Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute

After a weekend of camping at Big Basin Redwoods State Park in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, I decided to write about the imperiled marbled murrelet, and efforts to reduce the threats to this endangered species. Here’s my Marbled Murrelet story, with an excerpt below:

California State Parks has launched a

California State Parks has launched a “keep it crumb clean” campaign to remind visitors to Big Basin Redwoods State Park to never feed wildlife and to pick up after themselves (Photo by Cole Allen).

Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute

California State Parks urging campers to clean up after themselves, in a novel effort to protect the endangered marbled murrelet

By Sena Christian

When campers register at the headquarters of Big Basin Redwoods State Park in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, they receive the usual trail map and, for the past couple years, instructions on how to be “crumb clean” and why this matters to the fate of the endangered marbled murrelet, a seabird about the size of a robin.

California State Parks launched its “keep it crumb clean” campaign to educate visitors about the importance of never feeding wildlife and picking up after themselves. The campaign has been propelled forward by a 2014 lawsuit settlement agreement with the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, which had claimed the government was failing to protect the bird under its new general plan for Big Basin. The planned expansion of public uses and infrastructure in the bird’s habitat exacerbated the species’ risk for extinction, according to the lawsuit.

“Education is such a big part of the solution,” says Shaye Wolf, a wildlife biologist and the climate science director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Most park visitors would be heartbroken to learn their trash is contributing to the decline of this beautiful, endangered seabird … What we’re trying to do with the settlement is educate and increase public participation in the solution.”

The marbled murrelet’s low reproductive rate makes it especially vulnerable. A mature female lays only one egg high in the mossy branches of ancient coast redwoods (or other conifer such as firs) that stretch up the Pacific coastline from central California into Oregon, Washington, and as far north as Alaska. The parents take turns incubating the egg and flying miles away to the ocean to eat herring, smelt and anchovies and then returning to feed the nestling. A mere month or so after hatching, a chick will make its first flight to the ocean. That is, if it survives till then.

Murrelets face a mighty foe in corvid predators — mainly Stellar’s jays and ravens that are intelligent enough to know food follows humans. When these birds finish foraging around people, they notice murrelet nests high in the trees and attack the eggs and chicks. Jays are a natural part of the forest ecosystem, and murrelets evolved under their predatory pressure. But the corvid’s population has exploded throughout the park, along with the once-rare raven that is now a common sight.

“Whenever there are people, there is food, and whenever there is food, there will be animals taking advantage of that,” says Portia Halbert, the environmental scientist with State Parks who oversees the “crumb clean” campaign in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Some 1.5 million people visit Big Basin State Park each year. An estimated 400 to 600 murrelets exist in the entire Santa Cruz mountain range.

Read the rest of the article here …

Insect Feed Could Be the Next Frontier in Animal Agriculture

My latest piece for Earth Island Journal is about how insect feed could be the next frontier in animal agriculture. I focus on the research — and breakthroughs — of scientist Philip Taylor, who is examining the role the black soldier fly can play as an alternative protein source in livestock feed. Read an excerpt below:

Site of new refinery being built at Black Cat in the foothills just north of Boulder (photo courtesy Philip Taylor).

Site of new refinery being built at Black Cat Farm near Boulder (photo courtesy Philip Taylor).

Insect Feed Could Be the Next Frontier in Animal Agriculture

Bugs offer an environmentally friendly alternative to soy and fishmeal when it comes to feeding livestock

By Sena Christian

Philip Taylor knew that when the black soldier fly began mating under artificial light in his hatchery at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research in Boulder, Colorado, something important was happening.

“For the mass production of larvae there needs to be a large and consistent source of eggs,” he explains. Taylor, a fellow with Duke University and INSTARR, needs a lot of larvae for his investigation into how insects can be used as an alternative protein source in animal feed. Using ultraviolet light, humidity and temperature, Taylor is trying to influence mating and egg production among the black solider fly. The goal is to mimic the subtropical and warmer temperate climates where these flies naturally occur, and Taylor is confident he’s found the light bulb that provides just the right balance. He says he’s already achieved about an 80 percent reproduction rate, which is the highest he knows of under artificial conditions.

The motivation for Taylor’s research stems from his belief that insects can be the cornerstone of a new-and-improved food system. He’s not alone in touting this great source of protein; putting edible insects on the menu has garnered plenty of media attention recently. Feasting on these healthy little buggers could help feed a growing global population projected to reach nearly 10 billion by 2050 and reduce the environmental impact of eating meat. But if chowing down insects isn’t your cultural norm, the option might sound kind of gross. Maybe one day most Americans will get there. But, in the meantime, why not use insects as a protein source in animal feed to replace fishmeal and soy?

