Baby Gourmet Organic Baby Food – Recommended by Carter

Nine-month-old Carter, reaching for more Baby Organic Baby Food. Photo: Megan Hach

Nine-month-old Carter, reaching for more Baby Organic Baby Food. Photo: Megan Hach

One of the benefits of blogging is that we’re often asked to test products. Since Joe and I don’t fit the right demographic for baby food, I turned to the only member of our family who qualifies: our grandson, Carter. I was delighted when Carter’s mom, Megan, agreed to test Baby Gourmet Organic Baby Food on her firstborn child. Megan and her husband, Kyle, won’t give Carter food they haven’t tried themselves, so we were fortunate to get the opinions of their entire family. Here’s what Megan had to say about their experience with Baby Gourmet. ~ Julia Wasson, Publisher

Baby Gourmet Organic Baby Food apple crisp scores a smile from Carte and his momr. Photo: Joe Hennager

Baby Gourmet Organic Baby Food apple crisp scores a smile from Carter and his mom. Photo: Joe Hennager

We really enjoyed the Baby Gourmet Organic Baby Food. Kyle and I tried a little of each kind of the food, and we were happily surprised with the great taste. Each variety had lots of flavor and a nice consistency, with a little more chunkiness than other brands we’ve tried.

Baby Gourmet also has so much more taste than the generic, non-organic foods we usually feed Carter. I also really liked that we could see and taste actual chunks of food. The chunks were very small, so they were baby-safe.

Carter LOVED the baby apple crisp food the best (although he ate all the other flavors just as well). He would smile with each bite of the apple crisp. We could smell and taste the apples and cinnamon in that flavor—it was like real apple crisp!
Baby-Gourmet comes in several flavors, with textures just right for babies and toddlers at different stages. Photo: J Wasson

Baby-Gourmet comes in several flavors, with textures just right for babies and toddlers at different stages. Photo: J Wasson


The bright packaging was appealing, and the style of the packaging is very user friendly. I could twist the cap back on and know that none of the food was going to spill out if I packed it to go. The other brands with plastic snap-on lids always leak in my diaper bag.

I am assuming this brand of baby food is compatible with the spoon piece that you can screw on for an “on-the-go” feeding spoon, but we don’t have one of those, so we were never able to try that out.

The thing I liked the most about this product was that it was organic. Although I am not sure exactly how much this brand costs [Editor’s note: Our samples were provided free by the company], we don’t normally buy organic because of the price.

We don’t have a picky eater, and Carter has yet to turn down any food. So, we don’t feel like we have to buy the more expensive baby food just so he will like the taste. But I do wish we could afford to buy everything organic (for both him and ourselves!).

We really enjoyed getting to try out Baby Gourmet ORGANIC Baby Food!

The Small Print

Blue Planet Green Living received complimentary packages of the baby food reviewed in this post. No other compensation or incentive was provided.

Our policy is to review only those products we feel merit overall positive comments. If we do not like a product more than we dislike it, we do not review it. We are not influenced by free products and provide our honest opinions. For more information, please visit the Policies tab on the top navigation bar.

Megan Hach
Guest Writer
Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Chorlton Big Green Festival Celebrates “All Things Eco & Ethical”

Decorate your bike and join the parade at the Chorlton Big Green Festival. Photo: Sam Fairbrother

Community members and visitors in South Manchester, England are gearing up for the second-annual Chorlton Big Green Festival, to be held March 27. In 2009, an estimated 4,000 visitors gathered at the first festival where they learned about living lighter on the planet and celebrated the green lifestyle.

The 2010 event, which begins at 11:00 AM on Saturday, the 27th, will include a mix of entertainments and exhibits, a bicycle race, and a wide variety of organic foods. “The idea behind Chorlton’s Big Green Festival,” say the organizers, “is to offer local people the chance to sample sustainability in fun and friendly surroundings.”

Several types of events are promised for the day, but don’t miss the lead-off Thursday evening at the What Next? Forum.

What Next? Forum

The Big Green Festival has a new offering this year: On Thursday, March 25, the public is invited to attend the inaugural What Next? Forum. The evening will begin with talks by three green-living experts.

  • Marc Hudson, editor of Manchester Climate Fortnightly and the recent report Call to Real Action, will discuss the latest word in climate change science.
  • A resident of Ashton Hayes (TBA) in Cheshire will talk about how those who live in the village are working to become England’s first carbon-neutral community.
  • Andrew Leask from the Trafford Eco-House will describe what he and his family are doing to create sustainability in their three-bedroom home in Sale.

The Green Festival Discussion Group will finish off the evening with short presentations, followed by an open forum about how to make Chorlton greener. If you’re interested in the topics — or just curious — join in at 7:15 PM at St Clement’s Church, Edge Lane/St Clement’s Road, Chorlton.

Growing Locally

The theme of the festival this year is “Growing Locally,” which includes both gardening and growing your own food. Find out about garden allotments, plant swapping, and home delivery box schemes, among other topics. Tours of the Ivygreen Alotments will leave the Festival site at 2 PM and 3 PM.

Pedal Power

Riders join the bike parade at the 2009 Festival. Photo: Ian Palmer

The bike parade was a highlight of last year’s Festival, and this year promises to be no exception. Decorate your bike and don a costume if you wish — the theme, of course, is Green! Riders are invited to gather at St. Clement’s Church. The parade will begin at noon.

Several bike-related activities will take place during the day, including a free bike clinic. You’ll also find information on cycle paths and cycle safety, as well as low-cost bike repairs and bikes for sale.

Participating groups confirmed so far include the following:

Dead Rats – free bicycle clinic
Jack Cooper of Freewheelin’ – low-cost bike repairs and refurbished bikes for sale
Bike Right – information on cycling safely
Practical Cycles – bikes for sale and demos of cargo bikes
Greater Manchester Cycling Campaign – info on bike training
Friends of Fallowfield loop – info on cycle paths
Sustrans – info on cycle paths


Have you ever wondered about alternative therapies such as Reiki, Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP), Shiatsu, Sound Therapy, Homeopathy, or the Alexander Technique? You’ll have an opportunity to try each of these and more at the Festival. For free “taster” sessions of the various techniques, go to the second floor of St. Clement’s Church.


In the spirit of learning about “all things eco and ethical,” the Festival offers unique workshops for adults and kids. Confirmed offerings include the following, with more in the works:

  • Learn to identify wild foods and herbs for medicinal remedies with by foraging with Medical Herbalist Jesper Launder.
  • Watch an exciting demonstration by Dreads ‘n’ Hoops, a talented troupe of hoop dancers, circus performers, and movement teachers. Then grab a hoop and try it yourself!
  • Get your creative juices flowing with the folks from the Grumpy Play Resource Centres as you make your own scarecrow.

Food and Drink

It wouldn’t be much of a festival without delicious goodies to eat and drink. Big Green Festival-goers will be able to purchase delicacies from a variety of Manchester’s best eating venues. Diners will also enjoy Fair Trade and environmentally friendly foods, including excellent organic and vegan selections. Come hungry!

If thirst strikes you during the day, take advantage of the opportunity to taste delicious ales and ciders from local breweries. Or, choose from organic wines and treat the kids to hot or cold soft drinks. Of course, no eco festival would be complete without a pedal-powered smoothie maker; your smoothie never tastes so good as when you truly “make it” yourself.

Music for Every Taste

Fair-goers gather at the Festival stage in 2009. Photo: Ian Palmer

Attendees will be treated to entertainment from such notables as SRGents (other/blues/melodramatic popular song – in French), Thingumabob and the Thingumajigs (showtunes/music/comedy), Dr. Butler’s Hatstand Medicine Band (acoustic/blues/jazz), Vanessa Lewis (acoustic/jazz/folk), I am Blackbird, Robin Mukherjee (acoustic), Samson and Delilah (other/acoustic/folk), Extra Love (reggae), Maliika (soul/ambient/acoustic), Blind Atlas (rock/blues/country), and the Rothwell Incident (psychedelic/ska/Southern rock).

Artists performing on the green stage include Irish folksinger Albert Thompson, classical guitarist Arlen Connolly, and Indie/acoustic/pop artist Taylor Giacoma. Additional acts include Lowrisers (folk rock/reggae/funk) and Midge Bite Band (ceilidh). A solar- and wind-powered sound system will broadcast green tunes throughout the day.

What more could you want? A dancefloor? They’ll have that, too.


Three exciting films will be showing during the day. The Vanishing of the Bees explains the disappearance of the bee population around the world. Following the film, beekeeper John Charlton of Manchester Beekeepers will speak about beekeeping.

Glocal tells the story of an American family who moved to Chorlton, leaving their “consumption-obsessed lifestyle” behind. “Glocal challenges the viewer to be more aware of the impact of their daily routine on their health, the environment and even international relations.”

Sisters on the Planet, a film by Oxfam, chronicles the stories of four women from around the world. The film “the destructive impact climate change is having in different communities around the globe” and shows how the women are fighting climate change in their own ways, in the developed and the developing world.

Scarecrows, Vintage Fashion, and Arts & Swaps

Information booths and swaps took place in the St. Clement's Church last year. Photo: Ian Palmer

Festival-goers are encouraged to start now to create a handmade scarecrow for the Scarecrow Competition. Several scarecrows will be displayed at local businesses in the week leading up to the Festival. Scarecrows will need to assemble (well, you’ll have to bring them, unless yours comes from Oz) by 10 AM at the church.

Once again, the Festival will host a vintage/retro fashion show featuring clothing from local charity shops. The emphasis this year will be on a discussion of the history of waste and recycling since the 1960s.

Check out the craft stalls with recycled and reclaimed goods. Meet local artists and environmentalists. Network. And in true environmentalist spirit, swap your used books, crafts, or clothes you no longer need that someone else might love.

Julia Wasson

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Local Foods Connection – Providing Healthy Foods and Smart Nutrition to Low-Income Families

Low-income families receive healthy, organic foods from Local Foods Connection. Photo: © Laura Dowd
Low-income families receive healthy, organic foods from Local Foods Connection. Photo: © Laura Dowd

Imagine you’re the head of a family. You’re out of work. Or maybe you have a job that pays minimum wage. Maybe you’re an immigrant, trying hard to adjust to a new country, new foods, new customs — all on a limited income. Or, perhaps someone in your family has a serious illness, and your struggle to pay for medical care leaves little to spend on nutritious food for your children and yourself. In this harsh economic climate, for many people, eating a diet of organic foods is as much a fantasy as a taking a trip to Mars.

As incomes drop and food budgets shrink, food choices shift toward cheaper refined grains, added sugars, and vegetable fats. The first items to drop out of the diet are usually healthy foods – whole grains, lean meats, dairy products, vegetables and fruit. Energy-rich starches, sweets, and fats, many of them nutrient-poor, frequently offer the cheapest way to fill hungry stomachs. — Can Low-Income Americans Afford a Healthy Diet? Adam Drewnowski and Petra Eichelsdoerfer March 2009. A publication of the University of Washington Center for Public Health Nutrition

For the past ten years, Laura Dowd, founder and executive director of Iowa-based Local Foods Connection, has been helping low-income families improve their diets. Each week throughout the growing season, Dowd and a group of volunteers in Iowa City, Cedar Rapids, and Des Moines ensure that their clients — low-income individuals and families — each receive a box of fresh, organic produce from a local farm.

Local Foods Connection, a nonprofit, 501(c)3 organization, enrolls select families in community supported agriculture (CSA) programs in their nearby area. Donations from the public, from private corporations, and from grants fund the purchase of healthy food for the families and, at the same time, provide a consistent income stream for the farmers.

Clients learn how to cook less-common produce items like eggplant. Photo: © Laura Dowd
Clients learn how to make delicious dishes from organic produce items like eggplant. Photo: © Laura Dowd

But just giving people food without helping them improve their eating habits is not enough, according to Dowd. Local Foods Connection provides a number of ways for families to learn about the importance of organic foods, how to prepare the foods they receive, and how to create a healthy diet. “We’re changing [our clients’] buying habits and improving their nutrition,” Dowd says. “We teach them different ways to get organic food, how to rethink their food budget, and the impact of diet on health and the cost of health care. For most of our clients, someone in the family has medical problems.”

Founded in 1999, Local Foods Connection has two missions: to enable low-income families to eat healthy, organic foods and to support local farmers who use sustainable methods of agriculture.

Dowd, a transplant from a Midwest suburb, volunteered on an organic farm in the late 1990s in exchange for produce. She began talking with farmers about how to help low-income families and individuals purchase fresh, organic foods. Initially, she purchased a single CSA membership to share with others less fortunate. “This is not at all what I expected when I started,” she says. Today, Local Foods Connection supports 30 families and 10 non-profits with CSA shares.

Social service agencies, such as the Free Medical Clinic, the Domestic Violence shelter, and the Association for Retarded Citizens (ARC) refer qualified clients to Local Foods Connection. But the free food comes with expectations: In addition to receiving food and instruction, Local Foods Connection clients volunteer in the community. When they do, they earn points. “We have 15 different activities clients can do to earn points,” Dowd says. Volunteer activities available to clients for earning points include:

  • Read a book from the recommended book list and write a review
  • Watch a movie from the recommended movie list and write a review
  • Visit a farmers market
  • Share a recipe with Local Foods Connection
  • Take a cooking class
  • Send a thank you card to their farmer
  • Volunteer on an organic farm

Clients can use the points they earn toward new kitchen equipment to help them prepare healthy meals.

Soon, Dowd says, Local Foods Connection will establish a graduation program, so that families can become “independent consumers,” no longer relying on the support they now receive.

Some of the CSAs also provide organic meat through Local Foods Connectio. Photo: © Laura Dowd
Some partner CSAs also provide organic meat through Local Foods Connection. Photo: © Laura Dowd

Local Foods Connection also donates boxes of food to social service agencies, such as Head Start and the local Crisis Center Food Bank.

“We do not accept donations of food from farms,” Dowd says. “We pay full price.” The policy helps  support small, organic farms, which often have a difficult time competing with mass-production. An exception to this policy occurred this week, however, when Scattergood Friends School gave the Local Foods Connection 40 dozen ears of corn from their bumper crop. Local Foods Connection passed along the corn to the families and their partner agencies.

Five dozen of those ears went to the local Head Start group, in addition to their regular share, which they use to give the children nutritious meals. Dowd reports that one of the Head Start teachers said, “I’ve been working here 17 years, and I’ve never been able to give our kids fresh corn. This is the first time. It’s always been canned or frozen.”

