Respectful disagreement

When Gabor Lukacs and I gave each other big hugs after the public meeting ended, the 20 people in the room may have been surprised. After all, we had just expressed opposite opinions on a controversial subject.

As a member of a commission considering reforms to our town’s government, I favor a major change, while Gabor supports minor tweaks. We also disagree on our town’s biggest issue this month: whether to accept $34 million in state money to build two new elementary schools.

But Gabor and I are friends. We both ride bicycles and grow vegetables, and we are among our town’s lowest carbon emitters. I have written blog posts about his urban homestead and why he lives the simple life.

IMG_20141220_152701164_HDRWhen Gabor and I embraced each other after the meeting, I hadn’t seen him since we started an email dialogue three weeks earlier. It has now grown to 23 lengthy emails, and we joke that it will come out in book form next year.

We haven’t held back. I’ve been completely open about the problems I see with our town’s governmental system, and he’s told me what he’s afraid of if we change it. Both of us have thought carefully about what the other has written, and I feel he has broadened my perspective.

We need more civil conversation about the challenges we face, both local and national. Too often, we communicate only with people we agree with. We tend to emphasize our differences with political opponents rather than seeking common ground. This narrow thinking can lead to a belief that our problems are simple when they are actually complex.

Gabor and I compliment each other. “I really appreciate that you did your homework and considered both sides of the argument,” I wrote to him. “I want to appreciate you for putting all this energy into trying to make our town government better,” he wrote to me.

There is give and take between us, as in “I give that to you if you’ll also agree…” We have found numerous points on which we see things the same way.

I also appreciate that Gabor, whose first language was not English, is unafraid of verbal jousting with someone who made his living with words. I understand that because Gabor grew up in Hungary during Soviet domination, he has good reason to feel a fierce love of participating in our 240-member Town Meeting.

His wish to be directly involved in the decision-making process has led me to think about ways this could continue within a new government structure. I wouldn’t want to lose his voice, even when I disagree with his positions. And Gabor has agreed with me that Town Meeting would work better if it was much smaller.

We’ve confronted fundamental questions. What does democracy mean? How can you build trust in government? How can elected officials listen to dissenters in a way that makes them feel heard?

As we prepare to inaugurate a new President who casually puts down those who disagree with him, we need more of the kind of respectful dialogue that Gabor and I have maintained.

For new readers of this blog, here’s a quick summary of more than 150 past posts on simple living, radical frugality, living without, gardening, cooking and climate change. Or hover on “Index” above to read all the posts in a particular category.


Carbon farming for a better future

Eric Toensmeier“Climate change gives us the opportunity to right all these wrongs that need to be dealt with anyway,” says Eric Toensmeier of Holyoke, Mass. “Carbon farming is a key part of that, and can make big contributions to climate justice.”

He hopes the people of the world will insist that the use of fossil fuels be phased out by reductions of 10 to  15 percent per year, no matter what governments and corporations say.

Having studied perennial plants and their roles in agroforestry systems for over 20 years, Toensmeier foresees a day when we have transformed our agriculture from an industrial to an ecological model, with an emphasis on perennials. He envisions a world where wealthy countries reduce their excessive  consumption and the global south has a higher standard of living. He hopes his descendants will see a stable and livable, if slightly warmer, climate.

Toensmeier, who has many previous publications to his credit, has authored a new book, The Carbon Farming Solution, in service of his big vision. He sees this comprehensive work as a toolkit that can be used by farmers, communities and policy makers around the world to transform agriculture, by choosing the right strategies for their particular situations.

He shows how these practices, applied worldwide, can mitigate climate change by building living, carbon-rich soils. In fact, Toensmeier cites a prominent soil carbon scientist who says that, if widely implemented, carbon farming could bring CO2 levels back down to a livable 350 ppm in 30 to 50 years.  At the same time, carbon farming can restore healthy ecosystems and provide meaningful work and abundant, locally controlled food for human populations around the earth. (Here’s more information on how healthy soils sequester carbon.)

