Straw Struck

Well it’s been a while since I’ve posted anything on this blog. That’s mostly because I’ve been focusing my efforts on my farming business, and on getting real writing assignments as a freelancer. Yesterday my first article was published on The Tyee. It’s about Straw Bale construction, you can read it here.Image 


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Haultain Common

I’m sitting in brightly coloured living room with an all ages crowd ranging from about 6 to 60 years old. We’re talking about irrigation and plants – artichokes and strawberries in particular.

As I’m sipping hot mint tea, my eye gets caught by a strange sight. Across the street a fluffy white dog is getting whisked along in a child’s stroller. I point it out and I’m told that’s the neighbour’s dog, apparently he’s too old to walk anymore. In the lower half of my field of vision there’s an equally strange sight – a curbside garden nestled in between the road and the sidewalk. That’s rare because grass that lines the street is owned by the city, it’s public land.

This particular boulevard is being ‘guerilla’ gardened in an act of polite civil disobedience. Haultain Common is a project that was started up a few years ago by longtime Victoria residents Margot and Rainey. Their mission is to raise awareness and make local food more available to the public, while building community at the same time. For the most part it’s been a big success. Rainey and Margot say they’ve had conversations with hundreds of passersby about food. The Common was also featured in a short video for Peak Moment TV in 2010.

On this drafty February afternoon the garden is covered with leaves and it’s pretty dead-looking, but give it a couple months and it will be flourishing with life. Rainey describes how the Common was overflowing with such opulence and voluptuousness last year that someone complained it was getting too unruly. The authorities came knocking and informed them something had to change. Fortunately it was resolved in a civilized manner. The women were given plenty of time to tidy up the garden before the city would send in their crew to rip it out.

During the first few seasons, Haultain Common was just a traditional veggie patch. But since attending a permaculture camp a couple of summers ago, Rainey and Margot are shifting towards more of a perennial food system. Aside from the aforementioned strawberries and artichokes, there are also exotic goji and goumi berries that seem to be doing well. We’ve gathered so we can figure out ways to make the garden a bit more self-sufficient and more accessible to the public. It’s a process that will involve some digging and shuffling around of plants – should be fun.

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10 Days of Stillness in Search of Enlightenment

So now I know what it feels like to be depicted as a woman in a National newspaper. I decided to write an essay about my Vipassana meditation experience last November and sent it to the Globe and Mail. I was surprised when they replied and said they wanted to publish it (and I was even more surprised when I saw the title – not my words, and the artwork – for obvious reasons).

In hindsight, I would have tweaked things a bit, it seems like some people were not all that impressed with how I represented Vipassana. Still, it’s my experience as best I could describe it. Here’s a link to the article.

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Apples all Around

Apples have been on my mind a lot lately… For starters I’ve been reading up on the fruit’s interesting history. Originating in Kazakhstan, the spread of apple trees across the United States can be attributed largely to Johnny Chapman ‘Appleseed’. In the 1800s, Chapman started planting apple seeds throughout the American Midwest. The religious claimed him as a hero, as someone who spread both the gospel and nutritious apples. But his intentions weren’t quite so pure, doing more to fuel alcoholism than religious fervour. That’s because apples are extreme heterozygotes – that is, an apple grown from seed won’t resemble its parent, and is usually inedible. That’s okay if you ferment apples for cider, but not okay for eating – edible apples need to be grafted so they’re clones of their parent.

In The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan explains how the apple’s wholesome healthy image is largely thanks to a PR campaign from the early 1900s. Before the 20th century, apples in North America were grown mainly for alcoholic cider. That all changed in the 1920’s during the American Prohibition when the sale, manufacture, and transport of alcohol was banned. The saying “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” was invented by the apple growing industry when prohibition killed the cider market. The apple’s new image stuck, and cider became a forgotten part of North American culture.

For some reason I’ve always had romantic notions about apple picking, maybe I can attribute that to novels like The Cider House Rules and Fantastic Mr. Fox. I’ve always thought it’d be nice to enjoy a simple outdoor lifestyle climbing trees, travelling south along with the harvest. So I recently decided to give the apple picking lifestyle a try and started working part-time at nearby Merridale Cidery. Remarkably, when Merridale was founded in 1980, it was one of only 2 orchards in North America devoted to growing cider apples. It’s a small-scale organic cidery that makes delicious cider of varying flavours and potencies.

