Legume’s Lost Legacy, Found

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Rancho Gordo’s heirloom beans look like gems in a jewelry case. The company sells half a million pounds of them a year.Illustration by Cari Vander Yacht

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“My favorite bean is always the last one I ate,” Steve Sando says.Illustration by Cari Vander Yacht

If you only had read the first sentence in this story, you might move right on to something more promising.

Look at the author and look at the title, both familiar to those visiting this platform over the years, and it is certain not to disappoint. It is about this man to the right, and his culinary/cultural mission:

The Hunt for Mexico’s Heirloom Beans

Rare varieties discovered by Rancho Gordo’s Steve Sando have turned the humble legume into a gourmet food.

By Burkhard Bilger

The best meal of my life, or at least the most memorable, came from a can. I was thirteen at the time and living in France, so that may have had something to do with it. But I credit the beans. My older sisters and I were at a hippie camp in the Alps that summer, not far from the Italian border. My parents had stashed us there while they went home to Oklahoma to check on our house, which they’d rented to some graduate students while my father was on sabbatical. The camp was the cheapest one they could find, and they seemed to have done next to no research before signing us up. My mother just loved the name: Jeunesse du Soleil Levant, Youth of the Rising Sun. Continue reading

Sweet Potato Origin Story

 

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A chromolithograph of Christopher Columbus arriving at the Caribbean. Credit Louis Prang and Company/Getty Images

Thanks to Carl Zimmer for this 1493-ish story:

All by Itself, the Humble Sweet Potato Colonized the World

Many botanists argued that humans must have carried the valuable staple to the Pacific from South America, a hidden chapter in human history. Not so, according to a new study.

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The distribution of the sweet potato plant has baffled scientists. How could the plant arise from a wild ancestor in the Americas and wind up on islands across the Pacific? Credit Karsten Moran for The New York Times

Of all the plants that humanity has turned into crops, none is more puzzling than the sweet potato. Indigenous people of Central and South America grew it on farms for generations, and Europeans discovered it when Christopher Columbus arrived in the Caribbean.

In the 18th century, however, Captain Cook stumbled across sweet potatoes again — over 4,000 miles away, on remote Polynesian islands. European explorers later found them elsewhere in the Pacific, from Hawaii to New Guinea.

The distribution of the plant baffled scientists. How could sweet potatoes arise from a wild ancestor and then wind up scattered across such a wide range? Was it possible that unknown explorers carried it from South America to countless Pacific islands? Continue reading

MA’O’s Marvelous Mission

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If we had come upon the website with no introduction maybe it would have looked like just another pretty organic farm in a tropical paradise.

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But there are people involved, and it is a pleasant surprise to learn from Dakota Kim’s story Youth Farm In Hawaii Is Growing Food And Leaders how those people bring that place further to life. There is a mission worth reading about:

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Cheryse Sana, farm co-manager, cuts a banana blossom off a tree at MA’O Organic Farms. Dakota Kim

A tight circle of teenagers is deep in conversation — not about movies or apps, but about … vegetables.

It’s 7 a.m. at MA’O Organic Farms, part of 24 acres nestled in an emerald mountain-ringed valley just two miles from Oahu’s west shore. Under a hot sun that bathes this idyllic breadbasket, college-aged farmers harvest tons of mangoes, bananas, mizuna (mustard greens) and taro every month for the island of Oahu.

The farm’s atmosphere bubbles with enthusiastic lightheartedness, its college interns quipping across the rows that they can beat their neighbors’ harvesting speed. But a calm falls over the group as they move from joking around to talking more seriously. A circle forms under an open pavilion, and a young woman speaks. Continue reading

Humans Still Best Machines In The Berry Patch

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Credit: Dan Charles/NPR

Thanks to Dan Charles and his salt colleagues at National Public Radio (USA) for this look at one of machine-learning’s agricultural challenges:

Robots Are Trying To Pick Strawberries. So Far, They’re Not Very Good At It

Robots have taken over many of America’s factories. They can explore the depths of the ocean, and other planets. They can play ping-pong.

But can they pick a strawberry?

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The strawberry-picking robot enters a field near Duette, Fla.
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“You kind of learn, when you get into this — it’s really hard to match what humans can do,” says Bob Pitzer, an expert on robots and co-founder of a company called Harvest CROO Robotics. (CROO is an acronym. It stands for Computerized Robotic Optimized Obtainer.)

Any 4-year old can pick a strawberry, but machines, for all their artificial intelligence, can’t seem to figure it out. Pitzer says the hardest thing for them is just finding the fruit. The berries hide behind leaves in unpredictable places. Continue reading

Pomology, Diet & Trade

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More than half of the fresh fruit and almost a third of the fresh vegetables Americans buy now come from other countries. Credit Jens Mortensen for The New York Times; Styled by Mariana Vera

David Karp, no not that David Karp, is in our distant memory recalled as The Fruit Detective, and we had lost track of him until today. Thankfully, he is still pomologizing:

Most of America’s Fruit Is Now Imported. Is That a Bad Thing?

