Friday, December 25, 2009

At the drive-in

The flea market at the drive-in in North Fort Myers is and isn't like a lot of Third World open-air markets I visited in Latin America. It is a lot like them in the random assortment of merchandise on offer, the crowds, the hustling and bustling. There's differences, too: you won't find vendors casually offering handguns and assault rifles in Guadalajara, La Paz or Valparaíso.
Strolling around, looking to meet with a citrus grower I want to do business with, I noticed another difference with the markets I remember from my youth. It's kind of hard to explain, but I saw a lot of tough faces and hard stares there. Market days in Latin America are joyous events, and I don't mean to say that everybody is laughing all the time, but the atmosphere is usually relaxed and laid back. Vendors hawk their wares with musical, outlandish, funny-as-hell claims and rhymes, 'if you like the good stuff come see here, if you don't, don't', 'hurry up and get yours before my wife kills me for selling so cheap', 'ladies, these pumps will make your ass look like Shakira's!'... you get the picture. If you understand the language, you have to smile as you walk by, booth keepers smile right back at you, and when you're interested, you ask, 'how much?' and start haggling right away. You never pay the asked for price, that's rule number one, and you bargain with a smile, trying to outwit the vendor, which is never an easy thing to do.
Anyway, the point is, that is not the vibe I got from this particular market, on the contrary, I saw a lot of anger there. As in, 'why am I reduced to being here trying to sell my collection of NASCAR model cars and the jet-ski I got when I refinanced?'.
In my experience, the markets where poor people congregate are always the best, the most lively and interesting. The poor in Latin America have been poor all their lives, dating back generations. They have learned to make do and get by with very little, and a lot of times they are no less happy about their lot in life than better off people. One of the happiest persons I've ever seen was a toothless old Indian woman in a market in Oaxaca that I bought a bag of roasted, salted chapulines (grasshoppers) from, years ago. I ended up sitting with her all morning, being introduced to all the other vendors, sharing my snack with them and being offered endless cervezas by people many degrees poorer than I was.
In contrast, a lot of the poor at the drive-in fleamarket have only recently become so. A few years ago, work clearing land for new developments or hanging sheet rock was plentiful and well-paid, the value of houses kept creeping up month after month, and opportunities for refinancing one's mortgage and take some cash for new toys were everywhere. A lot of those toys are on sale now, at places like the drive-in, craigslist and e-bay.
This is all very commonplace, and has been said a million times by much better writers and observers of reality. I guess my unique approach to the subject lies in noticing the lack of joie de vivre I saw at this market, compared to the rancheras and jokes and smiles in markets where even poorer people congregate. I guess it will take some time for us here in the U.S. to re-adjust our expectations, realize a lot of our wealth wasn't real but imagined, and discover that you can still live a happy life with a lot less material posessions.
Here's what worries me: I look right, there's a bunch of people with long faces, stressed out about unpaid bills, jobs lost and mounting debt; look left, there's the fellow selling shotguns and pistols. Enough said, right? And I'm a staunch supporter of the Second Amendment, don't take me wrong. But isn't it time someone took a break from receiving peace prizes and playing golf with bankers, and went on national TV to explain that the good times are not coming back, that a new New Deal is in the works to put people back to work building rail lines and solar panels, and that we should tighten our belts and act like adults about it? Instead of propping up the Wall St. greed machine and priming it for the next bubble of imaginary wealth?
I'll just leave here with a very striking image that I think describes the drive-in flea market perfectly, one little vignette that speaks louder than the fruit and gun and golf ball vendors, or the faux cowboy wearing big sideburns and crooning Johnny Cash songs to a karaoke machine, or the preacher hoping to bring some souls to salvation next to a table laden with rusty tools and odd bits and ends for sale: there's this fellow, right. And he's a big fellow, 300+ lbs at least, big frame, long blonde hair and beard, probably in his mid-40's. And he's brought something to market, and is sitting right next to his truck. His truck is a Dodge Ram 3500. 6.7 L Turbo Diesel engine, with a payload of over 5,000 lbs (about 2 and a half tons), and a towing capacity of about 17,000 lbs; let's not even go into the fuel economy of this monster, it's too depressing. But what is this guy selling from the back of his mighty truck? Chinese-made toy cars. He has a few boxes of Chinese battery powered little cars. And he's mad he's not selling any. They go for $4 each, or 3 for $10. He has a few on display on a folding table, and my kid approaches to check them out. 'Don't touch anything, kid', he says, and shoots me an evil look. I grab my kid and give the guy the evil eye, too, before walking away. I don't buy Chinese junk, anyway, on principle. Least of all, from overweight clowns hoping to be yet another middleman profiting from slave labor and lax environmental regulations a world away. You want to bring something to market? Go make something yourself, grow some tomatoes, bozo.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Sustainable Initiatives

