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The Magic of Compost

Orizaba Farm's new location in Milwaukie, Oregon

Orizaba Farm’s new location in Milwaukie, Oregon

The green tarp crinkled as I pulled it back from the large pile of leaves, straw, and kitchen scraps.  Digging my hand into the moist pile, I moved aside the top layers until I reached a mat of coffee grinds.  An eruption of warm steam billowed from the center of the pile and a red wriggler worm squirmed out from beneath a coffee filter.  I tossed another bucket of kitchen scraps and coffee grinds into the hole I created and covered the pile back up with leaves and straw.  Creating a good compost pile is a bit like baking bread.  It needs the right mixture of ingredients; the right amount of moisture – not too wet or too dry; the right environment to foster rapid but controlled microbial growth and activity; and the right cooking time and temperature.  Like baking, the process may seem tedious to the eyes of the uninitiated.  But once the process is complete – and if done correctly – I knew that I would be rewarded with a bountiful garden harvest the following season, as rich and filling as the heartiest loaf of bread.

Our nursery of berries, grapes, and figs

Our nursery of berries, grapes, and figs

I had only been at our new home for two weeks and had already accumulated a massive pile of leaves from a nearby church, pine needles from a local school, wood chips from the Portland Urban Forestry Center, a tall stack of cardboard boxes from a local appliance store, pallets from an upholstery shop down the road, newsprint from a local printing press, coffee grinds from our neighborhood coffee shop, and 15 bales of oat straw from our community’s organic farm supply store.  We have a trunk full of seeds we saved from our last farm in Maine, two dozen raspberry plants that I had dug as sprouts from Suyematsu Farms on Bainbridge Island, a dozen blueberry bushes, and several grape and fig plants we propagated from cuttings last year.  My parents, grandmother, and our numerous green-thumbed neighbors hold in reserve for us countless varieties of perennials from which we will take cuttings to populate our urban farm:  figs, grapes, kiwis, raspberries, thornless blackberries, rhubarb, and huckleberries.  Our community is full of fruit trees from which we will collect scionwood for grafting onto rootstock.  Our half acre farm plot will be productive, and our plates will be full.

Leaves, firewood, wood chips, and pine needles to feed the soil

Leaves, firewood, wood chips, and pine needles to feed the soil

This is what it was all about.  Nutrient Cycling.  Feeding Life from Death.  Composting.  The continuous circle of matter and energy facilitated by that miracle of organization and defiance of entropy we call “Life.”  This is why I left academia to become an organic farmer.  This is why I forfeited nearly $100k in fellowship stipends:  to dig my hands into the soil and pull forth Life.  Because, as my best friend Josh Ellis puts it, “Cultivating Life is infinitely more rewarding than studying it.”  And Life begins – and ends – with compost.  So, in a word, compost is the reason that I left the nation’s top Ph.D. program in Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology.  Compost:  to create Life; to transform it; to become a true student of Life.  Not by experimentally manipulating and statistically analyzing it as a scientist would; rather, by observing, feeding, producing, and consuming it.  By becoming an organic farmer.

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Trash that accumulated from Thom and Alia’s home in Queen Anne, Seattle, between January 01 and July 21, 2012. Does not include recyclable and biodegradable/compostable waste.

We promised in a previous blog entry that we would keep all of our accumulated trash for the year 2012. Due to two unexpected moves we were only able to hold onto our trash from January 1st to July 21st. Above is a photo of what we had accumulated during those seven months. We will follow up on this in the near future with some basic tips on how to reduce your non-biodegradable waste. The most important of these: Know Your Farmer. More to come….

We moved from Seattle to Portland last week. Alia has moved to the headquarters of the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission in Portland and Thom is starting an organic garden consulting business. More on this later….

Although Thom’s back is getting some much-needed rest from the long hours of weeding, pruning, and planting at Bainbridge Island and Suyematsu Farms, Thom already misses Karen’s perennial smile and positive attitude, Mike’s congenial laugh and non sequitur humor, Carol’s infinite hospitality and amazing baking, and Betsey’s sage advice and dedication to her trade.  As Gerard wisely suggested to him, Thom aims to continue to tackle life’s challenges by keeping his hands in the soil and his head in the bottle (No, Gerard and Thom are not alcoholics; they are both winemakers).

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The pumpkins that Thom, Karen, Manuel, Elodia, Juana, and Heather planted and tended at Suyematsu Farms.

Ironically, it will be quite difficult for Thom to follow Gerard’s advice in the next two months, as he will be somewhere with neither soil nor drink to aid him in his pursuits.  For the next seven weeks, from September 27 until November 14, Thom will be participating in a research expedition with the Sea Education Association (SEA).  He will be sailing aboard a tall ship, the SSV Robert C. Seamans (RCS, pictured below), from San Diego, CA to Honolulu, HI while studying plastic pollution in the North Pacific Ocean.  For six consecutive weeks, the crew of 35 will have no land in sight as they explore the impacts of humans upon one of the most remote places in the world.  You may track the progress of the expedition, including daily blog and photo updates, on the Plastics at SEA website (this link will be updated for the 2012 expedition soon).

