Articles in Sustainability

A sign posted by Quivira’s guru Jim Barauski writes the tenets of Biodynamic farming for all to see. Credit: Katherine Leiner

Travel through Northern California and signs of the severe drought are everywhere. In suburban Healdsburg, front lawns are dead, flowers faded, home vegetable gardens finished weeks early. The same can be seen in Sebastopol, Sonoma and Santa Rosa. The Russian River above Redwood Valley is dry.

An article in “The Press Democrat” in Santa Rosa reported a high school sophomore’s unique water fence concept, a fence that stores rainwater. Ingenious. But there’s been no rain to store for at least three months.

California’s groundwater resources are in jeopardy, declining for many years at rates never seen before.

“Reliable groundwater supplies in California are essential to the health and well-being of all Americans. About half of the fruits and vegetables are grown in California. Without an improved management of groundwater in the state, California’s agricultural capacity will become smaller and unreliable,” says Miles Reiter, chairman and CEO of Driscoll’s, a leading supplier of fresh berries.

How are wineries faring in drought?

If the drought is endangering fruits and vegetables, what are its effects on the region’s vineyards?

Quivira and DaVero, two vineyards in the Dry Creek Valley, have incorporated the practices of biodynamic farming.

Biodynamics is a spiritual-ethical-ecological approach to agriculture, food production and nutrition. It stresses a holistic understanding of agriculture, treating all aspects of a farm, from soil fertility to the livestock, as interrelated. The principles, that agriculture seeks to heal the earth, were introduced by Rudolf Steiner in 1924.

People tending biodynamic vineyards have spent years conditioning their soils with preparations made of fermented manure, minerals and herbs, and understanding the use of earthly and cosmic rhythms and cycles in creating a healthy farm.

Biodynamic farmers also pioneered some of the first Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) ventures. CSAs began taking root in Europe and Japan in the 1960s, and the movement had come to the United States by the mid-1980s.

Biodynamic guru

Quivira Vineyards and Winery specializes in small-lot wines from varietals specifically matched to the effects of hot summer days and cool coastal nights on its soil.

Jim Barauski, the biodynamic guru for Quivira says, “Going biodynamic was a decision made with a conscience toward moving away from cultivation and building better soils. Anthroposophy is the spiritual science behind biodynamics. If we take something out of the soil, we put something better back in. We feed the microbiotic life with natural, time-tested techniques.”

The winery’s large demonstration garden is a real awakening. The herbs and berries are neatly arranged in beds, the signage hand-printed and not a weed in sight. The beehives — a design called Golden Hives — were designed for the health and development of the colony and to minimize the impact from human interaction (more frequent opening of hives weakens their health).

Vineyard manager Ned Horton says he quietly works with the bees and rarely, if ever, gets stung.

“The health of the bees has been challenged on many levels, and the difference in bien (one-being, or oneness, that describes a bee colony) has to be understood within the context of the global landscape and the current one-dimensional human world view. The challenges for the well-being of the bees reflect our own struggle in our striving for health and happiness. The bees are intended to support the gardens and herbs, and the gardens of course, support the wines,” Horton says.

Each year, Quivira also plants a substantial amount of cover crops, which helps conserve water use. These plants also decompose, fortifying the soil, and open pathways for worms that aerate the soil, eventually creating a balance or a homeostasis.

Winemaker Hugh Chappelle says, “The light from the environment falls into matter so there is some quality of light in the wine. The entire vineyard is, in a way, like a human being, so complex and so individual. But as much as possible, each living thing on the farm supports the other.”

Winery started with olives

DaVero Farms and Winery, started by Ridgely Evers and Colleen McGlynn in 1982, is a 30-acre farm on which the couple had planted one olive tree. In 1990 they began to import olive trees from Tuscany. Through the years, their olive oil has been acknowledged as some of the best in the world.

In 2000, the couple planted their first small vineyard in Sangiovese and then the rare Sagrantino, Italian varietals because the Dry Creek Valley’s climate is similar to that of the Mediterranean region, characterized by hot, dry summer days and cool nights.

In 2007 Evers and McGlynn began the process of converting DaVero to biodynamic. Mary Foley, the original soil manager, transformed the soil into a vibrant, healthy farm. Foley, however, moved to the Sierra and advises from afar; Michael Presley now has the job.

As the tour finished with a lunch and wine tasting, the temperature at the vineyard had hit 95 degrees.

Presley promised it would begin to rain on Sept. 22. “It always does,” he claims.

Having seen a series of seemingly magical transformations through biodynamic gardening at the wineries, anything seemed possible.

It rained on Sept. 18.

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Roasted Cauliflower salad by Colleen McGlynn, who started DaVero Farms and Winery in Healdsburg, Calif., in 1982. Credit: Katherine Leiner

Colleen McGlynn’s Roasted Cauliflower

Prep time: 25 minutes
Yield: 8 servings
Ingredients
1 head cauliflower
1 garlic glove
3 pieces of anchovy
1 wedge preserved lemon
Fruity olive oil
2 tablespoons golden raisins
2 tablespoons salted capers
Chili flakes, to taste
Handful of Italian parsley leaves, chopped
Kosher salt and pepper
Directions
1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
2. Separate cauliflower into florets and toss in a bowl with a film of mild olive oil, salt to taste, spread on a sheet pan and put into 350 F oven for 10-15 minutes, or until browned.
3. Make a vinaigrette by mashing together the garlic, anchovy and lemon wedge into a paste. (If you don’t have preserved lemon, you can substitute the zest and juice of one lemon.) Put into a bowl, squeeze in the lemon juice and a “good glug” of fruity olive oil.  Stir together.
4. Combine the warm cauliflower with the raisins, capers, a pinch of chili flakes and chopped parsley, add to the vinaigrette.  Salt and pepper to taste.  Serve at room temperature.

