Former Associate editor Margret Aldrich on the hunt for happiness, community, and how humans thrive
Wednesday, February 29, 2012 3:27 PM
You’ve heard of farm to table. Coming soon: park to table. This spring, in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Seattle, seven acres of underused land will be transformed into the nation’s largest urban “food forest”—a community park planted with a cornucopia of produce that visitors are encouraged to harvest and eat, for free.
According to Crosscut reporter Robert Mellinger, the Beacon Food Forest will be “an urban oasis of public food” offering a variety of edibles: apples and blueberries, herbs and vegetables, chestnuts and walnuts, persimmons and Asian pears.
The sprawling project, while ambitious, draws strength from volunteer groups like Friends of the Beacon Food Forest and from simply letting nature take its course. Built around the concept of permaculture, it will be a perennial, self-sustaining landscape, much like a woodland ecosystem in the wild. Companion plants included for natural soil-enhancement and pest-control will help lower the amount of maintenance needed.
“The idea of planting perennials as part of a self-sustaining, holistic system is old hat to many accomplished gardeners,” writes Claire Thompson for Grist, and groups like San Francisco’s Guerrilla Grafters have already dazzled us with novel ways to promote urban agriculture. “But,” continues Thompson, “creating a system on public land that combines the concepts of urban farms, orchards, and natural forest, and depending on collaborative community effort to keep it going, represents uncharted territory for the now-flourishing urban-farming movement.”
In addition to contributing to your family picnic, the bounteous Beacon Food Forest will feature traditional amenities like playing fields, community gardens, a kids’ area, and public gathering spaces. Check out the full site plan below:
Sources: Crosscut, Grist
Image by Liz West, licensed under Creative Commons.
Margret Aldrich is an associate editor at Utne Reader. Follow her on Twitter at @mmaldrich.
Thursday, January 12, 2012 2:43 PM
What must it feel like to be an astronaut: weightless, rocketing farther and farther from home and country, gazing out your craft’s window at the deepness of space, wondering where you can get a good salad...
As astronauts set their sights on a not-so-distant mission to Mars, scientists are wondering what to put on spacecraft menus. Current packaged meal options, while far more advanced than the nutrition pills and pureed-food tubes of early space travel, aren’t practical for an extended trip, says Alexandra Witze in Science News. “Six astronauts eating 3,000 calories a day for three years, the length of a Mars mission, adds up to 20 tons of prepared food that would need to be launched.”
Homegrown space food could be the answer. Researchers at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida are exploring ways for astronauts to raise their own vegetables in orbit, from radishes and lettuce to cherry tomatoes and mizuna greens. The plants, generating oxygen as well as food, are grown hydroponically, with blue, red, and green lights employed to aid production and special implements used to carry moisture to their roots.
But as with Sputnik 1, the Russians got here first. They’ve been growing food in space, on a small scale, for decades and have a miniature garden in their part of the International Space Station. Now, funding for research in the United States—which has been fickle over the years—is reinvigorated, thanks to the prospective trek to Mars.
Researchers suspect that space gardens won’t be the primary source of sustenance on galactic missions, but fresh-picked vegetables will be a welcome addition to the cycle of processed and packaged meals.
“Along with reducing trash and launch mass requirements, such crops would give astronauts a little diet variety and psychological lift,” writes Witze. After all, even astronauts love to eat local.
Source: Science News
Image by Tim Sackton, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, January 06, 2012 3:51 PM
Lots of people think that farming has gotten too industrialized. But there are others who believe it’s not nearly industrialized enough—such as the Iowa inventor who envisions armies of robots growing our food in the future.
Discovery News reports on David Dourhout’s new Prospero, a six-legged farm robot that works in teams to plant and fertilize crops. Scuttling across the land like oversized, high-tech crabs, the group of intercommunicating robots resemble an alien invasion more than a farm crew. Watch them at work in this video:
Dourhout, who based his Prospero design in part on the swarming behaviors of insects, birds and fish, believes that robotic farming will help ramp up food production for a heavily populated planet. He “hopes the next step will be to create more advanced robots that can weed, fertilize and harvest the crop,” writes Eric Niller at Discovery News.
Count me among those who are skeptical that large-scale robotic farming is the answer to our pressing food-supply needs. While I understand that not every tomato and strawberry can be lovingly hand-picked by an organic farmer in a bucolic setting, it seems equally a stretch to think that complete robotic automation is the future of farming.
The popular science press seems perpetually entranced by the prospect of a heavily roboticized future, to the point where my own response to such stories has become automated. When asked “Should robots grow our food?” I have the same answer as I do to the question recently posed on the cover of Discover: “Should robots run airport security?”
Source: Discovery News, Discover
Thursday, December 29, 2011 10:12 AM
What do you get if you cross an apple tree with a littleleaf linden? The Guerrilla Grafters—a renegade urban gardening group in San Francisco—hope the result is a metropolitan food forest. The volunteer activists splice branches from fruit trees onto the non–fruit bearing trees that line their city streets in an effort to grow cherries, Asian pears, and other fresh produce for local residents, free of charge.
“We have tens of thousands of trees in San Francisco,” says Guerrilla Grafter Tara Hui, in a video shot by *faircompanies, “so that’s a huge resource that we could tap into to provide food.”
Not everyone is a fan of the project, reports Yi Chen on psfk: “In some states, it’s illegal to have fruit bearing trees on pedestrian footpaths as fallen fruits become a health and safety hazard, [and are] also believed to attract insects and rodents.” The Guerrilla Grafters, however, believe that enlisting community stewards to monitor the trees will prevent such problems.
To learn more about the project, and find out how you can replicate it in your city, visit the Guerrilla Grafters website and watch this video of Hui and Booka Alon as they lovingly check their grafts and seek out new fruit:
Sources: *faircompanies, psfk
Image by Muffet, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, November 23, 2011 11:45 AM
The decay of present-day Detroit has been well chronicled, and the new documentary film Urban Roots in its first minutes treads familiar ground as it unspools a now-familiar montage of crumbling warehouses and gutted bungalows in the ailing Motor City. But before you can hurl charges of “ruin porn,” the film shifts to its real focus: The gardeners who are turning the vacant lots of Detroit into fields of abundance. Let others focus on what’s dead and dying; this movie is about what’s growing here.
