Archive for the ‘Sustainable Agriculture in the News’ Category

What Toledo’s Water Crisis Reveals About Industrial Farming

Monday, August 18th, 2014
Civil Eats
by Doug Gurian-Sherman
8/5/14
 

As you may have heard, about half a million people in the Toledo, Ohio area lost their municipal drinking water supply on Saturday because of possible microbial toxin contamination from Lake Erie. A combination of heavier spring rains, exacerbated by climate change, and runoff of phosphorus from fertilizer applied to crops is the likely cause. The good news is that farmers can adopt better practices to eliminate this problem. The bad news is that the agriculture industry, and the public policies that it lobbies for, work against these solutions.

A toxic microbe, or cyanobacteria (a.k.a. blue-green algae), has been causing big water problems in Lake Erie and other bodies of water around the country for the last several yearsScientific research pointed to the combination of agricultural and climate change as the cause of the historic 2011 toxic Lake Erie microbe “bloom” and subsequent dead zone. And research shows that farm pollution, which feeds the explosion of toxic microbe growth, especially from phosphorus fertilizer, has been increasing since the 1990s. Now, new research published in the Journal of Great Lakes Research has further solidified the connection between industrial ag, climate change, and an explosion of toxic algae.

While the most dramatic news this week is the city of Toledo’s move to shut down public water sources, there are other important impacts such as harm to commercial and sports fishing and recreation at the lake. After the microbes die, other bacteria consume them, using up much of the oxygen in large parts of the lake in the process. The resulting dead zones kill fish and other lake life, and harm fisheries. The toxins close down beaches, and the foul odors and bacterial slime often discourage beachgoers even in places where they remain open.

On Monday, several news sources reported that Toledo residents could once again drink from their taps, but the algae bloom continues. And the recent research cited above suggests that even if phosphorus levels were reduced enough to limit blooms, further reductions would still be needed to bring the dead zone in Lake Erie back to pre-1990s levels.

Dead zones like these are not unique to Lake Erie. Water pollution from phosphorus is harming Lake Winnipeg and many reservoirs. There are also about 400 global marine coastal dead zones, caused mainly by nitrogen fertilizer, including one in the Gulf of Mexico that is measuring the size of Connecticut this year and another large one in the Chesapeake Bay.

Yes, we can purify the water, but it costs millions of dollars and does nothing to help the lake itself. For that we need to get to the source.

Industrial Agriculture: Providing Band-Aids for Hemorrhages

Ironically, these toxic microbes are growing thanks to an agricultural practice that is widely touted as an improvement in the sustainability of industrial agriculture—conservation tillage and no-till farming. As their names imply, these are approaches to farming that require farmers not to plow the soil with tractors, but rather to leave it in place and kill weeds in other ways. They are often practiced in concert with the use of herbicides and genetically engineered seeds.

Genetic engineering is sometimes given credit for the adoption of no-till, but the practice actually started to become widely adopted years before genetically engineered (commonly known as GMO) crops were commercialized. Nonetheless, engineered herbicide-resistant crops made conservation tillage easier in many areas (until the advent of glyphosate herbicide resistant weeds, that is). So the tarnishing of no-till also diminishes one of the main purported benefits of GMO crops.

No-till usually reduces soil erosion, which is a very good thing. Many farmers and scientists also believed that it would reduce phosphorus pollution because that nutrient binds tightly to soil. So reduced erosion should also reduce the amount of soil washed into streams carrying bound phosphorus. Unfortunately, when phosphorus fertilizer is not plowed into the soil, it builds up at the surface, and from there it can be more easily washed off soil into streams and lakes. This is because this form of phosphorus, called dissolved reactive phosphorus, is not bound to soil. It is also more easily utilized by the toxic microbes in lakes and waterways.

What About Factory Animal Farms?

Industrial corn and soybean production are clearly linked to the problems in Lake Erie via fertilizers. But factory farming of livestock is also suspect. Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) have a manure problem. Because so many animals are confined in such as small area, they often produce far more manure than can be applied to the surrounding farmlands without causing runoff. That means more nitrogen and phosphorus gets into streams.

When livestock farms were smaller, and more dispersed geographically, manure could be used to fertilize nearby crop fields in a balanced way, but today CAFOs are large and often located near one another. And it is simply too expensive to transport manure far enough to spread onto fields in amounts that won’t end up in streams or groundwater.

Although the role of CAFOs in the Lake Erie microbial blooms has not been quantified, Ohio has many CAFOs. And the overlap between the location of most Ohio CAFOs and the Maumee River watershed, the source of most of the phosphorus that causes the blooms, is striking.

Here are the maps side-by-side:

cafos_ohio_water_maps

What Now?

We have the solutions to these problems. Agroecology, or farming that uses principles of ecology and includes organic, relies on organic sources of crop nutrients, and integrates livestock and crop production in ways that are much less likely to cause phosphorus or nitrogen pollution. It is possible to use too much manure on organic farms too. But the integration of crops and livestock works against pressure to overuse manure on too few acres, as with CAFOs. Organic farms also often rely on cover crops, which literally cover otherwise bare soil and absorb excess nutrients through their roots and can also make a big difference.

Collectively, these methods have been shown to greatly reduce nitrogen pollution. And preliminary data shows reduction in phosphorus runoff as well. We need more research to examine this further, and to learn how farmers can efficiently use these methods. We also need farm policies that reward farmers for adopting methods with multiple benefits for the environment, society, and public health instead of continuing to subsidize corn and soybean overproduction and pollution. Agroecology-based farming methods not only reduce water pollution, they reduce or eliminate pesticide use, and can reduce global warming emissions. And they have been shown to be profitable and highly productive.

The lesson from Lake Erie is that piecemeal fixes like no-till, though they have some important benefits, will not fix a system that is fundamentally broken. We need systematic change, not band-aids.

