Monday, September 26, 2011

Why Eating Organic is the Single Greenest Thing You Can Do

By Marc Gunther
Published September 15, 2011

"If you do just one thing -- make one conscious choice -- that can change the world, go organic.... No other single choice you can make to improve the health of your family and the planet will have greater positive repercussions for our future."
That's a bold statement. Is eating organic more important than avoiding meat, stopping coal plants, biking instead of driving or donating to worthy causes?
Yes, declares Maria Rodale, the CEO of the Rodale Inc. publishing empire (Mens Health, Prevention, Runners World) and author of the aptly named Organic Manifesto: How Organic Food Can Heal Our Planet, Feed the World and Keep Us Safe (Rodale Books), from which the quote is drawn.
"There's so many benefits that come from that one choice," Maria explains. "You've removed a bajillion pounds of dangerous, synthetic, disease-causing environment-destroying chemicals from the soil, the water our bodies. We would all immediately be healthier. Our children would be healthier."
Farmers and their families and farm workers would be better off, too, she goes on: "And our kids would be smarter. There are actually studies that show that a lot of these chemicals do reduce intelligence."
I arranged a phone interview with Maria after meeting her last spring during Cooking for Solutions, a great conference and food fest on sustainable agriculture and fishing organized by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I'd read her book and wanted to delve deeper into the issues surrounding organics. Tomorrow, I'll offer a dissenting view from Steve Savage, an agricultural consultant who is dubious about many of Maria's claims.
Maria, who is 49, is the scion of America's first family of organics. Her grandfather, J.I. Rodale, started Organic Farming and Gardening magazine, which is now known as Organic Gardening, in 1942. He put his ideas into practice on a 60-acre farm near Emmaus, Pa. She was raised nearby. "I grew, I weeded, I picked, I cooked," she said. "I was very aware that we were a little different from everyone else, at least once I started going to school." The family farm became a tourist destination. "For many people, it was like a pilgrimage," she remembers. Those were the days when organic food could be purchased only in health or natural food stores.
Today, while the acreage farmed organically remains small -- less than 1 percent of U.S. farmland -- organics are a big business. U.S. sales of organic food and beverages have grown from $1 billion in 1990 to $26.7 billion in 2010, according to the Organic Trade Association. Organic fruits and vegetables represent more than 10 percent of all sales of fruits and vegetable, the group says.
Conventional foods are worse for us than we realize, Maria argues. The government responds to problems after the fact and is overly influenced by big agricultural firms, which also shape university research. In her book, she writes:
           There is enough evidence to know now that synthetic chemicals are destroying our health and our ability to reproduce and, thus, our ability to survive as a species. Agricultural chemicals have statistically and significantly been implicated in causing all sorts of cancers, behavioral problems, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, autism, Parkinson's disease, reduced intelligence, infertility, miscarriage, diabetes, infant deformities and low birth weight.
No specific studies are cited in the book, so I asked Maria for a couple of references. She sent me a link to Beyond Pesticides, website, where a blog with headlines like Low Doses of Pesticides Put Honey Bees at Risk. Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York provides a fact-sheet about pesticides here which says, among other things, that
           Pesticides have been shown to cause a wide range of adverse effects on human health including acute and chronic injury to the nervous system, lung damage, injury to the reproductive organs, dysfunction of the immune and endocrine systems, birth defects, and cancer; these effects can manifest as acutely toxic effects, delayed effects, or chronic effects.
For its part, the agricultural industry says pesticide residues on food are harmless and regulated by the government.
The picture is darker when it comes to farm workers. A long-term government study of more than 80,000 farmers and their wives from Iowa and North Carolina, called the Agricultural Health Study, offers some warnings. While the farmers studied are generally healthier than the general population, pesticide exposure has been linked to Parkinson's disease, prostate cancer, lung disease and some brain disorders. (Details here.) One study found that farmers who "used pesticides longer and more often said they had more neurological symptoms than those who had not used pesticides or had used them less frequently and for fewer years."
What's more, anecdotal evidence on the impact of synthetical chemicals on birth defects is downright scary, as Barry Estabrook reported in Tomatoland. [See my July blogpost, Rotten tomatoes.] Tom Philpott of Mother Jones recently reported on methyl iodide, which is sprayed on strawberry fields and has been called "reliably carcinogenic" by the Pesticide Action Network.
That's probably reason enough, for many of us, to choose organic. But what about the costs? Maria makes a couple of good points in that regard. First, she says: "If you can, grow a garden, which is fun and good. It's great exercise, and kids love it." If not, shop carefully and cook more: "Eat less processed food. Do more cooking. Every step of processing food add more cost." In Maria's Farm Country Kitchen, she offers gardening tips, recipes and political commentary:
Stop wasting American tax dollars supporting, subsidizing, and encouraging the toxic chemical and GMO farming that are promoted by unethical companies who spread lies and poison around the world in order to line their own pockets. We've been ripped off and contaminated long enough.
I asked Maria about evidence that organic growers are less productive that conventional farmers. That's not so, she says, noting that most big farms in the U.S. produce corn and soy for non-food use.
"Most people don't eat that corn and soy," she says. "It's made into high fructose corn syrup. It's made into feed for factory grown animals. It's made into biofuels that do not feed people." She's right about that -- more than a third of the US corn crop goes into the making of ethanol. Something's wrong, she says, when "a farmer who is growing chemical corn is getting subsidized and a farmer who switches to growing food that people need to eat gets no help whatsoever."
What do you think? Should we be subsidizing organic farmers? Or not?
Come back tomorrow to learn why Steve Savage believes that organic food, whatever its virtues, can't meet the world's growing demand for food.
Maria Rodale photo by Cedric Angeles Photography.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Working in Harmony with Nature

