Science, Uncategorized

We’re Teaching Kids the Wrong Ways to Fight Climate Change

Originally published in Sierra.

When Seth Wynes was teaching high school science in Canada, there was one question his students asked him that he had trouble answering: What can I do to stop climate change? The existence of climate change was an unpleasant surprise for many of them—they had grown up hearing adults talk about things like peak oil in doom-laden tones, so the news that humans would trash the atmosphere before they even reached peak oil filled them with alarm. They wanted to do something.

Wynes had a few ideas that he felt were good: Bike more. Take transit. Eat less meat. Change your lightbulbs. Recycle. But it bothered him that he didn’t really know how effective those solutions were. It bothered him even more that nobody else seemed to know either.

Wynes decided to go back to school. This time, he focused on climate change. He chose Lund University in Sweden so that he could study climate change in a country that not only believed climate change was real but was actively trying to fix it. With the help of Kimberly Nicholas, one of his professors at Lund, Wynes sought out and analyzed research quantifying the effects that lone, individual actions could have on carbon emissions. He spent long nights with research papers like “Electricity and Water Consumption for Laundry Washing by Washing Machine Worldwide” and “Finding Your Dog’s Ecological ‘Pawprint’: A Hybrid EIO-LCA of Dog Food Manufacturing.”

Months later, Wynes and Nicholas had the list his high school teacher self had always wanted: 12 individual actions, ranked in order of effectiveness and whenever possible, in effectiveness by country. For example, an American or an Australian who gave up their car saved much more in terms of emissions than a resident of Great Britain did, because residents of the United States and Australia drove so much more to begin with. In all three countries, there was one action whose effect towered over the others: Have one fewer child.

Illustration courtesy of Seth Wynes and Kimberly Nicholas, 2017, Environmental Research Letters

The 12 actions weren’t the only lifestyle choices that Wynes and Nicholas studied—just the ones that held up to mathematical analysis. Composting fell by the wayside after Wynes couldn’t find a paper rigorous enough to cite. Dog ownership was deemed similarly complicated after Wynes and Nicholas only found two papers with opposite verdicts, though they both felt safe concluding that smaller dogs were better than large ones. The math around green energy got hazy in European countries because of a problem with double-counting in some areas, but was clear-cut enough in areas with carbon-heavy electrical grids like North America and Australia to merit inclusion.

Then Wynes began comparing their resesarch to climate-related documents aimed at teenagers and adults in the three most high-emitting countries on the list: Canada, Australia, and the United States. He wanted to know—were the actions on his list the same as the actions these documents recommended?

They were not, as Wynes and Nicholas reveal in a paper that was published this week in the journal Environmental Research Letters. The most high-impact actions on his list, like living without a car, avoiding transatlantic flights, and eating a plant-based diet were often ignored entirely in educational climate change materials, which favored less-effective actions like recycling and using more energy-efficient lightbulbs. Government documents for Australia, the United States, and Canada all recommended driving more energy-efficient cars, but only one country—Australia—suggested living without a car at all, even though doing so had a cascading effect on emissions by keeping people within densely populated areas, where the structure of the city kept per-capita energy use at half the level of people living in single-family detached suburban housing.

Wynes combed through 10 Canadian high school textbooks used by 80 percent of Canadian teenagers (the sheer number of American high school textbooks kept him from doing the same here, but he encourages anyone else to do so). He found 216 individual recommended actions to mitigate climate change, and a similar focus on changes with moderate impact on the climate, as opposed to those with a higher impact. Eating a plant-based diet was presented as roughly equivalent to eating less meat, even though a completely plant-based diet can be 2 to 4.7 times more effective at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Driving more efficiently was mentioned almost 30 times, but living without a car entirely was mentioned only six times. Out of the 216 recommended actions, only eight were ones that made Wynes’s and Nicholas’s top four.

The single most important thing that an individual could do—have one fewer child than intended—was not mentioned at all. On one level, this is easier to understand—several countries have a tradition of relying on an expanding birth rate as a way to subsidize the retirement of its older citizens. Systematic attempts to reduce birth rates in many countries have a history of being applied selectively, in ways that can only be described as racist and classist. But still, a concerned teenager might want to know that a U.S. family choosing to have one fewer child than they originally intended would, as Wynes and Nicholas put it, “provide the same level of emissions reductions as 684 teenagers who choose to adopt comprehensive recycling for the rest of their lives.”

When I asked Wynes about why he thought publications aimed at teenagers had such a strong emphasis on climate actions with only moderate impact, he hesitated, then hypothesized that the problem might be hope. Specifically, the hope that new technology would be the solution to this new, energy-related problem, the way that the Green Revolution was a solution to the limitations of agriculture, or the way that the catalytic converter cut urban air pollution. Only one of the four most-effective options—buying energy from renewable sources—requires the kind of technolgical innovation that has gotten us out of environmental pinches in the past. We already have the technology to have fewer children and to get around using fewer cars. Many short-distance air routes could be replaced with high-speed rail, and the knowledge to make that work well has been around since the 1970s.

