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Local Food and Resilience

Producing more of our food locally and selling direct to consumers are keys to achieving resilience

Posted on Feb 16 2012 by Alex Wilson

In this final installment of my ten-part series on resilient design, I'm taking a look at where our food comes from and how we can achieve more resilient food systems.

The average salad in the U.S. is transported roughly 1,400 miles from farm to table, and here in the Northeast, we get most of our fresh food from more than 3,000 miles away. Even in Iowa, where 95% of the land area is in agricultural production, one is hard-pressed to buy locally grown produce.

If some sort of crisis causes a shortage of diesel fuel, grocery shelves will be depleted in a matter of days. And if severe, extended drought occurs in the West combined with a lack of winter snowpack in the Rockies, the Colorado River — upon which much of California's most productive farmland is dependent — might not deliver enough water, causing food shortages and skyrocketing prices.

More farmers are selling directly to consumers

A resilient food system will require that a far higher percentage of our food be produced more locally. Here in Vermont, only 5% of the food we eat is currently grown within the state, according to Vermont's Farm to Plate Strategic Plan, released in July 2011.

But there is reason for optimism.

In many parts of the country, the number of farms is growing for the first time in a generation — even as the total land area in agriculture continues to drop. And many of these newer farms are engaged in direct sales of food to consumers. In Vermont, 21% of farms are engaged in direct sales of produce to consumers, according to UVM Agricultural Extension Vegetable and Berry Specialist Vern Grubinger. Remarkably, Vermont leads the nation in direct sales of agricultural produce to consumers, with an average of $36.77 spent annually per capita in the state (2007) at farm stands, farmers' markets, and "community supported agriculture" (CSA) operations.

The number of farmers’ markets is increasing

Nationwide, in August 2011, there were nearly 7,200 farmers' markets, up from just 4,100 in 2005. In Vermont, the number of farmers' markets grew from 19 in 1986 to 87 in 2010, Grubinger reported at the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFA) annual meeting in Burlington this past weekend.

With CSAs, consumers buy shares of a farm's output, and they usually pay for that up-front, providing farmers with needed capital to get crops into the ground. From 1986 to 2010, the number of CSAs in Vermont increased from 2 to 81, according to Grubinger. Local farm stands, food co-ops, and local-food sections of grocery stores also support local farming — while providing customers with higher-quality, healthier food.

Victory gardens and backyard hens

Food production can be even more local than nearby farms. We learned during World War II that Americans have the capacity to grow a significant fraction of their vegetables at home. As much as 40% of fresh produce consumed by Americans during the war was produced in homeowners' victory gardens, allowing more of the nation's farm output to be sent overseas to soldiers. While we have more than twice the population today, and thus less land per person, there is still significant potential for home gardens.

Local food production can be supported through our buying decisions, but also through our policies. Strong local protection of open, arable land is key to enabling food resilience to emerge. Zoning that restricts development of farmland is an important — though often contentious — step in this direction. Also important is the allowance of farm-related activities in and around our towns and cities. Many places still prohibit raising chickens and other farm animals, though these restrictions are easing. Even in such urban areas as New York City and Chicago, keeping a small flock for egg production is now permitted, though roosters are typically prohibited. More extensive urban farms are popping up from Philadelphia to Seattle.

OK, Vermonters can’t grow bananas

In Vermont, we don't know exactly how much of our food comes from within the state, since nobody tracks food imports and exports at the state level. But Westminster, Vermont resident Dave Timmons, who is on the economics faculty at UMass Boston as well as an instructor in Marlboro College's MBA program, Managing for Sustainability, has done a lot of thinking and writing on this topic. By comparing Vermont's production and consumption with national levels, the largest the Vermont portion of our diet could be at the moment is about 38%, he says. That could be achieved if every calorie that was both produced and needed in the state stayed here (though this is clearly not the case; for example, Vermont both exports and imports apples).

By re-allocating land uses and shifting some agricultural production away from dairy towards grains, for example (because the state currently produces more dairy than its residents consume), it is relatively easy to see how Vermont could become nearly self-sufficient in food (though without such crops as bananas, avocados, pecans, and oranges that can't be grown here). Bill McKibben, in his book Deep Economy, suggested that Vermont could become food self-sufficient within one year if needed.

