Thursday, June 26, 2008

Local Eating Begins... at home (written Thursday - photos)

OK, so local eating obviously begins in the area but we're finding that it actually begins... in the fridge. We have been working our way through the perishable items in the refrigerator and freezer but our meals have still mostly been 90% local. We will probably add on a week or two at the end of our project next year to make it a solid year. Think about what you have in your pantry, fridge, and freezer and then take the next week to work your way through the oldest stuff - trust me, it will feel great!

In addition to the non-local items, we have been enjoying lots of local meals and ingredients: salads, deep green sauces and dressings, grilled sirloin and goat loin (Kevin did an awesome job preparing this!), and desserts of local berries and homemade goat's milk ice cream. We really have plenty to eat and lots of variety so far.

The results from our poll are in and the perishable food is gone from our pantry. Fifty-seven percent of you voted to donate the non-local food (although strangely the poll program registered 42% for keeping it... where is the extra 1% to make 100?) We gave some of the food to a friend (she wouldn't let me give it to her, she actually gave me grocery money for it!) and the remaining items will be donated.

I think this was good, as it would have persisted for quite some time if we'd tried to eat through it. This was actually a rather cleansing experience. I like having a well-stocked pantry, having staple ingredients at the ready for whatever I might like to make, but emptying those shelves and starting over felt pretty good. I think this was mostly due to the fact that I was feeling like we just weren't really getting started if we went through it all. There are still a few non-local and non-exception items on the bottom.

So, the pantry is emptier, as are the fridge and freezer, and we are continuing to look for local foods. I say the pantry is emptier and it is... and it isn't. I've been stocking up on local items for my on-hand supplies. I have no concerns about finding sufficient foodstuffs during the growing season. My greatest concern is making it through the winter and early spring months without a ready source of fresh food. So, I've been on the lookout for things I can put up myself or purchase in the approriate state.

A month ago I was elated to find Marjorie at the Edgebrook Farmers' Market with peanut butter jars full of dried beans... a great source of winter nutrients! And grown just west of here in Stephenson County! Hurray!

That first day I bought all she had. She and her booth partner were also kind enough to talk to us about dried legumes and to let Neva try her hand and shelling some. The following week I returned and when I was still a few feet away from her table Marjorie says, "It's my bean-buyer!" That's me, the bean buyer... I've bought all the beans she's had left every week. But I'm happy to be the "bean-buyer" and keep my pantry stocked for winter. I've also added a jar of beets from a friend (from last year but I've been saving them), and a jar of dill pickles from another new friend. There are a few non-local items lingering in the bottom of the pantry in this photo but we're getting there!

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Day One (photos)

We greeted the day with a breakfast of fresh bread (done overnight in the bread maker) slathered with honey. Then the kids and I headed out to Angelic Organics to pick up our goat milk share and a dozen eggs and to get our first vegetable box.

Here's what was in the box! Lots of tasty things. I did grab one extra choi and a few garlic scapes from the box of extras/trades. We were excited to see the zucchini, too, not realy expecting to see any fruiting crops for a few more weeks (longer than that in our own garden!).

Well, I'd say our local eating today gets mixed reviews. We called it our official start day, which it was, but I couldn't stand to waste the perishable items and leftovers that persisted in our fridge so we did incorporate a few non-local items.

Breakfast was local (except for my coffee, which is allowed as an exception and the milk from Oberweis Dairy, which was the remaining half-gallon in the fridge). Kai had my own applesauce, canned last year from local apples (with canning lessons from my friend!) although I did mix in organic baby cereal. OK, not perfect but not a bad start.

Lunch... well lunch... Yesterday Neva and I had made homemade chapatis to go with our chicken and asparagus masala for dinner. At least the asparagus was local. There were two chapatis left and we each had one. There was also a yellow bell pepper, obviously not local, that was almost past it's prime. Kai even had some of that one in his fresh food feeder (a mesh bag that allows him to suck the dickens out of any whole food we put in there). I did eat my leftover spinach salad with green onions, garlic scapes, radish greens, and choi (all local) but I also fed Kai some green beans and brown rice which I had made up a month ago (I freeze the baby food I make in ice cube trays). Kevin, well, I need to work on him to get into the habit of packing a lunch... he had nothing.

For a snack, Neva had some of the dried fruit we had purchased a week earlier (I think dried fruit may be her one exception but we haven't discussed it yet).

Dinner was entirely local with one exception. We enjoyed copious amounts of steamed local, organic broccoli and lovely salads of red lettuce and chopped garlic scapes topped with my homemade Rosemary Ricotta (made from goat's milk) and... tomatoes. Aye, there's the rub.

I had purchased six tomatoes last week, thinking surely we'd eat them before Thursday... well, we didn't and I didn't feel like snacking on tomato salad last night so I used some of them today. We also used oil and vinegar on the salads which fall into our exceptions category.

