Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Buy Local - Lumber edition

I am currently working with the College of St Joseph to start a farm on campus. Before I became a farmer, I had no idea what it meant to be one. There is a quote that hangs on my refrigerator, “… to be a good farmer, you have to be a scientist, a mechanic, a businessman…” I have, over the years, added to that list: an architect, a plumber, an electrician, a counselor, a nutritionist, a chef. Forestry is the farming of building materials and other useful byproducts - it’s like growing shelter rather than food. Last week, I took some students on a field trip to Gagnon Lumber in Pittsford to learn about the process of turning logs into lumber, specifically for a compost shed we are constructing this spring.    

Ken Gagnon runs his mill with the pride that comes with having your name on the sign, and the warmth and welcome that keeps that sign standing. He knows the importance of being fair to his suppliers, supporting his employees, and educating his customers. Before the modern industrial practice of shipping materials all over the world, folks relied on resources that were easily accessed. If a farmer needed to build a fence, she might cut down some trees from her land for the posts, then patiently plant another stand for ‘next time’. Nowadays, a few clicks of the keyboard take me to a website where I can find fencing to keep all sorts of critters out of my vegetables; I even have the option of expedited shipping. The compost shed we are planning for could also be ordered from afar, and wouldn’t even need to be constructed of wood. But living in a state that has the resources and knowledge of generations of farmers and lumberjacks, how could I choose another source but Gagnon, sited mere minutes from campus and sourcing materials from just a crow’s flight of less than 10 miles?
Ken walked us through the process from delivery in to delivery out; logs to posts and beams and boards and trims and chips and bark and dust. Log trucks  arrive, are weighed, and park. Then comes the first of many large machines: like a claw at an arcade, the log loader takes the logs one-by-one from trailer to ground, piling them as if they were toothpicks. Each log is accounted for, measured and marked. A scaling stick tells of how many board feet the log will yield, and – based on market value – Ken and the crew must fairly estimate the worth of a log before that log sees a blade, and long before that wood is sold. If a truck comes in on Wednesday, that logger gets his pay on Friday. That’s one way Ken stays supplied, keeping a logger happy will keep him coming back.
Once the logs are unloaded, they are stacked according to species: maple, white birch, yellow birch, pine, hemlock, and locust all stacked up like a winter’s wood pile for giants. The process from here is fairly quick. Our little group was lead over to the de-barker, where logs are spun and shaved, peeling off the exterior layers of bark and dirt. From here, logs are cut according to species and lumber orders. The end result is multi-fold; a pile of bark, a square timber, some thin boards from the outer edges, and scraps that are collected and chipped. From stacks of round logs to stacks of squared wood and pyramids of chips, bark and sawdust, one is quick to realize just how much material the forest yields.
Small wood products are created here as well. The bark-free scraps from lumber cutting are collected and shipped to paper mills. The shaved bark is collected and sold as mulch to gardeners and landscapers. Some trees that arrive at the mill are destined for the chipper from the start. Just as in a garden, a managed forest contains crops and weeds. When timber is harvested, some low grade “weed” trees need to be removed to favor the timber crops. Those weeds arrive at the mill, are piled, then chipped, bark and all. This material is then shipped to local schools and facilities that utilize biomass heat. Green Mountain College, Middlebury College, and Mt. Anthony Schools in Bennington, are three places that Ken has shipped chips for heat. Sawdust is also piled high for use in composters, pellet stoves, and animal stalls. In the spirit of optimization of energy and utilization of local materials, building a shed that will house the compost made from our food scraps and used in our school garden out of lumber grown and sawn nearby sounds like a dream.

Friday, March 21, 2014

What's for lunch?

Take a moment and think about what you are having for lunch today. Picture each ingredient. Now picture each of those ingredients in it’s rawest form. How many steps do you have to count backwards to turn today’s lunch into a plant or animal? Into a seed? Now think about what your kids are eating for lunch today.  If your kids are eating a school-prepared lunch, let’s follow that little meal back to it’s origins. From lunch tray to service line to kitchen. Stop. Look around the kitchen. Is it equipped for cooking and preparing raw foods? Or are the foods from this kitchen simply thawed-out and warmed-up? Do the mashed potatoes start their day in this kitchen as potatoes or as a box of powder? Is there any fruit or fresh veggies in the walk-in fridge? Depending on where your child goes to school, this virtual tour varies. Many of today’s school kitchens are ill-equipped for cooking. Budgets, time, skilled labor, and nutritional education have greatly influenced the landscape of school kitchens, not to mention tastes. Kids aren’t necessarily getting whole (minimally processed) foods at home, either. So even if it were offered at school, they would likely turn up a nose at the unfamiliar sweet potato or bell pepper. The Farm to School initiative, through Vermont FEED (Food Education Every Day), along with a growing number of schools in the state, are working to change all of that; to develop food knowledge in the cafeteria, in the classroom, in the garden and at home.

