The culmination of their work is the Austin, Texas-based company Lettuce Grow—a subscription-based home hydroponics system.
Here’s how it works. You buy what the company is calling a “farmstand,” which is a vertical hydroponic system, not unlike other products like the Tower Garden. Then you subscribe to a delivery—the packages vary based on size, frequency, and contents—which brings you seedlings. You pop the seedlings in the farmstand, they grow to maturity, you harvest, you eat, a new delivery of seedlings arrives.
The farmstands come in three sizes: small (24 ports, at $399), medium (30 ports, $439), and large (36 ports, $469). The plans cost between $49 and $69 per month, and the company says the setups will yield roughly $78 (small), $102 (medium), and $124 (large) worth of food per month. The farmstand itself is made, the company says, from recycled ocean plastic. As is common for hydroponic setups like this, there are plenty of herbs and greens in the catalog, but there are also eggplants, tomatoes, peppers, and edible flowers.
According to Austin360, the idea is for this system to replace about 20 percent of your monthly food. It’s designed to be as simple as possible: no dirt, no growing seedlings, no leaving the house at all, really. You’ll pay for that convenience—none of this is particularly cheap—but it’s available now, nationwide, and the level of convenience might make this all worthwhile for many.
So far, three lawsuits have been brought against Monsanto (and its newish parent company, Bayer) alleging that Roundup, the company’s brand name for the glyphosate herbicide, causes cancer. The first ended with an $80 million verdict in favor of the plaintiff; the second with $289 million, though that was later reduced to $78 million.
The newest one, brought by a California couple who both developed non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, is in a different league. A jury in Oakland, California ruled that Monsanto owes the couple $2 billion.
Whether Roundup, or many other items, causes cancer is a difficult thing to test; the company has long engaged in efforts to discredit research linking Roundup to cancer, and has recruited scientists to promote the safety of the product, as seen in emails which came to light in a previous trial as well as other reports. The EPA recently affirmed its prior statement that Roundup is not a public health risk.
Monsanto and Bayer have appealed each of the previous two verdicts, and, in a statement, say they will appeal this one as well, writing that they are “disappointed” with the verdict. The statement also says that the plaintiffs had “long histories of illnesses known to be substantial risk factors for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma” and maintains the company’s stance that scientific research has not conclusively shown Roundup to be a cancer-causing agent.
The lawsuit, though, also argued that Monsanto has not adequately tried to discover whether Roundup is indeed carcinogenic, and that the company has not properly warned of the potential risk.
In response, Bayer’s shares dropped to their lowest point in nearly seven years. Most legal sources believe that $2 billion mark will be reduced.
In just two years, Native American activists and local farmers have turned just six pounds of rare Mohawk red bread corn seed from the variety’s last two remaining ears into nearly 2,000 pounds of grain, sparking a remarkable cultural regeneration for the Akwesasne Mohawk tribe of northeastern New York.
Thanks to an innovative seed-saving venture that began in 2017 on a patch of land in Kingston, New York, for the first time in decades, the Akwesasne can eat a much greater variety of their long-established, healthy foods. They can use those seeds in planting and harvesting ceremonies, just as their ancestors did. Seed saving is an ancient practice in which seeds and reproductive matter from plants are saved for future use. In nods to the past and sustainability, seed libraries and seed-saving projects are popping up across the country.
Purposefully named the Native American Seed Sanctuary, this initiative to safeguard and produce seeds to return to the Akwesasne is a collaboration between the tribe, Seedshed, the Hudson Valley Farm Hub and the Indigenous Seed Keepers Network. For Native Americans, it is spiritually meaningful because they believe that seeds are living, breathing beings from whom they are descended. Native Americans also believe in a symbiotic relationship in which the seeds, or seed relatives, take care of them by providing food. In return, they protect the seeds for the future.
