Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The many reasons why I love NYC.

It's been six months since Val and I made the move to NYC. While it hasn't all been easy (anyone who saw how our apartment looked before we moved in knows how much work we took on) but it has been truly amazing.

While I haven't taken on full-time employment yet, I have found my internships/apprenticeships/volunteering quite fulfilling. Tomorrow I get to teach free hands-on weaving classes at the NY Botanical Gardens, after spending all day today researching organizations that fit the Eat Well Guide's criteria for sustainability and talking to passionate people about my favorite thing: food.

NY is very much one of the epicenters of the Local Foods Movement (along with SF). While there are many people who don't care, there are enough who are working to advocate for humane farm practices and environmental protection.

And the Greenmarkets.

And the access to CSAs. NY has not just any CSAs, but good CSAs, well-managed, well-established, and from excellent, diverse farms.

While we are living in our tiny cubby-box in a concrete jungle, it is an area lush with fresh produce and butchers regarded as rockstars. I can't wait to visit the Meat Hook and the Brooklyn Kitchen Labs this weekend! Sunday will bring an inspiring workshop from my girl Sarah over at Loop of the Loom on deconstructing and reconstructing clothing for fiber conservation and recycling. After that it's off to the Sourdough class at the Brooklyn Kitchen. With friends visiting from DC and Brooklyn-based birthdays, our life in New York is everything I hoped it would be.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Accepting Applications for R2R 2010

While the Ridge to Reef class of 2009 has gone back out into the world to explore what we can do with our newly-discovered knowledge, part of that mission is to spread that inspiration around to others. What did I learn from R2R and why do I think you should apply for the 2010 session?
Here is what I wrote about my experience in my recent application to graduate school:

I decided that political news was not the information I wanted to disseminate and that I had to find a way to live in line with my beliefs. After the excitement of the 2008 presidential election faded it was time to raise my voice as an advocate. I started a blog called “Unplugging Desdemona” and walked away from the world of corporate media. I enrolled in the Virgin Islands Sustainable Farm Institute’s Beneficial Farmer Training Program and went live on a farm for a season to reconnect with myself and with my true love for food, agriculture, and the culture of eating. At the farm we studied and practiced implementing the ideas of permaculture, agroforestry, water conservation, biodynamics, and slow foods. I am back indoors, but I continue to find ways to integrate my personal beliefs into my daily life through the Washington Square CSA, interning with the “Eat Well Guide”, volunteering with the Brooklyn Food Conference and other community-based organizations, and apprenticing at a holistic fiber arts studio.

What I didn't have space in the application to talk about what the beauty of the rainforest, the sheer fun of sunset on the west end of St. Croix, and the lifelong friendships that you cultivate through an intense experience with like-minded people.

Check back on my January - March 2009 blogs in the archive for the play-by-play.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

My Love For Fresh Brussel Sprouts.

No, it's not my picture, nor even my kitchen. I can't believe I forgot to photograph my CSA this past week. If you haven't ever experienced the joy of fresh brussel sprouts, still on the stem, I challenge you to find a farmer's market, find a farm, or find a specialty shop that stocks these silly-looking things and taste the difference! These aren't your "eat your brussel sprouts or don't have dessert" kind of sprouts! They are spicy, firm, and steam to deliciously crisp but tender mouthful. Yum Yum!

These past few weeks I've been doing a lot of thinking about "the great what's next?" An opportunity to go back down to Creque Dam Farm came up and then had to be passed up due to my need to reconcile what I want to do, and what I need to do right now. I have a personal commitment to my apprenticeship at Loop of the Loom and November is not a good time to leave. As much as those warm island breezes, relaxed yet productive attitudes, and the positive energy of the farm, this is what I have to do right now.

I do have to ask thoug; do you or anyone you know hold Permaculture Design Certification?
Have you taken a design course or other intensive study? Have you found that it was enough to really get a hold of the material?
If you have only a few months of farming experience and your houseplants seem to die on you, is it really enough or is it better to keep plugging along with community gardening and get more practical experience first?

Thanks for any feedback!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Summer may be over, but tell that to my CSA!

This has been a summer truly rich with flavor and I am sorry to see it go. We have had our share of repetition, but this has been a wonderful "my first CSA experience." The "Cooking Away My CSA" Google Group has been a valuable resource for inspiration and I am so grateful to vicariously enjoy their experimentation and learn together. I hope that in the future because of the information that is becoming more readily available online, people will be more inclined to enter into a shared risk CSA agreement with a local farm. It's daunting when you first think about getting an unspecified quantity of unspecified vegetables delivered every week, but it has turned into an adventure.

I am sorry that I will be out of town for the next two boxes from our CSA. I hope that my husband will find some use for the fresh veggies that will be coming his way. I will miss everyone while I'm visiting Japan!

Here are a few things that I've been up two for the last few CSA meals:

- Zucchini bread. As the late summer days grow long, so do the zucchini. This recipe is one that I found to be fairly bland and too heavy, but with a bit of doctoring it can be made to be quite delicious. I substituted the oil for applesauce, added 1/2 cup raisins, split the grated zucchini for some grated carrot, cut the sugar down, did 1/2 and 1/2 whole wheat flour, and added ground allspice and cardamom. It made great morning muffins as well!

- Sloppy Joe's. I haven't made these in so long, but the 1lb CSA beef was just calling me to think back to my favorite childhood recipes. Basic bolognese sauce with worcestershire sauce, but they are so much more. If one thing can transport me back to childhood it's that slightly sweet combination of meat, brown sugar, tomato sauce, ketchup (my mom's homemade ketchup), onions, green peppers, and worcestershire sauce. This meal (pictured above) was one that took me back to a time long passed but not forgotten.

- CSA Beef Pesto Burgers. This past Wednesday was our 2-year wedding anniversary. Val and I are not the type of people to get dolled up and go out somewhere we are going to spend too much money on a meal we will later was good, but over salted and heavy. Our anniversary dinner was just what we love, cooking together and eating together. This recipe inspired me to make a pesto using spinach, garlic, and walnuts to use both in the burger patties and in a meal the following night (recipe to follow). I can't think of a better way to spend the occasion.

- Zucchini Pizza Crust.
In the bottom of my fridge had more zucchini than I could shake a.. well.. zucchini at. This recipe is a great use for those big veggies that look like they could feed an army. The last time I made zucchini pizza crust it was from the Moosewood Cookbook, so I must say that I got the inspiration from there. However, that recipe is very laden with cheese and it's really unnecessary when you see this simple combination. The zucchini are so moist, the egg holds it together nicely, and the right mixture of flour gives it just enough substance to not be zucchini omelet with pizza toppings. Roasted tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant with rosemary and just a little kosher salt did the trick for us as toppings. Also, grating just a tiny bit of fresh Parmesan on the top made it *pop*. Word of warning though, 8 minutes for the first round of baking (untopped) is not sufficient. Give it more like 20 if you roast your eggplant ahead of time.

I hope you do lots of cooking for me for the next few weeks! I can't wait to hear all about it.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Late Summer CSA Recipes

I'm still cook-cooking away my CSA(s), but apparently lagging on blogging it :-)

In this post:

- Kohlrabi - raw! What else do you do with it?
- Basil/Eggplant - Basil light appetizer and thai basil eggplant stir-fry
- Tomatillos - relish or roasted salsa
- Peppers - hot pepper jelly
- Kale - Sweet and Savory kale
- Summer Squash - Summer Squash Risotto

Due to construction of a new burger joint on the first floor of my apartment building we have had intermittent services. It's been nothing but frustration and the timing has been less than ideal. However, when is it a good time to have your gas cut off for a week and a half, your water off multiple days, and your electricity being shut off during your morning prep 8-10am? (That's what I have to look forward to for tomorrow.)

