Fishermen cast their nets over a flooded paddy field on the outskirts of Agartala, the capital of India’s northeastern state of Tripura, May 26, 2010. [REUTERS/Jayanta Dey]
Ancient farming seen curbing extinctions of animals, plants
Ancient farming practices, such as raising fish in rice paddies in China or Aboriginal Australian fire controls, will get a new lease of life under plans to slow extinctions of animals and plants, experts said on Monday.
Turning to traditional farming is seen as a way of limiting what U.N. studies say is the worst spate of extinctions since the dinosaurs vanished 65 million years ago, driven by a rising human population that is wrecking natural habitats.
Chris Tidmarsh graduated from Hope College with a degree in chemistry and environmental studies. He got a job in environmental research but lost it shortly after and moved back home.
"Clearly, he needed a different path to apply his talents in the world of work," said his mother Jan Pilarski. Chris has autism.
"Nearly all of his peers with autism were chronically unemployed despite having post-secondary degrees," Pilarski wrote recently. “Our world seemed small and bleak. I didn’t have much hope to change the minds of potential employers to help Chris get a job. On the other hand, I saw an opportunity to be entrepreneurial about the staggering 90 percent unemployment rate confronting people with autism.”
Image: Green Bridge Growers
Tucson Food Bank Helps The Needy Grow Their Own Food
Food banks around the country face growing demand, despite improvements in the economy. Many families are still underemployed and struggling. So some food banks are looking for more permanent ways to address hunger, beyond handing out food.
One of them is the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, based in Tucson. Among the many programs it runs is Las Milpitas de Cottonwood, a community farm located in one of the city’s lower-income neighborhoods.
More than 50 families have garden plots there. Most, like Jamie Senik, who lives in a nearby trailer park, are regular clients at the food bank.
Working under the hot morning sun, Senik says the ground at the farm might look hard and dry, but it’s good for growing. Her plot is surprisingly green.
"I have tomatoes and basil, cucumbers and peppers and some beans," she says, walking around her plot. Senik says the food bank provides the land, the seeds and the water: “All I have to do is plant it and tend it."
(Photos: Pam Fessler/NPR)
The ‘underground forests’ that are bringing deserts to life
They call it the “underground forest”, and it has proved, literally, to be an answer to prayer, both for one young Australian and for countless people living in one of the hungriest corners of the planet. For it has enabled millions of hectares of severely degraded land to produce good harvests, spurring a grassroots agricultural revolution that – almost unnoticed by the outside world – is spreading across West Africa’s Sahel.
The revolution – and similar, largely unpublicised, developments around the globe – offers hope of reversing perhaps the world’s most alarming environmental crisis: land degradation costs at least 30 billion tons of priceless topsoil and deprives farmers of an area three times the size of Switzerland every year. And it represents one of the best ways of combating climate change and preventing conflict.
The story starts with Tony Rinaudo – a young Australian missionary in the Maradi region of Niger in the early 1980s – who tried to ease the suffering of the people in an area where desperately poor farmers could sow crops up to four or five times a year only for them to be smothered by drifts of sand. Time and time again he planted trees to stabilise the soil, retain water from the occasional rains and provide shade for crops. Every time they died.
One day he gazed despairingly out on the unforgiving desert, wondering: “How many saplings, how many people, how many millions of dollars would I need for this?”
Driven to prayer, he says, he “saw for the first time what had been there all along. Seemingly useless small bushes scattered over the dry land, which we had despised as weeds, were actually the outward signs of a vast underground forest.”
How farmers are saving seeds and building a Canadian collection
On Kim Delaney’s seed farm in Palmerston, Ont., the peppers, the tomatoes and the more than 100 varieties of vegetables she grows have had to cope with a lot of rain this season. That means at the end of the summer, the finest specimens she’ll choose to collect seeds from – that she’ll package and sell to her customers to plant next year – will hold the genes they need to thrive in rainy weather. And because she’s been growing seeds for the past 13 years, what she produces will also be primed to do well in other conditions, too – even droughts.
“Last year we had five and a half weeks without rain and this year we have rain every two days. So, the genes in the plant populations I am collecting are constantly adapting,” she says.
By going through her fields and selecting the seeds from plants that have the characteristics she’s looking for – including taste and colour – Delaney is building a truly Canadian collection. That is, vegetables that are adapted to the climate and geography here – and taste like they are grown in our soil, too.
This is incredibly rare.
West Virginia University is giving away free packets of seeds of what has been dubbed ‘the people’s tomato.’
SRI, the system of rice intensification, has taken agribusiness giants by surprise with its record-breaking harvests across the globe.
Clinton Awards More Than $700,000 to Haiti Farms
A charity for former U.S. President Bill Clinton (pictured above during a visit to the sisal fiber production company Sisalco S.A. in Port-au-Prince,) awarded more than $700,000 to develop the country’s agriculture sector.
