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Posts Tagged ‘farm’

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Photo: Allison Aubrey/NPR
In the digester on his farm, Peter Melnik combines food waste with manure from his cows. The mixture cooks at about 105 degrees Fahrenheit. As the methane is released, it rises to the top of a large red tank with a black bubble-shaped dome to create electricity.

People are complicated. Even companies are complicated. Just the other day, I noted that I avoid Whole Foods because there is already enough money going to Amazon owner Jeff Bezos. Today I give you a story about something Whole Foods is doing for the environment.

Alison Aubrey reported the story for the PBS NewsHour and National Public Radio (NPR).

“If you piled up all the food that’s not eaten over the course of a year in the U.S., it would be enough to fill a skyscraper in Chicago about 44 times, according to an estimate from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“And, when all this food rots in a landfill, it emits methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. In fact, a recent report from the United Nations from a panel of climate experts estimates that up to 10 percent of all human-made greenhouse gas emissions are linked to food waste.

So, here’s one solution to the problem: Dairy farmers in Massachusetts are using food waste to create electricity. They feed waste into anaerobic digesters, built and operated by Vanguard Renewables, which capture the methane emissions and make renewable energy.

“The process begins by gathering wasted food from around the state, including from many Whole Foods locations. We visited the chain’s store in Shrewsbury, Mass., which has installed a Grind2Energy system. It’s an industrial-strength grinder that gobbles up all the scraps of food the store can’t sell, explains Karen Franczyk, who is the sustainability program manager for Whole Foods’ North Atlantic region. …

“While Whole Foods donates a lot of surplus food to food banks, there’s a lot waste left over. Much of it is generated from prepping prepared foods. Just as when you cook in your own kitchen, there are lots of bits that remain, such as onion or carrot peel, rinds, stalks or meat scraps. The grinder turns all these bits into a slurry. …

“From here, the waste is loaded into a truck and sent to an anaerobic digester. ‘There’s no question it’s better than putting it in the trash,’ Franczyk says. She says the chain is committed to diverting as much waste as possible and aims for zero waste. …

“We visited Bar-Way Farm, Inc. in Deerfield, Mass. Owner Peter Melnik, a fourth-generation dairy farmer, showed us how his anaerobic digester, which is installed next to his dairy barn, works.

” ‘We presently take in about a 100 tons [of waste], which is about three tractor-trailer loads, every day,’ Melnik says. In addition to all the food waste from Whole Foods, he gets whey from a Cabot Creamery in the area, as well as waste from a local brewery and a juice plant.

“In the digester, he combines all of this waste with manure from his cows. The mixture cooks at about 105 degrees Fahrenheit. As the methane is released, it rises to the top of a large red tank with a black bubble-shaped dome.

” ‘We capture the gas in that bubble. Then we suck it into a big motor,’ Melnik explains. Unlike other engines that run on diesel or gasoline, this engine runs on methane. ‘This turns a big generator, which is creating one megawatt of electricity’ continuously. …

‘We only use about 10 percent of what we make, and the rest is fed onto the [electricity] grid,’ [enough] to power about 1,500 homes.

“He says times are tough for dairy farmers, so this gives him a new stream of revenue. … In addition, he’s able to use the liquids left over from the process as fertilizer on his fields.”

More here.

 

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Photo: Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff
Craig and Bobby Giurleo carried wreaths out of their shop for customers. Millbrook Farm, family run for generations, was badly wounded this year by a construction road closure. Then some caring neighbors organized a
cash mob.

Six years ago I participated in a cash mob to help a longtime family-run five and dime threatened with bankruptcy. (My post on that.) I was only one of many who bought a lot of great stuff that day, and I’m happy to say the shop is still going.

Recently, another group of local well-wishers did something similar for a family-run farm, where summer and fall sales had gone down 90 percent thanks to an unconscionable road closure.

Deanna Pan wrote at The Boston Globe, “To reach Millbrook Farm from Boston, you must go out of your way. Take Route 2 west into historic Concord, past thickets of snow-drenched woods and picturesque Colonials. If you know where you’re going, you’ll find it, after a series of right turns, tucked back on the Cambridge Turnpike before the road abruptly closes to anyone passing through.

“The family-run nursery — which specializes in flowers and hanging plants in the spring, pumpkins and mums in the fall, and Christmas trees and wreaths in the winter — has survived its share of troubles.

“Sal Giurleo, 80, the brusque family patriarch, started the business 31 years ago, following in the footsteps of his father, an Italian immigrant who grew vegetables for First National grocery stores in the 1940s and ’50s. …

“When construction began on the Cambridge Turnpike this spring, sales at Millbrook Farm plummeted. Although part of the turnpike remained open, roadwork made it virtually impassable. Construction vehicles and machinery frequently blocked both lanes. Until recently, the road was dug up and unpaved. …

Shaun Giurleo, 50, Sal’s youngest son, estimates that by midsummer and fall, sales had plunged 90 percent.

