Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Buy Local - Lumber edition

I am currently working with the College of St Joseph to start a farm on campus. Before I became a farmer, I had no idea what it meant to be one. There is a quote that hangs on my refrigerator, “… to be a good farmer, you have to be a scientist, a mechanic, a businessman…” I have, over the years, added to that list: an architect, a plumber, an electrician, a counselor, a nutritionist, a chef. Forestry is the farming of building materials and other useful byproducts - it’s like growing shelter rather than food. Last week, I took some students on a field trip to Gagnon Lumber in Pittsford to learn about the process of turning logs into lumber, specifically for a compost shed we are constructing this spring.    

Ken Gagnon runs his mill with the pride that comes with having your name on the sign, and the warmth and welcome that keeps that sign standing. He knows the importance of being fair to his suppliers, supporting his employees, and educating his customers. Before the modern industrial practice of shipping materials all over the world, folks relied on resources that were easily accessed. If a farmer needed to build a fence, she might cut down some trees from her land for the posts, then patiently plant another stand for ‘next time’. Nowadays, a few clicks of the keyboard take me to a website where I can find fencing to keep all sorts of critters out of my vegetables; I even have the option of expedited shipping. The compost shed we are planning for could also be ordered from afar, and wouldn’t even need to be constructed of wood. But living in a state that has the resources and knowledge of generations of farmers and lumberjacks, how could I choose another source but Gagnon, sited mere minutes from campus and sourcing materials from just a crow’s flight of less than 10 miles?
Ken walked us through the process from delivery in to delivery out; logs to posts and beams and boards and trims and chips and bark and dust. Log trucks  arrive, are weighed, and park. Then comes the first of many large machines: like a claw at an arcade, the log loader takes the logs one-by-one from trailer to ground, piling them as if they were toothpicks. Each log is accounted for, measured and marked. A scaling stick tells of how many board feet the log will yield, and – based on market value – Ken and the crew must fairly estimate the worth of a log before that log sees a blade, and long before that wood is sold. If a truck comes in on Wednesday, that logger gets his pay on Friday. That’s one way Ken stays supplied, keeping a logger happy will keep him coming back.
Once the logs are unloaded, they are stacked according to species: maple, white birch, yellow birch, pine, hemlock, and locust all stacked up like a winter’s wood pile for giants. The process from here is fairly quick. Our little group was lead over to the de-barker, where logs are spun and shaved, peeling off the exterior layers of bark and dirt. From here, logs are cut according to species and lumber orders. The end result is multi-fold; a pile of bark, a square timber, some thin boards from the outer edges, and scraps that are collected and chipped. From stacks of round logs to stacks of squared wood and pyramids of chips, bark and sawdust, one is quick to realize just how much material the forest yields.
Small wood products are created here as well. The bark-free scraps from lumber cutting are collected and shipped to paper mills. The shaved bark is collected and sold as mulch to gardeners and landscapers. Some trees that arrive at the mill are destined for the chipper from the start. Just as in a garden, a managed forest contains crops and weeds. When timber is harvested, some low grade “weed” trees need to be removed to favor the timber crops. Those weeds arrive at the mill, are piled, then chipped, bark and all. This material is then shipped to local schools and facilities that utilize biomass heat. Green Mountain College, Middlebury College, and Mt. Anthony Schools in Bennington, are three places that Ken has shipped chips for heat. Sawdust is also piled high for use in composters, pellet stoves, and animal stalls. In the spirit of optimization of energy and utilization of local materials, building a shed that will house the compost made from our food scraps and used in our school garden out of lumber grown and sawn nearby sounds like a dream.

Friday, March 21, 2014

What's for lunch?

Take a moment and think about what you are having for lunch today. Picture each ingredient. Now picture each of those ingredients in it’s rawest form. How many steps do you have to count backwards to turn today’s lunch into a plant or animal? Into a seed? Now think about what your kids are eating for lunch today.  If your kids are eating a school-prepared lunch, let’s follow that little meal back to it’s origins. From lunch tray to service line to kitchen. Stop. Look around the kitchen. Is it equipped for cooking and preparing raw foods? Or are the foods from this kitchen simply thawed-out and warmed-up? Do the mashed potatoes start their day in this kitchen as potatoes or as a box of powder? Is there any fruit or fresh veggies in the walk-in fridge? Depending on where your child goes to school, this virtual tour varies. Many of today’s school kitchens are ill-equipped for cooking. Budgets, time, skilled labor, and nutritional education have greatly influenced the landscape of school kitchens, not to mention tastes. Kids aren’t necessarily getting whole (minimally processed) foods at home, either. So even if it were offered at school, they would likely turn up a nose at the unfamiliar sweet potato or bell pepper. The Farm to School initiative, through Vermont FEED (Food Education Every Day), along with a growing number of schools in the state, are working to change all of that; to develop food knowledge in the cafeteria, in the classroom, in the garden and at home.

