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 …

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 …

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 …

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)