Kitchen Garden

A Shift at the Farm

Working in the Barn
Soil Blocking and Seed Planting

RURAL CEDAR TOWNSHIP— A real concern about severe weather hangs over the farm. When there is a forecast of thunderstorms and gusts of high wind, we move cars, tractors, wagons with seedlings on them, and other equipment into the barns. The vegetables growing in the field stand on their own, and a crop failure for any reason would be disastrous. It’s too late to start over.

In a community supported agriculture (CSA) project, unlike with commodity producers, the risk of a crop failure is not only financial. Shareholders would have to find food elsewhere. When a person joins a CSA, the expectation is to share in good and bad outcomes. However, there is a practical aspect of crop failure in that people have to eat. Industrial food supply chains, against which CSAs compete, are diversified enough to provide food during hard times. The effect of a failure would be to erode some of a CSA’s hard earned loyalty of members. Yesterday’s storm passed without significant damage and concerns receded like the flood waters. Equipment came back out of the barn.

Field of Garlic
Field of Garlic

After my shift of soil blocking and planting, I walked among the fields to look at the progress. The scapes of garlic are forming, plenty of rhubarb remains, and the rainy spring has everything growing.

With some crops, a process of laying down irrigation lines and then plastic on top is used and was a learning experience. It makes sense to protect against drought in a farm business, and when customers have other options, irrigation can help ensure there is a harvest.

At home, I water my garden, but sparingly. Partly to conserve water, but also because the vegetables should produce on their own. Home gardening is more about living within the actuality of the season, rather than producing a fungible commodity. It’s not really about the vegetables, but a way of life.

That’s not to say I wouldn’t sell excess— I have. Having a harvest is important, but not critical. There is a part of us that wants to connect with the elements in a fundamental way. Gardening fulfills that desire. Knowing the face of the farmer and where food comes from is essential to maintaining sanity in a turbulent world. That there are risks is part of the paradigm.

Yesterday’s themes— risk, irrigation, coping with crop loss and customers— in the context of working on a CSA, served to instruct as another shift on the farm ended. The compensation for this work is not only in vegetables.


Iowa Pulls the Plug on Nuclear Power

Nuclear Power? - No Thanks
Nuclear Power? – No Thanks

Pursuit of new nuclear power in Iowa was a bad idea when then governor Tom Vilsack began promoting it, and remains so. MidAmerican Energy’s announcement in the Des Moines Register today, that the utility “has scrapped plans for Iowa’s second nuclear plant and will refund $8.8 million ratepayers paid for a now-finished feasibility study,” was welcomed by people throughout the state. In the end, talk about nuclear power was a weird combination of the vaporous breath of politicians combined with a financially stable and well capitalized public utility owned by  one of the richest men on the planet. The discussion Vilsack started is over for now.

In an email to members, Dianne Glenney, co-founder and communications contact for the grassroots organization S.A.F.E. (Saving America’s Farmland and Environment) wrote, “we have learned more about the dangers of nuclear energy than we ever wanted to know.  But, we are much better informed now and an informed citizenry is primed to be a watchdog for future happenings, to report issues when they happen, and to take action.” While S.A.F.E. came into being only after the utility’s planned sites for a new nuclear power plant were recently announced in Muscatine and Fremont counties, Glenney’s words summed up the four-year process that stopped MidAmerican’s nuclear ambitions. Knowledge is power, and by 2013, the Iowa electorate had been educated about nuclear power.

As always, there is more to the story.

The idea that there was a nuclear renaissance in the United States was a product of the imagination of politicians, the nuclear industry, corporate media and the richest Americans. The nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan on March 11, 2011 brought the risks of nuclear power to the public’s attention. Shortly after the earthquake and tsunami that caused the failures, MidAmerican Energy’s Bill Fehrman asserted in an Iowa Senate Commerce Committee meeting that small modular reactors would solve some of the problems of Fukushima.  The public wasn’t buying it, at least to the extent that they would support the legislation Fehrman said was necessary for the utility to get the financial backing of Wall Street to build a new nuclear power generating station. In today’s announcement, MidAmerican conceded that lack of an approved plan for a small modular reactor was problematic, citing as one of the reasons for pulling the plug, “there is no approved design for the modular nuclear plant it envisioned.”

A final decision by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to deny a license to the Calvert Cliffs III nuclear reactor, slated for southern Maryland, is evidence that if there was a nuclear renaissance, it may be over from an NRC perspective.

