Posts Tagged ‘farming’
There is something idyllic about Green Gate Farms. A historic piece of farmland tucked away in East Austin, it’s easy to miss amongst the RV park and new housing developments. Pulling into the long driveway I was surprised at the amount of cars packed into the parking lot. My surprise turned into delight as I was instantly greeted by children of all ages, offering to give me a tour of the farm and selling me fresh squeezed lemonade.
As it turns out, Green Gate Farms runs a summer farm camp for children ages 5-15. As I was led around by one of the campers, I was impressed by the ownership and pride these kids take in the farm. They have freedom to explore, catch bugs, pet pigs and help run the farm stand. Not only that, but they gain leadership skills as they lead farm tours and interact with the adults and volunteers.
Green Gate Farms is run and managed by Erin Flynn and Skip Connett. They’ve been running the farm for eight years, restoring a historical farm site to bring food, education and community to East Austin. On top of maintaining and running a farm (which is an incredible amount of work), Erin and Skip founded the New Farm Institute, a non-profit that exists to educate, assist and inspire the next generation of sustainable farms, especially those within 30 miles of medium to large cities.
Sitting down with Erin amongst the arts and crafts projects left behind by the campers, it was easy to see that Erin is passionate about what she does. “My husband and I are agricultural activists, we want to work towards a system where farming is made a priority,” Flynn said, “There’s always talk about how we need our police and firemen, I want there to be a shift so people start holding their farmers up in the same way.” As a part of the Sustainable Food Policy Board, Flynn goes above and beyond to be a part of the conversation and community that is working towards making small, family farms a priority, instead of a thing of the past.
“Small, family farms are endangered,” Flynn said, “We are a society based on convenience, and it’s time we stopped trivializing what farmers are doing. I want farming to be a year-long, lucrative profession. If it isn’t, we are going to lose our family farms.” The thought of our beloved Austin farms disappearing should make your knees start to shake. Farmers are some of the most resilient, smart and dedicated people in our community. They’re the people that stock our shelves with mouth-water produce, providing our neighborhood with real, local food.
Our conversation ended when one of the campers ran up with the tragic news that the lemonade was gone. With a smile, Erin excused herself to make sure her campers and visitors were well taken care of. I ended my trip to the farm by stopping at the farm stand. Open on Tuesday (3-6 pm), Friday and Saturday (10-2 pm), the stand is stocked with vegetables and flowers from the farm as well as meat and eggs from nearby.
“We have a vegetable, meat, egg and flower CSAs available,” Flynn said, “We work with farmers nearby that we trust, and only provide our customers with the highest quality products.” You can sign up for their CSA to receive weekly or biweekly shares that include approximately 8-10 seasonal organic vegetables and you can add flowers, eggs and pastured meats. With convenient pick-up spots around town (in.gredients included), there’s no reason not to support this wonderful family farm.
As two young girls gave me the run down on prices, I realized how special it is that I can drive ten minutes from my house and be at Green Gate Farms. Not only is it a farm, it’s an education center where kids can be outside, learn valuable skills and get closer to their food. Green Gate Farms is definitely worth a visit, and if you have a little one there are still week-long programs to join this summer.
Go ahead, take a field trip and connect with your food.
When you find yourself at Urban Roots, you’ll never want to leave. Only a few miles from downtown Austin, this piece of land used to be called Oasis Gardens Farm, and we understand why. Not only does this farm produce incredible vegetables (if you haven’t had an Urban Roots beet yet, you’re missing out) they’re also a non-profit teaching teens leadership and farming skills while providing access to healthy food in Austin.
Yep, this is what an oasis looks like.
Urban Roots was founded in 2007 as a program of YouthLaunch, and started the process of becoming an independent non-profit agency in the fall of 2011. Each year, the farm sets the goal of growing 30,000 pounds of produce with 40% of it going to local soup kitchens and food pantries. For 25 weeks during the spring and summer, Urban Roots provides paid internships to Austin youth, who develop life and job skills while growing food for the Austin community. The interns get to know this 3.5 acre plot of land, getting their hands dirty and learning what it takes to grow a tomato.