We did celebrate our first day by opening a bottle of Domaine du Sac from the Wollersheim Winery in Wisconsin. They produce a number of types of wine but they only have a few for which they actually grow the grapes at their vineyard in Prairie du Sacm Wisconsin, this happens to be one made from locally-grown grapes (and a nice table wine, I might add!). We bought this bottle when we toured the winery three year ago while celebrating our wedding anniversary in November.

Here was our first dinner:

Tomorrow I'm thinking about a breakfast of eggs scrambled with chard and allums (onions and garlic scapes) and for dinner we'll try the loin of goat I purchased from Open Range Products in Pecatonica (and processed at Eichmans in Seward) with whole wheat rolls and salad and fresh strawberries from a farm near the Wisconsin boarder (from Edgebrook Farmers' Market) for dessert.

Between the veggies I got at the farmers' market, those I got from my friends, and those I picked up from the farm, not to mention more of the food still sitting in our fridge, we will be comfortable this weekend. Next Tuesday we'll get our first box from Pine Row Farm and the Tomorrow's Harvest cooperative of four local organic growers. I was nervous about having enough produce so we joined another local CSA. I'm looking forward to seeing what they produce (and picking up some of their eggs too!) on Tuesday morning.
Just to let you know, my intention is really to post just once or twice per week so check back next week for more updates. Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Early/Mid- June – Ramping Up

I have been haunting the area farmers’ markets for over a month now, trying to acquaint myself with the farmers and their wares. I’ve been buying what I can there and have happily seen the addition of new items each week. Of course, you have to be careful and ask the right questions because I can tell that a number of the farmers have merely purchased for resale the items on their tables (sorry, without a greenhouse you aren’t harvesting tomatoes and cucumbers in late May).

I was excited to have put up the ten pounds of asparagus last week but I was even more pleased with my chicken experience the week before.

Until a year ago, I had never roasted a chicken. I love to cook and have a fair amount of experience but I had just never done that before (turkey and goose, yes, just not chicken). So, when I went to Open Range Products to collect the three chickens I had ordered directly from the farm, I wondered how it would work out for me. Kathy told me that free-range fowl should be cooked slow and long so I kept that in mind as I planned a meal for my family and my parents.

I roasted the chicken and served it with fresh asparagus, and choi salad. When we sat down to eat, Kevin asked if any of the meal was local. I was happy to announce that all but the wine and the onion and garlic I had roasted the chicken with was local. After the meal I needed to do something so the rest of the chicken wouldn’t go to waste.

I pulled the meat off the bone and stored that in the fridge for a future meal. I deglazed the roasting pan with red wine (non-local and a non-traditional choice for chicken, I know!) and saved the result for a gravy later in the week. I then cooked down the carcass and onion/garlic that it had roasted with in water to make broth. I chilled the broth in the fridge for a day and then I even skimmed the fat and froze it in small cubes (1/2 ice cubes) for later use for sautéing and such then I poured the broth into freezer containers and froze it. I was very pleased to think that I had use that bird as fully as I could think of. I even used some of the meat I pulled off for baby food for Kai (blended up, of course!).

So we’ve been ramping up slowly, having nearly local meals followed by not very local meals. We’ve now eaten out with friends for the last time for a year (Thai food) and have ordered our last pizza. In a few more days we will try our hardest to not bring any more non-local food into our house for year.

June 14 - Why don't I feel better?

A few weeks back I went to the Edgebrook Farmers’ Market for the first time this year. Even though it was mid-May and we weren’t starting our experiment until the middle of June, I wanted to start to get a feel for the lay of the land and start to explore our options. I was also planning to ramp up and start getting as much local food as possible, even before we began and I figured that by June, certain things would already be past their season so if I wanted to put things up in the freezer for winter, I’d have to start earlier.

There were only three vendors with foodstuffs and several more with flowers. It was early in the season so about all there was to be had was green onions, rhubarb, and asparagus. I stopped at the first table and bought several bunches of green onions for $1 each and two bunches of radishes for $1.25 each. He had asparagus for $2.25 a bunch (seemingly a pound each). I went to the next table with food and he had some lovely spinach for $1 a bag and an assortment of the same types of things as the first booth. He had bunches of asparagus for $2 a bunch. Well, I was thinking about trying to put some up to have in winter when I am sure we will be craving green so I asked him if he would cut a deal on a quantity of asparagus.

Well, he told me that by Wednesday he didn’t usually have much left as he harvested on Mondays and Thursdays but that on Fridays he is at the Colonial Village Market and would be willing to sell me quantities for $1.75 per pound; I should just look for Bill and his burgundy suburban. Great! I assumed he would prefer this because I could buy him out at the end of the week.

