Category Archives: Sustainable Agriculture in the News

Ohio homesteaders and sustainability advocates feel good about kefir

By Vivian Goodman, WKSU News, 3/20/15

One of the world’s oldest elixirs is back in vogue. Kefir is a beverage made from fermented milk. Its health benefits remain largely unproven. But fans claim that drinking it makes them feel good.

Besides, it’s a local, sustainable, food source that can be made at home. In today’s Quick Bite, WKSU’s Vivian Goodman delves into the drink.

Kefir is something like liquid yogurt.

It’s thick, white, creamy and bubbly and tastes tart, slightly sour and yeasty, like a cross between yogurt and buttermilk.

It’s one of the world’s oldest cultured milk products. Marco Polo himself sang its praises. And these days kefir’s being rediscovered by do-it-yourselfers and proponents of sustainable food systems.

Making converts to kefir

Warren Taylor of Snowville Creamery led a kefir workshop at last month’s annual conference of the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association. He calls himself a “dairy evangelist.”

Before the workshop began, Taylor passed around buttons that read “Kefir: feel good.” The name derives from a Turkish word for well-being.

Taylor feels great, and hopes to convert others to what’s been his way of life for almost 40 years.

“I generally get up in the morning, my tummy’s pretty empty, I put about a quart of kefir in me. Goes deep, goes right through your stomach, and boom, right into your small intestines. Centuries ago this is how the herding people would consume their cultured products, big bowls of it. They would guzzle it.”

Centenarians of the Caucusus

Nomadic horsemen of the northern Caucasus mountains who drank the stuff reportedly lived past the century mark.

Some think the probiotic bacteria in kefir might be the reason why, but the only scientific proof of kefir’s medical benefits is a 2003 Ohio State University study that showed it curbed flatulence in those with lactose intolerance.

Reported rare side effects of drinking kefir include bloating, headache and acne.

Still, today it’s the most popular fermented milk in Russia, and in Uzbekistan, horse bladder saddle bags full of it still swing over front doors.

“You hang it in your doorway,” says Taylor, “and everyone who comes through the doorway slaps it, coming and going, to shake it and agitate it, and that makes it grow faster.”

It’s alive

It grows because it’s a living organism that you have to take care of every day.

“Real kefir is something that you keep like a pet.”

But Taylor says like many of the best things in life, real kefir can’t be bought.

“God can’t put kefir in a bottle,” says Taylor. “The stuff that’s in the store that’s called kefir is not kefir.”

Demonstrating how he says anyone can make it at home, Taylor strains foamy liquid through a colander to isolate kefir “grains.” He’ll share some with workshop participants.

“Pass that around. You can get a smell, get an idea. We’re going to put those in little bottles for you.”

The grains are a gelatinous mass of bacteria and yeast, a symbiotic community of microorganisms. The small, irregular, opaque clumps look like cottage cheese or cauliflower.

Once plopped into a quantity of milk, kefir grains ferment the liquid. Then they’re strained out and added to fresh milk for use in successive batches.

A renewable source of nutrition

Kefir is a self-perpetuating food source of somewhat mysterious origin.

It’s believed that all the kefir grains in the world today are babies of a mother culture that came out of the Caucasus mountains thousands of years ago.

Warren Taylor calls it an enigma.

“It only exists because of human beings, but nobody can make it. The most sophisticated dairy lab in the world can’t make you a real kefir culture. You have to get it from somebody.”

A question at the workshop: “Is there a ratio of grains to milk?”

“Good question,” Taylor replied. “It depends on the temperature that it’s going to be growing at, because the warmer it is, the less kefir you need to milk, to have it grow out in the same period of time. How vigorous are the grains, how good is the milk? All of these things. So you just kind of get to know your kefir.”

Sharing the grains and the method

You can drink it plain, but Taylor brought a blender and made the workshop participants a kefir smoothie.

“We’re going to put fresh strawberries, and blueberries. I like bananas.”

Warren Taylor learned about kefir at college in a dairy technology class, but it took two years of searching before he could get grains shipped to him from Holland.

“That was the beginning of my kefir culture, and this is the same culture I’m going to share with you all today. So I’ve been drinking this since 1978.”

How many people has he shared his culture with?

