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Saturday, February 26, 2011

But We Don't Buy Food From THERE

Actually, yes we do- THERE being Africa and the Middle East. A pound of conventionally raised food uses about six gallons of petroleum. Americans pretty much eat oil. And where are oil prices most influenced by?

Libya, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran and their neighbors Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, Yemen, Ivory Coast and others, are having a pretty volatile time of it right now. We can admire and stand with The People there, who are fighting for self-determination and dignity. In Egypt and Tunisia things seen to have gone off pretty peacefully, unlike in Libya or Bahrain- though even in those more fortunate countries the final results aren't in yet. Revolutions being what they are, those brave folks could still easily end up with worse than what they had before, gods forbid. Whatever happens, it's a safe bet that we'll soon see oil prices to make the ones in 2007-2008 look low.

So, other than that the protests were kicked off by food shortages and killer food prices, why is this a local foods issue? Ask a conventional farmer. The ones I know are very nervous. Industrial Ag is very petroleum intensive. As oil prices rise, they wonder whether they'll be able to afford fuel and petro-based fertilizers and chemicals. I truly feel for them. The practices they've been crowded into adopting have them over the barrel, literally. It's criminal short-sightedness, and not the farmer's fault.

If farmers can't afford to grow crops, where will the food come from? Who will fill up the trucks bound for Wal Mart, SafeWay and the A&P? Who will patronize small-town stores? Whose kids will go to the schools? Who will pay the taxes to undo massive deficits?

Carol and I eat about 60% things grown by us or our neighbors. In a pinch we could make that 100%- and we're working in that direction. Can you say that? How many people can?

Many people COULD get there if they tried, and many are working toward it. This may just be the summer when things get REALLY crazy. This is the year to plant that garden, build that winter greenhouse, and get to know your local, sustainable farmers. Organize your church, your temple, your mosque, your school, your neighborhood, your extended family, or all of them. Resurrect the solid American tradition of Community Mutual Aid. The Big Guys will not do this for us.

You can do more than you think you can.
It's time to do it.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Presidents Day Blizzard (and other snow jobs)

OK. This is officially getting old. I've lost count of how many “record weather events” we've had in the last six months. I expect that even that number is itself a record.

I worked the morning shift at KDMA-AM on Sunday. When I got there the station parking lot was mostly bare, with no snow falling and no real wind. Still, there was that slight electrical tang in the air that Minnesotans know means a big storm is coming. I set up the studio news computer to continuously show weather radar and road condition maps.

As the morning progressed the “big blue blob” on radar crept nearer and the road conditions deteriorated. The phone rang constantly with church cancellations. I started to get nervous, since I live 20 miles from the station. I found someone from town to cover and left early- an hour later and I'd never have made it home. Carol and I hunkered down for the duration.

The next morning a four-foot drift lay in front of the door to our garage and greenhouse, and the south face was buried five feet deep. It took quite a bit of digging just to get inside.

Once inside, we found-

plenty of happy greens, part of our lunch reward for hard work.

The moral of the story is the triumph of the Garden Goddess Greenhouse. It's withstood the worst that the prairie can throw at it and kept on producing. We don't get Seasonal Affective Disorder. We don't get the blahs from eating stale long-distance vegetables.

We're all going to need many more such greenhouses, and soon. Besides the obvious health and economic benefits, crazy weather and unworkable fuel prices will soon seriously endanger our food system.


Speaking of endangering the System, like everyone else we're watching the situation in Wisconsin. It's clearly another sign of the Social Contract breaking down, as is the shrill tone of most political discourse today. You may be tempted to see the marches and sit-ins as like the protests of the 1960s, but they're radically different, pun intended. The folks marching in the streets today are a kind of reverse mirror image of the hippies and students fifty years ago.

Back then, the country as a whole had a positive attitude. The “rebels” operated from Love, simply wanting us to apply that attitude to living up to the promises of our founding values.

Today, people are afraid, made so by constant harping on their worries. Today's rebels have gotten themselves elected to many offices, crusading in Fear and Hate, believing that “only people like us must triumph.” They don't realize that their fears have made them cat's paws of plutocrats

The Local Foods Movement is rooted in those older values of acceptance, diversity, and community mutual aid. The antidote to political and societal madness is coming together to create the “Beloved Community” spoken of by Doctor King, to take care of each other's needs. We have to- the Big Guys won't. In a world going crazy in so many ways all we have is each other. We can do more than we think we can.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Working Together

There's a phenomenon that we run into wherever we go in Local Foods Land. Picture it: An outfit that nobody ever heard of comes out of the blue and announces their Big Event Where They'll Explain How To Fix Local Foods. Folks who've been working on these complex issues for years, even decades, feel shut out and insulted. This happens on both local and regional scales. Nationally, this has been happening wherever Jamie Oliver goes with his “Food Revolution.” I've heard innumerable complaints from hard-working, long-suffering folks. They appreciate what he's doing, but feel that his attitude, and lack of involving prior efforts, is a slap in the face to them.