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Thom’s first voyage with RCS in 2003, from Tahiti to the Marquesas to Hawai’i

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Thom’s second voyage on RCS in 2005, from San Francisco, through the Santa Barbara Channel, to San Diego.

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(aka “Revenge of the SMURF”)

My family spent last Christmas at Gleneden Beach along the Oregon coast. The day after Christmas, my brother Ethan and I went for a run along the beach towards the sand spit to the north. As often happens during beach runs, we began collecting pieces of trash we encountered during the run. Although the Oregon coast has strong community participation in seasonal beach clean-ups and is kept relatively clean, it is still connected to the mid-Pacific garbage path via the North Pacific Gyre, and is perched along the margins of the world’s most wasteful consumer economy, the United States of America. On the other side of the Pacific Ocean basin, one long ocean current ride away, is the world’s most wasteful producer economy, China. Consequently, beach trash is unavoidable. It is really fascinating to see pieces of food packaging with Japanese and Chinese characters marking their point of origin, bringing into sharp relief the large-scale connectivity among the earth’s oceans and landmasses.

Whenever in the company of my younger brother, our conversations inevitably turn into philosophical debates. In this particular case, our habitual endeavor to collect beach trash provoked a discussion about the futility of this behavior within the context of our throw-away culture. We had some ingrained notion that we were “doing good” by collecting non-biodegradable plastics, batteries, and cigarette lighters from the beach and preventing them from killing or harming marine life. But now, all of the trash we collected will merely end up in a landfill, where it will continue to leach dioxins, BPA’s, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, heavy metals, and other toxic chemicals into the surrounding soils and watersheds. These chemicals will eventually end up in the oceans in an altered form anyways. So what was the point? By picking up trash from “our” public beach, weren’t we just manifesting a “Not in my backyard” egotism? How is it acceptable to pollute everyone’s soils and terrestrial landscapes with massive landfills that are out of sight and out of mind, but somehow reprehensible to litter a public beach in plain view?

Nonetheless, there we were, merrily jogging along the scenic, “wild” Oregon coast, picking up trash, debating the meaning of life, feeling marginally good about ourselves (i.e., assuaging our consumer guilt) while despairing the trajectory of human civilization, and meditatively watching huge 20-foot waves curl and crash in chaotic break lines. Meanwhile, brown pelicans gracefully surfed the air rising from the wave crests, harbor seals poked their heads out of the surf to inspect the beach, and flocks of sandpipers chased the sea foam back and forth in pursuit of buried crustaceans.

Suddenly, I stopped. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Half buried in the sand, far up the beach above the high tide line, an unmistakable object caught my eye: a green cylinder of plastic mesh fencing held closed with black zip ties, about 1 meter long by 30 cm diameter. I couldn’t believe it (did I already say that?). I did a double take. Looked again. It was still there. I walked over, and with a hard, steady tug, I freed the object from the sand and shook it out, staring at it, my breath held, turning it over in my hands, inspecting it carefully. It was a SMURF1: a Standard Monitoring Unit for the Recruitment of Fish, in contemporary marine biologist vernacular. A SMURF is a device consisting of bundles of black plastic garden fencing stuffed inside a burrito-like cylinder of green plastic mesh and deployed on a mooring line in the ocean to mimic kelp and attract juvenile fish (i.e., “recruits”) in order to monitor their populations.

The hypocritical legacy of the marine ecologist.

A Standard Monitoring Unit for the Recruitment of Fish, filled with other plastic trash and debris found on the Oregon coast. This SMURF was deployed nearly a decade ago by yours truly, subsequently lost in a storm, and now ironically a conspicuous component of the plastic pollution littering the ocean.

Ten years ago, in the summer of 2002, I spearheaded a research project at Oregon State University as part of my honors thesis. I was charged with monitoring the recruitment of young fish to reefs and kelp forests off the central Oregon coast. So I deployed a dozen or so of these SMURFs to mimic kelp fronds and attract young fish in order to monitor their activity. Within a week of setting the SMURFs out on their mooring lines, a large storm struck, tearing apart the mooring lines and scattering the SMURFs into the Pacific. In a misguided effort to understand how nature was working, I had inadvertently polluted the oceans with plastic flotsam, destined to scour the seas like abandoned “ghost” fishing gear for thousands of years.

Ten years later, the harsh and tragic hypocrisy of this reality was now staring me in the face from the surface of the very beach I was trying to clean. I suddenly realized that the oceans not only connect us to each other across vast distances of space; they also connect us to ourselves across time, echoing hollow reminders from our past washing ashore with the crashing waves. Whatever we put into the ocean will come back to us in time.

Alas, it was revealed that the Emperor has no clothes. And the environmentalist has been exposed as the polluter. In a twist of irony, I realized that I was as much a part of the problem as anybody else. Try as I might to create a solution by recovering trash and reducing my consumption, I am still deeply embedded within the materialistic throw-away culture that is responsible for creating the ocean garbage patches and ever expanding landfills. I could not cover my involvement in this problem with any invisible or imaginary fabric of environmental egotism, no matter how many pieces of trash I collect and divert from the oceans and rivers to a landfill (and thus ultimately to the soils and watersheds anyways).

