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Radical Homemakers

Go check out my review at The Green Phone Booth and enter for a chance to win my copy of the book!

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Made from Scratch

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I’ve been reading Jenna Woginrich’s book Made from Scratch as a part of Crunchy Chicken’s book club (which there’s still time to join).  I’ve really enjoyed the chapters on chickens, beekeeping, antiques, sewing and baking.  As I read, I daydreamed more and more about getting chicks this spring.  I was also inspired to try Jenna’s recipe for a braided country white bread over the weekend, and I love her simple fleece mitten pattern and plan to try it out when the weather gets cold.  While I am an animal lover, I wasn’t into the chapter on sled dogs (my cousins did it for a while and it’s not for me), or the music chapter.  But the great thing about this book is that you can read any chapter you’re interested in to get her experience as well as some tips and suggestions, and skip the ones you don’t have an interest in.  I’d recommend it as a quick and inspiring read for anyone who would like to be more self-sufficient.   You can also check out Jenna Woginrich’s blog to see what she’s up to at Cold Antler Farm.

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This Fine Piece of Water, Reflections Part V

Sewage

            The focus of this chapter was on the importance of removing nitrogen from the Sound.  It was clear that it would be important to remove nitrogen from sewage with a focus on treatment plant improvements, separating storm water from waste water to prevent overflow, reducing acid rain, re-evaluating appropriate land-use procedures, and reducing the use of nitrogen-containing fertilizers.

            Having visited wastewater treatment plants more times than I’d like to count (it is an annual field trip with multiple classes), I have seen the process first-hand and spoken with the engineers that design the plants.  Primary treatment and secondary treatment when performed in the traditional capacity only remove a small fraction of the nitrogen in wastewater.  Since nitrogen is a limiting factor for plant growth, if we are continually pumping nitrogen into the Sound it will act as a fertilizer, contributing to the hypoxia observed in the summer.  One major solution to the problem of hypoxia is to improve wastewater treatment to remove more nigtrogen.

            At Stamford’s Wastewater Treatment system, engineer Jeannette Semon has shown that nitrogen removal can be greatly improved without a huge cost expenditure.  “Semon wrings about 70 percent of the nitrogen from the wastewater…  Achieving the reduction required no huge capital expenditures, no construction tanks, no extensions of the network or pipes and sluiceways.”  What it did require was additional time in treatment, which means that extra space was needed to contain the wastewater in order for this practice to take place.  The bacteria that breakdown the ammonia in wastewater through nitrification will convert it to nitrite, and then to nitrate.  Allowing additional bacteria the extra time needed to go through the denitrification process to convert that nitrate to nitrogen gas, which is released to the atmosphere, requires additional time.  For wastewater treatment plants that are already operating at or above capacity, this process could not happen unless the plants were upgraded.

 

The Cleanup

            In this chapter, we are introduced to the political wrangling that must go on in order for a cleanup of the Sound to take place.  It became clear that the biggest threat to the Sound was overdevelopment.  As Susan Bellinson, president of SoundWatch puts it: “More population means more sewage, more floatable garbage, more fertilizers, more auto exhaust, more oil leakage, more boats in the marinas, more blacktopping, more hardening of shoreline areas, which reduces the biological filtration properties of the land.”

            Builders battled with environmentalists, saying that putting a cap on wastewater treatment plants’ nitrogen release would essentially mean a moratorium on development, since more people means more sewage.  The arguments went on and on, until it was decided that sewage would be capped at 1990 levels, and the builders and environmentalists realized that they could be on the same side.  After all, upgrading wastewater treatment plants would create jobs for builders.  The estimated cost of reducing nitrogen by 58.5% over fifteen years would be $650 million dollars, which would reduce the amount of nitrogen entering the Sound from 39,000 tons to 16,185 tons.  The environmental benefits would be huge, and it was estimated that oxygen would fall no lower than 3 milligrams per liter, and “hypoxia would have virtually no effect on the abundance of winter flounder of lobsters; its effect on the abundance of scup would be reduced by 61 percent; and its effect on fish abundance in general would be cut by 97 percent.”

