Monday, July 28, 2014

My Munchable Soapbox: A Balancing Act

You know when you were a kid, trying to walk a line with a book placed on the top of your head? Your mother or teacher always told you that it helps to develop good posture and cultivates a straight spine. In this land of carrying any and every thing on your head, people do stand up very straight and tall. Young ladies, old ladies, tall men, short men, boys, girls; they all transport items casually resting on their crowns. While I have to say that it is quite a bit easier for the shoulders or back to use the head, it is hard not to be impressed by some of the items in transit (not to mention the people carrying them). A bowl full of cassava is very heavy. Logs are long and unwieldy. Palm wine runs the risking of tipping and showering sticky sweet beverage all over the unhappy porter.

This balancing act that almost the entire population of Ghana seems to be performing, also is a pretty apt metaphor for the lives these same people lead. I’m primarily chatting with cocoa farmers day in and day out, but their daily decisions reach far beyond the commodity. When farming, it is like you are confronting a scale, weighing the costs and benefits of each practice, each expenditure. Though most people don’t really go through an economic (monetarily, but also opportunity costs) analysis every time they decide to do something, there is some element of a balance sheet when choosing whether adding fertilizer is worth the high price if cocoa yield is uncertain. Or, spraying pesticide when last year there was no serious infestation. Put time in and labour into weeding, or spend some money and apply chemicals.

The field is just the start. I think particularly because of the nature of cocoa farming – where there is one major harvest, and then another one or two smaller ones – the prevalence of also balancing multiple modes of employment seems high. A guy might farm, but perhaps Wednesday he acts as a driver. A woman may own or help on a cocoa farm, but the cassava, maize, plantain, and cocoyam she grows feeds the family, or the gari she sells helps pay for school fees. Perhaps it’s my naiveté, but farming seems to necessitate flexibility to change, according to the environment and weather yes, but also to shifting politics and economic circumstances.

A balancing act it is, but that makes up only a small piece. Juggling (with cocoa pods?) may be the more appropriate comparison!

As a bonus to my rant, it’s been a while since you’ve gleaned any recipes from my musings. So today you get some eggplant stew. These minute garden eggs (or nyaaduwa in Twi) are sold everywhere and make a really nice base for a stew.
No-Name Stew
1-2 tbs oil
½ onion, minced
1 cup tomatoes, chopped and seeded
2 cups eggplant, diced and salted
1 cup hardy green (like collards or spring), shredded
1 tbs tomato paste + 3 tbs water
¼ cup light coconut milk (I had to grind up fresh coconut!!)
1 tsp cayenne pepper, ground (or more to taste)
1 tsp curry spice of choice (or more to taste)
Salt to taste

1.     Heat oil in a medium pot over medium-high heat. Sautee onions until starting to brown. Add tomatoes and cover the pot. Allow to stew on medium heat for about 7-10 minutes, until tomatoes are really starting to break down.
2.     Add the eggplant, after draining and rinsing. Stir and cover again, cooking for another 10 minutes or so. Mix in the coconut milk, tomato paste water, and curry spice, and then cover the pot for another 5 minutes.
3.     Maybe pour in some more water if it’s not stew-y enough, and then place the greens in the pot. Cover and let simmer another 5-10 minutes. Stir so that greens get incorporated and distributed, then lower heat and let stew another 5-10 minutes.
4.     When you think it’s about ready, serve over rice (or something of that sort). Lentils would also be a nice addition, but could not get my hands on any here.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

My Munchable Soapbox: Unfair Trade

It’s interesting how one can write on a topic for a good number of years – relying on reports and media – and have based so many actions and critiques on second or third hand information. And yet, when actually confronted with the reality of something, it is evident how simplified and dumbed-down it may become. Fair trade seems to fit this bill – attempting to distill very complex socio-economic (and to some extent ecological) commodity systems down to a mere label

As many of you know, I am in Ghana this summer chatting with cocoa farmers. As the third (almost second) largest producer of cocoa, Ghana provides an interesting study in where this ideal system of “fairness” breaks down. There are a number of companies, as you would imagine, operating in the country, including Akuapa Cooperative – the exclusive supplier of cocoa to the Fair Trade chocolate manufacturer, Divine. While it does provide community development project support for things like schools, it is hard to track down direct benefits to the thousands of cooperative “members”. In fact, few of the farmers with whom we spoke even seemed to realize that it is a cooperative, nor had any clue about types of certifications. I am sure if I had a conversation with someone at Kuapa Co., a more satisfactory answered could be supplied, but from this point, it smells a bit fishy that there is such little awareness of what the cooperative claims to do.

