Archive for the ‘Feature’ Category

Should You Buy a Farm Share? 10 Reasons to Join Your Local CSA

Friday, March 31st, 2017

colourful vegetables ready to go at a local CSA (community supported agriculture)
Once a rarity, CSAs (short for community supported agriculture) and farm shares have taken off in the last decade. Why? Because CSAs offer a fantastic opportunity for both farmer and eater. Here’s how it works: Each season, CSA members pay a set fee for a “share” of the farmer’s harvest. The farmers have a guaranteed income, and members get piles of incredibly fresh produce at a very affordable price. If there’s a bumper crop, shares are larger, and if there’s a crop failure, they’re smaller, but farmers don’t have to worry about going into debt if weather or disease affects their harvest.

Our CSA farm share is one of our favorite things about summer. Every week we go to ‘our farm’ to roam the fields and snack on berries, peas, and tomatoes. We come home with bags filled with fresh, tasty greens, peppers, herbs, squash, and so much more. Our diet transforms as we gorge ourselves on vast quantities of delicious fruits and veggies grown with care by our amazing farmers, who have also become our friends.

Here are 10 terrific reasons to find a CSA and buy a farm share this season:

1. You’ll Enjoy the Freshest Food Imaginable

Fruits and vegetables in your share are picked just hours before you come to collect them or they’re delivered right to you. Your veggies don’t need to get shipped long distances or sit on shelves for days on end, so they’re at their peak flavor and nutrition. Friends I’ve encouraged to join CSAs discover that they didn’t know how good carrots actually taste. If you belong to a farm that includes pick-your-own crops, you can enjoy sweet, juicy cherry tomatoes and peas right off the vine! By eating with the seasons, you’ll enjoy the freshest, best-tasting food money can buy.

rainbow-hued beets and carrots from a community farm share

2. You’ll Know Where Your Food Comes From

When my farmers explain the origins of CSAs, they always mention the slogan associated with the movement when it began in Japan in the 1970s: “food with a farmers’ face.” Our current system of food production and distribution means more often than not we don’t know where our food comes from or who grew it. CSAs bring us into close contact with our farmers and their farms, connecting us to our food and what it takes to grow it. CSA farmers go into the business because they, too, want to be connected to those they grow for. One of the many pleasures of picking up your farm share is chatting with the farmers and learning more about their operation.

3. Your Farm Share Will Support Local Farmers

Small farmers growing diverse crops don’t receive government subsidies, and the possibility of bad weather and disease makes small-scale farming a financially risky business. Erin Johnson of Open Hands Farm in Northfield, Minnesota, says that the community and security offered by CSAs initially drew her to the model. While the CSA isn’t as lucrative as wholesale farming, Johnson says that sharing the risks with members make it “a great deal for farmers.” Having some assurance that a hailstorm won’t destroy their livelihood makes the endeavor more feasible. Paying ahead for a season’s produce also means the farmers have money to buy seeds and supplies before the growing season. I love knowing that my food dollars help support sustainable farming practices like those used by Open Hands.

4. You’ll Shrink Your ‘Foodprint’

If you’re used to buying produce at the grocery store, a CSA share at a farm near you can seriously cut the impact of your dinner. With no packaging and minimal transportation, your food gets to your table with a far smaller footprint than store-bought food. Just be sure to bring your own reusable bags and containers. Our farm keeps a supply of clean yogurt containers and produce boxes available for collecting cherry tomatoes, beans, and other goodies from the field.

5. You Can Save Money

little girl picking and eating fresh raspberries
CSAs are a win-win for farmer and consumer. The farmer has an assured income, and the consumer saves big on buying food. My farmers often ask, in an end-of-season survey, how much we’d pay for the same food at the store. It’s really a trick question, since you simply can’t buy food this good at the store! But if I bought the same types of organic food as I get with my roughly $15 per week farm share, I’d easily be spending double many weeks on less delicious food (even more on the weeks I get to pick containers full of berries and bags full of basil). If I had the time to devote to picking and preparing everything the farm offers, savings would be greater still.

Not all farms have pick-your-own crops, but those that do find that they can save a lot of labor by letting their shareholders go gather their own berries, beans, herbs, and flowers. Much of the cost when you buy a bunch of basil or a container of cherry tomatoes is labor. When you do the labor yourself, the farmers don’t have to charge for it. And most of us love picking (and snacking on) fresh-off-the-vine peas, beans, and other farm delights.

Note that your habits will affect how much you save. If you don’t stay on top of the food coming from the farm and it molders in the back of the refrigerator, your savings will be considerably less. If you don’t have time to collect the pick-your-own options, that will also affect your savings.

6. You’ll Eat More Vegetables

Our family splits a share with friends, and we still have trouble finding room in the refrigerator for it all. When your kitchen overflows with salad fixings, of course you’re going to eat more salad. We choose a lot of vegetables that we don’t need to cook to enjoy, so we happily snack on cucumbers, red peppers, carrots, and tomatoes to get through it all. What we’re able to buy at the store in the off-season simply can’t compare, and our vegetable consumption declines markedly when we’ve eaten up most of our farm food in December. Thankfully, we’ve usually put up some farm goodies to base meals on until the farm reopens in June.

7. You’ll Try New Things

a very purple kohlrabi
Our farm grows over 270 kinds of fruits and vegetables! With that kind of variety, you’re bound to try new things. A CSA share may offer tomatoes in shades ranging from yellow to purple, several kinds of eggplant, squash, and hot pepper, as well as lesser-known vegetables like kohlrabi. Whether they turn up in a pre-selected CSA box or you choose them yourself, needing to figure out what to do with all this food leads to exciting kitchen adventures. Many farms send out newsletters with information about the crops and what to do with them. Since joining our farm more than a decade ago, I’ve perfected a ratatouille recipe; discovered that I love kale chips, garlic scapes, and groundcherries; learned to gather numerous medicinal herbs for tea; and mastered some basic food preservation techniques. Each summer I learn something new.

8. You’ll Make New Friends

When you’re out in the field munching and picking green beans for dinner, you’re bound to strike up a conversation with the CSA member doing the same further down the row. Members of our farm are always trading tips and recipes while they gather their bounty of produce. Invariably someone asks as another selects a gnarly celeriac root, “What do you do with that?” I’ve collected and shared more recipes than I can count while visiting the farm. When I run into other CSA members around town, we always greet each other warmly. If the season hasn’t started yet, we always share our eagerness for it to start up.

9. Your Kids Will Know That Food Grows in the Ground

Kids who’ve only seen carrots in plastic grocery store bags don’t realize they grow in the dirt. Visiting a working farm every week lets them see the labor and love that goes into growing healthy food. It’s incredible how much more willing kids are to eat vegetables when they get to pick them! Summer afternoons at our farm feature fields filled with kids eagerly plucking green beans, snap peas, and sungold tomatoes and popping them into their mouths.

10. You’ll Get More Than Vegetables

Many CSAs have flowers as well as fruits and veggies, as they want to attract pollinators as well as beautify their farm and delight their members. Some also have eggs, honey, meat, cheese, or prepared foods like sauerkraut or jams. You’ll also likely find numerous culinary and medicinal herbs.

yellow rudbeckia and other flowers at a local farm share

Choosing a CSA or Farm Share

CSA models differ from farm to farm. Many present you with a pre-filled box, while others allow you to choose how to allot your share of the week’s harvest. Some include pick-your-own crops that can be an investment of time but offer incredible value. Some may even require some volunteer work as part of the share. Ask questions about how the share you’re considering is structured and talk to shareholders about how it works. If you’re a smaller household, you may want to inquire about buying a half share or splitting a share with friends. Visiting the farm during a share pickup is a great way to see how the CSA works.

Even if you grow some of your own food, a CSA can still work for you. As you get to know the strengths of your farm, you can tailor your own growing choices accordingly, focusing on things your farm doesn’t grow or doesn’t have in big enough quantities. The microclimate of your yard likely differs from that at your farm, which will affect harvest time. You can choose early or late varieties and stagger planting times to extend your season. I can never get enough strawberries or cherry tomatoes, so I focus on those. Mine are usually ready later and keep going longer than out at the farm. But I’ve stopped growing lettuce and slicer tomatoes since my farmers do it better, and I get more than we can eat from them.

CSAs will finish filling their share list as the weather warms. Find one near you in the database at Then revel in a season’s worth of some of the best produce you’ll ever taste, and all the benefits that go along with supporting your local farmers.

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Susannah Shmurak is an enthusiastic advocate for healthier, more sustainable lifestyles. She shares practical tips about gardening, food, and low-impact living at

How to Build and Nourish Healthy Garden Soil

Tuesday, March 14th, 2017

Spade in soil
Peer into a healthy garden bed and you will see much more than tiny grains. Soil is more than particulates of peat, sand and clay. Healthy, vital soil is a complex combination of medium, minerals, air, microbes, fungi, and other life that all contribute to a plant’s ability to access nutrients and retain the moisture necessary to grow.

Thankfully, improving your soil doesn’t have to be complicated. In fact, if you can create the right environment with a few simple additions, the life in the soil will actually do the work for you.

Healthy Garden Soil Tip #1: Begin With Soil Structure

To begin addressing your soil needs, you first need to look at soil structure. This includes the physical aspects of the medium you’re working with and the varying ratios of sand, clay and organic matter. That last one—organic matter—is the most fundamental element in any garden. Whether you’re adding it to a sandy soil, clay, or existing loam, it will play the most vital role in improving your soil’s quality.

That’s because organic matter is where life happens in the soil. Fungi, insects, molluscs, mites, and worms all work collectively, transforming minute particles of plant waste into a nutrient rich, healthy medium for plants to grow in. The plant waste can come from peat moss, mulches of grass clippings or shredded leaves, or compost. As the material gets watered into the soil, it slips down between sand and clay, providing aeration in dense soils, increased water retention in sandy soils, and overall improvements to the nutrient availability of any soil.


Benefits of organic matter

  • High moisture retaining capacity: Well composted organic matter can hold up to 90% of it’s weight in water.
  • Improved cation exchange: Cation exchange capacity or CEC is the number of cations a soil can exchange at a given pH. Essentially, CEC is what determines which nutrients are available to your plants and is measured as soil fertility. Organic matter has three times the cation exchange capacity of the richest clay.
  • Aeration in dense soils: Healthy soil, like any other living organism, needs airflow to thrive. Without sufficient airflow, plant roots and beneficial organisms cannot access the necessary oxygen required for growth. Additionally, carbon dioxide can build up in the soil atmosphere and plants will stunt, ceasing to grow.
  • Important nutrients: Decomposing organic matter provides the soil with nutrients that plants need to grow. Fungi, invertebrates, and microorganisms break down organic matter, converting it into the simplest forms of micro/macro nutrients, such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.

This is why you should replenish the organic matter in your garden as it succumbs to wind and water erosion over the seasons. In the wild, falling leaves, dying grasses, and local bugs and animals naturally replace organic matter in the soil. This is the natural cycle of a woodland or meadow breaking down at the end of the season. It’s also what we should try to mimic in our garden maintenance programs.

How Do You Know if Your Soil Needs Organic Matter?

In order to calculate how much organic matter you need to add to your garden, you first need to determine what kind of soil you have.

Soil TypeContent/Effect
Loam Soil40% sand, 40% organic matter, 20% clay. Ideal garden soil.
Clay SoilClay minerals, metal oxides, and little organic matter. Rich in nutrients but hard and compact when dry.
Sandy SoilUsually small rocks and minerals, very porous. Plants quickly dry out.

Perform the soil squeeze test

If you don’t know what type of soil you’re dealing with, take a handful of moist (but not wet) soil from your garden and squeeze it in your hand.
Loamy soil

  • If it retains its shape and crumbles with a poke, you have loamy soil. Lucky you! Your yearly maintenance will be minimal, requiring small additions of organic nutrients in the form of well-rotted compost every spring.
  • If it retains its shape and does not break with a poke, you have clay soil. Unfortunately, this soil needs work. Till or work your soil until the medium is quite loose. Compaction is the biggest enemy in clay soils, so avoid stepping on beds and add generous amounts of fine organic matter in the spring and fall. Top dress with larger, mulch-like clippings, sawdust, or fine chips. These will break down slowly and work their way into the soil. Clay soil is usually very rich in nutrients, so avoid fertilization unless a soil test demands it.
  • If it crumbles when you open your hand, you have a sandy soil. This is the most common and the easiest soil to amend. On its own, sandy soil drains so quickly it can be hard to keep up with the watering. This is because sand particles are large and coarse, which allows water to move through it very quickly, causing plants to wilt soon after a rainfall. Sand has no capacity to retain water without the help of lots of organic matter and a bit of clay. Over time, and with regular additions, you can turn sandy soil into a nice rich loam.

Healthy Garden Soil Tip #2: Understand Soil pH

One thing to understand when physically building your soil is that your plants’ access to soil nutrients depends upon soil structure and pH. For example, your soil could be rich with nutrition, but if the pH is out of range, your plants can’t access much of it.

Soil pH is the measurable level of acidity or alkalinity of the soil medium. The measurable range is between 1 and 14, with 1 being highly acidic and 14 being highly alkaline. Plant nutrients are only available at a certain pH and can become unavailable when pH is too far from the ideal range, as in the case of iron being “locked out” in alkaline soils.

Availability of Nutrients According to pH
Ideally a vegetable bed should be on the slightly acidic side of 6.5 to access the nutrients required for the majority of crops. For landscape plants such as forsythia, wiegelia, lilac, and boxwood, you want a soil that is more alkaline—with a pH of 7.5.

You can change the pH in your garden bed with a few amendments, but not before you do an accurate soil test to determine what you need. Adding lime will sweeten the soil up, bringing it from acidic towards alkaline, whereas sulfur will acidify the soil for plants like rhododendrons and camellias. Over-applying either of these amendments can cause harm and under-applying would be a waste, which is why a soil test is necessary. Testing your soil is worth repeating every spring.

For a more detailed list of soil amendments that will help you improve your soil’s structure and pH, see the table below. To understand fertilizers and how to add them to your garden, you can find a detailed article here

Soil AmendmentPurpose and Effect
CompostThe most valuable amendment. Adds rich organic matter to the soil.
ManureAdds rich organic matter but may contain weed seeds.
PeatRaises soil acidity, increases aeration, and improves moisture retention. A limited resource.
CoirConserves water, improves soil structure, and helps plants retain nutrients. An abundant, renewable resource.
Grass clippingsHelps condition and aerate the soil when used as mulch, adding organic matter as it breaks down. Be careful of the source: some grass clipping may contain chemical pesticides.
Fall leavesExcellent as mulch. Adds organic matter as it breaks down, helping to aerate the soil and increase moisture retention.
Wood shavings/chipsAdd as mulch to the top layer of soil. Best for clay soils that needs conditioning. Add grass clippings or manure beneath to facilitate decomposition.
Green manure cropsHelp lighten and enrich the soil, adding nutrients and organic matter. Can also help break up clay soils.
LimeIncreases the alkalinity of your soil. Will help create crumb structure in clay soils.
Wood ashWill increase pH of soils, add potassium and calcium, and help improve soil structure in clay soils.