“In the last nearly 40 years, thousands. I think it’s a very fundamental human idea, to share.”

“You’re going to give us some today?”

“Yes.”

“What am I going to do when I go home?”

“Put it in milk.”

“Well, how much?”

“Three parts milk to one part grains.”

“How long do you let it sit?”

“Until it coagulates, until it makes a gel, until it has acidity.”

“Like two hours?”

“Well, 24.”

Much longer than the 4 to 6 hours it takes to ferment yogurt.

“Kefir, buttermilk, sour cream,” says Taylor, “take more like 24 hours, room temperature.”

Slightly alcoholic when ripe

Letting it sit even longer on your kitchen counter is called ripening, and that’s what Rachel Baillieul often does.

“If you allow kefir to go on long enough you might get a little bit of an alcoholic taste,” she says, “or an effervescence.”

Baillieul is an urban homesteader farming on two acres of soil in Columbus.

“I’m a home cook who is unafraid to try anything. That’s what started me down this road of fermentation. “

She’s teaching a workshop on the culinary aspects of kefir.

“So this is kefir that’s actually gone a little bit far. I forgot to put it in the fridge when I came yesterday. So it needed one less day.”

The grains are edible, too

A question comes up about how to handle the grains.

“Do you typically always filter them out prior to consuming the kefir?”

“No. They are consumable. And you have to decide, am I going to eat them? Am I going to press them together to make a sort of cheese? Am I going to feed them to my animals? Am I going to pass them to friends?”

She says they can be stored in a little bit of milk or water in the refrigerator. “I just recently pulled some out that I had just in water for about three months. They were still alive.”

Baillieuil belongs to a growing kefir community.

“I’m one of those crazy people who has cultures. So if you need things let me know.”

Snowville Creamery’s Warren Taylor believes the local foods movement along with a new reverence for lost arts creates the perfect climate for the growth of a shared kefir culture.

“We’re rediscovering community in this country.”

Great River Organics Looks to Build Name for Organic Produce in Central Ohio

By Susan Post, The Metropreneur, 3/3/15

Collaboration can go a long way when you are a small business owner. It means more – more resources and more ways to reach your customers. As the movement to eat local and organic continue to grow, a group of eight Central Ohio farms are banding together to form Great River Organics.

“Great River [Organics] is a farmer-owned, non-profit corporation comprised of farmers in Central Ohio looking to expand local, certified-organic products,” says Adam Welly, co-founder of Wayward Seed Farm, one of the members.GROlogo

“Our farm individually is never going to feed all of the people here in Columbus,” says fellow Co-Founder Jaime Moore. “We need a real collaborative effort.”

GRO aligns the values of these farmers, all of which are certified organic or are pending certification, with ambitious goals.

“We feel like we’re setting a really good example of what Ohio farming can be,” Welly says. “We think that this idea of creating a local, organic brand is really, really important for both Central Ohio and the wider region.”

In addition to Wayward, Sippel Family Farm, Rock Dove Farm, Sunbeam Family Farm, Harvest Sun Farms, Toad Hill Farms, Clay Hill Farms and Dangling Carrot Farm are a part of the co-op. While some of the farms were already certified organic, making sure each farm met the standards was an important part of the foundation. Welly says it gives them transparency in their processes, and a clear stance on what they stand for as they broach multiple markets.

Currently, the operation is focused mainly on the direct to consumer market, making their produce accessible through their multi-farm CSA known as The Great River Market Bag. The eight-product CSA is a mix of everyday staples and a few unique items.

“We only grew a few items for GRO in 2014, which meant we could focus on doing it really well,” says Kristy Ryan of Clay Hill Farms. “We think the quality of produce going into the CSA is phenomenal because each farm gets the freedom to grow the items that they specialize in growing.”

The CSA is delivered to about 20 community partners, mostly corporations, and includes the likes of Nationwide, Cardinal Health and Limited Brands. GRO’s collaborative effort allows the organization to extend a traditional 20-week CSA into 30 weeks starting in June and ending around Christmas, which means closer to year-round fresh, local produce.

The group is working on some other CSA options like every-other-week pickup or a peak-season selection.

“We’ve taken a lot of feedback from our customers and we’re trying to give people a wider number of options to take part,” Welly says.

