Posts By Helen Weatherall
With each passing year, 100 million acres of corn are sown in the United States. As these acres are fertilized, an estimated 50 percent of the nitrogen applied is wasted due to runoff and other factors, so that half of the hefty sum spent annually by corn farmers to feed their fields might as well be poured down a drain or tossed to the wind.
The enormous scale and consequence of this waste is what motivated a team of three very bright brothers with expertise in environmental science, dairy farming and robotics to devise a solution called “Rowbot.”
Nothing is impossible - so says a rock climber with his head pitched back staring up an ugly face of granite, a kayaker caught in a squall, a skier pointing tips down a sheet of black ice – or a man who has done all of this and then taken up farming Down East where topsoil is barely deeper than the pine pollen on windowsills in May. After chasing adventure in the guise of a Spanish literature scholar with a taste for Chilean deep powder, cliffs and white water, Eliot Coleman got himself some acreage.
Of course a lot happened in between, but the story of Four Season Farm and how it came to be began with Coleman turning his quest for adventure away from situational adrenaline surges to another sort of challenge: to extract sugar carrots from a fir wood rooted on ledge.
It was late 1960’s when Coleman came back down to earth. A decade earlier the back-to-the-land how-to book, ‘Living the Good Life’, by Helen and Scott Nearing had emerged and became something of a bible among the younger set.
Competition from the North Pushes Resourceful Rhode Island Hydroponic Farmer to Downsize and DiversifyFebruary 8, 2013 | Helen Weatherall
A job done right looks easy. Likewise Swiss chard that has celebrated five birthdays and boasts a girth of six inches looks normal at Mark Phillips’ Absalona Greenhouse Farm in Chepachet, Rhode Island. Twenty years now in the business of hydroponic farming, Phillips has mastered the art of soil-free growing. Of his accumulated knowledge what he didn’t learn from his plants themselves he mostly learned from listening to his gut rather than to opinions of others.
“I fell into it. I didn’t think I was going to work for myself,” said Phillips who earned an environmental studies degree in college. Unbeknownst to him his career was set in motion the day he took a job at a greenhouse the summer after graduating. But he took to the work and in 1990 decided to go into business for himself.
Few look at a weed-choked city lot fowled by disemboweled cars and see a future of health enhancing vegetables by the bushel full. But this is what the founders of the Southside Community Land Trust (SCLT) saw 30 years ago in a down and out neighborhood in Providence, Rhode Island. That ¾ acre lot, now called City Farm, represented the start of something now a whole lot of lots bigger. In following its mission to provide access to land, education and other resources to enable people in Greater Providence to grow food in environmentally sustainable ways, SCLT has grown the number of community gardens it oversees to 16.
Mycophilia Takes Root in Northeast as Pioneering Massachusetts Mushroom Farmer Grows Market for Organic CapsDecember 14, 2012 | Helen Weatherall
There’s a mystery to mushrooms that’s missing from say carrots or kale. Devoid of chlorophyll, they lack the color we associate with health and vigor. In that ‘destroying angel’ and ‘death cap’ are names meant to quell appetites, it’s logical that some would never sample even the tiniest taste of wild mushroom. That said, few tastes delight more than oyster mushrooms sauteed in butter and seasoned with a splash of sherry, or a warm broth made of fresh hen-of-the-woods. Leo Mondragon owner of Forest Harvest Farm, an organic wild mushroom farm in Petersham, Massachusetts, knows this well and has made it his business to share the pleasure.
What grows on Forest Harvest Farm is mushrooms, some where Mondragon scatters their spores, and some where he can only hope to find them.
For most of us soil, or “dirt”, is something to get rid of, even to fear. Millions are spent on television ads to tell us how to fight dirt and win. A farmer’s relationship with the stuff that gets under fingernails, however, is starkly different. To reap a harvest and turn a profit, a farmer must work with dirt, or as one crop advisor calls it, “that black box we call soil.” All inputs, chemicals included, are applied to optimize harvests and net profit. But earth, from which seeds sprout, though seemingly simple in its brownness, is not a single entity; rather it is a complex ecosystem as full of mystery as the depths of the sea. Since it is from the earth that all terrestrial life springs, it is worthy to ask: what of crop plants, agricultural chemicals and this little known realm that absorbs them?
If beer is a reliable indicator, rosy times lie ahead for American agriculture and those who like fresh wholesome food. As the 70’s gave way to the 80’s, doomsayers predicted that if the going trend of consolidation continued only 5 beer-brewing companies would exist by the 1990’s. But something happened and that something was the rise of the craft brewer. Today this phenomenon is happening again, this time with peas and carrots. At agricultural training programs cropping up at such places as the University of California, Santa Cruz, New York’s Groundswell Center for Local Food and Farming, Michigan State University, and now at the University of Vermont’s Farmer Training Program, one diverse student group after another is endeavoring to reinvent and reinvigorate farming.
There’s a lot to the Stephen Ritz story. As told in rapid fire by the man himself the whole quickly disperses like an exploding star. He’s a kid from the South Bronx, the world’s oldest 6th grader. As an athlete in a different life he spent time in NBA camps. For a spell he would consume two-dozen eggs a day. Yes, he has had a critical health issue – more than one even. “I would have eaten myself to death,” he says letting the words hang in the air. He is high energy. He is a teacher. He is a parent. He is the originator and driving force behind an agriculture educational project called The Green Bronx Machine.