Can Older Women Prevent the Next Dust Bowl?

Here we have the fourth article in my series on alternative farming and food systems, which I’m working on as a Ted Scripps Fellow in Environmental Journalism. That’s right: fourth! Now I really can call this whole thing a “series.” So, first, I wrote about the challenges of urban farming for Earth Island Journal and then about efforts to encourage military veterans to become farmers for Newsweek. I also wrote about the commercialization of cellulosic ethanol and its role in the food-versus-fuel debate for Earth Island Journal. Now I’ve written about women landowners and soil conservation for YES! Magazine. Here’s an excerpt:

Participants of WFAN's Women Caring for the Land program learn about soil conservation (Photo courtesy of WFAN).

Participants of the Women Caring for the Land program learn about soil conservation. The program is organized by the Women, Food and Agriculture Network, based in Iowa (Photo courtesy of WFAN).

Women Over 65 Own Nearly a Third of Iowa’s Farmland: Can They Prevent the Next Dust Bowl?

By Sena Christian

In her late 50s, Alice Ramsay returned to the Iowa farm where she’d grown up. She had graduated college in Missouri and spent most of her adulthood in Colorado employed as a teacher. But after her parents passed away, she bought up the inherited land from her brother and sister, and, in 2000, she moved back.

“I’d been gone for 30 years and I never had an idea I would come back to the farm—never ever,” Ramsay says. “But here I am. So I had to start at the ground level and go from there.”

Ramsay, now 72, first needed to get caught up on what was happening on the land she now owned, about 20 miles west of Des Moines. It was about 180 acres of hilly land that sloped down to the South Raccoon River. The rolling landscape made the land challenging to farm, and soil and water runoff from the higher ground constituted an ongoing issue. Oak savannas grew near the river, and grasslands surrounded a pond. A country road cut through the middle of the property.

A farmer had been renting the whole farm, where he grew corn and beans and raised cattle. Like her father, who bought the farm in 1943 and worked on it until his death, in 1992, Ramsay valued the conservation of this special place, a philosophy reinforced during her 10 years volunteering with a wildlife and education organization. “My purpose was to come back and do what’s right for the land,” she says.

… Read the rest of the article here …

Is Cellulosic Ethanol the Next Big Thing in Renewable Fuels?

Don’t get too excited, but here we have the third article in my series on alternative farming and food systems, which I’m working on as a Ted Scripps Fellow in Environmental Journalism in Colorado. And you can expect my fourth article to publish within the coming weeks. I’ve been one busy bee! My first piece was on the challenges of urban farming for Earth Island Journal. Next up: efforts to encourage military veterans to become farmers, written for Newsweek. My latest article is on the commercialization of cellulosic ethanol and its role in the food-versus-fuel debate for EIJ. Wham bam, thank you ma’am! Here’s an excerpt:

Michael Crowley, a senior scientist with the Chemical and Biosciences Center at NREL, created an animated model of Cel7A, which is nature’s primary enzyme for decaying plants. Visualizing the enzyme’s process could help scientists bioengineer a version that accelerates the cellulosic ethanol process. (Photo by Pat Corkery/courtesy of NREL).

Michael Crowley, a scientist with the NREL, created an animated model of Cel7A, which is nature’s primary enzyme for decaying plants. Visualizing the enzyme’s process could help scientists bioengineer a version that accelerates the cellulosic ethanol process. (Photo by Pat Corkery/courtesy of NREL).

Is Cellulosic Ethanol the Next Big Thing in Renewable Fuels?

Ongoing efforts to commercialize this clean energy source may lead the US to a more independent energy future

By Sena Christian

For a long time it seemed like turning the inedible parts of plants into a commercially viable biofuel, known as cellulosic ethanol, was nothing more than a pipedream. The enzymes needed to release sugars from cellulose — the fiber that forms plant structure — to be fermented into ethanol were inefficient and expensive. And the cellulose found in virtually every plant, flower, tree, grass, and bush is by its very nature evolved to withstand decay.

Ethanol can be derived from sugar-based, corn-based, and cellulose-based materials. In Brazil, sugarcane is the feedstock of choice, while in the United States that designation goes to corn. The starch in corn kernels easily converts into simple sugars, with the enzyme catalyzing this process costing a mere .03-cents per gallon; the sugars are then fermented into alcohol (additives make it undrinkable). Because of the relatively low cost, corn-based ethanol has been meeting America’s demand for an alternative fuel source, especially as people drive less and fuel economy improves.

Why even bother with cellulosic ethanol? For one, there’s the questionable carbon footprint of corn ethanol, which, depending on how it is produced, can be significantly better or significantly worse than that of petroleum. Greenhouse-gas emissions from cellulosic ethanol, on the other hand, are estimated to be roughly 86 percent lessthan petroleum sources. And using cellulosic materials doesn’t create a food-versus-fuel scenario. Ramping up production of the biofuel could reduce the nation’s reliance on imported oil. In 2012, the US imported about 40 percent of the petroleum it consumed, nearly three-quarters of which fueled transportation around the country. The US government also spends millions of dollars on military support to keep oil shipping lanes open; money that could go toward domestic needs instead.