Recognizing that soil is a living component of your garden and that it needs to be nurtured and cared for will lead to healthier plants and tastier crops. And everyone benefits from that outcome.

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How to Build & Nourish Healthy Garden Soil

Jessica Dawe owns a garden center and has been practicing integrated pest management and permaculture since graduating in 1995 with a degree in horticulture.

How to Compost in an Apartment

Wednesday, March 8th, 2017

Apartment building
When I was growing up, my family compost pile was a mound of stinking black earth decorated with vegetable peelings, nutshells, and denuded, forgotten apple cores. Teeming with worms and other wriggling digesters, the pile took six months or more to transform our jettisoned detritus into the fragrant loam my mother would later scatter at the base of her peonies.

The pile was not something that could ever work in an apartment.

But not all composts are created equally, and if you have ever rejected composting because of a less-than-spacious abode, think again. Today’s composters are streamlined and odor-free, offering options to accommodate even the smallest of apartments. Is it time for you to get on the composting bandwagon?

The Benefits of Composting

While you may not have peonies demanding a steady diet of nutrient-rich fertilizer, composting has other benefits. Not only can apartment dwellers use that black gold to feed house plants and patio containers, you can also reduce household waste and save yourself a trip to the dumpster.

Food scraps
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, food is the biggest ingredient in American trash. Currently more than 35% of the average garbage can is filled with kitchen scraps—scraps that could be diverted from the landfill altogether.

And diverting those scraps is important. When tossed into landfills, organic waste generates methane gas, something that doesn’t happen when you compost. Methane is a harmful greenhouse gas that increases the rate of global climate change. In fact, municipalities like Seattle, San Franciso, and New York City operate curbside collection and composting programs and get a carbon credit for their efforts. Despite this, about 95% of food scraps in the US are still thrown away.

To help reduce emissions and divert your share of organic waste, apartment composting is the answer. Luckily, there are several great ways to compost in an apartment. The type you choose will depend on your situation.

Apartment Composting Option #1: Private Collection Service

If you live in a community without curbside pickup courtesy of your municipality, it’s worth investigating whether or not private collection services exist. In most larger centers without municipal collection, small businesses run residential compost pick-up on a for-profit basis. That means apartment dwellers using services like Boston’s Bootstrap Composting can expect to pay $10 per week (or $12 every two weeks) for the removal of a five-gallon pail of scraps. The company replaces this with a clean bucket, ready to go for another round. Three times per year they also offer subscribers the opportunity to take home five pounds of compost (though this isn’t mandatory).

Is private compost collection right for you?

  • Private compost collection is convenient and trouble-free. You are supporting local businesses doing good work (many donate some of the finished compost to local community gardens).
  • Curbside pickup means you never have to deal with system maintenance or cleaning issues related to composting.
  • Having someone pickup your compost is more costly than composting your own—usually over $500 per year if you pay for the service year round.

Apartment Composting Option #2: Worm Composters

Worm composters, also known as vermicomposters, are one of the most versatile composters available today. Small, portable, and fast, these composters quickly process household waste, producing nutrient-rich ‘worm tea’ suitable for houseplants and planter boxes. Best of all, worm composters don’t require turning, that backbreaking work often demanded by the less-than-tidy compost piles some of us grew up with. As a rule, organic waste doesn’t decompose quickly without mixing, but since the worms do the turning for you, your main job is to feed them regularly and give them the conditions they need to thrive.

Here’s what else you need to know about worm composting.

DIY worm composter:

The most basic homemade worm composter consists of a plastic tote perforated with holes (drainage holes in the bottom and ventilation holes in the top) and filled one third full with moistened, shredded newspaper. If you have the space, a better model uses two stacked totes —the upper tote perforated on the bottom for drainage and for worm travel. This version has two important benefits. First, you always have a place to add kitchen scraps, even when one of the totes in full. Second, the worms will make their way between totes—crawling through the holes from one to the other—to access the tote with fresh, ready-to-compost scraps. This means that with a two-story model, you can harvest the finished compost from one tote without having to separate the worms from the soil.

Ready-made worm composter:

Worm Factory 360If you don’t have the time or inclination to make your own worm composter, there are several ready-made models on the market that work well in apartments. The Worm Factory 360 is a great option for anyone looking to convert kitchen scraps into nutrient-rich fertilizer with little bother. Made from recycled plastic that comes in three colors, the Worm Factory 360 has four stacking trays, a worm ladder, a vented lid, and a spigot for siphoning off ‘worm tea.’ The design ensures odorless decomposition and offers plenty of room for your daily scraps.

What about the worms?

In most cases, you’ll need to purchase worms for your worm composter. Red wigglers are the most efficient compost worms and are widely available from most suppliers. (Note: the Worm Factory 360 comes with the option to purchase one pound of composting worms.) Allow one square foot of space per pound of worms.

Is a worm composter right for you?

  • Worm composters work well indoors or on a small balcony, providing temperatures stay between 40 and 80 F. Worms won’t survive a deep freeze and should be brought indoors when temperatures plummet. Worms also need to be protected from overheating and drowning—so watch out for direct sun and rain.
  • Worm composters work best if you have regular supply of shredded newspaper (or another source of carbon) to buffer the high nitrogen content in your kitchen scraps.
  • You can add kitchen scraps continually to your worm compost, though having multiple totes or tiers means you never have to separate worms from finished compost.
  • Worm composting is best for small-scale, small-batch composting.

Apartment Composting Option #3: Compost Tumblers

If you are lucky enough to have a good-sized balcony, or you can get permission to use your building’s rooftop patio or other communal area, you have another composting option at your fingertips: compost tumblers.

Larger than worm composters, compost tumblers are fully sealed to preserve the heat generated by your compost—thereby increasing the speed of decomposition. They are equipped with a handle or another turning mechanism to help aerate and mix the contents, and some work so quickly they can process household waste in as little as 13 days.

Because they are sealed, compost tumblers also avoid the common pest problems associated with compost bins. Rats, raccoons, mice, and other creatures can’t get into a tumbler, so they are suitable for urban areas with concerns about vermin. Their sealed design also means they don’t smell, so they are a tidy, attractive option for communal areas.

Storing compost in between trips to the tumbler

Ceramic Compost Keeper
While compost tumblers are quick and efficient, they are too big to use indoors. That means you still need a place to store your compost until you’re ready to take it outside. In an apartment or other small living area, the average compost pail can turn ripe quickly and start to smell, unless you’re emptying it daily. To cut down on potential odors, choose a stainless steel or ceramic pail with a tight fitting lid. Adding a charcoal filter will help absorb unpleasant smells.

Is a compost tumbler right for you?

  • Compost tumblers are best set up in an outdoor location with easy access. They usually take up more space than worm composters. Some models need more clearance than others for turning.
  • At some point you’ll need to stop adding scraps to a tumbler so it can fully digest the materials. That means waiting two to three weeks (or more, depending on your location) before you can use it again. To solve this issue, some tumblers have dual compartments so you can add kitchen scraps to one side while the other composts.
  • Some people may find larger compost tumblers hard to rotate when full. In this case, you may not want to fill it completely before allowing it to process.
  • Compost tumblers generally hold more material than worm composters.

Other Choices

While some people recommend Bokashi composting for apartment dwellers (a fermentation-style composting that ‘pre-composts’ your kitchen scraps), most people living in an apartment don’t have adequate space to bury the pickled matter that results from the fermentation process. Since Bokashi doesn’t produce finished compost, you still need another system to finish the job. For most apartment dwellers, that makes Bokashi composting impractical.

In the same way, electric-assist composters (coffee-maker style appliances that grind and heat your organic refuse into a dark, loamy soil) are excellent in theory. Unfortunately, mixed reviews don’t yet support the idea that these gizmos are trouble-free.

What to Put in Your Compost

No matter what type of composter you choose, it’s wise to observe a few guidelines when adding scraps to your composter’s interior. Balancing high-nitrogen vegetable and fruit scraps with carbon inputs is extremely important, both to speed decomposition and prevent unpleasant smells. For detailed information about the carbon/nitrogen content of common compost ingredients, see our chart, What to Compost.

Using Finished Compost

Even if you cultivate houseplants or seasonal patio containers, you may end up producing more compost than you can realistically use. Here’s the good news: no matter where you live, finished compost is usually in short supply. It’s a gardener’s dream, and everyone wants more. If your own building’s landscape doesn’t need it, chances are your local community garden will. Donate your excess and watch neighborhood plants thrive. Who knows? You may even find some fresh tomatoes on your doorstep as a thank you.

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How to Compost in an Apartment

Shannon Cowan
Shannon Cowan is the blog editor at She lives on six acres of land with her husband, daughters, and backyard poultry flock.

The Enduring Legacy of 4-H

Wednesday, November 16th, 2016

Girl in corn field

On a blustery fall day in the Pacific Northwest, my daughter is assessing an injury. Spreading the webbed foot of a domestic duck between her twelve-year-old fingers, she looks for telltale signs of inflammation in the crinkly, grey skin. The duck (otherwise known as Athena) has been limping for days, but she tolerates the inspection thanks to the vet-like hold my daughter uses to keep her wings secure. Responsible for raising Athena since she arrived at our house eight months ago, my daughter points to a bulbous protrusion on the duck’s foot and informs me she has “bumblefoot.” Apparently she will need an antibiotic—and possibly surgery—to stop the infection.

My daughter is not a teenaged veterinarian, but she is a member of our local 4-H poultry club. With two years under her belt raising and showing birds, she has seen a wide variety of ailments and conditions. What she doesn’t know from experience, she learns from 4-H leaders and friends, who raise everything from naked neck turkeys to homing pigeons.

Eight months ago, Athena and five other Welsh Harlequins arrived at our house looking like pint-sized fluff balls. Their arrival kicked off my daughter’s second year poultry project, which involved ushering her birds from day-old starter ducklings to fully feathered adults. The ducklings proceeded to double in size every few weeks, outgrowing their living quarters faster than any of us had anticipated. They also ate voraciously and attempted to swim in their water dish, which thankfully wasn’t big enough to accommodate them.

The 4-H slogan is “learn to do, by doing,” and their success at creating confident, self-assured kids extends far beyond the organization’s agricultural roots.

None of this fazed my daughter, who used her 4-H manual, friends, and club leader as resources any time questions came up. Between business meetings, educational workshops, and supportive phone conversations, the club provided her with everything she needed to know to raise her birds independently.

But knowledge of poultry rearing is not all the club provided. Opportunities to perform speeches, create educational displays, attend camps and conferences, and fill administrative positions offer all members the chance to gain valuable leadership skills and practical knowledge in a variety of areas. The 4-H slogan is “learn to do, by doing,” and their success at creating confident, self-assured kids extends far beyond the organization’s agricultural roots.

Founded in 1902 out of a desire to connect public school education to rural life, 4-H is now America’s largest youth development organization with satellites in more than 70 countries and more than 7 million members worldwide. But these numbers tell only part of the organization’s success story. In a world of breakneck technological advances and burgeoning urban centers, what allure does an organization that grew from America’s desire for agricultural independence have for the children of today? How and why does 4-H have such an enduring legacy?

Innovation and Appreciation for Rural Living

More than 100 years ago, educators in rural America were looking for a way to introduce agricultural innovation to farmers who were less than enthusiastic about trying new things. Driven by a study from the 1890s that called for an education closely related to the rural environment where children lived, these educators founded clubs in different parts of the US to encourage hands-on research and experimentation with agricultural technology.

They were wildly successful. Although no one person is credited with starting the 4-H we know today, the organization’s original clubs found many eager children interested in learning about technologies and processes that had real applications in their lives. Between 1901 and 1910, dozens of clubs sprung up across America’s agricultural belt epitomizing the “hands, heart, head, and home” ethic represented by the organization’s four-pronged name. Led by schoolteachers, college professors, and public figures, these clubs encouraged innovation and an appreciation for rural living.

In 1902, A.B. Graham worked with 35 students from 12 different schools across rural Iowa to test seed corn. Around the same time, 18 year-old teacher Jessie Field-Shambaugh was also experimenting through her club with corn plantings and soil tests, because “corn was the most important crop of Iowa.” Others, like first African American extension agent Thomas M. Campbell of Alabama, saw promise for improving the lives of black farmers by helping clubs to thrive.

By 1910, 4-H clubs commonly acted as the outreach arms of state land grant institutions tasked with exploring and promoting all aspects of rural living. The passing of the Smith-Lever Act in 1914 formalized 4-H as an organization, creating the US Cooperative Extension Service and its associated charter, which included boys and girls clubs related to agriculture and home economics. In Canada, 4-H took shape in 1913 and now operates as a national non-profit organization with provincial chapters.

Learn By Doing

Boy with camera looking through the lens
Those early clubs had one thing in common: they gave children and youth the opportunity to explore in familiar, real-world environments. Guided by adults, the clubs let children experiment with crops, soil, animals, and cookery, and come to their own conclusions. Although much has changed about 4-H, this hands-on approach endures.

“I think the 4-H model works well because it empowers children,” says Denise Whitson, leader and administrator for today’s Parksville-Qualicum Oddstock Club in British Columbia, Canada. “They feel a sense of responsibility and duty, and the mentorship that takes place means that kids get to listen to other kids.”

The model is a refreshing change from time-intensive, parent-driven activities that often leave families feeling depleted and overcommitted.

Although mentorship from knowledgeable adults is at the heart of the organization, today 4-H children still call the shots in many ways. In 4-H business meetings, for instance, kids fill executive roles and keep tabs on the agenda, though adults are on hand to advise. At fairs and workshops, older 4-H members mentor younger ones, looking to their leaders only when questions come up that they can’t answer (which frankly, isn’t very often). The model is a refreshing change from time-intensive, parent-driven activities that often leave families feeling depleted and overcommitted.

“If you have a group of youth watching adults who are always making the decisions and running the program, their perception is that ‘oh well, that’s for adults.’ But when kids sit back and see other kids doing things, they say, ‘I could do that too!’” Whitson says.

In fact, 4-H club members are keenly motivated to complete their projects and learn new skills. The ‘learn-by-doing’ model is infectious, and many children take pride in knowing the kind of agricultural or technological minutiae that baffles their (often) non-farming parents. The ‘cool factor’ of raising animals, building small engines, taking photographs or carding wool also increases when learned from children the same age or older.

The Human Element

Child with agriculture project
But what does an organization with rural roots offer today’s tech-savvy youth? Modern 4-H project areas include science, technology, engineering, health, citizenship, and of course, agriculture, yet its expansive reach is only part of the reason the program continues to be relevant in an ever-changing world.

