Market Places

I am sharing these photos from a couple of trips I made to Taiwan with Wen-Ling. They are of a market place in the town of Sijhih, just east of Taipei. This market might be my favorite place in Taiwan.

Every morning vendors set up in an alley about a half mile from my mother-in-law’s home. They sell every type of food imaginable, from baked goods to fresh vegetables to freshly caught fish.

“Fresh-caught” isn’t a marketing phrase. The photo showing the fish with their tails tied to their gill-flaps is about more than just presentation. It is also to prevent these live fish from flopping off the table. The shrimp you buy are still moving, too.

Vegetables are all local. There is one garden/farm just around the corner from the market, next to a laundromat, in the middle of the city. It occupies maybe a half acre, but probably less. Lying in a ravine, all sorts of vegetables are grown there, along with tropical fruits like mango, papaya and some trees I don’t recognize. Other nearby farms also provide produce.

Along with the produce, vendors sell shoes and clothing, toiletries, and knick-knacks. The vending is all done between the hours of about 6 am and noon. By one o’clock it has reverted to a residential area. The vendors are basically setting up in the entrance ways to homes. Most homes in the city occupy three to four floors. The ground floor typically has a garage-like front with a living-room behind it. Bedrooms are usually on the third and fourth floors. The kitchen will also be found on the first or second floor.

I love the intimacy of this market place, the way neighbors easily meet and mix. I don’t understand the local alliances, the politics, and the personal tensions that exist. I bought some pastries one morning and brought them back to my mother-in-law. She wanted to know who I had purchased them from. It turns out I bought them from a woman my mother-in-law doesn’t do business with. None-the-less, we did all share the food. Perhaps it would have tasted better if it had been prepared by my mother-in-law’s friend.

I share these photos to highlight the differences between the typical American corporate market place and the traditional Chinese market. The Chinese market sells local food. If we consider the notion of degrees of separation, the typical customer at a Chinese market is separated from the producer of the food by two or maybe three degrees. In other words, the vendor may be the farmer who grows the chickens or the vegetables. Or, she may be a middleman between the customer and the fisherman.

How many degrees of separation are there between the American customer and the farmer who produces our food? We have the people who work at the grocery store. There are truck drivers connecting the grocery with one or more wholesale buyers operating cold-storage warehouses. Then there are the farmers. It may be four or five degrees of separation.

In Taiwan much of the food is probably produced within a forty mile radius of where it is purchased. In the U.S. the radius is probably a thousand miles, maybe more. In fact, some of our food may even come from Taiwan!

It is true that in America we can enjoy fresh vegetables and fruits throughout the year. Our food is relatively inexpensive. No one is deprived. But there are environmental costs associated with such a diet. And there are economic vulnerabilities. For instance, both Taiwan and America depend heavily on foreign oil. But, if our oil supplies were cut for an extended period how likely would starvation be in American vs. Taiwan? My guess is that Taiwan would fare much better.

In any case, my real motivation is to point out that there is an aesthetic component to the Chinese culture of food that is sorely lacking in America. And, it’s not specific to China and Taiwan. India has it, as does almost any developing nation. Our food culture here in America is an industrial culture, heavy on engineering, but largely lacking in beauty. I would gladly give up my local Fry’s supermarket if I could trade it in for an alleyway of vendors near my home.


Light Rail, Carley’s Bistro, etc.

Light rail officially started in Phoenix, and Tempe yesterday. Wen-Ling and I took a free ride this afternoon to check it out. We got on at Price and Apache in Tempe and rode the rail to Central and Osborn. From there we went walking around Phoenix.

We stopped to have dinner at Carley’s Bistro on Roosevelt and 2nd St. The food was great. They serve wraps, sandwiches, soups and salads. Most of the dishes are between $7 and $10. They also serve alcohol. We had Boddington’s which was the least expensive beer on the menu. (They have some outstanding beers. They also appeared to have a full bar.)

My impressions of the light rail… It is faster than riding a bus. The ride is smooth and quiet. The crowds were large, however. It will be interesting to see how the ridership holds up when the fares kick in on January 1st. Certainly, if I were working downtown, I would consider the rail over the express buses.

