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Lori Rotenberk's Posts


Cellar's market

A growing appetite for local food sends us back to our root cellars

root cellar st philips

Tucked in a grassy ridge cutting across the Small Family CSA Farm in La Farge, Wis., is a refrigerator so efficient it requires not a single watt of electricity, yet it can keep some crops chilly for months. It’s not some high-tech, Swedish-designed, solar-powered cooling unit. Just a good old-fashioned root cellar, kept cool through the summer months, and above freezing in the winter, by the soil surrounding it.

Shunning hulking and energy wasting refrigerated cold storage, Jillian and Adam Varney four years ago chose to build this two-room cellar for $10,000. Over time, like solar panels, it will pay for itself in savings – and in revenue for their small, organic farm. The hand-built produce closet, which includes a room kept extra cool with a small air-conditioner, allows them to extend their 220-member community-supported agriculture operation (CSA) into the winter months.

Root cellars are basically any storage area that operates on the earth's natural cooling, humidifying, and insulating properties. To work properly, a root cellar must stay between 32 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit and at 85 to 95 percent humidity. The cool temps slow the release of ethylene gas, halting decomposition. High humidity levels prevent evaporation loss, stopping your veggies from shriveling and withering.

Outmoded with the birth of the refrigerator and the 1950s kitchen, root cellars all but went underground, resurfacing briefly in the ’60s and with survivalists. Now, this tiny house movement for foodstuffs is experiencing a slow but certain renaissance as the local food movement gains momentum.

Read more: Food


Up the creek by pedal power: An Englishman bikes the Hudson Valley

Andrew Paynter

Nick Hand began to fully appreciate the songs and environmental work of Pete Seeger from the seat of a touring bicycle. It was in the spring, 2012, and Hand, a graphic designer from Bristol, England, had launched a 500-mile bicycle tour through New York’s Hudson Valley.

What incites an Englishman to pedal from Manhattan to Hudson Falls? For Hand, it was the love of pedaling, curiosity, and inquisitiveness.

A typographer and graphic designer, Hand is the founder of The Department of Small Works, a small business that collects stories of traditional and contemporary craftsmen and women. He’s made it his job to look between the folds, the moss and waterfalls, rooting out conversation to learn a bit about how people live.

Read more: Living


Man of the cloth: Zace the Great grows organic, heirloom veggies — and blue jeans

Zachary Myers

Zachary Myers leads the way into his horse-barn-turned-workshop in Centerburg, Ohio, a little less than an hour’s drive northeast of Columbus. Inside, along with two vintage Allis-Chalmers Model G tractors, there are rows and shelves of antique black Singer and Union Special sewing machines, their colored spools unleashing trails of red, green, and navy thread. On the wall, hung neatly in rows among farm tools, are white paper patterns of pant legs. Bolts of sturdy striped and solid indigo fabric unfurl across worktables.

Myers, his arms painted with tattoos, sits at a sewing machine with a pair of overalls, puts a work boot to the pedal, and stitches on a label bearing a drawing of a sewing machine converted into a tractor, melding together his two passions. Emblazoned with his nickname, Zace, pronounced "Zackie," it reads:

Zace The Great Overall Company
The Finest Most Durable American Indigo Goods

Myers, 36, is an organic farmer by day and an indie blue jean maker by night. He is a bold example of diversification, sustainability, and DIY innovation: Understanding the need for duds that can withstand hard agricultural labor, he created a line of durable work clothes for farmers. Working into the night, often by kerosene lamps, Myers, fueled by thick coffee and Ryan Adams, says his heroes are denim slingers such as Levi Strauss. He shows a sneak photo of himself bolting from the entrance of Ralph Lauren's Rocky Mountain ranch.

“My generation is so fed up with the way our predecessors handled things in this country that we’re learning to craft things with our own hands,” he says. “And there’s nothing more American than denim."


When it comes to climate change, this artist lets the trees do the talking

Jerzy Rose

Sculptor Frances Whitehead calls herself a provocateur. She’s no Banksy. Instead, this professor of sculpture at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago pushes people to think differently about how art fits into, and shapes, our lives, from the mundane to the political -- and how it might help us imagine a more sustainable future.

In 2006, Whitehead penned a creative manifesto called “What Do Artists Know?” The document is a point-by-point articulation of what a creative mind can bring to the broader cultural conversation. She later swayed city officials to place artists into government via her program, The Embedded Artist.

It was only a matter of time before Whitehead, a longtime gardener who frequently incorporated natural objects into her sculpture, began to focus on the combination of art and science. In 2004, Whitehead and her husband purchased a 3,000-square-foot warehouse and converted it into their Green House, a haven of sustainability and reuse. Replete with wind turbines and geothermal heating and cooling, the structure served as an educational classroom for design students and inspired new ways of approaching the post-industrial city.

Sustainability, Whitehead says, “is a cultural problem and artists can help find the solution.”

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


Chicago turns “the Ol’ Pisspot” into a watery urban playground

ping tom canoeing (1)
Monte Gerlach

The evolution of the Chicago River from “the Stinky,” as it was once called, to the city’s second watery playground, has the makings of a rags-to-riches story. The river, like those in most American metropolises, long served as an industrial transport system. At the turn of the last century, it was re-engineered to flow backwards to prevent bacteria and pollutants from flowing into Lake Michigan. Margaret Frisbie, executive director of the environmental nonprofit Friends of the Chicago River, says it became “a back alleyway filled with sewage and trash.”

In the heat of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, even the flames, perhaps wary of its murky waters, jumped the river twice.

But this weekend, a striking new boathouse opens on the river’s banks. Designed by noted Chicago architect Jeanne Gang, the Clark Park Boathouse will help put more kayakers and canoers on the river that was paddled by early European explorers such as Louis Jolliet and Jacques Marquette.