The other issue that makes something like Fair Trade in the country perhaps a bit misleading is the fact that Ghana’s Cocoa Board places a fixed price on cocoa. This can be very useful in relieving uncertainty and avoiding massive fluctuations in price that cocoa farmers in other parts of the world experience. On the other hand, it is hard to financially reward farmers for good management or producing high quality beans. One of the purchasing clerks (the individual who weigh the beans and send to the company’s depot) was showing us the difference in beans that are properly dried and those that not. Despite the higher price it likely fetches at some point along the value chain, the farmer sees none of that, no positive reinforcement for proper management and processing. What frustrates me is that someone gets rich; and that is someone other than the farmer.

It is sad, because so little thought goes into this dilemma on the consumer end. You can easily hand over a dollar for a large Hershey’s bar, or a Cadbury bar in the UK, without a care about those that ultimately lose out, those who actually produce the raw material and yet never see the finished product. I’m not quite sure what the answer is, though I think after this summer, it will be hard to stomach any more big brand cheap chocolate. Trusting a single label is an error, but it is possible to track down companies who practice more direct trade and try conducting some or all processing at the origin. The costs are higher, but when you think about what goes into a single bar of chocolate, anything else seems like highway robbery!

Read more about Fair Trade and Kuapo Kokoo.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A Birthday Musing

I gave pounding fufu a shot...needs practice
Dearest reader, my deepest apologies for the long radio silence; the internet and long days have not been in my favour. But since today is my birthday, the least I could do is provide some reflections. A birthday is often an ideal opportunity to consider how each experience, and their sum total, has made us who we are. While it is a little terrifying to think about how quickly those 28 years have passed, I am grateful to be at this point. It has been ten years since completing high school, incredibly five since leaving California, and nearly a year since abandoning the United States. In the decade since leaving my parents’ house as 18 year-old, I have met and befriended amazing individuals from around the world. In my humble opinion, it is those exchanges, the new perspectives and cultures, that make all the difference in defining an individual. Considering a birthday seven years ago, also in an African country – Madagascar – I remember a nervous and very cautious university student. This summer in Ghana has already been far different; by the very nature of the research, it is more important to be open and flexible, getting to know people, rather than surveying the relatively straightforward forest flora. And in all honesty, not to sound trite, but that builds far more character!
One big challenge, and what you probably really care about, is actually the food. Vegans (and vegetarians, for that matter) beware: Ghana is a country of meat-eaters. The base of every stew, every soup is meat or fish. That said, there are ways to eat delicious vegetarian fare with roots in the traditional dishes. The basis of many meals is fufu, banku, or boiled plantain, yam, or cassava. So while the soups and stews that are served with these starchy staples by default contains meat, a nice okra or eggplant stew can substitute. Watkye is one example – a rice and bean dish. Other commonly eaten foods are fried plantain (with beans is RedRed), contumere (cocoyam leaf) stewed, and peppery stew. Food is a focal point, a topic that usually surfaces in conversation, a show of respect or gratitude. We’ve been fed by people who have welcomed us into their homes. We’ve brought bread to those who have shown us particular good will. Coconuts and oranges seem to materialize out of nowhere. Not to mention that everyday we are talking to farmers!
Since time is short (and now you all know that I am alive and well), I will leave you there. Looking forward to another year of learning, exploring, and muddling through life!

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Frugal Foodie on a British Pound: My Kitchen Cabinet

I'm leaving on a jet plane, and while I do know when I'll be back again, it won't be to the same house or kitchen. Thus, one of the primary goals of the past week or so has been to use what remained of my pantry. As you all know, I do love to bake, and so you can imagine what my shelves held - enter: Rachel's Kitchen Cabinet Cookies.

1/3 cup vegetable or nut oil
1/3 cup olive oil
1/3 cup almond or soy milk
3/4 cup golden granulated sugar
3/4 cup whole meal flour
2 cups mixed oats/meusli
1 tsp sea salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tbs cinnamon
1/2 cup raw sunflower seeds
50g really dark chocolate, chopped
Any other bits and bobs you have on hand (eg pretzel pieces; flaked coconut; dried cherries; banana chips; flax seeds; etc.)

1. Whisk together oils, sugar, and milk until turns viscous. 
2. Fold in flour, salt, baking soda, and cinnamon only just. Then add oats and mix-ins. Should be sticky be hold together.
3. Dollop dough in blobs on lined cookie sheets. Bake for about 15 minutes at 175C (~375F). Remove when still soft and allow to cool completely, unless you're going for that warm and crumbly effect.