A far more resilient food system is achievable in Vermont — and most states — if we make local food and, especially, direct sales of farm produce to consumers, a priority. Doing so would take some changes in our land-use patterns and priorities, but it is comforting to know that, fundamentally, we could create a fully resilient food system here.

About this series
Throughout this resilient design series, I have covered how our homes and communities can continue to function in the event of extended power outages, interruptions in heating fuel, or shortages of water. Resilient design is a life-safety issue that is critical for the security and wellbeing of families in a future of climate uncertainty.

Alex is founder of BuildingGreen, Inc. and executive editor of Environmental Building News. To keep up with his latest articles and musings, you can sign up for his Twitter feed.


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  1. Alex Wilson
1.
Thu, 02/16/2012 - 10:30

Great Topic for GBA
by Russ Hellem

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Thank you for this post about food, I also feel this topic is critical for living more sustainability. Although I specialize in building energy efficiency, my passion for protecting our earth goes way beyond buildings. I live in Montana where we obviously cannot grow bananas and avocados either. I have found the biggest challenge for my family in trying to eat more locally, is changing our diet so we are not reliant on fresh vegetables and fruits in the winter. My wife grew up in the NW US and is used to eating salad and fresh food year round. I grew up in the Midwest where I remember eating a lot of root vegetables, canned food, frozen food, and deer meat. It is challenging and necessary to change my diet to reflect what is regionally available or storable during the winter months. My family has slowly been incorporating more and more stored vegetables and fruits into our diet. My hope is that we all can begin /continue to increase awareness around making conscious decisions about food purchases on a day to day basis.


2.
Thu, 02/16/2012 - 17:18

Grow your own
by michael maines

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For the last 2-3 years my wife and I have eaten approximately 90% of our calories from food grown in our home state of Maine. It's not that hard to give up bananas and avacados, or at least save them for special occasions. We live on an 1/8 acre but have a big garden, my in-laws give us lots of home-canned food, and we don't eat much meat, so those factors all help. It's usually a fun challenge to eat what's in season. This time of year it starts to get harder; last year we just didn't eat salads all winter but this year we're buying some greens in from California. I feel guilty about it but I love salad.... Someday I'll have a greenhouse and just grow my own.

A giant greenhouse (80 acres, I think) is going to be built nearby, which will have its own environmental problems I'm sure but at least we'll have more locally grown produce. They are combining it with aquaponics so there will be fish too.


3.
Thu, 02/16/2012 - 17:26

Winter salads
by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

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Michael,
I made a big salad last night of cabbage and shredded carrots. Both the cabbage and the carrots came from my cellar -- I grew them in my garden last summer, and these vegetables are still crisp and delicious.

The cabbages in my cellar are still alive, since I harvest them roots and all, and plant them in my dirt-floored cellar. In May, they will begin to sprout new growth -- strange white shoots growing without any sunlight. But by then I'll be eating dandelion greens and chives, as well as wintered-over parsley.


4.
Thu, 02/16/2012 - 21:23

What's next Alex?
by Lucas Durand - 7A

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Over the course of the last four years my wife and I have been changing our eating habits.
It was more challenging sometimes for her than for me because she LOVES to cook and has a hard time saying no to out-of-season ingredients.
But I couldn't stand seeing blackberries in our fridge in january - package marked "Product of Mexico".

We established a "rachet" system whereby we would agree to give up a few things...
Then when we got used to that, we'd give up a few more...
And we haven't really looked back.

We still have a ways to go but it's being on the road that's important.

In terms of developing local "food security" it's hard to overstate the importance of community involvement.

Turning over your garden is much harder when you do it by yourself.

Farmers markets only exist if people make the effort to shop there - sometimes this means being more strategic about your shopping and not relying on after-work grocery store "pop-ins".

In many jurisdictions, laws and regulations can present obstacles to establishing "food security" - get involved and clear the obstacles.

Seed swaps are a great way to bring members of a community together around the issue of "food security" - just be sure to bring some good heirloom seeds to swap.


