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Glyphosate News and Facts

Glyphosate News and Facts PMIntroduction

Glyphosate [N-(phosphonomethyl)glycine] is a broad-spectrum systemic herbicide and crop desiccant. It is an organophosphorus compound, specifically a phosphonate, which acts by inhibiting the plant enzyme 5-enolpyruvylshikimate-3-phosphate synthase. It is used to kill weeds, especially annual broadleaf weeds and grasses that compete with crops.

Monsanto brought it to market for agricultural use in 1974 under the trade name Roundup, but its last commercially relevant United States patent expired in 2000.

Farmers quickly adopted glyphosate for agricultural weed control, especially after Monsanto introduced glyphosate-resistant Roundup Ready crops, enabling farmers to kill weeds without killing their crops. In 2007, glyphosate was the most used herbicide in the United States’ agricultural sector and the second-most used (after 2,4-D) in home and garden, government and industry, and commercial applications. From the late 1970s to 2016, there was a 100-fold increase in the frequency and volume of application of glyphosate-based herbicides (GBHs) worldwide, with further increases expected in the future, partly in response to the global emergence and spread of glyphosate-resistant weeds requiring greater application to maintain effectiveness. The development of glyphosate resistance in weed species is emerging as a costly problem.

Glyphosate is absorbed through foliage, and minimally through roots, and transported to growing points. It inhibits a plant enzyme involved in the synthesis of three aromatic amino acids: tyrosine, tryptophan, and phenylalanine. It is therefore effective only on actively growing plants and is not effective as a pre-emergence herbicide. An increasing number of crops have been genetically engineered to be tolerant of glyphosate (e.g. Roundup Ready soybean, the first Roundup Ready crop, also created by Monsanto), which allows farmers to use glyphosate as a post-emergence herbicide against weeds.

While glyphosate and formulations such as Roundup have been approved by regulatory bodies worldwide, concerns about their effects on humans and the environment persist, and have grown as the global usage of glyphosate increases.

With that expanded usage, of course, go expanded sales. Glyphosate has become a billion dollar product for Monsanto and the decision of a single health agency as to its safety can mean the gain or loss of $100 million in annual sales in a single country.

In March 2015, for example, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic in humans” (category 2A) based on epidemiological studies, animal studies, and in vitro studies. In contrast, the European Food Safety Authority concluded in November 2015 that “the substance is unlikely to be genotoxic (i.e. damaging to DNA) or to pose a carcinogenic threat to humans”, later clarifying that while carcinogenic glyphosate-containing formulations may exist, studies “that look solely at the active substance glyphosate do not show this effect.”

How can such differences exist in hard scientific opinion? It turns out that the European Agency based its findings on data a German institution put together which was drawn from a report created by the Glyphosate Task Force, a consortium of chemical companies, including Monsanto, with the stated goal of winning renewal of glyphosate’s registration in Europe. Greenpeace called the EFSA’s report a “whitewash” that relied heavily on unpublished studies commissioned by glyphosate producers while dismissing published peer-reviewed evidence that glyphosate causes cancer. This sort of active effort by Monsanto and the chemical industry to contest criticism of their products is rampant in regulatory decision-making.

Discovery

Glyphosate was first synthesized in 1950 by Swiss chemist Henry Martin, who worked for the Swiss company Cilag. The work was never published. Stauffer Chemical patented the agent as a chemical chelator in 1964 as it binds and removes minerals such as calcium, magnesium, manganese, copper, and zinc.

Somewhat later, glyphosate was independently discovered in the United States at Monsanto in 1970. Monsanto chemists had synthesized about 100 derivatives of aminomethylphosphonic acid as potential water-softening agents. Two were found to have weak herbicidal activity, and John E. Franz, a chemist at Monsanto, was asked to try to make analogs with stronger herbicidal activity. Glyphosate was the third analog he made. Franz received the National Medal of Technology of the United States in 1987 and the Perkin Medal for Applied Chemistry in 1990 for his discoveries.

Monsanto developed and patented the use of glyphosate to kill weeds in the early 1970s and first brought it to market in 1974, under the Roundup brand name. While its initial patent expired in 1991, Monsanto retained exclusive rights in the United States until its patent on the isopropylamine salt expired in September 2000.

Mode of action

Glyphosate is such a valuable product largely because of its widespread effectiveness. In 2008, United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientist Stephen O. Duke and Stephen B. Powles—an Australian weed expert—described glyphosate as a “virtually ideal” herbicide.

Glyphosate interferes with the shikimate pathway, which produces the aromatic amino acids phenylalanine, tyrossine, and tryptophan in plants and microorganisms – but does not exist in the genome of mammals, including humans. It blocks this pathway by inhibiting an enzyme which catalyzes this reaction.

Glyphosate is absorbed through foliage and minimally through roots, meaning that it is only effective on actively growing plants and cannot prevent seeds from germinating. After application, glyphosate is readily transported around the plant to growing roots and leaves and this systemic activity is important for its effectiveness. Inhibiting the enzyme causes shikimate to accumulate in plant tissues and diverts energy and resources away from other processes, eventually killing the plant. While growth stops within hours of application, it takes several days for the leaves to begin turning yellow.

Uses

Glyphosate is effective in killing a wide variety of plants, including grasses and broadleaf and woody plants. By volume, it is one of the most widely used herbicides. In 2007, glyphosate was the most used herbicide in the United States agricultural sector, with 180 to 185 million pounds (82,000 to 84,000 tons) applied, the second-most used in home and garden with 5 to 8 million pounds (2,300 to 3,600 tons) and government applied 13 to 15 million pounds (5,900 to 6,800 tons) in industry and commerce. It is commonly used for agriculture, horticulture, viticulture, and silviculture purposes, as well as garden maintenance (including home use). It has a relatively small effect on some clover species and morning glory.

Glyphosate and related herbicides are often used in invasive species eradication and habitat restoration, especially to enhance native plant establishment in prairie ecosystems. The controlled application is usually combined with a selective herbicide and traditional methods of weed eradication such as mulching to achieve an optimal effect.

In many cities, glyphosate is sprayed along the sidewalks and streets, as well as crevices in between pavement where weeds often grow. However, up to 24% of glyphosate applied to hard surfaces can be run off by water. Glyphosate contamination of surface water is attributed to urban and agricultural use. Glyphosate is used to clear railroad tracks and get rid of unwanted aquatic vegetation. Since 1994, glyphosate has been used in aerial spraying in Colombia in coca eradication programs; Colombia announced in May 2015 that by October, it would cease using glyphosate in these programs due to concerns about human toxicity of the chemical.

Glyphosate is also used for crop desiccation (siccation) to increase harvest yield and uniformity. Glyphosate itself is not a chemical desiccant; rather glyphosate application just before harvest kills the crop plants so that the food crop dries from environmental conditions (“dry-down”) more quickly and evenly. Because glyphosate is systemic, excess residue levels can persist in plants due to incorrect application and this may render the crop unfit for sale. When applied appropriately, it can promote useful effects. In sugarcane, for example, glyphosate application increases sucrose concentration before harvest. In grain crops (wheat, barley, oats), uniformly dried crops do not have to be windrowed (swathed and dried) prior to harvest, but can easily be straight-cut and harvested. This saves the farmer time and money, which is important in northern regions where the growing season is short, and it enhances grain storage when the grain has a lower and more uniform moisture content.

Genetically modified crops

Some micro-organisms are resistant to glyphosate inhibition. A version of an enzyme that was both resistant to glyphosate and that was still efficient enough to drive adequate plant growth was identified by Monsanto scientists after much trial and error in an Agrobacterium strain called CP4, which was found surviving in a waste-fed column at a glyphosate production facility. This CP4 EPSPS gene was cloned and transfected into soybeans. In 1996, genetically modified soybeans were made commercially available. Current glyphosate-resistant crops include soy, maize (corn), canola, alfalfa, sugar beets, and cotton, with wheat still under development.

In 2015, 89% of corn, 94% of soybeans, and 89% of cotton produced in the United States were from strains that were genetically modified to be herbicide-tolerant.

Environmental fate

Glyphosate adsorbs strongly to soil, and residues are expected to generally be immobile in soil. (Adsorbtion is the taking up of organic compounds by soils or sediments) Glyphosate is readily degraded by soil microbes to aminomethylphosphonic acid (AMPA, which like glyphosate strongly adsorbs to soil solids and is thus unlikely to leach to groundwater). Though both glyphosate and AMPA are commonly detected in water bodies, a portion of the AMPA detected may actually be the result of degradation of detergents rather than from glyphosate. Glyphosate does have the potential to contaminate surface waters due to its aquatic use patterns and through erosion, as it adsorbs to soil particles suspended in runoff.

Detection in surface waters (particularly downstream from agricultural uses) has been reported as both broad and frequent by USGS researchers, although other similar research found equal frequencies of detection in urban-dominated small streams. Rain events can trigger dissolved glyphosate loss in transport-prone soils. The mechanism of glyphosate sorption to soil is similar to that of phosphate fertilizers, the presence of which can reduce glyphosate sorption. Phosphate fertilizers are subject to release from sediments into water bodies under anaerobic conditions, and similar release can also occur with glyphosate, though significant impact of glyphosate release from sediments has not been established. Limited leaching can occur after high rainfall after application. If glyphosate reaches surface water, it is not broken down readily by water or sunlight.

The half-life of glyphosate in soil ranges between 2 and 197 days; a typical field half-life of 47 days has been suggested. Soil and climate conditions affect glyphosate’s persistence in soil. The median half-life of glyphosate in water varies from a few to 91 days. At a site in Texas, half-life was as little as three days. A site in Iowa had a half-life of 141.9 days. The glyphosate metabolite AMPA has been found in Swedish forest soils up to two years after a glyphosate application. In this case, the persistence of AMPA was attributed to the soil being frozen for most of the year. Glyphosate adsorption to soil, and later release from soil, varies depending on the kind of soil. Glyphosate is generally less persistent in water than in soil, with 12- to 60-day persistence observed in Canadian ponds, although persistence of over a year has been recorded in the sediments of American ponds. The half-life of glyphosate in water is between 12 days and 10 weeks.

Residues in food products

According to the National Pesticide Information Center fact sheet, glyphosate is not included in compounds tested for by the Food and Drug Administration’s Pesticide Residue Monitoring Program, nor in the United States Department of Agriculture’s Pesticide Data Program. However, a field test showed that lettuce, carrots, and barley contained glyphosate residues up to one year after the soil was treated with 3.71 lb of glyphosate per acre (4.15 kg per hectare). The U.S. has determined the acceptable daily intake of glyphosate at 1.75 milligrams per kilogram of bodyweight per day (mg/kg/bw/day) while the European Union has set it at 0.5.

Pesticide residue controls carried out by EU Member States in 2016 analysed 6,761 samples of food products for glyphosate residues. 3.6% of the samples contained quantifiable glyphosate residue levels with 19 samples (0.28%) exceeding the European maximum residue levels (MRLs), which included six samples of honey and other apicultural products (MRL = 0.05 mg/kg) and eleven samples of buckwheat and other pseudocereals (MRL = 0.1 mg/kg). Glyphosate residues below the European MRLs were most frequently found in dry lentils, linseeds, soya beans, dry peas, tea, buckwheat, barley, wheat and rye.

Toxicity

Glyphosate is the active ingredient in herbicide formulations containing it. However, in addition to glyphosate salts, commercial formulations of glyphosate contain additives (known as adjuvants) such as surfactants, which vary in nature and concentration. Surfactants such as polyethoxylated tallow amine (POEA) are added to glyphosate to enable it to wet the leaves and penetrate the cuticle of the plants.

Glyphosate alone

Humans

The acute oral toxicity for mammals is low, but death has been reported after deliberate overdose of concentrated formulations. The surfactants in glyphosate formulations can increase the relative acute toxicity of the formulation. In a 2017 risk assessment, the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) wrote: “There is very limited information on skin irritation in humans. Where skin irritation has been reported, it is unclear whether it is related to glyphosate or co-formulants in glyphosate-containing herbicide formulations.” The ECHA concluded that available human data was insufficient to support classification for skin corrosion or irritation. Inhalation is a minor route of exposure, but spray mist may cause oral or nasal discomfort, an unpleasant taste in the mouth, or tingling and irritation in the throat. Eye exposure may lead to mild conjunctivitis. Superficial corneal injury is possible if irrigation is delayed or inadequate.

Cancer

The question whether labeled uses of glyphosate have demonstrated evidence of human carcinogenicity is hotly contested. A number of European agencies have concluded that there is no evidence that glyphosate poses a carcinogenic or genotoxic risk to humans. The EPA has classified glyphosate as “not likely to be carcinogenic to humans.” One international scientific organization, however, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, classified glyphosate in Group 2A, “probably carcinogenic to humans” in 2015.

There is evidence human cancer risk might increase as a result of occupational exposure to large amounts of glyphosate, such as agricultural work. According to one systematic review and meta-analysis published in 2016, when weak statistical associations with cancer have been found, such observations have been attributed to bias and confounding in correlational studies due to workers often being exposed to other known carcinogens. The review reported that studies that show an effect between glyphosate use and non-Hodgkin lymphoma have been criticized for not assessing these factors, underlying quality of studies being reviewed, or whether the relationship is causal rather than only correlational. Writing for the Natural Resources Defense Council environmental advocacy group, h owever, Jennifer Sass criticized the influence exerted by Monsanto on research about glyphosate safety, and noted that the review was funded by Monsanto.

A meta-analysis published in 2019 looked at whether there was an association between an increased risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma in humans and high cumulative exposures to glyphosate-based herbicides. The analysis used the most recent update of the Agricultural Health Study cohort published in 2018 and five case-control studies published in 2019. The research found a “compelling link” between exposures to glyphosate-based herbicides and increased risk for non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Other mammals

Amongst mammals, glyphosate is considered to have “low to very low toxicity”. The LD50 of glyphosate is 5,000 mg/kg for rats, 10,000 mg/kg in mice and 3,530 mg/kg in goats. The acute dermal LD50 in rabbits is greater than 2,000 mg/kg. Indications of glyphosate toxicity in animals typically appear within 30 to 120 minutes following ingestion of a large enough dose, and include initial excitability and tachycardia (a rapid heart rate), ataxia (impaired coordination), depression, and bradycardia (abnormally slow heart action), although severe toxicity can develop into collapse and convulsions.

A review of unpublished short-term rabbit-feeding studies reported severe toxicity effects at 150 mg/kg/day and “no observed adverse effect level” doses ranging from 50 to 200 mg/kg/day. Glyphosate can have carcinogenic effects in nonhuman mammals. In reproductive toxicity studies performed in rats and rabbits, no adverse maternal or offspring effects were seen at doses below 175–293 mg/kg of body weight per day.

Glyphosate-based herbicides may cause life-threatening arrhythmias in mammals. Evidence also shows that such herbicides cause direct electrophysiological changes in the cardiovascular systems of rats and rabbits.

Aquatic fauna

In many freshwater invertebrates, glyphosate has a 48-hour LC50 ranging from 55 to 780 ppm. The 96-hour LC50 is 281 ppm for grass shrimp (Palaemonetas vulgaris) and 934 ppm for fiddler crabs (Uca pagilator). These values make glyphosate “slightly toxic to practically non-toxic”.

Antimicrobial activity

The antimicrobial activity of glyphosate has been described in the microbiology literature since its discovery in 1970 and the description of glyphosate’s mechanism of action in 1972. Efficacy was described for numerous bacteria and fungi. Glyphosate can control the growth of apicomplexan parasites, such as Toxoplasma gondii, Plasmodium falciparum (malaria), and Cryptosporidium parvum, and has been considered an antimicrobial agent in mammals. Inhibition can occur with some Rhizobium species important for soybean nitrogen fixation, especially under moisture stress.

Soil biota

When glyphosate comes into contact with the soil, it can be bound to soil particles, thereby slowing its degradation. A 2016 meta-analysis concluded that at typical application rates glyphosate had no effect on soil microbial biomass or respiration. A 2016 review noted that contrasting effects of glyphosate on earthworms have been found in different experiments with some species unaffected, but others losing weight or avoiding treated soil. Further research is required to determine the impact of glyphosate on earthworms in complex ecosystems.

Endocrine disruption

In 2007, the EPA selected glyphosate for further screening through its Endocrine Disruptor Screening Program (EDSP). Selection for this program is based on a compound’s prevalence of use and does not imply particular suspicion of endocrine activity. On June 29, 2015, the EPA released Weight of Evidence Conclusion of the EDSP Tier 1 screening for glyphosate, recommending that glyphosate not be considered for Tier 2 testing. The Weight of Evidence conclusion stated “…there was no convincing evidence of potential interaction with the estrogen, androgen or thyroid pathways.” A review of the evidence by the European Food Safety Authority published in September 2017 showed conclusions similar to those of the EPA report.

Effect on plant health

Some studies have found causal relationships between glyphosate and increased or decreased disease resistance. Exposure to glyphosate has been shown to change the species composition of endophytic bacteria in plant hosts, which is highly variable.

Glyphosate-based formulations

Glyphosate-based formulations may contain a number of adjuvants, the identities of which may be proprietary. Surfactants are used in herbicide formulations as wetting agents, to maximize coverage and aid penetration of the herbicide(s) through plant leaves. As agricultural spray adjuvants, surfactants may be pre-mixed into commercial formulations or they may be purchased separately and mixed on-site.

Polyethoxylated tallow amine (POEA) is a surfactant used in the original Roundup formulation and was commonly used in 2015. Different versions of Roundup have included different percentages of POEA. A 1997 US government report said that Roundup is 15% POEA while Roundup Pro is 14.5%. Since POEA is more toxic to fish and amphibians than glyphosate alone, POEA is not allowed in aquatic formulations. A 2000 review of the ecotoxicological data on Roundup shows at least 58 studies exist on the effects of Roundup on a range of organisms. This review concluded that “…for terrestrial uses of Roundup minimal acute and chronic risk was predicted for potentially exposed non-target organisms”.

Human

Acute toxicity and chronic toxicity are dose-related. Skin exposure to ready-to-use concentrated glyphosate formulations can cause irritation, and photocontact dermatitis has been occasionally reported. These effects are probably due to the preservative benzisothiazolin-3-one. Severe skin burns are very rare. Inhalation is a minor route of exposure, but spray mist may cause oral or nasal discomfort, an unpleasant taste in the mouth, or tingling and irritation in the throat. Eye exposure may lead to mild conjunctivitis. Superficial corneal injury is possible if irrigation is delayed or inadequate. Death has been reported after deliberate overdose.

Ingestion of Roundup ranging from 85 to 200 ml (of 41% solution) has resulted in death within hours of ingestion, although it has also been ingested in quantities as large as 500 ml with only mild or moderate symptoms. Adult consumption of more than 85 ml of concentrated product can lead to corrosive esophageal burns and kidney or liver damage. More severe cases cause “respiratory distress, impaired consciousness, pulmonary edema, infiltration on chest X-ray, shock, arrhythmias, renal failure requiring haemodialysis, metabolic acidosis, and hyperkalaemia” and death is often preceded by bradycardia and ventricular arrhythmias. While the surfactants in formulations generally do not increase the toxicity of glyphosate itself, it is likely that they contribute to its acute toxicity.

A 2000 review concluded that “under present and expected conditions of new use, there is no potential for Roundup herbicide to pose a health risk to humans”. A 2012 meta-analysis of epidemiological studies (seven cohort studies and fourteen case-control studies) of exposure to glyphosate formulations found no correlation with any kind of cancer. The 2013 systematic review by the German Institute for Risk Assessment of epidemiological studies of workers who use pesticides, exposed to glyphosate formulations found no significant risk, stating that “the available data are contradictory and far from being convincing”. However, a 2014 meta-analysis of the same studies found a correlation between occupational exposure to glyphosate formulations and increased risk of B cell lymphoma, the most common kind of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Workers exposed to glyphosate were about twice as likely to get B cell lymphoma. A 2016 systematic review and meta-analysis found no causal relationship between glyphosate exposure and risk of any type of lymphohematopoietic cancer including non-Hodgkin lymphoma and multiple myeloma. The same review noted that the positive associations found may be due to bias and confounding. The Natural Resources Defense Council has criticized that review, noting that it was funded by Monsanto.

A 2015 systematic review of observational studies found that except for an excess of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder among children born to glyphosate appliers, no evidence that glyphosate exposure among pregnant mothers caused adverse developmental outcomes in their children. Noting the limited size and scope of the review articles available, the authors noted that “these negative findings cannot be taken as definitive evidence that glyphosate, at current levels of occupational and environmental exposures, brings no risk for human development and reproduction.”

Aquatic fauna

Glyphosate products for aquatic use generally do not use surfactants, and aquatic formulations do not use POEA due to aquatic organism toxicity. Due to the presence of POEA, such glyphosate formulations only allowed for terrestrial use are more toxic for amphibians and fish than glyphosate alone. The half-life of POEA (21–42 days) is longer than that for glyphosate (7–14 days) in aquatic environments. Aquatic organism exposure risk to terrestrial formulations with POEA is limited to drift or temporary water pockets where concentrations would be much lower than label rates.

Some researchers have suggested the toxicity effects of pesticides on amphibians may be different from those of other aquatic fauna because of their lifestyle; amphibians may be more susceptible to the toxic effects of pesticides because they often prefer to breed in shallow, lentic, or ephemeral pools. These habitats do not necessarily constitute formal water-bodies and can contain higher concentrations of pesticide compared to larger water-bodies. Studies in a variety of amphibians have shown the toxicity of GBFs (glypohosate-based formulations) containing POEA to amphibian larvae. These effects include interference with gill morphology and mortality from either the loss of osmotic stability or asphyxiation. At sub-lethal concentrations, exposure to POEA or glyphosate/POEA formulations have been associated with delayed development, accelerated development, reduced size at metamorphosis, developmental malformations of the tail, mouth, eye and head, histological indications of intersex and symptoms of oxidative stress. Glyphosate-based formulations can cause oxidative stress in bullfrog tadpoles.

A 2003 study of various formulations of glyphosate found, “[the] risk assessments based on estimated and measured concentrations of glyphosate that would result from its use for the control of undesirable plants in wetlands and over-water situations showed that the risk to aquatic organisms is negligible or small at application rates less than 4 kg/ha and only slightly greater at application rates of 8 kg/ha.”

A 2013 meta-analysis reviewed the available data related to potential impacts of glyphosate-based herbicides on amphibians. According to the authors, the use of glyphosate-based pesticides cannot be considered the major cause of amphibian decline, the bulk of which occurred prior to the widespread use of glyphosate or in pristine tropical areas with minimal glyphosate exposure. The authors recommended further study of species- and development-stage chronic toxicity, of environmental glyphosate levels, and ongoing analysis of data relevant to determining what if any role glyphosate might be playing in worldwide amphibian decline, and suggest including amphibians in standardized test batteries.

Genetic damage

Several studies have not found mutagenic effects, so glyphosate has not been listed in the United States Environmental Protection Agency or the International Agency for Research on Cancer databases. Various other studies suggest glyphosate may be mutagenic. The IARC monograph noted that glyphosate-based formulations can cause DNA strand breaks in various taxa of animals in vitro.

Legal cases

Lawsuits claiming liability for cancer

In June 2018, Dewayne Johnson, a 46-year-old former California school groundskeeper who is dying of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, took Monsanto (which had been acquired by Bayer earlier that month) to trial in San Francisco County superior court, alleging that it has spent decades hiding the cancer-causing dangers of its Roundup herbicides. The judge ordered that jurors be allowed to consider both scientific evidence related to the cause of Johnson’s cancer and allegations that Monsanto suppressed evidence of the risks, with possible punitive damages. In August 2018, the jury awarded Johnson US $289 million in damages. Monsanto said they would appeal, saying they were confident that glyphosate does not cause cancer when used appropriately. In November 2018, the award was reduced to $78 million on appeal.

In August 2018, the potential for additional cases was estimated at up to 4,000. Bayer announced in April 2019 that over 13,000 lawsuits related to Roundup had been launched in the US.

In March 2019, a man was awarded $80 million in a lawsuit claiming Roundup was a substantial factor in his cancer, resulting in Costco stores discontinuing sales. In July 2019, U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria reduced the settlement to $26 million.Chhabria stated that a punitive award was appropriate because the evidence “easily supported a conclusion that Monsanto was more concerned with tamping down safety inquiries and manipulating public opinion than it was with ensuring its product is safe.” Chhabria stated that there is evidence on both sides concerning whether glyphosate causes cancer and that the behavior of Monsanto showed “a lack of concern about the risk that its product might be carcinogenic.”

On May 13, 2019 a jury in California ordered Bayer to pay a couple $2 billion in damages after finding that the company had failed to adequately inform consumers of the possible carcinogenicity of Roundup. On July 26, 2019, an Alameda County judge cut the settlement to $86.7 million, stating that the judgment by the jury exceeded legal precedent.

Using litigation discovery emails it was later revealed that in 2015 when Monsanto was discussing papers they wanted to see published to counter the expected IARC glyphosate results they wrote in an email, “An option would be to add Greim and Kier or Kirkland to have their names on the publication, but we would be keeping the cost down by us doing the writing and they would just edit & sign their names so to speak. Recall that is how we handled Williams Kroes & Munro, 2000.”




A History of the Cooperative Movement

 is generalfirst successful cooperative

The Rochdale Equitable Pioneer’s Society, founded in 1844 largely by weavers (including those here), is generally recognized as the first successful cooperative.

The cooperative movement began in earnest in Britain in the 19th century in response to the industrial revolution and the economic transformations that were threatening the livelihoods of many workers.

There were earlier efforts by workers to form cooperatives, of course. The Shore Porters Society, for example, claims to be one of the world’s first cooperatives, being established in Aberdeen, Scotland, in 1498. It was a removal, haulage and storage company, originating as a group of porters working in Aberdeen Harbor.

The Fenwick Weavers’ Society was a professional association created in the Scottish village of Fenwick, East Ayrshire in 1761. The original purpose of the society was to foster high standards in the weaving craft, but activities later expanded to include collective purchasing of bulk food items and books. In 1769 members formed a consumer cooperative and manhandled a sack of oatmeal into John Walker’s whitewashed front room and began selling the contents at a discount.

In the decades that followed more Scottish cooperatives formed, including Lennoxtown Friendly Victualling Society, founded in 1812. The focus of the Lennoxtown group was operation of the busy Lennox Mill, where tenants of the Woodhead estate brought their corn to be ground. Another significant event of the group was the establishment of the calico printing works at Lennoxmill on a site adjacent to the corn mill. The printing of calico and other cotton cloth was soon established as a major industry in the area.

Cooperative banks, or credit unions, were invented in Germany in the mid-19th century. In Britain the friendly society, building society, and mutual savings bank were earlier forms of similar institutions. In Russia the traditional village co-operative (obshchina or mir), operated from pre-serfdom times until the 20th century.

By 1830 several hundred co-operatives had been formed. Some were initially successful, but most had failed by 1840. It was not until 1844 when a cooperative society established the “Rochdale Principles”, on which they ran their co-op, that the basis for development and growth of the modern cooperative movement was established.

The Pioneers

In 1844 a group of 28 artisans working in the cotton mills in the town of Rochdale, in the north of England, established the first modern cooperative business, the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society. Primarily weavers, they faced miserable working conditions and low wages and could not afford the high prices of food and household goods. They decided that by pooling their scarce resources and working together they could access basic goods at a lower price. Initially, there were only four items for sale: flour, oatmeal, sugar, and butter.

The Pioneers decided it was time shoppers were treated with honesty, openness, and respect, that they should be able to share in the profits that their custom contributed to and that they should have a democratic right to have a say in the business. Every customer of the shop became a member and so had a true stake in the business. With lessons from prior failed attempts at co-operation in mind, they designed the Rochdale Principles, and over a period of four months they struggled to pool one pound sterling per person for a total of 28 pounds of capital. On December 21, 1844, they opened their store for only two nights a week. Within three months they expanded their selection to include tea and tobacco and the business had grown so much that it was open five days a week. They were soon known for providing high quality, unadulterated goods.

