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A Wandering Conservationist’s Quest to Protect the World’s Soil

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 08/08/2022 - 6:00pm in

On a blistering day in June, a lone motorcycle roared into the southern Indian city of Coimbatore. The rider, a 64-year-old man who goes only by the name Sadhguru, was greeted by cheering crowds. He had come all the way from London on a solo journey that spanned three months and 27 countries.

But it was no pleasure trip. Sadhguru’s epic journey was part of an increasingly desperate mission to save soil. 

Soil health around the world has been declining steadily over the last half century as a result of modern agricultural practices and climate change. Intensive tilling, the application of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, prolonged droughts and increased flooding all contribute to the destruction of organic matter in soil and, with it, soil’s productivity over time. Today, about a third of the world’s soil is now moderately to highly degraded, with the United Nations warning that the failure to reverse the resulting decrease in crop yields could cause 10 percent of the world’s population to go hungry by 2030. 

Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev arrives in IndiaSadhguru Jaggi Vasudev arrives in India, having met with dozens of world leaders en route to encourage them to adopt healthy soils policies. Credit: Conscious Planet.

“We are on the verge of soil extinction,” says Sadhguru, whose work on issues related to health, wellbeing and the environment has earned him several awards including the Padma Vibhushan, one of India’s top civilian honors. “This is the greatest crisis of our times.”

Sadghuru’s journey was an attempt to call attention to this crisis, with the ultimate aim of encouraging national governments to mandate a minimum of three to six percent organic content in their agricultural soils — the level that typically characterizes healthy, productive soil. During his trip, the charismatic activist and founder of the nonprofits Conscious Planet and the Isha Foundation met with thousands of government officials, scientists and supporters — including Dr. Jane Goodall, the Dalai Lama and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi — to achieve this.

“Organic matter is all the decomposing plant or animal matter that makes soil soil,” says soil microbiologist Elaine Ingham. Ingham is the founder of Dr. Elaine’s Soil Food Web School, a company that trains farmers on regenerative agricultural methods. The more organic content in soil the better, she says, but most experts agree that three percent is the minimum amount required to support healthy crops.

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Understanding why commercial agriculture could actually lead to less food in the future involves taking a brief trip back to the 1960s, the birth of what came to be called the “Green Revolution.” In this era, farmers began heavily applying chemical fertilizers and pesticides to their crops, which led to massive gains in agricultural yields — so much so that Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his role in preventing mass starvation. 

But the application of those chemical fertilizers slowly destroys organic content in soil, including beneficial microorganisms that help plants absorb nutrients. Over time, the soil becomes less productive, a process known as desertification. The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification estimates that desertification directly affects a third of the Earth’s land surface, including more than 30 percent of land in the United States.

A tractor applies fertilizer to a fieldThe application of chemical fertilizers has contributed to the destruction of organic matter in soil, in turn contributing to global food insecurity. Credit: Meryll / Shutterstock.

“Under the chemical approach to growing plants, it’s 75 years max before you’ve destroyed the soil,” says Ingham. This could lead to forced migration as farmers seek more fertile lands. According to the UNCCD, 135 million people are at risk of displacement due to desertification. This is already apparent in Mexico, where every year between 700,000 and 900,000 people leave their rural drylands to seek agricultural work elsewhere. 

The massive industry behind inorganic fertilizers and the short-term gains they provide make them a powerful drug — for farmers as well as plants. Many farmers have been slow to adopt more sustainable agricultural methods, Ingham says. But now a powerful new incentive has materialized: the skyrocketing cost of fertilizer. 

Pandemic-related disruptions to the supply chain, the war in Ukraine, and the anti-competitive nature of the fertilizer industry are all factors driving the spike in prices to near-record levels. Seeking to bring relief to American farmers and reduce reliance on foreign imports, the Biden administration in March announced a grant program that aims to boost domestic fertilizer production. 

But Kathleen Merrigan, the former Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, argues that merely producing more synthetic fertilizers misses a crucial opportunity to incentivize farmers to seek out more sustainable alternatives. 

“The US should also provide support for nature-based solutions, including farming practices that help farmers reduce or forgo synthetic fertilizers, and biological products that substitute for harsher chemical inputs,” she wrote for The Conversation. 

During his motorcycle journey, Sadhguru secured pledges from 74 countries to increase the organic content of their soils through more sustainable farming practices. These include composting, raising crops and livestock together, and tilling less. (With just one tilling event, says Ingham, “[you] slice and dice and crush and destroy 50 percent of beneficial content in soil,” and leave it more vulnerable to erosion by wind and rain.) All of these practices will help increase the levels of organic matter present in agricultural soils, reversing the process of desertification.

SadhguruSadhguru reaches Vienna. Credit: Conscious Planet.

“Enshrining long-term soil health and biodiversity in national policies is vital,” says Sadhguru. “If soil degradation does not stop, the planet will not be conducive for human beings to live on … The next 25 years are going to be crucial in terms of what kind of corrections we make.”

To maintain the momentum behind his Save Soil campaign, Sadhguru will travel to the US, South America and several Caribbean nations this year. There he will continue his awareness-raising efforts and push for government commitments to improving soil health.

“One day of shouting, sloganeering and crying will not do,” he says. “This needs relentless commitment.”

The post A Wandering Conservationist’s Quest to Protect the World’s Soil appeared first on Reasons to be Cheerful.

Traditional Cheesemaking Is Restoring Bosnia’s Landscapes and Livelihoods

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 14/07/2022 - 6:00pm in

This podcast was originally published by Undark. Below is the full transcript. 