Read the rest of the article here …

Is Plant Science The Answer To Improved Food Security?

In May, I had the opportunity to participate in the Metcalf Institute for Climate Change and the News in St. Louis, Missouri. The institute coincided with the second National Adaptation Forum, and I wrote a dispatch from the forum for Earth Island Journal. Here’s an excerpt:

Senior Research Scientist Nigel Taylor leads a team tasked with developing virus-resistant cassava, which is a staple crop in sub-Saharan Africa. Taylor works at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, Missouri (Photo by Sena Christian).

Senior Research Scientist Nigel Taylor leads a team developing virus-resistant cassava. Taylor works at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center (Photo by Sena Christian).

Is plant science the answer to improved food security?

In a world of climate change and growing global population, researchers believe plants are key to adaptation

By Sena Christian

Nigel Taylor spreads apart the wilted and discolored leaves of a cassava plant. He wants us to see its sickness on full display. Taylor leads a team of scientists in St. Louis attempting to genetically engineer a virus-resistant version of the plant, and is working with researchers in Uganda and Kenya, where cassava is a staple crop. Once created, this plant will be delivered to small-landholder farmers for widespread use in parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

“Cassava is an incredibly important source of calories in the tropics,” Taylor explains to a group of journalists visiting the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in Missouri in early May. The ultimate goal of this not-for-profit center, founded in 1998, is to double production of the world’s most important crops while lowering agriculture’s environmental footprint. More than 200 employees are on the case, and for these scientists, answers lie in an obvious place: “We think plants are a wonderful solution to a lot of global challenges,” vice president of research Dr. Toni Kutchan tells us.

Among the biggest challenges is a growing global population expected to reach nearly 10 billion by 2050, which will need to be fed without degrading more natural resources. Other challenges include regions around the world suffering from increased salinity in soil, water supplies tainted with fertilizer, declining crop yields due to plant disease, and intensifying droughts. The agricultural powerhouse of California, for instance — responsible for producing about half of the United States’ vegetables, fruits and nuts — has entered the fourth year of a historic drought with no relief in sight. Danforth scientists are developing crops to withstand these environmental stressors as we brace for the impacts of climate change.

“Human-induced climate change is here and now. It’s not just something we need to think about for our grandchildren,” says Kathy Jacobs at the second National Adaptation Forum in St. Louis, where she joined more than 800 representatives from the private and public sector in May.

… Read the rest of the article here …

My Blog’s Origin Story

I started this blog to support my two Kickstarter projects — read on!

Kickstarter Project No. 1

On the 29th day of Nainoa Thompson’s first voyage as a student navigator, he sees two birds fly south overhead. He orders the crew aboard the double-hulled voyaging canoe named Hokule’a to sail in the direction of their flight. These seabirds travel a short distance out to sea at dawn to eat and return to land at night, which means the canoe’s destination, Tahiti, must be nearby. At sunset, a crew member climbs the mast but does not see land.

They lower the sails, heave in the Pacific Ocean and wait.

By late the next morning, Thompson feels panicked. One of Hokule’a’s crew members saw a bird fly out of the north and Thompson, convinced the canoe passed the island during the night, has the crew reverse direction. But another man — who spied a little fish in the bird’s beak — advises him to turn back. This is nesting season and beforesunrise the feathered animal had flown out to sea to hunt for food to deliver to its babies. Later, the bird would fly out to feed itself.

The man with the wise advice is Mau Piailug, a master navigator from the tiny Micronesian atoll of Satawal who had come to the islands of Hawaii to pass on his knowledge of ancient Polynesian wayfaring, which relies on ocean swells, waves, the sun, moon, stars and seabirds to travel the open seas. Imagine: no GPS tracking, sextant, compass, not even a wristwatch. An hour passes and the shores of Tahiti appear. With it, Thompson becomes the first Hawaiian in more than 600 years to navigate a voyaging canoe using traditional wayfaring. With the 7,000-mile voyage complete, Piailug offers Thompson one last piece of advice. “Everything you need to see is in the ocean, but it will take you 20 more years to see it,” he says. “If you can read the ocean you will never be lost.”

Since that voyage in 1976, the Polynesian Voyaging Society has achieved more than 10 long-distant voyages, and an immeasurable impact on the lives and spirit of Polynesians. Hokule’a touched off a Pacific-wide movement to reawaken a lost art and a Hawaiian Renaissance to restore a lost sense of pride. The years, however, have not been without tough lessons, including the death of a beloved crew member, and the difficulty of repairing the ill effects of Western imperialism and attempting to break down the stereotype of the “Plastic Polynesian.” In 2014, the Polynesian Voyaging Society set sail for an ambitious multiyear worldwide voyage.

