Last week, I had the opportunity to talk with The Oregonian journalist Scott Learn about the recent research expedition that I participated in to study plastic pollution in the North Pacific Ocean.  Last Thursday, February 7, the interview was published on the front page of the Living section of The Oregonian, under the title, “A voyage through the ‘garbage patch’.”  The online version of the interview can be viewed on the Oregon Live website:


Today, The Oregonian followed up with another article on the front page of the Living section, entitled “Plastics at SEA,” highlighting an exhibit at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) that my shipmate, Emilee Monson, is curating.  Emilee is giving public demonstrations Fridays and Saturdays, 10am – 5pm, to discuss plastic pollution in the ocean and what we discovered during our expedition.  Visit OMSI to learn more about our research!  You can read about Emilee’s perspective from the expedition in the following interviews:



On a related note, the day before I left for the Plastics at SEA expedition, there was another article by Scott Learn in The Oregonian about plastic pollution on Oregon beaches:


Although the person interviewed, Marc Ward, was addressing the issue more from the standpoint of an activist rather than a scientist, this article helps to emphasize how this issue is truly global in scale.  Although I cannot say for certain where the trash on Oregon beaches originated, it is highly probably that much of it came from somewhere other than North America.  I personally have encountered quite a lot of plastic trash with Chinese and Japanese writing still intact and legible, and which likely traveled over 8,000 kilometers from its source to arrive at our home beaches.  Ocean currents and atmospheric winds connect us across vast distances and make it impossible to isolate ourselves from pollution created elsewhere.  Likewise, the pollution that we produce here affects humans on other continents and distant ecosystems thousands of kilometers away.  We all live downstream and downwind of somebody.  These problems cannot be resolved without a concerted and coordinated global effort by all major economies.

Last, one person who commented on my interview with The Oregonian pointed out that some research has found that plastics may actually be decomposing in warmer ocean waters, but not in the manner that organic matter would biodegrade.  Instead, some plastics are breaking down into toxins such as BPA and styrene monomers, known endocrine disruptors and carcinogens.  This study is especially alarming because it suggests that not only does plastic pollution in the ocean attract and accumulate existing toxins in the water, it also produces additional toxins that previously were not present, providing a “double hit” of potentially dangerous chemicals to marine wildlife.



Cultivating Life

The Magic of Compost

Orizaba Farm's new location in Milwaukie, Oregon

Orizaba Farm’s new location in Milwaukie, Oregon

The green tarp crinkled as I pulled it back from the large pile of leaves, straw, and kitchen scraps.  Digging my hand into the moist pile, I moved aside the top layers until I reached a mat of coffee grinds.  An eruption of warm steam billowed from the center of the pile and a red wriggler worm squirmed out from beneath a coffee filter.  I tossed another bucket of kitchen scraps and coffee grinds into the hole I created and covered the pile back up with leaves and straw.  Creating a good compost pile is a bit like baking bread.  It needs the right mixture of ingredients; the right amount of moisture – not too wet or too dry; the right environment to foster rapid but controlled microbial growth and activity; and the right cooking time and temperature.  Like baking, the process may seem tedious to the eyes of the uninitiated.  But once the process is complete – and if done correctly – I knew that I would be rewarded with a bountiful garden harvest the following season, as rich and filling as the heartiest loaf of bread.

Our nursery of berries, grapes, and figs

Our nursery of berries, grapes, and figs

I had only been at our new home for two weeks and had already accumulated a massive pile of leaves from a nearby church, pine needles from a local school, wood chips from the Portland Urban Forestry Center, a tall stack of cardboard boxes from a local appliance store, pallets from an upholstery shop down the road, newsprint from a local printing press, coffee grinds from our neighborhood coffee shop, and 15 bales of oat straw from our community’s organic farm supply store.  We have a trunk full of seeds we saved from our last farm in Maine, two dozen raspberry plants that I had dug as sprouts from Suyematsu Farms on Bainbridge Island, a dozen blueberry bushes, and several grape and fig plants we propagated from cuttings last year.  My parents, grandmother, and our numerous green-thumbed neighbors hold in reserve for us countless varieties of perennials from which we will take cuttings to populate our urban farm:  figs, grapes, kiwis, raspberries, thornless blackberries, rhubarb, and huckleberries.  Our community is full of fruit trees from which we will collect scionwood for grafting onto rootstock.  Our half acre farm plot will be productive, and our plates will be full.

