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Seeds of Organic Farming: Plant Breeding & Preserving Diversity

Scientist, Organic Farmer & Seedsman Alan Kapuler Discusses Organic Farming’s Past, Present & Future and Plant Breeding

Alan Kapuler graduated from Yale University in 1962 when he was just 19. He went on to receive a Ph.D. in Molecular Biology from Rockefeller University. He is a seed saver, plant breeder, painter, organic farmer and public domain plant breeder advocate who co-founded Seeds of Change. He lives in Corvalis, Oregon. Kapuler shares the history and the origins of the California organic farming movement and its parallels with the national organic farming movement, as well as his own personal story and evolution as an agriculturalist, geneticist, organic grower, seed saver, plant breeder and biologist.

Interviewed by David Kupfer

Connecting with Nature

ACRES U.S.A. What was your first exposure to agriculture?

ALAN KAPULER. When I was nine or ten, my parents got an old chicken barn in upstate New York they bought for a summer country house. It was a big, long, low-ceilinged chicken barn they wanted to turn into a house, a place to live during the summer, as we lived in Brooklyn. We would go up there every summer for years. We used to get fresh corn and strawberries from a man who lived down the road. He had a field of corn and a bunch of strawberries. I remember that was the liberating experience of my life. It was probably one of the most formative things that happened to me because it was the first time I would go out in the corn and nobody knew where I was. I remember being safe in the cornfield. Back in Brooklyn I was getting beat up for one reason or another. Continue Reading →

Ag Economics, Politics: On a Long Quest for Parity

Family Farm Advocate George Naylor Discusses Past, Present & Future of Ag Economics, Politics 

Naylor is the great contrarian at the heart of the industrial farm system — that immense edifice of massive corn and soybean production, mega-farms of vast and increasing size, powerful corporate actors and federal money. As a leader of the National Family Farm Coalition, a board member of the Center for Food Safety, and a persuasive writer of essays and op-ed pieces, he reminds the elephant of mainstream agriculture that it’s heading for a cliff, his voice always articulate, his candor unsparing. Most Americans had never heard of him until he appeared as one of the great explainers in Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, the conventional farmer who outlined the self-destructive nature of Big Ag in a pivotal chapter. He played a key role in forcing Monsanto to abandon its plans for GMO wheat, and he is one of the few voices in the entire spectrum who insist that a guarantee of fair prices for all farmers offers the only hope for rural America. He’s one of the few critics in the land who seems to know that “parity” is still part of the English language. “Without Clarity On Parity, All You Get Is Charity,” he titled his chapter in a book called Food Movements Unite!, stating an important truth in doggerel worthy of Muhammad Ali. Naylor believes everybody should pay organic prices for their groceries and vary their diets accordingly. “Here in Iowa,” he wrote, “where the landscape is plastered with millions of acres of genetically modified corn and soybeans along with their poisonous herbicides, insecticides, fungicides and fertilizers polluting our lakes and rivers, our institutions deny that Silent Spring has arrived, let alone that anything needs to change. In fact, politicians and educators of every stripe bow to the god of Norman Borlaug, mesmerized by the World Food Prize mantra that we must feed the world using whatever new technology the chemical giants offer to deal with new problems turning up every day.” Continue Reading →

Compost & The Promise of Microbes

Scientist David C. Johnson Explores Microbial Communities, Carbon Sequestration and Compost

David C. Johnson’s experimental findings and openness to new insights have turned him into a champion of microbial diversity as the key to regenerating soil carbon — and thus to boosting agricultural productivity and removing excess atmospheric CO2. His research, begun only a decade ago, affirms the promise of microbes for healing the planet. It has attracted interest from around the world.

Johnson didn’t come to science until later in life. At age 51 he left a rewarding career as a builder, specializing in custom homes for artists, to complete his undergraduate degree. He planned to use his education “to do something different for the other half of [his] life,” though what he didn’t know. He said a path opened up and opportunities kept coming his way. After completing his undergraduate degree, Johnson kept going, earning his Masters in 2004 and Ph.D. in 2011, both in Molecular Microbiology. With his first advanced degree in hand, he got a job at New Mexico State University, where he was going to school and currently has an appointment in the College of Engineering.

