Thursday, April 24, 2014
No-till farming’s Johnny Appleseed — in a grimy Prius
17 Apr 2014
Let’s start with Jeff Mitchell’s car. From the outside, it looks like a regular, if slightly dinged-up, white Prius. But inside it’s so messy that it’s hard for me to describe it without sounding like I’m exaggerating.
When I say the back seat is packed solidly with papers, I mean that literally: It’s as if Mitchell had pulled up alongside a set of filing cabinets and transferred everything that could fit into the back, carefully filling the leg space until it was high enough to be incorporated into the stack on the seats. The papers are wedged solidly together, three-quarters of the way up to the headrests.
There’s some PVC pipe back there too, some metal tools, a power cord, and some luggage. But that’s just what I could see on the surface. On the front dash there’s another layer of files, and a layer of dirt. And again, when I say dirt, I’m not overstating it. It’s not just a patina of dust; there are big clots of mud clinging to the face of the radio.
“What can I say?” Mitchell said when I asked about the state of his vehicle. “I’m embarrassed. People say I could just scatter seeds in here and they’d grow.”
I was never able to get a straight answer out of Mitchell as to why his car was so squalid, but it’s easy enough to guess. He has spent years driving up and down California’s long Central Valley, from one field to another, asking farmers to sign up to try new conservation techniques. He estimates that the car has driven 600,000 miles, though he can’t say for sure: The odometer stopped at 299,999. The car really does have to function as a high-speed file cabinet, as well as a mobile tool shed and soil-sample transporter.
“So, is this basically your life?” I asked, after about an hour driving down highway 99. I was expecting a good-natured gripe about him becoming permanently welded to the driver’s seat. But instead he said:
“You know, I’ve been truly fortunate. I’ve been doing this long enough that wherever I go I’ll look out and see a field and think, ‘That’s where we did that one trial, how’s that coming along?’ And there have been some big changes. It’s gratifying. There’s a soil scientist at Berkeley, Garrison Sposito, who says it may be just once or twice in a century that agriculture has an opportunity to re-create itself in a revolutionary way. Now, it may sound way over the top, but I think that’s what’s happening with conservation agriculture. It’s energizing for me to wake up to that every day.”
His official title is Associate Extension Vegetable Crops Specialist, but since the early 1990s Mitchell has really been a Johnny Appleseed for conservation, leading an ever-growing band of farmers toward sustainability. The idea driving Mitchell’s work is to develop farm systems that are closer to proven natural systems. That main idea breaks down into four tenets: Don’t disturb the soil; maximize the diversity of plants, insects, fungi, and microbiota; keep living roots in the soil; and keep the ground covered with plant residues. Since 1999, a team working with Mitchell has been demonstrating that it’s possible to do all that profitably.
After another hour on the road we reached the University of California West Side Extension and Research Center. Behind a handful of one-story buildings lay a collection of plots that workers have farmed continuously with conservation techniques. Mitchell took me to a field where they had been experimenting with a tomato-and-cotton rotation since 1999: “These beds have not moved, they have not been worked, in 15 years.” This 15-year study suggests that there are real, sustained benefits to the methods that the UC researchers have pioneered.
Mitchell waded into the shoulder-high cover crops of one bed. There’s a bed nearby of cleanly plowed soil. The contrast couldn’t be more different. Mitchell knelt in the cover crop, pushing aside the plants. The earth was covered in a layer of duff (dead leaves and twigs). It looked a lot like — well, like any bit of ground that humans haven’t recently scraped.
“There’s more organic material going into the soil, more carbon and more nitrogen. There’s more capture of water, and the shade and residue reduces soil water evaporation.”
These kind of innovations might seem obvious, but the journey to no-till cotton has been exasperatingly hard. Cotton requires coddling: It has a large seed, but it’s not a vigorous seedling, so often a farmer will knock off a layer of dry soil, drop the seeds onto moist earth, then cover it up. All this requires tilling the field. So Mitchell’s team decided to fine tune a planter to bury the seeds at just the right depth: Too close to the surface and they’d dry out, too deep and they’d never make it up. But when they ran the planter over the field it bounced over dry tomato stalks and dropped seeds higgledy-piggledy.
That first year the crop came up patchy. So they started trying residue managers, to push debris out of the way of each seed line, then brush it back into place. Mitchell went to Georgia to see what they were using there. They tried different timing and amounts of irrigation. If they tried to plant while the field was too wet the tractor would turn everything into a muddy mess. If they waited until it dried, the seed wouldn’t get enough moisture. If they irrigated after planting, the soil might form a hard crust that the seed couldn’t penetrate. They made pass after pass, making minute adjustments to the equipment until tempers frayed.
“I’m not an argumentative guy, but some of the things have been so trying,” Mitchell remembered. At the end of one of those days, one of Mitchell’s collaborators threw up his hands and said, “This will never work!” But then, in 2004, after years of disappointments, they finally hit on just the right combination of techniques — specific levels of irrigation, fine-tuned equipment, special disk and finger attachments for the planter — and got a beautiful cotton crop.
