44: Bananas Transcript

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Hallie: Hello and welcome to One to Grow On. A show where we dig into questions about agriculture and try to understand how food production impacts us and our world. My name is Hallie Casey and I studied and currently work in agriculture.

Chris: I’m Chris Casey, Hallie’s dad. Each episode we pick an area of agriculture or food production to discuss and this week it’s bananas.

[Background music].

Hallie: Bananas, that is what we are discussing.

Chris: Bananas, the fruit.

Hallie: What do you know about bananas, dad?

Chris: I know that bananas are a berry.

Hallie: Do you know that? How?

Chris: You have said so on multiple occasions over the course of this podcast.

Hallie: [Laughs]. Great work to you and me.

Chris: Especially when we were asked, what is a berry? Or rather, what is berry?

Hallie: Yeah, banana is berry.

Chris: I also have been reading a book about bananas, but I haven’t gotten very far. I know there was something about some rich guy forcing people to go into the jungle and build a railroad or something. I don’t know.

Hallie: Yeah, we’ll get to that.

Chris: Great. I’m sure it’s great. Oh, and there’s a place in Belgium where they sort of keep all of the different varieties of bananas. That’s like banana central.

Hallie: Oh, I don’t have that covered in this episode.

Chris: Okay. Well, great. I know something that you don’t.

Hallie: Maybe I can put that in the extra research.

Chris: Maybe, but that’s all I know about it really. I don’t remember exactly where it is or what it’s called, but I think it’s like the center for banana researcher, something. I remember you saying that all bananas are clones. At least all the ones we eat. All the Cavendish bananas.

Hallie: You know the word Cavendish. That’s something you know about bananas.

Chris: I do. I got that from the book.

Hallie: Nice.

Chris: I guess there are still other bananas, but I mean, they’re all going to die because of some blight anyway, so enjoy them while you can.

Hallie: [Laughs]. Yeah, good summary. We’re going to get further into all of those things. Let’s start at the very beginning. The banana, the Latin name is Musa and the family name is Musaceae. The family is named after the banana because it’s like the star of the family.

Chris: Wait, how is that named after the banana?

Hallie: The family is Musaceae and the bananas name is Musa. So, Musaceae.

Chris: I see. Okay. Got it.

Hallie: As you mentioned, the banana is a berry. The banana is also the largest herbaceous flowering plant. Herbaceous meaning never develops woody tissue and flowering meaning it has flowers. Typically, they get around 16 feet, but they can get up to 20 to 25 feet tall, so they’re a pretty big plant.

Chris: If it’s a berry, then why do people make cream pie out of it instead of a berry pie out of it?

Hallie: Because you add cream as opposed to a berry pie where you just add sugar.

Chris: I mean, I think a banana pie with sugar and a little pectin might turn out pretty well. What do you think?

Hallie: Well, you don’t put pectin in a berry pie. You just put sugar.

Chris: Oh, I thought you put pectin in it to make it all gloopy.

Hallie: I have never done that. I’ve only ever just added sugar to strawberries and then you just dump it in a pie shell and you cook it.

Chris: Or maybe some tapioca.

Hallie: I have put tapioca in sometimes, but it’s not necessary. I’ve definitely done it sometimes where it’s just sugar and berries and strawberries and blueberries and stuff.

Chris: All right. Well, I derail this into wanting to eat pie. So, you were saying.

Hallie: That’s the basics of the banana, but what actually is the banana?

The “root” of the banana is actually a corm, which is not root tissue, but stem tissue. We’ve talked about corms in the past. It’s modified stem tissue and then the banana “trunk” is not actually a trunk because trunks are woody. As we mentioned already, it’s an herbaceous plant. Never develops woody tissue. The “trunk of the banana tree” is actually what’s called the pseudostem. Pseudostem just means not actually a stem, but looks like a stem and it’s actually made of really tightly compacted leaf tissue.

Chris: Weird. It’s like one big green thing.

Hallie: Well, most plants are, dad.

Chris: But trees are brown in parts of them and I guess, would you call it like a stock? Would it be like a stock?

Hallie: Yeah, stock is totally a fine word, but usually people say trunk just because it’s so big. They’re used to saying trunk for a big thing like that.

Chris: Got it.

Hallie: Whereas usually I think of stock as like a flower stock or something, but it is in fact more of like a stock.

Chris: But you wouldn’t chop it down and pop it on the fireplace.

Hallie: Absolutely not. It would not go well. The corm itself is a perennial tissue, but the rest of the banana is usually not perennial. When a banana is mature, when it’s an adult banana, usually the corm, the stem tissue under the ground will send up an actual stem, like an actual legitimate stem as well as an inflorescence, meaning a head of flowers. This is also called the banana heart. In the industry, they call it the banana heart, which is lovely. Then usually the above ground structure will die it back, like the whole pseudostem and the leaves and everything. Once you have bananas, you harvest the bananas, the above ground stuff ties back and then you get new growth from that perennial corm that’s under the ground.

Chris: Cool. Sorry, I’m trying to track. I keep rolling with the word corm around in my head because it’s not corn. It’s corm and so I’m trying to make sure that sticks like a big old stock, but when it’s mature, it pops up the stem, it grows the heart and then when that’s done, you get the banana. Banana comes right off. Does it grow another stem?

Hallie: Yeah, once you pop the bananas off, then the above ground stuff is done for the year. It just like skedaddles and dies back to the ground. Then starting the next year, when it’s time for a new banana to grow, it just starts from the ground up, gets like that 16 feet tall and then once it’s nice and tall, you get a new inflorescence that pops up and new banana and year after year, that’s how it goes.

Chris: That is wild. I want to try to find a time lapse of this happening in a field of banana trees. Are they called trees? I don’t know.

Hallie: They are colloquially called trees. They’re not trees, but they’re called a banana tree.

Chris: Just seeing them grow 16 feet every year, that’s wild.

Hallie: Yeah, they’re pretty cool plants. How many bananas are there? There are more than 1000 varieties of bananas in the world that are produced for consumption locally. However, as you mentioned, we really only eat the Cavendish banana. That’s the name of the variety, the Cavendish.

Chris: Are there other varieties just eaten by other people just not by us in other areas of the world? Is that what it is?

Hallie: It’s a lot of like, this is the banana I have next to my house, so this is the banana that I eat. It’s just varieties that are native to different parts of the world and that’s what is locally grown, but it’s not to any commercial production.

Chris: Okay.

Hallie: I want you to guess how many Cavendish bananas specifically just Cavendish bananas not the rest of the other 999 varieties, just the Cavendish bananas are grown? For a baseline, we got about 76 million metric tons of apples in 2019 and in oranges, it was about 46.1 million metric tons. If that’s apples and oranges, where do you think bananas falls?

Chris: I’m going to say 1 billion tons.

Hallie: Why would you go that far?

Chris: Because it sounds funnier than just trying to be accurate. I don’t know. We’ll say 200 million tons.

Hallie: 200 million tons when I gave you 76,000,000 and 46,000,000.

Chris: Well, you said 1 billion was like way too high.

Hallie: Yeah, it’s 200 million. Now you’re really like letting me down. I thought it was a high number and you’re like shooting above it. It’s 127.3 million. A lot more than apples and oranges.

Chris: Well, it is a lot more. It’s still within an order of magnitude-ish. Maybe not, but yeah that’s a lot. That’s okay. More than double oranges. One and a half times about apples, so bananas are like super popular.

Hallie: They’re very popular. As of 2015, bananas were the second most produced fruit by quantity not by weight after watermelons.

Chris: Jeez Louise.

Hallie: What is a banana? A banana by any other name would taste as sweet. No, it wouldn’t. I want to talk about the difference between plantains and bananas. What do you know about plantains, dad?

Chris: There’s a restaurant not too far from my house that sells fried plantains and they look a lot like short bananas and they’re delicious.

Hallie: Is that all you got?

Chris: That’s all I got.

Hallie: Okay. Pretty good. A lot of scientists, a lot of banana breeders, marketers argue about what a plantain versus what a banana is. They’re extremely closely related. For our purposes, plantains are much starchier. Plantains are usually cooked, whereas bananas are usually eaten raw. The term is also often bandied about the dessert banana. That’s what we’re talking about. The banana is sweet. It’s a treat. It’s not part of your meal whereas plantains can be.

Chris: It goes well in cereal and ice cream.

Hallie: For sure. In terms of nutritional value, the bananas are generally less healthier for you than a plantain, but they’re still okay. They have like one fifth of your daily nutritional value for vitamin B6. They have 17% of your daily nutritional value for vitamin C.

They have some potassium in them. They’re fine. They’re decent. They’re an okay little fruit, but plantains are much healthier. They have 54% of your daily nutritional value for vitamin C. They have 25% of your daily nutritional value for vitamin B6. They’ve got a whole bunch of good stuff in them and they are healthier, but less sweet. Less desserty.

Chris: Okay. But I mean, if you have some fried plantains, they taste pretty sweet people. I got to tell you.

Hallie: They’re a great food. If you can get your hands on them and you’ve never tried them before, would highly recommend.

Chris: I mean, if I had some right now, I would eat them and take a break.

Hallie: Shall we do that? Shall we go take a break?

Chris: Yes, there is some time between March which we recorded this particular episode in this particular mid roll. In that stretch of time, I had some fried plantains and they were so good. I love them. They’re the best Peruvian roast chicken side that I’ve ever had. That’s for sure.

Hallie: This episode we actually wanted to encourage all of our listeners, particularly those who are US citizens to register to vote. The deadline to register here in Texas is coming up in October, but you can go to youtube.com/howtovoteineverystate to learn more about how to register where you are.

Chris: We are lucky, even though it doesn’t always feel that way to live somewhere where we do have a voice in our representation and so please, let’s use it. Register to vote and then vote. You know who I’m sure votes?

Hallie: Who is that?

Chris: Our patrons, especially our starfruit patrons, Vikram, Lindsay, Mama Casey, Patrick, and Shianne.

Hallie: You guys are so incredible. You keep our world spinning and we are so so grateful for you.

Chris: It’s true. But now, back to the episode.

Hallie: Dad, do you have a nature fact for us?

Chris: I do. Like in many other cities, there’s a marathon in Barcelona and the fastest marathon ever run by a competitor dressed as a fruit was two hours, 58 minutes and 20 seconds recorded at the Barcelona marathon on March 6th, 2011. His name was Patrick Whiteman from the UK and he was dressed as a banana.

Hallie: God bless Patrick Whiteman.

Chris: Right.

Hallie: Doing some great work in Barcelona.

Chris: Yeah, I looked up a picture of him and it looks like one of those big felts banana costumes and I can’t imagine running 26 miles anyway, but 26 miles in a big old banana costume and you’re already hot and sweaty as it is. Man, that thing had to be rank.

Hallie: Yeah, that’s commitment to breaking a record, but I admire it.

Chris: It’s true. Yes.

Hallie: Great nature fact, dad.

Chris: Thank you. Oh, you got to do the jingle.

Hallie: I was about two. I was just giving you a compliment.

Chris: All right. Well, thank you. I appreciate that. It’s important to be supportive like that.

Hallie: Tara tarara. Nature fact. Okay. Let’s talk about the history of the banana. When I was researching this, I found a lot of conflicting origin stories.

The banana has been around for a really long time and it’s kind of unclear where it originated thousands of years ago.

Chris: Real quick, when we say originated, obviously it’s a plant that has existed, but the banana in its current form was bred by people to have these characteristics.

Hallie: Right. The broader banana plants, not specifically the Cavendish. The broader banana plant, how did that evolve?

Chris: Got it.

Hallie: Where did that come from? Where’s that native to? I couldn’t find a lot. I couldn’t find like a specific origin story. I found a paper in the journal of Ethnobotany Research and Applications that said that the reason for this was because it is vegetatively propagated and they talked about like sweet potatoes as another example of this. The banana isn’t leaving a lot of pollen and they are also herbaceous, so they’re not leaving like wood or seeds or nuts for us to look back in the history of soil of a region. Maybe have a fossil record to really see where is this thing evolving. That might be one of the reasons why we don’t have a very specific origin story for the banana plant evolution.

Chris: The tissue is too soft to stick around for too long.


Hallie: That same paper estimated that 87% of banana production globally is for local food consumption, which was citing an article from Biodiversity International. I couldn’t find that article from Biodiversity International, but I think that the point is still totally valid, whether or not that 87% number is still accurate today. It’s a really key crop for subsistence farmers. I’m going to go on and talk about the history of large scale production of bananas, but bananas and plantains specifically these species is really important for subsistence farmers around the world in a lot of the global south. A really important thing to just remember as we go on to talk about the large scale production of banana plants.

Chris: Are you going to talk about why or is it just important to them because it’s such either A, an important cash crop or B, it’s an actual source of nutrition for them?

Hallie: Yeah, that’s a really good question. It’s mostly the latter. It’s quite common to have banana plants nearby a house, but not necessarily in a big field. Bananas are a really difficult crop to market, which we’re going to talk about. They’re quite fragile as opposed to something like yams or rice or a lot of other larger scale crops that you see subsistence farmers being able to market beyond just home consumption. Bananas are not easy in that same way. You need a lot of cold storage. You need a lot of packaging and you really need a developed supply chain, but they are quite nutritious, particularly like the heartier plantain plants are really nutritious and they’re pretty easy to grow most places in the global south. They have been in a lot of the global south for a really long time. They’ve been in South America and Latin America. They’ve been in Africa and they’ve been in Southern Asia for a long time, so it’s something that’s common in cultural recipes. It’s often just like nearby the house.

You’re able to mash it up or include it in some dish, but it’s mostly for home consumption.

Chris: Got it.

Hallie: Let’s talk about the history of bananas in not the global south, in Europe and the US. Up until we had wider spread refrigeration, it was just pretty much a luxury food in the US and Europe and this is true for a lot of these perishable crops. If you couldn’t get them on a ship across the ocean, then only the Richie Rich’s could really afford to get them.

Chris: Okay.