Carbon farming practices can also help us adapt to the effects of climate change. Increasing  organic matter in the soil means that it can hold water longer in dry conditions. And when there is too much rain, carbon-rich soil holds water like a sponge and slowly releases it, reducing the risk of flooding. Other aspects of carbon farming, such as an emphasis on trees and perennial crops, and the use of erosion control strategies, also play a role in conserving soil and farm yields under new climatic conditions.

What are some of the practices that can perform this feat? Toensmeier presents a number of categories of carbon farming practices:

  1. Better ways to grow annual crops alone: using familiar methods like mulching, cover crops, crop rotation, organic practices, and reducing tillage. These practices build carbon in soil in low amounts, but if widely employed over time, these low amounts could add up.
  2. Annual crops with perennials: Integrating perennial plants, like trees,  with familiar annual crops –  for example, in windbreaks or hedgerows.  Agroforestry practices in which nitrogen-fixing, timber, or food-yielding perennial plants are inter-cropped with annuals.  These systems must be properly designed so perennials don’t compete with annual crops, but Toensmeier showcases examples from around the world where this is being done successfully on a big scale. Practices like this can sequester one to two tons of carbon per hectare per year.
  3. Better ways of grazing and pasture: Even though ruminant livestock emit methane as part of their digestive process, it is possible to sequester enough carbon by adding trees to perennial pasture (silvopasture), and by practices such as managed grazing, that the net result is the sequestration of 1 to 10 tons of carbon per hectare per year.
  4. Perennial crops: including practices like coppicing and biomass systems, tree crops, bamboo, multi-level agroforestry systems, orchards, plantations and perennial staple crops.
  5. Perennial polycultures: Systems where multiple species of plants and trees grow densely together can sequester carbon at the highest level, 4 to 40 tons per hectare per year, often more than nearby natural forests.

In his book, Toensmeier lists 700 species useful for carbon farming, and devotes many chapters to perennial staple crops, perennial industrial crops and agroforestry. He is making some of this information available for free on the The Carbon Farming Solution website, including resource lists and links to videos.

If we are paying attention, we know that our world is facing challenging problems, many of them exacerbated by climate change.  It is encouraging to realize that there are safe,  elegant and affordable solutions that will make the possibility of good lives attainable for future generations around the globe.

Add carbon farming to the human toolkit as we embark on what could be one of humankind’s greatest adventures: building a better future for our descendants.

New readers of this blog can click here for a quick overview of 150 past posts on simple living, frugality, climate change, cooking, gardening and living without. Or hover on “Index” above to read many of the posts in a particular category.






Winter harvest wisdom

Dan Botkin has an active love affair with hoop houses. On his 3-acre  Laughing Dog Farm in Gill, he has a walk-in hoop greenhouse that produces food all year long. There’s even a fig tree! Wonderful as it is, a big hoop house like his can be expensive and difficult to construct.  Humans tend to seek complicated solutions when simple ones will do, Botkin says.

IMG_20150815_100118924 At the NOFA conference last summer, he gave a workshop on low hoop houses or tunnels (he has 12),  which give “so much bang for the buck.”  They are simple to build, low tech and inexpensive.

Botkin describes low tunnels as “magical,” yielding harvests of fresh vegetables during the freezing cold of our New England winters. He credits Eliot Coleman of Maine with inspiring growers like him to push the limits of winter growing.  Botkin has developed a formula over the years.

IMG_20151103_132143263_HDRFirst, select cold-hardy plants, including: brassicas like kale, broccoli, and turnips; chard and beets; spinach and lettuces; endive and chicory; arugula; Asian greens like tatsoi; alliums like leeks, shallots, and garlic; root crops like carrots and parsnips; and even flowers like calendula and snapdragon and herbs like cilantro.

