Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Off the Grid

I recently spent some time in the Champlain Valley to visit family. While on our visit, we were invited to attend a potluck 4th of July party. The party was at the home of people we knew only through friends, but they were very welcoming hosts. The party was at a home in the the rural town of Essex. The home was out there. In fact, the home was off the grid. What does "off the grid" mean? Off the grid is something Lasell College students probably have not experienced. The home is completely free from the electrical power grid. Usually, homes that are off the grid are located in such rural locations that power companies cannot justify the cost of running power to the home.

I was fired up when I saw the set-up Mark had to power his home. His lot was cleared enough to get strong sun from the south. He had a row of three small solar panels. The solar panels were the same make and model I used when I was doing research at Harvard Forest. He ran the power from the solar panels into a series of five deep cycle marine batteries. I only had one battery in my system but I completely understood how his system was working.

It was intriguing to see folks living off the grid. They still had electronic devices that run off AC power. While they certainly do not consume the energy of an average home, I don't think they felt like they were lacking enough power to do things they want to do. Three solar panels to power a family's home. Interesting stuff!

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Essex Farm CSA

My friends Kristin and Jay are members of the Essex Farm CSA in Essex, NY. I read about the Essex Farm in the Press Republican on a visit to my parents. While Community Supported Agriculture systems are common, this farm is really unique. The farm produces not only fruit and vegetables for members, but also beef, pork, and chicken. Also available for members are eggs, yogurt, milk, and cheese. The farm even trades with a local mill to have flour available and there are plans to start growing wheat.

When Kristin invited me to the farm to pick strawberries and get a tour, I jumped at the opportunity. I was so curious to see this farm in operation.

Essex is a rural town. It is on Lake Champlain and borders Willsboro and Whallonsburg. Do you see my point? It is rural! The ferry to Charlotte, VT runs out of Essex. It is an unusual location for a CSA as most are typically located close to urban centers.

When we arrived at the farm, we each picked up a pallet to pick strawberries. We walked through the fields, and Kristin explained how the CSA operates. There were three of us, including Kristin and my sister Amy. We spent about an hour picking strawberries. We each filled a pallet and I'm guessing we had about 15 quarts of strawberries. The farmers were happy to see the strawberries picked as they were starting to get soft.

Kristin explained that joining the CSA was a big decision. The first share costs $2400, and the second $2000. The costs work out to about $85 per week for her family. However, Kristin and Jay estimate that they get between 60 and 80 percent of their food from the farm. And, they enjoy supporting a sustainable operation and getting all organic meat, milk, eggs, and produce. There are many more benefits as well. For example, we loaded up on strawberries to preserve and to serve with shortcake at a party. To put things in perspective, I recently bought strawberries at the Harvard Yard Farmer's Market for $6 per quart. At the Farmer's Market, 15 quarts would have cost me $90! Kristin said there is often an excess of produce so there are benefits to being good at preserving.

We met a few farmers along the way. The farmers came from some prestigious colleges. It was really encouraging to see well-educated young people engaging in agriculture. It made me think that maybe there is hope to shift away from industrial agriculture and back to more sustainable family farming.

Kristin invited me back to the farm for their Friday CSA share pick-up. Again, I jumped at this opportunity. The pick-up was really interesting. It had a festive feel to it as members kept rolling in to pick up their shares. Members lingered for a long time chatting with each other while sorting through the week's options. There was a chalkboard covered with what is available for the week. There were no limits set, and members are encouraged to take what they need. Kristin said the farm has found that people will actually take less if there are no limits. When a limit is set, everyone takes that amount.

The aspect of the Essex Farm CSA that captured my attention the most was the meat. The connection between the living animal and the butchered meat could not escape you. They slaughter and butcher their own meat on the farm. On our visit, the beef cattle had been moved to an area of high grass which was less than 100 yards from the pick-up area. There I stood looking at the cattle while looking at the hoist where one was recently slaughtered and butchered. It is a connection that industrial agriculture wants to hide. However, this is an aspect the CSA members seem to appreciate. They know the animal was produced in a sustainable manner and grass-fed on their farm. They also know where and how it was processed. The cattle weren't herded into concentrated feeding operations, stuffed with corn, and driven off to an industrial slaughter house.

We went over to say hello to the cattle. There were baby cattle grazing alongside some very large animals. I asked Kristin if she had ever volunteered on a slaughter day. She said she had been there when they processed a pig and on a chicken day. Her take was interesting. She said the chicken day was harder because death was everywhere as so many animals had to be slaughtered for the 80 members. Slaughtering one pig or one cattle may supply meat for members for weeks.

The members of the CSA were visibly satisfied with the farm. You could sense that they really enjoyed eating as locally and sustainably as possible. I left the Essex Farm wishing there was a similar option near Cambridge. There are meat CSAs and vegetable CSAs, but I have not heard of a farm that does it all in the area. The visit to the farm has inspired me to stop purchasing meat produced by industrial agriculture. My wife and I have decided to find local farms that raise beef, pork, and chicken and stock our freezer. We may have to take trips to Western Massachusetts or Vermont but we now feel this is important to us.

The Essex Farm is over 400 acres. Most of the land is used to graze the cattle and grow hay for the animals. About 80 acres is used to produce the fruit and vegetables for the 80 members plus the farm staff. My visit made me wonder if it is possible for a sustainable farming operation such as this to produce food to feed the students at a college such as Lasell? I know many colleges participate in the Farm to College Program. Bowdoin is a great example. As Lasell moves towards a greener campus, supporting local agriculture is a move that would be good for the environment, economy, and local farmers. Probably the biggest constraint we face in providing more local products in the dining hall is our students. Students have grown to expect and demand processed food. Students will choose the chicken patty over the fresh arugula salad or cheddar zucchini bake. I wish I could take all students at Lasell to visit the Essex Farm. Maybe an experience such as that would help them make more local food choices.

Kristin has invited me back to the farm to work for a day. I may take her up on the offer in August. It may seem odd but I am considering volunteering on a slaughter day. If I am going to make the decision to eat meat, I think it is important to understand the meat goes from a cattle grazing in the field to a package in the freezer. While I have read many accounts of this process, it is something I have not observed. It is a tough reality but important for a meat eater to understand. Maybe it will be too emotional for me and I will become a vegetarian. I'm not really sure what to expect.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Champlain Valley Adventures

Last night we returned to Cambridge from an extended trip to visit family on the New York side of Lake Champlain. While there was no shortage of rest and relaxation, I took advantage of my time in the Champlain Valley to visit farms in the area and meet North Country residents living the green life. I had the opportunity to visit the Essex Farm in Essex and the Butternut Ridge Farm in Peru. I went to a Fourth of July party at a home that is completely off the grid. I spent time with Jay and Kristen discussing their troubles in finding a loan to build an earth sheltered home on their property. In the coming days, I will share the stories of my adventures to the Champlain Valley. For now, I need to sort through all the packages that arrived to stock the lab for the Lasell College Environmental Studies Program. We now have some cool stuff!