Seeing the Forest for the Bees


There have been many wonderful pieces about pollinators in The Natural Farmer, including a comprehensive Summer 2017 issue that I encourage you to return to. Today, I hope to add an unexpected corner of wild bee biology: the role of forest trees. I will combine woods and a smidgen of tree climbing with pollinator conservation to explore the often-overlooked role of trees for bees, especially on farms. For now, let’s start on the ground (pun intended!) with a review of who our wild bees are.


Until very recently, a conversation about “the bees” usually meant only Apis mellifera, or European honey bees. Beekeeping connects many of us to the magic of insect communication, sociality, and pollination habits. The European honey bee has captured the public imagination—and mine!

These highly social, hive-dwelling insects arrived with Europeans in the 1620s and rapidly colonized westward. As with all livestock, people have historical and meaningful relationships with honey bees and honey, similar to how we value cows and chickens and milk and eggs. These agricultural priorities mediate the trade-offs we make as we allocate land use and resources. For example, responsible pasture management avoids the environmental degradation of overgrazing and overstocking, and riparian buffers minimize water pollution. Similarly, honey bee management decisions should take into account the surrounding wildlife and local ecology.

For example, in the high densities often reached by commercial beekeepers, there is some evidence that honey bee hives can compete for and deplete floral resources, outcompeting wild bees. Luckily, this competition exclusion is unlikely at the scale of a backyard beekeeper. However, research by Laura Figueroa, Kaitlin Deutsch, and Samantha Alger has been showing that multiple bee diseases including deformed wing virus which is vectored by Varroa mite, can be spread to wild bees at flowers. So, low hive densities and careful Varroa management may be crucial for “saving the bees” – even at the backyard scale. Finally, eastern forests in fact harbor many thriving colonies of feral honeybees. The term feral indicates that they were domesticated and then escaped, rather than were wild and free-living originally. Tom Seeley follows these bees in the Arnot Forest of NY, and Margarita Lopez-Uribe in PA found that feral honeybees in PA had higher immunocompetence than managed honeybees. Today, however, we’re going to focus on native, wild species.

Although outside the scope of this piece, I encourage interested beekeepers to look into the great research and recommendations from the Pollinator Network @ Cornell.


So, who should those conversations about “the bees” also include, if not just Apis mellifera? Which bees were here in the US before the honey bees arrived with European colonists, and are they here now?

To the best of our knowledge, at least four thousand wild bee species lived on the land currently called the United States. In New York State, where I live, there are at least 420 species. To extend our livestock analogy from the prior paragraph: the wild bees are the eagles, wrens, cormorants, chickadees, and herons to livestock’s chicken, or the moose, fox, groundhog, and prairie dog to livestock’s cow. Some researchers guess there may be an average of 50,000 wild bees/hectare in the mid-Atlantic region. Wow!

Much like the suite of wild mammals and birds I listed, each wild bee species has a unique ecology, diet, and habitat requirement. Wild bees have thousands of years of relationships to the local plants, soils, and other nesting habitats. Some bees fly in the springtime, some in midsummer, and some only in the fall. I’m particularly curious about the habitat that is overlooked — which brings us to the woods and its tall, tall trees.


From an agricultural perspective, there is consistent evidence that agricultural fields near forests, hedgerows, and woodlots have higher bee abundance and diversity. Some research in orchards and strawberries has found this same effect in orchard rows themselves—the more meters away you are from the woods, the fewer wild bees. Earlier work from our lab found that the negative effects on bee diversity metrics of higher pesticide loads were mitigated by higher amounts of nearby natural habitat, including forests.

This northeastern region, of course, used to be heavily forested, although with regular disturbances – gaps and patches of varying sizes were created by beavers dams, windstorms, tip-ups, and fire, often through intentional indigenous management. The story of settler-colonial deforestation and reforestation is not news to most readers. However, the implications for bees have left some interesting biogeographic and natural history legacies. Collecting in a Connecticut wetland, I once caught a bee named “Calliopsis nebraskensis.” Is that nebraskensis… like, Nebraska, I wondered? I asked Sam Droege at the USGS, who suggested a cool hypothesis: when settlers cleared the northeast for agriculture, some bees adapted to prairies and mid-western open areas were able to spread east. Pockets of those populations have remained even after more forest has regrown.

But those “plains bees” probably weren’t the dominant groups in the historically forested northeast. Colleen Smith and colleagues at Rutgers have found that up to a third of common northeastern bees could even be classified as “forest-associated.” So today, we can move to the woods and ask: what were the strategies and resources of bees who evolved near and in the forest?


male mining bee

A male mining bee resting on a flower petal. Males of the genus are very commonly encountered in forests in early spring, while many females are fruit pollinators later in spring. Photo by C. Kitchen.

I’ve already warned you that I’m going to end up looking sky-high to the canopy, but let’s climb our way up to it, and start with our feet firmly planted.

Among the best-known marvelous ankle-height interactions are the bees who love our spring ephemerals. One famous forest floor forager is the solitary mining bee named Spring Beauty Bee, Andrena erigeniae. Like other solitary species, each female is in sole charge of her own nest. For each baby bee, she creates a small bee-sized chamber off of an underground tunnel. She fills it with a gigantic pile of spring beauty pollen before laying an egg on it—enough pollen to feed it all the way to adulthood! No other pollen will do, and in fact, Spring Beauty Bee has specialized leg hairs just the right size and shape for gathering up large volumes of spring beauty pollen, and she is so efficient that barely any pollen gets brushed onto other flowers. As a result, messier less specialized bees like bumblebee queens actually do a better job pollinating the flower.

It’s always good to remember that bees are pollen eaters. They are happy herbivorous, and only incidentally pollinate. In that sense, “mutualisms” aren’t always simple (or even mutual!). And Spring Beauty Bee isn’t the only one: there are specialist bees who collect pollen from plants such as bellwort, geranium, and trout lily. Many specialists are only active for a few weeks while “their flower” is blooming. Otherwise, they slowly develop and wait out most of the year in their underground nests as prepupae, waiting for the spring weather cues to signal them just the right week to emerge.

Now, if we look away from the ephemerals and onto the leaf litter, bumblebee queens diligently represent their bumbling namesakes. They mated in the fall, hibernated all winter, and now need to establish a nest. Bumblebees then live in active colonies for many months. Unlike the spring ephemeral specialists, they can’t live on just trout lily or just spring beauty—they’d be so hungry all summer! Instead, they need to be able to switch between multiple types of flowers. Bee biologists call this being a “generalist” rather than a “specialist.” A 2020 study by Genevieve Pugesek and colleagues found more successful bumblebee nests in forests than in fields. In my own observation, bumblebees nest-searching in the woods seem to favor well-drained, sloping hillsides with some leaf litter.

Another bee you’re likely to see weaving across the forest floor in early spring is a master of disguise. Bees in the genus Nomada are cleptoparasites, meaning they don’t build nests of their own. Instead of gathering pollen, Nomada usurp Mining Bee nests by sneaking inside and laying an egg on the pollen ball. The egg hatches and the parasitoid larva t

parasitoid bees

Easily mistaken for wasps, parasitoid bees in the genus Nomada have hardened exoskeletons. This makes sense: they may need to fight their way out if they are discovered by a mining bee female while parasitizing her nest. Photo by C. Kitchen.

akes over, killing the host bee. Nomada have a wasp-like aesthetic with a thickened red and yellow exoskeleton. Why? They don’t need fuzzy pollen-collecting hairs, but do need to be tough if the host bee realizes what they’re up to! It’s easy to imagine someone casting parasitoids as the villain in our story, weaving slowly across the forest flower, searching for a nest, up to no good. But researchers believe that seeing them year after year is actually a good sign—abundant parasitoids are a clue that suggests an abundant host population. Parasitism rates have been estimated at around 4-5% of a host population, so if we imagine 95 mining bees for each Nomada we see, that’s an exciting number of fabulous orchard pollinators, likely nesting somewhere in these woods! If you follow a Nomada, you might even find one….

Continuing our journey upwards, we’re finally ready to look above knee height. At this stage of the journey, one of my favorite tips is: look for shiny sparkling jewels. If it’s green and glinting, go look at it! Many forest insects are iridescent. Ecologists think that this might be a predator-avoidance strategy – as iridescent insects move between dappled sun and shade, it throws off birds and others who would eat them. And lucky for forest ecologists, it makes them beautiful. So who are our iridescent forest bees? Two of my favorites are both shiny sweat bees: Augochlora pura and Lasioglossum coeruleum. They’re small and gentle forest-associated bees that nest in rotting logs, stumps, and snags. They’re active all summer, and often prefer logs that are quite “punky” or spongy, and will usually initiate their burrows in abandoned beetle holes of 3-8mm across. Also at mid-level heights are the stem and cavity nesters, who use hollow pithy stems of plants like Rubus and Sumac for overwintering, or cracks and pre-existing holes in trees.

CANOP-BEES (Canopy Bees!)

And finally, we get up to the sky. My research has us look up, and ask, have we overlooked these resources, because they physically overlook us? Do bees collect canopy pollen? What else do they do in the canopy?

Besides being just plain out of reach, the main reason forest trees have been broadly ignored as possible bee sources is that many of them are wind-pollinated. This makes sense: it is windy, cold, and often rainy in spring. So if you’re a tall tree, it’s a grand idea to take advantage of that windiness and spread your pollen in the breeze, rather than worry about whether or not a small hungry insect will make the journey to your flowers on a cold April day. So, many spring-blooming species – poplar, ash, birch, alder, hickory, oak – aren’t trying to attract bees: their pollen is optimized for flight and the statistical hope that it lands on a receptive conspecific. But if it’s edible, that same statistical hope means that these trees make a TON of it, and it often still has lots of protein, lipids, and essential amino acids…so in our project, we were curious if bees sometimes eat it anyway. After all, remember that bees are primarily pollen eaters, but only incidentally pollinators—maybe they don’t care if the tree is wind-pollinated!

I began by following some clues left by Professor Laura Russo, who had identified lots of pollen carried by bees caught in NY apple orchards. These were all bees who were busily gathering delicious apple pollen, and yet, she found they also carried some maple, willow, ash, and birch pollen. If that was happening in May, we thought, maybe they use even more of those trees in the weeks before the orchards bloom!  Although not widely studied, clues in the literature suggested that orchard pollinating mason bees and mining bees also love oak pollen, and our lovely shiny green sweat bees visit walnut. A 2018 review found 200 pollen collection records for over 100 genera of wind-pollinated plants. This is especially important when we think about restrictions on pesticide sprays. Hemp, and corn, and other grasses are wind-pollinated, but since bees collect their pollen (and they take a lot of it!), then insecticide applications should take that into account.

The first step to figuring out these canopy dynamics was just to see if bees are even up in the canopy. After three years of canopy sampling with special bee traps in eleven forests and woodlots adjacent to orchards in the Finger Lakes in New York, we found over 90 species of wild bees were actively flying the forest canopy between March and the end of May—the time period prior to apple bloom, when many forest trees are blooming). But what were they doing? First, we did some tree climbing and found that those same log-nesting iridescent green bees were also nesting in canopy branches, and I observed lots of bees foraging on wind-pollinated tree catkins.

Since then, my team and I have dissected over a thousand bees that we caught from different forest strata and orchards and found that tree pollen makes up between a quarter and 100% of individual bees’ digestive tract pollen. Oak and maple made up the vast proportion of tree pollens that bees ate, while beech, walnut, and birch were also well represented. Although we’ve known from work by Suzanne Batra and others that willow and red maple, one of the biggest surprises in our work was the enormous volume of sugar maple that many species of bees had eaten. Future research is needed to understand how healthy these pollens are for bees.

Finally, our research strongly suggests that bees active in the forests are “spilling over” into apple orchards and other crop fields later in the spring. In the mining bee family, male bees emerge first. These males were active in the woods, and then the females of the same species were active in apple trees a few weeks later. The males never left the woods in high numbers — so in order for these female orchard pollinators to reproduce, we guess that they need forests nearby in order to mate! A hidden link between habitats. Overall, we calculated the highest bee abundances in the understory a week before they peaked in the canopy and finally spiked in the orchards two weeks after that. Most of the bee species had eaten pollen from all habitats, suggesting lots of cross-habitat reliance.


Although research is increasing, so far we’re really just scratching the surface when it comes to forest bees. Over half of forest ownership in the northeast is private, so taking action on your back woodlot and private property can have huge implications. Based on the natural history we know so far, and general principles of managing for diversity, the following recommendations are worth it to help wild bees thrive:

  1. Try uneven-aged management. Maximize niches. Light-filled gaps created by single-tree, patch selection, or shelterwood harvests will fill to the brim with flowers. Bee foraging activity is often high in forest openings; common growth at this stage of succession include plants like raspberries, whose nests, in turn, are nest habitat for stem-nesting species. Slash can create nesting habitat and protection. Niche diversity in multi-aged stands generates homes for rodents whose burrows can later be bumble bee homes, and (non-pest) beetles whose tunnels support tunnel-nesting bees.
  2. Keep coarse woody debris & standing deadwood. Coarse woody debris and standing deadwood provide habitat. In a recent paper, researchers reminded us “[s]aproxylic bees and wasps are endangered due to the loss of old trees, as well as due to the removal of deadwood”. Some cool work at the Arnot Forest in NY created a “slash wall” to exclude deer–deer browse is a major threat to the regeneration of plants on which bees rely–and Kristi Sullivan and I saw huge numbers shiny green bees nesting in all of that slash!
  3. Manage for plant diversity. This again may require protection from deer. Tree species diversity overlaps with the above management goals, but I emphasize it again now for bee health and nutrition. Bees collect saps and resins to help waterproof their nests, and as anti-microbials, and even as self-medication when challenged by parasites (e.g. from Populus). Different compounds may be needed from different species, and a diversity of species means more consistently available saps and resins.
  4. Manage for vertical diversity. Bees are small, so small habitat changes can mean big changes in niche availability. Multi-age and -size trees generate a matrix of environments. These include species that provide contrasting light levels, various leaf types and textures, nearby shrubs or understory communities, different bark textures, and beetle communities that leave behind different sizes and shapes of abandoned burrows.
  5. Consider bees in any pesticide applications. As described, bees visit forest tree blooms for food. For targeted sprays or trunk injections, consider if it’s possible to wait until bloom is over. The concentration of the pesticide expressed in pollen or nectar should be much lower by the time the tree blooms again the next year (although the risk may not be gone). Bees also visit understory shrubs and spring ephemerals, which could be impacted by soil drenches of insecticides able to translocate and taken up by nearby roots.
  6. Start by supporting the bee diversity you have! Generally, adding new managed bees is not the best way to encourage wild bee health. Sometimes they compete with wild species and can even carry pests and pathogens. Instead, prioritize keeping your yard messy with habitat, your flowers abundant for nutrition, and reach out to a certified forest to add bees to your ecological, wildlife-focused forest management.


Resources :

Looking back, looking forward – anticipating the next 50 years

NOFA’s role in the Evolution of Organic

OFAC convening board, Leavenworth, Kansas, December 1989. Front (l-r): Faye Jones (MOSES), Kate Havel (CFSA), Judy Gillan (OFPAaNA & NOFA), Tom Forster (Oregon Tilth), Patty Laboyteaux (CCOF). Rear (l-r) Fred Kirschenmann (Northern Plains Sustainable Ag Society), Allan Moody (Ozark Organic Growers), Ron Gargasz (Biodynamic Assn.), Marc Ketchel (Florida Organic Growers)

NOFA has played a key role in the evolution of the organic movement and industry on practical, as well as philosophical and political levels from the beginning. We were among the earliest to establish an organic certification program in 1979, following models developed by Oregon Tilth (OTCO) and California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF). In 1984 our program served as the basis for the development of the first pilot program of the Organic Crop Improvement Association (OCIA), today a large international USDA accredited certifying body. NOFA also participated in the founding of the Organic Foods Production Association of North America (OFPANA), now known as the Organic Trade Association. In 1989 we helped organize the first gathering of US organic organizations, forming the Organic Farmers Associations Council (OFAC).

As the founding coordinator of our certification program, I have served as a NOFA representative to each of these organizations, in each case basing my proposals on information developed in consultation with NOFA members and advisors. There were controversies and disagreements aplenty, including the perennial tension between the “purists” who wanted the strictest possible standards and the “pragmatists” who wanted flexibility for those facing practical obstacles and still learning how to overcome them. As co-author of the first attempt to codify guidelines for organic standards across North America on behalf of OFPANA, the balancing act and consultation with NOFA leadership continued. In 1989 the debate over fundamental organic principles came to a vote of OFPANA’s membership in deciding to base future standards on the origin of materials (i.e. synthetic versus natural) rather than “agronomic responsibility” (how a given practice affects soil life, water, and other ecological qualities).

“The primary goal of organic agriculture is to optimize the health and productivity of interdependent communities of soil life, plants, animals and people.”

Although the NOFA leadership and I strongly (not unanimously) supported the “agronomic responsibility” position, we accepted the vote with the compromise that exceptions to the “natural versus synthetic” requirement should be made based on the impact of the material in question on soil life and several other criteria. This compromise was later enshrined in the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (OFPA), the law establishing the National Organic Program (NOP). The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), a politically appointed federal advisory committee, was given the responsibility to evaluate and make recommendations about the organic acceptability of any substance deemed to be synthetic.

The passage of the law, which NOFA helped craft and then lobbied to support, was developed by Vermont’s Senator Patrick Leahy and has been called a legislative miracle. The full story of how this came about and its importance can be read in Chapter 4 of Organic Revolutionary.  When I was recruited to join the staff of the NOP to help write the regulations in 1994, it was largely my experience working with NOFA and representing our organization that won me the job. My determination to represent and consult with NOFA members and other grassroots organic farmers was never flagged and was valued by my colleagues.

The NOP and the True Organic Vision

“The primary goal of organic agriculture is to optimize the health and productivity of interdependent communities of soil life, plants, animals and people.”

