Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Will Walmart Save Local Food?

According to The Atlantic, Walmart is making a big push to revive local agriculture.

If I remember the NPR interview right, Walmart is somehow contracting with local farmers to grow produce within a day's drive of each participating superstore. The farmers are responsible for getting the food to a distribution center, and in return receive a premium price. Many people will recoil at the idea of Walmart leading the way back to local agriculture, but any action taken by a massive organization will have a big impact.

As my plane made its final descent into Phoenix this past Friday, I stared at miles of irrigated fields and was reminded that part of the reason Big Ag grew up in the West in the first place was the combination of long growing seasons and cheap water.* Of course, if the metastasizing suburbs continue to drink up every last drop of the Colorado and Sacramento, the West may lose its economic edge anyway...

* Did I say cheap? I meant heavily subsidized.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Wood Chips in the Willows

A century ago, the Syracuse-Rochester corridor in Upstate NY supplied raw material to the basket-making economy through the cultivation of shrub willow. It's funny to think about it now, but this used to be a major industry in the U.S.

I mean, how else would you take your lunch to work?

Something old is new again, as willows are being grown for biofuel in NY.

I recently attended a seminar given by a breeder who's developing biofuel willow varieties for the U.S. Northeast, southeastern Canada and the Upper Midwest.*

It's common folklore that willow stems will sprout roots and leaves if stuck into wet soil. This is one story that's true - and is made good use of by willow growers. Six-foot dormant stems, "whips," are bought from nurseries, cut into 8-10 pieces and stuck into the prepared soil. It's surprisingly expensive to set up a stand ($1000/acre), but lasts 25-30 years.

The young stand is coppiced (cut flush with the ground) during its first winter to encourage bushy, shrub-like growth. It's again cut to the ground every 3-4 years to provide 25' stems for the production of ethanol or wood pellets. Harvesting is done in winter when the (often marshy) soil is frozen, the foliar nutrients have been reabsorbed into the root system and farmers are done using all their machinery to harvest forage corn. The breeder visualizes this system as being especially useful for farmers to make some money off of the swampy, poor quality "back 40" acres - or at least to use wood chips to supply all their own building heat. They've also worked to adapt various cutting implements to commonly used tractors - and had a very cool picture of a forestry implement capable of chewing through 8" boles!

In Sweden, this industry has historically been able to achieve up to 10 harvests per stand planting. The value of willow for wood burning ovens has been real volatile as subsidies and the market changes but there may be a lot of potential here in the States. Chips sell for more money in Europe, but they're cheaper to produce here - so I suppose it could go either way depending on the cost of heating oil. Of course, part of the economy in their favor in Europe are the carbon regulations...

The meat of the talk described their efforts to characterize and cross the many species and natural hybrids of Salix. They've managed to patent some of their best varieties, which they've licensed to a local nurseryman (who already has 100 acres planted!).**

They're recommending that growers plant 6-8 varieties to hedge against pests, pathogens and bad weather, but most growers (here and in Northern Europe) usually end up sticking with only 2 or 3 of their best. It's a little different in Ireland, where wet weather generates big rust epidemics - there they rotate among several varieties with every whip!

Scientists generating whole new industries for enterprising farmers - this is public sector ag research at its best!

* Likewise, poplar would be good for the Pac NW and switchgrass might be best for the Great Plains. A coal-fired power plant is even converting to run on local biofuels in Michigan.
** The website shows some pretty clever additional uses of willow too!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Getting Ready for Cherry Blossoms

It'll be a little while yet before Prunus species are flowering Upstate, but I keep checking the buds all the same.

Scientists and growers who work with these plants have names for each stage of flower development.

The cherry on our lab's front lawn currently has dormant buds.

Soon, they'll begin to swell as a flush of fresh, fine roots venture out into the warming soil. The roots we generally see when we dig up trees are structural and distract from the real action. The few scientists who have attempted to study roots in detail have discovered that the fine roots are incredibly dynamic, turning over many times during the year in response to environmental cues.


The buds enter the delayed dormancy period as soon as they begin to swell.



Green tip signals the end of delayed dormancy and the beginning of blooming.















