Articles in Environment

Cattle grazing. Credit: Stephen Ausmus / USDA

Forgive me if the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s recent announcement to control antibiotic use in food animals didn’t have me reaching for the Champagne.

For while the FDA’s recommendations to phase out the use of antibiotics as growth promoters and proposal to require veterinary approval of all antibiotic use on farms sound like a good idea, their voluntary nature will result in nothing more than business as usual when it comes to farm antibiotic abuse. Call me a cynic, but leopards don’t readily change their spots. For years, food animal industry lobby groups and drug companies have aggressively denied any link between antibiotic use in farming and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Yet the very same groups have all publicly welcomed the FDA’s recommendations. Why? Because they know they are wholly inadequate.

I won’t go into the limitations of the FDA’s proposals here, as several respected commentators have already done a very good job of that. But suffice to say that despite decades of mounting scientific evidence that the routine non-therapeutic use of antibiotics on industrial farms is leading to the development of life-threatening multiple antibiotic-resistant bacteria, the end result is nothing more than a strongly worded FDA “recommendation” for action, without any mandatory requirements or enforcement measures to stop the intensive farming industry from putting profit ahead of human health. The same old abuse of these life-saving medicines will continue on industrial farms across the U.S., just under a slightly different guise.

So why should you care? Here are 10 things we all need to think about before we allow Big Ag to continue squandering antibiotics in food animal production.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 2 million Americans are infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria every year, and 23,000 will die as a result.

1. There are two major factors driving the dramatic rise of antimicrobial resistant diseases. First, we’ve become too complacent about eating food from animals routinely given antibiotics. Second, we take far too many antibiotics when they are not actually needed.

2. We’re embroiled in an apparent “war” against bacteria, with antibiotics routinely given to livestock, the inappropriate prescription of antibiotics in humans, and the widespread inclusion of antibacterials in toothpaste, soap and even clothing. But all we’re doing is encouraging antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Andrew Gunther. Credit: Courtesy of Animal Welfare Institute

Andrew Gunther. Credit: Courtesy of Animal Welfare Institute

3. It might surprise you to know that we each carry more than 4 pounds of friendly bacteria in our gut. The number of bacterial cells in and on our bodies (about 100 trillion) outnumbers the number of human cells by a whopping 10 to 1. These organisms play a vital role in maintaining our health and without them we’d be dead.

4. We need to trust our natural immune systems to protect us from disease, resorting to antibiotics only when absolutely necessary.

5. When it comes to antibiotics in farming, we use more antibiotics per pound of meat produced than any other nation in the world. A staggering 80% of all antibiotics produced in the U.S. are used on food animals.

6. It is widely accepted that disease outbreaks are inevitable in the cramped and stressful conditions found on most factory farms. But instead of improving conditions, the animals are given low or “subtherapeutic” doses of antibiotics in their feed or water, whether they need them or not, to prevent disease and maximize productivity. For example, most chicks receive two antibiotics, lincomycin and spectinomycin, for the first few days of their lives because they are forced to live in environments where respiratory diseases would otherwise be inevitable. In other words, intensive livestock systems are actually designed around the routine use of antibiotics. It’s the only way to keep the animals alive and growing.

7. In June 2013, Consumer Reports found potential disease-causing organisms in 90% of ground turkey samples purchased from stores nationwide. Many of the bacteria species identified were resistant to three or more antibiotic drug classes.

8. While good food-hygiene practices are essential when handling and cooking raw meat, an accidental spill in the refrigerator can now result in potentially untreatable, yet entirely preventable, life-threatening antibiotic-resistant diseases. Safe handling instructions must never be used to justify farming systems which actively encourage antibiotic-resistance or to absolve companies of any responsibility for the illnesses or deaths that result.

9. The major meat industry bodies claim there is no conclusive scientific evidence that antibiotic use in farming contributes significantly to an increase in antibiotic resistance in humans. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doesn’t agree and is calling for the responsible use of antibiotics, where “These drugs should only be used to treat infections,” whether that’s in humans or animals.

10. When it comes to the responsible use of antibiotics in farming, the U.S. livestock industry is already years behind the European Union, where antibiotic use on farms is strictly controlled. Europe’s livestock industry survived this change without any dramatic reduction in efficiency of meat production and the cost of food in Europe didn’t skyrocket as a result. So why not here? New legislation — The Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act of 2013 (PAMTA) — would end the inappropriate and indiscriminate use of antibiotics in intensive farming in the U.S. Are your representatives supporting it?