The original Rochdale Principles defining cooperative organizations were:
1. Democratic control (one member, one vote)
2. Open membership
3. Limited interest on capital
4. Distribution of surplus in proportion to a member’s contribution to the society
5. Cash trading only (no use of credit)
6. Providing for the education of members in cooperative principles
7. Political and religious neutrality

These have evolved somewhat over time and the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA), the official governing body of cooperatives, now considers the first four of the Rochdale principles central to the governance of member organizations with the last three deemed important but not vital. The fact of the matter is that many cooperatives have very clear political or religious agendas. Most also use credit as a means of sale. The latter is critical in contemporary market economies and is often the preferred means of payment. Also, a plethora of cooperatives invest little in the domain of education.

Many consider Robert Owen (1771–1858) the father of the cooperative movement. A Welshman who made his fortune in the cotton trade, Owen believed in putting his workers in a good environment with access to education for themselves and their children. These ideas were put into effect successfully in the cotton mills of New Lanark, Scotland when a co-operative store was opened. Spurred on by the success of this, Owen had the idea of forming “villages of co-operation” where workers would drag themselves out of poverty by growing their own food, making their own clothes and ultimately becoming self-governing. He tried to form such communities in Orbiston in Scotland and in New Harmony, Indiana in the United States of America, but both communities ultimately failed.

Women’s Co-op Printing Union poster

Women’s Co-op Printing Union poster

Alice Acland, the editor of the “Women›s Corner” in the publication Co-operative News, and Mary Lawrenson, a teacher, recognized the need for a separate women’s organization within the Cooperative Movement and began organizing a “Woman’s League for the Spread of Co-operation” in 1883. This League formally met for the first time during the 1883 Co-operative Congress in Edinburgh as a group of 50 women who established Acland as their organizing secretary. By 1884 it had six different branches with 195 members, and the League was renamed the Women’s Cooperative Guild.

Co-operatives in the U.S. have a long history, including an early factory in the 1790s. By the 1860s Brigham Young had started applying co-operative ideas in Utah and by the 1880s the Knights of Labor and the Grange both promoted member-owned organizations. Energy co-operatives were founded in the U.S. during the Depression and the New Deal. Diverse kinds of co-operatives were founded and have continued to perform successfully in different areas: in agriculture, wholesale purchasing, telephones, and in consumer-food buying.

Current Co-op Activities

Co-operative enterprises are now widespread, with one of the largest and most successful examples being the industrial Mondragón Cooperative Corporation in the Basque country of Spain. Mondragon Co-op was founded under the oppressive conditions of Fascist Franco Spain after community-based democracy-building activities of a priest, Jose Maria Arizmendiarrieta. They have become an extremely diverse network of co-operative enterprises and have a multinational concern. Co-operatives were also successful in Yugoslavia under Tito where workers’ councils gained a significant role in management. In many European countries cooperative institutions have a predominant market share in the retail banking and insurance businesses.

In the UK co-operatives formed the Co-operative Party in the early 20th century to represent members of co-ops in Parliament. The Co-operative Party now has a permanent electoral pact with the Labor Party, and some Labor MPs are Co-operative Party members. UK co-operatives retain a significant market share in food retail, insurance, banking, funeral services, and the travel industry in many parts of the country. Co-operative banks have become very successful throughout Europe, and were able to respond more effectively than most corporate banks during the 2008 mortgage-securities crisis.

Renewable Energy co-operatives in Europe became important in the early development of wind power in Denmark beginning in the 1970s. Germany followed in the early 1990s, first on a larger scale with wind co-ops, then with a citizen’s movement which challenged the reliance on nuclear power, successfully creating a successful co-op enterprise by 1999. A citizen’s group began operating wind turbines and involving broad community ownership in the U.K. by 1995. Deregulation of the electricity markets allowed energy co-operative social entrepreneurs to begin to create alternatives to the monopolies in various countries. In France, where an enormous percentage of the power is generated by nuclear sources, this occurred after 2000. In Spain, wind power was developed by corporate-led efforts, and it took longer for a renewable energy-focused social enterprise to get established.

Similar renewable energy co-ops around Europe have organized in a network.

Asian societies have adapted the co-operative model, including some of the most successful in the world such as the Citizens Coalition for Economic Justice in South Korea, the Seikatsu Club Consumer Co-operative in Japan, and the Self-Employed Women’s Association in India. Other noteworthy efforts include agricultural co-ops in Thailand and a sugar workers co-operative in the Philippines.

Electrical co-operatives became an important economic strategy for U.S. rural areas beginning in the 1930s and continue to operate successfully through events such as Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Agricultural co-operatives in the U.S. have had some mainstream success, including Welch’s, Ocean Spray, and Land O›Lakes. In the United States a co-operative association was founded by 1920. Currently there are over 29,000 co-operatives employing 2 million people with over $652 billion in annual revenue.

In the late 1960s and 1970s, the “new wave” of consumer co-ops began. Born out of the ideas and philosophies of the 1960s counterculture, these stores were opened by young and idealistic members. They set up co-ops to fit their beliefs in equality, not to follow their co-op predecessors. Most of the new co-ops sold only whole, unrefined, and bulk foods. Their operating practices were diverse and experimental. Some stores had limited store hours, others were open seven days a week. Some were run by volunteers, others by fully paid staff. Some had various forms of worker self-management, others had more traditional management structures. Some paid year-end patronage refunds, others gave members a discount at the cash register.

These co-ops were pioneers in what came to be known as the natural foods industry. But not all were successful. Some failed because of their experimental structures and operating systems. Most were unable to escape the same problems that had troubled older, earlier co-ops—insufficient capital, inadequate membership support, an inability to improve operations as the natural foods industry developed, a stronger commitment to idealism than to economic success, the lack of adequate support from their wholesalers, and resistance to consolidation. But the “new wave” co-ops that survived are strong and well established. The consumer co-op movement in the United States has had mixed success—especially in contrast to consumer co-ops in Europe and Asia. But each wave of cooperative growth produces renewed enthusiasm for a time-tested idea and innovations that prove successful in the consumer marketplace.

Types of Co-ops

Workers’ cooperative

Such a cooperative is owned and controlled by the workers through the standard one member, one vote platform. Many such cooperatives are run, on a day-to-day basis, by managers and a board of directors. But worker-owners have the ultimate say as to how the firm is managed over the long term and they are characterized by a much less hierarchical system of management than the standard narrowly owned firm. Workers’ cooperatives are configured to meet the interest of workers first, as opposed to maximizing profits or share values in the short run. Maintaining and growing employment is often a binding constraint of a workers’ cooperative. Profits or surplus can be disbursed across members, based on memberships or hours worked, or invested to grow the firm or to make it more competitive. Like traditional firms, workers’ cooperatives must be concerned with their production costs if they are to survive and flourish in the marketplace. Workers’ cooperatives are found largely in the processing and service sectors, although manufacturing is not unimportant.

Consumer cooperative

This is the most important type of cooperative in terms of membership. Consumer cooperatives are sometimes referred to as retail cooperatives. Such cooperatives are quite important in the retailing of food and clothing. Members own the cooperatives and control them through the one member, one vote principle. However, day–day management can and often does take place as it would in traditional firms, and management can be quite hierarchical in structure, especially when the cooperative is large. In addition, management–labor relations are often similar to those in the traditional firm.

In theory, a key distinguishing feature of consumer cooperatives is that they should be configured to best meet the preferences of their member-owners in terms of product type, quality, and price. Moreover, the objective of the cooperative is not to maximize the difference between unit cost and price, but rather to charge the lowest price possible, given quality and the investment requirements of the cooperative. But consumer cooperatives typically charge the market price for their product. Any surplus accrued is supposed to be directed toward investment purposes, disbursed amongst members, or invested in socially beneficial projects as decided upon by members (typically by management). It is important to reiterate that a key difference between a traditional retailer and the cooperative is the overriding importance of the member-owner and the fact that in a cooperative ownership is weighted on the basis of the individual. Thus, no one individual can have a greater ownership or membership share than another.

Additionally, consumer cooperatives, especially the smaller ones, have been established in localities and product lines where private retailers have deemed it too risky and unprofitable. When consumer cooperatives have better information on preferences and markets, given asymmetric information, they can survive and even prosper in domains where the traditional retailer cannot.

Credit union

A credit union is a type of consumer cooperative that specializes in the money market and it is, along with the food and clothing retail cooperative, among the largest in terms of membership. A credit union is owned and controlled on the basis of one person, one vote, and is typically locally owned. But the credit union is managed on a day-to-day basis by an elected board and professional managers. In additional, management–labor relations can and often do map that of the traditional financial institution. Credit unions initially developed to provide financial resources to individuals and firms that found it difficult to secure these in the traditional financial sector. Credit unions have evolved into financial institutions that cater to the needs of individuals across all income levels and firms of different sizes. This allows credit unions to spread the risk of their financial portfolios.

In addition, contemporary local credit unions are often part of regional and national credit union networks, allowing them and their members to take advantage of economies of scale and scope as can traditional financial institutions. A key distinguishing feature of a credit union is the capacity of members to determine the direction of their local credit union’s financial impact. Profits or surplus income can be disbursed to members, invested in the firm, or in social projects. Moreover, the credit union has the capacity to exploit local knowledge (asymmetric information) so as to serve individuals and firms and their particular needs which traditional financial institutions find too risky. But just like traditional financial institutions, credit unions must be carefully managed — otherwise a sufficient number of bad loans can force a credit union into bankruptcy.

Supply and purchasing cooperative

This type of cooperative is quite important in agriculture where farmers establish a cooperative to obtain goods and services required for their business or for personal use at lower prices than would be possible if they were to go it alone. Thus farmers can take advantage of economies of scale and scope that are afforded to larger corporate farms. But the management of such a cooperative can mimic that of the traditional firm.

Marketing cooperative

This type of cooperative aligns the interests of producers with regard to marketing output to retailers or wholesalers. A marketing cooperative can also store, process, and package output prior sale. This allows farmers, for example, to take advantage of economies of scale and scope in storage and production, increasing their net income over what it might otherwise be. It also serves to increase the bargaining and marketing power of farmers. In addition, a marketing cooperative can help stabilize farmers’ income through its inventory capacity, providing farmers with a relatively stable income as marketing prices fluctuate. As with other cooperatives, a marketing cooperative must pay attention to efficiency considerations as well as maintaining the flexibility to vary the prices paid and surplus (and loses) disbursed to member farmers as markets restructure over time. Otherwise, it risks bankruptcy.

New generation cooperative

This type of cooperative is also referred to as a value-added or new wave cooperative, although cooperatives of old typically added value to their output. The express purpose of this cooperative is to transform raw material inputs into processed output, such as cranberries into juice or wheat into flour. Typically found in agriculture, farmers are owner-members who supply the raw material for processing, hoping to reap additional net income from value-added activities. Like traditional cooperatives, the new generation cooperative is owner/member-controlled. But unlike most traditional cooperatives, the new wave cooperative’s membership is restricted to those with the means and the willingness to provide substantial equity capital. This provides the cooperative with the necessary finances to build a competitive value-added enterprise and provide those with an equity stake in the cooperative with shares (typically) in proportion to the equity supplied. The farmer is obliged and has the right to supply the cooperative on the basis of share value. And shares can be sold at market value, which can be greater or less than the purchase or equity price, when the farmer or other supplier wishes to dissociate himself or herself from the cooperative.

Multi-stakeholder cooperative

This cooperative has two or more groups of members that may include workers, consumers, producers, investors, community, and/or government. Such a cooperative has the potential of aggregating the interests of different individuals and groups of individuals within one cooperative thereby making them all stakeholders of a particular cooperative. For example, a consumer cooperative, by providing a membership and ownership stake to workers, transforms a traditional consumer cooperative to one where workers’ interests gain significant representation. The consumer cooperative develops characteristics of a workers’ cooperative. This can have significant efficiency benefits to the cooperative. Any cooperative that brings in government, community, or private sector representation strengthens the stakeholder and knowledge base of the cooperative as well as spreading risks without the core cooperative members losing control.

Social cooperative

This is a particular type of multi-stakeholder cooperative that brings together providers and users of social services such as day care, health services, housing, and job training. It provides services that private sector firms will not or cannot provide. Such cooperatives often survive on the basis of subsidies, donations, and voluntary labor. But very often providers of these services that are not co-ops survive on the basis of government support as well.

National cooperatives: Kibbutzim and Mondragon

Two important examples of national cooperative movements are the Kibbutzim of Israel (first established in 1910) and the Mondragon Cooperative Association founded in the Basque country of Spain in the 1950s. The Kibbutz Movement of Israel is the largest cooperative grouping in the world. By the end of the twentieth century there were 270 of these collective settlements with a population of 120,000. These settlements are community owned and run and represent a mélange of worker, consumer, producer, and financial cooperatives. Initially largely agricultural in orientation, manufacturing, and tourism now play a significant role in the Kibbutz economy as Kibbutzim adjust to increasing competitive pressures. Most cooperative settlements are small (they vary from about 50 to over 2,000 nenbers), but there is significant cooperation amongst these.

The Mondragon Cooperative Association of Spain is comprised of over 160 companies operating in manufacturing, distribution, and finance. Member companies employed almost 80,000 people and the Modragon group of companies was the seventh largest in Spain in 2006. But at least 20% of Modragon’s employees are nonmembers. The Kibbutz movement also now employs a large number of nonmembers. For the Kibbutzim, this has been to a large extent fueled by severe labor shortages – the inability to attract an adequate supply of labor to meet ongoing demand. Both of these long-standing cooperative movements thus employ many individuals to whom the principles of the cooperative movement do not necessarily apply. Both these movements have had to adjust to ever-changing and increasing market pressure, but are meeting with much success.

Key Issues

Economics and cooperatives

Contemporary economic theory pays little heed to the cooperative, especially worker and consumer cooperatives. Supply and marketing cooperatives are treated as contributors to monopolistic pricing, therefore contributing to economic inefficiency (allocative inefficiency) and the misallocation of resources. At best, cooperatives as an organizational type are looked upon as a possible solution to economic dilemmas faced by the economically marginalized members of society. The cooperative is not regarded as a source of economic efficiency and possible contributor to material welfare. This is a product of the behavioral assumptions embedded in the theory.

Although cooperatives are not dominant, their quantitative importance in most countries in both marginal and mainstream sectors and their profitability and relatively high levels of productivity compared to their privately owned counterparts suggest that cooperative economic organizations must be doing something right to have maintained a significant presence in an increasingly competitive global economy. On the other hand, it is important to understand why cooperatives are not dominant if they are economically efficient.

Theory and workers’ cooperatives

How does one explain the economic success of workers’ cooperatives? Conventional theory assumes that no such success is possible given that cooperatives are not obliged to invest profits (focusing on employment and workers’ income) and are too egalitarian to generate economically efficient incentives or to engage the employment of superior management. But there exists a cooperative advantage in the workers’ cooperative that lies in its capacity to increase the quantity and quality of effort inputs into the “production process,” thereby producing higher levels and a superior quality of output.

In the cooperative, worker-owners and owner managers have the incentive to work harder and smarter – a possibility assumed in the traditional modeling of the firm. Conventional theory assumes that the manner in which a firm is organized does not impact the extent of its efficiency. Moreover, where workers’ cooperatives focus on improving benefits and working conditions whilst maintaining and even growing employment they are incentivized into adopting and developing technologies that make them competitive. Workers’ cooperatives can, therefore, be more costly to operate than traditional firms, especially low-wage traditional firms, but they can also be much more productive, such that their unit costs and profits can be the same as that of the traditional firm.

The cooperative productivity advantage countervails the increased costs of operating the cooperative. Thus in the worker’s cooperatives workers would be much better off without the benefits causing their firm to become uncompetitive. Workers’ cooperatives can yield competitive outcomes without driving noncooperative traditional firms out of the market. Such workers’ cooperatives can function and prosper in mainstream economic sectors, even in highly competitive environments. Moreover, when workers are also owners, there is much less incentive for workers to quit. Reducing quit rates and thus turnover rates increases labor productivity and reduces production costs by maintaining the most productive workers and reducing average training costs. Overall, workers’ cooperatives can generate higher levels of material welfare than the traditional firm.

Lower wage and higher turnover traditional firms need not be more competitive than cooperative firms and the more productive cooperative firms need not have the capacity to drive out the less productive traditional firms. Given the superior incentive system of the workers’ cooperative there is no good theoretical reason to presume that workers’ cooperatives cannot be both competitive on the margin and prosperous. On the other hand, this does not imply that workers’ cooperatives can be expected to dominate the economy.

Cooperatives, history and theories of.

The workers’ cooperative represents only one “extreme” alternative to hierarchical organizational types. Privately owned participatory firms (which allows for some workers’ ownership of firm assets and effective voice) represent another alternative; one where workers need not risk their capital nor bear the risks entailed in ownership. Also, they need not invest the time and effort that might be required at the management and corporate decision-making levels in a workers’ cooperative. This firm type overlaps with the multi-stakeholder cooperative. Given the possibility and option of a privately owned participatory firm, many workers might choose the latter. Moreover, workers might choose traditional hierarchical firms given the risks and effort required to establish and maintain a workers’ cooperative. Also, establishing workers’ cooperatives can be problematic if financing is difficult to come by given that financiers have limited say on corporate governance in traditional cooperatives. This constraint can be obviated in multi-stakeholder cooperatives.

In addition, establishing workers’ cooperatives suffers from coordination problems – it is difficult and costly to coordinate the efforts of individuals to establish a cooperative. This issue is somewhat mitigated by regional and national cooperative federations. Finally, misinformation about the design and operation of workers’ cooperatives can negatively affect preferences for cooperatives. For these reasons, workers’ cooperatives are often established in the wake of crises wherein the traditional firm is on the verge of closure. In the absence of a workers’ cooperative, then, unemployment, the breakdown of social networks and less preferred jobs becomes the default. Such cooperatives can succeed if the new incentive environment increases productivity and encourages technological change wherein the traditional firm was economically inefficient and resistant to improved technology. Cooperatives can also survive on the basis of low wages, where worker-owners willingly sacrifice material benefits so as to remain competitive and thereby secure their employment. Competing on this basis in the short run provides such a cooperative with the capacity to search for efficiencies in production that will allow it to compete on the basis of higher wages and improved working conditions in the longer term. Such a capacity does not typically exist in the traditional hierarchical firm given mistrust, asymmetric information, and different preferences between workers, owners, and managers.

Consumer cooperatives

Establishing consumer cooperatives and other types of nonworkers’ cooperatives faces some of the same constraints as do workers’ cooperatives, although not those related to the risks and time that workers must absorb to establish and operate a workers’ cooperative. Consumer cooperatives, however, have met with considerable success. But they need not be organized in terms of nonhierarchical forms of management and can remain competitive on the basis of low wages and poor working conditions, matching the immediate labor costs of their noncooperative counterparts. In this case consumer cooperatives need not generate superior material welfare outcomes for its workforce, although they should generate material welfare gains to co-op members in terms of price and quality and product type. However, through multi-stakeholder organizational setups, consumer cooperatives can overlap with more democratic and less hierarchical working environments, yielding both pecuniary and nonpecuniary benefits to their workforce.

The cooperative advantage of consumer cooperatives lies in its capacity to better meet the preferences of their members than privately owned concerns, thus enhancing members’ welfare. For example, the cooperative might be better able to supply member consumers with the right product mix and quality and, in relatively noncompetitive markets where consumers have little bargaining power; provide preferred bundles of goods and services at lower prices; it might be able to overcome information asymmetries in the credit market providing loans to individuals unable to secure such loans from private banks; and it might be able to secure higher prices for members of marketing cooperatives by improving their bargaining power relative to purchasing conglomerates with well established bargaining power.

Even when consumer cooperatives can do no better than privately owned concerns in terms of commodity supply and price, they can enhance members’ welfare if the cooperative generates a sense of belonging or community (social cohesion) amongst members. Such social cohesion and sense of identity with the co-op provides the cooperative with the “protection” from market forces allowing it to charge higher prices and supply lower quality products. Member owners might be willing to pay higher prices, up to a point, simply because a product is sold by their cooperative. But such behavior would undermine the economic and social viability of the cooperative. Nevertheless, there is nothing intrinsic in the cooperative organizational type that implies that this must be the case. Cooperatives can produce and supply quality goods and services at competitive prices. Also, the extent of social cohesion can diminish when consumer cooperatives increase in membership. Each member has less power and voice and more difficulty in having an affect on the decision-making process and outcomes. Less social cohesion and related sense of belonging can undermine the membership base of the cooperative. And the cooperative’s success then becomes a function of its capacity to compete with traditional producers and suppliers.

International perspectives

There exist no precise estimates on the importance of cooperatives in the new millennium. But the United Nations guesstimates that the “cooperative movement” had over 800 million members at the beginning of the new millennium and provided for about 100 million jobs. In addition, over the last 150 years cooperatives have spread to over 100 countries. Cooperatives are of importance in both developed and less developed economies. Moreover, cooperatives are of significance in both the more free market-oriented economies, such as Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States, and the more statist market economies of Continental Europe.

About half of the world’s agricultural output is marketed by cooperatives, which speaks to the significance of marketing cooperatives. Overall, it is in the agricultural sector that cooperatives of various types remain dominant. In the financial sector, credit unions encompass about 120 million members in 87 countries. Especially in poor countries, cooperatives provide important micro-credit services. Consumer cooperatives continue to play an important role worldwide, with their importance varying across countries. Health care cooperatives service about 100 million people in over 50 countries. Electricity provisioning cooperatives have also become important. For example, in the United States, such cooperatives service over 30 million people. Least important in terms of quantitative significance are workers’ cooperatives. Only a small percentage of the jobs of the 100 million individuals employed by cooperatives are controlled by the workers themselves. Thus, consumer, producer, or financial cooperatives need not be managed in a manner that benefits employees where the latter’s (nonmembers’) interest conflicts with that of cooperative member-owners.

Survey evidence strongly supports the view that cooperatives serve to reduce poverty amongst cooperative members as well as amongst nonmembers and the same can be said with regard to reducing gender inequality. The evidence also suggests that cooperatives can provide a means of generating income and wealth well above any particular measures of poverty.

Future directions

Overall, the cooperative solution can produce higher socioeconomic welfare levels for members whilst also overcoming significant market failures. In other words, cooperatives and cooperative type organizations can have large positive effects on the economy while at the same time generating significant improvements to the social and spiritual well-being of members. The nonmaterial and economic benefits are dialectically and positively related. This reality is marginalized in much of the conventional literature. To some extent, whether cooperative solutions are adopted depends upon the preferences of individuals given that cooperatives can be competitive even in extremely competitive environments. Not all workers prefer pure cooperatives. Not all consumers choose consumer cooperatives. Nevertheless, preferences for cooperatives need not be met as a consequence of the dearth of financial resources and organizational capacity. These constraints can be overcome through cooperative networks, credit unions, multi-stakeholder cooperatives, and facilitating legal environments. Market forces, no matter how powerful, do not require and cannot force noncooperative solutions to socioeconomic problems. Competitive markets and cooperative organizational forms are all quite compatible. Everything else being equal, the case can be made that a world without cooperatives is, at a minimum, one that is poorer.

Cooperatives have been forced to engage in dramatic changes in terms of organization, production, and markets over historical time. Much success has been achieved as is exemplified by the overall global importance of this democratic organizational type. New forms of cooperatives have been developed where the core value is democratic governance by member-owners; where ownership still adheres to the one person, one vote protocol. But cooperative values as articulated in the Rochdale Principles can become less salient as the cooperative grows and the voice of each individual member becomes less effective. Local control becomes critical to maintaining effective voice and social cohesion within the cooperative. Also, democratic governance excludes employees in most cooperatives. A significant iteration of the cooperative is the democratic privately owned firm.

Another is the multi-stakeholder cooperative, which strengthens any particular type of cooperative by providing effective voice to individuals and groups who contribute or who can potentially contribute substantively to the cooperative viability and prosperity. One vital lesson gleaned from the history of cooperatives is that democratic governance within the firm can contribute significantly to socioeconomic well-being.




NOFA-NY Collaborations

NOFA-NY_What Can I DoNOFA-NY has a long history of collaborations, as all programs and projects flourish when working in partnership. Whether it is farmer to farmer education, specific projects with education institutions, or joint policy initiatives, collaboration is at the heart of much of the work we do, as we are a community of farmers, gardeners, consumers, educators, and organizations. Below is a sample of building an organic New York!

Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas (ATTRA). For about a decade during the tenure of Representative Jim Walsh, (Congressional Rep from Central NY), NOFA-NY and the New York Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (NYSAWG) annually pulled together farmers in the district to successfully lobby Rep. Walsh to be the lead champion of a well-used technical assistance program for farmers: Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas. Every year, ATTRA was zeroed out in the budget, and every year, we would meet with Rep. Walsh, and encourage farmers to meet and make phone calls to ask him to get it funded. While he often told us he wasn’t interested in supporting conservation programs, he always came through, and he eventually became a supporter of organic agriculture. This happened only as a result of collaborating with NYSAWG and activating organic farmers in his district.

New York Organic Action Plan. Over an eight year period, volunteer members of the NOFA-NY Policy Committee collected input from people across the state who care about an organic future. With waves of activity and spells of dormancy, the process involved hundreds of people through web-based questions and face to face brainstorming sessions. After discussing what is working, what is not working and then putting those ideas within the context of change, an overall goal was set to move New York’s Organic Action Plan forward: Create an ecological New York State where healthy food and access to land are considered human rights. NOFA-NY created an infographic so everyone can make a difference and implement the New York Organic Action Plan. We will be presenting this plan to the organizations with whom we worked on GMO labeling for their endorsement and support.

Food Safety Outreach Project. In response to the Food Safety Modernization Act, NOFA-NY partnered with Cornell University, NOFA-VT, and University of Vermont to develop the Food Safety Outreach Program to expand Food Safety education to small and mid-sized farms in New York and Vermont. Through support from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the four partners compile the best training materials, develop curriculum, and conduct on-farm workshops to educate farmers about Food Safety in order to help them create their on-farm Food Safety Plans.

Neighborhood Shares Program. In collaboration with local Community Supported Agriculture farmers in Rochester and Buffalo, NOFA-NY provides affordable CSA memberships to low-income community members so everyone has access to fresh local produce.

NOFA-NY Field Days. Since 1983, NOFA-NY has collaborated with organic farmers to conduct farmer to farmer education. Over the course of the years, NOFA-NY has worked with 100s of farmers to spread the knowledge of organic farming techniques through high tunnel use, dairy management, food safety, and carbon farming, to name only a small handful of the methods that enhance organic farming.

Only in partnerships can we grow local organic food and farm communities across the state, region, country, and world!




Facts About Ownership of U.S. Land

Fig 1.3.1 Major use of land by ownership-2The land surface of the United States covers 2.3 billion acres. Sixty percent (1.4 billion acres) is privately owned, 29 percent is owned by the Fed-eral Government, 9 percent is owned by State and local governments, and 2 percent is in Tribal reservations. Virtually all cropland is privately owned, as is over half of grassland pasture and range and forestland. Federal, State, and local government holdings consist primarily of forestland, rangeland, and other land.

Historic Land Ownership Patterns

Federal land as percent of state acreage (larger)Land ownership patterns changed substantially in the first century after U.S. independence. Between 1781 and 1867, through purchase, cession, and treaty, the Federal Government acquired lands totaling 80 percent of current U.S. area, constituting the original “public do-main.”

As of 1998, 1.1 billion acres of the original public domain (about half of the total U.S. area) had been granted or sold by the Federal Gov-ernment to States, corporations, and individuals. Grants to States totaled 329 million acres, including 65 million acres of wetlands granted on condition that proceeds from their subsequent sale to individuals be used to convert those acres to agricultural production. Another 288 million acres were granted or sold directly to homesteaders on condition that the land be settled and cultivated.

