Friday, April 30, 2010

March to May in 400 miles

A car can make climate differences pretty obvious. The cherry blossoms are spent here down in the valley, but the hillsides were all decidedly brown when I climbed onto 81-south. The pears and apples were just getting rolling and the canopy trees were tentatively pushing out catkins. Somehow, our early burst of cherry and magnolia blossoms survived recent snow flurries - though I doubt the same occurred up in Saranac Lake.

An hour or two into my drive, it became obvious that the forests had caught red fire with maple flowers. As I wound down through the hills of Pennsylvania, the woods yellowed. Eventually they flushed green in the high-carved Appalachian hillsides above the hard, blue Susquehanna. I was very happy to arrive in early summer as I crossed the Mason-Dixon line, leaving PA's omnipresent "clean" coal and "massage" parlor billboards and the nation's worst radio stations behind.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Building a Better Apple

Breeding apples is hard work. It takes 5 years to produce fruit from seed and you can't even cross them with close relatives.* Despite the difficulty of developing new varieties, there's already an incredible diversity of growth habits and fruit types in wild and domesticated apples, but almost all our commercial varieties are simply grafted clones that some lucky farmer found growing on his land. Today, only 11 such clones account for more than 90% of apples sold in the U.S.

Even easy improvements to apple varieties (e.g. introgressing a new resistance gene from a wild relative) generally takes two decades. It's all but impossible to make more complex changes (e.g. fruit quality) within one person's career. But there may be a shortcut...

A poplar tree gene has been discovered that causes fruit tree seedlings to grow green and slouchy - but produce fruit in less than a year. Scientists, including some at the Appalachian Fruit Research Station, have hatched a plan - they're going to genetically engineer this gene into apple varieties. This will allow them to cross different wild and domesticated apple varieties and select improved offspring (with marker-assisted breeding) almost as fast as you can in corn! During early cycles they'll select for offspring with the fast-flowering transgene in addition to fruit quality traits. Once they have the fruit traits they want, they'll simply select an offspring that doesn't contain the transgene and presto! A healthy apple tree with novel fruit quality traits in a few years instead of decades!

h/t: Besting Johnny Appleseed

*Apples have some degree of self-incompatibility that prevents establishment of pollen grains that share too much genetic similarity with the mother plant. Kinda like our antibody-mediated immune system, plants produce proteins that recognize whether pollen is closely or distantly related (if the matching proteins are the same or different). I'm not sure if apples are obligate outcrossers (e.g. can never self-pollinate), but it's apparently enough to slow breeding.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Hybrid Heirlooms?

Seed companies are now selling modern:heirloom hybrid tomatoes that are pest-resistant and generally easy to grow, while maintaining much of the flavor and general weirdness of old fashioned varieties.

The article quotes some serious gardener/farmers crying foul of the bastardized, not-true-to-seed hybrids, but I'm all for it!

Hybrid heirlooms are a gateway seed to a more engaged relationship with food. Beginner gardeners tend to give up if they don't get some good success right away, but an easy entry into more sophisticated fruits could tempt them to try growing the real thing.

h/t: Plant Breeding Forum listserv, Luigi Guarino

Thursday, April 22, 2010

New Direction for this Blog

The current content of this blog is heavily influenced by my job and living situation - which will hopefully change soon! I'll be upgrading the graphic design, incorporating professional info, etc.

But content is the big question.
So I'm wondering: what do you like reading about in this blog?

1. economics and logistics behind how our food system really works
2. my own, local experiences with gardening, foraging and farming
3. science of how plants work, how scientific research is done, etc.
4. other?

I don't see any patterns in the posts that get the most visits or comments but I'd appreciate any input on ways I could make this site more compelling.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Don't Call it a Crop Dusting

There's lots of crop dusting in the Central Valley and I always got a kick out of watching them fly over.

