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We eat rather well around our house. And by that I mean good, organic, healthy food. We buy a share in a local farm every year, which provides all of our vegetables (in season). We get our meat through a share at another local farm. We buy our milk (raw) and eggs from small farms a few miles up the road. The overwhelming majority of the balance of our diet comes from one of the nearby co-ops or farmers’ markets.
Now, it should not be thought that we have gone completely earthy-crunchy. I drink soda. We eat ice cream. We eat junk food, and we drink cheap booze. For the most part, though, our diet is a healthy one. Not because we are fanatics about it, but simply because it’s a good thing to do (also, because we’re lucky enough to live in an area where this can be done at a reasonable cost). Our boy is growing up healthy and strong, we all feel pretty good these days, and we know that our consumption is provided for without undue hardship for the planet.
My wife and I are both firm believers in the idea of minimizing the number of steps from ground to table. The idea is that minimizing the steps also minimizes the actual consumptive cost of whatever you eat. For example, the bulk of our food (in volume as well as variety) takes 3 steps from ground to table. A local farmer harvests/slaughters/collects/milks it, they hand it directly to us, and we put it on the table. The only way we could lessen our impact on the planet would be to grow our food ourselves. My wife has dreams of this. Personally, I don’t think it’ll ever happen, but you don’t need to hear that argument.
Now compare this with food we get from a supermarket (we do get some). We’re probably talking about a minimum of 5 steps here, upward to 30 steps or more. And the more processed the food gets, the more steps it takes. The distance it must travel affects this, also. And the problem with this is that each step costs something. Usually energy. Usually in the form of petroleum consumption. This is why minimizing the steps is important. It’s just plain good for everyone and everything. So the phrase ‘From Ground to Table’ comes up a lot in these parts.
This all came up in a discussion I had this afternoon with a logger I know (Jake). With the economy being in the shape it is, Jake has shifted a portion of his time and energy into firewood production. It wouldn’t be his first choice (there’s more money in cutting large trees for sawmills) but it pays the bills and it’s virtually recession-proof. As an added bonus, the process is good for the forest. And, in much the same way that procuring local food minimizes our impact on the planet, procuring local fuel is just plain good for all of us. Just think about all the energy that has to get consumed to get oil to our houses just so that we can consume energy. Even if you think you’re doing your part: my sister-in-law has a pellet stove – I wonder how many steps are needed to get those pellets to her stove? If you get your cordwood from Jake (or your own local equivalent), though, we get back to 3 steps.
They say that a cord of firewood produces the same amount of heat as 100-150 gallons of heating oil (the 50-gallon range is due to many variables, not least of which is the particular wood being burned). Jake told me today that his total petroleum consumption to produce a cord of firewood (including his drive to the woods from his house in the morning, as well as the drive to deliver the cordwood) is about 5 gallons, give or take. Looked at in the worst possible light, he’d still be producing more than 10 times the energy he’s consuming. And what Jake’s doing is 100% sustainable.
The phrase ‘From Ground to Table’, while literal in many cases, need not always be so in order to make a meaningful point. The idea is that living according to that simple rule makes everybody’s life better (especially your own). This is why it gets talked about so much these days. To complement it, I’d like to see the phrase ‘From Stump to Stove’ get added to the lexicon. Again, not to mean simply buying wood from Jake (although that would be a good thing to do), but to be smarter and more thoughtful about our energy consumption. Do we really need that extra 2 degrees on the thermostat? Would that windmill farm really be so much worse to look at? Should we really be investing in drilling for more oil, or should we be building a smart grid instead? Should we be running nuclear power plants? What about biomass plants?
Which brings me nicely to a close. There’s a proposal out there to build a biomass plant here in our town. The arguments are getting heated (no pun intended), but I’ll save that discussion for a future post.