The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Apr 4

The weekend has arrived.  This post will be the first in what I plan as a series of retrospectives on my purchasing habits and how I can localize them further.  I am told (thanks, Wikipedia!) that the title idiom has come to “refer to upsides, downsides and the parts that could, or should have been done better, but were not.”  Perfect.

The Good – items that I’ve grown/made/purchased as close to home as possible. Cases where I used to buy something non-local, and have now found or adopted an alternative.  The Bad – items that don’t originate locally, for which I can’t see a path to an alternative.  The Ugly – when I know I could do better, but for one reason or another (habit, laziness, poor planning) I didn’t. So, having set that context…

The Good

This week, I purchased a CSA share (actually, a half share) for first time. Although the ideal would be growing my own veggies In My Back Yard (IMBY), I know that I have a lot of other irons in the fire right now and this feels like a huge improvement over the alternatives.  The farm (Spice of Life Farm in Alpine, NY) isn’t necessarily the closest, but the owner is a friend of one of my neighbors, and since several of us are getting shares from the same place, it allows us to combine trips into town to collect our produce.

In other food-related items, I had a Greco-Roman-era dinner this week: barley cakes (maza) 1 and beer.  Although later in history barley was considered a grain for feeding animals, in early Rome it was a staple. Contrary to our images of vast Greek and Roman feasts, most common people in that era subsisted on unleavened bread (and not necessarily all that much of that) with an occasional veggie and, very rarely, meat.2 Barley cakes are about as simple as you can get: barley flour (1-3/4 cups), honey (3 tbsp), olive oil (2 tbsp), and enough water to make a good firm dough.  (Flatten into rounds and bake at 400°F for 12-15min. There, now you have the whole recipe.) I’m not certain where the barley originated (though I know I bought it from the local food co-op) but I know where it was ground into flour: at my kitchen table.  The honey is from a local farm, but the oil (alas) was not.  Olive oil might have been a local product for the Greeks, but around here it should be sunflower oil.  So that’s a tiny bit of ugly.

In addition to this, I also bought milk.  Although the co-op has both Organic Valley northeast “local” milk and regular Organic Valley milk, I learned something interesting.  According to the code printed on top of the “regular” milk, it is packaged just over an hour away in Syracuse. Meanwhile, for whatever, reason, it consistently has a 3-4 week longer shelf life (both rated, and per my own experiences) than the “local” ones.  So I buy the one that doesn’t say local on the assurance that it actually is, and that I will not be pouring a quart down the drain because it has spoiled.

Now here’s something I bet you didn’t know you could get at home: a massage therapist house call!  A friend of mine who recently finished massage school is working in the area (temporarily, alas) and doesn’t have a place to practice right now. When I asked if I could make an appointment, she said sure, but could it happen at my home?  Of course! What self-respecting locality-buff with aching muscles would turn that down?  (I will note here that there are presently no licensed massage therapists living here, but if any of you want to change that and move in a few doors down, you have a built-in clientele waiting…)  In any case, she lives less than 9 miles away.


The Bad

I suppose I should admit that I have a chocolate addiction. My wonderful excuse for buying chocolate this week was for a friend and neighbor’s birthday. Although there are local confectioners and chocolatiers, there really aren’t local chocolate makers.  So far, at least, the ingredients don’t grow around here. So I bought chocolate as a gift… er, plus that bit that I got for myself.

The Ugly

Pizza.  I love it, there is a great place right down the street, and it’s what’s for dinner.  Unfortunately, I’m certain that much of what they make it from is sourced from places that fail the “local” test.  There’s no question that I could make it myself, and make the crust from local oats, the cheese from local dairy, the tomatoes could even have been grown literally IMBY.  There’s a vast difference between an hour-long cooking project and a five minute stop as I was going past anyway, but that’s a lousy excuse, and hopefully sometime soon I’ll get myself psyched up to do it right.  The one redeeming virtue is that the shop is small and locally owned, so some of that $6 meal is staying in the community rather than going to a big national chain.

