Does Black Plastic Mulch have a place in Sustainable Agriculture?

mulch 2

When many of us think of sustainable agriculture, there is a set of stereotypes that come to mind. Green acres, bucolic animals gently grazing a flowering meadow, and people stooped in the fields endlessly weeding.  For me, my ideal never included the use of plastic, which on the surface, seems to be the opposite of organic in so many ways. What could be less sustainable then black plastic mulch?

Using mulch is a huge part of organic agriculture. There are so many benefits its actually hard to fully enumerate them. Reduced water consumption, less weed pressure, better soil texture, and at the end of the season, depending on what you used, you can till the mulch back into the soil. The soil on my farm is largely clay, so I have spent the last year turning in as much organic matter into the soil as possible. The goal is to eventually shift the soil towards something resembling sandy loam through cover cropping, green manures, mulching, and composting. Last year my mulch of choice was straw.

mulch early spring

I went a bit crazy covering nearly every piece of bare soil with straw. To a certain extent, this was great. The soil already looks better this year. But it was wet last year, and this year is already very sodden. I suspect that my fungus/blight problems were at least partly connected to the use of straw, which has a tendency to keep the soil moist and was starting to sprout little mushrooms. Last year the garden was newly tilled, so there was a lot of issues with grass coming back, and I spent too much time dealing with regrowth from clumps of sod I had hoped would decompose in the ground and add to the organic matter in the soil. The straw never seemed thick enough to suppress the tenacious blades of grass, so I thought I would try something new this year.

Mulch can also help to regulate soil temperature by either cooling or heating the ground through the albedo effect. This is where black plastic mulch can help with heat loving plants like tomatoes, peppers and eggplants. I have never been happy with my peppers. They are always so finicky and only grow in the hottest years, but this year I am determined! I expanded the area of cultivation significantly this year, with new sod turned under, so I thought it would be a good idea to cover those sections with a mulch that is a bit more impervious. I will be testing three different systems in order to see what works better, but the larger philosophical issue haunts me: should using a non-renewable resource be considered organic? Is this different than using gasoline to power my tractor? And if so, what would it mean to remove all oil from the equation? Are we ready for the labour involved, and who exactly will do that labour?


The first “test” is the standard drip tape/black plastic mulch combo. It is supposed to raise soil temperature and really help yields with tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers. The second is for a hugel bed I made for the asparagus and strawberry patch. Hugel beds involve a layering technique that creates raised beds by utilizing branches, straw, leaves, and other course materials that can provide a decade or more of fertility as the lower levels slowly decompose.  With so many twigs, branches, and leaves leftover from the ice storm, what better way to get rid of the “waste” than to raise an otherwise low patch and provide compost for these long lived perennials?

hugel 1

hugel 3

Since this patch is permanent, plastic was not an option. Instead, I have tried something called bio-film, a semi-permeable, and biodegradable plastic that will help keep the grass at bay for the first season. Next year I will go back to hay after the bio-film breaks down.

hugel 4


For me, the bigger question is: does plastic have a role in organic agriculture? It is allowed by organic standards, and many people swear by its effectiveness. On one level the question of waste is very important, since it is difficult to reuse the material at the end of the season, although I will try. However, organic agriculture is beset by a bigger issue of labour and needs to balance the very real need for sustainable, chemical free food, and the increased requirements for labour that this necessarily involves. Say what you will, the green revolution has allowed our farmers to become some of the most productive humans ever working the soil. Pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals associated with conventional agriculture have lots of negative side effects, but they do one thing really well: save labour.

mulch 3

As a small farm owner, figuring out how to do everything that needs to be done, hour by hour, is a major challenge. Organic ag often relies on exploiting unpaid or lowly paid interns or migrant workers. In the long run, this is neither sustainable nor really desirable. I doubt many young people will hede the calling unless a living wage is possible. Until people are willing to pay the true cost of the food they eat, organic farmers will be stuck in a conundrum. Do I use a technique that is allowed, but not really in line with the ideals I hold, but can drastically increase yields and reduce my work load? Or do I hold onto those ideals and self-exploit my own time, or that of my interns?

mulch 1

This is why I think that initiatives like community gardens, urban agriculture, and farm-to-table programs are so important. The more people realize the labour involved in sustainable agriculture, the more likely they are to realize why good food costs more. I don’t know where I stand on black plastic mulch yet. We will see at the end of the season I suppose, but I am glad to see initiatives like the Halton Community Garden Network and the Halton Food Council encouraging urban agriculture. Knowledge is the first step towards change, and growing even a few vegetables or herbs can help shift your understanding of what it takes to eat without degrading the land. You may not provide all, or even a lot of your food, but at the end of the day, that small plot you tend on your balcony, back yard, or in the community garden will help you understand what is involved in sustaining us every day.


The Perilous Pursuit of the Platonic Perogy


Most people don’t know what a perogy should taste like. If you have eaten the store bought variety, then I am sad to say, you have been fooled. This is a perogy as imagined by a machine— one that has been shaped to the needs of industry at the cost of pleasure. Like so much of our food, something profound has been lost in the pursuit of profit. Like the industrial tomato, which bears no resemblance to the homegrown counterpart, the industrial perogy is the canary in the culinary coal mine.

In his excellent book, Embodied Food Politics, Michael Carolan talks about how our bodies become tuned to certain kinds of flavours. We aren’t born craving Big Macs and KD, but a lot of very clever people have found some ingenious ways to tweak our tastebuds and tune our bodies into craving these things. The industrial food system, weather that involves fast food, frozen TV dinners, or Mac and Cheese, has shaped our expectations of what food should taste like. Michael Moss and Michael Pollan have both written about the holy trinity of salt, fat, and sugar as the building blocks of mad food science, where engineers, rather than chefs, endlessly tweak products to achieve a “bliss point” capable of convincing us that one handful of chips isn’t enough. Why not finish that bag?

While some things may indeed simulate a state of junk food nirvana, like the tennis balls that pass for tomatoes these days, the perogy is an example of the world beyond the cave. Somethings are worth the effort, and the perogy, is most certainly one of those.

I was lucky and grew up in a Ukrainian household untarnished by the doughy abomination that passes for a perogy at the supermarket. I have vivid memories of my mother and grandmother spending the day making hundreds and hundreds of perogies for the holiday season. And this is truly the only way to do it. It is a labour intensive process and your first batch will most likely be terrible, although it will be infinitely better than what you would have bought otherwise. Every time I make them I learn a little more about the process. At the end of this article, I will  include a recipe, but I caution you to tread carefully. Making a perogy is a flirtation with disaster. The platonic perogy walks a fine line, and unless you are willing to risk disaster, you will never know what is possible. The industrial version is made by a machine and thus the product you receive must have a thick dough to be able to withstand the speed, efficiency, and brutality of mass production.

A perogy is very simple. A ball of cheesy potato and onions wrapped by a simple dough. There are only 4 ingredients: potato, flour, cheese and onion, and yet, making them will take years to master, for the perfect perogy must transition almost seamlessly between inside and out. What makes the industrial version unappetizing is the thickness of the dough. If you want the Platonic perogy, then you will have to approach your own bliss point. I make my dough with hot potato water and work it until my arms are soar because you need to roll it out to the point where it is just thick enough to hold everything together.

