It’s That Time Again

Seed Dreams


Stay tuned for more terroir tracing in the days and weeks to come.  But for now, you should know a few things:

-Strawberries get SO HAPPY when you thin them every year
-It’s good to know people in a position of power when it comes to soil.  Free soil.  Like all the free soil I could bucket up and load in the back of my car.
-The first red buds are popping and the first rhubarb leaves are beginning to unfurl.
-The first home-grown salad of the year is eaten! (arugula+upland cress+baby carrots+homemade mayonnaise).

Thanks to everyone for sticking around during my absence.  Y’all should also know that Ethiopia hasn’t been as easy to attain as originally thought.  It’s still part of the plan.  It’s just going to take a bit more creativity, patience and agricultural equipping.  All of which I am totally OK with. Excited about, even.

So happy almost-Spring!


Ethiopian Terroir

The table is set for 17. The 24-month-old Southeast Indian baby wears a traditional African dress.  Mom and daughters have been cooking all afternoon.  Father and boys have been preparing the house and dining room, including fitting all twelve leaves onto the table.  I have just been through an 80’s music video marathon on YouTube and Boy George’s lyrics, “Lovin would be easy if your colors were like my dreams: red, gold and green, red, gold and green” are revolving around in my head as I seat myself before the Ethiopian flag-colored table runner.  Each end of the table is laden with flat wicker baskets piled high with rolls of injera, Ethiopia’s signature fermented flatbread, normally made out of teff flour.  No utensils are present, because we were all born with them at the end of our arms (this is where the injera comes in, you fold it and use it to scoop and sop up the stews, meats and veggies.

The night’s table is represented by Washington, California, North Carolina, Turkey, Yemen, India, New Zealand and of course, Ethiopia.  But this is just a typical evening meal for the Little’s, one of Port Townsend’s most prominent families.  They have been the recipients of 5 biological children, 9 adopted children (from Taiwan, Ethiopia, and India) with dozens more foster children moving through as well.

We begin the evening with a hand-held prayer then everyone begins to grab rolls of injera, laying them out flat on their plates before beginning to load up on all of the 8 different traditional dishes that have been prepared.  First there is the fit-fit, a cold salad of cucumber, tomato and pieces of injera (this is often served for breakfast in the country.)  Gomen is a dish of greens simmered down in garlic, onions and spices like jalopeno and nutmeg.  The different wats (stews) include misir (lentils), doro (chicken) and tibs (beef).  A dish of cabbage and carrots with turmeric, onions and other spices as well as a bowl of ground garbanzo beans cooked with hot water, tomato sauce and spices are also featured at the table.

A couple of key ingredients for cooking traditional Ethiopian food are the spice mixture berbere (think garam masala, but with 16 different spices! including nutmeg, cinnamon, black and white peppercorns, chili powder and turmeric), and niter kibeh, clarified butter infused with cloves, nutmeg, ginger, garlic and other spices.)  In order to make a wat, onions are first cooked in a small amount of water until softened, then the niter kibeh is added and then the berbere before any other ingredients in the stew.

Ethiopian style is family style and all the bowls were circuited around the table. Multiple times.  Conversation stemmed from topics such as the eggs in doro wat (whole eggs are hardboiled in the stew liquid, peeled and placed right back in), adoption stories, discussion of the Ethiopian government (a parliamentary republic), the pros and cons of foster parenting and the upcoming trip to Ethiopia that the mom is heading up as president of AAI (Adoption Advocates International) in February.

Father and son (Bob and Beshir)

And this is a great chance to segue into a subject that has been brewing in my life for a while.  The subject of going to Africa, most likely Ethiopia.  It began as an awareness, turned into a nudging, became an interest, evolved into a conviction and is on the road to becoming an action – all as the Lord is leading.