Main photo: Quivira Vineyards and Winery’s Jim Barauski has posted a sign outlining the tenets of biodynamic farming. Credit: Katherine Leiner

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Julie Cissé at Terra Madre. Credit: Carla Capalbo

When Carlo Petrini, president of Slow Food International, the global grassroots nonprofit association, launched the “1,000 Food Gardens in Africa” project in 2012, he could never have imagined that within two years the project would have doubled its results and increased its goals tenfold.

“We’ve already launched 2,000 gardens, and are now aiming for 10,000 to be established by 2016 in all 52 countries of the continent,” says Slow Food International vice president Edie Mukiibi, from Uganda, who has coordinated the project. (Californian chef and activist Alice Waters is the association’s other vice president).

Mukiibi was speaking at Terra Madre, Slow Food’s biennial five-day event which, with Salone del Gusto, is underway in Turin, Italy. Both are open to the public. Terra Madre is a global network of food-producing communities from more than 150 countries worldwide, and this year it brought hundreds of representatives from 2,500 of those communities to Piedmont to meet, share knowledge and exchange ideas.

Mukiibi explains how the African gardens project has been able to increase so fast: “We’ve set up a network using local radio stations and mobile phones to spread the word about the importance of this project in remote parts of the country.” The objectives of the gardens are practical, symbolic and political.

“We have a heavy responsibility to lift Africa from where it now is,” he continues. “Africa is an old continent in terms of its creation but now it has the energy and fresh ideas of its youthful population. This gives us lots of opportunities. Our generation has access to communications and education so we must act and react against industrial farming’s brainwashing. Biodiversity and sustainability must be priorities in the fight against the monocultures of the cynical, market-driven corporations that are trying to dominate the world of agriculture.”

Gardens benefit families and communities

The food gardens follow different models. The largest, of several acres, are community gardens, worked on by many members of a local tribe or village. Family food gardens are also being established wherever possible to increase self-sufficiency. School gardens are another important part of the project. As Alice Waters, who has long led the fight to put school lunch on the curriculum in the U.S. and to create food gardens in schools, says: “Food gardens breathe life into education.”

At the African Food Gardens conference at Terra Madre, many Africans shared stories about their experiences. Moudane Hassan, from Somalia, explained that his people were originally nomadic camel herders who had never traditionally planted vegetables.

“We now have 54 gardens in Somalia, of which 19 are in schools and 24 in communities,” he said. “They are helping us get improve nutrition and free ourselves from dependence on international food aid.”

Julie Cissé, an activist from Senegal and founder of GIPS/WAR (a group of initiatives for social progress in an area called War), has another inspiring story to tell. She runs a network of 300 women who work the land.

“We’ve battled for women to become owners of the land they work, and we’ve had to ask permission for this from our elders and local administrators. We’ve even lobbied government.

“Our most effective argument is to explain that we want to re-create the kinds of vegetable gardens our grandmothers had, and that strikes a chord even with the most macho of men,” she says.

“We believe in sustainability, in farming the land without chemicals and pesticides or genetically modified crops. Now the men see just how productive we are, and how much we are bringing in as food and resources, and they are enthusiastic.”

The Senegal gardens are either family gardens of around 150 square yards, or much bigger, 15-acre community gardens on which up to 120 women may work. Slow Food helps by providing access to technical support and, in some cases, sponsorship from companies and individuals abroad.

Illustration of the "one woman, one chicken coop" concept.  Credit: Carla Capalbo

Illustration of the “one woman, one chicken coop” concept. Credit: Carla Capalbo

The group also came up with an innovative solution for city women and for those who have lost plots to land-grabbing but who want to produce food. Called “One woman, one chicken crate,” it involves wooden crates that are 1.7 square yards. The women can keep chickens in the crate and use the top to grow a vegetable.

“A crate or two can always be fitted into a courtyard or alley and provide the women with a source of healthy vitamins while supplementing the family income,” Cissé says.

Mukiibi agrees: “Our grandfathers fought for independence. We too must stand up and fight malnutrition and the neo-colonialism of land-grabbing and imposed monocultures. Let’s support the biodiversity of our food to save African gastronomy. Start by spreading the word.”

He might have added that this doesn’t apply only to Africa: Planting food gardens in our own schools, communities and backyards can turn the tide on junk-food wastelands and the health problems they are creating everywhere.

Top photo: Julie Cissé at Terra Madre. Credit: Carla Capalbo

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The days following a holiday are always a bit of a downer. And all too often it’s just a matter of time before the importance of the occasion becomes a distant memory as we return to the status quo of living our everyday lives.

Wait, you didn’t know Friday, October 24, was a holiday?

OK, perhaps not a holiday exactly, but for food geeks like me it was a day where houses were filled with brightly colored fruit and vegetable balloons and salubrious meals were followed by delicious-but-still-nutritious desserts. Food Day was created by the Center for Science in the Public Interest to raise awareness about the story of food from farm to table and back to soil to encourage dietary changes that support health, community, and the environment.