To me this is the true definition of artisinal. You don’t need fancy ingredients or complicated techniques— all you need is time and patience. Time to learn and patience to push past the point of failure and learn with your mind and body. I can’t tell you how thin to roll the dough. That depends on the gluten content of your flour, how long you kneaded it, and the humidity in the air. It probably also will change based on how dextrous your fingers are, how long you sautéed the onions for your potatoes, and how well you mashed them. You will learn by doing, by developing bodily memory, and by tuning yourself to the process. The first couple of dozen may be okay, but by the 60th you will be on a roll, and by 100, you will be approaching that perfect platonic perogy.

And there is value in this embodied knowledge that goes well beyond the meal you make. When you begin to know food with all your senses, you start to think about your relationship with the world differently. Your body becomes tuned to different rhythms, develops different expectations, and perhaps, that engineered bliss point no longer tastes so good. More than most things, what we eat is a matter of habit. This is why marketers work so hard to capture children at an early age. They understand the power of repetition and the memories that our bodies hold. Taking the time to cook can help break some of these habits and open the door to a more just, sustainable, and more humane food system designed for living beings and not machines.

Below you will find a recipe that will make 120 perogies. I know this sounds crazy, and it will take you most of the day, but most of them will make it to the freezer and you will have meal after meal that will more than make up the effort. The best way to do this is with friends and family. Throw a perogy party, make them together, and share in the bounty.



Approximately 7lbs of white potatoes (I use russet) , peeled.

Two big onions

pat of butter

Cheese to taste-- I use about 1.5 lbs of smoked cheddar to give it a bacony taste

Boil big pot of potatoes until soft. Reserve 3 cups of water.


Fry onions with butter until soft. Mash potatoes until very smooth. Do not add milk. Mix in onions and cheese to taste. Salt and pepper to taste. Let in cool completely. I do this the night before.


2 cups hot water (can use water from boiled potatoes)

1 tablespoon of salt unless using potato water

6 cups flour

3 tablespoons oil

Place 4 cups flour in a bowl, make a well and start adding the water and mixing.

Place out on counter and knead. Add the rest of flour as needed, but be careful not to add too much. Dough should be sticky and silky smooth. During the last stage switch to rolling the dough instead of kneading. During this process you should only be dusting your hands in flour.

Roll out thin and dust lightly with flour.


Cut into circles with a cup.

Ball up some potato mix and lightly flour. Do a whole tray of these so your hands don't stick to the dough.


Place in center of dough and with two thumbs, press potatoes into flat circle, fold and pinch trying to avoid making large dough wings. Make sure that no potatoes get in between the dough you are pinching together. The dough should be sticky enough to cling. Dust your fingers in flour to help the pinching process.

Boil water with oil and salt. Stir ever so gently with a slotted spoon. Cook until floating and then gently use the slotted spoon to place them in a tray with melted butter.

Serve with sour cream.

Otherwise, freeze on a floured tray and then place in bag. Best to thaw perogies on a tray before cooking them from frozen. Leave out for half an hour.

Makes about 120 perogies.


Sauerkraut and Sourdough: Cultivating the Everyday Wild

This is an excerpt from my book, The Politics of the Pantry.


“Bread”: staff of life, daily ritual, civilization itself. Few foods are as polysemic as bread. For some, it represents home; the smell of fresh-baked bread can transport you into another world – even for those who did not grow up with home bakers, it is powerfully symbolic of the hearth. For generations of women, bread tied them to the kitchen, forcing them to wake up early and bake loaf after loaf to feed their families. Cheap white bread available at the super- market liberated those women from domestic drudgery. And then, for the 1960s counterculture, white bread came in turn to symbolize what was wrong with the food system, and dense, hearty brown breads, often home-baked, were as much an act of resistance as the housewife buying Wonder Bread had been challenging patriarchal modes of production and consumption.  For Richard Manning, on the other hand, bread is part of the fall of civilization from a healthier, more leisurely, and more humane and ecological hunter- and-gatherer way of life. He argues that agriculture has led to a dulling of the senses, the conquest of human desire over natural evolution, sedentary life styles, the spread of disease, and social systems based on hierarchy and patriarchy. More than most foods, bread signifies; and is it useful to think with.

From a culinary standpoint, bread is at once the simplest and most complicated product you can make. Fundamentally, it is just flour, water, and yeast. And yet, baking bread is an activity that can bring fear to cooks: it separates tinkerers from the hardcore, partly because of its polysemic aura. If you have never baked bread, the task seems monumental, hardly worth the effort since bread is so cheap and plentiful in the grocery store. My first serious foray into bread was actually inspired by a class I took in the first year of my PhD. We were discussing Slow Food and I decided to make a soft farmers’ cheese and fresh bread for the class as part of my presentation. At first, I began with the predictability of commercial yeast, which for the novice baker is very comforting. It rises when it should and you can pretty much follow a recipe. Although it was delicious, I wanted to try something even more local: sourdough is one of the few foods a cook can experiment with at home that really expresses terroir. San Francisco sourdough is famous because the yeast is unique to that area, not because it was baked there. Every area will yield its own unique flavours and textures, immediately discernible from another. Sourdough takes patience and attention: it demands a different kind of mindfulness and consideration, and a willingness to relinquish control and allow wildness into your life.

My sourdough bread is a three-day process, and in many ways embodies some of the contradictions and possibilities of the politics of the pantry as a social and political movement. Sourdough is the ultimate slow food; at its most basic, you capture wild yeast from the air and nurture a sponge of live culture in a mixture of flour and water. With some time and patience, this is all you need to make the most wonderful bread you have ever eaten. It is so incredibly simple and satisfying – but also frustrating and finicky. Like anything wild, it resists accommodating to clock time. More than many other foods, sourdough is an agentic assemblage, a hybrid being with the power to enchant. It achieves its flavour from a mixture of yeast and lactobacteria, a symbiotic relationship that yields some delicious results. Unfortunately, the bacteria and yeast are out of sync: they exist in slightly different temporalities, and that being so, balancing the rise you get from the yeast with the sourness of the bacteria is a tricky process. For this reason, modern yeast, of the variety you find in packages and jars at your local supermarket, is genetically engineered to be extremely fast and reliable. It eschews the delicate sourness and complexity of lactobacteria in favour of speed, reliability, and loft. The lactobacteria naturally present in bread have no chance to catch up. But it is convenient, and I have been tempted to add some commercial yeast to a loaf of bread that stubbornly refused to fill with the precious exhalations of the teeming billions of microbes for which I have tried to provide a good home. Without these microscopic breaths, the bread comes out like a brick – hardly palatable, dry, and frustratingly dense.