In order for students to make informed decisions about what they eat, they need exposure. That means exposure to the heat and scent of decaying organic matter into compost; to the fields and barns filled with animals for meat and milk; to the warmth of greenhouses that protect over-wintered crops; to the rows upon rows of foods in their natural habitat - tomatoes on vines, beans in bushes, carrots hidden in the dirt like treasure. In order for our children to fully grasps what they are eating, they need to spend time on the farm, whether that farm requires a bus ride or a walk to the recess fields.

The Lothrop School in Pittsford is one school exposing students to food, in the cafeteria and out. Last year, with help from a Bowes grant, Laura MacLachlan started a composting system to reduce the amount of food in the school’s waste stream and a small garden to increase the amount of fresh food in the digestive stream. Now gearing up for a second season, we chatted about some of the great things happening at Lothrop around good food.

Laura is quick to point out that she has a lot of support, making integrating fresh food and gardening into education a little easier. The kitchen staff are into it; managed by the Abby Group, Lothrop’s chefs offer up taste tests of different veggie-rich recipes, allow students to take over the kitchen when it’s time to peel or chop or bake something from the garden, and are working to make meals guided by the New School Cuisine cookbook.  Teachers are into it; when a bounty of sweet potatoes were harvested last fall, lessons were developed around it - weighing, chopping, counting, graphing, and writing recipes. Even Phys Ed is into it; there are talks of creating an ‘edible track’ on campus, allowing students to snack on berries, carrots, kale, etc. while walking along the track as a pre-class warm-up.

RAFFL is currently working with Lothrop and other schools to develop a model of small buying clubs wherein community members can purchase fresh local produce at schools. Last fall, Lothrop set up a “farm store” distribution center for a number of local farms. Produce was dropped off, then counted, sorted, weighed, and readied for pick-up by faculty and families. 

Another off-campus asset for Laura is Foxcroft Farm Harvest Program. Through different programs, students develop life skills while exploring a working farm. Younger students spend time learning on the farm through the “Growing to Know” project and older students find opportunities with the “Growing to Work” project. One such opportunity presented itself when Laura needed raised beds built at Lothrop. Some “Growing to Work students built the beds, filled them with compost from the farm, and prepped them for planting. With these new beds, this year’s sweet potato harvest could be even greater.

As the growing season approaches, there are a couple of Farm to School events that I encourage any farmers, gardeners, and eaters big and small to attend:

ACORNs fifth annual Stone Soup Summit at Middlebury College Thursday, March 27. There will be TED-style talks, lots of interesting workshops, and a local food lunch. For more information, contact Lea Calderon-Guthe at  HYPERLINK ""

Lothrop School is hosting a Honeybee High Tea, which is a farm and field day celebrating the little pollinators the students have been studying all year, May 30th. Any farmers or gardeners interested in sharing their skills, please contact Laura MacLachlan at  HYPERLINK ""

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Greatest Cat, Ever.

When I was 13 years old, a little grey kitten walked up my driveway. I asked my parents if we could keep him, but, since we packing up the car to head out on a weekend-long volleyball tourney, the answer was "if he is still here when we get back, we'll talk...". I scooped out a small pile of dog food, hid it under the parked car to keep it dry, and we left. When we got back home, that little grey cat was there, full-bellied and looking for more. 
Timpleton, named after the fat, glutenous rat in Charlotte's web, died today. He drove with us from Clearwater, Fl to New castle, De. He lived in West Philly and on both sides of the Hudson River Valley. He became a farm cat late in life, learning to hunt mice, birds, and chipmunk. He scrapped with New Hampshire's fiercest barn felines, and camped outside to protect young pigs from hungry bear. He returned to city life  when we moved to Rutland, Vermont and spent his final days in the suburban-esque stylings of Clarendon. 
Thank you, Timmus, for all that you gave us. You were loved by many, rattled the allergies of few, and will never be forgotten. 

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Serving up good at COTS

When was the last time you were hungry? I’m not talking about the last time you saw a Snickers ad, answered “yes,” and peeled back the wrapper. I’m talking about hunger. Not knowing where your next meal will come from; choosing between paying a bill and buying food; malnourishment. Fortunately, most of us have not had to face true hunger. Unfortunately, many of us have — and face it every day. Fortunately, there are a number of folks working to ensure the opportunity for a good meal and a table at which to eat it.

This past Sunday, my husband and I traveled to Burlington to prepare, cook, and serve a meal at the COTS (Committee On Temporary Shelter) day station facility. COTS is an organization, serving mainly Chittenden County, that provides various services including job and housing resource support, emergency shelter, loans, meals and more. The Parsonage Building day station is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. This is not a facility where people may spend the night; however, a noontime meal is served 365 days a year.