Disposition of Federal lands had slowed by the 1930s, and in 1976 the Federal Land Policy and Management Act explicitly directed that most remaining Federal lands be retained in Federal ownership.

Federal and State Lands Today

Most lands in Federal ownership are managed by four agencies: USDA’s Forest Service, and the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), and National Park Service (NPS). Federal lands are concentrated in the West. Alaska alone has about one-third of Federal land. Forest Service and BLM lands are managed for a variety of uses, including grazing, tim-ber harvest, recreation, and wilderness preservation, while FWS and NPS lands are managed primarily for preservation and recreation.
Land Tenure

Fig 1.3.9 percent of leased land in farming without title or sourceLeasing land was traditionally viewed as the bottom rung of the tenure ladder. Young farmers would begin their careers by leasing all their land, often from relatives. As they grew older, they would buy some land, but continue to rent. Older farmers would cut back on farming by no longer leasing and concentrate on the land they owned.

Land rental has some advantages over outright ownership. Through land rental, a farmer can access more land without tying up capital in land purchases. The farmer also avoids the risk associated with asset depreciation and maintains flexibility in the size of the operation and the combination of the types of land used.

The number of farms declined from nearly 7 million in 1935 to about 2 million by 1997, with most of the decline occurring before the 1970s. Although the remaining farms have a higher average acreage than in the past, most farms today are small, when size is measured in acres or sales. Small family farms currently account for only 32 percent of production, but operate 61 percent of the land used in farming, including large shares of the Nation’s cropland, grazing land, and woodland.

What Is a Farm?

Since 1850, when minimum criteria defining a farm for census purposes were first established, the definition of a farm has changed nine times as the Na-tion has grown and agricultural production has changed. A farm is currently defined, for statistical purposes, as any place from which $1,000 or more of agricultural products (crops and livestock) were sold or normally would have been sold during the year under consideration.

Table 1.3.5 land ownership by farm production region




Vermicomposting:

Worms in Compost by Karen Kerney

Worms in Compost by Karen Kerney

Every year millions of tons of organic refuse finds its way to landfills, incinerators, municipal sewer systems and septic systems via trash pickup or garbage disposals. The environmental Protection Agency estimates that on average, each American generates 4.3 pounds of trash each day. On a yearly basis, this is equivalent to burying 82,000 football fields 6 feet deep in compacted garbage. Approximately 47% of this amount is organic in nature. The environmental and financial implications of this are huge. The best way to mitigate the resultant environmental problems might well lie in dealing with it before it enters the waste stream.

Most people are familiar with the process of composting whereby the natural breakdown (decomposition) of organic materials results in a dark soil-like material which has great value as a soil amendment. Composting is a natural occurrence in nature that humans over years have recognized as a process that can be utilized in a managed way to dispose of refuse. One step beyond this and a complement to it is the utilization of worms to compost organic matter. This is known as vermicomposting, vermi being the Latin term for things relating to worms.

The advantages of vermicomposting are several. Regular composting is a thermophilic process, relying on heat generated by the decomposition process to work effectively. This requires a deep pile and varied composition of material. The optimum pile temperature for composting to occur ranges from 90° F to 150° F. Pile temperature below this range will result in little or no composting taking place.

Vermicomposting, on the other hand, is a mesophilic process, taking place at ambient temperatures. The optimum temperature for the vermicomposting pro-cess is from 55° F to 80° F. The composting process involves the worms eating and excreting the organic matter. There is no need to turn or layer a pile in order to achieve the proper temperature as may be the case with regular composting.

Regular composting must take place in an outdoor location and the recommended pile size is a minimum of 1 cubic yard. Vermicomposting can be carried on in a bin which may be as small as 1 square foot of surface area by 6” deep. These temperature and space factors allow for the indoor use of worms. Ver-micomposting can easily be done in cold climates and urban settings. Many urban dwellers are happily feeding their kitchen scraps to their composting worms. Not all worms, however, are suitable for use in a compost bin.

Several thousand species of earthworms have been identified by researchers. These many species have been grouped into three categories. The categories are anecic, endogeic, and epigeic worms.

Anecic worms are large worms, that live deep in the soil. They may tunnel down as deep as ten feet, establishing permanent burrows. They come to the surface of the soil in order to pull organic matter into their tunnels, storing it inside tunnels until they are ready to consume it as food. The most familiar worm in this category is the nightcrawler. When the anecic worm is taken from this environment, it will not grow or reproduce.

Endogeic worms rarely come to the soil surface. They build horizontal burrows and feed on mineral particles and decayed organic matter. These worms are often found around the roots of plants where they feed on soil rich with decaying matter and bacteria and fungi.

Our Worm Bins in the Hoophouse

Our Worm Bins in the Hoophouse

Epigeic worms live in decaying organic matter on the surface of the soil, not in soil. This is the category of worm that can be utilized in vermicomposting. Because it is a surface dwelling worm, it is possible to replicate its environment in a bin. The earthworm most commonly used in bin systems is the red worm, whose Latin name is eisenia fetida. This worm is found throughout the world. It is the preferred worm for composting systems because of its toler-ance for handling and changes in environment. These worms are raised on earthworm farms located throughout the country and can readily be obtained via internet sales or a visit to a local farm. A vermicomposting system utilizing red worms is feasible on an individual level or on a large scale municipal or insti-tutional scale. This article will deal mainly with how an individual or family can get started in vermicomposting.

Several factors should be taken into consideration when undertaking a vermicomposting venture. The temperature range for the red worm is roughly 35° F to 88° F. The worms are most productive between 65° F to 80° F. Temperatures at the extremes will stress the worms. Below 50°, the worms will slow down and become less productive. Above 90° F, the worms may well be too hot to survive in a closed bin. The preferred location, therefore, would be an area in the middle of the temperature range.

The worms also have a need to live in an aerobic environment; in other words, they need to live in a bin that has a good flow of oxygen. It is also important that moisture drains readily out of the system to prevent it from becoming anaerobic, or deprived of oxygen. The ideal moisture level in the system would be in the 60 to 70% range. This is roughly equivalent to a damp sponge which gives off a few drops of water when squeezed. Once you have decided on the proper location for your system, it is time to either make or buy a bin.

A worm bin can be made from many materials. Scrap lumber or an old plastic tote can be used. There are many bins available commercially that are designed in a specific fashion for worm composting, some of which facilitate the worms separating from the finished compost as the process evolves. In general, a homemade worm bin should be longer and wider that it is deep. Holes should be drilled on the sides and cover of the bin to insure adequate oxygen supply. Holes must be drilled in the bottom of the bin to allow for drainage; ¼” holes at 15 holes per square foot. The bin should be elevated so that moisture that percolates through the system can be collected. This can also be used as a liquid fertilizer for house plants or gardens. An advantage of some commercial bins is that features designed to optimize aeration and drainage are built into the system. Once you have your bin constructed and a location picked out, it is time to obtain your red worms and prepare the bin.
There are some basic steps to take to insure that your vermicomposting venture is a successful one. When building a bin out of wood, make sure not to use pressure treated lumber. The materials used in the process of pressure treating are harmful to worms. Plastic totes being used to build bins should be washed and exposed to sunlight before worms are placed in the bin. The optimum temperature for the worms is between 65° F and 80° F. A location that provides this would be ideal. Avoid feeding the worms anything that is greasy, fatty or overly salty. Make sure that the bin has adequate aeration and drainage. Realize that you are dealing with an ecosystem not a machine.

As mentioned earlier, there are many worm farms with a presence in the internet or you may be able to locate a worm farm in your area. Many nurseries and garden centers may have a connection with a worm farm.. County extension agents are another resource and may know of a worm farm. Worms are custom-arily sold by the pound. When starting out, it is probably a good idea to begin with 1 or 2 pounds of worms, keeping in mind that given proper conditions, the worm population will grow over time. The general rule of thumb is red worms will eat half their weight in decomposing material everyday. It is a matter of personal choice as to how many worms you want to start your system.

The bin will need to be prepared for the arrival of the worms. Initially, the bin is lined with a layer of bedding. This is where the worms will live. The food waste is buried in the bedding. Shredded newspaper is a convenient and widely used bedding material. Avoid glossy, colored paper, as it has a metallic content which produces toxins harmful to the worms. The shredded newspaper should be fluffed up to a depth of six inches and moistened to the consistency of a damp sponge. Some commercially made bins come with a block of cocoanut fiber which can be soaked in a pail of water. This will absorb eight times its weight in moisture and can be spread out in the bin as bedding. Once the worms are at home in the bedding, it is time to start feeding them.

Worms like a vegetarian spread. Fruit and vegetable scraps and peels are good food for them. Any number of organic items that would usually be discarded can be fed to them: coffee grounds and filter papers, tea bags, crushed egg shells, pasta and rice, bread and cereal, house plant clippings and dead flowers, shredded paper, paper towels and napkins. The worms do not start to eat until the waste starts to decompose. Some people chop up the waste or even puree it to speed up the decomposition process so that the worms can get at the food more quickly. The worms are actually eating both the waste and the aerobic microorganisms that cause the decomposition. They have no teeth and thus cannot eat until the food is broken down.

As the worms settle in to their new environment in the bin and become acclimated the population will begin to grow. The rate at which the worm population increases is the variable that determines how much waste can be composted. Given the proper temperature, aeration, food and space the worms will multiply rapidly. A mature red worm can produce two to three cocoons per week. Each cocoon will average three hatchlings, which will become mature worms in two to three months. When mature, they will begin to produce cocoons. When the population of the bin exceeds 1.5 pounds of worms per square foot of surface area, the worms will slow their reproduction because of space constraints. It is not unusual to start a bin with 1 pound of worms and a year later to have 3 to 5 pounds of worms in the bin.

Mature worms are characterized by a swollen ring about 1/2 of the way down their body. This is called the clitellum. The clitellum produces mucus needed for cocoon production. Worms are hermaphrodites having both male and female sexual organs. The worms need a partner, however, to reproduce. Two worms of approximately the same size will come together at the clitellum and exchange sperm. Mucus then hardens and each worm will slough off a cocoon after being joined together for up to three hours. The cocoons look like grape seeds and turn from light to dark as the time to hatch approaches. Red worms can produce many such cocoons during the course of a year.

Once the bin has been established and the worm population has begun to grow, it will be observed that the consumption of organic waste by the worms has increased. After 3 to 4 months, it will be observed that there is a layer of fine dark material building up on the bottom of the bin. This is the vermicompost or as some call it, the worm castings. This material constitutes the second benefit of feeding your garbage to worms. The first benefit is achieved by taking the organic material out of the waste stream. The second benefit is the production of a wonderful soil amendment for gardens and house plants. This mate-rial is highly valued by those who wish to garden organically and reduce reliance on chemical fertilizers. Some people may not participate in gardening or growing plants. There is a good chance they may know someone who does. A gift of vermicompost is sure to be well received.

Harvesting the vermicompost can be done in different ways, depending upon the size and type of bin being used. A commercially made bin with a system of stacking trays makes it quite a simple process. The worms start eating on the bottom level. When the tray is full of vermicompost , another tray is stacked on top of it. These trays have hundreds of holes in them that the worms can crawl through. As food is added to the new tray, the worms begin to crawl up-ward through the holes following the food and leaving behind the finished vermicompost. This process is repeated with a third tray. By the time this tray is full, the worms will have left the bottom tray following their food upward. The vermicompost can now be emptied out of this tray. The empty tray is then placed on top and the process continues.

Harvesting the vermicompost from a single layer bin can be somewhat more labor intensive.

One method for separating the worms and compost in a single layer system is to put the food on one side of the bin. Over time, as the worms exhaust the nu-trients on the unfed side, they will migrate to the side being supplied with food. It is then possible to take the compost and remaining worms and make a py-ramidal pile on a flat service. Over this pile place a strong light. Because the worms do not like light, they will move to the middle and bottom of the pile. The worms that have congregated at the bottom can be scooped up and put back in the bin.

A more mechanical means of harvesting would involve building two 2×4 frames. Build one frame 2’wide by 3’ long. Build another frame 2’ wide and 2’ long. Attach ¼” hardware cloth to the bottom of the 2’ x 2’ frame. Place the 2’ x 3’ frame on top of a tarp laid on a flat surface. Place the 2’ x 2’ frame with the hardware cloth on the bottom side on top of the larger frame. Fill the smaller frame with the compost and worms. Slide it back and forth over the bottom frame. The vermicompost will fall through the hardware cloth and the worms will remain on top. Place the worms back in the bin and collect the vermicompost from the trap.

The vermicompost is a most valuable commodity for anyone who is an indoor or outdoor gardener. Used as a soil amendment in place of chemical fertilizer quite amazing results can be achieved in terms of plant growth. The vermicompost is a superior product when compared to regular compost. Testing has shown it to be significantly higher in phosphorus, calcium, magnesium, potassium and nitrogen. It also has superior moisture retention properties. Passing through the worm’s digestive system, the organic matter acquires enzymes not found in regular thermophilic compost.

Vermicompost is a wonderful medium for starting seedlings in the spring. A mixture of 20% vermicompost to 80% potting soil will produce strong and healthy seedlings at a very high germination rate. Seeds planted in rows in a vegetable garden will benefit greatly from vermicompost sprinkled in the bottom of the seed row. Vermicompost placed in the bottom of the hole when transplanting plants will help the plant achieve strong root growth.

Once your worm bin is in operation and you have begun to harvest vermicompost, you have completed the circle of sustainability. The worms have turned your garbage into a product that can be used to grow plants and enrich the soil.

Awareness of the implications our behavior has for the quality of our environment is growing all the time. While it is important for government and business to strive to improve the environment, it is equally important for individuals to take positive action in this area. The decision to handle your garbage in a sus-tainable way can only be made by you. Once you have made this decision, there is an army of red worms waiting to be your partner.




A History of Farming as Therapy

based on work by Paula Diane Relf in
“Agriculture and Health Care” and on
“Green Care: A Conceptual Framework”

In Europe and much of the rest of the English-speaking world terms like Green Care, Farm Care and Farming for Health are well known and repre-sent a growing movement. That movement involves farmers and the health-care community working together to create an environment in which the care and nurturing of plants and animals is an important aspect of therapy for disadvantaged individuals. A key element of this movement is that this therapy takes place in the context of a profitable agricultural business (the farm). This transcends therapy using outdoor experiences that provide na-ture opportunities without the personal responsibility of caring for nature.

Women patients farming at the London Asylum for the Insane in the early 1900s

Women patients farming at the London Asylum for the Insane in the early 1900s

Here in the United States these terms do not have this meaning, nor is this approach to the sustainability of small family farms apparent. Although the USDA acknowledges that “a key component of the future of agriculture” is improving human health, it sees this happening through the production of food, not by providing health-care services or preventative or therapeutic outdoor agricultural opportunities. In fact, the modern medical and health-care community has, until quite recently, failed to see the negative health impact of relocating the nation’s population from rural to urban en-vironments over the last century.

Agriculture and health care

During the Middle Ages many hospitals and monasteries looking after the sick traditionally incorporated arcaded courtyards to provide outside shelter for patients and created beautiful gardens in their surroundings. The earliest recognizable ‘care programs’ that used what may be called ‘green care principles’ were at Geel in Flanders in the 13th century. Here, ‘mentally distressed pilgrims’ came to worship at the holy shrine of St Dympna and stayed in a ‘therapeutic village’ where they were sympathetically cared for by the residents. This was a rural agricultural setting, and the main work activity for everybody was to work on the land. A range of structures and procedures were in place for taking care of these individuals in the context of local families and wider village life.

With the influence of Enlightenment thinking in the 19th century, the belief grew that by improving the quality of care, patients could be cured. This approach also reflected prevalent middle class notions around work and social conformity. The idea was that to be a part of so-ciety one must have regular work habits and “fit in” as a perceived productive member of society. As a result, 19th century asylums main-tained these societal norms and incorporated them into treatment plans with the expectation that they could eventually reintegrate patients back into society.

Dr. Benjamin Rush, a professor of the Institute of Medicine and Clinical Practice at the University of Pennsylvania, was one of the early people to call attention to the benefit of labor for psychiatric patients. In his 1812 book “Medical Inquiries and Observations Upon Diseases of the Mind”, he says that “It has been remarked, that the maniacs of the male sex in all hospitals, who assist in cutting wood, making fires, and digging in a garden, and the females who are employed in washing, ironing, and scrubbing floors, often recover, while persons, whose rank exempts them from performing such services, languish away their lives within the walls of the hospital.”

Thus agriculture has, in some form, played a role in treatment, rehabilitation and/or residential care of disabled individuals over the last two centuries. During the nineteenth century most psychiatric hospitals included agricultural components. In 1817 patients at the newly-opened Friends Asylum for the Insane, in Philadelphia, worked in vegetable gardens and fruit-tree planting.

More detailed and thorough observations are to be found in the records of the old Victorian asylums, most of which had their own farms and market gardens. Farm work was considered a useful way of keeping the patients out of mischief and of providing them with an interesting pastime. It also allowed them the opportunity for a variety of different sensory experiences that were considered to be therapeutic. The following is an extract from the Report of the Commissioners of the Scotch Board of Lunacy:

“It is impossible to dismiss the subject of asylum farms without some reference to the way in which they contribute to the mental health of the inmates by affording subjects of interest to many of them. Even among patients drawn from urban dis-tricts, there are few to whom the operations of rural life present no features of interest; while to those drawn from rural districts, the horses, the oxen, the sheep, and the crops are unfailing sources of attraction.”

Originally the farm was not intended as a treatment mechanism, however, but rather as a way for those individuals who could not pay to be at the facility to earn their room and board. The Pontiac State Hospital in Michigan, for instance, made extensive use of farming and dairy projects on 300 acres. Production was the chief goal, however, and any therapy involved was a fortunate by-product. Thoughtful observation of individuals required to work led to an ultimate recognition that having responsibilities actually expedited rehabilitation and return to the community.

By mid-century progressive ideas on the care of psychiatric patients were more easily accepted. In 1854 the superintendent of the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane, and founder of the American Psychiatric Association, Dr. Thomas Kirkbride encouraged the insane to work in the gardens or shops to aid them in recovery. As the nineteenth century proceeded, institutionalization became more common for individuals with behavior problems and the farm was seen as an integral part of the facility.

When the London Asylum for the Insane opened in 1870, its first superintendents were great supporters of this practice for improving the well-being of patients. They believed patients could be cured by participating in forms of treatment that emulated societal norms; the three main components being labor, amusement, and proper diet. Thus a farm and work on it were significant parts of the institution and its program of therapy.

The establishment of farms as a functioning location for therapeutic and rehabilitative efforts in the U. S. has a long history. The Berkshire Farm Center and Services for Youth, which serves families with troubled children on 580 acres in Caanan, NY, is one of the earliest such farm-based programs still in existence. Started in 1886, it was based on the philosophy that contact with nature, a stable, loving environment, and emphasis on a strong work ethic could help start ‘wayward’ boys on the road to better lives.

A broad understanding of the specific personal benefits to be gained from working with plants was evident in writings during this period. Such activity was seen not only to help mental patients, but also the urban poor and retarded individuals. In Darkness and Daylight or Lights and Shadows of New York Life, published in 1895, missionary and philanthropist Helen Campbell, author and journalist Col. Thomas W. Knox, and chief of the New York City police and detectives Thomas Byrnes, describe the impact of flowers on the poor, the infirm and prisoners: “Prisoners in the jail, men and women alike, stretch their hands through the bars for them, and there is one woman whose life, to the deep amazement of everybody concerned, has altered utterly under their influence.”

In 1899 E.R. Johnston cites the healing by mentally handicapped children after their experience with plants and gardens: “In the garden every sense is alert. How the eye brightens at the masses of gorgeous color and the beautiful outlines – how many things, hot and cool, rough and smooth, hard and soft, and of different forms are to be grasped and held by trembling uncertain hands whose sense of touch is hardly yet awakened”.

C. Lawrence, in a paper the following year, examined the helpful qualities of plants. “Don’t talk to the child about numbers; but while he is learning to distinguish one flower from another, he will unconsciously learn the number of leaves, petals, etc. And, of course, a very dull child will take pride in having more flowers in his own garden than a playmate has in his”.

Dr. C. F. Menninger and his son, Karl, in 1919 established the Menninger Foundation in Topeka, Kansas. They had been brought up in an environment that valued the qualities of plants. Gardening and nature study were fundamental parts of the patient’s activity at the Foundation from the start. In later years Dr. Karl Menninger described horticultural therapy as an activity that “brings the individual close to the soil and close to Mother Nature, close to beauty, close to the inscrutable mystery of growth and development”.

The first use of animals for therapy in the U. S. was in 1919. Franklin K. Lane had been inspired watching the use of dogs in World War I where “the lonesome boys in France found their dogs a great comfort and men with shell shock recover their balance by getting close to a dog”. He wrote the superintendent of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., suggesting that dogs be introduced in the care of the men.

Dessa Hartwell, one of the pioneers of the horticultural therapy movement, in 1933 wrote: “The curative influence of gardening on suffering humanity is scarcely dreamed of by the world in general. Even workers in the field of occupational therapy have hardly begun to realize the therapeutic effects of working in or with the soil and its products”.

In the 1920s and 1930s many Occupational Therapy books mention gardening as an appropriate program. The first horticulture course was taught in 1942 at Milwaukee Downer College, the first college to award a degree in Occupational Therapy.

Army Air Corps personnel from all areas of operation needed a regime of restful activity during World War II. The Corps’ convalescent hospital in Pawling, New York, in cooperation with the Red Cross, used animal-assisted therapy and the men were encouraged to work on the center’s farm with hogs, cattle, horses and poultry.

After the war, however, it became more cost-effective to buy the food for such facilities than to raise it on-site and there was a significant shift away from the traditional farm-based institution. At the same time there was a moving of the population away from rural settings and facilities were more and more based on a medical model of therapy based on curing symptoms rather than treating the whole patient. In keeping with this shift, volunteers rather than medical professionals became responsible for the use of plants and animals in treatment facilities during the 1940s and 1950s. Volunteer garden clubs and horticulture industry members brought flowers and plant-based activities to veterans’ hospitals after World War II.
A horticultural-therapy greenhouse was opened in 1959 at the famed Institute for Rehabilitation Medicine at New York University Medical Center. Recruiting garden staff for support, however, often proved more successful than involving the medical staff. This ultimately led to the recognition of horticultural therapy as a profession.

In 1947 the Ross Family founded Green Chimneys, located in Pelham County, New York. Green Chimneys was a private school to allow children healing benefits from interaction with farm animals. In 1959 the first Camphill program was established in North America, based on the philosophy that “the path to wholeness involves relationships of mutual respect, education and (or) meaningful work, real participation in community life, including community decision-making, a healing rhythm of daily activities, seasonal celebrations, a rich artistic and cultural life, natural therapies, and acceptance, individual recognition, and dignity for everyone”.

This path is founded in the teachings of Camphill’s founder, Dr Karl Koenig and the philosopher who inspired him, Rudolf Steiner. It is designed for all Camphill community residents, not just for those with special needs. Also in 1959 the Colorado Boys Ranch — a home for wayward boys — was founded in response to a need for an alternative to correctional facilities for disadvantaged youngsters.

In 1960 “Therapy through Horticulture” was published by Dr. Donald Watson and Alice Burlingame. The Melwood Agricultural Training Center was founded in 1963 by parents who had raised their mentally handicapped sons and daughters at home and had no wish to place them in an institution. Melwood focused on a community-based on-the-job-training model for training and employment.

Boris Levinson published “The dog as a ‘Co-therapist’” in 1962, reporting significant progress with a disturbed child when Levinson’s dog, Jingles, attended therapy sessions. During the 1960s therapeutic riding centers developed throughout Europe, Canada and the United States. The North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA) was founded in 1969, based on earlier work done in Europe, to serve as an advisory body to the various ‘riding for the disabled’ groups.

In 1972 the first horticultural-therapy curriculum in the United States was established between the activity therapy department of the Menninger Foundation and the Horticulture Department of Kansas State University. Clemson University offered a graduate degree in horticultural therapy in 1973. Also in 1973, Michigan State University started its undergraduate horticultural therapy option, which included 12 weeks of practical training at the Clinton Valley Center, formerly Pontiac State Hospital.

Given this background, it is clear that programs related to use of plants and animals in therapy are seen as beneficial for individuals in treatment or rehabilitation. The greatest focus for these two programs currently is among the aging population. Animal-assisted therapy, however, continues to grow rapidly in rehabilitation for physically and visually impaired individuals, and horticultural therapy is expanding among programs for youth-at risk.

Psychiatric patients are now treated with drug intervention and outpatient talk therapy, limiting their use of plant and animal-based therapies. Likewise, such programs have been reduced for developmentally disabled youth by that population’s inclusion in the general classroom. Changes in the way that rehabilitation and therapeutic services are offered, however, have occurred concurrently with new types of programs being developed. There are now treatment programs involving plants and animals to address physical, mental, psychological, social and spiritual needs. Treatment audiences include: individuals with AIDS, cancer or other health issues, acquired or genetic physical and developmental disabilities, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, brain injuries, chronic pain, substance-abuse problems and learning disabilities, adults and children with psychiatric disorders, mental retardation and developmental disabilities, speech and hearing impairments, physical disabilities and neurological impairments.

The activities that are used in effective programs are as varied as the participants, facilities and professionals conducting the program.

Both food and non-food crops are used extensively within horticulture-based programs. Activities can range from making cuttings of indoor plants to running large greenhouse operations; from working in tomato container gardens to market gardens; from pulling a few weeds to contractual landscape maintenance of large facility grounds.

Animal-assisted therapy is generally conducted on a small scale with pets, or the clients visiting a facility where they can have interaction with small animals including rabbits, ducks and chickens. Animals in pet types of programs, compared to the farm programs, are treated as non-production animals. Hippotherapy focuses on riding horses and requires space for the animals as well as the clients.

Farm programs often have vegetable gardens and large animals (cows, goats, llamas) as well as small ones. While some may be treated as pets, production and marketing for both crops and livestock is an integral part of what occurs.

The therapeutic activities involve different levels of responsibility that the client has for the life of the plant or animal. In some the plants and/or animals present simply a setting that is intrinsically therapeutic but which is completely cared for by others; i.e. Wandering Garden for Alzheimer patients. In others, the plants and/or animals are responsive to the individuals in the treatment program but still completely dependent on others for care; i.e. a visiting pet. In yet others, the plants and/or animals are in danger of being harmed or dying if the client does not fulfill his/her duties in nurturing the life in his/her care; properly making cuttings, watering plants, feeding the animal on a schedule. Lastly, the products and/or by-products of the plant and/or animal are used in treatment programs such as cooking, crafts, shows and demonstrations, etc.

Some individuals may only experience one level of responsibility within a program while others may experience several levels. This may influence results, in terms of meeting the goals of a specific activity; for example someone working in the greenhouse making a dried-flower picture from flowers they helped grow, harvest and dry may respond differently to the activity as compared with someone working in a windowless hospital room with flowers purchased and donated by a stranger.

Despite limited official recognition at this time, the potential for growth in the field of Farming as Therapy (care of plants and animals for therapy and rehabilitation) in the United States is quite significant. Here are some examples of successful programs that can serve as models and inspiration:

Berkshire Farm Center and Services for Youth is a New York statewide non-profit social-service organization with a 116-year history of success working with at-risk children and their families.

Colorado Boys Ranch is a national residential-treatment facility that provides mental-health services and accredited education to at-risk boys, ages 10 to 21, from Colorado and across the United States.

Green Chimneys in Brewster, NY, is a nationally renowned, non-profit agency recognized as the leader in restoring possibilities for emotionally injured and at-risk children.

Crossroads Group Home treatment program is a South Carolina organization based on the Green Chimneys model, using an animal-assisted therapy program for girls from 10 to 18 years old who have been physically, sexually or emotionally abused.

Camphill in North America consists of ten independent communities, home to over 800 people on over 2,500 acres of land, and is dedicated to social renewal through community building.

