A unique and viable approach to establishing local food self-reliance and building stronger communities.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

West Coast Fires - Garden Update

Morning skies - 9/8/2020
Hello friends - As most of you are probably aware of, for the past week, the west coast has been suffering from intense wildfires and their associated smoke. We've had some requests for an update on how we are being affected, so here you go:

Monday Sept. 7th, 2020 (Labor Day) was a bit warmer than average but skies were clear.  Some time around sundown, all that began to change as sustained, dry, hot winds began to blow from the north and east - directly opposite of where we get our normal, prevailing winds - bringing smoke from the fires in the Cascade mountains - pouring into the Willamette valley, where we live. Periodic wind gusts exacerbated the problem and exploded the wildfires rapidly. Fortunately there were no significant fires in our immediate vicinity and so no threat that our 145 year-old wooden farmhouse would catch fire. The easterly winds were so hot and dry that some flowers and grassed on the east side of our host were browned and withered overnight!

Looking into our front yard. The day never got brighter than twilight. 9/8/2020
Sharing Gardens - Tuesday Sept. 8, 2020
We slept with windows closed but still we woke to dangerously smoky air-quality within our house and eerie, orange skies. Outside air-quality levels quickly shot up to hazardous levels and the smoke was so dense on Tuesday the 8th that we had to use lamps all day since light-levels never got stronger than twilight. Fortunately, Llyn's Mom sent some info on how to make a low-tech indoor air-filter using a box-fan which we began doing soon after.

Box-fan/air filter with wet towel. Really works! Here's a LINK - with info on how to make your own fan-air filter and other disaster preparedness tips.
Day two of the smoky deluge. Skies are a tiny bit clearer/ 9/9/2020
We briefly lost electric power on the first night but were fortunate that it came back on before the morning.  Others in our valley were not so lucky and spent over sixty hours without electricity during the worst of the smoke. For those who get their water from wells, this meant no running water. They lost refrigeration and the ability to cook food and had no power to run fans or air-conditioners to clear the air in their homes. Very stressful!

Air quality on Sat. Sept 12. No longer orange but still very hazardous! There are apartments less than 100 yards across the street, out this window that were completely invisible to us that day.
One of our wildlife gardens (food and flowers for birds and pollinators) - Sat. 9/12/20. usually we can see the neighboring school's athletic field out this window...
Everything outside became covered in ash. On the first day of the smoke we ran sprinklers on much of the gardens to rinse the plants' leaves, so they could continue to breathe and grow, even though sunlight was so heavily blocked for many days.

For many of us farmers, these fires couldn't have come at a worse time. Most everyone who grows vegetables in our valley was just heading into peak harvest time. The air-quality made it dangerous to be outside for very long to do necessary harvesting and all the Farmer's Markets got closed both on Wednesday and Saturday which meant there was nowhere for the harvests to go even if farmers could get food out of the fields!  

A sample of our harvest the previous week - before the fires came. Many vegetable farmers in the valley were just heading into peak-harvest time, ourselves included!

The gardens in peak production - picture taken late August 2020.
The ash got so thick on our greenhouses that it made them downright shady inside! We also had some concern that the ash might be caustic and contribute to the plastic's degrading so Chris got out there with a hose on Thursday and rinsed off the bulk of the ash.

Chris rinsing ash off the Ark greenhouse - Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020
Chris rinsing ash off the Sunship greenhouse. Air-quality was still very bad.
The Sharing Gardens canceled most of our CSA orders (members who receive weekly boxes of food) and, because very few people were venturing out of their homes during the worst of the smoke, two of the food charities we provide produce for had to put a limit on how much food they could receive. Much of the produce, once harvested and refrigerated is stable for awhile but our 110 tomato plants were just coming into peak production and they are very perishable. What to do? Fortunately, one of our friends and volunteers - Cindy Kitchen - who was aware of our plight began calling around and discovered a drop-off site for fruit and vegetable donations for victims of the fires, who had been forced to flee their homes. Cindy also found a food pantry in Corvallis who was running low on their fresh vegetable supply so we were able to send them some food as well.

