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I'll admit...ever now and then, the point of purchase displays with candies and sweets will get the worst of me. I blindly grab for the Reese's or Kit Kat hoping no one will notice as it tumbles into my pile of groceries on the counter. I call it a vice but really, it's something I not very proud of. So on this day of frights, riddled with confections, I decided to dig a little deeper into the available alternatives as well as look at which of the leading brands are the lesser of evils.

I think the fear for most people when switching to a more eco-conscious treat are the snarls you'll get from the kiddos asking to smell their feet. If you are a house not serving name brand sweets you might get labeled as the house that hands-out apples and pennies or worse yet...egged or TP'd!. The good news is, you can be healthy and still be cool. The wrapper may not say M&M or Snickers but the packaging is still fun and festive. And if chocolate is anything like organic vegetables which tastes better than conventional, then environmentally friendly treats will taste better too. One bite and these happy snacks won't be the last in the Halloween sack to be eaten. For a list of what ecological options exist, check out these two sites: EcoFabulous and the Mother Nature Network. From chocolate eyeballs and gummy worms to organic rice-krispy treats and peanut butter poppers, kids will be ringing your door bell all night.

I'm not here to argue that candy is better for you if organic. It's still sugar and can rot your teeth. It's more a matter of supporting companies that are planetary-minded and source good ingredients rather than the industrial food complex. Unfortunately, some of the organic brands are owned by these big agri-businesses. We either need to be happy these options exist or research further to see which companies are the greenest. Here is a great map to let you know who owns what organic brands, click here. When it comes to the traditional candy aisle, however, it is better to use a rule of thumb when making a selection rather than scrutinizing over the difference between Hershey's, Mar's and Nestle. Look at the ingredients and avoid the big three...high fructose corn syrup, partially hydrogenated oils and palm oil. Food products containing palm oil contribute to the clear-cutting of rainforests for unsustainable palm tree plantations. These practices release loads of carbon dioxide into the air and destroy critical habitat for animals like the orangutan.

Not to make the villains in this story look good but I was reading an article in Fortune Magazine about the positive initiatives of Cargill, the seed trading mega-corporation. Their business strategy is largely responsible for the broken food system of today. But to their credit, in effort to find new cocoa producers, they have partnered with Mar's Co. to help revitalize farmers in some of the most depressed places in the world like Vietnam. One of the profiles described the rags to riches story of one farmer, Trinh Van Thanh. One one hand, I was happy for this father of three but on the other, it sounded like he had become a mini-me of his corporate sponsor no longer falling victim to hunger but to greed. It spoke nothing of the farming practices they were pushing upon these new partners. Most likely, it is one addicted to a chemical regimen of fertilizers and pesticides. Will it be another boom town? Have these growers been sold a bill of goods that will fail in five years and leave them struggling? Time will tell.

 
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Aunt Dororthy in front of her house in Salem, Ohio
When I was younger, my siblings and I would each get to spend solo weekends with my Aunt Dorothy. We cherished the one-on-one time. It was an experience of our very own away from the chaos of home. Those are special times in a kid's life. We'd do cool crafts, play dress-up, get a bubble bath and eat popcorn in bed. It was the best! We are both now much older but I recently spent a couple days with my aunt. While I can't relive the past, I can appreciate the experience just the same.

As a kid, I would stir the blueberry, pie mixture in hopes of sneaking a taste, now I'm writing down her secret recipe. Wandering through her elaborate gardens, I write down the name of flowers versus pretending to be a princess in a flowering courtyard. In place of her fantastical, bedtime stories, I question her about days gone by, life as a young girl on the farm and her days as a career woman.

We spent a glorious, deciduous-tree, fall day planting daffodils and tulips around her 4-acre property tucking them like hidden gnomes at the base of trees and woody nooks. Her simple but dynamic life has always fascinated me. Like the many books that adorn her library, she's a good read.

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Heritage Lane Farm - Salem, Ohio
Earlier in the day, I had left a message for a local rancher in the area raising organic buffalo, Jeff and Sarah Swope of Heritage Lane Farms. Jeff called to say he had time to meet and invited me and my aunt over for a visit. Jeff and Sarah raise 40-50 buffalo rotating them between paddocks on 50 acres of grassland. I had read about Jeff in a newspaper article. His knowledge about soil biology peaked my interest. Located just down the road from the non-organic dairy I had visited the weekend before, I was curious to understand what his conventional neighbors thought about his approach to farm management. "Pure and simple, most don't understand what's happening in their soil." said Jeff. "They don't understand the science so they don't bother to learn more about it," he continued. Conventional farmers rely on their soil tester who comes out regularly to take samples and prescribe chemical nutrients. The understanding stops there. "My neighbors think what I'm doing is a nice but not really farming as a business," Jeff remarked.

