About greenmanproject

Urban farmer, Permaculture student, food freak with a blog mapping the food system of Portland, Oregon through videos, gardening tutorials, and interviews with local food growers, distributors, and food system related organizations.

Shangri-La

On Thursday I worked at a house that was, for me, an epiphany. This house wasn’t anything spectacular – a two bedroom with a basement, garage, and nice little deck in the back. But the yard…the yard was something I’ve been seeking since moving to Portland, something I’d heard of but never seen in person.

In the back were two cherry trees, two apple trees, two asian pear trees, one pear tree, one mulberry tree, one sour cherry tree, two currant bushes, a raspberry patch, and a hazelnut tree. In the front there was a walnut tree, two sour cherry trees, a persimmon tree, rosemary, four types of sage, three types of oregano, lavender, and thyme. Everything was full of fruit, but looked like it hadn’t been pruned in years. After a full day of pruning and weeding, I sat back in wonder of the amount of food this property could produce, both now and in the future if each tree had a garden guild of vegetables herbs and pollinators grown beneath it.

This house was going up for sale soon. I talked a bit to the real estate agent, who was visibly shaken from the fact that there had been a group of squatters staying in the empty house until that morning, when she had called the police to evict them. I could see why they chose the house, it was a foodshed unto itself. We talked about about prepping the house for sale, and she was concerned that the fruit trees would be a negative selling point for most folks because of the maintenance involved.

As I worked I thought about the pounds and pounds of fruit and nuts that would probably go uneaten simply because whoever bought this home would hack the trees into something more “manageable”, controlling nature rather than working with it. Because they don’t have 5 hours a week to spend on caring for this mini orchard. I thought about the fact that whoever owns this home in the future will probably work 40+ hours a week to afford it, and will still buy their fruit from the grocery store.

Over the past four years of my life I’ve been studying how feasible it is to create a network of home scaled urban farms, producing food and creating a barter economy to trade the abundance. Thursday was an epiphany because I realized that the only way it will ever be possible is if we, as urban farmers, find ways to encourage people to work less, garden more, and produce their own goods. This is true urban homesteading, which in a world of debt, mortgages, and credit building contracts has little room to blossom.

As an urban farmer, I can support and teach homeowners in building their own urban farms. I can even take out a loan and rent some acreage to produce my own food and bring it to market, create a CSA, sell it to a restaurant, or prepare it at a certified kitchen. But if I’m going to take on the social, political, and economic restraints which stop us as a movement from decentralizing our food supply, I’m going to need an army of urban farmers. People who own property and are willing to share it, trusting me to be a steward that creates abundance, often in the form of food, knowledge, and experience, sometimes in the form of money. I’d like to think that my generation, specifically the privileged ones that will inherit land, are the ones that can help other people liberate land.

Liberation from banks, slumlords, and business owners/corporations who do not have the interests of the local foodshed, watershed, and farmers in mind. This is where urban farming becomes revolutionary. This is where I have to evaluate what my contractual obligation will be. What is my relationship with the land, and do I ever want to own property or a farm of my own? Are there other alternatives, or do I have to break laws to create them? Do I want to be working for overworked, money rich, time poor people who have the resources to pay me to grow them food, and hopefully find a way to share it with those in need? How can I help create a network of drop outs that thrive on less than $15,000 a year because they’ve empowered themselves to produce, grow, and engineer the solutions we need? Where do the worlds of the nomad and the ecopreneur meet? The wandering Fool vs. the Architect of Shangri-la? Right now, I’m more than happy to play the Fool…but who knows what time will bring…

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Planting Day

Today I planted starts I have been keeping inside in 4″ pots under a florescent light – tomatoes, basil and cucumbers. For the tomatoes, I added some crushed egg shells into the soil for calcium as well as compost.

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I dug a hole about 6 inches across and 8 inches deep, mixed in the egg shells and compost, placed the tomato in the ground, and mounded the base with soil. Then I watered them well, making sure the whole planted area was soaked. I used some old garden fencing my neighbor left when she moved out for trellises.

The cucumbers went into the raised bed with some compost the same way, and will hopefully be held by the trellising. Here’s a picture of both beds, the cucumbers in the foreground and the tomatoes behind.

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I also added a basil plant to the center of my herb spiral. I lost a rosemary and a lavender start to either birds or slugs, but everything else seems to be established. All of the beds are filled with crimson clover, which I pulled out around the herbs to make space for the growth.

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All it all it took me about an hour and a half. More to come soon… Happy gardening!

How to Build an Herb Spiral

Recently I built an herb spiral with some concrete blocks that were left in my backyard. I filled it with some rich soil I freecycled from my job as a landscaper. The whole process took me about three hours. This is how I began.

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I then continued to build up, raising the outside to about 4 stones high and the inside of the spiral to about 6 so that it was higher in the middle.

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Next I filled the spiral with soil. The spiral is just wide and tall enough for me to reach into the middle without bending over awkwardly.