Leaves, firewood, wood chips, and pine needles to feed the soil

Leaves, firewood, wood chips, and pine needles to feed the soil

This is what it was all about.  Nutrient Cycling.  Feeding Life from Death.  Composting.  The continuous circle of matter and energy facilitated by that miracle of organization and defiance of entropy we call “Life.”  This is why I left academia to become an organic farmer.  This is why I forfeited nearly $100k in fellowship stipends:  to dig my hands into the soil and pull forth Life.  Because, as my best friend Josh Ellis puts it, “Cultivating Life is infinitely more rewarding than studying it.”  And Life begins – and ends – with compost.  So, in a word, compost is the reason that I left the nation’s top Ph.D. program in Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology.  Compost:  to create Life; to transform it; to become a true student of Life.  Not by experimentally manipulating and statistically analyzing it as a scientist would; rather, by observing, feeding, producing, and consuming it.  By becoming an organic farmer.

Russell Libby, the Director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA), died three days ago after a long battle with cancer.  It is a tragic loss for the Maine sustainable agriculture community.  I don’t believe that I can effectively capture the importance and profundity of his influence in my own words.  So I will allow Russ to speak for himself as he did so eloquently in a portrait by Americans Who Tell the Truth.

We have to challenge the idea that contamination is just the price of living in the modern world. Our bodies don´t have systems to process plastics or flame retardants or pesticides. If contamination is the price of modern society, modern society has failed us.

“We eat from the earth, the sky, the water.” (quoted from Robert P.T. Coffin)

It’s up to us—up to all of us—to change the world so every time we look around, we recognize those basic principles of life…I want to talk about our shared responsibility to leave this place better than we found it. Not better from a corporate, make-more-money mode, but a place of beauty, a place that gives us great pleasure throughout our days and throughout our lives. Because that sense of beauty, of pleasure in what we are doing each day, is what is going to carry us forward through the difficult times that we live in now, and the more difficult times that lie ahead.

Let’s work really hard at undermining the entire idea of corporate food. [We should] know who produced everything we eat. And how it was produced. That would be transformational. We know that we can grow the food we need to eat, and grow it with minimal energy inputs. Now we need to share with the public the knowledge that we’ve acquired and that we share with one another. We know we are addicted to oil. [But] each seed we plant this year is another way to capture sunlight and convert it to food. Let’s get growing!

Although Russ Libby’s life has passed, his truly inspirational words will remain with us as we take what we learned in Maine and apply it to our new home in Oregon.

One of our gardens in Bangor, Maine

Thom is Back from Sea!

The Plastics at SEA North Pacific Expedition is finally over, and Thom is back from sailing across the Pacific Ocean (he actually returned home on Nov. 13, but things have been busy here).

The dynamic duo, Thom and Alia, are back to work at Orizaba Farm’s new location in Portland, Oregon.  Stay tuned for updates on Orizaba Farm as Thom and Alia build their soil, connect with their community, and plant the seeds for a sustainable urban food forest.

But first, here are some dispatches from the Plastics at SEA expedition.

The website:

Thom’s writings from the expedition:

October 6 — “The Science of Caring for Our Ship”


October 9 — “Singing to the Stars”


October 19 — “When Fish Can Fly”


November 6 — “This Ship Never Sleeps”


Thom’s Bio:


He is in the Day 5 and Day 15 videos
http://www.sea.edu/plastics/video_galleryPhoto gallery:
Check out the galleries for Oct. 2, 6, 9, 17, 18, and Nov. 3 for photos of Thom

Thom on Helmoct14_header2oct26_header2


Trash that accumulated from Thom and Alia’s home in Queen Anne, Seattle, between January 01 and July 21, 2012. Does not include recyclable and biodegradable/compostable waste.

We promised in a previous blog entry that we would keep all of our accumulated trash for the year 2012. Due to two unexpected moves we were only able to hold onto our trash from January 1st to July 21st. Above is a photo of what we had accumulated during those seven months. We will follow up on this in the near future with some basic tips on how to reduce your non-biodegradable waste. The most important of these: Know Your Farmer. More to come….

We moved from Seattle to Portland last week. Alia has moved to the headquarters of the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission in Portland and Thom is starting an organic garden consulting business. More on this later….

