Free The Seed

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Today, just four giant companies control more than 60 percent of all the world’s seed sales.

 

Thanks to the New York Times for this opinion:

Save Our Food. Free the Seed.

By Dan Barber

Additional reporting and graphics by Ash Ngu. Photographs by Ruth Fremson

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Flowering curly kale, a variety called Baltisk Rod Purpurkal, being grown for seed at Fresh Roots Farm in Montana. The farm is collaborating with the Organic Seed Alliance on a toolkit for farmers who want to produce seed.

Not long ago I was sitting in a combine tractor on a 24,000-acre farm in Dazey, N.D. The expanse of the landscape — endless rows of corn and soybeans as precise as a Soviet military parade — was difficult to ignore. So were the skyscraper-tall storage silos and the phalanx of 18-wheeled trucks ready to transport the grain. And yet what held my attention were the couple of dozen seeds in my palm — the same seeds cultivated all around me.

We are told that everything begins with seed. Everything ends with it, too. As a chef I can tell you that your meal will be incalculably more delicious if I’m cooking with good ingredients. But until that afternoon I’d rarely considered how seed influences — determines, really — not only the beginning and the end of the food chain, but also every link in between.

The tens of thousands of rows surrounding me owed their brigade-like uniformity to the operating instructions embedded in the seed. That uniformity allows for large-scale monoculture, which in turn determines the size and model of the combine tractor needed to efficiently harvest such a load. (“Six hundred horsepower — needs a half-mile just to turn her around,” joked the farmer sitting next to me.) Satellite information, beamed into the tractor’s computer, makes it possible to farm such an expanse with scientific precision.

The type of seed also dictates the fertilizer, pesticide and fungicide regimen, sold by the same company as part of the package, requiring a particular planter and sprayer (40 feet and 140 feet wide, respectively) and producing a per-acre yield that is startling, and startlingly easy to predict.

It is as if the seed is a toy that comes with a mile-long list of component parts you’re required to purchase to make it function properly. Continue reading

Getting The Food Puzzle Solved

 

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Green: an organic farm in Cuba © Getty

Thanks to FT’s Sarah Murray for this story–Organic farming’s growth only part of answer to food sustainability:

The approach has an impact far beyond its scale but questions remain over yields

While only a tiny proportion of the world’s agricultural land is devoted to organic farming, some argue that it punches above its weight in contributing to more sustainable farming practices. “Its influence goes far beyond the 1 per cent of land that is managed organically,” says Verena Seufert, assistant professor at the Institute for Environmental Studies at VU University Amsterdam. “It is influencing the debate by highlighting food sustainability and how big an impact the food we eat has on many of our environmental problems,” she says. Yet while some believe that organic agriculture could play a bigger role in helping feed the world, environmental advocates see it as one option in a number of more sustainable approaches to farming. Continue reading

Riverford, A Model Of Organic Farming In The UK

We first heard the name of the farmer on a favored music-oriented podcast, and then the name of his farm. After listening to his story, and his musical tastes, we had to learn more:

guy-singh-watson-4.jpgSelf-confessed veg nerd, Guy Singh-Watson has over the last 30 years taken Riverford from one man and a wheelbarrow delivering homegrown organic veg to friends, to a national veg box scheme delivering to around 50,000 customers a week.

Guy is an inspirational, passionate, opinionated and admired figure in the world of organic farming, who still spends more time in the fields than in the boardroom. Continue reading

Butterflies Bear Bucolic Benefits

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Milkweed was first mentioned in these pages  so long ago I had forgotten their importance to Monarch butterflies, a seemingly perennial topic for our contributors. So thanks to Margaret Renkl for keeping that tradition going in her Monday op-ed, and reminding us in the process that while it is not all good news out there, it is also not all bad news:

Monarchs in My Garden, at Last

NASHVILLE — I was pretty proud of myself the spring I planted my first organic garden. It was the mid-1980s, and I was a first-year graduate student in creative writing, a program entirely unrelated to horticultural mastery. But I had taken a college course in environmental biology, and I knew the basics: The more chemicals you use in a garden, the more chemicals you’ll need in the garden. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle, more reliable than the seasons.