“At their lowest point, they saw no more than one customer a day. Sal had to take out two loans, totaling $52,000, to keep the business afloat. They had no choice but to sell their flowers and plants wholesale at a fraction of the price they would normally charge their customers. …

“The Giurleos prepared for a tight Christmas. Sal worried he would have to take out another loan and sink deeper into debt. He was determined to stay open, no matter the cost. In late November, news of the Giurleo family’s plight proliferated across Facebook, Nextdoor, and e-mail as residents of Concord and beyond urged their friends and neighbors to patronize the struggling Millbrook Farm. …

“The Giurleos’ Christmas miracle arrived early, on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Millbrook Farm was unusually busy for a weekday, which Shaun thought was odd. But nothing could have prepared the Giurleos for what happened on the Friday after the holiday. From 9 a.m. until sundown, cars parked up and down the turnpike, as many as 20 at time. The crowds were unlike anything they’d ever seen, driving from as far as Natick and Saugus.

“It was the busiest day in Millbrook Farm’s history. Shaun guesses they sold between 350 and 400 Christmas trees, about half their lot. Saturday was even busier. … At least 10 customers paid for two trees when they only took home one. Another customer asked the Giurleos to charge him $500 for a single tree. …

“ ‘We had a million people here. We weren’t ready. We didn’t know,’ Sal said later, chuckling, …

“Millbrook Farm is now replenishing its inventory with help from other garden centers and wholesalers in the region.

“Inside the storefront [in December], an ebullient Shaun worked the cash register. Despite the weather, the nursery was humming with customers, picking up vibrant wreaths that Shaun had carefully decorated with handmade bows and other baubles, and whatever trees were left until Sal’s shipment arrived.

“The Giurleos won’t recoup all of their losses from the past year, but their business will survive until the next season. Thanks to the influx of sales, Sal immediately paid off his debts.” More here.

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When in New York, I like to walk from the Upper West Side to Central Park in the morning. I often walk east on the West 101 Street path that goes past the Frederick Douglass Houses. On the right is a playground and a popular little swimming pool (three feet deep, lifeguards provided), and on the left is a big field for sports and an empty lot converted to a garden.

When the garden fence was open recently, I stopped in and talked to Jae the gardener, whose passion for growing and feeding people is an inspiration.

Jae says she used to overthink food shopping, experiencing a kind of paralysis in the market as she asked herself, Where was this fruit grown? Who grew this vegetable? Were they paid a fair wage? Were pesticides used?

But she found her calling when she started growing her own food. First she helped gardeners by learning to compost, and she is still crazy about the whole idea of composting. “That’s where I come from as a gardener. I love worms!”

A full-time volunteer, Jae is eager to show visitors around the converted tennis-court farm. The garden has been built on top of the court, starting with piles of compost. Although her partner organization, Project EATS, notes the garden is not an official production farm this year, Jae sells some produce in hopes of saving up to hire a Haitian neighbor as a full-time gardener at some point. (“I don’t speak Haitian, he doesn’t speak English, but we both speak Farm.”) She gives half to the partner organization.

Jae has a completely organic approach (no pesticides or herbicides), and she expresses a feeling of awe at how nature works without such interventions. She shows how Mother Nature has let her plants flourish despite the views of “schooled farmers” that there was inadequate sun in that space.

When I told Jae I come to the city to visit my sister, who has cancer, she said my sister should come enjoy the garden’s healing aura and should bless the plants by breathing out carbon dioxide to help them grow.

I left Jae hand-removing squash borer eggs. (“Look how symmetrically they are laid! Isn’t it beautiful?) As beautifully as those eggs are laid, she knows she has to destroy them to protect the squash plants. Follow Jae on Instagram, @growwithjae .

Jae’s partner organization describes its own mission thus: “Social inequalities lead to health inequalities and ill-being in our communities. They affect our access to fresh food, life expectancy, physical and mental well-being, quality of education, employment opportunities. income, and share of public resources. They shape our behavior and expectations, and what we perceive and believe is possible for our communities, our society, and us.

“To achieve its mission of a fair society, Project EATS is a neighborhood-based project that uses art, urban agriculture, partnerships, and social enterprise to sustainably produce and equitably distribute essential resources within and between our communities. Especially those where people live on working class and low-incomes.

“To do this, we bring diverse neighbors together to take agency over the use of land in their neighborhood, provide the infrastructures and support for a community to develop their resources into productive spaces. We share knowledge and skills that support the ability of people to turn these relationships and resources into sustainable social enterprises employing community residents and stimulating local economies.”

Note the happy sunflower, one of several that Jae rejoices in, especially as she was told there was not enough sun to make gardening worthwhile in that space.