GRO2

Although the CSA is the anchor of GRO, wholesale of certified organic produce is in the long-term plans. The organization is just trying to be thoughtful in the way that they grow.

“A lot of people want to buy our product, but we believe it’s smarter for us to work in the framework of what our farmers are capable of right now,” Moore says. It ensures that customers are getting the highest quality of goods. And, it takes time to expand as a farming operation.

In addition to a steady outlet for their produce, member farms are also finding huge marketing advantages as a part of GRO.

“Great River provides the farmer a network of support and marketing ability that opens up an array of opportunities that otherwise would not be available to them as an individual organic producer,” says Ben Dilbone of Sunbeam Family Farm.

Ryan echoes Dilbone’s sentiments. Being a young, growing farm in rural area, “While it is very nice to live a quiet, rural life, the downside is we don’t have access to good markets,” Ryan says. “Joining GRO allowed us to pursue our farm dream and gain market share. We can enjoy the stability and benefits that CSAs offer farms, without the pressure of ‘going it alone,’ especially this early in our career.”

Overall, GRO wants to bring awareness to and help grow the local food system.

“Local agriculture needs as much support as it can get to maintain economic viability and compete with the pressures of cheaply produced “corporate organics” that are imported from other countries that we see flooding the shelves at the grocery store,” Dilbone says. “GRO provides much-needed support to local organic farmers who work diligently to provide an alternative food option that travels far less miles to your dinner plate, and with much more quality and flavor.”

“I want people to crave that information and the value and the quality of products that we offer,” Moore adds. “I want people to crave that as much as we do.”

For more information, visit greatriverfarms.org.

Farm trend watcher has high hopes for Ohio farmers in the new food movement

By Vivian Goodman, WKSU, 2/20/15

One of the nation’s leading agricultural journalists is sounding a hopeful note for Ohio’s small family farmers.

Alan Guebert’s syndicated column, The Farm and Food File appears in 70 newspapers in the U.S. and Canada.

For more than two decades he’s covered the rise of factory farms, the growth of the organic sector, and the push and pull between industrial and sustainable agriculture.

The first foodies
Guebert grew up on an Illinois dairy farm in the 1960’s.

“While we did not know it then, we were the original foodies. These younger people you know how they want to eat? They want to eat today like we used to, because we ate from our farm to our table. We just did it right there on the farm. And we were locavores before anybody invented the word. And my point is: for generations, for centuries we’ve eaten this way. We got away from it just this past generation. All I really do is watch things. I got a good set of eyes and I just watch those trends like that. And we’re just going back to where I was 50 years ago. And I can’t wait.”

Guebert delivered an upbeat keynote address at this past weekend’s annual conference of the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association. His audience was mostly small farmers committed to sustainable agriculture. They use organic methods and sell directly to consumers from their farms or at farmer’s markets.

Sales growth
Sales of organic produce increased more than 11 percent nationwide to $35.1 billion in 2013, the fastest growth in five years. The organic sector is still just 4% of the overall food market, but Guebert sees it continuing to grow.

“I think it’s the sky’s the limit.”

Why? Because, he says, we’re living in revolutionary times.  Fast food empires are fading, and more Americans are asking for good, safe, healthy food.

“There’s going to be more and more effort on the part of people who seek out good food who will pay more for good food. We do it now. Look at the growth of farmers’ markets. And if you’ve ever shopped at a farmers’ market, you can buy food cheaper elsewhere. If you’ve ever gone to a farm to fork table restaurant. You can buy stuff a lot cheaper than that. But you can’t buy it any better. You can’t buy it any healthier. You can’t buy it and have more satisfaction. And I think that’s what the new food movement is about.”

Last year about 80 percent of U.S. consumers bought organic at least sometimes.  And there’s been explosive growth in the number of farmers’ markets.

But Guebert says conventional farmers try to downplay it.

“I read just this past week how organic farmers markets must be worried because they only grew 8 % last year where in the past they’ve averaged 12, and 16 years ago there was 16% growth. Wouldn’t the corn and soy bean farmers love the fact that their markets grew 8% last year? Of course they would. So that’s big Ag’s message to counteract the great story that we see in farmers’ markets and in the growth of organic sales.”