So, two days later I made my way to the Colonial Village Farmers’ Market. Now I had never been to this market because it’s a good drive from my house and there are two others in closer proximity but I was willing to do it if it meant I could get 20 or 40 pounds of asparagus. That morning a storm blew through early and but then I couldn’t go right for the start of the market because we were having some trees delivered that morning (beautiful redbud, bur oak, river birch, and swamp white oak from AckAck). I drove through a little rain on the way out but it stopped when I got within a few miles of the market. I arrived at 11:45 am, over an hour before scheduled closing time. When I rounded the corner and came in view of the market I found only two vendors, both selling plant material. No sign of the burgundy suburban to be found. I had wasted a 30 minute trip (each way) across town – there would be no asparagus to process this weekend. I assumed the vendors had decided it wasn’t worth their time as I imagine fewer customers come out on a rainy day.

The following week I decided to skip Edgebrook on Wednesday because I would instead go to Colonial Village to buy Bill out at weeks’ end and I had also ordered three chickens from Kathy at Open Range Products in Pecatonica (she has a booth at Edgebrook) and they were to be ready for pick-up on Friday at her farm so I would be driving out there. Friday dawned and Kai and I headed across town again. When we got there the market was full of vendors as it was, happily, a sunny day. I stopped first to buy some beautiful squash plants to add to my home garden and then went to see Bill. I inquired about his asparagus, reminding him of our conversation the week before, and he said, “You didn’t come last week.” I explained that I had and he said he had packed up early when the winds picked up and a tree fell down across the street. OK, so can I buy a large quantity of asparagus? Well, he said, he couldn’t sell me any for $1.75 because everything was going to a restaurant. Oh, well can I buy just a few then? Sure. I bought three bunches for $2 each. I asked if he would have larger quantities next week again and he said that the asparagus was almost done, that the weather would do it in and it would be going to seed.

I was disappointed because I had really planned to freeze and dry some, would he have any yet on Wednesday. Maybe a little, how much did I want? Up to 20 lbs. I don’t think I’ll have enough. So I asked him if I could call him closer to Wednesday to see if he would have any more to sell. He gave me his card and told me to call after dark since he spent his days in the garden.

On Monday I worked in my own garden until I couldn’t see well enough in the dark and went in and called him. He asked how much I wanted and I said 20 to 40 pounds. He told me that the asparagus was at it’s last so he would only have 5 pounds. OK, I said, I’ll take it on Wednesday. Should I come right at 9:00 am? He said I should try to be there by 10:00am.

Assuming that he was only going to hold the remaining asparagus unitl 10:00 am and then sell it to someone else, I was sure to get the kids together and out the door on Wednesday. Neva, Kai, and I got to Edgebrook and headed straight for Bill’s stall. When I got there he had a TON of asparagus! I was confused, thinking he had told me that he only had been able to harvest five pounds. So I went up and when it was my turn, his wife waited on me and I told her I was there for asparagus. She asked how much I wanted and I said I thought I might take it all (there were probably 20 pounds on the table and another 20 in a pile in the back of their vehicle). He overheard me and said, “Oh, you’re the lady who wanted a deal?” “Yes, I said, I’m the one who called.” “Well I have 175 pounds,” he said, rather snippily. “Oh,” I said, taken aback, “I only want 20 or 40 pounds then.” “You can only have five,” he replied.

I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to buy a quantity of asparagus, I assumed he wanted to sell his asparagus, and he would only let me buy five pounds? When I stammered that I had hoped to buy more he gave an exasperated reply, “I still have to go to market, I can’t sell it to you for that.” “Well, can I buy five pounds for $1.75 and another five pounds for $2?” “You want to do that?” “Sure.” So, I bought 10 pounds, which he bagged up into two bags from the loose stalks he had in the front of his vehicle. I also bought two quarts of strawberries ($4 each) and another bag of spinach ($1) for a grand total of $29. In the end, I paid $2 per pound for all of the asparagus but I didn’t argue because I was still feeling flustered.

It was only later, when reflecting on our exchange that I fully understood the problem. He could sell all of his asparagus for $2 per pound so why would he want to sell it to me for less, even if I was buying larger quantities? I had assumed he would like to get rid of what he had at the end of the week, even if selling if for 25 cents less. There was the root of our miscommunication.

When I processed the asparagus at home, I found that one bag contained asparagus that was past its prime, probably harvested the previous week. I had to cut all the heads off because they were mushy. At least, the larger of the two bags contained fresh vegetables. I steamed and froze that and dehydrated the rest in pieces for use in soups and sauces. I felt sad about the whole deal.

