I just found out I’m a green goddess

I was interviewed for a podcast on WFIU a few weeks ago and just stumbled across it on the web.  I was tickled to hear myself described as a “green goddess of local food.”  It was a great plug for the Local Growers Guild  but a bit disappointing that they managed to get a few things wrong.  I have very little luck with journalists – they can’t seem to get things quite right!!  (In this case, it was a pretty flattering mistake; they gave our four-year-old organization credit for creating the thirty-year-old farmers’ market in Bloomington.  Pretty impressive, eh?)

Anyway, thought you might enjoy a little snippet from the local food scene in Bloomington.  There are also a few pictures and for the truly brave, the full 10-minute interview rather than the polished shortened version.

WFIU Earth Eats – Maggie Sullivan of the Local Growers Guild

Actually, last week I was pictured and interviewed in the local newspaper so maybe I should include a link to that one as well except that our local paper is very protective and doesn’t want people to see its precious content…  I think you can look at the webchat I did, if you’re interested.  I supplied all the content so I can’t complain about any errors.  :)

Herald Time Live Chat – Maggie Sullivan of the Local Growers Guild

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How to invest sustainably (in bonds)

The bond certificate for a train companyLast week, I talked about the safest, most liquid investments you can have: bank accounts and CDs. Bonds are slightly riskier but have better returns and sometimes allow you to fund very specific activities, which makes it easier to make moral investments. Bonds also encourage a long-term perspective since their value doesn’t fluctuate like stocks do. There are three major types of bonds, each with different benefitsa dn drawbacks: federal, municipal, and corporate.

A bond (or bill or note depending on how long they take to mature) is basically a loan to a company or government. You pay them a given amount and they pay you interest and then repay your loan at the end of the term. Some bonds roll the interest into the final payment while others give out occasional (usually quarterly or annual) interest payments. For example, you can put $25 into a savings bond and get $50 from the government in 15 years. Or, you can put it in a corporate bond and receive annual payments of $1 until you get your $25 back in 15 years (obviously, these numbers are totally made up).

US government bonds are some of the safest investments you can make. This lack of risk is reflected in their low returns, however. The current rate for most federal bonds range from 0.07% to 3.7% depending on the maturation date (1 month to 30 years out). Interest on government bonds is also exempt from state and local taxes (although not federal taxes), which increases the effective yield a little. Even though returns aren’t great, you know what you’re funding: the US government. Generally, the government takes a longer view than corporations but there are still some morally sticky areas, depending on your viewpoint. If you’re interested in federal bonds, you can buy them through TreasuryDirect.

Municipal bonds are similar, but sold by local governments. Usually, these bonds raise funds for a specific purpose like improving schools. Here in Bloomington, the city is considering floating a bond to buy a sports complex. To encourage people to invest, they’ve discussed how much money they’ll need to raise as well as how they plan to pay it back (savings from events they’d otherwise have to rent locations for and monthly access fees). This makes it easy to evaluate and decide whether or not it’s a sustainable purpose.

Even better, this money stays in the local economy. Interest rates are usually higher than those for federal bonds, about 1.7% to 6.8% (6 month to 30 year) right now. That’s because of slightly higher risk and difficulty finding buyers (it’s easier to sell to the entire US than to a small town). You also have to invest on the municipality’s schedule and not your own, since they don’t continuously float bonds. Many municipal bonds are tax free at all levels (federal, state, and local) but others offer no tax incentives at all.

Corporate bonds are floated by companies that need additional cash. Many large corporations use bonds to raise money for seasonal expenses or short-term capital expenses like building new factories. Like buying stock in a company, you’re funding all of the company’s activities, which can raise moral problems if the company isn’t one you believe in. Although corporate bonds are riskier than government bonds, they’re safer than stocks. If a company goes bankrupt, bond-holders are paid before stock-holders. Corporate rates range from 1.5% to 11% (2 year to 30 year) depending on the risk rating of the bond (A, AA, and AAA from reasonable risk to almost no risk).