I asked Jeff, "What will it take to change the mindset?" Without hesitation, he replied, "Change the approach at land grant universities." Awe-struck, I shook my ahead in agreement as my brain started firing. While not a silver bullet to fixing the agricultural economy, it has huge merit. The research and methodology that comes out of universities, drives the school of thought in most fields. It is not to say that land grant universities do not study sustainable farming practices. They do. However, it is offered as an extension to the school's primary teaching model. In a paper by the North Dakota Sustainable Agriculture Society, "Colleges of agriculture need to become less institutionalized and more revitalized - that is, less focused on purchased chemical inputs and mammoth-scale production which marginalize other areas of inquiry, including smaller scale and more environmentally appropriate farming techniques such as organic practices."

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Jeff Swope with his buffalo herd
University of Minnesota student, Claire Stanford, quoted the prolific agrarian, Wendell Berry as saying, "Land-grant schools have departed too far from their mandate, emphasizing research to the detriment of teaching and land stewardship. What's more, when big agribusiness companies like Monsanto and Cargill are supplying grant money and donations to those same land-grant schools, there is the question of how objective that research can be."

Changing the mindset of land grant universities might be as difficult as untying the Half-Nelson that agribusiness has on our legislative system but it is good to know we have yet another area to apply pressure. In the meantime, Jeff has sent his kids to smaller colleges which focus on small-scale farming and sustainable agriculture.

 
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Food Day was Monday October 24th. Schools, farms, communities and kitchens everywhere celebrated in a feastly fashion to recognize the need for more thoughtful consideration of the nation's food system. One of the founding fathers of the special day, Michael Pollan, was found in Cleveland. He was the special guest of Cuyahoga County Public Library's writers series at Playhouse Square. Interviewer and fellow journalist, Dan Moulthrop, guided the audience on an exploration of Michael's food journey and his current perspective on the food movement.

Opening the conversation, Michael and Dan polled the crowd for how many knew it was Food Day. A paltry number raised their hands but it didn't deny the fact that it was a sold-out crowd of 1000 people. Versus a lecture, the interview format served him well. It reminded the audience that while well-respected for his literary gift to the food movement, Michael does not claim to be a foremost authority on the subject. He isn't a preacher. He is a collector of information and a sharer of knowledge. He started by writing about what he loves, gardening. As depicted in his 1991 book, Second Nature: A Gardner's Education. The unexpected fame of his later books, Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food, made him an accidental agtivist. Now a poster child for the food movement, he remains humble in his accomplishments making it easy for people to respect him for his fair, journalistic style. He may be a zealot but he is not an elitist. He's goal has always been to make people marvel at food's wonder and see it in a different light. Michael shared how his literary hero, George Plimpton, made people marvel at football in the book, Paper Lion.

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He's happiest when his writing can give people the tools necessary to make their own decision gleaning from his work what they feel is important and will make a difference. He described the reaction he received after Omnivore's Dilemma's release. Some people approached him saying, "Your book made me become a vegetarian." Others would say, "The book convinced me to start eating meat again." While Michael advocates the ecological importance of livestock to the natural cycles of a diversified farm, he recognizes that our nation's meat consumption is not sustainable. He reflects on a time when meat was a special occasion food not something served three times a day, seven days a week. "It's okay to eat meat, just not as much," he remarks. The less meat we eat, the better the meat can be raised. He reminded the crowd of what cows do for us, "Even though grass is good for humans, we can't eat it. We aren't ruminates. Cows are! They extract the grasses' nutrition and pass it on to us."

It didn't take long for the 2012 Farm Bill to get mentioned. Michael didn't get sidelined on a discussion about the particulars of recent downturns in the bill's construction. He shifted the attention instead to President Obama's failure to take a stand. He complimented the President, however, on his keen ability to connect the dots in any issue. The food issue was no different. Obama is fully aware of our food crisis. Then why is he not doing more? Why is he letting his wife go it alone? Michael Pollan's essay in The Nation's recent food issue summed up his response exactly, "President Obama has determined there is not yet enough political support to take on the hard work of food system reform, and the best thing to do in the meantime is for the first lady to build a broad constituency for change by speaking out about the importance of food."

