Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

ESA 2010 Day 1 (August 1st)

Posted 01 Aug 2010 / 0

I began the 2010 ESA annual meeting with a Sunday field trip. In the past these field trips seemed like a luxury due to their expense in terms of money and time, but with my wife Teresa accompanying me to the meeting I figured that we should give the field trip concept a chance. Far from being too costly, our field trip (Urban agriculture in action: Greening blighted land and revitalizing communities) was both educational and inspirational. It was also a wonderful opportunity to get to know some fellow ESA members.

The Jamison Farm office, located in one of the barns

Our first stop was at Jamison Farm, located about 40 miles outside of the city of Pittsburgh in Latrobe, PA. Run by John and Sukey Jamison, the farm sells high-quality lamb to high-end restaurants throughout the northeast. During our visit to the farm, which was primarily narrated by John, we got a view into the agricultural and economic model that has made the Jamison Farm so successful. On the agricultural front, the Jamisons have relied on rotational grazing to restore topsoil lost during earlier periods of coal mining in the area. Because sheep preferentially graze dominant grasses, they facilitate the growth of nitrogen-fixing clover in recently-grazed areas, allowing for the restoration of the topsoil through a cycle of grazing, manure fertilization, and rest. Years of rotational grazing have allowed the farm to build up valuable topsoil and avoid reliance on chemical fertilizers. This technique has been so successful that they no longer need to use it.

John also discussed at length his economic model and the challenges of being a livestock producer in a national industry dominated by large industrial operations like Tyson and Cargill. According to John, many of the rules for distributing meat to the consumer are written for large, industrial producers and make it very hard to small producers to compete. Early on the Jamisons experimented with direct-to-the-consumer sales, but upon deliver of a lamb to a famous French-trained chef they quickly discovered their niche in the fancy restaurant business. While this makes sense, it is also sad, because it suggests that there is only so much economic space for farmers who use the sustainable practices advocated by the Jamisons. In order for the successes of the Jamison Farm to be scaled up, one of two things need to happen: the rules and subsidies need to be changed to favor smaller farmers, or more people need to pay more for sustainably-produced meat.

The view from the front gate of the Braddock Farm, with a steel refinery and a rollercoaster in the background

Our next stop was at Braddock Farms. Although Pittsburgh-proper occupies a relatively small footprint, it is also surrounded by a number of small cities that function as near-suburbs, and Braddock is one of them. Hard-hit by the decline of the steel industry, formerly-industrial Braddock almost ceased to be as nearly 90% of its population fled economic disaster. Braddock Farms represents one of many attempts to reclaim a sustainable community from the ashes of its industrial past. This past is still abundantly apparent in the both the foreground and the background of this urban farm, which was built on land that used to house large industrial buildings. At Braddock Farms we got our first taste of “Pittsburgh brick soil”, a common substrate that resulted from the previously-common practice of razing buildings and filling in their foundations with the resulting rubble (this practice is apparently no longer legal). In the background one of the remaining steel refineries continues to chug away.

Grow Pittsburgh's presence at the Braddock Farm

Braddock Farms is operated by a local non-profit called Grow Pittsburgh. Farm director Marshall Hart gave us an overview of the expanding urban farm, which is composed of a small growhouse and a series of raised beds. Because underlying soil is reclaimed, some amount of topsoil needed to be imported. Luckily this underlying soil does not seem to be an appreciable source of toxic materials: regular testing of the vegetables produced on the farms ensures that lead or other common industrials toxins are not leaking into the food. Marshall actually indicated that air quality — specifically slag dust from local truck traffic — was a larger pollution problem than the soil itself. Lush and filled with beautiful vegetables, the farm is currently experimenting with different agricultural methods in an effort to optimize the use of limited acreage. Next to the existing farm a new site was home to rows of new topsoil, an alternative approach to the more expensive raised beds.

Marshall Hart explains the mission of the Braddock Farm

When you bring a busload of ecologists to a farm you can bet that there will be a lot of questions (and maybe even some suggestions), and Braddock Farms seemed to peak the interest of our group. Several people were curious about what the main goals of the farm were. Is it a kind of lab for furthering the technologies used in urban gardens? Is it an attempt to grow and distribute local food? Is it just a more beautiful presence in the otherwise run-down, mostly-abandoned landscape of Braddock? I think the answer is a bit of all of these, although upon discussion it became pretty clear that there were some pretty big obstacles preventing such farms from having a huge impact.

The first obstacle is space: even at its expanded size of 1.5 acres, Braddock Farms is not going to be able to produce a lot of food, and the cost of this food is going to be high due to the labor-intensive methods required to convert urban space into farm space. The second obstacle is cultural: although some community members have embraced the space and the farm maintains a robust summer youth internship program, the community as a whole has not been fully converted to the ideals of the farm. Perhaps this is a bit much to expect in so short a time (the farm opened in 2007), but the lack of a larger community buy-in speaks to the cultural challenges that accompany the many technical obstacles facing any program aimed at building sustainable communities. Braddock Farms seems to be well on its way towards meeting its realistic goals of motivating community members to grow their own food (by offering on-the-farm training), providing fresh food where there was none (through a weekly farmstand), and revitalizing Braddock (by converting an ugly post-industrial site into a vibrant farm).

