Sunday, August 30, 2009

Food News Round-Up: August 30, 2009

Dane County Potato Blight Confirmed
Potato blight was confirmed this week in a Dane County home garden, the third place the disease was found in potatoes in Wisconsin, a state official said Tuesday.

Cases of the fungus-like plant disease were also found on tomatoes in Waukesha, Waupaca and Racine counties, bringing the number of counties experiencing an outbreak to 13.

The Dane County case was found near Oregon in a garden that also had diseased tomatoes. The home is near an organic tomato operation that had been infected, UW-Madison plant pathologist Amanda Gevens said.

The disease, also known as late blight, caused the 19th century Irish potato famine and hasn't been reported in Wisconsin since 2002. The state is cautioning farmers to be on the lookout for the blight and maintain their fungicide spraying programs.

Gardening from the couch: Michael Pollan
Uber food writer Michael Pollan, the New York Times reporter who has written such in-depth and unsettling books about agribusiness and our food chain, was asked in an interview with NPR's Fresh Air what he thought of Michelle Obama's vegetable garden and President Obama's food policies in general.

In this interview with host Dave Davies, Pollan says Obama hasn't done much to take on the toxic health and environment effects of agribusiness, but he expressed surprise at the magnitude of the impact of Michelle Obama's garden.

The vegetable gardeners of Havana
With no petrol for tractors, oxen had to plough the land. With no oil-based fertilizers or pesticides, farmers had to turn to natural and organic replacements.

Today, about 300,000 oxen work on farms across the country and there are now more than 200 biological control centres which produce a whole host of biological agents in fungi, bacteria and beneficial insects.

Havana has almost 200 urban allotments - known as organiponicos - providing four million tons of vegetables every year - helping the country to become 90% self-sufficient in fruit and vegetables.

Debating How Much Weed Killer Is Safe in Your Water Glass
The E.P.A. has not cautioned pregnant women about the potential risks of atrazine so that they can consider using inexpensive home filtration systems. And though the agency is aware of new research suggesting risks, it will not formally review those studies until next year at the earliest. Federal scientists who have worked on atrazine say the agency has largely shifted its focus to other compounds.

Dying on the Vine
A century ago, much of the San Joaquin Valley was an undeveloped dust bowl, its few small farming communities clustered around natural water sources. Today, it is a green expanse of agricultural empires. Most of the water that has irrigated these seemingly endless fields comes from northern California, diverted by an epic system of dams and canals born from New Deal funds. It was one of the most ambitious water systems ever built, and the San Joaquin Valley became, in the words of historian Kevin Starr, "the most productive unnatural environment on Earth."

The valley is home to a $20 billion crop industry; the San Joaquin region alone produces more in farm sales than any other individual state in the country.

U.S. Crop Yields Could Wilt in Heat
Yields of three of the most important crops produced in the United States – corn, soybeans and cotton – are predicted to fall off a cliff if temperatures rise due to climate change.

Mexico water body warns of risk of 'critical' shortage
MEXICO CITY (AFP) – Mexico's water commission warned Monday of the risk of a "critical" water shortage at the start of 2010 and called on state governments to act now to save water.

"El Nino (seasonal warming), climate change and low rainfall could increase drought in the country, and cause a critical situation in the first quarter of 2010," a Conagua statement said.

Farming and some water supplies across the country have already been hard hit by this year's drought.

Driving new changes in Asian irrigation
Without major reforms and innovations in the way water is used in agriculture, many developing countries will face severe food shortages in future, warns a new report Revitalizing Asia’s Irrigation: To Sustainably Meet Tomorrow’s Food Needs. It suggests the shift to a more economically viable approach.

Lots of Food, but for How Long?
In the city where I live, Vancouver, British Columbia, it has never been so easy to get food, any kind of food. You want a watermelon in January? Walk into the nearest supermarket. Complain about the prices if you must, but North Americans typically pay less than 15 per cent of their income to eat. That's half the percentage of some European nations. In poorer places, food often takes up more than 50 per cent of the family income.

But this glut of cheap food won't last if it's based on a false economy. Industrial agriculture doesn't pay the bills for the subsidized transportation network, to clean up its toxic runoff from fertilizers and chemicals, to bring life back into the topsoil it's stripping away, or to treat people for ill health from a dubious diet of "food products."

India to import food amid drought
India will import food to make up for shortages caused by a drought thought to be affecting 700 million people, the finance minister has said.
...The farm minister, Sharad Pawar, said the government would take action to ensure prices remained stable.

He added: "[The] situation is grim, not just for the crop sowing and the crop health but also for sustaining animal health, providing drinking water, livelihood and food, particularly for the small and marginal farmers and landless labourers."

Extended drought threatens China farmland
The extended drought in China's north and northeast regions now threatens over 8 million hectares of farmland. Heeding requests from the country's drought-fighting authority that more be done to alleviate the situation, the oil and power industries have joined the campaign to bring some relief to parched villagers.

Zhangjiakou city, in Hebei Province, is experiencing its worst drought in half a century.

Over half of the arable land will not produce a harvest this year. Hundreds of thousand of people and livestock face a desperate shortage of drinking water.

River that supports Australia's bread basket replaced with desert and toxic algae
Farmer Mazzareno Bisogni fights back tears as he stands among the remains of trees he planted 35 years ago, victims of a drought hitting "Australia's Mississippi".

Bisogni's orchard lies in the heart of the once-mighty Murray-Darling river system which irrigates Australia's food bowl, the vast southeastern corner responsible for 40 percent of agricultural output.

The eight-year 'big dry', the worst drought in a century, has devastated the region, an area covering 1.06 million square kilometres (410,000 square miles) -- the size of France and Spain combined.

Lack of water this year meant the fruit on Bisogni's apple and pear trees in Victoria state literally cooked on their branches under the furious Australian sun, making them suitable only for jam.

Desperate Food Industry Tries to Tar Michael Pollan and Organic Produce
With growing numbers of food-conscious consumers, big corporations are trying to sully the reputation of alternatives to their style of agriculture.

You may have noticed an uptick this year in
news reporting that organic food isn’t really better for you, opinion pieces by conventional farmers saying that they are tired of being demonized by “agri-intellectuals”, and guilt-inducing ads by Monsanto in highbrow publications like the New Yorker touting the company’s ability to feed the world through technology.

Though all of this could be disturbing to those of us committed to sustainable agriculture and food that is fair to eaters, animals, workers and farmers, I’m choosing to see this as a good sign. I think it means we might be winning.

The turning point was when First Lady Michelle Obama planted an
organic garden on the White House lawn only to receive a letter from The American CropLife Association telling her that they hoped she recognized the value of conventional agriculture in American life. The letter can be read here. Then, there were false allegations that the garden was contaminated with lead. In the face of all this, the first lady stuck with her commitment to keeping the garden organic.

The U.S. versus Monsanto?
On Aug. 7, Philip Weiser, a newly appointed deputy assistant attorney general in the antitrust division, gave an important speech in St. Louis, which just happens to be where Monsanto is based. The title of the speech: "Toward a Competition Policy Agenda for Agriculture Markets . . ."

I have written before about how
Monsanto's growing control of the seed business is ripe for trust-busting treatment. Either by direct ownership or through licensing of its genetically modified traits, Monsanto may dominate as much as 90 percent of the U.S. corn and soybean seed market, to the point that farmers are complaining about the difficulties involved in simply locating non-GMO seed.

A storm brews over food, water & power
But it is not Ukrainian money and know-how which is driving this agricultural revolution. It is foreign governments and companies.

The Libyans are negotiating for land here, as are the Russians and others.

Many governments are looking to secure land overseas as a way to ensure the food supply to their country does not fail.

In this part of Ukraine it is the British, in the form of the company Landkom, who are making moves which are transforming the landscape, investing millions in machinery and infrastructure.

