Archive for the ‘Food System’ Category

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

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(Answer: It’s not really organic)

This is a long one, so here’s the executive summary:

  • “Organic” food is defined as not having “synthetic” inputs
  • “Synthetic” is defined as being derived from petroleum or natural gas (I.e., fossil fuels or petrochemicals)
  • Almost all organic farms use petrochemicals, although not as fertilizers or pesticides
  • Therefore, “organic” food is not truly organic, as it is still dependent on fossil fuels
  • Modern “organic” farming is nothing like traditional farming practiced prior to the discovery of fossil fuels
  • Many “local” foods are dependent on non-local inputs, such as animal feeds and petrochemicals
  • Some “local” and “organic” foods actually use more fossil fuels and produce more greenhouse gases than their conventional, non-local counterparts
  • Traditional farms were more energetically efficient than modern industrial agriculture, which wastes most of the energy used
  • Fossil fuels are non-renewable and heavily polluting, and therefore are inherently unsustainable
  • For organic and local to truly be sustainable, it must not pollute or depend on non-renewable resources
  • Only “fossil fuel free” food can be truly sustainable, by this definition
  • Alternatively, “sustainable” agriculture should be sufficiently diverse and adaptable to changing conditions

My best friend, Phil, and I have been engaged in an ongoing debate about whether “organic” food is merely a fad and a marketing gimmick. Phil and I are old buddies from the OSU Honors College, and have taken many science courses together, ranging from genetics to biochemistry. Phil, a pathologist, claims that all food is “organic” by definition because it contains organic molecules, or molecules constructed around a backbone of multiple carbon atoms (either in a ring or chain form). Therefore, according to this argument, the USDA “organic” label is essentially meaningless. Although I cannot argue with the textbook chemistry definition of “organic”, I like to point out that the word has multiple definitions, one of which is “a carbon-based compound”, and another of which is “any substance derived from living organisms”. In other words, “organic” can also mean “not synthetic.”

The current USDA standards for organic agriculture closely follow the latter definition, in that the standards prohibit farmers from using “synthetic” fertilizers or pesticides, but permit most pesticides and fertilizers derived from plant or animal sources, as well as some naturally occurring mined substances, such as copper (used as a fungicide), sulfur (used to lower soil pH), or lime (used to raise pH). So when most well informed people think of “organic” farming, they think of soil whose fertility is provided by cover crops, mulches, and compost composed of plant materials and animal wastes as opposed to fertilizers synthesized from natural gas. Or they envision crops sprayed with gentle compost teas and biodegradable plant oils to ward off pests and diseases instead of using toxic synthetic chemicals. The popular notion that “organic” farms do not use “chemicals” is a common misconception, as compost and animal manures themselves are complex soups of naturally occurring chemicals resulting from the breakdown of plant and animal materials, and USDA organic standards do permit the use of pesticides derived from “natural” sources.

However, the example of lime as an organic soil amendment illustrates a catch in this commonly accepted definition of “organic”. Lime (usually CaCO3 and MgCO3) is considered a natural and “organic” substance by USDA standards – even though it is technically an inorganic molecule – because it is mined, usually from limestone or chalk quarries, and not synthesized in a laboratory or factory. Lime also happens to originate from formerly living organisms, as most are the remains of shells from ancient fossilized coral reefs and single-celled marine algae (phytoplankton). Does this description sound at all familiar to you? It should. I’ll give you a hint: think of the most important, and perhaps the most volatile, commodity on the global market today.

If you guessed “oil”, give yourself a pat on your organic back. Here’s the problem: oil – or petroleum, to be more exact – is essentially no different than lime. Like limestone, petroleum is a mined substance that originated primarily from ancient fossilized marine algae and was not synthesized in a laboratory. So why is one considered “organic” and the other “synthetic”? Good question. Both are originally derived from living organisms. Both are effectively non-renewable, as they were formed millions of years ago through very slow fossilization and plate tectonic processes (as an aside, wood ash is another form of lime that is renewable).

It appears that the difference is largely one of semantics; “synthetic” effectively means “derived from petroleum”. Today, whenever you hear of something referred to as “synthetic,” this almost always means that it was manufactured using petroleum, or its cousin natural gas, as a major feedstock. For instance, synthetic fibers = petroleum derivatives. Synthetic wood = plastic wood = petroleum derivative. Synthetic fertilizers = natural gas derivative, and synthetic pesticides = petrochemicals. The issue is not that oil or natural gas are fundamentally different from “organic” substances. They are not. Many “organic” substances are also non-renewable, mined materials of natural origin. Delve deep enough into the philosophy of nature literature and you’ll find that the “natural” vs. “artificial/synthetic” divide is completely a human construct stemming from our western/modern desire to control nature and draw a distinction between what is “human” and what is “natural.” In reality, no such distinction exists. Petroleum is organic, humans are animals, and “artificial/synthetic” products are inherently natural, despite labeling them otherwise. Rather, the problem with The Great Organic Debate is that we have framed the definition of “organic” vs. “synthetic” to set petrochemicals apart from other “organic” substances, even though petroleum meets the classic definitions of “organic” on both accounts: carbon-based compounds of plant or animal origin.

