Category Archives: Environment

From the Green-Bean Weirdo Files: Our Carbon Footprint

IMG_7848Clif and I are proud to admit that we are a couple of green-bean weirdos who love to talk about things like our carbon footprint, global warming, resource depletion, and overpopulation. While these topics might be a tad grim, we generally maintain an optimistic attitude as we work to align our lives with our environmental values.

Clif loves to figure out what our carbon foot print is, and this is the time of year for him to do so. As a sideline, he is a computer consultant, and the tax information we need for his business overlaps with what he needs to calculate our carbon footprint. Therefore, as is his wont, after finishing our taxes this year, Clif then moved on to figure out our carbon footprint. I must admit we were pretty pleased with the results. Last year, our CO2 emissions were  6.7 metric tons per capita. (A 13.4 total for our household divided by the number of people who live here, which in our case is two.)

To put this in perspective, in the average United States CO2 emissions (metric tons per capita) are 17. 56. This means our emissions are half that of the average American.  In Australia, they are 16.93; the United Kingdom—7.86. But to keep Clif and I from feeling too puffed up, we have Sweden (5.6) and France (5.6) to show us that it is possible to live in a modern society and go even lower than the 6.7 Clif and I are each responsible for.

How do we keep our carbon footprint relatively small? Here’s a short list.

  • We only have one car—something we can do because I stay at home. Our car is a Honda Fit, which is very fuel efficient.
  • We severely limit our travel. For the most part, we stay close to home and bike whenever we can. When we travel to visit Dee, we go by train or bus. We always combine errands. I never fly, and Clif flies only very occasionally, for his work.
  • We heat with wood and electricity. Our wood is local and sustainably harvested. In Maine, electricity production is fairly clean, with more generated by wind and falling water than the national average. We also have signed up for a carbon offset.
  • When we heat with electricity, we keep the house at a cool 60 degrees if we are not using a room and between 66 and 68 if we are.
  • We eat a lot of local food—by a rough estimate at least 50 percent.
  • We eat mostly vegetarian, which means some chicken but no beef, pork, or lamb.
  • We don’t produce much trash. We reuse and recycle. We don’t buy a lot of new things.

Here is what we could do to lower our carbon footprint even more, and in the upcoming years, we plan to do as many of these things as we can.

  • Install more insulation in our house.
  • Replace all the windows.
  • Further reduce our trash.
  • Replace the Honda Fit with an electric car.
  • Bike more.
  • Use LED lights.
  • Buy even more local food—flour, dried beans, corn meal. Unfortunately, right now these items are just too pricey for our modest budget.

Many years ago, it dawned on Clif and me that we could no longer pretend that it was perfectly all right for us to consume heedlessly and drive or fly wherever we wanted. As the climate changed and resources were ever more depleted, we knew that we were part of the problem and that our little actions mattered.

Therefore, we strive to live as lightly as we can while still living a good life. It is not easy. It requires effort and mindfulness and restraint. But never for one moment have we doubted that we are on the right path.

(If you want to figure out your carbon footprint, then there are a number of online options. Clif has used this spreadsheet, originally from the University of Maine at Orono, for a number of years.  2014 carbon calculator annual.)

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A “Baked Bean” Lentil Dish

IMG_6746One of my favorite cooking and food websites is Food52, where the emphasis is on unfussy food made with inexpensive ingredients that most home cooks have in their kitchens. There are also many vegan and vegetarian dishes, and this goes in the direction in which Clif and I are heading with food. We are both very much concerned with overpopulation, limited resources on our finite planet, and living lightly. (I plan to explore the living lightly concept in future posts, and I am currently reading a book with the apt title Living Lightly.)

Lately, I have become enamoured with red lentils, which are not as, ahem, earthy as the brown lentils. (I have uncharitably referred to the flavor of brown lentils as “muddy,” and Clif is not a fan of them, either.) For our Labor Day get together, I made curried red lentils in my slow cooker—thanks, Susan Poulin, for the terrific recipe!—and they were a big hit. It was the first time I had used red lentils, rather than brown, and I was hooked by their smooth, subtle flavor. Red lentils, I knew, would become a staple at the little house in the big woods as we turn to a plant-based diet.

