Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Transforming Nature: Diversity in Nature and on the Farm

Harris-Miller Organic Farm

Most of us could agree that protecting “biodiversity” is, in the words of Martha Stewart, a good thing. Life in its various forms, translations, and reincarnation has human and economic uses, as well as innate value and right to continue persisting on our beloved planet earth.  One of the take home messages for me this summer as our Transforming Nature Group has visited farms is that diversity is also the secret to a farming success.

The Bull (Photo by Richard Moore)
Young Whippersnappers (Photo by Richard Moore)
Last week we visited the Harris-Miller Organic Farm located down the road in Camden, OH—I thought the Millers ran an organic beef farm exclusively, but they consider their beef secondary to their grains. Although their fields and crops feed their free-ranging Angus cattle, their oats, soybeans, spelt (had never heard of such), winter wheat, hay, and feed corn are the bread and butter of their operation. The farms we visited who are making it and who look like they will continue to make it are diversified in the types of crops they are growing and they also have cattle. Economic success at the Butterfield Farm also may be related to the fact that they run a hotel and have a snow plowing business.  The Millers are retired with pensions, so do not desperately need an income off the farm, which sounds like it breaks even or makes a little money in general. Their farm was started by Sibyl’s dad, Bob Harris, who was a chemist whose specialty was related to plutonium. Sibyl thought organic farming was a way that her dad made peace with his work as a chemist; both fields may have fulfilled his intellectual interests, but even if farming had been his true love, it is easy to imagine that it would be difficult to give up a stable salary to throw one’s self (and family) completely into the vagaries of farming.

Winter Wheat at the Harris-Miller Organic Farm

It is more than a little concerning that the farmers we have met suggested that farming is not a field where you can expect to make money, even though it requires a huge amount of work, effort, skill, and planning.  The farmers we spoke with (Kristi Hutchinson at 5 Oak Organics, Bryan Butterfield at Butterfield’s Farm, and Bill & Sibyl Miller at The Harris-Miller Organic Farm) indicated that they had a love and passion for farming and/or a strong commitment to providing a certain quality of food (in case of the Millers and Kristi Hutchinson, organically and humanely grown food). They also all had a history with farming and a strong connection to their farming heritage.  It’s hard to imagine someone going into farming without that connection – there seems to be a low correlation between amount of effort invested and the potential economic return.  Industrial farming may have driven the prices of food lower, but the tradeoff is that it will get harder and harder for small family farms to persist or survive solely on their farming efforts. 

Oats with a little added diversity at the Harris-Miller Organic Farm
(Photo by Richard Moore)
But, for the meantime, some of the farms are making it.  The Harris-Miller farm was a beautiful 160 acre farm with a diversity of crops, lovely fields, and more forests than we saw on any other property—and that was nice to see.  Forest and unmown property will provide habitat for wildlife and will help filter runoff of nutrients (say from cow patties) before it hits the streams, which are traveling through the watershed into Acton Lake in this case.  It’s a farm worth supporting and a reminder that we can all take a cue from nature and nurture diversity produced by both natural and artificial selection.

Fields at the Harris-Miller Organic Farm

Monday, June 9, 2014

Transforming Nature: A Nuclear Option to Duck and Recover

A few of our group stepping back into the 1950s to learn how to "duck and cover" from a turtle.

The Transforming Nature Group traveled to a place transformed, The Fernald Preserve, formerly the Feed Materials Production Center, a US Department of Energy uranium processing plant in southwest Ohio which was acquired in the 1950s and continued operating until production stopped in 1989. And from that point on, it was from warheads to wonder. The cleanup began in 1991 and by 2008 Fernald Preserve was opened to the public. And on Friday June 6th, we were the public.  What we found there was nature. Even if the site is still contaminated with uranium, radium, technetium, thorium, and inorganic compounds—it is considered restored and it certainly looks restored.  A five-lined skink greeted us at the Visitor’s Center and we entered to learn the history of this place. 

What struck me most as we walked through their history museum was the silver lining in the nuclear cloud—that a site that was part of the Cold War’s plan for nuclear proliferation is now a place set aside for nature. An effort with potential to destroy life and nature (although arguably the nuclear efforts were an attempt to preserve life—oh, insane humanity!), has now returned nature to be more of itself that it has probably been in hundreds of years when farming dominated the area. Like the old 50s advertisement reminding you to “Duck & Cover” like a turtle should you see a flash of light (from a nuclear bomb!), Fernald is a reminder that nature can duck & recover.
Fernald Preserve Five-lined Skink Greeter

Butterfly Weed

Cup Plant

View from the bird blind--Ah, wetlands!

Even better, a vernal pool. 
Not the Ice Cream Man.

Curious People Needed.

