News posts from makennagoodman's Archive

What Is the “Poor Man’s Meat”?

Thursday, October 1st, 2009

Gene Logsdon is one of the gurus of the local food and farming movement, and as Wendell Berry refers to him, “the most experienced and best observer of agriculture we have.” Here’s a bit from Gene’s seminal work on growing your own, which has now been revised and expanded for home gardeners and small-scale farmers.

The “Poor Man’s Meat”, as it turns out…isn’t meat at all.

The following is an excerpt from Gene Logsdon‘s Small-Scale Grain Raising: An Organic Guide to Growing, Processing, and Using Nutritious Whole Grains for Home Gardeners and Local Farmers:

DRY BEANS: The “Poor Man’s Meat”

I don’t know who first called dry beans the poor man’s meat, but today they are also the rich man’s meat, as many people take advantage of their rich content of proteins as a way to eat less meat or no meat. Technically, edible dry beans like the soybean and the navy bean are legumes, not grains, as everyone knows, but they belong in this book because growing them is much like growing grains, and the two make great partners both in crop rotations and in our diets.

In fact the basis of natural, sustainable farming is the working partnership between grasses (grains) and legumes (beans and clovers). Grasses grow well in rotation with legumes because the legumes draw nitrogen from the air to invigorate the grasses. When the grasses (grains) use up that free nitrogen and weaken a little, the legumes or clovers come back strong and charge the soil with more nitrogen. Farmers who take advantage of this partnership to its fullest can avoid spending lots of dollars on expensive nitrogen fertilizer and save inestimable amounts of natural gas, which is used extensively to make that fertilizer. To me there is no greater gift from nature than the combination of bluegrass and white clover because both will grow free and spontaneously in good soil and can provide the major part of the diet of grazing animals. Pasture farmers know this, and are again producing meat and milk almost entirely on the strength of permanent or semipermanent stands of grasses and legumes.

By the same token, corn and soybeans, or wheat and lentils, to name two examples, can be beneficial partners in farming. At least as long ago as Virgil, who sang the praises of partnering grains and legumes in his Georgics, this truth of good farming has been recognized. I believe that the garden farmer would do better to heed the words of poets like Virgil (or Wendell Berry today) than the money-inspired science of modern farming.

The sheer number of the edible dried beans shows their importance to the human diet around the world: soy, pinto, lentil, blackeyed, black, brown, kidney, white, sprouting, runner, tepary (I never heard of this kind until I saw it mentioned in a Seeds of Change catalog recently), garbanzo, chickpea, field pea—just to name a few. If I couldn’t justify putting dry beans in a grain book any other way, then I would simply say that baked beans are one of the heavenly dishes of civilization and don’t need any justification. If the carbon footprint folks want to worry that the subsequent gas from eating them is increasing global warming, I say when they quit exhaling carbon dioxide, I’ll quit eating baked beans.

The soybean is the number one “cash grain” crop in America, so it gets the most attention in farming circles. I think soybeans can make wonderful food for humans, as Asian civilizations have shown for centuries, but I wonder, all things considered, if we should feed them to our farm animals when oats might be cheaper and generate a more sustainable kind of farming. Before the soybean came to America—“before farmers went crazy,” as my father liked to say—American farmers grew corn, oats, wheat, and hay or pasture crops, in that order of rotation. Now much of the Corn Belt is in an endless rotation of corn and soybeans, which amounts to almost a monoculture. Fields in soybeans erode worse than fields in oats, and thus, with so many millions of acres in vast fields of soybeans, erosion problems are more severe. Soybeans do have more protein than oats, so they are a good food, properly prepared. On the other hand, because of the large quantities needed for farm animals, oats might be a better choice because they produce more grain per acre than soybeans and can be fed to animals without cooking. But, of course, oats do not put nitrogen in the soil the way soybeans do. So I guess it’s a draw.

Raw soybeans should not be fed to animals or eaten by humans. I learned that the hard way. When I was a child, I tried to eat more soybeans right out of the bin than our hired man, who tried to make me believe he liked them raw. To this day that taste sickens me. Raw beans, especially soybeans, contain enzyme inhibitors and need to be cooked to get rid of them. Some nutritionists say that soybeans need to be fermented like the Japanese do for miso and tempeh rather than cooked, or in addition to being cooked. I am not going to get into that argument. Soybeans for animal feedare roasted or cooked in some way before they are crushed into soybean meal, which is then fed as a protein supplement along with grains. As far as I know, not much attention has been given to the cost of this roasting or cooking versus the much lower cost of feeding raw oats and good hay or pasture to animals for their protein. The small farmer can still avail himself of custom bean roasters who will come to the farm to do this operation, although, more often now, farmers or custom feed services have extruders to do the job more efficiently. An extruder heats the beans by friction and therefore cooks them as it crushes and grinds them into meal. Today commercial farmers mostly buy soybean meal from commercial suppliers and mix it with the grain rations for their animals. Fermenting the beans, or soaking and cooking them as for human food, would be very laborious for more than a very few animals. I think legume hay and legume pastures, with perhaps a little oats as a supplement to corn, is a better livestock feed than soybeans, and the manure won’t stink as badly as manure from soybean meal.

With the exception of the delicious black-eyed pea or crowder pea of the South, most beans for baking are grown in the North, where they seem to do better. But evidence suggests that most of these beans can be grown equally well north, south, east, or west. Experiments at the University of Arkansas Experiment Station indicate that many dry bean varieties can be commercially successful in the northwestern part of that state at least. That means that they’d do all right in a garden even in the southern part of the state, and most likely on down to the Gulf Coast.

The reverse is true too. I’ve had good luck here in the North growing southern black-eyed peas, as well as northern white beans. They seem to produce with no extra care as to soil fertility. The crucial part is harvesting. I like to let the beans dry in the pod on the stalk completely, if possible. But if the weather is wet in September the beans are very apt to mold in the pod. The blackeyed peas seem to be worse than others in this respect.

Stiletto Stoners: The Female Face of Pot Smokers?

Wednesday, September 30th, 2009

We are clearly deep in the throes of a national conversation that posits whether or not marijuana is safer than alcohol, and whether or not the former should be legalized. But this time, fashion magazine Marie Claire wonders: what is the changing face of a pot smoker?

Turns out…it’s women.

Not that women haven’t been smoking pot for decades. Not that all women wear stilettos or even read Marie Claire. But these are the women deemed “successful” and powerful in society as of late–these Stiletto Stoners. But power to them, who better to make the case?

According to an interview on The Today Show with Mat Lauer, magazine editor-in-chief Joana Coles, a successful 30-something book editor (who remains anonymous), and a NYU Psychiatrist, it seems weed is completely misunderstood. As a matter of fact, this year, eight million women smoked pot. But these smokers aren’t your stereotypical Judd Apatow-slackers, or someone who’s “sleeping on a bench” as Coles puts it. These are educated, career-minded professional women who just “want a way to unwind” and have found that marijuana “has less impact on them when they go to work the next morning.”  She adds that these women “didn’t want to drink” and that marijuana is “cheaper” than alcohol. And since these are hard times, women see weed as their glass of wine, their bubble bath. Their (somewhat) guilty pleasure, in other words. But should they feel guilty?

Verdict says: No. Not guilty. Legit.


Meet the Farmers: Artisan Cheese in Vermont

Monday, September 28th, 2009

There’s a lot of young, entrepreneurial farmers popping up in the Green Mountain State. But what more can one expect from a great state that has outlawed billboards along highways, and whose capitol city has no McDonalds?

TV personality and Chef Emeril Lagasse has a show for PlanetGreen TV that highlights local ingredients, organic food and healthful eating. This week, he went to Vermont in search of cheese farmers. He visited with the Kehler brothers, proprietors of Jasper Hill Farm, who began making cheese several years ago when they bought a run-down dairy near Caspian Lake, where their family spent summer vacations. (The Kehler brothers, incidentally, are also profiled at length in The Atlas of American Artisan Cheese by Jeffrey P. Roberts, where you can find many other cheese makers and farmers.)

From the Burlington Free Press:

GREENSBORO — At his cheese shop in Manhattan, chef Emeril Lagasse likes to buy a certain blue cheese made in Vermont. He and his kids look for the Vermont blue on weekend shopping trips, Lagasse said.

So it was a pretty great thing for Lagasse, whose culinary exploits include TV cooking shows, to find himself on location last week at Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro. Lagasse was making Bayley Hazen blue with artisan cheesemakers Mateo and Andy Kehler when he had a kind of Epicurean epiphany.


Emeril Lagasse cooks in Hardwick

Emeril’s feast in the Vermont countryside

“Holy mackerel,” Lagasse thought. “I’m making the cheese I buy in New York. I totally get the connection. It’s come full circle.”

Full circle also describes the agriculture and food community, its relationships and intentions, that brought Lagasse to the Northeast Kingdom to shoot episodes for “Emeril Green,” his Planet Green broadcast. The show, usually shot in a Whole Foods store in Fairfax, Va., highlights local ingredients, organic food and healthful eating.

Lagasse, 49, traveled to the Northeast Kingdom to the tell the stories of farmers, chefs, food producers and entrepreneurs whose work is in the forefront of Vermont’s local, sustainable food system. The week long visit centered around the food and farm community that is taking root and growing in and around Hardwick.

A group of 30-something farmers, producers and entrepreneurs are growing and producing food, creating value-added products, building a diverse agricultural network, and working to strengthen the viability of the area through an ag-centered local economy.

