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Candy Belsse's 5th Grade Class - Truckee Elementary
It might be a little corny, but Whitney Houston pretty much hit it spot on, "Children are our future!" And in keeping with the kids theme of the past few weeks, I wanted to share some pictures from two, recent, kid-driven harvests at the Truckee Community Farm.

Last Friday, twenty-five 5th graders from Truckee Elementary came out to the Growing Dome and in the matter of one hour harvested, weighed, washed and packed 16lbs of greens and rooted vegetables. About 8lbs will be used to make a soup for a cafeteria meal. But the kids got a special surprise for the weekend when they learned they would each be taking home a bag of lettuce greens to share with their families.

Three weeks before that, students from Tahoe Expeditionary Academy in Kings Beach came to do a harvest helping us prepare a food donation for Project Mana, our local hunger relief agency. Not only did the kids harvest 8lbs of veggies but they got to deliver the food to Project Mana taking their field trip to a whole other dimension and demonstrating the connection we all share with food. Check out the video and photo gallery below.

 
 
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Adam & Laura - graduates of Organic Field School
I participate in a working group helping a land-grant university (name withheld) evaluate the best way to use their 1,000 acre field station. A 100-acre portion is in jeopardy of being rezoned commercial and sold-off. The sale would put much needed money in the pockets of the university but they would fail in their commitment as a land-grant institution.by taking prime farmland from the community. In a time when communities need to be focused on food security and realizing agriculture's green job potential for economic development, farmland needs to be preserved not removed. Below is my proposal outlining one of the ways to repurpose the 100-acres and make a little bit of money while educating new farmers of tomorrow...a farm incubator!

INTRODUCTION
A farm incubator trains people how to farm ecologically and subsidizes their start-up costs with the primary intent of generating new farmers.

The biggest risk in starting a farm is taking that financial leap of faith. Even if someone can afford to buy land, they have a huge learning curve in developing best farming practices. In a 2011 survey of 1,000 US farmers by the National Young Farmers' Coalition, "access to capital, access to land and health insurance present the largest obstacles for beginning farmers." A farm incubator addresses these concerns and starts to build the infrastructure necessary to educate and support new farmers.  

With less than 1% of the population farming and 70% of today’s farmers about to retire, the United States is in desperate need of more farmers; farmers who can keep land in agricultural production and if necessary, rehabilitate the land away from conventional farming through regenerative, organic, farming practices.

Land-grant universities have an opportunity to open up the next green, job market by helping put people back to work as farmers and in the process create economic prosperity and healthy food for their community.

A farm incubator program is the agricultural degree for the 21st Century. A traditional agriculture degree leaves graduates with few options in today’s job market. And to train young farmers to be conventional, mega-farm operators is not progressive or ecological. But teaching farmers to be self-reliant, small-scale farmers creates jobs, ownership and environmental responsibility. Students learn sustainable, farming techniques and how to build a business plan. Upon graduation, they are provided further training opportunities as well as access to grants and subsidized land. University X has the opportunity to be a center for creating small-scale farmers and be a model for other land-grant universities to follow.

UNIVERSITY X MODEL
University X is primed to offer its community the opportunity of a farm incubator. With Cooperative Extension for classes, College of Ag for supplemental courses and available land at the adjacent field station, the foundation is in place. Unlike many incubators, the classrooms are already built, the land is available and there is access to qualified instructors of the university. Developing a farm incubator at University X is more about coordinating resources within the existing infrastructure than having to build one from the ground up.

A farm incubator compliments and cooperates with existing and proposed research plans for University X filed labs.  A farm incubator diversifies University X’s product offerings attracting students who are not targeting a 4-year degree but want more in-depth training than a community college can offer. To promote the program, an outreach campaign can be launched to area high schools in order to raise awareness for the career possibilities in agriculture and improve the perception of farming as a viable career opportunity.

A farm incubator provides University X’s development office an exciting, new fundraising opportunity and a “fresh” way to engage potential and current donors. The farm incubator will generate revenue from the tuition and fees collected but capital will still need to be raised over the life of the incubator in order to purchase equipment and supplies. Donors will be attracted by the innovative approach of the farm incubator. It enriches a donors gift  by being able to do more than just support education but also support the environment as well as social and economic stimulus to the community….with more people farming, more people have jobs; local food production increases; and money stays local fostering a more resilient and equitable economy.