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Michael's home garden
Needing a stronger movement to pressure Washington, Michael and others created Food Day. Food needed an event like Earth Day. Responding to a question from the audience, "The movement lacks leadership and a national organization." He encouraged supporters to not focus on eradicating conventional agriculture but to minimize it. "Realistically, there will always be two food economies...one that's organic and one that is not." It wasn't exactly the "I have a dream" speech but his pragmatism set targets on achievable goals.

Perhaps it won't be a movement at all that drives government to change the way we grow and distribute food. Michael may have made the flame flicker with his "two economies" comment but he made the fire roar when he pointed the finger at an unlikely ally to lead the charge, the health care industry. Michael Pollan's essay in The Nation again summed it up perfectly, "As soon as the health care industry begins to focus on the fact that the government is subsidizing precisely the sort of meal for which the industry (and the government) will have to pick up the long-term tab, eloquent advocates of food system reform will suddenly appear in the unlikeliest places—like the agriculture committees of Congress." During his interview, he pointed to the writing on the wall, "One in three children are predicted to conduct diabetes in their lifetime, a chronic disease." The choice is ours he continued, "What would you rather have? Expensive food or expensive health care?"

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On Sale Nov. 1, $23.95
Wrapping up, Michael discussed the blatant injustices which should not have to wait for a movement or health care. "90% of Americans polled want food labeled if it contains genetically modified ingredients (GMO). It is clearly undemocratic to deny this right when the public so obviously wants this conveyed." Government says we need more science to prove the negative health impacts but seed giants like Monsanto won't allow their seeds to be tested.

The evening had lots of laughter. Michael joked comfortably throughout the interview. Quoting from his new ,illustrated version of Food Rules, he enlightened the crowd by saying, "If you're not hungry enough for an apple, then you're probably not hungry." And when an audience member asked him the tired question, "What would your last meal be?" He graciously pondered with a smile and replied, "Roasted chicken!"

 
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If you haven't heard, Monday, October 24th is FOOD DAY! Let's get out there and show food how much we appreciate it. It's not a stretch-your-stomach pre-Thanksgivng. It's more of a Stomachs Across America which dovetails perfectly with the Occupy Wall Street campaign...Justice in our food system! Justice in our economic sector! National organizers want to transform the American diet. The more people seeking healthy, quality food, the more that policies will support a system that can supply it in a sustainable and healthy manor. Smell the groundswell!

Poke around your community for an organized event or gather some friends together for a spur of the moment pot luck dinner. The Food Day website can help you locate an event in your area, click here. And if going out on a Monday is too much, you can still participate by signing the petition. I'm a lucky carrot...Michael Pollan is in Cleveland and I get to hear him speak! Check back for the scoop.

 
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Till last week, I'd kept a peripheral view of the Occupy Wall Street demonstration. As satellite protests popped up around the country and the world, I began paying closer attention to the declaration of these activists. Having outgrown its address, the movement is now being referred to as the NYC General Assembly. The uprising is on the coat tails of the Tar Sands Action's XL Pipeline protest in Washington D.C. outside the White House. My first thought was, "Could Occupy Wall Street overshadow the Tar Sands Action?" Seemed counter productive to have two, critical movements happening at the same time. Till...they joined forces! Then the food movement jumped on board. All of a sudden, it became clear. The size and scope of the Occupy Wall Street initiative could represent much more than just the 99%. It could become the umbrella for many of the concerns facing our planet, our people and our economy unifying many campaigns in solidarity around the world. Strength in numbers!

Inclusivity is intrinsic to Occupy Wall Street's principles. Unlike a politician who pushes their own agenda. OWS works collaboratively within working groups to come to consensus to build an agenda. Demonstrators in NYC's Zuccotti Park participate in these sessions vetting all the issues presented in order to create an strategic plan of action. By building consensus, the General Assembly can be sure that they are inclusive of everyone's voice. In other words, they are shaping a democracy. Sound familiar? Watch out OWS! History has shown it could be a slippery slope! The movement has received respect for how well it has organized itself but received low marks for not being clear on its demands. There is contention within the OWS on how to reach these demands, straight consensus or 2/3 majority? We'll have to wait and see. Perhaps OWS is slow to deliver because they encompass more than just a few bullet points but rather a new decision making process altogether.