Undark Magazine · Ep. 62: Restoring Landscapes and Livelihoods in Western Bosnia


Mato Gotovac: The best-case scenario is that young people don’t want to leave this place. They want to stay here and work here. Scenario in where there are jobs to be offered for them to stay. And worst case, of course … I don’t want even to think about it!

Matthew Algeo: It’s been a rough hundred years or so for Bosnia and Herzegovina. After the global depression of the late 1920s and 1930s came the Second World War, then more than 40 years of single-party rule under a Socialist government, then the Bosnian War of the 1990s. The region is still struggling to get on its feet. But in one town in western Bosnia — a town called Livno — there are glimmers of hope, economic and environmental. This is a story about sheep, and cheese, and birds, and people — especially people. Unlike so many others who have fled the region seeking opportunities abroad, these people have chosen to stay home and try to make life better — for themselves and their environment.

[intro music]

Lacy Roberts: This is the Undark podcast. I’m your host, Lacy Roberts. Dairy farmers on the plains of Livno in Western Bosnia once produced some of the finest artisanal cheese in Europe, made from the milk of the region’s fabled Pramenka sheep. But that all declined with the Bosnian war, the long and ugly conflict that started in 1992. Now, 26 years after the war ended, Livno’s farmers are once again making cheese the traditional way, with their herds of sheep grazing on the wide-open plains. The return of the grazing sheep is in turn restoring the region’s natural wetlands after a long period of neglect — due, largely, to the war. And the restored wetlands are attracting migratory birds back to the plains. And that’s bringing tourists — and their cash — to the region. Reporter Matthew Algeo went to Livno and prepared this report.

Matthew Algeo: The Dinaric Alps run almost all the way down the Balkan peninsula. These mountain ranges stretch from the top of Italy all the way down to Albania. Between these ranges are long, narrow valleys. Livno is a small city that sits in one of these valleys. In the local language the valley is known as Livanjsko polje — literally, Livno field.

Mato Gotovac: Next what you can see is Dinara Mountain, all this is Dinara. This peak is Kamešnica. The other one is Troglov.

Matthew Algeo: It’s a hazy early autumn afternoon, and Mato Gotovac points out the mountains that surround the polje. We’re on the front porch of his house just outside Livno. The sun sets behind the mountains on the other side of the valley. The sky is a bright red-orange. Livanjsko polje is only about 5 to 10 kilometers wide, but it’s more than 60 kilometers long. It doesn’t look that big from Mato’s porch. But the city of Philadelphia could fit in this valley. It reminds me of a smaller-scale version of America’s Mountain West, a Balkan-sized Montana. Mato has lived on the polje most of his life. He’s worked with the World Wildlife Fund and the German NGO EuroNatur on many environmental projects here.

Mato Gotovac: You have, from sand dunes, peat land from — which looks like you are in Finland. You have the birch forest, you have the meadows — you have 50 different type of the meadows depending on how elevated it is from the seasonal flooding.

Matthew Algeo: In geologic terms, Livanjsko polje is a karst field. The land is made of limestone, which is a soft, porous rock. There aren’t any surface water outflows from the valley, so snowmelt and rain flood the polje every spring, creating a massive temporary lake. Then the water slowly drains down through the limestone. It gets carried away to Croatia through a network of underground rivers and lakes. Mato says the polje’s like a giant block of ice that the water can eat away at, constantly creating new channels underground.

Mato Gotovac: So the water, rain, which is rich in CO2, is making interaction, chemical, with the calcium inside of the limestone and beginning to, what’s the word … dissolve it! So the limestone is practically dissolved in rainwater and the water is, rain, or river, are slowly, through the thousands and thousands of years, making small holes then making little bigger holes so then these holes are joining together and you get the cave and so on and so on.

Matthew Algeo: There are holes in the ground all over the polje. Geologists call them estavelles. They act as springs or sinkholes, depending on the season and the water level in the valley — or underneath it. When the polje’s temporary lake drains away each summer, what’s left behind are marshy wetlands perfect for birds, and grassy fields perfect for livestock grazing. Fish and flora thrive here too, as well as many wild animals, including wolves and wild horses. It’s an incredibly diverse ecosystem, right here in Mato’s front yard. Several bird species breed on the polje, including the corn crake, the lesser-spotted eagle, and the great bittern. As the largest wetland in Bosnia, Livanjsko polje is an important stop for birds migrating along the Adriatic flyway between Northern Europe and Africa.

Mato Gotovac: Well it’s a large pit stop for all these poor birds on the flyway. It’s a nice pit stop where they can, I mean, in most of the cases, they know they will not be disturbed in resting and feeding and even maybe somebody will stay on the spring migration to stay here. Why not. I mean, hundred years ago we had cranes here, mating here. Maybe we will have again.

Matthew Algeo: But the last few decades have been hard on the polje. Livno’s only about 30 kilometers — some 20 miles — from the Croatian border, and in the 1990s it was on the frontlines of the Bosnian War. Before the war started in 1992, Livno’s population was about 40,000. By one estimate, it’s now about half that number. Many family farms were abandoned during the war. With fewer farmers, there were fewer sheep. And without the grazing sheep, the polje began to become overgrown with bushes and trees, slowly strangling one of Europe’s most diverse ecosystems. Ashley Lyons is a conservation scientist with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

Ashley Lyons: In lots of instances where you lose your domestic herbivores from grazing — so that might be cattle, it might be sheep, it might be ponies — what you end up with is the grass becoming dominant in the habitat, so you lose those wildflowers that give that diversity to semi-natural grasslands and you start to get shrub encroaches and then eventually trees and eventually what once was a semi-natural grassland becomes a woodland, so it becomes a completely different habitat. So the role of domestic grazers in this instance is to suspend those successional processes to try and prevent that grassland from becoming a woodland.