Cindy arrived on Thursday afternoon to help us with the harvest. The skies were still quite smoky but had lost their orange hue. Outside air-quality was still dangerous so we used face-masks while harvesting and boxing the produce.

That's Cindy - on the right (with husband, Jim - Sept. 2014) who helped harvest and find homes for our produce this past week.
A sample of the harvest we sent to those in need during this past week of fires.
At the end of the week, when we tallied up all the fruits and vegetables that had been harvested and shared, it was our largest weekly total of the year - 534 pounds! (This compares with the three previous weeks of approximately 300 pounds each). We were so happy that all this great food didn't go to waste!

Meanwhile, being forced to stay indoors, Chris and I moved forward on food-preservation projects, which is always a big part of any September's activities. Our friend/volunteer Becky came over and helped us shell walnuts from last year (to store in the freezer) and brought some prune-plums to share - which we cut up to dehydrate. We also made raisins from our own grape vines.

Grapes we harvested to turn into raisins. Don't they look like jewels?
The smoke is finally starting to lift. The winds are shifting and bringing relief from ocean-breezes. Some of the fires are reaching containment (though it's likely that many won't be fully extinguished until the rains begin to fall in earnest later in the season).

It's hard to believe how much cleaner the air was just a few months ago. This view is taken of the gardens just as you come in the front gate. July 17, 2020
The Ark - greenhouse - July 17, 2020. Full of ripening tomatoes!
Our nearby town of Corvallis is doing an amazing job of providing food and shelter for some of those being evacuated from the fires. Some people are being housed in vacant hotels/motels; others, who have their own recreational vehicles, have been welcomed to the fair grounds. We discovered, the day after we made our food donation to the evacuees, that SO many locals had made donations of all kinds of food that, at least temporarily, the evacuation center could receive no more food donations!

Corvallis' Sustainability Coalition organized a partnership between local restaurants and farmers and volunteers to prepare thousands of delicious, complete meals both to evacuees being housed in motels and those who had ended up at the fairgrounds. If you would like to support their efforts, here's a LINK to their site.

Our much-used birdbath.
The wildlife are experiencing real challenges this week too. We have a shallow birdbath made from a terra cotta plant tray and, prior to the fires we only needed to refill it once a day but during this past week it's getting so many visitors - both for bathing and drinking - that we've been refilling it three and four times a day. I wonder if the ashes are irritating to their skin?

Wildlife needs extra help, now too.
The deer have been finding their way past the deer fences that totally surround three acres of our property. We've had to herd them out for the past three mornings. They're probably thirsty too, and tired of eating food that tastes like ash! Still, we can't let them roam free in our gardens and orchards because of the damage they can do to plants.
Everyone we talk to knows someone personally who has had to evacuate or actually lost property in the fires. Some are still waiting for permission to return to the site of their homes to see if anything still remains. We pray, wherever you are, that this message finds you safe and with the support and resources you need to get through these challenging times. And, if currently you are in a position to help others less fortunate than yourself, we encourage you to do so...
...especially those who aren't in a position to help themselves. Llyn with baby bunny who got scared out of his nest and couldn't find his way back home - Spring 2020.

Friday, August 21, 2020

Why We Grow and Eat "Organic" Food

Organics - Better for Health!
We recently came across an article that revisited the incredible results from a 2019 study of four families who radically reduced the traces of insecticide, fungicide and herbicide residues found in their urine from switching to an organically-grown diet for just six days (study linked below). And, while this is a very small sample of people to test, the results are striking!