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Photo: Thomson Reuters Foundation/Rina Chandran
A small farm on top of a mall grows herbs and leafy greens in a high-tech urban farming model that could improve Singapore’s food security.

As agricultural land becomes more scarce around the world, we can all learn from the way tiny Singapore is using rooftop gardens to help feed the population.

Rina Chandran at Reuters writes, “Visitors to Singapore’s Orchard Road, the city’s main shopping belt, will find fancy malls, trendy department stores, abundant food courts — and a small farm. Comcrop’s [6,450-square-foot] farm on the roof of one of the malls uses vertical racks and hydroponics to grow leafy greens and herbs such as basil and peppermint that it sells to nearby bars, restaurants and stores. …

“Comcrop’s Allan Lim, who set up the rooftop farm five years ago, recently opened a 4,000-square-metre farm with a greenhouse on the edge of the city. He believes high-tech urban farms are the way ahead for the city, where more land cannot be cultivated. …

“Singapore last year topped the Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) Global Food Security Index of 113 countries for the first time, scoring high on measures such as affordability, availability and safety.

“Yet, as the country imports more than 90 percent of its food, its food security is susceptible to climate-change and natural resource risks, the EIU noted.
With some 5.6 million people in an area three-fifths the size of New York City — and with the population estimated to grow to 6.9 million by 2030 — land is at a premium in Singapore.

“The country has long reclaimed land from the sea, and plans to move more of its transport, utilities and storage underground to free up space for housing, offices and greenery. …

“Urban agriculture currently produces as much as 180 million metric tonnes of food a year — up to 10 percent of the global output of pulses and vegetables, the study noted. Additional benefits, such as reduction of the urban heat-island effect, avoided stormwater runoff, nitrogen fixation and energy savings could be worth $160 billion annually, it said. Countries including China, India, Brazil and Indonesia could benefit significantly from urban agriculture, it said.

” ‘Urban agriculture should not be expected to eliminate food insecurity, but that should not be the only metric,’ said study co-author Matei Georgescu, a professor of urban planning at Arizona State University.

” ‘It can build social cohesion among residents, improve economic prospects for growers, and have nutritional benefits. In addition, greening cities can help to transition away from traditional concrete jungles,’ he said. …

“At the rooftop farm on Orchard Road, Lim looks on as brisk, elderly Singaporeans — whom he has hired to get around the worker shortage — harvest, sort and pack the day’s output.

” ‘It’s not a competition between urban farms and landed farms; it’s a question of relevance,’ he said. ‘You have to ask: what works best in a city like Singapore.’ ”

The article was reprinted by the World Economic Forum and can be found here. One weird thing about this story: There are still small farms in the countryside, but they are not as efficient as the rooftop gardens and will be cleared — to give the land back to the military. Now, that is truly bizarre.

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Photo: Susan Bryant
The Night-Blooming Cereus blooms at night once a year. Be there when it happens.

In the same way that the sun shines on the keyhole to Smaug’s lair only once a generation — or through Suzanne’s fence and onto the stonewall only twice a year — the lovely Night-Blooming Cereus has its own moment in time, and it’s worth planning your life around it.

Margaret Renkl writes at the New York Times, “For decades, my grandmother was the caretaker of a gangly, disorganized houseplant with nothing, so far as I could see, to recommend it. The plant was ugly. … It was less a plant than something out of a nightmare. As a little girl, I thought it might bite me.

“When the evenings began to cool in early autumn, my grandmother would bring the plant indoors, set it on a table next to the fireplace, and wait hopefully for it to bloom. She called it her ‘night-blooming series.’

“It was years before I understood that the scary plant in my grandparents’ house was actually a night-blooming cereus, a catchall term for several varieties of cactus that bloom at night — often for only one night each year. That’s if it blooms at all: My grandmother’s ‘series’ apparently bloomed only once in all the decades she had it. There are just two pictures of it in full flower, and they were taken on the same night sometime during the 1960s. …

“My cutting came from my brother and sister-in-law’s plant, a proven bloomer, but it has never formed a single bud under my care.

“[In September], my brother texted a photo of the bud he’d discovered on his plant. ‘It might bloom tonight!’ he wrote. ‘I looked in my garden journal, and it was fully open by 8 p.m. in 2014.’ … So I got in the car and drove straight to his house in Clarksville, more than 50 miles from here [Nashville], stopping only for gas. With a night-blooming cereus, the transformation from bud to blossom can take less than an hour. …

“I recognize the irony: There I was, driving through a parched landscape with a full tank of gas, on a pilgrimage to do nothing more than watch a flower bloom, while the hot winds from the 18-wheelers shook my whole car as they passed.

