Air Date: May 20, 1994
Steve Curwood talks with the owners of Caretaker Farm in Williamstown, MA, a community-supported agriculture enterprise that links traditional organic, local food production and an unconventional approach to marketing. (04:33)
Green Chefs/ Tom Verde
Tom Verde reports on a group of haute cuisine chefs in Boston who are demanding local, traditional and low-input foods for their customers. (05:05)
Steve Curwood talks to PBS’ Victory Garden star Roger Swain about why he recycles everything in his compost heap. (08:55)
Copyright (c) 1994 by World Media Foundation. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold, or transmitted without the written authority of World Media Foundation.
HOST: Steve Curwood
NEWSCASTER: Jan Nunley
REPORTERS: Pye Chamberlayne, Tom Verde
GUEST: Sam & Elizabeth Smith
(Theme music intro)
CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.
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CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.
It's spring planting time and we're going out to the gardens today. We'll meet some family farmers in community-supported agriculture. Households pay for a season's produce in advance, and the farmer doesn't have to worry about the weather or markets.
SMITH: I feel liberated. Liberated to do my work as well as I possibly can.
CURWOOD: And we'll hear from public television gardener Roger Swain about why he recycles everything organic in his compost heap.
SWAIN: The question is what does one do with dead woodchucks? And I add them to my compost heap. Now I got a letter from a woman who said, "You have so little respect for life that you would put a woodchuck in your compost heap." I said, "Madam, I have so much respect for life that I would put a woodchuck in my compost heap."
CURWOOD: And chefs go green beyond the salad bowl on Living on Earth. First news.
NUNLEY: I'm Jan Nunley with this week's environmental news. A stand-off over mining law reform may be easing up. Earlier this year the House and Senate passed conflicting bills changing the 1872 Mining Act under which companies can purchase Federal mineral deposits at bargain basement prices. Now some Senate Democrats want to beef up their version, just as a Canadian company bought the right to mine billions of dollars worth of Nevada gold for less than $10,000. From Washington, Pye Chamberlayne reports.
CHAMBERLAYNE: All sides agree that Congress will rewrite the law, and for the first time make companies pay the Federal Government for gold or anything else they mine on Federal land. The House has passed a bill that meets the concerns of some environmentalists and requires substantial royalties. The Senate has passed a Republican-sponsored bill favored by mining interests. It calls for a royalty of only 2%. As differences between the House and Senate bills are worked out, Democrats in the Senate are trying to form a united front and agree on a new bill. If they succeed, a bill is likely to pass this year. Such a law would be much closer to the environmentalists' version than the miners'. Whatever happens is not likely to change the deals that have already given away billions of dollars in mining rights for almost nothing. For Living on Earth, I'm Pye Chamberlayne in Washington.
NUNLEY: Britain wants to crack down on substandard and aging oil tankers, hoping to avoid another oil spill like last year's off the Shetland Islands. The tanker Braer dumped 25 million gallons of crude oil into the North Sea off Scotland in January of 1993. A later inquiry found that nearly 60% of tankers inspected in British ports fail to meet international standards. More than 100 of those vessels were detained because they were so unseaworthy. Transport officials hope more vigorous inspection of substandard ships will pressure owners and insurers to upgrade their fleets. The Government rejected calls from Shetland Islanders to install radar to track ships along their coastline.
Driving alone can be the most expensive way to get to work, yet commuters are driving more because they never see driving's hidden costs. That's according to a study commissioned by the Conservation Law Foundation of New England, which supports mass transit. The study compares the cost of driving alone, carpooling, mass transit, bicycling, and walking in Boston and Portland, Maine. During rush hour, solo driving is almost always the most expensive, yet Foundation attorney Steven Burrington says many of its costs, including road maintenance, urban sprawl, pollution, and accidents, are paid by society at large.
BURRINGTON: When people don't pay for something, they do it indiscriminately. That's what's happened with driving in this country. All but a very, very small part of the cost of driving is hidden from us as motorists on a day to day basis.
