Thursday, November 4, 2010

Planning for Retirement

Nassim Taleb told Business Week this year that "Citizens should not depend on financial assets as a repository of value . . . ."  Translated into plain English, he means sell your bonds, sell your mutual funds, sell your stocks. Don't count on Social Security.  Don't rely on anything that you think of as money.  Place your reliance on income producing hard assets.  If the government inflates away its problems, your hard assets will rise in value and the income that they produce will rise as well.

Well then, what should I do, you ask?  Now we are going to get into my advice, not Nassim's, and he has a lot more economics education, training and historical success than I do.  So be warned.  In my opinion, the safest retirement plan is the one that leaves you independent of the financial system entirely.  Self-sufficiency.  If you, and your close friends, family or community, produce everything you need to survive, no financial crisis can affect you.  Inflation cannot erode away your Social Security or other retirement payments.  You are insulated against financial ruin because you have opted out of finance as your source of security.

Well how can I do that, you might ask?  Here's an idea I have been toying with for around a decade, but have yet to implement, even for myself.  Secure a plot of land, erect a completely energy independent dwelling and grow 100% (or more) of your own food.  It's not as hard, nor as expensive as it sounds.

In my dream I see a community of between 40 and 80 people living in the approximate equivalent of an apartment house on a standard midwestern (United States) farm of 160 acres.  The buildings are designed and constructed to produce rather than consume energy.  The land is put to use growing fruits, nuts and vegetables, pasturing animals such as cattle, sheep, goats and poultry, and growing wood or remaining wild.  Perhaps a pond is created to supply local and fresh fish.  If the residents so desire, they can start a little business marketing their excess production to local consumers.

The residents could radically cut costs and consumption of resources by sharing all sorts of things that we commonly think we need to hold individually now -- we have a tremendous amount of redundancy in our society in everything from TVs to transportation to toilets.  By design, any waste produced on site would be recycled or composted on site to provide support to other operations.  To the largest extent possible, residents would examine their daily consumption and figure out how to produce what they consume.  Residents would provide mutual support as older people are mixed with younger people and knowledge and muscle are exchanged within the community.

How much would all this self-sufficiency cost?  Not much in this model.  The top prices for midwest farmland are no more than $5,000 per acre.  So the total cost for land would be less than $800,000.  Add a very generous building and furnishings cost of $1,000,000 and leave some left over for (initial) livestock and such and this little idyllic community could be founded at a cost of between $60,000 and $30,000 per person.  Which works out to less than $800 per month per person if the money is borrowed.  If the residents were industrious enough, the place would pay for itself.  (The whole operation could be translated in California costs and as usual, the cost of living in California would be about 2-3 times what it is in the midwest.)

So if it's all so simple, why haven't I done it?  I am still waiting to meet the right people -- a home builder, a farmer, a community organizer or planner.  But I am convinced that this model could be the future of retirement, or even lifestyle, for a reasonable proportion of our population and almost everyone who participated would likely be a lot happier than they are as world trade consumers chasing the never ending stream of new and improved products being pumped at us.

If it can't be done, leave me note and let me know why.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Swadeshi vs. Globalization

Gandhi proposed an economics based on proximity and connection against the British who were promoting centralisation and efficiency.  He called the concept Swadeshi.  The heir to the British methods is globalization and the World Trade Organization.  Swadeshi is all about doing business small and local.  The WTO is all about economies of scale, cheap energy and world-wide markets.

Following the principle of swadeshi Gadhi proposed that if we need it, we make it ourselves.  If we can't make it ourselves, we buy it from our neighbors.  If we can't buy it from our neighbors, we search the county for a provider.  If it can't be made in the country, we ask ourselves whether we really need it after all.

"The world has enough to satisfy everyone's needs, but not enough to satisfy one's greed."  That's pretty much how Gandhi summed up his swadeshi economics.

The forces behind globalization, on the other hand, mesmerize us with messages that entrance us into the belief that happiness can only be achieved through endless consumption . . . Consumption that adds to the profits of huge, multinational corporations.  That's probably just a coincidence, however.  Isn't it?

So much of our economy is globalized that adherence to a complete swadeshi is perhaps impossible.  But when it comes to food, we can try at least a modified swadeshi approach, especially those of us who live in Southern California.  We can source our food, almost all of our food, from farms within 200 miles of us.  We can try to buy as much of our food as possible from farmers whose first names we actually know.  And we can try and grow at least a little of our own food in our own neighborhoods.

