Category Archives: Agriculture & forestry

The Virtues of an Ancestral Diet

Elicer Tribz explains how to make cinnamon spice from the bark of the cinnamon tree.

On the hillside above the Blancaneaux Lodge in Belize, six gardeners tend to a three-and-a-half-acre organic garden that supplies the hotel’s three restaurants with delectable vegetables, fruits, beans, and herbs.

As a prelude to a communal dinner at the hotel’s Garden restaurant, Elicer Tribz takes lodge guests on a tour of the garden. He proudly describes how he and his fellow gardeners nurture the soil and tend to the lettuces (10 varieties), the cherry and Roma tomatoes, the squash, zucchini, carrots and celery, and innumerable herb bushes and fruit trees. He explains how the gardeners create a natural fungicide using microorganisms found in the rain forest, and how they man the garden literally around the clock when fending off attacks of woolly caterpillars.

Throughout the tour, Tribz pinches off leaves for the guests to smell and taste. The vegetables are not only free of pesticides and herbicides, thus safe to eat off the vine without washing, they are very flavorful. The fresh food at Blancaneaux puts to shame the grocery store vegetables that I normally eat, genetically engineered as they are to survive lengthy spells as agricultural inventory. At Blancaneaux guests enter a world of more intense taste.

I can also vouch that after three days of hiking like a mountain goat and eating healthy meals, I felt great. This was life in the blue zone — the recipe for living a longer, healthier life.

Eating organic food was not an experience my wife and I had been looking for when planning our vacation. It was an unexpected bonus. As total coincidence would have it, on the airline flight to Belize I plowed through “The Dental Diet,” which touted the virtues of organic and free-range foods. Combining the theory from that book with the experience of eating organic food at Blancaneaux set into motion a train of thought about the relationship between health, the “ancestral diet” (as author Steven Lin calls it), economic disruption, food deserts, and economic inequality.

Let me advance three nested propositions. First, many of the chronic diseases in 21st century society — not just the biggies like heart disease, obesity and diabetes but a host of auto-immune diseases — originate from our modern diet. To prevent those diseases rather than merely treat them, North Americans, Europeans, and anyone else embracing a conventional “western” diet” must radically change their eating patterns — most notably by consuming fewer processed sugars and carbohydrates, more grass-fed cattle and poultry, and more fresh fruits, beans and vegetables. Second, a dietary revolution by necessity will require a wrenching agricultural and food-processing revolution. And third, the transition from industrial agriculture to free range/organics will accentuate the divide between those who can afford good food and the health benefits that accrue from it and those who can’t.

Lin looks at health and diet issues through the prism of his discipline: dentistry and oral health. Our mouths host an extensive biome that interacts with our bloodstream (especially if we have gum disease) and our gut biome (every time we swallow saliva). Lin’s exploration of this interaction, which medical science is only beginning to understand, led him to several intriguing perspectives and insights.

Lin argues that dental disease was almost non-existent among early homo sapiens. Likewise, crooked teeth, which we moderns think of as the unlucky outcome of the genetic lottery, were equally rare. The absence of dental maladies among pre-agricultural humans is all the more remarkable when one considers that they did not avail themselves of tooth brushes, tooth paste, dental picks, braces, and orthodontics! How could that be possible? Lin’s answer: The ancestral diet of meat, grains, fruit, and, later, dairy — not processed carbohydrates — allowed the mouth biome to remain in balance, reducing acidity, and for the upper and lower jaws to grow larger and stronger with room to accommodate more teeth. With plenty of space in the jaw, teeth in early homo sapiens, like those of pre-agricultural societies documented within living memory, grew in straight and even.

Cavities, bleeding gums and crooked teeth are only the most visible of the health disorders set into motion by the agricultural revolution, with its widespread adoption of carbohydrate-laden wheat, rice, and maize, and then the industrial revolution, with its widespread adoption of processed sugars. The positive accomplishment of the agricultural and industrial revolutions is that they fed billions of people. The downside is that industrially produced food afflicts mankind with a host of chronic diseases.