 

Addendum: The new paper on the sources of phosphorus pollution in Lake Erie, points to manure as an important source of phosphorus in the eastern part of the Lake, rather than the Maumee River basin in the western part of Lake Erie (Figure 13). The Maumee River Basin phosphorus is predominantly from agriculture sources, as noted in the blog post, but according to the paper, mainly from fertilizer (the post does note that fertilizer is the overall main source of agricultural phosphorus pollution). This does not affect the main points in the blog that agriculture, and no-till combined with heavier precipitation, are major sources of increased phosphorus entering the Lake since the 1990s. But it does strongly suggest that the correlation between CAFOs and the Maumee River basin is just that—a correlation and not a cause.

From Market to Farm: One couple’s commitment to cultivating connections on Ohio’s largest certified organic blueberry farm

Monday, August 18th, 2014
Edible Columbus
by Karin McKenna
Summer 2014

In a matchup nearly as inspiring as blueberries and cream, Phillip and Margaret Nabors, well-known food advocates and owners of the venerable Mustard Seed Markets, are now organic farmers themselves. A few miles south of Loudonville, and very near the Mohican Memorial State Forest, blueberry pickers have been making annual treks to Blueberry Hill Farm for 60 years. In 2010, Nabors bought it.

“For years I’ve been wanting to own land,” Phillip explains. The 66-acre property was put on the market and though he and Margaret were on vacation with only the Internet on his phone as a meager research tool, Phillip saw the potential in the property. The rest magically unfolded.

“I didn’t do my normal fastidious research, but it just seemed right,” he says.

The text that he received from Margaret on his way to the auction must have played a large part in the decision. “Let the angels guide you,” it read.

Since then, the large group of Nabors family and close friends (the 40 Hippie Method, Phillip calls it) have been working very hard to clear the land of invaders, grapevines, poison ivy, and a couple thousand trees. As a result, the 5,000 blueberry bushes are breathing a bit easier. At any time there may be six to twenty guests visiting the land and helping out. Large meals are cooked and enjoyed; friendship is shared. There’s a pool, a teepee, a friendly contingent of dogs, hammocks, and a welcoming vibe.

The longtime association with the farmers with whom they work through Mustard Seed Market has made Phillip and Margaret’s transition to the farming life a natural one. “The connection between the earth and our food supply is profound,” says Phillip. “For every bite of food there’s a farm somewhere. There’s a profound process that’s worthy of appreciation. It takes a lot of effort to manage all of the forces to get food to grow out of the ground and get it to market.”

As the land is cleared, they’re planting new trees. Long-term plans include diversifying and focusing on high-nutritional-value super fruits, and aligning with the permaculture model. They’re introducing forest gardening, creating a habitat for mushrooms, ginseng, medicinal herbs, “things that want to grow in the forest,” as Phillip says. Between the forest and pasture are the paw paws, persimmons, and nut trees.

“There are a lot of interesting crops that want to grow on the edges, and we’re going to help them along by planting them,” he says.

Obviously, the food aspects of Blueberry Hill are important, but the spiritual effects of the farm have become apparent as well. “To a person, everybody who goes there feels something,” Phillip says. “We’ve had some amazing experiences with our guests really connecting with this land.”

Visitors receive explicit instructions at Blueberry Hill to taste the berries as they pick, and Phillip likens the joy that comes from this to feeding our inner caveperson’s primal connectivity to the earth. “We take the larceny right out of the equation. By saying that it’s okay to eat as they pick, we take the guilt off the table. Very often, kids will come back, their faces just smeared with blueberries and about 12 berries in their bucket. They come back with these huge smiles. It’s fun for us to enable that.”

The Nabors’ hands these days are quite full with Blueberry Hill and the two grocery stores. Joining locations in Solon and in Montrose, a third Mustard Seed Market is under construction in the Highland Square area of Akron. “I am incredibly excited about the store because it’s not just a new store, it’s a new path for us,” Phillip shares.

The newest market is a smaller store in the dense neighborhood where the Nabors family has lived for 35 years, on the edge of an official USDA food desert. Lacking a grocery store for 15 years, the neighborhood is truly hungry for its offerings and much thought is being put into how to best serve the area.

“What’s amazing is that the category of natural organic stores has evolved to where now we can do a natural organic store and serve as the neighborhood grocery store. That really wasn’t possible as little as 10 years ago,” explains Phillip.

With an eye toward education, a value-oriented mix of offerings, and cutting-edge green building features, there is a lot of excitement about the new store, which could open as early as December of this year. Of course, shoppers will find Blueberry Hill berries in all three Mustard Seed stores.

Blueberry picking begins when the berries are ripe. Watch the Blueberry Hill Facebook page for the latest updates or call the farm at 740.599.5050. Blueberry Hill is located at 23038 Gessling Road in Glenmont. Directions are on the website at BlueberryHillFamilyFarms.com.

Ohio cattle ranchers rebuilding herds

Monday, July 21st, 2014
The Columbus Dispatch
By JD Malone
7/17/14

On Saturdays at the Worthington Farmers Market, Licking County rancher John Wiley sells every piece and package of beef he brings.

Thanks to historic high prices for both beef and live cattle, Wiley’s grass-fed cuts aren’t cheap, but that hasn’t hurt his sales, and he’s working to produce more.

High prices, unrelenting demand and decent weather have Ohio’s cattle herds once again on the rise. Buckeye ranchers added 2 percent to their stock this year over last, one of the few states to do so, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said.

But unlike businesses that make toys, cars or computers, adding production capacity at the ranch level isn’t as easy as throwing up a new building or contracting with another manufacturer. It’s complicated by fickle markets, biology and weather, say Wiley and other experts.

Beef is a different sort of animal.

Americans have a love affair with beef, and insatiable demand in a headwind of historic prices proves it.

“We’ve seen demand continue to increase,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic, which tracks the restaurant industry. “Consumption is up. Consumers like their beef and burgers.”

The U.S. beef herd has long been in decline. The nation’s herd size peaked in the 1990s and has lost 38 million head since. It is now as small as it was in 1951, when there were half as many Americans to feed, according to USDA and U.S. census records.

Recent droughts — the widespread calamity of 2011 and the current rainfall deficit in the West — have prompted ranchers to cull millions from their herds because they have become too expensive to feed.

