Amber Waves of Grain in…San Francisco?

The growing season is fully upon us in the city by the Bay, and it’s been, dare I say, hot here with temperatures in the 70s! Our spring planting is complete, our summer crops are going in, and we’re having a lot of fun now that the hard, wake up at 5:45am work is done. One of the most exciting things for me this season is that we’re trying to grow grain in SF. Over the winter we started cereal rye and triticale, and now those are both almost ready! Since we had no clue what happens with grains, I actually thought our rye was never going to grow, as it was a measly 6-12 inches tall in the beginning of spring. Some wise folks told me they would grow, and grow they did! The rye is now taller than me, perhaps up to 7 feet tall! And they’ve got grain heads. We’re getting excited about the prospect of making some bread from grains grown in our own backyard! Check it out:

Cereal Rye Grain Heads

In other exciting news, the grains we planted back in April are growing fast and already sending up grain heads as well.

Dylan Wheat Patch

Dylan Wheat Grain Heads

Our one healthy brussel sprout plant from the winter is also creating those tiny cabbage heads at the stem joints!

Forming Brussel Sprouts

After actually heeding the instructions that came with them, I created some shade for our tree collards, and they exploded. In just a mere couple of months, they’ve grown about two feet and sent out gigantic, rich leaves like this:

Tree Collard Leaf

Pretty fun stuff. After many months of planning, seed starting, soil preparation, and transplanting, here’s our garden now:

The Kuo Family Garden, June 2012

Shots: Unseen Cityscapes

A series of photographs from a small street downtown, all within about 50 feet of another.

Ambrose Bierce Alley (San Francisco, 2012). Olympus E-P1, Lumix 14mm f/2.5

One Way Shadow (San Francisco, 2012). Olympus E-P1, Lumix 14mm f/2.5

Red (San Francisco, 2012). Olympus E-P1, Lumix 14mm f/2.5.

Fluid (San Francisco, 2012). Olympus E-P1, Lumix 14mm f/2.5

Ethanol – A Mythical Green Energy Source?

This excerpt from an article posted on Wharton’s Law and Public Policy section, “An Earful on Ethanol: Rising Food Prices, Inefficient Production and Other Problems”, captures a lot of my thoughts on the problems with ethanol (boldface added):

Food crops such as grains “are terrible sources of raw material for biofuels,” says Karl Ulrich, a Wharton professor of operations and information management. “Every analysis I have seen shows that grain-based biofuels such as ethanol require more energy to produce than they provide.” Ulrich, who in 2005 devised a system called Terra Pass to allow individuals to buy carbon offsets, notes that “about four calories of energy, usually from fossil fuels, are required to create one calorie of food energy. That is, 100 calories of carbohydrates in corn requires about 400 calories of coal, natural gas, or oil for fertilizer, planting, harvesting, processing, and transportation. As a result, the more likely cause of rising food prices is the rising cost of energy.”

Ulrich says he sees far more promise in the second generation ethanol sources.

But they, too, could have their own unintended consequences, according to Ulku G. Oktem, a senior research fellow at Wharton who has taught a course called Environmental Sustainability and Value Creation. “If you use the whole [corn] plant … you do not return any part of the plant back into the soil, which means you have to feed more nutrition to the crops — and that means more fertilizer. More fertilizer means you have to use more energy to create it. One has to look at the full life-cycle of ethanol production.


Dirt and Spirituality

Transplanting wheat seedlings at dawn

Our family has really dived in to our backyard urban mini-farm – we’ve been spending many hours prepping the land, hunched over Excel spreadsheets, and getting up many days in a row at dawn to plant seedlings before the kids get up. One of the key parts of sustainable agriculture is taking a long view on things – we’re not just trying to build the absolutely best garden for this season, but investing in the land so that it will be fruitful for years and decades to come. This means growing the right mix of crops so that you are growing enough compost matter to put back into the soil. Only the nutrients present in the food itself gets taken away, and literally everything else gets put back in to build up good dirt. That’s what we’re trying to do now, which is why we’re growing a whole lot more grains and beans this year than ever before – we just put in about 300 wheat plants (for compost material and grain) and have about 150 green bean plants and soybean plants (that build nitrogen into the soil) either in the ground or about ready to go in the ground.

