Category Archives: Farming

Time to Eat Your Car?

So, by now you have certainly noticed the price of gasoline continuing to climb. And you may have even noticed that a few things are a bit more expensive in the grocery store. Well you are not the only one to have noticed that things are about to get out of hand.

In a nutshell, what the World Bank (and others) are noticing is that the price of oil has a wee little something to do with the price of food, in on way that is obvious to most people and one that might not be so obvious.

The obvious reason (that might not at first be so obvious) is that nothing you eat is grown or made here. See any banana trees outside your windows? Your tomato plants all nice and healthy after the snow squalls yesterday? Turns out that the average morsel of food on your plate has traveled some 1500 miles to get there. And that is the overall average for the whole country, so I am going to guess that us northerners may have it a bit worse. So, transportation costs alone will add a bit, perhaps quite a bit to your food bill. But that is not the biggest impact that transporation will have on your food budget.

Your car also is very hungry and has to be fed.

In searching for renewable energy sources we hit upon the idea of using ethanol in the place of gasoline. Which sounds fantastic. Ethanol comes from plants and plants are solar energy, right? Also, ethanol was sold to us as a boon for the farmers of America. “Fill-er-up” and save the family farm. Or something like that. Turns out that almost none of that is exactly true.

It is true that ethanol is usually made from corn and that in a sense corn is a renewable resource. Unfortunately, the way most corn is grown, it uses up tons of non-renewable resources. Those conflakes of yours are soaked in oil — not corn oil, the crude kind.

Turns out that the high price of oil is squeezing the price of food on two fronts.

First, modern agriculture requires literally tons and tons of oil. From making fertilizers to running water pumps to trucking the stuff all over the globe, agriculture consumes huge quantities of fossil fuels. The higher the price of oil, the higher the price of food. But wait there’s more!

Now as more corn is diverted from the food chain into the ethanol plants, the price of food goes higher still! Land that could have been used to say, grow broccoli (OK, more likely wheat) is given over to corn — corn which no one will ever eat. Did you just hear the price of eggs going up again? Less corn on the market means more expensive chicken feed. More expensive eggs that cost more to ship than ever. Thank goodness ethanol is such a good deal and is saving the family farm!

Sorry, wrong on both counts.

Ethanol is not a good deal by most calculations. In fact it is a terrible deal.

The most optimistic number I have seen says that for each barrel of oil needed to make and transport ethanol we get about 1.3 barrels of energy (to compare apples to apples). For crude oil currently each barrel invested in finding, extracting and transporting yields something like 20 to 200 barrels of energy. So, ethanol has a long way to go, or oil has a long way to fall.

And ethanol does not really save any family farms. As you may have already figured, ethanol favors the kind of huge, monocropped factory farm that degrades the land and generates huge profits (and subsidies) for companies like Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland.

The only way out of the coming food crisis is to use less fossil fuels, both in agriculture and transporation. But fortunately there is a way to start doing that. Which we will talk about next time.

Farmers Market Continues

Click for Larger ImageI don’t think very many people need reminding, but the farmers market is going strong down on Riverview Drive Saturdays and Wednesdays. Now the strawberries and snap peas are in — nature’s candy from the fruit and vegetable side of things. I think everyone I have met in Wausau was out at the market this morning, good to talk to all of you. Hope to see more of you next week.

I will also remind folks of the Market Place Thursdays that place on the 400 block on, well, Thursdays. Wausau Area Events has upped the ante on the marketplace by adding entertainment, coming up next on July 12th will the Frisbee Dogs, you will want to come out and see that.

I noticed this popcorn stand at the farmers market this morning as being a new addition to the “family” ourt there. It is great that things continue to grow. Click for Larger ImageI will say that I think there is more opportunity for folks who sell ready to eat food products at the Marketplace Thursdays. There are a number of folks on Saturday who sell baked goods and other yummies, but I don’t see them on Thursdays. There is a baker that is a regular on Thursday, and he seems to do booming business. I am sure that popcorn, sandwiches, drinks or whatever would also sell like gangbusters when the families and kids show up for the shows on Thursdays. Just something to think about.

Deepening the Local Economy

Eds Note: Kevin Korpela, of the Downtown Grocery fame had a few comments on the post “Deep Economy and Happiness,” but I felt its length and importance made it worthy of its own post. Here’s Kevin.