This isn’t about blaming farmers and vets: They’re simply responding to the contractual demands of Cargill, Purdue, Tyson and others that dominate our food supply. No, this is about waking up to the real costs of so-called cheap meat. We’re talking about farming systems that are not only designed around the routine use of antibiotics to keep billions of animals in such abysmal conditions alive and growing, but which knowingly encourage the development of life-threatening antibiotic-resistant diseases.

I somehow doubt that any sane American would willingly allow the squandering of these potentially life-saving antibiotics simply for cheap meat. Because when you sit down and really think about a future where antibiotics will no longer be effective — and where common diseases such as strep throat may kill our loved ones unabated — there really is no such thing as cheap meat, is there?

Got you thinking? Animal Welfare Approved farmers only use antibiotics to treat sick animals, just as in humans. We also know that if farmers use antibiotics responsibly the risk of antibiotic resistance is absolutely minimal. The result? Pain and suffering in farm animals is minimized, the risk of disease is reduced, and the efficacy of antibiotics — for humans and livestock —  is protected. You can find your nearest supplier at www.AnimalWelfareApproved.org.

Top photo: Cattle grazing. Credit: Stephen Ausmus / USDA

Read More
Forrest Pritchard stops to say hello to one of his flock. Credit: Susan Lutz

My family and I recently moved across the country, and I have found myself desperately looking for new sources of locally grown food. The easiest place for a city dweller to find local food is at a farmers market. But a farmers market, at its best, should be more than simply a supermarket with outdoor booths. A good farmers market makes you a participant in an entire system, not just a consumer.

Food comes from your farmer. So as a newcomer to the Mid-Atlantic, I was determined to find my farmer — at least one — who would hopefully lead me to others in the future.

I began on a Saturday morning in Alexandria, Va., at the Del Ray Farmers’ Market on a tiny corner lot at the end of a street full of shops and family-friendly restaurants in the historic port city outside D.C. I tried to remain focused amid the array of tents and booths, steering clear of the glitzy world of bakers, cheesemongers and kimchi purveyors. There was plenty of time for preserved foods later. My mission was clear. I needed raw ingredients, the building blocks of meals.

Then I stumbled upon the stall for Smith Meadows Farm, providing fresh beef, pork, lamb and chicken that were grass-fed and free range. I bought a pound of frozen ground beef, a pack of freshly made chicken empanadas and a book by Smith Meadows’ owner Forrest Pritchard. “Gaining Ground” reveals Pritchard’s struggle to save his family farm by raising grass-fed beef in a sustainable way.

That evening I made four amazing cheeseburgers with Smith Meadows ground beef, then began to read Pritchard’s book with fascination. When I was done I told my husband, “He’s the guy.” I’d found my first farmer.

I contacted Pritchard through his website and he graciously invited me to tour his 500-acre farm in the Shenandoah Valley, just outside of Berryville, Va. He and his family raise hogs, chickens, turkeys, sheep and beef cattle. But it turns out that Pritchard is as passionate about forming connections with customers as he is about farming itself. He is committed to creating and supporting the sustainable economic system of small farms, local markets and concerned participants. Not only had I found my farmer, my farmer could tell me how to find other farmers.

How to find farmers

Our conversation was as free-ranging as the hogs Pritchard tended as we talked. But I’ve distilled his advice into several key tips for those who want to find their farmer.

Get online

Contented hog at Smith Meadows Farm.

Contented hog at Smith Meadows Farm. Credit: Susan Lutz

Most farmers markets have an online vendor list, and from there you can check out the farmers’ websites. Those sites should be able to tell you whether they’re sustainable, organic, pesticide free and/or free range. Ask friends and neighbors where they get their food. Yelp and Angie’s List also will have reviews. The world is wired, even for farmers who usually deal with life’s more tangible elements.

Ask questions

Pose specific questions to the vendors at the farmers market. Ask your livestock farmer, “Is your beef grass finished?” This assures customers that the cattle have never been given any grain. Ask a produce farmer, “What’s at the peak of the season?” Buy the peak produce, and don’t worry too much about prettiness or durability. Some farmers will be responsive, some not, but you’ll be able to tell whether they care about their product. More important, you’ll find out if they care about the same things you do.

Shop for what interests you

There’s no point in eating great food you don’t like. Enough said.

Grow your own food

Plant a garden and ask the farmers at the market for advice. Your local farmer knows better than anyone which plants will grow best in your soil and climate zone. Raise chickens, a pig or even a single steer. There’s no better way to appreciate a farmer than to try to grow food yourself.

Be passionate and have fun

The quest to find your farmer should have a sense of adventure. The more you put into it, the more you’ll get out of it. Farmers at a market are usually passionate about what they do. They will respond to your own passion.

