Monday, July 19, 2010

Forum on Vegetarianism

Interesting forum on the environmental implications of our food choices over at Blue Marble at Mother Jones: link. The guy talking about waste was interesting, and not something I've considered before. Essentially we waste a far greater percentage of vegetative food than animal based food- more veggies than meat end up thrown out, uneaten. Overall I feel pretty secure in my stance on the issue: we should eat vastly less meat overall and that which we do eat should be sustainably raised. A diet that features a small amount of grass fed meat is ecologically superior to an exclusively plant based diet.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Feeling philosophical

There is a staggering and insidious arrogance that is indigenous to the human condition. Staggering because its scope and ambition are so great, insidious because its origins are so inseparable from the experience of being human.

Humans have an incredible ability to predict and control the world around us. It has gotten better and better over time- our knowledge of the way the world works has become increasingly robust, and our ability to leverage this knowledge to meet our own ends has enabled technological development that could have never been imagined by even our great grandparents- very near relatives given the scale of human history.

Utilization of this wondrous facility of human comprehension is not in itself arrogant. Rather, it is the assumption that is implicit in human thought- "Because so much of the world around can be broken down and understood in measurable and predictable ways, it is possible to reduce the entire universe and all of human experience into measurable and predictable truths".

This, tragically, turns into a desperate struggle for control. When the operational assumption is that everything is governed by absolute processes, be they scientific or Godly, and that it is possible to know them, the temptation to strive to master them is nearly irresistible. Complete knowledge should logically lead to complete control.

Somewhere Frodo is hiking with a ring...

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Freedom from expectations

There is without question a benefit to having a blog that no one reads. I have enormous latitude in selecting what I'd like to focus on, and I don't have any audience expectations to worry about. Of course, it could make you wonder about what the point is.

Well, I suppose I'll answer that. I would, at some point, very much like to have a blog that some people do in fact read. If I were to have a number of people reading what I am writing, I'd want the time invested to be worthwhile. So, this is practice. The difficulty is to write a blog that is coherent and integrated rather than tangential and unfocused. This would be easier if I wanted to write about one thing. I want to write about many things, actually, from a variety of perspectives- personal, experiential, professional.

In a lot of ways, I find this to be the conundrum of my life. In my clearest moments, I can glimpse integration and wholeness, and briefly see the patterns of possibility that animate my hopes and dreams. And at other times, those same patterns seem lifeless, frozen and rote. They don't inspire action, they don't even inspire alertness. At these times, the mechanical nature of the taxonomic mind renders even the most inspired vision to be but an overwhelming and insignificant set of tasks.

A blog is an attempt to utilize written language to convey a perspective on a given set of topics, unfolding over time. As the unfolding occurs, I'm left wondering if I can maintain fidelity to an idea- the original word that is the name of this blog- or if in my wandering I'll become unmoored from that altogether, left to start a new blog, that I can arbitrarily set as a marker for a point that denotes leaving one set of categorical experience for another.

If I had any remaining readers, I'm sure I've lost you now.

Perhaps next time I'll revisit the concept Permavorism, and see if there is still relevance, or if I've left the virtual building.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Large scale change in behavior requires behavior change

Well, I stopped posting for a while. That was fairly predictable, but I'm not ready to give this blog up for dead yet. One thing I've notices is that the focus of the blog has been narrower than I think it should be. Not that I need to share everything that is going on in my head, but I think that by focusing overly intensely on the agriculture side of food and the environment, I am really not engaging with the aspect of this blog that I think could be the most unique.

By training and vocation, I am a psychotherapist. As I've discussed previously, the consumption of food is a common moment in the lives of all people in which the arbitrary boundary between person and environment is unambiguously suspended. The food brings with it a natural history, as Michael Pollan has so brilliantly described in The Omnivore's Dilemma. That entire history is swallowed in a moment of convergence with a human consumer, and is integrated into the being of that consumer. That moment can occur mindlessly, degrading the health of the consumer and the quality of the environment, or it can be done with intention and attention, honoring that moment of union.

