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Brie Mazurek's Posts

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Farming without water

Farmer David Little of Little Organic Farm grows potatoes without irrigation in a dry part of California.

This week, as the nation grapples with the worst drought in decades, the USDA added more than 218 counties to its list of natural disaster areas, bringing the total to 1,584 -- more than half of all U.S. counties. Farmers in the Midwest and Great Plains have been the hardest hit, but the drought is a growing reality for farmers across the country, including California. While the secretary of agriculture won’t comment on the drought’s link to climate change, it’s at the forefront of everyone’s mind, and as global warming unfolds, knowledge of dryland agriculture will become increasingly valuable.

David Little of Little Organic Farm has had to adapt to water scarcity in California's Marin and Sonoma counties, where most farmers and ranchers rely on their own reservoirs, wells, and springs, making them particularly vulnerable in years with light rainfall. Through a technique known as dry farming, Little’s potatoes and squash receive no irrigation, getting all of their water from the soil.

Mediterranean grape and olive growers have dry-farmed for thousands of years. The practice was common on the California coast from the 1800s through the early 20th century, but it became a lost art during the mid-century. Today, it is experiencing a modest resurgence along the coast, where temperate, foggy summers offer ideal conditions for dry farming grapes, tomatoes, potatoes, cucumbers, melons, grains, and some tree fruit.

“In the beginning, I searched out people who were known dry-farmers,” says Little, who started farming in 1995. “It seemed like no one had done it for 30 years or so.”

To find mentors, Little made the rounds at local bars, asking older farmers about their experiences. “They were very humble,” he says. “They told stories about how things were done, and I would pick up tidbits.” After years of trial and error, he now considers himself an expert.

Read more: Food

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Locavore brew: Tapping into beer’s agricultural roots

A version of this piece originally appeared in the CUESA Newsletter.

All photos by Almanac Beer Co.

Wendell Berry has said that eating is an agricultural act, but what about drinking beer? A thirst for fermented beverages may have inspired the world's first farmers to plant crops some 13,000 years ago, yet today beer is rarely part of the larger conversation about where our food comes from.

In California, a handful of local craft brewers are starting to tap into that primitive connection. Taking up the motto "Beer is agriculture," Almanac Beer Co. works directly with farmers in the greater Bay Area to source specialty ingredients for their seasonal brews. "For most people, beer is what shows up in the bottle or can," says Almanac brewer Damian Fagan. "We're trying to create a foundation that beer is rooted deeply in agriculture."

Fagan founded Almanac with Beer & Nosh blogger Jesse Friedman last year, after they met in a home-brewing club, where they traded brewing experiments. ("I'd show up with a fig beer or a puréed turnip beer. Not always great ideas," Fagan admits.) The two instantly bonded over their interest in San Francisco's farm-to-table food culture. "We saw a real opening to think and talk about the brewing process using that same vocabulary and ideology," says Friedman.

Read more: Food, Locavore

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San Francisco’s urban ag-spansion

Photo by Jeff C.

A version of this post originally appeared in the CUESA Newsletter.

Mary Davis started feeling the squeeze of city life about a year ago. She had grown up gardening and spent a stint working on an organic farm while attending grad school in Missouri. Now an architect living in San Francisco's Mission District, she longed to reconnect with her gardening roots, but her small apartment was lacking in the dirt department. "There was no garden, no outdoors," she says. "I really wanted a place with some soil."

She started looking around her neighborhood and fell in love with the historic Dearborn Community Garden. But when she inquired about getting a plot, she was told there was a 22-year waiting list.

She signed up nonetheless and continued her search, adding her name to the Potrero Hill Community Garden's list as well, which had a comparatively modest seven-year wait. Since then, Davis has moved into a house with a shared backyard garden, but she still longs for a plot of her own.

Davis' experience is not uncommon among would-be gardeners in San Francisco. Most of the city's community gardens have waiting lists of two years or more, according to Public Harvest, a new report by San Francisco Urban Planning + Urban Research Association (SPUR). The most comprehensive report of its kind in recent years, it paints a sweeping portrait of the current urban agriculture landscape and presents a bold agenda to help San Francisco meet the demands of a burgeoning movement.

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Getting homemade foods off the black market

Photo: Gregory HanThere’s no doubt a homemade food renaissance has taken root. All around the country, home picklers, jammers, and bakers have been looking for ways to transform hobby food production into small artisan businesses. In many states, however, selling food you’ve made in your home is against the law.

In California, for instance, it's currently a misdemeanor for home artisans to sell their goodies in the open marketplace. Case in point: Last June, Department of Public Health officials in San Francisco shut down ForageSF's popular Underground Market, which featured mostly home producers, because its sellers were not compliant with local and state regulations.

Read more: Food, Sustainable Food