Howdy! In this week's Make Me Care, we're taking a slightly different tack. Instead of interviewing another writer, I'm talking to my ranching father about the food movement and sustainability. I recently wrote a piece about why foodies and mid-size farmers need to learn to get along. It's clear my dad and I both already care -- but can we find common ground? We weather shoddy rural internet and rascally barn cats to find out. Watch the video now!
On Monday, I'm publishing a broader essay on our ranch and what I found out from talking to my pops. (The actual interview ran an hour. Someone buy the editor all of the beers.) Stay tuned!
The agricultural industry is a heavy global warmer, responsible for a tenth of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. But not all farm bounties are climatically equal.
New research reveals that the diets of those who eat a typical amount of meat for an American, about four ounces or more per day, are responsible for nearly twice as much global warming as vegetarians' diets, and nearly 2.5 times as much as vegans'.
That's because directly eating vegetables and grains, instead of inefficiently funneling them through livestock to produce meat, reduces the amount of carbon dioxide produced by farms and farm machinery. It also cuts back on the amount of climate-changing nitrous oxide released from tilled and fertilized soils, and, of course, it eliminates methane belching and farting by cows and other animals.
A team of British researchers scrutinized the diets of 2,041 vegans, 15,751 vegetarians, 8,123 fish eaters, and 29,589 meat eaters, all of them living in the U.K. They estimated the greenhouse gas emissions associated with 289 types of food. Then they combined the data to determine the globe-warming impacts of those four diets, based on consumption of 2,000 calories a day.
We don't want to kill your bee-loving buzz, but if you buy "bee-friendly" plants and seedlings from Home Depot or similar stores, then you could be unwittingly killing the bees that you're trying to protect.
Friends of the Earth tested 71 garden plants with "bee-friendly" labels purchased from major retailers in the U.S. and Canada and discovered that 36 of them had been treated with bee- and butterfly-killing neonic pesticides.
"Since 51 percent of the plants that were tested contained neonicotinoid residues, the chance of purchasing a plant contaminated with neonicotinoids is high," states a new report detailing the findings. "Therefore, many home gardens have likely become a source of exposure for bees. For the samples with positive detections, adverse effects on bees and other pollinators consuming nectar and pollen from these plants are possible, ranging from sublethal effects on navigation, fertility, and immune function to pollinator death."
One Saturday morning a few weeks ago, my friend Caitlin texted me an odd message. “My neighbors are having a really weird yard sale,” she wrote. “You should come check this out.” She’d walked out her front door one weekend morning in the Seattle neighborhood of Wallingford and found a table full of beets and chard set up in her neighbors' front yard. It was much like a roadside produce stand one finds in rural America -- except it was smack in the middle of a 3.3-million-strong metropolis. Turns out it happens every Saturday from May until Thanksgiving: Her neighbors are running a farm stand out of their front yard.
There are peas growing along the sidewalk, compost bins stacked along the side of the house, and raised beds in the back. On a table in the front yard lie bunches of spinach and fat radishes. Becky Warner, one of the farmers, stands on the sidewalk in muck boots and flannel. A guy walks up with a chubby Scottish terrier to pick up his CSA share. “Hank the tank!” Warner greets them. When a farm is this local, apparently you know your farmer and they know your dog.
This article is part of a mini-series on the plight of the mid-sized farm. Read part 1 on the difficulties of organic farming and part 2 on the contrasts between foodies and farmers.
The calculus that drives farmers off the land, and drives the documentary Dryland, is simple and inexorable. Historian Keith Williams lays it out halfway through the movie: Think of the farmer cutting wheat by hand, then zoom forward in history, past the farmers harvesting with teams of horses, past the first tractors, past the first combines (so called because they combined the reaping, threshing, and winnowing in one machine), to the air-conditioned, satellite-guided modern combine. “Well, that same change has really altered the farm size, which means the farm can grow,” Williams says. “More capitalization, they can get more equipment. All of this translates into more acreage per farm. But that also means fewer farmers.”
More efficiency, more land, fewer farmers. It’s also the calculus that has given us cheap food. Cheap food relies on ridiculously cheap grain. One farmer in the film notes that he bought a loaf of whole wheat bread for the same price that he sold an entire bushel of wheat.
Dryland, directed by Sue Arbothnot and Richard Wilhelm, is a wistful documentary -- lots of long shots on beautiful empty fields, empty storefronts, empty streets, rusting equipment -- and rightfully so. The way of life it captures is contracting, ratcheting in on itself, leaving small towns that are unable to support businesses, and schools without students.
Neonicotinoid pesticides are great at killing insect pests, which helps to explain the dramatic rise in their use during the past 20 years. They're popular because they are systemic pesticides -- they don't just get sprayed onto plant surfaces. They can be applied to seeds, roots, and soil, becoming incorporated into a growing plant, turning it into poison for any bugs that might munch upon it.
But using neonics to control pests is like using a hand grenade to thwart a bank robbery.
