Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Goal number 4: Respect humans

This one is pretty philosophical. Bear with me.

I believe that universal equality, respect, and worth is a critical next step in the development of our species. I also believe that the human desire to provide for one's self, spouse, and children before others is deeply fundamental and will never be completely supplanted by any system of values. This is why capitalism has been such a staggering engine of growth, for good or ill.

Humans. Picture credit: Manuel Jobi via Wikimedia Commons.

This leads inevitably to the question of how to reconcile those two things. If everyone is equal, how can I with good conscience treat myself and my children better? For me the answer lies in a somewhat contentious idea called "kin selection". I first heard about this idea in an episode of RadioLab where they discussed the idea as promoted by Richard Dawkins, although it goes all the way back to Charles Darwin. I'll admit that I've never actually read any Dawkins, and he often comes across to me in interviews and articles as too abrasive. I recommend this RadioLab even if you ordinarily can't stomach Dawkins because with Jad, Robert and Lynn as a buffer it's a bit easier to swallow.

My children and some nieces and nephews

Here's how the idea has come to rest in my mind. It is core to humans to want healthy, successful offspring. The next best thing is the children of siblings. Instinctively, we get good feelings from helping people who are close to us. But science and technology have done two wonderful things for us. For one, science has shown us that we are all cousins, to some degree or another. Go back far enough and, while we probably don't literally find a first mother and father of all of us, we all share some blood.  In my mind, every child on earth is a niece or nephew of greater or lesser magnitude.

And for two, technology has made the world an increasingly small place. I interact every day with people all around the world, talking about gardening and insect identification and webcomics and a hundred other things. Except when it becomes instrumental to the discussion, I seldom know from where they are writing, and I seldom need to know. Technology lets us see that we really aren't all that different. That the cultural lines in which we orient ourselves need not be based on blood or geography.

So why does this all matter to what I'm doing on my farm? Well, okay, maybe it's pretty obvious. We buy an awful lot of our goods from countries where humans don't get treated as well as they would be treated here in the US. We have access to cheap goods because other groups of people are consuming their human and environmental capital. I do believe that we couldn't be where we are today without some of that same exploitation. But I also think that we have the capability today to develop and demonstrate a way for the world's developing companies to skip over the human costs of ascending to their rightful place as prosperous partners in the leading edge of human health and well-being.

Today rural people in economically depressed parts of the world have access to mobile phones in staggering numbers. The laborious step of stringing copper cables into every home has been cut short. So too can we avoid each country in turn playing host to deplorable and exploitative factory conditions. China and India are ascending to power based on this kind of advantage. What will come next when they finally begin to protect their workers health and well-being in the way that currently developed nations do? The world is small; I really feel that we can build something amazing here at home that people all over the world will see it and take the best of it for themselves.

There is another reason to worry about respecting humans, right here at home. As I have hinted, I am a dedicated capitalist. I believe that people need the freedom to thrive without limits in order to live to their full potential. The world needs people like Bill Gates and Elon Musk to look up to. But a curious construct has emerged that does far more damage than individual wealthy people ever could: corporations. My father used to have a view in common with many fiscal conservatives, particularly in the 90s: "corporations are not some kind of creature with a mind of their own, corporations are controlled by their shareholders, and their shareholders are largely mutual funds and small investors with interests just like yours and mine." I believed this firmly well into my twenties, when eventually the evidence mounted to the point that I had to admit something else was happening and look closer. Was it true what some of my staunch liberal friends would say: that the boardrooms are stuffed full of heartless maniacal sociopaths?

Bill Gosper's Glider Gun in action. Image credit: Kieff via Wikimedia Commons.

Have you ever heard of cellular automata? This is a phenomena whereby (extremely oversimplified explanation alert!) a set of extremely simple rules can produce extremely complicated behaviors. The rules that create the animation above are based on four simple rules and a simple initial state.  Many writers and thnkers have theorized that higher functions like intelligence might emerge from complex structures like corporations. My explanation is quite simple. Many large corporations have become extremely complex machines of automata where two rules have emerged as the most highly important.

