47: Superfoods VI – Wild Rice, Spirulina, Kombucha, and Acerola

More superfoods! Will wild rice, spirulina, kombucha, or acerola be caped? Will you please vote? Will you wear kombucha scoby?

Wonder Woman kombucha: https://hackspace.raspberrypi.org/articles/wonder-woman-cosplay-made-from-kombucha
Native Wild Rice Coalition: http://www.nativewildricecoalition.com/

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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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46: New Farmers with Marcus Coleman 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 new farmers with Marcus Coleman.

[Background music].

Hallie: Thank you so much for joining us today.

Marcus: Absolutely. I’m glad to be here. It’s an awesome opportunity.

Chris: Yeah, thanks. It’s great to meet you.

Marcus: Oh, good. You guys are over in Texas, correct?

Chris: Yes, sir.

Hallie: [Laughs].

Marcus: I think it was supposed to be last week LSU was supposed to be playing University of Texas. I wish we had that lead and go into that.

It would have been even a greater conversation, maybe a little trash talking if you pull a longboard advance, but we’ll keep it rolling with the ag, right?

Chris: Yeah, I have a feeling it would have gotten a lot better for you than it would have for us, but I see where you’re coming from.

Marcus: It’s all like a smart man.

Chris: [Laughs].

Marcus: Go tigers, right? [Laughs]. No, it’s great. Here in LSU, I work in the ag center. I run a beginning farmer training program. I’m wrapping up my PhD. I’m a football fan. Did I mentioned that I was a football fan but the saints played Unites all right here in South Louisiana?

Hallie: [Laughs].

Marcus: I’m looking forward to the rest of the day.

Chris: But are you a football fan?

Marcus: A little bit.

[Laughter].

Marcus: I think I watch it may be like once a day, whether it’s like a game or ESPN or whatever the case is. I try to get just a little bit to keep my day rolling.

Chris: Let me ask you real quick. How do you feel about them being back really? Is it like, I’m so glad I get to watch football or, okay, well, here they are. I guess I’ll go ahead and watch it.

Marcus: It depends on what hat I put on. My college football fan hat, I’m excited about it particularly for SSC football, the greatest football in the country. For a while, I did some work with the football team here. I’ve helped to run a couple of morning study halls, so I’m excited to see the young men that I’ve worked with get back on the field and run through the rest of the SSC and anybody else that gets in their way. But at a certain point it’s like, it was just so much talking about it. Well, maybe they’ll play it, maybe they won’t. It’s kind of like you know what? I guess I’ll watch, but I’m a little bit more excitement about that little everything.

Chris: Fair enough.

Hallie: As I interrupt the football talk, but I did actually invite Marcus here to talk about agriculture.

Chris: [Laughs].

Marcus: Well, certainly. Ag is my passion.

I grew up in rural Northeast Louisiana Tensas Parish in the Mississippi Delta. Tensas, Madison and East Carroll parishes here in Louisiana are probably recognized as the three port parishes in the state, but those three parishes are dominated by agriculture production of commodity crops. We grow a lot of corn and soybeans in Hatton in that corner of the state and so agriculture is what I saw growing up. In fact, I was up in that corner of the state. This weekend, they’re getting ready to [inaudible] prevention and I was joking with some friends that there’s no greatest smell in the air than the foliation chemicals being sprayed on [inaudible] for production. I still had it sitting in my nose from the weekend trip, but that kind of reminded me of my childhood. The other part of it why I’m interested in doing farmer access and food access work was because growing up in that environment of the state, I saw big [inaudible]. I saw large commodities production and added it with my background of who I was. I didn’t have access to land. I didn’t have access to those capital resource to engage in agriculture at that level of production. Throughout my career, I’ve looked for ways to provide opportunities for everybody to be engaged in agriculture, so agriculture and the admin system. Whether it’s somebody growing on an eighth of an acre to somebody growing a hundred acres to sell directly to farmer’s market or CSA or sell directly to a grocery store, those are the things that I’m interested in and those are things that I saw a hole in my community growing up, so it’s exciting to be able to do this work now.

Hallie: How did you get to do this work? It sounds like you grew up in a rural area, but did you grow up on a farm?

Marcus: No, it all started at a football stadium. No, I’m joking.

Hallie: Really?

[Laughter].

Marcus: I grew up in a small rural town. I didn’t grow up on a farm, but there was a cotton field 50 yards down the street from our house and anybody familiar with rural towns and rural communities know that you either live in town or out in the country, right? I lived in the town and so agriculture was just something that I was around between old enough before we became totally mechanized in agriculture where in this case I grew up when we still had summer jobs, chopping and cutting and making $200 a week and use that money throughout the summer. I get money throughout the summer before the school opens. I had an introduction to production in agriculture ever since I was a small child, but seeing that level of hard work, sweating in the hot sun, it let me know that production in agriculture may not have been a thing for me, so that’s why I decided to get into the educational side of it.