I especially liked watching them seed rice for migratory waterfowl along the I-80 causeway (which bridges the freshwater "sea" that develops between Sac and Davis every winter). I admired them even more when my amateur pilot friend explained how dangerous it was to fly that low over wet ground: the lightest touch between the wheels and water will stick fast and rip the plane right into the earth.

It's appropriate that Dave D., who shared some "hundred dollar hamburgers" with me (courtesy of our pilot friend) forwarded me the following story (ellipses and bold, my emphasis).

Ag pilot says Modesto turned him down for Earth Day booth
The Modesto Bee, April 17, 2010
"Don't call Dave Stein a crop-duster. The 48-year-old pilot is an "aerial applicator." That's the modern term for pilots like Stein who zoom over farmers' fields.

The name isn't the only thing that's changed about his business over the years. Stein thought renting a booth at Modesto's Earth Day celebration today would help educate the public about how aerial applicators, in his view, help the Earth. But the city denied his request, said Stein, on the grounds that he pollutes the air. ...

He says applying pesticides isn't as harmful to the environment as it once was. In the old days, chemicals were powders that drifted easily in the wind. Now, pesticides come in small grains the size of coarse pepper or pebbles. They fall directly onto crops and don't blow around, Stein said.He says aerial application is more eco-friendly than using a tractor: A plane uses 25 gallons of fuel to spray 150 acres, while a tractor burns four times as much fuel.

Ag pilots also help restore habitat by planting native grass seeds; dump water on dusty roads to control air pollution; and service organic crops with organic materials, Stein says. His plane plants rice in the Sacramento Valley, feeds honeybees with sugar water and applies sunscreen to keep fruit and nut crops from getting burned.

When people call to complain after they see Stein's plane in action, he makes it a point to visit them and explain what he's doing. "When I talk to people ... they're relieved," he said. "When I leave these people's yards, they're not mad and we never hear from them again." ..."

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Nut Tree Cultivation

My boss posted an announcement for the spring meeting of the New York Nut Growers meeting next weekend in Delhi (apparently pronounced "Del-High). It sounds pretty interesting - with talks on the science, agronomy and agroforestry of various nut trees (and paw paws!). They'll be giving out nuts samples to eat and to plant. I was planning on going but MapQuest says it's more than 2 hours from here...

At least they have some nice summaries of the cultural requirements of these crops on their website.

Someday I'll have an orchard...

* btw, those paw paw seeds I stuck in my fridge in the fall are now in soil. They had some fungal growth on them and I'm pretty sure they're done for, but you never know...

Saturday, April 17, 2010

How Teosinte Lost its Shell

Humans have never domesticated a creature more eager to work with us than maize.

Maize is descended from a weedy, unappetizing grass called teosinte. They look so different that, for a long time, many people refused to believe they could be closely related - and yet they're the same species. Geneticists and archeologists have even figured out the subspecies of teosinte that maize arose from and the specific region in southern Mexico where it probably happened!

Teosinte (Zea mays subsp. parviglumis) still covers the hillsides of Oaxaca, but domesticated maize has conquered the world with its incredibly adaptive nature. It's grown thousands of feet up in the Andes, and in the rainforest basin below. Some of these lowland varieties grow over 20' tall (with ears 12' off the ground!) and whose stalks are used for buildings. The Hopi grew varieties in the Arizona desert that stood a squat 2' but could survive being planted a foot deep (where soil moisture is more reliable)! Tropical varieties may take a full year to mature, while temperate ones thrive in the short days and growing seasons of Canada. More recently, Americans have turned corn into a standardized factory widget that angles its leaves to share the light with (and ignore the shade cast by) its densely-packed neighbors.

Teosinte's on the left, and a stubby corn variety's on the right. Each little kernel of teosinte is encased in a hard shell that protects the seed (and even has a little hole that allows the germinating roots to escape it). Part of the reason these two plants look so different is that maize ears are basically teosinte turned inside out! - with the hard external fruit case of teosinte becoming the cob of corn.