When I was living in the mountains of Costa Rica, in the small coffee and dairy farming community of San Luis de Monteverde, I was at first appalled to discover that the people there dealt with their garbage by burning it. “Don’t they realize that burning plastics releases harmful toxins into the atmosphere?” I thought to myself in my hubris of perceived scientific enlightenment. But my academic elitism gradually gave way to a recognition that, in fact, theirs was a far more sustainable practice than the average American. For one, they produced an order of magnitude less trash than the average American. Second, they only burned the trash out of necessity due to a lack of municipal garbage collection services. And third, any garbage collection service, during the act of collecting and transporting the trash, would be spewing its own harmful toxins into the atmosphere, while merely moving the trash from location A, where it was “consumed”, to location B, where it could sit in a landfill for generations. Out of sight and out of mind unfortunately does not mean “rendered harmless.” Ultimately, the residents of San Luis were, inadvertently, making a decision of profound personal accountability by assuming some of the direct costs of their consumption (in the form of toxic gases released by burning plastics) rather than externalizing all of these costs and imposing them upon future generations or distant ecosystems and communities.

So, in honor of my dear friends and family in San Luis, I am writing to offer perhaps another solution to this problem. Let us end our “Not in my backyard” mentality. Let us cease throwing away our trash, forgetting or ignoring its fate the moment it leaves our private property in the back of an exhaust-spewing, taxpayer-subsidized, garbage collection truck.

For one year, anything that we cannot recycle2 or compost3, we will keep, in our house, in our own backyard, to fully recognize and acknowledge the costs of our consumption. This will be the Year of Atonement for Trash; the revenge of the SMURF. Since January 1, 2012, we have not thrown away a single item of trash, although we have regrettably recycled many. Thus far, four and a half months later, we have yet to fill a single compacted 6-Gallon garbage bin with the non-recyclable trash that we have accumulated.

1Marine biologists are very fond of their acronyms; at one point as a research diver, I was working for PISCO* on a CRANE project using BINCKEs and SMURFs.

2Recycling itself is not a perfect solution to the trash crisis and throw-away culture. Many experts correctly have relabeled recycling as “down-cycling” because it merely prolongs a product’s inevitable trip to the landfill by converting it to a lower grade product. Every recycled product will eventually end up either in the ocean or on the land as disposable trash. Another problem with recycling are the sheer quantities of energy and infrastructure required to power and run recycling facilities. Although the amount of fossil fuel energy required to recycle a product are generally substantially less than the amount used to manufacture the product de novo from newly mined materials, the fact that recycling demands considerable inputs of non-renewable resources should cause us all to question its long-term efficacy and sustainability. The sustainability mantra of the 1980’s – “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” – was written specifically in that order to emphasize the order of positive environmental impact for the three behaviors, from best to worst alternatives. Of the three, only reducing our resource consumption has a true lasting effect on global and intergenerational scales.

3The municipal composting of kitchen scraps and yard waste within the city is also a problematic issue, as the waste must be trucked miles away and managed in large piles using heavy, oil-powered machinery, with a commensurately large greenhouse gas footprint. It is then repackaged and sold back to the producer/consumer in plastic-wrapped bundles of compost. The only truly sustainable compost pile is the one sitting in your own backyard that you mix and turn by hand. At Orizaba Farm in Maine, we were able to recycle kitchen and yard waste from soil, to kitchen, to compost pile, and back to the soil all within a few hundred meters total distance. As renters in Seattle, this is not currently an option. Soon enough, we will once again have the privilege of tending the Holy Compost Pile.

*PISCO. Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans; a colorless or amber-yellow grape brandy produced in winemaking regions of Chile and Peru; a port city on the Pacific Ocean in southwest Peru.

CRANE. Cooperative Research and Assessment of Nearshore Ecosystems; a large, long-legged, long-necked, migratory bird of the family Gruidae.

BINCKE. Benthic Icthyofaunal Net for Coral and Kelp Environments; a small rubber nipple-shaped device, usually fitted with a plastic collar and handle, designed to pacify a young child by mimicking the feel of its mother’s teet; a colloquial term describing a baby’s pacifier.

SMURF. Standard Monitoring Unit for the Recruitment of Fishes; a diminutive, mythological, blue-skinned, forest-dwelling creature of popular animation culture.

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The grass-powered internal combustion engine. There are alternatives to fossil fuels...

A report was recently released detailing the types and sources of chemicals that contaminate the Puget Sound, one of the nation’s most polluted bodies of water. A separate study surveyed the citizens of Western Washington to gauge their concerns and sentiments about the Puget Sound. What was truly remarkable about the study was that, although the majority of people surveyed listed the pollution of the Puget Sound as one of their top environmental concerns, most of these people mistakenly assumed that large industries were the primary culprit. However, analyses of the chemical pollutants found that most of the contaminants came from non-point sources: notably, from our own personal vehicles, households, and yards.

