Noelle Swan

Archive for the ‘Food Security’ Category

Beyond the Numbers: The Lure of the Family Farm

In Food Security on April 30, 2013 at 1:46 pm

This article was first published by on April 30, 2013.

The Reinitz Family of East Henderson Farm.

The Reinitz Family of East Henderson Farm.

The family farmer is making a comeback with a starring role in the new American dream.

In recent years, the number of individual farms in the United States has increased for the first time since World War II, according to the 2007 Agricultural Census, the most recent data compiled by the USDA. A new wave of beginning family farmers have headed back to the fields, driven by a desire to connect with the land, frustration with the industrialized food system, and high unemployment rates.

The majority of new farms are very small, earning less than $10,000 per year. They tend to be run by younger farmers, two thirds of whom rely on off-farm work to supplement farm income, the census revealed. As with any new business venture, it can take several years to begin to turn a profit. Even then, margins are slim and risks are high. These are not exactly favorable investment conditions.

However, despite massive barriers to entry, a high level of risk, and the promise of an uncertain financial future, something is drawing new farmers to the field.

For some, like Marty Travis of The Spence Farm in Livingston County, Illinois, farming offers something else, a chance to experience “purposeful living and purposeful work.” Rather than pursue the conventional model of petroleum-based monocropping, he and his wife Kris have joined a growing movement that seeks to reconnect consumers with the land through local, sustainable, diversified farming.

Like many of today’s beginning farmers, the Travises got their start as part-time farmers, cultivating just a single acre of their farmstead. Today the couple and their son Will work 50 of the farm’s total 160 acres, raising American Guinea Hogs, growing Iroquois White Corn, tapping maple syrup, and harvesting wild paw paws.

When the Travises planted their first acre in 2004, they knew very little about the business of farming, even though The Spence Farm had been in Travis’ family for eight generations. His parents had never worked the land themselves, opting to lease much of the property to tenant farmers. That meant that like many of today’s beginning farmers, the Travises did not have generations of family farming knowledge and industry relationships to tap into for their own farm business.

During much of American farming history, knowledge passed down almost exclusively from father to son. However, in the last half-century, many farmers’ children have opted to head for cities and suburbs rather than carry on the family farm. Many of today’s younger generation of farmers striking out a new path like the Travises have encountered a steep learning curve associated with each crop and every animal.

Likewise, the business of farming comes with its own series of trials and pitfalls, right from the start.

Many would-be farmers find themselves stuck at the beginning, unable to access land or credit, explained Jennifer Fahy, a spokesperson for Farm Aid, the annual benefit concert turned family farmer advocacy organization started by musician activists, Willie Nelson, Neil Young, and John Mellencamp.

Fahy has seen a dramatic increase in interest in small farming, which she attributes to the local food movement and rise in popularity of farmers markets and CSAs. “There is so much interest in folks getting in touch with the roots of their food and so they are inevitably getting interested in farming themselves,” she said.

However, the business plan of diversified farmers like the Travises can be unfamiliar to bankers in charge of start-up loans, Fahy said. Farm Aid helps to connect farmers to alternative funding resources such as new microloans for beginning farmers from the USDA’s Farm Service Agency.

Similarly, access to available, uncontaminated, and affordable land can be a serious challenge for new farmers, Fahy said. She relayed the story of one Massachusetts farmer profiled on the Farm Aid website who resorted to borrowing multiple plots of gardens in several different communities because she could not find a single parcel of land for sale.

Lindsey Lusher Shute of Clermont, New York can relate. After farming two separate parcels of rented land in the Hudson River Valley for six years, she and her husband Ben realized that they needed to find land that they could secure for the long term if they were going to maintain careers as farmers. The couple looked for land to buy but found that “there was no room for a long-term farmer to find land.” They grasped for a community organization to help them with the process. Finding none, they teamed up with another local farmer struggling with land issues and formed the National Young Farmer Coalition to connect young and beginning farmers in 2010.

The Shutes are not the only beginning farmers starting to organize. “It turned out that this idea of young farmers and beginning farmers needing each other and needing to cooperate and work together and find a way to succeed together was happening nationally,” Shute said. Several regional young farmer organizations popped up at the same time as NYFC and have since joined as regional chapters.