[Ambient sound of herding sheep]

Matthew Algeo: It’s a late summer day on the polje. The sky is perfectly blue. And Jozo Baković is trying to get his 200 sheep out of the sun and into the shade of some oak trees. Jozo is a short, bald man with Popeye arms. These are Pramenka sheep. They’re a hardy breed that can grow thick wool — good for Bosnia’s rugged winters. The males can weigh up to 150 pounds, hence Jozo’s Popeye arms, since he has to pick them up occasionally. Many of these sheep are marked with a bright green dot painted on their backsides. That indicates the sheep is producing milk. And this milk, as well as milk from his five cows, is what Jozo Baković uses to make cheese. With help from my interpreter Ana Marija Pervan, he tells me it’s something his family has been doing for generations.

Jozo Baković: (Speaking Croatian)

Matthew Algeo: Jozo tells me he learned to make cheese from his grandmother and his father, as well as uncles and cousins who were famous cheesemakers in Livno. Traditional Livno cheese is made from a combination of unpasteurized sheep and cow’s milk: 70 percent sheep, 30 percent cow. After the Second World War, business was good for Livno’s cheesemakers. Livno was then located in socialist Yugoslavia and the domestic market was growing. Yugoslavia’s population was more than 23 million by 1991. Fancy restaurants on the Croatian coast bought a lot of Livno cheese. But after the Bosnian War, the domestic market shrank. Before the war, some 30,000 sheep and 15,000 cows grazed the polje. By 2006, those numbers had dropped to 8,000 and 4,000. With so few sheep and cows, and a shrinking population, the tradition of making cheese was nearly dead. Then, about 15 years ago, Jozo Baković decided to do something to revive traditional cheesemaking in Livno. He also wanted to help keep the pojle’s prime grazeland from turning into a forest. So he founded a co-op for cheesemakers. He named it Cincar, after one of the mountains that towers over the valley.

Jozo Baković: (Speaking Croatian)

Jozo says the cheesemakers needed to band together to do three things: promote their product; get funding for modern equipment; and, even more importantly, get approval to sell their cheese abroad, especially in the E.U.

[Metal clanging sound]

Jozo makes his cheese inside a small cottage on his farm. There are four rooms. Each is as spotless as an operating room. A lot of the equipment was purchased with help from the Czech Republic’s development agency. Jozo shows me a big stainless steel vat called a lacto-freeze. It’s where the raw milk is refrigerated until it’s ready to be curdled. Jozo explains how it works.

Jozo Baković (Translated from Croatian): It swirls milk and it cools it down.

Matthew Algeo: The Cincar co-op now includes at least 10 small dairy farms. With more help from the Czech government, the co-op recently opened a shop in the center of Livno, where the farmers can sell their cheese.

Jozo Baković (Translated from Croatian): It matures here and then it comes here to be washed.

Matthew Algeo: After many years of navigating Bosnia’s complicated bureaucracy, the Cincar co-op recently achieved a major milestone. Their cheese received a “protected designation of origin” or P.D.O. That means only cheese made from the milk of sheep and cows from Livanjsko polje can be labeled “Livno cheese.” The co-op is still waiting for final approval to sell their cheese in the E.U., but Jozo says he’s confident that will happen — eventually. Meanwhile, the co-op’s sheep and cows have helped preserve the polje’s fragile ecosystem. The animals eat the vegetation that might otherwise overrun the polje. And that keeps the land open, preserving fields and wetlands. And that’s good for the polje’s avian population.

[sound of walking on dirt and climbing]

Matthew Algeo: A few miles north of Jozo’s pasture, I’m climbing a birdwatching stand. With me are Goran and Biljana Topić. They’re a husband-and-wife team of birdwatchers who work for Bosnia’s ornithological society Naše Ptice — literally “Our Birds.” Naše Ptice built this stand. In the spring it overlooks the polje’s massive temporary lake. But on this June day, the lake has all but disappeared underground. There’s only a small flock of heron lollygagging in a pond. Biljana points out a hole in the ground — an estavelle.

Biljana Topić: And because the view is really nice. And even now you can see this water. And this, let’s say, stone thing, is estevella. But you can see small water, like small brook water. That is coming to it and just disappearing. It is not filling the hole. Water is disappearing. So it is sinking. And now this acts as a sinkhole. But at the other part of the year, it acts like a spring.

Matthew Algeo: With Biljana translating, Goran rattles off some statistics: Of the 350 bird species reported in Bosnia and Herzegovina, he tells me 265 — 75 percent — have been spotted in Livanjsko polje.

Goran Topić (speaking Croatian, translated by Biljana Topić): During the autumn migration, there are let’s say 60,000 to 80,000 individuals of various bird species in the polje. You can see it on some days. And spring migration is even more massive and you can see more than 100,000 bird individuals.

Matthew Algeo: What makes the polje so attractive to so many birds is its remarkable variety of habitats, all in a relatively small area.

Goran Topić (speaking Croatian, translated by Biljana Topić): There is a huge water surface, Buško Lake, at the south. Then there are some big well-preserved marshland or swamp. And then huge grasslands but also big forest areas.

[sound of walking on dirt]

Matthew Algeo (on tape): Do you want me to follow you?

Biljana Topić: Yeah.

Matthew Algeo (on tape): Okay.

Matthew Algeo: After climbing down from the birdstand, Goran and Biljana take me on a tour of the polje. There’s always plenty for birdwatchers to see here. We stop at a gravel pit, so they can show me a colony of bee-eaters. These birds have dug holes into the side of the pit to build their nests.

