Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Climate Ride- California

Imagine an experience where you are surrounded by a group of people who care passionately about preserving the great outdoors and are equally excited to get out in it and bike 300 miles. For the past five days, I had that experience with 150 of those extraordinary people.  We rode 300 miles from San Francisco to San Luis Obispo, California through the organization Climate Ride to raise money for environmental non-profits. Coming out from Virginia for the trip, my mom and I had little experience biking up the mountains of California, and found it pretty challenging dodging the cars while whizzing down the twisty hills. Yet a benefit of being from another state is that we were even more star-struck by the glorious views of the Santa Cruz blue waters and Templeton vineyards. Even after a brutal day of biking, a breath of fresh air underneath a patch of eucalyptus trees made it all worth it.

Throughout the trip, I was presented with challenges and sources of inspiration. I learned that assembling a seemingly impossible tent needs to be treated like an exciting challenge. And, I was constantly inspired-- by the retired Vermonter who doesn't own a car and who participated on her seventh Climate Ride to the young Latino teen who started a bilingual outdoors school. I was inspired by the “Rainbow Trout” team that are friends in their thirties who reunite annually for the Ride, and those who went from barely riding a bike to riding 100+ miles the third day of the trip.

Also, when you travel by bike, you notice things that you wouldn’t by car. You see the bright red strawberries of Swanton Berry Farm, and smell the rows of lavender leading to Mesa Del Sol; you ponder the different bike path possibilities as cars speed by 80mph, just inches away from you. Your body doesn’t let you forget how far you have gone, as your knees ache and your thighs tighten until they feel like bricks. Your cell phone doesn’t receive reception, but even if it did you wouldn’t have time to check it, and you learn to live in the moment. I learned to live in the moment. Every moment. The moments when I was sitting next to someone new at dinner or looking up the stars one evening as our trusted SAG Wagon driver played the banjo. When we were riding on the bus back to San Francisco, I tried to keep up this attitude. I turned my phone off and spoke with some of the incredible people sitting near me. I learned about the history of the natural gas industry from a former Exxon Mobile employee, and listened to my friend Sarah’s adventures in Peru.

Leaving the trip, I will try to continue some of these habits of living in the moment and of course, cycling. Although, I might not get to the latter until a few weeks from now when I start feeling my legs again.

See more photos:

Read more about Climate Rides here:

Sunday, January 22, 2017

DC Women's March- 2017

I joined the 500,000+ people marching in Washington DC yesterday for the DC Women's March. This was one of the hundreds of marches around the world with millions of people protesting for the rights of women, the environment, diversity and general freedoms. I enjoyed the clever signs and diversity of ages and races present at the March. It was a crowd of pink hats, cheers and inclusivity. Even the police officers on duty were cheering on the crowd. One held up a sign that said "this is what a feminist looks like." Speakers ranged from the famous Alicia Keys singing "This Girl is on Fire" to young immigrant Sophie Cruz who brought tears to the crowds' eyes. It was a colorful but civil day with not one arrest in DC. It was an awesome moment to share with some of the women I care deeply about.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Can eating meat be sustainable? A Trip to Joel Salatin’s Polyface Cattle Farm.

I have been a vegetarian for 3 years, and am the first one to criticize our industrial meat food system, however a sustainable cattle farm trip I took recently left me questioning whether all cattle farms are problematic.

A three-mile drive west from William & Mary, Joel Salatin manages Polyface farms, a cattle farm in Swoope, Virginia. Some friends and I dodged Hurricane Hermine by roadtriping out to the farm. The day was filled with hay barrel rides under a blue sky, meandering through waste-high prairie grasses, starring contests with cows, and a long interview with self-proclaimed “environmental libertarian lunatic” Joel Salatin.

I left the farm with a new mentality toward sustainably raised meat. Now, I have questions ringing in my ears like ‘is a slice of grass-fed beef worse for the environment then oil-refined plastic packaged granola bars?’

Here are a couple notes I took on some of the kinds of sustainable practices I saw on the farm.