Back in Illinois, the Travises established their own community network and reached out to other farmers to create a community network of small farmers that could learn from each other.

“There used to be the infrastructure where folks did work together, but as we quit growing food and went to more conventional corn and soybean crops everyone ended up on their own,” Travis said.

He and his wife began reestablishing those community connections as fledgling farmers. Just one year after starting their own venture, the Travises established a foundation, which organizes workshops on the business of farming, farm machinery options and sustainable practices. They formed a network of 25 farmers to collectively negotiate wholesale contracts and insurance.

However, even with supportive farming networks, farming will always be a risky business. Farms don’t come with 401K packages, sick-time, or even health insurance. Risk is embedded into every aspect of the operation. Crops fail, livestock get sick, and machinery breaks. Even though the market for locally grown produce continues to expand, many local farmers still struggle to eek out a living.

A recent story on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered declared, “Local food may feel good, but it doesn’t pay.” The program highlighted several local farmers in Illinois, who said they constantly struggle to make ends meet, despite the local food boom. One farmer talked about supporting two people on less than $30,000 per year. A flurry of comments on various social media sites declared the financial challenges depicted in the piece to be “a familiar story.” However, others suggested that the kind of success many local farmers seek cannot be encapsulated in a salary.

For the Reinitz family, of East Henderson Farm in the Minnesota River Valley, success has meant becoming self-sustainable. They don’t need a large income because they produce much of what they need on the farm. That was a tough sell for some of their friends and family members who saw savings accounts and retirement plans as evidence of financial security, explained Sally Reinitz. “At first I think people were kind of hesitant to be too excited for us,” she said. Some thought the farm would be a quick little adventure that would soon end. It took several years for others to recognize that their farm was a “real business.”

The Travises, Shutes, and Reinitzes version of success is more abstract than profits. In the words of Sally Reinitz, “I feel that we are successful if we can leave something for our children, not just the farm, but the seed to be better stewards of the land.


Holiday feasts: A time for families to talk about reducing food waste

In Food Security on December 18, 2012 at 5:51 pm


This blog post first was published by The Christian Science Monitor as part of the blog, Modern Parenthood on December 18, 2012.

6394414243_8c65d5467b_zFamilies are finalizing plans for December holiday celebrations, even as kids are scraping the very bottom of their Halloween candy buckets and last month’s Thanksgiving turkey has roosted on parents’ backsides. And this is only the beginning.

The month of December is often a blur of latke platters,Christmas cookies, and endless feasting. While many families stuff themselves until they cannot eat another bite, others struggle to put food on the table.

While the disparities of those with excess and those in need becomes more pronounced during the holidays, the problems of hunger and waste are systemic and persist throughout the year.

On average, American families throw away a quarter of the food they purchase, 50 percent more than their 1970’s counterparts. For a family of four, that can mean that $2,000 worth of food ends up in the trash every year.

According to a recent study from the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) , 40 percent of food produced in America never makes it to the table. At the same time, 47 million Americans depend on government assistance to put food on the table, according to August data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

As the NRDC report points out, agriculture and food production are resource-intensive enterprises, taking up half of all US land, accounting for 80 percent of the nation’s freshwater consumption, and representing 10 percent of the country’s entire energy budget.

Food lost at the consumer level represents an even greater waste of energy resources because it has been through all the links of the food chain from field, to processing facility, to truck, to store, to family minivan, burning through fossil fuels at every step of the way.

Families interested in reducing their waste stream can examine their shopping, cooking, and eating habits. Some families purchase more than they can eat and it spoils before cooking. Others pile too much food on their plates and scrape leftovers down the garbage disposal. Most families likely fall into both categories.

Once families start to pay attention when they waste food, they can make small changes in their habits that can lead to less waste in the trashcan and more money in the bank.

Getting kids on board, however, can take some careful planning.

With produce racks overflowing with food, and grocery aisles filled with disposable versions of pretty much all household goods, it can be difficult for kids to comprehend the value of food.

By starting a discussion about waste, parents can help to place value on food and start to provide some context for understanding hunger.

Many parents remember staying behind at their childhood dinner table until they had cleaned their plates because, “there are children starving in China that would be glad to eat that food.”

Today, parents are more likely to encourage children to listen to their bodies and avoid overeating. That’s an important message, especially in the midst of the current obesity epidemic. However, on its own, it can inadvertently promote food waste.