Biljana Topić: You can see them, they are really colorful, they are like tropical birds. They have yellow and red and blue.

[sound of walking on dirt]

Goran Topić (speaking Croatian, translated by Biljana Topić): And this bird is kind of rare in the rest of Europe.

Matthew Algeo: The bee-eaters are stunning, but Goran and Biljana tell me they’re unpopular. That’s because many Bosnians are amateur beekeepers who sell honey to make a little extra money. Naturally, they’re suspicious of a bird called the bee-eater. And while the birds do eat honey bees, they also eat wasps and other insects. But Biljana still wishes the bird had a better name.

Biljana Topić: It is a really big bird with — it’s colorful, nice, interesting, charismatic bird and I think that it is shame for such a nice bird to have that evil name.

Goran Topić: (Speaking Croatian)

Biljana Topić: Yeah, maybe something like Rainbow Bird or something like that.

Matthew Algeo: In late August I met up with Goran and Biljana again. The autumn bird migration is just getting started, but already there is exciting news: A northern bald ibis with a tracking device attached to its back has just been detected nearby — the first recorded appearance of this species in the polje. The bird’s name is Clover, and Goran and Biljana are hoping to be the first to actually see him.

Biljana Topić: And we hope that we will find it today. And one hour ago we had a GPS signal from right here. No, here was two hours ago and one hour ago was like, very close to here. But now the latest one is from somewhere in the middle of the polje and it seems that the bird is moving, flying, and towards Croatia or Italy, which is good. We would like to see it but it’s better for the bird and for the science and for everybody except the two of us [laughs] and the bird will join the flock and it will be safe.

Matthew Algeo: Clover was just passing through. By the next day, he had flown across the border to Croatia. As Goran is quick to point out though, the polje’s bird count had now officially increased to 267. It’s hard to find data to confirm that birds are returning to the polje, mainly because accurate bird counts were impossible until recent years, not only because of the war, but also because of a lack of ornithologists. Goran says there are several species that were spotted on the polje before the war that have still not been spotted since. But with the increase in traditional cheesemaking and livestock grazing in recent years, there are hopes that the numbers will trend in the right direction.

Matthew Algeo: Birdwatchers are an obsessive breed, and before the global pandemic they’d started discovering Livanjsko polje’s avian riches. Visitors from across Europe, especially the U.K., were coming to the polje in small but growing numbers, eager to add to their life lists. And local entrepreneurs were eager to capitalize.

[sound of paddles in water]

Matthew Algeo: The Sturba is a lazy, shallow river that meanders across the polje before disappearing underground. It’s perfect for canoeing. Maria and Ante Perković are giving me a tour of the polje in one of their canoes. They own a company that offers guided canoe trips and birdwatching tours on the polje.

Ante Perković: We started with four canoes.

Maria Perković: Yeah, we started with only four canoes and we had like one cheap binocular. But now we have a lot of equipment. We’re always trying to make it better.

Matthew Algeo: Maria and Ante named their company That’s a play on the river Sturba’s name and Bosnia’s internet domain extension, .ba. They started the company in the spring of 2020. Their timing was unfortunate.

Maria Perković: We didn’t start at the right time because everything started at the very beginning of this pandemic. But we are hoping that in the future when — without the restrictions and without these problems on the borders, that we will have more guests for birdwatching.

Matthew Algeo: Tourism in Bosnia is still in its infancy. In 2019, the last full year before Covid, Bosnia welcomed fewer than 2 million tourists. Neighboring Croatia welcomed more than 19 million. The upside of that is, the potential for growth here is huge. Especially, Maria says, from birdwatching.

Maria Perković: Here, for example, we have a lot of species that are really, like, regular here. We can see them often, that can’t be seen in England, for example, so that’s what attracts people here.

Matthew Algeo: Livno is located less than a 90-minute drive from the Croatian coast, so it’s in a good position to capitalize on tourism. But the region still faces many challenges. Bosnia’s official unemployment rate is between 15 and 20 percent. And the country still lacks infrastructure. Managing growth is another issue. And, as Mato Gotovac pointed out to me on his front porch, there’s still not even a comprehensive plan for protecting Livanjsko polje.

Mato Gotovac: All that is part of water management. You cannot do water management if you don’t know what you are managing with, to know how you will manage it you need to know where is that water. Because most of the water which fell down here in this area is underground. Not in the river, not in the lakes. It’s mostly underground.

Matthew Algeo: Mato says there’s not even a decent map that shows where the underground water flows.

Mato Gotovac: Only one complete research was done by tracers, so either by dyes or radioactive isotopes …

Matthew Algeo: So they would put a dye in the water and follow where it went?

Mato Gotovac: In the sinkhole. You put a dye in the sinkhole and you go on the other side of the mountain and check all the springs — where does it go up. Only one done, in 1961,’62, or before. Since then, no. Why we are not concerned or care to know how much water and where is that water for the future — I’m not sure.

[Marching band sound]

Matthew Algeo: To celebrate Livno’s City Day, every September 28th at 7 o’clock in the morning, the local high school marching band marches through the city. But if current trends are any indication, many of the kids in this marching band will leave Livno soon after they graduate. This is the most pressing issue, because cheesemaking and birdwatching won’t save Livanjsko polje if the people keep leaving. Even cheesemaker Jozo Baković, who has dedicated so much of his life to revitalizing the polje, was unable to convince his own children to stay.

Jozo Baković (translated from Croatian): Young people are going to Germany. My two sons went to Germany. We will start speaking German. [Laughs] All of us. There will be no more Croatian.

Matthew Algeo: But there is hope. The people who call Livno home — the people who choose to stay — are determined to find ways to make it possible for others to stay as well. Maria Perković told me one of the reasons she and Ante founded was so they could stay on the polje.

