Saturday, December 31, 2011

Audiobook: The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan

[I listened to this as an audiobook which I highly recommend if you've got an Audible account, since so many of the other books on my reading list aren't available in that format, and it is nice to give the eyes some time off.]

The basic approach of tracking the path from an original plant in the ground through all the intervening stages and ending up on a plate is a way-cool method of structuring this information - I'm sure I wouldn't have made it through all the philosophy and ethics without the story to hold it together. A lot of the details are eye-opening, as in "I've kinda heard this before, in bits and pieces, but I've never given it much attention and I really didn't want to think about it."

Industrial Corn

This was a very uncomfortable listen. Incredibly cheap food means incredible economies of scale in food production, and that efficiency comes at the expense of farmer compensation, ethical treatment of food animals, diversity in diet, unhealthy caloric options, and huge quantities of fossil fuels.

Farming corn and soybeans is such a losing proposition that second jobs are needed to make ends meet - is that a farmer who drives a big rig, or is that a truck driver who has a multi-hundred acre farm hobby? It seems a strange world in which competing means chasing bigger and bigger yields (5 tons per acre - twice as much as Fukuoka's rice fields!) only to lose money more slowly.

Pollan draws a clean connection between governmental policies and the astonishingly huge surplus of corn that we produce every year. The theme of "how can we get rid of the corn" or more charitably "what opportunities does this reservoir of organic material offer us" runs through this section, and the answer is "everything is corn." The mass spectrometer results on a McDonald's meal are a testament to this - I wish he had carried through with the math a little further to get the weighted average, but even guessing the relative masses the meal is more than 50% corn in various forms.

To round it out - the fossil fuel cost, 10 calories burned for every calorie of food on the plate, is the most depressing statistic of all. Not a sustainable answer.

Industrial Organic

Again the economies of scale need to kick in, so that in many ways there is not much difference between big organic and non-organic food production - the organic certification establishes minimum standards, and as much as we'd like to imagine it differently, companies that want to be profitable will do the very least they have to in order to achieve the label.

But those minimums do have a meaning and a benefit - removing the pesticides, chemical fertilizer, antibiotics and hormones does produce food that is better for us and for the planet.

Except for the fossil cost. The energy costs on the farm are a little better, but once in the distribution stream to get to consumers we are still in the range of 7-10 calories burned for each one that is on the plate. Still not sustainable. I don't like the trend line here!

Small Organic - Joel Salatin's Polyface Farm

And here's the permaculture - Salatin's farm is an interconnected web of stacked functions that sounds amazing! Polyculture grasses at the heart of everything, with rotational grazing, chickens that follow the cows (on day 3, not day 4 - maximize the fly larvae egg size but on't let them hatch), pigs and hens that work with the rabbit manure, turkeys in the orchard. The thought and innovation in these systems is beautiful; by almost every measure of sustainability Salatin is a huge winner.

Wait, "almost?" Yep, though it might just be me. Salatin is a huge promoter of bioregionalism - he won't ship any of his meats ("Just because we can ship organic lettuce from the Salinas Valley, or organic cut flowers from Peru, doesn’t mean we should do it, not if we’re really serious about energy and seasonality and bioregionalism. I’m afraid if you want to try one of our chickens, you’re going to have to drive down here to Swoope to pick it up.") - and this is my only major quibble: no discussion of the last mile problem. One of his customers says: "I drive 150 miles one way in order to get clean meat for my family." At 31,000 food calories per gallon of gas and 30 mpg, this one customer is burning 310,000 calories for his meat - he's got to drive off with over 46 pounds of beef or 59 pounds of chicken to do better than big organic's 7 calories of fossil fuel per calorie on plate.

That customer is an extreme case, and Salatin does sell at farmer's markets, local restaurants and buying clubs, so it is hard to imagine him doing more to minimize the effects of distribution, but I wanted a little discussion around one of the major complaints against industrial and big organic.

Quibble aside, I envy Pollan his week on the Polyface Farm, and I want all of my meat and eggs raised that way! I wish I lived near enough to be in his bioregion. Fortunately, I don't have to, and neither do you - Pollan mentions a website that helps you find the nearby farms that work like this - lots of transparency, and I'm eager to visit a few.


The last meal goes out the other side of sustainability and puts the personal pronoun into providing the food. I enjoyed his foray into vegetarianism and found myself quite grateful that he came out the other side having reasoned his way through to an ethical position that includes eating meat - that is not a journey I'm inclined to take myself though I respect those who choose that lifestyle for themselves (as long as they also respect my choice).