If ever there was a bad time to have no cooking gas, it's when you are the recipient of not one, but two bountiful late summer CSA boxes every week! My Washington Square CSA has been a great experience and I was so surprised when I was called and informed that I had won a membership to the West Village CSA for August. The produce from each has been different, so while I have had the regular doubles of cucumbers, eggplant, and summer squash, the two farms have provided enough variety to keep me guessing about recipes and searching the internet and the "Cooking Away My CSA" google group for inspiration.

Some of the items I've gotten over the last few weeks that have been particularly wonderful:

- Kohlrabi - Something I never think to buy but love the crisp hicima-like freshness. I gobbled it up raw before I even looked for ways to prepare it.

- Basil - I have killed two basil plants since moving to this sunless apartment, so receiving fresh, fragrant, bunches of deliciousness has kept me sane. The huge sweet basil leaves that I used fresh for a light app of roasted eggplant, feta, a think slice of heirloom tomato, salt, pepper, and a garlicky balsamic drizzle were to die for. Tonight I tried this recipe and despite its simplicity it is really delicious! Be warned though, I used one Washington Square CSA jalapeno with the seeds intact and when it hit the hot oil my lungs burned and I coughed and snotted for an hour. Good thing I like it spicy!

- Tomatillos!! I am secretly plotting starting my own business selling my mom's famous tomatillo relish, but I just might have to make a little of this on the side. That roasted tomatillo salsa was just what I was craving. Dry sauteing the garlic, peppers, onions, and scallions while broiling the tomatillos takes only a short time and the smell as you trow it all in the food processor just makes your mouth water. I highly recommend this if you have a handfull of tomatillos around, we made only 1 lb worth, 1/4th of the recipe.

- Hot Pepper Jelly - Now, anyone who is friends with me on Facebook has heard me complain about what I call my habenero-induced stigmata, but it was well worth it. Because of a mix-up with some hot peppers and what were supposed to be sweet, Puerto Rican "ahi dulce" peppers, I ended up with my hands SOAKED in habenero juice. I tasted one pepper and it wasn't hot, so it wasn't until my hands BURNED that I knew that I was in for. It led to taking my marriage one step deeper and allowing my lovely husband to take my contact lenses out for me. That is definitely NOT something I expected to ask him to do for me until much, much later in life.

- Kale - As many people in CSAs experience, there are a lot of prolific cooking greens in the early to mid summer. While this is nice and everyone enjoys it for a little bit, it starts to get tiresome. Also, later in the season the stems are more woody and it's not those young, tender spring greens that are great in salads. I was losing steam with it and found myself in over my head with kale and chard piling up. I put my husband in charge of finding a recipe that would break the kale-with-garlic-and-sauted-onions monotony. This tangy and sweet recipe is definitely one worth trying. We used sour cherries, spicy brown mustard, and roasted almonds along with the red summer onion, garlic, and veggie broth. Surprisingly, the next day it tasted a little like sauerkraut and I served it with one of my mom's venison brats!

- Summer Squash Risotto - This was my first attempt at making risotto. I did not use that recipe exactly, but used it as a guide for the method of making risotto along with one of the recipe books from the shelf. It was not a total flop, but I would like to give it another shot. I only had red wine on hand and I think it was a little strong. I used veggie broth, lemon, garlic, onion, red wine, summer squash (pre-roasted in the oven with the garlic), and pureed some of the squash to improve the creamy texture. I also threw in some wild rice and fresh chopped basil at the end. I also got a little silly and roasted some "space-ship squash" hollowed them out, and served each person their own plate of stuffed squash with a light vinegarette drizzle. All in all, it was good, but I definitely made enough to feed an army!

I hope that message makes up for my slacking and I will try to keep the updates coming.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

This week in CSA - Fava beans and plums

Oh CSA, how do I love thee? I opted for a 1/2 fruit share on top of my veggies and while the cherries and currants were OK in the last delivery this week's 5 lbs of plums and 2 lbs of peaches blew them out of the water. Oh! So wonderful.

While many groans of 'more chard' were heard, I was glad to see some cooking greens in the delivery. In the next few months I'm going to seriously miss those tender early summer leaves. Green smoothies are a great place to get rid of the excess. This evening I had a simple dinner of sauteed chard with ginger, carrots, garlic, green onions, soy, and the last of a nice bottle of red to deglaze the pan with a smoothie for dessert. I left the fresh greens out of the smoothie and I missed their earthy flavor.We may be getting a little tired of chard, but I may never want a smoothie of just fruit again.

This weeks adventures included Fava Bean Pesto and a little foray into preserving these delicious fruits: plum chutney.

Now, I had a little leftover pesto in the freezer from my garlic scape pesto, so I pulled that out and doctored it up with this little recipe:

Fava Bean Pesto

  • 1 cup fava beans, peeled and blanched
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 2 cloves fresh garlic
  • handfull of pine nuts
  • fresh basil and parsley
I pureed the fava beans in the oil with the basil and parsley in the mixture. I like the pine nuts to add a little more texture, so I rough chopped those and added them once the pesto was the consistency I wanted. For a little extra moisture I used some of the pasta water. Sorry it's not more exact, I sometimes just cook by feel. Also, I think this recipe would be awesome with some sharp cheese, goat cheese, or even feta.

Plum Chutney (canned):

There were two wonderful recipes for Plum Chutney that I found online, and using my favorite Ball Blue Book as a guide for the processing, this concoction came out amazing!

I used this recipe for the helpful canning instructions and I used it for a guide on adding the red onion to the mix. I did not use the garlic, but the spices in this recipe from epicurious really called to me, so I stuck to the red wine vinegar, fresh ginger, mustard, pepper, star anise, cinnamon, sugar, red onion, and plums. Using 2 lbs of plums and 1/2 a red onion it made 7 4oz pints of chutney.

Pair it with farmer's market pork and put a jar in gift baskets to share the CSA flavor.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Washington Square CSA

During my time at VISFI they were not running a CSA, for them it was not quite sustainable at that time. I hope that in the future they can get back to CSA fulfillment, because it is a relationship-building mechanism as well as a way to bring fresh produce to people on the island. I know that the goal of Creque Dam Farm is to be a learning farm, but CSAs are a learning tool. Believe me, I'm learning about new vegetables every week! This week I have these small, yellow, super sweet "carrots" that look more like parsnips to me. At a farmer's market I probably would have walked away, but the challenge of the CSA is to roll with the curve balls and expand your cooking repertoire!

So far in my CSA box here are some highlights:

- garlic scapes - pesto, phenomenal and freezes well
- green garlic stems - korean pancakes (chijimi or pajang, depending on who you ask), fried rice
- beets and beet greens - roasted basalmic beets and beet greens sauted with spring onion and kosher salt
- turnips - sauted with onions and raisins
- Currants - scones, current syrup
- cherries - cherry vinegar, dried cherries (for cookies and granola), and cherry preserves (amazing over waffles)
- fennel - fennel salad with cherry vinegar-ette almonds, and dried sour cherries
- mint - mojitoes, sun tea, mint sauce
- napa cabbage - stuffed venison roll (leftovers went into the crockpot to make a tender pot roast)

Leftover greens and fresh eggs before I went out of town for a week went in here:
Pretty Darn Healthy Quiche
Like all of my recipes I made quite a few modifications to that one.
- minus the ham and all the cheese
- sub unsweetened soymilk for the dairy
- add more sauteed veggies (next time I'll cut them up just a wee bit smaller)
- Freeze until you come back from vacation, thaw and bake briefly with some fresh grated cheese of your liking on top (I usually choose small amounts of a very strong cheese)

The Current Scones for brunch recipe I also made my own adjustments.
- sub 4 of the tablespoons of butter for 1/2 an apple blended to make smooth
- soymilk for the whole milk and used a whole egg instead of just the yolk.
- dusted them with raw sugar and kosher salt for a little kick
- served them with cherry preserves to offset the tart currants.

