Agroecology from A to Z

Adventures in Agroecology and Food Systems

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Chicken processing in the Willamette Valley, OR

On my way to the Sustainable Agriculture Education Association’s 2012 conference in Corvallis, OR I visited an old college friend, Audra Norris-Jacob.  We had to visit our favorite Latin dance club in Portland, Andrea’s Cha Cha Club, since I hadn’t been there in 7 years. This posed a bit of a scheduling problem because we had also committed to helping her brother process 120 chickens on his farm the next morning at 6 am. True salseras do not need sleep! So we did both.

Audra and I chilling in the chicken processing trailer

Audra’s brother, Trevor, part of a poultry co-op where a bunch of folks get together to buy chickens, grow them on his farm and then process them as a community. I was really impressed with the prototype of the chicken processing trailer developed by Jerry Tindall of Grow International. The idea is to have everything you need to process chickens in a portable system that you can bring to a farm, use, then pack back up again. Tufts is working on a similar project they’re calling the Mobile Poultry Processing Unit (MPPU) in conjunction with the State of Massachusetts. I hope these kinds of projects take off in Oregon and of course in Arizona because it offers a huge benefit to small and medium scale poultry farmers.

I know from attending the NY State Council on Food Policy listening sessions a few years back that access to meat processing facilities is a major impediment to efficient regional food systems. In fact, the amazing grass fed pork, chickens, turkeys and beef my husband and I bought while living in Ithaca were grown close by, but had to go just over the border to Pennsylvania and back in order to be butchered. I’ll have to ask my new friend Leslie at L Bell Ranch here in the Prescott area about the local meat processing regulatory situation.

Warning: This video is NSFV (Not Safe for Vegetarians)!

Most of the chicken processing team

One of the reasons I still miss Oregon, Pseudotsuga menziesii (Douglas-fir)

Post script: When Vicki Norris, Audra’s sister in law, invited us in for tea and then lunch, I was blown away by how beautiful and almost unimaginably organized her home was. It turns out Vicki is a professional organizer and has appeared on HGTV’s Mission: Organization. Vicki, I wish you lived closer to me! I could use some organization tips.

And an update: The first USDA certified mobile poultry processing unit has just been launched in Northern NY.


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We had a great discussion on Tuesday in my Security, Equality and Ecology of Global Food Production class. We had just read a Raj Patel article in the Journal of Peasant Studies and were talking about what the world would look like if the ultimate goals of the food sovereignty movement were eventually realized.

Would there be international trade at all? Can countries even survive without international trade? What about places like Arizona where it actually makes more sense distance-wise to trade in agricultural crops with Mexico than with Minnesota? If ancient peoples traded long distances for important resources they didn’t have access to otherwise, is a goal of total regional self-sufficiency realistic or even desirable?

Luckily my friend and colleague M. Jahi Chappell just happened to write something directly in this vein today. Now I know what I will be assigning for reading tonight! I’m looking forward to seeing these publications when they are out.

Patel, R. (2009) Food sovereignty. Journal of Peasant Studies 36(3) 663-706.

Beginning to End Hunger

Parke Troutman tells us that “Carrots are not enough” in a compelling piece challenging the framing and potential of local food, and urging a nuanced but still forward-looking and positive vision of the movement.

Humans have never eaten “all locally”, he points out, which is quite certainly correct. Indeed, in a book chapter to be published next year, I call one of the goals of Brazil’s Landless Rural Workers’ Movement (o MST) a “brazen and historically accurate” revival of the concept of subsistence:

“A subsistence parallel to the more complex forms outlined throughout this volume. Subsistence, it appears, has rarely meant production only for local provision or survival, at least in their pre- and early-penetration of imperial and global capital manifestations.  So we might replace [the MST’s stated goal of supporting] “small farm production above subsistence levels” to the tongue-in-cheek “brazen and historically accurate subsistence”… production for…

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Tepary bean harvest at Jenner Farm

It’s impossible not to notice the change of seasons at a farm. Once that first frost happens, there is no turning back the clock. We’ve had a few great work parties out at the farm in the last three weeks. Students are working on green building projects, final harvesting, threshing, winnowing and even some seed saving.

We harvested 25 pounds of tepary beans from a student research plot from the summer agroecology course. The students were investigating the drought tolerance of different heritage tepary bean varieties from Native Seeds/SEARCH in Tucson. We got to them a little late in the season, so there were at least 10 pounds on the ground and Rabbit Run Farm had harvested 10 pounds earlier in the season. I wonder if 45 pounds of dry beans is a good yield for the plot size? I left students to their own devices on figuring out the threshing and winnowing. They really got an efficient system going. A few students harvested the bean plants, a few more stomped on the plants on a tarp to release the seeds and a few more used the wind to separate the chaff from the beans. It was so much fun I almost hate to buy a small combine for the tractor! I’m aiming to add this piece of equipment so that students can expand our tepary bean production and potentially provide dry beans for the campus food system.

I told the students that I was impressed that they developed a workable threshing and winnowing system so quickly. I said “it’s almost like you’re all intuitive threshers and winnowers.” Then a student answered, “After 10,000 years of agriculture, shouldn’t we all be intuitive threshers and winnowers?” Well said!

Winnowing tepary beans with the wind (and foot stomping threshing on a tarp in the background)

17 varieties of tepary bean Phaseolus acutifolius (mixed with some common beans Phaseolus vulgaris) ready for phase II winnowing

Earlier in the season during the agroecology summer course, Dr. Jean Stutz from ASU visited and did a lesson on Arbuscular Mycorrhizal Fungi (AMF). AMF are known to help increase drought tolerance in their plant hosts. She taught the students how to take root samples for AMF analysis and showed us microscopy images of stained roots back in the classroom. Jean has Prescott ties so I’m really looking forward to collaborating with her in the future, especially since I am a fellow rhizosphere microbial ecologist!

Dr. Jean Stutz demonstrates how to take root samples to test for AMF colonization

Root sampling

Plants in rows farthest from the camera received full irrigation while those in the rows closest to the camera were purposefully drought stressed to see how they responded

One of Dr. Jean Stutz’ microscopy images of AMF colonized root tissue

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Land conservancies in the SW

Our second event in the Prescott College Environmental Studies Fall Colloquium dealt with the role of conservation easements in land stewardship. We had two speakers from different farm and ranch friendly land conservancies in the Southwest. Both Scott and Rebecca are interested in working with Prescott College students for independent studies and/or senior projects. Let me know if you’re interested in learning more.

Scott Perez, Executive Director, La Plata Open Space Conservancy, Durango, CO

Rebecca Ruffner, Central Arizona Land Trust, Prescott, AZ

“People and Environment: Using Conservation Easements to Protect Nature and Our Working Landscapes”


Biography: Scott grew up in a farming community in the midwest. After a stint in college he started what he calls his “25 year spring break.” During that time he worked a variety of jobs but most of the time was spent as a working cowboy and guide all through the western US. Scott returned to school in 2000, graduating from Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado and moving on to Cornell University where he received his MS in Natural Resources and will get his PhD if he ever gets the last chapter of his dissertation finished. Scott is now the Executive Director of La Plata Open Space Conservancy in Durango, CO, a land trust holding almost 200 easements covering 24,000 acres.

Scott was joined by Rebecca Ruffner of the Central Arizona Land Trust (CALT) who spoke about land trust initiatives in Arizona. CALT educates the local community about how land trusts support open space and local working agricultural lands. I learned in the talk that CALT was formed through the public outcry that occurred when someone tried to build a home on the slopes of Thumb Butte in the 1980s.