When we got to Phoenix, most of the businesses were closed. This is the situation that people decry about Phoenix — that downtown is dead on weekends. Hopefully, light rail will serve to change that.

I intend to use the light rail in combination with my bike. I enjoy riding and photographing subjects. With light rail, I will be able to board the train with my bike, ride around Phoenix, and either ride home or take the train again.

Peachy Green’s Analysis of Ethanol Assumes Some Myths

Until recently I have generally thought that alcohol as a biofuel is a bad idea.  However, after reading David Blume‘s Alcohol Can Be A Gas I have become excited by the prospects this fuel has to offer.

I had accepted a number of positions on alcohol fuel because I had not heard some of the countervailing arguments.  Today I came across a blog posting from Peachy Green that attempts to explode some myths.  However, I found that while they were able to debunk some myths about alcohol, they contribute to other existing myths.

I will take on each of the five myths that Peachy Green discussed, with some counter-arguments obtained from Alcohol Can Be A Gas.

1.  Corn-based ethanol is a “green” alternative to foreign oil.  Peachy Green says, “False”.

David Blume makes the argument that using corn to produce ethanol is a poor choice because of the fairly low yield of sugar/starch produced per acre.  Using corn to produce ethanol can yield about 200 to 250 gallons of fuel per acre.  There are a number of other crops that can be grown that yield far more.  For instance, sugar beets can produce about 1000 gallons of fuel per acre.  Cattails can produce up to 7000 gallons of fuel per acre.  So, in that sense, David Blume would probably agree that corn-based ethanol is not a green alternative to foreign oil.

However, Peachy Green focused their arguments on resource inputs vs. energy outputs.  They are basically arguing the points of David Pimentel.  David Blume shows how Dr. Pimentel’s research is bogus.  You can read a short summary of his argument here.  Blume points out that fossil fuels have the negative return on energy.  The argument presented by Peachy Green assumes that fossil fuel energy will be used to produce alcohol as an alternative energy.  Blume argues that in a permaculture-based economy, where biofuel inputs are used to produce biofuel outputs, “the ratio of return could be positive by hundreds to one”.

2.  The new pressure to produce corn-based ethanol  is correlated to high food prices.  Peachy Green says this is “False”.  Here they are in agreement with Blume.  They identify a number of factors leading to high food prices.  They did fail to mention that the pressure to produce corn-based ethanol comes, in part, from surpluses of corn in North America, and a need to dispose of it profitably.

3.  Corn-based ethanol is cheaper than fuel from refined oil.  Peachy Green says this is “False”.

Peachy Green says, “In August 2008, ethanol sold for about $2.40 a gallon wholesale. Currently, gasoline is about the same cost, and may go lower.”  However, they fail to identify many of the hidden costs of oil.  Oil production is heavily subsidized by our government.  Many of these costs are passed on to you, but not necessarily at the pump.  For instance, the war in Iraq was basically to secure middle-east oil.  That has cost us trillions.  Then there are the environmental costs.  As well as the tax breaks that big-oil has enjoyed.

Blume argues in his book that alcohol comes out ahead of oil based on cost.  We can either subsidize alcohol production to the same degree that oil is subsidized, or we can remove the subsidies enjoyed by oil.  In either case, alcohol will come out ahead.

Peachy Green also says,

Notwithstanding the fluctuations in gasoline prices, ethanol yields about 30 percent less energy per gallon than gasoline, so mileage drops off significantly. That means that you will have to re-fuel more frequently. Over the long run, gasoline is less expensive than corn-based ethanol.

 Blume goes into great detail in his book on the merits of gasoline vs. alcohol.  (If you like chemistry and physics, his book is an awesome read.  If you don’t, he presents these topics in laymans terms so don’t be intimidated.)  There are many facets to a comparison of alcohol vs. gasoline.  Just one argument shows where Peachy Greens argument comes up short.