Community volunteers who want to support Local Foods Connection often do farm work at CSAs in the area. Their labor earns financial credits for the organization, which it exchanges for CSA shares. In past years, volunteers have earned Local Foods Connection CSA credits ranging from $200 to $1200 for their labor. These labor contributions are essential to reaching more people in need, according to Dowd. Students at the University of Iowa and Kirkwood Community College can fulfill an environmental science class requirement by volunteering on one of the organic farms on behalf of Local Foods Connection.

Asked how she got started in this venture, with a degree in comparative literature and no social service or accounting experience, Dowd says, “Anybody can do it. Just start small. But start with the idea that you have to be willing to let it change and develop. You don’t have to conquer the world with your first project. Start by accomplishing a small task.” (Perhaps “anybody can do it,” but I suspect they will need boundless energy and a huge heart.) Dowd’s long-term goal is “to have low-income people feel welcome and be active in the local food movement.”

Local Foods Connection survives through the group’s own hard work and the generosity of others. If you’d like to donate to the group or to volunteer at a CSA farm on their behalf, please visit the Local Foods Connection website at For information about the photographs in this article, contact Dowd at

Julia Wasson
Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Crofter’s Superfruit Spread Gives a Tangy Twist to Jam

Crofter's Superfruit Spread comes in four flavors: Europe, Asia, North America, and South America. Photo: Courtesy Crofter's

When Crofter’s sent Blue Planet Green Living free samples of their new jam, I wondered how different could this product really be? Jam is jam, right? But after one bite into a piece of toast topped with the gooey spread, I knew I was in for a treat.

Manufactured in Canada, Crofter’s Organic Superfruit Spreads are a USDA-certified organic product. The four varieties are named by the continents on which the fruits grow: North America, Europe, Asia, and South America. The spreads are produced by combining morello cherries and red grape with superfruits — fruits with exceptional nutrition and antioxidants — unique to a specific continent.

The outcome of this innovative idea? A jam packed with bold, exotic flavors with nutritious benefits for every consumer.

Jam vs. Jelly

I invited a small group of friends to taste-test the spreads. During the tasting, I noticed we were using the words “jam” and “jelly” interchangeably. But these are, in fact, different products. When I googled the differences between the two, all sites relayed the same information: Both products are made with crushed fruit, sugar, and the gelling agent pectin. When the fruit juice is strained, it creates a smooth textured jelly. Jam, on the other hand, is not strained and contains chunks of fruit. The terms jam and preserve may be use interchangeably, however. Preserves indicates a fruit is canned for later use, and because jam contains fruit pieces, the words can be used with the same meaning. With chunks of fruit dispersed in the gooey texture, there is no doubt Crofter’s Superfruit Spread is a jam, not a jelly.

The Taste Test

My two roommates, my boyfriend, and I decided to try the jam on what we most frequently eat jam on: toast. I cut a few pieces of plain, whole-wheat toast and a thicker, honey-crushed wheat toast, into four squares and spread one of the jams on each square. After a few samples, we found the jam’s strong flavors didn’t mix well with the honey bread, and determined the jam was best on the plain, whole-wheat toast.

The fruitspread has a thick, gooey texture.

The fruitspread has a thick, gooey texture. Photo: Megan Lisman

The first jam we tried was Asia. The combination of the raspberries and yumberries immediately got our attention. Raspberries give the spread a sweet flavor commonly found in jam, while the yumberries — a sweet-sour berry found in China — give the jam a distinct sour twist. The unusual ingredient received mixed opinions. My boyfriend thought this flavor stood out from the other three jams and found it was his favorite. Eventually, he even made a peanut butter and jam sandwich with the Asia jam and found the extra flavor gave a whole new taste to a classic sandwich.

On the other hand, my roommates were not so enthused with this flavor. They enjoyed the taste, but were content with just one square. They felt an entire piece of toast with this tangy flavor would be too much for them.

The North American spread added a completely new taste into the mix. This jam has a subtly sweet blueberry taste, accented with a distinctive cranberry zest. Because this jam combines familiar  fruits, I thought this jam would be an overall crowd-pleaser. But to my surprise, it was everyone’s least favorite. We all enjoyed the taste of the jam, but preferred the other, more exotic flavors. Perhaps this is because North America is made of flavors we know so well, and we found the other jams more surprising and fun.

The final jam, South America, is a mixture of maqui, one of most nutritious berries in the world, and passion fruit. The combination of these two exotic flavors creates a bold, yet sweet, flavor that is unique from the rest. We unanimously liked this jam, and we kept coming back for more. As my favorite flavor, I could easily see some of this jam on a piece of toast for the perfect complement to my morning coffee.

Nutritional Benefits

My roommate, Karolina, sampled North American jam. Photo: Megan Lisman

When I compared the nutrition labels of Smucker’s Strawberry Jam, Welch’s Grape Jelly, and the Crofter’s Superfruit Spread, it was obvious Crofter’s doesn’t only rival regular jam with their unique and bold flavors — it also offers a healthier option for a morning treat.

At one tablespoon per serving, Smucker’s Strawberry Jam has 50 calories, 13 grams of carbs, and 12 grams of sugar. This is similar to Welch’s Grape Jelly, except that Welch’s jelly has 15 milligrams of sodium and an additional gram of sugar. Neither the Smucker’s jam nor Welch’s jelly are organic.

All flavors of Crofter’s Superfruit Spread are noticeably lower in those categories. At one tablespoon per serving, Crofter’s Spread has 30 calories, no sodium, 8 grams of carbs, 7 grams of sugar, and an additional 50 percent of the recommended adult daily intake of Vitamin C. In addition, Crofter’s uses all organic superfruit, organic fair trade cane sugar, and natural fruit pectin.

Although the product samples were free, this is an unpaid, unbiased review. If my friends and I had disliked the jams, I would not have reviewed them. Our verdict? With its extra nutritional value, all organic ingredients, and taste-bud twisting flavors, Crofter’s Superfruit Spread is a unique jam that’s definitely worth a try.

Megan Lisman


Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

A Stroll through the Farmer’s Market

David Garman sells whole grain sunflower bread. Photo: Lindsay Rice

Here in the Northern Hemisphere, summer will officially make her debut on Saturday, but Nature’s bounty is already being harvested. If your community has a farmer’s market, consider yourself lucky, indeed. Grab your canvas bag or a little red wagon, and gather up fresh, local fruits and veggies, plants, honey, and baked goods. Tables loaded with luscious, ripe produce are as much a feast for the eyes and soul as they are for the palate.

Whether or not there’s a farmer’s market in your community, we invite you to stroll along with Personal Chef Lindsay Rice through Iowa City’s downtown Farmer’s Market, sampling the wares of local farmers and other enterprising ecopreneurs. We bet your mouth will be watering before you’re finished reading. — Julia Wasson, Publisher

How about some garlic scapes from Adelyn’s Organic Gardens in Tiffin, Iowa? Photo: Lindsay Rice

What to have for dinner? It’s that ever-present question that we ask ourselves night after night, meal after meal. To keep things fresh, I love to take a walk through the farmer’s market to determine my dinner. Early summer at the Iowa City downtown market provides many ingredients to build wonderful meals. Farmers are offering great abundance from their fields now, including fresh strawberries, glistening radishes, green onions, fresh-baked breads, tomatoes, cilantro, and dill.

Sometimes an obscure vegetable can be the inspirational starting point. Hmm... What can I build around garlic scapes? Can kohlrabi slices line the salad plate? How about beets tossed in lemon juice and locally made olive oil, with a drop of Iowa honey?

Farmers are often all too happy to provide instruction and insight about what to do with odd vegetables. When the farmers of Adelyn’s Organic Gardens sold me a $1 bunch of garlic scapes, they told me to cut them like green beans, avoid using the pointy ends, and sauté or fry them with soy and ginger, and meat or veggies.

Eric Menzel from Salt Fork Farm just south of Mt. Vernon, Iowa, said to cut off the tough root and fibrous leaves of kohlrabi, then cut up the bulb. “It’s crisp and sweet,” he said. “Eat it raw, make a slaw, or mash it with potatoes.”

Farmers also often have creative ways of using familiar veggies. After all, they often have great abundances on the farm and quickly get creative when facing yet another pound of broccoli or radishes on their dinner table.

"Try roasting radishes," said the farmer from Pure Prairie Gardens, Mt. Vernon, IA. Photo: Lindsay Rice

The farmer from Pure Prairie Gardens, Mt. Vernon, Iowa told me to try roasting radishes: Slice or leave whole, toss with olive oil, and place in a roasting pan. Roast for 5–10 minutes, then take out of the oven, and sprinkle with sea salt. “Radishes are sweet, delicious, and retain color this way,” he told me.

Also try little cucumber sandwiches: Squirt a bit of lemon juice and a pinch of sea salt on thinly sliced cucumbers. Then pile them on cubes of toasted sunflower bread that has been lightly brushed with farmer’s market olive oil. Ineichen Tomatoes from Blue Grass, Iowa has the best burpless cucumbers I’ve tasted.

Heap green lettuce leaves on a plate... Photo: Lindsay Rice

If you are short on time, the market also offers some ready-made items from local chefs and restaurants. Try incorporating Russian perogies, fried spring rolls, or fresh-veggie spring rolls as an appetizer. Cut the steps of making a sauce or dressing by purchasing Leaf Kitchen’s sesame or ginger salad dressings.

Cocina Del Mundo has great rubs and spices for the grill — like Citrus Honey Mesquite BBQ Rub and Smoked Alder Meat Rub (try them on lamp chops, beef or elk steaks you can also find at the market). They also sell packaged grain, bean, and soup mixtures that just need water and a touch of olive oil. Try exciting flavors like the Cashew Coconut Rice, and Bayou Rice and Beans packages.

Make a Mexican feast by starting with chicken, pork or vegetable tamales from La Reyna, a container of green salsa and a platter of roasted beets and radishes. Heap green lettuce leaves on a platter as an accompaniment. Or start with the tasty green leaves and pile Iowa-grown bacon from Pavelka’s Point Meats, along with sharp green onions, and juicy red or yellow tomatoes.

What to do with kohlrabi? Photo: Lindsay Rice

My personal favorite market catchall is a quiche. Roll out some dough, buy a dozen eggs from a Kalona farmer’s market stall and all the veggies that spark your fancy — plus an optional bit of meat from the market and a bunch of fresh herbs. Bake it all with that bit of cheese left in the fridge. Some of my favorite combinations include: asparagus, yellow squash, and tomato or spinach, ham, shallot, and dill.

There is no shortage of homemade desserts at the market. Cindy Cary gets up at quarter after four in the morning to bake 98 pies for the market, so you don’t have to. She has a variety of flavors: peach, cherry, red raspberry, apple, and pecan. Her small-tin pies cost $3 and are perfect for two, with a half-scoop of ice cream or yogurt.

Many vendors sell other tasty treats, like pumpkin bars, chocolate chip cookies, cupcakes and Rice Crispy treats. And if it’s a movie night, pick up a bag of Kettle Korn made in giant steaming poppers right at the market. And don’t forget to grab a delicately arranged bouquet of flowers from Barbara’s Country Flowers for your table.

Now go home and enjoy your very own feast. Summer won’t last forever.

Lindsay Rice

Contributing Writer

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Community Supported Agriculture – A Win-Win for Farmer and Shareholder

Comments Off on Community Supported Agriculture – A Win-Win for Farmer and Shareholder

As a CSA shareholder, you get a variety of local produce throughout the growing season. Photo: Fotolia

As a CSA shareholder, you get a variety of local produce throughout the growing season. Photo: ©Barbara Helgeson

If you’re in the Northern Hemisphere, as we are here in Iowa, you’re coasting through spring on the way to summer. Either you’ve planted a garden, you’re getting ready to plant — or you aren’t intending to plant at all. This post is for the third group, those of you who either don’t want to, or don’t have the space to, plant a garden of your own.

There’s another option: Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). A CSA is a mutually beneficial arrangement between a farmer (or farm collective) and members. Members become shareholders in the CSA farm by pledging a certain amount of money for regular deliveries of a season’s worth of vegetables, fruits, and/or meat. The farmer sets the price and the amount of produce/meat to be delivered, how often, and how long in the season.

The advantage to the farmer is a guaranteed income and working capital for planting, tending, and harvesting. For the shareholder, the benefit is a steady supply of fresh food from a trusted supplier. But it’s important to note that shareholders not only share the benefits, they share the risks. The downside comes if the harvest is poor because of weather conditions or pests. But that’s what happens to us as consumers, anyway, since frosts and pestilence in Florida, drought in California, or high gas prices result in elevated food prices far away. And the upside for the farmer is that a failed crop won’t mean bankruptcy. It’s a win-win, even when one side temporarily loses a little bit.

Many CSAs provide shareholders an opportunity to visit a working farm and connect with the land.

Many CSAs provide shareholders an opportunity to visit a working farm and connect with the land.

I like the way the shared risk is described on the Local Harvest website: “Many times, the idea of shared risk is part of what creates a sense of community among members, and between members and the farmers. If a hailstorm takes out all the peppers, everyone is disappointed together, and together cheer on the winter squash and broccoli.”

Another delightful advantage of the CSA program is the availability of heirloom varieties that you just can’t find in your supermarket. This depends on the farmer, of course, as each will have their favorite varieties to grow and sell. You can also contract with an organic farmer and get guaranteed pesticide/herbicide-free produce for yourself and your family.

Some CSAs invite shareholders to visit their farms and find out firsthand where their food is grown. This can result in a delightful family outing and a bonding of sorts with the land your food is grown on and, perhaps, the farmer who grows it. For those who want sustainably and humanely raised meat, a visit will give you proof that you won’t be eating animals raised in the frequently horrible conditions of a confined animal feeding operation (CAFO).

Although some CSAs have already begun delivering their harvests, many have not. And even those that have started their deliveries may have more shares to sell. To check on local CSA options, contact your county extension agent, google for a CSA in your locale, or enter your zip code into the search field on the Local Harvest website. While the latter isn’t all-encompassing, it can point you to any CSAs they know about.

If you are a CSA farmer with shares to sell, I invite you to let our readers know by posting a comment. And, if you have participated in a CSA as a farmer or a shareholder, please tell us about your experience.

