Monday, February 21, 2011

Self sufficiency, greed and "urban homesteading"

One of the bigger movements in this whole locavore/self-sufficiency/green world is called "Urban homesteading" wherein people living in cities use the land that they've got to produce food for themselves, friends, families, and whoever. People keep chickens, made compost, grow gardens. They build greenhouses and can food for the cold, dark months of winter.

Urban homesteading as a concept has gained potency in recent years, but the term itself can be traced back into the 1970s. Kelly Coyne and her husband Erik Knutzen, writers of the wonderful blog Root Simple, even wrote a book about it called "The Urban Homestead: Your Guide to Self-sufficient Living in the Heart of the City." They've got a new and updated edition out soon.

So, we are somewhat distressed to learn that a group called the Derveas Institute successfully trademarked phrases like "Urban homestead," "urban homesteading" and other terms used in the nearly-forty-year-old culture of urban homesteading. This happened in late 2010. Last week, they started sending cease-and-desist letters and DMCA takedown letters to bloggers using any of "their" terms. Derveas Institute head (and family patiarch) Jules Derveas has defended the move as actually PROTECTING the culture, you see. Because he sees it that either HE can own the words, or some BigAg corporate entity can own them.

Quite frankly, I see this as a power grab. I also think that the US Patent and Trademark Office really screwed the pooch on this one, allowing a collectivized term to become the property of a group that did not originate it nor had any true claim of ownership.

Unfortunately, giant media and social networking site don't have the legal ability under the DMCA to tell the Derveas Institute off. Kelly and Erik's Facebook page got shut down and they were forced to change their blog name (They used to run 'Homegrown Evolution' which is apprently too close to the now-trademarked 'Homegrown Revolution' for Jules's taste).

Fortunately, Kelly and Erik did the smart thing and called our friends at the EFF. The EFF is an organization that fights for the rights of people in the digital realm. The EFF, being pretty much gold-plated awesome, has agreed to pick up the fight.

In addition, the community has risen up, declaring today to be "Take Back Urban Homesteading Day" with its own Facebook group. Angry letters have been written. There's a petition to revoke the trademark, all kinds of wonderful community action. Amusingly, the Derveas Institute has shut down THEIR own Facebook page, citing the number of angry comments and dismissing all the opposition as liars. They've also walked back some of their previous statements, and are saying that WHOEVER sent out the letters wasn't from the Derveas Institute, and was just trying to incite public opinion against them. Real classy, Jules.

This makes me happy on a number of levels. The phrase "urban homesteading" belongs to all of us and shouldn't have been granted trademarked status. The EFF is absolutely correct in agreeing to fight for Kelly and Erik and everyone else who has been a victim of this naked, bald-faced attempt to subvert the culture for commercial reasons. The community has banded together and some beautiful conversation has happened, in addition to a solidifying of the community AS a community. It's no longer a loose confederation of individual homesteaders, but feels more like an actual movement. I am sad for the reasons behind this evolution, but I think it's been beautiful to see.

The Raven and I are fledgling urban homesteaders. We are assembling the components we need to make a garden this year, and have talked with out landlord about where we can plant. I have pucks of dried peat for germinating my own seeds for transplant. We've got plans to build a small herbarium greenhouse just outside our kitchen. The Raven will be over the moon the day we're able to keep chickens in our yard. I don't need the Derveas Institute's permission to call myself what I am.

I'm intentionally NOT linking to the Derveas Institute. I won't directly refer traffic to them, though I encourage you to check the sources if you feel so inclined.

Viva la revolucion!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Feeling Better

Getting some of my anxieties written down last night has really helped me to relax a bit today. Part of it may be that tomorrow we'll be going shopping, but I found that I wasn't hungry between meals today, and I didn't fret about having a little snack. On the other hand, we were kind of bad locavores today. I ate some of our "medicinal" oyster crackers*, and the Bear cooked tonight's hamburger with a bit of olive oil. And we figured out (embarrassingly belatedly) that Tofutti Cuties are not actually local. At least we bought them at a locally-owned grocery store.

Today's breakfast was oatmeal with brown sugar from Bob's Red Mill. Lunch was a couple of boiled eggs from a NW farm. I had some oyster crackers and a Washington apple, and for dinner we had cheeseburgers on Oregon Grain bread from Naturebake, with Tillamook cheese and beef from Eastern Oregon, with some frozen Oregon veggies on the side. Absolutely yummy, for about $2.50 each. Rough estimate for our daily total is about $8.

