Guest Essay: Where is GTF?

This essay by Patrick Merscher, Assistant Manager at the Hillsdale Farmers'‚Äč Market in Portland, was published in the market's newsletter when Gathering Together Farm was not able to attend the market due to flooding from a January storm. The farm, located on the banks of the Marys River in Philomath, and its neighbors are still feeling the effects of that storm, and April’s heavy dose of rain, hail and snow hasn’t helped. Merscher's essay explains what such heavy flooding means for farmers and crops.

Around the New Year, you may remember the Pacific Northwest receiving a heavy amount of precipitation in a relatively short amount of time, which is not unusual for the area, although these events are increasing in frequency and intensity. You may also recall the news stories about flooding all around the region, especially in low-lying areas like the Willamette Valley, and about the effects it had on the many farmers that call these places home.

One of the market’s largest vendors, Gathering Together Farm (GTF), was heavily impacted by the floods, and they spent months away from the market. Every week shoppers would ask, “Where is Gathering Together? The flood was weeks ago—why aren’t they back?” These are brilliant questions, and one of our roles at the market is to act as a conduit between our local community and local farmers. So, here are some insights on what happens when a farm floods, and why it takes so long for them to return— and no, it’s not just because absence makes the heart grow fonder, although we certainly missed them.

Slow Winter Growth: The fresh winter vegetables you find at market (think radicchio, cauliflower, leeks, etc.) are actually started in late summer and early fall. Before winter starts, plants need to be about three-quarters mature in order to survive the cold temperatures. Growth during the wintertime is exceptionally slow here in the Northwest because of cold weather, short days and low-intensity sunlight. Plants are more holding in the field than they are growing. When a flood damages these winter crops, they actually have a lot of growth to catch up on and less-than-ideal conditions to do it in.

Oxygen Depletion: Plants respire just like humans. Standing water smothers the plant’s breathing pores (called stomates) essentially suffocating the plant. The extent of damage done by oxygen depletion is made worse by warmer waters (a symptom of climate change), stagnant water, younger plants, and the amount of time plants stay submerged.

Nitrogen Loss: Nitrogen is an essential nutrient for healthy plant growth and the health of the plant’s immune system. Forms of nitrogen that can be taken up by plants are also very water soluble, so much of the nitrogen can run off the field as flood waters recede. Anaerobic conditions (i.e. a lack of oxygen) also promote certain microbes that consume the nitrogen for their growth. Lack of nitrogen further slows plant recovery, reduces yields, and increases plant disease. Nitrogen can be replaced, but options are limited on certified organic farms like GTF. Often these organic sources of nitrogen require a mineralization process done in the soil to become available for plants, so it’s not a quick fix. Winter conditions also slow the mineralization process. The farm is also concerned about costs of production like fertilizer and labor, both on the farm and to work the market.

Erosion: Flooding not only removes soil nutrients, but it can physically remove organic matter or even the soil itself. The organic matter is responsible for holding onto nutrients and serving as a substrate that plants can root into. Sand, gravel and rocks can also be moved during flooding, physically damaging the plants. Healthy soil is the foundation of organic farms and farmers spend years developing it. This cannot be easily replaced.

Weed and Disease Growth: Floodwaters bring in weed seeds and plant pathogens. Since crops are damaged, weeds have an easier time growing and competing for sunlight and soil nutrients. Damaged crop plants are virtually sitting ducks for plant pathogens like fungi that love damp, cool conditions and can outgrow the plants easily. Of course, manual or mechanical weed control is the first line of defense on organic farms like GTF, but digging, tilling or otherwise working waterlogged soil, even just walking on it, destroys the structure of the soil and can cause compaction. This will have longterm effects that could be seen for years to come because, again, soil health is something farmers spend years building, but nature can take it away in an instant.

While none of this is pleasant to talk or think about, hopefully you have a better understanding of the plight our local farmers are facing. When one of them experiences a catastrophe like this, please be patient as the farm and the workers recover. They may not be able to come to the market for a few weeks, but your patience is one way you can support them and the market.

Read a profile of founder John Eveland of Gathering Together Farm. Top photo of January's flooding at GTF from their Instagram account.