All told, a farmer incubator is a good story and PR opportunity for the university. A farm incubator is an inspiring demonstration for modern education and an admirable way for the university to help increase city x’s food security by fostering new farmers.

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Sarita Schaffer - Viva Farms in WA
THE PROPOSAL
 A farm incubator is a revenue generating, academic opportunity. It is an alternative education model and positions University X as a cutting edge land-grant university committed to supporting and preparing farmers of tomorrow.

University X, however, should consider a variety of small farmer programs to diversify their course offerings. In addition to a farm incubator program, other traditional, but innovative, models can be developed such as a 2yr small-farmer certificate program and a small farm training series. By offering three programs, University X can leverage the classes designed, teachers hired and materials required over three programs. The 2-year program and the training series would utilize a 5-acre, demonstration garden to fulfill their course work. The 5-acres would be located on the University X’s adjacent field station property and ideally right along TBD Blvd where the public would have an aesthetic view of a working farm. Below is a recap of the three “small farmer” programs that University X should consider as a way to utilize a portion of the field station:                            

1.      2yr small farm certificate – a certificate-based program with an emphasis on business

2.      Small Farm Training Series – 6-month training program ONLY

3.      Farmer Incubator Program – 6-month training program with access to subsidized land and equipment after graduation.

SAMPLE: Economies of a Farm Incubator

·        80-acres @ $600/acre for year lease = $48,000

·        12 students @ $1200/6-month course = $14,400 every six months ($28,800/year)

·        12 students @ $150 annually for continued education and marketing support

·        40 farmers paying grounds fee, irrigation & equipment rental (not including gas) = $10,000

        Total = $86,800/year*

*$45,000 would pay a full-time farm incubator manager who oversees the program as well as the
5-acre, demonstration parcel.

CASE STUDY: ALBA Organics – Salinas, CA
ALBA stands for Agriculture Land Based Training Association. ALBA trains people how to farm organically and helps them get started by leasing them subsidized land from their 110 acre property. ALBA's collaborative approach provides continued field education for all its graduates. At ALBA, you start with 6-months (150 hours) of training on a sliding scale that ranges from $250-$2500. After graduation, farmers/students pay 20% the market value for their initial 1/2-acre and over time will pay 100% for up to 7 acres. Farmers work side-by-side learning from each other with continued education from ALBA's trainers. Business support is available for small entrepreneurs or farmers can sell produce to the organization's private label brand, ALBA Organics, which is sells to Whole Foods and other grocers. In addition to the lease payments, ALBA Organics is the engine which funds the entire project first paying their growers for their harvest and returning profits back into the program.

CASE STUDY: Viva Farms in association w/ WSU – Mount Vernon, WA 
The Viva Farms Incubator Program was launched in June 2009 to provide new farmers affordable access to education, training and technical assistance; capital and credit; land and markets. Approximately, half of the thirty students who participated in the first year are Latino. Each completed Skagit County’s first bilingual “Sustainable Small Farming and Ranching” course and thirty-six students completed the first bilingual “Agricultural Entrepreneurship and Farm Business Planning” course. The Port of Skagit has leased Viva Farms 33 acres for an incubator farm where course graduates may sublease plots on which to launch and grow their farm businesses. Access to shared infrastructure, equipment and low-interest “educational loans” minimizes participants’ start-up costs. Core areas of support include organic production practices, marketing, sales, distribution, record keeping and liability management. The farm incubator at Viva Farms is not an end point for farmers. It is a starting point to transition them to farm ownership and secure long-term tenure. Once farmers establish stable agricultural enterprises at the incubator, Viva Farms will help them relocate to new land and continue growing their operations. They will need capital to acquire land, equipment, seeds, livestock and other farm inputs so Viva Farm established the New Farmer Reserve Fund along with Slow Money NW and a local credit union. The fund acts as a microloan program to provide affordable start-up and growth capital to new farmers.
       

 
 
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Building blocks to a Sustainable Food Community
I've often referred to my independent study on sustainable food systems as my un-accredited PhD program. Over the past seven months, I've handcrafted an education program that brought together learning experience and opportunities that would be the most meaningful to me...interning on organic farms, taking short courses and workshops and interviewing experts in the field.