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An herb spiral is a great example of permaculture theory in action. We are stacking multiple functions into one bed. We are utilizing edges to maximize interaction between warm and cool micro climates and building using patterns observed in nature, in this case spirals, which are pleasing to the eye. As the spiral rises higher, there are micro climates found in the shady areas at the northern base, sunny areas at the top of the spiral, and warmer areas close of the rock edges with retain heat from the sun. Ideally, the spiral would rise higher so that wind would be blocked by the inner spiral, but I did not have enough soil to build up any further. However, I can always raise it in the future.

I began by observing the spiral in the spring sun before planting anything in it to get an idea of what plants will work best in certain locations. Lately, I’ve found it to be about 10 degrees warmer than my other beds, and the soil has dried out much faster due to the fact that it is bare. I planted rosemary, lavender, sage, thyme and savory about two weeks ago. Slugs got to the rosemary and lavender, and so far everything looks to be acclimatizing to the heat – not growing, but not dying either. I’ve learned my first transplanting lessons – be weary of pests and check your soil moisture obsessively. Hopefully they’ll establish and start to go off, and I can post some more pictures.

How to Build a Raised Bed

Last fall I built a raised bed out of freecycled materials from my job as a landscaper. I filled it with free compost from my previous job, a combination of wood shavings and chicken poop, and mixed the compost with topsoil from my backyard. The whole process took 2 hours and cost me no money.

I began by laying out the deck foundation stones and pavers in a bed shape.

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I was working on my lawn already, so I took some of the topsoil from ripping my old lawn out and mixed it in layers with the compost and some dead brown grass. The layers, from the bottom up, went grass-soil-compost-grass-soil-compost. Sorry these pictures are a bit blurry.

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I put a tarp over the bed in October and left it there with rocks on top until last week. I dug around in the soil today, and it looks good and rich but there are still many grass roots throughout the mix. I’m worried that grass will sprout up, so I placed some window panes I have in my backyard over the top of the bed to heat the soil and hopefully kill the roots. I have no idea if this will work.

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In a few weeks I plan on planting carrots, beets, and radishes, in hopes that the root vegetables will break through the grass roots and do a sort of slow till of the soil. Another option is to inoculate the soil with mushrooms to break it down further. I may also put some cucumbers on the edges of the beds, with grid trellises to grow up onto. 

I chose to make this bed out of pavers because they were free, but also because it rains so much in Portland that wood beds often begin to decompose after two or three winters. You can also use brick, slate, or other flat rocks to create your walls. I chose not to put down a weed shield under the bed because of how little was growing there to begin with. In hindsight, I may have wanted to create some type of porous drainage under the beds, say with smaller river rocks or gravel, but I have a feeling that the passive solar heat held by the walls of the beds will evaporate any excess water in the growing season.

Again, I’m learning as I go. If you have any suggestions about what I can plant or add to the bed to make it better, feel free to leave a comment. Thanks for reading.

A Year of Observation

A few weeks ago I realized that it has been over a year since I launched the Green Man Project. This gave me an opportunity to reflect on what my first year in Portland has held. For the most part, it has been a year of observation. A year of getting to know the growing season out here and the community of gardeners, nurseries, and urban farms. I moved here in December of 2011 with the intention of learning, building, and networking with experienced gardeners, and I have found a wealth of resources. What I have also found, unexpectedly, is patience.

backyard overgrowth observation, summer 2012

backyard overgrowth observation, summer 2012

Realizing that sometimes I can learn the most from reflective observation, I have taken this first year as an opportunity to get a feel for my metaphorical soil before I sow seeds. I began the year working at the Urban Farm Store, a hub for urban farming supplies as well as baby chicks. In the five months I spent at the UFS I learned more about urban chicken keeping that I ever imagined I would, from chicken flu cures to vitamin supplements for healthier brightly colored eggs. But perhaps most useful was the daily conversations I overheard about when to grow what and how to grow it. As a California boy who had never dealt with frost, I was hesitant to make a running start into my first beds only to have them decimated by a late March freeze.

So I took my time and planted a simple garden of bok choi, radishes and beans in the front yard in mid-summer. I spent my days observing the weather, temperature, and what everyone else was growing that time of year. I was surprised when temperatures hit the 100s in July and August, and at the way the city seemed to get warmer and more humid in the summer evenings from 5pm to sundown. I checked in as often as possible at urban farms in my neighborhood and around town, taking note of what was being harvested and put into the ground, as well as what wasn’t. I attempted to eat with the seasons, celebrating the abundance of September and its endless tomatoes and zucchini. As October brought the rains again, I watched some gardeners clean up and cover their beds for the winter while others sowed clover and others continued to harvest kale, collards, and turnips.

front garden after planting, summer 2012

front garden after planting, summer 2012

I would like to think that my year of observation has saved me from some rookie mistakes in my own backyard this year, but only time will tell. Observation as a tool for visualizing the design of my garden has been indispensable – after watching the sun’s arc for a year, I now know the best full sun locations. I’ve also had the opportunity to watch and interact with a number of local urban farms that are thriving, providing some fresh ideas for this year.