Why what you eat matters

In my own world, though, October 24 is just another day to do what I always do: teach people about why what you eat matters, farm to fork. I first began making the connections between what I ate and how it affected our planet and its peoples almost 20 years ago, learning from a professor who had been teaching “nutrition ecology” for decades. Learning to think beyond myself when it came to food was an “Aha!” moment for me. It has had an indelible effect on everything I’ve ever done in my career as a nutrition scientist.

As you probably already know, nutrition is a science focused on how food impacts health and disease, which is in essence biochemistry and physiology. Fundamentally, nutrition is based in the biological sciences, hence rooted to an individual. The concept of “nutrition ecology” was first coined in the early 1980s and remains unfamiliar to most people (including most nutritionists, by the way, since thinking outside the body is not standard practice for them, either). In essence, nutrition ecology expands how we think about food beyond health, a paradigm that includes the impact of our food choices on the environment, economy and society as a whole.

In other words, when it comes to what you eat, it’s not just about you.

Of course, diet impacts your own health, weight and risk of disease: 80% of chronic diseases are essentially preventable through modifiable lifestyle factors such as diet, and better food choices will lead to a longer life filled with more active years. If you’re not yet paying close enough attention to your own well-being, now’s a great time to think about the kinds of changes you can make to improve your own health. Yet the spirit of Food Day truly becomes alive when we step outside ourselves and deeply consider why what we eat matters — apart from our own bodies. How food is grown and what resources are used to produce it, including feed, land, water, fuel, fertilizers and soil; who grows it, and how fairly she or he is treated and remunerated; how it gets to you and how much it costs; and how food is disposed and/or wasted — should you be lucky enough to live in a place where surplus exists — all matter.

Sound like a tall order to consider all of that next time you’re making a meal?

Sustainable eating

It’s true that the road to healthy and sustainable eating is rife with complexities. Yet if you’re not up for a semester-long course in farm to fork eating, like the kinds of classes I teach, the good news is that cutting back on animal foods like beef, pork, lamb, and poultry (especially processed products) and increasing your consumption of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, beans, and legumes will go a long way toward improving your health as well as the environment, due to the much smaller carbon- and water-footprint of plant-based diets. And that simple change, if enough people do it, can lead to many other large-scale positive effects elsewhere in the food system.

Sure, there’s a lot more you can do aside from consuming less meat, and Food Day is a terrific opportunity to educate yourself about critical food issues from farming to food waste, chemicals to climate change. And, as long as you ensure your sources are science-based, there are myriad places to help you put into practice the principles of nutrition ecology.

P.K. Newby

P.K. Newby

But Food Day is just one day, and now it’s over — and, if we’re being honest, most people probably didn’t even know about it, anyway. And that’s OK because, let’s face it, every day is food day, really. Not only do we need food to live, but food is an integral part of our cultural identity and, for many, a source of joy and connection to ourselves, others, and the planet we share. To quote Kurt Vonnegut, food is practically the whole story every time. Far more important than celebrating a day that quickly lapses into the past is to make your food choices matter in the present every time you shop, cook, eat and drink. With each bite, you have the opportunity to invest not only in your own health, but to cast a vote about the kind of world we want to live in, together.

I hope there will be a time when we don’t need a special day to remind us.

Main photo: The Copley Square farmers market in Boston. Credit: P.K. Newby

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Chanterelle cocktail. Credit: Wendy Petty

This year, I toasted the end of the Colorado mushroom season with a cocktail made with chanterelle-infused syrup. A mushroom drink may sound unusual, but the floral and fruity tasty of chanterelles lends them well to cocktails, and it provided a fitting end to what be recorded in my journal as the Year of the Chanterelles.

While mushrooms of all kinds can be found during the warmer months in Colorado, the bulk of the choice edible species grow in the mountains during a brief window at the end of summer. My heart normally belongs to porcini, the hidden jewel of the Rockies. For some reason, the porcini were not as abundant as usual this year. Some speculate that the ground was too cold, others that spring ran too long, or that the rains came too early for a good fruiting. Whatever the reason, the forests that normally boom with porcini were largely silent. I was forced to spend my time outside of my tried-and-true spots, to explore new trails.

Mushroom hunters are funny. When we aren’t finding many mushrooms, we try to convince ourselves that we do it just for the pleasure of being outside, or learning to identify new species, or to go home with just enough mushrooms to make one nice meal. But the thing that raises mushroom hunting to the heights of an obsession is the rare moments when one can find mushrooms like gold at the end of the rainbow. It is a rush. To find a jackpot cache of mushrooms always reminds me there is magic in this world.

As with most of my best finds in the forest, this year I stumbled upon the biggest cache of chanterelles I’ve ever seen when I stepped off the trail to take a bathroom break. While tip-toeing through the kinnikinnick, I noticed the unmistakable ruffles of orange at my feet. Barely able to contain my excitement, I excitedly whispered, “chanter-stinking-elles!” As my eyes scanned out across the mixed pine forest, I saw waves of chanterelles floating out as far as I could see. There were enough mushrooms in that one spot to enjoy for weeks without having to worry about over-harvesting.

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Wild chanterelles. Credit: Wendy Petty

I’ve not had the best luck hunting chanterelles in the past, which may be partly due to my porcini obsession and the fact that porcini and chanterelles grow in different types of forests. There is a certain point in learning to hunt a mushroom when their pattern firmly sets in your brain, and that’s when something shifts. All successful foraging is about pattern recognition.