There are a number of staff members who organize this mid-day offering, but Chef Keith is a permanent fixture in their kitchen. He works seven days a week, planning, cooking, and serving lunch to anywhere from 20 folks a day early in the month, up to 60 per day, once food stamps and other social benefits run out. Keith’s only reprieve comes when a volunteer group takes over the kitchen for a morning. We met up with the professional chapter of Engineers Without Borders to do just that.

Being a Rutland County resident, I was interested in learning about local venues for folks that also offer this kind of opportunity — both to serve and be served (there is a fine line between the two, serving a meal to others is mighty fulfilling). I have more than once found myself at the Open Door Mission on Park Street, dropping off donations of clothing and house wares to the thrift store or fresh produce from the CSJ farm. I spoke with Executive Director Sharon Russell last week to get a better understanding of the Mission, how it works and how eager folks can help.

The Open Door Mission offers a variety of services from beds to meals to second-hand wares. Like COTS, the Mission employs a full-time staff person to prepare meals 365 days a year. However, because there are also 51 beds at the facility, that’s 365 x 3: breakfasts, lunches and dinners. Sharon knows the numbers by heart — it adds up to about 37,000 meals per year.

The Mission does rely on volunteer help, but not in the same way as COTS. There are scheduled weekly and monthly times when other organizations such as Trinity Church or the Kiwanis provide the meals. Also, the food that is prepared is either bought by the Mission from the Vermont Food Bank or donated from local groceries and farms.

Nutrition is always a concern and meals are planned with a consideration for wholesome, low-sugar food choices. 89 percent of the funds that go towards food and services come from sales through the Mission’s thrift store. But money isn’t the only way to support the programming. People have donated whole sides of beef, leftover or untouched banquet foods, even game from hunting ventures. Adding an extra pound of coffee or a bag of apples to your next grocery cart would do well to land at the Mission’s kitchen.

Back at COTS, here’s how our Sunday morning went: our team’s cook, Lindsay, planned the meal and purchased all of the ingredients. Wishing to make a nutrient dense meal that wasn’t too loaded with sugars (many folks battling nourishment are also battling diabetes), was easy to scale up, and fairly quick to create. She chose lasagna.

We arrived at the kitchen at 10:30 a.m. ready to make enough to feed an expected 50 people. Our crew of eight from got busy chopping, browning and boiling — then layering, baking and waiting — always aware of the 12:30 p.m. deadline and the low murmur of voices gathering in the common space anxious for our creations.

Once the hearty Italian pies were ready, we formed an assembly line and plated about 30 gooey squares and a slice of bread, leaving room for patrons to add salad as they wished. Once everyone was fed, we sat down at the long table and joined in the meal. As plates were cleared, our team headed back into the kitchen to wash dishes and sweep up. Lindsay tallied up the total cost of the meal, about $135, and we divvied it up eight ways. So, for about $35 and three hours of work, my husband and I not only ate lunch, but we fed others. And even more food was sent to the freezer and fridge, further stretching the efforts.

As Sharon Russell stated in our conversation, many of us are a paycheck or a sickness away from homelessness or hunger. By supporting these programs when we are able, it means that the support can be there for those who need it, when they need it.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Aquaponics, writing for the Herald!

I will be writing once a month for our regional paper, the Rutland Herald. My first article was printed this week! Though you have to have a subscription to view the paper online, I will be posting my articles here, on this blog. They can also be found (along with the other contributors) at the RAFFL Harvest Watch blog

Here is my article for Jan 28, 2014:

I have a couple confessions.

First: I love systems, especially closed-loop, self-sustaining systems. I geek out at the word “compost”. And I get really excited when it comes to greywater systems. It’s safe to say that I love systems that focus on alleviating stresses on our environment, embracing best practices for utilizing and re-utilizing essential yet limited resources.

Second: I love to eat fish. I grew up in Florida and my current residence in Vermont is truly the furthest I have ever lived from an ocean. I most recently lived in the White Mountains of New Hampshire where I ran a CSA-style seafood club alongside a vegetable CSA. It was a joy to provide folks with fresh, local, organic vegetables and offer fresh, local, sustainably-caught wild seafood. Members received weekly portions of the ocean’s harvest from a fishing operation out of Portland, Maine. The variety of seafood followed the seasons of the water. When I was planning the move to Rutland, my friends in Portland asked if I would continue my mongering in Vermont. My first thought was “sure, once fish grow legs and move inland”. My next thought was “aquaponics”.