Basically, we've gotten through the first week pretty well. We have a lot of the staple foods we bought last Tuesday left over, as well as some eggs and vegetables. I feel more secure, knowing that. And I'm looking forward to, rather than dreading, the rest of the experiment.

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*We both had upset tummies on Saturday, probably due to abrupt rise in fiber and butter intake, so we got some saltines and oyster crackers, as well as some ginger ale. No local crackers, but at least the soda was made in Oregon. Also, we put this down as medicinal expenses, rather than food. Kind of cheaty? Maybe.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Your Mileage May Vary

Bear and I are having very different experiences as we commence the first experiment. I'm finding myself very anxious, even fearful about our food. For me, this has rapidly become about what we can't have - about restrictions and fear, rather than about positive changes and freedom. I find myself thinking about food all the time, fretting about the next meal rather than looking forward to it.


It's been many years, but there was a stretch of time when, working full time at minimum wage, I didn't have enough money to pay rent and bills and buy groceries. There were times when I scrounged through the apartment looking for enough spare change to buy a pack of ramen noodles. There were a couple of times when I was desperate enough to go to a local food bank. They wanted to know what I was going to do differently so as not to require their assistance, and they weren't particularly kind about it. When I look back over the last twenty years, this was definitely a very low point.

Being on a very strict budget now brings back a lot of the old fear, to an extent that I never would have expected. Despite the fact that I can say "to heck with this" at any time, the $70 per week feels like a very real limit. Bear sees this as an experiment. I realized that I see this as a personal challenge, which means that the outcome of this experiment for me is not a yes or no answers to questions we're asking, it's a matter of will I succeed or will I fail?

So, naturally I find this to be a bit more fraught, more frightening.

We're eating better, more healthy food than we have for a while. I've cut my sugar intake by about half, and we've probably doubled the fiber in our diets. We're eating really good, whole foods, and a lot less processed food (although we've got some Tofutti Cuties in the freezer right now). And hilariously, I find myself craving all the fruits and vegetables that we can't get right now grown in Oregon and Washington. Putting them on the nuh-uh list makes me want 'em pretty bad.

I find myself hungry more often, but that just may be due to the illusion of scarcity. Really, there's a lot of good things to eat in the kitchen and no threat of going hungry. I'm too conscious of our limits to snack and risk running out of food before each week is over. I'm pretty sure that this particular fear is going to fade as the days go by.

One of the reasons I wanted to do this is to explore my relationship with food. The last few days have given me plenty to think about. And I promise to be more cheerful in the very near future.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

T-minus 5 days and counting!

You might have noticed that the Raven and I have mentioned projects and experiments when we made our intros. What's that all about?

Well, basically, we want to see how well we can live within various "constraints" - is it really possible to affordably live locally and sustainably? Can an average family really get by in today's world without going outside their local economy and foodshed?

We intend to find out. Starting on February 1st, and lasting until the end of February, the Raven and I are going to eat and live as locally as we can. Additionally, we're going to do it as INEXPENSIVELY as we can.

Here's the plan:

1) For the month of February, the Raven and I will be buying only foods grown and produced in Washington and Oregon. Preference will be given to companies within Oregon. When it's not possible to fulfill a food need from a local source, we've agreed that foods produced outside of this range, but by companies that fall under the area we've selected are acceptable substitutes.

2) Starting February 1st, we're packing away all non-local food items in our cabinets and starting with ONLY foods that fit within our guidelines

3) For the month of February, we're going to shop at locally owned stores and buy locally made goods. This isn't too much of an issue for us, as we've been practicing this one for a while, but it's good to get it down on paper.

4) We will do this all on $10.00 per day for the two of us (Yes, that's $5.00 per day per person). We chose this amount because it's what the Oregon Department of Human Services has determined is an appropriate SNAP benefit for two people. If that's what they think we can live on, by golly we're going to give it a try.

5) We're not into self-abuse, so we've allowed ourselves some exemptions from this list:
a) Tea
b) Coffee
c) Spices (including sugar)
d) Chocolate (a lot is MADE locally, but cacao is not GROWN locally)
e) Citrus

That's the basic gist of it. 28 days, $280 food budget. We plan to hit local co-ops, farmer's markets, and local stores that specialize in natural and local products.

Can we do it? We think so. I personally don't see it as being a huge challenge, but it'll be good to put that theory to the test.

