The Local Yolk–Beer, Backyard Chickens, and the Business of Building a Sustainable Food System

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By Neva Knott

When the environmental movement began in the 1970s, the focus was on protecting and honoring nature instead of depleting it for human consumption. While this same protection of nature is still at the core of environmental advocacy, a new environmental perspective has emerged recent years, a more personal movement–that of food sourcing.

I’ve heard that the easiest way to go green is to green your food source. It’s certainly the most immediate and possibly the most effective.

To eat within your foodshed, to eat the 100-mile-meal, to know your farmer are practices that benefit your health and promote a green triple bottom line–people, the planet, and profits. In graduate school at Green Mountain College, I learned that most food on the American table travels 2,000 miles before eaten, a shocking and disheartening statistic. John Emrich’s new book, The Local Yolk–Beer, Backyard Chickens and the Business of Building a Sustainable Food System, tells stories of the “good food movement,” the alternative to commercial, bland, environmentally exploitive, well-traveled food.

All writers here at The Ecotone Exchange hold Master’s of Science degrees in Environmental Studies from Green Mountain College. John is no exception–he was one of our cohort there. Previously an investment banker, he now runs Backyard Chicken Run, an urban chicken supply business in Chicago, and gathers stories of other entrepreneurs looking join the local food movement. Though I haven’t yet convinced John to join our team at the EE, I did get his permission to share a segment of his book here.

When I first read The Local Yolk, my heart was warmed by the case studies John had collected, putting faces to the ideal of greening your food source. What most impressed and enthused me, though, was John’s explanations of how to make growing and sourcing good food–sustainable agriculture–a profitable venture. Profitability is story not yet told in, and one that is often easily lost in the check-out line when buying organic, local food. With John’s permission, I give you an excerpt from Chapter 17, Tao Theory: Zen and the Art of Investing in Sustainable Food…

“In my prior life, I had owned shares in one of the publicly traded fertilizer companies, so I understood the “bullish case” for fertilizer from the perspective of the chemical companies: a billion or so people in Asia were moving to the middle class and would switch from a rice diet to a protein diet (i.e., a diet with more meat), generating rising demand for the grains to feed livestock and therefore the inputs of chemical agriculture that made monoculture grain-growing viable on a massive scale. At the time I met with the fertilizer manufacturer, the company was forecasting that the United States would become an exporter of corn to China the following year. The future was bright.

“As I tried to put a value on the organic farm, the light bulb went on. The chemical companies’ gain was the farmers’ pain. The chemical inputs of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium were all either directly or indirectly tied to natural resources that would become increasingly scarce and expensive over time, but farmers had to have them to succeed in conventional agriculture. Moreover, industrial farmers buy seed from a monopoly. The two things that an industrial farmer or farm investor could say for sure were that they had no control over their costs, and their costs were going higher. Farm subsidies are often criticized for being a gift to larger corporate farms. They would be more accurately described as a subsidy to the chemical companies and industrial buyers of grain (food processors). The conventional farmer, big or small, is getting little more than his costs reimbursed over a lifetime of work.

“The sustainable farmer doesn’t have the same exposure to cost pressure. After the sun itself, manure is the ultimate renewable resource, replacing the increasingly costly fertilizers. Yet, because I believed in the secular trend towards organic food, the sustainable farmer would continue to benefit from rising market prices for organic crops (for example, organic grains) over time. I was concluding that sustainable farming was a good business investment.”

John writes on to explain the mechanics of Impact Investing and Micro-Lending, and how these strategies can promote the good food movement while providing economic opportunity and promoting environmentally sound agriculture.

The Local Yolk is a smart blend of case stories, anecdotes, background knowledge, and research. You can follow The Local Yolk and Back Yard Chicken Run on Facebook and can learn more about the book at www.thelocalyolkbook.com.

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Dirt: What Is It Good For?

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By Natalie Parker Lawrence

People often want to smell the forsythia and the buttercups, perhaps a waft of bee pollen. They yearn to catch the scatter of the tight white witch-hazel blooms, not the paleness of the drooping white hyacinths, the color of dirty snow. They desire to follow the siren call of the seed catalogs, the come-hither whistle of the garden departments of home improvement stores. But alas.