NUNLEY: The study does not look at benefits, such as privacy and the convenience of driving alone. Representatives of auto makers and drivers' organizations also point out that drivers subsidize mass transit through the gasoline tax, and that for many commuters there are few alternatives to driving alone. This is Living on Earth.
An earthquake that killed thousands of people in India last October may have been triggered by the filling of a new reservoir. Two Columbia University geologists say tremors began soon after water was impounded behind an irrigation dam in the previously stable region, and the deadly quake struck about a year later. Dr. Leonardo Sieber says that ground in the region was under a lot of stress before the quake hit.
SIEBER: You add this weight of the water on the surface; this is simply like adding a mountain where there was not one. And this is transmitted down within the rock.
NUNLEY: Sieber says there's no proof that the weight of the water triggered this quake, but he points out that reservoir construction, mining, and oil drilling have often been linked to quakes in the past. He says governments have been slow to accept this scientific evidence because of financial concerns.
SIEBER: There's a liability problem. Nobody has decided, for example, if somebody that builds a reservoir and then triggers an earthquake is then liable for the damage, or how you're going to address that issue.
NUNLEY: Sieber says geological risks and liability issues should be routinely taken into account in planning new reservoirs or new development around existing ones.
The EPA may have taken a big step toward Cabinet-level status. The bill elevating the Agency to the Cabinet was stalled for over a year, but this time the measure made it through the Senate as an amendment to the recently passed revisions to the Safe Drinking Water Act. The issue must still go before the House, where it has never made it out of committee.
Heading to the beach? Well, grab your towel, sunscreen, beach ball, and take a glance at the day's sunburn index. The National Weather Service hopes to slow the growing number of skin cancers diagnosed every year in the United States. This summer, the Agency plans to announce the amount of dangerous ultraviolet radiation reaching the ground in selected cities across the country. UV levels will be ranked on a scale of 1 to 14, based on the thickness of the ozone layer above the region and possibly cloud cover and air pollution.
That's this week's environmental news. I'm Jan Nunley.
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CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The family farm is an endangered enterprise. Squeezed by agribusiness growers and ignored by giant supermarket chains, in the 1980s more than 300,000 US farmers were driven off the land. But a few family farms have found a unique way of making a go of it, by blending the traditional values of organic and local food production with unconventional approaches to marketing, and to satisfying the need for a sense of place in today's alienated society. It's called community supported agriculture, and it's designed to preserve small farms while reconnecting them with their local communities and regional economies. In a community-supported farm, local residents essentially buy a membership that entitles them to a season's worth of produce. The farmer foregoes the chance to make a killing in a great year in exchange for the security of a guaranteed income every year. Caretaker Farm in Williamstown, Massachusetts, is one of about 500 community-supported farms in North America. Sam and Elizabeth Smith made the switch 4 years ago, after going it alone as organic farmers for 20 years. We'll be checking in with them and their farm's members from time to time over the coming growing season. Right now, the Smiths have come in from the fields to join us on the line. Hello.
ELIZABETH SMITH: Hello.
SAM SMITH: Greetings, Steve.
CURWOOD: What do members get when they join your farm?
ELIZABETH SMITH: It produces food for them. Beginning on June 1st, we'll have our first distribution. And it will mostly be greens such as lettuces and spinach, and the quantity of food then begins to increase as more things come into production, until by the end of June and the beginning of July it's strawberries and peas and -
SAM SMITH: Broccoli -
ELIZABETH SMITH: Broccoli and beets and carrots. And moves right on through the summer, through corn, through the squashes, into the more winter crops. These are things that are stored in the root cellar and people then help themselves from the root cellar during the winter months.
CURWOOD: And what do people get aside from food?
ELIZABETH SMITH: It offers them all the benefits of having a farm in a community: social, ecological, educational.
