New National Historic Landmarks hold clues to more recent Cincinnati history

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The Eldean Covered Bridge in Troy, Ohio, one of only about a dozen surviving long truss covered bridges.

Last month, the National Park Service announced the designation of 24 new National Historic Landmarks. The new Landmarks represented a wide diversity of historic and sociological significance, and included the Medgar and Myrlie Evers House in Jackson, Mississippi; the Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission Chapel (McDonnell Hall) in San Jose, California; the Pauli Murray Family Home in Durham, North Carolina; the Eldean Bridge in Miami County, Ohio; the West Union Bridge in Parke County, Indiana; and the May 4, 1970, Kent State Shootings Site. I encourage my readers to follow the  above link to learn about each each of these as the significance to local or national history for each one is clear; however, today I’d like to focus on another such recently-designated Landmark: the Greenhills Historic District.

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Greenhills, Greenbelt, and the Resettlement Administration

The federal government’s Resettlement Administration (RA) constructed the original buildings in Greenhills as one of three, or perhaps four greenbelt cities; the others are Greenbelt, Maryland, Greendale, Wisconsin, and sometimes included is Roosevelt, New Jersey, which the RA approved, but had little to do with its eventual completion. Never popular, or properly funded by Congress, the RA lasted only from 1935 -37.

The mission of the Rettlement Administration was to create decent living quarters for those who suffered most during the Great Depression. This included migratory workers, farmers displaced by the catastrophic drought known as the Dust Bowl, and certain urban populations, such as Jewish garment workers. The greenbelt towns were conceived as self-sufficient cooperative communities, admired by professional planners and reviled by political opponents as socialist. They got the name “greenbelt”, because the plan laid out for them included a surrounding green belt of undeveloped land. Ironically, this is perhaps the beginning of the uneasy relationship between agriculture and suburbia.

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Early Twentieth Century Suburbia, Early Twentieth Century Agriculture

The end of the nineteenth century saw many cities suffering from image problems, perhaps more so than today. Newly-arrived foreigners and poor sanitation were facts of life that led to a perception of cities as centers of crime and disease, and densely-packed man-made edifices as an “unnatural” environment for humanity. The early part of the twentieth century saw observable numbers of people choosing to live in surrounding communities. However, urban areas were still concentrated enough to provide important markets for agricultural products, and farm produce prices rose 87% from 1900-1910. Farmers continued to do well until 1918, when the end of WWI and an influenza pandemic slowed economic growth, signaling the end of the Golden Age of Agriculture. Still, farmers with access to large urban markets, like my grandparents, found ways to make a living, even with the onslaught of the Great Depression.

New Deal progams, like those administered by the Resettlement Agency, gave way to post-WWII veterans’ programs that encouraged suburban home-buying. The automobile allowed these suburban developments to “leap-frog” into farmland. It wasn’t necessary for them to be close to one another, any old jalopy could get you where you wanted to go. Unfortunately, development began to destroy the very nature that suburbanites craved.

Enter Levittown, Long Island, the Mecca of mid-century development, and listen to these voices:

“There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings…The town lay in the midst of a checkerboard of prosperous farms, with fields of grain and hillsides of orchards where, in spring, white clouds of bloom drifted above the green fields…” –– Rachel Carson, “Silent Spring”, 1962.

This was the ideal, the desire of the heart. A description of the reality follows.

“… suburbanization itself involved environmental destruction. Consider just what it took to build the 17,000 (homes) that made up a huge development like Levittown, NY… Levittown’s builders razed much of what was left of the only naturally occurring prairie east of the Alleghenies, the Hempstead Plains. Houses and lawns replaced natural topsoil, plant life, and vegetation … Moreover, to provide wood for the houses, the Levitts bought a timber company in Northern California. Levittown’s construction thereby had a significant hand in the stepped up destruction of old-growth redwood forests on the far side of the Continent.” — Christopher Sellers, “Nature Transformed: the Environment in American History”, 2010.

