long, wavy hair and often-repaired glasses, this circular sandwich was part of a pretty alien picture in my small-town elementary school.

Mom was baking whole wheat bread in large apple juice tins at that time, which made cylindrical loaves. I think my mother still worries about the many forms of trauma I suffered, but I feel reasonably well adjusted. It didn’t kill me, therefore…

I used a bread machine for a while. I made no-knead bread for a while. I never really got serious about regular bread, because all the kneading seemed like too much work.

But, recently Carmen has been feeling bloated after eating bread. Bread activist Andrew Whitely fingers modern additives that allow very fast rising times for the recent increase in gluten intolerance and celiac disease.

Bread made with all these enzymes and additives can go from a bag of flour to the back of a delivery truck in less than four hours, whereas bread that is traditionally leavened with sourdough can take a day or more. In that time, bacteria can make wheat proteins more digestible for many people.

This article about Whitely blew my mind, so I decided to try making sourdough bread. I have now made a loaf I consider good enough to post here. Like no-knead bread, this loaf requires a cast-iron dutch oven or combo cooker for baking. Or, as I use, a pyrex bowl with a glass lid.

We had eaten some very, very delicious bread, baked by Andrew Plotsky who made the very beautiful Anatomy of Thrift videos. Andrew said the book Tartine Bread was the oracle of wisdom, so I requested it from library. Since it was a bit of a wait I got busy on my sourdough starter.

Sourdough starter is another one of those things that has the ring of the impossible. It feels like only people who are much tougher and smarter—sharpshooters who know esoteric knots—could possibly make sourdough. My parents have a sourdough and it requires feeding with all-purpose flour, sugar and milk—which seems terribly fussy and not conducive to the Small and Delicious Life. But, it turns out wheat is covered with bacteria, and sourdough grows itself. The process is easy, though, like most of my projects, it takes a little time at the right time. I followed these instructions.

So, I have a nice starter, which I stabilized and now keep in the fridge. I feed it only whole wheat flour and water, and everything seems fine; if it dies, I will just make another one.

I did a bunch of research and really enjoyed Exorphin Junkie and the Northwest Sourdough Bakers Forum. Peter Reinhart’s Artisan Bread Every Day is also a lovely book with lots of ideas for shaping loaves, and slightly different information about what is going on in sourdough.

Finally, Chad Robertson’s Tartine Bread came from the library. It is indeed a fantastic book, full of romantic stories of bakeries in France and odes to sourdough. The many recipes for things to do with bread made me salivate. But it does not have a 100% whole wheat recipe. Exorphin Junkie suggests following the standard recipe but substituting whole wheat flour, so that is what I did—and then I spent a few weeks futzing around with how much water to add.

If you are serious about sourdough, I would suggest you read the book. But, Martha Stewart has a reasonable synopsis of the technique you can compare to my mongrelized methods. Make the sourdough as above, and start paying attention to Martha at Step 6.

As a side note, when I was a kid we had a flour mill, and to this day, I love the nutty flavour of pancakes made with freshly-ground wheat. Several years ago I found a used Mill-Rite to grind the British Columbia Hard Red Wheat I get from our local bulk food store. The Mill-Rites are true grist mills famous for their slow grind—I think my millstones turn at 45 rpm. This keeps the flour cool during grinding, which, according to the internet wisdom, means nutrients are not destroyed by the heat of grinding.

Before I get to the recipe, I want to mention one more thing I learned—Baker’s Percentages, which make scaling recipes up or down quite easy. In this recipe method, the weight of the flour is always called 100% and everything else is relative to that; your recipe will total 190% or 220% or whatever. I will give both absolute weight and baker’s percentages here.

First, feed up your starter. I like to add 1/4 to 1/2 cup of flour and half that amount of water to my starter the night before, then leave it out on the counter overnight. I may change that slightly, because this beautiful loaf was made with starter that I fed in the morning and waited until it had risen—around noon—before I started the steps below.

100 grams starter
450 grams room temperature water
500 grams freshly ground hard red whole wheat flour
10 grams salt (2 tsp)
50 grams water (2 oz.)

or:
20% starter
90% water
100% WW flour
2% salt
10% water

Mix 100 grams of starter into 450 grams of water, then add 500 grams of flour. Combine until the flour is wetted, then cover and leave for 45 minutes to one hour.
Feed the started by adding 1/4 cup flour and 1/8 cup water, then put it back in the fridge.