So with that out of the way, you may be wondering why I'm abandoning the Mecca of shared houses that is my current residence. It so happens I am en route to Ghana to chat with cocoa farmers and glean some insight into how climate change might impact how they manage their farms. Blog posts may be a bit scarce for the next three months, but I'll try to post updates and photos.

Until then, enjoy the summer and the bounty of veg and fruit of the season!

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

For the Love of Farming

I pondered for a good long while. Though perhaps not Earth-shattering, a 500th post is a pretty big deal in blog land. So I could tackle a critical and salient issue in the area of food security and the environment - there are plenty of those. Or mayhap I provide a deliciously vegan baked good to celebrate? But all of these seemed sort of flat and unispiring, and so I have been dawdling and procrastinating for the past week. And then, as I biked back from a farm outside Oxford, it dawned on me. For all one might love food and the allure of the locavore movement, or feel really passionate about rural development or poverty alleviation, when it comes down to it, what matters is farmers.

Farmers may be the most caring people I've ever encountered. Not to generalize or anything, but every one I've known has been extraordinarily passionate about their trade and compassionate toward other people, critters, and the environment. Now, I readily admit that most farmers with whom I've worked or spoken are Westerners - on both US coasts as well as northern and southern Western Europe (and the developing world context is a bit different, with high proportions of small scale farmers and fewer alternate career tracks). Moreover, they are all relatively small scale, veg and fruit growers, so perhaps a slightly skewed sample. That all said, I have a few thoughts on the field of farming.

1. Non-industrial farmers take this career path for a reason - maybe following a history of family farmers, but increasingly due to a dissatisfaction with the occupations of modern society or a desire to get outside and back to the land (as cliché as that sounds). Of those not born into a farming lineage, I know a former lawyer, a couple of former engineers, and a sociologist! 

2. Farming often gets saddled with polarising stereotypes of tech heavy industrial agribusiness and outdated, medieval cultivation of an illiterate peasant class. In fact, whether an organic berry farm in the northwestern US or a diversified food and commodity crop smallhold in East Africa, farming is a hugely knowledge-intensive pursuit. Succeeding at growing food requires understanding something about the soil structure and fertility, about the rains and the temperatures, about how different types of crops interact with each other and pests or disease, and really about how a field fits into a farm fits into a larger landscape in terms of pollinator habitat or water supplies, etc. A farmer must be an agronomist, an ecologist, an economist, a businessman or woman, and sometimes even a bit of a politician. So, while one of the major hurdles is actually accessing all this wealth of knowledge before applying it, if anyone writes off farming as somehow inferior (especially intelligence-wise) to the doctors and lawyers of the world, I firmly believe they are just plain wrong.

3. Have you ever tried to grow an herb plant or perhaps a little potted tomato? And ever felt that immense satisfaction when you pull off that one tiny ripe fruit, despite its sorry comparison to the plump and perfect supermarket offerings? That pride doesn't seem to go away with full time farming. It's something about ones own energy, sweat, and soul going into the rearing of another organism. Even marking daily growth of squash seedlings among my windowsill plant family stimulates the same rewarding warm feeling. Where else would you hear someone commenting on the aesthetic merits of a cauliflower, or waxing on about the complex distinctions between an Ashmead Kernel and a Golden Russett apple, but a farmer's stall at market? Yes, farming is a livelihood, but it is also a lifestyle and a lifeblood.

4. Finally, and mostly because I want to avoid sounding preachy, I think there is just something about farming that attracts (or produces) cool people. Part of being successful is understanding the system and having some business savvy, but without flexibility, experimentation, and long term visioning, that success won't last. Im small scale farming, there is an element of innovation, adaptation, and improvisation. Of the tensor hundreds of   thousands  of edible plants out there in the world, we eat just a sliver. Where better to try out types of greens, beans, potatoes never found on the standard produce aisle, than on the diversied farm of some enterprising grower? An entire crop of beans wiped out by black fly? Try a different rotation, crop mix, flower variety for beneficial bugs. Due to this mix of factors, requiring creativity,laid-backness, and endurance, there just seems to be a disproportionate number of interesting individuals.

So, I wanted this 500th post to be about something uplifting and inspiring. Farmers fit that bill pretty well. It's not an easy job - being physically demanding, less financially lucrative than an office job, and far more variable and uncertain than most people like. Yet those who take it up also recognize the immense joy that can come with. My rose-coloured glasses may be a bit strong, but I dot think I'm too far off in saying these farmers do what they do for the simple love of farming.