 

The New Sound

            Andersen begins the chapter by reminiscing about a fishing trip that he took in July of 1987.  At that time, the hypoxia was in full swing.  “And yet if we could have had some sense of it… if we could have heard the roar of the rivers of sewage, tasted the sour drops of acid rain, watched the uncountable discharges of storm sewers; if we could have seen the algae growing and dying, felt whatever the flounder and blackfish felt as oxygen disappeared; if somehow we could have seen into the future, seen that the Sound had become little more than a stagnant, weed-choked sink—perhaps then we would have been hit with a gut revulsion, a raw emotion to move us to act.  Perhaps it would not have taken another four years merely to get a policy that mandated sewage plants to cap their nitrogen flow at 1990 levels and almost eleven years to get an agreement to begin reducing nitrogen.”  Isn’t that the case with all environmental problems? If we could see and feel the destruction we’re doing, see into the future, would we delay our actions?

            Anderson then goes on to show Norwalk as an example of a local community that has done a good job restoring its oyster beds.  Soundkeeper Terry Backer says of oystering: “It’s an appropriate use of the water.  It’s an industry that’s very sensitive to the environment, and has to be.  It’s what the Sound should be used for.”  Shellfishing is highly monitored by the state, and the biggest problems come from wastewater.  When it rains, many shellfish beds are closed because we know that will lead to an increase in untreated sewage released into the Sound.  Many beds have been closed until further notice.  I would take the recent reopening of shellfish beds in Greenwich as a sign that the cleanup and the efforts to reduce nitrogen in the Sound are making progress.

 

Dead Oysters, Dead Lobsters

            In the Afterword, Andersen discusses oyster and lobster die-offs in the late 1990’s.  While sewage is characterized as the predominant threat to the Sound throughout the book, the Afterword portrays another possible threat to Long Island Sound: global warming.  Andersen calls this idea “one that seems equally plausible: that the die-off of oysters and lobsters was linked to increased water temperatures, which were linked to global warming.  If that turns out to be the case, the prospect is even gloomier than that of oystermen and lobstermen losing their means of making a living.”  In the future, will we see that climate change will take the place of wastewater as the biggest environmental threat to the water quality, ecosystems, and people of Long Island Sound?

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This Fine Piece of Water: Reflections Part IV

Reflections Part I

Reflections Part II

Reflections Part III

 

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Strangling the Sound

            This chapter details the role of nitrogen in the Sound, as well as the consequences of too much nitrogen.  I found the discussion of salt marshes to be particularly interesting because my father often speaks of making salt hay in Stony Creek when he was a child, but my family no longer keeps up that tradition, so I did not know much about salt marshes. 

            The amount of nitrogen flowing into the Sound has risen dramatically.  “Four centuries of ever-increasing development and population had swollen the Sound’s burden of nitrogen to 91,000 tons per year, a 128 percent increase over the estimated 40,000 tons that flowed to the Sound before European settlement.  The additional 51,300 tons of nitrogen included 29,600 tons from sewage plants and factories, and 8,800 tons from storm water runoff.”  The effects of eutrophication began to be evident as oxygen levels decreased, but unfortunately the hypoxia was largely ignored, until repeated crashes that seemed to occur in August.  In 1973, the National Marine Fisheries Service found that “compared with 1972, there were 86 percent fewer benthic animals and 55 percent fewer benthic species.  In other words, almost nine out of ten individual animals, and more than half of all the kinds of animals, were wiped out.”  Such large effects on the populations in only a single year’s time are simply terrifying.

            The overall message that I got in this chapter was the need for an effective way to remove nitrogen from wastewater.  While nitrogen will runoff from many different places, I believe that focusing on the wastewater treatment plants will be a good start.

The Brink of Disaster

            My blue-collar roots made the story of John Fernandes resonate with me.  Being raised on a farm myself, and marrying into a fishing family, I can only imagine how heart-breaking and scary it was for Fernandes to pull up what he thought would be 300 pound worth of lobsters to sell, and instead finding that they were all dead.  As Phil Briggs from the New York Department of Environmental Conservation said, “They’re fearful for their livelihood right now, and I don’t blame them.” 