By Kevin Korpela

The individuals/events noted in the post, “Deep Economy and Happiness,” such as Kat and Tony in Athens mentioned by Brendan, the River Drive Farmer’s Market mentioned by Jim, and the return of a re-tooled River District Marketplace on the 400 Block, are examples that can help break the routine in our search for the happiness that is thought to be missing. Fortunately, Central Wisconsin is home to a number of active participants working to nurture community-minded, local-food, and “deep economy” concepts to help find again a new/old state of well-being. The primary vehicle to source a new-old way of thinking as outlined by Bill McKibben might be the return to local economy models. Three active participants — Moonshadow Farm, Farmshed.org, and Downtown Grocery — share with those individuals/events stated above the ability to nurture local-food economy concepts through earth-friendly practices, community organizing, and old-fashioned ideas:

Blaine Tornow and his Moonshadow Farm CSA, , located just west of Wausau is a farm that has been certified organic since 1990. The farm and its connection to people is important to Blaine as he reaches into the community by working with school teachers, such as Mrs Wisse at South Mountain School, to organize farm tours for elementary kids while lending new goslings to the kids to give them a hint of the responsibility and efforts required by farmers to tend the earth and its creatures.

Farmshed is a start-up association working to strengthen farm-to-market connections through community events, farmer presentations, public discussions and targeted projects. This grass-roots organization formed in January 2007 soon after the announcement by Sen. Julie Lassa, Stevens Point, on her plan to lead a “Buy Local, By Wisconsin” Campaign, SB 89. Farmshed is a diverse group of individuals (including farmers, professors, students, and a chef) have met regularly since January to organize a structure, a vision and a mission to grow farm-to-market awareness. Farmshed has successful organized three community events in the past two months and this past week the Steering Committee met as-a-whole for the first time to share ideas and organize its future and its relation to the community.

DowntownGrocery is nine-month old neighborhood grocery store that is trying to combine the best notions of a farmer market experience with the seven-day-a-week advantages of a grocery store and a commercial kitchen. More important perhaps, the store has its own farm and it offers a farm (Moonshadow Farm and its many farmer friends) its own grocery store. The conversational phenomenon of a lively farm market has been witnessed in this store not only by me but by a good number of the store’s customers and staff. It’s sort of an old-fashioned “corner” grocery plus an everyday farmer’s market building community through sharing real food with good conversation while nurturing a local-food economy. The store, of course, is just a small start-up retail store, so there’s plenty ideas to implement but it strives for those Deep Economy concepts explained for “…truly working together not only to make a living, but also to build community in a real sense.”

Many in our society follow routines or seek isolation in the hopes of finding happiness. The examples cited in Bill’s post suggest that there are a number of citizens offering opportunities and options, each in their unique way, to help break routines and encourage conversations to find again that new/old state of well-being. Those opportunities and options include notions of earth-friendliness, community organizing, old-fashioned ideas, and the hopeful return of the viability and vitality of the family farm and its direct farm-to-market connection.

Deep Economy and Happiness

Bill CoadyBy Bill Coady

As part of their wonderful “Affluenza” series, UWMC brought environmental author and activist Bill McKibben to town.  Starting with the title of his latest book, Deep Economy: the Weath of Communities and the Durable Future, he wove in something that is often forgotten when we speak of the economy and especially material wealth — happiness.

Now, it is true, as McKibben pointed out, that “happiness” is a tough thing to measure.  But it is also true that although we may not be able to define happiness, to paraphrase a famous Supreme Court wag, “we know it when we see it.”  According to McKibben, a fair amount of research has been done correlating the answers to a simple question (Are you happy?) to actual states of well-being that can reasonably be called happiness.  That is to say, if someone asks you, “Are you happy now?” the answer you give will actually mean something.

And it turns out that people have been asking whether or not we are happy.  McKibben stated that an annual poll has been asking exactly that question for well over 50 years, and the results over the years has not been encouraging.  Turns out that the happiness that we as Americans report has been declining over the years.  Alot of years.  In fact, the peak year for happiness in this country, according to this polling, was 1956.  Ouch.

Now, if happiness has been declining for 50 years, we know that material weath does not, in itself, bring happiness.  The material weath of this country has skyrocketed since 1956, you don’t need an economist or pollster to tell you that.  McKibben says that one big factor in the decline of happiness in Americans is what he called “hyperindividualism.”  He cited two trends that illustrate what he means.  The ubiquitous iPod being one, but also a trend in home building — dual master bedrooms.  Apparently the solution to spousal snoring in modern America is not some ear plugs, but to add another 1000 square feet to your McMansion so you won’t be disturbed in anyway.

McKibben feels that it is community that is lacking, and one of the main reasons for the decline in happiness in America over the last 50 years.  And his solution, though not unique, is not a Band-aid either.  McKibben feels it is important to rebuild our trully local economies — which will then rebuild our local communities.  He feels that this will both improve our happiness and save our ecology.