The Nature Transformers.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Transforming Nature: “Food is the Most Important Thing” –Bryan Butterfield

Earlier this week our group visited Butterfield’s Farm Market, which is a ~600 acre farm that supports two full-time farming families (although they farm at least twice that amount by renting nearby land). Bryan Butterfield is one of those farmers who in addition to farming owns and operates a farm market on Hwy 73 where he sells food grown on his farm and local food (which he considers to be about 100 mile radius from Oxford—if he can get there and back in a day), as well as a corn maze in the fall, flowers, Christmas trees in Nov/Dec, and various other food and wares.

There were several striking comments made by Bryan Butterfield as he told us about his farm and answered our questions, answers which stood out in part because of our visit to 5 Oak Organics.  He said he had a real passion for farming (much like Kristi from 5 Oaks)—he said he loved it and that you had to love it because when you add up the hours, you do not get the hourly wage reward (although he estimated his hourly wage to be $2/hour, which is more than the $0.75 Kristi had calculated). (The farmers are probably not converting any of the students to the farming life…it sounds like hard, if rewarding, work...maybe you have to be born into it.) He also seemed to like that everything rides on his ability to plan and execute the whole process of growing, harvesting, and selling the food—frankly, that part would stress me out, but he seems ultra-efficient in his planning and preparations, fully calculating the costs and weighing the options.  He also had a very pragmatic approach to everything he did where everything had a purpose—no random pot-bellied pigs here. Although farmers are vulnerable to the ways of weather, there is insurance that buffers to some extent the risk to complete loss. The Butterfields also appear to be diverse in their approach, which also helps buffer the risks: they are growing several varieties of corn or soybeans, they have the market, corn maze, and they also have cattle which will eat the excess crops and which they sell when they reach 500 lbs.

Although I’ve visited Butterfield’s Market for years and it’s a favorite stop of our families when they visit, I never had a chance to talk extensively with any of the Butterfields about their farming practices, although I made some assumptions about those practices, especially pesticide-use, which were not necessarily accurate. Interestingly, they seem to respond to the market, using no to little pesticides on the vegetables that they are growing for their market and using pesticides that they think are least risky to the environment. I assumed they were using atrazine on their corn, however it sounds like they’re avoiding it because of their perceived risks and its likelihood of getting into groundwater; he also suggested that the farmers have been discouraged from using atrazine, which is interesting and which was not my impression at all after my visit to EPA. (He is using Roundup early in the season, which has also been associated with risks but it is less mobile and breaks down more quickly than atrazine.) Additionally, he’s not growing GMO (genetically modified organisms) crops, in large part because enough people ask him if his corn is GMO that he decided not to grow it. GMO food has become something of a black and white issue to some, although there are definitely pros and cons of this practice. (From a public communication angle, it’s interesting to see that “GMOs are bad” has infiltrated the local conscience, however.) Interestingly, Butterfield does not advertise his sensible use of pesticides or that his corn is not GMO. However, if you care, then you can ask and asking apparently may influence his management. A great reason to know and talk to your local farmer about the issues you care about.

Most of us are not anticipating the times ahead for food, but since it’s his livelihood, Bryan Butterfield is and he said that although the last few years ahead have been good it was going to get tough again for farmers over the next few years—in part because of the costs of the usual suspects, fuel and fertilizer, but also because land is getting more scarce and that is something we should all be thinking about, because as he said, food *is* the most important thing. Although a year without food is a golden chance to find out about the afterlife, I think most of us are happy to find out more about the life of the living. A visit to Butterfields did give me renewed faith in the small farmers growing our food, that they are thinking about the long-term sustainability of the land, as well as the way to keep food growing in an efficient process that minimizes the costs and environmental risks. The Butterfields seem up to challenge.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Transforming Nature: Biophilia

“The favored living place of most peoples is a prominence near water from which parkland can be viewed.”  E. O. Wilson The Diversity of Life (and all quotes that follow)

In the last two weeks, our group has visited the 5 OakOrganics farm of Kristi Hutchinson (which I blogged about here) and the home located on old farm property of our colleague Valerie Ubbes who is interested in the impact of environment on human health (all photos are from Valerie's). Although the caretakers of the properties have different goals—one for a working farm and another for a family home with lovely flower gardens (Valerie is a master gardener)—both Kristi and Valerie expressed a love and passion for growing things.  One makes it her living and the other makes it her hobby.  Both have shaped and guided what springs from the land with great intention.  If left to its own devices, the land would revert to forest, the dominant and natural land cover for much of Ohio. 