Port Townsend has a strong connection with Ethiopia (more than 4 families, including the Littles, have adopted children from Ethiopia, mostly through an agency about an hour west in Port Angeles.  Most of the adopting families have more than 12 kids.)  Many of the Ethiopian adoptees have returned to visit their native country to find their birth families and villages and to do work in the orphanage from which they were brought.  One family that I’ve gotten to be very close with, lived for over a decade in Ethiopia raising their 3 children and ministering to Somalians (Ethiopia is right next door to Somalia, both help comprise the Horn of Africa.) Through spending time with a lot of the kids in Young Life, a stirring in my heart has begun for Africa.

“Go. Go. Go.”

And I’ve never felt that stirring before. And so I’m going with it.  My favorite quote from a missions conference in Seattle I attended a couple of weeks is: “God can steer a car that’s moving more easily than one that’s parked.”  So without knowing which direction or path He will take me on, I’m starting to move forward.  Eating AMAZING food is just a perk, really.

Did you know?
-Amharic is the official language of Ethiopia (although there are 48 indigenous languages) and is comprised of 216 alphabet characters
Goorsha is an act of friendship in Ethiopia and is demonstrated when you break off a piece of injera, scoop up some wat and feed it to a friend.  The bigger the goorsha, the stronger the friendship.
-Ethiopia is the size of Texas
-It is the most populous landlocked country in the world
-Due to previous Italian occupancy, pasta and pizza are now commonplace in Ethiopia, as is hearing, “Ciao!” upon departing.
-Just as a lot of places in the US have problems with feral cats, so Ethiopia has a problem with wild dogs.
-This is where coffee originated
-The Ethiopian calendar is based on the Coptic calendar (not our Western, Gregorian one) and is about 8 years behind our date today, based on differing calculations of Jesus’s life.  They don’t have leap years.

With Our Powers Combined

If I can’t be a sustainable farmer right now, I can at least be a sustainable shipper!  Meet the Salish Sea Trading Cooperative, a non-profit co-op (transitioning into a member-owned co-op as the resources and legalities present themselves) offering petroleum-free transportation of local food to people in the Seattle/Olympic Peninsula region.

On a crisp, bright northwest Saturday morning, myself and 4 others met at Finnriver Farm to load down our bikes with nearly 300 pounds of farmstead cider to be delivered to the harbor in Port Ludlow where the order would be transferred on board the Soliton to make the 5 to 15-hour sailing journey across the Salish Sea (formerly, the Puget Sound) to the Aster Coffee Lounge in Ballard, WA.

In anticipation of our low-energy future, skipper Fulvio Casali, an Italian-born naval officer turned sailing instructor, is choosing to help his community power-down through sustainable transportation.  Using his home, a Catalina 34 named Soliton, Fulvio makes the 20+ hour trip from the harbor near Ballard (an area of Seattle) to various ports of the Olympic Peninsula (rich in farmed and sustainably produced goods) to load up and sail back again with a cargo of shares.  Over the 2011 season he will have sailed round-trip 11 times, and when he’s not sustainably delivering sustainable goods, he can be found giving sailing lessons or representing the co-op at green-power and sustainability festivals.

In keeping with the fuel-free inspiration of the co-op, the 5 of us made the 3 1/2 hour, 25-mile round-trip bike delivery of hard cider and fruit liquors loaded into panniers and onto a bicycle trailer.  With a couple of stops to regroup and once to swap out trailer hauling, we rode the shoulder of the main highway into town, over slightly rolling hills and with relative ease.  We reached the dock after an hour and a half of pedaling to meet Fulvio, a couple of his volunteer crew and a reporter from Edible Seattle covering the co-op’s green transportation mission as well as Finnriver’s award-winning cider cargo.

Farm to bike to sea to table.  What would you call this? Community Supported Agriculture? Community Supported Sailing? Or Wind and Bike Powered Community Support?

Maneuvering Humanure

In taking the steps away from dependence (on fuel, on outside food sources, on nameless, faceless people making things in factories we will never see) one goes through many layers of hype, inflated opinions, greener-than-thou judgement and a speck of truth for every log of ambushing agendas.

My own journey has been one from processed white bread, bologna and boxed macaroni with ‘cheese food’, to food-based beauty and skin care, to shopping organically, to discovering my definition of ‘whole foods’, to growing and making things myself and shopping for items as close to their source as possible.

