In the April-May and February-March issues of MOTHER EARTH NEWS, I discuss some aspects of growing your own wheat: variety selection, growing methods, and processing of the harvest. One of the more important considerations in deciding which kind of seed to plant is the variation among wheat varieties in their reaction to fungi, bacteria, and viruses that can cause disease.
Wheat is plagued by a wider assortment of diseases than are most other grain crops. (North Dakota State University provides a good photographic compendium of wheat diseases.) The particular array of microbial threats varies from region to region and year to year, but few places escape completely. And when severe, diseases can wreck both the yield and the quality of harvested grain. Over the past century, wheat breeders have put at least as much effort into selecting for naturally-occurring genetic resistance to disease (no GMOs needed!) as they have into breeding for higher yield. In general, recently-developed varieties tend to have better resistance than do older ones; however, that is not always true, and almost every variety has one or more Achilles heels.
The risk-averse should simply avoid varieties that are especially susceptible to diseases that often strike wheat in their area. Many wheat growers plant a blend of two or more varieties. The logic of blending is that a mixture is more well-buffered against weather, diseases, and insects: when one variety has a bad year, others may take up the slack. But varieties included in the blend should be either all winter or all spring types with similar heights and harvest dates.
Guides to varieties, with disease-resistance ratings, are available for Eastern soft wheats, Great Plains hard winter wheats, and Northern hard red spring wheats, and there's also a guide for growing variety blends.
For wheat growers, it's a truism: Sow varieties that are resistant to prevalent diseases. But what if the wheat plant has to give up something for its resistance, so that it is less productive or its grain makes poorer bread? Would the resistance then be worth it?
Those are not questions that can be answered without controlled experiments. Simple observation can be deceptive. Close your eyes and think of any two wheat varieties; they will very likely differ in their geographical adaptation, yield potential, and reaction to the huge range diseases that infect wheat. If, for example, you happen to compare a specific rust-resistant variety with a susceptible variety, the resistant one might yield less or make poorer-quality bread than the susceptible one in a year without rust. (Depending on which ones you've picked, it could also yield more or make better bread.) However, that does not mean that resistance causes lower yield or quality. The two varieties differ not only in that rust gene, but also carry contrasting genes throughout their genomes. Any of those genetic differences could contribute to a difference in performance.
Over the years, controlled field experiments in wheat and other crop species — all of them designed to answer the question, “Does the plant pay a price for resistance?”—have provided us with a clear answer: “Flip a coin.” A survey of these comparative studies, published in the 1990s, found that in exactly 44 out of 88 cases covering a wide range of species and genes, resistant plants were less productive than susceptible ones in the absence of the relevant disease, insect, or herbicide. In the other 44 cases, there was no difference or, rarely, the resistant plants were more productive. The results of studies done since that time have continued to give widely varying answers to the questions of whether there's a yield effect and if so, how big it is.
In wheat as in other crops, some resistance genes reduce yield or quality while others do not. Many of wheat's genes for resistance have been transferred from related species. In the process, long stretches of DNA extending to either side of the resistance gene came along for the ride. Once in a wheat variety, some of those hitchhiking genes may affect other traits even if the resistance gene itself is benign. This has happened in the past with a chromosome segment from Aegilops umbellulata carrying the Lr9 gene for leaf-rust resistance; it depressed yield by 5 to 14 percent. There are other genes such as Fhb1, which protects against Fusarium head blight, that appear to have brought no yield- or quality-reducing hitchhikers with them. Then there's a chromosome segment transferred from rye that carries genes for leaf, stem, and stripe rust resistance; it has had a positive effect on productivity but a negative impact on quality.
Sometimes the resistance gene itself appears to have a direct impact. The Lr34 gene, which confers adult-plant resistance to leaf rust, originated within common wheat, but its yield-depressing effect is well known. But whether a yield reduction is caused directly by a resistance gene or indirectly by its bad neighbors, it is crucial to remember that these negative yield impacts have all been measured when there is no disease present. To the wheat grower, such an effect may be less important than the impact of the disease when it does strike.