Regardless of the project or the club, all 4-H programs include mentoring and career readiness. The organization has long focused on helping young people gain confidence, learn how to work well with others, endure challenges, and stick with a job until it’s done well. Backed by a network of more than 100 public universities and even more volunteers and professionals, the organization creates connections often absent in other forms of learning—with the ultimate goal of growing leaders.

For Whitson, the face-to-face experience with volunteers is an important aspect of 4-H. “Every day we’re losing skills, real life skills. We think we can somehow replace everything with Google…but we can’t.” The 4-H model brings kids together in small groups offering the kinds of hands-on learning most youth don’t get until university. For Whitson, that’s key. “Technology has its place, but it will never replace the human element, the ability to connect with one another and build relationships…you can’t do that with a screen.”

Children who join 4-H select a club, choose a project, and identify their project’s goal. Throughout the year, they work towards this goal and learn as much as they can about their project along the way. According to Whitson, “that’s their accomplishment, that’s the measure of their own success—what they’ve learned.”

“If we don’t teach our children the importance of contributing to a community, then the community fails.”

Scholarships and bursaries support this learning, along with opportunities for skill-building camps, goal setting trips, public speaking contests, and achievement certificates. 4-H is markedly affordable given that volunteers fill local positions. In the US there is no registration or membership fee. In Canada, the cost is about $75 to $90 per club for a year’s worth of programming. Field trips are generally free and many overnight camps are reimbursable.

Parent opportunities with 4-H also abound, although no one is required to volunteer. Getting on board can enrich the experience, Whitson says, and can help build skills for parents who never had the opportunity to learn those skills themselves.

Most 4-H clubs also connect with their communities through volunteer efforts like taking animals to nursing homes or sharing their knowledge through family fairs and parades. Whitson acknowledges this community connection may be the most important of all. “If we don’t teach our children the important of contributing to a community, then the community fails.”

Real World Learning

Back in our duckyard, Athena’s foot has been carefully moistened with antibiotic ointment and bound in vet wrap. Several days of careful wound dressing and treatment with oral antibiotics (purchased from our local feed store where 4-H children receive a discount) has meant the duck is almost fully recovered. My daughter records the lessons learned in her project record book, noting everything from the supplies purchased to the remedies administered. Although she has no inclination to become a veterinarian, she is gaining skills and confidence that seem readily transferable to anywhere in the workforce. She also learns from knowledgeable, generous people who promote the idea that sharing expertise—whether about chicken behavior or wildlife photography or weekend geocaching—is a worthy way to spend your time.

No matter where you come from or who your parents are, 4H will welcome you, fostering a dedication to community and a passion for creative solutions. At a time when the rural and urban divide is bigger than ever, aren’t these qualities just what we need?

Shannon Cowan
Shannon Cowan is an author, editor, and teacher who lives on six acres of land with her husband, daughters, and backyard chicken flock.

Does Your Child Need More Free Time?

Tuesday, September 13th, 2016

Children in a hammock

As a child I lived in a rural area where the only thing to do during the summer was to spend time outside. A decrepit TV antenna bolted to our house provided little allure for those of us bent on excitement (nothing was on but soap operas and news: boring). Exploring the woods, colonizing local hedgerows, or hiking to the river and back again became our default entertainment. Sniffing the air for adventure, we created worlds, fought battles, negotiated treaties and formed alliances. Free time seemed to stretch out in endless supply like fresh air.

When the school year began again, free time shifted to the late afternoon, but was no less an important part of our day. Interrupted by freak homework assignments and, just possibly, a once-per-week piano lesson, our visits to the out-of-doors persisted until winter darkness drove us inside to conjure new worlds and deconstruct each other’s rumpus rooms. Negotiations continued, now intensified by the fug of damp interiors and the urgency of earlier bedtimes.

Enter my own children, and the reality of year round free time has changed. Today’s kids are more likely to have jam-packed schedules filled with the opportunity to master a martial art, speak a second language, train for an Olympic sport, perfect various dance forms, brush up on their coding, cook a gourmet meal, solve a crime, animate a movie, or join the circus.

The diversity of opportunities is positive, but as parents, we are under more and more pressure to enroll our children in the latest activity. As caregivers we want to keep them safe and expose them to a variety of new experiences, but how does this departure from unstructured activities—specifically unstructured play—affect our kids?

Thinkers around the world have started making connections between optimal learning, happiness, and active or free play. Here’s what some are saying.

Play makes our children happier

According to the National Institute for Play (yes, we have one of those), active or free play is the gateway to vitality. Defined as the sort of play that children do without apparent purpose, active play is not scheduled, refereed, or controlled by an adult. In other words, you might be supervising your child during active play, but only from a distance. This isn’t your show, and your child is more or less in charge.

Evolutionary psychologist Dr. Peter Gray points to the decline in active play as the main reason for increased mental disorders diagnosed in children. Anxiety and depression among kids has risen sharply since the 1950s, along with the suicide rate, which has quadrupled for children under the age of 15. In his TED talk about the decline of play, Gray notes that “play is nature’s way of ensuring that young mammals, including young humans, acquire the skills they need to develop successfully into adulthood.” When outside forces control their every move, children instead develop traits like narcissism, fatalism, and other negative attributes. Says Gray, “One thing psychologists know very well is that not having an internal sense of control sets you up for anxiety and depression.”

Child throwing rocks into the ocean at sunset

Play makes our children smarter

Another leader in the dialogue on active play is researcher and psychiatrist Stuart Brown. In his book, Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, Brown says that play “fosters empathy and makes possible complex social groups. For us, play lies at the core of creativity and innovation.” First observing animal play in the wild, Brown concluded it is necessary for survival because play “makes animals smarter and more adaptable.”

Other studies support this theory, pointing out that children learn best when stimulated through active play. (There is evidence that free play promotes growth of the cerebral cortex.*) This learning extends to academic settings.

A hallmark of successful schooling, Finland has drawn attention from educators around the world who are trying to understand why the country’s children consistently place near the top in international rankings. Finnish children enter school later than North Americans, spend less time in the classroom, and have more recess or breaks (15 minutes for every 45-minute class attended). In Finland, it appears, more free time, not less, is responsible for academic success.

Play is easier

Many things prevent our children from experiencing optimal amounts of free time, but nothing more than our modern-day parenting style, says Alison Gopnik, professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. In her new book, The Gardener and the Carpenter, Gopnik explores the results of a parenting philosophy that treats children as a product that must be managed and shaped into a positive outcome. The result? Too much interference in children’s lives. Says Gopnik, “The rise of parenting has accompanied the decline of the street, the public playground, the neighborhood, even recess.”

Like Gray and Brown, Gopnik sees the negative implications of this decline in free time. These include guilt and anxiety for parents along with “an oppressive cloud of hovering expectations” for children. Adults can change the outcome for their kids by backing off, lightening up, and letting children experience the messiness and exuberance that is childhood. They can also play themselves, by treating their children like a garden (you never know what you’re going to get when you plant the original seed—but you plant it all the same).

Smarter, happier, well-developed kids

What these scientists have in common is their belief that free and active play is an essential ingredient in a developmentally normal childhood. As the dog days of summer transition into the frenetic days of the school year, parents might consider looking at these results and their own experiences. Before enrolling your child in another structured activity, remember to make time for play.

*Dr. Gwen Dewar, PH.D, Intelligence in Children: Can We Make Our Kids Smarter? Parenting Science.

Shannon Cowan
Shannon Cowan is an author, editor, and teacher who lives on six acres of land with her husband, daughters, and backyard chicken flock.

An Interview with Greg Seaman, founder of Eartheasy

Wednesday, October 29th, 2014

Greg, founder of Eartheasy

Interview by Pamela Stewart, with

Greg Seaman conducts his business in the same sustainable and ethical way he lives his life. Greg has been living off the grid since 1980. He previously lived in New York, Boston, and San Francisco, but Greg and his wife Lindsay left city life behind to raise their children in a cabin on a rural island in the Pacific Northwest. There were no services to the island. Instead, they grew their own food in an organic garden, fished, raised chickens, and used what nature had to offer without offending or destroying her. Greg built his home with old-fashioned tools and recycled materials.

greg-porch-pic How do you survive and support your family while living off the grid? Greg and a couple of friends started making and selling wooden buttons and products from waste material from the logging industry.

He created the Eartheasy website in 2000. Eartheasy provides “solutions for sustainable living,” but the site isn’t just a portal for purchasing goods. Greg, Lindsay, and their sons Ben and Aran provide a comprehensive resource for people searching for ways to live a simpler lifestyle in harmony with nature.

Greg and his family have lived a wonderful life without many of the things that some of us can’t do without, and they are happy and healthy. He shares their experiences and provides a bounty of information for others who want to live a more fulfilling life while sending less stuff to the landfill. Eartheasy also provides plenty of information for city dwellers who want a better quality of life for their family.

Lindsay & Nature's Bounty

Lindsay & nature’s bounty

Greg was kind enough to share some of his insight and experience with us:

I am sitting here and thinking about everything in my tiny house that runs on electricity while reading your story of living off the grid. Sometimes we have blackouts that last for a few hours or a day. Everyone in the neighborhood panics because they can’t do anything – yet you’ve built a wonderful life for your family. Not everyone can do what you do, but are there more gentle ways to ease ourselves into less dependence on electric power?

Greg: Spending time in nature and partaking in activities like camping and exploring can build self-confidence, so when unexpected events such as power outages happen, it’s easier to adapt and cope with the situation.

We chose a simpler lifestyle, without electricity, wanting to slow things down and focus on raising a family without the over-stimulation and distractions that are part of modern life. People living in urban areas can benefit by substituting some video-game or TV time with family pastimes and unwired activities.

Clean electric power, of course, is a great benefit to people. I wouldn’t give up my solar powered refrigerator for anything!

You’ve built a successful family business that sells sustainable products, but more importantly, encourages and teaches people how to live a simpler and fulfilling life and respect natural resources. Do you find that more people are seeking out products and information to help change the way they live?

Greg: Yes. I think people are well-intentioned, but it’s difficult to balance environmental stewardship with the needs, real or perceived, of modern lifestyles. Now that the debate over climate change is over, there is a growing interest in living within the limits of our environment. The trend towards sustainable solutions is clearly accelerating.

The garden

The garden

When we live in cities, I think we become immune in some ways to the beauty in the world. How has living in harmony with nature changed you? What do you experience that makes it worth giving up easy comforts and bright lights?

Greg: I enjoyed my years living in cities. Living in nature is rewarding in other ways. We enjoy the peace and quiet, the wildlife, and surrounding natural beauty. We felt a sense of control raising our young children, since there were fewer outside influences. Building a home and garden as a family has brought us many shared experiences. As a parent, it’s rewarding to see the children learn basic skills and be at home in nature. Mankind has evolved to live in natural environments, so I think it’s healthy for children to have lots of time in nature to learn the basics in life.

For those who do live in cities, how can they make positive change to bring more sustainable practices into their lives? People living in apartment buildings and condos don’t really have a lot of say in how the building is run with regard to energy, recycling, and other initiatives unless they can influence condo boards or management.

Greg: In some ways, people living in cities may feel detached from the natural world, making it harder to seek out solutions which benefit the environment. But when I go to town, I’m impressed by the community gardens, recycling programs, bike lanes, car sharing programs, and other initiatives for positive change. People living in cities have a distinct advantage which gives them voice – each other! Witness the huge march in New York and other cities last month during the Climate Change March. City dwellers may feel frustrated on the micro level that they have fewer ways of contributing to sustainability, but on the macro level, the collective influence of city dwellers is a powerful agent of change.

This is Organic!

This is Organic!

You mentioned to me that you were working on the harvest. What do you grow around your island home and how do you preserve food for the winter or the season where there is no fresh produce?

Greg: Our garden is geared towards providing produce through the winter months when local fresh produce is harder to come by. We grow only one bed of salad greens, planted successively, which gives us greens all summer, and one or two Brassica beds to keep us in supply of Broccoli and Kale. But 80% of our garden space is given over to winter storage crops like potatoes, onions, winter squash, garlic, beans, tomatoes, and other crops that can be canned or frozen. We try to grow 40 – 50 Buttercup squash each summer, which gives us one squash per week all year. That one squash finds its way into meals every day of the week. Yellow-orange fruit, such as winter squash, provide the vitamins and minerals needed during the winter months, so we prize the squash crop.

The Old-Fashioned Wood Cookstove at the Family Home

The Old-Fashioned Wood Cookstove at the Family Home

Let’s face it, there is that side of technology, such as TV and video games, that sometimes lulls us into a kind of ennui, but there are also advantages to access to these things. Do you think that the way you raised your sons in companionship with nature has given them a deeper appreciation for what is important in life?

Greg: I think any child raised with access to nature will benefit by the life lessons nature provides. Today, my children draw inspiration, adventure, perspective, and comfort from their appreciation of nature. Technology has wonderful benefits, of course, and today my children benefit from the technology which enables them to run an online business. Like many things, it requires some self-restraint to find a balance between technology and the enjoyment of nature.

What is the most brilliant innovation you have come across that helps people and the planet?

Greg: A few years back, Time magazine ran an issue on the “best inventions of the year.” The #1 invention was a small portable water filter called LifeStraw, which enabled people in developing countries without access to safe drinking water to drink untreated water safely, and without using chemicals. It also meant that families no longer needed to build fires to boil water for safe drinking, and this freed up the children who gathered the firewood to attend school. Because the fires are no longer needed to sanitize water, the nearby forests are no longer being decimated for firewood. So providing access to safe drinking water has had quite a positive ripple effect.

We were so taken by the LifeStraw technology that we worked to become the North American distributor for LifeStraw, which is popular with hikers, campers, travelers, and for emergency preparedness. LifeStraw is a brilliant product, and we are fortunate to be able to represent LifeStraw in the US and Canada.

Thank you, Greg! We will definitely take inspiration from you and your family.

Everyone, what are you doing to create a more sustainable life? Share your thoughts in the comment box below.

By Pamela Stewart,

Living Off-Grid

Living Off-Grid

How to Get Started with Alternative Energy

Thursday, March 27th, 2014


Solar-powered gadgets like this charger are less environmentally friendly, due to the limited shelf-life of their technology

Renewable resources are on the rise in the US, with solar and wind power among the top four sources for new power capacity in 2013.  In Texas, solar and wind generators are now outbidding fossil fuel plants to provide cheap and reliable electricity.  Technology moves fast, and the near future may witness such wonders as a laptop that never gets plugged in, house paint that harvests the sun’s energy, or even pacemakers powered by the human heartbeat.

As climate change awareness grows and installation costs fall, renewable energy is no longer just for idealists and techies.  The average household photovoltaic (solar) system now pays for itself in about 5 years, and keeps on giving.  But for many of us, generating our own power still feels like a leap of faith.  If you’re contemplating the jump, talk with locals who’ve tried it, consider your site’s exposure.

