Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Blessed be the seed-keepers

The phrase came to my mind this morning: blessed be the seed-keepers.

I was trying to find a source of seeds for wheat. I'd be happy enough to grow enough to make one real loaf of bread. And I ran across Jim Ternier's site for Prairie Garden Seeds (www.prseeds.ca). He gardens on the grounds of St. Peter's Abbey in Saskatchewan; the abbey has a commitment to good things. And then I remembered the commitment to seeds at the sanctuary of the Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul in Kingston, and the Seeds of Survival program of the Unitarian Service Committee and the work in India for seeds and women and organic agriculture done by the Navdanya organization.

World-wide, there are individuals, communities and organizations saving seeds, sharing and trading and maintaining. I have a jam jar half filled with seed harvested last season from a row of red kale - hardy, tasty kale that is leading this season's growth. Beautiful seeds to share with gardeners I meet this spring.

Perhaps one of the places below will be of interest to you. Blessed be the seed-keepers.

And best regards to all of you.

Why's Woman

Seeds of Survival Program
Unitarian Service Committee of Canada
Fans Ahmed, director, Canadian programs
705-56 Sparks Street
Ottawa, Ontario K1P 5B1
ph. 1-800-565-6872

Seeds of Survival (SoS) is the approach USC uses to promote long-term food security for marginal farming communities in developing countries. It stresses the importance of using time-tested farmer knowledge and practices, limiting the need for external farming methods that are often incompatible with local growing conditions.

The first objective of SoS is to ensure a secure source of food and livelihood for small-scale farmers without losing the resource base essential for sustaining it. The second, and equally important goal is to promote crop diversity.

The Seed Sanctuary - Canadian
Mission: to preserve open-pollinated seed so that it may be saved; to grow, harvest, sort and store seed as organically as possible at Heathfield. c/o The Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul
Box 427, 1200 Princes Street
Kingston, Ontario K7L 4W4
ph. (613) 544-4525, ext. 124

Seed Savers Exchange
Non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of heirloom seeds
3094 North Winn Road
Decorah, Iowa 52101
ph. 1-563-382-5990

Seeds of Diversity - Canadian
Maintains a seed catalogue inventory. For sharing and finding seeds, this is the place!
P.O. Box 36, Station Q
Toronto, Ontario M4T 2L7
ph. 1-866-509-7333

Terra Edibles - Canadian
Open-pollinated, heritage varieties. SANER seeds - sustainable, all-natural and environmentally-responsible.
Karyn Wright, Don Mackay & Family
535 Ashley Street
Foxboro, Ont. K0K 2B0
ph. 1-613-961-0654

Hawthorn Farm Organic Seeds
Kim Delaney
RR #3, 5961 5th Line Minto
Palmerston, Ontario N0G 2P0
ph. 519-343-3375

Prairie Garden Seeds
Jim Ternier
Prairie Garden Seeds,
Address: Box 2758, Humboldt, SK, Canada S0K 2A0
E-mail: prairie.seeds@sasktel.net
Phone: (306) 682-1475

Vandana Shiva, founder

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Locavore by Sarah Elton

I'm lucky to work in an independent retail bookstore. I'm 'full time stationery' but I do get to see the newest books. Over the last two days (with many regular customers away for school break) I actually managed to read an entire chapter in Sarah Elton's book 'Locavore' (HarperCollins, March 2010).

The chapter, Local Food for the Millions, talks about one of the big questions of localizing food: can food be more local for really big urban places like Toronto?

My quick answer, before even reading the chapter, was: we'd better be able to ... before we have to do so.

Elton takes us through a bit of the history of the Toronto Food Terminal. Huge it may be, but it does seem that it is a place where some farmers can bring their produce and sell directly (if they have the time, inclination, resources). The scarier aspect of modern food distribution is the power of the two main grocery store chains (here in Canada, Loblaw and Metro); their buyers decide what products will be featured on stores shelves, thereby influencing what is manufactured and grown to be processed. Also, the groceries stock their stores on a schedule called 'just-in-time replenishment' which means that the stores don't keep much on hand and there are always trucks going back and forth along a route to keep shelves stocked. I've heard the statistic that any big city only has three days of food on the shelves. Elton lists the supplies at the grocery chain distribution centres as: 3 days worth of fresh produce, eight to nine days of frozen foods and fourteen days worth of dry goods. Higher numbers on some goods, but sure not enough to avert some serious disturbances if things ever went really wrong.

Elton goes on to some things that indicate the beginning of a turn-around to more local.

Four (4) percent of food sales are through sources other than main grocery stores, for example farmer's markets and co-ops. Laugh at my enthusiasm if you want to, but I figured it would still be less than 1 percent. There's a group called Farmers' Markets Canada, and it estimates that over one billion dollars in food sales a year happens in Canada's 500 farmers' markets. Again here, you may think that 500 is a small number - it is! - but it's up considerably from ten years ago.

Granted that not every farmer is inclined to come out to a farmers' market, or has the time to do so. Granted that a lot of food is needed to supply a city of several million, like Toronto. So, there need to be organizations like Local Food Plus (LFP) that encourages institutions like Toronto's New College to commit to purchasing a certain percentage of local, sustainable food. LFP also started a certification system so that it checks out that a supplier really is not just local but is growing food along a checklist of healthy practices.

Elton mentions some other ideas, like urban farms and grocery stores that purchase directly from farms, and local growing of foods that go into the varied ethnic recipes that are becoming standard for a diverse city like Toronto.

She interviewed Harriet Friedmann, who is a fellow at the Centre for International Studies out of University of Toronto. Friedmann's positive vision for the future involves far more urban fruit and vegetable growing, greenhouses, solar systems for water, a 'whole city ... less segregated from the ecosystem in which we live'. She says that when people connect to their food system 'they feel good, they are attracted to it.' I really want to look up Friedmann, see if there's an online talk by her). I think she'd make a wonderful double bill with Joan Dye Gussow who wrote This Organic Life.

Just one chapter is all I've had a chance to read. I've put 'Locavore' on hold at the library and once it's through cataloguing (I told you it was a new book) I'll read the rest.

Until next time, Why's Woman

Monday, March 15, 2010

Yes! A vegetable garden

The weekdays last week had very nice weather, much blue sky and temperatures into 10 degrees celcius; last week I was at work - inside - 5 days in a row, watching all this good weather. Saturday it was down to 3 celcius, rainy and really windy. Sunday wasn't great weather, but I spent the afternoon in a meeting. Overall, I missed gardening time.

I know it's early, but now that the house is ours even thinking about gardening is different.

On the cold, wet, windy Saturday, Chris and I went exploring the vegetable beds and herb garden. We have lettuce, swiss chard, spinach and kale wintered over and growing quite nicely. Chris dug through snow in the herb garden to see what was happening: there are green plants! He just can't remember which ones are which! And the signs which we were supposed to put in ... well, this year we'll do that. There is a lot of feverfew coming up. In the flower beds we've got winter aconite and snowdrops in bloom, and scylla poking through the flat space at the back of the house - an area which could be called lawn if it had a higher percentage of grass amongst its many types of plants :-). We are going to have quite a lot of peachleaf bellflower front and back of the house, the valerian has a thriving clump of leaves, the Provence blue lavender (started from seed last year) have wintered through nicely; there's tansy coming back, garlic shoots coming up in odd places where I tucked in bulbs, multiplier onions, and parsley. I'm getting the flower and veg beds mixed up. Or, rather, there's more crossover than there used to be ... and there'll be more over the next few years as we move the place to have even more variety of food plants and multi-use plants (use for us and for insects and critters). Oh! And there's going to be a bumper crop of chamomile. I've always had it in one of the vegetable beds (figuring I grow it as a crop) but it's extending to 15-18 square feet and I'll have to pot up some to give away. And did I mention there are two rutabagas that weren't picked last year and they have green new growth on the leaves and I bet I'll get seeds.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Biomass crops bad investment for everyone

Every time I read about biomass and biofuel I get worried. Biomass is a fancy word for dried out plants. The word is used a lot these days to describe stuff that can be burned as fuel. There's also a lot of talk about biomass being able to substitute for fossil fuel use, and discussion about how biomass as biofuel releases less carbon dioxide into the air. (Carbon dioxide is one of the greenhouse gases that contributes to global warming)

On Wednesday, March 10/10 there was a 'green energy' conference in London, Ontario titled 'Growing the Margins'. (I'm not sure what margins are meant) The London Free Press newspaper had two short articles about the conference.

One article (1) was about how burning biomass was viewed as an alternative to dirty coal. Robert Lyng of Ontario Power Generation was quoted in the article as saying: '... when you compare biomass with other forms of alternative energy, it's not too bad'. He also mentioned that biomass produces less energy than coal and it's perhaps necessary to supplement it with natural gas in a generating plant.

To me, this does not sound like an endorsement.