More to come!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Great Debate, new blog or old blog..

I haven't updated this blog because I intended it to serve as a chronicle of just my time at VISFI, and then I would return to one of my old blogs or start a new one. Of course, I've grown a little attached to this platform and my VISFI experience is one that has had a lasting effect on my decisions and directions since returning to the grid.

My next project is to collect recipes and ideas inspired by the vegetables that I get in my CSA box. Fresh cukes will always conjure memories of the Gaia garden in the sun; the bumpy, spikey little green gherkins and the mature, oblong splashes of summer. Does it still relate enough to keep the same blog? In a way, it's another segment of the monkey pod; synthesizing and continuing to learn.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Day 37 - Final Projects - Ben and Patrick

Renewable Energy

If there was one group that I felt took on a project that they had the most to learn in order to complete it, it was Ben and Patrick. Neither of them came from a science or mathematics background, but they chose an area to focus in that both challenged them and pushed them to learn something they felt would be valuable in their respective post-VISFI futures. Renewable energy is a buzzword these days, and for good reason. We cannot continue to rely on fossil fuels and an inefficient grid for our out of control energy needs. It is up to this generation to say enough is enough and seek healthier ways of living.

With the guidance of our instructors, Donald Young and Dan Glenn, Ben and Patrick delved further into the solar power lessons that we did as a group and worked with a client to design and install a solar energy system. I was often working on education plans and art projects under the deck of the community center and the level of math this group was engaged in was staggering. Just the part I couldn’t help but overhear was enough to make my head spin.

The video I did for them was my favorite. I wish that I had a better tripod for smoother panning, but this farm taught me a lot of things, one is to make what you have work. Always use what you have on-hand first.

This video is one that I will edit again later and work on when I have more hard drive space and some better equipment. However, I am happy that it captures some of the scope of the projects that we took on as individuals and some of the characters that made up our class.

As I typed this I looked at my toaster, working next to me to make me some lightly browned toast. How many watts is that machine drawing?

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Day 36 - The Final Projects - Mandy and Mere

I know this is delayed, so I thank you for continuing to read about my experience at Creque Dam Farm. Now that my move to NYC is over I have my notebooks in hand again and can finish the blogs about R2R2009.

The culmination of our VISFI Ridge to Reef Beneficial Farmer Training Program is the completion and presentation of an individual project. Throughout the program we have seen evidence around the farm of the work of the previous class. These projects ranged from an herb garden to the landscaping design in front of the community center. I hope to see that area completed next time I visit. We were all eager to make our mark and contribute positively to the farm.

I have already posted the video I made for Judith and James' projects in Slow Foods, so I will move onto the next two; Mandy and Mere. Mandy and Mere chose the focus area of Agroecology and Organic Gardening.

Meredith Tully

The first presentation was from Mere. Mere and Mandy shared the cabana below mine, "guama." The area surrounding their cabana was bare, unlike the lush garden in front of my "conuco" cabana and the others across the cabanaland field.

Mere chose to take this space and turn it into a useful and productive bug-repelling garden. When you live in a cabana in the rain forest with only screens and slatted floors to protect you from the other woodland creatures you become acutely aware of the sheer number and variety of insects that exist. Mere researched the types of plants that are native to the region that can be used to repel insects either simply by growing there or by making a tincture or tea. She sprouted catnip and passion fruit vines and planted sour oranges, to name a few. Mere ran into some challenges with the soil and the locations of the water and power cables, but overcame these obstacles by changing her design to a mounded bed. I hope that the next inhabitant of that cabana cares for her babies.

Mandy Foskey-Jeffers

Mere's cabanamate, Mandy, presented her project on Thursday, with me, but I will explain it here because I grouped them together in my video of their projects.

Mandy chose to approach her demonstration of what she learned through a research and design project. She did an excellent presentation slideshow of her plans to landscape her backyard and I am happy to report that she has begun the implementation phase of her project back in Georgia. I'm proud of you, Mandy! Get the chickens!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Day 35- Bush Skills Rendezvous Week

To be honest, I'm a little behind on on my blogging. I'm back in DC as of last night. However, I want to finish documenting this experience at Ridge to Reef to have a complete educational tool for potential students to reference. Also, I plan to continue to share my own research and experience post R2R. I think everyone left that program a changed person.

Although I am back in DC where there are no cistern water levels to be concerned about and I don't have to worry about the batteries when I forget to flip off a light, it's important that we all reflect on our usage and our needs. I turned the water off while I lathered up in the shower this morning. It is a small part of what we can all do to be more aware of where we waste energy, water, fuel, food, and other resources.

I want to give a shoutout to Kenny who stayed with us at VISFI for over a week. He wrote a wonderful blog about his experience and I appreciate his perspective. Check out veggiegardeningtips. It's a great blog in general and I look forward to his next adventure!

Agrotourism week started with my media preview event. I invited over a dozen local media representatives and a few national outlets (for shits and giggles) to come to the farm and get material to do preview and feature stories on the third annual Bush Skills Rendezvous. Although not many media outlets did show up, we succeeded overall with three stories in the local papers and a radio show. Hopefully these contacts will lead to more media exposure in the future.

St. Croix Source and the VI Daily News are online, but the St. Croix Avis story is only available in print. I will try to scan it for people to read later.

I will continue to work to try to increase the availability of information on VISFI events and programs. This is the story of our lifetime and our future. Will we learn to exist in a sustainable manner, reconnect with our primitive skills and survive? I will. I hope you are there with me.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Culmination - Slow Foods Week

This will be my first attempt at adding one of the videos that I produced for my project. Wish me luck :-)

The Slowdown Dinner that the Ridge to Reef students prepared for the farm to sit down and eat together (all 28 people) was a wonderful food experience. Here are the courses as they were done by each group:

Appetizer (Mandy and Judith)
Lightly roasted okra served on a polenta round and topped with tomato chutney and sprinkled with crushed pumpkin seeds
Soup (Ashley and Ben)
Cucumber coconut soup, served cold, and sprinkled with a sorrel powder.

Salad (Marshall and Mere)
Hearty roasted vegetable salad with a sorrel reduction, topped with fresh field greens and a tamarind vinegarette.

Entree (me and James)
Coconut crusted mahi-mahi, on a bed of bok choi, topped with fresh green moringa curry, and served with ylang-ylang infused rice.

Dessert (Patrick and Ryan)
Coconut sorbet served on a warm pumpkin bread pudding with a rum sauce and a tiny lime basil leaf.


Day 34 - Slowdown Dinner (vegan green curry recipe)

One of the wonderful value-added products here at Creque Dam Farm are our "Slowdown Dinners." Beyond being an important revenue stream, they are an opportunity for people to come to the farm and see what goes on here. Many of the students here were first introduced to VISFI through a Slowdown (Ryan, Ashley, and to an extent, me.) Once you see the love that goes into a meal prepared from scratch with local and fresh ingredients, everything else just seems flat.

The Slowdown Experience here is a six-course pre-fixe menu for $60, pretty reasonable considering it's BYOB so no restaurant-priced drinks on top of that. Some people may think that is steep for a meal, but I've been to omakase (Japanese for chef's choice) meals that are twice the price and pale in comparison.

The culmination of our slow food week is to prepare a complete Slowdown Dinner for all of the farm staff to eat together. On Monday we each drew from a hat to determine which course we would be preparing and who our partner would be. I held my breath and drew a card..