Julia Wasson

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Book Review – The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan

If you could interview your food, what would it say? As a journalist Michael Pollan attempts to give a voice to what we eat: That is to say, he explains what food really is, where it comes from, and what it can do for us. The Omnivore’s Dilemma expounds on fast food, big organic food, local food, and foraged food, identifying the resources, causes, and effects of each one.

Devoted to the scientific, while valuing the personal significance of food, Pollan reveals not only the corn behind our food, the government behind the corn, the corporation behind the government, but also investigates the possibilities for eating that can bring us back to earth, and everything in between. The Omnivore’s Dilemma is our fascinating predicament; written for those who care about what they eat, it presents us with an array of menus, encourages us to eat, and to eat in good conscience.

It begins with corn. Not corn on the cob, but corn in a box, or corn in a Happy Meal bag. Corn has apparently invaded our supermarket, culture, and bodies. As Pollan puts it, “How this peculiar grass, native to Central America and unknown to the Old World before 1492, came to colonize so much of our land and bodies is one of the plant world’s greatest success stories. I say the plant world’s success story because it is no longer clear that corn’s triumph is such a boon to the rest of the world, and because we should give credit where credit is due. Corn is the hero of its own story, and though we humans played a crucial supporting role in its rise to world domination, it would be wrong to suggest that we have been calling the shots…there is every reason to believe that corn has succeeded in domesticating us.”

There are a few people who benefit from the 10 billion bushels of corn produced annually in America. They are the owners of corporations that genetically engineer the corn, and who process the corn. The farmer earns only four cents on the dollar for what his corn is eventually turned into. The industrialization of our food depends on the enormous production of corn at extremely cheap market prices. Taxpayers support corn from their pockets, and pay for it with their health.

The easiest way to explain corn’s role is financially. Starting in 1972, during Nixon’s rule, secretary of agriculture Earl Butz addressed the rising cost of food by simplifying the agricultural system. Rather than encouraging farmers, government subsidies went instead to corn, paying money per bushel of corn produced rather than the size and diversity of a farm. Since then, the production of corn has skyrocketed, and the cost has plummeted. Farms have become corporate endeavors, rather than family occupations; the government has become strongly influenced by corn corporations; and the health of the population has flared into an obesity epidemic.

Today it costs $2.50 to grow a bushel of corn. The market pays $1.45 for that bushel. “The market” is primarily Cargill and ADM, that, combined, buy one third of the 10 billion bushels. The government pays the rest, though it is barely enough to sustain a farmer. Many, if not most, are in debt, and some take on second jobs. The farmers cannot be said to really benefit from the flood of subsidies — $5 billion a year for corn. Rather, it is Cargill, the biggest corporation in the world, that reaps enormous profits from the massive yearly surplus. A typical Iowa corn farmer sees only four cents on the dollar for corn sold in the supermarket.

To understand how farmers  — “the most productive humans who have ever lived” — who each raise enough food to feed 129 people, can be going broke, one has to look at what happens to corn before it enters the field, and after it leaves. Corn is especially inviting for genetic modification because of its simple reproduction patterns. Corn hybrids can be drought resistant and insect resistant, and, of course, are modified for optimum yield per acre. Natural variation is eliminated, so one cornfield contains thousands of identical plants that grow straight up to the sky. This is called monoculture, and it is effective because the soil is fertilized and sprayed annually. Although this industrial seed corn is expensive, it produces an incredible amount of corn. This is not always a boon to the farmer, however, because the more corn that is raised, the lower the selling cost.

Still, why does the farmer only get 4% of the retail value? The answer is that the buyers of corn are specialists in processing corn into an incredible range of products. The technological and industrial costs soak up a lot of the price of a $2.29 frozen dinner of corn-fed pigs and mashed potatoes (made with corn). Six billion of the ten billion bushels of corn are invested in animal rearing. Pollan visits a steer confinement, and actually purchases a cow, so he can be more connected with his study. He finds the cattle are practically all sick from the diet of corn, which they are incapable of digesting (the cow’s stomach is designed for grass). Since corn is cheap, animals that eat corn produce cheap meat.

In the end, including fertilizer, transportation, and milling, it takes an enormous amount of oil to reach a final product. As a kind of demonstration, Pollan took his family to McDonald’s. It took 1.3 gallons of oil to produce the 4,510 calories his family consumed. If the corn had been unprocessed, there would have been enough grain to fill and overflow from the trunk of his car (his calculations and estimate). You might say, “B t there’s no corn on the McDonald’s menu.” Not exactly, but scientists in food labs have discovered ways to make cheap corn into various types of “food.” The soda is 100% corn syrup. The milk shake is 78% corn. Chicken nuggets, 56%. The cheeseburger (remember the corn-fed animals), 52% corn.

This quick-and-easy meal has a hidden cost, and it is not the free meal that Pollan is looking for. In his search for a menu that gives as much back to the earth as it takes, he studies the organic food movement. His evaluation is that organic doesn’t mean what it used to. The federal standardization of the word organic doesn’t mean sustainable. One could think of it as a struggle between what he calls, “Big Organic” and “Small Organic.” Both types of producers are competing for the same market, but the Big Organic farms benefit from more relaxed standards, because they are capable of a greater output (they have more machines, more equipment for packaging, etc.).

“Could a factory farm be organic? Was an organic dairy cow entitled to graze on pasture? Did food additives and synthetic chemicals have a place in processed food? If the answers to these questions seem like no-brainers, then you too are stuck in an outdated pastoral view of organic. Big Organic won all three arguments.” The two key requirements for organic labeling are: no synthetic fertilizer, and no synthetic pesticide. Organic foods are thus more environmentally sound, but really, as the example of a bagged lettuce shows — 57 calories of oil are used in making one calorie of food — “the organic food industry finds itself in a most unexpected, uncomfortable and, yes, unsustainable position: floating on a sinking sea of petroleum.”

Pollan’s research leads to a week-long stay Polyface Farm in Virginia. Here he meets Joel Salatin, a grass farmer, whose farm is an example of local and sustainable food. The cows eat the grass, the chickens eat the worms from the cow manure, they both work to fertilize the ground, and the farm is essentially a self-sustaining meat and egg producing “factory.” The animals become producers on the farm, and seem happy to do it. Pigs are used to compost manure and clear underbrush. Reading about the farm, it seems strange that Joel’s methods aren’t implemented around the country. Government regulation might be the reason for that. “Joel is convinced ‘clean food’ could compete with supermarket food if the government would exempt farmers from the thicket of regulations that prohibit them from processing and selling meat from the farm.”

Joel calls it a “freedom of food,” the right to choose what we eat without federal standards. Indeed, such strict federal regulations wouldn’t be needed if mass-produced meat weren’t so prevalent. Sustainable food is being marginalized. It is clear that local food is threatened by government regulations. Beginning with the corn policy, that subsidizes per bushel, driving the production of corn up, the cost down, and farmer into debt, and ending with requirements like a processing plant must provide a restroom for federal inspectors (something small producers can’t reasonably afford).

Before he pursues his most ambitious meal (the foraged dinner), Pollan reflects the ethics of commonplace food. He most notably questions the eating of animal products, particularly those produced by conventional means, those the USDA supports through its policies. “This is another example of the cultural contradictions of capitalism — the tendency over time for the economic impulse to erode the moral underpinnings of society.” He becomes a vegetarian, contemplates his place on the food chain, and emails Peter Singer.

In the same way he concludes that corn has out-evolved humans, to benefit from us, he applies evolution to the modern predicament. If humans can, and are, inclined to eat meat, it is not unethical to do so, as long as the animals do not suffer when raised. This means Joel Salatin’s meat is acceptable, since he witnessed “animals” who were happy “being animals,” but supermarket cuts are not. Hunting, since the only meeting of animal and Pollan is as brief as it takes the animal to die from a bullet, is also an ethical way of obtaining meat; as he puts it “isn’t it anthropocentric of us to assume that our moral system offers an adequate guide for what should happen in nature?”

His journeys hunting mushrooms and hunting pig in California are more of a personal narrative than scientific or journalistic research. Since he is inexperienced in foraging/hunting for his own food, the narrative is a decent how-to guide, as well as a report on what the experience is like. The experience is long, stressful, and a testament to how a “free meal” is really difficult to come by. He calls it the “Omnivore’s Thanksgiving,” and, with his helpers and family around the table, the experience becomes something that can be physically shared.

The lesson is that by being connected with food, and in valuing stories of where food comes from, we can enjoy our food. He does not stress the need to change what we eat, but only to be conscious of our food. “Without a need for fast food there would be no need for slow food, and the stories we tell at such meals would lose much of their interest.” Pollan understands that wherever we’re headed, our stomachs are coming with us, and that shouldn’t make us lose our appetites.

Elias Simpson

Contributing Writer

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

How to Build a Quick and Easy Vegetable Trellis

Build this simple vegetable trellis in almost no time at all. Photo: J. Wasson

It’s spring in Iowa, and the smell of the moist, black soil calls out to the gardener in all of us. Ever since the first hint of bulbs peeking through the dirt, I’ve been itching to get started planting an organic garden. On Friday, the temperature was 60 degrees Fahrenheit. By Saturday, it was 35 degrees and dropping. The Weather Channel showed a big snowstorm coming in a few hours. I decided I’d better hurry.

I checked the garage to find wood to cut into stakes and a shovel to turn over the soil. I got out my skill saw, an extension cord, and a hammer. Then a friend and I jumped into my son’s Jeep and headed to the lumberyard.

I purchased two, 15-foot-long by 50-inch-wide, steel-grid fencing sections. These had to be flexible enough that I would be able to bend them into an arch, but sturdy enough not to collapse under the weight of vines and produce I plan to grow on them. The panels cost about $35.00 each, so I was now $70.00 into my experiment, plus gas and time.

“Won’t fit,” the kid at the lumberyard had said, watching my friend and me lift the grids onto the Jeep. He wasn’t prepared for our ingenuity. We tied the panels on the roof, padding it with our coats to protect the paint. (Obviously, we didn’t plan very well. If you decide to do this, bring along some old towels or a blanket for padding between your vehicle and the fencing sections.) This was only possible with plenty of rope, another $4.00.

We bought two steel-grid fence panels like this one. Photo: J. Wasson

Have you seen the movie Mad Max? That’s what the Jeep looked like, with the fencing grid curved down over the hood and tied to the front bumper. We would have been well protected should anyone want to throw a cinder block through our windshield. The whole adventure took about an hour — and the lumberyard is 15 minutes away.

Back at my house, we unloaded the sections onto the lawn. I went to work selecting the best location for the new trellis. My wife and I have a small lot — only 40 feet wide — squeezed between very close neighbors. Most of the backyard already has a perimeter of flowerbeds filled with perennials, so we weren’t anxious to disturb them.

We keep the remaining lawn small on purpose, because we both hate to mow. We don’t like the pollution of belching fumes, and we hate the noise. We dislike starting a mower and storing a mower and tuning a mower. If I had my way, I’d rather pave my yard than mow it. My theory on saving the environment from the evils of lawn-mowing is to keep adding flowerbeds.

This year, we’ve decided to plant an organic vegetable garden. (It’s a great reason to rip out some more sod.) We’re working to become more sustainable, and gardening is a great step in that direction. It’s green living at an elemental level.

Because neither of us feels like crawling around on our hands and knees to garden, we decided to build a trellis and see how many vegetables we can grow on vines. We’ll try peas, beans, tomatoes, and squash, and any other climbing veggies we can find. (Got a suggestion? We’d love to hear from you.)

Most of our backyard is shady, so we chose to place the trellis in the center, halfway between a neighbor’s large garage on one side and our other neighbor’s large shade trees. I figure the trellis will get about 6 or 7 hours of sun on a good day.

Bending the fencing creates an arch. Photo: J. Wasson

Constructing the trellis was simple and took no more than half an hour from start to finish (not counting our Mad Max adventure). With the skill saw, I cut 8 wooden stakes out of some scrap 1″ x 2″ lumber. I then drove 2 stakes into the ground about 4 feet apart, parallel to our backyard sidewalk. I took one end of the first panel and butted it up against those stakes, then pushed the prongs on that end into the ground. Then I lifted the other end until the whole panel was standing almost vertical.

Pressing the panel down hard against the first two stakes, I then pulled down on the free end until it touched the ground. This left an arch about 6 feet wide and 6 feet high, giving us plenty of room to walk under and pick the produce yet to come. The prongs on the back end of the fencing held it in place in the sod while I secured it by pounding in two more stakes.

I repeated all this with the second panel, connecting a second arch to the first one. Ta-da! In less than two hours, from start to finish, I had built a 9-foot long, 6 1/2-foot tall, trellis. It was easy enough to do alone, but having an extra person would make the job even easier.

I was going to go ahead and break the sod, but heavy, wet snow began to fall. It was the 28th of March. That’s Iowa for you.

Watch for the further adventures of Joe the Gardener (not to be confused with Joe the Plumber), right here on BPGL.

Joe Hennager

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Related Posts

Organic Gardening in Your Own Backyard

How to Build a Compost Bin in Your Own Backyard

Organic Gardening in Your Own Backyard

We're looking forward to a harvest as lush as this one. Photo: © Robert

Spring in Iowa feels like stepping out of the Ice Age into some of the most appreciated warm weather on the planet. After enduring 20 snow and ice storms from November to March (and more still possible all the way to early May), a person’s patience begins to thin. Mine does, anyway. But a few days of warmer weather, say in the 50s and 60s, changes my whole outlook.

About mid January, I stop thinking of winter as “pretty” or “picturesque.” I remember the salt, backaches, missed appointments, missed school days, cars that won’t start, jumper cables, ice-covered windows, car accidents, tow trucks, frozen body parts, wind chill, slips and falls, black ice, power outages, cold feet, heavy blankets, long johns, and itchy wool sweaters. Winter, you’ve overstayed your welcome.

I am ready for spring. I am ready for the rain to wash all those chilly memories away. I am ready for the plants in my garden to return. I am ready to see green buds pushing up through the dead leaves. I long for the feel of dirt under my fingernails. If you live in a cool climate, I’ll bet you’re ready, too.

This year, Julia and I are motivated to do more than plant flowers. We’ve decided to add vegetables to our backyard garden, small as it is. I have a design in mind that will let us grow a number of vining veggies and still give us access to their harvest without having to crawl on our hands and knees. (Watch for more details in a later post.)