Green tip transitions to pink bud as soon as the petals are visible.





This is the popcorn stage.

















And the almond flower reaches full bloom!


















h/t: The Almond Doctor

Friday, March 19, 2010

First Bloom of Spring!

Spring is so much more exciting when you live in a climate with snowy, sun-starved winters!

I ate my lunch outside on the bench for the first time this year and noticed this little guy popping up. Bulbs besides daffodils are usually grown as annuals in this town due to our absurd deer pressure, but this little guy was sheltered up against the wall. Soon our lab's front lawn will be covered with little purple violets.

The sun is so great.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

No-Till vs. Organic Soil Management

I just came across a cool USDA study on the impacts of various minimum tillage cultivation schemes on grain yields in the Mid-Atlantic. They compared a range of minimal-till farming systems from conventional to organic with different combinations of cover crops, living mulches and different levels of herbicide and nitrogen input.
"After nine years, corn yields were similar in the standard no-tillage and cover crop systems but were 12% lower in the crownvetch system and 28% lower in the organic farming system than in the standard no-tillage system."
The shockingly poor yield of organic grain here was due to a massive proliferation of weeds - which are extremely difficult to control without herbicide.
They also measured yield of corn that was grown conventionally on fields that had been in either conventional or organic production for the previous 9 years. Conventionally-grown corn yields were 18% higher when grown on fields that were historically managed organically.
Organic management (in this system) really improved the soil - mostly through increased nitrogen levels, probably. The catch though is that the organic fields were overwhelmed with weeds!

Sounds like a good opportunity to combine the best of both approaches.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Basement Chickens and Cardboard Desks

At The Sustainability Workshop, Glynn Bebee is perfecting the art of turning trash into electronics-integrated tools for the New Urbanist.

I first saw his work this past summer as he was building (surprisingly hefty!) furniture and sculpture out of used cardboard and exotic glues (desk shown). I particularly like the helix, though.










He makes beautiful kitchen utensils out of waste wood.








A few weeks ago, I watched on Facebook as he tested his solar cooker on a cold winter day. Here, Lily demonstrates the oven's effectiveness by basking in her own body heat.




Today I got a tour of his basement workshop, full of various recycled scraps, power woodworking tools and aquaculture tanks. He's currently designing a series of indoor chicken incubators and coops. Danielle is much bigger today and her new sister just hatched a few hours ago. She's even more social than her two brothers and loves perching on visitors' arms. Predictably, one of the biggest challenges of indoor chicken-raising is controlling the smell. I was really impressed how inconspicuous even this first prototype is.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Spring Thaw in Waterfall Country


This is Fall Creek falls (in the fall). It's basically in the middle of downtown. It forms a deep pool (shown) and pours leisurely into the lake via a shallow, rocky creek. It's full of fish and usually surrounded by anglers.



This is what happens when your watershed had 2+ feet of snow at the beginning of the week and none by the end.
(Note the logarithmic scale!)



Needless to say, there was no fishing today...*







The trees are drowning! Closer to the shore, you could see the sycamores up on stilts with the soil scoured out from under their roots. I guess low flows later in the year will pile the sediment back up.



The blue half-circle shows the high-water mark. The flood at it's worst almost reached the gorge walls, where it left big rolls of hay and sticks. The yellow marks the big gravel bar that usually takes up most of the valley floor.

*this pic totally reminds me of the lotr scene where the ents broke the dam...

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Origin and Cultivation of Grape

Some of our crops are twisted freaks compared to the wild relatives we created them from (sorry maize). Other crops have barely been modified by humans despite thousands of years of cultivation. Grape falls into this second category

Their are 60-some Vitis species, with centers of diversity in China and North America. European grape, V. vinifera, was developed from the local wild relative V. sylvestris (or V. vinifera subspecies sylvestris, depending who you ask). "Domesticated" grape (some would argue it's not even really domesticated) tend to have larger, lobey leaves and exhibit a huge diversity of berry shapes, colors, aroma and flavor.

