First off, I’m excited to say I have a new job!! I’m now doing marketing (mostly graphic design and social media) for a local farmers market association!! Right up my alley, yea? I’m psyched — and loving it.
Secondly, I’m feeling inspired to make a serious change in the way I think about food. (More about my food challenge is below!)
Now, I’ve been here before. Pollan has a way of doing this to me, but I’m not ALWAYS reading Pollan. McDonalds is right next to the Home Depot (seems like my 2nd home, most weekends), and it’s all too easy to grab a 10-piece McNugget and head on my way.
But right now, Pollan has me seriously second guessing that nugget. And the entire food system. And the one staple that makes up an inordinately large part of that food system: Corn.
You’ll have to read the book for Pollan’s great description of corn sex, and how corn’s reproductive habits (among other things) made it perfectly suited for mankind, how we chose it and it chose us, and how we co-evolved to the point where it seriously rules our lives. Forget about robots, Pollan has me convinced it’s corn that’s going to wake up and take over the world.
You’ll also have to read the book for his dive into corn economics: how politics overtook centuries of common knowledge and agricultural good sense, and how the U.S. government (thanks to the Nixon administration and all thereafter) turned farmers into “agribusinessmen.”
Fast forward to 2011: the pastoral Midwestern farm doesn’t exist. One factory farmer feeds about 130 people (that’s the most productive farmer of all time) — all in corn.
Corn is the glue holds the modern food system — as well as all those McNuggets — together.
It’s also a big percentage of the rest of the ingredients. Corn starch and high fructose corn syrup: those are the most obvious. How about maltodextrin? Sometimes that’s derived from soy, but often it’s corn, and it’s in EVERYTHING, it seems. Same with xantham gum, vegetable oil, food starch and modified food starch, MSG, malt (and malt syrup or extract), dextrose, fructose, sucrose, baking powder, caramel coloring (and flavoring), and more. Just try to find something in the supermarket without corn hiding in it.
Going one step down the food chain, try to find meat or dairy from an animal that wasn’t fed corn. Those products generally aren’t labeled, so you really have no idea. But in general, it seems, assume it was unless you know the farmer yourself.
My One-Week Food Challenge
Just a little bit appalled by all this, I’ve decided to challenge myself to eat for one week without ingesting any invisible corn. Now, I pretty much accept that this is impossible, but I’m going to do my best.
Also, I’m allowing myself to eat corn itself — as in, the actual whole vegetable. And I might make an exception or two for corn meal, since that’s the next least processed version of corn, and it’s something I could theoretically make myself without too much trouble.
At Farmer Joe’s this afternoon (similar to Whole Foods), I perused the aisles looking for things I can eat this week. Big brand peanut butter is out (corn syrup). So, surprisingly, is grated mozzarella cheese (all contained corn starch or “cellulose powder,” which I can only assume comes from corn).
Adele’s Sausage is out too, along with most breakfast cereals. Beer doesn’t list ingredients (?), but I’ve read it’s often made with corn products, so there will be none of that this week either. Good thing I’ve stockpiled the wine…
I ended up coming home with: Challah bread, bulk granola, bulk dried mango, and several dairy products which probably break the rules, since I don’t know what the animals were fed: organic Kefir, a block of mozzarella, and a tub of marscapone. I’ll supplement this throughout the week with farmers market fare and stuff from my own garden.
Tonight’s dinner: Homemade pizza. I made the dough myself — this is a 5-minute job and much easier than you’d expect! The sauce was my own as well (canned this past weekend!).
I sauteed up some portobella mushrooms in olive oil and balsamic vinegar and tossed them on top along with an onion a friend picked on a local farm, the mozzarella (grated myself, since the pre-grated bags were full of corn), a little bit of pancetta (rule breaker, since the pig probably ate loads of corn), and globs of goat cheese (goats probably eat corn, too).
It took about 30 minutes of prep and 30 minutes to cook. I’d say it was moderately corn-free, save the animal products and the little bit of cornmeal I used to keep the dough from sticking to the stone.
Tomorrow’s breakfast: Kefir with granola or challah with marscapone and a corn-free jam.
I’m already breaking rules, out of necessity — I just don’t have easy (i.e. convenient) access to 100% grass-fed meat AND dairy, even at most of the farmers markets! And of all places, the Bay Area probably has the most access in the country.
This is going to be difficult… I’ll keep you posted.
I’ve been busy over here for many weekends in a row now, planting corn, murdering my front lawn, deconstructing the huge “live-in” shed attached to the garage, and repurposing the shed materials into a few awesome building projects: namely a compost bin and a chicken coop.
The chicken coop is still in the works, but the compost bin is done!
I did a lot of research into bin design, looking at models using recycled wood pallets, buying a big plastic bin instead of building one, or building one out of the heaps of 2x4s rescued from the shed.
