Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Self sufficiency, family history and potatoes

Self sufficiency 
Self-sufficiency is an interesting way of living.  I've been working on finding out about my family tree and that has prompted a lot of thinking about the way that many of those people lived.  Some were relatively well-to-do, but many were "agricultural labourers" around Essex,  Wiltshire and Dorset.  (These are the Anglo-Saxon branch of the family,  anyway.)  I can only imagine how they lived.  Some ended up working in other people's houses,  some in the workhouse... and some,  obviously, emigrated to Australia.

In thinking about how some of these people lived,  it made me consider the current notion of "self-sufficiency" that is mentioned frequently in articles about energy, climate and other matters.

An agricultural worker in Dorset around 1800 would have qualified as "self-sufficient" these days.  No doubt the amount of work that these people supplied would have been enough to maintain themselves, their families and the more affluent owners of the land upon which they worked.  Most of their work would have been physically labouring, with the help of animals,  but no "oil-based" input of energy.  Life expectancy was lower,  though for many, especially men, once they reached an older age, seem to have lived into their 80's or thereabouts.  Their diet must have been adequate.

One particular family that I have been following seem to have worked for a few different landholders, all within 15 or 20 miles,  and must have been able to move (indicating few possessions) with their growing family of up to four children.  I imagine that payment might have been partly "in kind" if food was being produced on the land that they worked….  and that money would have been spent on ingredients that were not locally made or grown.  It makes sense also that wild foods would likely have been useful… especially "pot herbs" that would have supplied nutrients that are needed for health.  I imagine also that seeds collected from useful plants or foods would have been planted near any home-base, much in the same way that date seeds (probably from dried dates bought for food)  have always been planted around farmhouses in arid areas.  Those date palms are often there long after the house is deserted and falling down.  I wonder how pot herbs and root vegetables (the easiest to grow) were added to the diet.  Much of the information about foodstuffs from earlier times are more likely to have been what middle class or wealthy people used because these are the records and writings that remain.  Even Mrs Beeton's book of household management would have had little relevance for the poor even in her time.

Self sufficiency is the current catch phrase.  I don't buy much food from the supermarket and  I have been going to the local farmer's market for the items that I can not produce.   Gradually, this has been becoming less and less.  These days,  I only go there for fruits and some specialty items that I can't grow…  coffee (locally roasted) tea (blended locally) and some fruits and grains.  Most of my food comes from my garden.

I have experimented with growing grains and with a few "new to me" vegetables.  many of them have been successful,  though the easiest vegetables to grow, with the greatest calorific reward, are potatoes and those root vegetables that do well in winter.  This may not be the most innovative way to go,  but in terms of self sufficiency, those "old" varieties that were no doubt planted by my "agricultural labourer" ancestors remain the most productive when "calories in and calories out" are considered.

This year I have planted  quite a large area of potatoes and I have been "bandicooting" enough to eat regularly for quite a few weeks.  (More about potatoes and how to eat them later.)

Over the past couple of weeks I have planted a selection of root crops and winter peas and beans.  The area that I have planted is quite large because with winter rain,  I am hoping not to have to irrigate very much.  The rain that we have had over the last couple of days has been well timed.  I plant the seeds relatively thickly, and thin them once I can see what they are doing.  I also "fill in" any gaps with a few more seeds if necessary.  These "late germinators" are not a problem for me,  though they would be for a commercial crop where harvesting is usually done altogether.  For me,  having a few early or late specimens of anything is useful as I only want to harvest enough each day for current use.

Potatoes…  and their nutrients
Potatoes are one of the vegetables that has "lost" the most nutrients over the past 50 years or so.  The data that I have found is from Canada, and included in an article by Andre Picard, a Public Health Reporter for the Globe and Mail...