Maria Perković: Like maybe six years ago we were planning to leave for Germany or somewhere because we didn’t have a stable job, let’s say, so that was one of the possibilities and then we stayed here we started with this, so now that’s off the list, we’re not planning it anymore. But now we are trying to show people that there are possibilities here, that you can live here, that you can make some money here, that you can, I don’t know, take advantage of the nature here to develop something new, to make a progress, to show the world that we have so many great things.


Lacy Roberts: Hey, Matt. Thanks so much for your reporting.

Matthew Algeo: You’re welcome, Lacy.

Lacy Roberts: So tell me what drew you to look at the Livno region?

Matthew Algeo: Well, I’ve been in Sarajevo for about three years now. And, I had a friend about a year ago, went to Livno and went bird watching there and told me about it. And I hadn’t really heard anything about the bird watching there. And I thought that was interesting. And then I started looking at the story more and more and kind of, you know, peeling back the layers and then finding all these, all these connections, you know, between the bird watching and the, and the polje and the cheese and the sheep and the people and tourism and depopulation. It was one of those stories that had a lot of other stories attached to it. And I thought that was really interesting. I also was interested because, you know, most of the stories that come out of Bosnia, tend to be about the war, and, and, and about, the, you know, Srebrenica and the genocide and the ethnic conflict here, which of course is an important story. But I thought this was kind of cool. It was a different story. It was kind of a, you know, the war is a little, is a little piece of it, of course, because of the damage that the war did to the polje. But really, I thought this was a story about the people in Livno who are, who are really trying to make a difference there. And, uh, and really improve the quality of life in that part of the country. And I thought that was a story that was really worth telling.

Lacy Roberts: It really is. And you know, the story that you tell is just such a fascinating example of the way that the land is shaped by people and by agriculture. Um, could you just tell me a little bit more about the history of the region and you know, how long have people there been grazing sheep?

Matthew Algeo: Yeah, it’s, it’s really kind of interesting that cheesemaking and, and shepherding the, the Pramenka sheep, uh, that’s been going on really for centuries in, in this part of the world, in this part of the Balkans. But it really wasn’t until the late 19th century that cheesemaking in Livno was formalized. And that was because in 1878, all the world powers got together and basically decided who was gonna rule what parts of the world and Austro-Hungary was given charge, so to speak, over Bosnia. The Austro-Hungarians came in and they wanted to develop Bosnia — and Livno in particular. And so they sent a guy to Livno, and he went to Livno in 1900, and he brought with him a method of making cheese. It was similar to Gruyere, Roquefort but he used the milk from these sheep, the Pramenka sheep, to make a unique cheese in Livno. And he ended up staying almost 25 years in Livno, working at the agricultural school there. And he became kind of a local hero. He’s still, you know, fondly remembered. So it’s interesting. It’s really the result of imperialism that the cheesemaking industry was institutionalized, I guess you could say, in Livno, and, that’s what, that’s what really, you know, made all this possible. So it’s kind of a very interesting connection to the past.

Lacy Roberts: And I have to ask, how was the cheese?

Matthew Algeo: I am not a cheese expert, uh, by any means. Uh, it’s very sharp. It actually reminds me a little of cheddar cheese. Um, but it’s very flavorful. I mean, you really taste it in the back of your tongue and it has tiny little holes all over it. And, uh, Jozo was very keen for me to see that, to make sure real Livno cheese will always have these tiny little holes that come through the process of making it, that are kind of a, a little trademark of Livno cheese.

Lacy Roberts: So cool. In your piece, you talk about how the polje has been really understudied. There isn’t even a map of the underground water flows, which are so important to the ecosystem there. What do you attribute that to? And is there hope that there will be more research done?

Matthew Algeo: Well, you know, of course, um, you know, in the 20th century, the, uh, Bosnia suffered through the two world wars and then, and then their own war. And then in, in the intervening years between World War II and the Balkan Wars of the 90s, there was a Socialist government in place, largely led by Josip Tito, and the government was more concerned with economic policy and economic development, and much less concerned about environmental policy and environmental development. So that’s the main reason that the polje really wasn’t studied for almost, you know, 50 years basically, there were no systematic studies done in the polje. And, um, then to make things a little worse, the, uh, Dayton Accord of 1995, which ended the Bosnia war, set up a very complicated government structure in Bosnia. In fact, some people say it’s the most complicated governmental system, uh, in the world. The country’s divided into two entities in a district and one of the entities has cantons and then there are municipalities. And so there are all these different levels of government and each one has its own bureaucracy and has its own departments and that sort of thing. So when you try to make an environmental policy, you really have to get the approval of several departments of the environment. And that can be very difficult. Corruption’s another problem. There’s a lot of corruption in Bosnia, the, um, Transparency International ranks it 110th out of 180 countries and estimates 20 percent of public service users paid a bribe in the previous 12 months in Bosnia. So that could be a problem too for implementing environmental policies. And also, I think trying to integrate into the European Union will be a big step for Bosnia if they can get into the European Union, uh, that will make it easier to, to, to get funding for environmental studies and environmental programs. And it will also streamline the bureaucratic process in Bosnia. So I think that’s kind of the light at the end of the tunnel for this story.

Lacy Roberts: Well, thank you so much, Matt, for taking us to the polje and teaching us about this place that so few of us have probably heard about. Such an interesting story. Thank you so much.

Matthew Algeo: It was my pleasure. It was a lot of fun. The people I met there are just so nice and they are trying hard to make that a better place.