South Asia hit by sugar shortages
Global sugar prices have been pushed up by growing demand in Brazil for sugar to be turned into ethanol for vehicle fuel, and a sharp fall in production in India, the world's largest sugar consumer.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Successes & Failures: Part II

There are two good reasons for always including “sure bet” cultivars in your Backyard Nest Egg. One, obviously, is to ensure that you actually produce something to eat, even if the weather doesn’t cooperate or the stars don’t align properly that year. The other is the psychological boost you get from successfully producing food for the table.

That’s why I advise people who are starting their first garden to plant at least a few cultivars that are easy to grow. Otherwise, I’m afraid they might give up. There’s nothing like success, or even a partial success, to hook a person into trying again next year. I can’t be the only gardener, who at the end of every summer thinks, next year, this garden will be FANTASTIC. I can’t wait to show it off!

I have a neighbor with a gorgeous garden, all ornamentals, but beautifully laid out and cared for, with a huge koi pond he built himself. It looks like something you’d see at a professional botanical garden. But, according to him, it’s not “finished.” He still has a long list of projects to work on. His wife said she finally grew exasperated, and told him, “It’ll never be done! Let’s just invite people over already!” I relate this as a cautionary tale – it may happen to you, once you start gardening and get a few successes under your belt!

I planted carrots in a large planter box on the deck. Because I’m still trying to find a cultivar I really like, and they take awhile to grow, I didn’t want to commit too much space to them just yet. My first planting was ruined by squirrels and chipmunks rampaging through the planter box. These varmints are a serious problem around here. We got the rabbits under control by building a fence and staple-gunning chicken wire to it. But the squirrels and chipmunks party on! They appear to especially love digging through soft, freshly turned soil. However, once the plants are established, they usually leave them alone. I covered my second planting with chicken wire, and now have a very healthy crop of carrots that should be ready to harvest soon.

In an earlier post, I wrote about
my success with chiles, so I won’t continue bragging here, lest I bore my readers. I’ll just note again, that the key, in this cooler-than-usual-summer, was that I grew them in clay pots. I harvested enough for many batches of fresh salsa over the summer, and even canned a small batch last week-end. (Oooops! Guess I couldn’t help myself with the bragging!) It was my first year growing poblanos, and I found them less productive than the Anaheims and jalapeños. The poblanos started strong, but then growth slowed and the size of the peppers declined. My solution for next year is to grow a few additional poblanos, and put them in larger pots.

In my earlier post about chiles, I also reported
success with eggplant in a clay pot.
However, as with the poblanos, production and fruit size declined as the summer wore on. These, too, will get a larger pot next year.

I tried Butterking lettuce this year, and it grew beautifully. We had more lettuce than we knew what to do with, even though I planted two groups of seeds two weeks apart. I decided that next year I would grow individual lettuces in small pots. I’ll plant them at different times to spread out the harvest, and plant more varieties of lettuce. Using small pots will also allow me to move them to cooler spots once the weather warms up. The goal here is to delay bolting and extend the lettuce season.

I’ve also
written about our potato success in an earlier post. (Isn’t it interesting how many posts about successes manage to get written?) I feel really blessed with the potatoes, given the late blight that has plagued potato crops in many parts of the country this year, including Wisconsin. I grew Red Norlands and German butterballs. I have one more patch of Red Norlands yet to be harvested, and so far, no sign of blight. We were so thrilled with our success in growing potatoes in large pots, we’re going to try growing even more in potato towers next year.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about our
success with the Juliet tomatoes. The Amish paste and Beefsteak tomatoes have finally started ripening. I have many fruits on all these cultivars, but the Beefsteak are nowhere near Beefsteak size. I’m guessing the cool weather was the problem here. Given the cool summer, and the late blight afflicting tomatoes this year, I consider our tomato crop a raging success. I canned a small batch of salsa with our tomatoes last week-end and expect to can at least one more batch, as well as a large batch of pizza sauce.

I debated whether to list herbs as a success. They’re fairly easy to grow, and I have more experience growing them than any other type of plant. Even in years when I lived in an apartment, I always grew herbs. So is it cheating to count them as a success? I don’t know. What I can say is that my herb garden is full and lush. I have rosemary, thyme, sage, lemon verbena, oregano, chives, parsley, cilantro, and mint.

Here I include a few words about plants that appear to be doing well, but are too early in their development to be called “successes.”

· Asparagus. I planted my first ever asparagus crop this year. They got off to a slow start, but are looking healthy now.

· Apples. We planted two columnar apple trees this year that are leafing out beautifully and have doubled in size.

· Blueberries. We planted dwarf blueberry bushes in raised beds last year. They started off well, but later looked anemic. Eventually I learned that I needed to correct the pH and add iron. The bushes perked up right away, but I’m going to have my soil tested again. Blueberries require acid soil – it’s a little tricky to get it right when your soil is not naturally acidic. (Hence, the raised beds, to better control soil pH.)

The books recommend removing all the blossoms the first couple of years to promote root and foliar development. There were loads of blossoms on them this year, but I pulled them off, especially because the shrubs didn’t look as healthy as I’d like. However, I must have missed a few blossoms, because we found four ripe berries later. We ate them – they were sweet and delicious! I have high hopes for next year’s crop.

· Raspberries. We planted summer-bearing raspberry canes last year and were rewarded with some fruit this year. Summer-bearing raspberries fruit on the previous year’s canes. Since we just had a few small canes from the initial planting, we got a small crop of berries. This year, lots of healthy new canes developed. With any luck, we’ll have more berries than we know what to do with next summer.

· Strawberries. I planted strawberries last year, and although they were moderately successful, I wasn’t satisfied. The cultivar I planted was second choice – they were out of what I wanted at the garden center – and I planted them in a large planter box. Strawberries are often depicted as a great plant for a container, but my experience last year indicated otherwise. This year, I planted the cultivar I wanted, in a special bed in the ground. They look amazing. If all goes well, we should have a great crop in the spring.

· Sweet potatoes. These require a long growing season, so most cultivars probably cannot be successfully grown in Wisconsin. However, I heard about a cultivar called Porto Rico that is supposed to do well in northern climates. I couldn’t find it locally, so ordered some slips from a seed catalog. When they arrived they were limp, light green, partially brown pieces of plant tissue. I couldn’t believe they’d actually grow, but I planted some in a large container.

Only one survived, and for a long time I felt like I was watering a dead plant. Eventually, improbably, it started to grow leaves. It’s now a lush, beautiful plant, but it got going too late. I doubt there are any sweet potatoes of any significant size in the pot. However, I now have healthy plant material to save for next year. I’ll follow Denckla’s advice in The Gardener’s A-Z guide to Growing Organic Food for harvesting and rooting plant material for the next crop.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Successes & Failures: Part I

During the last couple of years there has been a proliferation of news articles on gardening for food production. Some focus on producing healthier food locally, but others on the bad economy and the money-saving potential of raising some of your own fruits and vegetables. One news story from last year that stayed with me featured a woman who reported that she spent just $50 on seeds and supplies to start a garden and expected the value of her harvest to far exceed that.

I always wonder how many of those people are still at it a year later. Because the truth is that gardening to produce a substantial return on your investment of money and labor takes time. Time to build up your soil. Time to learn where in the microclimate that is your particular garden to best grow which vegetables and fruits. Time to learn which cultivars are most successful for you – and which you prefer to eat. Time to learn how to deal with the pests that plague your part of the country. Time to figure out the best strategies for succession planting and maximizing production in small spaces.

I planted my first garden in 1981 when I was living in Washington state and have gardened off and on since then. I raised vegetables in my first garden; in some years I just grew flowers and herbs. Some years I lived in an apartment and had only a few pots on the deck or patio. But I always grew something. I began the project of learning to grow a substantial proportion of our fruits and vegetables last year. I realized then that despite all those years of hobby gardening, I still have a lot to learn – including patience – which is the hardest for me to master!

So, as I did last year, it’s time this year to sit down and assess what worked, and what didn’t, what I learned, what different strategies I want to try next year, where I will plant which vegetable, and so on. I’ll do it in two posts, starting with failures, so I can end this exercise on a positive note!