When all the pieces came together, the cotton began producing reliably. And Mitchell also noticed an added benefit: As the years passed, the soil improved, and all this got easier. Instead of the farm equipment needing to break up clots of compacted soil, the researchers found they were planting into soft, fine-grained earth, continuously tilled by worms and roots and microorganisms.
Mitchell’s work looks like a clear winner on paper: The yields are now the same as in the plowed beds, and the no-till beds take less work, sequester more carbon, suck up less water, and require less tractor fuel. And yet few farmers have taken up these methods.
“When I had the results showing that you can save 16 percent of irrigation water with residues and no till, I thought it would really change things in the Valley,” Mitchell mused. “But it hasn’t seemed to be that relevant.”
There are farmers successfully using these methods, but the percentage is still very low. And Mitchell can understand why people are skeptical. The cost savings — for fuel and labor (water prices are too variable to estimate) — are just $70 an acre, which isn’t terribly significant for a cotton farmer. And, as Mitchell knows, there are lots of things that can go wrong when a farmer starts trying new things.
That reluctance to change doesn’t slow Mitchell down for long. He knows that surmounting the technological challenges is less than half the battle. The bulk of the work is in teaching people how to do the same thing, and — even more importantly — convincing them that it’s worth their time.
And so he gets in the dirty Prius again, year in and year out, adding mile after uncounted mile, and carrying his Johnny Appleseed act across California.
Saturday, April 19, 2014
Victory in Vermont - in time to Celebrate on Earth Day!
Earth Day is coming up next Tuesday. This year, Mother Earth has at least one thing to celebrate—the beginning of the end of Monsanto’s evil empire.
Yesterday, Vermont passed H.112, this country’s first no-strings-attached law requiring the mandatory labeling of GMOs (genetically modified organisms), and outlawing the practice of labeling GMO-contaminated foods as “natural” or “all-natural.”
With the passage of the Vermont GMO labeling law, after 20 years of struggle, it’s time to celebrate our common victory. But as we all know, the battle for a new food and farming system, and a sustainable future has just begun.
Monsanto will likely sue Vermont. And lose. And the Gene and Junk Food Giants will still try to pass a federal law intended to strip Vermont, and every other state, of the right to pass GMO labeling laws.
But we will fight back. And we will win.
Read Ronnie’s essay
Thursday, April 17, 2014
Worms Produce Another Kind of Gold for Growers
By JIM ROBBINS
Published: December 31, 2012
SONOMA, Calif. — Under rows of old chicken sheds, Jack Chambers has built an empire of huge metal boxes filled with cattle manure and millions of wriggling red worms.
“My buddies all had planes and boats,” said Mr. Chambers, 60, a former airline pilot. “I have a worm farm.”
Mr. Chambers’s two decades of investment in what he calls an “underground movement” may be paying off. New research suggests that the product whose manufacture he helped pioneer, a worm-created soil additive called vermicompost, offers an array of benefits for plants — helping them grow with more vigor, and making them more resistant to disease and insects, than those grown with other types of composts and fertilizers.
The earthworm’s digestive process, it turns out, “is a really nice incubator for microorganisms,” said Norman Q. Arancon, an assistant professor of horticulture at the University of Hawaii at Hilo.
And these microbes, which multiply rapidly when they are excreted, alter the ecosystem of the soil. Some make nitrogen more available to plant roots, accounting for the increased growth. The high diversity and numbers of microbes outperform those in the soil that cause disease.
By contrast, Dr. Arancon said, soil that has been heavily exposed to synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides lacks microbial richness and diversity, qualities that can be restored naturally by adding the microbes from worms.
Some experts and entrepreneurs hope earthworms can also help with another problem: the growing piles of animal waste from dairy farms and other agricultural operations.
Worm Power, a company in Avon, N.Y., transforms 10 million pounds of manure from a single dairy herd each year — about 40 percent of the cattle’s output — into 2.5 million pounds of vermicompost. Tom Herlihy, a former municipal waste engineer who founded the company in 2003, says it has raised more than $6 million in venture capital and $2 million in grants for research, much of it at Cornell University.
Here in Northern California, Mr. Chambers’s Sonoma Valley Worm Farm produces about half a million pounds of similar compost, an amount he plans to increase in the spring. He loads a long metal bin with cow manure and 300,000 to 400,000 Eisenia fetida, or red wigglers — weighing 300 to 400 pounds. In their wake, the worms leave cattle waste that has been processed into rich and crumbly castings that look like fine peat moss.
It takes six months for a vermicompost bed to become fully mature, by which time a million worms roam the manure. Mr. Chambers continues to add two yards of manure and harvest one yard of worm compost weekly. The finished product is shaved, an inch at a time, off the bottom of the bin. An established bed can go on this way for years.
Both operations pre-compost their manure before they fork it over to the worms. That means piling it up and allowing it to get naturally hot enough to kill unwanted seeds and pathogens like E. coli.
The properties of worm compost are different from fertilizer or manure. “It’s interesting and complicated,” said Rhonda Sherman, an extension specialist at North Carolina State University who has taught vermicomposting around the world for more than 30 years and who holds an annual conference on the subject.
“Certain plants might react well to vermicompost from dairy manure,” she said, “and other plants might react better to food-waste vermicompost.” That has led to “boutique composting,” with different blends for different kinds of plants.