This video shows a wonderful example of man working in harmony with the natural environment. 

In this video "called The Living Bridge" we see extreme examples of natures forces and the beautiful solution developed from only natural living materials. This same set of problem solving steps could be used in less extreme situations. We can envision and create beautiful and natural living solutions like these. - Landscaping in complete unison with Mother Nature - I would call this true Sustainability!

Friday, September 16, 2011

Vegetable Gardens Are Booming in a Fallow Economy

Sarah G. Fannin adds a red pepper to pickings she gathered with Linda Frisby for sale in West Liberty, Ky.

Published: September 8, 2011

WEST LIBERTY, Ky. — As the economy continues to stagnate in towns and cities across the country, here in eastern Kentucky it is causing things to sprout.

Garden plots are dug into the green hills, laid out in fuller force than people have seen in years. People call them sturdy patches of protection in uncertain times.

“You see a lot more people turning up ground,” said Wanda Hamilton, 61, a lifelong gardener who sells her surplus vegetables at the farmers’ market in West Liberty, a small town in the Appalachian foothills. “It’s the economy. You just can’t afford to shop at the store anymore.”

It is not just eastern Kentucky. Vegetable gardening has been on the rise across the country, according to Bruce Butterfield, research director at the National Gardening Association, driven by rising food prices and a growing contingent of health-conscious consumers. Garden-store retailers have reported increased sales over the past two years, he said, and many community gardens have waiting lists.

“Our sales have skyrocketed,” said George Ball, chief executive of Burpee, one of the largest vegetable-seed retailers. The jump, he said, began around the time Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008, when anxiety about money started to rise.

In urban areas, the words “locally grown” conjure images of affluent shoppers in pricey farmers’ markets. But in rural America, consumers are opting for locally grown food — from their own gardens and neighboring farmers — largely because it is cheaper.

Credit: Luke Sharrett for The New York Times
Rebecca Frazier, a teacher here, said she had cut her food bill in half by growing her own and preserving and by buying in bulk from local farmers. She recently paid $10 for 40 pounds of sweet potatoes, a fraction of the store price.

“I’m getting twice the food for a whole lot less money,” she said.

Credit: Luke Sharrett for The New York Times
Timothy Woods, a professor of agricultural economics at the University of Kentucky who has studied the evolution of farmers’ markets in the state, said more rural residents were selling surplus out of their gardens for supplemental income, a pattern that has helped double the number of farmers’ markets in eastern Kentucky since 2004.

Those markets are geared to shoppers who want to buy in bulk at the lowest possible price in order to pickle, can, dry and freeze, Mr. Woods said — unlike urban markets, where customers pay double rural prices and typically eat what they buy right away.

“You won’t see certified organic products or any fancy marketing,” he said of rural markets. “It’s a very different world.”

Ms. Hamilton began selling about 10 years ago when her garden produced more than she could handle. She knows she could charge more but doesn’t, because her customers “are struggling just like me.” Nearly two-thirds of her sales are to elderly residents who are using government food vouchers.

Another motivation for bigger gardens: the financial uncertainty that comes with retirement.

Brenda Engle, 56, an apparel factory employee, and her husband, Leon, 64, a former telecommunications company employee who works at Wal-Mart, are trying to squeeze their budget down to the size of their future retirement check.

They grew a year’s worth of beans. “We want to be self-sufficient,” said Ms. Engle, who has even started making her own laundry detergent.

Her garden is also therapy.

