Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The White House Kitchen Garden, Ready for Winter...

"First Lady Michelle Obama made international headlines when she hula hooped on the South Lawn of the White House in October, but now there's a different kind of South Lawn hooping going on. White House gardeners, led by chief horticulturalist Jim Adams, installed what are known as hoop houses in Mrs. Obama's White House Kitchen Garden at the end of last week, in order to ensure that crops can be grown through the winter. Fabric-covered aluminum hoops have been placed over the crop rows and these capture passive solar energy and boost the interior temperature dramatically, so the garden soil and air is warmed, and crops can flourish--even in winter. Hoop Houses are often tall enough to walk through, but the White House is using mini versions, about two feet tall, which some farmers and gardeners refer to as "low tunnels" or just simply "row covers." (Photo at top: The Kitchen Garden with the newly installed hoop houses, right before a weekend snowfall. Small photo is the First Lady, doing her own hooping)

Food Initiative Coordinator Sam Kass oversees the Kitchen Garden as the policy architect of the First Lady's health and nutrition agenda, and he intends the Kitchen Garden to be a "succession" garden, meaning that it will grow crops successively through the seasons, barring any prolonged freezes or deep enduring snows. The hoop houses ensure this, and were put in place just in time. It's been really cold in DC lately--over the weekend there was a storm that dumped enough snow to actually accumulate (!), and today there are black ice warnings for drivers, and in general the temperature has been between the low 30s and mid 40s f, with blowing winds. More snow is possible later in the week. But no matter: It's warm and cozy inside the covered beds in the 1,100 square foot Kitchen Garden, and the winter crops, which include lettuces, cabbage, winter radishes, onions, broccoli, turnips, and carrots, are easily accessible, because the covering fabric is held down with sandbags, and can easily be flipped back to weed, harvest, or water, if for some odd reason it doesn't rain (but it'd been raining a lot before it started to snow). (Photo above: The hoops in the garden, before the fabric coverings were put in place)

The latest estimate of total crop production for the garden since its first planting in April is about 1,000 pounds, which Executive Pastry Chef Bill Yosses announced during last week's Holiday Decoration preview, when he was showing off the adorable mini-marzipan replica of the Kitchen Garden that's a new addition to the White House Gingerbread House. Total costs for the Kitchen Garden--minus the incalculable sum for labor, which included weeding by kitchen staff and volunteers, as well as planting and harvesting by local elementary school groups--are estimated at $175.00. (Photo: The mini-marzipan Kitchen Garden)

Washington, DC is in what USDA identifies as "hardiness zone 7," a fairly temperate zone...although temperatures have varied wildly in the past three years (the -5 degree temperature at President Obama's inauguration last January was unprecedented, yet DC does seem to be getting colder. Thus one more reason for addressing climate change in Copenhagen...). Because the Kitchen Garden is situated on a part of the South Lawn that gets a lot of sun for much of the day, even in winter, with the hoop houses in place, the garden is expected to continue to provide healthy fresh and ultra local veggies for the White House with no problem--minus permafrost conditions. Home gardeners often use plastic as their hoop covering, but the White House is attempting to be a citadel of green modeling, thus the choice of eco-conscious fabric.

For the State Dinner menu on Nov. 24, Arugula harvested from the garden was used in the salads, and guest chef Marcus Samuelsson personally harvested fresh herbs for his dishes, including pineapple sage, dill, oregano and thyme. Yosses used lemon verbena and mint as garnish for his desserts, and he poached pears for one of the desserts in honey from the White House Beehive. The Beehive is now dormant for the winter. Just one month ago, on Oct. 30, at the Fall Kitchen Garden Harvest, Mrs. Obama, a team of elementary school helpers, and the White House chefs harvested 224 pounds of crops from the Kitchen Garden, to begin the process of preparing for the winter planting and the installation of the hoop houses. At that point, crops were knee- and shoulder high, depending on variety, and had to be cleared to make way for the latest planting. The Fall Harvest crops were donated to Miriam's Kitchen, the local social services agency that also received crops from the garden during its first harvest last spring. (Above: During the Fall Garden Harvest, the crops were lush and large. Mrs. Obama holds a huge sweet potato that weighed around 4 pounds; below, the Kitchen Garden moments before it was harvested for Fall)"

