Sunday, August 31, 2014

I Eat Green on Thursday

Click for photo credit.
If you have not heard of Bhavani Jaroff's radio show, iEat Green, you have now and you should listen to it.  She gets the most amazing guests on the show to talk about food, sustainability, and environmental issues.  You can check out her Website here.  On it, there are links to listen to her show.  You can listen to archives of past guests on the site or on iTunes, but it is broadcast live on the Progressive Radio Network on Thursdays at 11am.

The show is especially interesting if you live in the New York and Long Island area.  The format of the show follows an interesting organization.  There are four main parts to the show.  In the introduction, she often provides and update on what is happening in her world.  She then moves on to provide a vegan or vegetarian recipe--often using seasonal local ingredients.  She also provides a calendar of events of major food related events happening in the area.  However, the main part of the show is an in-depth interview with guests--often some heavy hitters in the food and sustainability field.  For example, on her last show she interviewed two-time Chopped winner, Marc Anthony Bynum, who is opening up a new restaurant, called Hush Bistro, in Farmingdale New York this year.  The restaurant will have a strong focus on local Long Island foods.

I'll be on the show this coming Thursday to talk about sustainability, the upcoming People's Climate March, and the Long Island Food Conference we are helping to organize for this spring.  Listen in!

Thursday, August 28, 2014

On 180,000 Words

I recently finished the first draft of a 180,000 word book project.  While there is much editing to do, the hardest part is over.  I worked on this project on and off for the last two years, but completed a big push to get it done this summer.

There are many people and organizations to thank, but I'll save that for the front pages of the book.  You know who you are (Mario, Hofstra, National Center for Suburban Studies, students, faculty, colleagues, Oxford University, John Wiley and Sons, and many others).

One of the things that happened to me while writing in a very concentrated way over the summer was that I became a bit obsessive and superstitious about my writing activities.  I always had word goals for the day and I would find myself repeating the goal over and over in my head until I had it done.  4000 was an odd mantra and companion.  While I could write anywhere (and did), I found myself truly productive in libraries.

All of that writing also led to other writing.  Over the summer, I wrote or finished up 4 articles that will go out for peer review and several opinion pieces.  After I finished the draft earlier this week, I found myself missing the activity of writing and wrote this for Huffingtonpost.  I feel like I am on a writing train that won't stop and I am really okay with being on board.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

A Field Guide to Sustainabillies

Check out my latest Huffingtonpost piece:  A Field Guide to Sustainabillies here.

New US Climate Rules Give Hope and New Leaked IPCC Report Spells Trouble

Click for photo credit.
Two interesting news items on the climate change front today.  First, this article from the New York Times reviews President Obama's attempt to forge a new international agreement on climate change.

As you know, almost all of the nations of the world signed onto the Kyoto Protocol, which sought an international agreement on climate change.  The U.S. never ratified the treaty.  In many ways, it was a bad treaty in that it didn't limit the greenhouse gas emissions of major polluters in the developing world.  However, because the U.S. never agreed to the treaty, the U.S. became the "bad guy" in the climate change discourse, even though we are now no longer the #1 polluter.  It sounds like the new agreement includes some broader assessment of all major polluters, not just those in the developed world.

The second article from the Huffingtonopost reports on the leaked IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) that summarizes previous reports.  The article notes that their is widespread agreement in the scientific community that climate change is occurring and causing dangerous conditions in various parts of the world.  With time, conditions are expected to worsen.


Saturday, August 23, 2014

Florida Environmental Hero Roger Stewart Dead at 89

Click for photo credit.
The State of Florida has some of the best environmental rules and regulations in the United States (except when they don't to paraphrase Yogi Berra).  The state's rules are managed by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.  This organization is responsible for ensuring that the state complies with national environmental rules and also manages special guidelines established by the state of Florida.  Due to the unique issues environmental issues associated with Tampa Bay, the state created a special agency in Hillsborough County (home to Tampa) called the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission (EPC) in 1967.  The first head of the agency was Roger Stewart.  He served in this role until his retirement in 2000.  You can read his obituary here.

