Dad's Cabin

Dad and sons (but mostly Dad) built this log cabin between 1998 and 2000. Day by day, log by log, shingle by shingle. Probably my most favorite place to go and relax in all of the world. Thanks Dad!

A Revival of Urban Gardening

"If more Americans grew a little food instead of so much grass - our savings on grocery bills would be astounding."
- Rosalind Creasy, who grew $700 worth of produce in a 100 square foot garden.

As many readers and community members are well aware, a new movement is sprouting up in America's neighborhoods. This movement is pulling many people away from their TVs and computers and into their backyards closer to their neighbors, their communities, and to nature. According to the American Gardening Association, 84 million Americans gardened in 2009. Community gardens now number over 1 million throughout the country. Locally, in Menomonie, landlords are finding that there are more and more requests for gardening space, the farmer's market is expanding into a larger location, school gardens are being established and expanding, and a new community garden has just taken root.

The revival of the urban or backyard garden is due in part to the economy, the awareness of the nutritional benefits of fresh vegetables, the recognition of the health and exercise benefits of gardening, and because the the American people are increasingly understanding that growing and eating local, sustainably grown food is another way to green our daily routine.

Today, the average distance food travels to the American plate is about 1500 miles. Although this number has gone virutally unchanged the past 30 years the volume of food being transported has increased substantially. This industrial food system leaves us all at the mercy of rising fuel costs and natural disasters which gets passed on to the consumer in the price of the food we buy. Many consumers are also becoming more aware that to grow their own food and to sometimes pay a bit more for locally grown food keeps the money locally, improving our local economy.

As a result of the increasing demand for local food "urban farms" are becoming more attractive and profitable. If you have not heard the name Will Allen you soon will. Recently on the Time 100 list of Heroes, Will Allen has organized, protected, and maintained the last farmland within the city limits of Milwaukee. On two acres in urban Milwaukee stand six greenhouses, four hoophouses, goats, turkeys, chickens, rabbits and beehives. For many urban Milwaukee youth this may be one of the few opportunities they have to connect with nature and see where their food comes from.

Operations like these that connect youth and community to nature are increasingly popping up across the country. The movement towards establishing the Menomonie Community Garden has many of the same goals. The Menomonie Community Garden hopes to provide a space for people who live in apartments or shaded backyards to grow their own vegetables. It will provide an opportunity for members to create a place of beauty and sustainable agriculture, as well as enhance community bonds by providing space for gardens, gardening education, and a gathering spot for community members. It is Menomonie Community Garden's hope to establish a legacy of stewardship for the land in upcoming generations.

As Menomonie community member Kris Recker states, "The idea of having a small garden (at the Menomonie Community Garden) is exciting because its within walking distance...my children can take advantage of the park amenity when the peas are picked and we can meet people and run into friends, while filling the pantry with healthy vegetables we've raised ourselves. In essence, the Menomonie Community Garden supports our efforts to live more healthily and sustainably and integrates us into the community socially."

If you are interested in assistance with starting your own garden contact the Dunn County Master Gardeners through the Dunn County UW-Extension office (715-232-1636) or the Menomonie Community Garden (menomoniegarden@aol.com) for more information.

Encouraging Sustainable Change

"Each small change paves the way for future efforts." - Christie Manning

On February 2, I was fortunate enough to assist in the facilitation of a community event here in Menomonie, WI hosted by Sustainable Dunn. Over 50 people came together from almost as many community groups, businesses, and government agencies throughout the Chippewa Valley to talk about bringing about sustainable change in the community.

The event kicked off with a very inspirational speech by Christie Manning, Assistant Professor of Environmental Psychology at the University of Minnesota. She used a series of slides, pictures, and stories to depict the magnitude of our societal habits on the environment and how we might encourage sustainable change in our communities by properly framing our ideas and passions for the general public. For instance, in the image below Chris Jordan depicts the 2.5 million plastic bottles we use in America each hour. If information like this isn't properly framed and presented depending on the audience in may be received in an unwanted or ineffective manner leading recipients to varying reactions of disbelief or being overwhelmed to the point of feeling too small to make a difference.

Chris Jordan's Depiction of the 2.5 Million plastic bottles Americans use each hour

Christie's presentation continued with a focus on providing positive feedback for those acting sustainably. (Giving thumbs up to the guy riding bike to work when it is below zero.) At the same time, she pointed out, that negative feedback is almost never helpful for those not acting sustainably. When a municipality recently placed frowny faces on the electricity bills of homes in a neighborhood using more energy than their neighbors the reaction was not what was intended - in some cases electricity use actually increased thereafter. In short, positive reinforcement and providing people with sustainable options first was generally the message.

Afterward discussions broke off into an open space meeting where local topics and issues were identified and then discussed. Topics such as transportation, waste reduction, water, supporting local, energy, food, using the internet to tell our story, and a community garden were all discussed and information and ideas exchanged. It is now a month later and many of these ideas continue to grow and take root. More exciting updates to come!

"Your efforts will inspire and empower those around you." - Christie Manning

"We must be the change we wish to see in the world." - Gandhi

Sustainability at Organic Valley

Last week we dropped by a talk by Jennifer Harrison, Sustainability Program Manager of Organic Valley. The event was part of the Applied Science Speaker Series here at UW-Stout.

Based in La Farge, Wisconsin, Organic Valley is the nation's largest and oldest organic farm cooperative. It prides itself on its brand, its image, and the fact that their average size of an Organic Valley farm is just 77 cows. The cooperative boasts over 1600 farms across the United States and distributes products ranging from cheese to butter to milk to orange juice to eggs. Prior to the downturn in the economy Organic Valley saw yearly growth rates of 20% with revenues of $527 million in 2008. Their current revenues remain near constant despite the recession.

Jennifer's presentation focused on the basics of the farmer owned cooperative and what they are doing as a cooperative to promote sustainability within their business without reducing the amount of money they are able to pay their farmers, producers, and growers for their products.

There are many benefits for individual owner operators under the cooperative system - one of the main ones being the ability to avoid downsizing or the expiration/dumping of product that many conventional farmers experience when supply is high and demand is low. The beauty of the cooperative was relayed in a story by Jennifer of a recent meeting in which the owners had to decide whether to shed farmers or reduce production across the board. Instead of putting one of their fellow farmers out on the street they agreed to each reduce production across the board until demand once again increased.

Another idea that the cooperative is exploring is the renewable energy idea. Jennifer stressed that the company strives to be sustainable in three ways: economically, ecologically, and socially sustainable. They recently installed solar panels at their headquarters in La Farge. Despite the effort and positive publicity the project is producing about 1% of the electricity for the coop's headquarters which was built to Silver LEED Design Standards. But she stated that it is a start and they are looking into other possibilities such as wind and anaerobic digesters to increase the amount of power they are getting from renewable sources.

The cooperative also operates a separate endeavor for its owners, 3PL shipping, which ensures that produce from each region stays in the region and travels the least distance possible to market.

One thing that didn't get brought up was the cooperative's eggs & poultry production and policies. The majority of the talk focused on their cows and beef which are held above most organic and pasturing standards. The cooperative takes pride in these standards which are thousands of times better than the CAFOs and farms across the country with thousands of milking cows and beef in concentrated areas. But how are their chickens treated?

All in all it was a good presentation and the presence of a local co-owner helped to put a face to the organization. Am I willing to pay $3 or more for a half gallon of Organic Valley milk? Although I really don't consume that much milk, for the little I do I may be able to sleep better at night knowing that they make sure their farmers get good wages, no fellow farmer is hung out to dry, and that through their profit sharing system 45% goes to the farmers, 45% to employees, and 10% to the communities.