Parents can encourage children to start with smaller servings and assure them that if they want more they can come back for more. Some parents may find it useful to resurrect the clean plate rule, but with the message that kids should eat what they take, rather than eat everything parents serve up.

Taking the kids to hand out bowls at a soup kitchen or deliver food to a food pantry can help give the idea of hunger some context.

Where Waste Meets Want

In Food Security on October 22, 2012 at 9:30 am

This article first was published in print and online by Spare Change News on October 19, 2012.

  The first time Ashley Stanley walked into the back room of her local grocery store in search of discarded food, she found towers of eggplants, tomatoes, and potatoes rising up around her. The produce was not spoiled or rotten; it simply no longer fit on the display shelves and had been moved off the floor to make room for fresher shipments. Dumbfounded, she asked if she could have the food. She loaded up her car with as many vegetables as she could and drove to Pine Street Inn, a homeless shelter in Boston.

A week earlier, Stanley had been out for lunch with her mother. She had no idea that a new career would be on the menu. “I guess you could call it an‘aha moment,’ although I hate that term,” Stanley said, recalling how she came to start Lovin’ Spoonfuls, a food rescue program based in Brookline. It was December 2009.

“Everything you hear around the holidays is such a concentrated message around hunger. ‘There’s not enough to go around.’ ‘Give what you can give.’ We were being inundated with it,” she said. “But there we were at lunch, with all this food that I knew we weren’t going to be able to finish. I just had this moment with a little bit of electricity that said, ‘We can’t be the only ones looking at [leftover] plates of food.’ I thought, ‘Maybe the message that there’s not enough isn’t the right message.’ ”

A recent study from the Natural Resources Defense Council lends credibility to Stanley’s suspicion that the country is not experiencing a lack of food. Nearly half of the food produced in the United States never makes it to the table, according to the study released in August 2012. Food goes to waste at every link in the food chain. Farmers plow unharvested crops into the ground, grocers discard unsold food by the caseload, and restaurants pour mountains of leftovers into dumpsters. In total, Americans throw away $165 billion worth of food every year, 40 percent of all the food produced in the nation.

At the same time, 1 in 5 Americans was unable to pay for food at some point in the last year, according to a recent Gallup poll. Forty-seven million Americans participate in the federal Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps). In Massachusetts, more than 870,000 people relied on SNAP benefits to purchase groceries in 2011. Many SNAP recipients count on food pantries, soup kitchens, and school lunch programs to make those benefits last through the month.

When Stanley first showed up at the door to Pine Street Inn with her arms full of vegetables, she said the staff seemed shocked to see her. “They looked at me like, ‘Where did you get all that food?’ I just blurted out, ‘There is enough food out there. We have to go get it,’ ” Stanley recalled.

Since then, the former corporate luxury retailer has redistributed more than 150,000 pounds of food to area homeless shelters, domestic abuse safe houses, and food pantries. She started out delivering food in her own car while seeking donations and grants. Today, she has three employees, two trucks, and a waiting list on both sides of the equation.

Lovin’ Spoonfuls is just one of a handful of food rescue organizations in the Boston area. While Lovin’ Spoonfuls focuses on diverting the stream of food waste at the retail level, Boston Area Gleaners in Waltham has found a bounty waiting to be picked in the fields.

Farmers rely on a fair amount of guesswork when planning their crops, explains Laurie “Duck” Caldwell, executive director of Boston Area Gleaners, a nonprofit organization based in Waltham that started gathering crops left in the fields after primary harvest in 2004 and incorporated in 2007. Farmers often plant more than they need in case they lose a portion of the crop, and then they end up with more produce than they can move. Farmers also try to lengthen the harvest season of a crop by planting rows two weeks apart in succession. A particularly hot summer, however, could cause the entire crop to ripen simultaneously. That is exactly what happened with much of the area’s corn crop this summer, Caldwell says, making it a boon season for gleaning.

In addition to surplus crops, farmers often pass over crops that do not fit the homogenous shape or color that grocery stores demand. Caldwell says that while some of the fruits and vegetables they pick do not look as perfect as what is found in the store, they have the same nutritional value. She adds that she tells her volunteer gleaners only to pick what they would eat themselves. “People who utilize the emergency food system have enough going on in their lives. They don’t need to have the fact that they are getting leftovers thrown in their face.”