McKibben gave a number of examples of where local efforts could replace the huge, centralized economic structures, for example, rather than building huge power plants more people could generate their own power with solar or wind and both feed into and take from the existing power grid.  But two of the examples that he mentioned struck home with me, and I hope with other readers of this here blog.

It turns out that one of the fastest growing areas in the food “industry” is farmers markets.  It also turns out that while sales of recorded music is basically flat, ticket sales for live music — and music festivals — is the fastest growing part of the music industry.  McKibben cites these trends as part of the “Deep Economy” not just because they are local, but also because they really are a different way of doing “business.”

I don’t think anyone has to tell you that going to a concert is a different world from listening to a CD at home.  It is impossible to compare the two experiences.  The CD may be sonically perfect, but the shared experience of the concert is so much richer.  It seems that the farmers’ market experience has the same kind of richness built into it.

Researchers followed people around at the grocery store and at farmers’ markets.  What they found was quite interesting.  Turns out that people have 10 TIMES more conversations at the farmers’ market than they do at the grocery store.  You may be able to load up on calories at both places, but the farmers’ market truly helps build community at the same time.

This is what McKibben means by “Deep Economy.”  Truly working together not only to make a living, but also to build community in a real sense.  I know we can do that here in Wausau, and I hope this blog will continue to be on the “cutting edge” of our new deep economy.

I will have more to say about McKibben’s thoughts on global warming and other environmental issues in a future post.  That post may take a while as I will be out of town for the rest of the week.  Play nice while I am gone.

Now the Grass is Shifting

Eds Note:  It is not often that I elevate a comment to a post, but this one deserves that treatment for two good reasons.  The first is the length and quality of the information presented and the second is the source.  Kevin Korpela of Downtown Grocery fame not only wrote this post, but in response to my pleading email has graciously agreed to continue to provide us with his thoughts on various issues in future posts as a regular contributor.  As we move into the growing season it seems like a match made in heaven.  Welcome aboard, Kevin!

By Kevin Korpela
A research center in Texas investigates native plants and how a normal lawn may not be so nice for the little creatures that share our world with us. The center is called the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Research Center (http://www.wildflower.org) named in honor of the wife of President Lyndon Johnson and is a beautiful place to visit as it’s also a nature center open to the public. The Center’s investigations include three distinct lawns with different grasses-plants-flowers:

1. a normal formal lawn with Kentucky Bluegrass and other normal plants-flowers found in most of the USA requiring plenty of water, fertilizer and mowing.

2. a native formal lawn with Buffalo Grass and other native plants-flowers set in a traditional formal lawn but require less water, fertilizer and mowing.

3. a native informal lawn with Buffalo Grass and other native plants-flowers. The informal layout reduces the amount of time or upkeep required by a homeowner because an informal design helps maximize the effectiveness of the inherent qualities in native grasses-plants-flowers.

BUTTERFLIERS AND BEES: The important idea is that nice bugs like butterflies and bees are aware of the big-picture because the researchers noticed that the butterflies and bees hop from one native plant or flower to another while hopping over the normal lawns and it’s usually fertilizer-laden/stressed-out grasses, plants and flowers!

TASTY AND HEALTHY: One of the theories as stated by the researchers at the Center is that the nice bugs have an abundance of tasty and healthy native species to choose from in the Center’s gardens and courtyards so why choose lunch from stressed-out grasses, plants and flowers even though they are on your flight path! The normal grasses, plants, and flowers are stressed-out because they are asked to survive in a climate where they were not meant to live and that is one of the factors for the input of more water or fertilizer, or additional mowing because they don’t look so good when un-mowed.

BUFFALO GRASS: The researchers at the Center say that Buffalo Grass is more tasty and healthy in the Texas climate because it is a drought-tolerant warm-season grass that turns a nice gray-green with the return of warm weather in spring but as it is a warm-season grass it begins to turn brown with the start of cool weather. The cool-season grasses live a little differently because they look best in the cooler weather but require more inputs in warmer weather. That is a perception shift that the leaders of the Center hope could become the norm. The blades of Buffalo Grass grow 3-12 inches but it’s a low-growing grass where the blades fold-over each other versus standing up that leaves a low grass height with little mowing required. It does have a particular look that is different than cool-season grasses but it’s a look that is more normal that unmoved Kentucky Bluegrass. The researchers at the Center realize that the simple notion of a nice lawn is not so simple because most things in life are a complex web of science, economics, psychology, perception, and perhaps self-confidence.