I’m chagrined to report that I failed spectacularly with a usually easy-to-grow family of vegetables. I planted buttercup, spaghetti squash, and scaloppini squash and pie pumpkin. I have ONE buttercup squash, ZERO scaloppini, TWO tiny spaghetti squash (of which one got brown spots and had to be removed and laid to rest last week) and just ONE small pie pumpkin. What happened?

To begin with, I only planted one each of these squash. Big mistake – if you only plant one, and it doesn’t produce, you get zip. Another factor contributing to low production is that I squeezed these in where I could. The original plan was to build one or two more raised beds, but building the chicken coop took all our available time, money, and energy. So I tucked these vegetables in where I could. Last year I had more zucchini than I knew what to do with, dozens of perfect yellow crookneck squash, and large, gorgeous pie pumpkins. The pumpkins were so big I got a pie, a batch of muffins, and a bit left over for a small pot of soup from each one!

But last year’s squash were planted in raised beds Rick built that year and that we filled with good quality, purchased garden soil. This year’s scallopini and spaghetti squash were planted in the bed with the poorest soil. It’s next to the garage, and the previous owners had for years covered it with heavy landscape fabric and gravel. It was practically like busting concrete to even turn the soil the first year. Then last year it was heavily infested with earwigs. We got that under control, but it still is the least productive of all our beds. (I’ll write more about what we’re doing to build up the soil in a future post.)

The buttercup squash and pumpkin were also planted in less than ideal soil. The prior owners had a large portion of the backyard professionally landscaped, mostly with ornamental shrubs, but including some perennial flowers. Gradually we’ve been taking most of them out to make room for fruits and vegetables. For years, this area had been heavily mulched with free bark produced by the city from shredded tree branches. In some places it’s difficult to even turn a spade in the soil because of the deep layers of decaying bark. I planted the pumpkin and buttercup squash in some of the most improved parts of this previously bark-mulched area, but clearly this soil still needs some building.

Finally, I think the cool weather also stunted the productivity of these warm-weather vegetables. If I had it to do over, I’d have kept them under hot caps longer. My plan this winter is to build some cold frames using old windows given to us by a neighbor.

Sweet peppers
Like the squash, these were a victim of cool weather and my planting them out too soon. I grew beautiful, sturdy, healthy plants from seeds under grow lights in the house. But I put them out too soon, without protection. (Note to self: Even if it’s after the official last frost date, WAIT until the weather truly warms, OR use a cold frame.) After awhile, they looked sickly, and insects attacked them. At this point, I have two of the original eight left. The banana peppers are really starting to be productive – we’ve had a half dozen of them already and more are developing. We have ONE green pepper near ready to harvest on the other plant.

I’m seriously considering growing them in clay pots next year. I’ve had a lot of success doing that with the chiles. The sweet peppers appear to be more vulnerable to cool weather than even tomatoes.

Another easy-to-grow vegetable that I have been successful with in the past (good grief, who can’t grow beans???) but managed to bungle this year. My excuse here? During an unusually cool summer, I tried some new (to me) cultivars, that appear to be more tender than the beans I’ve grown in the past.

We had loads and loads of beans last year and ended up freezing at least a dozen bags. However, it seemed that no matter how early we tried picking them, they were always a bit stringy. So this year I tried some Green Snap Tenderpod and some Stringless French Filet. The Snap Tenderpod packet advised planting extra beans because this cultivar has a lower germination rate than other beans. They weren’t kidding! I thought I planted enough to account for this, but apparently not. I got a somewhat better germination rate from the Stringless French Filet.

Another difference is that these beans are bush beans and so require continuous plantings. (The nice thing about pole beans is that you plant them once, train them up a trellis or teepee of poles, and they keep producing). I failed to keep up with the continuous planting.

The beans we did get are wonderful – exactly what I wanted. Slender pods, very tender and delicious. I will plant the Stringless French Filet again next year, but this time, sow plenty of extra seeds, mark the calendar to remember successive plantings, and use cold frames.

Until last year, I had never planted onions, and assumed they would be easy to grow. But last year’s crop was a dismal failure. This year was somewhat more successful. I managed to actually harvest some onions, but they are just medium to small in size. I had, what is in retrospect, the really bone-headed idea to plant onions around the perimeter of a raised bed. Why I didn’t realize that the tops would constantly get bumped and knocked about when tending the raised bed, I do not know. I think if I just plant them where they aren’t in the way next year, I should finally be successful with this vegetable.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Food News Round-Up: August 22, 2009

A little late - here are some interesting food news stories from the past week. Especially encouraging - the story in Time magazine about the true cost of cheap food. Critique of CAFOs goes mainstream!

LOCAL (Midwest; Wisconsin)
The Fight Against Factory Farms in Wisconsin
John Peck, only half-joking, suggests Wisconsin's longtime slogan, "America's Dairyland," may need to be updated. The new slogan: "The Land of 10,000 Animal-Waste Lagoons". . .

Peck says Dane County, which leads the state in agricultural production, with more than $70 million in sales annually and about 400 farms and 50,000 cattle, faces the specter of an increasingly corporatized and globally based food system.

The emerging food system is based increasingly on factory farms or "confined animal feeding operations" (CAFOs). These often entail the heavy use of antibiotics to ward off the diseases that proliferate when thousands of animals are penned up in confined spaces.

Critics say the system produces vast lagoons of animal waste and sometimes toxic gases. It displaces small family farms with food produced under industrial conditions. And it relies on legions of low-wage laborers.

In 2003, the state of Wisconsin passed a bill that limited the ability of local communities to oppose large farms. But since then, local fights against CAFO siting or expansion have become considerably larger as family farmers, neighbors of CAFO operations and environmental groups have formed sizable coalitions around the state . . .

Got Pus?
Despite over two decades of farmer, consumer, and student protest, UW-Madison’s Babcock Hall continues to serve rBGH-induced dairy products to those on campus without their knowledge or consent. (See page 16 of the PDF file.)

Why Urban Farming is the Future
The first odd thing about Cam Macdonald's Mt. Pleasant lawn is that it isn't a lawn. It's a farm.

Standing out amid the typical suburban sea of grass patches are his potatoes, carrots, beats, peas, shallots, squash, parsnips and more -- enough to have given food to 70 people by the beginning of July.

The second odd thing is that it isn't even Cam's yard. It belongs to Heidi Gigler and Jug Sidhu, a non-gardening couple who heard about Cam's soul search for right livelihood last year and agreed to let him pursue it by turning their turf into food.

Empty car parks to sprout vegetable plots
A London council is converting its disused spaces into areas for local people to grow produce in an attempt to make its food supply sustainable by 2050.

Hundreds of unused and abandoned spaces in Enfield are to be converted into fruit and vegetable plots in the hope of the area becoming "London's breadbasket". . .

Informal growing spaces around the borough, such as car parks, disused garages and empty spaces around blocks of flats, are to be converted into vegetable plots, while two of its rundown parks will become community orchards. The scheme is part of a borough-wide strategy announced today with the aim of reinvigorating food networks and improving sustainability.

Paris rooftops swarm with bees as urban honey industry takes off
Tourists are not the only species swarming on the Champs Élysées this August. Also enjoying the sunshine are squadrons of bees, part of a fast-multiplying population that is making honey a new Parisian industry.

Two Acres of Hope for Recovering Addicts
The farm is run by recovering addicts and alcoholics from New York City, men whose various addictions, and repeated relapses, have left them sickened and homeless. Called Renewal Farm, the patch of land boasts neat rows of vegetables and bright flowers, as well as two greenhouses fashioned out of thick sheets of plastic.

The men’s days are split into two very different parts. They tend the farm, lacing the air with locker-room banter and gentle ribbing. And then they exorcise their worries and voice their hopes at
St. Christopher’s Inn, a hilltop rehabilitation center nearby where they sleep.

Bolivians look to ancient farming
Poor farmers in the heart of Bolivia's Amazon are being encouraged to embrace the annual floods - by using a centuries-old irrigation system for their crops.

They are experimenting with a sustainable way of growing food crops that their ancestors used.

It could provide them with better protection against the extremes of climate change, reduce deforestation, improve food security and even promise a better diet.