Last year, Boston Area Gleaners collected 45,000 pounds of produce. It distributes about half of what it gathered to food pantries in Boston-area towns, including Lexington, Waltham, Medford, Arlington, and Belmont. The other half of the gleaned produce goes to Food For Free in Cambridge, which distributes it to 80 shelters, pantries, and meal programs in Boston, Cambridge, Medford, Peabody, Chelsea, and Somerville.

Food For Free has been a fixture of the local emergency food system in the Boston area for more than 30 years. In addition to food donated by the Boston Area Gleaners, Food For Free’s produce rescue program collects leftover produce from local grocery stores, the Chelsea Produce Market, and 10 area farmers’ markets.

Recently appointed director Sasha Purpura explains that Food For Free aims not only to bridge the gap between waste and want but also to help bring healthy choices to those in need.

“The people eating from pantries are just like everybody else,” she notes. “They want the same food. These are normal people that often just a few weeks ago shopped at the same grocery stores you and I do.” Through donations from farmers’ markets and Boston Area Gleaners, Food For Free is able to provide extremely fresh and healthy food. She says that much of the produce makes it from farm to pantry shelf within 48 hours.

Sarah and Ryan Voiland of Red Fire Farms welcome gleaners onto their diversified organic farm in Granby to pick what the farm cannot use. The company also donates leftover produce from its community supported agriculture (CSA) program to Food Not Bombs, a meal program run by volunteers. Sarah Voiland says that they have donated $95,000 worth of produce simply because they do not want the food to go to waste. “We need somewhere to send this produce to. We do not want it to be going to a dumpster; we want it to be going somewhere we can use it. We put a lot of energy into growing the food. Having it go to waste would be very sad.”

Every Sunday, volunteers from Food Not Bombs pick up fresh produce from the Voilands when they come into Jamaica Plain to deliver food to their (CSA) members. They cook up a simple hot meal in a donated kitchen in Allston, strap it to a bike-cart that resembles a ladder with training wheels, and ride it across the river into Central Square, where they set up on the Carl Barron Plaza. They pop up a table, pull on disposable gloves, and start serving meals to whoever comes by until they run out of food, usually for about two hours.

Lily Sturman of Allston signs up to cook and serve meals for Food Not Bombs whenever she can. “It’s really important to help feed who we can, but also to give some degree of visibility to the problems of food waste and hunger.”

The people that pick up a bowl of food do not know that they are eating organic vegetables that were just picked the day before. What they do know is that they will not go hungry that night.

Correction Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Boston Area Gleaners incorporated in 2001. They incorporated in 2007.

Climate Change: The Latest Tax on the Poor

In Civil Rights, Climate Change, Food Security, Poverty, Social Issues on October 19, 2012 at 9:29 am

This article first was published in print and online by Spare Change News on October 19, 2012.

Photo Credit:, Nancy Battaglia

“Poor people are not something that we talk about too much or pay much attention to in our world,” Bill McKibben said, sipping a glass of sparkling water to nurse a throat hoarse from a weekend of meetings and rallies.

McKibben knows something about poverty. In the early 1980s he helped to start a 15-bed homeless shelter at The Riverside Church on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He spent several months living in the shelter system himself and wrote about his experiences for The New Yorker in hopes of shocking the public into action.

In recent years he stepped out from behind the reporter’s role as an observer and became a leading participant in what he calls the greatest battle the world has ever seen, the fight to halt climate change.

“There’s nothing we’ve figured out how to do that makes life harder for the poorest people on this planet than climate change, and the great irony is that those people have had nothing to do with creating the problem,” McKibben said, hunched over in a rattan chair before a fundraiser at a private home in Newton.

He draws a contrast between the industrialized countries that produce the greenhouse gasses linked to climate change and the developing countries that suffer the effects.

Rapidly industrializing China contributes more carbon dioxide than any other country, largely because of its population size. With less than a quarter of China’s population, the United States comes in a close second with more carbon emissions than India, Russia, and Japan combined. Americans contribute more carbon dioxide per capita to the atmosphere than most people on the planet, second only to Australians.