Celebrate Earth Day: Use Those Stems, Bones, Thinnings and Stalks

Today marks the 51st anniversary of the first Earth Day, held on April 22nd, 1970. It was created by Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, who was disturbed that an issue as important as the environment was not being addressed in politics or by the media at the time. An estimated 20 million people nationwide attended the festivities.

The first Earth Day, April 22, 1970.

Today one of the most deadly crises facing our environment is climate change, and our increasingly industrialized global food system is rightfully blamed for its part in the disruptions we're experiencing. It's not just pollution from the pesticides used to grow crops, but the waste of limited natural resources like water and energy in these industrialized systems. Not to mention the damage from the methods used to extract those resources—fracking of natural gas, damming rivers and pumping oil, to name just a few.

Don't toss those garden thinnings!

Wasting the food we produce—estimates range up to as much as 40 percent, or 125 to 160 billion pounds of food—obviously wastes the resources and energy that went into producing those goods during production, processing, distribution, retail and consumption.

In Oregon, we're fortunate to have the bottle bill, passed in 1972 partly as a result of the environmental push that happened after the first Earth Day. The greater Portland area has a regular curbside compost and recycling system that keeps millions of tons of waste out of landfills.

But what can you and I do to help?

Use those trimimings, bones, shells and carcasses for stock!

First, take advantage of those compost and recycling programs. If your area doesn't have them, work with your neighbors and start attending public meetings to advocate for them.  Run for office yourself, or help elect officials who will work to bring those services to your community. Above all, vote.

Second, and it may seem like small potatoes (Ha! Get it?) but think about your own consumption. Gardeners can make use of the young plants they thin from their garden plantings—radish greens, corn thinnings and lettuce starts are just a few—and home cooks can make stock from vegetable trimmings, chicken carcasses and meat, shellfish and fish bones. (Corn stock from corn cobs was a revelation, and I once got a bag full of chicken carcasses from a restaurant that was going to throw them out after pulling the meat off of them. Horrors!)

Kevin Gibson's pickle bar.

Chef Kevin Gibson garnished dishes at the late, lamented Evoe with colorful, pickled stalks of chard. And personally, I like to keep the stems on when I cook kale, chard and collard greens. I just chop the whole leaves and stems into half-inch strips and throw the stemmy ends into the hot oil and garlic for a minute or two ahead of the leaves—I think it gives more texture to the finished sauté.

And Happy Earth Day, however you choose to celebrate it!

Your Food, Your Legislature: CAFO Regulations, Pesticide Ban Top Agenda

When it gavels into session on Monday, February 3rd, the 2020 interim session of the Oregon legislature is set to address a stunning, some would say impossible, roster of work in the 35 days it is legally allowed. From climate change to gun control to spending $1 billion in revenue—not to mention the threat of Republicans walking out to kill bills they're not happy with as they did last session—it's bound to be a bumpy ride.

Several bills affecting our food system are in play, including:

New regulations on confined feeding operations (CAFOs) with more than 2,500 animals (SB 1513): On the heels of the catastrophic failure of Lost Valley Farm, a 30,000-cow mega-dairy, this bill seeks to establish more stringent regulations of new industrial animal operations. Specifically, it requires the Oregon Dept. of Agriculture (ODA) or the state Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to confirm the facility has an adequate water supply to operate and that it will need to obtain a separate permit for spreading animal waste on the land surrounding the facility.

According to Amy van Saun, a senior attorney for the Center for Food Safety (CFS), this bill is not adequate to address the problems raised by Lost Valley Farm. "The work group bill (similar to the bill proposed last session) does not go nearly far enough, and chipping away at the edges will not protect our community health and welfare from mega-dairies, including the new mega-dairy proposed at the infamous Lost Valley site. Further, we are concerned that the climate legislation again both exempts mega-dairies from controlling their methane emissions and creates a perverse incentive for people (especially from states with stronger controls) to set up or expand mega-dairies here, and to then sell dirty manure gas as 'renewable biogas' into the market," she said.

Study groundwater contamination and implement improvement plan for Lower Umatilla Basin Groundwater Management Area (SB 1562):  Some drinking water wells in the federally designated Groundwater Management Area (GWMA) in Umatilla and Morrow Counties are polluted with nitrates over the federal maximum allowable limits. Blamed on agricultural effluents, the area is the site of the state's two largest factory farm dairies—the 70,000-cow Threemile Canyon Farms and the not-yet-permitted 30,000-cow Easterday Farms Dairy, the original location of the now-shuttered Lost Valley Farm.