The potato " has lost 100 per cent of its vitamin A, which is important for good eyesight; 57 per cent of its vitamin C and iron, a key component of healthy blood; and 28 per cent of its calcium, essential for building healthy bones and teeth.
It also lost 50 per cent of its riboflavin and 18 per cent of its thiamine. Of the seven key nutrients measured, only niacin levels have increased."  (Andre Picard, 2002)
I am sure that the same,  or something similar is the case in Australian potatoes as production has become industrialised here in the same way that it has in Canada.  There are similar statistics for quite a few other fruits and vegetables..
To put this into perspective, back in 1951, a woman could get her full Recommended Daily Allowance of Vitamin A by consuming just 2 peaches . Today, she would need fifty-three (53) peaches! Or how about the fact that you would have to eat eight oranges today to get the same amount of Vitamin A in just one orange in 1951. (Renu Arora, Dietician, Ontario.)
There are several things to consider here.  First of all,  it has been suggested that humans have cravings for particular foods, depending upon the nutrients that they are deficient in.  There is some evidence to support this.  If this is true,  and if the level in nutrients present in some foods is decreased, then could this be one of the causes of some eating disorders that lead to high calorie intake and obesity.  I have wondered about this for some time. Secondly,  there has been a significant increase in pesticides being added to crops during the same period.  When pesticide levels increase and nutrient levels are reduced,  when do these products cease to be food?
"It would be daunting, if not impossible to try to plot the hundreds of foods, the hundreds of nutrients in them, mathematically on one graph.  But if we couldl, those trends - declining nutrition and increasing toxicity - would form an X, and the point where the two trend lines intersect, the crux of that X, ould be a point of no return, the point where food has minimal nurtritional value and serves chiefly as a toxic poison - the point, literally, of the End of Food."  (p 79, "The End of Food",  Thomas F Pawlick)
 Why potatoes?
In this business of self sufficiency, there are a couple of things to take into account.  One is this issue of nutrients, and the other is the requirement for sufficient calories to maintain growth, health and the energy to work.  I have found that the easiest calories to produce are root vegetables of a number of kinds, and particularly potatoes.  Potatoes are just the easiest calories to produce.
Of course, when potatoes are on the menu regularly,  it is important to be able to produce meals that taste good too.  So far,  I have made potato fritters, potato salad, roasted potatoes, barbecued potatoes, potato dumplings, potato gnocchi, potato curry, potato bread, frittata, fried potatoes (in butter with herbs)  and I have found a recipe for a souffle that I am going to try.  Self sufficiency is interesting to consider and it can lead from family history to interesting and exotic recipes to be tested for dinner.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Still weeding….

It's been another day of pulling weeds.  After the first really good bit of rain for a while,   the garden is looking healthy…  and so are the weeds.

The beetroot is coming along nicely….
…. the peas that I planted a few weeks ago are flowering….
 …. the potato patch is amazing….
 …t he pumpkins continue to grow and seem to be producing quite a crop….
 …  some of them are strange….  I have put supports under them to guard against any soggy ground and rotting of the produce….
 … more lettuce….
… the pomegranate (after several years of stress and dormancy) has finally sent a new shoot up to the sky….
 … and the carrots are growing fast….
The vegetable garden seems to be growing fast… and so do the weeds.
After several hours of pulling up those unwanted plants,  digging enough potatoes for dinner and checking out the assortment of plants that I depend upon,  I went and sat outside to watch the birds.  The rosellas are contemplating their hole in the gum tree,  several species of pigeons are courting… it's a pity that their nests are so inconsequential that they are hard to find…  but I'm sure that nest building can't be far off.
I also saw a European goldfinch today.  Strange bird!    I couldn't believe it!  It looked the same shape as a sparrow,  and with a stubby "finch" beak… but with wierd colours…. and my trusty bird book worked it out…. a European goldfinch.

Later, as I watched the honeyeaters playing,  they ventured over to one of the plants that I have been assured that they cannot feed from… I am not sure of the real name,  though I think I have been told about it in the past…. anyway,  Australian honeyeaters are supposed to have too short beaks to make use of these tubular flowers.  Apparently,  hummingbirds are the usual pollinators.  Well,  I think that these honeyeaters must have worked it out…

They seem to be doing quite well.

As I watched the honeyeaters,  I saw some ants working hard…
 … this ant was carrying that big black thing back down the hole...
… and while it is hard to see,  this little ant was carrying a piece of red earth out of the hole,  along with a lot of other little workers…. there must be some serious construction going on under there.

This actually got me thinking…..  my food pretty much all comes from my garden these days,  and it really does make one think of the symbiotic relationship that I have with the plants, birds and animals and, in truth, all of the creatures that live here.   I know that people try to kill ants that live in their gardens,  but I can't help wondering whether they might be my allies,  partners in the scheme of things.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Thoughts on weeding the garden….

It's been a busy couple of weeks in the garden.  Changes of season are like that.  (I have also been doing some serious work on my house and so the blog has been ignored, more or less,  for a couple of weeks.)
I have planted carrots, winter lettuces (cos), peas, kale, and an assortment of brassicas.  The garlic has been buried,  though it hasn't emerged yet and I have a whole new patch of garden that is half way prepared for the broad beans.  The fact that I am growing such a lot of potatoes (the easiest carbohydrate to produce) has meant that I need to expand the winter gardens.  I call  these my "winter gardens" because in summer,  when water is scarce, I reduce the area that is in production.

