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)

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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 …

A Visit to Where the U.S. Government Keeps Confiscated Animal Parts

I’m taking a departure from my agriculture reporting to showcase an article I wrote on the illegal wildlife trade for Newsweek. In February, Ted Scripps Fellows visited the repository at the National Wildlife Property Repository near Denver, Colorado to learn about trafficking and see up close and personal the many products and dead animals seized by law enforcement in this global trade. Here’s an excerpt from my article:

A rug made out of a lion at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refuge repository in Colorado.

A rug made out of a lion at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refuge repository in Colorado.

Where the U.S. Government Keeps Confiscated Animal Parts

By Sena Christian

When visitors to the National Wildlife Property Repository near Denver enter the 16,000-square-foot warehouse and see the full array of dead animals and products kept within, they tend to stop short, open their eyes wide and utter something that suggests shock and awe. “Whoa” seems to be a popular choice.

“I always like to see people’s faces when they turn the corner,” repository supervisor Coleen Schaefer tells a group of visitors on a warm day in February. She’s part of the office of law enforcement for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which confiscated all of these products from the illegal wildlife trade and brought them to the repository, situated inside the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge.

Outside the repository, snowcapped mountains rise up in the distance. Throughout the year, deer, coyotes, burrowing owls, bison and a few hundred other creatures roam the 15,000 acres. Once an Army weapons factory and then a manufacturing plant for pesticides and herbicides, the Rocky Mountain Arsenal underwent a massive environmental cleanup and was designated as a refuge in 1992. The cleanup finished in 2010.

Inside, visitors come face-to-face with more than 1.5 million specimens in the repository—the only one of its kind in the United States. The sheer volume is, Schaefer says, “mind-boggling.” There are palettes of sea-turtle-skin boots, fur coats, taxidermied tigers, exotic birds, coral stolen from the ocean and rows and rows of reptiles from Mexico and South America. There are curios—turtle paperweights, bookends made of zebra feet and footstools crafted from elephant feet. Tiny seahorses packed tightly into plastic bags will never reach their intended destination in Southeast Asia for use as traditional medicine. Shelves stock the heads of tigers and jaguars, their mouths open in a perpetual roar.

Schaefer motions to a small item on a table across from the heads. “Probably the saddest thing is the tiger fetus carved out of its mother, stuffed for someone to put on a shelf,” she says.

… read the rest of the article here …

Can Older Women Prevent the Next Dust Bowl?

Here we have the fourth article in my series on alternative farming and food systems, which I’m working on as a Ted Scripps Fellow in Environmental Journalism. That’s right: fourth! Now I really can call this whole thing a “series.” So, first, I wrote about the challenges of urban farming for Earth Island Journal and then about efforts to encourage military veterans to become farmers for Newsweek. I also wrote about the commercialization of cellulosic ethanol and its role in the food-versus-fuel debate for Earth Island Journal. Now I’ve written about women landowners and soil conservation for YES! Magazine. Here’s an excerpt:

Participants of WFAN's Women Caring for the Land program learn about soil conservation (Photo courtesy of WFAN).

Participants of the Women Caring for the Land program learn about soil conservation. The program is organized by the Women, Food and Agriculture Network, based in Iowa (Photo courtesy of WFAN).

Women Over 65 Own Nearly a Third of Iowa’s Farmland: Can They Prevent the Next Dust Bowl

By Sena Christian

In her late 50s, Alice Ramsay returned to the Iowa farm where she’d grown up. She had graduated college in Missouri and spent most of her adulthood in Colorado employed as a teacher. But after her parents passed away, she bought up the inherited land from her brother and sister, and, in 2000, she moved back.

“I’d been gone for 30 years and I never had an idea I would come back to the farm—never ever,” Ramsay says. “But here I am. So I had to start at the ground level and go from there.”

Ramsay, now 72, first needed to get caught up on what was happening on the land she now owned, about 20 miles west of Des Moines. It was about 180 acres of hilly land that sloped down to the South Raccoon River. The rolling landscape made the land challenging to farm, and soil and water runoff from the higher ground constituted an ongoing issue. Oak savannas grew near the river, and grasslands surrounded a pond. A country road cut through the middle of the property.

