By Lina Tran for Grist.
Broadcast version by Nadia Ramlagan for North Carolina News Service reporting for the Grist-Public News Service Collaboration
The first time Chris Smith tried to grow taro on his experimental farm in western North Carolina, the plants were too eager. He’d started them in a heated greenhouse one February day a few years ago, thinking the tropical crop would need plenty of time to establish. Within a month, the taro had sprung up a foot and a half. Their heart-shaped leaves crowded the small greenhouse, but it was too early to transplant them into the still-cold ground. “That was a fail,” said Smith, the founder of the nonprofit Utopian Seed Project.
In the tropics, the starchy, lavender-hued root vegetable is grown year-round. But even North Carolina’s relatively mild winters aren’t taro-friendly. Smith and his team have kept tinkering with taro, as part of their wider effort to diversify farming — work that would not only make the food system more resilient to climate change, they thought, but also more delicious. Now, they start the seedlings in mid-April, or directly sow offshoots of the mother plant into the ground, deep enough to withstand any late frosts.
As temperatures rise and rainfall grows erratic, planting different crops is one way farmers can adapt to climate change. Rising heat in Michigan, for instance, has prompted a boom in vineyards and widened the range of grape varieties that can be grown there, leading some to speculate that the Midwestern state could be the next wine hub. In Kansas, as rainfall declines, cotton is flourishing in fields once dedicated to wheat and corn. And in the Southeastern U.S., tropical crops like taro look particularly attractive. But that does little good for farmers if their customers don’t know how to eat it. In his mission to introduce taro to the Southeast, Smith is working with farmers, customers, and chefs alike — making an effort to cultivate taro and create a market for it.
In many countries, taro is a staple, and it’s among the world’s oldest cultivated plants. First grown in southeast Asia, taro made its way across the Pacific around 1,500 years ago in the canoes of Polynesian voyagers who traveled the open ocean before making new lives in Tahiti and Hawaii. (While climate change may give the crop a leg-up in the southern U.S., rising temperatures and severe storms are threatening taro in Hawaii, where it’s part of the native Hawaiian creation story.) Root to leaf, the entire plant is edible, though it needs to be cooked first, since taro contains high amounts of oxalic acid, which is usually linked to kidney stones. It can withstand stretches of days without rain because its hairy corms, or potato-like roots, store water. And its broad, sturdy leaves can stand up to heavy rain.
The quest to grow taro in the South reflects a broader theme in efforts to protect agriculture from the hazards of climate change: diversification. “If I put all my eggs in one basket, say all I grow is watermelon, and I get hit with a pretty nasty disease, I lose everything that year,” said David Suchoff, an alternative crops specialist at North Carolina State University who studies plants like hemp and sesame. Or, one year may be dry, another too wet. “We need to be able to weather that better,” Suchoff said. Some plants endure heat or dry spells better than most, while others may be immune to emerging fungi and bacteria. Diversity — meaning both different kinds of crops and different varieties among a particular crop — offers natural protection from pests, disease, and extreme weather.
The global food system is anything but diversified: It’s propped up by three crops — rice, wheat, and corn — that supply half the world’s calories. One NASA study found that in the next ten years, climate change could cut into the yields of wheat and corn by as much as 17 and 24 percent, respectively. Experts say diversifying the food system will help it recover faster when inevitable disruptions come.
That led Smith and his Utopian Seed Project to experiment with tropical crops: bambara, achira, cassava, taro. Most of those plants grow in the tropics year-round, but in North Carolina, the farmers had to figure out how to save the plant material over the winter until it could be re-planted the following spring. It’s the same puzzle farmers solved for now-ubiquitous tomatoes and sweet potatoes, which also originated in the tropics. Taro soon distinguished itself as a high-performer. Taro was easy to grow. It could also be grown organically, and without extra heating or lighting.
Just as important, taro is tasty. Even more versatile than a potato, taro can be steamed, fried, boiled, and braised into sweet and savory dishes alike. Asian-American and Black chefs in Asheville were eager for a local supply. “It’s not like everything we’re doing is about preparing for catastrophe,” said Smith, who pointed to a broad nutritional base and wide representation of cuisines as benefits of a diversified food system.
This summer, with the help of a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant, the Utopian Seed Project scaled up their research trials. Partnering with two farms in the Southeast, they’ll study several varieties, including Korean, Filipino, and Hawaiian taro. The farmers will track costs, yields, and sales, providing a mountain of economic data. At the nonprofit’s farm, different plots will undergo various treatments to compare planting time, planting methods, watering methods, and harvesting techniques.