For example, Lr34 reduces yield of spring wheat by about 6 percent if there is no leaf rust infection. But when leaf rust infects the plant, it can cause 43 to 84 percent yield losses in varieties that are not protected by Lr34 or other genes. At Kansas State University in the 1990s, my colleagues and I found that a leaf-rust gene transferred into wheat from the wild grass Ae. tauschii provided a 42 percent yield advantage under heavy leaf rust, while it had no yield-depressing effect when leaf rust was absent. And when fungi, bacteria, or viruses infect a wheat plant, they can decimate the bread-making or nutritional quality of the harvested grain. The rust diseases, for example, result in shriveled seed with poor gluten, while Fusarium head blight (a.k.a. “scab”) produces a dangerous toxin.
You never know at planting time which diseases will be the biggest threats over the coming season, but for diseases that are locally common, the possibility that a gene may have a modest negative effect on yield or quality in the absence of disease is probably less important than the risk of taking a much bigger hit to yield and quality that comes with sowing a susceptible variety.
And finally, there's no need to worry about at least one thing: wheat breeding for disease resistance has not made wheat's gluten proteins hazardous to your health.
When rain falls, some of the water ends up in lakes and rivers, some is used by plants, some evaporates back into the atmosphere, and some seeps through the ground into aquifers – large, natural underground water storage areas. This groundwater provides more than 40 percent of the U.S. population with drinking water. Not only does groundwater quench our thirst, but it is also important in protecting water quality and quantity in surface rivers and streams – during drier times, these waters are derived almost completely from groundwater supplies. In coastal areas, pumping too much water from aquifers can increase the amount of salt water entering groundwater supplies, sometimes making it undrinkable.
Viewer Tip: March 9-15, 2014 is National Groundwater Awareness Week. One of the easiest ways to protect groundwater supplies is to save water at home. Try these simple tips to save 30 gallons in one day:
Save 5 gallons:
Shorten your shower by just two minutes.
Save 5 gallons: Turn water off between rinsing dishes, rather than running water continuously.
Save at least 20 gallons: Water your lawn and garden in the early morning or evening hours, when the weather is cooler and water is less likely to evaporate.
(Source: National Groundwater Association. “National Groundwater Awareness Week”; The 40 Gallon Challenge)
Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design Issues Request for Proposals for Rural Communities Facing Design Challenges
Washington, DC—The Citizens' Institute on Rural Design (CIRD) has issued a request for proposals to rural communities facing design challenges - such as Main Street revitalization, how to manage and direct growth, design community-supportive transportation systems, preserve natural and historic landscapes and buildings, protect working agricultural lands, and provide adequate and affordable housing - who are interested in hosting a local workshop in 2014-2015. Successful applicants will receive a $7,000 stipend and in-kind professional design expertise and technical assistance valued at $35,000. The Request for Proposals is posted on the CIRD website.
The deadline for submitting a proposal is Tuesday May 6, 2014 at 9:00 pm EST
CIRD works to help rural communities with populations of 50,000 or fewer enhance their quality of life and economic vitality through facilitated design workshops. CIRD brings local leaders, non-profits, and community organizations together with experts in planning, design, preservation and placemaking – all in an effort to help communities address pressing design challenges and to put design tools into the hands of the people who can create local change. CIRD does this by offering an opportunity for four rural communities to host local design workshops, and by offering free public webinars, conference calls, and a resource-rich website to practitioners and community leaders across the country. Since the program's inception in 1991, CIRD has convened 70 workshops in all regions of the country with results that range from strengthened local economies, enhanced rural character, the leveraging of cultural assets, and design of new housing and transportation systems.
Each community selected to participate in the Institute will receive $7,000 to support planning and hosting a two and a half day workshop. Communities are required to provide $7,000 in matching funds (cash or in-kind services). CIRD will work with community leaders to assemble teams of specialists most qualified to address the community’s identified design challenges. The workshops will be augmented with conference calls and capacity-building webinar presentations led by professionals who will discuss a range of rural design topics. All calls are also offered free to the general public through CommunityMatters, a program of the Orton Family Foundation.
The CIRD website is a portal to resources on many aspects of rural design gathered from diverse organizations across the country including information on past CIRD workshops. It is a place for citizens and practitioners alike to get information about improving their own communities. Read more about last year’s workshops here.
Find the RFP and application guidelines here. Selected communities will be announced in June 2014, and workshops will be held during the fall of 2014 and first quarter of 2015.
CIRD will offer two pre-application assistance conference calls to answer questions and guide interested applicants in assembling their proposals. The first of these calls is scheduled for Tuesday, April 2, and the second call will take place on Thursday, April 24. Both calls will begin at 3:00 pm EST and last approximately one hour. Participation in each call is free but registration is required. Go here to register.