So, how about you? Are you thinking of planting vegetables this year? You don’t need a large area, even a few pots or planters will get you started on a delicious harvest for your family. You do need a lot of sunshine, though. And here’s one other thing to consider: If you want your garden to be organic, you have to start with the soil.

Organic from the Ground Up

One of the joys of gardening is watching bees at work. Photo: © Vencel

If you’ve been putting chemical weed killers or artificial fertilizers on your lawn (and we hope you haven’t), you can’t just dig up a patch of grass and call it good. Those chemicals are still in your soil, and soon will be in your vegetables, then inside you and your loved ones. Instead, build a simple raised bed, or convert old washtubs, barrels or other used items into container gardens. Be certain that the containers never held anything toxic, or you’ll defeat the purpose of using them high above a chem-treated lawn.

If you’re just starting out, and you’re unsure of the chemical history of your soil, or you’re opting for container gardens, consider buying organic soil from a trusted supplier. Packaged potting soil from a garden center may well be better than the soil in a chemically treated lawn. But if you’re looking for soil you’d trust to grow food for yourself and your family, check the label for the word “organic.”

And don’t forget to start your own compost bin. Leftover food scraps mixed with yard waste will create all the fertile soil you will need in time. We have already written about the value of the red worm and the advantages of vermiculture. But be warned, red wrigglers cannot survive outside in an open-air compost heap. You will need a covered wooden box or bucket to house them.

Why Plant a Garden?

Starting with small plants speeds the time to harvest. Photo: © Diana

With the extra effort it takes to plant, sow, and tend a garden, why do it? I can think of several good reasons. Maybe you have others to add.

  • You know the grower. You’ll have no worries about how wholesome the food is.
  • It’s the epitome of “shop locally.” When you shop in your own garden, you save fuel. Here in Iowa, most of our fruits and vegetables are trucked 1,500 miles before reaching our tables. How far are yours transported? (Can you say, “carbon footprint”?)
  • No mowing! You don’t have to mow the area where you plant your garden. This isn’t a “no-labor” proposition, though, as you’ll get your share of exercise planting and tending your plot.
  • You get to experiment with agriculture on a limited scale. Learn which plants grow well together. Find out firsthand whether the natural pest control suggestions keep aphids in control.
  • If you’ve got kids, it’s a great opportunity for them to learn about the cycle of life and of reaping what you sow.
  • You get to relax a little. Gardening lowers your heart rate and blood pressure. It’s good for you in so many ways.
  • You can see Nature at work. Bees and butterflies are becoming a scarcity today. If they stop by your garden for a visit, you’ll get to watch life replicating itself on a tiny and important scale. You won’t get that experience going to the grocery store.
  • You’ll save money. Sure, you have an initial investment in seeds, a few tools, and water, but the payoff in healthy vegetables (and your health) far outweighs the modest amount you have to invest.

Tips for Beginners

I asked Fred Meyer, founder of Backyard Abundance, an Iowa City group that encourages gardening “in your own backyard,” what a novice should consider when starting a garden. These were his suggestions:

  • Pick an area with a lot of sun.
  • Choose plants that are easy to grow: beets, beans, squash and tomatoes. You can buy starters from greenhouses or at the farmers markets. (In general, bigger seeds mean easier-to-grow plants.)
  • Don’t over till the soil. The best nutrients are at the top.
  • Fertilize with compost, not chemicals. Start your own compost.
  • Control weeds and moisture with mulch, yard clippings, and newspapers.
  • Don’t over water. Water is too precious. Capture your rain water.
  • If you have questions, contact a Master Gardener. Or read the many relevant publications available online.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be writing about my tiny backyard garden. If you see me on the street, check my fingernails to see how my garden is doing.

Joe Hennager

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Related Posts

Green Living – A Beginner’s Guide

Praise the Lord and Green the Roof

Sustainable Living Profile: Jessica Klein

Ranching Underground Livestock

How to Build a Quick and Easy Vegetable Trellis

How to Build a Compost Bin in Your Own Backyard

Green Living Begins with a Barr Mansion Organic Wedding

As consumers opt for more earth-friendly choices at home, many are also requesting organic foods at restaurants. But to date, only one venue we know of provides brides and grooms with a fully organic wedding — and all in a setting as gorgeous as any fairytale. Located just outside Austin, Texas, the Barr Mansion is the only certified organic special events facility in the nation. We spoke with Melanie McAfee, co-owner of the Barr Mansion, along with her husband, Mark. At Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL), we were attracted to the McAfees because of the sustainable ideology on which their business is founded.

A wedding in the Barr Mansion ballroom. Photo: Barr Mansion

An elegant wedding in the Barr Mansion's renovated barn and ballroom. Photo: Barr Mansion

We asked Melanie about the process of going fully organic and what this means to their staff and their clients. But going organic isn’t the owners’ only consideration: They’re striving to buy locally — or at least in the US — and reduce their carbon footprint, all while offering wedding memories to last a lifetime. — Julia Wasson, Publisher

McAFEE: We started with some local produce. That led us to learn about the health of our food system. And that led me to organic foods. We just wanted to do more and more. We got to the point where we thought we’d take the plunge, and if we were going to do it, we might as well go the whole way.

BPGL: What did going “the whole way” to becoming an organic venue look like for you as far as the food service for your events?

McAFEE: It took me a little over a year to source everything out. That was real challenging. I had to drop all of my purveyors and start all over again. The typical purveyors that most restaurants and special events facilities utilize have next to nothing in organic products. Consequently, I had a lot of things come in through UPS and had to order many of them individually. There are a few Whole Foods-types of vendors, but they’re oriented to retail. For example, we can’t get 50-pound bags of powdered sugar for our wedding cakes. So we’re having to get those in retail packets, because there’s no wholesale demand for it.

I spent a year finding where to get everything. We still can’t get everything wholesale. But we can get everything certified organic. So that’s what we do.

BPGL: Besides powdered sugar, what was your greatest challenge as far as sourcing organic foods?

One of the Barr Mansion's organic wedding cakes. Photo: Katherine Obrien

Even the flowers and fruits on this wedding cake are organic. Photo: Katherine O'Brien

McAFEE: Probably the hardest was our wedding cakes. Even now, you can’t get certified organic food coloring, because there are so many nasty things used to create the colors. So we have to use just plant dyes. We’re limited in the degree of color. We let our clients know what colors we can do naturally, and they have to go with that.

BPGL: What about flowers? Do you buy most of your flowers locally or import them?

McAFEE: That’s a direction we’ve struggled with. We did find an organic rose grower, but they’re in South America. We push our clients as much as we can, but most clients do not want the Texas wildflower look. Some do, and we do it when we can.

BPGL: Do you use organic fabrics for your table linens?

McAFEE: We try to take our philosophy that we have with our foods, and more or less do the same thing with everything that we purchase. So, even though our organic certification is only for our food, we try to do organic and sustainable in everything else. That’s just something that we’re constantly evolving and learning about.

Our tablecloths, for example — there’s no linen company or service that does anything organically. So the first round of tablecloths, I sewed myself. The second round, I had sewn.

BPGL: Did you use certified organic cotton?

McAFEE: We’ve used certified organic cotton. We’ve used linen. We’ve used hemp. And there are lots of pros and cons for all of those. We’re maneuvering toward trying to make things also be American made. With our economy being in such shambles, that’s become an important element of what we think is sustainable.

In our first round of cloth — just to give an example of how we’ve transitioned — we were just going after certified organic cotton. It turns out that most of the certified organic cotton is either grown and/or milled in India. So we were getting Texas-grown organic cotton, but then they shipped it all the way to India to be milled. And then it came back. So we thought, “Oh, no. That’s not what we’re talking about.”

We’re now asking more questions. And this American-made requirement has been an interesting direction to move, because I’m finding out what they say on TV over and over — that our manufacturing is gone in the US. It’s been a real frustrating experience.

For example, in our latest project, we decided to re-wallpaper 75% of the house. I looked into wallpapers and found out that most wallpapers have volatile organic compounds [VOCs] in them, things you don’t want to breathe. Then I started looking at where paper wallpapers are made. Well, a lot of those come from England. I wanted it from America. There’s only one company in America that does sustainable papers that I could find.

Delicate organic flowers top this beautiful wedding cake. Photo: Studio 563

Delicate organic flowers and natural food colorings combine to create a beautiful wedding cake. Photo: Studio 563

What I ended up doing was decide to just design my own paper. Then we went through a period where we were getting craft paper from different companies all over America. We started experimenting with hanging it on cheesecloth, which is how our wallpaper was. Well, the 100% post-consumer paper just bubbled up. It wouldn’t work. Then, we decided to use liner paper, which is paper, but it’s virgin paper. So, what we’ve done is taken this paper and put it on the cheesecloth, then we’ve painted it with non-VOC paint that is made in the Austin area. Now, I’m negotiating with local artists to do designs on our painted paper. So, that’s what it means to try to re-wallpaper with this concept.

BPGL: Are you using organic wallpaper paste?

McAFEE: We looked into that, and we’ve got an “environmentally friendly” paste, but as far as making it from scratch out of wheat, the paperhanger convinced me not to do that, because we have such bug issues in Texas. He felt certain that, with silverfish and other bugs, it wouldn’t last. And we didn’t want to put chemicals in it so the bugs wouldn’t get it. In the end, we decided not to use a feed-grade paste. But we’re using a product that is VOC free.

BPGL: Now that you’ve got it figured out, are you planning to sell a line of wallpaper, perhaps, as a side business?

McAFEE: [Laughs.] No. It’s been a fun project, but I also see the potential challenges. This whole experience of going organic has really been interesting. I suddenly want to go into the manufacturing business, because I come across this continually with everything that we do. I see opportunities for manufacturing that are sustainable that aren’t being done.

BPGL: I understand that the Barr Mansion is a zero-waste facility. How does being a zero-waste facility affect your operations?

The Barr Mansion also hosts barbecues and other events. Photo: Barr Mansion

The Barr Mansion also hosts barbecues and other events. Photo: Barr Mansion

McAFEE: With the recycling market cratering, we’re trying to ask our recyclers what they’re doing with their product and what else could be done with it. So, we started a Central Texas Zero-Waste Alliance. We’re trying to network with artists, recyclers, politicians, and concerned citizens about potential uses for products in our waste stream.

For example, we’re looking into different mulching machines to mulch some of our paper and yard debris and begin a compost operation. That’s one venture that might be a spin-off that we’re considering. And wine bottles — I’ve started looking into what temperatures, what kind of kiln you have to have to melt the bottles, what else can be done with them… I’ve talked to counter people who are utilizing glass cullet in a terrazzo type countertop. At this point, all of that stuff that happens in our area either comes from New York or very far away. Why aren’t we using our own glass to do some of this?

BPGL: Have you found someone to take your wine bottles?

McAFEE: We’re talking to Ecology Action of Texas. Come to find out, they’ve been more or less doing the same thing. They’ve found a man who has been experimenting with breaking up different glass and bottles, and discovering that they melt different, they break up different… That’s something that we’re going to continue communication and might go in on together. We’ll see where that ends up.

BPGL: Going back to food for a minute, do you use organic dairy products, such as cheese?

Delicious organic ingredients are used in this fondue. Photo: Barr Mansion

Delicious organic ingredients are used in this fondue. Photo: Barr Mansion

McAFEE: There are so few organic cheeses. The entire milk industry is just being stomped on by the government. All the small producers want to have raw cheese and raw milk. That’s what the public wants, but the government is just making a mess and making everybody pasteurize things. In big feedlot type operations, that’s needed. But on a family farm, there’s a large number of people who think otherwise. That whole industry is just in shambles. I had hired someone to help me just procure products. She is constantly looking for cheese sources. We’ve gotten to the point where we’re hoping to help support some local people who are not organic, but would like to go organic.

BPGL: In what way would you support them? By buying from them or some other way?

McAFEE: No. By helping them with their certification and potentially financing them in a dairy operation. But as we learn about that, Texas is just so hot! With a grazing system, can we pull that off in Texas? I don’t know! The more I’m learning, the more I’m starting to wonder.

BPGL: What are some other choices you’ve had to make in order to go completely organic as a venue?

McAFEE: We try to make a difference with our purchasing dollar. Everything that we purchase, we ask all these questions. Then as we learn more and more about it, it manipulates our menu, because that becomes the driving force. For example, we used to sub out our bread. Once we started thinking about going organic, we found there were no organic bakers. So we had to hire a baker, and now we bake all of our breads. That’s been a big improvement in our menus.

Melanie and Mark McAfee with granddaughter Sydney. Photo: Abby Daigle

Barr Mansion owners, Melanie and Mark McAfee, with granddaughter Sydney. Photo: Abby Daigle

We’ve just purchased a wood-fired pizza oven that we’ll install into an outdoor kitchen. It’s coming over from France. It’s made from an organic clay that they fire at very high temperature. It holds the heat, so we don’t have to use a lot of wood, which was a big issue. We worry about our carbon footprint.

BPGL: Have you done a carbon calculation?

McAFEE: We have a client coming up who does that for a living. We’ve talked about it, but no, we haven’t done it yet. Since we cannot get a lot of organic locally, we do have a fair amount coming to us from outside of Texas. So those are air miles. Then if you really start digging deep, you can just make yourself crazy to try and calculate those things.

BPGL: Let’s talk about your facility. You have a beautiful barn with a thatched roof. That’s pretty unusual in Texas.

McAFEE: That’s our ballroom. Ninety-five percent of our business is weddings. Usually the weddings are outside in the garden. And the reception then happens inside the ballroom.

Our house is on the National Register, and the guidelines that they give for any additions is they don’t want you to try to copy; that usually just doesn’t work so well. They want you to respect what you’ve got, but kind of go a different direction. So that was the premise we had to deal with when we decided to construct a ballroom.

I ended up falling in love with the New York timber-frame barns. We found one that went back to the 1700s, and found a group to bring it to Texas. Then we had these ancient timbers, and we had to decide how to clad them. The siding was no longer any good. Plus, because we’re in the garden wedding business, we didn’t want to be totally shut in by solid walls. So we decided to put up a curtain wall on the gable end, instead of putting panes of windows in between all the posts. We wanted to have it more like a giant window looking through the timber frame.

