Category Archives: I’m Looking for You

Just What is Urban Farming?

A reporter posed this question to me last week and I was essentially at a loss for an answer.  Not because I couldn’t think of anything to say, in fact because I could think of too much to say.  Like so many other phrases in the last five years (green, eco-friendly, carbon footprint, sustainability), urban farming feels so commonplace and overused. So much so that some practicing urban farmers poke fun at themselves and others are busy trying to creating backlash against the movement.

But just what is this movement?  Is it extreme gardening?  Or keeping livestock?  Or simply preserving seasonal, local foods?   Maybe it’s just one , or maybe it’s all of these things.  Just when does a garden become farm or a vegetable stand become a farmer’s market?  Is it possible to homestead in the city, or do we even want to be associated with that phrase?

Maybe we don’t even need to define urban farming because the phrase has become so mainstream that we each have our own individual definition of it.  That got me to wondering just how others defined urban farming so I posted that question on a forum.  I’m sharing my favorite response with you.  It’s from Keith Mastenbrook, one of the most committed members of Sustainable NE Seattle and they have some amazingly committed members. He’s a Permaculture wielding, lawn hating understated fellow and his response is characteristically thoughtful and on point.

The question you pose fascinates me, I think because it is critical to the sustainability movement. The world population is becoming urban, leaving the farm behind, with the rural landscape to some extent being handed over to industrial agriculture. Life in the city may be just too alluring, but that’s a discussion for another day. It’s significance to your question, I think, is the contradictory terms urban and farm.

Definitions are central to any discussion of urban farming. What is urban, what is a farm? The mystic of being an urban farmer may be more alluring than the reality that we are, in my estimation, suburban farmers. Most of us live within the city limits, but don’t really live in the urban core. We enjoy certain luxuries with our ample city lots, and I say ample by comparison with the Asian landscape. For example, in Farmers of Forty Centuries, there is documentation of the productivity generated on parcels of land often much smaller than our city properties. Productivity seems to me to be the key. As urban farmers we are striving to make our small patch of the planet more productive, to meet the real needs of our families. To the extent we achieve this production, we lessen the burden (our ecological footprint) on other parts of the planet to support us.

Our expectations, however, often don’t fall in line with our reality. I think we enjoy the best of all world, for most of us are able to engage our urban farmer attitude more like the hobby farmer or gentleperson farmer. Part of our luxury is the power of our fall-back position: we can always go back to the store. We can afford, provided we have income, to dabble in farming.

I’m expressing these opinions far less as a criticism of others, but since you asked the question, these are the issues I ask of myself as I measure my successes and failures with my own practice of gardening. Sometimes I feel hopelessly inadequate in the face of the dilemma that faces us. I’m constantly having to reassure myself that what I do matters. That somehow we can share the message broadly enough to make a real difference. And then I lapse back into….

No, I’m not going there! To those whom much is given, much is expected. Is urban farming mainstream? Maybe suburban hobby farming is mainstream, but productive, where do the calories I consume everyday, what is my ecological footprint, is there social justice in the world, urban farming has a long way to go. When I move through the landscape of Seattle I see change, but not nearly enough that it makes a huge difference, at least that’s my opinion. I like the comparison made to the Victory Garden of recent history. Although I can’t help but think that the concept of shared sacrifice plays a role in understanding how that movement and the solution to today’s problems compare. Currently society is anything but sharing the sacrifice, the examples are too numerous and obvious. Perhaps our age has assessed the problems that face us, the endless barrage of bad news, and opted for each man for themselves? Perhaps it is because there seems to be no clear end to the troubles, no “victory” in sight, that we won’t abandon our lifestyle of consumption. Does anyone know how many seasons passed before the Victory Gardens were mainly a thing of the past?

