Home Farm Experiment

Posted in Abrupt Climate Change at 11:40 am

I’ve long thought that using modern-day victory gardensto counter food shortages from abrupt climate change events or other crises, would run full-tilt into a wall of ignorance that just didn’t exist in the early 20th century. A courageous idiot from Brooklyn decided to prove my point. As he reported in New York Magazine, Manny Howard decided in March to build and live off a backyard farm for the month of August.

His experiment wasn’t completely in line with a real effort to stave off starvation in a crisis.  In a very small area (800 sq ft.) he decided against going vegan and elected to raise livestock in addition to his crops. He also invested significant time, money and effort in preparing his farm – including extensive drainage work and soil replacement.  While completely consistent with his goal of eating local produce, remaking the backyard probably wouldn’t be an option when everyone else is trying to do it too.

His problems ranged from livestock too old to produce, seedlings that died right before planting (can I relate to that one), to a tornado taking out part of his farm a week before he was scheduled to live off its produce.  These problems can be expected to be widespread if there is an emergency need for victory gardens.

Those adventurous souls willing to raise livestock will need to contend with suppliers being offered large amounts of money for breeders by people who have no idea what they are buying.  If you think shady sales don’t happen routinely now, you haven’t listened to children’s stories of how the hamster they bought at the pet shop died after a couple months from what the vet diagnosed as old age. (Old breeders are not retired to green pastures. Read Black Beauty.)

Nature wiping out significant portions of home vegetable plots is not at all unreasonable if abrupt climate change is behind the crises. Even neglecting to throw a sheet over a tender vegetable patch when there is an early frost can shorten the growing season needlessly for novice gardeners.

So why, when Manny was doing what I recommended (more or less), did I call him an idiot? In persuing his goal of self-sufficient dining he almost torpedoed his marriage.  In future I hope he enjoys the produce from his garden on a less intense basis and remembers to plant some flowers for his wife.


Ethanol in Gas

Posted in Abrupt Climate Change, Just A Thought at 2:52 pm

My environmental posts come from a lot of research into scientific papers. This doesn’t. (I’ll research it later, but if anyone has a clue, I’d love to know about it.)

 I’ve been driving in NYC lately. This doesn’t usually give me blinding headaches.  NYC has had ethanol in it’s gas for a long time but now the surrounding areas (that have much cheaper gas) are high in ethanol too.  Is it significantly raising emissions?


Reunion Smalltalk – How Will You Survive Global Warmng

Posted in Abrupt Climate Change at 8:42 pm

Time flies at this time of year . . . finals, graduations, weddings, reunions. I had the pleasure of attending my college reunion. One of the real pleasures of attending a reunion of geeks and geekettes is the lack of pre-reunion angst. As I happily stressed over my daughter’s graduation outfit we continually tripped over mothers agonizing over their reunion outfit. I briefly made a note to self to put getting an outfit on my to-do list and forgot about it. Sure enough, people turned up in everything from jeans and t-shirts to cocktail dresses. What is the point of putting all that effort in graduating from Geek Tech if you can’t get some benefit down the line?

Global Warming, Resource Allocation, Recycling …

This is not to say geeks don’t enjoy angst with their reunions. We spent a lot of time discussing global warming, resource allocation and recycling. We listened to official tales of the need to price resources – specifically fuel – to take into account the full cost of the resource from the time it is produced until all the health impacts are dealt with.

It is 5 times cheaper to light a light bulb with coal in China than to use oil or natural gas. If we can’t convince developing countries of the need to tax dirty fuels now to pay for their health costs down the line, how can we ever expect them to use expensive cleaner fuels or technologies?

Individual stories of the fights with contractors to get them to recycle things like copper from renovations when there are already signs there is a thriving black market in looters stripping copper from newer buildings.

If a contractor can’t be bothered to separate recyclables does one invite a looter to go dumpster diving? Do you get legal releases first?

And the winning campfire story is . . .

My favorite discussion was with a gentlemen very actively involved in creating technologies to remove carbon dioxide emissions from a coal plant and lock them up in the sea or ground (carbon sequestration). Everyone has a back-pocket plan in case the environment really does become toast, but his was a doozy. (As you may have noticed, I favor the US northeast becoming warmer until the Gulf Stream stops, at which point it gets colder. Planting victory gardens and nut trees will help us pull through. Probable chances of this scenario actually occurring – under 10%.)

His scenario called for the world getting hotter (it’s kind of hard to start anywhere else) then having all the forests die off. Bummer. However mushrooms will grow on dead wood. A steady diet of truffles? How bad could it be?
OK. So dead wood is prone to forest fires. Any place we’ve reseeded to cope with the warmer temperatures gets hit shortly thereafter with a nuclear winter created by the soot from the forest fires. So now what do we eat? How about worms? Well – maybe feed worms to chickens and we eat the eggs.

One does hope this is the scenario he pulls out when looking for funding for his carbon sequestration project.