Most receptions take place in the ballroom. Photo: Barr Mansion

Most receptions take place in the ballroom. Photo: Barr Mansion

And I wanted it to feel organic. We looked at a metal roof, but we didn’t want it to feel like a barn. So, I thought, “Oh, gosh. If I could just have a thatched roof!” I got on the Internet and found this little thatching company from the Cotswolds of England. They had never been to London or been outside their little town, but they had a website. So we started talking back and forth, and they liked the idea of coming to Texas. They came for a month.

BPGL: Did they bring the thatch with them, or make it in Texas?

McAFEE: I was hoping that Johnson grass would work for the thatch. I thought I’d be a wealthy woman if I could figure that out, because we have way too much Johnson grass in Texas. Unfortunately, that was not the proper reed. A lot of the thatch coming to England, they import from Turkey. We ended up having it freighted in from Turkey.

BPGL: I guess you do have a few air miles in your carbon footprint.

McAFEE: Oh, yeah. That was in 2000, when I was only thinking organic foods. I don’t know what I’d do now that I’m in this “made-in-America” routine.

BPGL: Are people responding positively to the organic part of your venue, or are they just looking for a beautiful place to get married?

Delicious organic ingredients combine to make a sumptuous salad. Photo: SchmittPhoto

Clients enjoy a variety of sumptuous fresh vegetables in organic salads. Photo: Schmitt Photo

McAFEE: When we started all this, there was probably resistance. I think that people were worried that the prices would go up. They were not buying organic food for themselves, and they were skeptical. People are discovering more and more about their food supply; so, as time goes by, it gets to be more and more sought out. We could say we’ve done a couple of destination weddings because of that.

BPGL: What other organic or “green” services do you offer your clients?

McAFEE: We are a full-service venue, and not only provide the food, but have a florist, who does a lot of the flowers. We have a wedding coordinator, because there’s just lots of details to weddings these days. We help find all the other things that go into wedding planning. We’re trying to find out who all the other green vendors are and knit together. For example, we work with one hotel that is primarily solar. When people start asking us about where to house out-of-town guests, Habitat Suites in Austin is our first choice of referral, and it happens to be close by. There are also biodiesel limos. For all that stuff, we’re a good source for our clients, if they want to go in a green direction. We know where to help them find things.

BPGL: Did you encounter other issues surrounding getting certified as an organic events venue?

McAFEE: It’s just the food that is certified organic. We are talking to our certification agent about getting our grounds certified, too, but that’s another situation that I don’t think anybody’s done. Because we don’t grow food, they don’t know quite what to do with us.

BPGL: Which agency do you use for your certification?

The McAfee's wedding business was inspired by their home, the Barr Mansion. Photo: Barr Mansion

The McAfee's wedding business began in their historic home. Photo: Barr Mansion

McAFEE: We chose Oregon Tilth. The first restaurant to ever be certified organic is Restaurant Nora in Washington, DC. I knew about Nora, so I called her up and asked her who she used. That’s who she went through, so she had kind of done the hurdles, as far as setting the standards for organic foods businesses. So it made it lots easier for the Texas department [for organic certification]. They had no idea what to do, and there’s one person for all of Texas. It’s backlogged, and a very slow, long process because of that.

BPGL: How would you know if someone else has a special events venue that is also certified organic?

McAFEE: That was a problem. From the USDA, you can get a list of the certifiers, so we wrote a letter to every single one, and said that we believed that we were the first organic special events venue, but wanted verification. So, if they had certified a special events venue, we asked them to please let us know. About half of them responded back, and the others, we took the fact that they did not say there was one as our okay.

BPGL: You’re a ground breaker then.

McAFEE: Sometimes I wonder what direction and why, but once I was into it, I couldn’t turn back.

Julia Wasson

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Related Posts

My Wedding Workbook Simplifies Wedding Planning

Gently Used Wedding Gowns – More than a Fashion Statement

Green Weddings – Good for the Planet and Your Pocket

Dream Green Weddings Offers Brides a Touch of Green

Green Weddings Begin with “Responsible Gold”

Green Living Begins with a Barr Mansion Organic Wedding (Top of Page)

Blake Cothron, Contributing Writer

March 7, 2009 by  
Filed under Blake Cothron

Comments Off on Blake Cothron, Contributing Writer

A dedicated steward to the earth and wild creatures, contributing writer Blake Cothron has been an organic gardener for over 15 years and is a passionate orchardist. He is also a musician, playing hand drums and strings.

Blake has traveled extensively in the US, learning about organic agriculture and local plants. He spent a year and a half in the tropics, where he learned about tropical permaculture and coconut climbing. For the past three years, Cothron has been dedicated to intentional community living. He resides in intentional permaculture communities and strives to “be the change” he wants to see.

His passions include NVC compassionate communication, herbal medicine, organic food, the forest, fruit trees, permaculture, deep human relationships, and living in highest alignment with his values. Blake enjoys writing about sustainability and educating others about these topics.

Blake Cothron

Contributing Writer

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Blake’s Posts:

Green Living — A Beginner’s Guide

BPGL Puts Newman’s Own Organics to the Taste Test

About a month ago, we received a large box from Newman’s Own Organics (N.O.O.) in California. It was stuffed with a variety of wholesome goodies, assorted salty snacks, some chocolate sweets, one bottle of olive oil and another of balsamic vinegar.

It’s only fair that we inject a word of warning: We are not foodies. We don’t often write about food, and we don’t list it as one of our areas of expertise (unless you count Joe’s many varieties of “slippery food,” stuff that doesn’t even require chewing). You want to know the exquisite details of how the food feels or tastes on an expert palate? You’d have more luck channeling Julia Child.

The BPGL Video (and Tasting) Crew: Aaron, Justin, and Jake

The BPGL Video (and Tasting) Crew: Aaron, Justin, and Jake

So, back to where the box of manna fell off the UPS truck… Coincidentally (or were they psychic?), our video guys: Justin, Jake, and Aaron — three big appetites in their 20s — came over to work on a project that day. Our friend Sam was here, too. You can guess what happened: mass consumption edging toward gluttony. (We’re not saying who were the biggest gluttons, but it may not have been the young people.)

The snacks didn’t all disappear in one session — there were far too many of them. We shared our treats with friends who passed through our office over the next few days, making sure that we (Joe and Julia) got to taste at least a sample of each item. (Purely in the interest of fair and accurate reporting, of course.)

Miriam shows us the right way to eat a Newman-O's cookie.

Miriam shows us the right way to eat a Newman-O's creme-filled cookie.

So, what did everyone think about the stuff in the box? We each had our favorites, and they weren’t always the same. A couple of items didn’t quite register high on everyone’s taste scales, but when one of us didn’t like something, someone else invariably did. So, here’s a report from the BPGL team (with minor melodrama added, but no truths altered).

Free food is free food, and we definitely appreciated the gift. But, unlike certain media outlets that pretend to be “fair,” we can’t look ourselves in the mirror if we try to fool anyone. So here goes…

Julia: I’m not much of a junk-food junkie. I’ll pass on the sodas (most of the time), candy (unless it’s got chocolate/carob and nuts/raisins), and cookies (except homemade chocolate chip). I’m long past the days when a plateful of sweets could pass my lips without taking up permanent residence on my body. So checking out a variety of snack foods — even organic snack foods — didn’t sound too appealing at first. But it seems I underestimated the allure of Newman’s Own Organics.

Joe: I’m the snack food maniac. I will eat anything crunchy, salty, sweet, or fattening. The more sugar and chocolate the better. My metabolism can handle the sugars — at least for now. I’m the kind of guy who will buy a chocolate chip cookie in every gas station, fast food restaurant, and greasy spoon that crosses my path. When the N.O.O. box arrived, I was worried that anything organic would taste bad. But in the interest of … er… journalism … I engaged in a taste test of my own.


Julia: My very favorite is the chocolate chip version of the Champion Chip Cookies. I usually like chewy chocolate chip cookies (I make them at home with oil, not shortening). These were a bit on the crispier side, but so delicious! I didn’t even want to share them, but I had no choice with Joe around.

Aaron: Cookies? Chocolate chip cookies? Hey, I didn’t get any!

Joe: I know you didn’t, Aaron. I stashed them behind my computer monitor. I latched onto those suckers as soon as Julia turned her head. Crunchy, and just big enough for two good bites each. When I was in a hurry to eat them — like when I heard footsteps — they were small enough to jam a whole one in my mouth to hide the evidence. I doubt if anyone tasted the Fig Newmans, either. Very moist and chewy. The bag fit  perfectly in my desk drawer.

What happened to my Newman-O's?

Joe asks, "Who ate the rest of the Newman-O's?"

Justin: The ones I’m crazy about are the Champion Chip Orange Chocolate Chip cookies. (Couldn’t they think of a shorter name?) Julia and Joe actually let me work on this bag without stealing it away every few minutes.

Julia: It’s good that you liked those, Justin. That way I got more of the regular Chocolate Chip cookies.

Joe: Besides the Chocolate Chip cookies, I focused mostly on the Newman-O’s. Man, the ones with the chocolate centers were really good. Break about six of ’em up in a bowl of cold soy milk and eat it like cereal — pure heaven!

The Alphabet Cookies were like Newman-O’s without the centers. Those were good in soy milk, too. The Newman-Os Mint cookies were a little different with soy milk. Kind of like chocolate-mint flavored ice cream. Tasty, but not very breakfast-like.

Julia: They’re not supposed to be for breakfast, Joe. They’re cookies.

Justin: Hey, I only got two Ginger O’s. What happened to the rest of the bag?

Sam: Well, it’s like this… I had to hide them so the rest of you would leave them alone. Best cookies I ever had.

Aaron: What happened to the Hermits? I didn’t get any of those, either.

Julia: Not to be a spoilsport, but I wasn’t a big fan of those. Somebody ate them, though. Joe, was it you?

Joe: The Hermits were the last to go. One bag had a cinnamon flavor, the other tasted more like molasses. I’ll eat most anything, but I wouldn’t pick those as my first choice. But somebody must have liked them; both bags are empty.

Jake: The Hermits? They were great. Did somebody want some? Too late.


Joe drains all the salt from a bag of Newman's Own Organics Pretzels.

Joe drains all the salt from a bag of Newman

Julia: The Thin Stick Pretzels are totally lickable (if you like to like the salt off a pretzel — and I do). I thought the Honey Wheat Mini Pretzels were delicious, too.

But I wasn’t as fond of the Spelt pretzels. Their redeeming feature is that they’re made with a type of wheat (spelt) that some folks with wheat allergies can eat; so that’s a good thing. But give me the Stick Pretzels anytime.

Aaron: Yeah, I thought the Spelt Pretzels were a little bland, but I liked the Stick Pretzels.

Jake: They all tasted like they should. You know, like real food, not cardboard.

Justin: The Newman’s Own Organics Pretzels were probably the best bag pretzels I’ve ever had. If you’re going for a hard pretzel, this is the one.

Sam: Who ate the White Cheddar Soy Crisps?

Justin: I only ate a couple. They were okay, but I wouldn’t rave about them.

Julia: They reminded me a bit of rice cakes. Crispy and puffy. I liked the white cheddar flavoring, but I’m not the one who emptied the bJoe? … Joe? What are you doing?

Joe: Just licking the inside of a pretzels bag.

Julia: You’d think I never feed you.

Joe: You don’t.

Julia: Oh. Well, that explains it.


Julia: I have to confess that I was driven (“Honest, Judge. It wasn’t my fault!”) to a fit of real selfishness with the dried fruit packages. They “somehow” wandered to my office and hid themselves next to my laptop. I shared — really, I did — just not often. The samples we got included Organic Apples, Organic Cranberries, Organic California Prunes, and Organic Apricots.

While there wasn’t a loser in the bunch, I favored the cranberries and the prunes (yes, the prunes — no smart remarks, Joe). The cranberries were just sweet enough without being too sweet. I wanted to try them in a mixed greens or chicken salad, but my daughter and I ate them like candy. The prunes were chewy without being tough, just moist enough without being gooey, and sweet enough so they didn’t taste like prune juice.

Our friend Gay snacks on Newman's Own Organic Raisins that we bought for a gathering.

Gay enjoys Newman's Own Organics Raisins we bought to share with friends.

Aaron: The dried cranberries were good. Someone (I’ll avoid mentioning names) hogged the rest of the dried fruit.

Joe: I liked the apples especially well — the few that I got!

Sam: Dried fruit? There was dried fruit? How come I didn’t get any?

Jake: No problem here. Like I said, I’m a picky &*(&*(^%^. I might not have eaten them anyway.

Justin: I’m not much on dried fruit, but I did get to sample a dried apple or two. Pretty tasty, considering they’re not my favorites.

Julia: Joe and I liked the dried fruit so well that we bought some N.O.O. raisins for a meeting at our place. They were fresh and chewy, much better than the ones I usually buy (until now, that is). Our friends liked them, too.


Julia: The Spearmint Mints? Delicious. Peppermint? Yummy. Cinnamon Mints and Ginger Mints? Not a fan. I don’t care for ginger or cinnamon, so this is no surprise.

Aaron: I liked the Spearmint and Peppermint Mints. But the Ginger Mints had a bit too strong a taste at first. Once I got past the initial shock of the ginger, it mellowed out a bit. I didn’t get to try the Cinnamon Mints.

Justin: I loved the Ginger Mints! They had an unusual taste. It was different than anything I’ve ever had, and they left my mouth feeling fresh. What I liked best was the way the flavor came out after the initial shock of the ginger.

Jake: I did NOT like the Ginger Mints! But I snagged some Peppermints Mints to take home to my wife. Now those were delicious.

Justin: I thought you said they were for your wife.

Jake: Yeah, well, we share everything …

Joe: There were mints? I didn’t get any mints.

Sam: You snooze, you lose. You’ve gotta pay closer attention to these things, Joe.

So many snacks, so little time!

So many snacks, so little time!


Joe: Did anyone but me get to taste the chocolate and caramel candy? Melt-in-your-mouth fantastic!

Julia: Uh. Yeah. That was me you shared it with. I’m glad to know I’m so memorable.

Joe: I must have been overcome by the taste of the chocolate. Nothing personal, of course.

Julia: Of course. I’m sure you don’t mind that I took the second candy package and kept it for myself.

Aaron: Candy? There was candy?

Jake: What candy?