After an hour, add 10 grams salt to 50 grams water and stir until dissolved. Add to the dough and squinch everything through your fingers until it is combined. Cover and let sit for 45 minutes to one hour.

Begin gently developing the dough by folding it every half hour. Wet your fingers and slide your hand under the dough, then lift it up, and let it stretch back down to the bowl. Turn the bowl 90 degrees and repeat twice more. Cover and let sit.

Repeat this stretching and folding every half hour for three or four hours.

Turn the dough out onto a cutting board and flour the top. Begin forming it into a ball, kind of rolling it on the board between your cupped hands while tucking the bottom under with your little fingers. You want the top of the ball to be smooth and tight, but not so tight it rips. Flour, cover with a teatowel, and let rest for 30 minutes.

Repeat. After the ball has rested again, line a bowl with the tea towel and flour the towel heavily. Use a dough scraper to make sure the ball is not stuck to the cutting board, then, using the scraper, lift the ball and place it upside down in the bowl. Flour the dough a bit more, then fold the towel over the top and put in the fridge overnight.

The next morning, pull the bowl out of the fridge and let it warm up for a couple of hours. Preheat the oven and your dutch oven to 450°. When it is hot, flour the dutch oven and dump the dough into it, as gently as possible under the circumstances.

Using a razor blade, slash the top of the dough in a square. It is ideal if the blade is flat, so the cuts go in sideways, not down, but don’t burn yourself on your dutch oven.

Put the lid back on, and bake everything for 20 minutes. Then take the lid off and bake for 25 more minutes.

Cool on a rack and give it a bit of time before slicing.

So, this is not hard, and does not take a lot of time in total, but it does take a little time at the right time. This works for us right now, but may not always; Tartine Bread goes into some detail about how to shift the schedule of the bread to suit your timeline.

This bread—100% whole wheat leavened with sourdough—is what I call Next Level Shit. Just as with making fermented and dried Salami Milano, and Parmesan cheese, this bread feels like a major accomplishment. It is delicious and moist, not at all dense, and just as Chad Robertson promises, it keeps very well. It will sit for a week on the countertop without going mouldy. And, Carmen feels good after eating it.

UPDATE:

IMG_0001Every loaf I have made since gets better, and this loaf is the best, with delightful ears and a nice holiness. It was made with BC Red Fife wheat, and took almost two days from feeding the starter to baking—again, just a little time, at the right time. I fed the starter at night and kept it in the fridge, then mixed the dough about noon the next day. I developed the dough all day, then let it rise in the fridge overnight. I took it out about noon the next day and let it rise until dinner, when I baked it off to accompany a delightful chicken-rice soup.

Changing to Red Fife left me with a very wet dough, so I added a little more flour in the development folds, but fortunately I had recently watched this video on high-hydration doughs.

I also enjoyed this video on developing the gluten sheath outside dough balls. There is so much to learn for the Small and Delicious Life, so much knowledge we have lost—knowledge that used to be as water to fish.

Miscellaneous trivia about the Ten Percent World:

My dear friend J.B. MacKinnon is officially on his book tour for The Once and Future World.

I encourage you—I insist—to buy many copies for holiday gifts. Write the Colbert Report and ask to have him on as a guest. But mostly you should read it and love it.

I will link to some reviews to do greater justice, but I want to talk about the 10% world and wheat. James coined the phrase to describe how much of nature we have left—even in the most wild and abundant places there is only about 10% of the historic abundance. He prescribes we remember, reconnect and rewild.

As always, James sees things more from nature, and I see things more from craft; we are always trying to peer into the mysterious and wonderful world the other inhabits. And here, I am gleefully appropriating his phrase for craft.

While traveling this summer, we spent a very lovely few days outside Amsterdam in a town called Laren. Laren has many, many houses with thatched roofs. They are more expensive upfront, but also the most durable, and are very insulating. And insanely beautiful.

Laren, the NetherlandsBut, I learned the modern wheat varieties, which are bred to have short stalks so as to devote more energy to the grain rather than the stem, are no good for thatching—the Dutch must now import wheat straw for their thatching.

So, a beautiful ecosystem of food and shelter, recycling, manual skills of field and home has been disrupted by the drive for better yield and higher profits by agribusiness. A 10% world indeed.

 

Review of The Once and Future World in the Chicago Tribune

Review of The Once and Future World in Harper’s Online

Review of The Once and Future World in the Globe and Mail

Review of The Once and Future World in the National Post

Great quote from the National Post interview: “Nature may not be what it was,” he writes, “but it isn’t simply gone. It’s waiting.”