Hallie: Around the turn of the century, you had two companies, Standard Fruit and United Fruit that took over large swaths of land in Central and South America and very quickly ramped up production and built demand in the US. They were really building demand once that refrigeration technology existed really introducing this fruit that nobody had any idea what it was, how to eat it and really making that demand from basically nothing. This is where that story you were talking about the guy with the railroad track came in. There was this guy Minor C Keith, he ended up being the CEO of United Fruit, which is one of these two large companies and he was from Brooklyn, moved down to Costa Rica to help out with his uncle’s railroad project, ended up planting a lot of bananas or having his workers plant, I should say bananas while he was doing this railroad project and found out that the railroad he was building was not terribly profitable.

But was building this demand to be able to sell these bananas back in the US and now he had this newly built railroad for extremely cheap and was basically exploiting the Costa Rican government to control large areas of land around his railroad. It became really easy for him to continue to exploit the workers he was already employing to build that railroad. Once the railroad was built to produce a lot of bananas and then he had this really cheap railroad that was already built, getting them back up to the US. I got really down a rabbit hole with a lot of this history. It’s very intense and I don’t think I have time to go super in-depth with all of the stories and all of the histories on this. I’m going to put more info on the Patreon under the extra research. If you want to learn more, you can go there. But I do think it’s important to talk about this history. Bananas got very cheap in the US and to this day, they’re a pretty cheap fruit. That means that production costs are really, really cheap, right? If you have a cheap fruit, then you have to have cheaper production costs. The way that these companies Standard Fruit and United Fruit achieved this is they had a very tight control on these foreign governments and the land within them. It basically became what I saw described as like a neo feudal system where a handful of very powerful companies, exploited Central American countries and Central American laborers and also benefited from government grants and tax breaks while all the time denying their Central American workforce, a living wage or basic rights. This is where the term banana republic comes from. These companies were granted huge amounts of land in Central America. Some of it was “bought”, but a lot of it was not and these land grants were tax breaks or government grants in exchange for building privately owned infrastructure like roads that was meant to benefit the very communities that they were actually exploiting. Eventually, there became a lot of organized labor protests around these poor working conditions.

Companies used extreme force using either private militia forces that the national military of those countries or in some specific cases, actual US forces under the guise of combating communism to fight these labor protests and basically punish, kill, assault the labor forces that were striking and the people that were striking and protesting in solidarity with them. There’s a lot more information about the history of US involvement in Central America under the guise of anticommunist propaganda that looking with a historical view seems extremely, extremely linked to United Fruit and Standard Fruits interests. I saw this really good quote from Dan Koppel. It was an interview with Dan Koppel.

Chris: That’s the guy that wrote the book I’m reading.

Hallie: Exactly. Yeah, he wrote the book Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World. In this interview he said, “The banana is an impossible export fruit. It’s fragile. It ripens quickly. It gets rotten fast and the way to do it is to make it so cheap that your money is made on volume.” They were trying to just produce as many bananas as possible at a cheaper cost as possible in order to get any return back and they got millions and millions of dollars in profits, but that was all made at the cost of these people’s lives and their dignity and their human rights.

Chris: I assume we’re going to get to sort of the current state of the banana. Okay. Then I’ll hold my questions until we get to that point.

Hallie: I know that was like a big dump. I told you I really went into research.

This took me like three times as long as it usually takes me to research an episode about this because I really wanted to do it justice while also trying to keep it within the scope of the episode and the time that we have here today.

Chris: Sure.

Hallie: In the 1900s, the US ended up bringing multiple antitrust lawsuits against Standard Fruit and United Fruit company, so we did end up seeing changes both from those lawsuits, that litigation, as well as from the labor movement from Central America. Eventually, I think it was closer to the fifties and sixties. I might have my dates wrong there, but the companies ended up changing their names and Standard Fruit became Dole and United Fruit became Chiquita. Today in the 2010s, this is 2013 numbers. Five companies own 44% of the banana industry down from 70% in 2002. A lot of this was because of the movement that was started really in the eighties for multinational companies to divest landholdings in Central America for bananas and replace company production with independently produced bananas.

Chris: So larger companies are instead of producing the bananas themselves, they’re buying from local people who produce the bananas.

Hallie: Right.

Chris: Okay. That was kind of, I guess, leading into my questions as the banana is still, like you said, very, very cheap. Therefore, methods of production must still be very, very cheap.

Have labor conditions and such things improved?

Hallie: One of the tricky things about having more independent production, which don’t get me wrong is a good thing. You do also have a harder time having generalized statements, right? Because it’s not five companies that are producing all of the world’s bananas. Yes, largely speaking, there are improvements in labor conditions that is not universally true across the board. A lot of the changes we’ve seen are in like technological changes, particularly in post-harvest technology. It’s easier to transport bananas without them going bad as fast. Here’s the thing. We have talked about the Cavendish banana. The bananas that we were just talking about in the last segment about the 1900s was not the Cavendish banana.

Chris: Right.

Hallie: What?

Chris: I knew that, sorry.

Hallie: Oh, you did.

[Laughter].

Chris: I’m not shocked. Yeah, I think I got this from the book.

There’s sort of speculation on what are grandparents and great grandparents tasted when they tasted a banana at the turn of the century and in the early 1900s.

Hallie: Right. The banana that was grown in the first half of the 1900s was the Gros Michel. This was very similar to the Cavendish in a lot of ways. It was seedless. It grew via clones. However, in 1903, a strain of fusarium wilt called Panama disease first appeared and started taking out these Gros Michel plants like crazy.

Chris: That’s what? A fungus?

Hallie: It’s like a fungus. It is indeed like a fungus. It’s not just like a fungus. It is a fungus. By 1960, the Gros Michel was commercially extinct. Like you said, we don’t really know. There’s not a lot of people who tasted this plant because by the 1940s, it was very hard to find. It was much less common to see bananas and it wasn’t really until like onto the seventies, when we started to see bananas becoming more common. There was not really a lot of comparisons ever. You didn’t ever have the Gros Michel and the Cavendish in the same room at the same time where you could say, here are the differences between these two bananas. There’s a lot of speculation on what is different between these two bananas. The companies, particularly Dole, once it started to see Panama disease pop up and become an issue, started investing a lot of time in searching around for commercially viable bananas. The thing about bananas is that because for thousands of years, people have been selecting against seeds in bananas, right? Nobody wants seeds and bananas, even us and nobody has for thousands of years. It’s actually really difficult to get a seeded banana and that means it’s really difficult to breed bananas.

Basically, what these companies were doing was just traversing the globe and examining all the bananas and trying to categorize them and see if they were marketable, if they were tasty, if they were easy to ship, if they had that lovely, long yellow look of what we expect now from a banana, and if they were resistant to Panama disease. Eventually, they found the Cavendish.

Chris: Wow. I thought the sort of long, vague, skinny brown bits in the middle were banana seeds only just couldn’t really tell that they were seeds because they were squishy like the rest of the fruit, did someone lie to me? Were they wrong? Have all the bananas that I’ve been eating been seedless?

Hallie: Yeah, bananas are essentially seedless. None of those seeds that we actually eat in the bananas are viable ever.

Chris: I see.

Hallie: Those are basically the relics of what were once seeds and the great, great grandfather of a banana.

Chris: Okay. Wow.

Hallie: Once upon a time, the banana had a seed and now these itsy bitsy little tiny seeds are what we have. It’s the same thing like if you eat a seedless grape, and there’s like those little tiny guys in there, they’re not hard and crunchy and they’re really, really small.

You can’t plant a great plant with it, but it’s what the seeds once were.

Chris: You can’t plant a banana tree with the banana.

Hallie: Yeah, they’re all clones. They’re all vegetatively produced.

Chris: Got it.

Hallie: That’s been the case for thousands of years, so it’s hard to breed bananas because how we breed plants is we cross-pollinate and cross-pollinate and cross-pollinate and eventually something new pops out. We can’t do that with bananas. Eventually, they found the Cavendish. It was more fragile than Gros Michel actually. There are videos of people having big bunches of Gros Michel bananas and just throwing them onto a ship. We can’t do that with the Cavendish. You got to put it in a box, you got to put the box on the ship. Otherwise, they get all bruised and brown and consumers are not so interested, but for a long time it was good. Life was good. We had a banana that we liked and everything was looking up for these banana companies.

Chris: For a long time you say.

Hallie: For a long time until the 1980s. So really for like 20-ish years.

Chris: I feel like there were so many good things that changed for the worse in the 1980s, but that’s a whole other podcast.

Hallie: [Laughs]. In the 1980s, Panama disease reappeared. It was very similar to the first Panama disease, but it was a different strand kind of like different strands of flu viruses.

Chris: Okay.

Hallie: This second fungus strand, the second disease strand arrived and started to affect Cavendish bananas.

Chris: The bananas got their own pandemic.

Hallie: Pretty much. Not to be a downer. I told you guys we wouldn’t talk anymore about the P word or the C word.

Chris: Oh, sorry.

Hallie: [Laughs]. Yeah, basically. We saw a lot of bananas being wiped out in Southern Asia that were Cavendish bananas. We don’t have it yet in the Americas. It hasn’t gotten here yet. Just by luck of the draw.

Chris: I read the only place in the US that bananas were grown was Hawaii.

Hallie: No, I mean the Americas, not just the USA, Central America and Columbia.

Chris: There is my ethnocentrism coming out right there, but okay. The whole Western hemisphere basically.

Hallie: The fungus will arrive at some point. If the world has learned anything about epidemiology in the last six months, it’s not a matter of if. It’s a matter of when. One day the Panama disease will reach Central America and it will basically wipe out every last Cavendish banana, and it will happen very quickly.

Chris: Okay. What do we do then? We just don’t have any more banana splits.

Hallie: I saw this good quote in an interview with Alan Brown Ballana, I think is how you say his last name. He’s a biologist with the Institute of Tropical Agriculture. He said they dodged a bullet in the 1950s by identifying Cavendish. I think if there was something out there they would have found it by now. These companies didn’t stop looking. When they found Cavendish, they were like, just in case we better find something else. Or like, what if we find something else that’s easier to grow or like sweeter and easier to sell?

Chris: But they just haven’t found it yet.

Hallie: They haven’t found it yet. Which means it probably doesn’t exist. Also, if they did find something, the banana supply chain is built custom for the Cavendish. Every single banana is genetically identical, meaning it’s almost identical. They look almost exactly the same.

The only thing that changes between bananas is where they’re grown, how they’re grown, what the temperature is. Bananas are the same size. Bananas are the same shape. Bananas need exactly the same temperature, the exact same gas mixture. The whole supply chain is built specifically for the Cavendish. Even if they did find another banana, it would not be easy to just like whoop, okay, we’ll just add this banana into our whole process. We would have to completely restructure the supply chain, so that would be a huge lift. Like we talked about earlier, resistance can’t really be bred, right? Because we’ve got no seeds to breed. There is one hope and it is a GMO banana.

Chris: Oh boy.

Hallie: There are some GMO bananas. There is still work being done on a GMO banana because we are just waiting for the rest of the Cavendish bananas to go extinct. Not the banana plant to be clear. The banana as a species will on, but the Cavendish banana, which is marketable will die off at some point. It could happen tomorrow. We don’t know when it will happen. So there is work being done on a GMO banana, but at some point in the future, there will be no banana for you to buy at the grocery store other than a GMO banana.

Chris: The banana, as we know it is I guess basically doomed. It’s just a matter of time, so enjoy him while you can. If you want viable, healthy crops for a very long time, don’t base your entire economic structure on clones.

Hallie: Last quote. It’s a three quote episode. This quote from Randy Plots, who’s a professor of plant pathology at the University of Florida.

I don’t know if he meant for it to be a little poem, but when he said it, it rhymed and I love it. His little poem quote was once the pathogen is established, that’s all she wrote for Cavendish.

Chris: Also, there’s a guy named Ballana that studies the banana.

Hallie: [Laughs].

[Background music].

Chris: Thanks for listening to this episode of One to Grow On.

Hallie: This show is made by me, Hallie Casey and Chris Casey. Our music is Something Elated by Broke for Free.

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Chris: Be sure to see what’s sprouting in two weeks.

Hallie: But until then, keep on growing.

[Background music].

44: Bananas

This week we talk about bananas! The banana has quite a turbulent history. And while there are multiple varieties, the one we most commonly eat are all clones! Also, how far would YOU run in a banana costume?

Read the transcript for this episode.

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One to Grow On is a podcast that digs into the questions you have about agriculture and tries to understand the impacts of food production on us and our world. We explore fascinating topics including food, gardening, and plant sciences. One to Grow On is hosted by Hallie Casey and Chris Casey, and is produced by Catherine Arjet and Hallie Casey. Show art is by Ashe Walker. Music is “Something Elated” by Broke For Free licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license.
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43: USDA COVID-19 Relief Programs Transcript

Listen to the full episode.

Hallie: Hello and welcome to One to Grow On. A show where we dig into questions about agriculture and try to understand how food production impacts us and our world. My name is Hallie Casey and I studied and currently work in agriculture.

Chris: I’m Chris Casey, Hallie’s dad. Each episode we focus on an area of agriculture or food production to discuss. This week we are discussing USDA COVID-19 relief programs.

[Background music].

Chris: Oh yeah. That was a mouthful.

Hallie: It is a bit of a mouthful. I wanted to take some time to discuss some of the United States Department of Agriculture programs that have come out to wrap up our last conversation in the previous episode about COVID-19 and the supply chains because in that we alluded to how expensive is it really to have a supply chain that’s so vulnerable. I really wanted to talk about some numbers and look at what the federal government has had to do and tried to implement in order to make up for the fact that the supply chains were just so fragile.

Chris: Last time, I made comments when you would talk about shorter supply lines and more localized food systems, my brain went to that sounds like my food getting more expensive and then you came back with, well, actually when we have to deal with large supply line failures, then we have these programs that you’re talking about and it can be much more expensive in the long run.