The focus of this blog has thus far been the natural history of the food, from field to fork. But the procurement, preparation and consumption of foods are behaviors, actions taken by human beings with capacities for choice and the exercise of will. As is clearly evident in the manifest dysfunction of our eating lives, these decisions are agonizing and are correlated with incredible misery. The choice of what and when to eat is filled with incredible ambiguity for most people, convinced of the importance of healthy eating, but unsure of what that means and of their own ability to maintain fidelity to such an ill-defined ideal.

If this choice were rationally made on the best available information, we wouldn't be seeing the runaway dysfunction that has come to embody our culture of food. But clearly, it isn't- not that the "best available information" has been very good. Obesity rates are high, and treatment for weight issues is famously unsuccessful. People can often be helped to lose weight, but nearly everyone regains it.

Millions of people long to change their eating behavior. Such a change could be a boon, not only to the individuals directly involved, but to those involved in alternative systems of production and distribution of nutritious, whole foods. Farmers and members of a much shorter distubution chain have a lot to gain by a large-scale rejection of our current food system and an embrace of a more meaningful, environmentally sound one. Leaders in the development and implementation of behavior change technologies could have a huge role to play in helping facilitate that shift. I will explore this theme in depth on this blog.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Wisdom vs. Progress

This vintage interview, circa 1973, just came whizzing through my RSS feed from Mother Earth News. It's with Wendell Berry, the Port Royal, Kentucky author, farmer, and activist. I am not as familiar with Berry's work as I *should* be- I say that based on both his reputation and the few items he's written that I have had the opportunity to enjoy. The interview itself is quite remarkable, and touches on some themes that I found noteworthy enough to comment on here. He is deeply critical of modern America, to the point of sounding nearly old-fashioned. It seems clear, though, that he isn't coming from a reactionary desire to return to the days of yore, but is instead commenting on the rather impatient nature of progress unmoored from the rhythms and cycles of life. The value of devotion to a task, for instance, is presented as a lost tradition- replaced by an unquenched desire for instant gratification and quick fixes.

I think that this is a particularly important criticism to spend time with, and to differentiate between what this critique of modernity is and is not. The attitude expressed in this interview, and echoed throughout the food and agriculture reform movement today, is sometimes written off as romantic and Luddite- more concerned with form at the expense of function. That is not what I hear as I read through this interview, it isn't what I hear in the voices that have come to represent those of us interested in a safe and just system of food production, distribution, and consumption.

The advancement of human knowledge is a profound and important task. There can be no mistake about that- this is a changing world, with a changing ecology and constantly changing human societies. Reverting our techniques to those of the days of yore is neither practical or desirable. But advancing knowledge can be done selectively, with wisdom and discrimination. Without attention and systemic thinking, our focus can become monomaniacal, such as trying to produce 180 bushel an acre corn. Certainly, we can engineer incredible technology to boost yield and decrease labor, but is it serving the needs of the land and of society? Are we being mindful of the systemic effect of overproduction of monoculture crops? In the face of a growing health crisis, should our primary focus be on producing commodity crops that form the backbone of highly processed, refined food products that are correlated with metabolic syndrome and obesity?

Slowing down does not mean going into reverse. Taking time to observe- the basis for all scientific inquiry- is not a reactionary suggestion. What do we, as individuals and society, value? Are our current dominant modes of production in sync with these values? We need a bigger lens with which to view these questions, beyond the bottom line and the bottom dollar.

Sunday, May 2, 2010


Don't ever throw away the green tops of leeks! After using the white bottom part in whatever delicious thing you are making, throw the tops in a bag in the freezer. When you have a few minutes, put them in a stock pot with garlic, herbs of various sorts and any other veggies you have lying around. Boil them for about an hour or so, strain out the veggies, and you've got really good vegetable stock. Put it in mason jars and freeze 'em. Good veggie stock is a valuable, valuable commodity in the kitchen- and it costs about four bucks a quart at the supermarket.