Another part of the story is the abundance of natural gas resulting from increased exploration and discover using the hydraulic fracturing process. With the cost of natural gas going down, interest in more expensive nuclear power is waning. It is important that MidAmerican Energy noted the potential regulation of carbon as an impediment to building a natural gas power generating station, something that did not stop Alliant Energy from seeking approval for such a plant in Marshalltown.

The current solution to the radioactive nuclear waste produced by nuclear power generating stations is no solution at all. The plan is to store it on sites where it is generated until the federal government figures out what to do with it. Reasonable people can’t seriously consider adding new nuclear power capacity until this long standing deficiency is addressed.

Dianne Glenney of S.A.F.E. wrote last night, “no one should have to live under the strain of a potential nuclear power plant in their neighborhood, community, state and/or country.  Someone is always downwind of every nuclear plant.” Now enough Iowans know this. Let’s hope we don’t forget.

Environment Home Life

Sunday Afternoon Drive

Flooding 140th Street
140th Street, June 2

BIG GROVE TOWNSHIP— When we were children, our parents used to take us out for a Sunday afternoon drive. A typical trip might include visiting Weed Park in Muscatine, friends of my parents in Blue Grass, or to the Niabi Zoo near Coal Valley, Ill. Today’s Sunday afternoon drive was not as much fun. I drove to 140th Street NE near Ely Road to see the progress of the flooding.

That is, not as much fun unless one is a fisher. When I arrived at the edge of the water, about half a dozen motor boats were out. Click on the thumbnail above, and the boats can be seen as small specks toward where the road rises out of the water. Word is out that striped bass, catfish and carp are biting. The reason I know is a neighbor mentioned it while I was working in the ditch in the front yard after the drive.

140th Street May 31
140th Street, May 31

The water has risen about four feet since Friday. Compare the two photos to see how the building is being submerged. If you would like, take a look. For me, I would not like. It is wearying to deal with the consequences of climate that changed when we should be advocating to change how society interacts with so-called nature turned into an owned and built environment.

Like this flooding, changing climate is hitting us where we live. In the water we use, the air we breathe, and the weather we experience. This weekend politicians sought photo opportunities to post on social media: of them helping sandbag buildings to protect them; of them inspecting the damage. What they should be doing is actual networking with their colleagues in government to find common ground and take concrete action to solve the climate crisis.

Some may not notice the climate crisis because they are so busy cleaning up in its wake, or in this case, trying to catch the limit of striped bass. Maybe they are taking a much needed Sunday afternoon nap. Eventually the frequency of these hundred year floods, at a rate of three in 20 years, will be noticed. It is not too late to solve the climate crisis, but we don’t know for how long.

Kitchen Garden Living in Society Sustainability

Farmers Oppose Nuclear Power

Nuclear Power? - No Thanks
Nuclear Power? – No Thanks

WILTON—About 65 people gathered at the Wilton Community Center last night to view a screening of the documentary, “The Atomic States of America,” hosted by the group Saving America’s Farmland and Environment (S.A.F.E.). Attendees also heard an update from two of the group’s co-founders Dwight and Dianne Glenney. S.A.F.E. began with a group of farm families who rose in opposition to MidAmerican Energy’s plans for a nuclear powered generating station on 150th Street near Wilton.

No surprise that a group of farmers would fight a large corporation in the biblical terms of David v. Goliath when MidAmerican Energy bought options on 729 acres of prime Iowa farm land in the middle of an established rural community to build a power plant. According to Glenney, the electric utility has three possibilities for the land should they exercise the options: build a nuclear powered generating station, build a natural gas powered generating station, or do nothing. S.A.F.E. is organized so their Davids can remove MidAmerican’s Goliath from their lives and the land options expire without action.

I first met some of the group in October 2012 when Iowa Public Interest Research Group hosted a community organizing meeting to oppose siting a nuclear power plant near Wilton. My advice at the time was, “your most effective voice is with your state legislators when they convene the 85th General Assembly… Let your legislator know you’re opposed to it.” Since then, members of S.A.F.E. engaged their elected officials, securing resolutions opposing nuclear power from the Cedar and Muscatine county boards of supervisors. They also recruited state representatives Bobby Kaufmann and Tom Sands to support their efforts. Membership is approaching 400 people who have signed their petition and joined S.A.F.E.