  • Maximize profit
  • Minimize risk
Almost all behavior of large corporations can be chalked up to one of these two rules. Which on their own are admirable rules. Maximum profit means maximum productivity. That's good for people. Minimal risk means that the people who depend on the corporation for their livelihood are more secure. This is why corporations are so successful, and have filled such a major role as drivers of growth.

The problem is that corporations have no kin. If kin are the driver of altruism, if corporations lack even the most fundamental human sense that children must be protected into adulthood, then corporations are themselves in fact sociopathic. And occasionally maniacal.

We need to develop and advance social and economic structures which put conscience back into our engines of productivity and growth. For me this means supporting people and groups who do the right thing. This means skipping the middle-man and working directly with the people who provide our services. This means not accepting lower prices when the real costs are hidden. This means sharing information, sharing food, sharing resources. It also means entering into my dealings with a high degree of respect for every person involved, regardless of whether I share their opinions, and regardless of whether I will have a chance to look them in the eye. Or even occupy the same hemisphere as them.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Goal number 3: Innovate

It has been a productive first week here, starting the work of establishing what I've come to think of as the "pilot farm". Sure, I've been growing here on my little eighteen one hundredths of an acre literally since before I actually owned it. We planted our artichoke, squash, and broccoli the week before we closed on the house. But now we're starting the process of ramping it up. We want to be ready to grow as much as we can in the spring. We're also welcoming three hard-working hens into our family, and so I've been shoring up the fencing and clearing space.

Working in the yard with my assistants.

But that's not the extent of my vision. I really want to be able to grow food for as much of the year as possible. This could mean hydroponic growing, greenhouses, growing with electric lights, or something we haven't even thought of. I'd love to be able to grow a beautiful organic tomato in December. It's easy to get discouraged, though. There's a lot of information out there and I've barely scratched the surface. But I keep getting the impression that there's not many people out there doing truly local-baed organic hydroponic gardening. Some people seem to be doing pretty well with aquaponics -- hydroponic gardening using fish -- but most of them only seem to be growing lettuce. And of those, I'm not convinced that it's any better to import fish food than to just import fertilizer.

As I go through these thought processes I keep coming back to goal number 3, "innovate". I'm not going to solve these problems overnight. I also might not do them by doing exactly what other people are doing. Certainly not in exactly the same way as someone in California or Florida. But I'm not going to assume that just because I haven't yet found someone with a magic solution right here in my town just yet, that it doesn't exist. Food growing is nowhere near theoretical maximum of efficiency in any form. I am confident that I can explore the state of the art and maybe even push it out a little bit.

An important first step, of course, is to state my problem. My original statement of goals is actually a pretty good starting point. But I need a much more clear statement of what the problem is before I can start to think about where to innovate.

I have a lot of ideas, of course. Since a very young age I've read a lot of science fiction which includes various authors' takes on how humans can exist in exceedingly smaller worlds. One of my favorite examples of this is in the breathtakingly epic novel by Neal Stephenson, Anathem. In Anathem (no spoilers!) some of the characters live in a rather isolated way and grow much of their food using a type of cultivation called tangles. Tangles are a collection of different food plants that have been genetically engineered to grow together in harmony, providing a natural vertical structure, with built-in nitrogen fixation, and multiple food crops all in one small space. I lent out my copy to a certain newly-minted attorney so I can't look up the exact quote, but the idea was something like that a one-square meter tangle with enough could provide enough food to meet most of a person's nutritional requirement.

I'm not going to try to become a genetic engineer, though. What I am going to do, though, is try out solutions that might be a little bit closer to that theoretical ideal. One of them is bound to stick. I think in a hundred years we're going to have something even cooler than a tangle. Where I'm headed is just a tiny step in that direction.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Goal number 2: Use science

Ah, science. I love science. To me science means the systematic study of the emergent properties of the universe. We live in a beautiful universe full of parallels and synergies and beautiful coincidences. Here's one of my favorites. It's a bit long, but bear with me. Also, a disclaimer: I am a layperson with no formal training so I am probably wrong in many different ways.

