LOCAL and SUSTAINABLE

Ken's picture

I'm just siting down to a small plate of smoked sockeye (salmon) with a glass of 'Captain's Reserve - Bittersweet' hard cider and my thoughts are turning to the subject of eating locally and/or sustainably. We all have a sense that LOCAL is important, but I think that we perhaps don't actually give the topic as much thought/attention as it deserves.

The recent shortages of certain items on grocery store shelves is just our first taste of complicated/fragile supply lines breaking down. In the interest of not being personally dependent on extended, non-locally controlled systems for critical supplies, I sometimes spend MORE to purchase goods and services than I potentially might if I ordered online or bought 'Made in China' or 'Grown in Mexico'. By supporting local producers, I help insure that those producers stay operational and that I am seen as a loyal customer, so that when the inevitable occurs and those global supply lines break down or simply become uneconomical for intermediators to continue, my supply of those critical goods or services are still available to me.

The goal of eating seasonally and locally (as much as economically possible) means that I don't get to eat asparagus in January, despite the fact that "organic - grown in Mexico" asparagus is on the shelf at the grocery store. This saves me from spending $9.99 per pound and makes me more appreciative of local asparagus when it arrives in the spring!

I have come to think of "Local" as more of a continuum rather than a hard and fast definition - The salmon fillets in my freezer are from SE Alaska, more than a thousand miles away. Yet because I know the family that caught, cleaned, filleted and froze the fish, AND sailed it to our local dock in their own boat, I consider it more "local" than anything available in the grocery store. SE Alaska is also part of the same general biome as maritime Washington, so while it's many miles away, it's still local in the sense of a shared environment and in the low energy transportation.

More problematic are the storable, staple foods that are simply not produced locally: dry beans, corn, lentils, and rice. Ideally, I would learn to grow all those myself; first identifying which varieties will actually do well, or at least survive, here, and then learning the techniques and practices that are necessary to produce and store these basic caloric staples. Realistically, each of those is a lifetime of study and trial with significant expenses in time, energy and attention. Which is hard to justify economically when I can buy perfectly fine pinto beans for less than a dollar per pound! Nevertheless, this is information that the community will need if we hope to keep eating those staples in the coming years.

So, along with the raised bed/container kitchen garden and small orchard, I raise corn. Of all the small grains, it is my favorite and not just because it is the easiest to grow and harvest using only hand tools. Many people on the island try to raise a little sweet corn for eating as corn-on-the-cob, but as far as I know, I'm the only one serious about corn as a staple grain. There is another plant breeder that is working on dryland rice and wheat. Also some gardeners raise modest amounts of dry beans of a variety of types. Scaling up is a challenge with small grains and legumes but one that will have to be figured out if we truly want to be sustainable and resilient here. I've committed to learning to grow corn effectively here and hope to be able to share that knowledge with my neighbors when it becomes more economically necessary for them to do the same.

As transportation starts to reflect it's true costs (I just paid $4.89/gallon for gas yesterday) moving agricultural produce that is mostly water weight and spoils easily (and tastes best when freshest) will become increasingly absurd. Which is more energetically efficient; shipping a truckload of dry beans in sacks, or a load of cucumbers in a refrigerated container? And yet which is more valuable in the marketplace? THAT is the kind of insanity that will have to end as corporate/industrial/chemical agriculture grinds to it's inevitable end.

conclusion: Learn to grow your own fresh vegetables. Learn how to preserve them and prepare them. And think about learning to grow storable, staple grains and legumes in your unique micro-climate. It won't make any sense financially right now and the learning curve is long, but if you don't, who will? And I think we all agree that eventually that knowledge is going to be desperately needed. And isn't knowledge the stock and trade of a Green Wizard?

add photo: 
Sweet Tatorman's picture

I am pleased to see another corn as grain enthusiast here on the forum. I lived in WA state in the 70's so can appreciate the challenge it must be to grow corn successfully in your climate. Corn is quite adaptable as you have noted in another thread but it does have it's limits. I am fortunate to be in a location that is very suitable and as a consequence have devoted considerable effort to it.

Ken's picture

I'm just guessing, but 'Sweet Tatorman' sounds like someone that lives where there is enough heat to grow sweet potatoes? I love sweet potatoes and 'Georgia Jet' will produce even in the cool, rainy PNW - sometimes. Corn does okay if we get a warm spring and you plant a fast maturing variety. I'm a big fan of popcorn, partially because I really love the pair of genes that prevent it from being pollinated by non-popcorn varieties, which keeps out GMO pollen. I also like popcorn as a snack! But really I'm after those genes. I've been baking cornbread for forever and have an island potluck reputation for stellar cornbread to uphold but after my stone mill was repossessed by it's rightful owner (I'd been lent the mill by someone who'd been lent the mill and the original owner eventually wanted it back) and when I priced the kind of quality, slow turning (low temp) stone mill that I'd been using for years, I got a case of sticker shock. So I decided to skip the high tech grinding and try the ancient low-tech method of nixtamalizing my corn and making masa. After getting the technique figured out and the purchase (not borrowing essential equipment anymore!) of a cast iron hand mill and a tortilla press, I now make my own corn tortillas monthly, along with a batch of refried beans (which I freeze in small containers). My good friend raises hogs and I render the leaf lard down for cooking and especially for using in my refried beans.

