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farming

Algae farms

Food for the future.

Inside a high-tech lab in a modular building in the West Texas desert here, a young scientist peered through a microscope at a slide of live and multiplying algae. She was on the prowl for “grazers,” a sort of cellular-level locust that could wreak havoc on the multimillion-dollar crop proliferating in thick green ponds outside.

It’s the equivalent of a cotton farmer walking rows in search of disease-carrying bolls, explained Rebecca White, the 38-year-old microbiologist who runs one of the world’s few commercially viable algae farms.

The harvest? For now, kilos upon kilos of biomass that is a plant-based source of omega-3 fatty acids, which in recent years have become all the rage for lowering cholesterol, promoting healthier skin and promising other health benefits. Common practice has been to consume them via a hunk of salmon or supplements derived from fish or krill. But since fish and krill actually get their omega-3 from algae, White and her team have figured out how to cut out the “middle fish” and capitalize on cultivating the source.

In a sign of how commonplace the practice has become, White, whose family has for generations raised cotton and cattle in the Texas Panhandle, says her grandfather has begrudgingly acknowledged that domesticating aquatic microorganisms counts as real farming.

The farm in Imperial is owned by Houston-based Qualitas Health, which partnered with H-E-B for the alGeepa line of supplements and is now expanding into the $33 billion omega-3 market with iWi. The latter line rolled out at Amazon.com, the Vitamin Shoppe and Sprouts Farmers Market in June.

[…]

The United Nations in 1974 called algae “the most ideal food for mankind,” and the Food and Agriculture Organization declared it “the best food for tomorrow.” But so far not even NASA’s been able to get people to want to eat it. At least, not the average American.

With more people eschewing certain foods and a world population expected to approach 10 billion by 2050, however, a new generation of scientists says the mainstreaming of algae is inevitable.

“Most people’s experiences with algae are a contamination event of some sort,” White said. “Your pool, the dog bowl, the Great Lakes, your swimming hole — that’s all negative. But algae has been doing so many positive things for so many years that they don’t talk about in a way that gets people’s attention. … Our goal is to make people think about algae as food.”

If you can package it as a meat substitute the way soy is, you’re probably most of the way there. That won’t be for everyone, of course, but I’d bet the market will be pretty substantial over time. It’s a long story, so read it and see what you think.

Trump trade war troubles

I have three things to say about this.

There’s a Chinese proverb: Sow melons, reap melons. Sow beans, reap beans.

In other words, expect tit for tat.

President Donald Trump — and by extension many of the nation’s farmers — is seeing that lesson in action after he launched a bevy of tariffs against China on Friday, prompting the People’s Republic to retaliate with its own tariffs on imports from the United States. Among those American goods are some key Texas exports, including cotton, corn and sorghum. Some of the Chinese goods targeted in Trump’s tariffs are vital parts for Texas’ agriculture industry, such as livestock equipment.

“No question, it’s going to hurt,” said Gene Hall, a spokesperson for the Texas Farm Bureau.

[…]

“You couldn’t pick a worse time for agriculture to be in a trade dispute,” said Hall, the Texas Farm Bureau spokesperson, pointing to a 50 percent decline in agricultural income since 2013. He said the farm bureau always supports negotiating trade disputes over gratuitous tariffs — but that many farmers hope the president’s actions will force China, which has historically acted in ways that have harmed Texas agriculture, to the negotiating table.

“There is some patience in the agricultural community for what the president’s doing, but there is some angst as well,” Hall said.

1. Clearly, the well of “Trump Supporters Continue To Support Trump Even Though He Keeps Doing Things They Don’t Like” stories has not yet run dry.

2. I’ve been keeping an eye on Trump’s approval rating among Republicans for signs that they may be less engaged than usual in November. While Democrats are super enthusiastic, Republicans have stuck with their man, which if nothing else has kept the bottom from falling out. I wonder sometimes if Trump’s high levels of approval among Republicans is in part a sign that the GOP has shrunk, so that the disapprovers are mostly not calling themselves Republicans any more, but I have no way to know that. I feel pretty confident saying that Dems will turn out in stronger numbers than usual this year. I have no idea yet where turnout will be on the R side. I’m still hoping for something like 2006, but there’s no real evidence of that at this time.