This starter is 10 years old now. My oldest child

This starter is 10 years old now. My oldest child

Making good sourdough takes a particular mindset; you must learn to coexist, to imagine the world from the most minute perspective and be generous and accommodating of the microbe’s temporality. You must comprehend what the yeast and bacteria want, and if you can provide those conditions, culinary perfection awaits. I have a batch of sourdough that is eight years old, and like a fine wine, it is better today than when I started it. It sits in my refrigerator and provides the basis for breads, pizza, baguettes, waffles, pancakes, and even an experiment with booza, an ancient fermented, beer-like beverage the Egyptians used to drink that is made from sprouted wheat groats, half-baked-sourdough and water – an acquired taste to be sure, but magical as an example of how two ingredients in different ratios can yield so many different forms. I have tended this batch with care, and it has surprised me with its resilience, coming back from near death on a number of occasions when life has made me negligent of the colony in my fridge.

And wait you must: the fine points usually boil down to time and timing. I start my bread in the evening, proofing a sponge of refrigerated sourdough mixture by adding fresh water and flour, and gently inciting the microbial world from its somnolence by leaving the mixture out for twelve hours. By the morning, the sponge is bubbly and smells wonderful, with a complex, mildly alcoholic smell that is redolent of over-ripe fruit. I take part of this, return it to the clay jar I keep my starter in, and mix in some more fresh flour and water. This goes into the fridge and back into microbial torpidity, awaiting a new feeding or a fresh batch of bread. If tended this way, sourdough cultures will keep for decades and even centuries, becoming tastier and rising with more vigour as they age. Lately, I have been frustrated by the dough because it took so long to rise and was hard to time. Unlike commercial yeast, which generally takes a few hours to rise and re-rise, sourdough is much more particular and susceptible to the vagaries of humidity and temperature. Since I live in a draughty old house where we keep the temperature rather low, it is always a battle to get the right conditions to balance the flavour with the rise, for sourdough is pure terroir, an extension of the local landscape and weather. Every place will yield a different culture, a different flavour, and every time you bake it, the bread is unique. I have baked hundreds of loaves, and each time always different. It is precisely for this reason that sourdough is artisanal and why even breads advertised as sourdough are in fact rarely leavened by wild bacteria and yeasts alone. Sourdough takes skill and patience and a willingness to engage with the bread on its own terms. Industrial methods always prefer domesticated over wild forms, as they are more predictable and easier to control, having been disciplined to clock time. But like my garden, the wildness gives it vigour and flavour.

After the sponge is ready, I begin the first of three rises. Flour and water are basically all you need, but I like to include flax meal, different kinds of flour, oatmeal, nuts, honey, milk, and dried fruit to enhance the bread. Next, the flour, to which I add water, milk, honey, oil, and salt and then knead until silky smooth. It is a mistake to use precise measurements at this point, as once again, the amount of flour needed will depend on the humidity of the air and the moisture content of the original sponge. It’s best to simply feel for a particular texture. It requires that you become viscerally involved with the dough, pulling and stretching, caressing until it becomes an extension of your arm. This is embodied, sticky knowledge at its most delicious. It can be heavy work, and sweat from your brow often mixes with the dough. This is not a process for people who like the comfort of a recipe; you must be flexible to accommodate the life of the bread, to account for the lifeworld you must nurture. Sourdough is an act of responsibility: you must care for the yeast, tend to it, and feed it like an animal or plant. It is an act of love, of symbiosis.


After ten to fifteen minutes of kneading, the bread goes into a greased bowl and is covered with a damp cloth and popped into the refrigerator, where it will spend the next twenty-four hours proofing, slowing the yeast and allowing the lactobacteria, which are more tolerant of cold temperatures, to impart their tang. The next day, the dough comes out and I add some warm water or milk and some more flour and the nut mixture. This mixture must rise once again, perhaps twelve hours or more, before I punch it down and cuddle it into a loaf pan or shape it onto a baguette tray, after which it still needs another six hours to rise. As you can imagine, timing is tricky, and unless you work from home or are around on a weekend, it can be quite difficult to get it right. Although you can leave it unattended, because of the variability, you must be cautious not to allow the bread to rise too much. If you do, disaster may strike in the form of limp bread. If the carbon dioxide produced by the yeast exceeds the capacity of the gluten to hold together the bread, like a soufflé taken out of the oven too soon, the loaf will collapse into a sad, shapeless, and dense shadow of what could have been. In a cool house, this means watching carefully and, potentially, a very early morning rise or late night bake. Older-style stoves used to have a pilot light that would warm the stove just enough for proofing bread, but I have nothing of the sort.

The solution for me involved a bit of DIY hacking, and I built a grown-up version of an easy-bake oven to control the temperature and humidity for optimal conditions. After the overnight proofing, the bread has more than enough sourness, and it is best to let the yeast take over. The yeast prefers the temperature to be a constant 30 degrees. At this temperature, you can halve the rising time and achieve a levity that rivals commercial yeast. So I lined a large plastic Rubbermaid container with insulating foam, hung a small 35-watt halogen lamp with a dimmer control inside the box, and rigged up a thermometer to register the temperature inside. With this set up, I use the dimmer to adjust the temperature so it sits at exactly 30°C for around four to six hours, after which the bread bursts out of the bowl with a celebratory sigh. One more punch down, a new home in some loaf pans, and back into the box for two to three hours, and the loaf is both sour and lofty. Now I can control the conditions more carefully, providing a better environment for the bread, while also balancing the need for slowness with the real time pressures I must negotiate in the rest of my life. Negotiation with the microbial world takes some patience and flexibility, but it is well worth it. With this set-up, even if I have to work and be away from the house, I can still time the bread properly. I am lucky that I work largely from home and can allow other temporalities into my life.

Proofing box made with some insulation, thermometer and small halogen light on a dimmer

Proofing box made with some insulation, thermometer and small halogen light on a dimmer


Guanciale: The Lost Art of Face Bacon

It’s that time of year again when the garden is quiet and memories of summer whisper through the food and preserves we have put away in an attempt to extend the harvest as long as we can. It is also the time of the year that I call up Fred DeMartines and put in my annual order for half a pig. After a long summer of foraging wild foods, grazing pasture and putting on a nice thick layer of fat, the free-range, heritage pigs at Perth Pork Products are ready to make a permanent home in my freezer.


Perhaps more than most things we eat, meat has become an absence in our food system. Wether you eat it in nugget form, pink slime, or even packaged in its styrofoam tomb, the meat you get at the grocery store comes plucked, shucked, boneless and processed to the point where the animal and the idea of the animal no longer align. And this is for good reason. The supermarket doesn’t want you to think too hard about where your meat came from. They rely on what Michael Pollan calls the “supermarket pastoral” to conceal the fact that meat production shares more in common with the assembly line that put your phone together than the pastoral image we have of the typical farm. Our insatiable desire for “cheap meat” has created an environmental nightmare. The livestock sector is now the top two or three of the most significant contributors to a whole host of environmental problems that include climate change, deforestation, and land and water pollution.

But this does not have to be this way. If you are worried about how we are going to feed the billions of people on this planet, than everyone has to eat less meat. The average American eats 125 kilograms of meat a year, and Canada doesn’t lag too far behind at just under 100 kg. From an environmental standpoint, eating less meat is one of the most effective things you can do to reduce your ecological footprint. It’s better than switching from a gas guzzler to a Prius, and has a lot of positive effects on your health and the wellbeing of the animals within an industrial system that treats living creatures as if they were machines. Before I became a locavore, I was a vegetarian for about a decade, and now I practice a weekday vegetarian diet, and the meat I do eat, comes from a handful of farms.