I’d come away with a list of questions and tips to help me create relationships with the people who help feed my family. In the coming months I plan to seek out more of my local farmers and see what I can learn about our local honey, goats, root vegetables and cider.

Picture 1 of 3

Sheep and cattle greet visitors to Smith Meadows Farm. Credit: Susan Lutz

Pritchard and I talked about a lot more: grass fed versus grass finished, the difficulty of storing ovoid-shaped foods such as frozen chickens and the surprising economics of ground beef. But throughout my conversation I realized how lucky I was to have found my first farmer. He wants to spread the word about sustainable farming. He’s hard at work on his second book, which combines photographic portraits of sustainable farmers with the farmers’ favorite recipes. He’s committed to promoting small, local food systems that include the buyer and cook as part of that ecosystem.

Pritchard may have more to say about farming than most farmers. Your farmers might not be quite so talkative but they’re probably just as passionate about the food they grow. Meeting your farmers and buying food at a farmers market turns you into one more thread in the web of good food.

If you care about food, you care about where it comes from. So I urge you, find your farmer.

Top photo: Forrest Pritchard stops to say hello to one of his flock. Credit: Susan Lutz

Read More
Myra Goodman. Credit: Sara Remington

So what’s a gal to do when she’s spent her whole adult life as an organic farmer passionately promoting the benefits of organic food, and then she spends a weekend in the Hamptons with her in-laws and finds out that the neighboring farm — the one with the great little produce stand selling just-picked very sweet corn, crisp string beans and amazing vine-ripe tomatoes — is conventional? Well, the truth is that I ended up buying three big bags of their delicious vegetables. We cooked it up and enjoyed it, but I felt unsettled and perturbed.

Was I wrong to support a conventional farm that uses petroleum-based fertilizers and toxic chemical pesticides because it was right down the road from my in-laws’ house? It didn’t feel better to fight peak summer traffic and drive to the mall to shop at the supermarket that had an organic produce section. I doubted those supermarket veggies would hold a candle to the farm stand’s bounty.

The truth is, I wish that I hadn’t had to make such a hard choice. If the local farm was organic, the decision would have been simple, and I would have felt 100% great about the meal our family enjoyed.

But taste and freshness are so important when you want to cook a delicious meal, and eating local food makes me feel grounded and connected to the unique environment and community I’m visiting. I love eating food harvested nearby, so fresh that it still smells like the earth it grew in. But that enjoyment is marred by knowing that the armful of corn I’m carrying away from the field had probably been sprayed with a dangerous chemical.

Come winter, residents and visitors in the Hamptons will be buying their produce at that supermarket in the mall, and I’m thrilled that they’ll be able to choose from organic options. Every time someone purchases organic instead of conventional, it creates a positive feedback loop: the store stocks more organic food, demand for organic items increase, and eventually more land is transitioned to organic methods. Right now, less than 1% of the farmland in the U.S. is being farmed organically, so this conversion is extremely important.

Don’t assume small, local farms are organic

Many people assume that all family-run local farms use safe, sustainable methods to grow their food. In truth, most conventional farms — large ones and small ones — rely on virtually the same potent arsenal of toxic herbicides, fumigants and insecticides, as well as synthetic chemical fertilizers. These chemicals pollute our water, damage our soil, and often leave residues on the food we eat. They are also unhealthy for farmworkers, surrounding wildlife and those who live, work and go to school nearby.

We need local farmers to thrive if we’re going to preserve our farmland and have convenient access to fresh-picked produce that inspires us to eat more fruits and vegetables, and to prepare more delicious home-cooked meals. But we want our local farmers to go organic so that their produce is as healthy as possible for our families, our neighborhood, and our environment.

At my local farmers market in Monterey, Calif., there are so many stalls it’s easy to buy my peaches from an organic farmer. Even if there are days when the conventional ones look a little better and cost less, I still choose organic. I want the conventional growers to see how long the lines are for organic items and eventually deduce that giving organic a try might be a good business decision, despite the challenges and additional costs involved. People willing to pay a premium for organic food creates that incentive.

Converting conventional farms one at a time

Over my three decades in the organic farming business, I’ve seen many conventional farmers transformed into organic farming advocates. When they stop using chemicals, they begin to see their soil come alive. They see it’s possible to grow beautiful produce in cooperation with nature, and that their yields increase over time. We can influence this transformation by choosing organic whenever we shop, and by letting our local farmers know we prefer our food produced without any synthetic chemicals, and that we’re willing to pay more for it.

Wouldn’t it be fantastic if next time I visited my in-laws I learned that the farm next door was converting to organic, and I didn’t have to worry that there were chemicals on my produce or being sprayed so close by?