Pollan is clear that this sort of approach is not a lifestyle recommendation, nor is it a sustainable choice for any sizable portion of our population. Once again, he does not tote up the environmental costs of this meal (apparently that sort of examination is left for the methods of which he disapproves), though his personal fossil cost in transportation to all of the various hunting and gathering sites has got to end up in a ratio a lot worse that the industrial 10-to-1.

But that isn't the point of this meal - it is the logical endpoint of the structure he put around this book - distance from food source to table. Along the way he examined questions of ethics and sustainability, but this book isn't a game plan for how people should eat - it is an exploration, and one that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Highly recommended!

(Seriously, the first five books are all "highly recommended" - probably just because I'm reading by Amazon ratings - I'm sure there is some dross out there somewhere...)

Book: The One-Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka

Warning: starts out a little metaphysical and allegorical - gets better in the middle, then falls off the deep end in the second half. I enjoyed the book, but disagree strongly with his rejection of science and the scientific method - but don't let that stop you from being awed by his farming!

Fukuoka is the god of no-till farming, he calls it "natural farming." The book is a quick read (well not for me since I'm reading it on my phone during pretty much any short break during the day), and he hammers home one of the same major points as Sepp Holzer: experiment and observe, to which he adds "do less" and mostly "do nothing." He spent years looking for things that humans didn't need to do on his farm: no till, no weed, no standing water, no chemicals.

He describes his system in detail, and it makes for fascinating insight into how much has to be considered. My favorite was the perfect timing for sowing the next season's crop, with all of the reasoning that went into it, though the seed balls for protecting a surface-sown seed from animals is a cool second.

The scale of Fukuoka's farm sounded relatively small to me (at least compared to Sepp's Krameterhof) - 1.25 acres of rice field, and 12.5 acres of orchard. This book has made me re-think my definition of "small" since he averages 1,200 pounds of rice per quarter-acre - times 5, that's three tons a year, enough to feed 64 people every day for a year.

I see that I'm doing a lot of comparing to Sepp Holzer's Permaculture, but I read these two books at the same time, so the similarities and contrasts helped me get more out of each of them.

It isn't a closed system, since some of the produce is removed and he doesn't discuss any black-water recycling, but the only external input is apparently some poultry manure - incredible!

Sadly, it appears that no one has been able to replicate his results here in the US, though many are trying (listen to Paul Wheaton and Helen Atthow).

Whether or not we can design a similar system here, there is no doubt that Fukuoka's ideas will influence permaculture for a long time to come.

Watch nature, do less.

Equivocal recommendation - a lot of metaphysical dross to wade through for the really interesting bits, but on the other hand if you have mystic leanings of your own then this book could be right up your alley.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Book: Sepp Holzer's Permaculture by Sepp Holzer

Okay, let's get the full title out of the way: "Sepp Holzer's Permaculture: A Practical Guide to Small-Scale, Integrative Farming and Gardening"

First off, Sepp Holzer is a permaculture deity - his knowledge and wealth of experience are both humbling and encouraging. Humbling because he seems to know, well, everything. Encouraging because he is writing it down and sharing with the rest of us.

As far as I can tell, his definition of "small-scale" is relative to his own 45 hectares (111 acres, 4.8 million square feet...) - to do everything he talks about makes me want at least a 40 acre plot!

The book is full of practical information, well-written, with fascinating and entertaining anecdotes, but two key themes stood out for me; topics that he touched on again and again:

  1. Experiment and learn from the land, the plants, the animals

    Everywhere is different, and what works perfectly in one location might be a disaster in another, so there is no cookie-cutter prescription for success. Watch the world around you to see what it tells you about how you are doing and about what it needs. Don't be afraid to try new things, try lots of them, make lots of mistakes and learn from them.

  2. It is okay to make a profit

    Building your own paradise doesn't mean you need to withdraw from the world - money rents the backhoe that digs the new lake, or the tractor that drags in and mashes down the trees in your Hugelkultur. Money gets your rare seeds, beehives and mushroom spawn, yadda, yadda, yadda. Sepp is an unashamed capitalist (hear, hear!) and the book is packed full of ideas and suggestions on how to turn a profit.

This book is great - buy two copies and give one away.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Book: Permaculture in a Nutshell by Patrick Whitefield

A very good mix of the philosophy and key facets of permaculture, Patrick has a very engaging writing style. This book gives all of my English teacher's favorite things: who, what, where how, why and when. Well organized and brief (it takes about an hour to read), the details lean towards England, but at this point theory and repetition are my best learning tools.

Patrick's passion comes through loud and clear - he loves this stuff and wants everyone else to. There were a few points where I was initially put off by the social commentary; however, the topics of overpopulation, materialism and consumption are uncomfortable and need to be discussed - they make the need for sustainable solutions more immediate and apparent, and I ended up appreciating them.

More than anything else, I think this one goes into the library as what you give to your friends when they want to know what the heck you are spending all your time doing!

