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Sunday, January 29, 2012

Small Farm Training Center 2011 Harvest and Performance Report

Editor's Note: This blog began in 2008 as a chronicle of the sustainable farming efforts, led by Terry Sheldon, at the Small Farm Training Center at the New Vrindaban Spiritual Community in West Virginia.

We return to that original spirit with a report from the Small Farm Training Center on its 2011 harvest and year-in-review.

"The Small Farm Training Center (SFTC) is a land based educational center and a hands-on working organic farm. Our purpose is to create community—a web of supportive relationships—by making locally grown organic foods readily available and affordable with the use of simple technology."

Click here to learn more.


1). Overview
2). Review of Annual Crop Production.
3). How Much Was Harvested? What’s the Wholesale Value?
4). Status of Student Apprentice Training Program.
5). Three Recommendations to Boost New Vrindaban Sustainable Development.
6). Networking, Local Community Outreach and Plans for 2012.


The Small Farm Training Center’s (SFTC) is an educational center and a hands-on working organic farm. Our mission is to address the looming issue of food insecurity by creating a land based green economic model that functions in both the city and rural environs. With the help of small scale technology, we make organically grown food affordable and available.

Review of Annual Crop Production

The 2011 agricultural cycle was shaped by extremes in weather. Excessive Spring rains, a period of searing summer heat and eighty days of Fall rain showers (typically 3-4 rainy days in a week from August 20th until Nov.15th), all combined to negatively impact crop production. Here are the highlights:

–First Spring planting date, March 16th.
First crops planted: spinach, lettuce, parsnip, radish, carrot, beet, chard, fava bean,
–Second planting May 16th –May 26th. Transplants grown and donated by West
Virginia State Univ. included: tomato, okra, brussel sprouts, cabbage, peppers,
kale, cucumber, basil and stevia.
–Third major planting July 17th-August 1st. Direct seeding of winter squash,
pumpkins, green beans, late beets and summer squash.
–Successes: lettuce, spinach, winter squash, pumpkins, okra, green beans,
cucumber, kale, summer squash, bitter melon and fava bean.
–Failures: cabbage, peppers, beets carrot, parsnip,
–Mixed results: tomato, chard, brussel sprouts.

*notes: Tomatoes did not begin setting red fruit until Sept. 1st. Good yield but late harvest. Six hundred cabbages were destroyed by ground hogs. 1000 pepper plants performed poorly due to wet soil conditions Chard yielded heavily until July when the plants succumbed to an invasion of leaf hoppers. Brussel sprouts did well in the Garden of Seven Gates but were attacked by aphids in the Teaching Garden. Carrots and parsnips plantings were destroyed by groundhogs in the Teaching Garden. Three attempts to grow winter storage beets all failed due to weed pressure The beet beds were too wet to allow either hand or mechanical cultivation.

How Much Was Harvested? What’s The Wholesale Value?

*note: The wholesale value chart below is determined by price comparisons to Jebia’s Market. The quantities are calculated according to standard weights and head counts for a specific vegetable. For example, a waxed box of chard weights approximately 25lbs and contains 20-25 individual chard bundles (tied with a twisty or rubber band). Jebia’s wholesale price for non-organic chard is $23.00 per box. Organic produce is typically 30% more.


Tomato 120 boxes $18/box $2160
Cucumber 45 boxes $26/box $1170
Lettuce 20 boxes $27/box $540
Chard 51 boxes $23/box $1173
Bnut Squash 40 bushels $20/bu $800
Pumpkin 70 pcs $3.@ $210
Kale 6 boxes $20/box $120
Spinach 6 boxes $28/box $168
Spaghetti Squash 13 bushels $20/bu $260.
Summer Squash 16 boxes $24/box $384
Okra 14 boxes $27/box $378
Green Beans 9 boxes $22/box $198
Fava Beans 75 lbs $2/lb $150
Red Bell Pepper 8 boxes $30/box $240
Jalapeno Pepper 6 boxes $29/box $174
Red Chile Pepper 3 boxes $29/box $87
Radish and Greens 9 boxes $21/box $189

Total if paying organic wholesale prices………….…..$10,921

Status of Student Apprentice Training Program
–Number of inquires via email and phone……………………17
–Number of apprentice participating…………………………….7
(Brandon, Brian, John, Laslo, Yogadeva, Tracy and Ben)

Needs: The most urgent need for boosting apprentice participation is website development—specifically, a dedicated person to handle content management and recruiting. In short, we’re under-communicating what we have to offer. Target audiences include ISKCON social media outlets, animal rights organizations such as PETA and Farm Sanctuary, food activist organizations, universities and colleges, gardening clubs etc. For a comprehensive view of SFTC’s apprentice opportunity see Look for ‘training” in the top menu bar of the home page.
The apprentice program has mentored 30 plus full time participants and dozens of weekend helpers over the past five years.

Three Recommendations to Boost New Vrindaban Sustainable Development

a). Follow the lead of New Vraja Dhama (Hungary).
At New Vraja Dham, all devotees supported by the temple—from temple president to pot washer, yes even pujaris!—are available for 3 hours of farm related service per week. Devotees often fulfill their obligation by dividing the 3 hr. time slot into two days of 1.5 hours. The farm manager arranges work assignments knowing that each day he can expect a team of helpers. By sharing the chores in the garden, barn and fields, the whole community gains insight into the value of the cows, the land and the joy of shared sacrifice for Lord Krishna’s pleasure.

b). Restore brahminical standards in Krishna’s kitchen.
Our farming and gardening should be guided by the purity of the offering to Sri Sri Radha Vrindaban Chanda. Foods planted, nurtured, and harvested by devotee hands are, in the words of Srila Prabhupada, “One hundred times better” than bhoga purchased from the outside. Implementing that standard of purity should be expected in the place Srila Prabhupada anointed as a holy tirtha and ISKCON’s first farm community.