It is true that gasoline contains more energy per gallon than alcohol.  However, more of gasoline’s energy is converted to heat.  Alcohol fuel actually provides more motive force.  Less of its energy is lost as heat.  Under certain conditions alcohol will provide less mileage than gasoline.  But, it is a complicated topic and I would refer you to Blume’s book for a complete discussion of the facts.

I will also point out that all engines currently in use have been optimized to run on gasoline.  However, when you begin to consider the optimizations that can be made for alcohol fuel, the idea that alcohol provides less mileage falls flat on its face.

4.  You will have to convert your vehicle to run on ethanol.  Peachy Green says this is “mostly false”.  They are mostly right. 

Where they are wrong is in arguing that money should not be spent on a flex-fuel engine to run higher concentrations of alcohol so that the money could instead be put to the purchase of a hybrid.

Alcohol is a renewable form of energy.  Electricity can be generated renewably.  I am all for solar- and wind-generated electricity.  But, in all likelihood, your hybrid is burning coal or nuclear fuel as a trade off for lower gasoline inputs.  And, in the end, it’s still a gasoline-burning engine.  So, while hybrids are better than most non-hybrids, they are not better than a vehicle that burns a renewable alternative to gasoline.

5.  There will be less global warming as a result of fueling our cars with corn-based ethanol.  Peachy Green says this is false.

I disagree after reading Blume’s book.  First, Peachy Green’s argument is very narrowly focused on corn-based ethanol.  Second, they are presenting the arguments of Dr. Pimental, which Blume thoroughly debunks in his book. 

Peachy Green quotes an article stating that, “corn-based ethanol would nearly double greenhouse gas emissions over 30 years, compared to fossil fuels. This is due largely to the effects of cutting down trees which absorb CO2 emissions in order to grow crops.”

Blume shows how a permaculture-based economy, which he has demonstrated himself on his own farm, would actually sequester carbon-dioxide in the soil in the form of an increasing amount of organic matter.  If alcohol is a renewable fuel, it is difficult to imagine how greenhouse gases would double since we would be pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere in order to produce alcohol, and then burning it, which puts it back into the atmosphere.

The reason Peachy Green is making this argument is that they are falling into the same trap that David Pimental finds himself in.  They are looking at alcohol fuel from the perspective of a fossil-fuel based economy.  In order to understand the promise that alcohol and other biofuels hold, we must begin to look at all of the ways that we have structured our economies and cultures in order to accomodate oil, coal, and nuclear.  Then, we can start to ask whether these accomodations would be necessary if we were running on renewables.

Wal-Mart — The good, the bad, and the ugly

Wal-Mart is using its martket clout to keep food prices low. This article mentions three methods. I like this one:

Shrink the goods. Ever wonder why that cereal box is only two-thirds full? Foodmakers love big boxes because they serve as billboards on store shelves. Wal-Mart has been working to change that by promising suppliers that their shelf space won’t shrink even if their boxes do. As a result, some of its vendors have reengineered their packaging. General Mills’ (GIS, Fortune 500) Hamburger Helper is now made with denser pasta shapes, allowing the same amount of food to fit into a 20% smaller box at the same price. The change has saved 890,000 pounds of paper fiber and eliminated 500 trucks from the road, giving General Mills a cushion to absorb some of the rising costs.

This makes eminent sense. Why drive trucks that are only partially full? Denser packaging saves money and hurts no one. It’s a win-win situation.

The second method, cutting out the middleman, is a common business tactic. Instead of buying its brand-name coffee “from a supplier, which buys from a cooperative of growers, which works with a roaster”, they go directly to the cooperative. So, if costs go up their “efficiencies” allow them to keep the retail price lower.

Is this a good thing? I have blogged about my growing support for buying locally-grown food. I have also voiced my complaints about the high prices at some of the farmers’ markets here in Phoenix. I want to go a little further by pointing out that low-price is not my ultimate measure of whether to purchase a product.

Wal-Mart does have low prices. But, I am one of those shoppers who recognizes the social costs imposed by big-box stores. I willingly pay a higher price to support local businesses. Besides, I can’t stand being in a Wal-Mart, or most other corporate retailers. There is something deeply depressing about Wal-Mart. Its not just the blue branding. It’s written on the faces of the employees and shoppers.