I settled on this 3-bin compost system, in part because I expect I’ll be able to generate a LOT of compost (I have so much yard waste already), but also because I saw a really well-done version of it on featured on Re-nest.
Mine isn’t quite as pretty — after all, most of the materials are recycled — but it does the trick! In the end, I spent about $150 on materials I didn’t have or couldn’t salvage, including the wire hardware cloth, two Trex boards (the slats on the front are this composite material — I had enough for two sections, salvaged from another Oakland homeowner’s pile of scrap, but needed more for the third section), one 9′ redwood 2×4, since i didn’t have enough of that length, and all the screws, hinges, and hardware. The Oakland Home Depot and Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore saw my face a few times that weekend…
I don’t want to think about what it would have cost to buy all new material! I guess the message is DON’T! Even if you don’t have salvage of your own, I found several places to buy recycled wood for really cheap. Urban Ore in Berkeley, for example, sells 2x4s at around $2 a pop!
Steve and I managed to build this guy in about two weekends, with a little extra work on his part on his time off during the week.
The PDF design I followed can be downloaded by clicking here.
I only visited one of the five sites on last weekend’s first annual Urban Farm Tour, organized by Oakland’s Institute of Urban Homesteading. But I was pretty blown away.
I toyed with the idea of saving these photos, hoping I might do an interview and full story on Kitty Sharkey, who lives on her 4,000 square foot “Havenscourt Homestead” in East Oakland.
But I couldn’t wait — I was too amazed and inspired by what I saw.
Kitty — a 9-5 working woman in love with her 52 goats, ducks, chickens, rabbits, and cats (plus several bee hives) — lives on a smaller property than I do. Her own little 2-bedroom home was bought as a foreclosure, just three years ago. THREE YEARS, and she’s done all this.
What might I do in that time…
Kitty’s front yard is an official Bay Friendly Garden — she tore the lawn out (much as I’m doing now!) and put in low water plants.
The driveway used to run from the street to the garage at the very back of the property — now, just the front portion is for parking, while most of the length is used for veggie gardening! The secret to getting huge plants in containers? Poop, Kitty says. Amending the soil with manure has done wonders for her tomatoes and other vegetables.
Somehow, there are 52 animals on this homestead. That includes goats, chickens, ducks, rabbits, and cats — but doesn’t include the two bee hives on the garage roof. All that and a hammock occupy most of the backyard. Remarkably, it doesn’t actually smell like a barnyard! Kitty practices the “deep litter” method of maintaining the animal coops and pens, which allows manure to compost in place underneath a deep layer of hay or pine shavings while keeping things relatively odor-free. Whatever she’s doing, it works.
At right, Kitty addresses the crowd while the goats pull and nibble at the bottom of her shirt for attention. Maybe I should get goats on my homestead… ;)
Despite being old news, it is pretty HUGE news, so I’m counting on a little forgiveness for my not blogging in ages.
I bought a house: a 1945 bungalow in East Oakland.
And more than that, along with my cute 2-bedroom “cosmetic fixer,” I bought a nearly 5,000 square foot lot.
But it’s been hard to remember that part of the deal over the last four months, while I’ve been caught up in painting, finding and installing light fixtures, running back and forth to the Oakland Tool Lending Library, and doing late-night internet research on everything from how to install a new toilet flush handle to how to safely remove the lead paint shedding off my kitchen wall.
A 5,000 square foot lot. Really, you see, I bought a piece of future urban farmland that just happened to have a great house sitting on it too. And now that the housewarming is over — meaning things inside are tidier, if not actually finished — I can move from the dreaming phase to the doing phase in my garden.
But I only have so much space (or reader attention span?) in one post, so I’ll stick to sharing just the dreams with you today…
Dream #1: Front Yard Veggies
I have no idea what the neighbors will think of this idea, except that I know from my neighborhood listserv that many in the area do plenty of edible gardening. One neighbor — who’s been here 45 years — warned against putting anything edible (or more so, throwable and squishable) in my front yard. At least without a fence. (There was a story of a pomegranate tree they cut down because of the fruits’ tendency to be hurled at the house…)
But my front yard gets the most sun. And I do NOT want to mow any grass (or buy a lawn mower, for that matter). Even more so, I like the idea of showcasing — Rosalind Creasy style — that edible gardening can be beautiful, functional, and community-forming.
There will be no veggie rows. And, probably, no tomatoes (my big front window seems the most likely target). But artichokes? Eggplant? Asparagus? Edibles that don’t necessarily LOOK like edibles? Blueberry foundation plants? I think so.
Though the more I think about it, the more I’m willing to consider building a fence one of these weekends… Oakland, my dear Rosalind, is no Los Altos.
Dream #2: Backyard Chickens
Actually, this one is already in the works! To celebrate my 26th birthday, I gifted myself three baby chicks. After two weeks in a borrowed brooder, they’re getting bigger by the day! The next step is building the coop — I’m hoping to build that and a compost bin mostly out of wood salvaged from the huge shed some of my guy friends demolished a few weeks back. (Thank you Steve and Brendon!)
