The new normal

Spring “branch-breaker” storms do so much damage to precious trees.

If you grew up on the Front Range, you’re probably familiar with the old adage to “plant out on Mother’s Day.” The idea was, of course, that any chance of a hard frost was past, and delicate warm-weather crops, like tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and eggplant, would be safe for the summer growing season.

If you’ve lived and gardened in the Denver area over the last twenty years, however, you know the very idea of planting on Mother’s Day is pretty laughable. This year, the holiday occurred as early as it possibly can – on May 8. Between Thursday and Friday last week, the temperatures in some Front Range areas plummeted from the high eighties to the low forties, with heavy, wet snow and overnight lows well below freezing. If you chose to “plant out on Mother’s Day” and your plants weren’t carefully protected or relocated indoors, you’re likely headed back to your friendly local garden center (hi Anne, Dave and team!) to replace your summer vegetables.

Obviously, Denver weather is known to be erratic, and these massive diurnal shifts are one big reason (after overdevelopment, of course) why the Front Range no longer has a commercial fruit industry like we do on the Western Slope. But while Denver was in the grip of a monster late-spring storm, the East Coast was broiling under record high temperatures and excruciating humidity. Locally, our area has seen more than its fair share of severe weather recently, including unseasonal hard freezes that absolutely crushed peach and cherry growers. A certain number of extreme weather events are to be expected, of course, but it is no longer possible to argue that they’re the exception. They’re now the rule.

In less than a decade, Colorado has experienced two “hundred-year weather” events – the devastating 2013 floods and the scorched-earth Marshall Fire this past December. That stunning fire, of course, was precipitated by bone-dry conditions and hurricane-force winds – and followed a few hours later by about ten inches of snow. Too late, obviously, to prevent the loss of a thousand homes; the Marshall Fire quickly enthroned itself as the most expensive “natural disaster” in Colorado’s history. Is it even accurate to refer to these disasters as natural, since they’re entirely our fault?

The point is, it is no longer feasible to expect the weather to act the way it’s always acted. It is no longer possible to change the trajectory that we’re on as a population and a planet; there is absolutely no hope of achieving the 1.5 degree warming limit by 2030 and it’s foolhardy to pretend otherwise. All we can do now is adapt to our rapidly changing climate – stop building in wildland-urban interfaces, create a resilient and regionally-adapted agriculture system and learn how to live with the ‘new normal.’ Hundred-year weather events should be expected every ten years, if not more frequently, and we need to ready ourselves for these, instead of acting shocked and horrified and surprised every time they occur. We cannot continue to behave as we’ve behaved in the past and expect that the weather will accommodate us. Also, we should really, really stop irrigating the desert to raise cattle and lettuce (looking at you, Arizona) and we should outlaw Kentucky bluegrass – actually, lawns in general – in the American West. (We can’t even hide bodies in Lake Mead any longer!) The sooner we accept our harsh new reality and learn to live with it, the better off we’ll all be.

We have an abundance of starts for sale!

Here on the western edge of Colorado we didn’t get quite as much of that storm’s moisture as we would have liked, but in the state’s driest county we’re always grateful for anything we do get. And since we, too, experienced freezing temperatures this week, perhaps our readers here need to replace their summer crops? Never fear: we have hundreds of spectacular, unique heirloom tomato starts, all from our own saved organic seeds, plus pollinator plants, herbs and much more. Everything we grow is completely organic and well-suited to our challenging high-plains desert environment. Send us a message if you’d like to learn more about any of the plants we’re offering for sale this year.

Have a peaceful week, friends, and best of luck with your planting wherever you may be!

Fight inflation in the kitchen

The total came to nearly $90 – four painfully small canvas totes of groceries that did not include meat, cheese or eggs. Had I been shopping at an ultra-fancy Amazon-owned health-halo organic market, this might have seemed reasonable, or even a bargain. Instead, I was at the (sadly) best option in our poor, rural county: a grim, dark and untidy corporate chain store with exploitative policies, limited fresh produce and extensive displays of cheap soda, chips and cookies. Shopping here is not pleasurable, by any stretch of the imagination; both the atmosphere and the prices leave much to be desired.

Unless you’re named Musk or Bezos, you’ve likely noticed that inflation has started to bite, and to bite hard. In the twelve-month period ending this past March, the U.S. inflation rate was 8.5% – the highest it’s been since late 1981. In the simplest economic terms, inflation means that our money doesn’t go as far as it used to. The huge conflagration of various challenges we’re facing right now – a global pandemic, the pointless war in Ukraine, climate change, housing instability, supply-chain disruptions, insatiable greed – means that we’re all experiencing inflation to varying degrees. The good news is that in almost all cases, you can control how much inflation affects your individual household by adjusting your own behavior. No surprise, then, that one of the easiest places to accomplish this is in the kitchen.

Before we really start whining about grocery prices, however, I want to make it perfectly clear that the average American spends far less on food as a percentage of their household income than do most other developed nations. The best available statistics indicate that we spend about 7% of our budget on food, whereas in the U.K. it’s closer to 9.5%, and around 15% in France, Spain and Italy. On a relative basis, our food is devastatingly cheap here; this is because we have absurd federal farm subsidies and because we’re a net exporter of food, which means we produce a lot. (Our cheap food is obviously both terrible for the environment and our own health, but the system holds!) Unfortunately, we’re very spoiled and therefore accustomed to cheap food, which means that we’re far more sensitive to price increases than other countries. (See also: $90 for four tiny bags of groceries, above.)