Intimidating! However, the other person who drew the entree card was James, the youngest person in the program who will be attending Johnson and Wales Culinary school in Colorodo at the end of this program. He has some level of comfort in the kitchen, so that was good to have.

After a few attempts we made this recipe for a green curry sauce, gathered the coconut pulp for the crusting on the fish, and convinced the farm that we should purchase some local mahi-mahi because we never get seafood and we live 1.5 miles from the beach! We played with the recipe for many hours. We decided on grilled coconut-crusted mahi served on a bed of wilted bok choi, fresh green curry drizzle, and ylang-ylang infused rice. For the vegans we used the bok choi and rice but cut up an edible loofa squash and saute'd it with the curry and served it in a baked papaya.

Here are our recipes:

Modified Vegan Moringa Green Curry Paste
1 Stalk sliced lemongrass
2 t coriander (ground)
3 T Soy Sauce (use fish sauce if you aren't particular about it being vegan)
1 t brown sugar
1 green pepper
1 habenero pepper
1 onion (or a bunch of green onions because that's what we had on-farm)
1 inch piece of ginger
3 kaffir lime leaves cut into strips (more for garnish)
1 cup loose chopped cilantro (we used a bit of cilantro and recao, a similar herb in the tropics)
2 T moringa powder
1 T lime basil

Place all of these ingredients in the food processor with a dash of coconut milk to thin it out and keep it blending.

Once it is blended into a paste, put it in a skillet and heat it for a few minutes to help the flavors mature. You may need to blend it again to get it smooth enough. Line the plate with a wilted bok choi leaf and form the rice into a smooth ball. Once you have all of it put together, drizzle the curry over the top, and garnish with a fresh ylang-ylang flower, tiny strips of kaffir lime leaves, and diced red seasoning peppers.

That's all well and good, but the pressure of doing 28 of those between the courses (we sat for each course and then got up to prepare our part) was intense! The stress became exponential because after we had begun plating a group of teachers for Bush Skills arrived from the airport and we suddenly had 32 plates to prepare. It was wonderful how people stepped up to make it happen. I love you guys.

Day 33 - Pumpkin Ravioli

Sorry I've been away, thank you for the emails reminding me to keep you up to date. I appreciate it! So much has happened that it's hard to go back and write the entries I missed, but it's also a wonderful opportunity to relive some of the wonderful days we've had here at VISFI.

Slow foods week has been awesome. Spending the days in the kitchen with Chef Keith and talking to Dan about his favorite subject (food) has been inspirational. I can't wait to get back to my own kitchen space.. Today's lesson are two slow food meals, lunch and dinner. For lunch we chose one meal that we don't get much on the farm because it is so labor intensive, but there is nothing better than homemade pasta.

It was a long day in the kitchen, but well worth it. There is a synergy between the members of this group and that is amazing to step back and watch. Ashley doesn't often work well with others, but even she is realizing the support and cooperation that we have. Getting out my camera today and capturing a bit of it on film was the beginning of my final project. It feels a little like the beginning of the end, but I will enjoy putting the final pieces together.

The Pasta:
3 eggs
2 cups flour (we used AP, but you can do a percentage of whole wheat)
+ whatever flavor you want to include. We made: parsley, rosemary, moringa (our superfood), black pepper, and a few others)

If you are going to make a pumpkin filling from a garden pumpkin, first harvest a massive pumpkin, chop it into chunks with a machete, and bake it. Don't forget to take out the guts.

Make a well in the flour and crack the eggs into the center. Beat the eggs with your hands and slowly work in the flour. You may or may not need all of the flour depending on the size of your eggs and the humidity, keep watching the dough for a good firm, not tacky, but not dry consistency. Unlike bread that you can only knead a little in order to develop the gluten, a lot of kneading is required for pasta. To knead the dough, fold it into itself and press, rotate, fold it into itself again, and press again. Continue this process for 20 minutes. Leave the dough to rest at room temperature for 45 minutes to an hour. We wrapped our dough balls in wax paper and set them aside and in the meantime, we made some vegan pasta for our more animal-friendly friends.

Vegan Pasta
2 c flous (1/2 to 1/2 whole wheat to white)
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 tsp salt
1 1/2 cup water

Follow the same mixing procedure. Just like in the non-vegan version, you may not need all of the water.

Once your dough has rested, cut each dough ball into 1/4ths and roll very thin. You want to roll it out into an oblong shape with a long, even motion and pressure.
Once you can see through the oval cut it into squares. If you cut larger squares you can fold it over into a triangle, if you do smaller squares you can stack two on top of each other and make the square, it's up to you.

When the pumpkin is out of the oven and soft it's time to mash that up and make your filling. We used mashed pumpkin with a little sage, but you can put any herb that compliments the flavor of the pumpkin and goes well with what flavor you put in the ravioli (if anything).

Now it's time to stuff them! Take the squares and put a dollop of your cooked filling into the center. The key here is to not put too much because it's essential that the pasta seal completely, you don't want it to fall apart.

Boil and top with the awesome homemade sauce we had going on the side.. (saute onions and garlic, add tomatoes to cook. Remove from heat and blend. Right before it's time to serve, add the fresh herb spices so they are at their maximum flavor. Delicious!)

I would have put in some post boiling lunch shots but by the time we were done making these beauties we were so hungry that we scarfed them all up and no one took pictures. I guess that is the beauty of slow food.

For dinner we made pizza, always one of my favorites!

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Day 32 - Simple Slow Food Tactic

Ditch the pre-packaged salad dressing, make a vinegarette! What is in that junk you are pouring on your greens? Is there high fructose corn syrup, preservatives, and a list of ingredients you can't pronounce? A good place to start thinking about slow foods is the simple salad dressing metaphor; it takes 30 seconds to open the fridge and take out a salad dressing and slather those chemicals onto your otherwise healthy dinner. Take an extra five minutes and make a dressing and you have added love, creativity, and probably some healthier ingredients to top those veggies.

"Slow Foods" doesn't necessarily mean "All DAY Foods" (although it can.)

I know this is silly, and Sarah showed me many times how she made such great balsalmic dressings, but sometimes I need a thorough explanation and to take notes in order to really get it. So, we went into the kitchen to go over basic dressings.

Think about what kind of dressing you want to make, what you have around, and get together your ingredients to prepare your "mise en place."

Oil to Acid ratio:
3 to 1, 2 to 1, and sometimes close to 1 to 1, depending on the taste of the vinegar and other ingredients. Good average to think about is 1.5
A good oil; cold pressed olive oil or other oils that have not been processed and denatured.
Start with a root crop, diced finely: garlic, onion, shallot.
Vinegar (we used sour orange and cider vinegar.)

EMULSIFY: This is the part I never quite got right before this class. Blend all of your veggie ingredients and then slowly add the oil, while beating the mixture. Season with salt & pepper to taste.

Yawn! So much to write, I need to go to sleeeep.

Day 31 - A Place for Everything and Everything in Its Place

Part of our introduction to Slow Foods is an introduction to cooking in a professional setting. For our culminating activity we will have to prepare a "Slow Down Dinner," so we have to know how to approach cooking for 30 guests.

I was particularly struck by the term mise en place. Translated from French, it means something similar to put in place" or "prepared ahead of time." I love it. The concept is simple; when cooking, be prepared to complete the dish without having to go look for ingredients. So what does one do to begin? The first step to cooking is read the recipe. Don't just glance over it and see if you have all the ingredients, really read the recipe, gather supplies, and know what you are planning to do. Measure all the ingredients and line them up in the order in which they will be used, to a reasonable degree.