So, in summary, “synthetic” means based on, derived from, or using fossil fuels, whereas “organic” should mean avoiding or prohibiting the use of fossil fuels. Here’s the problem: strictly speaking, there is virtually no organic farm nowadays that does not use “synthetic” petrochemicals in some manner. What was just 150 years ago an all but unknown substance is now, today, the cheapest and most readily available form of energy. With the exception of a few animal-powered farms that grow their own animal feed (e.g., some Amish communities), virtually every “organic” farm depends on petroleum to power tractors, harvest crops, weed their fields, and transport produce. Your “organic” food is just as dependent on petroleum and other fossil fuels as any “non-organic” food. The use of fossil fuels is currently the largest source of greenhouse gases and air and water pollution worldwide. Michael Pollan correctly pointed out the fact that many large organic farms actually use more petroleum and produce more greenhouse gases per calorie of food produced than their conventional counterparts, since they have to rely upon flame weeding or tractor cultivation to deal with weeds, rather than synthetic herbicides. Although the net greenhouse gas footprints of organic vs. conventional farming is a point of controversy, the fact that both systems heavily depend on fossil fuels makes the debate somewhat irrelevant:  both contribute heavily to climate change.

Similarly, many “local” foods are not, strictly speaking, “local.” Most “locally grown” organic vegetables rely upon animal manures that are often transported hundreds or thousands of miles to maintain soil fertility. Hence, the term “manure miles” has been coined to counter the popularized notion of “food miles” and highlight the fact that agricultural inputs are just as important for sustainability and health as the end product. Likewise, many “local” animal products, such as dairy, meats, and eggs, are produced using animal feeds that were grown thousands of miles away. Get this: if you buy a “locally grown” chicken in Washington and a “non-local” chicken, and both chickens were fed grains grown in the Midwest (a likely scenario), then the “non-local” chicken probably has a smaller greenhouse gas footprint if that chicken was raised nearby its food source. This is because it takes a lot more energy, and consequently more fossil fuels, to transport animal feed than to transport the animals themselves, since it takes about two pounds of grain to grow one pound of chicken (feed conversion ratio).

The two organic farms I am currently working for both use propane to power torches for flame weeding (which is a blast, but produces tremendous amounts of pollution and greenhouse gas emissions), and petroleum to power tractors for cultivation. One of them utilizes municipal compost for soil fertility, and the compost is managed and transported using heavy, diesel-powered, equipment. The other uses a combination of horse manure and pelleted chicken waste. In both cases, the animals that provide the manure were fed using crops grown, harvested, and/or transported using petrochemicals. It is exceedingly difficult nowadays to find a farm that provides both its necessary labor and soil fertility without relying upon fossil fuels. In essence, as a consequence, we are all completely addicted to these non-renewable, and heavily polluting, resources.

The difference between organic and conventional farms is that organic farmers are not allowed to apply petrochemicals directly to the crops or to the soil. I personally find this distinction to be a bit arbitrary, although I will concede that synthetic petrochemicals tend to be more toxic (although not always) and more persistent in the environment than “organic” chemicals, due to the inability of microbes to metabolize petrochemicals with which they did not co-evolve. The soil simply lacks the enzymatic and cellular machinery to biodegrade many (but not all) petrochemicals, which is why their use in agriculture is so insidious – many of them persist and accumulate in the environment, with often harmful effects, for years after their application. In contrast, most organic chemicals are derived from plants, animals, fungi, or bacteria and readily break down into harmless chemicals, like water and CO2, in a short period of time. But again, this is an arbitrary distinction. For instance, the controversial use of copper sulfate as an approved organic fungicide has the potential to pollute adjacent watersheds, since copper – being a heavy metal – cannot decompose.

As a society, we like to romanticize farming as a very traditional profession, steeped in ancient practices that are thousands of years old and deeply connected to a local land and resource base. For ten thousand years, farmers grew food using entirely locally sourced fertility and human and animal labor. They fed their animals with plant materials they grew themselves, on their own farm, and they recycled their animal wastes to maintain soil fertility. They drove their equipment with grass-powered internal combustion engines (i.e., draft horses and oxen), and used human labor for smaller tasks. To buy seeds or deliver produce to market, they traveled by foot or hoof. The notions of “local” and “organic” did not even exist because no alternative was possible; everything was by necessity local and organic in the truest sense as petrochemicals had not yet been discovered and long-distance transportation networks were rarely used due to the great risk and expense they entailed. In modern farming – organic and conventional alike – nothing could be further from the truth. If you suddenly were to take petrochemicals out of the equation, nearly every modern farming operation would rapidly grind to a halt. This should strike you immediately as a serious problem of global food insecurity, especially as concerns about peak oil or Iran closing the Strait of Hormuz loom large.

