Sunday, December 26, 2010

It's All Local - China Food to Fuel

It was harvest time in the parts of China that I visited in September for work. At one of the many-course dinners that we attended in our honor during the trip, I asked our dinner host in Bayannur whether the dishes were prepared with locally grown food. "Everything is local," he replied with a smile. It is hard to imagine how much food it takes to feed more than 1.3 billion people - on top of that, much of it is done by local production.

The popularity of local grown food has grown in the past few years, and has particularly gotten added attention by the U.S. Department of Agriculture through a program called Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food. I was working on a local
food project before switching over to my present biofuel assignment, and had put together a team to estimate the capacity of the eastern seaboard region to provide food for the population along the urban corridor from northern Virginia to Portland, Maine. As it is now, a majority of the fruits and vegetables consumed in the East are shipped in from other region of the U.S. - or from other countries. As for China, they are already doing local foods by necessity - in rural regions, as well as within urban areas. A question for the Chinese now is how to produce biofuels on top of the land that is needed for food - to do food and fuel together. It is a similar question for us here in the U.S. There was a lot of controversy around whether the development of biofuels had caused the spike in food prices from 2007 to 2008. A recent report supported by the World Bank has provided good perspective on the issue of food versus fuel, and is worth the time to read (click here).
Here are some of the observations - mostly about food - that I made while driving between Baotou and Bayannur on a Saturday, and between Beijing and the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall.

Along the highway between Baotou and Bayannur,
Miles and miles of sunflowers tended by farmers,
Small fields with plants of varied color,
All of whom live within a bicycle ride's distance of their fields.
Sunflower heads full of seeds lay on the ground,
Being turned with rakes by hand to dry, 
Seeds threshed in small stationary combines.
Seeds for oil, seeds to eat, seeds to plant another year.

Sitting in chairs near the road,
What do they talk about as we pass by?
It's hard to see old people around this country,
Young people every where,
Where are the old people?

Piles of yellow-skinned melons,
Gathered in neat rows as long as the fields.
Why do they lay and wait there like that, still ripening?
Trailers full of red tomatoes,
Being towed down country roads,
That stretch out to the distance.
Do these stay in this town, or go to markets far away?

Not to waste a square inch,
Herbs growing in rows perpendicular
To irrigated rows of sweet sorghum,
Growing tall, standing in still air, waiting,
Soon to be turned into biofuels.
A new modern biorefinery,
Being built in an industrial park,
Where none existed 18 months before.
China speed we are told.

From the ancient local fields,
Near the new crop sweet sorghum,
Those sweet melons now lay sliced,
Proudly displayed on tables,
A treat for the long-traveled guests from 12 time zones away
Half way around the world,
Graciously served by the hosts - 
Gratefully accepted by the visitors.

Along the road leading from the rings of freeway belts,
Away from Beijing to the Wall,
Soft corn husks in piles near cleaned hard yellow corn kernels,
Recently separated from one another.
Only the day before and an hour's jet plane ride away,
Sunflowers growing, and drying on roadsides where corn seed now lies.

Leafy greens growing on terraces beneath our feet,
As we rise sitting in our chair lift seats,
The serpent shaped ancient Wall stands above,
A message in painted white faded stones across a distant hill,
Showing the signs of slow disrepair,
Honoring the late great Chairman,
Long gone, now an ancient himself,
But unlike the Wall - a memory.

Tables of fresh and dried fruits and nuts
On tables that stretch down the walk,
Below the many flea market vendors' stalls,
Prices called out - inflated ten-fold to start with,
Note pads in hand, ready to negotiate a deal,
Like Monty Hall, but all the doors are open,
Calling out: Two tee-shirts - one Yaun.
Bate-and-switch, or loss leader?

Field after field of fruit trees pass by,
Riding in the cab back to Beijing from the countryside,
Families picnicing along a river,
More solitude together with others here,
Than together in the city there.
The walls of small towns pass by,
Old houses and shops next to one another rush by,
The taxi drives mostly to the right,
But sometimes weaves to the left
Horn ready to be honked
At any every danger - real or not.

