Tuesday, November 28, 2006

My Crazy Scheme, Part 3: Magnification

Last time I outlined my ideas for increasing our ability to feed ourselves from our own property. This doesn't sound like a big deal, but it is.

Making money in agriculture in today's world is nearly impossible. Land is too expensive, anything you might grow is already too plentiful, and the industrial model of agriculture is too efficient. Profit margins for farms, large or small, often hover between non-existant and negative. The deck is stacked against the farmer or rancher, in favor of the processors and distributors. Subsidies are designed to maximize farm production at all costs, even if it means supply is so abundant that market prices are well below production costs. (Even if it means a whole host of other negative things.) "Get big or get out" has been the mantra of agriculture since the 1950's.

But there is one wildcard in that stacked deck. It's often referred to as direct use economy. How can you justify owning a dairy goat when milk is $1.99 a gallon? Well, with one dairy goat, you might get 1/2 gallon a day. Seven bucks a week. But wait, let's compare apples to apples. Organic milk is more like $3.50 for a half gallon. Now we're talking about more like $25 a week. Raw milk isn't even available in most places. And no matter the price, milk from the store can never be as fresh or as local. I don't know how to price that.

At any rate, it appears that the surest way to make money from agriculture is not by selling what you produce, but by using what you produce (and producing what you use). Prices go up and down, markets go up and down, economies go up and down. Plants and animals just grow. They grow at the same rate regardless of prices or markets or economics. Have your grocery bills been creeping up, little by little? I'm hoping ours will shrink significantly, even as our food quality and nutrition increases, and our carbon footprint decreases.

There's a rapidly expanding movement to eat more locally produced foods. Phrases like "100 mile diet," "eat local," and "localvores" are turning up more and more. Michael Pollan's excellent book, The Omnivore's Dilemma might be the most fascinating and enlightening treatment of the subject I've seen so far.

So what's more local than your back yard?

It turns out, on further inspection, that this is not an entirely rhetorical question. Localization of food can be taken one step farther. (One step closer?) How? With heirloom varieties and breeds. First, because you can take your own seeds from plants, removing one more small link in the long chain of food production and fuel consumption. But secondly, because heirloom varieties were often developed to suit local geography and climate. If it was developed in your area, it's likely to be very well adapted to your area. Have you ever noticed how many of the old varieties and breeds have geographic names? Rhode Island Red. Kentucky Wonder. Jersey Prince. Long Island Improved. California Improved.

We're in USDA Hardiness Zone 5b. That's based only on how cold it gets in the winter. Other areas in Zone 5 include parts of Nevada, Nova Scotia, North Dakota, and New Mexico. I don't think we have the same soil type, daylight hours, humidity, rainfall, summer highs or frost free dates for as any of those places. Instead of one-size-fits-all Better Boy tomatoes, you can have an incredible array of things that won't just grow, but thrive, with very little help from you.

If you breed your own plants and animals, and selectively breed for those specimens that thrive in your local conditions, you can get some pretty significant improvements in just a few years. Things like: better production, better disease resistance, better germination... these are not trivial things.

So for the vegetable garden, I'd like to try an heirloom seed collection from Baker Creek Seeds, as well as the following varieties:
Click on the links for further descriptions and you'll see why. For several consecutive seasons, I'd like to expand and refine and adjust and adapt and see where it takes us.

The other thing that struck me while reading The Omnivore's Dilemma was the incredible preponderance of Zea Mays in our food chain. Known to you and me as corn, this single species is involved in tens of thousands of food items. Quoting from The Omnivore's Dilemma now:
Read the ingredients on the label of any processed food and, provided you know the chemical names it travels under, corn is what you'll find. For modified or unmodified starch, for glucose syrup and maltodextrin, for crystalline fructose and ascorbic acid, for lecithin and dextrose, lactic acid and lysine, for maltose and HFCS, for MSG and polyols, for the caramel color and xantham gum, read: corn. Corn is in the coffee whitener and Cheez Whiz, the frozen yogurt and TV dinner, the canned fruit and ketchup and candies, the soups and snacks and cake mixes, the frosting and gravy and frozen waffles, the syrups and hot sauces, the mayonnaise and mustard, the hot dogs and the balogna, the margarine and shortening, the salad dressings and the relishes and even the vitamins. (Yes, it's in the Twinkie, too.) There are some forty-five thousand items in the average American supermarket and more than a quarter of them now contain corn. This goes for nonfood items as well: Everything from the toothpaste and cosmetics to the disposable diapers, trash bags, cleansers, charcoal briquettes, matches, and batteries, right down to the shine on the cover of the magazine that catches your eye by the checkout: corn. Even in the produce on a day when there's ostensibley no corn for sale, you'll nevertheless find plenty of corn: in the vegetable wax that gives the cucumbers their sheen, in the pesticide responsible for the produce's perfection, even in the coating on the cardboard it was shipped in. Indeed, the supermarket itself -- the wallboard and joint compound, the linoleum and fiberglass and adhesives out of which the building itself has been built -- is in no small measure a manifestation of corn.
And you know what my first thought was, after I picked up my jaw and popped my eyes back in? Irish potato famine. Maybe it's my newfound doom-and-gloom influences, but being so dependent on a single, solitary crop seems like a bit of a bad idea to me...

In my next (and final) installment, I'll tell you about where I hope we can go with all this.

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At 11/29/2006 9:44 PM, Blogger Emme said...

It looks like you are thinking about the same thing that I am starting to plan. Edible Landscaping? I look forward to reading more!

At 12/01/2006 10:09 PM, Blogger Beo said...

Good Stuff E4!


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