Angie (coiro) Thu 17 Jul 08 10:49
I think Americans are already being forced to do that because of gas prices. I've never seen Caltrain (local train service between San Jose and San Francisco) at standing room only before, but you can count on it now at peak times. Jeff, if I had to pull out one chapter of your book to pass around on its own, Chapter 8 would be a strong candidate. It deals with the environmental pros and cons of organic gardening. Care to expound on that, for our readers who haven't seen the book yet? Ironically, I heard a news story just yesterday about the "dead zone" at the end of the Mississippi, largely attributed to pesticides. Prior to reading your book, it would never have occurred to me that organic pesticides might contribute to that. Like most people, I perceived them as neutral at worst, beneficial at best.
a plague of cilantro (cjp) Thu 17 Jul 08 11:08
> sustainable energy and sustainable agriculture and feeding the population are now all linked. Exactly. I've been continually amazed at the differences between farming in Taiwan and farming in China. When I started living in Taiwan in the mid '70s, we couldn't eat anything like carrots or lettuce raw because "night soil" was used as fertilizer. But the vegetables and fruits were truly lush, there were dragonflies and cicadas, and the farms looked so healthy. The markets were full, the people well fed, and in spite of some serious air and river pollution problems, the food was truly spectacular. Contrast that with a trip to China in 1991: I didn't see more than maybe 20 wild creatures, including a rat in Xi'an and a couple of cormorants on the Yellow River. The cotton fields were filled with stunted little bunches of sticks, the farm soil was pale and powdery, and though there was irrigation, dust blew everywhere. I never saw a mulch pile or anything approaching healthy farming, and I really don't know how the plants were pollinated, since I never came across a bee or even a fly. This has really bothered me because I worry from what I've seen that agriculture in China is unsustainable, and yet I don't see them changing anything. There it's *all* chemicals carried to the extreme. So, I've been reading a bit about permaculture as an alternative and wonder what you think about it, Jeff. Does it work, in your opinion, and if so, what's the best way to go about educating people? (slipped by coiro)
Jeff Gillman (jeffgillman) Thu 17 Jul 08 18:56
Hi All, Hi Angie, I liked chapter 8 myself -- yes I can expand a little bit. But first it's worth noting that the dead zone at the end of the Mississippi has lots of causes -- and most of them are directly related to agriculture. Pesticides are a problem, but the nutrients that run off from farmers fields is arguably a worse problem. The thing about the fertilizer problem is that even if you switch over to organics you're still going to be dumping lots of nutrients into the system -- in fact, you'll still be dumping the same amount as if you were using synthetic fertilizers (it's fascinating how much we know about corn and soybeans -- we know just exactly how much fertilizer to add to get a certain yield). If we were to switch over to no till farming we'd do much better -- there would be much less run-off. No-till farming is where you plant crops into the ground without tilling. It's a healthier system -- but it's not necessarily organic -- it can still be accomplished with synthetics. Regarding China -- Once upon a time the Chinese were the world leaders in recycling waste -- Howard, the guy who started organic farming, actually modeled his system after the Chinese. But later they started to use synthetics and, if you don't use synthetics wisely, you end up with a mess -- which is exactly what happened to us in the 1930s with the dust bowl -- it happens to many countries when they first switch over to synthetic. I think that the ideas behind permaculture are sound, I don't think it's a way to feed the whole world, but it can certainly help, especially on a smaller, local scale. I wish I knew the way to transfer this info -- Here in academia we tend to be pretty poor at communication -- a marketing specialist is what's needed -- I suppose I may sound a little jaded, but it's very difficult to get the word out about these things -- academics don't tend to be effective communicators -- Actually, I would love to hear about your thoughts for getting the word out about permaculture, sustainable agriculture, and the like.
Angie (coiro) Fri 18 Jul 08 08:28
Re the dead zones and other causes: yes, Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved, points the finger at another culprit: >>The meat industry is responsible for a dead zone the size of New Jersey in the Gulf of Mexico every year because of the runoff through the Mississippi -- runoff from hog farms basically nukes the water.<< Source: <http://www.buzzflash.com/articles/interviews/114> As to getting the word out: I host a show that only recently changed title and focus from "The Green Show" to "The Angie Coiro Show". I still focus on sustainability issues as much as I can. But emphasizing it too much has a very predictable effect: preaching to the choir, and not growing the audience. I feel we've picked the low-hanging fruit, as far as reaching those already inclined to hear the message. How do we spread it further? I don't know. I do know that its reputation as an issue of the left hurts greatly its chance for wider acceptance. These commercials tackling that are encouraging. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jiiAlQTelko> <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VaZFfQKWX54> Not everyone agrees with me: <http://gristmill.grist.org/story/2008/6/3/174145/4588> The point stands, though: getting the word out means stretching interest in the issues beyond the usual suspects to the still-untouched masses out there.
Jeff Gillman (jeffgillman) Sat 19 Jul 08 08:20
Hi Angie, I agree. Getting the word to the "untouched masses" is tough. I live in a suburb where people value grass that's midnight green with weedfree yards (except for mine -- my kids like dandelions). The concern is about the cost of the fertilizer and weed killer, not the fact that they're not great for the environment. When oil goes so high that we just can't use the stuff anymore maybe that'll stop the "fertilize and nuke it till it glows" attitude about lawn and landscape care. I sure hope so.
Darrell Jonsson (jonsson) Sat 19 Jul 08 11:09
<scribbled by jonsson Sat 19 Jul 08 11:15>
Darrell Jonsson (jonsson) Sat 19 Jul 08 11:22
Jeff...what percentage of what you are talking about in your book is really about some sort of 'organic' abuse by marketing firms rather than the sincere organic intentions of many people who are at work with attempting to provide food with less toxic results and more sustainable results?
Jeff Gillman (jeffgillman) Sat 19 Jul 08 14:05
Hi Darrell, That's a great question! Much of my book covers the various techniques that organic gardeners/growers use. Though I certainly spend some time discussing the good and bad of organics in general, I spend most of the book investigating the techniques themselves including the pesticides and techniques that both organic gardeners/growers and more conventional gardeners/growers can use. If this book has a message (I really didn't write it with a specific message in mind) it's that you need to examine every product and practice you use -- the word organic is not a useful way to establish whether something is healthy/environmentally safe or not. I should point out that most of the time organic techniques are better -- but you can't take that for granted -- I'd rather be exposed to Round-Up than Rotenone any day of the week! Do some firms abuse the word organic? Absolutely, but so do some well meaning people who just accept that the word organic means safe and so apply neem, copper sulfate, and pyrethrum to their plants. It's important for us to start really evaluating the things we dump on our gardens and crops.
Lisa Harris (lrph) Sat 19 Jul 08 15:52
Having been in the landscaping business, I think it's a difference in attitude about your property. Some people garden, others landscape. People who garden, imho, think about the products they use and how it affects their gardens (and the greater world). In general, also imho, people who want a landscaped yard/property don't seem to give a rat's ass, they only care about how it looks, not what it does. My landscaping clients couldn't be sold on the solution that would take a little longer, but be most beneficial for the plants and the world. They wanted the problem fixed now. (Um, that's one of the reasons we got out of the business - bad for the soul, it was).
Angie (coiro) Sun 20 Jul 08 14:42
I briefly read that as "bad for the soil", which made me smile. And for that matter, brings me to the next question. Jeff, here's a magic wand. You can wave it and instantly eliminate the top three "organic" practices that do the most harm. What are they, and why would you wipe them out if you could?
Angie (coiro) Sun 20 Jul 08 14:44
Okay, let me rephrase that last bit. Obviously, you'd eliminate them because they're the three that do the most harm! Rather: what specifically does each practice do that makes them harmful?
Jeff Gillman (jeffgillman) Mon 21 Jul 08 11:11
Hi Angie, Good question. The three practices that I'd remove would be: 1. tilling, because it destroys the soil over time 2. Organic Pesticides -- because people think that, because they're organic, they're safe 3. Use of non-renewable organic fertilizers like guano. Using these types of fertilizer isn't really that different than using synthetic fertilizers in terms of wasting our natural resources. All of the above practices are actually acceptable if you're careful and follow excellent management practices, but with each there's just too much potential for messing something up to make me comfortable in most cases.
Angie (coiro) Mon 21 Jul 08 11:39
Would tilling include such practices as double-digging, to loosen and aerate soil? I'm thinking for example of my own situation, where the clay makes gardening very difficult. I get out the Mantis tiller once in a while to break in a new bed, get some sand and loam in there. Or are you talking only about larger-scale, more regular tilling?
Anne Boyd (nitpicker) Mon 21 Jul 08 12:18
Another point to make about tilling/plowing is that it causes carbon releases. In all the discussion about high-tech solutions for sequestering carbon in underground caverns and what-not, there seems to be less awareness of the fact that stable soil/vegetation systems naturally lock up carbon quite well, particularly in places like the Midwest.
Alan Turner (arturner) Mon 21 Jul 08 17:21
Hmmm. One of the things that Nina Bassuk of Cornell has researched for a decade or more is urban forestry, and her research has shown that for street trees, digging up as much area as possible gives the best chances for success. Granted, that's mainly because urban trees usually get planted in areas with tremendous compaction, and this tilling would only happen once in a generation. But like everything else about gardening, the answer to "Is tilling good or bad" ends up being: "It depends." Most urban and suburban gardeners have such compressed soil that has been driven over by construction vehicles and the like that tilling is the only way to get that 25% air, 25% water, 50% solids mix back in the first place. The Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia is scheduled for it's third renovation in my lifetime. The main problem all three times has been deep compaction - concerts and festivals and so on, sometimes allowed in the rain. I don't know of any other way to get some air back in the soil, and the plant's roots need air.
Anne Boyd (nitpicker) Mon 21 Jul 08 17:58
arturner is talking about a one-time activity (or at least something that only happens at the time of site development) versus an agricultural/horticultural activity that takes place over and over. (But even the one-time activity of site grading is now being more carefully scrutinized for its carbon release potential; the Sustainable Sites initiative is looking at this specifically.) Designed soils for urban street trees are a whole other thing and not in the purview of most home gardeners. The clay soils of coastal California are, of course, a source of special heartbreak to many of us. it's all too easy to make compaction of clay soils worse by over-tilling or tilling in the wrong way.
Jeff Gillman (jeffgillman) Tue 22 Jul 08 07:53
It looks like you guys are mostly talking about tilling practices that are "good". Tilling is bad when its done in the spring, fall, next spring, next fall, and the spring and fall after that. There's nothing wrong with loosening the soil to plant a tree, but by tilling again and again you actually make compaction worse -- the soil actually loses its structure and the loosened soil may be washed away.
Angie (coiro) Tue 22 Jul 08 17:06
Okay, good. Important distinction. And a relief to me, as I'm too lazy to till often enough to do damage. Ahhh, the benefits of indolence! You mentioned earlier, Jeff, that you're content to leave many pests be, and to use simple methods against others - like squishing them manually (my answer to aphids, by the way, satisfying little murders). What have you had to haul out the big guns for? How effective do you find companion planting to be? And on an entirely different note - it sounds like you may have other potential books churning in your head - larger-scale sustainability issues, world food politics. What else are you working on these days?
satisfying little murders (cjp) Tue 22 Jul 08 20:31
Oh, I have to take that pseud. BTW, I absolutely love the story about how Bordeaux mix was developed (pp. 133-4). Facts like that really make my day!
Jeff Gillman (jeffgillman) Wed 23 Jul 08 06:33
Hi Angie -- I rarely pull out the big guns except for wasps (I have two young children) and a tough weed -- like a patch of thistle -- thats about it. Companion planting is basically good -- but don't get the idea that just planting a carrot next to a tomato will work miracles -- the idea is to mix up your whole garden and confuse pests. Satisfying little murders- -- If you like facts like those about Bordeaux mix then you may enjoy my next book which is scheduled for next year called (for now) "how trees die" it includes a lot of interesting tidbits like that. And I just contracted for another book to come out in 2010 -- it will be done in conjunction with a political science professor from UNC Charlotte -- We're collaborating on a project about how politics affects the environment -- for good and for bad.
Lisa Harris (lrph) Wed 23 Jul 08 06:45
This is such an enjoyable interview. OF course, it has been two weeks, and our attention in Inkwell.vue will turn to another book. Jeff, Angie and all please feel free to continue. This topic will remain open for your (and my) enjoyment. And Jeff, when you write that next book, we hope you'll come back to share it with us.
Angie (coiro) Wed 23 Jul 08 09:11
Heartily agreed! And dibs on the first radio interview too. You've obviously got the chops for that subject, and I'm already curious to read it. Thanks for a great discussion, Jeff.
Mr. Death is coming after you, too (divinea) Wed 23 Jul 08 09:23
I hope you're going to stick around for a bit, Jeff, because I still have questions!
Joe Ehrlich (static) Wed 23 Jul 08 09:25
I normally don't like any of these stupid inkwell.vue interviews, but I have eagerly read every word of this one. Thanks!
Jeff Gillman (jeffgillman) Wed 23 Jul 08 10:02
Thank you for having me, it's been fun. Yes, I'll make sure I check this site for at least the next few days- so post any more questions that you have soon and I'll be sure to answer.
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