5.
Fri, 02/17/2012 - 07:33

Farmers markets and winter salads
by michael maines

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We are fortunate in Portland to have bustling summer and winter farmers' markets--so bustling that my wife and I don't like to go anymore because they're too crowded! We also have a relatively new food co-op, which started out as a small buying club (another great way to get good food at a reasonable price) and it has morphed into a 200+ person co-op. One of the suppliers is Crown of Maine, a wholesaler who distributes food from all over Maine.

Martin, in the past we've done the cabbage salad thing, albeit not with our own cabbage. (I'm jealous of your system, including blanched sprouts!) We both love all brassica-family vegetables so it wasn't hard at all. One of our go-to dishes we call "cooked salad," which just means any leafy vegetable (including our home-frozen kale) sauteed with other vegetables and some sort of protein, either beans, tofu or meat.

We don't buy bananas, orange juice or many other "staples" of modern day life. We've even been weaning ourselves off olive oil; organic canola oil has a mustardy smell but it goes fine with brassicas, eggs and other sulphurous foods. I even buy Maine-made beer (when I'm not drinking my homebrew). So this winter, my one food splurge is mixed greens from away. They make an incredibly nutritious meal raw, and can also be cooked and added to potatoes, stir-fries and other dishes.

We plan to live here only a couple more years, and at our next house we will have more land, more sun, and more home-grown food including chickens. We are going to do our first CSA this year and are looking forward to it. As you can tell, I really like this topic--becoming more self sufficient and secure when it comes to food is fun!


6.
Fri, 02/17/2012 - 08:44

Along these lines...
by Alex Wilson

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My wife and I recently purchased a 160-acre farm close to where we live currently outside Brattleboro. We plan to provide space for community gardens for neighbors in the adjoining village of West Dummerston, and also find a farm family to live on the property and establish a commercial farm on a 7.5-acre field above what will be the home and community-garden space. Fruit and nut trees, berries, and chickens are also in the plans. The farm had been in one family for 250 years, but not actively farmed for 50 or 60 years, though about 10 acres are still in open fields with pretty good soils.

We will need to develop a water system, though. We plan to put in a pond above the large upper field, where there used to be an ice pond, and we'll be able to serve the fields below with gravity-flow water. So I'm currently researching irrigation systems.

We hope to move over there in one to two years, depending on how long it takes to fix up--and superinsulate--the existing small farmhouse (for the farm family) and build a new, compact, state-of-the-art house for us that will be clustered near the existing house. Over time, we may add a couple other houses to form a farm-centered mini-cohousing community.

Lots of new learning curves to climb!


7.
Fri, 02/17/2012 - 10:54

Edited Fri, 02/17/2012 - 10:55.

On edible perennials...
by Lucas Durand - 7A

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A suggestion for anyone thinking about starting their own home-grown food supply...

Get as many edible perennials as possible started first so they have time to establish.
Particularily important for trees.

Proverb:
When is the best time to plant a tree?
20 years ago.
When is the second best time?
Right now.


8.
Fri, 02/17/2012 - 10:56

Response to Lucas
by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

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"Right now?" Not in northern Vermont. I strongly recommend that you wait 3 months.


9.
Fri, 02/17/2012 - 11:07

Response to Martin
by Lucas Durand - 7A

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Ha - yes, fair enough.
It's just a proverb.


10.
Sat, 02/18/2012 - 10:11

Great Ideas
by Russ Hellem

Helpful? 0

Hey All,

Thanks for your great ideas on moving towards local seasonal food habits. Lucas i especially like your idea of agreeing on certain items that we will not buy, and once they are gone, they are gone and then move on to the next item. I will give it a try with my wife. My wife is currently the primary food shopper, and I am the primary passionate one about sustainability, so i can see that i will need to be more involved in meal planning and execution as we continue to move towards eating as much as possible from our garden.

Has anyone found a good replacement for coffee? I love coffee and always buy shade grown organic, however all the coffee i know of travels long distances to arrive at my door.


11.
Sat, 02/18/2012 - 11:28

Response to Russ Hellem
by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

Helpful? 1

Russ,
Coffee is not a bulky item like wheat or lettuce. You only need maybe 20 pounds a year. Even 150 years ago, Europeans managed to afford coffee sent to their ports by clipper ships.