OK. So clearly there are big sociological issues here. But I write about food and agriculture, so let’s get back to it.

The historical perspective here seems to be telling us that farmers need a certain amount of population to create demand for what they supply. Really simple economics, right? And people are going to live where and how they want today’s American society, and many will tell us that’s a good thing. Perhaps there is an uneasy relationship between agriculture and suburbia, but it still can be a mutually beneficial one.

Let’s do some history from my own point of view: when we moved to Cincinnati in 2001, my wife and I could find no plausible explanation for the lack of availability of fresh, local food. Farms were abundant; farm stands were absent. Farmers grew field corn and soybeans and sold them to big processors like Archer Daniels Midland or Cargill. None seemed interested in sweet corn and green beans sold to consumers. But times were good, and the Cincinnati suburbs were expanding rapidly.

Farms that grow cash crops like field corn and soybeans need to be fairly large to be profitable. By contrast, farms surrounded by suburban development tend to be smaller. Two factors are at play here: large established farms may be too expensive to maintain in a more urban environment, and these are often sold to be developed, in whole or in part. Established family farms over time get smaller as they are divvied up to younger generations. These smaller farms can be very successful at direct marketing, in part due to their proximity to the local population.

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Editor’s note:  All images are courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Cincinnati’s growth has slowed since the beginning of this century, but it was named the #6 on WalletHub’s 2016’s Best and Worst Foodie Cities, indicating just how far that 2001 trend has turned around. The website used several interesting parameters to determine their ratings. Some were obvious, like the cost of groceries, beer, and wine, the availability of healthy options, farmers markets, and CSAs. Then they become more creative, such as the ratio of full-service to fast-food restaurants. Lastly, some categories in which Cincinnati excelled by ranking in the top 5: craft breweries and wineries, specialty food stores, and most ice cream shops, per capita. (In fact, Flannelnerd pities the fool who thinks he can open an ice cream parlor in this town!) Without suburban growth, Cincinnati would be ranked in the bottom 50 of the 150 cities, along with Toledo, Akron, and Fort Wayne, not in the top 10. Take advantage of all it has to offer.

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Future of agriculture may be found in extremes

 

 

The Chef’s Garden, in Huron, Ohio, is perhaps the most extreme example of agriculture you’ll encounter. Here, tiny vegetables, like cucamelons and miniature purple eggplants, are grown for discerning chefs in fine restaurants throughout the country. Shipped virtually anywhere in a day, these veggies carry a hefty price tag, in carbon emissions and currency, as well. However, several lessons are found here about the future of agriculture.

“We will need to produce more food in the first half of this century than we did in the previous 100 centuries combined,” says Tony Kajewski, an engineering manager at John Deere and president of the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers. He spoke to TechNewsWorld in 2013. That is an overarching agricultural concern. It transcends debates about GMOs, pesticides, and all manner of farming methods. Nine billion people will inhabit the planet by 2050, according to the U.N.

One way The Chef’s Garden produces its exquisite crops is through controlled environments. Hoop houses help them produce for chefs year-round. Even the seed that goes into the ground at this farm is tested and sorted for best germination. That is information that’s compiled before a single vegetable is planted, to gain efficiency and reduce waste.

Controlled Environment Agriculture can be seen as the future of local. Growing can happen in areas of demand, so shipping long distances isn’t necessary. CEA makes it possible to grow in extreme climates, and urban habitats. It also is efficient, producing in smaller spaces, and with less waste. This doesn’t only mean greenhouses, it also means indoor operations under lights. Here, growing can happen 24/7 for quick harvest. Plant beds are often stacked, leading to efficient use of space.

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Controlled Environment Agriculture often means growing indoors, under lights.

Cosmetic imperfections are one source of food waste. This sort of waste is often caused by pest damage. Inside, pests are non-existent. So, too, the use of pesticides. Money and headaches (perhaps literally) saved. Pesticide-free produce is often worth more to consumers, and, since poor market prices can also lead to food waste, that’s insurance against such problems. So, too, is local produce often worth a premium to consumers.

