Food Community

Bees bring in pollen to feed new brood in early March

It’s Spring here in Western Washington and the bulbs bloom, bees pollinate, and catkins burst with yellow silk dander in the breeze. We’ve kept our hive alive through the winter, and look forward to creating a second hive soon to expand our colonies and pollination potential. Perennial flowers are on the planting list, and with the weather finally shifting towards the warmer months, we’re putting poppy, hollyhock, lupine, and more under the soil for good flower power come summer. Right now there are several species of flowering plant already hard at work with the colony- from field mint to red and white flowering current to oso berry and twin flower, the small wild early buds are out and blooming. We usually thing of flowers are the big pollen producers, to be sure, but pollen catkins from pine, hazel, and ground species like plantain are also offering golden food to bees and other insect pollinators.

In the kitchen garden, baby kale, radish, and spinach are up and leafing out in a rush to cool spring rains. Warming sun waxes into longer days for all life to celebrate in a great green return. The energy of creation at this time seems a peak of abundance, and indeed, for the equinoxes of the seasonal calendar- these times are boom production showstoppers in the natural world. But at EEC, even in the quietest time of ecological production- darkest winter, we’re preparing for early Spring splendor with lambing, which kicked off this year in January. There are 10 lambs so far, and yes, at least one more to come- possible 3-5. Lupita, a third year ewe, will be having her first litter, and it could be twins. First timers usually have a single large lamb, and I think that’s healthy if a first year ewe gets bred. Third year ewes who do not breed are culled. We’ve never had a ewe miss lambing by third year, and usually, a third year ewe will drop twins, so it’s worth the wait in our herd.

Springy lambs in late winter melt into fluffy balls of fleece as the flowering fruit trees signal the final step into Spring. Our apple blossoms are peeking out, along with pear and peach. The plumbs are even earlier, now flocked in white like our lambs. As the season for lambing winds down, we hope to also finish seeding our summer gardens with flowers and veggies galore. Since chicken wire came down to curb grass and morning glory habitat, we’ve had a run of bird gleanings through the soil, but now, with seedlings popping up, the ground is vulnerable to bird scratching, so we’re erecting electric mesh as a temporary stay. There will be a lot of electric mesh going back up to protect young plants around the landscape. Developing our rotational grazing system has been an ever evolving process and the land changes. I continue to appreciate the temporary fencing, as it can flex. Sometimes the fencing is keeping animals in, other times, it’s keeping animals out, and it works. We’re establishing living fences around our edges, and many of the young plants rooted seven years ago, are now towering shrubs ready for laying our first hedge. In another ten years, we’ll have living fences for the livestock to brows on, wildlife to nest in, and pollinators to revel around.

Insects play such an important roll in nature- it’s what makes food possible, and could be considered a foundational crop all other crops are based upon. We’re loosing our insect populations exponentially, and the chemical war on pests has become insane. If you farm only one thing, and leave nothing else on the landscape for wildlife (insects are wildlife), the bugs only have the mono-culture to eat on. Humans think better living through chemistry, but they don’t look at the consequences facing our species now. Our food options in America have regressed to a majority corn diet. It’s in everything you pull off the shelf in a grocery store- that and soy. We still like too think that agriculture means plant and animal based production, but it’s actually chemical companies that run agriculture. We abandoned small farms for city industry, and when people left the land, they lost their connection to place, nature, and themselves.

Humanity has come to rely on a system of chemical concentrates and “digital” aids to keep people out of direct contact with environment and avoids any acknowledgment of the detrimental effects on earth’s living system. Just spend a few moments reading “Bayer Highlights Advancement” article and you’re quickly whisked into chemical control heaven with all the gadgets and measurements suited to industry to make farmer’s lives easier. Farmers won’t have lives worth living if they spend the majority of their time bathed in chemicals or staring at a digital screen all day. Suicide is common in farmers. Rural Agricultural Health is especially depressing, and these particular details come from 2019. I could not find current statistics, as I’m sure COVID has increased stress and financial worries. For small farms like EEC Forest Stewardship, we’ve taken a road less traveled in agriculture- small, holistic, and debt free. It means we are too small an operation for any profitable industrial production, but that’s not the goal of this land or its vision. Still, food production and conservation thrive hand in hand, and we create surplus, feeding others besides ourselves through commercial and barter exchange for our products.

