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Nature’s Spoils
(feature on fermentationist Sandor Katz)
Burkhard Bilger, New Yorker
ABSTRACT: A REPORTER AT LARGE about Sandor Katz and the underground food movement. A self-avowed “fermentation fetishist,” Katz travels around the country giving lectures and demonstrations, spreading the gospel of sauerkraut, dill pickles, and all foods transformed and ennobled by bacteria. His two books—“Wild Fermentation” and “The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved”—have become manifestos and how-to manuals for a generation of underground food activists, and he’s at work on a third, definitive volume.

Katz was on his way to the Green Path, a gathering of herbalists, foragers, raw-milk drinkers, and roadkill eaters in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. The groups in Katz’s network have no single agenda or ideology. Some identify themselves as punks, others as hippies, others as evangelical Christians; some live as rustically as homesteaders—the “techno-peasantry,” they call themselves; others are thoroughly plugged in. If they have a connecting thread, it’s their distrust of “dead, anonymous, industrialized, genetically engineered, and chemicalized corporate food.”

Writer describes lunch with a group of opportunivores, who eat discarded food recovered from dumpsters and other sources. Katz believes that Americans are killing themselves with cleanliness. Lunch from a dumpster isn’t just a form of conservation; it’s a kind of inoculation. Eating bacteria is one of life’s great pleasures, Katz says. Beer, wine, cheese, bread, cured meats, coffee, chocolate: our best-loved foods are almost all fermented. Katz was a political activist long before he was a fermentation fetishist. At Brown, as an undergraduate, his causes were standard issue for the time: gay rights, divestment from South Africa, U.S. out of Central America. After graduation, Katz moved back to New York. He took a job as the executive director of Westpride.

As the AIDS epidemic escalated, in the late eighties, Katz became an organizer for ACT UP. Then, in 1991, he found out he was H.I.V.-positive. The virus transformed Katz’s political ambitions. He focussed on curing himself. In 1992, Katz moved to Hickory Knoll (the name has been changed) in Tennessee. Hickory Knoll was something of a legend in the gay community: a queer sanctuary in the heart of the Bible Belt, with no television or hot running water—just goats, vegetable gardens, and gay men.

Tells about life on the commune and Katz’s experiments with fermentation, including his recipe for sauerkraut, which he calls “the safest food there is.” Tells about the raw-milk movement and discusses the safety of raw milk. Writer visits practitioners of the primal diet, who believe in the importance of eating raw meat, and others who forage food such as acorns and ants. Tells about the Green Path gathering, part ecological retreat and part pagan revival meeting. Mentions Frank Cook, the founder, who had died a year earlier of a tapeworm infection.

A Reporter at Large, The New Yorker, November 22, 2010, p. 104
(22 November 2010)
Excellent podcast with the author of this piece:

The full article is only available online to subscribers. -BA

A Hidden Cost of Farming
(cow manure and phosphorus)
Daniel Grushkin, OnEarth Magazine
When Don Mavinic looks at cow manure he sees a puzzle in need of a solution. There’s phosphorus locked in there, and the world is desperate for it.

Mavinic is a professor of civil engineering at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, and he knows that there are three essential nutrients on which all plant life is based: nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus. The problem is that phosphate rock, the ore from which the mineral is extracted, is in finite supply. Over the past several years, scientists, government officials, and corporations have begun to worry about what will happen when the rock runs out. Though the immediacy of the problem is subject to debate, the need for long-term solutions is indisputable. Mavinic believes that cow pies are the future.

“You talk about peak oil, but I don’t have any sympathy for that. Oil is just another form of energy that can be substituted,” Mavinic says. “You can’t live without phosphorus. Anything that grows needs it.”

… One cow expels as many nutrients as 15 to 20 people, which is why Mavinic is taking his technology to livestock farms. All the wastewater treatment plants in the United States might supply one million metric tons of recycled phosphorus in a given year, but farms could supply five million tons. Consider that we currently use 22 million tons of phosphorus a year, and recycling programs start to look pretty appealing.

At his high-tech cow farm near the northern edge of the Cascade Mountains, Mavinic and his students have built a pilot plant that uses microwaves to break down waste from the feedlot in order to retrieve its valuable elements. Mavinic calls it his “sludge buster” and envisions a future in which farms around the world process their animal manure in plants like this one and use the crystal end-product as fertilizer.

“Phosphorus is sustainable forever as long as we have humans and pigs and cows running around, eating and producing waste,” says Mavinic. “If you compare that to the phosphate rock reserves of the world that are disappearing, you say ‘Jeez, this is not a bad alternative.’ “
(23 November 2010)

Finally, A Practical Guide to Dealing With… Manure (Book Review)

Sami Grover, Treehugger

It’s not often that a book inspires you to go out and shovel steaming piles of horse poop on a cold November afternoon. But that’s exactly what happened to me after reading Gene Logsdon’s Holy Shit, and I mean it as a resounding compliment to the author. I should note, of course, that it doesn’t take much to get me thinking, and writing, about poop, pee, compost, and all things biodegradable.

From the selective flush and letting it mellow, through musing on the benefits of (male) pee on compost, to asking whether recycling our poop is the key to sustainable farming, I am somewhat known as the toilet correspondent here at TreeHugger. But Logsdon’s obsession with all things brown and smelly puts me to shame.

Logsdon has long been known as an eminent agrarian thinker and practitioner. From being an advocate for horse-powered farming (and the resulting fertilizer), to writing (and re-releasing) a guide to small-scale grain raising for backyards, homesteads and small farms, he has always made a strong case for small-scale, low impact farming, and a strong reliance on traditional methods and knowledge.

(24 November 2010)