It’s obvious to anyone who visits an American supermarket in winter — past displays brimming with Chilean grapes, Mexican berries and Vietnamese dragon fruit — that foreign farms supply much of our produce.

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Although local, seasonal and farm-to-table are watchwords for many consumers, globalization has triumphed in the produce aisle. Credit Jens Mortensen for The New York Times

Imports have increased steadily for decades, but the extent of the change may be surprising: More than half of the fresh fruit and almost a third of the fresh vegetables Americans buy now come from other countries.

Although local, seasonal and farm-to-table are watchwords for many consumers, globalization has triumphed in the produce aisle. And despite the protectionist “America First” message coming from the Trump administration, the growth in imports appears likely to continue.

So this is an apt moment to examine how the shift happened, and what it portends — good or ill — for American consumers and farmers.

“I had no idea that more than half our fruit is imported, and it shocks me that this has happened so quickly,” said Michael Pollan, a professor of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, whose best-selling books have analyzed the tensions between local and global food systems. Continue reading

The Pests That Make Cacao Productive

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Forcipomyia spp. pollinating a cacao flower. Goodman Cacao Estate, Killaloe, Australia, 2017. Credit: Samantha J. Forbes

This 12-minute primer on Soundcloud gives a reason to appreciate these otherwise very annoying pests:

Chocolate: Brought To You By Bugs

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Forcipomyia spp. SEM image. Goodman Cacao Estate, Killaloe, Australia, 2017. Credit: Samantha J. Forbes

Chocolate starts as a beautiful yellow and cream-colored blossom, with blushes of pink and magenta. The flowers, sprouting straight from the bark of the cacao tree, are no bigger than a dime—and they’re pollinated by something much smaller: a barely visible fly related to biting no-see-ums, or midges. Continue reading

Big Time Culinary Hydroponics

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At Farm.One, a hydroponic garden in TriBeCa, red-veined sorrel is prepared for a delivery. Credit Sarah Blesener for The New York Times

We have posted on urban farming and related topics numerous times since 2011, and hydroponics as its own topic of interest plenty of times as well. Culinary and/or gastronomic topics as related to agriculture are a magnitude of order more represented in these pages. Finally, they are combined for us in one amazing article, thanks to Alyson Krueger. If you only have time to look at the photos, those alone are worth the click:

Herbs From the Underground

Farm.One just opened an indoor rare herb and flower garden in a TriBeCa basement, and many prominent chefs are flocking to it.

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Katherine Chester, a farm hand at Farm.One, harvests for a morning delivery. Credit Sarah Blesener for The New York Times

In the basement of a loft-style building in TriBeCa that houses a vet, a dog swimming pool, an eye-and-ear infirmary, and a two-Michelin-starred restaurant, there is a working farm.

Farm.One is a hydroponic facility, which means that the plants do not grow in soil. Many of these farms are located indoors, in controlled environments, with artificial lighting.

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Amazon neon cherry dianthus and neon rose magic dianthus. Credit Sarah Blesener for The New York Times

The new two-room space, which opened in November in a former cycling studio for high-altitude training and an old storage area, is only 1200 square feet. There is no fresh air or natural light; there is not even a window. Yet the venue can grow around 580 varieties of rare herbs and flowers (200 at a time) that supply New York’s top restaurants. Le TurtleLe CoucouMission Chinese Food, and The Pool get regular deliveries from Farm.One, sometimes several times a week. Continue reading

Feeding 7 Billion People

Farmer Doug Thomas holds rice at a storage facility near Olivehurst, California.

Farmer Doug Thomas holds rice © Drew Kelly for The Nature Conservancy

 Thanks to Cara Byington and her colleagues at Cool Green Science:

When They Said They Wanted to Rethink Agriculture, They Meant It

Continue reading

Real Food, Silicon Valley-Style

Square Roots, on the site of the former Pfizer building in South Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where produce is grown in 10 shipping containers using only enhanced water and LEDs. Credit Benjamin Norman for The New York Times

Ruffled feathers of slow food pioneers aside, Kimbal Musk’s projects focus on the link between food and community and his passion to make real food accessible to more people.

Kimbal Musk, 45, got rich working in tech alongside his older brother, Elon. Now he wants to do for food what his brother has done for electric cars and space travel.

Although Mr. Musk has food ventures humming along in Colorado, where he lives, as well as in big cities like Chicago and Los Angeles, he has become enamored of places like Tennessee, Indiana and Ohio — parts of the country he believes are the ripest for a revolution in eating and agriculture…

Mr. Musk is promoting a philosophy he calls “real food,” which nourishes the body, the farmer and the planet. It doesn’t sound much different than what writers like Michael Pollan and everyone who has ever helped start a farmers’ market or community garden have preached for years.