This is a summary of the definition of organic agriculture that I crafted as a new staff member of USDA’s National Organic Program. It is still among my proudest written statements and has been copied by numerous organizations since then—few of which credit USDA. After having spent several years revisiting and refining the meaning of organic agriculture for NOFA and various collaborators leading up to the passage of the OFPA, the assignment seemed laughable. The final document, entitled “Prologue: Moving Towards Sustainability” included the definition and seven basic principles.

The “True Organic Vision” as I describe in Organic Revolutionary, is first and foremost based on ecological systems thinking. The principles of ecological thinking certainly formed the basis for all the definitions that were crafted and refined by NOFA and others in the 1980s and more recently boiled down by IFOAM to four basic principles. It was rather disconcerting to realize, however, that the OFPA contained no definition or principles of organic agriculture to guide the development of rules and regulations, only a laundry list of do’s and don’ts, mostly don’ts. Most of it is based on the horrid dichotomy that declares all “synthetic substances” to be prohibited while anything deemed “natural” is mostly okay—with exceptions.

Health: Health is the wholeness and integrity of living systems. It is not simply the absence of illness, but the maintenance of physical, mental, social, and ecological well-being. Immunity, resilience, and regeneration are key characteristics of health.

Ecology: This principle roots organic agriculture within living ecological systems. It states that production is to be based on ecological processes, and recycling.

Fairness: Fairness is characterized by equity, respect, justice, and stewardship of the shared world, both among people and in their relations to other living beings.

Care: Practitioners of organic agriculture can enhance efficiency and increase productivity, but this should not be at the risk of jeopardizing health and well-being. Consequently, new technologies need to be assessed and existing methods reviewed. Given the incomplete understanding of ecosystems and agriculture, care must be taken. This principle states that precaution and responsibility are the key concerns in management, development, and on the labor of Black and Brown people and that land ownership remains almost completely in the hands of white people.

The legacy of slavery and genocide of Indigenous peoples has baked racism into the [food] system. The institutionalization of organic at USDA…has been a key factor in awakening more of the public to the failures of our [this] system.

The organic movement played a central role in the food revolution, and many commentators, such as a recent Civil Eats opinion piece, note that the changes needed to support resilience in the face of a warming planet and cascading health and environmental disasters must begin with radical restructuring of the food system. While many dismiss the organic movement as having been co-opted by Big Ag, the ideas of relocalization and food sovereignty that are the basis for much of today’s rising food activism were integral to the early organic movement.

The institutionalization of organic at USDA, despite its limitations, has been a key factor in awakening more of the public to the failures of our food system, and by extension, the rest of our economy. The benefits of the advent of USDA Organic to farmers of all kinds include vastly increased access to information and resources to help implement organic practices, access to credit and crop insurance, marketing assistance, and of course, more wide social, economic, and political transformation are useful for any farmer wishing to reduce the use of toxic soil and water damaging inputs. And not so incidentally, organic farmers and acreage are now counted in periodic ag census data. A prime motivation for accepting the challenge of working for the NOP was my determination that never again would an organic farmer walk into an Extension office and be laughed at.

The little green or black USDA Organic seal on a massproduced and mass-marketed product, whether food or fiber, has been a successful mass public education project. Even if all shoppers understand is the claim of “no synthetic chemicals,” finding any kind of familiar food item they want on the shelf at Walmart or Target, alongside the identical looking and tasting stuff that lacksthis claim, is a powerful message. Why is it, they begin to wonder, that we need these toxic materials that endanger our health, farmworkers, the water, and the air in order to have enough food? What else are we being told that we should question?

That said, the organic label cannot solve all the problems of the food system, and as the organic industry surpasses annual sales of $60 billion, the limits of the marketplace strategy stare us in the face. A focus on the market and consumer concerns, along with any number of hot controversies about what should or should not be eligible for the organic label, misses the bigger picture.

The complaints often aired about consolidation and unfair competition in the organic sphere are beside the point.

The same problems plague every other market-based endeavor and won’t be solved by restricting access to the organic market to only “real” organic producers. Add-on labels are harmless at best, but we can’t hope to solve the systemic and existential problems of the food system with marketing campaigns and new labels. The root cause of the problems we face lies in the capitalist system that demands growth, waste, commodification of the necessities of life, and impoverishment of millions to enrich the few (as well as other atrocities). My oft-repeated slogan is “You can’t dismantle capitalism with a marketing plan.”

In the short term, we know that the more acres are converted to organic production – and better yet, regenerative, resilient, agroecological, biodynamic, and most any other term that requires organic friendly practices – the more likely are we to avert the worst of the worst catastrophic suffering that has already begun.

As we consider the next 50 years of NOFA, let’s stop casting stones at the big guys who want to get into organic for reasons that may not be so noble. Let us instead focus on making the food system and the larger society work for everyone.

Looking forward – The work for this time: Multiple movements for planetary health and human liberation are blossoming, not only among the privileged advocates of the True Organic Vision. “Never let a good crisis go to waste” has become a catch-phrase of thesemovements. The most important work of our time is the patient laying of foundations and roadmaps for system-

The revolution needed is in progress, with no clear predictable outcome. What’s clear is that the old “normal” was leading us down a road of social and ecological breakdown and climate catastrophe. What’s increasingly clear to many is that as the disastrous impacts of our industrialized, centralized, global supply chain-dependent food system are more widely understood, the food system has become a crucial point of leverage to bring about the changes needed in society as a whole. Changing how we produce, distribute, and consume food is essential to restoring the health of people, communities, ecosystems, and climate.

So what is to be done? These are my best suggestions for where NOFA as an organization of organic farmers, educators, activists, and advocates needs to put our collective efforts to realize the potential for regeneration in this time of ongoing crisis, in no particular order:

Build and strengthen the social mycelium of organic advocates and practitioners– including the diversity of sizes and viewpoints represented. Work in coalition with those who share our interests, even if at times we disagree about strategies. Avoid the temptation to “other” anyone, even corporate agrichemical-GMO proponents. Keep the bigger picture in mind and refer back to fundamental principles rather than striving for purity.


Homing in on the Harvest: Casting About for Priority

Photo by Marvin Recino

Photo by Marvin Recinos, provided by author.

Social justice and attending to the planet proceed in parallel; the abuse of one entails the exploitation of the other. – Paul Hawken, “Blessed Unrest”

In a new year, a world stunned by crises remains shaken, its systems undone and notes scattered. It’s a time ripe for the reorganization of rooms and a rewriting of narratives.

Climate and migration: our treatment of the planet is linked to our treatment of the people, and to burn one is to scar the other. While doomsday scenarios are little help, biting depictions may be the jolt we need to snap out of our trance. So let’s drop one hand from our eyes, and fully realize the might of that big, burning star.

Looking out our window and opening the door.

The U.S.-Mexico border continues to coldly determine the fates of hundreds of thousands. While many cite violence as ignition for the migrations north, the one dictating who stays and goes may in fact be climate.

Extreme weather events are diminishing yields, livelihoods and food access throughout Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, where such scenarios breed poverty and tempt corruption. Approaches like the “Remain in Mexico” policy abandon asylum-seekers to true vulnerability.
Refugees fleeing these crises ought to be as prioritized and protected as political asylum seekers, as “these phenomena interact and tend to exacerbate each other.” (Miranda Cady Hallett, The Conversation)

Exposed en route, exploited upon arrival.

The journey, the unlikeliness of a warm welcome and the conditions once settled are all ridden with threats to the health and safety of migrant families. Those trekking north travel light, insufficiently shielded from the elements. Others, who have managed to find work on U.S. farms, are subjected to the same.

The average agricultural worker experiences nearly a month’s worth of working amid unsafe temperatures per year. In the face of COVID-19 and wildfires, the fields this past summer were more menacing than ever before.

Global warming won’t be quelled within the week, but policy makers, commercial growers and pesticide companies can be held to greater scrutiny in the meantime. As consumers, we have power to question, hold accountable, and demand transparency.

Our treatment of the planet is linked to our treatment of the people, and to burn one is
to scar the other.

We have our own problems to deal with.
Don’t we?

The U.S. already has its own climate migrants – those uprooted as a result of natural disasters or unforgiving weather patterns. Along our coasts, communities are chased from their homes by relentless hurricanes, floods and fires.

By recognizing climate migration alongside climate variability – and furthermore its shared path with zoonotic diseases like COVID-19 – as causes for concern, we can begin to alter the algorithms of our deeply-rooted systems.

A pioneering piece of legislation, the pending Climate Displaced Persons Act, explicitly defines climate migrants and acknowledges our country’s legal responsibility to welcome them. This could mean up to 50,000 environmentally displaced people taken in by the U.S. each year.

Intriguingly, the bill also acknowledges the U.S.’s role in worsening the climate crisis. It aims to develop a resiliency strategy to help improve environments in other countries, thereby preventing mass migration.

This would set a significant example, offering up the baton to other wealthy countries.

“The land is turning against them.”

For those who struggle to accept weather crises as threats to be taken as seriously as gang violence, or who downplay the role farming has in making or breaking a region, we may need more instances of imperiled communities to be brought into light.

In Alta Verapaz, Guatemala, the rising frequency of El Niños are running families and livelihoods into the ground with an onslaught of drought and flooding, making it impossible to bring any crops to yield and rapidly draining finances. Half the children in this region are chronically malnourished; Indigenous peoples, largely dependent on the land, are thrust into poverty.

“Maybe a family member is sick. Maybe they are trying to make up for losses from the previous year. But in every situation,” insists Guatemalan forestry expert Yarsinio Palacios, “it has something to do with climate change.”

Unfurling a new map to chart our future.

In a novel, collaborative effort to model how migrations occur across borders, The New York Times Magazine, ProPublica and the Pulitzer Center were able to better observe the scale of and forces driving climate migration.

Reporter Abrahm Lustgarten emphasizes the need for food and the role of governments in shaping the outcomes of these movements. He echoes warnings by the UN that the nations being hit hardest by climate change “could topple as whole regions devolve into war.”

If governments respond even modestly in reducing emissions, the number of climate migrants between now and 2050 would be nearly halved. “The model shows that the political responses to both climate change and migration can lead to drastically different futures.”
Here’s hoping that more data, coupled with more first-hand accounts, help us to realize the links to be made between people, planet and the promise of better – if warmer – days ahead.

This is the third in an ongoing series by Bec Sloane, spotlighting experiences of migrant farmworkers in the U.S. amid the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond; restlessleg.medium.com

Bec is a visual media professional and educator, bridging awareness gaps between the agricultural sector and general public through content creation and cross-sector collaboration. She is a contributing writer for IMM-Print, host to shareable resource hub botheredearth.com and can be reached at 0.becsloane@gmail.com

Resources and Links
Study: Rising temperatures will double the risk to farmworkers in the coming decades: grist.org
How Climate Change Is Fuelling the U.S. Border Crisis: newyorker.com
Migrant Workers Restricted to Farms Under OneGrower’s Virus Lockdown: nytimes.com

Starting a Farm in a Pandemic: Reflections from Winter Street Farm

Jonathan Hayden and Abby Clarke at Winter Street

Jonathan Hayden and Abby Clarke at Winter Street
Farm. Photo by Caro Roszell

It had been dry—really dry—in the weeks leading up to my visit to Winter Street Farm in the late spring of 2020. As unusual as the drought was, it was one of the more quotidian concerns of that deeply unsettled season. Here in the northeastern U.S., uncertainty for farmers is now the norm. We see frosts a month late or early, and increasingly erratic precipitation patterns that are always surprising in the moment, but never in hindsight. Adding to that uncertainty was the novel coronavirus, which upended lives and broke food supply chains.

What would it be like to try to start a farm from scratch in the context of this global crisis?

This is what I was wondering as I navigated through the zigzag intersections of Claremont, New Hampshire. Suddenly, the light turned soft and moody grey, and the first fat raindrops streaked the pollen on my windshield.

The roads lifted up out of the town and into woodlands broken by pastures and homesteads. I passed through sheets of rain, until a sign advertising “CSA shares available” appeared at a country intersection. The rain cleared; across an open pasture was a yellow house with an attached greenhouse and barn.

Pulling into the driveway, I saw Abby and Jonathan, soaking wet and grinning in their camp chairs set in the entrance to the barn. Abby was barefoot in a blue summer dress and Jonathan in plaid shirt with suspenders, utility pants, toolbelt and boots.

A chance meeting, a love of the cold, and a farm on Winter Street
Abby Clarke and I met at Simple Gifts Farm in Amherst, Massachusetts; Abby lived and worked at the farm while studying Natural Resource Conservation at UMass, just a mile down the road. Younger than many of the apprentices and crew, Abby impressed everyone with her durability of spirit, endless energy and her jump-in-with-both-feet work ethic.

For the next few years, Abby returned to Simple Gifts Farm between adventures: sailing the world crewing tall ships, working at a truck stop in Coldfoot, Alaska, and getting certified as a wilderness Emergency Medical Technician in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Eventually, she stayed on at Simple Gifts as the Assistant Manager while I moved north to start a market garden.

The 3-week to-do list: close on the
purchase, winterize the house, lay
out silage tarps, head for Antarctica.

I met Jonathan Hayden in 2016 at a NOFA no-till farming workshop; we ran into each other again a few weeks later, as Abby and I walked together at the NOFA Summer Conference.

Originally from Colorado Springs, Jonathan began spending winters in Antarctica while studying Fire and Emergency Services Administration at Colorado State University. In the summer, he farmed: in Nice, France, and Parma, Italy, and in Connecticut and Massachusetts where he began attending NOFA events.

Introducing them, I mentioned Jonathan’s work in Antarctica and Abby’s experiences in Alaska. In the years since, I’ve often wondered if their mutual love of cold, remote places crystallized their connection, and if it in some way guided their path to a farm on a street called Winter.

Flash forward to the fall of 2019, and winter was fast approaching at the wilderness expedition base camp on the Yukon River in Alaska where Abby and Jonathan were working, when they learned that their offer on the New Hampshire farm had been accepted. Over the next three weeks, they headed to New Hampshire, closed on the property, laid out a quarter acre of silage tarps, and winterized the house before packing their gear and heading to the airport, bound for five months work at McMurdo base in Antarctica.

In February 2020, the two returned to New Hampshire and their brand-new farm—with little infrastructure and not even a farm name—and only four months until their first CSA distribution.

So much to do, and then, a really big wrench
Even before properly moving into their farmhouse, they got to work immediately on the tasks of starting a new farm. They had a home and a barn and 38 acres of (mostly wooded) land. They had some equipment (a tractor, a few implements and a converted washing machine greens dryer) stored at friends’ farms across the state, but they had a long list of purchases to make, plus all of the administrative work of starting a new business: branding, logos, signage, website creation, marketing, organic certification, meetings with the NRCS and setting up recordkeeping systems. They had to build a greenhouse, three caterpillar tunnels, a wash station, CSA distribution area and a walk-in cooler. And, of course, all the operational tasks, including ordering seeds and packing supplies and fertilizers, preparing beds, starting seeds, and planting crops.

“It felt manageable because we had a game plan,” explained Abby. “We made the plan for the month, the week, the day and just kept moving, even as wrenches got thrown into the system.”

Wrenches, for example, like a global pandemic.

Just a few days into their preparations for the season, the first news of coronavirus in the US began to circulate. “There was some uncertainty in the early season, when we were completely invested in our business and were taking loans. We were afraid that we wouldn’t get enough CSA members and it was unclear whether there would be farmers markets this year,” remembered Jonathan.

Yet the two pushed on, accomplishing every task on their list. “Honestly, If the pandemic hadn’t happened and we didn’t have so much help from family and friends, it might have been a different story. But what happened is that people just kept showing up. We had plenty of space in the farmhouse and in campsites we cleared for people to socially distance, and of course we never overlapped guests. Our family and friends came out and offered us free labor because the pandemic put their jobs on hold.”

“Our family and friends came out and
offered us free labor because the
pandemic put their jobs on hold.”

The main way that the crisis impacted Abby and Jonathan was through their off-farm jobs. According to the USDA, 85-95% of the income for farm households came from off-farm sources in 1999-2003, and new farm start-ups are especially reliant on off-farm income for startup cost. Abby and Jonathan have made a significant portion of their income from their work in Antarctica, but expeditions for the 2020-2021 winter were drastically cut. To keep off-farm income flowing, Jonathan took a part-time job at the nearby Home Depot, working till 11 pm several days each week after farming all day.

Their concerns over the immediate viability of the farm eased, however, when “it became clear that local agriculture would be heavily supported [during the pandemic],” explained Abby. “CSA membership exceeded our expectations –we have 60 members now.” Like most new farms and food businesses, startup costs are significant, and Winter Street Farm will not produce a viable living for Abby and Jonathan for its first few seasons. But rising CSA enrollment helped them weather the spring’s food supply-chain upheavals.

As their first crops approached harvest in late May, they adjusted their business and marketing plan. Jonathan explained, “we pulled back from other markets and instead expanded our CSA and did not open to the public as a walk-in farm stand. This really worked better for us anyway because the numbers are more uncertain with those markets.” Because of the unprecedented level of interest in CSAs in the spring of 2020, Winter Street Farm was able to increase their target membership level and focus on just that one sales outlet.

“We’re actually really lucky,” they explained. “Because we hadn’t yet set up our systems, we just built them with coronavirus safety measures in mind.”

To ensure that the CSA would be safe for members, they expanded their planned distribution hours and offered 3 pickup days, each with a 5-hour window, which, they say, was more than enough for the number of members that had to navigate the distribution barn with physical distancing. “Everyone wears a mask, we have one entrance and one exit, and tongs and pick-your-own tools are used once per member and then sanitized,” Abby explained.

“The support that local farms have received has been really amazing, but it also reflects on the way that we need more community institutions,” Abby said. “People are coming here and actually seeing and talking to each other—they feel more comfortable coming here than the grocery store, and it has a real community feeling.” Despite being transplants to the town, the farm became an instant and essential part of the community.

By mid-summer, they were already producing more than their CSA could consume, so Winter Street Farm donated surplus produce each week to local hunger relief efforts, such as the Claremont Soup Kitchen.

