Archive for the ‘sustainability’ Category

For the last two weeks, my students have been working on independent study projects. They chose topics from the units that were most interesting to them. Then they did more in depth research, and wrote a paper based on this information.

The final part of their independent study required that they somehow present what they learned to the class in a tangible and meaningful way. Some students wrote poetry, some created collages, paintings, or sculptures, one made a website, another a video. It was great fun to see how their minds work, and to see how creative they could be in expressing themselves.

I was blown away by the following project. One of my students, asked if he could make artwork using Photoshop. I expected something amateurish, but the following are the pieces he created. I knew I had to share them, and asked for his permission to post them here. This kid has a future in graphic design I think!

© Sheldon Hines 2011

© Sheldon Hines 2011

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This week while planting tomatoes and digging in the dirt, I’ve also been digging up old feelings, dreams, and disappointments.

Tomatoes are a running theme in my life.

And I don’t even like tomatoes.

I hate the texture. They taste tart and plain. And to swallow one, gross.

But I love to grow them. At least I think I do. I grow them every year, so I must, right?

For the last 6 years I’ve grown colorful heirloom tomatoes from seed.

There are some bittersweet memories that my new friends and family don’t yet know.   Let’s back up this story.

On June 1, 2005, my thirty-first birthday, my ex-husband and I purchased 22 acres of farm land at an auction. The place was further out from our jobs than we had been looking, but the land was absolutely beautiful. It had rolling hills, some trees, lots of room for pastures and gardens, a nice spot for building a house, and a wetland full of frogs across the road.

I dreamed of being a farmer.

In second grade, I surprised myself with a drawing of a farmer, to the age-old question of “what do you want to be when you grow up?” Since then, it’s been a dream of mine.

Immediately after the auction. I set out to plan how I could make enough money to live off the land and stay home with my daughter full-time.

I planned the crops that I could grow, and where to market my produce.

I had a goal of setting up a CSA (customer supported agriculture) where customers would come out to the farm to pick up produce once a week. I planned for sheep that we would put on the land, and I started making contacts.

The first year, as our new house was being built, I started about 500 tomato plants in the windows of my downtown house. I rotated the plants several times a day so they would all get enough light. About 300 of the plants made it into the field. By the end of July, I was going to the farmer’s markets with 50 varieties of tomatoes.

On a good day at the market, I would make about $100-$150. That seems pretty good, until you figure the actual time that goes into the whole process. Between weeding, tying up plants, tilling, picking, sorting, sitting at the market, and paying for supplies and market fees, I probably made about $3.50-$5.00 per hour.

The next year, I began selling tomato plants.

The tomatoes grew in little pots, which required lots more time, space, and energy. It’s not easy to fill little plastic pots with dirt and shove a plant in each one. (Okay, so it’s kind of easy, it just takes a lot of time).

It extended my season, and I probably increased my income by about $300 for the year.

While I transplanted baby tomatoes, my daughter played Polly Pockets.

When I weeded in the garden, she made dolls from weeds, and played Marco Polo in the corn. She hated waiting for me to finish my work. And I was too tired and busy to play.

Finally one day I woke up and realized that this dream of mine wasn’t working.

If it was just me, it would be okay to keep trying.

But it wasn’t just me. The main goal of trying to get this farm off the ground and running was so I could spend more time with my daughter. Except that I was spending less time.

My dream isn”t just to be a farmer anymore. My new dream is to be the best mom I can be.

So that final summer before my divorce I let the tomatoes rot in the field.

I planted them.

But I didn’t weed them

I didn’t try to sell any.

The plants just withered away.

The tomatoes rotted, but I didn’t care.

I didn’t care, because the relationship with my daughter didn’t rot.

I dug into finding a job that paid well enough to support her, giving up on my dream of being home with her full-time. A few hours a day with her was better than no time with her.   Any of the farm stuff would be hobby only, and I would only do the parts of it that we liked to do together.

The dream of spending more time with her is still alive.

In fact, I can see myself on the other side of busyness, being able work for myself inside the home, and maybe part-time for others.

The problem is that to get to that point, I have to spend extra energy and time away from her after work to make it happen. It’s really a catch 22.

There are business ideas rattling around in my head and dreamer’s heart.