But Mr. Musk has big ideas about what the Silicon Valley crowd likes to call the food space, which is as exciting to him as the internet was in 1995. “We’ve never seen this kind of innovation around food,” he said.

In short, he wants to create a network of business, educational and agricultural ventures big enough to swing the nation’s food system back to one based on healthy, local food grown on chemical-free farms.

“Food is this beautiful gift we give each other three times a day,” he’ll often tell a crowd, “but you couldn’t design a worse food system than what we have.”

Continue reading

Seeds of Change

Lebanese workers at the seed bank in Terbol. Mr. Shehadeh’s organization, Icarda, moved operations out of Syria after the war broke out. Credit Diego Ibarra Sanchez for The New York Times

How a Seed Bank, Almost Lost in Syria’s War, Could Help Feed a Warming Planet

TERBOL, Lebanon — Ali Shehadeh, a seed hunter, opened the folders with the greatest of care. Inside each was a carefully dried and pressed seed pod: a sweet clover from Egypt, a wild wheat found only in northern Syria, an ancient variety of bread wheat. He had thousands of these folders stacked neatly in a windowless office, a precious herbarium, containing seeds foraged from across the hot, arid and increasingly inhospitable region known as the Fertile Crescent, the birthplace of farming.

Mr. Shehadeh is a plant conservationist from Syria. He hunts for the genes contained in the seeds we plant today and what he calls their “wild relatives” from long ago. His goal is to safeguard those seeds that may be hardy enough to feed us in the future, when many more parts of the world could become as hot, arid and inhospitable as it is here. But searching for seeds that can endure the perils of a hotter planet has not been easy. It has thrown Mr. Shehadeh and his organization, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, or Icarda, squarely at a messy intersection of food, weather and war.

Icarda, though it received no state funding, was once known as a darling of the Syrian government. Based in Aleppo, its research had helped to make Syria enviably self-sufficient in wheat production. But a drive to produce thirsty crops also drained Syria’s underground water over the years, and it was followed by a crippling drought that helped to fuel the protests that erupted into armed revolt against the government in 2011.Icarda, in turn, became a casualty of the war. By 2014, the fighting drew closer to its headquarters in Aleppo and its sprawling field station in nearby Tal Hadya. Icarda’s trucks were stolen. Generators vanished. Most of the fat-tailed Awassi sheep, bred to produce more milk and require less water, were looted and eaten. Mr. Shehadeh and the other scientists eventually sent out what they could — including a few of the sheep — and fled, joining half the country’s population in exile. Continue reading

Beans, Beef & Key Questions Related To Our Planet

James Hamblin is the perfect messenger for complicated messages, like the ones he usually delivers on scientific and especially medical topics. It is difficult to say why, but taking him too seriously is difficult. So even with challenging questions like the one in the three minute video above, and the one in the article he published on the same topic a couple months ago, his approach is the opposite of intimidation:

If Everyone Ate Beans Instead of Beef

With one dietary change, the U.S. could almost meet greenhouse-gas emission goals.

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Soybeans in a silo at a cattle feed in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil

Ecoanxiety is an emerging condition. Named in 2011, the American Psychological Association recently described it as the dread and helplessness that come with “watching the slow and seemingly irrevocable impacts of climate change unfold, and worrying about the future for oneself, children, and later generations.”

It’s not a formal diagnosis. Anxiety is traditionally defined by an outsized stress response to a given stimulus. In this case, the stimulus is real, as are the deleterious effects of stress on the body. Continue reading

Is This The Future Of Agriculture?

hfh-logo_1Automated machines growing the first arable crop remotely, without operators in the driving seats or agronomists on the ground. ​

Nicola Twilley, a contributing writer for newyorker.com and the author of the blog Edible Geography, is also a co-host of the Gastropod podcast that we link to from time to time. She has brought our attention to an “underfunded initiative” which, considering what looks like a shout out from Monsanto on the initiative’s website, we read with simultaneous wonder and dread:

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A Field Farmed Only by Drones

Across the United Kingdom, the last of the spring barley has been brought in from the fields, the culmination of an agricultural calendar whose rhythm has remained unchanged for millennia. But when the nineteenth-century poet John Clare wrote, in his month-by-month description of the rural year, that in September “harvest’s busy hum declines,” it seems unlikely that he was imagining the particular buzz—akin to an amplified mosquito—of a drone. Continue reading

The Origin Of Feasting

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A life of hunting and gathering had advantages over one of farming and settlement. Illustration by Golden Cosmos

John Lanchester’s article, pondering technology versus science, gives fire its due in the course of reviewing a new book about how hunting and gathering gave way to progress. At the same time, Lanchester raises reasonable doubts about the gains:

book-scott-grain…We don’t give the technology of fire enough credit, Scott suggests, because we don’t give our ancestors much credit for their ingenuity over the long period—ninety-five per cent of human history—during which most of our species were hunter-gatherers. “Why human fire as landscape architecture doesn’t register as it ought to in our historical accounts is perhaps that its effects were spread over hundreds of millennia and were accomplished by ‘precivilized’ peoples also known as ‘savages,’ ” Scott writes. Continue reading

How Does Your Garden Grow?

