Posts Tagged ‘sustainable agriculture’

By Jeff Woodburn

In 1948, my grandfather paid 55 cents for a dozen eggs to serve at the Whitefield eatery that still bears his name.  That was whopping price, when you consider that back then, the average family earned less than $10 a day or the equivalent 17 dozen eggs. It is easy to see why so many housewives became part-time poultry women, and how significant this money was to the local economy.

In the first half of the twentieth century, eggs and meat poultry were essentially local enterprises. New Hampshire had many thriving poultry and egg businesses, much of them conducted by small backyard operators. In 1910, the poultry business was New Hampshire’s most profitable agricultural product worth $35 million a year. For generations, a small flock of hens produced a steady flow of extra income that contributed to the family and local economy, and the excess was quietly tucked away for a rainy day or a special occasion.  While the “egg money” was built on adherence to harsh frugality, it also made possible the, ever so rare and minor, indulgences. As the “nest egg” grew larger, it became a source of assistance known only by the beneficiaries.  How many financial storms were calmed, kids sent to college and church collection plates filled by the egg money? Beyond the extra cash, keeping chickens provided children with meaningful chores that taught responsibility and the value of work.

Today, grocery store eggs sell for just over $1 a dozen (if factored for inflation they’d be nearly $7), and anyone who raises hens will tell you that it is impossible to produce eggs at that price. This phenomenon repeated itself across the grocery store shelves, and now we can enjoy a full stomach for a smaller percentage of our income than at any other time.

For thirty years, we’ve been fat and happy, living off a diet of cheap food produced by distant, faceless corporations encouraged by large taxpayer subsidies to replace age-old wisdom with trendy technology, brutal efficiency and, most importantly, an endless supply of cheap oil and corn.  The system worked so well that it drove food prices so low that most small-time growers and farmers figured out they could buy food cheaper than making it, and thus destroying an otherwise healthy, sustainable and satisfying culture.

The system looked good from afar, but, as we eventually learned, it was far from good.  The true costs of cheap food are now clear: an unhealthy, risky food system that is imploding our health care system and wasting vast quantities of oil, creating endless generic sprawl, jeopardizing rural economies as well as polluting our environment.  What is most disturbing is that our tax dollars are promoting this policy, so in essence we’re paying people to get unhealthy and then paying their health care bills. An alarming 80 percent of our total health care costs are consumed by of a fifth of the population.

Changing the way we eat will be as difficult as changing our agriculture and food policies, but there are signs of hope. President-elect Obama seems genuinely committed in both in his politics and own health habits to the initiate a change in our food policies and take on the giant agribusinesses that shape it. That along with a strong, grassroots commitment to local food could be the perfect ingredients in a recipe for change.


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By Jeff Woodburn

Friday, May 23, 2008 NH Business Review

Dean Gray has found a novel way to make a buck: turning manure into money. He’s beating out the pricey, synthetic fertilizers with old-fashioned cow manure. Gray ran a classified ad last month marketing a large pile of last winter’s waste and has gotten a swift response.

We arrived Sunday afternoon at Gray’s small farm in East Lancaster and were enthusiastically greeted by his sociable dog. As we soon learned, Dean Gray loves at least two things — animals and telling stories, and if you get him talking about animals you’re bound to be there for a while.

Finally, we get around to the manure, and I place my order: “the $10 load.” He tells me, I’ll have to come back. I wonder if he’s run out, and how long it will it take for his cows to produce more. He fills the pause with, “can’t fit it all in that truck.”

Wow, what a deal, I think. “The $5 load will do.” His tractor drops one, and then two loads into the bed of my truck. It’s heaping full, and I wonder if my 22-year-old truck will make it home.

Gray may be on the verge of something big: changing the way we eat. The poor economy, skyrocketing food and petroleum prices seem to getting people down – into the dirt, that is. Vegetable gardens are making a comeback. Local garden supply retailers report that seed sales are booming. Getting back to basics may be a silver lining in this perfect storm of bad economic news. While the motivation may be financial, the benefits could be societal, and just what we need.

For more than 100 years, conventional public policy has encouraged and supported the centralization and industrialization of agriculture through price supports, construction of a national highway system, and a one-size-fits-all health inspection process that is committed to technology rather than hygiene.

Factory farms’ affection for efficiency has resulted in cheap food that is, at its best, unhealthy and, at its worst, deadly. Don’t count on the quality to go up with the price. The only thing we can count on is our own response to the situation.

Sometimes a kick in the pants leads to a step in the right direction. By taking responsibility for some of our food supply, we will take an important step toward lasting self-sufficiency and independence; creating sound minds through hard physical work, better health, sustainable communities and a cleaner planet.

Like the manure, the opportunities are ripe, but we must get to work, so we can enjoy the sweet smell of success come harvest time.

