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The New Agtivist: Edith Floyd is making a Detroit urban farm, empty lot by empty lot

Patrick Crouch, Grist
Edith Floyd is the real deal. With little in the way of funding or organizational infrastructure, she runs Growing Joy Community Garden on the northeast side of Detroit. Not many folks bother to venture out to her neighborhood, but Edith has been inspiring me for years. I caught up with her on a cold, rainy November afternoon. While we talked in the dining room, her husband Henry watched their grandkids.

Q. You haven’t always been an urban farmer. What did you do before this?

A. I worked at Detroit Public Schools. I started out with the Head Start Center and then I went to the middle school, to the Ed Tech, [which is] now the Computer Lab. I started farming because they laid me off and didn’t call me back. Farming is not making a living, it’s just keeping food in my freezer. I try to sell some so I can get some more equipment, so it will be easier for me to farm.

Q. What neighborhood are we in? What is it like?

A. This is the northeast side — near the city airport. It’s surrounded by graveyards on three sides and then the other barrier is the railroad track; we are surrounded by railroad tracks, and sometimes those trains stay for like 30 minutes, so you are trapped; ain’t no way out.

Q. How long have you lived in this neighborhood?

A. Let’s see. I came here when my son was 4, so about 36, 37 years.

Q. So you’ve seen a lot of changes.

A. Yeah, when I came it was beautiful — there were grocery stores in the center, like in the middle of the neighborhood, but when the city came though here and bought everything up, they said [they were going to] enlarge the city airport. They bought up three and four blocks of houses and then left the rest of them there. They came in and ruined our neighborhood, and said they ran out of money and left us over here like that. I’m still here and I’m gonna stay here, ’cause I don’t want to go somewhere and start all over again. I don’t think I’d be able to pay for another house, and this one is already paid for. There was like 66 houses on this block, and now [there are] about six that people live in, and three need to be torn down, and the rest of it is empty. That’s where I’m putting my farm on, all the lots. [Editor’s note: some are calling this practice “blotting.” Here’s a recent NPR story on blotting in Detroit.] (8 December 2011)

A citizen activist forces New Mexico’s dairies to clean up their act

Stephanie Paige Ogburn, High Country News
Jerry Nivens lives in a trailer in Caballo, N.M., 165 miles south of Albuquerque. A bulky Texas transplant who chain-smokes American Spirits, Nivens cares as deeply for his mesquite-speckled patch of ground as any rural New Mexican. He enjoys driving into the mountains, where he used to while away afternoons panning for gold. He goes fishing Lone Star-style — in reservoirs, not rivers.

On the sunny May day I met him, he spilled out of his GMC Jimmy sporting a National Rifle Association ballcap and Magnum P.I.-style sunglasses. He wore brown corduroy pants hung from suspenders with a matching jacket over a plaid shirt. A giant Marlboro belt buckle completed the ensemble. As we drove around, Nivens marveled at artesian pools supporting desert wildlife, exclaimed as a squadron of baby quail crossed our path, and wondered over underground rivers that run to the nearby Rio Grande. Retired from the refrigeration business, he earns money from an invention of his used for water purification. He spends much of his time alone. “I’m kind of an old hermit,” he says.

Which, in a way, was why I had come — to learn how and why this loner became the driving force behind a movement that brought the state’s mega-dairies to heel. The dairy industry is New Mexico’s largest agricultural sector and an influential lobbying force. Although the state Environment Department has long worked with dairies to reduce pollution, change has been slow: Almost 60 percent of the state’s dairies have polluted groundwater with manure runoff, yet not one has begun the required cleanup.

Now, thanks largely to the pressure brought to bear by Nivens, his allies, and an Environment Department employee named Bill Olson, New Mexico has passed some of the most progressive dairy-related water regulations in the West…
(28 November 2011)

Citywatch: Food’s a trip, Actually a Baker’s Dozen of Trips

Wayne Roberts, Nourishing the Planet
My first job, every Saturday from grade 7 to grade 10, was as a bicycle delivery boy for Joe Caruso’s grocery store in – I still groan at the memory – a hilly area of Scarboro. The job paid 50 cents an hour plus tips, so this is when I learned that working people tipped more generously than rich people – still a good backgrounder for any interpretation of modern neo-conservatism.

On average, our food makes 13 trips before it reaches our plates, according to food policy analyst Wayne Roberts. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)
As the world turns, bike delivery jobs may be heading for a retro revival like vinyl records. They remain one of the best ways to handle the trickiest and thorniest of what delivery and logistics experts call – with a groan that reminds me of my hill-biking days – “the last mile.”

My trip backwards in time was occasioned by a two weekend assignment (for less pay than I made as a delivery boy) as the “food expert” for a dozen bold and brilliant designers-to-be working on a plan to reduce heavy traffic. The project—co-sponsored by Evergreen Foundation (recently reinvented to promote green cities), George Brown College’s Institute without Boundaries and the regional transportation giant, Metrolinx—will become a showpiece in a transit expo attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors to Evergreen’s Brick Works next spring and summer.