In reality, there is very little that is romantic about traditional agriculture. It was exceedingly hard and dangerous work, with intense physical labor from dawn to dusk, and the constant threat of catastrophic harvest failures that could not be buffered by crop insurance or mitigated by food transportation networks. To be certain, fossil fuels have alleviated many of these concerns by providing a cheap source of energy (and thus labor), opening up global markets (often at the cost of local ones), and facilitating the ease of importing diverse foods and agricultural inputs from distant regions. But let’s be clear: modern agriculture – both organic and conventional – is anything but sustainable. In fact, industrial agriculture produces vast inefficiencies in food production when compared to traditional farming methods. One estimate holds that industrial farming methods, regardless of whether conventional or organic, only produce about one calorie of food energy (i.e., output) for every ten calories of energy used (i.e., input). In other words, 90% of the energy in the system is wasted, mostly in the form of burning fossil fuels. In contrast, the output to input ratio for traditional farming methods, which are non-mechanized and labor intensive, is closer to one to four, so that four calories of biomass produce about one calorie of food. According to this estimate, traditional “fossil fuel free” farming is 2.5 times more efficient thermodynamically than modern industrial agriculture. If traditional farming were as inefficient as modern farms are today, then the farmers of the past, and their animals, would have probably starved.

Back to my friend, Phil. Phil is fond of rebutting arguments about the virtues of organic food by stating that “organic” is merely a marketing gimmick, an arbitrary label, and a short-lived fad, and that organic foods are not necessarily any more environmentally sustainable, economic, or energy efficient than conventional foods. I admit, I have to concede that he may have a point for all the reasons listed above, which may surprise you given that I am an organic farmer.

So, let’s reframe the debate in a more logically consistent fashion. Should organic foods be permitted to use fossil fuels for inputs other than fertilizers and pesticides? More to the point, is it even possible to grow food sustainably in a manner that uses fossil fuels? I submit that it is not. To be sustainable, farming should rely entirely on renewable resources and should not pollute the air, water, and soil that sustains our lives. It seems a contradiction in terms to claim that a cultural practice is sustainable when it depletes, or depends upon, a heavily polluting non-renewable resource. Sustainable, after all, means to provide for the needs of the present while not compromising the ability of future generations to do the same. Only fossil fuel free farming can fit this bill, but virtually nobody today seems to be practicing this.

I’m sure Phil would have something to say about this conclusion, and as always his perspective would be a uniquely rational and moderate one. After all, why not use fossil fuels for food production while they’re readily available? As a medical doctor, I’m certain that Phil is aware of how tremendously medical research and technology have benefited from the cheap energy and diverse products, such as plastics, made possible by petrochemicals (remember the “Plastics Make It Possible” ad campaign sponsored by the plastics industry?). Certainly, countless lives have been saved through the wise application of medical science and technology enabled by fossil fuels. Likewise, petrochemical based food production and transportation has fed billions of people and staved numerous famines, although often at a great cost to the environment and to small traditional farmers.

Perhaps another reasonable response to the question of sustainability is that, to be sustainable, an agricultural system must simply be sufficiently diverse, adaptive, and flexible that it can easily revert from a dependence upon any particular resource or input when it becomes necessary to do so. I’ll buy that. We have seven billion people to feed on this planet, and if we are to be successful in providing for future generations as the Earth’s resources become increasingly strained, perhaps the best approach is to take as many different approaches as possible. Let’s try a little of everything and see what works as the economic, environmental, and geopolitical conditions on the ground change (and as the climate changes). Let’s provide farmers with the resources, support, and education necessary to adapt to changing markets and pressures, to changing supply and demand, and to a changing climate.

Phil – care for a rebuttal?

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Betsey, Hailey, and Cassie planting garlic on Bainbridge Island

23 October 2011

As soon as I rolled onto Day Road Farms on Bainbridge Island, a deer immediately bounded past me, directly into a large market vegetable garden.  Further along the gravel road, a flock of fifty geese foraged for cover crop seeds and blueberries.  A cacophonous murder of crows, several hundred strong, dived into the rows of grapes, plucking forgotten fruit off the vines.

Day Road Farms is a rare example of a combined agricultural property, jointly owned by the city of Bainbridge and several farmers who manage separate parcels of land for various crops:  corn, pumpkins, raspberries, blueberries, nursery trees, wine grapes, storage crops, and fresh market vegetables.  However, the farm was also host to an abundance of wildlife, to the simultaneous delight and the bane of the organic farmers who worked there.

