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Eating green in a post-carbon world

Pam Mitchell, center, discusses the fine art of raising greens with CSA partners Tricia Beckner and Laurie Carron. - Patricia Duff / The Record
Pam Mitchell, center, discusses the fine art of raising greens with CSA partners Tricia Beckner and Laurie Carron.
— image credit: Patricia Duff / The Record

Have good food; will not travel.

Shop any local supermarket’s produce display and you’ll come across apples from Chile, grapes from Mexico, lettuce from California and oranges from Florida.

Most of the food bought in big-business chain markets perpetuate the transportation of food from hundreds to thousands of miles away from the consumer’s kitchen.

According to a study by the New Economics Foundation in London, a dollar spent locally generates twice as much income for the local economy. And when businesses are not owned locally, money leaves the community at every transaction. Eating locally grown food makes more sense for the local economy.

But experts also say the good intentions of buying organic are outweighed by the ill effects of transporting that food. The miles that organic food often travels from farm to dinner plate creates environmental damage that outweighs the benefit of buying organic.

New ideas and solutions are coming to the fore, however and some people are buying locally in a push to maintain the health of both the economy and the environment. They are beating a path toward a sustainable food system.

Pam Mitchell and a contingent of Whidbey Island residents are not only thinking “outside the box” when it comes to the local food economy, they are throwing the box away — or most likely recycling it.

“I want to be a part of that,” Mitchell said, referring to her push to change the local food system and starting her own Community Supported Agriculture garden.

Mitchell, who runs Pam’s Place Produce at the Bayview Farmers Market, said people are becoming acclimated to the idea that lifestyle changes need to happen now if future generations are to survive the quickly changing planet with its depletion of some resources.

That means giving up total dependence on oil and thinking about the reduction of an individual’s carbon footprint — the measure of the impact human activities have on the environment in terms of the amount of green house gases produced — by using less oil and requiring that less oil be used by the economic system to satisfy the consumer’s daily needs.

One way to do that is by putting food on the table that has not traveled too far.

The idea of community supported agriculture is not a new one. There are several regional CSAs that have been supplying locally grown, organic food to communities in the Northwest for more than a decade.

Recently, island organizations have been forming around the idea of a sustainable island.

“Transition Whidbey,” is working on a 20-year plan for using 50 percent less energy. And “WhidbeyFarm2Chef” is working to connect farmers from Oak Harbor to Clinton to local chefs and consumers.

The “slow food” movement envisions a future food system that is based on the principles of high quality and taste, environmental sustainability and social justice.

And some down-to-basics organic farming classes, like those offered at Tilth, are exposing the island community to the possibility of a sustainable food system coming right from your own backyard.

Pam’s Place Produce CSA is the newest community supported agriculture effort on the South End. Mitchell said it was formed to support the idea of eating food from local gardens.

Mitchell was practically born with her hands in the dirt. She learned to farm as a child from her grandfather in Capetown, South Africa, where she said the climate is very similar to the temperate climate of the Northwest.

Now, after selling her organic produce at the farmers market for more than 10 years, Mitchell is joining forces with fellow islanders Laurie Carron and Tricia Beckner to grow Pam’s Place Produce CSA from a half-acre garden in Clinton.

At the three women’s 130-foot-by-150-foot parcel, permaculture is the name of the game.

The word “permaculture” was coined by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren during the 1970s. Back then, they started to train individuals to become designers of their own environments and to build increasingly self-sufficient human settlements — ones that reduce society’s reliance on industrial systems of production and distribution.

The idea has been growing ever since and people all over the world are looking to the community supported garden as a way of feeding whole towns.

Berkley, Calif. restaurant owner Alice Waters pushed the boundaries of community supported agriculture 10 years ago when she successfully launched the “Edible Schoolyard” at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School in Berkley.

In that program, Waters created a nonprofit program that took an acre of asphalt parking lot and turned it into a soil-rich organic garden in which students actively reap the benefits of their fresh crops by eating through the school lunch program what they harvest daily.

Mitchell, too, sees a place for training others in the garden as well.

Pam’s Place Produce CSA offers gardening internships to not only complete the necessary labor involved in growing food, but also to promote the idea of a shift toward the “permanent culture” of people being able to be a part of growing the food that will eventually be on their table.

Tasks such as garden fence building, greenhouse construction, raised bed creation, irrigation assembly, harvesting, pruning, bunching, bagging and boxing are all part of the exchange to create the community garden.

“My impetus is to learn from Pam,” Beckner said.

Beckner said she and her partner bought the parcel of land on Bob Galbreath Road not only for its sunny location and well-drained, cow-dung rich soil, but for another reason.

