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 Reviews and Resources – Winter 2014-2015 Minimize

The Myths of Safe Pesticides
When Coffee Speaks
The Real Cost of Fracking
Unique Maine Farms

Web Resources
USDA Organic Resource Guide
USDA Local Foods Directories
USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 27

The Myths of Safe Pesticides
By André Leu
Acres U.S.A. 2014
142 pages; $16.95

André Leu, a longtime organic farmer in Australia and president of the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements, delivers a clear and compelling summary of why it’s so important to grow, and eat, organically. Leu is a master at making pesticide science understandable to a non-scientist, and systematically refutes five myths used to calm the public’s concerns about pesticides in our food: the myth that pesticides are rigorously tested; that very small amounts are harmless; that pesticides break down rapidly in the environment into harmless components; that regulatory authorities are vigorously protecting our interests; and that pesticides are essential to obtain adequate yields to feed the world.

If you haven’t carefully followed recent developments in research on pesticide risks, this is the perfect vehicle to reboot your resolve to work for the expansion of organic methods here and overseas.

A few of the highlights: “epigenetics,” or how pesticides can change the way genes express their traits across multiple generations; toxic cocktails of GMO-produced Bt pesticides and the herbicide Roundup; an “inert” ingredient in Roundup that may be more toxic than the “active” ingredient glyphosate; evidence that pesticides can be more toxic at lower levels than at the higher levels required to be tested for EPA registration; inadequate attention to the toxicity of breakdown products and impurities of pesticides; overreliance on unpublished industry-sponsored research rather than peer-reviewed research finding problems the manufacturers deny.

While Leu excels in summarizing key developments in the science, the American reader might find his treatment of the U.S. regulatory system somewhat lacking. In quoting various reports decrying the fact that most chemicals in commerce are untested, Leu fails to acknowledge the distinction between pesticides, which are required to be tested, however inadequately, and all the other chemicals in commerce essentially unregulated and untested under the Toxic Substances Control Act. In the “give credit where credit is due” category, some credit might have been given to the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996, which appears, according to the most recent pesticide use data, to have resulted between 1997 and 2007 in a 55 percent reduction in use of the highly neurotoxic organophosphate pesticides.

– Sharon S. Tisher


When Coffee Speaks: Stories from and of Latin American Coffeepeople
By Rachel Northrop
McNally Jackson Books, 2013
410 pages, $22

“Cool” describes pretty much everything about this book (author, adventure, format) except the climate where it takes place. This is key, because coffee thrives only near the equator. When, in 2012, Rachel Northrop was inspired to follow the trail – backward – of the coffee in her daily cups, the logical option for this brave writer-researcher-schoolteacher was to begin a solo, no-frills, itinerary-free, four-country odyssey. Fortunately she is bilingual, having previously spent a year in Spain (as a New Hampshire high school student). The resulting book is, in her words, “part anthropological field notes, part travelogue, part food sourcing exposé, and part industry road map.” "When Coffee Speaks" is also a tribute to the “coffeepeople” she interviewed, worked alongside (picking ripe coffee “cherries”) and befriended in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Panama and Colombia.

How could a middle-aged herbal tea drinker like me keep up with this author? Luckily, Northrop uses a “choose your own adventure” format that easily guides readers over and around the lush, green, coffee-planted mountains. She also tours coffee processing businesses, attends conference, and witnesses 15 students take the final test in their “barista prep course.” Everywhere she goes, Northrop strikes up conversations with people somehow connected to coffee. Her transcribed and translated interviews are grouped by country, but readers are invited to form their own itineraries as they encounter options at the end of each section – such as: "To continue to the coffee town on the other side of the Baru Volcano, turn to the next page." "For a conversation with another organic farmer, turn to page … " "For a conversation with another biotechnologist who works with hybrid cloning ... "

How are these stories relevant to gardeners in Maine? It depends which “trails” you choose. In Colombia, for example, Northrop encounters a variety of coffee-related issues – including its promotion as “the path to peace” after decades of internal conflict. Nowadays, she notes, the biggest threat to Colombian coffee cultivation is mining: “Working in coffee is safe and stable but is much lower paid than mining … [which] usurps the labor force … The risk is great but the pay is high.” At one point Northrop hears a professor explain why he thinks small coffee farmers will never get subsumed by larger producers. “Why? The price of labor with respect to the market price of coffee. … The smallest growers, families who do everything themselves without any hired help, are immune to this cost because they never have to pay it. When the largest landowners are losing their harvest, the little guy is collecting 100 percent.”