But I still have a really hard time trusting my judgment. I feel like I’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way.  Some of them have felt like bad decisions. But without those mistakes, I suppose I wouldn’t be who I am today.

Being distrustful of my judgement,  doesn’t make the decision process any easier.

I grew tomatoes again this year. I lazily planted them in trays, and kind of neglected them.   I never transplanted them (transplanted plants become sturdier from the stress- another metaphor I suppose.) Some of this year’s tomato plants are wimpy. Some of the didn’t get hardened off enough. I didn’t plant all of my favorite varieties.   To grow tomatoes properly would have required missing out on The Muppet Show with Ellie, or playing that game of Othello, drawing fairies together, or helping her clean her room.

If any of those wimpy tomatoes grow, we’ll take a Saturday to make Salsa as a family.

This summer is shaping up to be a crazy one. If the going gets too tough, I am not opposed to letting the tomatoes rot.

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My favorite ipad case, it's really thick.

Since the beginning of February, we’ve had at least 6 snow days, maybe more.

I’ve lost count.  These unplanned days off throw me for a loop.  I don’t know what to do with myself.  I either fritter the day away on the computer, or pretend to clean the house.

For better or worse, we are getting ipads for all of our students next year.  The teachers got their ipads to try out a few weeks ago.  After handing them out, they told us that we needed to buy a cover for them, and that they weren’t too expensive, like $50.  I didn’t have $50 in the budget to buy a cover for something that wasn’t really mine anyway, so I improvised.

For sale at my etsy site etsy.com/shop/blewe

I made a cover from a felted wool sweater and I loved it.  Then I decided to make one for my friend that also didn’t have a cover yet.  I thought it turned out pretty cute.

Then I became obsessed.

Instead of frittering my snow days away on the computer, I spent my days frittering away making cozies for my computer!

I then decided that this would be a good thing to list on my etsy store, because they were cute, useful, and easy to make.

for sale on etsy

If you’d like to make your own, here’s how I did it.

1. Go to thrift stores or your closet to find cheap wool sweaters.  It works best if the sweaters are 100% wool.  Look for tags that say hand wash or dry clean only.  You can also use wool coats, blankets, and suits (although suitcoats usually have lots of tucks).

2. Wash them on the heavy cycle on hot.  It’s the combination of hot water, detergent and agitation that felts the wool fibers together.  Agitation is key.

3. Dry them in the dryer on high.

4. Cut out two pieces that are about the same width as your device.  You want them to fit snuggly and the wool will stretch a bit.  Cut one about four or five inches longer than the device for the flap.

5.  Blanket stitch the edges together with yarn.  I found a how to online.

for sale on etsy

6.  Add a button and a hole.  The wool will hold together without stitching around the buttonhole, but I usually stitch around it anyway.

7. Repeat to make gifts for friends.

If you don’t want to go through the hassle of making one yourself, I have some ipad sleeves at my etsy store, Blewe, or I can custom make one for your ipad, laptop, or kindle.

Made from a wool coat. For sale on etsy

My other favorite. It's just so stripey!

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Becoming a full-fledged treehugger is not as difficult as you would think.

Today I went to a meeting of sustainable minded folks in Goshen called “Green Drinks”.  The point of the group is to have a very brief (like 5 minutes brief) presentation, and then network with other like-minded folk.

I am a complete introvert.  Networking, mingling, and meeting new people gives me cold sweats.

Tonight I didn’t pass out or anything.

The folks at my table got to talking about why we are interested in the sustainable movement.  For one, it was the way her family grew up – you just didn’t waste.  For another, each little step to be more gentle on the Earth just seemed to make sense.

I asked one woman what she thought her biggest change toward sustainability had been in the last two years.  She couldn’t pinpoint any one thing.  When the rest of the table really thought about that question, it was difficult for any of us to identify one major life habit change.

The bottom line we decided is that becoming “green”, or more importantly, becoming “aware” and changing our habits is a continuum.  It’s little bitty, teeny tiny steps toward living a more intentional life that eventually become habit.  Little things that once you learn about their impact you just can’t go back to the way things used to be.

You don’t have to sell your car, throw out all the food in your fridge, wear hemp shawls, and eat only beans.  You can start by carrying a water bottle, combining errands into one trip, flipping off the lights when you leave a room, or taking shorter showers.