“We are starting to see signs of some hints toward expansion,” said Elizabeth Harsh, president of the Ohio Cattlemen’s Association. “Ohio has been fortunate. … We have been in a different weather pattern. Beef producers are at the mercy of Mother Nature.”

Ohio’s pasture and range lands are in good shape, with 93 percent in fair to excellent condition, according to the USDA’s latest crop report. In major beef-producing states such as Texas, Kansas and Colorado, 20 percent to 35 percent of pastures are in poor to very poor condition. In California, the report rated 75 percent of pasture as poor to very poor.

Partly because of good grazing conditions, Ohio’s ranchers kept more heifers (young female cows) to breed and are looking to grow their herds as their operations allow, Harsh said. Wiley has added 20 cows to his operation, Up the Lane Farm, through the past couple of years, but he is now at capacity.

Wiley said his fellow ranchers struggle with the decision to cash in their cows at today’s prices or hold a few back and grow a bit to see if tomorrow brings even better returns.

“Some of these guys are more likely to hang on when the prices are up,” Wiley said. “The animals are worth so much money, it is almost too expensive to turn them into meat.”

Calves are sold by weight, and weigh between 450 to 800 pounds. Prices for calves in June 2013 ranged from $640 to $1,000, the USDA said. This June, prices ranged from $1,000 to $1,600.

“We keep raising our (retail beef) prices to keep up,” Wiley said. “But everything we do keeps costing more; everything from hay and the price of calves. I would say it has doubled in about five years.”

Because of the high price of calves and low herd count, fewer animals are being sent to slaughter this year, the USDA said. Harsh and Wiley agree that there are fewer cows at local processors.

If true expansion happens, it’ll come slowly.

“Predictions aren’t for a rapid expansion anytime soon,” said Stephen Boyles, a beef expert with Ohio State University Extension. “I see interest, but I’m not sure I have seen a lot of action.”

To hold back a heifer to expand a herd through breeding and raising a calf is a two- to three-year commitment, Boyles said. That is a long-term investment without a guarantee that prices will remain high. Just buying a calf and raising it for slaughter takes 12 to 18 months.

Wiley said his customers often ask why he doesn’t bring more meat to the farmers market when he knows he has a strong customer base.

“What I tell people is that the animals I have now are the ones I bought two years ago,” Wiley said. “I didn’t know you’d be here two years ago.”

Checkoffs: More and more of the same

Monday, July 21st, 2014
Farm and Dairy
By Alan Guebert
7/10/14

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there now are federal commodity checkoffs for beef, blueberries, Christmas trees, cotton, dairy products, eggs, fluid milk, Hass avocados, “Honey Packers and Importers,” lamb, mango, mushrooms, paper and paper-based packaging, peanuts, popcorn, pork, potatoes, processed raspberries, softwood lumber, sorghum, soybeans and watermelons.

Let’s see, that’s 1, 2, 3… whoa, 22.

These 22 federally mandated, largely nonrefundable, commodity checkoffs raise most of an estimated $750 million per year from U.S. farmers and ranchers to promote everything from, well, avocados to watermelons.

Wait, there’s more

Long as that menu is, however, it’s not the whole checkoff enchilada. USDA operates another 35 or so federal commodity marketing orders and many states oversee dozens more local commodity checkoffs.

For example, there are at least 22 state corn checkoffs — for varying amounts per bushel; some refundable, some not — that contribute a portion of their money to a coordinated national corn promotion effort.

Also, many state beef groups either now have or are pursuing statewide beef checkoffs to add up to another $1 per head to fund state-specific beef promotion programs on top of the $1-per-head nonrefundable federal checkoff each beef and dairy producer already pays upon sale of their animals.

Combine state and national checkoff collections and it’s guessed — because checkoff data is not compiled — that American farmers and ranchers pay $1.25 billion per year for commodity promotion and research.

Organic checkoff?

That pile will grow if the Organic Trade Association, a self-described “membership-based business association for the organic industry in North America,” is able to sway federal lawmakers to endorse an organic checkoff in the next two years.

OTA claims a checkoff would carry benefits for farmers and industry alike. It sees the money, pegged between $20 million and $40 million per year, as a way to “distinguish organic in the market place, grow demand and help the consumer understand all that organic delivers.” (Links to documents are posted at http://farmandfoodfile.com/in-the-news/.)

To raise the money, OTA is pushing an assessment plan it calls “broad and shallow” for everyone in the organic “supply chain.” Everyone “means not only producers,” according to OTA, but also “handlers, brand manufacturers, co-packers (and) importers.”

Exempted from paying any checkoff, however, would be “organic certificate holders” (most players in the U.S. organic market must be “certified” organic by USDA) with gross annual sales of $250,000 or less.

The proposed assessment advocated by OTA is 1/10 of 1 percent of gross organic revenue greater than $250,001 per year. “For example,” OTA explains, “there would be a $1,000 assessment at $1,000,000 gross organic revenue.”

‘One-sided.’

While OTA’s checkoff plan is relatively broader and cheaper than its federal siblings, most organic farmers see little need for it.

Ed Maltby, executive director of the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance, recently posted a lengthy discussion on NODPA’s website on what he calls OTA’s “one-sided propaganda campaign” for the checkoff.

In fact, writes Maltby, the push by OTA, “a trade organization using emotive language and a well-financed program,” will be “counter-productive at a time when the [organic] community needs to be united in the face of many marketplace and USDA threats…”

Most farmers and rancher, however, continued to support state and national commodity checkoffs despite little independent evidence to suggest any of billions spent on checkoffs in the last 25 years has had any material impact on prices received by farmers and ranchers.

Indeed, checkoff detractors often point to the dramatic drop in farmer and rancher numbers over the life of current checkoffs as simple proof that farm- and ranch-financed promotion efforts have had little to no impact whatsoever on farm and ranch prices, profits and lives.

They’re right, checkoffs should be about more farmers making more, not fewer maker more. As such, it’s hard to see how the latest checkoff scheme is little more than more of the same.