He credits a fellowship program that placed undergraduate students in different labs with sparking his fascination with the composition of microbial communities as a graduate student. Johnson, who once farmed as a homesteader in Alaska, says he was once “an NPK junkie” but considers himself to be “13-years reformed.” Continue Reading →

Taking on Food Justice with Soul Fire Farm’s Leah Penniman

Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm

Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm

As a creative educator, regenerative farmer, writer and activist, Leah Penniman is an exceptional leader for food justice. She is best known for her work at Soul Fire Farm, which she and husband Jonah Vitale-Wolff started as an organic family farm committed to “the dismantling of oppressive structures that misguide our food system.”

Soul Fire Farm is entering its ninth year of growing healthy food for the couple’s former urban neighbors in Albany and Troy, New York. Since coming to the land over a decade ago, they have transformed a patch of marginal mountain ground into rich topsoil, faithfully provisioned a sliding-scale CSA whose members often lack access to fresh produce and created a vibrant, welcoming community of learning and admirable influence.

Nurtured by her childhood connection with the natural world, Penniman got hooked on agriculture as a teenager at a summer job with the Boston-based Food Project and has never looked back. Before graduating from college, she worked at the Farm School, co-managed Many Hands Organic Farm and co-founded the YouthGROW urban farming program. Until this year, she has been a full-time environmental science and biology teacher for which she received a Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching.

Continue Reading →

Glyphosate: A Toxic Legacy

Journalist and Author Carey Gillam Shares Decades of Research into Monsanto and its Ubiquitous Weed Killer

Carey Gillam discusses glyphosateCarey Gillam is a Kansas-based journalist turned glyphosate geek. Her first book, Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science, fills a gaping hole in the literature and is getting excellent reviews. Erin Brockovich says Whitewash “reads like a mystery novel as Gillam skillfully uncovers Monsanto’s secretive strategies.” Publishers Weekly says, “Gillam expertly covers a contentious front” and paints “a damning picture.” And Booklist calls it “a must-read.” Gillam brings more than 25 years in the news industry covering corporate America to her project investigating Monsanto’s premier product and the malfeasance that surrounds it. During her 17 years employed by the global news service Reuters she developed her specialty in the big business of food and agriculture. Besides covering topics like economic policy, corporate earnings and commodities trading, she was pulled away to write about presidential politics, natural disasters and a range of other general news and feature topics. Two years ago she became Research Director
 with U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit consumer group that pursues truth and transparency in America’s food industry. Gillam says she always knew she “wanted to be a journalist, to build a career on the simple pursuit of truth. My work is based on the belief that by sharing information and ideas, airing debates, and unveiling actions and events critical to public policy, we help advance and strengthen our community — our humanity.”

Interviewed by Tracy Frisch Continue Reading →

Calves: Rearing Them Right

Tips for rearing calves from former New Zealand dairy farmer, agricultural consultant, and all-round farming legend Vaughan Jones, interviewed by Stephen Roberts.

Calf Rearing Starts Before Calving

Vaughan, let’s talk first about the financial impact of correct calf rearing.

Correctly-reared calves continue to grow at a faster rate after weaning than poorly-reared ones

Correctly-reared calves continue to grow at a faster rate after weaning than poorly-reared ones.

If you are too busy, unsure about calf rearing, or don’t have the proper facilities, then forget it and buy weaners. Sometimes it is more profitable to buy yearlings, which often sell cheaply.

Calf rearing is a specialty job requiring specific knowledge. Correctly-reared calves continue to grow at a faster rate after weaning than poorly-reared ones, and the eventual size of adult animals relates to their weaning weight. It’s the farmer’s knowledge of this that encourages the high bidding at calf sales for well-reared ones.

How important is managing cow nutrition prior to calving?

Successful calf rearing starts before calving, with the dams not being too thin or too fat, on a rising plane of nutrition from drying off to calving. Calves can die within the first month of being born due to mineral deficiencies in the dams before birth. Deficiencies can be caused by insufficient feed for the dam or poor quality feed that lacks necessary minerals, especially selenium, copper, and iodine.

Continue Reading →