SAM SMITH: The most important benefits they get is a sense of community. A visitor who's returning after 30 years in India, and it just so happened that her visit was in late June and coincided with a distribution, so there was around many families here at the farm that day. And she walked in and she said, later on she said to us, "This was the first experience that I've had in the whole month of being back in the United States when I've seen a group of Americans with smiles on their faces." And she said, "You must be a great personality or something." And I said, "No, it's not that. It's not us. It's their being present and part of this farm. There's this diversity of people coming together."
CURWOOD: Let's talk about what the farmers get from this. Is there a financial advantage?
SAM SMITH: There's no immediate sort of bonanza. The interesting, and the powerful, financial aspect of this is for us, is that that income is secure now. You don't have the constant worry that if we have a crop failure or something goes wrong, or even if I or Elizabeth should have an accident and break a leg or something and we're incapacitated, now the community says we're loyal and we're going to support this farm, and the community assumes of course that Sam and Elizabeth and our apprentices will do our best to always -
ELIZABETH SMITH: I would say that the biggest pleasure for me is that I don't feel isolated from the community. For many years, we saw lots of people at our farm stand who were mostly summer people, who had the time and the leisure to come to our farm and pick up a few vegetables. But we didn't really see very many people from our immediate community.
SAM SMITH: I share that same feeling with Elizabeth. Another thing that comes to my mind, though, I feel liberated. Liberated to do my work as well as I possibly can. And before that, one felt kind of bonded to this anonymous market; you had to decide what crops you were going to grow, not on what was good for the land or what you liked to do. But what the market demanded. And also, the marketplace demanded that you put a lot of energy into the whole business of marketing, which takes up so much energy.
CURWOOD: Well I'm looking forward to seeing all of this. We're going to come out for a visit in a few weeks. What have you got planned for that day?
ELIZABETH SMITH: You will be coming to our open house where we invite members of the community, whether they are members of our farm or not, to join us in the great potato saga. Everyone plants potatoes. Children and grandparents and parents and everyone gets down in the dirt and puts the potatoes in the soil.
CURWOOD: Well I'm looking forward to seeing you. Sam and Elizabeth Smith, the proprietors of Caretaker Farm in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Thanks for spending this time with us.
ELIZABETH SMITH: Thank you.
SAM SMITH: Thank you very much.
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CURWOOD: If you walk into many North American supermarkets these days, it's hard to tell what's in season. Midwinter or midsummer, you can always find tomatoes, grapes, and citrus fruit, and more often than not, exotic produce from mangoes to asparagus. All flown or trucked in from distant corners of the earth. But there's a price to this seeming abundance. Most of it comes from large growers, whose market power and ability to ship year-round squeeze out small local farms. Genetic diversity is lost as local breeds give way to species which have mass appeal, or which can stand up to long-distance travel. Then there's all the energy used up in shipping. These concerns and more have prompted a group of chefs to act. Taking advantage of their position in defining the standards of fine dining, they've made a commitment to support local, traditional, and low-input foods. Tom Verde reports from Boston.
VERDE: Among the various exotic Asian curries, chutneys, and Latin American style salsas served daily at the popular Blue Room restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at least one dish, prepared by sous chef Bridget Babson, stands out like a New England lobster boat in a Cambodian harbor.
BABSON: We've got a really nice shrimp and scallops that we grill and put over a Macomber turnip cake, which is from Westport, Massachusetts. (Laughs) And a lobster sauce goes over the top of that and a nice...
VERDE: The Macomber turnip is just one of many native ingredients chef-owner of the Blue Room Chris Schlesinger insists on using in his recipes.
SCHLESINGER: Well you know, capes, scallops, or oysters or clams from the area, I buy my tomatoes in the summer from a guy that grows in his back yard in Somerville. So I call it Garden Salad with Somerville Tomatoes. (Laughs)
VERDE: Schlesinger is one of several hundred cooks nationwide to recently sign on to the Chef's Collaborative 2000, an educational initiative of the Boston-based Old Ways Preservation and Exchange Trust, a food research organization. The collaborative calls for a reduction of the use of pesticides, healthier diets and less processed foods, and protecting the biodiversity of indigenous produce and livestock. This last issue is one reason why Schlesinger and many of his colleagues buy as many local products as they can.
SCHLESINGER: You're helping support people that are growing some of these antique shell beans that, you know, New England is known for. The Macomber turnip, things like that. So I think chefs can play a very active role in letting people know that there's a value put on local stuff.
VERDE: By supporting local growers in the US and traditional growers worldwide, the collaborative is helping to preserve the genetic variety of various crops and animals threatened by mass-produced seeds and breeds. Then, there's the argument that local food is fresher, and fresher food is simply better for you.
(Sound of kitchen pots)
ADAMS: This is our salad station, and as you can see everything comes in fresh. Fresh greens, fresh basil, fresh mint. Chicory.
VERDE: In the kitchen of Michela's Restaurant in Cambridge, chef Jody Adams supports the collaborative's principles, not only by using local produce but by being selective about the kinds of food she'll serve.
ADAMS: It's good, solid, close to the earth food that hasn't been touched by too much technology, too many pesticides, too many hands basically.
VERDE: Farmers like Steve Verril in Concord, Massachusetts, are benefiting from this industry effort. His fruits and vegetables are grown under an integrated pest management program, or IPM, that uses natural bacterial agents to combat insects as an alternative to chemical pesticides. The popularity of Verril's produce with many Boston-area chefs in the collaborative has helped rescue his farm from going under. Still, IPM farming can be more costly than using chemicals, and Verril has found it difficult to compete outside the relatively limited market of expensive restaurants.
VERRIL: I went into a local chain restaurant to see about selling produce, and talking lettuce in particular. They said sure we'll be happy to buy it from you if you can sell for less than a commissary does. And we can't compete with the lowest price in the market.
VERDE: Yet one of the principal objectives of the chefs' initiative is to convince major consumers - chain restaurants, schools, hospitals and institutions - that people want alternatives to highly-processed foods. And that these foods aren't necessarily cheaper. Old Ways President Dun Gifford.
GIFFORD: You can talk to the treasurers of these large institutions who are into money and costing, and prove to them that it costs more, not necessarily to the institution but to the system as a whole, to raise the strawberries in the central valley of California, put them in a can and ship them to Boston, than it does to buy strawberries locally where you don't have to put them in a can, you don't have to pay for shipping, trucks, insurance, gasoline, road taxes.
VERDE: Chef's Collaborative 2000 is one of several such groups to have organized in recent years. Chefs have spoken out on a variety of relevant issues, from a Federal seafood inspection bill to a movement against genetically engineered foods. Some may question the value of efforts by chefs at trendy restaurants like the Blue Room, but Chris Schlesinger believes that he and his colleagues may be more influential than people realize.
SCHLESINGER: The things that we're doing now are the things that are picked up by the mainstream 5 years from now. You know, Cajun food used to be cutting edge. TexMex was cutting edge. So I think that we're, we can provide a role and set examples, and so we can put the word out.
VERDE: For Living on Earth, I'm Tom Verde.
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CURWOOD: What do you do? Do you seek out locally grown food? And if so, where do you find it? Give us a call on our listener comment line at 1-800-218-9988. That's 1-800-218-9988. Or you can write to us at Living on Earth at Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238. That's Living on Earth at Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238. Transcripts and tapes are $10.
CURWOOD: Hi, Roger.
SWAIN: Good morning. How are you?
CURWOOD: Oh, on a day like today when spring planting's already well underway and the birds are singing, how can I be anything but great?
SWAIN: Kind of makes you wish you could photosynthesize, doesn't it?
CURWOOD: But since he can't, master gardener Roger Swain tends to the photosynthesis of others. He's science editor of Horticulture Magazine, as well as host of the PBS television show Victory Garden. And Swain has a new book entitled Groundwork, in which he lays out some practical and philosophical rules for gardeners.