“We have seen the food chain falter and stumble. I think a lot of people are just starting to discover buying local,” Jonathan said. Asked whether he thought that people would continue to support local farms at the same levels after the pandemic becomes less dangerous, he pointed out that “if local sources produce good quality food, when they go back to grocery store they’ll be able to tell the difference. We already have people telling us that before our CSA, they went to the local big chain for their greens, which went bad in three days, but our greens last longer and taste so much better—this way is so much better.”

An update
I got back in touch with Abby and Jonathan in late winter 2021 to ask about their plans for the new year. Abby told me they will be doubling the size of their CSA this year in response to the high demand. They will also be spending part of the season setting up the infrastructure they will need to add laying hens to their farm in 2022. In addition, they are collaborating with local businesses and artists to grow more specialty crops including indigo (for textile dyes), flint corn, and herbs. They are working closely with their local NRCS soil conservationist to make improvements to the farm and to receive support for conservation practices, including cover cropping, mulching, and improvement of habitat for beneficial insects.

Winter Street Farm is a certified organic, tillage-reduced farm in the Upper Connecticut River Valley of New Hampshire on what was originally Pennacook and Sokoki lands. For more information on Winter Street Farm visit www.winterstreetfarm.com/, find them on Facebook at www.facebook.com/winterstreetfarm, or Instagram:@winterstreetfarm

To read about the soil-health centered farming practices at Winter Street Farm, check out the August edition of the NOFA/Mass Newsletter.

Note: A version of this story also appeared in the NOFA/Mass Newsletter and in the magazine Growers & Co.

Caro Roszell is Education Director and Soil Health Specialist for NOFA/Mass.

George Orwell on Censorship

George Orwell

from “Publication of Animal Farm: The Freedom of the Press, London, 1945

“In this country intellectual cowardice is the worst enemy a writer or journalist has to face, and that fact does not seem to me to have had the discussion it deserves.”

This book [Animal Farm] was first thought of, so far as the central idea goes, in 1937, but was not written down until about the end of 1943. By the time when it came to be written it was obvious that there would be great difficulty in getting it published (in spite of the present book shortage which ensures anything describable as a book will ‘sell’), and in the event it was refused by four publishers. Only one of those had any ideological motive. Two had been publishing anti-Russian books for years, and the other had no noticeable political colour. One publisher actually started by accepting the book, but after making the preliminary arrangements he decided to consult the Ministry of Information, who appear to have warned him, or at any rate strongly advised him, against publishing it. Here is an extract from his letter:

“I mentioned the reaction I had from an important official in the Ministry of Information with regard to Animal Farm. I must confess that this expression of opinion has given me seriously to think…I can see now that it might be regarded as something which it was highly ill-advised to publish at the present time. If the fable were addressed generally to dictators and dictatorships at large then publication would be all right, but the fable does follow, as I see now, so completely the progress of the Russian Soviets and their two dictators, that it can appy only to Russia to the exclusion of the other dictatorships. Another thing: it would be less offensive if the predominant caste in the fable were not pigs. I think the choice of pigs as the ruling caste will no doubt give offence to many people, and particularly to anyone who is a bit touchy, as undoubtedly the Russians are.

This kind of thing is not a good symptom. Obviously it is not desirable that a government department should have any power of censorship (except security censorship, which no one objects to in war time) over books which are not officially sponsored. But the chief danger to freedom of thought and speech at this moment is not the direct interference of the MOI or any official body. If publishers and editors exert themselves to keep certain topics out of print, it is not because they are frightened of prosecution but because they are frightened of public opinion. In this country intellectual cowardice is the worst enemy a writer or journalist has to face, and that fact does not seem to me to have had the discussion it deserves.

Any fair-minded person with journalistic experience will admit that during this war official censorship has not been particularly irksome. We have not been subjected to the kind of totalitarian ‘co-ordination’ that it might have been reasonable to expect. The press has some justified grievances, but on the whole the Government had behaved well and has been surprisingly tolerant of minority opinions. The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary. Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban . Anyone who has lived long in a foreign country will know of instances of sensational items of news – things which on their own merits would get the big headlines –being kept right out of the British press not because the Government intervened but because of a general tacit agreement that ‘it wouldn’t do’ to mention that particular fact. So far as the daily newspapers go, this is easy to understand. The British press is extremely centralized, and most of it is owned by wealthy men who have every reason to be dishonest on certain important topics. But the same kind of veiled censorship also operates in books and pamphlets, as well as in plays, films, and radio. At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was ‘not done’ to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals At this moment what is demanded by the prevailing orthodoxy is an uncritical admiration of the Soviet regime, any disclosure of facts which the Soviet government would prefer to keep hidden, is next door to ‘unprintable’. And this nation-wide conspiracy to flatter our ally take place, curiously enough, against a background of genuinely intellectual tolerance. For though you are not allowed to criticize the Soviet government, at least you are reasonably free to criticize our own. Hardly anyone will print an attack on Stalin, but it is quite safe to attack Churchill, at any rate in books and periodicals. And throughout 5 years of war, during 2 or 3 of which we were fighting for national survival, countless books, pamphlets, and articles advocating a compromise peace have been published without interference. More, they have been published without extracting much disapproval. So long as the prestige of the U.S.S.R. is not involved, the principle of free speech has reasonably well been maintained. There are other forbidden topics, and I shall mention some of them presently, but the prevailing attitude towards the U.S.S.R. is much the most serious symptom. It is, as it were, spontaneous and it not due to the action of any pressure group.

We Came Over on the Mayflower, Too!

Feral Pigs

Feral Pigs


1539 Feral pigs, Sus scrofa, begin with the introduction of Spanish domestic stock in Florida by Hernando de Soto; whether the release was accidental or intentional is unknown.

1600s Scots pine, Pinus sylvestris, native to Europe and Asia, one of the first trees introduced by early European colonists, perhaps as windbreaks, erosion control, and a source of herbal medicine, lumber, and bedding: needles were used as a bedding known as “pine wool.”

— Purple loosestrife, Lythrum salicaria, native to Europe and Asia, introduced in ballast and likely in livestock bedding, fodder, and perhaps even in sheep fur as soon as colonists began to arrive.

Chinaberry Tree

Chinaberry Tree

— Yellow toadflax, Linaria vulgaris, native to Eurasia, introduced during colonial times as an ornamental, as a dye, and a medicine. By 1759 John Bartram found it invasive.

1606 Rock pigeon, Columbia livia, native to Eurasia, is introduced to Port Royal, Nova Scotia, by French settlers as a domesticated food source. It is likely that many other introductions occurred over the centuries.

1620? Dandelion brought by the Pilgrims on the Mayflower, to be planted as a medicinal crop and used in wine-making. Or perhaps it arrived with the Jamestown settlers. Or even earlier, with the Spanish. Some even consider it native to North America.

1620? Fennel, Foeniculum vulgar, also known as anise, sweet fennel, aniseed, and sweet anise likely arrived on the East coast with the first European settlers. Native to the Mediterranean, it was introduced in California at least by 1880, where it has escaped from cultivation repeatedly.

1620? Lamb’s quarters, Chenopodium album, also known as goosefoot and fat-hen, introduced by northern European settlers as a spring green.

Brown garden snail

1672 Burdock appears as “The great Clot Bur” in John Josselyn’s list of “Plants as have sprung up since the English Planted and kept Cattle in New-England,” published in London in New Englands Rarities Discovered.

Early 1700s Common mullein, Verbascum thapsus, native to Eurasia, introduced for its medicinal, dyeing, and fish-killing properties. By 1759, it appeared on John Bartram’s list of worst plants introduced by English colonists. By 1818, it had spread so much that Amos Eaton, author of the first Flora for the Northern states, thought it was native.

— Dog rose, Rosa canina, native to Europe, Africa, and Asia, introduced by early settlers, who used it as root stock. It can now be found growing wild along roadsides, coastlines, and wet, sandy areas.

— Common yellow oxalis, Oxalis stricta, and creeping woodsorrel, Oxalis corniculata, native to Europe, introduced by early settlers, who knew of their antiscorbutic properties.

— Gray garden slug, Deroceras reticulatum, native to Europe, accidentally introduced in dirt arriving with early settlers. Slugs’ presence confirmed by 1843 near Boston, New York, and Philadelphia harbors, the beginning of a nationwide career as one of our most successful synanthropes.

1727 English ivy, Hedera helix, native to Europe, western Asia, and northern Africa, introduced by European colonists as an ornamental.

1736 Asian or Oriental bittersweet, Celastrus orbiculatus, a vine native to temperate eastern Asia, introduced as an ornamental. Naturalized plants collected in Connecticut in 1916. Now naturalized in 21 of 33 states where it’s cultivated.



1745 Silktree or mimosa, Albizia julibrissin, native to Asia, arrived with early colonists, as a medicinal and a forage plant. Or in 1785 (if you’re from the South) it arrived when the French botanist André Michaux planted it in his botanic garden in Charleston.

Mid-1700s Woolly mullein, Verbascum thapsus, native to Europe and Asia, introduced to Virginia as a piscicide (the leaves contain rotenone, which can kill fish) and an insecticide.

1756 Norway maple, Acer platanoides, introduced in Philadelphia by John Bartram.

1759 Broad-leaved dock, Rumex obtusifolius, native to Eurasia, listed by America’s first botanist and nurseryman John Bartram as one of the introduced plants “most troublesome” in Pennsylvania.

— Scotch thistle, Onopordum acanthium, Bartram claims, was introduced by a Scots minister who arrived with a bed stuffed with thistledown, which was soon replaced with feathers, releasing a few thistle seeds into the wild.

— St. Johnswort, Hypericum perforatum, native to Eurasia, listed by Bartram as an ornamental gone invasive and proving poisonous to livestock.

— Oxeye daisy, Leucanthemum vulgare, native to Europe, introduced as an ornamental, made Bartram’s list of invaders, too.

1760s Scotch broom, Cytisus scoparius, native to western and central Europe, imported as an ornamental by John Bartram.

multiflora roses 1769 Domestic pigs released in California.

Late 1700s Chinaberry tree, Melia azedarach, native to Asia, introduced by French botanist André Michaux.

1784 Tree-of-heaven, Ailanthus altissima, an Asian sumac, introduced by William Hamilton in Philadelphia.

1800? Common buckthorn, Rhamnus cathartica, native to Eurasia, introduced near Nova Scotia for planting along fences and for wildlife shelter; widespread by 1900s.

Early 1800s Tamarisk, Tamarix spp., introduced into the US, mostly from Asia, some as ornamentals, some to be planted as wind-breaks or to stabilize stream banks. By the 1990s the smaller deciduous species had invaded most Southwest desert riparian habitats.

— Japanese honeysuckle, Lonicera japonica, a vine native to eastern Asia, introduced to Long Island as an ornamental and ground cover, spreads through the nursery trade. Wildlife managers later use it for erosion control and as winter forage for deer.

1814 Sowthistle, Sonchus spp., native to Eurasia, probably introduced accidentally as an imported seed contaminant, is first reported in Pennsylvania. It is currently found in all states.

1817 European green crab, Carcinus maenus, first reported near Cape Cod.

1840 European common periwinkle, Littorina littorea, first described in North America, is thought to have arrived on ballast rocks on ships from Great Britain plying the timber trade, Britain needing imported wood to build ships, having used up all its native trees.

Mid 1800s Tree-of-heaven brought into California during the Gold Rush, mainly by the Chinese; it remains in many ghost towns, long after the miners have gone.

1850 Gold Rush rats: Alien rodents storm San Francisco and Sacramento. T.A. Barry and B.A. Patten write in Men and Memories of San Francisco in the Spring of ’50 (Bancroft, 1873): “The rats of San Francisco and Sacramento in 1850, and up to the middle of the year 1853, were something wonderful. . . The little, four-footed, rodent devils worked damage only second to the fires of that time. . . Zinc and tins were nailed about the floors and lower boarding, like sheathing on a ship, and signs assuring ‘rat-proof storage’ were plentiful and necessary. At dusk, the rats ventured boldly out upon the streets, racing and scampering incessantly. . . . Pedestrians and new comers felt, as they walked among the countless swarm, a constant apprehension of treading upon the wicked little vermin; nor was the new comer alone so annoyed. We never could cure ourselves at times, of suddenly halting and lifting our hands quickly upward, when some big fellow sprang within an inch of us, or struck us full and heavy, as was not uncommon. . . . A terrier dog, or a good cat, commanded a big price in those times. The captain, cabin-boy, cook, or sailor who chanced to bring with him one of those much-coveted creatures, found solid consolation in separating from his faithful companion of the voyage.

“Every dog or cat of them, however, became poisoned and off duty, on the sick-list very soon, the result of their incessant labors. As time went on, and brought more dogs and cats, the rat commune was thinned out, defeated and reduced to the ordinary number; so that the citizen of today cannot, like the early resident, distinguish the rat of Valparaiso, the rat of Canton or Singapore, the long, white, pink-eyed rice-rat of Batavia, the New York, Boston or Liverpool wharf-rat, nor yet the kangaroo rat from Australia–so well known and readily recognized in the days when they held high carnival in our streets, warehouses and dwellings.”

1850s Brown garden snail, Helix asperse, arrives in California when French snail farmers bring escargot to the Gold Rush––a creature that would become a notorious agricultural and horticultural pest, especially in citrus groves.

~1850s Bullfrogs introduced to California to feed gold miners, after they had eaten the native red-legged frogs to near extinction.

1860 Burning bush, Euonymus alatus, native to northeast Asia, officially named. First dwarf form appears in Springfield, Massachusetts, before 1928. Various cultivars become popular landscape shrubs and roadside hedges, then escape cultivation throughout the eastern US and Canada.

1868 Garlic mustard, Alliaria petiolata, introduced from Europe by early settlers, is first recorded outside cultivation, on Long Island.

1875 Japanese barberry, Berberis thunbergii, introduced via seeds sent from Russia to the Arnold Arboretum in Boston; intended as a substitute for the European barberry, which the early colonists had introduced and used for dyes and jams, after it was discovered to carry wheat rust.

1876 Kudzu, Pueraria montana, introduced at the Japanese pavilion at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, promoted as an ornamental and a forage crop.

—Torpedo grass, Panicum repens, native to Africa and Eurasia, possibly introduced into Louisiana, is first collected near Mobile, Alabama.

1877 Common carp, Cyprinus carpio, native to the Caspian and Aral Seas, imported from Germany by the US Commission of Fish and Fisheries, in response to overharvesting of native species and to the need to feed the growing human population. Official stocking lasted for 20 years, reaching almost every state and territory, with fish often being released from railroad tank cars at bridge crossings. They established so well that efforts at eradication began almost as soon as stocking ended.

1877 Japanese knotweed, Fallopia japonica, is introduced via Britain, herbarium records show, as an ornamental and for use in erosion control.

1883 First introduction of brown trout, Salmo trutta, into the United States by US Fish Commission to Michigan State. After trout eggs, brought over from Europe, were raised at a local hatchery, the fish were released into the Pere Marquette River. Brown trout also introduced into New York through the Caledonia Fish Hatchery.

1884-85 Water hyacinth, Eichhornia crassipes, introduced into New Orleans at the World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition. Plants taken back to Florida by a visitor were later put into the St. Johns River.

1886 Multiflora roses, Rosa multiflora, native to Korea, eastern China, and Japan, imported for use as root stock, expands aggressively by suckering. Now classified as a noxious weed in 12 states and in some places is illegal to plant.

1890-91 European starling, Sturnus vulgaris, introduced: one hundred released by the American Acclimatization Society in Central Park, part of an alleged effort to introduce all 64 bird species mentioned in Shakespeare.

1891? First use of the term invasive species. An article in The Indian Forester notes: “As the species [purple loosestrife] can exist under different climatic conditions and is an invasive species, it has extended far beyond its original home.”

1893 50 wild boars imported from the Black Forest by railroad executive and robber baron Austin Corbin released in a 20,000-acre enclosure in New Hampshire for sport hunting.

1899 Nutria, Myocastor coypus, introduced into California for fur farming. The rodents fail to reproduce.

~1900 Russian knapweed, Acroptilon repens, introduced to Canada accidentally, along with alfalfa seed imported from Turkestan. Around 1910-1915, it was similarly introduced to California.

Early 1900s Coral bush, Ardizia crenata, introduced into Florida from Asia as an ornamental. By 1982 it was found in the wild.

1905 Air potato, Dioscorea bulbifera, introduced to Florida as an ornamental vine and an edible tuber from tropical Asia via Africa; by the early 1970s it is recognized as a statewide pest.

1910 Wild taro, Colocasia esculenta, had initially been introduced much earlier by slaves who had brought corms from Africa, but it did not spread in the wild until promoted by the USDA to farmers as a potato-substitute.

1923 Red Swamp crayfish, Procambarus clarkii, also known as Louisiana crayfish, crawdad, and mudbug, is introduced to Hawaii as a food source for bullfrogs. Native to the south-central United States, and northeastern Mexico, it has been introduced, often deliberately, through much of North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. Farmed crawdads are now imported into the US from China.

1930s Nutria imported for fur farms, and promoted as “weed cutters,” in Louisiana, Ohio, New Mexico, Washington, Michigan, Oregon, and Utah. Several state and federal agencies release nutria to promote fur trade and control aquatic vegetation. Now found in 15 states, it has been introduced to every continent outside its native South America except Australia and Antarctica.

1930s Red Imported Fire Ant, Solenopsis invicta, identified after Brazilian ships unloaded ant-infested cargo in the port of Mobile, and a 13-year-old boy–a certain E.O. Wilson, as he would later be known–reported the first colony of Red Imported Fire Ant in the US.

1936 (possibly earlier) Cane toad, Bufo marinus, native to northern South America, introduced to Palm Beach County, Florida, in a misguided attempt to control pest beetles in sugar-cane fields.

— Amblyomma rotundatum, a South American tick, suspected to have entered the United States as a parasite on the cane toad, either in the 1930s or in later escapes and releases. The tick is now established in South Florida.