Chris and I eat almost exclusively organically grown foods when we're at home. At 70 and 57 years old respectively, we are both very healthy. Neither of us has seen a doctor for any reason since we met 13 years ago! We take no prescription medications and, in fact had a bottle of aspirin pass it's expiration date in our medicine cabinet because we were too slow in using it for occasional muscle soreness or headaches! We each have had two colds in the last 13 years but no other illnesses that caused us to be bed-ridden for even a day. Our food is our medicine (along with other healthy lifestyle practices including the practice of generosity, meditation, stretching and exercise practices and limiting electronics usage) and we feel strongly that a societal shift towards an organic, whole foods, plant-based diet would have significant positive effects both on people's personal health and the health of the natural environment as well.
Image credit: Maria-Marlowe
We are at an advantage over most people as our large gardens provide a high percentage of the foods we eat but for many years we have made it a priority to let our food-budget reflect our values and we only buy groceries that are organically grown. The only times we don't eat organic are when we eat out at restaurants or are visiting friends, which amounts to a few times per month.

This post offers an overview of what we feel to be the most important reasons to shift to an organic diet. For those readers who have the financial means to make this shift entirely, we encourage you to jump into an organic life-style whole-heartedly. We also encourage you to cultivate relationships with local farmers through shopping at farmer's markets and co-ops that feature local, organic foods or joining a CSA. See also: Seven Tips for Shopping at a Farmer's Market

We realize that, for many people who are living close to the edge financially, that committing to buying all your groceries organically-grown may be impossible at this time. If that is the case, consider making smaller incremental changes such as committing to only buying organically and humanely produced animal products (where farm chemicals become most concentrated) or only buying organic "treat foods" (whatever that means for you). Their higher prices may encourage you to eat less of these items which is likely to be better for your own health and will definitely be better for the health of the planet.

Another option to increase your intake of organic garden-produce is to start your own garden, or start or join a community-garden. LINK: So, you want to start a Sharing Garden.

We like to remind ourselves as we adopt new lifestyle choices that "it's a direction, not perfection." Be gentle on yourself as you make new changes and, if sometimes you decide to eat something on your "no-no list", do it consciously, do it with joy and then re-commit to following your chosen dietary guidelines once again. Happy eating!

Image credit: Enki quotes.com
So, here are some of the top reasons we feel it is important to eat organically grown foods.

Healthier for you: Ingesting farm chemical residues isn't good for your health. Many of these chemicals can build up in one's tissues over time so, even though we may only eat small amounts with each meal, their accumulated amounts can be significant over a life-time. Also, children tend to be more susceptible to environmental toxins as they are building new tissues at a faster rate than adults. LINK - How much Glyphosate is in the foods I eat? LINK-Pesticide Action Network
Any farmer who grows "organically" may not use herbicides, pesticides or fungicides - unless they have been approved by the organic-certification agencies.
Slow-grown food is more nutrient-dense.
More nutrient dense? The truth is, most organic-farmers struggle under the same competitive conditions as farmers who grow using conventional practices. This means, they need to invest the least amount of money in fertilizers and other soil amendments, and grow their produce as fast as possible, to get it to market ahead of their competitors to make the most profit. These practices lead to more "water-weight" and less nutrient-dense foods. This means that the vitamin/mineral content may not vary much between organic and conventional farmers.  On the other hand, some studies suggest that, on average, organically-grown produce is consistently more nutrient-dense and lower in pesticides and heavy metals. LINK-Large study 

