Preparing for spring

One of the joys of January is poring over seed catalogs as they arrive with their promises of beautiful, bounteous johnnys-catalogyields of homegrown produce. I love to sit by the woodstove on a frigid winter’s evening and contemplate the potential merits of varieties of veggies and herbs I have not grown before versus tried and true favorites.

If you share this gardener’s off-season joy, think you might like to join the brother/sisterhood of (food) gardeners, or would just plain like to learn more about being an effective gardener, Just Food is sponsoring two gardening classes that you should check out (from the Events Calendar):

Gardening, Part 1- Plan your Garden

Jan 22 2009 – 5:00pm
Jan 22 2009 – 7:00pm
Now’s the time to begin planning your garden! Larua Frerichs, co-owner of Loon Organics, will discuss soil preparation, which plants can be direct seeded and which ones need to be transplanted, and how to schedule plantings throughout the season to maximize production. Held in the Just Food Event Space. Class is free, but preregistration is required at Just Food or by calling 507….

Co-op Class: Gardening, Part 2- What to Plant?

Jan 29 2009 – 5:00pm
Jan 29 2009 – 7:00pm
Erin Johnson and Ben Doherty of Open Hands Farm will lead a discussion on the different varieties available, what’s new, and which varieties work well in our area and which don’t. Held in the Just Food Event Space. This class is free, but please preregister at the front of the store or by calling507-650-0106
I don’t recall which cabbage varieties (perhaps Ruby Ball and Copenhagen) I grew in the summer of 1990 (below) in

Maia Larson, cabbage princess, summer 1990

Maia Larson, cabbage princess, summer 1990

the bountiful 1/2 acre garden I had on the old farm Anne, Maia and I lived on near Circle and Fox Lakes, but they were winners.

Just Food offers all sorts of other great sustainability-related classes, not just of the food-oriented variety. An excellent example is next Monday’s class on small wind turbines offered by Northfield’s Dan Borek:

Small Wind Power

Jan 26 2009 – 7:00pm

Jan 26 2009 – 8:00pm

Ever wonder what it would take to power your home, business or farm with a wind turbine? Join instructor Dan Borek as he answers your questions about small wind power possibilities. Held in the Just Food Event Space, please preregister for this free class while you are at Just Food or by calling 507-650-0106.

I expect to make it to the gardening classes, at least. Hope to see you there!

Looking for a leader, part II: the times, they are a-changing

On February 3, 2008 I blogged (“Looking for a leader”) about my family’s overwhelmingly positive experience at the previous day’s Obama rally at the Target Center in Minneapolis:

“I’ve made my choice among the presidential candidates. I was 99% behind Barack Obama before yesterday (with 1% still considering support for Hillary Clinton, who I would also be thrilled to see in the White House). After attending the Obama rally yesterday at the Target Center in Minneapolis, the 1% of remaining indecision evaporated.


As important as Obama’s moving, eloquent, funny, genuine 54-minute stump speech was in completely winning me over, the energy, diversity and hopefulness of the 20,000-person-strong crowd was perhaps even more impressive. As I waited to enter the building before the rally with my wife Anne and son Jakob in a line that stretched out of sight, I saw eager, excited faces. They were black, white, brown, old, young, affluent and not-so-affluent. In short, they were the faces of America… (more)”

Today,  351 days later, America celebrates the inauguration of Barack Hussein Obama as President. I remain hopeful that he will act as a major change agent at a time when our nation, and the world, are in urgent need of fundamental social tranformation to a more sustainable path. We badly need a leader able to pull people together, articulate a positive course of action, and act as a catalyst for major policy and social change.

Obama, and we as a people, face major challenges in the form of a badly faltering economy, major access, cost and quality problems in our health care and educational systems, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, global climate change, global poverty, and strife around the world based on ancient ethnic and religious animosities and resource competition. My fervent hope is that we, the people, and our new President, have the wisdom, vision, commitment and willingness to sacrifice to translate today’s exuberance and hope into lasting change that will lead to a better tomorrow not only for all Americans, but for all people worldwide, and the ecosystems upon which our shared well-being depends.

May we have found the leader we so desperately need. Godspeed, President Obama!

Building a strong local food system

I’ve been an organic gardener for about 3o years now, and have grown lots of my family’s veggies, herbs and berries over those years (more in some years, less in others). 15x2ft_EatLocalBannerI love digging in the dirt, and the satisfaction of savoring the literal fruits of my labor.

In addition, I have long believed that there are multiple social, economic and environmental benefits to a robust local food system. Northfield’s local food system has been getting stronger in recent years, with the establishment of Just Food and several community-supported agriculture (CSA) farms, and the continuing success of the Northfield Farmers’ Market. Anne and I buy a lot of local food (grains, beans, flours, cheese, other dairy products, winter produce, etc.) from Just Food Co-op (of which we are proudly member-owners #4!), and purchase pretty much all of our meat from local farmers (most recently, chickens from the Rural Enterprise Center’s Pollo de Campo and buffalo from Johnson’s Buffalo Ranch.