A farmer had been renting the whole farm, where he grew corn and beans and raised cattle. Like her father, who bought the farm in 1943 and worked on it until his death, in 1992, Ramsay valued the conservation of this special place, a philosophy reinforced during her 10 years volunteering with a wildlife and education organization. “My purpose was to come back and do what’s right for the land,” she says.

… Read the rest of the article here …

Is Cellulosic Ethanol the Next Big Thing in Renewable Fuels?

Don’t get too excited, but here we have the third article in my series on alternative farming and food systems, which I’m working on as a Ted Scripps Fellow in Environmental Journalism in Colorado. And you can expect my fourth article to publish within the coming weeks. I’ve been one busy bee! My first piece was on the challenges of urban farming for Earth Island Journal. Next up: efforts to encourage military veterans to become farmers, written for Newsweek. My latest article is on the commercialization of cellulosic ethanol and its role in the food-versus-fuel debate for EIJ. Wham bam, thank you ma’am! Here’s an excerpt:

Michael Crowley, a senior scientist with the Chemical and Biosciences Center at NREL, created an animated model of Cel7A, which is nature’s primary enzyme for decaying plants. Visualizing the enzyme’s process could help scientists bioengineer a version that accelerates the cellulosic ethanol process. (Photo by Pat Corkery/courtesy of NREL).

Michael Crowley, a scientist with the NREL, created an animated model of Cel7A, which is nature’s primary enzyme for decaying plants. Visualizing the enzyme’s process could help scientists bioengineer a version that accelerates the cellulosic ethanol process. (Photo by Pat Corkery/courtesy of NREL).

Is Cellulosic Ethanol the Next Big Thing in Renewable Fuels?

Ongoing efforts to commercialize this clean energy source may lead the US to a more independent energy future

By Sena Christian

For a long time it seemed like turning the inedible parts of plants into a commercially viable biofuel, known as cellulosic ethanol, was nothing more than a pipedream. The enzymes needed to release sugars from cellulose — the fiber that forms plant structure — to be fermented into ethanol were inefficient and expensive. And the cellulose found in virtually every plant, flower, tree, grass, and bush is by its very nature evolved to withstand decay.

Ethanol can be derived from sugar-based, corn-based, and cellulose-based materials. In Brazil, sugarcane is the feedstock of choice, while in the United States that designation goes to corn. The starch in corn kernels easily converts into simple sugars, with the enzyme catalyzing this process costing a mere .03-cents per gallon; the sugars are then fermented into alcohol (additives make it undrinkable). Because of the relatively low cost, corn-based ethanol has been meeting America’s demand for an alternative fuel source, especially as people drive less and fuel economy improves.

Why even bother with cellulosic ethanol? For one, there’s the questionable carbon footprint of corn ethanol, which, depending on how it is produced, can be significantly better or significantly worse than that of petroleum. Greenhouse-gas emissions from cellulosic ethanol, on the other hand, are estimated to be roughly 86 percent lessthan petroleum sources. And using cellulosic materials doesn’t create a food-versus-fuel scenario. Ramping up production of the biofuel could reduce the nation’s reliance on imported oil. In 2012, the US imported about 40 percent of the petroleum it consumed, nearly three-quarters of which fueled transportation around the country. The US government also spends millions of dollars on military support to keep oil shipping lanes open; money that could go toward domestic needs instead.

… Read the rest of the article here …

Farming Could Save Veterans, and Vice Versa

Here is the second article in my series on alternative farming and food systems. My first article was on the challenges of urban farming for Earth Island Journal. This time I focus on military veterans and farming for Newsweek. Here’s an excerpt:

Evan Premer, a 15-year veteran of the Army National Guard, grows food in a greenhouse for his business, Dirtless Farm, in Colorado. Becoming a farmer has helped Premer manage his PTSD. (Photo by Cole Allen).

Evan Premer, an Army National Guard veteran, grows food in a greenhouse for his business, Dirtless Farm, in Colorado. Becoming a farmer has helped Premer manage his PTSD. (Photo by Cole Allen).