Last night, I had the chance to present my findings and solutions for building a sustainable food community at the Tools for the Table speaker series in Truckee hosted by the Genesa Living Foundation. It felt like I was defending my thesis but fortunately, the audience took it easy on me and didn't challenge my proposal ;)

The pyramid to the left sums up my theory in a nutshell. To have a sustainable food system, you must have the building blocks to support it. First, you need a foodshed assessment in order to measure your community's food security against its dependence on the national food system. A foodshed assessment will provide a food policy council the information they need to develop a food plan for their society. The formation of a regional food hub will provide a market which will encourage more local food production. And those new food producers will be born from farmer and specialty-food incubator programs.

Once there is a solid foundation, equity will start to be seen in the supply chain starting with the grower all the way to the consumer. As more land is put into agricultural production and partnerships are developed with food, abundant, regional neighbors, the community will become more food secure. Financial incentives which encourage consumers and businesses to spend money locally will be implemented to build the regional food system. Regional networks  keeps money circulating locally. When money stays local it stimulates the local economy to make it more prosperous and resilient. Whatcha get is a sustainable food community!

 
 
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One of the venues at the Wild & Scenic Film Festival
Six years ago, I went to my first Wild & Scenic Film Festival in Nevada City, CA. At the time I was there representing festival sponsor, Patagonia. During one particular film, Broken Limbs, I was hit with an a-ha moment..."I had to take these films around the county." Eight months later, I quit my job at did exactly that. Over the next five years, I watched 1200 or more films as tour manager using the stories presented on screen to inspire audiences nationwide.

I went back to Wild & Scenic today as a spectator and had another one of those moments. I chose one of the seven venues and arrived just as the film, From the Mara Soil, was starting. I felt my way through the dark hall to a vacant sit against the back wall. The film's message quickly became clear, "sustainable food systems are possible anywhere."

Using subtitles to translate his heavily-accented English, the native dread-locked, Tanzanian spoke directly to the camera and said, "In Tanzania, we don't have a dictator, we don't have war. We just have poverty!" With conviction, he continued, "we must change the way poor people live."

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Tanzanian permaculture at Kinesi Orphanage
For years, Tanzania has been gripped by the inherent woes of its harsh environment making them dependent upon global support. Permaculture and better management of their natural resources is turning the tide. People have mostly eaten rice and beans because a short rainy season makes it nearly impossible to grow vegetables. At the time, vegetables had been grown using western, monoculture methods which left the soil dry and a nutrient deficient. Permaculture is demonstrating that the lack of rain and hot sun are not the problem, it is the farming practice that were wrong. Now they harvest water holding it in ditches next to their crops, they interplant a mix of vegetables to cycle nutrients in the soil and employ dry farming techniques which utilize ground covers like straw and green manure to insulate the soil keeping moisture locked in and conserving the precious, collected water.

With the help of Global Rescue Alliance, small villages are evaluating everything they do through a new lens...solar ovens are replacing indoor, open-fires for cooking; and wells are finding the rain from the rainy season water trapped in bedrock near the ground surface. Instead of feeling like victims on a hot continent, they are finding ways to grow and cook food by harnessing the the sun's energy and the water delivered once a year..

Every growing region comes with its own host of constraints, it is a matter of working within those constraints to figure out how to stabilize a community's food security. In Tanzania, it requires working with the sun not against it. In the mountains, it requires working with greenhouses, low tunnels and cold frames to extend the season or better yet, grow all year long.

Tanzania, however, is acting out of necessity and survival. In America, we just go to the supermarket. Our survival is not as visceral or palpable. Any vegetable we want is available anytime we want it throughout the year. Western cultures have little incentive to change because we are disconnected from the repercussions of our broken food system. Ironically, developing countries could be more sustainable if they so chose because they can adapt faster to sustainable farming methods and be rewarded immediately with better health, improved lifestyle and a more resilient community.

American communities, however, don't have to be victims of their inequitable food system. They too can be empowered to take control and address their own food security needs and build a stronger local economy in the process. It starts with community!