We can begin, little by little, to break the bonds of globalization and practice the principle of swadeshi.  The world will be a better place for it.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Top Ten Reasons to Grow Your Own

The "grow your own" food movement is gaining momentum across the United States.  And why not?  Your friends are doing it and talking about it.  Should you join in?  Here are my top ten reasons why you should:

10.  It's fun.  As a Costa Rican friend of mine says it's the closest thing to real magic that we know -- throw a few seeds into some scratched ground, apply a little water, hope for abundant sunshine and wait for food to show up as if delivered by elves.

9.  It's easy.  I think whoever started the fiction that gardening is a lot of hard work was someone who likes to brag about how hard he or she works.  It doesn't take much and it takes even less if you follow the two fundamental principles of nature -- plant too much and diversify.  Try everything.  Then see what works best without your work.

8.  It's togetherness.  Everyone can garden, from my 78 year old mother to my not yet 2 year old granddaughter.  And if we all lived in the same state, which unfortunately we don't, we could all do it together.  We could even have contests.  But at least we can talk about our gardens over the phone, and share pictures via facebook.

7.  Dealing with garbage.  People with gardens don't have garbage, they have compost.  Start a garden and never again wonder what to do with your banana peels, Sunday paper or morning coffee grounds.  Virtually anything that isn't plastic or metal can compost reasonably quickly into rich and fertile soil for your garden.  I might be a little cautious about detergents, shampoos and cleaning solutions, but other than that -- fingernail clippings, hair, lint from the dryer, dust swept up off the floor, etc. -- into the compost bin or pile it goes.

6.  Saving energy.  When your food grows right in your own back yard or other nearby plot it somewhat obviously takes less energy to get it to your table than when it grows in New Zealand or Chile or even California, for those of you who don't live here.

5.  Understanding soil.  For the most part in nature, soil happens.  Much of the energy of civilization seems to be directed toward preventing soil from happening.  Learning to build soil from the top down (watch this blog for a future lesson) helps us to understand how death and decay are not the complete and total end of life, but rather just another step in one immense continuous cycle.  Material decays into fertile soil whereupon it supports and gives new life to plants -- which in turn feed animals (including humans).

4.  Taste.  Fresh, homegrown food inevitably tastes better than food from stores or even restaurants.  No amount of preparation can compete with nature's freshness.  To me nothing tastes better than a tomato that doesn't even make it into the house from the garden.  If you think you don't like vegetables, based on buying them from the store, try growing your own.  You will be pleasantly surprised.

3.  Health.  Some people think we have a healthcare crisis in this country but I suspect about 80% of our healthcare issues are food related.  Fresh food not only tastes better, it's better, WAY BETTER, for you.  Grow your own food and reduce your healthcare costs.  Win win.

2.  Save money.  If you're like me, it's unlikely that you will save money in the first couple of years of gardening.  You will be so anxious to start this, try that, install another that you will spend far more on garden tools, decorations and unnecessary seeds than you will ever save on the food you produce.  After a couple of years however, you have your plot set up and you can even save your own seeds if you plant open-pollinated varieties.  This year we produced about $300 worth of tomatoes alone that we consumed ourselves and we had a lot of other crops also.

And now for the #1 reason to grow your own.  Become independent.  Growing your own food is the gateway drug to getting out of the rat race entirely.  You find out that life happens outside the money economy.  Through your very own effort from seed to plate you can produce what you eat.  Who knows where this newfound power will take you?  Who knows where it will end?  Maybe you'll decide to walk or ride a bike, instead of driving a car.  Maybe you'll take up sewing or knitting and abandon the Gap.

My hope is that everyone tries a little gardening and then decides to do with a little less world-trade based consumption, shifting instead to home grown or at least locally grown alternatives.

Thursday, October 21, 2010


The foundations of any natural, permanent garden plan are trees well suited to the local climate that send roots deep into the subsoil to bring up moisture and nutrients, provide shelter, shade and sturdy building material and yield tasty and nutritious fruit or nuts.  We cannot begin in any other fashion unless we succumb to providing outside fertilizer of some sort or another to our garden plots.