Adopting a higher standard begins with connecting the dots between the garden, the kitchen and the Lord’s altar.

c). Incentivize farming, farm culture and farm related occupations
Not only are New Vrindaban’s original settlers aging, but the ones who are experienced farmers—who can successfully grow food in large quantities—can be counted on one hand. Farming is not just ”another” manual trade. Organic farming, in particular, demands a diverse set of skills, the most important of which is the ability to accurately read and quickly adjust to the rhythms and mood swings of mother nature.

How does New Vrindaban attract the next wave of agrarians? How do we convincingly present the case for “plain living and high thinking” when the only occupations that offer a living wage revolve around Hindu fund raising, guest facility maintenance and internet administration? In the past seventeen years—that’s the number of consecutive years the Teaching Garden has been productive—we’ve purchased over one million dollars worth of outside bhoga. Imagine if that money had stayed within the community to create a local food economy.

Networking, Local Community Outreach and Plans for 2012

What began six years ago as a genuine effort to share surplus produce with area food pantries and soup kitchens has blossomed into a burgeoning grass roots movement called the Green Wheeling Initiative. The Small Farm Training Center has played a leading role in local networking efforts to bring about a unique collaboration of academia, social service agencies, city government and urban gardeners.

SFTC is currently pursuing the following initiatives outside of New Vrindaban

-A grant funded study to explore how Wheeling spends its food dollar.
-A grant funded mandate to form a business plan to shift food production
and consumption by 10% over a three year period.
-The expansion of a Community Garden Network, now comprised of fourteen urban
gardens as well as New Vrindaban’s ‘Teaching Garden’ and ‘Garden of Seven Gates.’
-The creation of a downtown Wheeling ‘Green Zone’ in partnership with West
Virginia Northern Community College.
-Regular interaction with seven local colleges and universities to stimulate dialogue
and debate about a local food economy.

Within New Vrindaban, SFTC’s 2012 plans include:
-Completion of the artisan bakery.
-Renovation of the Small Farm Training Center Guest House facility.
- Opening the Center for Preventative Medicine (inside SFTC Guest House).
-Construction of the Children’s Learning and Play Center (the Teaching Garden).
-Enhanced Student Apprentice Program, including a written curriculum.
-Irrigation and drainage for the Garden of Seven Gates (ECO-V grant funded).

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Environmental Imagination: The Food Movement and Climate Change

The two most visible environmental issues today, climate change and agriculture, are about as different as they could be. Taken together, though, they give some reminders. Environmental consciousness is very young. Its challenge to some of the ways we live is deep. And it can be a great source of cultural and political creativity and renewal.

Climate change is huge and diffuse. It works on a literally planetary scale. No one can say for sure that it is the cause behind any particular event, like a drought or storm. Part of the challenge to doing anything about it is that it is hard to imagine, easy to ignore, impossible to touch. Even as the scientific warnings around climate change grow clearer and louder, fewer Americans believe in or care about it, and national action on it is dead for now.

Food has been on everyone's mind for most of a decade -- where it comes from, what it does to us, how it affects the rest of the natural world. It doesn't require global vision or national action. Where I live, in central North Carolina, and all over the country, a new generation of kids is scrounging farmland and experimenting in making a living from the land. What they're after is as local and concrete as it gets. By sticking their hands in the dirt, eating what they or a neighbor planted, they are turning a network of ignorance -- the anonymous, placeless food of industrial agriculture, with all its invisible polluting side-effects -- into a circuit of knowledge: here I planted it, here it grew, and here it will turn back into soil when it's done.

That is the purest version, to be sure, and not all that much food comes from these purists, but I'd argue that the tens of millions of eaters with a new interest in the environmental, ethical, and health quality of their food are after versions of the same thing: taming an opaque tangle of simple calories and complicated harm by drawing some clearer lines from the field to the table.

Personal action, even ordinary collective action, is frustratingly ineffective against climate change. Greenhouse gases emitted in one place are equally diffused through the global atmosphere a year later. Self-restraint, even by fair-sized countries, gets swamped by everyone else's self-indulgence.

By contrast, a person can draw the circuit of eating close enough to make a real difference in her own health and, if she coordinates with growers, in the health of a piece of land. Community springs up naturally around growing, selling, preparing, and eating food, where every step of the process makes a difference. There isn't much community around climate change because it so thoroughly frustrates the personal and shared acts that form a community practice.

This comparison raises a distressing thought. It's often said about eating disorders that people who feel their lives are out of their control focus great acts of will on the small area they can control, their own eating. A cynic could see the food-conscious United States as frantically engaged in a symbolic environmental micro-practice that we can understand and control, while an all-pervading macro-problem broods and prepares to wreck large parts of the world we know. Maybe there is something to this.

But there's another way of looking at the two issues that is more hopeful. For all their practical differences, climate and food are both cardinal examples of the ecological insight that made environmentalism possible: everything is connected, so what we drop into rivers, winds, or soil ends up in our bloodstreams. Flashes of this thought appeared in the nineteenth century and much earlier, but as a guiding principle it really dates from after World War Two. Widespread appreciation of it goes back no further than Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, published fifty years ago, which detailed the silent, terrible, invisible journey of pesticides through the capillaries of a poisoned world.

