October 15th, 2007
Blog Action Day: The Environment

Do you remember when you stopped being a citizen and became a consumer? In the United States, at least, we the people are almost always referred to as consumers by the media and government officials. Thinking about it a bit, I have to admit that I personally produce almost nothing but waste which is so […]

Do you remember when you stopped being a citizen and became a consumer? In the United States, at least, we the people are almost always referred to as consumers by the media and government officials. Thinking about it a bit, I have to admit that I personally produce almost nothing but waste which is so conveniently flushed away or hauled away that I never face the consequences of it. Can you imagine the change to packaging or even the materials from which things were made if we had to personally confront all the trash we produce? I don’t have a garbage disposal and I do compost my kitchen and yard waste. I reuse when I can and recycle when I can’t reuse. And I frequently reuse other people’s stuff, buying most of my clothes and many of my books and DVDs at second hand stores. I haven’t forgotten my mother’s lessons in saving paper, string, and rubber bands. Nor have I forgotten my own childhood observation when I lived in the Philippines and observed Filipino children sifting through American trash–because they could make a living on what we threw away.

Ultimately though I am a consumer, not a producer. This bothers me. Despite my garden in an unusually large yard for this urban area, I couldn’t survive a day on what I grow myself: my single tomato, a handful of pecans, and half a dozen jalapeno peppers, or 8 precious persimmons. I couldn’t even grow those without having water piped in, or being able to drive to the nursery for manures and amendments. Suddenly left without the cheap foodstuffs I take for granted, I’d quickly starve.

I’ve been very interested lately in following the Angelina Williamson’s experiment over at Dustpan Alley. She has taken the challenge to eat locally-grown foods (food grown within 100 miles of where she lives) as much as possible over the next year. She lives in Oregon and has been busily preserving the bounty of local farms. And she has her own hens. In sharp contrast, I don’t even have a pantry (much less a nicely stocked one) and I’m excited that living in a town that has both Whole Foods Market and Central Market that I’m able to buy beer from Belgium and sparkling water from Italy. Ouch! Leaving that kind of carbon footprint I might as well be driving a SUV and living in a McMansion.

Angelina got me wondering exactly what I could find to eat in a 100-mile radius from Austin. Texas is a big state after all and 100 miles won’t even get me to the coast to get seafood from the Gulf or to the valley for oranges and grapefruit. Off the top of my head I could think of deer, pecans, and wine. Maybe goat cheese.

Looking into it some more, I discovered Andy and Julia at Eating Austin who are also challenging themselves to eat locally-grown foods. Jumping from one of their links I came to the Edible Austin resouce page, which lists all sorts of locally available foods and where to get them, including a list of farmers markets and CSAs. (I was a bit surprised to find apples on the list. Apples in central Texas. Who is growing those?)

I also came across Local Harvest, a site which helps you find growers by ZIP code.. There’s a lot more growing on in my area than I’d have guessed.

I’ve been meaning to check out Boggy Creek Farm for a long time. It’s quite famous in Austin. But, oooh look! What about Angel Valley Organic Farm. Or Johnson’s Backyard Garden. Or Green Gate Farms. Here’s a cool place I’ve never heard of Barnison Farm. They sell through the Austin Farmers’ Market. We sometimes shop at the Austin Farmers’ Market because it’s just a stroll across the river. It’s a growers-only market which includes supplies within 150 mile radius of Austin.

After browsing 10 pages of local growers, I’ve discovered that there is a lot more food available in and around Austin than I ever dreamed. I just need to follow Angelina’s example and think a little more about what I eat and where it comes from and try to make better and more informed choices. I do it with other things (like conserving and recycling). But despite years of following the organic movement, I discover that I am horribly complaisant about my food supply. Angelina, thanks for setting an example, for nudging me out daily habit and piquing my curiousity. Curiousity is always a good first step.

by M Sinclair Stevens

12 Responses to post “Blog Action Day: The Environment”

  1. From Annie in Austin:

    Hello MSS,

    My Texas Almanac says apples can be grown in Gillespie County, so perhaps they get more chill-hours than we do. I guess it depends on what you call local – even Boggy Creek Farms can only produce some of their vegetables at the Austin farm. They also have fields in Milam County to the east, and had some crop failures this year.

    Earlier this year I’d read other articles where some Austin person sets out to eat only locally produced food. After investigating the ingredients, the writers decided to count certain restaurant meals as local, and dinner for two might cost what a normal family spends on food for 4 days. It was interesting but not relevant for my life!