Last Dec. 4th, the usual suspects got together to check out what's being done to improve sustainability locally, and listen to some amazing presentations by very smart people, including Dr. Harold Wanless, University of Miami (Sea level Rise, Changes in Florida’s Coasts), Tom Champeau, Regional Director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (Habitat & Species on the Front Line of Climate Change), and Dr. Heike Lueger, Chief Scientist, Carbon Solutions America (The Future of Carbon Trading & its Impact in Florida Economy), among others.
The speaker I was most interested in, though, was Roy Beckford, UF/IFAS Agriculture & Natural Resources Agent, who talked about "The Prospects of Jatropha curcas & Sustainable Biodiesel". Years ago, I was working on some projects around a farm I owned at the time, and needed help and information. I wrote to Roy, and he wrote right back, sending along a ton of useful info that I was able to put in practice immediately. I've been a big fan ever since. And after meeting a number of local farmers and gardeners, it seems to me that each and every one of them has something good to say about this helpful and good-natured guy. Oh, and of course I also appreciate the work of Martha Avila, his sidekick at IFAS, so I wouldn't have missed his presentation for anything.
Mr Beckford has been on the forefront of groundbreaking research on Jatropha curcas as a biodiesel feedstock in Florida and other tropical environments for a number of years now, and his work is starting to gain momentum, as data accumulates, and plots planted with Jatropha that he's started on several fields and farms reach maturity.
In fact, I had just been planting some potted young Jatrophas of his just a few days prior, in one of the plots he's monitoring, to replace ground-planted plants that had died. This particular experiment of his, at Ken Ryan's farm in North Fort Myers, I believe has to do with the hardiness of the crop, as the plants there are pretty much left alone, not fertilized, watered or helped in any way.
Roy's presentation was very interesting, he gave a packed auditorium an outlook of current research and some insights about where we're headed with biodiesels in general and Jatropha in particular. This is a man whose work has to be followed closely, as he truly is on the cutting edge of a hugely important area of research that is bringing him continued and increasing national and international attention. We are fortunate to have him here in SW FL, and I encourage readers to support him and his work. A good place to start your research if you want to find more about him and his current projects is his IFAS page here.
Besides Mr Beckford and the other speakers, a number of local green entrepreneurs were there, including of course yours truly, there to promote edible gardens and the GreenMarket. Talking about the GreenMarket, our Salvadoran fair trade coffee guy (who also has a thousand other projects), Billy Sol, was in charge of caffeine trafficking at the meeting, and the local household products division of WOW Green of Jonathan Nemath was represented as well. Last but not least, Bob with B&B Organics was there, promoting his worm castings 100% organic fertilizer, and learning about other alternative garden products.
Dan Moser, longtime Lee Co. Bike and Pedestrian coordinator and Florida Weekly columnist, among other things, was there, chatting with commissioner Ray Judah about the Complete Streets Resolution and other issues.
I met Faye Najar of Recycled Plastic Factory LLC of Englewood, who is as enthusiastic as I am about the future of this industry - producing 100% recycled plastic lumber. Maintenance free, heavy duty, doesn't rot or splinter, and above all, environmentally friendly and finds a second life for plastic, a material that while undoubtedly useful, has become a huge problem as it doesn't degrade and is choking everything from waterways to landfills to the ocean.
Event sponsors also included Carbon Solutions America, Waste Management, Empower, the Florida Bicycle Association and Charlotte County's Green Building Program. I uploaded some pictures of the meeting here, and would like to thank IFAS Extension for keeping the discussion open, and constantly providing venues and forums to get together and search for better, greener, more sustainable ways to do things here in SW FL.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

