An Agriculture Piece for The Guardian

New technology helps farmers conserve fertilizer and protect their crops

A software program from Cornell researchers aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and save farmers’ crops. Now the big seed companies are taking notice.

By: Kayleigh Burgess

A corn field disappears under a shroud of mist at sunrise in rural Springfield, Nebraska

We have a nitrogen problem.

Nitrogen is essential to our existence, a required nutrient for the plants we eat. It is the broad swath at the bottom of our own human food pyramid and it is applied by farmers to agriculture fields all over the world.

From there, much of it is lost to the atmosphere, as a greenhouse gas 300 times as potent as carbon dioxide. Still more of it leaches into waterways, creating dead zones, like the ones that inevitably creep up in the Gulf of Mexico, decimating fish populations.

Researchers at Cornell University are hoping they’ve created the beginnings of a solution. Adapt-N, a software program developed after years of research, aims to help farmers simultaneously save money and mitigate these environmental impacts by giving them the information they need to determine how and when to apply nitrogen fertilizer to their fields.

Read the full article here!

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Power of the Pork Propaganda

In the state of Indiana, farmers no longer raise pigs, they ‘grow pork’. Lots of it. Enough to meet the ‘pork needs’ of every man, woman, and child in Indiana, plus 20 million more people across the country, and the world. All clever bits of word play from the pork lobby.

Perhaps scenes from Babe flash quickly through your mind: a farmer and his dell, memories of a bygone era. Nope. In farming today most of our pork needs are met by Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), which are about as bucolic as they sound. Today’s pigs are raised by the thousands and tens of thousands in buildings that resemble factories more than barns.

To justify this shift, the folks at Indiana Pork have produced a short and shockingly simple propaganda film about the merits of factory farming, available for free to teachers across the state. It’s full of important questions like “Do pigs miss going outside?” and “How do we know when one pig is sick?”. And the answers are probably not what you’d hope. This is what our fourth graders are learning about farming today:

Download the full video here: http://foodforthoughtsite.com/

Space. Food.

Here on planet Earth, it was another bountiful day. On billions of acres of farm and forest, trillions of plants went about their humble business of turning sunlight into food, and food into….more food. Taproots stretched in earthy soil, stalks sprouted determined from the ground, leaves broadened, fruits swelled. Billions of times. On planet Earth. Today.

Not so on the red planet. On the surface of Mars — well, I won’t pretend to be an expert here but — we can safely imagine that gases swirled and time sprawled out immemorial. As far as we know, not a single ray of sunlight was turned into chlorophyll and not a single drop of chlorophyll was turned into roots, stalks, leaves, or fruits. Not a single cow grazed and not a single chicken hatched.

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Not a problem, you might say, because lucky for us it was another bountiful day on planet Earth. Chances are good that the startling lack of food on our great neighbor planet didn’t even cross your mind today. Unless, of course, you are one of the fortunate few planning the first manned mission to Mars. Then, you have probably been thinking about it a lot.

Today researchers ended a mock space mission, in which they spent several months isolated in a space dome on the big island of Hawaii. Their goal: subsist on freeze-dried, pre-packaged, and shelf-stable for 118 days, creating recipes, tracking moods, and monitoring health status. Because somehow, with all we know, we don’t know what happens to us when we go months without fresh food, let alone years. We’ve never had to know.

Explorers of the New Age will not be able to set forth with a pocket full of seeds or a hunting spear, like those past. They will need to gather their ingenuity, spices, and Spam if they hope to survive. For the first time, we need to figure out what will happen to those who leave Earth’s bounty in the rearview mirror. What an exciting and terrifying proposition.

You can read more at: http://news.discovery.com/space/mars-food-scientists-end-mock-space-mission-130814.htm or by using the incredible powers of Google.

Polenta with Mushrooms & Onions

Also known as divine polenta. Also known as holy crap, could this really, possibly be so good polenta. This is one of those meals that seems like magic — a potion concocted in the stainless steel cauldron perched over the flame of my stove. And like most good food potions, it begins with a magical combination: butter and onions.

Once upon a time, when I cooked for the Redhouse Cafe, I developed a sort of morning ritual. Arriving before the cafe and theater were showing any signs of life, I’d move seamlessly through the quiet and empty space. After flicking on lights and unlocking doors, I headed straight for the cutting board, dicing the onions which inevitably formed the base of our every homemade soup. And when I sauteed those onions in butter, people would gravitate toward the kitchen as they streamed in, as though pulled by a magnet; remarking every time, “What is that delicious smell?!” Onions and butter. They are magic.

And so it’s not surprising that they are the base of divine polenta. Here is exactly what you need for two bowls of deliciousness:

1/2 white onion
1 pat butter
1/2c coarse ground polenta
2 cups liquid (use any combo of milk, water, or broth to suit your tastes)
{I used 1/3c half-n-half and the rest water}
1 large portabella, sliced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 splash balsamic vinegar

That is it! Magic. Here’s how to concoct your potion, err, meal:

Boil the liquids in a small saucepan and then add the polenta, whisking as you do. Add one clove of minced garlic (essential!). The polenta will need to cook at a low simmer for the next 30 minutes or so. Whisk it every few minutes to keep lumps from forming. You don’t need to dote but you do need to linger.

While your polenta cooks, start your onions — slice ’em in skinny half moons and add to a pan with melted butter. Cover and let them cook, low and slow, for awhile, stirring occasionally to keep them from sticking. Once they start to caramelize, they’ll be the best stuff on Earth. When they’re almost done, push them to the side and saute your mushroom slices. At the last minute, deglaze the pan with a splash of balsamic vinegar.

Pour your creamy polenta in a bowl, top with mushrooms and onions, add a dash of thyme, and enjoy. Divine!

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2013: The Year of the Zodiac

I have a confession to make. As much as I know the Zodiac doesn’t make any rational sense, I realized a long time ago that I am a true dyed-in-the-wool Scorpio. If you flip to October 25th in The Secret Language of Birthdays (as I once did at the great Morning Glory café in Black Mountain, NC), it will read like a transcript of my life, as though I’ve been referencing it on everything from career paths to exercise regimens. And while I don’t waste my time with daily horoscopes, Rob Brezsny’s weekly horoscope in the New Times is a small pleasure of life reserved for waiting for my coffee, or eggs, or falafel at a place that stocks the weekly paper by the door. Like usual, last week’s horoscope did not disappoint.

For weeks and months, as I plunge into the great unknown, I have to remind myself that even the right way forward is not free of doubt. Perhaps this is especially true of the ‘right’ way forward. It is not as though you stumble into love or vocation as a Buddhist into Enlightment and find yourself suddenly full of certainty and free of doubt. You find yourself instead lay bare, reflected: in the world, in another, or, in my case, on the page. The words “I can’t do this” form a frequent, if quiet, soundtrack to the actual doing. As I wade forward into my unknown I have been relishing in quotes like “Ships are safe in the harbor but that’s not what ships are for,” and bookmarking blogs like A Fearful Adventurer. So, when I flipped to Free Will Astrology three days ago, I breathed a sigh of knowing at the sight of this:

“I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life,” said Scorpio painter Georgia O’Keefe, “and I’ve never let that keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.” I think her declaration is excellent medicine for you. In 2013, you will have great potential for upgrading your relationship with your fears – not necessarily suppressing them or smashing them, but rather using them more consistently as a springboard, capitalizing on the emotions they unleash, and riding the power they motivate you to summon. – Brezsney, 2012

I have a good feeling about 2013. And I have an announcement, to my two readers – and the world. One month from today, I will get on a plane and fly to a place I can’t even begin to imagine. One month from tomorrow I will touch down in Bangkok, Thailand and begin a 10-week journey to places that I know little more about than the name – Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia. And a part of me is terrified, harboring the singular, delicious fear that is the unknown. It will grow in a crescendo, building with my exhaustion, as we draw ever further into our 30 hour journey. It will sit in my belly as I hail a taxi, and check into my hostel, and fumble over and over through approximately three words of Thai. But I will do these things with Georgia O’Keefe’s words as a mantra of sorts, to counter that quiet voice saying “I cant do this. This is crazy. I might fail.” And how blessed it will be that, in the end, there will be one more stretch of Earth on the vast map that is no longer the unknown.

In other news, I will soon be blogging about food, and everything, from South East Asia. I hope you’ll check it out.

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Image: “Black Mesa Landscape, New Mexico / Out Back of Marie’s II” by Georgia O’Keefe.