Santa Monica is a beautiful climate for people, but not so good for fruiting or nut bearing trees.  Most such trees require both hotter and colder weather than we customarily experience here on the Southern California coast.  While we may get a few days each year in the 80s, and the occasional freak spike to the 90s, for most of the year the highs are in the 60s.  Even in the summer, our highs average only the low 70s.  On the cool side, we rarely see lows of 45, the typical line of demarcation for calculating chill hours required by most fruit and nut bearing plants.  Thus, it is difficult to find trees that produce in our otherwise Utopian climate.

Lemon and lime trees are a notable exception although the fruits here are not so much nutritious as exotics splashed on foods to give them a spark of unique flavor.  My lemon tree that I inherited when we bought this property is currently producing between 100 and 150 lemons each year and is typically in production virtually all year around.

Some orange varieties perform well also.  The thinner skinned and generally lighter Valencias seem to outperform the thicker and heavier Navels.  I have started an orange tree back in my plot, two actually but one appears to be dying off, but I have yet to harvest it although there are a couple of well formed, but not yet ripe, fruits on it.  As I walk through the neighborhoods of Santa Monica and LA's westside, I have seen several productive orange trees, so I know that they can make it in our unique climate.

Figs are another fine performer in the generally pleasant climate here.  A couple of my friends have fig trees and I wish I did too.  A fig tree can become a vigorous producer and if you decide to plant one you had better have a long list of fruitarian friends who are willing to take your bountiful harvest off your hands.  However, put me on your list because I love fresh, ripe figs and all you have to do is ask and I will be over a couple of time each week in season to keep your produce from staining any cars parked in your drive.

I have seen an Apricot tree growing and producing fruit in the neighborhood although I would think that they would do better with more chill hours than we typically get in Santa Monica.  And a friend of mine a bit north and east of here has a low chill apple tree that produces, although I have to admit, I am not much impressed with the fruit.  I have heard that Persimmons tolerate the climate, but I have not seen them here.  I did see photos of a Persimmon orchard up toward Santa Barbara but I am not certain of the contours of the micro-climate in that orchard.

My next door neighbors have an avocado tree and fresh, ripe avocados are always a treat on my midday super sized salad.  When the tomatoes come fresh out of the garden they provide a little zest over the leafy lettuce while the avocados give a smooth, creamy texture that eliminates the need for any processed oils such as olive oil.  Mix in some radishes, carrots and chopped celery and you have a perfect, tasty and nutritious salad.

I have searched in vain for nut varieties that would produce in our climate but I am still looking.  If you have any ideas, please post them in the comments section.  I would love to find some nuts that I could grow on my own.

Trees take time.  So as they say, the best time to plant a tree is 40 years ago.  The second best time is today. Get out there and get planting.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The life cycle of a product.

We have a tendency these days to divide the world into two parts -- the human part and the natural part.  On the human side, especially here in the United States, and perhaps even more so especially here in Southern California, we are surrounded by products.  We drive our cars.  We sit in our chairs.  We watch our TVs.  We go online on our computers linked up with our wireless modems.  It's a highly complex anthropo-ecosystem that we surround ourselves with.

On the nature side, we tend to think of the scenic beauty of our national and state parks and wildlife preserves.  Of course nature is operating just as vigorously in our lawns, in our gardens, on our city beaches and sea shores. Nature springs to life in this densely humanly populated neighborhood when a family of seven or eight raccoons emerges from their daytime lairs to prowl the environment looking for food.

Of course, the human part of the world is not separate from nature but rather depends on it entirely.  Everything you see surrounding you in your home or office started its life as earth, dirt, soil or mineral. Mix it all together, in the right proportions, and under the right conditions and there you have it, a chair, a TV or a computer.

What happens to your products after you are done with them?  Perhaps they go to the Goodwill of AmVets.  Perhaps they go into your re-cycle bin.  Eventually, however, they all go back and return to the earth, from whence all things come and to which all things return.  Nature is one big cyclical process that builds things up out of soil and then allows them to break down a become soil again, ready to support a new life process.

Some materials run through this transitional process faster and more easily than others.  In the case of a wooden chair built up out of lumber that was harvested, milled, cut, assembled and finished and used all on a single farmstead we can easily follow the process from earth to earth.  In the case of complicated consumer electronic products such as computers we could not possibly hope to trace all the millions of tiny efforts and accumulations that go into creating our final consumer product.  And similarly we cannot imagine the complex processes by which something like a computer breaks back down into re-usable component minerals.

