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Troubled waters: Farmers and scientists work together to save oysters

Jon_Rowley
Young oysters, aka "oyster seeds," are increasingly vulnerable as the ocean absorbs carbon and becomes more acidic.

Terry Sawyer is on a mission to rescue oysters from newly hostile seas. Sawyer has been farming these briny bivalves for almost 30 years in Tomales Bay, north of San Francisco, at Hog Island Oyster Company. The business he co-owns sells $9 million worth of Sweetwaters, Kumamotos, and Atlantic oysters a year at the company's two local oyster bars, at nearby farmers markets, and direct from the farm to hungry consumers who can't seem to get enough of this sustainable shellfish. But Sawyer's seafood business is threatened by ocean acidification (aka climate change's evil twin) and he and other oyster growers are working overtime to find creative ways to save these sea creatures -- and their own livelihoods.

As the ocean absorbs carbon dioxide from the air like a sponge, it also grows increasingly acidic. As a result, baby bivalves, or “oyster seeds,” have a tougher time growing shells and maturing into those plump, juicy adults destined for dinner plates. (Acidification, which lowers the pH of salt water, has also recently been shown to make for a hostile environment for other marine life, such as sea snails.) This shift in the chemical makeup of seawater started wreaking havoc in Washington a few years ago, when Taylor Shellfish Farms and Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery began losing large numbers of oyster larvae.

But the Pacific Northwest wasn’t alone in this predicament: California’s oyster industry has long relied on hatcheries in Oregon and Washington for its oyster seeds. "We're getting squeezed," Sawyer told a group at a recent tour of his farm. "While demand is growing, seed sources are dying off. We're talking about a paradigm shift."

In previous years, Sawyer said he bought some 7 million oyster seeds from hatcheries. (There's a significant mortality rate from seed to market; on average only 50 percent survive in the 18 months to three years it takes for an oyster to mature.) This year, he could buy just 2.5 million seeds -- supplies are down as a result of this problem -- and they were much smaller than the typical six-millimeter size he used to purchase, which significantly lowers the oysters' chances of survival.

So, out of necessity, Sawyer finds himself in the oyster seed growing business. And he's solicited help to keep his baby bivalves alive. Hog Island has partnered with scientists at UC Davis's Bodega Marine Laboratory to keep close tabs on these vulnerable young oysters in the same waters where they used to thrive without much fuss. Such collaboration between scientists and shellfish industry innovators to study, and, ideally, minimize the damage caused by ocean acidification has already taken place at Whiskey Creek with scientists from Oregon State University and will likely be replicated all along the western coastline, said Tessa Hill, lead scientist on the Hog Island partnership.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food

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A food desert in paradise: Solving Hawaii’s fresh vegetable problem

Visitors to the Hana Fresh Farm Market.

Sam Kalalau, a Native Hawaiian who lives in the isolated, rural town of Hana on Maui's eastern edge, has a dream for his people, many of whom suffer from chronic conditions with dietary links such as obesity, diabetes, and hypertension. Hana is known mostly for its lushness, postcard-perfect beaches, and spectacular oceans views, and less so for its fertile fields. But this produce whisperer helps run Hana Fresh Farm, a seven-acre, certified organic farm situated on a gentle slope and filled with tropical fruit trees, heirloom greens, and fragrant herbs. The 60-year-old also seeks to educate locals and visitors alike about the health benefits of homegrown foods like avocado and papaya over the canned and processed goods transported from the mainland.

Hana Fresh sells freshly picked crops at a roadside stand in front of Hana Health, the squat community wellness center that sits between the popular produce stand and the farm, which also grows gourmet greens and exotic fruits for high-end restaurants, resorts, and grocery stores on the island. Fresh food from the farm is incorporated into the site's senior meal program. The Hana Fresh Market also sells prepared foods and complete meals in addition to produce and locally sourced fish. Profits from the farm and stand help support the medical facility; last year $60,000 went to fund community health programs, according to the nonprofit's Executive Director Cheryl Vasconcellos.

For local residents, many of whom are Native Hawaiians, Hana Fresh offers one-stop wellness shopping. "I'd love to see our elders go in for health checkups and come out with a prescription for kale," says Kalalau. "We're working on ideas like that now." He and other staff lead tours of the farm, where visitors can learn about the challenges of growing food in the tropics and traditional Hawaiian medicinal ways.

Most tourists think of Hana -- reached by navigating a stunning stretch of "highway" with hundreds of hairpin turns and dozens of one-lane bridges -- as a patch of paradise with gorgeous waterfalls, verdant landscapes, and serene swimming holes.

Hana Fresh Farm's executive director, Cheryl Vasconcellos, is in the front row, center. Farmer Sam Kalalau is sitting on her right.