 
 
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Lisa's Organics' slogan
I've been back in Tahoe two months now. In the absence of snow, I've been hard at work shaping what will hopefully be a bountiful career in food activism. It is only the beginning but I can feel the momentum gaining.

First up is a philanthropic campaign for Lisa's Organics. Lisa's is based in Lake Tahoe and are producers of organic, frozen vegetables. They are taking their "Eat Your Veggies" slogan and helping schools and hospitals improve their meal programs.

School gardens are sprouting up all over the country,  lunch programs are becoming healthier and more hospitals are sourcing sustainably grown food. Lisa's Organics' "Gardens to Hospitals," hopes to keep that momentum going.
The program’s goal is to bring awareness to the role of nutritious food in raising and nurturing healthy children. The children themselves will help lead the effort advocating for healthier meals both in their schools and in hospitals. Students with a school garden will grow food for children in a hospital. They will come together in a food and information sharing event at the hospital snacking on the food grown. Together, all the kids will gain a better connection to their food and healthy eating habits. In the process, the food buyers at both the school and the hospital will be forced to look into the eyes of the children they are feeding and answer to the choices they are making. 

Institutional food, like at schools and hospitals, represents a significant percentage of the food consumed in the United States. Harnessing the collective buying power of institutions to  purchase more nutritious and ecologically grown food could dramatically alter the US food economy. Their critical mass could provide the organic market the weight necessary to tip the scales away from conventional agriculture.

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The grow dome at what hopes to be Truckee's community farm
Next up, is a farming project in Tahoe. Yes, Tahoe! I will be helping to launch a program to explore mountain farming techniques in a 1000 sq. ft grow dome (geodesic greenhouse). The practices utilized are those perfected by the 4-season, hoop-house, guru, Eliot Coleman. This is my first step in helping my high-elevation community achieve food security. If successful, more grow domes will be built and perhaps even a grants program developed to help citizens acquire smaller, 350 sq. ft. domes for their backyards. My goal...20% of Tahoe using grow domes by 2020.

The grow dome hopes to be an extension of the community garden in Truckee Regional Park. In a demonstration setting, people can get acquainted with agriculture and learn about the growing methods used at the dome. The grow dome(s) would be the community farm growing food not only for schools, hospitals and a CSA program but more importantly the local hunger relief program, Project Mana. The grow dome and the possibility of feeding Tahoe with food grown on its own soil, is the vision and inspiration of local entrepreneurs, Bill and Kevin Kelly.

 
 
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Me sailing to my blue sky dreams for a new food future :)
As I've moved through this food journey, I've called upon my blog to help me clarify my thoughts and work through perplexing questions. Now that I'm back in Tahoe and building a career around food, I find myself calling upon my dear friend "sustainability" way too much in order to explain what it is I'm doing. I know it's an overused word and in the moment before I say it, I'm hopeful that I will think of a new word or phrase. But alas, out it comes.

WHAT IS SUSTAINABILITY?
Regardless, it's a great word and I believe in what it means! In its solitary form, sustainability represents "meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" (as coined by the World Commission on Environment and Development). Toss in food and my favorite definition for sustainable agriculture is...and I admit, I forget where I got this from..."land management practices which balance food production with the conservation of ecosystems through soil biology and biodiversity." Therefore, I conclude that the sustainable food systems we build today will create an equitable supply chain from grower to consumer both now and in the future. Equitable being the operative word!

Let me develop that a little further...If the land, the farmers, the workforce and the consumers are treated fairly and with respect to their needs and services there will be equity in the marketplace. When there is justice in the food system everyone wins! The soil can sustain itself and support a healthy and vibrant ecosystem. And the marketplace can take care of its workers and customers because the economy will realize we are all customers. And it is in our valued interest to meet the needs of the people first before profit. By taking care of our ecosystem services, the return on investment will be a thriving community not a dividend.

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My vision for a new food paradigm
SO WHAT EXACTLY AM I TRYING TO DO?
I want to build food-focused communities. Communities that are invested in their food security. It begins with how and where the food was grown. To be food secure, you first must know the land can provide indefinitely. Only sustainable agricultural practices can provide that. Once we secure the food and the land is happy, we need to make it accessible by creating an equitable marketplace for farmers to sell their food at a fair price and at a price the community can afford. Food access includes educating people about diet, scratch cooking skills as well as food buying decisions at the home, school and institutional level. An informed eater will realize the positive impacts that buying local can provide and that sustainable agriculture is as much about sustainable, economic development. Food sovereignty is when food security and food access coalesce. It results in communities that are engaged in food policy. They come together to design a system that works for them ecologically, culturally and economically.