Whether or not the kids are learning it in school, we may already be living in a world where expectations are adjusting. In the United States, the percentage of 20-somethings with driver’s licenses has fallen by 13 percent over the past three decades, and they prefer to live in cities, even if they can’t afford to live there. Even if young people do eventually buy cars and move out to the suburbs as they get older, by driving less now they’ve reduced the pollution they’ve contributed to in their lifetime.

In my years writing about climate and the environment, I’ve seen a lot of what Wynes’s and Nicholas’s paper describes. I have been told by scientific papers to buy a more-fuel-efficient car, as though the existence of people like myself who have never owned a car in the first place does not exist. I have seen teenagers being told they can fight climate change by shopping at thrift stores and taking shorter showers. As a communication strategy, it felt a bit off—teenagers as I know them are idealistic and intense, more comfortable at making dramatic statements and life changes than most adults are.

What would they do if they knew the whole truth about this troposphere we’re handing off to them? I eagerly await that study.


The Messy Tale of the Dog Poop Lamp

Originally published at Grist.

Matthew Mazzotta was in Vermont, visiting his friend Guy Roberts. At some point, as you do, he and the friend got onto the subject of what the hell his friend was doing in Vermont.

“I’m working on a scalable methane digester with parts that clip together and scale up depending on how many cows you have,” said Guy. “It makes free energy.”

“That’s impossible,” said Mazzotta.

“No it’s not,” said Guy. “The little microbes in the manure breathe out methane. It’s naturally occurring.”

Both parts of this conversation are being acted out for me by Mazzotta, while we both sit at the studio he’s working out of during a residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts in Marin County, Calif. It was a moment that set Mazzotta on a fateful course.

“It wasn’t until further down the road that I realized that it had this environmental element to it — that if you burn methane it separates from the carbon dioxide and turns into water,” he said. “So basically it came down to free energy and it was good for the environment. I was shocked. It could not be so.”

Mazzotta_Park_Spark_Diagram2Here’s how I first heard of Mazzotta: In 2010, I was working as a city reporter in San Francisco. My editor assigned me to write a few stories about poop in the city. It didn’t so much matter what I wrote about it, as long as I wrote something. It was, she was convinced, reliable traffic bait — like murder, or parking.

So I began looking into this poop and the city beat. I researched people pooping on the sidewalk. (Only illegal since 2002!) I interviewed an idealistic maker of public composting toilets. And I found a great poop mystery: a plan, circa 2006, to collect dog waste at city parks and convert it into energy, that first was much-hyped, and then vanished.

The concept raised an important question: For centuries, cities have dealt with poop by asking “How do we get this waste safely AWAY from our city as far and as quickly as possible?” While the underpinnings of this idea have been called into question in this age of sustainability and energy awareness, there’s been precious little actual experience on the ground with alternatives.

This was a project that seemed tailor-made to assuage the collective guilt of San Francisco — a city notorious for having more dogs than children, a city where 3.8 percent of residential trash collection falls under the category of “animal waste,” and a city that likes to do weird things and then brag about them later. Also: a city with a goal of producing zero waste by 2020.

But it never happened. Nada. It was never formally canceled. It just faded until it was gone, like so many California dreams.

Then I heard something else: The same project had been attempted on the East Coast, in Cambridge, Mass., and there, it actually happened. The secret? Mazzotta pitched it, not as an environmental improvement, or an expression of civic virtue, but as an art project. Maybe art could be the secret weapon that got America over its poop fears.

Matthew Mazzotta


At the time, Mazzotta was making art that encouraged people to hang out with each other in public spaces. He collaborated on a bicycle-powered bus project whose final form was part centipede, part longboat. He disguised a binocular-enabled people-watching station as a utility box, and built and hid an entire folding teahouse inside a loading dock (not well enough — the teahouse was eventually stolen).

Matthew Mazzotta

One day in 2009, walking down the street in Cambridge, where he was finishing a graduate degree in art at MIT, he passed a dog park surrounded by trash cans heaped with poop bags. He’d just been in India on a research trip; in the houses he’d seen there, residents cooked on burners powered by the methane generated by cow dung. So at that moment, to him, the trash cans weren’t just trash cans — they were a waste of something that could be incredibly useful.

Mazzotta did some research, found an article about San Francisco’s dog-waste power plan, and got in touch with Will Brinton, an environmental scientist who had consulted on the project. Brinton told him why the project had never been built: too much red tape. Who was going to maintain it? If it produced energy, did it need to be classified as a business? “The idea is there,” Brinton told Mazzota. “But no one can do it.” Also, there was no glory in it, science-wise — no possibility for publication or greater renown. The technology was too simple.

“I want to do it as an art project,” Mazzotta said.

“That might just work,” said Brinton.


The two met up in Maine and began working on a prototype — a simple metal drum with a lamp attached via a gas valve. They filled it with manure from a nearby cow pasture and left it overnight for the methane to build up.

When Mazzotta came back the next morning, the gas pressure had busted the drum open. They glued the contraption back together. The next time he went out to light the lamp, it worked. “I’m showing it to everybody,” Mazzotta recalls thinking. “You see that light in the field? That’s cow shit!”