“Resilient” only begins to describe the determined, resourceful Detroiters who have seen jobs and neighbors disappear as the city depopulates. Instead of fleeing, they’ve stayed and begun growing vegetables. Lots of them. You may have heard or read about Detroit’s urban farmers, but Urban Roots really brings the movement alive by getting right down in the furrows with them.
The film, whose production team includes the producer of the Leonardo DiCaprio-hosted green doc The 11th Hour, introduces us to the guys at Brother Nature Produce, who have carved out a small farm that supplies farmers’ markets and a community-supported agriculture (CSA) operation. It shows us the Field of Dreams Mobile Market, which delivers fresh, local produce to sick or elderly people. A rap artist turned pepper picker finds “something positive” in his community garden work, and proud kids mug for the camera not with bling but with vegetables.
Yeah, Urban Roots is a feel-good movie, but in the best kind of way: The positive vibe is, to use the appropriate metaphors, organic instead of artificial, homegrown instead of Hollywood.
The only discordant note for me—and it’s a small one—is a futuristic illustrated montage at the film’s end showing skyscraping “vertical farms” and some ridiculous high-tech floating monstrosity called a “boat farm.” I understand the filmmakers are trying to think big here, but the basic economics of vertical farming are highly questionable at best, and anyway, this sort of large-infrastructure techno-fix is the very antithesis of the do-it-yourself spirit exemplified by the citizen-farmers we’ve just met. They didn’t sit around hoping for some eco-designer to build them a 10-story steel-and-glass farm. They just went to the vacant lot next door and started digging. As one of the farmers says, “It’s an act of self-determination.”
Source: Urban Roots
Images courtesy of Urban Roots Film.
Friday, October 21, 2011 3:17 PM
“Why would someone spend their limited leisure time shoveling horse-shit into a compost pile?” wonders Jason Mark, co-manager at San Francisco’s Alemany Farm, which hosts community workdays twice a week.
More and more, people are clamoring to join in the urban farming movement and get their hands dirty. There’s no doubt that urban gardening has graduated from fledgling trend to part of our cultural landscape, with vegetable gardens taking root everywhere from tiny backyards, to college campuses, to the White House grounds, to fire-escape terraces. Writing for Gastronomica, Mark lays out the motivations behind the movement and why public participation continues to rise:
The new agrarians are seeking a way to refashion the relationships—ecological, emotional—that have been eroded by work without meaning and food without substance. They are trying to accomplish a kind of restoration of the world…. The farm’s gift is the confirmation of our common need for sustenance, for cooperation, achievement, and creativity, and for a visceral connection to the biological systems on which we depend. The farm reminds us of how, when we join together in the spirit of collective action, we fulfill our individual selves.
Mark points to several specific, personal benefits of urban gardening. First, of course, there’s the food. (Who can’t appreciate the crunch of a Mokum carrot or the beauty in a row of ruffle-leaved lettuces?) But behind this real food lies the honest labor that results in real satisfaction, another key reward. Mark writes:
At the end of a workday, the most common sentiment I hear from volunteers is astonishment at how much they have done. They are delighted to witness the immediacy of their accomplishments. When the day started, the onions were a weedy, overgrown mess; by the close of the afternoon, the crop lines are clean and obvious. Most people’s regular jobs don’t provide such clear cause and effect.
Cultivating farmland where we can provides other simple gifts, too: an artistic outlet, an escape from a self-absorbed society, and a much-needed reconnection with nature—no matter how urban it might be. Mark says this of his beloved, if not bucolic, Alemany Farm:
This isn’t the backwoods of Yosemite. We grow food next to a 165-unit public-housing project. I will never forget one college student I spent an afternoon weeding with. I asked him why he came to the farm. “It’s just great to be out in nature,” he said. I almost dropped my hoe. Didn’t he hear the rush of freeway traffic seventy yards away?
(article not available online)
Image by clayworkshop, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, October 14, 2011 5:02 PM
The biggest pumpkin ever grown weighed 1,810.5 pounds. It was planted in the spring of 2010 and cultivated through the summer by Chris Stevens, a pumpkin enthusiast and cross-breeder extraordinaire, from New Richmond, Wisconsin. Stevens’ gargantuan gourd was anything but a fluke found in the thicket. He used very specific agricultural techniques (including pumpkin-tailored crop rotation, selective breeding, and climate control) to beat out his competition—a collective of hobbyists and extreme gardeners from western Minnesota to upstate New York.
“Their crop of choice is the Atlantic Giant Pumpkin,” explains Brendan Borrell in Smithsonian Magazine, “a freak of nature and intensive breeding.”
Although Borrell digs deep into how Stevens and other mega-pumpkin growers nurture the plants from seed to super-squash, pound-for-pound, his explanation of pumpkin politics is the article’s most interesting element. Speculation and competition are rampant throughout the season, but so are collaboration and encouragement.
“There’s probably at least six or seven that have a chance to break the world record,” Werner told Borrell toward the end of the 2010 growing season, sharing rumors about contenders he’d read about at BigPumpkins.com, pumpkin gossip website.
“The weigh-offs are friendly competitions,” Borrell writes, “but they’re also a form of citizen science, with growers meticulously graphing their pumpkins’ growth curves and sharing success and failure with their peers.” For now, the Holy Grail of Gourd is 2,000 pounds, a weight some experts guess will be reached by the 2014 growing season.
Think it sounds like a fanciful obsession run off the rails? Dave Stelts, another large pumpkin grower and president of the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth, sees potentially world changing benefits to their passion. “By God,” he said to Smithsonian, “if we can get a pumpkin up to a ton, imagine what we can do to somebody’s vegetable crop. What we are doing will be reflected on the dinner table of America.”
Why stop at a ton? Or five tons, for that matter? David Hu, a researcher at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Borrell notes, has collected data that suggest pumpkins could structurally—and theoretically—grow to 20,000 pounds. Regardless how large pumpkin hobbyists grow their crops in the future, come fall, we’ll all need to reassess our preconceived notions of what a jack-o-lantern, pumpkin pie, and single-person boat can be:
Image by IrisDragon, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, September 22, 2011 4:46 PM
Whatever you call it—“agricultural urbanism,” “new ruralism,” or one of the dozen other alternate labels—the concept of carefully planned agrarian suburbs sounds like utopia. Protecting land while permitting growth, “agriburbia” is a farm-friendly antidote to the eat-it-up philosophy of consumerist suburban sprawl.