The Urban Farmer is the ideal model for the countercultural human. Productive rather than merely consumptive, stewards rather than owners, social rather then isolated. Unfortunately life is far to complex for simple solutions anymore, but the paradigm of the Urban Farmer is worthwhile pursuing. It is the future, in my opinion, of an egalitarian world where all life is respected and supported. But it must be clear to all that taking responsibility for our place in universe requires that we get dirt under our fingernails.

Green wishes,

Keith R Mastenbrook

What about you?  What does urban farming mean to you?

Guest Post: Agricultural Biodiversity and Sustainability for the Future

My guest post today is from Jack Lundee who writes for Jack’s impassioned plea to protect crop diversity while shopping locally and in season is near and dear to my heart.

Agricultural Biodiversity and Sustainability for the Future

“In other environmental issues we tell people to stop something, reduce their impact, reduce their damage,” – US Ecologist Gary Nabham

Since the beginning of the green movement, there has been a rise in the number of organizations and businesses that are doing their part in the promotion of sustainability through conservation. This past Earth Day brought about the Earth Day Network, which has been playing its part to bring conservationist and green enthusiasts together, sharing ideas and discussing new ways to support the planet. Other large organizations and 501(3)(c)s like Doug Band and the CGI (Clinton Global Initiative) have been working on successful emission reduction projects in the San Francisco Bay area. All the while, the climate is continuing to worsen, and individual, as well as collaborative acts, are important for any successful green campaign. As human beings, we’re constantly told to reduce our carbon footprint, consume less unhealthy foods, and spend less time in the shower! But let’s take a minute to step back and look at this from a different perspective; one that Gary Nabhan strongly suggests.

Gary Paul Nabhan, phD., is a Arab-American writer/conservationist who’s extensive farming work in the U.S./Mexico borderlands region has made him world renown. Specifically speaking, Nabhan is known for his work in biodiversity as an ethnobotanist. His uplifting messages and attitude towards life and culture has granted us access to multiple beneficial theories including his latest of eat what you conserve.

According to The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, about three quarters of the genetic diversity of crops been vanished over the last century and that a dozen species now gives 90% of the animal protein eaten globally. In accordance, just 4 crop species supply half of plant based calories in the human diet.

Nabhan claims that by eating the fruits and vegetables that we are attempting to conserve/save, we’re promoting the granular dissemination of various plant species. But this goes beyond what we typically buy in supermarkets, particularly because of price and abundance. We must remember to try new things and immerse ourselves in the very concept of diversity. Keep in mind; the benefits of splurging for that costly fruit/vegetable supremely outweigh the cons. Not only does one promote biodiversity and further eliminate the need of farmers to remove rare, less purchased crops off their agenda, but one also effectively encouraging healthier lifestyles.

Agriculturist Marco Contiero mentions that “biodiversity is an essential characteristic of any sustainable agricultural system, especially in the context of climate change.”[1] Contiero believes that people should eat localized crops, spending less time purchasing imports and becoming heavily reliant.

According to Conterio’s theory, this would suggest that we, as individuals, tend our own crops/plants, and make sure to purchase localized farm products at supermarkets and groceries. In the end, this condenses export/import reliance, thus reducing our carbon footprint.

Nabhma and Contiero’s theories both rely profoundly on an action oriented approach at conservation and sustainability. With an abundance of green movements following Earth Day 2010, organizations and individuals have taken a stronger following to expert opinions like the ones demonstrated by both of these highly influential agriculturalists. So remember, when the fall season approaches, be sure to visit your local apple orchard to pick some fresh fruit. Also, as eco-conscious individuals, don’t hesitate to stop the next time you drive by a yard stand with fresh crops. Promoting biodiversity and localized farming is a crucial piece of the conservation puzzle.

Jack Lundee – Supporter of all things green and progressive.

Guest Post: Dairy Goats – the Animal Husbandry Side

Since learning that mini-dairy goats fall under the same city guidelines as dogs I’ve had a serious hankering for home dairy. It’s on my list but for now I’m living vicariously through some other amazing women who have taken the plunge. My friend Sarah (mother, urban gardener, maker of cardboard solar ovens, chicken, honey bee and dairy goat owner) has recently helped her dairy goat kid and has written this guest post to share with us. Caution – graphic photos below! But life is graphic so buck up.