            Researcher Barbara Welsh lays out the scenario that as the western parts of the Sound became hypoxic, the lobsters, fish, and other mobile animals migrated eastward, in search of oxygen.  So while western lobsterman like Fernandes weren’t catching anything, there were record catches toward the middle and east of the sound.

            Anderson goes on to describe that 90% of lobsters in the Sound are caught when they reach their legal size, so it is important to the survival of the species that they are able to reproduce before being caught.  He also describes the many illegal measures that lobstermen will take, including territoriality, keeping shorts in underwater cages, scraping the eggs off females.  The consequences for getting caught are high, including losing your license.  I am friends with some commercial lobster fishermen who live on a little island in Maine.  The older lobstermen tell tales of territoriality in their early days, and they all talk about getting buoys getting cut and losing pots, people hauling someone else’s pot, and boats getting sunk.  Even in the last five years, a man that I know had his boat sunk when he moved into a new town.  Their description of protecting the lobster population is more encouraging: females with eggs have their tails notched, and in Maine it is illegal to catch a lobster with a notched tail, since it is known that she is a breeding female.  This is the type of management that I would like to see in the Sound.  However, there are decreasing yields of lobsters in Maine as well, and the prices have also dropped, making, as Anderson describes, a man work much harder for the same amount of money.

            Back in Connecticut, we see fisherman continuing to leave the business, selling or losing their boats, just as we see farming families selling or losing their farms.  I am hopeful that new methods of aquaculture and a better understanding of the impact of human activity as well as ecological influences on populations will lead to more sustainable management of the Sound’s fish and shellfish, both for our own benefit and the health of the Sound.

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This Fine Piece of Water: Reflections Part III

Previous Posts:

 Oystering

This chapter detailed the oyster industry in Long Island Sound.  Again we see the pattern of identifying a profitable natural resource, exploiting that resource to depletion where it’s almost entirely wiped out, and then identifying the need to act to save this natural resource.  The descriptions of opening day for oystering season were very interesting.  I can imagine people waiting on the banks in Fair Haven until they heard the midnight chimes of the church bells, then clambering into their boats and fighting for a good spot to go dig oysters.  I never knew that oysters could be kept through the winter in a basement, and now I envision root cellars filled with bushel baskets of shellfish, topped with seaweed, helping to sustain the family through the long winter.  It makes sense that people would exploit this resource on one day to collect food for the entire winter, but it’s unfair to blame their one day gathering for the ultimate depletion of wild oysters. 

The professional oystermen did their own fair share of depletion: “In 1856, another firm, Levi Rowe & Co., owned twenty vessels, employed one hundred openers, and shipped one hundred and fifty thousand gallons of oysters.  Other houses shipped as many as fifteen hundred bushels of oysters a day.  When the New Haven train left each afternoon for the interior of New England, one and sometimes two cars were reserved solely for oysters.”  The oystermen realized that this was not a sustainable operation and began to gather seed oysters from surrounding rivers in 1810, and traveling as far as Chesapeake Bay.  My grandfather tells stories of his father’s uncle buying $10,000 worth of seed oysters.  He didn’t pay the $10,000 for insurance, and the seed oysters disappeared.  As you can imagine, a $10,000 loss for a farmer was quite a hit, and the oyster idea was dropped.  I’ve seen seed oysters, since my husband’s family has an aquaculture business; they’re about the size of your thumbnail, and look like tiny oysters.  It’s very interesting how they’re raised now, and I would have liked if the book gave more detail about how they were raised in the early 1800’s.

            The final part of this chapter that I’d like to touch upon is disease transmission.  I didn’t realize that oysters can transmit both bacteria and viruses, but it makes sense since they are filter-feeders.  The story of Wesleyan University students contracting typhoid fever in 1892 by eating contaminated oysters demonstrates how important it is to not allow raw sewage to flow into waterways.  Unfortunately, raw sewage still flows into the Sound everyday, but the shellfishing industry is more closely monitored and closed when concerns for human health arise.