“For most of deep history, human beings lived in tropical and subtropical savanna in East Africa, open country sprinkled with streams and lakes, trees and copses.  In similar topography modern peoples choose their residences and design their parks and gardens, if given a free choice.” –E. O. Wilson

It is interesting to think how our early human evolution shapes the ways we transform land today. Agricultural landscapes make sense as does an innate desire to grow things that will feed and nourish the body. Many of us dabble in vegetable gardening and take pleasure of hauling our meal in front the lawn.  Valerie added a pond to her landscape—likely for beauty, but also stocked with fish, which may be a way of stocking the ecological fridge for meals ahead.  The amphibian biologist cringes a little bit to see fish added to what could be perfectly good amphibian habitats; it is a habitat so pervasive that it seems to be automatic. However, in our evolutionary desire to feed ourselves and our family, stocking fish instead of letting local amphibians colonize your pond, makes greater sense. Fish and chips trumps frog and chips almost every time.  Parks, homes, and public businesses and places often have a similar look, which seems both surprising and unnecessary—that it satisfies some need in the human brain selected over time makes the inexplicable seem potentially clear.

“These are examples of what I have called biophilia, the connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life…We do not understand ourselves yet and descend farther from heaven’s air if we forget how much the natural world means to us. Signals abound that the loss of life’s diversity endangers not just the body but the spirit.”  E. O. Wilson

Biophilia, love of living things, offers a potential for harnessing human nature in weighing the decisions we make daily and over generations. Can awareness of the origin of our decisions change the way we use land and what we value in the spaces we care for?  There is wildness left even in the cities where we plant what are sometimes tropical forests inside of buildings and where we line the streets with trees for shade and bird song. Most of us do love and cultivate life, even if sometimes we feel a long way from it, and making the connections back to the living web may offer humans and other living things a brighter way forward. Our evolutionary history then is something of a love story, and like most love stories there comes a time when the individuals involved must work on the relationship for the betterment of those involved. 

Monday, June 2, 2014

Transforming Nature: Finding Food

We are fortunate to live in a place and time where finding food is not very difficult for most of us—just drive to the local grocery store or even the Walmart where you used to go only for your unnecessary plastic objects.  Some of us attempt to grow our own food.  My household attempts tomatoes and a few other randomly selected vegetables, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t; we love it when it works, and when it doesn’t, it doesn’t.  Growing food is kind of hard, and when you consider it’s pretty optional for most of us, the incentive for pulling out the shovel to dig a place in the earth for a seed or a seedling (and then everything that follows from that initial effort) may not be forthcoming. 

Our “Transforming Nature” group has been contemplating the way we use land in the watershed and one of our visits last week was to an organic farm, 5 Oak Organics in Oxford, OH owned by Kristi Hutchinson (that's Kristi in the picture below).  She comes from farmers on both sides of her family and says that her desire and passion is to grow things in a sustainable way. Organic farming is more labor intensive and from what Kristi said a lot more paperwork, but its food grown without chemical management which is healthier for the air, water, and soil (not to mention the farmer), and at least on Kristi’s farm represented a much more diverse agricultural endeavor.  From what we gathered, 5 Oaks Organics is a one woman show with some help here and there.  The vegetable plots we saw were small by agricultural field standards and diverse with greens, leeks, potatoes, tomatoes, and beans, which get rotated on a regular schedule.  The farm and plots were really quite a lovely place to be. It reminded me of one of Rachel Carson’s solutions to intense chemical management back in 1962: planting diverse crops rather than acre after acre of monoculture (which essentially requires chemical management).  A solution that seems so simple.

Our group was struck by the amount of work farming this 9.5 acres was (especially after doing a tiny bit ourselves) and by how small the profit margin seemed to be, despite the higher cost of organic food.  It does seem like the odds are stacked against the organic farmer with more paperwork and payment to ensure certification. Plus, the routes to selling her food are more limited mainly focused on farmer’s markets and a local grocery store, MoonCo-op. Although she says she doesn’t produce enough to sell to Kroger, she said she would have to double her liability insurance, which makes it unfeasible to her. So our organic produce from Kroger likely comes from faraway places.

Kristi’ mission is a good one that offers the hungry consumer another option and it’s an effort, I think, worthy of our support.  Even though I think about pesticide use and land-use a decent amount because of my research area, I have not (oh dear) maybe ever bought much food from our local farmer’s market in Ohio where Kristi sells some of her vegetables.  I certainly have never bought mustard greens.  But this week, I took a less leisurely approach to Saturday morning and ventured out to the tented market and returned home with some of Kristi’s beautiful vegetables.  Even though we cook most of the food we eat in our house “from scratch,” we will be trying a few new things this week like mustard greens and beets.  I grew up on canned beets, which terrified and horrified me, but I returned with three fresh and very real beets, mainly because my daughter wanted the red things on Kristi’s table.  Three beets seemed manageable, so we will see what happens. 

After our visit to the farm, I at least appreciate a little more all the hard work that went into growing these three beets, mustard greens, reasonably sized leeks, spinach, green onions, and radishes.  We are trying a few new recipes from the selection of food that was harvested locally and happy to feel a connection to the person who grew some of our food this week.