Mazzotta went to Cambridge Park & Recreation to talk permits. Nice idea, said Park & Rec. But no way. Playing with methane was the kind of thing people should do on the farm — not in the big city. Mazzotta explained that the whole point was to build a methane digester in the city, where there were dogs. Maybe, said Park & Rec.

Park & Rec wasn’t the only agency that needed to be won over. There was the EPA. The fire department. The Open Space Committee. Building permits. A month went by. Then another month. Then seven months. He gave the project a cute name (“Park Spark,” after the lamppost). He was going from agency to agency and department to department, making his pitch, learning to speak the language of the engineer to the engineers, and the language of the city planner to the city planners, and bringing in Brinton to talk science when he needed a scientist.

Mazzotta began to feel like something, and he realized what it was: He was acting like a businessman.

Matthew Mazzotta

A decade earlier, this would have been inconceivable to him. In the ’90s, as part of an Atlanta-based veganer-than-thou hardcore scene, Mazzotta’s encounters with authority came mostly in the form of protests over the most protest-y injustices of the ’90s: Animal rights. The environment. Zapatistas. “I yelled and yelled and yelled,” he recalls. “A lot of that was about the environment. But it was also about why weren’t things more beautiful.”

Many things about being in the hardcore punk scene were great, especially the music. But as Mazzotta grew out of his undergraduate years, certain cultural practices that came with the scene began to wear on him: “All we were talking about was being vegan and being straightedge. Did you buy leather shoes? If you buy leather shoes at a thrift store, is that OK because they’re used, or bad because you’re endorsing the wearing of leather? So you eat tofu. The guy who is driving the tofu to you, what did he eat for lunch? Did the truck kill any insects on its way to deliver the tofu to you? At the end of the day, nothing is vegan. Because to get it to you, people had to do all of this crazy shit that is killing the environment.”

In 1999, Mazzotta got accepted into the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. At that point, he had everything that a person in the hardcore scene needed to be fulfilled — namely, friends and a van. But as he prepared to move, he had a realization: “I am going to where people don’t know me. I am going to see why people do other things. I just want to see more.”

And now here he was, meeting with city functionaries about dog park art, talking about minutiae. Would the digester smell? (Because it was burning off methane, it would actually reduce dog park odor.) Would the bags used to pick up dog shit clog up the inside of the container? (Only if they weren’t compostable which, admittedly, most of them weren’t. Using newspaper would work — but since picking up poop with newspaper was a lost art, Mazzotta had negotiated a supply of legit compostable bags for the park itself.) Would it blow up? (With a spark arrestor, it was about as likely to explode as your car.) And what to do with the energy? Mazzotta had big dreams — he could power a public tea-kettle, or a communal popcorn popper. Everything was vetoed.

Matthew Mazzotta

So Mazzotta went to the Netherlands. He built a digester there, in a cow pasture, and built a teahouse and had it covered in the same reeds used to roof local houses. The goal was to make it look like a part of the landscape, but more than a few people thought it made it look like a giant coconut.

Matthew Mazzotta

Everything worked. Nothing exploded. Mazzotta returned to the U.S. with pictures of happy Dutch people foraging for tea ingredients by the side of the road and drinking their manure-heated tea, and he showed them to the last few Cambridge holdouts. See? See these happy Dutch people? He got the last permit he needed. He could only do it as a temporary project — but he could do it.

He began building the installation at MIT, trying to design its two tanks for every terrible thing that someone might try to do to them. He found an old crank at an antique shop and attached it to the outside, in the hopes of enticing visitors to stir up the contents of the digester and keep it aerated. A friend designed simple decals to explain the process. They pre-loaded the tanks with cow manure donated by a farm outside of town, left it sealed for a while, and then went to light the lamp. Nothing.

Matthew Mazzotta

Mazzotta panicked and ran over to Harvard, looking for help. Your digester is pickled, a researcher from Harvard explained. Too acidic. Add some baking soda. He went back and did that. The lamppost lit up. Victory.

Matthew Mazzotta

The next day, he got a phone call. “This is Kyle,” said a voice on the other line. “From the BBC.” Then CNN called. And Wired. Mazzotta did about 75 interviews in about two weeks. Friends began to get in touch with him from around the world, saying they’d seen him on television in the strangest contexts.

He got invited onto conservative talk radio. There, when he began talking about methane and climate change, the host stopped him. “You know that climate change is a hoax,” the host said. Mazzotta paused. “They want me to fight,” he thought. “I’m not going to fight about this. I’m beyond that.” The whole point of the project was to get people who would never think about climate change to think about waste and nature.

No one threw anything crazy into the digester. People loved turning the crank outside the tank so much that when Mazzotta showed up occasionally to check in on the project, there was no need to even stir it. News crews would show up and film people walking their dogs and tossing poop into the tank. While city waste haulers refused to even touch the tank, Mazzotta found a company that handled zoo waste to periodically stop by and prevent any overflow.

When the time came to take out the digester, he says, the city had second thoughts — maybe it should be permanent. But it was too late. Mazzotta was moving to Korea; he’d only built it as a temporary installation, per their request. He was done with the project.