On Saturday (today), I visited the North Main Commons Market for the first time. Bill was there, of course, and as I made my way toward his stall I decided I should talk to him so he understood my end of the miscommunication. I had previously considered writing him a note to apologize and explain myself once I had figured out his side of things (but before I realized I had received old vegetables!). No customers were at his stall at that moment so I went up and explained what had happened and why I had misunderstood. I apologized, he confirmed for me that he didn’t want to sell any cheaper and showed me that he only had a few pounds left and that this was the end of the asparagus harvest. But basically, I felt he brushed me off and wanted me to move on. So I did. I may not patronize his stall again this summer.

But now I’m home again and I still don’t feel better. I had thought he would appreciate hearing that I wasn’t trying to take advantage of him but he really didn’t care.

What did I learn?

  • I was reminded to check the quality of what a vendor bags for me. I often have done this in Europe, where even grocery store shopkeepers select the items and package it for you. I’m usually the person who tells them, specifically, which ones I want and which I don’t. I never opened the second bag that Bill handed me, just laid it into my shopping bag.
  • I was reminded that my goal should not be to get a deal… if I wanted to do that I would go back to shopping at the supermarket where food is sadly under-priced and does not take into account the actual cost (to the farmer, our health, the environment, and the society it comes from) of any given item. I didn’t really need to save 25 cents per pound, I was just assuming that the whole world operated with a quantity discount. That was my mistake.

May - Guilt Factor

We were the subjects of an article in the local newspaper at the beginning of May and even though we don’t officially begin until the middle of June, I feel just a little guilty every time I go to the grocery store. I feel like I’m doing something I shouldn’t be.

I feel the same way when we’ve ordered pizza or picked up lunch or dinner during one of our busy days working in the garden. I figure we won’t be able to do that soon so I’m taking advantage of the fact that I can but I still feel a little ashamed… after all, this project is supposed to be about local eating and here we are eating “out” more than usual. I also feel a little bit like I want to gorge on things I will miss. It’s the proverbial feast before the famine, except I really don’t expect there to be a famine so it’s just a bonus feast.

Late May/Early June – Filling and planting beds (photos)

This blog is turning more into gardening notes but I’m trying to give the background of what we’ve done to prepare so far and then will start up with our day-to-day experiences (likely in weekly installments) once we’re in to our local year.

In late May, our wonderfully helpful neighbor came over with his Bobcat and helped transfer the seven or eight yards of topsoil from a pile in the front of the house to the raised beds in the back. He saved us time and back strain and we really appreciate it!

In the next few days I worked some organic chicken manure fertilizer into the beds and began planting the seedlings we had started at the beginning of the month as well as seeds from the other packets I had purchased.

By the Memorial Day I had planted carrots, radishes, bell peppers, bush beans, cucumbers, five kinds of potatoes, beets, red onions, white bunching onions, ruby swiss chard, black seeded simpson and bibb lettuce, and three types of tomatoes. By the end of May I had planted sweet corn, rhubarb, asparagus (purple and green), and horseradish roots (none of which will bear food this year). By the second weekend in June I had completely filled my available space by adding 24 cantaloupe and 19 watermelon seedlings (started a month earlier), garlic, popcorn, summer and winter squash, pie pumpkins, and broccoli, cabbage (three kinds), and 4 additional tomato plants from a friend (he started them all from seed.)

I couldn’t believe the change in things in just those first two weeks. I had never seen many of the seeds I planted. Sure, I’ve eaten beets and radishes but I had no idea what their seeds looked like. Nor had I even held a lettuce seed and beheld leaves on a sprouting potato – it was all new to me. But the growth was what I found amazing. Look at these photos of the radishes just a week after sowing and again, less than three weeks later, ready to harvest! Absolutely amazing.

I can tell that I will have some weeding challenges this year. I hope I nipped most of the velvet leaf early but I can see I will be pulling silver maple seedlings for some time to come. Just two trees were so prolific! I will also be fighting grass, as you can see, in the new planting areas we tilled. We didn’t have the time to wait a few weeks and till again, nor did we want to use herbicide so there will be grass coming up to compete with our veggies. Maybe next year I can work on a better solution.

Mid-May, 2008 – In search of flour

The kids and I were gone for a week in mid-May, joining my parents on the trip to Kansas to see my grandmothers and extended family. One grandmother had turned 80 in April and the other was turning 90 while we were there so we were headed to celebrate. I left my seedlings in Kevin’s care and set out to visit family and procure flour.

You see, the type of wheat that has sufficient gluten to rise for breads and baked goods is typically not grown in Illinois. I knew this, of course, having grown up with both sets of grandparents farming wheat in Kansas, but I keep hoping I would find someone who was having success with it here in Illinois.

Until I find that person, I need another plan as I feel that flour will be an important staple for us this year. Our project has not even started and I find myself invoking the Travel Clause. Anything we procure that comes from within 100 miles of a location we visit on our travels (somewhere we are going anyway) is fair game for us to return with and use. So I went to Kansas with a secondary motive… to find "local" flour.

My original expectation was to purchase a 50-pound bag of wheat from one of the grain elevators in either of my grandmothers’ towns. We have two small hand-operated mills that we received as wedding gifts and I just figured they would finally get put to constant use. However, my dad did an internet search for organic flour grown and produced in Kansas and found several producers and options, the easiest of which I must admit to taking.

Hudson Cream Flour is produced in Stafford County, Kansas from wheat grown by Stafford County farmers. Stafford County just happens to be about 75 miles due south of Luray, the town where my maternal grandmother lives. Perfect! What made it so easy, though, is that Hudson Cream Flour (whole wheat, unbleached, or bleached) is sold in Dillon’s stores throughout Kansas. On a routine trip to the grocery store I picked up 60 pounds (30 whole wheat, 30 unbleached white).

I returned home relieved to know that we would at least have bread but Kevin teases me for having cheated. I’m still searching for a producer in northern Illinois/southern Wisconsin (or even parts of easter Iowa!) who is growing the type of wheat I need but if I don’t find them, I have a back-up plan. I know I’ll return to Kansas within the year but, not wishing to incur Kevin’s teasing, I intend to ask my uncle to set aside a 50-lb bag when he harvests his field this June. Kevin says it’s less cheating if we grind our own (or have it ground at a local grist mill… more to come on that plan!). Does anyone know a farmer in my area who grows the right type of wheat?

What to do? (photos)

So we officially begin tomorrow but I'm a bit of a hoarder when it comes to pantry items... what shall we do? Please take the poll (at right) and weigh in on our decision...

We've slowly been working our way through things and I haven't been to the grocery store in a week but there is still a lot left, more than we'll eat tonight! Some of the items are things picked up on trips or local things I've already been putting away; 10 pounds of asparagus, chicken broth made from a chicken from Open Range Products, etc. Other items are the typical sauces and jams found in many refrigerators. Some are the "splurge" items we bought last week when I allowed our daughter to select any fruit or vegetable she wanted in the whole store. Much of the produce in the fridge is from today and Saturday's farmers' markets and some friends who stocked me up from their garden last night (those items will obviously stay!).

Monday, June 16, 2008

April 16 - Honeybees! (photos)

As part of our project, we’ll be using no refined sugar (from beet or cane) this year. We will all miss some of the treats we make with it but are looking forward to all of the wonderful new things we’ll develop and recipes we’ll find that use honey – local honey.

Kevin’s sister, Gwen, lives in Alaska and on one trip to visit her he met her friends who kept bees every summer (they can’t over-winter very well in the extreme cold). He was fascinated and decided to try his hand at hobby beekeeping. Ten years ago, he hived his first package of bees and I happened to be visiting and so got to watch (I was living in Wisconsin at that time). For many years, he had great honey flows, eventually adding a second hive and building his skills and his equipment. We even gave jars of honeyed almonds as favors at our wedding in 2000! A few years later, both hives died out over winter (different years) so we haven’t had our own source of honey for a while but are still finishing the final few jars.

This year we decided to re-establish our honeybee colonies, with me taking the lead as beekeeper. I ordered new hive bodies and supers (the part that holds the honey for us, as opposed to that which we leave for the bees) since we didn’t know what had caused the colonies to die out. On April 15th, Kai and I drove down to Dadant and Sons in Hamilton, IL (see web links) to pick up the new hives and two new colonies of bees. The following day we hived the bees.

The bees spent the night in the cages they came in on the counter in our kitchen before being “hived” and moving in to their new homes. It was a family affair and Neva was excited to help move the “sisters” into their hives (we had explained to her that the worker bees were girls).
It is important to realize that we have lost many of our native pollinators and, so, honeybees are important across the country. They aren’t aggressive, in fact, they are bred to be docile, and they won’t sting you unless truly provoked. I also tried to order some native Mason or Blue Orchard bees to place near our apple trees (planted by Kevin’s dad) but I was too late for the year. I plan to order some for next spring so as to contribute to reestablishing the native bee population as well. I will also attend a workshop entitled On Saving the Honeybee at Angelic Organics Learning Center in mid-May.
We don't know if we (or should I say the bees) will be able to produce all the honey we need for the year but we will purchase locally what we can't produce.

Throughout the post are some photos of the hiving process. *Update: I am happy to report that as of mid-June, the colonies are both going strong, having more than doubled in size, and that I have added the first supers last week.

May 3 - Starting From Seed

So I bought organic seed packets when we returned from Spain (over a month ago) with the best of intentions. Now it’s the beginning of May and we’re just getting around to planting the seeds. My original plan was to direct-sow everything but an experienced gardener friend recommended that we start key plants ahead.