Everyone who knows me can understand what I mean when I say that I am not necessarily the most "organized" person. Over the last few years I've struggled to overcome this part of my personality that I consider a shortcoming and something that I get a lot of frustration from. I don't know why I have such a hard time keeping things together, but I am working on my mise en place for a lot of things in life.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Day 30 - Slow Foods for Life

Yes, I am behind in my blogs. I know.

I will work on catching up!

There is one thing that we take for granted here that I will truly miss when I return home: the food. Chef Keith does a lot of hard work preparing delicious and nutritious meals for the farm staff and it is important for me to learn, and learn well, how to go home and make the most of the fresh food around me.

One thing we talk about often are "diets" and what is the "right" way to eat. There are so many different philosophies about eating that it's hard to imagine that so many people really don't pay attention to what they are putting in their mouths. This is the single most important decision we make every day; what to eat. The fuel that you put in is the energy you get out. It becomes YOU.

Imagine yourself healthier.
Veg, Vegan, Pescatarian?
Local Foods?
Blood type diet?
Food pairing?
Raw Foods?

Basically, eat what your body wants. Now, you may think your body is saying, 'caaaake,' but likely it's saying that it may need more calories for what you are expending or it's your mind's idea of comfort food. That void can be filled by something better than cake.

Interesting ideas from diets:
Blood type, I'm 0+ I should be "the Hunter" also referred to as, "meat meat meat diet." I think I would like to be more of a B blood type, the middle. Hmm.. Anyone ever tried to eat based on their blood type? I'd love to hear about your experiences.

I liked the food combination tables.. but.. is it really feasible to try to convince people NOT to eat their steak with a starch and a veggie? Can you really not eat and drink water at the same time? hrm.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Day 29 - Intro to Slow Foods

One of the great joys of living at Creque Dam Farm is the amazing, fresh, home cooked meals we enjoy three times a day. Once you eat all your greens less than an hour after harvest, every other salad just seems flat and lifeless. Once a month the farm hosts a fundraiser dinner, a six-course food adventure, highlighting what produce is at its peak and what meats we have available locally. We try to get all of the ingredients from our own land, but sometimes we have to reach off-farm to other local growers, depending on our supply. The culmination of our week in the kitchen is the complete planning, preparation, and plating of a "Slow Down Dinner Experience." Chef Keith and Dan Glenn will be leading us in this taste adventure!

I'm excited.

I LOVE food.

Day one introduction involved a wonderful discussion about our culture of food, our comfort foods, and our food memories. This was an opportunity to talk about your grandmother's broccoli soup, the best grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup ever, a meatloaf that knocked your socks off, or that special meal that included all of the best ingredients; the food, the company, and the emotional significance.

When asked what was my perfect food experience there are two specific meals that come to mind. In 2001, while traveling South East Asia with Laura Smith (a friend from NYC I met in Tokyo), I had the most delicious curry I have every eaten. No curry has ever compared to this one, and I have tried my share. This particular curry had fish and vegetables slow cooked and served in a green coconut, Cambodian style. We were in Siem Reap, traveling on a tight budget, and just having a fun adventure as young college kids. It was a great time in my life.

The second meal that I consider a perfect food experience was in Montreal in May 2006. I have written about this meal recently because it relates directly to my current situation, but like any truly special memory it doesn't dull with repetition. At that time Val and I were engaged. but he was going to school in Yokohama, Japan and I was working in DC. He was asked to corner and translate for the MMA fighter Hatsu Hioki in his title match for TKO in Montreal (the video of this fight is here in minute 10:18, you can see Val at the end rush in to help Hatsu after his win.)

The flights from DC to Montreal were unbelievably expensive. My friends Derek and Sarah came to my help and made for the best weekend roadtrip after work on Friday (9 hours up, 13 hours back). We drove all night. The morning we arrived we happened upon a restaurant near the hotel. That breakfast at Chez Cora was absolutely phenomenal. Apples, sliced and baked with brie, nuts, and maple syrup, coffee, a pile of mixed fresh fruit, whole wheat crepes, amazing. The synergy between the company of good friends and the long separation from Val made that coming together so perfect. The next time Hatsu was asked to defend his TKO featherweight title we gladly returned to Montreal and Chez Cora for breakfast. It still makes my heart flutter just thinking about it.

What are your best meals? Comfort foods? The thing you could eat every day and never be tired of it? Slow food is about food traditions, sharing meals and conscious meal preparation. I am so excited for this week!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Weekend Reprise III

Living at Creque Dam Farm is being a part of a wonderful, supportive, and fun community. I was nervous before coming here that I would feel trapped and dependent on my friends and family on island to get me out and about. Sure, from time to time it is difficult to get out of the rainforest and into civilization, but I can stay on farm and have a great time or get rides into town. It is isolated but you are only as bored or lonely as you let yourself get.

That said, sometimes you need to get out and see some of the local culture. This past weekend was the Mardi Croix parade and celebration. Now, I've been to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, this parade was no Mardi Gras, but it was a fun event. Some of the local papers commented on the lack of participation in the parade, the St. Croix Source was more positive than the Avis (that doesn't have an online version), and the Virgin Islands Daily News did only briefly comment on the size of the parade. The parade was a disappointment but hanging out at Cane Bay and enjoying some local foods makes for a great Saturday. No real complaints here.

One worry that Val had when I decided to head down to St. Croix for my three-month educational vacation was the presence of distractions. It's easy to imagine the multitude of things here that could keep me from focusing on the hard questions facing me; the beach, the sun, diving, the culture of alcohol, and the laid-back atmosphere come to mind in particular.

This past weekend some of the people from the Ridge to Reef program proved how positively motivated people can put all those distractions aside and dedicate a whole day--a whole WEEKEND day--to helping a friend. Ben, Mandy, Marshall, and Mere came with me to my sister's house and spent Sunday with me designing her backyard gardens and working in the hot sun. This was a wonderful way to apply the concepts we are learning here in an action-based real life situation, without the guidance of an instructor. At the end of digging a swale, spreading seeds of nitrogen-fixing plants, and building a compost bin from recycled pallets I thought everyone would be ready to let me take them out to dinner. Instead, the whole group threw themselves into digging and planting a keyhole herb garden in the rocky area by Wendy's front door. We spent about two more hours sifting out the many rocks, turning the soil, and Ben designed a nice mosaic from broken pieces of tile.

We made some pasta, ate some ice cream, and went dancing until late night.

Everyone was exhausted and filthy but the smiles said it all. I love being surrounded by people who value a day of hard work. I need more people in my life who get dirty, sweat, and work together to create something real.

I hope the plants we put in the ground live on like the memories of that experience will live on in my heart.

I have more photos to upload!

Day 28 - The Last Math Blog and Installation

Thanks for sticking through the math in the last post, we have a little more to do today and I promise the blogs for next week will be calculation-free (except multiplying recipes and the magic of baking). For me, it was a really interesting experience to be in a mixed-level math class, sitting all day working out equations, and be truly enjoying myself.

Step 4: The Charge Controller, the Inverter, and the Wires

CHARGE CONTROLLER - function is to maintain the batteries at the proper level of charge and to protect them from overcharging. When a solar panel is bringing in power it will first go to run the loads on the system (lights, fans, etc) and then any extra will go to charge the batteries for use later.
Power = 100W (1 panel) divided by 12V = 8.3 Amps
Of course, we could use a 12V/12 Amp charge controller, but that wouldn’t give us much room to control for sudden increases in voltage, etc. The max voltage is taken into consideration by the manufacturer, so really a 12amp CC really has a max voltage of about 22 or so. On farm we have a currently unused 12V/36amp Charge controller, so, we will use what we have. A charge controller will run between $100-250, or more depending on the size and quality.