Tonight I used this stock to make a tomato paella that was ridiculously good. With a salad and a loaf of Em's fresh baked bread, we were eatin' good. And I have four quarts of leek stock in the freezer.

Thursday, April 29, 2010


Remember those coal ash spills in Tennessee a while back?

The floods in W. Virginia resulting from mountaintop removal mining?

The tragedy a couple weeks back in which 29 died in a non-union, unsafe Massey Energy mine?

11 dead, and an ecological disaster unmatched since the Exxon Valdez- perhaps the largest oil spill in history before it's all over?

These are the ecological and human consequences of coal and oil without even considering climate change. Who would have thought our behavior could be so destructive to the environment?

Environmentalists, that's who. But I suppose we are all just hippie freaks and eco-zombies. Who really cares about clean air, water, food, and a livable climate?

Monday, April 26, 2010

Earth Day, Late

I generally don't do much to observe Earth Day. The day usually depresses me, honestly, and brings my inner cynic to the fore. "Why just one day? Everyone just gives lip service and moves along anyway". You know, Eyeore-type stuff. This year was basically the same, Earth Day came and went. A friend emailed out- "Happy Earth Day" and I replied "Call your Senator, or Earth Day is pointless".

I am generally not a cynical person. But really, what is happening on planet earth is depressing, and the failure of our society and our leaders to respond appropriately unquestionably pushes the limits of my ability to hope.

Generally this manifests as frustration, or even anger, along with a strong dose of righteous indignation. In my better moments, I do what I feel like I can, like work towards building awareness of and participation in healthful and sustainable food systems. In my less effective moments, I succumb to distraction and disillusionment.

I believe I have been fundamentally misunderstanding earth day, or at least fundamentally missing a function that Earth Day serves. Of course, it is part awareness campaign- which is important, but also where my despair lies. It's not that the information isn't out there, it is that a large segment of our population chooses willful ignorance. Awareness-raising works best with those who are unaware, not those who are in active denial. It is also a collective lobbying effort- an opportunity to use public events to alert public officials as to the desires of constituents. Color me jaded on this front as well, although I believe it is important not to give up. There are many more powerful interests groups than environmentalists. Unfortunately, the public interest that environmentalists are dedicated to- namely, retaining a livable planet, tend to be viewed as left wing. I don't understand how advocating for conditions necessary for life is left wing.

There is a third vital function of Earth Day, though, and one I've missed. On Sunday, I attended St Paul's, a United Methodist, Reconciling, and Buddhist Christian InterFaith Community. I'd never been there before, as I have tended to not be the churchgoing type (understatement), but we have very dear friends who have been inviting us for quite a long time. I noticed that the worship service would be an observation of Earth Day, with a speaker, J. Donald Hughes focused on our current ecological crisis.

I listened to the speaker recount the facts pertaining to climate change. None of them were new to me, but I sat, present, bearing witness to those facts in the presence of a room full of people doing the same thing. I felt sorrow- tremendous sadness- as I thought of the destructive forces imperiling the future of life as we know it. I felt pain as I allowed myself to feel my fears about what this might mean for Quinton's future, and the type of world he'd grow up knowing.

I also felt support and resolve. In the company of others and in the presence of my own pain, I had no where to run and hide. The choice is to act or not act, to accept reality as it exists and align my choices with the hope of The Great Turning, or to retreat into denial and inaction. When I really allow myself to feel the magnitude of the choice, there is no choice. When I refuse to show up and be present, I fail to take advantage of and show proper respect to the gift of life with which we've been granted. So I'll be observing Earth Day from now on, by bearing witness to the world exactly as it is, without illusion.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Personal is the Planetary

Food provides us a rare opportunity to simultaneously identify a meeting point between two parallel, dysfunctional processes: the health of our planet and the health of our citizens. The late Thomas Berry made an eloquent statement on the relationship between human and ecological health: "You cannot have well people on a sick planet". The way we relate to food is a perfect example of this interdependent illness.