This blog was originally devoted to sharing this story. I sought support — through Kickstarter — for a reporting trip to Honolulu in 2011. Mahalo to my Kickstarter supporters:

Julia Christian

Carla Christian

David Christian

Cole Allen

Alia Cruz

Emily Cole

Dianne Heimer

Milo Delucchi

Suzzanna

Kitdy Rakthay

Jill Henrikson

Cathy Delucchi

Ted Cox

Mary Anne & Gene Allen

Hugh

Mario Amanzio

John Motsinger

Nicole N.

Josh Fernandez

Clay Nutting

Vanessa Schnaidt

Lindsay Schield

Kristin Bartus

My Kickstarter project No. 2

In summer 2012, I spent a week in Quito, Ecuador to research a story called “Quito Grown” for Earth Island Journal about the city’s urban farming initiative and how these farms address rising food prices and a jeopardized food supply. This experience made me even more committed to reporting on issues related to farming and grassroots efforts to put the power of food production back in the hands of people.Quito Grown11

In 2000, Ecuador adopted the U.S. dollar as its official currency to restore political and economic stability. But the process unintentionally led to rising food prices and hunger among Ecuadorians, particularly indigenous populations, refugees and children.

Quito’s urban farming initiative allows families and students to grow produce for themselves, and connects growers to local farmer’s markets at which to sell their healthy fruits and vegetables. Also, because Ecuador ranks as one of the world’s highest users of pesticides, there is a growing demand for organic produce.

Thanks to my Kickstarter supporters:

Julia Christian

Cathy Delucchi

Yen Le

Nathan Papini

Tom McMahon

Danny Cross

Mike Tener

Hugh

Nicole

Carla Christian

Dave Constantin

Camille

Mario Amanzio

Milo Delucchi

Laura

Lorenzo Orselli

Jess

Jon Kiefer

Mary Anne Allen

Stephan M.

Kitdy Rakthay

Oona Mallet

Ron B.

Cole Allen

David Christian

Christopher Lebedzinski

Jen Rotter

How One California Farmer is Battling the Drought

Here we have the seventh and final article in my series on American farming and food systems, as part of my participation in the Ted Scripps Fellowship in Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. I wrote a profile of large-scale California farmer Cannon Michael for Ensia magazine, in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network (FERN). Read an excerpt below. The profile was brought to life by the beautiful photos of photojournalist and Ted Scripps Fellow Sonya Doctorian.

Cannon Michael is a farmer is California's Central Valley. Photo by Sonya Doctorian.

Cannon Michael is a farmer is California’s Central Valley. Photo by Sonya Doctorian.

How One California Farmer is Battling the Worst Drought in 1,200 years

California’s byzantine water system and crushing drought are leading farmers to extraordinary measures as they try to keep themselves from running dry.

By Sena Christian

On a warm March afternoon, farmer Cannon Michael walks alongside wheat fields adjacent to his house in Los Banos, in California’s Central Valley. Most of these fields won’t be watered again this year.

“Wheat’s not a glamorous crop, but it makes a lot of bread,” Michael quips.

This wheat, though, won’t return much money, Michael says. So it will be harvested for his sister’s two bakeries in San Francisco and the land fallowed, along with some fields formerly planted in alfalfa and cotton. They are among more than 1,000 acres Michael left unplanted this season to try and conserve water, amounting to about 10 percent of the 10,500 irrigated acres that make up his farm, Bowles Farming Company. Walking past the fields with his wife, Heidi, and their three young sons to a nearby barn with goats and sheep, Michael jokes about an imaginary Taylor Swift song called, “Sheep It Off,” much to his kids’ dismay.

Michael has a humorous side, but laughter can’t mask the rough reality of farming today in the Central Valley, a place famed for its abundant bounty of fruits and vegetables. By the spring of 2014, the region’s farmers had gone into survival mode. They hoped to secure enough water for a decent harvest, but last summer about 15,000 farmers on San Joaquin Valley’s east side received zero allocations of water from the Central Valley Project, the federal project in charge of storing and managing much of California’s water. The state’s worst drought in 1,200 years ravaged the region.

The drought, in combination with this long-established government system for deciding who gets water and who does not, has split the valley. Now Michael’s life, it seems, is almost exclusively focused on finding ways to conserve water and helping his neighbors who lack the precious resource. There’s no time to waste. If Michael and his peers can’t figure out a way to conserve and share the water that remains, one of the world’s most productive agricultural regions will be jeopardized. California agriculture is a $46 billion industry, and the Central Valley alone produces nearly half of the United States’ vegetables, fruits and nuts in its Class 1 soil — the highest quality.

