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.