“I am only one generation removed from the farm, and I spent much of my childhood in the very world where my mother grew up, the same one where my grandmother grew up, and my great-grandmother before her, going back farther than anyone could remember. …

“Today only 2 percent of Americans live on farms or ranches, but we have not lost our need to be among green things. Which may explain why friends and neighbors were already hurrying to my brother and sister-in-law’s house by the time I got to Clarksville, and why we all gathered together in their living room to wait for the miraculous event to unfold. The plant’s single bud, which spanned the full length of my hand, was clearly in no hurry to open, pink filaments still tightly ribbing it from stem to tip an hour after we arrived.

‘It’s like counting contractions, waiting for a baby to be born,’ someone said.

“Then, finally, the bud began to open, at first just one tiny aperture at the very end. The pink filaments began to loosen and lift. As the aperture widened, a star-shaped structure unfolded within it — a white star inside a white flower — and the translucent petals unlayered and arrayed themselves around the star. The flower was nine inches across fully opened, and its perfume filled the whole room with sweetness. It was not a nightmare plant at all. It was the flower of dreams. It would be gone by morning, not to return for another year. If then. …

“That night-blooming cereus brought my grandmother back to me in her halo of white hair. It brought back, too, her plum tree, long since cut down, and the feeling of red dirt between my toes. In a time of great cultural dislocation and environmental despair, for an hour it made me remember what it feels like when the world is exactly as it must be, and I am exactly where I belong.”

More at the New York Times, here.

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Photo: William Raynard/Essex County Sheriff’s Department
From left, Sheriff Kevin Coppinger and department director of food services Kathy Lawrence meet with program director Kate Benashski, Carlos Zagada, and Josiel Cabrera from Haven From Hunger on the farm at the Essex County Pre-Release Center in Lawrence.

Most of my posts about people helping people must seem like a drop in the bucket to readers: the problems of this world are so enormous. But I like to think about what can be accomplished by, say, one person whose better nature is released by a program like the one for ex-offenders described here. And I like to think of the way many such efforts can accumulate to improve the world.

Morgan Hughes writes at the Boston Globe, “Drive around the back of the Essex County Pre-release and Re-Entry center in Lawrence, and you’ll find 6 acres of pumpkins, corn, tomatoes, peppers, and gourds.

“Inmates at the center run the farm, which yields about 50,000 pounds of produce each season to feed others who are incarcerated and the wider community. Located just behind Interstate 495, the farm is fertile ground for personal growth.

“ ‘We’re giving jobs to the inmates, we use the crops, but it’s also an opportunity to give back to the community,’ Sheriff Kevin F. Coppinger said.

“At the moment, the farm has about seven inmates who volunteer to plant, maintain, and harvest the produce. They feed not only the roughly 200 inmates at the pre-release center, but those at the Middleton House of Correction and Women in Transition, a women’s pre-release center in Salisbury.

“The facility purchases meals from a third-party food vendor, but the kitchen incorporates the fresh produce into the menu whenever possible.

“ ‘They live there, so they can really see the fruits of their labor,’ Coppinger said.

“About 30,000 pounds go to food pantries and homeless shelters in the Merrimack Valley and throughout the North Shore, said Kathy Lawrence, director of food services for the sheriff’s department. …

“She said, ‘What we can do sometimes is either incorporate [our produce] into the menu and serve it in addition to what’s being prepared, or we can substitute in ratatouille instead of giving them frozen green beans.’

“But even when the harvest is over and the ground begins to freeze, these hyperlocal vegetables are used throughout the year, Lawrence said. Bell and Italian peppers are frozen to use in casserole dishes. The butternut squash is also kept in the freezer and saved for special holiday meals.

“Heather Bonanno-Baker is manager of both Pleasant Valley Gardens in Methuen and the farm at the pre-release center. She took over duties from her father, who helped inmates run the farm for at least 15 years.

“She said she teaches inmates how to plant and water the crops, manage pests, and harvest at the end of the season. She shows them what a vegetable looks like when it’s ready to be picked, and how to wash it before it goes to a kitchen.

“ ‘I’m big into teaching the public about agriculture, growing your own food, and where it comes from,’ Bonanno-Baker said. …

“When Lawrence collected some feedback from the farm workers, she said some common themes were ‘a sense of pride in what they’ve grown’ and feeling rewarded to be able to give back to the community. One told her: ‘Hard work leads to positive results.’

“Lawrence teaches ServSafe to inmates working in the kitchen, a certification in food safety necessary for many jobs in the food industry. Coppinger said working on the farm provides another skill they could use to find a job when they are released.

“ ‘From the minute you arrive at intake in Middleton, to when you are about to be released at the pre-release center is trying to get them in better shape to get out of here and not come back,’ he said.

‘I always like to say, “Thanks for coming, but don’t come back.” ‘

More at the Boston Globe, here.

