Category: water

Factory farms are crappy. Literally.

Aerial Photo of a Factory Farm

Annotated aerial photo of a factory farm by Socially Responsible Agricultural Project via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Factory farms are a menace to clean water. So Ted Genoways persuasively argues in a lengthy article posted on Monday. (It’s such a feat of reporting that one can only assume it’s a preview of his forthcoming book, The Chain: Farm, Factory, and the Fate of Our Food). As he describes early in the piece,

Large [hog] producers … insist that the enormous, concrete-reinforced waste pits under each confinement—many with a capacity of 300,000 gallons—effectively prevent contaminants from leaching into the soil, and that manure is carefully managed by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources under laws aimed at accounting for all manure at all times. But mounting evidence suggests that an unprecedented boom in Iowa’s hog industry has created a glut of manure, which is applied as fertilizer to millions of acres of cropland and runs off into rivers and streams, creating a growing public health threat. Meanwhile, the number of DNR staff conducting inspections has been cut by 60 percent since 2007.

Between May and July 2013, as downpours sheeted off drought-hardened fields, scientists at the Des Moines Water Works watched manure contamination spike to staggering levels at intake sites on the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers. These two major tributaries of the Mississippi are also the usual sources of drinking water for roughly one out of every six Iowans. But at one point last summer, nitrate in the Raccoon reached 240 percent of the level allowed under the Clean Water Act, and the DMWW warned parents not to let children drink from the tap, reminding them of the risk of blue baby syndrome….

Mounting concern about the safety of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) has stoked a public outcry. So, to be honest, I was shocked when Brad Freking, the CEO of New Fashion Pork, agreed to allow me to tour one of its facilities. In the changing room, I zipped into some navy coveralls and slid a pair of clear plastic boots over a second set of footies. Emily Erickson turned the handle to the barn entrance, opening the heavy steel door a crack. The sound of squealing hogs spilled into the room. “If you’ve never been inside,” she warned, “it’s a lot of pig, it’s a lot of metal, it’s a lot of noise.” I assured her I was ready, and we headed inside.

Whether you’re an indiscriminate meat eater, a conscientious omnivore, or long-time vegan, the article is a must-read. Genoways not only describes what “a lot of pig” sounds and smells like, but goes on to trace the recent explosion of factory farms in Iowa, including the role of mega-corporations (Cargill, Hormel, Smithfield, Tyson) expanding into emerging markets like China. Genoways then details the destructive impact of these factory farms—which are helped by industry-backed politicians, weak laws, and underfunded enforcement agencies—on Iowa’s water.

Check out the full piece at either Civil Eats or On Earth.

Brewing beer amid the California drought


Bear Republic Brewing Company. Photo by Flickr user Christi Nielsen, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Last week I caught a story on the PBS NewsHour about the current drought affecting much of California. As the piece by Spencer Michels details, ranchers, vintners, farmers, and others whose livelihoods rely on a sufficiently wet landscape are facing tough times. In a small Sonoma County town, a craft brewer is going so far as to help the municipality dig new wells:

SPENCER MICHELS: One of Cloverdale’s most thriving businesses depends on a lot of water. Bear Republic Brewing Company, a regional brewery that makes Racer 5 IPA, is trying to conserve water. For every gallon of beer, they use 3.5 gallons of water, much lower than the industry standard.

Co-founder and brewmaster Richard Norgrove says he isn’t sure if Cloverdale’s wells will provide the brewery with enough water this year.

RICHARD NORGROVE, Bear Republic Brewing Co.: We may have to truck it in. We could move our production out of state. We could move our business to a community that’s not affected by water use problems. But those aren’t really part of what the family plan is. We’re local and want to stay here.

SPENCER MICHELS: Instead, to insure an adequate water supply, Bear Republic has entered into a private-public partnership with Cloverdale to bring more wells into production.

RICHARD NORGROVE: We have lent them close to a half-a-million dollars to accelerate their well drilling, which is really helping the infrastructure for the community. If we don’t manage our watershed, we may not even be able to grow this business, because there’s not going to be enough water for everybody.

SPENCER MICHELS: And the town is equally enthusiastic with the arrangement.

For more on the Cloverdale in particular and the California drought in general, check out the full video and transcript at the PBS NewsHour website. For further details on how Bear Republic and Cloverdale are confronting the problem of scarce water, check out this recent article by Kevin Fagan for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Coca-Cola urges restaurants to “Cap the Tap”

Coca Cola Classic

Photo by Flickr user Kate Sumbler [ktpupp], used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Andy Bellatti recently posted a great piece at Civil Eats calling out a bit of corporate hypocrisy. As he describes, Coca-Cola

launched a  “Cap the Tap” program–aimed at restaurants–in 2010, described in the following manner on the Coke Solutions Web site:

Capture Lost Revenue By Turning Off the Tap.

Every time your business fills a cup or glass with tap water, it pours potential profits down the drain. The good news: Cap the Tap™–a program available through your Coca-Cola representative–changes these dynamics by teaching crew members or wait staff suggestive selling techniques to convert requests for tap water into orders for revenue-generating beverages.

… Coca-Cola suggests restaurant waitstaff “turn off the tap” and offers to teach servers how to suggest “profitable beverages” to consumers, citing free refills….

As Bellatti notes,

It should not come as a surprise that the food and beverage industry will do whatever it can to maximize profits. However, a significant problem arises when this sort of campaign is created by a company that talks about its “commitments” to health and enjoys positive publicity from its partnerships with (or support of) health organizations, including the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the American Society of Nutrition, and The Obesity Society.

“Cap the Tap” is a perfect example of the doublespeak that Big Food and Big Soda often employ. The carefully calculated veneer of wanting to be “part of the solution” and “offering choices” to consumers is negated by efforts like this one, which basically paints tap water as an enemy to be defeated.

Check out the full article, which includes plenty of links, here.

Wasting water on monocrops

Corn Field near Green, Kansas

Photo by Flickr user June Woest, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Tom Philpott’s post this morning at Mother Jones focuses on the role of cattle and corn farming in hastening the depletion of an important water resource in the West. As he writes,

crop yields are borne up by a gusher of soon-to-vanish irrigation water. That’s the message of a new study by Kansas State University researchers. Drawing down their region’s groundwater at more than six times the natural rate of recharge, farmers there have managed to become so productive that the area boasts “the highest total market value of agriculture products” of any Congressional district in the nation,” the authors note. Those products are mainly beef fattened on large feedlots; and the corn used to fatten those beef cows. But they’re on the verge of essentially sucking dry a large swath of the High Plains Aquifer, one of the United States’ greatest water resources.

It’s an informative piece, with great infographics and links including one to an article in The New York Times by Michael Wines. Find Philpott’s full post here.

Farming without irrigation

Central Coast Organic Farm Tour

Dry-farmed Early Girl tomatoes at Dirty Girl Farm on California’s Central Coast. Photo by CUESA via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0)

About a year ago, I posted about a farming technique known as dry farming. I thought the topic was interesting and unusual enough that it merited a re-post while I was away last week. My timing turned out to be spot-on, since yesterday NPR ran its own piece on the subject.

As Alastair Bland describes,

At Happy Boy Farms, near Santa Cruz, sales director Jen Lynne believes dry farming could be an important agricultural practice in the future, when water will likely be a less abundant resource.

But the taste of her dry-farmed Early Girl tomatoes is the main reason chefs, wholesalers and individuals around the country are increasingly calling to place orders…. The idea behind dry farming is that by restricting a plant’s water intake, its fruits wind up with less water content and a greater density of sugar and other flavor compounds.

The main problem?

farming without irrigation has a major drawback: dramatically reduced yields.

Stan Devoto, a farmer in Northern California, says his dry-farmed trees produce 12 to 15 tons of apples per acre per year. Irrigated trees, on the other hand, may bear 40 or 50 tons. And McEnnis says he harvests about 4 tons of tomatoes off his acre of vines each summer and fall, whereas conventional growers may reap 40 tons per acre.

Head here for the full piece, and use one of these links to check out my earlier post.

Wisconsin water resources strained by competing demands

Kate Prengaman of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism recently produced an in-depth report looking at important water use issues in the Badger State. She writes,

In a state with about 15,000 lakes and more than a quadrillion gallons of groundwater, it is hard to believe that water could ever be in short supply. Experts say, however, that the burgeoning number of so-called high-capacity wells is drawing down some ground and surface water, including the Little Plover River and Long Lake.

In the early 1950s, there were fewer than 100 high-capacity wells in the Central Sands, according to the state Department of Natural Resources. Today there are more than 3,000 — 40 percent of the state’s total — in the six-county area.

Officials at DNR say that legally, they cannot block new wells based on the impacts from existing wells. And lawmakers want to keep it that way.

Prengaman effectively details current political battles over whether and how to protect water resources, alongside consideration of the competing demands being placed on Wisconsin water.

Experts say the implications of overpumping are on display across the state.

In the Madison area, the deep aquifer is down almost 60 feet. Waukesha’s withdrawals have pushed the deep aquifer down 600 feet. Green Bay had to tap Lake Michigan after depleting its groundwater in the 1950s.

In the Central Sands, scientists say that a rapid expansion of irrigated agriculture may be largely to blame — setting the stage for a water fight between farmers and those who fear for the region’s lakes, rivers and wetlands.

“We were all raised with the sense that this is Lake Superior underneath us, and it’s not,” said Justin Isherwood, a farmer with about a dozen high capacity wells for irrigating his 1,400 acres of potatoes and other vegetables in Portage County.

Tensions have sprung up over how to allocate a finite water resource to many legitimate uses: municipal water supplies, industries, irrigation, private wells, lakes and streams.

To some, it comes down to this: Who needs the water more — the potato plants or the trout?
For those, like Isherwood, who love both, finding a solution involves hard questions.

The full story is outstanding; find it here.

USAID in Tanzania


Morogoro, Tanzania. Photo by s:c:m:photo (Stefano C. Manservisi) via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Since the yearlong public media project Food for 9 Billion (which I’ve posted about regularly) appears to have concluded, I thought I’d share a piece in a similar vein from Robert Dreyfuss, writing for The Nation. It’s one of a series of four posts from his visit to Tanzania. (Here are links to the first, second, and third entries.) As part of a CARE USA delegation, in this post he visits Morogoro, “a bustling town with a busy marketplace and a network of paved thoroughfares that lead to dirt roads leading in every direction.” As he writes,

As in most of Tanzania, the majority [in Morogoro] are desperately poor, subsistence farmers. Nearly all of them farm tiny plots, growing barely enough to feed their families, if that, and few have any substantial surplus to bring to market.

One exception is the Uwawakuda irrigation cooperative farm. More than 900 Tanzanian farmers, including 414 women, have banded together to farm a 5,000-acre spread whose productivity is fed by a pumping station and irrigation system that provides underground water to the farm. Originally installed three decades ago during the era of Tanzania’s president and founder, Julius Nyerere, the pumps are creaky now, and thanks to a grant from the US Agency for International Development (USAID) new ones are being installed. It’s a star attraction for USAID’s Feed the Future program….

Problem is, for the rest of the 2 million people in and around the area, things are bleak.

A drought, worsened by climate change and rising temperatures, has wracked the region. When I asked George Iranga, who manages the project, what happens to the farmers outside the coop, who don’t have access to irrigation, he says that they are struggling. That’s an understatement.

For the full story, which is thoughtful and eye-opening, head here.