Wooster farmers form cooperative to sell food in Cleveland, aided by USDA grant

Tuesday, June 24th, 2014
By Debbi Snook
The Cleveland Plain Dealer
March 16, 2014

Monica Bongue sees Ohio like many others in the local food movement: As a state rich in possibilities, with three big, hungry cities surrounded by a lot of productive farmland.

The owner of Muddy Fork Farm in Wooster sells weekly subscriptions to food she grows, and individual vegetables at the North Union Farmers Market at Shaker Square. Bongue (BON-gay) just needed to build up that rural-urban connection for her and her farming friends.

She was already deeply invested in the food movement, making the commitment to grow certified organic crops and contributing $1,000 to the start of Local Roots Market & Café, the first all-local, farmer- and consumer-owned food store in Ohio, where she serves as president of the board.

The commitment was also deep for her early farming collaborators, Martha Gaffney of Ashland, a native Ecuadorian who farms in the traditional ways of her homeland; Marcus and Beth Ladrach of Wooster, growers of certified organic grains and meats, and Daniel and Jennifer Grahovac of Crooked Barn Farm in Wooster, who produce Certified Naturally Grown crops.

Wooster, home to Ohio State University’s Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, has great passion for these homegrown concepts, but is relatively sparsely settled.

“We were maxed out with our customers,” Bongue told her audience at the recent Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association conference in Granville. “We were farmers with not enough market.”

A few years ago, she and two other farmers signed on with a Cleveland-based local food buying club. They grew the food, and the club distributed. But the relationship was not what they wanted. They felt they didn’t make a large enough percentage of the profit or have enough interaction with their customers – two of the biggest promises of community supported agriculture (CSA) programs.

They wanted their own CSA, but as any farmer can tell you, growing food and running a business – especially one with customers 50 miles away – is a plate piled high.

Bongue applied for a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program. SARE offers money to farmers and ranchers with innovative, sustainable methods for solving their own problems. Her idea was a success, getting her a $22,500 grant to help start the non-profit Farm Roots Connection Cooperative. It was among the largest SARE farmer grants given in 2013.

The awarding of funds last year came too late in the growing season to launch Farm Roots in full, so Bongue set up trial runs at the Local Roots store in Wooster. She also started a charitable program so that those with money can buy shares for those who cannot afford them. One visit to a church netted $1,000 in donations.

She found small-business help and money from the Ohio Cooperative Development Center, which helped her obtain a lawyer to register the business and set-up a web site. She linked with Local Roots for online ordering, bought computer and packing materials.

Fortunately, the SARE grant also will help pay for her to be the cooperative’s first manager.

“Farmers are busy,” she said. “They don’t have time to manage other farmers.”

Now, she needs to continue building her customer base to help pay for a manager in the future. Farm Roots will drop off to customers at Gordon Square Farmers Market on Cleveland’s West Side, Countryside Farmers Market at Highland Square in Akron and Local Roots in Wooster.

The grant money comes in three installments, each with a requisite amount of paperwork and documentation.

Joan Benjamin, a coordinator for the SARE program in Ohio and other “north central” states, said by phone last week her group’s goal is not only to help farmers solve their own production problems, but also solve problems shared by other farmers.

“The best way to get information to farmers is from other farmers,” she said.

Bongue will eventually file a full-program report that will be available to other farmers as well as the public.

Benjamin says SARE has important success stories in Ohio. Farmers in the northwest part of the state have used the grant money to show how specific methods of planting cover crops (rather than leaving land barren) enriches the soil and helps stop the kind of runoff causing algal blooms in places such as Grand Lake St. Mary’s and Lake Erie. Another farmer used her grant to develop breeding strategies to create resistance to gastrointestinal bugs in sheep.

“They’ve done some remarkable work,” said Benjamin.

Bongue’s grant proposal was, like the others, reviewed by not just administrators but a panel of 25 judges that Benjamin described as “mostly farmers and ranchers.”

The issue of farmers “scaling up” to a livable wage is challenging, said Benjamin.

“There are so many logistical things involved in a solo farmer making it work today. There used to be a lot of farms around, and the infrastructure that was there, is not there anymore.”

Potential impact of fracking worries Northeast Ohio farmers

Thursday, June 12th, 2014

The industry claims farmers’ concerns about water and air quality are unwarranted by WKSU’s VIVIAN GOODMAN This story is part of a special series.

The government is now asking citizens to help in a bid to find safer ways to get at rich deposits of natural gas.

Farmers in Northeast Ohio say there’s a lot at stake, including the safety of local food. WKSU’s Vivian Goodman reports in this week’s Quick Bite on farmers’ concerns and industry reassurances.

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The U.S. EPA last week called for public comment on ways to develop safer fracking chemicals. Fracking — or hydraulic fracturing — shoots sand, water, and assorted chemicals deep underground. But the industry has no responsibility to tell property owners what’s in the chemical cocktail or to inform them about spills or pipeline breaks..That worries Mick Luber, a lot. “I run Bluebird Organic Farm. We’re in eastern Ohio about 7 miles from Cadiz, in Harrison County” — which is in the heart of Ohio’s fracking boom.He grows vegetables and raises chickens for eggs.“They’re a Hubbard Comet. They’re a cross between a Rhode Island Red and a Bard Rock. The roosters are white, as you can see, and the hens are brown. They lay a brown egg.”Luber called the Ohio EPA two years ago when he saw a chalky white substance trickling out of a hill above his farm where a natural gas well was being drilled. He worried he’d lose his organic certification if it were to contaminate the stream running through his fields of onions, beans, carrots, tomatoes, peppers and eggplant. “They came out and investigated. They said that they’ve taken care of the problem.”

New worries in farmland
But now he fears other potential impacts. We climb into his truck for a bumpy ride. The roads are ravaged, and he tells neighbors who signed leases with the oil companies they have only themselves to blame.“My neighbors have taken the money. So they’re all in favor of it, until they see the road conditions now that they’ve been running big trucks across the roads,destroying the roads.”