Lacy Roberts: Matthew Algeo is a freelance reporter based in Sarajevo. Our theme music was produced by the Undark Team with additional music in today’s episode from Blue Dot Sessions. I’m Lacy Roberts. See you next time.

The post Traditional Cheesemaking Is Restoring Bosnia’s Landscapes and Livelihoods appeared first on Reasons to be Cheerful.

As Temperatures Rise, Farms Are Sprouting in Alaska

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 30/06/2022 - 6:00pm in

Four years ago Phoebe Autry packed up everything she owned, said goodbye to friends and neighbors in central Washington, and set off on a 45-plus hour drive northwest to Palmer, Alaska. Exhausted by the “ever present danger of wildfires” that posed a risk to her West Coast farm, not to mention her life, Autry, now 32, sought somewhere to start her vegetable growing career afresh.

She’s not the only one. As farm numbers decline in most of the U.S., Alaska is bucking the national trend. Between 2007 and 2017, the number of farms in the country’s largest state increased by 44 percent even as the total number of U.S. farms dropped by more than seven percent. Most of that growth has been in small farms of up to nine acres.

Phoebe Autry

The reasons for this are varied but include the very thing that drove Autry to leave the Lower 48 in the first place — climate change, which in Alaska at least has resulted in an extended growing season for most crops. In more recent times, Covid-19 and the war in Ukraine have underlined how vulnerable Alaska is to supply chain shocks and, say agricultural experts, seen a growing number of Alaskans opt to grow their own food. 

The upshot for this isolated state, which imports roughly 95 percent of its food, is clear. Far from being a gentle quirk in the evolution of its history, Alaska’s farming boom, while relatively localized, is vital at a time when further disruptions to the faltering global food system are inevitable.

“We are an incredibly food vulnerable state,” says Autry. “Even in normal times our grocery store shelves are pretty sad. If a boat gets stuck, we might not get fresh milk, yogurt, cabbage or broccoli for a few days.” 

But with Alaska warming faster than any other state, something predominantly negative — not least for Alaska — is having the beneficial impact of making it more conducive to growing food. Over the past 60 years, state-wide air temperatures have increased by an average of 3°F.

The warmer weather and extended growing season mean that “more people are considering Alaska as a place to grow food,” says Autry, who is currently taking a break from farming to fill the role of interim executive director at the Alaska Farmland Trust. Over the last five years the trust, which protects agricultural lands from development by putting conservation easements on them, has seen a “significant increase” in calls from farmers in other parts of the country who are seeking land.

Another factor that attracts farmers to Alaska is the cost of land. At 665,000 square miles large, the state is bigger than Texas, California and Montana combined, and farmland is mostly cheaper than elsewhere in the U.S., making operating a farm more financially viable. 

“In other states, most of the land is already spoken for,” says Amy Seitz, executive director at the Alaska Farm Bureau, the goal of which is to improve the economic wellbeing of agriculture in the state. “So when it comes to family farms, if there are multiple kids, a kid can’t buy a neighboring piece of property. So instead they are looking up here.” 

Scott Mugrage, president of the Alaska Farm Bureau, moved to Alaska almost a decade ago after he and his son couldn’t afford to open a feedlot together back where they were living in Nebraska. 

The two were considering what they might do next when they came across a farm online that was located in the Delta Junction, southeast of Fairbanks, Alaska’s second largest city. It was in disarray but they could afford it, so they relocated and fixed it up. Today, Mugrage Hay & Cattle is one of the largest producers of finished beef in the state, employing people year-round.

“We couldn’t have done this elsewhere in the States,” says Mugrage.

Between 2007 and 2017, the number of farms in Alaska increased by 44 percent even as the total number of U.S. farms dropped by more than seven percent. Credit: Alaska Farmland Trust

It’s not like Alaska has humongous tracts of land for industrial operations to snap up. There are some bigger farms in the Delta Junction, like the Mugrages’, but most of the farmers moving in from other places have established small-to-midsize farms. And most of the properties that the Alaska Farmland Trust has protected have been relatively small, too. The biggest property that they’re currently working to protect with a conservation easement is 120 acres. 

Of course, appealing as it all sounds, cheap land doesn’t always remain so. Autry says the Matanuska-Susitna borough where she lives is seeing a lot of pressure from housing development, which is driving land prices up. Autry and her fiancé are in the process of looking to buy their own farmland, but are worried they will be priced out.

As well as individuals like Autry and Mugrage, who moved to Alaska to set up food production operations, there are those born and bred in the state who are supporting its growing farming scene. As part of this, Seitz and Autry both highlight a growing interest among Alaskans keen to grow their own food in the wake of a turbulent two years that has seen Covid-19 and the war in Ukraine seriously exacerbate existing food supply challenges. 

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What’s more, says Autry, with more locally produced food available, more Alaskans are opting to buy local where possible.

“Alaskans are very proud to be from Alaska,” she says. “So they do their best to support local businesses and buy Alaska-made and Alaskan-grown.”

This is reflected in the dramatic increase in farmers markets across the state. In 2005, there were just 13 farmers markets in Alaska. Today there are 56.

“That’s the most we’ve had, ever,” says Robbi Mixon, executive director of the Alaska Farmers Market Association, who adds that she’s seen increasing interest in locally grown food from regeneratively farmed land as part of these developments.

Despite the successes, if Alaskans really want to be food secure they’re going to need some help, says Mugrage. He laments, for example, that there’s not enough research going into wheat hybrids that might work in Alaska now that the growing season is longer.

“We have one flour mill in the state [and] three slaughter plants,” he says, adding that he doesn’t believe investment for this additional infrastructure will come from the private sector. “We need government to invest in infrastructure.”

For farmers like Autry, having some land of her own will be a dream come true.