Running parallel to Occupy Wall Street are the injustices in the food system. It is easy to see how the two movements are connected. In drastic comparison to the 1%, are the one in five Americans on food stamps. A few powerful corporations dominate the food industry as wells as the government which is intended to control them. And food is traded on Wall Street as a commodity making it vulnerable to market fluctuations. In recent years, grain prices increased and had a ripple effect around the world. Good for farmers, bad for people. Then when the prices drop, the farmers are the at the other end. Some say that Wall Street is responsible. Looking for a new investments after the housing bubble, financial institutions capitalized on the looser regulations governing the trade of agricultural commodities. Hoping to make a quick buck, Wall Street gambled with our food.

The Occupy Wall Street demonstration has the critical mass to bring the food movement into the social movement spotlight.

 
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"Whoa Becky! That's a lot of milk you got there!" (her name really is Becky)
My Sundays are starting to become synonymous with farm tours. But today's tour was of a slightly different variety...a non-organic dairy. To understand the food movement, we have to look at all sides. Within organic practices there are many disparities and the same goes for non-organic. It drives home the point even more, "You have to know where your food comes from!"

It was a 380-cow dairy farm. They use no growth hormones (rBST) and only use antibiotics but once or twice a year for vaccinations. The cows still eat primarily a diet of silage (moistened corn and hay) but their environment and treatment is way better than most confined feeding operations. While not pasture-raised, they are put out to graze between daily milkings. One, 20-acre field is made available during summer and fall months which provides exercise and a natural, grass diet. The barns are very spacious and airy with screen-sided walls to the outside. Rubber floors make it nicer for the cows to stand. Alleyways are cleaned out twice a day and sandy beds get freshened up frequently with new sand. It may not be a day at the beach but the cows are clean and not stressed. The sand is used in place of straw because it doesn't harbor bacteria like straw. Hay is still used as seen in the picture above but usually for pregnant cows and young calves who need to stay warm.

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Shiny new milking parlor
Today was open house for their new state-of-the-art milking parlor (see photo right). All the farmers in the area were streaming through - lots of wranglers and roper boots. You could tell the farm is customarily spic-n-span but the milking room was especially shiny. Keeping it clean is built into the design with grated floors to make it easy to hose down.

185 cows are in production at one time. The other 205 are either too young or too close to giving birth. They are kept in a separate barn with alternating access to the same pasture. Cows don't go into milk production until they are 2-years old and when they have their first calf and pregnant cows are pulled from production when they are 3-months from delivery in order to let them rest. With the new facility, they can milk all 185 cows in 2.5 hours including the time spent bringing them into the parlor. The room accommodates 24 stations. That's about 5-7 minutes per cow. Compared to the old parlor with only 14 stations, it took over 4 hours to do the same job. Keeping cows pregnant is a daily task, a veterinarian visits the farm every day to monitor the ladies' health and schedule the artificial inseminations.

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Tucked out back was the manure pond. While contained in a concrete structure with no possibility of leakage, it was in stark contrast to the practices of an organic dairy. Yes, organic dairies have manure and save waste for compost. But most of the dung on pasture dairies is naturally spread by the cows as they rotate fields not collected in a lagoon. In this scenario, the nitrogen-rich water is later sprayed on the fields as fertilizer. Since it is straight manure, the soils have to be tested for other nutrient deficiencies and treated with artificial amendments versus using a compost tea which would carry all the nutrients necessary (see post 10/12/11). If pasture-raised, the farmer wouldn't have to grow as much feed leaving fields to develop mature, carbon-sequestering grasses upon which the cows would graze eating primarily a diet for which their digestive tract was intended.

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The farm family was delightful and their farm a picture of Americana. It represented a lot of good things in our agricultural system and perhaps they are the lowest lying fruits to later transition to organic. In the meantime, their co-op only accepts milk from dairies who share the same husbandry practices. Only problem is, there is no label for this type of product. So unless you do some research to find out what's in your area, you won't know the story of the milk on the shelf. And by the time you do that research, you'll have discovered a local, organic dairy and probably decide to just go with them. In the case of this dairy, their milk gets trucked across state line to be bottled three hours away. So much for local.

My next stop is an organic dairy. I had hoped to do the visits in reverse and go to the organic dairy first but you take'em as they come. Stay tuned!

 
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If you want to get a party going in your soil, make a compost tea and serve it up. It's a process by which you steep compost and spread the solution on your garden, crops or grass. Nothing like a libation of compost juice to fuel the foodweb living in and around your soil.