Scientists are beginning to understand exactly how domesticated and wild Zea mays develop differently. One of the genes that's known to be associated with teosinte's shell is tga1 (a.k.a. teosinte glume architecture). The tga1 gene makes a protein that acts as a transcription factor.

Transcription factors are master regulators that can turn many other genes on or off at the same time. They do this by sticking to specific DNA sequences that are found near the genes they control, and physically interacting with the DNA and other proteins that are needed to turn these other genes on or off. Transcription factors often play important roles in development due to their dramatic power to influence other genes.

The scientists first thought that maybe this transcription factor was cranked up to higher levels in one of these plants, or that it was turned on in different tissues or at different times - but it turned out that the same amounts of this transcription factor were present in teosinte and maize. They then looked at the structure of the transcription factor itself and found a mutation in one of the plant's version of this protein - where an asparagine amino acid took the place of a lysine one. They then thought that maybe this altered transcription factor would stick to a unique DNA binding site in each plant (potentially turning on a completely different set of genes), but both version of the transcription factor stuck to the same DNA sequence (GTAC).

They THEN noticed that while this transcription factor turns UP expression of its controlled genes in teosinte, the maize version turns the same genes DOWN. Not all of the downstream genes have been figured out, but when an otherwise normal teosinte plant contains the maize version of this transcription factor, the shell around each kernel is smaller and doesn't quite cover it up!

Science is usually slow and incremental like this, but progress is progress!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Electric Cars and Bikes

The Irish jump into electric cars with both feet and Americans attach electric motors to their bicycles.

The advantages of electric bikes vs. motorcycles? You get to have your motor vehicle privileges (e.g. roads) and keep your non-motor vehicle privileges too (e.g. bike paths and no licenses)!

Though I think I still prefer bikes jury rigged with weed whacker engines in a steam punky DIY sense...

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The People's Garden

"The People's Garden Initiative is an effort by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) which challenges its employees to establish People's Gardens at USDA facilities worldwide or help communities create gardens. People's Gardens vary in size and type, but all have a common purpose - to benefit the community and incorporate sustainable practices."
One of the bosses at our local USDA station was chatting with his co-workers about this initiative. The latter suggested setting up a demonstration garden, but the former had a greater ambition: production.

With a small army and a little cash to cover field fees, we can knock out planting and harvesting in a day or two each and give thousands of pounds of food to our local food bank. The USDA allows its employees to volunteer their time for projects like this so we can even do it during the week.

We donated a ton of sweet corn, tomatoes and peppers last year but it didn't really seem like the best use of our efforts - a ton of fruit rotted in the field even with multiple harvest dates. This year we'll probably stick to less perishable staples like potatoes and winter squash - especially since we won't have money to spend on pesticide sprays or fences this year. We're hoping to set a precedent. Supposedly it's so well established in the Pacific division that all the stations compete to see who can give away the most food.

The boss is gonna ask for some advice on crops to grow from his contacts with the Detroit new farming movement.

Got any suggestions yourself?

Friday, April 9, 2010

Wanted: JOB

The job search hasn't been going great so far. I'm lucky that the agricultural economy never really cooled off these past few years and there've been lots of open positions. Unfortunately, despite that I could do many of these jobs in my sleep, pretty much all my applications so far have disappeared into the black hole of corporate websites. I don't know what kind of competition is out there right now, but I expect at least part of my problem is that the initial HR screeners (understandably) have no clue who actually is qualified for these positions.

I'm gonna have to tweak my cover letter or something - cause so far demonstrated expertise in diverse statistics, field design and molecular biology isn't getting me through the front door for any of these molecular genetics positions. I guess if you don't know what a QTL is, you can't judge whether someone can deal with them unless they specifically say they've done it in the past. It's the reality of the job market and I'll just need to find a way to adapt to it.

At any rate, no matter how my current leads turn out, it looks like I'll be in NY through the summer! I figure I'll just rent out a room in someone's house when my lease runs out. It'll be easy and a little extra cash is always nice.