1938 Asian clam (Corbicula fluminea), native to southeastern Asia and Africa and imported to Washington State, possibly as a food source, begins its spread into the nation’s major waterways. Any intake pipe they can clog, they will.

1947-48 Locals introduce nutria throughout east Texas because of its value as a furbearer and reputation as weed cutter.

1950s Green iguana, Iguana iguana, native to Central and South America, found in the Florida Keys, perhaps having stowed away in fruit shipments from Central America.
— Spike-topped applesnail, Pomacea diffusa, native to Amazonia, introduced to south Florida.

1962 Euell Gibbons publishes his first book, Stalking the Wild Asparagus, celebrating wild foods. Many of his chapters are about invasives.

1962 Northern snakehead, Channa argus, native to eastern Asia, imported for the Asian food market and for the pet industry in the United States, found in the wild in Maine.

1966 New York City parks commissioner Thomas Hoving calls the pigeon, Columba livia, a “rat with wings.” The phrase sticks.

1968 White-winged parakeet, Brotogeris versicolurus, native to the Peruvian Amazon, escapes from its birdcage in south Florida and is sighted by a biologist. Imports of the bird are banned in the 1990s; wild flocks in Broward and Dade counties grow.

1980s Asian carp, (bighead, Hypophthalmichthys nobilis; black, Mylopharyngodon piceus; grass, Ctenopharyngodon idelia; and silver, Hypophthalmichthys molitrix), imported into the southern US to eat the aquatic plants in aquaculture facilities, escapes into the Mississippi, swimming north.

— Eurasian collared-dove, Streptopelia decaocto, which spread throughout Western Europe in the mid-twentieth century, is introduced to the Bahamas from the Netherlands by a pet breeder in 1974. By the 1980s, it colonizes south Florida. Fueled by the seeds of backyard bird feeders, the species reaches Oregon in 1998.

1984 Spiny water flea, Bythotrephes longimanus, zooplankton from Eurasia, found in untreated ballast-water from freshwater Eurasian ports to Lake Huron. The flea, its eggs, and larvae catching in fishing gear have spread it to inland lakes and rivers.

1985 Lionfish, Pterois volitans, native to the Indo-Pacific, first documented off the coast of south Florida. Imported as a tropical fish for saltwater aquariums, lionfish disappointed hobbyists by devouring smaller fish and may have been dumped alive in open waters, where they soon spread. The species has since been observed from Venezuela to the Gulf of Maine.

1988 Zebra mussel, Dreissena polymorpha, introduced into the Great Lakes in ballast water from freshwater Eurasian ports.
— Asian shore crab, Hemigrapsus sanguineus, first recorded at Townsend Inlet, Cape May County, New Jersey. It was likely released by incoming international cargo ships during ballast-water discharge.

1989 Green crabs spread from US East Coast to San Francisco, likely in the algae used to pack New England bait-worms. El Niño-strengthened currents help them northward after fishermen dumped the algae overboard.

1990 Africanized Honey Bee, Apis mellifera scutellata, reached southern Texas via South and Central America. An African bee, imported to South America and crossed with a European one to increase honey production, the hybrid proved aggressive.

1990 Round goby, Neogobius melanostomus, a fish native to Black and Caspian Seas, is found in the St. Clair River, between Ontario and Michigan. Probably transported in ballast water, it has spread into all five Great Lakes, where it is a threat to many native fish as a voracious eater of eggs. The goby may play a role in botulism outbreaks, killing fish and birds.

1998 Two veined rapa whelks, Rapana venosa, native to the Northeast Pacific Ocean, are trawled from the lower James River, Virginia. For decades, the species had been spreading around the Atlantic: 1947, the Black Sea. 1957, the Sea of Azov. 1983, Venice. 1992, England and France. The whelk is likely here to stay: the US Geological Service admits, “There are no known cases of successful eradication of nonindigenous marine invertebrates in the United States.”

2000 Wakame Undaria pinnatifida, native to Asia, reported in California estuaries.

2002 Emerald ash borer, Agrilus planipennis, an Asian beetle, which likely arrived in wood packing materials used to ship auto parts and other products, identified in southern Michigan.

— Redbay ambrosia beetle, Xyleborus glabratus, native to Asia, detected near Savannah’s Port Wentworth. Thought to have infested wooden packing materials unloaded at the port, it spread quickly along the Georgia coast and into Florida and South Carolina, attacking trees in the laurel family and causing a wilt for which there is no cure.

2006 Burmese python, Python molurus bivittatus, first documented in Florida Everglades.

2009 Kudzu bug from Asia first documented in the southeastern US.

Cannabis: New Wonder Crop or One More Disappointment?

One feels the excitement about cannabis at conferences and workshops everywhere today. The relaxation of federal rules on raising hemp, incorporated in the 2018 Farm Bill, have stimulated far-reaching activity throughout the private sector. Investors see a chance to put their money to use where it can do good –– alleviate pain, sequester lots of carbon, provide another healthful grain for human nutrition. Businesspeople see a chance to provide needed goods and services –– quality seed, processing equipment, marketing services. Consumers hope for lower cost benefits from this wonder crop finally legal –– new therapies, durable materials, useful products from the dozens of new cannabinoid and terpene molecules it produces. Farmers dream of finally raising a crop with which they can earn a reasonable living.

This issue explores this new energy, looks at the history and botany of cannabis, how it impacts the human body, talks with farmers raising it and businesspeople making and selling cannabinoid products, reprints various points of view about what the future of hemp will bring, and leaves the reader, hopefully, better informed about what to expect from this resurgence.

On this, as on every issue, there are the enthusiasts and the doubters. The former have often already taken the dive into hemp cultivation and are learning about it the hard way – by making many mistakes. The latter are eyeing the situation carefully, calculating what can be realistically earned from a good crop or saleable product, and how much it will cost. The optimists see the potential value in the many uses hemp has and how it can improve human life. The pessimists see that, but point out the history in agriculture for useful crops to become commodities, grown by many more farmers than they can reasonably support, and predict a dramatic fall in finished prices. In that case, as in so many others, it is not the farmer but the middleman who profits, buying the crop cheap and selling the salve or oil or pills made from it dear.

We hope you enjoy this issue, and learn from it. There is no question that hemp will provide many opportunities for farmers and others, and we hope this issue helps you find your proper place in that development!


Cooperatives pictureI don’t know what originally got me interested in cooperatives, but I signed up for a cooperative living space when I went off to college – and I loved it. I love being around lots of people and I have forever been trying to balance my competitive nature with my cooperative one. Early on I think I was trying to squelch my competitive nature, as a matter of fact. But as I have gone through a few more decades of life I have come to believe that there is a very productive balance for all of us, and all of our institutions, in including both competition and cooperation in our endeavors.

My next cooperative immersion was to join a food co-op right after our first child was born. From 1977 for 5 years in Boston and then another 20 or so here in Barre (until UNFI pretty much shut down the local pre-order co-ops), I was a much invested food co-op member. Food co-oping always provided a quite enjoyable community of people who had a slightly different take on reality and values than the average person. I remember on September 11, 2001 that we had a co-op delivery that day. As we sat around awaiting the truck we spent some real quality time considering this disaster and feeling solace in being together to begin the processing of it. Truly I have met some of my best friends over the years in food co-ops.

When it was pretty impossible to get organic grain for animal feed I started a co-op to bring in enough grain to make the trucker’s time worth the delivery. This was another about 20 year enjoyable experience of getting together with my farmer friends every month or two for the short period of meeting the truck and unloading together. Busy people all of us, this insured that we saw each other and compared notes all along our respective ways.

In 1985 I took on the job of putting together a bulk order for NOFA/Mass. Though I am no longer the bulk order coordinator, one of the delivery sites is our farm. It includes one of my most favorite days of the year when we unload several thousand dollars’ worth of inventory for 50 or so people and organize it into piles for everyone. It is a once a year opportunity for us NOFA members to hang out, work hard, often freeze to death, eat good food and share a joint project, all while dreaming of the perfect farming year ahead.

Besides the myriad social benefits, a major impetus for putting together a cooperative is the savings that can be had by buying in bulk. This also makes it possible to access hard to obtain items, products or services that would not otherwise be available.

Co-ops often have a distinctively political nature too, in my experience. Going around the mainstream economic system, choosing to purchase from small or highly socially or environmentally focused purveyors, keeping it small and local are often guiding principles for co-ops. I have lived so much of my life avoiding the mainstream and have been so very grateful for cooperatives all along the way.

We hope this issue of The Natural Farmer will help excite you about the potential benefits that co-ops can bring to your life!

Working with Nature to Design Food

editorial pictureAs you will learn if you read this issue, the historical role of farmers has not been just to provide food for humanity. They also, by selecting plants to provide seed for next year, saving that seed, and growing it out in populations that enable crossings, are inherently partners with nature in the design of the germplasm that will be our food in the future.

For thousands of years this has been an almost unconscious aspect of good farming. Only in the last century or so has supplying seed become a separate business in developed countries. We justify handing off this function on the basis of convenience and a faith in the benefits of science and technology. But we are now seeing the price to be paid for losing control of seed.

Food plants are not being designed for nutrition or even flavor so much as for commercial qualities such as shelf life, cosmetic appeal, and size. Varieties perfect for our small farms and challenging climate are disappearing because the volume of their sales does not justify the costs involved for large marketers. And science and technology are now baring their teeth as patents, licenses, and lawsuits are increasingly coming between farmers and their craft.

We hope you will read this issue and be inspired to take back some of this control. We have provided articles about the genetics behind, and techniques involved, in plant breeding. We have detailed the legal issues involved in farmers asserting their power to save seed and breed plants. And we share the experiences of many, farmers and breeders both, who are finding real satisfaction in working with Nature to create something new and useful.

The National Organic Program and Its Discontents

sonny perdue

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue

based on work by Jessica Ellsworth, Cornucopia Institute, Civil Eats, the National Geographic Society, Organic Consumers Association, Fooddive.com, and Allgov.com

From its beginnings on individual unregulated farms to its growth through local and regional networks and to the establishment of a national standard, organic food has traveled an amazing path over the last fifty years. The growth has been continuous, driven both by increasing ecological concerns and heightened consumer demand.

Domestic sales of organic foods have increased every year since 1990, with the accessibility of organic products rapidly expanding in all sectors of the market. The U. S. organic food market was worth $1 billion in 1990, $43.7 billion in 2017 and is expected to reach $70.4 billion by 2025. As this growth occurred, large conventional food companies like General Mills, Heinz, Smucker, Coca Cola, ConAgra, Kellogg, White Wave and Hain have bought up most of the original smaller stand-alone organic companies.

The Early Organic Marketplace

In 1973, Oregon passed the first state law regulating organic food. In doing so, it provided the impetus for other states to subsequently en-act legislation relating to organic food products. From then through the 1980s the organic industry waged an internal struggle to define organically grown food, to standardize permissible production methods, and to establish record-keeping requirements, labeling procedures and enforcement methods. Substantial differences arose across the country in state organic farming regulation, however, as to the permissible materials for use in production, the length of time required for a transition to organic acreage, and the allowable production practices. As an example, Colorado required organic products to be certified and organic producers to obtain a license under one set of state guidelines; Maryland required organic producers, processors, distributors, and retailers to obtain a permit under another set of guidelines, and Iowa merely required organic producers to provide vendors with a sworn statement of compliance.

By 1990, there were 22 states with organic food regulations falling into three broad categories: three states chose to operate their own organic certification programs, four states opted to contract with an independent certification organization, and fifteen states defined organic food and production techniques but did not provide any government oversight of certification. Because certification was not mandatory, organic producers, handlers, processors, and distributors in these 15 states had to affiliate themselves with an independent certification association in order to be able to claim or advertise any organic certification status.

Organic farmers and food processors faced both the burden of labeling food to meet conflicting standards and the possibility that food deemed organic in their home state would not qualify as organic across the state border. Food retailers and distributors were concerned about the authenticity of organic items under the varied state laws; consequently, they were reluctant to purchase organic foods, and fewer organics made it to the grocers’ shelves. Even when organic foods did make it to the supermarket, consumers were left to decipher a confusing array of private and State labels. Food that was labeled “organic” could have contained anywhere from twenty to 100% organically-grown ingredients, making it difficult for even the most sophisticated consumer to know what the term “organic” really meant. False and deliberately misleading labels exacerbated consumer uncertainty and created a sea of counterfeit and pseudo-organic products. As a result, some consumers and food merchandisers doubted the veracity of legitimate organic producers’ claims and hesitated to buy their products.

In 1989, the infamous Alar pesticide scare appeared in the national press. As the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned the chemical in the wake of public outrage over the exposure of children to pesticides, organic producers experienced a welcome and renewed consumer preference for “grown without” foods. Consumers wanted organic foods, and few analysts doubted that the market would continue to grow.

As the organic food industry continued to struggle in its effort to self-regulate and develop a consensus across the states for production and certification standards, industry leaders in the late 1980s petitioned the United States Congress asking Congress to draft legislation that would conclusively define organic. When Congress looked into the issue it found that the current system of organic food regulation engendered confusion among consumers, and played havoc with interstate commerce in organics.

Congress’ concern with false and misleading labeling in the organic food market was further magnified by concern that the higher prices charged for organic food products provided an incentive for companies to make questionable organic claims in order to increase profits. Federal regulation of organic labeling could serve two important functions that state government regulation alone could not. First, national standards could ease consumer confusion and ensure consumers received consistent and uniform information about foods, and second, it could promote fair trade practices in organic food marketing that would serve to protect interstate commerce.

The Organic Food Protection Act of 1990

In 1990 Congress passed the Organic Food Protection Act (OFPA). OFPA itself, however, did not define the term “organic.” Instead, the actual meaning of “organic” under the OFPA was left open for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to establish in a future regulation. In order to accomplish its goals, however, the OFPA provided three specific guidelines for the USDA to follow in writing the regulation.

First, to be organic, foods must be produced and handled without the use of synthetic chemicals. Second, the foods must not be produced on land that had had any prohibited substances, including synthetic chemicals, applied during the immediately preceding three years. Third, the foods must be produced and handled in compliance with an organic plan agreed to by the producer and a certifying agent.

In order to assist the USDA in developing the regulation, OFPA provided that a 15-person National Organic Standard Board (NOSB) would be assembled to serve as an advisory board comprised of organic farmers, organic handlers, retailers of organic products, environmentalists, consumer advocates, scientists and certifying agents. The board’s major function would be to provide recommendations to USDA on what substances, such as pesticides and fertilizers, should be permitted for use in organic operations. In making determinations of what the acceptable substance list should include, the act requires the NOSB to consider possible adverse human and environmental effects.

Like all of the prior state regulations, the OFPA standards themselves are formulated in terms of processing and production methods used, rather than end product quality. The OFPA requires all products labeled organic to be produced on certified organic farms and handled solely by certified organic operations, with the determination of certifier accreditation to be made by the USDA. The OFPA left room for the certifier to be either a private certifying agent or a state certification program. In addition, the OFPA exempted small farmers with less than $5000 in annual gross organic sales from having to comply with the national regulations.

The goal of Congress in enacting the OFPA was not total federal preemption of state regulations. Congress wanted the OFPA to provide a uniform federal certification law which would partially pre-empt current state law but leave enough flexibility to allow individual states to continue achieving their own interests. In reality, OFPA reflects Congressional ambivalence about the extent of desirable federal regulation. On one side, Congress realized most organic production expertise is at the grass-roots level and that states need to address specific local and regional needs, thus counseling against federal intrusion, but on the other side, continuing to allow differing state standards would disrupt the interstate commerce and uniformity goals the act was designed to serve. The result is that OFPA prohibits the use of “organic” on any label not meeting the federal standard, but it allows states to have their own label approved by USDA, which can then accompany the federal label. The state standard must be as strict or stricter than the federal standard.

OFPA does not exempt organic food from other existing federal food safety statutes, but it does grant the USDA, instead of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), primary federal authority for regulation and enforcement of organic food certification and labeling. Even though Congress granted the USDA complete authority over organic food labeling, the FDA retains jurisdiction over all other labeling aspects of these foods because many organic foods fall within the definition of food in the Food Drug and Cosmetic Act (FDCA). In addition, OFPA does not supersede the USDA’s authority over meat and poultry or the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) authority over insecticides and pesticides. Although the OFPA established national standards for the marketing of organic foods, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) would continue to exercise authority over food advertising. As a result, the OFPA is but another layer of law with which the organic producer, processor, and handler must comply.

Because of the crucial leadership of Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont in passage of the OFPA, the northeast had enjoyed an important role in shaping this act. The $5000 exemption and some of the novel aspects of the NOSB as a non-governmental advisory board with official legal power (over the National List) were efforts by our growers to keep the program from becoming simply another federal agency.

The First USDA Organic Rule, December 1997

Under OFPA, the NOSB spent considerable time and resources developing its recommendations, as per Congress’ specific charge that the NOSB play an advisory role to USDA. Cooperation between NOSB and USDA staff was reportedly high, with some recommendations even being co-authored by USDA employees and NOSB members. Once the NOSB finished its recommendations, USDA proposed a rule in the Federal Register for comment from the industry.

But there was an intense and staggering public opposition to this first attempt at a proposed regulation in December, 1997. The standard for “organic” under this proposal endorsed such controversial production techniques as irradiation, genetic modification, and fertilization with sewer sludge. Organic farmers and consumer advocacy groups howled at the USDA’s proposal, finding the proposed rules wholly inconsistent with current organic practices. The industry complained about every facet of the rule, from the fact that it permitted synthetic pesticides and irradiation to be used to kill bacteria on food to the fact that beef fed up to twenty percent non-organic food could carry the certified organic label. In large part complaints centered on the fact that the Secretary of Agriculture had ignored many of the NOSB proposals. Overall, USDA received 275,603 comments during the public comment period – more than one comment for every minute of the period! In the face of such public outrage, the USDA had no choice but to withdraw the proposal.