A little bit of trade is not a bad thing. Don't be a fanatic ... buy a few pounds of coffee.


12.
Sat, 02/18/2012 - 15:01

Worms love coffee
by michael maines

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If it makes you feel any better, you can compost coffee grounds, unbleached filter and all--it doesn't raise the pH, contrary to popular opinion; in fact I've read that worms really like eating coffee grounds. If you do vermi-composting, even better.

My wife has been buying various herbs in bulk and making lots of different teas from them. It hasn't cut down on our coffee consumption but in theory it could.

Buying in bulk reduces packaging and cost, at least partially offsetting the negatives of buying coffee. We store it in air-tight glass jars.


13.
Sat, 02/18/2012 - 15:28

Wha?
by Lucas Durand - 7A

Helpful? 0

you can compost coffee grounds, unbleached filter and all--it doesn't raise the pH, contrary to popular opinion

Michael,
That's interesting...
Do you have any sources that back this up?

I have always been under the impression that coffee grounds are slightly acidic...
I compost them seperately and use it to mulch around blueberries - which are supposed to do well in slightly acid soils...
Maybe this isn't correct either...
You're rockin' my world here Michael ;-)


14.
Sat, 02/18/2012 - 15:34

Response to Lucas
by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

Helpful? 0

Lucas,
You and I agree. All of my coffee grounds go in a special bucket for the blueberries. I've been mulching my blueberry bushes with coffee grounds for 30 years, and the blueberry bushes love the grounds -- because they are acidic.


15.
Sat, 02/18/2012 - 19:51

Edited Sat, 02/18/2012 - 19:57.

Response to Lucas
by michael maines

Helpful? 0

I misspoke, coffee grounds are of course themselves quite acidic (and relatively high in nitrogen), and perfect for blueberry bushes or other acid-loving plants. What I should have said is that they don't significantly affect the pH of a well-balanced compost pile, which will tend to be on the acidic side anyway due to the byproducts of breaking down. I learned this at a class taught by UMaine's compost expert, who regularly composts truckloads of dead chickens, whole cows, and even whales. I checked a few of my gardening and composting books and none of them specifically say that adding coffee grounds to the compost pile is a good idea, but they don't recommend against it either. If you are concerned about raising the pH too far you could add a cup of lime or wood ashes but the UMaine compost guy strongly recommended against adding more than a little of either to any compost pile.

I've been composting about 40 pounds of coffee grounds (dry weight) a year for 5 or 6 years now along with a lot of other food and garden waste, with excellent results. Maybe my blueberry bushes would be happier if I adopted yours and Martin's system, or if I hadn't planted them in clay.


16.
Sun, 02/19/2012 - 05:15

Clay soil and blueberries
by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

Helpful? 0

Michael,
The clay is the problem -- as I'm sure you know.

When I planted my bushes, I mixed peat moss (also acidic), old pine needles (ditto), and sand to the soil. Blueberries love sandy, acidic soil -- clay is no good.


17.
Sun, 02/19/2012 - 10:34

PPPP
by michael maines

Helpful? 0

You're right Martin, the clay is the main problem, a good example of poor planning preventing proper performance. We blew our budget planting a lot of fruit trees, grape vines, raspberry canes and a couple of nut trees, and a truckload of purchased compost, and of course it took more time than I expected to get all those things into the ground. The blueberries were the last to go in, when no compost was left and no time to waste, so I mixed some old oak leaves and pine needles into the clay on the south-facing slope where the blueberries were going but had no compost left and no time to get a load of sand. Ever since I've been mulching with more oak leaves and pine needles and the blueberries are surviving, if not thriving. I learned my lesson.


18.
Sun, 02/19/2012 - 10:49

Alex's 160 acre farm
by michael maines

Helpful? 1

Alex, your farm plans sound very exciting! I hope to do something along those lines in the future. The farm where I grew up was recently lost to the bank, with it going many pages of sketched dreams of innovative farms like yours. Now my wife and I are re-determined to make it happen another way. I'm thinking a small community of Passivhauses (or Pretty Good Houses) and a community-scale PV array and/or wind turbine.