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Photo: Boston Area Gleaners

In September, I posted pictures at a community garden where a sign said not to pick anything that wasn’t yours. I expressed the hope that when the gardeners were completely finished with their harvest, gleaners for food pantries would be allowed in. I don’t know if they were, but I did learn that my church contacted Boston Area Gleaners to help collect fresh surplus produce at local farms.

Kathy Shiels Tully provides background on Boston Area Gleaners at the Christian Science Monitor.

“As a volunteer for the past four years with Boston Area Gleaners (BAG), which collects excess fresh produce at local farms for those in need, I’ve watched the nonprofit grow into something of a gleaning giant. …

“[Laurie ‘Duck’] Caldwell, the executive director of BAG, is pretty much responsible for the group’s, shall we say, mushrooming growth. Though she deflects any praise, her story shows how one person can have a powerful effect on an organization. Caldwell, in fact, was BAG’s first paid employee.

“She believes deeply in BAG’s mission of ‘rescuing’ surplus produce (as the group puts it). Last year, BAG helped deliver 1.45 million four-ounce servings to those who might not otherwise enjoy the benefits of fresh fruits and vegetables. …

“I learn that she is a carpenter with more than 20 years of experience. Her entry into nonprofits came while living in Vermont, through a program she helped pioneer at Vermont Works for Women. There, she taught incarcerated women skilled trades like carpentry and plumbing, and they built a modular home that was then sold as affordable housing. The pilot program gained national attention.”

Having lost her job after the 2008 financial crisis, “she searched for volunteering opportunities to buoy her spirits while job hunting and discovered BAG. …

“Gleaning gave Caldwell an emotional boost and challenged her to develop new skills. She and [founder Oakes] Plimpton became the organization’s first ‘gleaning coordinators’ – arranging farm visits, picking pantries to deliver to, and rounding up volunteers. …

“On Jan. 2, 2010, with salary money secured, that she signed on as BAG’s first employee.

“Caldwell dug into her new work immediately. She made the gleaning process easier for the farmers, proactively calling them instead of waiting for the farmers to speak up. She grew the solid list of 30 volunteers by recruiting like-minded people at farm, alternative energy, and ecology events. And, knowing she couldn’t do it alone, she almost doubled the size of the board of directors. …

“Strawberries, zucchini, corn, beans, carrots, tomatoes, kale, radishes, turnips, beets, squash, apples – everything but bananas fills empty, cardboard banana boxes, which are driven into Boston to a distribution partner such as the Greater Boston Food Bank or Food for Free in Cambridge, Mass.

“ ‘BAG is the Cadillac of food distribution to food pantries,’ says farmer Carl Hills. … Last year, he let BAG glean more than 71,000 pounds of produce on the 200-acre family farm. The crops gleaned are high-quality, the kind sought out by top chefs at high-end restaurants. ..

“Sasha Purpura, executive director of Food for Free … says, [it’s] “beautiful food” – something that for many people is out of reach.”

Read more and learn how to take action at the Christian Science Monitor, here.

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Vermont’s Farm Ballet

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Photo: Jonas Powell
The Farm Ballet performing at Philo Ridge Farm in Charlotte, Vermont. The atmosphere is casual and allows small children to have fun, too.

Around the country, arts organizations are continually thinking up new ways to expand their audiences whether it’s New York City’s public schools adding Broadway shows to the curriculum with $10 tickets (here) or free admission for teens to the Art Institute of Chicago (here).

In today’s post, a ballet company makes professional dance performances available to people who prefer to be outdoors and dress casually.

Elizabeth M. Seyler writes at Seven Days, “Going to the ballet often conjures images of elegant theaters, dapperly dressed adults and thin young people dancing across a pristine stage. But what if ballet were more than that? What if parents in jeans and sandals brought their rambunctious children to a farm picnic to watch ballet lovers of all ages dance across a verdant, or muddy, field? Would it still be ballet?

“In Vermont, it sure would. Since 2015, the Farm to Ballet Project, founded and directed by Vermont-raised ballet professional Chatch Pregger, has given 24 full-length classical ballet performances for adults and children at 17 Vermont farms.

“Featuring six string musicians and 25 adult dancers, each performance conveys the work and life of a female farmer during the growing season and the natural forces she encounters. …

” ‘At our performances, I see all the adults with their picnic blankets and their dinners — eating, drinking, enjoying themselves,’ says company soloist Maria Mercieca. ‘And I see all the kids dancing along, running around. They’re watching, they’re enjoying it, they’re taking it in, but they’re not being made to be still. I love that about it. It’s a family- and kid-friendly event, and I mean little, little kids.’

