Home is where the hemp is…

New York Times 

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Russians sorting raw hemp fibers in the Kursk region in the 1960s. Hemp has been used as building material for millennia in Europe and elsewhere, but it’s only just starting to get wider recognition as a green construction option.

The Romans have been using it since the days of Julius Caesar, but not to get high. Both Washington and Jefferson grew it.

Now that several states have legalized the use of marijuana for some recreational and medical purposes, one of the biggest untapped markets for the cannabis plant itself — at least one variety — could be as a building tool.

The most sustainable building material isn’t concrete or steel — it’s fast-growing hemp. Hemp structures date to Roman times. A hemp mortar bridge was constructed back in the 6th century, when France was still Gaul.

Now a wave of builders and botanists are working to renew this market. Mixing hemp’s woody fibers with lime produces a natural, light concrete that retains thermal mass and is highly insulating. No pests, no mold, good acoustics, low humidity, no pesticide. It

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Soil Power! The Dirty Way to a Green Planet

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The last great hope of avoiding catastrophic climate change may lie in a substance so commonplace that we typically ignore it or else walk all over it: the soil beneath our feet.

The earth possesses five major pools of carbon. Of those pools, the atmosphere is already overloaded with the stuff; the oceans are turning acidic as they become saturated with it; the forests are diminishing; and underground fossil fuel reserves are being emptied. That leaves soil as the most likely repository for immense quantities of carbon.

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On our way to a “nation of farmers” in Amherst, MA

Michelle Chandler and one of her backyard meat rabbits

Michelle Chandler made a decision shortly after September 11, 2001 – she was going to be less dependent on fossil fuels and begin to live a more sustainable lifestyle.  The result is 100 rabbits, dozens of laying hens and a couple of milk goats in her suburban yard in South Amherst, MA.  Chandler quotes John 21:17, when Peter was asked by Jesus, “Do you love me?” Upon answering, “Yes,” Peter is instructed to “feed my sheep.”

Chandler’s “sheep” are her four children, ages 8 to 13, as well as neighbors and friends who enjoy the results of her bounty produced at Blessed Acre Farm and Rabbitry, where she raises several rare and heritage rabbit breeds – Cinnamons, Thriantas, Californians, Cremes d’Argent, Palominos, and American Blues.

According to an article in her local newspaper, those interested in raising rabbits should start with three, which would cost about $60 to get started. “For someone who wants rabbit on the table once a week for a family of four, you could realistically get by with one buck and two does,” she said. Then there’s the cost of building or buying hutches, at around $50 to $75 apiece, and providing the feed. A 50-pound bag costs $14.

Although her own property was far enough from the center of town to be exempt, Chandler was instrumental in helping to pass a new bylaw that allows up to 12 chickens or rabbits by right anywhere in Amherst.

“I feel strongly that Amherst will be better served by being able to feed itself,” said Chandler. “People are always going to be hungry, and if people have another food source, that’s a good thing.”

 One of Michelle Chandler’s close friends, Sharon Astyk, has written a book called “A Nation of Farmers” in which she claims raising your own food in the backyard must become a more common feature of the American landscape if we are to adjust to Peak Oil.  Chandler’s backyard has become a living example of this trend.

 

A growing number of young Americans are leaving desk jobs to farm

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Liz Whitehurst dabbled in several careers before she ended up here, crating fistfuls of fresh-cut arugula in the early-November chill.

The hours were better at her nonprofit jobs. So were the benefits. But two years ago, the 32-year-old Whitehurst – who graduated from a liberal arts college and grew up in the Chicago suburbs – abandoned Washington, D.C., for this three-acre farm in Upper Marlboro, Maryland.

FARMERSShe joined a growing movement of highly educated, ex-urban, first-time farmers who are capitalizing on booming consumer demand for local and sustainable foods and, experts say, could have a broad impact on the food system.

For only the second time in the last century, the number of farmers under 35 years old is increasing, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest Census of Agriculture.

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UMass Professor Reports on Pesticides

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heAccording to Dr. Lili He, from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, “our food system is indeed very vulnerable. It can be contaminated intentionally and unintentionally by many agents. Generally speaking, there are three types of contaminants in food system, 1) microbes, including bacteria, virus, fungi, parasites, and their toxins, 2) chemicals, such as pesticides, antibiotics, adulterants, allergens, and 3) engineered nanomaterials (ENMs).”

The following is a recent article in the New York Times exploring pesticides in food

Q. Do pesticides get into the flesh of conventional fruits and vegetables like cantaloupe, apples and cucumbers?

A. Pesticides sprayed on fruits and vegetables accumulate on the outer peel or skin, but the skin does not form an impermeable barrier, and some pesticides are actually designed to be absorbed into the tissue of the fruit or vegetable to protect it from pests that penetrate the skin to suck out the liquid inside.

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Jason Silverman on his farming experience

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Jason is a graduate of the Sustainable Food and Farming Program at UMass Amherst

CONWAY — Aging farmers own a collective $1.8 billion in farming infrastructure and land throughout Massachusetts, according to Land For Good, a nonprofit promoting New England agriculture.

That combined with rising property values — which have increased steadily since 2006 based on United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) statistics — pose problems for first-generation farmers who don’t already own land or have access to investment capital. Nationally, farm real estate averaged $3,020 per acre in 2015, up about $1,000 over 2006.