One of their partners is Michael Carter Jr., who runs Carter Farms in the Piedmont region of Virginia, which has been in his family since 1910. Carter had spent several years living in West Africa, where he couldn’t get enough of kontomire, a spicy stew with taro leaves and ground melon seeds, called egusi. When he returned to the U.S., he started experimenting with taro and found it easy to grow. After his first harvests, he dropped some greens off to a couple of stores catering to African immigrants in northern Virginia, and they were snatched up within minutes. “I can’t grow nearly enough to meet the demand,” Carter said.
Carter felt happy to provide beloved, but hard-to-find produce for people. He knew what it was like to crave certain veggies when far from home; when he lived in West Africa, much as he loved the kontomire, he still hankered for broccoli every now and then. And the taro could benefit people who hadn’t grown up eating it, too. Carter, who focuses on traditional African crops, believes diversifying food production can help African Americans connect with what he calls “culturally appropriate foods.” Although some consider collards as synonymous with African American cooking, they had their start in the eastern Mediterranean, and were brought to North America by Europeans in the 1600s. “You won’t buy collards in West Africa, but you will find taro leaves,” Carter said. “This is the right path back home.”
Before food producers adopt something new, they need to know there’s a market for it. Chefs and stores, on the other hand, want to know they can get a steady supply before they take on a new ingredient or product. Suchoff said a system-based approach is key. “The challenge is, if there’s no market for a crop, it doesn’t matter how drought-tolerant it is or how heat-tolerant it is,” he said. “If the farmer can’t sell it, it’s not really of much use.”
In his taro crusade, Smith works both sides of the equation, offering farmers information from field tests and giving chefs samples from the harvest. To drum up diners’ enthusiasm, the Utopian Seed Project recently held a tasting event with chefs in the area. Cleophus Hethington, previously the head chef of the Asheville restaurant Benne on Eagle, used taro greens to make epis, a Haitian base for stews and sauces. He blended the root into rice-like flecks before stewing it in coconut milk to make creamy, taro-based grits.
Hethington, who was recently nominated for a national James Beard Emerging Chef award, had been cooking food of the African diaspora on a busy block in a historically Black neighborhood, now the heart of the city’s tourist industry. It had been difficult, at times, to cook the food that he did when people in Asheville often weren’t familiar with it. “Once they get the exposure and experience, they see the connectivity and that’s the fun part of it,” Hethington said. “But I can’t say it comes without struggle.”
To Smith, these challenges speak to the nature of change in the food system: “It’s a slow process, to really integrate this food in a way that makes sense and could have lasting change.” One of the chefs he’d worked with asked when they could get a case of taro every week. Smith said it’d take a couple of years.
Lina Tran wrote this article for Grist.
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Agriculture groups and government agencies aren’t slowing down in trying to convince farmers to use more sustainable practices such as cover crops, and Wisconsin producers who have joined that movement will soon be able to sign up for reimbursements.
Starting Monday, farmers who planted cover crops this year can apply for a $5-per-acre rebate on their summer 2023 crop-insurance premium. The applications are submitted to the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.
Margaret Krome, policy program director for the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute, which helped lead the push for the new program, said similar initiatives in other Midwestern states have paid off.
“The folks who have worked in Illinois have said they’re always oversubscribed; they have tremendous demand for the program,” she said. “And many of the farmers are farmers who are using it for the first time.”
Krome said a 2019 survey by Michael Fields found a majority of Wisconsin farmers indicated this type of incentive would compel them to either start planting cover crops or expand their acreage. She noted that this doesn’t solve all the problems tied to row-crop agriculture, but it does improve soil health, reduce runoff and ultimately, boost farmers’ profits.
Nancy Kavazanjian, a farmer in Beaver Dam, has been using cover crops for nearly two decades. She said they’re a great benefit, although she’s found it’s challenging in Wisconsin because of the short window to plant them before winter. There’s hope the rebate will convince producers like her to stay committed to the movement.
“It’s a nice carrot for those of us who have planted cover crops already this year,” she said, “and any extra that we can get to encourage more people to use cover crops is appreciated.”
State officials have said there’s $800,000 – or 160,000 acres of coverage – to be awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. Producers who received state or federal cost-sharing to plant cover crops in 2022 are ineligible. The application period runs until Jan. 31.
Disclosure: Michael Fields Agricultural Institute contributes to our fund for reporting on Hunger/Food/Nutrition, Rural/Farming, Sustainable Agriculture. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.
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By Ray Levy Uyeda for Yes! Magazine.
