Posts Tagged: Inspired Media

Getting Our Hands Dirty: A Growing Interest in Community-Focused Gardening


Story and Photos by Kelly Larsen 

The disdain I once held for gardening still remains distinct in my memory. As a little kid, I dreaded being told to pick beans from the long, lush bushes beyond our back porch. With dirt-encrusted ice cream buckets in hand, my siblings and I would trudge out into the sunshine and complain our way down the never-ending rows, sweating and moaning.  Mission accomplished, bushes bare, we would trudge back inside, plopping the bucket onto the scarred kitchen table only to be greeted with a smile, a cutting board, and the task of trimming heads and tails from the beans before dinner. After considerable protest, we would sigh, resigned to our fate, and begin the monotonous chopping process. I hated gardening, my nine-year-old self decided. I liked beans, but definitely not gardening.

If only I had known.  A decade later, my college roommate and I found ourselves craving homegrown, flavorful produce after a semester of cafeteria food. In a surge of optimistic domesticity, we soon had our own little assortment of plastic cups and earthenware pots lined scraggily along the windowsill in our dorm room: carrots, marigolds, thyme, basil, parsley, oregano, and violets. Some were successful, some less so. But we treasured our little garden, watering it daily with drips from our Nalgenes, rejoicing together over little green sprouts in the early spring gloom of papers and exams. In our garden we found a return to home, the satisfaction of growth and development, and a little outlet from the stress and cares of college life. We loved our garden. It didn’t matter that our carrots were underdeveloped and the oregano never grew. We were trying it. Soon our curious friends came in to examine our attempts, some eventually planting their own flowers and veggies. Our puny plants quickly blossomed into a community garden of sorts, an assortment of pots worth much more than the sum of its parts.

Gardening – both community and home-based – is growing just like those scrawny plants in our dorm room window. According to a recent survey by the National Gardening Association, approximately 36 million American homes – 31% of US households – had a food garden in 2008. In 2009 that number was expected to increase dramatically, up to 43 million households (37%). Reasons for that upswing varied, with the desires for better tasting, cheaper, higher quality, and safely grown food topping the list.  Though the vast majority of food gardens are still found at individuals’ homes, more than a third of those surveyed said they would be at least somewhat interested in community gardening. The idea of gardening in community, a group of people sharing a plot of land, has been around for years, especially in urban communities where green space is scarce. In recent times the trend has spread into more rural areas, including Northeast Iowa.

Gardening has already proven itself a valuable pastime. The monetary return over one growing season from the average American’s $70 garden investment equals about $530.  With recession-frugality reigning and a generational trend towards organic, eco-friendly, and homegrown products, gardening – especially community gardening – has become a popular way to share, produce, and save. Even the White House has caught the bug: Michelle Obama’s food garden has made international news and the USDA’s People’s Garden is inspiring embassies around the world. Gardening has gone mainstream, appearing on such popular shows as Martha Stewart, where Decorah’s own Seed Savers Exchange was featured in February 2009.

Though Seed Savers Exchange’s focus is seeds, not produce, the organization plays an important role in area agriculture and gardening. Its lavish gardens, nestled among the Heritage Farm’s acres of woods and trails, certainly catch the eye of local and visiting gardening enthusiasts. It was misting gently when I visited, and my jaw dropped at the veritable Eden of growing plants. Notebook in hand, I strode quietly alongside Shannon Carmody – an Illinois native now interning at the heritage farm – as she pointed out highlights of the organization’s many on-site gardens. Vegetables and herbs nestled among flowers and themed mini-gardens within a broader tapestry of flora all provide beautiful examples of edible landscaping, companion planting, and organic gardening at their finest. But the Seed Savers gardens serve a greater purpose than just beautifying Northeast Iowa. The number of needy recipients of the organization’s Herman’s Garden program – a seed donation program designed to help non-profit community gardens and educational programs around the country – jumped more than 30 percent in 2009. Seed Savers has seen huge growth in public interest in gardening over the past year and membership has also increased 47 percent.

“It’s trendy,” Shannon laughs.  “Especially with people in our younger generation, there’s a do-it-yourself trend.  Knitting, home brewing… even gardening.  It’s vogue; it’s hip now. It’s hip environmentalism.”  Of course, she adds, the increased interest in gardening isn’t solely due to the garden projects of celebrities like Martha Stewart and Michelle Obama. “It goes mainstream, and then it’s accessible. I hope people actually see that it’s important. It’s important to have your own food, to understand where it’s coming from.”