I'm gonna go ahead and rent a plot at our community gardens this summer. It's a pretty good deal: 25 bucks buys water and compost (though not fencing to keep out 2 and 4-legged thieves). It'll be nice to get out in the dirt on the weekends, though I probably won't bother ordering exciting seeds from Seed Savers. I have plenty of home and research seeds lying around anyway and it doesn't seem worth it to buy seeds when I have no idea how good the plots are.

I'll start drawing up some plans this weekend. I had good luck with last year's salad mix and carrots so I'll direct seed them. I'll start some tomatoes and poblano peppers in the greenhouse. Hank, Black Plum and Ailsa Craig are probably the best of our research tomato seeds from last year and I also have Joseph's experimental Wild Cherry x Black Krim F2, which will be interesting. Maybe I'll see if I can get some of my boss' leftover sweet corn seeds too.

Well, I think I'll head off to my band's show to blow off some steam. Hopefully we'll have a decent turnout and I'll earn some deer fence money!*

* Hopefully the venue's on the groundfloor too. It's bad enough carrying hundreds of pounds of gear down and back to our attic practice space. Half our shows seem to be 2-3 stories up without an elevator...

An Aquaponics Story

How to grow your own fish dinner.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

An App to Buy Sustainably

It's been estimated that you'd have to buy 100 brand new books before they'd outweigh the global warming footprint of a single iPad or Kindle, each of which additionally requires over 30 pounds of minerals to manufacture (largely to contain toxic byproducts) - and which may have been bought from warlord-controlled mines in Africa.*

This is lifecycle assessment - the practice of summing up all the conceivable positive and negative impacts of alternative techniques and technologies. It's not trivial to try to imagine and keep track of every possible ramification of a product - and you can quickly get bogged down in the weeds - but it's essential if we're gonna decrease our collective footprint.

On Point recently discussed this problem. In particular, they discussed Good Guide, a website and iPhone app that attempts to quantify the environmental impacts of various products you might buy.** Most people quickly get overwhelmed into inaction by long lists of the negative implications of their actions - so it's important to somehow distill the information down into something actionable. The purpose of this website is not to perfect your Green lifestyle, but to allow you to choose the best among limited options.

At one point an agricultural science professor called in to ask who defines "sustainability" on this website - especially as she considers industrial ag (with genetic engineering) to be more sustainable on the whole than organic ag. It's a good question, to which they had a pretty good answer.

They don't just assign a single number to indicate the sustainability of a given product, but rank them separately based on different concerns - e.g. if you are concerned about bringing toxins into your home, but you don't care much about global warming, you can just focus on the former.

I think we probably have a long way to go before we really understand the environmental, social and economic impacts of our product chains, but we've got to start somewhere. An educated guess is better than nothing, and if millions of us take that small step, it could really add up.

* Good thing I get all my books from the library!
** I'm not 100% sold on the way this website is set up, but it's still a great start

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A New Direction for Ag Research

The National Institute of Food and Agriculture recently announced that it will be funding research in 5 major areas:
  • Childhood Obesity Prevention
  • Climate Change
  • Food Safety
  • Global Food Security
  • Sustainable Bioenergy
The request for grant applications seem much more specific than usual (e.g. they want plant epigenetic studies, but only with a few select agronomic traits). There also seems to be a special emphasis on plant pathology. I guess the rationale is to concentrate all funded work into a few narrow topics with the hope of maximizing results. Other scientific funding agencies have been trying out this approach recently - encouraging giant, multi-multi-investigator projects focused on big problems like cancer.

It flies in the face of the traditional role of the principal investigator and has a lot of scientists upset and nervous. The competition for funding is getting prohibitively stiff as it is, so professors whose career expertise can't side step into one of these very narrow categories may find themselves up a creek without a research budget.