Stars are amazing, simple things. More or less they are just a bunch of hydrogen. That's all you need to make a star! Enough hydrogen! So suppose you want to make a solar system of your own. Go on down to the Cosmic Improvement Center and pick up some hydrogen and find a nice empty area of space where nobody has set up shop. You may notice that they sell the hydrogen in a unit called a Jupiter mass, which is just what it sounds like: a bunch of hydrogen that weighs1 as much as our planet Jupiter.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

So if you start out with, say, twenty Jupiter masses of hydrogen, you're going to get a nice round ball of gas out there in space. Gravity is going to tend to make it round, and pull the gas together, and eventually you're going to get enough pressure that the deuterium in the star -- the bits of helium with two atoms, rather than one -- is going to start to explode in little bitty thermonuclear explosions and warm things up. But at that size, there's not enough heat or pressure to go any farther than this. What you have is a brown dwarf, too small to be a proper star. Your planets -- I order mine of eBay, but you can also buy them at your local garden center -- would probably be too cold to have any interesting chemistry, let alone biology.

So, supposing you clear out the Cosmic Improvement Center and come home with a truckload of, say, ten thousand Jupiter masses of hydrogen. (What can I say, they were on sale.) Roll those out into your designated spot and things will happen pretty quickly! You've got deuterium fissioning before you've even opened the third bag, and by the time you're done unloading you've got a nice tan that will last a few million years. You can step back a few billion kilometers and appreciate the warm glow of single-atom hydrogen, protium, undergoing fusion at a really healthy rate. Unfortunately this isn't the best place for your newly- assembled planets either. It's quite warm, so warm that in order to not cook all the coolest chemicals off your planets they need to be really far away from it. So far away that they are probably going to take a long time to go around one orbit, and so they won't have very noticeable seasons, which really makes planetary chemistry a lot more fun. The bigger problem is that this supergiant star is going to be turning hydrogen into helium at such a rate that almost immediately it's going to be fusing helium, too. Then it's going to move on to carbon, neon, oxygen, and on and on until it's making nickel and iron, which don't fuse very well. In a few tens of millions of years the star is going to explode, pushing what's left of the hydrogen off into space and leave behind something like a black hole or a neutron star or something equally problematic to care for.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

So, this time, let's do a quick Google search and figure out what a good amount of hydrogen is. Conveniently we have a pretty good example right nearby. Our own sun happens to have about a thousand Jupiter masses of hydrogen (and other stuff). So measure it and dole it out and watch as it begins to glow. That's more like it! This will glow for a few billion years, fusing hydrogen and helium and other stuff in smaller quantities, making just the right amount of heat and other radiation for you to spin those planets of yours and enjoy some liquid water and stable atmospheres. Throw in some comets for water, some complex organic molecules, a healthy dose of methane, baby, you got a primordial stew going!

So, there's a lot of ways to make stars, but there's a pretty clear "sweet spot" for the cosmological process. As it turns out, it's pretty much the same with one of my favorite biological processes: compost making. Pile on a few buckets-full of compost and sure, it will decompose, but it won't happen very fast, and it won't get hot enough to kill any weed seeds or pathogens. Pile on a hundred dump-truck loads, and you will get extremely rapid decomposition, but it will actually make so much heat that you're destroying nutrients and the middle of the pile will be full of white actinobacteria at best and actual ash at worst. But make your pile just the right size, mix it up just often enough, an you will get just the right kind of microbial activity to break down the organic matter into a perfect medium to support an entire complex web of organic life in balance. We call this broken down organic matter humus and when it is rich and full of nutrients you'd be hard-pressed to find a better fuel for life.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

These kinds of parallels exist all through nature. But it's not just my spiritual appreciation of these beautiful synergies and coincidences that makes me love science. What drives me to appreciate science is the fact that we've discovered these things! From here on our little ball of biology, or just a little bit beyond it, we've managed to observe enough about the universe to develop models which describe our universe consistently. As scientific creatures, we can develop hypotheses and then either prove or disprove them. We can weave proven theories together to develop more and more advanced hypotheses and continually deepen our understanding of our world and solve more and more of the problems we face.