Seed Savers Editor John Torgrimson agrees. “I think the growth is due to a lot of different things,” he says. “You could say that the economic times are such that people are looking for ways to control costs, and gardening is something you can actually do. A lot of people do it for recreation. It’s a great pastime. And the benefits are obvious.”

John and his wife Pat enjoy a large garden at home, while Shannon maintains a plot in Decorah’s community garden, located in the floodplain by the Upper Iowa River.

That community garden, Shannon adds, has been a joy, and enables inexperienced gardeners to learn from others. “It’s hard to be the pioneer when you don’t know what you’re doing,” she explains. “But when you see your neighbor doing it, it becomes accessible.”

Rick Edwards, Decorah Parks and Recreation director, was instrumental in bringing the Decorah community garden to fruition in the spring of 2008. Though a massive flood wiped out the first year’s efforts, this summer there has been a resurgence of interest, with different families and individuals maintaining about 20 gardens. The 20-by-20-foot plots cost $25, with water and mulch provided. The soil is good, Rick adds, though the deer can be bad.  But that’s part of the gamble of gardening.

The beauty of the community garden aspect, he says, is in the collaboration and creativity. “Everybody gets together and talks, you know, about how stuff is growing, how the deer are eating it… some people are having pretty good success,” he explains.  “We have everything from very experienced gardeners to some gardeners that are giving it their first shot. But they’re all in one spot, so the novice gardeners can get advice, see how the experts do it, help each other out.”

The sense of community, however, isn’t the only thing that drew Edwards and residents of Decorah’s neighborhoods to gardening. For Rick, like many others, it comes back to knowing where his food comes from and what’s in it. “There’s something great about having a tomato and knowing you’re the only one who’s touched it,” he says.

Not surprisingly, that desire for healthy, local food is also part of what inspired Decorah’s Jenni Werners and Deborah Bishop to organize other volunteers and plant a garden specifically designated for the Decorah Area Food Pantry.

“Most people at the food pantry can’t afford to garden themselves, or housing is the issue, or even transportation to get down to the community garden,” Jenni explains.

Surrounded by fencing draped with clanking, deer-dissuading tin pie plates, the plot is full of a variety of well-tended vegetables, from the conventional potato to the mysterious rutabaga. Jenni and Deborah also know of many other groups that have collaborated on garden projects for donation to the community. Theirs is just a small patch in what they hope to see grow into a larger movement. Though the struggling economy has probably bolstered the growth in gardening, both women agree that the revitalized interest is a good thing.

“It’s got people excited,” says Jenni. “And it’s really a lot of fun,” Deborah adds.

Gardeners like Jenni and Deborah are an enthusiastic lot, and that enthusiasm seems contagious. Luther College has a large community garden for faculty and staff flourishing on Pole Line Road; Waukon boasts a community garden which was planted to improve access to locally grown food; the Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness initiative maintains a heavy emphasis on fresh, healthy, and local food; the Decorah Community School District has begun working to add garden-grown produce to its cafeteria options; and even college students like myself, stereotypically both busy and cheap, are forgetting their childhood disdain and digging in.

Perhaps the pendulum is swinging in a new direction. Gardening is chic again, and the generational trend of re-learning our grandparents’ habits is inspiring. Maybe next year my roommate and I will be able to find a patch of ground on campus where we can dirty our hands and grow a few herbs and veggies. If not, the windowsill will work fine. After all, the carrots are only part of the joy. Growing them together is the real fun.

Kelly Larsen is a student of international relations, journalism, and Spanish at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Next year she dreams of growing a watermelon in her dorm room “garden.”

The Borlaug Bounty: Feeding a Billion

Painting of Borlaug’s boyhood home by Decorah artist Doug Eckheart

By Aryn Henning Nichols

Growing up a member of the Clean Plate Club, “There are starving children in Africa,” seemed merely a parental guilt tactic to get us to eat the one thing on our plates dubbed “loser” – generally the most nutritious of the sides, like lima beans or spinach. While begrudgingly eating another painful bite, we thought to ourselves, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Starving children. Who are they and what do they mean to me?”

At the same time, there was a man who also thought about starving children – plus men and women – in Africa. And India. And Mexico. Pakistan. Everywhere. He dug in the fields with them, worked in the research center for them, and developed a strain of wheat that would eventually help feed one billion people. This man’s name – like Kellogg or General Mills – should be associated with daily trips to the pantry, but even in his boyhood region of Northeast Iowa, the name Norman Borlaug is often met with a puzzled “who?”