Red Wiggler Community Farm was founded to create meaningful jobs for adults with developmental disabilities through the business of growing and selling high-quality, home-grown vegetables in Montgomery County, Maryland.

Moody Gardens in Galveston, Texas began with a hippotherapy riding-program for people with head injuries, but it has expanded beyond the original goal to become an integral part of the general community for persons with a wide range of physical and emotional disabilities.

Log Cabin Boys Ranch, nestled in the Santa Cruz Mountains, is the San Francisco Juvenile Probation Department’s detention centre for boys 15 to 18 years old who are learning native-plant propagation, habitat restoration and organic farming.

Melwood, in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, is a leader in the advancement of services for people with developmental disabilities.

Urban Meadows, in Chicago, is the nation’s leading psychiatric recovery centre as an outgrowth of its horticultural-therapy program.

Tranquility Farm Equestrian Education and Renewal Center, Inc. is a non-profit organization whose main goal is to develop a symbiotic relationship between man and equine to help deal with high stress, trauma, a physical, emotional or situational problem or injury.

Gambrel Farm is a breeding and training facility located on western Washington State’s little-known Key Peninsula working with children and Haflinger horses.




The Biology of Dairy Animals

A ewe waits as her lamb at Northland Sheep Dairy is about to nurse.

A ewe waits as her lamb at Northland Sheep Dairy is about to nurse.

The average American consumes almost 68 gallons of cow milk in the form of fluid milk and milk products, and milk ranks amongst their top four consumed beverages (not including tap water). These and other statistics show that milk is a ubiquitous part of our cultural diet. How cultural, how-ever, is knowledge about the average dairy cow’s life? Recently, while visiting at a neighbor’s house following evening milking chores, I was amused by their four-year-old son’s response to learning that I had spent the last few hours milking cows. “Milking the….cows!?”, he replied in shocked amazement. I’ll chalk this one up to being a four-year-old, but must also acknowledge a study published in the U.K. in 2012 by LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming). In their study only 6 out of ten participants between the ages of 16-23 were able to successfully link milk to a photo of a dairy cow. Knowing the cow (or goat or sheep) as the origin of milk is an important first step in agricultural literacy. In promoting agri-cultural literacy and consumers that are actively making conscious food decisions, however, we must also be educating about the concepts of animal welfare, behavior and nutrition, as well as the daily routines and management decisions of farmers. It is an easy step to be a part of a culture that embraces a product but it is a vital step to be a part of a culture that knows the story of the product’s origins.

Evolution of the domestic ruminant

Throughout different cultures in history the cow has been (and in some cultures still is) celebrated as sacred. Modern insights into Indian culture, where the cow remains sacred for many, have suggested that this status in religion and culture is perhaps rooted in the essential contributions that the cow offers in exchange for relatively little inputs. The cow in India is a major contributor of physical labor, dairy products, and nutrients from excrement (manure and urine). Observers note that the typical cow in India is given freedom to graze road-sides and cropland after the harvests have been taken off, essentially what is otherwise wasteland and has a very low cost of production. De-spite this low input demand, the cow is still productive and fruitful. She produces valuable offspring, which are either raised as cows or if male are trained as oxen to be used for labor; she also produces nutrient dense milk which humans consume, and manure which can be used as a fuel source for cooking and heating as well as a vital fertilizer for crop fields. Given this relationship, the sacred cow is a symbol of care, compassion, sustainability and equity within the Indian culture.

Archaeologists estimate that the domestication of ruminant animals began roughly 11 thousand years ago (ruminants are animals with a unique four-chamber stomach and include cows, sheep and goats amongst others). This theory of domestication is supported with bone remains and other evidence, which show a gradual spread of domesticated ruminants from the Middle East through modern-day Turkey and eventually into Europe. At a number of these sites archaeologists have found pottery shards and other vessels that are reminiscent of modern day cheese-making or yogurt fermenting technology. It is theorized that fermentation techniques were utilized by these early cultures to allow digestibility of the milk.

DNA research has allowed scientists to pinpoint a genetic mutation that encourages the production and presence of an enzyme that allows for the digestion of unfermented milk beyond the weaning years and throughout adulthood. Roughly 35% of today’s human population has this mutation and is thus able to digest unfermented dairy products beyond the age of 7-8 years old. It is thought that this mutation first occurred in Europe roughly 7,000 years ago. Those with the genetic mutation are suggested to have had a reproductive advantage during this period of history, likely due to improved quality and availability of food supply in the form of unfermented dairy. This advantage promoted the spread and migration of the human populations with the enzyme gene mutation. Due to the mutually beneficial relationship between humans and dairy animals, dairy animals also experienced a population and migration increase following the development of the genetic mutation in humans. This genetic mutation is traced as the major contributor of modern dairy digestibility in individuals of European descent. Several other isolated pockets of populations that have evolved to digest raw dairy, however, have since been found in West Africa, the Middle East and south Asia. These ‘hot spots’ are all linked to different genetic mutations.

During the European colonization of the United States in the 1600s, immigrants brought cattle with them from Europe. These colonists continued the migration of cattle for the observed benefits of food production (meat and dairy) and labor in the form of draft power. Records show that it wasn’t until the late 1800’s that cattle in America began to be bred specifically for dairy purposes alone, and even during this period cows were primarily kept for home or local needs. As people in the US increasingly began to populate cities through the turn of the century, the demand for systemized milk production grew and innovations such as milking machines, commercial milk bottles, pasteurization and homogenization techniques and equipment, refrigerated trucks, automated bottling machines, advances in crop production for animal feed, and advances in veterinary medicine came about. By the mid-1920s, government regulations began to be established to improve milk price stability and to ensure the availability of a sufficient quantity of safe (or unadulterated) milk. In 1946 the US government passed the National School Lunch Act, which mandated that each school lunch include between ½ to 2 pints of whole milk.

Today, dairy is one of the top five agricultural commodities in the United States. It is estimated that there were over 9 million mature milk cows in the US in 2013 with an average annual production of 2,450 gallons (or 21,805 lbs.) of milk per cow. These numbers are evidence of the influence that the dairy industry continues to plays within our culture; however, they do little to reveal the intricacies of the true player – today’s dairy animal.

What is a ruminant?

3diagramOur most common domesticated dairy animals, cows, sheep and goats, are all mammals classified (by their digestive system) as ruminants. Ruminants are herbivores (consume plant materials) and have evolved to digest a diet composed primarily of fibrous plants such as grasses. This is unique from mammals with a single stomach (or a monogastric) digestive system, such as humans. In the human diet, the fiber from plant material, such as leafy vegetables, is beneficial but does not provide actual nutrition. Our stomachs lack the necessary enzymes to digest and absorb proteins and other nutrients from grasses and similar fibrous vegetation. The digestive system of ruminant animals is distinctive because, as suggested previously, they have a unique digestive feature: a four-compartment stomach. The four parts of their stomach are known as the rumen, reticulum, omasum and abomasum. When a ruminant animal swallows a chewed mouthful of food that has been mixed with saliva, it travels through the esophagus to the rumen and reticulum (also known as the reticulorumen). The reticulorumen is essentially a fermentation vat; it plays host to a variety of microbes that are essential for the fermentation and breakdown of the consumed plant materials. In the fermentation vat (or rumen), solids are clumped together to form a bolus or cud. The bolus of partially digested plant material is then regurgitated by the animal for further chewing and particle breakdown. This is where the common phrase of ‘to ruminate on a thought’ or ‘to chew something over’ originated.

During the rumination process of swallowing, regurgitating, chewing, swallowing again and further fermentation in the reticulorumen, volatile fatty acids (a main source of energy for the ruminant animal), vitamins, and other by-products of fermentation microbes are absorbed into the animal’s bloodstream through the rumen wall. Other materials of fermentation, such as methane gases, are released from the rumen via belching (or eructation). When thoroughly broken down, plant materials are transported from the reticulorumen to the omasum. In the omasum the digested water and minerals are absorbed into the animal’s bloodstream. Any remaining materials are then transported to the abomasum. Of the four chambers, the abomasum is the most comparable to the digestive stomach of a non-ruminant mammal. In the abomasum, further digestion of the food materials is facilitated by the presence of acids and enzymes. These contents continue to the small intestine where nutrients such as fats and proteins are absorbed by the animal. Finally, undigested feedstuffs pass through the large intestine and are excreted by the animal.

Milk production

4chartAfter learning what makes a cow’s digestion (or goat, sheep, etc.) unique from other mammals as a ruminant, the next defining characteristic to understand about the dairy animal is how (and why) they produce milk. Like most mammals, lactation for the female ruminant animal begins with parturition (or the birthing of offspring) and the natural release of the oxytocin hormone. The start of milk production for a dairy animal is also known as freshening. Following parturition, all mammals produce colostrum for approximately 3-4 days. Colostrum is similar to milk but is composed of antibodies to be ingested by the newborn ruminant animal; the consumption of colostrum, particularly within the first 24 hours of age, is vital for the oral transfer of immunity to the newborn because immune system traits are not transferred to the offspring through the placenta.

Today, most commercial dairy operations separate newborns from the dairy cow within the first 24 hours of birth. This practice stems from the business end of dairy operations, which is milk production and collection for commercial sales. Arguably, the practice of separation also allows for farm management to have more specialized attention on the mother’s milk quality and health following birthing as well as the calf’s milk intake and growth. Recent research has observed the potential impacts that separation at birth has on calf development and lifetime production versus alternative management methods for calf-cow relationships that still promote herd health and milk quality. Once such study from the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna showed an increase in the sociability of adult cows that had been raised with a herd and their mother. It is not yet clear how the sociability of a cow translates to milk production or the ease of adopting new management practices on farm. Continued research and on-farm trials of raising calves with their mother will improve the chance of adopting any of these practices on commercial operations.

Though they are separated from their mothers, it is common practice in the dairy industry to deliver the colostrum to newborns and continue to provide them milk (or milk replacer) for at least 2-3 months. Milk consumed by nursing young stock bypasses the rumen and is sent to the abomasum for digestion.

Mammal’s milk is roughly composed of 2-8% (by weight) lactose, though this proportion varies depending on the species. Lactose is a carbohydrate, or sugar, that is essentially unique to the mammary gland of mammals. Mammals are born with the ability to digest the lactose in their mother’s milk (and consequently that of other mammals) due to the presence of an enzyme known as lactase. The lactase enzyme, along with other cells, forms what is commonly called the brush border. The brush border is the area of small intestine where nutrients are absorbed into the blood stream. As lactose sugars from milk approach the brush border, lactase enzymes housed in the brush border activate the breakdown of lactose sugars into simple sugars. One of these simple sugars, glucose, is a key energy source for the mammalian body. During maturation and the weaning process, the presence of lactase in the digestive system lessens for most mammals including our earliest ancestors. The evolution of the genetic mutation in humans, as noted previously, allows for the persistence of lactase enzyme production and therefore the digestion of milk throughout adulthood.

Rumen development begins with the introduction of forages and/or grain to the calf diet. Under a less intensively managed though still domesticated setting, we can predict that calves would self-wean from their dam (or cow mother) at approximately 8 months of age. This estimate is based on a comparison of cow calf relationships in domesticated beef cows where the average age of weaning pasture-raised beef is approximately 8 months of age. Healthy beef and dairy cows begin showing signs of heat (or the ability to be bred) at approximately 15 months of age. Breeding occurs on today’s farm in two manners: 1) with the help of a bull, or 2) using artificial insemination. After being bred, gestation periods vary by species; similar to humans, a dairy cow carries her young for approximately 9 months (this period is shorter for goats and sheep).

Cows have evolved in an annual cycle that follows the availability of abundant forages. When observing wild ruminant populations, it is notable that they freshen (or give birth) at the onset of the growing season (or spring). This allows for maximum food intake for the animals to support the high energy demand associated with producing milk for their offspring. To remain on this evolved cyclical pattern, and due to their relatively long gestation period, healthy cows are able to be rebred only 2-3 months following parturition (or birthing). When managed on this cycle, an average dairy cow will be milked for approximately 9 months following parturition. At the end of this period she is dried off, which essentially means that her milk production ceases. Similarly, wild ruminant populations would be self-weaning at approximately a similar time. This dry period evolved to occur during the non-growing season. The cow’s energy demand is lower without needing to produce milk and her energy is directed to the growing fetus during this period.

Animal welfare

The average dairy cow can live to be 12-15 years old. At 10 years of age, a dairy cow would have had a maximum of 8 lactation cycles and an estimated lifetime milk production of at least 20,000 gallons of milk. The average age of dairy cows in today’s agriculture tends to be closer to 5-6 years of age. If a cow is injured or ill and unable to maintain milk productivity, the farmer must often cull the cow from the herd in order to maintain financial productivity. Good management techniques can improve the health and welfare of the dairy animals, promoting their production and prolonging their life span.

In the past decade, researchers have observed that, given freedom of movement, the average lactating dairy cow has a relatively routine expenditure of her daily activities. The cow spends roughly 12-14 hours of her day lying down and resting. The remaining hours of the day are spent eating and drinking (2-3.5 hours), socializing or standing (2-3 hours) and milking and other herd management activities. Additionally, it’s estimated that approximately 7-10 hours are spent ruminating; these hours overlap with time spent lying down and standing. These numbers are essentially a cow’s internal time management system. It is suggested that by providing appropriate housing and animal management routines that allow for animals to maintain this natural schedule farmers can promote cow welfare, health and performance.

Organic dairy information

The emergence of the organic movement and local food awareness has bolstered consumer interest and awareness about the dairy industry. The implementation of a national set of standards for organic dairy production, which accounts for animal welfare, animal feed and healthcare treatments, has improved the transparency of organic milk production practices for consumers. It has been suggested by some retail data that organic milk is a gateway product for consumers into the organic marketplace.

Overall, milk production trends in the US, even for organic dairy operations, show a shift away from small family-owned farms and towards larger commercial operations. The number of dairy farmers is decreasing and in our communities small working dairy farms are becoming less prevalent. Given this trend, it is less likely that today’s youth will have gleaned a knowledge of food production from childhood experiences on or near farms. It is important to highlight the work of farms and to educate our communities about them. With an awareness of our food production systems, consumers will be empowered to promote animal health and welfare as well as the rights of farmers. This begins with young generations being able to identify a dairy cow and know the basics of how and why a dairy cow produces milk.

Ashley Green currently works as a Dairy and Livestock Certification Specialist for Vermont Organic Farmers (VOF), the certification body of NOFA-VT. She enjoys the exposure that the job provides to the hardworking and talented farmers and researchers in VT and neighboring states. Ashley grew up in a region surrounded by agriculture, but her involvement was limited until she became employed as a student relief milker at the University of New Hampshire’s organic dairy research facility. She quickly bonded with the routine of the dairy cow and, since completing her B.S. and M.S at UNH, she has continued to pursue a career that supports and contributes to the future of sustainable livestock agriculture.




Mob Grazing

mob grazing

The great herd on the Arkansas [River] through which I passed ……. was, from my own observation, not less than 25 miles wide, and from reports of hunters and others it was about five days in passing a given point, or not less than 50 miles deep. From the top of Pawnee Rock I could see from 6 to 10 miles in almost every direction. This whole vast space was covered with buffalo, looking at a distance like one compact mass, the visual angle not permitting the ground to be seen. I have seen such a sight a great number of times, but never on so large a scale. -from “The Extermination of the American Bison” written by William T Hornaday in 1889.

The term ‘mob grazing’ means keeping large numbers of cattle on a small area of land and moving them frequently. The land then enjoys long periods of rest before the cattle return. It is mimicking how huge herds of wandering bison or wildebeest or caribou used to move through an area, trampling and grazing all around them before they departed, literally, for pastures new, leaving the grasses to grow, mature and reproduce once more.

Grass plants have evolved over millions of years under such grazing regimes and it is only during the past few hundred years that we have started using enclosures and fields, exposing the grasses to completely different grazing pressures, involving constant grazing and re-grazing of the immature plants. Grasses and other forage plants are poorly adapted to such treatments and consequently productivity is much reduced.

By emulating the huge herds of yesteryear, mob grazing encourages the grass plants to complete their full lifecycle, improving overall capture of sunlight and hence improving the land’s productivity. Additionally, mob grazed cattle trample significant quantities of forage onto the soil surface, feeding the microorganisms and other soil life and increasing the soil organic matter.

A happy side effect of allowing grasses to grow to maturity is that cattle are much healthier. They too have adapted to eat large amounts of bulky forage material with a good combination of fiber, protein and energy. The sheen on their coats and the firmness of their dung, coupled with the growth rates and overall health of their calves is testament to the benefits of mob grazing more mature pastures.

Incorporating cattle into an arable rotation offers real financial benefits. Soils become more fertile and, if the right mixture of forage is grown for grazing, significant savings in nitrogenous and other fertilizers can be made. The friability of soils also improves and both its water holding capacity (useful in a drought situation) and the rate of water infiltration (useful during periods of heavy rainfall) are greatly improved. The bottom line is that cattle in the rotation can improve your bottom line! Profitability is enhanced and the environment is much improved too.
The basic premise of mob grazing is one of high stocking densities – huge numbers of cattle bunched into tight groups – which are moved frequently with the aid of electric fences, trampling into the soil as much forage as they graze. The pasture land is then left, untouched, until it is fully recovered, giving opportunities for a whole host of plant species, that would otherwise be grazed out or out-competed, to establish in the sward.

Mob grazing simulates the vast herds of bison that used to migrate across the American plains, or the millions of wildebeest that still sweep over the African savannah, or the famous European auroch herds that grazed their way across our own continent thousands of years ago. The grass plant evolved alongside such migrations, adapting and specialising to a life cycle that included short, intense periods of grazing and trampling followed by long rest periods. I realised that it is only in the last few hundred years that grasses have been managed differently and that such management is detrimental to the long term productivity of our grasslands.

To understand exactly why mob grazing works, it is important to break down the process into its component parts. Firstly, the long recovery time between grazings allows the plant to establish a healthy root system. The roots grow deeper into the soil, bringing up hidden nutrients and making the plant more drought-hardy. Carbohydrates are also stored in the root and provide the energy vital to feed the new regrowth post-grazing. The long recovery time also leads to high volumes of above ground forage, a mixture of leaf, seed and stem.

The high stocking density means up to 50% of the plant is trampled to the ground by the animals. Cattle turned into a fully mature pasture graze the lush tops of the plants, eating seedheads and upper leaves full of energy and protein. The tougher, lower stems aretrodden onto the soil surface and these stalks act both as a mulch and as a food source for the soil microorganisms, building new soil in the process.

The cattle only eat the best parts of the plant before being moved onto a new area of ground, and this is why performance doesn’t suffer – they are not forced to eat the poorer stems et cetera – and their dung is tight and firm, reflecting the balanced diet they are getting.
As the organic matter rises and the soil becomes more fertile, the land grows more forage and stocking rates – the total carrying capacity of the land – increase. Neil Dennis, a Canadian farmer, improved his stocking rate fourfold. As he pithily observed, he’d gained the equivalent of another three farms at no extra cost, and is now harvesting and selling sunlight (in the form of beef) much more efficiently than under a set-stocked regime.

Another notable feature of mob grazing is that the permanent pastures don’t appear to become worn out. Conventional reseeding is unheard of, and both grasslands and their underlying soils are healthier than ever before. As practitioners regularly point out, it is farming in nature’s image, mimicking what has happened naturally for millions of years.

The Mob-Grazed Grass Plant

Grasses have been on earth for a very long time. Archaeologists believe the earliest grass pollens date back some 65 million years. It is one of the most successful plant species on the globe, with grass plains covering much of the temperate regions of our planet. It provides a food source to millions of animals, both wild and domesticated, as well as forming the bulk of the human diet.

In the last five or six million years, the grass plant has evolved in conjunction with the great grazing herds of the plains and is perfectly adapted to periodic defoliation and subsequent rest periods. A key adaptation is the location of the growing point on a grass plant, which is found in the crown of the plant, at or just above the soil surface. This protects it from potential damage by large grazing animals and allows it to regrow quickly once the herds move on.

Another feature of the grass plant is the ability to store carbohydrates in its roots. As a plant is defoliated, it uses these root energy reserves to create new leaves (which grow from the protected growing point). These leaves in turn capture energy from the sun through photosynthesis which both replenishes the root reserves and is used for respiration and reproduction by the plant.

Different species of grass differ in the timing of their growth through the year, but all follow a broadly similar growing pattern. Upon awakening from winter dormancy, they start to produce new vegetative leaves and tillers from their growing points. These leaves are like mini solar panels, all helping to intercept the sunlight that streams down to earth, converting it into chemically stored energy. Growth during this phase is rapid.

After a while, the plant has sufficient energy-capturing leaves to allow it to enter into its reproductive phase. At this point, it starts to grow reproductive tillers, bearing the familiar stem and seed heads. Vegetative growth slows down as the plant puts much of its energy into the reproductive phase. At the end of this phase, annual plants senesce and die, whereas perennial grass plants enter a brief stage of slow growth before a secondary vegetative growth stage begins at the back-end of the year.

Traditionally, livestock farmers graze plants during the vegetative stage, stopping the grass from throwing up reproductive stems and restarting the cycle.

However, many of the mob graziers I met believe grass plants become exhausted over time if they are not allowed occasionally to complete their natural life cycle – necessitating reseeding and other costly remedial work. They emphasized that a plant was only fully mature when it had completed its reproductive stage. This means that the recovery phase – the period when animals are kept away from the plant – can be anything up to 100 days or longer, depending on climate, rainfall, time of year, latitude etc.

They are not averse to grazing a plant before it reaches maturity but they believe firmly that occasionally the grass plant has to be allowed to follow through all the phases of its lifecycle to remain healthy. As they regularly pointed out, grasses have evolved under a system of rapid and extreme defoliation followed by many months of uninterrupted growth and grow best under such systems.

An interesting result of allowing the plant to reach maturity is the vast quantities of forage that are produced per hectare. Some of the warm-season, or C4 grasses I saw in North America stood higher than the cows, at over six feet tall and even here in the UK, stems of between four and five feet are achievable.

Equally interesting is the claim that underground roots mirror the above ground forage. The picture (pg 8) shows an experiment in the US where bunchgrasses were defoliated at different heights, demonstrating quite clearly this phenomenon. Allowing plants to mature fully results in the formation of large, complex and deep root systems. These are able to extract vital minerals from lower down in the soil strata, they are better able to reach water supplies during a drought and, when they die off, they leave huge amounts of valuable organic matter in the earth.

The huge amounts of above ground forage also capture large quantities of sunlight. As farmers, it is important to remember that this is what we are in the business of doing. We are selling sunlight (in the form of meat, milk, grains, etc.) to the rest of the world. The more efficiently we can capture the sun’s energy, (which freely streams down to earth every day) the more people we will feed and the more money we will make!

The seed heads on a grass plant are also full of carbohydrate and hence concentrated bundles of energy – admittedly not as plump as cultivated wheat or barley grains, but nevertheless they are extremely nutritious. Mob grazed cows, turned in to a mature pasture, strip the seed heads off the plant with relish. It’s like self-feeding grain to the cattle out in the field!

Finally, allowing grass plants to reach maturity and set seed means the pasture effectively renews itself each year. A significant number of the grass seeds will be shed onto the ground. Some will fail to germinate and will decompose (feeding the soil biota), some will be eaten before they reach the soil, but a significant number each year will land on the soil or on a cowpat and will germinate, constantly refreshing and reseeding the pasture, for free!

Soil

The huge amounts of both above- and below-ground organic matter produced when a grass plant is allowed to reach full maturity is a valuable source of energy and nutrients for soil organisms. A healthy, living soil contains billions of bacteria, fungi, nematodes, arthropods and protozoa.

Humus is a catch-all term often used to describe much of the soil organic matter. In its truest sense, it is an incredibly stable carbon compound which has amazing properties. It has many negatively charged sites within its molecular structure and these negative charges ‘hold on’ to the positively charged plant nutrients (eg nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and other important trace elements). It has huge water holding capacity, acting like a sponge and thus both allows heavy rainfall to penetrate the earth (rather than flowing away into streams and rivers) and then holds on to the moisture, making it available to be used by the plants during periods of low rainfall and drought.

Another, recently discovered, substance is glomalin. It is critically important to the formation of good soil structure, being a type of ‘glue-like’ substance which holds soil particles together in peds and clods. It is believed to be exuded by the mycorrhizal fungi which live in a symbiotic relationship with healthy roots. Glomalin also makes us realize how little we know about the earth beneath our feet: despite the key role it plays, glomalin was only discovered by soil scientists in the mid-1990s. How many more key ‘players’ in the make-up of our soils are still waiting to be found?

The ratio of bacteria to fungi varied according to the land use. For example, heavily cultivated arable soils growing large amounts of annual monocultures will be predominantly bacteria-dominated. Conversely, undisturbed woodland soils with high levels of lignified material falling onto the soil surface will be populated by huge amounts of fungi and very few bacteria.

Permanent grassland sits somewhere in the middle, tending to have a balance of both bacteria and fungi in its soils. In a bacteria-dominated soil, annual weeds thrive. In a fungal soil, perennial woody shrubs do best. This allows us, as land managers, to study the weed species growing in our swards and fields to determine what is out of balance. In theory, if we get closer to the desirable ratios for grasslands, then desirable grass species will thrive and less desirable ‘weed’ species will not!

The Benefits of Organic Matter

Using mob grazing to build organic matter in your soils can have a dramatic effect both on the appearance and the productivity of your land. I have already referred to the capacity soil organic matter has for holding onto nutrients, making them more available for the growing plants. I have also mentioned the way organic matter improves the structure of the soil, ‘glueing’ particles together which not only improves water infiltration but also reduces soil erosion. In addition, this well-structured, high organic matter-containing soil has a much greater water holding capacity than soils with poor levels of organic matter – 1g of carbon can hold between 4g and 5g of water. This slows down the speed that rains pass through and over the soils, improving the water cycle and making more water available to the plant for longer during times of drought.

On Gabe Brown’s farm in North Dakota, where he has been mob grazing and growing cocktail cover crops for over fifteen years, I was handed a steel rod, some 1.2m long and with a small handle on top. Gabe asked me to try to push it into the ground. To my amazement, the rod slid into the ground like a knife into butter, all the way to the handle. Gabe explained that this was because his soils had excellent structure to great depths as a result of his focus on soil improvement and adoption of all available techniques to enhance his soils.

On Menoken Farms, also in North Dakota, Jay Fuhrer showed me the effect of combining mob grazing and cocktail cover crop mixtures to build organic matter, and the changes were equally dramatic. Grey sands were converted into a dark, rich, friable soil within just a few years.

Perhaps the most visually dramatic changes I saw, partly due to the scale of the change and the fact that it was a work in progress, was on Phil and Jill Jerde’s ranch in South Dakota. The Jerde family farm a huge herd of buffalo, using holistically planned mob grazing to utilize the grass efficiently and improve the ranch soils. The results, in an otherwise dry and sparse high prairie, were nothing short of amazing. Vegetation was starting to appear in the natural draws, or valleys, in the landscape and more productive forage plants were starting to colonize this newly fertile soil.

The water cycle was starting to function again. The infrequent rainfall was no longer running off the land and being lost, but instead was being absorbed and slowly seeping through the soil profile.

There were hundreds of draws and valleys on the Jerde ranch that were showing signs of being transformed. Those on lower land were much further advanced, with the green, lush forage starting to spread high up the sides of the draws. Draws much higher up were only just starting to show signs of improvement, with small, isolated patches of more productive grasses and other plants growing in the base of the draw.

The beauty of this is that as more grasses are produced, there is more organic matter available to be trampled into the soil. This further improves soil fertility and water holding capacity and so the rate of improvement increases still further.

The improvements were most clearly visible when standing alongside the boundary fence on the Jerde’s ranch, comparing their grassland with that of their neighbours. The improvements were tangible and were all a result of improving the soil organic matter content.




Why “Who Owns Science?”