Sprawling Suburbs

            This chapter details how the lifestyles of people around the Sound changed moving into the beginning of the 20th Century.  People worked in cities, yet wanted to live in the country, and the availability of transportation allowed them to do so.  Thus, housing developments sprawled out of the cities into the country and the suburbs were born.  “More land was built on between 1960 and 1990—houses, shopping malls, corporate headquarters, highways—than during the previous three hundred years.”  All this development had many environmental trade-offs: “The decades of growth almost tripled the amount of sewage flowing into the Sound from treatment plants… from twenty-five million to sixty-five million gallons a day.”  All this sewage resulted in extremely large amounts of nitrogen dumping into the Sound, much more than the Sound had ever experienced before.  Sediments also became a problem, as did fertilizers used on agricultural land.  All this nitrogen contributes to the acidification of aquatic ecosystem, with impacts on the food chain.  This process of continued nitrogen accumulation in the Sound, called eutrophication, can lead to blooms of microscopic algae, their wastes making the waters toxic and poisoning people who consume fish or shellfish from the contaminated waters.  As Anderson points out, nitrogen is “the element that is both the symbol and the result of modern society’s divorce from the natural processes that nurture the Earth—a divorce that has brought Long Island Sound to the brink of disaster.”  I’m left wondering what’s better for the environment, sewers or septic systems? Anderson briefly touches upon septic systems, but I really would like more information.  I wonder if houses on the shore would be better served by septic systems using the best technology available, as we did when we installed our septic system less than two years ago.  As I understand it, that nitrogen is filtered out into the soil and doesn’t reach the groundwater, but I’m not sure if that would be the case along the immediate shoreline where the water table is higher. 

            Both chapters demonstrate the need for wastewater treatment, for the health of both the Sound and human health.  In hard times, wastewater treatment becomes one of the items cut from many budgets, so I wouldn’t expect to see any of these problems resolved in the near future.

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Book Review: Plenty

For Green Bean’s Bookworm Challenge, I chose to read Plenty: One Man, One Woman, and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally.  The one overriding theme that stuck out to me in this book is having a sense of place.  What do I mean by “place”? When I say place, I mean a connection to where you live.  I first consciously realized the importance of place when I went to the Island School Teacher Conference last summer, a school in the Bahamas that focuses on place-based learning.  I came back with a desire to bring place-based learning into my own classroom, and over the past year I have incorporated our place.  But the reality is, I’ve always had a strong sense of place because of how I grew up.  I couldn’t imagine leaving my home and my family and our farm.  But back to the book…  The authors Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon spend an entire year eating local, sustainable, and wild foods.  They search out people who grow all of their necessities, and in the process they learn a great deal about their own place, Vancouver.  They learn about the agricultural practices of Native Americans and early settlers as well as get acquainted with the local farmers.  They also feel the very real effects of environmental accidents.

There is a term for the experience of tugging your little red wagon through a strawberry field, and that term is traceability.  It’s a measure of how close or how distant one is from one’s food.  The majority of the world’s farmers, saving their own seeds and cultivating, raising, and harvesting the plants and animals they themselves eat, have total traceability.  They know exactly where their food comes from, and under what circumstances it was produced.  On the other hand, there’s a person eating an all-dressed hot dog on a Manhattan street corner.

This term “traceability” is directly related to the place where your food comes from, as well as the people who produce it.  The food that the majority of people eat these days, in my opinion, is anonymous.  They don’t know where it grew, they don’t know who raised or processed it, and in the case of the hot dog, they may not even know what animal it is made from.  In speaking with a group of teachers at my school today, this issue came up.  I made the point that I would much rather eat an animal that was loved than an anonymous animal.  Eyes rolled, faces were made, and some folks stopped eating lunch.  OK people, the reality is that if you eat meat, you are eating animals.  Why would you prefer to eat an animal that has no name and has never experienced kindness from humans?  I don’t think I’ll ever understand that.

On a paleoecological time scale, the separation between us human beings and the landscapes that sustain us is brand-new.  It has widened in the blink of an eye.  For almost all of our history as a species, we depended on our surroundings and abused the environment at our peril.  The sudden death of a local river was not a saddening sound bite; it was a life-threatening catastrophe.

This quote describes a loss of place.  And also an insight: pollution of a local river does not affect us as much as it did our ancestors.  We can buy imported bottled water and import our fish from somewhere out of sight, out of mind.  Unless you happen to make your living off that waterway, you won’t even think about losing money, let alone starving.

