Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Would You Like a Side of Atrazine With That?

Wonderful! An article in The Washington Post this morning reports that the dangers of a common herbicide may be greater than previously thought. Another hip-hip-hooray for conventional agriculture and the petrochemical industry that keeps it going! This quote I found particularly disturbing: "Atrazine has been found to cause limb deformities and hermaphroditism in frogs at concentrations as low as 0.1 parts per billion." Whereas the "safe" level for human drinking water is "an annual average" of 3 parts per billion. Ohhhhhhkay.

Why do I not get a warm fuzzy feeling reading the reassurances issued by the manufacturer that even temporary spikes higher than the level limit "are not going to be injurious to human health"???

Entrusting the health and safety of our food supply to people who have a financial interest in selling more and more chemicals is just plain foolish. Period. I'm reading a fascinating book by Joel Salatin that describes the in-the-trenches how-to of getting away from the broken model of conventional agriculture, but I'm still wondering how we, as a planet, can recover from so many decades of unbridled arrogance?

Friday, August 21, 2009

Just Do It

Today was an exciting day because 1. we went to our favorite local park which just also happens to be a farm, so we visited with goats, chickens, turkeys (hilarious!), pigs, sheep, and cows; and 2. because our dear friends at Amazon sent us books! Any day that involves the acquisition of books is a good day.

First up was Mudpies to Magnets: A Preschool Science Curriculum, a book recommended in The Well-Trained Mind for teaching young children about science. It has about a gazillion science projects to do with young children. Susie and I pored over it this afternoon and decided we're going to do at least one project every week. I am so excited! We do a lot of science and nature-y stuff in our normal course of business, but I feel like this will help us stay a bit more focused, as well as providing a seemingly unending supply of fresh ideas.

But the really exciting arrival was Joel Salatin's You Can Farm, which I have been devouring all evening. I won't lie, there's some nutty stuff in this book. I can't say I agree with everything Salatin has to say. But the majority of what I've read so far has been informative, inspiring, and inventive. The most important lesson so far is not to wait until you have the perfect property, all the time in the world, and plenty of money stashed away in the bank. If you are interested in farming, if you think you might somehow someday want to make a living from farming, just start doing something about it. Grow stuff! Turn your backyard into a kitchen garden and learn from experience what works and what doesn't. Don't wait around for perfect opportunities, just start with what you've already got.

Well, what I've got is a whole bunch of really annoying HOA covenants that won't allow me to have chickens. Hmph. But... I also have a decently-sized yard, and my husband and I have had terrible luck with the whole maintaining-a-pretty-lawn thing. The front yard will probably have to stay pretty conservative (except for the vegetables I'm growing in the flower beds, shhh), but who's to say we can't just take over the back yard and start growing some fun edible stuff among all the pretty perennials? Oooh yes, this could be exciting.

Thursday, August 20, 2009


This summer, during our annual pilgrimage to Maine, we visited the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens for the first time. Even on a cool and misty day, it was beautiful. The landscaping was so inspiring, and the amazing combinations of plants -- just lovely. Unfortunately, much of what we saw will not grow in my hot and humid Maryland garden, but there are a few things I'd like to try next year. I am trying to transition our garden to growing only native plants, so that they will thrive with little to no care (I love it when being environmentally aware dovetails so nicely with laziness!). One little beauty I plan to make use of is coreopsis, a gorgeous flowering herb that apparently is native to most of the Eastern United States.

Speaking of inspiration, I read a gorgeous profile in the Washington Post Home section this morning about a couple of landscape designers and their home/garden/micro-farm in Vermont. The pictures alone make me want to drop everything and head for the hills.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Learning to Cook

Once upon a time, I was a young single mother, too busy to do more than microwave something from the freezer on those nights when I actually "cooked" at all. I bought things like Hamburger Helper; I considered fish sticks, boxed mashed potatoes, and frozen peas to be a balanced meal. I had no patience for things that might go bad in the fridge if left unattended. I was also, I must confess, embarrassingly phobic about vegetables and other suspect new foods.

So then I met my husband, who has one of the most adventurous palettes I have ever encountered. He was awfully good-natured about eating Hamburger Helper with Cassie and me, but I knew he would have preferred a more varied cuisine. I started venturing out of my comfort zone, cooking things with fresh ingredients, reading cookbooks, trying new things at restaurants. I made startling discoveries, like: zucchini is delicious! Homemade pizza tastes 1,000 times better than Domino's! Woah!

As I started to cook more, and I started to cook better, a few things started happening. We started eating more healthfully, for one. And not because I was trying, but because cooking from fresh ingredients seems to automatically lead to a healthier diet. And the more I really cooked, the more I got creative with food, the more I really enjoyed the act of cooking. The first time I made a zucchini frittata, the smell of the onions and zucchini and chard sauteing was absolutely intoxicating. As our family expanded, the new little ones got the benefit of having fresh, healthful food prepared for them every day... and they didn't eat like typical American kids. They eat hummus and goat cheese and fruit. And then of course, there is the reaction of my husband to all this creativity coming out of the kitchen. The joy of watching him savor the food I've prepared... it may sound quaint, but it is a true joy of my life. This man loves food. He loves good food. And the fact that he truly appreciates my cooking makes me... proud.

