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Growing Food for the Soul on City Lots

‘People are no easier to recover than the land buried under layers of pavement.’

In the forty years I’ve been farming, the vast majority of the organically grown food I’ve produced has been available only to a narrow segment of society: those who can afford it. Even as I’ve worked to address this basic problem, I’ve lived for most of my career with some related pressing questions: How can we make high-quality fresh food more affordable and available to all, while still supporting the farmers who work so hard to produce it? Could farming be used to provide jobs and healing to people who have become marginalized because of poverty, mental illness, and drug addiction? Knowing that these social ills are often concentrated in urban centers, I’ve asked myself: Is it possible to create viable farming enterprises on pavement and contaminated land in the heart of our cities?

Photo of Sole Food urban farm in VancouverPhoto by Agricoltura Urbana A Sole Food urban farm in an old Petro-Canada station in Vancouver's East End.

During the years I was starting to farm, abandoned land was common in most low-income neighborhoods in North America’s cities. Common, too, in these areas were high unemployment and a shortage of fresh food. I founded the Center for Urban Agriculture in the 1980s with the idea that we could create small farm businesses on urban land, providing much-needed employment and food for those underserved communities. Most people at that time were confused when I used the words urban and agriculture in the same sentence.

Over the years I created and operated both rural and urban farming enterprises. Some looked like the prototypical vision of a farm: wide-open fields, rows of vegetables or fruit trees, a welcoming farmhouse, a large barn, animals grazing, tractors cultivating, and trucks stacked with boxes of food. But some of the projects I started were in urban places like Watts in Los Angeles, a neighborhood known for its poverty, violence, and unemployment. Starting in 1999, through the Center for Urban Agriculture, we created a three-acre farm on the site of the Watts health clinic, which had burned down during the uprisings in the mid-1960s.

I was young when I helped to develop that farm in Watts. Naively, I thought I could cure some of the neighborhood’s ills. Like so many do-gooders who had come and gone through there, I believed I had some answers to the deep-seated challenges that plagued that community. I discovered that I knew nothing. My own privilege …more

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Louisiana Floods: A “Classic Signal of Climate Change”

At least six people dead and 20,000 people rescued due to “historic” flooding event

Louisiana was under a state of emergency over the weekend with at least six people dead and 20,000 people rescued due to an “historic” flooding event affecting the state for the previous few days.

Flooded street in LouisianaPhoto courtesy of FEMAOn Sunday, the federal government declared a major disaster for Louisiana.

Although Louisiana bore the brunt, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Texas all saw heavy rainfall too.

One of the worst-affected areas is the Louisiana capital, Baton Rouge, with flash flooding affecting it over the weekend.

Some 10,000 people there spent last night in emergency shelters, with 100 roads closed due to flood waters which in some areas have exceeded one in 500-year flood levels. Indeed, at one stage last Friday morning, the Tickfaw River north of New Orleans rose 18 feet in about 12 hours.

“It’s not over,” the Governor John Bel Edwards said yesterday. “The water’s going to rise in many areas. It’s no time to let the guard down.” Edwards added that he did not know how many homes had been damaged, but “it’s in the thousands.” Edwards and his family were also forced to flee the Governor’s mansion after chest-high water flooded the basement. “That’s never happened before,” he said.

An official William Daniel told the BBC: “It is definitely an unprecedented flood here in Baton Rouge. Houses that have never ever even come close to flooding have water three and four foot high in to the houses.”

“This is a flood of epic proportions,” JR Shelton, the mayor of Central City added. “When we talk about floods now, we’ll talk about the great flood of 2016. “Everything else pales in comparison.”

Last night the Federal Government declared a major disaster for Louisiana. More than 1,700 rescue personnel had been mobilized with hundreds of thousands of sand bags deployed in different neighbourhoods. Some 800 guardsmen have also been deployed, as has the Coast Guard, using helicopters to help residents stranded on their rooftops.

Meteorologist Eric Holthaus notes that the flooding is “the latest in a string of exceptionally rare rainstorms that are stretching the definition of “extreme” weather. It’s exactly the sort of rainstorm that’s occurring more frequently as the planet warms.”

He points out that the rain storm in Louisiana is at least the eighth 500-year rainfall event across America in little more than a year.

There is no doubt about it – we are seeing more frequent extreme weather and …more

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World’s Largest Vertical Farm Grows Without Soil, Sunlight or Water

A $30m green revolution that seeks to produce more crops in less space, but is it economically viable?

An ambitious, almost fantastical, manifestation of agricultural technology is expected to come to fruition this fall. From the remains of an abandoned steel mill in Newark, New Jersey, the creators of AeroFarms are building what they say will be the largest vertical farm, producing two million pounds of leafy greens a year.

a sprawling indoor farm Photo by Malavika Vyawahare/The Guardian AeroFarms grows its greens using a nutrient-rich mist on plants anchored in a reusable cloth made of recycled plastic bottles.