It has been well documented that the way that modern Americans eat is problematic. Despite incredible advances in medicine, the youngest generation of Americans is projected to live less long than their parents. Rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease are on the rise, often preceded by a convergence of health risks known as metabolic syndrome. Characterized by excess weight throughout the midsection, hypertension, and disturbed glucose and insulin responses, metabolic syndrome has been shown to correlate significantly with what has become known as "the western diet". The western diet is a pattern of eating roughly characterized by high rates of consumption of meat, refined grains, sugar, and otherwise highly processed foods.

That we have a collective eating disorder is becoming increasingly apparent, and is beginning to become better understood. Our relationship to food is self-evidently problematic. But the story does not stop with our waistlines and rates of heart disease. The effects of the western diet are also devastating to the environments where it originates.

I won't detail the depth of the dysfunction of agriculture's relationship to environmental health. If you want to learn more, read Michael Pollan or Eric Schlosser; or, for that matter, read the food section at grist. Suffice it to say that the effect of our food on the environment is approximately the same as the effect of our food on our collective health.

The good news is that the specific nature of the problem lends itself to a comprehensive solution. The bad news is that that comprehensive solution involves human behavior change on a massive scale, the revamping of the agricultural sector, including challenging powerful and culturally-entrenched interests, and the creative mass deployment of solutions that may not even exist yet.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Books I need to Read

Well, I hurt my ankle chasing Quinn (my 2 year old) around the park today, so I stayed home from work. This was disappointing, because today is the day I teach my cooking class, which is my favorite part of my work week. But anyway, I am sitting here and thinking, and it reminds me that there are a lot of books I need to read.

The One-Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming- Masanobu Fukuoka

Consulting the Genius of a Place; An Ecological Approach to a New Agriculture- Wes Jackson

The Unsettling of America, Culture & Agriculture- Wendell Berry

Second Nature; A Gardener's Education- Michael Pollan (His other books have literally changed my life)

You Can Farm; The Entrepreneur's Guide to Start & Succeed in a Farming Enterprise- Joel Salatin

Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder- Richard Louv (halfway through this one)

Gaia's Garden, Second Edition: A Guide To Home-Scale Permaculture- Toby Hemenway (halfway through this as well. Pattern?)

Food Dogma

As far as I can tell, the namesake of this blog, Permavore, is a word I just made up. A quick Google search indicates that it isn't on the internet, therefore, it must not exist. Of course, I think I'm clever for coming up with such a cute word, but it causes me to think- do we need another word to describe an ethical system for eating? Of course we don't, is the quick answer. But what's the harm? It seems to me that there is a large swath of people who are right now struggling with the question of what to put into their bodies. Michael Pollan writes best sellers on the topic. Food Inc. got a Grammy nomination and a great deal of national attention. Farmer's markets are exploding, and alternative food icons such as Frances Moore Lappe and Wendell Berry are enjoying renewed prominence. People are starting to notice that something is rotten in our food and in our systems of food production, processing and distribution. Our entire food system is making us fat and unhealthy, destroying our environment, all the while failing to support local communities.

But, as most of us either know deep in our very beings or intuit in some repressed part of our imagination, food is a source of joy. Food is at the center of our table when we celebrate and when we enjoy time with family. The art of cooking is as old as civilization. Food is an expression of and a symbol for culture, and in the case of our own culture, the reflection of our food on modern American life is sad, and deadly accurate. The impulse to reclaim the joy in our relationship to food breathes throughout the "food movement", and is in many ways the inspiration for this blog.

Permavorism is inspired by many sources, and I would be remiss to not mention the influence of permaculture, but it is in its essence about the re-enchantment of food with the spirit of ecological vitality. As we partake in the daily regiment of feeding ourselves, we have an opportunity to connect with the entire chain of life that leads to our fork, a chain that is recycled through us and within us, on its way to something else.