Read more: Cities, Living


Drift catchers use citizen science to fight pesticide pollution


When Laura Krouse heard the roar of a crop duster as it flew low, ducking under utility wires to lay down a blanket of herbicides, she sprang into action. Working deftly, she set up a small air vacuum resembling a clothes hanging rod close to her field of vegetables, corn, and hay, not far from where the plane was spraying the neighbor’s 10,000-acre farm. There, it would inhale samples of the air to later be tested to see if the chemicals were drifting onto her land.

Upon seeing Krouse, the pilot circled low enough that she could see his face. His expression read, Just what is that you’re doing, Laura? “He was checking on me,” Krouse says, “and if anyone dare ask, I’d tell them straight out that I’m taking air samples.”

Krouse, who for 25 years has run the 72-acre Abbe Hills Farm in Mt. Vernon, Iowa, is a drift catcher, a toughened breed of farmers who are taking matters concerning the threats of agricultural chemicals into their own hands. She is among 20 Iowa farmers who last winter trained with the California-based Pesticide Action Network (PAN) to use the air monitoring technology PAN specifically designed for laymen. Back home, the farmers took air samples during spraying times throughout this past season.

“I grow vegetables that are susceptible to certain weedkillers, many of which my neighbors use,” says Krouse, who uses organic practices, though her farm is not certified organic. “All it takes is for some of the tomatoes and veggies to get a whiff of a herbicide and they show damage.”



Green sleeves: Tattoo art takes root in farm country

The lines, drawn in ink, tell stories, carry messages, and speak volumes about the passion their wearers feel for the land and the things they coax from it. There’s the tomato plant to remind its bearer of his favorite food and a grandfather who grew them healthy and hearty. There are bees as reminders of what could be lost, and the importance of working together. There are the colorful fields of corn, a barn, cows, and goats, cascading down the arm of a farm-to-table chef. Across a belly the words: Farm Life.

Here are some of our favorite farm tats, examples of the ink work artists are doing for growers, beekeepers, vintners, and chefs -- people of all ages. Together, they bring truth to the thought that beauty is skin deep.

Read more: Food, Living


Green ole opry: Susan Werner sings sweet songs of sustainability

susan wernerStanding in the spotlight at the quaint Thrasher Opera House in rural Green Lake, Wis., clad in a sleeveless plaid cotton shirt and jeans, cradling an acoustic guitar, Susan Werner could pass for a folk or country singer cut from old cloth. That she was a farm girl herself, and her audience is made up mostly of farmers, only adds to that impression: The uninitiated might expect songs about lost love, lost teeth, tight jeans, or a swig of whiskey whetting away the Dust Bowl days.

But then Werner leans in toward the mic and in a clear, strong voice, elicits hoots and applause from the audience with the tongue-in-cheek "Herbicides."

Skies of blue and fields of green, waterfalls of Atrazine
Hundred acres to explore, acres of Alachlor
Hey, hey, ho, ho, mom and dad how could they know
Ho, ho, hey, hey, herbicides done made me gay 

Dubbed the “Empress of the Unexpected” by NPR, Werner, 48, takes on farming chemicals, climate change, drought, and the changing farm landscape in the vein of ‘60s folksters who rallied against Vietnam and government wrongs -- musicians like Dylan, Mitchell, and Baez. And while she has been on the music scene since the early 1990s, her music has caught on recently with both a new generation of farmers and older ones, who fill the small theaters and opera houses to hear her perform.


The next great farming frontier? Look up

Eagle Street Rooftop Farm in Brooklyn
Lauren Mandel
Eagle Street Rooftop Farm in Brooklyn.

From appetizers to entrees, the menu at Chicago’s Uncommon Ground restaurant touts fresh ingredients from above. Not from heaven, mind you, but maybe the next best thing: The Swiss chard and herbs adorning the beer-braised mussels were grown on the roof.

Today’s harvest, which comes care of “Farmer Jen” Rosenthal, includes a bounty of fresh basil, tomatoes, peppers, and salad greens. “The staff can pick at the peak of ripeness and the food literally comes down a flight of stairs and straight into the kitchen,” Farmer Jen tells visitors during tours.

Five years ago, there were no rooftop farms in North America, says Steven Peck, president of the Toronto-based nonprofit Green Roofs for Healthy Cities. (Gardens, sure, but nothing producing food on a commercial scale.) Today, he estimates there are 20. Five years from now, there will be more than 100, he says, and numbers will continue to soar.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg," Peck says. "Rooftop farming is under consideration in every major city in America.”

Read more: Cities, Food



Camp appeal: Photos of gorgeous modern tents for urban adventurers

A tent. It manifests the spontaneous thought of “let’s get away from it all” even if it’s in your own backyard -- or atop the neighbor’s roof.

Tents, and an evolving notion of what it means to “camp out,” have of late spawned a fresh design movement aimed at reconnecting us to the outdoors, even in the din of a city. The designs are often beautiful, otherworldly, and thoughtful: Pup tents are giving way to space pods and lunar landers suspended from the trees. Once a canvas tent, tents become a canvas.

Join Grist as we explore the wild landscape of our cities.
Susie Cagle
Join Grist as we explore the wild landscape of our cities.

And lest you think that this is all frivolity and giant sperms, a tent is often all a person has, the simple walls between their life and elements. Some of these artists and designers are creating spaces and places for the homeless and communities harboring those without homes, empowering tent villages and camp communities.

In truth, all should have a home on Earth. If your flat happens to look like a spaceship or a cement mixer -- or even a giant purple sperm -- all the more power to you.

Read more: Cities, Living