Jon Erskine of High Ground Shires, a draft horse breeding and training outfit in Sequim, WA, is fond of saying, “Whenever you drive your horses, be sure to keep a mirror in your pocket. That way, if something goes wrong, you can always pull out the mirror and yell at it.” His message is a simple one: be accountable for your own actions. If there is a problem, always take responsibility for your own involvement. These are words that I think we can all learn from and would do well to live by. It makes no sense to complain about rampant pollution, uncontrolled climate change, poverty, war, habitat destruction, overfishing, the species extinction crisis – you name it – without pulling out the mirror, looking ourselves in the face, and recognizing that we are the ones we should be yelling at. It is our own personal daily choices that we must change if we are ever to find a lasting solution to these problems. We must move past the denial of personal responsibility and take action in the only realm we each truly have control over: our own personal lives.

The results of the aforementioned study should not surprise anybody who stops to note the abundance of oil slicks marking our roads, driveways, and parking lots, or the quantity of household detergents and lawn care products that ultimately make their way into our soils, watersheds, and oceans. At the ferry parking lot during a downpour, a veritable stream of petroleum products was flowing down the asphalt straight towards the sound. Since most farms in the Puget Sound irrigate from the same watersheds that we are dumping these chemicals into, they cannot possibly avoid all soil and food contamination.

The ability of humans in our modern society to deny their daily and habitual involvement in obvious environmental and social problems amounts to a large scale cultural abdication of personal responsibility for the costs of our daily choices. Despite being strongly concerned about the health of the Puget Sound, people were unable to see or admit that it is in fact our own daily habits, lifestyles, and consumer choices that pose the greatest threat to this ecosystem. This pattern of chronic denial was demonstrated by another survey following the Gulf of Mexico Deepwater Horizon oil spill. In the wake of this environmental disaster, the vast majority of citizens surveyed at the gas pump, refueling their personal vehicles, accepted absolutely no personal responsibility for the oil spill. Instead, they overwhelmingly pointed their fingers at the private corporations extracting the resource they were using, or the government’s failure to properly regulate this industry. The fact that their own daily resource consumption habits created the demand which made offshore drilling profitable, despite its safety concerns, did not register in their responses.

Remember: drug wars are as much a fault of the addict as they are of the dealers and cartels. As long as the demand for drugs exists, the social ills they create will remain. Likewise, our civilization’s addiction to fossil fuels and the resultant social, geopolitical, and environmental costs cannot be dissociated from the everyday demand fueled by us, the oil addicts. We will not find a long term solution for these problems of air, water, and soil pollution until we get at the root cause: the unwaivering demand for fossil fuels in every aspect of our daily lives.

It may be convenient and easy to blame large industries whose activities are out of the control of the average citizen. It is always easy to externalize guilt and point our fingers at a scapegoat. But the realization that our own daily choices and lifestyles are the bigger problem is a hard pill to swallow, because it requires us to reexamine our own priorities, and ultimately pits the health of our children against the creature comforts and modern conveniences that we take for granted. But swallow it we must if we are ever to progress to a cleaner and healthier world.

As David Suzuki points out, our bodies are comprised entirely of the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the soils and oceans that grow the food we consume. As he puts it, “We are air, water, and earth”. So when we treat our atmosphere, watersheds, and soils as toxic waste dumps, we are in essence treating our own bodies as toxic waste dumps by extension. Every time we fire up an internal combustion engine, spray our lawns with chemicals, or discard a piece of plastic, we are making a choice to pollute our bodies, and to contaminate the air, water, and soils that will transform into the bodies of future generations.

I am personally guilty of making these choices in my own life. For instance, just last month I took a plane trip – one of the most polluting forms of transportation – to visit my three best friends in Arizona. I was making a very conscious choice to pollute in order to maintain some very valuable interpersonal relationships. Not to mention the much more mundane choices I make on a daily basis that contribute to my fossil fuel addiction and pollution. For example, is it even possible to set up a composting toilet in a rental house without getting evicted? And where can I store a sea kayak so that I can paddle across the sound instead of taking the ferry? How do I wrestle with these decisions and their compromises? (Answer: not very easily). But despite the inherent difficulties in these choices, we must overcome the denial about the costs that they entail. We are all ultimately responsible for what happens to our environment and for what type of world is left for future generations to inherit. Until we collectively move past this chronic pattern of denial, blame, and finger pointing, we will be unable to progress towards a sane, sober, and more sustainable culture.

So, the next time you notice something wrong in the world around you, pull out that mirror, look yourself in the face, and ask, “What can I do in my own life to change this?”

