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The holidays are always a good time to revisit the amount of waste we generate in this country because probably at no other time during the year is more waste produced than during the holidays. Its a good reminder too that no longer is recycle the operative word but REDUCE! If we consume less, there's less energy and resources used to produce and less stuff to throw away.

NPR's Science Friday with Ira Flatow had a great interview this past Friday, November 23rd about the amount of food wasted in the United States. Here is a link to the podcast. On the show was Dana Gunders, Project Scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council and Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland.

Over 40% of the food produced in the US gets thrown away and only 3% of it gets recycled or composted .When you consider that 50% of the land in the US is in agricultural production, we are squandering a lot land not to mention a lot of food. In the process, we are exploiting the natural resources used to produce that food such as fossil fuels for farm equipment, water for irrigation and soil fertility. And with water becoming a finite resource, its scary to think that 80% of the water used in this country goes to growing food.

To bring that into perspective, Project Scientist, Dana Gunders, made a great reference point, "Throwing away half a hamburger is equivalent to taking a one hour shower for the amount of water needed to produce that half a hamburger." Jonathan followed that up with another staggering statistic, "The amount of food wasted each year in the United Sates could fill up Crater Lake twice...TWICE!!

Food gets wasted at every step along the supply chain starting on the farm then at the grocery store and in our homes. On the Farm, food goes unharvested in the fields either because there was a surplus with no buyer or the price per bushel is too low to make it financially feasible to harvest. In the grocery store, tons of food gets thrown away each day simply because it has past a "suggested" Best If Used By date. Documentaries like DIVE expose this wasteful scenario and the dumpster divers who feed their families "well" off this trash but also rescue it for food banks and pantries. And we know all too well the amount of food that we each waste in our own homes. We buy in bulk because it is a good deal and then it goes bad in our refrigerators. And we don't plan meals properly. We buy a bunch of carrots when we only need one or buy a bunch of cilantro for one recipe but don't find a recipe later in the week which will use up the rest of the cilantro.

We are all trying to save money. But before we say we can't afford organic, think about all the money we are throwing away in the food we buy. Over $165 billion dollars gets thrown away each year in the United States. With food costs rising, consumers need to be more conscious, grocery stores need to be more thoughtful in how they transition expired food and our agricultural  industry needs to efficiently manage their land and water resources.

In this context, when we talk about feeding the world, we don't have to look much further than the end of our forks!

 
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By Now, most everyone has heard that Hostess Brands -  producers of synthetic, sickly-sweet, gastro-hideous, eco-terrorist, snack foods - has filed bankruptcy and is going out of business after 82 years. Many things contributed to the company's demise but Hostess claims, an employee strike was the straw that broke the camel's back hobbling an already frail company to the ground. Pretty lame that they blamed their own employees for the closure making them feel like they shot themselves in the foot when standing up for their rights. If the quality of their products wasn't bad enough, their human resources department is just as crummy.

It won't be long before their assets, brands and recipes are gobbled up and transferred over to another food industry dictator so we must cease this fleeting moment and revel in its delight. When I first heard the news, I thought, "Ding Dong the Witch is Dead." It made me want to write something about this current event just so I could use the headline.

Unfortunately, acquisition of the brand is inevitable. But until then, it feels like the monarchy has been overthrown and grassroots agtivists have inched one step closer to agricultural reform. Because what if...the toppling of this empire was the beginning of the end for Big Ag? In a small way, it does signify a weakening in the food industrial complex. And is a metaphor for unsustainability...the business model for companies like Hostess is just as unsustainable as their products and the methods used to grow its ingredients. It will eventually "Ho-Ho" itself into extinction.

 
No, I'm not talking about climate change but rather keeping your crops warm during winter. We are just beginning our 4th season here at the Truckee Community Farm's Growing Dome and last night, November 11th, marked our first truly cold night of the season at 5°F! Watch the videos to see how the Growing Dome's natural heating system is able to keep the inside just above freezing on such a cold night. We used floating row covers to help the soil retain as much heat as possible overnight especially for the sprouts and seedlings that are still getting established. But once they are more mature, the Growing Dome will stay warm enough that they won't be needed. I'm as excited for growing veggies as I am for skiing this winter season! Check back soon for a progress report.
 
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The debate between organic and conventional agriculture is not nearly as polarized as the news would have you think. There is a large gray area in the middle where conventional farmers are transitioning to more sustainable practices but not necessarily organic, at least yet.

I've often thought (and blogged about it. Click here for article 1 and article 2) that real change in the way we grow food is going to come from the farmers. They see first hand the devastating impact that chemical fertilizers and pesticides have on their land. They are also starting to see the money they could save in synthetic inputs by farming more ecologically and still have the same, if not better, yields.

Massive and sweeping change in the agricultural industry is probably never going to happen at the scale we would like. And for sure, the change is not going to be driven from the deep pockets of Monsanto. Rather, it's going to start at a grassroots level.But it isn't going to require that farmers convert cold turkey, however, and go organic overnight. It starts with baby steps like utilizing cover crops and crop rotations to better manage soil. Twilight Greenaway wrote a great article for Grist.org entitled, "Feed your soil - and the rest will follow." Here's my summary...

Instead of leaving a field fallow or bare over winter, a cover crop keeps roots in the ground feeding the soil food web 365 days year. Combined with a crop rotation, a field won't see the same summer crop for 2-3 years rotating a crop like corn with, oats, alfalfa and soy. Combined, cover crops and crop rotations reduce soil erosion, replenish lost nutrients, minimize pest outbreaks and grows stronger, more resilient plants. The secret behind these two simple strategies is how they build organic matter in the soil! Organic matter is the living part of the soil like microbes and fungi. Without organic matter soil is just dirt...clay, sand and silt (the inorganic bits). And dirt is what we are left with when land is farmed strictly conventionally because not enough organic matter is added to the soil and the little that is gets killed by the synthetic applications.

Non-organic farmers like David Brandt have been employing these practices for years and have the results to prove it. "This past summer, despite the drought, Brandt harvested 120-150 bushels of corn per acre compared to his neighbors who averaged 40-50 bushels. Plus, he is only using 2.5 gallons of diesel fuel per acre for applications compared to 30-40 gallons." You don't have to be a rocket science to realize that "$10 to farm an acre is much more economical than $120 per acre. The fastest way to a greener agricultural system is through a farmer's wallet!

Why the drastic difference? Soil rich in organic matter and living organisms can retain water better enabling it to weather drought years. And cover crops and crop rotations grow healthier plants which require fewer synthetic inputs. The fewer fertilizers and pesticides and less diesel fuel is needed to power tractors to apply it.

The USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NCRS) manages $27 million/year in funding for agricultural programs which promote soil health. But its up to the farmer to opt in. The funding is already low so the NCRS waits for farmers to come to them. With the farm bill in jeopardy of not getting passed, the agency may have even fewer funds to work with next year. Let your voice be heard and ask congress to not shelf the farm bill but to reform this very important piece of legislation. SIgn the petition by clicking here.