Animal products, says Lin, should be sourced from pasture-raised and free-range livestock, not from grain-fed livestock pumped up with antibiotics. Likewise, seafood should be caught from natural waters, not farmed. Fruits and vegetables should not be sprayed with pesticides and antibiotics, which alter the microbiome of the soil as well as that of their own genes. We should purge sugar, white flour, vegetable oils from our diets. In their place we should consume more fiber, probiotics and prebiotics. Throw your Captain Crunch into the trashcan, and eat your Brussel sprouts.

To my mind, the virtue of Lin’s book is not the nutritional guidelines — they will be familiar to many readers following other dietary regimens — as much as the persuasive, science-based justification he offers for them. For purposes of argument, let us accept that widespread adoption of a organic/free-range diet is necessary to restore the health of America’s population with its many chronic medical conditions. Now let us confront the implications of adopting those guidelines on a massive scale.

We know that vegetables, beans and fruits can be raised free of herbicides, pesticides and antiobiotics on a fairly large scale. Blancaneaux shows how it can be done, as do innumerable other organic farms such as Polyface Farm in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. The question is at what cost. Organic produce is more expensive, mainly because the gardening is more labor intensive. Grass-fed beef and free-range chicken also are more expensive, mainly because they require more land.

Organic and free-range foods are niche products, accounting for 4% of total U.S. food sales, and they have little impact on agricultural land and labor markets. But increase organics’ market share to 50% — never mind 100% — and farms will experience massive labor shortages and land scarcity. As these key inputs of organic food increase in cost, the price of organic food will rise as well. While organic and free-range food command, say, a 30% price premium in grocery stores today — I base that guesstimate on the price differential I see at Kroger — I conjecture that the premium could well triple or quadruple.

America’s educational divide will accentuate the differential impact on different segments of the population. Those most motivated to alter their diets — not any easy task — are those with the education, income and inclination to read books like “The Dental Diet” and the agency to believe that they have the power to change their lives for the better. Lower-income Americans, who tend to be more fatalistic about their lot in life, will be less likely to change.

If America has a problem now with food deserts — unequal access to healthy food — the disparity will increase dramatically if the price of organic/free-range food doubles. The nutritional divide will become more marked, and so will the ensuing health divide.

How do we offset such a pessimistic outcome? The default response would be to give poor people more fresh food. But giving them healthier food provides no guarantee that they will eat it. Far better would it be to involve the poor in raising their own food, whether cooperatively in communal urban farms, individually in back-yard gardens, or perhaps as employees in multi-storied urban greenhouses. People place far greater value in a thing that they earn through their own sweat and toil.

Whatever the long-term solution to the problem of food inequality, the scientific case is growing for the argument that we are what we eat. I’m ready to do what it takes to stay healthy and active, even if it means eating more cauliflower and fewer french fries. Hopefully, other Americans will find a way to do so, too.

I Love this Goal: 10 Billion More Oysters

Oyster reef. Photo credit: Jay Fleming Photography.

I love this goal: Adding 10 billion oysters to the Chesapeake Bay by 2025.

A partnership of more than 20 organizations, businesses, non-profits, and educational institutions announced that objective earlier today. The 10 billion oysters will come from a combination of expanded restoration activities, fishery repletion activities, and the continued growth of the Bay’s oyster aquaculture industry.

“Oysters are so much more than the tasty bivalves that many know them to be. They are a crucial part of our ocean planet,” said John Racanelli, National Aquarium chief executive officer. “They help keep our waterways clean by removing harmful pollutants and they provide a hospitable place for other animals to live—from the backwaters of the Chesapeake Bay to the vast Atlantic Ocean.”

The partnership has established as its top three priorities ensuring robust funding for oyster restoration, establishing sound science-based management that ensures sustainable harvest of the Bay’s oyster population, and expanding the oyster aquaculture industries in Maryland and Virginia.

While I am a skeptic of global-warming alarmism, I consider myself an environmentalist. I happen to think that there are more productive ways to spend scarce public dollars than re-engineering the industrial economy of the globe to adjust CO2 levels in the atmosphere. Locally, we can accomplish far more good by investing funds in restoring the health and adaptability of the Chesapeake Bay. Oysters are a keystone species. If we can restore their numbers, we can make a huge, visible difference.