  1. History of Technology, Volume II, p. 119
  2. History of Technology, Volume II, p. 105, 119

How Local is CO2?

Carbon credits.  At this point, if you haven’t heard the name, you might well be living in a culture that doesn’t use fossil fuels.  But the basic idea is that if you’re creating CO2 from burning fossil fuels, you can do “something” to compensate by buying carbon credits.  These might go to the planting of trees or some other activity that reduces CO2 production elsewhere.  You can argue over whether this makes a difference to our long-term future, or not, but that’s really outside the scope of what I want to write about here.  Thinking in terms of my back yard, what can I do to first reduce, and subsequently offset my CO2 production?

The first step I took (starting in 2010) was planting my own trees. Estimates are that each tree may capture 2.5-5.5lbs of  CO2 per year depending on age. Considering how quickly I can plant trees, though, this doesn’t amount to much. The key, though, is that the trees I’m planting are part of a coppice grove, which should supply me with firewood.  More on coppice at the end, if you’re interested.

The next step I’ve taken is to stop using natural gas.  When my home was built, the installed heat and hot water source was a natural gas boiler.  I started heating primarily with wood in 2012; although there are some deadfalls on the property and one or two trees that I’ve had to take down for other reasons, most of this wood was purchased from local suppliers. (Unless you want to pay for the energy of kiln-drying, you must buy your firewood locally.) Then, in 2013, I was able to eliminate the boiler by having a solar “domestic hot water” system installed.  The only remaining gas appliance is my cookstove, where I decided that the embodied energy (about 1325kWh equivalent) was more than the CO2 involved in keeping it running off of propane.  (So far it’s looking like 10 years worth of use will be about equivalent to the replacement energy – but then I’m still on my first 40lb propane tank so I might be underestimating the years.)  Also, out in the future, I may be able to use a biogas digester to run the stove.  And yes, I need a backup for the solar DHW and for the wood stove… but those are both electric, running off my grid-tied solar PV array, which is backed up by buying more wind credits than I actually use.

Of course, all of this is only part of my CO2 use, because I still drive a car, and because my work requires me to travel overseas periodically, which leads to air travel.  In the most recent year, my Prius accounted for 31% of my COproduction, and the flights for 67%, so I’ve reduced the home energy to only 2% of my total, much lower than typical use.  So now we’re back to the question of carbon credits, and how I can choose carbon credits that are local.  That has an easy answer: the Finger Lakes Climate Fund.  If I offset my carbon use here, it turns into grants for local homeowners to improve the energy efficiency of their own homes.

So in summary: 

Before/After CO2

HeatingNatural gasLocally sourced wood
Electric backup
On site coppice wood
Hot waterNatural gasSolar DHW
Electric backup
CookingNatural gasPropane cookstoveBiogas cookstove?
Home energy150%1%TBD
Automobile energy180%48%TBD
Airplane energy1?98%Lower?

1 As a percentage of single family detached green home/green car, conventional suburban development, per the EPA. Note that the transport numbers are cumulative: I used as many BTU flying as most households do for their entire annual transportation. Not good, but all of the flying represented was job-related.

I said I’d write a little more about coppice for those who are interested. The coppice grove has been in use in Europe (particularly the UK) for so long that they are considered unique ecosystems.  The principle is simple – there are many trees that will regrow new shoots from cut stumps; the regrowth is more vigorous because the established root system can supply nutrients much more effectively, and the harvesting and regrowth can be repeated over and over on a relatively short cycle.  (Some trees, or some ecosystems, will work better with “pollarding”, where the cutting happens far above the ground.)  Estimates for coppice productivity range from 1 cord/acre/year to as high as 5 cords/acre/year!