The Citizens’ Institute on Rural DesignTM is a National Endowment for the Arts leadership initiative in partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Project for Public Spaces, Inc., along with the Orton Family Foundation and the CommunityMatters Partnership.
The National Endowment for the Arts, established by Congress in 1965, is an independent agency of the federal government. To date, the NEA has awarded more than $4 billion to support artistic excellence, creativity, and innovation for the benefit of individuals and communities. Join the discussion on how art works. Visit the NEA to learn more.
USDA Rural Development administers and manages housing, business and community infrastructure programs through a national network of state and local offices. Rural Development has an active portfolio of more than $176 billion in loans and loan guarantees. These programs are designed to improve the economic stability of rural communities, businesses, residents, farmers and ranchers and improve the quality of life in rural America. Visit the USDA website here.
Project for Public Spaces (PPS) is a nonprofit planning, design, and educational organization dedicated to helping people create and sustain public spaces that build stronger communities. Founded in 1975, PPS has completed projects in over 2,500 communities and all 50 US states. PPS has become an internationally recognized center for resources, tools, and inspiration about Placemaking; check out their website.
The Orton Family Foundation seeks to empower people to shape the future of their communities by improving local decision-making, creating a shared sense of belonging, and ultimately strengthening the social, cultural, and economic vibrancy of each place. The Foundation's Heart & Soul approach supports citizens in steering their towns’ future by discovering the characteristics and attributes valued most by residents and, then, by placing those shared values at the center of future decisions. Visit the Orton Family Foundation.
CommunityMatters® is a program of the Orton Family Foundation that equips cities and towns to strengthen their places and inspire change. Together, the CommunityMatters partnership, conference calls and other projects fuel a growing network of leaders, thinkers and doers in a variety of disciplines. The CommunityMatters partnership is driven by seven national organizations with the common goal of building strong communities through the improvement of local civic infrastructure. The partners are: Deliberative Democracy Consortium, Grassroots Grantmakers, National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation, New America Foundation, Orton Family Foundation, Project for Public Spaces, and Strong Towns. Visit their website here.
This press release is presented without editing for your information. To learn more go to www.rural-design.org.
While some visitors to the Miami and Fort Lauderdale area spend much of the time baking in the sun, hitting the clubs or running up credit cards shopping, my family and I discovered that a subtropical ecotravel adventure awaits less than a half hour away in every direction from the big city bustle.
In this series of three posts, I’ll reveal some of the nature-based experiences possible in the “gold coast” stretching north from Miami to Hollywood and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, I’ll share our adventures on land, in the ocean and atop America’s slowest-flowing river in what is famously known as the Everglades.
The stretch of sands connecting the metro areas of Miami and Fort Lauderdale wouldn’t appear to be viable ecotourism destinations – at least not at first glance. But shimmering turquoise waters, powdery soft beaches, large swaths of mangroves preserved in various parks, and miles of bike paths makes it easy to escape the droves of sun-worshipers and traffic-clogged expressways.
Sail Away, Sail Away
With their catamarans docked in both Miami’s Bayside Harbor and Bahia Mar Marina in Fort Lauderdale, Tropical Sailing offers both sunset sails and snorkeling trips that make the big city feel miles away while on their “Spirit of Lauderdale” 50-foot catamaran.
Once we hit the open Atlantic about a mile off the coast of Fort Lauderdale, Captain Gary pulled the engines out of the water and we soared with the wind. Kicking back on their webbed “trampoline” that stretched between the twin hulls, sails stiff with the steady breeze, we enjoyed a champagne toast as the sun dropped behind the sand-trimmed coast. Not a sound from a motor or drop of fuel being burned.
Less than a twenty minute drive from Miami’s towering financial district, across the other side of the Rickenbacker Causeway, past Hobie Island Beach and the Historic Virginia Key Beach Park, emerges Key Biscayne, with it’s pristine, palm-tree-dotted beaches. The mangrove-formed island is book-marked by the 800-acre Crandon State Park to the north and the Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park with its stunning Cape Florida Lighthouse to the south.