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I don’t want salvation.

I watched a deer die this week. It took about ninety seconds, which is a lot longer than I hope for, and the deer fought hard to live. The shock, pain and fear it was experiencing as it struggled against the death spreading from the bullet wound in its chest was not pleasant to watch, but I didn’t turn away.

That was Thursday.

On Wednesday, the Archdruid releases his regular post, and this week he clarified his thoughts on a rising ecological sensibility. I found this paragraph to be particularly resonant:

It’s one thing to proclaim salvation from nature, history, and the human condition to those who want that salvation but no longer believe that the ideology you’re offering can provide it. It’s quite another to [proclaim salvation] to people who no longer want the salvation you’re offering—people for whom nature, history, and the human condition aren’t a trap to escape, as they have been for most people in the western world for the last two millennia, but a reality to embrace in delight and wonder.

This quote draws heavily on a topic Greer has been exploring recently, the Civil Religion of Progress, in which, he argues, Progress has pretty much been swapped point-for-point for God in the Judeo-Christian framework.

If I can paraphrase—Life is Hard. It is uncertain: you never know when your crops will fail, your company will downsize, or the river will flood. There is interpersonal pain: first as a child, then as a teenager going through high school, then trying to find your way as an adult, then coping with the realities of adult and romantic relationships, then death of friends, family and yourself. There is lots of hard work: school and training, the grind in the fields or the office, the maintenance of hearth and home, cooking and cleaning.

So step right up. Who wants salvation?!? We got a lovely god promising eternal life in heaven, reunited with your loved ones and with not a scrap of work to do. We got machines that will eliminate toil and kitchens that will clean themselves and food heated with just the press of a button. We got rocketships to take us off this damn dustball.

And especially, if you are sick or dying or aching with worry for a loved one, we have God’s Plan, or modern medicine, and funeral homes so you don’t need to touch the dead, and hearses so you don’t need to carry the weight of the casket, and backhoes to dump the dirt back in the hole.

So, the goals are the same—salvation from pain and toil—but the ideologies used to achieve those goals are different, theism or progress.

But what if you don’t want to be saved from pain and toil? What if you don’t want to escape the human condition?

I have come to think the desire for salvation from toil is a very big problem. Instead, I am trying to learn to love the work of providing for myself and my family. I don’t mean going to an office and making money to pay someone to do everything for me, I mean growing the food for our table, grinding the grains and baking the bread, brewing the cider. It is repetitive and difficult and capricious, but it feels very real.

Regarding salvation from pain, I have been influenced by Stephen Jenkinson, another wise, bearded man. From The Star:

Formerly a director of children’s grief and palliative care at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, and assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s School of Family and Community Medicine, Jenkinson now makes a living running workshops on care of the dying, dealing with grief, and what he calls deep living.

“Death isn’t something that happens to you. It’s something you do. You get to choose the manner in which you die: the quality of it, the nature of it.”

The National Film Board produced a film about Jenkinson, Griefwalker, which we watched at one of his talks. I don’t remember the film well, as it was sandwiched between several hours of mind-blowing oratory about death and the meaning of words. You can watch it on the NFB website.

And that brings me back to the deer. As Jenkinson says, “We don’t have to like death, who would? But we do have to befriend it.”

I think there is meaning in killing what you eat. Our rabbit tastes all the richer stewed with the difficulty of taking their lives. It is not just the flavour of meat and vegetables, it tastes like connection to the ecosphere. It tastes like I am a little closer to knowing my position on the food chain.

So that deer had the worst two minutes of its life in front of me. Then I helped gut it, and a couple of days later we skinned it and butchered it into various cuts for freezing. But that night we ate the tenderloin, which is cut from inside the haunches, alongside the spine. Carmen pan-roasted it in cast iron, then cut it into medallions and served it with a sauce of jus and chantrelle mushrooms, which came from the same forest as the deer, abundant after the recent rain.

My eyes welled up as I took the first bite. I believe our world would be healthier if we saw ourselves as part of nature, not above it—but abstract thoughts like that are made up of many little specifics, and I felt bad for taking that deer’s life.

I felt bad. I hurt—but I don’t need saving from the human condition.

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Why Green is not Sustainable.

Garlic“An Environmentalist on the Lie of Locavorism” crossed my desk the other day. It’s a pretty eye-catching title, pitting “An Environmentalist” against local eating and urban farming, darlings of greens and urban planners everywhere – and calling them liars, to boot. That is a pretty big brag.