“Sometimes it feels out of reach, but I have to remind myself I’m closer than I’ve ever been,” she says. “Despite competition for land with developers, I think small-scale farming has a very bright future in Alaska. We live in a state where being self-sufficient is important and we are starting to get more buy-in from our state politicians. That, and the engagement we get from the community, is essential to making it all possible.”

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These Farms Are Living a Double Life

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 10/06/2022 - 6:00pm in

The organic farm community of Heggelbach in the rural alpine upland of Germany’s Baden-Wuerttemberg state is like something out of a fairy tale. Hens cluck in front of the quaint yellow farmhouse, majestic Braunvieh cattle graze among spring daisies in the meadows, and wheels of Camembert ripen in the recently built cheesery. But 20 feet above the crops is something altogether more modern: Steel columns holding 720 gleaming panels comprising 27,000 square feet of state-of-the-art solar technology.

Heggelbach, which adheres to the strict biodynamic rules of the Demeter Federation, is engaged in a radical experiment. Under the guidance of the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems (ISE) and the University Hohenheim, the farming community built Germany’s biggest solar installation under which crops can grow, a method known as agrophotovoltaics (APV). In winter, the panels ward off the snow; in the summer heat, they afford much-needed shade. And they are high enough for farmer Florian Reyer to navigate his tractor through the rows of potatoes, celery, trefoil grass and wheat seedlings underneath. The researchers chose these four varieties for a reason. “They wanted to test a vegetable, a grain, grass, and potatoes as a typical German staple food,” Reyer explains. 

farmerCan crops and solar panels coexist? Credit: Hofgemeinschaft Heggelbach

In the summer of 2016, the researchers installed the pilot panels at a cost of 660,000 euros ($700,000 USD). They then spent three years analyzing temperatures, harvest and water saturation to answer a question for struggling farmers worldwide: Could the pairing of innovative solar technology and regenerative farming allow farmers to harvest an abundance of vegetables and electricity?

Farming food and sun

Squeezed by rising energy prices and declining crop returns, farmers from Asia to the United States are looking for ways to reap multiple streams of revenue from their land. At the same time, many countries are looking for more places to install renewable energy projects. In places where electricity brings in more money than crops, they’re eyeing vast tracts of farmland. Researchers at Oregon State University calculated that if nearly one percent of agricultural areas worldwide could be converted into solar farms, global energy needs could be satisfied. 

But “only” one percent is actually a lot. In most countries, every acre of farmland is badly needed. Worldwide, the ratio of farmland to person sank by 50 percent in the last 50 years. Meanwhile, the world will need to grow 50 percent more food by 2050 to keep pace with population growth, even as food crops are cleared to make space for more roads, buildings and biofuel crops. In Germany, for instance, 250 million acres of farmland have been planted with monocultures such as corn and grains that are not grown for consumption, but for conversion into so-called biodiesel. Our hunger for energy leads to actual hunger. 

solar farmThe agrovoltaics model that could provide a path forward for both struggling farmers and energy-hungry societies. Credit: Hofgemeinschaft Heggelbach

This is why passionate farmers like Reyer demand that farms not be given over to solar arrays. “Solar parks are not sustainable and not ethical,” he says with a surprising sharpness. “I view the trend to build solar parks on agricultural grounds very skeptically.”

Yet Reyer’s fears are being realized. Solar farms currently cover more than 25,000 acres of agricultural areas in Germany, funneling up to 5,000 euros per hectare in leasing fees to the farmers who own the land. “I could lounge on my couch, sit back and earn more by giving my acres to a solar park investor than by using my manpower to grow wheat or potatoes,” Reyer says, shaking his head. “No way!”

But what if it wasn’t a choice between one or the other? Can crops and solar panels coexist? Some farmers let livestock graze beneath solar panels, but livestock require far more arable land than crops. “Sure, I could install solar panels and let some sheep graze underneath,” Reyer says. “But this is not sustainable long-term. We won’t be able to feed the population this way.” What he and his fellow farmers at Heggelbach are attempting is far more complex. If they can pull it off, it’s a model that could provide a path forward for both struggling farmers and energy-hungry societies.

solar farmSolar farms currently cover more than 25,000 acres of agricultural areas in Germany. Credit: Hofgemeinschaft Heggelbach

Pioneering a solar-powered community

The Fraunhofer Institute recently published findings that detailed the advantages of Heggelbach’s novel system of perching solar panels high above its crops. The study found that the panels produced significantly more electricity than predicted, and maintenance was easier than farmer Reyer had feared. “We thought we would have to clean the panels much more frequently,” he says. “Even in winter, the snow simply glides or melts off.”

The farming community rents the panels from Fraunhofer and uses the electricity produced to run the farm, the cheesery and the milking machines. The panels are bifacial, meaning both the front and the back transform sunlight into electricity, making them extremely efficient. Any surplus is fed back into the grid, especially in the summer, when it exceeds the community’s needs. 

The Heggelbach community was an early adopter of innovative energy generation. In 2006, the pioneering farmers installed solar panels on their roofs. In 2008, they built the first wood gasifier, which heats their homes, the cheesery and the hay dryer. The next year, they received the German Solar Award for their sustainable energy production. 

Like most in the community, Reyer is deeply passionate about sustainable farming. “I’m a farmer with an affinity for technology, not a technician,” he says. His parents co-founded this community and raised him here. Now he lives here with his wife, their three kids and four other families. Not to be mistaken for a country bumpkin, he follows developments in agrophotovoltaic technology closely. The governments of South Korea, Japan and China, for instance, are subsidizing hundreds of thousands of AVPs, and testing new modules with flexible panels that follow the sun or filter radiation harmful to plants. “South Korea deliberately invests in AVPs because they don’t have enough farmers, similar to us,” says Reyer. “The AVPs finance pension funds, and the young farmers can work underneath the panels without making giant investments.” 

