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No-till farming’s Johnny Appleseed — in a grimy Prius

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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.”

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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.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food

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It takes no tillage

Conventional farmers drop their plows in favor of conservation

Michael and Adam Crowell

The Michael and Adam Crowell duo works this way: Michael handles the crops, and Adam handles the dairy cows; Michael is the colorful wisecracker, and Adam is the straight man; Michael casts about for a word when his tongue outpaces his memory, and Adam fills it in; Michael is the father, and Adam is the son.

I visited their dairy farm near Turlock, in California’s Central Valley, to get a look at the growing trend of conventional farmers adopting ecologically friendly techniques. In the Midwest, where farmers grow a small number of grain crops, this transformation has led to a new normal, with the majority of farmland under some form of conservation management.

Farmers in California’s Central Valley, by contrast, grow more than 200 different crops, and as a result there's a greater challenge to figure out techniques that work for all this diversity. On the other hand, if the diverse Central Valley farmers can figure out how to grow their food while working in greater synchronicity with natural systems, then it means that people growing just about anything can do it.

The primary innovation that Michael and Adam Crowell have adopted is to simply stop plowing their fields. They grow a mix of grasses for the cows in the winter, then cut that hay and plant corn directly into the sod in the summer. When I asked the Crowells what had convinced them to experiment with these newfangled conservation techniques, Michael gave me a one-word answer: “economics.”

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Blades of gory: Teaching kids to slice and dice

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Play out this scenario in your head: A writer publishes a cookbook for children, and as part of the book promotion, pens an op-ed in which she advocates handing your kid a gleaming chef’s knife so they can begin working on their high-speed lopping skills.

As you might expect, when this actually happened, a lot of people got worked up. For a moment there, Sarah Elton, the writer in question, was trending on Twitter in Toronto, where her op-ed ran.

But here’s what’s surprising about the whole episode: Rather than condemning Elton as a bad mother, practically everyone agreed with her.

Read more: Food, Living

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Teaching butchers — and brewers, and picklers — to stay out of the red

Food Craft Institute
Food Craft Institute
Gavin Erezuma learning his cuts

About a dozen potential students sat in as many chairs, crowded into a narrow room behind a butcher shop in San Francisco. To the right and left were murals of cattle; ahead, a bovine skull with long horns; and, in front of that, people giving a pitch for a three-week intensive class on the business of butchery.

A man in a plaid shirt near the front raised his hand. “What kind of skills do you need going into this? Have most people had some kind of butchery experience?” People come in at all levels, reassured Marcy Coburn, executive director of the Food Craft Institute. “This isn’t a class for learning how to be a butcher. It’s a class for learning how to efficiently run a business.”

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Desert menu

America’s worst food deserts: Map-lovers edition

Pablo PecoraKhongoryn Els-Gobi Desert in Mongolia. Both a literal and food desert. Food deserts are officially defined as low-income neighborhoods far away (a mile or more) from grocery stores. But distance, as the crow flies, isn't that relevant, since only a few mutants and drone pilots navigate their cities that way. What actually matters is the time it takes to walk to the grocery store. The website Walk Score has the data to account for the hills and railroads and warehouses that separate you from food, and it has used that information to rank U.S. cities by food access. Compare the difference between New …

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Farmers and eaters: Why can’t we be friends?

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A farmer from Iowa recently told me a story about visiting the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live. He chatted up foodsellers at the Ferry Building farmers market, visited the wine country, and met a lot of nice people. But he also noticed that whenever he told anyone that he was a corn and soybean farmer, the temperature in the room seemed to drop. Oh, that kind of farmer. In the Bay Area, saying "I grow corn and soy" is the real world version of saying Voldemort.

This antipathy runs both ways, of course. Visiting Iowa, I felt a similar chill at times when I revealed that I was a California food writer. Another farmer asked me how I thought we should deal with the problem of people demanding organic foods.

But I truly believe that we’re natural allies. The farmer and the eater should be friends! We all want the same thing: A sustainable system, one that provides fair compensation for food producers and makes the world a more healthy, delicious, and beautiful place with every bite. We should be breaking the path toward this goal together. And yet, instead of mutual respect, there’s acrimony, suspicion, and anger.