Although Thom’s back is getting some much-needed rest from the long hours of weeding, pruning, and planting at Bainbridge Island and Suyematsu Farms, Thom already misses Karen’s perennial smile and positive attitude, Mike’s congenial laugh and non sequitur humor, Carol’s infinite hospitality and amazing baking, and Betsey’s sage advice and dedication to her trade.  As Gerard wisely suggested to him, Thom aims to continue to tackle life’s challenges by keeping his hands in the soil and his head in the bottle (No, Gerard and Thom are not alcoholics; they are both winemakers).


The pumpkins that Thom, Karen, Manuel, Elodia, Juana, and Heather planted and tended at Suyematsu Farms.

Ironically, it will be quite difficult for Thom to follow Gerard’s advice in the next two months, as he will be somewhere with neither soil nor drink to aid him in his pursuits.  For the next seven weeks, from September 27 until November 14, Thom will be participating in a research expedition with the Sea Education Association (SEA).  He will be sailing aboard a tall ship, the SSV Robert C. Seamans (RCS, pictured below), from San Diego, CA to Honolulu, HI while studying plastic pollution in the North Pacific Ocean.  For six consecutive weeks, the crew of 35 will have no land in sight as they explore the impacts of humans upon one of the most remote places in the world.  You may track the progress of the expedition, including daily blog and photo updates, on the Plastics at SEA website (this link will be updated for the 2012 expedition soon).


Thom’s first voyage with RCS in 2003, from Tahiti to the Marquesas to Hawai’i


Thom’s second voyage on RCS in 2005, from San Francisco, through the Santa Barbara Channel, to San Diego.

Photo by Joel Sackett

Three generations of agricultural excellence at Suyematsu Farms on Bainbridge Island.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

“I guess I’m not going to be farming anymore,” Akio told Mike after repeated health problems and a difficult trip to the hospital.

Akio Suyematsu is the 90-year old patriarch of Bainbridge Island and Suyematsu Farms.  His parents had moved to the island from Japan before he was born, and he had lived his entire life farming the land where I now work, minus the shameful interval in the 1940’s when his family was swept off the island and relocated to internment camps for the purpose of “national security,” followed by a stint serving in the U.S. Army in the European Theater.  After the war ended, the family returned to their land and resumed farming.  Of all the Suyematsu children, eventually only Akio remained to continue growing what some consider to be the best strawberries and raspberries in the Puget Sound.

But his health is declining and gone are the days of weeding, planting, cultivating, and fertilizing his beloved fields of strawberries, raspberries, and pumpkins.  Try as he might, he could not bring himself to return to the fields he has seen through nearly 80 years of production.  I had the privilege last winter of spending a brief moment in the raspberries with Akio as we removed clips from the trellis wires.  After an hour out in the cold, Akio was too exhausted to continue and, to my knowledge, has not worked outside in the fields since.  To say that the brief moment of farming I shared with Akio was inspirational would be an understatement.  The man lives, breathes, and sleeps farming.  He is the real deal, an archetypal farmer who understands that life comes not just from the soil, but from the blood, sweat, and tears that growers pour into their profession.  What, then, is life for a farmer who is no longer able to be present with the soil and his crops?

When I heard Mike recount to me what Akio said, my reaction was unexpected.  I became incensed.  I couldn’t believe what Akio had said.

“Not going to be farming anymore?”  Utter nonsense, I thought.  Mike and Karen, my current employer, wouldn’t be farming here if it weren’t for him!

Every good farmer knows that life does not simply end with death, or in Akio’s case, with convalescence.  Life feeds on life.  Life grows from life.  Death produces compost that feeds more life.  What does a radish become once it enters our digestive tract if not the manure that becomes the compost that feeds the soil that supports the next crop’s conversion of solar energy into biodegradable biomass?  The linear, western viewpoint of life – and farming – terminating in death ignores the reality of the hardworking farmers who are only in business because of Akio’s endless knowledge, experience, and generosity.