” ‘It’s really a great event for our members and our community,’ says Tre McCarney, director of community programs at Shelburne Farms. She’s coordinated four Farm to Ballet events there, and each has drawn more than 600 spectators. …

“From two performances this year, McCarney expects to receive approximately $8,000 to support Vermont Food Education Every Day, a partnership of Shelburne Farms and the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont. More specifically, funds help sustain Jr Iron Chef VT, a statewide culinary competition for teams of middle and high school students charged with creating healthy, locally sourced dishes to improve school meals. …

” ‘The company is very tight; we’re very close,’ says Mercieca, 41, a member of Farm to Ballet since 2016. “‘It’s not competitive; it’s really supportive and a good place to be. …

” ‘We aren’t 40-pound creatures who can wrap their legs around their heads,’ adds company soloist Avi Waring. “We’re human beings,.’ …

“For most of Farm to Ballet’s choreography, Pregger reinterpreted ballet classics such as ‘Swan Lake’ and ‘Giselle’ to allow dancers to perform on grass without turns or pointe shoes. But each year he also created original choreography for one of the concerti in Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. ‘Bees & Friends’ combines those original works into a 45-minute performance set to the Vivaldi piece.” More here and here.

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Photo: Sustainergy
Solar arrays can reduce a farm’s carbon footprint while allowing room for crops and livestock. In Japan, Sustainergy has designed “solar farms at large scale so that farmers could obtain additional stable income.” Above, cloud ear mushrooms.

When a company solves two important problems with one project, I probably shouldn’t call it killing two birds with one stone. Send me a better metaphor, please.

Adele Peters writes at Fast Company about the dual benefits of a Japanese project that provides not only solar power but also a cozy place to grow mushrooms.

“Small farms in Japan are struggling to survive. Rural populations are shrinking, and the average farmer is 67 years old. But two new farms will test a different business model to try to reinvigorate the sector: solar panels with mushrooms growing underneath them.

“The farms, at two locations in northeastern Japan, will produce a combined 4,000 kilowatts of solar power that will be sold to a local utility, while the mushroom farms will yield an annual 40 tons of cloud-ear mushrooms, a crop that is typically imported from China.

“ ‘The environment needs to be dark and humid for mushrooms to spawn,’ says Minami Kikuchi, who leads the ‘solar sharing’ project that combines agriculture and solar power at Sustainergy, a renewable energy startup. ‘We simply created the suitable environment for them by making use of vacant space under the solar panels.’ ”

As Kikuchi explained to Fast Company in an email, ” ‘We designed the project of combination with solar farms at large scale so that farmers could obtain additional stable income. Of course, this renewable energy technology is contributing to the sustainable development of Japan too.’

“Today, an estimated 10% of Japanese farmland is not in use, despite the fact that the majority of food is imported. Government tariffs have discouraged companies from converting farmland to solar power generation, but a partial change in regulations in 2013 meant that solar power was more viable – provided that it was constructed in combination with agriculture. …

“Sustainergy believes that similar farms could potentially grow other crops that need little light, such as potatoes. In the U.S., researchers at the University of Massachusetts are exploring the possibility of growing a much wider range of crops; a farm in South Deerfield has spent the last two years growing plants like kale, broccoli, and Swiss chard under rows of nine-foot-high solar panels. …

“Farmers also have another option: Grazing sheep or cattle on grass grown under solar panels. Sheep can take the place of lawnmowers, and as the grass sucks up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, the farm can have a negative carbon footprint.”

More at Fast Company, here.

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Photo: Ben Gilbert/Wellcome Collection
Art and science meet at performances for farm animals in England.

Today I have another of my offbeat stories for you. It’s about performing for farm animals and checking their reactions.

Lyn Gardner writes at the Guardian, “Almost 10 years ago, David Harradine made a show in a basement for the Brighton festival. It was called An Infinite Line and featured a horse that stood entirely unconcerned throughout the performance, barely blinking at what went on around him. He was an impressively large presence, a symbolic representation of the natural world, and clearly didn’t give a fig for the theatrical avant-garde.”

Harradine was looking for more reaction from animals in March as his company, Fevered Sleep, conducted “an experiment in which human artists perform for sheep, pigs and goats at a location in Peckham. …

“The show [was] part of the Wellcome Collection’s fascinating Making Nature exhibition, which aims to explore our relationship with the natural world and how we perceive animals. ‘We are starting from the point of view that perception is knowledge,’ says its curator, Honor Beddard, ‘but when you have an encounter with an animal, how do you know that you are not projecting something on to it?’ …

“For Harradine it’s definitely ‘the most bonkers project I’ve been involved in. But it’s fascinating too. The performances are being used to start a conversation.’

“As Harradine says, we prefer not to see animals as being just like us: complex, sentient beings, with emotional responses. To that end, the animals chosen to experience Fevered Sleep’s performance are all what Harradine, himself a vegan, describes as creatures that are mostly perceived as ‘meals in waiting.’ … ‘The purpose is not to suggest that people shouldn’t eat meat but to examine our relationship with animals – and the ethical and political responsibilities of humans towards them.’ ” More here.

Sounds like such fun to be part of a “bonkers” performance. I think we could all do with a little nutty creativity in our lives.