At my house, companion planting — marigolds in between the broccoli, tomato vines encircling the spinach — would repel bugs the natural way. Any lingering pests would be dispatched by beneficial insects like ladybugs and praying mantises. One evening I watched happily as cabbage white butterflies flitted over silvery broccoli leaves. Those little white butterflies pausing in the gloaming on the water-beaded broccoli made for a tableau of bucolic harmony. Continue reading

MA’O’s Marvelous Mission

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If we had come upon the website with no introduction maybe it would have looked like just another pretty organic farm in a tropical paradise.

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But there are people involved, and it is a pleasant surprise to learn from Dakota Kim’s story Youth Farm In Hawaii Is Growing Food And Leaders how those people bring that place further to life. There is a mission worth reading about:

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Cheryse Sana, farm co-manager, cuts a banana blossom off a tree at MA’O Organic Farms. Dakota Kim

A tight circle of teenagers is deep in conversation — not about movies or apps, but about … vegetables.

It’s 7 a.m. at MA’O Organic Farms, part of 24 acres nestled in an emerald mountain-ringed valley just two miles from Oahu’s west shore. Under a hot sun that bathes this idyllic breadbasket, college-aged farmers harvest tons of mangoes, bananas, mizuna (mustard greens) and taro every month for the island of Oahu.

The farm’s atmosphere bubbles with enthusiastic lightheartedness, its college interns quipping across the rows that they can beat their neighbors’ harvesting speed. But a calm falls over the group as they move from joking around to talking more seriously. A circle forms under an open pavilion, and a young woman speaks. Continue reading

Banana Futures

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Japanese Mongee bananas debuted this winter, bred to be cold-resistant and pesticide-free. Plus: you can eat the peel. Courtesy of D&T Farm Inc

When we talk about the future of bananas, it is often looking backwards protectively. But forward is an option as this story below illustrates, as with other edibles, likewise:

A Banana Grown At Subzero Temps Also Has An Edible Peel

BananaA Japanese farm introduced a new crop this winter: an organic banana with a peel that’s thin enough to eat. In a nod to this appealing outer covering, Setsuzo Tanaka, the banana’s inventor, has named his creation the Mongee (“mon-gay”) banana — which means “incredible banana” in Japanese.

“Setsuzo’s original purpose was to make a delicious banana with no pesticides,” Tetsuya Tanaka, a spokesperson for D&T Farms, the company behind the banana, writes in an email. Setsuzo Tanaka spent four decades tinkering with tropical fruit before the Mongee was born.

But if pesticides were his main concern, why not just grow a normal organic banana? Aren’t all bananas equally tasty? Continue reading

Coffee’s California Coming

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Jay Ruskey is one of the first farmers to be growing coffee commercially in California. His coffee plants share the farm with avocado and cherimoya trees and passion fruit vines. Credit Morgan Maassen for The New York Times

It always seemed that California could grow just about anything, so why did it take so long for this to happen? Thanks to Stephanie Strom for this story in the New York Times:

GOLETA, Calif. — There is a new crop growing in Southern California’s famous avocado groves — coffee.

About two dozen farms between San Diego and here, just outside Santa Barbara, are nurturing coffee bushes under the canopies of old avocado trees, in what may be the first serious effort in the United States to commercialize coffee grown outside Hawaii, home of Kona coffees. Continue reading

Breaking Rules When The Result Is Worth It

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The strawberries at Harry’s Berries, grown in Oxnard, Calif., are harvested only once every five days, to give the fruit time to reach its peak flavor. Credit Amy Dickerson for The New York Times

Renegade behavior in the abstract attracts us almost always. We admit to favoring examples, cases, histories that point to unusual choices that we think provide a model for others to follow to solve problems. However, sometimes there is no choice but to point to the downside of renegade behavior, aka breaking the rules on which society depends. And there are plenty of lousy renegades we read about but do not foul up these pages with. Today, it’s coming up strawberries. Thanks to Rick and Molly and to Karen Stabiner for bringing this story forward:

Red, Ripe and Renegade: Berries That Break All the Rules

“This one should be O.K.,” he said, sounding not quite convinced. Then again, his definition of ripe is more stringent than most. Continue reading

From Ew To Wow, To OMG

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When it comes to biopesticides, one of the most widely used fungi is Beauveria bassiana. Above, a kudzu bug killed by Beauveria bassiana, seen growing out of the cadaver. Courtesy of Brian Lovett/University of Maryland Entomology