INVERTER – Because the PV system runs in DC, you must use an inverter if you would like to power AC devices. You need to keep in mind the maximum (peak) watts needed at one time. Our client, Chef Keith, needs 86 watts of AC power at one time if he were running all of his devices at one time. That is NOT very much because this system is already maximized for efficient appliances and lights. Much like the CC, we have a 12V/150W Inverter, which will cover the 86watts needed and give some head room just in case he introduces a new device. The cost of an inverter is dependent on the shape of the sine wave. If it is a modified sine wave it will be cheaper, but if it is too choppy it will not have an even current.

WIRES – I am not going to go into this calculation because it turned out to be a huge pain. Because we are only using a 12V panel and a small CC, we cannot increase the voltage to decrease the amount of current, so there will be a lot current and thus, a lot of resistance. Here is one calculation:
The distance from the panel to the CC is 30 feet
12Gauge wire has a resistance of 1 ohm drop per every 650feet, so the drop over 30 feet is about 0.05 ohm.
If we have to keep voltage at 12, the max current is about 16Amps.
Power loss = I2R
162x0.05 = 12.8W, it’s a 220W system, so that is about a 6% loss. 6% is too much loss, we had to move up to 8gauge wire in order to get low enough resistance.

Step 5: Installation

We mounted the one panel on the top of a very long board, anchored to the yurt platform. Installation would have been better if it hadn’t been a rainy day, so whenever the downpours got worse we went inside the yurt to take care of installing the batteries into the floor of the platform. I didn’t get to do much by myself because of the number of people involved in the task, but it was good to see how to hook up the big 6V batteries into two series strings and then hooking those in parallel.

Can I put one together for you with this one-week tutorial? No, but I have a much greater understanding of the components.

Moreover, learning about solar energy has been a great lesson in the excesses of our modern lifestyle. When you list every appliance, light, AC adapter that you plug in, you start to realize just how much energy your home consumes. Do we need an inversion blender, a mixer, a food processor, a magic bullet, and a small chopper in every kitchen?

Do you really need a curling iron?

Monday, February 23, 2009

Day 27 - Solar Energy Design Guide (part 1)

Here we go, it's time for math class.

I am no math expert, this is a blog for the average person who is curious about what goes into designing a solar energy system. I welcome all comments and discussion about the calculations here. The basic formulas are:
Volts = I (current)R(resistance) = I = V/R or R = V/I
Power (watts) = VI = V2/R = I2R
Energy = VIH
Next entry we will also have to calculate the voltage drop in a line, which we will use:

Designing a PV power generation system is not as hard as installing one, or so my experience so far leads me to believe. Days 27 and 28 will be devoted to the action project for the solar energy week; designing and instaling a real-world system for one of the structures on the farm. Chef Keith will be introduced in more detail next week, slow foods module, but he gets to play a role in this weeks project by being the lucky recipient of lights and a stereo system in his yurt.

The Yurt

Keith's yurt is standing on a platform made of "lumber" from recycled plastic. It was all built many years ago during the early construction phase of the farm. Even Ben Jones, the founder of the farm, lived in the yurt for three years. It has running water and has been a useful structure for many inhabitants, but other than some old extension cords run from who knows where, it's dark.

Here are the steps we went through for determining our solar array for the yurt. The array consists of: panels, charge controller, battery bank, and inverter (to run AC appliances as well as DC).

Step 1: Determing the Power Consumption

This is a tricky step. None of the calculations are "easy" but this one requires some soul searching. How much power do you use? When? How much power do you need? What does your curling iron take up, 1500W? Can you get a DC fridge?

Consider your AC and DC power requirements separately. We made a simple chart so that we could organize our data and reference back when we needed to adjust.
Appliance, Watts, Quantity, Hours run per day. Total that up the daily needs and then multiply by the number of days per week that you will use that particular appliance to get your watt hours per week. Total up the number or watt hours for all DC appliances then multiply by 1.2 (to compensate for system losses). Then do the same for AC appliances.

Add up the AC WH/Week and DC WH/Week. To determing the number of Amp-hours of energy required for week, divide this number by the voltage of battery you are using (usually 12 or 24V). Then divide that number by 7 to determine the average requirement per day. Here is what our totals were if Keith is running a DC Fan, two types of DC lights (efficient), charging a laptop, running a laptop off the wall power, charging a cellphone, and running an iHome stereo (very efficient):
DC WH/Week: 1831
+ AC WH/WK: 1370
= 3201 WH/WK
x 12V (we are using a 12V battery bank)
= 267 AH/WK
So the average amp-hour requirement per day = 38.1 AH.

Step 2: Size the Battery Bank

When determining how much energy we need to store, the first big question is how long does he need to be able to last without any sunshine. If a hurricane were to come through he could expect to be without direct sun for a few days. We decided that three days of using everything full blast would be enough, assuming that if he really needed to run his stereo or charge his cell phone he could do so at the community center. Also, you need to determine how much charge you want to remain in the batteries at all times. We chose 20% capacity as a reasonable amount of depletion that would not damage the batteries for long-time use.
AH requirement for day: 38
x Days of autonomy: 3
= amp hours needed to store: 114
+ 20% to remain in the batteries
= 136AH is needed to be stored at 12V in the Battery Bank.

It's not a cold-weather climate so we don't have to worry about the ambient temperature multiplier, but we do need to look at what batteries we already have.

Because we already had four 6V batteries with 220AH it made most sense for us to use those. However, because of their age they are about 50% depleated of their total storage capacity. Assuming it's exactly 50% depleated we should calculate that each of the 6V batteries actually holds 110 AH. We need 136 AH at 12V.

2 6V batteries run in series adds the AH over the series making the total 6V and 220 AH. We need at least 136AH, so if we run those two strings in parallel, then we add the voltages toether to make 12V and the AH stay constant, bringing us to 220AH at 12V, enough to give us some room to breathe.

Step 3: Determine the hours of sun available per day and size the array

Now, how many panels do you need? First, available on-farm we have 4 180W/24V panels that we can't use (12V system), 4 100W/12V panels, and 4 75W/12V or 24V panels.

Determine the Power requirement per day
Daily AH requirement: 38.1
x 12V
= 457.2 WH/day

OK, we need 457.2WH, how many WH does each panel give off? Multiply the wattage by the number of hours of sun per day. In St. Croix the average is about six.
1 75W panel x 6 hours of sun = 450WH/day (not enough)
1 100W panel x 6 hours of sun = 600 WH/day
= perfect. We need one 100W panel at 12V to fill our power needs and contraints.

The other items in the array? The charge controller, the inverter, the wires, and the fun of installing it in the rain.

Tomorrow I'll complete the package..

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Day 26 - Math and Miracle Fruit

A lot of this unit on Solar Energy is learning the basics of calculating energy needs, battery storage capacity, wiring, and how to hook it all up. It's interesting, but I think only Brian and my dad would make it through a post about it. Tomorrow I will run through the calculations that we used to install a PV System over at the Yurt, where Keith the Chef lives. While I don't quite feel confident to go out and put a system together for myself, I have a much greater understanding for how it all works.

With that put off until tomorrow, how about miracle fruit? I definitely always thought the miracle fruit was beans, because the more you eat the more you.. something or other. However, I had never seen these things before and was definitely a little wary of the oblong red berries. The tree here on the farm had a small crop, only about 10 or 15 berries total. They are roughly the size of a vitamin capsule and blood red. When Tara, one of the interns, said that there are parties in New York featuring Miracle Fruit I didn't know what to think!

The berry itself is virtually flavorless with a large seed in the middle. Where was the big bang?