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Here’s how rooftop gardens can empower women and tame population growth

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If you care about the environment (at least according to Bill Maher) you’ve got to be thinking about population growth. The best way to level off population growth (at least according to world history) is to give women power to choose if they want to have babies or not. Perhaps the best way to empower women is to literally give them power by giving them the means to earn money. And investing in small-scale farming is often the most effective way to lift people -- especially women -- out of poverty.

You can keep looking for the next link in this chain of argument -- but it's so much easier, and more rewarding, just to take 10 minutes and watch this film. There, you will see how a rural Indian teen’s rooftop garden can quietly erode the patriarchal force pushing her toward early marriage and a big family.

Megan Mylan, who won an Academy Award for a previous short documentary, directed the film, titled After My Garden Grows. It’s part of the Sundance Institute’s Short Film Challenge.

It's true that I'm a sucker both for kickass women and for creative farmers, so I may by prejudiced, but I'm now a fan.

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Making food deserts bloom takes more than just a baptism of kale

It took the nonprofit Philabundance to open a grocery store in Chester, Penn., but that's just the first step in getting locals to eat better food.
Fare and Square
It took the nonprofit Philabundance to open a grocery store in Chester, Penn., but that's just the first step in getting locals to eat better food.

Last year, Whole Foods built a new store in Detroit, to great acclaim and excitement. It deserved at least some of the attention: This was the first national chain to open a grocery store in Detroit -- often cited as a food desert -- in over a decade. But some of the hoopla came from the fact that the store seemed to confirm a satisfying, but simplistic, narrative, which goes something like this:

There are tons of people in urban food deserts yearning for fresh fruits and vegetables, but the blinkered (and maybe prejudiced) grocery executives don’t want these people as their customers. Cast off those blinkers and everyone wins: The grocery stores profit by meeting the demand for good food, the people switch from fast food to root-vegetable stews, and unicorns paint the sky with rainbows.

Whole Foods in Detroit looks like it proves the point that people are just waiting in food deserts to buy bundles of arugula. The store “is exceeding our wildest expectations,” Whole Foods Market Co-CEO Walter Robb said. But they set those expectations pretty low, with much smaller margins then they normally see. And Whole Foods only came in after the plunging population had stabilized and the city became a destination for a young, middle-class demographic.

“Suddenly cities are cool again, and people are moving back, and there’s lots of interest in getting grocery stores into urban areas,” said Alphonzo Cross, co-owner of Boxcar Grocer in Atlanta. “Nobody gave a shit 20 years ago.”

Nobody, that is, except for the people who were living in those neighborhoods. In 2013, as Whole Foods was opening, another store across town, the locally owned and operated Metro Foodland, was getting ready for its 30th year in business. It had opened in the midst of Detroit’s depopulation and found a way to thrive while offering healthy foods, year after year.

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Bt resistance is futile

What’s all this about a GMO-eating bug?

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Udo Schmidt

If you've been on Twitter or Facebook this last week, you might have seen the headline: Worm beats GMOs! Shockingly, this was just one incremental development in a long-unfolding story. Here's what you should know to understand what's going on here.

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Waste deep in the big muddy

Has modern agriculture cleaned up its dirty runoff act?

Even the best conservation measures could be thwarted by severe weather leading to floods like this one in North Dakota, 2013
USDA photo by Keith Weston
Even the best conservation measures could be thwarted by severe weather leading to floods like this one in North Dakota, 2013

While I was in Iowa recently, Chris Jones, an environmental scientist at the Iowa Soybean Association, showed me this fascinating graph (based on this study). It basically shows how much dirt was in one of the main rivers flowing through Iowa's farmland over the last century:

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Christopher Jones

It doesn’t look like much at first, but becomes more and more interesting as you study it. Because the span of time here is so long (1916 to 2009) and because changes in agricultural policy have had a big effect on the erosion of topsoil into rivers, you can see historical events reflected in these numbers.

That big peak in 1973? That came just after Earl Butz, then the secretary of agriculture, urged farmers to plant fencerow to fencerow. Farmers cut into marginal land, and then heavy rains followed in Iowa. The newly disturbed soil washed off the fields and into the rivers, creating the spike on the graph.

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