This was the year that chanterelles became firmly fixed in my mind. Almost instantly, and even from a distance, I can now spot their particular tangerine beige, the uneven curl of their margins, as well as their doughy feel in my hand. Most important, though, is their scent. The fragrance of chanterelles is unlike anything else. I’m quite certain that for the last course of my death row meal, I’d like to finish with a facial steam of the scent of chanterelle mushrooms.

Some people say that chanterelles smell of apricots. I have a friend who swears that they smell exactly like Sweden. Do a quick search on the Internet and you will quickly see that the most common adjective to describe chanterelles is “earthy.” Welcome to meaningless food words 101. Earthy, second only to nutty in uselessness for describing the taste of a food. I will concede that all mushrooms have flavor elements of dirt and decomposition. But chanterelles possess none of the heavy crumbling wood and peat tastes of morels or porcini. Chanterelles are light and bright, fruity and floral. Have you ever been deep in the woods and caught a flash of light out of the corner of your eye, maybe a sprite or fairy? Yeah, that’s chanterelle. It’s the fine French perfume of the forest, refined and fancy, a celebration, a high note. To my nose, chanterelles smell of a sweet potato that has slow-roasted in the oven until its sugars start to ooze. They also have something waxy about their aroma, like a box of crayons sitting in the sun.

This was the first year that I’ve found enough chanterelles to eat them every night for weeks, pack loads of them into the freezer, and also experiment with them in cooking. Sometimes it’s just fun to play around with an ingredient. I went a little crazy, made chanterelle crème brulee and a chanterelle cake with chanterelle buttercream and candied chanterelles on top. Did I go off the deep end into the orange? Yes, perhaps. But I got to see some of the potential of chanterelle mushrooms beyond just eating them sautéed in butter, which remains my favorite way to eat them.

Chanterelles have their own spirit

The biggest success of my chanterelle experiments was the candied chanterelles. This strikes me as particularly odd since I’ve no real love of sweets. Of all the recipes I made, those candied chanterelles best held that magical fragrance of freshly picked mushrooms. And they came with a bonus, the perfumed syrup that they cooked in, which I wasn’t about to throw away.

What do most people I know do with a novel syrup they’ve welcomed into the kitchen. The friends in my crowd aren’t really pancake people. They’re more the type to dump syrup into a cocktail, so I followed suit.

Now, I know what you’re thinking — a mushroom cocktail? It sounds rather extreme. But remember how some people describe chanterelles as smelling and tasting like apricots? Now, give the idea of the cocktail another try. You can make it doubly flavorful if you use vodka that you’ve infused with chanterelles as well. If you still can’t move beyond the idea of fungally-infused cocktails, you might prefer to try the syrup and candied mushrooms atop some really good vanilla ice cream.

One final note of caution. Chanterelle mushrooms do have toxic look-alikes. As always, only eat mushrooms that you’ve identified with 100% certainty. If you are new to mushroom hunting, consider seeking out your local mushroom club, where you can go on mushroom forays with more experiences guides.

Candied Chanterelles

Yield: 4 servings

Prep time: 12 hours

Ingredients

½ cup tiny perfect chanterelles, or larger mushrooms torn into small pieces

¼ cup sugar

¼ cup water

Directions

1. Use a toothpick or the tip of a paring knife to pick or scrape any dirt off the mushrooms.

2. In a small pan, stir together the sugar and water, and gently heat them on medium until the syrup starts to bubble.

3. Add the mushrooms and use a spoon to stir and turn them so that every surface is touched with the hot syrup. After one minute, turn off the stove and let the mushrooms and syrup sit at room temperature overnight.

Because of the water content of the mushrooms, both the candied mushrooms and the syrup need to be refrigerated.

Chanterelle Cocktail

Yield: 1 serving

Prep time: 5 minutes

Ingredients

1 ounce chanterelle syrup

1 ounce vodka

3 ounces cold sparkling water

1 candied chanterelle

Directions

Gently stir together the chanterelle syrup and vodka. Add the sparkling water, and stir the cocktail together one more time. Serve the chanterelle cocktail with a candied mushroom bobbing about in the bubbles.

Main photo: Chanterelle cocktail. Credit: Wendy Petty

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Ground zero for heritage seed savers: Jefferson’s Monticello. Credit: Susan Lutz

Row after row of tomatoes fairly glowed from the wooden folding tables: pointy tipped Pittman Valley Plums, pale yellow Dr. Carolyns, globe-shaped Nepals and hearty Cherokee Purples. It was a rainbow-like assortment of 100 varieties that bore little resemblance to the bland, identical crimson globes in the supermarket aisle. The crowd was enthusiastic as it tasted, shared, argued and traded information, specimens and seeds.

I was at Monticello’s Harvest Festival at the tomato tables of  The Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, an organization at the forefront of the heritage seed movement. It’s been working with gardeners and seed savers for nearly 40 years to help preserve our garden and food heritage. And there’s possibly no better place to celebrate these goals than the home of Thomas Jefferson, America’s Founding Foodie.

Now in its eighth year, Monticello’s Harvest Festival was founded by Ira Wallace, one of the current owner/workers of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. The festival, hosted by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, is a mixing bowl for chefs, gardeners and seed savers from across the country. For Wallace, it’s a community-building experience. Wallace admits that working in the sustainable food world can be tough sometimes, but that the festival is a great reminder of why she does what she does.

“Some days you feel really lonely and now I’ve found my tribe,” she said.