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In an article by the “Cooperative Development News” at Mother Earth News (by way of twitter), I read about a group of Somali Bantu refugees in Maine who started a cooperative farm.

This interests me particularly because when I was at the magazine, I acquired a couple articles about Somali refugees adjusting to life in Lewiston, Maine, through farming.

Here’s the story: “A group of Somali Bantu refugees have started a cooperative farm in Maine … Thousands of miles from Somalia, on 30 acres in Maine’s second-largest city, they’ve begun to feel like they’ve come home.

“New Roots Cooperative Farm, though just recently started by four new Americans, is already a success story. Combine the complexities of farming with the uncertainty of navigating a system that is unfamiliar — and, at times, unfriendly — to newcomers and you’ll understand just a fraction of how far New Roots has already come. They’re inspired to help one another and the community, too.

“ ‘Our aim is not only to grow food and run a business ourselves but to help our community and teach them about how to run a business,’ says New Roots farmer Batula Ismail. …

“The group used to farm before being forced from their homes during Somalia’s tumultuous civil war period. … After arriving in Maine, they got back to farming at Cultivating Community’s New American Sustainable Agriculture Project at Packard-Littlefield Farm in Lisbon, Maine. The program empowers New Americans to launch independent farm businesses, to adopt new leadership roles in the community, and to attain increased economic independence for themselves and their families.

“Now, with a decade of experience at Packard-Littlefield backing them up, the group is ready to put their education to the test. When Gendron Farm, a dairy farm in Lewiston was divided into several parcels in 2015, New Roots worked with Cooperative Development Institute, Maine Farmland Trust, Land for Good, Cultivating Community, and many others to preserve 30 acres as a working farm.” More here.

I’ve been interested in Somali immigrants since living for three years in Minneapolis, where there is a large population. I was friendly with one man who worked in our apartment building, ran for mayor, and got a job as a community liaison for a US Senator. Very nice guy. I loved his stories about being a child in Somalia, soaking up geography from international radio news, and pausing for a camel to get off the field when he was playing soccer.

Photo: Jenny Nelson/Maine Farmland Trust
Bantu refugees start a cooperative farm in Maine.

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Missing the excitement of the summer Olympics? As these Vermont farmers show, any determined and organized group can have their own “Olympics” and have a lot of fun.

Jessica Rinaldi writes at the Boston Globe, “With the world’s attention focused on the Olympic Games in Brazil, a decidedly different type of competition was held in a small corner of New England, as farmers took to the field for the second annual Farmer Olympics in Vershire, Vt.

“After taking part in warm-up events that included a hay bale toss, the crowd gathered for an opening ceremony where a quartet performed the Olympic theme song on kazoo. When the competition began, 60 farmers sprinted up a hill, empty bins and shovels in hand, for the manure relay. The event was sponsored by the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont. In the end it was a team from Cedar Circle Farm in East Stepford who took the gold. Their team’s name? Soil’d.

Click here for a terrific collection of photos from the second annual Farmer Olympics.

Photo: Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont
Competing in the Farmer Olympics, Vershire, Vermont.

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Photo: Leigh Vincola, ecoRI News
David Kuma, left, is learning to farm under the tutelage of Ben Torpey.

In this story from Leigh Vincola, an ecoRI News contributor, several good things are happening simultaneously.

“David Kuma set out to grow more of his own food as he learned about industrial agriculture and all of its poisons. His father, a biologist, always had a garden growing up, so an innate knowledge of plants followed his curiosity.

“Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., raised partially in rural Illinois and then in Attleboro, Mass., Kuma understands urban, rural and suburban lifestyles and how plants can fit into each.

“Today, Kuma is one of three participants in the Southside Community Land Trust’s (SCLT) farm apprentice program …  Acknowledging that it has been historically difficult for minority populations to enter into commercial growing, the program’s mission is to provide organic farming experience and education to those who are interested.

“Kuma is partnered with Ben Torpey at Scratch Farm, a small-scale, chemical-free operation at Urban Edge Farm. Urban Edge is a state-owned, 50-acre piece of land managed by SCLT, where seven separate farms grow and share resources. The farm was established to give new farmers access to land and a community to learn from. As part of his paid apprenticeship, Kuma spends a full day on the farm two days a week and is learning a lot quickly. …

“From transplanting and cover crops to solarizing and low-till cultivation, Kuma is learning what it takes to run a small-scale farm naturally. His eyes have been opened to the importance of soil health.

“ ‘There’s a lot more to it than putting seeds in the ground,’ he said.

“For Torpey, having an apprentice is rewarding.

“ ‘Dave comes with a intuitive sense of plant biology and his curiosity reminds me that what we’re doing is fun,’ Torpey said. ‘It encourages me to experiment with new things.’ ” More here.

Don’t they both look happy? Nature can do that to you.