“We’re just going back to goodness. Good, easy, straight-forward, uncomplicated delicious food. “

Where Big Ag comes in
But is anybody holding us back from going back? What about Big Ag, what about Big Food.

“Well, they would like to have a real impact on current food trends. And in fact they’re really trying. Big Ag would like to see those choices limited. And by that I mean they don’t want labeling. They don’t really want GMO labeling for sure because they say it will work against them. Well prove it! Prove it. Until then I think giving consumers the right to know what they’re eating is important.”

Guebert’s been watching the trends for a long time. He’s been writing his column for about 22 years now. When did he see the light bulb go off in people’s heads? When did this happen, this food revolution?

“I think we’ve worked very hard, my generation, your generation, to be sure that our children are very well educated. And we raised them to be independent. Well, what we raised were smart kids. We raised them in a manner that they were curious and questioning, and that they sought out what they thought was good options and made informed choices. That’s all they’re making. They’re making informed choices. They’re looking at food and they’re going, ‘Well I think I’ll have green beans tonight and I’ll go to the farmers’ market.”

He’s seen it in his own family. His daughter lived in D.C. and shopped at the Eastern Market on Capitol Hill.

“It was on her way home so she could always stop and pick up something for supper that was fresh. And in fact that’s how they still do it in all of Europe. You go to Europe the refrigerators are about the size of your suitcase. And why? Because they don’t store food like we do. They go to the store for food. They don’t store it.”

Changes in the way Americans shop for and think about food, and the growth of sustainable agriculture fuel Guebert’s optimism about the future of the food system, but he still worries about the power of Big Ag to influence government policy.

“If you’re going to have a subsidized system, yeah the small farmer, the sustainable farmer out here is going to have one hell of a bad time. But if they can just get people to eat their food, they’ll have a customer, they’ll have a friend, and they’ll probably have a salesman for the rest of their lives. So I think that’s what sustainable people rightly focus on, where food and people meet, where they interface, where they can taste tomorrow.”

And the way farm writer Alan Guebert sees it, tomorrow is yesterday.

Some Ohio Communities are Not Pleased About Proposed Pipelines

Ohio Public News Service
By Mary Kuhlman, 1/8/15

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Dozens of Ohioans, including farmers, are teaming up to fight pipeline projects that could run through their property. Almost 40,000 miles of new pipelines are being proposed around the state to transport oil and gas. Sheryl Billman is working to get organic certification for her Lorain County farm, which is in the proposed path of the Nexus pipeline.

“It’s just a whole devastating idea, a 42-inch diameter pipeline,” says Billman. “It would only be anywhere from two-to-six feet below ground. You couldn’t put trees in, you could not use the land, really.”

Besides the impact on agriculture, Billman says the local public benefit of the development is questionable since the pipeline would transport natural gas from shale gas supplies produced in eastern Ohio up to Canada. Groups are forming to try to get the pipeline it rerouted to areas where existing pipelines already are in place. The Nexus pipeline is in early planning, and its developer has said it is possible it could be moved or its path could be shifted.

It’s not just the pipeline that Billman says is a nuisance, but also its construction, maintenance and accompanying compressor stations. She says the possibility of accidents, spills or explosions poses a real risk to organic farmers whose land could be compromised by chemicals or toxins.

“The people who are close to these things, their air quality, water quality and soil is just being devastated,” says Billman. “That’s food and it comes up in the food and it just draws right from the soil and from the air.”

Supporters say the pipelines will help drillers get a better price for their gas by carrying it to areas north where there is greater demand. While Billman says she understands the need for natural gas for energy, she says there are other ways.

“We know how to do things differently and there are the alternative fuels coming along, solar and wind, primarily, and we are taking our farm in that direction,” she says. “We will be petroleum free on our farm by 2020.”

Other proposed projects in Ohio include ANR East Pipeline, a 500-mile line to Michigan, and the 800-mile Rover Pipeline, which would run to Canada.

Grower’s passion for food yields uncommon produce

The Columbus Dispatch
by Jeannie Nuss
8/18/14
 

To make a living, Milan Karcic has tended bar, washed dishes and even made wooden replicas of World War II airplanes.

Photo Credit Brooke Lavalley (Dispatch Photos)

The resident of the North Side was unfulfilled by such jobs, though, and decided last year to cultivate a fresh career: growing food.

