dsc_4120This is the last post in my Omnivore’s Delight Challenge week of blogging What a marathon that was. You can read all the older posts here.

All the folks in my household enjoyed the Omnivore’s Delight Challenge. Turns out we didn’t have to change our eating habits much – only our shopping habits. Still it was an interesting and inspiring exercise that can take the dread out of changing one’s food culture, and a good “test run” for more permanent changes.

The following is a wrap up of what was most valuable, challenging, surprising, and eye-opening. No doubt more thoughts will offer themselves as the experience reasserts itself, in no small part because we’re keeping several aspects of the diet.

Eye on the prize. This “diet” lasting only a week, and it being the end of summer, the season of optimal food abundance, made it rather easy. Imagine eating locavoraciously (locally sourcing at least 50% of our calories) in the middle of winter! The trick then would be to keep our eye on the prize: a healthy, sustainable and fair food system for all. Time and time again, as our small pilot group sat around the dinner table examining yet another thwarted eating habit, touching on the sacrifices we would have to make were this a permanent deal, this is what we asked: would we give up bananas, coffee, rice at any time of the year, fresh peaches and tomatoes out of season, if the result was a healthy, sustainable and fair food system for all?dsc_3961

It would take more work, more time, more ingenuity, more community involvement, and quite a bit of preparation to make it possible at all. New England Food Vision, of which the Omnivore’s Delight is a component, is for 2060 after all. Both in terms of availability and variety, much of the food that New England could be growing in 2060 isn’t here yet. Some of it is as yet only available to those who have the extra income to pay a premium price, the time and means to drive the extra mile. I for one felt privileged to be able to do so for a week, and I plan to keep paying that forward as much as I can so that local markets – the farmers and the local shops who take a chance by giving their products shelf space – can continue on in lean time and grow into prevalence.

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Dinner of haddock, creamed spinach and scalloped potatoes, all local ingredients except for the pepper, salt, nutmeg and paprika.

Food group changes. The Omnivore’s Delight first of all recommends a caloric intake for those food groups that can be grown in New England due to its climate, soil, etc. We were already eating well within those parameters (I wrote about our Baseline here). We eat less meat, refined grains, and warm climate fruits, and more whole grains and vegetables, than the average New Englander. In fact, our diet was already closer to the Food Vision’s “Regional Reliance” diet, which adjusts to local growing circumstances even more. But in the spirit of the challenge, we cut out almost all the processed snacks, and all the bananas. I suspect we ate more fish and meat than usual (though still within Omnivore’s Delight parameters) simply because we were excited to have found them locally and wanted to feature them on the table and in the blog.

dsc_3901_500Local sources. So our main challenge was the 50% local/regional provenance of the food. Though I don’t have exact numbers, I would estimate that about 75% of our food was locally sourced. This was a major adjustment and we made big changes in all the food groups, except for vegetables, which we usually get from our own garden, our CSA, the Farmers Market and local farm stands – rarely did I buy California strawberries or a Florida tomato. But I had not been conscious about grains, dairy, meat and fish, simply assuming that they were too difficult, or too expensive, to get locally. They weren’t easy to get, required research, some extra driving, and they sometimes cost more, but in many cases I found them worth those costs.

dsc_3884_500In that respect, what does “local” mean? Beef and chicken from Codman Farm in Lincoln at 7 miles is fairly incontestably local. Anything grown outside of New England is not. But what about wheat berries from Four Star Farms in Northfield, MA, at 75 miles (I wrote on grains here and on beans here)? Or if you consider 100 miles to be the magical radius, milk from High Lawn Farm in Lee, MA, 113 miles away (I wrote on dairy here)? Those are still in New England, but though I would conceivably drive to Northfield to pick up a year’s supply of grains for myself and preferably some other families, I would not do the weekly drive to Lee, or even to Shaw Farm in Dracut, only 30 miles away, for a couple of gallons of milk. Fortunately, both Four Star and High Lawn are already stocked at local-enough shops, and hence I count them as local.

dsc_1984_500Distribution lines. The Food Vision is an economic, political vision, a plan for the community of New Englanders working together. It doesn’t advocate individual or household self-reliance: everyone growing all they need for themselves. Hence the importance of supply lines. For instance, I can buy those Four Star Farms wheat berries from Volante Farms in Needham, MA, 8 miles away, or I can buy them from the Four Star Farms online store and have them shipped straight to my house. The latter would even be $2 cheaper. Nevertheless I have learned enough to choose the former. I wrote them an email to explain:

I just love it that you stock Four Stars, and I want to encourage that. My research into local food has taught me that a major part of promoting locally grown is supporting the supply lines too, and farmstands and shops like yours are to be commended on being the first to give shelf space to these emerging markets.

dscf9204The same thinking goes for the drive there, and back: I want to show support and keep this market growing so that more local stores will also take up the baton of local food. It’s not ideal, of course, but that shouldn’t stop us from working toward the ideal, and that comes at several costs (money, time, convenience, car emissions). Still, we should work to minimize that cost, so I hope I can drum up more friends and neighbors to carpool shopping trips with.