Unlike vegetables grown in the summer, plants grown in the fall, winter and spring will seldom bolt. Some of the most cold-hardy — like tatsoi, arugula, kale and leeks — can freeze solid and come back to life.  Their sweet sap works like antifreeze, Botkin says.  They cast off moisture from their cell walls and go into a protective wilt, then suck it back up when the temperature goes above freezing.  Each time they freeze, they get tougher.

IMG_20150815_110603688_HDRThe second part of the winter harvest formula is: provide layers of protection. What makes plants die in winter is not just the frost and cold, but the drying and burning impact of the wind, Botkin says.  Just creating a windbreak like a low tunnel improves the odds.  More plants survive if additional layers of protection, such as cut-off plastic milk jugs and non-woven row cover, are added as well.

The third part of winter harvests is aggressive timing, which I find difficult. Who wants to hustle those fruit-laden tomato and zucchini plants out of the way in August to plant lettuce and spinach?  But Botkin says you need to have robust plants by the fall, to “hit October with momentum.” For winter harvest, begin planting in August, and ramp up in September and October.  By November it is too late.

Botkin has made low tunnels from a variety of plastic pipes and wires, using whatever he had at hand.  But the sturdiest and longest-lasting framework for low tunnels is made from 3/4″ galvanized steel tubing, which costs around $3.40 per 10-foot length.  IMG_20151103_125958098Since the tubing is straight, you need to bend it.  Botkin has created a homemade bender out of plywood, and it takes about three minutes to bend each pole.  He offered workshop participants the use of his bender in exchange for farm help or a “love offering.”

IMG_20151103_125814542Taking him up on his offer, I bought six pipes for my 10-foot-long hoop house and, love offerings in hand,  journeyed up to Laughing Dog Farm with my friend Tina. Botkin demonstrated the bender and got us started.  Bending steel pipes makes you feel strong, but I was sore the next day!

IMG_20151105_154010145To assemble the low tunnel,  Nick and I inserted foot-long stakes of 1/2″ plastic pipe every two feet on both sides of the hoop house, and slid the steel pipes over them.  To hold the structure together, Botkin suggests using  three parallel purlins, lashed on to the hoops with strips of cut up T-shirts. To help the tunnel shed snow and water, the purlin at the peak goes on the outside of the hoops, and the ones on the sides are fastened inside  the hoops.

The tunnels are sturdy.  As Botkin says, “Weak stuff lashed together makes strong stuff.”

IMG_20151206_083801643Finally, we clipped on plastic sheeting. Voila! In future years we might do what Botkin does, and dig a trench down the middle to make a foot-wide crawl path and heap the soil along the sides to make 2 1/2-foot-wide raised beds.  As he crawls through the low hoops tending his crops, Botkin says he nibbles on a leaf here and there in his “snack shack.”

A few challenges with these low tunnels are: 1) temperature spikes on warm sunny days can cook seedlings; and 2) heavy snow loads can make them collapse.  In addition, because there is no lighting beyond what the sun provides, plants stop growing in the  middle of winter.  But in March, a time when stored vegetables in the cellar are getting old or running low, the plants in the tunnels will burst back to life and you’ll have plenty of fresh greens.

Botkin’s mission is not just to grow and market vegetables, but also to spread inspiration and learning. His workshop and visit to his farm sure got me excited about growing hardy plants to harvest in the winter, using sturdy and easy-to-assemble low tunnels. Bring on the kale!

For new readers of this blog, here’s a quick overview of 150 past posts in 13 categories, including frugality, simple living, cooking, gardening and climate change. You can also click on “Index” above and see all the posts in a particular category.











Gerber’s garden

100_3468John Gerber gives away a lot of what he grows in his backyard garden.

As a mentor to future farmers, Gerber gives UMass students both a grounding in agriculture and a sense of purpose. As a gardener, he shares his fruits and vegetables as readily as he shares his knowledge.

“I do this for fun, and to share,” he says. “It keeps me sane.”

Take tomatoes. Go ahead, take some. The free tomatoes in the photo above sit on a stand in front of his Amherst home. They are the only indication of the extensive gardens behind it.