Now, with this knowledge of observation under my belt, I’m ready for some knowledge of experience, of success and failure. And as I sit here reflecting, looking out my window to my backyard again, I’m reminded that patience and observation have been my most important tools as a gardener in the past year. Sometimes rather than the soil, you’ve got to tend to the garden of your mind first.

Food Justice 101

Food justice is a concept of moral rightness where every community has access to healthy, affordable, organic food. Food justice supports food that is grown in a method that does not exploit the earth or its workers and promotes local distribution. The food justice movement envisions communities achieving food security while ensuring that our system shifts toward a more equitable production, distribution, and consumption of local and organic options. Today, leaders creating that shift are found on urban farms, permaculture projects, rural organic farms, markets and Community Supported Agriculture programs (CSAs). These community hubs serve to educate the public as to what healthy organic local food looks, feels, smells, and tastes like. They also promote the localization and fair share of surplus food, as well as employing and feeding local families.

The food justice movement includes policy perspectives that communities can enact to support urban farms, farmer’s markets, CSAs, and organic grocery stores through activism, advocacy, and research. Together with permaculture as a lens for understanding nature’s pattern of closed loop systems and urban farms as a space for replicating them, we create a triangle of theory, practice, and activism. Our movement’s goal is to effect the changes our communities call for in order to create a food system that sustains everyone. As we begin to awaken to the harm created by decades of eating processed foods, chemical fertilizer farming, and challenges to global food transportation in an age of diminishing oil production, this call will grow louder.

So what are some strategies of the food justice movement? How do we promote food justice in our communities? We begin by surveying accessibility to healthy, affordable, organic foods. We define areas of little to no access to such foods as food deserts. These food deserts are often filled with liquor stores, fast food restaurants, and a lack of healthy food options. One of the most difficult challenges faced by the food justice movement can be educating people as to what healthy food is, why organic food is important for their bodies and the earth, and why they should take the time to cook for themselves rather than buying the easy option. This is where our Green Man Triangle of theory, practice, and activism comes in handy.

We connect with community leaders, create neighborhood coalitions and establish urban farms in backyards, city lots, church lots, abandoned space, and schools. We raise funds and collect surplus resources to create garden programs that teach our community through entertaining events. We host dinners, cook-offs, planting, harvesting, canning and preserving parties, movie screenings, music and art festivals that connect our community and provide a space to teach them the basics of urban farming and permaculture. From these projects, we create a network of food justice activists that work with communities to enact policy changes allowing fuller, more diverse systems that can further address the problems of our current food system.

As policy creates a space for more community investment in land projects, we push to create models that can be replicated across the world and adapted to the needs of communities and cultures. These models are published online and through organizations serving as think tanks for policy research, and as they are enacted throughout the world the conversation continues as to what are the best practices, most innovative methods, and most productive models toward achieving food justice and feeding our community locally.

The framework for this grassroots movement currently going viral is in place, after connecting and building for the past 25 years. Food justice activists are busy fighting laws prohibiting the sale of homegrown foods, reforming laws against keeping backyard micro-livestock, and challenging laws that prevent the rezoning of land for use as community garden projects. These laws currently limit the scale of a legal local food system, and can be replaced to create a space for the growth of such a system. We create systems to distribute food surpluses locally to those who are in need and cannot afford organic food. We host events and launch websites to promote food justice, urban farming, and permaculture.

We envision a world where a walk around your block will bring you into contact with a network of food surpluses, reinvested into the community with cooking and preserving programs. Fruit trees with pears, plums, apples, apricots, and peaches that get canned, jammed, and baked into pies weekly. Berry bushes with raspberries, blueberries, and marionberries to put over your cereal every morning. Garden herbs and spices like mint, thyme, basil, oregano, parsley, and cilantro dried on clotheslines, waiting for you to come by and jar up. Garden vegetables like zucchini, lettuce, cabbage, peas, beans, onions, garlic, cucumbers, carrots, beets, spinach, and tomatoes overflowing in neighborhood free cold boxes, primed for the pickling or cooking in a neighborhood kitchen space (perhaps your home?).

These surpluses, all possible on urban lots, will create a gift economy. This economy of shared goods will connect a community through conversation, shared meals and recipes. It will also hopefully foster a willingness to collaborate in facing transitions of energy, transportation, and food security. These surpluses will not feed an entire city, or even a neighborhood, but will empower communities to educate themselves about their food. Sharing this surplus and creating bonds of community with it will ultimately empower us to make choices that continue the shift towards food justice and resilient, local, equitable food systems.

Permaculture 101

Permaculture is a design methodology whose origin is the combination of the words permanent and agriculture or permanent and culture. It contains a set of ethics and design principles that empower a designer to create systems working with nature to promote abundance, sustainability, and cross-pollination of concepts, projects, and useful practices. Permaculture as an academic discipline was developed by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, a professor and graduate student from Australia seeking to create solutions to the problems that conventional agriculture and industrial development create for ecosystems and land bases. Many permaculture practices are derived from indigenous farmers, healers, and builders, people who used the passed knowledge of generations of earth workers to align themselves with the patterns of nature. Permaculture ethics and principles can be applied to projects that grow food, build homes, restore ecosystems, generate energy, yield medicine, transition transportation networks and mitigate detrimental environmental impacts, to name a few.