If you, too, are starting to feel the sharp stick of inflation in your own food budget, we hereby present some easy ways to keep your food costs down, eat healthier, and reduce environmental impact. It’s a win-win-win!

There is simply nothing nice to say about CAFO meat in tubes.

Eat less meat and dairy

We’ve discussed this numerous times here at Finding Quiet Farm, and it’s so obvious that it’s almost awkward to present it as a revolutionary idea, but reducing or eliminating your meat and dairy consumption is absolutely the easiest way to improve your diet and spend less on food. Meat prices overall are up an average of 20% in the past year; the recent avian flu outbreak means that chicken and egg prices have also skyrocketed. Raising animals for meat in CAFOs is one of the biggest contributors to climate change and environmental degradation; consumption of animal products is conclusively linked to a nearly endless list of health problems and premature death. In short, eat less (or no) meat and dairy, and buy what meat you do eat from a local regenerative farm. Also, get eggs from backyard chickens – either your own or someone else’s!

Strawberries a bit soft? Perfect for baking or smoothies!

Minimize food waste & ignore expiration dates

Another subject that we’ve beaten to death over the years here – Americans waste about 40% of all food. If we want to trim our grocery spending, it starts with being realistic about what we’re actually going to eat instead of aspirational shopping that results in huge amounts of waste. I’m not at all a fan of the warehouse stores like Costco, with their massive plastic clamshells of spinach or grapes or asparagus; unless you’re feeding the Brady Bunch, it’s pretty likely that produce will spoil before you finish it. Those stores entice shoppers with their “bulk discounts,” but that’s not a discount if most of it ends up in the trash; also, their excessive and unnecessary packaging is infuriating. Unsurprisingly, most food waste is perishables like greens and fruit, so be ruthlessly honest with yourself about what your household will actually consume.

On the same topic, please please please do not ever pay attention to expiration or ‘best-by’ dates on packages. They’re not regulated and they’re designed expressly to keep you throwing things away and buying more. Use your eyes, your nose and your common sense – if something smells strongly of alcohol (fermentation) or is actively moving, probably compost it. Otherwise, trim off the mucky bits and eat it – transformed in a soup or a smoothie, if need be. Expiration dates are a large-scale corporate racket designed to keep us spending. Ignore them entirely.

What do you have on hand that you can use up?

Pantry challenge / use what you have

We’re quickly moving towards the season of abundance here, and that – coupled with inflated prices – means I’m challenging myself to use up everything we have right now, both in the pantry and the freezer. The typical American household has a lot of food on hand, but like our overstuffed closets, much of it gets ignored in favor of “new.” For a week, or a month, or whatever timeframe you can manage, challenge yourself to eat what you have. Use up that little bag of red lentils, the frozen container of chili, the rest of that pasta, last summer’s canned tomatoes. Make a frittata or a stir-fry or a soup out of the odds and ends of vegetables and herbs in the crisper. Create flavorful meals by working with what you have, rather than buying more. Also! Eat your leftovers. Plan your weekly meals thoughtfully so that leftovers (or ‘favorites,’ in our house) can be either frozen, incorporated into packed lunches or used for future meals.

Frozen summer sweet corn: the secret ingredient in delicious soups.

Use your freezer

Never forget about your amazing freezer, the greatest food-saving appliance ever invented. Brown, too-soft, overly ripe bananas and other past-its-prime fruit: frozen on sheet trays and used for smoothies and muffins. Vegetable scraps: stored in zip-top bags for stock and soup. Sliced bread: saved for toast and bread crumbs, rather than going stale and hard on the counter. Incredible sale price on organic blueberries: frozen for baking when fresh fruit is too expensive. Fresh summer sweet corn: sliced from the cob and turned into spicy corn chowder in winter. The list goes on and on – your freezer can help you save money and eat better. Use it.

Hummus is so expensive to buy but so quick and easy to make at home.

Cook from scratch

Big Food has made billions convincing us that not only do we not have time to make things, but that we probably can’t. This is completely false! Yogurt, granola, salad dressing, hummus, bread…all of these (and many more) are far cheaper and healthier to make at home, plus you can control the ingredients and you avoid wasteful packaging and shipping. Five minutes of effort yields a jar of delicious salad dressing that will last for weeks; yogurt takes a few hours but that time is mostly devoted to the slow culturing and requires no real supervision; granola can be baked in huge batches and with far less sugar than packaged varieties; homemade bread, of course, produces results that can never be replicated with storebought. Keep in mind, too, that even cooking dried beans rather than using canned means substantial savings. Avoid, if at all possible, food products where someone has done most of the work for you.

A small portion of the food we harvest each year.

Grow your own

The best way you can fight inflation, of course, is to turn your back on Big Ag entirely and grow your own food. A $3 packet of tomato or lettuce seeds and a bit of water will yield hundreds of dollars of organic food. Plastic clamshells of ‘fresh herbs’ that turn into brown sludge after two days can be instead harvested fresh from window boxes as needed with about $20 of supplies. Even the smallest backyard or sundeck can produce a staggering amount of homegrown food if managed correctly, and the satisfaction of producing your own food is unmatched. Find out what grows locally where you live, and buy seconds for freezing or canning. Join a community garden, or partner with neighbors to grow collaboratively. Plant a vacant lot. Ask who might offer gleaning in your area. There are myriad ways to obtain fresh, nutritious food that don’t involve the supermarket; it takes a bit more work, but the payoff is worth it.

Are you making changes to the way you cook and eat because of higher prices? We’d love to hear what your household is doing to adjust!