Introduced from Europe, the blackberries have become everyone’s favorite weed.  This is the only common urban foraging that I know of. 

Back at my place we dumped the berries in a big pot and put the burner on low to start cooking out the juice.  We added cupfuls of sweetener, following the wisdom of hippie books that suggest using 40 percent as much honey as the white sugar called for.  Gradually we brought the mash to a constant bubble, stirred now and again with a wooden spoon.  By then, every burner was in action, boiling empty jars to sertilize them.  Throughout, we talked of writing, men, of whether or not we would have children, of places we had visited or hoped to visit… Making jam had taken all afternoon and evening, but the last thing I’d call it was work. 

It was living.

This description of making jam is the perfect example of a way to reconnect with the place you live.  The act of finding and picking berries makes a connection to the local plant life.  Using local honey instead of sugar creates a connection to not only local plant life, but also the local honeybees.  Sharing your work with a friend creates a connection between people.  Overall, there is a connection to the ecosystem, including human beings in their local food web.  It seems so strange to me that there are food connections going on all around us, and yet some people are totally absent from our local food web. 

I cannot help but be reminded of the apple epiphany that happened at my school last fall.  My principal asked me to bring in a bushel of apples for the teachers at our October faculty meeting.  Of course, I chose Macouns, even though they were coming to an end.  I cannot even count how many teachers came up to me and remarked how good the apples were.  Some said that they had never tasted apples so crisp and juicy, and that the flavors were new to them.  Some told me they now knew they could never get an apple that tasted that way from the supermarket.  Some people said that they didn’t like apples, but they liked these apples.  At the end of the meeting, teachers were sneaking the extra apples into their bags to take home.  One teacher later told me she made the best apple pie out of her stolen apples.  And here I was, worried that the apples wouldn’t be received well because Macouns are almost out of season by early October, and a couple had imperfections.  Silly me.

At the end of their year-long experiment, not much changed.

Our 100-mile diet hadn’t ended, not really.  The day after the final dinner, at lunchtime, James used a dash of black pepper on some leftover pasta.  Alisa suggested a nice Indian place for dinner, and we ordered jackfruit, which probably came from Southeast Asia or Brazil.  A few favorites have slowly made their way back into the kitchen–lemons, and rice, and beer.  Many others, like bland bananas and white sugar, haven’t yet.  For us, the balance of global versus local food has been reversed.  It comes down to this: we just like the new way better.

At the end of the book, I was left wondering if Ed and I could make the 100-mile diet work for ourselves.  I thought about what we’d have to give up, and what we’d make staples of our diet.  Fish would be a huge part of our diet, because a large chunk of our 100-mile radius is Long Island Sound.  Ed and his brother could catch a lot of it.  Ed’s parents are getting pigs in July, so they’d help to fill our freezer.  I would want to get chickens for eggs and meat, as well as turkeys.  We could get a cow and keep it with my family or Ed’s.  My family grows apples, peaches, strawberries, raspberries, corn, tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant, peppers, plums, pears… so we’d be pretty well set with produce.  We’d have to skip white sugar in favor of honey (made by Aunt Wendy and Uncle Dave) and maple syrup (made by my family or Ed’s).  My garden would probably need to get bigger.  I’d can and freeze strawberries, wild wineberries, blueberries, raspberries, apples and applesauce, peaches, corn, tomatoes, and other fruits and vegetables (clearly not in that order).  I guess we’d need a chest freezer.  I’d make growing food that could last us through the winter, like pumpkins, potatoes, winter squash and carrots, a priority.  What would we have to skip? Coffee, which I don’t drink but Ed would miss.  Ditto for beer.  I’m not sure about flour or oats.  I think I would feel the same despair as Alisa did without bread or pasta.  Seasonings would be an issue as well, and I would especially miss black pepper.  I would really miss lemons with all the seafood we’d be eating.  I guess the bottom line of whether or not we could survive on a 100-mile diet is that we clearly could.  It would be an extremely interesting experience, but I’m just not up for it right now.  What I will do is make every effort to eat locally when I can, and avoid foods that I know have been shipped long distances, like bananas and pineapples.  I’ll also work harder to pass on an understanding of place to my students and others.

