Homegrown Evolution Visits the Los Angeles County Fair

There’s a guy I sometimes see on my morning jogs commuting to work on what looks like a kid’s scooter outfitted with an electric motor. The high price of gas has, in fact, driven folks here in L.A. to increasingly bizarre forms of transportation: barely functional 1980s Mercedes Benzes running on deep fryer fat, scooters, golf cart like electric cars etc. I’m waiting for folks to adopt the glorious, 19th century bicycle, and while many have, I’m not holding my breath until gas prices get much higher. One thing’s for sure, we’ll know the “pain at the pump” has gotten really bad when we start to see the return of draft horses to Los Angeles. To preview that possibility and experience the fading agricultural glory of Los Angeles County we headed to the Los Angeles County Fair this past week. Here’s a pictorial tour:

It was a real pleasure to view the elegant moves of the draft horses and their handlers. The competition we watched involved maneuvering a carriage around obstacles, backing up into a tight space, stopping at a mail box and weaving around some cones. Good training for pulling that carriage into L.A.’s many mini-malls. All that was missing from the competition was text messaging while driving.

The big highlight of the fair for us was visiting the beekeeping booth, viewing a display hive and talking with a knowledgeable beekeeper (didn’t get a decent picture). Best of all we made contact with our local beekeeping club, and we’ll have information next month for those of you in the L.A. area who are interested in keeping bees.

From beekeeping we jumped on over to the home economics competitions and marveled at the preserved foods display. With the recent success of Pickle Fest 2008, we predict a new batch of competitors in next year’s competition.


Mrs. Homegrown Evolution got obsessed with determining the judging criteria of the bizarre “tablescaping” competition. Mr. Homegrown Evolution marveled at a tablescaping entry that managed to incorporate LA subway maps.

Sadly, there was a lot of lame stuff at the fair as well. Los Angeles was once the wealthiest agricultural county in the United States. Now, as one local agricultural official put it to me, “we grow houses” and our county fair that reflects that fact. Out went the 4-H clubs and in comes the corporate sponsors.

Taking the place of what used to be livestock competitions was a farm animal exhibition called “Fair View Farms” sponsored by McDonald’s. Do I need to comment on the irony of that bit of branding? Fair View Farms featured bleak panoramas, such as this large pen of pigs with, oddly, a bunch of ordinary roosters pecking around.

What happened to all the different animal breeds I remember from the San Diego Fair?

McDonald’s also sponsored a revisionist nutrition re-education compound, the educational content of which would make papa Stalin proud. When I dropped by, a bunch of bored school kids, sitting amongst straw bales, were being taught how to make a fruit smoothie by Monica Montes, R.D., who was sporting one of those wearable microphones just like the drive-through cashiers at McDonald’s use. I fled, fearing that I might ask something snarky during the question and answer session. I guess every R.D. has their price. Who knows, with the high cost of Mr. Homegrown Evolution’s recent root canal, you may soon see our backyard chicken flock hit the road sponsored by, say, Carls Jr.

And speaking of Stalinist re-education, the dairy council entertained us with a heavily pixelated web video transferred to DVD all about the wonders of industrial milk production. They carefully glossed over the way cows are kept in massive pens with no access to pasture and, instead, wisely decided to focus, in great detail, on how they manufacture plastic milk bottles. They even showed us how the bottles are shrink wrapped and placed on pallets. And what says “fun day at the fair” more than watching “palletizing” on a TV placed in a vintage 1980s entertainment cabinet while sitting in 100º heat?

To end on a less cranky note, we’ll leave you with these lovely vintage diagrams done in a classic early 20th century sign making style, one below and one at the top of this post. It’s really hard to say when they were made.

Come see us at the fair!

Photo simulation of Feral House booth by euthman

We’ll be at the West Hollywood Book Fair tomorrow, Sunday 9/28. It’s free, and fun, and star-studded. Please stop by and say hi!