Top photo: Myra Goodman. Credit: Sara Remington

Read More
An aquaponics set showing how fish and vegetables can grow together, as part of the Food Loop in Beijing. Credit: Manuela Zoninsein

Beijing has been a hotbed of culinary activity since at least as far back as imperial days when localities would dispatch their best chefs to cook up regional delicacies for the emperor there. Creativity and diversity in food shouldn’t come as a surprise given that Beijing is city of more than 20 million people.

These days, food-related activities are increasingly focused on building awareness around sustainability, DIY culture and farm-to-fork conscientiousness. Nothing reflects this greater than the early October Beijing Design Week.

This year, organizers added Food Loop, a sustainable food festival within Design Week, to what had previously focused exclusively on visual arts, architecture, interior design and issues related to urban planning.

Based out of 751 D-Park, which is a section of the well-known 798 arts district but with elevated walkways and stairwells winding up into old factory structures, Food Loop’s sustainable food exhibits included a demonstration of urban farming and workshops about beekeeping, desktop aquaponics and pickling.

Panel discussions and a self-harvesting vegetable market were complemented by a vegan pop-up restaurant run by Chef Laura Fanelli. Fanelli is the founder and former head chef at the Veggie Table, a vegan restaurant on the popular Wudaoying hutong within the historic neighborhood of Beijing’s second ring road.

At the Food Loop, overlooking a postmodern conjunction of old factory buildings, contemporary art galleries and sculptural installations, Fanelli served dishes including a meat-free version of the classic Beijing noodle dish zhajiangmian. Traditionally, wheat noodles are topped with a (usually pork-based) bean sauce and garnished with bean sprouts, cilantro, green onions as well as julienned carrots and cucumbers, resulting in a smoky, satisfying dish somewhat like spaghetti Bolognese. In Fanelli’s version, tofu bits and soybeans were added to the mix, and soy protein takes the place of pork in the sauce.

Floating aquaponics in China

Sick of food safety scandals and mystery meats — most recently, rat meat being passed off as lamb — Beijing is not only experiencing something of a vegetarian and vegan renaissance, it is also seeing a boom in home-based food-growing projects. A local aquaponics association has begun offering regular DIY classes on setting up desktop aquaponics systems, which was offered by Food Loop during design week.

Food Loop

A view of the organic vegetable and herb market at Beijing’s Food Loop event, atop the sky bridge in the industrial complex of D-Park. Credit: Manuela Zoninsein

I’ve purchased one aquaponics kit and once the weather turns too cold to grow food on my rented plot of land outside of the city, this is one way I hope to continue to feed myself, at the very least supplying my own herbs in a way that I’m confident is chemical free.

On the higher end of the spectrum was the dining, video and design installation called “Meating Amy.” A partnership between Chef Brian Reimer of Maison Boulud and design firm Jellymon, it took participants through the story of a pig raised in Yunnan, before it was slaughtered for consumption. Then a meal using parts of a pig from that same farm was served, and parts of the pig were also converted into small material items that helped to create a food cart. The goal, in part, was to reinforce the connection between what we eat and where it comes from.

Sustainable food trends reach Beijing

Beijing and its culinary scene continue to evolve. There is booming creativity in cooking here and the local community is focused on exploring alternatives and advances beyond the current food status quo. The same trends that we see in New York City, Paris or Singapore are also emerging here, with unique expressions that are particular to Beijing’s challenges and needs.

Top photo: An aquaponics set showing how fish and vegetables can grow together, as part of the Food Loop in Beijing. Credit: Manuela Zoninsein

Read More
Linley and Peter Dixon at Adobe House Farm. Credit: Katherine Leiner

Linley Dixon has always been a farmer at heart.

She studied agriculture in high school and college before becoming a graduate student researching tomato diseases on organic farms at West Virginia University. After graduate school she followed her retired parents from Maryland to Colorado, where she and her husband, Peter, launched a farm they called Adobe House Farm, named after the passive solar home that was on the land.

The first February they were in Colorado, Linley and Peter used aged horse manure, known as black gold to organic farmers, to get their tomato seedlings started. But only a few seeds germinated and those that did curled and stopped growing. Linley switched to bagged potting mix and started again.

That first year they grew enough to sell at the farmers market and for a small community supported agriculture operation. But as the tomatoes came in, a few plants growing where the compost had been dumped were misshapen and had leaves curled as if they had tomato curly top virus. Linley asked around, and many farmers in the area had been experiencing the same thing.