According to Dwight Glenney, the group has been researching nuclear power during the time since the October meeting. What they learned moved the group from a not in my back yard approach to more general opposition of nuclear power in Iowa, in the United States and globally. Glenney indicated there are options besides nuclear power to supply electricity to meet growing demand in the state.

He reported that MidAmerican Energy has completed their three-year study of the feasibility of nuclear power in Iowa and is expected to deliver the report to the Iowa Utilities Board this week. Dianne Glenney reported on grassroots organizing activity of fundraising, letters to the editor, production of an information packet, attendance at legislative forums and other items.

S.A.F.E. makes a strong point that they are not affiliated with any so-called “green” groups, and that is a strength of the organization. By remaining strictly grassroots, with members of the community effected by MidAmerican Energy’s plans for rural Wilton being the primary stake holders in the group’s activity, they have an independent and unique voice that dovetails with other concerns of rural Iowa.

What’s next? S.A.F.E. supports building any new electricity generating facility on existing power plant locations so that new land is not taken out of farm production. According to Dwight Glenney, it makes sense from the standpoint that the logistical support of transmission lines, roads and infrastructure is already in place. They also plan to advocate with the Iowa legislature for a ban on nuclear power, similar to what 13 other state legislatures have enacted. Such a ban may be permanent, or until the unresolved problem of disposal of radioactive spent fuel is addressed by the federal government. S.A.F.E. is working with their legislators to introduce bills regarding these issues during next year’s second session of Iowa’s 85th General Assembly.

Dwight said that if the issue is resolved, and MidAmerican Energy decides not to build a power plant near Wilton, any funds remaining in their bank account will be divided three ways and donated to local Future Farmers of America groups. For the time being, they asked for financial support and for people to join their growing membership. If you would like to learn more about S.A.F.E., email Dianne Glenney at

Work Life

Exiting the Land of Awesome

Paving the Road
Paving the Road

LAKE MACBRIDE— During the last two months my work performance with a temp agency was described as awesome more times than can be counted. It was a bit startling insofar as the word “awesome” was not a regular part of the vocabulary of managing people during my 25 year career in transportation. The tendency of managers and supervisors was to take people down a peg rather than lift them up. Yet in 2013, awesome I came and awesome I exited the temp job, with repeated entreaties to return if my situation changed. Things may change, so the door was left open.

The reason for the awesomeness was good work habits drilled into us by the nuns and clergy in elementary school. They taught us there was a way to behave in society and, separate from religious life, respect and diligence were expected and freely given outside the enclave of a Catholic grammar school. It was a matter of exercising our free will.

When agreeing to work for the temp agency, I showed up on time, made an effort to understand and comply with the work rules, and didn’t cause any trouble. This very basic outlook toward work is apparently lacking in the majority of people who find their way to temp jobs— hence, I was awesome.

While tempted to linger on, I would have gone broke keeping the temp job. What was attractive about it was no one knew or had heard of me before I walked in the door. It was a clean slate where employees were judged on the quality of work, with clearly defined processes and measurements. The conversations I had with colleagues were genuine and fulfilling. It was a form of acceptance that was severely lacking in other experiences.

The temp job provided valued insight into a world of labor and management in contemporary Iowa. After exiting the land of awesome, there is freedom to write more in public about outsourcing, labor and management based on my experiences. As understanding and recovery from the manual labor comes, I will.

Sustainability Work Life

Revolution in the Home Kitchen

My Great Grandmother
Great Grandmother

LAKE MACBRIDE— The idea that a revolution should take place in the home kitchen is not unique to this blog. My focus on the relationship between the home kitchen and local food— that the latter won’t be viable in the way it could be without changes in the former— is not unique either. However, a recent New York Times article, “Pay People to Cook at Home” by Kristin Wartman demonstrates the disconnect between what is going on at the grassroots level regarding local food and priorities in urban cultural centers.

Wartman, a nutritionist and blogger, posits the following,

“Those who argue that our salvation lies in meals cooked at home seem unable to answer two key questions: where can people find the money to buy fresh foods, and how can they find the time to cook them? The failure to answer these questions plays into the hands of the food industry, which exploits the healthy-food movement’s lack of connection to average Americans.”

Her solution, as the title of the article suggests, is to pay people to cook at home, “(to place) a cultural and monetary premium on the hard work of cooking and the time and skills needed to do it,” including a government program. My suggestion is she hop on the shuttle from her home in New York City down to Washington, D.C. and witness the vast sea of farm industry lobbyists on Capitol Hill. She may then realize that hell would freeze over before any help in paying home cooks would be forthcoming from the federal government.