The developing world has experienced the first effects of climate change, McKibben said, citing outbreaks of dengue fever linked to increasing flooding in Bangladesh, diminished glacial water supplies in Peru, and territorial loss due to sea level rise in the island nation of Maldives. Those countries rank 55th, 61st, and 161st in carbon emissions.

He adds that this years’ widespread drought in the United States, which he attributes to climate change and has led to a 50 percent increase in the global price of corn, has directly affected poor families around the world.

Later, leaning casually against a wall, with hands thrust deep into his pockets and sneaker-clad feet crossed at the ankles, he addressed a small crowd of about 50 environmental activists, professors, and potential donors.

“All over the world, there are people that right now are scrambling around to find enough coins to buy enough corn meal to make dinner for their families tonight,” he told group crowded into the living room and perched on couches, radiators, and the floor.

While the scientific community debates what role climate change may or may not have played in the recent drought, a consensus among climatologists are clear that climate change certainly will bring more extreme weather conditions such as drought in years to come.

McKibben has been warning of the dangers of climate change since he published his first book, The End of Nature, in 1989. He worries that time is running out. Small changes in lifestyle such installing energy-efficient light bulbs and toting reusable bags to the grocery store will not be sufficient to halt or even slow climate change, he said.

McKibben aims to take on oil and gas giants where they will feel it, by going after their stockholders.

His latest campaign calls on universities, institutions, and churches to sell their stock holdings in fossil fuel companies, in a collaboration among, 350 Massachusetts, and The Better Future Project, an environmental advocacy group that seeks a transition to renewable energy.

McKibben scoffs at the idea that Americans are addicted to fossil fuels and suggests that the average American would be just as happy to use energy derived from the sun and the wind as from oil, gas, and coal.

Instead, he charges that the fossil fuel industry is addicted to huge profits, which it has invested in lobbying against policies favoring a shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

“They intimidate everybody in Washington. The fossil fuel industry is spending more money on this election than anybody else. Nobody dares offend them and as a result the planet is silently melting,” he said quietly as guests fist started to arrive.

Trying to get politicians to listen to concerns about climate change is like waiting on hold for customer service, he later half-joked with the crowd. Listening to the music for 20 minutes is one thing, he said, but after 20 years, it is time to hang up the phone.

McKibben and earned a temporary victory in Washington last year after staging one of the largest acts of civil disobedience in the nation’s history. Police arrested more than 1,200 people surrounding the White House during a 15-day-long protest of Keystone XL, an oil pipeline designed to carry oil drained from the Canadian Tar Sands in Alberta to Texas refineries.

President Barack Obama backed off of the project soon after, and The Boston Globe declared McKibben “the man who crushed Keystone XL.” However, both before the event and while addressing the crowd, McKibben voiced suspicion that once the election is out of the way, the President, either Obama or Romney, will push forward with the project.

“We are not going to stop global warming one pipeline at a time. There’s just too many oil wells and coal mines and pipelines.” Later he added, “We’re going to have to [attack] more at the center of the whole problem, which is the fossil fuel industry.”

This November, starting the day after the election, McKibben and his supporters will board a bus in Seattle and begin a nationwide tour of 25 cities in 25 days, designed to bring public attention and pressure to his call to universities, churches, and institutions to unload their holdings in fossil fuel companies.

McKibben modeled his new campaign after the campaigns of the 1980s that called on organizations to divest from corporations supporting the apartheid government in South Africa. The movement was not widely successful in getting organizations to participate in divestiture, he noted. “But it was everywhere successful in bringing the issue straight to the heart of the discussion,” he added, pointing out that more than 200 colleges and churches around the country did change their investment practices.

McKibben reminded the group that the first calls for divestment from the apartheid regime came from the United Nations in the 1960s. It took more than 20 years for that action to gain sustained momentum. He worries that this time, the world might not have that long.

“If we don’t do this relatively quickly, in fact quite quickly, then it’s not worth doing, because there won’t be the intact planet to deal with,” he said.

Training Program Helps Refugee Farmers Establish Urban Farms in their New Homeland

In Food Security on August 14, 2012 at 11:59 am
Noelle Swan
August 14, 2012

In 1998, a group of Cambodian immigrants and former farmers living in the economically depressed city of Lowell, Massachussets reached out to Tufts University for help. Their objective: to learn the business side of farming. Out of this request emerged the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project, a partnership between Community Teamwork, Inc. – a community action action agency based in Lowell, MA – and the Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition.