This is why it is important to know your farmer so you can confirm that their food is slow-grown and that the farmers are replacing the minerals that get depleted in their soil from harvesting crops.
Adding compost-tea to our gardens is one way we replace many of the nutrients that are depleted through harvesting.
GMO versus organically-grown:  There is still debate about whether foods produced from Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO's) are a health risk to humans. We are strongly opposed to them because of the compelling research pointing to the possibility that eating GM plants, or livestock raised on GMO feed can lead to leaky-gut syndrome and a whole slew of health problems including severe food-allergies, learning disabilities and autism-spectrum disorders in children. LINK Institute for Responsible Technology-a GMO watchdog group. Genetically Modified plants and animals have the potential of interbreeding with plants and animals that were not genetically modified, with unforeseen consequences. Some GM plants (corn and soy) are specifically bred to be resistant to Round-up and other herbicides meaning large amounts of these chemicals can be used to grow them. This leads to well-documented cases of super-weeds that have become resistant to herbicides and require ever stronger chemicals to keep them in check. LINK: The Dangers of Round-up Ready Foods, LINK-GMO Health Risks  Also, GM corn and soy are used extensively in livestock-feed so you can imagine how these farm-chemicals concentrate in their tissues.
We feel strongly that it is important to avoid eating any genetically modified plants. We feel it is especially important to avoid eating animal-products (meat, dairy, eggs) from animals fed on GM feed.
Sharing Gardens - 2019
But what about just eating non-GM foods? Well yes, this is a step in the right direction but just because something is non-GMO does not mean that it's grown without farm chemicals. Industrialized farming uses plenty of chemicals in growing the food. Did you know that it is also a legal practice for farmers to use Round-up as a desiccant (which causes withering and drying in plant tissues) to artificially dry crops if conditions are too wet for the crops to fully ripen in the field? LINK-Wikipedia, LINK-EcoWatch.
By definition, organic farmers are not allowed to grow Genetically Modified crops, or feed them to their livestock.
Better for the environment. Anyone following the news knows that our environment is under attack from all sides. Industrial farming is one of the biggest culprits.

Pollinators are under siege from the practices of growing "mono-crops" (all one variety) for thousands of acres, offering no variety in their diet of pollen, and many farm-chemicals are damaging to their health as well. LINK - Why growing sunflowers is great for bees.

Honey-bee on tansy. We let some weeds flower in our garden intentionally as they provide important pollen-food for beneficial insects. Here's some good news: Grassroots bee petition in Bavaria forces greener farming practices: 
Soil health: Industrial farming - through over-tilling and depleting soil of organic matter makes soils void of all life and destroys the structure of the soil itself which no amount of added fertilizers and chemicals can restore.
Healthy soil means healthy soil-organisms. Eight-year old, Ricardo holds an earthworm found in our gardens.
Industrial farming is a major source of water-pollution. Industrial farming has negative effects on the world's water for many reasons. Here are a few: Heavy Metals build-up; Algae Blooms, Dead-zones and Acidification; Nitrates; Pathogens and Over-use of water reducing water-levels in our aquifers. (LINK-How Industrial Agriculture Effects Our Water)

Many bird species have a hard time finding enough insects to feed their young. Farm chemicals tend to concentrate in the tissues of animals, the higher-up you go in the food chain as Rachel Carson so famously proved in her landmark book from the 1960's titled Silent Spring.

Thorin, Eliza and Adri harvest cabbage, 2018.
Be aware too, that this principle of chemicals concentrating in tissues applies to foods raised for human consumption too. The accumulation of these chemicals in our own bodies will therefore be less with a plant-based diet. The more meat, dairy and eggs one eats, that are not organically-raised, the higher concentrations people have in their bodies of these chemicals. Bear in mind too that the quality of life for livestock animals grown organically is more humane as well.
Organic farming practices keep our air, water and soil healthier and can even contribute to the increase of viable habitat for wild plant and animal species.
Organic farming is better for the farmers and farm-workers who grow our food. Sharing Gardens volunteers digging potatoes 2018.
Healthier for the farmers and farm-workers: When we use our purchasing power to make a statement about our values, we are directly contributing to healthier lifestyles for everyone involved in the food-growing community. LINK - Agricultural Chemicals and Human Health
In this complex world of competing dietary studies which often offer contradictory results it can be difficult to know who to trust and which dietary practices will be best for your health and the health of the environment on which every living things depends.

If you have been feeling on the fence about whether to make the commitment to eating more organically-grown foods, we hope this post has helped you make that shift. Just remember that wise saying, "You can either pay your farmer now, or pay your doctor later." We think this is good advice.

Get to know your farmers! Chris and Llyn in the Sharing Gardens, your friendly, neighborhood "farm-acists".