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

    I think food is one of my big indulgences. (It’s certainly not jewels, fast cars, or big houses.) I’m prepared to change a lot about my life to be more earth-friendly but I’m not yet ready to give up my international foods. However, I am willing to try to find local sources for more ordinary staple foods. And I have never been a big consumer of soft drinks or many processed foods (like Twinkies, chips and the like). I think the important thing is to make conscious and educated decisions. But that could just be my love of rationalizing every decision speaking. — mss

  2. From kate:

    I think your point about being confronted with disposing of our garbage would make us all change our behaviour. We are so used to multiple layers of packaging and think nothing of it, especially if it is going in the recycling bin. When I begin to think about the package itself, where it was produced and how far it has travelled to entice me, it is rather scary.

    Good point about how we have become consumers. We get used to having an enormous variety of out-of-season veggies and fruits and somehow never really think about how they have travelled halfway across the world.

    Growing our own foodstuffs and buying locally requires energy and time and a commitment that is well worth it if we can reduce our impact on our environments.

    This was a thoughtful post. Thank you!

    Thank you for your encouraging comment, Kate. I don’t know how much I will change my own food buying habits but I wish I could grow more of my own food. It seems a shame to put in so much time gardening and not be able to put more food on the table. I don’t even have the excuse of deer or rabbits or moles. Hmmm. Maybe I could put raised beds in what’s now the “meadow”. — mss

  3. From Layanee:

    We do have quite a bit of garbage don’t we! Local is better. One local meal per week is a good goal which I may try!

    One meal, or even one item for a meal is a start. Just taking a moment to wonder where your food comes from and asking whether there is an alternative choice is a start. One of the mainstays of my diet is Horizon Organic Milk. Although it has to come all the way to Texas from Colorado, I make the conscious choice to drink it because it numbers among it suppliers more than 580 family farms. In other words it provides a commercially viable outlet for small farmers who might not be able to survive on their own. So, although it’s not a local choice, it’s a conscious choice. And I also think it’s the best tasting milk I’ve ever tasted–well, in the USA anyway. I’ve had milk in Canada and England which was much, much nicer than any American milk. — mss

  4. From Angelina:

    I’m so glad that I’ve inspired you. My friends and family keep trying to talk me out of certain restrictions and I keep explaining to them that the point of this challenge is to learn and to think about where my food comes from. I’m not suffering in any real way and I am enjoying rooting out all kinds of information I didn’t know before.

    I think we all underestimate what a huge difference it would make if we just stopped buying produce from other countries. Also, local can be defined more broadly than 100 miles and still make a huge impact.

    I myself need to pay a little more attention to my recycling and ways that I can reduce my waste. I am working really hard on bringing my own grocery bags everywhere. Once I really get into the habit with that I can do some other things as well.

    If, in chronicling your efforts, you inspire one person (me) and I in turn inspire one person, then the ripple effect will touch more and more people. So in addition to your actual personal efforts, the IDEA begins to have a larger impact. As for the bags, in England so many people use canvas sacks for their groceries. Wait a sec. Let me go find a photo. And have you heard of morsbags? — mss

  5. From Annie in Austin:

    M, in today’s Austin American Statesman there’s an interesting story about St Ed’s food service offering local food.


    Thanks for the tip, Annie. Three cheers for my alma mater. — mss

  6. From Dawn:

    Very cool. Sorry I missed Blog Action Day. You’re so right about the landfills, etc. Being aware is half the battle.

    I sometimes wonder how many beds, couches, appliances one family sends to the dump in its lifetime. I always try to pass on anything that is in any way usable to Goodwill. I’m so glad we have computer/electronic recycling in Austin. In my neighborhood, putting something on the curb with a “free” sign is a quick way to find someone who wants to reuse it. — mss

  7. From Julie:

    Two incidents where I realized I was being addressed as a consumer not a citizen (or even a person):

    1. When John Y. Brown campaigned for Governor of Kentucky by a) marrying Miss America Phyllis George and
    b) promising to “run Kentucky like a business”
    I remember thinking, “But government is NOT a business. What in the hell is he talking about?” Brown won the election.

    2. When I watched Kasdan’s movie “The Big Chill” — As the old friends arrive in town for their buddy’s funeral, the filmmaker “introduces” each of them by showing us what objects they unpack from their suitcases. I remember thinking: “How superficial and sick — to identify people by the products they use, the kind of hairdryer they prefer!” Of course, most of us invite that kind of identification today.

    I thought your post was wonderful. I also found it startling that while you note our change from citizens to consumers, the post deals with changes of consumption implying that’s reformed citizenship. You’re not alone in this. Thoughtful consumption seems to be the contemporary version of ethics.

    While I might resent being defined as a consumer, the word might rub me the wrong way, I must face the fact that I am indeed one. What do I produce? Nothing. Nothing but waste materials. What do I create? Nothing. What do I contribute? Nothing. It seems that the only thing that I can control is the amount of consumption. I can consume less, waste less, leave less of a mess behind. — mss

  8. From Yolanda Elizabet:

    Food for thought (or the other way round) this post of yours. I buy a bag of locally produced veggies (organically grown only) during winter and early spring. And it’s seasonal veggies too! I like to use seasonal veggies and fruit whenever I can as it’s also less of a strain on the environment and I like to see the passing of the seasons on my plate too.

