Thursday, February 26, 2009

Land Trusts for Food Farmers in El Paso?

I will be attending the "Taste of Frontera" tonight - the annual fundraising dinner for the Frontera Land Alliance. It will be held at my favorite restaurant - Ardovino's Desert Crossing in Anapra, New Mexico.

The Frontera Land Alliance has been very involved with preserving and restoring "critically important natural land resources in the El Paso region." Its members have been intimately involved in rescuing arroyos, creating a mountain to river trail, changing ordinances, preserving open space - indeed helping to create the open space policies of the City of El Paso and the stormwater master plan.

One interest that I have in the group is the possibility of creating land trusts to help preserve farmland in the City of El Paso - a city sprawling in every possible direction. If we are to have local food, we have to have local farmers.

The Treasurer of Frontera, Charlie Wakeem, told me this:
"There have been many efforts to preserve farms in the Upper and Lower Valleys.
The Frontera Land Alliance (the local land trust) has tried to educate small farmers in the area about the advantages of conservation easements. Conservation easements have been successful on working lands, both farms and ranches,
throughout the country. Problem is, our valleys are too close to a rapidly growing urban community - El Paso, TX. Developers offer them many times the value of their land so they can develop them. It's all about $$$$$$. If a farm is worth $3,000.00 per acre and the farmer is offered $30,000.00 per acre and you were the farmer just barely squeaking out a living growing corn, what would you do?"
Just what is a conservation easement? It "is a legal agreement that limits the amount of development that can occur on a property. A landowner partners with a land trust organization to set up this agreement. Conservation easements are very flexible. In return for agreeing not to develop the land, a private landowner may be compensated either by a direct payment or a tax write-off."

A good source of information and strategies to preserve farm land can be found at American Farmland Trust.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Define "Local" for El Paso

So what is "local food" for El Paso? How do we define it. We could start by talking about El Paso as part of the Chihuahuan Desert. We could define the ecosystem that stretches nearly 500 miles south to Torreon and more than 300 miles north to Albuquerque. However, eating local food has much more to do with the energy that it takes to move food to a market and the freshness and nutritional value of that food when we eat it. When we talk about local food for El Paso, we can talk about native and adaptive plants in our area as food sources. But, to be fair to the local food movement, we need to define a radius around the city.
100-mile diet advocates, Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon, began their now famous 100-mile diet challenge in agriculturally rich British Columbia. Although El Paso may have been agriculturally diverse less than 100-years ago, it isn't so much today.
A 100-mile radius around El Paso does get us to the apples of Cloudcroft, the pistachios of Alamogordo, the chili fields of Hatch, New Mexico and, of course, the extensive pecan orchards just across the border in New Mexico as well as those in El Paso County. A very good beginning. However, we miss some of the farms of Sonora, Mexico.
If we go to a 250-mile or 300-mile radius, then we touch Tucson and Lubbock and almost Hermosillo and pick-up those exotic flavors around Santa Fe and Taos. In a area not as agriculturally diverse as British Columbia or the States of Washington and Oregon, a regional view over a local view might be better. Eating locally for El Pasoans is probably best defined as eating regionally. We will keep an eye on both.
One sad word about food from Mexico. Although we get much of our produce from Mexico, it may come at a price.
A recent story posted on the Newspaper Tree highlights "the human toll of child labor in northern Mexico’s agricultural export industry." Green beans, child labor and NAFTA reports the about the literal slavery of children and their endangerment (even death) in food production and distribution in Mexico. I hate to think that the green beans that I buy at the grocery store supports the slavery of children - but there you have it. There are a number of good reasons to eat locally and sustainably including taste and nutrition. However, having a conscience is just as important. It is something to think about and a topic we will return to here at elpasonaturally.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

No Sacramento Mountains Apples Ever Sold at Albertson's in El Paso

If I want to buy pistachios at Albertson's, I can't buy what is grown just up the street in Alamogordo. I have to buy nuts grown in California, shipped to New Jersey for packaging and distribution, shipped back to the regional Albertson's warehouse in Phoenix and finally shipped to their Kern Place store. I'm not going to take the time adding up the mileage. However, to go back and forth across the country a couple of times is nearly 6,000 miles! 6,000 miles when pistachios are grown 90 miles away in Alamogordo. (By the way, I recently emailed Eagle Ranch in Alamogordo and asked them why they didn't sell directly to retailers in El Paso. I never got a reply; so, the next time I'm up there, I'll stop by and ask someone in person.)