Hallie: You run the Grow Louisiana program, right?

Marcus: Yes, I am the program director, correct.

Hallie: Can you tell me a little bit about that program?

Marcus: The Grow Louisiana Beginning Farmer Training Program is an extension program.

It’s funded by the USDA Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program. We’re coming up on the third year of this project, but we focus on four crops and specialty crops and so growing fruits and vegetables or micro greens, or other products that primarily offer market farmers or market gardens that people can sell at farmer’s market has been our clientele that we work with, but the program we focus on is from technical aspects of production all the way to business development and business training. My key thing that I’m interested in is when we’re working with farmers and we’re working with farmers that are interested in selling more direct to consumer is making sure that you’re treating your farming operation like a business. When folks come through our program, we try to measure if they have a business plan, a marketing plan. Be able to think through those processes just like they were developing any other business. Put that same amount of effort or two in your thought process into developing your farm business. We’ve had a cohort down in New Orleans. Our first cohort was in New Orleans in 2019. This year we moved over to Lafayette, Louisiana and we’re getting ready to kick off a cohort here in Baton Rouge. Folks we work with are people that have no farming experience to folks that come in with some experience working on a farm somewhere and so our message to them is very simple. Whether you have a 0.1 or an eighth of an acre, or 250 acres, we can transform you into a productive farmer in this food system.

Chris: Earlier you were talking about working with students in some capacity with your job at the university, but this sounds like you work with farmers in the community. You just do a little bit of everything it sounds like?

Marcus: Man, you know what? I’m a jack of all trades.

Chris: Here you go.

Marcus: [Laughs]. This particular program is an institution program. It focuses on folks out in the community. In our first two cohorts, we had 18 people in each one of those cohorts. The only requirement is that you be a new and beginning farmer, meaning that you have no experience or you have less than 10 experience in farming and you can put together a compelling enough story to convince us why you’re going to be a successful farmer. All of those folks come from or out in the community, but also I’m also on the faculty at Southern university, which is an 1890 land grant here where I teach agricultural market. I wear several different hats.

Chris: Got it. You also said something about 0.1 acres, which doesn’t sound like a whole lot of land. What do you tell someone with 0.1 acres to do?

Marcus: When you’re growing that small is typically a high turnover, high labor intensive crops. For example, I’ll use an eighth of an acre as an example. We have some folks that have grown on an eighth of an acre down in New Orleans and have a significant revenue potential of what they’re doing, but they grow specialty crops and its high turnover. They grow micro greens and things like that. Whether it’s a two or three week turn around when they pull one crop out of the field, they’d be putting another crop back in the field, so it’s highly labor intensive. But it’s all about understanding what you can do, but also understand what your market demands. Using that small of an acreage to be successful is using some profits of high turnover consistent rotation and the things growing in the field and folks have been good.

With that type of scale, you’re not going to grow that your local grocery chain likely, but you can set up a shop at the local farmer’s market and folks have been very successful at doing that.

Hallie: I’m curious, what kind of folks you have come through your program? Is there any common denominator that you see usually they’re this kind of person with this kind of background or anything like that?

Marcus: The number one thing that I get from our participants is they are interested in providing healthy and sustainable food to their local communities whether that’s somebody that has experience or have not had experience. That is usually the common denominator. With our Baton Rouge cohort, the majority of the people I’d say 75% of the people that applied to be in the program, had zero farming experience. They come from zero farming background. They don’t have a degree in agriculture, but they understand the food system and they want to be involved in the food system and they want to grow food to service their community. That’s the level of demand right now that I’m seeing here in particular in the Southeast region of Louisiana, but in that other 25% that’s represented over, some have been farm workers and worked on small scale operations whether it’s through vegetables or other different types of crops, so they have some experience. We have some folks that have access to land and want to figure out what to do with their land, but need some better direction as to what to do with the 10 acres of land that grandma left them and so we try to help those put together a plan of action to do something productive with that land.

We also try to partner folks, so if there are people in the program that have zero experience and say that they live in an apartment and they don’t have access to land, how about we partner you with someone else in the cohort so you can get the experience that you need, but also that person that has the land can get the help that they need to develop the land. Farmer networking is big. The cohort model that we use of bringing everybody together as one is what worked really well for us and they end up training each other and providing opportunities for one another, so that’s been really exciting.