Northrop has given free copies of the book (en español) to everyone she interviewed. “I’ve ... become an unlikely horizontal messenger between farmers,” she says. “Growers want to know what’s going on at other [properties] and at other points in the [production] chain.” Here in Maine, MOFGA’s El Salvador Sistering Project makes yet another agricultural connection with a country in Central America. (See www.mofga.org/Programs/MOFGAElSalvadorSisteringProject).

– Mariana Tupper

Authors Michelle Bamberger and Robert Oswald. Photo by Robert Oswald.


The Real Cost of Fracking: How America's Shale Gas Boom Is Threatening Our Families, Pets, and Food
By Michelle Bamberger and Robert Oswald
Beacon Press, 2014
256 pages, $26.96 hardbound

Michelle Bamberger and Robert Oswald had never heard about fracking until about five years ago. Their neighbors had signed leases with a gas company, and, they learned, even without a lease the gas company could drill beneath their property.

Then they started hearing stories about cattle dying after exposure to drilling fluids. Bamberger, a veterinarian, and Oswald, a professor at Cornell University’s school of veterinary medicine, began documenting health problems of livestock and farmers living in the Marcellus gas patch. They approached these health problems with the same care they would trace a new disease, and published their findings in scholarly journals.

“The problem,” says Bamberger “is that there are a lot of people who would never pick up a scientific article.” So she and Oswald began writing “The Real Cost of Fracking.”

The book is well documented, well indexed, well grounded in science and very readable. First Bamberger and Oswald outline the difficulties faced by scientists who are trying to study health impacts related to drilling. They discuss baseline water testing, safe drinking water standards and challenges of air testing. Then they delve into individual case studies.

Three chapters focus specifically on fracking, farming and our food supply. Farming, they write, has been “intertwined with the oil and gas industry in Pennsylvania for 150 years.” But in the last few years drilling has become more industrialized and increasingly disruptive to agriculture. Drillers have moved fences, cut off access to pastures, drilled wells behind barns and turned sections of grazing land into waste-holding ponds. There have been spills – frack waste leaking into fields and streams – and some farmers have reported contaminated water in their drinking wells.

Farmers have watched their herds decline as cows spontaneously abort or sicken and die. When their water was contaminated, the gas industry provided drinking water for the families but nothing for livestock or irrigation. No other industry builds factories on actively producing farmland, but drive through Marcellus country and you see gas wells, compressor stations and condensate tanks snugged up against food producing fields. In addition to compromised water, livestock and crops share air now laden with volatile organic chemicals.

Is the food grown in and around gas drilling areas safe? The only honest answer, says Bamberger, is that we don’t know. There are no incentives to report food safety issues associated with gas drilling. A farmer who leases his land wants to continue farming and continue receiving royalties from the gas well. If there’s a spill, the farmer may suffer some losses, says Bamberger. But if word gets out that his animals – or market crops – may have been exposed to toxic chemicals, he could suffer even more.

“We need testing,” says Bamberger. After the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the Food and Drug Administration stepped in because of concerns about seafood absorbing chemicals from the spill. The FDA monitored for oil dispersants and other chemicals – and continues to monitor seafood. But, Bamberger points out, there is no comparable monitoring of milk, meat or vegetables in and around gas wells, even when spills have occurred on pastureland.

Bamberger and Oswald end with a map for the future, proposals for policy changes, a primer on gas drilling and about 20 pages of notes documenting their research.