The crows were such ubiquitous and mischievous denizens that one of the farmers at Day Road Farms named her own farm after the crows’ habit of ostensibly laughing in mockery while pulling garden labels, seed garlic, and cover crop seeds out of the soil.  Like so many other farmers challenged by wildlife, Betsey Wittick of Laughing Crow Farm hired sheepdogs to chase the geese out of her fields, noted the tendency of people to leave the farm gates open, thereby rendering the deer fencing obsolete, and spoke of the challenges posed by the crows, who seemed nearly impossible to outwit.

But unlike most other farmers, who spend as much time talking about pests or their tractors as about their crops, Betsey waxed ecstatic about two other ungulates on the farm:  Red and Abby.  These were her farming partners responsible for the heavy lifting and hard pulling at Laughing Crow Farm.  The two Suffolk Punch draft horses were athletic, heavily muscled, frisky, and bursting with energy.  Although prone to frequent bouts of playful behavior when not harnessed, Red and Abby were gentle and curious around people, eager to approach and investigate new visitors at the farm.

As I listened to Betsey speak passionately about her two young horses, I began to develop a sense for the strong appeal of draft animals to some small farmers.  “Working with draft horses requires you to be completely, 100 percent, in the present.  You can’t be distracted, thinking about bills or next year’s garden, or the horses will know that you’re not in control of the situation and take advantage of it.  I learned this the hard way.  It’s not like driving a tractor where you can zone out and think about other things.  Tractors don’t have a mind of their own.  With horses, as soon as you let your concentration slip, you run the risk of a dangerous situation.”

The zen-like mindset required while driving a team of powerful draft animals, whether horses or oxen, seemed to harken from a simpler era, when soil fertility, water availability, and crop health took precedence over all; a connection between man and beast was forged out of necessity for mutual survival; and internal combustion engines or fossil fuels were as yet unheard of.

The use of draft animals on a farm was historically intended not only to ease the work load for a farmer, but also to increase their self-reliance by providing soil fertility in the form of animal manure, which nowadays is frequently purchased by farmers from distant locations, often in a packaged and pelleted form.  Some farmers even use their draft animals to grow and harvest their own animal feed, using a combination of pasture, hay, and minimal grains to “power” these living tractors, thereby completely severing their ties with the fossil fuel industry.  In addition to serving as a medium for recycling energy (in the form of labor), nutrients, and organic matter through the soil, draft animals also provide that additional perk of being able to reproduce.  As one farmer put it, “A tractor cannot produce another tractor.  But a horse can produce another horse.”

Although draft power had been rapidly pushed aside and largely forgotten in industrialized nations as agriculture became increasingly dependent on cheap petroleum and synthetic fertilizers, the use of draft horses and oxen has seen a resurgence in the past decade, particularly among small organic farms with direct marketing to consumers.  Drawing from the traditional knowledge of animal husbandry, training, and equipment from cultures such as the Amish as well as non-mechanized farmers in the Andes, Sub-Saharan Africa, and southeast Asia, a handful of farms in the U.S. are returning to the roots of their agrarian past.

Some of these farmers are motivated to trade the tractor for the yoke by the economics of rapidly rising petroleum prices and the looming specter of “peak oil”, seeking to minimize their farming expenses through increased self-reliance.  Others recognize the need to ween agriculture from fossil fuels if we are ever to achieve local food security and climate stability, especially considering the volatility of oil politics and the fact that agriculture is the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases (after transportation).  Many also contend correctly that truly sustainable food production, by definition, cannot rely upon non-renewable resources.  But most, in my experience, have sought primarily to preserve an intimate and ancient connection to the land that cannot be replicated behind the wheel of a tractor.

Betsey at Laughing Crow Farm resonates with all of the reasons listed above, but emphasizes that to be a successful teamster, you must first and foremost connect with the animal.  As another farmer once told me, “There are many great ethical and environmental reasons to work with draft animals, but in the end, none of these will help when it comes down to the actual work. You ultimately have to really want to work with the animal and step into their world.  It takes a huge daily commitment to another living being, and a willingness and ability to see the world through their eyes, to think like the horse or ox.”  One can see the vital importance of Betsey’s close relationship to her horses when she steps behind the reins or engages in a quick training session.

Although she considers herself a novice at working with draft horses, Betsey is an expert at growing root and storage crops.  Through over two decades of careful variety trials and selection, organic soil building, and seed saving, Betsey has carved out a niche in her local market by producing some of the largest, most diverse, and flavorful potatoes, onions, and garlic in the Puget Sound.

