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Acting Locally

"Despite all our accomplishments, we owe our existence to a six-inch layer of topsoil and the fact it rains."
- attributed to Paul Harvey (but the quote predates him)


There are only a mere handful of weeks until the farm kicks into high gear, and the Weeklyish will be flooded with urgent news of asparagus, ramps, salad greens, radishes, and all sorts of other excitement.  So, in this calm before the storm, it is only fitting that we pause to reflect on relevant global challenges, and the local actions we participate in to address them.  We begin with a look at the top soil crisis, and its impact on civilization.  Next, we learn how quickly a thriving community can be lost if it isn't intentionally supported.  And, we wrap things up with a recipe for some Indian comfort food.

Before you dive in, a little request.  In the last Weeklyish, I asked for feedback on our shared cultural capital.  While we received several responses to a survey, that was really seeking answers to a different question.  Of course, we appreciate your survey responses, and invite those of you who have not yet taken the survey to do so.  But, we genuinely would appreciate your thoughts on our shared community, whether that be the local or regional geographic community, or an ideological community, perhaps around shared interests in farming, business, sustainability, or eating.  Please, if you have a moment, let us know by email if we are a valued part of your community, what values and rituals we share,  and/or some of your favorite shared stories.

Order Deadlines

Delivery Option     Deadline
Home delivery | Thursday     Tuesday, 10pm*
Pickup @ Culver Farmers' Market | Saturday     Thursday, 10pm
*Sourdough orders for delivery require an additional 24 hours
Shop Now

Top Soil Crisis


Do you know what Indiana's top export is?  Hint: it's also the nation's top export. 

Top soil.  By both weight and value, Indiana exports more top soil every year than any other commodity.  Stanford University estimates the Midwestern United States is loosing topsoil at a rate 10 times that which it is replenished.  In his fascinating, if concerning, book Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, geologist David Montgomery estimates the global rate to be 20 times.

Unfortunately, there is no economic return for this export: it simply blows away in the wind, or washes down ditches and storm sewers.  It silts up ditches and rivers, requiring expensive dredging to restore water flow.  It damages water quality and aquatic life, and it contributes to giant maritime dead zones.

Montgomery's title is not hyperbole, either.  Countless civilizations have been built on topsoil, then declined as it was lost.  Think of places that today are largely barren, difficult places to live, but once were the height of human civilization.  People did not choose to build great civilizations in difficult places.  These were prime growing regions when the great civilizations thrived. "The Fertile Crescent" was once both vast and fertile, not a mere sliver a couple of miles wide along the river. Ancient Greece was able to reach military and cultural dominance on the basis of its thriving agricultural production.  Rome built its civilization on agriculture before conquest: in a pattern that has repeated endlessly throughout history, it was largely the need for food and other resources after its soils were deleted that drove its imperial expansion, and ultimate collapse.

The post-colonization strength of American power was also built on its soils.  The ability to feed ourselves domestically, while exporting agricultural commodities, was a large driver in the colonization of the New World, and westward expansion.  Now, however, the great wealth of American topsoil is waning.  A recent NPR story reports that Indiana, Illinois, Minnesota, and Iowa have already lost all of the topsoil on 1/3 of our crop land!

We are approaching the time of year when this loss is most visible. Pay attention over the next 12 weeks or so, as you're traveling around the region.  Look at the undulations in that field: are the hilltops light brown, and the valleys rich, dark brown-black?  Those hilltops have lost their topsoil!  Now check the ditches.  Are they running muddy?  As an archaeologist friend once put it, "that's civilization washing away."  Now, on those inevitable dry windy spring days: how much "dirt" can you see blowing in the wind?  Do you need your headlights on a sunny day?  Are you coughing up phlegm when pollen season hasn't even started?  We'll probably still be wearing masks in public: are they getting soiled quickly?  That's our topsoil.

But, one of the most common aphorisms in Permaculture applies here, too: "the problem is the solution."  Just as agriculture is the largest cause of topsoil loss, it is the largest, most powerful, tool for rebuilding it.  No-till farming (though, on large scale, it often relies on large quantities of herbicides, so there's a trade-off), cover-cropping, contour farming, perennial crops, hedgerows, wind breaks, properly managed grazing, and many other practices can go a long way to slowing the loss of topsoil.  Regenerative Agriculture, which we discussed in the February 15th Weeklyish makes reversing this trend a primary goal.

