Say what you want about the 100-mile diet, but let's admit it it's a bit of a snow job in wintertime.
Waiting patiently for food treats that stay in season for a month, rediscovering turnips and other root veggies as staples and living through the winter without basic salad greens leave most folks cold.
But it turns out that localistas may have a global cooling way of delivering that all-weather salad after all. Last week Will Allen, the basketball-star-turned-urban-agriculture-visionary who heads Milwaukee's Growing Power, a 2.2-acre community-based greenhouse/compost project, and his daughter Erika Allen, an art-therapist-turned-garden-organizer, beat back the freezing April blues with winter greens.
The two were in T.O. lecturing to food, planning and community agencies at the invitation of the Metcalf Foundation. Allen's new mission is to grow coldly where none have gone before by harvesting winter-weather salads in greenhouses that go "beyond carbon-neutral."
Thanks to the Allens, and four-season pioneers such as Eliot Coleman of Maine and David Cohlmeyer of Cookstown, Ontario, locavores are learning techniques to jump the freezing hurdle. Get ready in the next few years for a wider offering of local cold-hearty arugula, spinach, kale, corn salad (or mache), bok choy and cabbage in snowy February.
Allen came late to the rigours of winter. Son of a South Carolina sharecropper, he was the first African American to break the colour line in Florida college basketball during the 1960s. He went on to play professionally in Europe, where Belgian farmers introduced him to the joys of small farms linked to nearby communities.
Now Growing Power is fast becoming a model of the ways urban ag can link community development, the needs of minority youth and enviro stewardship. (For purposes of full disclosure, Will and I have worked closely together for several years on the board of the Community Food Security Coalition.)
At an April 4 meeting at Ryerson's Oakham House, Allen explains the engine of his project composting leftovers from restaurants and brewers via tiny red wiggly worms. Increasingly, he sees winter as key to the sustainable food enterprise.
Local food, he points out, is grown on or near high-priced city land that shouldn't be left idle for half the year, with no production or cash flow. There must be a steady stream of products and activities, he says, for urban or near-city farms to flourish and eco- greenhouses are the missing pieces.
Most densely populated cities in wintry climes of North America are actually on latitudes closer to southern than northern Europe, so sunlight isn't a huge problem. Winter light can usually heat the daytime greenhouse air to well above freezing, and the earth always acts as a huge storage battery for heat that can help plants through the night.
Fairly simple barriers such as low-cost plastic sheets and low-lying leafy plants can prevent the escape of that heat through the greenhouse roof. This strategy won't work for coconuts, oranges or bananas, but it will for many herbs and veggies.
Whenever possible, Allen works with natural systems to step up the heat. First, he takes full advantage of the natural heat generated by compost as it breaks down.
A 2-foot-thick bed of wood chips and wormy food scraps acts like a 24/7 toaster oven for the roots of winter salads. A pile of compost at the end of each row gives off heat that's trapped at night by a pup tent around the crop that keeps the warmth in. It's not as toasty as a sleeping bag, but it's warm enough.
There's one use of fossil fuel, and that's natural gas to heat the water for the 4,000 tilapia that provide fish manure (if that's what it's called) for the greens, as well as high-value sales to local restaurants. Heat from the fish pools also warms the greenhouse.
It's that fossil fuel and its $35,000-a-year cost that Allen wants to get rid of. And he's just got himself a $400,000 anaerobic digester as a research pilot. The digester crushes food scraps and prevents access to oxygen, which causes rotting matter to give off methane that can be burned as a natural gas equivalent while serving as a biofuel for electricity.
This gassy digestive system will not only provide clean and renewable heat and electricity, but will eliminate the trucking of food waste to landfills, where the rotting organic material gives off methane that's 22 times more potent than carbon dioxide when it comes to global warming gases.
That's a variety of winter green benefits that long-distance imports will find hard to beat.