Partnering with programs like the Atlanta Community Food Bank Garden Program and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to bring bird friendly and healthy food education to youngsters connects well with our ethos. Citizen Science participation starts early. We hope our readers will share with public and private K-12 schools!

SCHOOL GARDEN GRANTS to grow healthy, happy, nature-connected kids!

School gardens provide an exciting context for cross-disciplinary learning and a wonderful opportunity to engage students in hands-on activities, project-based learning, and citizen science. Kids benefit from gardens in academic, physical, emotional, social, and behavioral ways. We are excited to support teachers’ efforts to engage kids in outdoor learning and all its benefits!

We will award 20 grants to teachers within the United States who strive to take the classroom outside, reconnect students with the natural world, and teach them valuable concepts and skills that integrate across all subjects. In partnership with our amazing sponsor, Alaska Fertilizer, we’re thrilled to support 20 teachers with a $500-$2,000 grant, gardening supplies, and BirdSleuth’s Habitat Connections kit. Funds can support a new garden or the revitalization of an existing one. In addition to funding food/veggie gardens, preference will be given to bird, pollinator, native habitat, rain, and other natural projects. Continue reading

The Fourth Estate Asking Questions About Sustainable Agriculture

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Wade Dooley, in Albion, Iowa, uses less fertilizer than most farmers because he grows rye and alfalfa, along with corn and soybeans. “This field [of rye] has not been fertilized at all,” he says.
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Thanks to National Public Radio (USA) and Dan Charles for doing their job, keeping the questions coming, even on topics we think we know the answers to:

Does ‘Sustainability’ Help The Environment Or Just Agriculture’s Public Image?

Brent Deppe is taking me on a tour of the farm supply business, called Key Cooperative, that he helps to manage in Grinnell, Iowa. We step though the back door of one warehouse, and our view of the sky is blocked by a gigantic round storage tank, painted white.

“This is the liquid nitrogen tank,” Deppe explains. “It’s a million-and-a-half gallon tank.” Continue reading

Sunlight and Seaweed

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Thanks to the Conversation for highlighting the potential of this inspiring technology.

How farming giant seaweed can feed fish and fix the climate

Bren Smith, an ex-industrial trawler man, operates a farm in Long Island Sound, near New Haven, Connecticut. Fish are not the focus of his new enterprise, but rather kelp and high-value shellfish. The seaweed and mussels grow on floating ropes, from which hang baskets filled with scallops and oysters. The technology allows for the production of about 40 tonnes of kelp and a million bivalves per hectare per year. Continue reading

Prairie Land Livestock

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Farmer Wendy Johnson markets hogs, chickens, eggs and seasonal turkeys. She also grows organic row crops at Joia Food Farm near Charles City, Iowa. Amy Mayer/Harvest Public Media

Thanks to Harvest Public Media, Amy Mayer and the folks at the salt over at National Public Radio (USA):

How, And Why, Some Farmers Are Bringing Livestock Back To The Prairie

On a cloudy summer day, Iowa farmer Wendy Johnson lifts the corner of a mobile chicken tractor, a lightweight mesh-covered plastic frame that has corralled her month-old meat chickens for a few days, and frees several dozen birds to peck the surrounding area at will. Soon, she’ll sell these chickens to customers at local markets. Continue reading

Entrepreneurial Conservation Through Seaweed Farming

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Michael Graham at his seaweed farm in Monterey Bay. ‘This is like a backyard farm where you can sell your goods at a farmer’s market.’ Photograph: Katie Fehrenbacher

Bayer, Bees Beware

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Researchers monitored the health of these wild bees, from the species Osmia bicornis. They nest inside small cavities, such as hollow reeds. Courtesy of Centre for Ecology & Hydrology

Thanks to National Public Radio’s special forces, aka the salt, for their ongoing search for interesting news and stories related to the intersection of nature and food:

Pesticides Are Harming Bees — But Not Everywhere, Major New Study Shows

In the global debate over neonicotinoid pesticides, the company that makes most of them has relied on one primary argument to defend its product: The evidence that these chemicals, commonly called “neonics,” are harmful to bees has been gathered in artificial conditions, force-feeding bees in the laboratory, rather than in the real world of farm fields. That company, Bayer, states on its website that “no adverse effects to bee colonies were ever observed in field studies at field-realistic exposure conditions.” Continue reading