If you buy a corporate or municipal bond, you’ll probably see numbers like the price, coupon, and maturity date. In general, all you really need to worry about is the yield-to-maturity (YTM). This incorporates all of those factors into a simple annual yield. For example, if the YTM is 3% then you know that buying a bond at $1000 will yield you $30 a year. If the bond costs $500, then you’ll only get $15 with the same YTM.

Federal bonds are a little simpler, since you pay a discount and receive face value on maturity. For example, a EE bond with a face value of $50 might cost you $25. In 30 years, you can redeem your EE bond for $50, an annual compound rate of 2.4%.

Bonds are great if you’re looking for tax exemption, low risk, regular payments, or specific projects to fund. They’re not so good if you want to invest money on a regular schedule or you want higher returns. I think that bonds are a great part of a sustainable portfolio, but since they take some work and aren’t always available, stocks have a place as well. I’ll talk more about that in my next article.

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Rebuilding our Local Food System

Maggie in Local Growers Guild shirtI work for the Local Growers Guild, a cooperative of small farms (and the restaurants and community members who buy from them), working to strengthen the local food economy.  We want to make small, sustainable farms viable, we want to shrink our community’s carbon footprint by encouraging the consumption of locally grown food, and we want to rebuild our local food distribution system.  There was a time when communities sourced a large percentage of their food from farms in the region and had things like a local dairy, a local butcher, a local baker, and a local produce market where farmers could bring their goods to be sorted, washed, packaged, and sold.  Nowadays that local infrastructure is pretty much gone (with the exception of our most excellent farmers’ markets).  We have restaurants and hospitals and schools that say they are interested in using more local food but no good way to connect them with the growers.  There’s also that chicken-and-egg challenge of the fact that growers don’t really want to grow more if they don’t see a market but institutions don’t want to buy food until it’s available in quantity.  What’s a cooperative to do?

Well, our current plan is to conduct a feasibility study evaluating what resources are available now, what challenges are preventing the effective distribution of local food, and what steps we can take to make it happen.  Today we took a field trip down to Louisville to see some of the projects they’re working on.  Kentucky is actually very progressive in the local food arena thanks to a non-profit group called the Community Farm Alliance (CFA).  Kentucky is well known for horses, booze, and tobacco and that really was the vast majority of their agricultural production until the late 1980’s when the world suddenly decided that tobacco was bad.  Tobacco farmers got very nervous about what was going to happen when their farm product became illegal.  CFA started bringing farmers together to talk about how to deal with the change and also to lobby their state government to direct funds from the tobacco settlement money into retraining tobacco farmers into sustainable food production.  Well, they were quite successful and managed to get something like $1.7 billion over twenty years allocated to developing a sustainable food system.

They have done a lot of cool projects so far.  Initially, they focused a lot on connecting rural small farmers with fresh vegetables and urban residents of West Louisville who live in a “food desert” where there are no good grocery stores and there is no access to fresh, nutritious fruits and vegetables.  It has been a challenge to find ways to get the food to the urban communities in a way that is profitable for the farmer and appealing to the urban residents, who may not have any experience cooking fresh vegetables.  They have had a few attempts that have floundered but are currently working on a model that will consist of specialized vans that can drive to a neighborhood and then open up to become produce vendors.  Sort of like an ice cream truck but healthier.

Our main destination was Grasshoppers Distribution, a farmer-owned warehouse and distribution system that buys food from local farmers and resells it to restaurants, groceries, and institutions as well as running a CSA (Consumer Supported Agriculture) program.  Each week they contact the fifty-ish farmers they work with to find out what products are available.  They compile the list and send it out to their buyers, who then place orders.  Grasshoppers then contacts the farms to place the orders.  The next day, they drive around to pick up the produce, bring it back to their warehouse, sort it into orders, and deliver it all.  It’s a lot of logistics and they have to work hard to keep communication channels open but it seems to be going pretty well.  We are considering a similar model for Bloomington but the overhead costs are rather steep (real estate and trucks are not cheap).

