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I can almost hear the deep rumble of charcoal fall into the steel hollow of a Weber grill, or the click of the propane tank before it ignites an instant fire.

Between Memorial Day and Labor Day alone we Americans will stuff 7 billion hot dogs into buns. That translates to 818 per second. This does not include the billions more beef burgers and steaks.

The water footprint of a pound of beef is between 1500 and 2000 gallons of water. A pound of pork, the most popular meat used for a hot dog requires just above 600 gallons of water to produce. According to The Green Blue Book, my handy water footprint resource guide, sausages use almost twice the amount of water of the average pound of pork bringing it’s total water footprint to 1200 gallons.

I am not suggesting you forgo grilling this Memorial Day. Our grill will be lit. But take a moment to consider the origin of meat you choose to nestle between your buns.

We will grill burgers this summer. Our burgers will be draped with grilled red bell peppers, melted Monterey Jack cheese, and smothered with ambrosia sauce. We will nestle our meat between my homemade buns (my husband loves my buns).

The ground beef used to make our burger originates from a cow raised on a grassy hillside within 30 miles of our grill. The cattle is raised on a diet of rain fed grass, grown with green water. I purchased the meat from Watkins Cattle Company at my local farmers market.

My tasty bites of burger won’t compromise local water supplies. The water footprint of my ground beef is largely comprised of green water that does not draw from underground or above ground lakes. I will chew my bite and know my cow fertilized the blades of grass it ate as it wandered around the hillside. My cow did not leave behind a pile of manure or a slurry of manure in a lagoon. She left no traces of hormones and antibiotics that contaminate  drinking water.

The farmer’s market is a great starting point to find locally raised meat. If you live in or near Ventura County, you can purchase meat from Watkins Cattle Company. Visit their Facebook page to find sale locations.

Here are questions to ask your local meat producer to learn about the water footprint of your meat.

1. Ask if their animals are raised in the great outdoors or in confinement. If raised in confinement ask how they dispose of manure.

2. Ask about their animals diets. Ask if the grass or grains are irrigated (blue water) or non- irrigated (green water). Feed of an animal makes up the largest portion of the water footprint. You want animals raised on a higher proportion of green water.

3. Ask if hormones or antibiotics were used on the animal; what goes in the animal comes out the other end and could land in your glass of water.

Take your water conservation this summer to your grill. Enjoy!

Poster image for a international Compost Awareness Week

 

 

Why even bother composting? I’ve asked myself this question over the years as I dealt with gnats in the kitchen from the compost canister, or smelled rotting food. And the truth is, it is much easier to skip it all and send food scraps to the landfill or down the garbage disposal.

And by the numbers, I’m not alone in this assessment; only 3 percent of all our food scraps are composted. Given forty percent of food is thrown away in the United States, this is a mountainous heap of wasted food. But here is the part that grabs my attention- the decomposition of food in landfills and wastewater treatment plants accounts for 20 percent of methane emissions in the U.S, which is twenty times more harmful to climate change than carbon dioxide.

Compost also saves water, in addition to reducing methane emissions into the hemisphere. Compost, naturally rich with micro-organisms, absorbs more water, a minimum of about 1/2 gallon per square feet of soil. Living in drought-stricken Southwestern part of the U.S, this is crucial. But soil that holds more water is important for wet regions also by minimizes stormwater runoff into adjoining waterways contaminated with chemicals and fertilizers.

Home gardeners pour 64 million pounds of pesticides (herbicides, insecticides and fungicides) to eradicate pests in edible and flower gardens and containers, kill weeds and keep the grass green. If more people composted, the need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides would decrease. Instead, building the soil will bolster the plants own inbred resistance against disease and pests.

Backyard chickens were my latest attempt at composting. The kitchen scraps were fed to the chickens. I’d muck their coop every month and place the manure in an aluminum trash can next to a pile of yard clippings. Once the manure dried out, I added it to the plant material. But last summer we bought a house which doesn’t lend itself to chickens. Sadly, we left the chickens and the compost pile behind.

Now settled into a new house, I needed a new compost system, one that is simple, scentless, and not a breeding ground for pests. A compost pile in Staten Island, New York met all these requirements.

The compost pile belonged to Lenny Librizzi. He invited me into his home garden. The backyard was long and narrow. It hosted a small ecosystem. Bantam chickens, pecked for insects near their henhouse, songbirds found respite on the crooked branches of maple trees overhead, bees buzzed near the wooden hive.