That tribe is a fascinating one that places passionate amateur and international experts on equal footing. At Monticello, I witnessed amateur seed savers discuss their process with internationally recognized authors. I came home with a vinegar mother — a starter for homemade vinegar — from one of America’s top winemakers.

Seed Exchange impact

For Wallace, that’s the point.

“This is for the people,” she said of the festival, “it’s not a scientific thing.” In fact, the location at Monticello only seems to highlight the ideals of Jefferson, who saw America’s future as a land of independent farmers. You may have only a suburban backyard or an urban window garden, but Wallace pointed out: “We want people to know that you don’t have to have a hybrid plant to have a good garden. Having some of your own seed gives people independence.”

Craig LeHullier is a great example of the impact of the Seed Exchange. A cheerful man with a graying beard, LeHullier is the father of the tomato variety called Cherokee Purple. In 1990, the Raleigh, N.C., native received an envelope of tomato seeds from a friend in Tennessee, with a note saying this was a single variety grown by a family in Tennessee for more than a century. They thought the tomatoes were originally grown by the Cherokee Indians before that. LeHullier planted the seeds and discovered an ugly purple monster that turned out to be one of the most delicious tomatoes he’d ever tasted.

LeHullier donated his seeds to the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, and was given the honor of naming the variety. The Cherokee Purple has gone on to become a favorite across the United States. This is the seed-saving tribe at work: salvaging a nearly lost varietal before it disappears. As LeHullier said: “You gotta give it away so it never goes away.”

This is the essence of the Monticello Harvest Festival — and the thousands of festivals and seed swaps like it across the country. I witnessed Aaron Keefer, the culinary gardener at California’s French Laundry restaurant, in a passionate discussion about heirloom rice with Glenn Roberts. Roberts is the founder of Anson Mills, a South Carolina champion of traditional American grains and milling techniques.

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Ira Wallace, founder of Monticello’s Heritage Harvest Festival. Credit: Susan Lutz

Grain diversity

Heirloom rice species are beginning to catch the attention of high-end sustainable restaurants. Roberts said there are important reasons to maintain grain diversity — and you can find it in Jefferson’s era.

Jefferson had been badgering the local farmers for decades, insisting that they expand their rice-planting beyond a single variety. In 1827, South Carolina rice farmers faced a blight — destroying nearly the entire rice crop of the young nation. Fortunately, smaller farmers had saved seeds from other rice species and Carolina rice culture endured. “Diversity was the answer to success,” Roberts said. “At the time, rice farmers failed to listen and suffered the consequences.”

There was a deep knowledge base at the festival, and endless passion for a variety of food-related topics. The excitement of the speakers as they met and interacted was infectious. Here the teachers and students exchanged roles in the blink of an eye. Festival speakers wandered through vendor stalls and attended the lectures of other speakers. Anyone with a handful of seeds was an expert — at least at growing that single plant.

My mouth watered when I bit into a juicy purple globe at the overflowing tomato table — a variety grown by Jefferson himself. Wallace sent me home with a packet of Prudens Purple seeds to grow my own. I was equally excited by the fat Cherokee Purple handed to me by LeHullier.

Back at home I shared it with my husband and saved the seeds in a small envelope. Wallace’s vision of independent gardeners has deep roots — and it’s working.

“The focus is sustainability and bringing new plants to American culture,” she said. “That’s what Jefferson did.”

Main photo: Ground zero for heritage seed savers: Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Credit: Susan Lutz

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The cucumber fields at Flora Bella Farm in Three Rivers, Calif., during the 2014 drought. Credit: Dawn Birch

I feel for James Birch. He is having a tough year. Sitting in the shade, his weather-beaten hands on his lap, he describes prepping his fields for the fall planting. Cutting furrows with his tractor, the blades kicked up thick, Dust Bowl clouds of powder-dry dirt that made it difficult to breathe. In the telling of his story he laughed, no doubt because in the third year of a devastating drought, a farmer needs a sense of humor.

Birch doesn’t complain. He grew up around farming. And farming is what he knows, so he’s not about to quit even if these past several years have been really hard.

Throughout the Western United States and especially in California, farmers have been dealing with a multiyear drought that shows no signs of ending. It’s gotten so bad, fertile fields have been taken out of production because there’s no water for irrigation. That means lower crop yields and higher prices for consumers.

The problem begins in the mountains. Within sight of Flora Bella Farm, the Sierra Nevada runs for hundreds of miles. The line of rugged peaks cuts along the eastern side of the state. The importance of the snowpack that collects on the Sierras for California’s agriculture cannot be overstated.

The farms around Birch in Tulare County north of Bakersfield depend on that water. After a buildup of snow during the winter, when the temperatures warm, the snow melts and collects in the Upper Kaweah Watershed, which feeds the north, middle and south forks of the Kaweah River, irrigating Birch’s fields. But again this year the snowpack was below normal. And that was bad news for Birch.

A hundred-year drought

A dozen years ago I visited Flora Bella Farm because Birch and I were working on a farm-to-kitchen cookbook with California-Mediterranean recipes. On that visit, Birch walked me to the river next to the farm. The cool water ran fast and clear and was several feet deep. Last week he emailed a photograph that showed the problem in the most graphic way.

Birch stands on a completely dry riverbed.

Old-timers tell Birch that the last time the rivers dried up was in 1906 when a cowboy said he rode across the main fork and his horse’s hooves didn’t get wet.