Cheffing a good compost and compost tea is the  ONLY way to keep a soil's biology in balance. I was enlightened to this trade fact during the soil class that I recently took at the Rodale Institute (see October 10th). Anything else, and either the soil is not as healthy as it could be or is being managed with inorganic treatments. Compost tea is applied in the spring and summer unlike compost which is applied in the fall. Compost tea is also an efficient way (yes, organic has lots of efficiencies) of applying organic matter if there is not enough compost to spread around. It helps compost go further. Compost tea, however, is only as good as its compost and knowing first how to make compost will provide the theory behind this little known energy drink.

COMPOST BASICS
Once we understand how soil works (see October 10th post), it becomes obvious that good soil biology leads to good soil structure. And it starts with compost! Compost provides the scheduled dose of biology that soil needs to grow healthy plants. It carries all the organic matter and living organisms to the soil. When you think of it, compost is just mimicking nature's biology. Old growth meadows and forests decompose plants and leaves cyclically. Applying compost brings that same type of biology to the crop's soil. 

While things like pH tests provide important information about nutrient deficiencies, it is more important to know that the fungal biomass to bacteria ratios are strong and that there is a diverse mix of insects (arthropods), nematodes, earthworms and protozoa thriving in the soil. If those things are present, the soil's foodweb will be strong and the nutrient cycling in the soil will be strong. Together, it keeps the soil aerobic and the biology in balance. Does this mean that fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides are unnecessary? Yes! In conjunction with other good organic, farming practices like cover crops, crop rotation and inter-cropping, compost and compost tea gives the soil all the nutrients it needs. Under these healthy conditions with lots of fungal biomass, weeds don't have the bacteria ratio to proliferate and the plant's immune system is strong and can ward off pests. If a garden or farm has sickly plants, lots of weeds or an outbreak of pests, the first thing to ask is, "what's wrong with the soil?" it should not be, "grab the spray!" Good compost will help fix the problem and correct the imbalance.

As the compost revs up the nutrient cycling, the root structure develops decreasing soil erosion and increasing the soil's water retention thus making it more drought tolerant. Root structure doesn't just mean more roots but longer roots that can access water deeper in soil horizons. For instance, regular grass may only have roots that are 4-6 inches but with the right compost, roots can grow as deep as 4-5 feet. Feet I say! With that kind of network, soil can hold more water and roots can go deeper for more water. Win-win! Then there is all the carbon which can be sequestered but we'll devote a whole separate discussion to that.

All of this new found knowledge would not have been made possible if it weren't for Dr. Elaine Ingham, PhD. I had several light bulb moments during the class but the one which flipped the really big switch was when she said, "if you have the right compost, you can fake a crop rotation." Whoa! That proved not only the power of compost but provided another trump card for my back pocket when talking it up with those who rebut the credibility of biological organics.

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Dr. Elaine Ingham, PhD brewin' up some compost tea!
BREWING 101
When it comes to making compost, there are a few different roads to take. There is the choice between thermal (hot) or vermiculture (worm) compost. Within thermal composting you have the 21-day, slow and kitchen compost recipes. The super cool part...compost doesn't rely on sun or outside temperature. If done properly, the microbes will generate the heat needed indiscriminate of the weather. Dr. Elaine has made compost in sub-zero temperatures. I love biology!

Dr. Elaine and her squad at the Soil Foodweb have several resources on making compost and compost tea. Here is a great article by Elaine featured on www.finegardening.com which takes you all the way through the process. For this exercise, I will share the basic concepts for thermal composting. Composting can sound complicated, smelly, time consuming and costly. Taking the right steps will keep the hassle, time, cost and smell down. Keeping the smell down, keeps the critters away and the method Dr. Elaine uses eliminates the need for expensive compost contraptions like tumblers. All thermal recipes have varying proportions of three ingredients: green waste (including food waste and coffee grounds), woody stuff (leaves, paper, sawdust, wood chips) and nitrogen (manure, legumes). The addition of nitrogen begins the composting process. And the amount determines how fast the compost cooks. In other words, hold onto your greens and woody stuff and add the nitrogen component when your ready to activate the process. At which time, it becomes a schedule of turning the compost when the core temperature reaches certain degree points. Closing tid bit...compost should have 50% moisture content. huh? it's easy...just take a fist-full of compost from the middle of the pile and squeeze it. If one to two drops of water seep out, you're golden! If not, spray some water on the pile. Okay, one more fun fact from Dr. Elaine..."You can't ever apply too much compost, just compost that wasn't made properly." She's one wise grasshopper.