The Clinton Foundation announced Monday that the grants will go toward efforts to plant trees, build a coffee farm and train farmers.
Clinton has been the United Nations’ special envoy to Haiti since shortly before the devastating 2010 earthquake. He left Haiti following a two-day visit accompanied by potential investors representing a perfume company, restaurants and a lingerie company.
“The country has been beat down so long and the controversies are so familiar to people that it’s sometimes too easy to see the down side. I’m not naive. I know what the down side is,” he told The Associated Press. But, even so, he said, “This is a place of staggering potential.”
One of the delegation’s visits on Monday was to a brewery Heineken NV purchased last year. The company announced on Monday that it would invest $40 million to expand the brewery and help farmers who supply it with sorghum.
President Michel Martelly is trying to lure foreign investors to help rebuild the Caribbean nation following the massive quake. His administration has routinely employed the mantra, “Haiti is open for business.”
But analysts in both Haiti and abroad say the nation is held back by an old-fashioned banking system and a dysfunctional justice system that provides little legal certainty for investors.
Other deterrents include U.S. government advisories that alert travelers to security concerns, a cholera epidemic and inadequate infrastructure.
The travel warnings didn’t escape the notice of first-time Haiti visitor Mario Batali, an American celebrity chef, even if he did have the luxury of traveling with Clinton’s security detail.
“The danger is in my opinion very overplayed,” said Batali, wearing his signature orange Crocs and shorts.
Batali said he could imagine introducing Haitian products to customers in his Italian restaurants: “I could see using their coffee. I could see using their mangoes. I could see using their rum. I could see using just about everything we’ve bumped into.”
Bhutan set to plough lone furrow as world’s first wholly organic country
Bhutan plans to become the first country in the world to turn its agriculture completely organic, banning the sales of pesticides and herbicides and relying on its own animals and farm waste for fertilisers.
But rather than accept that this will mean farmers of the small Himalayan kingdom of around 1.2m people (according to Pema Gyamtsho, Bhutan’s minister of agriculture and forests; the World Bank estimates it at around 740,000) will be able to grow less food, the government expects them to be able to grow more – and to export increasing amounts of high quality niche foods to neighbouring India, China and other countries.
The decision to go organic was both practical and philosophical, said Gyamtsho, in Delhi for the annual sustainable development conference last week. “Ours is a mountainous terrain. When we use chemicals they don’t stay where we use them, they impact the water and plants. We say that we need to consider all the environment. Most of our farm practices are traditional farming, so we are largely organic anyway.
"But we are Buddhists, too, and we believe in living in harmony with nature. Animals have the right to live, we like to to see plants happy and insects happy," he said.
Gyamtsho, like most members of the cabinet, is a farmer himself, coming from Bumthang in central Bhutan but studying western farming methods in New Zealand and Switzerland.
"Going organic will take time," he said. "We have set no deadline. We cannot do it tomorrow. Instead we will achieve it region by region and crop by crop."
The overwhelmingly agrarian nation, which really only opened its doors to world influences 30 years ago, is now facing many of the development pangs being felt everywhere in rapidly emerging countries. Young people reluctant to live just by farming are migrating to India and elsewhere, there is a population explosion, and there is inevitable pressure for consumerism and cultural change.
But, says Gyamtsho, Bhutan’s future depends largely on how it responds to interlinked development challenges like climate change, and food and energy security. “We would already be self-sufficient in food if we only ate what we produced. But we import rice. Rice eating is now very common, but traditionally it was very hard to get. Only the rich and the elite had it. Rice conferred status. Now the trend is reversing. People are becoming more health-conscious and are eating grains like buckwheat and wheat.”
In the west, organic food growing is widely thought to reduce the size of crops because they become more susceptible to pests. But this is being challenged in Bhutan and some regions of Asia, where smallholders are developing new techniques to grow more and are not losing soil quality.
Systems like “sustainable root intensification” (SRI), which carefully regulate the amount of water that crops need and the age at which seedlings are planted out, have shown that organic crop yields can be doubled with no synthetic chemicals.
"We are experimenting with different methods of growing crops like SRI but we are also going to increase the amount of irrigated land and use traditional varieties of crops which do not require inputs and have pest resistance," says Gyamtsho.
However, a run of exceptionally warm years and erratic weather has left many farmers doubtful they can do without chemicals.
In Paro, a largely farming district in south-west Bhutan, farmers are already struggling to grow enough to feed their families and local government officials say they are having to distribute fertiliser and pesticides in larger quantities to help people grow more.
"I have heard of the plan to turn everything organic. But we are facing serious problems just getting people to grow enough", said Rinzen Wangchuk, district farm officer.
