Monday, February 28, 2011

Texas Cottage Food Law aka "The Baker's Bill"

Angel Food Cake
Did you know that private bake sales are illegal in 33 of our 50 states? Yep, it is against the law to produce food for sale to the public outside of a certified kitchen, even for your church or school fundraiser. Not that people don’t still do it, but it’s against the law. Every year I produce a stunning array of pickles (like the peppers pictured above), jams, jellies, salsas, pressure-canned veggies and baked goods. I am not allowed to sell any of them. I often use them to trade for other things we don’t produce ourselves (like fish and game) and they make nice gifts, but I can’t sell them.

I remember our annual Halloween fair we held at our old school gymnasium. There were always homemade goodies for sale there to benefit the school – cookies, popcorn balls, rice-krispy treats, brownies and caramel apples. And then there was the Cake Walk! There was a big circle taped to the floor and there was a different number taped to the floor every couple of feet. Each number corresponded to a cake or pie the women of the community had baked. (And of course, some of those cakes and pies were already famous and highly desired!) People would pay several dollars per walk. Someone would play music while the contestants walked around in the numbered circle. When the music stopped, a number would be drawn from a hat and if anyone was standing on that number, they won that cake or pie. Good times. And completely illegal now.

Even 10-15 years ago, people could bring goods produced in their home kitchens to sell at farmer’s markets, fairs and auctions. I’m not sure when it actually became illegal, but I do remember when the law started to become enforced. And what a stink it caused!

And there’s some justification for it. Years ago, someone bottled up and sold some “herbal oils” which included whole cloves of garlic for cooking with. In spite of the fact that raw garlic is considered anti-bacterial by people who use it for natural healing, apparently it isn’t immune to botulism. The oils caused several deaths and illnesses.

The sad fact is, people know so little about food anymore, I suppose it’s safe to say there need to be laws in place to protect us from ourselves. And of course, the “Nanny State” we live in is more than willing to comply. Having grown up in a community where I learned canning and food processing at a young age, I’m often shocked at the ignorance regarding safe food manufacturing and storage in people's home kitchens, even by those much older than myself.

The even sadder fact is that all the laws that are in place now have very little effect on large companies and corporate industries that manufacture and distribute food, but make it near impossible for small producers and farmers to sell their products directly to the consumer. Meanwhile, consumers are screaming “Locally Grown” and “Organic” and “Seasonal” and “Green! Those same consumers are also most often the ones who know the least about food safety and are most responsible for making sure the Food Police regulate every aspect of food production, I’m sorry to say.

A new food law was passed in 2010. And yet there are still massive food recalls happening every week. Almost all of the recalls are by large producers – many of those with their own federal inspectors on-site.  Meanwhile, if I want to sell a few eggs here and there to help cover feed costs, I either have to do it on a large scale or not at all to be able to comply with all the ridiculous and unnecessary regulations that don’t even apply to fresh, just-laid eggs. So we keep our flock small and when we have too many eggs, our pets eat very well! So sad for everyone else that might enjoy them, but that’s just the way it is.

So it stunned me a few weeks ago when I was watching the local news out of DFW. There is a dedicated group of home bakers in Texas trying to get a new food law passed that will allow non-hazardous foods to be produced for sale from home kitchens. It’s a very reasonable bill that includes baked items that need no refrigeration and high-acid food like pickles, jams, jellies and salsas. For the official site, go here.

There are some restrictions that will hinder just anyone from doing it. For one, there can be no pets entering or living in the dwelling that houses the kitchen. I suppose that’s a reasonable request – I don’t mind eating a little of my own pet hair, but I’d rather not eat anyone else’s!

The baker/processor must also take the Food Safety Course, which is available through the County Extension office. I took it a few years ago when I was considering setting up a state-certified farm kitchen. It’s a little overkill in regards to fresh farm food I’d prepare for my own family, but I’m glad restaurant owners and managers are required to take it. The fee for the class is very reasonable.

There’s a cap on income produced in the home kitchen -- $150,000. If I were able to make a quarter of that in addition to everything else I do on a daily basis, I’d just open my own business and have a state-certified, restaurant-quality kitchen! There’s also restrictions on sales – no internet, mail-order or consignment sales – in other words, you have to sell the products directly, all by yourself, with the proper labeling.