 
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View of the Rodale Institute and farm from the orchard
Last Thursday afternoon, I headed to Kutztown, PA and a 3-day soil class at "the" Rodale Institute. For years, I've revered Rodale for their contributions to the advancement of ecological growing techniques. My trip felt more like a pilgrimage to a world heritage site. While the farm's idyllic landscape could be mistaken for a landmark or park, the 300-acre demonstration like-garden is hard at work setting the standard on what is possible in biological farming. Rodale has been doing side-by-side trials in organic agricultural for three decades comparing yields, energy consumption, soil fertility and profitability between organic and conventional farming practices. Their results speak for themselves proving organic's ability to out compete conventional in every category. Don't believe me, read their 30th anniversary report on their Farming Systems Trial. They are the oldest research station of its kind in North America and the same age as the one started in Switzerland the same year, 1981. They know a thing or two!

During the seven hour drive to Kutztown, I had lots of time to imagine what my my impending experience would be like. And I had lots of co-pilots to help me soar with ideas...I wasn't in the car more than 10-minutes when NPR aired Steve Job's entire 2005 Stanford commencement speech. If that speech doesn't get you inspired and fired up, I don't know what will. Wow! He was as powerful a speaker as he was a pioneer. Loved his story about quitting college to audit the classes that most interested him. It renewed my faith in the ad-hoc curriculum I've created for myself in learning about our food system. Later, when I grew tired of music and the NPR stations were fading in and out of reception, I started streaming podcasts from the Dirtbag Diaries. They are a collection of stories by outdoor enthusiasts whose life is defined not by what happens during work but what happens before and after. One particular episode was by filmmaker, Allie Bombach. Her film, 23 Feet, is about the community which binds the tribe of people who not only follow the road but live on the road in route to their next adventure. Having rented my house for a year in order to take this eco-quest, I could relate to this liberating, nomadic lifestyle. Guess you could say, I'm "staying hungry and staying foolish!"

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Dr. Elaine Ingham, PhD demonstrating the use of a compost temperature probe.
Landing in my hotel bed at 10pm, anticipation filled me like the night before Christmas.The next morning, I drove down a country road and through the gates of Rodale's 280-year old estate. I was here! It really exists. But unlike a fairy tale, it was most certainly real. And in Rodale style, we were to be trained by the best, the Jane Goodall of Soil, Dr. Elaine Ingham, PhD - founder of the Soil Foodweb and Rodale's NEW Chief Scientist.

The course content delivered. It was packed full of all the science, ratios and explanations I needed to answer the questions which perplexed me most. I'm now in even more awe at the dynamics of soil. Soil is as simple as it is complex. Complex for the million of interactions occurring below ground but simple in its message...biology! Conventional agriculture primarily uses chemistry to fix imbalances and organic agriculture uses biology (life) to keep the chemistry in balance. Biology teaches how to introduce and encourage nutrients naturally in the soil versus relying just on a pH test to prescribe nutrients and then apply them.

Let me explain...If plants only needed roots to stand up, we could just inject their stems with chemical nutrients. But plants need their roots to get nutrients. And roots have a certain way of absorbing these nutrients from the soil. Conventional agriculture, however, overrides the biological processes that roots use to absorb these nutrients. How? Synthetic fertilizers are delivered in a ready-made form that the roots can absorb without the soil microbes having to do anything. Sounds like we are doing the plants and roots a favor. Quite the contrary...surrounding each root is a universe of fungi and bacteria working in unison to get soil nutrients ready for the plant to absorb. These fungi and bacteria as well as worms, insects and other microbes perform a nutrient cycling dance eating and being eaten by each other to create these nutrients (nitrogen, calcium, phosphorous, etc.). Toss down a bunch of ready-made chemical nutrients for the roots to absorb and we disrupt the biological process of the root community. The fungi are like the soil's respirator breathing life into the soil so the plant can get its nutrients. Take their job away and they stop working. Your left with bacteria who have nothing better to do than to multiple literally sucking the life out of the soil. Respecting the biology between the plant and the roots, the roots and the soil and the fungi and the bacteria keeps things in balance. To build soil structure and build healthy plants, we need to let biology do its thing!

That's the quick skinny, check back for more on how to get this balance in your soil...

 
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Oran Hesterman of the Fair Food Network and me
Over the past month, I've quoted and commented from the book, Fair Food, by Dr. Oran Hesterman PhD. On Monday, I had the unique opportunity to drive with Oran from Ann Arbor to Detroit to attend the Fighting Hunger Summit hosted by United Way of Southeastern Michigan at the Gleaners Food Bank.