Economic benefits along with the risks
To the contrary, says Tom Stewart, executive vice president of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association. He says the industry’s investment in infrastructure is a boon to local governments.“They are overjoyed on the money that’s been invested by producers to upgrade roads that were completely trashed out in the first place. In fact, I heard a county engineer tell me once that they had a road going to a well site that was essentially a gravel road and they turned it into a highway.”

Impact up in the air
But when he looks up from the potholes there’s another image farmer Luber can’t get out of his head.“You can see right up through those trees the pad where they currently have fracked and (are) getting ready to flare.”When they do, Luber worries about air quality for his crops below and the health of people who consume them.“All the particulate matter from that well are going to come down on my land, and I’m selling them a product to make them healthy.”But since he sees no current, direct impact, he doesn’t share his fears with customers.

Shoppers unaware
“When you go to a farmers’ market it’s sort of a sunny place where you get away from things and you get fresh vegetables. Talking about what’s terrible happening to you, it gets old for people to have to confront that stuff on a regular basis.”“Could something happen?” asks the Ohio Oil and Gas Association’s Stewart. “Do airplanes fall out of the skies? Do buildings fall down? Do accidents happen? Yeah, accidents happen.”But he says if and when they do, farmers can trust what he calls their industry “partners.”

Nothing to fear from “partners” says the industry
“We care about our relationships with those people because we need them in order to do business. If we have a problem on property are we going to look at our partner and say, ‘Screw you’? No. We’re going to work with them and say, ‘We’ve got an issue here. We’ve got to clean it up.’” Do we need a law in order to do that? I don’t think so.” But the Ohio Environmental Council does. It’s pushing the SAFER gas act to mandate that the industry immediately alert not only government officials, but also farmers when accidents occur. Trent Daugherty directs the OEC’s legal affairs.“People that lease their land aren’t notified when something potentially harmful occurs on their land until there’s a final report by the (Ohio) Department of Natural Resources. And you don’t want a farmer or a farmer’s family, children in their back 40, playing around, or working in an area that’s potentially contaminated or potentially unsafe.”

Fears from afar
One western Stark County farmer doubts a disclosure mandate would pass. “Perhaps once we get a new legislature,” says  Alex Dragovich. “Most of them have accepted oil money, and they have embraced these people.”Dragovich plows his fields the old fashioned way at his Mud Run Farm. “This is Tom. He’s a 5-year old Percheron. Most of the horses we use are Percherons.”Mud Run is well west of the state’s fracking boom, but he sees it coming. He’s turned down several leasing agents who want access to his land.“My biggest concern has always been water. The only water we have on this farm is the water we pull out of the aquifer down here. If at any given time they would start to frack, there is in my opinion a good chance of damaging any water we have.”   He’s afraid of losing his livelihood. “We raised our family here. This has been a good place for us.”

Water is gold
Since most of Dragovich’s neighbors have signed leases with oil and gas companies, he could lose control over his property anyway under the laws of eminent domain. But he still won’t sign.“First off I don’t like to be bullied, and the second reason is I worked 40 years for this place. And those are my mineral rights.”
He understands the value of natural gas and the economic boon it is for many, but it is water, he says, that’s like gold to a farmer.“One lease man said ‘Mr. Dragovich, we are 99 percent sure that you will never have any problems with your water.’ And I said ‘Well, why don’t you put that on your lease here, that you’ll take care of any damages that we have?’ and he says, ‘No, we can’t do that.’ ”But farmer Dragovich, according to industry spokesman Stewart, worries in vain.

Fears are unfounded says the industry
“What water that’s flowed back from those wells is disposed here in the state of Ohio according to the landmark federal law known as the Safe Drinking Water Act. We do not put it back in streams. We do not put it back in pits. That’s been against the law since 1984. We construct our wells in such a way that we don’t impact drinking water reservoirs or potential reservoirs underground and on the ground.”Just 10 days ago voters in Mahoning County turned down for the third time a proposed moratorium on fracking, despite a recent Ohio Department of Natural Resources report linking the drilling process to a rash of earthquakes. The Oil and Gas Association’s Tom Stewart says the majority was right.“Is there impact from economic activity? There is. The largest impact I see on farmers is the $5,000 an acre that they’re getting if they sign a lease that says, ‘Come onto my property and drill a well.’”    

$19 billion invested
The state has seen almost $19 billion in investments in more than 100 shale-related projects, about a fifth of those in the Mahoning Valley.Earthquakes in 2012 in Youngstown were linked, according to ODNR, not to hydraulic fracturing, but to injection wells — the dumping ground for oil and gas waste from West Virginia and Pennsylvania as well as Ohio.That’s what has grass-fed beef farmer Mardi Townsend all shook up in seismically-active Ashtabula County.“I definitely fear it. There are four injection wells being heavily used about a mile and a half from me upstream. And two more permits have been applied for drilling two more wells on that same site. And I know that the injection well-casings will fail eventually because all well casings fail. I hope it’s not in my lifetime, but they will fail and they will contaminate the ground water and it will be very bad for people and animals.”But these are groundless fears, according to the industry spokesman, because casings are protected by steel pipes called “strings.”

The case for casings
“That’s not going to happen. You’re putting in casing strings, sometimes up to three casing strings that are all cemented underground through the groundwater reservoir.”Farmers, he says, actually have more to gain than lose from fracking. “The agriculture community are very heavy users of energy. They like the fact that energy prices have moderated where we have Marcellus and Utica production. And we have very high BTU gas being generated (with which) they make all kinds of great things that farmers need, like fertilizer at affordable prices.”

Quakes are commonplace
As for the quakes, he says, no big shakes. Happens every day. “Cal Tech recently said that 8,000 quakes per day fall in the range of 1-point-0 to 1-point-9, similar to what the recent incident was in Mahoning County. People within a mile felt a slight shaking. Do we want that to happen? No. Are there ways to mitigate it? Yes. And we’re working with regulatory agencies now to try to figure that out.”How can you stop an earthquake? He says it’s simple: “Don’t drill into known faults.”