12:00- 12:55:
We’ll be doing a panel discussion titled “Sustainable LA” with Ed Begley Jr. (!) and Thomas Kostigen.
Location: The Open Book Pavillion, on the San Vicente side of the park.
1:oo-2:00:
We’ll be signing The Urban Homestead at the Feral House Booth/Sexy Groove Lounge with the Feral House Pixies. Other spectacular Feral House/Process authors will be signing throughout the day, too.
Location: booths C8 & C9, in the “Imix” zone, which is sort of between the food court and the pool.
2:00-2:30:
We’re doing a demo at the booth–making butter!
Afterward we’ll just be hanging out for the rest of the day. Hope to see you there!

Pickled!

Picklefest 2008 was, no other way to put it, pickletastic. Thanks to Mark Frauenfelder for coming up with the idea, DJ Pickle for spinning the tunes, and the folks at Machine Project for hosting! We’re looking forward to Picklefest 2009.

To those who attended we wish you the best of luck with the pickle projects you took home. We forgot to tell you all not to be afraid of your pickles! We’re all a few generations away from the kind of lacto-fermented or brined pickles that we made yesterday. When we first tried doing this a few years ago we were afraid to eat the results. In fact, we should all be afraid not to eat lacto-fermented foods, as they provide beneficial microorganisms essential for our health. Lacto-fermentation does not lend itself to our industrialized food system, with its emphasis on cheap, shippable commodities, which is why these traditional types of pickles are rare outside of expensive health food stores.

For those of you who couldn’t make it or those of you who’d like to try some other fermentation projects, we strongly recommend picking up a copy of Sandor Ellix Katz’s book Wild Fermentation.

Picklefest 2008 at Machine Project, Los Angeles, Saturday September 20, 2008

In collaboration with Mark Frauenfelder of Dinosaurs and Robots and the fine folks at Machine Project, we’re proud to be a part of Picklefest 2008. We’ll be demonstrating how to lacto-ferment everything from cabbage to radishes. Come on down with your produce and jars at 1 p.m. More info here. And here’s some directions on how to lacto-ferment foods.

Camping and Solar Cooking

I’m a big fan of backpacking sufferfests, which often involve a long drive followed by hiking thousand of feet up and over challenging, rocky terrain. The sense of accomplishment and breathtaking scenery is always worth the effort, but something is also to be said for an alternate camping scenario we’ve taken to recently, involving loading up our cargo bike (the amazing Xtracycle) and biking to our destination, all the while carrying almost as much as we would car camping. After rolling into our campground, we’ll spend the weekend kicking back at the campsite, taking it easy and pretty much not going anywhere or doing anything. With the carrying capacity of the cargo bike, we can get fancy with the food and libations, allowing us to skip the usual dehydrated camping chow.

These sittin’ around type of trips, or even a lazy Sunday afternoon at home, are the perfect occasion to deploy a solar cooker. Best of all you can build a solar cooker yourself for pennies out of cardboard and aluminum foil. For some foods, such as rice, it’s actually easier to cook with a solar cooker than it is on a stovetop. Put some rice in a pot, place the pot in the solar panel cooker, stick it out in the sun and two hours later you have lunch.

Read the rest at The Cleanest Line via the Patagonia Company.

Urban Farming in Oakland

Public radio station KCRW has an excellent interview with urban farmer and writer Novella Carpenter. Carpenter has pigs, goats, ducks, chickens and more all on a small lot in Oakland, California. You can listen to the radio interview here (along with some other interesting segments on hunting caribou, cooking pasta, roasting peppers, and more) on chef Evan Kleiman’s show Good Food. You can also check out Carpenter’s blog, meaningfulpursuit.com. We especially like Carpenter’s advice to take small steps towards your urban farming goal rather than trying to do too much all at once.

Rainwater Harvesting and Beyond

If you live in a dry climate like we do here in Los Angeles your bookshelf should have a copy of one of Brad Lancaster’s amazing books. Through very simple techniques, most of which can be executed with a shovel and a free afternoon, Lancaster shows you how to turn a barren landscape into a Garden of Eden. Lancaster empasizes earthworks which capture and channel water where you want it to go, instead of uselessly sending it down the gutter.