3. Gotta say, after all the harm that has been inflicted on so many people by Trump, the fact that his staunchest supporters are feeling the pain as well gives me no small measure of grim satisfaction. Maybe if they feel enough of it, we’ll finally be able to get the country back on the right track.

Ostriching

Hey, remember when ostrich farms were the next big thing?

Over the last few years, there’s been renewed interest in ostrich farming in the United States, particularly in Texas. The industry peaked in the 1990s, before inflated prices for birds and eggs exposed it to corruption and market instability. By the end of the decade, it was in steep decline. Today, the American Ostrich Association, headquartered at the Birminghams’ ranch, claims both legitimate ostrich growers and demand for meat has increased noticeably in recent years. And Texas, once home to more than 250 ostrich farms, is still at the heart of the industry.

[…]

Originally from Africa, ostriches were brought to the United States in the late 1800s, their feathers used in the fashion industry. American “feather barons,” as they were known, gambled on a notoriously fickle industry. Some made their fortune; others watched the market collapse when feathers became last season’s fashion news. Joel Brust, president of the American Ostrich Association and an ostrich farmer in California, told the Observer that one of the things that killed the industry was the arrival of the automobile (feather hats just didn’t work in open-top cars). The economic upheaval following the advent of World War I also precipitated the industry’s decline. The business resurged in the 1980s after breeders discovered that ostrich meat tasted like beef but was lower in fat. At that point, the world’s biggest producer was South Africa. Then in 1986, the United States passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, which banned trade with South Africa. The subsequent short supply of ostriches jacked up prices. American farmers decided to get in on the act, and Texas and Oklahoma became dominant in the industry. In the late 1980s, Fort Worth farmer Tom Mantzel founded the American Ostrich Association.

After the anti-Apartheid act was repealed during the first Bush administration, the United States once again permitted South African ostrich imports. Both supply and demand increased, giving rise to what media described as an ostrich-breeding boom. Americans were jumping into get-rich-quick schemes based on breeding and selling live birds. The Dallas Morning News noted in a 1990 article that the money was “in the mating,” partly because the population of ostriches needed to increase before it could sustain a meat production industry. A pair of adult breeding birds could command up to $50,000 — an increase of 500 percent in four years. “It was crazy,” Brust said.

People were buying chicks and eggs and raising them for a few months to sell to other people interested in high-profit breeding. Or they bought adult birds only to turn around and sell them at a profit shortly afterward. It was a breeder’s market, in theory until there were enough ostriches to supply the meat industry. Brust said people got into the industry with no intention of creating long-term ostrich farming businesses. Instead, “they acted more like brokers,” he said. “All they had to do was get a few chicks to hatch, since the price of birds as they got older just escalated beyond anything that made any sense.”

And just like Dutch tulips back in the day, what went up did indeed come down. This story is about the people who are raising ostriches now – a much smaller group – and who are trying to make something more sustainable out of it. Worth a read.

National ag groups not happy with Republicans

It’s all about immigration reform.

Craig Regelbrugge, who co-chairs the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform, says a large majority of his group’s members — which include large and small farming enterprises and growers all around the country — are Republican, and many give to the GOP. But he’s increasingly hearing from members who are so frustrated by the Congressional GOP’s failure to act on reform — which is central to maintaining a workforce in the industry — that they are considering withholding campaign donations.

“I hear from growers frequently who basically say, `I used to be a loyal check writer when the Republican Party called, but at this point, the checkbook is closed,’” Regelbrugge tells me. “I’m hearing from growers who are no longer writing checks supporting the party.”

Mike Gempler heads the Washington Growers League, which represents growers ranging from mom-and-pop outfits to enterprises spanning 10,000 acres, and he says that “well over 90 percent” of his members vote Republican, and many write checks. Some of them sit in the district of GOP Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington State, a member of the GOP leadership.

But, he says, they are increasingly convinced the GOP is no longer representing their interests in the immigration debate, if the failure to move on legislation is any indication, and are concluding that Republicans are very close to squandering a rare opportunity to achieve reform.

“We’re seeing a lack of response to our needs and concerns from significant parts of the Republican caucus in the House,” Gempler tells me. “They either have ideological issues or they are catering to a more reactionary crowd.”

“We want to see the leadership, including Cathy, move on this,” Gempler continues. “The chances for getting immigration reform are lessening quickly. If we don’t get this done by August recess, we’re going to be in trouble as an industry.”

[…]

All this gets to a point about the immigration debate that keeps getting lost: Major Republican-aligned groups want reform — from growers out west to the business community to to evangelicals — and when Republicans refuse to act because they fear blowback from anti-reform conservatives, they are prioritizing them over other core constituencies. Now the growers are increasingly convinced the chance for reform is slipping away and they are getting cut out as a result.

It also gets at a point that I’ve made here many times, which is that while all these groups may want reform, they continue to support – or at least, not oppose – plenty of Republican officeholders that stand in their way. The Texas Association of Business and the late moneybag Bob Perry were and are classic examples of this in Texas. The Texas Farm Bureau has joined in this unhappy chorus this year, and it remains to be seen if they will be as all-talk-no-action as their peers. We’ll know by their actions in the Lite Gov race. As for the national groups, withholding financial support is something, though with the latest SCOTUS shenanigans it may not amount to much. The bottom line is that they have the power to do something about this. A few well-placed primary challenges could do a world of good, and wouldn’t even require them to support any icky Democrats. Until they actually try to use that power, I’m not going to waste any time feeling sympathy for them.

More on the foodie caucus

The Trib has an update.

Rep. Eddie Rodriguez

On a mission to advance the local food movement, a Democrat from Austin is finding common ground with Republicans and rural Texans.

When Republicans hear a Democrat saying there’s “too much regulation, their ears perk up,” state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, that Democrat, said with a smile. He founded the Farm to Table Caucus, the nation’s first bipartisan legislative caucus focused on advancing the local production of healthy food. Ultimately, Rodriguez says, the caucus could help address health issues in Texas like obesity and the scarcity of healthy food options in poor urban neighborhoods.

While their large-scale counterparts receive agricultural tax relief, urban and small-scale family farms do not qualify under many county appraisal districts’ definitions of agricultural land use. And a lack of consistency in local health regulations makes it difficult for farmers and chefs to know what is permitted, what requires a permit and what is off-limits when selling or distributing locally produced foods.

[…]

“We have to look at the balance of the concern about food safety versus food freedom,” said state Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, who co-chairs the Farm to Table Caucus. Although she usually favors local government control, Kolkhorst said the state should provide consistent definitions on what type of food production is allowable.

She authored the Cottage Food Law, which was passed in 2011 and allows Texans to sell baked and canned goods from home as long as they meet certain requirements.

Rodriguez has drafted a variety of ideas for the caucus to consider, such as reducing barriers to tax exemptions for urban farms, allowing onsite processing of feral hog and deer meat that could be prepared at soup kitchens, and expanding the Cottage Food Law.

See here for the background. While I generally agree with the goals here, I’d feel better about adding more exemptions to our tax code if we had a sunset-like process in place to review them periodically see which ones are still useful and desirable and which have morphed into money-sucking boondoggles and special-interest-protected sacred cows. But that’s a separate fight. In the meantime, as I said I generally support this effort and wish them well in the next session.

The foodie caucus

Sure, why not?

Rep. Eddie Rodriguez

State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, an Austin Democrat and admitted foodie, is creating the Farm to Table Caucus of the Texas House. Rodriguez is expected to send letters to all of the House’s 150 members Monday and invite them into the bipartisan group.

As it seeks to ride the wave of popularity of buying local food, the caucus will be focused on making it easier for small producers of healthy food to expand their markets, while allowing for increased availability of their locally produced food.

“It’s the outcome of a movement that’s happening around the state,” Rodriguez said. “It’s about time for something like this to happen.”

The caucus will focus on educating policymakers and the public about the value of small food producers, making sure government agencies don’t get in the way of small operations’ progress and helping to remove obstacles to the development of the market.

The result could be a new form of local economic development, Rodriguez said.

He also said that the caucus will marry the interests of rural and urban Texas, two factions that regularly find themselves at odds in the Legislature over a variety of issues such as transportation, public education and access to health care.

Rep. Lois Kolkhorst of Brenham, who along with Rep. Rodriguez sponsored the Cottage Food bill that was passed last session, will be the caucus’ vice chair. The Lege recently had its first ever joint hearing between the House Agriculture and Livestock committee and the House Urban Affairs committee, so there’s clearly some momentum on this. I’ll be interested to see who joins up and what they do with it next session.

Urban farming

The Lege wants to be more supportive of it.