Sam: I think you may have a mutiny on your hands…


Besides taste (admittedly the #1 criteria for most of us), the real value for us in the Newman’s Own Organics products is that we were eating food that had been organically grown. No scary additives. No dyes. No preservatives. Just healthy, organic food. Sure, some of the goodies have their fair share of sugar, but they’re goodies, after all.

Most of us weren’t keen on anything made with ginger, as the taste was pretty strong. But Sam and Justin liked Ginger O’s cookies, and Justin thought the Ginger Mints rocked!

Anything chocolate, whether candy or cookies, got nods of approval — and didn’t last long.

The dried fruit, presumably one of the healthiest snacks, got rave reviews from those of us who ate them. (Apologies to the rest of the crew.)

Salty snacks were a hit, too. Most of us liked the Pretzel Sticks, though there wasn’t really a bad one in the bunch. No one jumped up and down over the Soy Chips, but no one hated them, either.

The mints were mostly yummy, and we all had our favorites. The Ginger Mints were a hit with one of us, but the rest think they must be an “acquired taste.”

And the olive oil and balsamic vinegar? Looks like they’ll become permanent members of our BPGL family.

We hope you find our review helpful. Our best suggestion to readers is to try a few products for yourselves. Then let us know about your favorites. There are quite a number we haven’t yet tasted, and we’d like to know what you think.

Joe Hennager and Julia Wasson

Blue Planet Green Living

Related Posts:

Part 1: Fishing with Nell

Part 2: Nell Newman: “Late Bloomer” to Organic Ecopreneur

My 5: Nell Newman, Newman’s Own Organics

Nell Newman: “Late Bloomer” to Organic Ecopreneur

By anyone’s reckoning, Nell Newman is a successful ecopreneur. She heads Newman’s Own Organics: The Second Generation, her original spin-off from her father’s Newman’s Own brand. In Part 1 of our interview, Newman told about the life experiences that fostered her dedication to environmentalism and sustainability. In Part 2, she speaks about her nontraditional educational path, her work on environmental projects, and the business of organic food production. We invite you to get to know more about this remarkable human ecologist and wonderfully human being.

BPGL: How did you decide to become a human ecologist?

NEWMAN: I was a high school dropout. Mom and Dad went cross-country a lot, and I went to so many schools. By the time I was about fifteen, I was so far behind (everybody let me slide; it was terrible) that I finally just got frustrated and quit. Then I worked at a peregrine release site.

Nell Newman, co-founder of Newman's Own Organics

Nell Newman, co-founder of Newman's Own Organics

I finally started trying to find someplace to go back to school when I was about 19. I took courses at University of Bridgeport, Sacred Heart University, Fairfield University. I really didn’t like any of them. Mainly, I didn’t like the teachers. I had one wonderful teacher at Bridgeport University, who was probably in his late 70s, maybe even early 80s. He invented the electric blanket. He taught a beginning chemistry course, Chemistry and You or Chemistry and the Environment. I think his name was Dr. Greenhalls. He was a fantastic professor.

It’s just interesting, when you’re trying to find someplace. You go to different schools. And they have great reputations. But their beginning biology teacher just graduated, and they’re boring. I was very disillusioned. I would sleep through the lectures. And I thought, What’s wrong with me? This is the thing I found so fascinating when I was a kid! Then I realized it wasn’t me. I had a lame professor. She was new, and she was really boring.

Finally, I discovered College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine. I went back to college when I was 25 and graduated from there. I was a late bloomer.

BPGL: Did you get a GED?

NEWMAN: I got three-quarters of a GED. Somebody asked me, “Where’d you graduate high school?” But I couldn’t lie. When I was at College of the Atlantic, the teacher-student ratio was very high. It was the perfect place for me, because I could get all of the help I needed to catch up and be a functioning student after being out of school for so long. I had wonderful teachers, and that’s really what kept me going — having the attention that I needed when I finally went back to school. It was unintimidating, because it was small. And their only degree was human ecology.

BPGL: So, what is human ecology?

NEWMAN: It basically means that whatever area of interest you’re looking at — architecture, etc. — that you’re looking at the environmental and human effect as seen through the eyes of … an architect, for example. It takes into account, How is what you’re doing affecting the environment, if you’re an architect? Even then, when I was there, it was loosely defined. I basically focused on anatomy and biology.

BPGL: What was your next stop?

NEWMAN: When I graduated and got a degree, I worked at the Environmental Defense Environmental Defense Fund. I went from Maine to Connecticut, then moved to New York. That lasted about a year. I loved my job, but couldn’t handle the city. I tried commuting, and then I tried living in New York. I loved working for the Environmental Defense Fund. I put together the database for their recycling campaign, all the recyclers in 50 states — which, 15 years ago, was not a lot; and in some states there were none. But New York City was just too much for me. I moved there for February, March, April — but being surrounded by cement and trying to do that rat race of the commute was too much culture shock.

BPGL: What did you do when you went to California?

NEWMAN: When I moved out here, I got a job working for the Ventana Wilderness Sanctuary, which was in the process of trying to re-establish a population of bald eagles on the central coast of California, where they once had been. I worked at a release site for young bald eagles up in the Big Sur forest. It’s what they call a hack site. That’s an old falconry technique for releasing young birds.

We would go collect them from Vancouver Island, bring them back over. We’d put them in the box to be acclimated. They could see outside and see where they were and get acclimated to their new area. Then, when they were able to fly, we’d release them and track them until they were able to feed on their own.

Nell Newman inspects a Newman's Own Organics supplier's crop.

BPGL: Was it a successful venture?

NEWMAN: It was, except they didn’t nest in that area as much as we would have liked, because there are not as many dead whales or seals on the beaches anymore. A lot of the traditional food sources are dragged away. I think it’s probably one of the difficulties in that area. And probably they were also feeding on salmon, and there were fewer salmon areas up and down the coast. I think it was mainly a limit of food source.

They ended up going inland to Lake Nacimiento and feeding on the fish that were in that lake, because there wasn’t enough of a food source out in the ocean. The road kill would probably have been good, but [highway workers] tend to pick them up. They don’t leave them now for birds of prey to eat.

The birds are still around, but they didn’t end up utilizing the coast the way we wanted them to. Now they’ve been doing condor releases there, but I think last year, the hack site burned up in the fire. I was just down there, and you can see the fire came right down to Route 1.

BPGL: So now you’re in another kind of environmental work, making and selling organic food products. One of the quotes attributed to you is, “My niche will be to support the growth of organic agriculture.” Besides selling your products, is there anything else you’re doing to promote organic agriculture?

NEWMAN: What I meant by that quote is by utilizing certified organic ingredients, we were supporting the growth of sustainable agriculture. By utilizing these ingredients, we’re growing the percentage of organic agriculture in the United States today, which is unbelievably small when you look at the big numbers.

BPGL: Tell us a little bit about your certification process. Why did you choose Oregon Tilth as the certifying agency?

NEWMAN: When we started, it was under the Organic Food Act of 1990. We came in before any standards were actually implemented, but they had been passed. The reason we picked Oregon Tilth is they were the only independent, third-party certification agency that would certify a processing plant. Everybody else was just concerned with farm processing. Now, of course, it’s standard procedure.

I went with Steve Harper, who was the certifier, when they certified the pretzel plant that was making our pretzels for us. I just wanted to learn what things they’re looking for. What they’re really looking for is maintaining the integrity of your organic ingredients, that there isn’t any opportunity for cross-contamination in the factory, or confusing bags. They have to be stored separately, they have to be labeled as such. There has to be a complete clean-down before anything’s run through the machinery, and there’s very careful tracking from the farm all the way through the process. So that’s what they do in a plant certification.

That’s pretty much standard practice now. It’s certainly growing pains in terms of the growth of the industry and the government regulating it.

BPGL: So the farm must be certified organic, and the processing plant must be certified organic. What else?

NEWMAN: The main point is that you’re maintaining your organic integrity the whole way through the process. Every step of the way, there’s a certification process. The farmer’s certified, the transportation is certified, the processing of the grain is certified. There is a tremendous amount of integrity all the way through the process of manufacturing an organic food product.

The trucks have to be cleaned out before grain is put in them. They have to think about the processing of the grain before it gets to the plant. They really do go to a lot of effort trying to maintain the integrity of that product as it goes through the process.

Newman preparing organic vegetables at home.

Newman preparing organic vegetables at home

BPGL: How big a staff do you have? If you can’t trust regulation, somebody has to be involved in product guidance.

NEWMAN: We have a food technologist, who travels to all the plants. She checks on all of that at each plant. She goes there for the runs of products so that she gets to see. She gets products sent to her house from every run and has to go through it and check, and make sure it’s the same size and same color for things that she’s keeping an eye on. There’s somebody in the office that does tracking of ingredients, etc. But you really do depend on collecting your paperwork from Oregon Tilth, because that’s why they’re the independent third party. Our food technologist does the review of products.

BPGL: I wanted to ask you about the cacao used to make your chocolate products. You’re quoted as saying that it’s grown in an ancient way.

NEWMAN: If I’m not mistaken, all organic cacao is shade grown. The way it grows now is the way it’s always grown, which is in the jungle. Because it’s shade grown, it preserves the forests. That allows migrant species of birds to continue to exist there and works within the natural ecosystem.

We just reformulated chocolate. It’s such a difficult thing to make, and you’re so dependent on who’s making it and the quality of your manufacturer as well as your beans. There are so many elements. This new chocolate’s really lovely.

BPGL: We tasted the caramel chocolates, and they were delicious.

NEWMAN: Those are the kinds of things I don’t keep around. Actually, my new favorite, which I don’t keep around either, is the peanut butter sandwich creams. I had one bag in the house, and I was taking it apart and double sandwiching them. And I said, “I can’t even have these in the house!” There’s not a lot of things I can’t have around, but that was one of them. [Laughs.]

Part 1: Fishing with Nell

Part 2: Nell Newman: “Late Bloomer” to Organic Ecopreneur (Top of Page)

My 5: Nell Newman, Newman’s Own Organics

Joe Hennager

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Fishing with Nell

Sometimes the kid in us gets lost when we grow up and take on the responsibilities of making a living, running a business, caring for a family, or serving a cause. Nell Newman seems to be different. When she talks about her childhood, a tomboy immediately comes to life. It’s easy to picture her pushing open the screen door at sunrise, with an old fishing pole over her shoulder and a can of worms in one hand, walking down to the river to fish.

While talking with Newman by phone from her home in Northern California, it was as if she was describing me. I was there, sitting on the grassy bank, or a moss covered log, my bare feet dangling into the creek, my red-and-white bobber bouncing circles in the water. Our futures were being molded by the same experience at different creeks. She was a kid in Connecticut, and I was a kid in Iowa, but we both grew up with fishing poles in our hands.

Newman and a hen at home in California.

Newman and her pet hen at home in California.

Nell Newman was an environmentalist from the beginning, though she didn’t know the term back then. She grew up to become the co-owner of a prominent organic food line. You know her as Nell Newman (or as Nell Potts, in film), daughter of actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Nell spoke with us about the path she took to become who she is today, co-founder of Newman’s Own Organics.

In Part 1 of a two-part series, we talk with Nell about her lifelong love for the environment, beginning as a young child. In Part 2, Newman talks about the the logical extension of her environmental activism, Newman’s Own Organics.

BPGL: What interested us about you — besides your food, of course — was that you have a degree in human ecology and have worked as an environmentalist. Tell us about your journey to becoming who you are. What makes you so passionate about the environment?

NEWMAN: I lived in New York until I was about five, and my parents bought the house in Connecticut. It was on a little river. At one point, we had five dogs and six cats, and I had a Harris hawk. I even had a cat that would follow us when we would go through the woods. That’s what I did on a daily basis.

At a very young age, I was fascinated by birds, because the woods of Connecticut at that time were really full of birds. I was frustrated because I couldn’t fly, and birds were amazing to me. I grew up in the woods, running around with a pack of dogs and fishing. That’s what made me an environmentalist.

BPGL: Did you go fishing alone?

NEWMAN: I often fished alone, but when I was 12 or 13 I had a best friend my age. She and I fished together almost every day. She lived a couple miles upstream, so we decimated the river between her house and my house. I don’t even think we ate that much fish, but I was mesmerized by them.

BPGL: What was fishing like for you back then?

NEWMAN: I was by nature a biologist, because I spent all my time in the woods. It was a very prolific, diverse river. The biodiversity was amazing: Crappie and pickerel and sunnies — several species. Pumpkin seeds and orange breasts and bluegills, and all of these different species of fish. They were like jewels to me.

I go back now, and I look in the river, and it looks beautiful. And all the people who have moved to Westport still think it looks really beautiful. Yet, it’s slowly but surely silted up. I’ve watched the biodiversity drop in there. And right down from us, they have a fly-fishing only section that’s stocked by Trout Unlimited with non-native species.

When I was little — you probably remember this, since you grew up on a stream — the first thing you always saw was where you couldn’t get your bait through the shiners. And I realized that one of the things that is missing in that river now is that necessary lower part of the food chain — which is why I think everything’s gone to hell. There’s no bait fish anymore.

There would be schools of little shiners — baby suckers. When they’re really small, they don’t have a sucker mouth, they have a little normal mouth. I haven’t seen a school of shiners in there in 10 or 15 years. Usually, if I’d go home, I could catch a trout under the dam. I’ve caught some very unhealthy looking hatchery fish, like rainbows. Rainbows don’t do very well in that river, that river gets too warm.

Newman's love of nature flourished on the banks of a river in Connecticut.

Newman's love for the environment grew and flourished on the banks of a Connecticut river.

BPGL: Are you finding the fish are still healthy enough to eat?

NEWMAN: They taste muddy. It used to be you couldn’t drop a worm in there and not catch things. Now, in the spring, they get such a layer of algae growth. It’s not really thick, but it’s just thick enough to keep the sunnies from breeding — and sunnies are usually prolific. It used to be the little sunnie nests were all up and down that river.

Now, in the spring, the water bottom gets a layer of algae, which prevents the sunnies from building their nests. I just don’t see them. I’ll catch one or two sunnies. They’re really small. I think the algae is the result of too much nitrogen running off during the winter rains from the lawn fertilizers used locally. Also you have the nitrogen run-off from the waste of Canadian geese that don’t migrate north like they used to due to climate warming.

I swear I saw a wood duck the last time I was home. That really surprised me, because there used to be wood ducks on that river all the time. Something whizzed by when we were walking upstream — only one.  And I thought, Wow, it must have been a wood duck.