Thanks to the salt, at National Public Radio (USA) for their sharing the creepy- crawliest news from the realm of mycologists working on clean solutions to some massive, dirty challenges, and changing the rules of pest management along the way:

Fungal Pesticides Offer A Growing Alternative To Traditional Chemicals

When it comes to biopesticides, one of the most widely used fungi is Beauveria bassiana. Above, a kudzu bug killed by Beauveria bassiana, seen growing out of the cadaver. Continue reading

Back To The Land, And A Future

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Vincent Martin, right, made a living selling health club memberships in Paris until he left his job about five years ago. “Land is key,” he said. Credit Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times

We are going back to the land this year, in Belize, and can relate to the description and explanation these ex-urbanites give for their retreat to the rural, agricultural life of their forebears:

Life on the Farm Draws Some French Tired of Urban Rat Race

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SAULX-LES-CHARTREUX, France — Two years ago, Elisabeth Lavarde decided to quit her office job in Paris and start a new life in Saulx-les-Chartreux, a small town with two butchers and one baker just south of the capital.

Ms. Lavarde, 39, is now an apprentice farmer at a 24-acre farm that grows organic vegetables, sold directly to local consumers. New farmers like Ms. Lavarde usually make what they see as a decent salary of about 1,500 euros, or about $1,600, a month, slightly above the French minimum wage.

“I wanted a job with more meaning,” she said. “I felt like I was tilting at windmills.” Continue reading

Maple Was Always Good, Got Better, And Finally Runamok

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sgmkr_comp_front_345x_e71869c9-7dac-4854-9ef9-e38dde839f5e_1024x1024When we saw this the other day, it had us thinking that 2017 was already off to a crafty-bottled-flavor start. Now another non-alcoholic liquid we adore, crafted and packaged with flair.

Several among the contributors to this site have connections to maple syrup consumption going back decades, most notably Harrington’s of Vermont circa 1970s. So, combining nostalgia with artisanal and organic, Runamok had us at maple:

Sugarmaker’s Cut™ The Season’s Best Maple Syrup Continue reading

Agricultural Exploration, Flavor Surprise

 

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Where is Asha, or at least her book? I could utilize her culinary inputs related to southern Indian vegetables and flavors right about now.

I am in the coastal region of southern Maharashtra now, just north of the Goa border. The cuisine is different from that of Kerala, but with many of the same vegetable inputs. For ten days my mission is primarily to food-focused. For a new project we are working on, our current task is to determine what food items will be grown on property and which will we sourced from local farmers. This is always a curious task. Continue reading

Organic Is A Word Well Suited To Curiosity

From the Oxford English Dictionary, skipping past the obsolete and rare definitions of the word organic, and picking the ones we find most interesting for our purposes, all of which predate by decades, and even centuries, one of the latest uses of the word organic in the categorization of a method of agriculture:

Belonging to the constitution of an organized whole; structural.

Of or relating to an organized structure compared to a living being.

Of, relating to, or characterized by connection or coordination of parts into a single, harmonious whole; organized; systematic.

Designating a work of art in which the parts seem naturally or necessarily coordinated into the whole; (Archit.) (in the writings of Frank Lloyd Wright) designating a style which attempts to make a unity of a building and its setting and environment; (also, more generally) designating any of various styles in which the character of buildings is more or less reminiscent of a living organism.

Characterized by continuous or natural development; (Business) designating expansion generated by a company’s own resources, as opposed to that resulting from the acquisition of other companies.

We care about these definitions because the word organic comes into our conversations constantly. We have avoided overuse in these pages of this and other words that we care about. But recently this word stands out, worthy of more of our attention. We will use it more, but carefully. A balance is required.

 

Mobile Farmers Market Headed to Austin Neighborhoods

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Source: Farmshare Austin

We have shared on previous occasions the benefits of organic farming. Well, getting affordable organic produce to neighborhoods who don’t have a single grocery store is commendable task, and the mission of Farmshare Austin. The non-profit organization received a grant from the city to help launch the program, which will make designated weekly stops in neighborhoods around Austin that lack access to organic fruits and veggies.

