Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Why I have become a Locavore... again

I grew up on a diet of mostly organically and locally grown fruit and vegetables and meat from cattle and pigs which were raised naturally on a small farm. My parents grew a great variety of vegetables in their own garden. We were lucky that we had inherited a piece of land with a number of well-producing fruit trees my grandfather had planted many years ago, and my mother used to preserve enough for winter.

My mother's family also used to own some productive farm land that was leased to a farmer. Once a year, we would get a whole side each of beef and pork which my parents stored in the freezer and which would supply us with most of the meat we would need for the year. I remember the large pieces of cured meat in the meat safe in the cellar. We had more strawberries than we could eat. My Dad always served me slices of apple on a small plate when I did my schoolwork. I loved the canned fruits in winter.

Then I left home to study. Without access to any gardens, I now had to buy all my food. For many years, I would buy my fruit, vegetables and meat at the supermarket, mainly checking for freshness and price. I tried to eat a well-rounded diet but I usually found organically grown vegetables far too expensive and I certainly couldn't afford the pricey organically grown meat. And although I had heard about possible health benefits of organic produce, I was doubtful whether the at times rather tired and ancient looking "organic" vegetables in the supermarket would really be able deliver those benefits.

I developed hay-fever and a number of food allergies. For years, I couldn't eat peaches, plums or any other stone fruit. Even apples made my throat to swell up. I am not sure what caused all of this. Maybe it was the pollution in the city. Maybe it would have happened anyway. Maybe it was a result of eating too much 'conventionally' grown food with its high levels of pesticides and fertilizers, who knows. The food also didn't taste as good as it did at home, but over the years I forgot. I simply got used to the cardboard tomatoes and the watery strawberries.

Well, nothing gets you going more effectively than a good financial shock to the system, particularly when coupled with an increasing awareness of the environmental impact of our modern way of life (to understand the impact of food transport see my earlier post on locavorism). The financial shock came a couple years ago, when an event in our family caused a massive drop in income. We faced some stark choices at the time. Essentially, despite being a reasonably frugal family who hardly ever went out, rarely ate take-away food and didn't spend much money on holidays or clothes, we were now living beyond our means. I couldn't go back to work with three young kids (see my post on the cost of work) so there was no way to get additional income. The alternative was to cut spending. And where is it easiest to cut spending? You guessed right - the cost of food.

I had a vegetable garden before, and I was producing stuff. But certainly not enough to feed the family the whole year around. I started with tomatoes. They do well even in a dry climate. I soon produced enough to keep us in tomatoes for a whole year. I preserved tomatoes by drying some, bottling others, and producing our own tomato sauces and chutneys. I found that sometimes kids who come to visit can't cope with having tomato sauce from a glass jar that doesn't look like a tomato sauce bottle. For that purpose I have kept a commercial tomato sauce bottle which I fill with my tomato sauce when I serve it to visiting children. That solved that problem - I haven't had complaints since!

Then my parents came to visit from Europe and Dad helped around in the garden. He, of course, had many great ideas which really got me going. Not everything Dad tried to do worked in our very different climate and with very different soil conditions - Dad's garden is located on an old sand dune in a rainy part of Germany, mine is pure clay in our dry, sunburnt country. One solution to both, of course, is to add plenty of organic matter to change the soil over time to make it more suitable to growing food.

We are lucky that we have two large water tanks which makes us independent of those lunatic water restrictions which allow endless showers but regulate when people are allowed to water their gardens. It means I can water my vegetable patch every day if necessary, carefully, of course, as I cannot afford to waste a drop of my precious rain water. I also find I constantly have to adapt to the increasing temperatures. This year, in particular, I found the intensity of the sun worse than before. Everything got burnt in the heatwave that followed the great rain we had over Christmas - even my corn and the tomatoes were suffering, and I noticed that our neighbour's grape vine also ended up with severe sunburn. I tried covering my main vegetable patch with a large shade cloth which has made a huge difference.

Despite these challenges I am now producing virtually all our vegetables and some of our fruit. I am planting more fruit trees, so hopefully in a few years' time my children will be able to enjoy the pleasure of simply going outside and pick fruit whenever they feel like it.

Our food experiment has had some interesting and unexpected side effects. I am rediscovering the taste of real food. It really hits you when you eat a carrot straight from the garden or pick a strawberry that tastes like strawberry. It's a taste sensation! I also noticed that our medical expenses have gone down. It is possible we were simply lucky last year, but apart from a bout of chickenpox which went by without problems (the older two boys are vaccinated and were hardly affected, the baby got it but got over it quickly) none of the kids got sick last year. This was highly unusual, as we ordinarily suffer the typical bouts of colds and other infectious diseases. And there were plenty of those that went around in our area last year, with many friends and their children affected by respiratory illnesses, gastroenteritis and similar medical conditions. Maybe we were just lucky. Or maybe, just maybe, the food we eat now is making us healthier?


  1. I have always liked to grow some food as a means to demonstrate to the kids that it is possible and that it does originate from the ground. It has worked quite well, but we never had the space or the correct growing conditions to do it on a sustainable basis. Now that we are fiddling with our new garden we plan to have some large vegetable beds and will grow more food for us.

  2. I have only just found your blog and really enjoyed this post. I would love to know more about your 'baby steps' to food production.