As we pushed 9,000 cloves of garlic seed into the soft, loamy soil, dozens of crows flocked to the nearby trees, laughing as they watched our planting routine.  Occasionally, one would drop down to the soil and pick at a label marking a row.  Betsey later expressed her admiration of the crows’ intelligence to me, despite their seemingly adversarial behaviors.  “I sometimes think of them as laughing because they have achieved a higher level of enlightenment, as I struggle with trying to do too much instead of enjoying the moment.”

In other words, as the ancient proverb says, “If you can’t beat them, join them.”  It struck me how relevant this sage advice may be for farmers today, especially as our means of waging chemical warfare against pests are met with the rapid evolution of resistance by weeds, insects, and diseases, while simultaneously threatening the safety of our food and the health of our environment.  As she dug furrows for garlic seed, Betsey explained to me how scientists discovered that some traditional cultures began to experience malnutrition following the introduction of pesticides to their farms, presumably because the people were no longer ingesting highly nutritious, protein-rich insects with their meals.

I raked the soil over the garlic cloves and listened to the crows communicating in their mysterious language amidst the treetops, watching and waiting.  I realized, as Betsey had suggested, that a greater challenge with organic farming than the myriad “pests” we encounter may be our own tendency to overwork and forget to be in the present, as equal participants in the ecological dance of life.  Although they may not always see eye-to-eye, the crows, the geese, the deer, Betsey and her horses are all integral and closely interacting members of the same ecosystem, cohabiting a common land, striving to eat and not be eaten, and trying to strike a balance between cooperation and competition upon a shared resource.

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A woman in Oak Park, Michigan was recently accused of a misdemeanor crime for merely planting a front yard garden in place of her lawn.  Below is my letter of protest to the Oak Park City Planner, Kevin Rulkowski, who has publicly denounced her garden as being “unsuitable” according to the city code.


Dear Mr. Rulkowski,

We recently read about a family in Oak Park who is being accused of a misdemeanor crime for attempting to grow an organic vegetable garden in their front yard.  We would like to express our extreme displeasure with the fact that a family in your community is being penalized and attacked for attempting to live more self-sufficiently and sustainably.  These accusations defy common sense and are contrary to the American spirit of freedom, self-reliance, and self-determination.  Organic gardens can be highly aesthetic additions to any community, are a healthy source of local, fresh produce that is untainted by toxic chemical sprays, and help to move communities towards a greater degree of food security.

It is astounding that any family who would decide to replace a non-productive, cosmetic lawn with an organic vegetable garden would be penalized by this practical decision.  Lawns are typically maintained with a high level of toxic chemical inputs, including synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and petroleum-powered machinery (mowers, trimmers, etc.).  In contrast, organic vegetable gardens are largely maintained through the force of human labor and ingenuity.  Whereas chemical-intensive lawns contribute substantially to the pollution of local watersheds and galvanize our dependence on fossil fuels and foreign oil, organic vegetable gardens increase our degree of economic independence and self-reliance, while providing a pollution-free source of recreation, food, and exercise.

When so many American families are struggling to make ends meet, unemployment levels (especially in your own state) are nearing record levels, gas and food prices are showing no signs of decreasing, and people are forced to choose between buying food, filling their gas tanks, and paying their mortgages, it is shocking to witness politicians resisting citizen’s efforts to free themselves of this downward economic cycle by growing their own food.  At a time when a trip to the grocery store can be financially crippling for a family living on the economic edge, a home vegetable garden can be a tremendous source of savings for a family or individual seeking to maintain a healthy, yet affordable, diet.  Furthermore, the record levels of obesity and the epidemic of diet-related diseases that is occurring in America highlights the desperate need to make fresh fruits and vegetables — the cornerstone of a healthy diet — highly available and affordable to American families at every income level.  Despite living below the poverty line for the past three years, my wife and I have managed to grow virtually all of our own food, with the exception of grains, and have maintained a healthy diet and highly active lifestyle as a consequence of our freedom to garden.  In this day and age, for anybody who values fresh, local food on a tight budget, a home garden is indeed a “suitable” and highly practical use of a front yard.

Your assertion that the garden should not be located in the front yard demonstrates your ignorance of the critical importance of location relative to the sun that vegetable gardens require; if the backyard  is small and has a northern exposure or is surrounded by trees, then it may very well be too heavily shaded to support a vibrant vegetable patch.  Additionally, front yard gardens bring neighbors into closer contact with one another and can help to expose neighbors to new ideas.  We have maintained two gardens:  one by our house, and one along the road.  Many of our neighbors have frequently commented on the charm and aesthetic value of our roadside garden, and, now that we are moving, have expressed displeasure that it will be left fallow.