Hallie: Exactly. Yeah, let’s talk about it. I wanted to start off by saying, I am not really going to be talking about SNAP or any food assistance. There is a lot happening in terms of food assistance from the USDA. I am mostly just going to be focusing on farmer focused programs. We’re going to talk a little bit about some food bank stuff, but there is a lot going on with SNAP right now. If you want more info on that, I think that’s what the extra research on Patreon is going to be about. It’s wild you all.

Chris: Okay. Farms are eligible for the PPP. For me and the listener at home, will you please define what PPP stands for?

Hallie: Yeah, farms are eligible for the Paycheck Protection Program. They’re also mostly now eligible for EIDL, which is also called EIDL, both of these programs became available in March for all companies generally. Mostly it was focused on small businesses and it was focused on economic relief. However, they were first come first serve. When EIDL first came out, I’m pretty sure like farmers were not eligible for it and there was a big stink and then Congress had to move super-fast to change the statute so that farms were eligible for it. But this is just something that pretty much every small business in America is and was eligible for. I think at this point, PPP has been depleted and they’re looking at adding more PPP into the next federal aid package. But this is something that I have not factored into when we’re talking about total amounts of money, but is like a huge factor. A lot of farms did get this money.

Chris: If Old McDonald had a farm, he could get EIDL?

Hallie: Yeah, [laughs]. That’s a pretty funny joke dad.

Chris: Thank you. Thank you very much. What is EIDL?

Hallie: EIDL is the economic something disaster loan.

Chris: Okay. All right.

Hallie: I don’t know what the I stands for.

Chris: We’ve got the Paper Paycheck Protection service in a disaster loan.

Hallie: Yeah, then you didn’t have to repay the loan. Not much of a loan. More of a grant.

Chris: Nice.

Hallie: In late May, USDA’s farm service agency announced that they would now allow farmers with existing farm service agency loans to essentially defer their payments for up to a year and they’re talking about extending that period. Farm service agency, this is super huge because this is where the majority of lending comes from as farm service agency and farm service agency backed loans for farmers. A big deal, not specifically granted money or anything like that, but it is like a relief action.

Chris: Okay. The farm service agency loan, that’s a different kind of loan than the EIDL.

Hallie: Right.

Chris: The PPP program I don’t even think that is a loan, is it? The farm service agency loan, that’s like a normal loan that farmers would get in a normal year.

Hallie: Yeah, it’s like existing loans. If back in January you took some money out and you borrowed it against farm service agency, and then you don’t have to pay that back for up to a year if not longer.

Chris: My brain goes to the same place it does when I hear things about rent deferment and other such programs where, but you still have to pay it back.

Hallie: Right. Eventually they will be having to pay it back, but it’s good that they’re deferring payments. That’s super good. The CARES act, which passed in April had about $850 million for food bank costs and at least 600 million of that had to be explicitly for food purchasing. You had some money in there for food banks that needed administrative assistance or added labor or something like that. But $600 million was earmarked just for food purchasing for emergency food relief.

Chris: Oh, very cool. Okay.

Hallie: Next, I wanted to talk about late April a $300 billion program that was passed by Congress called the Farm to Families Food Box Program.

Chris: We’re just going program month by month at this point.

Hallie: I’m pretty much going chronologically. I mean, I started off with just generally, but now I’m kind of getting into month to month.

Chris: Yeah, in the world of COVID this is not something that would normally happen, right? We don’t usually have new programs each month that handle this sort of thing. This is a unique situation.

Hallie: [Laughs]. This Farm to Families Food Box Program was extremely unique. I actually sat in on I think on the first webinar announcing this program. Initially the idea for this program, they called it truck to trunk.

Chris: [Laughs].

Hallie: The idea was that you were getting food from farms off of the truck and then getting it directly to nonprofits providing emergency crisis relief. In order to get this funding, mostly they were giving this money to like aggregators and distributors, middlemen. Some larger farmers got it.

43: USDA COVID-19 Relief Programs

Chris and Hallie discuss USDA policies focused on COVID-19 response and relief. They talk about the CARES act, CFAP, the Farm to Families Food Box program, and answer a few listener questions. Also, would Old McDonald be eligible for aid?

Read the transcript for the episode.

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About us
One to Grow On is a podcast that digs into the questions you have about agriculture and tries to understand the impacts of food production on us and our world. We explore fascinating topics including food, gardening, and plant sciences. One to Grow On is hosted by Hallie Casey and Chris Casey, and is produced by Catherine Arjet and Hallie Casey. Show art is by Ashe Walker. Music is “Something Elated” by Broke For Free licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license.
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42: COVID-19 and the Food Supply Transcript

Article Hallie wrote about this topic: COVID-19 and the US Food Supply Chain: What Happened?

Listen to the full episode.

Hallie: Hello and welcome to One to Grow On. A show where we dig into questions about agriculture and try to understand how food production impacts us and our world. My name is Hallie Casey and I studied and currently work in agriculture.

Chris: I’m Chris Casey, Hallie’s dad. This episode we’re focusing on how COVID-19 has affected the food supply chains and it’s a mess.

[Background music].

Hallie: This episode is going to be a little bit different. I wrote an article for work and I found it really interesting. It was about this same topic and I just had so much more that I wasn’t able to fit into the article that I wanted to say and talk about and cover and I just wanted to go a little bit more in-depth and I wanted to talk about it with you dad. If you want to see the article I wrote on this topic, we’re going to link it in the description of this episode. But it covers a lot of the same material. The episode is going to go a little bit more in-depth and cover some of the stuff that I wasn’t able to include in the actual article itself. But that’s where the inspiration for this episode came from.

Chris: Yeah, I’m looking over some of this stuff. It seems to really underscore the idea that we’ve touched on before. This disconnect between the agriculture world and the non-agriculture world and people just really having no idea where their food comes from.


Hallie: I think that because of the pandemic and because of a lot of the headlines that we saw in the news and images that came out of supply chains really breaking down in March through until about June. I think a lot of people are really thinking about supply chains in a way that they haven’t really before and what it means to have a food system and a food supply. I wanted to talk through three different case studies and really look at what went wrong, where the weak points are, and then talk through what some of the changes might be that we see in the future and how we can build from this point seeing the ways that the failures of the system have been laid bare by this pandemic.

Chris: Okay. Where do we start?

Hallie: I wanted to start with swine. Swine is by far the most intense of the three case studies that we’re going to be talking about, so I wanted to go ahead and jump right in.

Chris: Just to be sure, we’re talking about pigs, not unruly people.

Hallie: Yes, pork. The key weak points in both pork as well as poultry, we’re a meat processing plants. Meat processing in general is very consolidated. Within the pork industry, it’s dominated by three huge corporations, which is Tyson, Smithfield and JBS. These three corporations own almost all of the meat processing in the entire country. Within one of the facilities of these three companies, daily, you can have up to a thousand employees come through to work on this meat and to process it and pack it. In the last 30 years, the US agriculture industry and US food has undergone massive corporate consolidation across the board. Pork is not an exception to this. This happened during the Reagan administration when the executive branch rewrote the rules of antitrust enforcement that put the first focus on consumers and not hurting the consumer. This originally was not part of any antitrust regulation. Antitrust laws are to regulate the concentration of economic power and then the Reagan administration, these regulations were rewritten to say, okay, you can concentrate economic power as long as prices don’t go up, so the consumer’s not being hurt. That’s how we saw this huge corporate consolidation in the agriculture industry, but also in other industries.

Chris: It sounds like one of those things that’s supposed to be pragmatic, but has unintended consequences or maybe they were intended and it was just all a smokescreen for some lobbying groups. I don’t know.

Hallie: Yeah, maybe it was intended for the wealthy elite to take advantage of small businesses and monopolize industries, maybe. Who can say? Probably though.

Chris: Probably.

Hallie: Pork is extremely consolidated. It’s mostly owned by these three companies. Often these days, farmers don’t actually own their swine that they raise. Their incident is called vertically integrated. A lot of farms are in this vertically integrated model. That basically means that they own the farm, but they don’t own the actual product that they’re raising, whether it’s grain or swine. The corporation actually owns the swine and can dictate to the farmer what pigs they raise, how they raise them and then when, and how much they’re sold for.

Chris: This is bonkers to me. Basically, I guess a farm is like a contractor almost.

Hallie: Yeah, basically the farm is the contractor, so they are actually doing the work to raise the pigs. But because it’s so consolidated and these systems are so rigid. It really is like down to the day of how long you graze a pig for and then it goes to slaughter and then it goes out for sale in order to maximize profit. When that system breaks, then it becomes really, really difficult for it to function. It basically makes it impossible for it to continue to function. In March and April, processing facilities began to close as infections of employees spread, which left farmers with pigs that were not able to be sold and grocery stores had much less pork on the shelves because these processing plants were no longer able to process the pigs.

Chris: All right.

Hallie: What ended up happening was hundreds of thousands of hogs were depopulated.

Chris: That sounds like the worst euphemism I’ve ever heard.

Hallie: [Laughs]. Yeah, basically these farms had no more space, right?

Chris: Oh, man.

Hallie: Because they had piglets that they had to raise up as the next generation.

These full grown hogs were supposed to go off to processing, but the processing plants were closed because workers were getting infected and so the hogs were basically just slaughtered and then buried basically in a mass grave. On April 26th, Tyson Foods, which is one of these three mega giants actually took out a full page advertisement. I’ve never heard of anything like this. They took out a full page advertisement in the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and stated explicitly that the American food supply chain is breaking.

Chris: Are they trying to, as it were, save their own bacon or are they just sort of aware of? I don’t understand why they’re doing that since they’re the ones in control of the supply chain and it sounds like missing, hey guys, it’s broken.

Hallie: Right.

Chris: Aren’t they the ones who broke it kind of?

Hallie: They’re the ones who built it in a way that it was extremely fragile.

Chris: Okay.

Hallie: State governments were forcing these processing plants to shut down because of COVID-19 as a risk for employees and a risk to spread.

Then in late April, the president with very significant input from the meat processing executives signed an executive order that basically removed liability from meat processors when they forced employees to continue working despite the risk of infection.

Chris: The food system is breaking, but our solution is just to have people come in and work anyway, regardless of the health conditions.

Hallie: Right. The solution is to ensure that corporations can still turn a profit regardless of whether or not that puts people’s lives at risk.

Chris: I’m shocked I say.

Hallie: Yeah, the pork supply system and the processing system was so consolidated into a few massive plants that when those facilities closed, it shut down the entire supply chain and it basically acted as a kink in a hose where it was just building up pressure on one end. But it is making it impossible for any of these resources to flow through and actually get to groceries, so you ended up with no pork at the grocery stores and you ended up with people having to put their lives at risk to alleviate this pressure of hogs being slaughtered and of corporations losing profits.

Chris: Okay.

Hallie: That’s swine. That’s what happened with swine.

Chris: It sounds like capitalism is doing its job.

Hallie: What do you mean?

Chris: Capitalism is doing it’s job in keeping the corporation going.

Hallie: But part of the key thing with this is that it’s not about capitalism solely. It’s about the policies and the political interference that allow this system to manipulate its workers and take advantage of farmers.

Chris: Got it. Okay.

Hallie: Do you want to move on to milk?

Chris: Oh boy. Do I ever?

Hallie: One of the biggest images related to agriculture and supply chains failing that happened after the pandemic was this image of farmers dumping milk. Did you see any of these?

Chris: No, are there actual pictures of this? This isn’t actually something that I heard about.

Hallie: Yeah, there were pictures.

Actually, in a lot of newspapers that were just showing basically pipes of fresh milk that were just going out onto a field or into a ditch from a dairy facility.

Chris: Now I have all sorts of questions. Is this good for the soil? I don’t know.

Hallie: [Laughs]. It’s probably not great for the soil.

Chris: Probably not great for the soil, but it’s benefiting someone. I don’t know. I don’t understand. This is like the swine being depopulated, I assume.

Hallie: Yeah, the difference with milk is that the constricting force was markets, not the processing ability.

Chris: It’s just people not buying milk.

Hallie: People don’t buy milk anymore. People don’t buy dairy milk anymore. The largest consumer of fluid milk in the US is school cafeterias and when schools shut down, they weren’t able to buy milk. Also, we as Americans eat a lot more dairy, including like yogurt, milkshakes, cheese, whatever while we’re eating out versus when we’re eating at home.

Chris: I do like to get milkshake.

Hallie: Right. But it’s not like you’re going to make a milkshake at home.

Dairy cows usually have to be milked about twice a day and if they’re not milked that often, then they can get sick. We had this market that was based on leaving the house and leaving the home. If you can’t sell this milk, then you just have to dump it because otherwise your cows are going to get sick. The real question around dairy is who is going to be able to continue to dump milk and who will be able to stick around next year and what is the dairy landscape going to look like after this?

Chris: Wait, if cows don’t get milked, they get sick?

Hallie: Yeah, I mean, the same thing is true with people, with all mammals. If you have milk building up and it’s not coming out then it can lead to an infection. It can be painful. It’s not comfortable.

Chris: I mean, now I wonder what they did before milking machines.

Hallie: The cows were milked much less frequently.

[Laughter].

Hallie: Dairy cows these days are bread and conditioned to produce as much milk as possible. They’re fed a lot more. They drink a lot more water and you really have to strictly control the hormones of the cow in order to continue it making milk. If you stop milking a cow then it’s going to think that it doesn’t need to produce more milk and it can dry up, right?

Because cows, as well as all mammals produce milk for their offspring. You get a cow pregnant, it starts producing milk, and then you have to just continue milking it. Otherwise, those systems within the cow are going to dry up. It’s not going to want to produce milk anymore.

Chris: Dairy industry is so weird.

Hallie: Yeah, it’s intense.

Chris: Okay. It’s funny because since the cow isn’t killed to produce a gallon of milk where as it is to produce a hamburger maybe most people don’t think of milk production as some sort of exploitation and that’s a whole different conversation, I guess. Is it even exploitation? I don’t know. But the process just sounds like you said, intense.