 

The fragrance of black licorice escaped the wispy leaves of fennel in the vegetable and herb garden. The ample patch was carved in the ground between the bee hive and chicken coop. Lenny gardens without the aid of pesticides of chemical fertilizers with high success. I soon realized his soil was the key ingredient to his plump tomatoes, and bushy basil. Compost naturally rich with micro-organisms absorbs more water, a minimum of about 1/2 gallon per square feet of soil. It lessens water pollution by diminishing or eliminating the need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides, instead bolstering the plants own inbred resistance against disease and pests.

 

“How do you compost?”

“I collect leaves and grass clippings. I keep it in one pile.” I followed him to the compost behind the chicken coop. It is a discreet mound of decaying green waste.

“You have no gnats or flies hovering around. Do you separate your food scraps?”

“Yes, the kitchen scraps are kept in covered plastic tubs. An open pile of food is a feast for rodents, possums, raccoons and flies.”

“When do you mix your kitchen scraps in with the green yard waste?”

“When the food is no longer distinguishable, like when you can’t tell what a tomato is or an apple core. At that point, I add them in with the clippings and leaves and turn the pile.”

“How often do you do this?”

“Once a season.” I figure in non-snow regions it would be more like twice, but I can handle that amount.

I’ve begun to implement Lenny’s system. My first Rubbermaid receives food scraps. I’ve gotten used to holding my breath when I peel pack the lid. Once the lid is closed the scent disappears. A few wayward gnats escape the bin, but none hover. When the food is indistinguishable, I’ll add it to the mound of grass clippings and leaves on the side of the house.

The most recent report released by the The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found a rise in green house gas emissions in the last decade, more than the three previous decades. Forty-six percent of America’s lakes and 40 percent of our rivers are too polluted to support aquatic life. Underground water that took millions of years to accumulate is drawn faster than its’s replenished, leaving nearly every state in the union with falling water tables and dried-up wells.

Given the stakes involved, swatting a few gnats and holding my breath a few seconds is a minor sacrifice.

 

A guest on the Oprah Winfrey show was a young woman in over her head in debt. Oprah said to her something like the following, “I would pay your debt right now if I thought it would help you….but all you will do is run up the debt again.” Instead, she gifted her financial coaching, someone to teach her how to change her spending habits. This Oprah scene comes to mind as I consider the Congressional drought bill awaiting approval by the Senate.

Water, or rather the lack of it, is primed to be a hot political issue in the next election cycle. The drought bill, if passed by the Senate would terminate H.R. 146, designed to restore the San Joaquin River located in the Central Valley of California.

In wet years, 356 thousand acre-feet of water is diverted from farmers to the San Joaquin River. In dry years, like this one, the total is reduced by more than 100 thousand acre-feet. House members backing the drought bill contend that these water deliveries should go to farmers not the river. This extra water is enough to irrigate 82 thousand acres of farmland for one year, only 0.2 percent of California farmland, or 0.6 percent of crop acres in the Central Valley.

 

A water deficit plagues California. Water is drawn from the ground quicker than rainfall and seepage can naturally replace it. The agricultural community of Oxnard, California, the ground water levels drop by 300 acre feet or 98 billion gallons in wet years and more in dry years. This is nearly the same amount as the water diverted to restore the San Joaquin River; a river of water evaporates into the air and runs to the ocean in my hometown.

Strawberry field in Oxnard, CA

 

Last spring I met with farmer Mike Benziger at his family vineyard in Sonoma County. He told me, “This year we entered into a three-year drought phase. It could be the worst since 1850, when California began taking records.”

 

In anticipation, Benziger Family Winery began developing practices to drive the roots deeper in the soil by increasing the organic matter (SOM). According to the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Services, soil with SOM can hold water anywhere between 10 to 10,000 times more than soil without. It protects the plants better from pest, disease and drought.

 

Technology is employed to save water. Electro conductivity mapping splits their farm into blocks based on the geology of the soil. This allows for them to tailor the irrigation requirements for each block. These maps have reduced the water they apply to the plants. Soil probes read the moisture levels every 15 minutes. They are strategically placed around the farm. This technology, though found to reduce an average of 2 inches of water from a farm (about 20 percent) per year, remains an uncommon practice. It is found on only 3 out of 10 irrigated farms.

A soil probe at Benziger Family Farms. The ditch demonstrates the depth of the root systems.

 

Grey water is used to irrigate the farmland. Gravity carries the industrial waste water into a constructed wetland. This water is delivered to the plants in steady drips. Drip lines are absent on a portion of the farm. The soil retains enough moisture from the fog and rain that the plants require no irrigation–those plants are dry farmed.

