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.
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.
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!
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.
Sarita Schaffer - Viva Farms in WA
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.
I just received my California Voter Information Guide. It is a tremendous resource outlining candidate platforms and arguments for and against different ballot propositions. I lean on it heavily when wanting to make an informed decision at the polls. But should I? I've been following Proposition 37 for months. It advocates to have genetically modified foods labeled. I know what's at stake with a yes/no vote. In reading the voter guide, however, a less informed voter could easily be swayed or confused. It makes me wonder..."Which way does my vote swing on issues for which I'm less educated and rely on this document. Hhm?
With National Food Day On Wednesday, October 24th...it seemed like a good time to step on the soapbox and clarify what I see as the shades of gray in the voter's guide and its review of Proposition 37.
YES on Proposition 37 gives consumers the "Right To Know" what's in their food. It's not a fluffy statute. It's been proposed for a reason...because BIG Ag doesn't want us to know what is in our food. 90% of all corn & soybeans are genetically engineered crops (GE) and close to 70% of all foods in the grocery store contain GE ingredients. By keeping consumers in the dark, it promotes a climate of "don't ask don't tell." If we don't know, or the facts are withheld, its like its not true and we can continue to live in our disconnected food bubble and consume what we want thinking it is fine. It's not enough to tell people that GMO's (genetically modified organisms) basically dominate the grocery stores shelves thinking that they will avoid these foods if they know how ubiquitous they are. A label gives the consumer knowledge, As we know, "knowledge is power." Consumers who starting asking questions pose a threat to our food industrial complex which will prompt real change to our broken food system and how food is produced and distributed.
Labeling GMO's takes the nutrition label one step further. It informs the eater in this bio-technical age which foods have been genetically engineered to withstand ginormous loads of synthetic pesticides. When food is scientifically modified in a petri dish, it changes its chemical make-up which is foreign to our gastrointestinal system and the way our body knows to digest food.
Opponents of Prop 37 claim that more than 400 scientific studies have shown that GE ingredients are safe for consumption. What they don't tell you is...those studies were performed by the manufacturers themselves, i.e. Monsanto, Cargill, etc. Federal law does not require the regulation of GE Foods and 3rd party research. As a result, 3rd party researchers are not given access to the GE Foods because the manufacturers are not obligated to by the USDA. Despite these barriers, organizations like American Academy of Environmental Medicine have been able to perform some tests on GMO's which demonstrate reproductive problems, intestinal issues, links to autism, as well as disruption in our immune system.
In closing, something I found really interesting in reading the voter's guide is who are the contributors to the argument for and rebuttal against. Those "for" are focused on health, food safety and small farms. Those "against" are biotech, science and organizations well funded by Big Ag.
Oh, one last fun fact...40 other nations around the world enforce a GMO label. Food for thought!
I'm en route back from Ketchum, Idaho and a mountain bike weekend to celebrate my friend's 40th birthday! It was four, glorious, fall-colored days where valley after valley intersected with groves of bright, golden aspens.
I'm sitting in the back of a VW Eurovan feeling like a passenger on a train as the high-desert landscape out my window flies past. Long-horizons and wide open spaces always move me to a place of deep thought and introspection. I love getting lost in those mind-wandering moments of a long. road trip.
With a few hours on my hand, I thought I would give the mobile app on my smart phone a try and make a remote, blog post ...so far so good; as long as I don't lose internet reception out here in the Nevada outback. I'm not going to push my luck and ramble on, however. Instead I will keep it simple with a video I shot as we left town this afternoon...
it was the 16th Annual Trailing of the Sheep, a weekend long event in Ketchum that celebrates the rich history and culture of sheep ranching culminating with a run of 1,500 sheep down Main St. as the sheep travel from the high country to their winter feeding grounds. We didn't finish our ride till after 12pm and the parade had already begun. I was disappointed to think we had missed the time-honored tradition. But as we neared the end of the detour circumnavigating the event, we caught the sheep as they exited town and hit the trail for their long journey home. It was an exciting moment.
I'm a little out of breath during my commentary in the video below because I dashed from the car and ran up the hill when I realized we still had a chance to see the sheep making their celebratory pilgrimage.