Chris: That’s fantastic. Yeah, one of the things I’ve definitely learned in the past, I don’t know, even just a year or two, is that networking is one of your most important assets. You also mentioned sustainability and I think one of the things that really amuses Hallie is when I actually remember things that we talked about in the past and one of the things that we’ve talked about is sustainability is one of those words that can mean a lot of things to different people. When someone says they want to farm sustainably, what does that mean to you or what do you try to teach them to do that?

Marcus: We use a three modeling approach if you will. First, developing a sustainable business and when I say sustainable business practice, I mean something that’s going to be around for the long term, which means developing goals and objectives about where you want to be in one to three to five to 10 years as a business. We try to spend time talking about that. From a sole management perspective, how are you being a good steward of the land that you’ve managed, a land that you own? Good soil management practices can help with the overall efficiency of your crop, so talking about that.

That can be no till to minimal till to proper cover cropping to proper fertilization. All of those things go into play when you’re talking about good soil management and then when we talk about production management, making sure that they understand that if you can take it from production standpoint, are you being a good steward of the environment? If you’re producing crops, are you using things like pesticides? If you are, are they organic pesticides? If you’re using synthetic pesticides, how do you properly apply those things to be a good steward of the environment with your production management practices? It’s something that for me has been evolving over time as I’ve talked to different people and I’ve learned more from a community perspective of what they need or what they want as sustainable agricultural practices. We try to be very broad-based in what we talk to folks, but what I tell our participants and what I tell the folks in the community when we talk to them is that sustainability is something that, like you say, it has different meanings for different people, but if I’m a producer, what matters to me, what my end crop is, is what my consumer needs to be sustainable. We try to use business sort of production manage, but also understanding the consumer has a mean of defining sustainability for each one of our participants individually because that sustainability thing defines purpose.

Chris: Do you find that once people get started, they tend to stick around for a while?

Marcus: Some. In our first cohort, we’ve had some people that realized that agriculture and farming is hard work.

Chris: Oh, boy.

Marcus: I guess they thought that they could just go hang out at a tree and sip lemonade and live their life, right?

[Laughter].

Marcus: But you got to get a little sweaty that’s involved. Seeing that allowed us to change how we taught in our program to talk more about the realities of farming and what farming and agriculture really looked like and the amount of work and labor that goes into being productive. We’ve talked more about that upfront with folks. Since COVID has happened, we’ve seen an increase. There was a Gallup poll that came out a few weeks ago that talked about how interest in agriculture and food system has increased over the past several months. But inherent in that increase is full lack of understanding of what actually goes into agriculture, so we make a point of effort to talk about what the realities are in farming and that’s actually led us to put together free webinars talking about the realities of farming. Folks say that they’re interested, but if you’re interested, I don’t necessarily want to chop your interest per se, but I want you to understand what it is that you’re interested in. That’s been the one I think barrier for folks is leaving or not being successful once they leave the program like this because they get a full understanding of what’s required of them.

Hallie: What are the other barriers you see to people who want to start farming to people who don’t have much farming experience and how do you get started? What are the things standing in your way?

Marcus: From a business standpoint, two things are worth here. One, access to land and two, access to capital resources, whether that’s loans and the things to buy. The equipment that’s necessary that’s often a barrier. The good starting point for people I tell you, if you have access to land, whether that’s a small backyard where you can start off with a small backyard garden, just get started. I’ve spent probably the last year and a half traveling around to different meetings and conferences around the country where I’ve been able to engage with farmers and that’s oftentimes the thing that they say just get started. If you have a small backyard to start off and find let’s say where you’re just starting the process of growing, start there. I mean, just get your fingers in the soil. As you begin to perfect your trade, that’s when you can begin to look at how to go into other areas. Do I need to get more land? Is this even for me? Understanding what programs are available. Do I need to build a relationship with the land bank? Do I need to build a relationship with a local bank or try and figure out what programs the USDA has offered? But just get started. If you had asked me say 15 years ago, if somebody growing on an eighth of an acre or even a half an acre, can bring in $100,000 of revenue in a year from growing on that half an acre, I would’ve looked at you and laugh because I come from a community background where if you weren’t growing several hundred acres, that’s not a farm, right? But by engagement with farmers, I’m learning that you start with what you have. There was a story that I got of a farmer that I met in North Carolina who started out with half an acre and eventually rented it and acquired to I think it was like 10 acres and I think he grew to having 80 acres finally within North Carolina, but that was a 10 to 15 year process of growing in it. He was in construction, so his background was construction. He was construction full-time and farming part-time.