Because Linley had studied tomato diseases, she understood that viruses don’t appear in seedlings on a windowsill in the middle of February without a vector. Plus it was unusual that only the tomatoes grown over the composted manure pile showed those same symptoms. Linley suspected that something in the compost was the problem. With help from the extension service she tested for the virus and one of many persistent herbicides. Both tests came up negative, but often they do because they cannot detect every issue.

Meanwhile, the thistles in the farm’s region were being sprayed with a relatively new herbicide called Milestone, which is a version of aminopyralid, made by Dow to be used for invasive broadleaf weeds.

It does not degrade in plants and takes three days to pass through a grazing animal’s digestive system once treated forage is ingested. Manure may contain enough aminopyralid to cause injury to broadleaf plants including vegetables and ornamentals.

This means forage growers should warn people who use hay or manure from animals grazing pastures or feeding on grass or hay from areas treated with aminopyralid.  Aminopyralid may not be used on hay intended for export outside the United States.

After checking with the farmer who had given her the manure, Linley discovered it came from horses that had ingested grass sprayed with Milestone.

Herbicide drift

Farmers in nearby Montrose, Colo., told Linley that Milestone sprayed on a windy day drifted, killing the farm’s solanaceous crops and the legumes. This forced them to cancel a CSA and lose income. She also heard that Milestone has gotten into composting systems in other states, including Vermont. But still, the spraying continues.

The Pesticide Action Network shows that in the United Kingdom those gardens and allotments contaminated by manure originating from farms where aminopyralid was sprayed have grossly deformed broadleaf vegetables. Linley also has observed about  20 home gardens and farms all over the Southwest with curly tomato leaves. The common denominator among them is that they all used organic manure from fields sprayed with Milestone. “Most of our important food crops are broadleaf plants, so it makes sense that an herbicide designed to kill broad leaf plants could harm crops,” she said. “The symptoms of herbicide carryover damage the most sensitive crops. Some farmers even report that their crops have failed.”

Even though she is an organic farmer, Linley understands some sustainable farms use an integrated pest management system that includes the use of chemicals in some circumstances. They must be used responsibly, though, which includes spraying them on non-windy mornings and not using them on crops, she said.

“But the aminopyralids are like DDT, their half life is extremely long. These herbicides simply stick around,” she said.

Dow said aminopyralid is safe to use and poses little threat, pointing out that the EPA has given the product its green chemistry award because of its ability to control weeds with just small applications.

“It can, however, pass through the systems of grazing animals unchanged and pose unintended problems for sensitive plants if manure from animals grazing treated material is composted,” the company said in a written response to Zester Daily’s inquiries.

Dow said it warns users on aminopyralid labels about these potential problems. The company advises any gardener or farmer who experiences problems with aminopyralid damage to not eat contaminated produce, even though the chemical residue from the herbicide should be so low that it wouldn’t be harmful to people or animals.

“As a general rule, if the produce is damaged, I’d disc it under as a soil amendment; and if it isn’t, I’d eat it,” a company representative wrote. “Best thing to do though may be to ask questions right at the start before accepting compost, manure (plant material, etc.), of uncertain origin and if you don’t get straight answers, test the material by using it as intended on a few of the plants you plan to grow and wait and see what happens.”

An indefinite legacy

Adobe House Farm was lucky. Linley quickly identified and diagnosed her problem and stopped using composted manure. Her garden is now growing beautifully. She is studying the area where the compost was dumped to test how long the herbicide will stick around. Right now, that’s three years and counting

Linley has switched to coffee grounds, leaves and other organic matter such as her farm’s own pasture grass clippings. She never harvests from the spot where the contaminated horse manure pile was located. But she thinks the use of aminopyralid and chemicals like it will could force farmers and gardeners to stop the age-old practice of trusting manure as a good source of fertilizer.

Top photo: Linley and Peter Dixon at Adobe House Farm. Credit: Katherine Leiner

Read More
Thistle growing wild in Colorado. Credit: Katherine Leiner

In late summer, it’s common for people in the Southwest to spray herbicides on their noxious weeds.

These weeds are, according to the Colorado Weed Management Association, “non-native plant species that have been introduced into an environment with few, if any, natural biological controls, thus giving them a distinct competitive advantage in dominating and crowding out native plant species. Noxious weeds are aggressive, spread rapidly, possess a unique ability to reproduce profusely, and resist control.” The Cardus family of weeds — including the musk thistle, plumeless thistle, Canada thistle and bull thistle — are those most frequently targeted.

I have an artist friend who clips the blooms, saving the seeds from spreading during high winds. She puts the bright blooms in a Navajo basket, which is beautiful. Another friend uses the thistle greens to blend with lemonade berries and apples. She then strains the liquid from the pulp into a glass for her morning juice. These plants are edible. Some say they can be used as a medicinal tea to strengthen the stomach, reduce fever, kill intestinal worms or stave off constipation.

