November 30, 2009

Do Diesel-based Farmers Dream of Electric Tractors?

Writer George Monbiot's recent Peak Oil article entitled "If Nothing Else, Save Farming" included this comment:

There are no obvious barriers to the mass production of electric tractors and combine harvesters: the weight of the batteries and an electric vehicle's low-end torque are both advantages for tractors.

I read this and immediately tweeted the question "Where are the electric tractors?"

Well, scientist-turned-farmer John Hewson has responded to Monbiot's assertion with an explanation that lacks Monbiot's, shall we say, sanguinary spirit:

[T]o anyone who has worked with farm machinery, especially on smaller and poorer farms, the idea of electric tractors will seem ridiculous. So far, electric traction has been developed only for transport, and most successfully in railway trains. The development of batteries and control systems has been directed at the needs of passenger cars, which do not have to pull heavy loads at low speeds for long periods.

Electric tractors do exist, but are light machines similar to ride-on lawn mowers, with power outputs of around 40kW. Typical farm tractors have outputs of 100kW-200kW, and no currently available batteries could provide anything like this amount of energy, or anything approaching the working life of a diesel engine.

The best lithium-ion electric car batteries and motors work at high voltages (500V for example). As an engineer, I would blench at the idea of maintaining a 100KW, 500V system in a damp and muddy farmyard, let alone carrying out running repairs in the middle of a 50-hectare field, in the rain.

As far as I know, electric traction for farm machines has not yet been even considered as an option. If it ever reaches the stage of production, it will be very expensive indeed -- far beyond the budgets of even large farms.

But here's the good news. Hewson appears to be, to a large extent, wrong!


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Will Whole Foods New Initiative Squeeze Small Farmers?

hashleyJennifer Hashley processes a chicken on her Massachusetts farm. Massachusetts poultry farmer Jennifer Hashley has a problem. From the moment she started raising pastured chickens outside Concord, Mass. in 2002, there was, as she put it "nowhere to go to get them processed." While she had the option of slaughtering her chickens in her own backyard, Hashley knew that selling her chickens would be easier if she used a licensed slaughterhouse. Nor is she alone in her troubles. Despite growing demand for local, pasture-raised chickens, small poultry producers throughout Massachusetts, Connecticut, and even New York can't or won't expand for lack of processing capacity.

It isn't only small producers who are feeling the pinch -- a widespread lack of processing infrastructure appropriate for small farmers has caused supply chain problems for the big retailers as well. Whole Foods -- the world's largest natural-foods supermarket -- wants to aggressively expand its local meat sourcing, according to its head meat buyer, Theo Weening. But it faces the same limitation as Hashley. Most regions of the country have "lots of agriculture but nowhere to process," Weening told me, adding that the phenomenon is most acute in the northeast.

Whole Foods wants to change all that. In a move that has national implications, the retail giant has confirmed to Grist that it is working with the USDA as well as state authorities to establish a fleet of top-of-the-line "mobile slaughterhouses" for chicken. Starting with a single unit serving Massachusetts, Connecticut, and the Hudson Valley, N.Y. area, Whole Foods hopes to offer small farmers an affordable way to process chickens as well as to vastly increase the amount of locally-sourced chicken it sells. If successful, this program could be expanded to any region of the country with similar infrastructure shortages.


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November 23, 2009

Treat Energy Efficiency as a Utility
With David Leonhardt's piece on a new weatherization program/jobs bill nicknamed "Cash for Caulkers" generating some buzz, as well as questions, it seemed a good time to resurrect a post I wrote about a year ago on the general subject of energy efficiency improvement. I had been inspired by a lengthy post at Grist on a post-carbon economy which observed that the way to jumpstart efficiency and incentivize improvements is to copy the British and set per square foot emissions levels for building (unlikely, I know). But more practically, we should also make energy efficiency a "utility" like electricity, gas or water. Here's what I wrote:
[N]ew entities called "efficiency utilities" ... would pay for efficiency upgrades in order to bring an existing building in compliance with the limits. Owners/tenants would pay for these improvements via a monthly bill and, though they would be part of the building, the improvements' cost wouldn't require "recouping" by the owner in the form of rent hikes or higher a sales price. A particular unit would simply have a particular monthly cost for "efficiency" like it has a monthly cost for heating.

