Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Most Cherished Maple Syrup

Maple syrup is a 'non-timber forest product'. Like natural rubber and pine resin, maple syrup production promotes reforestation, forest cover protection and low-input production methods. It is the kind of enterprise that makes rural life possible.

It is no surprise then that people engaged in this type of production are a certain kind of 'environmentalist'. Their 'forest management' is most accurately described as 'knowing' their forest. Walking, looking, listening. Being there in their forest. It is 'slow' economic activity.

I have met this particular type of forest manager in both Honduras and Canada, people living in and making a living out of the forest they protect, nurture and know.

We want to support those kinds of efforts as consumers.

Today we went to buy maple syrup- maybe a year's supply- from the most amazing sugar bush manager, a 66 km (or 44 mile) drive from home. This is a second growth forest on the north shore of Lake Erie, owned and run by Robert McLaren. He exalts in the beauty of his forest, its wildlife, its strength. He grew up in a forest- his father ran a park- and working in its sugar operation.

It is an old tradition in this region, really an Indigenous tradition that was preserved by European colonists. Most farms had a bush lot, many produced syrup, few do to today. "The farmers have just bulldozed them". In 1851, this township produced 5,945 pounds of maple sugar (and only 4,700 pounds of butter).

He splits all of his wood by hand. The syrup he produces is dark, very thick and tastes like woodsmoke. It tastes like a woodstove feels on a cold day.

The view on his farm is of thirty five acres of bush overlooking the lake, bordered by creeks that run through the gullies on either side of his forest.

Robert McLaren's farm is an example of what happens when a producer refuses to let market concerns trump environmental sustainability, and refuses to segregate 'nature' in parks.

The integrity of the product is assured by the integrity of the production. And the integrity of the producer. This is 'slow' production.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The New City Farmer: Breaks With Tradition

These are photos of a very new urban farm up the street from us. We walk by every day; every day I think a bit more about what this garden is telling me.

In these photos of the neighbor's garden, you can see their raised beds and minimal lawn in the first, and in the second their view of their neighbor's more established grape vines growing on an arbor.

About half of their parking space in the front (technically City property) has been devoted to the raspberries you can see in the third photo.

As I've written about before, there is a long history in the neighborhood of people growing food. I interviewed one of our neighborhood elders years ago who told me about people sharing food they grew on their own and the City's property. There were Victory gardens too of course.

But this is not one of those 'traditional' gardens. Rather, it is worth noticing that this is in fact new.

Traditional gardens around here were born of necessity. And a culture that tolerated doing things like growing food in your yard!

The context for this City Farm is very different, however. Today food is both cheap, and suspect- the price of food is at an all time low given mass production, but consumers are increasingly disturbed by the consequences of that mass production.

Consumers are increasingly aware that cheap petroleum makes it possible for food to be produced as inexpensively as possible, meaning wherever necessary to generate profit. This means that the control of key resources- land and water- is more concentrated in the hands of big market producers than ever before. And processed foods have never been cheaper or more available.

This City Farm comes into existence at a time when anyone who eats is more a captive of the market-driven food system than at any time in human history. Rich and poor alike, we are part of this super-efficient system, despite the multiple crises it spells. Unlike my Gramma's City Farm, this City Farm comes into existence in the face of that crisis. For Gramma, she was doing what she knew how to do well- expertly even. Small-scale mixed-plot agriculture, and all that implies about preparing, preserving and sharing food. Unlike the New City Farmers, she was not challenged to launch a new way to look at food.

New City Farmers like the one on my street pose a direct challenge to the processes creating the crisis of the food system today, by abandoning the system that has very nearly made us all captive.

These City Farmers are rebuilding the bond that has been broken between producers and consumers because they are both! Better than that, they are creating a new kind of community around these bonds, because they open this garden to others, on community work days: anyone who wants to come help out with the weeding shares the harvest.

This last quality, of recreating community through the production of food, is the quality I most admire about this garden- well, and that they produce food in their front yard- because it is the most difficult thing to do. That is, we live in an era when we can create community through commercial transaction. The best examples of this for me are 'Food Banks', institutions that affirm this triumph- I buy food at the grocery store, give it to the Food Bank, they give it to my neighbors.

This garden also reveals a respectful relationship with water. They use rain water, sparing the river that run off, full of all the muck it picks up running over our roads. But if they do have to irrigate, they can use City water. And City water is protected and its quality is regulated, because here it is a commonly held resource- which cannot be said of water in many countries which export vegetables. In many exporting countries, water resources are used without regard to any other users- poor farmers especially. Export vegetables are full of this looted water, and leave plenty of polluted water behind.

This New City Farm on my street is a "quiet protest", to quote Deb G over at Bee Creative. This New City Farm welcomes the beauty of producing food on a small scale, like the artistry of Grace over at Windthread (here too.)

And, while I was there taking pictures, a giant bumble bee was buzzing around. So, the bees we grow for need this garden, too. And maybe the New City Farm needs our bees.

The New City Farm on my street shows me one way to disrupt a system of production that undermines community, that cannot value the work of the pollinators, and that separates 'making' from 'living'. This garden is something to celebrate, and be grateful for, everyday.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Grace and Mending

Well, followers...I am starting a new blog today that is focused on cloth, recycling and in general rethinking the ways in which mass consumerism teaches us to interact with 'stuff'.

If anybody wants to stop by, you are welcome!