As he became better at the farming side of it, he eventually walked away from the construction side of it and went into farming full time, but it was a process of learning the craft and the trade and the skill of farming in order to perfect what he was doing. Then he scaled up as he could manage it more. He eventually as recent as last year was buying a plot of land in Dominican Republic. He was going to grow avocados or something like that in the Dominican and import them back to the United States himself. That brother had a plan to do that and his background was no different than anybody else who may be interested in agriculture. He just had the will to get started with what he had.

Chris: I’m sorry and keep in mind that I really know nothing about the economics of agriculture, but did you say $100,000 on half an acre?

Marcus: On half an acre.

Chris: Wow.

Marcus: Rotational vegetables and specialty crops. Now, as a revenue and I’m talking about profitability.

Chris: Got it.

Marcus: We move different balls but just the amount of money coming in.

Chris: Sure.

Marcus: You also have to think about it too. When a farmer is selling directly at a farmer’s market, you can often charge a higher price than you would selling at a retail setting, like a grocery store. Also depending on the farmer’s market that you have, you may have a higher income clientele who are willing to pay a higher price point for that more locally produced goods and so it just depends on the market setting, but there’s one farm that I worked with here locally that makes about $100,000 in revenue from the operations a year and that was like in their first or second year starting up.

Chris: Nice.

Marcus: When you think about it, they’re there day in and day out farming. If we get a hailstorm that comes in and damages their crop, they immediately have to flip their crop, put another crop in the ground so they can consistently have their revenue underneath. The closest thing that you can associate farming and agriculture to is gambling.

Chris: Wow.

Marcus: Because you put yourself in the ground and you don’t know what you’re going to get back, right?

Chris: Well, that’s for sure.

Marcus: No, it’s been an interesting process. I’m teaching some of these things, but I’m also learning from these things because since I’ve been engaged in this area for let’s say the past two and a half years, it’s changed how I’ve taught even my undergraduate level college courses. We’ve talked more about the directness. That’s been pretty cool. I’m the student here, right?

Chris: Well, are the people you’re working with, are they all coming to you or are you also trying to recruit people?

Marcus: The first cohort, we put a call out for applications and they came to us. With this last cohort we put a call out, but we were more specific in recruiting people. Working with our local extension agents to say, “Hey, do you have any person who is interested in farming who may need training?” Or just looking at our community partners and our community organizations that are doing local food system work and providing them some technical assistance to assist in training the farmers in small scale and the new and beginning farmers that they may be working with. It’s about building those relationships in the community. For me, that’s the fun part.

[Background music].

Chris: Welcome to the break.

Hallie: Hello.

Chris: Hello.

Hallie: I would like to encourage all of our listeners today or tomorrow, I guess if you’re listening to this tomorrow, but as soon as possible to go online and double-check your voter registration. There are a lot of reasons why you might have become unregistered or perhaps you’ve moved and you’ve got to update your voter registration.

Chris: Or maybe somehow you just mysteriously fell off the voter rolls.

Hallie: There are a lot of things that happen by mistake or on purpose, where people get removed from voter rolls, so I highly recommend that you go online and you double check because most voter registration deadlines are coming up soon. In some places early voting is going to be opening soon and so I highly, highly recommend everyone to vote as early as you can, but with a friend, create a voting plan, let’s vote.

Chris: V-O-T-E. Make life good for bumblebees. Vote [claps]. Vote [claps].

Hallie: That was amazing. Yeah, that was so good.

Chris: I don’t know if voting actually improves the lives of bumblebees, but I mean, you can’t improve the lives of bumblebees without voting that’s for sure.

Hallie: Absolutely.

Other than by planting native flowers for pollinators, which you should also do as well as voting, but let’s do both.

Chris: Do you know who I bet will vote for sure?

Hallie: Who will plant flowers for pollinators?

Chris: We hope is our patrons, especially our starfruit patrons, Vikram, Lindsay, Mama Casey, Patrick, and Shianne. Thank you so much for supporting us. We couldn’t do this without you and thank you for voting. Back to the episode.

Hallie: Back to the episode.

[Background music].

Hallie: I’m curious if you go to a party and you talk to folks who don’t know anything about agriculture, how do you explain the importance of your work with new and beginning farmers?

Marcus: At the end of the day, the most important thing is you got to eat, right? What you eat, how you eat and how much you eat comes from different shapes, sizes and forms of farming, but from an economic development standpoint, farming can be just as lucrative as anything else that anybody wants to get involved with.

If I’m talking to people about farming and people are looking for an opportunity to run a successful business, that’s how I’m just looking at it from a farming standpoint because at the end of the day, farming is one of the only businesses or industries in the world where you have a consistent denominator and at the top is that people got to eat and that’s not going to change. As long as there’s miles to be fair, there’s opportunity for people to engage in farming.

