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The subject of soil is where I like to geek-out! Once you start learning about it, it can really blow your mind; like how in one teaspoon of soil there is over 700 million organisms. 700 million! 

I'm taking a class right now on Soil Conservation & Management. Last night we talked about all the different components in soil and what holds it together in good times and bad. The conversation got me thinking about the one substance I like even more than soil, snow. As we talked about the science, I started to see similarities in soil structure and snowpack...it's all about how water and air moves through these environments. In snow, you've got different types of crystals that bond together which you study for avalanche safety. In soil, you've got different types of textures - clay, sand and silt along with rocks, bugs and roots - which bond together into aggregates. Aggregates are the clumps you find when digging in the soil. Similar names are used to describe soil clumps and snow crystals like columns, grains, plates, etc. The ability of water and air to move through these formations determines a soil or snowpack's stability and health. Comparing the two may be a stretch but give me a break. Ski season is just around the corner and I'm starting to day dream.

What makes me giddy about soil are all the interactions and symbiotic relationships that are happening below our feet. They are not only beneficial to all 700 million organisms but the environment and organisms above ground too. We should be as amazed by soil biology as we are by human biology. Okay get ready, I'm about to get my dork on...We all know that plants take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere storing it in their roots while emitting oxygen for us humans to breath. Here is my favorite part though...in order to get nitrogen and other nutrients needed to grow, plants give bacteria and fungus growing on their roots the sugar processed during photosynthesis. The fungus uses that sugar to function and help the plant absorb the soil's nitrogen through its roots - something the roots could not do on its own. While that's happening,  the organic matter in the soil - compost, manure, decaying roots, etc. - provides carbon to loads of microbes which decompose these substances and gets the nitrogen ready so the fungus can feed it to the plant.

That's the nice part but when too much nitrogen is added to the soil, as is the case when synthetic nitrogen is applied, soil can't handle it...it overwhelms the system. The plants can only absorb so much nitrogen so most of it runs-off polluting groundwater and waterways. Meanwhile, the microbial in the soil gets thrown out of whack and the bad guys proliferate eating all the organic matter they can get their hands. Soon the soil structure starts to degrade because there is nothing left for them to eat. The soil becomes more compacted without the presence of organic matter losing the ability for water and air to move freely. This is how soil becomes vulnerable to drought because unhealthy soil can't retain water. And when it does rain, the water runs off the dry soil leading to erosion. The fringe benefit of all this ...since the microbes ate all the organic carbon matter, the soil isn't sequestering carbon like it should. The soil is basically just holding up the plant which is now addicted to chemicals for growth. Soil could be one of our biggest assets to mitigating climate change if we allowed it to keep the carbon under ground.

In conventional farming with all its applications and inputs, soil is being treated like dirt. It deserves better!

 
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My Dad handed me a receipt the other day with the price of two milks circled...one was organic at $4.69/half-gallon and the other was a non-organic brand at $2.39/half-gallon. It demonstrated the dilemma consumers have every day...which do you buy? It's easy to guess that organic is better for you (and better tasting) but at twice the price, is it worth it?

One price wasn't listed, organic milk produced locally. It can be a little harder to source and costs a little extra but it is worth it. It's not Gucci-milk. And it shouldn't necessarily be cheaper because it is local. It's what milk should cost. Getting the lowest price may be okay for what fuels our cars but not what fuels our bodies. Whether it is milk or cookies, we need to be okay with spending a little more on our food. There is a lot of truth in the saying, "you are what you eat." and in the case of cheap food, "you get what you paid for."

Stapled to the receipt was an article my Dad had clipped from the Cleveland Plain Dealer about how conventional, dairy farmers where being impacted by the increase in feed costs, a.k.a. grains, like corn and soy. Higher feed costs drives up the price of milk and other food. If all dairy cows were pasture-raised, farmers wouldn't be as vulnerable to the fluctuations in feed prices. But more importantly, the cows would be eating a diet they were designed for...grass. Cows' digestive systems - with their five stomachs - weren't designed to eat corn and other grains but that's what they are fed because it's typically the cheapest option. Unfortunately, when corn prices go up, it's not as simple as just switching to grass. Farmers are tied to a corn-based system. Converting to a grass-based diet would mean a major capital investment in their operation. Conventional dairy farms don't have ample pasture-land like they use too where cows would graze in one field and be rotated to another to let the grass regenerate. What is ironic about the article is they provided their own solution. They talk about the olden-times when milk was supplied locally from small-scale producers. Hhmmm? Maybe it's time to repeat the past. Not only would local production be fresher but cows could be raised accordingly and the dairy market would support a regional, resilient economy.