“Large areas of the city and county do not have full-service grocery stores, and it can be difficult for people in these places to get fresh, affordable food for themselves and their families,” [says] Taylor Cook, Farmshare Austin’s executive director. The market will target four areas, for now, that need the service most, and it will park in each district through an afternoon and evening. Cook says besides offering fresh seasonal produce from the organization’s 7-acre organic farm, they will also offer other staples, like cooking oil, on hand, so residents will have access to everything they need to cook a meal. The program accepts SNAP benefits and participates in the Sustainable Food Center’s Double Dollars program, allowing consumers using food assistance  to double their buyer power for fruits and vegetables. The pilot program will begin next month and run through the end of December. Cook says they hope to expand the mobile farmers market program in the coming years.

Continue reading

An Abandoned Quarry Transformed

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Fátima Anselmo, owner of Orgânicas da Fátima. All photos from: modernfarmer.com

The following is a story about a woman in Rio de Janeiro whose passion for sustainable farming, along with the support of a loyal community, allowed her to transcend an unforeseen hardship and turn an industrial wasteland into a fruitful organic farm. Here’s the story as told on Modern Farmer:

On a steep, forested hillside, in what was once a quarry in Rio de Janeiro, Fátima Anselmo scoops a handful of loose, dark soil from one of her garden beds. “It’s alive!” she says, holding the dirt in the air.

The whole place, in fact, is bursting with life.

Continue reading

The Development of Organic Farming

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All photos from: The Guardian

The debate of whether or not an organic diet is healthier has long been in question and does not yield a definitive scientific answer, but instead a consensual logical conclusion.  An organic diet is beneficial in that food free of pesticides and chemicals is safer and better for us than food containing those substances. Although organic agriculture occupies only 1% of global agricultural land, the growth of this industry is projected to increase as population growth, climate change and environmental degradation progress and will therefore necessitate agricultural systems with a more balanced portfolio of sustainability benefits.

With that prospect in mind,  John Reganold and Jonathan Wachter from Washington State University conducted a study, Organic Agriculture in the 21st Century, published in Nature Plants, that compared organic and conventional agriculture across the four main metrics of sustainability: be productive, economically profitable, environmentally sound and socially just.

[They] found that although organic farming systems produce yields that average 10-20% less than conventional agriculture, they are more profitable and environmentally friendly. Historically, conventional agriculture has focused on increasing yields at the expense of the other three sustainability metrics.

Continue reading

Gallon Jug, Conservation The Belizean Way

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Two months ago I had the opportunity to visit Chan Chich Lodge in Belize, something I had wanted to do for decades.  Sometime in the 1990s I first heard of it, from various visionaries in Costa Rica who considered it to be a model on which to base development, both at the property level and for the destination as a whole. Chan Chich was mentioned frequently in conversations, in Costa Rica and throughout Mesoamerica, when the notion of sustainable tourism was first being developed. Continue reading

Farming, Students, Sustainability

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A weekday work session on the Student Organic Farm at Iowa State University has members weeding a perennial bed. Amy Mayer/Harvest Public Media

Thanks to National Public Radio (USA) for this story:

A Student-Run Farm Cultivates Passion For Sustainable Agriculture

A weathered wooden shed that holds wheelbarrows, hoes and other basic tools is the beacon of the Student Organic Farm, a two-acre swath within the larger horticultural research farm at Iowa State University.

On a warm spring evening, a half-dozen students gather here, put on work gloves and begin pulling up weeds from the perennial beds where chives, strawberries, rhubarb and sage are in various stages of growth.

“I didn’t know how passionate I [would] become for physical work,” says culinary science major Heidi Engelhardt. Continue reading

“Certified Transitional” Ingredients

An interior view of Clif Bar headquarters in Emeryville, California. Photo © GreenBiz Group

We put a lot of stock in organic farming, as well as eating and drinking. If companies do it right, sourcing organically can make a difference. So it’s uplifting to read that two companies we support by buying their delicious products, Clif Bar and Kashi, are making an effort to bolster the organic ingredient supply chain by leading a new category for crops produced by farmers who are in the three-year process of switching from conventional agriculture to an organic label; it’s called “Certified Transitional.” Lauren Hepler reports for GreenBiz:

Inside an airy, post-industrial space situated on the East side of the San Francisco Bay, several brightly colored mountain bikes and the sail of a kite surfing set hang from a lofted ceiling above some 350 employees sprawled across the 150,000-square-foot headquarters of Clif Bar.

Outside, a small organic gardening plot has been set up next to the free daycare center for the children of employees at the famously outdoorsy food company.

“We start ’em young,” jokes Dean Mayer, Clif Bar’s communications manager.

Continue reading