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In Lower Saxony, a company called Agrosolar Europe will soon build a giant new AVP with state subsidies. Its goal is to harvest 30 tons of chives and herbs per year. Then-state secretary Jochen Flasbarth lauded the project at its groundbreaking in June 2021 as “a win-win for the climate, agriculture and food production.

It’s not as easy as some make it sound. “The solar panels reduce our harvest by 10 to 15 percent,” Reyer says. And Reyer needs more time and manpower to maneuver his tractor around the panels’ steel scaffolding. “Financially, we make up the loss of harvest with the gain in electricity,” he says. Some farmers have tried vertical AVPs, an option the Heggelbach community briefly considered but found too expensive and cumbersome.

The weather can also be make or break. “We had severe drought in 2018 and extreme rain and cold in 2019,” Reyer remembers. “During a drought, the plants benefit from the panels’ shade, but when it rains a lot, the main issue is that the water gets distributed very unevenly because of the panels.” Some plants don’t get enough water, while others drown. 

On the other side of the planet, in Colorado, farmer Byron Kominek has had similar experiences. “I plant the squash in the dry spots and the green leaves where it’s wet,” he says. Near Boulder, Colorado, Kominek has built the largest commercially active agrovoltaics system in the U.S. A former diplomat with USAID, he moved back to Colorado in 2019 and installed a multimillion-dollar AVP with 3,200 solar panels to create a 1.2-megawatt community solar garden on his late grandfather’s farm. Now he is experimenting with 40 different crops, from squash to raspberries, to find the best AVP-harvest that can secure the future of the 24-acre farm, which barely makes enough hay to cover its costs. An engineer by training, Kominek primarily works as a solar power consultant for companies and other farms, using his farm as an experimental test plot. He also partners with the Colorado Agrivoltaic Learning Center to demonstrate to graduate students from Colorado State University, as well as the public, the possibilities of AVP.

Similar to Reyer, he struggles with unpredictable weather events. Drought dust sometimes covers the panels, and a storm blows trash cans past his window while we speak on Zoom. But he is producing enough energy to sell it to about 300 nearby homes, a cannabis farm, a bank, and the City and County of Boulder. “They all pay a premium to support us,” he says.

Because our climate is warming, Kominek, Reyer, and experts such as Max Trommsdorff, head of the agrovoltaics group at the Fraunhofer Institutes, see AVPs are a solution for the future, especially in hot, arid regions such as Arizona, where the harvest of chili and tomatoes improved under the panels. 

solar farmsA solar farm planted in the organic farm community of Heggelbach. Credit: Hofgemeinschaft Heggelbach

But as a regenerative farmer in Germany, Reyer has to balance multiple factors and goals such as soil quality, biodiversity, crop rotation, harvest and manpower. He pleads for more research — for instance, about how the problematic water distribution issue could be solved. As a pioneer, he answers calls nearly every day from other farmers who are keen to try AVPs. “In reality, we need another four or five years of detailed research to meaningfully investigate how different crops respond to different weather events under the panels long term,” he says. “However, the grant money for the research has run out. It’s extremely difficult.”

His vision is to make the community farm entirely independent by generating enough energy and heat to harvest in harmony with the principles of regenerative farming. “But in terms of money, our society is willing to pay more for electricity than for agricultural products,” he says. “I see this as the biggest discrepancy: We value electricity more because our plates are full.”

To sum up, the solar farmers can solve one problem. But to solve the bigger issue — namely, that our society is more eager to grow watts than wheat — is too big for them to solve alone.

The post These Farms Are Living a Double Life appeared first on Reasons to be Cheerful.

People's Landscapes: Future Landscapes

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 23/07/2019 - 6:37pm in

A roundtable discussion consider future landscapes in the context of food, farming and conservation. People's Landscapes: Beyond the Green and Pleasant Land is a lecture series convened by the University of Oxford's National Trust Partnership, which brings together experts and commentators from a range of institutions, professions and academic disciplines to explore people's engagement with and impact upon land and landscape in the past, present and future. The National Trust cares for 248,000 hectares of open space across England, Wales and Northern Ireland; landscapes which hold the voices and heritage of millions of people and track the dramatic social changes that occurred across our nations' past. In the year when Manchester remembers the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo massacre, the National Trust's 2019 People’s Landscapes programme is drawing out the stories of the places where people joined to challenge the social order and where they demonstrated the power of a group of people standing together in a shared place. Throughout this year the National Trust is asking people to look again, to see beyond the green and pleasant land, and to find the radical histories that lie, often hidden, beneath their feet. At the fourth and final event in the series, Future Landscapes, panellists consider future landscapes in the context of food, farming and conservation, with panellists considering what we may want vs. what we will need from our landscapes in a post-Brexit Britain and beyond.

Alice Purkiss | National Trust Partnership Lead | University of Oxford (Welcome)

Helen Antrobus | National Public Programme Curator | National Trust (Introduction)

Dr Anita Weatherby | Research Programme Manager | National Trust (Chair)

Sue Cornwell | Head of Public Benefit and Nature | National Trust

Professor E.J. Milner-Gulland | Director, Interdisciplinary Centre for Conservation Science | University of Oxford

Phil Jarvis | Environment Forum Chair | National Farmers' Union

Dr Prue Addison | Conservation Strategy Director | Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxford Wildlife Trust

For more information about the People’s Landscapes Lecture Series and the National Trust Partnership at the University of Oxford please visit: