Tuesday, September 16, 2008

NYTIMES: backyard bounty goes to food banks

September 14, 2008
Food Banks Finding Aid in Bounty of Backyard
BERKELEY, Calif. — Natasha Boissier did not expect an epiphany while pushing her baby’s stroller exhaustedly around the neighborhood. But eyeing her neighbors’ yards, Ms. Boissier began noticing the abundance of fruit trees — and how much of their succulent bounty wound up on the ground.
“There was all this fruit going to waste,” she said of the apples, pears and plums in her midst. “It seemed like such a natural way to deal with hunger.”
Thus was born North Berkeley Harvest, part of a small but expanding movement of backyard urban gleaners — they might be called fruit philanthropists — who voluntarily harvest surplus fruit and then donate it to food banks, centers for the elderly and other nonprofit organizations.
In an era in which fruit canning, drying and preserving are for many no longer everyday skills, harvesters like Ms. Boissier, a 40-year-old social worker, are bringing a new spin to the concept of U-Pick-’Em. A renewed emphasis on locally grown organic foods, along with higher food prices and increased demand at food banks, has inspired a new generation of community harvesters to search for solutions in their backyards.
“Farmers markets are great for those who can afford to spend $2 on a peach,” said Aviva Furman, 54, whose year-old Community Harvest of Southwest Seattle also offers canning and pruning classes. “But a huge percentage of Americans can’t afford the two cups of fruit a day recommended by the government.”
The concept of gleaning, or collecting a portion of crops on farmers’ fields for the needy, before or after harvesting, goes back to ancient cultures. But it has more recently been taken up by people like Joni Diserens, a 43-year-old program manager for Hewlett-Packard and founder of Village Harvest in Silicon Valley. Ms. Diserens uses sophisticated databases and remote telephone answering systems to track the group’s 700 or so volunteers, 40 receiving organizations, 1,000 fruit-inundated homeowners and, on a recent Tuesday, 780 sticky pounds of French prunes.
They rescue people like Diane Leone, an artist whose property south of San Jose, Calif., contains some 40 unpicked fruit trees, from bees, squirrels, the occasional wild boar and other creatures that gorge on fallen fruit.
“You feel like you’re actually doing something,” Diana Foss, 44, a former astronomer who is now a stay-at-home mother, said as she was sorting plums and prunes recently in Ms. Leone’s backyard. “You pick a piece of fruit and know that someone’s going to eat it.”
The group’s car pools fan out to places like the Community Services Agency in Mountain View, which operates a food pantry that serves a large Russian, Hispanic and Asian population. “Their speed is astonishing,” said Laura Schuster, the nutrition programs director. “They’ll call and say, ‘Hey, we’re hitting an orchard in San Jose.’ Then they walk in with 1,000 pounds of plums.”
Ms. Schuster added: “We always worry about nutrition. When we get the fresh fruit, we worry less.”
Over the last decade, organizations like Feeding America, a nonprofit agency that distributes food to more than 200 food banks around the country, have introduced more fresh produce to respond to high rates of poverty and obesity and a lack of access to nutritional food in low-income neighborhoods. About 18 million pounds of fresh produce was distributed nationally 10 years ago, said Rick Bella, the director of food purchasing. This year, that has grown to 150 million pounds, 30 percent of it donated by corporations and individual farmers.
But affordability continues to be an issue, Mr. Bella said, which is where the fruit philanthropists come in. “It’s a shame to say, but a package of Twinkies per pound costs a lot less than a pound of fresh apples,” he said. “Backyard gleaners make a difference.”
Amy Grey, a graphic designer and mother of two in Moscow, Idaho, became a harvester after inadvertently growing 200 heads of lettuce in her backyard. “I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to plant the whole packet of seeds,” Ms. Grey said. “We have friends,” she added, “but we don’t have that many friends.”
A local food bank was so receptive that Ms. Grey and several volunteers joined with a local environmental group before striking out on their own. Her 50 or so gleaners picked 10,000 pounds of fruit last year, including more than 2,000 pounds of cherries, despite June snows. “It’s different than dropping off cans,” Ms. Grey said. “It’s really about tying the community together.”
Backyard harvests gleaned for the common good echo the Victory Gardens of World War II, when mandatory food rationing resulted in citizen gardens, said Amy Bentley, an associate professor of food studies at New York University and the author of “Eating for Victory.” During the war, Dr. Bentley said, the private yard became “a place of civic obligation.”
Frederick L. Kirschenmann, a fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University and president of the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, N.Y., said that with increased food costs, “we are seeing changing attitudes about our food system.”
“People are becoming more engaged,” Dr. Kirschenmann said, “whether growing their own food or being part of community efforts.”
A survey this year by the National Gardening Association predicted a 10 percent increase in the number of people growing vegetables at home. “Sticker shock is prompting many folks to grow, if not a produce department in their backyards, then at least a salad bar,” said Bruce Butterfield, the research director.
For the St. Mary’s Food Bank Alliance in Phoenix, the abundance means a brigade of citrus volunteers from January through March, picking 1.4 million pounds of oranges and grapefruit from Sun City and Surprise. The fruit reaches thousands of people, from those at domestic violence shelters in Tempe to those on the Havasupai Indian Reservation in the Grand Canyon.
In Los Angeles, three “social activist” artists who call themselves Fallen Fruit have mapped neighborhood fruit trees and sponsored public “fruit jams,” said David Burns, a founder.
“The L.A. we experience is mostly mediated through windshields and cellphones,” Mr. Burns said. “So it was surprising to find out how many fruit trees hang over alleys, sidewalks and parking medians in neglected corners of the city.”
Ms. Boissier, who grew up on Park Avenue in Manhattan, drives through the Berkeley hills in a Toyota hybrid loaded with apples and ladders, helping out homeowners unable to keep up the pie-baking pace, even with convection ovens, and relieving them of the guilt of waste.
In the bustling kitchen of the Bay Area Rescue Mission in Richmond, Calif., a shelter serving more than 800 people a day, the apples would soon be transformed into pancake toppings, apple butter, cider and cobblers.
Roy Hunderson, homeless for four years, prepares meals in the kitchen. “The fresher the fruit, the better it is,” Mr. Hunderson said. “If I had a backyard with fruit going, I’d bring it here too.”