But it didn’t take much reading to see Will Boisvert’s environmental vision needs a very strong pair of glasses. His myopia is in the difference between Green and Sustainable – two words that could use a little definition. (I am not picking on Boisvert for any particular reason, this sort of mistake is rampant in  “environmental” writing. His article just happened to tick me off at a time I felt like writing about it.)

Ignoring flagrant greenwashing, I use green to mean stuff that is less bad – and I chose my words carefully – for the planet and the flora and fauna that live on it.

Sustainable, on the other hand, gets beaten around the ring – mostly by people who throw their hands in the air and say, “Sustainable. What does that even mean?” Its meaning is quite simple, really.

It means able-to-be-sustained.

It means, for all intents and purposes, that whatever you are talking about can keep on doing what it is doing, and can do so essentially forever. The sun is a sustainable energy source, because it will keep rising in the east, essentially forever. A sustainable fishery is one that would give us surplus fish every year, essentially forever. A sustainable economy would keep providing for the needs of participants, essentially forever.

So, when someone throws their hands in the air, it is probably because they just don’t like the answer – the meaning is really quite easy to understand.

Now, the problem is that many green solutions sound great, but aren’t sustainable: nuclear energy, electric cars, the hydrogen highway, substituting renewables for coal-fired power, vertical farming, urban density, public transit – these are green(er), but not sustainable. Green seldom means good for the planet, or good for the environment, it means less bad.

So green can be a continuum. Burning two gallons of gas is better than burning three gallons. Burning one gallon is better than burning two gallons. But something is able-to-be-sustained – or not. Bill Rees, of EcoFootprint fame, says that sustainability is like pregnancy – you either are or you aren’t. There is no grey area.

In his critique of locavorism Boisvert makes the same mistake that underlies the most common criticisms of the 100 Mile Diet, and shows a deep lack of understanding of sustainability.

NASA is always taking new pictures, but what never changes is the starkness of that little blue droplet surrounded by deep space. What never changes is the inarguable obviousness of the edges of our planet. We live on a finite world.

Because we live on a finite planet everything that makes up our planet is also finite.

So, I googled Will Boisvert, trying to see if he understands limits. I found someone who has argued passionately in favour of the nuclear industry. Boisvert often bases his support of nuclear on decarbonization, so it seems likely he believes in Climate Chaos and wishes we could prevent that. Good for him. I can speculate he is writing his columns from the communications office of a uranium mining company, but that is only speculation. He says he supports nuclear, because it can decarbonize our power supply.

But, while he talks about carbon, which mostly comes from fossil fuels, he never talks about peak oil. Nor, in all his writing about how nuclear is the only real option, does he address the limits to the supply of radioactive materials.

So it seems like Boisvert does not get that we live on a finite planet, and that is why he totally misses the point of local eating.

Boisvert’s argument against locavorism is entirely one of how many gallons of diesel it takes to move a tonne of produce to market. This is the logic that says it is better to eat New Zealand lamb or Mexican tomatoes. Add in the coal or natural gas burnt in greenhouses to grow your tomatoes-on-the-vine in January, and the trucked-in Mexican tomato looks even – ahem – greener.

And if only we had an infinite supply of diesel, these arguments may be right – but we don’t, so they aren’t. They are all wrong. A Mexican tomato is less bad than a coal-fired greenhouse tomato, but it is still bad. Bad. Boisvert et al. have seemingly willfully misunderstood the argument, because locavorism was never about your January tomato.

Locavorism is about living within the edges of that little blue droplet. If you want a tomato in January, in August you should cut a nice, ripe tomato into thin slices, sprinkle on a little salt, and dry it in a warm but shady place. Locavorism is about the rhythms of the seasons in the place where you live. It is not about having a tomato whenever the hell you feel like, nor about eating lamb when it is not lambing season.

So yes, it may be less bad – greener – to eat a tomato from Mexico rather than a hothouse tomato grown up the street in Edmonton. But neither of these two options is able-to-be-sustained. Both of these options fail as the supply of fossil fuels fails. What does not fail is eating from your bioregion. Gorge yourself on tomatoes in harvest season or enjoy jars from your pantry, but fresh tomato year-round is not sustainable.

You can see the meaning of the word is quite easy to understand, it is just the answer we don’t like – you can’t always get what you want. The concept of sustainability is very clear, even if is hard to weed out the greens. If you want to separate the two, just try to unpack it as far out as you can. Play elaborate what-if games, imagine scenarios. Plan for the seventh generation.

And stop calling New Zealand lamb sustainable.

 

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