For those of you in Southern California, Lancaster will be delivering a free talk at the Santa Monica Public Library Monday September 15th at 6:30 p.m. More info via Westside Permaculture Gatherings.

If you’re not in SoCal, you can get more information about Lancaster’s work and order a copy of one of his books on his website, www.harvestingrainwater.com.

Urban Foraging with Nance Klehm

Via The Little Green People Show, a podcast with Chicago’s urban forager Nance Klehm:

“We’re not talking gardens or dumpster diving. This is a discussion of the riches that grow in our highway medians, city planters, backyards and rail lines. Expert forager, Nance Klehm, sheds light on the city’s bounty, from medicinal plants to tasty greens. Getting to know the foraging landscape takes some time and energy, but gives back in complex flavors and a better appreciation of plants, and it’s free. “

Listen to the podcast here.

Helping the Bees with Science in your Backyard

San Francisco State University associate professor Gretchen LeBuhn is currently coordinating the innovative Great Sunflower Project, enlisting gardeners around the country to plant sunflowers and count the number of bees that visit them in a set period of time. We participated this summer, planting the sunflower seeds provided by the project. It’s too late to start this year, but you can sign up for next year’s project here. When we last did an observation, we counted five bees within ten minutes visiting the flower we chose to watch. See the video above for an instant replay.

This project is very important, and participation and support of it is a way we can all help out with what appears to be an alarming decrease in bees due to colony collapse disorder. In a fascinating and well written new book, A Spring Without Bees, author Michael Schacker explains the details of colony collapse disorder and the media’s poor job of covering it (hint: it ain’t cellphones, moving bees around or a bee rapture). Schacker blames the bee decline on two pesticides: GAUCHO, manufactured by Bayer Crop Science and Fipronil, manufactured by BASF. You can read more about Schacker’s efforts on Plan Bee.

Growing Watermelons

This watermelon sums up why we grow as many of our own foods as our small yard will allow. Damn it was good! Just about the sweetest, most perfect watermelon I’ve ever tasted. Was it worth it from an economical perspective? Probably not since, due to a combination of not so great soil and an improperly installed drip irrigation system, I only got two melons from one vine. But, learning from these twin mistakes, I suspect that next year’s watermelon harvest will be larger, and two other watermelon vines I have going (in a better location) already have a few fruits developing on them. Some things I’ve learned about watermelons:

1. Fighting powdery mildew. Our inland coastal climate, with its hot summer days and cool evenings, is not the best place for melons as we tend to get powdery mildew, a white fungal growth that covers the leaves. However, our watermelon vines seem to be resistant to this problem, unlike the cantaloupes that we’ve tried to grow in the past. Lesson: watermelon is happier in our climate than cantaloupes and cucumbers.

2. Plant early varieties. While producing smaller fruit, early watermelon varieties get you to harvest faster. This means less time for pest and disease problems to develop. While we’ve got a very long season here in Southern California for summer vegetables, with almost no chance of a fall freeze, I’ve begun in the past year to plant early varieties of most vegetables simply because there is less time for bad things to happen.

3. Watermelon is a living mulch. Watermelon, an enormous vine, makes an excellent living mulch, snaking, as it does, amongst our tomatoes and okra. I’ve laid down a layer of straw as mulch, but the watermelon adds a little more to the shade and water retention effort.

4. Irrigating watermelons. Watermelons have large root systems and if you use drip irrigation make sure that the emitters extend in a ring around the roots. Putting an emitter at the stem of the plant, as we did, does not adequately water the roots. We’ll get into the topic of drip irrigation in detail later this year.

5. It ain’t easy picking the world’s largest watermelon. See for yourself via youtube.

For more information on growing watermelon (including the tricky issue of learning when to harvest them) see the University of Illinois Extension’s How to Grow Watermelons.

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