In 2012 and 2013, the drought was bad. Knowing 2014 would be no better, Birch came up with a plan. He began converting his above-ground sprinklers to a drip system. He enlarged his holding ponds and filled them to capacity. But the drought was worse than expected.

Three rivers, now no rivers

One by one the Kaweah River’s three tributaries dried up. And by mid-August he had used all the water in the ponds. In late September, the only water on the farm comes from a low volume well that supplies his home.

Without water, Birch doesn’t have a lot to bring to the farmers markets where he sells his produce. When I saw him recently at the Santa Monica Farmers Market, he had only potatoes, squash, olives and grapes to sell. Around him the other farmers had their usual bounty on display. Why, I asked him, do they seem to be unaffected by the drought?

The answer was pretty simple. Birch relies entirely on the Sierras’ snowmelt to irrigate his crops. The other farms have allotments from the California Aqueduct, which transports water 500 miles south from the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta, or they have high-volume wells that pump groundwater from the vast aquifers, the water-bearing sandy soils that lie beneath many parts of California.

Birch does not have access to either the aqueduct or to groundwater. Because he is in the foothills of the Sierras, the aquifer is too deep for him to reach except at great expense. And, even if he had the money to dig a well, the water-drilling companies in the area have a two-year waiting list.

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James Birch at the Flora Bella Farm stall at the Wednesday Santa Monica Farmers Market. Credit: David Latt

After the rivers and his holding ponds dried up, the only water available was the low-volume house well. That was a tough moment. Whichever plants he didn’t water, died. “First it was the cucumbers, then the peppers, tomatillos, most of the squash, the greens, and then everything in the fields,” he said.

In the orchard, his mature fruit trees produce apricots, Santa Rosa and Golden Nectar plums, nectarines and sour cherries. He also has younger Mandarin orange, lemon and pomegranate trees. All the trees are stressed. He doles out the little bit of water he can from the house well. But ultimately he faces another difficult decision. If the river doesn’t start flowing soon, he’ll have to cut down the older trees and plant citrus trees, which use less water.

Between a rock and a hard place

Birch is preparing the next planting. In his greenhouse he is growing Swiss chard, broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, chicory, collards, cabbage, artichokes, fennel and cardoon seedlings. Now they’re strong and ready to plant. His fields are tilled and planted with mustard, spinach, radishes, mizuna, arugula and kale seeds. If he gets these crops to market, he will do well.

But Birch is in a bind.

Both the seedlings and seeds need moisture to grow. Birch reads the weather forecasts hoping storms will give him the rain he needs. But he has another problem. Winter is coming. The temperatures will soon drop. If the rains are late and the plants aren’t mature enough before the frost comes, they won’t survive.

Looking to the future

The truth is nobody knows when or if the rains will come. If the drought continues, farmers who are currently unaffected will be impacted.

Farmers relying on the California Aqueduct will find their allocations curtailed or eliminated. That has already happened in parts of the San Joaquin Valley, one of California’s most important agricultural areas. In an extended drought, farmers whose water comes from wells will also be affected. Heavy use of the aquifer has caused a dramatic drop in the available groundwater.

To survive in a drier climate, farmers like Birch are pursuing conservation efforts.

Birch has applied for a federal grant from the Department of Agriculture’s NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) so he can switch completely from above-ground irrigation to an underground drip system.

To keep out the deer and squirrels that come down from the mountains looking for food and water, he built an 8-foot-tall fence. He planted a hedgerow of native flowering plants along the perimeter of the property to attract predatory insects to fight back infestations of aphids and mites, which eat the water-starved plants and carry destructive viruses.

In the best case scenario, if winter storms build up the snowpack in the Sierras., then the rivers will run as clear and deep as they have in the past, the aquifer will be replenished and Flora Bella Farm will be back to its former glory but this time needing less water than before.

And if the drought continues, Birch will be as ready as he can be.

Main photo: The cucumber fields at Flora Bella Farm in Three Rivers, Calif., during the 2014 drought. Credit: Dawn Birch

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Bedouin community leader Haled Eloubra, left, discusses permaculture with a student at a course in Israel. Credit: Louis Fox

What is the connection between conventional food systems, erosion and global warming? Climate change accelerates as industrial agriculture, with its heavy plowing and application of pesticides, sends carbon into the atmosphere. This creates soil loss and depletes the amount of carbon the soil is able to store. The Monsanto-sponsored Green Revolution in Africa and Asia was bolstered by the idea that we needed to find a way to break out of nature’s boundaries to provide enough food for a growing population. Yet decades of synthetic fertilizer use and industrial-style monocropping have created diseased soils, broken ecosystems and social instability.

Raj Patel, who has written extensively about the need to shift our relationship to food, says the problem with the food system is not that we don’t produce enough calories to eradicate hunger. Instead, it’s that the system puts a priority on profit and institutional consolidation. The upshot: More than 1 billion people are malnourished and 2 billion are overweight.

Perhaps the answer lies in the dirt.

The earth beneath our feet contains billions of microorganisms — huge quantities of carbon in the form of bio-matter. Organic farming, permaculture and other regenerative food-growing strategies enrich soils and restore their ability to store carbon.