When populations encroach into the countryside, we sacrifice more than pastoral vistas, says Jonathan Lerner in Miller-McCune.“The steady loss of farmland and natural habitat to sprawl-pattern development endangers food supplies and other resources, as well as the health, wealth and survival prospects of individuals and even whole communities,” he explains.
In Fresno County, California—where the majority of farms are small, family-run enterprises and half are minority operated—the threat to the agrarian landscape that produces everything from plums to almonds is undeniable. “The American Farmland Trust has estimated that if conventional growth patterns continue, by 2040 the county could lose another 135,000 acres of farmland, out of a total of about 2.25 million acres,” Lerner writes. He continues:
[A] new approach to regional planning could help turn that pattern around in Fresno and elsewhere. At scales ranging from a few hundred to many thousands of acres, the approach aims to protect unspoiled and working landscapes while allowing development to accommodate expanding populations….
Forget large-lot, single-family, cul-de-sac subdivisions accessed by traffic arteries lined with fast-food and big-box outlets. Future development would be densely clustered or channeled into towns and villages on sites less valuable for farming and conservation or where infrastructure already exists. Besides homes, these growth centers would include shops, workplaces, schools, pedestrian amenities and transit.
This kind of development, known as new urbanism, is already increasingly familiar. What’s new is its integration with efforts to protect working and natural landscapes.
The agriburban plan being considered for Fresno, called the Southeast Growth Area (SEGA), would combine a vibrant residential community with agriculture in a 9,000-acre belt of land at the edge of the city. Gardens and orchards would grow throughout, and small commercial farms would border the eastern perimeter.
Agriculturally oriented subdivisions are springing up in other parts of the country, too: There’s Hampstead near Montgomery, Alabama; The Farmstead, outside Charlotte, North Carolina; and Pingree Grove, less than an hour from Chicago. With amenities including elaborate community gardens, local food farmers markets, farm-to-table restaurants, and active community involvement, there are plenty of reasons to live there beyond land preservation.
“Though the particulars differ, they all share the basic approach of building compact towns or villages as a way to avoid consuming undeveloped land,” Lerner writes. “New-urbanist thinking is essential because it provides the tools for creating places for growth that are not only dense but desirable.”
Image by Thomas Hawk, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, September 09, 2011 4:21 PM
Farmers are often among the first people to notice a shift in the climate. So while I rely on scientists for my big-picture information about climate change, I also take seriously the cumulative daily—and yearly—field research of a trusted source: My local CSA (community supported agriculture) farmers, Michael Racette and Patty Wright of Spring Hill Community Farm in Prairie Farm, Wisconsin. They are keen observers of wind, water, air, and soil, living so close to the land that they literally sink their hands into it every day.
Farming has of course always been an uncertain business, due to the naturally variable whims of weather, but lately it’s more uncertain than ever—some would even call it wildly unpredictable. Here’s what’s happening in the furrows as reported by Patty in this season’s Spring Hill newsletters:
Sometimes rain is a lovely thing, sometimes it’s not. Last Friday we had about half an inch of rain. It made harvest not very pleasant or pretty, but we appreciated it knowing we were in for a blast of heat over the next week. Then there was Saturday morning. Very early Saturday morning we woke up to thunder and lightning and heavy, heavy rains. When we went out to take a look there was over four inches of rain in the gauge. Our little stream had become something of a river and we were unable to cross it. Our plan to pick peas with the members who were to arrive shortly was curtailed when we sank up to our ankles in mud. Plans to pick cilantro were changed to basil from the hoophouse when we saw the flattened cilantro.
It’s been a big week at the farm, a big week of crazy weather and a big week of garlic harvest. After that most amazing four-inch-plus rain, we were blasted with heat. … We had hoped to finish [the garlic harvest] last Saturday but just as people arrived to help with the harvest day, so did the rain. We got over an inch that morning and then another inch and a quarter Saturday evening. Thankfully we’ve managed to escape damaging winds and hail and we all survived the brutal heat. I know there’s crazy weather every year but this year seems record breaking on way too many fronts.
Rain, heat, mosquitoes! The working conditions of late have not been ideal. We’ve gotten well over ten inches of rain over the last couple of weeks and it’s raining again as I write. The ground is saturated making it impossible to get in and do some of the work we’d like to be doing.
We are starting to see some of the effects of extended hot weather along with all the rain.
Last Tuesday, Mike and I went out to harvest the eggplant. We were able to pick about 75-80 nice eggplant—and that was it. There would be no eggplant for Saturday’s delivery and none in the foreseeable future. The plants have no more eggplant of any size. Peppers are equally puzzling. Some have a decent fruit set, others a couple of big ones and nothing else. Our poblano peppers have no fruit. While it’s true that peppers and eggplant both are heat loving plants, they’re rather particular about the temperature while they’re blossoming. In fact, they’ll drop their blossoms if the daytime temperatures are above 90 degrees and/or if nighttime temperatures are above 75 degrees. Beans, it turns out, are equally sensitive. Our first bean planting produced just fine. Our second planting, however, setting its blossoms during that heat spell, is not producing well at all. We’re taking a week (maybe two) off of beans. Hopefully we’ll have some after that. The bees, so important for pollination, also take a vacation when it gets hot. We’ve noticed the effects of that in our zucchini and cucumber patches. Potatoes, we’ve learned, go into a stage of dormancy when it gets too warm.
If this year is any indication, farming in this time of climate change is going to be challenging. While one certainly can’t plan for unpredictability, we’re trying to think about what we ought to be doing as extreme weather patterns become more common.
Source: Spring Hill Community Farm
, licensed under
Friday, July 22, 2011 2:56 PM
As homes go into foreclosure and offices acquire a ghost town emptiness, it’s hard not to feel skeptical when San Francisco architect Kurt Lavenson praises the effect of the recession. “For my part,” he claims in ARCADE (Spring 2011), “I am learning to embrace the slowdown for its cathartic qualities. The stillness has within it another kind of wealth—one of reflection, grounding and opportunity. I have come to appreciate the fallow period.”