“When I’m in the garden,” she said, “the world is gone.”

Sarah G. Fannin, an agriculture educator who works with the University of Kentucky’s cooperative extension service to take research to people in the county, said calls for gardening assistance had doubled in the past three years, many from young people. Gardening classes have been full, she said, as has a class on canning taught by a colleague.

At J. A. Oldfield & Son, a country store in the area, vegetable seed sales have doubled in recent seasons.

And eastern Kentucky has a keen interest in cooking. Mr. Woods said residents were more likely to watch food shows on television than people in the more affluent, western part of the state, citing a survey he conducted in 2009.

“Ten years ago, we hadn’t really been thinking about where our food was coming from other than the drive-through or the grocery store,” Ms. Fannin said. “Now there’s more concern.”

That is because — at least in the opinion of Ms. Frazier, the teacher — health has become a bigger issue for more people here, partly as a hedge against rising health care costs. She said she planted her garden in 2008 after her daughter started having health problems.

Gardening doesn’t necessarily lead to better health, of course. But Bridget C. Booske, a senior scientist at the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, said Morgan County, where West Liberty is, seemed to be better off than its neighbors.

Credit: Luke Sharrett for The New York Times
Wendell Williams, 73, waits to sell his homegrown tomatoes to customers at the farmers’ market.

People in the county live longer, and fewer babies are born underweight, she said, citing County Health Rankings, a ranking of American counties, published this summer, that she helped compile. Better trauma care in the county would contribute but not entirely account for better rates, she said.

Still, the rates of obesity and diabetes remain high, and a significant improvement in health will be possible only when the joblessness and poverty here ease, locals said.

Credit: Luke Sharrett for The New York Times
Ms. Fannin holds a handful of freshly picked heirloom green beans on her farm in West Liberty, Ky.

Ms. Fannin said vegetables could be part of this area’s economic future. She has urged farmers to start growing sweet potatoes, a hardy crop in vogue in urban kitchens. Robert Bradley, a coal worker turned farmer, said he had been laughed at when he first planted them, but his crop turned out so well that other farmers want to try.

His ultimate insurance policy, however, is his own garden.

“When I go to my cellar and get my own green beans and potatoes, I know I won’t go hungry,” he said.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Sacramento City Council passes backyard chicken ordinance

5:12 AM, Aug 31, 2011

SACRAMENTO, CA - The Sacramento City Council unanimously passed an ordinance that would allow citizens to raise chickens in their backyard.

The issue was first brought up to the city council two years ago by members of a group called CLUCK, campaign for legalizing urban chicken keeping.

RELATED STORY: Backyard chickens make a come back

Sacramento city residents will be able to raise chickens, no more than three, if the owners pay an annual fee and keep them at least 20 feet from a neighboring home.

CLUCK argues that wild eggs are better than store-bought eggs. Others said backyard chickens allow Sacramento to be a sustainable city.

Opponents said chickens will bring noise, smell, and disease.

FACEBOOK: Legalize backyard chicken keeping?

Some councilmembers admit they're not completely sold on the idea, but were willing to give it a shot and reevaluate the effects in a few months.

Chicken owners were relieved the ordinance passed.

"I think the folks who are concerned about it, who testifid against it, who don't want chickens in their neighbors yards-- I'm think their fears are going to be unfounded in 6 months. They're gona come back and it's not going to be that big of a deal in terms of problems," said Joseph Calavita, a CLUCK member.

The new ordinance goes into effect Nov. 1.


Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Organic farming can be more profitable in the long-term than conventional agriculture

Jeremy Hance
September 01, 2011

Organic farming is more profitable and economically secure than conventional farming even over the long-term, according to a new study in Agronomy Journal. Using experimental farm plots, researchers with the University of Minnesota found that organic beat conventional even if organic price premiums (i.e. customers willing to pay more for organic) were to drop as much as 50 percent.

"Doing an economic study like this, it’s important to get as complete a picture of the yield variability as we can," explains Timothy Delbridge, lead author of the study and a doctoral student studying agricultural economics at the University of Minnesota. "So, the length of this trial is a big asset. We’re pretty confident that the full extent of the yield
variability came through in the results."

Conducted over 18 years, the study found that a conventional farm, rotating corn, soy, oat, and alfalfa over 4 years brought in $273, while an organic farm netted $538. Even if the organic premium dropped by half, it would still be more profitable given that the cost of production was lower for organic, since organic farmers would spend nothing on chemicals.

"What we’re looking at here are results between an established organic and an established conventional system. This research doesn’t take into consideration the issue of the transition itself: how difficult or costly that may be," cautions Delbridge.

Organic farming—which excludes the use of pesticides, herbicides, and GMOs—is considered better for environment, including less pollution, better use of water, and biodiversity-friendly practices. Findings vary, but studies have shown that organic farming is capable of producing similar yields to conventional farming. Organic farms also withstand natural disasters—such as droughts and hurricanes—better than conventional farming, which may be increasingly important in a world undergoing climate change.

Organic farm in Indonesian Borneo. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Organic farm in Indonesian Borneo. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Planting Blueberries & Growing Blueberries

From Grow Organic

Tricia shows you how to plant and grow delicious, nutritious blueberries in containers and in the garden. Tips on soil, fertilizing, and pruning.

Get more info plus organic gardening supplies at Peaceful Valley,

Learn more in our five blueberry blog posts about pruning, warm climates, containers, FAQs, and health benefits.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

High Density Fruit Tree Growing

Ed Laivo of Dave Wilson Nursery discusses high density fruit tree plantings at the Fair Oaks Horticultural Center's Demonstration Gardens and Orchard.

What Is Backyard Orchard Culture?
The objectives of Backyard Orchard Culture are:
  • The prolonged harvest of tree-ripe fruit from a small space.
  • Many fruit varieties may be be planted close together.
  • The trees should be kept small by summer pruning.
— Summer Prune For Size Control —

Backyard Orchard Culture Is Not Commercial Orchard Culture

For years, most of the information about growing fruit came from commercial orchard culture: methods that promoted maximum size for maximum yield but required 12-foot ladders for pruning, thinning and picking, and 400 to 600 square feet of land per tree. Tree spacing had to allow for tractors.

Most people today do not need or expect commercial results from their backyard fruit trees. A commercial grower would never consider using his methods on a 90 ft. x 100 ft. parcel, so why should a homeowner?

Backyard Orchard Culture Is High Density Planting And Successive Ripening

Maximize the length of the fruit season by planting several (or many) fruit varieties with different ripening times.

Because of the limited space available to most homeowners, this means using one or more of the techniques for close-planting and training fruit trees; two, three or four trees in one hole, espalier, and hedgerow are the most common of these techniques.

Four trees instead of one means ten to twelve weeks of fruit instead of only two or three.

Close planting offers the additional advantage of restricting a tree's vigor. A tree won't grow as large when there are competing trees close by. Close-planting works best when rootstocks of similar vigor are planted together.

For example, using a four-in-one-hole planting, four trees on Citation rootstock would be easier to maintain than a combination of one tree on Lovell, one on Mazzard, one on Citation, and one on M-27.

In many climates, planting more varieties can also mean better cross-pollination of pears, apples, plums and cherries, which means more consistent production.

Backyard Orchard Culture Means Accepting The Responsibility For Tree Size

Small trees yield crops of manageable size and are much easier to spray, thin, prune, net, and harvest than large trees.
  • If trees are kept small, it is possible to plant a greater number of trees, affording the opportunity for more kinds of fruit and a longer fruit season.
  • Most semi-dwarfing rootstocks do not control fruit-tree size as much as you might expect.
  • Rootstocks can help to improve soil and climate adaptation, pest and disease resistance, precocity (heavy bearing in early years), tree longevity, and ease of propagation.
  • To date, no rootstocks have been developed which do all these things, plus fully-dwarf the scion.

Pruning is the only way to keep most fruit trees under twelve feet tall.

The most practical method of pruning is Summer Pruning.

Tree size is the grower's responsibility. Choose a size and don't let the tree get any bigger. A good height is the height you can reach for thinning and picking while standing on the ground, or while standing on a low stool.

Two other important influences on tree size are irrigation and fertilization practices. Fruit trees should not be grown with lots of nitrogen and lots of water. Some people grow their fruit trees the way they do their lawn, then wonder why the trees are so big and don't have any fruit!

Backyard Orchard Culture Means Understanding The Reasons For Pruning

It's much easier to keep a small tree small than it is to make a large tree small.

Most kinds of deciduous fruit trees require pruning to stimulate new fruiting wood, to remove broken and diseased wood, to space the fruiting wood, and to allow good air circulation and sunlight penetration in the canopy.

Pruning is most important in the first three years, because this is when the shape and size of a fruit tree is established.

Pruning at the same time as thinning the crop is strongly recommended.

By pruning when there is fruit on the tree, the kind of wood on which the tree sets fruit (one year-old wood, two year-old wood, spurs, etc.) is apparent, which helps you to make better pruning decisions.

This information about high density planting is from Dave Wilson Nursery at: