Archive for The Farmhouse Voice
So a recent report stated that organic foods have no significant increase in nutritional value over commercially grown foods. Much like politics, there is much that was left out of the report, and Big Ag is tooting a great big horn in pointing out that you don’t get any more vitamins or nutrients when you buy organic. True enough, but that doesn’t omit the fact that you’re getting plenty of pesticides, antibiotics, and hormones when you eat their products. When you buy organic you may not get an extra dose of vitamin C, but you won’t be growing a third eye or glowing in the dark any time soon, so it’s kind of a trade-off. Seems like two eyes are enough, and we don’t like to see toddlers growing beards, so we’ll stay on the soapbox.
The easiest way to get good, nutritious food (besides eating at The Urban Farmhouse) is to grow your own. We’ve mentioned this before, and often the first argument to come up is the fact that many of you live in an apartment. So why not an Urban Garden? We talked recently about planting a garden in your yard, and many of you said that you had no yard, so that was not an option. Do you live in an apartment with no windows or doors? Do you have no access to outside and have to enter and exit through the chimney? If you answered these questions like we assume you did, we say pfffft.
First of all, when we say “yard” we’re not talking about rolling acres of bucolic green. We’re talking about a pile of dirt big enough to turn around in. Three feet by three feet is enough room to grow food. You may be dealing with dirt that is run through with concrete and garbage, so build a raised bed. A friend of ours built a raised bed on top of an unused brick patio. We have some other friends who own a restaurant in The Fan, and they built one in the alley next to their building. You can buy lumber or stone to create your bed, or even do it with scrap materials. All you need is a bed around 8 inches deep, and you’re ready to plant.
Another neat idea is to go vertical. We’ve seen a few neat ideas using old shipping pallets. You’ve seen them before, hanging out behind businesses: those big, useless wooden things. You can attach them to a wall and either spend a few bucks to fill them with soil, or just nail some empty soda bottles to them. That’s right…soda bottles.
We feel like we’ve shared this before, but you can make a great hanging garden using soda bottles. Cut the bottom off of the bottle, reinforce that cut rim with some duct tape, punch some holes in the side for your hangers, and fill those suckers with dirt. You’ll want to punch a hole in the cap so that your garden will drain. Otherwise you’ll end up with a soda bottle terrarium. Just saying. Anyhow, you can now attach these planters to your pallet, or simply wire them to a railing or balcony.
If you do have a little patio, you can easily grow vegetables and spices in containers. It would be nice to have actual planting pots, but anything that would hold dirt and moisture will do. Like a big, white, restaurant pickle bucket. Wouldn’t that be the ultimate recycling project? Grow cucumbers for pickling in a used pickle bucket. Whatever you use needs to be able to drain without letting all of your soil out. The cool thing is, you can move them around to follow the sun, push them out to take advantage of rain, and bring them inside if they get chilly.
Ok, we’re treading on thin ice here, but hydroponics. Contrary to popular belief, you can grow food using hydroponics, and not just things that make you hungry. It’s a little more expensive to set up, and requires some special lights, but will allow you to grow plants indoors without soil or sunlight. Your plants just kind of float there in a mix of water and nutrients. Not so messy, and we understand that the street value is much higher for hydroponic grown tomatoes than field grown.
Let’s be honest – most of you aren’t going to be hitting the South Forty with a John Deere any time soon. The average Richmonder probably hasn’t seen a true field of corn since they watched Field of Dreams. But living in the City is not a good reason for not gardening. Any of you can have an urban garden. And if you’re nice to us we’ll tell you how to do it through the fall. But only if you’re nice.
We spoke a few weeks ago about the drought that we’re experiencing, and what that could do to our global food supply. It’s kind of scary stuff. Our reliance on a few genetically modified breeds of corn has backed us into a proverbial corner, and a failure of that crop is going to drive up the prices of everything from a loaf of bread to a gallon of gasoline. One of the commodities that is really going to get the Bum’s Rush is beef.
We get about 20% of our protein from straight-up meat products, and most of our commercial meat in the United States is grain fed. It takes about 1,800 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef, and with H2O being in somewhat short supply these days, that’s going to become an increasing problem. We’re also projected to add about 2 billion hungry souls to our big blue marble over the coming decades, and they’re going to want something to eat too. Some analysts are predicting that over the next thirty years or so we’ll see most of our planet’s human population switching to a vegetarian diet. How do you like those apples? Or tomatoes, if you prefer.