It’s a provocative statement issued to a world of underwater homeowners and laid-off workers. But Lavenson doesn’t write from a position of economic immunity. His own architecture firm has experienced the profound slowdown that has plagued so many businesses. A once-constant list of ready clients, built over decades, has been lost to gaping periods of time without work.
Still, zenlike, Lavenson values this fiscally sparse time the same way a farmer values a crop field lying idle for a season, regenerating its soil for the next round of planting. It was a midlife economic low, he tells us, that propelled 49-year-old Frank Gehry from a conventional architect to a worldwide icon. “Taking time to pause, to lay fallow, allows us to connect with that wisdom and reach a fundamentally new kind of productivity,” Lavenson contends.
If you feel doomed by the economy that has put your job, your home, and (seemingly) your lifelong success in jeopardy, you need to read Lavenson’s inspired article celebrating the downturn. Despite initially raising my eyebrows, Lavenson ultimately convinces me—reminds me, really—that in loss there is beautiful opportunity, in crisis there is beautiful reward.
Image by TimWilson,
licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, July 19, 2011 5:29 PM
“All meat is not created equal,” reads a new report from the Environmental Working Group (EWG). The “Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change + Health” evaluates 20 common protein-rich foods to determine the healthiest picks for the planet and for our bodies.
The best bet is the friendly lentil. The worst offenders? Lamb, beef, and (say it ain’t so!) cheese. The amount of greenhouse gases (GHGs) they generate—from feed production, ruminant digestion, and manure—along with their fat contents and cradle-to-grave carbon footprints put them at the bottom of EWG’s impact chart:
Eating less meat and cheese can make an astonishing reduction in GHG emissions, says political food blog Civil Eats:
Just like reducing home energy use or driving less, skipping meat once a week can make a meaningful difference in GHG emissions if we all do it. According to EWG’s calculations, if everyone in the U.S. chose a vegetarian diet, it would be the equivalent of taking 46 million cars off the road or not driving 555 billion miles. To present a likelier option, if everyone in the U.S. ate no meat or cheese just one day a week, it would be like not driving 91 billion miles–or taking 7.6 million cars off the road.
That said, not all lamb chops are evil. On the farm where I grew up, for example, we had a modest flock of fifty sheep and, although they were raised for meat, the cycle was about as humane and environmentally responsible as it comes: We gently moved them from pasture to pasture, where they grazed on grass and alfalfa; we lovingly sheared them onsite, selling the lanolin-soft wool; we lambed them in the spring, midwifing the hardest births; and, finally, we took the lambs to a small processor just eight miles up the road.
If you’re in search of ethical, eco-friendly, health-smart meat, look for local, lean, pasture-raised cuts, given no antibiotics or hormones and, preferably, certified “organic” and “humane.” Want help losing your appetite for meat instead? Read Will Wlizlo’s soberingly graphic Utne Reader post “Inside the Meat Processing Plant.” (Shudder.)
Sources: Environmental Working Group, Civil Eats
Infographic by Environmental Working Group.
Monday, July 18, 2011 5:28 PM
More than 270,000 organic farmers are taking on corporate agriculture giant Monsanto in a lawsuit filed March 30. Led by the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association, the family farmers are fighting for the right to keep a portion of the world food supply organic—and preemptively protecting themselves from accusations of stealing genetically modified seeds that drift on to their pristine crop fields.
Consumers are powerful. For more than a decade, a cultural shift has seen shoppers renounce the faster-fatter-bigger-cheaper mindset of factory farms, exposéd in the 2008 documentary Food, Inc. From heirloom tomatoes to heritage chickens, we want our food slow, sustainable, and local—healthy for the earth, healthy for animals, and healthy for our bodies.
But with patented seeds infiltrating the environment so fully, organic itself is at risk. Monsanto’s widely used Genuity® Roundup Ready® canola seed has already turned heirloom canola oil into an extinct species. The suing farmers are seeking to prevent similar contamination of organic corn, soybeans, and a host of other crops. What’s more, they’re seeking to prevent Monsanto from accusing them of unlawfully using the very seeds they’re trying to avoid.
“It seems quite perverse that an organic farmer contaminated by transgenic seed could be accused of patent infringement,” says Public Patent Foundation director Dan Ravicher in a Cornucopia Institutearticle about the farmers’ lawsuit (May 30, 2011), “but Monsanto has made such accusations before and is notorious for having sued hundreds of farmers for patent infringement.”
Even as the megacorporation enjoys soaring stock, the U.S. justice department continues to look into allegations of its fraudulent antitrust practices (The Street, June 29, 2011):
Monsanto, which has acquired more than 20 of the nation’s biggest seed producers and sellers over the last decade, has long pursued a strict policy with its customers, obligating them to buy its bioengineered seeds every year rather than use them in multiple planting seasons. Farmers who disobey are blacklisted forever.
It’s a wide net Monsanto has cast over the agricultural landscape. As Ravicher points out, “it’s actually in Monsanto’s financial interest to eliminate organic seed so that they can have a total monopoly over our food supply.” Imagine a world devoid of naturally vigorous traditional crops and controlled by a single business with a appetite for intellectual property. Did anyone else feel a cold wind pass through them? Now imagine a world where thousands of family farmers fight the good fight to continue giving consumers a choice in their food—and win.
Source: Cornucopia Institute, The Street
Image by NatalieMaynor,
licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, July 15, 2011 4:50 PM
Is eating locally just another status symbol? Get together with certain members of the locavore movement, and you’ll hear conversations about the cost of CSAs and the cost of timeshares, rare heirloom seeds and rare art acquisitions. Troll the aisles of your neighborhood co-op grocery, and you’ll find a strange financial homogeneity in much of the clientele: These are people who can afford a five-dollar pint of strawberries.
Slowly, though, the local food movement is inching toward inclusion. In 20 states, some farmers markets offer double vouchers to folks enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). And now, progressive food shelves are stocking local food.
The Hallie Q. Brown Community Center in St. Paul, Minnesota, aims to provide the poor with access to the best farm-raised local produce by spearheading a local foods drive that spans this year’s growing season. According to the center, in 2011 they have already given out more than 58,000 pounds of food—much of it local.