A legacy of herbicides

For years, thistles were sprayed with Roundup. Now they have become immune to Roundup and the herbicide that is now commonly used is a strong agent called aminopyralid, one of a class of herbicides known as pyridine carboxylic acids. This group includes clopyralid, picloram, triclopyr and several less common herbicides. It is specifically used for broad-leafed plants, and it can be broadcast over pastures without harming the grass.

Aminopyralids are of real concern to vegetable growers because they enter the food chain via manure from animals that eat sprayed pasture greens or hay. When manure containing these herbicides is applied to gardens, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, peas and beans are deformed and the plants produce poor, often nonexistent yields. My concern is that this will have the effect of ending the 10,000-year-old process humans have used to increase soil fertility by applying the animal waste back into soils for vegetable production.

Aminopyralid is made to be applied to pastures, grain crops, residential lawns, commercial turf, certain vegetables and fruits, and roadsides. And Dow, the company that manufactures these herbicides, claims in its warning pages that the forage can be safely eaten by horses and livestock, including livestock produced for human consumption.

But Dow’s website posting concerning aminopyralid stewardship also explains the herbicide does not degrade in plants and takes three days to pass through a grazing animal’s digestive system once treated forage is ingested. My concern is that manure may contain enough of the herbicide to cause injury to broadleaf plants including vegetables and ornamentals for years to come. Dow warns that forage growers should inform the recipient of hay or manure from animals grazing pastures or feeding on grass or hay from areas treated with aminopyralid.

Dow goes on to say the company has been trying to work with farmers and gardeners when carryover has occurred. Dow recommends farmers test manure on a few plants before spreading it across an entire garden or field, particularly if farmers don’t know the manure’s origin. The trade names of this herbicide are Chaparral, CleanWave, ForeFront, GrazonNext, Opensight, Pasturall and Milestone.

In February of 2008 Grab N’Grow, a California soil products company, petitioned the Sonoma County, Calif., agriculture commissioner to create rules limiting clopyralid’s use on plants that feed animals that produce compost.

A drifting problem

For the last 18 years I have had an herbicide/pesticide-free property. I have posted signs so that, should I be out of town, the herbicide man and/or the county that sprays the edges of all county roads will not spray my property under any conditions.

The problem is the property owners around my house spray and the “drift” from the pesticide and/or herbicide runs off in the rain, downhill into my pond and my soil. I am concerned that pesticides can damage hay, vegetables, flowers and livestock.

There are real questions about long-term health effects of chemicals in our soil. At a time when we are more aware of what goes into our bodies and more reluctant to ingest the residues from herbicides, it seems vital to question the use of anything that contaminates our soil.

Top photo: Thistle growing wild in Colorado. Credit: Katherine Leiner

Read More
Alaskan king crab. Credit: Kathy Gunst

It’s close to 6 in the morning, and the sky is muted and streaked with pink, white and blue stripes. I am on Kachemak Bay in a bright yellow kayak, and the water is as flat as a calm lake. A family of otters — a mother and two young cubs — swims alongside. Snowcapped mountains lie ahead in the distance. This is what dawn feels like in Alaska in the summer. The only problem: Alaska is so far north that the sun never sets this time of year, so kayaking or any other activity is done after a fitful sleep spent trying to keep out the light.

The idea of sunlight 24 hours a day sounds great. But, trust me, around midnight — or 3 a.m. or close to 6 a.m. — when your body is exhausted but your mind is saying, “Let’s go for another kayak ride,” it all begins to feel like a cruel joke.

Sleeping was my biggest problem on a recent trip to Alaska. Actually it was my only problem.

I traveled to a small wilderness lodge called Tutka Bay, located at the head of a seven-mile fjord on Kachemak Bay, off the coast near Homer, Alaska. I was there to do the things I love most: write, cook, exercise and see wildlife.

I wrote each morning with the guidance of two mentors, cookbook and memoirist Molly O’Neill and poet Carolyn Forche. In the afternoon we learned to cook Alaskan specialties.

Tutka Bay Lodge’s Cooking School, located in a dry-docked converted herring boat, may be the only cooking school in the world without electricity or running water. You’d think it’s impossible to cook without those two basic elements, but using portable butane burner stove tops and a huge water cooler, matched with the talent of chef and lodge owner Kirsten Dixon, the cooking classes were flawless.

Dixon, who has lived in Alaska for more than 30 years and written several cookbooks, has become a kind of ambassador for Alaskan cuisine. She, along with her assistant Christie Maggi, taught us about the history, influences and current state of Alaskan cuisine.