I'm sure you know, but a good source of farm ideas including low-input irrigation systems is anything written by Joel Salatin (http://www.polyfacefarms.com/). The Small Farmers' Journal (http://smallfarmersjournal.com/) is another great source of information, and has regular columns by Vermont farm/co-housing groups.


19.
Sun, 02/19/2012 - 15:33

Edited Sun, 02/19/2012 - 15:34.

Hmmm, let's see...
by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

Helpful? 0

Alex and Michael,
It's only taken about 35 years since the breakup and collapse of most of the communal farms founded by the hippies in the early 1970s for a new generation of potential back-to-the-landers to dream of a communal life on a farm, growing their own food and making their own electricity.

That's the American pattern, isn't it? Idealistic dreamers reinvent the communal rural idea in an ever-recurring cycle, every since George and Sophia Ripley founded Brook Farm in the 1840s...

Most of the latest wave of communal experiments will probably be falling apart beginning in about 2021.


20.
Sun, 02/19/2012 - 16:39

Let's not be too hard on clay...
by Lucas Durand - 7A

Helpful? 0

All I have is grey clay - with large rock and gravel inclusions - glacial till.
So I have to look at the bright side of clay...

It is tough to work...
But once it has been loosened up it is an excellent matrix.
It may contain all kinds of trace elements and minerals that are necessary for plant growth.
Clay can also help retain moisture in the soil.


21.
Sun, 02/19/2012 - 16:44

Actually, Martin...
by Alex Wilson

Helpful? 1

I spend a fair amount of time thinking about what an appropriate model of farm might be. And I think the model that land trusts, such as the Vermont Land Trust (VLT), generally establish have a significant flaw--despite the best of intentions. When VLT "conserves" a farm, they establish certain deeded conditions on the land--generally conditions that prevent development beyond the house that's already on the property. The idea is to support the "family farm"--one family one farm. That model of a family farm worked pretty well back around 1900, when families included six or eight kids and there wasn't an urge to do other things, like travel. Today, running a family farm with a family of three or four makes life pretty hard. Too many of the VLT conserved farms become gentleman farms with a few horses or perhaps a patch of Christmas trees or just the farm pond and rolling fields. Great for maintaining nice vistas, but not so related to farming.

The model that excites me isn't the 60s commune that you describe (which didn't include individual ownership), but a very different model of several clustered houses and a "community" in which some farm tasks can be shared--and a mechanism so that the primary farmers can take off for a week now and then, with others still there to do the chores. The fact that our farm backs up on a compact village with 35 houses has some real advantages in this regard.

And I disagree about the cyclical nature of history--a common refrain of you pundits. Yes some similar circumstances may come around periodically, but I believe that fundamental circumstances change. The world today is different than it was in the mid-60s and very different from that of the 1840s. Climate change, increasing population density, loss of farmland in some parts of the country, and changing patterns of drought have produced a level of vulnerability that is far greater today than it was in the past. When the Great Depression hit, the farm my father grew up on (100 acres in Valley Forge, PA) became a self-sufficient farm that grew all of its own food for a large, extended family. Today, that farm is a town park with softball fields (which could be converted back into productive land I suppose) and the neighboring Chesterbrook Farm was converted into 10,000 housing units. Hard to turn Chesterbrook back into productive land.

I consider the farm we recently bought as an insurance policy to protect us against a vulnerability that I am personally worried about. And if we Michael and I can convince enough people to do likewise, our little patches of paradise will be less vulnerable if things really get bad and large numbers of people swarm out of cities to find food.

One other thing: Martin, while you might not be getting older, I am. And my wife and I think about the sort of situation we'd like to be in as we get even older and when we need support. We hope to get that by being in some sort of community with close neighbors.


22.
Sun, 02/19/2012 - 16:54

Edited Sun, 02/19/2012 - 17:00.

I'm not a cynic, Alex
by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

Helpful? 0

Alex,
As I'm sure you might guess, Alex, I wish you (and Michael Maines, of course) great success in your ventures. I wish similar success to anyone now starting a new farming venture, whether communal or not.