The center partners with small farmers who make donations based on what is in season and, often, what is in surplus. Most donators are happy to contribute to a cause that is good for the community and prevents their beloved produce from going to waste. So far this year, the food shelf has received a bounty of fresh, local fruits and veggies—mixed greens, rhubarb, radishes, broccoli, beets, green beans, and more.
Each month 700–800 clients—about half of which are African American and a significant number are immigrants—benefit from the food shelf. “There is some justice in the stereotype of the local foods movement as predominantly white and affluent,” says food shelf development coordinator Josh Grinolds in an email. “Access and information go hand in hand with means and wealth. Many of the clients we serve are trying to simply have access to food, period.”
Unfortunately, many traditional programs to feed the hungry do not offer the healthiest options, and this leads to additional problems. “Hunger has received a lot of media attention in recent years and with good reason,” says Grinolds. “Since 2008, visits to Minnesota food shelves have increased by 62 percent.” But that’s not the whole story. He continues:
What people often fail to realize is that obesity is a growing problem as well—particularly among the poor, whose access to healthy, nutritious foods is often sharply limited due to cost. So it is important to think holistically. In addressing one problem (hunger), we don’t want to create another (obesity). For this reason, we are focusing on providing access to fresh, local foods for the underserved populations that are our clients.
Education is part of the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center’s mission as well. In conjunction with their food shelf program, they offer free cooking classes. The classes taught by Simply Good Eating, an extension of the University of Minnesota, complement the center’s desire to promote healthy food for all and eliminate food waste. Says Grinolds:
We recognize that clients may not know how to cook with unfamiliar vegetables such as kale or eggplant or zucchini. If clients end up passing over such vegetables, they will end up in the trash—which is precisely what we are trying to avoid! So if clients are going to experience the benefits of healthy eating, and we are going to help reduce food waste, education is a necessary component of the local foods drive.
The center will host a local foods night on August 18 featuring demonstrations by local chefs and CSA farmers, resource tables, samples of local fruits and vegetables, kid-friendly activities, and live music to raise awareness for the project. The event is free, but backyard and community gardeners who attend are encouraged to donate produce, natch.
UPDATE: Check out Miller-McCune’s story on how local food is making its way into California’s food banks.
Source: Hallie Q. Brown Community Center, Miller-McCune
Image by NatalieMaynor, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, November 22, 2010 12:27 PM
A run-in with Roundup herbicide was a transformative episode in farmer Eric Herm’s shift toward sustainable agriculture. A fourth-generation farmer, Herm tells the tale in the book Son of a Farmer, Child of the Earth: A Path to Agriculture’s Higher Consciousness (Dream River Press):
In May of 2009, my neighbor had his Roundup Ready cotton sprayed by Helena Chemical Company less than 40 yards from my home garden. The Roundup herbicide drifted and wiped out over 800 garlic bulbs, and all of my tomato, pepper, potato, bean, and corn plants. Within 48 hours every single plant in my garden curled up into a fetal position. Leaves curled upward, cupped around the edges, and plants showed visible signs of suffering. For three or four days I couldn’t figure out what had happened until I discovered my neighbor had sprayed Roundup a few days previous. I flew into a rage yet maintained my cool talking to Helena company officials. They were very courteous yet proceeded to blame a plane spraying half a mile away to the southwest.
Herm had tissue from his dead crops tested, and the results came back positive for glyphosate, the main active ingredient in Roundup. Still, the local Helena Chemical Company store manager insisted that his product wasn’t to blame.
That’s how these chemical companies work. Did I receive the $4,000 in damages? Take a wild guess. They put their lawyer against yours, and these chemical companies have a lot more money to spend on attorney fees than an individual farmer. Thanks to my neighbor and Helena Chemical Company, I lost an entire season of garlic, tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, beans, and corn as months of hard work spiraled down the drain.
Tomato, people, onion, garlic, and potato plants are extremely sensitive to Roundup. One whiff and their leaves curl upward and they are unable to produce healthy, normal-sized fruit. Very frustrating when you begin an entire garden from seed. Money cannot replace healthy food. … As long as we continue to think Roundup Ready crops are the only answer, agriculture is doomed.
Herm’s writing has a folksy, ticked-off tone, kind of a Jim Hightower with a stronger streak of rural individualism, a distrust of big government, and a dash of new age spirituality. But his overall message is positive and forward thinking: Our industrial, chemical-intensive farming practices are destroying the land and harming our health and security, and we must change them:
“It is up to you and me—us. We the people,” he writes. “If not us, if not now … well, then we are all really in trouble.”
Source: Son of a Farmer, Child of the Earth
Wednesday, September 22, 2010 10:34 AM
Is food preservation a political act? Many of the people surveyed by two social scientists for their academic study “Saving Food: Food Preservation as Alternative Food Activism” think so, according to The Irresistible Fleet of Bicycles, the blog of the hard-hoeing young farmers known as the Greenhorns.
For their study (pdf), Melissa Click and Ronit Ridberg collected survey results from 902 respondents in 42 of the 50 states after reaching them through gardening and food networks. Here’s their “participant profile”:
Our survey respondents reported behaviors that are consistent with the rhetoric of alternative food activism, indicating that they frequent farmers markets (80.5 percent), buy local food (79.9 percent), buy organic food (77.6 percent), and maintain their own vegetable gardens (72.7 percent). Respondents’ answers to an open-ended survey question, “describe how your views about food have influenced the way you spend money on food,” consistently demonstrated that our survey respondents believe that the way they spend their money is a political act. For instance, survey respondents offered the following: “As consumers we have a voice and our dollars speak volumes”; “The way I spend my money is the best representation of my morals in this society”; and “We vote with our dollars, so I am OK with spending more money on food that I know was produced within my community with love and sustainable methods.” …
Fewer survey respondents directly connected their views about food with behaviors considered more traditionally political, some arguing that they wanted government regulation out of food altogether … and some asserting that they did not see a connection between food and politics … . Other survey respondents saw a direct connection between food and environmental policy (e.g., “Food and the environment are inseparable, so I always vote for the candidate most likely to approve or make legislation to protect the environment”); between food safety and government regulation (“The federal government needs to provide adequate funding for regular and thorough inspections of food processing facilities in the USA and of imported food products to ensure public safety”); and between food and specific government policies (“I pay attention to the Farm Bill and to agricultural and food policy in general. I favor policy and candidates that support a diversified agriculture and more local and regional food systems”).