The realization hit when I hesitantly licked a sour orange slice. Sour orange is like a seville orange, not very tasty but good in a gin and tonic if you have no lime. One lick and I had the whole slice in my mouth, it was like pure honey. I ate so much sour and weird stuff that I gave myself a tummy ache, but it was so interesting to see how your tastebuds can fool you!

The grapefuit was like candy..
The smoky roasted flavor of my coffee came through what would usually be bitter.. Wild.

According to the Wikipedia:
The berry contains an active glycoprotein molecule, with some trailing carbohydrate chains, called miraculin.[5][6] When the fleshy part of the fruit is eaten, this molecule binds to the tongue's taste buds, causing sour foods to taste sweet. While the exact cause for this change is unknown, one hypothesis is that the effect may be caused if miraculin works by distorting the shape of sweetness receptors "so that they become responsive to acids, instead of sugar and other sweet things".[3] This effect lasts between thirty minutes and two hours.
It lasted for about an hour. Some particularly acidic or sour things tasted so sweet I could barely eat them. Overall, I'd say there has to be something there for dieters.. I definitely didn't crave chocolate or ice cream, at least for a few hours.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Day 25 – I get a hot shower (the fastest way to a woman’s heart)

(Depending on how dirty the lady may be).

Living in an off-grid system is sometimes an exercise in evaluating your priorities. Things break. Shit happens. Someone has to have the time, spare parts, and the know-how to fix it. Much like spending a day and a half without power, 10 days without hot water made me appreciate that readily available supply in my apartment in DC. Don’t take that hot water for granted. But do you have to get taken to the cleaners? (har-har)

So, you want to get rid of that energy-gobbling dinosaur of a hot water heater? The tropics allow for different types of solar hot water to be a real possibility. At the Ag Fair Ryan Evans and I got stuck in a very nice used-car salesman-like pitch for a small passive/active solar water-heating unit. We didn’t mention to the gentleman that we already were living with a unit, so we listened politely. Some of the ideas his company is marketing were pretty clever; you can amend your old hot water heater with a new valve to control for in/outflow to the panels on the roof. This is very similar to the system we have on the bathhouse.

This indoor/outdoor setup is the place where we can go to pursue that elusive mistress, the hot shower. There is an insulated storage tank with four input/output pipes. A regular electric water heater has two: cold water in and hot water out. Our tank brings cold water in from our gravity-fed distribution system and then, if the net temperature difference between the water in the tank and the sensor on the roof is greater than a predetermined limit, the colder water is pumped out of the tank and up to the panel. This panel is a passive heater, the water sits in the series of tubes within the panel until it reaches the next predetermined temperature difference (usually about 15 degrees) at which time it is sent back into the tank to stay hot until there is a demand on the system. On a sunny day this system can replenish quickly and the insulated tank can hold quite a bit of water at a decent temperature.

There are other systems utilized on the farm. Dan Glenn uses a completely passive system at his container house on the hill. A passive solar water heater is as simple as a coiled black hose on the roof.

What are the drawbacks to this system? Primary disadvantages are that the length of the hose limits the amount of hot water significantly and the inconvenient times of day that the water is at peak temperature. The sun doesn’t get up early enough for a morning shower and later in the evening the hose isn’t insulated enough to stay warm. However, This system requires Avoiding using complicated technology is a plus because there are no pumps to break and leave us all without hot water for a week.

Marshall Bartlett, one of the other R2R students is designing a third type of hot water system for another house on the farm. I look forward to seeing how that works out. For now, I’ll cope with my cold outdoor shower and appreciate it when I get one hot.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Day 24 - Solar Energy Intro

Today we began a new module. When I was looking at opportunities to take a few months to volunteer, work abroad, or do an internship, there were so many options. I was drawn to this program because of the variety. Sure, when I leave here I’ll need a bit more experience before I can start my own organic farm, but I will have some new perspective and skill over a wider spectrum of areas which I can decide to further pursue at a later date.

Sure, the agroecology unit that we just completed is key to learning how to farm in a sustainable manner, but also alternative energy is an important aspect to managing energy costs. Eventually getting off fossil fuels is an important part of sustainability, as is consciousness in consumption. The first step in designing any solar or alternative energy system is determining the need. I think we all would be a bit shocked if we really looked at where we waste energy.

For us, this was a good segue from the Ag Fair into the alternative energy unit because we had a clear demonstration of this useless excess.

The Ag Fair is a huge draw, it is estimated that 30,000 people come in from other islands. Some people coming in for Ag Fair decided to do a farm stay with us in the two open cabanas, tent camping in the field, and in the tree house. Some of the groups were more friendly and reached out to the community and some.. well.. Someone plugged in a curling iron and blew our whole system, leaving the 10 of us at cabana land plus the 8 guests in the dark for a day and a half. Now, was that really necessary? Luckily we have long, sunny days, a separate system for the community center, and electricians who can fix this stuff when it’s broken.

I have never been spectacular at math. However, I love science and if I have a calculator in front of me--and a good teacher--I can usually make sense of the material.

One good teacher is key, two is bonus. Don Young, electrical engineer and an all-around innovative thinker, is visiting from Georgia to teach us along with Dan Glenn, the director here on the farm. Combined, they make up just the type of teaching team that plays to the strengths of different students.

Do you remember high school circuits and basic engineering? No? Well, I have never enjoyed figuring equations like I enjoyed that class. I can’t wait to learn more.. It was an easy physical day but I'm mentally exhausted.

Day 23 - Agrifest

(Sorry for the spam posts, I ate small a mouthful of poisonous tropical plant that was misidentified as a taro root. I got a little too freaked out to go to sleep so I figured I would inundate you with blog posts. This is when I notice that I'm hundreds of miles away from my main source of my sense of safety – my husband. I love you Val! I definitely read too much about Calcium Oxalate poisoning. I’m totally fine. Big lesson to the everyone (even experienced botanists) that many plants may seem identical and have very different properties. Haha.)

As each week has progressed we have built on the information that was presented to us in the proceeding weeks. As I mentioned in my last post, this is week four and we are finally learning some of the real basics of organic farming. More than anything I see this as indicative of how VISFI views specific farming methods as less important than education, sustainable building fundamentals, and the principles and philosophy of permaculture. From here we will delve deeper into solar energy, slow foods cooking, and agrotourism. Last week's New York Times article about the struggle of small farms to diversify to turn a profit really highlighted the task that faces farmers.

Agriculture is a highly competitive business where the big industrial farms can undercut the little guy, especially if the little guy is employing more expensive, sustainable techniques, paying for organic certifications, and using higher quality inputs. Selling your beautiful tomatoes at the farmer's market is not going to solve that problem alone. Local farmers need to connect with their community through outreach activities such as farm stays (ecotourism), workshops and classes (education), and other value-added products and income streams.

While I am still waiting on the final numbers from the Department of Agriculture, I'm going to go into my summary of the Agricultural and Food Festival. The average estimate of attendance is about 30,000 people from all over the Caribbean. This is no small gathering.

First, I have to again highlight that the mission of the farm here is not just profit, the triple bottom line is: people, place, and profit. This boils down to; educate people, create a community, and sustain the system financially. If money is first the rest deteriorates. It is very clearly written into the statement of purpose. To seed beneficial relationships to inspire abundance, creativity, and joy (paraphrase).

My overall impression of the fair was; heavy on the food and culture, OK but not great on agriculture. This island is in desperate need to improve it’s image of farming and get people really involved in food production. While the funky chickens and farmer’s market vegetables were great, but I don’t think many minds were changed about agriculture as dirty and hard work not worth doing.

