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Sustainable Farming

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Nothing small about it: Microloans give new farmers a needed boost

Nelida Martinez (right) with farm co-owner Lisette Flores. (Photo by Hilary McMullen.)

Nelida Martinez worked as a farm laborer for big conventional farms in California for almost 20 years. But after her son, Danny, was diagnosed with leukemia, she says, "I never wanted to work around chemicals again."

Martinez started selling vegetables from her community garden to help pay for her son’s treatment (he has since recovered), and then got hooked up with Viva Farms, a farm incubator program in Washington state’s Skagit Valley that helped her access land she could farm as if it were her own. Now, Martinez has a three-acre plot there, leases another two acres elsewhere, and sells more than 70 types of organic vegetables at a farmers market, where she also makes fresh tortillas and sells Oaxacan-style tacos.

Martinez wants to expand her business, but access to credit or capital isn’t easy to get if you’re not established. That’s exactly why she was chosen to participate in a new microloan program designed to help small and beginning farmers. Martinez is one of the first two bootstrappers to receive funding from the Farmer Reserve Fund, a project launched jointly by Viva Farms, Slow Money NW, and a local credit union. She has received $2,000 to use primarily for buying seeds and vegetable boxes. “The loan allows me to have more cash throughout the season while I wait to harvest my crops," she says.

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For young farmers: No land, but plenty of climate change to go around

We desperately need more young farmers in this country.

“If we do not repopulate our working lands, I don’t know where to begin to talk about the woes,” U.S. Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan told The Washington Post this April.

The average age of the American farmer is 57 years old and rising. There are but 120,000 American farm operators age 34 and under. There are 1.3 million American farm operators age 55 and older.

In 2009, I picked up a video camera in order to start documenting something that looked hopeful. As if they had seen a poster with Uncle Sam’s pointing finger, young people with college educations -- but absolutely no background in agriculture -- were showing up on small organic farms in my home state of New Jersey, seeking training. In many cases, the self-appointed mission of these young people wasn’t just to farm, but to farm as sustainably as possible. I made a film about it, titled The Farmer and the Horse.

The problem is, at least in Jersey, there’s no straight path for young farmers to follow if their goal is to make enough money farming to actually own the farm. (Farmland prices here are the second highest in the nation.) Land tenure, many of these farmers tell me, is what they want: Not to be rich, not even necessarily to be financially secure, but at least to control their own destiny on a piece of land where the blood, sweat, and tears they shed during the 80-hour work weeks will fall on soil they can call their own.

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A dry run from hell: Drought hits the smallest farms the hardest

There is something distinctly pathos-inducing about a corn plant dying of thirst. Maybe that’s why coverage of the 2012 drought has focused on commodity crops, especially corn. Reading the reports, you almost expect Tom Joad to step out from between the brown-baked stalks, as if Steinbeck were writing the copy.

For non-commodity farms -- a category that includes many diverse, organic, and locally supported operations -- the story is about much more than maize. A month into summer, the drought has walloped small Midwestern farmers, the very same farmers already struggling to survive a weak economy, a market dominated by rapacious agribusinesses, and, oh yeah, climate change.

For one thing, the ferocious drought has exposed a great lack of irrigation equipment on small farms. In a typical year, summer rain is common in the Midwest, and many of the region’s fruit growers have never irrigated their orchards. Community-supported agriculture (CSA) farmers also tend to lack the infrastructure to water everything they grow.

“You drive around the countryside and whoever doesn’t have irrigation doesn’t have much of a crop,” says Tom Kercher, who grows tree fruit and vegetables in Goshen, Ind.

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Farmer spends $100,000 on waterbeds for cows

Even on a small, family-owned dairy farm, life as a milk cow looks not so great. I mean, you do spend a lot of time standing around in a stall with devices attached to your nipples. That's cool if it's your thing, and if there are enough of you who feel that way, I should maybe try to market my manuscript 50 Shades of Hay. But most of us look at that scenario and think "jeez, you could at least get them some fancy furniture, maybe a massage now and then." Which may be why the Van Loon Dairy just spent $100,000 on 300 waterbeds for its cows.

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From sniper to farmer: Veteran redefines patriotism [VIDEO]

From Vittles, the production company behind this gorgeous trailer:  "Alex Sutton is a combat veteran with six tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2008 an IED explosion ended his military service and destroyed his legs. Back home in North Carolina, medically discharged and standing on new titanium legs, Alex still possesses a strong desire to serve his country. He believes that he can do this best through farming."

