More Bang for Your Duck

California’s wild storms of January-February 2017 sure made this story for Comstock’s magazine a tough one to report: lots of canceled interviews, farms getting evacuated, levees needing to be repaired (and photo shoots rescheduled). But here we go! With photos by Ken James.

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On assignment at Rue & Forsman Ranch in the Sacramento Valley (photo by Sena)

More Bang for Your Duck

After a rough few years, Sacramento Valley rice farmers are supplementing crop profits with environmental stewardship

By Sena Christian

Rice farmer Michael Bosworth can easily recognize the distinctive “kla-ha, kla-ha” call made by white-fronted geese on his property. They always sound like they’re having a good laugh. The birds’ high-pitched yelps reveal their presence before we approach a flock of them among some wintering grounds on a December morning.

“These guys will hang out ’til we drain the fields,” he says, pointing to the geese. “We get bald eagles all winter long.” Swans, great blue herons, white-faced ibis and other waterbirds swim and wade around flooded paddies. A flock flies above in a V formation, each bird catching the updraft of the one before them.

Over the past few years, Bosworth has participated in programs to increase habitat for waterbirds along the 4,000-mile Pacific Flyway. At least one billion birds, representing 300 species, travel this journey from arctic Alaska to Patagonia, at the tip of South America. While that may sound like a lot, scientists believe it’s only a fraction of historic numbers. Along the way, millions of birds spend time in the Sacramento Valley, including at Bosworth’s Rue & Forsman Ranch in Olivehurst.

Bosworth has made his land a prime spot for the birds, and not just for the feel-good eco-vibes. Providing wildlife habitat actually boosts his bottom line.

… Read the rest of the article here …

A Dry Future Weighs Heavy on California Ag

This summer, I returned to California’s Central Valley to report again on how the state’s historic drought is impacting farmers. Photojournalist Sonya Doctorian joined me. This time, I focused on how farmers are proactively responding and adapting. My story appears in High Country News, and you can read an excerpt below. A big thank you to the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources for making my reporting trip possible!

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Chris Hurd has been farming for three decades in California’s Central Valley. He’s worried about the drought and high cost of water. (Photo by Sonya Doctorian)

A Dry Future Weighs Heavy on California Agriculture

Something’s got to give in Central Valley farming. The only question is what.

By Sena Christian

On a hot summer afternoon, California farmer Chris Hurd barrels down a country road through the Central Valley city of Firebaugh, his dog Frank riding in the truck bed. He lurches to a stop in front of Oro Loma Elementary School, which was built in the 1950s to accommodate an influx of farmers’ and farmworkers’ children. “All three of my sons went here,” Hurd says, as we walk through overgrown weeds toward the shuttered building, closed in 2010. “I was on the school board, the grass was green, kids were running around. Now it’s a pile of rubble.”

Agricultural land stretches out in every direction. Most of the town’s 8,300 residents are involved in growing or packing produce. The city is on the west side of the San Joaquin River, an area hit particularly hard by a historic drought, now in its fifth year. Wells have run dry and farm-related jobs are running out. Many other places in the eight counties comprising the San Joaquin Valley have suffered similar fates. These areas were disadvantaged to begin with, rural and isolated, lacking infrastructure, public transportation and safe housing. Persistent drought has compounded the struggles of some of the poorest communities in the nation. As of late January, 64 percent of the state was experiencing extreme drought—down from 78 percent that time last year. But even a stellar El Niño year won’t undo all the damage.

Hurd, 65, who earned a degree in mechanized agriculture from California Polytechnic San Luis Obispo in 1972, has farmed for the past 33 years. These days, he tends 1,500 acres and serves on the board of a local water district. Right now, he’s debating whether to rip out 80 acres of 20-year-old almond trees whose yields don’t justify the cost of the water. Three years ago, his annual water bill was $500,000. Now, he says, it’s $2.5 million; the price per acre-foot has sharply increased since the drought. Farmers like Hurd, who have junior water rights, are the first to see their allocations from the state’s two major water projects curtailed during shortages, forcing them to invest in new wells to pump groundwater or buy water on the market. In 2014, farmers with junior water rights faced an unprecedented zero allocation from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Central Valley Project. That happened again last year. In late February, the federal project will announce its water supply outlook for 2016. The State Water Project has also dramatically reduced its deliveries over the last two years.

In John Steinbeck’s classic novel, The Grapes of Wrath, farmers escape Oklahoma’s Dust Bowl by heading west to California in search of jobs and fertile land. Hurd says his friends have begun joking, grimly, about the reverse scenario — California isn’t working out, so why not pick up and move back to Oklahoma? “Some are leaving, some are staying to fight, a lot of them are in flux,” he says. Yet while grit has something to do with who stays and who goes, it ultimately comes down to two main factors: water and money. The survivors will likely need senior water rights and money to spend on planting high-value orchards or implementing expensive technology. Economically, California remains the largest agricultural producer in the United States. But El Niño’s precipitation not withstanding, the prolonged drought is putting some farmers under heavy duress, and no one is sure how far California’s Eden will sink.

… Read the rest of the article here …

The Fort Knox of Food

In October, I visited the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colorado. This “Fort Knox” of gene banks is part of a system that safeguards the American food supply. In November, I checked out another piece of that system — the Wolfskill Experimental Orchards in Winters, California. Read more about gene banks in my Newsweek feature story, and check out an excerpt below.

Inside the freezer vault at the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation.

Inside the freezer vault at the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation. (Photo by Sena Christian)

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John Preece supervises the National Clonal Germplasm Repository in Davis, California. (Photo by Sena Christian)

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One of the many pomegranate varieties grown at the National Clonal Germplasm Repository. (Photo by Sena Christian)

The Fort Knox of Food

In the bowels of an unassuming building in the Colorado Front Range is a vast library of plant and animal material that could keep humanity thriving for centuries to come.

By Sena Christian

In 1948, botanist F.W. Went began a modest experiment that has since grown and grown into what is now a massive science project networked across the globe with ambitions of saving humankind. But its initial goal sought to answer a remarkably simple question: How long do seeds survive?

The year the project launched, Life magazine wrote about the “wonderfully unhurried” experiment intended to last 360 years, complete with a photo of Went, a California Institute of Technology professor at the time, standing behind shelves lined with 2,400 slender glass tubes holding 120 types of dried seeds from California-native plants.

Sixty-seven years later, Went’s seeds reside in a beige multistoried building off the quad of Colorado State University in Fort Collins. Its blandness masks the significance of the project it houses. This “Fort Knox” of gene banks—the nickname for the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation (NCGRP) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)—is designed to safeguard the American food supply from the numerous threats posed by a rapidly changing planet. The stakes couldn’t be higher. Droughts, floods, sea-level rise, ocean acidification and the resulting hunger, malnutrition and mass displacement of people will likely become more severe in coming years because of climate change. And though poor people in developing countries will be on the front lines, even wealthier nations like the U.S. are going to have to come to terms with the urgent need for action.

Additionally, the world is losing biodiversity at an alarming rate. Many believe Earth has entered its sixth mass extinction: a human-induced and accelerated decline of animal and plant species of massive proportions. What remains needs to be kept alive and available for breeding. Otherwise, the material could be lost forever—and when crop and livestock diversity is lost, so is our food supply’s resiliency to environmental threats. We can’t let that happen because the world’s population is projected to increase to nearly 10 billion by 2050. And that’s a lot of mouths to feed.

… 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 …

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.

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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 …

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 …