Ethics

Core to the work of permaculture design is an ethical triangle made by three concepts: care for the earth, care for people, and fair share. We (as permaculture designers) care for the earth first, understanding that it is our home and our teacher, creating the bounty we as humans depend on to survive. We care for all people everywhere, understanding that each and every unique human experience should be valued and celebrated. Finally, we understand that a fair share of resources, with limits to over-consumption, can provide for all peoples on the earth. This ethical triangle is set to create a goal of creating a system in which all peoples and life systems will continue to flourish, all peoples and life systems will be nourished and sustained cyclically with these systems, and that we will not exhaust the renewable resources our earth provides by ensuring a fair share.

Design Principles

From this triangular foundation of ethics, the permaculture designer branches out to create 12 design principles, tools that are utilized to achieve his or her ethical goals. These tools allow the designer to visualize, then observe, using nature’s teachings to create systems that mimic and enrich existing ecosystems. The principles come from the permaculture Wikipedia page, the explanations are my own.

1. Observe and interact – Know your site and how it changes over time, how it responds to seasonal changes, how people, plants, animals, and industry engage and interact with it.

2. Catch and store energy – Find sources naturally generated from your site, create systems to collect and grow these sources, distribute and utilize them on your site.

3. Obtain a yield – Create systems that sustain a yield, ideally a surplus.

4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback – Limit the growth of elements of your site and system that do not resonate with your ethical foundation, especially when it comes to creating a fair share. Communicate with others to reach consensus on this application of limitation with feedback.

5. Use and value renewable resources and services – Identify through observation and interaction what resources and services cyclically replenish themselves, create systems to insure this renewal, ideally create a surplus returned to the site.

6. Produce no waste – Trash is an industrial invention. Everything on your site can ultimately be returned in a useful way to your site, so design toward this goal.

7. Design from patterns to details – Observe and interact with nature’s patterns, apply this to scaling up and down systems, finding patters than solve problems, using a patterned based approach to allowing a system to grow its own finer details as a site matures.

8. Integrate rather than separate – Find companion plants that help each other grow, observe systems that compliment each other, design systems that integrate these elements with a goal of promoting renewable abundance.

9. Use small and slow solutions – You are tinkering with nature and nature knows best, small and slow solutions allow you to experiment within nature’s patterns.

10. Use and value diversity – A diverse system survives cyclical change and is resilient to singular threats, as well as promoting an abundance of diverse yields.

11. Use edges and value the marginal – Edges are space where interaction occurs, patterns overlap and compliment each others abilities to produce a yield, and where diversity is abundant. Utilize these observations and renewable resources to create systems with more edges that promote diverse abundance.

12. Creatively use and respond to change – Change is constant, you must adapt constantly. Small and slow solutions that are applied in creative ways often discover patterns, renewable resources, and diverse abundant yields that can be integrated into permaculture systems.

Permaculture Integrated into Urban Farms

Let’s apply these ethics and design principles to a hypothetical urban farm project. My ethics motivate me to create a space that produces abundant renewable surpluses of produce, meat, and medicine for my community. First, we design a farm that will care for the earth by regenerating spaces that have been exhausted of resources or polluted, enriching the fertility of the soil, and ensuring that surpluses aren’t squandered. When at all possible we’re aiming to keep surpluses on site or local, adding to the potential abundance of the site. We design a farm that will care for the people that work on it, gauging what a fair share of the surplus is for those workers. As our project expands, we learn the ability to care for more people as we create a sustainable distribution network, ultimately extending our community and strengthening our relationship to the land.

We observe and interact (Principle 1) with the earth, plants, people, and buildings situated on it, watching for patterns (7) and integrated edges (8 and 11) that catch and store energy (2) and obtain yields (3) from them. We draw up a design that integrates these principles, a plan that lays out how we will move the earth and plant according to what we’ve observed and interacted with, maximizing abundance. We want to grow enough food to feed our workers while they are working, and eventually have a surplus for the surrounding community. What are we going to be capable of sustainably producing year by year as we create these systems (4)? What resources on our site and in our community are renewable (5)? How can we make our site a zero waste farm, reusing everything, and ultimately begin to reuse “trash” found in our community (6)? How can we creatively respond to change with small and slow solutions that retain and value the diversity of our site (9,10,12)?

We begin with our soil, composting on site materials (2,5,7) and clearing it of contaminants with oyster mushrooms that eat the toxins in soil, if necessary. We recognize that certain sites need an amount of imported nutrients, if we want to obtain a yield within a few years. If we choose to plan and work in a longer time frame, say decades, we can often minimize the amount of off-site materials necessary for creating rich, fertile soil (9).