Hallie: Yeah, it’s extremely intensive. I personally don’t know a lot about dairy. I studied horticulture which does not include dairies, but what’s clear between poultry, swine and dairy is that the systems are so rigid that when there is any force put upon them, then they break. There is no resilience. There’s no redundancy. There is nowhere that we can store milk or send milk if it’s not being purchased and there’s no safety net to ensure that farms can continue to operate and we’ll talk about this, hopefully in a future episode, other than federal interference, basically federal subsidies.

Chris: There’s no way to get gallons upon gallons of surplus milk to people who could probably use it.

Hallie: Right. Again, I think we’ll talk about this in the next episode, but the USDA did try a program that did that, but we just have a system that is so rigid. Our food system is so rigid. It is so difficult to move supply from one place to another. That program was really, really hard to implement and this actually happened in swine. There was a really large amount of swine in storage and frozen and prepared to go to restaurants that was basically impossible to actually get to grocery markets. We saw grocery stores with a swine shortage when we knew that we had this surplus of swine meat, but because it was prepared for restaurants and it was in the restaurant supply chain, not the grocery supply chain, it was not able to get moved over to the retail chain.

Chris: Yeah, that’s just so weird.

Hallie: It’s very weird. It’s kind of contradictory. It feels wrong that this is how it’s set up, but it’s set up this way to maximize corporate efficiency.

Chris: Next up is potatoes. Why you got to go hate down on little old potatoes?

Hallie: I wanted to include something that was related to horticulture that was a fruit or a vegetable. The LA Times had a really great article talking about potatoes and so that was my jumping off point and then I went and I did a lot more research based on that article. There’s no good time to have a global pandemic. Don’t get me wrong. But when the pandemic hit the US, the timing was really, really difficult because it was right after spring harvest, so harvesting the fall crops and right before spring planting, so planting summer crops.

That’s a really, really difficult time to have any kind of disruption or constriction in the economic market. Here’s how potatoes work. Usually, potatoes are planted in early spring and then they’re harvested in fall, but they are very starchy so they can be stored for months. Farmers or middlemen aggregators store huge amounts of potatoes in post-harvest storage facilities and they basically fill them up in the fall and sell them throughout the years. Potatoes last a super long time. This usually isn’t an issue and they basically just sell them throughout the year, so you don’t ever really have like a glut of potatoes and you’re able to stabilize the price which is great.

Chris: Can we do a whole episode on potatoes one day?

Hallie: Absolutely, we can.

Chris: Love it.

Hallie: With potatoes, you did not have a kink in processing. It wasn’t an issue with processing. You didn’t need to dump unsold product immediately.

Chris: All right.

Hallie: But what we saw in potatoes was a hugely deflated market. Prices plummeted and millions of pounds of potatoes weren’t sold when they were expected and they continue to go unsold. Where they’re currently in storage, they can’t stay there forever. We’re not going to see a potato shortage this year like we did with swine, but farmers are losing money every day.

They have unsold potatoes in a storage facility. The real question is who is going to be able to plant potatoes next year? According to industry journals, 2020 is going to be the second lowest planted acreage of potatoes in the last 20 years. This is not just unique to potatoes. We’re seeing this with many horticultural crops because the pandemic came at this really difficult time where people didn’t want to start planting because there was all this economic uncertainty. We’re going to see lower supply and higher prices next year as well.

Chris: The potatoes that we have in storage right now can’t necessarily last until next year.

Hallie: Right. Exactly. They can’t last until next year. Similar to what we were talking about with swine, most of these potatoes were destined for McDonald’s or other restaurants.

Chris: Why?

Hallie: They were going to be French fries. They were going to be baked potatoes. They were going to be waffle fries. We can’t just divert these into grocery markets the same way. Not just because people don’t eat potatoes at home the same way, but also because these supply chains, these funnels, these hoses can’t be moved easily. It’s really hard to get food that was supposed to go to a restaurant into a retail market.

Chris: That boggles my mind. You know what I do when my mind is boggled.

Hallie: What do you do?

Chris: I take a break.

Hallie: Here we go.

[Background music].

Hallie: I am so excited to welcome Stephen and Paul new patrons to our wonderful patron family.

Chris: Hey, you all. Thank you so much for joining and thank you to our starfruit patrons, Vikram, Lindsay, Mama Casey, Patrick, and Shianne.

Hallie: You guys are so fantastic and we couldn’t do without you. Thank you so much for your support.

Chris: Thank you all. Thank you Stephen and Paul.

Hallie: Listener, the other thing I wanted to tell you about today is a fundraiser that we are currently running as One to Grow On. We actually announced it over Instagram and then almost immediately met our goal. It was crazy fast. I’m so excited. But it’s a really, really good cause and even though we met our goal feel free to continue to donate. I want to encourage anyone who can to donate. I know it’s a crazy time, but it’s a good cause.

We are currently raising money for the Gullah Geechee Land & Legacy Trust. The Gullah Geechee are people. They descended from West African slaves and live over on the Eastern part of the US punted from the Carolinas down South towards Georgia and Florida. This land in legacy trust is really focused on black land ownership and preserving traditional knowledge ways from enslaved Africans on how to care for land and tending land and farming. It’s an amazing, amazing project. This trust is not only going to be going towards black land ownership efforts, but it’s working to ensure that the Gullah Geechee can continue to manage their land with sovereignty and to protect their own cultural heritage. If you want, please at least learn more about this amazing cause and the amazing work that these folks are doing to preserve this really, really important heritage and culture that is a huge part of what makes the South so special and so important to hold onto these cultural ties and this amazing work being done by black farmers and black folks in the South.

Chris: Thank you so much to everyone who already donated. It’s very much appreciated.

Hallie: Yes, we were able to match as a podcast up to a hundred dollars and we got $240 donated so far. I’m so, so eternally grateful to everyone who contributed. Please go learn more about the cause and what they’re working for and what they’re fighting for and if you can, donate. They are currently about $2,000 short of their final goal for this upcoming week I believe. Yeah, that’s all we wanted to talk to you about. Back to the episode.

[Background music].

Hallie: Dad, do you have a nature fact for us?

Chris: Yeah, it’s actually pretty sort of straightforward and boring this week, but I thought it was really interesting, was it? The average cow produces an average of 6.3 gallons of milk per day.

Hallie: That’s a lot of milk.

Chris: It is a lot of milk and you think about all the people we have. It’s hard to imagine that that much actually gets consumed, but obviously there’s more uses for it than just drinking it. But also, do you ever wonder who the first human was that sort of sat and watched a calf nursing and just kind of went, hey, I want to do that?

Hallie: I could get in there.

[Laughter].

Chris: Maybe that’ll be good for me and my baby.

Hallie: No, I have not thought about that and now I am only thinking about that.

Chris: Sorry. I mean, harvesting breast milk from cows is one of humanity’s quirky or innovations in my opinion.

Hallie: It’s a weird thing we do.

Chris: It is. Although I have enjoyed it with cookies. I don’t feel I can comment too much on it, but you think about it and like, huh, that’s kind of weird.

Hallie: Those are the three supply chains that I wanted to talk about. I wanted to spend the last half of the episode to talk about the idea of fragility versus resiliency in food systems and in supply chains. It’s important to remember that with a changing climate and undoubtedly more global public health crises on the horizon, this is not going to be the last thing that puts stress on our food system. This pandemic COVID-19 has really laid bare the cracks of this food system and it’s also really shown what the stakes are. It’s important to discuss that. It’s important to talk about equity and justice in this context, because who is at risk now, who is greater at risk? It’s people who have already been marginalized. These poor black and brown folks are putting their lives on the line to bring us food. People’s lives have been lost because of these decisions and because of the system. Folks who have already been marginalized are put at risk by fragile systems including food insecurity. The World Bank estimated that 265 million people could face acute food insecurity by the end of 2020. The original prediction was 135 million before the crisis, so that’s a difference of 130 million folks that are being put at risk specifically because of this food system and because of this crisis. It’s not like there’s not going to be another crisis to push on this food system again if we don’t make changes.

Chris: Regardless of the difference. That’s a lot of people.

Hallie: Yeah, it’s a lot of people and it’s really clear to see what this pandemic has really laid bare is that it’s folks who are marginalized, who are put greater at risk when you have a system that is so fragile like this.

Chris: I feel like that’s another recurring theme is we’re always talking about marginalized people and how they are the most vulnerable.

Hallie: Yeah, you know why? Because it’s true and important and we need to continue to talk about it. What is the alternative? What does it look like to have a resilient supply chain? Within my sphere of agriculture, we talk about this idea a lot of resiliency, a resilient food system. This idea of resiliency actually comes from ecological theory and it’s been adapted for use in industries because the lack of resiliency can be really expensive, which we have seen both in the spring when the pandemic hit. Also, it has been proven by science that if you have a fragile system then it is more expensive in the long run. The ecological definition of resiliency is defined as one, the ability to resist disruption and two, the ability to recover from disruption. This definition has been kind of tweaked to apply specifically to food systems by the UK Global Food Security Program, where they had a three pronged approach instead of two. One, the robustness of the system, the ability of the food system to resist disruptions, to desired outcomes. Two, recovery of the food system, the ability of the food system to return to desired outcomes, following the disruption, and then three reorientation, the ability of food system actors to accept alternative outcomes following a disruption. The ability to innovate and change.

Chris: That sounds like a lot.

Hallie: It is a lot when you think about it abstractly. But when you think about it specifically, what does it really specifically mean to be able to resist disruptions of a system, then you start to get into really specific answers. One of the answers is shorter supply chains. The shorter your supply chain, the easier it is to resist a disruption and that’s because if you have a person coming to a person and delivering food, if there is something that happens, then there are many fewer people that are at risk, there are many fewer chains that are at risk of breaking. Does that make sense?

Chris: It does. I mean, it’s probably not impervious to every possible disaster, but I can see how it would be like you’re saying more resilient where if you have one link in the chain that breaks, then you don’t have anything that can fix it. Whereas if you have a lot of little links, then one of them breaks, you’ve got all of these other links that can sort of make up the difference.

Hallie: Right. Exactly. It’s kind of the idea of having one really, really long chain versus having 40 small chains. What’s going to be stronger? Also, what’s going to be more resilient? What’s going to be able to resist change better?

Chris: I almost feel another internet typology analogy coming on.

Hallie: [Laughs]. Within that point of shorter supply chains is the idea of localizing food systems. Being able to really build systems that are specific to a locality and that rely on the resources of a specific region.

Chris: Okay.

Hallie: This is really important in understanding how to shorten supply chains because as you get more and more local, you’re able to shrink those amount of links in the chain.

Chris: All right. I don’t know if we’re there yet or not, but when I hear things like shorter supply chains and localizing food systems, I also hear, oh, my food could get more expensive.

Hallie: No, that’s super important to talk about because it’s true. The reason that food is so inexpensive now is because the deciding factor for how our system is built is price. How can corporations make the most money? The answer to that is being able to have the lowest price on the market. Yes, food is going to become more expensive if we choose to make these changes. However, having a disaster within our food system is more expensive than paying a few more dollars every time you go grocery shopping, right? When we think about the millions of dollars, almost till the billions of dollars at this point that have been going to fix the food system in the ways that it broke to bail out farmers and to bail out corporations and to provide emergency food assistance, that’s where we have to really think about what the actual price is.

Hallie: When we talk about having more expensive groceries, we need to talk more holistically about what it is to be food insecure and how to provide food assistance to ensure that it is a human right and that everyone has access to it. But we also have to think about if you have the means to, how can you build a more resilient system?

How can you get to that point where it doesn’t break again and we don’t have to put people at risk?

Chris: Okay.

Hallie: That’s the first one. It’s shorter supply chains. Another one is less consolidation. There are a lot of ways that people are working towards this. One that’s currently happening. If you want to call your senator about this. It’s the PRIME Act which is basically making it easier to have small meat processing companies. Right now it’s really, really hard to operate a small meat processing facility and so this act basically makes that easier. If you want call your senator, call your representative, because this is at the federal level currently about to be voted on.

Chris: Well, I’ll call my senators, see what happens. I doubt they’ll do anything about it, but yeah.

Hallie: Give him a ring.

Chris: It’s always worth calling. What is it? Do you know what it does specifically to make it easier?

Hallie: I do. Yeah, currently how meat processing works is you have to have a USDA inspector on the premises at all times for every meat processing facility.

Chris: That sounds expensive.

Hallie: I mean, it’s also hard. It’s also just very difficult to get logistically someone who works for the federal government to be on your premises at all times. It’s just really logistically hard. I’ve been to a meat processing facility that was smaller than my apartment and they had three rooms and one of them was the office for the USDA guy.

Chris: Wow.

Hallie: He basically just sat in his office all day because there’s nothing that happens there, but that’s how the current regulations are and it’s just really, really hard to operate. It’s like how important is it to have this? You’re not really doing inspections every day. Do we need you to do inspections every day? If you’re moving 40 chickens in a week can you do inspection like once every other week or something like that instead of officing there on the premises? That’s basically what the act does.

Chris: Okay. To be sure I want these inspections to be done, but like you’re saying maybe they don’t have to live there at the plant.

Hallie: Right. No, this is not taking away food safety guidelines. This is not saying that you can just put food safety out the window. This is just trying to make it easier to have more meat processing facilities.

Chris: All righty.

Hallie: Another tick under less consolidation. We had shorter supply chains. We had less consolidation which included things like more meat processing facilities that also includes having more diversified supply lines. We talked about in our last COVID-19 episode that grocery stores have two or three suppliers for produce. Having more supply lines, working with more vendors, working with more folks makes that more resilient. Another point. Point number three is ecologically based practices. This doesn’t really tie in specifically with COVID, but it does tie in when we’re thinking more broadly about the crises that are looming that could put pressure on the food system. Specifically when we talk about climate change, we have to think about ecologically based practices in order to be resilient against climate disaster.

Chris: That makes sense.

Hallie: Then the last point is innovation. Shorter supply chains, less consolidation, ecologically based practices and then we have to have the ability to innovate, the ability to grow and move forward and really adapt. We really saw during COVID huge innovation from farmers in the terms of sanitation practices for workers in terms of e-commerce. Labor continues to get scarcer and scarcer, so we need innovation in terms of technology, in terms of our ability to do more work with fewer folks, with fewer people, greater breeding, better tools. This ability to innovate is going to be really, really crucial in the food system’s ability to continue to function during and after crises.