I met Stewart several times.  He was a legend in the area.  He had a reputation as a no-holds barred advocate for the environment.  With the Tampa Bay area doubling in population every 10 years during his time as head of the organization, he had to deal with issues like air pollution, wetlands protection, storm water pollution, and sewage treatment.  It wasn't an easy job.  He got fired after appearing on 60 Minutes, but was reinstated when it was clear that his firing was politically motivated.  He called out politicians for their hypocrisy and shed light on bad practices.  He was strident in the application of the rules established by local, state, and federal agencies.  Many developers and polluters hated him for stopping projects or fining their polluting activities.  However, everyone respected him.  While many people were misusing the land during the boom years of the second half of the 20th century, Stewart was there trying to protect the area as best he could.  

Stewart serves as a reminder to us that one person can make the world a better place--or at least keep it from being destroyed.  

Friday, August 22, 2014

National Parks Turn 98 and You Get a Gift

Click for photo credit.
The National Park Service turns 98 on August 25th.  To celebrate, the NPS is offering free entry to any of the national parks.  For more information see this link.

Thanks to all of you who work for the NPS for keeping our parks beautiful.

Also, in case you missed any of my posts on the national parks, I have a series of open access photo essays of all national parks from A-Z underway.  Right now, I am up to the M's.  Click on the links below to virtually travel to the parks if you cannot visit on the 25th.


Lassen Volcanic National Park
Mammoth Cave National Park
Mesa Verde National Park

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Start of the Semester Approaches

The semester starts at Hofstra in just a few days.  It is always bittersweet when this time of year comes around.  This was one of the most enjoyable and productive summers of my career so it is hard to say goodbye to days of writing in the library and half days on campus.  It's time to roll up the sleeves and get back into the schedule of the semester.

Many of us in the teaching profession spend long hours on campus.  It is not unusual for us to work 14 hour days that end up being a blur of meetings, teaching, grading, class prep, and writing time.  It is easy to forget to eat or to grab unhealthy food on campus.  For some of us, it feels like we get up in September and go to bed in December.

That is why I am grateful that Treehugger provided this reminder of healthy snacks to prepare for work.      My office, unfortunately, is next to an Au Bon Pain so I have plenty of unhealthy snack options right outside my door.

This post is a reminder to all of us to treat ourselves well this coming year.  As we all know, we should get plenty of rest, exercise, eat well, and avoid stress. 

Right.  


Wednesday, August 20, 2014

People's Climate March--Long Island Attendee Information

The route of the People's Climate March.  It will end around
34th Street.
In one month, delegates from around the world will gather in New York City to discuss climate change at the United Nations.  Coinciding with this event is the People's Climate March on Sunday, September 21st, which will be the largest march or rally on climate change to ever take place.  You can read about the march here.  

If you are on Long Island, the Sierra Club is offering reduced-rate tickets on the Long Island Railroad to get into NYC to take part in the march.  Due to the crowds that are expected, organizations are encouraged to take the train and avoid driving into the city in cars or chartered buses.  You can follow up with the news on this from the Sierra Club here.

I will be organizing students and faculty at Hofstra University to attend and will be posting that information soon on the Sustainability Studies Facebook page here.  

If any of my friends or family from outside of Long Island are coming into town for the march, let me know.  I have a some space and I am sure we can find space for sleeping somewhere on the island or the city if we fill up.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The 1% on Mushy Ground in Florida

Check out this article from the Tampa Bay Times about the politics of sugar, wetlands, and payoffs.

Some of the vast sugar cane holdings in south Florida.
Sugar cane is heavily subsidized by the U.S.
government and is run by a handful of very wealthy
families.  Of course, politicians in Florida are saying
wetlands law meant to protect the environment hurts the
industry.  Click for photo credit.
As anyone who has spent any time in Florida knows, sugar is a big business in the state and it is controlled by a handful of families.  It relies heavily on guest workers to cut the sugar cane and it is very much supported by agricultural subsidies.  So, pardon my snickers this morning as I spit up a little coffee when I read the article that described politicians paid off by the sugar industry bemoaning the heavy hand of government in trying to protect wetlands of Florida and how regulating wetlands will cost jobs in the sugar industry.  I love how the article called those trying to protect wetlands "big government bullies" when the industry that is being protected by the politicians is heavily supported by big money from the government.  That's chutzpah.

The rate of wetlands loss in Florida has doubled since the 1970's.