Where does your electricity come from?

From the outlet, of course!  It’s easy to move through our days flipping switches, plugging in chargers, and opening fridges without stopping to wonder how all this seemingly endless power is generated.  It’s worth taking a moment to find out. If you don’t like the answer, you may be ready to contribute some clean energy of your own.

alternative-energy02 In many cases, our nights are illuminated by toxic combustion or hazardous fission.  Twenty states, mostly southeastern and midwestern, produce the bulk of their electricity with coal-fired plants.  Rhode Island, Nevada, Florida, Massachusetts, and Alaska use natural gas, often extracted through “fracking”, for over 50% of their power.  Vermont, Connecticut, New Jersey, South Carolina, and Illinois, get over half their power from nuclear reactors.  All of these processes endanger our ecosystems and our long-term survival as a species.  If you live in one of these states, you can reduce demand for these deadly fuels by contributing clean power to local systems.

The Northwestern states, on the other hand (Washington, Oregon, and Idaho) make over 85% of their electricity from renewable hydroelectric sources.  In addition, the solar prospects of these states are lower, due to latitude and frequent cloud cover.  In response, northwest residents may choose to instead invest in renewable technology ventures, or simply focus on greener lifestyle modifications. Sadly, the manufacture of solar panels has its own hefty carbon footprint.  It’s important to maximize each panel’s energy generating potential in order to come out “ahead” on the carbon emissions balance sheet.

Should I consider a wind turbine or micro hydro?

Solar panels require almost no maintenance after installation, but harnessing the power of wind or water requires more technical finesse and commitment.  Solar panels have no moving parts, unlike the turbines at the heart of wind and micro hydro systems, which in our experience require frequent troubleshooting.  These systems can be rewarding for an avid off-grid homesteader, but are rarely practical or even possible in settled areas.  Many residential zoning codes or homeowner associations explicitly prohibit such equipment due to noise or aesthetic concerns.  If you live rurally and are mechanically inclined, you might want to learn more about the advantages of wind turbines.  Micro hydro systems require access to a reliable volume of flowing water, and again, make sense only for off-grid residents whose overall power needs are low.

What about preparedness? 

Will an alternative energy system make me self-sufficient when the grid goes down?  A conventional “grid tie” photovoltaic system will not help during a power outage.  The technology that converts the current into usable A/C voltage is dependent on external power.  An independent system that will keep going when disconnected from the outside world requires more expensive equipment, as well as batteries which store the sun’s power for use after dark.  Batteries need regular maintenance, and for the average homeowner their upkeep and shorter lifespan (usually four to ten years) outweigh benefits during occasional blackouts.

The equation may change with time.  Some analysts believe that the dropping costs of both solar panels and batteries will soon make living “off grid” an economic advantage as well as a lifestyle decision.  By 2020, residents of California or New York may be able to produce and store their own electricity more cheaply than they can buy it from a local utility.  By 2030, some speculate most US homeowners could do so.  But for now, tying into the grid makes more sense, and provides more flexibility.


How much will it cost?

Fortunately, solar panels have never been cheaper. Installation and related equipment have also become more affordable as home systems have gained popularity. Fully installed, your solar array could be as low as $3/watt, which can add up to $12,000 for an average 4-kilowatt system.  That may be one of the safest investments you could make.  Over 20 years, the average family could save $20,000 — and considerably more in the sunniest climates.

Most well-made panels are guaranteed to perform well — retaining at least 80% of their original capacity after 25 years. Beyond that, there’s a reasonable guess that many solar panels will still be generating useful amounts of power at 50 years and beyond, although technologies may change in ways we cannot yet imagine.  Don’t forget that most states offer tax credits or rebates for qualifying renewable energy purchases.  Some companies will even install leased solar panels with no upfront costs.

Taking it one step at a time

Maybe you’re not in a position to jump on the solar wagon tomorrow and start selling electricity back to the grid.  Some of us aren’t homeowners, live in high-rises, have poor solar exposure, or lack disposable income.  In many cases, you can reduce your load on power plants even more by lowering your energy usage.  Choose efficient appliances, change your lightbulbs, and incorporate some basic conservation habits; your electrical bill will show the difference.  Simply using a clothesline instead of your electric dryer can reduce your home’s energy consumption by 6%.  Purchasing Renewable Energy Credits for your home or business is another way to vote with your wallet.

Green power has hit the mainstream.  In response to consumer popularity, some shoppers can now buy solar panels at a local “big box” chain.  Deliberations for your hypothetical rooftop solar panels will vary: is your house in the sunny suburbs of Phoenix, or on the north slope of a wooded mountain in Oregon?  What are your goals and your budget?  But none of us can afford to look the other way from the devastation non-renewable power generation is wreaking in our names.



How Clean is the Electricity I Use?  EPA Power Profiler

Where Does my Electricity Come From?

Estimating Appliance and Home Electronic Energy Use

Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency

Assessing Whether Solar Panels Make Sense for You



Harvesting Rainwater for Residential Water Security

Monday, February 3rd, 2014


We had been drinking water from our rural well for about two years when we decided to have it tested. It turned out that our water had 300 times the iron recommended for human use.  That sent us to our roof and the collection of rainwater for our potable water source.

With reported droughts and dry spells this winter, notably in the western states and provinces, harvesting rainwater, especially during the rainy season for use in the dry season makes sense, both personally and for our larger communities.  India, Tanzania, Australia, Hawaii, British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and California are all experiencing rainwater shortages this year.  And, with high snow levels in the east this winter, there is no doubt the climate is changing.

According to data from the, as of January 23, 2014, more than half of the US states have recorded dry periods ranging from abnormally dry to exceptional drought conditions. (1) On the Canadian coast, drought conditions have already led some municipalities to call for Class 3 water saving practices in January. (2)

Rainwater harvesting reduces stress on local aquifers and rivers, leaving more water available for communities and environmental needs. By reducing extraction from aquifers and rivers in dry summer months, we help ensure that there is sufficient water left to maintain critical base flow in streams in order to protect fish and aquatic health. Reducing groundwater extractions can also help reduce salt water intrusion in coastal areas, as excessive pumping of wells along the coast can pull salt water from the ocean into groundwater. (3)

According to research posted by the American Rainwater Catchment Systems Association (4), rainwater catchment is an increasingly popular and accepted practice in the US.

The basics, codes and licences

At a minimum collecting and storing rainwater for future use requires a catchment area, a conveyance system and a storage tank. Normally, a catchment system also includes a pump, water treatment system and fixtures.  Another addition, the “first-flush diverter”, allows the first rainwater to be diverted to a container that once full, is then by-passed to the next collection unit. According to a study that measured contaminants in the first-flush container, this allows many elements that may pose a health risk to be diverted from the collection system. (5)

When designing and installing rainwater harvesting systems, it is important to consider codes, regulations and standards. Mark Miller decided to collect rainwater to wash cars sold at his Toyota dealership. He discovered that the state of Utah considered the water a commodity that he needed a license to collect. But through his desire to help the environment, he ended up winning a LEED gold award for his actions.

Here is a list and link to many state’s water collection laws:

Rainwater harvesting is permitted (and sometimes mandated) in regions of Germany, Australia and the U.S. and Canada.  In the U.S. the ARCSA recently announced that the American Society of Plumbing Engineers has approved an American National Standard to assist professionals and end users in safely implementing a rainwater catchment system.

Designing rainwater collection systems

Barry Churchill has been collecting rainwater for 40 years on his off-grid home site that is not served by any utilities.

“Why let the water get into the soil and let it collect there, and then have to pump it back up? It’s all the same water.”  With the exception of artesian well water, Barry has learned that water from western skies, where there is little concern about pollutants from nearby industrial areas or acid rain, is an exceptional source of both potable and nonpotable water.

He created a catchment system that he now installs on other people’s homes in his rural area. He suggests that any type of potable roofing material, such as clay, tile or metal is acceptable. However, he warned me that it is not generally advisable to use the existing roof on your home if you have a wood stove because of the creosote, which would transfer contaminants to your water. Another warning he gave me was to avoid using any kind of bleach as a disinfectant because if there is organic material diluted into the water, it will become toxic.

“Why let the water get into the soil and let it collect there, and then have to pump it back up? It’s all the same water.”

Because he uses wood heat, Barry has designed an independent collection system.  His system includes a site-specific wood frame, covered with light colored metal roofing – to reduce heat buildup on the roof which can increase potential contamination. His systems are typically 24’ x 22’ with gutters at the lower end which transfer the water to pipes that then drain into a series of tanks or cisterns. From here a series of plastic pipes lead to the house and garden areas.

rainwater_02 rainwater_03

In his coastal area, the average rainfall of 36” a year means he can collect 3400 gallons of potable water from a 22’x24’ catchment roof. Barry stores the collected water using 14, 250 gallon tanks. With a small submersible pump, or a hand pump to get it started, he has enough pressure for a shower with only one moving part.

Barry recommends that the system be designed as close to the ground as possible because it is easier to clean and has less wind resistance. He uses a minimum filtering system, employing window screens over the gutter and a cloth filter fitted to the ¾ “ waterline leading to his house.

He didn’t recommend the larger 1500 – 2000 gallon tanks in colder areas because if it freezes, you risk losing all your water. He explained that smaller tanks plumbed together make it more manageable, especially if you lose water from one tank, you’ve still got another to draw from.

Barry built his system ensuring that he had 8’ of head above the level of his kitchen sink. He said as long as the bottom of the tank is above the counter top you have pressure. If it’s only something like 2’ there is less pressure. He recommended a gentle slope to the roof collection system, “so the rain has less chance to run off over the gutter.” He cleans his catchment roof once a year.

Homeowners who do not have the space or are not prepared to build a system like the ones described above, can start with a simpler system using rain barrels which store water collected from the downspout. These simple systems are primarily used for non-potable water applications such as landscape watering. Most rain barrels can also be connected in series for additional storage capacity. These systems can also be moved easily if the owner moves to a new residence.

A Study of Various Roofing Material

Ensuring your water is not contaminated is essential.   A study by the Texas Water Development Board showed test results from five different roofing systems that were measured for contaminants. The five roof types were shingle, Galvalume® (a type of metal roofing), tile, cool, and a green roof, which were all compared to ambient rain. (5)

Water was collected from several rain events using a first-flush diverter and then stored in two connected tanks. The water was analyzed for the following: pH, conductivity, turbidity, total suspended solids (TSS), total coliform (TC), fecal coliform (FC), nitrate, nitrite, dissolved organic carbon (DOC), and selected metals.

An important finding  (first mentioned by Barry) which was confirmed in the Texas study concluded that rainwater that has DOC (organic matter dissolved in water) should not be treated with chlorine, because this creates disinfectant by-products known to be harmful to human health. In the Texas study, they recommended that green roofs and asphalt fiberglass shingle roofs not be disinfected with chlorine for this reason.

Before you jump to the conclusion that green roofs are just not viable for rainwater harvesting, there is another interesting finding in this study. Coliform counts from the green roof were lower than the other five roof types tested.  However, the green roofs contained the highest concentrations of arsenic and lead.  So if you are considering collecting rainwater from a green roof, you would need to test the water after installing the water collection system to determine what type of filters would take out these heavy metals.

Our work shows that harvested rainwater quality generally improves with roof flushing, indicating the importance of an effective first-flush diverter. However, the rainwater harvested after the first-flush from all of the pilot-scale roofs did contain some contaminants at levels above United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) drinking water standards (i.e., turbidity, TC, FC, iron1, and aluminum); the harvested rainwater after the first-flush from the full-scale Kynar®-coated Galvalume® roof exceeded the turbidity, TC, and FC standards. (5)

Although the Kynar®-coated Galvalume® metal roofs are the recommended choice by most contractors, this study concluded that concrete, tile and cool roofs are also good candidates.  (Cool roofs effectively reflect the sun’s energy from the roof surface and emit infrared heat.) Based on all their specific tests, and acknowledging the time and location of the study, the authors recommended that harvested rainwater be disinfected prior to potable use.

Sylvain, another rainwater harvesting contractor I spoke with, said he would use a normal house roof if it didn’t have a wood stove. Otherwise, he designs systems that site the roof directly over the cistern.  He prefers to use the Galvalume® metal roofing material, which he considers the safest choice.

I asked him about his preferred filtration system. He adds two screens if the water is non-potable, but if is potable he uses four filtration systems. The first is a screen filter on the tank, and the second a prefilter. He then uses ceramic disk filters which are specifically designed to remove pathogenic bacteria, cysts, and chemical and heavy metals.

If you decide to collect rainwater for potable uses, my conclusion after talking to these two contractors and researching the topic is to install the system using the roofing material of your choice, including the first flush diverter, cisterns and piping and then have the water tested. Then you will be able to determine the best filtration or treatment systems to use for your specific system and area.

Harvesting rainwater is a great idea if you live in an area that experiences water shortages, if you are concerned about the water coming from your existing well or community supply, and if you live in an area far from industrial pollutants.

Areas with the Highest Normalized Deficit Cumulated (NDC) index. This index pulls from more than 60 years of precipitation data and the current water use pattern for the United States in order to better depict the discrepancy between water use and availability.

  • Washington DC metro area
  • New York metro area
  • California area, from San Diego to Santa Barbara and inland
  • Agricultural belt: Dakotas
  • Agricultural belt: Nebraska
  • Illinois
  • Lower Mississippi belt: Arkansas area
  • Agricultural belt: North Texas
  • Agricultural regions in Ohio
  • Agricultural regions in Minnesota May 15th, 2013


[1] The U.S. Drought Monitor is produced in partnership between the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the United States Department of Agriculture, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.



4 ARCSA website ( also has resources such as lists of US laws, rules and codes, rainwater harvesting manuals, technical guidelines, economic and practical studies and links to average precipitation maps, information on green roofs, presentations and webinars on the technological aspects, and much more.

5 Effect of Roof Material on Water Quality for Rainwater Harvesting Systems – Additional Physical, Chemical, and Microbiological Data, Texas Water Development Board, Austin, Texas, January 2011.



What it’s Like Raising Children Off-Grid

Thursday, September 27th, 2012

kids on raft When my wife and I decided to move to a remote off-grid location, our biggest concern centered around child rearing. We were young and idealistic, and felt up to the challenges ahead, but we were also new parents of a 3-month old baby. The responsibility of nurturing a young person was now the priority, and we hoped our new home in the woods would be a healthy setting to raise a young family. Far from the busy-ness and distractions of town living, we wanted to live more at the pace of nature and develop our own family culture.

Today our two children are young adults and living on their own, and my wife and I now have answers to the questions which nagged us over 30 years ago. For those of you who may be considering a similar move, here are some thoughts to share on the experience of raising children off-grid.