Rep. Borris Miles

For the first time that anyone could recall, the Texas House Agriculture and Livestock committee had a joint hearing with the House Urban Affairs committee to discuss ways to help expand community gardens and urban farming. The goal: increase access to affordable and healthy food.

“It’s a well worthwhile deal. I see a great need,” said House Agriculture Chairman Rick Hardcastle, R-Vernon. “I see it as a true change in demographics because the big grocery stores don’t build in urban Texas, or they close up and move out to the suburbs and the average mom-and-pop grocery store doesn’t carry fresh vegetables. ”

Community gardening in inner cities has gained momentum in most big cities around the country but Texas ranks last, Scott Howard, vice chair of Houston’s Urban Harvest, told lawmakers: “It’s kind of embarrassing.”

He believes vegetable gardens should be developed at every elementary school across Texas.

“This is where kids learn where their food comes from and how it’s grown,” Howard said.

Rep. Borris Miles, D-Houston, is playing a key role in trying to expand urban farming in Texas and appears to have won support from rural lawmakers, who said they would help him move legislation next year when the Texas Legislature returns to a regular legislative session.

“Urban farming would help fight obesity and diabetes in the inner city,” Miles said.

“This is not a Republican or Democratic issue. It’s a people issue,” he said. “It’s part of the Republican thread to be self-sufficient, so how can they deny it? All we’re asking to do is be able to sustain life for ourselves.”

State and local governments could help increase interest and support for urban gardens with tax incentives for land owners who allow community residents to grow vegetables on vacant city lots that otherwise could turn into eyesores. Utility companies could be granted liability waivers on easements and agriculture exemptions could be expanded to encourage inner city gardening.

Rep. Miles discussed this issue when I interviewed him. Our school does in fact have a vegetable garden, and they periodically send some veggies home with the kids. I don’t know how much that encourages better eating habits, but it’s pretty cool in itself. Certainly, using vacant lots as vegetable gardens is better than letting them be overgrown eyesores, and to the extent that the Lege can help cities encourage that it’s a good thing. It looks like this effort has some momentum behind it, so it’ll be worth watching next session.

Hens for Houston

Looking for a new cause to get involved in? Here’s a movement to allow people to raise hens in Houston.

Vision:

“Hens for Houston” is working to promote a sustainable and progressive Houston in which city dwellers can keep 4-6 hens on the small city lots such as those found inside the Beltway and the 610 loop.

Why?

The current ordinance is outdated and based on the idea that chickens do not belong in an urban setting. This view is at odds with our current understanding of the necessity of green living to make our cities more sustainable, combat food deserts, and reacquaint our children with the food cycle. Plus, hens make great pets!

Many urban cities, such as New York, Chicago, and Dallas have progressive, forward-thinking ordinances permitting the keeping of 4-6 hens on city lots. Even Bellaire, TX has chickens!

You can learn more about their mission on the Why Hens? page and at their FAQ. This is still a work in progress, as they do not yet have a proposed ordinance prepared. If you want to support the effort, they’ve got a petition at Change.org to sign.

Local food

One of the more interesting results from this year’s Houston Area Survey was the attitude expressed about locally grown food. From a Houston Tomorrow press release:

An overwhelming majority of Houstonians feel that it is important to be able to buy locally grown food, with 42% responding that it is “very important” and 41% that it is “somewhat important.” Only 16% of Houstonians report that access to locally grown food is not important to them. Rice University sociologist Dr. Stephen Klineberg released the new Houston Area Survey today, revealing these results for a question that he asked this year for the first time.

The local food movement in the 13-county Houston region has been gaining strength following the Food & Sustainable Prosperity conference hosted by Houston Tomorrow in 2008. A broad coalition of nonprofits, government agencies, growers, and engaged citizens meets monthly as the Houston Food Policy Workgroup, hosted by Houston Tomorrow. The mission of the workgroup is to nurture the growth of a sustainable local food system, accessible to all, through education, collaboration, communication, and creation of a food policy council for the Houston region. Interested parties from across the region are welcome to participate.

You can read the full release here. As I’ve mentioned, my wife is the Chair of the Central City Co-op board, so this is near and dear to her heart. She was very happy when I showed her the release. For more information about local food in Houston, visit Central City or Urban Harvest; the Chron had a nice story about one of their more successful projects this past weekend.