They engage in a variety of collaborative efforts: from lending each other money to sharing a pickup-full of pork; from exchanging ideas about marketing to trading meals for glassware at Claire’s, a Hardwick restaurant.

“I’m impressed a lot, but I’m really impressed here,” Lagasse said. “It’s just really impressive what this area is doing, what these guys are contributing. It’s a region of the country that is incredibly agriculturally friendly.” [...]

Read the entire article here.

Sandor Katz on Protecting the Water Commons

Monday, September 28th, 2009

Sandor Katz says: “There is no way we can consider all the political issues revolving around food we eat without talking about water.” And right he is.

The following is an excerpt from The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved: Inside America’s Underground Food Movements by Sandor Ellix Katz.

Protecting the Water Commons
Water is a precious and dwindling resource that desperately needs protection. Agriculture accounts for the majority of the water humans use. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), 70 percent of water usage worldwide is agricultural, mostly for irrigation. Using “conventional” input-intensive methods, it takes as much as 250 gallons of water to produce a pound of corn and 8,500 gallons to produce a pound of grain-fed beef. Irrigation systems are often inefficient, with the majority of the water evaporating or running off the field, carrying with it agricultural chemicals into surface water supplies. Irrigation also alters soil conditions, eroding precious topsoil and depositing salts, which accumulate and eventually render the land inhospitable to plant life.

Agriculture doesn’t have to use so much water. Traditional, locally bred plant varieties and animal breeds have been adapted to local water patterns through selection over time, exhibiting qualities such as drought tolerance, which enable them to produce even without regular watering. However, high yields from “improved” hybrid seeds depend upon a considerable and consistent supply of water.

In many regions, water demand is met by pumping underground water supplies (known as groundwater, in contrast to surface supplies, such as water from rivers, lakes, and reservoirs). Most of the food produced in the Great Plains of the United States is irrigated with water from the Ogallala aquifer, a single vast underground system spanning eight states. The problem is that the aquifer is being drained much faster than it’s being replenished. In the past fifty years the aquifer has lost over a third of its volume, and each year another foot and half of water is pumped from it, though the recharge rate from surface water seepage is just half an inch per year. Food produced using water from such a slowly renewing source is doubly unsustainable, using up not only fossil fuel for agricultural chemicals and transportation but also water supplies that have accumulated over millennia and that will take many generations to replenish.

As underground water levels are depleted, surface lakes and riversoften disappear. In coastal areas, excessive groundwater pumping can lead to seawater seeping into drinking water supplies. UNESCO warns that drawing on groundwater supplies “unavoidably results in depleting the storage and has unfavourable consequences.” Nevertheless, it is common practice. Groundwater is the source of about 25 percent of the water supply, both in the United States and globally.

“The world is incurring a vast water deficit, one that is largely invisible, historically recent, and growing fast,” summarizes the Earth Policy Institute’s Lester R. Brown. In our property system, any scarce resource becomes a commodity. Water is “one of the great business opportunities,” states Fortune magazine. “The dollars at stake are huge. . . Water promises to be to the twenty-first century what oil was to the twentieth.” Indeed, speculators have begun to trade in water “futures” just as they do any other commodity.

Policymakers proclaim that market forces will lead to more rational use of water. The World Bank, as part of its overall program of encouraging governments to divest themselves of services and industries, has aggressively promoted privatization of public water infrastructure since the 1990s, promising better water services through market efficiency and private investment. Yet those water systems that have been privatized have consistently seen higher consumer prices and disappointing levels of infrastructure investment. “What has now become clear is that the major multinational water corporations have no intention of making a significant contribution to the capital needed to ensure access to clean and affordable water,” concludes a study by the U.S. consumer watchdog group Public Citizen. “The rhetoric of private sector financing is a myth.”

Atlanta, Georgia, is the biggest American city to have privatized its water system. In 1998 the city signed a twenty-year, $428 million contract with a subsidiary of Suez, one of the global giants of the water services industry, to operate its water system. Once Suez took over, the company realized that it had underestimated the amount of work needed to maintain the system and demanded an additional $80 million from the city.

Atlanta’s mayor refused, because the whole reason the city had contracted out water services was to save money. Suez laid off half the water system’s employees and tried to get extra money out of the city, for example by billing routine maintenance work to the city as “capital repairs.” Maintenance was neglected, while water and sewer rates increased. Worst of all, water quality suffered, with frequent discolorations and boil-water advisories. Though the water services industry had hoped the Atlanta experience would open up the U.S. market to them, in 2003 Atlanta officials terminated the contract. Chris New, Atlanta’s deputy water commissioner, said, “My biggest concern is a lot of people have lost confidence in the water itself.