CURWOOD: We join Roger Swain on a sunny morning on the set of the Victory Garden. It's tucked away behind a private home in the suburbs of Boston, and it does resemble something that you might find in Hollywood: something picture perfect. There is a lush, green, perfectly manicured lawn. The grass is broken up by bright-colored tulips and flowering bushes. In the garden itself, the dominant color is not green, at least not yet, but Swain has big plans for the coming summer months.
SWAIN: We've got rhubarb, we've got asparagus, we've pulled up the parsnips. But it just gets better and better and I, I came to gardening as a big, happy eater. So a far as I'm concerned, you know it's crop after crop and we finish up coming into the fruits in midsummer and the apples and plums and blueberries and that's my idea of hog heaven.
CURWOOD: Through the pearly, or rather wooden gates of hog heaven, you can see the plants are just beginning their climb skyward. Bright green shoots poke from above mounds of chocolate brown soil.
I'm looking around here, Roger. I see that most of your beds are raised. They're up a bit from the ground. Now why is that?
SWAIN: Well you know, the raised bed, Steve, has been around for quite a while. And because it's higher up, it's ready to work earlier. It warms up faster. The water drains out in the spring. but I, I don't think that's the real reason that we use the term raised beds, or rather I think when we use the word raised we should refer to it in the context of a sort of raised in importance, rather than raised in topography. The one thing you're forbidden to do in this garden, Steve, is to ever step on this bed. Because when you step on soil, you compact it. You press it down. And what that does it is it prevents moisture and air and nutrients from getting into it. It really, you know, as we like to say, ecologists like to say that the earth can barely bear the weight of the human foot. Well that's certainly true with these beds.
SWAIN: We never ever step on them.
CURWOOD: This is really rich, dark soil. What -
SWAIN: People tease us on the television show and they say, we've seen you jam your hand down in a foot into the soil without a trowel, and you can see I'm doing it right here, just excavating a hole very easily. There's nothing down there but loose, soft soil. And the secret, as I say, the secret, in addition to never stepping on the soil and never compacting it, is lots and lots of organic matter.
CURWOOD: Mm hm.
SWAIN: Fifty percent of the material here is air space, and the other fifty percent is a mixture of minerals and organic matter. Now the organic matter doesn't make up very many percent, maybe four or five percent. But it's that four or five percent that is extremely important.
CURWOOD: Mm hm.
SWAIN: It is about four or five percent of organic matter, humus, that is feeding a wonderful community of microorganisms. You've got about 5 billion bacteria in a teaspoon.
CURWOOD: Mm hm.
SWAIN: You've got about 20 million fungi. And another million or so protozoa in a single teaspoon.
CURWOOD: Okay. That's quite a crowd.
SWAIN: That's more than we have people on earth by a long, long way. And what those organisms are doing is some very fancy stuff. They're moving nutrients around. They are feeding plants, they're breaking down organic matter. We understand pitifully little about how this works. But it's fancy stuff.
CURWOOD: What can I do at home as a gardener to have this kind of complexity, this richness, in where I grow my tomatoes?
SWAIN: Well you know, every fall, people are cheerfully raking up leaves in their yard, putting them in big plastic bags and putting those big plastic bags out on the curb. And those same people, come spring they go down to the garden center, what do you they buy? Great big plastic bags full of peat moss. You've got great big plastic bags full of organic matter going in opposite directions on the road, passing it. If they'd save all their leaves, if they'd save all their organic matter, there's not such thing as yard waste, Steve.
SWAIN: Let me show you the compost heap over here, and I can show you what's in it.
CURWOOD: What have you got here?
SWAIN: Well we've got a pile of organic matter here that's about 4 foot square, and by the time we're done it will be 4 feet deep. And you can see the cutoff rhubarb leaves and some lily foliage, and some of the cleaning up off the perennial bed. And there's a little bit of everything mixed in there.
CURWOOD: I was reading your book Groundwork, and you said there was a scavenger or a pest who wound up dead in your garden?