Permavorism isn't about rules. When engaged in continual appraisal of the ecological, nutritional and aesthetic values of food, you've got to be open to new information. Permavorism is more of a process- a constantly evolving relationship between us, our dinner, and our planet.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Value added and Values-based

For American farmers, the size of farm operations are pretty bipolar. On the one hand are the operators growing some variation of grain and beans on thousands of acres. On the other are extremely small scale producers, farming a few acres for farmer's markets or for specialty products. Mid-scale farmers are largely an anachronism at this point, long since either retiring from farming or swallowing up their neighbors. There are very well-defined reasons for this, largely revolving around public policy, but I'll leave that for others to discuss (like Michael Pollan or these fellas from the University of Tennessee. This has been identified as a significant obstacle towards moving towards a more sustainable and responsive food system. A national project known as Agriculture of the Middle seeks to find ways to support a renaissance of medium sized farms. Agriculture of the middle was started by Fred Kirschenmann, sustainable agriculture luminary and former head of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University.

A large part of the problem for small farms, according to this executive summary:

Mid-sized farms and ranches are disappearing
because, individually, they are often too small to
compete successfully in international agricultural
commodity markets, yet they are not positioned
to bypass these markets and directly market food
to local consumers.

The summary goes on to discuss cooperative direct marketing, producers working together to create a larger market and thus accessing the benefits of scale. These cooperatives offer a premium, or "value added" product to consumers, and appeal to a shared set of values between producer and consumer. This value added, values-based formula can allow producers to offer a superior product to interested consumers at a scale unavailable to very small producers and in a manner that larger operations are unable, by the nature of industrial agriculture, to meet.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Family Dynamics

To return to the topic of an earler post, the vegetarian vs. grass-fed meat debate is a pretty contentious issue amongst a particular cross-section of ethicureans (h/t to the outstanding sustainable food blog ethicurean. Vegetarianism has for a long time represented a sort of dietary alliance between groups of people with parallel, but not necessarily common, goals. Many vegetarians have been motivated by the monstrous environmental calamity that is industrial meat production, not to mention the overfishing of the world's oceans. Many, if not most, environmental vegetarians tend to be revolted by the lack of respect for life exemplified by factory farms. Other vegetarians come from the perspective of animal rights, and generally make the argument that since humans are able to meet their nutritional needs easily without eating meat, the taking of the life of a sentient being is cruel and unneccesary.

Personally, I have eaten a mostly-vegetarian diet for about a decade (the veg purists would also take strong exeption here- I've never been scrupulously observant, and have often exempted fish). My wife has been much more orthodox than I, although she occasionally eats fish as well, which makes her a pescatarian, really. Labels. Here is where the story gets interesting, however, and the eco-moral rift becomes manifest within our very own family.

I have hopped aboard the grass-fed wagon. Functioning agricultural ecosystems are the primary drivers of my dietary choices, and I have come to view eating grass-fed meat a superior means to achieving this end. I recognize that we don't need to eat meat to live, I've done it for years, but I also recognize that sustainable farms need animals to prosper. Like it or not, we are members of a food chain, and I believe that omnivorism is a reality for most of the human race. We may find that to be morally difficult, but the ecosphere may indeed consider it a moral necessity. And, I have to be honest- I have never been a vegetarian who finds meat gross. Except for nuggets and other highly processed cartilage products.

Emily feels differently. She believes that since meat eating is not necesarry for humans to thrive, that it is a moral vice. I beleive that is her essential argument, for which I agree that there is a very strong case. Here lies the source of a family rift.

In practice, it really isn't much of a rift. I eat a bit of meat for lunch, on occasion, and the rest of our meals are without meat. The truth is, I am deeply appreciative of my years of meatlessness, as I have come to enjoy preparing and eating a wide array of foods I may have never considered in my more carnivourous days. By and large, I am quite happy with our relatively meat free lifestyle, and don't plan on really rocking the boat by insisting on more meat. It really is an indulgence, from my point of view- and an unacceptable one if the meat isn't carefully sourced.