The government of Bolivia, in debt and heavily dependent upon World Bank loans, heeded the bank’s advice to privatize water; in 1999 Bolivia awarded a forty-year contract to a subsidiary of the Bechtel Corporation for water services to Cochabamba, a city of more than six hundred thousand people. In this case, to meet the budget shortfall, water price increases went into effect immediately, with rates as much as tripling. The people of Cochabamba were shocked and angered by the dramatic rate increase. There was a four-day general strike, followed by escalating street protests. The Bolivian military took over the city and banned demonstrations. In the ensuing protests military forces injured 175 people and killed an unarmed seventeen-year-old. Government officials offered to roll back the rate increases, but the opposition leaders demanded that the contract be terminated. The Bolivian president did so, just six months into the contract. Bechtel responded by filing (but later withdrew) a $25 million lawsuit against Bolivia to compensate for “lost future profits.”

Another whole realm of water privatization is bottled water. In the United States bottled water sales more than tripled in the 1990s and continue to climb. In 2005 sales of bottled water in the United States approached $10 billion. Global bottled-water sales were $100 billion in 2004, according to the Earth Policy Institute.

One problem with this trend is that if the people who can afford to buy bottled water are drinking primarily that, the constituency for tap water is reduced, and by extension, for public investment in water systems. If the $100 billion being spent worldwide each year on bottled water were being invested in public water-supply systems, water quality and access would improve markedly. “A major shift to bottled watercould undermine funding for tap water protection, raising serious equity issues for the poor,” warns the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “The long-term solution to our water woes is to fix our tap water so it is safe for everyone, and tastes and smells good.”

Another big problem with bottled water is the plastic packaging. The 6 billion gallons of bottled water that were sold in the United States in 2002 required 1.5 million tons of plastic. And around thirty million plastic water bottles are discarded each day, piling up on landfills. Obtaining the essential daily sustenance of water from disposable plastic containers is totally unsustainable behavior.

However, it is sustainable as a business opportunity. The corporations that dominate this rapidly growing industry are all household names from the food industry: Nestlé, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, and Danone (the French-based manufacturer of Dannon yogurt). The water these corporations bottle as well as use in other beverages all comes from somewhere, and communities around the world are engaged in battles with water bottlers to keep them from extracting this precious resource.

Nestlé’s niche is springwater, and the company has been buying up springs around the United States. Wisconsin activists succeeded in legal efforts to prevent Nestlé from pumping water at two different springs in that state. In Red Boiling Springs, Tennessee (where my friend Jeff Poppen, the CSA farmer featured in chapter 1, lives), Nestlé started pumping and bottling local water in 2003, with the help of a $1 million job-creation grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce. The promised local jobs never materialized, but the water extraction did.

In Maine Nestlé acquired Poland Springs and other nearby sources, then sharply increased the volume of water being extracted. A local group has proposed that the state impose a water extraction fee of three cents per 20-ounce water container to fund a “Maine Water Dividend Trust.” The activists’ initial effort to place the proposal on the ballot as a voter referendum failed, but they continue working to build grassroots support for the initiative.

Not all bottled water flows from springs. Sometimes it is taken directly from municipal taps or from polluted groundwater supplies. The NRDC analyzed 103 brands of bottled water in 1999 and found that a third of them had “significant” bacterial or chemical contamination. The NRDC’s legal analysis found that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s regulation of bottled water is minimal and full of loopholes, “weaker in many ways than [Environmental Protection Agency] rules that apply to big city tap water. . . . While much tap water is indeed risky, having compared available data we conclude that there is no assurance that bottled water is any safer than tap water.”

In some cases, particularly in dry regions, the pumping of water from underground aquifers has dried up wells and other traditional water sources. Residents of several different towns in India have risen up against Coca-Cola bottling plants for their draining of local aquifers and polluting of local waters and land. In Kala Dera, Rajasthan, Coke’s state-of-the-art groundwater extraction resulted in a dramatic reduction of the water table. After only six years of the plant’s operation, fifty nearby villages reported water shortages as wells dried up. Many of these villages formed “struggle committees,” and together they brought together two thousand people to march on the plant in 2004 to demand that the water extraction stop. “Drive away Coca-Cola, save the water!” is their rallying cry. An Indian government hydrogeologist warns that continued extraction will lead to deterioration of water quality and ecological repercussions such as rising surface temperatures and an increased likelihood of earthquakes, caused by the earth’s upper crust drying up.

The people around Kala Dera move forward with their struggle inspired by the success of activists in Plachimada, in the Indian state of Kerala. Residents there have maintained a constant vigil at the gates of the local Coca-Cola bottling plant since April 2002, protesting similar water shortages there resulting from groundwater pumping. The state government shut down the bottling plant, on a temporary basis, during a drought emergency in March 2004, but the local village council, or panchayat, has refused to allow the plant to reopen, and Kerala state pollution officials have ordered Coke to pipe water to communities where water supplies have been lost. In addition to depleting water resources, this plant was distributing its solid waste to local farmers as “fertilizer.” Testing revealed cadmium and lead in the fertilizer, meaning that the land it had been spread on was contaminated with heavy metals; the state has since ordered Coke to stop distributing its toxic waste to farmers.