For myself, I’m considering the possibilities ahead. The bill may not pass this year, but eventually, it WILL pass. I’ve long wanted a separate “Summer Kitchen” much like the Amish have. Eventually, I might like to get it state-certified so I can produce and sell anything I want from it, but until then, this law would allow me to fund it without jumping through regulatory hoops to get it. It would also help me justify the cost of running a produce stand directly from my farm – as it stands now, I don’t always have enough produce to sell every week, but if I were able to sell home-baked and canned goods on the side, it would justify the cost of building and manning such a structure.

And I’ll be able to market some farm products with added value: the angel food cake in the picture above uses about a dozen egg whites. The egg yolks could be used to make egg noodles. I’m sure I’d still have to sanitize my own eggs before using them, but that’s less trouble than complying with the ridiculous regulations that would allow me to sell fresh eggs to the public.

Anyway, the Baker’s Bill is a step in the right direction. Seventeen states already have some version of it, and two of those are allowed to sell at Farmer’s Markets. At the very least, it puts us in direct contact with people who are willing and able to prepare foods for us that we are willing to eat. No one should be able to tell us we’re too stupid to buy our food from a private individual! If you live in Texas, please support this bill. If you live elsewhere, find out what your state is doing and support them. Let’s take back our national food supply and put it in the hands of small producers who care about what they're doing and are trying to bring back sustainability on their own farms!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Grim Reality

4 Standard-Breed Chickens, Processed & Packaged,
Breasts Deboned
I grew up in a small agricultural town with a large rural population and I suppose it wasn’t a great leap that I’ve chosen the lifestyle that I have. But I never realized until I left that small town that it was one of the last great vestiges of rugged, hard-working, self-sufficient people left in America.  Fishing, hunting, gardening and canning were the norm, not the exception. And I’m not that old!

I was born in 1967 and I remember going with my mom to the community meat locker in the 70’s. In those days, few people had their own large freezers and people could rent small lockers at the local butcher shop to store their meat and frozen vegetables. It was not uncommon for a farm family to bring a steer to the butcher for processing, sell off half to another family to pay for the processing, then put the remainder in their own locker for eating throughout the year. (That was before the Food Safety Police reigned supreme, but that’s another post.)

The town I was raised in had an Ice House, though it closed down when I was still quite young. In pioneer days, ice was harvested from frozen rivers in colder climates (not Texas!) right before the spring thaw. Giant blocks were carved out and carried by horse and sled to the town’s Ice House, where they were packed like bales of hay in a barn.  The ice melted slowly all summer and afforded the citizens a welcome treat during the hottest period of the year for making ice cream and cold beverages. I can only imagine what river ice packed in sawdust probably tasted like, but hey, it was cold! (In the winter, in areas where the ground froze solid, the Ice House served double-duty as a morgue until people could be buried…)

Of course, our Ice House was electric and temperature-controlled and its sole purpose was to provide block ice for non-electric refrigerators and outdoor functions, like picnics, sporting events and camping trips. A truck made deliveries a couple times a week and you could buy a block of ice for your refrigerator. I don’t remember that, but so I’ve heard… (And as far as I know, we never stored dead people in our Ice House – but nothing about a small town surprises me anymore!) But I digress…

I learned to clean fish and quail and rabbits from my mom (though she had a hard time killing her own prized rabbits!). That was considered light work back then and no one even thought to be squeamish about it. It was just a way of life. Personally, I’d never even heard of a man butchering a chicken in those days – that was considered women’s work and I can only imagine what it must have been like for our great-grandmothers with large families to feed, who had to not only kill, pluck and clean the birds, but also to haul and heat water to get the chicken and the rest of the meal to the table, then clean up afterwards. After doing 5 loads of laundry. By hand. Before .

I met a completely different culture of people when I moved to the city and I continue to meet them to this day in this “country-that-isn’t-really-the-country”.  Inevitably, they are the people who say to me “Oh, I could never kill an animal. If I had to live on the meat I killed myself, I’d just become a vegetarian.” And women are by far the worst about being pedestal princesses regarding the slaughter of animals for meat, though a lot of the men I meet aren’t far behind. I’m also met with a lot of “Oh, that’s just so much trouble – it just wouldn’t be worth it for us.” (Time is always money to these people, after all.)

But the simple fact is, in all our history of humankind (which spans millions of years if you believe in evolution, and at least five thousand if you don’t), it’s only in the last 50-60 years that human beings have had the utter luxury of NOT having to butcher their own meat. And I’m not talking about our pioneer mothers and fathers doing the evil deed while their pampered kids watched animals talking on the Disney Channel – everyone participated in it and benefited from it. (Just read the "Little House on the Prairie" series if you don't believe me!)

But back to this life. We’d been here for about a year and our first batch of straight-run chickens had matured. (Straight-run means an unsexed hatch – approximately equal numbers of each sex.) For those of you not familiar with farm animals, the first thing you discover when you start letting them have the run of the place is that more than 1 or 2 male animals of each species is a recipe for complete chaos and constant, teeth-grinding, nerve-rending raping and pillaging of the females of their species, not to mention constant fighting amongst themselves. Roosters can do this ALL DAY LONG – I have seen roosters do things that would get them the needle or electric chair in most states!

So the time came when I had to decide if I had the steel to restore order to the flock and do right by the others by thinning out the extra males. I wasn’t sure I could do it – it’d been years since I dressed out an animal, and I’d never killed one myself except while hunting. So I had a shot of Southern Comfort. (The rooster declined his shot, so I had his too!)  I used a shotgun the first time and it took several hours to pluck and gut that first one. I could’ve given up then and decided it was just too much trouble, but I didn’t. Subsequent sessions weren’t much better, but still, I stuck with it.

Eventually, I came to the conclusion that a well-placed cut with a sharp knife was faster and more humane than the shotgun (or any other method) and these days, I can dress out about 8 large chickens or turkeys in about 4 hours, especially if I have a little help from someone willing to be a go-fer. (Curtis is a great go-fer!) Do I enjoy it? Well, certainly not the killing, but I can honestly say it doesn’t bother me anymore. It’s not a horrible way to spend a day, especially knowing the many delicious meals awaiting us after all that work.

Is it worth the trouble? It is opulence beyond imaging! There is something immensely satisfying about sitting down to a meal that comes entirely from your own land and grown with your own labor – from the meat that you raised (or hunted) and processed, to the vegetables you grew and canned, to the hard corn you grew and ground into cornmeal, which you then made into cornbread, then used the leftovers to stuff the chicken you’re eating. It’s a feeling of freedom that I can appreciate only now that I’ve endured the enslavement a life of soft city-living demands. And I wouldn’t go back to that life for ANY amount of money.

An aside here about being a vegetarian: I have no problem with people who choose that lifestyle, but most of the city vegetarians I’ve met haven’t a clue as to what goes on when you have a farm. Animal manures are a vital part to growing an organic garden and without them, we can only grow as much produce as the land will naturally support without resorting to purchased fertilizers, which might feed the landowners, but certainly not the masses who are demanding organic, locally-grown produce. We are not to the age of technological advancement where we can choose the sex of the animals that are born on our farms. You can order only female chickens from hatcheries – they kill the males for you so you don’t have to be bothered with the moral responsibility of it later. But they were still hatched and they are still dead. With all other farm animals and if you hatch your own chicks, you get what you get and you can only keep so many males. That’s just the way of it and shrugging off the moral responsibility of thinning them out is a poor & irresponsible way to go about homesteading and it isn’t fair to the rest of the animals in your flocks and herds.

One thing’s for sure: when you eat that meat, you do so with conscience – it becomes more than just a slab of dead flesh lying on a Styrofoam package that you know nothing about. You probably know (or knew) its parents and it may have even had a name! When you are hungry from real labor, this will not bother you nearly as much as you may expect…

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Do You Know The Muffin Man?

Muffins risen and ready to cook
Do you know the muffin man,
The muffin man, the muffin man,
Do you know the muffin man,
Who lives in Drury Lane?

According to wikipedia (and they never lie, right!), in the Victorian era, muffins were delivered door-to-door by “the muffin man,” which gave rise to the old nursery rhyme. What we call muffins in America are usually the cupcake-shaped morsels, while we refer to the flat-breads as “English muffins”.

There are 2 ways to prepare these delectable, chewy-but-tender little yeast breads, though both are baked on griddles. The first, which uses a thick batter rather than a dough, are what the people in the U.K. refer to as “crumpets” and are served with hot tea. (And folks, you just can’t improve on THAT!) The batter is poured into molds to keep it from spreading and the resulting bubbles in the cooked batter make for lots of “nooks and crannies” for butter, cream cheese and jam to dribble into after the muffins are cooked and split. These are similar to pancakes except they are cooked very slowly and are much taller than pancakes.

The other method of preparation is to start with a basic yeast dough which is rolled out and cut into rounds. These are allowed to rise like regular bread, then they’re steam-baked on a hot griddle just like the crumpets. I haven’t yet purchased any molds so this is the method I’ve been using. Some people recommend turning tuna or pineapple cans into molds, but most cans available in the U.S. these days can’t be opened on both ends. You don’t get as many “nooks and crannies” with this method, but the muffins are still delicious.

I started making these just a couple weeks ago and I’m addicted! They came about quite accidentally as I’m just learning the intricacies of working with sourdoughs and it pains me to waste anything. I’m using Nancy Silverton’s (of the La Brea bakery) sourdough starter recipe and the little monster is more demanding than a small child! You’re supposed to feed it 3 times a day, which is just ridiculous unless you’re a professional bread baker or have reason to bake every day. You have no choice but to either use or throw out the excess starter, so I started using it as soon as it was capable of leavening (which was a good week before Silverton recommends using it for artisan breads). It doesn’t matter what kind of sourdough starter you use for this recipe – as long as it’s capable of rising bread dough, it will be fine.

Since we don’t have central heat in our house, it’s often taken as long as 48 hours to make these in my cold kitchen, but as the spring weather has had our house up in the 70’s this week, it’s only been taking about 24 hours. Either way, working with sourdough takes some planning. If you don’t want to mess with the sourdough, find a recipe that uses commercial yeast, but by all means, MAKE THEM! They’re delicious.

For those of you who gain 5 pounds if you hear the word “fat,” these are for you. Schmear them with fat-free cream cheese and no-sugar-added jam and you’ll only have to worry about tipping the glycemic scale. Even still, if you roll them out to only ½” thick before cutting, they make for an excellent low-carb sandwich bread and they’re easy to split and toast. They are tender but chewy with the most wonderful crackly crust when you bite into them. They make for a wonderful burger.

As for cutting them out, I use a “Riga Sprat” can, which is a full 4 inches in diameter. A wide-mouth canning lid is 3 ½ inches and also makes a nice cutter. You can even cut them into squares or triangles with a knife to get them the size you want. (I saw some star-shaped bagels on “Knead for Bread” so by all means, use your imagination!)

Only drawback I’ve found is that they must be made in an electric skillet or in a covered pan on a burner with a temperature control. I absolutely ABHOR teflon and I’ve phased it out of my kitchen except for the idiot-proof omelet pan (which I also don’t use often – a well-seasoned cast-iron pan works just fine for eggs). I tried making the muffins on both steel and cast-iron griddles on the stovetop, but they cook too fast. I think these are worth dragging out the electric skillet for though. J

Sponge: (mix 12-24 hours before cooking)
1 cup sourdough starter
1 cup warm water
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

Dough (add to sponge 12-18 hours later):
¼ cup fat-free powdered milk
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 ½ teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons sugar
3 cups flour (approximately)

Knead the dough until smooth and elastic (7-8 minutes), adding the last ½ cup of flour only if needed. (You’ll need the flour, and possibly a bit more, if using an electric mixer.) Sourdough is stickier than regular dough – don’t use too much flour. Cover the dough and let it rest about 20 minutes. (You can also rise and punch down the dough once or twice like regular bread if this fits into your schedule better – the final rise after cutting out the muffins won’t take nearly as long if you do.) Roll the dough out ½ inch up to ¾ inch thick and cut out with the cutter of your choice.

After cutting them out, you’ll need to dip them in cornmeal and coat both sides. To get the cornmeal to stick, either:
1) spritz both sides of the muffin with a water bottle
2) brush (or dip) both sides of the muffin with/into milk
3) brush both sides of the muffin with oil, butter or fat

Lay the muffins on a greased cookie sheet and keep them covered, free from drafts, until they’ve almost doubled in bulk. This may take from several hours to only 30 minutes depending on the strength of the yeast and the ambient temperature. Keep in mind that if they rise too fast, the last batch you cook may not be as perfect as the first batch as they will start deflating on the cookie sheet. (Don’t worry, the baking soda will spring them up again during cooking.)

Preheat an electric skillet to 300 degrees and flip the muffins top-side down onto the skillet. Cook 3-4 muffins at a time, COVERED, for 8-10 minutes per side. Each side will be light golden brown when done. Transfer to a bowl lined with a towel and keep covered while cooking each batch. Serve immediately or let cool completely before bagging. Makes 8-10 depending on how thick you cut them.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Planting Onions

The Onion Patch in April

Here’s something that you’re not likely to know unless you garden: Those wonderful, fragrant onion bulbs that we cook with and eat year round would only be available for a few months a year if we couldn’t ship them from other parts of the country. And if you’re insistent on finding certain types of onions (sweet or pungent) during certain times of the year, they must be shipped from other parts of the world. Kinda puts a kink into the plan to “only buy locally” doesn’t it?

Like most animals and plants on this planet (including humans), onions are day-length sensitive. But in the case of an onion, the number of daylight hours determines whether an onion plant is growing greens or a bulb. In this part of Texas, our onions begin bulbing around the first of April, which is when we start getting about 14 hours of daylight. Unlike most of the things we can grow in our gardens or under plastic, BULBING onions can only be grown once a year and cannot be grown on rotations to provide a continuous supply. You get one shot to get it right each year and Mother Nature doesn’t allow much leeway.

In the South, we must grow “short-day” onions, which are typically sweeter than the “long-day” onions that are grown further North. (There’s also an “intermediate-day” onion variety, which seems to overlap some into both northern and southern areas.) In far South Texas and Florida, onion harvest begins in May and that will be the earliest date that fresh onions (grown in the U.S.) are available in your supermarket. Onions will continue to be harvested in parts of the South through July, and by that time, the Northern onions will be bulbing and there will be a continuous harvest of onions SOMEWHERE in the U.S. until about September. The downfall of the short-day Southern onions is that they will only store 2-3 months under the very best of conditions, so after November (at the LATEST!) you will not find Southern onions at the grocery unless they are grown outside of the U.S. The more pungent and flavorful Northern onions will store 4-5 months, which is why onion bulbs that are grown in the U.S. are available in our supermarkets MOST of the winter, though they may not be the exact variety you’re looking for.

So what would you do if shipping weren’t available and you had to buy or grow your entire year’s supply of onions ONCE a year? And how many onions do you think you’d need if you were suddenly forced (or chose) to prepare every meal in your household from scratch? I can just about guarantee you that it’s more than you’d think.

In years that I don’t start my own onions from seed, I purchase a case (30 bunches) of live onion plants (slips) to set out in late January or early February. Most people freak out when they hear that number, but that’s only because they’re amateur onion-growers. J Onion bunches are very cheap here – I paid 75 cents a bunch from our feed store this year. Live onion slips are not to be confused with “sets” which are the little onions you get from garden centers that look like pearl onions. Those are already in their second season of growth and they are not suitable for storage.

As with most things devised by modern agriculture, there is a good deal of waste in a bunch of onion slips and I toss the smallest on the compost heap. Each “bunch” is planted mechanically by a machine that spits a “splat” of seeds in a small circle. Those grow with no regard to spacing, food or lighting requirements and only maybe 10-12 of the onions in the entire bunch will be salvageable for growing large bulbs. There will be at least 25-50 that will make smaller bulbs which can be pulled to eat fresh in the spring or that can be allowed to make “pearl onions” or used in pickles (the small rings are very pretty in Bread and Butter pickles). Another bed of the smallest onions can be left in the ground after the tops die back and they will grow more greens to be harvested during the fall and early winter in the  South. (Incidentally, when choosing onion slips from a large selection, always choose the smallest bunches. They will have the largest plants. The larger bunches will have lots of small plants and most will be culls.)

As for varieties, common short-day Southern varieties are White and Yellow Granex, White Bermuda (aka Crystal Wax), and Red Burgundy. These are all wonderful onions for cooking with. The sweet Vidalia onions (also called 1015’s because they must be planted before that date in areas of the deep South) are sweetest if grown in soils that are low in sulphur. I don’t grow many of them because I think they are best raw and we can only eat so many during the 2 months they’ll store. If I end up with too many, I dehydrate them, as they make a sweet, crunchy, carmelly topping for casseroles and soups.

In any case, I just got done planting the very best slips from 30 bunches of onions. I ended up with roughly 360 plants. The really cool thing about onions is that 360 plants only takes up about 24 feet of bed space. (My beds are 4 feet wide.) And that’s giving them PLENTY of room. When I plant the smaller slips, I’ll be able to plant them 4 inches apart in every direction, which means about 120 plants in each 4 foot by 4 foot space.

Onions are not heavy feeders and most years, I give the beds a generous dose of cottonseed meal and crushed limestone before planting, then after they’re established, I sprinkle a little rabbit manure over the bed and mulch it with oak leaves or grass clippings. A dedicated soaker hose provides the largest bulbs, but I’ve gotten nice bulbs without so much irrigation.

In this part of Texas, I harvest my onions in June and they are cured by July. If we’re having a dry summer, they’re usually already cured by the time I get them out of the ground and there’s no rush to do that. I store them in well-ventilated boxes lined with shredded paper, pine shavings, very dry hay or grass clippings, usually under the bed of the coolest room in the house. Onions will sprout if they get too cold, but will rot if they’re too warm or moist. At this point, I have until early October until they start sprouting to get them used up. By that time, I will have used all I’m going to fresh and in pickles and the rest will be dehydrated. Whatever’s left will usually fit into a gallon jug after drying to season winter soups, stews, chili and casseroles. (And they are delicious in place of the “french-fried onion rings” in a green-bean casserole!)

Sadly, our onion harvest is gone by the time we have our fall tomato harvest around Thanksgiving, so I end up buying some 25-30 pounds of onions just to make salsa and sauce with. I could find a way around that if I had to, but for now, they’re still available in the supermarket, so I splurge and just buy them.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Star Trek Utopia (aka Three Little Yappers)

 Have you ever noticed that whenever the Star Trek Enterprise crew has an away mission to visit an advanced society, the inhabitants of that society frequently live a life of voluntary simplicity? There’s usually a weapon of mass destruction sealed away in a cave somewhere they’ve sworn never to use again, and the good, gentle people of that society quietly practice their arts, sciences and mathematics to the benefit of all their kind. You will notice as the Enterprise crew walks about the quiet but cheerful village, each modest but well-kept home boasts a small vegetable garden and a few clucking hens for fresh eggs.  Perhaps even a goat grazes the front yard of some of the homes. You do not hear the roar of planes, trains and automobiles and there’s no industrial pollution. There is no welfare, no poverty, no want and certainly not the clamor of ringtones or loud music booming from an open car window.

(Scree-e-e-e-e…!) That was the sound of a record needle across vinyl, if you’re old enough to remember what those were.

We moved from the heart of the city to what is loosely referred to as “the country” about 10 years ago. It isn’t REALLY the country, but it’s as close as we can get while we pay off old debt and become as self-sufficient as possible. We have 10 acres and an old house that was built in 1907 (and looks it!). It sports 2 WHOLE bedrooms, 1 bath and more repairs than we’re likely to get done in this lifetime.

I must admit I went into culture shock when we first got here. Or in retrospect, perhaps it was that I re-experienced culture for the first time since I was 18 and left the small town in Texas where I grew up. In any case, I began gardening because there was no decent supermarket produce to be had at that time out here in the boonies. I had spent the first 5 years of my marriage learning to cook and cook well, and with a variety of fresh foods shipped into the city from all over the world, and suddenly, I found myself staring down at a head of pale, sickly-looking iceberg lettuce wrapped in plastic as the only lettuce selection in the grocery.

One thing led to another and before I knew it, we had hens for eggs and we learned to butcher chickens for meat. We have not purchased an egg or chicken from the market for our table in over 8 years. The gardens have evolved from the simplest of things to grow (like black-eyed peas, summer squash and radishes) to a cornucopia of varieties that feeds us, our extended families and a few friends year round.

During that time, I have watched the United States that I grew up in awaken to a whole new reality – though certainly it was predictable on every level and at every turn: Terrorism, climate change, world overpopulation, a dwindling fossil fuel supply, a worthless health-care system, and now a recession that shows no real signs of improving for some time to come – if at all – in spite of what the “experts” are predicting.

It is time for us to embrace that Star Trek Utopia. And yet…

People resist it with every fiber of their being.

There is ONE thing almost every homeowner (and even some apartment dwellers) can do to TRULY make a difference in the world right now, and that is GROWING A PORTION OF YOUR OWN FOOD. If you are throwing money at “green” charities and businesses and hybrid automobiles while your food is being shipped from 1500 miles away, you are attempting to BUY a better world, NOT create one. I’m not saying that everyone has the space to grow food, but there are plenty of you out there that do.

The biggest problem with securing your own food supply (other than apathy and laziness) is your neighbors. For years now, I’ve listened on internet boards and groups to people complain about how they can’t garden or keep a few hens because it’s against city ordinance or the homeowners’ association’s policy. They spend $250K on a new McMansion with a 6’ wooden privacy fence, only to find out they aren’t allowed to actually do anything useful on their pricey plot of real estate even if they were so inclined. They attempt to plant edible landscaping only to be told such things aren’t sophisticated enough to be allowed in their gated communities. A few REALLY brave souls might attempt to keep a few meat rabbits or a couple of laying hens in their backyard – which gets them a visit from the city ordinance police AND the president of the homeowner’s association. If their neighbors had the good sense to actually OWN pitchforks and torches, I’m sure they’d show up wielding them!

There are many beautiful AND edible plants. And who’s business is it anyway what you do behind that 6 foot privacy fence?! Most people think that in order to have fresh eggs, one must keep a rooster. That is a myth. Hens will happily lay eggs without a rooster present. And no, hens are not completely quiet, but they don’t crow. They will recycle every last bit of food scrap from your kitchen and their favorite day of the week is the day you clean out the fridge! A few pens of rabbits will supply your family with meat and your garden with organic fertilizer.

Meanwhile, city ordinance allows homeowners to keep a maximum of (usually) 3 pets. My experience of living in the city was that this was usually in the form of 3 worthless (but cute!) little yappers that bark at their own shadows all night long. Your neighbors’ dogs can keep you awake all night, but they’re worried about a rooster?! And of course, if their dogs make it into your yard and kill your hens, it’s certainly not the dog-owner’s fault – you shouldn’t be allowed to keep livestock!

Now don’t get me wrong. I LOVE pets, and even the little yappers have their purpose. But this model is seriously flawed. If we are ever to progress to a more green and utopic society, we’ve got to get used to NOT sneering at people who want to raise some of their own food on their own land. Sadly, this attitude has spread beyond the city and I find it really sad when people live on large farms & ranches and eat not so much as a bean from their own property, much less any of the ornaments that are grazing in their pastures. I am sad to say that Texas is one of the biggest states in the nation full of farmers & ranchers who eat NOTHING from their own property & complain that they’re having a hard time “getting by”.

Unemployment is at an all-time high. Fuel is expensive and sometimes unaffordable. Food has never cost more due to rising fuel prices and climate changes in many parts of the country. We have become enslaved by our own spending practices and most of us now have little choice but to swallow the high cost of living just to keep making ends meet.

Growing at least some of your own food is one of the few things you still have the choice to do that will make a huge difference in your health and well-being, the good of the planet and will save you some money at the same time. Furthermore, you'll never need a gym membership when you're dedicated to using your own manual labor by eschewing IC engines and other labor-saving devices that run on fossil fuels while you do it. Isn't it time we stand up to the yard police and make our planet not only beautiful, but also sustainable?