Tag Archives: sustainable food

Sourdough The Way to Go

Since my last post here, I’ve continued my bread making to include sourdough bread, making my own sourdough starter.

It’s actually water kefir sourdough bread made with whole wheat flour, from scratch.

Water kefir is fairly simple to make; just feed water kefir grains with sugar, filtered (non chlorine) water, add a little organic dried fruit or raisins and voila! Every 24-48 hours, you have a zingy probiotic drink! (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Water kefir is fairly simple to make; just feed water kefir grains with sugar, filtered (non chlorine) water, add a little organic dried fruit or raisins and voila! Every 24-48 hours, you have a zingy probiotic drink! (Photo by Jim Ewing)

I made the water kefir then used the water kefir as a lactobacillus for a sourdough starter; then after three days I made the sourdough bread from the starter.
The honey is raw unfiltered from my bees — all natural, no chemicals of any kind.

In my last post, I made bread using flour that I ground myself from raw wheat like that grown locally. This was “store bought” wheat flour. I might try it with home ground later. But I’m also thinking about trying some other grains/sourdoughs, too.

This recipe (if you are interested, below in photo form) should be fine for vegans. This was made without any eggs or any dairy products.

Ingredients: water, water kefir (water kefir grains, organic lemon, organic raisins, organic dried apricots, organic powdered sugar), sea salt, honey, Gold Medal Natural Whole Wheat Flour, Organic Gold Medal All Purpose Flour, grapeseed oil.

I actually had ordered some sourdough starter online, but (as seems to be the case with me more often than not), I fumbled around and went at it backwards. Turns out, I ordered a sourdough starter for a type of grain which I didn’t have.
But, still, in keeping with my learning-through-mistakes trajectory, it turns out also that I had perfect ingredients in hand to make sourdough starter from scratch.

Now, I know, I could have made sourdough from the lactobacteria that we made our kraut from, or from the atmosphere here at the house, which produced the kraut. But I also had some water kefir on hand, which I used to make water kefir sourdough – based on a recipe found in Cultures for Health (culturesforhealth.com).

Sourdough facts
In case you are not familiar with sourdough, other than vague allusions to grizzled San Francisco ’49er prospectors or something, there’s a lot to it that speaks in its favor.

As far as bread goes, sourdough gives you the most nutrients in a balanced form. Since it’s extensively fermented before it’s baked, it’s essentially predigested. The grain’s proteins and starches are broken down by the process and the sugars are transformed into compounds that are absorbed by the body more slowly than with standard bread.

People with gluten sensitivities are told to stop eating wheat and are told to only buy gluten-free bread and pasta products. But it’s been documented that extensively fermented sourdough is essentially gluten free even with wheat.

In a well known study in 2010 by a team of scientists led by Luigi Greco at the University of Naples, a 60-day diet of baked goods made from hydrolyzed wheat flour, manufactured with sourdough lactobacilli and fungal proteases, was found not to be toxic to patients with celiacs disease. (See: http://www.cghjournal.org/article/S1542-3565%2810%2900987-0/abstract)

While there are variables that can change the results dramatically, including flour particle size, kneading protocol, leavening process and baking procedure, it has also been scientifically documented in peer-reviewed studies that blood sugars don’t spike eating sourdough bread in contrast with common bread. That includes some breads that you might find surprising, beyond white bread, to include 11-grain and sprouted-grain breads. That makes sourdough a preferred bread for people worried about being overweight, or dieting or with pre-diabetic conditions.

Note: I’m not a dietician or physician and am only commenting on what I have read in scientific literature based on my own layman’s understanding; only make medical and dietary decisions that may affect your health upon the advice of competent health professionals!

If you are interested in making this type of bread, here’s a photo step by step. This recipe is based on one found on the Cultures for Health Facebook page. But I did not use a gluten-free flour and changed the ingredients somewhat, both in quantities and ingredients (to make it vegan).

First, I made the starter.

I took two tablespoons of water kefir and added it to a mixture of one-half cup of flour and one half cup of non chlorinated (filtered) water. I repeated this (sans water kefir) every 12 hours for three days; except, after the first day, I added only 1/4-cup of flour and 1/4 cup of water.

Sourdough starter Day 1

Sourdough starter after the first day

Sourdough starter Day 2

Sourdough starter after the second day. As you can see, it filled up the jar; so when it settled down the next morning, I poured off the clear liquid (called hooch; which most people nowadays just stir in) and reduced the amount of flour/water I was adding.