Clowns vs Menhaden Goes into Overtime

by D.J. Rippert

Northam channels Tom Brady. The ongoing battle between The Imperial Clown Show in Richmond (a wholly owned subsidiary of Dominion Resources) and Brevoortia tyrannus (aka menhaden, bunker, pogy, mossback, etc) has reached a new low. Our always corrupt General Assembly decided it didn’t like the latest ruling of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) and tabled the legislation that needed to pass to put Virginia in compliance with the ASMFC ruling.

This action opens the door for the ASMFC to declare Virginia “out of compliance” to the Federal Departments of Commerce and the Interior. From there, Commerce and Interior can, at their choosing, impose a moratorium on all menhaden fishing in Virginia until Virginia comes into compliance. Apparently, the clowns in Richmond took one look at President Trump’s orange hair and decided they had a friend who would look the other way as the Commonwealth raped the Chesapeake Bay once again. However, newly installed Governor Northam is not so sure. He has proposed last-minute legislation to implement most of ASMFC’s ruling. If passed, this would avoid allowing the Trump Administration to decide what to do with the state that put forth Hillary’s running mate, contributed 13 electoral votes to her, and elected Terry McAuliffe as its past governor. Northam’s “Hail Mary” pass is in the air.

Who knew pigs hated fish? When it comes to killing menhaden Virginia stands alone. Virginia is the only state on the East Coast that allows large scale extraction of menhaden. Despite the presence of large schools of menhaden up and down the Atlantic seaboard Virginia manages to kill 80% of all the menhaden taken on the East Coast. In fact, that large scale extraction is the province of a single Canadian company, Omega Protein, operating out of Reedville. Seven ships, assisted by spotter planes, locate menhaden schools and use giant suction tubes to scoop the fish out of the water and into their holds.  They are eventually used to make dietary supplements, dog food, livestock feed and other generally low value items.

So, why is Virginia the only East Coast state to allow this level of butchery?  Because Virginia is also the only East Coast state that allows unlimited campaign contributions from corporations to state politicians. And guess what? The pigs of Richmond are at the trough, snout deep in slop, contentedly “oinking.” Over the years Omega Protein has stuffed $539,499 into the pockets of our state politicians. In return, The General Assembly has passed a law making menhaden the only fish in the sea that the General Assembly regulates. Or, more accurately, fails to regulate.

Menhaden have more teeth than ASMFC. ASMFC was chartered back in 1942. However, it was essentially an advisory body to state regulators. That all changed when the striped bass (or rockfish) fishery collapsed in the early 1980s. Individual states wouldn’t implement effective limits on striped bass fishing for fear that their fishermen would lose to other states. So, in 1984 Congress passed the Atlantic Striped Bass Conservation Act and gave ASMFC semi-regulatory authority. Any state that failed to implement ASMFC’s rules would be reported to the Secretaries of Commerce and the Interior. Those departments would determine if they agreed that ASMFC was correct in holding the state in non-compliance. If they agreed, ASMFC could impose a moratorium on fishing for the species that was in non-compliance in the state. ASMFC dramatically curtailed the limits for striped bass, and by 1995 the striped bass population was declared to be fully restored. As it became clear that ASMFC had succeeded where the individual states had failed, Congress gave ASMFC authority over all East Coast fishery management.

Flaky fluke ruling. The big failing of the ASMFC process is the need to appeal to the Departments of Commerce and Interior in order to get deemed non-compliant. In twenty cases since 1993 states have been non-compliant. Nineteen times the departments of Commerce and Interior agreed with ASMFC. Then came the first Trump Administration ruling in a case over summer flounder (aka fluke) in New Jersey. ASMFC wanted the minimum size raised from 18” to 19”.  New Jersey wanted to stay at 18” and concocted some bad science to plead “conservation equivalency.”  The Trumpies sided with the Garden State and the ASMFC’s authority was undermined.

So, you feeling lucky, Clowns? In November, 2017 ASMFC ruled on a number of questions regarding menhaden. By and large, conservationists and recreational fishing interests considered the ASMFC rulings a disastrous loss. The catch limit was raised 8% and is now higher than the limit in 2012 when the fishery was severely compromised. The gains that have come from the 20% reduction in 2012 are likely to disappear. Virginia still will kill 80% of the menhaden killed on the East Coast to help a Canadian company make dog food.

The one ray of sunshine was a cap on fish taken from the Chesapeake Bay. The level of the cap is about the actual catch in the Bay from the last few years but it’s lower than the previous cap (which was never reached). Pigs will be pigs and that Omega money is still in the tough so, The Thundering Herd of Corruption in Richmond wants to table the legislation, fail to comply and take their chances with the Trump Administration. Gov Northam’s legislation would probably avoid all that but it still has to get through the Clown Show and the ASMFC clock is ticking.

Stay tuned.

Supply-Side Experiment in Food Desert Goes Bust

Jim Scanlon at his Newport News store. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

Poor Jim Scanlon. He bought into the conventional wisdom that food deserts are a supply-side problem — an unwillingness of grocery store operators to locate in inner cities. Hoping to remedy that deficiency, the idealistic former Ukrop’s executive opened Jim’s Local Market in a low-income neighborhood in Newport News in May 2016.

Now, a year and a half later, he’s closing the store, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Explains Scanlon: “It’s just that the sales are not there, and the profitability is not there. It’s not working out.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Food deserts are a demand-side problem, not a supply-side problem. Poor people, like many Americans, just don’t like broccoli, kale, quinoa, cauliflower, or other trendy superfoods that go in and out of fashion among the cultural elites. Pleasures in life in the inner city are far and few between, and the poor, also like many Americans, gravitate to food that provides immediate gratification… Which means they gravitate to processed food loaded with salt, sugar and fat that tastes good. Go into any convenience store or corner grocery in the east end of Richmond and you’ll see aisles stocked with snack foods and soft drinks — the kind of food people are willing to spend their money on.

If you want poor people to eat healthier food, putting healthy food in front of them won’t work. You can literally give away the carrots and squash, and many people won’t eat them. Not only have they not acquired the taste, they have lost the cultural knowledge of how to cook them.

Tricycle Gardens in Richmond was launched to create urban gardens and create a supply of healthy vegetables that poor, inner-city residents should include in their diets. The idea behind the nonprofit was the old give-a-man-a-fish-and-you-feed-him-for-a-day, teach-a-man-to-fish-and-you-feed-him-for-a-lifetime philosophy. The group built small, “key-hole” gardens that anyone could install in their backyard and reap a bounty of vegetables. I don’t know if Tricycle Gardens had many takers, but let’s just say, I have seen little evidence of a horticultural revolution sweeping through Richmond’s inner city. The last time I communicated with the group — it’s been a couple of years — its leaders were recognizing that they had to work on the demand side. The outfit was talking about giving cooking classes to teach how to make yummy dishes out of brussel sprouts, and it was partnering with local schools to get kids involved with raising garden vegetables, learning about nutrition, and excited about eating healthy food. If we want poor Virginians to eat more healthy food, that’s the kind of slow, plodding change we need to undertake.

Another well-meaning group is investing a grocery store in Richmond’s East End. The building is now under construction. With all the gentrification taking place in the East End, that venture may find enough customers among young urban professionals to sustain itself. Otherwise, it will likely meet the same fate as Scanlon’s Newport News enterprise. Simply put: The enterprise is addressing the wrong problem.

A Giant Step Forward for Pigkind

Happy pigs

In vitally important news from the porcine world, Virginia-based Smithfield Foods Inc. has ceased its practice of keeping sows in “gestation crates,” spaces so confined that the pigs can’t turn around. The company, reports the Virginian-Pilot, has spent $360 million renovating its farms with “group-housing systems,” a technocratic term for pens.

Pigs are highly intelligent, highly social, and capable of human-like emotions. In her book “Personalities on the Plate,” College of William & Mary professor Barbara J. King describes Esther the Wonder Pig, who lives in the home of Derek Walter and Steve Jenkins in Ontario, Canada.

Esther’s daily routine gives us a window on the nature of animal sentience. … Jenkins and Walter note Esther’s quickness in learning how to unlock doors throughout their house — including the freezer door. Given a “treat ball,” a mini mental puzzle that challenges the receiver to extract peanut butter, Esther succeeds more rapidly than her dog companions. … More than formal problem-solving, though, it’s Esther’s vivid presentation of self that clues us into her mental life. She’s keenly attentive to people and events around her; often she makes direct eye contact with the camera when being photographed. She loves frozen mango smoothies, bagpipe music, trotting around the spacious orchard outside her house, and cuddling with her dog and human companions.

Pigs have feelings. They are smart, loyal, and affectionate. The industrial warehousing of such an intelligent, sentient creature is a blight on the human conscience. Kudos to Smithfield for introducing group-housing systems. Next step: free range pig farms. I, for one, will be happy to pay a small premium to consume bacon guilt free.

PHCC Drops Agricultural Degree Programs — Why It Matters

Farm sales by Virginia locality 2012, taken from the StatChat blog. Red circle shows location of Martinsville/Henry County.

The Patrick Henry Community College in Martinsville has dropped its agricultural degree program along with certificate programs in horticulture and viticulture. Between declining enrollment in the programs and state budget cuts, it is no longer feasible to offer the courses, President Angeline Godwin told the Martinsville Bulletin.

Many people might view this flotsam in the torrential current of news coverage as utterly without interest. To Bacon’s Rebellion, the story is imbued with deeper significance in at least two ways.

Market-responsive education. First, it shows how at least one community college is responsive to market forces. Each degree program is the functional equivalent of a product line. The agriculture/horticulture/viticulture product line wasn’t selling in the Martinsville-Henry County area and could not be operated at a profit. So PHCC eliminated the program. Wise decision. As the map above shows, there was not enough farming activity in Henry County in 2012 to register any farm sales. While there still may be some hobby farms, career farming in that part of the state appears to be a defunct vocation.

Virginia’s colleges, universities and community colleges offer literally thousands of product lines — everything from two-year degrees in agriculture to four-year degrees in Tibetan language studies. Some programs are in greater demand than others. Some programs are more “profitable” than others — profitable in the sense that the share of tuition revenue attributed to class enrollment exceeds the cost of employing faculty and administrative overhead to teach them.

Public colleges and universities in Virginia must seek approval of new degree programs by the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia — and SCHEV does not act as a rubber stamp. The council scrutinizes requests and sometimes sends them back for revision or reconsideration. But once an institution gets the OK for a degree program, SCHEV does not monitor its ongoing progress. I have seen no evidence that even the Boards of Trustees of the institutions themselves track the enrollment numbers in degree programs. Do college administrations even compile these numbers? Surely, they do, for they must have some rational basis for deciding how to allocate resources for hiring faculty. But if they do, the public never sees these numbers.

The PHCC article reminds us that some degree and certificate programs fall out of favor. PHCC made a good business decision by shutting down three for which demand had evaporated. But note this: The college acted out of the necessity caused by cuts in state support. Would it it have acted otherwise? Who knows?

My question is this: How many other zombie degree programs are there in Virginia’s system of higher education that are shuffling around half-dead? Could Virginia’s colleges and universities combat runaway costs by chopping out the deadwood?

The decline in farming. The second lesson to learn from this seemingly innocuous article is that inhabitants of what we think of as “rural” Virginia appear to be losing interest in pursuing rural livelihoods, the most notable of which is farming. Based on farm sales, the only part of Virginia where large-scale agricultural operations takes place is the Shenandoah Valley.

When we think about rural economic development in Virginia, one would think that farming would be a major underpinning of the economy. After all, one thing rural Virginia has is a lot of land. Inexpensive land. And Virginia has water. We don’t have to fight wars over water rights like farmers do in California and the Inter-Mountain West. As manufacturing jobs dry up, why aren’t people turning back to farming to make a living? Is the work too hard — it is work that Americans don’t want to do anymore? I don’t know the answer. But the question seems important to ask.

Bacon’s Mushroom Theory of Economic Development

Pennsylvania mushroom farm

Pennsylvania mushroom farm. Photo credit: Wall Street Journal

We’ve all heard the mushroom theory of management — shovel s*** and keep ’em in the dark. Well, brace yourself for Bacon’s mushroom theory of economic development.