And like electric service, the "efficiency" bill can be stopped - if an apartment sits unrented, for example. Because both the utility as well as the bill itself could be subsidized in various ways it would, according to Lipow, remove a major stumbling block to making improvements in existing buildings. For the record, an efficiency utility could cover the costs associated with:
Of course an efficiency utility wouldn't just cover insulation, caulk and new windows -- it would cover heating systems, appliances, shower heads, etc. A further advantage to a utility model over the financing model that Leonhardt discusses -- the idea of adding weatherization costs to homeowner's property tax bills -- is that it addresses the fact that weatherization doesn't lend itself to one-size-fits-all solutions. As Leonhardt observes, the complexity of retrofitting old homes is enormous:
What share, say, of Midwestern homes built before 1950 could use more attic insulation? How quickly would the insulation pay for itself on average? Every home is different, obviously. But without any reference point, many people won’t be confident enough to plunge into a project.
Even if they don't ultimately perform the work themselves, a utility would have the scale to provide the expertise as well as the data for what particular homeowners should do. Obviously, this kind of program would go beyond what any stimulus bill is likely to enact. But if we want to make efficiency a goal unto itself, a utility model -- not to mention per square foot emissions limitations -- is the way to go.

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Sewer Improvements Can Be Radical, Too!

Other than the gross-out factor involved with the NYT's piece on our nation's collapsing sewer systems, I was most struck by this:
The only real solution, say many lawmakers and water advocates, is extensive new spending on sewer systems largely ignored for decades. As much as $400 billion in extra spending is needed over the next decade to fix the nation’s sewer infrastructure, according to estimates by the E.P.A. and the Government Accountability Office.
This came after a nod to Philadelphia's new radical plan to address its severe rainwater runoff problem almost entirely through ecological means. The whole point of what Philadelphia is doing is that it will "only" cost $1.6 billion, doesn't involve huge infrastructure projects and will very likely solve the problem. It's true that Philly would be blazing a trail, but it's one that, if successful, other cities are ready to follow -- why was this development almost entirely downplayed?

I'm aware that local officials aren't always the most creative infrastructure thinkers at the same time as progressives are looking for promising areas for infrastructure improvements (and thus stimulus) -- water treatment systems are surely one of those. But infrastructure in the Obama era is supposed to be about both kinds of green. Let's keep that in mind, shall we?

Photo credit: Cynthia Greer, Philadelphia Inquirer

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November 16, 2009

A Bad Year for Northeast Farms
The NYT has the lousy news for local farmers:
Plagued with inclement weather, disease and complications from both, farms throughout Connecticut, New Jersey and New York generally suffered one of the worst, if not the worst, growing season in memory. By the time the heat and sun finally arrived, in August, mid- to late-season fruits, especially blueberries, cranberries and apples, swollen by the rains, were the only crops that benefited. Mr. Botticello estimated his overall crop loss this year at about 45 percent.

It takes a 30 percent loss of any single crop in a county to trigger a disaster request from the federal Farm Service Agency office in an affected state. Losses are still being tallied, but most counties in New York and New Jersey have been declared agricultural disaster areas, and Connecticut is awaiting word from the federal government on the same declaration for nearly all of its counties.

"This year is one of our exceptionally bad years," said Marsha Jette, who has been with the agency for 39 years, becoming Connecticut executive director this year. In 2008 Connecticut’s farm cash receipts totaled $600 million, New York's were $4.7 billion, and New Jersey's were $1.1 billion. All are expected to be substantially lower this year.

The rain and chilly weather that began in May never let up until mid-July. Rainfall totals reported by the National Weather Service for the region's airports were generally twice the monthly average, sometimes three times the average -- like the more than 11 inches that fell on Bradley airport in Windsor Locks, Conn., in July. Some areas also suffered from hailstorms and the occasional tornado. The effects cascaded so that when the weather finally stabilized, most farms did not have enough time to recover. Even a later-than-usual frost did not help.

The bummer is that heavier precipitation in the northeastern US may become the norm thanks to climate change. So, while the growing season extends due to warmer temperatures, the risks of molds and rots get higher, too. And the increase in extreme weather means hail and tornadoes may become routine as well. I guess *not* addressing climate change is worse than the alternative after all.

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November 13, 2009

Save Bed-Stuy Farm!
This is no good. New York City has been supporting an effort to build housing on top of what was once a garbage dump but is now a thriving urban farm. As Kerry Trueman of The Green Fork reported back in August:
[T]he Bed-Stuy Farm is a stellar example of urban agriculture that produces 7,000 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables annually. Tomorrow? If the developer has its way, the Bed-Stuy Farm may soon be plowed under and paved over.

"The intent was always to do affordable housing on this site," Housing Preservation and Development Department official Margaret Sheffer told the New York Daily News last week. "The garden had essentially come in as a squatter." The HPD wants to sell the lot in order to pay off a debt of roughly $275,000 incurred by the developer, Neighborhood Partnership Housing Development/Direct Building Management.

Sadly, the city is still intent on this. There's a petition circulating to help save it. To inspire you, here's a short video about it. Speaking as someone who's lucky enough to get veggies from an urban farm for more than six months of the year, I can tell you that the thought of a successful one being bulldozed is just miserable.

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Fixing the Food Safety Bill
Food safety reform is now in the hands of the Senate HELP Committee. One of the main concerns of the bill involves the extent to which it will negatively affect small and organic farms (possibly even putting FDA food safety standards and USDA Organic standards in direct conflict).

In response, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition has proposed an amendment that would ensure the safety of our food while not overly burdening small and organic farmers. But the Senators on the committee need to hear from their constitutents on this issue before Nov. 18 when they'll vote on the bill. This is of particular interest to PAers since our own Sen. Bob Casey is on the committee. So, let's hit the phones! The complete committee lineup complete with phone numbers is below.

Here are the details from the NSAC:

The bill includes several key reforms that would put real teeth into federal regulation of large-scale food processing corporations to better protect consumers. However, the bill as written would also do serious harm to family farm value added processing, local and regional food systems, conservation and wildlife protection, and organic farming.

The good news is the HELP committee could fix those problems with the adoption of some common sense provisions to retain a crack down on corporate bad actors without erecting dangerous new barriers to the growing healthy food movement based on small and mid-sized family farms, sustainable and organic production methods, and more local and regional food sourcing.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and the National Organic Coalition, have fashioned just such a set of common sense provisions that must be added to S 510.

We urge you to contact your Senator on the HELP Committee (list below) and urge them to support the NSAC/NOC amendments!

It's easy to call. If your Senator is on the HELP Committee (see the list below), please call or fax their office and ask to speak with the aide in charge of food safety issues. You can also call the Capitol Switchboard and ask to be directly connected to your Senator's office: 202-224-3121.

The message is simple. "I am a constituent of Senator___________ and I am calling to ask him/her to support the proposals for amendments to S 510 offered by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and the National Organic Coalition."

Specifically, ask them to support the following key principles:

* The bill should provide small and mid-sized family farms that market value-added farm products with training and technical assistance in developing food safety plans for their farms.

* The bill should direct FDA to narrow the kinds of farm activities subject to FDA control and to base those regulations on sound risk analysis. (Current FDA rules assume, without any scientific evidence or risk analysis, that all farms which undertake any one of a long list of processing, labeling or packaging activities should be regulated.)

* The bill should direct FDA to ease compliance for organic farmers by integrating the FDA standards with the organic certification rules. FDA compliance should not jeopardize a farmer's ability to be organically certified under USDA's National Organic Program.

* The bill should insist that FDA food safety standards and guidance will not contradict federal conservation, environmental, and wildlife standards and practices, and not force the farmer to choose which federal agency to obey and which to reject.

* Farmers who sell directly to consumers should not be required to keep records and be part of a federal "traceback" system. All other farms should not be required to maintain records electronically or records beyond the first point of sale beyond the farmgate.

For more information on the Senate Food Safety bill, please see NSAC's Talking Points here and its Policy Brief Food Safety on the Farm.

List of Senate HELP Committee Members

Senator Phone Fax


Tom Harkin (IA) 202-224-3254 No fax

Chris Dodd (CT) 202-224-2823 202-224-1083

Barbara Mikulski (MD) 202-224-4654 202-224-8858

Jeff Bingaman (NM) 202-224-5521 No fax

Patty Murray (WA) 202-224-2621 202-224-0238

Jack Reed (RI) 202-224-4642 202-224-4680

Bernie Sanders (VT) 202-224-5141 202-228-0776

Sherrod Brown (OH) 202-224-2315 202-228-6321

Bob Casey (PA) 202-224-6324 202-228-0604

Kay Hagan (NC) 202-224-6342 202-228-2563

Jeff Merkley (OR) 202-224-3753 202-228-3997

Al Franken (MN) 202-224-5641 No fax

Michael Bennet (CO) 202-224-5852 202-228-5036

Senator Phone Fax


Mike Enzi (WY) 202-224-3424 202-228-0359

Judd Gregg (NH) 202-224-3324 No fax

Lamar Alexander (TN) 202-224-4944 202-228-3398

Richard Burr (NC) 202-224-3154 202-228-2981

Johnny Isakson (GA) 202-224-3643 202-228-0724

Orrin Hatch (UT) 202-224-5251 202-224-6331

Pat Roberts (KS) 202-224-4774 202-224-3514

Tom Coburn (OK) 202-224-5754 202-224-6008

Lisa Murkowski (AK) 202-224-6665 202-224-5301

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November 10, 2009

Europe Tries Turning Cars into "Trains"

While "smart highways" that will do the driving for you still appear to be a pipe dream, Europe is now experimenting with a cheaper alternative: Road Trains. Fast Company explains:

Here's how a road train works: the convoy is controlled by a lead vehicle with a professional driver at the helm--one day, this is where all Formula 1 retirees will end up. The other cars communicate with the leader to join and leave the train when they want, thanks to wireless sensors and their existing sat nav systems. Once on the convoy, the drivers behind the leader are able to take their hands off the wheel to read a book, watch TV, or check company sales figures and decide which poor minion is for the chop this month.

Sounds... intriguing. The tests will take place in the UK, Sweden and Spain (and oddly, it's the Spanish who get to test it out on public roads). Shifting traffic to a computer network style "packet-based" system where small groups of cars move in carefully orchestrated batches has always been the holy grail of traffic management. Achieving this through the use of "smartened up" lead vehicles certainly seems more practical than re-engineering millions of miles of roads.

One issue that arises, of course, is the need to retrain drivers to handle the transition from being a "member" of a road train back to being an independent vehicle. As any airline pilot will tell you, the smooth switchover from a passive to an active awareness mode takes training, a bit of time and has horrible consequences if done poorly.

Anyway, it will be interesting to see what these tests come up with.

Image courtesy Fast Company

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November 9, 2009

Um, Sen. Lincoln. WTF?
Senate Ag Committee announced the witness list for the first hearing on the re-authorization of US Childhood Nutrition Programs recently. This is a much awaited, and delayed, process -- stakeholders and advocates have been champing at the bit to get going and have their say. CNR will, of course, touch on a broad range of subjects affecting children's health, especially obesity, education and even the diversification of the food system nationwide in Arkansas. Am I wrong about that? Well, just look who has been invited? The nation's Arkansas' top experts, natch! Check it out:
Dr. Margaret Bogle, Executive Director, Delta Obesity Prevention Research Unit, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, Little Rock, AR

Mr. Rich Huddleston, Executive Director, Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, Little Rock, AR

Ms. Rhonda Sanders, Executive Director, Arkansas Hunger Alliance, Little Rock, AR

Ms. Jennifer Smith, Director, Compliance, Walmart, Bentonville, AR
That's everyone, folks. Ag Commitee Chair Blanche Lincoln of, you guessed it, Arkansas has put together quite the panel, don't you think? Thankfully, there's someone representing small-town Arkansas, too -- the witness from Bentonville... I mean, what's a debate over childhood nutrition programs without getting Walmart's take, right?

This all reminds me of a great joke.

Q: How do Senators spell reform?

A: D-O-A.

Get it?

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November 3, 2009

Tomorrow's Climate Change... Today!

The NPR radio show Marketplace has a nice new feature on its website showing the extent of climate change since the 1960s and 70s. It's worth visiting -- there are fancy graphics and audio clips and everything. But it offers a nice regional breakdown of climate change just over the last 30 or so years:
  • Average daily temperature 2 degrees higher, with more days above 90 degrees. Winter temperatures 4 degrees higher.
  • Longer growing season.
  • Increased periods of heavy precipitation -- in winter less as snow, more as rain.
  • Earlier breakup of winter ice on lakes and rivers.
  • Earlier spring snowmelt and breakup of winter ice on lakes and rivers, resulting in earlier peak river flows.
  • Rising sea level and sea surface temperatures.
  • Average daily temperature about 2 degrees higher with the greatest increase in winter.
  • Days below freezing (32 degrees) reduced to four to seven per year.
  • Average fall precipitation 30% higher since 1901, with the exception of South Florida.
  • Moderate to severe droughts in spring and summer have increased 12% and 14%, respectively.
  • Destructive potential of hurricanes has increased since 1970, due to an increase in sea surface temperature.
  • Increased average temperatures in recent decades, especially in winter.
  • Frost-free season has become longer by more than a week
  • Heavy downpours are twice as frequent as a century ago.
  • Summer and winter precipitation has been above average in the last three decades, compared to 1960s and '70s.
  • Two record-breaking floods within the past 15 years.
  • More frequent heat waves.
Great Plains
  • Average daily temperatures have increased roughly 1.5 degrees since the 1960s and '70s.
  • Cold days are less frequent, hot days more frequent.
  • Precipitation has increased over most of the area, especially in the north.
  • Average daily temperatures have risen 1.5 to 4 degrees in the last century.
  • Spring snowpack is projected to be down as much as 60% in some mountain areas, 25% less in the Cascades.
  • Pine Beetle outbreak affecting region's timber.
  • Wild salmon populations are down 56% in their usual coastal waters, and more than 90% in the Columbia River system, due to lower streamflows from reduced snowpack.
  • Average daily temperatures are 1.5 degrees hotter than in the 1960s and '70s.
  • Declining spring snowpack and Colorado River flows.
  • Beginning of water "trade-offs" pitting urban, agriculture and habitat needs against one another.
Again, most of those changes are only since the 60s and 70s -- we're just getting started. Unless, of course, we stop.

Photo by crowt59 used under a CC license