Mechanized harvesting can leave perfectly good produce in the field, but in a controlled environment, everything can be harvested by hand, since there’s not as much ground to cover. No produce is damaged or missed during the harvesting process.

The Chef’s Garden was born of an ordinary, and too common, tragedy: in 1983 the then-conventional vegetable farm went bankrupt and the Jones family lost all but a few acres of land. Growing highly specialized produce for chefs meant they could bring in the kind of cash they needed to sustain a business with the remaining land. A web page on CEA at Cornell University also says that it can bring diversification and expansion to family farms, allowing growing families to support adult children who want to stay in agriculture.

The Jones family also jealously guards the health of the soil. Only one-third of the farm is under cultivation at any given time; the rest is under cover crops. Cover crops are planted to reduce soil erosion, add nutrients and organic matter to soil, and conserve water during times when a particular field is resting from production. It is often said that the exportation of technology to agricultural systems in developing countries doesn’t mean GMO seed, it really means common-sense know-how like the use of cover crops. It means employing best practices to locally available resources like different crops, water, and soils, thereby allowing small, local farmers to do their part in feeding a growing world.

OFPA anniversary passes without clarity

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Pastured chickens.

The Organic Food Production Act celebrates its 25th anniversary on Saturday, November 28. Although this legislation allowed the establishment of national organic standards, it is a testament to the difficulty of this task that those standards were not implemented until 2002. Even today, there are small farmers who find the fees high and the paperwork cumbersome in dealing with the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service. The rub is, farmers who choose an alternative certification cannot market their produce as “organic,” as the federal government has chosen a formal definition for that word.

Certified Naturally Grown is one of the best known alternatives. This certification is based on a peer-review model, more formally called a Participatory Guarantee System. According to CNGs website, “PGS provide an important alternative to third-party certification programs. In addition to being more affordable, and less reliant on paperwork, PGS are distinguished by their approach. Inspections are carried out by peer-reviewers, typically other farmers in the area. The PGS model is based on transparency, trust, and direct relationships. PGS foster local networks that strengthen the farming community through mutual support and educational opportunities.”

Recent developments have not done anything to clear the muddy water. Perhaps recognizing that their foray into the organic world came to mixed results, the federal government has long refused to act on the definition of the word “natural” as it might be applied to food labeling. Recent consumer petitions and court requests for that definition have led the FDA to ask for consumer input on the creation of this definition, however. “Because of the changing landscape of food ingredients and production, and in direct response to consumers who have requested that the FDA explore the use of the term “natural,” the agency is asking the public to provide information and comments on the use of this term in the labeling of human food products,” it said in its announcement. There is still no commitment by FDA to release any definition, despite this development.

The American National Standards Institute has recently weighed in, creating a standard for sustainable agriculture. Based on third party verification, the LEO-4000 Standards have four achievement levels: bronze, silver, gold, or platinum. In the end, the difficulty arises with the various terms competing for the consumer’s attention, in this case; organic, natural, and sustainable. Add to that another term: pasture-raised.

Indiana’s land-grant institution, Purdue University, through its agricultural extension service, has begun a marketing initiative to promote Indiana’s pasture-raised poultry. While that may sound innocuous, “The goal is to establish a set of common production, processing and branding standards to ensure consistent levels of quality,” said Roy Ballard, one of the project coordinators.

“That’s how you build customer loyalty,” Ballard said. “We would like to see Indiana’s pastured poultry become a product that is widely available, widely recognized and valued by consumers.” The term pastured poultry refers to chickens raised for meat in open fields, rather than in a confined space.

Perhaps the fact that this effort is called a marketing initiative helps us understand this confusing landscape. Despite the lack of clarity, there is consumer demand for products perceived as organic, natural, sustainable, and pastured. When farmers have a market for what they raise, they are able to continue doing what they do best: providing healthy food.