I can never buy apples grown in Cloudcroft at Albertson's - but I can get plenty from the State of Washington or from Chile in South America. The orchards in Hillsboro, NM are in the process of being dug up and destroyed.

There is dairy cattle in our area - but Price's milk often costs more than Sarah's from Arizona or the store brand which probably comes from the Northwest. There are good local cheeses made in and near El Paso. But 99% of the cheese at Albertson's is from faraway.

Fortunately, most chilies I find are locally grown - but the corn from corn tortillas is definitely not local although it could be.

Albertson's has plenty of Australian wine - but only a few bottles from Fort Stockton, Texas - 238 miles down the road. It does have a few local New Mexican wines from near La Union. But it has more Californian and Washington wines. (If it is going to ship wine from the Northwest, I wish at least that they would get a decent Pinot Noir. There are many good ones made in Oregon.)

I made a pumpkin pie today. The evaporated milk comes from faraway. The cage free eggs came from the Midwest and were shipped to California for distribution before wending their way here via that warehouse in Phoenix. Certainly the spices and the sugar did not come from around here. (Next time I'll try honey from Las Cruces, New Mexico or Clint, Texas.) I could have made my own crust - but even if I could - the flour definitely is not local. Only the pumpkin pulp was truly local. The pumpkins were locally grown. I bought them last fall, baked them, and froze the pulp in packets of roughly 1-1/2 cups pulp each.

We spend a lot of money to package and process and ship food hither and yon. (Energy independence? Don't expect it any time soon as long as we have the food system that we have.) We live in a system dominated by major food corporations and factory farms and vast commodity farmers, subsidized by the federal government. The small farmer just raising food crops has virtually disappeared in our neck of the woods (desert?) even if there is a renaissance of small farmers across the country - farms subsidized by a non-farm income by the farmer or his or her partner.

Processed, shipped food is not as nearly nutritious as the food itself. As we are far removed from the source of our food and food production is in the hands of a few, breakdowns can be devastating as we are seeing currently with a salmonella outbreak from the Peanut Corporation of America - a company that handled less than 3% of the peanuts in the country. 3%! Yet, nine dead, hundreds sick and more than 2,000 product recalls.

No wonder interest in local food has recently increased. No wonder locovore is the newest word in the dictionary. No wonder why there are those promoting 100-mile diets or even debating local food versus regional food and not even considering national/international food.

Question is: How are we doing in El Paso. Not well, I'm afraid to say. Not well at all.

BTW - the picture above is one of those gigantic Albertson's regional warehouses - this one in Oklahoma.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Feeding the Children

When I visited the Lee and Beulah Moor Children's Home the other day, Jim Thomas gave me a list of foods that people can donate. That list is as follows:

# 10 (gallon) can of tropical fruit
# 10 (gallon) can of fruit cocktail
# 10 (gallon) can Mandarin Oranges
# 10 (gallon) can peaches
# 10
(gallon) can green beans
# 10 (gallon) can corn
# 10 (gallon) can
Alfredo sauce
# 10 (gallon) can tomato sauce
# 10 (gallon) can green
enchilada sauce
# 10 (gallon) Rague
12-14 oz. can of cream of mushroom
12-14 oz. can of cream of chicken soup
Rice (large bulk bags)
Jello mix
Cans of Pam non-stick spray
Cake mix
Cake frosting
Bags of instant potatoes
Baking cups
Star pasta
Dried pinto
beans (large bulk bags)
Chocolate drink mix (encourages children to drink
Sugar (large bulk bags)
Flour (large bulk bags)

He said that they would always accept smaller cans if gallon cans are not possible.