The notion of what is “suitable” or “unsuitable” is entirely subjective and is a sufficiently vague and ambiguous criterion for front lawns to permit the arbitrary enforcement of pet ideologies.  Whereas you may believe it is “suitable” to conform to a community’s established template of well-manicured, weed-free front lawns, many others believe that teaching one’s children where food actually comes from (i.e., the soil, seeds, water and air) is a much more suitable use of a front lawn.  Whereas you may believe it is “suitable” to spray grass, which nourishes nobody, with chemicals like Round Up and fertilizers, others believe it is more suitable to protect our lakes, rivers, and streams from pollutants in order to preserve their integrity for recreation, wildlife, irrigation, and drinking water.  Whereas you may believe it is “suitable” for all yards to look exactly alike in homage to suburban cookie-cutter conformity, others believe that “diversity is the spice of life” and would find it more suitable for neighbors to express their individuality with a variety of artistic and edible landscaping and gardening, creating a mosaic of yards in each community as varied as the American people.

Another family’s front yard is not the appropriate place to legislate or enforce your personal ideologies of what constitutes “suitable” use, as long as that family is doing nothing to harm their neighbors or community.  In our personal experience, keeping a vegetable garden is more often a tremendous benefit to neighbors, as surplus vegetables are given away, sold or bartered, fostering economic connections among the community as they come to support each other for sustenance.  It is time that you refocus your efforts to help move your municipality towards a healthier, more sustainable, and economically secure future.  A front yard, organic vegetable garden hardly constitutes an item of concern for a city’s agenda, and should be supported and encouraged as a practical, healthy, aesthetic, and vibrant use of otherwise non-productive, wasted space.


Thom and Alia


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There is a decrepit red house at the corner of Pine and Garland Street, which will soon be demolished by the City of Bangor.
The City Council must decide what to do with this property:

1) Turn it into a Community Garden
2) Divide it into two parts for a lawn for the adjoining neighbors
3) Give it to a developer to build another house or building there

A number of Bangor people are very interested in turning this site into a community
garden, which could be used for free by up to 40 households/families in the vicinity.
There are many low-income people and renters in this neighborhood who do not have
access to garden space, but many of them would undoubtedly welcome an opportunity
to be able to grow fresh vegetables (and/or flowers) in a community garden plot.

We sent the following letter to the City Council regarding this issue:

Dear Bangor City Council Business & Economic Development Committee,

The need for community gardens throughout the United States is greater now than ever.  Community gardens offer an innovative means of addressing numerous problems facing our city as well as our nation.  On the local scale, community gardens have been shown to be an effective means of revitalizing neighborhoods that previously suffered from crime and poverty, increasing the availability of fresh, seasonal produce, and educating individuals about the importance of healthy food and exercise.  Well-managed community gardens help raise property values, increase neighborliness by creating a welcoming environment, and provide countless educational opportunities for people of all ages and backgrounds.

In addition to strengthening local neighborhoods and economies, community gardens are an essential part of the solution to numerous food-related problems in our country.  Our current agricultural system is responsible for one-fifth of our economy’s fossil fuel consumption and one-third of our nation’s greenhouse gas emissions (Michael Pollan, 2008).  Additionally, agriculture is the largest source of pollution for our nation’s rivers and streams (U.S. EPA, 2009).  Perhaps more starkly, numerous deadly disease outbreaks from large-scale meat, vegetable, and nut producers have highlighted the more acute dangers of our industrialized food system.  By reducing our dependence on industrial farms, community gardens can help to add a measure of food safety and energy security to our country’s future.

We therefore strongly urge the Bangor City Council to support a Bangor Community Garden at the location of Pine and Garland Street.

Thank you.

Thom Young and Alia Al-Humaidhi

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Published Online by the Organic Consumers Association at URL:



Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently launched a new initiative called “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” (USDA, 2009).  The slogan of the program is “Every family needs a farmer; do you know yours?”  The irony of this “new” initiative is that one hundred years ago, before the USDA industrialized agriculture through the “Green Revolution,” almost every family knew their farmer and knew their food.  One half of the nation’s population resided on farms, and most farms grew the majority of their own food, as well as their neighbors’ food.  In this not-so-distant past, most people knew exactly where their food came from:  the soil, sun, water, and air that surrounded them; and the labor of their friends, family, neighbors, and work animals.  Family and neighbors were tied together by a common resource base and frequently shared meals.  Entire communities worked together to pull in the season’s harvest, neighbors toiling side-by-side in the fields, their future and prosperity bound together by a shared dependence on the bounty and vagaries of Mother Nature.

One hundred years ago, solidarity was a way of life in America.  Farms and their surrounding communities engaged in a de facto form of shared risk and shared rewards.  Farms depended on their community to assist with planting and harvesting.  Communities in turn relied upon their local farms to provide the food they needed to survive the winter.  When farms suffered crop losses due to severe weather or pest outbreaks, the entire community rallied to support them.  When farms experienced bumper crops, the neighborhood was invited to participate in the ensuing feasts.  Before the advent of the highway system and long distance transportation of food from massive industrial farms, every farm was in essence a community supported farm.