As I have written previously,  during the summer I have whole garden beds that are watered and covered with a very thick layer of mulch to protect the soil micro-organisms, flora and fauna and especially the fungi.  This fits with my idea of farming the soil and maintaining the soil environment so that the plants are able to take care of themselves.  The plants know how to grow well once they have the right environment.   This is not a new idea.  I have found a lot of old books (usually while browsing in second hand bookshops) that have the same ideas.  I wonder whether care for the soil became "old-fashioned" or "out of date" when the green revolution of the last century occurred.

In recent weeks,  farmers in my area have been "burning off" or spraying glyphosate ready to plant their crops.  This was brought home to me as I drove home one afternoon a few days ago.  We had had about two inches of rain.  It was wonderful and my garden was/is thriving.  (Some actual rain, rather than the water that I add artificially is so much more effective!)  It has also produced an amazing crop of weeds.  I have spent a couple of hours every day pulling weeds out by the roots.

 The farmers, with their broad acres, need to combat these "invaders" as well…. and so they do,  with fire or chemicals. As I drove home on that sunny afternoon,  the smell of the chemical cocktail was sickening.  I don't know whether the smell is from the actual glyphosate or a carrier chemical in the mix,  but it reminds me of the smell of burning rubber or contaminated machine oil…  quite distinctive.
My first thought was that I'm glad I don't eat anything from those paddocks.  (We do have a couple of "organic producers" of grain in the area.)
After that,  I remember imagining what the soil must be like.  There can't be any worms, micro-organisms or fungi there.  The soil is more like a hydroponic substrate to which is added the seeds, fertiliser and a few micro-nutrients ready for the production of "food" for us.

There are numerous examples of foods that no longer contain the micro-nutrients that they did in the past and there is speculation that this is related to the "tastelessness" of modern varieties of old favourites in our food supply chain.  There have been articles written about the change in the chemical composition of food, notably one by Anne-Marie Meyer (British Food Journal, 1997) in which she showed that there were significant reductions in the presence of calcium, magnesium, copper and sodium in vegetables; and in magnesium, iron, copper nad potassium in fruits.  The only mineral (that she measured) that showed no significant reduction over 50 years was phosphorus. (Phosphorus is so important that it is mined from deposits of ancient bird droppings and added to fertiliser,  making it "superphosphate" of course.  Supplies are limited and will be scarce in future as we have already passed "peak phosphorus".)

Another interesting statistic that I have found concerns the levels of nutrients in potatoes in Canada.  Over 50 years, Canadian potatoes have "lost" 100% of their vitamin A, 57% of vitamin C, 28% of calcium and 50% of riboflavin, along with other measurable losses as well.  I suspect that Australian vegetables, fruits and grains have suffered similar losses over the past 50 years or so as well.

There are many micro-nutrients that we need and that have been available in "natural" foods in the past.    The artificial production of foods (using chemicals and nutrients applied prior to and during the growing season) have been manipulated to get the greatest volume/weight of food for the minimum input in order to maximise profit,  for food production is now an industry rather than a way of life or just "what everyone does" as a matter of course.  It is probably also the case that, in adding micro-nutrients to superphosphate,  some were overlooked or even unknown.  If plants grew well enough to make a profit,  then the lack of some element or mineral would not be important….  even if it was to compromise the health of the consumers in the long run.

I have wondered whether the "obesity epidemic" is somehow related to this lack of nutrients.  There is plenty of evidence that people will have food cravings when deprived of particular nutrients.  If the available food really does lack some essential items,  then would the cravings cause inappropriate ingestion of "foods" in an attempt to remedy this lack of minerals or nutrients?  Would this cause people to continue eating when it is obvious that hunger or lack of calories is not the issue?   Pure speculation on my part,  but I can't help wondering.

Back to my own garden….  as I pull up hundreds of weeds by the roots, I unearth tiny worms of the new generation with every root extracted.  Worms have always been an indicator of "good" soil.  Darwin wrote a whole book, published in 1881, about earth worms, and the amount of soil that they produce.  Darwin dissected worms, weighed castings and calculated how much topsoil they were able to produce and calculated that worms in England and Scotland were able to produce half a billion tons of topsoil every year.  I am not sure just how accurate his calculations were,  but worms are significant,  nevertheless.  Worms are fragile.  They don't survive dessication, exposure to ultraviolet light or water-logging.  The soil environment needs to be maintained in a good enough condition for them to live there.  I am not sure,  but in my own mind,  I imagine that they are the "canaries in the mine" that indicate the health of the other micro-organisms and the soil itself,  micro-nutrients and all.  For me,  they are the only organism of that sort that I can actually see.  My hope is that if they are healthy,  then so are the other microscopic organisms.  (Is this why common wisdom, as stated by my grandmother, is that if there are earthworms in the soil,  then the the soil is said to be healthy?… perhaps they are just an indicator species for their environment.)