Jim also gave me a list of food that will feed 70 children and a cottage staff for one month. This is a good list for larger businesses and organizations to donate:

14 bags Skinless boneless chicken breast (frozen 10 each per bag – Sam’s Club)
8 bags Skinless boneless chicken thighs (frozen about 10 each per bag –
35 lbs. Ground beef
400 each Corn tortillas
10 dozen Flour
4 each # 10 (gallon) can of tropical fruit
4 each # 10
(gallon) can of fruit cocktail
4 each # 10 (gallon) can Mandarin Oranges
4 each # 10 (gallon) can peaches
4 each # 10 (gallon) can green beans
4 each # 10 (gallon) can corn
480 each Dinner rolls
25 lbs. Broccoli
8 pkg. Fideo pasta
18 each Cucumbers
1 bottle Lemon juice
5 lbs. Potatoes
4 boxes Sherbert
2 gal. Cooking oil
1 gal. Green
enchilada sauce
2 each 12-14 oz. can of cream of mushroom soup
2 each
12-14 oz. can of cream of chicken soup
10 lbs. Rice
6 heads Lettuce
25 each Tomatoes
2 each Large ranch dressing
5 lbs. Onions
lbs. Fresh garlic
44 each Oranges
20 pkg. Jello mix
32 gal. Milk
8 each Cans of Pam non-stick spray
1 each Paprika
1 each Black
2 each Seasoned salt
2 lbs. Salt
2 each Large pkg. of baby
2 bundle Cilantro
4 each # 10 (gallon) can Alfredo sauce
each Can pesto
3 each Boxes of Texas Toast garlic bread
16 lbs. Grapes
8 boxes Cake mix
8 cans Frosting
3 each 18 count eggs
2 each
Bags of instant potatoes
100 each Baking cups
2 each # 10 (gallon) can
tomato sauce
9 pkg. Star pasta
25 each Apples
100 pkg. Single
serving assortment pkg. corn or potato chips
30 lbs. Brisket meat
each Frozen corn on the cob
1 each Gallon pickle relish (dill)
2 stalks
2 each Gallon of mayonnaise
6 lbs. Butter
25 lbs. Pork loin
4 pkg. Chile pods
14 lbs. Dried pinto beans
100 each Ice cream
2 pkg. Frozen oriental stir-fry vegetables
60 each Egg rolls
each 64 oz. chocolate drink mix (Quick)
2 boxes Rice Krispies
5 pkg.
10 loaves Sandwich bread
25 lbs. Sugar
25 lbs. Flour
60 each Chicken fried steak
5 lbs. Cheddar cheese
5 lbs. Mozzarella
25 lbs. Beef stew meat
1 each # 10 (gallon) Ragu
6 lbs.
Cottage cheese

That's quite a shopping list. However, if you or your business or organization can help in a big or small way, contact Jim.

Now imagine, if instead of subsidizing just cotton in our area, what would it be like to have encouraged small farmers raising food crops? What would it be like to encourage them now through better City ordinances, state laws and federal funding? Of course, there is plenty of cheese and chili pods and eggs around here. And, at one time, corn and apples. Imagine sustaining a home such as our Children's Home with local food . . . or natively available food. It is something we should begin to talk about in earnest.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Unsustainable Landscaping; Sustainable Children

This entry was meant to be a "second" in a series on bad landscaping. Xeriscaping is one thing. What we too often see around El Paso is ZERO-scaping.

I learned from my friend, Virginia Morris - a Master Master Gardener and immediate past President of the El Paso County Master Gardeners Association - about the Lee and Beulah Moor Children's Home. She is organizing a landscaping project there to do some xeriscaping, a cactus garden and offer greenhouse support. As you can see, a rather ugly ZERO-scaping job was done at some time in the past at the Home:

It's just strips of 1-1/4" rock. To add insult to injury, the "landscaper" put down landscape plastic which, according to Morris, is "impervious to water and oxygen." What she uses is landscape fabric. "The fabric impedes weeds, but lets water and nutrients penetrate through to the soil below," she told me.

Like all ZERO-scaping, these strips contain just rock - no native, desert-adapted plants. Nothing of beauty. Nothing inspiring. No place for children to meditate and find a quiet space where they can reach deep inside themselves and dream.