It's kind of funny, but I find over and over again, that teaching people to grow a certain crop, without also demonstrating ways to preserve it and prepare it into delicious meals, kind of falls flat. For example; I got totally into potatoes about 15 or 20 years ago; I loved the fact that tubers can serve many of the same functions in a society as small grains but without the transportability; it's hard to steal spuds in any big way, they simply weight too much and spoil too readily, unlike dry grains. So I got the community all excited about potatoes as the answer to a high calorie, storable food supply that produces even in our occasional summers with no sun. It's a good plan but I didn't have the storage issue figured out and after bringing 1500 lbs of seed potatoes to the island and spreading them around, it took a grand total of one year to figure out that it's basically too warm to keep potatoes for more than a few months here without a refrigerated root cellar. So much for my food security project! Soil temperatures in the top few feet tend to be right about the average annual air temperature and for us that is too high. Potatoes like it under 40 and our soil temp is more like 50, so even a proper root cellar is going to have problems keeping spuds beyond February. That doesn't mean we shouldn't grow potatoes, it just means that they are not a good candidate for year round food security.

Corn on the other hand, keeps quite well with cool, reasonably dry storage. I make tortillas all the time with corn that was harvested multiple years prior. You've just got to keep it cool, dry and bug free. I also keep it on the cob until I'm ready to use it, which I suspect helps, though I don't know why. Traditional corn cultures often hang bundles of seed corn in smokey places or pack it in ashes, both of which keep the bugs at bay and as a side benefit discourages short-sighted consumption of next year's seed stock. No one wants to eat corn that is covered in soot and ashes...

Sweet Tatorman's picture

I went back just now and reuploaded the photos into an old post on the subject of grinding corn. Without the photos that posting is lacking. You might wish to look into my solution to the task of corn grinding. Link to that old post below.
You wrote >I'm just guessing, but 'Sweet Tatorman' sounds like someone that lives where there is enough heat to grow sweet potatoes?< You would be quite right about that. Another variety you might wish to try is type 8633. From the name I think we can surmise it is not an heirloom variety. It seems to produce well with low GDD (heat units) relative to most types. It keeps well. It's main downside is that it is a very poor slip producer. I usually allocate 2-3 times as many to slip production compared to my other varieties yet even so it is always the last variety to produce enough slips to complete planting.
https://greenwizards.com/node/785

Sweet Tatorman's picture

I am pleased to see another corn as grain enthusiast here on the forum. I lived in WA state in the 70's so can appreciate the challenge it must be to grow corn successfully in your climate. Corn is quite adaptable as you have noted in another thread but it does have it's limits. I am fortunate to be in a location that is very suitable and as a consequence have devoted considerable effort to it.

Growing corn and beans has been an ongoing project of my garden buddy and myself for the last several years. We have gotten pretty good at dry beans of several varieties and we have had some success with growing flour and flint corn. However, we are still struggling with grinding the corn. The best hand grinder we have now will do the job with flint corn in two passes if we can get the grinder anchored to something, but we need to find an easier way to do it or to electrify our grinder to make it something we will do regularly. We can anchor the grinder to the table in the summer kitchen in the summer, but winter is when we would most likely be doing grain milling, the summer kitchen is all bundled up against the elements.

I just learned from another friend who has a Kitchen Aid stand mixer, that they have a grain grinder attachment that might make this chore more doable. I know, I know one more electric gadget, but might make a great deal of difference in food self reliance. At the moment we are pursuing some anchoring solution to the hand mixer and more knowledge about the stand mixer grinder.

lathechuck's picture

When I've tried to grow beans, the rabbits eat the seedlings, and if the seedlings survive, the deer eat every thing else. (I had excellent crops of pole beans for several years, before the deer discovered my garden.)
When I tried to grow sweet corn, something got into the ripening ears. It could have been squirrels, might have been deer, but was probably raccoons. Now, in a situation where an occasional shotgun blast could be overlooked by the neighbors and/or police, such wildlife would be welcome. But that's not the situation we're in. Yet.
A few years ago, I tried a packet of "hull-less oats". I didn't give them much space, only a few square feet, and might have gotten enough grain to cook one breakfast with. However, the term "hull-less" is somewhat... aspirational. They may be easier to separate, but I never threshed more than a teaspoon at a time, and eventually what I had saved was lost to insects.

It's one thing to bring a crop to harvest, and another to bring it to the table!

One of the community gardens that my friend and I had plots in was next to a golf course in the foothills and there was quite the herd of deer living there. There was a four foot fence around the garden, but that is nothing to a deer and naturally they would hop over and feast on our produce. Corn, peanuts, you name it. Garden clean up was easier when they could get in as they would eat all of the fallen tomatoes, but we really didn't want them in the garden at all.

To keep the deer out, our garden manager organized a work party to put up a higher fence, but it was not of a mesh variety. We simply put up higher uprights then strung three wires between them about 2 or 2 and a half feet apart. I was dubious that this would work, but indeed it did. The deer didn't consider the gaps large enough to get through and the top wire was higher then they could jump.

Maybe you could do something like it around your garden to keep the deer out. I am not sure what to suggest for rabbits and raccoons.

David Trammel's picture

I have seen it discussed that laying cattle panels down on the ground in front of your garden fence seem to help against beer. Not sure of small critters. Apparently the deer get scared when they step on the metal wire and they don't go forward to jump the fence.