Guest Blog: The baby goats

When you don’t live closely with animals, you forget how their cycles are connected with the food they produce for us. People who learn that I have chickens often assume that a rooster is needed for the hens to lay eggs. This would make sense, but it is not the case. Hens produce unfertilized eggs without a mate; although no egg produced without a rooster could hatch.

Similarly, people who learn that I have goats will often ask questions that lead me to think that they have forgotten, or never put together, the connection between reproduction and milk.

To have a doe goat (or a cow or sheep) come into milk, she must be bred and produce offspring. Milk is made for the baby, but through breeding, ample food and daily milking, we have developed animals that will continue to produce milk long after their babies have stopped needing it.

Gloria, the Glory Goat, is our milker. She got her name because she is a bit of a prima donna. If I go out to check on another animal, she thinks I’m there for her. If she hears me talking on the phone, she starts bleating like she is part of the conversation. She doesn’t like corn, and like my eight year old son, she hates for different kinds of food to be touching each other.

Gloria’s pregnancy was fairly typical. We brought her to a breeder that specialized in milk production goats of her breed, the Oberhasli. She met her guy, and fifteen minutes later she was on the way back home, pregnant. Goats gestate for about 150 days, and we had May 24 marked on our calendar but she was a couple of days later. Near the end I had a lot of empathy for her. The weight of the kids is carried in the lower half of the abdomen, and put a lot of pressure on her back legs and feet. Add to that the weight of her gradually filling udder, and you have a very uncomfortable goat.

About a week before her due date, we separated Gloria from the other goats. We wanted her to be able to kid in privacy, and we also had some anxiety about the goats harming her babies. Further, we needed a clean spot where the kids would not be introduced to any parasites the herd might carry. We treat our goats for worms and other parasites, but this is never a guarantee that they are fully eliminated, and the newborns need time to develop a tolerance to them.
As I mentioned, I have an 8 year old, Noah. I wasn’t sure what he would think of the actual birthing process. We discussed it and looked at some pictures, but the real thing is notoriously more intense than anything you could imagine in conversation. Still, Noah signed up as photographer. That is why he’s not in any of the pictures.

Around 8:00 pm on the 26th, Gloria began to show signs of early labor. She had some discharge and was making little sounds like those a mother animal might make to babies. Most of all she was restless, pacing around her enclosure after days of being very mellow.

At 8:30, she started having serious contractions. Noah and I sang to her. Mostly the Star Spangled Banner, because Noah is trying to learn the words, and it seemed to calm her. With each series of contractions, we could see the bag of water with the little goat’s feet in it. Eventually, the hooves and nose emerged. Noah said “pull it out, Mom” and I explained that if I needed to I would help but Gloria seemed to be doing great.

A few minutes later, brother goat was born. He’s the tan and black one. Once he was out, the licking instinct took over Gloria. It was incredible – I had never seen anything quite like it and the books didn’t prepare me for how passionate she was about licking. She started licking the baby until he could breathe. She lapped up the afterbirth. Back to licking the baby, even as sister goat was being pushed out. Licked sister. Licked both babies. Licked my hair, started going for Noah and the camera. The licking instinct went on for hours; she was still doing it when we said goodnight to her after 11:30.

One other thing the books did not tell me was what the afterbirth looked like. It is scary – a red sack with veins on it. I briefly thought – what if it’s part of Gloria’s insides? But her calm demeanor and lack of stress reassured me, and eventually the afterbirth was delivered.

Once the babies were cleared of mucus, we helped them find the teats. They knew what they were supposed to do, they just didn’t know where. But once they got a good shot of milk, they learned fast. When we knew they could stand well, find the milk, and when we had treated their navels with iodine to prevent infection, there wasn’t much left to do but admire.