Broadcast version by Mike Moen for Greater Dakota News Service reporting for the Solutions Journalism Network-Public News Service Collaboration
When spring hits, Kelsey Scott finally breathes a sigh of relief. Come May, her 120 cows will be ready to birth calves, and as the weather warms, Scott knows the newest members of the herd will be able to grow strong before the arrival of another unforgiving South Dakota winter. While winters test the herd’s resilience, snow on the soil actually protects the soil’s microbes, small critters, and plant root systems that support the cattle’s larger ecosystem. As Scott says, she’s just as interested in the life above ground as she is in the life below it: A healthy soil biome underlies all farming.
Scott is deeply invested in maintaining healthy soil. She is the fourth generation of her family to ranch the land along the Missouri River east of the Cheyenne River Reservation, and the 125th generation of Lakota peoples to steward the land.
Everything on Scott’s ranch, DX Beef, is done a little bit more slowly than one might see on a conventional ranch: Cattle graze rotationally on 14 different permanent pastures across 7,000 acres of land. Because her cows aren’t treated with any antibiotics or chemicals, she and other ranch hands regularly check on the cow dung to make sure it looks healthy; if it doesn’t, cattle are removed from the herd and treated individually.
While some might praise regenerative agriculture as a new advent, the techniques are older than the U.S. itself. These foodways are based on ancient movements now touted under new names: regenerative agriculture, permaculture, farm-to-table, and eating local. But the land theft that built ranching businesses is one of the main reasons Native peoples were killed, disenfranchised, and separated from traditional foodways in the first place.
It’s not lost on Scott that the ranchers getting most of the credit for sustainable techniques are those newest to the land. Native farmers, who have long been pushed to the margins, want newcomers to the world of non-industrial food production to know there’s nothing novel about caring for the land that grows our food.
“It’s not a new discovery,” Scott says. “It’s just a late discovery for some that are a lot more confident in using it as a marketing approach.”
Colonialism via Cattle
Cattle, specifically, can help tell the story of colonization of Native peoples on Turtle Island. Ranching was one of the reasons settlers and colonizers began to claim land from Native peoples west of the Mississippi in the mid-1800s, according to Ryan Fischer, a visiting assistant professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, River Falls, and the author of the book Cattle Colonialism: An Environmental History of the Conquest of California and Hawai’i.
Fischer says there are no cattle native to this land. Spanish and English colonizers brought them to the U.S. Bison, which are native to the U.S., maintained the Midwest’s rich ecologies and supported the diets and cultural practices of Scott’s Cheyenne ancestors. But bison nearly went extinct because of settlers’ desire to turn Native land into ranchland.
By the mid-1800s, the construction of railways and refrigerated train cars made beef more readily available and affordable. Later, federal officials found that unused fertilizer from WWII munitions could be used to boost corn production, which helped justify the creation of factory farms and introduced beef to an even broader market of consumers.
Around the same time, Scott’s ancestors were removed from their ancestral river with the signing of the Pick-Sloan Missouri Basin Program, which created dams as a means of “flood control.” Scott remembers being told stories of this from her grandparents and great-grandparents; the history of cattle colonialism is still recent.
But thanks to Scott’s work, the land, and the community, is healing.
So while Scott would like to raise bison, these animals need thousands of acres and many years to roam before being ready to slaughter. In today’s agricultural economy, she can’t make a living off them.
“We just can’t do it the way that our ancestors intended for us due to larger systemically oppressive realities that we’re navigating in the development and evolution of what our future food systems are going to look like,” she says.
Cattle, she’s found, are a decent alternative; their hooves roughly resemble those of bison, which means DX Beef cows can help break down soil nutrients. Because she doesn’t use chemicals, the animal waste can naturally fertilize the land in the way bison used to.
After processing, about 90% of the finished beef is sold in the two counties nearest the ranch. The direct-to-consumer business model means Scott is able to offer beef raised on the same land her customers themselves interact with. She’s also been able to address some of the food-access challenges that peoples living on the Cheyenne River Reservation face by bringing healthy options directly to them.
In this way, Scott says her business is “an expression of resiliency amongst a system that disregarded the functioning relationship that we had in agricultural production prior to colonial impact.”
Agriculture practices that prioritize soil health and honor an inherent relationship between cattle and the land are increasingly seen as an environmentally sustainable alternative to industrial farming. Raised this way, cattle can create a thriving habitat for soil phytonutrients, support the growth of native grasses, and result in beef that some say is tastier than the industrial alternative.