The other really significant parts of healthy soil are the fungi.  I have written about Paul Stamets, his talk in 2008, and the importance of the mycelia that grow in the mulch and in the healthy soil.  These too need a healthy environment.  Fungi may be able to survive the unlivable conditions in the summer as spores, ready to grow again when the rain comes,  but the fire and chemical assault in the broad acres is surely detrimental.  I know that keeping a reservoir of living soil, damp and underneath a blanket of mulch during the dry months improves the condition of the soil in the long term.  I have tried it and it works.

And so,  back to the awful smell of the paddocks that have been sprayed with glyphosate and the barren patches of burned stubble,  neither of which my trusty worms would survive,  I'm sure.  As I "farm the soil" in my small garden, I find that my attitude to both the garden and the food that it produces changes.  Most of my meals come predominantly from my garden now.  I do buy some items from the farmer's market, mostly those fruits or special items that I love, though could "do without" if need be.  There is a real thrill when eats food produced in the garden and a feeling of pride and joy when one has the first meal that doens't include any "imported" produce.  Once this is underway and happening,  there is a new and particular identification with the garden that is hard to explain.  (I should add that this is "new" to me, as an wscapee from the supermarket chains,  but probably "normal" for my ancestors who produced all that they needed.  For me, however,  the garden is no longer an "arm's length" enterprise,  but it feels as though we are "all in this together", the worms, the chickens,  the vegetables and I.  There is a feeling of being a part of the land because ones livelihood (in the real sense of the word) comes from there.

Derrick Jensen has said that people will defend to the death their means of survival, their source of food, water and livelihood. (I am not thinking of dying for my garden,  by the way,)   Indigenous people all over the world have done just that.  Sadly,  invaders did not understand  and the land was ruined for survival.  This civilisation that has built unsustainable cities that depend upon factory farming, broad acre raiding of the soil and the "green" revolution, is running out of the resources needed to maintain it.  The "unlimited" supply of energy needed for survival has proven to be more limited than anyone imagined.  People who inhabit this modern civilisation sees their means of survival as the supermaket supply chain and the water tap in the kitchen and apparently,  the population is ready to defend this means of survival to the death.  Sadly,  those same invaders who didn't understand the indigenous people and their need to defend their means of survival have forgotten that they, too, are limited to this planet and its fragile environment.  The "gloom and doom" climate scientists are now threatening civilisation's means of survival.  These scientists are ignored, vilified and even sacked from their workplaces and it seems that "civilisation" is ready to defend to the death the supermarket food chain,  the tap in the kitchen and the cocoons that they have manufactured in order to isolate themselves from that indigenous environment and its creatures.  People nowadays need to clean themselves of "dirt" and avoid any contact with all but the most civilised parts of nature.  There is even some concern about a new condition that is called Nature Deficit Disorder that is beginning to concern some people.

I do wonder where we are heading….    and all of this because I was weeding the garden!

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Pumpkins and blood lilies.

The garden is doing well in this "Indian summer" weather.  The temperature has been quite hot (40C last Monday) though the fact that the days are shorter means that the plants are able to cope much better.  In fact the eggplants are producing another burst of flowers and plenty of fruit.
The baby carrots are beginning to get feathery leaves and in a few weeks time (when they are worth eating) I'll be able to thin the rows….
 …  there are three long rows of carrots and so I should be eating well.

The closest part of the garden is now looking healthy too.  Here are silver beet, cos lettuces, capsicum, eggplant and baby broccoli and cauliflower plants.
 With these and the healthy looking potato patch,  I should be eating well this winter.

The pumpkin patch has taken over quite an area.  The pumpkins are a motley lot,  being produced by the seeds from those that I ate last year….

 …. and that is just a few of them!

The blood lilies are beginning to get their leaves.  I took the first two pictures about 5 days ago.  Each bulb produces a single flower (actually,  some small bulbs don't flower until their second year) and only later produce two large flat leaves at the side of the flower stem….
 This was the smae day…  about five days ago….
 …. then today,  the same patch as that  second group above….
… and the leaves are growing quickly.  These will eventually be about a metre long and function extremely well as water catching devices.  More later…..  (Notice also the self-sown oak-leaf lettuce plant nearby.  I'll leave that for a late summer salad.)