A fermentation fetish

Sandor Katz has an ongoing love affair with saurkraut. Author and full time instructor at Short Mountain Community, Katz launched a genre of fermentation cookbooks in 2001 with Wild Fermentation. Katz spoke about his latest book, The Art of Fermentation, last night at Malaprops. He monologed only for a few minutes before engaging the audience in a wide ranging discussion. Juggling travel stories while demystifying microbiology and food science, he even troubleshooted fermented creations gone awry.

This self-avowed “fermentation fetishist” skillfully steered loaded questions seeking health advice and concerns about food safety by discussing risk. “We drive cars, go out in the rain, constantly take risks that we accept. All our choices have risks associated with them. We cannot completely eliminate risk.” Katz continued that fermentation practices have been used traditionally for many years. Now contemporary medical studies have validated health claims like minor improved digestion and immune response.

Katz cautioned against cure-alls and medical knowledge at the same time, sharing 21 years ago he tested HIV positive and takes antivirals prescribed by his doctor. “I don’t know about you but I don’t live my life in a lab changing one variable at a time. I’ve had some health crises but I feel great now. Digestion issues are a common side-effect with antivirals that I have never experienced. Will eating 2 lbs of sauerkraut a day cure cancer? No, but it might lower your probability from getting a tumor in the first place.”

Our bodies consist of 10x more bacteria cells than human cells. Our DNA is responsible for only a small fragment of our genetic material. To be human means having a symbiotic relationship with thousands of species of bacteria on our skin and in our bodies. We are literally a microbiome, an ecology of microorganisms that works together to survive. Bacteria can exchange genes with their environment. As Sandor said, it’s like us being able to just got to a hardware store and grab whatever tools we need. Lactobaccillus cells from fermented cabbage might not take up residence in your gut but it might positively influence the genes of the bacteria cells already there.

Chickens are a commitment, not a fad

Hobbyist poultry-raising for eggs and meat has experienced a resurgence of sort. Many people get chickens eagerly thinking it will improve their food security or self-sufficiency. Glossy magazines like Mother Earth News and popular blogs gush about how easy it is.

They always seem to leave out one major detail: it’s all about the protein. Chickens require large inputs of amino acids to produce eggs and grow to an edible size. They cannot create free protein. It has to come from somewhere. They can only transform one type of protein (like soybean or insect) to a different type (egg and meat).

Just how much protein do they need? Auburn University’s Animal Nutrition Handbook recommends 18g of protein per day per laying hen (~1/4 lb of layer feed). This would roughly be the equivalent of me eating 21 T-bone steaks a day. For a small flock of 6 hens this amounts to 1.5 lbs of feed per day or about one 50 lb bag of feed per month (currently $25 for organic layer feed).

Poultry can actually decrease self-sufficiency and further dependence on industrial food production. Unless you have a really good system setup for providing cheap and abundant protein for your chickens, you will end up buying grain like many chicken owners. Due to rising feed costs many poultry setups are a net loss. Not only can eggs be produced at a loss but they can be poor quality as well. If chickens do not have continual access to fresh forage, their eggs and meat will contain a less beneficial ratio of fatty acids than pastured poultry from your local friendly farmer.

In addition to all the normal requisite care that comes with any animal like feeding and constant water access, chickens are very difficult to secure from predators. Just about everything shares our appetite for chicken: raccoons, possums, dogs, foxes, coyotes, hawks, snakes and even rats. We learned putting them up in a coup every night and letting them out every morning was required but still insufficient. We lost 2 whole flocks of chickens to daytime predators. And we still had a raccoon open the coup door for a little midnight snack (they have thumbs and know how to use them). The best system seems to be a well-trained livestock guardian dog with solid perimeter and garden fence so the chickens don’t damage plants but can still safely free range.

Large predators aren’t the only thing attacking chickens. As I recently learned when researching our housemate’s sick chicken, they can get many difficult to diagnose health problems from mites and turkey gnats to bacterial peritonitis and egg binding. I stumbled upon dozens of popular forum posts desperately asking for advice with no clear answer or helpful solution.

And then there is the age old question of what to do with those old hens that do not lay anymore:

Chickens are a commitment, not a fad.

Southern Appalachian Diversity

We recently attended a talk by the botanist-ecologist Dr. Spira, sponsored by the Asheville Mushroom Club. It was a great overall introduction to the geophysical-fauna-flora interactions of our new home. Some interesting tidbits I learned:

The southern Appalachians have a very high level of flora diversity. With 3000 species of fungi, 2500 flowering plants, 130 trees, and 400 mosses it is one of the most species-rich temperate forests in the world.