1)   Mobility:
a.     Joel had 150 cows grazing in 1.25 acres of prairie grass each day.  So every day at 4pm, farmers would move the fence to box in a new acre of tall handsome prairie grass. Similar to crop rotation, this system gives fields time to regenerate and grasses to grow tall again.

2)   Reducing negative and increasing positive outputs:
a.     Reducing Neg Outputs: There are portable chicken coops that follow the tracks of the cattle. They eat the insects in the cow’s poop and while doing this, they dig the poop into the ground. This reduces nutrient runoff into waterways. 
b.     Positive Outputs: This farm is economically profitable—more so than most conventional farms. A large reason why is because the farmers do not have to pay for feed for the cattle (see few inputs). 

3)   Integration of the natural environment:
a.     One example of this is when you look at where the pigs live there are patches of small forests with trees and brush. It is not until you see a snout or tail that you realize that this is also where the pigs live.
b.     He uses gravity to bring the water down through the three miles of water lines to water crops on his property. He joked with us “once gravity stops working, I quit.”

4)   Few Inputs 
a.     We walked out to the waist-high prairie grasses, and in one spot, Joel picked twenty different grasses. He gave us their names and function for pollinators in the ecosystem. These grasses are also food for all the cattle. That means that Joel doesn’t need to buy highly transported, packaged and water-intensive grains like alfalfa and corn for his cattle. Instead they eat the vitamin and nutrient rich prairie grasses.

5)   Health food cycle and reduction of atmospheric carbon.
a.     The cows eat the prairie grasses. The grass grows back and takes in atmospheric carbon to convert into food for itself. This cycle is key for combatting climate change.

So, Joel Salatin’s farm is truly a polyface, multi-organismal kind of place. However, his cattle farm is definitely the exception to cattle farms these days. Most large-scale farms raise cattle inside feedlots with little room, fresh air and nutrient content in the feed. The runoff is disastrous to local waterways, the antibiotics are plentiful and the corn/alfalfa-based feed is both water and cost intensive.

My hope is that cattle farmers can learn from innovative farmers like Salatin and consumers choose meat that reflects the way they would like to see the ag industry look.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Sustainable Agriculture Conference

Interested in sustainable agriculture and environmental education? This past weekend I went to the Sustainable Agriculture Education Association (SAEA) Conference in Santa Cruz, CA. At the conference, there were several environmental educators and students running farm programs at their schools. My favorite part was touring the LifeLab Classroom, an organic farm. John, an on-site educator, led use around the sustainable farm switching between our teacher to a partner-in-the-field. First, a few of us went on stage to perform the cow poop to strawberry milkshake skit, and then we meandered around the farm following scavenger hunt cards from the pizza garden to the cement (recycled from an old sidewalk) garden beds.

 We changed roles into collaborating comrades when we shared information between one another about crops and  teaching practices. Here are a couple of my favorite things I learned….
  • 1.     Weeds: Weeds are basically just plants that don’t need your help growing and grow in unwanted spaces. There are edible weeds like blackberries (and you can take kids on an edible weed tour).
  • 2.     Organics & weeds: When talking about organics, it is important to stress why they are more expensive— the time and labor spent weeding. You can give kids the two scenarios—a. spray pesticides (animals like goffers are poisoned and don’t eat crops, but then beneficial animals like owls or your pet cat could eat that goffer and get sick) vs. hand pick weeds (time and cost) and setting out goffer traps. There are other organic options like flame weeding or tracker weeding too. As an educator, your job is to TEACH the different options and their job to CHOOSE what they think works best.
  • 3.     Organic Pest Management: .It’s good to plant trap crops (like Yarrow, Queen Anne’s Lace or Allysum-- think about plant structure with lots of flowers) to attract predator insects and birds like bees and ladybugs to eat bad bugs that eat up the crops.  Also hedge rows (bushes of flowers that are planted to break up the farm) help reduce and break up populations of bad bugs on the farm.
  • 4.     Specific Plant Lesson that we created together: 6 Parts of the Plant (see more on ESLI's page
a.     Diagram of 6 parts of a plant
b.     Plant song (different parts of a plant to head, shoulders, knees and toes)
c.      Plant Burrito Cooking Demo:
                                               i.     Lettuce- leaf
                                              ii.     Beans-seed
                                            iii.     Tomato: Fruit
                                            iv.     Carrots: root
                                              v.     Green onion: stem
                                            vi.     Brocelli: flower
d.     Quiz Back- Ask kids examples of the foods that are different parts of the plant.

