Wednesday, April 17, 2013

I’m currently lucky enough to be enrolled in the class “Urbanization and the Environment in China and India”, which included a spring break trip to Guangdong Province and New Delhi. As part of the class, I’m working on a group research project about meat availability and changing diets in China and India.

Our research entailed visits to various types of markets in both countries—a fascinating process that allowed us to consider both food production and supply, and social and cultural practices. One major theme: even though urban diets have changed and are changing in both countries, becoming increasingly processed and industrialized, fresh markets remain the vibrant norm.  

Even more fundamentally, I observed in both places a difference in attitude, compared to the US, towards food shopping in general. Most basic staples remain unbranded, which isn’t to say that industrial food isn’t present—it’s just that meat that is produced industrially is not as commonly sold under a brand name like Tyson.

Thus, in both China and India, “consumer choice” in food still implies very physical, very real choice. Rather than choosing between brands and abstracted concepts of food—in the US, the premise of our industrial food system is that one Tyson chicken breast is indistinguishable from another—people rely on their senses, experience with the seller, and personal judgment to select precisely the food that looks best to them. Even in the Chinese supermarkets we visited, people pick through trays of chicken wings, and the plastic-covered Styrofoam package of six chicken breasts remains the exception rather than the norm. Although this kind of shopping may create anxiety about food safety, I think it also points to an attitude that doesn’t consider it elitist to invest time and effort in procuring quality food. 

-Abigial Bok, ‘14

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Conservationist in the Clouds

Hannah Sassoon, ‘15

Don Carlos was sitting on the porch when we arrived at Cuerici. We could smell a wood stove burning, and I thought for a moment that it was smoke hanging in the air around us—but it wasn’t dry, it was wet, and it didn’t rise or twist. It rolled under the roof trusses. A cloud. We joined Don Carlos on the porch. From leather rocking chairs and long log benches, we looked across the Talamanca mountains, breathless.

We could recognize the altitude by the flora, too. Compared to the tall palms and Heliconia we’d just seen in the rainforest, this looked like a temperate zone: oaks (Fagaceae), dogwoods (Cornaceae), blueberries (Ericaceae). We’d come to Costa Rica as botanists. Here, 2700 meters above sea level, we found a distinctive habitat: un bosque nublado, a cloud forest.

Cuerici is more than a biological station: it’s a trout farm, and it’s the home of Don Carlos. The land he stewards—including 200 hectares of primary forest, a blackberry farm, and a patchwork of impossibly steep cow pastures—straddles the top of a mountain. Its Atlantic face is wet, its Pacific face dry. Don Carlos’s family has lived here for generations.

The trout operation at Cuerici is less than twenty years old—the result of a government-sponsored economic development initiative. Rainbow trout in the cloud forest? It’s a good question. They’re nonnative, and a notoriously aggressive species. But Don Carlos’s truchas are well contained and integrated into the cycles of Cuerici. 

At the base of the hill below the station is a small dug pond, divided down the middle into two squares. This is where Don Carlos keeps reproductive trout. They’re large—easily twenty-four inches long, most more like thirty. From the bank, we watch them swim around each other, dorsal fins gliding above the pond surface. Don Carlos is describing egg collection. With his thick fingers, he draws two vertical lines in the air. The fish have two sacs, he explains in Spanish. That’s where all the eggs are—hundreds, thousands. When they are ready, he captures the fish and massages their bellies to release the eggs. It’s a skill to know exactly when a fish is ready—something Don Carlos has learned over many seasons. He refuses to buy in eggs.

Up the hill is the hatchery, a dimly lit building. A stack of incubation shelves stands in one corner with water running over it all the time from a suspended pipe. Eggs incubate here for a month before Don Carlos moves the fish to small tanks, also in the hatchery. When they reach three centimeters in length, he moves them again, this time to one of the long, narrow, concrete tanks that run the length of the building. He doesn’t move them all together, though—he selects the hatchlings by size, one at a time. We watch Don Carlos climb onto the ledge above the concrete tanks. This water—he points down—comes from underground. It can’t have organic matter or sediment in it because particles can suffocate the fish at this stage.

Outside the hatchery is a row of larger tanks for juvenile trout. There are thousands of them, flipping and folding and forming schools. Most are sold at this size, four centimeters; the best are kept for breeding; the rest are kept for eating.