Ancient worn mountains in the distance,
Eons of rain drops have fallen,
Countless feet have stepped on,
Many fields tilled, planted, and harvested from these terraces.
Heavy loads carried,
Every square inch used,
Every square inch useful.
Mountains, worn ancient mountains.
Beijing, old city - worn new city.
Gongjian Hutong, another ancient - more than 700 years,
Chickens in coups on roof tops,
Carpenters working a log,
Narrow streets.
A public street, but also a front yard, a backyard, a porch.
A small market just around the corner,
Chinese kabobs in boiling broth just down the lane.
The street flows out of the hutong.

Near the boulevard with more walls surrounding,
Places where other ancients lived - history now.
Restaurants mixed with other store fronts
Pass by our left as we walk - tired, a long hot day.
People walking, talking, biking, waiting,
Riding in cars and cabs and buses.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Cooperation - No Idea When I Was A Kid

Change happens.

I had no idea when I was a kid that things would be different when I grew up. Our farm was about seven miles north of the Visalia city limits. I remember once when riding in our car with my mom and asking, "Would the town ever reach our farm?" Mom laughed and said, "No." It is interesting how the city limits now reach the levee banks of the Saint John's River - well on the way in the direction of the farm.

My folks now live in a development north of the old city limits - they sold out all of their land, the home I was raised in, and their farm equipment. I think the population of Visalia back when I was a kid was around 30,000 people, and as I remember, the cost of gasoline was around 33 cents a gallon - that was the price on the gas pump at the station where we filled up. Gas is over $3.00 a gallon right now, and the town's population is more than 125,000 - it was only 40,000 when I left in 1975.

As far back as I can remember, we grew a lot of cotton on the farm - Acala, a long staple variety of Upland cotton.  As of the late 1950's, we used weeder geese to control nutsedge and grassy weeds, but new herbicides came along that easily controlled some - Treflan, and hard-to-contol Johnsongrass - Ansar. The sounds and sights of crop dusters and the smell of defoliants at the end of the season were familiar every year. There were other names common to cotton: Calcot, Cotton Incorporated, California Cotton Planting Seed Distributors (CPCSD) , and Ranchers Cotton Oil.

Another tradition was the annual members dinner for the Visalia Cooperative Cotton Gin - the place where our trailer stuffed with our harvest would go to have the lint separated from the seeds. The dinner was held at the Dinuba Memorial Building  - the Veterans building in a town about 13 miles north of our farm. Other than having to sit through talks from the stage, a memory from each meeting was the match books that had a curious cartoon inside showing two mules that learned a lesson together about what cooperation can accomplish. I had no idea back then that the purpose for cooperatives was an expression of the cartoon series inside of the match book.

Jump ahead 56 years, and there was an article in the USDA Rural Development cooperative magazine titled, When a Coop Dies. My mom told me about the feature story, about the Visalia Coop closing down because the acres of cotton once familiar to the east side of the San Joaquin Valley had been replaced by grapes, oranges, almond, and dairies - times had changed, agricultural geography had changed.

My dad was invited to cast an honorary vote on Sept. 11, 2006 with the board of directors to close out the coop. Even though the economics of the cotton industry and agricultural economy had changed, what hadn't changed is the need for cooperation - even when closing out a cooperative that had run its time of usefulness.

Six Indicators of an Oregon Grocery

If you follow this blog and my Facebook postings, you should have noticed by now that I like to check out different farmers' markets, grocery stores, and restaurants whenever I travel. Two days ago we were shopping for the meals that will be prepared on Christmas Day and the day-after-Christmas that will be our "Christmas" with the entire family - the day that we can get everyone together after the married kids make their different family rounds with their in-laws. When going through Ray's Food Place market in Albany, Oregon, I smiled as we walked the aisles and saw various labels of local brands that are common here, and either rare or unknown in Maryland, as well as a few of other indicators. Following is the list of products common to an Oregon market.