Ethical Omnivores: Think Twice Before Buying The Christmas Ham

First permaculture course at UMass

Snowy morning outside. But to add a little brightness to the day, UMass has approved its first permaculture course!: "BMATWT 397P - 01 ST-Permaculture"

I'll be sharing some of my knowledge with 25 students (as well as getting help from local permaculture designers) starting in January.

Monday, December 7, 2009


Take a watch

short description:

"In 200,000 years on Earth, humanity has upset the balance of the planet, established by nearly four billion years of evolution. The price to pay is high, but it's too late to be a pessimist: humanty has barely ten years to reverse the trend, become aware of the full extent of ts spollation of the Earth's riches and changes its patterns of consumption"

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Will Allen: The "Go-to expert on urban farming"..

I am feeling very excited today. I found out yesterday that I will be traveling to Milwaukee on January 4th and spending three full weeks with an organization called Growing Power. The founder, Will Allen, is doing very big things. He is an urban farmer that is (taken from his website) "Inspiring communities to build sustainable food systems that are equitable and ecologically sound, creating a just world, one food-secure community at a time."

"Growing Power is a national nonprofit organization and land trust supporting people from diverse backgrounds, and the environments in which they live, by helping to provide equal access to healthy, high-quality, safe and affordable food for people in all communities."

"Will isn't out to change the ways of multinational food producers or foreign governments. But he is spurring people to turn the weedy lot on the corner into a field of cucumbers and kale, and he's probably inspiring a few others to turn off the TV and make dinner for the family. Think globally; act locally."

- Debra Landwehr Engle

"Growing food, growing minds, growing communities: that’s the agenda of former basketball player Will Allen, whose organization, Growing Power, teaches inner-city children about the rewards, the challenges, and the science of farming."
- Michael Penn

Below is an article that I found about Will Allen written in the NY Times. The full article can be read, here

Street Farmer
Published: July 1, 2009

“Sitting in my office isn’t a very comfortable thing for me,” he told me later, seated in his office. “I want to be out there doing physical stuff.”

Like others in the so-called good-food movement, Allen, who is 60, asserts that our industrial food system is depleting soil, poisoning water, gobbling fossil fuels and stuffing us with bad calories. Like others, he advocates eating locally grown food. But to Allen, local doesn’t mean a rolling pasture or even a suburban garden: it means 14 greenhouses crammed onto two acres in a working-class neighborhood on Milwaukee’s northwest side, less than half a mile from the city’s largest public-housing project.

When you’re producing a quarter of a million dollars’ worth of food in such a small space, soil fertility is everything. Without microbe- and nutrient-rich worm castings (poop, that is), Allen’s Growing Power farm couldn’t provide healthful food to 10,000 urbanites — through his on-farm retail store, in schools and restaurants, at farmers’ markets and in low-cost market baskets delivered to neighborhood pickup points.

Allen studied the worms for five years, learning their food and shelter preferences (warned by experts that his red wrigglers would freeze during Milwaukee’s long winter), “I’d run my experiments over and over and over — just like an athlete operates” (he is a former professional basketball player in the ABA and in Belgium after graduating from the University of Miami). Then he worked out systems for procuring wood chips from the city and food scraps from markets and wholesalers. Last year, he took in six million pounds of spoiled food, which would otherwise rot in landfills and generate methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Every four months, he creates another 100,000 pounds of compost, of which he uses a quarter and sells the rest.