Alas, most of our food and subsidy systems currently reward farmers for destructive, not regenerative practices.  It is a tribute to the concern for the environment and society that so many local farmers employ an ever-increasing number of these practices.  For the most part, they cost the farmer far more money than any financial incentives they see in return. 

What can we do to fight top soil loss, in this regulatory environment?  Three important things. 

First, support farmers who care for our soil financially.  The largest positive impacts are usually made through small farms, ranches, and orchards.  So, seek your food there, purchasing directly from farmers you know care for the soil.  Because direct sales, absent the wholesale middlemen, are the only way such farmers can afford to fund these practices.

Second, when you observe a farmer working to protect soil, express your appreciation.  Farming is often a lonely business, one in which it is easy to feel forgotten and unappreciated by the very people you work to feed and nurture.  A simple thank you and conversation expressing curiosity about and appreciation for their methods is powerful encouragement, for free.

Third, take political action.  Most of our food and agricultural policies at a federal level are set in the farm bill, which is next up for re-negotiation in 2023.  It's a monolithic piece of legislation that covers entirely too much policy for a single bill, from crop insurance, to SNAP and WIC benefits, to corn subsidies, to nutrition recommendations, to international trade, to food safety regulations, to what's on the tray in the school cafeteria, to conservation grants and loans to farmers made through the National Resources Conservation Service and Farm Services Agency, and more.  It should be broken apart into individual pieces of legislation. However, let's work within the system we have, because more than any other force in America, it is the Farm Bill that influences where our soil goes.

So, begin putting pressure on your legislators to promote soil protection and replacement.  Many of our legislative representatives are members of key committees that play a huge role in crafting the farm bill, and there are elections between now and the next round of negotiations.  Let them know it is important to you, and that their stance on soil protection will influence your voting decisions.  Most of Indiana's representatives and both senators are on committees which directly influence the content of the farm bill, and all are active in caucuses that do.  For example, my representative, Jackie Walorski, is on the House Ways and Means Committee;  co-chair of the House Hunger and International Water and Sanitation caucuses; a member of the Crop Insurance, Diabetes, and Small Business caucuses; and a member of the House Great Lakes Task Force.  Through each of these committees and caucuses, and in aggregate, she has a profound influence on the content of the farm bill.  The more she hears from constituents about their support for sustainable and regenerative agricultural practices, the more likely she is to push for, or at least not block, those priorities in the next farm bill.

China Town Stories


We founded Hole in the Woods Farm to help build a resilient local food community.  The economic, ecological, and health benefits a thriving local food system brings to a community are enormous.  But they are often undervalued.  While local economies are considerably more resilient in many situations, as the local food system demonstrated during most of 2021, they do have one important point of brittleness: they are dependent on the ongoing support of the communities they serve.

I often listen to podcasts while doing the more repetitive tasks on the farm.  This week, while seeding lettuce for transplants, my listening brought a prime example of this co-dependency to light.  I listened to a recent episode of The Splendid Table, called "Saving Chinatown with Grace Young." 

In the episode, Grace tells of the economic devastation the pandemic brought to Manhattan's Chinatown.  She was in the area to work with the Poster House Museum on a project, and visited Chinatown while she was there.  Because of the early politicization of the virus, the businesses of Chinatown were hit earlier and harder than anywhere else.  She found restaurants and stores that had been fixtures for generations closing, and the intricate inter-personal connections that form the fabric of any community instantly dissolved.

Her project was set to begin just as New York closed all of its museums.  So, she, like many small businesses, had to pivot quickly.  She quickly found a videographer, and set about interviewing the people of Chinatown, chronicling the businesses, livelihoods, and communities lost.  Many of the interviews are available on the Poster House Museum's website in a special project.  As a historian who loves oral history, I am naturally drawn to these sorts of projects.  But as a member of and advocate for local communities, I am also struck by the lessons lurking just beneath the text.

I urge you to spend a few minutes watching some of these videos and thinking about how similar the businesses and people are to those who form the backbone of our local community.  How critical is it to support local businesses if they are to survive?  How inter-connected and mutually-dependent are our local businesses?  How important are local businesses to a thriving community?  What would happen here if, through no fault of their own, our local businesses were suddenly cut off from all sales and support?  How many could we loose before the essential nature, the community, of our villages, towns, and cities is irreparably damaged?  What can we do to prevent such a global crisis from becoming a local disaster in our home?  I'd love to know your thoughts.

Keema Aloo Mattar


The naan from last weeklyish' recipe was haunting me.  And, perhaps that little taste of the Indian food we've been missing spurred that itch to request more scratching.  So, a little Indian comfort food, Keema Aloo Mattar: Ground Meat with Potatoes and Peas.

All of the recipes I've posted in the Weeklyish up to this point have been my original creations.  This one, however, is a slightly modified version of a recipe in The New Indian Slow Cooker by Neela Paniz.  Basically, I just modified things a bit to use what I had on hand. 

This time of year was called "the starving season" by the pioneers, as food stored for the winter begins to run out, the first harvests of spring have not yet begun, and the seasonal work load reaches its peak.  With sales this winter being far slower than usual, and startup expenses being far higher, we find ourselves in much the same situation: not a lot of variety in the freezer and pantry, and not much funding to buy exotic ingredients.  So, on the one hand, I had to modify the recipe for what I had.  On the other, such rich, spicy, and exotic-tasting comfort food is nice to have in that situation, and shows just how much variation recipes can take and still turn out delicious.  I encourage you to play around with what you have on hand.  Don't let a missing ingredient keep your taste buds hostage!  Improvise at will!

To that end, I did use the traditional ground lamb.  However, assuming no religious limitations or strict adherence to tradition, you could use just about any ground meat.  We don't have our lamb available for sale yet, so it may be hard to find ground lamb.  But, Amor Beef's ground beef, Amor Gardens and Pork's ground pork, ground turkey, ground chicken, textured vegetable protein, etc. would all yield something delicious.  You could also leave out the potatoes, and would end up with something about the consistency of Sloppy Joe.  It would make a great sandwich topping, spread on our Onion Rye Batard, Italian Semolina, or even a bagel - I'd suggest an everything or an Asiago cheese bagel.

Makes about 8 servings. 

3 Tbsp Olive Oil
3 Onions, peeled
2" piece of Ginger, peeled and coarsely chopped
6 cloves Garlic
3 whole Black Cardamom Pods
2 Cinnamon Sticks
5 whole Cloves
4 Bay Leaves
5 whole Peppercorns
2 pounds Ground Lamb
2 cans Diced Tomatoes
3 Tbsp ground Coriander
2 teaspoons Ground Cumin
1 1/2 teas Cayenne Pepper
1/4 teas Turmeric
~1 1/2 teas Salt
4 Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and chopped (about 1 inch cubes)
1 1/2 C frozen peas

Turn a crock pot on high, so the insert can heat while you're doing the prep work.

Heat the oil in a skillet.  Meanwhile, Put the onions in a food processor, and pulse to mince. Add the onions to the skillet, and saute until golden brown, stirring frequently.

Meanwhile, put the ginger and garlic in the processor, along a a splash of water, and puree to a smooth paste.  When the onions are finished, add them, along with the garlic and ginger paste to the crock pot.  Add the cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, bay leaves, and peppercorns.

Using the same skillet, brown the ground meat.  Meanwhile, drain about half of the liquid from one can of diced tomatoes.  Put the un-drained and half-drained cans of tomatoes in the food processor, and puree. 

Add the meat and tomatoes to the crock pot.  Add all of the remaining ingredients, and stir well.  Cover, reduce the heat to low, and cook until the potatoes are tender, about 3 1/2 hours. 

Serve it with onion naan (see last Weeklyish for recipe), of course!
 

Order Deadlines

Delivery Option     Deadline
Home delivery | Thursday     Tuesday, 10pm*
Pickup @ Culver Farmers' Market | Saturday     Thursday, 10pm
*Sourdough orders for delivery require an additional 24 hours
Shop Now
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