STRESSED-OUT: The shifts and world views posed by Bill in “Shifting Sands of Time” are perhaps adaptable to other issues too. For example, in our food industry we place cattle, chicken and hogs in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) where the confinement of animals living close together contribute to their susceptibility to stress, illness, and the addition of antibiotics to feed. Butterflies and bees at the Wildflower Center have learned to hop over stressed-out food sources because the nutritional value or taste are not to their liking.

TOO MUCH WEIGHT: Many issues are what they are and we can accept them if we want but at what point do we hold back for too long or procrastinate too much where any shift or change in a world view becomes exceedingly expensive or difficult to shift because the weight to switch towards another intention is so large that it becomes nearly impossible to afford the move?

HOP, HOP! Maybe continual discussions in open forums like WausauBlog will lead to policy and actions that provide butterflies and bees an abundance of healthy and tasty places to hop!

Sources for Buffalo Grass:

Wildflower Center includes a photo of Buffalo Grass.

Wyoming seed company summarizes Bufflalo Grass.

Shifting Sands of Time

Bill CoadyBy Bill Coady

In my short career in science, I was introduced to the idea of a “paradigm shift.” Basically a paradigm shift occurs when when an old scientific theory is either replaced or altered so much as to create a completely new world view. An example of this was the shift from Newtonian physics, where the universe was thought of as a giant clock to quantum mechanics where nothing, it seems, is certain.

The same kind of thing can happen in society as well. There have been many paradigm shifts over the last 100 years or so, one of the biggest has been the changes brought about by the automobile. In the past neighborhoods included everything people needed: houses, stores, workplaces were all clustered together because people mostly walked to their destinations. With the advent of the car, these functions could be separated, with houses in one place, stores in another and workplaces in a third. This world view has been codified in our zoning practices. Not saying that one or the other is better or worse than the other, just that at one time dense multiuse city neighborhoods were “normal” and now separate clusters are “normal.”

It takes a lot of energy to shift the world view like that. Shifting from muscle based transportation to machines took about 100 years or so. And the shift was only made possible by abundant and cheap energy resources. But it might be possible that another paradigm shift is in the winds. If energy is no longer cheap and abundant, then everything that is now “normal” will have to change. A new “normal” will develop. Many people are thinking about a new world view in many different areas, and I saw a nice indication of this a few days ago.

Click for Larger ImageLawns are for Losers” the bumpersticker proclaimed. Yes, the sticker was on the back of a truck which belonging to Tom Girolamo, the owner of Eco-building and Forestry, LLC , but the message is more about changing a world view than directly promoting his business.

The close cropped, “golf course” lawn has been a symbol of prosperity and order for 60 years or more here in America. In fact in many places, Wausau included, this has been codified. People are not allowed to not mow their lawns or to have certain “weeds” growing there. Because the “golf course” lawn is completely unnatural, especially here in Wisconsin, it exists as a social convention. And social conventions can change.

To most people a more natural approach to a yard in Wisconsin would look chaotic, “weedy” and maybe even unkept. Although a properly planted and maintained natural yard should not run afoul of Wausau’s noxious weed ordinance (which says certain weeds need to be controlled or eliminated in yards) that does not mean the neighbors won’t complain. Last I saw, Wausau’s ordinances specify that plants in your “lawn” have to be less than 12 inches high, a height exceeded by many native grasses and plants.

In science when the paradigm is in the process of change, sometimes that science is said to be in “crisis,” which can be true when two groups of people just completely (and honestly) see the world in different ways. Perhaps in the coming world lawns ARE for losers, even though now a “nice” lawn is seen as the sign of a winner. Only time will tell.

In the meantime, I do hope that people will have the freedom to move in the direction of more eco-friendly yards and that our city ordinances and other laws will reflect that.

Green Christmas

No, not the holiday classic by Stan Freberg (that would be “Green Chri$tma$” anyway) but rather a reference to what showed up in my mailbox yesterday. The Jungs seed catalog.

I think it is fair to say that Jungs is a Wisconsin institution, this years catalog celebrates their 100th year as a family owned business. Frankly not a lot of companies can say that, in or out of Wisconsin, so congratulations to Jungs and all their employees.

Having a seed catalog show up just before Christmas strikes me a clever piece of marketing. For, what, about a hundred years now, the arrival of the seed catalog in the dead of winter has brought joy and hope to many people, even those of us whose thumb is not green. The mere thought of a fresh, warm, home grown tomato at this time of year is enough to send me into a swoon.

If the weather stays unseasonably mild for the rest of the winter, as is predicted by the National Weather Service, we may be getting a jump on the gardening season next spring. So order your seeds early and often, as they might say in Chicago. Tomatoes in June might almost be compensation for a brown Christmas.

Well, almost.