Of course, we’re quite close to this discussion at Utne Reader; after all, our current issue’s cover headline is “Food Fight: Kitchen Politics, Backyard Gardens, and the New American Diet.” While Rachel Laudan argues in her essay “In Praise of Fast Food” that “culinary Luddism” is making too many women slaves to their stovepots and canning jars, it’s clear from this survey that some backyard gardeners and home canners instead see their pursuit of the slow, the local, and the organic as empowering.
Sources: The Greenhorns, Environmental Communication: A Journal of Nature and Culture
Image by vsimon, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, August 13, 2010 5:09 PM
One of the coolest programs of Minnesota’s Land Stewardship Project is its Farm Beginnings program, a “farmer-led educational training and support program who want to evaluate and plan their farm enterprise.” Check it out in action: There’s a great profile on the organization’s website of two Farm Beginnings participants and their fledgling fruit farm, originally published in the most recent issue of the Land Stewardship Letter. It’s compelling reading for any urban-bound individual who has ever dreamt of someday heading back to the land.
Source: Land Stewardship Letter
Image by Nicholas_T, license under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, June 15, 2010 8:50 AM
"I take the sort of state of anarchy of our neighborhood to my advantage." That's Novella Carpenter, author of the book Farm City, talking about her urban farm in Oakland. This delightful and inspiring documentary short was produced by the food website Chow.
Wednesday, May 26, 2010 4:47 PM
One of the things I like most about ecologist Sandra Steingraber’s writing is her ability to express big, substantive ideas with clarity, simplicity, and resolve. I exit her essays both calmed and inspired. I was reminded of this unusual quality as I devoured her “Organic Manifesto,” which was republished in the most recent issue of In Good Tilth. (Organic Valley first published the essay, and you can read the complete manifesto as a PDF on her website.) And if you like what you read, take note: Steingraber’s book Living Downstream is now in its second edition, and has been recently made into a film.
Source: In Good Tilth
Photo by Dede Hatch.
Thursday, May 20, 2010 3:13 PM
Developments has some troubling news about women farmers in poor areas. A startling amount (upwards of 80 percent) of the food in poor countries is produced by women, but they often don't have ample resources to work with and some even starve. As farmer Rosemary Mubita told the magazine: “Poor women farmers don’t get any support. They need help with seeds, fertilizer, credit. They are the ones who are growing the crops and cooking the food to feed their families, yet often are forced to go to bed hungry.” Mubita is helping promote a report about the state of women’s hunger and food production, which was recently released by Concern Worldwide—an organization trying to raise awareness and rally support for this important, but oft-neglected workforce.
Image by IRRI Images, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, March 22, 2010 11:15 AM
Tucked away in the new issue of Small Farmer’s Journal, among discussions of sprouted horse feed and asparagus beetles, is Vermont farmer Suzanne Lupien’s lovely remembrance of Nell, “the funniest, happiest cow that ever lived.”
What a hard day to have to say goodbye to that gem of a Jersey I’d milked for 12 years, enjoying her marvelous personality as well as her creamy yellow milk. I hand-milk my six or eight cows, and have come to value the time spent by their sides on the milk stool. Especially Nell! Her personality was so exuberant and fun, and so easy to read!
Nell was something of a rescue animal, as Lupien explains—injured, emaciated, a “little waif of a cow” when she joined Lupien’s small farm—but she flourished, calved, produced wheel upon wheel of top-of-the-line camembert, and lived to be 19. All with a great deal of personality, too:
Not only was she as fit as a fat fiddle, she was HAPPY, and she never stopped expressing her enjoyment of and gratitude for all the good that came her way. Good hay! Apples and pumpkins! Rearing her own calf! Wonderful brushings! Fields and woods! Plus she had the cutest Jersey face and everyone loved her.
Open House potluck? She’d hone right in on the bowl of corn chips and suck them down before you could think of intercepting. Bread making in the outdoor oven? She knew when it was Friday and she’d sashay over to the bread table and inhale 20 lb. of bread dough and any warm loaves of bread stacked in baskets for the farmers market. Opportunities and ideas sprang up in her mind as fast as dandelions in a field.
You know how a cow behaves in spring finding herself in a lush green field for the first time? Twirling and jumping? She was the Ginger Rogers of the Fields. And when she was younger she didn’t limit her performances to that initial turnout day—she did it anytime. It was impossible not to notice her exuberance, her glee: always coming when I called her, always ready for anything.
Lupien’s appreciation of her funny, spunky cow is quite beautiful, the sort of lively gem I love finding in Small Farmer’s Journal, an oversized quarterly in which practical advice shares space with personal experiences like Lupien’s.
Goodbye, dear Nell. Thanks for being the best four-legged friend I’ve ever had! I’ve got three lovely Jerseys to milk still, but it will never be the same without you.
Source: Small Farmer’s Journal (article not available online)
Friday, March 05, 2010 12:49 PM
Food is pretty much always on my mind: the proverbial what, where, when, how, and why we eat; who eats (and who doesn’t); and all of the questions of environment, ethics, and health that are bound up in it. I’m reminded of something Siobhan Phillips wrote in a Hudson Review piece I blogged about a few months ago: “What dishes one consumes or refuses, what food products one buys or boycotts, constitute an expression of style, statement of politics, reflection of values, index of environmentalism, pledge of allegiance, and measure of health. . . . Wonder when this got so complicated.”
Well here’s another (complicated-but-compelling) thing to consider: staple crops. Writing for Permaculture Activist, Michelle Ajamian and Brandon Jaeger recall relishing the food security that a burgeoning local foods movement—with its farmers’ market produce, meat, and dairy—seemed to offer in 2007. “Then we talked,” they write. “Brandon asked the question: ‘Where do we go to get our beans, grains, and oils?’ The answer: grocers and buying clubs who source from across the continent or around the world.
“That led to another question, which we couldn’t readily answer: ‘Where’s the food security when these foods, coming from far away, represent more than 70% of our diet—the bulk of what we eat?’ ”
Ajamian and Jaeger acquired a modest federal grant and in their home region of southeastern Ohio planted small test plots of “high-nutrition staple seed crops” such as amaranth, buckwheat, millet, quinoa, adzuki beans, and dent corn. Response from local bakeries and restaurants was immediate. As they went, they discovered that growing staples is relatively easy; harvesting and processing them into dry beans, milled flour, or pressed oils, and then transporting and storing those foods is the complicated part, requiring investment in infrastructure and equipment.