The pesticides don't just affect pest species. Most prominently, they affect bees and butterflies, which are poisoned when they gather pollen and nectar. But neonics' negative impacts go far beyond pollinators. They kill all manner of animals and affect all kinds of ecosystems. They're giving rise to Silent Spring 2.0.
"It's just a matter of time before somebody can point to major species declines that can be linked to these compounds," said Pierre Mineau, a Canadian pesticide ecotoxicologist. "Bees have been the focus for the last three or four years, but it’s a lot broader than that."
This article is part of a mini-series on the plight of the mid-sized farm. Read part 1 on the difficulties of organic farming and part 3 on breaking the cycle of bigger farms and fewer farmers.
If I were still working the Smith family land, I’d be a fifth-generation Montana rancher. Instead, 628 miles, countless pairs of skinny jeans, and one internet job separate me from the family profession. Even after nearly a decade away, though, it doesn’t take much to take me back.
About a year ago, my boyfriend and I were clutching hands and whispering sweet nothings in a dive bar’s midnight air. When the jukebox switched to “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” the crowd and smell of stale beer faded away as I sat back, invisible hat in hand, to gaze at a hidden Montana horizon. My boyfriend glanced up from his beer to see his love-filled girlfriend transformed into a wistful, weatherbeaten Clint Eastwood squeezing back a horse-turd tear. “You’ve got to make me a mix of old country songs,” he said. “You don’t make mixtapes of songs like this,” Eastwood growled, squinting and drifting back to Hank Williams, Sr.
I’m gruff and conflicted when it comes to agriculture. While I love the farmers markets and food scene of Seattle, I miss our family cattle ranch, and the wheat farm my grandparents recently sold. I’ll dim the lights, massage my kale, and devour stories about food, but I feel a gulf between the world of the food movement and that of the mid-sized farms I grew up on and around. I watch countless cool-but-teeny urban ag projects pop up in cities across the U.S. that inspire but grapple with problems of scope. Meanwhile, Big Ag strengthens its hold and swallows up everything in the wide miles between -- where much of our food actually comes from, where I come from. And so, whenever classic country comes on, I get dust in my eye thinking of the red dirt roads and the disappearing, simpler life they lead to. But was it ever really so simple?
Does this seem fair? A plant breeder at a public university manages to grow a long-necked broccoli that, for easy cutting, stands tall above its leaves. Then a company that has used his creation to breed a slightly different broccoli submits it for a patent, claiming ownership over the very idea of long-necked broccoli.
So far, the company, Monsanto subsidiary Seminis, has failed to persuade the U.S. Patent Office to grant it a broad "utility patent.” But Seminis has appealed. If it succeeds, the original breeders, who shared their seeds freely, could be barred from working with their own seeds.
Turns out there’s a tiny little beetle half a world away that hates you and wants your last shred of joy. Rajendra Jadhav of Reuters Africa has the scoop, which, instead of delicious coffee beans, is sadly full of hideous squirming segmented larvae. Enjoy!
It's 10 o'clock in the morning and a dozen workers are uprooting coffee plants, piling them in the corner of a field at M.G. Bopanna's plantation in southern India where they lie ready to be burned.
The plants are bursting with green cherries but inside their hard bark lurk destructive white stem borer beetles. The bushes have to be destroyed to prevent the tiny winged creature from threatening Bopanna's entire crop of arabica coffee.
The beetle, which bores through plants' bark and feeds on their stems, is thriving this year due to unusually warm weather and scant rains in arabica growing areas in India, the world's sixth biggest coffee producer.
If the hot spell continues and the pest continues to spread, India's coffee crop could fall to its lowest in 17 years when the harvest starts in October, pushing up global prices that are already rallying due to drought in top exporter Brazil.
This article is part of a mini-series on the plight of the mid-sized farm. Read part 2 on the contrasts between foodies and farmers and part 3 on breaking the cycle of bigger farms and fewer farmers.
Arlo Crawford's memoir, A Farm Dies Once a Year,is an inside look at one of the iconic organic farms that sprang up in the 1970s, Pennsylvania's New Morning Farm. I spoke with Crawford about his unique perspective: He grew up in the middle of the back-to-the-land movement, but never felt compelled to join it. Here's a condensed and edited version of our conversation.
Q.Where did the title come from? A Farm Dies Once a Year -- I was worried right up to the end that the farm was going to fail.
A. Well, it will one day, but don’t hold your breath. That title came from the first essay I wrote about the farm. I just wanted to get across how much you struggle, how much of yourself you pour into a farm. And ultimately the farm dies. Ultimately there’s only so much you can do. Because I’ve watched my dad my whole life completely invest all of his being into this farm, and every year it dies on him. And every time he’s sort of shocked, like ‘Oh my God, really? It didn’t all work out somehow?’
There’s a lot of books about farms that aren’t by farmers, and a lot of the time the farmer has the least voice. You go to Whole Foods and see these pictures of farmers, and these people have struggled their whole lives to put vegetables on your plate. The farm shouldn’t be put aside by the marketing.