$Cost$. Speaking of costs, I found that most locally grown vegetables, bought straight from the farmers at the Farmers Market or a farm stand, or through a CSA, are cheaper than in the grocery store (some of this has to do with foregoing organic, about which later. Having discovered how easy it is to bake our own bread, the premium I pay for local grains and flour is very little compared to what I used to pay for baked loaves at the grocery store. Local milk and cheese do cost more, as do fish and especially meat (which is also costly to grow, economically as well as environmentally). Again, and as I also wrote here:

The first step has been taken by passionate, incredibly hard-working people whose love of good food, happy animals and the land overrides the need for a job security and a stable income. Now it’s up to the customers to grow the demand for the food they grow, so these small businesses can become more stable and so that other farmers can get started as well. These first customers pay a premium, just as the early adopters of solar paid much higher prices. They got that market going, then prices went down and others with less disposable income could get in. The question is: can our household be that customer? If we eat less of it, we could.

dscf2837Time. This “diet” did take more time but, except for the driving, all of it was well spent. I count the research and sourcing of local food stuff as a one-time investment. Getting to know the farmers, shopkeepers and other customers makes for constant edification and great community building and food activism. The cooking was more careful and the eating was slower because we felt committed to the ingredients, their flavors, and the experiment made us more experimental. That is all good.

dsc_3788_annotated_1000Thankfulness. This brings me to what was probably our most intense and most lasting learning. We were so much more mindful of the food that sustains our every action. Much less went to waste (in my household that means, into the compost), not just because some of it was more expensive, or not just because we knew it was more scarce, more difficult to come by. This food has become personal. We had studied where it came from, who grew it, what the cows ate who made the milk and who grew that food, who conserved the land these cows were grazing on, and so on. In many cases we had met the people who grew it. This food was no longer anonymous. It came with strings attached and it had made us responsible for it. We also felt more thankful and awed at the achievements that were, each and every one, necessary conditions for it to make it onto our plate. Land and soil, animals, farmers, truckers, distributors, salespeople, buyers and cooks all got recognition. Eating like this, food is no longer fuel, but a gift. Dinner is no longer a meal, but a feast!

dscf2633Food culture. Food for the belly nourished us twice as it was also food for thought. The gathering being made up of several food cultures (European, Indian, American), the food on the table inspired much story telling about memorable meals, favorite recipes, old ways of cooking and praising food. As I wrote, it gave us the courage to question our food habits and entitlements. We thought out loud about what we could give up for our food system to be sustainable and equitable.

Organic, how animals and soil are treated. We spoke often about how food is grown, how animals are treated. Wayland Farmers Market Manager Peg Mallett and I discussed this and we both concluded that for many customers at Farmers Markets, local trumps organic. Before the Challenge, that was the case for us as well with respect to veggies, but this time I applied the same thinking to milk and grains. At the store, the “organic” label is my only guarantee that the food is grown with certain methods and under certain circumstances that I prefer. But at the Farmers Market I do my own certifying simply by getting to know and trust the farmers.

dscf8072smallI had a very interesting conversation with The Kid (11 years old) about eating meat or fish, and how having known the animal – which ranges from it having been a pet chicken, all the way to having caught the fish – bears on whether one should, or even can, be eaten. The Kid stated that once she had looked into the animals living eye, she would not eat it.

The Food Vision considers a vegetarian diet as well, but it recommends meat and fish because those are sources of nutrients that grow well and can be grown quite sustainably in New England. So they’re on the menu. “Sustainably” is of course the key word. What does it all mean? In this respect I had a conversation with a vegetarian friend who gets a good percentage of her proteins from eggs. When I mentioned that some of the local hens from whom I get eggs are getting old and be culled before winter, she was aghast. I asked her what she thinks happens to the hens who lay all those eggs he eats? Does she think they all have a happy, well-fed retirement of about five years after their one, two, three (at most four – depending on the operation) years of laying?

dsc_3894“The fifteen.” Of course, some things just can’t be got locally, not yet, or will never be: coffee or tea (though I did manage to grow some Sochi Tea trees a couple of years ago), or peppercorn (though we could grow substitutes), or rice (though New England farmers are working with native wild rice), or bananas (forget about that one!). I think personally I could give up all of those (some easier than others) or enjoy the substitutes. What about salt? The ocean is nearby and local salt is available – I just didn’t get it on time for the Challenge. New England should also be able to make sugar, but then there is honey, which “grows” not fifty feet from my front door. Anyway, we did eat all of these, counting them into the fifteen percent “discretionary calories”.

dsc_4069What will we keep? Definitely, the homemade bread with local whole grains, the local milk and homemade yogurt with local milk, the local eggs and local fish. We’ll do our best with cheese and meat (possibly by joining a meat CSA). We’ll continue to eat less purchased snacks, cookies, etc., and make more ourselves. I decided to stock up at the farmers market and freeze, dehydrate and can, a lot more than I usually do, for more local winter eating. We’ll also continue our research, grow our relations with the farmers, and have “food conversation” at the table.

dsc_4049The biggest obstacle? Keeping score! I started with a data sheet (calories, ounces, $$), but it was impossible to keep track of five people, three meals a day. When I tried a couple of free online caloric calculators, the results were hilarious. As these programs are calibrated to one person per day, my plugging in pounds of potatoes and gallons of milk for five and, one day, even seven people over several days, resulted in several alarms!

Rest assured that if we decide to invite more people to this challenge, we will also offer a fun and friendly recording tool.

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We’re racing against the clock here. A week ago I drastically snipped off 3/4 of the leaves on the tomato vines. Many of the fruits on them have been full grown for a month, but very few of them were ripening. The pruning has redirected the plant into ripening, but I think I may have acted too late. There are still a lot of green tomatoes there!

DSC_3410DSC_3393Today I extracted some massive honey combs. My experiment with foundationless frames went a tad awry, the bees drawing out bulging combs wherever there was space because the next frames was empty.

First it made for some puzzling to get those frames out of the two boxes. After using the bee escape for a night, there were a hundred or so bees left. I had to break open some comb and then had to brush off the bees, who were understandably upset. Extracting required the bread knife to cut away the excess comb. The tactile, visual and aromatic pleasure of cutting through soft, oozing comb is unparalleled. Eleven frames made for 45 lbs of honey.

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Of all my harvests over the years, honey has always been the most successful and most popular crop. The seven remaining hens lay pretty well too, about 4-5 eggs a day. Three of them are now four years old, and in Fall we’ll cull those and get four, maybe six chicks.

My home veg garden however is a disappointment. It is getting too shady to produce much except for lettuce. We may want to remove the two trees that are the main culprits, but I may also just pack up the full sun veggies and bring them to the Transition Wayland plot at the Community Gardens. Two big beds may be opening up there, with incredible soil (alluvial soil with worms the size of small snakes) and full sun (no shade at all). I drive to that neighborhood twice a week anyway to check on the bees, housed in an old field next to the Gardens. My only issue with the Community Garden plot is that I’d have to water with tap water, as there are no buildings and thus no rain water collection there. If I could somehow solve that issue, then the home garden could become a lettuce garden and a nectary for the nucs and splits, and all the other pollinators, as well as a mushroom yard, and a soil fertility operation…

Lots to think about in these last days of Summer.

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After over a week of temperatures in the 90s and scorching full sun, it is cooler overcast with some mild rain (still not enough, though). I get to catch my breath. Today I weeded, pruned and trellised tomatoes. Tomorrow I may really get to the wood chip piles: add them to Wood Chip Heaven and (this will require carting them up our hill) as a mulch to the perennials up top and in the paths in the vegetable garden, all the while pulling weeds. If I have any oomph left I may even move some into the chicken yard, or I may start laying out some paths on our slope.

In the meantime one more critter has joined the menagerie of bunnies, chipmunks, squirrels, and lots of birds in the clover:

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We are also seeing some interesting insects, like this one, which Amie called the cotton candy bug, literally on our doorstep:

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I’m finally harvesting tomatoes, peppers (hot and green) and zucchinis. I pulled all the garlic, 125 bulbs for about 6 lbs.

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For seed I am saving the largest heads, as well as the actual garlic seeds from the scapes I allowed to mature. These seeds are also planted in Fall, and make great bulbs. I also finished the disappointing potato harvest: 6.25 lbs of tiny potatoes for about as many of supermarket potatoes that I put in – I blame it on those seed potatoes, next year I may splurge on actual seed potatoes. This means I have two more empty beds for the Fall harvest plantings. This year will I actually have a Fall harvest?

After a couple of unseasonably cold and gray days that warranted warm socks and a sweater, we’ve returned to hot (+90F) and sunny again. I return to monitoring my one barrel of rain water, which is about 1/5 full (empty). The couple of rain storms we’ve had and the one night of drizzle failed to fill the bin, let alone my array of four 275 gallon bins. One can have all the storage one wants, but one can’t make the rain fall.