Just one step at a time.

The folks at our table had lots of insights tonight about their journey.  Here is a snippet of some of the simple things we noticed about our lives:

  • Disposable plastic packaging is much more prevalent, and almost impossible to avoid.
  • People stopped carrying their own water or relying on water fountains, with the invention of the plastic water bottle, leading to more trash.
  • We can learn to simplify, or make our own to avoid packaging (in this case there was a desire to learn to make yogurt).
  • Sustainable practices can be incorporated into a business plan as an expense to limit waste.
  • In the media, sustainability is treated as a “special interest” story, when really it should just be a normal part of our lives.

I’ve reposted a blog post from early last fall before anyone but my mom was reading my blog.  It follows this post and is about how my friends dragged me kicking and screaming into this intentional lifestyle.  I think it fits today’s thought.

It’s easier not knowing the truth sometimes, but definitely not better.

We have one planet, finite resources, and a fragile ecosystem on this Earth.

And that’s why I bother.

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Photo by Julie Jigsaw

I am a high school teacher.  Before I taught high school I was really worried that the kids would be so smart, and mature, and think I was the dumbest person on the planet.  I thought this because when I was in high school, my friends and I were mature and scholarly.

One of my duties as a teacher is to supervise in the hallways between classes.   When the kids in my hallway were sophomores, they liked to make chicken, cow, and sheep noises.  Last year, those same kids stood around punching each other in the arm.  This year, as seniors, they love to yell at the top of their lungs, “It’s Friday!” even when it’s Tuesday.

They are maturing.

There are perks of standing in the hallway.  My favorite is getting a chance to talk to my Spanish teacher friends.  Another perk is that we can talk to some of the students outside of class.

Today, in the last class period switch of the day, a couple of Freshmen girls came scampering out of Mrs. Phillips’ Spanish classroom.

Photo by Pink Sherbet Photography

“Mrs. Phillips, your room smells like Christmas trees,” said one of the girls.

“It really does!” said another.

“You should smell it,” commanded the third.

Unable to resist the urge to smell the Christmas spirit in Mrs. Phillips classroom, I poked my head in to smell the pine boughs for myself.  It sort of smelled like Febreeze.

“I don’t smell Christmas trees,” I said to Brooke.

Mrs. Phillips went to smell her room.

“Maybe,” she said to the girls, “but not so much.”

The leader of the pack said, “It smells like when you take the Christmas tree out of the box for the first time.”

“Oh, so you mean it smells like burned plastic,” Brooke said to me.

I laughed, and then I wanted to cry.

I understand that loads of people have artificial trees.  It’s easier, there’s less clean up, and there is the fire safety issue.

But kids should know that evergreen trees smell like pine needles, that sap is sticky, and pine needles get dry and drop off trees.

They should know this not because they should have real Christmas trees in their house.  They should know this because they’ve experienced trees out in nature.

Kids should have the opportunity to connect with nature.

Today’s hallway giggle and weeping moment reminded me of a great book that I read a few years ago called, “Last Child in the Woods.”  I highly recommend it for anyone that is concerned about our kids’ connection with nature.  If we (and by we, I mean all of us) don’t make connections with the world around us, it’s hard to care and make a meaningful difference in the world.

As I try to instill in my Environmental Science students, everything is connected back to the health of our environment, even if we choose to ignore it.

Back to the Christmas Trees

As for whether or not to have an artificial tree, I’m not going to tell you what you should have in your home but here are a few tidbits to consider if you want to make your tree purchasing decision based on which option  is best for the environment:

Artificial Trees

  • can be more cost effective for your pocket book
  • are made from metal, PVC, petroleum based plastic, and may even have lead (and lead dust) in them
  • are non-recyclable and non-biodegradable, and will stay in our landfills indefinitely
  • 85% of artificial trees come from China-a pretty high ecological footprint for transportation alone.

Real Trees

  • Usually grown with pesticides and fertilizers but…
  • are biotic (living or once alive) and are biodegradable (they WILL break down and return nutrients to the soil)
  • An acre of pine trees on a Christmas tree farm can absorb 1.4 metric tons of CO2 (the greenhouse gas that we have too much of in the atmosphere) and produces enough oxygen for 18 people per day.
  • Can be recycled and ARE recycled (93%) through municipal recycling programs to make mulch for playgrounds, trails and underwater habitat for fish.
  • For every Christmas tree cut down, 1-3 new ones are planted.
  • 100,000 Americans work in the Christmas tree industry.