With open volunteer days Tuesday and Thursday mornings from 8-12 and some select Saturdays, there are plenty of opportunities to go check out the farm. After spending a volunteer day harvesting carrots, I was reminded how much work goes into growing food and how much joy can be found in getting outside and getting involved.
While on the farm, I had the pleasure of talking with Blake Hill, Urban Roots farm manager, and Meg Mattingly, the Farm Education Specialist. As we chatted amongst the tomato plants, it became clear that while they love farming, this place, and their work, is for the youth. “The most important thing Urban Roots does is serve these teens. It gives them skills that they can carry with them for the rest of their life,” Mattingly said.
During their most recent open house, I had the honor of hearing from four of their youth interns. It was inspiring to listen to these young people talk about the impact Urban Roots has had on their lives. They spoke of the opportunities this organization provides, how they never thought they’d be good at public speaking, and how much confidence they’ve gained from their internship. “Out here, these kids learn to be the best versions of themselves,” Hill said.
While food insecurity, obesity and hunger rates are on the rise, Urban Roots is a breath of fresh air. Check it out for yourselves, you’ll leave the farm a better, more inspired person… We promise.
Do you like almonds? How ’bout blueberries? If so, here’s yet another reason to choose organic produce at the grocery store. It has to do with Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) – a mysterious syndrome that’s caused alarming numbers of honey bee colonies to spontaneously die or disappear, as if into thin air. Plants like almond trees and blueberries bushes (among countless others) propagate and reproduce by means of pollination, by “pollinators” such as the honey bee. For this reason, the survival of many of our favorite food crops depends on the survival of a healthy honey bee population.
CCD has puzzled experts lately, but new research points to the usage of pesticides in conventional farming practices as a potential culprit. This research article from Purdue University’s Department of Entomology highlights new discoveries of how honey bees have become exposed to certain pesticides and the adverse effects this exposure may have on them.
While more research is needed to understand exactly which chemicals are harming honey bees (and how), choosing to buy produce that hasn’t been treated with any chemical pesticides is a good precaution to take at this time to minimize the damage pesticides may have on honey bee populations. When it comes to the survival of pollinators (that facilitate the survival of crops that feed us!) it’s far better to be safe than sorry!
(image: Forest Wander)
We came across David Csonka’s blog Thriving in Hard Times this morning, which offers perspective on how to adopt more sustainable lifestyles as the resources we benefit from become more scarce. Check out David’s thought-provoking post “Do Americans Have the Will to Return to Farming?“, highlighting the perspective of an independent farmer in Northern Colorado. We all enjoy buying fresh, local foods – but what about the labor that brings the food to the table?
(image: Food and Organic)
Geologist, gardener, epicurean, homesteader, scholar, problem solver
Nitrogen (N2) is an essential nutrient for all living organisms, and it’s one of the most important nutrients needed for plant growth. Without it, plants are unable to produce complex organic molecules like amino acids, proteins, and nucleic acids. For something that comprises 78% of the Earth’s atmosphere – and is so critical to living organisms – one would think plants and animals wouldn’t have a problem obtaining nitrogen. However, it turns out life can only absorb nitrogen once it’s “fixed” – meaning, confusingly, “broken apart” – and bonded to another element.
It’s almost miraculous that we have life at all on Earth, because nitrogen fixation can only occur two ways: lightning and bacteria. The energy from the lightning has the ability to rip N2 apart, allowing the freed nitrogen to bond to oxygen molecules and form NO3– (nitrate) which then rains down on plant life.
Particular types of bacteria in the soil can fixate nitrogen via respiration (energy production). One of the easiest ways farmers facilitate this process is by planting legumes, which have a special symbiotic relationship with the bacteria Rhizobium. Tiny microorganisms can do the same thing as lightning – how cool is that?
The nitrogen absorbed by the plants is passed through the food chain to animal life, and then put back into the soil and atmosphere through animal waste and the decomposition of plant and animal matter – this is totally that Circle of Life Mufasa was talking about.