In big ways, the modern food movement goes back to an eccentric, powerful, and often beautiful book by Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America. Writing in 1977, as the first popular wave of environmental awareness and activism crested, Berry tied ecological destruction to the American food economy. In the move from diversified, small-scale agricultural to industrial production, he saw a larger decline in miniature: from integrated organic fertility to systems that import artificial fertilizer to the farm and discard rich manure as a pollutant, breaking (in Berry's phrase) one solution into two problems; from intimate knowledge of a piece of land and its species to the tunnel-vision ignorance of the industrially enabled, public subsidized ignorance of someone who produces of one thing, whether corn, wheat, or pork, in a radically simplified system; from respect for the hard but sometimes good work of farming to dislike, even contempt, of labor, which came with a willingness to make agricultural labor, in industrial poultry plants and slaughterhouses, as degrading as it has ever been.

Berry argued that the two approaches to food had different ethics at their core. One was oriented to caretaking, sustainability, and good work: qualitative values that set limits to the willingness to exploit a place for present convenience. The other turned its face to maximization: maximum calorie production as government policy, maximum profit for agribusiness, and the same industrial ideal for the small farmer caught between the two. These quantitative values would set no limit to human actions as long as production and profit continued. In fact, they would tend to overrun any limits on profitable production. And, because complex and long-distance systems tended to hide from eaters all the harm their food had done along the way, this system involved us all in damaging nature and our own bodies and made that damage hard to see and harder to trace.

So the food system, viewed in 1977, had a certain amount in common with climate change today. It was -- and still is, in good part -- a scheme of ignorance, convenience, and destruction that turned our everyday activity into a small weapon against environmental health and, ultimately, our own well-being.

There were technical reasons to doubt that it could get better, but it wasn't only a technical problem. It was also a cultural problem. Then two-plus generations of idealists and eccentrics got busy on the cultural problem. Journalists like Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) and Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma) made the environmental and human harms of industrial agriculture indelibly visible. Farmers rediscovered and pioneered integrated techniques, but they also rediscovered, and drew others into, the idea that responsible, productive, knowledgeable work is good work, and that getting to do that work is a gift, not (just) a burden. The young people starting farms, and lining up to work on other people's, aren't doing it for the profit margins, the hourly wage, or the vacation. And those who like to buy from these farms, or from responsible larger producers, have realized that knowledge of your food is a gain, ignorance a loss, and are trying to make up some of our huge cultural loss.

The new farming movement turns the ecological perspective from a way of diagnosing problems to a way of imagining a good life: taking part in ecological processes with as little harm, as much knowledge, and as much pleasure as possible. That people are making this happen, even as a series of experiments, strikes me as powerful evidence that a culture can heal some of its self-inflicted wounds. Wendell Berry's book, which was a jeremiad, now looks like a friendlier kind of prophecy, thanks to its readers.

Maybe our next question is whether climate change is also a cultural problem as well as a technical one, and, if so, what a cultural response would look like. There's no doubt that climate change arises directly from how we live: like people who treasure convenience, power, and speed, who disperse around the world as we collapse distance and time, and who have learned to treat waiting -- for anything -- as an affront. All of that takes power, that is, energy. Energy-wise, we are the most powerful generation of the most powerful species this planet has carried on its groaning back. For this to change, either our energy will have to become much less environmentally damaging, or our lives will have to do the same. Considering that energy efficiency and total greenhouse-gas emissions have skyrocketed together for centuries now, these are probably false alternatives. The real question is whether both changes together could be enough.

The cultural experiments so far are nibbling around the edges. A few individuals and organizations buy carbon offsets. A few more, genuinely hard-core, live with zero or near-zero net carbon emissions in their own lives. Communities commit to reducing their emissions, regardless of what the rest of the country or the world is doing, and start planning together for major climate change -- a prudent thing to do, for sure, but also a community-building exercise of imagination.

What more, if anything, can we do? The history of environmental politics shows that people act most effectively when they have something to fear, but, while averting the threat, also find something to love. Americans saved their national forests and parks because they were afraid of running out of timber and healthy open spaces, but also because they had learned to find joy in wild lands that had once frightened them. They passed the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act because Rachel Carson and others had taught them to fear industrial poison, but also because they were coming to revere the idea of ecological harmony and prize swimmable streams and clear, visible air. (That's not to say we have enough of these, but the ideals, as well as the threats, helped to motivate these laws.)

Maybe climate change will prove too diffuse and global to get our minds around, and show once and for all that we are too selfish and parochial to be running a whole planet. Maybe the food movement will turn out to be what some have always called it, an elitist fad.

But maybe we learn something about climate from the last forty years of food culture. We could use ways of imagining, and caring for, the planet's atmospheric system as acutely as we do national parks and our own neighborhoods. We need ways to find beauty in its balances, take awe from its power, and feel what it means when the whole planet's metabolism changes. And we would be awfully indebted to anyone who could help us to live in more knowledgeable ways that did less harm, and be more fulfilled with that.

It sounds utopian, for sure. But we don't live only on the energy reserves of the planet's history. We also live on the unacknowledged utopian imagination of our ancestors, who envisioned seemingly impossible forms of freedom and satisfaction that we treat as if they were natural.

We should unlock our own utopian imagination to think about living well for the future on the planet we have made, and are remaking faster every year. The cultural change around food is a modest but important reminder that we can.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Meatless in The Midwest: A Tale Of Survival

Steve Hebert for The New York Times
Some patrons, unlike the reporter, line up for brisket at Arthur Bryant’s barbecue, in Kansas City, Mo.