He has about 40 tomato plants there. This has been a very good year for tomatoes, with no late blight as in past years, so Gerber has plenty to share. He also  skins and freezes them before making tomato sauce and canning it in November, when it’s cooler. Betsy does something similar with raspberries.

100_3463There are three Asian pear trees in the Gerber back yard, and they are heavy-laden with fruit. He makes jam out of them, and stores some for later eating. But he also gives a lot of them away to his students, most of whom have never seen one. Asian pears are similar to apples but without the disease and insect problems that force most growers to spray nasty chemicals.

He devotes a large amount of space to gourds. His son Jeremy used to sell gourds to neighbors, and when he left home the demand continued. So Gerber still grows them and gives them away.

There’s also broom corn, but it’s not to make brooms as New Englanders used to. The tops get fed to the six hens, which produce at least three eggs a day, many of which are consumed in other households.

This has also been a great year for grapes, and on Saturday Gerber extracted four gallons of juice from them, prior to making jelly. He doesn’t spray the vines, and this year there’s been no disease. Some years, there are no grapes at all.

Gerber’s garden also includes a kiwi arbor and a 30-foot-tall pawpaw tree. He also grows white eggplant, pumpkins, blueberries, and New Zealand spinach.

Gerber, who has a Ph.D in the physiology of vegetable crops, calls himself a lazy gardener. “I used to be a lot more fanatical,” he says.

For new readers of this blog, here’s a quick overview of more than 120 posts in 13 categories, including simple living, frugality, cooking, gardening, living without, and climate change.




Mentor to future farmers

100_3465There are now 145 UMass students majoring in sustainable food and farming, compared to five in 2002. That growth reflects increased interest in where are our food comes from, but it’s also attributable to the charismatic professor who coordinates the program.

John Gerber has been involved in many local agriculture initiatives. He’s one of the founders of Grow Food Amherst and the All Things Local store, and has an extensive fruit and vegetable garden behind his own home, which I will describe in my next post. Gerber has had perhaps his biggest influence in the inspiration he brings to young people who are interested in  agriculture.

“He brings a professor’s presence with chill, peaceful, compassionate vibes,” wrote one student on the Rate My Professors website, on which he gets high grades. Gerber, 63, has been at UMass for 22 years and won the Distinguished Teacher Award in 2008.

But what awaits all those sustainable farming majors after they graduate? Are there enough jobs to keep all these idealistic young people employed? Gerber said some graduates are working directly in farming, while others are engaged in agricultural education, and others are finding their place in public policy or advocacy.

Many graduates become entrepreneurs, creating jobs that didn’t exist before. Gerber cites Ryan Karb, who created Many Hands Farm, which not only provides food to the public but also provides summer work for teenagers. Graduate Willie Crosby created a mushroom business called Fungi Ally.

“Jobs are tough to find these days, but these folks aren’t accountants. They are creating things,” Gerber said. “When I look at them, I think I’m 22 again.”

Six of the vendors at All Things Local are former students, giving Gerber extra motivation to promote this new business at 104 North Pleasant St. in downtown Amherst. It has had its growing pains, but he’s optimistic because new co-manager Alison Potter has brought a higher level of enthusiasm and organization.

In his classes, Gerber does more than teach about how to grow vegetables. He encourages students to explore their own personal growth and community responsibility through service, dialogue and contemplation. He has in recent years reclaimed the Catholic faith of his youth, partly because of Pope Francis, and found a spiritual home at the Newman Center at UMass.

“We need to reconnect with each other and the earth,” he said. “Unless we do that, no amount of recycling or Priuses or turning lights off will save the planet. We need to reawaken to the fact that we are part of, not apart from, Mother Earth.”

UMass was founded in 1863 as an agricultural college, so Gerber is helping to bring the institution back to its roots.

For those new to this blog, here’s a quick overview of more than 120 past posts in 13 categories, including simple living, gardening, frugality, living without, and climate change.