 

Constructed wetland on the Benziger vineyard

Farmers around the country quietly grow food with less irrigated water. They use old farming methods or employ new technology. These farmers each holds the answer to farming in a world adjusting to a new climate. A meaningful drought bill doesn’t pay down a water debt that will only grow again, it instead would chart a new water sustainable path for farming.

Eat less Water at your kitchen table!

Be well,

Florencia

 

Valentine's Day is dipped in chocolate. Truffles neatly arranged in heart shaped boxes will exchange many hands this Friday. Before you make your chocolate purchase this year scan the ingredients for palm oil.

Chocolate is half cocoa butter which solidifies at room temperature. Cocoa butter gives chocolate its sheen, snap and higher melting point. Increasingly, palm oil is substituted for cocoa butter. The versatility and low price of the edible oil are favored among confectioners. The replacement of cocoa butter in chocolate products is expected to grow with the looming cacao shortage.

To produce the world’s most popular vegetable oil, the tropic landscapes are engulfed with orderly rows of palm trees. In Indonesia, the world’s number one producer of palm oil, the metamorphosis of terrain is the most drastic.

Indonesia, a gathering of 18,000 islands on the Indian Ocean are lush in biodiversity and host to one of the world’s most extensive peatlands. Peatland is simply layers of soggy plant debris; they act as fresh water reservoirs. Formed over a period of 10,000 years, the layers of plant material can reach depths of 70 feet. The saturated land is a critical source of clean drinking water for animals and humans living downstream.

Peatlands are critical in regulating the world’s climate. They hold 30 percent of the world’s carbon, more than all the forests combined. Over the ages they’ve absorbed 1.2 trillion tons of carbon dioxide. This amount is equivalent to carbon emitted from 34 thousand coal plants in a year.

During the dry season, peatlands are ablaze in Indonesia. Illegal fires down virgin forests and drain peatlands. Palm is planted on the cleared terrain.

Nearly 2 million palm plantations grow on former peatlands in Indonesia. The Indonesian government issues face masks to its citizens to bear the sinister smoke from smoldering peatlands. But the damage is irreversible. The carbon is released into the atmosphere, the foremost contributor to climate change.

An estimated 5 percent of the world's palm oil is certified by The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an certifying organization established to improve environmental practices in the palm oil industry. While the RSPO has begun to tighten regulations of certified members on the issue if deforestation and peatland conversion a ban has yet to be implemented.

I purchase chocolate without palm oil. It is my silent stand to protect peatlands and our shared world climate.

Eat less water at your kitchen table!


Be well,

Florencia

 

D.H. Lawrence wrote, “Water is H2O, hydrogen two parts, oxygen one, but there is also a third thing that makes it water. And nobody knows what it is.”

It was 75 degrees at 4:30 P.M. at the beach. I’d just dropped my eldest daughter off at ballet class and was heading home to start dinner and coax Joaquin, my 7 year-old son,  to finish his homework. The bright blue sky and warm air persuaded me to take a detour.

“Who wants to go to the beach?” I asked.

My daughter, Estrella cheered, and Joaquin moaned. Rarely a unanimous decision with kids. My vote made two against one in favor of the beach; the car headed west.

I needed to see the ocean water, smell the salt, and hear the slap of waves on sand. It had been a tough week (and it was only Tuesday). I’ve had too many arguments about division with my ten-year old daughter. And my frustration level with teachers assigning too much homework was at its peak.

Water has a calming effect over us. Neurologist gathered in a first ever conference of it kind in San Francisco last year to brainstorm why. One possibility was the similarity in chemical composition of the brain, body water and seawater. Science recognizes what we intuitively know, the water coursing in our body and swimming on the earth’s surface are the same. Only skin separates us.


Joaquin, Estrella and I hiked to a narrow sand bar between the ocean and the river.

“This is an estuary,” I told my kids. “The water is not freshwater, nor saltwater, it is brackish water, a mixture of both.”

“I want to stay here forever,” said Estrella as she approached the smooth water that held the reflection of the sky. She proceeded to toss sand into the water.

“Why are you throwing sand?” I asked.

“I like the way it sounds,” she answered. I stood and listened with her. The sound was fine, like the sand itself.

Joaquin and I moved slowly towards a herd of pelicans. We crossed an imaginary line in the sand. They took to the sky. They left behind indentations of their webbed feet for me to marvel. The sand bar was covered with bird prints. The artistry of nature at work.

It was time to return to the car. The air still warm but the obligations of the evening pressed against me.

“Do you hear that sound?” Joaquin asked on our hike back to the car along the shore.

“The sound of the waves crashing?” I asked.

“No, the sound between the waves.” We both listened.

“It is quiet between the waves. I like that sound,” Joaquin said.

“It’s the sound of peace,” I said.

Joaquin was quiet, then he said, “Maybe, I’ll be a peacemaker someday.”

“Joaquin Paz Rodriguez, you already are.” I answered him. He smiled and joined his sister to chase sandpipers. The sandpipers ran briskly before launching into the air.

I can’t name “the third thing” that makes water. But it is infinite and full of possibilities, like the space between the crashing waves.

Be well,

Florencia

One glass of wine  = 68 gallons of water

One bottle of wine= 365 gallons of water

Image

Benziger Family Winery Vineyard in Glen Allen, California
Photo credit: Alice Linsmeir

Over the last few weeks I’ve researched the wine industry for my chapter Wine and Water. I’ve found many wineries list some sort of sustainability plan and/or third party certification. But sustainability plans or third-party certification are unequal in their ability to protect diminished water tables and water quality.

I contacted a third-party certification non-profit organization listed on several winery web sites. I asked a representative if a wine label can become certified and continue the use of chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilizers known to pollute waterways. I asked about one particular wine label they certified (distributed in every retail outlet of wine in the country) who writes on their website under the heading sustainability,  “we only spray pesticides and use synthetic fertilizers when necessary.” Could that not be said of any conventional farm, I wondered aloud. “A farm can use pesticides or synthetic fertilizers as long as they keep it out of the waterways,” she answered. Our conversation ended shortly after I asked her how.

Benziger Family Winery located in Sonoma County, California is showcased in my upcoming book Eat Less Water. They farm using biodynamic and organic farming methods and purchase additional grapes from 40 grape growers who participate in their Farming for Flavor program. Farming for Flavor is third-party certified by Stellar Certification, the organic certification arm of Demeter Biodynamic. Certified growers meet a comprehensive set of standards which incorporate organic farming methods which drive the root systems deeper and increase organic matter in the soil.

Increasing the organic matter in the soil  (SOM) can absorb water 10 to 10,000 times more than soil without SOM according to the USDA National Resources Conservation Services.  If all soil was active with organic matter the NRCS estimates soil erosion would drop by 72 percent, saving 35 billion dollars in soil every year. U.S. cropland loses 30 percent of its soil from erosion, soil swept away into our water and air.

Farming for Flavor certification requires farmers to cultivate their land for organic matter without chemicals. This reduces water pollution and decreases water draws from diminishing water tables. This is a certification designed to protect the land, soil and water. And the reward is superior grape quality.

Sustainability on vineyards needs to dig deeper than their wells. I shop for the wine labels with a third party certification I can trust to protect the integrity and abundance of water.

Eat less water at your kitchen table.

Be well,

Florencia

I woke this morning thinking of tomatoes. Last night I sliced a tomato for my salad and noticed its perfect resemblance to a heart. My kids giggled at the shape. I photographed it before it was diced into imperfect squares.

The season for tomatoes is coming to and end. Yes, I can find tomatoes year-long at the grocery store and at the stands of the farmers market, but the true season is the warm months of summer and early fall. My own tomato vines sparingly bear fruit these days.

Barry Estabrook, in his book Tomatoland tells us what’s wrong with a conventionally grown, out of season, non-local tomato. Besides the fact that it lacks all but scant amounts of flavor, he describes both its environmental and human toll. He describes how tomato growers choose from 110 different pesticides and herbicides to grow a perfectly round, red, out of season tomato that can survive traveling thousand of miles of interstate highway. Florida, the largest tomato producer, followed by California, grow their tomatoes in the sand. I write about the water retention capacity of the soil…sand dries out quickly and requires more inputs of fertilizers. One gardening site compared sand granular to ping pong balls in a mason jar, it holds no water.

Here in California, I ask the tomato vendor if the tomatoes were grown inside, like in hoop houses or hydroponic warehouses. These methods used to grow an out of season tomato rely exclusively on blue water draws — water from reservoirs, rivers and underground water tables. This is water that is often drawn down faster than nature’s rain cycle can replenish. Water from underground aquifers alone are being drawn to the tune of 28 trillion gallons of fresh water a year.

Tomato harvesters pay the biggest price. Barry Estabrook describes the severe birth defects that result from chemical exposure. And many tomato harvesters are slaves or work under slave-like conditions. Yes, slavery does exist on American soil.

Anytime we try to control nature there is a toll on water systems, and here I include humans in my definition of water systems since we are after all composed mostly of water.

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