With seeds planted at quadruple density and nearly every inch of space maximized to generate exceptional bounty, Growing Power is an agricultural Mumbai, a supercity of upward-thrusting tendrils and duct-taped infrastructure. Allen pointed to five tiers of planters brimming with salad greens. “We’re growing in 25,000 pots,” he said. Ducking his 6-foot-7 frame under one of them, he pussyfooted down a leaf-crammed aisle. “We grow a thousand trays of sprouts a week; every square foot brings in $30.” He headed toward the in-ground fish tanks stocked with tens of thousands of tilapia and perch. Pumps send the dirty fish water up into beds of watercress, which filter pollutants and trickle the cleaner water back down to the fish — a symbiotic system called aquaponics.

Uncannily, Allen makes such efforts sound simple — fun even. When he mentions that animal waste attracts soldier flies, whose larvae make terrific fish and chicken feed, a dozen people start imagining that growing grubs in buckets of manure might be a good project for them too. “Will has a way of persuading people to do things,” Robert Pierce, a farmer in Madison, Wis., told me. “There’s a spirit in how he says things; you want to be part of his community.”

Suddenly, I got it: Allen was a genius at selling. He could push his greens into corporate cafeterias, persuade the governor to help finance the construction of an anaerobic digester, wheedle new composting sites from urban landlords, persuade Milwaukee’s school board to buy his produce for its public schools and charm the blind into growing sprouts. (“I was cutting sprouts in the dark one night,” Allen said, “and I realized you don’t need sight to do this.”)

His essential view is that people do the best they can: if they don’t have any better food choices than KFC, well, O.K. But let’s work on changing that. If they don’t know what to do with okra, Growing Power stands ready to help. And if their great-grandparents were sharecroppers and they have some bad feelings about the farming life, then Allen has something to offer there too: his personal example and workshops geared toward empowering minorities. “African-Americans need more help, and they’re often harder to work with because they’ve been abused and so forth,” Allen said. “But I can break through a lot of that very quickly because a lot of people of color are so proud, so happy to see me leading this kind of movement.”

Employing locals to grow food for the hungry on neglected land has an irresistible appeal, but it’s not clear yet whether Growing Power’s model can work elsewhere. “I know how to make money growing food,” Allen asserts. But he’s also got between 30 and 50 employees to pay, which makes those foundation grants — and a grant-writer — essential. Growing Power also relies on large numbers of volunteers. All of which perhaps explains why other urban farmers have not yet replicated Growing Power’s scale or its unique social achievements.

Growing Power isn’t self-sufficient. But neither is industrial agriculture, which relies on price supports and government subsidies. Moreover, industrial farming incurs costs that are paid by society as a whole: the health costs of eating highly processed foods, for example, or water pollution. Nor can Growing Power be compared to other small farms, because it provides so many intangible social benefits to those it reaches. “It’s not operated as a farm,” said Ian Marvy, executive director of Brooklyn’s Added Value farm, which shares many of Growing Power’s core values but produces less food. “It has a social, ecological and economic bottom line.” That said, Marvy says that anyone can replicate Allen’s technical systems — the worm composting and aquaponics — for relatively little money.


In the last several years, he has become a darling of the foundation world. In 2005, he received a $100,000 Ford Foundation leadership grant. In 2008, the MacArthur Foundation honored Allen with a $500,000 “genius” award. And in May, the Kellogg Foundation gave Allen $400,000 to create jobs in urban agriculture.

Today Allen is the go-to expert on urban farming, and there is a hunger for his knowledge. When I visited Growing Power, Allen was conducting a two-day workshop for 40 people: each paid $325 to learn worm composting, aquaponics construction and other farm skills. “We need 50 million more people growing food,” Allen told them, “on porches, in pots, in side yards.” The reasons are simple: as oil prices rise, cities expand and housing developments replace farmland, the ability to grow more food in less space becomes ever more important. As Allen can’t help reminding us, with a mischievous smile, “Chicago has 77,000 vacant lots.”