Whether it even qualifies as a “farm” is a matter of taste. The greens will be manufactured using a technology called aeroponics, a technique in which crops are grown in vertical stacks of plant beds, without soil, sunlight or water.

“I ate some of the arugula here,” said New Jersey governor Chris Christie after a recent visit to a smaller AeroFarms facility in the neighborhood. “It tastes fabulous. No dressing necessary.”

The farm, built in the economically depressed New Jersey city promises new jobs, millions of dollars in public-private investment, and an array of locally grown leafy greens for sale. The company has spent some $30m to bring to reality a new breed of “green agriculture” that seeks to produce more crops in less space while minimizing environmental damage, even if it means completely divorcing food production from the natural ecosystem.

AeroFarms and other companies developing similar controlled growing climates claim to be transforming agriculture. Proponents of vertical farming call it the “third green revolution”, analogizing the developments to Apple and Tesla. They tout the potential of such technology to address food shortages as the world population continues to grow.

AeroFarms touts their products as free of pesticides and fertilizer, an attribute that investors think will attract customers who buy organic produce. “We definitely see the need for healthy food in the local area and Newark in particular,” said Lata Reddy, vice-president for corporate social responsibility at Prudential Financial, one of the investors in the project.

But, food that is not grown in soil may not be palatable to many, even those who are opting for organic substitutes. “If you take the soil out of the system, is it a legitimate organic system?” questioned Carolyn Dimitri, director of the food studies program at New York University. The US Department of Agriculture does not consider the question of organic certification for growing methods that do not use soil, according to AeroFarms’ website.

“Urban farming is trendy,” Dimitri said. …more

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A Helping Hand for Fledgling Puffins and Petrels in Newfoundland

Local conservation group rescues stranded birds, assists them on their way to the ocean

When Juergen Schau moved to the small coastal village of Witless Bay, Newfoundland from Germany ten years ago, he began to notice many small, stranded, injured, and dead birds on the roads, especially in the evenings. He quickly discovered that the birds were baby puffins and petrels. They had made the first flight of their lives from nearby Gull Island and been waylaid on their way to the Atlantic Ocean, distracted by artificial light emanating from the town during the summer nights. Soon, he began collecting the fledglings to help them on their way.  

The job was immense, and before long, Schau created an organization focused on bird rescue, called the Puffin and Petrel Patrol. The Patrol spearheaded a massive effort, gathering volunteers of all ages for several months a year to search for stranded puffins and petrels by night and release them each morning to the sea. 

Photo of Puffin releasePhoto by Amy Gigi Alexander Puffin and Petrel Patrol members gather at the beach to release young puffins who stranded in Witless Bay.

Witless Bay, the surrounding communities, and Gull Island are all part of one of the largest ecological reserves in North America for certain types of seabirds, including Atlantic Puffins, Fratercula arctica, which are listed as vulnerable on the IUCN red list of threatened species due to declining numbers. There are more than 260,000 mating pairs of puffins in the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, making it the largest colony in North America. The reserve is also home to the second largest colony of Leach’s Storm Petrels in the world, which number more than 620,000 pairs.

Puffins and petrels live on the sea, visiting land only between the months of June and August to mate and produce one egg. By late summer or early fall, the baby birds are ready to begin their new lives, which will be spent on water for several years — until they too are ready to mate. The young birds fledge at night, when there are the fewest predators, and researchers believe they use the moonlight as a guide to their new home on the ocean.

The problem in Witless Bay, however, was that outdoor lighting was interfering with the young birds’ flights, guiding many of them to Newfoundland community rather than out to the ocean. So in addition to collecting and releasing the stranded birds, Puffin and Petrel Patrol began educating residents about the unintended consequences of artificial …more

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The Lake that Left Town

One of California’s largest lakes is receding, causing the town around it to dwindle. Is climate change to blame?

Val Aubrey parked her boat trailer on the shore of Eagle Lake, in northeastern California. She walked to an overlook where a sign warned against swimming and diving. “This” — she opened her arms wide — “used to be the marina.”

photo of Eagle Lakephoto by Don BarretEagle lake has fallen 15 feet since 1999. What used to be the waterfront is now a meadow. 

Down below, docks sat among nettles and thistles growing on what used to be the lakebed. The boat ramp led to sunbaked dirt, and squirrels skittered across the concrete.

“They put a tombstone right in the middle of it,” said Aubrey, pointing into the undergrowth. Sure enough, a small Halloween decoration had been erected in the former harbor.

One of the largest natural lakes in the state, Eagle Lake is a shock of blue amid a tawny, isolated upland. But it has fallen around 15 feet since 1999, a decline thought to have been exacerbated by climate change.

The main lakeside community of Spalding, a 30-minute drive north of the marina, is dotted with “for sale” signs, and its tidy streets are empty. The waterfront is now a meadow, and the lake has receded to a thin strip in the distance, like an alluring mirage.

There are no longer any restaurants, and the general store is shuttered. Adding to the air of misfortune, dozens of the wells that supply residents with water have gone dry, necessitating deeper ones.

The hardships facing the lake stand in contrast to its reputation as a fishery. According to the outdoors writer Tom Stienstra, “It was among the most prized lakes in America.”

Its main attraction is the indigenous Eagle Lake rainbow trout, whose salmon-colored meat is said to be uncommonly delicious. Anglers continue to land big, healthy fish. But half as many of them are visiting, in part because only one boat ramp on the entire, 13-mile-long lake is still operational.

“Gimme water, lord,” said Aubrey, a 56-year-old with a sea-dog vibe and a cigarette crackle in her voice. “I think that’s the thought of everyone round here.”

In the shadow of the disused marina, she backed her trailer down the ramp and into the glassy shallows as chub minnows darted away. There was a thump as the wheels dropped onto the mud at the end, a sign of how close the structure is to being unusable. Aubrey undid some clips, and her 19-footer, Dream Catcher, floated onto …more

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A Refuge in the Mountains

Great Smoky Mountain National Park creates space for wildness, adventure, and imagination

graphic depicting a hiker overlooking a valley

When I think of the Smoky Mountains, I think of refuge.

I grew up in the foothills, on a tributary of the French Broad River in Tennessee, in an old farming community. My great-grandmother grew up on the other side of the river a hundred years before me.  It’s a fertile valley. Before her, the Cherokee farmed the river plains here, too — it has been a tamed and cultivated land far back into history. Though we had woods and wild critters and briars and space to roam, and the coyotes howled and owls hoo-hoo-ed at night, it was also a land of cleared fields and pastures, crops planted in rows. A land of fences, property lines, and NO TRESPASSING signs. A land of boundaries, barbed wire snagging the pants.

In the distance, the mountains stood. The sight of them snagged my mind. Blue, shrouded in the “smoky” mist that gives them their name; it was as if they were floating.

photo of Great Smoky Mountain National Parkphoto by Matthew PaulsonThe Smoky Mountains are named for the blue mist that often surrounds them.

Wholeness, no fences, stretching for a half million acres — as a child, I sensed that it would take a lifetime to walk those mountains, to get to know every nook and cranny, ridge and valley. The Smokies were a refuge for my dreams of freedom, of unimpeded rambling, adventure, and of the faraway that was contained within the nearby, a refuge for magic, for wildness, for the imagination.

Wilderness is like that. It seems to have more space and time within it, which means a different experience of being on Earth can be had. It opens up alternate realities. Early on, then, I understood the value and importance of our public lands: refuge for the wild inside us, for the possibility of remembering this planet’s essential nature, a reminder of how the time-space continuum could be bent, or occupied in other ways. A sanctuary for an against-the-grain narrative, some other story that doesn’t emphasize linear “progress” but rather circular time, continually transforming and transformative. The richness of quiet and rotting logs. Refuge for a different value system.

The Smokies also provide refuge for the ancient trees — the park contains the largest stand of old-growths east of the Mississippi and the largest block of virgin red spruce …more

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Long-Studied Alaskan Wolf Pack May Be Dead After Years of Aggressive Hunting

East Fork wolf pack, found near Denali, was first researched in the 1930s

The world’s longest-studied wolf pack may have been wiped out, wildlife officials fear amid an escalating battle between federal and state authorities in Alaska over the aggressive hunting of predators such as wolves and bears.

photo of Denali Wolfphoto by Denali National Park and PreserveThe East Fork wolf pack, the longest-studied in the world, may have been wiped out.

The East Fork wolf pack, found near Denali, North America’s tallest mountain, was first researched in the 1930s and provided the first detailed accounts of wolf behavior and ecology. But years of hunting, trapping and habitat disturbance reduced numbers to just one known female, a male and two pups earlier this year. It’s now believed all may have perished.

Bridget Borg, a biologist at the National Park Service, said that the body of the radio collared male wolf was seen at a hunting camp and there appears to be no sign of the female nor pups.

“We investigated a den site after,” Borg told Alaska Public Media. “There was clear evidence it was not being used as evidenced by vegetation that was growing around the entrance to the den site.”

Three of the four pack members fitted with tracking collars have now been killed by hunters in the past year. The possible demise of the entire pack, which was once a common sight for visitors entering Denali, also America’s largest national park, is likely to heighten criticism of Alaska’s intensive hunting of its largest predators.

On Friday, the US Fish and Wildlife Service ruled that hunters will not be allowed to conduct “predator control” in Alaska’s vast national refuges unless there are exceptional circumstances. National wildlife refuges span more than 73 million acres of Alaska, including the 20 million acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — the largest land-based protected area in the US.

The move prohibits controversial practices such as the killing of bear cubs or their mothers, bear baiting and the targeting of wolves and coyotes during the spring and summer denning season. The shooting of bears from a plane or helicopter will also be restricted. However, subsistence hunting by indigenous communities will still be allowed.

Alaska reinforced the trapping and shooting of predator animals after the Republican senator Frank Murkowski was elected as governor in 2002.

His successors, including Sarah Palin, have all supported a policy of “intensive management” that removes wolves and bears …more

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