With this soil we create bio swales, mounded beds of earth that follow the patterns and edges (7,11) of our site’s topography. Our goal is to slow, sink and spread rainwater, harvesting a surplus and storing it on site (3,5). We also design rainwater catchment systems to trap water for use in the gardens in the dry season.

We plant within and around the swales, utilizing fruit trees and berry bushes for windbreaks (11), companion plants for nitrogen fixation in the soil, pollinators for beneficial insects, perennial healing herbs and vegetables, and plants known as biodynamic accumulators that leech nutrients from the lower earth up to soil levels where our plants can uptake them (10). All of this work is aimed at creating a diverse, abundant, perennial, organic surplus of food and medicine that feeds our workers and spreads a fair share of the surplus to any member of our community.

As the seasons pass at our farm we begin to recognize patterns: surpluses of mulch, water, flowers, food, and herbs that affect the balance of our system. Places in the garden that simply aren’t very good for growing certain plants. We observe where footpaths and human steps in the garden affect the growth of plants, and make small changes to make the garden more ergonomically designed. We plan for the vertical growth of our trees, understanding that if we prune them with a vision we can create pockets of shade and miniature ecosystems in these cooler zones.

From here a designer can literally go hog wild: the applications of permaculture are endless, and have been applied to more politically theoretical models by David Holmgren in his more recent work. My aim is to give you a taste of what can be done so that you understand how the core ethics and design principles of permaculture are put into practice in an urban farming setting. These 3 ethics and 12 principles can also be applied to building a home, launching a business, and structuring a non-profit organization, to name a few.

I’ll get more into permaculture building as I get my feet wet in these types of projects, but I’m very much learning as I go. Much of the goal of this post was to crystallize these concepts into a finished work for reference, I hope I’ve done that for you.
Nick The Green Man

A Survey of Portland Grocery Stores

Since moving to Portland I’ve had a chance to sample the options I have for buying food to cook with. What follows is a survey of a few of Portland’s many grocery stores, markets, and co-ops. I give a short description of the ambiance, selection, and affordability of each store, then put in my two cents about what I like or dislike about the business. There are many more places to buy food in Portland, but for the sake of this post I’ve listed places that I’ve shopped at in the North and East sides of town since arriving here in November.

Fred Meyer

Fred G. Meyer opened his first grocery store in downtown Portland in 1922 with 20 employees. In the following decades the business has evolved from a mom and pop into a bona fide big box store, adding pharmacy, jewelry, and retail departments. Two public stock offerings and more recently a $13.5 billion corporate buy-out by the Kroger Co. in 1999 can be said to have safely placed “Freddy’s” into Wal-Mart territory.  Although they are a local business, they are still very much a big box store in terms of the size of their stores and the spectrum of goods and services they offer.

Walking into Fred Meyer is akin to walking into a large warehouse filled with food, connected to another large warehouse filled with retail items, connected to another large warehouse filled with garden and hardware items. The place is massive. Not many inviting smells, mostly bleach and plastic, meet the nose. The selection of food is about what you would expect from a store this size: plentiful, cheap, and shipped in from all parts of the globe. Freddy’s constantly beats the competitors in prices on Avocados, Asparagus, and most out of season fruits and veggies. This is probably because they have the ability to buy in mass from Mexico, Chile, and New Zealand and ship these items to Portland.

I go to Fred Meyer to buy most of my bulk foods, sauces, and spices. Pasta and pasta sauce is cheap, soy sauce comes by the half gallon and is much cheaper than anywhere else I’ve been yet. Rice, flour, and other staples are sold in bulk sizes which give me a better deal on the basics i need to fill a pantry. I don’t buy any vegetables or fruits here, because what’s cheap ain’t local or organic, and what’s local and organic ain’t cheap. Cheese is priced well, but often all I can afford is the Oregon produced Tillamook Cheddar.

The ambiance of the store is…well…zombieish. The music is muzak, the employees do seem to perk up every once in a while, but they are for the most part more interested in chatting with each other than with customers, and the customers rarely interact with each other. It’s not uncommon to see an obese customer with an oxygen tank and a cart filled with frozen dinners, refrigerated cookie dough, and lots of two liters of soda. Not to pass judgement on the eating habits of others, but sometimes, as a person so interested in matters of food, seeing these types of things makes me wince with empathy. Freddy’s sells plenty of products that prop up the very same bad habits I’m trying to resist myself, and advise others to resist as well. I stick to the bulk foods and staples and stay away from the frozen food, soda and chips aisles.

New Seasons

New Seasons is a chain of locally owned grocery stores, the first of which opened in 2000, that has quickly expanded over the Portland metro area. They pride themselves on supporting sustainable agriculture, sourcing local whenever possible, and staying connected to the community with in store events and non-profit donations. As they have expanded at such a rapid pace, New Seasons is beginning to transition into more “corporate-ish” models of management. Employees and management have clashed over unionization and employee rights, most recently in an incident where an employee who had worked for the store for almost ten years was fired for taking two scoops of tofu on his lunch break without paying for them, after another employee reportedly told him “That’s nothing. Don’t worry about it.” More information on worker/management relations can be found at http://newseasonsmarketworkersvoice.org/.