The flip side is also true. Newcomers with new ideas can feel shut out. We've experienced this ourselves: Even back in the planning stages, there were loud voices from some Sustainability Old Timers that we could never do what we were talking about- it was just plain wrong, not How Things Are Done. Who did we think we were? We're thankful for folks like the Land stewardship Project's Farm Beginnings instructors who encouraged us. There are still organizations that want nothing to do with us as presenters, while others can't get enough of us. Blessings on them both.

Anyone who's read the works of Saul Alinkski or other great organizers knows that these sorts of problems are common in any Social Change movement. Don't kid yourself- in the last few years Local Foods has gone from a fad indulged in by yuppies and others of the “Comfortable Class” to a for-real Movement. It's as much about Societal Reform as the Civil Rights, Environmental, or Antiwar Movements. Community gardens, all manner of urban farming, Farmers' Markets taking SNAP benefits, churches buying CSA shares for poor families, these and more prove that this is a revolution against a broken food system.

We've seen how the problems I started out describing are hurting the Movement. They waste our time, energy and resources. They sap enthusiasm from our souls. When we're fighting or snubbing each other, we're building NOTHING. We need to talk and work together, respectfully, with our eyes on the prize. Certainly, we need to feel ownership of what we're doing, but we shouldn't get proprietary.

This doesn't mean that we need to move in lock step, all coordinated from on high by some central planning committee. I like John Michael Greer's word- dissensus. To be honest, none of us really knows what's going to work, so we need to each pursue our own visions and plans- but we can do that respectfully, purposefully and with coordination.

This isn't easy.

Another thing that I've noticed in Local Foods Land is many people of faith. They don't all have the same faith, but a shared concept of how things could and should be, embodied in whatever religious tradition works for them. I've sat at the table with Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Wiccans, and Druids, even some radical Secular Humanists, and what we had in common was far more than what we disagreed about.

In fact, I don't believe that you can effectively work for change unless you feel you're “On a mission from God.” You need that moral compass when making hard choices. You need to feel that something bigger than you is backing you up when The Man says that you're nuts. You need to “hear that real, though far off, hymn that heralds the New Creation.”

As Shepherd Book said in Serenity, “I don't care what you believe. Just believe it!” I believe that we all have a huge task ahead of us. I believe that we'll hit both passive ignorance and active opposition. I believe that we must respectfully work together. I believe that we can do more than we think we can.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Musings and Big News!

Last Saturday I presented at the "Living in the Avon Hills" conference at St. John's University. It was a very mixed group, with upper-middle-class folks trying to live more charming lives while helping the planet,  long-time "woodsies" looking for new ideas, crafters, nature lovers, conservationists and just plain curious folks.
The display area was grand, indeed, located in the Great Hall, the former church. A huge Byzantine-style Christ and a crowd of Seraphim gazed down on woodworkers, photographers, writers, and vendors of many sorts of grains, honey, maple syrup and baked goods. Over 300 people in clothes ranging from LL Bean and Carhart to home-made flannel and down mingled cheerfully.
I've presented there before, and noticed a difference in my sessions this year. The mood was notably more sober, with people's questions focusing more on the nitty-gritty of building a greenhouse, growing and storing vegetables. People are starting to realize how serious we need to get about taking care of ourselves and each other in a time of dwindling resources and growing craziness.
There was a couple who'd attended my sessions before, and were raving about all the fresh greens they'd been eating over winter. That really got people's attention-  It isn't just me making claims!

Another sign that came to me this week was the invitation to take part in a new group of experts on various kinds of what I call "Shielded Agriculture-" conventional greenhouses, Garden Goddess greenhouses, hoop houses, low tunnels and other growing structures. Goofy weather, rising fuel prices, the need for more Urban Farming, and the seemingly inexorable advance of chemical- and GMO-intensive agribusiness are moving those plant-protecting ideas into the forefront.

We can do more than we think we can, but we have to actually DO it.

>>>>>>>> Garden Goddess News <<<<<<<<
We have very good news! The Board of FARRMS, , has approved their funding of a large printing (2000 copies) of The Northland Winter Greenhouse Manual, so it will be available again in early March, 2011. Preorder yours now, at $25, which includes shipping and handling. Businesses contact Partners Book Distributors for large orders.

We're still selling the PDF versions. We're asking $10 for an emailed PDF, or $15 to send it out on a CD. The CD also includes my 2004 novel, Phoenix, Minnesota, and many photos from the construction and early growing phases. I can email the PDF to you, or send a CD, once we have a check in hand. 


We also had a visit from R T Ryback, Mayor of Minneapolis, and his wife, Megan O'Hara, on Sunday. She heads the Home Grown Minneapolis effort-  They wanted to talk about hiring us to help set up a team to build greenhouses like ours in Minneapolis, tailored to specific neighborhoods. We'll see where that goes, as such things take time to set up.

It just keeps getting better! Tomorrow at 1 PM I'll be LIVE on the "Beyond Sustainable" internet radio show. The link is
Let's keep this good food revolution going!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Garden Goddess News Flash

On next Wednesday, February 16, 2011, Chuck will be appearing on the Beyond Sustainable internet radio program on the Be Prepared Radio Network. The host is Jerri Bedell of Homesteader's Supply, an interesting source for heavy-duty off-grid and household goods. We'll be talking about winter greenhouses, local foods and preparedness.

Also, the U of M West Central Partnership has announced that Sarah Goodspeed, a graduate student at the Humphrey School, has been hired to conduct a major survey on the needs of institutional food buyers in our region. A coalition of producers is coming together to provide the economic, social and health benefits of Local Foods. Progress! We can do more than we think we can!

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Report From Fargo- With an Eye on Egypt

We had a very pleasant time at the Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Conference in Fargo last Friday, February 4, 2011.

This gathering of farmers, from cattle and llama ranchers to grape growers and CSA operators, drew folks from across the northern tier states and prairies provinces to share expertise and network.

We were privileged to present two workshops on our greenhouse methods. The good questions and lively discussions that followed lasted longer than the formal sessions. These were solid, practical, experienced ag people who could see the market for such an innovation. We discussed ideas for greenhouses built into hillsides, into barns and attached to houses. Some folks wanted to build large units as another business enterprise for their operations, and others just wanted to feed their families better over the winter. It's always a joy to see people's eyes light up and the wheels start turning when they realize what off-the-shelf technology, skillfully applied, can accomplish.

As always during such gatherings the networking was as important as the formal sessions. We had good conversations with many producers, folks from the the White Earth Reservation and representatives from non-profits and Sustainability groups. We brought home a stack of business cards and a sack of literature and samples.

The exhibit hall had about forty booths, representing seed companies, gadget makers, non-profits, government agencies, and growers with wares to peddle.

We spent a lot of time at the FARRMS booth. We've done workshops with these people before, and are planning some joint ventures in the near future-WATCH THIS SPACE. They also sold many of our Manual PDF-CDs- which led to occasional crowds.

As we've seen at other such gatherings, these folks tend to be very well read and aware of the World situation. Talk turned to Egypt more than once. Being keenly aware of such factors we all noticed that news stories generally downplayed, but occasionally featured, the fact that food prices and shortages are motivating much of the unrest across Africa and the Middle East. This comes as no surprise. As much as Industrial Agriculture wants to tout that it “Feeds the World,” the fact is that it doesn't anymore. It's petroleum- and capital-intense system is breaking down. Peak Petroleum and Climate Change are part of that, as are speculators acting like jackals. That System is not designed to benefit The People, but to concentrate wealth. People are just resources.

Sometimes I want to cry when I see what's going on, then attend a gathering like last week's. The tide of trouble is rising- that's when it's good to be with clear-eyed, inventive people who are “building dikes.” Goodness is always most poignant and inspiring when set beside rumbles of tragedy.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

I love it when a plan comes together

The trouble with writing a blog like this is that it's a moving target- what I'm writing about changes faster than I can write about it. To catch up a bit, here are pictures of a couple of greenhouses based on our ideas:

On the Great Expectations Charter School in Grand Marais, MN. ( These folks are in their first full year of operating the greenhouse. It feeds the kids, and teaches them about both growing and sustainability.

Liz Bellina's near Rushford, MN.
When I took this picture of her greenhouse-in-progress a few years ago I warned Liz that that it would make her famous. She doubted that, but found out, as the schools, 4H and others want to use her space or buy her greens. When we asked her how much greens it puts out, she said, “How many do you have time to pick?”

We know of several other greenhouses, although I don't have pictures, in Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota, Pennsylvania, New York State, Virginia, Wyoming, Manitoba, Ontario, and others that I've missed- Sorry

We spent a pleasant time last weekend at Blue Cloud Abbey in South Dakota ( The occasion was a retreat for the Board of EarthRise Farms (, who have asked us to sit on their Board. Our missions are very similar- we are planning much closer cooperation in the future, so watch for news.

On Friday February 4th, 2011 Chuck and Carol will be presenting at the Northern Plains Sustainable Ag conference in Fargo, ND ( We look forward to seeing many friends there, such as from FARRMS (
On Saturday, February 12, 2011 Chuck will be presenting at the Avon Hills Conference at St. John's University (