Therefore when Joe Beef’s Lentils Like Baked Beans recipe was featured on Food52, and I saw the primary ingredient was red lentils, I decided to try it.  I did make some changes. I did not use bacon. No explanation needed, I think. Rather than cooking the lentils on the stove, I cooked them in a slow cooker, which thanks to Shari Burke’s encouragement has become my favorite little appliance. I just tossed everything into the slow cooker, let it come to boil on high, and then turned it down to low so that it could simmer until supper time. I also added more cider vinegar, maple syrup, and ketchup.

Finally, I served it over rice, which is the way I prefer most bean and lentil dishes. While I like lentils and beans, they can set heavy, especially at night, and I find rice lightens the dish. I also sprinkled ground peanuts on top, because, well, nuts and lentils go together like apple and pie.

The results? The lentils did taste a little baked beans, although nobody would ever confuse the two. “Pretty good,” Clif said, going back for seconds. Perhaps not company good—somehow the dish lacked the pizazz I look for when cooking for a gathering—but certainly good enough for a Tuesday night supper. And good enough to make again.

Then there is the price. I figured I used about $2.50 worth of lentils, which were organic. The other ingredients—maple syrup, cider vinegar, dried mustard, oil, onion, garlic, and ketchup—I had on hand, and the small amounts I used certainly didn’t come to more than a dollar or two. There were rice and ground peanuts—again, no more than a dollar or two, and I expect I am estimating on the high side. Even erring on the high side, say, $6 or $7 dollars for the whole meal, which would easily feed six, makes this an extremely economical dish that would fit in with most people’s budgets, even when they are tiny, like ours.

Among foodies, nutritionists, and activists, there has been much talk about the cost of healthy eating in the U.S. , and rightly so. According to the American Institute for Economic Research, food prices have risen 44 percent over the past fourteen years. And salaries? Well, not so much. Nevertheless, in comparison with beef and pork, lentils and other legumes are a great bargain.

For confirmed carnivores, making the transition from meat to legumes is probably not an easy one. However, for those of us with more flexible palates, eating more beans and lentils is a tasty way to eat lower on the food chain. Right now, I have a good supply of black beans, kidney beans, chickpeas, and lentils. I will be adding other beans to my stockpile, and I’ll be experimenting with various meatless recipes so that our diet is varied and satisfying.

Stay tuned!

 

Sustainable Seafood?

On Wednesday, on MPBN’s show Maine Calling, the subject was sustainable seafood. While I made an apple pie, I listened with interest because lately I’ve been wondering if there is such a thing as sustainable seafood, and I was curious what the gist of the show would be. The program was hosted by Keith Shortall, and the guests were Jen Levin, Sustainable Seafood Project Manager, Gulf of Maine Research Institute, and Barton Seavor, chef and author of four cook books.

Shortall began the program by acknowledging that we “know some of the most popular fish are in trouble because of overfishing,” and much of the show revolved around encouraging people to turn to “underutilized fish” such as dogfish, Atlantic pollock, and whiting, all species that, according to Jen Levin, are flourishing.

When the question arose of what exactly sustainability meant in terms of seafood, Barton Seavor did recognize that one aspect involved promoting thriving, resilient species. But, and it’s a big but, he went on to state that “ultimately the measure of sustainability must fundamentally be measured by the ability of human beings to thrive.” Levin did add that a growing population needed to live within its means.

Now, I’m distilling an hour show into a post for a blog, and as such, I can only include snippets of what the guests discussed. Readers who are interested in this subject—sustainability and seafood—should listen to the podcast for a longer, more complete version of what Shortall and his guests actually said.  However, not once during that hour-long show did I hear about the importance of abundant fish to the vast, interconnected chain of life in the ocean or of how quickly humans can change abundance to scarcity, even when fish seem to be plentiful.

For this we must turn to Sylvia Earle, author, marine biologist, former chief scientist of NOAA, and “National Geographic explorer in residence.” As Sylvia Earle eloquently puts it, “[T]he ocean is the cornerstone of Earth’s life support system, it shapes climate and weather. It holds most of the life on Earth. It is the blue heart of the planet.” (I must admit that I was surprised to learn that most of the oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere is generated by life in the sea. I thought that trees and plants had a much larger role.)

