Thursday, December 15, 2005

Farmer Catches Hedgerow Bug

My friend Lou Preston has caught the "hedgerow bug". Lou is a winemaker and diversified organic farmer of substantial renown. He lives on a 125-acre vineyard in Sonoma County's Dry Creek Valley that he and his wife Susan and their daughters have built into something extremely special over the past 30 years.

Symptoms of the hedgerow bug come on suddenly, an overwhelming urge and passion for planting native shrubs, trees, grasses, and other plants in areas that once may have been mowed or weeded or even cultivated in some form of production. It usually starts slowly, with limited experiments on field borders, roadsides, or stream banks. Once infected, the roots of this new life-altering outlook on farming and gardening and landscaping grow deep. Ideas of the landscape become immensely more nuanced and preconceived notions of what a farm should look like quickly fall away. Landowners throughout the country look for all kinds of opportunities to "go native" with their plantings. Sometimes entire rows of vines or orchard trees or cultivated fields may be retired as a way to integrate more natives into the mix. The benefits of such plantings are many and could take a whole essay to address, but I'll name a few here. Year-round sources of pollen and nectar that attract local beneficial insects and pollinators that can directly affect crop output; stabilization of soils and filtration of runoff; on-farm habitat for a variety of other creatures; buffers from drift off various kinds; an overall enhanced sense of stewardship that comes with being part of coevolving beauty.

In Lou's case, he and Susan have created a diverse faming operation at the northern end of the Dry Creek Valley. Over the years they have planted more than 100 acres of carefully selected varietals for their estate wines, as well as hundreds of olive trees for both oil and curing, bountiful gardens, and an increasing number of heirloom fruit trees. The last fifteen years at their farm has really been a journey in creating quality on many levels. After achieving an extraordinary output of 30,000 cases of wine in the late 1980s, they eventually dramatically reduced their output to 8,000 cases. This has allowed them to spend less time marketing their wines and more energy on selecting the very best fruit and achieving far more diversity in the way they live their lives and in the numbers of products they make. Olive curing and olive oil processing have also became a great complement to their winemaking operations. Along the way, Lou blossomed into a fanatical bread baker, and as the vineyard became an increasingly popular destination in Dry Creek Valley's wine country, oven fresh breads deepened the experience for visitors. (A little sourdough with your wine and olive oil anyone?) With a commitment to diversity and artisan craftsmanship well established, concerns about sustainability also began to dominate their priorities for their land. They applied and were granted organic certification, and developed a localized system of compost teas to fertilize and stimulate resilience within the vineyards and olive orchards. Tractors were converted to biodiesel made from reprocessed local fast food grease. Infrastructure investments in a sizeable array of photovoltaic panels as well as a new barn insulated with straw bales provide both active and passive solar energy. Lou emerged as an outspoken advocate for an initiative calling for a ten-year moratorium on genetically modified crops in Sonoma County. It was unfortunately defeated in the November 2005 election due to a heavily industry-funded, Farm Bureau-led campaign based on misrepresentations of fact, hysteria, and bold-faced lies. (Genetically modified crops will not benefit Sonoma County farmers.)

Hedgerows are the latest step in the Prestons' journey, but are by no means their only foray into habitat restoration. They have been actively working for years to reduce erosion, stabilize stream banks, remove invasive species, and replant the section of Dry Creek that meanders through their property. A year or so ago, Lou told me, my chapters on hedgerows in Farming with the Wild inspired him to alter his vision of how to take his stewardship practices to a new level. In typical Lou Preston fashion, he jumped in feet first, doing his homework, and checking into the local resources that were available. Working with a Sonoma County native plant expert, he's planted a surprising number of hedgerows and other living borders on various areas of the property. And his excitement for this latest evolution in his family's relationship with the land is evident and seemingly uncontainable.

We can only hope this hedgerow bug is extremely contagious. In order to establish the kind of connectivity and "permeability" throughout our farmed regions that may help insure a future alive with wildness, farmers committed to sustainability like Lou Preston can't be working in isolation. His actions, and others like him, must become part of a larger vision in which entire regions of neighboring landowners are farming with the wild in some sense of unity and spirit. In that way hedgerows grow to hedge thickets and then to shelterbelts and wildways, linking uplands to lowlands, spanning entire watersheds, even while vital diverse rural economies are thriving.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

San Francisco Punts on a Shopping Bag Fee

A number of people have been asking me to weigh in on San Francisco's recent decision to postpone levying a 17-cent fee on paper or plastic shopping bags. Instead of a per-bag fee, in November 2005 the city set the goal of reducing 10 million paper and plastic shopping bags over the next twelve months. Seventeen cents was the amount that San Francisco Department of Environment researchers estimated would be required to cover both the costs of pick-up and disposal as well as to launch a campaign to increase the pool of reusable cloth bags.

San Francisco city residents use between 80 and 150 million paper and plastic shopping bags per year. The country's annual tally of polyethylene shopping bags tops 100 billion, according to Elizabeth Royte (Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash, p. 192.) Plastic bags become airborne, litter streets and snag on tree limbs, clog sewers and storm drains, and are a general bane to solid waste collectors. Because both paper and plastic have significant upstream impacts in their manufacture, and both are ultimately short-term disposables, the ideal solution is something that's durable and long-lasting rather than landfill bound. In other words, a system - not a preferred material.