Evolution i s a mythThe focus of this issue — ‘Who Owns Science?’ — may puzzle some readers. “How can anyone own science?” you might ask. “It is a process of establishing truth and a way of looking at the world.”

Yes, it is those things for sure, but it is also a very valuable brand for those who can control it. Science has largely replaced religion as a source of reliable knowledge for most people, and if you can represent your idea, your product, your investment scheme as based in science, you have an automatic advantage over your competitors. To the extent that you can discredit those competitors as ‘unscientific’ then you can dismiss their ideas and products without even directly addressing them.

Readers of this journal are familiar with watching that happen regarding the process of genetic engineering. Monsanto and its corporate agents not only said their glyphosate-resistance technology epitomized science and progress, they went further and actively discredited legitimate scientists who questioned their assertions and wondered about some of the health impacts and other potential negatives concerning GMOs.

But the same process of trying to monopolize science and deny doubters any credibility is rife within other industries, not just agricultural biotech. Lobbyists for the pharmaceuticals have the same tendency to dismiss critics, especially when it comes to anyone questioning the efficacy or safety of vaccines. Certainly the science behind their candidate’s support for various methods of controlling the COVID outbreak was fundamental to the two presidential campaigns just ended.

In this issue we explore efforts to claim “ownership” of science in this way, and show how such claims (and efforts to censor alternative points of view) can have destructive effects on legitimate efforts to establish truth. We also include an example of a campaign based in open-source science, showing how that can be done. It is our hope to leave readers with a reluctance to accept any claim that a view represents “settled science”, understanding that science itself is forever growing and incorporating more knowledge.




Issues Facing Family-scale Farmers and their Laborers in the Northeastern United States

Annualized mean wage of farmworkers, by state, May 2015, from the Bureau of Labor Statistics

The economic justice issues facing organic farmers and workers in the northeastern United States are consistent with many of the challenges faced in conventional agriculture such as inadequate pay, lack of housing, intense market competition, and health-related problems due to the strenuous nature of the work. The reasons for these issues, however, may differ in the organic farming sector. In small-scale organic farming the issues largely come from a lack of systemic infrastructure within which the farmers themselves can make enough income to support and enact their values of justice and sustainability. Thus small-scale organic agriculture and its farmers and laborers can be considered a population marginalized within the larger political-economic landscape of U.S. agriculture.

Who are these farmers and workers on small-scale organic farms in the northeastern U.S.? Publicly available reports offer a useful snapshot of organic agriculture nationally, including who works on different types of farms and farm types predominant in different regions of the country. They offer little decisive information, however, that tells the story of farmers and laborers on organic farms in the northeastern United States. What follows are some of the results of a survey of NOFA farmer members meant to illuminate the answer to this question.

The survey included 36 items asking questions about the market for organic products, including where farmers sell their products and issues they encounter (if any) with their major buyers, pay for workers, housing, attitudes toward policies such as unemployment insurance thresholds, membership in organizations like NOFA, and benefits farmers derive from those memberships. In addition, the survey asked about farmers’ values and practices related to farming organically, such as whether they do so because it is a family tradition, and whether they uphold ideals about the environment.

While for this survey it would be desirable to generalize the results to all the farmer-members of NOFA and/or organic farmers in the Northeast, it is important to note that the results collected are only representative of those farmers who completed the survey. The survey was administered using an online survey tool, and it opened for responses on January 2, 2013, and closed on March 15, 2013. An invitation to participate was sent electronically on multiple occasions to all members using a variety of email lists that reach NOFA farmer members. In addition, recruitment materials were distributed in print at state chapters’ annual meetings. Participants had the option of filling out the survey via paper and mailing it back in a postage-provided envelope.

There were 357 usable survey responses from NOFA farmer members. Per information collected by NOFA’s Interstate Council, there are about 5,000 members of NOFA across their network, approximately one-quarter of whom are farmers. Based on these estimates, then, the total number of the population from which this volunteer sample was drawn is around 1,250 farmer members, indicating roughly a 28.6% response rate overall. Because of the nature of this survey and its focus on labor characteristics, constraints, and opportunities, as well as farmer values and involvement in NOFA and other organizations, no information on farm size or the predominant products on each farm was gathered. In hindsight, this is a limitation of the study because the size of the farm and the products grown, raised, and harvested affect the labor needed on the farm, as well as the conditions in which workers find themselves.

Total Number & Mean Number per farm of Laborers by Type

As you’ll see in the data presented, according to the survey most farms in the NOFA network are small-scale farms using organic practices, a population about whose labor practices little specific research has been done. Findings also indicate that these farms rely heavily on labor from family and community members in order to operate. While this study is by no means a comprehensive examination of all organic farms in the Northeast, it provides insight into the labor force and related justice issues faced by small-scale organic farmers and farmworkers. Further researching the experiences of these farmers and laborers is essential for informing future policy and practice not only within NOFA, but also across the Northeast and nationwide. In addition, expanding the geographic scale in a future study in order to include small-scale organic farming across the U.S. would be helpful to compare across regions what is working well to advance justice for organic farmers and their laborers. Doing so could expand and strengthen the network through which organic farmers can connect with and learn from one another toward the development of not only more environmentally sustainable farms, but also economically sustainable businesses that are able to fulfill their values for justice for their owners and employees.

 

 

Types of labor on farms       

All 357 respondents included in this analysis answered the series of questions asking them to indicate what type of labor they use on their farms. As shown, the overwhelming response was ‘family members’, which is not surprising given that the Northeast is known for its small scale, family farming. Figure 1 reports the number of farms that indicated using that type of labor. Note that the categories are not mutually exclusive, meaning a farmer could check more than one referring to the same worker (i.e. ‘Paid employees’ could also be ‘Family members’, etc.) For those who answered ‘other’, responses included spouses, developmentally disabled adults, youth needing community service hours, court mandated community service, and ‘wwoofers’ (people involved in the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms network), among others.         

Number of laborers on farms      

For all workers, respondents were asked “Please tell us how many people worked on your farm and were [paid] [not paid] for each category in the 2012 calendar year. ‘Year Round’ is anyone who is a 12-month employee of your farm and ‘Seasonal’ applies to anyone working less than that. If no one in that category worked on your farm in 2012, please enter 0.” Table 1 indicates the total number of types of workers reported by respondents as well as the mean number of workers of each type. As this table demonstrates, many farmers depend largely on unpaid workers, namely in the form of seasonal volunteers and customers/CSA members. The survey did not ask how many hours per week or season each type of laborer contributed; therefore, comparisons between worker types are difficult.

     

Length of time working on farm

Another important concern with respect to labor is retention. Thus, respondents were asked, “What percentage of your workers in 2012 were in their first year working on your farm?” A higher percentage of workers on the farm in their first year would indicate lower retention from the previous year or that the farm was new. Figure 2 summarizes the results of the 287 responses to this question. At nearly half (49%) of the farms, only 0-10% of workers were in their first year working at that location, but 32% of the farms reported that greater than 40% of their workers were in their first year on the farm.    

Payroll ranges and benefits to workers.  

Two open ended questions asked respondents to report the amount paid per hour to their lowest and highest paid hourly worker. Some 124 respondents filled out the question asking about the lowest paid hourly worker, and 118 answered regarding their highest paid hourly worker. Several respondents declined to answer this item and instead wrote things such as, “they work for nothing because they are part of the family.” These answers were not included in the analysis for this item. The below Wage Table provides the range paid for hourly workers as well as the state minimum wage (NH gives the federal minimum) and living wage for each of the states in the network as a point of reference.

Benefits to workers  

Benefits-eligible workers are defined by the federal government as employees who have “worked for a covered employer for at least 12 months, have 1,250 hours of service in the previous 12 months, and if at least 50 employees are employed by the employer within 75 miles”. Some 232 respondents reported the number of benefits-eligible workers they had during the year 2012, with 160 farmers reporting 0 benefits-eligible workers, and 72 reporting having 1 or more benefits-eligible workers. The survey itself did not provide this definition, so participants were left to determine ‘benefits-eligible’ on their own. Many respondents had no benefits-eligible workers on their farms in 2012. The number of responses for each of the benefit types listed is represented in the Benefits Table on page A-3.  The most prevalent type of benefit provided to benefits-eligible workers by respondent farms is workers compensation insurance, while the least prevalent are maternity/paternity leave, retirement benefits, and time and a half for overtime. Note that not all of the benefits listed are mandated by the government for eligible employees; the only mandatory benefits are worker compensation and leave through the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) in all of the states where NOFA farms are located. This accounts for the 100% compliance with workers compensation insurance provision.

As you’ve seen in the data presented, according to the survey most farms in the NOFA network are small-scale farms using organic practices, a population about whose labor practices little specific research has been done. Findings also indicate that these farms rely heavily on labor from family and community members in order to operate. While this study is by no means a comprehensive examination of all organic farms in the Northeast, it provides insight into the labor force and related justice issues faced by small-scale organic farmers and farmworkers. Further researching the experiences of these farmers and laborers is essential for informing future policy and practice, not only within NOFA, but also across the Northeast and nationwide.

In addition, expanding the geographic scale in a future study in order to include small-scale organic farming across the U.S. would be helpful to compare across regions what is working well to advance justice for organic farmers and their laborers. Doing so could expand and strengthen the network through which organic farmers can connect with and learn from one another toward the development of not only more environmentally sustainable farms, but also economically sustainable businesses that are able to fulfill their values for justice for their owners and employees.

From: Berkey, B., & Schusler, T. (2016). Justice issues facing family-scale farmers and their laborers in the Northeastern United States. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development, 6(2), 243–267. http://dx.doi.org/10.5304/jafscd.2016.062.017, used with permission of the Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems and Community Development

Here is a link to an upcoming book containing some of this information (one chapter delves further into the study with NOFA): https://www.routledge.com/Environmental-Justice-and-Farm-Labor/Berkey/p/book/9781138183155




Getting Started With Worm Bin Composting

If you do not have access to an outdoor compost pile, and even if you do, composting food scraps in a worm bin (vermicomposting) is a great way to convert a waste product into a desirable resource. In addition, keeping food scraps out of a landfill, many of which are nearing their maximum capacity, also helps lessen one of the main sources of methane, a generous contributor to global warming. Using worm castings, whether from a bin or outdoor pile, substantially aug-ments the population of beneficial soil dwelling organisms which boost soil vitality, plant immunity, and when used in the proper proportions, can increase growth rate and yield.

Of the several thousand species of earthworms, not all will thrive in a compost bin. Earthworms are either surface dwelling, top-soil-dwelling or deep soil dwelling. Surface dwelling worms specialize in decomposing organic matter, and thus are most likely to thrive in a bin. The most commonly available species to use in temperate regions is the Red Wiggler (Eisenia foetida). These worms adapt well to large numbers in enclosed spaces. They are also voracious feeders, consuming one half to as much as their full body weight per day. They reproduce quickly so you can amass a thriving population quite rapidly. In favorable conditions, red worms will double their population in two to three months.

There are several things to consider in order to get your worm bin started and to assure a successful experience:

• Size, type, and location of the bin
• Amount of worms you will need
• Bedding material
• Care and feeding
• Other residents of the bin
• Harvesting the castings
• Using the castings

Choosing a Bin

An example of a “tiered” bin

An example of a “tiered” bin

There are numerous types of manufactured composting bins to choose from, or you could make your own. Some bins, such as the “Worm Factory” or “Can-O-Worms”, use stackable tiers for composting. With tiered bins, the oldest, most mature compost is at the lowest level. Advantages to the tiered bins are that the compost is self-harvesting because as the scraps are consumed, the worms tend to migrate up through perforations in the floor of each tier in search of the freshest food source. Tiered bins typically have a drain to draw off excess liquid (leachate). Disadvantages to tiered bins are that the full tiers can be heavy and if you are a person for whom managing heavy things is difficult, maneuvering them can be awkward. It has been my experience with such bins that not all the worms have made it safely through the perforations when you separate them, and are wrenched apart when you lift the tiers, which seems unfair.

Converted tote bins are an inexpensive and popular option available in all sizes. There are a number of easily adaptable methods for using totes for Do-It-Yourself worm bins. Tote style bins may also be available through your community recycling program. To be successful with tote bins, you will need to find a way to manage the leachate, which tends to accumulate at the bottom of the bin creating unpleasant conditions for you and the worms. Also, you will need to allow for adequate venting so the worms can breathe, and to assure aerobic conditions.

Tote Bins

Some things to consider before using tote bins. Worms avoid light, so clear plastic bins are not as effective as opaque bins. Dark colored bins, if left in the sun, will heat up quicker than you think and will roast your worms. There is some controversy about the toxicity of different types of plastics due to their residuals. Polyethylene bins are comparatively benign, but be sure to wash off any dust that may have accumulated on the bin during manufacturing. If possible, select a bin that is certified Food Grade, or has been labeled #2, #4, or #5 plastic.

Bins can also be easily assembled from wood or fabric. If you make your own from wood, be sure not to use painted or pressure treated wood. There are many DIY bin making links.

I make my bins with a reservoir at the bottom of the bin. Landscape fabric over a perforated false floor separates the composting area from the leachate, which drains through the fabric. Sealing the fabric to the walls of the bin with waterproof tape prevents the worms from getting into the liquid below and drowning. A spigot easily drains the excess liquid, which prevents the bin from getting too soggy, and also allows air to get in to the lower level to help maintain aerobic conditions.

Leachate vs Compost Tea

Liquid is released into the worm bin as food scraps decompose. Moisture is necessary for the composting process, but too much can became stagnant and smelly if allowed to collect in the bottom of a plastic bin causing your popularity rating with your friends and neighbors, not to mention the worms, to become strained. It is helpful to use a worm bin that helps you manage the liquid. Methods include properly placed holes in the bin, a turkey baster to decant the liquid, selecting a wooden or fabric bin, or through a collection reservoir and spigot.

Leachate is not the same as castings tea. It is important to differentiate between the two. While the leachate contains beneficial nutrients and organisms, it also may contain anaerobic bacteria which poses some risk. Castings tea, on the other hand, is brewed from the worm castings using oxygenated water and a food source, generally molasses, to generate a beneficial aerobic micro-organism bloom. The bloom is vital for up to 48 hours in solution so it must be used within that time or it will be of dwindling benefit.

Bedding

Once you have your bin, you will need to introduce the bedding. This is the material the worms crawl around in. The bedding should as much as possible re-semble the worm’s dark and moist natural habitat. It should also be of a texture that allows you to easily bury your food scraps. It’s useful to have a supply of bedding on hand to periodically add to the top of the pile to cover the maturing castings and to provide additional habitat for the worms as they work the top layer of the bin. Adding bedding as the castings mature also acts as a fly barrier and provides fresh material in which to bury your contributions.

The most popular and abundantly available material to use for bedding is finely shredded newsprint or cardboard. Other materials to use are coconut fiber (coir), shredded or partially decomposed leaves, aged manures mixed with shredded or composted leaves, hay or old straw. I use a mixture of leaf mulch, aged manure, coffee grounds or coffee chaff (the skin of the bean after roasting). You can purchase coir in bricks from garden or hydroponic supply outlets, or you can recycle it from old unpainted coir flower pots.
Not adding sufficient additional bedding material after the worm bin is started is a common oversight for new bin keepers. If after a while you begin to see a buildup of dense muddy looking castings at the bottom of the bin and the pile is not getting taller, you are not adding enough bedding material. While the worms may survive in the densely packed castings, they much prefer the looser oxygen rich bedding to move around in. Feel free to loosen and mix in the older material with the new bedding to introduce the resident organism population to the new material.

Note: If you use horse manure in your bedding, be sure it is at least 6 months old in order for any deworming medication residue to expire.

To start your bin, you will need five to six inches of moistened bedding material in which to introduce the worms. It’s advisable to have your bin and bedding material in place and ready to go before obtaining the worms. Once you’ve introduced the worms to the bedding you will need to give them some time to move in. Unless you are harvesting your own worms and using familiar bedding, worms will require some time to get used to their new conditions. You may discover that the worms do not want to enter the new bedding at first. If this is so, it is likely that the temperature, pH, or moisture level is dissimilar to the bedding they were used to. If the worms resist burrowing into the bedding, leave a light on over the bin for a day or so to encourage them to burrow. They prefer dark-ness, so will adjust to the new conditions rapidly.

Bedding with Paper Products

I am a purist when it comes to bedding, therefore I have elected not to use newsprint or most other paper products in favor of more natural materials. While newsprint and other paper products have become the popular standard, and are commonly considered safe by many worm composters, I continue to have con-cerns about the toxic compounds that may be present, and that may bioaccumulate in the bin or be transferred to your garden. Many but not all newspapers use soy based inks. Please keep in mind that the term is soy-based. The soy products used in the printing industry are genetically modified. Substances are used to control flow rate and dry time. Soy ink is expensive. Some percentage of less expensive petroleum products may be added to the ink recipe at the printer’s dis-cretion to manage cost. Inks are considered stable, but only when dry. Worm bins are moist. Nowadays, colored inks typically use vegetable-based dyes, but some dyes still contain heavy metals to create vivid colors, especially on glossy paper. Not all paper is the same. Newsprint, which is predominantly recycled fiber, is vastly different than virgin glossy paper. While paper products will arguably work well for bedding material in your bin, I suggest it will serve a higher and better purpose for paper to be recycled on behalf of trees, rather than eaten by protozoa.

Grit

It is also important to add some fine grit material, especially if you are using newsprint. Worms grind food in their gizzard so require the grit to “chew”. Sprin-kle a cup of very fine and well rinsed sand on the pile. One source of grit that seems to work well for me is dried and finely ground up eggshells. I grind them almost to a powder in the blender. Add more grit after each castings removal. Worms adjust their bin population according to the carrying capacity. If you observe the population dwindling but you know there is plenty of food, one reason could simply be not enough grit to access the food.

Once the worms have established their habitat, you may occasionally notice larger than usual numbers of them on the walls of the bin. This is especially so with plastic bins which tend to develop a film of condensation on the walls, and on which the worms can navigate. If this happens and they are trying to leave the bin as well, then it is a sign that the bin is too wet, too hot, too anaerobic, or the pH is not suitable. Please adjust accordingly. If there is too much food that is rotting before it can be consumed causing anaerobic, aka stinky, conditions, discontinue feeding for a week or even longer. Feel free to put on your de-signer rubber gloves and expunge the stinky stuff. All that said, sometimes a few worms just seem to socialize in the corners and crevices of the bin and, um, “go on dates”. If they are not trying to leave the bin, and you would prefer that they please go back to work, then leave the lid off in a well lit room or keep a light on for a day or so and they will go back down. If they are not trying to leave the bin, leaving them alone is the preferred option.

Care and Feeding

As mentioned earlier, worms are sensitive to light and moisture. They are also sensitive to temperature, pH, and salinity. The optimum temperature range for the worms to be the most productive is between 50°F and 80°F. A comfortable pH range is between 6.0 and 7.0. They will also acclimate to higher or lower temperatures and adapt to gradual changes in pH over time. But they will perish if allowed to freeze, and escape or perish if too hot. Worms breathe through the moisture layer on their skin, but can drown if it is too wet. It is important not to let the bin become too dry or too wet. Visualize a well wrung out sponge. If you can squeeze liquid out of your bin material, it is too wet.

Worms prefer to be left alone. They do not see, but sense movement – I’m guessing because of changing light patterns. If you show up they think you are a predator and will avoid you. Don’t take it personally. Regardless of your intention, it is agitating if you handle them. Please keep in mind also when handling them that their skin is hypersensitive. Your body temperature is typically 40 – 60 degrees warmer than theirs. I’m not sure what that feels like to them, but 40 – 60 degrees warmer to us is scalding. If you want to look and touch, one suggestion is to place a bit of moist material from the bin on your hand first and put the worm on the material. At the risk of seeming overprotective, I prefer to place my worms down rather than dropping them into the bin. While worms are pretty rugged critters, dropping them even from a few inches, is comparatively much like dropping you from a roof top or even higher. In my mind, being kind to them is just another way to be responsible stewards of our livestock.

To have a successful bin experience, I recommend being selective about what you feed the worms, especially at first. In an open compost pile – with or without worms – one has the luxury of capacity. In a worm bin, space is limited, and discretion is called for in what you serve the worms. Worms will only be able to eat what fits in their mouths, so large solid items such as carrots, or broccoli stalks must first be broken down into smaller bits by the other organisms in the bin or be chopped or ground to expose more surface area for the organisms. The organisms reside on the surfaces of the food particles so the more surface area the more available the food is to decompose.

I prioritize feeding raw fruit and veggie scraps. For the most part, worms will avoid things that are too spicy, such as onions, hot peppers or garlic, or too acidic, such as citrus peels or pineapple. Food that will decompose quickly such as melon rinds, leafy greens, and soft fruits and veggies are consumed rapidly with the help of the bin’s resident microorganisms.

Old tea bags and coffee grounds are welcome. To prevent clumping, mix the grounds into the surface of the pile. While some tea bags fully decompose, nowa-days many tea bags use plasticizers in the fabric so do not readily break down. It’s helpful if you tear the bags open to allow access to the contents.

If you factor that worms consume half their weight per day on average and you know how many pounds of worms you have in your bin, then you can figure out how much food to feed them per day or week. Keep in mind that the food is not eaten in one sitting, but consumed on a continuum as it is decomposed by the other critters at the table, so do not expect the banana peel to disappear in one afternoon.

At the risk of seeming anthropocentric, the worms appear to enjoy things they can nestle into such as the core of corncobs once the center has been eaten away. Nested avocado skins also provide a safe haven for a cluster of worms, as do the inside of mango pits if they have not sprouted. Place a corncob or two just beneath the surface. The cob will eventually be hollowed and filled with castings. I’ve noticed that the worms tend to deposit cocoons in these protected spots. I’ve heard that corncobs are difficult to compost. The worms disagree. Cobs in a worm bin will decompose and also provide a safe spot for the worms in the meantime. The cobs also attract numerous other bin inhabitants as well, so if you are in the mood to do some science, have a look for some of the other visible decomposer species in the bin – both red and white mites, springtails, and pot worms are common. And if you have a healthy fungi population, you may even see a mushroom pop up.

Worms and Rabbits

One unique method of providing food for your worms is to locate the bin beneath a rabbit cage. Rabbit droppings are an ideal source of food for the worms and come fresh from the source. The pellets fall through the screen mesh floor and continuously feed the bins. It’s useful to add carbon bedding material from time to time to balance off the nitrogen rich droppings, and to keep the material from becoming too densely packed.

Baked goods tend to generate mold, which can be problematic, so I discourage them. Sliced bread does serve a purpose in the bin however. If you happen to get an overabundance of mites, you can lay a piece of bread on the surface of the bin for several hours. This serves as bait for the mites that accumulate on the bread. You can remove the bread, and set a new piece. The mites will be gratefully received by most insect-eating aquarium fish, or you could release them into the wild where they can help decompose other things. Excess mites indicate too much moisture in the bin. Leave the lid off for a few days and things will dry up.

Flies

Overfeeding and excess moisture also tend to attract fruit flies and fungus gnats. They are attracted to the wet conditions and rotting food smells. Be sure to bury your contributions an inch or two beneath the bedding to discourage flies. Freezing your contributions overnight will kill any eggs that may have been deposited on the food while in transit, at the market, or in your kitchen. If you develop an unwanted fly population, you can make vinegar traps, hang yellow sticky traps or introduce predator species to the bin that prey on the fly larva, but that will not harm the worms. You can buy BTI granules at most garden sup-ply stores. Check out: http://everydayroots.com/how-to-get-rid-of-fruit-flies

Before and After – Separation by light avoidance. The worms burrow towards the center of the pile when exposed to light. Scrape the castings away until you see worms, then leave the worms to burrow deeper. By alternating these two steps, you can separate the worms quite effectively.

Before and After – Separation by light avoidance. The worms burrow towards the center of the pile when exposed to light. Scrape the castings away until you see worms, then leave the worms to burrow deeper. By alternating these two steps, you can separate the worms quite effectively.

Other Residents in the Bin

It’s important to know who else is in the bin with your worms, but first, I must reveal a secret. It’s also important to know that the worms are not really eating your apple cores. All the other macro and microorganisms are. The worms are eating the microorganisms, of which there are billions in a thriving worm bin. Worms feed by opening their most-mouth-like part (prostomium) which is a cross between a muscular upper lip and a shovel, and ingest what happens to be in their path. Bits of apple core get in, but only after they’ve been broken down by the bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and nematodes, which also get in. Mites, spring-tails, and pot worms are visible to the eye, and too large to be ingested by the worms.

You may also have millipedes, or centipedes. It’s useful to know the difference between the two. Millipedes are slow moving and contribute to decomposition. Centipedes dart about quickly and will eat worms. If you see a centipede, it’s a good idea to capture it and release it into the outdoors. They can bite, so be careful.

If your bin manages to become anaerobic you may discover black soldier fly larva (BSFL), or much less frequently, black soldier flies themselves hovering around. BSFLs are big cuddly grubs. At first sighting, they can be a bit startling, but as voraciously productive decomposers they are your friends. BSFL will ingest proteins and fats as well a vegetable scraps. There are some who are managing their bins for BSFL and have forsaken worms. BSFL are high in protein and your backyard chickens will adore them.

Harvesting The Castings

When the bin is full it is time to harvest the castings. It is helpful to let the bin rest for a week or two, or longer if needed, without feeding to allow as many remaining food particles as possible to be consumed. If you have one, a second bin allows you to continue composting while the full bin is resting, and also provides a place to reinstate the worms that have been separated. A second bin also can become a supply of already mature and familiar bedding.

There are several methods of separating the worms. The one that I find most productive for the small scale is the light-avoidance method. Worms will avoid light whenever possible. If you loosely pile up the bin contents into one or more shallow cones or rows, any exposed worms will immediately begin to go back down into the pile. If you then let the pile settle for a half hour or so, the worms will have moved sufficiently away from the surface allowing you to scrape away the top layer of castings until you begin to see worms again. By alternating settling and scraping, and keeping an eagle eye out for the cocoons, you will eventually have removed all the castings and be left with a teeming mass of worms and pile of cocoons to restart your next bin. Rubber gloves are optional but recommended at your discretion. I use them only if a bin has anaerobic pockets.

Here’s what you will need:

• A flat smooth surface. I use a 3’x3’ piece of untreated ½ inch plywood for small batches, or an old hollow core door on a couple of sawhorses for larger batch-es.

• Four appropriately-sized containers. One for the worms and cocoons, one for the castings, one for periodically rinsing your hands, and one for non-compostable objects such as pebbles, pits, etc. Soaking these castings-covered cast offs in a container of water will provide a potent nectar that is great for watering your plants.

• A sheet of plastic will protect your kitchen table, but I find it a little more tedious to round up the individual worms that cling to the plastic. It’s helpful to have a dedicated lifting tool with no sharp edges to slip under the individuals. A tooth pick like object seems to work just fine.
You do not need to remove every last bit of castings. In fact, it’s helpful to mix some of your old castings into the fresh bedding in the new bin. The worms are used to the old habitat and the adjustment to a new bin will not be so abrupt. The topmost strata in the bin contains the majority of the worms and remaining food particles. It will be a head start if you can remove this layer to help start your next bin.

Depending on your use for them, it is not necessary to screen the castings. When needed, however, I screen castings through 2ft x 2ft screens. The first pass is through quarter-inch hardware cloth, and a second pass through eighth-inch hardware cloth. Both screens are framed on edge with 1×3. The quarter inch screen helps break up the clumps and remove cast-offs. It also gives you another chance to find a few remaining worms and scan for cocoons. If you screen with the screen side up, and slide the frame along the table surface rather than lift and shake, the siftings will be contained neatly within the screen frame. The 1/8-inch screen further breaks down the clumps, helps isolate cocoons and any remaining worms and cast-offs. The end result of screening is a consistently sized debris-free castings pellet that is easy to handle, measure, and store.