People sit in the bleachers. They see the manicured grass of the infield. It is Opening Day, a day some believe should be a national holiday reserved for heroes, right up there with presidents and religious leaders and independence.

A cold wind blows instead. It should be too cold for gloves, scarves, serious uncute hats, but it is not. There is a breeze, though, a hint of spring. It is not warm enough for the short shorts that just walked by. Honey, your parents must be so proud.

A plowed-over field, this baseball diamond will never again be a field of dreamy wildflowers, blooms that are misunderstood, according to my mother whose allergies prohibit her from bringing them inside. They do rake, however, the pitcher’s mound. They have replaced the loam with playground dirt. They used to lay down white lines of limestone chalk (calcium carbonate, not lime which is calcium oxide), but now those lines are painted with biodegradable spray.

I always wonder what is underneath first base or the dugout or the bench of the opposing team. I do this when I travel, too. What is underneath the steel labyrinth that is the conglomeration at every intersection of highways and byways?  What kinds of land do we cover and how much? When we go out to play or go for a drive, how much land has been devoted to the infrastructure of sport and travel?

Many immigrants have asked if they could have the land on the median strip to grow crops, probably a legal nightmare, but the dilemma speaks to the concern about many of the empty places in many cities, in and around the asphalt.  What can neighborhoods do with unclaimed and undeveloped land? They can notify government authorities about neglected spaces who will in turn try to find the owners to see if and how quickly changes can be made.

Habitat for Humanity buys abandoned houses and lots at the cost of their unpaid property taxes. They raze condemned homes, dilapidated crack houses, clean up the lots, and build again for new families. My students and I have dug up many tree roots, rocks, nails, roof shingles, bricks, and boards on these lots before trucks arrive with the cement, the volunteers come with their hammers and saws, and the Master Gardeners arrive with their flower pots.

Many neighborhood associations and historic districts in the United States are going green. By using fields and other nearby places to plant fruits and vegetables, community organizations provide for their inner-city neighbors who live in food deserts, stores without access to reasonably priced and plentiful fresh food.

I do not want to tear down ball fields or expressway interchanges. His dad and I love a certain catcher who plays behind home plate, and he would be sad without his glove, no matter what the weather portends. Before he chokes up, he wipes dirt on his hands. He digs the ball out of the dirt to keep from getting a passed ball. A cloud of dirt floats up as the pitch sticks in his glove.   He brings home the dirt of the baseball field on his pants. We wash it out. All dirt is not beloved.

While we can’t do everything to preserve the earth, we can do what we can to maintain and improve our part, but we need to notice the empty spaces. We need to dig them up and plant something to share with people who notice what is missing but who might be missing the tools to dig for answers.

Viva La Garden

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By Tessa Alberts

My garden is a place I find solace from the plentiful strains of my life. It is a place for me to reconnect with something real, something tangible. This is my medicine, my Zen. Every year my hard work and beds of black gold are replaced by sustenance, growth and gratitude. That is irreplaceable in my world, where nothing is expected to take time. I have humble hopes of a river rock path that winds and wriggles through the many stalks and bushes of edibles, ending in a shingled shack. A place I can sow seeds and watch my garden grow…a place of my very own. I often wonder about the history of this small plot. Was it used for vegetable growing as well?–or maybe the raising of livestock. I have on many occasions watched deer munch my lettuce and beet greens. I inherently attempt to expel them, as if I have apt claim. But maybe this was their land not too long ago. I can share. The smell of minerals and the texture of the earth are solidified when my bounty comes and all the while I am privileged to forgo the supermarket, be outdoors and share it with numerous living things.

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The supermarkets aren’t terrible, save the fluorescent lighting and hoards of people. In all honesty I have very little against them. My issue is with the agricultural system from which we derive our nourishment. We have lost our connection with the natural world and have chosen to altogether disassociate ourselves from the most basic origins of our food. For most, absent are the thoughts beyond or behind those tightly wrapped packages of meat and produce for purchase in those pretty little stores. Aside from the ingestion of these living creatures, we at some point stopped knowing them–where they live, what they eat and how they are raised. This should be as important to us as eating, for we are a part of that very cycle. A cycle that is delicate and potent, which encompasses all living things and their environment. To ignore or deny this fact would mean we would most certainly break that cycle, condemning all of us to an existence void of life.