So, if Wal-Mart cuts out the middleman in order to keep costs lower, it may mean you pay slightly less for your coffee. But, you will pay in other ways. They force out local businesses. They pay low wages. And they are just plain ugly.

The third method employed by Wal-Mart to keep prices low is to buy locally. “By sourcing more produce locally – it now sells Wisconsin-grown yellow corn in 56 stores in or near Wisconsin – it is able to cut shipping costs.” This turns out to be a bad thing, though. The article goes on to describe how Wal-Mart is forcing these local suppliers to eat the higher costs of production. In other words, the local growers are not able to pass their costs on to the consumer.

So, although Wal-Mart is buying some of its food locally, they may be doing local producers no real favors.

Criticisms of Local Farmers’ Markets

A couple of days ago I wrote about the Phoenix Farmers Market. Today I would like to share some criticisms.  Some of my criticisms are revealing about who I am.  Others are shared constructively.  I do, after all, support efforts to increase local food production for many reasons. 

For example, it is beneficial for local communities to have local producers thrive from the business of their neighbors. Economic independence goes hand-in-hand with political independence.

Local food production can also be more efficient by a variety of measures over the reigning paradigm of a global food market. Certainly, it is more efficient in terms of energy inputs. Eating locally is one way to conserve energy.

Another reason, to which I am particular, is that local food production makes local places more beautiful. Phoenix has much beauty. Unfortunately, we have more than our share of ugliness, too.

Many recent arrivals have no idea just how rural Phoenix was thirty years ago. Today we have mass produced communities sitting on once rich farmland. These mass produced housing developments are supported by big-box corporate chains supplying mass produced food from all over the globe. I remember citrus orchards where large condos now sit. I recall date orchards now occupied by malls. Fields of cantaloupes are now fields of cars on baking asphalt surfaces.

I used to keep bees in a very different environment from the one we now ‘enjoy’. I prefer the Phoenix I remember to much of what has replaced it. I believe we can have an urban environment that is much more attractive than our present predicament.  Local production of food would help, enormously.

Wen-Ling and I went to this farmers’ market expecting to pay more than what equivalent food would cost us at our local grocer’s. It seems that ‘local’ and ‘organic’ imply ‘expensive’. We were still surprised at the cost of most of the items at this market.

The market promotes itself as a ‘sustainable’ alternative. But, expensive is not sustainable. If Wen-Ling and I had to buy the bulk of our food from this market, we could make do. My food would costs would be quite high, but we could swing it. However, this is only because my income is much better these last few years.

I understand that some of the costs might be justified in a number of ways. Everyone wants to have excess income, to either save or spend. I know from personal experience how stressful it can be when the income fails to meet, or barely meets, the expenses. The farmers put in a lot of work to create the product. It’s nice to be rewarded, and very nice when the rewards are ample.

However, we paid $5 for a dozen eggs, $4 for four ounces of cheese, and $8 for eight ounces of honey. That is expensive!

Some products we didn’t buy include home-canned fruits, vegetables, and jams. I saw asparagus, carrots, and cauliflower all steeping in small glass jars, priced at $8 each. At those rates, I would be paying more than a dollar for a single spear of asparagus, or two dollars for the remains of a single carrot.

I also didn’t buy any pickles. A woman offered me a sample of her product, also priced at $8/jar. I accepted her offer, and these sweet pickles were tasty. I was intrigued, so I asked her if she grew her own cucumbers. Her response was surprising. She said she didn’t do the pickling herself. If she did, a jar would cost me $100 for the amount of work she would have to put into it.

She told me she bought jars of dill pickles from the store, drained the juices, and soaked them for a week in her own solution of sugar and spices. She then brought them to the market and sold them at a markup. That’s not my idea of home-production. That’s also not my idea of sustainable.

Several vendors were selling produce. One guy was selling mostly garlic. Another producer had a large corner booth with various bins of produce, all of it fresh. We bought our vegetables from him. But, when we tried to engage him in a little conversation about his farm, he was less than forthcoming. Perhaps he was tired. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.