“The thing is we remind ourselves that the previous owners of the land saw us as the stewards and we want to do something good with it — to let people eat off the land.”

Carron is just as enthusiastic.

“Gardening is therapeutic for me,” she said.

“It allows me to let go of the stress of the other work that I do to support myself. I’ve always grown something and there is nothing more miraculous to me than to watch a seed turn into a huge, healthy plant.”

There is plenty of work for these gardeners and any supporters of the garden.

Using the permaculture model, Pam’s Place Produce CSA will grow enough salad greens, vegetables and small fruits to support a 40-family CSA. To that end, the gardeners will put 60 raised beds into production, each 3 feet wide by 30 feet long.

Also constructed is a plastic-covered hoophouse where they’ll grow tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and basil, all of which need more heat to ripen well.

The mounded raised beds are about 8 inches high, with sloped sides. They are completely covered with 2 inches of well-composted steer manure to keep the weeds down, conserve moisture, protect the soil from erosion, maintain a more consistent soil temperature year round and keep the earthworms happily tilling the soil and composting soil residue.

Once established, permanent raised beds are no longer compacted by walking, so they drain better in wet weather and warm up sooner in the spring, allowing for earlier seeding and planting.

No tilling is required once the beds are established.

The farmers spread a thin layer of composted manure across the top of the bed to prepare it for the next sowing and the seeds are sown directly into this layer.

A drip-tape irrigation system is permanently installed and uses far less water than overhead sprinkling, as well as preventing mold and mildew caused by wet leaves.

With a series of timed plantings — succession planting — the CSA can grow up to three crops in each bed during the primary growing season, and then extend the season in the hoophouse by growing greens, broccoli and root crops through the fall for harvesting in the winter.

Mitchell is excited by the prospect of fueling the dream of a transition to a sustainable island.

Recently, the three friends attended the WhidbeyFarm2Chef event at Greenbank Farm where 70 farmers and chefs sat down to a local food feast to talk about making the transition happen.

“We were amazed at the number and the diversity of farmers on Whidbey

Island,” Mitchell said.

“They are producing all kinds of meat, eggs, milk, cheese, wine, beer, mushrooms, fruit and vegetables. I think if we can get some grains

like wheat and rice grown here, all we’ll really need is enough global warming to be able to grow coffee and olives for olive oil! Actually, with a little creativity, we should be able to cover all the bases,” she added.

Mitchell said this year will show a surge in local food sales at restaurants and supermarkets besides what is already sold at the farmers markets and on the farms themselves.

Farmers can post a Web page inexpensively at www.localharvest.org where listings of area CSAs are at consumers’ fingertips.

One Coupeville CSA has a long waiting list, and is offering to help get the word out that Pam’s Place Produce CSA is accepting patrons if they are willing to travel to Bayview to pick up their produce.

“It’s wonderful to know that people are so willing to work together on this island,” Mitchell said.

Savoring what Mitchell called a “fabulous” lavender creme brulee, she said the WhidbeyFarm2Chef conversation finished with a focus on the practical side of connecting farmers, chefs and store owners with local products and each other.

It was determined that a Web site was needed to show what was available as well as a refrigerated delivery truck that would pick up and deliver products based on the information provided by the Web site.

Olivia Forte-Gardner, the agriculture sustainability and land stewardship program coordinator of the WSU Extension program, is talking with the team from Transition Whidbey to make the connection a reality.

Economics is an excellent reason to buy local food, but beyond that, the farmers of Pam’s Place Produce CSA say local food just tastes better and has more nutritional value if its fresh.

Locally grown fruits and vegetables also have the benefit of being allowed to ripen, instead of being picked early to survive the truck ride. Short distance food also has less chance of being contaminated.

Mitchell also pointed out that buying local food gives the eater an opportunity to eat with the seasons and to eat foods when they are at their peak taste, at their most abundant and the least expensive.

Farmers know that food that will have to sustain a shorter shelf life do not have the same high-yield demand that supermarket “name brand” produce has. Therefore, the farmer is free to try small crops of various fruits and vegetables that are not as common as the Romaine lettuce, red delicious apples and Russet potatoes that are the staple foods of every supermarket chain.

Carron said sustainably-minded agriculture also naturally supports responsible land development. When you buy local, you give those with local open space — farms and pastures — an economic reason to produce food.

For information regarding Pam’s Place Produce CSA e-mail pamsplaceproduce@whidbey.com.

Patricia Duff can be reached at 221-5300 or pduff@southwhidbeyrecord.com.

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