Some countries have already banned plastic shopping bags outright. Ecologist and Nobel Prize winner Wangari Maathai has proposed that her native country of Kenya ban plastic bags because they blow around, collect water, and serve as ready breeding grounds for mosquitoes which then become vectors for malaria. Ireland has achieved radical reductions in plastic shopping bag consumption with a 10-cent fee at the counter. Other countries including Australia are following suit.

When San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsome's office began seriously considering the 17-cent fee on both paper and plastic shopping bags, people in Northern California, across the state, and the entire country took notice. Disposable plastics are becoming an increasing burden for municipalities everywhere. States like Pennsylvania, Virginia, Georgia, and others have already become waste depositories for states whose landfills are maxed out. The number one export to Asia from the West Coast is now used corrugated cardboard boxes. And this is not just a land-based quagmire. For many years, marine researchers have been reporting troublesome findings about the concentration of plastics in the stomachs of fish and sea birds and the contamination of beaches and seabeds. According to Dr. Charles Moore, the 500 square-mile area known as the North Pacific subtropical gyre contains at least 10 pounds of plastic for each pound of zooplankton. It's gruesome, really.

After some careful study, in November 2005 San Francisco's Board of Supervisors decided not to levy a fee on shopping bags. Instead, over the next year, the city will attempt to voluntarily reduce 10 million bags from its annual waste stream. According to a press release from the San Francisco Department of the Environment: "A reduction of 10 million bags will keep 95 tons of material plastic out of San Francisco's waste stream, and will reduce San Francisco's contribution of greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 1 million pounds of CO2. This is equivalent to 44,000 gallons of oil or taking more than 14,000 automobiles off the road for a day."

Obviously, this is not the far-reaching initiative that many of us hoped for. Empirical evidence from around the world shows that the most effective way to shift behavior is through financial penalties such as the proposed fee on bags. In the mean time, the Department of the Environment will be allowed to carefully assess the progress of the experiment. After that time, the bag fee proposal can once again be placed on the table.

My preliminary investigations uncovered a few contributing factors leading to the decision. Realizing the domino effect that could take place if San Francisco placed a fee on disposable shopping bags, a coalition of paper, plastic, bag manufacturers, and retail grocery trade associations among others put up a considerable sum (upwards of a million dollars) to hire a lobbyist and launch a campaign to thwart the proposal. This is typical of the push-pull struggles between municipalities and private industry that have been brewing for decades. In Europe, extended producer responsibility (EPR) laws have successfully placed some of the financial burden for waste disposal on the businesses that generate it. So far in the U.S., corporate interests have won the battle, and waste disposal remains a civic responsibility and burden.

The coalition used a few key arguments in tipping the scale away from a bag fee. Concerns were raised about the impact on dog owners and pedestrians if there weren't enough plastic bags to scoop poop with. (No kidding.) Cautions were also raised about potential discriminatory effects that a fee might have on less affluent residents. A training program was cobbled together to help clerks become more effective baggers. Ultimately, the bag-fee opponents succeeded in shifting the debate from one of reduction to recycling, by arguing that the responsibility for waste disposal lies with local government rather than retailers and manufacturers.

On a brighter note, if the 10 million per year bag reduction is not met, there is still a chance that the city can be shown what a groundbreaking and important precedent this would set not just for Northern California, but for the entire state and the nation as a whole. Then and only then can we begin that journey of a thousand steps to put this legacy of disposability behind us.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Sustainability is a Fighting Word

Sustainability should be a fighting word. But like so many terms in our modern lexicon, "sustainability" has long been dragged through the mud, through the marketplace, through governmental and nongovernmental circles. We find it on corporate annual reports, in descriptions of modern agriculture, even embedded in tag lines of nonprofit publishing houses like Watershed Media. Along with other fighting words like "organic," "natural," and "biodiversity," sustainability wavers on a precipice above a void of total and complete ambiguity. (All good things will inevitably be co-opted and rendered meaningless.)

If we do take the time to examine this word, however, we find one of the juiciest, most fragile, and illusive onions one could ever hope to peel. At its core, sustainability implies, quite literally, the ability to sustain. So the operative question we need to continually keep in mind as we unravel the proverbial onion should be to sustain what? We hear all kinds of mega forces piggybacked alongside the sustainability train: sustainable agriculture, sustainable design, sustainable development - even sustainable growth. It is a testament to the power, the urgency, but also the inadequacy of the word, and perhaps ultimately, the inadequacy of language itself. Anyone for sustainable obesity? Or sustainable debauchery?

At its deepest and most fundamental sense, our vision of sustainability must transcend human concerns and embrace all of the life forms that make up this sweet earth. One need look no further than Arne Naess' principles of deep ecology or the lucid prose of one of our greatest living American writers, Wendell Berry, to find the real trajectory that the word should inspire. On a personal (and perhaps simplistic) level, sustainability implies the relentless nurturing of ever-deepening relationships. It is only at the level of direct interaction that we can adequately respond to the needs of the living world around us. At that point of intimate scale and connection, we become informed and inspired. And perhaps prepared to put up our dukes and defend what's worth fighting for.