Migration is another method of separating that typically is more successful in larger commercial bins or row composting set-ups. But, for smaller bins, divide the bin in half, remove one half of the bin contents and set it aside in a separate bin. Move the remaining amount to one side of the bin. Fill the now empty side with fresh bedding and appealing food. Do the same thing with the amount you removed. The time varies, but eventually the worms in the older half will migrate to the newer half. This method requires less of your time than light avoidance, but is not as thorough because it is difficult to account for dawdlers, cocoons, and all the babies, which continue to hatch on the old side of the pile, and which you are obliged to patiently wait for, while they find their way. I have never had great success with this process and would be happy to hear if someone has.
If you have space for a bin that is sufficiently long enough to compost along it’s length, begin by adding bedding and food at one end, and adding new food in sequence along the bin length. As the original castings mature, the worms and everybody else will migrate successively along the row to the freshest and most appealing part of the buffet. The theory being that by the time you’re feeding at the far end, the first end will be sufficiently processed enough so that young and old alike will have departed to greener pastures, leaving the original end of the bin ready for harvesting. There are many variables about volume and size of bins, but depending on your eating habits, a bin 18 inches deep by 24 inches wide by 6 to 8 feet long should be roughly adequate for a 4 – 6 person household. Feeding is done in thin diagonally sloped wedges along the length of the bin, burying and covering the contributions as needed.

If you’ve discovered that worm composting is your thing, and you want to have a larger colony of bins, then you may want to consider a motorized screened tumbler. Feed the worms and castings into one end and the tumbler does the separating for you. There are also how-to’s for DIY hand and pedal powered tum-bler separators on line if that’s your thing. Tumbler separators do not separate cocoons however. At 2 – 8 worms per cocoon, that seems like a waste, and not good husbandry. Here are a few links on commercial and handmade separators:
• http://www.jetcompost.com/harvesters/
• http://whatcom.wsu.edu/ag/compost/pdfs/LowCostWormCastingHarvester.pdf
• https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=czKkxTYwVW8

Regardless of how you separate them, store the castings in breathable fabric bags or a plastic container with a loose lid. Keep in mind that paper or cardboard containers may be eaten over time by the inhabitants. The organisms will remain vital while there is still moisture and oxygen present, but go dormant as the castings dry out. The sooner you use your castings, the more vital they will be, as some organisms will perish over time. The nutrients will remain stable for longer periods depending on storage conditions.

Cocoon being deposited. Note how the “head” of the worm has narrowed and the muscles behind the cocoon are pushing it forward and off the worm.

Cocoon being deposited. Note how the “head” of the worm has narrowed and the muscles behind the cocoon are pushing it forward and off the worm.

Cocoons

Worm cocoons are the underpinnings of a successful bin. As your bin matures and the worms have comfortably established themselves, they will begin to de-posit cocoons. The more cocoons you see, the more you know your worms feel secure in the habitat you’ve created for them. Once deposited, the cocoons gen-erally take 2 – 6 weeks to incubate and hatch, depending on conditions in the bin. Cocoons can lie dormant for up to two years if suitable conditions for surviv-al are not present. While you are encouraged not to let your indoor worm bin freeze, in outdoor compost or in the natural world the cocoons will successfully overwinter and quickly replenish their habitat in the spring, replacing any worms that may have perished from the cold.

Using the Castings

You can use the castings for top dressing or for mixing with water for your house or garden plants. Proportions vary according to species, but generally a 15 – 20 percent ratio of castings to soil mix is adequate. Up to 50 percent with water. Castings also impart an increased level of immunity to your plants. To boost immunity, soak your seeds in castings tea, castings steeped in water, or start your seeds in a moist castings/soil mix. Your plants will be happy to receive peri-odic waterings with castings nectar or be the recipient of a top dressing from time to time. Think multi-vitamin with probiotics.

If you enjoy worm composting on a small scale and want to expand, there is always a need for worms and castings. Be wary of get-rich-quick offerings, howev-er. Many elementary schools have worm bins in their classrooms or school garden, and would be happy to receive your extra worms. An established worm bin makes an excellent gift for any urban farmer. Also, the Worm Ladies of Charlestown, Rhode Island, are always willing to purchase your extra worms and castings. In fact, the Worm Ladies are in the process of forming a cooperative of small-scale worm growers to help meet the growing demand for worms and castings in the northeast. If you want to find out more about the Rhody Worm Coop, here’s the link. http://wormladies.com.

Newly deposited cocoons are greenish-yellow and look like tiny lemons about the size of BBs. As they mature they become more and more reddish. Worm-colored cocoons are about to hatch. Consider yourself fortunate if you happen to observe a cocoon being deposited or hatching.

Newly deposited cocoons are greenish-yellow and look like tiny lemons about the size of BBs. As they mature they become more and more reddish. Worm-colored cocoons are about to hatch. Consider yourself fortunate if you happen to observe a cocoon being deposited or hatching.

Every worm keeper has a trusted method, yet there is no one perfect way to compost with worms. There is no end to tales of success or woe from vermicom-posters far and wide, although I have repeatedly observed that if you do your best to mimic the conditions that worms would choose in the natural world, you will have success. Keeping in mind that worms and microorganisms have been decomposing organic matter for much longer than humans have been keeping them in bins, observation and experience are the best teachers. Pay attention to what the worms and the bin ecosystem are telling you. The microbial popula-tion in the bin is a hugely diverse and fascinating web of life with much yet to be learned about how it might benefit the soil, plants, and humanity. I continue to learn from new and experienced worm keepers alike, and I continue to be captivated by the process. It’s also a tremendously good feeling to know we are contributing to the health of our life-sustaining soil.

For further reading: http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/06/healthy-soil-microbes-healthy-people/276710/

Summary
• Composting with worms converts a waste product into a usable resource and is good for soil, plants, and the environment.
• Red Wiggler worms are efficient decomposers and thrive in worm bins. They are able to double their population in 2 – 3 months.
• Select a bin that’s the right size and format for your needs and location. Red worms will eat more or less half their weight per day.
• Decide on what type of bedding you will use for worm habitat and have a supply available.
• Be sure the bin is protected from freezing and overheating.
• The bin should be moist but not soggy.
• Feed raw vegan scraps, the smaller the better. Tea leaves, coffee grounds. Do not clump or over-feed.
• Avoid feeding hot spicy foods such as onions or garlic. Avoid citrus, meat, dairy products, oil, fat and bread.
• The easiest separation method for small scale castings production is the light avoidance method. Pile castings on a flat surface. Worms will hide inside the pile from light. Remove worm-free top layers of castings once worms have burrowed inside.
• Other separation methods include half-bin, long-bin, or wind-row migration.
• Store separated castings in plastic breathable containers. Keep the lid loose.
• Castings and castings tea improve soil vitality and boost plant immunity.
• Mix castings 15-20% with water or a soil mix for best results when using them as fertilizer. Periodically water or top-dress your plants.
• Pay attention to your worm bin habitat and the habitat of worms in their natural world: biomimicry.
• Most of all, have fun!

Ben has been making worm bins and
composting food scraps with worms since 1995,
and with composting toilets since 1985. He also does worm composting workshops and offers worm bin rescue and tech-support services. He lives, and has a woodworking and tinker shop in
Leverett, Massachusetts.




Northland: Making It On a 100% Grass Sheep Dairy

New York’s Cortland County, just south of Syracuse and east of Ithaca, is stunningly beautiful in the spring. Rolling hills with their broad expanses of grassy pastures, treed hills and cultivated bottomlands are dotted with modest farmhouses and outbuildings. In May, when I traveled these roads, the trees and bushes were in peak flower and the promise of fruitfulness was everywhere.

A sign that the local food movement has penetrated to this farming heartland is a new grocery store in the city of Cortland, the county’s seat and largest municipality at under 20,000 souls, called The Local Food Market. They have contracted with a local organic grower to provide their produce.

The area’s fertile farmland and access to good markets have also resulted in the presence of a small but growing Amish community. Primarily young families who have moved up from Pennsylvania in search of reasonably priced land, the 50 or so families mostly seem to have started small generalized family farms, including dairies milking 15 to 20 cows.

Their ability to adhere to modern sanitary standards using old fashioned Amish technologies is fascinating. Many of the families ship their milk to the usual processors. Rather than having their own mechanically cooled bulk tank, however, they initially cool the milk at home using a coil which hooks up to a hose and fits on milk can lids. They then run well water through the coil, cooling the milk to about 55˚F. The cooled milk cans can then be loaded into buggies and taken to a transfer station where the milk is further cooled in a bulk tank until pickup.

Another farm family that was attracted to the area’s beauty and reasonable land prices was that of Maryrose Livingston and Donn Hewes, who arrived back in 1999. Donn was a professional firefighter and Maryrose an environmental regulator. When they met in Washington state they each had a small hobby farm. Both knew they wanted to do livestock on a commercial scale, but couldn’t buy farmland in Washington.

“Farmland,” says Maryrose, “is $10,000 an acre in the western part of the state. In the east it is less, but there is no water. East of the Cascade Mountains it’s a desert. You need a water right to farm. And I didn’t want to mine the ground water or divert the Columbia River to grow grass.

“I was dragged kicking and screaming out of Washington,” she continues. “I love it there. But we were looking for a place that had a good growing climate and affordable land. We just started looking east. We had savings and would call realtors, but it was quite hard to even find realtors who would help. I guess it is a lot of work and you can make more money selling a house. Finally I found this woman in Ithaca who had been an organic dairy farmer but now was a realtor. She sent me a stack of listings, we looked through them, and we made an appointment to fly out and look at farms. That is really why we are here. We didn’t know a soul when we got here.”

They bought a farm in Locke, about 30 miles from Marathon, NY. Their plan was to raise 100% grass-fed cows, with which Maryrose had worked, and make and sell cheese. She was a member of the American Cheese-making Society, as was Jane North, who with her husband Karl had founded Northland Sheep Dairy in Marathon.

“I called them up,” Maryrose recalls, “to see if we could come over and see how they set up their dairy. Our size and scales were similar. When we met them they mentioned that they were looking for someone who would go into partnership with them so they could retire. Of course we told them we had already bought a farm and were cow people. But we hadn’t lived at the farm we bought for more than a few months and I said to Donn: ‘You know, this is the wrong farm. It is too hilly, it needs too much renovation, the road is too busy, it is just the wrong place. Let’s put it on the market.’ So we did.”

While they were waiting for the Locke farm to sell they decided to travel to Europe to get more ideas about cheese-making and farm set-up. They went for four months, and for two months of that time they worked on a farm in southwest England, milking 100 does and 200 ewes for a well known cheese-maker. While they worked there Maryrose fell in love with the sheep.

“I’ve never been a goat person,” she exclaims, “I’m still not a goat person. But I fell in love with sheep there. So when we came back we told Jane and Karl that if we could sell the farm we would go into partnership with them.”

The farm sold and Maryrose and Donn came to Northland and worked there for five years side by side with the Norths. First they lived in a tent in the woods for six months, then they built a horse barn and lived in an apartment above it. Finally they built a straw bale house.

“The deal that the North’s struck with us,” Maryrose recalls, “was that they would buy the materials for the house and we would provide the labor. Then we would buy it from them when we bought the whole farm. That way they maintained ownership until the sale. We had an escape clause for everyone until the sale was final. It turned out great for all of us. It wasn’t always easy, but we rode it out.”

Just this January the couple made their last mortgage payment to the Norths and now own the farm outright. The Norths are now in northern Maine where they have a daughter and son-in-law. They bought a 40 acre homestead, built another home for themselves, and have a few sheep.

Donn and Maryrose have 57 acres in the home farm they bought from the Norths, and for twelve years have been able to lease another forty acres from a neighbor which they have fenced and which has become their primary grazing land. They are now leasing an additional 40 acres from that neighbor and are fencing it right now. Fifteen acres of their land is wooded and used for cordwood, the rest is open.

“We not only need to graze the sheep,” Maryrose observes, “we also have six horses and mules, and we make hay for them all for the winter. We think we have enough land for our grazing and hay now, but the last two years we ran short on second cutting hay — we needed to graze it instead of cutting it — and had to buy it from a neighbor.”

Compounding the demand for land is the fact that Donn and Maryrose are helping out a young couple, Scott and Aubry, who are using some of the land for an organic vegetable business as well as a raw milk dairy. Both couples also farm with horses, which increases the demand for grazing land and hay.

“Our idea was to cut a bridge,” Maryrose explains, speaking of taking on Scott and Aubry. ”How do some of these young farmers make it? They have been working on farms and gaining some really deep skill sets, but because they have been working on farms they can’t afford to buy land. How can they become farmers? How do you give them some level of autonomy?

“What will happen in the future we don’t know,” she continues. “They have committed for a year here. But it may be longer term and may be a way for them to buy into our farm and for us to retire. We don’t have children, so that is not an issue.”

There are 6 horses in all, a Suffolk Punch and two Percheron mares, and three mules which Donn – whose passion is being a teamster – likes because they are more heat tolerant than the mares. The animals are used for most draft purposes: cultivating, making hay, cutting timber, plowing snow, spreading manure, hauling carts. Maryrose and Donn also keep four pigs in the woods, which they raise on whey, and a flock of chickens. Scott and Aubrey also have a couple of steers besides their milk cows.

The Northland sheep operation is based on a small flock of 40 ewes. Maryrose raises about 7 replacement ewes each year, bringing them into production as 2-year olds. Since the sheep are 100% grass-fed, and the farm doesn’t use chemical wormers, she feels letting the ewes reach full maturity before breeding them contributes to fewer health problems.

“These are cross-bred dairy ewes,” Livingston says. “The mix is East Friesian, Dorset, and Tunis. East Friesian is the Holstein or high-producing variety of the dairy sheep world. But I experimented with a few purebreds and they don’t so as well in our system being 100% grass-fed animals. I like these cross breeds a lot. Dorset is a good all around ewe, with good mothering ability and a good carcass on them. Tunis sheep I am less familiar with. They are primarily a meat variety, but the ewes are good milkers. I got the ewes and ram originally from David Major, in Vermont, and I trust him.”

Maryrose turns the ram in with the ewes in late November and are all bred within one heat cycle, in a couple of weeks. The gestation period of lambs is 147 days, or about 5 months, so she aims for lambing to start in mid April. She weans the lambs when they reach 35 pounds, are 30 days old, and are vigorous. Then the milking begins, twice a day, at the end of May. This seasonal schedule means she milks and makes cheese only from the end of May through November, getting the winter off.

When I visited, the ewes were still nursing and were out in the pasture with lambs at heel. But milking was to start the next week, followed by renewed cheese making. They say that lambs know their mothers, and vice versa, by vocal and facial recognition. The pairs that I saw seemed to have no problem finding each other amidst the general bleating. A few ewes had triplets and one had quadruplets, and Maryrose sold the extras. She says she is done with bottle-feeding lambs!

Donn and Maryrose had to replace their entire flock 3 years ago. The sheep had always had an inherent disease, which came with the original stock when Jane and Karl started the farm. It was a retrovirus, like HIV, called Ovine Progressive Pneumonia.

“It is very common,” Maryrose explains. “They estimate it is in a third to a half of the flocks in the country. You can’t breed it out. As soon as clean sheep start sharing a pasture and a water trough with a diseased sheep, they get it too. So we culled the entire flock. That was hard. But I bought these replacements from David Major and I’m very happy with them.”

She does her own castration of the wethers, using the rubber band method. But she has also done some short scrotum castration, where you take the scrotum before the testicles descend and they stay in the body. The animals are infertile because of the heat of the body cavity. The method is supposed to be less painful for the animals, and results in a better rate of gain.

Donn was off the farm on the day I visited, working at his job as a firefighter. He actually has a great schedule for someone who wants to be a farmer despite having a fulltime off-farm job. He works 2 ten-hour days, then 2 fourteen-hour nights — so he’ll be at the farm all day and then leave at about 5 pm to go to work –- and then he has four days off. So he will have 6 days in a row at home, and then 2 days away.

Maryrose sits in the straw bale house she and Donn built. This one is a 2x4 stick-built frame with the walls stuffed with straw bales for insulation. “We built this with the cheese cave downstairs as part of the plan,” says Maryrose.  “Donn is a handy person all around. He enjoys a challenge, which is why he went for the straw bale. It takes a little longer, but we really enjoy this house. We like the curved softness of the walls. It is also really energy efficient -- cool in summer,  warm in winter, with vapor permeable walls.”

Maryrose sits in the straw bale house she and Donn built. This one is a 2×4 stick-built frame with the walls stuffed with straw bales for insulation.
“We built this with the cheese cave downstairs as part of the plan,” says Maryrose.
“Donn is a handy person all around. He enjoys a challenge, which is why he went for the straw bale. It takes a little longer, but we really enjoy this house. We like the curved softness of the walls. It is also really energy efficient — cool in summer,
warm in winter, with vapor permeable walls.”

Maryrose feels that his job takes a lot of pressure off them financially, while letting him participate in the farm in a major way.

“The decisions we have made on the farm,” she says, “aren’t necessarily about the bottom line but about how we want to farm. That has been made possible because we have that income. And the health benefits are very important. I couldn’t be farming without that job. I just had a knee replacement. I was almost defunct last year. But the schedule enables us to manage the farm together. I’m the shepherd and cheese maker, Donn is the teamster. We collaborate on the pasture.

“We think about it extensively,” she continues. “Our pastures are pretty diverse already because we have a lot of natives that come up. But I’d like them to be even more biodiverse. Now that we are leasing some more land we are seeing a little more diversity. But not as much as I would like. I would like to plant more varieties — forbs, legumes, other grasses — into the pastures to amp them up. Donn is not so enthused about that. We have to frost seed in order to keep the legume numbers high. I’d like them to be 60 to 70% but I think they are running about 40% right now. Each pasture is different. We’d like to get birdsfoot trefoil in there, as that out-crosses and reseeds itself. We didn’t do any frost seeding this year. You want freeze-thaw cycles going on to open up cracks in the ground, but the window this year for that was about 2 days when the snow was off. If I win the Lotto I want a fancy seed drill! It would be ground-driven, of course!”

Donn has been working creating a sort of Savanna, or shade paddock, on some of their land by clearing out some trees that have grown up but leaving particular ones that allow enough sunlight for grass to grow. They have also been experimenting with hedgerows for shade. In one by the house they used locusts, which fix nitrogen, grow fast and are a good wildlife food. In another they did an allée planting of basswood and white cedar. Maryrose likes a mix of conifers and deciduous trees for hedgerows because they provide shade when nothing else does. But, she cautions, you to be careful because the conifers can acidulate the ground.

All the pastures are surrounded by a high tensile perimeter fence, and the couple uses ElectroNet fencing for the constantly moving paddocks.

Maryrose says: “It is the best stuff ever for sheep! I love changing the pasture and setting up new ones. I use the fencing sections that are 164 feet long. Right now I change pasture just once a day, to get the lambs used to movement. But once we start milking they will get a fresh break, as we call it, twice a day. How big it is varies – it depends on the grass, the animals, the season. When the grass is growing well a strip might be 150 feet wide by 100 feet long. Sometimes it is just a little strip. Right now, early in the spring, it is a pretty big rectangle. We always have the ElectroNet set for the next area to be grazed before we milk. That way I don’t have to stand there and set fence after milking, but can just move the flock in.”

The sheep are watered from an inch and a quarter water line that runs along the perimeter fence. Every 300 feet is a spur which can be hooked up to a trough with a float-operated valve to supply water on demand – as the sheep drink it down it will fill up again.

Donn has been putting up about 2500 bales of hay, which is not quite enough for their needs. They would like about 3000 and hope with their new leased land they can make that much. He makes square bales with a powered forecart which has a 24 horsepower Honda engine on it that runs a PTO driving the baling equipment. The horses draw the forecart, with a haywagon behind it for the bales. The animals eat hay until the pasture is adequate for them, which happened this year in the second week of May. Donn doesn’t do any haylage or baleage. One, they don’t have the equipment for it and two, Maryrose doesn’t want to do any ensiled feed. She feels it imparts flavors to the cheese and you can have problems with listeria when you feed sileage. As a raw milk cheese-maker she doesn’t want to go anywhere near that.

Maryrose reads a number of periodicals about grazing. She particularly likes the Stockman Grass Farmer.

“I love it,” she enthuses, “and have subscribed since the mid-eighties. It is always about 100% grass based management. I learned my grazing chops in New Zealand in 1996. I worked on a dairy farm there for 6 weeks. That was pretty intensive standard rotational grazing. But now we are doing more of the holistic management style of grazing – keeping a higher stock density.

“But it is hard to do mob grazing with sheep,” she continues. “They just don’t create the kind of disturbance in the soil that you want and get with cows. But we are not turning the sheep in when the grass gets to 4 inches anymore. We are trying to let the grass get more mature – you do get better regrowth when you wait.”

Sheep graze in the foreground, oblivious to the ElectroNet fence set up for their next paddock.

Sheep graze in the foreground, oblivious to the ElectroNet fence set up for their next paddock.

For some reason Donn and Maryrose don’t seem to have problems with predators bothering their sheep.

“We have coyotes here,” reports Maryrose, “I hear them all the time. Our neighbor who keeps a small number of sheep has lost some. But we haven’t. My theory is that our sheep are not out in the field when food is scarce, in the winter. They are in the barnyard then. When they are out grazing, I think, the ElectroNet is pretty off-putting to predators. True, a highly motivated predator will jump over it in a heartbeat. But I think it discourages them. And our sheep are always moving – at least twice a day. Our scent is out there, the dog’s scent is out there. There is always disturbance. That makes predators leery. But maybe we have just been lucky!”

The farm’s main herding dog is a New Zealand Huntaway. Huntaways herd using their bark rather than aggressive movements and Maryrose prefers them to a border collie because she wants her small dairy flock to move slowly to and from the milking parlor. Huntaways are not particularly good at defending sheep, however, she points out.

Parasites are a problem for any confined sheep operation. Northland tries to deal with them mostly through management. There isn’t any silver bullet, as Maryrose says, but there is buckshot! Sun and freezing are effective in reducing parasite loads in pasture. The couple look at the field they are currently grazing, the duration of grazing, and when they are returning to graze it again. For management of parasites, the lambs are the key.

“I never have a problem with the adults,” Maryrose insists. “They have a strong immune system and can fight parasites. But the lambs are stressed during weaning and their immune system isn’t strong yet.”

Donn Hewes teaching about draft horses with one of the farm’s teams.

Donn Hewes teaching about draft horses with one of the farm’s teams.

So the couple doesn’t put the lambs on a pasture that the ewes have grazed, because the ewes are shedding parasites continually. They also try to keep lambs off a pasture the lambs have grazed before — for at least 60 to 90 days. That helps, too.

“We also use alternative tools – the copper oxide wire particle bolus,” says Maryrose. “It is a little pill with tiny particles of wire that are antagonistic to the worst internal parasites of sheep – Haemonchus contortus, the barber pole worm. The worm causes anemia in the sheep and will kill them. It can also persist in the soil for three to five years. The copper kills the worm, however. It is antagonistic specifically to that worm. The brand I use is called Copasure, made by Animax. I use it prophylactically on the lambs. I give it to them once, right around weaning time.”

The Northland sheep gather in a holding area when brought in from pasture, then go up a ramp single file to reach the 6 milking stalls. One person can milk two sheep at a time with the two milking machine vacuum units while cleaning and prepping the other sheep. The dairy where cheese is made is attached to the milking parlor. Under current regulations you can’t have them together, but because Northland operates under a 1987 license, it was grandfathered.

Donn and Maryrose put up hay from their land using a 4-horse team.  The hay has been cut and raked using horse-drawn equipment. They use a 24 hp Honda engine to drives a PTO for baling it. Here Donn bales the hay while  Maryrose stacks it on the wagon they draw behind the baler.

Donn and Maryrose put up hay from their land using a 4-horse team.
The hay has been cut and raked using horse-drawn equipment. They use a 24 hp Honda engine to drives a PTO for baling it. Here Donn bales the hay while Maryrose stacks it on the wagon they draw behind the baler.

The cheese-making room contains a vat, cheese presses and the molds. The vat is 35 gallons, large enough to hold milk from two days’ milkings. Maryrose seldom makes cheese two days in a row because she doesn’t have enough presses and that many cheeses will create a bottleneck. A chest freezer has been retrofitted and made into a homemade milk can cooler. She fills it with water, puts the milk cans in it, and a pump circulates cold water to cool them.

Livingston explains the way they make cheese: “We milk, bring it in here, cool it, put it in the vat, add culture and rennet, coagulate it, form a curd, put the curd in the molds, press it, salt it, and put it in the cave to age.”

As raw milk products, the Northland cheeses must be aged for at least 60 days. The cave is a large, cool, windowless room under their house. Beautiful, rustic shelves contain many wheels of cheese. On each shelf is a mark showing the date, the type of cheese, and the batch number.

“We haven’t made cheese for a while,” she says, showing me through the cave, “so our stock is down. But we won’t sell all these before we have the new cheeses ready. I have two main kinds. These are the tommes, and in the back are the blue cheeses. Tomme is a hard cheese that originated in the French Alps. To make the blue cheeses I have to introduce a particular mold in the vat with the milk. You can also sprinkle it in the curd. In raw milk cheeses the vat temperature only ever goes up to 86˚F so you don’t worry about killing the mold. I also make a little bit of Pecorino (ed. – Pecora is Italian for sheep and is a name for many Italian cheeses made from ewe’s milk.)”

Donn and Maryrose make about 2000 pounds of cheese a year from their 40 ewes, so one ewe can produce enough milk for about 50 pounds of cheese annually. They have been selling it at $20 a pound retail, no matter which variety. That is a low price, they feel, for quality cheeses.

The cheese room has cheese presses, shown on upper left hanging from the ceiling,  cheese molds on the shelves, the vat in which the milk is heated,  and a freezer made into a milk cooler.

The cheese room has cheese presses, shown on upper left hanging from the ceiling,
cheese molds on the shelves, the vat in which the milk is heated,
and a freezer made into a milk cooler.

The Norths had been selling their cheese exclusively at the Ithaca farmers market for the last 30 years. So that’s what Maryrose started doing. But she got tired of it and has withdrawn their membership.

“It was an excellent market,” she explains, “but for the last two or three years it wasn’t as good as it used to be. Even though the market is still really well attended, I have found that more and more people are going just because it is attractive. They will have lunch there, sit by the dock, but don’t want to do most of their shopping because it is so crowded. Parking is a nightmare, too. So I found fewer and fewer people were there for actually buying their food.

“I found the time required to go to the Saturday farmers market was a problem,” she continues. “It is 30 miles away and I had to have someone here to milk and tend the sheep for all that time. Also, at the market not many people want to buy a whole cheese. A tomme is about 6 pounds, and my blue cheese is about 3 pounds — a whole cheese can be over $100. So they all have to be cut for retail sales. We mostly sell half pound wedges and I spend hours and hours cutting and wrapping cheese.”

The couple has thus decided to go wholesale to avoid spending such time in marketing. They have been asking $17.50 a pound wholesale – not too much of a reduction — and getting it. Right now they are dealing with a distributor, Finger Lakes Family Farms, that sells it all over the region. They are not sure which stores carry it. But they also have some queries from New York City cheese shops, where Finger Lakes Family Farms doesn’t go, to which they would like to sell. Maryrose is working on that market now.

The other products the dairy has are meat from culls, sheepskins and wool. A store in Ithaca, The Piggery, has been able to sell all the meat they offer, and a tannery in Pennsylvania is happy to buy their skins. Maryrose shears the sheep herself and sends the wool to a mill in Maine.

Although all the Northland methods meet organic certification standards, so far they have chosen not to become certified. Since she is the president of NOFA-NY, Maryrose hears a little from people curious why they have chosen not to be organic.

Maryrose shows off some of her tomme cheeses.

Maryrose shows off some of her tomme cheeses.