I'm far from being a cynic. I'm a great romantic and hopeless idealist. I still believe that the human race will eventually renounce war -- a renunciation resulting from active nonviolence. If that isn't a classic example of hippie idealism, I don't know what is.

After all, I'm still raising my hens, planting my carrots and potatoes, and cutting my firewood, just as I have every year for the last 38 years.

My prediction that many communal ventures being launched today are likely to fall apart may be an example of realism, spoken with a sigh -- the view of a historian, not the hippie idealist I remain at heart.

Where would we be without the hippies?


23.
Sun, 02/19/2012 - 18:29

History doesn't repeat itself but it does rhyme...
by Lucas Durand - 7A

Helpful? 0

The world today is different than it was in the mid-60s and very different from that of the 1840s. Climate change, increasing population density, loss of farmland in some parts of the country, and changing patterns of drought have produced a level of vulnerability that is far greater today than it was in the past.

Alex,
I agree with you.
I think there is a difference between "back-to-the-land" idealists and those that appreciate that proactive change to more "resilient" ways of life only makes good sense.

It worries me that many people I know (as nice as they may be) have extremely limited skill sets that are largely relevant only in the context of the current civilizational paradigm.

Whether they mean to or not, those that are proactive about establishing more resilient ways of life and expanding their skill sets may very well end up being lantern keepers in what could end up being a dark future.


24.
Sun, 02/19/2012 - 18:50

I knew what you meant Martin
by michael maines

Helpful? 0

I don't know how one could have been a '60's hippie and not be at least a bit crushed by the state of the world today. History may not repeat itself verbatim, but there are cyclical patterns, and we are at a similar time of great change. It's up to a new generation to look at what worked in the '60s and what didn't and to experiment with new ideas that are more appropriate for the state of the world today. Communes were obviously not a long-term solution for most people. Most people want a sense of ownership, flexibility and personal space. That's where farms like Alex's may just work, because they bridge the gap between communes of the past and the current standard American everyone-in-their-own-box lifestyle.

Similarly, now that the Church or the Grange does not typically hold the town together, and politics often divides neighbors, a farm can be a central rallying point in creating a sense of community--something that is greatly lacking these days, aside from internet forums.


25.
Tue, 02/21/2012 - 10:54

What about container gardening?
by John Rockwell

Helpful? 0

It's thrilling to see this subject burst onto the GBA pages. One may build a net-zero house, but when accounting for food-miles and our own mobility, I think the equation gets altered quite a bit. We all eat, and as Wendell Berry wrote, "eating is an agricultural act."

While I am fortunate to possess arable soil and the desire to till it, not all of us have the time, space or inclination to get back to the land. And some of us might just happen to live in a food desert, or have been raised in a culture of food ignorance or apathy, or have high levels of lead in the soil around our building.

Perhaps like many of you, my food journey has included Helen and Scott Nearing, Berry, Eliot Coleman, Michael Pollan, etc. But there is another movement that may be under your radar, and that is the "sub-irrigated planter" (SIP). You may have heard of the proprietary Earthbox or Tomato Success Kit, but they are simple and cheap to make.

Using a fraction of the water, needing no-weeding, and with higher yields than traditional dirt gardening, SIPs eliminate many of the aforementioned hurdles that prevent people from growing their own food. They also can figure prominently in varied school curricula. Coupled with year-round growing techniques pioneered by Eliot Coleman "on the sun-baked Atlantic coast of Maine", one is not limited to the typical growing season. You can even simulate a more favorable hardiness zone by moving your plants to catch more sunlight throughout the day.

At a larger scale, SIPs have been used by some NGO's (like the UN's Growing Connection) in arid climates and poor countries to reduce water consumption, establish anti-poverty microeconomies, etc. Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry has SIPs on its front steps. Even Google has a "field" of them at its HQ!

I could go on and on, but I'll leave it to two important blogs that address sub-irrigation in compelling, thorough and articulate ways. For me, they are a resource on par with GBA!

http://www.insideurbangreen.org/

http://greenroofgrowers.blogspot.com/

Enjoy! And thank you Alex Wilson for bursting this dam.


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