Since I’m burning about 1 cord/year, we allocated 2 acres for coppice but I started out by planting only 1/2 acre.  One of the good (and bad) things about initially establishing a coppice is that you want to plant only a fraction of the trees each year – less work, but you have to wait a long time (10-15 years?) before your first plantings are of harvestable size, and you know what your yields will be.  In any case, I’ll be buying from the local wood suppliers for a while longer still. However, because I’m planting a more esoteric (if historically suggested) coppice, I will get some productivity sooner.

Some of the preferred species for firewood coppice are ash, beeches, poplar, some oaks, and black or honey locust.  But in the old days, coppice was used for a lot more than firewood: fence posts, fencing withies (willow), tool handles (and going back to pre-iron age, even tool blades including plowshares!), furniture…  So I’ve elected to plant a coppice that includes a variety of species, starting with quite a bit of apple.

Apple has the following advantages: coppices very well (even past the first 15-20 years); can be grown from seed readily (so I don’t need to buy expensive orchard trees); excellent firewood; excellent wood for smoking meats; excellent wood for turnery (making things on a lathe) and other woodworking; and, oh yeah, it produces food.  Now when you grow an apple from seed of a good eating apple, you know something about the genetics – at least one of the parents tasted good – but you really don’t know if you’re going to get something of quality.  On the other hand, if you plant fifty of them, chances are that you’ll get something out there that’s good for eating, and a bunch of things that are decent for making cider. Since we have orchard spaces elsewhere, there’s no reason at all why we can’t graft out branches from any apples that happen to be delicious.

I’m including some other trees in the coppice rotation as well; the variety leads to a more diverse ecosystem and different trees will have different uses.  Some “thornless” honey-locust (Gleditsia triacanthos var. inermis, acquired cheaply from the local soil conservation district), some Kentucky coffee tree (Gymnocladus dioicus – doesn’t coppice! – but I got it for free from a friend, and it does produce a coffee substitute and is good firewood), and planned for this year, swamp white oak (Quercus bicolor, which does coppice and which does well in poorly drained soils).

Closer to Home

Welcome to my blog about choosing to live closer to my home.  What do I mean by that?  Well, bear with me and I’ll explain.

You’ve probably heard of “preppers” before – you may even know one. Those people who are busy building underground concrete bunkers and filling them with every kind of weapon available from the least discerning vendor at the local gun show.  Stockpiling a year’s supply of MREs.  Getting ready for something – their idea of what may vary, from the one-world-government shock troops in black helicopters to the zombie apocalypse.

My family and friends sometimes call me a prepper too, but I like to think of it as a kinder, gentler form of “prep”.  Preparation for a dual calamity that, though insidious, is all too well known: the gradual disappearance of the cheap energy that has fueled the industrial revolution, and its collateral sidekick, global climate weirding.  Since you can’t shoot either of these with an AK-47, some might wonder exactly how you do prepare for them.

That’s the story I hope to tell with this blog: the story of how my neighbors and I are gradually building a resilient local community around good old fashioned values and skills.  And I do mean old – think about what humanity could do in the 18th century – or the 8th century – and you’ll see that a lot of really important things haven’t changed.  We still eat, drink, sleep, and try to stay warm.  We (21st century Americans) have gotten rather accustomed to eating factory-farmed processed-corn-based fast food, drinking corn syrup laced soft drinks or imported Australian wine, sleeping on memory-foam beds, and heating our homes with convenient gas or oil furnaces.

For me, and probably for many people reading this, “buying the things I need” (or want, but pretend that I need) has become an automatic, non-intentional, unexamined habit.  So I propose to stop and examine it – carefully.  The phrase NIMBY – not in my back yard – has become ubiquitous – everyone has something they don’t want there.  So instead, let’s look at the opposite question: what do I want “In My Back Yard”. What can I grow, or make right here to fulfill those needs and wants. And if not my back yard, what about my neighbors’ yards, or on our larger property? Or in my town… and so forth. And if it does come from far away, then what is the justification, and what is the impact?

Of course I’m sure I’ll talk about a lot of other things along the way…