In 2008 they formed the Appalachian Staple Foods Collaborative (APFC), dedicated to building a replicable system for regional staple foods. Recently they opened a processing facility called the Shagbark Seed and Mill Co. As spring hatches here in the Midwest, I know they’ve give me a lot to chew on. (I’ve already turned to Utne’s sister publication Mother Earth News to learn more about the mechanics of growing grains, beans, and rice.)
Ajamian and Jaeger’s article for Permaculture Activist isn’t online, but here’s a short video of these two very interesting people discussing their project with the Athens Foundation, one of their many backers. There’s also an interview with them on the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service’s website, and you can also check out the APFC group on Facebook.
Sources: The Hudson Review, Permaculture Activist, Mother Earth News
Image by llsimon53, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, February 24, 2010 1:46 PM
After you've read The Dark Side of Dairies in our May-June 2010 issue, you're going to be glad to meet the Nolan family. From Grass to Cheese: The Nolan Family Farm is a documentary work in progress. This small sample from the feature-length film is charming and inspiring. The producers are raising the funds to finish the film on the D.I.Y. fundraising site Kickstarter and you can read all about it there.
Want to find a operation like the Nolan Family's Laurel Valley Creamery near you? We can help you find responsible, humane dairies.
Image courtesy of
Milk Products Media
Friday, February 19, 2010 5:08 PM
Care farms are places where some of society’s most vulnerable people join farmers in working the land, reaping a connection to social support, meaningful work, and the natural world, Lorna Howarth writes in Resurgence. The farms, which already play a significant role in the Dutch health- and social-care system, are gaining popularity in the United Kingdom as options for people with mental health issues, substance abuse problems, and difficulty in traditional schools.
While some farms are day-work oriented, others offer extended residential stays. One UK couple, for example, runs a care farm that offers a nine-month program for former drug offenders. Fourteen men, age 20 to 50, live on the farm and learn the forestry and livestock business. “But what they really love is being part of family life,” the couple told The Times. The UK farms, numbering around 100, have been so successful there’s talk of establishing a national farm care plan and accreditation system.
It’s a scheme in which all benefit, too: Farmers, many of whom convert from traditional operations, receive a daily stipend for each “farm helper” which helps cover staffing costs. The money comes from social or legal services or pupil referrals. Howarth also points out that the traditional farm life can be an isolated one, characterized by “intense lone working.”
“Feedback from farmers who have moved into care farming has been fantastic,” she writes. “The enjoyment and enhanced meaning brought to their lives through delivering care on their own farms taps into the huge passion they have for sharing their skills and cultivating both the growth of plants and animals, and that of fellow human beings.”
Sources: Resurgence, The Times
Friday, September 25, 2009 12:22 PM
For the past ten years Lockie Gary, a former U.S. ranch manager and livestock reproductive specialist has been living in countries like Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Iraq, leading dairy training programs to help people establish local dairies in their war torn surroundings.
Supported by Minnesota-based Land O’Lakes, Inc. and protected by the U.S. Marines, Lockie is currently teaching Iraqi widows in Fallujah how to make their cows more comfortable in a war zone, and how to make a living by yielding higher quality milk, locally, writes Graeme Wood in the September issue of The Atlantic. He writes:
Somehow in a counterinsurgency where communicating with the civilian population has proved difficult, Gary’s cattle sounds and imitations of newborn calves, or calves in the late stages of Clostridial infection make immediate sense to his students. Gary squats a little when he pretends to be a calf with the scours (that’s calf diarrhea, for the uninitiated), and the veiled women of Fallujah nod in appreciation.
Image by eierea, licensed under Creative Commons.
Source: The Atlantic
Friday, August 07, 2009 2:24 PM
Michael Pollan and the rest of the organic-food advocates should pipe down, according to farmer Hurst writes, I’m so tired of people who wouldn’t visit a doctor who used a stethoscope instead of an MRI demanding that farmers like me use 1930s technology to raise food.”
In his screed against organics, Hurst scores a point or two for the industrial farming system. He writes, “the parts of farming that are the most ‘industrial’ are the most likely to be owned by the kind of family farmers that elicit such a positive response from the consumer.” He adds, “If we are about to require more expensive ways of producing food, the largest and most well-capitalized farms will have the least trouble adapting.”
Those large farms also would likely benefit from an economy based on genetically modified foods, which Hurst also advocates. He unfortunately neglects to mention that.
Source: The American
, licensed under
Tuesday, July 14, 2009 4:49 PM
The economic crisis taught many people not to trust the financial markets. Today, an increasing number of people are trying to rely more on themselves. After years of being written off as a unrealistic pastoral ideal, Phillip Longman writes for Foreign Policy that “the self-sufficient worker once again has a chance, whether as a farmer growing vegetables for local consumption or as an open-source software developer who makes a living in his basement office.”
These new “yeomen,” as Longman calls them, are not just “starry-eyed yuppies yearning for a simpler life of heirloom tomatoes and muskmelons rooted in worm castings.” They’re productive workers who may be able to upend the industrial agricultural system and redefine work-life balance. This new breed of workers will be able to spend more time at home, giving their children the skills they need for the world. Longman writes, “The neo-yeomen won't only be more efficient laborers—they'll also be happier parents, giving their societies a clear Darwinian advantage.” But if the U.S. government wants to encourage this new breed of worker, it should probably guarantee them some health care first.
Source: Foreign Policy
, licensed under
Tuesday, July 14, 2009 4:46 PM
Environmentalists, especially of the veggie persuasion, are quick to point out that meat accounts for nearly 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Reducing consumption, giving meat up even one day a week, is the easiest way to reduce your carbon footprint, Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the U.N.’s panel on climate change, said last fall.
But not all meat is created equal, Lisa Hamilton writes for Audubon. Some methane production is unavoidable (file this fact under “cow burps”), but “animals reared on organic pasture have a different climate equation from those raised in confinement on imported feed,” asserts Hamilton, author of Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness.