These water and waste struggles in India have been bolstered by international solidarity. In the United States and Europe, college students are boycotting Coke and organizing campaigns to kick Coke off campuses. I believe that a boycott of Coca-Cola is a fine idea, but I think that boycott should extend to all global corporate food. It’s not like drinking Pepsi is a more sustainable alternative.

Wherever we live, we must acknowledge our dependence on the flow of water and honor and protect the sources that sustain us. Those sources are the source of all life, a common heritage that must remain in the public domain. Water is a biological necessity, recycling endlessly, and our bodies are part of its cycle. Water transcends commodification, just as the earth does. We are of it, so how can it be our property? [...]

Beware the Sirens of Big Oil

Saturday, September 26th, 2009

Riki Ott, a rare combination of commercial salmon “fisherm’am” and PhD marine biologist (and author of Not One Drop: Betrayal and Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill), knows very well the impacts of oil companies’ broken promises. She lived in Alaska when the Exxon Valdez, in 1989, spilled most of its cargo and despoiled thousands of miles of shore, and experienced firsthand the oil industry’s 20-year trail of pollution and deception that predated the tragic spill–not to mention the disruption to the fishing community of Cordova, Alaska over the following 19 years. And still the fight persists.

From The Huffington Post:

Cordova, Alaska. In the early 1970s, Big Oil wooed Alaskans with a seductive chorus promising jobs, riches, and risk-free oil development, pipeline transfer, and tanker transport. Alaska politicians fell under its spell.

Today Big Oil generates more than 85 percent of Alaska’s operating revenues – and the song has changed. The tune is now militant and strident, as the industry demands ever more opportunity to drill and ever less regulation. This “opportunity” comes at the expense of deeply rooted indigenous cultures, family lifestyles, and businesses like commercial fishing and tourism that rely on Alaska’s abundant natural resources.

But the same enchanting Siren music once tailored to Alaskans is currently playing for Floridians, Californians, and others who live on our seacoasts. From my perspective as a survivor of North America’s largest oil spill–the 1989 Exxon Valdez–it seems too many politicians are falling under its spell. My advice to coastal residents in the Lower 48: Take heed.

We learned the hard way that Big Oil’s promises were good only until authorizing laws were passed and permits approved. The industry promised, for instance, in the early 1970s to double hull its tankers to minimize the risk of spills. But it will take until 2015 – more than 40 years – for it to make good on this promise. That’s too late for those of us in Prince William Sound. Ironically, too, 2015 will arrive long before the last of the toxic oil that spilled from the single-hulled Exxon Valdez is gone from our beaches–and long before our herring even begin to recover.

credit: 2009 Dave Janka.
Relatively unweathered Exxon Valdez oil from the 1989 spill 20 years ago lingers just beneath the surface of beaches in Prince William Sound, Alaska. The buried oil has delayed recovery of the ecosystem as it is often encountered by wildlife such as sea otters and sea ducks that forage for shellfish on intertidal beaches.

The once thriving multi-million dollar herring fisheries are nonexistent and the wildlife that feed on herring–well, it will recover whenever the herring recover. Maybe. Scientists make no promises.

Read more at:


Read the entire article here.

Believe It Or Not: McDonald’s is “Local”…Technically

Thursday, September 24th, 2009

When I think of the word “local”, I think of the farmer who lives down the road from me, who just harvested his massive pumpkin patch. I think of the sugarmaker who trucks maple sap with a horse-drawn sled. I think of my own eggs from my own hens. But let’s face it–I’m not the norm.  “Local“, in most cases, is the nearby gas station with a Taco Bell adjacent. It’s the DQ off the county road. It’s an Arby’s by the soccer field. How far away are you, for example, from a McDonald’s?

According to a blogger named Stephen Von Worley (with a h/t to Huffington Post), the place in the U.S. furthest from a McDonald’s, is “Between the tiny Dakotan hamlets of Meadow and Glad Valley lies the McFarthest Spot: 107 miles distant from the nearest McDonald’s, as the crow flies, and 145 miles by car!” So it’s not, in fact, me (I’m only 15 miles from the nearest Mickey D’s.)

When it comes to the growing “local” food movement, I’m skeptical of corporate food co-opting it. Why? Because of the overuse of terminology. “Local,” “organic,” and “farm fresh,” are clever marketing keywords in many cases.  I think this map from Von Worley’s blog really sums up the paradox. How do we really define what’s local? The colored portion represents the distance to the nearest McDonald’s:


To read more about Von Worley’s findings, click here.