Almost half of America’s mushrooms are produced in Chester County, Pa. After peaking in 2014, however, production has declined slightly in recent years. A big problem: a labor shortage. Reports the Wall Street Journal:

Most mushroom growers have failed in efforts to recruit locals for harvesting jobs, which can bring in as much as $50,000 a year but often require workers to start by 5 a.m. and put in six days a week.

“We’d love to get people who live in this area,” said Meghan Klotzbach … regulatory manager for Mother Earth. “They graduate from high school, they just go to Wal-Mart to work. Why can’t you come here and pick mushrooms?”

Chester enjoys no natural advantages in mushroom growing, which takes place indoors, in the dark, using composted soil. The concentration of the industry in this one Pennsylvania County is a historical curiosity, dating back to two Quaker flower growers in 1885 who discovered they could use wasted space under their carnation beds to grow mushrooms. The region maintains its dominance in part due to an elaborate supply chain that funnels large volumes of manure to the farms. But mushrooms can be cultivated anywhere.

Indeed, they are grown in Virginia. A quick Internet search reveals at least three mushroom farms: North Cove Mushrooms in Charlottesville, Sharondale Farm in Cismont (near Charlottesville), and Urban Choice, which is located in the Scott’s Addition area of Richmond.

The Virginia mushroom farms are small enterprises that sell mainly to farmer’s markers and local restaurants. If labor is a constraint in Chester, Pa., why can’t Virginia farmers take up the slack? Wouldn’t $50,000 a year sound like good money to workers in rural Southside and Southwest Virginia (or for inner city workers in Richmond)?

The Washington, Hampton Roads and Richmond metropolitan regions represent a vast market for fresh, locally grown produce of all kinds. Rural Virginia needs more, better-paying jobs. Mushroom cultivation could fit the bill. Find a couple dozen niche agricultural products like mushrooms, and we could see a rural revival in the state.

Just a thought….

Name this Flower!

My wife and I were walking along the James River this morning when we came across this beautiful little flower, which appears at roughly life size in the photo to the left. We have no idea what it is. Does anyone recognize it?

The flower most often appeared in clumps, like that seen at right. It clearly prospers in the shade.

I don’t recall ever seeing this blossom before. The plant of which it is part is pleasant enough in appearance and would be an asset to any garden, even when not in bloom. If the plant is native to Virginia (I am partial to indigenous species), I would love to have it in my garden.

Update: That didn’t take long. LarryG identified the flowers as bluebells, a common flower. I guess I don’t get out enough.

Update: Turns out that there is an annual Bluebell Festival in Merrimac Farm in Prince William County! That’s coming up in one week.

Hmm, hmm. Oreo-Infused Hornswoggler Beer!

Hornswoggler's new Oreo-infused beer

Hornswoggler’s new Oreo-infused beer

Let me start by saying, I love the name of Hornswoggler. If there’s anything that could move me to drink craft beer, it’s a name like that. And let me also say that, regardless of what the nutrition scolds have to say, I love Oreo cookies. But Oreo-infused beer? That just doesn’t seem right to me, and I’m not even a beer purist.

Richmond-based Veil Brewing Company debuted its new offering, Hornswoggler Chocolate Milk Stout with Oreos a week ago. Stated the company on its Instagram page: “We took our 7% robust chocolate milk stout Hornswoggler and conditioned it on hundreds of pounds of Oreo cookies. If you like Oreo cookies, this is a must try.”

Veil is shooting for the sale of 55 to 80 cases. I wish these gustatory innovators the best of luck. But I can’t help but wonder if Oreo-infused beer is a sure sign that we’ve reached Peak Craft Beer. What’s left to try? Kelp-infused beer?

Really, truly, I just made that up. Then I Googled “kelp beer.” And it seems that a craft brewery in Maine has already done it. I feel like we’re living in the End of Times!

Wild Life in the New Dominion


Forget the bears, bobcats and coyotes. Camera traps near Virginia’s Mountain Lake Biological Station, manned by Virginia Tech researchers, have captured photographs of a strange hominid species. So reports Motherboard.