Is the setting too rough for a child?

Our cabin was rustic to a fault. It was drafty, built with rough lumber, with no indoor bathroom, only minimal plumbing and no electricity. But the setting outside the cabin was beautiful – thickly forested with large trees, and rocky, moss-covered bluffs. The setting provided a natural playground for children, with infinite possibilities for discoveries right outside our doorstep.

The rough home turned out to be ideal for child-raising. Because the floor was unfinished and there was no fine furniture to damage, indoor play was facilitated. This was appreciated during the long winter months when so much family time is spent indoors. The children could horse around indoors to their hearts’ content without the parents doing damage control. Spontaneous projects, wrestling, swinging from the rafters, even tricycle riding were all in the mix in our living area during the long winter evenings.

A small house meant we shared activities. The kids had their own rooms but preferred to play near the fire and in the center of family activity. We parents were involved in the children’s activities by default, and the children were privy to our adult conversations. This seemed to work to everyone’s benefit.

running with a kite

Will they be safe?

Along with the benefits and positive experiences that come with raising children in natural areas, come many moments of anxiety as a parent. There are more than enough risks and hazards in our natural setting to keep a parent’s imagination active with possibilities of what could go wrong. Our children always seemed to stay out playing in the woods, along the shore or on the water until the last glimmer of daylight. I worried about them getting lost coming home in the dark, or having a tree fall on them, or them falling out of trees, slipping on the rocks, falling overboard from their small skiff ……


Our kids are now grown up, ages 27 and 32. They made it. They never fell out a tree and cracked their heads, never fell overboard while fishing far from home, never became lost overnight in the forest or fell off a cliff while rock climbing. Although they often stretched the limits of their freedom, they always arrived safe at home, albeit usually in the last light of day. Touch wood. Children growing up in a rugged natural environment seem to recognize the hazards and become responsible when they need to. I remember my son Ben confiding to me once, ‘Dad, I only take risks when you’re around.’

But while we expected our kids to assume responsibility when off on their adventures, the ultimate responsibility rests with the parents, and in a remote environment there are no emergency backup personnel like police or emergency rescue teams. Parents need to be extra vigilant. One story that reverberated through our community was of a young couple living in a float house who left their baby in a jolly jumper while they went out to tend the rowboat during a strong wind. While they were in the boat adjusting something, somehow the line slipped and the boat blew offshore. The oars were left on the beach. They were blown to a small island about a mile away where they had to spend the night. Summoning help at daylight, they returned home and found the baby was out of the jumper but safe in the cabin. It was a hard lesson with a fortunate ending.

“Dad, I only take risks when you’re around”

Our kids did not realize that while we gave them a long leash to play with, we were keeping a close eye on them. When the boys would take off in a small boat to go fishing, sailing or exploring, we tried to keep an eye on them with binoculars, and always had a chase boat ready to go. Sometimes I would follow them along the shore, through the trees, just to be sure they were acting safely. They always were.

There were hardly any other kids the same age close by, which meant our kids didn’t have the ‘safety in numbers’ of a group. They were on their own a lot, so we as parents needed to spend more time in preparing them for various activities and more energy to ensure their safety.

working together

What if they get sick?

Some of the most challenging moments living off-grid arose when one of the children became ill, injured or showed some strange symptoms. These moments can make a parent feel irresponsible for raising his family far from medical help. Fortunately, most child health issues we had to deal with were not severe.

There are many resources available for home diagnosis and treatment procedures, and we relied heavily on a large paperbound book called Taking Care of Your Child by Drs. Pantel, Fries and Vickery. The book is organized for quick, easy reference, and each ailment or symptom is described in clear layman terms. Each ailment has “Home treatment options” and “What to expect at the hospital.” This manual helped us decide whether to treat a certain illness at home, rather than put the sick child through the stress of a long trip to the clinic. We kept Taking Care of Your Child right beside the First Aid Kit; it was invaluable to our health and peace of mind.

We only had one health related experience that made me question my judgment in living off-grid. Our two-year old had a high fever of unknown origin, and on calling the hospital we were advised to bring him in. I bundled him up and put him in the dory for the row to the dock. It was dark, mid-winter cold, and the waves were up. We had an hour’s ferry ride and another hour car ride ahead of us. We returned several days later, with our child improved, but in similar conditions, and this experience was probably the low point of my years raising a family.

Rural and remote communities are also well served by Air Rescue and Coast Guard boats. A hospital helicopter can arrive at our community within an hour of receiving the call. In retrospect I probably should have called them in when advised to take our child to hospital.

Will they be lonely?

Yes. In a small community there are not enough peers for daily play. Our children each had a few friends but they didn’t live close enough for casual play. And so our children each spent a lot of time playing alone or with each other. They never acted as if this was a problem, but I felt they were missing out on some of the joys of childhood companionship. I suppose this helped make them the independent young adults they are today and fostered their close relationship.

Fortunately, the community helped fill in for the lack of peers. Children and adults in the community are all on first name basis and there’s healthy communication across generations. My son Ben’s fishing buddy was 15 years older. Weekly soccer games in the summer have teams made up of boys and girls, with ages ranging from children to seniors.

How lonely a child gets also depends on the individual. One summer day we took our younger son to play soccer with a team of youths in a town some distance away. After the game, when it was time to get back on the ferry, he went to each player and shook their hand to say goodbye. It was then I realized how he valued the group experience.

So will they be lonely? Yes, at times. The early childhood years are conducive to living in a close-knit family environment, but as the children approach the teen years they need to branch out and spend more time with others. For our family, having our children move to a larger community for high school was the best choice.

kids rowing the boat

Will they be bored?

An old friend of mine used to say ‘boredom is a lack of imagination’. And children, as we all know, are imagination experts. I don’t recall our children ever being bored. Having no TV helped cultivate their imagination. They had a varied natural environment to explore, and even today as adults they love to head into the forest or onto the water when visiting. As children they made their own games, created paintings and carvings, played music, engaged in constant horseplay, and had plenty to do helping with the many homesteading chores. Every night my wife would read a book out loud for an hour at bedtime. We played board and card games, played music, told stories and entertained each other. No one asked for TV, and digital devices were not yet commonplace. I am grateful our kids did not have these gadgets when they were young.

time to contemplate

The many quiet times that come with living in a rural area, and the absence of distraction from TV and digital devices gave the children time to think. Time to contemplate, time to process their experiences. Thinking is a critical skill that contributes to learning.

What about learnin’ and schoolin’? Will they have educational opportunities?

My wife and I didn’t want to assume that our children would want to follow our off-grid lifestyle choice. We wanted them to be able to attend university if they were so motivated, and have the opportunities that follow. So getting a relatively standard education for our children was important to us. But in a small 3-room schoolhouse it was unrealistic to expect a few teachers to cover all the subjects for each grade, especially since some grades might have only one or two students. So at the beginning of each term we would do a little research to find out the standard curriculum for our child’s grade. Then we could meet with the teacher and identify what the school wasn’t covering, and teach that ourselves to our child at home. A few times we got a tutor to help with the more challenging subjects. Fortunately, our closest neighbor was a retired math teacher, so she was a great help.

Transitioning to high school on the mainland was smooth. We never felt that our children suffered any academic or social handicaps as a result of their rural upbringing. In fact, I think living off-grid was an asset to the children’s education. With no TV and fewer distractions, our evenings at home were more routine. We always had meals together which was an opportunity to share ideas. Every night there was reading, conversation and using one’s imagination in active entertainment. I think all these activities contributed to our children’s future academic success.

Besides learning ‘for school’ there’s also learning ‘for life’. Many practical skills aren’t taught in schools, and small communities have an advantage in that people know each other and are able to tap into the collective bank of knowledge and experience. Older people especially, since they have more time and the benefit of life experience, seem generous in their willingness to help out the younger generation. Whether it’s how to saw a board or fix a bike, how to build a structure, pluck a chicken, split a log, grow a garden or harvest wild edibles, there is usually a human resource available for any interested young mind.

learning practical skills

The Four Musketeers

A family culture of shared responsibility seems to go with off-grid living. We simply need each other to get things done and keep the meals on the table. We used to tell our kids we’re the ‘Four Musketeers’ – all for one and one for all – committed to helping each other get through life. We each pitch in where we can, and this is instilled at the earliest age. Even a toddler can gather kindling, feed the cat or take out the compost. Young children can help raise chickens and gather the eggs, dig clams, help with the harvest and with meal preparation. As they grew older, they could spend hours out on the water, but not just in idle play. The goal was to bring home fish for the table, or beachcomb for a board or log we could use at home. They seemed to prefer purposeful activities more than simple recreation, although there was plenty of the latter as well.

helping out

This sense of shared self-reliance can empower kids at an early age. It boosts their self-esteem to be contributors, and as parents we tried to remember to acknowledge their contributions, often during dinner when we could discuss the day together. I think most people, children included, prefer to be givers rather than takers. Our children didn’t often ask for things, they seemed to enjoy being providers.

The ‘Four Musketeers’ analogy is admittedly corny, but it is easy for a young child to understand. We wanted our family bond to be close and mutually supportive, and although we are of different ages and abilities, we’re equal partners in the experience of living together.

In conclusion

Living in nature is a fertile environment for a young child to be raised. Ideally, he or she has not been exposed to too much modern technology to miss it. As a parent, you will find yourself closer to your children since you will be going through so much together. Our kids were with us much of the time, aside from when in school, and this was a great gift for us and them.

Modern living seems almost overwhelming to me. There is so much stimulation, so much information, such rapid change in technology and social media that it’s difficult to keep up. It’s hard to imagine how young children absorb so much. I think all children could benefit from spending their early years in a setting close to nature, with life a bit slower, with parents more available to provide guidance, and with the grounding that comes with living a self-reliant lifestyle.

But young parents should have no illusions about the requirements that go along with raising a child in an off-grid location. You’ll have less free time than your friends in town, and you’ll need to spend more of your time with your children, as a parent, a teacher and a companion.

And I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Related Articles

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4 Mistakes to Avoid for the Novice Homesteader
Our Simple DIY Home Solar Power System
Our DIY Off-Grid Fire Protection System

Greg About Greg
Originally from Long Island, NY, Greg Seaman founded Eartheasy in 2000 out of concern for the environment and a desire to help others live more sustainably. As Editor, Greg combines his upbringing in the cities of New York, Boston and San Francisco with the contrast of 31 years of living ‘off-grid’ to give us a balanced perspective on sustainable living. Greg spends his free time gardening, working on his home and building a wooden sailboat with hand tools.


Apocalypse Not

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2012

earth from space The turn of a year, from old to new, is a special moment in time when optimism comes naturally. Last year’s successes and failures are behind us, and we can look to the year ahead as a clean slate, and plan our lives to move closer to our personal goals.

Every new year brings the future one year closer, and sharpens our view of the challenges which lie ahead of us. Today, we can see how our collective personal goals are dependent on a healthy global ecosystem, and why we each need to develop life plans which include strategies for reducing our environmental footprint. Saving energy, conserving water, reducing consumption, minimizing waste, and shedding the use of toxic chemicals are the new life skills for 21st century living, and we need to be busy learning how to incorporate these values into our future lifestyles.

Unfortunately, this New Years is also a time for escapism. In lieu of sober assessments and realistic plans, we can take the simpler route and indulge in escapist fantasies which free us of responsibility for making personal changes which address the real challenges we face.

This year’s great escapism is the absurd belief in an ancient Mayan prophecy of global cataclysm forecast for the year 2012. The New Year’s Day editions of CNN International, the Washington Post, L.A. Times, and many other prominent news outlets feature stories about the Mayan 2012 prophecy. There are plenty of survivalist websites, full of accounts of people preparing for the coming TEOTWAWKI (The End of the World As We Know It), which cater to doomsday believers, but mainstream media coverage gives oxygen to these fantasies and accords them an undeserved amount of attention.

In these same media outlets today, there are no articles about the climate-related challenges we may face in 2012.

The Mayan doomsday scenario gained steam with the release of last year’s movie “2012,” which entertained viewers with a depiction of the destruction of planet Earth. In recent years, dozens of books have been written with titles such as “Apocalypse 2012: The Ticking of the End Time Clock,” “2012: The Awakening” and “The Mystery of 2012: Predictions, Prophecies and Possibilities”. Ironically, there seems to be a future in the doomsday prediction business.

Ironically, there seems to be a future in the doomsday prediction business.

Apocalypse 2011 was brought to us by the ‘religious broadcaster’ Harold Camping. The media was awash for months with reports about his doomsday “Rapture” prediction. In his books, We Are Almost There! and To God Be the Glory!, Camping claimed that the Rapture would take place on May 21, 2011, destroying Earth and transporting the righteous — approximately 3 percent or just over 200 million of the world’s nearly seven billion inhabitants — to heaven. When May 21 passed without event, Camping simply advanced the date a few months. CNN and other prominent media outlets took the bait once again and dutifully reported the story through October.

I remember a few years ago a similar story captured major media headlines for days. A comet was on “possible” collision course with our planet. The news articles described vivid scenarios of how the impact would destroy life on earth, yet buried in the details was the scientific likelihood of collision being less than one in a million! This over-reported story seemed to stand in contrast to the under-reported warnings from our scientific community about more plausible threats to the health of our planet.

When confronted with today’s planet-altering threat of climate change, the closest thing we have to a real doomsday scenario, the mainstream media seems to take a cautious approach. After all, large media businesses are supported by corporate advertisers who have a stake in the status quo. Today’s media has a difficult job of balancing objectivity with corporate survival.

Apocalypse predictions may be broadcast by the media, but they are fueled by us, the readers. We have long held a fascination with doomsday scenarios, and our interest seems to be on the rise. Why is it that these absurd stories capture our attention? Because in each doomsday scenario, we humans bear no responsibility for the cause or the consequences of the impending threat. We can dwell on the drama of destruction, and many of us take shelter in religious beliefs that all will end well in the eternal comfort of heaven. In no instance are we expected to take responsibility or action to address our earthly fate.

Implicit in the notion of apocalypse is victimhood. We are doomed by an overwhelming force which we cannot redirect or prevent. And herein lies the danger of apocalyptic prophecies and doomsday scenarios. If we see ourselves as victims to global threats, our inaction will hasten our demise.

If we see ourselves as victims to global threats, our inaction will hasten our demise.

In all the political discourse we have endured thus far in the lead-up to the 2012 elections, there has been no mention of climate change. Many of our political leaders won’t even discuss climate change. The biggest threat to mankind is absent from the headlines. Yet, if there are to be any earth-changing events in the near future, they will likely be associated with climate change. This is the ‘apocalypse’ we should be focusing on.

New Years is a prime time for reflection and planning. It’s a shame to waste this valuable moment with distractions such as Doomsday prophecies when we need more than ever to focus on the real matters at hand.