The cool sign outside the very cool Fossil Free Business garage

Down the road from the farm is the industrial space of Fossil Free Fuel, another landmark sustainable project located in Braddock. David Rosenstraus showed us around the space that houses two major projects: a waste oil processing and distribution center and a garage that converts diesel vehicles to run on waste oil (technically another business called Optimus Technologies). The place has the look of some kind of mad science laboratory: tremendous storage tanks connected by massive hoses hold large volumes of waste oil reclaimed from local restaurants. This waste oil is converted into working fuel by first allowing particulate matter to settle, then heating it to remove water, and finally filtering it. Stored in a large-capacity tank, the oil is then ready for customers to purchase at about a dollar less per gallon than the going rate for fossil-fuel-based diesel. Oil converted in this manner is technically not biodiesel, because at colder temperatures it is highly viscous. Creating biodiesel involves chemically lowering the viscosity of the oil, a process which is more costly and produces waste chemicals. The advantage of biodiesel is that it can be used as-is in a normal diesel engine. If you want to run the more viscous oil produced by Fossil Free Fuel, you need to convert your engine and fuel system to accommodate this fuel source. Optimus Technologies accomplishes this conversion through a two-tank hybrid system which uses conventional diesel to initially heat up the system and then automatically switches to the vegetable oil once temperatures sufficient to thin the oil are reached within the engine.

The storage tank for processed vegetable oil at Fossil Free Fuel

What’s so neat about this means of powering vehicles is that grease reclamation is a win-win-win for all involved. Restaurants receive a free recycling service as Fossil Free Fuel removes their waste oil, Fossil Free Fuel creates a revenue stream from the conversion process, and drivers get a cheaper and more sustainable means of fueling their vehicles. What is interesting is the interest of local businesses, including prominent supermarket chains, in the switch to vegetable oil fuel systems. Fossil Free Fuels has mainstreamed the technology to the point that they are now contracting to convert the fleets of major corporations as well as intrepid private individuals.

David Rosenstraus explains how Fossil Free Fuel enables its customers to enjoy the benefits of running their car on reclaimed vegetable oil

About the only criticism that can be leveled against the “grease car” movement is that it is not a complete solution to our transportation problems. Most cars run on gasoline rather than diesel, and even if every vat of french fry oil in the country was reclaimed, only a fraction of the existing diesel usage would be switched over to this sustainable source. This criticism does not hold much weight with me because I do not believe any single solution will lead to a sustainable society. So long as there is waste oil, any diversion of consumption to this sustainable energy source is of value, and we ought not to eliminate a solution from our sustainability portfolio simply because it is not a total solution.

Mindi Swartz of Garden Dreams describes her seedling-growing operation

Leaving Braddock, we headed over to the nearby city of Wilkinsburgh to check out the Garden Dreams Urban Farm & Nursery. We got to meet the farm’s founder, Mindi Swartz, who gave us a tour and described the history of the project. Like Braddock, Wilkinsburgh is a formerly bustling city that went bust as industry collapsed. Massive homes went abandoned and began to decay, and the city was blighted by these neglected buildings. Eighteen years ago Swartz bought a large multi-family brick building in Wilkinsburgh that was surrounded by abandoned lots. Using a law that allows property owners to buy adjacent land that is neglected for next to nothing, Swartz began to establish ownership of several lots. Like the Braddock Farm space, these were “plowed in” lots filled with bricks, so when she decided that she wanted to grow on them she need to get leaf mulch from the local borough to improve the soil. Initially she grew produce, but quickly learned that this could not garner the revenue necessary to make the project economically sustainable. What turned out to be the right economic model was to make the farm a kind of laboratory for growing heirloom tomatoes and to sell seedlings that are started in the basement of the building that she owns. The 104 varieties of tomatoes that she offers have increased the biodiversity of local gardens; because the farm also inoculates each seedling with mycorrhizae, Swartz also figures that she has revitalized local soil by helping to repopulate it with this mutualistic fungus.

The basement at Garden Dreams, where seedlings start

Swartz’s operation is impressive for its beauty, its impact, and its practical nature. She calls what she does “social capitalism”, which she defines as a business that pays a living wage and uses consensus as a means of making decisions. What I found most impressive was the fact that she had created a viable business using the resources left behind when the mainstream economic system packed up and left Wilkinsburgh. Under Swartz’s vision, the two decaying buildings that flank Green Dreams are an opportunity to expand the farm and create a community center (two projects that are underway) rather than an eyesore. Interestingly, the model that seems to work for Swartz is not to rely solely on Garden Dreams as a revenue stream: she also is the technology expert at Construction Junction, a local non-profit that facilitates the redistribution of excess construction materials. She employs Bob Madden, who also provided a tour of the operation, as farm manager, rather than focusing exclusively on running the farm. Given that burn-out is big obstacle to keeping this kind of do-it-yourself operation growing, Swartz’s partial employment elsewhere probably adds to the sustainability of Green Dreams as a project. After having spent half an hour with Swartz, I also suspect that she has the ability to work twice as hard as most other people.