The most important difference is that domesticated grapes have perfect (hermaphroditic) flowers, while wild sylvestris have individual staminate (male) and pistillate (female) flowers on separate (dioecious) individuals. Interestingly, this same mutation (which appears to be due to a single gene) also occurs in domesticated varieties of North American muscadine grapes.*

Pop Quiz! What's the #1 wine grape grown in California?**

Our local grape breeders are trying to help out the grape industry with some new value-added products. The first example that I heard about in seminar today was the development of dry-on-the-vine (DOV) raisin varieties. The raisin farms I've been to are pretty typical - stretched out rows in the middle of the arid California Central Valley on vines that are so old that they look like dwarfed, gnarled oaks. Farm workers pick the ripe grapes by hand and lay them out on paper strips between the rows to dry (and then pick them up again). This is a LOT of (very expensive) labor, especially for a relatively low value crop. DOV raisin varieties skip the paper step, making the vines amenable to mechanical harvesting and protects them from rain. Or as our breeder joked, "you may not think that it rains in Fresno, but occasionally it does."

They're also working on developing more red-fleshed grape varieties. Although lots of grapes have different color skins, almost all are pale on the inside. Red-fleshed varieties have a mutation that causes a red pigment that's usually only found in one location in the plant to be put everywhere (there's also a similar mutation causing red-fleshed apples!). In both cases, the flesh is red, as are the petioles, etc. This trait is valuable to growers because it differentiates their product when sold fresh (red grapes could become a new market class), it helps color juice and (as "red" is an antioxidant) it can be sold as "high-antioxidant."

Desirable novel traits based on mysterious dysregulation of whole molecular pathways is what plant breeding is all about! It sounds kinda scary when you think about it, but we've been running this experiment for 10,000 years without many mistakes. Supposedly when European/American grape hybrids were created to deal with a devastating epidemic in the 1800s, a number of people began warning against "toxicity" problems. A German lab in particular fueled this controversy by asserting that these hybrid grapes killed poultry - of course when followed up on it turned out that these chickens (which were only fed wine) died from malnutrition. This was very lucky for the U.S. grape industry, which was just getting started, and relied heavily on hybrid grapes to withstand cold winters in places like Upstate NY.


*It's nearly impossible to emasculate grape flowers, so grape breeders have cleverly hung on to rare pistillate versions of their favorite lines to assist in crosses. Emasculation is the process by which a plant breeder pulls the male stamens off of a flower to prevent self-pollination.
**It's Thompson seedless, the famous table/raisin grape! Why is a cheap raisin grape the number one wine grape? Because the majority of wine is "bulk" wine, destined for boxes and jugs.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

How to Raise a Spider Army

Scientists at the USDA-ARS subtropical research station in Weslaco, TX are doing some really cool work developing spiders for biocontrol of ag pests.

They're working with cursorial spiders, which spend their nights running around on plants and their days in improvised silk bivouacs.

These spiders are voracious predators of bug eggs and larvae and can really knock out pests when they reach decent population levels. The scientists found that spiders seemed more deadly on cotton than on maize or soybeans (relative to other predators, such as ants) - and hypothesized that this may be due to the presence of extrafloral nectaries on cotton.

To make a fascinating story short, these spiders drink nectar from flowers and extrafloral nectaries to supplement their buggy diet! They also probably eat yeast (which grows naturally in leaking plant sap and nectar). The availability of these "non-prey foods" allow these spiders to mature faster, live longer and produce more spiderlings when their insect prey is limited. Furthermore, they can respond to the smell of nectar and can even learn to associate novel scents with a sugary reward!

They specifically mentioned that they found spiders associated with coriander, buckwheat and alyssum flowers, but they probably can drink nectar from all kinds of plants. Next, they're gonna try spraying crops with a sugary or yeasty scented spider chow to see if they can attract and maintain populations to help control pests. It's definitely a long shot, as any ecologically-based biocontrol strategy has all the complications and limitations inherent in ecology, but I'll be excited to see what happens.