Getting Real About the High Price of Cheap Food
Somewhere in Iowa, a pig is being raised in a confined pen, packed in so tightly with other swine that their curly tails have been chopped off so they won't bite one another. To prevent him from getting sick in such close quarters, he is dosed with antibiotics. The waste produced by the pig and his thousands of pen mates on the factory farm where they live goes into manure lagoons that blanket neighboring communities with air pollution and a stomach-churning stench. He's fed on American corn that was grown with the help of government subsidies and millions of tons of chemical fertilizer. When the pig is slaughtered, at about 5 months of age, he'll become sausage or bacon that will sell cheap, feeding an American addiction to meat that has contributed to an obesity epidemic currently afflicting more than two-thirds of the population. And when the rains come, the excess fertilizer that coaxed so much corn from the ground will be washed into the Mississippi River and down into the Gulf of Mexico, where it will help kill fish for miles and miles around. That's the state of your bacon — circa 2009.

Pesticides in your peaches: Tribune and USDA studies find pesticides, some in excess of EPA rules, in the fragrant fruit
Preliminary 2008 U.S. Department of Agriculture tests obtained by the Chicago Tribune show that more than 50 pesticide compounds showed up on domestic and imported peaches headed for U.S. stores. Five of the compounds exceeded the limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency, and six of the pesticide compounds present are not approved for use on peaches in the United States.These are the types of findings that have landed peaches on one environmental group's "Dirty Dozen" list -- 12 fruits and vegetables that retain the highest levels of pesticide residues -- and give many consumers pause as they shop grocery aisles. It seems that peaches' delicate constitutions, fuzzy skins and susceptibility to mold and pests cause them to both need and retain pesticides at impressive rates.

The obvious advantage of organic food over conventional
In a recent chat with readers, Washington Post food politics columnist (and general policy writer) Ezra Klein engaged in the following exchange:

Santa Fe, N.M.: I saw a report today on a study finding that organic food isn’t any healthier than conventional food. Is buying organic a waste of money, in your opinion?

Ezra Klein: Honestly? Yes. It’s definitely not healthier, at least not according to any study I’ve seen. There’s some argument that it’s more environmentally friendly. But it’s not something that I’m convinced is worth a premium. I’d rather buy from a local farm that uses some pesticides than a major producers who has gone organic.

Whoa—lots going on there. Let’s stick to the “definitely not healthier” bit for now. (As for the idea that there’s just “some argument” for the environmental benefits of not dousing fields of food with synthetic poisons and greenhouse-gas-spewing fertilizer, I’m not sure what to say.) Well, Ezra,
here is a study, released last year by the U.S.-based Organic Center, that comes to a conclusion quite different from the U.K. agency’s findings. It’s called “New Evidence Confirms the Nutritional Superiority of Plant-Based Organic Foods.” The Organic Center recently released a cogent rebuttal to the U.K. findings as well.

Urban agriculture key to alleviating world hunger
The urban poor have been hit the hardest by the global hunger epidemic, which has been fueled by the ongoing food, economic, financial, and environmental crises.

Getting healthy food into cities in sufficient quantities is an extremely difficult task. For the first time in the history of mankind, over half the world's population lives in cities. Reached in 2007, that portion is projected to increase dramatically in the next few decades. About a third of all city dwellers, about one billion people worldwide, live in slums. The cost of importing food from rural areas is too much for many of the urban poor to bear.

For much of this population, growing food is the only way to survive and make a living. The practice of growing plants and raising livestock in empty lots, in pots in homes and on stairways and rooftops, on community land in parks or near water sources, or on small plots of land owned by families makes up a half or more of the food required in some cities in the developing world, particularly in Africa and Asia.

Drought stalks India
The first reports of drought-related suicides have begun filtering in from the district press. Farmers in the eastern coastal state of Andhra Pradesh are taking their own lives - the toll is said to be 20 farmers over the last 40 days. The state is one amongst many which has so far been forsaken by the South-West monsoon in 2009. Its parched districts have received only 153 mm of rain as against a monsoon normal, till mid-August, of 624 mm. An official with the state agriculture department has called the conditions the worst in 50 years.

Monsanto to Charge as Much as 42% More for New Seeds
Monsanto Co., the world’s largest seed maker, plans to charge as much as 42 percent more for new genetically modified seeds next year than older offerings because they increase farmers’ output.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Home On The UnFree Range

I’m trained as an academic, so whenever I’m learning something new, I start with a “literature review;” that is, by reading everything I can get my hands on about the topic. However, no matter how much reading I do, when I get out in the field and start interviewing real live human beings, everything changes. I gain different perspectives on issues I’ve read about, and new issues emerge.

So it is with my chickens. I read and researched quite a bit about chicken-raising before ordering my birds and was thoroughly prepared (I thought) when I brought my day-old chicks home. I had already tested the height of the heat lamp for achieving the proper temperature, had sugar standing by to add to warm water, the paper towels for the floor of the brooder so they could find food on the first day, and so on.

Once I got over the initial stress of making sure they were drinking and eating, and got a handle on my fear that death was stalking them at every turn (that hasn’t completely gone away), I began to observe other things. From the beginning, our chicks weren’t comfortable with the recommended 95-98F (98-100F according to the Cackle Hatchery!) starting brooder temperature. They stayed around the outside edges of the brooder and never lingered under the lamp; instead they skittered quickly from one side to another.

Since I wanted them to grow up to be hardy Wisconsin girls, and they are heavy breeds (Barred Rocks and Rhode Island Reds), I finally worked up the nerve to lower the temperature to their apparent comfort level. That turned out to be around 90-92F – about five or six degrees lower than recommended. The books do say to adjust the temperature based on the birds’ behavior, but I didn’t expect the difference to be so much lower. From then on, they seemed to prefer lower temperatures fairly quickly, so we obliged.

As I observed them, I noticed other things. We put their brooder in the downstairs laundry room on a counter top in front of a window. They had constant artificial light, but they sought the sunlight. Whenever the sun shone into their brooder, I’d find them basking in a sunbeam.

I also noticed that they were curious little birds. Whenever we introduced anything new into their brooder, say, a new thermometer leaning against the side of the box, they would scamper over quickly to check it out. They’d look at each other, look at the thermometer, peck it a few times with their beaks, and try to walk up it like a ramp. As I watched them in their cardboard box, I wondered whether their little bird brains, like any brains, needed some stimulation; whether they needed something to do besides eat, poop, and pick at the duct tape.

I especially wanted to head off boredom because I’d read about the horror of feather-picking and how chicks could literally peck another chick to death. Some sources attributed this behavior to overheating, overcrowding, or boredom. When they were about two weeks old, a long-time chicken-keeper here in Madison suggested that I put a piece of turf in their brooder to give them something to do and some greens to eat.

They went crazy for that piece of turf! They pulled at the grass and clover, scratched at the clump, competed to stand atop it. One chick sprawled over it like she was hugging the good earth. It occurred to me that like all living things, these little chicks needed sunshine, greens, and to be in contact with the earth.

When I decided to raise chickens, I never really thought through what that would entail; that I would essentially be keeping caged birds, and that in the early weeks, they would be raised in completely artificial conditions. On one level, of course, this is blindingly obvious. But watching them seek out sun and earth highlights the issue in a more immediate and compelling way.

If they need sun and earth, they must also need fresh air and exercise, I reasoned. I started thinking about taking them outside in a chicken tractor for short periods, during the warmest part of the day when the outside temperature was about that of the brooder. I asked advice from an acquaintance who grew up on a farm and helped her mother raise hundreds of chickens each year. She, her husband, son, and daughter-in-law run a highly successful dairy farm. She was appalled at the notion of taking not quite three-week-old baby chicks outside. “Don’t you dare!” she exclaimed. “Not until at least four weeks. And maybe not even then.”