One can agree with the idea of placing a cultural premium on the value of home cooking, although we don’t necessarily want to return to the era of my great grandmother and her kitchen garden (see photo). The question is how, as a society, do we get there?

The future of local food and a revival of home cooking with whole foods is more dependent upon economics than upon time. If the economics are great, people will find the time. It is common knowledge among local food enthusiasts that the current economic paradigm regarding food, cooking and eating depends upon cheap energy.

Wendell Berry recently asked Michael Pollan, “what will be the effect on farming, gardening, cooking and eating of the end of cheap energy? Are physical work and real cooking going to remain optional?” Readers can listen to Pollan’s answer here. The gist of it is that as cheap energy fades from view, people will be required to become more self-reliant as a form of adaptation to the environmental crisis. This would likely drive more of whatever were least expensive, including local food and home cooking if they provided superior value, something it is not clear they do, at least for now.

The relationship between local food systems and cheap energy is important. I dismiss so-called food miles as an overly simplified argument. There is a complex but valid argument about the relationship between artificially low energy prices and high prices in local food systems that is worth pursuing. It is further complicated  by the fact that the end of cheap energy will be delayed due to the proliferation of hydraulic fracturing and the abundance of natural gas it produces. The complexity of the relationship between energy prices and local food requires further exposition in another post.

People can agree that obesity is a national and local problem. They can agree that chronic diseases, related to eating habits (including salt, sugar and fat consumption), drive a segment of higher health care and related health insurance premium costs. Where there is difficulty agreeing is in answering the question whether to take a homemade brown bag lunch to work, or spend the 30-minute break going to the gas station to have $1 per slice pizza for lunch. Today, the economics of direct food prices drives the decision at one of my workplaces.

The revolution in the home kitchen will begin once we deal with the environmental crisis, cheap fuel and the false notion that there is not enough time for what is important. The economics of food are driven by these things. That won’t happen anytime soon, not until the importance is escalated by some imminent, existential reality. It is not as simple an answer as creating another government program.

A better answer may be to seek ways to recognize the value of all work in society. That too is a complex problem wanting an answer. Something this blog is working toward.

Home Life Work Life

Saturday Miscellany

Lettuce Patch
Lettuce Patch

BIG GROVE TOWNSHIP— The editors are in Jamaica on vacation, so work at the newspaper was rearranged to finish the proof reading today and create tomorrow as my first day off paid work since Good Friday. The fill-in copy layout person wanted Mother’s Day off work, so I finished my part of producing the weekly newspaper before lunch.

I called Mother today and had a long chat. For the first time in a long while, she had listened to some of my advice and reported she took it. The two of us are not much for the Hallmark Holidays, but we have a special call each year on or before Mother’s Day. I am thankful to be able to hear her familiar, octogenarian voice letting me know what is going on in her life.

Otherwise, today has been a miscellany— some of which is worth recounting, the rest, not so much.

Censored on the Internet
Tweet Expunged

For the first time, one of my tweets on twitter was expunged. A person is not saying much, if from time to time, someone doesn’t react negatively to it. Don’t know why it is gone, but I suspect someone ratted me out to the twitter-gods on the Internet. It was likely over the use of a question mark rather than a period. The reason I have a copy is Iowa City Patch re-tweeted me, generating an email with the content.

Rand Paul gave a speech at an area fundraiser today, giving credence to the idea that his presence is to help Republicans organize for the first in the nation 2016 Iowa caucuses. Paul’s visit was intended, at least partly, to generate some interest among no preference and Democratic voters. From reading other accounts of the event, the Republican party faithful represented most of the attendees. Rand Paul ≠ Ron Paul, and there could be trouble for the Republican organizers trading on the Paul name. Trouble would be fine with me.

In our state representative’s weekly newsletter, he outlined the reason for his opposition to new nuclear power, especially in rural Wilton, where he lives. It is more than the NIMBY (not in my back yard) approach he mentioned at the Morse town hall meeting. He suggested, perhaps unintended, that the issue will be a live round during the second session of the 85th Iowa General Assembly.

Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” plays on the kitchen radio Saturday nights beginning at 5 p.m. I have been listening off and on since graduate school. For a while, one of Keillor’s prominent sponsors has been Allianz, the German financial services company. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) pointed out that Allianz owns 4.45 percent of the shares of the top 20 producers of nuclear weapons. Allianz has investments in Alliant Techsystems, BAE Systems, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman,  General Dynamics, Honeywell International and others.