While we were selling our produce at the Virgin Islands Farmer’s Co-Op booth, VISFI chose to put together a kids activity booth. The purpose of our activities were to get kids involved in agriculture, beyond the food vendors. We chose to make Seed Balls, a technique for natural farming with little human interference. The seed balls are mini habitat. The clay ball ball encloses seeds and what they need to grow: compost for nutrients and the shell to protect them from predators and the elements. While some kids were into it and willing to get dirty, the majority of the bon’ya (born on island) children would rather watch.

Ryan Evans, Nate Olive, and I were in charge of planning and set up for the three days. The shelter that we built as a group for this display was awesome. Truly, it was the best highlight I can imagine for our upcoming Bush Skills Rendezvous. Our booth was situated in the middle of an open field next to the boy scouts. We realized that we would be spending the better part of three days in that field, completely exposed to the elements, so a shelter of some sort was absolutely necessary. Some of the guys and Don Young, one of our instructors, laid out a design, cut some bamboo, lashed it together, draped a tarp, and made a seriously durable and awesome tent. This is the type of industriousness that Bush Skills represents. Great work guys!

On top of that, a good friction-fire-making demonstration always pulls a crowd!

In the end, Ag Fair highlighted for me that there is still a long way to go in farm communication and marketing in order to truly reach the people capable of really making the necessary changes in how the island is cultivated.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Day 22 - Banana Circle

After my long post about my graduation from vegetarianism this will be a short(ish) narrative about a small project we completed on Thursday.

This module in agroecology has been so packed with information and active learning projects, it's hard to narrow it down to what I should include here. We planted a garden with the full moon (very good time to plant), built a compost pile, cultivated land for planting, and harvested goods to take to the market. This is week four and we are finally learning some of the real basics of organic farming, but I will get further into why that is tomorrow when I talk about Ag Fair.

The most unique technique that I learned this week is the banana circle. Banana circles are a way of creating a healthy garden in a dry season or possibly in less-than-ideal soil. Banana is an interesting plant because of its high water content. I knew that you can cut the banana shoots and limbs and use them to fertilize plants, but I was not aware of its ability to bring water to the surface for use by other plants. Creating a banana circle is pretty easy and with basic tending it can nurture a larger fruit tree without much maintenance.

Here is a nice resource for building a banana circle. We started with a very dry, flat piece of the area outside the community center. The exhausting part of the project was pulling all the woody weeds. It was hard work on a hot day, but that is part of what I’m doing here, appreciating the value of hard work. After pulling the weeds we went to work digging a hole to plant the banana and small fruit tree in the center. Around the outside of the circle and in the berm (pile of soil we dug out of the hole) we planted some nitrogen-fixing plants such as pigeon peas, crotalaria, and daikon. These plants should grow quickly and hold the soil from erosion.

The final product is a wide circular, lowered bed with a high berm around the outside. The plants radiate from the central banana arranged for maximum cooperation. The soil is layered with compost and mulch to slowly break down and at fertility.

I’m planning on employing this technique in Wendy’s yard project, but modified into a horseshoe shape with the berm on the lower side of the slope to catch run-off and the ends attached to a swale for increasing the water absorption in the rest of the garden design.

I can’t wait to get to work this weekend! Hard work and satisfying work.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Day 21- Conventional meat, chicken tractors, and bunnies.

As many of you know, I was very into vegetarianism for many years. In 1997 I ate chicken for the last time. I remember the night very clearly, my friend Ty made a really good chicken teriyaki. My boyfriend at the time, Jay, and I had been discussing trying to stop eating meat. I enjoyed that chicken, savored the wonderful meal my friend had prepared for us, and then made the decision to forgo meat.

My decision was twofold, and only one was beneficial. I stopped eating meat primarily because I just cannot support feedlots, force-feeding corn to ruminants who's biology is designed for eating grass, pigs forced to live in tiny pens with their tails painfully lopped off, chickens unable to establish their pecking order and having their beaks clipped, and the many other horrors and injustices of the conventional meat industry. On top of this suffering also comes the environmental impacts of these farms. Along with the chemicals they carry, I chose to not put that "bad energy" into my body and my life.

That does not mean that I reject the food chain. Humans are omnivores who progressed and thrived by hunting, gathering, and the development of agriculture. Meat production doesn't have to be like this. When I made the decision to come to Creque Dam Farm I also made the decision to support the local farmers who are raising animals in a humane and beneficial manner.

Along with this decision to eat meat I feel like I have a responsibility to deal with my underlying issues. That brings me to the second reason I stopped eating meat. You can call it 'for health reasons' or however you want to sugar-coat it, but the reality is that I am terrified to gain weight. Not eating meat is a way to control your intake and becomes a good excuse for not partaking in a heavy meal. I have gained weight since I started eating this local meat.. I see it and I feel it. Why is it so important to me? Can I just use proper portion control and maybe just find a way to be happy with a heavier me? Where is healthy? These are the questions that everyone must ask themselves from time to time. What is a healthy amount of attention to what you eat and what is obsession?

I am making progress. Part of coming to terms with accepting myself eating meat and being happy about it is to understand where animals fit into our system. Animals play a key role in any diversified farm.

Krystle Arcamo is our animal husbandry apprentice here at the farm. She cares for our goats, chickens, and rabbits. She took the time with us to show the group of us what jobs the animals perform here and also gave me the opportunity to understand the life-cycle on a deeper level. Thank you to Krystle for her support and hard work.


The chickens on the farm here are housed in chicken tractors. These pens are moved over the hard and unworked ground that we would like to prepare for planting. The chickens eat the weeds, the insects, scratch up the ground and fertilize it with their waste. The chickens do a lot of work for us. They are a part of this farm as they provide us with eggs, fertilize the ground, work the soil, and eventually feed us and our friends.

Goats and Beef

St. Croix has very little agriculture, but one thing it does have is one good grass-fed cattle farm. The Senepol beef at Annaly Farms is grass-fed, grass-finished, free-range, and is actually less expensive than the USDA beef shipped in from the states. I have seen the happy cows in the field and I know that they are raised with love. They are not pumped with antibiotics because they are not as prone to infection as cows that are suffering the effects of eating grain. We often eat this meat on the farm and I am happy to support this local food producer. There is a demand for milk on the farm as it is one thing we have to purchase at the store or co-op. I hope Penelope goat (or whatever they are calling her now) will produce milk for us to drink and make cheese from. In the future we may expand our small herd of goats to include some cattle.


At home we always had rabbits as pets, rabbits as fur producers, and as a meat producer in lean times. To this day I do not know how my mother culled and processed the rabbit we ate, after this experience I am ready to find out. Part of coming to terms with eating meat was the process of respecting the life that you are taking and giving thanks for the sacrifice. Krystle gave me the opportunity to observe the harvest of a few of our older female rabbits that were not reproducing well and not tending to their litters appropriately.

I started by learning how to tan the hide of a bunny that was culled earlier that morning. I took a small piece and scraped the fat, flesh, and oil from the skin with a machete. I then hammered it to a board to stretch in the sun. When I first approached the freshly skinned hide, at first I couldn't touch it. I watched Marshall begin the process I knew that working the hide would help ease me into the idea. I was nervous.

Krystle brought the fluffy, snow-white bunny to the table. Marshall and Wren held her down and calmed her while Krystle took a breath, found the veins in her neck, and quickly cut each of the two main arteries. She only fought a little and as Ben and I watched the blood drain out in silence we thanked her for her sacrifice. It was over quickly, but it seemed like an eternity.

I felt at peace when I sat down to eat the Rabbit Rice we had for dinner last night. I could honor the life of that rabbit, what she gave to the farm in the form of baby bunnies, manure, and sustenance for all of us who life off what this farm produces. It is the life-cycle. Life is beautiful.