Hallie: I love that.

Marcus: I like to eat too. They can grow and farm and grow stuff and I’ll come buy it from them. There’s always a consumer base and I’ll be the first consumer, right?

Hallie: [Laughs].

Chris: It’s one of life’s great pleasures that’s for sure.

Marcus: Farming can also be like an art, right? If let’s say you’re small scale farming, so you’re growing tomatoes and the various varieties of tomatoes, some peppers, some different varieties of micro greens and lettuces and things like that, so you take those very small seeds and you put them in a transplant, you put the transplant in the ground and grow those transplants or those seedlings out to a product that a person can eat. When you take that product to the marketplace, you’re selling direct say at a farmer’s market and you’ve established this relationship with your consumer, you now get to tell the consumer or the customer the story about that lettuce and tomato that they bought from you that they’re going to put in a salad on their table later today. You get to tell that customer the story about the food they were eating. That’s an opportunity that you don’t get when you go to the grocery store and so that’s one area of benefit from small scale farming is that if you’re selling direct and your dirt hands on with your production process, you get to meet and talk to your customer and tell them the story of the food that they eat. That’s an art in itself.

Chris: You know, this is the same thing I’ve heard. We did a series on local food and we heard that as a benefit for the customer and Hallie, you’ve talked about this before, where you go to a farmer’s market and you can just ask the farmer what their growing practices are and this is the first time I’ve heard it as a benefit from the farmer’s side as well about how you get to do this and you get to tell your story of how you created this thing.

Marcus: If you pay attention to say Apple, when Apple puts out a new iPhone and the guy gets on the stage and tells this whole story about how nice and all the features in this new iPhone or an Apple watch or whatever product they have coming up, they get on the stage and they tell the story to entice the consumer to buy the product. But they feel good about the story they’re telling. There’s no difference and problem here. When you tell the story, it’s gratifying to know that someone cares about what it is that you do and that’s a level of satisfaction that most farmers at a farmer’s market get that and they enjoy that engagement with their customers.

Chris: I do in fact watch those videos. [Laughs].

Marcus: See. You know what I’m talking about.

When you probably get the iPhone 15, it’s like written on death to order, right?

Chris: That’s true too. Yeah. [Laughs].

Hallie: We’ve been talking a lot about specialty crops and I mean, I’m from Texas. I don’t know that much about Louisiana, but is that something that has historically been grown in your area or is that changing now?

Marcus: I would say there’s an opportunity here. Depending on what corner of the state you’re from, we’ve been a commodities heavy state local thing. We do have some folks that are growing fruits and vegetables here in the state, but we’re probably behind the eight ball on other states and there’re various reasons for that. If you grew up in the Northeast corner of the state like me, you knew cotton corn, soy beans and a few other things. If you’re growing south central, you’re looking at sugar cane. If you’re southwest, you’re looking at rice production, crawfish production, but there’s opportunity here to grow other things and there’s a market potential and market demand for a lot of these crops. If you look at a lot of your traditional farmers in the state, they’re very set on the crops they want to grow and they’re not interested in growing a lot of these other crops, like the various kinds of specialty crops. That provides an opportunity for your beginning folks to engage because there’s a marketplace. Not only is there a marketplace at farmer’s markets in the development of CSA models to sell direct to consumers, but a lot more localized grocery chains are looking for food that is grown wholesale to the consumers because it’s a marketing tool for that. They can put this locally grown, say cucumber in their store with the picture of the farmer that came from 20 miles down the road.

That’s perfect marketing programs and so there are just many opportunities within the state in Louisiana for specialty crops. The marketplace in New Orleans has caught on a lot quicker than other areas of the state. New Orleans, as a city, as a salad in itself, I wouldn’t say a melting pot. It’s a salad because there’re many different people that are mixed into the city and they each bring their own value individually to make the city great. They’ve called into their local foods movement more quickly than other areas of the state and so now we’re seeing some level of demand for local food expand to other areas of the state. The problem is we got to have people to supply that demand for those products and so that’s why programs like this are important and that’s why a lot of the work now that I’m doing as a complement to our training program is to show that there is one demand for more locally grown foods and two, that there’s opportunities, economic development opportunities in agriculture for the production of specialty crops.

Chris: What are you excited about right now in food systems and agriculture?