A somewhat simpler model is City LIFE Local Food which strives to “deliver fresh local food to the busy professional.”  Subscribers log on to a website once a week and order a box of fresh produce, which is then delivered to their workplace.  This way they can pick exactly what they want and skip a week or two if they’re not interested.  I think the group also includes other food products like meats, cheeses, and honey.  Their system appeals to me because it has relatively low overhead and is a great way to deliver to a large group of people at once (one of the companies they work with has 9,000 employees).

Louisville has been thinking about local food a lot a couple years ago the city hired a consultant to do a thorough study.  One of the recommendations was to build a year-round farmers’ market, which is now starting construction.  The plan is to develop an entire city block with an assortment of retail spaces for food businesses including the local chef’s warehouse Creation Gardens, a local Buffalo company, some smaller indoor permanent market booths (perhaps a butcher and a baker?), some more temporary outdoor market booths (for farmers to use in for three seasons), and a little gathering space outdoors where there can be bands or other entertainment.  It’s going to be pretty impressive but talking with the developer made me realize how intimidating these sorts of large projects can be – beyond the money, there is also a ton of politics and negotiations with other property owners and struggles to get timing and commitments down.  Crazy.

I’m still digesting it all and thinking about what would be the logical next step for Bloomington.  I really like the idea of having a warehouse space that could be used to consolidate produce from different farms and distribute it through a CSA or as restaurant deliveries.  But warehouse space is expensive (especially if you have coolers or freezers) so it seems like there would need to be a major commitment for use before it would be worthwhile.  Hmmmmmmm.

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Think global, live local

A small child holding a globeWhen you hear about sustainable living, you tend to get a focus on global impact. How much CO2 are you contributing to global warming? How many Earths would your lifestyle require? Those are important questions but my concept of living sustainably starts at home.

To me, “sustainable living” is a pretty simple concept. If you can maintain (sustain) your lifestyle (how you’re living) for the foreseeable future, then you’re living sustainably. The global component, the one we all hear about, is how we’re going to maintain our culture and civilization over time. As it is now, we’re only able to maintain our lifestyle because someone else is going without or because we’re using resources in a profligate waste (or both). In this case, the right thing to do is to figure out what we can do without. For most people, the answer seems to be “allow other people to have my standard of living.” Obviously, that’s not sustainable. People aren’t willing to give up their comforts so that I can live a better life. Instead, I’m trying to figure out what I can get rid of to try and meet these people halfway.

Part of that is encouraging others to reduce their usage (of land, natural resources, air quality, etc). In a selfish sense, if other people use less, there will be more for me! If I reduce my consumption as well, it might be possible to find a middle ground where people in the global sense are living sustainably. That is, the average person will be using up fewer resources than are naturally produced.

That’s pretty long-term pie-in-the-sky thinking, though. I lump it in with things like setting up Mars colonies or creating a technologica singularity. They’re neat to think about and might even be laudable goals, but I personally just can’t live my life working towards them.

I prefer to focus on making my local life sustainable. Some of these items carry over from the global view. Eating local food keeps me healthier, which means I’ll be able to keep doing what I’m doing. Driving as little as possible has similar benefits.

That’s still pretty abstract, though. My general day-to-day focus is on making sure that my life is sustainable. Primarily, that means focusing on money, which is something I don’t see much about in the green community.

The best way to weather future changes (that is, to make sure that your current lifestyle is sustainable) is to live within your means (reduce your lifestyle) and to save as much money as possible (to extend your lifestyle if it becomes more costly). Right now, I save 30-40% of my income (small though it is). That means that if I suddenly have a paycut, my lifestyle isn’t affected at all. It also means that lots of little things become easier because I don’t have to wait for a new paycheck in order to do things. I also feel like my income is less likely to disappear than other people’s because instead of having one boss, I’ve got multiple clients. Even if I lose one of them, I’ll still be making something.