Diet and living conditions all play a role in producing a better cup of milk. So it makes sense that grass-fed and pasture-raised cows would produce milk with healthier fat content and more nutrients than their conventionally raised cousins. After all, they have five stomachs for a reason. Studies show that grass-fed cows produce milk that is 60% higher in beneficial fatty acids than conventional milk - fatty acids like linoleic that help to reduce heart disease. And by munching on a diverse variety of field grasses, cows get a mouth-full of nutrients. Each grass is a like a vitamin providing a different nutrient. Strip that diet down to grain and you take away all those vital nutrients. If the cow doesn't get the nutrients, then our milk doesn't get them either. One of the reasons grass-fed cows don't need antibiotics is because they get the antibodies they need from a complex diet of different grasses. Dairy farmers are actually grass farmers first. Or at least they should be.

Here is where it gets tricky, however...it's not as simple as just looking for the organic label. As demand for organic milk has increased, larger, organic dairies have emerged. They are starting to resemble conventional operations where cows get little or no access to pasture which leads to diets supplemented with grain, but organic grain. Rest easy though, the cows are treated humanely and without the use of antibiotics or bovine growth hormones. Phew! Fortunately, the USDA has begun to tighten the guidelines and require that all organic, dairy cows receive a minimum of 120 pasture-days/year.

So while organic milk is better for you, you still need to ask the question, "where did my milk come from?" Advocating for small-scale food production that supplies a regional system will make it easier for farmers to use organic methods like rotational grazing and easier for consumers to have a closer relationship to their farmers. It makes both parties more accountable. Doing a little research does require that consumers take a more active role in their food purchases. We wouldn't buy a car without researching it first or shopping around to make sure we get the best price. Why should our food be any different.

 
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A sincerely, important protest is happening right now in Washington D.C. against the proposed Keystone-XL pipeline which will bring oil from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada to the United States. Climate Action Network has organized a 2-week sit-in outside the White House starting last Saturday, August 20th. This act of civil disobedience will hopefully persuade President Obama and Congress to deny this permit. I felt compelled to bring awareness to this concern so foodlust will just have to wait.

I first learned of this issue in the film, SPOIL, by Epicocity Project. At the time, the concern was "just" a pipeline across Canada to the coast of British Columbia cutting right through the Great Bear Rainforest. In the film, a team of conservation photographers and videographers documented this pristine ecosystem with iconic images to build a case for the area's protection. It is the home of the rare Spirit Bear, an albino black bear (pictured here is a Spirit Bear with her two, black cubs). If you saw the September issue of National Geographic, you would have seen the stunning cover and centerfold-like images of this breathtaking creature. Seriously, get your hands on a copy of this issue. They are jaw-dropping. 

But now, the issue is much, much graver...the United States wants a piece of the action by bringing a pipeline to the East Coast with plans for more throughout the central US. No one will deny that energy independence is a good thing but the extraction process of this fossil fuel makes it energy-irresponsible. The argument to "drill local" doesn't stand a chance to the argument in the video, click here. The Alberta project alone is the size of Florida and in the case of tar sands leaves the land dead and unrecoverable. Not only that... it's the most expensive drilling effort to date; requires insane amounts of water to release the oil from the tar sands which is then dumped into toxic waste lakes - not ponds, because they are much bigger than ponds - and it requires practically as much energy to process the oil from the tar as it will provide, meaning the greenhouse gas emissions are double. And that's just the extraction process... The section of pipeline that travels through the Great Bear Rainforest ends at an inland port where large barges have to navigate narrow, river channels with lots of tight corners before reaching the sea. Imagine if one of these tankers got a leak or ran aground splitting open. It would create another Gulf Oil Spill but in a much more concentrated area. A tanker bursting in a river like this would be the equivalent to a brain aneurism. No Bueno! Now imagine a pipeline running through your backyard. Gives a whole new meaning to NIMBY. You can make your voice heard at Tar Sands Action.

 
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When I was working for the Wild & Scenic Film Festival last year, I stumbled across some videographies about eight Maine farmers. I was entranced by their stories clicking through each 8-minute video like a kid opening presents on Christmas morning. I couldn't wait to hear what insightful visions the next farmer would share. The interviews are profound. They are almost like spoken word and are mixed with just the right soundtrack to help you smell the fresh cut hay and hear the sound of kids playing in the barn. The profiles will definitely get you fired up about local food and motivate you to follow the road back to where your food comes from. My favorite line comes at the end of the interview with Tide Hill Farm. The owner loves what he does and the life it offers him and his family. "I think people want to be farmers," he says with a smile and twinkle in his eyes. "Deep down inside, everyone wants to be a farmer...don't they?" And after watching a few of these, you just might.