… Read the rest of the article here …

Farming Could Save Veterans, and Vice Versa

Here is the second article in my series on alternative farming and food systems. My first article was on the challenges of urban farming for Earth Island Journal. This time I focus on military veterans and farming for Newsweek. Here’s an excerpt:

Evan Premer, a 15-year veteran of the Army National Guard, grows food in a greenhouse for his business, Dirtless Farm, in Colorado. Becoming a farmer has helped Premer manage his PTSD. (Photo by Cole Allen).

Evan Premer, an Army National Guard veteran, grows food in a greenhouse for his business, Dirtless Farm, in Colorado. Becoming a farmer has helped Premer manage his PTSD. (Photo by Cole Allen).

Farmers Could Save Veterans, and Vice Versa

By Sena Christian

Mornings are the hardest for Evan Premer, although nights aren’t much easier. His sleep, wracked with nightmares of war and violence, has no consistent pattern, so he often wakes up feeling tired and overwhelmed. But he does have a game plan for feeling better: Once he rises from bed, he hits the road, turning up the music in his Jeep on his drive to a greenhouse in the small town of Firestone, Colorado. Here he feels more relaxed, listening as water hydrates his plants. There are no cubicle walls or phones ringing or colleagues arguing. This is the office that works for him.

Premer, who is now 36, served 15 years in the military, most recently as a Colorado Army National Guardsman in Iraq. In basic training, he and his fellow soldiers were taught to only show strength. “You never let the enemy see your weaknesses,” he says. “And that’s why I’m so broken today.” When Premer returned from the Middle East in 2007, he studied photography in college for a while. But the strobes and flashing lights he had to use triggered bad memories of his time in war, so he gave it up.

Richard Murphy is program manager of the nonprofit Veterans to Farmers in Colorado. (Photo by Cole Allen).

Richard Murphy is program manager of Veterans to Farmers in Colorado. (Photo by Cole Allen).

Premer manages his post-traumatic stress disorder by growing food. About two years ago, he and his mother started a business, now called Dirtless Farm, growing microgreens, baby greens and culinary herbs for local restaurants. Premer had previously trained at Circle Fresh Farms in Denver, which is run by an ex-Marine, Buck Adams, who also founded the nonprofit Veterans to Farmers. At Circle Fresh, Premer learned about aeroponic production, a space-saving system where vegetables are grown out of vertical towers year-round, with no soil and little water. He can grow all sorts of produce, from vine plants like tomatoes, strawberries and eggplants to leafy greens and herbs.

He might also help save American farming. The average U.S. farmer or rancher is 58 years old, and many of them will soon retire. Most of these farmers don’t have a succession plan for their business or land, and that lack of planning makes farmland more vulnerable to development, and small-scale family farms easier for corporations to gobble up. That’s why the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is calling for at least 100,000 new farmers in the coming years.

… Read the rest of the article here …

Cities Figure Out How To Accommodate Urban Farming

For my Ted Scripps Fellowship in Environmental Journalism, I’m focusing on projects related to sustainable farming. I’ll be writing several articles on this subject over the course of the next nine months, and have begun with one for Earth Island Journal on how cities facilitate or impede urban farming. Here’s an excerpt:

Anne Cure owns and operates Cure Organic Farm outside the city limits of Boulder, Colorado. She rents eight acres of open space from the City of Boulder. (Photo/Cole Allen)

Anne Cure runs Cure Organic Farm outside the city limits of Boulder, CO. (Photo/Cole Allen)

Across the US, Cities Struggle to Figure Out How to Accommodate Urban Farming

Widespread interest in urban agriculture is forcing local authorities to re-examine rules that prohibit farming in cities

By Sena Christian

Sacramento has worked diligently over the past two years to brand itself as America’s farm-to-fork capital, hosting local food festivals, wine tastings, and gala dinners featuring the city’s premier chefs. Tickets for this year’s dinner, at $175 dollars each, sold out in five minutes. The Sacramento Convention and Visitors Bureau has even organized a cattle drive and tractor parade through downtown.

Sure, nearly 1.4 million acres of farmland exist around the city, which is located in California’s vast and fertile Central Valley region, and the climate is amenable to growing produce year-round (drought complications notwithstanding). But there are no urban farms in Sacramento. The closest and most prominent urban farm, the 55-acre Soil Born Farms, exists outside the city limits.

Sacramento is relatively progressive when it comes to gardening: The city already allows frontyard vegetable gardens, urban chickens, and community gardens on private land and runs 13 community gardens on public land. But farming — that is, growing crops to sell — has fallen behind.

… Read the rest of the article here …

It’s Go Time

I’ve been in Boulder for a month now. Moved here from Northern California to take part in the Ted Scripps Fellowship in Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado. After moving here and settling in, and brief forays to New York for a wedding and New Orleans for the annual Society of Environmental Journalists conference, I finally had a moment to pause and think … and realize I had gone three whole weeks without writing a single article! What the heck?! That’s a record for me. Determined not to waste another second, I have officially begun my fellowship project, focusing on sustainable farming. I interviewed farmers from Indiana, Illinois, California and Colorado this week, including the operator of Cure Organic Farm and interns with the Farmer Cultivation Center (see below):

Anne Cure owns and operates Cure Organic Farm in Boulder, Colorado.

Anne Cure owns and operates Cure Organic Farm in Boulder, Colorado. (Photo/Cole Allen)

Mel Piazza is a first-year intern at the Farmer Cultivation Center in Niwot, Colorado.

Mel Piazza is a first-year intern at the Farmer Cultivation Center in Niwot, Colorado. (Photo/Cole Allen)