Don Carlos cleans the tanks twice a week. He puts the excrement in the compost to feed knotted piles of red worms, which he feeds, in turn, to the trout. He’s always looking to foster these sorts of cycles. Here, sustainability is not an ideology; it’s a necessity.

When Don Carlos’s grandparents moved to Cuerici Mountain, they slashed and burned to create pastures and gardens. They raised cows, they hunted, they felled the biggest trees, they made charcoal. And when the government outlawed deforestation in the 1970s, they began to sell their land, piece by piece, as pastures. Don Carlos saw the forest disappearing, and he decided, with eight friends, to buy the land. They still share it.

They’ve delineated their land use: part of the forest is a conservation site, another part is a reforestation site. Some areas are still cattle pasture (so the residents of Cuerici can have milk and manure); some are kept clear for blackberry bushes.

I’m criticized by conservationists, Don Carlos tells us, for having a cow, for having blackberries. But it isn’t so black and white: the point of land stewardship, he explains, is to balance conservation with human needs. Don Carlos lives by the idea of enough. Conserve what you can—it is enough. And take only what you need—it is enough. The problem, he says quietly, is when people want to make a lot of money from the land. That is more than enough; that is too much.

Behind the station, Don Carlos shows us a spread of palm seedlings—a hundred at least. It’s an edible species, so slow growing that it can take fifty, sixty, seventy years to reach maturity. When Don Carlos’s family first lived at Cuerici, these palms were everywhere. Now in the forest there remains only one.

The seedling project is an experiment. Don Carlos has propagated these palms, and he intends to plant them across the mountain. He knows he won’t live to learn their fate, much less to harvest them and eat them. But he is content as he leans on a bench and gazes at their light green fronds. This is enough.

Together, we head inside for lunch—trout. Above the station, clouds comb through the oaks, mixing with wood smoke.  

Monday, February 4, 2013

The above photo was taken by Caroline Lester in Sumba, Indonesia, while she spent a summer there documenting projects taking place in various villages as part of her work with a local non-profit. The following piece describes her decision to become a vegetarian after witnessing an animal sacrifice taking place in one of the villages; please note that it includes semi-graphic description of the slaughter, and a photograph of a dying buffalo. We hope that you will read on if interested, and click away if that’s not your cup of tea this afternoon!

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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Farm intern Zoe Reich-Avillez ‘15 on learning to cook and eat abroad:

This summer I went to Bhutan, a small country in the Himalayas nestled by India on the west, south, east and capped by Tibet to the north. Before going I didn’t know much about the country—I didn’t even know it was a country. For the inevitable questions “What are you doing this summer?” “Oh, where is that?” I learned my basic geography. The month before I left, I read a memoir of a Canadian woman’s experience teaching English in Bhutan. I tried to read parts of a travel book, but couldn’t make myself read more than a few pages. Bhutan still felt like a mystery. And I wanted to keep it that way. I made myself a promise: I would let the place make its own impression on me. I would let the experience give me whatever unexpected lessons it had to offer. There was one thing however, that I knew I wanted to take away. I wanted to learn how to cook a traditional Bhutanese dish. This, I thought, was the best present I could bring back to my family and friends. With food, I could share a part of my experience without having to put it into words. 

In Bhutan, I had an all-too short, one-night homestay. The time I spent there was less than twenty-four hours, but most of it revolved around food. As soon as I arrived at Sangeeta’s home, I was offered tea (milk tea, more specifically with the special touch of grated ginger added by her mother—yum), crackers, and the Indian-Bhutanese special of pressed corn flakes. When Sangeeta took me to a nearby monastery, more tea with more crackers, this time served by monks. After a full two hours of visiting the various Buddha shrines, we then rushed home to make dinner. With Sangeeta, I washed my hands, my face, and my feet. Then we joined her mother, sitting cross-legged on the kitchen floor. Peeling garlic and ginger, slicing potatoes and tomatoes, I worked clumsily with the knife, attempting to mimic the strong, sure strokes of Sangeeta’s mother. Since there were only two knives, Sangeeta watched us both. And before long, she was joined by her brother Kkiran. Seeing me struggle with the knife, Kkiran offered his help. He took the knife from my hands and continued peeling, but only to show me how it was really done. Then he gave it back. “This must be very hard for you,” he said. “At home, you normally cut on a board.” I hadn’t even noticed.

With Kkiran’s advice, my technique improved, but only so much. As I continued to work, I became acutely aware of the three pairs of eyes trained on my hands. They were patient, allowing me to finish on my own time, but they watched with baited breath, worried that I might slice my hand instead of the potato. Luckily, I finished the task without catastrophe. With everything sliced and diced, we got to the actual cooking. On the menu for the night: ema datse (the national dish of chillies and cheese) kewa datse (potatoes and cheese), red rice, and a salad of lettuce and tomatoes. Sangeeta, Kkiran, and their mother worked side by side, narrating each step and letting me help wherever I could. When everything was prepared, Sangeeta’s father joined us in the kitchen. He set out two long mats and the kitchen floor became the dining room table. With the dishes set out before us, we filled out plates and dug in. Everything was eaten with the right hand. To eat the soup-like kewa datse, I followed Kkiran’s example: take of clump of rice and dunk it in your bowl. Slurp from the bowl as needed. When I made it to the ema-datse, I felt the same attentive eyes trained on my face. Sangeeta’s mother warned me not to eat too much, it was very spicy. But I loved it. Sure, I had to wipe my nose on my shirt of few times, but what’s a runny nose for the sake of delicious food? When I had my fill, Sangeeta’s family insisited that I eat more. “You’re still hungry,” they asserted. “You didn’t eat enough.” “Mey jou, mey jou,” I replied. “No thank you, I’ve had enough. I promise.”

In the morning, after drinking a cup of hot water, we turned to making breakfast. This time though, Sangeeta’s father took the reigns; buckwheat pancakes were his domain. To go with the pancakes, we made the ever-versatile ema datse. At Kkiran’s insistence, I led this part of the cooking venture, putting into practice what I had learned the night before. As we covered the pot of chillies and cheese for its last few minutes of cooking, Kkiran turned to me, “Now you know how to cook Bhutanese food. Back home, you can cook it for your friends.”

I can’t say I’ve cooked for my friends yet—partly because I’m not sure they can handle all those chillies—but I will. And when I do, hopefully we’ll eat with our hands, using the floor as our dining room table.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Hannah Sassoon, ‘15, one of our Farm interns, spent the summer WWOOFing in Sweden. What follows are her notes from Östra Gerum:

The parish of Östra Gerum is a single road through southern Sweden’s flat fields of rapeseed and potatoes. At the middle of the parish is a circle of stone wall older than anyone can remember. Inside the wall is a church that does not open on Sundays. You can hear the bells there every day at seven in the morning and seven in the evening.

Down the road to the south is a dairy farm. Out of the back of the barn, the farmer sells some of his milk, unpasteurized, to the neighbors. When they have carried it home, they whisper to each other about the way he keeps his cattle, but they do not complain because the milk is sweet and cheap, and because he is a good man.

Ten years ago, he taught the new neighbor Jonas how to make a haystack. In Östra Gerum, he explained, it is done with seven vertical timber poles and four horizontal wires:
Sink the poles into the ground in a zigzag line for strength
against the wind. The cut grass,
when gathered with a hay fork, must face in different
directions in order to hold together. Settle it on the wires and over the tops of the poles.
After a week the stack looks like a many-humped camel.
After two weeks the timothy stalks break.

Jonas, before he came to Östra Gerum, was a member of the Swedish Parliament. He had studied cultural heritage without ever learning to make a haystack. When he left the city and bought the farm across the road from the dairy here, he had to re-thatch the barn roof himself. Then he sewed himself a suit and married.

At the north end of the parish lives Vanessa with her goats. She is from Connecticut, studied in New York. At twenty-five, she decided to move to Östra Gerum, learn Swedish, and raise goats—at which point, so far as her father in Darien was concerned, she’d gone to seed.

Once, as she bicycled through the parish, an elk galloped across the road and leapt. Its whole enormous mass sailed over a fence and into a cow pasture. The cows looked up from their grazing. The elk did not stop running. Then, all together, the cows turned to follow it, lurching, at first, and then running, running, until the herd glided together like a single shadow, moving with this elk. At the far fence line the elk leapt again, and let itself be swallowed by the spruce forest. The cows stopped. Breathless from this dream of wildness, they bent their heads to the clover and dispersed among its purple flowers.

Thursday, November 3, 2011