Mazzotta posted as much information about Park Spark as he could online, so that anyone else could build their own. Five years later, he still gets an email a week about it, but as of yet, he doesn’t know of anyone who has made their own version. Instead, people tend to pick up his plans, use them to pull down grants for local community improvements or art projects, run through the money, and then never do anything.

Who are these people? Song-and-dance men, using a once-viral idea to get a quick buck? Idealists who just can’t figure out how to get through seven months of city meetings? Maybe Mazotta’s time in the hardcore scene left him uniquely equipped, as an artist, to endure that kind of scrutiny. Maybe it’s just too excruciating for anyone else.

“I’m glad I got out of this thing,” Mazzotta said. If he’d stayed, as he put it, “with the tanks and the insurances,” he wouldn’t have time to do anything else.

For example: He never did the analysis on whether or not Park Spark actually saved any energy. After all the energy that went into making the tank, and the steel that went into the tank, how long would it take for Park Spark to produce as much energy as had gone into it?

The good thing about an art project was that every time someone asked you what you were doing, you could just say “art.” You didn’t have to think about performance metrics.

After Park Spark, Mazzotta’s art became very context-specific. Park Spark could have been installed anywhere with a dog park. The new projects are more wrapped up in the story of the place where they’re built. He turned an abandoned house in York, Ala., into an auditorium. It could be considered an environmental project (reclaimed wood, etc.), but he found that he had more interesting conversations with people when he didn’t describe it that way.

The history of cities and shit (and I’m talking about literal shit here, that thing we all excrete and then have to figure out how to get rid of) is an amazing one. For example: In 1933, a “night soil war” erupted in Beijing when the city’s new mayor tried to break up the monopoly that emptied and sold the contents of the city’s public toilets. During the Cultural Revolution, peasants from the countryside would come into the city to raid public toilets to use as fertilizer.

Before the arrival of chemical fertilizer and cheap energy, shit was … well … useful. Historians believe that the Assyrians used the methane that offgasses from it to heat their bathwater. In 1895, streetlights in Exeter, England, ran off of the same thing generated by a local sewage treatment plant.

So Mazzotta’s project wasn’t that far out there, even by the standards of today. Today, biogas operations are found out in the countryside — particularly out in the countryside in other countries. San Francisco may never have actualized its pet dropping dreams, but Sunset Scavenger, the city’s waste hauling company, won a prize for capturing the gas coming off of yard trimmings and food waste and using it to power its dump trucks (with the equivalent of about 120,000 gallons of diesel fuel). A project like this is way more ambitious — and way more efficient — than the long-forgotten dog park plan. The dogs of San Francisco would have to work pretty hard to compete with all the squishy old apples, rotten chard, and expired yogurt that its residents generate.

Still, the beauty of a project like Park Spark was that it bestowed a sense that by using it, you were doing something virtuous, and at very little cost to yourself. It may feel like a jerk move, environmentally, to throw your dog’s poop in a trash bin, but I doubt many San Franciscans are following the advice that I got, so many years ago, from a Recology spokesperson: Just bring dog poop inside and flush it down the toilet. (Please join me in being amazed that there is a special outdoors toilet available on the market for this very purpose.)

But let’s stop being practical for a moment, because this is a story about an art project, after all. Let’s get futuristic. In the same way that streetcars and bicycles and city chickens are making a comeback, could city poop do the same? Is there a plausible future where I would come back to my apartment to find glossy mailers from energy startups, stuffed in between all the flyers from Washio and Munchery, looking to lock up the rights to the contents of my building’s toilets?

Mazzotta’s project proved one thing: A city biogas project can be wildly popular. But it also proved something else: The real future belongs not to those with the best ideas, or those with the most money, but to those who can sit through seven months of meetings and not falter. Let’s remember that, as we boldly go into whatever future we are fighting for.


A Brief History of Bagels & Lox

Originally published in Meatpaper, July 2012

The salmon traveled the farthest. Its  oldest known ancestor in the genus Salmonidae swam through the waters of the Eocene, back when Australia was still a part of Antarctica, North America was still a part of Europe, and India was just beginning its long and persistent attempt to hump its way over China, smashing itself into the Himalayan mountains in the process.

When the continents began to move, they took the salmon with them. When humans showed up, they noticed the salmon, many of which had developed an eccentric habit of migrating from freshwater out to the ocean, and then back again. Salmon navigate their way back to where they were hatched by the smell of their past. Olfactory memory draws them to their place of origin, until they reproduce, at which point their bodies flood with massive doses of corticosteroids, causing them to disintegrate in the water.

This drive to migrate set humans in motion as well. The Celio Falls in Wyoming was, archaeologists say, the Wall Street of the West [I still think this analogy is odd but I’ll go with it]. For 15,000 years tribes from all across North America converged there during the spawning season, building platforms to spear and net the twenty million salmon that raced up the Columbia River. Their smoked and dried carcasses became both food and currency.