“We don’t need it for marketing,” she explains, “it wouldn’t change a thing about our practices, and I certainly don’t want to do all the paperwork! It is a constant discussion, though. Donn thinks we should be certified, but of course he is not going to have to do the paperwork. For me, my real thing is 100% grass-fed. I might get a little more for the meat if the lambs were organic, as organic lamb is unusual, but it is not worth it.”

Asked what she might do differently had she known then what she knows now, Maryrose thinks for a minute.

Finally she says: “If I had it to do over, and were younger, I would have a larger flock than 40 ewes. That size works for us financially, but to have a real impact you need more. It is so hard to even have a viable marketing presence when you are this small. The Piggery has run through our lambs already and there won’t be more until the fall. So we are not a constant presence in the market.

“I would have established more hedgerows earlier,” she continues. “They are great for shade, for nutrient cycling. When you are grazing a pasture that has a hedgerow it is so much better for the animals to have that shade. We have some shade paddocks now, so I am sometimes moving the animals 4 times a day to get them into shade when it gets hot. Just a week or two ago, when we had that real hot spell, the ewes were panting open-mouthed! They were lactating, which raises their body temperature. I had just sheared them, but they were hot animals! The Black Angus steers were warm, but not panting.

“I would also seed warm varieties into the pasture despite my husbands’ objection,” she smiles. “He says you have to always look at the financial sustainability of the system. Buying expensive seed and having the equipment to put it in and get a good germination rate is not sustainable, he feels. But I say that farming is contrived in the first place. We are creating a semi-natural state for these animals. In nature, grazers have been able to move over a large area and get access to a wide variety of plants and forages. But we keep them in strict confines, so we need to give them more variety. It is good for them, for us, for the milk, for the soil.

“I feel,” she concludes, “like I have at least another ten years of farming in me! I’m 54 and Donn is 50. My retirement plan is to still do sheep, but eventually move to just meat sheep and hair sheep (ed. – varieties that tend to be closer to the natural ancestors of sheep with hair instead of a fleece. They tend to be more heat tolerant, resist parasites better, have less hoof problems, and lamb and mother better.) That way I’m not milking and shearing anymore. I love sheep, though, and I want to keep working with them. I love handling them – a small animal, and I love that the flock instinct is still so intact. It all makes it easy for me as a shepherd.”

Maryrose enjoys a fine day with her sheep.

Maryrose enjoys a fine day with her sheep.




Conversions, Quantities, Calculations and Indulgences: A Primer

plant root carbon

Cross-section of a plant root, showing liquid carbon flowing to soil via the hyphae of mycorrhizal fungi. This carbon will support a vast array of microbes that not only retain carbon but also improve soil structure and soil tilth, enhance water-holding capacity, fix atmospheric nitrogen, solubilise phosphorus and provide minerals, trace elements and other growth stimulating substances to plants. Photo courtesy Jill Clapperton

Anyone attempting to make sense of calculations surrounding carbon cycling and soil carbon must first understand a little bit about quantities and conversion factors. Here are some basic facts you might find helpful.

Metric Conversions

First off, much of this literature uses the metric system of measurement. In case you forgot your high school lessons on the metric system, here are some useful conversions.

Length: one meter = 39.3701 inches; one inch (12 in. to a foot, 5280 ft. to a mile) = 2.54 centimeters

Area: one hectacre (10,000 square meters) = 2.4711 acres; one acre (43560 sq. ft.) = .40469 hectares

Volume: one liter (1000 cubic centimeters) = 1.0567 US quart (liquid); 1 US quart (liquid) = .94635 liters

Weight: one kilogram = 2.2046 lbs; one pound = .45359 kilogram

An additional complication concerns the use of the weight that derives from the ancient Germanic term for a large cask, or tun. In the US, one (short) ton = 2000 pounds. The non-US “conventional” system, however, uses the British Imperial (long) ton of 2240 pounds. Lastly, the metric tonne is 1000 kg or 2204.6 lbs, very close to the Imperial or long ton.

Temperature: one degree Celsius = 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit; 1˚F = .556˚C, water freezes at 32˚F or 0˚C.

Quantities

Carbon and Carbon Dioxide: The carbon atom has an atomic weight of 12. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a molecule composed of a carbon atom and two oxygen atoms. Since each oxygen atom has an atomic weight of 16, the total CO2 molecule has an atomic weight of 44. Thus one carbon dioxide molecule weighs 3.67 times as much as a carbon atom, and carbon weighs .273 times as much as CO2.

People are approximately 18% carbon by weight. Wood is roughly 50% carbon, and soil organic matter is about 58% carbon. Typical soils, depending on level of compaction, weigh between 1200 and 1600 kilograms per cubic meter.

Before the industrial revolution and burning of significant amounts of fossil fuels, scientists estimate that the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was 280 parts per million. We are now at 393 ppm. Anything beyond 350 ppm is considered unsustainable as it will heat the earth (greenhouse effect) beyond tolerable levels. One part per million of CO2 in the atmosphere is equal to 7.8 gigatons (GT or billion tonnes) of CO2 or 2.125 GT of solid carbon (for illustration, this is about a cubic kilometer of graphite).

Methane: This is a gas with the chemical formula of CH4. It is the main component of natural gas and a potent greenhouse gas, one unit trapping as much reflected sunlight as 25 units of carbon dioxide. It is produced by anaerobic respiration from bacteria, termites, and in the rumens of ruminant animals such as cattle.

Nitrous Oxide: This is a gas with the chemical formula of N2O. It is known as “laughing gas” due to the euphoric effects of inhaling it. Nitrous oxide gives rise to NO (nitric oxide) on reaction with oxygen atoms, and this NO in turn reacts with ozone. Considered over a 100-year period, it has 298 times more impact (global warming potential) per unit mass than carbon dioxide.

Note: When encountering calculations involving Methane and Nitrous Oxide, some writers will automatically convert them into their CO2 greenhouse gas equivalents (i.e. equate a methane molecule to 25 carbon dioxides, and a nitrous oxide one to 298 carbon dioxides). Be ready for these molecules to show up as CO2 conversions, without clear explanation.

Calculations

We can now calculate how much carbon is contained in an acre of top soil when that top soil is 6 inches deep and has an organic matter of 1%. We can also calculate how much carbon dioxide that carbon is sequestering.

Taking an average soil weight of 1400 k/m3, the top inch of a square meter of soil will have a weight of 1400 kilograms divided by 39.3701 (inches in a meter) or 35.56 kilograms, and the top six inches will have 6 times that much, or 213.36 kilograms. If the six inches of top soil in a square meter weighs 213.36 kg, by the magic of the metric system we see that the weight of a hectare of that top soil is 2,133,600 kg. But we want to know about an acre of it, so we divide by 2.4711 and find the answer is that 6 inches of top soil weighs 863,421.1 kg per acre. Now only 1% of that is soil organic matter (SOM), so we now have 8,634.211 kg of SOM. And only 58% of that is carbon, so we are down to 5,007.8 kg of carbon.

That is pretty close to 5 tonnes (metric tons) of carbon, so lets call it that. Since all that carbon was put there by the magic of photosynthesis – the plant using sunlight to combine carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air with water (H2O) from the soil to make carbohydrates (usually with the form Cm(H2O)n where m could be different from n ) for the plant and giving back oxygen to the air – we know those 5 tonnes of carbon came from 3.67 times as much carbon dioxide. So the answer, dear class, is that the acre of top soil with 1% organic matter has sequestered 18.35 tonnes of carbon dioxide.

Indulgences

That’s no slouch of a number. The average US citizen’s share of emissions, with all our fossil fuel addictions, according to the United Nations is less than that much carbon dioxide annually (17.5 tonnes to be exact.) Of course the average Bangladeshi emits 0.38 tonnes, and your typical Zambian manages only 0.19. But if you are looking for a way to assuage your guilt and justify your lifestyle to posterity, building a percent more organic matter in the top soil of an acre of your field or yard or community garden every year is not a bad way to go about keeping your head held high!

How does this calculation hold up for the task at hand globally? Hold onto your hats!

If we are at 393 ppm CO2 in the atmosphere now, and want to get back to the sustainable level of 350 ppm, we need to store 43 ppm somewhere. If each ppm is equal to 7.8 GT of CO2, we need to store a total of 7.8 GT times 43, or 335.4 GT of CO2. This may seem like a daunting task, even for organic farmers. But let’s do the numbers.

The land area of the globe equals 149.4 million square kilometers. If you take the 38% of that which the World Bank says is agricultural land, you have about 56.8 million km2. This, again by the magic of the metric system, is 5.7 billion hectares. One has to look up the conversion factor, of course, to find that this equals 14 billion acres.

If an increase in 1% of the organic matter of soil in an acre will sequester 18.35 tonnes of CO2, then 14 billion acres could sequester 256.9 billion tonnes. This is more than three-quarters of the CO2 that we need to sequester to get back to 350 ppm, the level of sustainability – all for increasing soil organic matter by one percent!

None of this, of course, would be easy. But isn’t it nice to know that soil can do that? It even turns out that with proper practices much of that carbon can be stored for centuries as humus. And the best part of it is that doing all this will improve the fertility and water retention capacity of your fields, give you better crops and make you more productive as a farmer.




Development of the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) in Madagascar

Father Laulanié at his desk in his Antananarivo home

Father Laulanié at his desk in his Antananarivo home

The development of the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) 20 years ago in Madagascar by Fr. Henri de Laulanié, S.J. — based on 20 years before that of working with farmers to improve their rice production without dependence on external inputs — is a most unusual case. It is unusual partly because SRI is one of the most remarkable agricultural innovations of the last century, one only starting to be appreciated in this one. But it is also unusual because of the resistance, sometimes vehement, that it has encountered from the scientific community despite the evident benefits that it offered particularly for poor farmers and for the environment: doubling yields or even more without requiring the use of fertilizer or other chemical inputs, and using less water.

This case suggests a lesson for scientists as well as for extension personnel and farmers — for all to be open to new ideas, no matter what their source. Not every proposed change in agricultural practices warrants much attention; but if a possible innovation would have many benefits, it should be subjected to empirical rather than just logical tests, because our scientific knowledge is not (and never will be) perfect or complete. In the SRI case, a paradigm shift was involved, one that is not yet fully understood and certainly not universally accepted. Typical positivist approaches for testing and validating new knowledge were not applicable because larger issues were at stake, ones not amenable to either proof or disproof just by hypothesis testing.

The case is instructive also because it goes against the now popular view that farmer knowledge, being based on generations of trial-and-error and subsequent validation, is a superior source of information and insights about how to practice agriculture. SRI changes dramatically four practices that farmers growing irrigated rice have used for centuries, even millennia. Part of the resistance came from the innovation’s being so counter-intuitive: where smaller would become bigger, and less could produce more. This sounds like nonsense; but it is possible and true.

The Challenge

When Henri de Laulanié was assigned by the Jesuit order to move from France to Madagascar in 1961, the first thing he saw around him was the great poverty and hunger of most of the people, one of the poorest populations in the world. He saw also their deteriorating natural resource base, with drastic soil erosion and accelerating deforestation, these two processes being connected.

Laulanié concluded, apparently, that raising the yields of rice, the staple food providing more than half of the daily calories of Malagasy households, was the greatest contribution he could make to the well-being of the people around him. It was also essential if continuing destruction of the precious tropical rain forest ecosystems was to be halted.

Laulanié had done a degree in agriculture at the best university in France (now known as Paris- Grignon) before entering the seminary in 1941, so he knew basic agricultural science if not much about tropical rice. There were few scientific resources to draw on in immediately post-colonial Madagascar, in libraries or in research institutes, so he started working directly with farmers, carefully observing their practices, asking questions, trying things out on his own paddy plot.

Assembling the Innovation

Laulanié found a few farmers not transplanting rice seedlings in clumps of three, four, five or more, as farmers all around the world choose to do, instead planting individual seedlings. These farmers in the minority found that single seedlings produced as well or better than clumps of plants, and this way they could reduce their seed costs, a consideration for very poor farmers. So he tried this himself, and found it was a good practice.

Then, in another area he observed some farmers not keeping their paddy fields continuously flooded throughout the season, as is done around the world wherever farmers have access to enough water to do this. It is widely believed that rice plants fare best in saturated soil. But Laulanié found that they can grow even better if raised in soil that is kept moist but never continuously flooded. While rice plants can survive under flooded conditions, they do not thrive.

Having started to grow single seedlings in unflooded soil during their period of vegetative growth (i.e., up to flowering; after panicle initiation, he kept a thin layer of water, 1-2 cm, on the field), Laulanié next introduced a practice of his own. The government was promoting the use of a simple mechanical hand weeder known as the ‘rotating hoe’ (houe rotative). This churned up the soil with small toothed wheels, burying weeds in the soil to decompose. It also aerated the soil in the process, though nobody considered this benefit at the time.

Laulanié decided to try planting seedlings in a square pattern, rather than in the rows being promoted by rice specialists. This way he could use the weeding tool in two directions, i.e., perpendicularly. He tried this with 25×25 cm spacing just to see what would happen. To his pleasant surprise, widely spaced rice plants, growing singly in moist but not flooded soil, did better than others grown with the common practices.

At this point, the priest established a small school in Antsirabe to teach young farmers these new methods and to give them a basic education that prepared them for life rather than for further studies and white-collar employment. In 1983-84, a fortuitous accident occurred. Two weeks after planting the rice nursery, Laulanié had second thoughts and decided that they might need more seedlings for the field, so more were planted for what was likely to be a water-short season.

A good rain fell when the first set of seedlings was 30 days old. Because they were not sure whether any more good rain would follow, the teacher and his students decided to transplant all of the seedlings into their rice field, the tiny ones only 15 days old as well. They had few hopes or expectations for the spindly younger seedlings. Yet after a month, these began to surpass the older ones, and by the end of the season, their yield was much higher (Laulanié 1993).

Rather than pass this off as a fluke, the next year younger seedlings were planted again, and then even younger seedlings. By the end of the decade, it was clear to everyone at the school and to the farmers who visited it that using younger seedlings gave much better results, provided that they were planted singly and far apart, in a square pattern (even up to 50×50 cm when the soil quality had been built up by these practices) in soil both well aerated and moist during the plants’ growth period. They did not know that research had been published already showing that when rice plants are kept continuously flooded, up to 78% of their roots degenerate under the hypoxic conditions (Kar et al. 1974). The negative effect of continuous soil saturation on roots’ growth and functioning was being overlooked by both scientists and farmers alike.

SRI was developed initially with the use of chemical fertilizers, because everyone believed that this was necessary to increase yields, especially on Madagascar soils that were mostly ‘poor’ as evaluated by standard chemical tests. When the government removed its subsidies for fertilizer in the late 1980s, and poor farmers could no longer afford to use it, Laulanié and his students began working with compost. In most instances, this gave even better rice yields when used with the other practices.

Proceeding with the Innovation

In 1990, Laulanié and several of his close Malagasy friends established an NGO, Association Tefy Saina, to promote SRI and rural development generally. The NGO name, in Malagasy, means ‘to improve the mind,’ because they saw SRI as not just a means to improve rice production and meet food and income needs. It was thought that SRI’s spectacular results could open farmers’ minds to further innovation beyond rice cultivation because they came from changing practices that had been used for generations by farmers’ ancestors, greatly venerated in traditional culture and beliefs. For the priest and his friends, human development and spiritual growth were considered more important than agricultural improvement alone.

In part because SRI was not seen and treated in narrowly technical terms, it was scoffed at and rejected by Malagasy and international scientists who learned about it, though a few European NGOs gave Tefy Saina some small grants for training in the early 1990s. In 1994, CIIFAD, the Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development, began working with Tefy Saina to introduce SRI to farmers in the peripheral zone around Ranomafana National Park. This was one of the last remaining large blocks of rain forest, under serious threat from the slash-and-burn cultivation of upland rice.

Farmers around Ranomafana were getting lowland rice yields of only 2 t/ha from their small areas having irrigation. To feed their families, they needed to practice upland cultivation. Raising lowland yields was thus seen as a requirement for saving the rain forest, as well as for reducing poverty. In 1994-95, only 38 farmers would try the new methods, which changed four things that had been done from time immemorial in Madagascar, and in most other rice-growing countries:

  • Instead of planting seedlings 30-60 days old, tiny seedlings less than 15 days old were planted.
  • Instead of planting 3-5 or more seedlings in clumps, single seedlings were planted.
  • Instead of close, dense planting, with seed rates of 50-100 kg/ha, plants were set out carefully and gently in a square pattern, 25x25cm or wider if the soil was very good; the seed rate was reduced by 80-90%, netting farmers as much as 100 kg of rice per hectare.
  • Instead of keeping rice paddies continuously flooded, only a minimum of water was applied daily to keep the soil moist, not always saturated; fields were allowed to dry out several times to the cracking point during the growing period, with much less total use of water.

Why hadn’t farmers tried these new practices before? All looked very risky, and even a little crazy. Why should tiny young plants perform better than larger ones? Why should fewer plants give more yield than more plants? Why should plants not be kept flooded if water was available? Water was thought to be like fertilizer, and rice was regarded would ever try all four of these practices together, and risk the scorn of his neighbors as well as the wrath of his ancestors, was infinitesimal.

The farmers around Ranomafana who used SRI in 1994-95 averaged over 8 t/ha, more than four times their previous yield, and some farmers reached 12 t/ha and one even got 14 t/ha. The next year and the following year, the average remained over 8 t/ ha, and a few farmers even reached 16 t/ha, beyond what scientists considered to be ‘the biological maximum’ for rice. But these calculations were based on rice plants that had degenerated and truncated root systems.

Understanding the Innovation

How could such remarkable results be obtained? There is demonstrable synergy among these practices, when used together, especially when the rotating hoe is used to control weeds — and aerate the soil frequently during the growth period. This has been documented by replicated multi-factorial trials (N=288 and N=240) in contrasting agroecological situations: tropical climate, poor sandy soils at sea level vs. temperate climate, better clay and loam soils at high elevation. These trials showed that when compost is added to the soil, increasing soil organic matter and nourishing soil microorganisms beyond what the plants’ own (greater) exudation can support, large increases, even a tripling in yield, can result. On poorer loam soil, SRI practices gave 6.39 t/ha compared to 2.04 t/ha with standard practice (mature seedlings, close spacing, continuous flooding, NPK fertilizer). On better clay soils, yields went from 3.0 with standard methods to 10.35 t/ha with SRI (Randriamiharisoa and Uphoff 2002).

With SRI methods, one could see, after the first month, a much greater number of tillers, 30-50 per plant, with some plants producing even 80-100 tillers. If one pulled up SRI plants, one could see that they had much larger and deeper root systems. A pull test to measure the resistance that plant root systems give to uprooting found that it took 5-6 times more force (kg/plant) to do this for SRI plants. Having more roots can support more tiller growth and more grain filling, while plants having a larger canopy with more photosynthesis can support more root growth.

Scientifically, the most interesting phenotypic change was in the relationship between number of tillers/plant and number of grains/tiller (panicle). For SRI plants, this correlation was positive rather than negative, as is widely reported in the literature. With a larger root system, SRI plants can access both more soil nutrients, right through the ripening stage with less plant senescence, and a wider variety of nutrients, including micronutrients not provided by NPK fertilizer. SRI methods contribute to more grain production and also to a lower percentage of unfilled grains and to higher grain weight.

SRI achieves higher yields, sometime over 20 t/ha when soil conditions approach optimal. It does not follow the two strategies that produced the gains of the Green Revolution: (a) changed and increased genetic potential, and (b) use of external inputs — more fertilizer, more water, more agrochemicals. SRI was hard at first to understand because it took such a different path.

Instead, SRI changes common practices for plant, soil, water and nutrient management so as to: (a) increase plant root growth and functioning, and (b) enhance the abundance and diversity of soil biota, from microorganisms (bacteria and fungi) through micro and meso-fauna (nematodes and protozoa) to macro fauna (particularly earthworms).

Spread of the Innovation

This case study cannot go more into the mechanisms and processes, which are still only partially documented and understood, but they are increasingly validated by SRI use in a growing number of countries around the world (see Stoop et al. 2002, and Uphoff 2003). Good SRI results have now been reported from countries ranging from China, through Indonesia, Philippines, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar, to Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and India, to Madagascar, Benin, Gambia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, and now to Cuba and Peru.

Typical rice plant with 5 tillers

Typical rice plant with 5 tillers

The methods raise, concurrently, the productivity of land, labor, capital and water, without tradeoffs, something never seen before. SRI practices achieve different and more productive phenotypes from any genotype of rice by providing a better growing environment in which the plant can express its genetic potential. SRI is best understood as part of a growing movement in the agricultural sector toward what can be characterized as agroecological innovation. This strategy seeks to capitalize on synergies among species and organisms when these are provided with optimum growing conditions. Conventional agricultural practices, favoring monoculture, seek to maximize production of single species, one at a time, taking them out of the context of their natural environments, changing that environment by ploughing, fertilization, irrigation, etc.

What can be learned from this experience about participatory research and development?

  1. One should not assume that current farmer practices are always ideal or the best. They have been developed under certain conditions, constrained by knowledge and imagination as well as biophysical factors. Farmer knowledge is a good place to start, and should always be respected. But it should not be idealized. It was just a few ‘deviant’ farmers who contributed some of the novel ideas that made SRI possible.
  2. One should work closely with farmers in the development of any agricultural innovation. Fr. de Laulanié had a great and self-evident love for rural people, demonstrated throughout his 34 years living among them in Madagascar. He was devoted to helping them improve their productivity and welfare. He avidly learned from them. But he also formed his own opinions, always subjecting practices and ideas to empirical tests.
  3. Scientists should avoid becoming prisoners of their present knowledge, captives of prevailing paradigms. Paradigms are needed to make sense of the world and to be able to act upon it. But they are constructs made by human beings, not true in themselves. Anyone who seriously follows scientific principles knows that while theory is necessary to organize knowledge and to test it, the ultimate tests are always empirical, not logical. While quantum physics is the most powerful body of scientific theory in the world today, its strength lies not in its logic — it is quite illogical in many ways — but in its repeated verification by empirical results.
  4. There has been a lot of effort going into systematizing the processes of participatory research and development, e.g., through participatory action research and participatory rural appraisal (PRA). As recent reflections on PRA show, it is important not to let techniques and processes become rigidified and routinized because then the means become ends in themselves (Cornwall and Pratt 2003). Fr. de Laulanié worked with great originality and dedication. He had respect for science, having been trained in it, but particularly for farmers and for empirical truth. He improvised the whole process by which SRI was developed.

If Father de Laulanié had been guided (and constrained) by a lot of preconceptions, it is unlikely that he could have discovered anything as unique and powerful as SRI, breaking with ages-old practices to ‘liberate’ genetic potentials that have existed in rice plants for millennia. We must never let form triumph over substance and over vision and imagination.

For more information on SRI, see the SRI home page — or communicate with Tefy Saina () or the author ().

REFERENCES

Cornwall, A. and G. Pratt. 2003. Pathways to Participation: Reflections on Participatory Rural Appraisal. London: Intermediate Technology Development Group Publishing.

Kar, S., S., Varade, T. Subramanyam, and B. P. Ghildyal. 1974. Nature and growth pattern of rice root system under submerged and unsaturated conditions. Il Riso (Italy) 23, 173-179.

Laulanié, H. de. 1983. Le système de riziculture intensive malgache. Tropicultura (Brussels) 11, 110- 114.

Randriamiharisoa, R. and N. Uphoff. 2002. Factorial trials evaluating the separate and combined effects of SRI practices. In: The System of Rice Intensification: Proceedings of an international conference, Sanya, China, April 1-4, 2002. Ithaca, NY: Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development.

Stoop, W., N. Uphoff, and A. Kassam. 2002. A review of agricultural research issues raised by the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) from Madagascar: Opportunities for improving farming systems for resource-poor farmers. Agricultural Systems 71, 249-274.

Uphoff, N. 2003. Higher yields with fewer external inputs? The System of Rice Intensification and potential contributions to agricultural sustainability. International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability, 1, 38-50.




Editorial

The Covid-19 virus pandemic has brought many people’s consciousness around to focus on their personal health. Some are looking to technology to protect themselves and their families – masks, distances beyond which droplets can’t be projected by human lungs, various pharmaceuticals, cleaning agents and other products already available, and one or more vaccines yet to be released. This is perfectly natural and to be expected.

But there are many who are focusing on Nature as well. This issue of The Natural Farmer had been a vague idea for a while, but the pandemic brought it into reality. It is an attempt to discuss the role of natural systems in sustaining human health. Natural systems can both impair and repair an organism’s health, of course. Animals can sometimes avoid predation or accidental injury by fight or flight mechanisms and physical strength. But to manage infectious agents, like the current pandemic, living creatures have developed some amazing capacities and systems. In most cases the strength of those capacities and systems is largely dependent on the nutrients that we have ingested.

This issue is devoted to examining that process for humans, examining what role food plays in our states of health. We have articles from a doctor, a professor, several scientists researching nutrient health, a couple of nutrition counselors, an organization committed to raising higher quality non-toxic foods, an animal feed specialist, and an advocate for the inclusion of good nutrition in health care insurance coverage. Not all these writers agree on everything, but we hope together they give you an idea of the power food plays in affecting your health.

Note that a few of these articles were longer and contained footnotes and references which we have omitted for space reasons. We have noted each article so shortened at its end. Anyone wishing the original version of one of these articles can get one. Just Email for a copy as noted at the end of the article.




Why Glyphosate?

For many Americans glyphosate, the active ingredient in the herbicide Roundup, and its maker, the chemical company Monsanto, are examples of the worst aspects of American business. Despite concerns raised by scientists and health professionals about human carcinogenicity among those exposed to the compound, Monsanto (and now Bayer which recently bought the company) have denied any such possibility and initiated campaigns to discredit studies and professionals that warn about its danger to health.

This is on top of a widespread campaign more than a dozen years old now to sue farmers who save seed from their GMO crops. GMOs are genetically modified organisms or crops which have had specific chemical pathways introduced into their germ plasm. These pathways enable the crop to survive the absence of certain nutrients which are normally required for plant growth. This allows glyphosate, which is a chelater (a substance that binds to certain chemicals and makes them unavailable), to be sprayed throughout a field and kill anything which has not been specifically engineered with the pathways that enable them to survive the effects of the spray. GMOs enabled farmers to spray several times during the season to kill weeds, a trait which farmers valued and which made seed from the crops expensive. When they tried to save seeds from their GMO crops in order to avoid having to purchase them the next year, however, farmers were targeted by a hard-hitting Monsanto legal campaign to sue them for theft of Monsanto’s intellectual property, namely the engineered seeds. Many farmers lost their farms as a result of judgments against them for such seed-saving.

Perhaps even worse were the anti-science efforts of Monsanto to undermine and discredit researchers and professors who challenged the safety of glyphosate. Aggressive internet campaigns to anonymously attack respected scientists and their work, pressuring journal editors to recall already peer-reviewed articles which question glysophate’s safety, were tracked to Monsanto-paid PR firms. Flaks hired by the company posed as qualified scientists to undermine the reputations and results of eminent researchers with phony data (see story in this issue by Carey Gillam).

All these lies and deceits were authored in the pursuit of corporate profit at the expense of the innocent. We hope this issue of The Natural Farmer can serve to correct these falsehoods somewhat. Read within what experts think about glyphosate, what Monsanto has done to obscure these criticisms, and what users of the product have experienced when they have bought and used it. Learn also about real alternatives to what has become the most popular toxic chemical in the world.

We hope that by the time you have finished this issue you will never again buy anything containing glyphosate, eat anything raised with it, or believe anything said about it by Monsanto. Unfortunately, in our society there is a presumption of innocence within which falsehoods can be perpetuated without challenge not only in the political arena but also in the economic one. We need to exercise due diligence against such cynical abuse of our trust. This issue is offered in that quest.




Why is Animal Welfare Important?

Most NOFA members automatically support strong animal welfare standards. Many of us keep poultry or livestock and track their health and condition as carefully as we might that of our children or grandchildren.

But big changes are happening in the world of animal welfare and we need to be up to date on them.