I choose not to preach about GMOs and the harsh treatment of our livestock. I would hope that most are aware. Instead I choose to address the governmental agencies that are forcibly preventing us from the reconnection we so desperately need. The process goes as such: we grow or raise the food; agencies like the FDA decide how much poison or non-food is acceptable in its cultivation, process and transfer. They decide when, where and how our food is grown and sold. For their services they get a portion of the profit. This process affects the price and quality of the foods we eat and makes it almost impossible for there to be a market for foods grown and sold outside of this system. Such agencies can and have penalized those who refuse this arrangement. There have been raids, nation-wide, on family owned farms and ranches that sell their product without the permission of the federal government, as if they have just authority. Hundreds upon thousands of dollars in livestock and equipment seized in the name of public health (Farm Food Freedom Coalition 2013). It seems as though the Feds don’t like being cutout. This structure is based solely on monetary gain for a miniscule portion of our society–not the health and wellness of the people.

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Adversely, there are many farmers, ranchers and people like me that do not feel the need for such a middle-man. We would much rather grow ourselves and sell, or give, those goods directly to the consumer. The Pacific Northwest as a plethora of family run, organic farms and coops such as: Boistfort Valley Farm, Puddleton Farm and Black Sheep Creamery. It takes little effort to find them. Supporting such entities will send a very clear and non-violent message to those who see fit to regulate OUR agricultural progression. In the meantime, read labels–closely–know where the food you are putting in your body comes from and start growing. Even if it is an herb garden in your window sill or tomatoes on your patio, these simple activities aid in breaking down a system not vested in your long-term well-being. They also give you a chance to reconnect with the natural world which supports us in ways we have yet to truly appreciate.

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With four small vegetable beds and a hoop house of sheet plastic and PVC piping, all of which I made myself, I can reap the rewards for months. I am forever amazed at the resilience and plasticity of our earth. Even now, in the first weeks of October, my garden still produces. My carrots and cucumbers are there to be plucked and tossed into a salad, my fingerlings are ready to be dug and roasted and my Romas are ripening still. The strawberry patch is bearing down for winter, having produced dozens of shoots for next year’s harvest and the lavender, dried brittle, remains sweet with scent.

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Tessa Alberts lives in Centralia, Washington where she grows food, raises a family, and attends college.

The Link Between Methane and Global Food Security

By Jonathan Cohen

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Atmospheric CO2 generated from human sources, called anthropogenic CO2, include many industrial and consumer level sources but one large source is the combustion of methane for energy.  One is tempted to believe that if methane was no longer required as a source of fuel for energy then this enormous source of anthropogenic CO2 would be completely eliminated but this would be a simplistic assumption.  Methane serves as an important precursor for the generation of hydrogen gas used in the chemical industry.  One key example is in the production of ammonia from nitrogen and hydrogen, and subsequently the production of ammonium nitrate from ammonia for use as fertilizer.  In fact, the world’s population growth over the last century is inextricably linked to the availability of methane for the production of ammonia.  However, research into alternative methods for producing ammonia that does not require fossil fuel precursors is an area of very promising research.

At the start of the 20th century the world was approaching a crisis in food security.  Farmlands, especially in the developed world, were becoming depleted in ammonia, necessary for the formation of proteins in plants.  Modern techniques of crop rotation, application of nitrogen-fixing organisms to convert nitrogen to ammonia in soil, and the application of organic fertilizers were already well understood by this time but could not keep up with the need for higher crop yields on an increasingly finite amount of arable land.  All that changed in the early years of the 20th century when the German chemist Fritz Haber developed a small laboratory reactor to synthesize ammonia directly from nitrogen and hydrogen and he would be awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for this work in 1918.  Later, another German chemical engineer named Carl Bosch and others would develop the equipment and methods to ramp up the reaction to industrial scale and he’d get his Nobel in 1931.  Today, this is known jointly as the Haber-Bosch process and by the year 2000 the world would collectively make more than 109 million metric tons of ammonia per year, making ammonia one of the most synthesized molecules in the world. It is estimated that as much as 3-5 per cent of the world’s methane is consumed in the production of ammonium nitrate fertilizer.