Chris: To sum up, I mean, we basically have an economy that encourages companies to sort of get as big and efficient as possible and having a food system that’s resilient and can survive these kinds of crises is just sort of more or less incompatible with that model it sounds like.

Hallie: It doesn’t have to be incompatible, but what we have to see is policymakers prioritizing resiliency and being able to continue without massive losses of companies, of jobs, of people’s lives before profit. It’s not like profit has to go out the window and I’m not the biggest fan of capitalism, but I understand that it functions for commodity products like agriculture, but we have to let profit take the second seat ahead of really policy decision making to create a more resilient system. Because if we don’t, then we’re going to see again what we saw this spring and what we’re going to continue to see as this crisis goes on, which is massive loss of life, massive economic loss, massive job loss etc.

Chris: You know what my prediction is?

Hallie: What?

Chris: Nothing’s going to change and we’re going to see it again.

Hallie: Oh my gosh. Dad, you’re such a pessimist and I don’t appreciate it. We are working very hard. I think that we’re going to get there. We all just have to show up and do the work and get educated and talk to our elected representatives and elect new representatives. Everyone registered to vote. We’re going to get there.

Chris: Call your senators.

Hallie: Please call your senators. PRIME Act.

[Background music].

Chris: Thanks for listening to this episode of One to Grow On.

Hallie: This hosted is made by me, Hallie Casey and Chris Casey.

Chris: It is produced by Catherine Arjet and Hallie Casey.

Hallie: Our music is Something Elated by Broke for Free.

Chris: Connect with us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook at One to Grow On Pod.

Hallie: You can find all of our episodes as well as more information about the show and the team on our website, onetogrowonpod.com.

Chris: Join our community and learn more about each episode at patreon.com/onetogrowonpod. There you can get access to audio extras, fascinating follow-ups, and even custom art created just for you.

Hallie: If you liked the show, please share it with your friends. Sharing is the best way to help us reach more ears.

Chris: Be sure to check out the next episode in two weeks.

Hallie: But until then, keep on growing.

Chris: Bye everybody.

[Background music].


42: COVID-19 and the Food Supply

Chris and Hallie discuss how COVID-19 has caused disruptions to the US food supply. We learn about swine, milk, and potato supply chains and how the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted them. Also, who originally decided that it was a good idea to drink cow’s milk, anyway?

Article Hallie wrote about this topic: COVID-19 and the US Food Supply Chain: What Happened?

Read the transcript.

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About us
One to Grow On is a podcast that digs into the questions you have about agriculture and tries to understand the impacts of food production on us and our world. We explore fascinating topics including food, gardening, and plant sciences. One to Grow On is hosted by Hallie Casey and Chris Casey, and is produced by Catherine Arjet and Hallie Casey. Show art is by Ashe Walker. Music is “Something Elated” by Broke For Free licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license.
onetogrowonpod.com

41: How Plants Communicate Transcript

Listen to the full episode.

Hallie: Hello and welcome to One to Grow On. A show where we dig into questions about agriculture and try to understand how food production impacts us and our world. My name is Hallie Casey and I studied and currently work in agriculture.

Chris: I’m Chris Casey, Hallie’s dad and I don’t know anything about agriculture. Each episode, we pick an area of agriculture or food production to discuss and this week we’re focusing on fungal networks.

[Background music].

Hallie: Let’s get into it. Dad, what do you know about fungal networks specifically related to plants?

Chris: I know that there’s something called the mycelial network.

Hallie: Okay.

Chris: I know about it because of Star Trek Discovery.

Hallie: What?

Chris: Part of the premise of Star Trek Discovery is there’s some sort of mycelial network in space that a giant tardigrade can float around on.

Hallie: That doesn’t make any sense.

Chris: [Laughs]. I agree.

Hallie: If the tardigrade is giant, how is it floating around on the mycelia, which are tiny?

Chris: It was a little hand wavy even by Star Trek standards. It helped the enterprise go really far really fast. Faster than their normal work drive could take them. Oops! Editing Chris here. If you’re thinking, hey, Chris. Star Trek Discovery is about the discovery and not the enterprise. You’d be right. Hey, listener, editing Chris here. If you’re thinking Star Trek Discovery is about the discovery and not the enterprise, you’d be right.

Hallie: Because they rode the fungus.

Chris: Yeah, they rode the mycelial network.

Hallie: Mycelia is basically fungus.

Chris: Okay. But at some point their chief engineer takes over of the person that sort of flies them through the mycelial network because they don’t want to be cruel to the tardigrade.

Hallie: This doesn’t make any sense at all. [Laughs].

Chris: Star Trek, man. It’s about philosophy.

Hallie: Okay. Do you know what fungi is compared to mushrooms? Let’s start there.

Chris: So far as I know and of course I grew up with the five plant kingdoms and from what I remember from my education is fungus is one of the kingdoms and mushrooms are in that fungal kingdom along with athlete’s foot.

Hallie: Wait, you said five plant kingdoms.

Chris: Well, sorry. You’re right. I guess the five light kingdoms of life.

Hallie: Yeah, right. Yes.

Chris: Animals, plants, and then fungus there is another one that aren’t quite the same as plants.

Hallie: Separate from plants.

Chris: Right. Because they don’t have chlorophyll I guess, but more for them.

Hallie: Yeah, I have heard people say, they thought fungus was plants. Fungus is not plants. It is separate from plants.

The mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of the fungi and they’re just the very, very tip of the iceberg. The mycelia are actually the body of the fungus. They make up the majority of the fungus and then the hyphae are basically branching filaments that make up the mycelium, the total body of a fungus.

Chris: Wait, are they a berry?

Hallie: No.

Chris: [Laughs].

Hallie: Oh my God. Absolutely not.

Chris: All right. They’re not a berry. The mushroom part is like you said, the fruiting body.

Hallie: Yeah, pretty much.

Chris: When you say fruiting body, you mean that’s what produces the seed.

Hallie: It’s what produces the reproductive parts.

Chris: Yes, I was going to say, thank you for interrupting me.

Hallie: [Laughs].

Chris: Then on a mushroom the seed is I guess spores or at least that’s what I know of, but maybe they’re not all spores.

Hallie: I mean, we’re using the word seed here very liberally. I don’t know if we want to apply seed to the animal kingdom if we can extrapolate that way.

Chris: It’s not that kind of podcast.

Hallie: I wouldn’t say seed. Yeah, the fruiting body, meaning that that is what creates new mushrooms.

Chris: Got it. Okay.

Hallie: Then the mycelia is like the body of it. If we’re thinking about it in analogous to a plant, the mushroom would be like an apple and the mycelia would be all the rest of the tree.

Chris: Oh, okay. It’s not just the trunk or just the roots. It’s the whole thing.

Hallie: Then the hyphae is a branch.

Chris: I don’t think I’ve ever seen any part of a mushroom that wasn’t just the mushroom.

Hallie: The mushroom is the mushroom, right? The part of a fungi or fungus.

Chris: When I buy a mushroom at the grocery store or I see a mushroom growing on a log in the forest, there’s just this mushroom popping up and I don’t know what the mycelia part is.

Hallie: Right. I wanted to start talking about these different definitions because I want to get you away from that idea of a mushroom. Have you seen other fungus?

Chris: Oh, yeah. Because I used to work in a bakery and sometimes we’d have to throw the bread out or sometimes we keep food too long and that’s mold.

Hallie: Yeah, exactly. Boom answered. The mycelia there is the fuzzy bits. In the soil, they’re really, really small. Typically, they are microscopic, but they’re very important. We are specifically going to be talking about mycorrhiza fungi. That word, we can break it up into two parts. The word myco, meaning fungus in Greek and the word rhiza, meaning root in Greek.

Chris: Okay. Just to be clear, when I walk along the path in the forest and I see the mushrooms, there are fuzzy bits somewhere.

Hallie: Under the ground in the soil.

Chris: There are fuzzy bits.

Hallie: There is a network of branching hyphae filaments that make up the mycelium.

Chris: Wait, is that where the enterprise flies around?

Hallie: Yes, fine.

[Laughter].

Chris: I know you wanted to get away from mushrooms, but on a mushroom there’s the cap and the stock.

Hallie: Sometimes.

Chris: Is all that part of the fruiting body or is some of that part of the mycelia?

Hallie: Yeah.

Chris: All that’s part of the fruiting body and the mycelia is the fuzzy bits underground and there is a network of them.

Hallie: We said fuzzy bits because we were trying to envision fungus. When you really see an image of an underground, like mycelium, it looks like a tree. It’s massive.

It’s really interconnected. If you could imagine grassroots, like really, really fine hyphae that are connected and huge. It’s going to be super huge. It’s not like a little fuzzy spot. It’s a huge network of these branching hyphae that connect.

Chris: Like a rhizome?

Hallie: Yeah, right. But a fungus though. It’s like a fungi. Anyways, we got the image now. There are many different kinds of fungi. We are going to specifically be talking about mycorrhiza fungi.

Chris: Mycorrhiza fungi.

Hallie: Yeah, do you remember the Greek I said earlier? Myco meaning.

Chris: Fungus and rhiza meaning root.

Hallie: Exactly.

Chris: I remember because I’m looking at the show notes.

Hallie: [Laughs]. This is all we’re going to be talking about. Basically, plants need nutrients from the soil, right? But they don’t spread out very well. It takes them a lot of energy to spread out.

Most plant roots are built with carbohydrates and plants make carbohydrates using photosynthesis, so it’s a lot of work to photosynthesize. You know what does spread out really well is mycelium.

Chris: Why is that?

Hallie: Because they’re real small and it’s easy for them to get very many places and it’s just what they’re specialized to do. It’s what they do. Plants trade carbohydrates with fungi in the soil for basically nutrients. They get the nutrients from the fungi and the fungi gets some carbohydrates to go and build some more little hyphae somewhere else or to go build a mushroom. Then I found an article from the journal nature that said that 85% of vascular plants are in some kind of mycorrhiza relationship.

Chris: When the fuzzy bits spread out, they’re not just transporting nutrients to each other or to their fruiting bodies or whatever. Plants somehow use them to transport nutrients.

Hallie: Yeah, they’re basically in relationship with the plants in the ecosystem, which makes sense when we think about it as an ecosystem, which it is, but yeah, they’re basically like buying and selling nutrients and carbohydrates back and forth between these plants and the fungus.

Chris: But whenever I hear someone talk about their plant getting a fungus, it’s a bad thing.

Hallie: Well, yeah.

You can have issues with houseplants if a plant gets anaerobic, but those fungi in the soil are really, really crucial to a plant being able to get enough nutrients. Like everything else pretty much in the soil, you can have beneficial fungi and you can have detrimental fungi or pest fungi. Most of it is beneficial fungi. That mycorrhiza network is so key for plants.

Chris: Got it. Okay, cool. But I think we need to establish something pretty quick right now. Is it fungi or is it fungi?

Hallie: [Laughs]. I switched between the two, which is probably not correct. I think technically it’s fungi, but I always grew up saying fungi, so let’s stick with fungi for the rest of the episode because I’m pretty sure that’s the scientifically correct way to say it.

Chris: It’s fungi like the peanut butter.

Hallie: Fungi peanut butter? What is fungi peanut butter?

Chris: Fungi like the peanut butter, not fungi like graphics.

Hallie: Oh my God.

[Laughter].

Hallie: Man, I can’t even say that sentence. A gif jif joke for those of you at home.

Within these mycorrhiza fungi that we’re discussing today, there are two main types. There are ectomycorrhiza fungi and arbuscular mycorrhiza fungi. An ectomycorrhiza fungi, basically these two types are describing how the fungi gets in relationship with a plant. An ectomycorrhiza fungi, do you know the prefix ecto?

Chris: Yeah, that’s what ghosts create as ectoplasm.

Hallie: No, oh my God. I mean, yes, but like in the science, like actual, what does it actually mean in Latin?

Chris: Ecto, does it mean outer?

Hallie: Exactly. Right.

Chris: Okay.

Hallie: Ectomycorrhiza fungi, basically, if you think about plant root cells, they’re kind of built like a brick wall. They’re like these little boxes that are stacked next to each other and an ectomycorrhiza fungi will penetrate the root, but doesn’t penetrate the actual cells. It creates this sheath around those little brick cells, which can be very helpful in protecting the roots from nematodes or something like that that might want to come and eat it, but it basically comes out and creates a little wall around that little cell along the root. It’s ecto meaning outside of the cell. This is often associated with forests.

A lot of conifers have these ectomycorrhiza fungi relationships. They’re great. They’re terrific. The other type is arbuscular mycorrhiza fungi. I tried to figure out what the word arbuscular means. It is based on the word tree, right? Arbuscular basically these guys squeeze in the actual root cells in the plant cells. They get in the walls and they live in the cells and the little arbuscular, which are the bits of the fungi that are inside the actual plant cell spread out and look like tree branches, which is where we get that arbor connection because it kind of looks like a tree branch inside of the actual cell. This is really typical in things like grasses, not always. These connect to all kinds of different things.

Chris: That sounds amazing.

Hallie: Yeah, they’re both great. They’re both super cool.

Chris: But they both do essentially the same thing. They have some sort of relationship with the plant where they do like a nutrient exchange.

Hallie: Right. That’s what this mycorrhiza fungi do. This is just basically a different way of establishing that relationship with the plant.

Chris: Got it.

Hallie: Now we’re going to get into the crazy part. We’re on board for a plant knows a mushroom and they like trade stuff back and forth, but here where it gets intense.

Trees are not in kind of the traditional way that we think about them, an individual organism.

Chris: Because they’re socialists?

Hallie: Because these fungal relationships form something that scientists have been calling the Wood Wide Web.

Chris: [Laughs]. Oh, mad respect.

Hallie: I think it’s good.