In the meantime, it's an example of the type of interactions that you hope to take advantage of by planting a diverse, mixed garden surrounded by native plants.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Living like a Caveman

I got a kick out of a recent NY Times piece that described some modern "cavemen" living in NYC. This tribe of mostly young, white-collar dudes has made a pretty serious hobby out of trying to expose their bodies to the same stresses that our ancestors regularly encountered. They enjoy fasting, intense bouts of aerobic exercise and gorging on organ meat. They also regularly give blood (to further simulate the hunt) and like to run barefoot - all while living in one of the most intensely urban and "unnatural" settlements humans have ever produced.

Underlying their philosophy is the concept that our bodies are best adapted to an ancient hunter-gatherer lifestyle and (implicitly to many) our current way of life is making us sick and unhappy. This has been a contentious idea for generations, with plenty of big shots weighing in (Stephen J. Gould thought modern humans are mismatched to their environment).

In The Evolutionary Search for our Perfect Past, Zuk dismisses this idea that we all would be healthier and happier if we weren't stuck behind our computers eating bread all day as a "paleofantasy."

In The 10,000 Year Explosion, Cochran and Harpending argue that the intense selective pressures of civilization caused remarkable bursts in human evolution. Lactose tolerance was the secret weapon of the Mongols and other nomads, who spread this trait each time they ransacked a village, and who evaporated into the steppe (surviving on milk, meat and blood) until avenging imperial forces exhausted their cereal supplies. They also assert that generations of inbreeding and relegation to the "dirty" book keeping jobs of the Middle Ages made the Ashkenazi Jews super smart.

In On Deep History and the Brain, Smail reconciles these ideas to some extent as he explores how closely biology and culture are entwined, suggesting that the development of our brains and bodies may be more plastic to our environment than we realize - and that many explanations of adaptation simply amount to just-so stories. For example, although pop psychologists like to suggest that men are only attracted to young (fertile) women, and women are only attracted to older (rich and supportive) men, modern hunter-gatherers don't fit this pattern. Besides, the typical hunter-gatherer child gets almost all his calories from his mom's gathering and when his dad does have a successful hunt, the meat is usually distributed evenly among the tribe - with any extra usually going to the man's girlfriend instead of his wife. Likewise, women don't rely on the husband for help with child care - that's what her family and boyfriend are for...

Well, if nothing else, I'm sure good food and exercise won't ever be maladaptive!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Eating Rabbits

Is rabbit the new chicken?
They're quieter and less smelly than chickens, make healthier meat, can be fed on kitchen scraps, are easier to slaughter (no squawking or plucking) and they reproduce like...hmm... well, they reproduce really fast.


Jeness once postulated that the tastiness of an animal is directly proportional to its cuteness. Accordingly, she joked that it was one of her life goals to try what surely must be the world's most delicious creature:
the sugar glider.

Maybe rabbits can tide us over.

Just in time for Easter!

h/t: City Farmer News

UPDATE: Another NY Times piece

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

"We are as gods and HAVE to get good at it"

Stewart Brand, a founding member of the environmental movement, has a new book: Whole Earth Discipline: an ecopragmatist manifesto

It's a pretty provocative book. Brand seizes Green sacred cows and re-imagines our relationship with the Earth as active gardeners, not trespassing invaders. It's a welcome, positive change of perspective, heavily footnoted.* Here are some of his assertions:

Global warming is a bigger paradigm-shifting catastrophe than you realize. It will change everything.

Humans have been engineering the climate on a large scale for 10,000 years - early agriculture and fuel burning may have averted an ice age.

Rural life shouldn't be worshiped by Greens - dense cities are much more efficient, and therefore less damaging to the environment.

Slums in the developing world are vibrant communities that provide families with an invaluable stepping stone from hopeless rural poverty to economic self-sustenance. Slums shouldn't be bulldozed and replaced with subsidized housing - they should be encouraged to develop naturally and integrated into the legitimate political and economic networks of their adjoining cities.

Massive movement of peasants to urban areas has improved their lives, improved the lives of the few who remain to work the fields and now the rainforests are growing back faster than they are being cut down.

Our current population crisis is that the birth rate is TOO LOW
Most of the developing world has a rapidly aging population which will soon have too few productive workers to support it. The U.S. is an exception due to immigration, but this will end as immigration slows due to plummeting birth rates in developing countries like China and India. By 2050 Mexico will be grayer than the U.S.