– Sue Smith-Heavenrich

Mary Quinn Doyle at the Common Ground Country Fair. English photo.


Unique Maine Farms
By Mary Quinn Doyle
Old Farm Press, W. Newfield, Maine, 2014
296 pages, large-format softcover, $28 ($33.19 with tax, postage and handling) from www.uniquemainefarms.com/uniquemainefarms.com/Pre-Order_Unique_Maine_Farms_Book.html or by sending a check made out to Mary Doyle at Unique Maine Farms, 515 Garland Road, W. Newfield, ME 04095

"Unique Maine Farms" is a beautiful book covering 178 farms that Maine writer and photographer Mary Quinn Doyle visited over two years. Through text and 440 color photos – all in a book printed in Maine on Maine paper – readers learn about organic and conventional farms, school and research farms, fiber farms, dairy farms, tree-related farms and highly-diversified farms; about farmers who raise animals, fruits, flowers, vegetables and herbs; about historical and cultural farms; about farms focusing on preserving land, heirloom seeds and heritage breeds of animals. Native farming and gathering with representation from four Maine Indian tribes are also covered, as are aquaculture operations.

The variety of Maine farmers presented is amazing and includes refugees and immigrants, migrant and guest workers, homeless residents, the incarcerated, single parents and those with mental and physical challenges. "All the stories found in 'Unique Maine Farms' contribute to the premise of the book that various types of farming and gardening can conceivably bring enjoyment and a sense of fulfillment to everyone," says Doyle on her website.

Reading about those farms brings enjoyment and fulfillment, too, as well as ideas for one's own farm or garden. Many of the organic farms covered have been featured in The MOF&G over the decades, and reading how they've changed and matured over that time is fascinating. I loved reading about the spiritual aspects of Crossroad Farm (orthodox Jewish) and Bark-Eater Farm (Amish Mennonite); and about the worldwide connections that Peter Hagerty and Mary Tracy of Peace Fleece Farm have made in the name of fostering connections and peace. In the feature on Richards Christmas Tree Farm, I learned that a potato digger can be used to pull stumps from a tree-harvested section of such a farm. And the section on Easter Orchard Farm tells about the "ten day rule" of Mort Mather (MOFGA's first treasurer!): "[W]hen a crop is planted, the calendar is marked to make cultivating that crop the top priority in ten days."

"Unique Maine Farms" is a book to savor, a few farms at a time – the perfect book to sit with on the coming slow winter.

Proceeds from the sale of "Unique Maine Farms" will be used to donate a copy to every library in Maine and to support the educational outreach components of the Unique Maine Farms’ project, which includes a traveling photo exhibit, slideshow and discussion program, and interactive farm-related puppet show for young children.

Mary Doyle has done a great service to Maine agriculture and Maine history by documenting our rich farming culture as it exists early in the 21st century.

– Jean English


Web Resources

"The USDA Organic Resource Guide" covers specific funding opportunities for organic agriculture, general programs that organic farmers can use and contact information for each. Learn about the National Organic Program (NOP), reimbursement for up to $750 in certification costs, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program’s Organic Initiative, weekly organic price reports, organic crop insurance and more. www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/getfile?dDocName=STELPRDC5100093

The USDA has four directories to help consumers, producers and community leaders find local foods:

• "The National Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) Enterprise Directory" at http://search.ams.usda.gov/CSA/

• "The National Food Hub Directory" (Food hubs help local farmers aggregate to meet greater demand) at http://search.ams.usda.gov/FoodHubs/

• "The National On-Farm Market Directory" at http://search.ams.usda.gov/OnFarmMarkets/

• "The National Farmers Market Directory" at http://search.ams.usda.gov/farmersmarkets/

The tools allow users to search for local food sources within a set distance from their zip code. Users can also sort by state, products available or payment methods accepted – including cash, check, credit card or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.

Operations can be added to the directories at www.usdalocalfooddirectories.com/updates.html.

The 2014 update of the "USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 27," is posted at http://ndb.nal.usda.gov/. It contains data for more than 8,600 food items.



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