"Most people here are smallholder farmers. The last few years we have had problems with the crops. The weather has been very erratic. It’s been warmer than normal and all the chilli crops are full of pests. We are having to rely on fertilisers more than we have ever had to in the past and even these are not working as well as they initially did."
Dawa Tshering, who depends on his two acres of rice paddy and a vegetable garden, says that for decades his farming was chemical free.
"But its harder now because all our children are either in the capital or studying. Nobody wants to stay, which means we have to work harder. It’s just my wife an myself here. We cannot grow enough to feed ourselves and take crops to the market, so we have to use chemicals for the first time. We would like to go back to farming how we used to, where we just used what nature provided."
But in a world looking for new ideas, Bhutan is already called the poster child of sustainable development. More than 95% of the population has clean water and electricity, 80% of the country is forested and, to the envy of many countries, it is carbon neutral and food secure.
In addition, it is now basing its economic development on the pursuit of collective happiness.
"We have no fossil fuels or nuclear. But we are blessed with rivers which give us the potential of over 30,000megawatts of electricity. So far we only exploit 2,000 megawatts. We exploit enough now to export to India and in the pipeline we have 10,000 megawatts more. The biggest threat we face is cars. The number is increasing every day. Everyone wants to buy cars and that means we must import fuel. That is why we must develop our energy."
Agriculture minister Gyamtsho remains optimistic. “Hopefully we can provide solutions. What is at stake is the future. We need governments who can make bold decisions now rather than later.”
US farmers may stop planting GMs after poor global yields
Some US farmers are considering returning to conventional seed after increased pest resistance and crop failures meant GM crops saw smaller yields globally than their non-GM counterparts.
Farmers in the USA pay about an extra $100 per acre for GM seed, and many are questioning whether they will continue to see benefits from using GMs.
"It’s all about cost benefit analysis," said economist Dan Basse, president of American agricultural research company AgResource.
"Farmers are paying extra for the technology but have seen yields which are no better than 10 years ago. They’re starting to wonder why they’re spending extra money on the technology."
One of the biggest problems the USA has seen with GM seed is resistance. While it was expected to be 40 years before resistance began to develop pests such as corn rootworm have formed a resistance to GM crops in as few as 14 years.
"We’re looking at going back to cultivation to control it," said Mr Basse. "I now use insecticides again."
One of the issues if farmers do move back towards non-GMs will be the availability of seed, he said, as around 87% of US farmers plant genetically modified seed.
The top performing countries by crop yield last year were in Asia, in particular China, where farmers do not use GM seed.
The Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) has an idea to fix that: Find landowners located closer to urban centers who aren’t doing much with their land and match them with small farmers, who would lease the properties. Leases can be as small as a quarter acre, which is enough to grow a couple of organic crops, or as large as hundreds of acres.
"We did sort of jokingly refer to it as ‘eFarmony,’" PASA’s eastern region director Marilyn Anthony told NPR. She is one of several “matchmakers” trying to connect property owners and farmers. Although people on both sides of the equation are often kind of wary of the idea, Anthony says she is trying something akin to speed dating to break the ice. Farmers and landowners can meet each other in an informal setting and see if they’d like to do business.
PASA has launched a website, Farm Lease Connection, to help further facilitate the “dating.” The site offers tips for farmers and landowners, as well as a resource blog and a calendar of upcoming events. There is no cost for either side to participate, and the program offers frequent classes and workshops on farming techniques.
One farmer told NPR the land he leased has become a popular destination for city dwellers who drive out each week to pick up fresh produce. Other farmers are still looking for the right land to lease.
PASA is not alone in its connection quest. In New York’s Hudson Valley, theColumbia Land Conservancy (CLC) runs a Farmer Landowner Match Program, which as of this spring had made 21 landowner-farmer matches, resulting in more than 1,000 acres of new farms. The CLC also has a list of leasing resources, as well as links to several similar projects throughout the northeast.
EPA praises farmer’s sustainable agriculture efforts
Russ Lester takes the long view with his Dixon Ridge Farms walnut orchards, a view that extends well beyond his lifetime. He wants to work the land in such a way that fertilizers don’t — over time — diminish the fertile soils. He wants water to still be available for farmers generations from now.
“Sustainable agriculture” is a phrase that has grown in popularity and Lester has his own definition.
“It’s a simple definition, to say we can continue doing what we’re doing for 1,000 years,” Lester said.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency Pacific Southwest Region thinks Lester is on the right track. It recently honored what it called 12 environmental heroes and named Lester its 2012 Sustainable Agriculture Champion.
“The winners, green heroes all, prove there are many ways to protect our air, water and land,” Jared Blumenfeld, the agency’s regional administrator, said in a press release.