I am currently reading Earle’s book The World is Blue, where she clearly and beautifully explains the importance of the abundance of fish and other creatures to the health of the ocean and indeed the planet.  Earle writes, “There is no surplus in a natural, healthy system. What appears to be overabundance to human observers is a natural insurance policy against population reduction by diseases, storms, ups and downs of predators and food supply…” and “[S]pecies do not live in isolation. They are integrated into exceedingly complex systems…the first fish to be taken from an unexploited population are the largest…the ‘old timers’…They are also the ones that produce the most offspring.”

So here are my questions: Does anyone know what a truly sustainable harvest of dogfish, Atlantic pollack, and whiting would be? Are we viewing them as so abundant that we think we can eat them on a regular basis? If so, is this a correct assumption?

Sylvia Earle indicates this is not the case at all. On NPR’s The Bob Edwards Show, Earle said that she doesn’t eat fish and instead eats a plant-based diet. In a recent interview in The Guardian, Earle was asked, “What about eating fish sustainably? For instance, trading top predators for smaller fish?”

Earle replied, “I think that’s disastrous, really…. The large fish have to eat the small fish. We have choices; they do not….  And there’s another aspect as well. All fish are critical when you think of them as middlemen, because they consume phytoplankton and zooplankton, the little guys that the big fish cannot access….we shouldn’t take fish on a large-scale basis; there’s simply no capacity left to do this.”

Except for island nations that don’t have much of a choice, Earle believes that fish are wildlife that should be left in the ocean, Earth’s “blue heart,” from which most of our oxygen comes and has developed over hundreds of millions of years.

So, two opposing views. The first, espoused by Keith Shortall’s guests was that even though fish such as cod have been overfished, there are plenty of overlooked and underutilized fish in the sea to eat. And we should do so eagerly. The second, put forth by Sylvia Earle, is that the oceans are in such peril that we shouldn’t be eating fish and seafood on any kind of regular basis. Once in a great while, at the most.

Even though I love seafood and could eat it several times a week, I’m casting my lot with the marine biologist. Sylvia Earle has been studying the ocean for decades and has lived long enough to see the terrible degradation of the world’s oceans as we humans eat our way through the fish and other creatures that live in the sea.

For me and for my husband Clif, it will be mostly plants that we eat.

 

 

The People’s Climate March: A Good Planet is Hard to Find

IMG_6610Today, in New York City thousands and thousands of people walked in the People’s Climate March, a coming together of organizations and individuals to protest the inaction on climate change. Oh, how Clif and I wanted to go, but for a variety of reasons we had to stay put at the little house in the big woods. In our opinion, climate change is the biggest issue of our times, and while the world heats up, our leaders fiddle and fiddle. Instead of putting money, energy, and resources into solar and wind power, the powers that be foolishly and destructively continue their quest to extract as much fossil fuel as they can from rocks, from tar sands, from mines, and from the ocean.

Clif and I might not have been able to participate in the People’s Climate March, but we watched some of it live, courtesy of Amy Goodman and Democracy Now! As Goodman noted, this is the largest climate march in history, with “people as far as the eye can see.” And indeed there was an incredible stretch of people up and down the street. Many of the people looked like everyday folks—running the gamut from very young to quite old. Of course, there were some exotic folks, too, dancing in gauzy costumes and doing their best to look like Stevie Nicks in her younger days. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon marched, and so did the actor Mark Ruffalo. Ditto for Al Gore and Leonardo DiCaprio.

To get to this historic march, people walked across the country or took the Climate Train. Some even biked. Bus loads came from Maine, and, I expect, from other parts of the country that were vaguely within driving distance of New York City. Meanwhile, there were similar events in England, Germany, and many other countries.

Amy Goodman, normally quite reserved, had clearly caught the spirit of the climate march. “Something is coalescing,” she said, and there was a decided sparkle in her voice. “There is a turning of the tide.”

Oh, we hope so. This problem is so big that it needs to be addressed at all levels—from government policy to individual action. Clif and I try very hard to do our part—by buying as much local and organic as the budget will allow, by combining  errands so that we don’t drive unnecessarily, by not overconsuming. But there must be structural changes as our society turns from using fossil fuels to using renewable energy, and our leaders must initiate those changes.

In honor of the People’s Climate March, we decided that today would be a no-car day. We took the dog for a walk to the Narrows, where I snapped some pictures of leaves just beginning to turn. The day was overcast, with the sun breaking through here and there, making the water glimmer.

I was reminded of a sign we saw in the People’s Climate March: “A good planet is hard to find. Let’s save this one.”

Yes, yes.

Addendum: According to an article from Reuters, posted after the event, there were 310,000 people at the Climate March in New York. No wonder Amy Goodman was so enthusiastic!

The Somerset Grist Mill

On Saturday, September 8th, a misty morning, my husband, Clif, and I drove to Skowhegan, about an hour from where we live, to the grand opening of the Somerset Grist Mill, a $1.5 million dollar project that has been in the works for just three years. The road was shiny and dark, and as we went up and down hills, we rode past fields as bright a green in September as they were in June. This central Maine region, where the Kennebec River flows, is a fertile part of Maine. Also, once there were many mills in Skowhegan, mills where my grandparents worked, but most of the mills have closed—New Balance is the happy exception. So in a way, the Somerset Grist Mill combines two historical strengths of this region—the mills and agriculture.

Skowhegan, a county seat, has a reputation for being a depressed area, where many people receive state and federal aid. Yet in the parking lot next to the grist mill was a farmers’ market with 20 vendors or so, and business was brisk. In this market, I felt an energy and an exuberance that, if carried forward, could balance and perhaps even lessen the hard times of this mill town.

The grist mill, owned by business partners Amber Lambke and Michael Scholz, is in what was once the sprawling Somerset County Jail, which was built in 1897 and is in downtown Skowhegan, within walking distance of a cinema, a bakery, and other shops. Lambke and Scholz bought the jail for $65,000, and at the grand opening, we learned that the height of the jail was one of its chief features—gravity could be used to bring grain to the various machines.

The tour started at 10:00, and there must have been at least 100 people waiting by the wooden doors. In fact, there were so many of us that the group had to be split in half, and even then, it was still crowded. As with the farmers’ market, there was a feeling of energy and exuberance.

Before the tour, Lambke gave a brief history of the mill, of how the idea sprang from the 2007 Kneading Conference, held in Skowhegan at the end of July. There were no commercial grist mills in central Maine, and the feeling was that a grist mill would be a place that would bring bakers and wood-fired oven makers together with grain growers. Perhaps even more important, the grist mill would encourage the rebuilding of a grain-growing economy that was once so vital to this area.

In addition, the old county jail was big enough to house other businesses, ones that would be in keeping with the grist mill’s philosophy of the importance of local businesses and local economies. Already, there were a yarn shop, a pottery studio, a café, a place where people pick up their CSA deliveries, and the Tech Spot, where teenagers help older folks become more comfortable using computers.

Then the tour began, where we duly admired the various machines—most of them old and bought second hand but one of them brand new, made in Austria with such beautiful blond wood that it almost looked like a work of art. We learned that enough Maine farmers were growing various grains—wheat, oats, and rye, to name a few—that the mill would have no trouble remaining open during the winter.

The finished products will be sold at the grist mill as well as at various stores around the state. So Maine readers, keep your eyes open for flour and other grains that have been ground at the Somerset Grist Mill. Buy these products whenever you can. As I have noted in a previous piece, with climate change and its disruptions, Maine might once again become a breadbasket, and we can only be thankful that people such as Lambke and Scholz had the foresight to open a grist mill right now, in Skowhegan, Maine.