A rural Cresco native, Norman Borlaug is debatably one of the most influential people of the 20th century. The father of the “Green Revolution,” he developed a disease-resistant, high-yield variety of dwarf wheat in an effort to fight world hunger. He is one of only five people in history to have won a specific trio of honors: the Nobel Peace Prize (1970), the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1977), and the Congressional Gold Medal (2007). The other four? Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, Elie Wiesel, and Nelson Mandela. But despite the numerous accolades, Borlaug somehow manages to maintain his simple Iowa demeanor.

“I have always been impressed with how common and down-to-earth he is, even though he is an international hero and has met with and negotiated with presidents and dictators,” says Larry Stevenson, Norman Borlaug Heritage Foundation board president. “He is very likely better known in some countries than he is in his own home state.”

Born in 1914, Borlaug grew up like many other boys at that time: he worked the field with his father and planned to attend his one-room schoolhouse until eighth grade, then get back to the family farm indefinitely. But it was a time filled with innovation and determination, and enough people saw a spark in Borlaug that they encouraged him to imagine another direction, starting with high school. Education, Borlaug’s Norwegian grandfather Nels said, was key.

“He was always a very curious boy,” says Borlaug’s sister, Charlotte Culbert, one sunny afternoon at the Borlaug homestead. “My sister Palma and I figured he would do something great. I remember he would say, ‘If you can’t do something, tackle it another way. Try and reach for the stars.’”

The stars were in Borlaug’s sights all the while. Through a Depression-era program called the National Youth Administration, Borlaug was fortunate enough to be able to attend college at the University of Minnesota. He graduated with a degree in forestry, years of wrestling under his belt (he even helped introduce the sport to Minnesota high schools), and an interest in food crops and plant breeding. His forest service job was cut after just a couple of years, so Borlaug headed back to the U of M to study plant pathology. He received a Master of Science in 1939 and a Doctorate in 1942.

After two years as a microbiologist on the staff of the du Pont de Nemours Foundation in Delaware, Borlaug accepted a position in rural Mexico organizing and directing the Cooperative Wheat Research and Production Program. Over the next two decades he developed his best-known achievement: a strain of dwarf wheat that tripled grain production there. This eventually led to the “Green Revolution,” the development of high-yielding crops in conjunction with technologies like hybrids, fertilizers, and pesticides. He worked in the fields as much as possible, right alongside Mexican farmers the research was to benefit. Some new varieties of grains produced yields two to four times that of traditional strains, shortened the time required for growth, and produced a plant that could handle diseases and extreme climates.

The Green Revolution spread across the world. With help from the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations and additional government agencies, funding was increased, and in 1963 the Mexico research institution called The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center was founded. The resulting research benefited millions worldwide. Starting in India and Pakistan, the revolution continued on to Southeast Asia, China and beyond. It was “a temporary success in man’s war against hunger and deprivation,” Borlaug has said, not an answer to the real problem. It would merely allow more time to figure out a long-term solution.

“I think Norm brought the technology to needy countries at a critical time,” Stevenson says. “I’m certain it would have happened eventually, but I think the work ethic, passion, and value system that Norm brought with him was unique and critical to the success of the effort. Norm focused on helping individual farmers improve their production capacity, making them self sufficient and capable of making a living for themselves and their families.”

Borlaug, who passed away September 12, 2009, had put enough work in for five men’s lifetimes by the mid 1980s. 70 years old, he was semi-retired and ready to take it a little easier. But Japanese businessman and philanthropist Ryoichi Sasakawa had other plans. Why wasn’t anyone doing anything about all the starving people in Africa? After decades of research and fieldwork, Borlaug thought he was “too old” to go to a place like Africa to continue the battle against world hunger. To that Sasakawa responded: “I’m 15 years older than you. We should have started yesterday.” Although Sasakawa has since passed away, his and Borlaug’s work continues in Africa. Hunger is not something Borlaug will ever consider beaten, at least not in his lifetime.

“He thinks about world hunger all the time,” says Borlaug Heritage Foundation board member Don Arendt. “No matter when you speak with him, he eventually talks about hungry people.”


Borlaug is and was so entrenched in advancing efforts to challenge poverty and world hunger that after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, with the help of Carleton Smith and General Food Corporation, he created a new award to recognize exceptional achievement in agriculture: the World Food Prize.

Gifted at the annual Laureate Award Ceremony, the $250,000 prize is now endowed by philanthropist, businessman, and fellow Iowan John Ruan. Ruan “saved” the prize from defunct status in 1989 when General Foods withdrew its sponsorship. He moved headquarters to Des Moines, Iowa, and put together a foundation with a bi-partisan Council of Advisors including names such as former Philippine President Corazon Aquino; former U.S. Presidents Jimmy Carter and George Bush; and H.E. Joaquim Chissano, former President of Mozambique. Chairman until 2003, Ruan supported the prize because he feels a second Green Revolution is necessary to prevent the possibility of future food crises. Today his son, John Ruan III, serves as chairman.