I would recommend Plenty to those who want to reconnect with their home and community through food.

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Book Review: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

I finished reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle about three months ago.  It became a ritual to head to the bath tub or bedroom and enjoy reading every night while Ed watched one of his history channel shows on TV.  I knew that this book spoke to me, when in the first chapter Kingsolver wrote:

It is not my intention here to lionize country wisdom over city ambition.  I only submit that the children of farmers are likely to know where food comes from, and that the rest of us might do well to pay attention. 

Any time someone makes a comment that country kids are intelligent, I’m listening.  Over the last few years teaching botany and environmental science, I have been shocked to realize just how separated this generation of teenagers is from their food.  My students are always bothered by the fact that we have, in the past, eaten chickens, turkeys, pigs, or cows that we raised.  We don’t do that all the time, but it’s something we do on and off.  The can’t believe that I would eat an animal that was my pet.  My response has always been: “I grew up on a farm.  My life is different from yours.”  Not to mention, if I have helped to raise an animal, I know what its life was like, that it was loved and well cared for, and was a happy animal.  There are none of those guarantees when we go to the grocery store and buy a hamburger, and in fact, lives like that for cows are more the exception than the rule. 

In two generations we’ve transformed ourselves from a rural to an urban nation.  North American children begin their school year around Labor Day and finish at the beginning of June with no idea that this arrangement was devised to free up children’s labor when it was needed on the farm. 

Not all children.  My brothers, cousins and I were raised in the farm stand.  All of us played a role in weeding, planting, fertilizing, harvesting, arranging, and selling the crops we grew, in some way or another.  I was mostly in the farm market.  I learned to arrange strawberries in a basket with my mother, grandmother, and great grandmother.  I know what the most attrative way to pile corn is.  I also know that on a hot day you need to put ice in the pile.  I know how to polish an apple with a burlap bag, and I know how to sort through tomatoes.  I also know that you can’t put too many peaches in a box because when you put the lid on you’ll squish them.  I’ve gone through blueberries until my fingers were blue.  I know to never carry a pumpkin by the stem.  I also know how to choose a melon, something which is for some reason mysterious to most people.  But I digress…

The Kingsolver clan proceeds to live out a year on their farm growing all of the food that they possibly can, and buying very little, mostly from other local farmers.  I enjoyed reading Barbara’s description of day to day life, husband Steven Hopp’s interjections of articles about society or science, and Camille’s recipes.  I’ve adapted my own version of her pizza crust recipe.  It was also wonderful to hear about how daughter Lilly was involved in her own adventure in math, business, and science education raising laying hens.  It is clear that farming for the Kingsolvers was a family affair, as it is for all farming families.  When a family lives that way, children are able to feel that they are contributing to the success of the family, and they also learn all of those little lessons that are not taught in school.  My dad always said that you could learn more in a day on the farm than you could in a week in school.

Farming is not for everybody; increasingly, it’s hardly for anybody.  Over the last decade our country has lost an average of 300 farms a week.  Large or small, each of those was the life’s work of a real person or family, people who built their lives around a promise and watched it break.  The loss of a farm is a darkness leading to some of life’s bitterest ends.  Keeping one, on the other hand, may mean also working in a factory at the end of a long daily drive, behind and ahead of the everyday work of farming.

The thought of my family losing our farm is one of the most horrible things I can imagine.  We all work other jobs, including construction and teaching, and we all work on the farm.  We do it because it is our home and our lifestyle, not because it’s lucrative.  I may jokingly ask how many college degrees I have to earn before I can stop working summers and falls at the farm, but then again, would I want to stop?

I loved reading this book because it made me think so much of my own family, but I could also see how it could be educational for someone who did not grow up the way that I did.  The trials and tribulations, as well as the successes, are a wonderful documentation of how a local food lifestyle is.  The stories of long days in the fields, a kitchen full of zucchini, slaughter of hens, and of hard work shared by a family are sadly not stories that many people would relate to anymore.  I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn more about the importance of eating seasonally and locally, and wants to hear about one family’s experience in that lifestyle.

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