Adam Putnam, Florida's Agricultural Commissioner, is quoted in the article as stating that anyone with mushy ground on their property would be regulated.  Here's the real story on this.  If you have mushy ground on your property, it should never have been developed in the first place.  You are living in a wetland.  Florida is home to thousands of acres of developed property that were once wetlands.  Unethical developers supported by similarly unethical land use policy, developed many areas of seasonally wet property that is normally wet during the summer rainy season.  These wetlands should never have been developed since they can flood during particularly wet seasons.  The developers put their buyers at risk of flooding and water-bourne illnesses when they developed and sold that land--not to even mention the ecological issues.

So in my mind, this is an excellent example of well-funded politicians doing the bidding of their industrial patrons in an industry that is heavily reliant on tax payer dollars for support.  In other words, the politicians are funded by your tax dollars to do things that hurt the vast majority of taxpayers.  This is a classic example of government for the 1%.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Writers Blog Tour

The Long Island Railroad portion of the Writers Blog Tour.
Click for photo credit.
I was tagged to be part of a Writers Blog Tour that is taking place all over the world.  The Blog Tour is sort of like the viral Ice Bucket Challenge in that a writer gets tagged and then tags three other writers.  The tour's purpose is to introduce the blogs of writers to a wider audience.  Each writer must respond to four questions:

1.  What are you working on?
2.  How does your work vary from others' work in the same genre?
3.  Why do you write what you do?
4.  How does your writing process work?

I was tagged by Lyn Millner who blogs at www.rebelmouse.com/lynmillner/ She is the founder of Gulf Coast University's Journalism program.  She is working on a book about Cyrus Teed and the Hollow Earth Cult that will be published by one of my publishers, the University of Florida Press.  You can read more about that in her Blog Tour Entry here.

Before I get to my answers, let me introduce you to who I am tagging.

1.  Francisco Toro.  He is one of the authors of Blogging the Revolution:  Caracas Chronicles and the Hugo Chávez Era.  He is a frequent contributor to The Guardian and Huffingtonpost, and has written for New York Times.  His current blog is Boring Development and he also blogs occasionally at the well-known blog he founded, Caracas Chronicles.

2.  Lisa-Marie Pierre.  Lisa blogs at www.lisamariepierre.com on a number of interesting issues, particularly on how to balance a busy life while keeping a healthy lifestyle.  She also blogs about a number of sustainability issues.  I love her posts on sustainable eating on a college budget.  She has a strong interest in Haiti.  She is working on her Ph.D. in urban planning at Arizona State University and is writing on a book on Haiti.  Lisa also contributes to this blog.

3.  Edward Carr.  Ed is the author of Delivering Development:  Globalization's Shoreline and the Road to a Sustainable Future.  His blog is Open the Echo Chamber.  He writes very thoughtful pieces about development issues that I have found very useful in my own work.  His most recent entry on fairtrade is a must read for anyone interested in international development and sustainability.

So Francisco, Lisa-Marie, and Ed, you are officially tagged.

Now, my responses.

1.  What are you working on?

I am usually working on several writing pieces at the same time.  The big project I am working on right now is a new textbook on sustainability.  As everyone knows, sustainability is a relatively new field.  Due to its newness there are very few textbooks on the topic.

Writing a textbook is a daunting task.  My contract requires me to produce 180,000 words.  This is roughly the size of Great Expectations.  Most academic books are 120,000 words or less (about the size of my book, Sinkholes of Florida).  I will be done with the first draft before classes start in September.

I also write in the area of karst (landscapes of limestone terrain), especially on themes of sustainability in limestone landscapes.

Some other projects:  I am putting together a proposal to be a series editor for a series of books on sustainability ranging from energy and water, to environmental justice, development and law.  If there are any sustainability authors reading this who would be interested in putting together a book proposal on one of these topics, please contact me.  I am also working on some articles with students on sustainability in professional sports, lead pollution in soils, and sustainability education in the state of New York.  There is also a novel in the works and I am also working on an e-book on blogging.

2.  How does your work vary from others' work in the same genre?

I think that my work is more applied and practical than others working in sustainability and karst science.  Many working in sustainability focus on theoretical issues in the field.  I think that this is fine.  However, many of us believe that we have a handful of decades before we will have serious problems that will impact the future of our planet.  As such, I think it is important, at least for me, to teach and write about things that have the potential to make a difference now.

3.  Why do you write what you do?

As the adage goes, write what you know.  It is also important to write about things that interest you.  I am very interested in how we interact with the environment and how those interactions vary across the planet.

