Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Oil Spill and Local Eating

This week, an old college friend and her friend are here to visit. We've had long, fascinating conversations. She's living the kind of life that I assumed I, too, would live when I graduated from college and could live however I chose. She raises chickens (she has a permit!), which give her a few eggs each morning. She does intensive gardening. She bought an eighth of a cow from a local farmer. She just started her latest adventures with bee raising. Any day, I expect to hear that she's bought a goat.

In short, she's living the kind of life that Barbara Kingsolver describes in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. That book made me want to sell everything I own and move to a farm. But the housing market was crashing all around me, so I stayed put.

It's probably wise. I like the idea of raising my own food, but I don't know that I'm really suited to it. I love planning and planting the garden, but I don't like keeping up with the weeding (similar to quilting: I like planning and buying the cloth, but the long slog of work in between the planning and the finished quilt often feels unmanageable to me). I've had successful, weedy gardens, but I don't know that I'd want to count on my efforts for all my food. I've seen what one violent thunderstorm or an early frost can do to a garden.

And while I could probably raise chickens, I don't know that I could slaughter them. It's one thing to collect eggs, but it's another to kill animals. And even if I decided not to slaughter them, they still require daily care. I wouldn't keep chickens for the same reason I don't have pets: I travel a lot, and who would take care of the animals?

The oil slick spreading in the Gulf also led us to talk about the true cost of our food. My friend does a good job of eating locally. Of course, in the Carolinas, it's easy to eat locally. Plenty of people are still practicing the kind of farming on a small scale that my relatives on my mom's side used to do (and one or two still do). There are plenty of roadside stands and local markets, and plenty of farmers who will sell you part of their own butchering.

Down here, it's much harder to eat locally. When I first read the Kingsolver book, I thought, that's it, I'm only going to eat food from 50 miles away. That doesn't leave me very much. Even most of our citrus trees have been cut down in the futile attempt to contain the citrus canker disease. Even if I widened my circumference to 100 miles, there's not much farming left down here. Everything has been paved over for housing developments.

And if I have to drive 50-100 miles to get my locally grown food, am I really lessening my carbon footprint? No. If I have to truck in lots of soil to grow a garden, am I lessening my carbon footprint? Certainly not at first. But as I nourish that soil, through composting, eventually it's cheaper from a carbon standpoint to grow my own food.

I stopped gardening years ago, when I calculated the true cost of my home-grown vegetables and decided it was cheaper to go to a farmer's market. Of course, that was years ago, when I lived in a state that had farmer's markets. Down here, we have green markets, which are more like craft fairs than farmer's markets.

Ah, living an authentic life. When I was in college, I wouldn't have imagined it would be this complicated.

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