Marcus: I’m just excited to be able to provide people an opportunity to engage in something that I’m passionate about. If somebody provided me an opportunity to do what it is that I love to do and so if there are people passionate about getting engaged in farming in the food system, I’m excited to be able to provide them an opportunity. From an extension standpoint and from a traditional agriculture standpoint, a lot of these folks don’t look like are traditional folks. They come from rural towns and grew up on a farm. They’re just everyday folks that are just looking to make their communities better. If we can provide them an opportunity to do those things and to be successful in those things, let’s do it. I’m just excited to be right there in the game alongside of them including helping to push them along to make them successful.

Chris: Of any of our episodes, this is the most where I’ve heard in a lot of ways, agriculture is just so much about the people that are involved and that are in there doing it.

Marcus: It is and that’s something that I’ve had to learn over time because from a production standpoint, but also from a retailer standpoint, you’re just so used to large scale farms and you’re used to just being able to go to the grocery store and just get whatever you need and not really have that connection. But when you think about agriculture at this core and in most things that we do, whether it’s our families, whether it’s our friends or whoever, when we come together, we come together around food. Food is like there’s a great come together thing. It’s like this great food that brings people together. Here in South Louisiana from about March to July, we’re big on crawfish. We have crawfish balls pre COVID. We have these big crawfish balls in our backyard and invite 20, 30 of our family and friends over who just come together, eat crawfish, bring some cold wars and have a good time in the backyard. Food has always served as the come together role for people. Now everything that is happening with local foods. The expansion of farmer’s markets in different areas, it’s bringing people together again and it’s allowing people to have conversations that they wouldn’t have had before, but typically around the food that they’re eating and where it came from. That level of people wanting to know about their food, we haven’t had that in decades. You talk to kids now and you ask them where eggs come from, they tell you Walmart.

Chris: Says Walmart chickens. [Laughs].

Marcus: There’s all of that in that warehouse of the store. You just can’t see them.

Hallie: [Laughs].

Marcus: Definitely those Walmart chickens.

Chris: I don’t think those are cage-free.

Marcus: No, they’re more like a 22 a box kind of [inaudible].

[Laughter].

Hallie: Marcus, thank you so much for taking the time today and joining us on the show. Is there anything that you want to leave listeners with or anywhere that you’d like to point anyone who’s interested in learning more about you and your work?

Marcus: For anybody that’s interested in farming in agriculture and getting engaged in the food system, I’d say just get started. You don’t need a degree to grow things. If you have a balcony, if you have a backyard, just start off with a pack and try and grow some. Go to a local Walmart or a local C-store or a local nursery in your community and see what the seeds they have available and just start growing stuff. Just start getting your fingers in the soil and becoming more of the soil and seeing if that is truly something you enjoy. You can’t win a football game unless you kick off and kick it off at the beginning of the football game.

Hallie: [Laughs].

Marcus: The kickoff into agriculture and the food system is just to start growing stuff. Once you do that, you can figure out the rest. The USDA has a number of resources for new and beginning farmers that you can check out. There are also many non-profit organizations in different areas that support new and farmers beginning agriculture and the food system. Just get started. Don’t waste time. Just do it like Nike, just do it and see if it’s definitely for you.

Hallie: Amazing. Thank you so much.

Marcus: No, this has been great and thank you for having me for this conversation.

Chris: Thank you Marcus and hook them horns.

Marcus: Hey, go tigers.

[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].


46: New Farmers with Marcus Coleman

This week we discuss issues facing people who want to start out in the farming industry with Marcus Coleman, Program Director for the Grow Louisiana Beginning Farmer Training Program at the Louisiana State University AgCenter. Also, VOTE FOR BEES!!!

Read this transcript for this 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.
onetogrowonpod.com

plant cells

45: How Plants Use Water 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 finally talking about how plants use water.

[Background music].

Hallie: You have been asking me this question for a little while.

Chris: It’s true and we did like what? 10 episodes on water or two or four or something. I don’t know.

Hallie: Only two.

Chris: Okay. We did not answer this question and now we can answer this question and I assume I’ve heard of xylem and phloem, which are the things in the trees and water goes up, water comes down, never a miscommunication.

Hallie: [Laughs]. Yeah, we’re going to be talking about mostly four different roles that water plays in plants and how they work. This is not completely everything that goes on in a plant that involves water because plants are mostly water.

There is a lot that goes on, but these are like the four begins.

Chris: Are they mostly water the same way that we are mostly water?

Hallie: The same way that most things are mostly water, yeah.

Chris: Most of the plant is mostly water. Okay.

Hallie: The first one we’re going to be talking about is structure. Dad, do you know what makes plants stand up?

Chris: Presumably, fiber that our doctors keep telling us to eat.

Hallie: Right. Humans have bones. Bones is what makes us be able to stand up and things like that, but plants do not have bones.