Chris: But wait, I don’t think I understand what it is you’re saying about why they’re not individuals. Trees are not individuals because they talk to each other or because they have the Wood Wide Web too. That goes between the tree roots so that the trees can talk to each other over the fungal network.

Hallie: Yeah, it’s basically that second one. This Wood Wide Web is a way of reimagining what we think of as a forest ecosystem. A lot of this work was pioneered by an amazing scientist, Suzanne Simard from the University of British Columbia and here’s like how she figured it out. What she did was she put a traceable form of carbon in a tree in a forest. Then she took samples from a neighboring tree at a later date and found carbon in the other tree that she did not put it in.

Chris: Dude.

Hallie: A tree had taken a carbon and put it down into the Wood Wide Web into this giant fungal mycelium and it had gone into a different tree.

Chris: Is she sure that the tree just didn’t reach over and said here have some of my carbon?

Hallie: We’re pretty sure that’s not what happened [laughs].

Chris: Okay. I mean, maybe a leaf fell and the leaf decomposed and then the other tree absorbed. I’m sorry. None of that’s correct. This is insane. That’s wild.

Hallie: Yeah, I did a lot of research on this and a lot of the analogies I found were actually specifically talking about the internet and how it’s kind of a series of tubes that connects servers.

Chris: Oh, boy.

Hallie: These trees can be thought of as servers and sometimes you have smaller servers or bigger servers. A bigger server would be a really big older tree. What’s often called like a mother tree when thinking about this type of framing of the ecosystem. What scientists have seen is that you have these source plants and then you have these sinking plants. Plants make carbohydrates, right? Using oxygen and carbon dioxide and using photon energy they create a carbohydrate. However, if you are on forest, you will have a big tree that gets much sun and many photons and you’ll have a small little tiny baby tree that will be under the big tree.

When you’re under the big tree, you get very few photons. You see what I’m saying?

Chris: Is this nature’s version of trickle-down economics?

Hallie: No, oh my God.

Chris: [Laughs].

Hallie: It’s like nature’s version of motherhood. That’s why it’s called Mother Theresa.

Chris: Oh, okay.

Hallie: This big tree will pass carbohydrates across the Wood Wide Web to these little small trees so that they can continue to survive. They have seen examples of trees that are getting very, very few photons that are really not photosynthesizing a lot, but are able to continue to survive because they’re basically getting carbohydrates from the rest of their community.

Chris: Wait, can I use this in my backyard to grow plants that otherwise wouldn’t grow in the shade?

Hallie: Yeah, you know what you need in order to establish a good Wood Wide Web in your backyard.

Chris: What?

Hallie: Compost. You should compost, dad.

[Laughter].

Chris: I mean, that I have to go through the action of composting.

Hallie: You can also buy compost, but if you’re buying compost in order to establish the mycelial network, you do have to buy an active compost that’s not dead because you need living things in it like fungi.

Chris: Got it.

Hallie: They send carbohydrates. They can also send nutrients around. They can also send water around and it has also been found that they can also send stress chemicals and like warning signals around on these internet of trees.

Chris: I’m just thinking of all the HTTP codes on the web. They can send two hundreds and five hundreds and maybe even a 404.

Hallie: Sure, dad?

Chris: Yeah.

[Laughter].

Hallie: Absolutely.

Chris: Site not found. I don’t know.

Hallie: What is the 500 code? I don’t know that one.

Chris: Internal server error.

Hallie: Okay. Yeah, I don’t really know what that means, but yeah, absolutely if that helps, sure.

Chris: That’s just, wow. Stress chemicals. I’m like, look out there’s a woodpecker or something.

Hallie: Yeah, exactly that. Look out, something is coming eating our leaves perhaps make more cellulose if you can. Something’s coming and then they will.

Chris: Well, that’s cool and herbicides too this is?

Hallie: Yeah, you’re reading a little bit ahead.

Chris: True.

Hallie: They can also transport things like herbicides, which we don’t really want transported, but that hasn’t been as studied, partly because if you’re using something like an herbicide, then that’s often diminishing the soil ecosystem, right? If we’re growing in a more conventional system, then you usually have a less robust soil ecosystem. Not that that has to be the case that you can’t use herbicides in a system that has a robust soil ecosystem. But as we’ve talked about on the show before, we can always use more science about regenerative, agricultural practices and soil science and soil health.

Chris: That is good.

Hallie: One of the other interesting things that they found about these “mother trees” is that when they are dying, they take the carbon that has been stored a lot, not all of it obviously, but they take some of the carbon, they have stored and they release that and as well as other nutrients back into the network, so they’re basically passing resources onto the next generation and it kind of speeds up their death. One of the things that a lot of forestry scientists have been talking about for the last, however long, like since the nineties, when this research was being done is considering that when we cut down these larger trees to make plywood or whatever, we’re basically taking those resources out, so it can be harder for the next generation of trees to actually grow up to maturity because they don’t have that kick start as these mother trees who are aging out and passing those resources on.

Chris: Man, that’s wow. Okay. Is this more like an Ethernet or like a token ring thing?

Hallie: I don’t know. I think that’s the point where we should perhaps get into the break because you were talking way beyond what I know of the internet.

Chris: [Laughs]. Into the break.

[Background music].

Chris: You really should learn more about computers and the internet and the way it all works I think.

Hallie: You know what? I do know more about our starfruit patrons.

Chris: What? Vikram, Lindsay, Patrick, Mama Casey and Shianne.

Hallie: Our starfruit patrons and all of our patrons have made our local food series possible. They have made it possible for us to get transcripts. They have made so many things possible for us to grow the show, things that have happened and things that are coming up that we’re planning. If you’re interested in supporting the show, we have perks at all kinds of different levels from $1 all the way up to $25 is the highest tier. We have pretty fun perks. If you’re interested, you can come join us over there at patreon.com/onetogrowonpod.

Chris: That’s patreon.com/onetogrowonpod. We would love to see you there. Back to the episode.

[Background music].

Hallie: Dad, do you have a nature fact for us?

Chris: I do.

Hallie: Great.

Chris: All right. Earlier we established that in Star Trek Discovery they used the mycelial network to fly around.

Hallie: Yeah.

Chris: Okay. The engineer that was able to fly them around the mycelial network was played by Anthony Rapp.

Hallie: No way.

Chris: Oh, yeah way.

Hallie: You’re kidding. Broadway King Anthony Rapp was on the Star Trek.

Chris: As you know, Anthony Rapp was big in Rent.

Hallie: I mean, he was the lead in Rent.

Chris: Yes, the reason he was able to do so well in Rent is because he was a fun guy.

Hallie: What?

Chris: [Laughs]. He was a fun guy.

Hallie: That doesn’t even make any sense.

Chris: [Laughs].

Hallie: Oh, my God.

Chris: Also, there are mushrooms that go in the dark and they look really cool and you should look them up.

Hallie: I can’t even believe you could even come up with a Rent appropriate pun.

Chris: [Laughs].

Hallie: The amount of Rent that you had to listen to when I was in high school and you couldn’t even come up with a Rent specific pun.

Chris: Oh, man. I did try to see if they talked about there being mold in the building, but there was no reference to it.

Hallie: No.

Chris: They were just jerks who didn’t want to pay rent.

Hallie: No, that’s not the takeaway at all from Rent.

Chris: Not the takeaway. It’s just who they were as characters.

Hallie: No, we don’t have the time to talk about how wrong you are.

Chris: [Laughs]. Thank God.

Hallie: Moving on. Back to fungus. There has been some cool research that’s shown that nutrient transfer from old growth. Douglas firs happens more with plants that are related to them like other conifers versus plants that are more distantly related to them, like broad leaf plants.

We don’t know how they know. We don’t know why that happens. It’s not like they’re talking to them. They’re talking to the fungi who is then talking to the plants. How do they tell the fungi, “Hey, take this to that tree over there, but not to that tree because that tree and me are not bros?” How do they know?

Chris: I don’t know. But it sounds like they got a little tribal thing going on.

Hallie: I want to know how they know so badly. It’s so weird.

Chris: Maybe they can see each other. I don’t know. That is pretty wild though.

Hallie: It’s wild.

Chris: Maybe it’s like some sort of gene expression over the network.

Hallie: I really don’t know. Yeah, there is so much we don’t know about this whole network. There’s so many more things that we will be learning in the next like 50 years and I’m sure in 50 years we are going to know so much more and it’s going to blow my freaking mind.

Chris: Maybe they just ask, “Is your name Douglas?” They say, “Yes.”

Hallie: That’s probably what the fungi do actually. Now that I think about it, that’s probably exactly what they do.

Chris: All right. Cool. Let’s go for that.

[Laughter].

Hallie: I want to talk a little bit more about the context of this in agriculture. We talked a lot about forestry in an oblique way, so obviously this is very relevant for our timber industries. We haven’t done an episode on timber yet, but we’re planning on doing it eventually. It’s like on my list of things I really want to talk about. But yeah, this is super connected, but mycorrhiza fungi don’t just exist in trees. We know about them mostly in trees because it’s pretty easy to put a weird carbon in a tree and then come back a while later and look at another tree, but if you have annual plants, you might not have the lifespan to really be able to measure what’s being passed back and forth, right? There is still really cool science being done. But like we do know that these mycorrhiza fungi are important to annual crops like tomatoes, wheat. Most of the things that we eat. We do know that they are important. We don’t just have as much science because there’s always more science we can be doing.

Chris: That is true.

Hallie: There is evidence that plants that are plugged into the network from a young age are generally healthier. Why? We don’t really know. It could be because they have more available nutrients when they’re young and so they’re able to grow to be more robust. It could be because they have more access to stress hormones, so they get less damaged. There could be other reasons that we don’t know of.

Chris: They’ve got mycelia privilege.

Hallie: Exactly. What does that mean? Who knows? We don’t know yet, but hopefully we will know soon. There can issues in agriculture related to the mycelia network. Overuse of fertilizer can damage mycorrhiza networks basically because the plants don’t need the fungi to provide nutrients, so they’re not giving the carbohydrates back to the fungal network.

Chris: Oh, that makes sense.

Hallie: Yeah, that’s specific to fertilizers, but we do know that large scale industrial agriculture does damage soil health. We can talk specifically about mycorrhiza fungi, but what we do definitely know and what is really clear is that the fungal network, this mycelium under the ground is related to nematodes and is related to protozoa and is related to plants and is related to bacteria, all of which are growing in the soil together. If one of those pieces is missing, like if you don’t have as much plant diversity, then that can damage all of the other pieces that create a healthy biological soil. If you have a healthy biological soil, then you also have a healthy physical soil and chemical soil. All of these different aspects of the soil and how it functions can function much better. You see what I’m saying?

Chris: It’s sort of like when everything lives together in harmony, it all works out better.

Hallie: I mean, yeah, sure. If we extrapolate very far back, that is what I am saying.

Chris: It’s a metaphor for life.

Hallie: Yeah, it’s a metaphor for life. We need balance including mycelium. It’s very important.

Chris: Cool. In conclusion, the trees talk to the mushrooms and the mushrooms relay the messages to other trees, or sometimes even other plants or at least trees of other species or whatever, but not usually. They all live together with their friends, the bacteria and the nematodes and the other things and good healthy soil, which is important. It’s just cool and amazing and important for a healthy ecosystem.

Hallie: That’s the stuff of it.

Chris: That’s the stuff of it, man. Well, thanks. Hallie, you know what? I had fun guy.

Hallie: Oh, my God. Well, I had mushroom.

Chris: You had mushroom for what? That makes no sense.

Hallie: Yeah, well, yours isn’t great either.

Chris: That’s true. Okay.

[Background music].

Chris: Thanks for listening to this episode of One to Grow On.

Hallie: This show is made by me, Hallie Casey and Chris Casey. Our music is Something Elated by Broke for Free.

Chris: If you’d like to connect with us, follow us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook at One to Grow On Pod or join our Discord and Facebook communities and leaf us your thoughts on this episode.

Hallie: You can find all of our episodes and transcripts as well as information about the team and the show on our website, onetogrowonpod.com.

Chris: Help us take root and grow organically by recommending the show to your friends or consider donating to our Patreon at patreon.com/onetogrowonpod. There, you can get access to audio extras, fascinating follow-ups, exclusive bonus content and boxes of our favorite goodies.

Hallie: If you liked the show, please share it with a friend. Sharing is the best way to help us reach more ears.

Chris: Be sure to see what’s sprouting in two weeks.

Hallie: But until then, keep on growing.

[Background music].

41: How Plants Communicate

This week, Hallie and Chris explore the fun-filled world of fungi! We learn about the ways the fungi support plant-life, how they make it possible for plants to communicate with each other, and what these relationships mean for agriculture. We definitely decide how to pronounce “gif” and “fungi.”

Read the full episode transcript here.

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About us
One to Grow On is a podcast that digs into the questions you have about agriculture and tries to understand the impacts of food production on us and our world. We explore fascinating topics including food, gardening, and plant sciences. One to Grow On is hosted by Hallie Casey and Chris Casey, and is produced by Catherine Arjet and Hallie Casey. Show art is by Ashe Walker. Music is “Something Elated” by Broke For Free licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license.
onetogrowonpod.com

A silver dollar plant in a pot

40: Houseplants Transcript

Listen to the full episode.

Hallie: Hello and welcome to One to Grow On. A show where we dig into questions about agriculture and try to understand how food production impacts us and our world. My name is Hallie Casey and I studied and currently work in agriculture.

Chris: I’m Chris Casey, Hallie’s dad. Each episode we pick an area of agriculture or food production to discuss and this week we are talking about houseplants.

[Background music].

Hallie: What do you know about the humble houseplant, dad?

Chris: Why would anyone want to live inside of a plant?

Hallie: Oh brother.

Chris: As their house?

Hallie: Oh God.

Chris: Their house.

Hallie: Oh no. [Laughs].

Chris: I know that they are plants that you can put inside of your house. I suppose they’re usually in some sort of receptacle like a pot. You have to occasionally water them. That’s what I know.

Hallie: Pretty good.