The collaboration of production in small scale agriculture is often underrated and dismissed because of the short sighted commercial aptitude. The USDA idea of small farm is anything making less than $100,000.00 a year. Wow- that’s a heck of a departure from my own small farm, and that of most other small farms I know of. Note this definition revolves around money rather than acreage, numbers of livestock, or anything related to actual food for local community. Commodity crops are still the main farming focus, and this kind of production is about stock market earnings, not feeding people. There is nothing in the language of these commodity products that refers to food- it’s just measurable profit. Where I do see talk of feeding people using small scale agriculture that reflect my own production can be found here. The World Food Program recognizes that most farmers in the world are working 5 acres or less without synthetic inputs or access to large machines. But WFP wants to get fertilizers and tractors into all these small scale farms to improve production and make a difference. It’s all happening in other places- outside the US. Usually, they are focused in “developing” nations.

There are no synthetic fertilizers or tractors at EEC. We rely on regenerative practices that improve the pastures and forests through already existing systems like sheep and chicken manure spread by the animals as they graze the land. We hand sew our gardens and hand weed too. Though again, EEC is less about row cropping and more about livestock and local learning. We have taught multiple slaughter and butchering classes to members of our community who wish to process their own meat. Factory farms producing livestock are the most polluted places food is produced. Here in The US, we are starting to recognize that smaller animal production systems are still producing as much food as factory farms, but at a much lower impact to the environment. I would argue that if communities invested in truly local, small scale animal consumption, the detriments would drop even more, and people would have access to healthier food from much happier animals.

I’ve talked specifically about chicken factories before, and want to readdress this topic, as chicken is an easy place to start with regards to community driven production and buying local. EEC Forest Stewardship does not produce meat birds, but we do have duel purpose animals that are sold for meat. You’ll not be getting a huge breast or chicken nuggets, but the bone broth and meat offer a decent family meal or multiple small meals for a single person or couple household. If you don’t have access to a local producer, you can look for CSA programs or online distributors who work to connect consumers to producers. Farmers Markets are worthy weekly ventures, and you can freeze fresh chicken for use later in winter, when many farmers markets do not run. If you already have a local chicken source, branch out and seek pork, beef, or lamb. There’s also seafood, but that’s another kettle of fish to unpack.

Coastal communities have oceans of bounty, if the waters off shore are clean. Sadly, in most places, this is not the case, and seafood is sought far from home. City pollution has ruined most coastal fishing around the world. Freshwater fish can pose similar pollution issues, so know the source. Fish farms are not friendly to the fish or ecology nearby. There are some small family run fishing companies that are worthy of community food investment. The other reality facing most of us regarding food is cost and convince. I know, unless you commit to food as a lifestyle theses days, you’re not going to be able to afford or source all things healthy and sustaining. It’s the reality in an age where farming is considered the occupation for food production, and gardening is a hobby. In many other countries, vegetable patches are an important lifeline to cultivate in community. This is where many neighborhoods are missing a grand opportunity to create food safety and security for neighbors and family.

Right now, in April, most places in the lower 48 of our grand states is ready for planting outside. How many of you are planning out your gardens? Seeds are so vital to food production and local food cultivates best from local seeds. I know, the seed catalogues are wonderful, and full of great selections for all your wants and needs in heirloom verities and non-GMO verified. However, the most viable seeds are locally collected, and the production of those seeds will be more predictable than the catalogue seeds from many bioregions away. If you are lucky enough to have a local seed provider near you, that’s wonderful- support them. For those of us not lucky enough to have local seeds, that’s the first issue to address. Our high school hosts a seed swap every spring. People bring mostly locally cultivated seeds, but there are also leftover commercial seed packets and unusual verities from far flung places too. Seed swaps are also a chance for all the local growers to connect and trade success and failure stories. Even if you are not going to plant any seeds at home, you could connect with a local gardener and offer to help. They might even have room for you to plant a few things in their garden to learn.

EEC Forest Stewardship has lots of open garden beds available, and sometimes people use them- especially our tenants. I learned a long time ago that gardening is not my forte. Yet I still put seeds in the ground each year and continue to develop perennial gardens that are hands off where I can. We already grow more than we use, so it’s working, though you won’t see row crops or many typical grocery store favorites on this landscape. I think this is where many people who visit this farmstead are confused. They don’t see crops in the sense they expect, but food abounds across this landscape. Our nettle and dandelion production is active, along with lamb, chicken, egg, and a verity of edible blossoms. Maple flowers are about to bloom, and we’ll have lady fern fiddle heads in the next few weeks.

Mindset with food is another way to cultivate strong community, and often the biggest challenge facing those of us capable of making choice in our dietary consumption. If we are able to pay more for quality, and have access to it, it’s important to invest. If there’s one thing you can do to support local agriculture and ensure you’ll have food available in future, is paying that extra cost and taking the added time to prepare and enjoy healthy eating. You’ll discover a world of flavor and build stronger relationship with your community through local eating. You’ll also be invested in your community and have an idea of where your local food sources can be strengthened and endure through these changing times.

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