An island within an island

Island Botanicals, located near Bokeelia in Pine Island, truly is an island of sustainability, sound agricultural practices and smart, diversified production. Owner Mike Wallace was inspecting some onion starts he was about to put in the ground today as I arrived, and was glad to give me a tour of his 4+ acres, where he grows a dizzingly diverse variety of crops, ornamentals, exotics and natives, fruits and herbs. If you're interested in seeing some pictures of his place, you can find them here.
We actually started inside, as he was cooking some bacon for his dogs - yeah, that's some pampered dogs he has there! I checked out his Pine Island digs while he finished cooking, a typical house on pillars in the island style, beautifully blending with the vegetation all around it, and decorated with much taste inside, in an Oriental style, with many objects brought from Mike and his wife's travels around the world.
As Mike guided me around his property in his usual laid back style, we picked a healthier breakfast for ourselves, a couple of ripe bananas from one of his trees. We discussed the fact that commercially grown bananas are very prone to getting contaminated with pesticides, because of the porous nature of their skins. And what a shame it is that more bananas are not grown in SWFL instead of being imported. Put two green guys together, a rant is sure to follow!
Food production is the main focus of the place, from basic staples -sweet potatoes, beans, tomatoes, peppers, onions- to tropical fruit -mangoes, bananas, papayas, starfruit-, greens -lettuces, bok choi, mustards, chard, arugula and many others-, and herbs -basils, cilantro, kafer lime, used for the fragrant leaves and not for the fruit.
There's also room for ornamentals -palms, bromeliads, orchids- and one of a kind specimens: Madagascar chestnut, Ling Ling, which is the national tree of Thailand, very fragrant, smells a bit like a gardenia, also called golden shower tree for the cascading yellow flowers it produces, different kinds of ginger, passion fruit, bamboos... most of it keeping with the Oriental theme, as you can see!
There's several Moringa trees spread around the property. This is a "miracle" tree that could solve the problem of hunger, especially in Africa. According to, the leaves of the Moringa tree contain 7 times the vitamin C of oranges, 4 times the calcium of milk, 3 times the potassium of bananas, 2 times the protein of yogurt... you get the picture. Mike says they are very easy to grow, literally just put a branch in the ground, and it will start a new tree. He showed me a tree on a corner of his property that he tried to eliminate on several occassions, and it kept coming back. The nuts of the Moringa are also edible, and it has many medicinal properties as well as the nutritional value, according to ancient Vedic and African lore. If you look at the map of world malnutrition, it coincides almost exactly with the tropical range where this incredible tree can be grown. So I think this is one of the examples of areas where our humble local farmers can be on the cutting edge of contributing to the solution of massive problems, Mike experimenting with Moringa trees is one case, just like Ken Ryan of Herban Gardens in N. Ft. Myers trying to grow Jatropha for biodiesel with the help of Roy Beckford of IFAS Extension is another.
As for techniques for growing the more traditional herbs and veggies Michael brings to the Green Market at the Alliance for the Arts every Saturday, he employs organic and pesticide free methods, including crop rotation, fallowing, planting in many small plots where pests can be isolated and controlled without spreading to other areas, Diatomaceous earth — also known as DE, TSS, diatomite, diahydro, kieselguhr— a naturally occurring, soft, chalk-like sedimentary rock that is easily crumbled into a fine white to off-white powder (according to Wiki) for slug control, composting, manures and even hair from local salons as fertilizer, really a wide variety of sustainable methods for growing healthy, delicious food locally.
Island Botanicals is also one of the few local growers that consistently delivers during the summer months, making it a valuable assett for keeping residents supplied with locally grown produce year-round.
Plans for the future include intensifying the production of sprouts with a partner, and introducing escargot (edible) snails to an area of the property.
I have to apologize if I'm missing something here, as Mike's beautiful dog Ramsay took advantage of a moment of distraction while I was checking out the cashew tree and tried to eat my notes (and my clipboard) for lunch! See, the "my dog ate my homework" excuse is true after all, in some cases!
We're very proud to have Island Botanicals at the Green Market, Mike always brings interesting stuff and is very knowledgeable, customers love him, he's a one-of-a-kind fellow, and I was very impressed at his wonderful groves, grounds and gardens.
After visiting him, I still had time to stop at Andy's Island Seafood for a locally caught lunch, and at Billy Sol's place to check out his experiments in vermiculture (worm produced fertilizer), edible flowers, and the production of Neem. But those stories will have to wait, as they both warrant blog posts and photo galleries of their own.