"Meet Your Farmer" was a project by Cecily Pingree and Jason Mann of Pull-Start Pictures for Maine Farmland Trust, an organization that works to preserve Maine farmland. It was shot across Maine between 2009 and 2010. My top picks are: Chase Farm, Broadturn Farm, Horsepower Farm and Tide Hill Farm. Take a few minutes to watch one, two or all. I guarantee your day will be brighter and you'll get what I mean, when I say Foodlust.

 
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If your not already involved in the local, food movement, but want to be, it can feel a little like playing double-dutch jump rope...your on the sidelines wanting to play but something is holding you back. It's hard sometimes to know when to stop watching and just jump into the mix. And if you are involved in the local, food movement then Food Policy Councils want you too..."What? How did we go from jump rope to food policy?" Well, if i just started spewing about food policy, I would have lost people at hello. Put the word "policy" in anything and watch people scatter. But it doesn't need to be that way. The picture to the left looks like any kitchen table gathering but it's actually a food policy meeting. Anyone one of us could picture ourselves at this table.

A food policy council often is initiated by local government but can also start at the grassroots level by concerned citizens. No matter who lite the match, the igniter then invites a cross-section of the community's food system starting with representatives from the five main sectors: production, processing, distribution, consumption and waste recycling. That means people like farmers, chefs, grocers and consumers. The goal is simple...1) identify and propose innovative solutions to improve the local food system. 2) be a catalyst for economic development. And 3) make a local food system more environmentally sustainable and socially just.** Sensitive issues will be addressed and toes will get stepped on in these meetings but common ground can be reached because the end goal is for everyone's betterment...a resilient food system that provides jobs and access to quality, healthy food for all!

I'm touting their praises because food policy councils are exactly the type of conversations we need to be having with our neighbors, area businesses and municipal leaders in order to give a voice to the problems in our food system and build bridges between policy makers and the public. Just as people are disconnected from where their food comes from, government can get disconnected from the food justice issues of its people. In the same turn, farmers can get too focused on just staying in business and disregard the long term impacts of their conventional, farming practices.

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A couple weeks ago, I was talking to those involved in establishing a council in Northern Nevada and last week, I attended a meeting in Oberlin for establishing one here in Lorain County by a community learning center. I was energized by the enthusiasm as well as the hunger for such an initiative. It demonstrated that food policy councils are a great way for regular, concerned citizens to get involved in the local food movement and work with those who are involved and those driving legislation. Food policy councils are popping up all over the country and have been since the early 80's. It might be as easy as asking around for one to join or starting a council where one does not exist. Either way, it's like jump rope...you just have to jump in the game if you want to play. If you are interested in finding out more about establishing a food policy council, here are some resources from whom I gathered much of my own information for this blog: Food First** and Community Food Security Coalition**. And for a successful case study, check out Roots of Change. They are busy building roundtables like this all over the state of California.

 
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Sexy, isn't she? This is the Somat Pulper 3000. Okay, it's just called the Somat Pulper but 3000 better describes its powers. It looks like a widget maker but this little beauty gives a whole new meaning to "it slices, it dices." Feed it a mixture of food scraps and paper products and it will excrete a pulpy slurry that can be used in farming and garden compost. It's being used by institutions like schools, corporate dining rooms, hospitals, etc. that want to reclaim their food waste. Not only does it save them money at the dump but it is good for the earth too.

No, I didn't see it on a rerun of Home Improvement with Tim "The Tool Man" Taylor - although it is right up his alley - but I did see it an unveiling yesterday at Oberlin College's dining hall. It was the inaugural demonstration. Oohs and aahhs went up from those in attendance as the waste went in and even smaller waste spat out. The water used to process the waste is recycled versus being flushed down the drain like a conventional, garbage disposal. The Pulper can handle not only fruits and vegetables but also meat, dairy, napkins, cardboard, paper plates and even the bones. Typically, meat and dairy can't go in regular composting projects because there is not enough heat generated to break them down. But with the pulper, everything gets pulverized allowing the meat and dairy to decompose easier requiring less heat. The process is speed up even faster when composting with earthworms known as vermiculture. The relationship between Oberlin College and George Jones Memorial Farm where I work is the ultimate closed loop...food comes in from George Jones to the college cafe and then goes back as vermiculture compost. Pretty nifty!