The other article (2) talked about how 'the collapse of Ontario's tobacco industry presents an opportunity to grow new energy-rich perennial crops that could be used as fuel' and that the switchgrass and Miscanthus (another grass) grow well on the 'sandy soils of the former tobacco belt that aren't viable for many traditional crops'.

Well, when I looked up Miscanthus on Wikipedia (I know, not a full search ... but the Wik is usually a good start), it was described as 'rapid growth, low mineral content, and high biomass' and therefore good as a biofuel. But it went on to say that when it is burned the 'CO2 emissions are equal to the amount of CO2 that the plant used up from the atmosphere during its growing phase, and thus the process is greenhouse gas-neutral, if one does not consider any fossil fuels that might have been used in planting, fertilizing, or harvesting the crop, or in transporting the biofuel to the point of use. When mixed in a 50%-50% mixture with coal, it can be used in some current coal-burning power plants without modification'.

Does this sound to you like an endorsement of this Miscanthus as a fuel? It doesn't sound that way to me. Fossil fuel energy is used up in synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and various pieces of heavy agricultural equipment and trucks to grow and ship a plant that isn't nutritious enought to be useful as animal fodder and not very useful as soil enhancer (if it were even left to decompose on the soil). And it has to be burned with a dirty fuel to do the job of another type of fuel.

No, this does not sound like a good idea to me.

From the first time I head about biomass and biofuels I've wondered what the effects are on soil health of not returning this biological mass to the soil ... meaning, if the leftovers aren't being left on the soil to rot and return nutrient and 'bulk' to the soil, surely this is a depletion of the soil health.

And I worry about the farmers who are being forced by economic forces to get into such crops. How much money are they going to sink into all the fossil-fuel based synthetic inputs and specialized equipment? What stress is there in experimenting with this new way of going into debt and gambling on market forces? And what does it take from them to fit their minds around growing crops only to see them burned up?

Just some things to think about. Best regards. Why's Woman

(1) Burning Biomass viewed as aternative to dirty coal. H. Daniszewski, London Free Press, March 11/10.
(2) Farmers Key to Green Energy. H. Daniszewski, London Free Press, March 11/10.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Vacant Lot Gardening Association 1918

A friend, Alice, is an historian and journalist. She's just sent me several news items from the London (Ontario) Advertiser of 1918.

this excerpt is from June 11, 1918

'Nearly 500 lots are being cultivated this year under the direction of the London Vacant Lot Gardening Association. Practically all the vacant land in the city has been utilized. ... The smallest number of lots being cultivated in any one ward this year is more than twice the number planted in all four wards last year ... Plans are already being discussed for making the campaign next year even more successful ... Efficient work has been accomplished by Ald. S.R. Manness, F.R. Watkinson, W.A. Wilson and L.S. Holmes, as chairmen of the four wards, with the assitance of their committees. ... About 175 lots have been secured in Ward 3 by Ald. Watkinson. In addition to this the employees of many of the large firms in the east end are cultivating land supplied by the companies. Street railway employees are planting twelve acres with potatoes; McClary employees are gardening about ten acres; the McCormick Manufacturing Company has donated nearly seven acres for the use of their employees; Beatty Bros.' employees have a large tract in Chelsea Green, which they are farming in an effort to beat the Hun and the high cost of living. The weather so far has been favorable for the amateur gardeners, and the crops are all doing well. Many have been supplying their tables with home-grown lettuce, radishes, etc., for some time, and this fall will see numerous cellars full of potatoes and other vegetables.'

Another article indicates that there was a Vacant Lot Gardening Association in 1917, as well ... take note that WWI took place from 1914 - 1918.

I'm not sure if many Canadians realize what 'rationing' is. During World War I and II resources like metals and paper, and food, were rationed in Canada. In regards to food, some food had to be shipped from Canada to feed Canadian soldiers; and there were fewer male agricultural workers around. So, food production had to make changes. Growing fresh food in cities, like here in London, Ontario, was the logical thing. I'm betting a lot of women got even more involved in gardening (but I'll have to do some research on that one with Alice).

I'm only 54 years old, and not too up on history ... so my first thoughts about war rationing have to do with Britain and WWII, and I admit that a lot of my ideas come from mystery books. To me, food rationing was something that happened 'long ago and far away'.

From the clippings I received, it seems that my idea about food shortages and what had to be done, are, indeed, a fairy tale. Food shortages have been a real part of the City that I live in, right here, in Canada. And people figured out how to handle it. In back yard and vacant lot gardens.