Sourdough starter day 3

Sourdough starter on day 3. Here’s the starter with some hooch in it. As you can see, it’s bubbling nicely. When I stirred it, it became thick like dough; so, I figured it was ready. I made the “sponge” or pre-loaf mixture.


Sponge: I mixed 1 cup of sourdough starter (that left about 1 cup in the jar, which I fed with 1/4-cup of flour and no more water and set aside for future loaves) with

2 cups of water,

3 cups of whole wheat flour

I covered it with a loose towel and let it sit overnight.

The next morning, I uncovered the mixture and realized I didn’t have a big enough bowl. It was up to the edge and the recipe called for more ingredients.

So, I stirred the sponge, added the honey and salt and 3 cups of flour, and split the sponge into two with one in each bowl.

Split sponge

I kneaded and covered them, and let them sit for four hours.

Two loaves

Then, I kneaded them some more and put each one in a loaf pan and I let that sit for four hours.

Finally, I preheated the oven to 375 degrees and baked for 35 minutes. I have a meat thermometer that I use for baking and checked the temperature of the loaf, which was 200 degrees in the middle – anywhere between 190-200 shows doneness, or no uncooked dough. I pulled them out, let them sit for 15 minutes in the pans,then put them on a rack to cool.

Fresh loaves

Looked good to me!


And tasted good, too!

Things I would do differently? Mind you, I’m still a rank novice when it comes to cooking and certainly baking bread; but I’m learning as I go along, and that’s part of the fun of it. It surprised me the amount of dough after the sponge had sat out all night; it was more than one loaf, but less than two full-sized loaves. The recipe said two loaves, but I assumed that was in the pan, not in the bowl. I don’t have a bowl big enough for two whole loaves. So, I’m going to have to think about that.

I also am still dissatisfied with the amount my loaves are rising, or more accurately, not rising. While the bread has a nice consistency, a nice taste, without too much cavitation or holes, it’s not rising enough in my estimation.

I keep my house at 68 degrees and all the cookbooks say the room temp should be above 70. I actually turned up the thermostat to 72 degrees to make this bread; which seemed like a heat wave. But the farmhouse I live in is so drafty, I’m not sure that made any difference and maybe just boosted global warming a bit.

So, I’ll continue to fiddle with that. It could be that the starter is so young, it needs to age a bit. Or, it could be the whole wheat. I’ve found that white flours seem to rise better. That itself poses a conundrum: I want the germ and whole grain, not refined or recombined flour. If the tradeoff is the amount of rise, I can live with that. We’ll see! More later!

I have a lot more plans and ideas and experiments.

Happy New Year, Everyone!

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook, follow him @edibleprayers or visit blueskywaters.com.


Sustainable Agriculture: What Is It? And Why?

This is a talk I gave to a group of farmers and agriculture policy makers Friday, Dec. 7, 2012, in Enid, Miss.
Sustainable Agriculture: What is it? And Why?
By Jim PathFinder Ewing

Two years ago, Gaining Ground – Sustainability Institute of Mississippi embarked upon an ambitious project: to build a Mississippi Sustainable Agriculture Network.
It had not been done before in Mississippi and so, it’s a signal achievement that now, with the help of grants from the Appalachian Regional Commission and Winrock Foundation, that GGSIM’s dream of a network of sustainable farmers in the state is finally taking off.
While GGSIM could easily see that there was a need for a network of farmers to help each other help themselves toward sustainable farming and help consumers find those farmers, actually providing a definition for “sustainable agriculture” proved a thornier problem.
As the eclectic board of GGSIM — composed of academics, food, farming and health enthusiasts and farmers themselves — discovered: each constituency seems to have its own definition of “sustainable” when it comes to food and farming.
The board was confronted with a suddenly problematic issue: Just What is Sustainable Agriculture?
Being an organic farmer, my first thought was — of course! — sustainable farming is farming that follows the sustainable practice of organic farming.
But, as others on the board pointed out, there are many different flavors of “natural” or eco-sensitive farming: ecofarming, ecological farming, agroecology, permaculture, biodynamic, the list goes on.
Looking for an authoritative source, I checked the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has its own definition:

A 1996 Memorandum defined the USDA’s sustainable agriculture policy by stating: “USDA is committed to working toward the economic, environmental, and social sustainability of diverse food, fiber, agriculture, forest, and range systems. USDA will balance goals of improved production and profitability, stewardship of the natural resource base and ecological systems, and enhancement of the vitality of rural communities. USDA will integrate these goals into its policies and programs, particularly through interagency collaboration, partnerships and outreach.” (Source: USDA website: http://us.mg205.mail.yahoo.com/dc/launch?rand=1156758050)

In case this seems a rather nebulous definition, attempting to include all aspects of farming into one definition, it has a reason for being that way. In the 1990 Farm Bill, which this policy seeks to implement, the mandate for sustainability itself, while required, was weakened by this language: defined as to “make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, (italics mine) natural biological cycles and controls…” and further limited to “having a site-specific application.”