The Downside of Teaching Your Children to Garden

Posted in Abrupt Climate Change at 7:13 pm

When I first moved to town I had a fabulous ‘landscaper’ (that’s what you call the person who mows your lawn on the East Coast).  He wasn’t like the other landscapers in town who would come in fair weather or foul and mow the lawn (no one really minds huge ruts in their lawn as long as the grass is short and they get paid – right?), blow all the leaves away and remove any trace of non-conformist vegetation – even if was the rare new hostas planted by the homeowner all by themselves without paid help.

JB can identify most weeds and plants after a couple of weeks and if he couldn’t he’d tell you to leave them, in case they were those rare seeds finally germinating that you’d planted 2 years ago.  Sometimes he’d cheerfully tell you to not pull the weeds for 5 more weeks because in about 4 the butterflies that ate them would be coming through.  If the ground was soggy or a 100-degree heat wave was going to hit for the next week your lawn wouldn’t get mowed – he didn’t care if it looked terrible – he wanted it to be healthy.  Eventually JB moved on to the care of the snazziest garden restaurant in the city that probably employees a dozen landscapers (I was married there – it really is pretty), but this story is about his past.

I’m not entirely clear where JB picked up his love of gardening but he had it at a young age.  (That’s a long time ago. I think he might even be a year or two older than me.)  In any event, it came as no surprise to his mother when he asked her to watch his ‘cherry tomatoes’ while he went away for a week on a school trip.  Shortly after he got back he was visited by his father who pointed his pipe at one tray and asked young JB – “That would be your brother’s Weed”(& I’m sure he used a capital W) “wouldn’t it.”  JB answered a quick “Yes Sir, and I’ll make sure he gets rid of it.”

Speaking of gardening – don’t forget that Mother’s Day is coming & organic roses not only keep pesticides out of your home, they keep the mothers (and fathers) who pick them healthier than standard flowers.  (I am pretty sure that is not grammatically correct but you get the idea.)
Send Eco-elegant flowers


Stop Your Gardens – We’re Saved

Posted in Abrupt Climate Change at 4:08 pm

Well, maybe don’t stop teaching your kids to garden but there is a lot of interest in saving the planet’s food production by moving it indoors.

The world food supply is vulnerable to climate shifts, the globalization of pestilence and blight, and improvements in crop resistances that can lead to pollinator failures (bees getting mites) or increased allergies. Worse, land for cultivation is shrinking and the population is growing. As a final kick we’re moving food around the globe at an environmental cost that may aggravate all the other downsides.

Green houses and hydroponics farms have been around for hundreds of years but the next generation envisions farming in skyscrapers. The New York Magazine’s recent article on the development of these vertical farms presents the hope to put 30 acres in a place like New York City on one acre of land.

Could this solve a potential food crisis or will it just bring designer food to Manhattan?

Unseasonable freezes and droughts would no longer be a concern. Violent natural events might take down a building or even a region but if most of the world’s supply is stable we should be able to cope with some outages.

Flavor may return to mass-produced food if there is a reduced need to make food transportable for long distances. Blight or pest resistant strains are less necessary if you can stop the problem at the door to the farm.

My daughter hates tomatoes – unless they are the fabulously expensive heirloom varieties. Trying to explain the tradeoff between taste and the need to get more calories to market in a crowded world isn’t always easy. It gets even worse when you try to talk about the need for resistant crops to save more of the world’s starving people but risk that you might kill off needed ecosystems along the way.

But modern farms are thousands of acres. We’re not talking about backyard or roof top gardens that are fairly cheap to start. What kind of dent can a 30-acre farm that might cost millions, make in the food supply?

Serious garden yields aren’t so easy to come by on the net. Some of the most interesting articles carry dates in the 1940s. Assuming the skyscraper uses hydroponics, a thirty story building about the size of a football field or 1 ½ large city blocks ( 1 acre) could keep 1,500 people fed for a year on soybeans or 1,100 people fed for a year on tomatoes. (These numbers are very approximate, based on lab hydroponics yields and one level of plants per story.)

 There is some indication that Eurofresh Farms, the largest hydroponics grower in the world, has much, much better yields (they could feed over 400,000 people a year on their tomatos if the recipients didn’t smash the green houses because they were sick of tomatoes) but their greenhouses are high-tech conventional flat greenhouses that use the sun. The extra hardware needed to light the building may cut yields and 100 years of exerience may pay mega-dividends over a blab-technician’s experience.

  Vertical Farms thinks they might be able to set up a full farm complex capable of feeding 50,000 people a variety of foods, including eggs, in 18-49 stories. I’m not sure that chickens need to be running around  an urban, indoor farm (even if caged) or that they really would want to process the city’s wastewater in the food building. Eliminating both design constraints should make it even more efficient.