In large-scale farming confinement systems, manure flows into (disgusting) lagoons, where its decomposition releases millions of tons of methane and nitrous oxide into the air every year. “On pasture, that same manure is simply assimilated back into the soil with a carbon cost close to zero,” Hamilton writes.
What’s more, grass-fed livestock can be an essential player in a sustainable set-up. Manure revitalizes soil (in lieu of chemical fertilizers or shipped-in compost), and grazing encourages plant growth. Hamilton also points to Holistic Management International, an organization that proposes managed, intensive grazing as part of a climate change solution.
“In order for pasture-based livestock to become a significant part of the meat industry, we need to eat more of its meat, not less,” Hamilton writes. “So if you want to use your food choices to impact climate change, by all means follow Dr. Pachauri’s suggestion for a meatless Monday. But on Tuesday, have a grass-fed burger—and feel good about it.”
Sources: Audubon, Holistic Management International
Image by pointnshoot, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, July 01, 2009 12:57 PM
Visitors to the Rising Sun Farm in River Falls, Wisconsin, are greeted by a sign stating: “Our Farm is Clothing Optional. Welcome.” The farm, profiled by the online culinary magazine the Heavy Table, produces some 40 different items and 125 different plantings. It also features an unmanned store where shoppers use the honor system to pay and fill out their own hand-written receipts. The farm’s proprietor, Roger Browne, explained the benefits of nude farming:
Without clothes we can usually work comfortably in even the hottest weather. Practical advantages include absence of binding, sweat-soaked clothes, less laundry, and a lower risk of heat exhaustion. Even when hot, humid weather hits it can be quite joyful working nude when it would be miserable working clothed.
Source: The Heavy Table
Image courtesy of Judd Spicer / Heavy Table.
Wednesday, July 02, 2008 5:37 PM
Michael Pollan’s a sharp writer, and we generally love his stuff here at Utne when we’re not printing mildly critical pieces like “The Food Police: Why Michael Pollan Makes Me Want to Eat Cheetos.” Anybody who can turn sustainable eating into a catchy seven-word slogan (“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”) and talk about agriculture without sounding like a Farm Report host has a rare talent. But I almost choked on my açaí bubble tea when I read a Q&A with Pollan on the great new website Yale Environment 360 and found him uttering these words:
“You know, eight percent of the American landmass we’ve kind of locked up and thrown away the key. That’s a wonderful achievement and has given us things like the wilderness park.”
Where do I start with this? I suppose by pointing out, as one commenter did, that less than 5 percent of the U.S. land mass is actually federally designated wilderness, and less than 3 percent if you’re talking about the contiguous U.S.
Then I’d point out that such wilderness isn’t “locked up” at all. It’s available for anyone to visit, even New York Times food writers. They can use it for activities ranging from hunting and fishing (the ultimate sustainable food sources) to hiking, camping, rafting, skiing, snowshoeing, birdwatching, and many other things. They could even use it simply to look at. To appreciate. To marvel at.
The other problem with the phrase “locked up” is that by employing it Pollan parrots the language of the extractive industries that consider every acre unavailable to them to be “locked up.” Pollan is a master of the soundbite, so it’s natural that he gravitates to catch phrases, but he ought to be aware that this one hits the ear of many environmentalists like an F-bomb and undercuts his credibility with anyone who really knows wilderness issues.
Geez, you’re probably thinking, settle down: He said setting aside wilderness was a “wonderful achievement.” But I read some sarcasm into that statement, especially because he went on to say:
“This is one of our great contributions to world culture, this idea of wilderness. On the other hand, it’s had nothing to say of any value for the ninety-two percent of the landscape that we cannot help but change because this is where we live. This is where we grow our food, this is where we work. Essentially the tendency of the wilderness ethic is to write that all off. Land is either virgin or raped. It’s an all or nothing ethic. It’s either in the realm of pristine, preserved wilderness, or it’s development — parking lot, lawn.”
Pollan has been airing this polarized critique of the wilderness ethic since writing his book Second Nature five years ago, and frankly it seems like it’s time for him to start seeing the nuance in the debate. Certainly there are wilderness lovers who oppose oil drilling in ANWR yet gladly till their yard to plant tomatoes. Certainly there are mall developers who take fly-fishing trips to remote wilderness destinations. To paint backcountry hikers and organic farmers as somehow locked in mortal battle is to vastly oversimplify a complex issue.
Besides, U.S. politicians of all stripes seem to disagree with Pollan that we’ve spent enough time on this silly wilderness designation stuff. Two weeks ago, the Washington Post reported that 12 bipartisan wilderness bills are expected to pass this year, adding as much as 2 million acres of land to the federal system. I suggest Pollan lace up his hiking boots, visit some of these parcels—remember, the door’s open—and from a distant mountaintop ponder just how much organic farmland has been lost to the misguided purveyors of the wilderness ethic.
Wednesday, December 12, 2007 8:59 AM
Are you concerned about the environment, public health, alternative energy, local economies, corporate welfare, or domestic or global poverty? Ever buy, prepare, or eat food? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you have a significant stake in the farm bill.
In a recent piece in Vermont’s Seven Days, Ken Picard and Mike Ives ask a variety of Vermonters—farmers, activists, elected officials—for their thoughts on this far-reaching piece of legislation. The responses offer some fresh insight into the tangible effects of this terribly complicated, tremendously important bill. A couple examples, on subjects you might not have considered:
- The Vermont Farm Bureau’s Tim Buskey’s biggest complaint with the bill is its exclusion of an amendment creating a guest-worker program for year-round workers. Three-fourths of the state’s agricultural revenue comes from milk production, an industry for which existing seasonal guest-worker programs are unhelpful.
- Helm Nottermann raises Holsteins and sells burger patties at farmers markets. He has his eye on a possible provision that would allow him to sell his meat, which is certified by the state but not the USDA, across state lines. It’s not that he wants to start shipping it clear across the country, he tells to Picard and Ives. “You know, New Hampshire is pretty close to here,” he says.
Thanks to a deal reached last week, the long-stalled farm bill is moving again. The Senate is debating an agreed-upon number of amendments and may vote on the bill by the end of this week. But all signs indicate that the final version will at best include some modest steps away from the status quo. It looks like some of the people Picard and Ives talked to will have to wait another five years for a chance at meaningful change, and so will the rest of us.
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