There is something about getting a logo that makes things feel legit! Check it out! it comes in purple, green and of course black. We co-branded the logo since the Growing Dome at the Truckee Community Farm will be the pilot for the Dome Raising Project...
What's the Dome Raising Project? The Dome Raising Project (DRP) is a community collaborative between institutional partners and local citizens interested in raising Growing Domes (www.growingspaces.com) for educational and food procurement purposes in the Lake Tahoe region. The DRP organizes the installation, disseminates resources and coordinates the funding of growing domes for Tahoe Truckee schools, hospitals, and municipalities.
The Growing Dome is what we grow in at the Truckee Community Farm. It is a 4-season growing structure appropriate for colder climates. They are designed and manufactured by Growing Spaces in Pagosa Springs, CO. They harness Tahoe’s 280+ days of sunlight helping an otherwise non-food producing region become more food secure and begin to create a more regional food system.
The Dome Raising Project is focused on “raising” domes, RAISING awareness for good nutrition and RAISING an understanding for eco-literacy, and RAISING healthy, sustainable grown food in our food insecure region. By raising domes, we raise a deeper connection and respect for our food and our human ecosystem. The DRP will be one of four programs under the newly established non-profit, the Tahoe Food Hub. The Tahoe Food Hub is focused on building a regional food system with producers within 150-miles which includes exploring ways to grow food locally using climate appropriate growing structures like the Growing Dome.
A network of Tahoe domes makes a regional statement and encourages all in the Tahoe Basin to think more consciously about where their food comes from. By working together versus independently, each project site will be more successful sharing funding, resources, curriculum and most of all passion.
Integral to the DRP is the connection a community shares with food. Hospitals serve as dietary role models and schools serve as system-based learning centers to help our next, planetary stewards make the connection between good nutrition, health and an equitable food system.
The DRP’s first campaign...is to help the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District and Tahoe Forest Health System install Growing Domes at area institutions for educational and therapy purposes as well as to provide locally, grown food to their cafeterias.
In order for a Growing Dome to get built at schools and hospitals in Tahoe, it needs to meet the heavy snow load requirements of Tahoe. Growing Spaces has been working diligently over the past five months to engineer a "Sierra Dome" just for our region." To put it in perspective...the standard Growing Dome is built for 65psf (pounds per square foot) ground snow load. In 25 years of manufacturing, Growing Spaces has only had to modify the dome up to 95psf. That is until Tahoe came along. The Sierra Dome's base model will be designed to withstand 205psf ground snow load. That's how we roll in Tahoe! Contact us if you are interested in learning more about Growing Domes and/or the Dome Raising Project by using my contact page.
When I heard Michael Pollan (Omnivore's Dilemma) speak last October in Cleveland on National Food Day, he made an interesting statement...that a sea change in the agricultural system may be driven by an unlikely allie, the health care industry. What he was getting at was...medical insurance companies would eventually refuse to flip the bill for all the food related disease (diabetes, obesity, heart disease, etc.) and force a change in how food is produced so it heals, not hurts.
That same month, The Nation had a feature article about our food economy. Michael was quoted as saying, "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."
Now there is another way that the medical profession could shift our food system away from an emphasis on price and convenience to an emphasis on health and sustainability! Dr. Lenard Lesser of Palo Alto Medical Foundation and colleagues, Deborah Cohen, MD; and Robert Brook, MD, just published an article in the Journal of American Medical Association entitled "Changing Eating Habits for the Medical Profession." The premise for the article was based on a recent recommendation by the Institute of Medicine which stated that health care professionals should act "as role models for their patients and provide leadership for obesity prevention efforts in their communities by advocating for institutional community, and state-level strategies that can improve physical activity and nutrition resources for their patients and their communities."
Dr. Lesser points out one small problem with this theory...physicians are often overweight themselves. He referenced a 2004 report by the Physicians Health Study that found 44% of physicians were overweight or obese. But if we get hospitals serving healthier foods, not only will it advocate for a more holistic approach to health care that is patient-centered vs.just treatment-centered, but physicians will find it easier to practice what they preach because the foods being served will focus on consumption of fruits, vegetables and whole grains and away from processed foods high in bad fats in high-fructose corn syrup.