Right now, here in London, there is an established community garden program. It has expanded over the last years and has a waiting list; I think there are something like 400 plots. I don't know what London's population was in 1918, but ... if any sort of crisis comes along, we have quite a way to go to get gardening and feed people! The current, established program is undergoing review to make it better, and it is hoped that the gardeners will be more included in running the program. There is also interest in developing other garden projects/groups in the city.

Over the next few years there is going to be a tremendous increase in the number of people who have home vegetable gardens. Certainly some of this will come as people realize the cost savings and health factors of fresh, organic food. But other interest will come as people realize the environmental costs in fossil fuel used for transportation, and what are called agricultural inputs (synthetic fertilizer and pesticides). I think there will be a real stress on individuals and communities as fuel prices go up and climate change becomes even more evident. And yes, this does take this jotting back to that Transition London Ontario group I mentioned another time. Next Wednesday, March 17, we're inviting people to get together to talk about:
how can we localize our food supply so we can become more resilient and self-sufficient, and how do we know what to do to make the localization a reality? This will be 7:00 p.m., Centre Branch library on Dundas Street.

With gardening on my mind during the sunny, mild weather, I'm balancing the sheer joy of thinking about seeds and new plants with some serious thoughts about how I'll get ready for the future that is beyond this year's harvest.

And thank you Alice, for the inspiration and proof that communities can get themselves organized and grow food.

Why's Woman

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Winter Aconite and Farm for the Future

The weather is on a roll - sunny days - and because it's winter I'm not even worrying about low rates of precipitation. If it were summer - looking at ten days in a row with no rain - I'd be growling at the weather forecasters when they talk about 'perfect' weather.

March 1 - an early sunny morning - we pushed the wooden gate against the snow, gently, gently, from the bottom of the gate because it's old and tromped through to the back of the house. Two bright yellow winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) blooms were tucked up by the south foundation of the house in the only visible strip of soil anywhere. Winter aconite blooms are like buttercups, and the colour is amazing, coming as it does against a backdrop of dulled greens and greyish brown winter-flattened plant material. The main clump of winter aconite is several feet out from the wall, so having these at the wall means they are increasing. Very exciting. This year I want to pay better attention to how they propagate. After flowering, they develop seed pods which contain spheres of less than a mm each. I've only seen these when they are at a stage I'll call apple crisp; they are not hard, but seem to have a tough skin surrounding the centre. In the past - when I notice these - I've just let them drop on the soil, scrabbling them in a bit. My guess was that they developed in the soil through the season, for blooms the following year. But I've just read that it can take 4 years for bloom. No wonder the little bulbs (corms?) that one buys from nurseries cost so much. They may look like rabbit poops, but they've taken a while.

From that odd image, I'm making a real leap to Rebecca Hosking's brilliant film Farm for the Future (http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=2750012006939737230#). Several years ago Hosking, a wildlife photographer and journalist, made a brilliant, heartbreaking film called Message in the Waves. It deals with the huge drift of plastic trash that is in the Pacific Ocean and ends up deposited on some of the islands of Hawaii. I can close my eyes and see the piles of albatross bones surrounding the plastics they ate, and that killed them. I've no doubt that the film has inspired everyone who's seen it, worldwide, to reduce their use of plastic stuff and write manufacturers and politician. Hosking led a campaign in her hometown of Modbury, Devon, UK to reduce plastic bag use and all the stores there agreed to stop using them. An incredible achievement.

Hosking has been called to another stage in life: to work on her family farm. From the film, Farm for the Future, it seems like her father (a photographer himself) and uncle have already developed a farm with low chemical use, good hedgerows and space for wildlife. Rebecca's film begins with an overview of the problems of chemical based agriculture worldwide. I felt so anxious watching that part. Not because her images were anywhere near as horrible as some I've seen in other films ... and I did know that she was going to go on to positives. I felt anxious because I've read so much and know that what she shows and says about its destructiveness to the soils and systems is so right and so widespread. She does pose the question of how we can change farming to restore health to the soil (which is really what maintains everything else). And, of course, this does not lie with fossil-fuel based agriculture. She visits a small permaculture farm and another where the plant mix on pasture is varied enough and sturdy enough to let cattle feed outside through the (UK) winter, and develops soil. She acknowledges that she is at the beginning of her journey into farming, but is looking for a positive path. I know she'll find that. This film came out about a year ago. I'm sure it's been touching hearts and inspiring gardeners and farmers.