“Much of the importance of revitalizing our traditional foodways and bringing back these heritage varieties of seeds is that they are a cornerstone to our cultural identity and our understanding of who we are,” says Rowen White, a Mohawk seed keeper who created the Indigenous Seed Keepers Network. She collected seeds from elders and entrusted Ken Greene, founder of Seedshed, to grow them. “These foods and seeds figure prominently in our cosmology, our creation story and many of our cultural stories,” she explains.
Sunflower seeds by Bekshon / Shutterstock
Greene established the country’s first seed-saving library in Gardiner, New York, and owns the Hudson Valley Seed Company. He believes that, like water, seeds should be treated as a resource that’s available to all, shared and protected. Each year, the Native American Seed Sanctuary grows one variety of corn, eight varieties of beans, two varieties of squash and one variety of sunflower in a “four sisters” configuration to return to the Akwesasne. White calls this seed return “rematriation” instead of the more commonly known term “repatriation” because the work of seeds belongs to women in Native American culture. She describes rematriation as “powerful healing.”
Greene says one of the most emotional parts of the project is the three-day harvest, where he invites the Akwesasne, local farmers, high school students and Mexican migrant farm workers to participate. “Through seed work and handling and conversations that explore historical and current traumas between these groups, there’s a lot of peacemaking and healing that can happen,” he explains.
Greene and White’s references to healing are the underpinning of the project, the painful recall of colonialism and the Trail of Tears, in which Native Americans were forced from their lands. James Beard Award–winning chef Sean Sherman, Oglala Lakota, says that Native Americans hid and sewed seeds in their clothing to protect them. “The European colonial culture had no sense of those really deep connections and stories at all,” he says.
Sherman is on a mission to revitalize and bring awareness to indigenous foods, which began when he sought to understand what his ancestors ate in the late 1800s. In his research, he discovered how unsung indigenous agriculture is, even though these seeds that are now traditional in all corners of the world changed the entire world, he says. “You see corn in its many varieties and all the different kinds of squash, beans, tobacco, sunflowers and amaranth,” he says. “So many beautiful seeds are out there.” His cookbook, The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen, won a James Beard Award last year. In May, he received the group’s leadership award for his work, which includes founding the nonprofit North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems and opening a not-for-profit restaurant and training center called the Indigenous Food Lab in Minneapolis.
Squash by Hong Vo / Shutterstock
Sherman and White serve on the board of Seed Savers Exchange, the country’s largest public-access seed bank. Last year, White forged an ambitious and successful trial partnership, similar to the Native American Seed Sanctuary, between Seed Savers Exchange and her Indigenous Seed Keepers Network to return 25 seed varieties to 11 tribes in New Mexico and the Upper Midwest. Fundraising covered costs, the exchange’s farm grew seeds, and culturally sensitive guidelines, protocols and best practices were developed. More importantly, the tribes retained control of their seeds, many of which are traditional, culturally appropriate and not commercially available. This year, 20 individual varieties will be rematriated to 16 tribes across the country. White expects the effort to grow. The organizations have identified hundreds and even thousands of varieties with tribal origins found in the vaults of public institutions, seed banks, universities, seed keeper collections and elders.
“Rematriation allows Native Americans to produce foods and seeds and gain a true sense of sovereignty,” says Sherman. “This work honors the grand lineage of ancestors who kept these seeds alive despite adversity and challenges,” adds White. “It’s a renewed commitment to make sure that younger generations have them for generations to come.”
But a new study from researchers at the University of Michigan finds that that may not be the case—and serves as a reminder that figuring out what is and what is not bad for the environment is more complicated than it seems.
Meal kit services, from companies including Blue Apron and Plated, send pre-portioned raw ingredients along with recipes. They’re pitched as a way to avoid grocery shopping, spice up your kitchen routine, and provide a home-cooked meal without the stress of, well, planning a home-cooked meal. But those pre-portioned ingredients are often wrapped in plastic, insulated with styrofoam, and chilled with cooling packets, prompting environmental criticism.
The new study traces food in meal kits from farm to table, and actually found that meal kits—they used Blue Apron, though the company did not provide funding for the study—clock in at using a third less greenhouse gas emissions than shopping at the grocery store. How is that possible?
One of the chief benefits of meal kits, and one touted by the companies selling them, is a reduction in food waste: the kits only provide what you’ll need for that recipe, and no more. That has a substantial impact on reducing emissions. But there’s also a lot of transportation stuff involved. Meal kits bypass the entire need for a grocery store—those are pretty bad for emissions—and also, because they’re delivered on trucks along with other mail, eliminate the need for shoppers using personal cars to drive to the store.
It’s worth noting that this study compares meal kits to shopping at traditional supermarkets, rather than, say, farmers markets. It also doesn’t address the fact that meal kit companies are failing at an alarming rate; MarketWatch calls the entire business model “unsustainable.” But the study does serve as a reminder that more goes into your food—including environmental resources—than we might realize at first glance.
Fermentation is having a moment. Whether you just picked up some artisanal kombucha at the farmers’ market or invested in serious cheese-making equipment, chances are, you’ve been bitten by the probiotic bug. Ferment: A Guide to the Ancient Art of Culturing Foods, from Kombucha to Sourdough (Chronicle Books, $29.95), by Australian fermentation doyen Holly Davis, caters to both ends of the spectrum. While most books on the subject focus on either the molecular-science side of things or the very casual let-Mother-Earth-do-her-thing approach, Ferment occupies a happy middle ground. The book starts with the very basic technique of activating nuts and seeds by soaking and sprouting them and ramps up to culturing liquids naturally, pickling fruits and vegetables, baking leavened breads, curing meats and fish and making cheeses. Each chapter is organized from the most basic recipe to the most advanced version. But this isn’t just a textbook; you’ll find creative, modern recipes that make the most of these techniques. I doubt your grandma’s fermentation repertoire included Herb Booch Vinaigrette or Sweet and Sour Tender Ginger.
We love kimchi in this house, and I’ve made a stock-standard spicy cabbage version. But a mild white version? Never! Crisp White Radish Kimchi mixes a paste made from green onions, ginger, garlic, fish sauce, green apple and Asian pear with daikon radish that has been cubed, salted, pressed for an hour and rinsed. Everything is crammed into a scrupulously clean jar and left to ferment on the counter for at least seven days. The result is funky, crunchy kimchi that could take the place of sour dill pickles.
For anyone with even the slightest interest in culturing food, Ferment is worth the investment. Cautious newbies will appreciate Davis’s thorough explanations and calm, guiding voice, while advanced probiotic enthusiasts will discover new things to ferment and more advanced uses for their skills.
Total time: 24 to 72 hours Servings: 8 to 12 sliced thinly // 6 as steaks
Here, the seasoned salt and sugar mixture prevents the meat from oxidizing, while drawing out some moisture and adding flavor. The result is intensely delicious, semi-dried tender beef. The longer the beef is left to cure, the stronger the flavor and drier the texture. It is important to use the best quality of grass-fed sirloin beef you can find for this recipe.
2 lb 4 oz (1 kg) pasture-raised organic beef sirloin
1 ½ tablespoons mixed peppercorns, lightly crushed
8 ½ oz (240 g) coarse sea salt
4 ¼ oz (120 g) maple sugar or light brown muscovado sugar
1 ½ tablespoons fennel seeds
2 chilies, to taste (optional)
Take a very clean nonreactive container in which to cure the meat – a small enamel baking tray works nicely.
Trim the meat of any obvious sinew and most, but not all, of the fat capping. Leave the cap on if you will be searing and serving as steaks.
Combine all the cure ingredients in a bowl.
CURE Sprinkle half of the cure mixture in an even layer over the base of the container or tray and lay the beef on top, then cover with the remaining mixture and rub the cure into the beef, making sure to get it into all the crevices.
Cover the beef with a sheet of parchment paper and weight down using a small plate with additional weight on top, such as a sealed jar filled with water. Place the weighted container in the fridge for 24–72 hours, turning the beef every 6 hours or so. The beef will firm up as it cures and releases liquid.