This whole climate change is affecting the environment. I’ve lived on that river for 40 plus years. And I’ve watched the degradation of that river, which has been my own little eco-system. I’ve watched it just disappear. It still looks pretty. But it’s not a gravel-bottom stream anymore — except in the middle of the winter, if they get a lot of rain, and then you can see some gravel. There’s so little in it. I was wondering what Trout Unlimited does. Because, when I catch a rainbow, I’m thinking what is this thing doing in here? It used to be nothing but brookies. They were tiny, and they were beautiful. I haven’t seen a brookie in there in years.

BPGL: Did you have any bass in your river?

Newman still enjoys fishing today.

Newman still enjoys fishing today.

NEWMAN: We had a few large-mouth bass, which would cruise up and down the river. They never grew to much size. We really had diversity: the eels, the turtles, the bass, the pickerels, the shiners, the sunnies. It was a vivid ecosystem of different species. Now, I don’t see bass cruise the river anymore.

I saw the weirdest thing last year, and I completely didn’t know what it was. I was doing my annual go-down-by-the-river-and-fish-for-a-half-an-hour. I kept seeing a disturbance on the surface, and I thought, What is that? It’s a very small river, and my parents had put a dam in there when we were kids so we could walk across. Along the dam, I saw a school of fish that I had no idea what they were. They would swim along the dam toward me, and I was actually trying to net them, because they seemed to be very stupid. It looked like they were small shad.

The water was going fairly fast. One of them swept over the dam, and it still looked like a small shad. I called a friend of mine, Jeff, who’s a striped bass guide in Westport, and I asked, “What the heck were these things? There were about ten of them. Blue backs and silver bodies, deep bodied.”

And he said, “They’re alewives. I can’t believe they’re that far up, because we’re probably three or four miles from the ocean.”

Somebody was putting in fish ladders — I think it was Trout Unlimited. Alewives is a species that comes up into fresh water and spawns, then goes back down. And somebody put a lot of dams in between us and the ocean. My grandmother, right south of us, has a dam that I have no idea how they got up, because it’s four or five feet. It’s stone. And it resembles a regular dam.

NEWMAN: What kind of place did you grow up on, Joe?

BPGL: If you ever look up a map of Iowa, it was a place called Buffalo Creek. It was just crappies and bass, and we had some natural trout that lived in the area. My friends and I kept a frying pan down there under the bridge. We’d keep a little fire going, and when we were hungry, we’d cook up a fish, gut it and scale it and eat it right there. We never had to go home. It was just us kids and nature.

NEWMAN: Me, too.

BPGL: It’s nothing like it used to be. Now, there’s barely any possum, fox, or muskrat. I couldn’t tell you how barren it is. It’s all farmland, and they farm within two feet of the creek. There’s just no protection from the fertilizers and the pesticides. They’ve almost killed the creek. I wouldn’t even want to put my feet in it now.

Newman in her above-ground garden.

Newman in her above-ground garden.

NEWMAN: Ours isn’t that bad. It looks pretty. People say, “It’s so nice in Westport, and there’s so much beautiful woods.” When I grew up, there was a place called the Fairfield County Trail Association that maintained the trails, and it was where you rode. — I actually wonder what happened to it. — Everyplace I rode horseback is now a giant mansion, and I’m sure they don’t have any access. You could ride for miles all over. It still looks pretty, but if you lived there forty years ago… I go home and put my blinders on. I go visit my family, and I have a really hard time going back there.

I’m looking up Trout Unlimited, and it makes them sound really lovely, but the thing that always amazed me is the little section of the river that they “restored.” I’m wondering, what did they do? You see people pull up in their giant SUVs with $10,000 worth of fishing gear on and flail away for hatchery fish. It’s just odd.

BPGL: We’d love to post a photograph of you with a fishing pole or with a little bait on a hook or something.

NEWMAN: You know what’s sad — and I keep hoping if I talk about it enough, maybe it’ll come back to me — when I moved out here, my mother did a photo album for me of all my old pictures. My parents were prolific photographers.

In February, I’d had a bicycle accident and smashed up my face, and had stitches, and broke some teeth off. In April, I went to visit Dad, who was shooting a movie in Louisiana. That’s when my mother gave me the photo album. I said, “Mom, take this home so nothing bad happens to it.” And I think it got left there. Every single picture… I still have a few, but all of my old pictures… There was a picture of me, age 8, with a four-pound brown that I had caught. It breaks my heart. My mom used to ask me about the album periodically, and I would shudder and try to divert the conversation, because it had all of my childhood pictures. I have some, but I keep thinking I need to put a plea out.

BPGL: We’ll put a plea out for you with the article.

NEWMAN: I can still see that picture in my mind’s eye. It completely blew away my father. I’d been reading Sports and Field, Field and Stream, and something else. I had read an article that I didn’t quite comprehend. It was about fishing for catfish on a trotline in the South. You put bait on a hook, and you put a bunch of hooks on it, and you throw it out in the water. You put it out overnight, and then you come back in the morning. That’s what they do in the South for catfish.

So, I went and caught a big shiner. I put it on a hook, and I cast it out at night, and I tied my fishing rod to the handrail. When I came back in the morning, there was a four-pound brown on it. They’re nocturnal. There’s this picture of me with this smug smile, and this fish touching the ground.  It breaks my heart, though. Somebody stole the album, and I don’t know where it went.

BPGL: That is so sad.

NEWMAN: It’s awful. I hate it. I have some pictures, but I don’t have this huge pile that I used to have. I wish I had my old photo album.

BPGL: You’ll probably find it on eBay someday.

NEWMAN: I don’t go on eBay. But if you ever find it, tell me.

BPGL: We sure will.

End of Part 1

Part 1: Fishing with Nell (Top of Page)

Part 2: New Newman: “Late Bloomer” to Organic Ecopreneur

Joe Hennager

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Spiritual Sustainability: Save the Earth Without Killing Yourself

For much of my life, I have zealously pursued the ideal of sustainable living. A deep love for the natural world, coupled with an equally deep perfectionist streak, made me alternately — depending on the flavor of the times — an object of curiosity or subject to ridicule. However, over the past five years, I have had to admit that this ultra-determined sort of sustainability has not produced the eco-perfect life that I expected.

Rooker drives an SUV in a zero-elevation town. Photo: Amanda Rooker

Driving an SUV in a zero-elevation town. Photo: Amanda Rooker

For example: I currently live in York County, Virginia — a.k.a. Suburbia, U.S.A. My community is organized into neat lines of strip malls alternating with freshly bulldozed lots zoned for new construction. Not only do I drive an SUV to cart my kids around a zero-elevation town, but I drive a black SUV — not exactly a sustainable choice for the sweltering South. Last week I bought my groceries at Wal-Mart. The only obviously sustainable practice I have going for me is that my son takes the school bus. How did I get here? And how can I, in any conceivable worldview, still believe that I am committed to sustainable living?

When I was fifteen, ecology was still a fringe concept in my part of the world. But as I learned more and more about how particular human practices harmed the earth as a whole, it didn’t take long for me to become radically devoted to all things green. And with every new piece of information, I added a new required practice to my life. I became a vegetarian to minimize my food-energy footprint. I insisted my mother replace paper napkins with cloth napkins (which she, and I, have used daily ever since). My first job was working in a third-world import store, where I developed a taste for brightly colored Guatemalan clothing and handmade African jewelry. Instead of Christmas gifts, I asked family and friends to donate to the Heifer Project.

An organic garden

Growing an organic garden.

After I was married, I grew my own organic garden of vegetables and herbs; made all of my own household cleaners under the expert guidance of Clean House Clean Planet; bought handmade soap from a friend’s local business; frequented the farmer’s markets; and bought or received almost every other product in our home secondhand. The more I learned, the more practices I heaped upon myself. At the time I had high energy, low expenses, and no dependents, so I was able to maintain my ever-expanding list of practices.

When I became pregnant with my first child, my imagination had molded my long list of practices into a detailed ideal of sustainable living, and I could define it down to the color of the hand-woven place mats on my sustainably harvested hardwood kitchen table. I would have all of my children (and there would be many) without drugs and in harmony with my body’s natural processes. Not a crumb of processed food would touch our lips. I was going to put aside career to be Earth Mother.

I quickly learned that intentions do not equal reality. Undaunted by the fact that my idealized natural childbirth turned into an emergency C-section, I poured all my energy into using cloth diapers, searching out affordable organic food (by this time I had let my garden go), and making homemade baby food and natural cleaners. But what was painfully absent was joy — joy in my son and joy as a mother. Nothing was natural about this.

After I had my second son, I found that keeping two children under two years old alive took all my time and effort. Not only was I unable to keep up all of the sustainable practices I believed were so important, I could no longer prioritize which were most important and which were actually contradictory. If I was constantly assessing whether our activity or snack was the best possible choice, I had no time to linger and play with my kids. My ideal of sustaining the earth was now directly competing with my responsibility of sustaining my children’s lives — not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually.

The death blow to my sustainable-living ideal finally came when our household income was suddenly slashed by two-thirds. Whatever spare time or energy I had was now devoted to simply keeping our bills paid on time and trying to figure out how to keep food — any kind of food — in our refrigerator. Our options were limited to the easiest and the cheapest, and I had no choice but to accept it. I laid down my ideal as simply impossible. Living sustainably was only for the wealthy and/or childless. I made my peace with Wal-Mart, my SUV, and my preservative-laden, pesticide-laden, cheaper food. And I spent a year simply surviving, no longer worrying about whether each action was the most “sustainable” or not.


To live sustainably, honor the process of natural growth.

I may have thought I was just too poor and too busy to live sustainably, but in reality, it was my product-based, practice-based ideal of sustainable living that was not sustainable. My zealous, determined perfectionism fundamentally contradicted the natural, cyclical growing processes that govern not only the natural world I claimed to love and preserve, but us as human beings, too.

Trying to create a perfect external ideal of sustainability, as opposed to allowing our lives to grow naturally from our internal values, is like trying to build a tree (even from sustainably harvested wood) instead of planting a seed. We might get visible results faster, but it will be impossible to maintain over time. To live sustainably long term, I had to learn to honor the spiritual process that brings the renewable patterns of natural growth deep within ourselves.

Life has a way of showing us that its principles will prevail, and seeks — perhaps even in a kind way — to relieve us of the impossible burden of building a living thing. Even when I didn’t recognize what was happening, the new priorities of motherhood and our limited budget pruned my overgrown ideal of sustainability down to a stump. I thought that part of me was gone forever. But what is true physically is also true spiritually: destruction yields new life. Pruning creates vibrant growth not possible otherwise.

Another physical principle that has a spiritual parallel, I learned from my naturopath: Even if the body is deficient in many areas, it will only take in what will address the primary deficiency. Pouring supplements into your body (or in this case, adding sustainable practices) to address visible symptoms is a waste of time, money, and energy. Only when the core deficiency is met will the body be capable of absorbing what it needs to address the next core need. That’s exactly what was happening to me spiritually: Establishing new habits is very much a spiritual process. It not only takes time, but takes everything in turn: First the seed, then the shoot, then the leaves, then the fruit.

In the absence of those heavy, burdensome expectations, I was able to discern the living value beneath all of those practices, which was my love of the natural world. That love never died, it was just hidden and weakened by the crazy overgrowth of too many practices. So, for a while, I simply enjoyed the world around me with my children, unburdened by obligatory practices. And that was when I really started to grow: not outwardly, but inwardly. To my surprise, specific corollary values began to branch out naturally from that primary value: pursuing health naturally and investing in local, seasonal, whole food sources. Just two corollary values – not even practices or habits yet.

But from simply naming and nurturing these values, I am beginning to see the fruit of a few new practices that are enlivening rather than burdensome. For example, I have switched from traditional primary care to a gifted, local naturopathic doctor for health maintenance. As part of the pruning, I gave up running (which according to my ideal was the most “sustainable” exercise). But in its place has grown the habit of weekly dance and yoga classes at the YMCA — for the first time in my life, exercise enlivens me. I cook simply and from scratch as much as I’m able, even though our budget still limits how much local, seasonal food I can afford. And for now, that’s enough.

Making choices sometimes provides the option of organic foods.

Making choices sometimes provides the option of organic foods. Photo: Amanda Rooker

But here the fruit of allowing practices to grow naturally from within really pays off: I now know how to prioritize practices within limited means. For example, I know that my practice of buying local whenever possible is rooted in my value of fresh, nutrient-rich food and pursuing health naturally. Therefore, my first and best options are our local farms and the bulk natural foods catalog. When I can’t afford those options, I’m free to shop at the cheapest, most convenient place because evaluated on the basis of natural health, they’re pretty much equal.

But evaluating my food options based on, for example, economic justice for small, local businesses who pay a living wage, would yield completely different results. The local farm wouldn’t be the first and best choice if it used migrant workers, nor would all remaining options be equal. That’s how I can freely shop at, say, Wal-Mart, while someone else might not. Or how I can drive an SUV guilt-free — the carbon footprint branch hasn’t begun growing yet.

True vision provides a decision-making matrix that goes beyond simple monetary cost or objective right-and-wrong, helping us to discern which practice to prioritize and which to simply let go. If we trust that we are indeed living things to be grown and not built, we will trust that priorities and practices will grow in their own time. I certainly have plenty to do in the meantime to nurture what has already begun growing.

Pruning yields fruit

Nurture love of the natural world.

So I am grateful for the pruning process of the last five years, because I’ve finally learned that true sustainability is not evaluated based on an objective list of practices and products, but on how well we yield to a spiritual process — the same cyclical growing process that governs the earth we love. If we nurture our love of the natural world, it will naturally produce the fruit of practices over time. And this approach is certainly no adolescent “do-what-you-feel-like” philosophy.

Most of us determined perfectionists (and virtually all mothers) resist this equally deadly extreme for good reason: Sometimes we simply must do what is required, whether we want to or not. Certain (ideally, codified) minimal practices should be required of all of us, no matter what we define as burdensome. But the key here is to learn the difference between building and growing. Growing certainly requires work that we must do, whether we feel like it or not. Yet our responsibility is not to produce the living thing itself, but merely to enable it to grow the way it was designed.