(Click on any of the pictures below to see the pictures as an onscreen slide show)

 

THE 2012 BREAD FAIR IN SKOWHEGAN, MAINE

On Saturday, my husband, Clif, and I went to Skowhegan, Maine, to the Bread Fair, which is part of the Kneading Conference presented by the Maine Grain Alliance. The first Kneading Conference was held in 2007, and according to their website, the conference “began with a group of Skowhegan residents who were motivated by the need to address wheat production as an important cornerstone of a growing local food movement.” Right now, most of our wheat comes from places such as Kansas or North Dakota, but it wasn’t always this way. Until the mid-1800s, wheat production in Somerset County—Skowhegan is the county seat—fed over 100,000 people each year, and central Maine was known as one of New England’s breadbaskets. Now, “less than 1% of Maine’s wheat demand is actually grown in Maine.”

Those from away, who associate Maine with the rocky coastline, could be forgiven for wondering how in the world Maine could have produced so much wheat. While it’s true that our coastline, as a rule, has thin soil, this is not the case with central Maine, which is farming and dairy country, and it is especially not the case with Aroostook County, where so many potatoes are grown. In Maine, there is a huge swatch of land with deep, rich soil, and although our growing season is shorter than it is in other states, it is certainly long enough to grow an abundance of food, including various grains. And, we have a trump card that might be especially important as we deal with the ravages of climate change—abundant rainfall, at least for now. But more about that later.

A bit more history about the Kneading Conference, which again, was taken from their website: “2011 was a milestone year: we received nonprofit status as the Maine Grain Alliance; we helped organize the first Kneading Conference West in Mount Vernon, Washington; and we purchased a portable wood-fired oven to use for school and community educational workshops and for fundraising.”

For the past few years, I have wanted to go to the Bread Fair, but something always came up, and I wasn’t able to go. This year, however, the calendar was clear, and off Clif and I went, north to Skowhegan, which, as it happens, was where my mother and father grew up.

Any kind of event that features lots of food vendors in one place, an event where you can go from table to table, sampling their wares, is my kind of event, and I had a great time trying various bread and pastries. The Bread Fair was rather small, with about 50 vendors, and there were hundreds of people rather than thousands and thousands, the way there are at the Common Ground Country Fair. In truth, the smaller size of the Bread Fair was much more to my liking than the jammed Common Ground Fair. At the Bread Fair, it was easy to talk to the vendors, buy this and that, and find a place to sit down to enjoy what you just purchased. And while the Bread Fair was small, it was lively, with a nice mix of bakers, crafters, and informational tables along with some vendors offering professional products.

The crowd at the Bread Fair

So what did Clif and I eat? I’m almost a little embarrassed to list how much we ate: Sour dough bread from Borealis Bread; a chocolate croissant from Snowy Hill Bakery; and from Good Bread a pretzel that tasted as though it had been boiled but wasn’t—I was told it was cooked “the way it’s done in Germany.” A cupcake and a cream horn from The Bankery as well as a slice of pizza baked in Maine Grain Alliance’s wood-fired oven. Another pretzel from another vendor, The Bread Shack. Not surprisingly, by afternoon Clif and I started to hit a bread wall after a morning of carbs, but readers, all of it was very, very good.

Pretzels and…
A cream horn and…
Pizza, oh my!

In my next post, I’ll focus on some of the people I met at the Bread Fair, but I’d like to conclude with an idea I touched on earlier in this piece. That is, with climate change, the resurgence of growing wheat in Maine can only be a good thing. The withering droughts in the United States spell nothing but bad news for food prices in the upcoming years. It makes sense to grow food in places such as central Maine where the soil is good and where there is abundant rainfall. The same is true for livestock and poultry, but this is a piece about wheat and bread, so I’ll leave that topic for another time.

No one, of course, knows what the future will bring. Maybe the drought will be a one-time event, and next year will be a better growing season for America’s bread basket. But maybe it won’t. According to climate scientists, droughts, in some parts of the world, are to become more and more common as the planet heats up. If those scientists are right, then in the upcoming years, Mainers, and perhaps even those in other New England states, will be very grateful that there was “a group of Skowhegan residents who were motivated by the need to address wheat production as an important cornerstone of a growing local food movement.”

Maine just might become a bread basket once more.