Back in the good old days before agribusiness and frankenfood, we grew things in accordance with our climate, and we were actually pretty good at it. Granted, the people who lived here before we were a great big honking country didn’t have bountiful grocery stores or the advantage of places like The Urban Farmhouse, and certainly didn’t enjoy the splendor of the fast food drive-through, but they ate pretty well. We’re also big fans of the backyard garden and people growing some of their own food, and perhaps we can take some cues from the Native Americans and learn how to cope with our changing climate.
The first step is deciding where you want your garden to grow. Many of our Urban Farmhouse fans live within the city of Richmond, and garden space is at a premium. Your natural inclination might be to choose the biggest open space around your house, but the sun-drenched spot of browning turf may not be the best place to grow food. The sunniest spot isn’t always the best. The hottest part of our day is generally the mid-afternoon, and that’s when your little veggies tend to get fried. Look for a spot that gets some good morning wake up sun, and then some afternoon shade. You can create this with some man-made intervention. Plant near a fence or natural border, or create some shade with burlap sacks or old sheets.
Now take a look at your soil. Most of us are digging in historic fill, or the detritus of the building of our homes. Sandy soil is horrible for planting, and especially if you’re experiencing a water shortage. Water just runs right through it. A little bit of clay is good, as is clean, organic matter. You can create this with some careful composting, and a bit of mulch. Mulch will add to the soil as it breaks down, and a thin layer on top of the soil will help to retain moisture. Keep in mind that some types of mulch are treated, and some types of wood, like oak, release things into the soil that may skew your balance of minerals and nutrients.
And how much do you water? On a big, commercial farm, watering is often done with large, sweeping machines. This adds a great deal of water, but much of that evaporates before it ever enters the earth. A better tack is to directly water your plants. They don’t get thirsty at the leaf, but rather at the roots. When you first begin to plant, a good watering program will allow the plants to grow deep, full root systems that will help hardiness later on in the season. And how do you know if you’ve watered enough? Stick your hands in the soil. If you can mold it into a little ball and it holds the shape, it has enough. It should just begin to clump.
When you water, go directly to the plants. A sprinkler is fun to run through, but not always effective for watering. You can go old school and walk the rows with your watering can, or you can use a drip hose. This is a hose that allows water to escape along its length, and actually uses about half as much water as a traditional sprinkler. You can run it right along the stems of your plants, with all of the water going where it is supposed to, and not your neighbor’s yard.
And how do you plant? There is something very pleasing about neat, tidy rows of crops, but that isn’t always the best method. For one, different plants may need differing amounts of water and are ill-suited to be next to each other. Grouping certain plants together can, however, be very beneficial. Rather than putting all of your tomatoes in one spot, and all of the lettuce in another, as much as it may make your garden look uber-organized, grouping certain plants together can be a good thing. By creating these little mini-forests of plants you can create little ecosystems, and the plants will naturally bond together to share nutrients, sun, shade, and water. There is a system that the Native Americans used called the Three Sisters. They would nest beans, corn, and squash together, and those plants would form a nifty little agreement. Beans seem adept at adding nitrogen to the soil, which the corn loves. The corn would grow big and strong, providing a nice place for the beans to place their vines, and would provide much needed shade for the squash. The squash grew prickly leaves and stems, which most pests hated, thereby protecting the corn and beans from insects. Real cycle of life stuff, right?
It really doesn’t take a grant from the USDA to grow food. And you certainly don’t need a special, highly technical genetically modified crop to make a cucumber. You don’t need to grow a million tomato plants or empty an aquifer to make something that you can eat. You just need a little piece of land and some common sense. Then let Mother Nature take over.
Been trying to watch the diet recently. Can’t eat all of our meals at The Urban Farmhouse, and as much as we like raiding the farmer’s markets and grabbing some backyard tomatoes, occasionally you have to improvise. We try to do a pretty good job of always looking for those “Virginia Grown” stickers, and we read the label, but sometimes you have to grab something off of the shelf.
Settled for a multi-grain bar. You’ve seen those commercials where the concerned nutritionist is slogging through the jungles of the Amazon looking for that just right cocoa plant? The ones where the nature-freak is trading anti-oxidant secrets with the natives? It was one of those bars. We picked up the little guy, and he was coming from a friend’s house with a great big freezer bag full of Froot Loops. You can imagine our reaction.
