A #Water Footprint Riddle

During a farm visit, I was asked the following, “Well-meaning people will order a soy burger instead of a hamburger thinking it’s more environmentally-friendly as well as a healthier choice. Sometimes it’s true, but sometimes it’s not. What if the soy used in the veggie-burger comes from irrigated fields, but the beef is from rain-fed pasture-raised cows?”

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Water footprint totals have been tossed around in this time of low reservoir levels and little rain (don’t we all know that it takes a gallon of water to grow an almond?). But to answer this riddle, first I must introduce the concept, “color of water.” Water footprint researchers assigned colors to water to help differentiate the types of water sources: blue, green and gray. Blue water is sourced from aquifers, reservoirs and rivers that scribble across the landscape. Rain water and moisture is green. Gray is water tainted with nitrogen, the run-off from fertilizer and manure.

If we consider water footprint totals alone, then the soy burger with a water footprint of 224 gallons per pound is a superior choice. But if the soy burger originates in a field irrigated by ground or surface water, it has a water footprint of 224 gallons of blue water, water from above and below ground reservoirs. And the gray water totals are higher too if grown on fields treated with chemicals fertilizers. If the pound of hamburger is from a pasture-raised cow on a diet of rain-fed grass, it’s 1,851 gallons of green water, rain. Even with an overall higher water footprint total the rain-fed beef hamburger is a better choice.

It isin’t simply knowing the water footprint of food that matters, but rather the source of water. When we know the color of water and begin to support farmers who utilize more “green” water and cultivate the soil to “keep” more water when it rains, we can positively impact water systems around the world.

Eat less water at the kitchen table!

There is power in the collective.

Be well,

Florencia

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This Earth Day Hug a Sustainable Farmer

Skip the tree hugging this year, instead reach for your nearest sustainable farmer. They are the ones who toil daily to protect our water, soil and air while providing us with nutritious foods.

They are a small lot of folks around the country. Farms keep getting larger and more specialized, but it is the last thing our Earth needs. We need more small to medium scale farmers who incorporate methods that enrich the soil, increase the nutrition of our food and use less water.  Sustainable farmers can only grow in numbers with our support.  This Earth Day, seek them out, buy their goods, tell them you care about the work they do.

Here are five sustainable farmers I send a virtual hug to this Earth Day.

John DeRosier, Biodynamic Grain Dry Farmer, With the Grain Farm, Paso Robles, California  

John DeRosier, owner of With the Grain Farms

John DeRosier, owner of With the Grain Farms

I start with John because he was one of my first teachers on my quest to eat less water. While his farm neighbors excavate water at 1,000 feet deep to sustain almond and wine grapes, John farms his land using no irrigation. He is what is called a dry farmer. His crops of grains survive on rain and moisture alone. This year’s harvest will be available to With the Grain CSA members.

Dr. Aldolfo Murillo, Organic Farmer, Tequila Maker, Tequila Alquimia, Oxnard, California, and Arandas, Mexico

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Dr. Adolfo Murillo, owner of Tequila Alquimia

Dr. Murillo says his organic tequila doesn’t give you a hangover. The agave he raises on his farm in the state of Jalisco, thrives on sun, rain and healthy soil alone. Adolfo’s farming methods are in contrast to the conventional way of growing agave that includes applying generous doses of chemical fertilizers and pesticides over the course of 6-8 years, the average length of time required to grow agave. The chemicals absorbed by the plant is further intensified during the fermentation and distillation process. This is what causes the tequila hangover Dr. Murillo suggests.

I’ve yet to test his theory because this award winning tequila tastes too good to drink in one shot, it is made to sip. You can taste the Mexican sun in each swallow. Tequila Alquimia is available at a growing number of bars and stores in California. It can be shipped anywhere (as long as you live in a state that allows for the shipment of liquor).

Maureen and John Knapp, Organic Valley Member Farmers, Cobblestone Valley Farms, Preble, New York

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Paul and Maureen Knapp, Cobblestone Farms

Paul and Maureen Knapp converted their dairy to organic when they learned the river was at the headwaters of the Chesapeake watershed. Home to the first discovered dead zone in the U.S., the hypoxic zone spreads over 40 percent of the Chesapeake. At least 50 percent of the pollution stems from agriculture upstream.

Paul and Maureen’s concern for water quality led them to implement Holistic Management. This farming method corrals animals into smaller areas of pasture or paddocks. The animals are frequently moved to eliminate overgrazing. As a result, their dairy cows graze on rain-fed pastures during the spring through the fall. When the snow brings the cows indoors, they are shoveled rain-fed hay grown on the farm.

Mike Benziger, Biodynamic Grape Grower, Winemaker, Benziger Family Vineyard, Glen Ellen, California

Every drop of water is reused on Mike’s family vineyard. Water used during the bottling process, restrooms, restaurant sink is collected in a man-made pond located on the vineyard. Gravity carries the water into this constructed wetlands. The impurities of the water is removed by the sway of tall, thick papyrus and graceful calla lilies and the microbes living on the root systems. By the time the water moves through the wetlands it is almost drinking water quality. The recycled water is used for irrigation.

Irrigation is used sparingly on the vineyard. Irrigation is not scheduled but rather based on soil moisture. And with the implementation of biodynamic farming methods, the root systems of the grape vines are encouraged to grow deeper into the ground, increasing the plants access to more moisture. It also allows the plant to absorb more minerals, elevating the flavor of the wine to the extraordinary.  You can find Benziger in every state and now in some first class cabins at 40,000 feet. I was thrilled to discover Benziger wine sold at my local Von’s and BevMo.

Nelida Martinez, Organic Vegetable and Berry Farmer, Pura Nelida Farms, Mt. Vernon, Washington

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Nelida Martinez, Pura Nelida Farms

As a former farmworker, Nelida Martinez knows firsthand how chemicals cause physical reactions. It is why she chose to become an organic farmer. “I got rashes on my hands from touching the soil, vegetables or fruit with my bare skin,” she shared with me during my visit to her farm located an hour north of Seattle. “The common practice was, and still is, to apply pesticides on a portion of the farm while farmworkers worked on another. Even when they applied chemicals two or three fields away, we were exposed. The wind brought them to us.” Her son, who worked beside her in the strawberry fields in my hometown of Oxnard, contracted Leukemia. While she doesn’t know for sure if the fumigants sprayed on the sweet berries led to her son’s cancer, she does believe it contributed to the illness that left him with a compromised pancreas.

She dedicates herself to growing healthy, non-chemical food for her family and community. Her vegetables and berries, along with her fresh tortillas and swiss chard and cheese stuffed tamales, are sold at the Viva Farms produce stand during the late spring, summer and fall months.

Sending additional hugs to…

Kurt Unkle, owner of Cajun Grain Farm in Kinder Louisiana

Carney and Alfred Ferris, owners of Windy Acres Farms in Orlinda, Tennessee

Shane Watkins, Watkins Cattle Co.,  Ventura, California

Ben Godfrey, Sandy Creek Farm, Cameron, Texas

Rob Cunningham, Coyote Creek Farm, Elgin, Texas

To these sustainable farmers and others not listed here, thank you for the work you do in the world!

Eat less water at your kitchen table. There is power in the collective!

Be well,

Florencia

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Lessons From a California Dry Farmer

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John DeRoseir at his farm in Paso Robles, California

John DeRosier’s With the Grain farm grows a diversity of grains without irrigation during the winter and summer months, even when the temperature consistently tops 110 degrees Fahrenheit in Paso Robles, California. He is a dry farmer.

The concept was implausible at first. I asked him several times to explain, “How is it you can farm without irrigation while all the neighboring farms are drilling 1,000 feet beneath the surface?” I pointed to the surrounding sea of grapevines which clung to the soft hillsides.

“It starts with the cover crop,” he told me.

Only 3 percent of U.S. farms reported growing cover crops in the latest Census of Agriculture, and the practice drops with farms larger than 200 acres. Cover crop is important, as I learned from John because the decaying plant material from the cover crop feeds the microorganisms in the soil.

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This process builds the soil organic matter (SOM). SOM can retain up to 10,000 times more water than soil without, according to the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Services. While his neighbors drill deeper wells to excavate water to irrigate wine grapes and almond trees, John’s crops grow with the moisture held between the granules of soil.

Last year, John wasn’t able to deliver grains to his CSA customers. “The margin of error for dry farmers is narrow,” he recently told me. “The winters are drier now. I have to plant  earlier than before.” In the fourth year of the drought, he will harvest 150 acres of grain.

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Boycott Pesticide Food! Si Se Puede!

This article is written in honor of the life and legacy of Cesar E. Chavez.

“What is the light for?” asked my son Joaquin on a drive home from piano class. A large spotlight flooded rows of strawberries providing light for a tractor driver spraying pesticides. The driver wore the required protective suit that covered every inch of his body, his nose and mouth covered with a surgical mask. The night gave the typical sight an eerie quality. The light illuminated the thick chemical mist as it rose up from the ground like steam.

“Shouldn’t he be wearing a gas mask?” asked Joaquin.
Protective gear is essential when dealing with contagious viruses, or radioactive cleanups, but shouldn’t be a necessity on the farms that grow the food we eat. My proximity to conventional cropland in part influenced the decision to institute an “organic when available” family policy.

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Strawberry field in Ventura, California

In 2011, 144 million gallons of chemical pesticides were sprayed onto cropland in the U.S. Pesticides are applied as droplets, each droplet lighter than dust. The mist scatters and drifts and settles on surface water and leaches into water tables. The USGS tested 1,412 shallow wells in agricultural areas and found the presence of one or more pesticides products in 60 percent. The same study found nitrate in all the wells, with 21 percent at or higher than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Maximum Contaminant Level.

It is impossible to elude exposure of chemicals. We breathe them, drink, eat and roll in the grass treated with them. Each of our bodies holds at least 700 chemical contaminants, according to EPA estimates. Farmworkers and farmers working on the 1.3 million farms have amongst the most intimate and chronic exposure. It is why Cesar E. Chavez fasted for 36 days in the summer of 1988. He understood chemicals to cause birth defects and cancer among farmworker children. It was his last fast.

Our food system is chemically dependent. The price is paid, by our water, our soil and our health.

Eat less water at the kitchen table. There is power in the collective!

eating is an agricultural act

Be well,

Florencia

Click here for information on the award winning documentary Cesar’s Last Fast, available to view on iTunes.

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Eat Different

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This World Water Day I didn’t shave an extra minute or two off my shower, or forgo watering my potted plants. Instead, I shopped at the farmers’s market and mapped out the dinner menu for the upcoming week. As 7 out of every 10 gallons of water is used to grow and produce food the most powerful way to be water conservationist is to support farmers and food producers who are.

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What is a water conservationist? I used to think that water conservation simply meant to use less water. I built a small business around this belief as a distributor of shower timers and other water saving products. But conserving water is broader than this narrow definition.

Supply and quality cause water shortages. Supply left over 1000 people without tap water in the small town of Porterville, California in Tulare County when their shallow wells went dry. Water quality explains why half a million people were left without clean drinking water in Toledo, Ohio for three days last summer.

The food in my kitchen impacts water systems around the world. The fruit, vegetables and grain I eat impacts well water levels of residents and farmers alike. Dairy and meat choices either contribute to nutrient runoff, causing toxic blooms like the ones flourishing on Lake Erie or encourage thriving soil that draws the water downward to replenish aquifers.

We are facing a frightening future, one rife with water shortages, referred to as water scarcity, caused by shortages of supply and diminished quality. Experts meeting at the World Water Forum in Istanbul in 2009 predicted 2/3 of the world’s population will experience water scarcity by 2025. It is a situation expected to result in an unprecedented rise in military conflicts. And while you, I, and our children may be among the fortunate, living far from a military zone, with a flowing tap of fresh, clean water, none of us will be untouched by a water-scarce world. At the very least it will change what we eat.

The farmers and food producers I’ve interviewed around the U.S. show me a different way to approach farming. One in synch with the surrounding environment. One that works to replenish the river not pollute it, one that serves to regenerate the soil, not lose it. But they need us to buy their food. To be engaged eaters. I’m convinced If we eat different en masse we will rewrite the story.

Eat less water at the kitchen table! There is power in the collective.

Be well,

Florencia

FYI, you can find the recipes for several of the menu items pictured above here.

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Before you report your neighbor for wasting water– read this

A Facebook friend posted a scathing description of her neighbor. The words, “selfish,” and “irresponsible” were used to describe him. His offense, he watered his rose bushes during a drought. Many of the 32 responses urged her to report him to the city. She posted she already had. I didn’t enter a response or hit the “like” button. While I’m glad water conservation sparks attention in the public conversation, these threads of public discourse are superfluous. There is nothing long-lasting about turning your neighbor in for watering his roses or God forbid, hosing down his driveway.

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During each drought period, there is a heightened awareness of water. Articles printed in newspapers and magazines report low reservoir levels, dry wells, and fallow fields. From Texas to Tennessee, electric road signs and billboards read variations of “Save Water, Severe Drought.” And we each become unofficially deputized as water cops, deployed to report the neighbor watering his rose bush.

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“Use what you need,” urged Denver Water during the 2008 drought.

 When the drought is declared over, news stories dry up; billboards replaced, and conversations move to the next crisis. And we remain in the same predicament; half the world population will experience freshwater shortages, referred to as water scarcity by 2030. Water scarcity is expected to result in the deaths of millions and an unprecedented rise in military conflicts. Of all the crises coming to a head– water scarcity is the least understood.

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Clever Campaign to encourage shorter showers launched by San Francisco Water Power Service

I sold 80,000 shower timers before realizing I was saving water in the wrong room of the house. If 7 out of every 10 gallons of fresh water is used to grow food, then isn’t it logical to focus on the kitchen and by extension the farms that produce our food? This is why I became interested in water footprint. But as I’ve visited farms and researched for my book in progress, I’ve learned that water footprints tell a partial story. A richer story is told in color…or rather with the colors of water.

I choose food made from green water, that is rain-fed or dry farmed when possible. I buy organic because chemical fertilizers or pesticides are disallowed. Both kill microbes in the soil, diminishing the soils ability to retain water. When soil can’t retain water, it leads to more runoff, thirstier plants and stressed groundwater supplies. I wrote more on the subject in the article, Why American Soil Makes Us Sick.

Instead of reporting my neighbor for watering his rosebushes, I’d ask him over for dinner, and serve him less water at the kitchen table.

Eat less water at the kitchen table. There is power in the collective!
Be well,

Florencia

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Dr. Seuss Approved Green Eggs

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My kids left for school in their pajamas. Today, the school cafeteria served green-dyed eggs and ham  to celebrate America’s favorite rhyming doctor. But I like to think Dr. Seuss, author of the Lorax, would prefer the green eggs I ate this morning.

The eggs I scrambled  came from a new vendor at the Oxnard Farmer’s Market. Before I purchased, I asked him about their farm practices. I was happy to learn he offered green eggs, as his birds are raised exclusively on rain-fed pastures in Kern County, California. Water footprint researchers assigned colors to water to help differentiate the types of water sources: blue, green and gray. Blue water is sourced from aquifers, reservoirs and rivers that scribble across the landscape.  Gray is water tainted with nitrogen, the run-off from fertilizer and manure. Rain water and moisture is green, thus not diverting water from its natural system.

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Green eggs can be found across America. They are available for purchase at farmer’s markets and a growing number of grocery stores. Look for organic brands that say they are pasture-raised like the eggs from Organic Valley Farms  and Coyote Creek Farms.

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Sam-I-Am urged us to try something new. Consider approaching your food in a new way too, and eat less water at the kitchen table.

There is power in the collective!

Be well,

Florencia