  9. From Barbara in Austin:

    Thanks for the post. Your message is timely, as I have thought recently quite a bit about the waste I create in my work and home. I too buy most of my clothes, shoes, books and recorded materials second-hand. I find good items being thrown away all the time. I will stop and fill up my car and take the items to thrift stores or shelters for someone to use.

    I haven’t taken the 100-mile challenge up yet, but it sounds like a good idea. There are peach orchards and apple orchards and farms. I am blessed to live in a city that has

    Also, there is a small family business here in Austin that designs and teaches how to make your urban lawn produce organic edibles. The company is Home Harvest Organics and the web site is

    I came across them last year. The owner demonstrated how to make a compost pile at last year’s Violet Crown Festival.

    Thanks for the link. Sounds interesting. — mss

  10. From CarolJ in Dripping Springs, TX:

    Nice post. I applaud your insights into your/our behaviors and how they impact our well-being, our community, and our environment. I know it is a challenge to change our habitual consumptive behaviors, but I adamantly believe that each and every small step that each of us takes makes a difference. Please don’t give up on this.

    My husband and I are thinking seriously about turning our organic nursery and sustainable landscape business into a community farm (organic, of course). We already grow much of our own food year round (yes, we do grow apples – and peaches, plums, apricots and figs), and we plan to start raising chickens for eggs (we gave up eating meat 3 yrs ago – a big sacrifice for me because I love beef).

    Our biggest challenge is figuring out a business model that will allow us to make this transition. It’s hard to know what the demand for locally grown organic produce is, and how much folks can afford to pay for it. We don’t want to ‘make money’ on our business, we just want to be able to pay the bills and sustain the business. I know if we keep working at it we will figure it out.

    If convenience is important to you, you might want to check into Greenling Organic Delivery (http://www.greenling.com/). I have heard good things about the products they offer and their service. Not sure how cost competitive they are.

    Take care.

    I, too, am a great proponent of “kaizen”, or incremental and continuous improvement in small steps. I have heard of Greenling Organic Delivery (interesting initialization)–most recently because they had an advert in AJM’s last triathlon packet. Are there special varieties of apples that you grow in Dripping Springs; of course, it always gets colder in the Hill Country than it does in downtown Austin. — mss

  11. From CarolJ in Dripping Springs, TX:

    mss – We are growing Gala and Ana apples. Our trees are only three years old, so our production has been pretty small so far, but I am optimistic that we will have a better harvest next year when the trees are more mature. These were the varieties that the Natural Gardener recommended to us, and they have done much better than the previous varieties that we have tried. Our land is in a valley so our nights are quite a bit colder than they are on higher ground (we are more close to Bergstrom temps than Mabry). Luckily we are on the south side of the valley so we warm up fairly quickly in the morning if the sun is shining.

  12. From Rosina in Far South Austin, TX:

    Dear M. Sinclair Stevens,

    Thank you for inciting such insightful dialogue! This is what CITIZENS do. Also what makes a citizen is participating in dialogue by voting, writing opinion to congressional representatives, newspapers, and talking with fellow citizens.

    Yes, sadly, we are consumers and wasters. As much as I would like to give myself a gold star for using less than a third of my little green municipal-issue garbage can per week, and teaching lots of people organic gardening methods vs. chemical, I am still a monkey on this planet, driving my car and (as little as possible) buying things from China. A long, but eye-opening essay on the human condition which CHANGED MY THINKING recently is at
    It talks about the “us vs. them” mentality, and how, just when we think we are holier than thou, something (should) come along to remind us that we’re not. I need to read it every day.
    (For those who have sensitive ears to profanity, it is somewhere between a PG-13 and R rating.)

    I applaud the 100-mile eating goal. You must pick up the latest book by Barbara Kingsolver, “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.” I am surprised it hasn’t been mentioned herein yet. (It is still in hardcover). It is all about her family’s goal to do just that for a whole year! It is awesome!

    Thank you again for such a lovely dialogue. FYI: There was a link to this blog from the Yahoo Group: austexgardeners – that’s how I found you. Peace and love to all.

    And thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment, especially such a thoughtful one. I’m a big fan of The Natural Gardener; I was out there just yesterday. I believe that it is the responsiblity of each of us to do the best we can; if we focus on our own efforts then we will be too busy to bother with our neighbors’ perceived shortcomings. I have heard of the Kingsolver book but I have not read it yet. It’s on my list. She had to move away from Arizona, though, to manage the challenge, didn’t she? Thanks for the link, I’ll check it out. — mss