Click here to read the full article from A.J Sulzberger at the New York Times

IN an ideal world, vegetarians would be built like camels. Not humpbacked, of course, but able to sustain themselves through long stretches by tapping stored energy reserves, like previously consumed soy products.

But after the first three dinners in my new hometown, where I moved from New York to cover the Midwest for this newspaper, even this veteran vegetarian was flagging.

This city, after all, is celebrated as a Mecca of meat. And any newcomer should expect to start with a tour of the most venerable purveyors of cows, pigs and chickens in what I’ve been told are their most delicious forms.

So, yes, I’ve “eaten” at some of these famous restaurants. There was the meal at the Golden Ox steakhouse (baked potato), Stroud’s fried chicken (rolls) and Arthur Bryant’s barbecue, where, searching for vegetarian options on the menu, skipping over the lard-bathed French fries, pausing to consider the coleslaw, I ordered the safest option (a mug of Budweiser).

After three days of this, starving, I went alone to the nearest Chinese restaurant I could find, where I feasted on a steaming plate of meatless mapo tofu.

It should be stated right up front that the Midwest, with its rich culture, stark natural beauty and superlative decency, quickly defies stereotypes. Living in the middle of the country is very different from living in the middle of nowhere.

But make no mistake: meat-loving is one stereotype that the region wears with pride. Lard still plays a starring role in many kitchens, bacon comes standard in salads, and perhaps the most important event on Kansas City social calendars is a barbecue contest.

Even though the region boasts some of the finest farmland in the world, there is a startling lack of fresh produce here. This is a part of the country — and there’s no polite way to put this — where the most common vegetable you’ll see on dinner plates is iceberg lettuce.

“The mentality of the Midwest is, green is garnish,” explained Heidi Van Pelt-Belle, who runs Füd, a vegetarian restaurant in Kansas City.  

As a result, many heartland vegetarians say that eating, that most essential activity, can be a constant struggle. Longtime members of the club recall the days when doctors and family members alike warned that forgoing meat would result in serious malnutrition. This was not hyperbole to those who, lacking other options, subsisted on pizza.

Over the years, many have learned tricks, like calling ahead to a restaurant to negotiate a special entree. Dinner party? Best to eat first, knowing that side dishes might be the only options. Some say they have learned to cook for themselves more, to avoid the inevitable barrage of questions, if not outright mockery, that comes with eating in public.

Just outside Iowa City, Sparti’s Gyros taunts vegetarians even as it caters to them. The menu includes the Greek Veggie Wheat Pita, but adds a punch line: “For people who just don’t like eating. Put some meat on it!”

In Nebraska, a place where cattle outnumber people, vegetarians are sometimes accused of undermining the state economy. The owner of what was billed as the lone vegetarian restaurant in Omaha said it had several pounds of ground beef thrown at its doors shortly after opening. After a short run, it closed last year.

“Being a vegetarian in Nebraska is like being a Republican in Brooklyn — less of an outcast than a novelty,” said David Rosen, who became a vegetarian as a teenager in Omaha and is now a writer in Brooklyn. “Except that you don’t have to prepare special meals for Republicans.”

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

With Work Scarce in Athens, Greeks Go Back to the Land

Eirini Vourloumis for The New York Times
Vassilis Ballas and his wife, Roula Boura, extracted the gum from a mastic tree on their 400-tree farm in Chios, Greece.

Click here to read the full article from Rachel Donadio in the New York Times

CHIOS, Greece — Nikos Gavalas and Alexandra Tricha, both 31 and trained as agriculturalists, were frustrated working on poorly paying, short-term contracts in Athens, where jobs are scarce and the cost of living is high. So last year, they decided to start a new project: growing edible snails for export.

As Greece’s blighted economy plunges further into the abyss, the couple are joining with an exodus of Greeks who are fleeing to the countryside and looking to the nation’s rich rural past as a guide to the future. They acknowledge that it is a peculiar undertaking, with more manual labor than they, as college graduates, ever imagined doing. But in a country starved by austerity even as it teeters on the brink of default, it seemed as good a gamble as any.

Mr. Gavalas and Ms. Tricha chose to move back to his native Chios, an Aegean island closer to Izmir, Turkey, than to Athens. They set up their boutique farm using $50,000 from their families’ life savings. That investment has yet to pay off; they will have their first harvest later this year. But the couple are confident about their decision.

“When I call my friends and relatives in Athens, they tell me there’s no hope, everything is going from bad to worse,” Ms. Tricha said on a recent afternoon, as she walked through her greenhouse, where thousands of snails lumbered along on rows of damp wooden boards. “So I think our choice was good.”

Unemployment in Greece is now 18 percent, rising to 35 percent for young people between the ages of 15 and 29 — up from 12 percent and 24 percent, respectively, in late 2010. But the agricultural sector has been one of the few to show gains since the crisis hit, adding 32,000 jobs between 2008 and 2010 — most of them taken by Greeks, not migrant workers from abroad, according to a study released this fall by the Pan-Hellenic Confederation of Agricultural Associations.

“The biggest increase is in middle-aged people between 45 and 65 years old,” said Yannis Tsiforos, the director of the confederation. “This shows us that they had a different sort of employment in the past.”

In Greece, as elsewhere in the Mediterranean, most families have traditionally invested heavily in real estate and land, which are seen as far more stable than financial investments, and it is common for even low-income Greeks to have inherited family property. Increasingly, as the hard times bite deeper, many Greeks are deciding or being forced to fall back on that last line of defense.

Enrollment in agricultural schools is also on the rise. Panos Kanellis, the president of the American Farm School in Salonika, which was founded in 1904 and offers kindergarten through high school as well as continuing education in sustainable agriculture, said applications tripled in the past two years and enrollment in classes like cheesemaking and winemaking has been rising.

Mr. Kanellis says that young people frequently come to him and say: “I have two acres from my grandfather in such-and-such a place. Can I do something with it?”

A growing number of Greeks are asking themselves that question, and some are deciding they can. “I think a lot of people will do this,” Ms. Tricha said. “In big cities, there’s no future for them. For young people, the only choice is for them to go to the countryside or to go abroad.”

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Storehouses for Solar Energy Can Step In When the Sun Goes Down

A completed solar power tower at the SolarReserve Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Plant, Tonopah, Nev., expected to be in service in 2013.

Click here to read the full article from Matthew Wald at the New York Times

If solar energy is eventually going to matter — that is, generate a significant portion of the nation’s electricity — the industry must overcome a major stumbling block, experts say: finding a way to store it for use when the sun isn’t shining.

An artist's rendering of the SolarReserve plant, which will absorb heat directed at it by mirrors and store it in molten salt.

That challenge seems to be creating an opening for a different form of power, solar thermal, which makes electricity by using the sun’s heat to boil water. The water can be used to heat salt that stores the energy until later, when the sun dips and households power up their appliances and air-conditioning at peak demand hours in the summer.

Two California companies are planning to deploy the storage technology: SolarReserve, which is building a plant in the Nevada desert scheduled to start up next year, and BrightSource, which plans three plants in California that would begin operating in 2016 and 2017. Together, the four projects will be capable of powering tens of thousand of households throughout a summer evening.

Whether the technology will be widely adopted remains to be seen, but companies like Google, Chevron and Good Energies are investing in it, and the utilities NV Energy and Southern California Edison have signed long-term contracts to buy power from these radically different new power plants.

One crucial role of the plants will be complementing solar panels, which produce electricity directly from sunlight. When the panels ramp down at dusk or on cloudy days, the plants will crank up, drawing on the stored thermal energy.

That job will become more important if photovoltaic panels, which have plunged in price lately, become even cheaper and sprout on millions of rooftops. As the grid starts depending more heavily on solar panels or wind turbines, it will need other energy sources that can step in quickly to balance the system — preferably ones classified as renewable.

Most utilities are trying to generate as many kilowatt-hours of renewable energy as they can to meet stiffer state requirements on incorporating more alternative energy, said Kevin B. Smith, the chief executive of SolarReserve.

“As we move forward, we’ll get more and more traction with the fact we can provide more capacity,” Mr. Smith said, referring to his company’s storage technology.

The Energy Department seems to agree: in September it gave SolarReserve a $737 million loan guarantee for its project in Nevada. The plant will generate 110 megawatts at peak and store enough heat to run for eight to 10 hours when the sun is not shining.

The public’s view on loan guarantees for solar projects has soured somewhat since the bankruptcy of Solyndra, a California company that received a $535 million loan guarantee to build a factory to make solar panels — only to see the market for the modules crash.

But the outlook has always been clearer for companies that make electricity, which, unlike solar modules, is generally presold by contract.

Technical details of the SolarReserve and BrightSource plants vary slightly, but both will use thousands of computer-operated poster-size mirrors aiming sunlight at a tower that absorbs it as heat.
SolarReserve absorbs the heat in molten salt, which can be used immediately to boil water, generating steam that turns a conventional turbine and generator. Hot salt can also be used to retain the heat for many hours for later use. BrightSource heats water that can be used immediately as steam or to heat salt for storage.

The plants rely on salt because it can store far more heat than water can. But once molten, it must be kept that way or it will freeze to a solid in part of the plant where it will be difficult to melt again. “You’ve made a commitment to those salt molecules,” said John Woolard, the chief executive of BrightSource.

The technology is not complicated, but the economics are.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Radhanath Swami Inaugurates Eco-Village

On December 24th Radhanath Swami presided over the official opening of the Govardhan Eco-village and Farm Community (GEV) spread over a scenic landscape of 60 acres near the Sahyadri mountain range, a two hour drive from the city of Mumbai in Maharashtra, India. The inauguration ceremony was marked with the presence of Mr. Nana Saheb Patil, the Ex-secretary of the Agricultural Ministry for the Government of Maharashtra, and 150 senior members of the Radha Gopinath temple congregation.

Under the inspiration and guidance of Radhanath Swami a dedicated community began the development of the GEV in 2003 with the aim of demonstrating the principles of self-sufficiency and localized economy and highlighting the importance of living in harmony with nature by presenting a sustainable living model. Gradually they have developed fundamental aspects of the eco-village including organic farming, cow protection, education, rural development, alternative energy, eco-friendly constructions and sustainable living.

The inauguration marked the opening of the eco-village as a retreat center with green design cottages, auditorium, seminar and conference rooms, an Ayurvedic wellness center, and a yoga center. With these latest developments the GEV will serve as a place of education in the fields of the traditional sciences of Yoga and spirituality.

The opening ceremony began in the morning with a small parade of bullock carts and guests who were led by Radhanath Swami, accompanied by kirtan, from the main entrance of the village to its centrally located new auditorium. There, Radhanath Swami shared the vision and dream behind the creation of Govardhan Eco-village. He mentioned that it was the desire of his guru A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada to develop such projects away from cities to serve as a place for people to find relief from stress using spiritual practices. ”Simple living, high thinking is the principle that is the basis of this rural community”. Radhanath Swami added “though we all have individual mothers, Mother Earth is the mother of all life on the planet. Thus Mother Earth is common to all of us and we are heavily dependent on her. Living in harmony with Mother Earth is a big responsibility. This is a most important sacred principle we must remember.”

