Archive for the ‘Sustainable Agriculture’ Category

My dog and a baby rabbit, a pig, and an owl calling in the morning dark, have forever erased my “view of nature as being a fairly benign place.” And while I would tell you that MacKenzie, my beloved Labrador Retriever, is a domesticated species, she still has her retrieving instincts.

Look at this face. Noble. Domesticated. Still a hunter.

I went into my garden yesterday morning to harvest cherry tomatoes to bring in to the office. I put my baskets of produce in the office kitchen to share with everyone. (I put a bowl of chocolates on the corner of my desk, next to the jumbo-sized bottle of Tums, so that visitors to my office can choose the chemical they need most to get through the day.)

The garden is my solace. Yesterday morning, it was the scene of nature, in all of its contradictions: violence, survival, reality. Apparently my neglect of late, allowing the edges of the garden to become overgrown, has encouraged a mother rabbit to build a nest. MacKenzie caught a newborn rabbit. It took me many minutes to convince her to drop it. And I had to dispatch it out of mercy when she finally obeyed my command. It was a dreadful way to start the day.

I went to a local farm a few weeks ago that I love to patronize, because they raise their livestock outdoors on grass. This farm produces meat that is delicious, clearly superior to what you buy in the supermarket. I buy from them and feel righteous, because I am supporting the humane raising of animals and supporting the local economy.

I went that early Sunday morning to buy eggs (from genuinely free-range hens). I did not know that Sunday mornings are when slaughter takes place on the farm, and that day was “pig day.” I did not see, but I heard and the sound was indescribable. It was horrific and it went on for many minutes.

I know of two farmers personally (not the folks above) that raise animals for their meat. These people are of similar minds to me, I believe, and after that last experience I plan to approach them and ask them their definition of humane slaughter, of a humane abbatoir. Will I agree with their definition after what I heard? I will let you know.

After these two recent shake-ups, I was surprised at my reaction this very early morning when I went out into the dark to retrieve the newspaper. An owl was calling. I know that owls are ferocious predators. And yet its call was haunting and beautiful, and I appreciated it.

How do I reconcile the natural behavior of hunters, both animal and human, and the violent way they obtain their food with my sensibilities? I eat. What shall I eat? How shall I choose what I eat? Shall I only eat plants, and animals products that we collect as partners with animals, like milk and eggs? Shall I eat meat if the animal is raised and slaughtered in a method that I can accept?

I am an omnivore by nature. Shall I also be one by choice? I need to do more research, I need to recover emotionally from the last few days, I need to love my dog again, and I need to figure this out.

Comments welcome.


“Gardening is a way of being in nature steeped in assumptions of which the gardener is seldom more than vaguely aware — if at all. To work exclusively with domesticated species, for example, is bound to color your view of nature as being a fairly benign place, one that answers to human desires….”

— Michael Pollan, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”

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In the midst of the August flurry in the garden: weeding, harvesting, peeling, canning, freezing, and the August flurry with the kids: planning, shopping, laundering, packing, driving, delivering, I am trying to find time to think.

I want time to think about important things, instead of just reacting to the moment. I am always happier when I have time to think through a bigger issue , and then act on it. Often, thinking-through results in less flurry. And always, just the act of thinking-through is a calming act.

So it is with children, so it is with the garden. So it will be, I believe, with the issue of eating clean food. Americans are starting to talk about this. The evidence is becoming noticeable: op-ed pieces in the papers, the brief blips from talking heads on the news, the growing population of farmer’s markets, the new “organic” sections in the grocery stores (savvy marketers as always), the new labels appearing on our food: Cage-Free, Raised without Antibiotics, Natural, Organic. There is a lot to think about.

I want to be the logical dreamer about this. The one that thinks big, but thinks logically. I think those are the folks that actually get things done. As a parent, I admire people that get things done.

I have to get something big done today and tomorrow: delivering my middle child to college. But I will make time to think, to stop the rushing, and will share with you if I come up with anything worthwhile, even if it is just more questions. I’m hoping to hear from others, who are thinking about these things as well. Clean food deserves a good talk.


“”What do people catch in the Queensborough Bridge — bugs?” asked Wilbur.

“No,” said Charlotte. “They don’t catch anything. They just keep trotting back and forth across the bridge thinking there is something better on the other side. If they’d hang head-down at the top of the thing and wait quietly, maybe something good would come along. But no — with men it’s rush, rush, rush, every minute. I’m glad I’m a sedentary spider.”

— E.B. White, “Charlotte’s Web”

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I had a basket heaped with ripe paste tomatoes, and no time. I’ve been putting in 10-hour days at work, and coming home to two teenagers leaving for college. The laundry, the locating, the shopping, and prep have just about done me in. I collapse into bed exhausted and wake up 4 hours later, completely stressed, making lengthy lists in my head. I cannot rest until I get up, drink coffee and write my lists down.

Tomorrow night is the last night before we head off to my son’s college. I am sure the evening will be filled with flurry. That left tonight for the tomatoes.

I couldn’t bear the thought of peeling them all, and then spending hours making sauce, or simply cooking them down. Then I remembered the glorious Barbara Kingsolver, with her casual comment about freezing tomatoes whole, for use later. I remembered the marvelous description of frozen tomatoes knocking around like croquet balls and thought, “That’s for me!”

Here’s how I spent the first two hours, post-dinner:

It's almost getting to be a routine: drop the tomatoes into boiling water for a few moments, and then lift them with a slotted spoon into an ice bath.

I cut off the stem end, slipped the peel off, and removed all bruises. I placed the tomatoes on a cookie sheet lined with waxed paper. The tomatoes were not allowed to touch each other. I want my croquet balls, after all.

And into the freezer they go! Can you see my tubs of home-made tomato sauce on the shelf below?!

I did test the cookie sheets before trying to insert them, loaded with wobbly rolling tomatoes, onto a shelf laden with uneven items. I rested each cookie sheet inside the freezer, and after 4th and final sheet was safely placed, I closed the door. That was 1 hour ago. I wonder how long it will take before they freeze hard enough to remove, and bag?

As one cookie sheet is resting on top of the box that contains my husband’s palette of oil paints, I hope it’s soon!

I am very happy to have harvested and stored (counting my croquet balls before they harden) food for my family. I forage for them. I am a provider. I am a mom that fills the freezer with red round food.


“Tomatoes can even be frozen whole, individually on trays set in the freezer; once they’ve hardened, you can dump them together into large bags (they’ll knock against each other, sounding like croquet balls), and later withdraw a few at a time for winter soups and stews. Having gone nowhere in the interim, they will still be local in February.”

— Barbara Kingsolver, the chapter “Life in a Red State,” from the book “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle”

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What is clean food? What is a healthy Earth? What are our obligations to others? What is ethical behavior?

When I started this blog, I wanted to share my garden and my thoughts, and to receive: comments, questions, challenges. I have avoided, until this morning, discussing a topic that consumes me daily: our treatment of the animals and plants that we eat.

This will not be a harangue. (I read a comment on FaceBook from someone asking, “Should I write a blog? Will people want to read my harangues?”) I hate harangues. But I chose the tag line for my blog very carefully. “Devoted to raising things well” applies to plants, animals, children, and issues.

A recent op-ed piece in the New York Times reminded me that I intended to start this discussion, even if I’m the only one talking and listening. The topic was one of food-miles, of eating locally, and of the “cost” of shipping food around the world. Locavores will tell you that it is best to eat food grown as close to your home as possible, to cut down on fuel and other shipping costs. I agree in theory, but with my eyes wide open to the facts of the actual costs associated with fuel, fair trade practices, and the consequences of other countries farming methods.

Full disclosure: I am a Locavore. By inclination, certainly, and by a certain amount of thought. But I haven’t given up coffee, salt or sugar, and I do not intend to. Let me start this private discussion of eating locally by pointing out the pleasanter sides of being a locavore:

— food is fresher, and therefore is healthier (more nutrients, delivered in a completely usable form to your body)
— food lasts longer in your refrigerator (that’s my first definition of “sustainability”)
— food tastes better
— shopping is a lot more fun (although it is less convenient, and more discussion on that later)
— you support your local economy (something very much on my mind these days)
— you know the ‘face’ of your food, because you get to know the farmer

The recent concern about salmonella in chicken eggs is another call to action — even if our action is only to talk. Great things come from great discussions. Let it continue here!


“Don’t you find it odd that people will put more work into choosing their mechanic or house contractor than they will into choosing the person who grows their food?”

— Joel Salatin, farmer, author, as quoted by Michael Pollan in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”

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Am I allowed, legally, to share, discuss and promote products that I like? I know you’re not legally allowed to use the internet to complain about contractors or businesses, however much they might deserve it.

I’m hoping that if I only say nice things about products and companies that are superior, and I don’t snip behind anyone’s back (“Did you see what that ‘organic’ farmer-babe was NOT wearing? Nothing natural THERE….”), that I won’t be hauled into Blog Court.

A big thank you to my friend, the actual real-life professional organic farmer, who so patiently answers all of my questions. She gives wonderful advice. So the first recommendation for the checkout line I have is to go to her website, listed on the right side of this blog. She is Kitchawan Farm. She is a bright light. And she recommended the fertilizer, slug bait, and OMRI to me.

Let’s start with Neptune’s Harvest Fish Fertilizer. Here’s how the company’s website describes it:


“Neptune’s Harvest fish hydrolysate is an all organic, highly nutritional protein fertilizer, made utilizing naturally occurring enzymes present in fresh North Atlantic fish….Neptune’s Harvest hydrolyzed fish does no biological damage to the soil and will promote the growth of beneficial bacteria making the soil less compact and better able to drain, yet hold moisture better for future plant use as it is needed….”

Sounds like I need some of that.

I went to a store in Bedford Hills, NY, (pretty swish town) and bought an 18 oz. bottle of Neptune’s Harvest Fish & Seaweed Fertilizer for the jaw-dropping price of (about) $35. But I was assured me it would last at least two seasons, it was OMRI-endorsed (I’ll get to that in a sec), and…the bottle just had a good wholesome heft in my hand. I know. Not rational, but are you always rational when buying pretties for yourself?

The bottle lasted 1.5 seasons, and produced astounding results. Here’s a photo of my tomatoes this year – very heavy feeders – and Neptune’s Harvest has them practically growing, harvesting, and cooking themselves, right on the vine.

I used it all up. Husband was going to Agway on his way to a northern art gallery, and agreed to stop and buy me another bottle. He bought a 36 oz bottle of Neptune’s Harvest Fish Fertilizer for the shockingly low price of $17. To be honest, this larger bottle did not list the second ingredient of seaweed on its label, so we’re not comparing identical ingredients – but pretty darn close. Especially when the price different is four-fold.

Here is a photo of the two bottles I have purchased (ignore the Sluggo bottle for now, please). Compare the sizes and costs for yourself! I’m feeling pretty smug about that bigger bottle.

And…I’m so delighted with Agway, that I thought I’d give them a plug, too. Kudos on their prices! We go to the one just off the Salt Point Turnpike exit off the Taconic State Parkway, near Clinton Corners, NY. Agway has an interesting website. Sure, it promotes itself, but it also lists a lot of interesting advice, especially about pests. Of course, I went to the link about chipmunks. Here is what I learned:


“These furry rodents are regulars at many backyard birdfeeders and will also attack a variety of garden targets such as young seedlings, berries, fruits, and vegetables. They even have been known to decapitate flowers such as tulips — seemingly just for fun.”

I appreciate Agway’s understanding that chipmunks are not innocent eaters of a gardener’s plants. They destroy “seemingly just for fun.” How well I know this. MacKenzie knows this too, and uses every one of her 80 pounds to protect her delicate Mom from the marauders.

What’s next? Slug bait! Once again, Farmer Friend recommended an OMRI product (I will get to OMRI, promise!) called Sluggo.

It has the advantage of being safe to use around pets. Here is the company website and description:


“Monterey Sluggo snail and slug bait is now OMRI (Organic Materials Review Institute) Listed for use in organic gardening. Sluggo contains naturally occurring iron and phosphate and is safe to use around pets and wildlife.”

And a review from the Organic Gardening website:


“This nontoxic slug bait (iron phosphate is the active ingredient) is safer than metaldehyde baits, which can harm pets and wildlife. Sprinkle Sluggo granules around your plants and beds in the evening.”

And now, at last, a word about OMRI. I will let their site explain for themselves:


“Founded in 1997, the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) provides organic certifiers, growers, manufacturers, and suppliers an independent review of products intended for use in certified organic production, handling, and processing. OMRI is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. When companies apply, OMRI reviews their products against the National Organic Standards. Acceptable products are OMRI Listed® and appear on the OMRI Products List.”

But really, all I needed to know was this: Farmer Friend said, “If you see the OMRI label, you’re certain it’s a genuine, organic product. You won’t go wrong.” She was right, as always.

And to conclude: here is a basket of happy vegetables harvested for a simple Tuesday dinner. We eat like kings and queens in the summer.

And…if I get my way about building an Eliot Coleman-style cold frame, we’ll be eating like the King and Queen of Fresh Greens all winter, too. If he can do it in Maine, I can do it in Yorktown Heights. More on that later.


“Working with living creatures, both plant and animal, is what makes agriculture different from any other production enterprise. Even though a product is produced, in farming the process is anything but industrial. It is biological. We are dealing with a vital, living system rather than an inert manufacturing process….The major workers – the soil microorganisms, the fungi, the mineral particles, the sun, the air, the water – are all parts of a system, and it is not just the employment of any one of them, but the coordination of the whole that achieves success.”

— Eliot Coleman, “The New Organic Grower: A Master’s Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener”

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I appreciate Yankee ingenuity and American grit. I love practicality.

I am also vain enough to be stung when it is pointed out that something I am doing could be done more elegantly. The stereotype of the French is that they believe they always do things more elegantly than anyone else! I won’t endanger my friendship with my dear friend, who holds a dual citizenship with America and France, by arguing in favor of practicality over grace, but I will admit that in the case of the garden cloche, the French may have a point.

The idea of a cloche is to protect a tender seedling from harsh weather, giving it sanctuary in order to get its feet on the ground, or, in the case of a seedling, to get its feet firmly IN the ground.

Below, an example of a French glass cloche, and the American version:

Glass Cloche for protecting seedings

Beautiful glass, beautiful bell shape, an example of French elegance.

Milk Jug Cloches for proteting seedlings

I cut the bottom off of a gallon jug of milk, cut holes for an anchoring stick to slip through the handle, and slid the “cloche” over my young pepper plant, an example of Yankee ingenuity.

A garden of cloches protecting seedlings.

Voila! An American garden!

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