Photo: Scratch Farm

 

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The People Making a Difference series of the Christian Science Monitor is a reliable source of worthy stories that don’t make the US headlines. I thought this one — about women in Nepal holding things together as their husbands pursue jobs in India — was worth sharing.

Zoe Tabary, of the Thomson Reuters Foundation writes, “Ratna Chaudhary delicately lifts the hem of her pink and green dress with one hand, while using the other to scoop up a batch of cabbages in her garden in the village of Phulbari, a dozen kilometers from the Nepal-India border.

“She calls three women to help, who join the dance-like movement, bending and swaying as they pick up vegetables and lay them in a basket.

” ‘Since my husband works in India now, I’m responsible for harvesting all our crops,’ said Chaudhary, holding two cabbages to her face before throwing the yellower one to the ground.

“Her husband, Chatkauna, is one of at least 2.2 million Nepalis – nearly 10 percent of the population – who work abroad, according to the Nepal Institute of Development Studies.

“For the past three years, Chatkauna has taken on seasonal work for most of the year as a miner in the Indian city of Haldwani. It pays more than the daily jobs he used to do in his hometown, and he returns to Phulbari every four months to see his family and hand over his earnings. …

“The outflow of male workers – in particular from rural areas faced with worsening climate conditions – has major implications for the country’s agricultural sector, believes Madan Pariyar, project director at International Development Enterprises (iDE), a non-profit group that helps poor farmers with work and income opportunities. …

“Chaudhary used to work on a sugarcane farm in India herself. ‘We just couldn’t earn enough in our village,’ she said.

“For the past six months, however, she has cultivated her own patch of land and leases the remainder of it – 1,700 square meters (18,299 square feet) – to other poor, low-caste farmers from the ‘tharu’ ethnic minority group, one of Nepal’s largest.

“In 2015, iDE helped Chaudhary set up a village vegetable co-operative, which she chairs, to boost local farmers’ incomes. The project is part of the Building Resilience and Adaptation to Climate Extremes and Disasters (BRACED) program, funded by the British government. …

“With iDE’s help, 25 subsistence farmers – 18 women and five men – grow vegetables on 68 square-meter plots of land, which they rent from Chaudhary, paying her in cash or in kind. They bring their spare produce to a collection center, which transports the vegetables and other crops to large markets or sells them to regular buyers.

“The co-operative also gives farmers better access to cheaper seeds, fertilizers and finance such as private investment and micro-credit. While the project is still in its early days, it is already yielding results. ‘Farmers now earn 50 rupees ($0.50) more a day than they did previously,’ said Pariyar.”

More here.

Photo: Zoe Tabary
Women farmers pick vegetable crops in the village of Phulbari, Nepal, May 18, 2016.

 

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One place that refugees are making a life for themselves is in Kansas City, Kansas, where some are bridging their current and former lives through farming.

Oluwakemi Aladesuyi reports at National Public Radio, “In the midst of boxy yellow and brown public housing, beyond the highway and past empty grain elevators, sits Juniper Farm. It’s spread over nine acres on the Kansas side of Kansas City.

“As their children play on the grassy knoll behind us, four women sit at a plastic picnic table speaking in Karen, a language spoken in parts of Myanmar [Burma].

“They’re students at a program called New Roots for Refugees. The program aims to teach the basics and business of farming [in America] to refugees over the course of four years. At the end, many of the graduates are ready to start farms of their own.

“It’s a joint effort between Catholic Charities and Cultivate Kansas City, a nonprofit that encourages locally grown food and urban agriculture. …

“Many of the men and women at New Roots come from Myanmar or Bhutan. Some were farmers in their homelands. But farming on the outskirts of Kansas City is different: the land, the crops and even the weather. …

“Many who’ve come here are happy to have escaped violence. But adapting to life in a new country, with a different language and customs, is still difficult. Many refugees struggle economically. …

“August Gaw [is] 25 years old and often translates for her mother, Beh paw Gaw, who graduated from New Roots a few years ago. …

“August used to come here to help her mother. But now Beh paw has her own 3-acre farm which she runs with her sister. Last year the operation made more than $10,000. The potential to make money is important; many refugee families live below the poverty level.” More here.

Read the story if you have time. One striking aspect: farm manager and adviser Sam Davis, an African American, experienced real intolerance when moving to Kansas from Arkansas, but to one of the Karen women, who had seen extreme isolation of different ethnic groups in Myanmar, America seems prejudice-free.

You might also be interested in this article on Karen people who were relocated to Waterbury, Connecticut. Written by John Giammatteo, it appeared in Communities & Banking magazine in 2012.

Photo: Oluwakemi Aladesuyi/NPR
Beh paw Gaw is a New Roots graduate and a Karen refugee from Myanmar. Now she has her own three acre farm which she runs with her sister.

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