The Prize recipients, hailing from locations all over the world, have contributed a range of research and advancements in agriculture and the fight against global hunger. The World Food Prize also holds an International Symposium and a Global Youth Institute each October – this year it will run from October 14 through 16 and the focus is “Food, Agriculture, and National Security in a Globalized World.” Recently renamed “The Borlaug Dialogue,” the symposium fosters a discussion on world hunger and related issues. It brings more than 700 people from 60-plus countries to Des Moines each fall for what organizers call “the most significant observance of World Food Day anywhere around the globe.” They talk about topics like the threat of agro-terrorism, the impending global water crisis, the worldwide challenges of obesity and malnutrition, and the impact of biofuels.

There is, of course, a flip side to the coin, and to tell you the truth, food and population are pretty darn political. First there are the age-old Malthusian Theorists who believe population overgrowth will perpetually get “righted” by famine and epidemics. In 1798, Thoman Malthus published “An Essay on the Principle of Population” describing his theory. He made two main points that supposedly proved his assessment: “First, that food is necessary to the existence of man. Secondly, that the passion between the sexes is necessary and will remain nearly in its present state… I say, that the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.” Basically, our population would outgrow our resources and widespread mortality was a necessary evil.

Borlaug battled this theory, and seemingly won, at least for now. According to a June 2009 National Geographic Magazine article, “The Global Food Crisis: The End of Plenty,” by Joel K. Bourne, Jr., the benefits of the Green Revolution in terms of production alone are hard to deny. “India hasn’t experienced famine since Borlaug brought his seeds to town,” it says, “while world grain production has more than doubled. Some scientists credit increased rice yields along with the existence of 700 million more people on the planet.”
Whether this is a good or bad thing is highly debated. But what could Borlaug do? Just let a nation starve?

“I have never experienced nor witnessed severe hunger or starvation, but I suspect those that have come away with a dedication to finding a way to stop it and prevent it from reoccurring,” Stevenson says. “Norm admits that it will take more than just increased food production to feed the growing population, it will also require educating people about population growth.”

Next, there are, of course, problems with the Green Revolution that – like so many things – are clearly viewed in hindsight. In the 80s Borlaug was met by a borage of criticism: pesticides, it seemed, were a probable cause of cancer, fertilizer was far from the natural, organic way that was taking the Western world by storm, and irrigation systems were expensive, impractical, and damaging to the land of these developing countries the new technologies were supposedly benefiting. And while Borlaug has been known to admit that some of these things, specifically pesticides, could be harmful, it never trumps the immediate need to eat.

“Some of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists,” Borlaug says in a 2000 interview with Reason Magazine. “They’ve never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the world, as I have for 50 years, they’d be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things.”

Even pesticides, he says in the same interview, get a bad rap. “All serious agronomists know that pesticides must be kept to a minimum, and besides, pesticides are expensive. But somehow the media believe the overspraying is still going on, and thus creates a bias against high-yield agriculture.”

This statement is hard for the wave of organic-lovers to swallow, no pun intended. Ironically, the term “green” today refers to organic, sustainable, eco-friendly habits (when it has long been used to refer to cash). My own clean plate last night consisted of a frittata with local eggs, a salad with greens from our CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), and grass-fed bacon from our friends’ organic farm, Grass Run Farm. And it was good. Plus we enjoy supporting our neighbors and feel healthier, personally, when we eat organic and local food.

But not everyone in the world can have access to this luxury. In an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal published July 30, 2009, Borlaug writes: “Even here at home, some elements of popular culture romanticize older, inefficient production methods and shun fertilizers and pesticides, arguing that the U.S. should revert to producing only local organic food. People should be able to purchase organic food if they have the will and financial means to do so, but not at the expense of the worlds’ hungry – 25,000 of whom die each day from malnutrition.”

With the population estimated to lurch upwards of 9 billion by 2030, scientists are predicting the need for another Green Revolution to meet the requirements this will produce: reportedly double the current food production. Organic, Borlaug says, is simply not practical for everyone.

But just maybe this new green revolution could be a hybrid itself. Perhaps there is room in the world to both feed the hungry and educate them on population control and healthy farming practices. We need to find solutions to get us to the next moment and solutions to get us to the next generation. The goal: Staying alive while also having a good quality of life. But no matter what, there needs to be something in the bellies of the world’s people.