A Happy New Year isn’t something that just happens. It is what we make it. Happy New Year to you, and the birds, animals, fish, trees, plants and all of wild nature! May your future be grounded on a path towards sustainability.


Earth image via Bigstock.

Are you Feeding your Kids Twinkies for breakfast?

Monday, December 12th, 2011

Twinkies for breakfast We all know it’s the sugar in children’s cereals that makes them popular. And cereal makers, more than anyone, are aware of the singular appeal of sugar amid the myriad of ingredients in today’s breakfast cereals.

Parents may indulge their children with sugary cereals from time to time, but most parents would forbid a breakfast diet of Twinkies or chocolate chip cookies. But according to a new study by the Environmental Working Group, they may be unknowingly feeding their children the equivalent amount of sugar.

Breakfast cereals have come a long way from Cheerios, Wheaties and Rice Krispies. I remember when Frosted Flakes first came out – corn flakes dipped in sugar – and suddenly breakfasts were a lot more fun. I bonded with Tony the Tiger. Back in the day this seemed the height of decadence for morning fare, and our parents had to hide the box after we had our allotted one bowl, once or twice a week.

Well, the parents were wise to put limits on this breakfast confection. A one-cup serving of Frosted Flakes, the study reports, is packed with 14.7 grams of sugar per cup, the same amount of sugar in four Chips Ahoy! cookies. Of the top ten most sugary cereals listed in the study, Frosted Flakes stands at #9. And of the 84 children’s cereal brands studied, 44 brands had more sugar per cup than three chocolate chip cookies.

The three most sugary cereals, Honey Smacks, Wheaties Fuel and Golden Crisp, each contain over 18 grams of sugar per 1 cup serving, which is about 56% of sugar by weight. This is about five teaspoons of sugar – the same amount as a Hostess Twinkie, and more than 5 chocolate chip cookies. And with today’s oversized cereal bowls, a typical serving size is likely to be double that amount, or closer to two cups of cereal.

Here are the Top 10 Most Sugary and Top 10 Least Sugary breakfast cereals noted in the study:

Top 10 Most Sugary Breakfast Cereals:

  1. Honey Smacks ~ 20.0 grams/cup
  2. Wheaties Fuel ~ 18.7
  3. Golden Crisp ~ 18.7
  4. Cocoa Crispies ~ 16.0
  5. Oh!s ~ 16.0
  6. Cap’n Crunch Original ~ 16.0
  7. Cap’n Crunch OOPS, All Berries ~ 15.0
  8. Fruity Berries, Cocoa Berries ~ 14.7
  9. Frosted Flakes Original ~ 14.7
  10. Cap’n Crunch Chocolately Crunch ~ 14.7

Top 10 Least Sugary Breakfast Cereals:

  1. Cheerios ~ 1.0 grams/cup
  2. Rice Krispies Gluten Free ~ 1.0
  3. Rice Chex ~ 2.0
  4. Kix Original ~ 2.4
  5. Corn Chex ~ 3.0
  6. Rice Krispies Original ~ 3.0
  7. King Vitamin ~ 4.0
  8. Honey Kix ~ 4.8
  9. Wheaties ~ 5.3
  10. Berry Berry Kix ~ 5.6

When choosing cereal brands at the supermarket, it’s helpful to know that 4 grams of sugar equals 1 teaspoon. When you read the nutrition label on the back of the box, a cereal like Cap’n Crunch, which contains 16 grams of sugar per cup, is the equivalent of 4 teaspoons of sugar per cup.

Eating habits during the childhood years can affect a child’s learning, mood and physical condition. With childhood obesity at an all-time high in the US, choosing breakfast cereals with lower amounts of sugar is especially important. Cereals can be sweetened naturally with fruits which provide nutrition and make the cereal more fun for kids. And low-fat milk provides a fitting complement for healthier choices in cereal brands.

Ideally, a child can be taught this simple equivalency, 4 grams of sugar = I teaspoon sugar. Once they understand the consequences of eating so much sugar, you might be surprised when your child chooses the less sugary brand, and helps make the decision easier for you.


Cereal image via Bigstock.

A Backpacker’s Review of the LifeStraw Personal Water Filter

Thursday, September 29th, 2011

LifeStraw in use I was traversing a razor-thin ridge that led to the black core of an ancient volcano, known as Black Tusk, jutting upwards into the blue sky. The crumbling ridgeline had resisted erosion, and as such remained the best way to access the volcanic spire. Over thousands of years, the mountain top surrounding the volcano had eroded and tumbled down, forming a massive slope of unstable rock. Teetering on the brink of the loose scree ridge, clean water was the furthest thing from my mind…

Black TuskWe had hiked two days to get to Black Tusk. Along the way we took the opportunity to drink water and fill our bottles from the streams we passed, and while the streams looked clean, we always filtered our water rather than risk getting sick. After all, you never know what’s upstream of you.

My water filter this trip was an award-winning device called LifeStraw, which was designed in Switzerland by Vestergaard Frandsen for humanitarian projects in the harsh conditions of Africa. It’s an ingeniously simple water filter which anyone can use. Simply suck water through it and the filter removes 99.99999% of waterborne bacteria (>LOG 7 reduction), and 99.9% of waterborne protozoan parasites (>LOG 3 reduction) down to 0.2 microns in size. The EPA standard for removing the usual suspects, Giardia, E. Coli and Cryptosporidium, is 1.0 microns. At 0.2 microns, the LifeStraw provides five times more filtration than the EPA standard, which is considered ‘rigorous’. The LifeStraw filters over 264 gallons (1,000 liters), which you know you’ve reached when water can no longer be sucked through it.

lifestraw My hiking partners were using traditional pump-style water filters, and while they were busily pumping away, I was already drinking the cold stream water with no effort at all. I tend to drink water every hour or so, so I kept the LifeStraw in my pocket as I hiked, and when thirsty I’d pull my water bottle out of my pack, insert the LifeStraw, and sip directly from the bottle, as the LifeStraw is thin enough to fit through the bottle opening.

The LifeStraw is easy to carry as it is only 9 inches long by 1 inch in diameter, and weighs less than 2 ounces. Comparatively, the water filters my friends were using weighed around 1 pound. On a long hike every bit of weight savings counts, and as experienced hikers know, it’s the small items that add up to make your pack heavy.

drinking from streamLower down the mountain, where natural water sources were more plentiful, there was no need to fill my water bottle. I could simply get on my knees and put the LifeStraw directly into a stream for a cool drink of clean water. While I do like to take big glugs of filtered water right from the water bottle, I’ve found that the straw does deliver quite a large volume as it has a very high flow rate. It seems to deliver much more water than a typical drinking straw, so I felt satisfied with the amount of water I could get through the LifeStraw. While cooking oatmeal for breakfast or pasta for dinner, I used untreated lake water and just boiled it for a minute to kill any bacteria or parasites. Granted, the water I was using for cooking with wasn’t muddy, otherwise I would have wanted to clean it with a traditional filter.

There are water filters in the $80-$100 range which can be cleaned and re-used for years, but I figure if I’m drinking 3-4 quarts (3-4 liters) of water per day while hiking, the LifeStraw will last me for 250-330 days before it reaches its expiry of 264 gallons (1,000 filtered liters). Since I hike about 15 days per year, this is more than adequate for my needs.

If I was in an emergency, it’d be nice to have one of these LifeStraws close at hand. If my car broke down in a remote area and I had to walk all day, or if there was a boil-water advisory combined with a power outage, having access to clean water would be critical. For those concerned about emergency preparedness, it’s a great idea to keep a few of them in your preparedness kit, and one in the glovebox of your car. They’re light and cheap enough to have a few around.

Here are some important tips, based on my own experience using the LifeStraw:

  • When the straw is completely empty, it takes a few sucks to get the water through it. After that, it’s very easy to suck water through.
  • If the straw stops sucking up water, blow back into it (from the mouthpiece) and that will clear the filter and make it easy to suck up water again. I had to do this several times per day. With muddy water, you would have to blow back into it more often.
  • When you’re finished drinking, blow a breath of air into it again to clear out the water in the filter. I also shake the LifeStraw a bit to help clear out any drips so they don’t end up in my backpack. If there is water left in the filter during freezing temperatures, it might expand and damage the filter, so I recommend shaking it dry, or keeping it from freezing. When I got home, I rinsed it under the tap and let it thoroughly dry with the caps off.
  • With the LifeStraw, you can drink directly from a water source (such as a stream, mud puddle, or lake), but keep in mind the ground might be soggy. I only drink from the water body if the ground is rocky, otherwise I’ll end up getting damp from lying on the wet ground beside the creek. A more practical way of taking a drink is of course filling your water bottle up in the creek, and then putting the LifeStraw into the bottle and drinking that way.
  • Although the LifeStraw has been tested up to 422 gallons (1600 liters), you’re supposed to stop using it after 1000 liters. You’ll know when it’s reached the end of its lifespan when you can’t suck water through it anymore.
  • While the LifeStraw filters down to 0.2 microns, removing virtually all bacteria and protozoa, it should be noted that it will not filter out heavy metals, and will not desalinate water. It doesn’t filter out viruses either, although water-borne viruses are rare in the North American backcountry.

Leaning into the wind at the summit of Black Tusk, a sense of awe took hold as the effort of the climb subsided. I could see the alpine meadows and glacial lakes we had hiked along, and in the distance, the ocean. black tusk summitThe pounding in my heart subsided, and I realized my internal dialogue had changed. The usual pattern of mental chatter gave way to a sense of quiet calm, and the feeling of oneness with nature was uplifting and restorative. I felt the LifeStraw in my pocket, and it occurred to me that this little device is going to help me enjoy the outdoors even more.
For every LifeStraw sold, one student in Kenya receives a year’s worth of clean water at school through the Follow the Litres program. We also donate a tree for every order through our partnership with Trees for the Future Foundation.

You can purchase the LifeStraw here, or watch our HD video review on YouTube.


5 Secrets to a ‘No-work’ Garden

Tuesday, April 26th, 2011

A no-work garden It took over 20 years of gardening to realize that I didn’t have to work so hard to achieve a fruitful harvest. As the limitless energy of my youth gradually gave way to the physical realities of mid-life, the slow accretion of experience eventually led to an awareness that less work can result in greater crop yields.

Inspired in part by Masanobu Fukuoka’s book, One Straw Revolution, my family experimented with gardening methods which could increase yields with less effort. Fukuoka spent over three decades perfecting his so-called “do-nothing” technique: commonsense, sustainable practices that all but eliminate the use of pesticides, fertilizer, tillage, and perhaps most significantly, wasteful effort.

Here are the strategies we used which enabled us to greatly increase our garden yield, while requiring less time and less work.

1. Use the ‘no-till’ method of gardening

‘No-till’ gardening is a series of methods in which the soil is never disturbed, thereby protecting the complex subsoil environment for the benefit of growing plants. Amendments such as compost, manure, peat, lime and organic fertilizer are simply added to the top of the garden beds, and over time they will be incorporated into the subsoil by watering and the activity of subsoil organisms. There is no need to dig anything into the soil.

With ‘no-till’ gardening, weeding is largely eliminated. The use of mulch blocks soil-borne weeds from emerging, and any weeds which do emerge are easy to pull out because the soil is always moist. This moist, spongy soil is also the perfect medium to boost the growth of your seedlings and transplants. This process mimics the way plants grow successively in nature.

By switching to ‘no-till’ methods, you won’t have to do the heavy tilling or shovel work which so many gardeners suffer through each spring. You will need to ensure the beds remain well mulched, and take care to never step on the beds. To learn more about this gardening method, read our article No-Till Gardening.

2. Mulch, and mulch again

Mulch A thick layer of mulch around your plants and over the entire bed will enhance the growing conditions for garden plants while reducing time spent weeding and watering.

Mulch saves water because it reduces water lost to evaporation, and it prevents the surface of the soil from drying out. The need for regular watering is greatly reduced. Mulch also blocks weeds from sprouting, and any weeds that make it through are easy to pull since their roots are in moist, loose soil. Mulch is an essential garden amendment in areas where water is scarce.

Gardeners are always on the lookout for free sources of clean organic mulch to add to their garden. Lawn clippings are a ready source, and fresh clippings are nitrogen-rich. If plants are close to fruiting, however, let grass clippings go dry and brown before using. Fall leaves, straw (not hay), seaweed, and forest duff can be used as mulch. Bark mulch, landscape cloth, geotextiles or plastic materials should not be used as mulch on vegetable beds.

View this chart of the common materials used for mulch and their properties when in use.

Once mulch is in place, it doesn’t need to be disturbed. Amendments like lime, compost and rock phosphate can be top-dressed. When transplanting or sowing seeds, simply part the mulch to sow seeds, then fold it back in place as seedlings take root.

The mulch you apply to your beds will gradually disappear as it breaks down and becomes incorporated into the soil. You’ll need to reapply mulch to your beds regularly, how often depending on the type of mulch used and the time of year. As the mulch gets thinner and disappears, you’ll know it all went into building new soil for the next crop.

3. Plant ‘green manure’ cover crops between rotations

Green Manure By planting green manure cover crops, such as peas, vetch, rye or buckwheat, between crop rotations, we don’t have to purchase and haul heavy bags of peat moss as often. And we buy fewer bags of composted steer manure for fertilizer. The green manure crop is easy to seed, and when mature, it’s easy to turn under in preparation for the following vegetable crop.

Using green manures complements the ‘no-till’ method. Green manures and cover crops can be used to improve soil aeration, tilth and fertility without digging into the soil. Cover crops should be turned under before going to seed, but this can be done with minimal soil disturbance. We cut our cover crops to ground level using a garden shears, and leave the clippings in place, or we ‘smother’ the crop with a heavy mulch like seaweed. This creates a ‘lasagna effect’, and enables us to replant the bed without disturbing the soil. It also saves the work of tilling and weeding usually associated with gardening.

Here are some other ways green manure saves work:

  • Displaces weeds. Nature abhors a vacuum, and any exposed soil will soon be covered with weeds. Planting cover crops makes it more difficult for new weeds to get established.
  • Reduces the need for peat. Each bag of peat we use has to be picked up and put down about 4 times before the peat is spread onto the garden beds. We need the peat to lighten and help aerate the soil, but green manure also contributes to the soil in much the same way.
  • Reduces the need for fertilizer. Leguminous green manures will fix nitrogen into the soil, thereby reducing the fertilizer needed for new crops. We still need some fertilizer, and use canola meal for this. A benefit of using canola meal is that, unlike steer manure, it is lightweight and gardeners don’t have to worry about stray seeds being imported into the garden.

4. Grow in Raised Beds

Raised beds After a few hours in the garden, my back would gradually get sore and tired, sending me indoors for a cup of tea and a different activity. And as middle-age wanes, the flexibility of the back and knees seems to diminish. One day I noticed that our best beds, the ones which were well tended and yielded good harvests, were the tallest beds. My wife and I, it seemed, each gravitated to these beds because they were easier to tend than the ground-level beds.