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Day 21, October 13

Breakfast
milk with maple syrup

Lunch
apples (foraged from Orono)
mashed potatoes, peppers, onions, garlic

Dinner
omelette (eggs, milk) with chard, green peppers, pesto (purple basil, garlic), salsa (HTF tomatoes, tomatillos, green onions, cucumbers, cilantro)
milk with maple syrup
potatoes, broccoli, beans

Weight
143.2 lbs

Day 22, October 14

Breakfast
peppermint tea
potatoes, eggs, broccoli, beans

Lunch
smoothie (milk, apple cider, strawberries, maple syrup)

Dinner
stir fry (radishes, beans, collards, choy, winter squash, cabbage, FFF leeks, onions, bell peppers, cucumbers, potatoes, cilantro, pig lard – Smokey House Farm)
Dad’s plum wine (Young Wines)
Mom’s blackberry cordial (Young Wines)

Day 23, October 15

Breakfast
milk with maple syrup

Lunch
stir fry (radishes, beans, collards, choy, winter squash, cabbage, FFF leeks, onions, bell peppers, cucumbers, potatoes, cilantro, pig lard – Smokey House Farm)
apples

Dinner
sweet corn
stir fry (radishes, beans, collards, choy, winter squash, cabbage, FFF leeks, onions, bell peppers, cucumbers, potatoes, cilantro, pig lard – Smokey House Farm)
smoothie (raspberries, strawberries, apple cider, milk, maple syrup)
some of Mike’s beer-batter deep-fried onion rings (oops – he couldn’t finish them, and we all know what happens when onion rings get cold and soggy; I was only fulfilling my duty as the house’s Human Compost Bin)

Day 24, October 16

Breakfast
raspberries
milk with maple syrup
eggs with red bell peppers, tomatoes (our own!), pesto (purple basil, garlic)

Lunch
stir fry (radishes, beans, collards, choy, winter squash, cabbage, FFF leeks, onions, bell peppers, cucumbers, potatoes, cilantro, pig lard – Smokey House Farm)
apples

Dinner
eggs, tomatoes (our own), pesto (purple basil, garlic)
fried pickles (our cucumbers, Mike’s beer batter)
sweet corn
baked apples (with maple syrup)
apple cider
Dad’s plum wine (Young Wines)
Mom’s blackberry cordial (Young Wines)

Day 25, October 17

Breakfast
strawberries
milk with maple syrup
baked apples (with maple syrup)

Lunch
raspberries
cole slaw (cabbage, celery, green peppers)
eggs, tomatoes (our own and HTF), pesto (purple basil, garlic)

Dinner
Dad’s plum wine (Young Wines)
sweet corn

Day 26, October 18

Breakfast
raspberries
milk with maple syrup
baked apples
eggs
hash browns (potatoes, green peppers, onions)

Potluck Dinner
DISHES WITH INGREDIENTS WE GREW, FORAGED, BARTERED, OR BREWED
potato, leek, onions, and garlic soup
roasted bell peppers
apple crisp
blueberry ice cream (FFF)
pork ribs (Smokey House Farm)
apple cider
mocha porter (homebrew)
oatmeal stout (homebrew)
plum wine (Young Wines)
blackberry cordial (Young Wines)
dandelion wine (Mike’s)
DISHES WITHOUT OUR FARM INGREDIENTS
pork ribs (Vine & Branch Farm, Bangor, ME)
corn, beans, and red pepper salad
lettuce, cucumber, and tomato salad
meatballs
bread
guacamole

Day 27, October 19 (day off from farm diet)

Breakfast
milk with maple syrup

Lunch
apples
meatballs (leftover from potluck)
corn, beans, and red pepper salad (leftover from potluck)

Dinner
apples
apple cider
pasta and salad (Food AND Medicine dinner meeting)
croissant and muffin
rice with meatballs
orange juice

Day 28, October 20 (final day)

Breakfast
apple cider

Lunch
roasted bell peppers
potato, leek, onions, and garlic soup

Dinner
pork ribs (Smokey House Farm)
apple cider
eggs, bell peppers, beans, collards, pesto (green basil, garlic)
milk with maple syrup

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The barriers that have posed significant challenges to eating entirely what we grow, forage, or barter here at Orizaba Farm turn out not to be a lack of productivity of our farm or any inability of our agricultural ventures to fulfill my body’s caloric requirements. On the contrary, we have produced a bountiful harvest this growing season, despite the poor (wet and cool) weather and the fact that this was our inaugural gardening season. Despite our poor, shallow, and rocky soils that require years henceforth of composting, mulching, and cover cropping (as we are currently in the midst of this autumn) in order to build up a deep layer of highly productive humus, and our relative inexperience, we have been told by many a neighbor that ours appeared the most beautiful and productive garden in the community. Indeed, the vast majority of our neighborhood’s gardens collapsed under the sheer weight of the heavy rains, lack of sun, and persistent and chronic pest infestations (cucumber beetles, slugs, earwigs, cabbage moths, and corn worms were all especially bad this year) and disease epidemics (primarily fungal pathogens, such as blight and powdery mildew).