In order for students to make informed decisions about what they eat, they need exposure. That means exposure to the heat and scent of decaying organic matter into compost; to the fields and barns filled with animals for meat and milk; to the warmth of greenhouses that protect over-wintered crops; to the rows upon rows of foods in their natural habitat - tomatoes on vines, beans in bushes, carrots hidden in the dirt like treasure. In order for our children to fully grasps what they are eating, they need to spend time on the farm, whether that farm requires a bus ride or a walk to the recess fields.

The Lothrop School in Pittsford is one school exposing students to food, in the cafeteria and out. Last year, with help from a Bowes grant, Laura MacLachlan started a composting system to reduce the amount of food in the school’s waste stream and a small garden to increase the amount of fresh food in the digestive stream. Now gearing up for a second season, we chatted about some of the great things happening at Lothrop around good food.

Laura is quick to point out that she has a lot of support, making integrating fresh food and gardening into education a little easier. The kitchen staff are into it; managed by the Abby Group, Lothrop’s chefs offer up taste tests of different veggie-rich recipes, allow students to take over the kitchen when it’s time to peel or chop or bake something from the garden, and are working to make meals guided by the New School Cuisine cookbook.  Teachers are into it; when a bounty of sweet potatoes were harvested last fall, lessons were developed around it - weighing, chopping, counting, graphing, and writing recipes. Even Phys Ed is into it; there are talks of creating an ‘edible track’ on campus, allowing students to snack on berries, carrots, kale, etc. while walking along the track as a pre-class warm-up.

RAFFL is currently working with Lothrop and other schools to develop a model of small buying clubs wherein community members can purchase fresh local produce at schools. Last fall, Lothrop set up a “farm store” distribution center for a number of local farms. Produce was dropped off, then counted, sorted, weighed, and readied for pick-up by faculty and families. 

Another off-campus asset for Laura is Foxcroft Farm Harvest Program. Through different programs, students develop life skills while exploring a working farm. Younger students spend time learning on the farm through the “Growing to Know” project and older students find opportunities with the “Growing to Work” project. One such opportunity presented itself when Laura needed raised beds built at Lothrop. Some “Growing to Work students built the beds, filled them with compost from the farm, and prepped them for planting. With these new beds, this year’s sweet potato harvest could be even greater.

As the growing season approaches, there are a couple of Farm to School events that I encourage any farmers, gardeners, and eaters big and small to attend:

ACORNs fifth annual Stone Soup Summit at Middlebury College Thursday, March 27. There will be TED-style talks, lots of interesting workshops, and a local food lunch. For more information, contact Lea Calderon-Guthe at  HYPERLINK ""

Lothrop School is hosting a Honeybee High Tea, which is a farm and field day celebrating the little pollinators the students have been studying all year, May 30th. Any farmers or gardeners interested in sharing their skills, please contact Laura MacLachlan at  HYPERLINK ""

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Greatest Cat, Ever.

When I was 13 years old, a little grey kitten walked up my driveway. I asked my parents if we could keep him, but, since we packing up the car to head out on a weekend-long volleyball tourney, the answer was "if he is still here when we get back, we'll talk...". I scooped out a small pile of dog food, hid it under the parked car to keep it dry, and we left. When we got back home, that little grey cat was there, full-bellied and looking for more. 
Timpleton, named after the fat, glutenous rat in Charlotte's web, died today. He drove with us from Clearwater, Fl to New castle, De. He lived in West Philly and on both sides of the Hudson River Valley. He became a farm cat late in life, learning to hunt mice, birds, and chipmunk. He scrapped with New Hampshire's fiercest barn felines, and camped outside to protect young pigs from hungry bear. He returned to city life  when we moved to Rutland, Vermont and spent his final days in the suburban-esque stylings of Clarendon. 
Thank you, Timmus, for all that you gave us. You were loved by many, rattled the allergies of few, and will never be forgotten.