Aquaponics is a system of growing food that brings together aquaculture - raising aquatic animals - and hydroponics - growing plants in water. There are skeptical opinions on both. Farm-raised fish have gotten a bum rap thanks to some ill-followed practices in segregating the ‘domesticated’ version from the wild in oceanic pastures. Similarly, soilless plant production has raised suspicions among many, due mainly to dependencies on synthetic nutrients that are injected into the water to make up for the lack of naturally occurring soil-borne bacteria and nutrients. Aquaponics, when done correctly, strives to mitigate these issues, while taking efforts a few steps further. Creating a conscientious aquaponic system can actually regenerate environments, rejuvenate economies, help to close some of the input-dependent food production/consumption cycles, and be vastly educational.

My interest in aquaponic systems recently took me to Saratoga for the annual NOFA NY winter conference. Scott Kellogg, from the Radix Center in Albany, lead a three-hour session on the topic.

Here’s some science: Fish waste is high in ammonium compounds (NH4+). Good bacteria, essential to all life forms, break down these compounds into nitrites (NO2) and nitrates (NO3). Plants, both terrestrial and aquatic, need nitrates to grow.

Picture your basic home fish tank, you’ve got Goldie, Flipper and Jaws all swimming around, hiding in castles and brushing past small plastic kelp. Aside from the tank itself and the water, your major system components are the filter and the bubbler. The filter, usually some sort of synthetic material, “scrubs” the water and collects bad bacteria to keep the water quality at a healthy level for your aquatic friends. The bubbler makes the oxygen in the water more accessible, allowing the fish to breathe.

In an aquaponics system, Goldie, Flipper and Jaws get their very own tank, which can be as small as a five gallon bucket and as large as an olympic-sized pool. A grow bed of plant life resides above the fish tank, housing plants ranging from the aquatic, like watercress, to the terrestrial, like lettuce. Inside the fish tank there is a pump. Nutrient-filled water is pumped up and out of the tank and into the grow bed. The plants and bacteria act together to filter the water. As the water flows through the grow bed, it is not only filtered, but it is aerated. Gravity plays its hand in letting the clean water fall back into the tank, providing fresh water and air to the fish.

Plants grown within an aquaponic system can be used for a range of consumption. Human pallets can be accommodated with lettuce, Swiss chard, and watercress. Livestock such as chickens will love water hyacinth. Azolla is a fantastic addition to the compost pile and pitcher plants are beautiful ornamentals. Appropriate fish varieties range from the plate-friendly perch to the ornamental koi. Possibilities are endless given the space, desired uses, and willingness to experiment. For more information, check out the Radix Center at And Sylvia Bernstein recently published Aquaponic Gardening: A Step-By-Step Guide To Raising Vegetables And Fish Together.

By creating a system in which a waste product is consumed, turned into a nutrient, consumed, then turned back into a waste product to be again consumed, you are closing the loop and creating an interdependent, regenerating cycle. It’s beautiful! There are, however, some pieces that need to be improved upon. Fish eat a multitude of foods and diets vary from fish to fish. That means that in some cases, you can grow your fish food, but in most cases, you have to buy it. Also, because you are essentially creating an ecosystem, regulation is important. That means occasionally relying on outside resources for heat and light. Aquaponics is not the silver-bullet solution to providing alternative fish sources. But it might offer a local, temporary ecological vacation for the oceans, or a fascinating means to teaching folks about nutrients cycles and environmental regenerative systems.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Saying 'goodbye' to Dahlia

It is with a somewhat heavy heart that I write this post... This evening, after only 20 hours listed on craigslist, I sold my dear truck. The truck that hauled too much manure, that moved me from NY to NH to VT, the truck that everyone loved, the truck that gave me 'farmer cred'. She is going to live on a goat farm where she can spend her days rusting, sputtering, and leaking gasoline from her front fuel tank... I can't help but sing "Norma Jean" as I write this. We love you, Dahlia.

her first outing - canoeing on the Wallkill

first trip to NH - horse manure in Conway
moving (hillbilly style) from NY to NH
Unpacking @ The Community School 'love shack'
conquering the TCS compost pile
helping get rid of a tiller (she was straight NO-TILL for life!)
first pigs! Hamlet, Sassafras, + Kevin Bacon
Rachel driving (BIG LOVE loves Dahlia!)
DIY rust repair: spray foam, trace paper, Bondo
Pallets @ College of Saint Joseph
fencing at CSJ
A toast, "To Dahlia!"

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Oct 2 Harvest

Greens abound!
The cool weather of fall is perfect for greens... now that we are on the 'other side' of summer, the garden looks a little like spring - mesclun, spinach, peas, carrots, and radishes. 
 Freshly harvested mesclun loaded up with some radishes in my 'delivery cart' headed across campus to the dining hall!