The words “where appropriate” has been used as a modifier to allow the use of materials and practices that would seem to be at odds with sustainability, while the “site specific” limitation has all but negated its widespread use or effectiveness as a program goal.

So, on the one hand, you have a USDA policy that requires sustainability and on the other a policy that seemingly negates its impact or advisability, generally relegated to a policy of appreciation for natural resources as “where appropriate.”
But that also must be understood from where USDA stands regarding the bulk of its programs. Using artificial, chemical, manufactured and synthetic inputs is called “conventional” agriculture, or “industrial farming.” It is by any normal definition “unsustainable” because it relies exclusively on artificial, chemical, manufactured and synthetic inputs. Yet, USDA is attempting to incorporate “sustainability” into this model.

So, the USDA definition wasn’t — and isn’t — much help to us in defining Sustainable Agriculture.

As the GGSIM board found, there also wasn’t a great deal of consensus among farmers themselves who believe they are practicing sustainable agriculture.
For example, farmers surveyed by GGSIM who defined themselves as sustainable  ranged from those who followed organic, natural, permaculture or biodynamic processes and no synthetic inputs; to those who used spot synthetic inputs (such as RoundUp herbicide) but otherwise did not use synthetic inputs; to one farmer who used horses for tilling fields and horse manure for fertilizer and believed using gasoline or diesel engines for tractors or tiller was unsustainable, but also used synthetic materials when needed. As one farmer pointed out, you can’t be sustainable as a business if you can’t sell your crop; if spot treatment is what’s required to stay in business, so be it.

This engendered a whole new conversation among the GGSIM board: farmers’ economic sustainability.
In fact, one of GGSIM’s board members, Preston Sullivan, had written an article about it, titled Applying the Principles of Sustainable Farming, published on the National Center for Appropriate Technology website. Preston’s piece, https://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/viewhtml.php?id=295, is an excellent primer on sustainable farming. It perfectly lays out goals of sustainability.

As Preston reports:
Sustainable farming meets environmental, economic, and social objectives simultaneously. Environmentally sound agriculture is nature-based rather than factory-based. Economic sustainability depends on profitable enterprises, sound financial planning, proactive marketing, and risk management. Social sustainability results from making decisions with the farm family’s and the larger community’s quality of life as a value and a goal.

In addition, since GGSIM is about about sustainability from a variety of vantages, we must include the human, social and emotional aspects. One definition that board members rallied around was by Sustainable Table:

Sustainable agriculture is a way of raising food that is healthy for consumers and animals, does not harm the environment, is humane for workers, respects animals, provides a fair wage to the farmer, and supports and enhances rural communities. (For more, see: http://www.sustainabletable.org/intro/whatis/)
By taking all of these definitions that we could agree upon and putting them together, with our own concerns, GGSIM came up with this:

MSAN Definition of Sustainable Farming:    

Sustainable farming meets environmental, economic, and social objectives simultaneously. It promotes:

a.     The health of farmers and their communities;

b.     Stewardship of the environment and  non-renewable resources; and

c.     Long term financial viability

These are lofty goals.
So, now, Why?

Why Sustainability?
The “Why” closely follows the “How” of sustainability when it comes to sustainable agriculture.

Globally, we are witnessing incredible changes in our planet that cannot be overlooked, from climate change to destruction of critical ecosystems such as the tropical rain forests, to depletion of fish stocks to degradation of air, water and land. The burning and depletion of fossil fuels is a major element in this environmental change, and agriculture is a major part of global environmental distress.
In fact, there is a growing movement to name a new geologic era, the Anthropocene, to reflect the cumulative ill effects of human impacts upon Earth starting with the beginning of agriculture some 10,000 years ago.
While these larger issues are of concern, and require action — from curbing greenhouse gas emissions, promoting recycling, approving international agreements to protect our soil, water and air — our focus is on what we as farmers can do to minimize impacts upon the areas where we live, work, eat and breathe.

Certifying agencies — USDA certified organic, Certified Naturally Grown, etc. — can define farm practices they will or won’t allow. It is not GGSIM’s aim to tell people what they can and cannot do. We can support sustainable practices that do not result in negative outcomes or ecological unsustainability.

