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 …

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 …

Leading Edge Of A Movement

Here we are right in the middle of Monsanto land. Or, “the belly of the beast,” as Denise O’Brien, a leader of the modern sustainable agriculture movement ranked with women from across the United States, says of being in Des Moines. Industrialized, chemical-laden farming surrounds us. Many of us drove past “the rape and pillage of the land” on our way here today. But we are also in the Hawkeye State of Iowa, a place where women own half the farmland.

Women converged in Des Moines, Iowa, for a conference on transforming food systems.

Women converged in Des Moines, Iowa, for a conference on transforming food systems.

Farmers, food industry workers, policy wonks, pesticide watchdogs — 400 women and a few intrepid men — have come from 20 U.S. states to discuss ways to transform a disastrously broken global food system, and to explore how some local food systems successfully work. What lessons do they have to teach us? And I’m here, too, a journalist hoping to share their stories. We have assembled in the expansive ballroom of a hotel/conference center in early November “because we believe in gender equity in food systems and agriculture,” says Leigh Adcock, director of Women, Food & Agriculture Network, the nonprofit group that organized this conference. “We don’t just want to link women, we want to empower you.”

Back in the early 1990s, a handful of Iowan women were preparing for the United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, and they sought case studies of women working in agriculture. But they couldn’t find any. The U.S. Census of Agriculture didn’t even include women until recently. They continued to ask around, and gather research from those female farmers they could find. “No one had ever asked them questions before about their dreams for their land,” O’Brien says.

What O’Brien and her comrades found were different approaches to farming and philosophies rooted more in the inherent value of the land and the need to conserve. What they found are women now on the leading edge of this transformative movement for a better food system, according to keynote speaker Danielle Nierenberg, cofounder of Food Tank.

Nierenberg spent two years traveling to 35 countries in Asia, Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa and what she determined was that hunger, obesity and poverty could be fought, while protecting the environment. “I’m convinced that how things are isn’t how they have to be,” Nierenberg tells the audience gathered in Des Moines. Yes! I think. I believe that, too. And I know all these people around me believe this same powerful revelation at this precise moment. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be here.

Nierenberg presents five strategies for a better food system. We need to stand with family farmers — 500,000 family farmers around the world contribute to the livelihood of 2 billion people — disenfranchised populations and food workers. We need to stop wasting so much food; 40 percent of the global harvest never reaches people’s stomachs and one-third of food in the United States is thrown away because of overbuying, misunderstanding sell-by dates and the improper storage of food. We need to increase urban agriculture, improve the diversity of diets to ward off malnutrition in developing countries — an obstacle to economic development — and support sustainable farming. Agriculture is leading to 80 percent of deforestation around the globe and uses 70 percent of fresh water. Industrial agriculture, she tells us, is like the Titanic in reverse: complex, a marvel in invention, thought to be invincible but heading toward its demise.

Turns out  I love Des Moines, in fall (not winter).

Turns out I love Des Moines, in fall (not winter).

Two days later, Kari Hamerschlag, a senior food and agriculture analyst with the Environmental Working Group, tells the audience that reading Frances Moore Lappe’s “Diet for a Small Planet” 30 years ago prompted her to move from Vermont to California to work on food policy, and she hasn’t looked back. There’s plenty of bad news to dwell on, she says. We’re ruled by a profit-driven industrial food system and all the positive change that has been accomplished — more community supported agriculture programs, more women farmers, more organic acreage, more farmer’s markets — has been done without policy support. Twenty-four percent of Americans are food insecure, compared to 9 percent in China. Fewer corporations are controlling more of the food system, and the way we grow our food is destroying our natural resources. “For too many of these problems, our public policy is making the situation worse not better,” she says.

But this WFAN conference is not about bemoaning problems. That’s not what these women do. They do what needs to be done. They take care of business, and work on solutions. “Don’t despair and don’t retreat,” Hamerschlag tells the group, smiling. “The stakes are really high and we need you more than ever. And there’s reason for hope.”