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Climate Change and Organic Agriculture

By Bill Duesing…..

Many of us participated in the inspiring People’s Climate March on 9/21/2014 in New York City. Marchers represented a wide variety of religious, educational, environmental, energy, social justice, peace, health, labor, cultural and other organizations.  Though they all had their own agendas for solving problems and making the world a better place, they agreed that climate change is very serious and needs to be addressed.

From right, soil scientist, permaculturalist and CT NOFA founding Board member Cynthia Rabinowitz, CT NOFA Executive Director Eileen Hochberg and former executive director Bill Duesing at the beginning of the People’s Climate March.

Organic farmers and consumers marched with the “We Have Solutions” section. We’ve known for a long time that organic food and agriculture are an important part of the solution to many of our environmental problems.  Organic methods and systems are valuable tools for building health and biodiversity in the soil, in our communities and in our bodies.

Organic Solutions

We are just now understanding how organic agriculture not only slows down climate change and increases our resilience in the face of it, but also actually removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and stores it in the soil.  Organic agriculture even has a powerful potential to reverse some of the damage we’ve already done to the atmosphere.

The key organic methods which encourage carbon storage reduce or eliminate tillage and bare soil, keep the soil covered with a diversity of growing plants and eliminate synthetic nitrogen fertilizer.  Soil that is not disturbed encourages greater soil biodiversity, especially more fungal growth.  Fungi function as liquid carbon pathways, carrying energy-rich carbon compounds from plant roots to the billions of soil organisms surrounding the roots.  Between 30 and 60 percent of the carbon plants take out of the air flows out through the roots.  This carbon energizes nitrogen-fixing and other soil organisms which eventually turn it into long-lived humus, a safe carbon repository which greatly increases the soil’s water-holding capacity.

The Chemical Contrast

This organic advantage is nearly the opposite of what chemical agriculture does.  In many ways, from its production to its leaching into the environment, synthetic nitrogen damages our planet.

University of Illinois scientists studied the nitrogen fertilizer records and soil carbon levels at the Morrow plots, the nation’s oldest experiment field with records going back 100 years. Researchers found that chemical fertilizers deplete the soil’s organic carbon.  They discovered that synthetic nitrogen fertilizer had not only stimulated decomposition of all the organic residues (corn stalks, soy plants) that had been added to the soil over fifty years, but also had volatilized almost five tons per acre of carbon from the native soil.  Read the study HERE

All told they found that chemical nitrogen fertilizers had driven about 100 tons of carbon out of the soil, and into the air as carbon dioxide, from each acre of the experiment farm. Inorganic nitrogen, especially when combined with tillage, greatly damages the soil ecosystem.  It inhibits nitrogen-fixing organisms and the fungi that feed them with carbon exuded by plant roots.

In contrast, studies on four continents have shown that organic farming can store from just under a ton to over three tons of carbon, per acre, per year.  Multiply that by the number of crop acres world wide and you get a number close to the amount of excess carbon we need to remove from the atmosphere to stabilize the climate. Only the ocean can hold more carbon. Amazing!

The application of nitrogen fertilizer is also responsible for about three quarters of this country’s nitrous oxide emissions.  Nitrous oxide has 310 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide.

All these greenhouse emissions are in addition to those released as inorganic nitrogen is taken from the atmosphere by the energy-intensive process to create nitrogen fertilizer using natural gas.  The whole process likely releases even more greenhouse gases if that natural gas is the result of hydraulic fracturing (aka fracking) which is becoming the norm these days. Read Tom Philpott’s explanation of how cheap gas from fracking and hefty subsidies from taxpayers are encouraging greater domestic production of this soil and climate destroying substance.

After all that pollution from its making and application, 60 to 90 percent of the applied nitrogen fertilizer is leached into water, volatilized into the air or immobilized in soil. Nitrogen pollution is responsible for dead zones on our coasts and undrinkable well water in the heartland. (See photo.)

Notice in a Kansas State Park, August 2014. Nitrates are from nitrogen fertilizer.

Look at the Summer and Fall issues of NOFA’s The Natural Farmer for more details on the soil, carbon and nitrogen connections.  Dr. Christine Jones’ articles are especially helpful.  (While you are looking at the Summer issue, be sure to read Connecticut “carbon farmer” Bryan O’Hara’s article, “No-Till Vegetables at Tobacco Road Farm.)

Put simply, chemical agriculture releases great quantities of greenhouse gases while organic agriculture sequesters them.

SLOW change

Despite the dismal reality, don’t expect a swift change away from chemical nitrogen to organic methods without a lot more activist pressure.

We’ve known about many of the advantages of organic agriculture for over 100 years. Knowledge alone won’t do it in the face of some giant corporations wanting to make and sell more chemical fertilizers (and pesticides and the seeds that need both). Other corporations demand access to low-cost feed for confined animal feeding operations, and to low-cost ingredients for soda, junk food and even beer.

Some rich and powerful entities are able to manipulate government programs and public opinion for their benefit while financially squeezing farmers and driving them off the land.

As a University of Minnesota ecologist notes in another Philpott article: …the problem lies not with farmers but with farm policy and the market/political power of agribusiness—a “behemoth largely created by lobbyists, trade associations, big businesses and the government.”