The Final Rule, December 2000

After considerable redrafting, USDA issued a revised proposal in March 2000. This proposal still inspired controversy, but after reviewing public comments USDA made substantial changes and issued its Final Rule on December 21, 2000, to go into effect 18 months later.

When USDA announced the final rule, the organic industry generally celebrated. The Organic Trade Association (OTA), a national organization representing organic growers, processors, certifiers, distributors, retailers and others in the organic products industry in North America, championed USDA’s efforts as strengthening consumer confidence in U.S. organic products and achieving consistent standard and labeling requirements. The chief executive of a leading organic food company reported that the final federal rule: “…is acceptable to our industry and is consistent with what we have been doing.” Farmers and consumers were also largely pleased with the final rule. The California Certified Organic Farmers reported: “[t]he new federal standards are a good working definition of organic production and are true to the organic philosophy and approach that has gained the confidence of many consumers.”

The small northeastern organic farming groups like MOFGA and the NOFAs, which had been reluctant participants in the drive for federal regulation, swallowed hard and hoped that becoming an industry would not destroy the best aspects of what had been the organic movement.

Tensions About Standards

From the beginning the new National Organic Program (NOP) rules created conflicts for Northeastern organic farmers.

While the states of New Hampshire and Rhode Island had set up public certification programs, (which still continue) where these did not exist many NOFA chapters and MOFGA had set up their own organizational certification agencies. Board members of these programs were often leading farmers active in the chapters. But the NOP prohibited such self-certification as conflicts of interest and would not accredit such programs. In order to get these programs accredited by the NOP, chapters had either to spin off their certification bodies as independent agencies or establish them as LLCs with internal chapter walls preventing NOP-prohibited conflicts.

More stressful than such organizational adaptations were early demonstrations of “muscle-flexing” by corporations involved in producing organic food. The clearest example was that of The Country Hen, an egg producer in Hubbardston, Massachusetts. In 2002 the firm applied for organic certification from the NOFA/Mass certification program (which had just been ‘spun-off’ by the chapter and was now independent) but were denied because they kept their hens inside large warehouse-like buildings and couldn’t meet the rule requiring “outdoor access” for organically raised animals.

Rather than discuss ways to meet the program rules, when denied certification Country Hen CEO George Bass immediately hopped onto a plane and flew to Washington, DC. He met with NOP administrator Richard Matthews and received verbal approval for a plan to create “porches” on his buildings as a way to qualify for outdoor access. The NOFA/Mass program was not willing to accept porches as valid outdoor access and still refused to certify The Country Hen. Mathews then directed the program to certify the company. They refused and filed suit to determine whether or not accredited certifiers had the authority to decide when a farm meets the organic standards. After a legal fight of several years the certification program exhausted their appeals and lost. The decision effectively told certifiers they are arms of the USDA. If the NOP works out exemptions for corporate farms, the certifiers must allow those exemptions and have no independence to use their own judgment.
This pattern was to repeat itself many times. The reality that certifiers had little room to exercise any integrity — and also that businesses seeking certification could choose whichever certifier they wanted — soon led to a group of ‘lenient’ certifiers being selected to get the preferred, high fee work and more rigorous certifiers ending up with the smaller farms that could not afford to pay much but strictly adhered to the rules.

Violations Spur Emergence of Watchdogs

As rule violations, as seen from the point of view of organic advocates, increased, organizations dedicated to the strict standards of the organic movement began to find support among the public. Several non-profits have developed a dedicated following for their perseverance in investigative, journalistic, and legal efforts to prevent corruption of the organic program.

Cornucopia Institute, a Midwestern organic advocacy organization, has been particularly active in calling attention to the failures of the NOP to address questionable activities. These include:
• A serious lack of enforcement activities on major fraud and alleged violations of organic regulations occurring with “factory farm” livestock activities — all cloaked in secrecy
• Turning a blind eye towards the questionable authenticity of the flood of organic imports coming into this country from China, India, a number of former Soviet Bloc states and Central America that have effectively shut American organic grain farmers out of the U.S. market.
• Allowing, in violation of the law, giant industrial-scale soilless production of organic produce (hydroponic and other management systems), along with ignoring NOSB prohibitions on nanotechnology, using conventional livestock on organic dairies and other issues.
• Usurpation of NOSB governance and authority by USDA/NOP staff and other violations of the Organic Foods Production Act (Cornucopia has a federal lawsuit being adjudicated that charges the USDA with appointing agribusiness executives to the NOSB in seats Congress had specifically earmarked for stakeholders who “own or operate an organic farm”).
• Unilateral changes to the Sunset review process for synthetic and non-organic materials, making it difficult for unnecessary or harmful substances to be removed from organics when agribusinesses lobby for them (the USDA is currently involved in litigation with Cornucopia and other stakeholders on this Sunset issue).

“We want organics to live up to the true meaning envisioned by the founders of this movement,” co-founder Mark Kastel says. “For both organic farmers and organic consumers, that means sound environmental stewardship, humane animal husbandry, wholesome and nutritious food derived from excellent soil fertility, and economic justice for those who produce our food. The USDA needs to act to preserve consumer trust in the organic label.”

Contaminated Compost

One example of the kind of collusion between NOP officials and corporate entities non-profits were concerned about was the rule change (NOP 5016) allowing composts to contain the synthetic insecticide bifenthrin. NOP regulations banned synthetic substances in compost unless the substances were on an approved list. Bifenthrin was not on the list. So the California Department of Food and Agriculture, which administered the organic program in California, barred organic farmers from using composts with bifenthrin in them.

But according to federal judge Jacqueline Scott Corley, who examined a complaint about bifenthrin, Nortech Waste, which produces one of the banned composts containing the insecticide, complained to an official at the NOP that “saying the contaminated compost cannot be used in organic agriculture is not the answer.” The USDA responded a few months later with the ruling, which allowed the toxin in compost to be used in organic farming.

In 2016 the Center for Food Safety sued the NOP, and after hearing the case Judge Corley rejected the government’s position that they were merely “clarifying” the standards. Saying she was unconvinced it hadn’t improperly changed them, she vacated NOP 5016 and ordered the USDA to issue a revised guidance that complied with the law.


Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) are industrial agriculture’s way to produce cheap meat and other animal products. Confined in tight spaces, the animal’s costs per head for land and structures are minimized. Mechanized systems perform much of the work involved in feeding and removing wastes, reducing the labor bill as well. But organic animal raising does not tolerate CAFOs. Animals must have access to the out-of-doors and ruminants must graze when seasonally possible. How are these concerns dealt with in organic animal operations?

Cornucopia Institute has been one of the primary watchdogs of the organic industry. Of particular interest to them, since they are in Wisconsin and surrounded by small dairy operations, are the giant dairy CAFOs which masquerade as organic. In 2008 Cornucopia filed a formal complaint against Sham-rock Dairy, in Arizona. The Institute alleged that shamrock was involved in organic law violations by milking conventional and organic cows in the desert with a modicum of required pasture land.

In an effort to get answers to its questions about USDA enforcement efforts in the Shamrock case, Cornucopia filed numerous Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. Even though the government is legally bound to reply within 20 days, Cornucopia sometimes had to wait over a year, and even file new legal action, to get a reply. Even then, the documents were heavily redacted (blacked out).

“In a democracy, private citizens and public interest groups should not have to invest their money hiring lawyers to enforce their rights to documents that, by law, they are entitled to,” stated Cornucopia cofounder Will Fantle.

While the USDA ultimately confirmed that Shamrock Dairy was milking thousands of cows in violation of the organic standards and proposed sanctions against the operation and its certifier, Quality Assurance International (QAI), both organizations remain in the organic business today.

In 2008 the Organic Consumers Association, another organic watchdog organization, called for a boycott of Aurora and Horizon dairy products.

Based in Boulder, Colorado, Aurora Organic Dairy boasts a $50 million state-of-the-art milk plant about 30 miles northeast of its headquarters, on its Platteville farm. Milk from over 20,000 cows on four other farms – two near Kersey, Colo., and two in Texas – arrives daily in 5,000-gallon insulated tanks. After pasteurizing and homogenizing, two computerized machines squirt the milk at a rate of 300 half-gallons per minute into private-label cartons that eventually make their way to Costco, Target, Safeway, Wal-Mart and roughly a dozen other retailers in all 50 states.

In April of 2007 the USDA issued Aurora Organic a “notice of proposed revocation” of its organic certification for “willful” violations of federal organic standards. The USDA listed 14 violations, among them that Aurora Organic had entered conventional cows into milk production before the required one-year period of continuous organic management, and had failed to establish and maintain cows’ access to pasture at its Platteville facility.

Aurora Organic settled with the USDA in August 2007, agreeing among other things to reduce the size of its herd at the Platteville farm from 4,200 to 1,000 cows and increase its grazing pastures by 75 acres. Even though the USDA concluded that Aurora “willfully” sold milk labeled as organic, the dairy got away with a one-year probation after getting Jay Friedman, the powerful Washington lawyer, to advocate for them.


For many organic farmers, one of the most deeply disturbing directions in which the NOP has recently been moving is its acceptance of hydroponics as an approved method. In a controversial decision in November, 2017 the NOSB, after years of debate, finally voted 8-7 against banning hydroponic methods from organic production. Nonetheless, many organic advocates believe that hydroponic production is contrary to the OFPA.

They cite a requirement in the law that farms must be operated under an organic plan “designed to foster soil fertility” through crop rotation, cover crops and the spreading of manure and compost. Other provisions of the law also emphasize soil fertility, health and preservation.

In the Cornucopia Institute’s view this language clearly bars organic certification of hydroponic production which is soilless and in which crops are grown in an inert medium such as coconut husks or perlite and irrigated with nutrient-infused water. “The law requires building soil fertility, but how can that be accomplished without soil?” says Kastel.

Apart from their philosophical objections, of course, critics also see hydroponics as posing an economic threat to traditional organic farmers. There are currently about 100 certified organic hydroponic operations in the U.S. These highly mechanized hydroponic greenhouses are tremendously productive, however, reducing the per-unit cost of production. “They are cornering the market for popular produce crops, such as peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers,” Kastel worries.

But hydroponic operations tend to require a lot of capitalization, so if such production methods are to be scaled up, they’re more than likely to be sustainable only by well-funded corporate interests. Leaving aside the look of food grown with miles of plastic piping inside what amounts to a translucent airplane hanger, the last thing that organic agriculture needs is to continue on the path of corporate domination of the market, which is already well underway.

Animal Welfare

When you go to grocery stores and shell out a little extra cash for food with the Department of Agriculture’s green-and-white ‘organic’ logo on it, you’re paying a premium in exchange for a promise. The label guarantees, for the most part, that what you’re buying was grown or raised without synthetic pesticides or was fed organically-grown grain. But, despite what many people think, the organic label doesn’t promise that livestock was treated humanely. In fact, the current organic standards say very little about how to raise animals, and what they do say is so vague, critics contend, that they’re exploited by producers who want to cash in on the organic label.

The USDA proposed new standards late in the Obama administration that detailed how livestock producers would have to raise animals, especially poultry, a move meant to bring the organic label in line with what most consumers think they’re getting. The standards would have meant that organic animals have enough space to lie down, stretch and turn around. They would also have banned debeaking of poultry or docking the tails of cattle or sheep. Producers would have to take steps to minimize pain for surgical alterations and for safely transporting animals to slaughter. And, perhaps most importantly for the average consumer, the standards would explicitly say that “outdoor access” for poultry actually means that birds should be able to go outside. Including those at The Country Hen! Of the roughly 12 million organic laying hens in the country, only about six million were actually going outside.

“For a long time we recognized that the definitions and requirements for animal welfare within the regulations have not been clear,” says Nate Lewis of the Organic Trade Association, which represents the ballooning number of organic producers. “There’s definitely a need for clarity because we want ‘organic’ to remain the gold standard, and that includes animal welfare.”

The proposed changes, though, didn’t come without years of debate among government regulators and players in the booming global organic market.

Organic Industry Standard“After the big guys got into organic production using porches, more and more of the organic egg market was coming from birds that never went outside,” says Dena Jones, who directs the farm animal program at the Animal Welfare Institute. “If you ask any organic consumer, nobody would think of a porch as being outdoor access. It just wasn’t what the consumer expects.”

The new rules said that “outdoor access” meant there’s no solid roof overhead and that half of the ground surface should be dirt that chickens can scratch and “bathe” in. Those requirements were more in line with the organic standards of the US’s biggest agricultural trading partners, including Canada and the European Union.

But giving the birds access to the outdoors means producers have to find more space and spend more money, so some had pushed against any clarification or change in the current law. Conventional and organic egg producers who didn’t provide outdoor access said that allowing birds outside invites disease and higher death rates. They also said it would cost millions to retrofit barns to accommodate the new standards, which would drive up egg prices.

With the change of administrations in 2017, the proposed animal welfare standards were first postponed, then permanently shelved. Most observers interpreted it as a victory for the “big guys” who didn’t want to shell out what it would cost to make the changes. Even the OTA, which normally represents the larger corporate organic companies, opposed shelving the animal welfare rule, knowing it would leave a bad taste with consumers. They have filed suit over the NOP’s failure to implement the new rules, and been joined in it as co-plaintiffs by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI).

Challenges to the NOSB in the 2018 Farm Bill

There have been a rough few recent years for the organic label. From scandals over fraudulent organic grain imports and the revelation of several factory-scale farms producing certified organic milk and eggs, to controversy around the inclusion of hydroponic or “soilless” farming and the reversal of comprehensive animal welfare rules, one thing is clear: The organic industry’s rapid growth may also turn out to be its downfall.

Organic is the fastest-growing retail food segment, valued at $50 billion per year, and an increasing number of multinational corporations want a piece of the pie, leaving the integrity of the USDA’s certified organic seal in question. Now, however, in the new Farm Bill, organic certification faces an attack from Congress, which has proposed reshaping the NOSB. By allowing more corporate entities to question the organic label and suggest which farm chemicals and other inputs farmers are allowed to use on their organic fields, industry insiders worry the proposed changes could further erode the strict standards of organic production that distinguished it from conventional agriculture and built a thriving market.

Congress is proposing two big changes to the NOSB: Allowing employees of organic farmers or producers to be permitted to occupy board positions, and allowing politicians to sidestep the NOSB’s authority to approve substances such as the fertilizers and pesticides used in organic production—changes that raise alarms for some in the organic industry.

Certainly, the legal clarification for NOSB roles may seem like the least momentous issue in the 2018 Farm Bill, which also proposes major overhauls to SNAP food assistance programs and farmland conservation funds. But for organic insiders, it represents a significant erosion of the board’s authority on matters of organic law.

Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides, sat on the NOSB as the environmental representative from 2010 to 2015. He’s concerned about the change. “There are so many large companies getting involved with organic that do not have the history with organic, and that makes them less than optimal members of the NOSB,” he said. “They don’t have the insight into organic practices.”

While Congress has never tinkered with the structure of the NOSB before, the greatest concern stems from the proposed “expedited process” for approving substances for the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances. Until now, the OFPA has granted NOSB the exclusive authority to approve agricultural inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides for certified organic crop and livestock production. It also expressly prohibits the Secretary of Agriculture from adding any synthetic materials (generally prohibited) such as pesticides and herbicides, and non-synthetic or natural materials (generally allowed), such as essential oils and copper sulfate, to the National List without the specific recommendation of the NOSB.

But the House’s proposed farm bill would change the status quo. Under it, the NOSB would be required to consult with the FDA and EPA when considering non-organic substances approved by those agencies. Also, the Secretary of Agriculture could force the NOSB to “expedite” review of a petition from industry for non-organic substances “related to food safety”.

These provisions trouble organic advocates because the NOSB currently uses a much higher set of standards than those agencies or the Secretary do.

“Many of the critics of organics are really steeped in the pesticide side of the input regulation and not familiar with the degree to which organic farmers are monitored by the compliance process,” said Feldman. He cited the use of copper sulfate as a fungicide that includes strict compliance standards and oversight.

The goal of organic agriculture is to incentivize alternative products and practices in the market. What happens to the process, critics like Feldman won-der, when an NOSB member from a multinational corporation questions why the company cannot use a substance that’s been approved by the EPA or FDA? The ultimate danger is that the Secretary or a petitioner backed up by the EPA or FDA could override the NOSB. If passed, these statutory changes could ultimately eliminate the difference between conventional and organic foods.

“My biggest fear, bottom line, is that if we allow the chipping away of this statute we will destroy the integrity of this label and the public will no longer pay the premium in the marketplace,” said Feldman.

Alternative Labels

The consumer and small farmer erosion of confidence in the integrity of the USDA organic label has escalated in the last few years. Commercial pressures and federal officials have chipped away at the independence of the NOSB and the rigor of the standards, as documented above. Now at least two significant efforts have emerged to create alternative labels that include but go beyond the NOP.

ROC Label

Most recently, the Regenerative Organic Alliance has come together to launch Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC) in the spring of 2018. Led by the Rodale Institute, the ROC emerged in reaction to concern that the USDA definition of organic is broad and subject to debate and lobbying pressure. The entire National Organic Program is part of the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service and the explicit objective of the service is to create domestic and international marketing opportunities for farmers. As a result there is a legitimate argument that health and environmental concerns are beyond the scope of its jurisdiction.

The Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC) aims to encompass the organic label but include several others. The baseline for entry into the ROC process is a USDA Organic or equivalent certification. Additionally, producers must meet animal welfare and social fairness requirements for one of several certifications, such as Certified Humane, Animal Welfare Approved, Fairtrade and Fair for Life. The ROC also focuses on soil health as a means of regenerating the soil, improving ecosystem function, and mitigating climate change. The program will be facilitated by NSF International. The alliance set out a four-year timeline for transitioning to its organic certification. It also established three levels of certification at the producer level depending on the operation.

The cost structure of the ROC is as yet undetermined. It is unclear how much certification will cost, the cost of maintaining certification and who will pay for it. This could be a substantial hurdle for the movement. If producers are expected to pay the certification and maintenance costs, it will need to translate to higher value market access.

The other new label has grown out of opposition to the NOP’s certification of hydroponic and CAFO operations.