Shared Risk, Shared Rewards

Community supported agriculture (CSA) is a form of shared risk and shared rewards.  By investing in a CSA share, consumers provide a form of insurance and protection against catastrophic losses, thereby helping to keep small farmers in business even during the most difficult growing seasons.  Farming is inherently a challenging and unpredictable profession; Mother Nature may some years deliver ideal weather, minimal pests and diseases, and bountiful harvests, but in other years can devastate entire crops with pest and disease outbreaks, hailstorms, and floods or droughts.  During good years, a CSA farm shares its profits with CSA members in the form of large quantities of fresh produce at below market prices.  The farm makes less money from a CSA than from market sales during these years, but is provided the financial security of receiving CSA payments at the beginning of the season, while purchasing seeds, animal feed, equipment, and other necessary supplies.  In poor years, CSA members help the farmer carry the burden of the crop losses experienced by receiving smaller shares and perhaps paying higher than the average market price for their produce.  By assuming this risk, the CSA members help keep farmers afloat and maintain the farm’s financial solvency by providing a source of income even when market sales may be low.  Averaged over a number of years, CSA members generally receive more produce for lower prices than consumers at farmers markets, and CSA farmers have the security of a stable source of income even during calamitous growing seasons that might bankrupt other small producers.


Distant Threats

Unfortunately, the 2009 growing season was neither easy nor productive for farmers in Maine.  The weather was unusually cool and cloudy, with record high precipitation, providing optimal conditions for disease and pest outbreaks and less than ideal growing conditions for many plants.  In particular, late blight struck farms and home gardens in Maine in an unprecedented epidemic, affecting the region months earlier than normal.  The blight epidemic devastated organic tomato and potato crops throughout the state, infecting an estimated 90% of organic tomato plantings and 50% of organic potatoes (Dill, 2010 and Sideman, 2010).  Ironically, the late blight fungus was introduced to Maine by a Georgia-based plant nursery, Bonnie Plants, which ships their products nationwide to big box stores like Home Depot, Lowe’s, and WalMart (Lambert and Johnson, 2009).  The fact that a plant nursery located thousands of miles away was the source of economic hardship for countless Maine organic farmers demonstrates the dangers inherent in an industrialized food system that relies on transporting plants thousands of miles, along with any diseases or pests they may carry.  While our small, local farms are working hard to protect our state’s food security and preserve our environment by producing healthy, organic food, large factory farms from other states have threatened our agricultural economy and endangered our food security.


Unite for Local Food Security

Ultimately, if we are concerned about food security for our children and grandchildren’s futures, we must take responsibility as a local community for feeding one another and ourselves.  The industrial agriculture system that produces the vast majority of our nation’s food has been implicated in repeated and fatal incidences of food contamination, and is one of the leading causes of water pollution in lakes, rivers, and coastal zones across the United States (U.S. EPA, 2010).  This agricultural system is also responsible for approximately 19 percent of our economy’s fossil fuel consumption and 37 percent of our nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, producing only one calorie of food energy for every 10 calories of fossil fuel energy used (Pollan, 2008).  As citizens concerned about the health of our families, the preservation of our environment and natural resources, and the consequences of a finite supply of fossil fuels, together we can achieve food security and improve our community by supporting the small, organic farmers who are working to redefine American agriculture.

However, these small family farmers need our help.  They are constantly in competition with factory farms that can produce food for far less money due to the use of cheap labor and federal taxpayer subsidies and are covered against catastrophic losses by large insurance companies.  To insure themselves against irreparable losses during tough years, small farmers rely upon the assistance and support of their consumers, many of whom they interact with directly and know on a personal basis.  By knowing our farmer and investing in their future, we can also know our food:  where it comes from, how it is grown, and the manner in which its production sustains our health, protects our environment, and ensures the vitality of our future.  We must continue to demand and expect these essential goods and services from our small, local farmers.  But we must also stand in solidarity with our farmers when the capriciousness of Mother Nature or the damages wrought by factory farms threatens their livelihood.  As you are considering whether to renew your CSA membership this year, or perhaps enroll as a first-time member, know that the farmers you support are growing food for your health, your environment, and your family.  As Thomas Jefferson once said, “While the farmer holds the title to the land, actually it belongs to all the people because civilization itself rests upon the soil.”  Claim your shared ownership of this common resource by supporting your local farm and investing in their CSA.