Ultimately the point of funding research is to produce results, not support fulfilling careers, so as long as increasing top down control of U.S. research doesn't erode the talent base, I guess it's worth a shot. A lot of the dudes at the top are very well respected in the community so they should probably be given some leeway to try this out. I'm encouraged at least that there seems to be an emphasis on getting the taxpayer's money's worth and really making some scientific progress on important problems.

Though I for one definitely won't risk my career on the professor track in this environment.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Ag research pays off!

People forget that science isn't just for fun - it's an investment, and it's supposed to pay dividends.

I heard a neat statistic today: investment in agricultural research has a 45% rate of return! This is a phenomenal return on our collective investment. It's not that surprising when you think about it - agriculture is a massive part of the U.S. economy, and has been chronically underfunded for decades.

There are tons of opportunities to not only improve the environmental and economic sustainability of this sector, but also generate whole new markets.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Window Farming

While sitting bored at work, waiting for a computer alignment to run, I came across this on the NPR website.

It's an organization that's working to promote the collaborative design and construction of urban hydroponic vegetable gardens grown in plastic water bottles that hang in front of windows like curtains.
Hence, "window farming."

I'm pretty skeptical that the light that trickles through most windows will produce a crop that justifies the effort and expense of such a system. As someone who's spent many hours making Hoagland's, I can say that hydroponic systems are a real pain and, unless you could somehow feed them with worm compost tea, this system is a little too open-loop for my gardening aesthetics.* It's telling that the plants in all their pictures are pretty spindly. It's a lot more difficult to produce robust, good tasting food with hydroponics than with dirt and sunshine.

It looks pretty cool and I definitely get it from an art perspective, but it seems pretty gimmicky from a food perspective. I'm sure winter herbs could be grown just as well in pots on the sill.

At any rate, their primary focus seems to be developing an interactive and supportive online community around the practice, which is outstanding. I'd love to see more internet-based collaborations built around other forms of amateur farming too.**

We'll see if they prove me wrong about growing useful amounts of food though.

* oh wait! connect your hydroponics to your aquarium and you'll have most of your plant nutrition! On further inspection of the website, they're working on that too.

** hint hint, plant breeding

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Stupid Kids

Fishing was supposed to be my reward for getting a lot of work done today.

Conditions were better than I've ever seen in this town. The hole just upstream of the first bridge down from Fall Creek falls had tons of really active trout.

I tied on a blue-winged olive and had just started to shake the rust off my cast (despite gusting winds) when a bunch of boys showed up and started trying to try to hit the fish with rocks.

There wasn't any point in saying anything. It wouldn't have un-spooked the fish...

Maybe I'll try again early tomorrow.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Phoenix, while it lasts

It's shocking how green Phoenix is right now. The wet season must have ended recently, as vacant lots are full of weedy wildflowers. I doubt, however, that recent rains explain the miles of bright green agricultural fields and lawns - or the many swimming pools and artificial lakes.

It's amazing what can be accomplished by pouring millions of gallons of water into the desert sand. More than one of my friends joked that I should enjoy my stay in Phoenix, as it wouldn't exist 50 years from now.

I'm curious how good or bad water conservation really is in this town. At least around the airport and Tempe, there seemed to be a pretty good amount of xeriscaping. The city apparently is making an effort to restrict green to slivers among stone and cacti. It was encouraging how even small amounts of green made the environment perfectly inviting.

Mostly though, in places like our hotel, cacti were flanked by all manner of thirsty palms and figs. Every lawn I saw seemed to be as close-cropped as a fairway too, which isn't great for water use efficiency. All over town, the air was thick with the scent of orange flowers, pouring from dark green jungles of orchards and ornamental plantings. Beautiful, but unlikely sustainable for much longer. Tempe Town Lake immediately appears to epitomize profligate water use, but upon reading up on it, it simple seems to be the damming of winter flood waters.

It was really exciting to see lots of saguaros though!

What do you know about water use in the Southwest?
Do residential water prices approximate the real costs of this resource?
How does water get rationed between different stakeholders in and outside of major cities?


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