While thanking those involved in the project he spoke of the mood in which they worked saying that the whole project is conceived in the spirit of devotion and keeping God as the center. “We can build structures but if we don’t cultivate non-envious, egoless camaraderie inside then the structure is as good as empty.”

The eco-village has been built for the modern lifestyle needs of both individuals and corporate groups. GEV hopes to serve as a model of how spirituality can integrate the needs of a modern society with traditional answers. All we need to remember is, as Radhanath Swami says, “In the quest for technology we keep taking from mother earth, but as we grow we should reciprocate.”

The structures of the eco-village are made of natural materials such as cob, rammed earth and Compressed Stabilized Earth Blocks which are made by compressing a combination of earthen materials with added stabilizers without the use of furnaces to heat the bricks. The natural property of earth changes when it is heated. The use of raw mud for building houses has many advantages – its local availability and ease of processing makes it the most energy efficient building material. Houses made of earth give warmth in cold atmospheres and provide a cooling effect in hotter climates.
Some other ways the eco-village strives to live in harmony with Mother Earth:.
  • In consultation with organic farming experts, all inputs and outputs are natural
  • Only indigenous varieties of grain are grown
  • Instead of chemical fertilizers, cow dung and natural compost are employed
  • Cow urine and neem oil serve as organic pesticides
  • Bulls are favored over machinery for plowing
  • Solid waste management and waste water treatment center minimize its carbon footprint
  • For alternative energy a bio-gas plant has been established to generate electricity for uses such as water pumping and irrigation
  • Solar energy provides energy for street lights and water heaters
  • Cottage industry manufactures various cow-based products
  • 20 different types of vegetables, 10 varies of fruit, 9 varieties of flowers and 4 kinds of grains are grown on the farm
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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Organic Produce May Be Outgrowing Its Ideals

Planting the Beach: American demand for year-round organic fruits and vegetables has incited a farming boom in the arid deserts of the Baja Peninsula in Mexico.

From Elisabeth Rosenthal at the New York Times

TODOS SANTOS, Mexico — Clamshell containers on supermarket shelves in the United States may depict verdant fields, tangles of vines and ruby red tomatoes. But at this time of year, the tomatoes, peppers and basil certified as organic by the Agriculture Department often hail from the Mexican desert, and are nurtured with intensive irrigation.

Growers here on the Baja Peninsula, the epicenter of Mexico’s thriving new organic export sector, describe their toil amid the cactuses as “planting the beach.”

Del Cabo Cooperative, a supplier here for Trader Joe’s and Fairway, is sending more than seven and a half tons of tomatoes and basil every day to the United States by truck and plane to sate the American demand for organic produce year-round.

But even as more Americans buy foods with the organic label, the products are increasingly removed from the traditional organic ideal: produce that is not only free of chemicals and pesticides but also grown locally on small farms in a way that protects the environment.

The explosive growth in the commercial cultivation of organic tomatoes here, for example, is putting stress on the water table. In some areas, wells have run dry this year, meaning that small subsistence farmers cannot grow crops. And the organic tomatoes end up in an energy-intensive global distribution chain that takes them as far as New York and Dubai, United Arab Emirates, producing significant emissions that contribute to global warming.

From now until spring, farms from Mexico to Chile to Argentina that grow organic food for the United States market are enjoying their busiest season.

“People are now buying from a global commodity market, and they have to be skeptical even when the label says ‘organic’ — that doesn’t tell people all they need to know,” said Frederick L. Kirschenmann, a distinguished fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. He said some large farms that have qualified as organic employed environmentally damaging practices, like planting only one crop, which is bad for soil health, or overtaxing local freshwater supplies.

Many growers and even environmental groups in Mexico defend the export-driven organic farming, even as they acknowledge that more than a third of the aquifers in southern Baja are categorized as overexploited by the Mexican water authority. With sophisticated irrigation systems and shade houses, they say, farmers are becoming more skilled at conserving water. They are focusing new farms in “microclimates” near underexploited aquifers, such as in the shadow of a mountain, said Fernando Frías, a water specialist with the environmental group Pronatura Noroeste.

They also point out that the organic business has transformed what was once a poor area of subsistence farms and where even the low-paying jobs in the tourist hotels and restaurants in nearby Cabo San Lucas have become scarcer during the recession.

To carry the Agriculture Department’s organic label on their produce, farms in the United States and abroad must comply with a long list of standards that prohibit the use of synthetic fertilizers, hormones and pesticides, for example. But the checklist makes few specific demands for what would broadly be called environmental sustainability, even though the 1990 law that created the standards was intended to promote ecological balance and biodiversity as well as soil and water health.

Experts agree that in general organic farms tend to be less damaging to the environment than conventional farms. In the past, however, “organic agriculture used to be sustainable agriculture, but now that is not always the case,” said Michael Bomford, a scientist at Kentucky State University who specializes in sustainable agriculture. He added that intense organic agriculture had also put stress on aquifers in California.

Some organic standard setters are beginning to refine their criteria so that organic products better match their natural ideals. Krav, a major Swedish organic certification program, allows produce grown in greenhouses to carry its “organic” label only if the buildings use at least 80 percent renewable fuel, for example. And last year the Agriculture Department’s National Organic Standards Board revised its rules to require that for an “organic milk” label, cows had to be at least partly fed by grazing in open pastures rather than standing full time in feedlots.

But each decision to narrow the definition of “organic” involves an inevitable tug-of-war among farmers, food producers, supermarkets and environmentalists. While the United States’ regulations for organic certification require that growers use practices that protect water resources, it is hard to define a specific sustainable level of water use for a single farm “because aquifer depletion is the result of many farmers’ overutilizing the resource,” said Miles McEvoy, head of the National Organic Program at the Agriculture Department.

While the original organic ideal was to eat only local, seasonal produce, shoppers who buy their organics at supermarkets, from Whole Foods to Walmart, expect to find tomatoes in December and are very sensitive to price. Both factors stoke the demand for imports. Few areas in the United States can farm organic produce in the winter without resorting to energy-guzzling hothouses. In addition, American labor costs are high. Day laborers who come to pick tomatoes in this part of Baja make about $10 a day, nearly twice the local minimum wage. Tomato pickers in Florida may earn $80 a day in high season.

Manuel Verdugo, 42, began organic tomato farming on desert land in San José del Cabo five years ago and now owns 30 acres in several locations. Each week he sends two and a half tons of cherry, plum and beefsteak tomatoes to the United States under the brand name Tiky Cabo.

He has invested in irrigation systems that drip water directly onto plants’ roots rather than channeling it through open canals. He is building large shade houses that cover his crops to keep out pests and minimize evaporation. Even so, he cannot farm 10 acres in the nearby hamlet of La Cuenca because the wells there are dry.

At another five-year-old organic farm, Rosario Castillo says he can cultivate only 19 acres of the 100 he has earmarked for organic production, although he dug a well seven months ago to gain better access to the aquifer. The authorities ration pumping and have not granted him permission to clear native cactuses. “We have very little water here, and you have to go through a lot of bureaucracy to get it,” Mr. Castillo said.

Many growers blame tourist development — hotels and golf courses — for the water scarcity, and this has been a major problem in coastal areas. But farming can also be a significant drain. According to one study in an area of northern Baja called Ojos Negros, a boom in the planting of green onions for export a decade ago lowered the water table by about 16 inches a year. “They were pumping a lot of groundwater, and that was making some people rich on both sides of the border at the expense of the environment,” said Victor Miguel Ponce, a professor of hydrology at San Diego State University.

The logistics of getting water and transporting large volumes of perishable produce favors bigger producers. Some of the largest are American-owned, like Sueño Tropical, a vast farm with rows of shade houses lined up in the desert that caters exclusively to the American market.

While traditional organic farmers saw a blemish or odd shape simply as nature’s variations, workers at Sueño Tropical are instructed to cull tomatoes that do not meet the uniform shape, size and cosmetic requirement of clients like Whole Foods. Those “seconds” are sold locally.

Yet the connection to the United States has brought other kinds of benefits. Del Cabo Cooperative, which serves as a broker for hundreds of local farmers, provides seeds for its Mexican growers and hires roving agronomists and entomologists to assist them in tending their crops without chemicals.

As the American market expands, said John Graham, a coordinator of operations at Del Cabo, he is always looking to bring new growers into his network — especially those whose farms draw on distant aquifers where water is still abundant.

David Agren contributed reporting.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

In Solar Power, India Begis Living Up To Its Own Ambitions

Kuni Takahashi for The New York Times
Every five days or so, workers wipe down each of the 36,000 solar panels at the Azure Solar Plant in Khadoda, India.

Click here to read the full article from Vikas Bajaj at the New York Times
KHADODA, India — Solar power is a clean energy source. But in this arid part of northwest India it can also be a dusty one.

Every five days or so, in a marriage of low and high tech, field hands with long-handled dust mops wipe down each of the 36,000 solar panels at a 63-acre installation operated by Azure Power. The site is one of the biggest examples of India’s ambitious plan to use solar energy to help modernize its notoriously underpowered national electricity grid, and reduce its dependence on coal-fired power plants.

Azure Power has a contract to provide solar-generated electricity to a state-government electric utility. Inderpreet Wadhwa, Azure’s chief executive, predicted that within a few years solar power would be competitive in price with India’s conventionally generated electricity.

“The efficiency of solar technology will continue to increase, and with the increasing demand in solar energy, cost will continue to decrease,” Mr. Wadhwa said.

Two years ago, Indian policy makers said that by the year 2020 they would drastically increase the nation’s use of solar power from virtually nothing to 20,000 megawatts — enough electricity to power the equivalent of up to 15 million modern American homes during daylight hours when the panels are at their most productive. Many analysts said it could not be done. But, now the doubters are taking back their words.

Dozens of developers like Azure, because of aggressive government subsidies and a large drop in the global price of solar panels, are covering India’s northwestern plains — including this village of 2,000 people — with gleaming solar panels. So far, India uses only about 140 megawatts, including 10 megawatts used by the Azure installation, which can provide enough power to serve a town of 50,000 people, according to the company. But analysts say that the national 20,000 megawatt goal is achievable and that India could reach those numbers even a few years before 2020.

“Prices came down and suddenly things were possible that didn’t seem possible,” said Tobias Engelmeier, managing director of Bridge to India, a research and consulting firm based in New Delhi. Chinese manufacturers like Suntech Power and Yingli Green Energy helped drive the drop in solar panel costs. The firms increased production of the panels and cut costs this year by about 30 percent to 40 percent, to less than $1 a watt.

Developers of solar farms in India, however, have shown a preference for the more advanced, so-called thin-film solar cells offered by suppliers in the United States, Taiwan and Europe. The leading American provider to India is First Solar, based in Tempe, Ariz.

India does not have a large solar manufacturing industry, but is trying to develop one and China is showing a new interest in India’s growing demand. China’s Suntech Power sold the panels used at the Azure installation, which opened in June.

Industry executives credit government policies with India’s solar boom, unusual praise because businesses usually deride Indian regulations as Kafkaesque.