Immigrants have flocked to Lowell since the days of the mills. Once hailed as the cradle of the American industrial revolution, the city fell into a deep depression with the collapse of the New England textile industry nearly a century ago and has been trying recover ever since.

In recent decades, the city has become a safe-haven for refugees fleeing their war-torn homelands. Today nearly a quarter of residents were born in another country and 40% of residents speak a language other than English at home, according to recent census data. The majority of these immigrants come from rural farming communities in Southeast Asia and West Africa.

To help these refugees leverage their farming skills toward the end of achieving economic self-sufficiency and prosperity, Tufts University developed the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project to provide them with the tools necessary to establish new urban farms, create their own farming businesses, and capitalize on the rising local food movement.

Today, New Entry welcomes both immigrants and American-born students from socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds around the Merrimack Valley, says Kimberly Fitch, program and finance coordinator. Tuition is determined by a sliding scale, ranging from $80-$500. Over the years, the program has evolved from solely teaching business skills to experienced farmers to today providing hands-on training for new farmers and assistance in starting their own independent farms. “We find that the people who have been with us the longest and shown a tremendous commitment to this are the folks who have farming in their blood stream,” says Fitch.

Prior to enrolling in the program all students first take a two-hour long exploratory course, which offers prospective students an overview of the program and encourages them to reflect on whether or not farming might be right for them. “Farming is really hard work. Not only does it take some desire, it also takes a lot of skills,” explains Fitch. “It takes time and a really, really deep sense of commitment. People might realize partway down the road that it’s not the right direction for them.”

Students can choose to enroll in just one training program, a series of trainings, or engage in a career-long relationship with the program through a community supported agriculture (CSA) program. The flagship course, first offered in 2004, focuses on farm business planning. Instructors walk students through writing a business plan, creating budgets, indentifying markets, researching materials and equipment, and developing a crop plan and schedule. This class is also offered as a distance-learning course for students that are unable to attend class in person. Students can take a series of field workshops that teach specific skills from building raised beds, to managing insects and weeds, to post harvest handling. The program exclusively teaches organic practices. Additional courses are available in livestock and poultry management.

Students who have completed the farm business-planning course have the opportunity to lease a plot of land on New Entry’s training farms in nearby Dracut for up to three years. New Entry charges training plot farmers just $675 per acre per year and offers tenant farmers individual technical assistance as well as access to equipment, refrigerated storage, and organic pest management supplies. After three years, the program helps farmers find their own land in the area and transition to independent farming. While most students that enroll in New Entry want to have their own independent farm, the program does offer resources for finding jobs on existing farms around the Merrimack Valley.

Since 2005, over 60 farmers from 15 different countries have graduated from the program from. “For a number of our immigrants what they prefer to grow is what’s familiar to them,” Fitch says. The New Entry website features profiles of several farmers that grow crops from their native country, including amaranth, long beans, Japanese eggplant, bitter melon, hard-kernel corn, and water spinach. Many graduate farmers market their produce through New Entry’s World PEAS CSA even after moving onto their own independent farm sites. Member CSA boxes typically contain half standard crops grown by local farmers and half ethnic crops grown by New Entry graduate farmers.

New Entry is physically removed from Tufts University’s main campus in Medford, but it maintains a strong connection to the university and the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. A handful of students from Tufts University have taken the online version of the business-planning course. One student returned to the program as a distance-learning instructor. Students from the Friedman School can opt to work on the farm as a work-study project. Fitch says that this year a graduate student will be working in the field as the assistant to the technical assistance coordinator.

Funding for the program comes from a broad range of sources and agencies within the USDA. Private foundations, CSA-memberships, and individual donations provide additional funding. As similar organizations have popped up around the country, securing funding has grown a bit more challenging, says Fitch. However, she adds that New Entry strives to support other organizations, offering ideas around best practices, posting learning opportunities, and hosting groups interested in seeing what New Entry has done first hand. “We are providing templates that describe how we operate and how we have grown and evolved over the years,” she says.

Looking forward, Fitch says that she and her colleagues are looking to grow New Entry’s existing programs. “It’s important that we have as much impact as possible.” She adds that she sees growth potential in the distance learning program and hopes to further develop a fledgling national technical assistance initiative.