SWAIN: Well that was, the question is, the question is, what does one do with dead woodchucks? And I add them to my compost heap. Now I got a letter from a woman who said, "You have so little respect for life that you would put a woodchuck in your compost heap." I said, "Madam, I have so much respect for life that I would put a woodchuck in my compost heap." (Laughter) I want the ingredients of the woodchuck to get back into the ecosystem as soon as possible. So I laid it out with full military honors.
CURWOOD: (Laughs) Okay, now for anyone who's listening to us chat, who's thinking about what they can do, here it is the end of May, go out to their garden and get the soil ready. What are some tips that you give them?
SWAIN: Well you know, the beginning of the year is sort of the beginning of the organic production season. So you may be hard-pressed to find organic matter in the short run, and I give you a special dispensation to go out and buy peat moss this spring, because that's certainly a fine organic amendment. Any deposit, any deposit of decayed leaves, you just ask around the neighborhood. People say to you, what's the best source of organic matter? I say the one that's cheapest and the one that's closest to your garden.
CURWOOD: Now you do use chemicals sometimes, you said.
SWAIN: We do. We do. We use chemical fertilizers, highly soluble fertilizers, sometimes. When we transplant in the spring in cold soils, we use transplant solution, which is high in phosphorous. We use Rote-Known [word?] occasionally for aphids that get on fava beans. We first try to rub them off, and spray them off with water. If that doesn't work we throw a little Rote-Known on. But generally, you only turn to a chemical solution when all of your other techniques have failed.
CURWOOD: Now what is it that got you to this point of view? You know, in writing your book Groundwork you talk about the fact that you were farming in New Hampshire on the land using plenty of chemicals. what changed your mind?
SWAIN: When I started gardening, I was using a 1944 Victory Garden manual put out by a professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey, and he was using, you know, slash slash synthetic, pour it on everything!
CURWOOD: Okay. What happened to your land when you did that?
SWAIN: Things grew like mad. Things were bright green, very very green.
CURWOOD: So why not do it?
SWAIN: The problem was, as everybody discovers, is that for the first few years things are tremendous. And then things go on growing. But as you work the soil, you had your hands in the soil over here, I can assure you that if you had stuck your hands in the soil that I was gardening in 10 years out where I'd applied nothing to that soil but additional soluble nutrients, I'd had a very different feeling. And what was happening was the organic matter was disappearing, and if you lose your organic matter the soil gets cloddier and cloddier. Now that's not a very technical term, cloddy, but you know what I mean. It wads up in great big brick-like lumps. And as it began to get gooier and gooier and gummier and gummier and harder and harder to work, you know a little light bulb went off in my head. And I said, you know, you bozo, you know what you've been doing? You have been neglecting the organic matter. So. I think gardeners grow as surely and as certainly as the plants they tend.
CURWOOD: Thank you very much.
SWAIN: Thank you.
CURWOOD: Roger Swain hosts PBS Victory Garden and his new book is called Groundwork.
(Footfalls and birdsong)
SWAIN: Take a look at this spinach, Steve. This is a neat story, because this spinach wasn't planted this spring. This spinach was planted last fall. Now they've come on strong. And you just take a taste of that and you'll find that's the nicest spinach salad you've ever had.
CURWOOD: Mmm. Mmmm.
SWAIN: Pretty good. Doesn't need any dressing.
CURWOOD: Not at all. You can eat it right off the plant. No spray.
SWAIN: No spray, no nothin'. That is clean spinach.
CURWOOD: That's the best spinach I've had. Thank you.
SWAIN: You're welcome.
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Peter Thomson edits and produces our show. Our coordinating producer is George Homsy, our associate producer is Kim Motylewski, and our director is Debra Stavro. Our production team includes Chris Page, Jan Nunley, Colleen Singer Coxe, Jessika Bella Mura, and engineers Laurie Azaria, Rita Sand, and Keith Shields. Our theme music was composed by Michael Aharon.
Living on Earth is a project of the World Media Foundation, in cooperation with the Public Media Foundation and WBUR, Boston. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.
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