Increasing urbanization of the U.S. is emptying out huge regions of the continent - the Great Plains from Montana to Texas may soon form the Buffalo Commons once envisioned.

Nuclear power is our ONLY hope for Green energy (and isn't as scary as people think).

Very few people were harmed in the Chernobyl meltdown and the contaminated land has now become an involuntary natural park full of (healthy) rare and endangered animals.

Stress from fear of nuclear contamination has literally harmed people more than actual radiation has - even (or especially) in the Chernobyl region.

Nuclear waste storage is not nearly as difficult as you think it is - if you used nuclear electricity for 80 years, your personal share of waste would be a ceramic-like solid the size of a soda can.

He also references an AWESOME video of Sandia National Lab engineers demonstrating the integrity of their nuclear waste containers by (failing) to smash them with crashing 18 wheelers and trains. Oh, and they propel these vehicles into each other with rockets (minute 4)...

My brother pointed out that the plentiful mustaches and Members Only jackets suggest that these containers are probably even stronger today.

North America was not "wild" when Columbus showed up - it was heavily managed by the American Indians - and we shouldn't hesitate to garden the planet.

40% of Eastern forest trees when Columbus arrived were chestnut - but these trees only occupied 7% before the American Indians' influence. Passenger pigeons only produced giant flocks due to this type of management.

Golden California hillsides are made up of invasive annual grasses - and were originally covered by perennial species. Oats, introduced by Spanish colonists in the south of the state had migrated north and were being eaten by the local Indians before the colonists got there.

Ecological communities aren't sacred assemblages - they're made up of organisms that are slowly migrating past each other as the climate constantly changes.

Planting pest-free plants in our gardens lowers insect populations and therefore removes food sources for birds. Predator-free deer herds destroy the understory, and therefore habitat and food for birds and small mammals. The presence of coyotes limits small animal kills of domesticated cats. The reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone stopped elk from consuming all the seedlings, which allowed beavers to dam rivers and create wetlands. Harsh herbicides are sometimes the only way to deal with invasive plants. Zebra mussels reversed eutrophication of the Great Lakes and provided a strong base for a renewed food web that supports rare fish and wetlands. We should farm the oceans instead of hunting them...

Nature is a complicated thing. We should objectively and pragmatically pursue whatever methods generate and preserve biodiversity and charismatic organisms and ecosystems.



*I didn't bother to look up any of his sources but I'd be interested to hear if you do.
**Much of this is available as TED talks.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Fixing "Green" Landscaping

Today to I listened to a landscape architect, Kate Bakewell, describe the state of her profession. It sounds like most of her colleagues tend to hold a checklist mentality that misses the forest for the trees...

My favorite slide showed a picture of the highly-acclaimed L.E.E.D. Platinum Clinton Library (different picture shown). Her picture showed the elegant architecture of this highly-engineered building in the background behind a close-cropped lawn and pathetic mulch islands. In all the fuss, the only part of the project that actually was green was overlooked.

Another photo showed a park in NYC: people sitting on benches, trees and raised beds - but the trees were all London planes and the beds were stuffed with ivy. Here was a huge missed opportunity for native plants.

I guess a lot of developers currently just identify wet and inconvenient places to build and rope them off as "wild" areas and habitat corridors. She advocated a more thoughtful approach - consider how the wild areas of the development could synch up with with the rest of the watershed, and strategically place small and large open areas so that the organisms that actually live there can take advantage of them.

One of her big ideas was to establish a native Green roof that would support Monarch butterflies during their migration through the NYC metro area. Although it didn't quite work out as intended, the public got really excited about it.

I think extending her ideas to integrate human living spaces and wild areas, both physically and by choosing edible semi-native plants that feed wildlife (and people!), could really help to re-forge the lost connection between people and their environment.


btw, I have to give two thumbs up to our Hort department for giving out apples and cider at their seminars in addition to the obligatory coffee, tea and cookies. It's amazing how good apples can be months after harvest when they're stored properly - and we're not even to the controlled atmosphere ones yet!

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