I found this interesting because I used to produce honey and sell it at swap meets.  I always took time to answer questions.  I wanted to clear up misconceptions about bees, as well as to promote an understanding and an appreciation for my product.  I am more likely to pay a higher price to support a local producer if he or she is also a neighbor with whom I have a bond, even if the bond is just friendliness.

I am curious to discover how the vegetables are grown, and what techniques are used. This producer didn’t advertise himself as “organic”. And that’s fine. I might still buy if I perceive a general concern with the environment, and that non-organic applications are used judiciously.

A couple of other guys were selling vegetables, with a large sign that screamed, “Organic.” I spoke to them for a while. I wanted to know where they were growing their food. They told me, but what I was told didn’t quite add up. What I am about to say isn’t an accusation, because I don’t know. I am merely voicing my suspicions.

They have a farm inside of Phoenix proper. They lease their land, and have been on it for six months. Real-estate speculators buy raw land and sit on it until the right deal comes along. Tax rates on large properties bought under these circumstances can be quite high. These two farmers were leasing 25 acres, which might cost the owner of the land more than a hundred thousand a year in taxes. But, a lower rate is awarded to agricultural land. This is designed to not punish farmers with taxes they could never afford.

A speculator can lease out a minimum of 25 acres for agricultural use and his land is then taxed at the lower rate. These two farmers can get the use of the land for practically nothing and the landlord still makes out. It’s a good arrangement for everyone.

I am skeptical to the claims of ‘organic’, though, for the following reason. They have only been farming the land for six months, and they had beautiful, large vegetables. It takes a while to build soil fertility to the point that a variety of vegetables grow so well.

It may be that the land was farmed by someone else before they brought their operation there. In that case, there might be a lot of residual fertility in the soil from the efforts of the previous farmers. I could accept their claims to being organic under those circumstances.

The first year we dug up our garden after buying our house we had a great garden, because the lawn that previously occupied the space had been heavily fertilized by the previous owner. The next two years weren’t so good. These guys might be enjoying the same situation.

But, if the land was just an abandoned field in an urban area, I am more skeptical to their claims of being organic. You just don’t plant seeds and magically enjoy such great yields.

Like I said, this is just my skepticism, and I am in no position to know for sure.

This past Thursday, Wen-Ling and I went to another farmer’s market in Chandler after work. There was one producer left when we arrived. He had a good assortment of fruits and vegetables in plastic bins. Unlike the producers at the Phoenix market, he didn’t have prices on any of it. So I asked, “How much are these vegetables?”

“They’re all different”, he replied.

“Well, I expect that. But, how much do they cost?”, I asked again.

“Each bin is different”, he told me.

So I explained myself. “I am not going to put any of these into a bag until I know how much they cost. That way I am not surprised when you ask me for the amount. I need to know this information to decide how much I going to buy.”

He then told me how much the green bell peppers were. He seemed pissed. “And what about these red bell peppers?” In barely hidden anger he told me. Then I had to ask, “What about the broccoli?” At this point, my wife informed me that she was not buying anything from this person. We walked away empty handed. If you are selling something, basic courtesy towards your customers is not an option if you want even one sale, let alone repeat sales.

The Phoenix market was welcoming, although a bit pricey.  This guy was both expensive and surly. 

As we discussed it last Saturday night over dinner, I struggled with the issue.  I want to support local agriculture.  But, I also want affordable food.  I understand that these people want to be rewarded for their work.  What is a fair reward, though?

I have always had my own desire to have a farm.  Years ago after I returned from the Peace Corps, I bought ten acres in Amado.  I was building a beekeeping business while teaching.  I didn’t have a lot of money, and so I was roughing it.  I bought raw land and put an old trailer on it.  I drove an old pickup, and didn’t have much in the way of personal posessions.  I was in it for the love of it.

These people, I hope, are in it for the love of it, too.  But, when the prices are high it makes me wonder whether they are in it more for the money.  It makes me wonder what their lifestyles are like. 