Chris: That would be super creepy if there were a plant with bones, super creepy.

Hallie: Yes, for some plants, it is cell walls. For some plants, it’s not cell walls. Do you know which plants it’s not cell walls for?

Chris: No, bananas would have to be cell walls. I don’t know. What do you even mean? What are you asking me? Like plants that stand up, but not because of their cell walls?

Hallie: We’ve talked about this a little bit in the past. There are different ways we categorize plants, right? One of the ways is between woody plants and herbaceous plants.

Chris: Got it. Are you going to tell me that the woody plants is not their cell walls, but I would argue that woody tissue is still some sort of cell wall. I don’t know.

Hallie: The main thing that keeps woody plants standing up is something called lignin.

Chris: Oh, lignin. I forgot about lignin.

Hallie: Your old friend lignin.

Chris: That’s right. For the listener who hasn’t listened to an episode where we have defined lignin. Lignin is?

Hallie: Oh me?

Chris: Yeah, you.

Hallie: I thought you are going to give the definition of lignin.

Chris: I wish.

Hallie: Lignin is basically like, if you look at branches, trunks, it’s what makes sticks sticky. It’s kind of those crunchier little cells and it gives those trees structure. It’s what builds out woody material. Whereas when you look at something like a banana or a sunflower is a really good example of this, they typically don’t have a lot of that woody tissue and so the thing that is keeping them stood up is water.

Chris: It’s like that old joke. What’s brown and sticky? A lignin based plant structure.

Hallie: A stick with lignin.

[Laughter].

Hallie: We said cell walls, right? I just mentioned water. What do you know about plant cells?

Chris: I know they are cells.

Hallie: Yeah, true.

Chris: I guess for the ones on the outside it’s called cellulose. I don’t know why it’s called cellulose. I don’t know what cellulose is. I don’t know. I got nothing else.

Hallie: Do you know what the largest part of a plant cell is?

Chris: No.

Hallie: The largest part of a plant cell is what’s called the vacuole.

Chris: Okay. That’s a word that was probably on some worksheet in ninth grade biology.

Hallie: [Laughs]. The vacuole is basically the goo of it all. Within a plant cell, you’ve got a mitochondria or two. You have some chloroplasts. You have lots of different things in there. All of that is sitting within the goo of it all, which is the vacuole. We can kind of think about plant cells like a balloon or I guess more accurately like a water balloon, but it’s easier for us to think about it as an airfield balloon because those are the ones that we really see stretched out. A water field plant cell is usually pretty tight. If it’s filled all the way up, those walls are really sturdy. It has a lot of structure to it. It’s not caving in. If you put pressure on it, it’s able to kind of keep its shape. That’s similar to how a cell wall works in a plant if you have a full vacuole. That’s what’s called turgor pressure. It’s that pressure within a cell that’s blowing up those cells. It pushes those cell walls out and it lets the plant stand up, which is why, if a plant isn’t watered enough, it loses that turgor pressure and those cell walls start to collapse in on each other and then that’s when we start to see wilting. It’s because those cells aren’t able to fill up the balloons with all that water.

Chris: I almost feel like saying the vacuole is the largest part of the cell. It’s like saying the biggest part is the part that’s not there.

Hallie: Yeah, I know.

[Laughter].

Chris: Except that it’s goo that requires water to be present.

Hallie: Right. One of the really nice things about this for plants is that water is not a solid right. It lets plants be a lot more flexible. Of course, trees are not as flexible as little bitty flowers on the ground or grasses or things like that.

Chris: Sure.

Hallie: But having their structure being made up of water lets them be a lot more flexible for the wind and stuff. If wind comes along, it can blow about in the wind and it’s not going to be breaking because it has a lot more flexibility, which is great.

Chris: Okay.

Hallie: That’s the number one thing that plants use water for. That’s like the thing that a lot of the water is. Most of the water in plants is within the vacuole. Another thing that plants use water for is thermal regulation.

Chris: Staying not too hot, not too cold, but just right.

Hallie: Mostly not too hot. Water is not going to keep you super warm, generally speaking.

Chris: Fair enough. Staying cool in the summer.

Hallie: Yeah, staying cool in the summer. This is very important for plants. The plant type term is actually called transpiration. Transpiration is the thing that keeps plants cool. It’s them losing that water off of their leaves. It’s like when we sweat. When you lose that water, the energy it takes to have that water evaporate pulls heat energy off of the plant.

Chris: Right. Heat of evaporation, good stuff.

Hallie: Exactly. This happens through the xylem, which you mentioned earlier.

Chris: Okay. What is that?

Hallie: How much do you know about the xylem?