The article draws a parallel to the impact that the health care industry had in initiating the tobacco ban movement of the 1960's. It started with the surgeon generals report warning against the health dangers of smoking. That was the impetus for banning smoking in hospitals. Fast-forward to 2012 and smoking is banned in pretty much ever public place. Dr. Lesser suggests using a similar policy progression to "ignite a movement to improve the food environment."
This idea has merit and legs...Dr. Lesser and his colleagues suggest starting with meals at medical conferences which replace high caloric lunches with healthier options. From there, hospitals could require that food service only purchase foods which meet a certified healthy criteria. Hospitals represent a critical mass strong enough that vendors would need to respond to this high demand. That high demand by institutions would have a ripple effect and require Big Ag to respond as well.
Just as the tobacco movement gained traction by placing its roots in the health care industry, the food movement could do the same and before we know it, healthy food would be as ubiquitous as no-smoking signs!
One of my freelance contracts is managing the philanthropic program, Gardens to Hospitals. Dr. Lenard Lesser is largely responsible for its creation. In 2010, he published a report which found that only 7% of meals in California children hospitals were healthy. Gardens to Hospitals hopes to increase that percentage by helping hospitals install edible gardens. Not only will hospitals be leading by example but growing food which will help their patients lead healthier lives!
The recent issue of Edible Reno-Tahoe just came out. I have an article in there about how the Growing Dome got its start and how one was lucky enough to land in Tahoe so I could be its farm manager. Here is the intro but for the whole article, click here.
As community members across the country become more focused on their food security (not only as a way to improve access to ecologically grown food, but also to improve their local economy), they must evaluate their foodshed. Discerning local food enthusiasts should look at where their food is sourced but, more importantly, how food can be grown in their region.
Thanks to special growing structures and four-season growing methods, even those living in mountain climates now can grow food. These special growing structures aren't just ordinary greenhouses; they are geodesic dome-shaped greenhouses manufactured by Udgar and Puja Parsons of Growing Spaces in Pagosa Springs, Colo. For the complete article, please visit Edible Reno-Tahoe.
IN OTHER NEWS...me and my business partner, Eve McEneaney, filed the Articles of Incorporation for the Tahoe Food Hub last week. In order to expedite the process, we drove to Sacramento to file in person. We could have mailed it in, but filing in person made for a much more momentous occasion. It was an exciting day putting us one step closer to helping build a regional food system for Lake Tahoe.
Tom Philpott is one of my most favorite food and agriculture writers. I first started reading his stories when he was at Grist.org. The other day, a friend forwarded me his May 2012 article in Mother Jones entitled, "Economies of Kale."
Catchy name aside, this article contains the meat and potatoes of how a regional food system can single-handedly stimulate local economies. For example...bookstores and clothing stores most often have to buy their goods from far away but food can, and should, be sourced locally. When sourced locally, $.45 of every dollar stays in the greater region versus a measly $.15 when spent at chain stores. Studies have shown that when money circulates locally, economies become stronger because there is more sales tax revenue which stimulates the economy.
In the article, Tom quotes, economist, Ken Meter. I had a brief encounter with Ken a few months ago but I had no idea he was so well-known in the field. It was during an ice breaker exercise at a Slow Food conference this past April! I had all of 60-seconds to introduce myself but knew enough from his introduction to get his business card. He has since been a tremendous help in gathering data for our North Tahoe foodshed assessment.
If the term fashionista wasn't bad enough, i heard this McDonalds' radio ad the other day where a women was a self-proclaimed "tastinista!" Why? Because she saved money on food by eating at McDonalds so she could buy more hand bags and clothes. And we wonder why people have an identity crisis with their food!
If I wasn't grossed out already by McDonalds' food, this commercial made me gag just that much more. I tried to find the podcast of it but was unable so you'll just have to be unlucky enough to randomly hear it on the radio ;)
How is it that we put a higher dollar value and priority on consumer goods than the food we eat to keep us healthy and alive not to mention the health of the environment? People, people, people...