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 …

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 …

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.

 

It’s Go Time

I’ve been in Boulder for a month now. Moved here from Northern California to take part in the Ted Scripps Fellowship in Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado. After moving here and settling in, and brief forays to New York for a wedding and New Orleans for the annual Society of Environmental Journalists conference, I finally had a moment to pause and think … and realize I had gone three whole weeks without writing a single article! What the heck?! That’s a record for me. Determined not to waste another second, I have officially begun my fellowship project, focusing on sustainable farming. I interviewed farmers from Indiana, Illinois, California and Colorado this week, including the operator of Cure Organic Farm and interns with the Farmer Cultivation Center (see below):

Anne Cure owns and operates Cure Organic Farm in Boulder, Colorado.

Anne Cure owns and operates Cure Organic Farm in Boulder, Colorado. (Photo/Cole Allen)

Mel Piazza is a first-year intern at the Farmer Cultivation Center in Niwot, Colorado.

Mel Piazza is a first-year intern at the Farmer Cultivation Center in Niwot, Colorado. (Photo/Cole Allen)