Dill, Jim.  21 January 2010.  “Late Blight:  What Happened in 2009.”  25th Annual Maine Potato Conference.  Caribou, Maine. http://www.umaine.edu/umext/potatoprogram/Lambert, Dave and Steve Johnson.  03 August 2009.  Quoted in “Maine Extension Weights in on Late Blight.”  Greenhouse Grower. http://www.greenhousegrower.com/news/?storyid=2488Pollan, Michael.  12 October 2008.  “Farmer in Chief.”  The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/12/magazine/12policy-t.htmlSideman, Eric.  Spring 2010.  “Late Blight Again?  It’s Up to Us.”  The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener. Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA).  Volume 37, Number 1.  Page 27. http://www.mofga.org/Publications/MaineOrganicFarmerGardener/Spring2010/LateBlight/tabid/1555/Default.aspxUSDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture).  2009.  “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food.” http://www.usda.gov/knowyourfarmer U.S. EPA (Environmental Protection Agency).  13 January 2010.  “Managing Nonpoint Source Pollution from Agriculture.” http://www.epa.gov/nps/facts/point6.htm

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While studying for my Praxis (teaching certificate) exam, I came upon the following multiple-choice question in the General Science section:

In order to maintain a balanced ecosystem:

A) decay through bacterial and fungal action is required

B) an outside source of energy is necessary

C) matter itself must cycle

D) a proportionality must be maintained among consumer and producer populations

E) all of the above

Of course, the answer is E) all of the above.  It should be added that the outside source of energy (B) must be renewable in order for the ecosystem to persist, which eliminates fossil fuels as a potential source of energy.  The vast majority of the Earth’s natural ecosystems depend upon the sun, through photosynthesis, as their source of energy, although a few ecosystems survive on geothermal energy (e.g., deep sea communities along mid-ocean ridges in seafloor spreading zones, which gather their energy via chemosynthesis of hydrogen sulfide from hydrothermal vents).

This question effectively encapsulates many of the key concepts behind various forms of sustainable agriculture, such as organic farming, biodynamics, and permaculture.  For instance, organic farming is generally defined as farming in a manner that utilizes no synthetic inputs in the form of fertilizers or pest controls and that actively builds and replenishes the organic matter and nutrients in the soil through natural, biological means.  Organic farming necessarily employs the action of bacteria and fungi through decay and decomposition to cycle matter and nutrients (A and C), with the use of compost, mulch, and cover crops.  However, organic farms often focus exclusively on either plant or animal production, rather than a proportional cycling of energy, matter, and nutrients between balanced populations of consumers and producers (D).  Additionally, most organic farms are heavily dependent on fossil fuels to power their equipment in lieu of animal or human labor, and therefore do not rely upon a renewable external source of energy (B). Thus, although most organic farming meets criteria A and C of a balanced ecosystem, organic farms commonly violate criteria B and D.

Biodynamics consists in part of treating the entire farm as a complete organism or intact, self-contained ecosystem with internal cycling of matter and nutrients, thereby also adhering to principles A and C.  In addition, biodynamic farming requires that the farm produces the feed for its animals, and the animals in turn produce the compost for its soils, thereby maintaining a balance between producers (plants) and consumers (animals), which is item D.  However, many biodynamic farms still require fossil fuels to power farm equipment, especially in order to harvest hay and animal feed and spread manure over large fields, violating criterion B for renewable energy.  Only those farms that rely solely upon human and animal labor to conduct these necessary jobs completely fulfill the requirements for maintaining a balanced ecosystem.

Permaculture involves gardening on a small scale, growing a high diversity of crops with a focus on perennials for the primary purpose of subsistence.  The gardens produced through the application of permaculture techniques are commonly referred to as “edible forest gardens,” indicating their intention to purposefully imitate the structure and functions of a natural ecosystem, such as a forest, while providing for human needs.  In different biomes to which permaculture has been adapted, these gardens may be appropriately refered to as “edible desert gardens”, “edible chapparal gardens”, “edible alpine gardens”, etc.  The main principles behind permaculture are that the edible gardens mimic the form and functions of the surrounding natural ecosystems, that they be deliberately planned and planted to make use of the various microclimates and physical and biological properties (i.e., abiotic conditions and biotic resources) of the landscape, that every component have a purpose and provide an ecological role, and that the various components interact appropriately in time and space to promote the health of the entire biological community.  By virtue of these principles and characteristics, permaculture effectively meets all four criteria of a balanced ecosystem.  Permaculture actively promotes composting and mulching to encourage healthy bacterial and fungal activity (A) and to cycle matter and nutrients within the garden ecosystem (C), thereby maintaining soil health.  The small scale of edible forest gardens makes it easy to conduct all the labor required by hand, without any fossil fuel inputs for energy (B).   The high diversity of plants helps to prevent pest outbreaks by minimizing density-dependent insect and disease responses, and by actively deterring pests through planned companion planting.  Finally, the focus on primary producers (i.e., plants) on a small scale, rather than animals, maintains a proportional balance between producer populations and the consumers (i.e., humans and, to a lesser degree, wild animals and insects) (D).

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