Lester finds himself in the company of Zero Waste Advocate winner Adobe Systems of San Jose, Green Business of the Year winner Frito-Lay in Casa Grande, Ariz., and Educational Leadership winner Guam Environmental Education Committee in Guam. The Environmental Protection Agency region covers California, Nevada, Arizona, Hawaii and the Pacific Territories.
The Lester family has farmed in California since 1863, starting in the Napa area. When Lester was growing up, his father had a farm in the Santa Clara area, back when agriculture and not the computer industry was king there.
Lester went to UC Davis with no idea of becoming a farmer. But after looking at teaching and research, he decided he really wanted to farm after all. His parents had left the burgeoning Silicon Valley for the Winters area near Putah Creek in northern Solano County and in 1979 Lester and his wife Kathy bought the farm.
He started out as being more of a conventional farmer who used synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. But he also had a degree in plant ecology, with emphases in engineering and chemistry, and he decided to weld the disciplines together on the farm. The transition to embrace sustainable farming practices took place over more than a decade, with the help of other people’s ideas.
Farmers at the time usually sprayed crops on a fixed scheduled. Lester around 1980 went to the integrated pest management approach of spraying only when needed, if at all. He also began using a centuries-old idea, one that his father had tried to a degree. He planted legumes such as vetch and clovers in the walnut groves, given that they attract beneficial insects and also have a bacteria that puts nitrogen into the soils, acting as a natural fertilizer.
Lester describes his movement to sustainable agriculture practices as a progression. On some occasions, as neighbors sprayed, Lester worried.
“I’d wake up and think, ‘I’m not doing what I should be doing. I’m not spraying. Is it going to work?’ ” Lester said.
It worked, in Lester’s estimation. By the 1990s, Dixon Ridge Farms had gone organic.
Some walnut growers use chemicals extensively to get a higher yield of walnuts, perhaps three or four tons per acre to the two tons per acre at Dixon Ridge Farms, Lester said.
“The difference is, their walnuts are what I call trees on steroids,” Lester said.
He believes trees treated in such a manner will be spent in a few decades and have to be replaced at much cost. Dixon Ridge Farms has some trees more than 100 years old that are still producing quite well, he said.
Lester has approached sustainable farming from other angles, too. In 2007, he installed a biogas generator that creates energy for the walnut processing operation out of walnut shells, all without any visible smoke to pollute the air.
Dixon Ridge Farms has containers piled 24 feet high with some 720,000 pounds of walnut shells, enough to keep the generator going for a year. A company owns the generator and Lester pays a fixed price for power.
He soon expects to add an even bigger biogas generator to help power the walnut processing operation.
Lester has put 3,500 square feet of solar panels on roofs of buildings and expect to add more — by putting them on roofs instead of the ground, he avoids taking farmland out of production.
In addition, Lester put in energy-saving lights and added special insulation to a 12,000-square-foot freezer building.
Dixon Ridge Farms in 2007 set the goal of becoming energy self-sufficient. Lester expects that to happen this year.
Farms such as Lester’s are private enterprise and businesses. Taking steps to help the environment won’t work if the venture goes bankrupt.
“The bottom line is we’re making money,” Lester said. “We wouldn’t be staying in business if we weren’t.”
The question is whether Dixon Ridge Farms ends up being a niche or the future for farming. The Environmental Protection Agency views it as having lessons to teach the larger farming community.
Dixon Ridge Farms is “a model for true farm sustainability and a champion for small, family farms in California,” the agency said in a release.
Bhutan aims to be first 100% organic nation
The tiny nation has an unusual approach to economic development, centered on protecting the environment and focusing on mental well-being.
(click-through for full story)
USDA & Bureau of Indian Affairs Work to Boost Access to Farm Programs
Officials from the Department of Agriculture, USDA, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, BIA, have signed two memorandums of understanding designed to foster improved access to USDA and BIA programs by tribes and tribal members. The memorandums apply to programs administered by the Farm Service Agency, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Rural Development at USDA, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs at the Department of the Interior.
Max the 13-week Labrador mix gives Savannah the cheetah cub a wet kiss on her nose as they play together at Cincinnati Zoo in America. The zoo’s Cat Ambassador Programme sees that all their cheetahs have dog companions.
Spokesperson Tiffany Barnes explains the idea behind the programme: In Africa, Anatolian Shepherd dogs are being given to farmers to live with their live stock. This breed of dog is unique in that it devotes itself fully to whatever it is raised with, so the pups are given to the farmers at a young age. Cheetahs, being skittish animals, will do as they typically do and hunt the farmers live stock. But, when they hear the dog barking they will run away, which saves the farmer from having to shoot the cheetah.
The zoo says Savannah and Max will always live together in the Cheetah Encounter; they are great friends and will help to spread the message of cheetah conservation and saving endangered animals.
Picture: Michelle Curley/Cincinnati Zoo (via Pictures of the day: 11 September 2012 - Telegraph)