The Garden Dreams urban farm, with the building that will someday house their community center in the background

Perhaps the most interesting and challenging stop on our trip was to an abandoned lot adopted by GTECH Strategies, a non-profit dedicated to converting Pittsburgh’s many empty lots into places of beauty and ecological value. GTECH’s mission seems clear enough: with so many abandoned buildings decaying into the ground and eventually being razed, the resulting empty lots set up a lot of potential for neighborhood improvement. As explained by Maureen “Mo” Copeland of GTECH, landowners must perform routine maintenance of the lots, and GTECH offers to provide this service. In the lot we saw just a block away from the Garden Dreams Urban Farm, GTECH had planted a field of sunflowers. The field was filled with a variety of bee species and created a pretty striking contrast with the collapsing building next-door.

One of GTECH Strategies' fields of sunflowers sited on a vacant lot

These sunflowers were undeniably beautiful, but beyond their beauty were some questions demanding quantitative answers. GTECH claims that the seeds can be harvested for biodiesel, but based on what we learned at Fossil Free Fuel, the realizable yields on such plantings are pretty low. Will GTECH be out in these lots soon to harvest the seeds? How much carbon emission will be generated in this harvesting process? Another claim made by GTECH is that the sunflowers sequester carbon and heavy metals found in the often-toxic soils of abandoned lots. This seems reasonable enough, and sunflowers do have impressively fast growth and biomass accumulation considering how easy they are to grow. But I began to wonder: where will all this sequestered carbon and heavy metal be stored? Will the sunflowers be harvested and used for fuel? If so, what happens to the heavy metals when the biomass is used for fuel? If the sunflowers just end up composting in these lots, are we really sequestering appreciable amounts of carbon or removing heavy metals? GTECH seems to be striving to beautify the neighborhoods in which they work, and perhaps this alone is an admirable goal, but the dilemmas raised by even the seemingly-simple plan of planting sunflowers show how thin the line between green dreams and realized sustainability can be.

The beautiful Victorian greenhouse at Frick, where Grow Pittsburgh produces vegetables and herbs for local distribution

Our last stop was at the Frick Art and Historical Center, where we got to check out a second Grow Pittsburgh project housed in the Victorian-era greenhouse located on the grounds. Susanna Meyer of Grow Pittsburgh provided a tour of the building, which houses vegetables and herbs that are used in the Frick’s restaurant and cafe as well as several local restaurants and food banks.

A tremendous amount of credit should go to Tara Pisani Gareau, a post-doc at Penn State University who organized the entire field trip and provided participants with a fabulous descriptive itinerary. Although this was my first ESA field trip, I am guessing that the standard set by Tara was very high, and I wouldn’t even be disappointed if future field trips were half as valuable. Thanks to Tara and all the folks who hosted our visits!

The view from the audience during the opening plenary

Upon returning to the convention center, I attended the first plenary session. Appropriately, current ESA  president Mary Power gave the Regional Policy Award to Braddock mayor John Fetterman. Fetterman spoke briefly about Braddock’s history and his efforts to realize social justice through environmental justice by initiating a series of “green projects”.

The first plenary was entitled “Environmental disasters in the US: exploring our reactive mode”. Panelists included David Dzombak and Baruch Fischhoff of Carnegie Mellon University, Robert Twilley of Louisiana State University, and David Lodge of Notre Dame. Dzomback spoke about the Environmental Protection Agency’s reaction to chemical and biological hazards posed by the inundation that accompanied Hurricane Katrina, noting how ad hoc the EPA response had to be due to lack of proper planning for such a disaster. Lodge echoed these themes in his discussion of the problem of invasive species dispersal within the Saint Lawrence and Mississippi watersheds in Illinois, where poor planning has allowed for continued spread. Lodge suggested that the fundamental problem was an “asymmetry in the concentration of risk”, wherein the small number of people involved importing and spreading invasive species have much more to gain than the average citizen has to lose. Twilley returned to the Gulf Coast region and discussed the fact that our levee system has been diagnosed by scientists as risky for more than one hundred years and yet we only consider making changes to these massive environmental projects when they fail. Fischhoff, a psychologist whose expertise is in how humans make decisions, discussed the challenges associated with fostering sustained political change.

I liked the idea of a panel kicking off the meeting, and the topic selected was apropos, but I was not blown away by the solutions they provided. The panel mostly pointed out some pretty well-known obstacles to enacting sustainable social practices: people generally take a short-term perspective when making decisions, stakeholders with local interest (often profit-driven) generally trump the interests of more abundant but dispersed stakeholders, and science is rarely used by politicians to concoct policy. Based on the content presented in this plenary, it is not entirely clear what professional ecologists can do to overcome these obstacles to proactive planning and help to prevent environmental disasters.

I was able to attend this meeting thanks in part to funding from the Pratt Institute Faculty Development Fund.

Conferences, Ecological Society of America, Ecology

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