Nevertheless, it is worth meditating on the process by which our products arrive to amuse and sustain us as well as the process of decomposition that awaits them when they are no longer useful to us.  By bringing this process up out of a dark and neglected corner and into the bright light of our center consciousness we can make better choices for ourselves, for our futures and for future generations.

After all there is no human phenomenon -- not war, not pollution, not anything -- that is not driven by the billions of little decisions regarding consumption made on the planet each and every day.  To make a better world, be a better consumer.  And step one of being a better consumer is thinking just a little bit about where things come from and where they go to.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Imitating Nature

The most productive parts of my garden are not planted in neat little rows, or even beds.  The most productive parts of my garden most resemble a jungle.  Tomatoes growing on top of chard mixed in with lettuce and fruit trees towering over the top of it all.  Or squash trailing all over the lower reaches of the garden and blanketing out the light, preventing any weeds from taking hold.  The most productive parts of my garden most resemble nature's wild meadows or the fringes of the forest.  Everything grows best when it grows altogether in a more natural setting.

Monocrop agriculture is an invitation to disaster.  By completely clearing the ground and then determining to plant a single crop across a whole garden plot, let alone acres and acres of farmland, we invite defeat at the hands of the sworn enemies of our mono-cropped plots.  When plants grow together in a diverse community, they are less susceptible to insect infestations.  And if we select the plant to grow together properly and plan our planting we can eliminate weed problems by keeping every square inch of the ground covered.

Neat and orderly is not the way to go in an edibles garden.  Mix it all up.  Let your hair down.  Let it all hang out.  But think about it a little bit.  Native Americans had a style of planting known as the "Three Sisters" method.  They planted corn, with a tall, sturdy stalk along with vining beans that would climb the stalk and squash which would spread out along the ground and provide proliferate shade, blocking out sunshine that weeds need to gain a foothold.  The beans also fix nitrogen in the soil and make it fertile for the next year's corn crop.  Keep in mind rule number one in the garden:  Try it and see if it works.  But don't neglect to survey and build on the experiences of others.  Just be willing at some point to take a risk and dive right in.  Plants were around on the planet for millions of years before humans showed up.

And also, draw your inspiration from the natural ground cover in your local environment.  Here in Santa Monica we will always want to enhance the natural desert landscapes with liberal irrigation programs, using less water, however, than we would for comparable amounts of pure grass lawn.  Nevertheless, we can adopt those parts of the natural program of growth that involve mixing various plants together in ways that allow each variety to provide support to the others.  At the end of the day we have a mix of fresh and healthy vegetables that come straight from our yards.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Winter crops.

In Santa Monica we are blessed with at least a 10 month growing season, more probably year round.  Even so, some crops just won't make it through the short days of winter.  They sense the sun receding and shut down.  From about the middle of December to the middle of February it is hard to coax production out a garden even here in sunny Santa Monica.

The crops that do best through the winter are typical cold or cool weather crops.  Radishes, lettuces, carrots, turnips, broccoli, cabbage, peas, spinach, chard, etc.  Some of these such as radishes, turnips, lettuce and peas are relatively easy to grow.  The others are somewhat more difficult to coax along even in our near perfect climate.  If you have citrus trees you will find those most productive during winter months.  I am trying an experiment with some Kentucky Wonder pole beans, but I won't demand that it work out well since beans need long days of sunshine to mature and fruit.  I was told, however, that some varieties can be tricked into producing by the scattered, around the clock, ambient light of the urban environment.  We'll see and I'll let you know later.

One problem I have had with cool weather crops is that sometimes the weather in Santa Monica doesn't realize that it's fall or even winter.  I have had more than one crop of peas ruined by a string of 80+ degree days late in October.  Sometimes it seems like it is cooler here in July than it is in the fall.

A nice aspect to the fall garden in Southern California is rain, like the inch or so we had today.  From mid-April or so right on through September rain is almost unheard of here in the southwestern desert.  But with the shorter days comes natural irrigation that more gently and evenly soaks the soil and provides much needed moisture to the roots of our plants.

Meanwhile, my summer tomatoes are still producing and the fruits continue to ripen.  We may enjoy another month or so homegrown tomatoes before we have to give up on them.

Don't let the shortening days get you down.  There is still plenty of produce to be grown right on through the winter in our ideal climate here in Santa Monica.  As I suggested earlier, keep on spreading the seed and see what works for you on your soil.  Then come back and share it with us so that we can all benefit from your experience.