To come up with bright new ideas, our team (one of ten) worked in a “charette,” with a medley of designers unburdened by vested interests or formal training, several free-floating food producer and consumer groups, and me holding the reins on any runaway plans that got too wild.

I can’t say enough about how exhilarating it is to make food plans with a group of young people trying to solve a non-food problem—a broken transportation system that costs billions of dollars to operate, more billions in time and fuel lost to traffic jams, and cascading billions in environmental damage and traffic accidents.

…Ta-da! For the first time, here are the 13 trips that deliver the goods for almost any North American or European meal.

Far-off fertilizer: The first trip results from pressure on farmers to save time and money by growing the same crop on the same land every year, without any break for the land to rest or be fertilized by animal manure. Artificial fertilizer has to be trucked from afar, usually from Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Outside inputs: Trip 2 delivers other farm inputs—from seeds, animal feeds, antibiotics, pesticides and tractors – many of which were produced on farm in bygone days before hyper-specialization of farmers’ labor time.

Town trekkies: Trip 3 is the series that gets the farmer to a no-longer nearby village or town that has schools, hospitals, department stores and supermarkets. Huge highly-mechanized farms that make one farm family super-efficient in production are even more efficient at depopulating rural areas and killing off nearby service and community centers. (Lack of walk-able trips goes a long way to explaining why obesity is a bigger problem in rural than urban areas.)

Airline commuters: Trip 4 flies in migrants from Central America or the Caribbean to pick fruit or tend greenhouses in Ontario and elsewhere. This trip subtracts the costs of decent wages, benefits and family companionship from the price of food.

Long-gone factories: Since few foods are eaten unprocessed, most farmers produce foodstuffs rather than edible foods. Trip 5 takes these foodstuffs from farms to processors who will often make products with labels that seem to fit a chemistry set more than a food. Farmers who try to avoid this trip by processing on-farm suffer tax penalties and red tape migraines.

Paper trail: Trip 6 gets materials to food packagers—let’s say pulp and paper from Canada to China, where paper coffee cups are manufactured for a major coffee chain, or bauxite from Australia or China to produce 609,000 tons of aluminum foil for food packages made in factories close to cheap electricity.

Packing it in: Trip 7 gets the package to the farmer or processor. Only a small portion of foods are sold without containers that identify and brand the owner, even a no-name owner. Think plastic or freezer bags from an Ontario factory to California strawberry producers, who will ship the frozen branded strawberries to Ontario in a later trip.

Depot bound: Trip 8 takes the food from processor to distributor—either “aggregators” who control the food pipeline by choke-holding this pivotal position, or warehouses of major food chains, which ship materials to one location, where data management and control are centralized. The single-order desk rules the supermarket roost, which explains why few chain stores can buy local food directly. Even raw unprocessed foods such as apples must go from farm to distributor, even if that means going from distributor back to store serving the community whence the apple was grown.

Keep on trucking: Trip 9 goes from distributor or warehouse to store, perhaps from one end of a region or country to another, perhaps back to the end of the region or country where the food originally came from.

Market drivers: Trip 10 brings customer, almost always by car, to supermarket, or to restaurants and cafeterias where almost half of all meals are eaten. Within a typical city, one-fifth of all car trips are food-related—a major factor in city-funded expenditures for road repair ($100 million a year is not out of line) and an important factor explaining why most North American cities lose a third of their space to paved roads and parking lots, which drives up costs of storm water management since paved-over land absorbs no rain ($100 million a year is not out of line here either).

The tipping point: Trip 11 goes from customer to landfill, carting the standard 40 percent of last week’s food purchases that were tossed out. When the garbage truck tips, 40 percent of all ten two-way food trips to this point become useless waste that can be beneficially eliminated. This is an obvious place to start efforts at reverse engineering or a more rational system. Instead of tipping garbage, we could tip the scales in reducing the one-third of global warming emissions that come from the broad food sector.

Meeting half-way (around the world): Trip 12 goes from customer blue box to recycler, much of it recycled at taxpayer expense. Much of the low-value plastics and multi-material schlock takes a slow boat to China, where weak pollution control and workplace safety practices reduce costs.

Last stop: Trip 13 is from customer to hospital, where preventable chronic diseases attributable to the food system—diabetes, heart disease and colon cancer are obvious examples—account for as many as half the treatments.

Only a fraction of food miles are used up to bring exotic or out-of-season foods to our tables. It is the food system as a whole, not any specific food that causes all the trafficking in food. By the same token, localizing a food system that takes everyone for a ride requires more than shortening one trip from farm to fork – the hope of many locavores and 100 mile diet supporters…
(7 December 2011)

Amish Farms to Hippie Co-Ops Fight FDA Inquiry

Stephanie Armour,Bloomberg
One sun-drenched August morning, armed officers wearing sunglasses and bullet-proof vests descended on a market in Venice, California, searching for illegally sold goods. It marked the end of a year-long investigation where undercover agents posed as customers.

Their target: raw, unpasteurized milk.

U.S. regulators say it’s a dangerous and unnecessary public threat, pointing to 143 cases of contamination linked to still births, miscarriages and kidney failure since 1987, the latest involving five California children. Grassroots, back-to-nature consumers say the product strengthens the immune system by keeping intact good bacteria that’s killed in pasteurized milk. The choice should be theirs, the activists say.