I walked away feeling somewhat chastised – but still disbelieving. Surfing the
Backyard Chickens discussion board, I stumbled on the ideas of a poster named Ruth. In a thread about early chick mortality, poster/moderator Eggchel quoted an article by Jeff Mattocks (2002) from The American Pastured Poultry Producers Association (APPPA):

Many folk, particularly beginners in pastured poultry, treat their chicks like their infant children. Everyone is cautious about drafts and chills and these are things to be aware of. The downfall to being overcautious is the tendency to seal up the entire brooder so that NO fresh air can get in.

Ruth responded:

Wow, I've been saying all along to get those baby chicks outside in fresh air and sunshine from day one but never saw it documented in any poultry book. Everything says keep them in heated box for weeks and weeks. I've had 4 different batches that have gone outside from one week old, in a chick-n-hutch with night temps in 40s and 50s with only a heat lamp and some plastic or blanket thrown over the hutch at night. For day, they are let out to free range in sunshine with temps 60s and up. Never lost one - never had one get sick - definitely never kept one in a heated 95 degree brooder box for more than a day or two.

It was a relief to see someone with experience saying what I’d been feeling, and reporting that none of her chicks had died from exposure. I sought out another of Ruth’s threads, “
A Journey Through A Different Way,” where she explained that she was trying to raise her chicks “as close to natural as possible.” She observed that:

It's true that mama hens will start taking their babies around the farm, from the very beginning, regardless of weather and that they can get under her when they are cold. But they only do this for the first week or so - after that they are somewhat feathered and too big to get under mama or they would be carrying her around like a concert mosh-pit.

Ruth’s common sense and successful experience gave me the confidence to do what my observations and instincts were telling me to do – get my chicks outside. I started taking them out in the afternoons in fine weather, for just 15 minutes the first day, gradually increasing their time outside. Is it anthropomorphizing to say the chicks “loved” being outside? They happily scampered, scratched, ran and flew from one end of the tractor to the other.

Watching them, we decided to make another change – we’d enlarge the coop and run we were in the process of building. The original design conformed to the recommendations of the
Virginia Tech Cooperative Extension, but now didn’t seem big enough. (Read more about our coop and run here.) When they were about 5 weeks old, and we finally transferred them permanently outside, we were satisfied that we’d given them lots of space to live and grow.

However, now that they are nearly full-grown, at 15 weeks, I am again concerned about their limited space. They’re much more sedentary than they used to be. I don’t know whether that’s normal for their age, or because they’ve outgrown their tractor (which we get them out in every day) and their run. At one time, their tractor was spacious to them and they could run and fly the length of it. Now they just walk around. It seems to me they need to actually run sometimes, just like I need a bike ride or a brisk walk, instead of counting simple chores around the house as “exercise.” I also feel sad when they’re chasing a bug and are thwarted when it flies out of their pen.

They also appear to want out, to be free. They used to get excited whenever we’d transfer them from pen to tractor. They’d happily run out of their pen and into the tractor, and when it was time to return, they’d scamper back quickly. Now they linger in the few feet between tractor and pen, looking around, trying to escape the unsecured pieces of fencing I temporarily put up between the two cages to keep them from running off. One day, Batgirl knocked over a piece of fencing and got free for a short while. (For a second, I half expected the rest of them to start banging tin cups along the wire of their pen! I have a vivid imagination.)

I find myself really, really wanting to let them run free in the yard. But I can’t, for several reasons. To begin with, it’s against city ordinance. I’d probably flout that, if there weren’t other problems. Dogs get to roam freely in their yards, some of them barking incessantly at neighbors whenever they come out; why can’t my chickens free range?

However, if I let them out, they’d tear up my garden. It’s not in one place that I can fence off. I have a large landscaped area as well as raised beds and containers on the deck. There would be no way to keep the chickens from damaging crops and flowers in all these places.

Most importantly, if I let them out they’d be vulnerable to the many predators in the area. We live between a conservation park, less than a mile away, and a 42 acre city park just a block in the other direction. Wildlife regularly travels between the two places, so even though we live in a city, we have coyotes, possums, and raccoons in the neighborhood. One of my neighbors put in a koi pond few years ago and a fat badger who’d been roaming the neighborhood that year came along ate all the fish. Last year, we had wild turkeys attacking mail carriers.

This year, my neighbor Patrick came over, eyes wide, to tell about a huge wild turkey he’d seen at the foot of his yard. To appreciate this story, you have to know that Patrick and Ellen are former urbanites, who moved here from Washington, DC where they rode only public transport and never even owned a car. Now they live in the wilds of Madison, Wisconsin with their 18-month old son Sean. “Fully erect,” Patrick exclaimed, “that turkey had to be at least four feet tall!” Then he sighed. “I don’t know when it will ever be safe for Sean to play outside.”

Hawks are serious predators around here, and have been known to carry off chipmunks, snakes, and birds from backyard feeders. My neighbor Becky, who grew up on a farm, warned me early on that I’d need to protect my chickens from the hawks. My dad’s partner Wilda, who grew up in rural Arkansas, told me that when she was a child, a hawk once tried to make off with one of her mother’s chickens. Seeing the hawk, her mother exclaimed, “No hawk is stealing my chickens!” Then she grabbed a shotgun and picked off the hawk with one shot. The chicken was dead, but so was the hawk. And guess who got to eat the chicken?

I’m pretty sure that method will not work for me. First of all, I don’t own a gun and have never fired one. I’m seriously myopic and have impaired depth perception, which means I’m hopeless at any activity that involves aiming at an object moving through space. If I fired a gun, I’d probably injure myself, terrorize the neighbors, and with my luck, get hauled off by the Department Of Homeland Security to one of those camps they’re reportedly building. And that angry letter I’d sent ranting about the NAIS (National Animal Identification System) probably wouldn’t help my case.

No, I’ll have to come up with something else. Currently, I’m envisioning a system of panels of fencing connected by hinges that can be opened to the size required that day, and folded for storage when not in use. Meanwhile, I still struggle to balance keeping my chickens safe with allowing them a measure of the freedom all creatures need for their health and well-being.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Green Acres: Not the Place for Me

Sometimes I read about homesteaders and fantasize about getting some land, preferably a wooded lot, where we could build a straw bale home, oriented properly for passive solar heat, and chop fallen trees to burn in a woodstove for heat and cooking. We’d collect rainwater off a metal roof for storage in underground tanks to supply all our needs. We’d have room enough to plant fruit and nut trees and a huge sprawling vegetable garden where I wouldn’t have to squeeze a pumpkin or cantaloupe in here or there among other vegetation and train smaller cucurbits like cucumbers up a trellis. I could have as many chickens as I wanted, for eggs and meat, and enough turf to allow them to truly free range. We’d be snug and self-sufficient. Just me and him. Me and him.

Nearest neighbors, how many miles away?

A drive back into the city takes how long??

I usually snap out of it pretty quickly. If the fantasy lingers too long, I ponder awhile on the stories a professor friend of mine used to tell about 19th century Nebraska farm women losing their minds out there on the prairie alone with just their nuclear families and a howling wind to keep them company.

But the prospect of isolation isn’t the only thing keeping me from building a self-sufficient homestead – it’s the general lack of resources, both physical and financial. Last week on, a long-time homesteader named Todd wrote a main article entitled “A Realistic Plan and Time Line for Your Survival Homestead.” In year one of his 5-7 year “realistic” plan, he advises, among other things, buying and clearing land, establishing a power system, establishing domestic and agricultural water systems, establishing a septic/cesspool system/outhouse/composting toilet – and that’s less than half the list!

Even if we already knew how to do these things, without a lot of basic research, where would we get the money? That first-year list represents a tremendous capital investment that doesn’t include all the farm equipment, the building of a barn, chicken coop (we found out even a small one is not cheap to build), etc, on Todd’s 5-7 year plan.

The best response was from a poster named ThatsItImOut, who began by saying “If it took me as many years and as much money as Todd implies, I would be broke and dead anyway before I could even get underway.” He went on to suggest that Todd’s plan was “elitist” and described friends who got a homestead going for much less, using “simpler methods,” some similar to the Amish. (Indeed, there are successful examples of people doing just that, like
Larisa Walk and Bob Dahse.) This one of a few moments of sanity in that surreal thread earned this response from Todd: “Your post is off the wall and not worthy of a serious reply.”