Other Options:

  • A potted live tree
  • Plant more evergreens than you need on your property, and chop them down for Christmas when they start to get too big and crowded.
  • A nice real wreath
  • Scrooge it, and don’t have any kind of tree

Personally, I love the smell of a real tree at Christmas.  And I sort of like the sticky sap that sticks to my clothes.

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Peaches, the free range hen ©Jenny Frech 2008

Trying to match up our eating with our values can be difficult because the labeling is inadequate, confusing, misleading, and sometimes too spare.  That’s one of the reasons I love Goodguide.com.

But, there are some items that don’t show up there either.  So we are left to trusting the labels.

Labels can be wrought with greenwashing.  Companies attempt to make their products seem more environmentally friendly than they really are.  They do this in several ways.  Sometimes it’s with pictures on the label of quaint family farms, when the product was factory farmed.  Sometimes it’s greenwashed with terms like green, natural, eco-friendly, sugar-free etc.  And other times, while the product may have a feature like using recycled packaging, it can be trumped up, so you have to look carefully.

I really dislike going to the grocery, reading labels, and trying determine the best value vs. the best for the environment and best socially.  It’s easy to fall back on what’s cheapest, or what’s been our favorite.  I’ll try to help clear up some of the fuzziness of labeling, and maybe it will help you save a few minutes at the grocery too.

I am not a vegetarian.  When I was in college studying animal science we heard about vegetarians that gave up eating meat for ethical reasons.  I often thought that if I were to try out any type of vegetarianism, the first thing I would give up would be chicken.  I still eat chicken and eggs, but I’ve found ways to eat chicken and eggs that are in line with my core values.

Chicken and eggs have some of the most confusing labeling.  Let me explain the labeling, and then you can decide for yourself what fits your set of values as far as health, ethics, environment, and financially.  It is up to you to decide.  I’ve tried to find as many photos as possible to show you.  I’m intentionally trying to find average farm photos. It is not my intent to shock as some sites do.  There are many good farmers out there that do take good care of their animals, in what ever style they are raised.


Almost all chickens will be fed GMO corn and soy products until you get to the organic or Label Rouge level.

Traditional Battery Cages

The 79 cent large eggs you buy at the grocery, are usually from chickens raised in battery cages.  Each cage has several birds in it.  The buildings are entirely enclosed most often without natural light.  The birds usually don’t have room to turn around.

Cage Free Eggs USDA photo

Cage Free

Cage free layers and broilers (meat chickens) are raised in barns that are also enclosed.  They can walk, perch, interact more naturally with other chickens.

Vegetarian or Grainfed

Chickens are omnivores, not herbivores.  It’s sort of like saying that a fox was grainfed.  They eat grains, bugs, plants, and even mice when given the chance.  They are healthiest when they are eating what comes naturally.

Pastured chicken in a moveable pen. They are a label rouge type breed. ©Jenny Frech 2007

Pastured/Grass fed

Generally refers to broilers, but can also relate to egg layers.  Often these birds are in cages that have open bottoms.  The cages protect the birds from predators, but give the animals access to fresh grass, insects, sunshine, and fresh air.  Know that chickens eat about 20% or so of their diet in grass, the rest is grains and insects.  The eggs and meat of these birds tend to be higher in Omega-3.

Free Range

This one can be really confusing if you don’t know the farmer.  Technically, free range can mean that they have access to the outdoors.  This might just be a crowded outdoor pen.  It could also mean that they have full unconfined access to the outdoors and can perch in trees, and scratch up Mrs. McDonald’s flowerbeds.

Free range chickens perched in a tree. ©Jenny Frech 2007

Organic Eggs and Meat

The birds must be fed organic (non-GMO feed), have access to the outdoors (albeit, may be limited), and cannot be given antibiotics unless sick.


Just means that the birds weren’t injected with flavorings.  Pretty much meaningless.