Dream #3: Mostly Edible Landscaping
So the tomatoes can’t go in the front yard. Lucky for me, I have plenty of space out back for the “ugly” (corn, wheat), squishy (tomatoes, peaches), too tempting (peppers, strawberries), and shade-loving (lettuce, herbs) veggies.
I’m dreaming about: Kiwis and grapes on arbors or a patio pergola. Blueberry and Nanking cherry foundation plantings. Finally planting my peach, orange, and cherry trees, while the fig and olive grace the patio in pots. A backyard hammock, picnic table, cob oven, and fire pit for full enjoyment of said edibles. Ah, the ideas… and more coming, with the help of my good friends Katrina and Ashley of Ashtree Designs!
I have online shopping carts full of future plants waiting for a credit card number at Raintree Nursery and Seeds of Change, and I’ve been scoping out Evergreen and Broadway Terrace nurseries locally. I’m ready.
Dream #4: Wood-fired hot tub
Ok, so it’s not edible. But it sounds amazing. And somewhat sustainable, if you discount the fact that there’ll be smoke (I’ll be able to grill on the heater, so at least they’re dual-purpose greenhouse gases, right?)
I acquired half of a huge (2-3 person) industrial storage tank a while back, from a woman in West Oakland offering rabbit manure compost on CraigsList, and I dream of magically turning it into something like the Dutchtub, which I saw at the San Francisco Flower and Garden Show earlier this year.
Dream #5: Monthly Dinner Parties
So far, the hardest part of being a homeowner is that I’ve lost a huge part of my social life. I live farther away from downtown, and can no longer walk to a bar, restaurant, or the weekly farmers market. And I spend my weekends working on the house, rather than going out with friends. So I’m hoping to bring the party to me! And, after reading about all my edible landscaping plans, you probably realize as well as I do how big a harvest I’m going to have…
As for my progress so far?
To summarize: There are 36 stalks of corn growing in the backyard. Gertrude, Virginia, and Sylvia, my lovely lady egg layers, are getting bigger every day. The front lawn is officially torn out as of last weekend (because Steve is an effing rock star), and PDF plans for a 3-bin composting system are pulled up on my laptop, ready to be used this weekend.
Oh, and I am finally — FINALLY — back to Urbivore, with 5,000 square feet of inspiration in front of me, and a long list of ideas for continued posts on food politics, DIY ideas, interviews with urban farmers, and more: the real meat of the blog.
But that isn’t the whole story.
Her yard at home might be bare — much to the disappointment of friends and visitors — but that’s because Pilar spends most of her time starting 400 varieties of vegetable and herb seedlings in an old greenhouse — a.k.a. Sunnyside Organic Seedlings — tucked into an industrial zone in Richmond, California.
A neighboring greenhouse hosts the beginnings of an aquaculture system (with a Target-bought above-ground swimming pool full of hundreds of three-inch koi fish), and a third holds 10 or so chickens, including a few accidental roosters who will soon be somebody’s dinner.
Outside, one of her staff, Kenji Warren, keeps a vegetable garden for the Bay Area Rescue Mission — at a volunteer day last week, a dozen volunteers harvested more than 100 pounds of Swiss chard and planted a few hundred cloves of garlic, most of which will be donated to the organization’s food kitchen.
The remaining greenhouses and gravel-strewn lawn on her 7-acre plot give plenty of space for dreaming, she said.
After moving here from another Richmond site early this year, “suddenly there’s room for vision. Before, I had no space to think about anything other than Sunnyside.” Will that mean more chickens? Building an office on-site for her boyfriend’s business? A few more rows for Kenji to tend? Crazy ideas — or at least good crazy ideas — are welcome, she said. So are donations.
In the meantime, she’s happy with all her seed start trays. Walking down the rows of upcycled wire, pipe, and garden hose tables, she points out a tray covered in what looks like short white hairs — these onions are one of her favorites, she said, especially when they’ve just started to sprout.
But organic, heirloom onions, oregano, arugula, and artichokes aren’t the only things she hopes to start here — in addition to selling seedlings, she said, “we’re growing farmers.”
In Richmond, not only are climate conditions ideal, but there’s also high unemployment.
Greenhouse Manager Rebecca Blanck-Weiss explains, “our larger goal is to provide job training for the community through sustainable business and organic food.” That means bringing in local students, maintaining a coterie of volunteers, and donating food and seedlings to various organizations.
Sunnyside’s seedlings are sold at more than 40 Bay Area garden centers, or you can find Pilar manning the stand at several local farmer’s market, including the Sunday San Rafael Civic Center market, the Tuesday Novato market, and — my own personal favorite — the Saturday Grand-Lake market in Oakland.
Interested in volunteering? Follow their Facebook page for more info, but volunteer day is generally the last Friday of the month, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Your time earns you lunch and free seedlings — who could refuse?