When the snow lies deep and the thermometer plunges, it becomes harder, but not impossible, to eat lots of local food. One traditional way to eat lots of local foods through long northern winters was to store root crops in a root cellar. Anne and I lived in an old farmhouse near Fox and Circle Lakes for a couple of years about 20 years ago, where I had a roughly one-half acre garden. The farmhouse basement included an enclosed root cellar, where I stored hundreds of pounds of potatoes, onions, other root crops and winter squash. It was tremendously satisfying to head down to the root cellar on a frigid January evening to select veggies for the day’s dinner.

john-fisher-merritt-in-winter-squash-room-of-root-cellar-webI’ve recently been thinking a lot, in conjunction with planning for Buffalo Commons Cohousing, about what it would take to build and maintain a sizeable root cellar for storage of both my own and other locally-produced winter crops. My research led me to a pioneer of the Minnesota CSA movement, John Fisher-Merritt of Food Farm (near Wrenshall, Minnesota, about 15 miles south of Duluth). John and his wife Jane built a 24-foot by 32-foot modern variation on the traditional root cellar with the assistance of a sustainable agriculture grant from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture in 2000. A computer-controlled ventilation system allows three different storage rooms to provide ideal storage conditions for different root crops with minimal energy input.

I took a road trip to pick John’s brain and tour his root cellar yesterday. (I also came home with about 30 pounds of excellent organic potatoes, carrots, turnips and parsnips.) Click here for a slideshow. I’m contemplating developing a business plan to build and operate a similar root cellar here in Northfield. Stay tuned or give me a shout if you’re interested in learning more, partnering, whatever??….

Enjoying stored solar energy

I’ve been heating my home primarily with my freestanding Vermont Castings Dutchwest woodstove since December 1996. woodstove-closeupThis high-efficiency, clean-burning, catalytic stove is able to heat our two-story, 1910-vintage home very nicely, although my wife and kids occasionally(!) complain about the temperature in the 2nd-floor bedrooms. I bow to their complaints to the extent that we use our forced-air furnace to heat the house up first thing in the morning, but that’s generally the only time we use the furnace. Over the course of the heating season, we burn about three cords of wood, which covers about 80% of our total heating load.

In recent winters I’ve been doing a fair amount of cooking on the woodstove, too. It’s extremely satisfying to slow-simmer a local chicken, pot of stew or beans, or even pre-heat the pasta water while using no purchased energy.

Heating with wood is not for those seeking ease of use or comfort at the push of a button. As I said, it’s  a huge amount of work, especially if you cut and hand-split your own wood, as I do. That being said, I love the whole woodburning cycle: cutting, hauling and splitting the wood; stacking the winter’s dried wood in my woodshed; schlepping armloads of wood into the wood box next to the stove; starting and stoking the fire; emptying the ash pan into the compost pile, in a never-ending cycle. It provides built-in exercise, too, always a good thing for an aging body such as mine.

ancient-white-ash-smallerI always marvel, when admiring a dead tree or a piece of cut firewood, at both the intrinsic beauty of the wood and the amazing energetic path represented: nuclear fusion in the core of the sun emits the solar energy that powers photosynthesis in the leaves of the tree, creating the chemical building blocks that power growth in the tree, including the lignin in the secondary xylem of the trunk and branches of hardwoods, which eventually, when dried, becomes my firewood. I’m literally burning stored sunshine this morning as I type. woodshed-smaller

I’ve had many adventures cutting firewood with my friend of many years, Andy Gockel of St. Paul. Our most recent adventure involved taking down a roughly 150-year-old, double-trunk red oak that had died of oak wilt and was threatening the home over which it loomed.  The tree yielded a HUGE amount of wood. My share may be almost a year’s worth of primo red oak.

I’m always on the lookout for free dead wood (standing or down). I’m a bit of a wood snob, prizing red oak, sugar maple, and ash above other woods for both their density and their ease of splitting. I rarely look askance at other hardwoods, though, as long as they don’t promise broken splitting maul handles. Give me a shout if you have a dead tree you’d like to see go to a good home!

Cohousing in the news

I received a Happy Holidays e-card yesterday from CoHousing Partners (the cohousing development firm headed by Katie McCamant, who I brought to Northfield in November for a couple of cohousing educational events, along with her husband, architect Chuck Durrett of McCamant & Durrett Architects). The card included some cohousing news, including a link to a story that ran on the San Francisco ABC-TV affiliate, KGO.

The story features several Bay area cohousing projects, with comments from a number of cohousers and from Katie McCamant (left) and Jim Leach of CoHousing Partners. You can view the segment (4:07 in length) by clicking here.

I remain very hopeful that the local cohousing project I seek to develop, Buffalo Commons Cohousing, will become reality soon….stay tuned for more!