Label Rouge chicken

Label Rouge

Label Rouge is a method of growing out broilers in France.  This is a unique system because it uses slow growing breeds that have fewer health problems.  It is similar to some of the pasture raised/free range systems.  It does have large range requirements for its birds.

A note about broilers.

The typical breed used for broiler chickens is the Cornish Cross.  It is a fast growing bird that can finish out in 4-7 weeks.  The biggest issue with these birds (and the reason you will see a lot of animal activist sites of dead birds) is that they grow so fast that their legs cannot support their weight, which cripples them.  Even many of the farmers that raise grass-fed birds use this variety.  If you want to find chicken that is of a different breed, expect to pay a lot more because it takes 10-12 weeks or more to grow them out.  You’ll also have to do some serious research to find farmers that use a slower growing breed.

So there you have chicken in an eggshell.  I hope this helps you make informed decisions about where your meat for your table comes from and make thoughtful decisions based on YOUR value system, and not just out of habit.

If you want to get connected with local farmers, the best place to start is LocalHarvest.org.

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After reading Katy’s response to my blog post, I feel really bad.  I in no way intended to insult her.  I completely related to her story, and wanted to offer her support when I saw that people were slamming her.  I read and reread my post until I was sure that I was offering support in the form of my story, but I guess I wasn’t making myself very clear.

I was trying to relate my reality and journey from blind consumerism, and I didn’t do this very well.  My stance is that we should understand what our own values are so we can use those values to make informed and conscious decisions about our purchases.

I have struggled a lot the last few years with my values of frugality and doing what is best for the environment and socially.  I am about as cheap as they come and I can pinch pennies until they bleed. The intent of my post was to offer support as we learn how to best do this.

I’m not going to pretend that I am perfect.  No Way!  I still lust over Diet Coke, have too much junk on my counter, and buy veggies from the farmer’s market that don’t always get eaten.  I drink coffee every morning, and my hubby and I are chocovores.

Here are the points that I was trying to make, in a nutshell.  I’m going to break these down with facts, figures, research, and real experts over the next week or so.  If you’re interested, stay tuned…

1. We are all in this together, and should offer one another support and encouragement.

2. There are many food injustices. There is not a shortage of food on the planet, but a problem with the distribution of the food in the form of availability and access by price.  This includes people here in the United States, not just in developing nations.

3. Even choices that seem reasonable, may be greenwashed. Just because a label says cage free eggs, or a natural product doesn’t mean that it is what we assume it is.  And veggies that look good in the store may have traveled from Chile or some other far off place, all the while losing nutrients.

4. GMOs are in almost everything we eat that has Corn, Soy, or Canola in it. The only way to avoid it is to buy organic.  GMO’s have the DNA of other organisms in it which have a built in pesticide or resistance to a pesticide.  We eat this stuff.

5. CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations) raise animals in a non-sustainable way. Animals like cows and sheep are fed grain to fatten them up.  They were not designed to eat like this, and it can cause health problems, in addition to the environmental problems CAFOs can create.

6. High Fructose Corn Syrup is made from GMO corn.

7. I don’t shop at designer food stores either, but there are other ways to get our hands on foods that are raised sustainably and ethically.

8.  This is the most important one.

Our food is too cheap.

It is subsidized so that we are not paying the actual cost of production.  The actual cost of production is more in line with the organic foods at the grocery.  We may save money by buying chicken raised in cramped barns, bread made from over-processed GMO grains, and veggies that were shipped in from somewhere else (losing most of the nutrients along the way).

But we ultimately pay for it with our tax dollars, livelihoods, health and biodiversity.

I wish I didn’t know all of the stuff that I know about agriculture and the injustice and greed of big agribusinesses.  It would make going to the grocery a lot easier.  These agribusinesses are trading our health and health of our planet for their financial gain.

Tonight I went to hear Wes Jackson of the Land Institute talk about the future of sustainable agriculture.  His plan focuses on perennial grains.  Grains make up 75% of U.S crops.  I will be discussing what I learned over the course of the next week also.

Again, I want Katy to know that I was in no way trying to make her feel bad.  I think she’s doing a lot of great things.  She’s also right, I’ve only been reading her blog for about 6 weeks now, and I do highly recommend it, she has lots of great things to say.

Below are a couple of my posts that may relate what I was trying to say about values, and my concern over food choices, better than how I said it yesterday.


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