We chided him on his poor choice, and he said, “Your snack has chocolate, and that has sugar. Mine has sugar too. What’s the big deal.” Well, son, my sugar is different. We don’t like to be wrong about things like food, how hot is the sun, and what would happen if Iron Man fought a Transformer, so we went home and did some research.
The little guy’s high-fructose snack is made by Kellogg. Kellogg Cereals was started in 1906 by Will and John Kellogg in Battle Creek Michigan. John opened the Battle Creek Sanitarium, a wonderful place where people went to get healthy. John espoused the idea of a low-fat, low-protein diet that was rich in grains, fibers, and nuts. Sounds great, right? Among the therapeutic cures used were ice water baths, running in the snow, bathing under the brand new invention of the light bulb, and various unsavory methods of cleansing the colon. He also fed his “patients” bowls and bowls and bowls of cereal.
My healthy choice? Made by Kellogg. In addition to the healthy nuts and carefully harvested cocoa in my bar, there was also a heavy dose of soy. The soybeans used were grown from a genetically modified seed introduced by Monsanto, one that was bred to withstand the herbicide Roundup. You may not know that if you read the label. You can’t win, can you?
The little guy’s snack was chock-full of the corn syrup, a ton of fats, lots of sugars, and goodness knows what kinds of artificial colors and flavorings. They also ran into a little problem a few years ago with smelly cereal. It seems that they had used too much 2-methylnaphthalene, a chemical used during the packaging process. They also use that chemical for making mothballs and those little blocks that turn your toilet water blue. Yummy.
The whole episode brought some increased scrutiny of the other items in our diet. We always try to look for the good things, but how reliable was the label?
We sometimes stop by one of those sandwich franchises to grab a snack late at night. It seems to be a popular spot with Olympians and that one guy lost like 700 pounds by eating nothing but turkey for a year. We would choose fresh veggies, a little vinegar, and the 9-grain wheat bread. It does, in fact, contain nine very distinct grains, but most of them combined make up less than 2% of the actual bread. And that healthy wheat color? Ammonium sulfate and caramel color. Foiled again.
It seems that much of what we take for granted as being good, healthy, and even organic, is not so much. Reading the label is only part of the game. When pressed about the GMO soy in our snack bar, the president of the company said, “The FDA has chosen not to regulate the term ‘natural.’” Kind of like not believing in climate change means that it doesn’t exist. “I can’t hear you. Blah blah blah blah blah blah.”
A product that offered a tasty and delicious strawberry snack advertised that it was made with real fruit. At one point it was real fruit, but not strawberry. There was, in fact, no strawberry harmed during the production of said product, but a great deal of pear extract was.
An “all natural” tomato product lent the impression of hands squashing fresh, red tomatoes. It was actually a reconstituted tomato paste strung out on a high dosage of sodium and citric acid.
We tried some veggie crisps in lieu of potato chips. They offered a blend of wonderful spinach, tomato, and garlic. Potassium chloride actually outweighed spinach by portion. The benefits of the vitamins and minerals that one would normally associate with eating spinach and tomatoes were sadly absent from the packaging.
So we do our best to read the label. We really do. And we go further than most by doing some background research on who and what goes into a product. We look for words like “organic, natural, no artificial flavor” and all of those other good things, and then we try to balance those words with the list of actual ingredients. But sometimes that isn’t even enough.
So we head back to The Urban Farmhouse for a grilled cheese sandwich. Pure campagne loaf, smoked gouda, and fresh Hanover tomatoes. At least we know where that stuff came from.
In 2008 gas prices in the United States jumped up over $4 per gallon. People across the country proceeded to lose their collective minds. The President said that it was a “national crisis” and something needed to be done. There were calls for more drilling, tighter fuel economy standards, alternative fuels, and legislative action. Talking heads on both sides of the aisle debated the pros and cons of getting the government involved and nobody could decide if the President, Congress, or even any of us could do anything about it.
So what, you ask, does this have to do with a restaurant? Well, what if we were talking about the cost of a gallon of milk or a loaf of bread? What sort of crisis would a $6 gallon of milk cause? Strap in friends and doomsday preppers, because it’s coming.
You may have heard that we’re experiencing a drought. Areas of the country that are experiencing “extreme or exceptional drought” account for almost 25% of our land. That’s one in four acres. And our major crop in the United States is corn. We, in fact, produce almost half of all the corn grown in the world. And we use that corn for a variety of things: high fructose corn syrup, animal feed, ethanol, and food. Food, by the way, is at the bottom of the pile. For every ten ears of corn grown, two go into our bellies. This includes the corn used for corn syrup and other food additives. A big chunk of it goes to animal feed, and a big chunk goes to ethanol. (See how we did that? We tied it back to gas prices. Neat, huh?)