When I hear, "How are we going to feed the world?". I say, "We first need to think in terms of building self-reliant communities that can feed themselves." If ever community did that, we will have fed the world. Start by evaluating all available land resources to see how each region can grow as much of their own food as possible. It will require saving farmland from development, creating more urban gardens, using greenhouses to extend the growing season and establishing vertical gardens in re-purposed vacant buildings. In the process, it will have created jobs for new farmers, new specialty food producers and all the people along the supply chain. Trade with other areas will of course still exist but local economies will be stronger and more resilient if able to provide more for themselves.

CLOSE TO HOME
In my community, I want to leverage all available food services in the Sierra Nevada in order to build a regional food system that can support the majority of our food needs. It will increase trade regionally between communities bolstering local economies. Money will circulate in the region encouraging more, small farms and area food producers but it w will also spark job growth and new business in other industries because that's what happens when money stays local. Economic drivers that promote a 25% shift to buying local will be implemented. By keeping money in the region, it will stoke the fire to ensure the model's longevity. I've quoted Mother Jones magazine on this one before and I'll do it again..."Fix the food...fix the country."

That's my BHAG: Big-Hairy-Audacious Goals! Gotta have'em!

 
 
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Over coffee the other day, my friend, Dan Smith with the Genesa Living Foundation, posed the question, "How do we create more farmers?" It was like throwing me a ball of catnip.

First, let's define what having more farmers will provide the United Sates...a low unemployment rate and smaller farms. Because the more people we have farming, the more farms there will be. We won't need as many large-scale farms because farmers will have been brought back onto the land. We'll have put people to work and begun repairing the acres of land devastated by conventional practices. It's a trifecta...social, economic and environmental success! As Barbara Damrosch of the Washington Post said in an article advocating for small farms, "We feed the world, fight poverty and address climate change!

But how do we get more farmers? I immediately think of the phrase, "If we build it, they will come." In other words, create an environment that supports farmers and small-scale production. Just like plants, farmers need the right conditions to grow. We need to make it conducive to farm. In doing so, farming will be more attractive and less of an alternative but more of legitimate option. It's not surprising that the environment is lacking. Less than 1% of the population is farming and big ag lobbyists keep whittling it down further. Just as chemical toxins kill plants in the fields, toxic energy in the business is killing the agricultural field. In the early 20th Century, nearly half the workforce in the US were in agriculture. It was not only a way to make a living but to provide for your family. People want the same two, basic things today.. .    

The biggest barrier to more people farming is the lack of infrastructure. If there was a legitimate support network for small-scale farming like we have in other careers and public works projects such as utilities, roads, law enforcement and health care, farming would be considered a viable career and job opportunity. 

To build that infrastructure, we need a jobs program to train new farmers coupled with a grants system and a land bank. In a survey of 1,000 US farmers by the National Young Farmers' Coalition, "access to capital, access to land and health insurance present the largest obstacles for beginners." USDA grants exist but it is hard to qualify and bottom line there just aren't enough grants. Owning land is expensive and leasing land can be hard to find. Organizations like Farm Link and Farmland Trust do a great job of connecting farmers with available land but there is still lots of available land that could be acquired or repurposed to get more farmers farming.

Until that dream state arrives, there are grassroots efforts available that we can leverage to get more people farming...mentoring programs and public education. One is a short-term goal and the other a long-term goal. Apprenticeships, workshops and incubator programs exist around the country. ALBA Organics in Salinas, CA is an example. It's a 100 acre farm where graduates can lease land on a sliding scale. They pay 20% the market value for 1/2-acre and over time will pay 100% for up to 7 acres. Farmers work side-by-side learning from each other with continued education from ALBA's trainers. Business support is available for small entrepreneurs or farmers can sell produce to the organization's private label brand which is sells to Whole Foods and other grocers. Land trusts could help establish more programs like ALBA or regular people with land of their own or capital to buy, could create a center like ALBA that supports farmers through the entire process.