Growing pains aside, the ambiance at New Seasons is warm and inviting. Walking through the mini nursery and into the store, customers are often met with free samples of food at the “solutions” aka customer service counter. Colorful, fragrant, organic food is displayed in the produce aisles, and often sampled on site. The staff are cheerful and helpful beyond what I first expected. Recently, a conversation about wrapping veggies in bacon turned into a five-employee panel on savory appetizers. Bacon wrapped asparagus, artichoke hearts, and cheese filled jalapenos were discussed, and later purchased and cooked, much to my stomach’s delight. I get the sense that I’m building a casual relationship with these guys, recognizing familiar faces and sharing recipes.

I buy all of my vegetables, fruits, eggs and dairy at New Seasons. Everything else is overpriced in my opinion, but it’s usually my go-to store if I don’t find time to hit multiple grocery stores for the best deals. If I decide to eat meat, this is my spot. Spices and pre-made meals are too expensive for my budget, but every once in a while I splurge. The hot food line is great as well, but outside of my means. Despite the issues of expansion and the worker gripes, New Seasons seems like a great place to work. I get the sense that they are reaching somewhat of a critical mass in terms of being your friendly neighborhood store and moving towards Safeway territory, but haven’t lost that local flair just yet. The produce is great, the store is fun and friendly, and the prices are worth making this your only stop in town, if you’re strapped for time.

Whole Foods

Whole Foods is the liberal guilt of grocery stores. Seemingly revolutionary 5-10 years ago, it has morphed into the very monster it once sought to slay. I have no kind words for Whole Foods: they destroy communities, Eco-systems, and small businesses. Whole Foods is a textbook case in the corporatization of American business: founded in 1980 in Austin, Texas as a “natural” alternative to big box grocery stores. Whole Foods Inc has expanded across America and into the UK as a “natural and organic product” store that now boasts over 300 locations worldwide. Throughout the 2000s Whole Foods began a series of acquisitions of local grocery stores that has not stopped to this day. They now have the largest grocery store in New York City, are traded on the NYSE, and board members regularly opine on matters of national politics such as health care in major newspaper op-eds. They are a corporate beast, and a sleek, savvy, greenwashed beast at that.

With this in mind, walking into the Portland Whole Foods is an exercise in keeping your enemy close. They are very good at what they do – selling “natural” products to rich white liberals who are convinced that purchasing food at Whole Foods is somehow effecting change. The store is an advertising and marketing achievement – it is simultaneously corporate yet local-feeling, with artsy signs and colorful displays of food and products. But beneath this veneer lies an 80s style corporate buy-out monster, feeding on the very heartstrings of what makes, to me, a community strong and vibrant as we transition into uncertain times.

Like Fred Meyer, Whole Foods has purchasing power to drive prices of food and products down. Like Fred Meyer, they have the ability to order from the southern hemisphere and stock out of season food. Like New Seasons, they have a hot food line that is nutritious and tasty. But unlike either store, they have little to no accountability to the community. If the community hurts, Whole Food carries on. They are so large and so profitable that their customer base continues to expand at the detriment of every other grocery store I review here. Everyone is hurt by their expansion, nobody is supported. This is why I believe Whole Foods destroys communities.

The counter argument to my claim would be that Whole Foods introduces communities that do not have an organic or natural alternative to healthy options. While this may be true, they also create a big box organic option that disconnects communities from the potential of small natural grocery stores like Cherry Sprout, reviewed below, that can also create these choices. Whole Foods distorts the concept of what a natural food store can be, and limits the creative, communal ability of a store to be a community anchor. I choose not to support such businesses.

Cherry Sprout Produce

Smaller, friendlier, and more of a market than a grocery store, Cherry Sprout is the little boutique produce store that can. Though a bit more pricey than New Seasons their produce is fresh, organic, and mostly local. Known as Big City Produce for its first 11 years of business, two employees took it over as Cherry Sprout and now regularly include art and music events at the store in the summer. The space has a community built around it: artists, regulars, employees, and casual shoppers converse openly about food they’ve eaten, cooked, or even grown. While Cherry Sprout is often more expensive than the larger stores, it also has some occasional uncommon items like unshucked shelled garbanzo beans, which were really fun to cook and share recipes about with the Cherry Sprout crew.

As the weather changes, Cherry Sprout offers some of the best seasonal fruits and vegetables I can find in Portland. These seasonal foods are priced higher, and the selection isn’t nearly as broad as their competitors. However at Cherry Sprout you get a genuine Northeast Portland connection with some neighbors who also happen to live 8 blocks away and buy a few fresh items a week. For the most part I go to Cherry Sprout when I need a few fresh essentials to make a meal: some Kale, Onions, Garlic, and Peppers for the salad, or a few Potatoes and Yams for dinner. They also have dairy and bulk foods, as well as spices, but usually I can plan out my shopping so I get those from New Seasons.