Gloria drank nearly a gallon of warm water and ate a bit of oatmeal. Hardly a glamorous feast after such an undertaking, but she seemed happy with her family and ready to go.

In the next few days we will let Gloria nurse her babies, and only milk her if she seems to be overproducing. As the babies get bigger, we can start milking Gloria once a day and let the babies have the rest of the milk, until eventually we will be milking her twice and they will become weaned. This worked for us before, although if we wanted the most possible milk, we would separate her from the kids, milk her and then bottle feed the kids. For us, that is too much intervention.

This is Sarah’s answer in response to me asking how frequently you need to breed goats in order to stay in milk:

A typical goat lactation cycle starts out with kidding and goes until about 2 months before she kids again. So traditionally goats were bred yearly, and dried up naturally or by design as their pregnancy became heavy.

That said, a lot of people who keep goats for home dairy will milk them for 2 years between kids. Or I milked Jeannette for 3 years. Less milk, but I’m not a dairy and I appreciated her never going dry. She had fairly mellow heat seasons, so it was no big deal. Gloria is a diva during her heats, and was clearly drying up, so in her case breeding her was the way to keep the milk coming.

I’ve heard that the heavier milkers (like Gloria) are more cyclical, while those with less output may be able to sustain the supply longer. A sort of slow and steady thing.

Guest Post – Jess Aspires to Conscious Eating

This guest post is from one of my favorite bloggers, Jess of

Following the reading list of an aspiring conscious eater, I read Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle not too long ago.  As I neared the end of the book, a sense of quiet desperation overtook me.  “How can I do this?” I thought.  I finished the book in early January, and was grateful that Kingsolver understood.  If it’s winter where you are, she assured this discouraged reader, you can’t really do anything right now.  Plan for the next year, for the next winter.  “This year,” I thought.

I followed Sustainable Eats with fascination as Annette progressed through the Dark Days, amazed by a level of knowledge and understanding so far beyond my own.  A fundamental knowingness, both about the food she was preparing and, even more baffling to me, her family’s needs.  I watched as she turned her carefully planned and balanced stores into a creative variety of nourishing meals.  And she did it with kids.

Everyone started their seeds.  I tried to begin planning my garden, but pushed it aside.  I procrastinated, hemmed and hawed, made excuses.

Then winter ended.  Spring is coming.  Let’s face it… is here.  The farmers market is open again.  And a few days ago, my lovely neighbor gave me some seed potatoes ready to plant.  I asked him how many potatoes would likely come from this little group of seedlings.  I was so distracted by the fact that his answer came in lbs that I don’t even remember the number.  How many lbs of potatoes do I eat in a year, I asked myself?  The fact is, I have no idea… about anything at all.

Garden Planning When You Know Nothing

The beginning of my garden and food planning this year has been an exercise in learning how little I know.  And not about gardening – I knew I was clueless about that – but about my own needs and desires.  The fact that I do not know how many potatoes I eat in a year means I have no way of knowing how many I should plant now.  In fact, after I went through my list of “things I want to eat,” the only thing I felt sure of is my need for a near-endless supply of cilantro and basil.  You can’t plan a garden around that.

I’ve realized that I lack a certain type of understanding that must have been common not too long ago.  In a time before supermarkets.  A time before instant convenience.  A time when we had to be both inherently knowledgeable and deeply creative and flexible.

Trying to operate this way is an affront to my Type-A-ness.  I hate that I don’t have the knowledge or understanding to plan this with any measure of competence.  And it kind of bugs me that even if I did, gardening is not always something that lends itself to careful planning.  (Take, for example, my neighbor’s winter garden that was wiped out early by an unexpected hard freeze.  That’s a whole different kind of heartbreaking.)

You Have To Start Somewhere

Enter my new strategy, the strategy of the year for everything in my life:  winging it.