Public education on the other hand sets us up for the long term. At the elementary school level, class-based curriculum and from-scratch lunch programs will plant the seed for tomorrow in younger generations instilling a value for food and the hard work it takes to produce it. Food has become so convenient that we are not only disconnected from where it comes from but almost how to feed ourselves. At higher-levels of education, land-grant universities all need to embrace sustainable agriculture programs making it not just a degree but a school of thought. The later has a bit more red tape to get through which is why our youth are our best hope for change. Concerned parents can pressure school districts and integrate lunch plans that are healthy and made from whole foods ideally from local sources.

In an interview with Michael Pollan, he said government driven agricultural reform will not happen till there is stronger leadership and a national organization for the food movement. But in places like Venezuela, the government under President Hugo Chávez, are helping the people acquire farm land. Venezuela realizes that their people not only have an ancestral right to work the land but that economic prosperity and food security are result of an equitable society. A society where people take pride in being able to provide and be a contributing member of the community. It's a reminder that  food justice is a social movement. If the US government saw food through a larger lens they would realize too that the groundswell they are waiting for already exists.

The current political climate doesn't indicate that change will be happening anytime soon especially with $15 billion in cuts to the USDA budget for the 2012 Farm Bill. Progressive, conservation bills are at stake like the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Act. And whatever happened to Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack's, 2010 proposal for 100,000 new farmers in the next few years? His plan outlined the infrastructure necessary to make it happen. Guess that's my next assignment!

Parting thought from Barbara Damrosch's earlier mentioned article, "let's bring a livelihood to the farmers, not just to the companies selling them products or trying to commandeer their lands."

Here is a short 4min video from one of my favorite filmmakers, Joaquin Baldwin. Whimsical in nature but hopeful in its message, the video demonstrators the power of farmers to provide whether it be food or in this case...renewable energy! Enjoy!

 
 
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Born and breed in Ohio...mountain biking and composting
Mountain biking and composting together...two of my favorite things. It's like a Reese's cup but only better for me and the environment. When we arrived at Vulture's Knob Mountain Bike Park in Wooster, Ohio and saw the sign, I thought we had found paradise...as the name implies ;)

The joint enterprise is a perfect example of how land can be repurposed. Once a landfill, an innovative group of locals got together 16-years ago and turned the 125-acre dump site into a recreational area including a 6-acre mulch and organic food waste facility, Paradise Composting. Brilliance! Only needing room for an 8-mile bike trail, they wanted to incorporate other features that benefited the community. Features that invested in the region's future. A compost facility connected with the agricultural history of the area but communicated a mission of sustainability. Surrounded by monocultures of corn and soybean, Vulture's Knob is finding ways to connect with area partners and hopefully rebuild not only their ecosystem but those of their neighbors. The remainder of the property has naturally restored itself and is now a thriving woodland where carbon can be sequestered while still being able to manage the forest and harvest evergreens sustainably for local construction and Christmas tree sales.

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Entrance to the mountain bike park at Vulture's Knob
Rehabilitating the land through projects like Vulture's Knob and Paradise Composting demonstrates the kind of thinking we need to take with all properties. One of the solutions to "feeding the world" is better utilizing land already available and putting it into agricultural production. If food security is a concern, we need to inventory all land opportunities. Providing food abundance will require more than just preserving farmland but reclaiming lost land. Large, private estates could lease portions of their open land to young farmers instead of sitting fallow. Incentives could be provided to turn lawns into edible landscapes. Vacant city land could be rezoned to allow more urban farms, community gardens and farm incubator programs. State and local parks could be reconfigured and initiatives for things like roof top gardens could be implemented.

I can't end this without giving a few props to the trail itself...it's the best mountain biking I've found so far in Ohio. Littered (pun intended) with features like bridges, log rides and balance beams, I was a hog in heaven. What struck me most was their efficient use of space. Just like you have square-inch gardening, this was square-inch trail building. A terrain park parallels a portion of the cross-country trail. The two zig-zag above and below each other with natural bridges so they never have to intersect.Phenomenal! It was consistent with their whole philosophy...use only what you need.