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The idea of a couple of dollars for a bottle of water can be an affront to the senses

By Jeff Woodburn

As I gaze through the glass-front cooler at the rows of plastic bottles, the polite young cashier breaks the silence with a simple request: “What would you like to drink?”

She probably wonders what’s taking me so long. It had taken me no time to place my food order — “pizza half-cheese (for the kids), half-anchovies (for me).” I can’t seem to find my tongue. I’m flustered by the ramifications of my choice.

I know what’s there: soda, which I dislike; juice, which doesn’t go with my meal; and, bottled water, which infuriates me for its incredible waste and doesn’t taste half as good as most of our local water sources.

I’m instinctively irritated by frivolous and irresponsible waste. “Wealth porn” is how one writer summed it up. The idea of a couple of dollars for a bottle of water is an affront to my senses, especially when most of us have plenty of great fresh water right at our faucets.

The production and disposal of all those bottles, even if they are recycled, is a colossal squander of resources. Previously, when faced with this dilemma, my cheapness overrode my healthiness. I chose soda, but as a teacher I have watched with disgust how our younger generation eats and drinks. I’ve tried to teach youngsters jacked up on Jolt or when they have just crashed after a soda sugar-high.

I’ve followed the deceptive flow of bottled water. Dasani, a bottled water made by Coca-Cola, comes not from mountain springs, but usually from municipal water utilities. In New Hampshire, Dasani gets its water from the Manchester Water Works, which is the state’s largest public water system. So essentially, it is urban tap water.

It starts as tap water, but it then goes through an eight-step process, which sounds more like a decontamination process used on wastewater. The factory where this complicated process begins is called on Dasani’s Web site, a “state of the art multiple barrier water treatment system.”

It is there where “reverse osmosis technology removes impurities,” then the water goes to another department, where “materialization of the water” occurs, and then important materials like magnesium sulfate, potassium, chloride and salt are added “to provide Dasani’s pure, fresh taste.”

Next, is the “final disinfection of the water,” which means “water is ozonated.” (Does anyone know what ‘ozonated’ means? It agitates my computer’s ‘spell check’ device.)

Then, of course, the water is put into plastic bottles and some of it is driven the 93 miles north to Littleton’s Main Street and placed in a constantly refrigerated glass-front cooler at the Gold House Pizza, where a patient waitress awaits my drink order.

Finally, I blurt out, “I’d really like a glass of tap water.” She obliges without a word, and I rant and rave about the sins of soda and bottled water. She kindly but blankly listens, and then I add, “I’m not being cheap. I’m willing to pay for the tap water.”

As I eat my pizza and drink my tasty water, I ponder the potential of it all. Could selling local, refreshing, mountain tap water could become one of the hottest and most profitable restaurant trends? Best of all the money stays right here, like the two dollars that I left on the counter.

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By Jeff Woodburn

Every Saturday on my way to the dump, I pass by David and Andria Craxton’s organic farm, Roots and Fruits. From the road, I peer through the towering evergreens that are like the curtain that hides the true identity of the great Wizard of Oz.

I wonder how Farmer Dave pulls it off – producing so much food with such little impact on the environment. He’s the area’s most prominent and prolific gardener, yet he forgoes many of the most basic modern tools that seem to be a necessity to most small backyard growers and farmers. He feeds many of us through his stand at Lancaster’s Farmers Market (each Saturday morning), but consumes relatively little fossil fuels by practicing sustainable, organic and local agriculture. His wisdom and success lies in listening to the land.

Craxton has been called the King of garlic. After all, he produces 25 varieties of garlic on his 12 acre farm on Whitefield Road in Dalton. But, that is tip of the ice berg (lettuce,) he also turns out some 200 different variations of three dozen fruit and vegetable crops that range from lettuce (10 kinds) to potatoes (22 kinds) to hot peppers (11 kinds.)

Last fall, I let my wonder get the best of me and invite myself over for a tour. Along the way, I get a tutorial on organic gardening and local food. Farmer Dave is a quiet, reflective man with deep thoughts and few words. His wife, Andria, on the other hand, uses her artistic photography and poems to vividly communicate their shared passion for the land.

Dave’s three decades of “playing in the dirt,” have not muddied his agrarian idealism, adherence to ancient farming principles or creative curiosity. If there is one guiding principle at the Roots and Fruits Farm, it is that product cannot be separated from process – even if the process is backbreaking (or as Dave calls it “time consuming.”) He uses a broad fork to open up the land instead of a rotatiller. He cuts with a scythe, rather than a weed whacker. The key, he says, is to “work the land in a gentle way” and build the soil by enriching it with good compost and rotating crops. This year the Craxton’s installed 8 solar panels that further reduce their electric consumption by one-third.

Wholesome, flavorful and nutritious food can’t be forced on the land. “You have to train yourself to hear,” he says, “The land tells me what to grow.”

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