ICAN has called for divestment in these securities, and I have been pondering what to do since hearing. Long standing behavior is hard to change, especially when part of our lives is built around it. I have invested a lot in “A Prairie Home Companion.”

It is habit and memory that turns on the radio. Memory can’t be changed, but habits can. Familiar and comforting as ” A Prairie Home Companion” is, I’ll find something else to do while preparing our Saturday night meal. It is a disappointing development in a world full of wonder.

Kitchen Garden

Planting Rows Straight and Long

CSA PlantngRURAL CEDAR TOWNSHIP— There was a palpable air of activity at the farm this week as planting the fields began in earnest. Rows were cultivated, marked with string in straight lines, and one-by-one, seedlings were lined up in measured intervals and put in the ground. The rows were straight and long, a display of spring’s hope and promise.

My role was to make more soil blocks and plant cabbage and broccoli seeds. The trays in the greenhouse were all used up, so as soon as the planting crew finished one, I secured the empty and replanted it. The greenhouse has become a brief way station in the life of the farm.

Seedlings Waiting Transport
Seedlings Ready for Transport

The CSA has begun distributing shares and this week included lettuce, Bok Choy and “grazing greens.” Because of the high tunnel, these varieties were available so soon after a wet, cold spring.

11 weeks into the work, I am beginning to feel a valued part of the farm operation. People work their whole careers in an office, or as a professional, and never feel that way. Caught up in tedious acts of drudgery— driving, shopping, waiting, social drama— feeling disconnected from the most important things in life. It is nearly impossible to feel that way when working on a farm. It give the phrase “will work for food” a new meaning. Finding meaning may be what life in society is about.

Social Commentary

Getting Out

Tomato Cages
Tomato Cages

LAKE MACBRIDE— The last eight weeks have been a retreat from my recent life in society. Eschewing standing relationships, wrapped in a cocoon, endeavoring to earn money for the tax man, insurance companies and lenders, the universe of human contact has been reduced to a very small circle of family, close friends and work. I got out yesterday to attend a political meeting. It was a mixed bag.

On the positive side, I spent time with like-minded people I have known for a while, engaging in ideas and strengthening relationships. On the downer side, there is a lot of work to do to make social progress, and the voices heard often are the loudest, regardless of the efficacy of their arguments. My take-away was an unsettling feeling of cultural dissonance.

The droning of talking points— the would be muezzin called for prayer from a seat in the back of the room. Her schedule followed no holy book, her themes were less than holy— the whims and fancies of enthusiasms founded in self-identified diatribes. She leveraged the event to support her secular devotions. Absent another voice, it’s all those gathered would hear. We have to be an alternative voice to the vapid droning.

It cannot be that social progress can be made only by the affluent class, people that earn more than a living wage. But it takes an economic platform to be active in society— source of finance, a safety net. It is beyond the means of most people. Many struggle to achieve such a platform their entire lives, wrapped in a social cocoon, getting by as best they can.

We each feel a sense of dignity and worth that comes from our indigent circumstances. We live in a society that would suppress our native instincts and bend our will to meet the economic, social and political needs of others. We must resist with all of our strength, remaining true to ourselves.

There is a personal responsibility to contribute to social progress, and it is hard to do under any circumstances. After examining yesterday’s events, my conclusion is that I have to get out more.

Kitchen Garden Writing

Working in the High Tunnel

In the High Tunnel
In the High Tunnel

RURAL CEDAR TOWNSHIP— We soil-blocked the rest of the seed trays in the greenhouse yesterday, and planting is well underway at the CSA. My weekly work sessions give me a snapshot of  what is a much broader amount of activity in local food production. The experience is paying dividends in understanding the cycle of growth to support the market.

Used this to prepare the bed

For the first time, I worked in the high tunnel, preparing a bed for planting. High tunnels extend the growing season, producing vegetables for an early or late crop. They also serve to mitigate risk of cool temperatures, and of disease and pests. On a farm, margins mean everything, and high tunnels create an opportunity to increase them. They also create the ability for new customer offerings in the form of a spring or fall share.

My life is richer for working in a limited way on a CSA farm. It is a way of life that survives on the cusp of an agricultural landscape dominated by row crop agriculture. Like the high tunnel, the work is around the margins, and there are plenty of those for local food to be a vital force.