But people live here too. And the roughly 2,200 residents of this remote area rely on Hana Health and Hana Fresh for routine things most tourists take for granted, like primary medical and mental health care, dental cleanings, and access to nutritious food. Hana is a federally designated underserved area, and the organization’s mission is to provide a safety net and improve the health and wellness of the community, particularly for Native Hawaiians and others who are at risk due to financial, cultural, and geographic barriers. "Many of our patients go straight out the door from their medical appointments to buy vegetables, pick up a salad or smoothie for lunch, or even dinner," says Mary Hanchett, a medical receptionist who has worked at the clinic for nine years.

Read more: Food

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New Agtivist: Fixing school lunch in the nation’s capital

Andrea Northup grew up with cows in her backyard. But it wasn't until she visited France, and caught a glimpse of how a whole country can revolve around a robust food culture, that she found her calling.

Northup went on to launch the D.C. Farm to School Network, a nonprofit dedicated to providing healthier school food in 200 public schools and 90 charter schools in Washington, D.C., in the fall of 2008. Since then, she's been on a mission to transform school lunch menus one piece of fresh, locally grown produce at a time. And Northup has her hands full: The first orange food most D.C. kids can think of isn't carrots, she says, it's Flamin' Hot Cheetos.

Her greatest accomplishment to date: playing a principal role in the passage and implementation of the landmark Healthy Schools Act of 2010, which makes D.C. one of the first jurisdictions in the country to provide financial incentives to schools that serve local food and offer nutrition education in the classroom.

Northup, 25, was recently honored with a Natural Resources Defense Council Growing Green Award in the Young Food Leader category.

Q. What sparked your interest in school food?

A. I studied environmental engineering and community health at Tufts University, so food is right at the intersection of my interests in environmental sustainability and child health. But truthfully, it was time in France that changed my way of thinking about food. Most French people take hours each day to enjoy delicious, regional, scratch-cooked meals with friends and family. When I came back to the States, I saw reforming school food as a perfect marriage of my interests that would tie together my newfound appreciation for farm-fresh, regional food.

Read more: Food

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New agtivists: Young filmmakers take an urban farm adventure

Dan Susman (driving) drove around the country documenting urban farms with his co-filmmaker Andrew Monbouquette.

Fresh out of Dartmouth College and with time on his hands, Dan Susman and his childhood friend Andrew Monbouquette set out on an excellent, edible adventure -- a road trip to document many of the innovative urban agriculture efforts sprouting up all over the country.

Susman, now 24, grew up in Omaha, Neb., gardening in the backyard with his mom and dad. He planted pumpkins, named them things like "Big Max" and "Atlantic Giant," and always hoped come fall he might end up like James and the Giant Peach. No such luck: Evil squash bugs, and ever-looming drought, meant from all those seeds he carefully tended he’d typically end up with just one pumpkin weighing more than he did. But it was enough; a farmer was born.

Since then, Susman has worked on a small-scale farm in Venezuela and for the urban ag-focused Zenger Farm in Portland, Ore. He grew to realize not all kids are as lucky as he: Many never get a chance to plant a bean or taste a watermelon straight off the vine. But with the forthcoming film Growing Cities, Susman hopes to change that.

Read more: Food, Urban Agriculture

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‘Weight of the Nation’ takes a realistic look at a looming crisis

HBO has a history of tackling serious American health-care crises. In recent years, the cable network has taken on addiction and Alzheimer's to much critical acclaim. And now the network has turned its attention to another huge health problem: obesity and its enormous economic, emotional, social, and health cost on individuals, families, communities, and the country at large.

As Americans have gained weight in recent years, rates of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and other obesity-related health problems have also skyrocketed. Rates of Type 2 diabetes (once known as “adult-onset diabetes”) are soaring among kids. And this is a generation of people that may well die at a younger age than their parents, largely because of medical concerns associated with excess weight.

These facts have become commonplace to those of us who have been paying attention. Still, The Weight of the Nation: Confronting America's Obesity Epidemic serves as a clarion call to the country to take action -- and fast -- to combat this pernicious, complex problem that has myriad root causes.

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Glean unto others: Ending hunger with foraged foods

This post originally appeared on Shareable.

A Portland Fruit Tree Project harvesting party. (Photo by Sarah Gilbert.)

Foraging for food — whether it's ferreting rare mushrooms in the woods, picking abundant lemons from an overlooked tree, or gathering berries from an abandoned lot — is all the rage among the culinary crowd and the DIY set, who share their finds with fellow food lovers in fancy restaurant meals or humble home suppers.

But an old-fashioned concept — gleaning for the greater good by harvesting unwanted or leftover produce from farms or family gardens — is also making a comeback during these continued lean economic times.