I have spent the past eight years documenting regenerative design around the world, deeply motivated as a new mother to find solutions to our global ecological crisis. I’ve used my anthropology background to put together a book, “Sustainable [R]evolution: Permaculture in Ecovillages, Urban Farms and Communities Worldwide.” A catalog of 60 sites and an anthology of articles, it represents the work of a small army of about 100 contributors, including Paul Hawken, Vandana Shiva, Starhawk and David Holmgren. It includes projects in climates as diverse as the Dead Sea Valley in Jordan and the Amazon rainforest, inner cities as well as remote corners of Mongolia.

It also highlights permaculture training, which has been held in approximately 100 countries around the world. One innovative program in Israel, called the Bustan Project, brings Arabs, Jews and Bedouins together for courses. The courses combine teaching practical techniques of natural building, water catchment and traditional agriculture with peace building.

“It is connected to peace, in that we work the land together instead of fighting about it,” says Petra Feldman, a resident of Hava ve Adam, the permaculture center that hosted the training that I and my co-author Louis Fox attended in 2008. Israeli youth work at the center for a year as an alternative to military service. Petra’s husband, Chaim Feldman, began a collaboration with Palestinian farmers involving traditional agriculture. They have shared irrigation techniques, drought-resistant heirloom seeds and other permaculture practices that enable farmers with restricted land access to grow more intensively in smaller spaces.

“The closest thing in the world to the principles of permaculture I’m learning in this course are the principles of traditional Bedouin culture,” said Haled Eloubra, a Bedouin community leader and green architect attending the course.

Permaculture integrates traditional knowledge with appropriate technology, linking ancient and modern approaches. As an international movement, it reconnects native people with ancestral knowledge, as well as giving industrialized societies a framework to meet their needs more sustainably. Some call this approach permaculture. For many traditional people, as Nahuat-Mayan activist Guillermo Vasquez told me, “It’s a practice, a way of life.”

In Oakland Calif., “soil farmers” like Max Cadji hope to transform dirt tainted by decades of pollution. Credit: Louis Fox

In Oakland Calif., “soil farmers” like Max Cadji hope to transform dirt tainted by decades of pollution. Credit: Louis Fox

Vasquez founded Indigenous Permaculture, an organization that partnered with residents of Pine Ridge, an Oglala Lakota reservation in South Dakota. There they developed a Wounjupi garden, a local food-security project using ecological principles. He sees permaculture movement as a form of cultural resistance and a healing process.

“This is the way to create a real Green Revolution and make change,” he told me.

Pine Ridge, long associated with native resistance, holds a unique place in the history of indigenous struggle. The reservation is among the most impoverished in the United States, with an adolescent suicide rate four times the national average, unemployment around 80% and many residents without access to energy or clean water. Although there is a good deal of agricultural production on the reservation, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, only a small percentage of tribal members directly benefit from it.

Local leader Wilmer Mesteth has been leading the development of the Wounjupi and systems for water catchment, grey water recycling, seed saving and composting. The organizers see local food security as a path to confront poverty and health issues such as diabetes, and have developed a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. A greenhouse has been built, medicinal plants are being cultivated and workshops are held for residents about perennial agriculture techniques. The harvest provides enough produce to give to families and elders in the community, and even share at an elders gathering in Montana.

Another advantage of biodiverse systems is they are more resilient. While grasshoppers destroyed many other crops on the reservation one season, the Wounjupi garden saw little damage, probably as a result of the permaculture technique of planting flowers that attract beneficial insects that prey on pests. “We’re seeing a major change in the soil due to the addition of organic matter,” Vasquez said. “It’s much darker and richer, and the vegetables are starting to grow really well.”

This kind of soil building also has larger positive implications. In her book, “The Soil Will Save Us,” Kristin Ohlson suggests that the ancient partnership between plants and soil microorganisms that created our planet offers hope for pulling carbon from the atmosphere and sinking it back into the ground. She documents a huge increase in the numbers of “soil farmers” within organic agriculture, and beyond.

In my part of the world in Northern California, soil farmers in the heart of Oakland are transforming soil tainted by decades of intense industrial pollution, building local community and creating social change at the same time. Oakland’s food security movement has brought fresh organic produce to what was a desert of liquor and convenience stores, and locals are raising bees that pollinate urban crops as well as provide local sources of honey.

The diversity of insect and bird pollinators is crucial to agriculture, and farmers require healthy ecosystems to grow food. Our choices about how our food is grown connect directly to issues of biodiversity, climate change and the survival of natural ecosystems across the globe. Organic and permaculture farms are significantly better at preserving agro-ecosystem biodiversity than conventional farming. With such systems, the number of plant, bird and insect species can often be 50% greater, so developing biodiverse systems should be a high priority. When we choose to eat locally-grown and organic foods, we are giving energy to a diverse and vibrant international cultural movement that is revolutionizing the food system.

And they taste better too.

Main photo: Bedouin community leader Haled Eloubra, left, discussing permaculture with a student at a course in Israel. Credit: Louis Fox

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Blair Marvin and Andrew Heyn divide and shape dough at Vermont's Elmore Mountain Bread. Credit: Amy Halloran

I have met the next generation of bread.

I’m more than a little susceptible to hypnosis by wheat, but if you believe in bread, what Blair Marvin and Andrew Heyn are doing might mesmerize you too. If you doubt bread, their story might make you reconsider.

Tucked high on a hill in Vermont, Elmore Mountain Bread makes a future that I think will last. Marvin and Heyn bake sourdough bread in a wood-fired brick oven, which is standard operating procedure for artisan bread. However, they also mill their own flour.