ROP Label

“I think that a lot of farmers, especially young farmers, feel that the organic label no longer describes the way they farm, and we’re trying to recapture that. We are taking matters into our own hands because we know it is what the consumer wants and expects when they choose organic.” said Linley Dixon, a vegetable farmer in Durango, Colo. She is a senior scientist for Cornucopia Institute, and is also on the standards board of the Real Organic Project, a new certification program that is creating an “add-on” label to the USDA organic certification.

The group said its proposed add-on label, which requires adherence to standards above and beyond USDA organic certification, would only be available to agricultural products that have already been certified organic by the USDA. The program aims to implement new standards that will provide consumer transparency by “distinguishing organic farms that grow their crops in the ground, foster soil fertility and adequately pasture livestock according to foundational organic standards and principles.”

The Real Organic Project add-on label to USDA organic certification, expected by spring 2019, will increase transparency under the organic seal by allowing consumers to trace retail products back to the farm, according to the release. The inspection process includes a video interview of the farmers on their land explaining their organic production practices, the group said.

Published in Winter 2018-19 issue.

Fungal Friendly Farming?

Mycorrhizal root tipsMost of us have experienced the power of fungi! Unfortunately, this may be when they cause diseases in our crops like Alternaria (early blight), Erysiphales (powdery mildew), damping off (Pythium, Sclerotinia, Botrytis) and Phytophthora (late blight), among many others.

Yet increasingly science is establishing that soil microbes, with fungi at the head of the list, play a vital role in enabling strong, vibrant, healthy crops via their symbiotic relationship with plant roots. Rewarded by sugary exudates from the roots of healthy plants, microbes symbiotically ‘tend’ these crops and bring them mineral nutrients, water, and an assortment of biochemical ‘medicines’ synthesized on the spot in response to specific plant signals of stress.

Can you make them work for you?

In this issue we will reveal how to make fungi a partner in your success as a grower. We will show how tillage destroys their careful networks and providing them living roots throughout the season will reward you many times over –– with bumper harvests, crop longevity, soil resilience, water storage, and better availability of nutrients you already have.

Starting with a little science about life forms and fungi, we discuss soil microbes: who they are, how they work, and how to harness them. (If you like this topic, be sure to read our book review about Lynn Margulis, the UMass researcher whose revolutionary work on bacteria and their abilities as biochemical engineers altered our understanding of all life on this planet.)

Other submissions detail ways to encourage more fungal presence on your farm, including making fungal composts and inoculants. An interview with a Massachusetts farming couple, who have raised soil microbial support to a high priority in their agricultural practices, discusses the realities of this approach in the Northeast. Other articles feature noted soil scientists, one explaining how fungi enhance human health by supplying crops with nutrients by way of intelligent membranes, another revealing new research showing the importance of no–till methods in maximizing the presence of vitamins and anti–oxidants in our crops.

We hope you are inspired by this issue to learn more about the fascinating world of soil and how we farmers, as the primary managers of so much of it, can bring its miracles more into harmony with the way humans use this planet.

Collaboration by NOFA-NJ

Collaboration is the number one driver of NOFA-NJ’s success, especially given the very small size of our staff. Nearly all our recent successes have involved effective collaboration in some form. In addition to serving the needs of our producers in NJ, we also strive to stimulate demand for their products with outreach efforts to the general public. There is no way to have a broad reach like this, from production to consumption, without good partners. We have too many partners to list in a short summary, but some of our more recent collaborations are illustrative of how we operate.

Smaller, organic farms are the primary constituents we serve. The range of issues they face requires a breadth and depth of knowledge that no one person could ever hope to attain. Our farmers have questions about business, soil, entomology, certification and other topics. Even within certification, few people can confidently handle production, processing and livestock. Our solution has been to develop a roster of vetted resources, which requires collaboration. For example, on Right to Farm issues, we rely upon our friends at the State Agriculture Development Committee (SADC), the very same folks who built and maintain the njlandlink.org resource with us. We conduct most of our workshops at member farms, and we work with other organizations, like Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training (CRAFT), National Young Farmers Coalition, and Master Gardeners, to reciprocally promote events.

Consumer outreach relies even more heavily upon good partnerships. Public libraries, especially the Princeton Public Library, have given us numerous speaking, book club and film screening opportunities. Locally, social media groups, businesses, Meetup groups, churches and especially universities have been indispensable. We do not have the capacity to take on national issues alone, so we are heavily reliant upon the strength of related or kindred organizations like the NOFA-IC, NOC, Rodale, Weston A Price, Environmental Working Group, Food & Water Watch, the Humane Society, Cornucopia, Moms Across America and others to represent our views with authority.

Recently, our best efforts have been those that involved the most collaboration. Our excellent “Sourcing Health Locally” event was a joint venture with The Suppers Programs last September. A few months later, in late 2017, the mayor of Princeton, which is home to many NOFA members, reached out to us to help write a proposal for the prestigious Bloomberg Mayor’s Challenge that addresses problems around food waste. On February 21, Princeton was awarded the distinction of “Champion City”, along with $100k, to take our plan to the next level. To make that happen, Mayor Lempert convened representatives from several leading organizations, including NOFA. Every grant application we have prepared in 2018 has involved other parties, including both public and private entities.

The most impactful collaborations are those that bring together people with different backgrounds or viewpoints. Last year, we convened a local grains workshop that brought together conventional and organic farmers. This year, we are all working together on our upcoming Deer Management Symposium. Nothing does more for our movement than an open door with a big welcome mat.

Urban Farming and Cities

Editorial La Finquita Community Garden in Holyoke

Editorial La Finquita Community Garden in Holyoke

The growth of community gardens, educational farms, school greenhouses, college plots, backyard growers, rooftop gardens and container operations in urban areas of the US indicates the current breadth of interest in producing food by city residents. Such a flowering has not been seen in many years. The history of agriculture in cities, however, goes back thousands of years and may surprise some readers. We have traced that history here.

There are of course clear difficulties with such growing in contemporary America, especially issues of soil toxicity and access to land, on both of which we have articles in this issue. The larger strengths and weaknesses of urban agriculture are also addressed here from an agro-ecological perspective.

One of the most striking features of this phenomenon, of course, is how heavily it is the work of people of color, primarily African-American but also Latinx communities. The demographics of marginalized groups in American farming are traced in another article, as well as their contributions to the science, technology, and business aspects of agricultural success.

Our features, one on urban farming in a historically African-American community in Brooklyn and one on a CSA focusing on front-line communities and racial justice activists in Providence and Boston, both illustrate the realities of raising food for urban residents with a special concern for being led by, and serving, people of color.

Many NOFA farmers and homesteaders, of course, are white and primarily rural. Even our gardening and landscaping members are far more suburban than inner city residents. Yet the realities of our work with soil, seeds, tools and weather are closely aligned, wherever we farm. The issues of toxic chemicals, food safety, market regulation, economic viability, crop quality, even succession are very much the same.

It is our hope that with this issue urban, suburban, and rural growers will all see the common features that unite us. Such a consciousness, we feel, can help us forge an alliance in the work we need to do together to address the myriad ills of today’s food system.

Why Aggregators?

Universal Wisc CSAThis issue deals with a reality that all too many organic farmers are having to face – as new, younger people are coming into the market, they are bringing new expectations with them. As excited as they are about local food, they also want convenience, more choice, easier payments, and other features that we have not been good at providing – but that the conventional American food system has delivered in spades.

The market model that is under the most stress now is the CSA. For years pure CSA has been the preferred marketing model for many farmers. You get retail prices, you are paid up front, all your produce is sold, and you have few costs compared to staffing a farmers market or roadside stand, buying expensive boxes and delivering to stores, or paying a middleman or receiving reduced prices when selling wholesale.

Clever marketers have inserted themselves into this model. Touting more choice they have come up with software shopping systems. Promising a wider product mix they purchase from several farmers and sell an aggregated selection from a food hub. Stressing convenience they offer workplace and home delivery. But all these “improvements” come with additional costs which farmers are being asked to pay. What is inherently a low margin business has for some become a no margin business!

This issue of The Natural Farmer focuses on the new forces farmers are having to deal with in selling their products. The pros and cons of these changes are discussed, current research on them is reported, and examples are studied. We hope it is helpful to you in finding the best market model for your farm.

Plants and Pollinators: An Overview

anatomy of a flowerrepublished with permission from
“100 Plants to Feed the Bees”
by the Xerces Society
for Invertebrate Conservation

Sidebars adapted from James H. Cane, Bees (Hymenoptera: Apoidea:Apiformes) published in the Encyclopedia of Entomology,
2008. Vol. 2, pages 419-434

When we observe animals pollinating nearly 90 percent of the plant species found on earth, we are witnessing a process more than 250 million years in the making. Sexual reproduction among plants, from a botanical standpoint, is nothing more than the transfer of pollen grains from a flower’s male anthers to a flower’s female stigmas, enabling fertilization. Once transferred, pollen grains germinate, grow pollen tubes into the plant’s ovaries, and deliver gametes to produce seed and endosperm.

In very primitive plants, this process was carried out by wind or water. Between 245 million and 200 million years ago, however, the first flower-ing plants arose, with the earliest fossil records containing relatives of today’s magnolias and water lilies. During this prehistoric time frame flow-ering plants evolved two major reproductive adaptations: exposed male stamens that bear small, nutrient-rich pollen grains; and enclosed female carpels that protect ovules. These adaptations accelerated plant reproduction (and pollinator diversity), leading to diverse and dominant communi-ties of flowering plants that almost 100 million years ago had spread across the globe.

Plants Meet Pollinators

BeesBeetles, flies and wasps are thought to be the first pollinators, accidentally spreading pollen while feeding on flowers. This set the stage for more complex plant-pollinator relationships to evolve, including prehistoric flowering plants that first attracted passive pollinators by providing sugary nectar, protein-packed pollen, fragrant resins, and vitamin-rich fats.
Flowers then responded to particular pollinators, coevolving with them to provide diverse bloom times, colors, scents, shapes, sizes and rewards, and improving their reproductive efficiency. For example, flattened, large, scented, off-white flowers with accessible pollen, such as magnolia, attracted beetles, while tubular, large, scented, white flowers that bloom at night attracted moths.

Meanwhile, flowers also developed a variety of strategies to avoid self-fertilization and encourage genetic diversity:

• Self-incompatibility
• Physical distance between (male) anthers and (female) stigmas
• Male and female flower structures that are fertile at different times
• Separate male and female plants.

Enter the Bees
The widespread distribution of diverse flowering plants 100 million years ago coincided with the appearance of intentional pollinators: bees. Bees are believed to have coevolved with flowers from predatory wasps. In general, both bees and wasps consume sugars as adults and proteins as larvae. Herbivorous bee larvae eat pollen as their protein source, however, while wasp larvae are typically carnivorous.

Pollen is essential for the reproduction of both bees and flowers, so the two groups have coevolved for mutual success. Adult bees evolved behavioral and physiological adaptations to gather and transport pollen more efficiently, such as:
Buzz-Pollination – Flight muscles can crate sound vibrations that dislodge pollen from flowers

Floral Constancy – An individual pollinator may specialize in foraging one flower type

Pollen-Collecting Hairs – The “pollen basket” and other specialized hairs on a bee’s body carry pollen back to the colony

Although most bees are pollen generalists, capable of foraging on many plant species, many are specialists that forage on only a small group of specific flowers.

What Makes a Good Pollinator Plant?
A flower’s color, odor, shape, size, timing, and reward (nectar or pollen) can increase or decrease the number of visits by specific pollinators. Some examples of how plants “reach out” to bees and others:

Ultraviolet Invitations – Bees can see ultraviolet light but not red light; thus, flowers in the ultraviolet range attract more bee visits, while red-hued flow-ers reduce them.

Color Phases – Many flowers signal pollinators by changing color at different stages of development, attracting pollinators when they need them most, thus increasing the efficiency of the pollinators they depend upon.

Nectar Guides – Contrasting patterns of flower shades, tints, and tones further direct pollinators toward floral rewards such as nectar or pollen, much like the nighttime runway lights of an airport.

Fragrance – Minty or sweet, musky or ethereal, pungent or putrid, floral odors result from variations in chemical compounds. Fragrance can attract par-ticular pollinators over long distances, varying in concentration and intensity according to species, flower age, and site conditions.

Flower shape, size, and timing work together with color and odor to regulate pollinator visits. Abundant and diverse shapes and sizes, symmetrical or asymmetrical forms, arrangements on stems or branches in simple or complex groups, maturing at different rates: these variations can make it easier or harder for visitors to reach nectar and pollen.

For example, shallow, clustered flowers with landing platforms (such as sunflowers) have easily accessible floral rewards and attract many short-tongued pollinators such as sweat bees, beetles, and flies. In contrast, deep or tubular flowers without landing platforms often have hidden floral rewards accessible only by long-tongued or strong pollinators. A classic example of this latter flower type is bottle or closed gentian (Gentiana spp.), whose flowers remain closed and depend for pollination on bumble bees, which pry the petals apart and climb right inside.

Finally, many plants bloom according to a distinct seasonal rhythm – their phenology – which may be closely timed with the life cycle of specific pollinators. Others, meanwhile, bloom continuously or irregularly during the growing season, attracting many different types of pollinators. These rhythms can invite or exclude different pollinators depending upon the season or even the hour.
Risks and Rewards of Flower Foraging

Of course pollinators most often visit flowers for nutrient-rich food rewards: pollen and nectar. The availability and quality of these rewards vary de-pending on time of day, environmental factors, and an individual plant’s life cycle. And from the perspective of a bee, butterfly, or other pollinator, sever-al factors can make a particular flower useful, or not.


bee life cycle

The bee life cycle is illustrated using the alkali bee: (top left) egg atop a completed provision mass. Note the polished waterproof cell lining applied to the soil matrix; (top right) third instar larva feeding on remaining provision; (lower left) prepupa, the post-feeding larval resting stage; (lower right) two pupae (removed from their nest cells)

Floral rewards include pollen, nectar, oils, and/or resins, depending on the plant species.

Pollen, the most protein-rich of these rewards, is essential to bee reproduction. Once gathered, adult bees typically mix pollen with nectar and glandular secretions to form a nutritious “bee bread,” which forms the diet of larval bees. Pollen grains vary from 10 to 100 micrometers in size, have distinctive shapes, and commonly contain protein levels ranging from 2 to 60 percent (including 10 essential amino acids, as well as varying concentrations of carbo-hydrates, lipids, sterols, and other micronutrients). While some bees, such as the common European honey bee, are generalist pollinators whose diets are not restricted to particular pollen types, others are specialists of pollen from particular flowers, including various mining bees, cellophane bees, and resin bees.

Nectar is composed chiefly of carbohydrates and water, with low levels of amino acids, lipids, proteins, and various vitamins and minerals. Carbohy-drates, primarily the sugars sucrose, fructose, and glucose, can range in concentrations from 10 to 70 percent based on species and weather. It is this sug-ar-rich food source that fuels adult bees, butterflies, and a myriad of other flower visitors, such as bats and hummingbirds. Nectar secretion, even within the same species of plant, can vary depending on humidity, precipitation, time of day, temperature, wind, latitude, soil, and various other factors. In turn, the pollinators visiting those blossoms may encounter short-term booms and busts of nectar availability.

Oils and Resins are secreted by some flowers to attract bees. Specialized floral glands produce calorie-rich, medicinal oils that are regularly collected by a few bees (for example, Macropis spp. and Melitta spp.) and mixed with pollen and nectar for feeding and medicating larvae. Most likely, such flower resins first evolved to protect the plants from herbivores or disease. Eventually bees came to use them as a food source, and as a resin for constructing anti-microbial and wa-terproof nests.

Nonfloral Rewards
Nonfloral (or “extrafloral”) rewards include nectar, honeydew, fruits and saps.

Extrafloral Nectar is produced by many plants as sugary droplets from glands on leaves, stems, and other nonflowering plant parts. These nectar droplets attract beneficial predatory insects, such as ants, beetles, flies, mites, spiders, and wasps – all of which may attack plant pests. Among some plants, these extrafloral nectaries may supply even more nectar than the flowers do themselves. While less showy and aromatic than flowers, extrafloral nectaries are usually open and exposed for easy access by many types of beneficial insects (although not infrequently they are guarded by territorial ants!)

Honeydew is the sugary excrement of sap-feeding aphids, scale insects, whiteflies, and some butterfly caterpillars (mostly the blues, in the family Lycae-nidae). Like extrafloral nectar, it is eagerly collected by many beneficial insects, including ants, bees, and wasps. In some locations, in fact, aphid honey-dew is found in large enough quantities to produce small surplus honey crops. Honeydew is readily accessible but occasionally it, or the insects producing it, are guarded by ants. Think of ants tending aphids as though they were livestock, and you have a fairly accurate picture of this unique insect relation-ship.

Propolis, also known as bee glue, is a resinous sap mixture collected from plants by bees and harvested by humans. Particular plants, including conifers and poplars, exude these resins from buds or from injuries as a natural antimicrobial defense. Honey bees collect propolis to construct and defend hives, weatherproof small cracks and holes, smooth surfaces, dampen vibrations, and protect themselves from bacteria, fungi, mites, and other intruders. Hu-mans harvest and use honey bee propolis in cosmetics, soaps, medicines, and wood polishes or varnishes. Species of solitary mason bees also collect propo-lis to construct, partition, and seal nests.

Other Rewards
Leafcutter-and-Carpenter-BeesBeyond pollen and nectar, plants sustain pollination in several other ways, and the most familiar of these is as caterpillar food for butterflies. With only a few exceptions, the vast majority of butterfly and moth caterpillars are herbivores that feed exclusively on plant foliage. Depending on the species, those caterpillars may be generalists, which can feed on many types of plants, or specialists with a very narrow range of plants on which they can successfully feed.

The specialists often acquire defensive chemical compounds from the plants they feed upon (such as alkaloids, cardenolides, or glycosides) that make those insects unpalatable or toxic to predators. For example, milkweed butterfly caterpillars such as the monarch and queen feed exclusively on milkweed (As-clepias spp.) foliage, which contains toxic cardenolides that repel most vertebrate predators.