Over the last decade, India has opened the state-dominated power-generating industry to private players, while leaving distribution and rate-setting largely in government hands. European countries heavily subsidize solar power by agreeing to buy it for decades at a time, but the subsidies in India are lower and solar operators are forced into to greater competition, helping push down costs.

This month, the government held its second auction to determine the price at which its state-owned power trading company — NTPC Vidyut Vyapar Nigam — would buy solar-generated electricity for the national grid. The average winning bid was 8.77 rupees (16.5 cents) per kilowatt hour.

That is about twice the price of coal-generated power, but it was about 27 percent lower than the winning bids at the auction held a year ago. Germany, the world’s biggest solar-power user, pays about 17.94 euro cents (23 American cents) per kilowatt hour.

India still significantly lags behind European countries in the use of solar. Germany, for example, had 17,000 megawatts of solar power capacity at the end of 2010. But India, which gets more than 300 days of sunlight a year, is a more suitable place to generate solar power. And being behind is now benefiting India, as panel prices plummet, enabling it to spend far less to set up solar farms than countries that pioneered the technology.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Fast-Food Outlet Stirs Concerns In A Mecca Of Healthy Living

Monica Almeida/The New York Times
Ellsworth Wareham, 97, in Loma Linda, Calif. Mr. Wareham was a heart surgeon who stopped working only two years ago. He is a vegan, but says choice is part of the “great American system.”

From Jennifer Medina in the New York Times

When researchers descended on this affluent city east of Los Angeles several years ago to determine why, the theories piled up: Perhaps it was the vegetarian diet kept by many Adventists? Maybe it was their close communal ties? Or the frequent use of sprawling trails in the parks here?

But one thing seemed certain to researchers: residents were not living into the next century by eating fast food.

So last week, when the City Council approved Loma Linda’s first McDonald’s restaurant, many residents bemoaned the decision, worrying that the officials were jeopardizing the city’s reputation as a paragon of healthy lifestyles.

Wayne Dysinger, a physician and public health professor in the preventive medicine department at Loma Linda University’s School of Medicine, grew up in the city and remembers a time when there were no such restaurants. A generation ago, it was nearly impossible to even find meat within city limits. Now, he worries about his children.

“We know from research that if a school is near a fast-food restaurant, the kids there are more likely to be obese,” he said. “We will never eliminate unhealthy choices, and pretty much everyone has an unhealthy treat once in a while. I am going to drive by that intersection every day and it’s fairly likely that they will say ‘Oh Daddy, can we stop there’ more often. Why do we need to encourage that?”

The new McDonald’s restaurant would hardly be the first fast-food joint around — there are already a handful of places offering assembly-line burgers and fries within the eight square miles of the city.

And the area has deep roots to the icon that so many residents detest: the site of the original McDonald’s restaurant is less than five miles away, in San Bernardino.

Still, in one sign of Loma Linda’s historical distaste for fast food, restaurants are required to go through a special approval process for drive-through windows. Once, when business proved slightly sluggish, a local chain crafted a special vegetarian menu dubbed “Loma Linda specials.”

A generation ago, nearly 80 percent of the city was Seventh-day Adventist; by most estimates, Adventists now make up about half of the city’s population of 23,000. But the influence of the religion on the town remains clear. Many businesses shut down early on Friday, in observance of Saturday as the Sabbath. One of the largest supermarkets in town is owned by the church-run university, and there are no meat products to be found. (Canned soy alternatives are available in abundance, including some under a Loma Linda brand.) Only large businesses and restaurants are authorized to sell alcohol, and there is a total ban on smoking.

“You have to realize how easy it is to be healthy there, you don’t even have to think about it and it’s the default choice,” said Dan Buettner, an author and healthy living advocate who identified Loma Linda as one of four places in the world with a high concentration of people living healthy lives past the age of 100. “Your social network is all concerned about the same thing. They are really trying to preserve the culture that has been established for a really long time.”

Adventist or not, it is difficult to speak to anyone here without hearing about Mr. Buettner’s special designation of the town, identified in his book “The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest,” published by National Geographic in 2008.

It is not just Mr. Buettner’s book that feeds the sense of civic pride in health here. Nearly every resident has a connection with the sprawling Loma Linda University Medical Center, which serves as both the physical and cultural center of town.

About 10 years ago, when the city denied plans for another fast-food restaurant, the developer responded with a lawsuit and the city eventually capitulated, said Mayor Rhodes Rigsby, who is also the assistant dean of the Loma Linda University School of Medicine.

“I don’t think we should be getting into the business of legislating vegetarianism,” Dr. Rigsby said, adding that he would support having a citywide vote on whether fast-food outlets should be banned entirely from the city. “If this is something that people are really opposed to, that’s how we should deal with it.”

What would happen during such a vote is anyone’s guess. Ellsworth Wareham, who stopped working as a heart surgeon only two years ago, at 95, is often used as an example of someone with more energy than someone half his age. Dr. Wareham attributes his health at least partly to the fact that he has been a vegan for the last 30 or 40 years (he does not remember precisely).

Eating at home, he said, is the best way to ensure that one is eating healthy food. He is certainly not about to let the impending arrival of McDonald’s raise his blood pressure.

“I don’t subscribe to the menu that these dear people put out, but let’s face it, the average eating place serves food that is, let us say, a little bit of a higher quality, but the end result is the same — it’s unhealthy,” he said.

“They can put it right next to the church as far as I am concerned,” Dr. Wareham added. “If they choose to eat that way, I’m not going to stop them. That’s the great American system.”