I haven't visited a college dining hall since i graduated in 1992. Boy, have things come a long way. Felt more like a restaurant than a cafeteria. I realize that Oberlin is not indicative of most colleges but it is a good model to follow. In advance of the pulper's arrival, Oberlin initiated two policies to make students more aware of how much food is wasted when they take more than will be eaten...first, food scraps were collected and weighed in effort to challenge students to reduce their food waste and second, trays were removed so students could take only what they could carry. Programs like this were the collaborative brain child of both Oberlin staff and their ecologically conscious dining service, Bon Appetit Management.

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The dining hall is called a "cafe" versus a "cafeteria" to suggest an eating experience instead of just a feeding. Bon Appetit creates a space where food can be appreciated...recessed and natural light, appetizing displays and stories about the food and where it comes from - as pictured here with Executive Chef, Dean Holliday. Dean told me how the college sources 23% of their food locally. "Local" is defined by Oberlin as food purchased within 150 miles or from companies smaller than $5 million. In addition to George Jones and other area farms there is a campus garden and a kitchen garden for easy, on-site picking. To get local food in the off-season, they enlist the technology of companies like CIFT which can flash freeze vegetables such as beans, peas, strawberries and more during the summer/fall harvest which can later be enjoyed in winter months. It's frontier days meets the 21st century!

 
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Phase three of my food journey began today…a 6-week internship on George Jones Memorial Farm in Northeast Ohio. I’ve landed in some pretty amazing places along the way starting in Boulder this past June on the Abbondonza Seed & Produce Farm then the agroecology course in July at UC Santa Cruz and now here. George Jones looks to be following in those same footsteps. As I’ve pieced together this learning experience, I’ve called it anything from my self-prescribed curriculum to my independent study or unaccredited PhD program. Call it what you will but I’m soaking in lots of information and refining my focus beyond just “sustainable” but to say “regional” food systems because localizing economies is the ticket to a sustainable food system.

Okay, more about George…In 2001, Oberlin College’s New Agrarian Center (NAC) acquired the 70-acre farmstead which had been used intensively for commodity crops throughout the later part of the 20th century. By 2003, five acres had been restored and was ready for organic production offering food not only for Oberlin College’s dining services but also a CSA program, local farmer’s market, area restaurants and an organic food distributor.

The farm is run pretty much entirely by students with the help of master gardener and farm manager, Evelyn Bryant. In the summer, four, student interns participate in a 10-week course learning everything about organic food production. “Our goal is to send the interns off with the confidence to farm a small plot of land,” Evelyn explains. “We want them to understand the basics of irrigation strategy, pest management and marketing which includes not only working with vendors but learning how to plant crops in succession so you can harvest food throughout the entire growing season.”

During the school year, students circulate through either as volunteers or to acquire food for one of the school’s many student-run dining co-ops. The co-ops are brilliant…instead of a campus meal plan, students can elect to participate in a co-op where they build menus, shop and prepare three meals a day. There are nine co-ops each with anywhere from 15-120 students in each. All strive to source as much local, organic food as possible and students can choose a co-op based on dietary concerns or cultural preferences, e.g. kosher, vegetarian, international, etc. UC Berkeley has the largest dining co-op of any university but Oberlin has the highest percentage of student participation in the United States with over 600 active students. Not only do students learn valuable life skills but learn the importance of community.

The New Agrarian Center
has been the ring leader of the local, food movement extending well past Oberlin into neighboring counties all across Northeast Ohio. They were instrumental in the construction of the Northeast Ohio Regional Food Congress. Based out of Cleveland State University, the 15-member collaborative led to the creation of City Fresh, an initiative to bring fresh local food into Cleveland food deserts (discussed earlier). In 2007, NAC co-founded the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Food Policy Coalition which continues this effort to cultivate a network of food projects and entrepreneurs with a common goal of increasing access to healthy, sustainably grown food.

 
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See the August 3rd post for the introduction to the book blog.

Brian Donahue's essay, Reclaiming the Commons, had me grabbing for a pen. I know it's a good article when I want to underline, highlight or take notes. In this context, "The Commons" refers to the shared lands of a region by ALL it's people. In every society, you need a balance of both private and common land to build a strong local economy and to preserve culture. As of late, urban sprawl and unbridled development have created an imbalance. Brian's main objective to "reclaiming the commons" is to urbanize sustainably. He started a nonprofit based on these principles for Weston, MA called Land's Sake.