a. A display of a diverse variety of tortillas. I am sure there are specialty markets in the Washington, D.C. metro area that cater to Mexican shoppers, but none that I have seen around the Annapolis area. This tortilla display stood out. We had just eaten lunch at Mexico Lindo restaurant in the same shopping center right before coming to the grocery, and the food was the best I had eaten since the last time I was in Oregon - the taste of West Coast Mexican food cannot be beaten, compared to the restaurants we frequent back home in Maryland. Oregon this part of the U.S., there is a growing influence by the Hispanic population - including cuisine second to none.

b. Oregon Duck football team featured on magazine covers. The Ducks are playing for the BCS National Championship Game on January 10th - being just 45 miles north of Autzen Stadium, it is no wonder that multiple sports magazines displayed on the rack show the Duck team in a prominent place at eye level that helped these copies stand out among the rest of the periodicals. By the way the Ducks will be wearing their new designer uniforms at the BCS Bowl - even though I am a Beaver fan, it is great to see an Oregon team get so much attention.

c. Umpqua and Darigold dairy products. Not that milk, cheese, and yogurts stand out among the pack, but these names are Pacific Northwest familiars. The dairies in Oregon are more picturesque than those in the San Joaquin Valley in California - much more like the ones shown in the happy cows commercials that are paid for by the California Milk Advisory Board.

d. A prominent Rogue Brewery's Dead Guy Ale display. This beer is available on the East Coast - at a price far greater than sold in Oregon. Dead Guy is a true northwestern microbrew, made with "free range" coastal water. My youngest son reports that it is also available at Miller's Ale House on tap in Pensacola, Florida - it must be a Navy favorite there. A list of hops varieties can be found clicking here.

e. Almost countless varieties of cheeses from the Tillamook County Creamery Association outside Tillamook, Oregon. Smoked cheddar, pepperjack, colby jack, swiss, mild cheddar, sharp cheddar, grated cheddar..... all from the Tillamook Valley on the northern coast of Oregon, Tillamook cheeses are well known and well represented in Oregon grocery circles. When my father-in-law would drive to Oregon to visit, he would stop by the factory to buy fresh cheese curds to snack on while he enjoyed the coastal views. For a list of all the different kinds of cheeses and their descriptions, click here.

f. An entire full aisle spilling over and out the end with Oregon labels and many other wines. In Maryland, if you want to buy beer or wine, you have to go to a liquor store - not in Oregon. I remember when we moved to Oregon the first time for graduate school in 1978, that if you wanted to buy beer, you had to go to state owned liquor stores. I think some time between 1981 and 1988 that law changed - grocery stores had selection available by the time we moved back for our second tour in Corvallis.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Christmas Morning - On Steroids

Yesterday, we heard our son had passed his last of six examinations for Aviation Preflight Indoctrination - API. That meant that today he was issued all of his flight gear. Along with one of the photos he took with his iPhone in the mirror was the comment: "Leathers is a nice touch, too. Gear issue day is like Christmas morning on steroids." After the upcoming real Christmas leave, it will be two more weeks in Pensacola, and then a move to Corpus Christi, Texas for Primary School. Likely the training platform will be the Beechcraft T-34C Turbo Mentor. I have only been in a Cessna 150 for about 10 hours of flight school back in high school, and that general aviation machines like that didn't hold a candle to the T-34 - at least that is what my son has said. From what I have been told, once your fly in this, submarines don't hold a candle to the T-34.

During his Plebe year at the Naval Academy, we would visit our son on Sundays and bring along a picnic basket with hot dishes - roast beef, vegetables, mashed potatoes - comfort food. We would pick him up at Brancroft Hall and then go over to the Drydock Restaurant in Dahlgren Hall to the downstairs cafeteria. Our favorite booth was in the far corner of the eating area. On the walls and handing from the ceiling are all kinds of Navy memorabilia - even the dividing headboards around the booths had photographs of Naval personnel from the past. The "theme" of our both was formal naval aviator and president George HW Bush, a very young Lieutenant Junior Grade who was once shot down while in combat. When I first looked at photographs of the T-34, it reminded me of Naval aircraft from World War II, such as the Avenger bomber that President Bush once flew (click here).