We'll check in at various points along the way, and we look forward to seeing this all unfold.

Bob's Red Mill - An Amazing Local Food Resource

Bob's Red Mill is an example of all the best things that a local business can be. A while back, Bob Moore (the founder) announced that the company was initiating an Employee Stock Ownership Plan, effectively transferring ownership of the company to the employees. While this wasn't a gift to the employees, the Moores are doing something wonderful with some of the proceeds: they are donating five million dollars to Oregon State University to create a program focused on food issues and healthy eating.

Bob's Red Mill makes some really great products. I'm personally addicted to the veggie soup mix and their polenta.

If all businesses acted with the same amount of responsibility towards their employees and to the communities we live in, the world would be a far better place for all of us.

A shout out goes to Isaac Laquedem for posting this story.

Fun new cookbook!

The Raven and I go to a LOT of bookstores. If this surprises you, it really shouldn't. Our current favourite is the locally-owned, friendly and wonderful St. Johns Booksellers. Co-owner Nena got me addicted to the Allie Beckstrom series of novels from Portland-based author Devon Monk. I'm sure I'll forgive her once I've read them all...

But I didn't come here to tell you all about a fictional Portland fueled by magic, I wanted to share this incredible cookbook that I found there a few weeks back...

Pacific Feast: A cook's guide to West Coast foraging and cuisine
(by Jennifer Hahn, pix by Mac Smith)



Wow, this is a terrific cookbook.
Filled with mouth-watering pictures, this 209-page book isn't just a laundry list of recipes provided by some of the biggest names in Pacific Northwest cuisine. It's a guide to local foraging, with information on fruits, veggies, seaweed, mushrooms, and seafood/shellfish. There's even a recipe for dandelion wine!

The Raven and I have yet to explore its culinary depths, but I think that we're going to get a lot of mileage out of it. I can hardly wait!

I find it best to start at the beginning

Hello and welcome to our little project/experiment.

I'm Bear in "Bear and the Raven." The Raven and I have been talking a lot recently about sustainability, carbon footprints, nutrition and the economy of living locally.

Did you know that the average distance food travels from farm/ranch to table is in excess of 1500 miles? That number bothers me, especially since the Raven and I live in an area with a very prominent agricultural industry. We make a conscious effort to buy locally produced foodstuffs when we can.

Yes, that's right. We're budding locavores. I'm not ashamed to admit it!

The reasons are many, but not overly complex. Fresh food is better food. Locally produced foods typically are made using fewer undesirable chemicals, and less energy is expended getting it to our table. Moreover, by supporting local businesses at every step in the supply chain, we enrich our lives and communities, and keep money in the local economy that otherwise would flow out from our lives and enrich people who have no other connection to us.

This extends to how we spend our money on things that AREN'T food. We patronize locally owned shops, purchase things (when we can) that are made locally. I personally feel that it's important to support our local farmers, craftspeople, artisans and manufacturers. In an era of globalization, and race-to-the-bottom cost cutting measures, I choose not to reward those who have sacrificed quality or American jobs in order to increase profit-per-unit. It can be a long, exasperating process, but I think it's worth it. I'd much rather pay a few extra dollars for something made by a fellow American, than send my money to a large multinational corporation that implicitly supports labor practices in violation of the spirit of the US Constitution.

We have an interesting experiment coming up, and we're eager to share it with you. Stay tuned!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Introductions are in Order

My New Year's resolution was to explore my relationship to food.

It seemed like a better resolution to make than the usual "I'm going to lose twenty pounds."

'Cause really, I need to lose something more like forty pounds.

I'm about to be 40. I was raised by parents who grew up during the depression, so food during my childhood was hearty, and I was encouraged to clean my plate. Children starving in China, you know. Sadly, I wasn't encouraged to exercise. I've spent my adulthood trying to figure out how to eat healthy and get exercise, coming at it from a variety of different angles.

It seems like the more I learn, the less I know.

There are so many interpretations and fads about eating that it's hard to know what's right and what's wrong: low-carb, low-fat, paleolithic, atkins, south beach, and on and on. I like Michael Pollan's food rules, because they're so simple. I still struggle, though.

So, this year I am going to read and read and study and come at this from a new angle. And my mantra is "Another day, another chance to be healthy." I'm armed with a membership to the local gym, and a stack of books about local, healthy food and food systems. I'll share what I find and figure out here.

My partner and I plan to have a series of experiments and adventures over the course of the year. We'll tell you more soon.