This kind of spiritual sustainability is tremendously freeing, because we are operating according to design. It costs nothing and produces much. On the other hand, it is not cheap. Just as in the natural world, new life comes at great cost: It requires the seed, or the ideal, to die. It requires us to accept the pruning and to appear to be an ugly, dead stump to undiscerning eyes, even when everyone else has birds flocking to their branches.

If we truly love the natural world and are students of its ways, we will know that pruning burdensome branches increases growth in the long term. This growth will not only be physical, through the addition of visible practices, but spiritual: The process also yields within us the sustaining virtues of humility, perseverance, and faith. In other words, honoring the growth process with patience is how our sustainable practices will be well-rooted enough to sustain us as well — with any budget and in any context. Even while driving our SUV to Wal-Mart.

Amanda Rooker

Contributing Writer

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Sustainable Living Profile: Jessica Klein

When Jessica Klein gets hungry for organic produce, she doesn’t have very far to go. “I have my own little sustainable garden,” she says. That’s a bit of an understatement, as Klein raises a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and herbs on a bit less than acre of land. She lives with her husband on the southern exposure of Tiger Mountain, near Issaquah, Washington.

An abundant harvest from Klein's greenhouse. Photo: Jessica Klein

An abundant harvest. Photo: Jessica Klein

Klein has what she calls “quite a green thumb.” But from what we can see in the photos she sent us, she has ten green fingers and probably a few green toes. The photos alone are enough to start us yearning for fresh, juicy, red tomatoes, crisp green cucumbers, and crunchy orange — and red — carrots. By the time the interview is finished, we’re both ready to get out seed catalogs and start planning for the spring.

We interviewed Klein by phone from her home. We wanted to learn more about how she manages to get such lush growth and robust produce in a place where, she says, “It rains about a gazillion days a year.”

BPGL: Tell us about getting started with the greenhouse.

Klein: When I decided to get a greenhouse, first I did some research to determine what kind to buy. Then I watched the sun pattern in our backyard to figure out just where it should go. We have a lot of 150-foot trees on the property, so there’s not much sun. Location was critical.

I chose a brand called the Sunshine GardenHouse. The model is the Mt. Rainier series, which means it’s a local product — made and manufactured on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. (In fact, they drove it up and delivered it to my door.) It’s made of redwood, with polycarbonate walls and automatic solar vents.

BPGL: What did you have to do to get the property ready and then set up the greenhouse?

Preparing the greenhouse foundation. Photo: Jessica Klein

Preparing the greenhouse foundation. Photo: Jessica Klein

Klein: Our backyard was full of brambles, so we had to clear a space for the foundation. After we dug down about 4 or 5 inches, we laid a foundation of cinder blocks around the perimeter and put gravel around the outside. On the inside, we spread a permeable weed cloth to control the weeds, and unrolled chicken wire on top of that to keep the vermin from digging in from the bottom. We placed a flexible drainage pipe around the inside perimeter with an exit hole out one side.

Next, we covered the wire and most of the pipe with a layer of gravel up to the top of the cinder blocks and more around the outside of the greenhouse. That was our base.

On top of that, we built the framework and covered it with the polycarbonate walls that came with the kit. The greenhouse itself is 8 feet by 12 feet. We put it up in two days, but I think we could have done it in one. It probably took us longer than it might take someone in an area where it doesn’t rain so much. We spent a lot of time having to deal with the inevitable water runoff.

BPGL: Did you run any electrical or water lines to the greenhouse?

Klein puts on the last piece of roof. Photo: Brett Klein

Klein prepares to put up the last piece of roof. Photo: Brett Klein

Klein: No. We decided not to put electricity in, because it’s a long way from the house. And in addition to costing a lot, we just didn’t want to have a long electrical line running through the property. Besides, the solar vents work automatically to let out excess heat. We didn’t need to put water in, because of all the rain. When the plants get dry (which hardly ever happens), I just pull a garden hose over and give them a soak.

BPGL: Considering the cost of the building against the cost of the food you’ve grown, what do think the return is on your investment, your ROI?

Klein: Well, we didn’t purchase the cheapest model of greenhouse, or the most expensive one, either. I think we spent about $3,000 on the kit, then maybe another $200 for the raised beds inside. We used some recycled planter disks outside the shed — they look like big saucers. Then we bought trays, buckets, tools, and hoses. We spent about $125 on the worm bin.

And I joined the Seed Savers Exchange. I bought organic and heirloom varieties of seeds from the Seed Savers in Decorah, Iowa. They have varieties you can’t get most places. They grow their own and replenish the seed stock. So that was $35 for the annual fee, plus the cost of seeds.

The total cost of everything probably came to about $3,500.

What have I gotten in return? I’ve saved probably 4 or 5 bags of garbage from going to the landfill. So, from that I saved maybe $10.00 in landfill costs. I fed all of our food waste to the worms. They gave me about $10-$15 worth of the richest fertilizer in the world, worm tea. And I probably got about $10.00 worth of rich soil from the compost. So, how much is that? About $30 or $35.

BPGL: What did you save in produce by growing it yourself?

Klein: Let’s see. In our area, tomatoes in stores have to be flown in, so they cost about $3.99 a pound. I can’t tell you how many pounds I grew! And I can grow them four, five, six months of the year.

Emerging seedlings. Photo: Jessica Klein

Emerging seedlings. Photo: Jessica Klein

When we moved here five years ago, we started planning for the future, by planting fruit trees and such. We’ve been sowing the seeds (no pun intended) to get more production as time goes by. In my whole garden, I have three types of lettuce, zucchini, green beans, kale, peppers, eggplant, carrots, Brussels sprouts, jalapeños, cabbages, edible borage flowers, and all of my herbs, basil, oregano, parsley and more.

We also have fruit trees — an Italian plum tree, a three-graft cherry tree, an apricot tree, a peach tree, a five-graft Asian pear tree. And then we have grapevines, and wild blackberries and huckleberries, too.

I only buy organic produce, so the cost of that is even higher than in a regular grocery store. Without my garden, I probably spend about $15 or $20 a week for produce at the grocery store. But I certainly wouldn’t have consumed $3,500 [the cost of setting up the greenhouse] in vegetables. This year, I probably saved $400. That doesn’t seem like much, but this is just my first year.

BPGL: Do you see other benefits to growing your own produce?

Klein: Yes. The most important thing here is not the money. You have to remember that all of this food was grown organically. That means I know there are no poisons in them, no fertilizers or herbicides. There’s huge psychological ROI in knowing where our food came from, who handled the produce, how the plants were cared for. And I didn’t have to drive to the store to buy any of this.

I get a ton of exercise working in my yard. I get to plant seeds and watch them grow. I get to pick a ripe, red tomato from the vine and eat it. How much is that worth?

Maturing crops. Photo: Jessica Klein

Maturing crops. Photo: Jessica Klein

I do this for my family. I get to give my dad bags full of fresh tomatoes, which he loves. My mom loves the zucchini. And my sister loves the green beans. There is no price tag on that.

I don’t consider myself an earth-shattering change-maker. I just try to do my part. I support the locavore movement, which means eating food grown in a certain radius near your home. The point is to get to know your local farmer. Farmers’ markets are huge out here in the Northwest.

BPGL: Isn’t raising your own produce a lot of work?

Klein: Getting it all started was a lot of work. And at planting time, yes, it’s hard work. After that, it only takes about an hour a day. And during the long winter, when I’m stuck inside, I’ll be thinking about what I’m going to plant, just waiting to get outside and put in those long days again.

Tomato vines growing in Klein's greenhouse. Photo: Jessica Klein

Tomato vines growing in the greenhouse. Photo: Jesssica Klein

It’s such a labor of love, pure joy.

BPGL: Tell us about your worms. How did you get into that part of the gardening?

Klein: I read a couple of books. Amy Stewart’s From the Ground Up, which tells about how she grew her first garden when she knew nothing at all about gardening; and The Earth Moved, which is about vermiculture.

At the time, I thought, This sounds like something I could spend a lot of money and time doing, and I know I’m the type to jump into a project and then let it slide. But then I thought, What the heck? I want to do it. So, 15 minutes after I finished The Earth Moved, I was on the phone buying a worm bin.

The worm bin sat in the entry to my home for the winter. We fed them all our food trash and it didn’t smell at all. It was so easy to maintain, I couldn’t believe it. Then when summer came, I got the message from my husband, and I moved it out to the deck. A neighbor helped me take the bin apart. We scooped out the compost, drained out the worm tea.

Our worms are red wigglers. They’re quick movers, those little guys. They really do compost everything right down to black gold. There’s not much discernable that’s left when they’re done. I found one avocado peeling, but when I touched it, it disintegrated.

Reaping the reward. Photo: Jessica Klein

Reaping the reward. Photo: Jessica Klein

I’m so glad I did this. I’ve always been into recycling, and this kind of recycling is easy enough. Well, maybe I think it’s easy and for others it’s hard, but it’s what I can do.

BPGL: What about eggshells? Can you feed the worms eggshells?

Klein: They love eggshells. They compost them down to nothing. In fact eggshells are good for their tummies. And coffee grounds, too.  They’re just crazy little munchers! It really is very easy to take care of them.

BPGL: Do you ever find that you run out of food for the worms?

Klein: No, right now, I find that my worms keep up with my food and my food keeps up with my worms. They just turn all my food scraps and garden scraps into beautiful compost. It’s great! If we ever run out, we have loads of leaves and yard waste we could feed them; but, so far, we haven’t had to do that.

Klein's saucer garden. Photo: Jessica Klein

Mini gardens in recycled planting disks. Photo: Jessica Klein

BPGL: With organic gardening, where you don’t use any herbicides or pesticides, what are your biggest problems?

Klein: My nemesis is the slugs. The greenhouse tends to take care of the plants inside [because the slugs can’t get in], and they can’t crawl up into my round planters, but they’re everywhere else. I tried to put out dishes of beer. I heard that would work, but my dog drank them all. [She laughs.] So, I can’t do that anymore. And, I planted marigolds to attract the ladybugs to eat the aphids.

BPGL: Any other pests?

Klein: Oh, yeah, the deer. The dogs keep them way most of the time. And I had a bear walk through my yard last spring. Then there are all of the possum, raccoons, and coyotes. We also have occasional bobcats, and puma.

And, of course, with so much rain, we have mold. In fact, besides slugs, my biggest issues are with the climate. There’s not enough sun and too much water.

BPGL: What’s next for you?

Klein: It’s my hope that as I learn more, I’ll be able to teach other people.

BPGL: What advice would you give people about starting their own organic garden at home?

Klein: Start small, say with an herb garden on your deck. Or grow even just one vegetable to begin with. Just do what you can do. The hardest part is to make the decision to do something. Once you take the first step, everything else is reward.

Joe Hennager and Julia Wasson


Blue Planet Green Living (Home)

Related Posts

Ranching Underground Livestock

Pursuing the Dream of a Sustainable Life

A Time for Gathering and Harvesting


Supporting Organics in a Tight Economy

November 6, 2008 by  
Filed under Blog, Farms, Front Page, Organic, Organic Food

Comments Off on Supporting Organics in a Tight Economy

“It turns out that when times are tough, consumers may be less interested in what type of feed a cow ate before it got chopped up for dinner, or whether carrots were grown without chemical fertilizers — particularly if those products cost twice as much as the conventional stuff.” So says Andrew Martin of The New York Times in an article dated November 1, 2008.

Consumers are experiencing sticker shock over organic fish and meat. Photo credit: Joe Hennager.

Consumers are experiencing sticker shock over organic fish and meat. Photo credit: Joe Hennager.

Martin interviewed experts from the Nielsen Company, the Hartman Group, and Information Resources, all of which are market research firms and trustworthy sources. Surely they’re right. Consumers aren’t buying much of anything these days, and what we are buying isn’t as likely to be organic, green, or natural, if the price tag is higher than other non-organic products on the shelf.

When our incomes are being squeezed by energy costs (they may be low for the moment, but you can bet they’ll rise again) or our jobs may be cut at any moment, it’s wise to be cautious about spending.

So, why should you pay extra for natural and organic  foods when your own budget is shrinking? What does it matter if organic farmers and producers go out of business when you’re facing problems of your own?

Think about it from another perspective. What happens if everyone stops purchasing organic products during this economic downturn?

No matter how much organic farmers and producers believe in what they’re doing, they may be forced to abandon their ideals and turn to more profitable methods. For all their ill effects, pesticides and herbicides help keep crop prices low. And antibiotics and hormones make meat and dairy production more profitable.

Returnable bottles can help keep organic milk prices down. Photo credit: Joe Hennager.

Returnable bottles can help keep organic milk prices down. Photo credit: Joe Hennager.

So much for healthy food without dangerous additives. And say goodbye to eggs from free range chickens. In fact, say goodbye to most things that cost more to produce because they’re better for us. The companies that can cut costs will survive, and the others — organics included — will go the way of the dodo bird.

But when the economy recovers, as it surely will, where will we find organic foods then? If the downturn lasts a long time, those products will be rare and expensive once again, because most organic producers will have given up.

If it’s truly important to you to have organic products, start looking for local producers now, while they’re still around. Visit farmers’ markets, go to an organic farm, ask at your food co-op, or find them on line. Let them know you’re willing to take the extra effort to buy from them directly, if that’s an option. Offer to provide your own egg cartons, bags, boxes, or bottles to keep the cost down. Pick your own fruit or vegetables, if they let you. Make an outing of it for your family. You’ll get the products you want at the lowest possible cost and have an adventure at the same time.

The economy is falling, and prices are going up. That doesn’t mean there are fewer chemicals in the foods that are on the shelves. No one will watch out for your health but you.

Rising prices impact every part of the organic food market. Photo credit: Joe Hennager.

Rising prices impact every part of the organic food market. Photo credit: Joe Hennager.

If you believe in the value of organic foods, support them. You, and others like you, are the only ones who will. I’m not proposing that anyone go bankrupt buying natural products. The reality is, it’s wise to be fiscally conservative if you want to ride out this dangerous dip in the economy. Yet, you may be able to afford to buy some natural or organic food products. So do that. Help at least a few organic, green, and natural companies stay in business so that they’ll be here for you — for all of us — when the economy rises once again.

But here’s the tough part. You have to decide which organics are most important to you and to the health of your family. Who needs their protection the most? Your pregnant wife? Your nursing baby? Your kids? Your elderly parents? Yourself?  The decision’s yours. Choose wisely.

Julia Wasson

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)