"I'm a paddling encyclopedia,” jokes Alex Martinez, our guide for our kayaking adventure with Miami-Dade Eco-Adventures. He lives up to the moniker, and then some. Among other things, he managed the reptile collections and animal rehabilitation at the Falcon Bachelor Bird of Prey Center at the Miami Museum of Science before leading sea kayak trips for the past five years. He knows the difference between Vase and Queen Conch and just about everything else we might see. “Everything is so beautiful here. All I do is just give an educational spin on what we’re seeing, or, in some cases, touching,” he says, as my wife and son climb into our sea kayaks and head out into the calm, azure waters.
For our three-hour trip we paddled about fifty yards off shore, down what is one of the final remnants of the South Florida Barrier Islands known as Bear Cut Preserve. Our first objective, besides the possibility of catching a glimpse of the Lesser Electric Ray moving in for a meal in the sea-grass beds during high tide, are the fossilized remains of an underwater mangrove forest. Despite the Miami skyline in the distance, we felt as if our small group of six kayakers, plus a few picnickers on the beach, were the only ones around.
Pulling up to a small stream inlet between mangroves, we hopped out of our kayaks and followed Martinez into the 5,000-year-old fossilized reef on foot. By now, the tide was going out. Part snorkeling, part hiking the reef carefully on seagrass, we discovered an abundance of sea life within reach, including Giant Hermit Crabs, West Indian Sea Eggs, “near threatened” West Indian Cushion Stars and a Florida Spiny Lobster.
While nowhere as abundant with fish as we found in the coral reefs off shore in the Florida Keys, the underwater petrified forest is oddly unique, one of only two in the world. To complete our loop, we pushed further north to a sand bar to stretch our legs before turning back, making sure to wiggle through some mangroves. Looking to extend our trip, we took a stroll through the park’s Crandon Gardens, a former zoo reclaimed by countless (and friendly) bird species and other animals; some, like a Sandhill Crane and some peacocks, even joined us on our walk.
During the warmer spring and summer months, snorkel or dive trips out to the coral reef in Biscayne National Park are also possible. In fact, such trips are the only way to experience it since most of the 172,000-acre park is either underwater or encompassing off-shore islands. For a brief, land-based intro to the park, visit Convoy Point’s Dante Fascell Visitor Center.
Fishing For Dinner, or Fun
With the deep waters less than a mile off shore, we couldn’t pass up a couple fishing trips to either hook our dinner or catch-and-release some of the most spectacular pelagic fish in the world: sailfish and kingfish. There were the ones Hemingway was always after.
Fishing Headquarters out of Fort Lauderdale offered a wide selection of trips, both daytime and at night, appealing to anglers of all skill levels and interests. My son and I first headed out for a nighttime trip on their group party boat, looking to catch our dinner in much the same way we grow it in our gardens back in the Midwest. Our four hour trip netted us enough snapper, porgies and grunts for three meals.
A couple days later, we headed out on a half day sports fishing charter joined by a father and his son from New York, hopeful for a bite from a dolphin fish or kingfish while trolling the waters. We ended up having to “settle” for grey tilefish and a few porgies we snagged when we all bottom fished, catches of which made for a feast for us all.
My next blog explores the natural wonders to be experienced onshore.
John D. Ivanko, with his wife Lisa Kivirist, have co-authored Rural Renaissance, the award-winning ECOpreneuring and Farmstead Chef along with operating Inn Serendipity B&B and Farm, completely powered by the wind and sun. Both are regular speakers at the Mother Earth News Fairs. As a writer and photographer, Ivanko contributes to Mother Earth News, most recently, “9 Strategies for Self-Sufficient Living”. They live on a farm in southwestern Wisconsin with their son Liam, millions of ladybugs and a 10 kW Bergey wind turbine.
To the people of the Manu region of the Peruvian Amazon, Reynaldo Ochoa is a teacher, a role model and a champion of a way of farming that allows local people to flourish while forging a sustainable future for their imperiled homeland. Ochoa is now the subject of a short film directed by Dan Childs and Nick Werber, which has won the UN Forest Short Film Festival Award. It is the first of four such films Werber is producing in partnership with the Crees Foundation, an organization working to help achieve a sustainable future for this region of the Amazonian rainforest.