Recommended, and I look forward to reading Patrick's other books.

Book: All New Square Foot Gardening by Mel Batholomew

Not so much a permaculture book, but for a non-gardener like me Square Foot Gardening (SFG) makes the idea of growing things approachable. Mel's system is a space-efficient (and resource-efficient) method for raising annuals that requires very little starting knowledge and a minimal amount of manual labor.

His initial soil building is from scratch - ignoring the inputs of your own land unless you've already got some good compost (and even then it is only part of the mix). The peat moss and vermiculite that are added to your compost are deplete-able resources; however this is a one-time setup for each bed, and then the soil is refreshed with compost after each (incremental) harvest. Since you are now eating lots from your own garden, then the compost is a byproduct of your own waste stream.

The composting is the least appealing part of the process (to me, right now, sitting in an apartment) - from Mel's descriptions it can be back-breaking manual labor to get enough mass together and to turn it: perfect size 3x3x3 to 4x4x4 - that's 1-3 cubic yards to deal with. I prefer the general permacultural approach of composting-in-place out in the polyculture so I don't expect to have great piles of decaying matter sitting about, but SFG doesn't need a lot of compost - a small vermicomposting rig feels like it would do the trick and keep the labor down.

Is it permaculture? Nope.
Do I care? Nope.

It is a tool in the toolbox - high efficiency, low effort, rapid return - sounds like a great way to provide reliable food while getting through the first few years of low productivity from the food forest.

If you are new to gardening like me, then this is a great way to start.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Book: Gaia's Garden by Toby Hemenway

First permaculture book I read, and I loved it!

Which is not to say I absorbed it. Reading on the Kindle is awesome for convenience and portability - especially the big glossy books that weigh a ton and you feel bad about bending and tossing about. Downside - black and white/mostly un-zoomable pictures. That's fine for me right now - I couldn't tell the difference between a carrot and an oak tree, so the graphics are wasted on me at this point. Throw in some massive information overload and I've got a book that did a phenomenal job of introducing the vocabulary, philosophy, major people, methods, and significant organic tools.

The detailed plant lists aren't readable on the Kindle but work just fine when viewed on the laptop, and I'm only perusing them to build familiarity on this read through. This one gets bookmarked for a re-read when I've got a better foundation, and will certainly be a printed purchase for reference if I ever get to working on anything concrete.

Highly recommended.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Pathway to Permaculture

Short Version

TED Talks: Marcin Jakubowski
->Global Village Construction Set/Open Source Ecology
->Perennial Agriculture
->"Edible Forest Garden" "permaculture" - what the heck is this?
->Amazon kindle store, search "permaculture"
->Gaia's Garden by Toby Hemenway
->Read it in two sittings

Longer Version

I'm a software engineer with a black thumb. My wife and I barely kept a weed-lawn alive when we lived in Dallas, and now our (rental) NYC apartment has exactly zero outdoor space (no balcony, no fire escape, no roof deck, and for some reason the building management frowns on sticking things out the 33rd-floor windows). Why would I be interested in permaculture?

Partly the answer is a resounding "i dunno."

This stuff resonates with me, and I want to learn more. Maybe because it is so far divorced from my life, maybe because I fear that the human race is rushing lemming-like (I know it was a Disneyhoax, but I still like the image) towards resource exhaustion, and maybe because the bees keep dying, the desert keeps getting bigger and the coral keeps shrinking.

Since I'm a software geek, the open-source aspect of the GVCS appeals to me - it feels like we are doing the right thing in harnessing the resources of our energy-rich, high-technology society to design simplicity, durability and maintainability for machines that can keep us going through peak oil and beyond. It would exciting to replicate the technologies in the GVCS and help iron out the bugs, but two problems:

  1. No space for even a tractor (see above, NYC apartment)

  2. Not handy

The second is the less solvable problem - all of my construction experience came from building theatrical sets in high school and college, so I'm very skilled at quickly creating things that have a planned lifespan of 2-3 weeks.

On the other hand, while the OSE folks are focused on the first several bits of key hardware, there's a lot of stuff on their waiting list, and the food supply looked like an interesting one. That's the understatement of the year. I'm reading, listening, surfing, and watching kinda non-stop. On the plus side, my wife is interested in sustainability, and she's remarkably tolerant of my current need to over-share.

This stuff is way cool.

Friday, December 23, 2011


"Manifesto" sounds so much more aggressive than "vision" and "mission" so I'm good with it.

The goal (for now) is to track my learning about permaculture, record progress and monitor my interest level.

  • What books do I read, and what do I get out of them?

  • Videos/DVDs

  • Podcasts/Audiobooks

  • Online communities

  • Formal education/certifcations