  • 5.     Awesome colorful felt “My Plate”- like demo.

Picture from Pie Ranch- an awesome farm practicing food justice 

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Climate Smart Agriculture

Check out this article and podcast I wrote published by the Pulitzer Center on Climate Smart Agriculture and the Future of Food

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Mosquito- Disease Zika and Climate Change

Zika, a mosquito-born illness known to cause birth defects, has spread throughout two dozen countries in S.America. Experts say that climate change is playing a role in the spread of the disease. Increased rainfall, in part due to El Niño, a cyclical weather change event, has created a greater breeding ground for Mosquitos and increased heat has both allowed mosquitos to thrive and put more people outside to get the virus. 
This Environmental Health Article  explains the problem further.
I am personally concerned because I have a trip set up to go to Ecuador for Spring Break and again was hoping to work there this summer. This kind of illness is not something to kid around with and definitely making me reconsider my trips. 
But honestly the other side of the coin is that experts anticipate these kinds of mosquito-born illnesses to increase in the future due to climate change, so do I sit this trip out in hopes that these diseases will seize soon or do I confront the reality that very soon these kind of incidences aren't going to be just something I "wait out?"
And even that luxury of choosing not to go to disease-ridden areas will soon not be an option. Why? Because diseases are coming here. Here is a picture of a child from Texas who recently returned from South America and reported to bring back with him the Zika virus.  

And this disease will affect not only the health of many, but also hurt many other sectors. Increased taxes for the average person to cover the additional health care expenses needed to deal with these problems, and strangled tourism economies just to name a few.
Signs of global warming are popping up again and again- it's time we take more concrete steps to deal with this serious threat. 

Monday, January 25, 2016

Rethinking the Safety of Foam

Researchers at Wash State University found in a recent study that flame retardant chemicals are escaping at a higher level than originally thought, according to a on Environmental Health News article These flame retardants, backed by the American Chemistry Council, are found in polyurethane foam (which is found in things ranging from furniture, children’s care seats, baby products). These compounds, specifically organophosphate flame retardants, replaced PBDEs due to found health risks; however, the flame retardants have been shown to pose their own serious health risks. Some studies show these flame retardants are linked to cancer and reproductive problems and hormone development. Two of which have been identified by California as carcinogens, and Washington State is introducing a new ban in their House and Senate to limit 5 flame retardants from furniture and children's toys. 
Strikingly,  these flame retardants could pose more damage than aid to the firefighters. Because of the "toxic soup" that develops as these chemicals are burned, female fire fighters between the ages of 40-50 years old have been shown to have breast cancer rates six times that of the national average. 
One of the things I find most fascinating about this whole problem, is the idea of replacement. PBDEs were found to be harmful, but they were replaced by toxic flame retardants. Now in Washington they say with this new legislation comes a commitment to “set up a system to make sure new replacements are safe.” I think this process will be interesting. We see this replacement of something bad by something worse in the case of water bottles and all sorts of products- reminding the public to stay skeptical. 
I first heard about this flame retardant issue when watching the documentary “Toxic Hot Seat” . I recommend everyone check out the trailer on the site. It was a wake up call to me that we need to think about the products we use every day. 
I still have some questions though. How do we know that these flame retardants are the reason that female fire fighters have higher rates of breast cancer? They are breathing in different chemicals and smoke all the time. And just how disruptive are the flame retardants to our development and hormone development. Does the fire reduction outweigh the risk of cancer?