This system of farming practices, broadly referred to as regenerative agriculture, only accounts for 10% of farms and ranches today, but the numbers are slowly increasing, according to Ryan Siwinski, an organic livestock and dairy consultant for the Rodale Institute, a research and advocacy organization in the organic food movement.
As the movement grows, he says regenerative agriculture is showing consumers, who have long been told that meat consumption is inherently harmful, that the environmental impact has everything to do with the way cattle is raised.
Enrique Salmón, a professor in the department of ethnic studies at Cal State East Bay, is hopeful the larger ranching and farming community will listen to the lessons of Indigenous ranchers and support their leadership in the growing field of regenerative agriculture. He cites a centuries-old system of water management that’s been so integrated in New Mexican culture that many forget it was imported by the Spanish-a story not so dissimilar from that of cattle.
Prior to the arrival of the Spanish, 19 Pueblo tribes relied on a system of water sharing based on irrigation from rivers, streams, and tributaries, but limited transport of water meant Pueblo peoples mainly hunted and gathered their food. This changed after the Spanish introduced the Pueblo tribes to a water-management technique that remains in use today, and acequias, or gravity-fed canals, turned the desert into arable land.
More importantly, acequias increased Pueblo peoples’ ability to farm and grow food without losing their traditional practices. “If those guys could do it, we can figure out other ways for that kind of collaboration to happen,” Salmón says.
Raising Climate Resilience
Western science is now backing Indigenous knowledge that eating locally is best for personal and environmental health. But Spanish and English colonizers brought cattle to the U.S., meaning there are no cattle native to this land.
Still, so-called heritage breeds can be a key tool for climate resiliency, according to Jeannette Beranger, a senior program manager at The Livestock Conservancy, an organization dedicated to raising, sustaining, and saving breeds of livestock whose populations are threatened by industrial agriculture.
Even though many of the breeds supported by the Conservancy aren’t native to the U.S., the genetic diversity they offer can be critical to staving off disease and illness, which industrial agriculture practices are exacerbating with a high usage of antibiotics, pesticides, and other chemicals. With a reliance on breeds of marketable animals, like standard broiler chickens that gain weight quickly, monoculture industrial agriculture threatens to eclipse the cultural and culinary value of other breeds.
Once breeds that are less profitable or more difficult to raise-in other words, breeds that aren’t well-suited for the factory setting-are gone, they’re gone forever.
The Conservancy helps build a community of like-minded ranchers and support a wealth of resources for raising uncommon breeds. But these kinds of organizations and the business platform they offer ranchers aren’t necessarily easily accessed by Native farmers and ranchers.
Scott, for her herd, does not raise “heritage” cattle. Instead, she favors the Black Angus, because she can intentionally incorporate traits from other breeds that create a herd able to endure climate change’s hotter summers and colder winters.
“We have this inherent desire to be connected to the production of our food systems, and we’re going to do that in whatever way that we can,” Scott says.
Ray Levy Uyeda wrote this article for Yes! Magazine.
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A farm in Idaho has received the first-ever “trout-safe” certification from an organization that protects habitat for the fish.
The Nature Conservancy’s Silver Creek Farm in central Idaho near Ketchum received the certification from the organization Salmon-Safe. Neil Crescenti, agriculture program manager with The Nature Conservancy in Idaho, described how the farm met the standards to get the eco-labeling.
“It’s an opportunity,” said Crescenti, “to essentially create incentives for farmers for implementing practices that benefit the health of the aquatic and riparian systems.”
Crescenti said the goal is for farmers to use the labeling in the marketplace so that they can gain premiums there.
The Nature Conservancy owns about 100 acres of farmland surrounding Silver Creek Preserve and leases it out to farmers. The group’s been working with the farmers on implementing regenerative agriculture practices.
Crescenti said some of the regenerative practices include no-till farming, where a second crop is planted directly into the first crop without disturbing the soil, and planting cover crops. He said they use other methods too.
“Increasing the biodiversity of that land,” said Crescenti. “So looking at different crops that we can grow, using mixes within our cover crops – and that just increases the overall health of the soil and reduces the need for additional fertilizers over time.”
Crescenti said salmon and trout are emblems of Idaho, but they’re under increasing threat from the changing climate, which has brought longer droughts and less snowpacks.
“As those symbols of the state, it’s really important not just to the health of the species themselves, but also to the economy,” said Crescenti. “Idaho has a very large tourism economy and a lot of that is within the hunting and fishing arenas.”
Disclosure: The Nature Conservancy of Idaho contributes to our fund for reporting on Environment. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.
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