Science can't solve all problems. Science can't change people's minds, can't sooth hate or hurt or disagreement. But I am supremely confident -- you might even say that I have faith -- that science will one day solve the problem of exploding human population growth, of the plunder of our ecosystems, of the finite resources which are every day spread thinner. Given a set of constraints, even these problems can be countered with hypotheses which can be proved or disproved.

My hypothesis is that I can grow a significant quantity of food right here in my town in a way that matches my values better than it does when I buy my food from all over the world. The next step is to develop my methodology.

1 Note that mass and weight aren't actually the same thing.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Goal number 1: Grow delicious food

I'm going to be doing an eight-part series covering each of the goals that I outlined in my big announcement on Monday. Today I'm going to cover goal number one, "Grow delicious food".

Disclaimer: watermelon came from a farm

Food is key to the human experience. We base our social rituals around food. Food is linked to our emotional state and to our physical health. I am both blessed and cursed to live in a place and time of plenty, when a person of moderate means can consume whatever they choose from a staggering variety of foods that would be unheard-of delicacies in ages past. So many of the important traditions of my own life hinge around foom, from the Jewish sacrament of Bagels and Lox to courting the shy seventeen year-old-girl who would later become my wife over Icees, sitting on the bumper of my car in the parking lot of Rita's Market in Roseburg.

Somewhere along the line, though, one food became holy above all others. I don't remember exactly when it was that I learned the ritual, but I remember watching my mother perform it. The way she lightly toasted the bread, spread the mayo, just so, then carefully sliced those beautiful red round globes onto the bread and added a dusting of salt and pepper. I don't know what possessed me to finally take up her offer of a bite, but from that moment I was hooked. The tomato sandwich has been the fuel of this dream.

Of course there are other holy practices in my garden these days. Another motivator is watching my kids interract with their food. 

I think my kids enjoy digging up potatoes more than playing with any of their many toys. Nobody ever told them it wasn't supposed to be fun. Somebody told me once, but I guess I'm just contrary enough not to have been convinced.

Our kids have a deep connection to where their food comes from. We're not perfect, of course -- our kids still go nuts for a box of macaroni and cheese with a cartoon character on the front. But it's just a part of life for them to travel to one of our wonderful local farms and spend a day picking and playing. To run out into the garden to get ingredients for dinner. Or to watch Dad slave over a hot stove for hours to make the jam that they will eat all year.

The closer I am to my food, the more I enjoy it. And, for the most part, fresher food is tastier. By growing close to where I consume my food, I add a lot of enjoyment to my life, and I want to bring a bit of this to other people. I want to find ways to bring delicious food to more people, and to me, that means doing it close to where they live. I've got lots of ideas and I look forward to sharing them with you soon!

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Free gold: Neighbor trims trees, I mulch like crazy

So yesterday I heard a chainsaw start up outside and instinctively jumped up out of my chair. What did I find but a tree service getting ready to butcher trim my neighbor's trees? I walked over and asked the young man behind the saw if he'd mind dumping the chopped up chips and leaves in my drive when he was done. He readily agreed, doubly as he saves on a trip to the recycling center and a $10 fee.