Remove the beef from the cure, and brush off and discard as much of the cure as possible. Slice into wafer-thin pieces and eat as is or cut into thick slices ready to sear in a hot frying pan. Be sure to sear the fat cap well too, and don’t overcook the steaks.
White Kimchi Paste
Total time: 10 minutes Servings: 1 3⁄4 CUPS (450 G)
1 bunch green onions (scallions)
1⁄4 cup (30 g) chopped ginger
6–8 garlic cloves, peeled
1 small green apple, peeled and cored
1 medium Asian pear, peeled and cored
4 tablespoons fish sauce (see note)
Roughly chop the whites of the green onions and add to the bowl of a food processor or blender (save the greens for using in another recipe). Blitz all the kimchi ingredients together to make a smooth paste. Use right away, or ferment and store as above.
Note: In place of fish sauce, you can use the same quantity of fermented shrimp (saeu-jeot), or if making vegan kimchi, use 2 tablespoons sea salt.
Crisp White Radish Kimchi
Total time: 7 to 30 days Servings: 6 cup (1.5 L) jar
When juicy and crunchy are what you seek, reach for a jar of this. Serve it in large chunks, or cut it to suit the dish it is accompanying. The green onions lose their color as the mix ferments, so you might prefer to use only the white part. These are quite white and gorgeous when made with the white kimchi paste.
1 large Korean or daikon radish, peeled and cut into 1 in (2.5 cm) dice
2 tablespoons sea salt
1⁄2 bunch green onions (scallions), cut into 1 in (2.5 cm) lengths
1 recipe red or white kimchi paste
Put the radish and salt in a large bowl and combine. Use your hands to massage the salt into the radish, then place 2–3 plates on top as a weight (this will help draw out the moisture from the radish). Let sit for 1 hour.
Drain the liquid into a jar for later use in vegetable juices or soups. Rinse the radish in cold water and drain well. Return the radish to the bowl, add the green onions and the red or white kimchi paste, then massage the paste into the radish.
CAPTURE Fill a very clean jar with the radish and use your clean fist or a pestle to push out as much air as you can. Seal the jar with the lid and leave in a cool place to ferment for 7–30 days. Taste after day 7 and refrigerate when you are happy with the strength of flavor. Once in the fridge, this will keep for up to 12 months.
FreshDirect, Amazon Prime Now, ShopRite, and many more services provide grocery delivery to those who purchase their food online. Shoppers like these services; online grocery sales are expected to quadruple over the next five years, according to some surveys.
But there’s one important demographic that can benefit from these services and, until now, had no access to them. About 43 million Americans use the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, better known as food stamps. The USDA announced this week that SNAP is rolling out a pilot program—first in New York, quickly expanding to other states—allowing SNAP benefits to be used for online groceries.
The first three partners for SNAP online shopping are Walmart, Amazon, and ShopRite. Amazon’s Prime Now grocery delivery has previously been available only to those who subscribe to the $119 per year Amazon Prime subscription, but the company will be waiving that requirement for those using SNAP. The USDA also noted that more companies will be joining shortly—and why wouldn’t they? This is a huge new market to tap.
This addition could be easily written off as a benefit to the huge corporations who can currently handle the low profit margins of grocery delivery, or some kind of technocratic gesture. But it actually could serve a meaningful benefit to those using SNAP. The vast majority of SNAP recipients work—74 percent worked either in the month they used SNAP, or in the year surrounding that month—but usually in low-paying, unstable jobs. These jobs are often demanding in terms of hours, and making a trip to a grocery store can eat up valuable time that people just don’t have.
Another issue is actually being able to get groceries. SNAP recipients are far more likely than non-SNAP recipients to live in a “food desert,” an area without places nearby to get fresh produce. Delivery services, with orders placed online, could be an outsized help in some of these cases—not all, but some.