Alaskan cooking school makes local ingredients shine

Yes, there is such a thing as Alaskan cuisine. And no, it’s not (just) moose stew, reindeer burgers and potatoes. We were introduced to sophisticated dishes like king crab beignets, cold smoked salmon with brown sugar brûlée, local oysters with pickled cauliflower and juniper crème fraîche topping, sourdough biscuits with house-made sweetened ricotta, and rhubarb preserves.

“Most people think we are too far off the beaten track to have a cuisine,” Dixon explains. “But there is a vibrant culinary scene here. Young chefs in Anchorage are beginning to pay attention to local foods, farmers markets and native traditions.”

Using ingredients such as seafood (Alaskan salmon, cod and halibut being the most obvious) and foraged foods such as sea asparagus, fiddlehead ferns, seaweed, mushrooms and wild berries, the food you find in much of Alaska is no longer frozen and flown in from the lower 48, but now focuses on local ingredients.

The state of Alaska even offers subsidies to chefs who use local ingredients. “This subsidy helps promote the use of locally grown Alaskan food,” Dixon notes, “and really encourages Alaskan chefs to shop in-state.”

Eating local, shopping local and growing your own food is something Alaskans feel passionate about. During the summer months, many try to grow, preserve and freeze enough fresh food to last them through the long winter.

“The thing about Alaskans is that we have this homesteading mentality,” Dixon says. “We are a can-do people. There is a degree of self-sufficiency and a joy about living close to the land. Alaskans pride themselves in surviving without a Whole Foods.”

With the longest coastline in the U.S. (33,000 miles), the seafood that comes from Alaskan waters is superb. The extreme cold temperature of the water produces some of the best oysters I’ve ever tasted. But it’s salmon that’s king. There are five distinct types of salmon that come from the Pacific Ocean off the Alaskan coast: Chinook, or King, is highly prized and the largest species (weighing in at up to 150 pounds). Coho, or Silver, salmon is smaller with a fine texture. Sockeye is famous for its deep red color and mild flavor. There’s also Chum and Pink salmon.

Virtually every day I was in Alaska I ate salmon — fresh, smoked, pickled, grilled, barbecued and sautéed — and never grew tired of it. Eating fresh Alaskan salmon was like tasting salmon for the first time. It has such a buttery texture and fresh, explosive flavor that it’s nearly unrecognizable.

Alaskan-born Chef Rob Kinnan of Crush Bistro in Anchorage says when he came to the East Coast and tasted farm-raised salmon for the first time he couldn’t believe the fish was related to the salmon he grew up eating in Alaska. “It was like someone leeched all the flavor, texture and nutritional value out of the fish,” he explained. “Cold water means more fat in the fish, which equals more flavor. The fish create fat to insulate themselves in these very cold Alaskan waters.”

Benefits of an all-daylight growing cycle

Although I had a hard time with the 24-hour a day sunlight, it has its advantages for farmers in Alaska. The growing season is short (a mere 100 days) but intense. Crops can soak in the sun all night and day, which means Alaska grows incredible produce: broccoli and cauliflower the size of watermelons; berries and oversized root vegetables; winter-hearty vegetables like kale, rutabagas and potatoes. Because the state was once dominated by glaciers, much of the underlying subsurface is glacial till, silt and sand. This is rich soil.

With such a short season and the cost of shipping food from other places prohibitively expensive, the cooks at Tutka Bay do a lot of canning and preserving. In my few days there I sampled pickled cherries, fennel and cauliflower, not to mention a gorgeous selection of jams, jellies and preserves from local berries and fruit.

“Putting up” seasonal foods dictates a lot of what goes on during an Alaskan summer. Dixon talks about the troubles she has during berry season. It’s not just the bears that want a piece of the action. “There’s this ritual in Alaska that when the berries are ripe — blueberries, raspberries, huckleberries — women go out and pick for days, camping and make a ritual of it. It’s hard to get people to come to work when there’s berries to be picked.”

Dixon laughs at her own story. She points to a group from her kitchen that has just gotten back from a hike around the lodge foraging for fresh herbs and seaweed for the evening’s menu. Tonight we will eat roast Alaskan duck, a salad with foraged herbs and smoked salmon, and an assortment of pickles. After dinner, while it’s still perfectly light, we will walk along the bay, look for seals and otters and watch the brightly lit night sky. And then I will try to get some sleep.

Kachemak Bay. Credit: Mandy Lindeberg / National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration Photo Library

Kachemak Bay. Credit: Mandy Lindeberg / National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration

Quick Pickled Cauliflower

Makes 4 to 6 accompaniment servings, depending on the size of the cauliflower head

At Tutka Bay, Chef Kirsten Dixon serves these pickles on top of fresh-shucked raw local oysters and tops them with crème fraîche seasoned with juniper berries.

Ingredients 

2 cups cider vinegar

½ cup sugar

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1 tablespoon whole allspice

1 teaspoon cardamom seeds

1 teaspoon mustard seeds

2 cloves garlic

1 head of cauliflower, shaved into thin slices

Directions 

1. Mix all ingredients except cauliflower in a non-reactive pot and bring to a boil over high heat.

2. Place cauliflower in a bowl and pour hot liquid on top. Allow mixture to steep for at least an hour. The mixture can then be used, refrigerated for up to a month or canned.

Top photo: Alaskan king crab. Credit: Kathy Gunst

Read More
An apricot tree. Credit: Jyldyz Doolbekova

Why worry about varieties of fruits and nuts decreasing? Multiple tastes, different colors, several growing periods, resistance to pests, drought and environmental disasters —  all these factors rest on maintaining, and now reviving, regions and agricultural practices that grow many varieties of fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains and grasses.

These are just some reasons why biological diversity is important, but there are more. First, on an individual level, food tastes better when it is grown locally and transported shorter distances. Second, do you really want just one type of apple that peaks at one time of year? Or do you want different-tasting apples that have many sizes, textures, culinary uses and ripening times so you can enjoy them over a longer season and in an array of dishes? Do you want to enjoy your peaches longer in the season? Then the one-peach-fits-all variety is not going to cut it.

Central Asia, a biodiversity hotspot

Central Asia, which is rich in fruit and nut diversity, includes countries with a multitude of cultures, languages and foodways. The famed silk and spice routes coursed through the mountainous landscapes.

Apricot trees. Credit: Jyldyz Doolbekova

Apricot trees. Credit: Jyldyz Doolbekova

Along the routes arrived a constant exchange of seeds, spices and ecological knowledge, too. In fact, the Central Asian mountains are what Conservation International designates “a biodiversity hotspot” — a region that contains an exceptional number of native plant diversity and serious levels of habitat loss. The hotspot’s more than 330 square miles include two major mountain ranges, the Pamir and the Tian Shan, southern Kazakhstan, most of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, eastern Uzbekistan, western China, northeastern Afghanistan and a small part of Turkmenistan.

Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan

Focusing on one area — Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan —  gives a few examples of individuals and organizations working toward more fruit and nut diversity in the face of challenging economic times and climate change for all farmers.

Mirzoshoh Akobirov, a scientist, is tapping into Tajik local biodiversity and ancient agricultural practices to address climate change and improve the economic welfare of his fellow farmers. Over the years Akobirov noted that only 70% of domesticated fruit and nut trees survived whereas their wild relatives had much higher survival rates. He is actively reviving wild fruit and nut populations on abandoned slopes because of their strong local resiliency to climate change, specifically drought and pests.

Before the fruit, there is the beautiful blossom. So why not celebrate the high diversity of apricots (of which there are about 20 varieties) at the Blossoming Apricot Festival in April each year in the Batken District, Kyrgyzstan? Akylbek Kasymov, founder of the Foundation Bio Muras, is doing just that. With the communities of Samarkandek, Kasymov is reviving the cultural significance and the transfer of agricultural practices to a younger generation of farmers. The festival showcases not only the biological diversity of apricots but also the music, dance and poetry that upholds the local culture.

Muhabbat Mahmaladiyva, a highly respected and beloved biodiversity and women’s rights activist, is founder of Zan va Zamin (Women and Land) in Tajikistan. The Women and Land organization is also the 2012 recipient of the Equator Prize for showing leadership in promoting alternative, innovative ways to build resilient communities and protect both people and the planet. Women and Land created more than 30 seed banks, provided funds so farmers could access seed varieties and offered opportunities for local food entrepreneurs to effectively counter the negative outcomes of Soviet-era mono-cropping and dependence on cotton farming. The group’s 12 field schools produce 1,000 tons of vegetables annually. Community orchards supply saplings and maintain more than 10,000 fruit trees that include local varieties of apples, pears, apricots and peaches. Their work creates more resilient ecosystems, fewer food shortages, more food sovereignty, improved local incomes and active involvement of women at every step of the process.

Collectively, these individuals are positively influencing their fragile environments to rekindle lost agricultural practices and food diversity that are sustainable, one seed and one individual, at a time.

Top photo: An apricot tree. Credit: Jyldyz Doolbekova

This article was partially underwritten by the The Christensen Fund, a nonprofit organization, dedicated to biocultural and agricultural diversity of marginalized people and landscapes globally.

Read More