I read the backs of the seed packets and determined that the best use of our available indoor space would be to start my tomatoes, bell peppers, and melons. Today Neva and I mixed some organic potting mix with sphagnum moss (better than harvested peat moss) and started the seeds in small pots I’d saved from perennials purchased in previous years.

We invited the neighbor boy, who is five, over to help. His favorite part was scooping the soil mix into the pots with a trowel. I was surprised to find that he didn’t want to touch the dirt because my Neva just dove right in. She grabbed great handfuls of soil and stuffed it in the pots. She was also the official dibbler, gleefully sticking her finger in the dirt to make holes for us to put seed into.

We planted Brandywine (eating), San Marzano (paste), and Sweetie (cherry) tomatoes, Hearts of Gold cantaloupe, and Moon and Stars watermelon. The rest of the seeds will have to be direct-sown in mid-May (after danger of frost and after we’ve prepared our beds).

We watered in the seeds and placed them on a table in our bedroom in front of a large, south-facing window. Now we wait.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

April - Creating Raised Garden Beds (photos)

Last year, our first in this house, I wasn’t going to plant any vegetables. We were beginning a major renovation and remodel that included about half of the rooms in the house but had impact on all of it. I was also pregnant and expecting our second child at the end of summer. I didn’t expect to be able to bend over to weed or care for the plants so I focused on in inside of the house instead.

But, as luck would have it, a good friend of ours had extra tomato plants that he had started from seed. I took eight (four Beefsteak, four July 4th). A week or so later, another friend had leftover brassicas (cabbage and broccoli) and a few sweet and hot pepper plants. I took those too. I planted all of them back in the garden that Kevin’s dad had used for 20 years (we purchased the house from my in-laws). The vegetables did fine; not great, but definitely not terrible. Only half of the garden seemed to be getting enough sun due to a silver maple that had grown up to the south east.

So we needed to relocate the garden (it seems I’m always searching for the sun). Kevin gave me a Solar Pathfinder (see web links) for Christmas so I could instantly see which areas of the yard will get sufficient sun during the growing season. I took it around and located all of the options. Luckily, the ideal location happened to be behind our new garage in an area that was torn up from the construction.

My goal was to create raised beds. I had done a lot of reading and decided that the benefits of earlier planting and a longer growing season, no need to till, and easier height for planting and weeding sounded great for me. I momentarily considered using stone but decided that untreated cedar would be quicker, easier, and cheaper.

The site I had identified had quite a bit of westward slope as our house is built up higher than the surrounding ground. I designed four beds, each four feet wide by 12 feet long, which would sit into the hill (long end facing south) and be about a foot high at the uphill end and about two-and-a-half feetdeep at the bottom. I made my way to Home Depot for supplies and found a derth of decent lumber in the dimensions and quantities I was looking for. I quickly recalculated and redesigned, based on the available wood, and purchased enough material for one bed as I had originally designed and two more of my new version.

Later that day we were out for a walk with my in-laws and some friends and my father-in-law asked why I was using cedar instead of stone (as we were walking past a stone retaining wall). Needless to say, by the end of our walk I was on my way back to return the wood and the following day I made my way to Rock Valley Brick and Supply Company (see web links) to see what my stone options were.

I was able to have retaining blocks and cap stones delivered by the end of that week and then Kevin and I started the tedious and time-consuming process of creating beds.

Thankfully, my in-laws were in town at this time and were able to watch one or both of the kids on the days we worked on this project over several weekends (my father-in-law helped to level and stack stones one day too).

Admittedly, Kevin did most of the work in creating the beds (although I hauled my share of blocks!). We had to square the beds to the garage as well as to each other and to prepare and level the site (taking the slope into consideration and calculating its effect on the courses. It took several weeks and, in the end, we made only three beds (we went taller than we had originally planned so we used more stone).

We used NavaStone retaining blocks in Desert Heritage/Grey Blend (see web links). They look great and the wide blocks make a nice place to sit or lean when planting or weeding and were even deep and sturdy enough to stand on when I hoed in chicken fertilizer before planting.