Preserving the salmon by soaking it in saltwater brine came from the Scandanavians, but – inexplicably – caught on with Jewish immigrants from Europe before completely failing to catch on with their descendents. Today, what we call “lox” is almost always smoked – more like what happened at Celio Falls than in Norway.

The capers – compact flowerbuds, pickled before they bloom – came from elsewhere. Greece. Or Italy. The word “caper” is so close to the Hebrew for “desire” that opinions vary as to whether King Solomon is talking about pickles or longing.

The bagels came from coal-fired ovens underneath Hester and Rivington. The men who baked them worked fourteen hour days, seven days a week. At the time, the Lower East Side was one of the most densely inhabited places on Earth. The bakers slept in between the mounds of rising dough, while every day, more boats pulled up to Ellis Island, disgorging more people. They arrived homesick, and the bakeries sold food to that homesickness.

The dough was made from wheat that grew on the plains of Kansas. It made a dough so stiff that the bakers kneaded it with their feet. The bakeries got so hot, especially in summer, that the bakers worked practically naked. Sometimes the bakers would collapse from heatstroke – people called to the scene described infernos inhabited by colonies of rats and cockroaches. Coal ash drifted through the air like confetti. The eggs were maggoty.

In the late 1800s bagelmakers began trying to form a union. They wanted a minimum wage, a ten-hour workday. Dough was doused in kerosene and set on fire. Bricks were thrown, by both sides. When their goals were finally accomplished,  in 1907, the historian Maria Balinska writes that a parade of five thousand people marched through the Lower East Side, carrying a loaf of bread fifteen feet long and five feet wide.

Bagelmakers became the most highly paid bakers in New York. They still worked ten hours a day in a basement next to a coal-fired oven, but they now made three times the median wage in New York City. Petitioners to Local 338 had to prove they could roll 830 bagels in an hour, or one every 4 seconds.

It wouldn’t be until the 1960’s that preservatives created bagels that stayed fresh for more than a few hours, and engineers created mixers that didn’t tear themselves apart trying to work the dough. By then, the bagel was no longer the food of the homesick. It was American enough that the bombing around the circumference of the city of Haiphong, Vietnam was described at the Pentagon as the “bagel strategy.”

Other signs that the bagel was becoming assimilated: the wedding. In 1984, the Lenders brothers, already selling $65 million dollars of bagels a year in supermarkets across America, marched an eight foot bagel down the aisle and gave its hand in marriage to a tub of Philadelphia cream cheese. The company was being given away in marriage to Kraft’s retail food group.

The first cream cheese in America was made in 1872, in Chester, New York – at least according to Kraft’s own food lore. The dairy owner named it Philadelphia, because food from Philadelphia was believed to be of better quality than food from New York.

The onions came over as seeds in someone’s pocket. The first domesticated onion in the Americas was, supposedly, planted by a member of Christopher Columbus’ expedition, in 1492.

You can buy something suspiciously similar to a bagel  in from Uigher merchants along the old silk route in China. The taste is reported to be only slightly different – chewier, and more dense. As early as 1397, you could buy a bagel-shaped bread in Italy called the taralli – though it is reported to be both more sweet, and hard.

The circular nature of ring breads inspired philosophizing: they symbolized life, death, yearning, good fortune, inclusiveness, solitude, union, the hole at the center of all existence. But they were road food, eaten by pilgrims and traveling merchants, carried while stale and then dunked in a hot liquid when they needed to become soft enough to eat. The staleness was a form of preservation, and transportation – the hard rings could be strung together and carried, like beads on a necklace, the same way that bagel sellers would carry them through the Lower East Side centuries later.

Today, debates rage over whether there are any authentic bagels left in America. In 2010 the Mile End restaurant in Brooklyn began picking up loads of bagels in Montreal and driving them to New York under cover of darkness. The Montreal bagel, the story went, had never became popular, and thus never assimilated, and so the recipe had changed little from the European original.

Their arrival was greeted with curiosity, and no small amount of disdain. Seventy years after the bagel had arrived, more or less, in North America, it had drifted in so many directions that the term “authentic” had become suspect. By the 1950’s, “Bagels and lox” had become an insult – a disparaging term used by Jewish immigrants to describe their counterparts who had become too American.

Bagels and lox had no analogue in the old country. It was food as collage – pickled Italian flower buds and Scandanavian style fish heaped over over English-style cheese. It had traveled as far as the salmon did, and become something entirely new in the journey. What could you be homesick for, when you ate it? Unless it was homesickness for the melting pot itself.


Farmworkers Climbing the Organic Food Chain

Published in Grist, January 2011

The strawberries, purchased in November, in a rainy parking lot behind a community clinic, feel like they’ve traveled in time from summer to here. Out of season, strawberries usually taste like rainwater. These have a taste that is sharp and unexpected.

The North Oakland farmers market is almost deserted — it’s a new one, just getting off the ground. The people here selling their wares look soggy and wan and not especially thrilled to be here. Nor does the wet goat that a couple in rainproof anoraks are trying to coax onto a milking platform.

But Rigoberto Bucio, arms folded, flanked by an army of beets, carrots, chilies, chard, kale, and baskets of the surprisingly sweet strawberries, surveys the scene with equanimity. He’s encountered all kinds of weather working in the fields. At least here he’s standing under a white plastic tent and selling what he grew himself, at Bucio Farm.