  1. First off, important, tighter changes in organic standards have been proposed. As organic producers, we need to understand them and help them be-come the best standards for us all.
  2. Second, a number of the major poultry and livestock brands are voluntarily abandoning cages, crates and antibiotics in favor of pasture, free-ranging, and probiotics
  3. Third, a Massachusetts ballot initiative in November calls for a vote on livestock standards for cows, pigs and chickens that could well ban Massachu-setts sales of some animal products produced in other states and shipped here for sale in our markets.

In this issue we look at the details of some of these proposals, examine how they are changing agriculture, and what the future is likely to require of us. We look at two farms that are successfully meeting high animal care standards while maintaining farm viability. We look at the animal care suggestions of world-class animal handlers, read a short history of the animal care movement in America, and consider the thoughts of various people on the topic of what a world without livestock might look like.
We hope it gets you thinking and acting on your own values!




The Real Black Gold: Experimenting with an Ancient Technology in New England

Ancient Amazonians built populous civilizations in rain forests incapable of supporting more than small tribes of hunter-gatherers. How? They applied charcoal as a soil amendment and transformed nutrient poor dirt into rich, dark, fertile soil. Elsewhere in the world, plowing and irrigation drained the soil of nutrients and led to salinization making fertile land barren. We know about the Amazonian people’s farming technology not because they kept records, but because we can still see it in what scientists call Terra Preta, the dark earth created by ancient farmers.

Some of the particles of biochar which Ian used in the plantings

Some of the particles of biochar which Ian used in the plantings

Today biochar – a term coined by Peter Read in 2005 to refer to charcoal applied as a soil amendment – is growing in popularity in the U.S. and elsewhere. This ancient technology is being applied around the world to enhance soil fertility. Farmers in Japan call it “kuntan” or “barazumi,” while Chinese and South Korean farmers refer to it as “fire manure.” Farmers in Sri Lanka have been passing down the technique for generations. The reason we are hearing more about is because it creates an environment in which fungi and bacteria can thrive, leading to increased yields in food production compared to other organic methods.

Ian Back, a recent graduate in Sustainable Food and Farming at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, aims to demonstrate the advantages of biochar through an experimental fruit forest he planted this year.

Why Biochar?

Back first became hooked on biochar during his junior year when he learned that it could sequester carbon and mitigate climate change. Cooking biomass in a high heat, low oxygen environment, a process called pyrolysis, carbonizes the biomass. Applying the output of the process – the biochar – in topsoil removes the carbon from the atmosphere and locks it into the earth. Johannes Lehmann, a professor in crop and soil sciences at Cornell University, estimates that any one of three approaches to pyrolysis – using forest residues, fast-growing vegetation, or crop residues – could sequester 10% of U.S. fossil fuel emissions.

Because biochar is produced by burning biomass, carbon sequestration may seem counter-intuitive. Indeed, traditional methods of producing charcoal create greenhouse gas emissions and noxious smoke hazardous to those operating the kilns. Modern retorts, however, not only radically reduce smoke and emissions, but create larger amounts of biochar out of the biomass feedstock. And they can have other benefits.

For example Chris Adam designed the “Adam Retort” for farmers in developing countries as an alternative to the inefficient traditional kilns. His design reduces smoke by 75% and produces twice as much biochar out of the biomass feedstock. It can be made relatively inexpensively out of local materials. Vee-Go, a Massachusetts company, uses a catalytic vacuum process to convert agricultural waste into biochar. It does so without releasing any emissions and makes use of waste that would otherwise decompose and produce methane gas, a greenhouse gas which has twenty-five times as much impact on climate change as carbon dioxide. Other systems exist which produce energy or heat from the captured pyrolysis gases.

Back obtained the biochar for the fruit forest experiment from Pioneer Valley biochar producer, Adam Dole. The biochar was produced using the “Adam Retort” design. The retort was constructed by Bob Wells and Peter Hirst, founders of New England Biochar, for about $30,000.

Carbon sequestration and increased food production are not the only benefits of biochar. The material can be an excellent amendment in drought-stricken areas since it acts like a sponge retaining nutrients and moisture for plants to draw upon. Added to animal pastures, it can assist in the breakdown of manures and reduce methane emissions. It can also be used as a feed additive to prevent toxicity or bloat and may even work to reduce radiation. According to Hans-Peter Schmidt, Director of the Dilenat Institute for Ecology and Climate Farming in Switzerland, there are at least fifty uses for biochar from insulation to air decontamination to water treatment in aquaculture, almost all of which are carbon sinks.

The Fruit Forest Experiment

Back’s experiment really started at his home in the summer of 2014. He bought four cubic feet of biochar and made new beds with it in his greenhouse. While he felt his results were good, he yearned for a concrete experiment that would yield not just fruits and vegetables, but hard data. With two fellow students, who initially did not know much about biochar but were game to participate in the experiment, Back entered and won a competition for $1,000 and six cubic yards of biochar from the Pioneer Valley Biochar Initiative. His win put the experiment in motion. Thanks to two UMass professors, John Gerber, Professor of Sustainable Food and Farming, and Stephen Herbert, Professor of Agronomy, he accessed an additional $5,000 for the project. In part because he was graduating in May of 2015 and in part because he wanted the project to become a lasting student enterprise he and his co-conspirators started a student organization which they named Spiritual Ecology and Regenerative Systems Initiative (SERSI). Officially recognized by the UMass Student Government Association, they ensured that the Fruit Forest would be a learning enterprise for future students.

Ian Back adds compost while planting one of the fruit trees in the fruit forest experiment

Ian Back adds compost while planting
one of the fruit trees in the
fruit forest experiment

With the paperwork done and money obtained to finance materials, the physical work began. Back and his team were given a three-quarter acre plot in the UMass Agricultural Learning Center just behind the Pollinator Garden. There they hoped to establish a regenerative ecosystem. In late June they inoculated five cubic yards of biochar in compost tea. Each cubic yard had a gallon of molasses added as well as fertilizer, resulting in three batches of fish and seaweed biochar and two batches of seaweed biochar.

The biochar was disked into two plots where it made up 4% of the top six inches of soil, two plots where it made 3% and one plot where it made 2%. Each plot has a control plot alongside of it so that there are ten distinct plots each of which is 15 feet wide. Plots vary in length from 60 feet to 120 feet, depending on application. The control plots mimic the molasses and fertilizer content of their companion biochar plots so that the role of the biochar can be isolated from the benefits of the other amendments.

Within the Fruit Forest are various plantings, many of which are indigenous to the area. The team planted fruit trees and shrubs, such as cherries, raspberries and sea berries; and perennials, such as buffalo berries, chokeberries, elderberries, and cornelian cherries. Many of the plantings are nitrogen fixing such as the sea berries, Siberian peas, alders, New Jersey tea, and bay berry. Some plantings are pollinator habitats like spicebush and sassafras along with native wildflower mixes and comfrey, all of which are spread throughout the Fruit Forest. The plantings cross over the biochar and control plots. This will enable the students to assess and test the same plants and fruits grown in different plots and to evaluate the health of developing ecosystems.

Students today as well as future students will examine the results over the years. The fruit forest experiment is not just about testing biochar and other amendments, but will be a bountiful place of teaching and learning. Students will assess the health and vibrancy of the plants visually. They will conduct soil tests and analyze the results, comparing results between plots and over time. They will use a refractometer to assess the sugar level of fruits. In two or three years, the students will hopefully see some results of the biochar acting with the soil.

Not just biochar, but regenerative systems

A raspberry plant shortly after planting in the experiment

A raspberry plant shortly after
planting in the experiment

The results will not just be about the benefits (or inadequacy) of biochar. The fruit forest experiment is intended to be a regenerative environment, the results of which will demonstrate the importance of the combination of the fruit forest with biochar. Back argues that the fruit forest is just as important in mitigating climate change as the biochar. It is the balance that is critical: the biochar, the growing perennials and fruit trees, and the untilled, undisturbed soil. The combination gives the biochar the best chance to build organic and microbial life. Like other biochar advocates, Back believes that biochar was not the single factor creating Terra Preta in the Amazon, and it will not be the only element necessary to build regenerative systems today. Biochar used in harmony with other regenerative methods will supply organics, microclimates for microorganisms, microhabitats for small mammals and birds as well as food for humans.

Moving forward, more ancient and traditional agricultural techniques need to be scientifically tested. For example, Back would like to start another multi-plot experiment where he can gather data on the differences between biochar, rockdust and bokashi. Bokashi is another centuries old technique used by Japanese farmers where microorganisms are applied to waste which results in fermentation. Addressing climate change and food security and rebuilding healthy ecosystems will require multiple solutions. Those solutions are more likely to come from organic farmers sharing information than those advocating geo-engineering, genetic modification and other so-called “high tech” solutions.

A row of plantings in the experiment crosses biochar and control plots

A row of plantings in the experiment crosses biochar and control plots

Readers who would like to find out about the results of the Fruit Forest experiment may contact the authors. The SERSI webpages will also post information about the fruit forest experiment in the future at: https://umassamherst.collegiatelink.net/organization/SERSI

Ian Back is a farmer and has a B.S. in
Sustainable Food and Farming
(iankirkwood21@gmail.com).

Anita Dancs teaches about food systems at
Western New England University
(adancs@wne.com).




Home Milk Processing

Introduction

Dairy products such as yogurt, kefir, and cheese result from similar processes. Outcomes that range from soft and spreadable quark to hard grana-style cheeses like Parmigiano–Reggiano DOP (Protected Designation of Origin in Italian) result from variations in process time, process temperature, and the selection of microbiological cultures. While the constancy of dairy products made by large cheese plants and skilled artisans is difficult to achieve at home, it is possible to make good versions of most dairy products with simple tools. After all, fermented dairy products predate the complex equipment and manipulations now common in milk processing.

Temperature control during milk processing is critical.  Microbial activity and the physical response of milk solids  change with temperature. Always keep milk in gentle motion while heating it.

Temperature control during milk processing is critical.
Microbial activity and the physical response of milk solids
change with temperature. Always keep milk in gentle motion while heating it.

Cheese, yogurt, and kefir all begin as milk, yet they finish with dramatically different appearances, textures, aromas, and flavors. Each variation represents a particular decision made along the way during processing. Home processors will find that while recipes for making yogurt, kefir, and cheese are helpful guides, the best way to develop reliable methods is over successive attempts. It helps to keep records of each batch so that the next effort can be just slightly tweaked to influence the outcome.


Milk

Much depends on milk quality. Artisan and industrial dairy processors constantly adjust their processes to account for changes in this basic raw ingredient. As the seasons change and animals move through their lactation cycles, the solid components of milk such as protein and milkfat change. At the industrial level, processors will often standardize milk by adding or removing fat so that the ratio of protein to milkfat is consistent in every lot. Artisan cheese makers may also standardize milk but, because of their simpler processing equipment, some adjust their process or even change the product altogether. For example, milk from a seasonal herd of cows in late lactation will often not set a curd as firmly as that made from early-lactation milk. This difference would favor making a softer cheese late in the season, such as a soft-ripened washed-rind cheese or a fresh spreadable cheese. Home dairy processors often adjust their process in response to gradual changes in milk performance. For the more advanced, some may separate cream from the milk using a small hand-cranked machine, and some may apply heat treatments to alter the microorganism populations of raw milk.

Raw milk as it comes from the animal is the best starting point for home dairy processing. Raw cow’s milk is available in most northeastern states. Check with your NOFA chapter for local laws about buying it and finding sources. If raw milk is not available, the second-best option is unhomogenized pasteurized milk, which is sometimes called cream-top milk. Vat-pasteurized milk, which is processed at 145˚F, is preferable to milks pasteurized at higher temperatures. Pasteurized homogenized milk, such as that commonly available in stores, has been heated to high temperatures, and the structure of the milkfat has been upset so that the cream does not separate. While standard store-bought milk will work well in certain applications like making whole milk ricotta and other fresh cheeses, it will not perform as well in others, such as making firm cheeses.

Home processors making cheese may wish to heat-treat or alter the fat content of the cheesemilk in order to control for certain microorganisms. Thermization, which is less common in the United States than in Europe, involves briefly heating the milk to temperatures as low as 135˚F, which has the effect of killing many undesirable bacteria without altering the performance of the milk. This can be a useful step when milk must be held for a few days before processing, or when the intention is to exactly control the microbiological community in the milk.

Pasteurization entails holding the milk at 145˚F for 30 minutes, which kills a broader range of microorganisms but can have the effect of causing milkfat to separate from the milk and can potentially affect cheese yields. Small countertop cream separators help home processors separate cream either to make a cream product or adjust the milkfat in cheese milk. Alternatively, cow’s milk cream will rise to the top on its own and may be skimmed off.

The home processor will usually not manipulate the milk, but will begin with fresh raw milk. In general, it is best to work with at least a gallon at a time when making cheese because much of the milk’s volume is lost as whey during processing. Firm cheese will yield 10%–12% of the weight of the milk. Twenty pounds of milk (2.33 gallons) will yield two pounds of tomme-style cheese, which is a minimum size for proper ripening of firm cheeses. Yogurt and kefir, however, have a 100% yield; one gallon of milk yields one gallon of yogurt. Strained yogurt products such as labneh and “Greek” yogurt lose some weight as the whey drains from the yogurt.

Milk processing basics

13chartMost dairy processes rely on the development of lactic acid in the product as a result of temperature manipulation over time. Lactic acid bacteria digest the milk sugar lactose and excrete lactic acid. These bacteria also produce other products of fermentation, such as buttery-tasting diacetyl, that are responsible for flavors characteristic of dairy products. Mesophilic bacteria are most active and produce the most lactic acid at temperatures close to body temperatures, and die at temperatures above about 105˚F. Thermophilic bacteria are less active at lower temperatures, but thrive in the range of 110˚F to 135˚F. Cheese types made at lower temperatures, such as tomme-style cheeses like Cricket Creek Farm Maggie’s Round, rely on mesophilic bacterial species. Cheeses made at higher temperatures, such as Alpine-style cheeses like Robinson Farm’s A Barndance, rely on thermophilic bacteria.

In addition to time and temperature controls, the home dairy processor will manipulate the product mechanically to achieve the desired result. This includes straining yogurt to produce a thicker product, agitating cut curd during the scalding process of cheese making, or the hooping and pressing of cheese curd to form wheels.

The first step in almost any process, save kefir- and possibly butter-making, is to heat the milk to the initial process temperature. When heating milk on the stove, always work in heavy-bottomed stainless steel pots, which are non-reactive and easy to clean. Gas or induction ranges are easier to control compared with electric coil ranges. The home processor should gently yet constantly stir the milk as it warms. The milk should be in motion any time it is heating.

Yogurt

Yogurt is a lactic-set curd facilitated by thermophilic bacteria. As the milk incubates at 110˚F, the resulting acid from fermentation denatures milk proteins and results in the matrix that constitutes yogurt’s texture. An initial high-heat process facilitates this matrix: heat the milk to 180˚F, cover the pot and turn off the heat, and wait 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, put the pot in a sink filled with cold water and stir the milk to rapidly cool it to 110˚F. Once the milk is at the incubation temperature, inoculate it with a desired bacterial culture.

There are different yogurt cultures available that yield slightly different acidities and consistencies. Most cultures feature multiple species; ABY-2C from Danisco includes Streptococcus thermophiles, Lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp. bulgaricus, Lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp. lactis, Lactobacillus acidophilus, and Bifidobacterium lactis, where each species contributes in part to the thick body, lactic aroma, and mild acidity found in the finished product. Follow the dosage directions on the package when using a commercial direct-set culture such as this. Alternatively, inoculate the yogurt with existing yogurt. If using this method, choose a locally made yogurt free of pectin, nonfat dry milk powder, or gelatin. Add about 2% of the weight of the total milk in prepared yogurt. For example, if working with 8.6 pounds of milk (one gallon), add about three ounces of finished yogurt.

After incorporating the culture, fill clean jars and incubate them at 110˚F for six to eight hours. To keep the jars warm, place them in a plastic cooler and fill the cooler with approximately 130˚F water. Add enough water to cover the jars about half way, and then close the cooler. Alternatively, use a box-type food dehydrator, such as those made by Excalibur, to maintain the incubation temperature. Set the thermostat to 115˚F. After the incubation, set the jars in the refrigerator until they are cold.

If the goal is to make raw milk yogurt, forgo the high-heat processing and heat the milk to only 110˚F. The resulting yogurt may not set as firmly as milk that has been treated with high heat. To strain yogurt, line a colander with fine wet cheesecloth and drain the yogurt overnight.

Sour cream and cultured butter

Sour cream is a mesophilic fermentation of cream. To make it, separate cream from cow’s milk, inoculate it with a mesophilic culture blend such as FloraDanica, and incubate the cream in a jar for about eight hours at 75˚F–80˚F. Once cooled, it will be rich and spoonable, but free of the gums and stabilizers common in commercial sour cream.

To make cultured butter, follow the same steps as those above for sour cream using a half-gallon mason jar as the fermentation vessel. Fill the jar ¾ full, which leaves a significant amount of space in the jar. After fermentation, chill the cream to refrigeration temperature, and then allow it to warm to about 55˚F. With the lid on, shake the cultured cream. The mass will liquefy and the butterfat will begin to congeal. After the butterfat is clearly separated from the buttermilk and floating on its surface, strain the butter from the buttermilk with a colander lined with wet cheesecloth. Save the buttermilk for use in baking or as a refreshing drink. Place the butter in a pre-chilled metal or ceramic bowl and work it with two wooden spoons to press out more buttermilk. Salt the butter, if desired, and shape it into a squat round before wrapping in paper or plastic and refrigerating.

Kefir

Kefir relies on a symbiotic mass of organisms commonly called kefir grains. This fermented milk product is liquid and thin, and will vary in terms of acidity and carbonation depending on the length of the fermentation and storage. Sandor Katz, in his excellent 2012 book The Art of Fermentation, reports that only half of the many microorganisms resident in kefir grains are known or even named. The microorganisms in the grains rapidly sour milk while producing other fermentative byproducts, including ethanol and carbon dioxide.

To make kefir, add kefir grains at 5% of the weight of the milk to milk at ambient temperature. It works well to use a glass jar with a lid that seals. Ferment the milk at room temperature for 24 hours to three days. Agitate the jar over the course of the fermentation to redistribute the grains and make more nutrients available to the fermenting microorganisms.

Once the desired level of acidity is reached, fish out or strain out the grains and, if desired, seal the jar. Keep the sealed jar in the refrigerator for one or two days, and the kefir will carbonate in the sealed environment, resulting in a sparkling beverage unique among dairy products.

Cheese

Cheese is the result of time, temperature, culture, and mechanical process decisions. In all cases, cheese is defined as the concentration of milk solids. There are three common ways to isolate the protein and fat from milk to yield cheese: the addition of acid, lactic acid fermentation, or the addition of enzymes. Most cheese made in the United States is of the last sort. Many fresh and young goat’s milk cheeses are of the second sort. Acid-set cheeses include paneer, ricotta, and mascarpone.

Acid-set cheese

Acid-set cheeses are made at high temperatures and without the aid of bacterial fermentation. Instead of lactic acid from these organisms, the home cheese maker relies on citric, acetic, or tartaric acid.

To make an acid-set cheese from whole milk, heat one gallon of milk to 180°F, stirring gently but constantly. Once the milk reaches the process temperature, turn off the heat and stop stirring. Pour one cup of white vinegar into the milk and wait one minute. Observe the formation of the curd, which will collect like fluffy white pillows. If the milk is still white and opaque, add more vinegar, up to one additional cup. Ideally, the liquid surrounding the curd should be translucent and have a green-yellow color. Allow the curd to form for another five minutes, without stirring, and then strain the curd through a cheesecloth-lined colander.

This approach can be varied to use lemon juice. Classic ricotta involves the same process, but is made from whey or a mixture of whey and milk. The resulting cheese has a light texture and should be lightly salted. Add about 1.5% salt in reference to the weight of the resulting cheese. For example, add about a quarter of an ounce, or one and a half teaspoons, of kosher flake salt to one pound of ricotta cheese. To make a firmer slicing cheese, shape the loose curd into a package using cheesecloth and press it with a moderate weight for a few hours in the refrigerator.

Lactic-set cheese

Lactic-set cheeses rely on a very different and cooler process. Classic lactic-set cheeses and semi-lactic-set cheeses such as Rawson Brook Farm Monterey Chèvre don’t reach above 80˚F. This cooler process temperature requires a much longer process time that usually runs overnight and can last up to 18 hours. Over that long fermentation period, mesophilic lactic acid bacteria acidify the milk to the point that it curdles. Many cheese makers will add a small amount of enzymatic coagulant to help set the curd. Rennet is the catch-all term for the enzymes used to set curd. Due to its unique property of maintaining a relatively homogenous milkfat, goat’s milk is especially suited to lactic-set processing.  

To set a lactic-set curd, heat milk to a mild 75˚F and inoculate it with mesophlic bacteria, such as Danisco Choozit MM-series. To ensure a good curd set, add double-strength rennet at a rate of one or two drops per gallon of milk. Dilute the rennet in five times its volume of non-chlorinated water before adding it to the milk and gently stirring it under. Cover the vessel and set the milk in an area that will hold a consistent 75˚F for the duration of the long fermentation. This could be a warm mechanical room in the winter, or a shaded corner of a house in the summer. At the end of the fermentation, the curd will have a lactic yogurt aroma and will have contracted from the walls of the vessel. If these characteristics don’t present themselves, the curd likely needs to acidify further before draining. Insufficiently acidified curd will not drain properly.

Work gently with the curd when draining it. Either scoop the curd into a wet cloth or nylon draining sack (a clean thin cotton pillowcase can also work), or gently ladle the curd into perforated cup-like cheese molds. Allow the curd to drain for another six to 12 hours. If working with cheese molds, flip the cheeses two or three times during the draining period to result in an evenly shaped and drained cheese.

Salt the resulting cheese with kosher flake salt such as Diamond Crystal. Salt fresh spreadable cheese at a rate of 1.5%–2% of the cheese’s total weight. For molded cheeses intended for ripening, sprinkle salt on both the top and bottom of the cheeses to cover them evenly and lightly. Ripen cheese with the aid of Penicillium candidum (white) mold and Geotrichum yeast—mix a bit of each inoculant in a quart of water and spray the cheeses’ surfaces to inoculate them evenly. Age the cheeses in an area with minor air movement, about 90% relative humidity, and 60˚F–70˚F, such as a cellar. Turn them twice or three times a week for three to four weeks. Mold will bloom and then subside, and the cheeses will slowly dry and begin to mature under the influence of the mold.

Rennet-set cheese

Rennet is often the word used to refer to a number of enzymatic coagulants that set curd. The primary enzyme, chymosin, may be extracted from the abomasa of kids, calves, or lambs. Microbial rennet is manufactured by microorganisms. Some plant-derived coagulants are used in specific traditions, but these plant-derived coagulants are not as versatile as animal or microbial rennet. Rennet is available in single and double-strength concentrations and liquid, paste, and tablet forms. Refer to the package for dosage rates. Because it is higher in solids, sheep’s milk requires about 25% less rennet than cow’s or goat’s milk.

To make a tomme-style cheese, warm milk within the range of 88˚F–96˚F and inoculate it with choice mesophilic cultures such as Danico Choozit 4000-series and surface-ripening cultures such as Penicillium candidum (white mold). Ripen the milk for 40–60 minutes at the same warm temperature, and then stir in the measured and diluted amount of rennet. Once gently stirred in, still the milk and allow it to set until the curd is resilient. Test the curd by poking a finger in under the surface and lifting up: if the curd splits open cleanly, it is ready to cut. If it is watery or does not cohere, it needs more time to set.

Cut the curd into evenly sized pieces. If working in a pot, it can be easiest but not the most precise to use a whisk to very gently and slowly achieve curd pieces the size of a large pea. Once cut, allow the curd to settle for a few minutes. Then turn on the heat and slowly warm the curd in the whey while stirring gently with a submerged hand, increasing the temperature by one degree every two minutes up to 102˚F. At this point, turn off the heat and continue stirring gently. The curd should cohere: when gently squeezed in a hand, it sticks together.

Scoop off the whey and fill the moist curd into a perforated hoop mold. Flip the cheese over ten minutes after filling, and then flip again after two hours and once more after four hours.

The next day, generously cover the surface of the cheese with kosher flake salt, but remove any excess. Allow the cheese to dry for a day, and then begin ripening it in an area with high (95%) relative humidity and a temperature of 55˚F. Flip the cheese twice a week and clean its surface with a soft brush or damp cloth as it ages for up to eight weeks.

Variations

All cheese approaches are open to variations in temperature, time, moisture in the curd, and mechanical manipulations. It is good to experiment with changes as long as the bacterial cultures are not killed in the process and salting rates are kept in the appropriate range.

Conclusion

Fermented dairy products are the result of natural processes that happen as time passes and microorganisms act. The attention the home dairy processor can afford a particular project is often greater than what a busy professional cheese maker can afford. The home processor has the luxury to study and care for cheese as it ripens or explore different yogurt cultures with curiosity.

Sanitation is very important when working with milk. Boil equipment prior to use to help yield more consistent outcomes. Always boil cheesecloth or other fabrics before use. Keep ripening areas clean by protecting cheese from dust and rodents. Ripening cheese will often host native molds. While these are not necessarily harmful, they can upset the intended outcome. It is up to the processor to determine what is or is not acceptable in terms of appearance and taste. With freedom comes responsibility.

Facts

  • 1 gallon of milk = 8.6 pounds
  • Thermization temperature: 135˚F for 15 seconds
  • Vat pasteurization temperature: 145˚F for 30 minutes
  • Cheese yield: 10% of weight on tomme-style cheese; slightly higher on fresh cheese
  • Yogurt process temperatures: 180˚F for 10 minutes, then incubate at 110˚F for six to eight hours
  • Inoculate kefir at 5% of total milk weight
  • Acid-set cheese process temperature: 180˚F
  • Lactic-set cheese incubation temperature: 75˚F
  • Age individual lactic-set cheeses at 90% relative humidity and 60˚F–70˚F
  • Age tomme-style cheese at 95% relative humidity and a temperature of 55˚F

Resources

NOFA Mass Raw Milk Network

http://www.nofamass.org/programs/raw-milk-network

Dairy Connection/Get Culture

https://www.getculture.com/

Brent Wasser manages the Sustainable Food & Agriculture Program at Williams College. He made cheese professionally at Sprout Creek Farm in Poughkeepsie for four years and made goat’s milk cheeses in Austria and Belgium. His forthcoming book, The Cheese Professional: A Guide to Understanding, Selecting, and Serving Cheese, explains the relationships between cheese qualities and cheese making processes.




Why Biodiversity?

Looked at from a spiritual point of view, mankind’s most heinous acts may not be the enslavement, murders and wars we inflict on our brethren, but rather the destruction we are wreaking on other species by our relentless pursuit of our own ends. Scientists estimate that some 30% of the different organisms present on this planet in 1970 are now extinct.

One of the most destructive of our practices is modern agriculture. Deforestation for farming is relentlessly reducing natural habitats in the most diverse parts of the world. Monocropping edges out wild species of plants. Synthetic pesticides and herbicides destroy all life forms we do not want for our purposes. Traps, fences and dogs have killed or domesticated animals for livestock. Factory fishing is rapidly depleting the world’s stock of seafood.

One of the less-heralded strengths of organic certification is that it holds farmers to the principle of finding ways to work with nature to improve biodiversity. The ways farms that maintain high levels of biological diversity can reap practical benefits are many: pollination, predator control, soil friability, moisture retention, and weed control, among others.

In Europe, many countries even provide direct financial payments to farmers who increase biodiversity. In America the National Organic Program is beginning to encourage certifiers to require stronger biodiversity efforts on the part of organic farmers.

This issue focuses on the ways organic farms can do more to promote biodiversity, and why they will benefit if they do. We hope this will bring about an increase in learning about and practicing farming methods that bring more nature back into the fields and pastures.