Over the years we have converted the entire garden to raised beds. Today, we can enjoy gardening longer, without sore backs! And the garden is evenly productive, since all beds are equally comfortable to tend. After experimenting with various configurations, we’ve settled on beds which are 4’ wide, so we can reach across the bed from one side. Our garden is on sloping ground, so we built our beds 18” tall on the high side and about 6” – 10” on the low side. We work mainly from the high sides.

Raised beds have also enabled us to control the pathway weeds which used to encroach on the ground beds. By having the bed sides as barriers, it’s easy to control pathway weeds by laying down sheets of cardboard or bark mulch. The garden is tidier now and gives us a feeling that things are not growing out of control. And we spend almost no time weeding!

5. Use soaker hoses for watering

soaker hose For too many gardening seasons, we dragged the hose from bed to bed in order to keep our garden watered. We were slaves to dry weather, often changing our personal schedules to be in the garden to water a bed with starter plants. Care was taken to avoid watering the leaves of some plants, like tomatoes, to prevent blight, which meant we couldn’t just set a sprinkler and leave. Watering was done by hand since different crops had different water requirements.

Today, we simply turn on the water spigot and each bed receives a slow, steady flow of water directly to the root zones. Soaker hoses are laid on beds, delivering slow, steady dripping to the plant root zones. This saves us time, and also saves water since no spray is lost to wind, and our pathways do not get watered. This is important because pathway weeds will dry up and require less work in weeding. Less work!

Soaker hoses can be laid beneath light mulch, like straw, so they’re not visible. We also use a battery-powered electric timer to turn on the soaker hoses, and to turn them off after a designated period. This enables us to be off-site, without worrying about watering our vegetable plots.

To our surprise, we’ve had more consistent gardening results since switching to the soaker hose and timer system. The plants are bigger and the yield is greater. The slow, steady supply of water enables the roots to maintain a slow intake, feeding their natural absorption capacity. Our hand-watering practice, on the other hand, applied the water faster, and in larger amounts, which resulted in considerable water lost to runoff (which watered the pathway weeds) and less water actually being absorbed by the plant roots. We found that use of soaker hoses helped us achieve better garden production with less work.

Here in North America, we have a cultural notion that hard work is a good thing. I prefer to think that results are a good thing. If we can enjoy better results in gardening with less work, more people will be encouraged to try gardening, and those who already have gardens will enjoy it that much more.

Browse Eartheasy’s line of natural lawn & garden supplies here.


Greg About Greg
Originally from Long Island, NY, Greg Seaman founded Eartheasy in 2000 out of concern for the environment and a desire to help others live more sustainably. As Editor, Greg combines his upbringing in the cities of New York, Boston and San Francisco with the contrast of 31 years of living ‘off-grid’ to give us a balanced perspective on sustainable living. Greg spends his free time gardening, working on his home and building a wooden sailboat with hand tools.


UN calls for immediate action to save life on Earth

Wednesday, October 20th, 2010

Above, Green Sea Turtle in the waters of Bora Bora, Tahiti. The gender of sea turtle eggs are determined by temperature, which means global warming would upset the natural gender balance. (photo:

The world must act immediately to stop the rapid loss of animal and plant species that allow humans to exist, the United Nations warned on Monday at the start of a major summit on biodiversity.

Delegates from the 193 members of the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) are gathering in the central city of Nagoya to try to work out strategies to reverse a man-made mass extinction.

“The time to act is now and the place to act is here,” CBD executive secretary Ahmed Djoghlaf said as the meeting opened, describing the 12-day event as a “defining moment” in the history of mankind.

“Business as usual is no more an option when it comes to life on Earth… we need a new approach, we need to reconnect with nature and live in harmony with nature.”

Delegates were told human population pressures were wiping out ecosystems such as tropical forests and coral reefs, killing off animal and plant species that form the web of life on which humanity depends.

“This meeting is part of the world’s efforts to address a very simple fact. We are destroying life on Earth,” the UN Environment Programme’s executive director Achim Steiner said in a speech at the opening ceremony.

“We are destroying the very foundations that sustain life on this planet.”

This graphic shows the numbers of threatened and endangered animal species in Africa. The group of bars on the far left shows totals for all of Africa’s different categories of animals (mammals, birds, reptiles, etc.), and the other four sets of bars are broken down by region within Africa. This shows the current status of threatened and endangered animals in Africa; climate change will only make this worse.

Delegates in Nagoya plan to set a new target for 2020 for curbing species loss, and will discuss boosting medium-term financial help for poor countries to help them protect their wildlife and habitats.

But similar pledges to stem biodiversity loss have not been fulfilled, and Djoghlaf said governments around the world had to acknowledge that failure.

“Let’s have the courage to look into the eyes of our children and admit that we have failed individually and collectively to… to substantially reduce the rate of loss of biodiversity by 2010,” Djoghlaf said.

“Let us look into the eyes of our children and admit that we continue to lose biodiversity at unprecedented rates.”

At the start of the decade, UN members pledged under the Millennium Development Goals to achieve “a significant reduction” in the rate of wildlife loss by 2010, the International Year of Biodiversity.

Instead, habitat destruction has continued unabated, and some experts now warn that the planet faces its sixth mass extinction phase — the latest since dinosaurs vanished 65 million years ago.

Nearly a quarter of mammals, one third of amphibians, more than one in eight birds, and more than a fifth of plant species now face the threat of extinction, said the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Nearly a quarter of mammals, one third of amphibians, more than one in eight birds, and more than a fifth of plant species now face the threat of extinction

In May, a UN report warned of looming “tipping points” that could irreversibly damage ecosystems such as the Amazon rainforest, through logging and land clearance, and coral reefs through global warming and overfishing.

The Earth’s 6.8 billion humans are effectively living 50 percent beyond the planet’s biocapacity in 2007, according to a new assessment by WWF that said by 2030 humans will effectively need the capacity of two Earths.

Meanwhile, disputes between rich and poor nations that have plagued efforts to curb greenhouse gases threaten to similarly hamper biodiversity negotiations.

The European Union is calling for a target of halting biodiversity loss by 2020, while many developing nations only support a weaker goal of “taking action” on the issue.

The European Union is calling for a target of halting biodiversity loss by 2020, while many developing nations only support a weaker goal of “taking action” on the issue

There are also tensions over efforts to forge an accord on the “equitable sharing” of the benefits from natural resources — for example a medicine derived from a jungle plant — under a so-called Access and Benefits Sharing Protocol (ABS).

Under a proposal backed by developing nations, companies would pay a “gene fee” if scientists find plants or animals that have been used by indigenous groups and have commercial use such as in the pharmaceutical industry.

Brazilian Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira warned this month that “for us, it is not acceptable to go to Nagoya and not have an agreement for (the) ABS Protocol… We need a deal.”

Some developing countries have warned that a plan to set up an international scientific panel to assess biodiversity issues and advise policy makers could be blocked if there is no deal on the ABS protocol.

Medicines from Nature

Friday, September 10th, 2010

Rainforest Medicine Human beings have long depended on medicines from Nature to prevent and treat illnesses, and today the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that up to 80% of the global population still relies on plants for primary health care.

For many of the 150 million tribal peoples, Nature provides a potent pharmacy that they can rely on, thanks to their detailed botanical knowledge; the upshot of a profound attunement to their ecosystems for thousands of years.

For example, the Yanomami of the Amazon drink the juice of the woody cat’s claw vine to relieve diarrhea, and apply the bark of the copal tree to treat eye infections. And the Shuar of Ecuador and Peru use no less than 100 different species of plants solely for stomach ailments.

Another Peruvian tribe, the Matsigenka, rely on herbs stored in water-filled pots to protect their babies. They think of many illnesses as foul-smelling ‘odors’ or ‘vapors’ that have risen from the bowels of the Earth, so, as anthropologist Glenn Shepard writes: “the fragrance of Myrtaceae species and the ginger-like sedge root create an aromatic force field around the child which keeps malodorous spirits at bay”.

Thousands of years of patient observation and experimentation are evident too in the Innu people’s awareness that earache can be successfully treated with the inner scrapings of beavers’ scrota. “There are medicines out there that I know about,” said an Innu man. “In the country I am an environmentalist and a biologist.”

In tribal communities the role of ‘biologist’ is often performed by shamans: highly revered mediators between the living and the supernatural worlds, they combine the diagnostic and curative power of plants with spiritual healing. They use the psychoactive properties of plants to induce altered states of consciousness which allow them to commune with the spirits of natural phenomena in order to determine the cause of their patients’ illnesses and ask advice on the appropriate treatment. “When for the first time you sniff the powder from the yãkõanahi tree, the xapiripë spirits begin to gather around you. Gradually, they reveal themselves,” says Davi Kopenawa, a Yanomami shaman from Brazil.

For the Yali shamans of West Papua’s central highlands, certain plants are so powerful that they are able to drive ghosts from villages and rats from fields, and ensure the arrival of rain or the success of a hunting trip. “The Yali excel as ecologists,” says William Milliken, an ethnobotanist currently based at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, London. “One elder taught me about the magic plants of his world. So secret and powerful were the plants, he sometimes only whispered their names so as not to speak them aloud.”

It is the oral traditions of tribal societies that have trained generations of shamans. Tribal languages are those of the land, suffused with vocabularies that contain complex geographical, geological, medicinal and climatic information. The Kallawaya, highland farmers and travelling healers in Bolivia who have a vast knowledge of wild plants and their therapeutic uses, have their own ‘secret’ language, called Machaj Juyai, believed by some to be the language of the Inca kings. Encoded within this tongue is medical knowledge that has been handed down from father to son. Of the 7,000 languages in the world, however, around 4,000 are now endangered. “Every language and culture shows us something about the way a people has evolved to deal with the world,” says linguist Daniel Everett. “So when a language dies, we lose ways of life, solutions to problems and classifications of plants and animals.”

Were it not for the plant knowledge of tribal peoples, many vital medicinal compounds might still be unknown. Certain plant products, used initially as poisons by South American Indians, have become important in Western medicine. One example is the poison curare. Used on the tips of blowgun darts to render prey immobile, it has been appropriated as a muscle relaxant for humans and has made possible techniques such as open-heart surgery. As it is widely believed that the medicinal value of many plant species is as yet unknown to Western scientists, it makes sense to place greater value on the knowledge and experience of peoples who have been studying their flora and fauna for millennia.

Valuable as the botanical knowledge of tribal peoples is, perhaps even more so is their holistic approach to health. Wellbeing is seen not just as the absence of illness, but as a state of emotional, physical and spiritual harmony. Man is not an island: humans are dependent for their health on harmonious connections to each other and to the Earth. “The environment is not separate from us,’ says Davi Kopenawa. ‘We are inside it and it is inside us.”

“The environment is not separate from us,’ says Davi Kopenawa. ‘We are inside it and it is inside us.”

This is a philosophy that takes into account the whole person, as opposed to the more reductive approach of allopathic medicine, which tends to consider an individual as composed of separate parts. As the industrialized world becomes increasingly aware of the adverse physical and mental effects of separation from Nature – one study has shown that gall-bladder surgery patients who had views of Nature from their hospital beds took less pain medication than those who had views of a concrete wall – the need to integrate the genius of Western medicine with the holistic understanding of tribal peoples becomes ever more urgent. And with new pathogens threatening to cross the species divide, the hope is that new medicinal plant compounds will be found.

Calanolide A, a unique chemical produced by the Bintangor tree deep in the rainforests of Borneo, has recently been isolated; it may be effective in inhibiting the proliferation of the HIV virus. Coral reefs are also sources of medicines being developed to treat cancer, arthritis and heart disease; a recent study by Australian researchers suggests that coral produces compounds that act as a sunscreen, which could be developed for human use. And a chemical called kainic acid, found in Japan’s coral reefs, is being used to investigate Huntington’s chorea. As the naturalist E.O. Wilson once wrote, “We do not even know why we respond in a certain way to other organisms, and need them in diverse ways so deeply.”

Ironically, just as Western medicine is beginning to rediscover the value of natural remedies, so the world’s rainforests and coral reefs are being destroyed and plants are becoming extinct. Botanic Gardens Conservation International estimates that over-harvesting and loss of habitat threatens the survival of over 50,000 currently known medicinal plant species. As the habitats that are the richest in biodiversity tend to be those still under the stewardship of tribal peoples (the Jarawa, for instance, inhabit the last remaining tracts of virgin rainforest in the Andaman Islands), it follows that the best way of protecting these precious medicinal plants is to secure the land rights of their guardians, the tribal communities.

…it follows that the best way of protecting these precious medicinal plants is to secure the land rights of their guardians, the tribal communities.

As a child, I suffered from occasional warts on my thumb. These were treated by my Welsh grandfather, an eminent eye surgeon. His technique? He cut an apple, rubbed the wart with one half and buried the other in a sunny spot in the garden, just below the orchard. The wart would disappear within days. A placebo effect? Perhaps. But isn’t this what the anthropologist Dan Moerman refers to as the ‘meaning response’ – the human mind responding physiologically to curative manipulations that are meaningful to the individual? These subtle and symbiotic powers of mind, body and Nature are perhaps still far better understood by shamans and traditional healers than by many ‘modern’ medical practitioners.

If we can find a painkiller from Ecuadorian frogs that is 200 times as potent as morphine, if we can learn that there are anti-cancer properties in aquatic invertebrates, we can only guess at what other powerful natural panaceas lie within the tropical forests, in the depths of the ocean, or in the icy reaches of the Arctic. And the ancient languages of the world’s tribal peoples are no doubt laden with knowledge invaluable for everyone.

Joanna Eede is Editorial Consultant with Survival International and creator of We Are One, a book celebrating the world’s tribal peoples. This article originally appeared in Resurgence, a magazine for people who care about the environment, love reading, enjoy new ideas and are looking for inspiration on sustainable living.

How to green your home with new stimulus money incentives

Tuesday, March 10th, 2009

Hampton Falls, N.H. — Energy-saving systems for the attic, basement, and in between have effectively gone on sale, courtesy of the United States Congress.

But whether shoppers will take advantage — or even notice available discounts — remains an open question.

Tax incentives to encourage investments in energy efficiency took effect last week when President Barack Obama signed the $787 billion economic stimulus bill. That means homeowners with drafty windows, old heating systems, or other root causes of high energy bills can be rewarded in tax season if they make improvements in 2009 or 2010.

“This is by far the most the federal government has done in the past several decades” to reward energy-efficiency investments, says Steven Nadel, executive director of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C. “In many cases, this will make the high-efficiency product cheaper than the low-efficiency product. [For consumers], this is pretty lucrative, and I’d be surprised if it gets extended into 2011.”