Bucio got into farming out of a certain pragmatism. “It’s the best thing that I know how to do,” he says. “And I don’t want to work in a closed space. And I love it when people tell me my produce is very good.”

Although he looks older, until he cracks one of his shy smiles, he is just 25 years old — astonishingly young compared to the average age of U.S. farmers, which is 55. He is also in a distinct minority: not only does he farm organically, but only 2.5 percent of all U.S. farm operators are Latino (or Hispanic, as the USDA’s 2007 Census of Agriculture records it [PDF]).

Bucio is one of a growing number of young migrant workers who, thanks in part to changes in the Farm Bill that freed up funding to train and otherwise assist beginning farmers, are no longer making pennies per bucket picked but working for themselves, running CSAs, and introducing new blood into American farming.

Bucio is still getting used to the changes that this occupational switch involves. As a farmworker, he was part of a class of people that is culturally invisible in America — abstract because to think of it too closely makes people feel uncomfortable. Organic farm work is arguably healthier than conventional farm work, but it’s still work that not many people fantasize about doing. Now, he’s something else, the Farmer — that archetype revered by many Americans. More so than a politician or a lawyer or a plumber or an executive director of marketing, the small-time farmer is America as America would like to see itself.

Pick your poison

California supplies more than half of the country’s produce, and unlike corn and soy, fruits and vegetables have proved one of the most difficult crops to mechanize.

The Salinas Valley produces a lot of cool-season, high-value crops like strawberries, and these attract a largely low-skilled and low-paid labor force. Over a quarter of the population of the surrounding county works in agriculture or processing, but the area itself is a food desert — food is shipped out as soon as it is picked or processed, and is often too expensive for the people who work farming it. (Look for the next story in the California series, on te food desert in the middle of the Central Valley.)

Rigoberto Bucio

Rigoberto Bucio.

Bucio dropped out of middle school in Mexico to come to the States and work in the strawberry fields of California. Americans eat 75 percent more strawberries than they did 20 years ago, but the plant itself has remained stubbornly resistant to attempts to mechanize its production. It wants to be picked by actual people. The closest thing to industrialization the crop has seen is the conveyor-belt system that radiates out from the center of the field to the edge, so that workers don’t have to carry the full flats of berries to the trucks parked nearby.

As a farmworker, Bucio only worked on organic farms. “Because I like to eat the strawberries as I harvest them” is what he says, but it’s also well known by farmworkers that the people most at risk from pesticides are not people buying their produce at the supermarket, but the person working in a recently sprayed field.

In the last 10 years, Bucio has learned a lot about strawberry plants, and almost nothing of English. He hasn’t really needed to — in California, the language of farming is Spanish. As the number of overall farms in Monterey County, the area around Salinas, has dropped due to consolidation and development, the number of Latino farmers has increased by 70 percent since the late ‘90s, according to the USDA census.

Bucio would seem like an unlikely candidate for the tangle of regulatory obligation, self-promotion, and epic paperwork that is modern organic farming. But he’s ambitious, and he was lucky enough to get help from Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA), a business incubator that works with people — mostly Latino, mostly low-income — to set them up as independent organic farmers. ALBA is funded by the EPA, the USDA, a patchwork of nonprofits and corporations, and through the sale of the produce grown by its members, under the name ALBA Organics. Four out of five students enrolled in ALBA’s free six-month training program make $32,000 or less in yearly income.

To get into ALBA’s program, Bucio had to fill out a five-page application that asked, in English and Spanish, questions such as “Can you operate a tractor? Can you weld? Can you read and write? What would you plant if you could plant anything?” Classes at ALBA cover not only farming, but how to navigate the business culture around it: How to start up a CSA. How to sell to restaurants. How a certain kind of customer is more likely to buy produce if it’s displayed in little wicker baskets.

“There’s a whole spectrum of knowledge,” says Gary Peterson, deputy director of ALBA. “There’s harvest. Post-harvest handling and packing. When should you harvest that bok choy? In the morning? In the afternoon? If you’re packing a box for the wholesale market, what is it supposed to look like? Is it going to make a person at a market take the box, or just reject it outright?”

During the course, each student has to write a business plan, and present it before a panel of farmers in what Peterson describes as “American Idol for small-time farmers.”

The land that Bucio farms is part of an 110-acre spread that is shared by about 40 ALBA farmers — a parcel bought originally from a local judge for a program that was part of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, defunded during the Reagan administration, and ultimately taken over by the organization that became ALBA.

Seen from the air, the ALBA parcel looks quirky. Surrounded by a plain of flat, monotonous rectangles, the land is a patchwork of more than 50 crops flanked by hedgerows — a technique that most farmers don’t use anymore, because they take up farming real estate, but which provide habitat for insects that can bo
ost pollination.

Managing an area farmed by novices is complex. It’s a tricky business to keep them from accidentally flooding each others’ land and up to date on the paperwork for the 11-plus different regulatory agencies they need to be in compliance with — including (but not limited to) the water board, the agricultural commissioner, and the California department of food and agriculture.

