Drought Specter 2009

February 23, 2009

One of the critical realities of 2009 is that national and global droughts are poised to have a profound impact on food cost and availability. The signals are plain, strong, insistent.

droughtThe epic, ongoing droughts in Texas and California, as well as in China, South America, the Middle East, Southern Africa, Australia, and a host of other regions, along with collapsing economic conditions, represent a mountain of harsh realities. Together, they render the issue of food security as imperative for 2009. Households, neighborhoods, and wider communities would be wise to set their responses in motion now.

Across the USA, vast swaths of the West, the Southeast, and the upper Midwest are abnormally dry. Major news sources are telling the tale, including The New York Times, Reuters, and the San Jose Mercury News; a wider and more concerning picture is offered by the National Integrated Drought Information System, and the Global Drought Monitor.

California’s Central Valley, a crucial agricultural region, is being rocked by the drought and by the economy. On February 20 federal officials were forced to announce that they are unlikely to be able to provide water for the upcoming growing season in vast parts of the valley. What happens there – and elsewhere — will have wide reverberations.

California produces over half of the fruit, vegetables and nuts grown in the USA. It is the major producer of tomatoes, almonds, avocados, grapes, artichokes, onions, lettuce, and olives, and also produces dozens of other crops including spinach, broccoli, cantaloupes, strawberries, sweet corn, and bell peppers

The slashed water supply will be a staggering blow for thousands of farmers in the Central Valley, the agricultural heartland of California, the USA’s No. 1 farm state.

This dry year comes on the heels of two previous critically dry years. If the drought continues, as meteorologists predict, it may well have catastrophic consequences.

Across the valley, towns are already seeing some of the worst unemployment in the country, with rates three and four times the national average, as well as reported increases in all manner of social ills: drug use, excessive drinking and rises in hunger and domestic violence.

Farmers are also reckoning with the collapsing economy at large. Tight bank credit is impacting farmers everywhere; they need to borrow money to be able to afford to plant crops. Fewer loans means meager planting.

Many farmers will attempt to tap groundwater. But water tables are already low after heavy pumping last year. Some observers who monitor the situation see the possibility of severe problems, including possible dust-bowl conditions in large patches of fallow ground.

As farmers are preparing for dry times; so should households, neighborhoods, and larger communities. There are dozens of established, working models of what can be done to increase food security. Many of those models are noted on the links page of this blog.
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Skilled Earth Stewards Seek Opportunity

February 17, 2009

Two friends, Barbara Scott and Woody Wodraska, have informed me that they are now seeking an opportunity to share their life skills and insights as earth stewards and teachers on the land.

barbara_woodyThey are seeking a situation in North America – a farm, a community, or an educational setting — where they can uphold a vision focusing on education, nutrition and right relationship.  They have a vast array of skills and insights that will mesh and amplify the efforts of communities or institutions striving to grow food in beauty, abundance, and right relationship with nature.

Woody and Barbara have lived and breathed conscious agriculture for many years. As a consequence they have, individually and as a couple, mastered skills ranging from planning, composting, planting, harvesting, seed saving, animal husbandry, and general stewardship of land.

You can learn more about them, their work, and the opportunity at hand on their website, Soul Medicine Journey.


Networks of Hope in the Heartland

February 12, 2009

I’ve long admired the elegant writing of Verlyn Klinkenborg in The New York Times, and so I was  pleased this week when he once again turned the focus of the editorial notebook to an agrarian matter, and offered an essay of hope.

“When I was born in 1952,” Klinkenborg wrote, “there were 203,000 farms in Iowa, only 11,000 fewer than when my dad was born in 1926. By 2002, the number had dropped to about 90,000, with roughly the same acreage in production.” He pointed out that national numbers followed the same track over recent decades: fewer and bigger farms, greater industrialization of our land and food.

indust1Industrialization of our land has yielded cheap food, but also a harvest of perverse consequences: shattered lives and communities, toxic land and water, dehumanizing mechanized work for men and women, and food of dubious quality.

But change is quietly afoot. According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, some 4,000 new small farms have been created in Iowa since 2002. These are small farms, 9 acres or less, typically being run by young farmers, and bringing forth a wide array of crops.

“To me,” Klinkenborg observes, “this is where the new passion for local foods finds its real meaning, and the best news is that Iowa is not alone. Nationwide, there are some 300,000 new farms since 2002. And the farmers? More diverse than ever, including a higher number of women. This is a genuine source of hope for American agriculture.”

Groups across North America are spurring and supporting these kinds of healthy developments, and yielding a range of emerging models. Because they are helping to lead the way, three groups deserve acknowledgment, and emulation.

One is the Iowa Network for Community Agriculture (INCA), which cultivates networked connections to create healthy and fair local food systems that sustain food producers, consumers, and the environment

Another is the Northeast Food & Fitness Initiative, based in five Iowa counties. It’s one of nine projects supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in an effort to create models of change.

Under the aegis of the Food & Fitness project, planning teams from the five Counties meet monthly to determine local assets, learn about possibilities, and define their vision. Over 500 people from all sectors (including public health, education, agriculture, business, government, faith communities, parks and recreation) are engaged.

A third group, the Northeast Iowa Food & Farm Coalition has a mission of building a strong local food and farm economy by supporting the marketing, processing, and storage of locally grown agricultural products.

Similar groups across North America are quietly but steadily responsing to the unfolding economic and environmental realities, and to the call of the land.

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Family Food Security: Get Your Garden Going

February 6, 2009

Amid the turbulence of transition, small actions have major cumulative effects. We stand at a precarious moment in terms of food security, both nationally and internationally. But it is also a moment of opportunity for engaged citizens to respond actively and intelligently.

The immense challenges that we face in the realms of economy, environment and food security are the sum total of countless everyday choices people make about what to buy and what to eat. Therefore, beginning at the level of individual households, we have the opportunity to transform our relationship to the land by becoming neighborhood agrarians.

By taking steps now to ensure family and neighborhood food security, our individual actions can have a collective impact that metamorphoses into public solutions.

While preparing to write The Call of the Land, I interviewed Steve Diver of Sustainable Growth Texas. He had many pertinent observations to make.

quarter-acre“With peak oil, an unstable economy, and climate change – people are wondering how to get by. I see a big part of the answer as self-sufficiency and sustainability…

“As an agricultural specialist now working with farmers and gardeners, teaching them about food production, I have learned. It takes time to get skills, tools, and improve soil.  Realistically, it takes about three years to get a new garden together.

“One thing I have developed over the last 10 years is an appreciation of the whole system of production around a ¼ acre garden. It turns out the dacha gardens in Russia are typically about a ¼ acre in size, and also the gardens under old serf system in Medieval times were that size.

“As it turns out, that’s a good size for a ‘country garden’ – about 104 feet long, by 104 feet wide. With a garden that size you can grow corn, okra, green beans, potatoes, beets, and more. that kind of garden requires a lot of work, but can feed a family of four or five people.


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