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Put your money where your mouth is: Funding food with Kickstarter

A still from Dafna Kory's Kickstarter video, in which she explains the origins of her jam company's name. (Click to watch.)

Edible entrepreneur/video editor Dafna Kory is an ideal candidate for a food-focused Kickstarter campaign. Kory, founder of Inna Jam, an organic artisan preserves company in Berkeley, Calif., supplements her budding food business with commercial film, video, and web editing gigs and is well-acquainted with the crowd-funding platform. So, when it came time to expand her jam company this winter, she decided to give Kickstarter a whirl.

"It's a very public thing -- putting yourself out there like this -- and it could have gone either way," says Kory, who produced her own video for a campaign to renovate a commercial kitchen. The jammer already has some small business loans and didn't want to take on any more debt. Kory, who just wrapped up her Kickstarter campaign, says it was by no means an easy endeavor. "I used every skill I have to make this campaign a success."

Kickstarter, based in New York, earned its early reputation as the go-to place for up-and-coming filmmakers, gamers, and designers looking for funds. Increasingly, though, it's become a hub for those involved in the sustainable, local food scene seeking capital for their creative pursuits as well. In the Kickstarter worldview, food artisans are artists too, whether they're behind a community olive oil press in Berkeley, a beekeeping business in Brooklyn, or a Lebanese food truck in Asheville, N.C.

Read more: Food, Sustainable Food

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Not your grandma’s yogurt

Does this title sound familiar? This is part of an ongoing effort to highlight the ways in which many of our most common foods have morphed into industrialized products in recent decades. See Not your grandma's milk and Not your grandma's strawberries for more.

Photo by Anthony Albright.

Nishanga Bliss, a holistic health practitioner, has been making her own yogurt on and off since the 1980s. She learned from a Swiss neighbor, liked the results, and was delighted to avoid accumulating all those plastic containers. The author of the forthcoming Real Food All Year, who also teaches yogurt-making classes, recommends making this cultured dairy product with whole milk. "When you make your own you can tinker with the taste and texture,” says Bliss. Another advantage of DIY yogurt: It can ferment longer than commercial products, thus eliminating all the lactose, which is beneficial for those with an intolerance.

Bliss is among a growing group of people who are rethinking buying industrial versions of popular health foods -- such as yogurt -- in favor of making their own with minimal processing and additives. Bliss believes the beneficial bacteria in yogurt -- also known as probiotics -- can do your gut a world of good, by protecting against intestinal infections and enhancing immune functioning.

Read more: Food

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New Agtivist: Adam Berman, faith-based urban farmer

Adam Berman at his Berkeley farm.

Urban Adamah, a one-acre urban farm on a vacant lot in a gritty stretch of Berkeley, has transformed an area better known for liquor stores and light industry into a thriving community gathering space and food hub.

Adam Berman founded the farm in the summer of 2010 with just such lofty goals. Urban Adamah (for the Hebrew word for "earth") offers a fellowship program for young adults, dubbed The Jewish Sustainability Corps, that integrates organic farming, social justice outreach, leadership training, environmental education, and progressive Jewish spiritual practice. There's yoga, meditation, and singing too.

Berman, who directed a Jewish retreat center where he founded a similar fellowship in Connecticut before relocating to Berkeley, got a lucky break when landowner Wareham Development agreed to host the farm rent-free for two years. Hence, the portable feel to the project: The farm has dozens of raised, movable produce pallets, greenhouses, a cob oven, chicken coops on wheels, and large tents that serve as classrooms. Everything on the property could be transported with relative ease, if a new location proves necessary. Raised beds filled with fresh, organic soil also solves the problem of contaminated soil on the property, a former printing press site.

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New Agtivists: Brother-sister duo revamp the corner store

Alison and Alphonzo at The Boxcar Grocer on the day they "soft-launched" the business last fall.

Alison Cross and her older brother Alphonzo saw a vast need for fresh food in the Castleberry Hill neighborhood of Atlanta, where they’d spent time since they were kids. The community, which is adjacent to the Atlanta University Center, had seen both vibrance and decay, and was begging for transformation.

So the siblings decided to fill that need, and hatched a plan to open The Boxcar Grocer, a new food business. Alison, who studied architecture and worked as a video editor, and Alphonzo, with a background in fashion, describe the independent grocery store, which stocks local, organic, whole foods, as being at “the intersection of food justice and high-concept retail.”

And they’re right; it's not your average corner store. The market looks modern, with lots of light, stainless steel, and wood. The shop, which had a "soft" opening in late October and celebrated its grand opening on Monday, sits in an area dotted with old railroad warehouses. African Americans own the majority of the storefront businesses. The neighborhood is undergoing a renaissance with small art galleries, graphic design firms, and a tattoo parlor that attract the typical urban mix of students, artists, and free thinkers.

Read more: Food