A West Coast company, California Soils, uses worms to break down cardboard waste fibers that are too short to be recycled. The glue used to bind the paper serves as an important source of nitrogen for the worms. “It’s a really good product for nut farmers and stone fruit farmers,” Mitch Davis, a company spokesman, said of the compost, adding that it also helps control nutgall, a fungal disease that afflicts walnut trees.
Worms were said to be Darwin’s favorite organism, and for good reason: it seems they can break down most anything. Studies have shown they can detoxify soil with cadmium, lead and other heavy metals.
Another product made from worm waste is a concentrate, sometimes called tea, that Mr. Chambers extracts using an aerator. Dr. Arancon said even a 1 percent solution of the extract had the same properties as vermicompost.
At Cornell, Eric Nelson, a plant pathologist, is studying how compost suppresses disease. Worm Power’s product, he says, does a better job than traditional compost, perhaps because the worm compost is highly uniform. “The key is understanding why these microbes do what they do,” Dr. Nelson said. Then, perhaps, the mechanism can be enhanced, he said.
The worm compost is considered valuable enough to fetch almost 10 times the price of other composts.
Still, the industry suffers from image problems. “It’s hard to bring it out of the ‘It’s cute to have a worm box in my backyard’ approach and put it on par with other strategies for waste management,” said Allison Jack, who earned her doctorate by studying vermicompost at Cornell and is now teaching at Prescott College in Arizona.
The quality of products varies widely, and because there are no industry standards, anyone can call a product vermicompost.
For a time, the worm business was a haven for swindlers. Companies would sell worms to growers, who were told they could raise more worms and produce vermicompost, which they could then sell back. Some of these offers turned out to be Ponzi schemes.
Still, the properties of vermicompost have long been recognized by growers. Jeff Dawson, the curator of gardens at the Round Pond Estate winery in the Napa Valley, swears by Mr. Chambers’s castings, which he has used for more than a decade.
“A cup or half a cup in the hole as we plant each vine increases the vine’s ability to establish itself at a much faster pace,” Mr. Dawson said. “And it creates a healthier plant.”
This being California, some of Mr. Chambers’s customers are medical marijuana growers, and he likes the way growers do business. “They hand you cash,” he said.
A version of this article appeared in print on January 1, 2013, on page D4 of the New York edition with the headline: Worms Produce Another Kind of Gold for Growers.
Sunday, April 13, 2014
Sacramento council votes to launch ‘cash for grass’ program to save water
By Ryan Lillis
Mar. 4, 2014
The city of Sacramento wants to pay you to rip out your
The City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to launch a
“cash for grass” program that will provide rebates to homeowners who replace
their grass lawns with drought-tolerant landscaping. Demand for the rebates is
expected to be high; city utilities officials said they already had a waiting
list for the program before the spending plan was approved.
“I think this will really help our residents make a
difference in saving water,” said Councilman Kevin McCarty, who proposed the
program. “I think it’s time that as a city, we help incentivize action in
The rebate plan has not been finalized, but could involve
homeowners receiving 50 cents per square foot of lawn, up to 1,000 feet. The
city has set aside $100,000 for the program and plans to start issuing rebates
Sacramento has launched intense water conservation efforts
in recent weeks, as the region and Northern California grapple with a historic
drought that has led to low levels in area reservoirs and rivers.
In January, the council voted to enact a mandatory 20
percent reduction on citywide water usage and to beef up enforcement of
residents watering lawns during the week, a violation of winter watering rules.
Utilities officials told the council that the city is off to
a good start in its water conservation. Total water use in Sacramento was down
12 percent in January, compared with the average total of the past two years.
That’s a reduction of 8 million gallons per day.
Residents have also responded to calls by the city to report
The city received 110 calls through the first two months of
last year from residents reporting illegal water use. Over the same time this
year, residents made 2,200 of those calls.
That has led to a sharp increase in the number of warnings
the city has issued to homeowners, from 14 last year to 205 this year. Only a
handful of fines have been issued.
Recent rainfall has helped, but has not erased the region’s
“I want to emphasize that the drought does persist,” said
Dave Brent, city utilities director. “There really is no end in sight.”
Utilities officials said the city would continue its water
conservation plans. Billboards will begin appearing around the city and on
buses next week urging residents to take shorter showers and “brush every other
Brent said the city would also ask for money for the lawn
program in next year’s budget.
“If you need more, come back,” said Councilman Steve Hansen.
Roseville has the oldest “cash for grass” program in the
region. Lisa Brown, a water conservation administrator in Roseville, said the
city has granted about 500 rebates since 2008. More than 350,000 square feet of
grass lawn has been replaced over that time, she said.
Roseville pays $1 per square foot for its program. Demand
was so high this year that the city has already run out of money and will have
to wait until the next fiscal year to begin issuing rebates again, Brown said.
Chris Brown, a water consultant and the former executive
director of California Urban Water Conservation Council, applauded Sacramento’s
“It’s time for Sacramento to be a leader in the Central
Valley,” he said.
The city of Sacramento wants to pay you to rip out your water-guzzling lawn.