The Farmer Veteran Project is a work-in-progress documentary and the filmmakers are raising funds through Kickstarter (their campaign ends Tuesday, July 17).

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After the Rio Earth Summit: Will agriculture really get any greener?

If last week’s Rio+20 Earth Summit made anything clear to those of us at home, it's the degree to which the world’s developed nations have been sitting on their hands since the original Earth Summit 20 years ago. As Grist's Greg Hanscom reported from the summit, the "outcome document" was negotiated before the week started, and “the overwhelming feeling [there], even as world leaders and celebrities rolled in for the official pomp and circumstance, was that the summit was over even before it began.”

Meanwhile, Bill McKibben called the event a “formulaic bureaucracy-fest” wherein the only real excitement was a walkout staged by young activists.

So where was food and agriculture in all this? Food was one of seven “critical issues” identified by the U.N. before Rio+20 began, as population growth (we’ll have another 2 billion people on the planet by 2050) and climate change have put the question of food access into sharp focus. But a quick look at the “issue brief” prepared before the summit will tell you most of what you need to know about the vast chasm that exists between the kinds of goals articulated in meetings like this and the level of real change occurring on the ground. “Global delivery of the food security and sustainable agriculture-related commitments has been disappointing,” the brief reads. And it’s easy to see why; a table reporting on target goals set as early as 1995 is filled with stalled progress, lack of funding, and a general dearth of political will. Here are a few examples:

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Say it ain’t soil: What’s the true value of organic farmland?

Nick Maravell has been farming organically and cultivating heirloom seeds on a leased 20-acre plot of land in Potomac, Md., for over three decades.

Nick’s Organic Farm is an anomaly in wealthy, suburban Potomac, where McMansions dominate the landscape, and its location has made it possible for Maravell to cultivate heirloom breeds of organic soy and corn seeds native to the Chesapeake Bay region. Corn seed is wind-pollinated, meaning organic varieties are easily contaminated by genetically modified pollen if grown anywhere near conventional farms. But Maravell’s farm is isolated, protected by a buffer of suburbia -- an ideally situated piece of land that would be difficult to replace.

All this might explain why, when it became clear that Maravell would lose his lease, the surrounding community didn’t take it lightly. His landlord, the Montgomery County Board of Education, transferred the lease to the county, which then awarded a contract to a private developer to build soccer fields. The announcement -- and subsequent findings that the county had violated the Open Meetings Act in handing the land over to developers without first soliciting public input -- caused an uproar.

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‘Himalayan Viagra’ is going extinct

A parasitic caterpillar fungus that grows in the Himalayas has many names, according to Scientific American -- yarsagumba, yarchagumba, yartsa gunba, yatsa gunbu. But we are only going to remember one name: Himalayan Viagra.

This fungus, which leeches off of Tibetan ghost moth larvae, is said to get the fellas going when boiled and consumed in tea or soup. Oh, it also cures cancer and fights fatigue. Miracle drug! (Scientific American -- always with the science! -- notes, "These medical claims have not been borne out scientifically.")

As a result of its awesome properties of making everything sexy and cancer-free and sexy, this stuff is almost worth its weight in gold. (The price per gram puts its worth between silver and gold, Agence France Presse says.) And there's a global market for it worth between $5 billion and $11 billion.

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Morning chance of guilt, followed by afternoon desperation

Photo of disconcerted puppy by Corie Howell.

Did you have your morning cup of coffee today? Probably shouldn't have:

The international trade in Central American coffee has spurred forest clearing that eradicates habitat for the endangered [black-handed spider] monkey and, ultimately, the monkey itself.

The monkey’s woes come despite its protected status. This spider monkey (Ateles geoffroyi) shelters behind the legal shield of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, meaning it cannot be openly sold, which is meant to keep it from becoming a pet (yes, it’s that cute). But no such protection exists for its habitat, which may ultimately make any other protections moot. Not even the monkey’s amazing gripping tail can help it hang on in the face of forest clearing.

And that’s why this spider monkey is just one of at least 25,000 animals currently threatened around the globe.

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Tyrion Lannister loves farm animals

Poster by Reddit user JayJay_90.

Tyrion Lannister is my favorite character in Game of Thrones (both the HBO series and the book series, which I refuse to call by its goofy official name), and Peter Dinklage is super-handsome and deserves 300 Emmys. So it's nice to know that, unlike Tyrion, Dinklage wears his good-heartedness openly -- he's the new national spokesperson for the Farm Sanctuary's Walk for Farm Animals campaign. Book series fans, maybe don't tell them about Pretty the Pig.