Other than food resources, plants also offer nesting, egg-laying, and overwintering resources for pollinators, such as hollow or pithy canes; stalks, stems, or twigs; leaves, petals, or plant fibers; and exfoliating or peeling bark. Plants with hollow or pithy branches, such as brambles (Rubus spp.), elderberry (Sambucus spp.), and sumac (Rhus spp.), are used extensively as nesting spaces for a wide range of wild solitary bees and wasps.

Nearly 30 percent of North American native bee species nest in hollow stems or abandoned beetle borer holes – including leafcutter bees (Megachile spp.), mason bees (Hoplitis spp.; Osmia spp.), small carpenter bees (Ceratina spp.), and masked bees (Hylaeus spp.).

Leafcutter Bees cut round sections of leaves or petals to wrap around their developing larvae and pollen stores, similar to a carefully wrapped origami package.

Wool Carder Bees (Anthidium spp.) comb plant fibers from the surface of fuzzy leaves and use them to create a wooly, felted plug that closes off the en-trance to their nests inside hollow stems.

Grass-Carrying Wasps (Isodontia spp.) gather grasses to plug up the entrance to their nests, building a grass barrier against other insects that would otherwise steal the food intended for their developing brood

Risk Management
Foraging for food can be risky for pollinators. In the process of visiting flowers, an individual insect may encounter predators, disease vectors, or bad weather. The farther an insect has to travel, and the more energy it has to exert in collecting food, the more risk it is exposed to. Plants that provide an abundance of quickly accessible, nutrient-packed pollen and nectar obviously provide the greatest reward, and allow insect visitors to get on with the business of mating and reproduction.

Diversity in Time and Space
Landscapes with a wide diversity of blooms more effectively sustain pollinators throughout the seasons than do landscapes dominated by only a small handful of flowering plants. At a landscape scale, the presence or absence of different types of blooming plants can result in a “feast of famine” situation for pollinators. Thus, expansive landscapes of weedy or invasive plants such as purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) or Himalayan blackberry (Rubus ar-meniacus) may provide an abundance of food for bees and other pollinators during their bloom period. Once the bloom is over, however, pollinators may suffer as those same invasive plants that temporarily sustained them now crowd out other types of wild plants that would otherwise have provided a variety of flower types throughout the entire growing season.

Creating Habitat
Here are some basic guidelines to consider when creating habitat for bees.

Provide large and contiguous habitat patches. Where possible, pollinator gardens, wildflower meadows, and habitat patches at least 5000 square feet in size offer a wonderfully productive landscape feature for sustaining honey bees, butterflies, and countless wild bees alike. To sustain wild pollinators for crop production on farms, the current research suggests that 10 to 30 percent of a farm should be maintained in natural habitat to support both wild bees for crop production and beneficial insects for natural pest control.
Within these areas, plants can be scattered about but clumps or groupings of similar plants (of at least 4 square feed [1 square meter]) seem to be espe-cially attractive to pollinators. This proximity reduces their foraging time so that they can spend more time mating, nesting, and raising future generations of pollinators.

Plant diversity also enhances pollinator populations, as previously mentioned. To attract a great diversity of wild bees, a landscape should feature at least 12 to 20 species of flowering plants and have at least three species of blooming plants at any given time.

Most important, whatever you plant, the habitat must be protected from insecticides. We recommend at least a 50-food-wide buffer (preferably 100-foot) between any pollinator habitat and areas such as cropland where insecticides are used.

Native plants should always be prioritized in creating pollinator habitat. While nonnative species can provide complementary benefits (such as cover crop plants for enhancing soil health, or edible landscape plants such as fruit trees), native plants typically offer the best adaptation to their environment and they have co-evolved with the many bees, butterflies, and other wildlife within their respective regions. Ideally, we encourage you to protect, collect, and sow seed from native plants that originate within or near your own community.
While native plants are ideal, introduced plants are often an irreversible presence in our humanized landscapes. Many of these species can offer copious floral rewards for pollinators. Select introduced plants with caution, however, and carefully avoid invasive or noxious plants to protect native plant com-munities and the wildlife that depend upon them.

Why “Carbon Farming”

Collard greens in mown living legume mulch. This is a great way to build carbon while growing annual vegetable crops.

This issue of The Natural Farmer focuses on the question of how organic farmers in the northeast can adopt methods that build soil carbon. This is a pressing question, as readers of this journal know, because greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide, have been building up in our atmosphere from burning fossil fuels and uncovering soil. Those gases trap solar heat and warm the globe, causing extreme weather events, melting polar ice, and making the planet more and more uninhabitable.

Reversing global warming will require drastic reductions in emissions, which will be a challenge to our consumptive way of life. But reductions will not be enough. Greenhouse gases have long half-lives and will remain active, unless removed, trapping and building atmospheric heat for another century.

To avoid that we need to return much of the carbon that we have taken from the soil. The only feasible method to use for this is the biological process of photosynthesis by which plants use sunlight to break apart carbon dioxide and water, recombining them to form carbohydrates and oxygen. Some of those carbohydrates are exuded by plant roots into the soil and drive an underground ecology that both strengthens plants and sequesters some of that carbon.

Farmers are the primary people who manage soil and plants on this planet, and we are in the best position to return that soil carbon. There are three reasons why we might want to do this. First, it is our best hope to survive on a habitable planet. Second, governments are going to get involved in requiring soil practice changes, and they are likely to do so by setting up incentive programs that can benefit farmers who adopt these changes. Third, carbon in soil means bigger, stronger, healthier crops.

The biggest change we must make involves not exposing bare soil to the air. Every time that happens, soil carbon is oxidized and becomes carbon dioxide. Tillage is a primary offender in exposing soil. Organic farmers, particularly, use tillage to control weeds and prepare beds for planting. We need to find better ways of doing these, and to harvest so that soil continues to be covered after a crop is taken off.

Another way to destroy soil carbon is by farming with synthetic toxins, chemicals and fertilizers which either kill or shut down the underground organisms that feed plants and store carbon. Organic farmers have wisely rejected such chemicals, and have found natural materials and processes that encourage, rather than undermine, this soil ecology.

Farming in ways which will build more soil carbon won’t be easy. But farmers have always been tinkerers and innovators. Some are already experimenting with methods to keep soil covered with green plants: using cover crops, extending the season, raising more perennials. Others are trying to manage weeds by solarizing them, shading them out, or using cover crops and mulches. Some use nutrients from rock powders, brown and green manures, fermented fungal products, and inoculants that enable biological solubilization and fixation.

This issue of The Natural Farmer explores early steps in this direction. We interview farmers experimenting with these practices, read some science on the problem, view a presentation by a pasture expert on sequestering carbon, learn about a few practical testing protocols to measure carbon’s impact in soil, and see what is being tried at one of the region’s premier agricultural companies.

From what we are learning, raising organic annual vegetable crops is one of the more challenging kinds of carbon-friendly agriculture. A lot more needs to be learned, and we hope this issue prompts you to get interested and try out a few things that make sense in your operation. The more of us who are involved and gaining experience, the clearer our path will be!

Farming on Public Land

Homestead Act Stamp

1962 US postage stamp commemorating the Homestead Act

There was a time in our history when the government gave away land to whomsoever would farm it. According to the Homestead Act of 1862, if you were 21 or the head of a household and could put down $18, you could claim 160 acres in the West. You had to settle on it and farm it for 5 years, however, before you got final title. The act was not officially repealed until 1976 (ten years later in Alaska), by which time approximately 10% of the country had been given to farmers.

That act, and the political consensus behind it, were based on the belief that a free people, working their own small farms, were fundamental to a free country. Many Americans still feel that way.

Fig 1.3.4 farms, land in farms, and average acreage over a century and a half without title or sourceCurrently, however, our farming numbers have fallen to less than 2% of us, and high land prices bar anyone without significant capital from purchasing farmland. But determined individuals are finding other routes than land ownership to becoming a farmer. One of these is to farm on public land.

Municipal, state, and federal land is increasingly available for lease to farmers. Sometimes this is seen as the highest use of a piece of land. In other cases the primary use is something else, but farming fits as an additional use that provides secondary benefits to the public.

In this issue we explore that option. We look a little at the history of farm land ownership in the United States, analyze the common terms and conditions involved in farming on public land, and meet some of the people involved on both sides of that picture.

Leasing public land for farming has many advantages, including low-cost access and, often, available infrastructure improvements. It also has many constraints, including issues of public perception, lack of needed authority, limited options to expand, and few incentives for investment.

Is this an option for you? Does your community make its land available for farming? Is this a direction you would like to support as a citizen?

The Amazing Red Wiggler Worm

Red wiggler worms

Red wiggler worms

I raise angora rabbits for their wool. I am a fiber artist and I shear the wool, spin it, knit it and weave it into wearable art. In the summer of 1992 I bought worms at a bait shop to put under my rabbit cages to eat the rabbit manure and eliminate “flies.” One Problem: I bought the wrong kind of worms; these worms migrated in the fall. I then did more reading and found out that I needed to use a special worm–red wiggler composting worms, Eisenia fetida. I ordered red wigglers on the internet from Arkansas–$15.00 for 1000 worms. I ordered 3000 and I didn’t need to order more worms until 2009 when I went into business with a friend as The Worm Ladies of Charlestown, Inc. The red wigglers multiplied and solved the problem of too many “flies.” As a result, I discovered the “magic” of worm castings (poop). My gardens and my potted plants were the best due to this soil enhancer. I now have a much broader perspective of the soil food web. I continue this sustainable environment of rabbits, their manure, the worms, and their castings and my plants.

Vermicomposting is a process that relies on earthworms and microorganisms to help stabilize active organic materials and convert them to a valuable soil amendment and source of plant nutrients.

For me, vermicomposting is much easier than composting. Temperatures differ—composting is done thermophilically; vermicomposting is done mesophilically. Different bacteria predominate with each of the composting processes and each process handles weed seeds differently. Thermophilic composting can be 140 degrees F, it kills low temp bacteria and encourages high temperature bacteria, it may kill weed seeds, and needs to be turned periodically to heat up. Moisture helps but is not required. Mesophilic vermcomposting needs lower temperatures, 40-80 degrees F the ideal—lower temperatures are needed to keep the worms alive. Worms require moisture; they breathe through their skin. You can use a thermophilic stage first.

The advantages of using worms in your compost are that there is no unpleasant odor when using the red wigglers because it is an aerobic process. Vermicomposting dramatically speeds up the decomposition process so the end product is available sooner. Red wiggler worms can compost as much as 35% of waste created in the home and garden. You save money by making your own soil enhancer that is organic, no matter what you feed the worms. Vermicomposting can be done under your kitchen sink, in your garage or basement, or in your yard. It is convenient, interesting, easy, and fun!

Unlike most other earthworms, red wigglers are surface feeders with the ability to consume up to half their body weight in decayed matter each day so household and agricultural waste are an ideal food for the red wigglers who turn it into worm castings – Nature’s perfect food. This species of worm does not migrate so it can be easily kept in captivity if we provide a home, air, moisture and food. The worms do all the work!

Worms are hermaphrodites (both male and female). Each worm can produce up to 2-3 cocoons or capsules per week which hatch out every 3 – 4 weeks producing tiny baby worms called threads. The baby worms that survive will mature to reproductive age in 1-2 months. Under healthy conditions there can be a rapid increase in population available to eat more garbage or to share with a friend. One mature worm will produce 1200 to 1500 offspring a year. Under ideal conditions with plenty of food and room in a well established bin, one pound of worms can double in three to four months.


What are so amazing about worm castings?

Worm castings, a fine particulate matter produced by the worms, increase diversity in the soil. The castings contain a highly active biological mixture of bacteria, enzymes, remnants of plant matter and animal manure. They are rich in water-soluble plant nutrients and contain 50% more humus than what is normally found in topsoil. They also contain a high concentration of nitrates, phosphorous, magnesium, potassium, and minerals such as manganese, copper, zinc, cobalt, borax, iron, carbon, and nitrogen—all in natural proportions.

The beneficial nutrients found in castings are absorbed easily and immediately by plants (unlike chemical fertilizers and manure); they will never burn plants. Worm castings can be sifted for use in starting seeds. Mix with coir or peat moss and vermiculite or perlite. Do not use more than 20-40% castings in the mix. The castings are perfect for use on vegetables or flowers. Incorporate 1 part of castings to 10 parts of soil.

This past summer I attended the Vermicomposting Conference at North Carolina State University. Dr. Norman Arancon, from the University of Hawaii-Hilo, presented twice on the benefits of vermicompost on plant growth. He listed the known benefits of vermicompost.

  • Increases microbial populations
  • Increases microbial diversity
  • Aids in decomposition of organic matter
  • provides slow nutrient release
  • Aids in pest suppression
  • Aids in pathogen suppression. Vermicompost won’t kill or eradicate pathogens. They are still present, but will remain non-virulent if kept in check by other micro-organisms. If the pathogen does attack, the plants will be able to better resist it.
  • Aids in disease suppression
  • Regulates plant growth. If VC tests positive for hormones, fruits are bigger and will flower several weeks earlier.

Dr. Arancon is a huge proponent of aerated compost teas (ACT) vs non-aerated teas (NCT). While both types of teas are created by steeping a “tea bag” of vermicompost in water, aerated teas are made by introducing the use of a bubbler, which over the course of several hours oxygenates the solution, activating a rocking microbial party within.

Compared to NCTs, ACTs are:

  • More alkaline
  • Higher in conductivity and salt as the aeration physically releases salts and minerals into the liquid solution
  • Higher in nitrogen in plant-available nitrate form
  • Much higher in microbial activity in comparison to both NCT and thermophilic compost tea.
  • Higher in microbial biomass
  • Better for plant growth at all stages

The catch is that ACT has a very short shelf life in comparison to vermicompost, losing nearly all of its microbial activity within a few days without use. Dr. Arancon says that cold storage is shown to extend its stored benefit past 150 days, but that microbial activity crashes after 21 days. The liquid tea is an efficient way to transfer its biological and chemical properties to the plants as you have the option to use it as a foliar spray to provide its benefits directly

According to Dr. Arancon, a little bit of aerated worm compost tea at just 1% concentration provides the greatest benefit for seed germination. You could make 100 gallons of some awesome seed sprouting juice with one gallon of vermicompost.”

I have done well with my castings without really knowing it. I have used the vermicompost on my plants and have made the aerated tea and I see the difference in plant growth. I know the rabbit manure helps to create better castings; the rabbits eat bagged rabbit feed as well as comfrey and kale.

Now that I am getting more serious about the castings and the tea, I need to be very consistent in what I am feeding the worms so that testing under a microscope will be consistent. I know where and how my castings are created. To purchase castings from a source other than your own, you should have them tested and know what the worms are fed. To sell castings on any scale, you must have a process and a product that is reliable, repeatable and verifiable. The castings should be in breathable bags.

New Opportunities Ahead

Rhode Island has passed legislation that requires a limited number of food producers to divert the waste from the Central Landfill. The legislation is for restaurants, colleges and universities, and food wholesalers and distributors that produce 104 tons of organic material annually. But it is only if there is a composting or anaerobic digestion facility within 15 miles. Earth Care Farm in Charlestown is currently the only commercial-scale composting site in Rhode Island that takes food scraps.

The Worm Ladies of Charlestown, Inc. along with other worm growers have created a Rhody Worms Cooperative. This Cooperative will establish large-scale and mid-scale vermicomposting facilities throughout the state, with a goal of having these facilities fill the gap of the 15 mile restriction. Food producers could create their own mid-scale worm farm at their facility, creating a cost effective solution. Additional large-scale worm farms can be established in the state to receive food scraps. The potential for the worm farms is the sale of worms as well as the worm castings, using the worm castings to grow more food. For individuals, families, schools and small cafeterias, we would continue to help them set up worm bins for the elimination of food scraps and the decrease of the use of chemical fertilizers. It is the most cost effective means for eliminating food scraps and more.

Our mission is to encourage everyone to take care of their own garbage: first, by producing less garbage; second by composting and recycling what each one of us does produce; third by using worms we quickly and easily return some of what we have used to the earth.

Join us! It’s fun and very rewarding.


Fournier Farm: An Organic Success Story

Swanton, Vermont, is about as far northwest as you can go in Vermont without ending up on that funny little peninsula that sticks out south of Quebec into Lake Champlain. The soil is straight alluvial deposits from the lake, and flat as a tabletop. Rumor has it that this was not a bad place to live, a stone’s throw from Quebec, during Prohibition.

Earl sports his Stonyfield Yogurt hat

Earl sports his Stonyfield Yogurt hat

The Fournier family goes back four generations in Swanton and Earl, current owner of the family dairy farm there, jokes about their bootlegging days. His father, Rene, still owns and operates a farm equipment company in town, and Earl runs the farm with the help of his wife and 39 and 22 year-old sons.

He reflects on the path dairying has taken in Swanton during the last 70 years: “The industrialization of agriculture caused a lot of problems,” he says. “A lot of this started after World War II. A lot of men had gone and they weren’t coming back to the farm. So they started all this mechanization and all these other things to be more productive. They wanted to get more milk with less labor. It was driven by the need for cheap food to fuel our consumer society.”

Organic Dairying

Confronted by similar forces on his farm in the form of declining milk revenues, and faced with a limited land base and problems with cow health, Fournier made the transition to organic production and shipped his first load of organic milk on December 1, 2004. He chose to work with Organic Valley and has been with them ever since.

“Why did I convert to organic? As I told my wife, it was a mid-life crisis. I was better off doing that than chasing young girls,” he jokes. “Really, though, I was trying to find some way to maintain this farm at a reasonable size, without having to expand, and be able to transfer it to the next generation. There were a lot of things in conventional farming that I didn’t like. It is all about pushing cows to high production, feeding in the barn all year round. I didn’t feel it was the best for the animals so I started looking at alternative ways of doing things.