What we learned…

  • It is a lot of work to level, embed, and lay rectilinear retaining stones. We knew this going in to it but everything seems to take longer than we think it will. We’re happy with the result but may not rush to lay stone again any time soon.
  • The Home Depot in Rockford has more untreated cedar than the one in Machesney Park (MP). This is what the sales guy told me, anyway, when I lamented that I wasn’t finding what I needed at the MP store.
  • Remember to leave enough space between your beds to drive whatever you need to between them. We will mulch around our beds and, so, didn’t have to worry about getting a lawn mower in there but we did get out both the wheelbarrow and the garden cart to make sure there was ample room to wheel those around the beds.
  • It seemed from the research I did that four feet was the magic number for the best width of raised beds and that length was up to the user. We chose 12 feet for length because that was about all the space we had with a sufficient amount of sunlight (garage to the east, white pine tree to the west). What I've found is that four feet is a hair wide for me (this is our interior dimension). I can reach the center to weed but not as easily as I could if the beds were just three-and-a-half feet wide. And I have fairly long arms, someone shorter would definitely want to consider narrower beds.
    Also, we just don’t have the real estate I feel I want with three beds of this size. We’ve had to create some ground-level beds as well (where I will make shorter wooden raised beds for next year!). We borrowed a tiller from an old neighbor (thanks John!) and created additional areas that are larger than the current raised beds.
  • We used 1/2-inch hardware cloth in the bottoms of each bed (perhaps, 1/4-inch would have been better?) We were trying to keep rodents from crawling up and eating the roots of our yummy veggies.
  • Plan to amend any soil you have delivered. We had a pile of dirt in our front yard left from the excavation for the garage. However, I didn’t know how much of that would be needed to backfill and it was a little rocky. Thinking I would be fighting a constant battle against stones, I decided to have topsoil delivered. When I watered in my new plants I was immediately sorry. The soil delivered was very clay-like (it cracks the morning after a day of rain) and gummy. I’ve been pulling lots of velvet leaf (indicating that the soil is from a corn field that was sprayed with herbicide). My plan now is to keep adding organic matter, humus (compost), and my own screened soil (which is sandy and drains well) each year until I find a consistency I like. In the meantime, I will deal with what I have.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Local Living - our plan

We are embarking on a one year “experiment” to challenge ourselves to see if we can eat only locally-produced food for an entire year. Yes, we know it’s been done (and written about) before. We’re not trying to do something new to the world, only new to us. We weren’t intending to blog about it either, only document it for ourselves, but we’ve had so many inquiries into our project that here we are in the blogosphere.

It all started when Kevin came home about five years ago after having heard a spot on NPR about a guy who was eating locally-produced food for a year. He had learned so much about his community and found so many new sources for things and found that he actually ate a better and more diverse diet in that year than in any other. Kevin was excited and thought it was such a cool idea. Food, you see, is important to us. Or should I say, good food is important to us. I always joke that there is a good reason why we aren’t skinny.

Well, that sounded like a fun and interesting thing to try, only we were both working well over 40 hours a week in jobs that we enjoyed, we lived in the woods where I could manage about two ripe tomatoes per plant before the season turned cold again (consequently I have several great green tomato recipes), and we just didn’t feel like we had the time we thought it would take to organize that lifestyle change.

For the next few years we had new excuses. First, I was pregnant and we were preparing for baby. The following year we were renovating the kitchen and a year later we were packing and moving houses. Last February we moved to an old farmhouse above the Rock River and, for the first time, we had sun in our yard! But, I was pregnant again and by the time I would be ready to harvest anything, I figured I wouldn’t be able to bend over comfortably. Yes, I know, generations of women did far more than that while pregnant for millennia… but I didn’t feel up to it. Additionally, we were renovating the “new” house and much of our free time was taken up with that (we didn’t have a kitchen until July).

So here we are, 2008, and we’re still renovating and, yes, now we have an eight-month-old who is crawling and into everything as well as a precocious three-and-a-half year old. But we decided that if we planned well and did our best, this was as good a year as any to make our attempt.

The Plan
To eat only food produced within 100 miles of our home for one year. Our year is to begin on the day we receive our first box of veggies from our local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm, Angelic Organics in Caledonia, IL and to end on the day we receive our first box in 2009 (or exactly one year from our start date if the first box comes earlier next year).

We will put away food for the winter. I am hoping to find some good sources for potatoes, onions, garlic, winter squash, and the like so we will have those staples in our new root cellar (the crawlspace in an addition we’re having put on the house). We are also purchasing a large freezer and last year I learned how to can. We don’t care for the texture and flavor of most canned foods so I intend to rely more on the frozen foods than canned. Although I do hope to can lots of tomatoes, tomato sauce, apple sauce, jams, and pickles.

Kevin used to keep honey bees but we haven’t had any for a few years now so we’ve started again with two new colonies and I am to be the main beekeeper. We plan to rely on our bees and other local honey producers for our sweeteners for the year, eschewing cane or beet sugars (still looking for a reliable jam recipe that uses honey!).

We are building and planting what I’m considering my experimental vegetable garden. I have little vegetable gardening experience (except for green tomatoes) so it’s all pretty new to me. My parents had a nice garden when I was little but they moved when I was eight and didn’t plant vegetables at the new house so my only memories are really of the harvesting of things… strawberries and cantaloupe, mostly – I was just a kid, after all.

