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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SAMPLE: Economies of a Farm Incubator

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

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

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

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

        Total = $86,800/year*

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

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

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

 
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Composting windrows at Full Circle Compost in Minden, NV
I wrote this article for the Rodale Institute. Start it here but finishing reading it there. It just got posted to their website today!

In an effort to overcome the economic downturn and scarcity of available jobs, many Americans are seeking opportunities in ecologically-minded businesses. Green tech and organic farming are two communities that have experienced continued growth in this era of corporate belt-tightening. Another industry is on the rise, albeit a less visible one: Regional composting facilities.

More than 600 compost facilities are registered with the US Composting Council. According to a 2010 report by BioCycle, a national composting and renewable energy magazine, there were more than 2,000 composting facilities in just the thirty states it polled. With stats like that, estimates could well exceed 4,000 nationwide. Some are fledgling businesses, while others are established businesses. But, if we are going to wean ourselves off synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, we are going to need a lot more compost to apply to our crops and fields. Regional composting facilities provide the answer.

...Read the rest of the article on the Rodale Institute website: Click Here!


 
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I handed the postmaster my yellow slip and he returned with a package from Amazon. I hadn't ordered anything so while he processed my other mail, I opened the box to find the book, Tiny Homes, Simple Shelter. I started flipping through it and was immediately enthralled turning the book so the postman could see the color glossy images of the cutest small homes, I'd ever seen. Some were made from earth, mud and other natural materials sourced on site. While others were made out of recycled scraps, repurposed materials, backyard sheds as well as old trailers, buses and gypsy wagons.

On the drive home, I was wondering how this book came to be in my possession. Perhaps it was from a publisher for whom I was doing a book review and they had sent me the book by mistake. It would have been such a coincidence to send this book, of all books, to me...I've had a fascination with cottages for as long as I can remember starting when I was eleven years old with Julie Andrews' book, Mandy. The reply from the publisher read, "no, they had not sent me the book," I rustled through the box that was now in the recycling bin to find a wee slip of paper that said, "From your brother-in-law, Mike." A smile grew across my face. So cool! I had forgotten our conversation from a few months earlier where I had told him how I wanted to build a simple, 500 sq. ft. cabin on a lovely piece of land and call it home. He, however, had remembered our chat and when he saw this book, sent it along for inspiration. Those are the best presents of all!

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Later that week, I was attending the first day of a permaculture course with Northern Nevada Permaculture and Urban Roots Garden Classrooms in Reno. The whole premise of permaculture is to create land-use systems which utilize resources in a sustainable way. Nature is permanent agriculture so in permaculture you are basically mimicking nature's design to grow food,  harness energy and live in connection to place. It is more than sustainable it is regenerative because a large part of permaculture is stacking functions which create cycles to reuse energy like the sun and water. 

People are a part of nature so in permaculture, they live in more ecological structures. When our instructor started flipping through examples of "tiny homes, simple shelters," I was even more amazed by the timing of this book in my life.

For a long time now, I've realized my life choices may never make me millions and I will more than likely have to work well past retirement age. But my life choices could be my social security! And a small, energy efficient, sustainably sourced, off-the-grid home could not only provide me a simpler life in later years but be kind to the environment as well. These homes are as beautiful as they are unique and their ingenuity is intoxicating. We talk about reducing our carbon footprint. Perhaps it starts with literally reducing the footprint upon which we live. The costs associated with eco-homes can be expensive but when scaled for smaller structures and when supplemented with natural cycles to capture energy, it can be affordable. Granted, not everyone is going to move to the country and go Daniel Boone but it does give pause for reflection. But for me, my financial future just got a whole lot brighter with this as a possibility.

 
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In the wake of Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, resigning and a new Italian government on the horizon, it makes you wonder, "is it really that easy?" Out with the old government and in with the new? All of a sudden, some of my more radical ideas started to seem not so extreme. So I dug through my archives and pulled out a piece that I wrote a couple years ago when I first started dabbling in food thought. I had this idea for a farmer led food revolution. It is pretty idealistic. But sometimes you just have to ask, "What If?"


THE UPRISING
Change in the food system can come from consumers voting with their fork or government passing progressive policy. Neither is moving very fast. What if the change came from farmers? After all, they grow the food! Without them, we would have no food. From that perspective, they hold a lot of power. The number of organic farmers is growing but we need more. Could we get enough conventional farms to transition to sustainable methods before consumer demand and government support turn the tide?

How many conventional farmers would it take to create a farm revolution in Big Ag? If that number banned together in solidarity for better farm practices, it could create a tipping point leading to a cascade of agricultural reforms. But how do we convince this critical mass?

Big Ag has lobbied government to consolidate and centralize taking the farmer out of the equation. It has driven the percentage of registered career farmers down from 20% seventy years ago to just 1%. 1% leaves the agricultural industry vulnerable. A significant disruption like a flood, drought or plight could paralyze the food economy. An organized guerilla effort could give that 1% a lot of power.

THE MOVEMENT
I like to believe that all farmers have an innate love for the land. And if given the chance, conventional farmers would unanimously return to a management style that built integrity not only back into the soil but into their craft. In the root cellars of these tradesmen exist basic guiding principles of land stewardship. Farmers are in many ways the first conservationists; learning from nature on how to grow food and provide. If food insurgents help them recover this lost art, we can reclaim the land and reestablish a sensible, food system.

How about a movement that paid farmers to quit farming conventionally? Farmers would participate in a program where they would be paid from private funds to transition their farms over to organic. Contracts with Monsanto, Cargill and the like would need to be cancelled. Land would begin to heal and diverse farming ecosystems would once again populate the country. A training program would assist farmers in the conversion process giving them the necessary skills as well as a business plan for marketing their products.

If enough farmers participated in the program, the supply of organic food would eventually surpass the supply of conventionally grown food or at least give organic a competitive edge.

THE EFFORT
To convince conventional farmers, a coalition of organic growers would launch a ground effort to talk farmer to farmer. With enough farmers on board, conventional farming would begin to wane and perhaps be extinguished altogether.

The money to fund this project would come from individual donors - celebrities, business men/women, private parties, foundations, etc. Basically, anyone interested in seeing a change. It would require huge capitol. Billions of dollars would be needed to cover all costs associated with the project from paying farmers and training programs to the project’s steering team made up of fundraisers, farmers and administrators.

The proposed revolution would focus on large-scale producers. To truly fix our food economy, we need address the large tracts of land designated for industrial farming and ranching namely the Central Valley and the Bread Basket. The question then becomes...Do we help these farmers improve their practice at their current size or do we encourage them to down-size dividing their land into smaller plots to be bought and sold to new farmers? Smaller farms create jobs and smaller farms can more readily mimic natural ecosystems. Better for the land, better for the economy, better for the community.

Farming is an untapped job market which could significantly reduce unemployment. If we could get just 5% of the population farming again, it would make a huge impact economically, culturally and environmentally. It would help achieve Food Sovereignty where by "the people" define their food system and agricultural policy. Now is the time! The average age of farmers is getting older. We need young, enthusiastic farmers entering the market. If we don't get more people farming now, the ag giants will only get bigger as the gobble up the land of these aging farmers. Rise your scythe!

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

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

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

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