And this is what I want to talk about. I’m not going to try to convert you to veganism or shame you into abandoning the pleasures of meat. I actually want to encourage you to face your meat directly, to get to know it a little better, and hopefully in the process, to take responsibility for your impact on the world. There are many benefits to buying directly from a farmer. When I talk to Fred, we sometimes spend an hour on the phone discussing specific cuts, flavouring for the sausage, and what I want and don’t want to receive.

When you buy a half or whole animal, you have the option of getting everything. And I mean everything! At first, the thought of receiving pigs ears, trotters, and kidneys was a bit strange. As I said, I was a vegetarian for years, so the skinless, boneless package of pink flesh in the grocery store offers a sanitized, almost deathless experience to the consumer that is easier to deal with. If you like sausage, you are in actuality eating many of the offcuts anyway. They get mixed with preservatives, stabilizers, are often washed with ammonia, but as the cliche goes, snouts, tails, and sphincter all make it to the soup pot eventually.

Something amazing happens, however, when you have to deal with these things directly. You realize how much of the food we eat is culturally determined and how much possibility is wasted on the squeamish. Who decided that pork chop is superior to cheek meat? And what do you do with the face? Easy, you make face bacon, an absolute delicacy that most of you will never have the opportunity to try unless you delve into the lost art of guanciale. This is not a product carried by your typical, or even your high end butcher. This is something you will have to do yourself.

Face bacon ready to go

Face bacon ready to go

Guanciale is made from the jowl of the pig and is one of the simplest cures for an amateur to make at home. The jowl is relatively thin and thus you are more likely to cure it all the way through to the centre. Once you get over the initial shock, for you can indeed tell this is part of the face, it’s relatively easy. I have had pieces that still had bits of hair on the skin. Didn’t someone tell piggy its rude not to shave before you are the guest of honour at dinner?

Unlike bacon made from the belly, face bacon contains a high ratio of collagen to fat, and this is what makes it so unique. The flavour is incredible. You don’t smoke the bacon, so there is a very earthy porkiness to it. No, this isn’t the kind of bacon you fry up with your eggs. This is the dream bacon you need to make the most incredible Pasta Carbonera you have ever had, and I am not exaggerating. People have told me that I changed their lives after tasting it. My daughter begs me for bacon pasta almost every week, but I try to save it for special occasions, as you will see in the recipe below, this is a rich meal.

The translucent cubes are the result of the collagen melting

The translucent cubes are the result of the collagen melting

Because of the high collagen content of the jowl, guanciale looks very strange when you fry it. Low and slow is the name of the game and you cut it into cubes which slowly render down, releasing the precious collagen that will thicken the sauce, creating the most velvety, rich, and smooth Carbonera you have ever tried. Carbonera made with the traditional eggs, cream, bacon and parmesan is great, but the texture and flavour you get from guanciale is simply unparalleled.

There is a brutal and twisted efficiency to industrial meat. Every part is used in some way, even if that means MRM (Mechanically Reclaimed Meat). Now that I have tasted face bacon, however, I am saddened that the jowl is wasted as filler for some horrible, processed sausage, for this delicacy should be experienced by everyone. Ultimately, this is one of the best reasons to buy straight from a farmer. When you face your meat directly, you have to account for the entirety of the animal. Transforming those nasty bits into a delicacy is one of the most profound acts of translation that cooking allows us to engage in. From nature to culture, from decay to delicacy, when you cook from whole, you learn to think differently.

Like countless generations before us, respect and responsibility is made possible by treating every part of the animal as sacred. If you are a carnivore, then you owe it to yourself and to the animal that has given its life for your sustenance, to utilize every bit. I know that Fred treats his animals with respect. He raises them outdoors, slowly, and uses heritage breeds that are on the verge of extinction because they do not fit the industrial model well. These are animals that grow “too slowly” or react poorly to confinement. These are animals that have not been bred to conform to the horrors of the Intensive Livestock Operation. Ironically, the survival of these breeds depends on people eating them.

Much of the flavour of Fred’s pork comes form the respect he has for what it means to be a pig. Carlo Petrini, the founder of Slow Food International, awarded Fred the status of Master of Pork, an honour reserved only for those who truly understand that raising an animal is an extension of your worldview. That respect manifests in the pork, and I try to do the same when that pig becomes a part of me.


 Home Cured Guanciale

guanciale ready to hang

Adapted from  Michael Ruhlman’s excellent Charcuterie book

2lb/ 1kg pork jowl

70grams kosher salt (7% of meat weight)

70 grams sugar (7% of meat weight)

15 black peppercorns

1 large bunch of thyme

2 bay laurel leaves

4 juniper berries

Grind up the juniper, peppercorns and bay in a spice grinder until reasonably fine. Combine with the salt and sugar. Remove the leaves from the thyme, discard the stalks, and finely chop. Add to the salt mixture, and stir to combine.

Using a sharp boning knife or pairing knife remove any glads from the meat. These will look like small off-white bumps that are reasonably hard. Some might be hiding under some fat.

In a large tupperware, or zip lock bag combine the cure ingredients and the jowl. Rub the cure into the meat on all sides thoroughly. Seal the bag, or the tupperware and pop in the fridge for 7 days. On day 3 redistribute the cure over the meat just by rubbing the meat again.

guanciale bags

After 7 days the meat should feel firmer. Take it out of the fridge, and rinse it in cold water to remove the cure. Some of the herbs might well stick to the meat and fat, that is fine - just give a good rub over to get the cure off. Dry with a towel.

Make a hole in one end, not too close to the edge of the meat (since it will shrink). Tie some butchers string through the hole, and hang at 55F 75% humidity for at least a month, possibly two.


guanciale skin side hanging

You will know when the jowl is cured because it should feel firm to the touch. The fat will feel softer than the meat, that is fine.

Once cured it should keep in the fridge easily for a few weeks, or frozen longer. You can keep it hanging at 55F and 75% humidity too if you wish - the meat might well harden more, but it will develop an even stronger flavor.

Pasta Carbonera

carbonara sauce

Boil your favourite penne pasta, or better yet, make some fresh pasta.

Saute 50 grams bacon per person slowly until the collagen has rendered out and small crispy bits start to appear

Toss in zuchinni or asparagus or mushrooms and add a good grinding of fresh pepper, enough for heat.

Season with a small bunch of thyme or Italian herb mix.

Take off heat and let cool slightly.

Meanwhile, mix 1 egg yolk, 25 ml of cream, and small handful of parmesan per person. If you are using guanciale, you do not have to use as many egg yolks. For 4 people, I would use 2 egg yolks. If you use belly bacon, use 4 eggs.

Drain penne pasta and toss with the meat and vegetable mixture. Once the heat has subsided add the cream mixture and toss until silky. The key here is to mix the sauce while the pasta is off the heat. If everything is too hot, the eggs will scramble.

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The Map and the Territory: Learning to Gardening with Nature

When you are in the garden it is easy to believe you are in control. I choose the seeds, plan where everything goes, and designate weeds from plants with a god-like power. The sociologist Zygmunt Baumen goes as far as to suggest that gardeners are the archetypal utopian thinkers, for on some fundamental level, we believe our plans will manifest in the world. The order in our minds, in the blueprints we lay out for the perfect garden, will emerge with clarity, and we will cultivate and tend, bring to fruition until that map is inscribed on the land. When I started gardening, one of the most pleasurable aspects was this process of translation between mind-body-seed-soil-sun that seemed to suggest that anything was possible. For Bauman, the gardener— unlike the hunter, whose world is solitary, dangerous, and red in tooth and claw, or the gamekeeper, who believes that all is right when left alone— is a figure of hope. He or she believes that the world can be changed for the better.

whole garden

Any gardener, however, knows that their control is a mere illusion, sustained by a more fundamental process of transformation: labour. Our minds may lay out the plans, but it is our hands, our bodies and the tenuous partnership with nature that is the seat of hope. My labour in partnership with the labour of bees, fungus and worms. This was a difficult year at Common Ground Farm. We moved at the beginning of May during a cold and wet spring, and many things needed to be done. My mental map was only half there, since much of my time had been devoted to selling our old house and buying the new one. My mental plan was still for a backyard garden and not a farm. Utopia would have to emerge more organically— less a choreographed dance and more like the spontaneous gyrations of child who cannot help but move to the music.

The map became the territory and soon sprouts were pushing out of the moist ground and we were eating the first salad greens and herbs. The sun was bright, rain fell, and my utopia was going as planned. Or so I thought! The wet spring became a wet summer and I had already mulched everything with a thick layer of straw. Generally speaking, mulching is the backbone of organic agriculture. Not only does it suppress weeds, help conserve moisture and even out the temperature of the soil, when turned in, mulch is a crucial source of nutrients. It builds the soil.

mulch early summer

But during a wet year, straw mulch can harbour some unwanted guests. We finally got some heat and the plants started to look a bit stressed, dropping some of their lower leaves. This is normal and I wasn’t too worried. But the characteristic yellow, wilted look of heat stress quickly started to look like something else: fungus. It was spreading quickly, and now it wasn’t just the leaves. My beautiful Kabocha squash was hit particularly hard, and the young fruit were starting to rot on the vine.


Yellow became mottled black and brown and what I thought was just a bit of water stress was starting to look like a full-blown fungal infection spreading through my neat and ordered rows. I began to madly flip through my various gardening books, took photos and sent them to farmer friends, and even showed up at William Dam Seeds with a bag of infected leaves to see if I could determine what, in the course of a couple of days, was threatening to turn my dreams into a nightmare.

It turns out it is very difficult to identify exactly what kind of fungus you have, as many of them present identical symptoms. At one point I was convinced I had Fusarium or Verticillium wilt, which essentially means you have to rip everything up and solarize the soil as the fungus can survive for up to a decade. I was beyond devastated.  Farming has always been a precarious profession— the triad of blight, pestilence, and locusts is even enshrined in the bible. I was amazed by how quickly the fungus was spreading and didn’t want to lose the entire garden. My ability to plan, to put into action, was being undone by a tiny organism I couldn’t even see. Any pretence of control I may have had was wilting away as quickly as my plants and I began to feel I was way over my head. Nothing of this sort had ever happened to me when I was a humble backyard gardener.

Most of the suggestions I read were already things I was doing. Build the soil, mulch, don’t overwater, and practice crop rotation. But these are long term cultural solutions and part of a broader organic approach to agriculture. What I wanted was a solution that would save my current crop; what I wanted was assurance.

This feeling of vulnerability can lead down two very different paths. In conventional agriculture, the approach is to sterilize and homogenize. Fungicides are some of the most toxic chemicals we apply to our plants, and many have been recently pulled from the Canadian market. Even if I wanted to apply them, as a small farmer without the proper equipment or papers, I did not have access to them. What is more disturbing, however, is the mindset that accompanies this approach.

For the World Expo in Milan (2015), New Holland will build the farm of the future, deploying “zero-emissions” tractors that will utilize complicated algorithms to “3-d print” fields.


Like the vertical farm, lab-grown meat and GMOs, this is yet another example of what I call the techno-utopian approach to environmental problems. Rather than seeking ways of working with nature, this mindset attempts to replace the territory with the map. Rather than acknowledge that the laboratory is a simplification of a much more complicated and messy world, it tries to tidy up the world by removing “confounding factors” and variables.

My panic soon subsided as I decided the best strategy was to keep calm and trust in my overall approach. But to do this, I had to give up the fantasy of control. I had to realize that while I may do all I can to support a healthy ecosystem for my plants, some things must be accepted. To categorize everything as a confounding factor would mean transforming my farm into a laboratory, and I don’t want to do that. In fact, I want the opposite— where possible, I strive to reintroduce wildness into the cultivated, drawing on the strength of biodiversity, insect predators, and healthy soil to provide fertility.

In the end I did find a short-term solution. There is a new organic bio-fungicide available called Serenade, which utilizes a strain of Bacillus Subtilis to destroy a broad range of fungi. Opening the container, you are greeted with the smell of fresh bread. Unlike chemical agents, this product is highly safe and you can eat the crop the next day. After the first application at dusk, which I paid for with about a litre of blood taken one mosquito at a time, I noticed immediate improvements. Some plants were damaged and died, and many were stunted, but the garden went on. It was resilient enough to thrive.

In the end I learned some valuable lessons. Next year I will space my tomatoes and the row of corn, squash, and beans further apart to encourage better air circulation, which should help keep the fungus at bay. I will also make sure the garden is better drained and that the soil has more organic matter turned into it. But the most important lesson I learned was about myself. For a moment I was tempted by the allure of chemical farming and began to look up conventional fungicides. When your work, your vision and hope is catastrophically threatened, the promised certainty of science is tempting. But nature is not a “confounding factor.” It is not a variable to control. I want a farm and not a laboratory, and so I must be willing to accept that the territory will never be the map.

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basket of food

The Forest and the Trees: Sustainability Education and the Anthropocene

wood pile 2

It’s a cold day in Hamilton and I am outside chopping wood. Until I moved to the farm, I had never lived in a place with a wood stove. Like many people, my heat came from the furnace, which most often, was powered by natural gas, brought to my home through an invisible network of pipelines and relying on an equally expansive and invisible network of workers, companies, and institutions. As with so many aspects of my life, heat was a commodity. Like all commodities, there is an inherent abstraction to the process. My labour, in this case as a university lecturer, author, and farmer, provided me with money, and that money, after a series of transactions, became the gas that entered my home and powered the furnace that ensured my family stayed warm through the winter. In many ways this is an incredibly elegant system, allowing me to do what I do best, optimizing economic efficiency through the rational calculations of someone trying to maximize utility. At least that is how an economist would put it.

But today, I am chopping wood, and homo economicus is wagging his invisible finger disapprovingly as I waste my comparative advantage. I have a PhD and “should” be applying my talents in ways that reflect my training. Indeed, since I have a furnace that runs on fuel oil, there is an element of truth to this. I could simply continue to pay for that fuel and rely on those invisible networks to keep me warm. Instead, I am writing a blog post about why chopping wood is important from the perspective of sustainability education.

I don’t actually want to debate the efficiency of wood stoves. Mine is a newer, EPA model, but it is still probably not the most environmentally friendly way to heat my home. However, since my current alternative is diesel fuel, the choice to heat by wood has a number of effects and affects, and that is what I want to discuss. The diesel is delivered to my house by a local fuel company, which imports the fuel from any number of companies. It would be impossible for me to trace where it came from or even who refined it. Was it BP or Exxon? Was it drilled in an environmentally sensitive landscape? What were the workers paid? Did they belong to a union? Like many industries, oil production is at once highly dispersed around the globe and highly concentrated. Oil moves around the world in tankers, pipelines, is refined at huge centralized facilities and then distributed once again via those same tankers and pipelines. Along its journey fuel is burned, workers are exploited, landscapes are degraded, and whole industries are born and die.

My property isn’t quite big enough to provide all the wood I need, although pruning and felling of a few trees has added to my wood pile. If I had a bit more time, it would be very easy to scavenge enough wood from neighbours after a windstorm or two lays waste to the aging giants that give this landscape so much of its charm. Instead, I called up a local bricklayer who owns a small woodlot he tends in the winter during the natural seasonal lull of his trade, and he drove less than 3 km to drop off 4 cords of seasoned hardwood for my chopping pleasure. It’s good wood, dry and cut to size, but much of it is twisted and sinewy, obviously unsuited for building furniture or other human uses.

Every once in a while, though, you find a perfectly straight and dense piece. The grain is tight and straight and the axe doesn’t just cut through, it pops with the most delicious sound. I found just such a piece yesterday and set out to make some kindling and soon found myself in a kind of trance. Most of the wood I have twists a bit, or a knot impedes a linear break. But this piece had an almost geometric perfection and I was unable to stop myself from grabbing a hatchet and splitting a whole bucket of kindling.


Afterwards two things became apparent. We can reduce all things to an economic value and try to calculate what is sustainable or worthy based on a cost benefit analysis. To be sure, this is an important method for weighing the pros and cons associated with any action, and as documents like the Stern Report have shown, once we begin to account for externalities like pollution, many environmental issues that once seemed expensive, begin to look like a bargain. But there is another dimension that is equally important: the everyday. There is a very real way in which the human mind is simply incapable of dealing with issues like climate change. Whether it's our inability to grasp risk and calculate uncertainty in the future, or our almost pathological preference for the familiar, the human mind struggles to bridge the scales associated with an issue like climate change. The uncertainty and long time lines associated with the risks portended by the IPCC, are easy to discount or devalue. Indeed, much of our lives are filled with similar absences and gaps.

Geologists are currently debating whether or not we should declare the end of the holocene and name the current era the anthropocene. First proposed by atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen, this new geological epoch speaks to humanity as a force of nature, and collapses the distinction between nature and culture in some unsettling ways. If humans are now geological agents, operating on the scale of eons and effecting whole systems and even the planet, then what do we do with this information? Is this trauma or triumph? Geological time and human history have never been connected in any meaningful scale, but if our impact on the climate continues, then that enchanting complexity of industrial activity that brings diesel fuel to my home, is one of trillions of tiny levers moving the world. Where Victorians once faced the existential horror of geologic time, with its dehumanizing sweep of indifferent eons, we post-moderns face the anthropocene, with its sublime catastrophe of unintended consequences. Humanity has perhaps finally achieved the age old dream of science to conquer nature, only to realize we are destroying ourselves in the process.

So what does chopping wood have to do with all of this? Like so many environmental problems, bridging the gap between the global and local, and the micro and macro is something that the human mind is not particularly good at doing. But this is precisely what we must do! As I am chopping wood, the commodity of heat becomes a direct relationship between me, the axe, wood, and the woodlot. For a moment, the global and the everyday manifest in a revealing simplicity. While I am still tied into those global networks of commodities and labour, nature and culture, something happens when that chain becomes shorter, more direct. Certainly this gives me more knowledge and more control: I can ask the owner of the woodlot how he harvests, or I can practice sustainable methods myself. But perhaps more importantly, I gain a direct knowledge of the tree and its life. This one log, snapping with such perfection into a pile of kindling must have been a magnificent tree— arrow straight, it has dense rings that suggest that it grew in perfect spot on the landscape where enough water flowed to ensure a steady growth. No lightening split and redirected its path, and no wind bent its grain. My knowledge of the tree is embodied in the hollow sound made as the axe fulfils its purpose, and my agency and desire for heat take the path of least resistance.

To understand the impacts of climate change or any other environmental problem that spans multiple scales, we must find ways to sustain that knowledge in our bodies. Sustainability isn’t simply a technique; it is a way of being in the world that recognizes our simultaneous power and vulnerability. It must become a way of life, sustained in the everyday banality of tasks like chopping wood, gardening, cycling, or DIY culture. It must weave into the very fabric of our lives, and then, and only then, will simplicity and complexity become entangled in the politics of everyday life. Only then will sustainability become the path of least resistance.

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Homesteading: The Big and Small of It!

I have been studying food systems for a decade now as an academic and even longer as an eater and gardener. In my small urban backyard in Hamilton, almost every square foot was intensively planted. The first thing I did when I moved into my house one bright May was to rip out nearly all the grass and replace it with about 250 square feet of raised beds and planters. This provided hundreds of pounds of food for me and my family every year and I was able to tend it with basic garden tools and a push mower. I was able to live a kind of post-oil fantasy of farming by hand that is easy to fetishize as being more authentic and natural.


In the spring of 2013, my urban homesteading dreams had outgrown our inner-city home. It was a hard decision— I love city life and enjoy the ease with which I can bike everywhere. I know that, counterintuitively, urban living is often greener and more sustainable than living in the country. As an avid cyclist, moving to the country was going to mean some serious changes. Our family had one car, walked and biked everywhere, and enjoyed the amenities of urban life. I never thought I would be the kind of person who drives a truck and owns a chainsaw. Much of my identity was tied up in the city, and yet, I wanted to live the rural life, to see the possibilities unfold on a piece of land that could sustain my family and others. I wanted to see my signature on the land, to witness and enter into a partnership with a place that could nourish me and which I would nourish in return. I wanted to build a home, to settle down in the best sense of the word.

But I wasn’t ready to give up on the city just yet. I didn’t want to get trapped on the treadmill of debt and production that has forced farmers to get big or get out. This attitude has dominated agriculture in North America and much of the world for the last 100 years. It is a mantra spoken by policy makers, farmers, processors, and grocery stores. Driven by a Malthusian dread that our ability to breed will outpace our capacity to feed, the ideology of growth has profoundly shaped the rural landscape and consumer expectations about what a good meal ought to cost. For 100 years now, the tractor and other tools of industrial farming have slowly displaced human labour, and oil in its various forms has replaced the sun as a source of energy. As many have pointed out, we no longer eat sunshine, we eat oil!