I am going to plant some stuff that I would want to eat.  I’m going to try to find a compromise between how I want gardening to work and how all my sources say it actually does work.  I am going to take to heart the idea that rules are more like guidelines anyways, even though I have no idea if that applies in this situation.  (Thermodynamics = not a field in which this applies.)

I am then going to take copious notes, mostly because I am a researcher and a note taker, but also because maybe it will help next year.  And I am going to join a CSA, so that if and when my garden becomes something I do not understand, I still have local, sustainable food to eat.

And that, my friends, is the plan.  And if it goes as well as my “winging it” garlic from last fall, I think I might be in pretty good shape.

Guest Post – How to Cure a Ham by My Friend Mike

I blame this guest poster for getting me into charcuterie in the first place, and into smoking meat.  If there was a master smoker certification (and maybe there is) he would have credentials.  This is despite a meat curer’s handicap of being the only meat eater in a household of vegetarians so while I’ve been trying to get Mike to get 1/2 pig I realize it just doesn’t make sense for him and many others to buy meat in that quantity.  He did, however, kind-heartedly agree to smoke our ham.  That totally saved me since I was maxxed out with fridge and freezer space curing everything else.  I asked him to do a post on how to cure ham since so many of you have expressed interest in doing it yourself this fall so here is Mike’s post.

How to Cure and Smoke a Ham

I’ve enjoyed smoking and curing meats for a while now, but had never attempted a ham.  When Annette recently offered me the opportunity to share a high quality hog’s leg, it sounded like a great opportunity to try something new.  As it turned out, making your own ham is a very simple process that anyone can try, and the results were excellent.  As simple as the process was, I did manage to learn a thing or two along the way that will make it even easier next time.  For this ham I used the “American-Style Brown-Sugar-Glazed Holiday Ham” recipe from Charcuterie by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn (p. 93).

First off, the ham was huge — 20 pounds.  It required a 5-gallon bucket to fit, and 2.5 gallons of brine.  The size made working with it a bit unwieldy.  I’d go with something smaller next time, if I have a choice. This took up a lot of fridge space, so if you only have one fridge make sure your significant other is aware of what you’re up to ahead of time.

Another thing to consider is how to get the ham fully submerged in the brine – it’s gonna want to float to the top for the first few days or so.  My bucket had a lid, which helped a lot.  I put a pie plate on top of the ham and used a small plastic container as a wedge between the lid and the plate, forcing the ham to the bottom.  The plate listed a bit and took on some brine, but it never slid off the top of the ham and it remained submerged without adjustment for the full 8.5 days.  Wrapping the plate tightly with plastic wrap might have stopped it from listing.  I also tried using the pie plate and a weight, but the plate would tilt and slide off the ham, allowing the ham to float to the top.

Here’s a picture with my lid/plastic container/pie plate setup.  It seemed a little sketchy but worked:

Next, I was so focused on getting the brine together and getting the ham in it (which was done on a weeknight after the kids went to bed, and required a trip to Cash & Carry for the bucket) that I neglected to really trim off all the fat and carve out the aitch-bone.  The ham came to me with the skin removed and a lot of the fat trimmed off, so I didn’t bother trimming it further.  After it was done brining I realized that it needed further trimming and cut off about 2 pounds of fat (and also got a couple glandular-looking bits that you definitely don’t want in there).  Unfortunately, I again forgot the aitch-bone.  Next time I’ll trim it before brining and definitely get the aitch bone out, because carving the finished product was a pain with it in there, and I think the brine would’ve penetrated the interior of the ham a little better without it.

Here’s a fuzzy picture of the little gland bits, which I found at the smaller end (top when serving, bottom while still on the pig) of the ham near the bone:

Next, I brined the ham for 8.5 days, and then rested it in the fridge (uncovered) for 24 hours before smoking.  The rest period is important to allow the salt to redistribute more evenly throughout the ham and to develop a pellicle to aid in smoke absorption.  However, the recipe calls for half a day in the brine per pound, so it should have been in there for 10 full days.  I shortened the brine due to scheduling (I received the ham on a Thursday and smoked it on a Sunday) and because I was afraid of it coming out too salty.  It is definitely not too salty at all.  In addition, the brine didn’t penetrate fully so the color of the finished product varies from a pink ham look near the outside to a very pale color on the inside.  More brine time might have corrected that, and removing the aitch-bone might have helped too.  In the future I might try injecting if I get another ham that size.