In Reynaldo – Rainforest Hero, Ochoa describes his transformation from being a farmer practicing the “slash and burn” agriculture typical of the region to his present mission of helping his fellow residents learn and practice a sort of permaculture uniquely suited to their soil and growing conditions. For decades, local people have been clearing the forest to plant crops such as yucca and bananas as cash crops. When the crops deplete the soil – often within two or three years – the farmer moves on to another plot of land and starts the process again. After years of working this way, Ochoa realized that if the people continued this approach, no forest would be left.
He began experimenting with sustainable farming and eventually found a system that works, using waste from his chickens to feed algae, which feeds the fish in his pond, the water from which he uses to fertilize his land, which is intercropped with trees, vegetables and fruit in a give-and-take cycle familiar to any farmer or gardener trying to work with the laws of nature. Ochoa now works with farmers as part of the Crees agroforestry project to transform the wasteful way of doing things to one that can sustain the forest ecology even as it feeds the farmers who rely on the land. “I hope my grandchildren will be able to stand beneath the shade of the trees I plant today,” he says in this brief, heartwarming documentary. Chances are good that might happen: Ochoa has helped start more than 350 gardens, planted more than 30,000 trees himself – and he’s nowhere near finished yet.
Take a look at Reynaldo – Rainforest Hero for a shot of inspiration as you consider the difference you can make doing what you can, right where you are.
The MOTHER EARTH NEWS staff has been featured in videos covering topics from seed starting to skin toner. Check out our full collection of wiser living videos on our video page.
K.C. Compton is senior editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine, and formerly was Editor in Chief of our sister publications, The Herb Companion and GRIT. A huge fan of the food chain, from molecules to meals on the table, K.C. is passionate about the idea that most of what we need to be healthy can be found in the garden. Find her on Google+.
The USDA has published a request for comments on how to handle agricultural “coexistence,” which refers to simultaneous plantings of organic, conventional and genetically modified (GM) seed on neighboring farms throughout the U.S. For organic and conventional farmers who do not plant GM seed, the future of agricultural coexistence is incredibly and increasingly important, as it has become clear that coexistence without contamination is not possible. Comments on the proposal are due by Tuesday, Mar. 4, to the USDA. If you would like to have your voice heard, be sure to submit comments online before the end of the period this week.
The Cornucopia Institute has released an Action Alert to Protect Organic/Non-GMO Farmers and the Purity of Our Food Supply, calling for the USDA to implement mandatory GMO contamination prevention measures and to ensure shared responsibility for the unwanted spread of GM products. The action alert outlines the questions the USDA is seeking guidance and responses on during this comment period.
The Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association has several resources on the subject, including a handbook entitled, “Protecting Organic Seed Integrity: The Organic Farmer’s Handbook to GE Avoidance and Testing.” This guidebook was written to help growers and seed breeders learn how to protect their crops, as well as how to test and monitor for contamination.
Be sure and submit your opinion and comments to the USDA by Tuesday, March 4!
Photo by Fotolia/lienke
One of the most recognizable features of wetlands across the country is their smell. But what is it that makes these areas so pungent? To find out, you’d have to stick your nose all the way down to the mud, and even then, you wouldn’t be able to see the microscopic organisms that are responsible.
Wetlands serve an important function as “recycling stations” of sorts, collecting organic litter in the form of dead plant matter and animal waste and reducing it to usable nutrients again. Through this process, bacteria and fungi break down the structural elements of leaves and other materials, creating byproducts that either enrich the soil with nutrients or escape in the form of gasses. This escaped gas is what we smell. Different types of wetlands house different bacteria and fungi, resulting in different gaseous byproducts. Two common – and stinky – wetland gasses are sulfur and methane. In coastal salt marshes and estuaries, smooth cordgrass is a common wetland plant that stores large amounts of sulfuric compounds from the ground and water. When the plant dies and begins to decompose, these sulfuric compounds are broken down through a series of steps resulting in the release of hydrogen sulfide gas, among other byproducts. You may recognize this chemical better as the rotten egg smell you pick up around salt marshes and other wetlands.
Viewer Tip: Even though we can’t see the bacteria carrying out the decomposition processes, we can still have a major impact on their ability to help cycle nutrients through a wetland. Pollutants like fertilizer runoff or boat engine oil leakage can throw off the chemical balance that the bacteria rely on. Learn more about small ways you can help protect wetland health in your region here.
(Sources: Sundareshwar, P.V. “Decomposers.” National Estuarine Research Reserve System, 2001.
Photo courtesy of maine.gov