Nitrogen is also an import element in fertilization for farmers, because nitrogen speeds up plant growth and increases production. Due to the complicated process I described above, you can imagine that it was very difficult to have large scale farming operations before the 20th century. In 1909, the German chemist Fritz Haber discovered how to fix atmospheric nitrogen in the lab. He then worked with Carl Bosch, another German chemist, to fix nitrogen on an industrial scale and created the Haber-Bosch process. This was HUGE. It was such a feat of science that they won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1918.
Haber and Bosch didn’t know it at the time, but they completely revolutionized agriculture. Man was no longer reliant on natural phenomena to grow crops, and with the population boom of the industrialized revolution, we now had a solution to feed a growing, hungry population: nitrogen-based fertilizers.
As with most scientific advancement, it’s difficult to determine the long term effects of a new technology, but we now know that it probably wasn’t the best idea for man to mess with the Nitrogen Cycle via the Haber-Bosch process.
We’re relying on a finite resource to feed our nation: To fix nitrogen in an industrial lab, you combine atmospheric nitrogen and hydrogen to form anhydrous ammonium a.k.a ammonia – the foundation for all synthetic nitrogen fertilizers. The hydrogen used for this process is extracted from fossil fuels, mainly natural gas. Natural gas is very difficult to transport, so the fertilizer is typically produced near the natural gas source. Since it’s less expensive to purchase fertilizers overseas, the United States imports over half the nitrogen-based fertilizer it needs, thus consuming even more fossil fuels in the process. Not only is our price of food now dependent on the price of oil and gas, but what will we do when we’ve drilled that last well?
Damage to Human Health and the Environment: The overuse of nitrogen-based fertilizers has already caused a significant amount of damage. Synthetic fertilizers destroy the delicate nutrient-producing ecosystem in the soil, so farmers have to fertilize more frequently. Not all of the nitrates are absorbed by the plants, and these particular nitrates are purposely highly soluble in water, so the excess nitrates easily wash into various water bodies, then into the oceans, and can cause monstrous algae blooms in coastal waters.
These algae bloom draw-down oxygen from the water and create dead zones. These dead zones can fluctuate by thousands of miles, leaving little time for sea-life to swim away before they suffocate – often leading to massive fish kills. Largely due to all the nitrogen-based fertilizer run-off in the Mississippi, the Gulf of Mexico has the largest dead zone in the world.
Additionally, we also have problems with nitrogen-based fertilizer affecting our drinking water and air. Elevated levels of nitrate in drinking water has been linked to thyroid cancer in adults; however, it’s particularly dangerous for infants. Infants are highly susceptible to nitrate poisoning which causes methemoglobinemia, commonly known as “blue baby syndrome.” There are even studies linking elevated nitrates in water to increases in sudden infant death syndrome cases. Nitrogen-based fertilizers also contribute to particulate matter air pollution, which is linked to respiratory illnesses and cancer.
So are nitrogen-based fertilizers really needed to feed a growing population? According to a 30-year study done by the Rodale Institute – no. When compared to conventional crops, organic crops had the same, if not higher yields of produce and outperformed conventional crops environmentally and economically. The United Nations also released a report this past spring, stating that by using agroecological processes (relying on the natural environment, such as beneficial trees, plants, animals and insects to fertilize and protect crops) global food production could double in the next 10 years.
A lack of available nutrients for crop production is not the problem – it’s our current agricultural system that needs to change. By utilizing new and old technologies, scientists and farmers have found ways to organically produce high-yielding crops that can feed a rapidly growing population. It’s now up to us to implement agroecological methods in our agricultural system. Of course this is more easily said than done, but you as a citizen and consumer can make a difference. Contact your representatives and inform them of this issue, elect officials that are mindful of the environment, and most effectively – use your purchasing power. Every time you are at the register you are casting a vote. The more consumers opt to buy local, organic, naturally and sustainably grown food, the less incentive industry has to use synthetic agrochemicals, GMO seeds, and utilize unsustainable farming methods. Consumers have the power to build and destroy entire industries – keep this in mind the next time you’re debating whether to pay a little more for local, organic produce. Those $0.99 conventional peaches cost more than you may think.