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.

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.

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.

This Evening’s Meal

This evening I came home to a beautiful meal. Wen-Ling prepared it from some food that she bought through a local CSA (community supported agriculture) chapter.

The CSA provides food on a subscription basis. They drop off once a week at Community Christian Church near us in Tempe. The food is locally grown.

I spoke to Andrew a couple of weeks ago. He was the CSA representative two weeks back manning the drop-off at the church. He told me Crooked Sky Farms sells their produce through a number of CSA drop-offs in the valley. They operate two farms, one in Glendale, and another in southern Arizona.

During the summer months the food comes from the farm in southern Arizona, where the higher altitude allows for cooler temperatures. Glendale, in the heart of greater Phoenix, is too hot for most produce during the summer months. But, Glendale is ideal for growing vegetables during fall, winter, and spring.

Wen-Ling had sent me to check out the CSA chapter two weeks ago. They bring food to the church once a week. Subscribers come in from 4 to 7 pm to pick up what Crooked Sky Farms has produced for that week. If my memory serves me correctly, each subscriber was entitled that week to something like three grape fruit, seven or eight potatos, a bunch of carrots, some dandelion greens, a fennel plant, some dried beans, some nuts. I might be forgetting some of what they had.

Andrew said they try to challenge people to eat at least one or two types of plants they normally wouldn’t find at a local grocery store. For instance, the dandelion greens and fennel were the unusual ingredients for that week.

They also brought locally baked bread and fair trade coffee from some local vendors. The coffee, of course, was not produced in Arizona. It was more likely from Mexico or Central America. But the bread was from a local producer. Those items were not part of the weekly subscription price. You purchase them separately.

Wen-Ling visited them today. They had eggs from another local producer, as well as goat cheese, which you see adorning our salad in the photo above. The goat cheese is from Black Mesa Ranch in Snowflake, Arizona. Snowflake is not what I would consider truly local to Phoenix. It is a couple of hours from here, above the Mogollon Rim. But, it is a hell of a lot closer than Europe or even Wisconsin.

The rest of the salad ingredients came from Sunflower Marketplace here in Tempe.

The salad had lettuce, tomatoes, artichoke hearts, kalamata olives, and the goat cheese. Wen-Ling also ground and sprinkled some home-grown rosemary. The only dressing was a tablespoon of olive oil. The combination of the kalamata olives with the goat cheese was tremendous. The goat cheese by itself was tasty but light. When combined with the olives it provided a very rich flavor. The artichoke played nicely into the flavor.

The dish of potatoes, leeks, and carrots was seasoned with some olive oil in which Wen-Ling has been steeping some chillis, rosemary, orange peel, and who knows what else. It added a spiciness that creeps up on you after you have had a bite or two. Delicious.

What was remarkable about this dish, too, was the flavor of the carrots and the texture and flavor of the potatoes. Because it was locally produced, the potatoes were very different from the type you get at your typical grocer. I guess the best way to describe them is they didn’t seem old. They weren’t the slightest bit shriveled and they had a meatier texture. The carrots were much more flavorful than the kind you get in an orange bag. They were slightly sweet, like home grown carrots. The leeks were very tender because they were young and smallish. Most grocery stores sell giant, mature leeks which are often on the tough side.

We intend to sample what they provide about once a month. We may eventually try out a subscription on a weekly basis. But, we weren’t sure about committing to that through the summer. Our schedules might conflict with the weekly pickup.

After this evening’s meal, though, I am intrigued with the possibility of subscribing on a weekly basis. It might provide a nice way to augment what we grow in our own garden with other fresh, locally-produced food.

Phoenix, drying up and blowing away?

Hillary is battling hard for a chance to upstage Barrack at the eleventh hour. If she is successful in beating Obama tomorrow, it could be due to broad support from ignorant masses who eat up the notion that she can do something about the power of OPEC.

“That’s not a market. That’s a monopoly,” she said. Ben Smith states in his blog, “It’s a potent message, like the attack on ‘Wall Street money brokers,’ with deep roots in American politics.” It also happens to be an absurdity, another phenomenon with deep roots in our political tradition.

Ignore the crazy image of the male leaders of the middle east kowtowing to a female American president representing a country without the financial or political capital to force the issue. The reason she can’t do anything about OPEC is that they can’t do anything about the supply of oil.

World oil production has been nearly flat for the last three years. It’s not because the oil producers aren’t trying. The price of oil is at an all-time record. Why would any sane business person hold back?

World oil production flattens out

This was predicted first by a geologist named M. King Hubbert back in the 1950’s. Peak oil theory states that we won’t be going up much further, if at all. And then, oil will become increasingly scarce. (Even if supply doesn’t fall in real terms, which it eventually will, oil will become increasingly scarce due to growing demand.)

Any way you cut it, high oil prices are here to stay and grow, Hillary be damned. The price of oil will fall eventually, when people stop demanding it. But, people won’t do that unless we create some viable alternatives.

There are many ideas. None are easy to implement, especially as our nation goes broke. (Thanks, George, for the three trillion dollar (to-date) NEEDLESS war! History will judge you alright!)

Why does this matter to the good people of Phoenix? Because we live in a friggen desert, in a city that did not consider the antiquated notion of ‘pedestrians’ during its boom years! It’s the reason the gloomiest predictions regarding peak oil feature the absolute demise of Phoenix.

I have a problem with this idea, though. I realize we live in a harsh environment, and that the magnitude of the problems peak oil presents — which are just beginning to be felt — stagger the mind. But, I also believe we have the ability to innovate, adapt, and cope. I do foresee a lot of pain as energy shortages and economic problems set in. But, I don’t see Arizona just drying up and blowing away. It’s a state, for god-sake.

The previous statement may seem absurd to some people. Civilizations do collapse, after all. We’re not immune. It will come down to the choices we make, individually and communally.

I am looking forward to meeting people who are aware of the issue, and writing about how various people are handling it. No matter how you slice it, it’s our problem to deal with.

Many people will blame politicians. Some of it will be deserved. They do make some asinine decisions. But, that’s also because they represent us. We make asinine decisions, too.

Many politicians will be quick to scapegoat on the issue, while others will make fantastical promises. Don’t buy any of it. Hillary, Barack, and McCain are all too human. We will have to force our leaders to be realistic, if we are to have a fighting chance.