Agricultural research has value if it can add efficiency to the food system

farmers marketOne of the reasons I don’t espouse blanket opposition to GMOs (genetically modified organisms) is because I support research, and new technologies. The day may come when we need these technologies to produce enough food for everyone. At present, however, we face many problems across the food system, and those problems often point out the inefficiency of the system. Resources are simply being wasted.

In Kentucky, former tobacco farmers are relearning their trade, and seeking crops that grow well in the same alkaline soil that tobacco did. Many in Kentucky believe that crop is hemp. The new academic year is the second for industrial hemp research at the University of Kentucky.

In the second year, UK agronomists David Williams and Rich Mundell plan to begin work on hemp varieties that produce grain, as well as fiber. They also want to find out which practices are best for producing cannibinoids, compounds that can be used as dietary supplements to enhance health and wellness.

“Our work has expanded greatly this year to include all three harvestable components of hemp,” Williams told Katie Pratt, writing for UK’s website. “We are hoping to optimize grower profitability through these small plot studies.”

Graduate student Leah Black will also be working on the project. She is the first graduate student dedicated only to hemp research in recent times. She will be working on cannibinoid production. In any case, if former tobacco farms can be at their most productive, we’ll have better efficiency in the use of these lands.

Looking farther down the production line, food safety is a hot-button issue. No one wants a serving of E. coli with their lettuce.

The University of California at Berkeley recently concluded a study on whether the removal of surrounding wild vegetation, a practice which was implemented after an E. coli outbreak in 2006, has done anything to diminish the problem. Indications are it did not. Results were reported August 10, in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Wildlife took much of the blame for that outbreak, even though rates of E. coli in wildlife are generally very low,” said study lead author Daniel Karp. He was quoted on a Cal website dedicated to agriculture and natural resources. “Now, growers are pressured by buyers to implement practices meant to discourage wildlife from approaching fields of produce. This includes clearing bushes, plants and trees that might serve as habitat or food sources for wild animals. Our study found that this practice has not led to the reductions in E. coli and Salmonella that people were hoping for.”

Conversely, natural areas have been known for years to mitigate the impacts of agriculture by filtering pesticide and fertilizer runoff. Recently, decline of pollinating insect populations has put a spotlight on the preservaton of these natural areas as well.

Common field-bordering weeds like milkweed, ragweed, and goldenrod have caused both farmers and allergy sufferers to raise their eyes to the heavens for relief for many years. Though we may not think of these things as “wildflowers”, these plants can be important to pollinators, especially honeybees important to crops. In the case of milkweed, it is the sole food source for Monarch butterfly larvae.

This is also where GMO research goes horribly wrong, into Roundup Ready crops that allow farmers to wipe out weeds everywhere, and in their entirety. If this practice is deemed unnecessary, expense, labor, and the overall environment can be saved.

At the end of the chain are those who consume the food. Even though I wasn’t paying attention during Grassland Management senior year at Rutgers, and I only passed that course because I was able to borrow notes from a friend, it was only common sense that you could grow the most nutritious feed ever for your livestock, but it would do you no good if they wouldn’t eat it. We called the stuff the cows liked “palatable”. When discussing humans, “palatable” may mean a little bit more.

A sociologist and a business professor, not scientists, at the University of Iowa, found that those who support the local farmers market do so in part to support the greater good. University of Iowa professor Ion Vasi was a corresponding author of the study, released Aug. 22 at the American Sociology Association Annual meeting. Following is a quotation from the webpage Iowa Now.

“Vasi says the local food market is what sociologists call a ‘moralized market’, a market in which people combine economic activities with their social values. Among their findings, the UI researchers discovered local food markets were more likely to develop in areas where residents had a strong commitment to civic participation, health, and the environment.

“’It’s about valuing the relationship with the farmers and people who produce the food and believing that how they produce the food aligns with your personal values,’ Vasi says.”

Understanding the desires of the end user is a simple marketing principle that also makes human efforts to provide food more efficient.