Nor is our garden just about being good stewards, growing healthy food, or just a hobby that we’re taking up – although we do enjoy the fruits of our labor (quite literally) and the beautiful vista out our back window. It’s actually become an integrated part of our journey as followers of Jesus. All over the Scriptures you see organic analogies and stories – talk about land, seed sowing, harvests, weeds, good and bad soil, the garden of Eden.

Speaking of dirt, another key lesson I think God has been drilling into me over the last few years especially is that spiritual life is messy. Things rarely go according to plan, God and a Godward life doesn’t fit into convenient compartments, and it takes hard, hard work to be a consistent and faithful disciple of Jesus. It’s just like work in the garden – there are pests to contend with, poor weather that throws off schedules, diseases that come and mess with the plants, among a whole host of other things that could go wrong. Working in the garden (on the land and in your soul) is hard work! I’m often on my hands and knees, dirt everywhere, clothes soiled, picking up gross things — all the help foster a good environment for healthy plants. Is that not what the spiritual journey with God looks like? The deeper I walk into life with Jesus, the more I realize I need to be on my hands and knees (both literally and figuratively), plowing through hard stuff, working through gross things, and embracing the messiness of it all.

The closer I get to the dirt, the more my eyes are opened to God and His creation, his desire for people to operate in a natural and connected way to Him and His world, and the myriad of ways that deep discipleship is patterned after God’s design in non-human creation. Even understanding passages in the Scriptures like God causing the growth of plants, and us participating in it in some way (see 1 Cor 3:6-7). And add to that the great feeling of being outside, hands and knees in the dirt, watching plants grow from tiny seedlings into full-fledged plants, it’s a wonder to behold. I’d highly recommend it. The further we walk into it, the more tired we get, but the more integrated, healthy, and vibrant our life starts to feel.

I Spent Three Days in Mendocino Learning About Dirt

Walking down to the Ecology Action research garden

Back in the beginning of March, I spent three days in the tiny town of Willits, CA, in Mendocino County learning about dirt. More specifically, I was attending a 3-day Grow Biointensive Workshop hosted by Ecology Action to delve deeper into our journey into sustainable mini-farming. We talked a lot about dirt – soil, organic matter, microbes, bacteria, worms, soil content, nutrients, and all the important dirt conditions that fosters good, healthy plant growth. And these weren’t light sessions – we were going at it for about 8-10 hours a day for three days straight, sometimes in the classroom with calculators out, and sometimes out in the fields digging in the dirt, but by and large we spent a lot of our time talking about soil. And why not? It, along with water and sunlight, is one of the absolutely critical parts of growing food. The workshop was possibly the best workshop of any type that I’ve ever attended – an excellent blend of theory and practice together.

Not only was it great to learn a whole bunch of new stuff about dirt, but it was great to interact with people from all over the country. The three dozen or so participants came from as far as Hawaii and Ohio, along with a fair number from California. The trainers were also fantastic, as were the various staff members of Ecology Action. It was so cool to be sitting around talking about sustainable farming and living with these folks who combined had countless stories to share.

Here are a few shots from my time in Willits to give you a glimpse into my weekend back in March – I had a blast and learned so much. If you ask me about it, you could get me going for a long conversation!

The Ecology Action farm is perched up in the mountains, on what started as some pretty bad soil a few decades ago. They’ve done some hard work and built it into something beautiful:

The Ecology Action Research Garden

Here I am bright and early at the Golden Rule Garden (where Seabiscuit was trained) where most of the trainings were held. As you can tell, I’m not quite awake yet, and it was actually quite chilly in the mornings, even in March (I’m wearing two fleeces and a jacket).

Early morning with my coffee

It was great to be outside and breathing fresh air for a solid three days.

Spring Blossoms

The food served was 100% vegetarian, and it was awesome! Among some of the best soups, salads, and breads that I’ve ever had. Here’s a great lunch they served – quinoa, carrots, and a fresh green salad. This is as fresh as it gets. Yum.

Veggie Goodness

One of my favorite parts was learning about grains, like the quinoa pictured below. This part was pretty cool because we also got to learn how to process grain manually – stomp it with your feet over some hardware cloth, and separate the chaff by using a fan and some gravity.


Separating the wheat from the chaff

And it was great learning from John Jeavons (author of How to Grow More Vegetables) and his decades of experience. He’s like a walking encyclopedia for all things on sustainable farming and living. It was a tremendous privilege to benefit from his wisdom and ask him lots of questions. Here he is coaching a fellow workshop participant in the double dig:

John Jeavons and the Double Dig