Ag’s Free Pest Control Under Threat – A Look at the Fungal Epidemic Plaguing Nation’s Bats

In Food Security on June 20, 2012 at 5:34 pm

This article first was published by on June 20, 2012.

While bats have held starring roles in vampire films and decked many a Halloween party, their absence rather than presence could be the main storyline for the real American horror story.

Each summer bats consume thousands of tons of insects that if left unchecked would devour the nation’s crops.

Over the past several years, several species of American bats have come under attack from an invasive fungus responsible for a virus known as white-nose syndrome that has left bat caves littered with bodies.

Biologists estimate that 6.7 million bats have died as a result of white-nose syndrome in the past five years, says Dee Ann Reeder, assistant professor of biology at Bucknell University and principle investigator at the Reeder Lab which researches diseases affecting bats. The implications of this loss are huge, she says.

“For every million bats that have died, 692 tons of insects are not being eaten every summer,” she adds.

Bats perform a multibillion-dollar service for the agricultural industry. So far, the areas hit hardest by the fungus, mainly in the northeastern United States, have not been major agricultural regions.

However, as the epidemic spreads further toward the Midwest and the breadbasket states, biologists and farmers are starting to worry.

The Origins of White-Nose Syndrome

Geomyces destructans, the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome, originates in the caves of Europe where bats are immune to the disease.

Somehow, likely on the heels of a trans-Atlantic tourist, the fungus hitched a ride to upstate New York in 2006 where bat populations had no natural defenses against the fungus, which penetrates into the bat’s wing fibers during hibernation.

The fungus disturbs the bats and rouses them from their winter slumber to scratch the fungus off of their wings (this is how the telltale white fuzz gets on the bats’ muzzles). Once awake, the bats fly off in search of water using up valuable energy stores that were meant to sustain the animals throughout the winter. Eventually, most of the affected bats starve to death.

Since its arrival, the epidemic has continued to spread into the south and towards the Midwest. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, biologists have confirmed cases in Kentucky, Alabama, and Missouri. In areas frequented by both people and bats, biologists have taken particular precautions to reduce the likelihood of humans aiding in the further spread.

Some caves have been closed to the public; others have instituted protocols to remove spores from visitors shoes and gear after leaving the cave.

However, there are no tools to keep the bats themselves from spreading the virus, says Reeder. Her lab has been examining differences between species, asking questions such as why is the little brown bat more susceptible than the big brown bat? Does the bat’s size afford some level of protection?

Others have been conducting drug treatment trials.

“Trouble is that a number of things kill this fungus in a petrie dish, but we don’t know what they do in a hibernating animal,” says Reeder, adding, “It’s really hard to envision how you would treat in the field.”

She says that she has been working with Marcy Souza, assistant professor of veterinary medicine at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, who developed implants to slowly release a drug similar to lamisil, a common treatment for finger and toenail fungus. Again, administration would be a challenge.

This coming year, Reeder says that her lab will focus on understanding the survivors. She will try to answer the following questions: Did they hibernate in a different section of the cave that for some reason that was less hospitable for the fungus? Are they somehow physiologically equipped differently to resist the fungus? Is that trait heritable? Will natural selection be able to kick in before entire populations are wiped out?

So far, the questions far outnumber the answers.

Since European bats are immune, it would seem logical that they might be able to answer some of these questions. However, Reeder says, “European bat biologists are more hands off. Experiments that would be really useful to do probably won’t happen.”

Federal wildlife officials are currently weighing the possibility of attempting to maintain a captive population of bats as an insurance measure should wild populations be lost beyond recovery, says Reeder. However, she adds that most bats do not fare well in captivity.

Without any means to control the virus, the agricultural industry may need to assess how to respond to the loss of the pest control provided by bats. That free service equals over $3 billion a year, according to recent study on the potential agricultural impact of bat decline conducted by researchers at Boston University, The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and the Universty of Pretoria, South Africa. Should farmers lose this free service, they will be faced with a sobering choice: accept increased crop loss due to an uptick in pests, or find some other means of controlling insects.