Virginia's pursuit of a xeriscaping project follows her conversation with Jim Thomas, the Senior Administrator of Development and Activities for the Home. Jim teaches the children about the use of native foods, stresses the need for each child to develop life-sustaining skills and attitudes, and offers them challenges so that they can gain the confidence that they can accomplish what they want to in life. He is currently adding a greenhouse to the school with the help of some local businesses. Children will be able to grow vegetables and then use those plants when they help with the cooking.

I will be writing much more about Jim and the Children's Home especially as we undertake the landscaping and assist in anyway that we can with the greenhouse. (I too am a Master Gardener, a member of the El Paso Cactus and Rock Club, and the El Paso Chapter of the Native Plant Society.) Since one objective of this blog is to write about local food, urban farming and ethnobotany, I'll be following this project.
However, there is far more to the story and today's entry is just a beginning.
Typically children come to the home for a variety of reasons: inability of a parent to provide adequate supervision or care for the child, family economic problems or unemployment, school problems, family violence or discord, difficulty with the child’s acceptance of parental divorce or re-marriage, safety or protection problems for the child in his/her living environment, minor behavioral problems, parental health problems, and so forth.
The Children's Home depends on local support in order to provide a range of services to 65 children currently in residence and their families. Of course, given the current economic conditions, all non-profits require continuing support. Board members of the children's home want El Pasoans to know that "although the economy has made it more difficult to provide basic needs for these children, no child has been sent home, and their needs are being met, largely through the support of people like you."
Your donations are certainly needed and can be done online. They will also take donations of food and you can contact Jim for a list of food that will feed the children. I'll also be publishing those lists online as well.
This story isn't going away. Today is just a start.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Urban Sprawl

The El Paso City Council yesterday voted unanimously to annex some additional land on the eastside. Local Sierra Club President Bill Addington spoke to the Council about Sierra Club's policy that cities should attempt to fill inward rather than annexing new land.

In its Sprawl Overview, the Sierra Club states: "Poorly planned development threatens our environment, our health, and our quality of life in numerous ways. Sprawl spreads development out over large amounts of land; puts long distances between homes, stores, and job centers; and makes people more and more dependent on driving in their daily lives."

There is a large section on the Club's web site devoted to the issue of sprawl.

The Project for Public Spaces has also discussed the issue of sprawl extensively.

El Paso really doesn't have a comprehensive plan for sustainable development. The Open Space plan, the Parks Master Plan and the soon-to-be-released Stormwater Management Plan are steps in the right direction as are new development ordinances. Nevertheless there is no plan for sustainability - one that also takes into account the preservation of native plants and animals.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Urban Farming: A Reality on the Borderland?

Friend, Matt Venhaus, let me know about the new community garden started in the historic Mesquite District of Las Cruces. There are 24 - 8 x 4 foot plots along with sheds for tools, irrigation and security. The garden is a project of Las Esperanzas Inc., a group dedicated to restoring this historic district. Gardeners will be able to receive support from the New Mexico State Cooperative Extension Service Master Gardeners.

Activist Tanya Raven said, "I hope it flourishes and multiplies. There are so many little undeveloped pockets of land sprinkled throughout towns that can be utilized in ways like this - best would be near apartments where people typically don't have an inch of soil to use."

To learn more about urban farming visit Urban Harvest or Urban Farming which has a great video at the start of its home page.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Unsustainable Landscaping

Recently a beautification project was completed at the detention ponds between Mobile and Memphis avenues in El Paso. This project is part of two such projects - the other is currently being completed at the detention pond at Harrison and Alabama.

Here is a picture of the job just underway when some plants were added along Louisiana:

Here is a picture of the same place after completion:

Notice the addition of all of the rock.

Now here is a shot of a "park" added just below the place where water during a storm runs off from the detention pond onto Memphis and then down Elm Street:

Here is a closer view of the "park" showing landscaping with screenings:

First, there is just too much rock piled in one area. Why is this unsustainable? Take a look at that huge portion of the Franklin Mountains which Cemex is quickly taking down:

The mountain is not going to grow back!

The problem with the screenings is that they cannot be sustained in this area. Once flood water starts running through this "park", the screenings will wash down Elm Street. The screenings will have to be replaced unless a more sustainable solution can be found once and for all.

Today's post is just a first in a series of the differences between real xeriscaping and El Paso's penchant to "zero"scape and bring the mountain down in the process.