“These guns are being drawn on basically aging hippies, all because of illegal milk,” said Ajna Sharma-Wilson, a Los Angeles lawyer for the Venice market owner, in an interview. “This is a waste of taxpayer money.”

The Aug. 3 crackdown on the Venice market has become a cause célèbre for a growing raw-milk movement that touts the product’s ability to strengthen the immune system and contends the federal enforcement is overzealous. Proponents are part of a broader raw-foods movement that touts unprocessed and organic products as a healthier alternative and advocates direct sales from local, sustainable farms to consumers.
(5 December 2011)

Industrial-Sized Rooftop Farm Planned for Berlin

Jess Smee, Spiegel Online
It is hardly a logical spot for a farm, but three Berliners have earmarked a massive former factory roof for an unusual urban agriculture venture. The sustainable set-up will produce both vegetables and fish for local residents and could be a model for future city farms as the world continues to urbanize.

Most of our food makes an environmentally-costly journey by plane, train or truck before it lands on city supermarket shelves. But three Berlin-based entrepreneurs want to change this by cultivating food in the heart of the metropolis.

The Frisch vom Dach, or Fresh from the Roof project, plans to create a 7,000-square-meter roof garden, complete with a fish farm, to provide Berliners with sustainable, locally-grown food. They hope to sow the seeds of a new form of urban agriculture, arguing that traditional farming needs to evolve — and soon.

“Humankind is driving fast into a wall,” said Nicolas Leschke, a co-founder of Frisch vom Dach. “Global resources are running out. With so many people living in cities, we need to think locally.”

Currently, the expansive roof of the former malt factory in Berlin’s Schöneberg district is more grey than green. But in 2013 they plan to harvest lettuce, herbs and tomatoes, as well as raising different species of fish. Once their unorthodox farm is established, they expect to produce tons of vegetables and fish each month.

The products will be distributed from within the old malt factory, bringing food production closer to Berliners’ plates, and erasing the CO2 emmissions generated by transporting food long distances.

Key to their plans are a row of massive vats near the top of the rambling factory. Formerly used to dry barley, they want to repurpose the containers as a fish farm.

Saving Water

The fish will be sold as food and, crucially, their excretions, especially the ammonia excreted through the gills, will be converted into nitrates. That will serve as fertilizer for the plants growing in green houses above the fish tanks. In turn, the plants will purify the water for the fish. The system for sustainable food production is known as “aquaponics.”

“The beauty of the system is that you just need to add fish food,” explained co-founder Karoline vom Böckel, who specialises in strategy and research….
(5 December 2011)

Small farmers crave horse power

Ariana Reguzzoni, Grist
Ask any 5-year-old: Few tools symbolize the farm like a trundling tractor. In fact, you’d have to reach further back in time to find an equally enduring symbol: the horse. And while there’s little doubt that tractors have revolutionized farm labor and made farms much more efficient than they were in past centuries, a growing number of farmers are taking the back-to-the-land ethos as far as it will go and choosing horses and mules over John Deere.

“Maybe it’s a [glimpse] into the future,” says Adam Davidoff, co-owner of New Family Farm in Sebastopol, Calif. Davidoff is 25 and relatively new to farming; he works with a team of three draft horses to pull various farm implements that prepare beds, cultivate, plant, and harvest row crops. But he also sees horsepower as a proactive approach to mitigating negative environmental changes. Instead of buying manure or fertilizer, farms with draft animals have a built-in source; they also compact the soil less than machines — a big concern for farmers who want to develop and conserve healthy soil for years to come. He also sees them as a kind of back up plan. “If we have some sort of a collapse … draft horses could become a lot more viable,” he says.

Farmers may choose to lead draft animals for sustainability reasons, but they quickly learn it also changes the pace of the operation. In sharp contrast to working with tractors, Davidoff explains that horses slow you down. “Stopping, breathing, and rubbing their bellies — just letting them settle into it — forces me to take smaller and slower steps.” He believes the horses have had a profound impact on other aspects of the way he farms.

A farmer who relies primarily on animal power has to cultivate patience, Davidoff explains. “When you work with horses, you have to let go of the expectation that you’re going to get everything done today.” He works longer hours, but at a slower pace than he would on a mechanized farm — and he enjoys it more. “None of it’s drudgery and dreary,” he says. “It’s beauty made extremely efficient.”

It’s this love for working with animals that Kristin Kimball says is key. She runs Essex Farm in Essex, N.Y., with her husband Mark Kimball, and is the author of a memoir about farming called The Dirty Life. “The No. 1 reason for anyone to consider it is if they really like being around horses. Without that it doesn’t make any sense whatsoever,” she says.

What began as a labor of love at Essex Farm has translated into a profitable business. They have a 170-member community supported agriculture (CSA) subscription service that aims to supply all of their customers’ needs — from vegetables to grains to meat — in an effort to “make the grocery store obsolete.” To Kimball’s surprise, she says the horses are a useful marketing tool. “Customers love to be connected to a place that relies on horses; for us it’s been a big selling point,” she says…
(5 December 2011)