4.  How does your writing process work?

Years ago I took a writing workshop with Julia Cameron, the author of The Artist's Way.  The class changed the way I approached writing.  I used to dread writing and it took me forever to get an article done--much less write a book.  However, using a few techniques, my writing improved--both in quality and output.  I started doing something called morning pages (you'd have to read her book to find out more) to get my writing started each day.  The morning pages evolved into my blog.

Most days I write.  On many of those days I start off with a blog post early in the morning.  After this, I set my writing goal for the day.  I usually do this by setting word count totals.  If I have a reasonable amount of time to write, I set a goal of 3000 words.  If I have more time, I go to 4000.  If I have less time, it might be 1000 or 2000.  However, I try to write at least 500 words a day to keep a project moving.

When I have a goal of 2000 words or more, I set mini-rewards.  Perhaps lunch after 1000 words.  A bit of light reading or relaxation after 1000 more.  But, the key is to stay focused on the goal for the day.  If I do not finish a goal in my university office, I stop at a library on the way home to finish it.  But, I get it done.

Writing something substantial, like a 180,000 word book, is like building a building.  It takes time to place each brick.  But, eventually, the building gets done.


Friday, August 15, 2014

Monsanto Loses Honey of a Deal in Mexico

Click for photo credit.
Check out this article from the Guardian about how Monsanto lost a permit to plant GMO soybeans in Mexico.  Why did they lose the permit?  It's all about honey.

Mexico is the third largest exporter of honey in the world and one of the largest producers of honey anywhere.  Of course, we all know that bees gather pollen from plants to make the honey.  Since the European Union bans imports of honey that is produced off of GMO plants without appropriate GMO labeling (and Germany bans GMO produced honey altogether), the addition of vast acres of GMO crops in Mexico would limit the business of existing honey producers.  Monsanto is likely to appeal the case to a higher court.

There is no doubt that this case is about much more than bees.  Local small farmers will have difficulty competing with large producers of GMO crops produced on corporatized farms.  Small indigenous farmers in Mexico (and throughout the world) see the introduction of GMO crops as a threat to their traditional farming methods and lifestyle.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Decision Time on Keystone Pipeline and Fracking in New York

Click for photo credit.
The National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, requires that Environmental Impact Statements be written to guide decisions on federally permitted projects that have the potential to do some type of environmental damage.  The statements are guided by science and spell out the range of impacts that could be expected.  They also review alternatives to projects and suggest ways that projects could be improved.  Many states, including New York, have their own version of NEPA that requires state permitted projects with potential environmental impacts to have an environmental assessment.

NEPA was never intended as a political tool.  It was designed to help leaders make decisions.   However, it is looking more and more that it is being used to delay decisions on controversial projects so that they are made after elections.  At least that is the way it is looking on the issues of the Keystone XL Pipeline and fracking in New York.  The latest (of at least 3 drafts) of an Environmental Impact Statement on the Keystone XL Pipeline was published in January.  At first, it was announced that a decision would be made in early summer whether as to whether or not the President would approve it.  Now, everyone expects that a decision will be made after the midterm elections in November.  The project was first proposed in 2008.

The same situation is happening in New York around the issue of fracking.   Two environmental assessments have been completed.  A public health review was requested in 2012.  That review is still underway.  Leaders in New York have been delaying the decision since 2008--exactly the same time frame as the Keystone XL Pipeline.  For a review of where New York is on this issue, see this article from Pro Publica.  Again, it is clear that the decision will not take place until after the elections.

While I understand the realities of the political process, I can't help but be disappointed that environmental rules are being mishandled.  As an environmentalist, I see the delay tactics as hurting the intent of the law, thereby weakening its ability to be effective.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Mesa Verde National Park


Today I continue my series highlighting interesting open access Flickr photos of all 59 U.S. National Parks. In this post we go to Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado. 

I'll run through all 59 National Parks in alphabetical order. If you have any photos that you would like to share from any national park that I could post, please send them along. Following the photos, you'll find links to previous On the Brink posts on the National Parks. Check them out to see the beauty of the U.S. National Parks as captured by visitors.


Click for photo credit.
Click for photo credit.
Click for photo credit.
Click for photo credit.
Click for photo credit.

Lassen Volcanic National Park
Mammoth Cave National Park

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Two Florida Butterflies Added to Endangered Species List

One of two new endangered species:  The Florida Leafwing.
Click for photo credit.
Check out this article from the Miami Herald about two new species that were added to the Endangered Species List managed by U.S. Fish and Wildlife.  The listing gives the insects special protection, including careful management of developments in their habitat.