Chris: Oh, really? Show over. We’re done?

Hallie: That’s the whole show. That’s all we wanted to say.

Chris: Okay.

Hallie: No, not really.

Chris: All right.

Hallie: When talking about the beginning of the houseplant, which is where I want to start this episode, a lot of people talk about the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, ancient China, ancient Egypt. They had plants and they were inside. People have had plants on the inside for a long time, but it didn’t really become trendy in modern times until really Victorian England when it kind of became a fixture of the middle class household at least here in the West.


Chris: Wow. I thought you were going to say something like the original cavemen had likened on their walls.

Hallie: I mean, they did. That’s true.

Chris: All right.

Hallie: One of the most famous old school houseplants from this Victorian period is cast iron plants. There’s actually a really good episode of the houseplant podcast On The Ledge with Jane Perrone. It’s episode 138 and they only talk about cast iron plants and it’s extremely fascinating.

Chris: Okay. What in the world is a cast iron plant? Is that a plant that you put in cast iron or grow on cast iron or is made of cast iron? I don’t know.

Hallie: It is none of those things. It’s also called an Aspidistra. They’re called cast iron plants because they’re tough. They’re really tough like cast iron would be.

Chris: They’re tough to eat or tough to kill?

Hallie: Tough to kill, yeah. They’re sturdy. That’s how they got the name. They’re just super sturdy, but Aspidistra is just the nicer name. Cast iron plant now has a bad connotation because it’s like an old school plant. It’s like passé, but if you say Aspidistra oh, that sounds so nice. But cast iron plant is old school.

Chris: All right. Cool.

Hallie: But this episode of On The Ledge, which also can I say is a very great name for a podcast about houseplants is terrific. You should check it out.

Chris: Do people put houseplants on ledges?

Hallie: Yeah, like on the ledge of a window, counter.

Chris: Okay. I like that. That’s great. I love that name.

Hallie: In 1960s, houseplants really got kicked up in terms of a design feature. Before that it was mostly just, oh yes a nice plant and they’re good for me, question mark. But in the 1960s, it was really considered a part of the design as we moved into this mid-century modern era of interior design. Houseplants and particularly different tropical plants really became big features of rooms. This kind of diminished as you moved into the 1980s. Particularly for like houses, it became more popular to have like a fake plant. But in the Moli’i Gardens, actually I was doing research for this episode and particularly like the Moli’i Garden was something that was called out as the first public space that had a larger planting more than just like a pot. You remember here in Austin at the Barton Creek Mall, there’s a big garden over by one of the fountains. That’s pretty common. That large indoor planting was the first time we really saw it in the 1980s in malls.

Chris: I got to be honest with you. I noticed the fountains but I don’t know that I noticed the plants maybe like some big leaves or something. I never really thought about that. Interesting. A garden inside of a mall, not just an outdoor shopping mall, but an indoor shopping mall.

Hallie: What a concept.

Chris: Okay. Is it like a big greenhouse with this sky roof, sun roof, translucent roof?

Hallie: I mean, it’s just on the ground floor, you got a fountain and you got plants around the fountain.

Chris: I guess the fluorescent lights are enough for them.

Hallie: A lot of malls also have skylights and stuff like that. Indoor plants really don’t need a lot of lights, so it works. Today, a lot of houseplants are popular, particularly because a lot of people are renting and it’s really easy to fill your house with houseplants as a way to make it feel homey, but without having to make any permanent changes to the structure, like painting or wallpapering or putting up shelves or something like that. They’re just super on trend now, so I want to talk about them.

Chris: It sounds like they sort of became popular in Victoria England and then all of a sudden few decades later it was akin to picking out furniture. You also had to pick out some houseplants.

Hallie: Right. A lot of reasons for that is mostly around the advancement of the industry and the advancement of the greenhouse technology. It’s become much easier to find those tropical plants that maybe we just couldn’t find them in the 1920s, 1930s because we didn’t have ways to transport them and carry them and that industry really hadn’t developed. Whereas now you can find them at every single supermarket at every single hardware store. They’re just super common because our industry has really developed and we have ways to transport them and care for them and all of that.

Chris: Is it true they do better if you play music for them?

Hallie: I don’t know. Maybe we could do a whole episode on playing music for your plants.

Chris: Okay. That’d be cool.

Hallie: What are the reasons that we keep houseplants? Number one, we’ve been talking about it. It adds to the aesthetic nature of a space. For sure, I found a lovely Architectural Digest article that particularly talked about Funkshway, which of course is an ancient Chinese method of creating a balanced energy in a space. They offered some suggestions of different things that you might want to do in your house, both in terms of design and in terms of more utilitarian things. For example, if you wanted to give your space a sense of grounding or softness, they recommended philodendron or jade. If you wanted to heighten the space, they recommended ficus or rubber plant or a banana leaf plant, all of which are quite tall.

If you wanted to balance excess water, kind of a more utilitarian need, like somewhere in a bathroom or a laundry room, they recommended the lincon air plant, or perhaps pothos, which you’re familiar with. These are all great plants and great uses for them. I’m going to talk a little bit later about all different options for some of my favorite plants and why they’re helpful, but yeah, they provide a really lovely aesthetic thing in your house. It’s really soft. They’re really lovely and it’s a very different shape than most of our furniture nowadays, so they’re great.

Chris: Nice.

Hallie: Plants can also clean the air. To what benefit is questionable and I’ll talk about that, but they can also for sure increase the humidity of the space. If you have a dry room, particularly if it’s winter time or you live in somewhere like the desert, having plants in your house is definitely going to increase the humidity of the space just because you’re watering them more frequently and then there’s water in their trays sometimes, and not all the water is going directly into the plants. Having water out is going to be increasing the humidity.

Chris: I can definitely see in the winter. July in central Texas, maybe we don’t need the humidity quite so much.

Hallie: We don’t need the humidity here, but I’ve definitely lived in places where I’m like, oh, it’s so nice. I come home, there’s a bit of moisture in the air as I’m parched from coming in from the desert sun.

Chris: Got it.

Hallie: There was a NASA experiment that was published in 1989 that was investigating ways to effectively detoxify space station air and they found that in a lab environment, indoor plants can scrub the air of volatile compounds, like formaldehyde and benzene, which are things that we don’t want in our air. However, if you really have a medical need for air purification, don’t replace your air purifier, which is plants. Plants are doing this, but not on a huge level. They’re very small guys. They can only do so much.

Chris: You can’t put like a whole rainforest in your bathroom.

Hallie: Yeah, I mean, they’re lovely to have, but if you need air purification, maybe have both. I don’t know. But yeah, they do do this, but on the outside of a laboratory setting, it wasn’t a really remarkable difference. I want you to imagine a scenario for me, okay?

Chris: All right. I’ve got my brain camera turned on.

Hallie: Okay, so you’re sitting in a room. There are no windows.

Chris: Why?

Hallie: The chair you’re sitting in is really hard. It’s kind of uncomfortable.

Chris: Am I in prison?

Hallie: Sure. If you want to be in prison, you can imagine yourself in prison.

Chris: I don’t want to be in prison. I’m in a really hard chair in a room with no windows. Okay.

Hallie: The light overhead is kind of bright. It’s like fluorescent. The ground under your feet is like a reflective tile. There’s light reflecting back up at you and all the walls are like bright white.

Chris: This seriously sounds like the intro to a horror movie.

[Laughter].

Hallie: How do you feel, right?

Chris: No, it’s awful.

Hallie: Not good. Okay. Now imagine the same room, but there’s a really big rubber tree plant or ficus plant in the corner of the room. How does that change things?

Chris: I guess it creates one point of interest.

Hallie: Yeah?

Chris: Yeah.

Hallie: How do you think your physical reaction would change to that room? Would you feel, I don’t know, more stress, less stress, no change?

Chris: I would feel less stressed, except if I walked into that room in the first description, I’d be like, oh, this is a really weird cold creepy room. The second description, I’d be like, oh, this is a really weird color, creepy room, but look, there’s a plant over there. That’s weird. Why did someone put a plant in the corner?

Hallie: [Laughs]. Sure. It’s not a perfect description.

Chris: But I see what you’re saying. It’s the cold creepy room versus the cold creepy room with like a little life in it. Adds as that little something extra.

Hallie: There have definitely been studies that have shown that plants in a space can improve your mood, improve your concentration, improve health outcomes. I found this piece from a Psychology Today article that said, “Based on several experimental studies, the presence of potted plants have been found to be helpful in many different settings, including work, school and hospitals. Particularly, they have been shown to lower blood pressure, improve reaction times, increase attentiveness, improve attendance at work and school, raise productivity at work, improve wellbeing, improve perceptions of the space,” which is a really vague term.

I don’t know how you measure that, but cool. “Lower levels of anxiety when you’re recovering from surgery and raise job satisfaction,” which is like a lot that we’re asking from just these little plants.

Chris: No, kidding. I almost feel like this is a superfoods episode and we should put a cape on a houseplant.

Hallie: [Laughs]. I had a professor in college who is actually studying the impact of plants in a classroom on college quiz test grades and the correlation there. It’s great to have plants in a room. They make you feel more relaxed and being inside of an angular stuffy cold room is not natural for our brains. It’s not where our brains pick operation. It’s weird and so having a little bit of that nature, it seems can help de-stress us and can help us feel more relaxed. Can help us enjoy a space more, which can then I’m assuming correlate to this like improved attendance. If you like the space more, you’re probably more likely to go to a space versus if you really hate the space.

Chris: Okay, cool. Magic plants.

Hallie: I mean, is it magic? Is it brain science? Who can say?

Chris: Fair enough, but you know what we can say.

Hallie: What’s that?

Chris: We can say that we’re going into a break right now.

Hallie: Here we go.

[Background music].

Chris: Hey, Hallie.

Hallie: Hey, dad.

Chris: Do you know who probably has houseplants?

Hallie: Who?

Chris: Our starfruit patrons, Vikram, Lindsay, Mama Casey.

Hallie: Patrick, and Shianne. You guys are so wonderful and your support means the world to us. If you at home listening are interested in joining our Patreon family, it helps so much. It makes so many things possible for the show, including us to have series, we’ve got transcripts on the website now, which our patrons are paying for 100%. You have supported so many things about the show and we are so, so grateful. If you are interested in supporting the show, you can head over to patreon.com/onetogrowonpod. We have a lot of different, super fun tiers.

Chris: Tiers that get you bonus content like outtakes and little extra audios. We’ve got the plan of the month club. We send you a little digital file with some plant facts about certain plants and a recipe using that plant and sometimes we’ll mail you a postcard, but we haven’t recently because I have been a little afraid to go to Office Depot to get a print it out and go to the post office to mail it out. I don’t want to do that because there’s a plague on, but we will get those mailed out someday. Our starfruit patrons get all kinds of goodies, like boxes of stuff.

Hallie: We’ve been doing like goody boxes for our starfruit patrons. We just did the first one, I guess, back in June. Yeah, June is when they got delivered and we worked with a really cool artist in Australia and she mailed them soaps and handmade candles and handmade lip balms and a bunch of really cool stuff. The next one is going to be closer to November, December. We’re doing it about twice a year, so we’ll be talking about it again when we get closer to that. But if you’re interested in supporting the show at any tiers, any levels, you can do $1, you can do more than that. We would really appreciate the support. If the show is something that’s meaningful to you, it’s great. We have so much fun over there. You also get a Discord channel and we can chat. Gosh, I feel like this Benadryl is not going well.

Chris: It’s going super long. Do you know what, I would appreciate if we got back to the episode?

Hallie: What’s up?

[Background music].

Hallie: Oh my God. Okay. Dad, you got a nature fact for us?

Chris: I do have a nature fact.

Hallie: Hit me.

Chris: All right. In the beginning of the episode, I asked who would want to live in a plant anyway because it’s hilarious, right?

Hallie: Sure.

Chris: Well, you know who does live in plants. It is the Keebler elves. They live in a tree. They do. You know who it turns out is a subsidiary of Keebler?

Hallie: Who?

Chris: Little Brownie Bakers.

Hallie: Okay. [Laughs].

Chris: They are one of the bakers that make Girl Scout Cookies.

Hallie: Yeah, I know this.

Chris: For half of the country, Keebler makes Girl Scout Cookies. Not only that, but Keebler has their own cookies that are the same flavors as some of the Girl Scout Cookies, like thin mint and samosas. They’re just not as exciting to buy from Keebler as they are from Girl Scout.

Hallie: Right.

Chris: This blew my mind. Did you already know all this?

Hallie: [Laughs].

Chris: It’s not blowing your mind?

Hallie: I was a Girl’s Scout. I knew this.

Chris: What you knew? I feel like you were in on something.

Hallie: I was in on something like a conspiracy?

Chris: Yeah, you knew the secret.

Hallie: We don’t have Little Brownie in Texas.

We’ve got ABC, so it’s like a totally different distributor.

Chris: Even if I bought the Keebler thin mints, they wouldn’t be the same as the Girl Scout thin mints that we get here.

Hallie: I mean, it’s like the same formula. I don’t know how different it is bakery to bakery. I’ve never done a test comparison.

Chris: All right. Well, I don’t know. I feel like I’m giving some pretty significant information to the rest of the world so you can be like, yeah, I knew that, whatever, but I bet listener I bet there’s at least one of you out there that didn’t know that already.

Hallie: Congratulations to the rest of our listenership other than me on now finding out that you can buy thin mints all year round, but it does not go to support Girl Scout, which is really great for the development of leadership skills in young women, so sport Girl Scout.

Chris: True.

Hallie: Oh wait, I have to do the theme.

Chris: Oh yeah. You got to do the theme. Don’t forget to do the theme.

Hallie: Tara-tarara. Nature fact.

Chris: Let’s say I’ve gotten really excited about the idea of getting a houseplant after you told me about all this great stuff.

Hallie: I hope so.

Chris: What do I need to do other than purchase it?

Hallie: What do houseplants need?

Chris: Yeah, I want to put in the corner of the room that I use for my office.

Hallie: Okay. Plants need light and water and carbon dioxide and nitrogen and phosphorus and potassium.

Chris: I can definitely supply carbon dioxide.

Hallie: Great.

Chris: I would probably have to remember to give it water. How often would I need to give it water? I guess it probably depends on the plant.

Hallie: Correct.

Chris: You say it needs light. Is the light from my overhead enough?

Hallie: Probably.

Chris: Probably, really?

Hallie: But maybe not.

Chris: Maybe if there’s a window in there, that’s a good thing, but maybe the light is good enough, but I have no idea how to get it nitrogen phosphorus or potassium. Do I give it bananas?

Hallie: I wouldn’t know. Personally, I would not do that at all. If you planted in potting soil, it has a lot of nutrients in it. If you plant it with compost, then that improves the nutrition as well, but also you will probably want to have some kind of liquid fertilizer. Eventually, it will need it. There are different options. There are mineral versions, there are organic versions. You can just go to your local nursery and say, “Hey, I have this plant. What do you recommend?” They have a myriad of options. You can buy it at a large hardware store, like a big box, but I always recommend shopping local because they typically have a wider selection and they will also have great knowledge on what would do best for your houseplants.


Chris: Wait, if I have say a slightly bigger houseplant that I have to put on the floor, maybe it’s a ficus or something that takes up a large area of a pot, can I put my composting material directly on top of that and just have it compost on top of the plant soil and then sort of mix it in over time?

Hallie: Yeah, you can top dress with compost.

Chris: Really?

Hallie: But you can also just mix it in when you’re potting it up, if you’d like, and that typically helps the bacteria and the fungi and whatever else is living in your compost to just disperse. I mean, they’re very small little guys. If you put them on the top, it’s going to take them a long time to get down to the bottom. If you mix them in your own self, then it just helps them get around to all the different parts of your plant. But if your pot is already planted, you don’t want to repot it. You can totally just top dress with compost.

Chris: Okay. That makes sense.

Hallie: I wanted to talk about some of my favorite plants and specifically outlining what they need, what they’re good for and then after that I was going to talk about some of the common issues and some of the best practices for having houseplants.

Chris: Lay it on me.

Hallie: Number one, pothos ivy, you know this plant. It’s what your houseplant, Gary was. It doesn’t need full sun. Very expressive. They really let you know when something’s going on. Not all plants do that. Really easy to propagate, easy to grow and water. They’re great.

Chris: Actually, it’s Jerry.

Hallie: Okay. Sorry, Larry.

Chris: [Laughs]. Actually, it’s Jerry.

Hallie: Terry, got it.

[Laughter].

Chris: But I feel like I’m cutting you off a little bit here. I feel like there was a point where the little jar of water that I was growing him in wasn’t good enough anymore and I needed to do something else with them, like move them to a different container or to some dirt or something. Does that make sense? Should I have done something with them?

Hallie: Yeah, pothus ivy can grow 100% hydroponically. Austin has hardish water, so usually there’s a good amount of nutrition in the water itself.

But if you want the plant to continue creating new leaves, and growing as opposed to just growing small amounts and then shedding the old leaves, so really increasing the amount of leaves and the size of the plant, then you probably will have to add additional nutrition into the water just so that it can fill all themselves up.

Chris: But you don’t move it to a bigger container or anything like that. I don’t know.

Hallie: You might eventually need to do that just based on gravity, mostly like physics if physics-lly it’s not holding up, but you can have a tall plant with a small root ball in a small container, but you just have to make sure that it’s getting the nutrition and the water it needs without burning it. If you had a lot of leaves in a small root area, you would have to water it probably more frequently with the low dilution because otherwise it wouldn’t be getting enough nutrition and you could have the potential of burning the leaves if you added more nutrition. Increase the dilution of it. Does that make sense?

Chris: Yes.

Hallie: Cool. Next, Rosemary. Rosemary does need full sun, so you got to have one of the big windows for it, but it does not need a lot of water. Also, smells very nice and it will flower and you can also eat it, which is a bonus.

Chris: It goes great on chicken.

Hallie: Three, piece lily. I was informed one time by someone who worked at a florist shop that this is a plant that you get people when they know someone who has died. It’s like a condolence plant, but it’s not just that, but just so you know, they might make a comment when you try and buy it. It does not need direct sun. It’s one of the best plants for low light. It’s a really, really good office plant because it’s nice and big, but it grows really slowly and it doesn’t get super tall. It’s super manageable and it has nice flowers.

Chris: Flowers are great. Love a flower.

Hallie: Number four is the bromeliad. The flowers on this one have super nice color depending on what you get. You can get a pink, a yellow, an orange or red. They do need high drainage and they can tolerate high sun, but they’re super lovely. The fifth one is a dieffenbachia. These are good for small plants, but they can also get really big, which is super nice. They do need good drainage, but they’re also super good for low light.

Chris: Cool. Lots of options.

Hallie: Those are my faves. There’s a billion gillion houseplants, so you don’t have to get one of these. Please send us pictures of your house plants on Twitter, even if they’re not one of these six plants, but especially if they are, please send pictures.

Chris: Five plants. You talked about five plants.

Hallie: One, two, three, four, five. I talked about five plants.

Chris: [Laughs].

Hallie: Next, I was going to talk about some of the common issues. With houseplants, you can get some pest problems. Some of the most common pests are white fly, spider mites, scale. The most common time to get pest for your houseplant is when you buy a new plant and it’s already infected. You can have one of your existing plants get infected with a pest, but it’s just not as likely because the pest has to be introduced somehow and it’s your house, so you’re usually not bringing spider mites in to your own house other than on a plant. When you buy a plant, this is another reason to be really critical. When buying your plants, thinking through where you’re buying it from, do you trust them? Are you sure it’s clean? Inspecting plants before you bring them home. I oftentimes if I buy a new plant, I’ll keep it away from my older plants, like my existing plants in the house, just to make sure I don’t see any symptoms or issues before introducing it to the rest of the house.

Chris: Do they follow you home?

Hallie: Wait, what do you mean?

Chris: Spider mites. Like maybe you’re walking home from work and the spider might say, “Oh, I bet he has a nice houseplant.”

Hallie: [Laughs]. Probably not. If you get an infestation in your plants just start by pinching off as many of the insects as you see. That might be able to curb the infestation before it really takes off. But if it kind of takes off, you want to separate the infested plants from those that are not infested and you just have to research treatment methods based on what the infestation is. It depends based on pest. Sorry, I can’t give more specific advice.

Chris: I was going to say if the pest is new to you, you probably have to research what even the pest is before you research the treatment method.

Hallie: Yeah, unfortunately. Other issues you can get disease. Typically, it’s a fungus. Sometimes it’s a bacteria that will affect a houseplant. Similar to a pest the most frequent time to get this is with a new plant. Similar to pest, you’ll want to cordon off the infected plant. There are several common diseases that can plaque houseplants. One of them is powdery mildew, which can really easily be treated by spraying a solution of water and baking soda onto the leaves of the plant. If you get a fungus in your potting soil, you just have to replant the plant in brand new soil, toss out the old stuff. But also if you see mushrooms in your houseplants, don’t worry about it. It’s probably just compost mycelia that is now fruiting, so it’s fine.

Chris: Are they talking to the plant?

Hallie: Yeah, they’re probably talking to the plant. It’s great to have fungi in your soil, but if it’s like a fungal infection, if it’s causing issues, then repot just shake off as much of the soil from the roots as you can. Try to get it really clean and then repot.

Chris: All right.

Hallie: If your plant is wilting, yellowing, showing general signs of poor health, then it could be being watered incorrectly. Both over-watering and underwater can show similar stress signs, which can be frustrating. However, you probably know how much you’re watering it. If you think you’re watering it too much, water it less. If you think you’re not watering enough, then water it more. Both cases of over and under watering, it’s because the roots aren’t functioning properly. They’re not able to take up water. If you’re under watering it, then the water is just not there, so the roots begin to die off and they’re not able to take that water up, but if you’re over-watering it, then the roots become anaerobic. They don’t have enough oxygen and so the roots begin to die off and they can’t take up water. That’s why it looks similar, but usually if your roots are becoming anaerobic, it’s being overwatered, then you can just feel the soil. If it’s still wet, then it just really needs to dry off. You might need to pull your plant out and repot it, but usually just changing the watering regime is good enough. You can’t also have incorrect light. If your plant is yellowing, it’s not getting enough sun. If it’s being scorched, if it looks like it’s being burned, like there’s brown spots on the leaves, then it might be getting too much sun. That’s the run through of issues. Some of the best practices to avoid these issues, always consider your environment when deciding which plant to get. We talked about this in the vegetable gardening episode as well. Don’t get a full sun plant if you’re planning on putting it under a fluorescent light. Don’t get a partial sun plant and put it next to a window, it will get scorched. Consider how often you want to be watering your plants. Think about your own preferences with how you want to be interacting with your plants. Always plant it correctly.

You want to make sure that your root ball is higher up in the pot. This is one of the main mistakes that I see people make. With houseplants is they plant the root ball too low and then it’s hard to get oxygen into the root ball zone. Make sure it’s planted nice and high up in the pot.

Chris: The root ball, I guess is just the roots of the plant and if it’s too low, it can’t get oxygen. Which sounds weird. I don’t understand why that is.

Hallie: Well, I mean, we’ve talked about soil in the past. Potting soil is different from ground soil obviously, but potting soil still has a lot of oxygen in the roots. The soil in the ground is like 50% pore space, usually. Potting soil usually has a little bit more than that, but our plants are used to growing in soil in the ground and so they need that pore space. Usually, it’ll get filled up with water and then the water will drain quickly and then it will get filled up with air again. If you don’t have air in your root zone, then you get, like I was talking about earlier, you can get anaerobic conditions with your roots.

Chris: Got it.

Hallie: If they’re not getting enough water, then the roots can begin to rot. You can begin to have fungal issues. You need to have some air movement, which does not seem intuitive it’s true, but it’s still important for good plant health. The exception is if you’re growing something hydroponically, obviously it’s already anaerobic, but it’s a different situation. Make sure you’re always using high quality compost and/or a good potting soil or core or whatever you’re using.

If you’re planting in a jar or a mug or a cup or something without drainage, you can do that, but you will need to repot the plant regularly at least once a year. If you plant it in a pot, you might start to see like a white crust appear on the top of your potting soil. That’s salts building up from your tap water. Tap water is not purified. If you water your plants with like 100% purified bottled water, then you won’t see that, but it’s a waste. It’s fine. It’s not hurting the plant, but it can become unsightly. It can be a good practice to repot once in a while after you start to see that salt buildup.

Chris: You keep talking about repotting, is this like an as needed thing or should you report periodically? You were talking about, I guess the mugs and cups and jar plants repot at least once a year as a good guideline.

Hallie: Other than that it’s as needed. Honestly, you could have plants in the same pot for decades and they can do fine. One trick if you’re dealing with bigger plants, it can be easier to leave them in like the plastic pots that you get at the store just because if you need to repot them, you can really easily cut those pots out. If you just take that flimsy plastic pot and put it whole hog into like a nicer looking planter, but not actually replant it into the planter. Those planters can be super heavy. If a bigger plant needs to be repotted and it’s like planted into the planter, it can just be a real pain to get that done. That’s one of the main issues I think with repotting is if they’re really big, so it might just be easier do that, but yeah, other than that, it’s just as needed. There’s not always a regime. Some plants need more maintenance in repotting, but it’s got to be like a plant by plant rule. There’s not kind of a rule of thumb that you can go by.

Chris: Not even a green thumb.

Hallie: Not even a rule of green rule of thumb.

Chris: Green rule of thumb.

Hallie: [Laughs]. That’s pretty much it for tropical houseplants. I also included a little bit at the end. If you want to be doing like food crops indoors, pretty much always, they will need a lot more light so you can buy grow lights. You can just use any fluorescent or led bulb and usually it says like how many lumens they are, and there’s really helpful resources online for knowing how bright you want a light to be a grow light. I would opt for led if you’re between fluorescent led, because fluorescents can get really hot, which unless you’re growing something like, I don’t know, peppers or tomatoes or something that you probably won’t want, especially if your plants are growing up and they might end up touching the bulbs, that can be really damaging to the leaves if they end up touching like a hot fluorescent bulb, but yeah, you can grow whatever you want inside. Why not?

Chris: All right. So grow something. There’s some maintenance, but it sounds pretty easy and it’ll make you a happier, better person in the end.

Hallie: Yeah.

[Background music].

Chris: Thanks for listening to this episode of One to Grow On.

Hallie: This show is made by me, Hallie Casey and Chris Casey. Our music is Something Elated by Broke for Free.

Chris: If you’d like to connect with us, follow us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook at One to Grow On Pod or join our Discord and Facebook communities and leaf us your thoughts on this episode.

Hallie: You can find all of our episodes and transcripts as well as information about the team and the show on our website, onetogrowonpod.com.

Chris: Help us take root and grow organically by recommending the show to your friends or consider donating to our Patreon at patreon.com/onetogrowonpod. There, you can get access to audio extras, fascinating follow-ups, exclusive bonus content and boxes of our favorite goodies.

Hallie: If you liked the show, please share it with a friend. Sharing is the best way to help us reach more ears.

Chris: Be sure to see what’s sprouting in two weeks.

Hallie: But until then, keep on growing.

[Background music].

A silver dollar plant in a pot

40: Houseplants

In this episode, Hallie and Chris discuss houseplants. They discuss a brief history of houseplants, as well as some of Hallie’s favorite varieties and tips for keeping them! Also, Hallie clearly knows much more about Girls Scout cookies than Chris does.

Read the full episode transcript.

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About us
One to Grow On is a podcast that digs into the questions you have about agriculture and tries to understand the impacts of food production on us and our world. We explore fascinating topics including food, gardening, and plant sciences. One to Grow On is hosted by Hallie Casey and Chris Casey, and is produced by Catherine Arjet and Hallie Casey. Show art is by Ashe Walker. Music is “Something Elated” by Broke For Free licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license.
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