Poisonous Plant Picture Gallery

Posted in Abrupt Climate Change, Just A Thought at 9:40 am

Spring is in the air (sort-of – it’s still very cold here) and I’m looking for new disasters to discuss. In my travels I found this lovely Rutgers site  showing the poisonous/harmful plants in New Jersey. Thank goodness it is Mother’s Day and and not Sister’s Day coming up or I could see every cub scout in the state giving his sister a lovely bouquet.


AP gets Silence of the Frogs Wrong?

Posted in Abrupt Climate Change at 7:40 pm

The AP just broke a story that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the authoritative U.N. network of 2,000 scientists and more than 100 governments say that climate change is already impacting species around the globe.

 I would be the last person to argue with this, but they go on to give examples, including a claim that the worldwide drop in the frog population is a result of global warming. The drop in frog populations was noticed as early as 1981 and was widely recognized 9 years later.

A massive amount of research ensued, with acid rain, global warming and other causes listed as potential causes to be investigated. It was determined that global travel had spread the virus and the fungus to areas they had never been before and caused the massive deformity and death of the amphibians.

In 2006 it was reported that extinctions occurred after periods of weather conducive to the spread of the fungus. The bouts of warm, humid weather were tied to global warming.

This does not logically imply that global warming was the primary cause of the extinction. It merely implies that global warming accelerated the timing of the extinctions. Especially prior to 1980, climate swings were still within the range of normal. Once pathogens had been spread it was only a matter of time before the trigger was pulled by normal variations in the weather.

If one is trying to deal with a disaster it’s really important to recognize that more than one may be occurring at the same time. Attributing all emotionally-charged consequences to your favorite disaster just makes it more difficult for the average layman who will have to push the solution to figure out what is going on.


Don’t Save the World With Bamboo

Posted in Abrupt Climate Change at 3:49 pm

Time magazine helpfully laid out things people can do to cut done on carbon emmisions.

As part of their recommendations to cut emmisions they suggested planting bamboo.  Don’t do it! Bamboo will crowd out native species (that might not survive a significant warming trend, but why push them out?) and make attempts to later farm the land very difficult.

Plant a nut tree instead. (It’s a much better adaptation strategy and results in a tasty harvest even if disaster doesn’t strike.)


Help Juneau . . . Not That They Asked

Posted in Abrupt Climate Change at 9:21 pm

Juneau Alaska has an interesting community planning / environmental disaster problem.  They have a section of town that they know is vulnerable to avalanches. This section is built-up and has had some damage before. (17 houses in 1962). The city isn’t willing to buy everyone out, a cheaper alternative than building snow barriers that may be counter-productive anyway.

In 2004, Alaska was apparently in a state of denial. They had the highest per capita avalanche death rate in the country, failed to implement state mandates for an education and forecasting program, and failed to get a cut of Federal funding for avalanche programs. Volunteers filled the gap.

Volunteers put together a shoestring program to educate and warn of avalanche dangers. In 2006 they were able to get funding to expand the forecasting capability. They are still short of their goal of getting a government-funded, voluntary buyout of at-risk areas but they’re taking actions that have cut fatalities 60% in other areas where they have been tried.
Any suggestions for them? (Put your comments here. I’ll write them up and forward them to www.avalanche.org.)

My own suggestion involved selling local “tourist” businesses advertising space on their site. – A potentially significant source of revenue in a 2006 budget of $200,000.


Gardening is the Answer . . .

Posted in Abrupt Climate Change at 8:40 pm

What is the single most effective thing you can do to help your kids learn to respond to a global crisis? Teach them to grow a vegetable garden.

Name that Crisis

  • Problems with the economy are causing food bank shortages? Teach your child to grow food to donate to the needy.
  • Weather patterns cause a crop to fail? Americans won’t starve but the replacement food they buy will come from somewhere and the original customers might have difficulties. Your own food supply can help.
  • Avian Flu? Having fresh vegetables can cut down on trips to the grocery store.
  • Storms cause flooding that disrupts food transportation? Again, a source of food in the backyard can be a nice safety cushion.

Gardening can make a significant difference – during WWII victory gardens supplied 40% of the US food requirements during the summer months, freeing up fuel to use in the war effort.

Guiding a toddler to plant carrot seeds – even if they all end up rather closer than you might plant them, can give a child a huge sense of accomplishment as they thin the growing plants and see the progress of the carrots. Older children can make a significant contributionto the family table.

My then three-year-old son never complained about the long hours I would work in front of the computer – he just would come in and invite me to go out and dig with him – not in the sand box – in the garden. He almost always succeeded.

Now is the time to sit with your youngster and plan just how you might maximize the produce from a small plot – broccoli planted soon, lettuce, amongst the tomato plants, and finally, fall squash. (That’s not necessarily an optimum plan – just the things I like and have time for.) Take a soil sample with your child and discuss the science behind pH, then start to adjust if necessary.

If best-comes-to-best and the disaster never occurs? Maybe your child will just acquire a lifetime hobby. This is bad?