According to a study by Colorado State University, exposure to high levels of nitrates in water can cause "blue baby syndrome," (methemoglobinemia) a condition found especially in infants under six months. This results in a reduced oxygen supply to vital tissues such as the brain and can result in brain damage and death. Pregnant women, and even ruminant animals like cattle and sheep, are all susceptible to nitrite-induced methemoglobinemia. Nitrate contamination also has well-documented adverse health risks including increasing the risk of a variety of cancers, thyroid disease, and reproductive and gestational problems.

Additional pressure for legislators to act comes from the environmental watchdog Food and Water Watch, which is requesting the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) take emergency action to address groundwater contamination in Morrow and Umatilla Counties. “Oregon officials have effectively abandoned their responsibility to protect people by doubling down on their failed approach to preventing groundwater contamination, which continues to put control in the hands of the very polluters that have created a pervasive threat to human health,” said Tarah Heinzen, Senior Staff Attorney with Food and Water Watch. “The Safe Drinking Water Act fully empowers EPA to take emergency action to protect human health in the Lower Umatilla Basin Groundwater Management Area in these circumstances," she continued, "and our petition demonstrates that it must.”

Ban aerial spraying of pesticide chlorpyrifos (HB 4109): In some agricultural communities current exposure levels to this developmental neurotoxin by children ages one to two exceed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) own allowable threshold by a staggering 140 times. 

Even at low levels of exposure by women during pregnancy, chlorpyrifos has been shown to alter brain functions and impair the learning ability of children into adulthood. Researchers at Columbia University have demonstrated that the presence of chlorpyrifos in the umbilical cord of developing fetuses is correlated with a decrease in psychomotor and mental development in three-year-olds. At high levels of childhood exposure, chlorpyrifos has been found to cause attention deficit, hyperactivity, slow cognitive development, a significant reduction in IQ scores and a host of other neurodevelopment problems. Children who live near farm fields experience the highest risks and impacts. A University of California Davis study found that women who resided within a mile of farms where chlorpyrifos and other organophosphate pesticides were applied had a 60 percent higher chance of giving birth to children with autism spectrum disorder.

Attorney van Saun said that CFS is "supporting a renewed push to phase out the dangerous pesticide chlorpyrifos from use in Oregon, following similar phase outs in Hawaii, California, and soon to be New York and the EU." She pointed out that a bill to phase out chlorpyrifos did not pass last session, "but the danger is still there for our kids and farm workers, so CFS is supporting efforts lead by Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN) to make this happen this session."  The hope is that the Oregon Legislature, through this bill, declares that the children of Oregon are more important than corporations that profit from exposing them (and the citizens of the state) to toxic chemicals.

Climate cap and trade (SB 1530): Also known as Legislative Concept 19, this bill follows the overall framework of last session's HB 2020, which failed to pass due to conflicts between urban and rural factions—some would say industrial and environmental concerns—in the legislature. According to an article from Oregon Public Broadcasting, "the bill would force big greenhouse gas emitters to obtain credits for each ton of gas they emit, and create an overall cap for emissions allowed in the state. That cap would lower over time, in theory ensuring Oregon meets stringent conservation targets in 2035 and 2050. Entities required to obtain permits could trade them with one another."

Additions appease critics of the more stringent requirements of the previous bill, including protections for rural Oregonians from rising fuel prices; new exemptions and subsidies for industrial companies; rebates for big industrial gas users and a grandfather clause for existing wholesale contracts, giving some large companies (hint: Boeing) a break until their existing contract expires and they can structure a greener one.

Establishment of an Oregon Hemp Commission (HB 4051, HB 4072, SB 1561): House Bill 4051 creates a new state commodity commission; HB 4072 directs the Oregon Dept. of Agriculture (ODA) to administer an Oregon Hemp State Program for studying growth, cultivation and marketing of hemp; SB 1561 deals with the commercial production and sale of hemp—changed from "industrial hemp"—as well as changing definitions of marijuana offenses and regulations regarding medical marijuana.

Stay tuned for future installments as the legislative sausage is made!