Oran's book offers insight, case studies and strategies for "growing a healthy, sustainable food system." A sustainable food system is fair. It's fair to the earth, the animals and the people. Our current system is not exactly fair. It is built on profit instead of equity. Both can lead to economic vitality but a profit-based system leaves a wake of inequities in its path. Those marginalized, however, can bring value to the system celebrating the cultural, biological and economic diversity of our planet and our society. Oran reminds us...Diversity on the farm and diversity in the marketplace builds resilient, equitable, local economies.

My 50-minutes of car time gave me the opportunity to soundboard ideas that have been collecting along my food journey. His book germinated all kinds of new ideas and our conversation gave me the straight talk I needed to steady my course.

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Gleaners Food Bank - Detroit, MI
Arriving at the summit, Oran headed on to keynote, speaker duties and I made my way around to all the organizations tabling during the breakfast reception. I quickly filled a bag of brochures and handouts. I was ready to learn from a city of people who have been fighting hunger since the conception of the food stamp. Detroit was one of 40 counties nationwide in the 1961 pilot program before the act was later established in 1964. By holding the summit at a food bank, the conference grounded people to the issue. No fancy, banquet hall to separate attendees from the job in front of us all...food justice.

Detroit is quickly shifting its spotlight away from depressed, former-boom town to the new face of urban living. At the heart, is Detroit's vibrant community garden program. And at the helm, is The Greening of Detroit who supports over 1000 gardens as well other educational and advocacy programs to green Detroit like their tree planting initiative. Not only does Detroit know the pains of hunger but the victories of rising up. A battalion of other organizations sit side-by-side The Greening of Detroit in their effort to make Detroit a more prosperous and equitable city like Forgotten Harvest, Detroit Food Policy Council, Double-Up Food Bucks, etc.

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"Fair Food" proudly displayed on the shelf at the Ann Arbor Whole Foods store
The summit convened. The objectives were clear...the United Way of Southeastern Michigan wanted to better understand the barriers to food access. By calling together the area's food leaders, they would be able to glean the necessary items to build a strategy for improvement. Breakout sessions on five, different barriers would pave the way. As each group presented their findings, a trend emerged...better collaboration between community non-profits working on food related issues. My recommendation...United Way should do an assessment of all the organizations in Southeast Michigan and evaluate where their is duplication, low-lying fruits and missed opportunities. Create a coordinator position which audits these actions and develops a communication system to leverage these efforts and build relationships. Through this process, United Way will shift from being an just agent of "social services to social change." **

** Credit for this quote goes to my table-mate, Shane Bernardo, who works across the street from the Gleaners Food Bank at Earthworks Urban Farm as the Outreach Coordinator.

 
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Carol and Gene Logsdon
In 1974, a book of poems came across Gene Logsdon’s desk  while working for the Farm Journal in Philadelphia. He read four poems and closed the book. He got up from his desk and marched straight into his editor's office and said, "I'm going on a trip." "Where?" replied his editor.“ “To interview Wendell Berry!” The two have been good friends ever since. They are kindred, agrarian spirits. In Gene's living room is a shelf of Wendell's books. Below is a shelf of Gene's books. "We have a friendly competition going." says Gene with a smile.

I can relate to Gene’s affinity for Wendell’s writing. After reading an essay by Gene Logsdon in the book, "The New Agrarianism," I knew I wanted to meet Gene. In no way, can I compare to his and Wendell's literary excellence nor years of dedication to a pastoral life but his writing struck a chord with my food system aspirations and I knew I had to meet him. And that wish came true this past weekend.

Gene is one of farming’s most prolific writers with over 25 books, countless essays and now a thriving blog, The Contrary Farmer. In 1975, he moved with his family from Philadelphia back to his home of Upper Sandusky, Ohio and purchased a small 22-acre farm. As a longtime lover of art, his farm became his canvas. And like an artist, he would use his landscape to experiment with growing techniques and farming designs that mimicked nature’s biological processes. He wrote about his practical experience sharing his wisdom and pastoral philosophy with others. His writing had a symbiotic relationship with the farm just like the interdependent relationships observed in nature between plants and soil, livestock and grass, etc. One feeds the other.

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Me and Gene
We fireside chatted for over 3 hours. The rain drizzled outside and there were concerns of a first frost and the impact it may have on a small test plot of maturing, field corn. We talked about his long-ago plans to have a raspberry business. His love for paintings by Andrew Wyeth. His neighbors...most of whom are conventional growers with scheduled chemical applications and monocultures but who are also his friends. They have a mutual respect for the each other. Each has been at it a long time and are good at what they do. We talked about crop rotations, tillage, pest management and his passion for pasture farming. He bred lamb for years. In 2008, he mated his ewes for the last time. The fifteen, lucky gals who remain will live out their lives and assist Gene in his life’s work, studying the benefits of his rotational grazing techniques.