… Read the rest of the article here …

American Farming: Age-Old Profession Gets Young, Idealistic Upgrade

It’s the big 0-6! The sixth story in my series on farming and food systems has been published in The Guardian. An excerpt from “America’s new farmers: the age-old profession gets a young, idealistic upgrade,” is below:

Farmer Cultivation Center intern Melissa Piazza, 25, wants to have her own farm by the time she's 30. (Photo by Cole Allen).

Melissa Piazza, 25, wants to have her own farm by the time she’s 30. Piazza is a second-year intern at the Farmer Cultivation Center in Niwot, Colorado. (Photo by Cole Allen).

America’s farmers: the age-old profession gets a young, idealistic upgrade

Novice farmers don’t have it easy: in addition to lack of know-how, finding and paying for land can be a problem. But backing from the federal government has enabled many to make the leap – and, in doing so, change what farming can be

By Sena Christian

Within a 15-minute period on a chilly morning in January, the day went from good to bad for the two men who run Happy Acres farm in the town of Sherman, Connecticut.

Usually, a cold winter day in the north-east makes the only functioning tractor difficult to start up and the cows slip around on ice. They were prepared for that. But on this day, the tractor broke down completely and the silage unloader, which is needed to feed corn to the cattle, failed.

The two men tried to go about their morning chores on the 90-acre farm, letting their 55 cattle out of the barn, scraping out the stalls and putting down new bedding. But a broken tractor meant the manure inside wouldn’t be collected and spread over the fields, to return fertility back to the soil, and the cows wouldn’t have much to eat much besides the hay outside.

Then the problems, as they tend to, compounded. With the tractor out of commission, the barn cleaner – basically a big chain that pulls cow poop through a channel along the barn – couldn’t be used until the following day, once the equipment had been fixed. Backed-up manure had caused chain links to break and pop off the gears.

cow

The new generation of American farmers? (Photo by Jessica McConnell).

“After more chain clearing, pulling and hammering we got it all cleaned up and out,” says Happy Acres’ business manager, Adam Mantzaris, 35. “I guess the moral of all these stories is, make sure you fix things early or you end up having a shitty day. Pun intended.”
Lesson learned. And there will no doubt be many more to come.

Unconventional Agriculture

This time around I’ve profiled four women farmers in the United States who are trying to make agriculture better. We’ve got an urban farmer, an ex-farmworker, an activist and a beginner. This article appears in the spring print issue of Earth Island Journal and is the fifth story in my series on American farming and food systems. Read an excerpt below.

Originally from Mexico, Nelida Martinez labored as a farmworker for several years before launching her own operation at Viva Farms in Washington. (Photo by Cole Allen)

Originally from Mexico, Nelida Martinez labored as a farmworker for several years before launching her own operation at Viva Farms in Washington. (Photo by Cole Allen)

Elle2

Elle Huftill-Balzer is a farm manager for Soil Born Farms in Sacramento, California. (Photo by Sena Christian)

Unconventional Agriculture

A rising crop of women farmers are changing our food systems for the better

By Sena Christian

Last year, all five of the first-year apprentices at Soil Born Farms’ headquarters near Sacramento, California were women. Another young woman, Elle Huftill-Balzer, was the boss of them all, the farm manager. “It [was] a total girl-power year around here,” says Janet Whalen Zeller, co-founder and co-director of Soil Born Farms Urban Agriculture and Education Project, which oversees two farms totaling 56 acres. In fact, during the past few years the majority of apprenticeship applicants at the farm have been women.

Zeller isn’t a farmer. She is an educator and advocate with a vision of healthy food for all of Sacramento County’s 1.4 million residents. In 2004, she and two farmers turned Soil Born into a nonprofit organization to help urban residents connect with their local food system and to improve under- served communities’ access to organic produce.

Zeller can’t really explain the girl-power phenomenon, or why Soil Born’s team is such a striking con- trast to the demographic portrait of American farmers, which skews largely male. According to the US Census of Agriculture, 86 percent of the 2.1 mil- lion people responsible for overseeing the day-to-day operations of this coun- try’s farms are men. But wagering a guess, Zeller suggests that young wom- en are probably becoming attracted to sustainable agriculture because of an interest in social justice and in curbing the harmful environmental practices of industrial-scale farming. “There seems to be a cellular call to tend the earth in a more sustainable way,” she says.

… Read rest of the article here …