DSCF8121The garden was getting on parched yesterday so I watered with the precious rain water, adding a half cup of fish emulsion and a cup and a half of compost and comfrey tea to each watering can. The tea I had started four days ago: dropping comfrey leaves into the bottom half of a five gallon bucket, adding about two gallons of rain water, then putting about ten cups of fresh compost into a cloth bag and submersing it. Put lid on, put in dark shed, let bubble away. It smelled sweat, going on yeasty, with the typical comfrey smell that I’ve not been able to describe – something like molten rubber? Anyway, it was ready. Though even hotter today, the plants, even the usually droopy tomatoes, look great. I hope the calcium rich comfrey will combat the blossom end rot I’ve spotted on some of the squashes.

Looking west of the garden, here’s an update of what’s going on with the front of our property.

DSCF7053_smallIn February we had a landscaper come with a track hoe to excavate the weeds, brambles and vines that we had combated year in year out – pulling, digging up, covering with cardboard and wood chips – losing the battle. In four hours he had dug them up with the big scoop and put them on one big pile. Then he churned up the massive leaf and wood chips piles that my neighbor had been depositing on our property for years. It looked like a lot of fun, like stirring a massive pot of soup with a massive ladle. This mix he deposited on the newly bared earth, at about a foot deep.

DSCF8032On the slope I sowed white clover, which took really well and is now feeding the rabbit population. I am not sure this is a good idea, but on the other hand, I haven’t had rabbit herbivory in my garden at all this season. Also, it is fixing nitrogen, out-competing most weeds and stopping erosion very well.

Down at the bottom, the hardiest weeds returned slowly, but our neighbor keeps dropping off wood chips and every other weekend or so DH and I go down and pull and cover, pull and cover. The excavation wasn’t a silver bullet that took care of it once and for all, and we never expected that, but our work now is much more manageable, and pleasant. It looks like this now:

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Notice the new pile of wood chips in the center.

The idea is that the micro-organisms need all the nitrogen available to burn up the carbon in the wood chips – leaving less or even no nitrogen for the weeds. That’s how woodsy mulch works. An extra weapon in our arsenal is the deployment of fungi. Most of the weeds we’re fighting are invasive greenies. I’m hoping that aggressively running mycelium in the wood chips mulch will suppress them even more. So I started wood chip fermenting. I learned about it from Paul Stametz in this short and informational video:

It’s an intriguing idea: you basically cultivate a herd of anaerobic bacteria, then you harvest them by killing them by exposing them to oxygen, then give them to the (aerobic) fungi as a meal. It’s like growing fodder for your livestock, only your fodder is bacteria and your livestock is fungi!

Here are my barrels, filled to the brim with a mix of soft and hard woods and tap water that sat out in open buckets in the sun for several days to dechlorinate. I’ll drain the barrels in a couple of weeks and we’ll spread the fermented chips and start a new batch. Hopefully, we’ll have great mycelium running soon!

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A whole crowd of us went picking at a local horse farm, where the farmers a decade or so ago had the foresight of converting a paddock into blueberries. This year will yield a bumper crop and the picking, in the drizzle, was wonderful.

This was the same field where two years ago we picked with our friend Rebecca, who died in February. I spoke about her to a friend and, when I found myself alone, to her as well.

Then, of course, one comes home to the follow-up work. Two hours of picking, seven people = 14 quarts of berries and heaps of fun. One hour of sorting, four people and also fun, lots of tasting. Then six hours of crushing, cooking, measuring, ladling and canning, by one person (me) = not so much fun, but 36 8 oz. jars of blueberry jam.

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some of the pickers, drenched

 

DSCF7979My two kombucha Continuous Brews (one with a spiced Indian chai, the other a more subtle Earl Grey) are growing vigorously, the mothers in them giving birth to more SCOBYs (scobies?). They are starting to fill up the jars. Time for a special hold-over vessel: the SCOBY Hotel. I learned about this from the Big Book of Kombucha by Hannah Crum and Alex LaGory of Kombucha Kamp, both of which (the book, the site) I am liking very much.

First photo: Earl Grey kombucha with sour cherry concentrate flavoring for second fermentation. Nicely fizzy! We like the flavors of fresh fruits better though, and those also create an explosive buzz. The sweet cherry and the watermelon flesh flavorings were more of a hit, but not as colorful.

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Separating the older (bottom one) from the newer mother.

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SCOBY motel with four mothers, so far.

 

 

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I tried again to capture those Indigenous Micro-Organisms, again in the leaf mulch pile, and again I got mostly yellow, pink, blue and predominantly black. It smelled sweet, though, so I decided to make a batch of IMO II, adding 1:1 brow sugar. This can be kept indefinitely in a dark, cool spot.

To plant some stinging nettle plants that a new friend – new, but he understands me all too well already! – brought for me, I went into a seldom-visited patch of our property. While digging the trench, I found the soil there to be super soft and hyphal, especially around an old beech tree. It may be that the indigenous micro-organisms are all the colors of the rainbow, not snow-white, but I may try one more time under that tree. I will have to brave some fast growing nettles to get there. Might as well harvest some of the tops and make a nettle tea…