Boston’s Pilot Urban Agricultural Zoning Program Serves as Model for Integration of Farming into City Life

In Food Security on May 14, 2012 at 9:00 am

This article first was published by

Aside from a little referenced law dating back to the 19th century allowing public grazing for sheep and cattle on Boston Common, Boston zoning laws make no mention of agriculture. In absence of zoning permissions, most agricultural activities are in effect forbidden. “That’s not to say that the city is out there policing people with vegetable gardens,” says Tad Read, project manager of the Urban Agricultural Zoning at the Boston Redevelopment Authority. He adds that without a legal support to lean on, farmers can be penalized if neighbors file nuisance complaints, such as odors from compost and manure application, or squawking of hens laying eggs each morning.

Mayor Thomas A. Menino aims to change that. Last fall he announced a pilot zoning project that would legalize farming on two plots of land that would serve as an experimental model for future integration of agricultural zoning laws across the city. For the pilot, the RDA created what is known as an overlay district. Essentially new zoning laws allowing additional uses were superimposed on top of existing multi-family, residential zoning, Read explains.

The announcement created quite a bit of buzz around pockets of the city. When city officials convened a kickoff and visioning meeting at the end of January, over 250 residents from Boston and neighboring towns converged on Suffolk University to brainstorm how to establish a meaningful agricultural community within the city. The standing room only event was a testament to the burgeoning interest within the city in finding new ways to bring agriculture back to Boston.

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National Epidemic Strikes Fort Delaware Bats; Visitors Helping Curb Spread

In Food Security, Wildlife and Ecology on May 8, 2012 at 4:55 pm

This article was first published online by DFM News on May 8, 2012.

Courtesy: Ryan von Linden/New York Department of Environmental Conservation

As Fort Delaware State Park kicked off its 2012 season last weekend, park rangers and guides started enlisting visitors to help the park’s seldom-seen bats. Visitors to the fort are being asked to assist in the effort to curb the spread of the disease known as white-nose syndrome (WNS) to other parts of the country.

Around 6 million bats have succumbed to a deadly fungus in just five years in the eastern United States and Canada. Some species, such as the little brown bat, have lost of 90-95 percent of their populations. This winter, the culprit took up residence in Fort Delaware State Park.

“Honestly science has never seen a mammalian disease catastrophe like this,” says Holly Niederriter, wildlife biologist for Delaware Division of Fish and Wildlife. “I’m not even sure that the Plague reached these proportions [in terms of percentage of the population killed] .”

Niederriter oversees the state park’s bat program. After finding a few sick bats at the fort this winter, her job instantly got more complicated.

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Study Highlights Fungal Threats to Global Food Security

In Food Security on April 27, 2012 at 4:55 pm

This article was first published online by on April 27, 2012.

Photo Credit: Petr Kosina/CIMMYT

Every year, fungal and fungal-like infections targeting the world’s major crops of rice, corn, wheat, potatoes, and soybeans destroy enough food to feed 600 million mouths per year, says Sarah Gurr, professor of plant pathology at Oxford University. And that figure solely represents low levels of infection. Epidemic infections could drastically compromise the global food system. This news comes at a time when agricultural producers around the world are attempting to intensify food production in order to meet steady population growth.

Gurr published her findings this month in conjunction with researchers from England’s Imperial College, Harvard Medical School, University of Massachusetts Medical School, and the University of California, Santa Barbara, in the scientific journal, Nature, within a broader paper addressing fungal threats to animal, plant, and ecosystem health.

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Anti-Hunger Network Struggles to Meet Growing Need for Healthy Food

In Food Security, Poverty, Social Issues on April 6, 2012 at 4:24 pm

This article was first published by Spare Change News on April 6, 2012.

Nearly one in every 20 households in Massachusetts reported cutting back on the size and frequency of meals from 2008 to 2010, because they could not afford food, according to recent data from the USDA Economic Research Service.

This figure represents only half the picture of hunger in Massachusetts, counting only those that the USDA categorizes as “very low food security.” Just as many households reported having to sacrifice nutrition in order to avoid going hungry.

“These are families where folks are not exactly hungry, but they are relying on cereal or rice and beans for the
last week of the month,” says Sarah Cluggish, director of programs at Project Bread, a Boston-based organization that coordinates anti-hunger services and programs throughout the state.

An extensive network of hunger relief organizations throughout the state struggles to ensure that every family has not just food, but healthy food.

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