Bella loves kale!
Other relevant LINKS:
Synopsis of "Organics for All" Urine study

Organic diet intervention significantly reduces urinary pesticide levels in U.S. children and adults - Science Direct 

What the pesticides in our urine tell us about organic food - The Guardian

The States in America That Use the Most (and Least) Glyphosate - Zero Hedge

What's in standard 'fast food'?

Great, short video on "Why Eat Organic"
How to Wash Vegetables and Fruits to Remove Pesticides
The Sharing Gardens is a registered charitable and tax-exempt organization. We exist primarily through donations. If you have benefited from our project or site please consider making a donation through PayPal (a receipt will automatically be provided for your tax records).

Friday, July 17, 2020

Gardening During Covid-19

New friends in the Sharing Gardens
We continue to have inquiries about how Covid-19 is impacting the Sharing Gardens so here is an update with some pictures to show how things are going for us so far this season. Overall, with only a few minor setbacks, the gardens are thriving and we're feeling very supported.

Mostly the weather in Oregon has been ideal for gardening this year. We have had warmer weather than usual and the Spring rains were spaced so we got just enough to keep the plants from drying out and needing supplemental watering until very recently. We're entering a drier/hotter phase now but our crops are all in the ground and well-mulched so things look good for the rest of the season.

As things shut down due to Covid-19 and people had fewer and fewer options for places they could go and practice "social distancing", we've had steady requests from folks offering to help with garden-tasks. In the beginning we were strict about keeping groups of people separate who came from different families, but have had very little incidence of the virus in our county so now, on volunteer days, we're not as strict about this. Being outside, in the fresh air, it's easy for those who come from different families to stay safe and socially-distanced. 
Our only group of service-learning students from Oregon State University before COV-19 closed schools to in-person classes. (Feb 22, 2020)

OSU students - shoveling compost into buckets.
A bucket brigade of compost!

Each stake got a quart of coffee, a tablespoon of wood-ash and a whole bucket of compost (Feb. 22). In May we planted a winter-squash plant in each mound. Now, in mid-July, the plants are already forming fruit!
Here's the same bed of winter squash in Mid-July (pole beans in the foreground).

We've been harvesting the cool-weather crops for many months now and in the last two weeks our tomatoes, summer squash and cucumbers have begun to ripen in earnest. Nearly all of our meals have at least one ingredient that was grown in the garden (including foods we canned or dehydrated in previous years) and lately we've had several meals that, except for the condiments, are 100% from the gardens. The fact that we are vegetarians helps us to be more self-sufficient in the food we grow. For example, we can grow all the dried beans we use in a year but would need much more land if we were raising animals for meat. (Grow Your Own Protein - Scarlet Runner Beans).

Lunch - July 2020 - All, fresh from the garden: lettuce, grated beets and carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, arugula, basil, nasturtium flowers and scarlet runner beans.
We only had one significant set-back this Spring when a shelf holding many of our 'starts' collapsed. Fortunately, the collapse was a s-l-o-w slide and very few plants actually fell out of their pots. We had to re-start all our squash plants as they didn't have big enough root systems and all their soil dumped out. Also, a few of the labels on tomatoes got mixed up but, as Chris likes to say, "They know what varieties they are!". We've planted 110 tomato plants this year!

We replaced the system of chains that were holding up the slatted shelves with saw-horses (seen here). It's a much more secure solution and also, we can remove the shelves and saw-horses if we ever want to plant directly in the beds below. Here we are laying out onions to cure. Our best year for onions yet! (These onions were grown from our own seed!)
Delicious "Tall Top" beets - the 'greens' are as yummy as the roots.
Our core-group of volunteers continue to come on a weekly basis and, as some of them have been with us for many years, they know the routines and can be trusted to take on the tasks at hand with confidence, joy and capability. We've also had a few new people join our share-giver family. Here is a gallery of pictures showing many of the volunteers who have been helping this season so far:

Early in the season, Chris and Donn - planting broccoli. The black collars are made by cutting the bottoms out of pots. We use them to keep the mulch from covering the plants, and to protect from cold winds. Snails and slugs can be a problem so we use an organic product called 'Sluggo' (iron phosphate pellets) to keep them under control.
Adri removes chive-flowers before we bundle them to share. Adri's been coming to the gardens since she was born!
Early May - Cindy thins the beets while Chris bunches chives. Carrots grow along the right-hand side.
Here, in late April, Chris and Rook plant a variety of sorghum known for its sweet, nutty flour - (we have our own grain-grinding mill and have been baking with store-bought, gluten-free sorghum flour for the past year.) Yummy!
Here are the same sorghum plants in mid-July! Variety shown: Ba Ye Qi (LINK: Varieties of Sorghum)
Cindy and Jim put collars and grass-mulch around cabbage plants - early Spring.
New faces: We've had some new faces in the gardens this year. The Covid-19 situation has been a catalyst for more people to want to participate as volunteers than in previous years. Though the majority of garden tasks still fall to Chris and myself, and our core group of 'share-givers' who have been coming for many years, it's been nice to integrate some new folks on an intermittent basis.

Andrea, Peter and Chris weed the winter squash patch.
Christine is a graduate student at OSU and found us through an on-line search for volunteer opportunities in our area.
Christine (at center, in back) then invited her sister, Amy and Amy's girls - Sadie and Marley to join in the fun. Here, they're distributing grass-clippings where summer squash will be planted.
Amy and her girls picking edible nasturtium flowers - delicious in salads!
Along with helping weekly with gardening tasks, Donn has been a big help with equipment maintenance (center - in green shirt)...
...and his wife Marilyn has a passion for mowing! A great combo :-).
Elephant garlic! Lots to share.
During the Spring months, we don't have a large amount of surplus produce to share with the two food pantries that we serve, but once summer is here, our Gardens produce large amounts of veggies. Just in the last two weeks alone we've donated over 100 pounds of cabbage, cucumbers and summer squash!

Grant, with red cabbage 'starts'.
The S. Benton Food Pantry and Gleaners have recently increased their commitment to providing healthier food choices for their customers. They are now gleaning surplus, organically grown produce from the Corvallis Farmer's Market. It is usually more than they can use so the Sharing Gardens bags-up the surplus to share with another Food Pantry - Local Aid. That's Grant (left) who's the new head of the Gleaners. He's also canceled three out of four "gleans" per month from Costco because they were sending so much junky pastries and very little actual bread. Yay, Grant!

Ba Ye Qi Sorghum heads.
We are so grateful for the reduced air-traffic this year as our land is under the flight-path for the Eugene airport. The skies have been just crystal-clear blue (except for when our governor decided the logging industry's burning of slash-piles -all the wood that's left after they harvest the trees- was an "essential service". Go figure!) The skies are so clear that Chris and I thought we saw a UFO the other night. Turns out it was just the star Sirius which twinkles green, yellow and red but it was so uncannily bright! Neither of us can remember seeing such beautiful, clear skies since we were kids!

Unfortunately, as farmers harvest grass-hay to feed cattle, the skies are getting a bit dustier than they were but hopefully, with reductions in so many polluting human-habits (due to the Covid-19 shut-downs) we can resist the urge to return to "business as usual" and be more mindful of which polluting habits we re-adopt as society opens again.
Jim and Chris, pouring compost tea. Love that blue sky!
Chris and Cindy, weeding. May 23, 2020
Wildlife has been thriving in the gardens this Spring! Swallowtail butterfly on lavender - Sharing Gardens - Spring 2020
Though it's been a very busy season at the Gardens, Chris and I have managed to dash over to the ocean for a few trips to relax and take a break. Here we are at Baker Beach in April. With half of the season yet to go we intend to stay healthy and keep the gardens thriving!
We send love to all of you in our garden-community. May this post find you healthy and happy and finding ways to make the world just a little bit better place to live - every day.