Paperwork, it’s emphasized, is critical. Not all of the farmers can read and write, in Spanish or English, but paperwork still needs to get done, even if through an intermediary. Once, a farmer who couldn’t produce the paper trail to prove that his stakes weren’t treated with pesticide had to pull them all up. One of the first homework assignments is to go down to the Monterey County office and register as a farmer.

Maria Catalan at the market

Maria Catalan (right) is one of ALBA’s success stories. She sells at 13 farmers markets.

Ground breaker

Maria Catalan, one of ALBA’s greatest success stories, once started like Bucio, at a few farmers markets. Now Catalan Farms cultivates 14 acres and sells at 13 farmers markets as well as to high-end restaurants in San Francisco.

A few times, Catalan has been invited to dinner at these restaurants. “It’s sometimes very luxurious and it’s free, but at one of the restaurants they gave me a small tortilla — very small. And it had zucchini and it was so small and I thought, ‘This is zucchini?’ In my house, when I make zucchini, I make a huge pot of them,” she tells me, through a translator. “The only thing that I like about the restaurants is the wine.”

When she crossed the border into the United States 22 years ago, she became a third-generation migrant farmworker — an occupation that began when her grandparents first crossed the border to pick vegetables in Texas.

Catalan has the air of toughness you might expect from someone who once worked for as many as 12 different companies in a single year, cultivating broccoli, spinach, parsley, and anything else that needed cultivating.

Maria Catalan at the market

Maria Catalan.

“When you start working as an immigrant, you become a number instead of a person,” she says. It is an exponentially more difficult job for women, too.

These days, when someone accidentally calls Catalan a farmworker, she corrects them kindly but firmly. A farmworker, in her opinion, is someone who doesn’t have control over their own life. She wants to make it perfectly clear that she is not that person anymore.

The people on her farm, she says, work without supervisors. This management style owes something to her years of being supervised, but it also has more than a little to do with the fact that most of her staff is related to her. The attrition rate at ALBA can be high at times — the training may be free, but farm work doesn’t pay well, and often people who would be taking classes are financially supporting other family members.

Several people in Catalan’s family, including all of her siblings, wanted to become farmers themselves but dropped out before the six months of classes were finished. Catalan had a boyfriend while she was in the program who was helping her with the bills, though he left in a fit of pique after he realized that the classes were making her less inclined to listen to his farming advice.

Catalan’s farming style is a mixture of what she learned at ALBA, and her family’s own folklore and hard-won knowledge about how to make plants grow. She grows varieties of corn that are mostly grown in Mexico. But she also grows kale, which she’d never seen before she came to California. She decides when to plant by following the phases of the moon, because that’s the way that her family has always done it, and because, in her opinion, it makes the crops grow better.

Catalan grows organically because that’s how her grandfather, who once owned a farm in Guerrero, Mexico, grew his peanuts, corn, cotton, beans, chilies, and sesame seeds. Everyone in Mexico did back then.

“Organic,” Catalan says, “That’s our farming. We know how to do that already.”

Loan rangers

It’s been said that 90 percent of being a farmer is figuring out how to get your crops to the people that eat them without going completely broke. Catalan credits her success to working, relentlessly, to get a spot at the Berkeley farmers market. Bucio believes it’s about working hard, but isn’t sure if he’s going to be a success.

ALBA’s funding has increased, and beginning and low-income farmers now have access to a few loans and benefits like conservation incentives that were previously only available only to large farmers. Loans, such as they are, exist in very low amounts. In some ways, this is just as well, says Peterson, as micro-loans prevent beginning farmers from getting into more debt than they can handle.

It’s unlikely that any of these farmers will ever own their own land. For all of our image of farmers as rugged, property-owning American individualists, over 40 percent of American farmland is rented [PDF]. And California has some of the most expensive farmland in the world — the going rate to rent an acre near where Bucio farms ranges from $1,300 to $2,000 for an acre, for a year. Since this is his first year, Bucio is paying $250 per acre, per year, to ALBA. Each year, that rent will increase slightly.

Ana and Eleazar Juarez, who graduated from the program seven years ago, are now paying full rent on the land for their farm — Rio De Parras Organic. They’re counted as one of the program’s successes — Eleazar now farms full-time and Ana, who worked full-time as the stock-room manager at the Salinas Target while she was taking classes at ALBA, now only works at Target during the winters.

Seeding the Salinas Valley with small farmers is another one of ALBA’s eventual goals. Most organic farmers don’t look like Bucio and Catalan, and organic food, rightly or wrongly, is seen as unaffordable by agricultural workers in the valley. Would those workers buy more fruits and vegetables if the farmers looked like them? Could those people who farm on the 110 acres make a good living selling to the people in their own community?

They’d like to. ALBA just carried out a strategic planning process with the farmers that it has been training. Ana Juarez was one of the people at the table. How, ALBA wanted to know, would its success be measured? When you’re training people for one of the hardest, least well-paying gigs in America, what does success look like?