Farmers Could Save Veterans, and Vice Versa

By Sena Christian

Mornings are the hardest for Evan Premer, although nights aren’t much easier. His sleep, wracked with nightmares of war and violence, has no consistent pattern, so he often wakes up feeling tired and overwhelmed. But he does have a game plan for feeling better: Once he rises from bed, he hits the road, turning up the music in his Jeep on his drive to a greenhouse in the small town of Firestone, Colorado. Here he feels more relaxed, listening as water hydrates his plants. There are no cubicle walls or phones ringing or colleagues arguing. This is the office that works for him.

Premer, who is now 36, served 15 years in the military, most recently as a Colorado Army National Guardsman in Iraq. In basic training, he and his fellow soldiers were taught to only show strength. “You never let the enemy see your weaknesses,” he says. “And that’s why I’m so broken today.” When Premer returned from the Middle East in 2007, he studied photography in college for a while. But the strobes and flashing lights he had to use triggered bad memories of his time in war, so he gave it up.

Richard Murphy is program manager of the nonprofit Veterans to Farmers in Colorado. (Photo by Cole Allen).

Richard Murphy is program manager of Veterans to Farmers in Colorado. (Photo by Cole Allen).

Premer manages his post-traumatic stress disorder by growing food. About two years ago, he and his mother started a business, now called Dirtless Farm, growing microgreens, baby greens and culinary herbs for local restaurants. Premer had previously trained at Circle Fresh Farms in Denver, which is run by an ex-Marine, Buck Adams, who also founded the nonprofit Veterans to Farmers. At Circle Fresh, Premer learned about aeroponic production, a space-saving system where vegetables are grown out of vertical towers year-round, with no soil and little water. He can grow all sorts of produce, from vine plants like tomatoes, strawberries and eggplants to leafy greens and herbs.

He might also help save American farming. The average U.S. farmer or rancher is 58 years old, and many of them will soon retire. Most of these farmers don’t have a succession plan for their business or land, and that lack of planning makes farmland more vulnerable to development, and small-scale family farms easier for corporations to gobble up. That’s why the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is calling for at least 100,000 new farmers in the coming years.

… Read the rest of the article here …

Cities Figure Out How To Accommodate Urban Farming

For my Ted Scripps Fellowship in Environmental Journalism, I’m focusing on projects related to sustainable farming. I’ll be writing several articles on this subject over the course of the next nine months, and have begun with one for Earth Island Journal on how cities facilitate or impede urban farming. Here’s an excerpt:

Anne Cure owns and operates Cure Organic Farm outside the city limits of Boulder, Colorado. She rents eight acres of open space from the City of Boulder. (Photo/Cole Allen)

Anne Cure runs Cure Organic Farm outside the city limits of Boulder, CO. (Photo/Cole Allen)

Across the US, Cities Struggle to Figure Out How to Accommodate Urban Farming

Widespread interest in urban agriculture is forcing local authorities to re-examine rules that prohibit farming in cities

By Sena Christian

Sacramento has worked diligently over the past two years to brand itself as America’s farm-to-fork capital, hosting local food festivals, wine tastings, and gala dinners featuring the city’s premier chefs. Tickets for this year’s dinner, at $175 dollars each, sold out in five minutes. The Sacramento Convention and Visitors Bureau has even organized a cattle drive and tractor parade through downtown.

Sure, nearly 1.4 million acres of farmland exist around the city, which is located in California’s vast and fertile Central Valley region, and the climate is amenable to growing produce year-round (drought complications notwithstanding). But there are no urban farms in Sacramento. The closest and most prominent urban farm, the 55-acre Soil Born Farms, exists outside the city limits.

Sacramento is relatively progressive when it comes to gardening: The city already allows frontyard vegetable gardens, urban chickens, and community gardens on private land and runs 13 community gardens on public land. But farming — that is, growing crops to sell — has fallen behind.

… Read the rest of the article here …

Way High Up

The Ted Scripps Fellows recently walked the alpine tundra at Niwot Ridge in the Indian Peaks Wilderness in Colorado, reaching an elevation of 11,300 feet.

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Alpine tundra in the Indian Peaks Wilderness.

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Fellows, at an elevation of 11,300, learned about the work of the Mountain Research Station

Fellows at Niwot Ridge in Colorado.

Fellows at Niwot Ridge in Colorado.