 As a person winds their way through the curves of discovering and implementing sustainability, it becomes less of a ‘level’ issue and more of a holistic thought issue.  As the Australian-born permaculture concept displays so clearly: little waste = little outside input.  The way we think about ‘waste’ in our culture is very wasteful indeed.

So I’ll just cut to chase in this instance.  You’ve all read the title, you all know where this post is going.  You may suspect what is about to hit the fan.

Aside from things like plastic cups, styrofoam bowls, paper plates, car batteries, toaster ovens and CDs, the thing known as “human waste” commonly refers to excrement; our poop and urine.  The term is quite fitting when these by-products of digestion are discarded (into landfills, into incinerators, into our water supply), when people think that when we flush it simply goes ‘away’.  But when the concept of recycling these things is harnessed, “humanure” can be one of our richest organic resources.

One of the tenets of a holistic view is the concept of cycles.  For humans, eating and digestion are both part of a cycle.  Other steps include enriching the soil, growing the food, discarding the post-digestion materials and, in the case of a broken cycle, wasting and polluting.  But in the case of a healthy, intact cycle, (the re-cycling aspect that keeps it all going) is to compost, and return to the soil that which we have taken from it.

Without going into great detail, I am not talking about the “night soil” that parts of Asia are infamous for (the spreading of raw human manure over agricultural fields) which is a known pathogen-spreading method.  But fully composted (meaning combined with adequate dry, absorbent material, and allowed to stand for at least a year with internal temperatures reaching at least 113F) humanure can be a rich source of (FREE) organic matter and (FREE) minerals, like nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus plus calcium and carbon.  Done correctly and well, not a trace of pathogens or harmful bacteria will exist in the finished, composted humanure.

While I’ve used outdoor latrines and squatted in the bushes many times, a compost toilet (as opposed to a ‘composting toilet’, which is the entire system – often quite expensive to assimilate or install) seems to me the best option for stewardship of our resources and ‘micro-husbandry’.  Latrines are a good idea in light of not wasting by flushing, but often carry the dangers of polluting ground water.  Squatting in the bushes, as any dog-walker will attest, is favorite of nitrogen-loving weeds like dandelions.

This simple compost toilet looks much like its cousin, but doesn’t get clogged up or spill over onto the bathroom floor when it’s upset.  As long as you can haul a 20-pound bucket from your bathroom to your compost pile this is a smoothly running system.

First you take a bucket, then you think about how you want to sit over the bucket and you construct a seat (in this case, it looks very similar to a regular toilet.  You then find some absorbent material (weed matter, dry vegetable scraps, cocoa fiber, rice hulls, sawdust – just not from pressure-treated wood which contains chromated copper arsenate, a known cause of cancer and not something you want to end up in your food garden) and keeping a supply nearby, like in another bucket next to the toilet, you line the bottom of the toilet bucket with 2-3 inches of the material to get a good absorbent layer started.  Then each time you use the toilet, simply cover your deposits with another fine layer of material and you’re good to until the bucket gets full and you exchange it for another clean bucket while you take that one out to the compost pile.

When composting the bucket contents, you want to have another good layer of absorbent, dry material covering the bottom and dug out, kind of like a bowl for you to toss the raw humanure into.  Cover that with another absorbent layer (all these absorbent layers are your carbon sources.  The human excrement is high in nitrogen and would take for-stinky-ever to break down and compost; you ideally want a ratio of 30:1, carbon:nitrogen in any compost pile.)  Once you have added consistently to this pile for a year, let it alone and start another pile so this one can get up to temperature and have time to break down, cool down and finish the composting (and disease- and pathogen-killing) process.

You are now ready to use your (FREE) humanure as you would any other compost throughout your garden, ornamental bed or orchard.  Congratulations, you have closed that loop and completed the cycle.