We spoke at length about “How to get BIG ag interested in being more sustainable?” For a long time, I’ve wanted to believe that conventional farmers were just hog-tied to a system - caught in a viscous cycle with government subsidies and Monsanto contracts. Otherwise, I felt they were stewards of the land and saw the destruction their farming practices had and would change if given the financial incentive. Quite the contrary Gene says, “most think they are helping to feed the world.” My idealism was set back by this fundamental difference. But as the afternoon progressed, I started to understand Gene’s approach to this question. It’s not so much about transitioning to organic certified as it is about transitioning away from industrial agriculture. But how do we get there? Storming the castle with pitchforks and torches is not an effective form of persuasion. Nor is pushing a hard line of organics on conventional growers. But if we can get larger farms to downsize into small and mid-sized farms, we could break the current commercial model. Smaller farms can adopt sustainable farming practices easier than larger ones because they can accommodate biodiversity better thus requiring fewer outside inputs to control pests and weeds. Food will not have to travel as far because the farms will be supporting a local economy as part of a more, regional, food system.

Gene offers a great suggestion in a recent blog post on September 14th entitled, “Small Farms Creates More Jobs.” Here’s the skinny…many of the big-daddy corn producers have anywhere between 4,000-6,000 acres. It takes only one farmer and one to two ranch-hands to farm these mega-farms because of the ginormous equipment available today. What if just a fraction of the 90 million acres of corn fields nationwide (and remember we are just talking corn, doesn’t include other commodity and specialty crops) were broken down into smaller 150-300 acre family farms? Each could employ 2-4 people and their families. Many farmers are getting older. They may not have next of kin to take over the farm or their children may not want to continue farming. The opportunity awaits these families. But we have to reach them before Monsanto or a developer does and prove the economic benefits for them, the immediate future of their community and future of their grandchildren.

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Flash, the farm cat
We looked at the time, it was after 4:30pm. I was honored Gene had taken so much time to speak with me. Before I left, there was one last thing on my list…a farm tour. The 2-acre vegetable garden and orchard provided an edible, front yard landscape. Behind the house, a short path lead through the forest to the barns and pasture. How lovely to have this contemplative stroll each day under the canopy of a mature woodland. As we emerged on the other side, I could see the sheep sunning themselves in the field. The clouds had broken providing a temporary thaw to the otherwise, chilly, fall air. Underfoot, you could feel the structural health of the grass hummocky from years of succession. We picked at different threads of green poking out of the field discussing the variety of the mix available to the sheep. One of the farm cats, Flash, joined us for the whole tour rubbing up against my pant leg whenever we stopped. We looked out over the eight pastures he uses to rotate the sheep. Well, seven because one will be returned to a forest - forests are the subject of his new book, “Sanctuary of Trees,” due out in early 2012.

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We found our way over to the small test plot of open-pollinated corn, aka field corn. He had been telling me about the 16” ears he was finding in the crop. We sifted through the stalks first finding a 12”, then a 14” and finally a 16” long ear of corn. Gene thinks it may be the longest ear of field corn he has ever heard of. For the past 35 years, he’s been selecting seeds from the biggest ears each harvest saving them and planting them the next year. That is dedication and thoughtfulness. It gave me pause to realize more than ever, I was in the presence of a great man, a great farmer. He will mill the crop for cornmeal and for supplementing the otherwise, natural diet of the sheep and chickens.

We sank bank into the woods connecting the pastures to the house. At the entrance to the backyard, two, deep rubber bins were buried in the ground up to their lids. “Outdoor root cellars right?” “Yes, exactly! We keep potatoes in them,” replied Gene. “I love simple ideas like that,” I commented. “Not enough money in simple ideas,” said Gene. It was subtle but profound. Conventional agriculture is far from simple. But it's where it is today because industrialization is considered profitable and the way to make money. Ironically, it’s those simple ideas that are going to bring equity back into our food system.


Parting Note: When I was preparing for my meeting with Gene, I came across a 2009 podcast on www.beginningfarmers.org. It’s a great interview and I highly recommend it. Plus, it describes our parallel to the Mayan culture and how agricultural mistakes can be attributed to many of the collapses throughout cultural history. The Mayan’s relied too heavily on corn. Sound familiar?