The downside here is that online delivery is often significantly more expensive than going to a grocery store, and that the SNAP benefits don’t cover service or delivery fees, which are usually around $7 to $10. Ideally those fees would be waived, and even more ideally, food prices would be subsidized, but, you know, nothing’s perfect.
Food gardens can be beautiful — a cherry tree in full bloom, the mesmerizing foliage of trout back lettuce — but purely ornamental gardens can also be edible. You might be surprised at how many of the plants in your flower border have distinct culinary properties.
Sauté the unopened flower buds in salt and oil and serve as hors d’oeuvres or pickle them. Enjoy the open flowers fresh in salads or dried and stirred into soups. The tubers can be prepared as you would potatoes and turnips. Even the leaves are tender and tasty, but only in spring, when they’re just emerging from the ground. Make sure you know how to identify the plant — some types of true lilies (which daylilies resemble but are not related to) are highly toxic.
All dogwoods bear brightly colored berries, and some are edible. Cornelian cherry dogwood (Cornus mas) bears small red fruit that tastes like tart cherry and is commonly consumed in Turkey, among other countries, often as preserves or as a flavoring for drinks. Kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa) bears round red fruit that is sweet enough to be eaten fresh. Berries on other dogwoods aren’t toxic (at worst, they will give you a stomachache), but they aren’t tasty.
This distant relative of asparagus is considered a delicacy in some Asian countries. The leaf shoots are tender when they emerge from the ground in spring and can be served raw in salads or as a steamed vegetable. Later in the season, they can be a bit tough, but they are still edible when cooked thoroughly in a soup or stew. The elegant white flowers of hostas are also edible.
Viola flowers, which include both pansies and violets, have a slightly sweet flavor and make an attractive addition to salads and deserts. Their foliage is also edible, raw or cooked. They’re most tender in spring, and some species are tastier than others, so be sure to experiment.
These stunning pendulous flowers, often seen in hanging baskets, are totally edible, as is the fruit that follows them. Fuchsia produces an elongated berry that’s midway in size between a blueberry and a grape. The flavor varies depending on the variety, but some are quite tasty. Eat them fresh or blend them in smoothies and desserts.
Professor-turned-farmer Michael Foley takes Throwback Thursday seriously. He believes farmers and eaters need to look to history and tradition for methods and technologies that will work in the face of climate change. We talked with Foley about his School of Adaptive Agriculture and his new book, Farming for the Long Haul: Resilience and the Lost Art of Agricultural Inventiveness.
Modern Farmer: What was the inspiration for your book?
Michael Foley: Well, it was twofold. First of all, when I started school, I gave a class called The People’s History of Agriculture. I realized that I’d been reading about this for 50 years and had all this material I needed to share. Secondly, there was the unsatisfactory advice that young farmers get: “Scale up, be profitable, borrow.” That’s a formula for failure. We forget our history as soon as it’s over. No one remembers the farm crisis of the ’80s, except for a few aging rock stars.
Modern Farmer: You emphasize subsistence farming, a concept associated with a hardscrabble life. Is this how we’ve been trained to think of it versus farming for production?
M.F.: It is. Part of that comes from the idea that farmers have to feed a lot of people. If you aren’t doing that, then you aren’t helping. Historically, traditional farmers always produced for themselves and were more than just scraping by. There were years when food was short, and often that came from focusing on a single crop or extractions by the larger economy.
Modern Farmer: You write that community is as vital as soil for our future. This contradicts everything from Red Dawn to Game of Thrones.
M.F.: Farming is not an individual endeavor. I recently read the Laura Ingalls Wilder biography and, when they moved, their family was either there or close behind and a community built up. The reality of the American frontier is that people traveled together and relied on one another.
Shortly after the fires in California, a shelter was organized and La Grange set up a center where people could rest and meet with the FEMA rep. Community is becoming important in our thinking about how to meet challenges. It also has an everyday importance for farmers. We rely on neighbors, customers, other vendors and merchants.
Modern Farmer: What are the first steps that farmers and consumers can take for the long haul?