“There were some people,” he continues, “who were already farming organically that were actually quite successful. There was one farmer down by the prison in St. Albans who had a real struggle but when he switched over to organic he began doing well, financially. He’s retired now. There was another one I met through NOFA Vermont who has passed away now. I had several conversations with him. He was really happy with organic and felt it was a better way of farming. He felt he probably wouldn’t be farming at that time had he not made the decision to go organic. Pay prices were good and input costs weren’t so high. Then there was Travis Forgues over in Alberg who was one of the original ones. He played a main part in getting Organic Valley here, because we did need a market, too.”

Earl says that his father Rene, the equipment dealer, was a careful student of local economics at the time.

Some of Fournier’s Holstein cows venture out of the barn.

Some of Fournier’s Holstein cows venture out of the barn.

“He was one of the ones,” Fournier recalls, “who thought we should check into organic. When I asked him why, he said he used to have a customer he never liked. ‘We never wanted that SOB in here!’ he told me. ‘He wouldn’t pay. But now he’s gone organic and is paying right up front. So there must be something in that!’”

Earl began his transition in December of 2003, when the National Organic Program had more lenient rules, trying to attract dairy farmers into the program. At that point the 80 percent/20 percent rule was in effect, which meant that feed had to be only 80% organic and could be as much as 20% conventional. This helped a lot for farms that were buying in grain as feed, which Earl was.

“We didn’t grow corn even when I was conventional,” he relates. “We had problems with birds, it took a lot of chemicals and herbicides, it was a lot of work, and I just didn’t want to bother with it. I didn’t feel it was worth the effort on a farm this size.

When he was feeding conventionally he estimates the cows’ ration was probably 50% concentrates and 50% grass. Using that level of concentrates did make more milk, but entailed more expensive inputs. Now he has dropped the level of concentrates, which he raises on the farm, by almost half. Currently the ration is 72% forage and 28% concentrate, on a dry matter basis.

The dairy now averages 20,000 pounds of milk per cow per year. Most of them are Holsteins, but a few are Jerseys and some are crossbreeds.

Since he converted to organic, Fournier says, there hasn’t been much fluctuation in organic milk pricing.

“I’ve been on it since 2004,” he explains, “and the price dropped only one year. In 2009 we were under a quota, because the economy went down the tubes, but we got paid the same price. This year it went up $3 per hundred because there is a shortage. That is because last year conventional prices were at a record so not many people are converting now. It takes a whole year for the cows to be managed organically before the milk is organic, so they have to be fed 100% organic for that year. That is an expensive period. The handlers will give you a couple dollars per hundred out of their pocket for the transition year, just to help you out. The last couple of farms that transitioned that I know about sold their cows and brought in organic ones so they wouldn’t have to wait that year. But the land still has to be three years out of chemicals.”

Organic management has resulted in important physical results for the cows, Earl asserts. “There is no doubt they are in better health now than when I was conventional. I probably have one cow with a little bit of foot rot, rarely do I see any laminitis now, an infection in the hoof. It comes from stress and high starch rations. Too much of a fluctuation in the rumen pH from that starch load — that is one of the major causes of it. That and too much time on concrete. Some of it is genetic but the majority is caused by the environment. Rarely do I see any laminitis now.”

He used to have to trim feet, but says he has some cows that have been on the farm for three years and he hasn’t had to trim them. That health also comes from a high forage ration.

Overall Fournier feels Organic Valley does a good job marketing his milk.

“They are pretty committed to their members,” he observes. “But it is a balancing act. It is a business. Even though it is a co-op and we own it, that business still has to make a profit. We walk a pretty fine line. But I think they do a good job of being a co-op. They are never going to be 100% what everyone wants. They are a business and have to make some decisions for the business. They have to compete in the marketplace and have quality people working for them. I’ve been a part of many co-ops and I think Organic Valley has done a better job as a co-op that St. Albans here, or the DFA (Dairy Farmers of America).”

Right now Earl’s milk is going to several places for processing. One is Oneida, NY. A fair amount goes into Stonyfield, too. But the co-op has a new creamery where they process 100% grass-based milk.

The milking parlor on Fournier Farm can handle 8 cows at once.

The milking parlor on Fournier Farm can handle 8 cows at once.

“The grass milk gets a premium,” he explains. “It has to be based on 100% grass or forage feed. No grain. You can use molasses or minerals. In the winter it would be hay or silage – hay silage, not corn silage. There are some people who are doing grass milk successfully, I hear. The key to it is the forage and the quality of the forage. Having enough land to grow all that forage is essential. Production is less on grass, for sure, but depending on the quality of the forage it might not be that much less. I can envision Holsteins, well managed on good forage, making fourteen or fifteen thousand pounds of milk a year. I think that is possible.”

Fournier doesn’t have enough land to do 100% grass-based milk. He would have to either reduce the herd size or get more forage. When he did the numbers he concluded that they would have to reduce the herd size by at least 25% to have enough forage. But he didn’t really gain that much by doing it. It was a break-even proposition.

“I was figuring organic corn at $550 a ton,” he explains. “The difference is for us our production per cow — we might be a little bit of an outlier. In the winter I’m feeding 12 pounds of grain per day. Most of that is corn. I don’t buy any soybean meal because our forage has plenty of protein in it. I use a little barley and some flax seed meal because the Omega 3 levels are good for cows.

“We’ll average in the tank from 60 to 70 pounds of milk per cow,” he continues. “But if we were making only 45 or 50 pounds, that 12 pounds of grain would make the numbers quite different. Then we might want to go grass only. The premium is four dollars per hundred weight for grass. And the base price for straight organic milk is $35.05 right now. So the grass premium is about 11 or 12 percent.”


In order to run a dairy based largely on pasture, Earl keeps close eye on his soil fertility. The farm was on a nutrient management plan before going organic and their yields of forage dry matter are essentially what they were then. The only thing that was used before which was stopped by going organic was urea. But he feels they haven’t lost yield because of that. Instead, they are using more minerals such as sulfur or boron, which weren’t being used much before.

“One of the first things we do for our soil,” Fournier relates, “is test it. With cows you have plenty of shit, and manure is one of our big assets. We try to utilize that based on the soil test. We use wood ash for potassium and trace minerals, and poultry compost. We add some approved sulfur and rotate our forages. If the yield drops in a field we’ll plow it up and plant maybe Sudan grass and graze that, till in some winter rye in the fall, and reseed it the following spring. Or we’ll plow it later, in September, plant triticale in it, graze that off in the spring and then reseed it. We have this rotation now where we don’t leave the soil bare. We are always growing something in it. Our organic matter is getting higher now. It runs about 5%. We probably renovate a pasture every 7 years, on average. Grasses start running out and native ones come in. Clover starts dropping down. We do still use some alfalfa.”

Ideally, Earl shoots for a mix of about 50/50, grass and legumes, to keep the nitrogen up. He uses rye grass, festulolium, some fescues – a mix of different varieties. He returns all their manure to the fields. A pit collects everything from the main barn as well as the bred heifer and dry cow barn. What build-ups in the calf and yearling heifer barns in the winter is not exactly composted, but is piled up and ages. Although he doesn’t continuously turn it, the manure and bedding mix does heat up and break down quite a bit. He uses that on land that doesn’t get any liquid manure out of the pit. Or he uses it on fields he is going to seed in the spring — he puts the rye in and then covers it.

“Our forage runs an average of about 60% grass and 40% legumes,” Fournier says. “That is good for cows. It doesn’t cause excess growth because they have plenty of effective fiber going into them. They are digesting it — their rumen is working the way it is supposed to. They have plenty of bacteria in there, breaking down the stuff. It doesn’t build up any acid in the rumen so you don’t get that effect on their feet, which is a major problem with conventional operations.”

The farm’s cows have an average dry matter intake of 52 pounds a day. So it takes a lot of forage to feed them, even allowing for feeding 25% grain.

“It takes, on good ground, maybe one and three-quarters acre to feed a cow year round,” Earl relates. “That’s an average that takes in hay and pasture both. A lot of people say that smaller cows are more efficient on grass. They have less bodies to maintain. I feel that is true. A smaller frame cow would be more efficient out in the pasture because it doesn’t require as much dry matter. It is tough to get more than 35 pounds of dry matter out of a pasture in a day. They have to walk back and forth and you have to have good pasture to start with.

“We have mostly Holsteins right now,” he continues. “I have been crossing them with some New Zealand semen — New Zealand Frisians. They are a smaller cow than the American Holstein. Their genetics are based on grass. It is hit or miss on the first cross but on the second or third cross the size gets down there and they seem to milk exceptionally well – not quite as heavy as a Holstein will, but they will be more efficient at converting dry matter into milk.”

The year before he transitioned, Fournier bought two Jersey heifers. He has kept all the heifers they got out of them, and is transitioning slowly over. He thinks they are efficient little cows and last a long time.

Pasture Management

Fournier Farm has 80 milk cows on 238 acres, close to 200 of which are tillable. Fournier rents another 70 acres. No matter what the breed, he says, the big trick in transition is getting enough adequate forage.

“And on pastures,” he sighs, “that is more an art than a science. Judging it is not like putting it all in a mixer, testing it, and knowing what you have going into them. I figured I needed 25% more forage and actually needed 32% more. That is the key thing – you need enough. You can buy some dry hay from out west, but it is $450 to $500 a ton by the time you get it here. I have bought in baleage, but it is hard to find good quality organic. Finally I found another 30 acres to rent.”

Fournier puts his cows out on new grass after every milking. They have moveable fencing and move it twice during the day. It’s not a hard job, he insists, but it has to be done every day — if you want to maximize that dry matter you have to manage it. You can’t just put them out on 30 acres and expect you are going to get maximum dry matter into them. There has to be plenty of it, and of high quality.

“I like to see a pasture at least 8 inches tall,” he says. “I don’t mind 10 or 12, really. And it is better for the grass if the cattle don’t graze in the same spot all the time. You have to stay in your pastures and manage them. You want to keep them moving and don’t let them go back to where they were until it is ready. It’s really the only way to do it if you want to make any milk.”

Another advantage of grazing, he points out, is that he is using his equipment less: “We don’t have to harvest as much forage. In the summertime the cows are out there grazing. That’s a big savings right there. You are out there in a little four-wheeler instead of a 150 horse power tractor. It’s a lot cheaper that way.”

Earl, himself, had to learn a lot about grazing when he converted.

“The first year we went back to grazing was tough,” he recalls. “The cows weren’t used to it, they were spoiled. They just hung around the gate and waited to come back in. We weren’t used to it, either. I think I broke down first. I let them in. Being a conventional farmer I had a different mindset. When we harvested hay we used a mower. So that was what I was looking for – that mown look. I expected these gals to go in the field and when they come out it would look like it got mowed.

“But Sarah Flack came down for a visit,” he continues, “and said to me: ‘You know, Earl, you need to give them more feed.’

“I said: ‘I can go over there and open that gate, but I can tell you those cows aren’t going to come to this new field. They’re not done.’

“She said: ‘Well, go over there and try.’

“So I did. I opened that gate and they all came running. After that I was pretty much all set. They were just hungry. I was trying to starve them enough to eat that, but that is not the way to do it. The second year we went out there with more determination and it was better. Things have turned around in these 10 years.

I asked Fournier how about forage plants that the cows don’t like to eat. If they are not eaten or cut, won’t they spread?

“Sometimes I do have to clip pastures,” he agrees, “because there is some stuff in there that needs to be clipped down. Especially in the early part of the spring some of that is going to get by you because it is hard to keep up with it. You are better off a couple of times a year if you have to clip it, just do so. If you don’t it is going to get too mature. You can leave it, but I find it works best if you clip it down and then you are set of the rest of the year. You don’t have all those seed heads hanging around.”

Farm Viability

Earl is proud that the farm recently won the Dairy Farmers of America (DFA) quality award for the northeast. It was based on the milk’s low somatic cell count, indicating that the cows are in excellent health. They are milked twice a day in a double four herringbone-style milking parlor which has four milking stations on each side using a low-line vacuum system. One person can milk all the cows, but usually there are two, one working on each side. During the season the cows go right back out onto pasture.

It takes about a hour and forty-five minutes to milk the 70 cows, Fournier says. Most will come in on their own in the summertime because they want to get back out, but in the winter he usually has to get some of them who might be lying down.

Once a cow has exhausted her milking life, she is still a valuable asset.

“These girls weigh 1200 to 1400 or even 1800 pounds for one of them,” says Fournier. “There is a good market for culls, started by Organic Valley. They make hamburger, but pull out some of the loin as well. Things are pretty good in the organic meat market right now. I guess it tracks the economy in general.”

Although the farm is financially stable for now, Earl wants to pass it on to his sons. That entails some planning.

“I want to make sure my wife and I have a reasonable retirement,” he says. “We have a house down the road and will stay here. Then I want to be sure the boys aren’t overburdened with debt. It is not easy to make sure the next generation can make it on a small farm. At this size it should work, but you have to think about the cash flow and what things might be expanded to generate more income. I try to keep the labor at a minimum and have a reasonable amount of time off. The farm would be over-extended taking on another venture unless one of the family wanted to do it. Each generation has to make a decent living.

“I don’t plan on many changes,” he continues. “We just have to get the paperwork done. All the tax laws for passing the farm along are hard. They tell me it is worth a million and a quarter, so it is not as simple as I thought it would be. The economics are tough , but I’m selling the development rights on about 90 acres.

Fournier is encouraged that so many young people are interested in coming back into farming. He tries to stay up on the latest ideas affecting his operation, reading a lot and attending a lot of meetings. Jerry Brunetti, who just passed away, was at the farm once as a consultant. He gets Graze magazine, reads the NOFA-VT newsletter and The Natural Farmer, and works wi

The External Costs of Food

Farming practice changes

Farming practice changes link to environmental changes leading to
outcomes experienced by consumers. ES = ecosystem services, N20 =
nitrous oxide, NOX = nitrogen oxides.

Most people, when asked the cost of something, would answer with a monetary figure based on how much money it would take to buy that thing.

Well, that won’t do for economists, and it won’t do for us in this issue of The Natural Farmer. From an economist’s perspective, that is simply its market price. The true cost may be far less or far more than the market price. The difference, costs not included in the market price, are called external costs, or “externalities”. An externality is “a cost or benefit not transmitted through prices that is incurred by a party who did not agree to the action causing the cost or benefit”. General types of externalities associated with food include ecological effects, environmental quality, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, animal welfare, social costs associated with labor, and public health effects.

To take an extreme example of food with a high external cost, consider wheat produced in Oklahoma during the drought of the mid-1930s. Settlers a generation before had plowed up the prairie, exposing the rich, 6-foot deep topsoils. During a few years of rain and relatively high wheat prices during World War I this cropping strategy was handsomely rewarded. But the war ended, wheat prices fell, the topsoil carbon was oxidized into carbon dioxide, and when drought returned the soil dried into dust and blew away, darkening the skies as far away as Chicago and New York. What little wheat was able to be grown in Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl had a low market price. But it had a huge external cost. The federal government had to come in and buy up millions of acres of marginal prairie to keep it out of production and artificially subsidize the remaining farmers so they would convert their fields back into prairie. The cost of that wheat was far higher than its price and the American people, who had no hand in planting wheat in the prairie, picked up that cost as an externality.

It may seem pretty daunting to try to estimate the various external costs or benefits of any economic operation. It is. But without including those externalities, how can we accurately evaluate decisions or make public policy?

How about an externality where we are looking at benefits? What is a good example of that?

Try going from a conventional chemical farming operation to a low-input or organic one. The farmer may adopt changes such as a more complex rotation to get ahead of weeds, pests, or disease, less tillage to preserve biodiversity and soil carbon, less synthetic fertilizer and more dependence on minerals broken down by soil biology, and less poisons – again to preserve soil life and allow them to be harnessed to enhance plant health.

Those changed agricultural practices have consequences. Less soil is eroded because of lessened tillage and as a result less phosphorus runs off in surface water. Reduced tillage and fertilizer use results in reduced nitrogen loss as both nitrates and nitrous oxide, leading to lower greenhouse gas emissions. And cutting pesticide use results in less polluted air, water and soil. What are the ultimate consequences of reducing inputs? Off-farm you get better flooding control and drainage from less erosion, cleaner water from less pollutants, mitigated global warming because of reduced greenhouse gases, cleaner and safer air from the use of fewer emissions and toxins.

These externalities benefit all of society (all living organisms, really) not just the people who made the farming management changes.

Estimated costs of food wastage

Estimated costs of food wastage

Economists have developed ways of putting dollar figures on these external costs or benefits. These methods are better covered in a graduate course on economics than here. But, basically, they flow from the costs of repairing damages resulting from the initial activity. Or, in the case of benefits, counting costs not incurred (and thus saved) because damage was prevented.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations has developed these “full cost accounting” (FCA) methods to look at the disturbing reality that one third of all food produced in the world is wasted. This is either because of its failure to reach the market, or, especially in developed countries, because it is discarded unconsumed after purchase.

On the next page is a table suggesting how the FAO evaluates various kinds of impacts from an activity and gives them an external cost in dollars and cents. To arrive at those values, researchers try to measure the values people place on different outcomes. They try to take into account variables such as income and purchasing power, cultural values, traditions, etc. Their estimates usually result in a range of value because for particular outcomes different peoples and countries will have a different willingness to pay or avoid them.

The numbers the FAO assigns to the dollar costs of externalities involving food wastage are surprisingly large!

If you are still with me, you now understand how these costs can be given dollar values. So you may as well stay along for the rest of the ride. How much does wasting a third of the world’s food really cost?
Turns out, once you factor in the impact of this waste on the atmosphere, water, soil, and social costs as well as the economic ones, the cost is pretty high. For wasted food with a market price of $936 billion dollars, the FAO says the true cost is $2.6 trillion. If you applied that ratio to a household in the US, for every $100 of food you waste by letting it sit in the fridge and go bad, you are also causing someone to pay another $180 of external costs needlessly.

Now we have another, slightly more current argument than the long suffering starving Armenians for why thoughtful children should finish their meals!