I also hope to buy locally and freeze, can, or dry what I can to ensure we’ll have enough to get us through the winter. This will be another learning process... how much will my family of four need? What are the best ways to prepare and store things? It is all a work in progress (like so much in my life right now!).

In the end, this is a challenge, meant to be fun and to teach us things. We won’t let the family starve if we run out of supplies in March. We’ll just admit defeat, go to the store, and plan better next year.

We don’t intend to make this change permanently, although we do expect some things to change us forever. When the year is done, we expect that we will have found such great sources for things and such unusual variety that we will no longer need to buy some things anywhere but from within our own community. I hope to establish relationships with the people who produce what we eat and to strengthen our community by committing to it monetarily, not just socially. I do think there will be certain things that come from afar that I will admit back into our lives but some things will probably never be the same.

The Exceptions
One of the first questions we get when someone learns about our project is, “Will you have xyz?” or “Is there anything you are allowing yourselves that isn’t truly local?”

We have identified a few key items to be exceptions to our 100-mile radius rule and here they are:

  • Cooking oil – we haven’t decided between olive and canola. Canola oil would, at least, come from North America but we use olive oil quite a bit and prefer the taste (except in baked goods where I prefer to use canola). Sure, we can use butter, but we appreciate the health benefits of oil. We’ll decide which one to keep before we begin. Then again, we may just use melted butter.
  • Chocolate – anyone who knows us will likely know that Kevin is a chocoholic. He told me very early on in the discussion stage that he didn’t believe he could survive a year without chocolate. So, we’ll allow it. Not just any chocolate, however, there will be no Snickers or Kit Kats or the like. We will stick to fine dark chocolates (which we, by far, prefer and are healthier to boot). The jury is still out on whether or not we’ll allow anything in the chocolate (mint, nuts, caramel?) – we’re thinking not.
  • Coffee and Tea – I really enjoy my morning coffee and we both like tea. We like having an available caffeine source (I know, if we were really hard core we’d break ourselves of the habit!) and just enjoy a hot, steaming cup of herbal tea in the winter (and I adore my summer sun tea).
  • Spices, Vinegar, Salt, Pepper – If variety is the spice of life than spice is the variety we need in our lives. We love the tastes of fresh foods for themselves but we also enjoy the variety of flavors and types of cuisines we can replicate with spices so we will allow these.
  • Leavening - I plan to bake bread and other things and will use yeast, baking powder, and baking soda. I also plan to use "local yeast" to make sourdough but won't rely on it.
  • The Kids – We have two young children but only one of them can talk so we’ll work with her to determine her one thing (as long as it’s reasonable) and add it here later. The baby, well, he’s at our whim. If I determine there is something he is truly lacking then I may allow that… I am considering fortified cereal.
  • The Social Life Clause – We’re not big on eating out but we do enjoy the convenience and some of the great food you can get at local Rockford eateries. We will miss these things. However, we don’t want to turn down opportunities to spend time with friends just because we’ve been invited over for dinner or to a wedding reception and we can’t eat the food. So, we may go to a friend’s and eat what we’re served or celebrate life events of those dear to us with dinner and a champagne toast but we can’t have standing dinner dates or vie for invitations to every wedding in town. And except for those life-event celebrations, we won’t be eating out.
  • The Travel Clause – We do enjoy traveling and tend to do so several times a year. If we’re taking a day trip, we’ll be packing our own food. If we’re staying somewhere overnight or longer, we will eat where we are… whether it’s the house of friends or family or a restaurant at our destination or along the route. Will we try to make that local? Sure, but it won’t be a hard-and-fast rule.
  • The Second Travel Clause – Anything we pick up that comes from within 100 miles of any of our travel destinations is also fair game for us to return with and put on our table at home. However, we can not travel to a place just because we want something from there (although I’m sure everyone wishes they could take a jaunt to Italy when the craving for Italian food strikes!).

Why are we doing this?

Another question we get (a lot) when someone we don't know learns about our little experiment. Well, there are several reasons really.

  • Flavor - we expect to find some fantastic local flavors and look forward experiencing food at the peak of freshness.
  • Environmental Health - we've done quite a bit of reading lately about our food sources, farming methods, and "food miles." The average meal travels thousands of miles to reach an American's table. We want to substantially reduce the average for ourselves this year.
  • Personal Health - fresh foods, I mean really fresh, have more nutrients. Produce in the grocery store that has traveled great distances and then sat there for a few days has lost much of its nutrition. Frozen food maintains more in suspension but it's not the same as fresh. Don't even get me started about highly pocessed foods. This is minor in our reasoning but maybe it shouldn't be.
  • Community Support - we want to spend our money and invest our energy in our own community.
  • Personal Edification - to learn something along the way.
  • Fun