Friday, April 9, 2010

The Holy Grail of permavorism

As I referenced previously, when considering the long term planetary outcomes of our food choices, there are real advantages to foods that come from or coexist with perennial ecosystems; ecosystems that are built around perennial plants. Eating grass-fed meat is a way of supporting the perennial pasture that the animal is raised on. Tree and bush fruits come back year after year. There are even a few (not many) vegetables that are perennial- you can read about them at this blog. Unfortunately, it seems this blogger ran into the realization that since there are only a few perennial veggies, there really wan't that much to write about. The blog seems to have lasted only a few months.

The real Holy Grail for permavorism, and I would argue for sustainable agriculture in general, would be a perennial grain. Throughout human history, grain has formed the backbone of nearly all regional cuisines. Currently all grain crops are annual plants, re-seeded year after year. Since the plant dies and reproduces each year, it does not have the same opportunity to extend vast, complex networks of roots into the soil as do perennial plants. The soil beneath is less stable, lacks the fullness of organic material that characterizes the soil that supports perennials, and does not hold onto and recycle minerals and water as well. This is a problem to the land and to the environment as a whole.

The Land Institute, under the leadership of agro-visionary and sustainable agriculture pioneer Wes Jackson, seeks to change that. Seeking to "develop an agricultural system with the ecological stability of the prairie and a grain yield comparable to that from annual crops", the land institute seeks to mimic the wisdom of natural ecosystems with productive food producing plants. Much of Jackson's vision is laid out in his books; New Roots for Agriculture and Becoming Native to this Place. The work of cross-breeding plants to create perennial, productive grain crops is laborious and time consuming, so the wait for a permanent agricultural grain crop must be a patient one.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Enter the Permavore

New members of sustainable food lexicon have regularly entered our vocabulary over the years. The venerable vegetarian, representing a dietary choice with moral and environmental dimensions, has been the most common standard for ethically concerned eaters for a number of years. Some have taken it a step further to veganism, the choice to abstain from the use of any animal products, including non-food items such as leather. Recently, a new term has captured popular awareness as Locavore, describing an individual who strives to source his or her food from local producers, minimizing the travel of "food miles" and attempting to undermine the established food infrastructure, which relies on scale and monocultural production.

I think most of us wish that we could have one label or mode of eating that we could settle upon, but the truth is, our knowledge about the production and eating of feed is constantly evolving. One of the most interesting examples of this is in regards to eating meat. Long the ideal choice for many environmentalists, the grass-fed meat craze is starting to bring this into question. Bill MiKibben, noted environmental author and activist, provides a very good rundown of the issue here.

The debate hinges on what will be a repeated focus on this blog: soil. Healthy, living soil has the potential to sequester huge amounts of carbon, a necessity when considering the current state of the climate. Grass-fed animal agriculture provides for the creation and maintenance of permanent pasture, diverse grasslands that sink immense amounts of carbon into the earth, support soil health and productivity, and when managed responsibly, require very little in the way of harmful inputs.

Thus a new term for the lexicon: Permavore. Permavore can be defined as one who strives to include in their diet as many foods that derive from agriculture that promotes the proliferation of perennial plants. This would include tree crops such as fruits and nuts, animals from pasture, and select vegetables. The holy grail for permavores would be a perennial grain... more on that in a later post.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010


Well, here goes. Since I certainly don't have a readership yet, and I am new to this, I'm going to begin informally. I don't know yet what my posting schedule will be, or what I want the product to look like, so I suppose I'll let it be a blog- and evolve. I've posted a fairly lengthy explanation on the background and focus of this particular blog on the Farm dreams page that can be referenced from the top of the home page. I plan on aggregating interesting tidbits and news from around the web in short bursts, but to also interweave an ongoing narrative focused around the development of our family's process towards a significantly different lifestyle than we lead now, in the form of a 1000 mile move to a rural farmstead. Welcome, and stay tuned.