This isn’t that story though. I’m not going to write about the good old days and lament about a more honest time when people laboured on the land and had a more authentic relationship to nature unmediated by technology. Not only is this a hopelessly naive and useless exercise of pastoral fantasy— it ignores a rich history of hard work, exploitation, and environmental degradation that goes untold when we project ourselves into this precarious retro-future that never was. No, I want to talk about how technology shapes expectations and transforms what is possible in both positive and negative ways. I want to talk about scale, and how we need to rethink what it means to farm in the North American context, where bigger is always better.

Farming in Southern Ontario is a tough prospect, and with land prices at all time highs, I wasn’t about to trap my family in a modern version of serfdom and become debt peons.  I didn’t even want to farm full-time, which is good, since many farmers rely on off-farm income to support their career. As a writerteacher, and researcher, I have a desire to share my knowledge with others. And as a university lecturer, most of my teaching occurs between September and April, leaving a perfect gap for the most seasonal of professions. The farm I wanted would give me just enough room to produce everything I could possibly consume, and then some. It would have space for animals and wild experiments in composting. There would be a place for me to build an off-the-grid, straw-bale writing shed/guesthouse. I could have chickens and rabbits, and build a clay oven big and hot enough to make a pizza in ninety seconds.

I wanted a place that was bigger than a city lot, but not so much more that its scale would seem alien. I wanted a place where someone with no farming background could come and see what was possible in their own backyard. It had to be close enough that I could bike into the city, and that people would be able to easily visit for farm tours, events, and workshops. And from this, Common Ground was born, a teaching farm for the city. Located within easy biking distance from Hamilton Ontario, we embrace small, appropriate, and innovative strategies for small-scale, sustainable agriculture and farm-to-table education.


The land we settled on was just under two acres, a perfect size for my ambition and comfort level with debt. But even though this is minuscule in comparison to the 728 acres that make up the average Canadian farm, it is big enough to make pure manual labour impossible, or at least, not particularly feasible. I didn’t really need a compact John Deer tractor, which could easily set me back 30+ thousand dollars by the time I add a mower, shovel, various plows, and any of the other implements I would need to maintain this corner of the Earth. I also wanted something that could be easily taken to someones yard in the city in order to set up a small backyard plot. But it had to be strong and sturdy enough to handle the heavy clay soil in my parts, and simple enough that a city bumpkin like myself could maintain it. Nor did I want a barn full of consumer grade and essentially unrepairable junk taking up space and taunting me with its unredeemable mediocrity. I would need, at the very least, a tiller or plow, a mower, and a snow thrower or blade for the winter. I also know, however, that this is a place that I want to build and expand upon. It is a place for my utopian flights of fancy to take root—a  place where possibility is as important as what is already here. I need a tool that can keep up with my plans.

I had spent months researching it, trying to figure out exactly what I wanted and what I would need. But with a tractor you cannot think simply about the next year— this is a tool with a future. Tractors are miracle multitaskers. Thanks to the PTO, Power-Take-Off unit, they are able to use a single engine to power a wide variety of implements. I might only need those three implements this year, but who knows about next year or the year after that. If all goes well, then I cannot truly know what I will need. Too many things we buy are essentially disposable, designed to work just long enough that it seems worth the expenditure, or at the very least, justifies buying the new model when the old one looks tired and sad. I was sick and tired of this culture of disposability and its mountain of trash, and since I was looking to spend around 7000 dollars, I wanted something that would last for decades.


Enter the walking or two-wheel tractor, a marvelous tool that has virtually no presence in Canada, but which could experience a renaissance thanks to an explosion of interest in small-scale agriculture. These tractors, popular in Europe, South-East Asia, and Japan, are optimally suited for farms under 5 acres, or in areas that are very hilly or terraced. Like their big brothers, these are serious machines capable of multiplying one person’s labour in spectacular ways. Without this machine, I would never have accomplished what I have over the summer.

The tractor arrived in four pieces by freight, shipped from Italy via Kentucky and then across the border once again into Southern Ontario, into the heart of a country where the scale of agriculture doesn’t lend itself to a walking tractor. I’m not much of a grease monkey, being more inclined towards bikes and gadgets, but the anticipation I had for receiving this machine was immense. It was early May of a wet and cool spring and I was eager to destroy the grass that mocked me with its inedible ornament. I had ordered a few cubic yards of cow manure from the farm down the road and spread it out evenly on the approximately 1/4 acre that would be the main patch for the 100+ varieties of fruits and vegetables I had ordered from West Coast and William Dam Seeds. I was ready to launch the opening salvo of my war against the lawn, deploying big Berta, my shiny new Rotary Plow to chew up and turn under a thick layer of grass and sod into the heavy clay soil.

Unlike a tiller, the rotary plow is basically a giant corkscrew and is capable of digging down up to 12 inches in a single pass. Where a tiller tends to pulverize the soil as it repeatedly batters it under the hood, the rotary plow discharges the soil and throws it 24 inches to the side. This means that you can maintain much better soil structure and perform other tasks like hilling or trenching in order to promote drainage. It also allows for the rapid building of raised beds and is absolutely unbeatable for breaking new ground, since the vertical blade spins at 300 rpm and cuts roots and plant matter like a giant vitamix on steroids, allowing you to add an incredible amount of organic matter to the soil. It is also capable of turning in cover crops such as buckwheat that are up to 4 feet high, making it incredibly easy to improve the quality of soil without the addition of chemicals or expensive fertilizers. Since this was going to be a model organic farm and sustainability was the number one priority, Big Berta was going to be my new best friend.

turning in the cover crop


But before I could do any of this, I had to overcome one major hurdle. This is a machine built for farmers, with poorly translated instructions (from Italian), that assume a kind of familiarity with farm equipment that I simply did not have. Being an urban gardener with rural aspirations, my knowledge gap was sufficiently big that I soon stared at the unboxed machine and wondered what I had gotten myself into. Was I hasty in declaring war on my lawn? We had just moved in and the grass was getting taller as I looked at this tractor that I wasn’t fully sure I had assembled properly. It was all levers and knobs, had multiple positions and implements, and one of the only clearly translated parts of the manual was the bolded and capitalized warnings about the dozens of ways I could void the warranty and dismember myself in the process. This was a far cry from my manual push mower and hoe that made short shrift of my urban plot.

I was way over my head and for a few days all I could do was read and re-read the manual, call Earth Tools and try and sound knowledgeable enough to not elicit chortles and laughter as they facepalmed and wondered what on earth I was doing with such a serious machine. My head was spinning— how could I hope to farm this land if I couldn’t even get my tractor started? My utopian dreams were exactly that, stuck in no-place, languishing in the muck as I wondered if I would ever get that new-tractor shine christened by the mud. I called friends that I hoped might be more mechanically literate and capable of filling in the gaps in the manual, but most of them were equally urban and hopelessly. One friend described my Grillo 107d as the lovechild of a Segway and Harley, a colourful description that captures the hybridity and alien appeal of the tractor. This was quickly becoming the perfect plot for a Country Music Television reality TV show! Next time on Farm Swap we take a wide-eyed professor and throw him to the hogs! Laugh as you watch him struggle with even the most basic tasks that any 10 year old farm kid could probably do with his eyes closed.