Wheat and gluten are the latest bull’s-eyes in the American game of dietary roulette. Remember when eggs, butter and red meat were reviled? Some people are finding their way back to bread through small-scale bakeries and long sourdough fermentations. The next road on the path back to bread might be bakery milled grains.

“We want to make the best bread we can, and it’s a no-brainer that milling is a part of it,” Marvin said as she filled a rack at a small supermarket with fresh-baked loaves in paper bags. The birds on her arm tattoo flew as she worked. A small tag on the rack announced that the flour was freshly milled. A little red stamp of a millstone on the bag gave the same notice. The change is much bigger than these words and signs show.

The day before, Heyn poured grain into the hopper above the stone mill he had built. Every half hour, a timer went off and Heyn or Marvin left the bakery to scoop flour from the rectangular bins attached to the sifter. The sifter allows them to remove a small portion of the bran, and bake with a very white — yet nearly whole-grain — flour, using almost the whole kernel.

A few bakeries now milling their own flour

Research on how milling affects the nutritional value of flour is minimal, but wheat processing is being scrutinized as celiac disease and non-celiac wheat sensitivities are investigated. A handful of bakeries across North America are choosing to mill their own flour in pursuit of peak flavor and nutrition.

Elmore Mountain Bread is remote, near the edge of the state’s fabled Northeast Kingdom, but the bakers are not isolated. America lacks a formal apprentice system for bakers, so good bread advances through a network of online and live resources, such as King Arthur Flour’s baking school and the Bread Bakers Guild of America. Bakers get to know one another by email and by traveling to see one another’s setups.

Near the edge of Vermont's fabled Northeast, Kingdom, Elmore Mountain Bread is remote but plugged into a network of next-gen bakers. Credit: Amy Halloran

Near the edge of Vermont’s fabled Northeast Kingdom, Elmore Mountain Bread is remote but networked with other next-gen bakers. Credit: Amy Halloran

Miller-bakers Julie Lomenda from Six Hundred Degrees Brick Oven Bakery in Tofino, Canada, and Dave Bauer from Farm & Sparrow in Candler, N.C., came to see the Vermont bakery on separate visits, and they got the couple thinking about milling.

Closer to home, Bread & Butter Farm in Shelburne, Vt., mills for its baking. In the spring, Heyn and Marvin’s son Phineas gave them the impetus to start.

“One of the only things he ate every day was baguettes,” Andrew said. “As I was doing the ordering, which was typically 30 bags of white flour and two bags of whole wheat, I realized that this was refined foods. Organic, but refined.”

Heyn and Marvin wanted to use whole grains but remain loyal to their customers and product line, which was thoroughly artisan but did not feature whole grains. The bakery began 15 years ago, and they’ve owned it for a decade. Through that cross-continent network of bakers, Heyn designed a mill that would suit all their goals.

The brainstorming took place largely on email. Cliff Leir from Fol Epi in Victoria, Canada, sent pictures to Heyn of the mill he had built. Heyn collaborated with bakers Fulton Forde and Bryn Rawlyk, who also wanted to build their own mills. The three worked out details for a rustic, simple machine in a very 21st century fashion, without ever talking on the phone.

The metal work was more tangible and local. Friends who live down the road from the bakery fabricated the framework for the millstones. Iron Art had made the door for the bakery oven, and helped make the oven loader too. The sifter they bought ready made, but Heyn is about to make a new set of screens to better regulate the sifting.

Blair Marvin and Andrew Heyn in front of their wood-fired brick oven — a must for artisan bread. Credit: Amy Halloran

Blair Marvin and Andrew Heyn beside the mill they designed. Credit: Amy Halloran

 

Six years ago Heyn brainstormed designs for the next generation of wood-fired ovens with mason William Davenport of Turtlerock Masonry Heat, incorporating ideas from the Masonry Heater Association. Davenport built the oven for Elmore Mountain Bread, and its features are now common in micro-bakeries. Turtlerock is no longer in business, but former apprentice Jeremiah Church is still building ovens.

All of this tinkering, until the mill, has been to serve efficiencies. Heyn has an engineering mindset, and as he’s engaged in his work, his brain is always working out improvements in their system. Marvin has been an eager partner in this thinking, because she wants to minimize wear and tear on their bodies in what’s a very physical job.

The mill adds rather than subtracts work, but the two of them are gung-ho about this latest innovation. Even though the grains cost about as much as the organic flour they were using, the difference in product is worth it because they want to make the best bread they can.

Elmore Mountain Bread delivers about 500 loaves three times a week in a small radius near Stowe and Montpelier. The bakers still use roller milled flour to make a focaccia served in restaurants, but that is only about 20% of their production.

So far, they haven’t figured out an effective way to announce the difference in their main ingredient. Aside from the little millstone graphic and note on the bag, they don’t have much direct contact with their buyers. This is the way it is for bakers. Even in a retail setting, customers don’t want to chat about what’s in a loaf, the way someone might linger over ingredients while sipping a beer.

I am hoping that this will change. The media are a big voice in the popular campaign against bread, and positive stories about flour are rare.

For now, the bread speaks for itself, though I might serve as a ventriloquist. I didn’t taste any Elmore Mountain Bread before it started milling. Usually I’m all pancakes, all the time. But these loaves made me forget the griddle. The flour smelled so fresh and fieldy, and the breads were hauntingly tasty. I have a new enchantment.

Main photo: Blair Marvin and Andrew Heyn divide and shape dough at Vermont’s Elmore Mountain Bread. Credit: Amy Halloran

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