Monthly Archives: April 2015

Reason to Believe: Ferman Milster

Screen Shot 2015-04-29 at 6.07.05 PM Whenever I get overwhelmed by the latest reports on climate change, I think about Ferman Milster sitting in the back of Dan Black’s barn last fall, a ball cap pulled over his eyes, as a packed crowd of cross-armed farmers and bottom-line skeptics listened to a presentation on why they needed to grow miscanthus tall grass. An impish grin stretched across Ferman’s face. His years of research, those endless powerpoint presentations, the bags of rhizomes–it had all come down to this: He had turned that barn into a prairie revival for regenerative agriculture and energy.

Ferman Milster, the principle engineer and former power plant manager brought me “down to the dusty soil,” as one poet wrote, when I overheard him speaking about miscanthus for the first time.

“We’ve got to do something different with energy and agriculture,” Ferman told a small crowd at the library. “And when you put those two together, this is an opportunity to use new agricultural techniques and crops to help with our energy situation. And climate change. It all ties together. What a perfect nexus to be able to use our solar and soil resources to produce energy locally.”

Our solar and soil will save us: Long before I picked up Kristin Ohlson’s groundbreaking book, “The Soil Will Save Us,” Ferman had already planted the seed for a new way of thinking in Iowa. Ohlson reminded us that the “world’s soils have lost up to 80 billion tons of carbon,” and therefore, we need to not only get beyond fossil-fuel use, but also “extract excess carbon from the atmosphere by working with photosynthesis instead of against it.” Ferman made that real in Iowa.

He would nod at my questions, his grin would widen. He spoke passionately about his work. My notebooks suddenly filled up with his points: Miscanthus can sequester more carbon in the soil than traditional row crops; grow on “marginal” agriculture lands; require significantly lower inputs of fertilizer and pesticides; provide a new revenue source, coupled to energy prices; improve both soil and water retention as well as quality; and improve wildlife habitat. We can decrease our run-off, build soil organic content. We can put money back into the local farm economy instead of out-of-state fossil fuels.

Ferman Milster turned me into a prairie revivalist and forced me to think in a different way; as someone who has chronicled the dismal tales of the coal industry for years, I had to reconsider regenerative ways of energy and farming in the heartland.

In the process, Ferman has given me a reason to believe in the still small possibility of climate hope.

And not just me–virtually everyone he has cornered with his scary miscanthus stalks and charts and powerpoint presentations has come away affected, thinking anew, enthused about the possibilities of restoring our elusive prairie state with clean energy. Screen Shot 2015-04-29 at 6.00.43 PM

Take Jeffrey Ding, one of our Climate Narrative Project fellows, who met with Ferman to discuss corn ethanol. The corn conversation didn’t last long. “I left with three pages chock-full with notes and a completely new inspiration for my project – soil conservation and dedicated energy crops as bridges between farmers and environmentalists,” Jeffrey wrote. “And my initial impression of Ferman has only been further solidified; he is someone who inspires people to pursue divergent ideas and then brings them back together to actualize those ideas.”

In the Climate Narrative Project we talk about cultivating stories like seeds, which will continue to grow and take shape in ways beyond our imaginations. When the UI biomass fuel project harvested the miscanthus on Dan Black’s farm last month, I thought about the stories Ferman has planted on campus, in the fields, in the corridors of academia and policy makers.

And that grin back in Dan’s barn, and all those reasons to believe.

Value of School Gardens in Education and Community Health

Screen Shot 2015-04-28 at 7.40.22 PM Earthworks Farm and KCET joined up for a new series examining the impact of urban farming and gardening on school kids. In the greater LA area, the program has a nice focus on “Cultivating Nutrition & Learning.”

Here’s a clip:

“There’s a reason why schools across the country and throughout the Greater Los Angeles area have started building gardens. By developing green thumbs, gardening activities cultivate the whole child as well as the whole community. Research shows that students who engage in school gardening activities are likely to experience academic, physical, emotional, social, and even behavioral benefits. In a sense, school gardens are also part of the broader well-being of an entire community. School garden are proven to:

Improve nutrition knowledge and attitude towards fruits and vegetables: Children who engage in gardening activities can instill pride in the foods that they grow. In doing so, they can also learn about the nutritional benefits of food and develop a more positive association to fruits and vegetables.
Increase interest in new foods: “Ew, what’s that?” Rather than being fearful of unfamiliar foods, gardening fosters healthy food experiments for children, especially when paired with cooking opportunities.
Foster life skills: From working independently to collaboratively, gardening instills many life skills such as teamwork, self-understanding, leadership, decision-making skills, communication skills, and volunteerism.
Instill appreciation for the environment: Gardening engages students in understanding the ecosystem. Children not only learn about how food grows, but what it takes for food to grow. Gardening education can span areas like water conservation and land use.
Teach life-long lessons: Lessons and skills children learn from gardening are known to stay with children throughout adulthood. From appreciating nature to identifying seasonal vegetables and fruits, gardening can provide children life-long benefits.
Promote cultural awareness and intergenerational learning: For communities with high non-English speaking populations, there is often a cultural and linguistic gap between school children and their elders. School gardening has reportedly helped alleviate this gap as grandparents are teaching their grandchildren how to garden.

And yet, as many educators know, an increased emphasis on standardized testing has pushed out school activities that are not immediately perceived to support test performance. However, school gardening activities can adhere to standards while providing children with interdisciplinary and hands-on learning, in the following ways:

Literacy: Gardening can teach and engage children a number of literacy skills. For example, children can read informational materials such as seed packets and reference books. It may also be necessary for them to conduct Internet research. In addition, children can engage in writing field notes and reflections about what and how they grow food.
Mathematics: Through gardening children engage in activities like measuring the depth of seed planting and the distance required between them. In addition, they will need to calculate the time and the amount of water it takes for their plants to grow.
Science: By engaging in gardening, children are naturally engaged in scientific inquiry. In fact, many advocates consider school gardens to be the “living laboratory.” Children can apply scientific principles to design and articulate their scientific method, state their hypothesis, as well as document the process and outcome.

Innovative Problem-Solving

While parents, teachers, and administrators may be sold on the idea and benefits of school gardening, there can be barriers or challenges along the way. Two of the main challenges are leadership and land: Who will drive the idea and efforts, and where will the school gardens be?

The driving force to any initiative is leadership; however, who we perceive as a leader can be complicated. Gardening initiatives have been known to be driven by teachers, parents, students, administrators, or a combination of some or all. In fact, most school gardening advocates suggest developing a committee. Whether it’s a team or a single person, it requires the will and the follow-through of the leader(s) to move gardening efforts forward.

Limitations in land availability at schools can be a barrier in creating a garden. However, many school gardens have found innovative ways to grow. Schools that lack soil space are developing raised or container gardens. Some classrooms are growing indoor gardens through planters or even creating innovative vertical gardens.

Already we see strong examples of gardens that bring together schools with community to make school gardens that are supported by the local community. In Los Angeles, at Micheltorena Elementary and North Hollywood High School, gardens have been created that are run by teachers, students, parents, and other locals, in a collaborative effort that benefits both school and community.”

CNP Formal Interview: Kelly Lucas and Lucy Janssen of Longfellow Elementary

kellyOn Friday morning I returned to Longfellow Elementary to conduct interviews with 6th grade teacher Kelly Lucas and student Lucy Janssen. Lucy’s mother Brandi (an Clinical Assistant Professor in Occupational and Environmental Health at the UI) was part of the movement by Longfellow parents to establish a student garden at the school in 2010. Lucy has been working in the garden since it was established and her teacher Kelly is one of the main faculty caretakers of the garden.

Here is my transcript from the interview:

Kelly Lucas

Tell me about the personal relationship you’ve developed with Scott through his presentations at Longfellow?

I met Scott through the SoilMates program because we received one of the grants that fund our garden and I’ve also gone to some workshops where he has presented. He’s become a really great resource for our school garden. Every time I see him I feel like he has something new to share with us about what’s going on. We get a lot of emails from him where he shares his knowledge and what’s going on in the community with us.

What’s the reaction you notice from students during his presentation?

Whenever Scott comes to present I notice that the students are always very engaged. He’s a very enthusiastic presenter and I feel like after he leaves they talk about him a lot. They want to learn more about composting,. They want to compost at home and I think he really lights a fire in them about soil and about composting. He’s just a really engaging guy and I think the kids really get into that.

How do you think Scott has influenced kids with his presentations?

I know that I’ve had students in the past that after Scott’s presentations they’ve gone home and asked their parents to start composting and I feel like it always gets them a little bit more excited about the garden after he talks to them. I think he helps ignite in them a little bit more of that passion for getting outside and gardening and being more environmentally conscious.

Last time we spoke you told me about your students having different backgrounds in terms of gardening knowledge and diets, tell me more about that.

We have a lot of students who understand gardening, sustainability, and eating organic. I have vegetarians and sometimes vegans. I have kids who have chickens in their backyard and I think those kids come with a ton of knowledge. I think that helps them elevate what they’re doing at home and also elevate what we’re doing here because I don’t have to teach them about the gardening process or the importance of eating healthy. That’s already ingrained in them and I think that that for us here at Longfellow is a real benefit.

Did Scott have a role in establishing the garden here at Longfellow?

The Longfellow garden was actually started by several of our parents quite a few years ago. It was our Parent-Teacher Organization that started that (around 2010)…the parents that we had that started it were really involved in gardening at their own homes and really wanted to bring that to the school.

Tell me about your planting schedule with the garden and what role the students play.

Each year my students are responsible for deciding on what plants are going into the garden. They plan out the garden, how much space everything is going to take, and we start some plants inside. They do a lot of research on what’s going to grow best inside, how long to crops take to grow. Every year our fifth graders plant a bed of potatoes and the following year when they’re sixth graders, they dig them up, we cook them in the classroom, and they serve them to their peers. They go into the classrooms and tell them what we do with the garden. We serve some of our tomatoes and salad at the ice cream social. The kids water over the summer. They come  in and help me out. They water while we’re growing things in the classroom. It’s very student-led and they kind of decide what we’re going to put in the garden and help take care of it and harvest and luckily eat a lot of what we bring out of the garden.

Have you faced any challenges in maintaining the garden here at Longfellow?

I think the biggest challenge with the garden is that the time when the garden requires the most work is the summer and that’s when we’re not here. I spent a lot of my summers coming in to take care of the garden but I’m very fortunate that if I send emails to students, they’ll come in and help me out. Water is an issue. We don’t have a watering source out by the garden. A year ago our ELP teacher, who I also work with on the garden, found a really great rain barrel method with rain saucers since we can’t be close to the building. So we figured out a way to get water out there without having to run hoses. That’s probably been our biggest struggle is maintaining the garden over the summer and watering it.

What specifically have you done to overcome the challenges you’ve faced?

A lot of what we do to overcome the challenges is we let the kids brainstorm ideas. We talk to people who are gardeners. I had a parent who helped us out for a little bit who was a master gardener and he gave us a lot of advice. We’ve used our resources just to try to find little fixes for things, what’s going to grow best, how to keep things watered, how to get people to come in, and how to increase involvement.

Lucy Janssen

What part of Scott’s presentation do you remember most?

I just remember that he brought in a compost bin and the things that you use to make compost. He showed us how you make compost and all the layers. There were a few different layers and you had to put in newspapers and leaves.

What else has Scott taught you that has stuck with you?

He said that it’s very important to make compost and help the environment and stuff. and I think that’s really helpful for me to just know that the environment is important and that we should help the environment with compost and stuff.

Are you involved with the student garden?’

My mom was one of the people who started the garden so I was kind of there from the beginining. Like secord or third grade we set up all the beds and put the compost in. Ever since we’ve just been planting and watering. We planted the potatoes last year and cooked them this year. We do a lot of stuff in here with planting inside, planting outside, watering, figuring out how much space we need for everything.

What are some specific gardening duties you have experience doing?

I’ve watered a lot in the gardens and I was one of the people who we looked at the garden beds and we look at how much space every plant would need, and we saw how many rows of each plant we could fit in the garden. We figured out which plants would go inside and what plants would go outside.

What has been the biggest impact that Scott has had on you?

Just knowing that it’s important to compost and to do those things for the environment.

What would you tell your peers about the importance of composting?

I’d say that the environment is very important and we need to keep it going. Composting is a pretty good and easy way to keep the environment healthy and good.

I will now begin writing a script that I can bring to be workshopped on Tuesday. I’ll also take suggestions for potentially interviewing at least one more source. I will likely meet up with and interview Scott’s brother Steve later this week. Steve will provide me with background information about Scott as well as photos of Scott from his younger days. I have video footage of the student garden shot by students at Grant Wood, video of Scott giving presentation at the library, and the footage of Scott testifying during the Monsanto Hearings. So far (knock on wood), everything is going according to schedule and I may be able to begin editing as early as this weekend.

Iowa Farmers Lead on Solar

Screen Shot 2015-04-27 at 8.33.56 AM Hopeful story in last week’s Gazette, featuring the lead role of farmers in solar panel installation. Reporting from a workshop on farm solar applications at the Iowa Dairy Center at Northeast Iowa Community College, the Gazette notes that rural Winneshiek County, “long a hotbed of homegrown energy, has more residential solar than any other county in Iowa.”

Here’s a clip:

“While photovoltaic units generate electricity, solar thermal units typically are used as an economical means to heat water.

Workshop panelist Roger Egeland, who milks 400 cows south of Ossian, said his solar panels heat the 1,000 gallons of water needed each day to clean his cows and equipment.

Johnson said most solar panels are connected to the utility grid with excess production credited on a one-to-one basis to the producer.

Federal and state income tax credits make solar panels more affordable, according to Kelly Brickley, a certified public accountant with Hacker Nelson and Co. of Decorah.

The U.S. government offers a 30 percent income tax credit through Dec. 31, 2016, said Brickley, who spoke at the solar workshop.

The tax credit can be carried forward seven years if the applicant does not have sufficient income to offset the credit, he said.

Iowa provides a residential solar tax credit equal to 60 percent of the federal credit, with a cap of $4,500, Brickley said.

An Iowan who installs a residential solar system that costs $25,000, for example, would be entitled to a $7,500 federal income tax credit and a $4,500 state income tax credit, he said.

Cost has fallen

Farmers and other commercial entities that install solar panels also can take advantage of accelerated depreciation, which would allow them to expense 85 percent of their investment within five years.

For example, Brickley said, an Iowa business with a solar array that costs $75,000 would realize a federal tax credit of $22,500, a state tax credit of $13,500 and a five-year depreciation deduction of $63,750. If the business paid income tax at a 20 percent rate, that deduction would translate into an additional savings of $12,750.

Johnson said the cost of solar has fallen from more than $8 per watt capacity three years ago to about $3 now. Moreover, he said, the cost of utility-produced electricity has been increasing at a rate of about 5 percent a year.”

USDA to Farmers: Be Part of Climate Action

Screen Shot 2015-04-27 at 8.27.50 AM The Des Moines Register has a nice update on the USDA plans to provide incentives for Midwestern farmers “to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase carbon storage and generate clean and renewable energy in their operations.” The goal of the volunteer measures, part of the 2014 farm bill, is to “reduce emissions and boost the capture of carbon by more than 120 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year by 2025 — equivalent to taking 25 million cars off the road.”

Here’s a clip:

“The USDA plan seeks to improve soil resilience and increase productivity by promoting conservation tillage and no-till systems, among other practices. A greater focus also would be placed on more timely and efficient use of fertilizers to reduce emissions and help producers save money.

In addition, it would back a number of practices to reduce methane emissions from cattle, dairy and swine.

Producers and landowners would receive financial incentives including grants and low-interest loans to help, USDA said.

Steve Anderson, an Iowa corn and soybean farmer northeast of Des Moines, said he is already using no-till and conservation tillage on his farm. He also applies fertilizer in smaller doses several times during the growing season, a process that reduces nutrient runoff.

“A couple of (USDA initiatives) I’m already doing, so it would be great if someone paid me to do it,” said Anderson, who expects to farm 3,500 acres of corn and soybeans this year. “More and more people are doing these things all the time, and if the government wants to get more people to do it, financial incentives will turn the tide.”

Already, warmer weather has led to a longer growing season, which has shifted where some crops are grown, while leaving fields more susceptible to pests that are able to survive the winter.

In the Midwest and Great Plains, where much of the country’s corn, wheat and soybeans are produced, the growing season has become almost two weeks longer in the past 60 years. The White House has noted that 2014 was the planet’s warmest year on record, and said that 14 of the 15 hottest years on record took place this century.”

Eat Real Food & Eat With Joy

More inspiration on eating real, whole food vs. unprocessed food. I liked how she ties processed food to diet food. This reminds me about what Megan told me as to how she got interested in eating unprocessed food for a year.

I now want to incorporate eating with joy into my project in the last scene. I agree with Joanna that this is vital to making a lasting change in one’s own relationship with food.

And here’s another great video via Michael Pollan: Why are Twinkies cheaper than carrots?

May 7: Climate Narrative Project presents!


The Climate Narrative Project cordially invites you to:

Urban Farms, Real Food, Edible Campus: An Evening of Film, Art, Dance and Storytelling

Thursday, May 7, 7:30pm, 240 Arts Building West

Featuring Climate Narrative Project Fellows

Anna Kilzer: Edible Campus: Beyond a Public Health Building

Nick Fetty: Soil Mate: It Takes a Teacher

Sophia Finster: The Dinner Party: Processed vs. Unprocessed Food

Bridget Fonseca: Don’t Let Your Children Grow Up to Be Farmers: Women Farmers Respond

As a special media arts initiative in the Office of Sustainability, and a partner with the Yale Climate Connections, the Climate Narrative Project seeks to reach across academic disciplines and galvanize new ways of chronicling regenerative approaches to energy, food, agriculture, community planning and transportation. Selected Fellows work with Writer-in-Residence Jeff Biggers on semester-long investigative projects, using visual arts, film, radio, theatre, dance, spoken word and creative writing mediums. During the Spring 2015 semester, Climate Narrative Project Fellows have explored regenerative agriculture, urban farming and food policy, with a special focus on schools. The Climate Narrative Project is an investigative initiative: What accounts for the gap between science and action on climate change, and what can we do more effectively to communicate informed stories and galvanize action?

Opera on Climate Change at Milan’s La Scala

Screen Shot 2015-04-24 at 11.07.57 AM It’s not over until…the polar caps melt: The world famous Teatro alla Scala in Milan, Italy, will feature a new opera on climate change in May: CO2. Composed by Giorgio Battistelli, the work is based by Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” film, and seeks to engage new audiences.

Here’s a description:

“An opera-denunciation on the future of a by-now “terminally ill” Earth, a poor planet that deserves greater indignation on the part of a humanity slumbering in the face of an environment in its death throes. The performance imagines the nightmare scenario of the destruction of the world. It does so going beyond mythology and ideology, even beyond the epic of the entire operatic tradition. The musical architecture of Giorgio Battistelli (1953) transfigures the asymmetric forms of nature; it revives nature, giving expression to the lament of the elements of the Earth in its current state of suffering. The backdrops are the Kyoto Conference, No-Global demonstrations, endangered species, cities at the mercy of hurricanes, civilizations exposed to the risks of climate change, the dumb indifference of the irresponsible, and the ignorance of the impotent masses. The staging was created by the genius director Robert Carsen, who is always attentive to the conservationism issue, as those who have seen his Candide by Bernstein will recall.”

CNP Formal Interview: Matt Hartz of New Pioneer Food Co-op

mattToday I interviewed Matt Hartz who serves as the general manager at New Pioneer Food Co-op in Iowa City. Scott Koepke’s SoilMates program is made possible because of New Pi Here is the transcript from my interview with Matt:

How did the SoilMates program come about and why was Scott selected to lead it?

Well in 2009 our board met to set a strategic plan for the co-op, mapping out the future for us. Part of that plan was expanding our education outreach efforts. he, on his own, had already created the SoilMates program, which he was doing in his spare time just because he was so passionate about it.  Looking at the programming he was doing and the kind of programming that the board had expressed an interest in investing in, it was just a natural fit to move him from grocery into our marketing and outreach department and leverage the program full-time.

How does promoting good soil and gardening practices tie into the mission of New Pi?

We are a purpose-based business. One of the reasons we were founded was to support the environment. To be a responsible member of this community and this planet. So much of what we do is ingrained in that ethos. And Scott’s work with SoilMates and learning about soil, respecting soil, appreciating food meshed exactly with the values we as a cooperative have.

What is the response you’ve heard from the community in regard to the program itself and Scott more specifically?

Well the program has been tremendous. We’ve been doing it for about five years now. We’ve received so much positive feedback and thank yous and letters. Scott is all over. We interact with thousands of school kids every year here and in the county surrounding us. We support over twenty community gardens each year and Scott is just amazing. He’s a great educator. He doesn’t do anything that is not all heart, all the way. He brings so much passion and love to what he does and so it’s been a great way for us to interact with our community and to interact with the school district.

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in maintaining the SoilMates program?

Well one of the things about us is we’re a small grocery business and it’s rather unusual for us to be doing programming like this but again we’re a purpose-based, mission-driven organization so this is something we want to do as a triple bottom line business. And the funding for the program comes from having healthy financial operations so the purchases that our owners and shoppers make in the isles all eventually distill down to having enough resources at the end of the year that we’re able to invest in staff, gardens, and programming like we have with Scott.

How do you work around these challenges.

We operate in a challenging environment. It is a competitive environment and so we try to run the business in such a way that there’s enough left over at the end of each year that we’re able to invest in the things that we really value as an organization 

What has been the relationship you’ve built with Scott over the years?

I’ve know Scott for 20 years. We used to work together in grocery at the Iowa City store. We’re friends. He was the best man in my wedding so I know him really well. 

What impact do you think Scott has had on the community?

It’s been great. The feedback we hear is just tremendous. He’s an inspiring speaker if you’ve ever seen him. He’s so engaging. He just captivates audiences. And again his passion. He just has so much passion that he’s a natural educator.

Tomorrow morning I will be interviewing with Kelly Lucas as well as one of her fifth graders at Longfellow Elementary. Then next week I will wrap up my interviews when I hope to speak with Tom Braverman at City High. Though I may not interview him on camera, I also hope to speak with Scott’s brother Steve to learn a bit about his upbringing in Cedar Rapids as well as his time in the Peace Corps which may have influenced his passion for soil and gardening. Lastly I have recruited an undergraduate journalism to provide the voice over for the project. Everything has been on schedule up to this point so I’ll try to keep pace as we round the final stretch.