Buying a house and getting it set up have definitely eaten into those cash reserves, so I don’t have as much saved now as I’d like. However, I feel like owning a house is an important step in my never-ending quest to make sure my life is sustainable. My monthly rent is now much less variable over time and eventually will become much less. I’m also now free to do whatever I want to the place, which means I should be able to maximize my happiness better. If a gazebo would make me happy, I can put one up. Or if honey would bring a smile to my face, I can get bee hives.

If you take anything away from this post, I hope you’ll remember to look at things locally and not just globally when you’re making choices. Thinking globally, it makes sense not to drive, to live on a farm in the middle of nowhere, to avoid having children. Locally, that might not make sense at all. Perhaps a job that you love requires a certain amount of travel. Or maybe you get hives whenever you get too close to cows.

Sustainability is local too. If you can’t maintain a lifestyle because it would make you miserable, that’s just as unsustainable as a lifestyle that uses up too many resources. The key, as with most things, is to get rid of unnecessary junk and to continually find ways to improve.

I hope to hear more about your experiments as you do so. I’m sure I’ll learn a lot that will help me live more sustainably as well.

This post brought to you by the letters APLS.

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The Crunchy Chicken Extreme Eco-Challenge

Extrme Eco Challenge - Crunchy Chicken It’s almost May and it’s time to decide whether or not Will and I are going to accept Crunchy Chicken’s Extreme Eco Challenge. She is a blogger like us who leads a pretty normal life but is working to make life a little greener. One of her favorite methods for greening the world is creating challenges for her readers. This winter she offered the Freeze Yer Buns challenge asking folks to lower their thermostats and this month she’s running a Buy Nothing Challenge. Next on the agenda is a hardcore eco-throwdown.

There are seven options, increasing in difficulty. According to the rules, participants may have one day off a week (sorta like Lent, depending on which teachings you follow). Here they are along with some of my thoughts.

1. No plastic (don’t buy or consume anything in plastic). I initially had visions of starving to death. No tubs or shrink wrap or produce bags or bread bags, which means no frozen food, no cheese, no condiments… Will told me I was being melodramatic and with a little more thought I realized it was manageable. But definitely challenging.

2. No paper products. This seems easier to me except for three items: my calendar, my notebook, and toilet paper. I have been experimenting with a TP-free method but so far I’m not ready for a total switch. Hmmmm.

3. No driving. Will says he would happily do this and let me chauffeur him but I told him I didn’t think that would count. Actually, he would have very little trouble giving up his car but I use mine almost daily to commute to work and to field trips that are not accessible via bus. I’m sure I could cut back my usage dramatically but I couldn’t go car-free. And we do have a driving vacation planned at the end of the month that involves his brother’s wedding…

4. Local food only. I’m thinking about trying this challenge in July but right now we’d be eating an awful lot of eggs and salad greens. I also think that eating 100% locally is too extreme and it makes more sense to shoot for a diet that’s about 80% local so you can still enjoy other cuisines and foods that simply don’t grow where you are. But maybe I’m just a wus. :)

5. No garbage output (compost and recyclables only). This is a noble goal but it seems pretty unattainable. No waste at all? There are pieces of trash like candy wrappers that literally just appear in our yard. And there are a few things I’m not sure will ever be recyclable or reusable. Used dental floss? Sticky labels from produce? I think we already do pretty well minimizing our trash. Still, I’m sure if we took up the challenge we could find a few more areas of waste to trim.

6. No excessive water usage (drink as much as you want but use a bare minimum for bathing, brushing teeth, washing clothes, washing dishes, etc).
This actually sounds easier than some of the others although I do enjoy long hot showers and using the automatic washing machine. And if I took Crunchy Chicken’s advice and really thought about what it would be like to haul in all the water I use from a stream, I’m sure I could cut back on my usage dramatically.

7. No electricity (you can leave your fridge on if you must). There are three big challenges for this one. One is heat, which we could probably do without in May. One is cooking, since we have an electric stove and oven, although I guess if necessary we could eat cold food most of the week. And the last is computers. Will really needs his for work and he works from home most of the time. So maybe we could do a modified version with an allowance for computer use for work only. Oh, and it would suck a lot to not have hot water. But maybe I would be motivated enough to procure a solar shower bag. And I’m sure we’d find a whole new set of ways to entertain ourselves in the evenings without electricity.

Which one should we try? Which one would YOU try? Or has this crossed over into the realm of crazy crunchy eco-extremists? Let us know quick – May 1st is just around the corner!

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Ready for a fast, cheap, local pizza?

It’s getting close to dinner, which is a dangerous time to be reading a friend’s food blog. Luckily, the entry that caught my eye was all about pizza. As Maggie has mentioned before, I love pizza. It’s a fast, easy and filling meatless meal. Takeout pizza is too expensive for us and the frozen ones are full of fat. And, of course, both use ingredients that have travelled long distances to get here.

Flatbread pizzaI’ve found that making pizza from scratch can be faster, greener, and even cheaper! I got my recipe out of the Complete Tightwad Gazette, which includes a lot of great ideas of reducing consumption. It requires no fancy ingredients and takes about ten minutes of mixing and topping, ten minutes of rising, and ten minutes of cooking, which puts it on par with ordering delivery.

The first time I made it, the dough was hard to roll (there’s a reason you see people tossing pizza dough!), which made it uneven. That wasn’t a big problem except that the thick parts cooked a lot slower than the thin parts, which made the whole pizza a little doughy.

My next experiment was with adding some whole wheat flour to the mix. It gave a great texture, but also created some pockets of dough that were even more difficult to roll. We ended up with a square pizza (or, as I told Maggie, “gourmet flatbread”). I also made sure to keep all but the edges of the dough thin. Some places were so thin that I accidentally pulled holes in them. Pushing the edges of the hole together fixed that problem but exacerbated the square pizza problem.

Luckily, Maggie is a sucker for “gourmet flatbreads,” so she was happy with it. I was happy that the thin spots thickened during cooking as the dough rose. In the end, even the thinnest spots of pizza were thick enough to be tasty and it wasn’t anywhere near as doughy as my previous experiment. In the future, I’m going to make sure to keep the middle a little thicker so that it can carry the weight of all the toppings I put on.

Another bonus for me is that there are a couple periods of downtime (while the dough rises and while the pizza cooks) that give me just enough time to wash the stuff I got dirty in the previous step. That makes it a snap to clean up after dinner when I’m full and lazy. It takes only a minute for me to pack up the leftovers, if there are any, and toss the plates into the dishwasher.

As a quick dinner, it’s hard to beat!

This version (based on the one in the Tightwad Gazette) uses a food processor, but I’m sure you could make it by hand as well.

1/2 – 3/4 cup warm water
1 T yeast (1 packet, although yeast is a lot cheaper if you buy in bulk)
1 t sugar
2c flour (optionally, replace 3/4 cup with whole wheat flour)
1 T vegetable oil
1/2 t salt

Combine 1/4 cup of water with yeast and sugar. Stir and let stand about 5 minutes. Put flour, oil, and salt into your food processor and process about 5 seconds with the metal blade (if you’re making a larger recipe, you may want to use a bread attachment. Check your user manual to be sure). Add yeast mixture and process for 10 seconds or so. Turn on the processor and drizzle water in until the dough forms into a ball. Then, process the dough until it turns around the processor 25 times. Put the ball onto a 14-inch greased pizza pan (a pizza stone or cookie sheet work equally well). Cover with a bowl and let stand 10 minutes. Pat the dough and spread it out. If you’re adventurous, try tossing it! Remember to make sure that the dough is thicker on the outside. The dough will rise as it bakes, so the rest of the pizza can be pretty thin. Cover with pizza sauce (this article seems to have a good recipe for sauce, but I haven’t tried it yet), cheese, and your choice of toppings. We usually like onions, peppers, and black olives.

Bake at 450 degrees for 15-20 minutes. Be aware that the edges will cook faster than the center!

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