A Few Facts:

The Humanure Handbook, by Joseph Jenkins

-10,000 landfills have closed since 1982; 20% of these are the hazardous waste-contaminated Superfund sites.
-Older, unlined landfills can have a groundwater contamination area of 3.4 miles or more
-Organic materials thrown into landfills are the greatest contributors to global methane emissions; goodbye ozone layer.
-In the west, most of the water we defecate into is purified drinking water
-67% of the world’s households don’t have running water
-Americans use 340 billion gallons of water every day
-In 2000, 55% of US lakes, rivers and estuaries were not clean enough for fishing or swimming according to the EPA
-By flushing soil nutrients down the pipes, we increase our need for agricultural fertilizer – otherwise known as synthetic chemicals.  And so, erosion, nutrient run-off and excessive or incorrect use of these synthetic fertilizers is the largest diffuse source of water pollution.

And Now Back To Our Regularly Scheduled Program

Life. That’s what has happened for the past 4 months.  Busy-ness. That’s how we roll in Port Townsend.  Fundraisers, dance parties, fundraiser dance parties, volunteer projects, short-term house-sitting jobs, restaurant work, complaining about the weather and trying to sneak a or two into the mix are all some of the excuses I’ve used to neglect this portion of my life.  Those, and the fact that there isn’t really a portion of my life that is farming right now (which was the original purpose of this blog.)  But I’ve been doing plenty of gardening, personal and community, and finally feel rested and ready to reinstate relating to you my reflections on different representations of farming.

This is my community garden.

This is what two straight weeks of sunshine will do for any garden in the Pacific Northwest

Known as Wayward Farm Community Garden, it is one of more than 25 community gardens that have emerged in Port Townsend’s community at large of 8,000.  In the past few years the initiative to create community food security (mainly influenced by this grassroots collective) has simultaneously raised people’s awareness about what a secure food economy and community looks like (thus, all the community gardens and the surge of support the Jefferson County Farmer’s Market has seen the past few years) and raised the bar on relationships between the growers and the eaters (our market was voted the Best Farmers’ Market in Washington state!)

Statistics show that Jefferson County is the county with the highest percentage of its food dollars going to local food.  Folks, that number is a resounding 4%.  Of all the counties in Washington state, none are spending more than 4% of their food-buying power to support local growers and cottage-industry entrepreneurs.

Scarlet runner beans; food and beauty

Now one caveat to take into consideration (especially in Port Townsend)

Blackberries and Scarlet Runners grow towards one another's trellises to create a tunnel

is the amount of community gardens, where money isn’t being used to buy food to eat, but rather to purchase seed, fertilizer and tools to grow our own food.  Those are dollars not accounted for that contribute just as much – if not more – to local food security.  Having an abundance of small farmers and local food producers is a great thing to support, but taking the growing power into your own hands, working your own plot of soil and harvesting a bounty you helped to create, that’s the definition of securing your own food.

And even with the year we’ve had here in the northwest corner of the country (until about two weeks ago our temperatures were topping out in the low 60’s and it has been recognized that this has been the chilliest, wettest year on record since weather records have been kept starting in the 1950’s!) the production capabilities of the earth here are bountiful.

Did you know that lettuce is a cut-and-come-again crop? The heads on the left were harvested last week and are re-growing their leaves.

Eating locally means kale, broccoli, peas, carrots, beets, turnips, radishes, arugula, cilantro, lettuce, Asian greens, Swiss chard, potatoes, blueberries, blackberries, string beans, onions, garlic, strawberries, huckleberries, thimbleberries, salmonberries, spinach, zucchini, raspberries, orach, cabbage, plums, apples, pears, celery, salad burnet, thyme, rosemary, sage, parsley, chives, artichokes, and even grains like spelt, triticale, rye, wheat and quinoa.  It also means raw Jersey milk (legal for sale in Washington), artisan cow and goat cheese, pastured lamb and beef, free-range chicken and ducks (and their eggs), beet, carrot and cucumber pickles, jam, hard cider and wine.  (If you have a greenhouse, or a cold frame for starts, it can also mean tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and basil.)