The land most at risk is that on the outskirts of large urban areas, land to which people want to relocate while at the same time remaining close to the metropolitan hub. Once-working farmland is being sold off and zoned for residential, commercial and industrial use. How do we preserve this farmland and accommodate the pressure on suburbia to expand? Brian explains, "in regard to land, a community must agree on a common interest with a shared land ethic in order to create local economies which are land appropriate." He's basically saying, we can develop but let's just be smart about it and think how economic decisions impact not only the land but the people. If we did this, things like mountain top removal would never have happened. Mountain top removal is neither land appropriate or instituted with a shared land ethic. To start solving these big questions, we need to evaluate land based on three criteria: will the land be used for residental/commercial, farmland, or forest? Those questions will determine if the land is to be privately held or shared by the commons. In some cases, you can have both. For instance, instead of subdividing a 100-acre farm into 20 sublots, how about putting those same 20 homes on one acre each keeping the other 80 acres as "working" farmland for the community?

Brian approaches agrarianism in it's purest form...as community. The kind of community we all think about when we think of the word "community"...your neighbors, town hall meetings, the welcome wagon, little league, pancake breakfasts, etc. He wants us to view land through the same lens with which we view our community, that is, with respect. In sum, Brian advocates that agrarians are sharing their knowledge outside of their own farms with others in their community to take a holistic approach to the entire landscape.

 
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See the August 3rd post for the introduction to the book blog.

I first met David Orr at a TOOLS conference for environmental groups back in 2009. He gave an inspiring speech which hailed the power of grassroots activists. When I saw that David had also written an essay for the "The New Agrarianism" entitled, The Urban-Agrarian Mind, it confirmed my thoughts to do this first book blog. David is Professor of Environmental Studies at Oberlin College - neighbor to the farm I will be working on next. One of his many accolades is having championed the construction of the Adam Joseph Lewis Center (pictured here) which is a nationally recognized, LEED certified building on Oberlin's campus. His essay tells why he wanted to initiate such a place with an ecologically conscious design.

He opens his essay with an analogy comparing the planet to a train wreck waiting to happen...we are all passengers on a train traveling south headed for environmental and social disaster. A few, we'll call them activists, acknowledge the impending fate and start walking north on the moving train in hopes of reversing this demise. It's not an easy task. There are many obstacles to overcome as they pass through each train car. They slowly make progress and are 25 or more cars back when they realize they are no further north than when they started. But they still keep walking north with conviction. We're still on that train so no happy ending yet. And we still don't know how to reverse the train's direction. But we do know that it will require an upheaval in our industrial paradigm.

For the other passengers on the train, they believe if there really is certain doom, the conductor will stop the train. We, the passengers don't see the signs because many of us have lost a sense of place or as David says, 'knowledge," i.e. agrarian knowledge that helps us relate to the land and our ecosystem. If we had this knowledge, we would observe the crisis and want to address it. As an educator, David wondered how this "loss of knowledge" happened. He looked around his own surroundings at Oberlin College and saw this beautifully manicured, energy intensive campus and realized...No wonder people don't get it. We teach them life skills in a disconnected learning environment where they are asked to think analytically with little applied science to the natural world. That's when David had his ah-ha moment for the Adam Joseph Lewis Center...a place that would restore that connection to our land community (Scott Russell Sanders spoke of the "land community" in the first issue of the book blog). If students were learning in a place that represented what society wanted from its planetary citizens then they would start thinking in centuries not years. By thinking in centuries, we plan for the future with the next seven generations in mind.

In order to transition to a better world, David proposes that we use the dynamics of industry and technology with an agrarian ethic to hold us ecologically accountable.

 
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With unemployment rates fluctuating, there is one job ripe for the picking...organic farming. And many reputable news agencies think so too...Fast Company, E Magazine, MSN, etc... They all rated "organic farming" in their Top 10 Green Jobs report. And if organic farming isn't your bag, by just  supporting organic farming at farmers markets and CSA's, you will spark job growth. Studies show that when revenue stays local, it stimulates local economy which increases jobs overall.

Agriculture secretary, Tom Vilsack, agrees. He tasked Congress with setting a goal in the 2012 Farm Bill which would help 100,000 Americans become farmers through grant support and training. Not only will it create green jobs but more farmers will strengthen regional food systems.

20% of Americans use to make their livelihood from farming. Now only 1% consider farming their main occupation. Let's get some of that back. It will create more job and build a more sustainable future. If you, or someone you know, wants to get into farming, check out these resources and training opportunities which connect you to subsidized land and lessens the learning curve through course work and continued education.
  1. Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems
  2. Alba
  3. Greenhorns
  4. National Young Farmers Coalition
  5. Farm School
  6. Beginning Farmers
  7. World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms
  8. Talk to an area farm near you. Pretty sure there every area has a farm who offers 6-12 month apprenticeships like these: Full Belly Farms in Guinda, CA; Cure Organic Farm in Boulder, CO.; Northeast Organic Farming Assoc. in Massachusetts.