Just a side note: this is the wrong time of year to trim trees. I could go on for pages and not do the topic justice, but the short version based on my novice understanding is:
  • Trees are trying to feed their roots with the last sun energy of the year right now. If you chop off a lot of limbs they can react in ways you wouldn't expect, like desperately sending out new shoots to try to make up the deficit, either now or in the spring. Remember: pruning promotes growth!
  • All the coming wetness is more likely to harbor disease of all types.
  • The "best" (rule of thumb) time to prune is in the winter while the tree is dormant, preferably late in winter when there isn't so much wet time left and more sun to help things dry out.
  • If you want to reduce the vigor of the tree, do it over a few years.
I know it's tempting to prune at the end of the summer when you can see just how laden a tree is. But what I see so many people do to their trees is not going to make a particularly attractive tree anyway. If you just "top" the tree or lop off a bunch of branches at the middle you're going to get a lot of small shoots below where the cut is, which isn't usually what people want. The thing to do is to either observe the tree over a long period of time to get an idea what needs to be done to it, or have someone who is truly in tune with the habits of different trees who can look at it while dormant and do a proper job of training them. I'm sure there are real arborists out there, but they are probably a lot more expensive than the "tree service" you usually see. Also maybe the "tree service" will do it if you ask, but hardly anyone wants to pony up the money in the end and isn't happy with the lack of immediately visible results.

Anyway, enough digression. I got this beautiful pile that is a pretty good mix of chipped wood and cut green leaves. About a 70/30 ratio of "brown" to "green" by my reckoning. Here's the pile. Don't let the size of that giant shovel fool you!

Side note, I used this as an excuse to buy a giant 10 cubic foot wheelbarrow, which allowed me to move what came to about four and a half yards in about 60 minutes. That's actually 40 minutes between the two photos and a previous 20 minutes last night with the smaller wheelbarrow.

After lunch I'll sweep the drive. It's been needing it anyway. Actually, it pretty much always needs it because those birch trees are literally always dropping either leaves, seeds, or pollen in some quantity. I'm going to use the chips to mulch over the winter, compost some of it, but mostly let it sit for a full five seasons and plan to use it in the spring of 2015. Of course by then it will be mixed with many other sources. Here we go!

Monday, October 7, 2013

A season of bounty

Today is the beginning of a new season in my life. A door has been opened to me. I have decided to live my dream: to devote my life to growing food. Nothing brings me joy and satisfaction quite like turning the rawest ingredients into the most delicious delicacies, and doing it in a way that is as socially and environmentally positive as possible.

The form this goal will take isn't certain. I have a couple of different bold visions for how I could make this happen. But all of them focus around growing food based on these principals.
  1. Grow delicious food. Fresh, well-cared-for food is tastier and a joy to the soul.
  2. Use science. I trust deeply in the power of science to guide (but not dictate) our decisions when sufficient high fidelity data is available.
  3. Innovate. By bringing my technological chops into this endeavor, I can make use of the benefits of automation, data collection, and collaboration.
  4. Respect humans. Much of our agricultural economy is based on disparities of human station. It is time for us to become a world where all people can thrive.
  5. Respect nature. We must respect the interconnected web of life of which we are all a part.
  6. Question. Inspect preconceptions carefully and make decisions in a rational manner.
  7. Grow efficiently. Aside from the benefit provided to nature in preserving resources, efficiency can help to keep prices down and to do more with our finite capital (i.e. land).
  8. Share. Sharing information, resources, and surpluses will make the sum of us greater than our individual parts.
Will the end result of this be a conventional farm? Or something completely different? Well, I expect I'll have many more treatises on this subject. But here are my immediate "next steps".

  1. Do a proper fall cleanup in the yard. I love my weed burner, by the way. More on that later.
  2. Prepare for the arrival of Joel and Felicia's chickens! My friends are moving and need a home for their girls. We've considered this for a long time and now is the perfect opportunity. More on that too.
  3. Finish the Master Gardener and Small Farm training programs through extension. Continue taking classes and networking.
  4. Finish Master Gardener volunteer hours.
  5. Ramp up compost production. I actually started vermicompost (worm compost) just last week.
  6. Set up a rainwater collection system.
  7. Build some greenhouses for spring.
  8. Start a pilot project for one or more alternative growing techniques.
  9. Document everything!
  10. Start developing a formal plan for how to scale this up!
Well, that's the short version anyway. Expect to hear a lot more. Whee!