It isn’t just the quality produce that keeps me at Cherry Sprout, rather than shopping primarily at New Seasons. Cherry Sprout is a fun place to swing through once a week, and I find myself drawn to the sense of community I find around the store. There’s cool art on the walls, the employees play good music and share food stories, and produce is affordable enough yet fresh local and organic.

Lao Vieng Market

Just a short 2 block skate down the road is Lao Vieng, my local spot for kim chee, noodles, Asian vegetables, and anything dried, pickled, or salted. Another mom and pop style market, they have a great selection of Asian produce, down to the Kefir limes and lemongrass, as well as a full butchery selection that I’ve yet to sample. Noodles, pickled foods, spices, and frozen seafood balance out the hundreds of curries, sauces and other MSG-laden foods, shown below.

Lao Vieng also has Vietnamese rolls, lots of Asian candies, and Asian cookware like woks and rice steamers. Rice is available in bulk, at about the same price as the local competitors. This is a great place to put together some mean curries, noodle soups, and won tons. It’s kind of plastic and dusty inside, but the folks that run the place are friendly enough, and the selection of spices you can find in the place are unique to the area. I’ve heard there’s a larger Asian grocery store on 82nd, but this is about as close as I can get to my home.

Like Cherry Sprout, I like stopping in here once every two weeks to get supplies for a big meal: some dried mushrooms, kim chee, egg noodles, dired sardines, canned bok choy, and fish sauce make a great cold weather stew. I feel it’s always good to support the smaller shops, especially when they bring an added spice and diversity to the neighborhood.

Don Pancho Mercado y Carneceria

Speaking of spice…this place is a Peppertopia. I just made that word up because I haven’t seen these many dried peppers, spices, salsas, and generally spicy things in one market. And I love it. I got an $8 kilo of Yerba Maté here, and three weeks later the whole shelf was sold out. Don Pancho was a B-reel Mexican actor who opened both the taqueria and carneceria back in the day. His picture hangs on the wall, welcoming us into the vast word of salted and marinated meats the carneceria boasts.

Don Pancho’s is the place I go when I want to BBQ, eat well, and probably spend a bit more money than I should. This place has what I need for the perfect summer night: 2-3 lbs of marinated carne asada, 2 onions, a pack of tortillas, and some peppers to grill. Add some beer and a bonfire to that and you’ve got all you need to fiesta.

I don’t buy any essentials or basics at Don Pancho’s, except for my 64 oz monthly ration of Tapatio ($3.50!). This is purely the hangover burrito / BBQ prep market, and I love it for that. Nothing particularly fresh, healthy, or organic – but lots of things that are good for the soul. Down to the warm pan dulce cooling in the rack or the chicharons by the pound, this place is an authentic gem, and I’m happy to support it.

Meskel Market

Meskel Market is something between a bodega and a corner store, that just happens to sell every Ethiopian spice you’ve never heard of. They also sell teff, which is the flour you use to make injera, an Ethiopian flatbread kind of like naan that is amazing stuff. When eating Ethiopian food, you use the injera like a utensil to pick up sauces, curries, and other amazingly tasty dishes. I’d love to learn how to cook Ethiopian food someday, so if you have any recipes send them over! Until then, I’m looking forward to needing to shop here for my first Ethiopian feast!

People’s Co-Op

People’s is an old school hippie co-op. It’s been going since 1970, has an amazing bulk food selection, and hosts a Wednesday farmer’s market. The outside and inside of the store are decorated with ornate cobb benches and stools, the staff is helpful and full of perhaps too many smiles, and there are yoga classes and tai chi in the rooms upstairs. The co-op is co-owned by over 6000 member-owners, who have access to all of the classes, events, and speakers hosted in the community rooms on the second floor.

On a Wednesday evening in the Summer, People’s is the spot for fresh food and ideas for how to prepare it. Regulars converse with farmers, foodies with hippies, hipsters with chefs, chef hipsters with foodie hippies, you name it. The prices are not affordable for me. If I purchase something, it’s usually something special, like chantrelle mushrooms or a jar of homemade pickles. In terms of selection, People’s is better than Cherry Sprout but worse than New Seasons. Add to that the farmer’s market at the peak of the season, and it’s the best in town. Like Cherry Sprout, it’s pricey, but the choice and the community surrounding the food are what keep me around, even if I’m only buying one or two things.

Summary

From large to small, big box to boutique, there are an abundance of choices for groceries in Portland. From my perspective, which is that of a debt laden college graduate urban farmer, New Seasons is my go to store. People’s is where I go when I have a little extra to spend and want to splurge. I love to swing by Cherry Sprout, Lao Vieng, and Don Pancho’s for my specialty items, and have been known to stop by Fred Meyer every two months or so for bulk items. I spend what I have to support the type of food industry I want to see in my community: organic, local, and filled with friendly faces and stories. I stay away from the big guys even though they are cheaper because they don’t promote these personal connections around food, and in many ways alienate us from the source of our food.