But that’s Todd. If you’ve ever hung out at The Oil Drum, you know Todd bristles at even the slightest criticism. But ThatsItImOut is right – Todd’s plan is elitist. Even among the college educated professionals that make up much of the community that is The Oil Drum, such a capital investment would require sacrifice, and many of that elite group are or will be losing their jobs.

But let’s assume the capital investment is doable for some, albeit small, segment of the population. The skills necessary to set up and maintain such an operation are varied and require years of experience. Posters who wrote that it was better to buy land and pay professional farmers to farm it had better sense. It’s almost insulting to farmers, in my opinion, to imagine that anyone can just pick it up in a few years.

And that’s not counting all the other skills involved – such as siting and maintaining a solar array, preserving food, maintaining capital equipment such as tractors, animal husbandry, and the like. The poster who replied that he could only do it (homestead, that is) with family was right – it takes a community. Larisa Walk and Bob Dahse have the most impressive self-sufficient set-up I have read about, but they lived in a collective for years before setting up on their own. There, presumably, they had a social safety net and the time needed to learn the skills required to establish and run their own homestead.

For many reasons, then, the rural homestead (or doomstead, as some call it) is not for us. I like the city; I like having near neighbors (and am lucky to have some great ones). I first learned of the “peak oil” issue through the film
End of Surburbia, which I happened to rent and watch around the time we were looking to buy a house. That, and subsequent reading, motivated us to buy a home in a neighborhood near our jobs and other amenities. We’re also on a bus line, so shopping, work, movies – are all just a short bike ride, walk, or bus ride away. Our location is perfect for us in many ways, so our goal is to make the most we can of what we have.

Appropriate models will not be the simplified, sustainable homesteading of Walk and Dahse (however much I admire them), or the resource and labor intensive plan Todd advises. They are instead people like the
Dervaes family of Pasadena, or the Garden Girl Patti Moreno of New York. The Dervaes' claim to raise over 6,000 pounds of produce on their 1/5 acre urban homestead! They have some major advantages, however, such as four adults to maintain it (three of them decades younger than we are) and a longer growing season. Still, they are a terrific model for how to utilize every inch of a suburban lot – front and back yard. They pursue a sustainable lifestyle in other ways as well; for example, reducing their energy dependence by 2/3 using solar panels and cutting back on energy usage.

Garden Girl Patti Moreno also makes efficient use of urban space with raised beds, trellises, and other intensive gardening techniques. She’s even planted a mini orchard. She’ll show you how, too, with all kinds of videos on her website.

These are the kinds of efforts that are inspirational to me, and, I believe, more practical, accessible, and appealing to many people than rural doomsteading.

Edited on 8/20/09 to add: I received a thoughtful and generous email from Larisa Walk and Bob Dahse on my original Green Acres post (below) which included a correction. They say they already had homesteading skills when they moved to an intentional community, so my assumption about where they learned self-sufficiency skills was incorrect. Eventually, they decided to go back to homesteading on their own, and left that community.

A point I was trying to make is still relevant, however. They learned their skills somewhere; whether it was some combination of childhood training, reading, mentoring, (in addition, of course, to their own experiences and experimentation) I do not know. Nobody is born knowing, or just figures out on their own, how to be self-sufficient in food production and preservation, how to build and site a passive solar straw bale home, how to design and build a rainwater collection system, etc, etc. The skill set required for self-sufficient homesteading is extensive, daunting for many people, and more easily accomplished in a community.

After reading and thinking about Larisa and Bob’s email, I went back to Todd’s Oil Drum article and found some interesting replies by posters outside the U.S. A poster named Bloody Paradise wrote:

I think that what strikes me most about TODD's post, is his assumption that there is always virgin land to be developed . . . To us here in Europe, where each village has its limited forest-rights, established centuries ago, and it's pasturage-rights - the idea of wild-west homesteading is utterly bizarre. You can't just uproot trees and build a house where-ever you want. Those trees and that land already belong to a village, a commune, a group of people that need/have claim to the land . . . People need people. No-one contains enough skills to be self-sufficient.

Here I was thinking about how out-of-reach Todd’s plan was financially for many people; in more densely populated countries, it’s impossible!

Moreover, the model of the lone homesteader, the “rugged individualist,” if you will, is peculiarly American. It is built into the structure of land development in this country. Thomas Jefferson was critical of the European pattern of farming villages because he thought it encouraged too much crowding and interaction among households, which in turn would lead to vices. He believed that scattered farmers would be happier, more “virtuous” and more independent, and that this would be better for democracy.

His ideas were influential in shaping the 1785 Land Ordinance Act that established the town and range system of surveying land. Following its passage, land was surveyed into 6-square mile townships. Each of these were sub-divided into squares of 640 acres, which could be further subdivided for sale to speculators and settlers. Farmers and their families would be situated on these squares of individual private property, rather than in villages, with some lands in common, as in Europe.

The lone homestead has deep historical and institutional roots in the United States, and strikes a nostalgic chord in the American psyche. It is understandable that as unsustainable systems creak and groan, and give every sign that they are on the verge of collapse, the desire to escape to a rural survivalist haven is growing among many Americans. But we’ve lost a lot of the old skills and haven’t yet learned new ones. For many of us, our ability to leave our current homes and situations is limited by lack of resources, both physical and financial and by ties to supportive networks of family, friends, and neighbors. We may have to learn to “adapt in place.”

Driving back yesterday from taking my granddaughter home after an extended visit, I heard an old Eagles song on the radio. The one about Manifest Destiny that asks:

Who will provide the grand design,
What is yours and what is mine?
'Cause there is no more new frontier,
We have got to make it here.

Truer words.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Food News Round-Up: August 14, 2009

Each Friday I will be posting a Food News Roundup, featuring interesting stories in the news about gardening, agricultural production, and food security. Feel free to send me relevant stories you'd like to see included.

Local (Midwest; Wisconsin)
Yee Ythao is a language link for Madison's Hmong gardeners. Ythao, who was born in a refugee camp in Thailand and came to Madison when she was 14, has been a translator for Hmong immigrants and organizers of the city's 42 community gardens, where many Hmong families grow food for their own use. At 29, she is also preserving time-honored Hmong gardening traditions while also incorporating those of other cultures in her plot at Quann Community Garden on the city's South Side.

Why is gardening important among Hmong people?

The number of Wisconsin residents receiving food stamps continues to rise.

The state Department of Health Services says more than 560,000 people are enrolled in Wisconsin's FoodShare program. That's an increase of 33 percent since last year, and represents one in 10 Wisconsin residents.

100-year-old woman recalls state's homesteading days
Daisy married Myron Swenson, a homesteader from Wisconsin, in 1929. They moved into a one-room shack on a farm in Turner, where they farmed the land and split the crops with the landowner. The shack was 12 feet by 15 feet, with no insulation, no electricity and no running water. It is here where she raised her first two children.
Money was tight, and food was hard to come by.

Because of the lack of trees in the area, they had no wood to burn in their stoves, so the only thing they could burn was cow chips sprinkled with coal dust. The couple felt blessed to even own their cow, which was given to them by their parents.

To keep milk and butter cool in the summer, they had to lower the food into their well in a bucket.

Why grow your own food?
OVER the next several years food prices will increase sharply. These coming price increases are as unavoidable and inevitable as an increase in the price of oil.

In fact the price we pay for food is interestingly and inextricably linked to the oil price, and this article will not only show how the two have become inseparably intertwined but how they cannot do anything other than escalate.

Kurt Cobb: A thing of beauty
I frequently walk by a nearby lot on which a modest one-story home sits amid a vast sea of the greenest grass you will encounter outside a golf course. The man who lives there with his wife is often tending his lawn: removing weeds, watering, riding his lawnmower. There are a couple of small flower gardens. But mostly it is grass.

The man told me last summer that one month he paid $230 for water. For him the enormous resources in water, fertilizer, and gasoline seem well worth it; his lawn is a work of art. Possibly he learned his aesthetics from a lawn fertilizer commercial or possibly from wealthier neighbors who live not too far from him--neighbors who mostly hire other people to get the same effects. But the origins of these aesthetics do not matter to him. His lawn is a flawless piece of monoculture rivaling the best lawns to be found anywhere in the city.

At-risk teens create garden, grow job skills
Shamar Armstrong dug the shovel into the hard-packed earth behind Elinor Hickey School, then jumped, the full weight of his fullback-size frame stomping the shovel into the ground, carving out an irrigation line one blade-width at a time.

"It's tiring," he said, a T-shirt wrapped around his head to soak up the sweat. "But it's kind of surprising. I didn't think this was going to be as cool as it is."

Vandals destroy Portland community gardens
In her 35 years as director of community gardens, Leslie Pohl-Kosbau had never seen anything like it: wooden trellises shattered, cornstalks cut down and trampled, tomato plants ripped out by the roots.
Vandals had struck the garden several times during the week, but in the wee hours of Tuesday they wrought the most damage. "They took some tools that were stored there and chopped the heck out of the gardens," says Pohl-Kosbau, who works for the Portland Bureau of Parks & Recreation. "It was wanton destruction."

Water spigots were turned on full blast and left to flood the gardens for hours. It was the fifth -- and most devastating -- strike since late April.
Neighbors who witnessed the vandalism refused to talk, saying they feared retribution.

Transition is the mission for sustainability collective
What if most of the yards in Ashland grew some sort of edible garden? That's one of the goals of Transition Town Ashland, a group that aims to increase local resiliency to deal with the challenges of uncertain economic times: climate change, exponential population growth and peak oil, organizers said.

Organic producers suffer as green fingered customers go it alone
An increase in amateur gardeners keen to grow their own food is taking its toll on organic farms and shops that deliver vegetable boxes.
Hundreds of health food shops and farms around the country now offer a vegetable box scheme whereby they deliver seasonal produce to their customers each week. But in the last year they have had to compete with an increasing army of credit-crunched householders who have decided to give vegetable growing a go.

A spokeswoman for Abel & Cole, one of the biggest box scheme providers, said: "Trading has been difficult this year. It was tough in the spring and this summer we have been affected more than usual because more people are growing their own seasonal produce."

Food crisis: Fields of gold
A bumper crop of corn set to come in at harvest in the U.S. this year. A global recession hogging all the attention. That’s all it took, and all of a sudden the Global Food Crisis, such a topic of conversation last year, is nowhere to be seen.

The quick disappearing act has some wondering where good sense has gone. “One good year and the problem is over? That’s ridiculous,” says Donald Coxe, a well-known commodity fund manager. His latest work of art, the Coxe Commodity Strategy Fund (TSX: COX.UN), was the biggest IPO on the TSX last year (raising $297 million from investors). So you know where his interests lie. Nevertheless, he is concerned that we are still just one bad crop away from another round of volatile food prices. “We’ve just had the worst deflation in the postwar period, and yet the prices of food are still high,” says Coxe. “We’re still right on the edge.”

Oregon: Blurring the urban-rural line in Damascus
The region's growth regulators seeded the new city of Damascus on Thompson's 77-acre farm. In Thompson's vision, the city can be a place where urban development and agriculture entwine like his graceful marionberry canes.

Part of the farm could be developed for housing, he suggests, while he continues to farm the better soil. The farm's crops could supply an "eco-restaurant" at the top slope of the property. Along the road below could be a fruit and produce stand. Next to it could be a community kitchen and education center where customers could preserve the berries they just bought or learn how to improve their home gardens.

Food Security
Climate Change Seen as Threat to U.S. Security
WASHINGTON — The changing global climate will pose profound strategic challenges to the United States in coming decades, raising the prospect of military intervention to deal with the effects of violent storms, drought, mass migration and pandemics, military and intelligence analysts say.

Such climate-induced crises could topple governments, feed terrorist movements or destabilize entire regions, say the analysts, experts at the Pentagon and intelligence agencies who for the first time are taking a serious look at the national security implications of climate change.
Recent war games and intelligence studies conclude that over the next 20 to 30 years, vulnerable regions, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and South and Southeast Asia, will face the prospect of food shortages, water crises and catastrophic flooding driven by climate change that could demand an American humanitarian relief or military response.

Food crisis could force wartime rations and vegetarian diet on Britons
The British people face wartime rations and a vegetarian diet in the event of a world food shortage, a new official assessment on the UK’s food security suggests today.

Even though the nation is 73 per cent self-sufficient in food production, higher than during the 1950s, the food chain is at risk from global influences such as a worldwide increase in population, climate change bringing extreme weather patterns, higher oil prices and more crops being grown for bio-fuel instead of food.

Supplies in future may also be disrupted by animal disease outbreaks, disruption of power supplies, trade disputes and interruptions for shipping and at ports.

Britain wants "radical rethink" on food production
LONDON (Reuters) - Britain must find ways to grow more food while using less water, energy and fertilisers to help feed a growing world population and offset the effects of climate change on agriculture, the government said on Monday.

A senior minister said last year's sharp rise in the cost of food and oil and a severe drought in Australia showed the urgent need to develop a food security plan.

"Last year the world had a wake-up call with the sudden oil and food price rises," Environment Secretary Hilary Benn said in a statement to launch a national debate on food security. "We need a radical rethink of how we produce and consume our food.

Wish you weren't here: The devastating effects of the new colonialists
A new breed of colonialism is rampaging across the world, with rich nations buying up the natural resources of developing countries that can ill afford to sell. Some staggering deals have already been done, says Paul Vallely, but angry locals are now trying to stop the landgrabs.

Why Corporations, Emerging Powers and Petro-States Are Snapping Up Huge Chunks of Farmland in the Developing World
In the past six months, big players in the global economy have grabbed 50 million acres of arable land, from Africa to Southeast Asia.

Stop me if you think you've heard this one before:
Investment banks, sovereign wealth funds and other barely regulated financial entities in search of fat paydays go on buying binges structurally adjusted to maximize their earnings reports and employee bonuses, while simultaneously screwing their business associates and everyone else in the process. It's all done in near-total secrecy, and by the time everyone finds out about it, they're already in the poorhouse.
That's more or less the playbook for the derivatives and credit-default swaps gold rush that ruined the global economy, which cratered in 2007 and has yet to recuperate.

The bubble money has now moved on from housing and turned to the commodities markets, especially global food production. Given what that money did to the housing market, things don't look good for local communities whose land is being bought up by governments, sovereign wealth and hedge funds, and other investors on the hunt for real value in a hyperreal economy.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

In Praise of Juliet

The Juliet is my favorite tomato cultivar. I know heirloom tomatoes are all the rage these days. They are beautiful and succulent, delicious sliced and sprinkled with just a little salt. I do grow a few large slicing tomatoes, as well as tomatoes for pizza sauce, such as Viva Italia (last year) and Amish Paste (this year). But the little Juliet is dependable, tasty, and prolific; in sum, a sure bet.

These elongated cherry-style tomatoes have performed for me in good soil and bad; in poor weather and great weather. I planted some the summer after we moved into this house, before I’d had a chance to start improving the soil, and was rewarded with dozens of tasty fruits. This summer has been unseasonably cool, and the Juliets are the only cultivars (so far) on which fruit has ripened (partly, or maybe mostly, because they are smaller tomatoes.)

Tomatoes need nighttime temperatures of above 60 degrees F for fruit set, and we have had many nights this summer when the low hovered at or just below that temperature. I consider myself lucky to have as many fruits on all my tomato cultivars as I do. But the Juliets are really loaded with tomatoes, most of them full-size and ready to ripen.

Juliets are less sweet than grape tomatoes, and have a better flavor than the traditional cherry tomato. They will complement a salsa or stand up to a pasta sauce. They’re also ideal for drying, with thick walls and little pulp. Apparently, you just slice them in half, push out the pulp, turn inside out, and place in the dryer, skin side down.

The University of Wisconsin extension advises against solar food drying because the weather here is humid. However, Minnesota homesteaders Larisa Walk and her husband Bob Dahse have designed a solar food dryer that works in our climate. Instructions for building one are in Walk’s booklet A Pantry Full of Sunshine, which you can purchase through
their website.

Sue Robishaw, another upper Midwestern homesteader,
has built the dryer and reports that:

[It] works by convection, drawing air in at the bottom which flows across the trays of food and exits out the top taking moisture with it. And it works in the humid Midwest because there isn’t much space in the dryer for that moist air to hang around in – it quickly moves out.
I plan to build the dryer this winter and try it out next year. If you’ve ever canned tomatoes, you know what a job it is – blanching, peeling, packing hot jars – made more miserable because you’re usually slaving over a hot stove during the hottest time of year. If the tomato drying works out, I may never can another tomato, except as pizza or pasta sauce. The thought of escaping a sweltering kitchen for the chaise lounge in the shade with a good book while the sun dries my tomatoes is very appealing. And I’m told sun-dried tomato-based pasta sauces in winter are delicious.

The only complication with Juliets is that they are hybrids, meaning that saved seeds will not breed true. A major reason heirloom vegetables are so popular now is because the seeds can be saved. So, how will I minimize purchased inputs and do an end run around corporate seed producers? By taking cuttings from this year’s plants.

I’ve done this successfully with annuals like geraniums and coleus. Tomatoes are perennials in warm climates and easily grow adventitious roots along any section of stem that is beneath the soil line. They’ll probably get a bit spindly over the winter, and certainly won’t produce fruit, but in early spring I’ll take cuttings from new growth on these little seedlings and put them under grow lights with other seeds I’m starting. By the time it’s warm enough to plant them out, they should be sturdy plants.

Monday, August 10, 2009

These Ain’t No Barnyard Chickens

Or, How I Taught City Peeps To Go Into Their Coop

Living here in Wisconsin, I know quite a few people who grew up on farms in the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s. In many ways, they’re a great resource for this city girl trying to learn how to raise chickens. But fairly quickly I realized that there are also many differences between keeping country chickens and city chickens. There are some things my farm-reared neighbors and friends cannot help me with. One of the biggies was how to get those little chicks to go into their coop at night once you move them out of the brooder in the house to the outside coop.

We moved ours out when they were just about five weeks old. We hadn’t been able to finish our coop yet – it had a temporary roof. But I really needed them out of the house. They were creating a lot of dust and triggering allergic symptoms in me. Plus, they were just too big. Already they were flying up onto their waterer and pecking at the chicken wire above. I was sure one day they would break free of that makeshift cardboard brooder and fly around the laundry room. Especially given their fascination with the duct tape that was holding it together. So out they had to go.

As luck would have it, Rick had to leave on a business trip the day we moved them out, so I’d have to figure out a routine myself. Everybody I knew who’d grown up on a farm claimed you didn’t have to do anything special; that chickens just knew what to do. When dusk came, they’d troop into the coop and bed down for the night.

Of course it didn’t happen that way for me. On traditional farms, chicks have mother hens or other chickens to learn from. Instead, my chicks had only each other and a clueless owner. As darkness fell, they grew increasingly anxious, pacing around the run and peeping loudly.

It’s not that they didn’t know how to use the ladder. They’d already shown they could. Our 14-year-old grandson Nathan built it, and wanted to see them use it before he left that afternoon. So he cleverly sprinkled the ladder with grass clippings and we sat outside to watch. Sure enough, they’d walk up the ladder, snacking on the treats, but fly off when they got to the top.

They refused to walk into that semi-dark, enclosed place, and who could blame them? They’d lived their entire lives up to now in a box with an open top and a light on day and night. A little battery-powered LED light affixed to the ceiling of their coop was not the same thing at all.

I finally realized that unless I wanted to sit out all night, I’d have to put them in myself. So one by one I picked them up and put them inside. They squawked like crazy, making me feel terrible. The first three I managed to catch easily. The third, a Rhode Island Red our granddaughter Alexis had named Tracy, refused to be captured. She raced around the run, jumping over the piece of cardboard I’d used to trap the others, skillfully evading me at every turn.

Finally, I managed to catch Tracy, then tripped and fell. Away she went again, this time more desperate than ever to escape. I watched, horrified, as she literally threw herself against the fencing TWICE, banging her beak into the wire, trying to escape. By now I was completely miserable, but somehow managed to snag her and put her in the coop.

Exhausted by the ordeal, I locked the door to the run and went around the side to look in the coop window. There they all were with their beaks to the window peeping loudly and piteously. I felt like a heel. I went into the house, but came back out to check on them ten minutes later. They were all nestled together on the floor of the coop, next to the window, apparently sleeping. Feeling spent, I went into the house to lie down. I CANNOT go through this every night, I thought.

The next day, I surfed the net and chicken discussion forums for advice. I quickly found out I wasn’t the only one with this problem. Some posters on one message board advised locking the chicks in the coop for a few days or even a week. That seemed unduly harsh, and a rather unfair punishment, considering it wasn’t the little chicks’ fault they’d been raised artificially up to now.

One woman posted that her husband taught their chicks to go in by picking up each bird and walking it up the ladder! Another wrote that she’d been picking up her chicks and putting them in each night for two weeks. How long will it be, she asked, until they learn to go in themselves? The drill they’ve learned, I thought, is to wait until someone comes along and puts you in. I realized I’d have to find some way to trick them into doing it themselves, and that wouldn’t traumatize them or me.

A couple of posters had some workable ideas. One advised removing the feeder a couple of hours before dusk, and then putting it into the coop, so they’d be hungry and go in to eat. Another suggested putting a bright light into the coop, since it was the darkness they feared. They’d gravitate toward the light.

That night, I marshaled all my resources. I took away their feeder two hours before dusk. Then I went into the pen and filled the feeder right in front of their little beaks before putting it in the coop. Next, I put a flashlight in the coop, shining a spotlight on the feeder. Finally, I sprinkled grass clippings on the ladder. “Come on, girls!” I called. I tapped the top of the ladder.

Within a few minutes, three of them moseyed up the ladder and into the coop. Uncharacteristically, Batgirl (a Barred Rock, so named by our youngest grandson Zachary), stayed below, pacing the pen and peeping. Batgirl is the alpha female of the group, the leader, usually the first to investigate anything new. Surely she understood what she needed to do. I called out to her and tapped the ladder.

Finally, Batgirl gave up and stopped her pacing and peeping. “Shoulders” hunched, head down, she walked with an air of resignation (I swear!) to the front of the ladder and up. It occurred to me then that she wasn’t upset about going into the coop; she was upset because everybody else was ignoring her! They’d all taken off without her.

Success! I quickly shut the pop door, went out of the pen, around to the egg door, and thoughtlessly removed the flashlight. Of course, they all started the piteous peeping again. They’ll pipe down in a few minutes, I told myself, and went into the house.

The next night, I went through the same performance, except that I had forgotten the grass clippings. They went in easily anyway. This time, however, I decided to let them finish eating before taking away the flashlight. I sat out on the deck for about ten minutes; then went to check on them. Nobody was feeding, but two of the birds were staring at the wall and moving their heads all around; right; then left, then stretching their necks up, then down. The bright light was behind them, and I realized they were fascinated with their shadows on the wall. How cute is that! I thought.

Then I heartlessly took the flashlight away.

The fourth evening Rick came home and I bragged about my success in training the chicks. “I’ll show you how I do it tonight!” I enthused. But we got to talking and lost track of time. It was already past dusk when we went out to do the routine. To my amazement, the chicks had already gone in the coop! Without induced hunger, grass clipping bribes, or a spotlight on the feeder! I was so proud. Their little bird brains had learned the lesson in just two nights. It seemed they needed just a little nudging for their instincts to kick in.

A few weeks later, we put in a roost. After a few days, we finally remembered to check whether they were using it. We went out after dark, and at first couldn't even see them through the window. Turns out they were all snuggled together on the far end of the roost, away from the window. Apparently, they now felt safe in their new home.