Some of those would include: Decline in soil productivity; wind and water erosion of exposed topsoil; soil compaction; loss of soil organic matter, water holding capacity, and biological activity; salinization and/or desertification. These topics go hand in hand with biodiversity vs monocultures; use of natural vs synthetic inputs; crop rotation and cover crops; composting; soil and water contamination/pollution/treatment.

Those concerns lead to this truth:
The more toward ecological in the farming practices, the more resilient and sustainable the system; the more artificial, chemical, manufactured and synthetic the practices, the less sustainable the system.
For these reasons, I would suggest that as a practical model, sustainable farmers use the evaluation forms provided by Certified Naturally Grown.
CNG is a private, nongovernment, nonprofit certifying agency for small direct market farmers and beekeepers. (I am on the national CNG board of directors and helped craft the guidelines.) While it’s up to farmers themselves whether to be certified by CNG, USDA or any other group, or not, the reason I suggest using the form is that it generally follows the National Organic Program guidelines, but it is also crafted as a worksheet for farmers to determine their own goals — where they are and how they want to get to a more sustainable, natural growing system.
See: http://www.naturallygrown.org/programs/documents

In coming months, MSAN will be working with farmers to develop model farms.
Sustainable farmers will benefit not only from input and expertise from outside groups but from among themselves.
Afterall, that’s central to MSAN: Encouraging Growth of the Sustainable Farming Community in Mississippi through workshops and conferences, farm tours and mentorship programs.

Now that we have a definition of sustainable agriculture that we can live with, and know why we have to have it, let’s apply it, shall we?

Jim PathFinder Ewing is an organic farmer and author, a GGSIM board member and chairman of the GGSIM Food & Farming Committee. His most recent book is “Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating” (Findhorn Press).

For more on Ewing, see: http://www.blueskywaters.com

For more on GGSIM, see: http://www.ggsim.org

For more on MSAN, see: http://www.ggsim.org/gardening/ms-sustainable-agriculture-network

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook or follow him @EdiblePrayers or @OrganicWriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

‘Seed schools’ can nurture local heritage plants

March 23, 2012
‘Seed schools’ can help nurture local heirloom plants

A novel approach toward helping young people ensure biodiversity  in our world is studying seeds in the wild and planting them for food in  the garden.
Called “seed schools,” they should be in schools everywhere.
According  to Native Seeds SEARCH’s Seedhead News, Gary Paul Nabhan, sometimes  called “the father of the local foods movement,” was recently named to  an endowed chair at the University of Arizona’s Sustainable Food Systems  Program.
Nabhan helps seed school students name their own plant  (garden-bred or in the wild). “Once it’s in print and described,” he  says, “you can’t patent it. It
becomes public domain.”
Most  Americans probably aren’t aware of the pervasive practice of  corporations claiming ownership of common plants and seeds, giving them  exclusive use.
Seed School’s Bill McDorman, Native Seeds SEARCH’s  executive director, notes that land grant universities were in part  established to provide seeds for
farmers, but most of their research now  supports further privatization of what was once part of the public  trust.
In recent years, multinational corporations have bought up  many  seed companies, discontinuing production of many varieties and  substituting their
own patented genetically modified seeds (GMOs).
According to the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, 96 percent of food crops available in 1906 are no longer available.
The  American public has all but given away its ability to grow its own food  to profit-making corporations and the government. Once that ownership  is gone, we’re all serfs to those who own the seeds and plants that feed  us.

Local heirloom food explained: A wonderful book on  indigenous heirloom foods in Mississippi (Appalachia and the South, too)  is The Moving Feast by Allan Nation (Green Park Press; 2010; $ 25.60).
It’s called that because Native Americans would move their crops from field  to field, creating the parklike forests early settlers found. Food grew
abundantly without artificial chemicals. Such practices, Nation  explains, continued until the 1930s. Organic farming, Nation says, is  essentially another
name for those practices.
Nation, publisher of  The Stockman Grass Farmer magazine, is something of a hero across the  U.S. for his promotion of raising cattle naturally.
Such  luminaries as celebrity farmer/author Joel Salatin swear by his work,  extolling heirloom foods and natural processes (often called ecofarming)  with
his magazine in Ridgeland.
Nation’s book should be on every  organic farmer’s bookshelf as a reminder that although, as the teacher  says, there is no new thing under the sun, there is
plenty of old lore  worth remembering.
It’s available at www.stockmangrassfarmer.com, 1-800-748-9808 or P.O. Box 2300, Ridgeland MS 39158-9911.

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.