New incentives increase the size of tax credits for homeowners who buy qualifying products. For instance, those who invest in highly-rated insulation, replacement windows, duct seals, or high-efficiency heating and cooling systems can now receive a tax credit worth 30 percent of the upgrade cost (maximum credit value: $1,500).

Previously, homeowners could get a tax credit worth just 10 percent of an upgrade cost, up to a maximum of $500. Now, taxpayers who spend $800 on an efficient water heater, $1,000 on insulation, and $2,000 on windows could lop $1,140 off their federal tax bill.

Awards for switching to renewable energy sources have become especially generous.

Awards for switching to renewable energy sources have become especially generous. Congress this month did away with caps on 30 percent tax credits for homeowners who install solar panels, geothermal heat pumps, or windmills. Now a $24,000 investment to make a home solar-powered would generate a federal tax credit worth $7,200. (Before the stimulus, credits were capped at $2,000 for geothermal and solar; $4,000 for wind).

These tax code revisions have altered the affordability ballgame, says Craig Perkins, executive director of the Energy Coalition, a nonprofit in Irvine, Calif., that helps consumers become more energy-efficient. He estimates more than 1 in 4 Californians can now borrow to install solar panels and immediately be paying less out-of-pocket per month (including payments on solar panels) than if he or she were to keep getting power from conventional sources. Others, he says, will often recoup the costs of adding solar or high-efficiency air conditioning over a few years.

One key to maximizing savings, Perkins says, is to choose projects that qualify for a rebate from one’s state or utility and are also eligible for a federal tax credit. Such “piggybacking” is both permissible and encouraged. The challenge: getting consumers to research options and take action.

“The problem we find constantly is that [navigating incentives] can be extremely confusing,” Mr. Perkins says. “People don’t want to become wonks about what’s eligible and what isn’t.… It’s the nuts and bolts of making it happen that really stops a lot people.”

Merchandisers are already moving to educate consumers about new tax benefits. At Home & Hearth, a heating stove dealer in Hampton Falls, N.H., manager Bob King was talking up tax credits with every customer hours after Congress passed the stimulus bill. Brochure in hand, Jim Marshall of Exeter, N.H., liked hearing from Mr. King in the store’s parking lot that a new wood pellet stove would qualify. He’d like to make a switch and stop spending more than $300 per month for oil heat.

Burning pellets made from sawdust and other wood byproducts “doesn’t hurt the environment,” Mr. Marshall says. “You’re just using something that would be thrown away. And if they’ll give me a tax credit for one of these stoves, I’ll look at doing it sooner.”

Home energy experts often recommend people first invest in eliminating wasted energy.

Home energy experts often recommend people first invest in eliminating wasted energy. That includes tightening a building’s shell with attic insulation and other sealing measures before investing in new mechanical equipment.

Mr. Nadel suggests consumers with questions about priorities contact a contractor trained by the federal Home Performance with Energy Star program. He or she will analyze, sometimes at no cost, how to align a particular home’s needs with available tax incentive and rebate programs.

In these tough economic times, consumers shouldn’t necessarily cling to conventional wisdom. Since contractors need work, homeowners might find that well-priced labor will catapult a systems upgrade to the top of a home-improvement priority list, according to Alan Meier, associate director of the Energy Efficiency Center at the University of California, Davis. What’s more, he says, the new federal push for renewable energy could affect a homeowner’s calculus, especially in states with aggressive incentives of their own.

“The federal government wants you to invest in solar and other renewables,” Mr. Meier says. “Given all the tax credits, it may in fact make solar panels more cost-effective for the consumer than energy conservation,” such as adding insulation or highly rated windows.

Outside the home, hybrid vehicle owners have new reason to soup up their rigs. Plug-in conversion kits, which replace existing batteries with larger ones that plug into electrical outlets, now generate tax credits worth 10 percent of the kit’s cost (maximum credit value: $4,000). Congress this month also increased the number of new hybrid plug-in vehicles, expected to debut in showrooms later this year, which will qualify for tax credits worth anywhere from $2,500 to $7,500, depending on battery size.

No matter which investments consumers choose, the process of claiming benefits may require perseverance. King, the heating stove dealer, says he’s received calls this year from accountants who had mistakenly challenged their clients for wanting to claim tax credits on stove purchases. Other accountants note consumers aren’t always sufficiently organized or diligent to claim what’s due to them.

“This is a very unique and narrow bunch of credits,” says Mark Steben, vice president of tax resources at Jackson Hewitt Tax Service. “You’re going to see a large group of people who qualify but don’t take advantage of it.

Article by G. Jeffrey MacDonald, Christian Science Monitor

How to stay warm while reducing your heating costs

Friday, January 30th, 2009

For people living in the colder climes, the cost of heating our homes through the winter months is a significant household expense. And there is an environmental cost as well. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, heating and cooling systems in the U.S. emit over a half billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year. Much of the energy used for heating our homes is wasted, and yet the prevention is, in many cases, simple and inexpensive.

Here are six easy ways you can stay warm while reducing your home heating costs:

1. Adjust temperatures.

You can save as much as 20% a year on your heating bills by turning your thermostat down 7 – 10 degrees for 8 hours each day. You can do this automatically without sacrificing comfort by installing a programmable thermostat.

A programmable thermostat lets you preset the times your home is heated, so heat can be lowered while you are asleep or out of the house. The cost, between $30 – $50, is offset by the long-term energy savings. Installation is easy for the average home handyman – you don’t need to hire a serviceman.

2. Replace or clean furnace filters.

It’s recommended that furnace filters be replaced at least every three months of furnace use. If your home is heated by a central furnace, check the filters every month during winter. Clogged filters reduce air flow and cause the furnace to work harder, using more energy. Severely clogged filters can even lead to premature compressor damage.

To check the filter, hold it up to a light and see if the light shines through. New filters cost about 50 cents each, and are simple to replace. Measure your old air filter before shopping – they range in size from 12″ x 12″ to 30″ x 30″. Turn off electric power to furnace while inspecting filter.

3. Pay attention to your windows.

Most heat loss in the average home is through and around the windows. Two simple strategies are the most effective means of minimizing heat loss:

Work the drapes

By leaving blinds and curtains on your west- and south-facing windows open during the day and closing them in the evening, you can retain that warmed air overnight. Drawing the drapes at night is an effective block, making it harder for your warm air to escape. Lined drapes are best. Drapes will also help reduce window condensation because the space between the drapes and the window is cooler than the room air. Drapes can be lined with less expensive material or re-used bed sheets. The cost of the material is recouped by the savings in energy.

Seal drafty windows

For single-pane or drafty windows, adding inexpensive window insulating kits made of plastic or vinyl sheeting is an effective way to seal in heat. These kits contain sheets of plastic film, which looks like cling-film, but slightly thicker. Double-sided tape is applied to the window frame, then the plastic is cut to size and fixed to the tape. Finally, a hair dryer is used to shrink the plastic sheeting tight. The fitted plastic creates an air-tight gap which prevents drafts and condensation.

They cannot be used on most aluminum-framed windows and doors, as there is not enough of a gap between the window frame and the glass to work effectively.

4. Add insulation to your attic.

Adding insulation to your attic is one of the simplest and most effective ways of conserving heat in your home, and can help save up to $30/month in heating costs. Insulation should also be applied to ductwork, pipes and the hot water storage tank. Start with the top of the home and work your way down. You may need professional help when selecting and installing insulation.

5. Get rid of drafts.

A simple way to locate outside air coming into your home is with a stick of incense. Light the incense and inspect your home, from the inside, for air leaks. Choose a breezy day, and go around windows, areas where plumbing and wiring go through walls, attic doors, entry doors and fireplace dampers. How much the smoke drifts horizontally from the incense will reveal how serious the leak is.

Most leaks can be quickly plugged with exterior silicone caulk – be sure to caulk the leaks from the outside of the house, or moisture will build up inside the walls. Weather-stripping and door sweeps will fix the door leaks quickly and easily. For larger voids use easy to apply insulating foam.

6. Close off unused rooms.

Spare bedrooms and unused space in your home will drain some of your home’s heat. This can be remedied by lowering the heat settings in the rooms (if the rooms have individual thermostats) and closing the doors. For added draft prevention, you can slip a draft guard beneath the doors leading to these rooms.

These simple measures are often overlooked in homes today. Before taking on expensive renovations such as replacing windows or installing a new heater, it’s wise to thoroughly review the simplest and least expensive options for saving heat and energy in your home. And as you conserve energy, you’ll also be helping the environment.

9 ways NASA can help fight Climate Change

Tuesday, January 27th, 2009

A recent article in Scientific American suggests that NASA is perhaps one of the best equipped agencies to help tackle the causes and consequences of global climate change. Although NASA specializes in space exploration, the advanced engineering tools, data collection technologies and experience in monitoring weather patterns can be applied to the challenges presented by climate change.

The following is a summary of the 9 reasons why NASA can help the climate crisis.

1. Develop an integrated, global plan for energy and the environment.

This plan would utilize the information NASA has on global climate change patterns, and with the help of international partners and agencies, create a system that will show the rates that renewable resources would be required and used, what new climate data information is required, including the proper levels of carbon trading and caps and what mitigation technologies need to be implemented. The plan would make clear whether nations could meet internationally agreed-on carbon dioxide emission limits and still fulfill their energy needs.

2. Open NASA facilities to “green tech” companies.

NASA has a wide range of facilities that are of relevance to green technologies from research stations in the arctic and desert, to the world’s largest wind tunnels, to supercomputers. Green technology companies could have access to these facilities to advance climate change knowledge, test theories and improve green products.

3. Create an energy/environment data center.

NASA has an extensive database which could be coupled with data from agencies such as the Department of Energy and NOAA, and offered in an accessible format to parties engaged in climate research.

4. Utilize small, inexpensive spacecraft to collect climate data.

NASA should establish a venture class of smaller. less expensive satellites and spacecraft for Earth observing to enable the collection of more data for less cost.

5. Invest in “green” aviation.

NASA could be tasked to help to develop some of the key technologies that would enable “green aviation”—technologies that could help aircraft use less fuel or be carbon neutral.

6. Use of UAVs for regional climate modeling.

NASA UAVs could be used to fill information gaps between aircraft observations and satellite data, which would create a system that provides regional, high-resolution collection of climate data.

7. Greater U.S. Government collaboration.

NASA could work closer with other U.S. and international organizations that are working in on climate change. Improved access and information sharing programs can avoid duplication and facilitate advances in research and technologies. Agencies could report to a new energy and climate czar, or a new Energy and Environment Agency which would have the added advantage of coupling energy developments with climate change science.

8. Create an Earth Systems Directorate.

NASA could elevate its Earth Science Division to a ‘directorate’ which would be equal to space exploration and science as critical agency functions. Bringing together all the relevant agencies inside of NASA would improve its capabilities to study climate change.

9. Increasing public participation in green programs.

NASA is already in a position to engage the public on research and iniatives directed toward climate change. One example of this is an Web effort called which is an open dialogue between NASA employees and the public on all of the agency’s policies. Another is NASA’s Quest Atlantis program. (Note: Eartheasy is a ‘green living’ content provider to the NASA Quest Atlantis program.)

According to the authors, addressing the inherent complexities of climate change will require a coordinated effort of thousands of scientists and engineers, and large-scale deployment, perhaps not unlike the retooling of manufacturing during World War II or the Apollo project. While effective solutions to climate change must occur on a global scale with all nations coordinating their efforts and resources, there are few organizations today with the relevant capacity of NASA.

The above is a summary of the article written by William S. Marshall and James Clay Moltz.
The original article in its entirety is available at the Scientific American website.

New Year’s Seed Starting Mix

Tuesday, January 27th, 2009

It may seem too early in the year to be thinking of starting seeds for the spring vegetable garden, but preparing a soil mix now can help ensure successful seed sprouting and hardy young transplants in the early spring.

Most commercial seed starting mixes are a sterile mix of peat and vermiculite, which contain no nutrients. This is because newly sprouted seeds are sensitive to nutrient and water imbalances. By adding nutrients to your potting mix now, and setting it aside until early spring, the components can ‘mature’, giving a real boost to newly sprouted seedlings.

To create your own enhanced starter mix, combine:

  • 10 parts sterile potting starter mix
  • 2 parts finished compost, screened through ¼” mesh
  • 1 part glacial rock dust

Simply mix the ingredients together in a plastic bucket or tote, and leave the lid slightly ajar to allow some air movement. Allow your mix to sit for 6 – 8 weeks, or longer, before using.

About the ingredients:

Potting Mix

Used for starting seeds should be a ‘sterilized’ mix of peat moss and vermiculite or perlite.

  • Vermiculite – is a natural volcanic rock, finer than perlite, consisting of small porous crumbs which act like small sponges which absorb water and release it slowly into the soil. Fine-grade vermiculite is preferred for seed starting, and coarse vermiculite is used to improve water retention in light, sandy soils.
  • Perlite – is a natural volcanic rock that’s heated until it expands into rigid granules filled with tiny holes. The granules absorb up to 4 times their weight in water and then release it slowly which is ideal for young plants. This slow release of water helps maximizes nutrient intake. Its rigid crush-resistant structure also helps improve heavy soils by reducing compaction while increasing aeration and drainage.
  • Peat Moss – is an organic material consisting of shredded, partially decayed sphagnum moss. The peat moss that is commercially sold in the US, as a soil amendment, is typically the decomposed product of Canadian sphagnum moss which has been growing for thousands of years in wetland areas called peat bogs. Because these peat bogs are ecologically-important wetlands, peat should be used sparingly. Relatively small quantities are needed for seed starting mixes.
    For the garden transplant beds, look for peat substitutes such as coir, which is made of coconut fibre, a material in plentiful supply. Composted leaves and green manures also serve as peat substitutes.


The principal supplier of nutrients to your seed starter mix: Use the fine, crumbly ‘finished’ compost from your compost pile and sift it through a ¼” mesh screen before adding it to your mix. Even though the compost appears finished, it may still be too strong for new sprouts. By setting your seed starter mix aside for 6 – 8 weeks, the compost and the glacial rock dust combine to fully mature the compost for ready absorption by the young seedling roots.

Glacial Rock Dust

A natural quarrying by-product which contains a broad spectrum of minerals in a form readily available to soil microorganisms. Rock dust improves soil structure and moisture holding properties, and enhances plant root’s ability to absorb nutrients. Rock dust also promotes bacterial action in a compost pile, speeding up compost breakdown. It raises pH in acidic soils, increases phosphorus availability and corrects mineral imbalances in the soil. For more information or to purchase, glacial rock dust is available online from Eartheasy.

This simple New Year practice of preparing and setting aside your own enriched starting soil is an easy way to jump-start your garden when planting time arrives. And for the morose winter-bound gardener, getting one’s hands in the dirt, even if it’s mostly peat, is a welcome harbinger of a long-awaited spring.