The answer was this. The farmers got together and decided that they would know they were successful when they had enough to give away — to the food bank, to the community. Once they’re able to give back to Salinas, they’ll know that they’ve arrived.


15 Ways of Looking at a Levis’ Workshop

Originally published in Mission [email protected], July 2010

1. “Come in. Roll up your sleeves. Get your hands dirty,” says the sign outside of the Levi’s Workshop on Valencia.

2. Inside, nothing is dirty. It looks something like  a print studio, but a print studio in the hands of a set designer. The pump bottle of Gojo hand cleaner is immaculate, and perfectly complements the bundle of twine a few feet away. The printing presses  are labeled like museum exhibits. In the center of the room, two men with very large cameras are busily taking photographs of Alice Waters.

3. This is the story: Levi’s is launching a new line of work wear. Among its offerings: trucker jacket ($89.50). Chambray work shirt ($79.50). They hired Weiden + Kennedy, an advertising agency based in Portland, Oregon, and Weiden + Kennedy came up with this slogan: “We are all Workers.” They rented vacant retail space owned by Charles Phan, owner of the Slanted Door. Because the Levi’s workshop is  open for only two weeks, they were able to  circumvent the hearing process that chain stores are typically subjected to before renting commercial space in the Mission. Pants will be sold, but the proceeds will go to the nonprofits that are co-hosting the workshop events.

4. Among the offerings at the Levi’s store: free carpenter’s pencils in red, white and blue, printed with the messages “We are all Workers” and “Ready to Work.”

5. 104 years ago and two blocks away, Levi’s opened a three-story factory at 14th and Valencia. A crowd stood around the building at the opening, applauding. It was 1906. Most of San Francisco was still in ruins from the earthquake earlier that year.

6. When that factory closed  in 2002, only 100 employees were still working there. Manufacturing had moved to Asia, and only the most expensive jeans in the Levi’s line were still sewn on site. Like replicas of the Nevada jeans — a pair of ancient Levi’s discovered in a Nevada mining town and sold back to the company, on eBay, for $46,532. Their design was one that the company no longer had any record of  — lost technology, destroyed in the quake.

7. The San Francisco Chronicle quoted Levi’s CEO Philip Marineau as saying that the closure was “hard in the sense that there are emotions associated with that history. The pure economics weren’t so difficult.” This was, the article said, Levi’s attempt to “right its troubled finances by becoming less of a jeans maker and more of a jeans marketer.”

8. But selling jeans requires emotions in a way that making them does not. And so, at Weiden + Kennedy’s suggestion, the models in the advertisements for Levi’s new workwear line are all residents of a city called Braddock, Pennsylvania. Many of them are unemployed.

9. Braddock is an interesting place. It was the site of Andrew Carnegie’s first steel mill and Andrew Carnegie’s first library. It has done about as well as one would expect of a steelworking town in a country that no longer makes steel, which is to say: not well. Since the 1950s, Braddock has lost over 90 percent of its population. In 2005, Braddock gained a hip mayor with master’s degree in public policy and economics from Harvard. His name is John Fetterman. He arrived in 2001 as an Americorps volunteer. He now has Braddock’s zip code tattooed on his left arm.

10. Fetterman’s plan to refurbish Braddock? Marketing. One of the first things that he did as mayor was to put up an edgy website advertising the town. “Destruction Breeds Creation. Create Amidst Destruction” is spelled out in bold capitals on the front page. There is a section with blurry black-and-white Polaroid photos of abandoned buildings.

11. Fetterman has offered free studio space to artists who agree to move there. He’s turned the old church into a community center that hosts avant-garde events and all-night dance parties. Fetterman is pitching Braddock as
 an ideal location for startups. “An unparalleled opportunity,” as the website says, “for the urban pioneer, artist, or misfit.”

12. It could be argued that Fetterman is trying to replicate in Braddock what happened in the Mission — a working-class, industrial neighborhood that is well into its transformation into a place that doesn’t  make much except for ideas, and exceptionally good coffee. The theory has often been floated that urban pioneers, artists and misfits are integral to transformations like these.

13. Levi’s reports that it will be giving the town of Braddock more than a million dollars, plus some help with its urban farming program, in exchange for becoming its poster town. San Francisco gets donations for nonprofits like the Edible Schoolyard and printmaking workshops. What neither city is going to get much of from Levi’s, though, is a job that lasts longer than a few weeks.

14. “It’s great to be able to work full-time as a printmaker,” says Rocket Caleshu, normally employed by the San Francisco Center for the Book, one of the nonprofits involved with the workshop. “Those jobs are hard to come by.” Caleshu is working three jobs at the moment, she said.

15. It almost goes without saying, but every local person temporarily employed by the Levi’s Workshop comes across as fully aware of the strangeness of their circumstances — temporary workers, in a manicured environment. A young worker motions me over and says, sotto voce: “All of these ads say, ‘We are all Workers.’ Look at this,” she says, pulling back the waistband of a pair of work jeans ($97.50) to reveal the label, “Made in Cambodia.”

She looks so earnest, as though she is discovering this for the first time. “Where,” she says, “am I supposed to go to do this work?”