As a consequence of our constant vigilance, diligent research, and pro-active approach to mitigating pests and diseases (organically) as soon as the first warning signs appeared, we managed to abate many a disaster that foiled other more experienced gardeners, whose gardens we admired envyingly in the past but whose mistakes we were able to avoid and learn from in such a challenging season as this. When others gave up entirely on failed crops, leaving rows bare to be overgrown by weeds, we planted and replanted, and replanted again, each time trying slightly different methods and new techniques, until the crop established itself, survived, and grew. While our neighbors watched in disapproval as pests and diseases scoured their treasured plants, we scoured the Internet and University Extension Services for organic solutions and preventative measures, applying these measures immediately upon noticing a problem. For every mistake that cost us a crop or decreased our productivity, we took careful notes on what did not work. For every success, we noted the procedure as well. Virtually every success and failure was accompanied by a journal entry in our long list of lessons learned, and followed up by attempts to improve our methods with subsequent plantings. More than one of our neighbors commented on the sheer extent of time we were observed spending in our lower garden (the one visible from the road). Indeed, it was time well spent, a labor of love that has returned to our plates vital nutrients and energy to thrive throughout the cold, long Maine winter.

Certainly, by continuing to apply a similar model of pro-active, research-based mitigation of gardening problems, whether they be pests, diseases, or unexpected weather events, we hope to meet with even greater success in the future as we refine our garden layout, implement a sensible crop rotation scheme, and continue to build our soil with repeated applications of compost, mulch, and cover crops.

If our farm’s productivity is not the barrier that has contributed to my occasional deviations from consuming exclusively our own (farmed, foraged, or bartered) produce, then what forces drove me to stray from my month-long commitment? Two can be readily identified, one internal, and the other external: 1) self-control (obviously), and 2) social identity and integration. The former is a no-brainer: I have very little self-control when it comes to food consumption. Typically, if is in the kitchen or pantry, it is fair game. I have no need for diets due to my consistently high physical activity level. It is a wonder that I managed to remain a strict vegetarian for 10 straight years of my life. I am curious whether my lack of self-control over food consumption perhaps arose following my surgery-induced, hospital-enforced fasting period of two weeks, which certainly led me to never take food for granted again and deeply appreciate any and all sources of sustenance available to me. Have I ever fasted voluntarily? I once consumed exclusively orange juice and water between Christmas and New Year’s in order to better empathize with those who do not have the luxury of three square meals a day, or in some severe cases, even three full meals a week. Needless to say, the fasting I have endured in the past worked very successfully to achieve its goal of helping me to appreciate and respect food. The benefit to this is that I am fairly confident I could survive on foraged insects, wild greens and roots, tree nuts, wild berries and apples, and any game acquired, without hesitation or flinching, if it were absolutely necessary (at least during the prolific growing season; the snowbound winters here in New England would certainly pose a serious challenge to any foraging activities). The detriment to this (shall I call it a “survival strategy”) is that mass-produced donuts and muffins are often equally enticing to my taste buds and alimentary canal as are home grown organic fruits, vegetables, eggs, and dairy.

The second barrier to my attempts to eat exclusively what we grow, forage, or barter is the human need to identify with a community and integrate ones’ self into a social environment. Homo sapiens are undeniably a highly gregarious mammal/animal and one of our primary emotional and physical needs is group identity. Humans have always hunted together, gathered food together, built shelters and fires together, danced and sung together, celebrated events together, and worshipped together. Most importantly, humans have, for their entire evolutionary history, eaten meals together, sharing and providing food for one another as a mechanism of establishing group solidarity, forging bonds and relationships, and structuring social hierarchies. As such an essential component of human social interactions, food may become a barrier to full social integration when one chooses to isolate ones’ self through a highly specialized diet, thus precluding the ability (or flexibility) to either accept or reject others’ offers of food and producing an environment where food sharing becomes decidedly one-sided and non-reciprocal. In many cultures, refusing food that is offered freely is a deep and serious insult, akin to rejecting the host culture altogether.

In the midst of my Orizaba Farm diet, I found myself reluctant to participate in normal social events that involved food (i.e., virtually every social event) due to the unwillingness or inability to refuse others’ offerings. In essence, I had chosen to socially isolate myself from my broader human community in order to achieve a (somewhat) arbitrary personal goal. Even within my own household, Alia (my wife) and Mike (our housemate) became increasingly frustrated at the difficulty of cooking meals to conform to my standards of strictly local and personally acquired ingredients. In my growing social isolation, I realized that something had to eventually give. I found myself becoming increasingly irritable as hunger pangs perpetually gnawed at my stomach and psyche. Between teaching, farming, and school, both Alia and I have been incredibly busy this entire month, making it extremely difficult to find sufficient time to cook substantial meals with our own produce. We would often find ourselves rushing to throw something together in the morning before leaving to school or struggling to stay awake late at night after a long day of work to compose a home cooked meal. This food-related stress, in combination with (and as a consequence of) our 80-100 hour workweeks put a noticeable strain on our patience and relationship.

Ultimately, food – whether the act of growing it, cooking it, preserving it, or eating it – should be at worst an act of survival and at best an intimate act of communion, with one’s self, one’s friends and family, and with the earth and all the resources that sustain us – soil, air, water, sun. However, eating and growing food, as is the case with virtually all other activities, should be conducted in moderation with an attempt to avoid any particularly strict adherence to ideals, dogma, or extreme practices. With such a visceral, instinctive activity, it seems healthier to allow one’s intuition to guide one’s consumptive behaviors, tempered by common sense, reasonable cultural practices, and a well-tempered ethos. Humans are such an amazingly successful and adaptable species in part due to our flexible and broad diet (i.e., we are the ultimate dietary generalists), or willingness to experiment, and our ability to rapidly and readily adopt new and strange foods into our culinary culture whenever necessary.

This past lunar month of attempting to eat (almost) exclusively what we grow has been an illuminating, albeit uncontrolled, experiment into my own dietary proclivities. I have thoroughly enjoyed the meals I have consumed from our own produce, but at the same time recognized the social and personal limitations imposed by a strict adherence to my diet. In the end, I broke off the diet a few days early in order to better facilitate social interactions that I had felt were suffering, to reduce strain on my relationship with my wife (and partner in farming, cooking, and eating), and to return to an adaptable, flexible eating strategy I feel is better suited to promoting my own personal health, both physically, emotionally, and mentally.

I am confident that the vast majority of my calories and nutrients will henceforth be a product of our labor here at Orizaba Farm; we have finally achieved a lifestyle we feel truly proud of and can believe in, which reflects both our work ethic and our environmental and social ethics. Almost every meal we consume, with few exceptions, contains ingredients that bore fruit from our blood, sweat, and elbow grease, working in concert with the natural rhythms and cycles of the land. The feeling of accomplishment one experiences from providing sustenance to his or her loved ones, whether in the form of a home grown meal or a warm wood fire, is absolutely unmatched and indescribable, harkening back to a wilder era when many families had nothing but each other to rely on, for food, warmth, and protection, and every harvest brought home to the table was a king’s feast.

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Well, it is Day 21 and I am nearly seven pounds lighter than when I started, unfortunately.  I am struggling to get enough calories to support my high activity level and maintain a healthy body weight.  At this point, I have virtually no fat on my body and fear that I am beginning to metabolize my body’s protein (muscle) stores to make up the caloric deficit.  I think that this is more a consequence of the fact that this is an incredibly busy time of year for us, and it has been very difficult for me to find sufficient time to cook the calorie-rich meals I need during my 15+ hour work days, rather than being an indication of insufficient productivity on our farm.  I’m eating more than a pint of whole goat’s milk, 3-5 eggs, some maple syrup, plus lots of vegetables and fruit on a daily basis, but it’s still not quite enough to maintain my body weight.

I have strayed from my intended diet of eating exclusively what we grow, forage, or trade/barter on two occasions in the past 3 weeks.  The first time, on Day 5, we went to the MOFGA Common Ground Fair, which featured countless booths of delicious, (mostly) locally-grown organic foods.  So I couldn’t resist trying some (and supporting other small, organic farmers in Maine in my deviance).  The quality of the food, and the knowledge that most of it was grown locally, made it well worth it.

The second time I strayed was yesterday, on Day 20.  We were driving to Happytown Farm to climb a nearby hill to view the autumn colors and noticed a sign at Pete’s Pretty Good Ice Cream along Route 1A that said “Free Ice Cream, Today Only, 12-6”.  Well, if they hadn’t found my one true culinary weakness and flaunted it in my face.  I have never felt more tempted.  Free ice cream!  How can that possibly be beat?  So, without much hesitation (none, actually), we headed straight into Pete’s and ordered our free ice cream cones.  What can I say?  They were delicious, Maine-made flavors.  Alia had wild blueberry cheesecake (yum) and I had Downeast coffee (with actual coffee grinds), and I think their cunning ploy just won them two new customers.

HTF = Happytown Farm

FFF = Featherfoot Farm

Day 5, September 26

Breakfast
milk with maple syrup

Lunch
French fries (potatoes, rosemary – parents’ garden)
stir fry (broccoli, chard, collards, radishes, beans, carrots, summer squash, maple syrup)

Dinner
Food at Common Ground Country Fair (purchased, but primarily grown by local, organic farmers; the rice, tortilla, tofu, and bun were not locally grown)
Maple walnut gelato/ice cream (Painted Pepper Farm)
Italian sausage, with onions and peppers, on a whole wheat bun
veggie quesadilla
red curry with rice
dough boy with applesauce, blueberries, strawberries, and maple syrup
green beans (FFF), rice and fried tofu

Day 6, September 27

Breakfast
milk with maple syrup

Lunch
peppermint tea
omelet with maple syrup (eggs, chard, broccoli, collards, radishes, beans, carrots, summer squash, zucchini, okra, celery, corn, peppers, leeks (FFF), tomatoes (HTF), oregano, basil, parsley)
hash browns (potatoes, peppers, sage)

Dinner
apple cider with maple syrup
yogurt, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries (FFF), and maple syrup

Day 7, September 28

Breakfast
milk with maple syrup
eggs, chard, tomatoes (HTF)
peppermint tea

Lunch
carrots, radishes, tomatillos
homebrew beer with maple syrup
milk with maple syrup

Dinner
venison (thanks Brent!)
summer squash
potatoes
tzatziki (yogurt, cucumbers, garlic, peppermint, Nonna’s 30-year old wine vinegar)