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Can Organic Farming Feed the World?


By Samuel Fromartz

Organic food is often portrayed by its critics as a low-yielding farming method that undercuts the main goal of food production – feeding the world.

These critics also argue that if organic farming were to grow much beyond its tiny elitist niche, forests would have to be plowed under because a much greater land mass would be needed to make up for far lower crop yields.

Pretty sad picture isn't it? Organic farming is portrayed as an inferior agricultural method that ends up raping and pillaging the natural world.

The only problem with this argument is that it doesn't square with the facts. (Nor with the actual picture if you check out the organic wheat field pictured above that was part of a USDA trial).

Although many studies have countered these arguments, three recent ones deserve notice.

First, researchers at the University of Michigan recently published a new study in the Journal of Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems that evaluated 293 studies comparing conventional and organic farming.

They found that in the developed world, such as the US, Europe and Japan, organic farming methods yielded slightly less than conventional methods.

But importantly, in the developing world, where food-scarcity is most pronounced, organic methods were actually two- to three-times as productive as conventional agriculture.

Farmers in poorer nations often could not afford the chemicals and fertilizers that are required by high-yielding seed varieties. By farming organically, they could enhance soil fertility by composting waste sources on their farms.

The researchers write that organic farming could produce enough food on a global per capita basis to sustain the current human population, and potentially an even larger population, without increasing the agricultural land base.

"My hope is that we can finally put a nail in the coffin of the idea that you can’t produce enough food through organic agriculture," said Ivette Perfecto, a professor at University of Michigan's School of Natural Resources and Environment, and a principle on the study.

She added that the idea people would go hungry if farming went organic was "ridiculous." (You can listen to a brief interview with the researcher).

Another report out of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at the University of Iowa is also significant, for it demonstrates the long-term yield potential of organic methods.

The now nine-year-old trials "convincingly show greater yield, increased profitability, and steadily improved soil quality in organic over conventional rotations," the Leopold Center stated.

The longest running rotation of corn, followed by soybeans, oats with alfalfa, and then another crop of alfalfa, produced 188 bushels per acre of organic corn in 2006. The traditional corn-soybean rotation on conventional fields yielded 177 bushels/acre – a 6 percent deficit from the organic fields.

In soybeans, the organic fields produced 45 bushels per acre in this long rotation, compared with 43 bushels on conventional plots.

Over eight years of data, here's the average corn yield in the various methods:

* Conventional corn, soybeans rotation, 160 bushels per acre of corn
* Organic corn, soybean, oats mixed with alfalfa rotation, 150-1/4 bushels/acre corn
* Organic corn, soybean, oats mixed with alfalfa, alfalfa rotation, 160-1/4 bushels/acre corn

Those include the first three years of the organic transition. If you back those years out, and only look at the organic fields post-transition you get these average yields:

* Conventional corn, soybeans rotation, 173.2 bushels per acre corn
* Organic corn, soybean, oats with alfalfa rotation, 162 bushels/acre corn
* Organic corn, soybean, oats with alfalfa, alfalfa rotation, 176 bushels/acre corn

The study shows that well-managed organic crop rotations, which are key to organic farming practices, actually lead to slightly higher yields than conventional chemical methods and rotations. And in the current ethanol-infused corn boom, farmers are forgoing the traditional corn-soybean rotation and growing continuous corn on corn, which requires a greater amount of chemical fertilizers to keep the yield up.

Finally, organic farming gets criticized for its tillage practices, which critics say leads to soil erosion and leaches nitrates into groundwater. These critics say conventional "no-till" farm methods, associated with genetically modified crops and heavy doses of herbicides, are superior.

But again, the facts point to a different conclusion. USDA researchers report that organic farming methods actually produced healthier soils than no-till conventional methods.

In a nine-year study at the Henry A. Wallace Agricultural Research Center in Beltsville, Maryland, USDA researchers found that the addition of organic matter in manure and cover crops more than offset losses from tillage.

In a final three-year study, corn was grown with no-till practices on all plots to see which ones had the most productive soils. The organic plots had more carbon and nitrogen and yielded 18 percent more corn.

Needless to say, critics won't be convinced by this evidence. But then neither do those who continually assert, in the face of overwhelming evidence, that global warming doesn't exist.

We know better.