I called FarmStart, a lovely organization that helps new farmers with skills training and mentorship, but it was May and everybody was trying to get their own farms planted, so I would have to wait weeks for someone to give me some hands-on time with the tractor. If I wanted to get the grass mowed or the farm planted, I needed to act decisively.

In the end it was fear that prevented me from starting. Perhaps all these years of training in criticism were unsuited for the task at hand. I didn’t trust myself. I doubted every instruction and was sure that I would either break the tractor as I shifted into the wrong gear or failed to disengage the PTO at the right time, or even worse, lose a finger or foot to the spinning four-tined corkscrew that looked like it was right out of a PSA for war-amps. Don’t go near that, little Timmy, or you’ll loose an arm!

I did get help from a mechanic friend, but in the end it was mostly confidence that I was lacking. At a certain point the blank slate of grass was no longer a canvas awaiting my brush. It was a mocking void, a testament to my ignorance and hubris. Soon, fear was transformed into joy as the grass disappeared beneath the surface and black soil opened itself to my labour and vision. I was shifting gears, swapping implements, and even changing the oil and maintaining the tractor as if I had done it for years.

I wanted to share this story because I think a lot of people are stuck in the same way I was. They want to plant a garden, grow some herbs, and experience the simple pleasures of cooking a meal still warm from the sun and picked a few feet from the kitchen in which it is prepared. Common Ground was created for those people, to help provide an urban homesteading curriculum for city folk with rural dreams. This summer has been all about getting the farm started, and I will continue to share some of these stories throughout the winter now that I have some time. But next summer will be about teaching people how to plant in ways that heal and sustain the earth. The mantra may be get big or get out, but I think it is the small things that matter the most! Imagine if even half of the lawns in the city were replaced by beautiful gardens that provided fresh vegetables and greens for those living in proximity. Imagine if instead of wasting water and resources on lawns we rarely even use, we spent the same amount of time tending to lovely beds of arugula and kale, and harvested tomatoes that actually tasted like they should, of the sun and earth, and not like pink tennis balls. It’s time to think small and act big!

For those of you who live around Hamilton, exciting things will be happening here at Common Ground next year. We will be holding workshops on canning and preservation, ecological gardening, rainwater harvesting, composting, and much much more. I will even show up with Big Berta and be your farmer on call and help you become more self-sufficient in the city by setting up a whole backyard ecosystem that will allow you to produce amazing amounts of food with very little effort. Stay tuned for updates, prices, and services and feel free to contact me if you want some more information.

If you liked this, please consider buying The Politics of the Pantry.


Finally christened by mud

Finally christened by mud

The Problem of Starting: A Case for Radical Utopias

I teach a class called “Consumerism and Identities” in the department of Contemporary Studies at Wilfrid Laurier. The goal of the course is to introduce students to a variety of theoretical approaches that will help them understand the role consumerism plays in the economy, the environmental crisis, and identity formation. At a certain point, I have the students do a journal entry where they are instructed to calculate their ecological footprint and consider their own impact on the world. Most of the student’s lifestyles require anywhere from 3-5 planets of consumption and the response is telling: some react with horror and others with indignation. Both are stuck in the same way.

The latter, seem to take the number as a personal affront— the environmental equivalent of George W. Bush’s infamous claim that the terrorists simply hate the American way of life. They see no alternative, and immediately begin to justify their lifestyle: “I’m a student who must commute from my parents house out of town.” “I eat out a lot or on campus because I don’t know how to cook, or don’t have the space.” “It’s inconvenient to take public transportation” etc… The excuses are usually the same: its too hard to change and I’m not even sure it would do anything. Many suggest that the “system” needs to change before individuals, and to a certain extent they are right, or at least, they capture one of the central problematics of contemporary environmental critique: how do we start? How do we get from here to there? What tools are required to break free from the tyranny of the present, from the sense of dread that so many share in their inability to even imagine what an alternative to capitalism looks like.

Fredric Jameson has famously said that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” I think this is precisely the impasse that my students face; they have no idea where to start. They have all grown up during the neoliberal era, where amongst claims of the end of history, and a triumphant dismantling of the welfare state, the future is simply a mirror of the present. History hasn’t ended, our future has! What do I mean by this? Surely this is a metaphor? Yes and No! In a very real sense, the future no longer exists. With prominent voices such as James Hanson declaring that mining the Tar Sands will mean game over for the climate, we are approaching a largely invisible and terrifying tipping point that could mean the end of planet goldilocks. With so many humans living in cities, disconnected from the concrete realities of food production and natural cycles, we forget how precarious civilization truly is and that a mere 10,000 years has passed since the agricultural revolution changed the face of the planet. That revolution was premised on a stable and largely predictable climate that has allowed almost everything we think of as progress: art, architecture, science, and literature to emerge from the surplus production of grain.

This year’s drought in the US and around the world is a window into the future: a glimpse of what Bill McKibben calls Eaarth, a new world we have created by altering the entire climate and ushering in what some geologists call the anthropocene. But the end I am most afraid of is also echoed in the response of horror some of the students have to their own footprint. A few see the number and simply cannot believe the impact they have. They immediately ask what they can do, although often enough, they come to the same impasse: how do we start? The end, for them, is entirely in their minds. They simply do not see how one person, or even a group, can derail the juggernaut of capitalism. Even if they agree that we need a better, more sustainable, more just system, they cannot see how this is possible. And this is the ending that is perhaps the most tragic, as it will prevent them from seeing what can be done, of utilizing one of the most vital and necessary faculties they have at their disposal for solving the problems they face: their imagination.

Hopelessness needs to be manufactured. It needs to be produced, sustained, advertised, and force fed to the population. The last thirty years has seen the development of a vast machine of propaganda centred around the basic idea that no other future is possible. This idea has become so entrenched, that even optimistic radicals have a hard time shaking it. One of the reasons I use the ecological footprint in my class is because it allows me to visualize two things. First, it helps students realize the extreme waste that goes into even a modest student lifestyle. This is the part that usually leads to despair, but that can be turned around rather easily with a simple point: if one person can have such an impact in ruining the planet, then surely they can have an equally positive one if they simply try. The large scale modification of the planet’s climate did not occur intentionally, nor was it guided by a collective will or desire. It was, largely, the accidental byproduct of trillions of small decisions made by billions of small people.

The situation is obviously not so simple, but it does point towards a critical impasse faced by radical movements today. How do we start? The left has been historically allergic to proposing utopian alternatives, fearing their vision would be too prescriptive or simply easily dismissed as, well, utopian. But I think it is time to reclaim that word, to push at the hopelessness of the system by not only pointing out the real alternatives that exist around the world in the form of workers cooperatives, radical peasant groups, and grassroots democracy, but also, in flights of imaginative fancy that help us break the cycle of apocalyptic dread. Even if those utopias are merely moments, flashes of a better world, they can become the basis for derailing the juggernaut, the fabled Archimedean lever that can move the world. More than anything, we need utopias to provide an alternative story to the one we hear every day: “It may be flawed, but capitalism is the best system there is.” As educators, journalists, bloggers, parents, and friends, we need to challenge ourselves to think beyond the limits and dwell, for a while, in the future. For while the problems of today may seem impossibly big, we cannot begin until we truly believe another world is possible.