“Of history, one thing is certain: Civilization as we know it could not have evolved, nor can it survive, without an adequate food supply,” Borlaug writes.

No one would have thought that one man could feed a billion people, so who knows what the next generation of thinkers, scientists and farmers will bring. A Borlaug of the new era? In an Iowa Public Television program, the determined father of the Green Revolution encourages the masses to try.
“Too many people are satisfied with mediocrity,” he says. “They never try to attain their maximum potential. They don’t reach for the stars. If they did, there would be more people with stardust on their hands.”

Aryn Henning Nichols learned a lot about food and farming in the research of this story. It honestly made her head hurt more than a little bit, and led to many an interesting conversation/debate in the Inspire(d) headquarters kitchen.


Learn more about Norman Borlaug at www.normanborlaug.org

Driftless? Try Drift-more: Another Look at Why We Love the Driftless Area

By Lauren Kraus
Printed in the October/November 2008 edition of Inspire(d)

This is the fourth in a series of articles that serves as a tribute and tutorial of the amazing hiking, biking, and walking trails in the Driftless Area, a region in the Midwest lacking “glacial drift.” By escaping the glacier’s path in the most recent Ice Age, the Driftless Area was not flattened out like much of the Midwest. Thus, the trails and scenery are supreme.

Nature is second nature to me. I don’t even think twice about choosing between watching a movie and going for a hike or a run. Don’t get me wrong – who doesn’t love a good movie? – But, being outside keeps me ticking, brings me peace and makes me happy.

This is why I have delighted in getting out and exploring several areas of our region here in Northeast Iowa. This land is just awaiting adventurers to trod its trusty ground and relish in spectacular views. I sincerely hope you have enjoyed and gotten good use out of the trail suggestions I have brought to Inspire(d) during the spring and summer months, and check back in the spring for a continuation of the series.

Let us recap: we started off learning of this area’s unique natural landscape known as the “Driftless Area” – a region in the Upper Midwest lacking “glacial drift” and consequently being laden with deep river valleys, rolling bluffs and pronounced limestone outcroppings. First, romping around on Decorah’s awesome trails makes us realize how great this locale is. Next, we were wowed by the rugged variety offered at Pine Bluff 4-H camp and Coon Creek. In September, we went a little further and soaked in the lush Bear Creek and Pine Creek areas. I think Jerry Garcia and friends would agree, what a long, great trip it’s been.

As this year’s trail series wraps up and you snuggle into a comfy sweater in preparation for crisp fall days and cool evenings, keep hiking! When the snow greets us, pull out those skis and snowshoes! Keep taking solace in the beauty that encompasses Decorah and the surrounding region. The access to remote landscape is right out your backdoor and the abundance of rugged trails is great enough to write articles for years to come. You have got to love this area.

For this issue, we’re heading northwest of Decorah to two little hidden gems a fellow outdoor enthusiast recently introduced to me. A quick drive from Decorah makes Falcon Springs State Wildlife Area and Lionberger Environmental Preserve prime destinations for an afternoon stroll or a weekend hike-n-picnic outing. Whatever your mode, get out there soon to catch some enchanting fall color and an escape from the daily grind.

Falcon Springs State Wildlife Area:

This patch of land is diverse in its thick forests and open cornfields. I was amazed at the variety of trees in such a small space. Aspens (my personal favorite), sumacs and white pines provide ample forest to trek through and explore. After parking, head down a two-track road that winds down and up through an open corn field and leads to thick forest. A small loop on this road takes you around the wooded area. If you’re feeling really adventurous, take a detour on one of several deer trails that run through the forest. Hike in the direction of the white pines and you’ll find yourself in a very cool area to explore. This would also be a perfect place to try out some new snowshoes. To check out Falcon Springs: drive west on Pole Line Road about 4 miles and look to the right-hand side or the north. There is a small gravel parking area with a state wildlife area sign. Have fun.

http://www.stateparks.com/falcon_springs.html

Lionberger Environmental Preserve:

This beautiful chunk of land is located right before or just east of Falcon Springs four miles out on Pole Line Road and is owned by Luther College. Two cool forests for one easy drive. After parking on the left side of the road, you’ll start by descending a large hill leading into a deep valley. This valley opens up to lots of trails heading in every direction and ready for thorough discovery. Thick woods make it easy to get lost in thought in this rugged forest. Put on your boots and hit the trails!

Lauren Kraus loves the quiver of aspens in the wind and the sound of leaves crunching and bats chirping as they flutter around her apartment when they squeeze in for some fun. Ok, the bat part is a lie. Thank goodness for brave mavericks who kindly take them outside.