Shrinking our Footprint

I’ve been happily making the smaller ecological footprint of a vegetarian lifestyle for about ten years now and it was only a matter of time before I felt inspired to shrink that footprint further.

I’ve received many little nudges over the years, from Woody Harrelson’s 2003 movie, “Go Further” to recently released “Forks over Knives.” Lately, I’ve been admiring Jenny’s raw food choices when we eat lunch at the office and daughter Amy has been sharing gleanings from the Natural Chef program at Central Carolina Community College. But it was a series of conference workshops that supplied the push I needed to try on a smaller sized shoe.

CFSA Conference

Amy, Bob and Eric share a moment at the conference.

Bob and I attended Carolina Farm Stewardship Association’s 26th annual Sustainable Agriculture Conference for the first time a couple of weekends ago. For years, we’d been hearing about the incredible local food movement synergy radiating from the conference. This year, the conference was being held in Durham so we decided to go.

We found the conference as exhilarating as advertised. Most of our friends and local food movement heroes were there; Jason and Haruka, Lyle and Tami, Jenny, Jennie, Kate, Carol, Stevie, Jessie, Tess, Hillary, John, Don, Jane, Jonah, Tasha, Anna, Adam, Betsy, Linda Watson, Eric Henry, Doug Jones. Two great days of hi’s, hugs and networking!

The workshop choices were impressive. So much so that the topic in the halls was usually, “Which workshop are you going to next?” and “Oh! I’d really like to go to ‘Fun with Mushrooms’ but I also wanted to catch Tony Cleese’s workshop”

Ultimately, I chose five out of fifty-six workshops and traded workshop highlights with friends during breaks and meals. I picked:

  • Rob Bowers’ “Commercial Fruit Production”
  • Will Hooker’s “Permaculture: A Sustainable Living Methodology for the Home, Garden and Community”
  • Zev Friedman’s “The Forest Cuisine Project: Permaculture Farming for a Living”
  • “Update on the Organic Bread Flour Project” panel with the local organic grains grower, miller, malter, brewer and baker
  • Jason and Haruka Oatis’ “Growing Rice in North Carolina”

Now, this may all sound like rather dry material but I’m here to report that what happened was pure magic! My eyes were opened wider than I thought possible and I actually heard angels sing during some of the presentations. Seriously.

Haruka and I kept catching each others eyes and squeezing our hands during Will Hooker’s Urban Permaculture workshop. He told the inspiring story of how he and his wife transformed a tiny urban home and yard into a haven, playground, and food producing garden with fish pond, gazebo, arbors and more. Ditto with Jason’s wonderfully entertaining story of how he and Haruka were inspired by Japanese farmer and philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka’s to grow organic rice using the natural farming method.

Bob and I found the panel on Organic Bread Flour sobering. I had no idea how much work went into the growing and processing of grain and it made me question my flour-dependent footprint.

This is the same epiphany I had when I realized how many pounds of grain go into producing a pound of beef. I now realize how many man hours go into producing a pound of grain and how many more into a pound of flour! Surely, I can’t need that much flour to satisfy my protein and carbohydrate needs? Especially when much of what I bake with is unbleached bread flour, which by definition has had the protein milled out! Better I meet my nutritional needs with sweet potatoes and chick peas which I love every bit as much as seitan sandwiches.

And then there was permaculturist Zev Friedman, self-admitted wild food vagabond, who introduced me to the concept of an interconnected food web. He suggested we cultivate food groups that work together, observe and replicate natural patterns, and learn to harvest the bounty that already exists. Zev pointed out that Monsanto will never be able to patent all the seeds in the forests, making yet another case for reducing our dependency on corn, wheat and soy.

Walking AwayI love the way all of this information neatly ties in with the Occupy Wall Street movement. Just walking away from the established methods of food production and distribution absolutely requires we change the way we eat. We need to rethink our food patterns and learn to work with nature. We need to learn more ways to do for ourselves and decrease our dependency on the big corporations.

It occurred to me that our culture is at the same pivotal point as the Mayan culture was at the end of their empire. It isn’t a mystery what happened to this vibrant civilization that lay buried for centuries deep in the rain forests of Central America.

When population and resource demand got too unwieldy, the Mayans increasingly found themselves unable to weather drought and other natural threats to their corn crop. Those at the top continued to eat well while making heads roll down the sides of their pyramids. Many of the rest stuck around, hoping things would get better, too afraid of the unknown to leave civilization as they knew it.

And some of the Mayan people simply walked off into the jungle and created a new way of life. These were likely the ancestors of the resourceful and confident Mayans we worked with in Belize. Rolando and Nikki and their families knew how to get virtually everything they needed from the forests, from building materials, to medicine, to food.

As Bob and I walk away from the ambient culture, our footprints continue to shrink. Changes are already becoming apparent in our home menus. One step at a time, I am steering food choices towards whole and raw foods, choosing rice over pasta, salad over sauté’s, fruit over juice and chick pea patties over bread. Smaller footprint, here we come!

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