I use a Weber Smokey Mountain charcoal smoker.  It has always worked well for me and I’d recommend it to anyone.  Weber recently released a new version with some updates, and also a larger 22.5-inch size.  If you plan to smoke large cuts of meat, the larger smoker is probably the way to go.  For this cook I put a large clay saucer, like you’d use under a clay flowerpot, in the water pan and covered both with foil.  I didn’t think this cut of meat would require any additional moisture, and it was very juicy at the end.  For charcoal I used Trader Joe’s house brand of briquettes, which is repackaged Rancher charcoal from The Original Charcoal Company.  I’m a big fan of this charcoal because it is made of only hard wood and natural binders.  I’ve found it provides more consistent temps for longer cooks than lump (which I often use for high-temp grilling) and is easy to work with.  For smoke wood I used six fist-sized chunks of dry maple.  Maple gives a less aggressive smoke flavor than hickory and provides an excellent aroma and taste.  I always use the “Minion Method” to start my smoker, and did so here with about 20 lit briquettes.  I should’ve used about 30 lit briquettes due to the weather, which was around 55 degrees, windy and rainy.

I took the ham out of the fridge an hour before smoking to allow it to warm up a bit.  When it went in the smoker the internal temp was only 39 degrees Fahrenheit, so that wasn’t so helpful.  Weather conditions made the cook a little tricky, and it took a few hours for the cooker to get to my target temp of 220 degrees Fahrenheit.  After that I allowed it to drift as high as 250.  I pulled the ham out after 7.5 hours when the internal temp hit the mid 150s.  Another half-hour or hour might have helped render off a little more of the internal fat and connective tissue, but the ham turned out so juicy I’m not sure I’d be willing to risk drying it out.

Here’s a pic of the ham in the smoker at the beginning of the cook.  The interior diameter of my smoker is 18.5 inches, and the ham just barely fit:

Another thing I would do differently next time involves the glaze.  I mixed the glaze according to the recipe and applied it to the ham a couple hours before it finished smoking.  The glaze is fine, but I’ll only do that again if I plan to carve and serve it right out of the smoker.  My plan for this one was to split it with Annette and carve up and freeze most of the remainder, so the glaze really just made a tasty mess.

Here’s a picture of the ham when I removed it to apply the glaze.  It would really be delicious just like this, and the smell was amazing:

Here’s a picture with the glaze on:

After glazing the ham went back in the smoker for about two more hours.  When it was done I applied another coat of glaze.  Overall, I think it turned out great.  The flavor is very good, it’s super juicy and I’m pleased with it.  If you’re looking for a holiday ham, I think this is a good recipe.  Brining the ham is as simple as mixing a few ingredients and having the time and space for the meat and the container.  Smoking is equally simple.  The ingredients are pretty standard, other than pink salt, which can be found at Butcher & Packer.  I think next time I need ham (and it’s going to be a while) I might try this recipe with a picnic shoulder, which would be a lot more manageable, size-wise.

Here is a picture of the finished product, prior to carving:

Here’s a picture of a some slices, it’s bright pink near the outside and more the color of regular roasted pork near the interior:

The Recipe from Charcuterie by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn

The Brine

1 gallon water

1 1/2 cups kosher salt

2 packed cups dark brown sugar

8 teaspoons pink salt (if using -  not necessary for safety sake though, it’s only to improve flavor & color)

1 12 to 15 pound ham, aitch bone removed (ours was closer to 20 pounds)

The Glaze

1 1/2 cups packed brown sugar

3/4 cup dijon mustard

1 tablespoon minced garlic