A variety of factors contribute to the region’s diversity. There are 3 National Parks and 6 National Forests creating the highest concentration of public land in the eastern US. While extensively logged in the early 1900s due to railroads linking the region to the export market, the terrain makes large scale agriculture and urban development difficult.

Geography, geology, and precipitation levels vary widely in the southern Apps. Pockets of temperate rain forest created by altitude changes can receive 90 inches of rain a year, while the Asheville basin averages only 45 inches. Topsoil can be virtually nonexistent on rocky outcrops to deep in rich coves. Soil pH ranges from acidic, like in heath bald communities (mountain laurel & rhododendron) to basic for shrub-limited hardwood habitats coves with high amounts of limestone or dolomite.

During the last ice age (Pleistocene) there was a lack of glaciation in the region resulting in less species loss. The northern Appalachians like Europe lost many species during this period due to glaciation. However, glaciers did gouge natural depressions for swamps and lakes, which are noticeably absent from the southern Apps.

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Safe seafood high in Omega-3 fatty acids

Sockeye salmon beaming red from their beneficial carotenoids.

Not only are Omega-3 fatty acids essential to our bodies’ metabolic processes but they provide a growing list of health benefits. Cancer, heart disease, immune response, and brain health are all positively impacted by Omega-3s. As more research comes out pointing to the large role chronic inflammation plays in many ailments, the importance of Omega-3s has grown in the popular awareness.

Marine life is the sole source for two essential Omega-3s, DHA and EPA. Those who do not eat seafood can synthesize some amounts of DHA and EPA from ALA, which is found in flax seeds. The efficiency of this synthesis process varies by individual but is typically no greater than 5%. Thus, it maybe wise to occasionally consume seafood in order to obtain larger amounts of DHA and EPA. Dr. Weil recommends fish high in Omega-3s at least twice a week.

A crippled victim of mercury poisoning. A factory dumped mercury in Minamata Bay, Japan. Thousands who consumed local seafood were affected.

The problem is many seafood contains dangerous levels of mercury and PCBs. These toxins bioaccumulate meaning even small amounts can build up in the body because they are stored in tissue faster than they are released. While PCBs were banned from US manufacture in 1977 they still persist in the environment. It is stored in the fat and skin so discarding that before cooking can help. Mercury is mainly released from the burning of coal, 150 tons per year in the US alone. Since we have chosen fossil fuels as our primary energy source, mercury in the environment is not going away anytime soon unfortunately. Health risks include neurological and behavior problems as well as kidney and heart disease. Even small amounts can produce negative effects, especially in children whose development can be significantly and permanently altered.

Seafood is one of those areas where government regulations lags. A substantial body of research has compelled various advisories, however a visit to any grocery store or restaurant will reveal these advisories are largely ignored. Grouper, tuna, swordfish, flounder and other species known to have very high amounts of mercury and PCBs are regularly bought and consumed. It is up to consumers to educate themselves.

Using data from the Environmental Defense Fund and the Nutrition Search Engine, I have composed a list of seafood that contain high amounts of beneficial Omega-3 fatty acids while being relatively safe to consume. The source of the fish if specified in parenthesis is important, particularly in the case of mackerel and salmon.

  • Anchovies**
  • Clams*
  • Cod (Atlantic)*
  • Crab (king U.S.)*
  • Haddock*
  • Herring**
  • Mackerel (Atlantic)**
  • Mussel (blue)**
  • Oysters*
  • Salmon (wild Alaskan)**
  • Sardines**
  • Shrimp*
  • Squid*

** high DHA (500mg or more per 170g serving)
* moderate DHA (200mg – 500mg per 170g serving)

Review of The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress

I finally settled in and read this scifi classic. The deep musings on humanity, the cultural development of the lunar settlers/prisoners, and the intricate details on the struggle for independence kept me engrossed. Heinlein reminded me why I love scifi: the construction of entirely different cultures shows what we have now is just a single possibility out of the many expressions of human society.

It was interesting to hear the side of the victims of imperialism. Those whose homeland is being literally sucked dry and shipped to far off lands. In Heinlein’s story the frustration at the face of injustice is channeled into organizing an asymmetric war.