Nitrogen gas is an extremely stable molecule that is notoriously unreactive.  As a result, the Haber-Bosch process will only produce useful amounts of ammonia at temperatures approaching 300-550 degrees Celsius and pressures up to 110 atmospheres on a metal surface acting as a catalyst.  Heating and pressurizing the hydrogen and nitrogen does not come free.  That energy needs to be generated by a separate power plant.  More importantly, while nitrogen can be obtained directly from air, hydrogen gas must be synthesized.  Hydrogen used in the Haber-Bosch process today is generated on-site by heating methane with steam, again at very high temperatures and pressures, to create hydrogen gas and generating CO2 as a waste product.

There is hope that researchers can eventually develop a better recipe for making ammonia.  Last month, John Anderson, Jonathan Rittle, and Jonas Peters, at the California Institute of Technology, published a paper in the British journal Nature that represents a significant breakthrough in the field of ammonia synthesis from nitrogen.  Scientists have known for many years that certain micro-organisms have evolved nitrogen-fixing enzymes, biological catalysts that can convert nitrogen to ammonia at room temperature and pressure using hydrogen ions in solution and electrons from other proteins rather than hydrogen gas.  Like the Haber-Bosch process, these enzymes rely on metal atoms at the site of catalysis but can convert nitrogen to ammonia at room temperature and pressure.  Anderson, Rittle and Peters synthesized a small, iron-based catalyst capable of generating small amounts of ammonia from nitrogen using hydrogen ions obtained from acids and electrons from other donor molecules under milder temperatures and pressures than Haber-Bosch.

The reaction requires a lot of improvement before it will be ready to ramp up for industrial use.  However, the goal of their work was not to develop a plug-and-play replacement for the Haber-Bosch process but rather to provide more insight into the physics and chemistry required to convert N2 to NH3 catalytically and under conditions that more closely resemble biological nitrogen fixation.

This line of research should be encouraged.  If an alternative catalytic system can be developed to convert nitrogen to ammonia, one that does not require fossil fuel based reactants or extreme reaction conditions, this will go a long way to eliminating a significant source of anthropogenic CO2 while simultaneously reducing the overall energy demands of the planet.  Those 109 million metric tons of ammonia produced in the year 2000 required 46.7 million tons of methane and resulted in the production of 128 million tons of anthropogenic CO2 that year alone.  That’s equivalent to approximately 0.5 per cent of the global CO2 production that year.  While 0.5 per cent seems like a small number the effects of added CO2 are largely cumulative, and in a world where even a fraction of a percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by any country seems a herculean political task, the prospect of a 0.5 per cent reduction is significant.

Many environmentally conscious readers might be led to question the value of this research if nitrogen-fixing microorganisms can do the job so much better. Unfortunately, there is tremendous resistance to the introduction of foreign genes into food crops, and the genetic expression and regulation of nitrogen fixing genes in bacteria remain under study.  Even if a crop plant containing nitrogen fixing genes from another organism could be produced, the sociopolitical barriers to introduction would likely take decades if ever to overcome.  The introduction of nitrogen-fixing bacteria in soil and the wider use of organic fertilizers should continue but these efforts alone will not be enough to meet the coming food demand of the up to 10 billion people expected to occupy the planet by the end of the 21st century.  The resources of the developed world must continue to pursue all methods available to reduce greenhouse gas emissions regardless of the source.  This work will require more than the search for alternatives to fossil fuels for energy but also alternative ingredients and recipes critical to ensuring global food security.

(Photo Credit: Robert Barossi)

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Jonathan Cohen received his Ph.D. in Chemistry from the Oregon Graduate Institute, Oregon Health and Science University. His work studying nitrogen molecules bound to inorganic metal complexes have been published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society and the Journal of Inorganic Chemistry.