As the food industry evolves and as gasoline becomes more expensive, much of what big box stores sell will become too expensive to ship in. Creating a network of local producers is an investment in the cultural fabric and future food security of your community. Making the connection between what we eat, how it got to our table, and who grew it is an exercise in observation that allows us to define our own food justice values. To be conscious of others that do not have access to healthy food or choose not to buy and eat healthy food is another step in understanding our local food system. It is a system that is making a transition away from what does not promote health and community, and towards health, local resiliency, and food security accessible to all. Our purchases can either support or inhibit this transition.

Nick The Green Man

Getting Down to Basics: Food and Community

Food, clothing and shelter. These are the basics we as humans need for survival. Add to this transportation, information access, and cultural stimulation, and you have a bare bones sketch of what most Americans need to thrive. So where do we obtain these necessities? Who produces, transports, and sells these things to us? Can we trade or barter for them, or better yet, do we have the time and expertise to produce them ourselves?

To the careful observer, 2012 is a year of transitions and shifts. Much of what we understood as a given in years prior is now questionable at best, and impossible at worst. Bubbles have burst, funding has dried up, and governments are at stalemate. We are finding that the old ways will not suffice with these new problems. For myself and others, the first steps to establishing the new ways begin with the basics – food, clothing, shelter, transportation, information access, cultural and community bonds.

Access to healthy, affordable, local food is where I have chosen to place the focus of my research and work. In my lifetime many American urban cities have transformed from food oases to food deserts. This is most evident in the failure of many local-owned and sourced grocery stores, as larger corporate-modeled stores like Whole Foods and Costco consolidate neighborhoods into their expanding customer base. These businesses purchase from larger industrial agriculture farms and bypass the smaller local producers. This results in a community that is less connected to its local food bounty, with cyclical nature patterns of surplus and scarcity, as well as less diversity of selection in the produce aisle because so much is purchased in bulk.

Further compounding these problems of access to healthy, local, affordable food are the number of corner stores, restaurants, and school cafeterias serving imported, unhealthy, processed foods stocked by companies like the Sysco Corporation. When these types of foods become the norm rather than the exception, unhealthy habits are formed that contribute to cancers, organ failures, and a health care system with a primary role of treating illness rather than proactively working to prevent it. By transforming our food system, we can also transform our health care system, as the two are very much connected.

With an understanding that at the core of these problems are issues of selection, affordability, and habits, we can begin to identify and construct solutions. We are tasked with building a new food infrastructure, but the good news is that the roots have already been set by our elders. Hippies who opened natural foods co-ops in the 70s and 80s, immigrants who farm in the old ways and sell locally, and activists that have researched modern processed foods have all paved the way for the shift.

The shift entails moving away from big box stores toward local grocers and food sellers who are in weekly contact with their farmers and suppliers. This work occurs in a number of places in the urban city. Transitioning corner stores away from soda and candy and toward raw juice super food smoothies and dried fruits and nuts. Transitioning restaurants away from fried fish and french fries and toward steamed fresh trout and rosemary garlic potatoes. Transitioning the cafeteria away from greasy pizza and fish sticks toward serving food the students themselves grew in an Urban Agriculture class. Transitioning the homeowner away from personal lawns and toward collaborative, collective urban farms. We can begin to grow our own food, and while it may not fully sustain us, it will teach us exactly what we are looking for in the food we purchase from the grocery store. There is an untapped potential in our food system, and as more Americans activate their own ability to effect change, we will begin to realize this potential at an escalating pace.

Careful observation is the first step, allowing the observer to understand the problem as it evolves within his or her frame of reference. The basic necessities, food being one of the primary three, are helpful in getting to the core of how these problems effect something as broad and dense as American civic culture. Food is the universal: we all need it, we all love to eat it, and we all share a personal relationship with food. I urge you to observe the role food, diet, and meals play in your life and to connect these observations with the role food plays in creating community. Eating a meal you grew with members of your community at a potluck is one of the best ways to build bonds and sustain neighborhoods.

There are a multitude of revolutions underway at this very moment, and in my opinion the most inspiring of these revolutions are creating community through shared work, play, and cultural collaboration centered around food. Understanding through observation how larger stores and corporate models curb this collaboration and destroy communities is the first step towards fixing these problems. Beginning to work to build this new food system is a role millions of my generation are just stepping into. Time to get to work!

Nick The Green Man

Great Friend by Henry David Thoreau

I walk in nature still alone
And know no one
Discern no lineament nor feature
Of any creature.

Though all the firmament
Is o’er me bent,
Yet still I miss the grace
Of an intelligent and kindred face.

I must still seek the friend
Who does with nature blend,
Who is the person in her mask,
He is the man I ask.

Who is the expression of her meaning,
Who is the uprightness of her leaning,
Who is the grown child of her weaning

The center of this world,
The face of nature,
The site of human life,
Some sure foundation
And nucleus of a nation –
At least a private station.

We twain would walk together
Through every weather,
And see this aged nature,
Go with a bending stature.