The listing is controversial because the habitat is in a part of Miami where the city is planning to build a new theme park, apartments, and a Wal-Mart.

Many note we are in the midst of a great extinction event (see this article).  Given the reality of what is happening on the planet, what would you rather have, more theme parks and Wal-Marts or more natural habitat?

Monday, August 11, 2014

Join Me in Texas September 26th When I Talk on Sustainability, Water, and Karst

If any of my Texas peeps are in San Antonio around September 26th, I'll be giving a series of lectures on Sustainability, Water, and Karst when I am the speaker for the Edwards Aquifer Authority Distinguished Lecture Series.  For more information see the image below or the link here.  There are only a few tickets left.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Sunday Canning Blogging--The Best Bread and Butter Pickles You Will Eat

Growing up in a much simpler time in a small town in Wisconsin, I learned to be relatively self sufficient thanks to the efforts of my family.  One of the skills I learned was how to preserve garden and farm produce for the year via canning.  Since it is somewhat of a lost art, particularly for city dwellers, I thought I would share a recipe and highlight some techniques.

Yesterday, one of the venders at my local farmers' market had a sale on organic cucumbers.  They weren't pretty, but they were perfect for slicing up for bread and butter pickles.

I use the recipe here as a base.  Since I typically have on hand about half the number of cucumbers called for in the recipe, I half the amounts (except for the spices).  I also do not boil the cucumbers with the boiling mixture since I can them in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.  Below are the main steps involved with making the best bread and butter pickles you will eat.

My find at the farmers' market. Photo by Bob Brinkmann.
Peel and cut the cukes thin.  Photo by Bob Brinkmann.
Coarsely chop 2 peppers.  Photo by Bob Brinkmann.
Slice 4 onions thin after cutting them in half.  Photo by Bob Brinkmann.
Mix the chopped onions, peppers, and cucumbers with 1/4-1/2 cup of salt.  I use 1/4 cup since I had about half the cucumbers in the recipe.  Let sit for about 3 hours and drain.  If they are too salty, you can rinse them at this point.  Photo by Bob Brinkmann


Make a brine with the sugar, vinegar, mustard seed, celery seed, and tumeric.  You could cut back on sugar and vinegar if you have a smaller batch (I did).  I don't cut back on the spices.  Bring the brine to a boil just when you are about ready to start the canning process after the vegetables are drained.  Photo by Bob Brinkmann.

Prior to canning, make sure you wash your canning jars and sterilize them in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.  Also, in a small pan, sterilize the lids.
Stuff the drained veggies in the jar.  This is a departure from the recipe.  You don't need to boil the veggies if they are going in a canning bath.  Photo by Bob Brinkmann.
Ladle the brine into the jars.  Air pockets will remain, so run a knife along the sides of the jars to get out any air.  Add more brine to near the top of the jar. Photo by Bob Brinkmann.

Wipe off the rim of the jars with a clean towel to get off any materials that would prevent sealing. Photo by Bob Brinkmann.

Add sterilized lids and screw on caps.  Photo by Bob Brinkmann.


Process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.  Photo by Bob Brinkmann.


The jars will make a popping noise as they seal.  This should happen within 30-60 minutes.  Check that all the jars sealed.  If some didn't, refrigerate them and eat those first.  The rest can be stored in a cool dark place for later use.  Photo by Bob Brinkmann.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Pedestrian Deaths 3 Times More Likely in Tampa Poor Neighborhoods

Check out this stunning article from the Tampa Bay Times highlighting problems of pedestrian deaths in the Tampa area.  Pedestrian Deaths are three times more likely to occur in poor neighborhoods than wealthy ones.
An all too familiar scene in Tampa.  Click for photo credit.

If you have been to Tampa, you know that it is a sprawling city that grew rapidly around suburban car culture from 1950 to 2000.  Instead of neighborhoods with quaint downtowns, the city has 6 lane roads with strip malls.  Sidewalks are rare.  It is not unusual to see a bus stop adjacent to a drainage ditch leaving no place for those waiting for a bus to stand.  In other words, it is a very unfriendly place for pedestrians.

When I lived in Florida, I found this frustrating.  The weather for most of the year is perfect for walking or biking to work.  However, I always felt that my life was at risk as I navigated the 8-lane roads near the University of South Florida.  Several students and pedestrians were killed over the years near the university, yet neither the community nor the university seemed particularly interested in doing anything serious about pedestrian or bike safety.  Busch Boulevard, where the most recent death took place as noted in the article, is a near the university and is near where many students and faculty live.

Unfortunately, the car drives much of the decision-making about Florida's transportation infrastructure.  We do not think about pedestrian or bike experience or needs.   As a result of this, main roads in Tampa neighborhoods are highways with limited services for bikes or pedestrians.  Bike lanes are narrow or non-existent.  Sidewalks stop and start and often end in ditches or overgrown wetlands.

Some communities have made improvements.  East Tampa, for example, did a terrific job with traffic calming on Nebraska Avenue.  That street was a raceway that experienced many pedestrian and bike accidents.  The improvements serve as a model for what could be done in other areas of the city.  Given the data, it is looking more and more like an urban infrastructure justice issue.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Hofstra Sustainability Students Spend Summer Saving the World

I visited Joanne Norris at Sylvester Manor recently.  Joanne
is teaching kids how to farm and doing some farming
herself.  Sylvester Manor is an educational farm that uses
sustainable farming methods on Shelter Island.
One of the great things about working with Sustainability majors at Hofstra University is that I get to work with some of the most interesting students on campus who dedicate their lives to trying to make the world a better place.  Several of our students are doing some amazing things this summer.  Here are a few updates.

Joanne Norris is working at Sylvester Manor as an educational coordinator for their kids farm camp.  She is also working on the Sylvester Manor Farm.  She is Hofstra's Student Garden Manager during the school year so this summer job fits her overall interests.

Joanne Norris and Joe Murphy took a workshop at Growing Power in Milwaukee with Will Allen on urban farming.  Specifically, they learned about composting, growing mushrooms, and building hoop houses.

Jake Sacket spent the summer working for the Edible Schoolyards program in New York City which brings ideas of growing, eating, and cooking healthy food into New York's City's schools.  Jake does his work at PS 6 and 7 in Harlem.

Xu Han is working on sustainability issues in New York Harbor as they relate to tourism.  She is working with a day cruise ship company in finding ways to integrate environmental information with the local cruise line industry.

James Yates spent part of his summer on an Internship with the Department of Energy focused on legal issues associated with nuclear waste.  He just graduated, but took the summer internship as a way to gain greater experience before heading to earn a degree in environmental law.

These are but a few examples of what our students are doing.  If any of our majors are reading this and want to give an update, drop me a note!  I would love to hear from you.


Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Gas Guzzlers to Pay More to Park in Madrid

Rush hour in Madrid.  Click for photo credit.
Check out this article from the Green Capital Division of the European Union on the first of its kind graded parking fee scheme from Madrid.  Like many big cities, Madrid, Spain has problems with air pollution.  In trying to reduce the emissions, they are encouraging drivers to use mass transit and low emission cars.  The graded parking structure uses a pricing model to encourage good green behavior.  Cars that use more gas pay more.

Cities all over the world with major air pollution problems are trying to come to terms with how to deal with the issue.  Some have banned cars from certain areas or restricted driving times.  While not altogether banning gas guzzlers, the pricing model is meant to discourage their use.

What do you think of this plan?  Could it work in the U.S., New York, or your city?

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Rare Earth Elements, Agriculture, and Drinking Water

Click for photo credit.
We have all read about the high demand for rare earth elements in high-tech products like hybrid cars and cell phones.  However, they are increasingly used as a fertilizer and feed additive to promote growth in plants and animals.

Indeed, rare earth element use is increasing to the extent that some are starting to worry about the pollution of waterways from agricultural runoff.  Since many communities get drinking water from surface sources that receive agricultural runoff, many are concerned about rare earth elements in drinking water.  Unfortunately, the health impacts of these materials are not well known and we don't regularly test for rare earth elements in normal water testing.  While some evidence exists that there are health problems associated with exposure, we just do not know the long-term impact of this emerging pollutant class.  You can read what the EPA says about rare earths here.

Rare earth elements have been used to boost agricultural production for many years in China and their use has expanded around the world in the last decade.  

