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Last month, I traveled just southwest of Chico, CA to Hamilton City. I was on assignment for the Rodale Institute and an article about organic rice farmer, Greg Massa. You can read the interview in its entirety by visiting the Rodale Institute's website, click here! To peak your appetite, here is a taste...

Dragonflies swarmed above a rice field under a hazy morning sun. With an orchestral maneuver, they darted into the sky then nose dived back to the water, occasionally swooping to the left or right as if trying to throw off the police in a chase. As my gaze was transfixed upon this dance, organic rice farmer Greg Massa informed me that dragonflies have an aquatic life stage in the beginning. When they dip and dive to the water, they are actually laying eggs. I had never made the correlation between rice fields and dragonflies before, but it made sense. I guess it’s no coincidence they are often depicted together.

Greg and his wife, Raquel Krach, along with their five children, own and operate Massa Organics, a brown rice and almond farm outside of Chico, CA. Greg is a fourth-generation rice farmer, and the 225-acres he farms have been in the Massa family since 1970. But it wasn’t until 1997 when Greg and Raquel returned from five years in Costa Rica as tropical ecologists that they began to transition the land to organics. “Rice farming offered an opportunity to do real conservation work on our own land rather than the theoretical work of university-based ecology,” says Greg. “Stewardship of the air, water and land are our primary concerns.”
Read the entire article by visiting the Rodale website.

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Cody watching over his flock of sheep who graze the almond orchard to keep the understory clean.
 
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Our days may not have been filled with canoeing and basket weaving, but in many ways, the past two weeks of this conference have felt like a trip back to summer camp...living in dorm style, structured schedules, a cloistered campus, mess tent and field trips. And just like summer camp, the best part is all the new friends you make...Francisco from Tucson, Christina from Germany, Tom from Chicago, Nicole from Fairbanks, the list goes one...so many wonderful people! I can't remember the last time I spent this much time with the same set of people only to be threatened with never seeing some of them again. It's a tad unsettling. I will miss my Agroecology family but hope to stay in touch. We got lost in our daily routine and communal lifestyle making it seem like our little utopia away from reality would never end. But as sad as we are to leave, we are equally excited to take what we have learned and apply it in our careers, studies, farms, organizations, classrooms and next adventures. Every day I was inspired by a new career idea. In fact, I filled a whole page in my notebook with ideas ranging from building a food hub or starting a farm incubator program to building a local food council or handling the market distribution for organic farms. Now it's time to put boots on the ground and get to work.

If I could take one thing home with me, it would be the meals. Heavens to Betsies...the food was fantabulous! Every meal was a celebration both in spirit and in taste! I eat consciously and I'm a pretty good cook but at least once or twice a week, something happens in my diet which probably wasn't the best choice. The last two weeks, however, have been three meals a day made from the best and freshest ingredients. Mostly vegetarian, almost all local and in season but definitely organic. The kitchen staff took such good care of our bellies nourishing our souls and dazzling us with their creations. Click on the picture above to see how each meal was introduced by the kitchen staff. One word...gratitude!

Before I load the "bus" to head home leaving summer camp behind, I think of where this course has brought me. We were trained in agroecology and we looked at it from every which direction. The concept has stayed the same but transformed into something much deeper. I see it in 3-D now. As Steve Gliessman, our course director, was wrapping up today with closing remarks, I sat trying to write a new definition which tied it all together. I came up with this:

        "AGROECOLOGY: Creating a biodiverse agricultural ecosystem while leveraging the interactions both within the                     ecosystem as well as the local community which will support a sustainable food system."

As I sat editing and inserting new lines of text into my fancy definition, Steve flashed the best definition of all up on the screen...

        "AGROECOLOGY: Transformation of food systems to sustainability."

Done! Couldn't have said it better myself. Guess that's why he gets paid the big bucks! Thanks Steve and the entire staff at the Community Agroecology Network.

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Here is a picture from last Saturday's Indian curry meal with beet chutney. Mmmm Mmmm goodness!

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The CAN girls on our last day of the course. We went wine tasting in the Santa Cruz backcountry...L-R: Katherine, Cara, Nicole, Laura, Christine, Nicole, Kristina and Christina.

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Lots of musical talent. Here are the "The Nicoles." That's what we decided to call them since three are named Nicole.

 
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Today was the first day of my Agroecology course at UCSC's Sustainable Living Center where every meal begins with a story. It's right up my alley because I love to know the story of my food. The passionate kitchen staff calls us all to circle and then each one takes a turn describing the meal with colorful images and mouth watering detail on both ingredients and origin.

We spent the better part of the today becoming more familiar with the practice of Agroecology which has roots dating back to the 1930's by Basil Bensin. In the early 80's, Miguel Altieri resurrected the study and with the help of Steve Gliessman (course director @ USCS) brought it to international attention. Now there are over 15 courses on the subject with classes at University of Vermont and the University of Pennsylvania. Steve is the foremost authority on the subject writing textbooks and serving as a consultant for schools looking to expand their agricultural programs traveling as far as South Africa's University of Venda. Steve opened the course with, "The reason we need agroecology is because we need to treat agricultural systems as ecosystems in order to manage them sustainably."

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Here we are taking a tour of the Sustainable Living Center's campus. In the center is course director, Steve Gliessman. Behind him are the farm fields which serve as study plots as well as a CSA. Behind Steve lies the beautiful Monterrey Bay where cool breezes move in off of the coast each evening and full sun drenches the crops during the day.

Small World Story...After passing Steve five times or more the first day, I finally stopped him and asked, "Were you ever in an environmental film?" I explained how I have been working for the Wild & Scenic Film Festival and that he looked so familiar. He nonchalantly mentioned one possible film, Birdsong & Coffee. To which my remark was, "Of course! That's right! I knew I recognized you. But you were more than just in the film, you were one of the main characters." He blushed! You can watch the full-length version on line. Click Here. The film talks about his work with coffee co-ops in Central America and efforts to help farmers get a fair price for their crops. The movie also advocates for the traditional shade grown style of raising coffee which not only prevents soil erosion as seen in deforested fields but provides necessary habitat for migrating song birds.

 
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Today I arrived at the campus of UCSC (University of California - Santa Cruz) and the home of the Community Agroecology Network at the Sustainable Living Center. For the next two weeks, I will be engaged in a course focused on this very topic, Agroecology. It's a new word for many but in simplest terms it is the study of agricultural ecosystems. It involves taking a holistic approach to agriculture looking at the environmental, the societal and the economic variables to make a food system sustainable. As humans we need to see the world around us as our ecosystem and the important role that agriculture plays in sustaining our environment and our communities. The goal of the course is to evaluate all these variables creating a blue print which will transform how we grow, produce and distribute food into a more sustainable system. 32 people from around the world have gathered together coming as far as China, Mexico, Columbia, Nicaragua and Canada. Guiding us are leaders in this field and at those at the forefront of the sustainable food movement. Tomorrow begins an intense program but I say, "Pour on the information!" I'm ready to help transform our food economy.