After the boom
Meanwhile, back at Bluebird Farm, Mick Luber just hopes his groundwater’s safe.“But what are you going to do even if you have a spill? You can’t go back and make your water clean.”And Mud Run Farm’s Alex Dragovich hopes Ohio agriculture can survive the natural gas boom.“This thing’s only going to last 20 maybe 30 years. And then we’re going to live with that the rest of our lives.”And that’s this week’s Quick Bite. Next week we find out how the honey bees that pollinate so much of our food made it through the harsh winter.

OEFFA Announces 2014 Stewardship and Service Award Recipients

Monday, February 17th, 2014
COLUMBUS, OH—The Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA) has named the 2014 recipients for the Stewardship Award and Service Award.
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Kip and Becky Rondy of Green Edge Organic Gardens in Athens County received the Stewardship Award, which recognizes outstanding contributions to the sustainable agriculture community, and Ed Perkins of Sassafras Farm in Athens County received the Service Award, which recognizes outstanding service to OEFFA.
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The announcements were made on Saturday, February 15 and Sunday, February 16 as part of OEFFA’s 35th annual conference, Affirming Our Roots, Breaking New Ground.
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2014 Stewardship Award Winner—Kip and Becky Rondy
Rondys 2014Kip and Becky Rondy own and operate Green Edge Organic Gardens, a 120 acre certified organic farm in rural Amesville, Ohio. Migrogreens, salad mix, mushrooms, greens, and other seasonal produce are grown year-round using 10 high tunnels and sold at the Athens Farmers Market, two summer and winter community supported agriculture programs which serve more than 400 families, and at stores and restaurants in Athens and Columbus. The farm, primarily tended by hand, employs 13 people, in addition to interns.
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One of Ohio’s most successful year-round farms, Green Edge Organic Gardens has partnered with Rural Action to provide workshops on high tunnel operation, designed to help agricultural professionals work with farmers to promote season creation practices. As part of this collaborative work with local institutions to support a strong farming community, the Rondys also works with the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Ohio University to develop innovative designs for internal covering and venting systems in high tunnels.
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“Kip and Becky have done a spectacular job at making organics work. They’ve set up a fantastic production system, while growing a business that supports its employees through a living wage and good benefits. At the same time, they continue to help the community by sharing what they’ve learned during on-farm educational workshops,” said Mick Luber, who received the 2007 Stewardship Award and presented the award to the Rondys at the Saturday afternoon ceremony.
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To learn more about the Rondys and their winter growing, view Our Ohio‘s video here. For a full list of past Stewardship Award winners, click here.
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2014 Service Award Winner—Ed Perkins
Perkins 2014Ed Perkins owns and operates Sassafras Farm in New Marshfield with his wife, Amy Abercrombie. They grow chemical-free vegetables, herbs, and berries on 2 acres, which are sold year-round at the Athens Farmers Market.
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A graduate of Ohio University with a Masters degree in botany, Perkins purchased his farm more than 40 years ago and has been an integral part of the Athens local foods community ever since. His regular Our Home column in The Athens Messenger has helped to educate thousands about environmental issues.
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Perkins is a long-time member of OEFFA and the former president of OEFFA’s Athens Chapter. As one of OEFFA’s most long-standing and active chapter presidents, Perkins hosted and organized local farm tours, potluck meals, and other chapter activities, helping to establish a strong link between OEFFA and the vibrant Athens local food movement.
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“As one of the founding fathers of the Athens area local food movement, Ed has contributed so much to our community. As a farmer, writer, and organizer, Ed has worked for decades to build a strong OEFFA chapter and the amazing Athens Farmers Market. He and Amy are models of sustainable and simple living at Sassafras Farm, bearing witness to the beauty of lives thoughtfully lived in harmony with nature and community,” said Leslie Schaller, who presented the award to Perkins at the Sunday afternoon ceremony.
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Perkins is the second recipient of the Service Award, which was created in 2013 to recognize outstanding service to OEFFA.To learn more about Ed, view Ohio University’s video here.
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“Both the Rondys and Ed care deeply about creating a sustainable food system and have worked for years towards that goal. We should all be grateful for their generosity in devoting themselves to advance sustainable agriculture in our community,” said OEFFA Executive Director Carol Goland.
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About OEFFA
The Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA) is a statewide, grassroots, nonprofit organization founded in 1979 by farmers, gardeners, and conscientious eaters working together to create and promote a sustainable and healthful food and farming system. For more information, go to www.oeffa.org.
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For a high resolution photo of the award recipients, please contact Lauren Ketcham at (614) 421-2022 Ext. 203 or lauren@oeffa.org. Please provide photo credit: George Remington, OEFFA.

No matter how you slice it, Ohio’s cheese makes the cut

Sunday, December 29th, 2013

 

WKSU
Friday, December 20, 2013
by Vivian Goodman
 
“Cheese is a very popular product. Everybody likes cheese.”

Brian Moran of Lake Erie Creamery says holidays are great, but Ohio cheese makers are of good cheer all year long.

Moran’s creamery has won national awards for its Blomma.

Which is a blooming rind goat cheese, aged at about three to four weeks before it comes to market, similar to a Camembert or a brie. ”

A cheese boom
Moran’s Cleveland operation was Ohio’s first artisan cheese creamery. It opened in 2006. By 2007 he had five competitors, and today there are 20.

And I know for a fact there are at least three or four getting ready to open either at the end of this year or the beginning of next. The big boom is the local food. People want to know where their food comes from, and I think that is the biggest driver for it.”

A Specialty Food Association survey shows “local” is the biggest cheese trend of 2013.

And Ohioans don’t have to travel far for award-winning cheese.

Hiram’s MacKenzie Creamery claimed 13 national awards in its first four years in business.

Owner Jean MacKenzie is proudest of the goat cheese she makes with cognac and figs. 

“Our little star we call her. Courvoisier cognac and dalmatia figs. And this little cheese has won five of our 13 awards, this one cheese.”

More local cheeses at the grocers
West Point Market stocks MacKenzie’s product along with many of Ohio’s artisan cheeses.

Its cheese shop carries 350 varieties from all over the world, and in the last five years has doubled its supply of locally-made cheeses.

Diana Bole ran the quality grocer’s cheese shop for 27 years. She thinks customers are getting more discerning.

“A lot of them would never taste a goat cheese, not ever. And now with the sampling that we do, washed-rind cheeses which are strong and stinky, where five years ago you couldn’t sell, people will try it now.”

Amanda Zazo and John Griffith of West Akron came to the cheese-tasting ready for adventure. Griffith hadn’t expected so many locally-produced cheeses.

“But come to think of it, with all of the local farms and cow farms, sheep, the fantastic products are there. So why not?”

“My favorite was the goat cheese coated in espresso and lavender,” said Zazo.

But that one came from Wisconsin, the mecca of American cheese-making.

On Wisconsin, but Ohio’s not far behind
Bob Dilcher of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board brought it to the tasting from the state that produces nearly half of America’s specialty cheese. But he has respect for Ohio cheese.

“There’s some great goat cheeses, some great sheep’s milk cheeses from Ohio. Brewster Cheese in Brewster,

Ohio, one of the largest Swiss cheese manufacturers in the country. Terrific Swiss cheese.”

People are eating more cheese, period. In 1970, the average American ate 8 pounds a year. Today it’s 23 pounds.

But what is this “artisanal” cheese?

It’s produced by hand in small batches from cow, sheep and goat’s milk  and often has to be aged and ripened.

One-woman show
Some producers raise their own animals, like Kristyn Henslee of Seville’s Yellow House Cheese. Hers is a farmstead operation.

“That means that everything happens start to finish on our farm. I milk the sheep myself, we make the cheese there, we age it there and sell everything from the farm. I’m kind of a one-woman show. I also have a husband whose a sixth-grade science teacher, so he’s home during the summers to help out. And I have two little girls 8 and 9 who are my absolute super-star helpers.”

Her sheep’s milk blue cheese won an American Cheese Society award in August. And she only started her business two years ago.

Of the 20 artisan cheese makers in Ohio, 16 are women.

Small but award-winning
Henslee’s farm is small and so is  Brian Schlotter’s in Defiance. His  family has been dairy farming for six generations.

Six years ago, after graduating college, Schlotter started making cheese.

His Canal Junction Charloe, winner of an American Cheese Society award, is his own creation.

The first bite tastes buttery and sweet, but then it gets nutty.

“We don’t have any peanuts in the production whatsoever. It is from the milk and the way we handle the cheese afterward in the aging.”

He’s optimistic about the future of artisan cheese making in Ohio. He knows Wisconsin has years on Ohio, and admits that’s a challenge. 

“If you look at the cheese makers in Ohio, the small cheese makers in Ohio most of them are complete newbies to the industry both the dairy and the cheese-making side.”

But he thinks Ohio will catch up. Wisconsin has long had a Master Cheese Maker program.

But in Ohio, where do you find the way — and the curds? 

The Cheese Guild
MacKenzie Creamery’s Jean MacKenzie found herself asking that question.

She worked in real estate for many years before she started making cheese. Her business sense told her a trade organization was needed. So she recently founded the Ohio Cheese Guild.

“We have a representative from a distribution company; we have a chef; we have a retailer. We have cheese makers from small creameries and from large companies. We want to include, we call them the big boys, because we can learn a lot from them.”

Kristyn Henslee of Seville’s Yellow House Cheese was one of the first to join the new guild. She’s not turning a profit yet but…

“We’re working on it. We’re making really great cheeses, and we’re just really hopeful that this is going to work out.”

And that’s this week’s Quick Bite. Next week our topic is the mislabeling of fish.

Dale organic farmer uses nature to nurture cheese

Monday, December 9th, 2013
 
Vincennes Sun-Commercial

December 7, 2013

By Tony Raap Jasper Herald

Dale organic farmer

Jerry Steckler changes the wire fencing on a section of pasture on his farm near Dale on Monday to allow his cattle to graze on a fresh portion of grass. By separating the pasture into sections, Steckler ensures that he has pasture for his cattle to continuously graze on through the winter. He makes organic cheese and is certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

DALE — What if cows could produce harmony?

Sounds crazy, right? Well, not to Jerry Steckler, who runs an organic dairy farm north of Dale.

Last year, Steckler began producing organic cheese, which is sold under the label Steckler Grassfed in 37 grocery stores and wineries across southwestern Indiana and northern Kentucky. His cows graze on natural grass that is free of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides.

Organic milk also has more omega-3 fatty acids, which are considered good for the heart. Though more expensive, organic products have grown in popularity, becoming a $31.5 billion industry, according to the Organic Trade Association of North America.

“Science isn’t smart enough to figure out what’s better for us than nature,” Steckler said. “We don’t have to know how it works. All we need to do is live in harmony with nature. In this case, put the cows out on the pasture where God designed them to be, and through his design the food is automatically better for us.”

Steckler was raised on a conventional dairy farm. In 1987, he and his wife, Marsha, bought a farm of their own about a mile from where Jerry grew up.

Back then, he fed his cows corn and soybeans, just as his parents, Gilbert and Mary, had. Then, in 1994, he attended a seminar sponsored by Purdue University on rotational grazing.

“It clicked in my mind,” said Steckler, who owns about 50 dairy cows.

“There’s so many expenses that you can cut out,” he added.

Going organic meant no more harvesting or storing feed. He would just let the cattle graze from his 170-acre salad bar.

The switch didn’t happen overnight. Steckler slowly phased out his crops, turning his cornfields into a lush pasture. In 2007, his farm was organically certified by the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association, which certifies farms across the Midwest.

At first, he marketed his milk through Organic Valley, a farmer-owned cooperative in Wisconsin, but later switched to Traders Point Creamery near Indianapolis to get a greater return on the sales price of his milk.

That arrangement lasted only a few months before the creamery told him it could no longer afford to ship his milk.

Rather than finding another distributor, Steckler decided to strike out on his own. For years, he had toyed with the idea of building his own cheese-making facility.

“It just tooka little bit more pressure to get us to decide to go ahead and do it,” said Steckler, who is 53.

His cheese is made from raw milk. Because it isn’t pasteurized, the cheese must age at least 60 days before it is sold, according to federal regulations.

It is stored in wooden crates in an aging room — what Steckler referred to as an “above-ground cave” — where the temperature is kept at 53 degrees.

The softer cheeses — Monterey Jack, colby and pepper jack — are cut up and sold after 60 days. But the cheddar is aged at least nine months before it is taken to market.

“It builds so much more character over that aging time,” said Steckler,whose cheese retails for about $6 for an 8-ounce block.

Stephen and Christy Gordon own Grounded Organic & Natural Foods in Jasper. Several brands of organic cheese line their shelves, but only Steckler’s is locally produced.

“It’s a great offering,” Christy said. “Supporting local is very important, too.”

Steckler said he is proud to produce cheese that is “more in harmony with nature.”

“To make better food available for the people who are wanting it, there’s got to be somebody that’s willing to step out and take the risk and do it,” he said.

Organic Farmers Bash FDA Restrictions On Manure Use

Monday, December 2nd, 2013
NPR
By Dan Charles
November 21, 2013

Many organic farmers are hopping mad at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and their reason involves perhaps the most underappreciated part of agriculture: plant food, aka fertilizer. Specifically, the FDA, as part of its overhaul of food safety regulations, wants to limit the use of animal manure.

“We think of it as the best thing in the world,” says organic farmer Jim Crawford, “and they think of it as toxic and nasty and disgusting.”

Every highly productive farmer depends on fertilizer. But organic farmers are practically obsessive about it, because they’ve renounced industrial sources of nutrients.

So on this crisp fall morning, Crawford is rhapsodic as he watches his field manager, Pearl Wetherall, spread manure across a field where cabbage grew last summer.

“All that green material — that cover crop and the cabbage — all mixed up with that nice black manure that’s just rich and full of good microorganisms, and we’re going to get a wonderful fertility situation for next spring here,” he says

Crawford has been farming organically in south-central Pennsylvania for 40 years.

                                     Crawford has been farming organically in south-central Pennsylvania for 40 years.

Dan Charles/NPR

Crawford, founder of New Morning Farm in south-central Pennsylvania, buys hundreds of tons of manure every year from a big turkey farm a few miles away. “It’s really at the heart of our operation for having good, rich soil, and good fertility, so that we have the highest-quality crops.”

It’s also part of a natural cycle, and the basis of organic farming. Most crops strip vital nutrients from the soil. But the nutrients don’t disappear; if you feed those crops to cattle or turkeys, the nutrients mostly end up in manure. For the turkey farmer, the manure is waste. For Crawford, it’s precious. “Cycling nutrients. That’s what it’s all about. Cycling organic nutrients.”

This is a typical practice among organic farmers, especially the smaller ones. But they may now have to change.

The Food and Drug Administration considers manure a food safety risk. Disease-causing microbes, such as salmonella or toxic forms of E. coli, are commonly found in animal waste.

Patricia Millner, a microbiologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s research center in Beltsville, Md., says scientists are now trying to figure out exactly how long such bacteria survive in the soil. “In some cases, salmonella will survive for a few weeks; in other cases, it’ll be reported that it survives for 300-plus days,” she says

Pearl Wetherall, field manager at New Morning Farm, spreads manure.

                                Pearl Wetherall, field manager at New Morning Farm, spreads manure.

Dan Charles/NPR

When they survive, microbes do get on food. Carrots or radishes, of course, grow right in the soil. But bacteria also end up on salad greens. Raindrops, for instance, splash soil and microbes onto the plants.

There’s a lot of uncertainty about exactly how big of a risk this is. But the FDA is saying better safe than sorry.

The agency is proposing new national food safety rules. If those rules are enacted, when farmers spread raw manure on a field, they won’t be allowed to harvest any crops from that field for the next nine months. (This applies only to crops that people eat raw, such as carrots or lettuce.)

The rules don’t cover the smallest farms. They apply to farms with more than half a million dollars in annual sales, or which supply food to supermarkets.

But that includes Crawford’s farm.

He already follows the organic rules; he doesn’t harvest crops within four months of spreading manure. But having to wait nine months — longer than a growing season — would completely disrupt his operations. “We wouldn’t even be able to function,” he says.

There is an alternative: composted manure. The heat from composting kills disease-causing microbes. But Crawford says compost would cost him anywhere from three to six times more than manure. And he just doesn’t see why he should have to switch, because he doesn’t believe that what he does now is at all risky.

Feeding the chickens at New Morning Farm.

                     Feeding the chickens at New Morning Farm.

Dan Charles/NPR

“No one’s ever been sickened by anything we’ve grown, in probably millions of transactions between us and our customers over 40 years,” he says. Crawford sells most of his food at farmers markets in Washington, D.C.

Yet organic farmers are not united in their opposition to the FDA regulations. There’s a divide between large and small producers.

Earthbound Farm, in California, is among the biggest organic producers of salad greens. Will Daniel, the company’s chief food integrity officer, says, “History is not always your greatest ally, unfortunately. We never thought that we would see spinach or other produce involved in outbreaks.” But in 2006, his company’s spinach was linked to an outbreak of E. coli poisoning; 200 people got sick. Three died.

Raw manure was not the source of that outbreak. (There’s evidence the E. coli could have come from wild pigs that got into the fields.) But Daniel says using manure does involve risks that his company won’t take.

Instead, Earthbound Farm uses mostly “a pelletized, processed chicken manure product” that’s been treated with heat and pressure to kill all microbes.

“We’ve gone in that direction because we feel that it’s very important to assure that we are not spreading these pathogens in our fields, that could lead to contaminated product,” he says.

Daniel supports the FDA’s proposed rules on manure. Many smaller organic farmers, meanwhile, are sending the FDA a blizzard of comments, arguing that the environmental benefits of using manure far outweigh the risks.