Monday, August 4, 2014

Into the Farm: My Review of Forrest Pritchard's Book: Gaining Ground: A Story of Farmers' Markets, Local Food and Saving the Family Farm

Click for photo credit.
If I were to rename Forrest Pritchard's Book, Gaining Ground:  A Story of Farmers' Markets, Local Food, and Saving the Family Farm, I would call it Into the Farm in homage to the adventure genre of books about real-world young men written by Jon Krakauer who started the title of a number of his books with Into the.....

Inexplicably my mind kept pulling me into the story of Christopher McCandless as I read Gaining Ground.  I felt as if Pritchard were telling the adventure story we wanted McCandless to have.  More on that in a moment, but first some general information about the book.

Pritchard recounts the story of how he worked to transform his family's failing farm into a profitable enterprise by raising grass-fed beef and other animals while focusing on the sustainability of the land.  His grandparents ran the farm when he was young and his parents did some weekend farming when it was their turn.  However, they had day jobs to make ends meet and the farm eventually was in considerable debt.  When Pritchard graduated from college with english and geology degrees, he stepped in to try to make the farm work, largely because he couldn't find other employment, but also because he had a calling.

After some unsuccessful starts, the family attended a workshop on sustainable farming practices that changed their lives.  They saw many of the small family farms disappear over the last few decades.  My friends reading from my native Wisconsin will be familiar with the stories.  Those farms that were still in operation were required to utilize farming methods that were not always the best for the land in order to ramp up production.  Pritchard's family realized that the modern agricultural system was broken not just for the farmer, but for the long-term sustainability of the land.

The family decided to throw away all of the technological ways of farming and focus on repairing the land and raising grass-fed beef, sheep, and pigs along with free range chickens and eggs.  After some lean years selling their products at local markets, they focused attention on selling in their home farm store and at farmers'  markets in the large metro of Washington D.C.  Soon, their farm was a success and the family's bills were paid without compromising the long-term sustainability of the land.  They dumped modern technology for sustainability and success.

Although the book has a positive message, there are some tragedies along the way and many challenges that were confronted.  The book includes a number of humorous vignettes of farm life including spritely goats, unhappy butchers, a very mean pig, and farmers' markets angels.  We are left with concerns about many of the characters of the book.

One doesn't expect a book by a farmer to be especially well-written.  Those of us who follow the sustainability literature have plowed through some tomes on food and farming that are preachy or too oddly personal.  This book has a good mix of biography, drama, new information, humor, and inspiration.  Indeed, I found it one of the more interesting books on food and sustainability to come around in some time.  I particularly enjoyed Pritchard's humor and no-holds barred honesty.  Krakauer could not have done better biographical character development than Pritchard himself.

Which gets me back to Chris McCandless.  Most of you are probably familiar with the story of Chris McCandless, the young man who upon graduating from college became somewhat of a vagabond by turning his back on the excesses of his generation to enter the wilderness.  The noted author Jon Krakauer wrote Into the Wild about him (note if you are unfamiliar with the book, you can buy it from my Amazon store to the right.  Here's a summary of the story.)  Throughout Into the Wild the reader roots for McCandless as he travels the American west seeking authentic experiences in nature.  He is a born-again Muir trying to distance himself from our technological age.  He eventually dies, most likely from accidental poisoning, in a remote area of Alaska.

Pritchard, like McCandless, was faced with a dilemma upon graduation from college.  Both McCandless and Pritchard recognized that the modern world is a highly unsustainable place in our fragile modern times.  McCandless rejected society and found comfort in nature and in the unusual misfits that he found on his path.  Pritchard, in contrast, returned home unemployed and had his own adventures without traveling the thousands of miles away from family and friends.  Each life is an example of the challenges that young adults face when coming of age in our difficult times.  Chris and Forrest could have "sold out" and entered the mainstream world of corporate America--Chris was expected to go to law school and Forrest could have transformed his farm into an industrial-age marvel.  Instead, each chose to reject the status quo and live an authentic life that had meaning.  Indeed, Prithcard, by going, in Krakauer terminology, into the farm, transformed himself, his family, and his community through his own adventures.  The beauty of the story is that he brought along his family and friends.

Ultimately that is what we take from Pritchard's book.  Sustainability is not just about the land.  While environmentalists like Muir and his godson McCandless were loners seeking to find individual meaning in nature, Pritchard finds that an authentic connection with the environment includes his family, the animals he raises, and the people he meets on his journey.

Prichard's book is listed on my nightstand reading on the right if you want to add it to yours.  It's a good read.