So, somewhere along the line, I learned to cook. And once you know how to cook, once you start to really understand food and flavor, ingredients start to matter. I started noticing the difference in taste and texture between the conventionally grown produce and organic. The vast difference in the quality of the meat. I started buying organic whenever possible just for the taste alone. When my husband bought some conventional grapes this past week, four-year-old Susie bit into one and asked, "why do these grapes taste like water? Do we have any of the grape-tasting grapes?"

So, as a cook, this is one of my favorite times of year. All the hard work I've put into the garden, starting in early spring when I double-dug the soil and worked in the compost by hand... it all starts to bear fruit (ha!). I plan meals around what's ripe. Tonight's fajitas were inspired by the harvest of the first bell pepper. Yesterday's watermelon gazpacho contained the first cucumber of the season. I am watching the first two tomatoes ripen on the vine and already scheming what delicious dishes to put them in. It seems like such a rare gift, to be able to cook foods right as they come out of the garden. All my years of apartment living, I couldn't even keep a pot of basil alive on the windowsill. Not that I would have known what to do with basil. But now that I do know, I feel utterly blessed to have a bit of earth in which to grow my own. It's a simple pleasure I know, but sometimes the best things are.

Monday, August 17, 2009


These are the things I find beautiful. These are the things I keep coming back to. The light in a barn. The smell of hay. Chickens being their busy, silly, chicken-selves. I know it's terribly sentimental and goofy for a city girl to have such a longing for the pastoral, but there you have it.

I know the reality is that farms are dirty. There's a lot of poop to deal with. I get that. But there is something achingly beautiful about a split-rail fence, with a few cows grazing beyond. There is such a friendliness to the images connected with an old-style, diversified farm. Some would say that such a small-scale farm is part of our history, completely impractical in the economies-of-scale modern agriculture business. There are a thousand practical, ethical, well-researched ways in which I disagree -- and I'll get to many of them, I'm sure. But for now, while I sit here and daydream, the beauty is enough. I want to know that such beauty still exists. I want to be part of making sure it continues.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Reading List

If you have any interest in following me down this crazy, meandering mental path that somehow leads a well-educated, city-bred, thirty-something woman into hankering for a farm... here's your reading list. :)

Suburban Nation
is a book I read about four years ago, and then promptly moved to an outer suburb -- so apparently, I wasn't paying attention. But it taught me to pay attention to things that I hadn't given any consideration whatsoever. Like aesthetics. I would never have consciously considered aesthetics to be an important aspect of where or how people live. But I realize now that part of what pushed us to leave the somewhat gritty inner suburb we were living in until three years ago was aesthetic. We didn't like looking at trash all the time, we didn't like the gross strip mall where we did our grocery shopping, or stepping over broken bottles trying to walk on the nature trails by our house. We didn't just pick our current house because it's pretty... but it's a bigger reason than I probably realize.

Now of course, Suburban Nation is about more than the importance of aesthetics in urban planning -- it's about new urbanism, and the importance of mixed-use, transit-based, high-density development. And I'm totally on board with that. That isn't where I live, at all, but I respect and support it. What we found, though, when we were house-hunting three years ago, is that we couldn't afford it. Which is a damn shame, but there you have it. A lot of these new urbanist communities are really cost-prohibitive for young families like ours.

Last Child in the Woods
is one of those books that you read that doesn't have to convince you of anything, because everything it says just makes such perfect sense. I need to check this book out of the library again and re-read it, because I think of it as a well of inspiration. You might just instinctively believe that children need nature, but this book tells you why. More importantly, it tells you how to make nature a part of your children's lives. I read this book, and then immediately turned around and started a garden with Susie, who was then two. She is now four, and the proud caretaker of her third garden. And I would be hard-pressed to find a child more loving of nature. A lot of the mucking around we do in the backyard, started with this book. It motivated me to get out there and get dirty with my kids.

The End of Food
really freaked me out. It was one of those books I immediately wished I hadn't read, because ignorance is bliss. (Kind of like the movie Fast Food Nation... like, uh, I really didn't want those images in my brain, thanks... this is going to make it a lot harder for me to enjoy my Whopper.) It was a lot of food for thought (ha!), but I can't say I enjoyed it. I battled with it. I struggled with it. I didn't even finish reading it! But it stayed with me. Percolating. What is this stuff I am putting in my mouth? Where did it come from? How was it produced? All kinds of questions that are easier not to ask... because when you start asking, it's hard not to want to radically change your life.

But then later, I read In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto and it all started coming together. Ideas started to gel in my mind. How does this food in my grocery store get there? What am I buying, really, when I purchase my food? What systems am I supporting with my food dollars? And why does all this "food" taste like crap??

It's happened gradually, the food changes in our house. I don't think anyone woke up one day and said, "hey, who through out my Cheetos?" We just started eating more mindfully. More healthfully, more ethically, and more... taste-fully. More and more, I can feel like I'm supporting the right kind of systems with my food dollars. But an even more radical idea has been growing in my mind: skip the grocery store entirely.

What if your food didn't come from a grocery store? What if it came from your own land? What if you grew it, preserved it, raised it, nurtured it?

It's a crazy idea, I know. And completely impractical in our HOA-restricted outer 'burb. But with every cucumber I harvest from my front yard, I feel a little thrill of the subversive.