From August of 2011 until August of 2012, we as a nation, for the first time in our history, we used more corn for cars than for animal feed. We don’t know if that’s good or bad, as ethanol is better than carbon-based fuels and cows aren’t really supposed to eat corn, but there it is. And it is about 40% of our corn crop. The thing is, we (and by “we” we mean stupid people in Washington) mandated that about 9% of our fuel be ethanol. We pay our farmers a subsidy to grow corn for gas. Then we tax the bejesus out of imported ethanol from things like sugar cane (cheaper, easier to grow) to make things a little nicer for the American Farmer. The farmers would argue that waste from ethanol production goes towards animal feed, so food, right? Not buying it.
And now America’s Breadbasket fills 400 horses of pure Detroit muscle instead of you.
Because of our drought, our corn crop has gone to pot. You can, it seems, use hemp oil as a biofuel, but Americans prefer corn. But let’s not get sidetracked.
The American farmer has drastically changed the way that he grows food. You have a hard time growing oranges in Chicago, so we didn’t really try. When your crop got a case of pests, you rotated that crop out for a few years, starving the larvae and giving the land a rest. We’ve now created modified breeds of animals and plants that are “drought/pest/infection-resistant” and we can fill sweeping fields with identical plants and creatures. A great deal of the corn that we’re currently growing is Monsanto drought-resistant and is now being gnawed at by rootworms, which the seeds have been carefully engineered to repel. Oh the irony.
Because of this crop crisis, the government is stepping in to buy pigs, chickens, and other animals that rely on corn for feed, relieving some of the stress to the farmers, and adding some food to food banks and schools. Great move. Ranchers are also sending more cattle to slaughter so that they won’t have to feed them. This will lead to some lower beef prices. Great if you’re a carnivore. But these gains will be short-lived.
Our reliance on two items – corn and the internal combustion engine – is going to lead us to start making some choices. Do you want to drive to the mall or drink a soda? This is going to impact the price of bread, milk, beverages, and a gallon of gas. We’ve inadvertently put all of our kernels in one pot.
And now they’re going to pop. Strap in, friends. And fill up your root cellar. It’s going to get bumpy.
When you think of a farm, you probably imagine overalls, hay bales, cows, and that earthy smell. Fresh vegetables are grown and sent to market. Fresh baskets of eggs are trucked off for breakfasts in more urban climes. It has been going on in Virginia for a long time.
Think about it. The first English settlers in America hit our shores down in Jamestown. They learned the tricks of the trade from the people who were already here, the Powhatans and Monacans. They had been here for a few years, rejecting Spaniards around 1540. Oral history says that the Powhatans came here from the Northwest around 800 years ago and the Monacans taught them to plant maize. Farming has been around our area for about the last 3,000 years. And it wasn’t just to feed the kids. Tribal leaders would ask for contributions from local communities to share during hard times. It was Virginia’s first tax!
Many of the founders of Virginia traveled up the James to get to what became Richmond and our surrounding towns in the late 1600’s. When you look at the history of some of the plantations that remain, they are tied to not only the founding of our city, but to our State, our Country, and their roots are deep in farming.
William Byrd II was born here but returned to England as a youngster. He came back to Virginia in 1704, got busy founding Richmond and Petersburg, established our boundary with North Carolina, and built his home, Westover, in 1736. It is said that George Washington himself planted some of the trees there.
Shirley Plantation was first settled in 1613. Edward Hill established a farm there in 1638, but the “Great House” that you see today wasn’t built until 1738. Like most of the plantations and other “agri-business” of the era, the primary crop was tobacco, but corn and livestock were also pretty lucrative.
As you travel around our immediate area you see some names with pretty significant ties to our farming history. James Nuckolls owned a dairy farm in the West End. He married the lovely Susannah Pouncy and they had their first son in 1710. Hanover has long been agricultural and was named in honor of King George I of England, who also happened to be the Elector of Hannover, Germany. While there is a tribe with ties to the name “Tuckahoe”, the word “tuckahoe” came to be a derogatory term for someone who owned a bunch of land in Virginia’s fertile lowlands, but didn’t really know a great deal about how to grow things. Our first Corporate Barons.