Now, his work is bearing fruit (and vegetables).

In a 6,000-square-foot patch of land fenced off in his backyard, Karcic tends predictable produce such as corn, carrots and cabbage.

He also turns out quirkier fare.

Take, for example, the ground cherry, a marble-sized fruit clothed in a baggy paper husk that tastes like pineapple. Or the Wapsipinicon peach tomato — which, with its slightly fuzzy and yellow-orange skin, seems to belong in a pie. Or the cucamelon, an itty-bitty cucumber that looks like a miniature watermelon but tastes slightly sour.

“I always like the underdogs,” said Karcic, 45, “and I guess I’m just an oddball.”

His peculiar produce has proved popular in central Ohio.

His customers, including chef Richard Blondin at the Refectory Restaurant & Bistro, rave about his array of fruits and vegetables, despite any lament about their limited quantities.

“He’s a little, tiny pea in (terms of) what he brings here, but it’s high-quality,” said Blondin, who uses vegetables from Karcic as garnishes for Refectory dishes.

“And usually what he brings me was picked maybe an hour ago.”

Karcic offers the same level of freshness to Columbus-area farmers markets and to clients in his community-supported agriculture program (known among the cage-free-egg-buying crowd as a CSA).

On a recent Wednesday, he collected fruits and vegetables for six orders. He crawled on his belly and slithered under leafy ground-cherry plants to scoop handfuls of their ripened fruits; he plucked peach tomatoes off vines; and he gathered colorful carrots, red cabbage and more.

He then separated the produce into six bags, all the while playing the soundtrack of the farm-centric movie Babe from a nearby boombox.

A few hours later, Karcic met BeJae Fleming at a nearby store to hand off her weekly CSA share.

“What’d I get? What’d I get?” Fleming, 64, eagerly asked as Karcic approached.

Peering into a bag, she said with a smile: “Tomatoes!”

The Grandview Heights resident didn’t know what kind of tomatoes she had, but that’s kind of the point of a CSA, which allows people to buy a share of a farmer’s harvest for a prearranged period.

Since signing up with Karcic last year, Fleming said, she has learned to cook with fruits and vegetables she wouldn’t have bought otherwise.

“It forces you to be creative in preparing food,” she said.

Fleming has grown particularly fond of the ground cherries — as have others.

“People come back and ask for those,” said Ruth Brown, manager of the Blendon Township market, where Karcic sells his produce on Thursday afternoons.

Karcic also peddles his harvest — along with homemade mosquito repellent — at the 400 Farmers Market in Franklinton on the second and fourth Saturdays of the month under the name Peace, Love and Freedom Guild.

He used to call his operation a farm and himself a farmer, but he grew tired of people asking him: How many acres do you have? (His entire lot stretches less than an acre.)

So he refers to himself as a gardener — who happens to work 100 hours a week.

Despite the long hours, Karcic said, he loves his job.

“I don’t have to get up . . . and drive to work. I just get up and go outside.”

The son of eastern European immigrants, he grew up near Mansfield before moving to Columbus to study interpersonal communication at Ohio State University.

In the early 1990s, outside an apartment in the University District, he planted his first garden.

“Probably what happened was I realized I could buy a pack of seeds for $1 and grow a ton of tomatoes,” Karcic said. “I was a college student and didn’t have any money.”

He stuck with the pursuit through the years, eventually launching his CSA in 2009 and, last year, becoming a full-time gardener and making a deal with the Refectory.

The CSA has since grown to encompass about two dozen customers, with each paying $26 a week for a full share or $13 a week for a half-share.

Karcic hopes that his tight finances will ease soon.

He wants to sell directly to homes in what he plans to call the Before You Eat Ice Cream Truck. (Instead of a truck, though, he’ll drive his 1991 Volvo, which has more than 200,000 miles on it.)

“It’s the same principle as an ice-cream truck,” he said, “just with healthy, organically grown produce.”

He feels good about selling vegetables, and so does his wife, artist Meagan Alwood-Karcic.

“He’s doing what he loves to do,” she said, “so it’s kind of a fantasy existence.”

Nearby, a couple of scarecrows dressed in her husband’s old clothes stood guard over the garden.

What Toledo’s Water Crisis Reveals About Industrial Farming

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

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

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

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

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.”