However, I found the characters rather thin and often the story felt like a simple chronological list of events. I could not help but be reminded of Le Guin’s “The Dispossessed” due to similar plot lines, which was also written during the explosion of radical politics in the late 60s to early 70s. Both books beautifully expose the common pitfalls of revolutions and should be read by anyone interested in sociopolitical patterns and change.

Why the Keystone XL Pipeline will not help our energy independence or gas prices

tar sandObama recently announced support for the approval of the southern portion of the Keystone XL Pipeline that ships Canadian bitumen (heavily processed oil from tar sands/shale) to the Gulf. Why do Canadian tar sands producers want to transport their product over 2000 miles to the Gulf? In order to ship to Asia, which has the highest demand.

Even if the bitumen from the pipeline went to the domestic market, it will only contribute approximately 500,000 barrels/day when operated at maximum capacity. This is an insufficient amount to make up for old, declining domestic wells.

mordor tar sandsDeveloping tar sands is going backwards not forward like Obama claims. At best it has a slim energy return on energy invested due to the intensive mining and processing required, no better than biofuels. All the while releasing substantially more greenhouse gases and pollution. James Hansen of NASA described it as “essentially game over” for reversing climate change.

A spill could easily outweigh the economic benefits of 5000 temporary construction jobs. The initial portion of the Keystone pipeline already had 12 accidental spills since coming online in 2010.

Risks are high and there’s little reward besides maintaining addiction. This is tantamount to the alcoholic who unable to obtain their fix desperately tries to get drunk off rubbing alcohol, destroying their liver even faster.

We have to lay off the bottle sometime soon and transition to a new way of life. It’s obvious the bartending political establishment won’t be leading the way.

UPDATE: One of the most common claims used to support the Keystone XL pipeline construction is “it doesn’t matter, the bitumen will be coming out of the ground one way or the other.” Not so, according to the calculations of one economist. Since the Keystone XL pipeline is one of the largest proposed pipelines from the Canadian tar sands, not building it will result in one billion barrels of bitumen being left in the ground according to his estimates.

What I learned homesteading in rural Florida

front bed spring 2012
Front bed Spring 2012. Tatsoi and petunias flowering. Marigolds, peppers, and cauliflower in background.

In 2008 we set out on an experiment. How self-reliant could we be on 5 acres in the middle of no where in central Florida? Away from people, traffic, convenience. We previously only lived in cities, buying everything we needed and then some. To say I learned a lot is an understatement. This ever-growing list is an effort to remember and share this experience.

  1. Shooting stars are common away from the city’s light pollution.
  2. Wind blowing through a pine forest sounds like waves crashing on the beach.
  3. It’s impossible to do everything yourself and ungrateful to think so.
  4. Just because land is dry this month does not mean it will be next month.
  5. Surrounding natural beauty can be easy to take for granted when you live in it.
  6. Folks living in rural areas are not necessarily environmentalists.
  7. They can be just as scared of snakes and spiders as city people.
  8. And some think burning trash is “good for the environment.”
  9. But if you can forgo judgement, you can learn a lot from people with different values.
  10. Tree height is inversely proportional to precision when estimating where it will land when felled.
  11. Homesteading is romantic until you actually do it.
  12. Farming and gardening involve just as much death as life.
  13. Figuring out what to do with all that food can be more difficult than growing it.
  14. It takes five days to dig a 3x20x30′ pond by hand with 3 people.
  15. There is no such thing as too much compost.
  16. Sometimes enthusiasm should be curbed; starting small is easier than failing big.
  17. There is nothing magical about permaculture.
  18. Over-planning can be just as problematic as not planning at all.
  19. Plans are not so useful for developing an exact recipe for action but more for thinking a process through.
  20. The human element is often the weakest and most unpredictable link.
  21. Never forget the element of time when designing.
  22. A system that requires constant intervention has compounding energy cost over time.
  23. Having livestock is a lot like having kids.
  24. Most mothers do not need assistance birthing.
  25. Play is common among juveniles of many species.
  26. Chickens are unique, even emotional. If you spend enough time with them you can tell them apart by their behavior.
  27. “Chicken wire” is not meant for chicken coops.
  28. A determined raccoon is very clever. They can open doors and work in teams. Given enough time, there is no such thing as a 100% raccoon-proof coop.
  29. Diurnal predators can be just as deadly as nocturnal ones.
  30. Cheap fossil fuels make manual labor exponentially easier and less time-consuming.
  31. Self-reliance is less about where you are and more about how you give and take.

from abstraction to authenticity