M.F.: I think everyone needs to take the challenge of resilience more seriously. We aren’t as experimental and inventive as we should be. We also need to think about plastic. What will you do if you don’t have it?
Consumers have to support their local farm economy. Join CSAs and shop at farmers’ markets because local farmers need to make it now so that they’re there for the long haul.
Modern Farmer: What do you think the future tables of America will look like?
M.F.: I think there will be better tables. Food will be fresher and more delicious because it won’t travel a long time. Food will be more regional, diverse and seasonal.
But lawns in the Southeast–everywhere, really–also have a pest that can dampen even the finest, greenest, Hank-Hill-approved lawn. The fall armyworm, the larval stage of a big ugly moth, attacks lawns and crops in the Southeast starting in the late summer. It’s a major pest, but a new study may have a partial solution.
The most common grass for turf and lawns in the Southeast is St. Augustine grass, a thick and broad variety of grass that forms a dense, almost carpet-like layer. There are a bunch of different varieties of St. Augustine grass, and researchers at the University of Florida and the USDA wanted to figure out which of them was best at repelling, or at least not harboring, the fall armyworm.
What they found was that all varieties of St. Augustine grass are basically equal in terms of how big a problem fall armyworms can be. Not super helpful! But they also tried something else: planting multiple varieties of St. Augustine grass.
It turns out that the fall armyworm much prefers single-variety lawns. In a small plot, the fall armyworms devoured 52 percent of these single-origin St. Augustine grass lawns. But up to four different varieties of St. Augustine grass, and the worms found the smorgasbord not to their liking, eating only 40 percent of this mixed lawn.
The researchers are careful to note that the idea of mixing varieties of plants wouldn’t necessarily discourage all pests; this isn’t a blanket statement. But it is a starting point, and actually a pretty common use case. St. Augustine grass is the most common type of grass found in the Southeast, and the fall armyworm one of the most important pests in the same region. It’s pretty likely that you or someone you know, provided you live in that region, could benefit from this advice. So why not mix it up this year?
Most gardeners accumulate a cornucopia of partially used seed packets. After all, who’s going to plant 500 lettuce seeds? After a few years, the germination rate drops significantly after the expiration date and you end up buying new packets. A “chaos garden” is the lazy person’s way to use up those old seeds that may or may not still be viable.
The basic idea: Mix the seeds in a bowl, scatter in loose soil and then sit back and see what happens. Here are a few tips to maximize your success. You might find that you end up with far more produce for the effort invested than if you took the time to form perfect beds and plant everything in tidy rows.
Step 1: Prepare the planting area
The point here is to be lazy, so don’t wear yourself out digging up every last weed and forking in tons of compost. If some seeds don’t like the growing conditions, that’s fine. As long as you start with soil that’s somewhat loose and bare on the surface, some will sprout and take root. Consider it a game of survival of the fittest.
Step 2: Sort and plant
You’ll have better luck if you plant the larger seeds (corn, beans, squash, melons) first. Scatter them on the surface and cover them with half an inch of soil. Scatter the smaller seeds (greens, tomatoes, peppers, root crops) on top of that and cover with another quarter inch of soil. Running a rake back and forth through the soil after each layer will help distribute the seeds evenly. Don’t hesitate to add flower seeds to the mix.
Step 3: Play Mother Nature’s helper
Regular watering will ensure optimal germination. Alternatively, take your chances with the rain and see what happens. If Mother Nature cooperates, you’ll soon have a tiny jungle of seedlings. Thin out some of the baby greens for salads (seedlings of beets, radishes and most other root crops are also edible), spacing them out enough to allow the rest to mature to full head size. Taller crops, such as tomatoes and cucumbers, can be trellised up, leaving smaller crops to grow at their base.
Or, you can let everything sprawl in a self-sorting tangle. You may be surprised at how well some crops share space. Many of the smaller, less vigorous plants will get crowded out as the season progresses, but that’s OK — the point of a chaos garden is to labor as little as possible for maximum harvest.