Many of these early farms and homes are still around. You can tour the great Jamestown Plantations as if you head East on Cary Street and just keep driving towards Virginia Beach. You can go to Meadow Farm Park in Henrico and see an example of farming life from around 1800. You can still see the Curles Mansion on Route 5. The Curles family bought property there in 1635, and it is said that the site represents four centuries of Virginia farming.
It is neat to see places like this, Jefferson’s Monticello, and Washington’s Mount Vernon, and realize where we came from and what kind of ties we really have to the land. The Virginia Department of Agriculture started a list called the Virginia Century Farm Program. Many of the farms on this list date back to the first settlers of this area. In order to qualify for the program, though, the farm must be active, and have been continuously farmed and in the same family for at least 100 years. While handing down the farm was a pretty common practice two or three hundred years ago, it’s not so commonplace today. But check this out:
As of April 16, 2012, the list of Virginia Century Farms was at 1,204. You may not know any of the farmers, but when you look at the list you’ll see names like Lee and Shackleford, Randolph and Tyler, Byrd and Gooch. You may not recognize the faces, but the names should ring a bell.
Before you get all excited, this is not a blog about backyard chickens. Look, they’re quieter than the neighbor’s Chihuahua, less toxic than a litterbox, and you get fresh, healthy eggs that you can share with your friends. You can own a 12-foot long snake or be a crazy cat lady, but you can’t have a chicken? Wake up, Richmond.
What we wanted to rant about this week was the influence that big corporations have in determining our food policy. We’ve got a thing about honey, and as such like to keep up with the buzz about the industry. Saw an article about a group of beekeepers that sent a petition to the Environmental Protection Agency asking it to ban a certain type of pesticide. Clothianidin is absorbed into a plant and then released through pollen and nectar, thereby killing pesky pests. It’s very popular with big farms that like to grow corn, and marketed by Bayer Crop Sciences. Bayer, who sold almost $3 million worth of the stuff in 2009, thinks that it would be a great tool to use on other crops. The beekeepers pointed out that corn produces more pollen than many other crops, bees like pollen, and corn is the #1 crop grown in America. “Since our hives are dying off at an alarming rate and this chemical is designed to kill insects LIKE OUR BEES, do you think that you could pull this product until we can rule it 100% safe?”
The EPA said that the evidence on any connection between this clothian-whatever stuff and little honeybees was inconclusive, so spray away! The science that the EPA used to back up its ruling was a study that was conducted by…wait for it…wait for it…BAYER CROP SCIENCE!
It all makes sense, doesn’t it? Much of the research being done in the food world starts out at a pretty grass roots level, and then the big guys get involved. We told you a while back about Beeologics. They do research into colony collapse and the impact that gmo crops and pesticides have on honeybees. In 2011, Beeologics became the property of Monsanto, a company that has a pretty big toe in the gmo and pesticide pool.
Look at sports drinks. In 1970, people got crazy about running. Fitness became a huge national initiative, and an entire economy grew around it. Up until then, if you got thirsty you had a glass of water. But no! You weren’t replacing valuable minerals and electrolytes! Being thirsty (while a remarkable barometer for millions of years) was no indication of whether or not you were properly hydrated. This was backed up by careful research conducted by companies like Pepsi, Coca Cola, and the makers of the newest must-have fitness product, Gatorade. Never mind that mankind had survived on basal instinct since the time of the wooly mammoth, or that most of these drinks contain more than a tablespoon of sugar…we needed it to survive!
One of our favorite things is touting the praises of organic foods. In 1990 Congress, that perennial dispenser of logic, passed the Organic Foods Production Act. It would protect consumers from fraud and set the bar for what would qualify as “organic” food. They asked for an independent advisory board, the National Organic Standards Board, that would have authority to give a thumbs up or down to a grower’s claims. The Board would comprise: Four members who own or operate an organic farm, two who own or operate an organic handling operation, one who has an organic retail store, three with expertise in environmental protection and conservation, one who is an expert in toxicology, ecology or biochemistry, three who represent public interest, and one who is a “certifying agent.”
Some of the members of this Board would be questionable choices. An “environmentalist” was a general council for PurePak (big ag), two of the “farmers” did not own farms, but worked for big ag, a “public interest” slot was filled by a nutritionist for the livestock industry, a “farmer” was the president of a subsidiary of Dean Foods, and another “public interest” slot went to a marketer for General Mills.
Whose interests do you think that they were looking out for? When you go to the grocery and start reading labels, you want to feel good about what you’re buying. But the truth of the matter is that companies like General Mills, Pepsi, and ConAgra already own the “healthy & organic” label that you’re justifying. Asking these groups to conduct research and produce policy is like asking the makers of cigarettes to conduct cancer research…
Oh, we already did that.
We try here at The Urban Farmhouse, we really do. We truly drank the Kool-Aid on the whole organic/sustainable thing (although, by way of disclosure, they’re owned by Kraft Foods). But if you really want to trust your food, go visit a farm. Buy a great big pot and plant a darned tomato. And for goodness sake! Buy yourself a chicken!
It’s July. We know this because we can see the traffic backing up on 64 East every weekend, we can hear people splashing in the river, and our windows are melting. Many of us are heading for the ocean or the mountains to escape Richmond’s heat.
But not everyone is vacationing.
We got a note from some friends of ours up in Stafford. They run Rock Hill Honey Bee Farms, and there won’t be a vacation for them! They put their hives to work!
They are currently barnstorming Virginia, pollinating pumpkin patches. Did you think that pumpkins just sprang out of the ground? Pumpkins are like a lot of plants, and grow flowers. These flower bearing plants then produce fruit. If they’re not pollinated, you don’t get no fruit. This is true of squash, watermelon, tomatoes, cucumbers, apples, blueberries, etc, etc, etc.
Certain plants are considered self-pollinating, but most rely on insects and animals like hummingbirds and bats to transfer the pollen from one plant to another. Some plants, like dates, need very specific pollen. Date palms have boy trees and girl trees, and while every date family is politically correct, they need traditional mates to make little dates. Almonds are self-incompatible, meaning that a particular type of almond cannot be used to pollinate the same type of plant. We grow a lot of almonds in California, and they use over a million colonies of bees to make sure that the pollen gets spread around. They use nearly half of all of our travelling hives each year to get this done.
One of the things that we’ve done to screw the pooch when it comes to spreading the pollen is the way that we’ve engineered and planted our crops. As if our current drought were not enough, when you travel America’s major farmlands you’ll see acres and acres of the exact same crop, grown from the exact same seeds. Nature, you see, requires a bit of variety to provide some spice of life. When you go to a commercial apple orchard, many of the trees are genetic clones of a single apple, and farmers have to plant or splice in a few strays to allow the bees to get any suitable pollen. In New York, this calls for about 30,000 hives. Maine places an order each year for 50,000 hives to keep us in blueberries.
The bees at Rock Hill Honey Bee Farms are kind of like migrant workers, without the political ramifications. Guys who raise bees will often shop them out to farmers for pollinating, and the bees will follow crop cycles to make sure that everyone gets a fair shake of pollen. Bees, who do not qualify for benefits or earn minimum wage, contribute about $40 billion to our agricultural economy each year. And that’s some serious honey!
If you don’t have the bees, you have to do it by hand. How do you do this? With a bee suit like a Blind Melon video? Grab a handful of flowers and run humming through the fields? Nope. Little tiny paint brushes and cotton swabs. A little dab will do ya.
And that job stinks. That’s why we need to be nice to bees.
Supply and Demand, right? That’s what drives prices? It would seem to make sense that supply and demand drives the price of your groceries, just like everything else. But the true cost of your food is calculated in ways that you could never have imagined.
It would seem that nature would play a large part in the cost of food. A drought, a plague of locusts, or other natural calamity can wipe out a crop and drive up prices. That certainly happened last year, when wildfires in Russia wiped out millions of acres of wheat. Much of Europe then looked at countries like us for the grains that they needed, and a modest price spike occurred.
The real price hike, however, happened when commodity speculators sought to take advantage of this. They began to trade crop futures like little boys with baseball cards, and each trader sought to cash in on the hope that wheat would become like gold. For a while, it almost did.
Another factor in the price of food is the cost of oil. Farmers need fuel for their tractors, and since not everyone lives on a farm, we often have to transfer their crops great distances to get them on our tables. We have a somewhat unique conundrum in the United States, as we subsidize corn grown for bio-fuels. While it is better for the environment than regular old gasoline, the federal money for ethanol crops leads many growers to reap for the gas tank first, and the breadbasket second. As the cost of gas goes up, so does the cost of corn.
This high cost of corn also impacts the cost of meat. Contrary to what statistics are telling us right now, people make more money now than ever before, and as a result are more inclined to dig into a t-bone. As we become wealthier, more and more of us have access to and an appetite for meat. Acting contrary to nature, we feed our animals a whole lot of corn, and as that cost goes up, so does the cost of your steak.
A couple of years ago, we all became anxious when gas went over $4 per gallon. Do you know what else went over $4 per gallon? Milk. Does a body good, but won’t get your SUV to the store and back. Much like meat, this cost was also directly related to the cost of fuel. Between 2006 and 2007, at the height of our fuel crunch, the amount of corn grown to produce ethanol increased 52 percent.
That’s over half in a single year, and keep in mind that in 2007 it was almost 4 billion bushels of corn.
There is a husband and wife team who recently released a book, The Locavore’s Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000-Mile Diet. While we preach about local food, and still try to maintain a pretty steady diet of foods from right around Richmond, they do make some good arguments that going strictly local is a boneheaded idea.
What do we do when it’s wintertime? What if you live in an area like New York City? Will people in Toronto never again taste a strawberry?
They did some research and found that when people jumped into a local food diet they generally didn’t fare very well. Going local was often the result of things like war, and not having access to transportation for food often lead to millions of people starving. One of the good things about our great carbon-soaked blue marble is that when there is a raging prairie fire in the wheat belt of Russia, they can count on friends like us and the Chinese to send them grain to make bread. It’s like the Red Cross sending hot meals to a tornado-stricken town, but on a much larger global scale.
We like to meet the guys and gals that grow our stuff. We like to, whenever we have the opportunity, go out and smell the earth, see the blooms, and watch things grow. We like to offer meals that come from farms that have been growing and smoking and harvesting for decades. Makes us trust them.
All of this “commodity-fuel-cost” stuff is just food for your brain. Besides, what do we know? We run a restaurant.
Don’t judge. Harry Truman sold hats before he became the President.
Anyway, we were all anxiously watching the weather channels as a hurricane was headed towards the East Coast, and the Richmond area seemed destined to catch some havoc. It was Isabel, and was highly organized and being touted as a Category 5 storm. Unlike many systems in the tropics, this one seemed to have a plan and had people worried.
We had touched base with our corporate geeks, and were trying to formulate our own plan. A visit from the local fire department kind of firmed things up for us. They said that a message from Federal departments were leading them to take this very seriously. There was a pretty strong chance that we would lose power as the storm passed through, we would probably sustain some damage to our building, and in some areas the power company was going to go ahead and turn off the electricity to prevent injuries from downed lines.
Isabel was forecast to hit us in the late afternoon, so we decided to offer a lunch service, clean the place up, and get all of our staff home safely. We took all of the ice out of our machines and placed it in our coolers, cut off all of the equipment, and locked the doors.
The next day we navigated to the restaurant. Sure enough, no power. We had hung thermometers in the doors of the walk-ins where we would be able to monitor the temperature without opening them. Day 1: 33 degrees. Day 2: 38 degrees. Day 3: 40 degrees. When it hit 42 on Day 4 we knew that we were cooked. $24,000 worth of meat, dairy, fish, and cheese hit the dumpster.
This may sound familiar to anyone who dared to look outside over the last week or so. Powerful storms ripped through our area and left many without power. Some of our restaurant brethren faced similar situations to those we experienced at Le Chain Hell during Isabel.
Hopefully, our dear Urban Farmhouse family fared better than many people who live in areas like West Virginia.
Before you start with the jokes, we really like the Mountaineer State.
Folks in West “By God” Virginia are going to the grocery store and finding the shelves bare. Whenever it hints at “weather” we all run to the grocery and grab milk and bread. Don’t know why, as warm milk is gross and you can only eat so much peanut butter, but there it is. The folks in the mountains are finding the Piggly bereft of milk, bread, cereal, meats, cheese, crackers, soft drinks, and water. What food the stores did have was being dumped for fear of heat-related spoilage. A couple of large food banks, designed to provide groceries in times of disaster, ran out of food. The state is now getting assistance from the American Red Cross, and food, water, and ice is being trucked in from as far away as Louisiana and Canada.
It is said that most grocery stores carry about three days worth of food. They get multiple deliveries every day, and although most of the products have a half-life instead of a shelf-life, the operators still try to rotate through and offer fresh product. If you’re the build-a-bomb-shelter/teach-the-kids-to-hunt type, you may be alarmed to know that the food supply for the United States is currently at about 11 days. This factoid does, however, hinge on the assumption that farmers will stop reaping and chickens will stop laying. We produce millions of tons of food every day. We may not be the healthiest of eaters, but we aren’t going to starve…
The next time that you hear the wind kick up you might want to take a peek in the old pantry. Canned goods? Crackers? You can go a long way on a bag of potatoes. Just saying. Root vegetables can hold for a hot minute. You might want to plan a week of meals with the assumption that you’ll be dining by candlelight and there won’t be any microwave popcorn for your nightly “Dancing with the Next Real Housewives of Henrico.”
How do you feel about urban farming and backyard chickens now?
We were sitting on a friend’s porch in the Fan District recently and saw the darndest thing: A hawk. We were minding our own business when a commotion across the street captured our attention. Five or six little, black starlings started flitting around and raising a ruckus, and we suddenly became aware of an ominous “whoosh whoosh” sound. A shadow passed overhead and an enormous red-tailed hawk swooped down and alit on the railing of a neighbor’s front porch. After hearing about the black bear in the West End it made us realize just how close we always are to wilderness.
After watching the starlings chase off the much larger bird we headed out for a bite to eat (we don’t eat all of our meals at The Urban Farmhouse, contrary to popular belief). After dinner we headed back to our friend’s house, and it was suggested that we cut through the alley to avoid walking all the way around the block. As we neared the end of the alley, we noticed an oasis opening up before us. In the center of the block facing everyone’s back yards was a perfect courtyard with tables, benches, grassy areas, and plants galore. Even more beautiful to us was the fact that many of these neighbors, not content to share this urban oasis, had turned their back yards into compact vegetable gardens. We saw root vegetables, leafy greens, hanging vines, composters, and more.
If you happen to be enjoying some time on Strawberry Street, go west across the street towards the Boulevard. Use the alley, please.
The next morning we were browsing through the headlines and saw an article that really raised an eyebrow. A woman in Tulsa, Oklahoma was suing her city for cutting down her vegetable garden. Huh?
Denise Morrison was out of work and struggling with diabetes. She decided to turn her yard into something more productive than grass and lawn gnomes, so she planted stuff that she could eat. She had vegetables, herbs, mint, flowers that kept away bugs, berries, fruit and nut trees, and more. She used these plants to feed herself and nurse her ailments. One of her neighbors complained about the “look” of her yard and a code enforcement officer stopped by to check it out. The city has a code that says that all plants must be less than 12 inches tall – UNLESS they are used for human consumption. Denise felt that her Tulsa oasis obviously met that criteria, so she asked for advice. She was told to ask for a citation that she could then argue in court in front of a judge. The next day she visited the police department, who kindly issued the citation, and a trial date was set. The NEXT day, she awoke to the sound of heavy machinery, and went outside to see city workers removing all of her plants, save a few flowers.
They even cut down her darned fruit trees. How evil is that?
She later went to court, was issued a ticket for having an inoperable truck in her driveway, and all other charges were dropped. She is now suing Tulsa. She wants her veggies back. We think that Tulsa should strap on some big-boy pants and start seeding.
The City of Richmond currently has a number of “official” urban gardens where you can grow vegetables and share with your neighbors. You can certainly join in at a number of existing sites, or you can apply for any one of several designated “vacant” sites. You just have to be a city resident and fill out the necessary paperwork…
Oh, by the way: The City will have to review your paperwork, it has to go through City Council, you have to pay a non-refundable fee of $50 for the first year and $25 per year after that, and you need to carry a $250,000 insurance policy on your plot of previously unused property that is now growing healthy, nutritious food. And the City reserves the right to change the rules as they see fit.
Great deal, don’t you think?
If it’s a vacant lot, don’t you think that growing food would be a great use for it? Kind of like the nice lady in Tulsa, we kind of need more people out there growing their own food. We’re certainly not suggesting that there isn’t a good reason for VISITING US, but a little urban gardening would seem to be a good thing. There would be less driving to the store for produce, fewer chemicals going down the drain, a little more green in our city, etc, etc, etc. Many of our friends have little planters hanging on the kitchen windowsill that provide herbs for cooking. We know plenty of apartment dwellers that have traded in geraniums and pansies for tomatoes and peppers in their back-deck-pots. Our friends with the itinerant hawk have a fruit tree in their little back yard and grow fresh strawberries along their fence. The great thing is that many of these urban farmers are proud of their growing acumen and like to share.
The City is currently reviewing ordinances covering the raising of backyard chickens within the city limits.
Squawk! Don’t get us started on chickens!