My wife and I currently own a used home.  We furnish our home with discarded furniture.  We don’t own a television.  We have one working computer.  The previous computer was used for eight years before it was replaced.  We drive one car.  I ride a bike to work most days.  If these people are living more extravagantly, I hesitate to pay those prices.

I also know from personal experience that farmers’ markets in other countries aren’t so expensive.  Incomes in those countries are also lower.  Are higher prices justified in a wealthier economy?  Is it merely supply and demand?  I saw other people buying.  Were they buying because they like the freshness of the produce?  Were they buying for the novely?  Or, were they buying out of a conviction that spending this money was a better investment in the community?

I might need to go back to find out.  But, in the mean time, I will also be looking for alternatives to expensive local produce.

Phoenix Farmers’ Market

Last Saturday, Wen-Ling and I paid a visit to the farmers’ market on Central Avenue in Phoenix.  It was a warm, bordering on hot, sunny day.  We were looking forward to the trip.

We wound up buying a fair amount of food.  Wen-Ling had sampled some orange blossom honey and had to have it, even though we have a jar of honey at home already.  That was ok with me.  Before I met Wen-Ling, I used to keep bees.  I appreciate the product and everything that goes into producing it.

I bought some Rainbow Valley Farmer’s Cheese.  It is a rennet-free cheese.  Although I enjoyed it, I prefer cheese produced from rennet.  It has a much fuller flavor, and a somewhat better texture.  This cheese was made from vinegar.

We also bought some fresh vegetables, as well as a dozen chicken eggs and a big goose egg.

We ate the goose egg on Sunday morning as part of an omelet.  It tasted great.  What was quite remarkable about the egg was just how thick the yolk was.  It resisted the puncture of the fork.  When we were scrambling the egg, the yolk created a lot of drag within the egg white. 

The omelet was completed with the addition of some of the vegetables we had purchased Saturday morning.  It made for a very satisfying meal.

 The farmers’ market is certainly worth checking out, if you have the chance.  In addition to the market, they also put on classes.  On May 17th, they will have a Solar and Sustainable Open House (off-site), May 21st they will discuss preparing your garden for summer, and on May 24th they will have a class on raising urban chickens.

In a future post, I will spend some time discussing some of our criticisms of the market.  Wen-Ling and I spent our dinner on Saturday discussing our impressions, and they weren’t all positive.  Stay tuned for that.


Phoenix Sustainability Project

Good news.  Local government is considering issues of sustainability here Phoenix.  Debating the merits of what they are doing can be left to another date.  You can check out the Phoenix Sustainability Project here.  They are addressing many important issues, like transportation and air quality, energy use, recycling and pollution prevention, historic preservation, riparian area restoration and preservation, water, and land use.

The one thing missing from the site is the use of the term ‘peak oil.’  This doesn’t mean they aren’t aware of the problem.  But, it is something I find curious about political dialogue within the United States.  Governments in general aren’t discussing it.

There are exceptions.  I was pleased to discover that the Minnesota state legislature passed a resolution asking the governor of Minnesota, Tim Pawlenty, to prepare a response plan. 

Roscoe Bartlett, former (and possibly future) governor of Maryland addressed Congress about peak oil back in 2005. 

Even so, most of the time discussion of the issue takes place within the context of ‘climate change’, or ‘sustainability’.  Few people in government specifically speak directly to declining oil reserves.  And yet, the fallout from peak oil potentially could impact the average person more than climate change.

There is a lot of resistance to acting on behalf ‘climate’ within American politics.  There are quite a few climate skeptics on the Republican side of the debate.  I myself am not entirely sure how much of it I buy into, myself.  Perhaps, switching the terms of the debate to ‘peak oil’ would be more effective in generating intelligent debate and support for well thought out initiatives.

Certainly climate change activists would like to reduce carbon consumption.  Peak oil has the potential to do just that.  Both issues could be addressed through broadbased initiatives to develop renewable sources of energy and energy independence.

Without a frank political discussion of how we are to meet our energy needs as oil supplies begin to decline, there is the possibility of panicky behavior and irrational decisions too focused on the short term.  That could be disasterous.