Day 8, September 29

Breakfast
milk with maple syrup

Lunch
carrots and tzatziki (yogurt, cucumbers, garlic, Nonna’s wine vinegar)
eggs, chard, and tomatoes (HTF)

Dinner
stir fry (eggs, summer squash, chard, collards, carrots, radishes, celery)
homebrew beer

Day 9, September 30

Breakfast
milk with maple syrup

Lunch
carrots and tzatziki (yogurt, cucumbers, garlic, Nonna’s wine vinegar)
eggs, chard, and tomatoes (HTF)

Dinner
smoothie (apple cider, strawberries, milk, maple syrup)

Day 10, October 01

Breakfast
milk with maple syrup

Lunch
eggs, chard, salsa (HTF tomatoes, tomatillos, cilantro, green onions)
cole slaw (cabbage, celery, green peppers)

Dinner
venison stew (thanks Brent!)
eggs, salad (HTF and Brent’s garden)
summer squash
frittata (eggs, potatoes, peppers, leeks, garlic)

Day 10, October 02

Breakfast
milk with maple syrup

Lunch
summer squash
salsa (HTF tomatoes, tomatillos, cilantro, green onions)
frittata (eggs, potatoes, peppers, leeks, garlic)
cole slaw (cabbage, celery, green peppers)

Dinner
apples
milk with maple syrup
frittata with salsa
corn

Day 11, October 03

Breakfast
milk with maple syrup
eggs with salsa, chard, and green onions

Lunch
apples
frittata
milk with maple syrup
chard, green onions, and salsa

Dinner
apples
French fries (potatoes, rosemary)
deep-fried squash and chard (with egg batter)
peppermint tea

Day 12, October 04

Breakfast
milk with maple syrup
apples
French fries (potatoes, rosemary)
deep-fried squash, and chard (with egg batter)
onions and chard

Lunch
peppermint tea with milk and maple syrup
cole slaw (cabbage, celery, green peppers)
apples

Dinner
omelette (eggs, milk, chard, red and green peppers, onions, cucumbers, green onions, cilantro, tomatillos, HTF tomatoes)
smoothie (apple cider, milk, strawberries, maple syrup)

Day 13, October 05

Breakfast
milk with maple syrup
apple cider

Lunch
peppermint tea
raspberries
apples
eggs with chard and salsa (HTF tomatoes, cilantro, tomatillos, green onions, cucumbers)

Dinner
cole slaw (cabbage, celery, green peppers)
stir fry (peppers, onions, chard, radishes, carrots, broccoli, beans)
egg nog (eggs, milk, maple syrup)

Day 14, October 06

Breakfast
egg nog (eggs, milk, maple syrup)

Lunch
stir fry (peppers, onions, chard, radishes, carrots, broccoli, beans)
cole slaw (cabbage, celery, green peppers)

Dinner
milk with maple syrup
omelette (eggs, milk, chard, tomatillos, HTF tomatoes, cilantro, onions, cucumbers)
smoothie (apple cider, milk, strawberries, raspberries, maple syrup)

Day 15, October 07

Breakfast
cole slaw (cabbage, celery, green peppers)

Lunch
milk with maple syrup
corn, peppers, tomatillos, carrots

Dinner
milk with maple syrup
baked potatoes with cucumber, tomatoes (HTF), green onions, cilantro

Day 16, October 08

Breakfast
omelette (eggs, milk, chard, tomatillos, HTF tomatoes, cilantro, onions, cucumbers)

Lunch
cucumber, tomatoes (HTF), green onions, cilantro
carrots
cole slaw (cabbage, peppers, celery)

Dinner
French fries (potatoes)
deep-fried squash, onions, chard, with eggs

Day 17, October 09

Breakfast
raspberries

Lunch
French fries, squash, onions, chard (fried with eggs)

Dinner
omelette (eggs, milk, chard, HTF tomatoes, tomatillos, cilantro, cucumbers, green onions)
milk with maple syrup
pear (HTF) and apple cider

Day 18, October 10

Breakfast
smoothie (apple cider, strawberries, milk, maple syrup)

Lunch
cole slaw (cabbage, celery, green peppers)
carrots
milk with maple syrup

Dinner
soup (carrots, onions, garlic)
eggs and salsa (HTF tomatoes, tomatillos, green onions, cucumbers, cilantro)

Day 19, October 11

Breakfast
smoothie (apple cider, milk, maple syrup, raspberries)

Lunch
soup (carrots, onions, garlic)

Dinner
mashed potatoes, peppers, onions, garlic

Day 20, October 12

Breakfast
milk with maple syrup
omelette (eggs, milk, chard, peppers, salsa – HTF tomatoes, tomatillos, green onions, cilantro, cucumbers)

Lunch
soup (carrots, onions, garlic)
cole slaw (cabbage, celery, green peppers)
ice cream cone – OOPS, it was free:  my single greatest weakness (free ice cream).  I must admit, it was a damn good coffee ice cream, made locally.  So no guilt here.

Dinner
mashed potatoes, peppers, onions, garlic
fried green tomatoes, eggs, pesto (purple basil, garlic)

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