That's 800 pounds, only 3200 to go...

The work itself isn’t the glamorous clambering about trees that I anticipated. I was a bit surprised to learn that I’d just be picking the apples off the ground after other workers go around and give the trees a good throttling to drop their fruit. It’s both meditative and physically tough if you push yourself. You get paid by the crate, so there’s lots of incentive to pick faster. On my first day, I managed to fill 5 crates, that’s about 4000 lbs of apples. But yesterday I barely filled 3 crates because I was sorting through smaller apples half-eaten by deer. I won’t make a career of it, but it’s eye-opening and humbling to experience the life of an apple picker.

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City Harvest – Urban Farming Adventures in Victoria

After spending many months writing about commercial urban farmers for my thesis, I finally got the chance to see what it’s all about on ground zero. Last weekend in chilly damp October conditions, I joined the people behind City Harvest in Victoria to get a better idea of what it’s like to be an urban farmer.

City Harvest is currently run as a co-op by three women – Sol, Sharon, and Heather –  who currently grow food in 2 small greenhouses and 12 yards that are scattered throughout the city. They’ve been at it for a couple of seasons now and sell most of their produce through CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) veggie boxes that are delivered throughout the growing season. Another portion of the food they grow is sold at a farmer’s market in downtown Victoria.

As of now, urban farming on the west coast appears to be a challenging business that demands resourcefulness – the retired washing machine City Harvest uses as a salad spinner is a good example of that. As Sharon put it, they’re not in it for the money, it’s more a ‘labour of love’. Interestingly, it’s not a question of lack of demand. There are more people willing to have their yards farmed than there are urban farmers. That’s probably because it’s an attractive offer to the yard owner – all they have to do is give up a part of their grass, and they’ll get a share of the food that is grown at no cost.

But still urban farmers struggle to make a living. A large part of the problem is that they have to compete with the under-priced food that is so readily available in today’s supermarkets. How do we get people to start spending more money on food, which has become so undervalued?

In the words of Conrad Schmidt, “the idea that more expensive food is better for people is a concept that’s hard to believe. The proof is in the history and consequences of cheap food. More expensive food means jobs not only for North Americans, but people across the world. It enables better income distribution so that not just the wealthy can afford to dine on meat while a billion people starve.”

Assembling the veggie bins

I’ve started thinking more seriously about heading down the path of urban farming myself. According to Sol it’s a really rewarding job full of interesting challenges, as we were putting together the last round of CSA boxes for this season, Sharon and Sol alluded to all the things they can improve on next year. It takes some time and experience to learn the ropes, but there seems to be huge potential. If you look at what’s happening in post-industrial cities like Detroit, urban farming seems to be a movement that’s on the verge of taking off and will be here to stay.

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Experimenting with Sustainability at O.U.R. Ecovillage

So it seems summer has brought me to O.U.R. eco-village on Vancouver Island, a permaculture demonstration site near Shawnigan Lake. It has been really fascinating to see how things have changed here since my last visit four years ago. There’s a hustle and bustle about the place that make it feel more like a village and less like a farm. There are about 40 people on-site for the summer – made up of volunteers, interns, and permanent residents. As a volunteer I’ve spent my time here helping out with assorted odd-jobs, including set-up for a marimba festival, garden work, planting, harvesting, natural building, and filling in as the village receptionist.

The Village Garden

The structures in the village are an eclectic mix of natural building styles. Most notably there are beautiful smooth contoured cob buildings made of clay, sand, and straw. Slanted green roofs covered in plants give the structures an earthy, hobbit-home appeal. Several new buildings are in the works, including a commons area that will aim to comply with the Living Building Challenge. The idea is to use only natural or reclaimed materials to build the most sustainable building possible.

Exemplary Cob

For many of the residents the living conditions are rustic – most temporary residents are camping, there are outdoor showers, composting toilets, plus an outdoor kitchen and communal dining area where meals are eaten together. Much of the food comes from a colourful garden that has recently been supplying a steady stream of fresh salad greens, zucchini, peas, and raspberries. There are also the usual barnyard suspects, including a cow, pigs, sheep, chickens, plus a 3-legged dog and a cat named Chairman Miaow.

Most importantly, the real draw here is community. The village seems to attract kind, ambitious, long-term thinkers of all ages – it’s a great group of people and there’s a genuine openness and acceptance of anyone who passes through. Since I first visited the eco-village, I’ve always made a point of seeking out places like this that offer instant community. Several of the current residents are from my home province, so with my arrival the joke is that it has become a refugee camp for Albertans. I’m not sure what we’re fleeing though, it’s more like we’ve all been pulled here to build something more meaningful.

Garlic Harvest

I wonder how many people know that places like this exist, and if they do, what kind of mis-conceptions they have. It’s not quite a hippy commune that is trying to isolate itself from mainstream society. Instead, the mission of the village is to educate, inspire, and transform by co-creating a thriving learning community. The idea is to show as many people as possible that experimenting with sustainability is both rewarding and fun. Sure, I occasionally miss some of the creature comforts like a bed and proper washroom, but life is good here, it will be hard to pull myself away…

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Decline of the Bees

There’s been much talk about bees these last few years. People are becoming increasingly concerned about Colony Collapse Disorder, faced with evidence that honeybee populations have been declining since 2006.

Last week I heard Sam Comfort, a bee-keeper from New York, explain his take on the phenomena at the Calgary Permaculture Guild AGM. The owner of Anarchy Apiaries is clearly passionate about his business, if the bee hive tattoo covering his arm wasn’t enough of a hint, the t-shirt adorned with honeycomb and ball cap with a symbolic hexagon would give it away.

Busy bee

Comfort started out in the commercial bee-keeping world, and then gradually got more involved with keeping his own hives. He’s bold, and doesn’t wear any protective gear when dealing with bees – just for some added excitement.

He laughs at the fact that people have blamed declining bee populations on cell phones, and instead of Colony Collapse Disorder, he prefers to call it People Collapse Disorder. He says declining bee populations stem from the fact that people are not interested in the foundation of our eco-system and are not doing things in a holistic manner. Some of the factors that have affected bees are:

  • Poor nutrition for bees from monoculture farming
  • Lack of genetic diversity due to 100 years of artificial breeding which has resulted in oversized bees
  • Overused comb

These factors have resulted in weaker bees. As a result, bees have grown more susceptible to mites, fungi, and bacteria. Sam says he’s seen mites take over unhealthy bee populations, but says that the mites are just a symptom of the deeper cause.

Most bees today in North America are kept in ‘inspection drawer’ or Langstroth hives. This type of hive was invented in the 1800s to maximize honey production. It’s the method of bee-keeping where wax foundation sheets are laid out in drawers, and bees then build their honeycomb on top. To further increase honey production, bees have been bred to be bigger, and their ‘swarming’ behaviour has been suppressed. This is a problem because bees need to swarm in order to ‘reset’ and stay healthy. Sam explains this idea nicely on his website:

“For over 100 years the beekeeping industry has been oversizing bees, typical capital-driven thinking “bigger is better,” bigger bees make more honey. It was only a matter of time before an opportunist arrived that really took advantage of an oversized bee. That pest is apparently the varroa mite.

I discovered that bees, when shook from “standard” beehive comb into an empty box with no hexagon-ridged foundations, will build a slightly smaller size wax cell than they had been forced to previously.

By allowing each generation of bees to draw its own comb, the width of the cells in the core brood area shrinks and seems to stabilize after 6 to 7 generations at a much smaller size than the ubiquitous industry standard. Once this cell size is reached, the bees are able to keep varroa mites below life-threatening levels and secondary diseases are less frequent, perhaps do to less stress.”

One of the solutions to all this is to use top bar hives – a simple hive that provides bees with an empty space with no wax foundations to build on. This allows bees to follow their own cycles, design their own comb, and raise their own queens, which leads to healthier bees.

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