THE FARMERS’ GATE MARKET AND A DILEMMA FOR ME

Last Saturday was quite the foodie day for me and my husband, Clif. First, we went to the Winthrop Farmers’ Market, where we bought a great new cheese from Wholesome Holmstead, a farmhouse cheddar that is delicate yet has a nice tang. Very good! After that, we buzzed over to Farmer Kev’s house to pay him for the balance of our CSA share and to buy 2 dozen eggs. Then it was on to the Farmers’ Gate Market in Wales to pick up meat for our Memorial Day barbecue.

We had never been to Farmers’ Gate before, but we had heard good things about it from some of our friends. Recently, we had won a $25 gift certificate to Farmers’ Gate, and Clif and I decided that Memorial Day weekend would be the perfect time to check out the market and buy some meat.

Now, I want to remind readers that not long ago, I had made a decision not to eat meat anymore. Seafood and fish, yes, but not meat. For me, the decision was ethical—if I wasn’t willing to kill what I was going to eat, then I wouldn’t eat it, and fish and lobsters were as high up the food chain as I was willing to go. There were some gray areas. (Aren’t there always?) I would still eat eggs and dairy products, and there is a certain amount of killing that goes on to keep production flowing. And what about leather shoes? Should I buy them anymore? Probably not. But these questions aside, by and large, I was happy with my decision. I prefer fish and seafood over meat, and as Clif and I had been eating mostly vegetarian for quite some time, it was no hardship to adhere to this way of eating. That is, until I went to Farmers’ Gate Market. (I want to note that Clif had decided to continue to eat meat occasionally, and Shannon and Mike regularly eat meat.)

However, let us return to the Farmers’ Gate Market. Those who are familiar with central Maine will know that Wales is not exactly in the center of all things. Tucked between Augusta and Lewiston, Wales has a population of about 1,300, and it is very rural. Thus, to borrow a phrase from my friend Claire, the Farmers’ Gate Market “is way out in the willywhacks.”

“I wasn’t expecting much,” Clif would admit later, as we drove through the countryside to the Farmers’ Gate, and I think he envisioned going into someone’s shed or barn to get the meat.

What we found was a small yet decent-sized market that would not be out of place in Portland. The building is new and attractive, with plenty of room for a retail shop with a long glass case featuring various cuts of meat. There were also a freezer and a couple of large, glass upright refrigerators. In the back, visible to customers, was a room for preparing the meat.

So far, so good. I was ready to buy meat for my family, but I did not feel tempted myself. And then I spoke with Ben Slayton, one of the owners, who is young, very personable, and especially excited about sausage, which is one of Clif’s weaknesses. With great enthusiasm, Ben spoke about the Tuscan sausage, which he had made using garlic and fennel, and he suggested using it in a dish with white beans and sage. Ben then went on to explain how he and his wife had spent time in Tuscany, learning, among other things, how to make sausage.

Ben Slayton

Was I hooked? You bet I was, and we bought sausage, ground beef, and, for the Memorial Day barbecue, three thick pork chops. (One each for Clif, Mike, and Shannon. None for me.) Ben’s enthusiasm was infectious, as the saying goes, and it made me want to try the various meat, especially the sausage.

Did I give in to temptation? Yes, I did. Clif makes an especially tasty chili-powder rub for pork chops, and on Sunday, he grilled the chops just right, so that they were thoroughly cooked but still moist. I had to have a couple of bites, to see how the meat was, and it was delicious.

So now what? “How can you be a foodie without eating meat?” Clif asked. “You are leaving out about half the food that people eat.” I know, but I just feel so bad for the animals that are killed, and as far as the environment goes, it is better to eat a vegetarian diet.

“Eat meat once in awhile,” Mike suggested. “And when you do, get it from a place like the Farmers’ Gate.”

Perhaps that is what I will do. Maine has a climate that can support cows, sheep, and pigs. There is plenty of land for grazing, and enough rainfall for lush pastures and hay. According to their website, the Farmers’ Gate is very choosy about which farms their meat comes from, and they are especially concerned about getting meat from animals that have been pasture fed and raised humanely.

It looks as though there this will be another compromise on the bumpy road of green, ethical living. One thing is certain—it’s not easy being a foodie with a conscience.