Why Build With Straw Bale?

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

Haven’t you ever wondered, what IS a straw bale house?

The following is an excerpt from Serious Straw Bale: A Home Construction Guide for All Climates by Paul Lacinski and Michael Bergeron. It has been adapted for the web.


Why are bales a good choice in a cold climate? Can bale walls be designed to withstand the vagaries of weather in the snow belt? These are questions we’ve been asking of ourselves for a good many years, and they have now become the guiding questions behind this book. To begin at the beginning, however, we must ponder this question of why. The idea of building a wall of bales seems to entice people’s imaginations. Why bales? We have come to believe that people are searching for alternatives to the plywood palace, to the modular mentality that has come to dominate the mainstream construction industry. Most new houses today are made of the same materials: machined sticks and sheets of wood, plastic, metal, and gypsum. They are usually assembled according to the same set of principles, so that once you’ve built a few, they get pretty boring. Except for that small percentage in which a designer, owner, or builder puts some real thought into creating a form and finish that suits the owner and the site, these houses somehow feel the same.

There are three main reasons that straw bale construction is different. First of all, bale walls look very different from sheetrock walls. They look like the product of a human, rather than the product of a machine. Though bales are a new material (which makes design work challenging and fun), the feel of the finished wall harkens back to the preindustrial era. It seems that as our lives become increasingly technological, more and more people want to surround themselves with spaces that feel handmade and timeless.

Process is the second reason. Conventional construction is mathematical and precise, while bales and plaster are sloppy and intuitive. These characteristics are inviting to amateur builders, not only because they make bale construction easy to learn, but because they stand in contrast to the obsessive efficiency that most of us have had to accept as a part of the industrial economy. People see bale construction as a chance to cut loose.

Third, bale construction feels like an alternative to ecological waste. It’s akin to recycling. Recycling enjoys broad support across the political spectrum, because it’s obvious, it’s easy, and it gives people a sense that they can at least do something that is not harmful to the planet. While our agriculture is far from perfect, it does produce a lot of straw, so using some of it for construction makes intuitive sense.

Bruce Millard, a thoughtful architect from Sandpoint, Idaho, has developed this idea about building with bales a bit further. “Once people try this type of construction, they absorb it and agree with it, and begin to recognize it as a concept, as a psychological departure from the idea that industry is somehow more sophisticated than nature. It brings the left and the right together; it functions as a stepping block into an ecological way of building and living. People begin to ask, ‘How can I put this to work in the rest of my life?’”

Bruce sees the bale itself as a short-lived material. “We will soon realize that straw is very valuable—it will start going into particleboard and panelized materials, and it might be mixed with wood fiber for paper production.” Bruce uses the bale as an introduction to a whole array of recycled-content panels and blocks.

Bales also tend to serve as an introduction to traditional natural building techniques from around the world, all of which have much longer track records than the bale itself. Loose straw has been used for millennia in combination with clay and sand, for everything from plasters to load-bearing walls. Five-hundred-year-old examples of straw and clay infill are still in use in Germany, and this material has actually been rewetted and put back into wall cavities during restoration. Thatch makes a beautiful, durable, insulative roof. These and other techniques must be explored and developed if we are to continue to create decent housing for future generations on this planet. (See chapter 15, “Beyond the Bale.”)

Why Build a House of Straw Bales?

“Didn’t you learn anything from the first little pig?”

A mouthful of oatmeal and an earful of propaganda against building with straw; many of us were spoon-fed this breakfast throughout our childhoods. How is it, then, that perfectly sane people can consider living in a house whose walls are bales of straw? Maybe urbanization, suburbanization, and the decrease in the North American wolf population has lulled them into a sense of complacency about this domestic predator. Or maybe bales make such unusual walls that many of us are just willing to take the risk.


The most compelling among many reasons to build with bales is the quiet beauty of bale walls. Unlike walls of panelized materials, which require layers of ornamentation to bring life to their unnaturally uniform surfaces, bale walls look and feel as if they were made by hand. Their deep windowsills and gentle undulations lend a comfortably safe, quiet feeling to the interior of a home, while the plaster finish softly gathers and reflects light, changing in subtle ways as the sun shifts through each day and season. The effect is a heightened connection between indoor and outdoor worlds, an especially important relationship in climates where people spend a good part of the year inside buildings.

“We fell in love with the deep windowsills and rounded corners.”
“I like the massive feel, and the flexibility, of the bales; you can do anything with them, curvy or straight.”
“The house has a solid, embracing feeling, like it has its arms wrapped around me.”

Paul often describes bale walls as “plastered stone for the person of moderate means.” This is not to imply that bale walls don’t have a character of their own, which they certainly do; the point is that the massive, rounded feel of the bale wall is reminiscent of the old-world solidity of stone. (Bale walls also offer far more insulation value than stone walls, but we’ll get to that later.) Part of the appeal of bale buildings is that they just feel safe. Storms can be howling outside, or cars roaring along a nearby highway at twice the reasonable rate, and after the (good-quality) door clicks shut on a straw bale house, you will find yourself in near total silence. This sort of quiet allows the home to act as a refuge for the psyche; a place where the senses can escape the busy din of the postindustrial world.

Insulation Value

Straw bale houses may look and feel like plastered stone or earth houses, but they are in a different thermal category, entirely. Old stone houses are cold. New stone houses are typically built with foam insulation, either sandwiched between two independent stone walls, or blown onto the inside face of the stone. Both of these methods are quite expensive. Plastered bales, on the other hand, provide a highly insulative wall at a price that is competitive with quality conventional construction. [...]

Food For Thought (And Your Bookshelf)

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

For those out there interested in food preservation, you’re going to need a bible (or at least, several bibles.) You know what I mean; that little something in your kitchen library you reach for in moments of canning bliss. That tome you turn to when you’re waiting for your kombucha to ferment.  Just listen to Deborah Madison. She recommends Preserving Food Without Freezing or Canning: Traditional Techniques Using Salt, Oil, Sugar, Alcohol, Vinegar, Drying, Cold Storage, and Lactic Fermentation by Gardeners & Farmers of Terre Vivante

I live on a dirt lane in a small, historic New Mexican village. In the middle of the lane is a place where raised stones mark the sides of a six-foot square. I had driven over these stones for years, wondering what they might signify—an old well or perhaps a cistern?—until I happened to have a chat with my neighbor, Modesta. In the course of discussing all our wormy apples, she told me how people here used to store food for the winter, chiles and other vegetables, in pits of sandy soil. “Like that,” she said, pointing to the patch of stones. “That was a storage pit. There are lots of them around here.” And it was probably used not that many generations back.

It’s good to know how people have, through time, preserved their food—to have a window to view the old techniques and traditions. Preserving Food Without Freezing or Canning gives us just this opportunity. The methods here may well inspire us with their resourcefulness, their promise of goodness, and with the idea that we can eat well year around and quite independently of our long-distance food systems. Mostly what’s required is curiosity and the willingness to use some elemental tools—air and sun for drying, the earth for holding, salt for transforming and preserving, paper for wrapping, oil for banishing air, ashes for preserving freshness. These basic things are the stuff of old world techniques, and not all are in the past.

The oldest technique for preserving food, drying, is still commonly used in New Mexico. Corn is roasted or slaked with lime and then dried in the sun on tin roofs or wire screens. Chiles are dried then ground to make molido, apples are sliced and dried on strings on clotheslines. The long red ristras of chiles are still stored food even if they now have the dual role of ornamenting homes. On the farm they hang from the eaves of barns where the dry air passes freely around them, discouraging mold. A ristra placed in the kitchen makes it easy to pluck off chiles when cooking. Although green chiles are no longer buried in sand pits like the one in my lane, two techniques for doing so are described in this little book should you want to try. Covering food with earth, drying it in the air, fermenting it in salt, burying it in fat—all traditional techniques of food preservation—should not be so impossibly far from our plates and palates today as we might, at first thought, assume.

It’s tempting, if one is nervous about the future, to say that it’s good to know about the old ways of putting food by because we might need to know about them someday, just to survive. True, this could be a life-saving book, but this isn’t the main reason to read it. There are good reasons that don’t involve an uncertain future, those that have to do with taste and flavor, processes that preserve nutrition, such as lactic fermentation, as well as pleasure and poetry. One of my favorite descriptions in Preserving Food Without Freezing or Canning, a method for storing apples, involves wrapping them in dried elderflowers. Imagine the pleasure of being sent to retrieve such an apple, brushing off the still fragrant flowers, discovering that the fruit has changed from an apple to something mysterious and enchanting. Or, consider how simple is it to wrap tomatoes in paper to extend their precious season where frosts come early. This is a book I turn to when I find myself with a bounty of fruit, which is frequent enough in northern New Mexico that preservation matters. It guides me with the most direct ways to transform fruit into jellies and syrups, chutneys and preserves, without drowning it in sugar or killing it with pasteurization. The combinations are subtle and poetic, not quiet like others I’ve encountered. Take, for example, Melon Marmalade with Mint, Pear Jam with Walnuts, Blackberry Jam with Hazelnuts, or Cinnamon Dark Red Plums preserved in vinegar. The Bicolored Grapes in Vinegar are said to be divine with game—how enticing. I have some venison; where are the grapes? We all have these fruits and nuts, but what different ways of aligning them are given here. There are also foods we might have but really don’t know how to use, like buckthorn berries, linden flowers, elderberries, and wild greens and mushrooms, but can learn about should we encounter them. Thinking of the velvety winter oyster mushrooms in my farmers market that will, in fact, not last the winter unless I dry them, I am happy to know how to go about it.

Lactic fermentation, an old preservation technique that is suddenly new again, produces foods that have biological energy—that is, they are alive and do something good for those who eat them. Sauerkraut is well known (though mostly in its imitative form), but imagine radishes, those humble little roots that so many people toss into the compost (hopefully) because they had been forgotten in the back of the refrigerator. They can be chopped—red, black and pink ones—layered with salt, covered with brine and put away until the dead of winter when you might well be wishing for something crisp that didn’t travel thousands of miles. Chard ribs, too, are treated to salt and brine, as are cucumbers, leafy vegetables, even tomatoes. I’m not sure exactly how these foods might taste, but I can guess—intense, concentrated and alive—and I’ll know in a few months.

Drying fruits and vegetables in the sun focuses their flavors while making it possible to keep them past their season. The results are, to my taste, much better than those dried in a dehydrator, although that might be what people in moist, gray climates have to do. But imagine dried plums (yes, prunes!) pears and persimmons, grapes (raisins, of course), but also string-dried turnips and fermented tomato coulis. You can dry bread and preserve yeast, and make vegetable bouillon powder. One of the most enticing notions is clarifying animal fat with herbs and vegetables to use in the cooking of what must be the most savory dishes imaginable. Anyone who is now buying sides and quarters of beef, pork or lamb, as many are in lieu of going to the store for an industrial roast or a chop, is in just the right position to use such an idea.

These deeply useful techniques are expressed in words that include the distinct personalities of their keepers. Taken together, they open the doors to a big new pantry full of flavors and textures many of us have yet to experience. I know that even from my own limited experience using this book in its former incarnation, Keeping Food Fresh, Preserving Food Without Freezing or Canning can give us food that sings, not the blues of freezer burn and heavy syrup, but the joyful chorus of elemental flavors wrought by sun and air, salt and vinegar, fat and fermentation on the good foods we grow. It offers an exciting entry back into the world of real food. Use it and the past will become present.

Deborah Madison

October 2006

Galisteo, New Mexico

Louisville, Colorado: The Bee-Less City

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

Apparently–or at least according to our friend Dave Burdick in Boulder–Louisville, CO won an award for being the best place to live. And the reason: no bee stings.

Wait a minute. How can a city be “best”, if it’s bee-less? Not possible.

Sound funny to you? Well, since we’re big supoprters of beekeeping, I had to read on. And thank god, there’s a happier ending.


That’s right. In Louisville, bees are banned from residential areas, so it stands to reason that nobody gets stung by bees, right? It’s not something that most of us really focus on, but there’s always a little part of your mind, somewhere, dedicated to bee anxiety, right? So come on, let’s hang in L-ville — bee-free!

Kidding aside, there really is a bee ban in Louisville and some aspiring beekeepers are trying to change that. And commercial beekeepers say there would be real value in increasing the amount of backyard beekeeping in the area:

Commercial beekeepers are encouraging hobbyists in hopes of increasing the local bee population, which is now estimated to be about half of what it was 50 years ago.

Mite infestations in the 1990s exacerbated the bee decline, while commercial beekeepers on the east and west coasts began to report sudden colony losses in 2006 — a problem dubbed “colony collapse disorder” by researchers. The cause of the phenomenon is unknown.

Tom Theobald, a beekeeper who owns Niwot Honey Farm, says the situation is potentially dire.

“It’s a very fragile population,” he said. “Bees are critical to our food system. A third of agriculture crops are pollinated by bees.”

He said a bee colony pollinates flowers in about a mile radius. With feral colonies disappearing, he said, “if you don’t have an active beekeeper, you don’t have bees.”

To read the entire article, click here.

This October: Connect For Change!

Monday, September 21st, 2009

Something “wicked” this way comes…

On Thursday, October 22– Sunday, October 25, you may want to check this out.  The Bioneers by the Bay: Connecting for Change Conference. The Marion Institute’s 5th annual conference will be held in historic Downtown New Bedford, MA.


Bioneers by the Bay provides an opportunity for concerned citizens to meet with environmental, scientific, and social justice innovators to address the Earth’s most pressing challenges. They are planning a rather remarkable three days of live keynote presentations, afternoon workshops, an extensive Youth Initiative program, a downlink of the 20th Annual Bioneers Conference in California, an exhibition hall featuring sustainable businesses and organizations, a community action center, films, music, art installations, a farmers’ market and local & organic food.


On Thursday, October 22– Sunday, October 25 in historic Downtown New Bedford, MA.


They have scholarships and volunteer opportunities available—if you want to go to the conference they want to help get you there! For more information, please visit their website or call 508.748.0816.

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