I got lucky and found myself in a community garden that has been taken care of by its members. They have amended the soil, compost religiously, established some wonderful

Triple-bin compost system, some mulch and 'finished' manure

rows of perennial fruits (raspberries, strawberries, currants, blueberries and thornless blackberries) and play well together.  We consist of a landscaper, a dental assistant, a home-designing consultant, a computer whiz, a fiber artist, a full-time mom and her insect- and dump truck-loving 6 year old, a couple of retirees, a rowing club member and me.  Since we began turning under the winter cover crops back in April, we have seen at least 2 sowings come to bear in each of the 7 beds dedicated to annual veggies, with a third promising time to harvest before winter cover crops will again be sown.

We work together on Sunday afternoons and often bump into each other during the week as we stop by to harvest our suppers.  We have potlucked together a few times and some of us have found common interests bringing us together outside the parameters of the garden.  But mostly we all know that our reasons for joining a community garden, whether for human interaction, to learn about growing food, to celebrate good food or just to have a chance to work outside for a while, unite us when we probably wouldn’t have the opportunity otherwise.

Calendula; a hardy annual, reseeds itself and proliferates when dead-headed

Put Some Cloche On

Most areas of the world do not boast climates conducive to growing everything we’d like to eat year-round.  Most backyards do not boast enough space to justify or accommodate a full-sized greenhouse.  Thus, one staple of an Urban Homesteader’s garden space is some type of cloche.

Cloche means ‘little bell’ in French (originally, cloches were little bell-shaped domes that fit over individual plants) and its main objective in the garden is to make the area inside warmer than the area outside, thus warming the soil.  It also must offer access to light for the plants inside.  It can be just about any size; from a 2 liter soda bottle with the bottom cut off, to a plastic frame over a seed flat, to a 3′ deep and wide box, to a 50X15′ section of Re-may stretched over bent PVC pipes.  As long as it is some sort of structure, has light-porous material (windows, clear plastic, Re-may cloth) and can be opened and closed (or lifted off) with relative ease, you’ve got yourself a cloche.

A cold frame is an adaptation of the cloche, and offers a bit more protection as its box-like structure keeps out drafts and its placement is a bit more permanent.  Here’s the box-style cold frame I built for my backyard entirely out of reclaimed materials.  It’s made of plywood that angles down on the sides so that the back is about a foot high and the front about 8 inches.  I attached an old window with 2 hinges to the back side of the box (the angling is to aid water run-off on top and allow for a little more captured sun in the back of the box.)  Super simple, quick-build.  I’ve even mounded the sides with sod clumps from the garden area I’ve dug up.  This will help insulate the box and hold in more warm air.

The only problem with a cold frame like this (especially under the perpetual cloud cover of the Pacific Northwest) is the sun exposure is drastically limited due to the solid sides.  That’s where a box cold frame like this comes in handy:

Another cloche option looks like this one in this food bank-supplying community garden.  Just a wooden frame with 4-mil plastic stretched and stapled over top.  It’s about 3 feet high and easily moved around.  If you try this, just be sure to get at least the 4-mil plastic, 6-mil is even better, but anything less than that will tear too easily.

And just about the cheapest of all larger cloches: the bed-long bent PVC and row cover design.  Coils of black PVC pipe were cut into about 2 1/2 foot long sections, bent over and stuck in the ground on each end and heavy-duty plastic (or Re-may cloth) was stretched over and weighted on both sides by bricks (you could also use stakes or make some large wire staples) or some other heavy objects.  The plastic is good for really heating up the soil and letting the sun through, but the Re-may is a better option for letting in rain water.  I made this cloche for about $5 in all; pipe, plastic and bricks.

Cloches are something you can really get creative with: upturned flower pots make great overnight cloches if a frost is threatening, simply remove them from the plant once the temperature warms up the next day so the plant can get some light; cutting off the bottom of a milk or soda bottle (keep or remove the cap depending on the temperature) makes for a great individual plant cloche too; or even an upside down dish drainer with a small length of plastic stretched over top can make for a windowsill or small lettuce or herb bed cloche.

It’s also a good idea to have an efficient watering system in place with cloches; either drip line running underneath a long covered bed, or regular hand watering, because the warmer temperatures inside the cloche cause a bit more transpiration (water evaporating off of the plants and soil) and can heat up and dry out your plants faster than when uncovered.