With our son soon-to-be-moving to Corpus Christi, we are glad that we at least we got to see Pensacola and the Naval Air Station at Thanksgiving time. Primary School will be six or seven months. I am sure we will be making a trip down there after things get settled. It will be fun to hear more stories once he gets off the ground and into the air. It will be interesting to see where he ends up landing - fixed wings, helicopters, and the coveted F-18. With the F-18, should he be fortunate, it will mean landing on carrier decks - not at least understanding the physics of yaw, pitch, and roll are in place.
Specifications for the Beechcraft T-34C Turbo Mentor (* data not verified):

Engine: PT6A-25 Turboprop
Empty Weight: 2210 lbs*
Max Horsepower: 425 hp
Max. Speed: 322 mph
Normal Cruise Speed: 246 mph
Range: 500 miles*

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A Bit of Mixed Emotions

A brief summary of the 111th annual Army Navy Football game:

Ricky Dobbs threw the longest touchdown pass in the 111-year history of the Army-Navy game, Wyatt Middleton had the longest fumble return in Navy history, and the Midshipmen (9-3) extended their winning streak against the Black Knights (6-6) to nine straight with a 31-17 victory Saturday in Philadelphia. Associated Press, December 10, 2010.

Six or seven years back on a Saturday morning, we talked briefly on the phone cross country from Oregon with our son in the Army in northern Virginia and asked, "What are you doing this morning?" "Polishing my boots," he replied. That wasn't out of the ordinary, at the time he was training to be a sentinel at the Tomb of the Unknowns. "I am going to the Army Navy football game today." We thought that was pretty good deal, and felt bad when Army was beaten later on. That our youngest son would be at the Naval Academy a few years later wasn't in any stretch of our imaginations - not on our radar back then. Army was the team to rout for.

But times changed. Our youngest decided he wanted to go to the Naval Academy and was admitted - we switched alliances and bought Navy Football season tickets the four years while he was there. We passed on our option this year, but I caught several of the game on television, and watched the entire event yesterday. It was fun to see the Midshipmen win their ninth game in a row against Army, especially after loosing earlier in the season to Air Force, and giving up the Commander-and-Chief's trophy. But once Navy locked up the game towards the end, and seeing the different Division patches on the Army uniforms, I couldn't help but feel some sadness for the Cadets and the soldiers at the game and those elsewhere routing for them, especially when I caught a glimpse of the 101st Airborne patch. It has been a tough year for the 101st in Afghanistan.

Some friends of ours' son is deployed now - last time in Iraq, this time Afghanistan. No doubt about routing for Army there, regardless of football game outcomes. Go Army!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Two New Movies In Next Two Weeks

The Christmas movie season has arrived, and there are two films on my list - and won't need to check the list it twice. The first is the third installment of the C.S. Lewis Chronicles of Narnia series - Voyage of the Dawn Treader. I wrote about this some time back, it is my favorite from the BBC production that appeared on PBS over 20 years ago - even though Prince Caspian and Dawn Treader were bundled together into three one-hour segments. The new preview trailer looks great. The movie opens next weekend, Friday December 10. By the way, I recently read a good interview with Douglas Gresham, Lewis' stepson who was executive producer of the film.

My second season pick is the sequel to the original computer graphic science fiction film - Tron - and opens a week later. It is released by Disney - Disney dropped the Voyage of the Dawn Treader film after
Prince Caspian made half the revenue of the first Narnia production - The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I hope both films do well, but wish the better revenue return for Dawn Treader. I am curious what the Tron sound track will be like - like the computer-generated graphics in the original film are greatly surpassed by today's technology, I wonder how the use of the original Wendy Carlos Moog Synthesizer scores that were innovative at that time will work in the new film now - with Daft Punk as the musicians. Also, will an anthem by the group Journey wrap up the end of the film as well? Tron opens December 17.

The past year has been a bit of a crunch, so I am looking forward to some pure fantasy at the theater, to go along with my anticipated winter diet of Poirot classics. Yes, I know what I want to see this Christmas, and don't need to check my list twice.