Bainbridge Island Farms, Paulson Farms, Laughing Crow Farm, Butler Green Farms:  these farms only exist because Akio had the keen foresight and generosity to offer his land, tools, experience, and knowledge at well below market prices in the hopes that his legacy would survive.  Akio is legendary at these farms for his work ethic and humility, his stoic perseverance in adversity, his high threshold for pain, and his meticulously weed-free fields. There is only one Akio Suyematsu. But every legend is still a mortal.  As Akio’s mortal body undergoes what all of ours eventually will, let us not forget that the farms on Bainbridge Island owe to Akio their very existence and will be farming in his image long after he departs.  Mike, Carol, Karen, Betsey, Brian:  these farmers are the repositories of Akio’s knowledge and experience, they are his hands by proxy upon the land he worked, issuing forth a new generation of agriculture.  They are, in essence, his agricultural children.  His grandchildren are alive and well, too, carrying on the proud tradition of growing food from the soil beneath their feet:  Dana and Aaron at Around the Table Farm, Becky Warner of City Grown Seattle, Renee and Luke in search of land, and myself.

Regardless of one’s beliefs about an afterlife, it is a truism that the cycle of energy and matter does not merely end with death.  Our bodies are filled with the very same atoms that coursed through and composed the bodies of prehistoric dinosaurs and pterodactyls, of woolly mammoths and saber-tooth tigers, of giant sharks and ancient ferns, of massive redwoods and hulking Neanderthals, of ammonites and trilobites, of algae, fungi, and bacteria that were living billions of years ago.  Once our consciousness is gone, a mere memory in the eyes of our descendants, our energy and atoms will continue to cycle through life forms as diverse as the most colorful coral reefs and rainforests, for eons to come until the Sun devours the Earth in a fiery ball of plasma, the Universe collapses back upon itself, and we return to the stardust from whence we originated.

Akio is still farming.  He is farming because Karen is still farming, carrying on Akio’s weed-free cultivation style while growing organic raspberries, strawberries, asparagus, rhubarb, currants, pumpkins, winter squash, and sweet corn.  He is farming because Betsey is farming, plowing the earth with her draft horses to produce some of the finest potatoes, garlic, and onions in the Puget Sound.  He is farming because Brian is pumping out some of the greatest volume and diversity of organic vegetables in the county.  And he is farming because Mike and Carol of Paulson Farms are continuing Akio’s tradition of composting yard waste and maintaining the farm’s arsenal of tractors, while milling locally harvested lumber, producing handmade soaps, and growing organic vegetables, nursery plants, trees and shrubs, and eggs.

I think it’s high time we stopped viewing death and illness as an endpoint, but rather as a transitional state.  Akio has passed a formidable torch onto a new cadre of protégés, representing a small but significant transfer of knowledge and culture in an all but endless cycle of life and death, growing and composting.  Meanwhile, the pumpkins and corn are sprouting in the fields, the raspberries are flowering and buzzing vigorously with the activity of bees, and the first strawberry harvest of the season is upon us.  As Karen told me today while heading to the hospital to visit Akio, “The show must go on.”

Because of Akio’s deep commitment to the next generation of local farmers, the show will go on.

What We Have

A recent Seattle Public Radio report highlighted the growing gap between “The Rich and The Rest of Us”, and referred to this division as one between the “Haves” and the “Have Nots”.


Small farmers are one of the lowest paid sectors of the American workforce. We are the green-collar working class. We are the over-educated, underpaid, landless “Greenhorns” without health insurance, retirement funds, or other benefits. We are part of the “99%”. But one thing we are not are “Have Nots.”


What we have is immeasurable. We have healthy food that we grow with our own hands. We have active, outdoor lifestyles, and diverse skillsets. We have frequent, inspirational interactions with wildlife. We have relationships with integrity, depth, and sincerity. We have strong bodies, bold minds, and calloused, dirty hands. We have starlit nights, beautiful views, and deep roots in our local ecosystem. We have sound ethical principles and practical products of our labor. We have daily periods of contemplative quiet and reflection alternating with intense, rapidly paced work. We have resilience and strength in community and self. We have the deep satisfaction of feeding our family, our friends, and our neighbors. We have the knowledge and confidence that we can thrive at incomes below the poverty line.


What we have cannot be captured or estimated by GDP, or taxable income, or any other quantifiable economic parameter. What we have defies measurement and transcends statistics.


We do not have nights out at restaurants or the cinema. We do not have second automobiles or personal watercraft. We do not have servants, maids, or nannies. We do not have “first class” plane tickets and cruise ship vacations. We do not have carefully manicured lawns and “mow and blow” landscapers. We do not have oil, or gold, or stock portfolios. Nor would we want any of those things if given the choice.


What we have can be neither bought, nor sold, nor traded on global markets. What we have makes life worth living.


We are not “Have Nots.”