Chris: I know it’s not the phloem.

Hallie: Is that it?

Chris: That’s it. I think one goes up. One goes down.

Hallie: That is very helpful. The xylem goes up. The xylem is different from the phloem in that the xylem is made up of dead cells, so there’s no actual energy. There’s no living cells that hold the water in the xylem. There’s no energy to move the water. It’s just dead cells and it’s what’s called passive transport.

Chris: Kind of like hair for the plant.

Hallie: Like hair?

Chris: Like hair. Hair’s dead cells, fingernails are dead cells. Now plants have like little fingernails type of stuff.

Hallie: Like how we lose our water through our hair.

Chris: I mean, maybe it doesn’t work quite the same way in animals.

Hallie: Like how our hair is little tubes of water.

Chris: Sure.

Hallie: Sorry, I keep thinking about tubes of hair water.

[Laughter].

Chris: Okay. Just to be clear, plants don’t have hair, but the thing that they do have called xylem is dead cells that transports water from the inside of the plant to the outside of the plant.

Hallie: You did just say plants don’t have hair, but in this section we are actually talking about two different types of hair that plants have.

Chris: Oh, great.

Hallie: Let’s look into that. In the soil, you have roots and on the main parts of the roots you have little root hairs. Root hairs are really, really small oftentimes they’re microscopic but they have a lot more surface area than the root itself, so most of the intake and output from the root system is actually happening on those root hairs.

Chris: Got it.

Hallie: The way that plants take up water, because again, there’s no energy expended to take up water is just a concentration gradient, which means that the water potential is lower inside of the root hairs than outside in the saturated soil. If there’s a puddle of water on the countertop and you have a dry sponge and you put that dry sponge in the teensiest bit in contact with that, that water is going to slowly move into the sponge, right?

Chris: Yeah, okay.

Hallie: That’s because of a concentration gradient. The water wants to be where water is not.

Chris: It’s exactly the same way in the root of the plant you’re saying.

Hallie: Well, I’m saying inside of the root hair there is going to be a lower water potential than outside. If you’ve just watered, the soil is fully saturated. There’s a lot of water out in the soil itself. That water is going to move to where water is not, which is inside of the root hair.

Chris: Right. The root hair functions the same way a sponge functions basically.

Hallie: In this case, yes. Water molecules H2O are cohesive, right?

Chris: Yes, they adhere to each other.

Hallie: They adhere to each other because they have those little hydrogen bonds. That’s why if you fill a cup up too much, you have a little bubble above the rim of the cup or it’s the same reason why you get droplets of water. It’s because those little molecules of water want to stick to each other. They have this cohesion property.

Chris: They’re like tiny magnets for each other.

Hallie: They’re like tiny little magnets. They love to stick together.

Chris: That’s why little bugs can skate across the ponds.

Hallie: Exactly. It’s the exact same reason. This is kind of wild, so prepare yourself. The way that transpiration works in a plant is you have the xylem. It’s these dead cells. It’s basically like a straw inside the plant. It goes all the way up to the leaves. The sun is shining or the wind is blowing and it pulls off a water molecule from the leaf. Every single water molecule within the plant is stuck together. They have those cohesive properties. As one water molecule gets pulled off of the leaf, it’s pulling one more up through the roots and into the stem. It’s like one big chain of links and it’s just slowly moving up through the plant.

Chris: That makes sense. This sounds similar. Not exactly the same, but similar to when you have a cup of water and you’re in a restaurant and you really want to know your parents, so you put the straw in the water and then you blow across the top of the straw and the water comes up the straw and out where you’re blowing. It sounds like a similar principle only you’re not using wind to do it. It’s just the pressure gradient is created by the fact that the water is exiting from the leaf and pulling out more.

Hallie: This does happen because of wind sometimes. The reasons why plants lose water are different reasons. It could just be there’s a really low humidity outside and so it’s being pulled out. There could be a high temperature. Sunshine could be evaporating the water or wind is something that can pull water out of a leaf.

There are different properties to a leaf to make it more or less likely that water will come out of the leaf. If they have a waxy cuticle, if they have more or fewer stemmata, which are like little pores, which is what the water actually comes out of or how open those pores are, they can be more or less open.

Chris: I’m sorry, you said waxy cuticle and now all I can think of is a plant like sitting in a chair getting a pedicure, getting the files down, talking to gossip and all those kind of stuff.

Hallie: That’s exactly what I mean.

Chris: What’s the cuticle on a plant?

Hallie: It’s something like if you think of the difference between a basil leaf versus like a holly leaf. A holly leaf has a really waxy cuticle because they kind of have that waxiness to them. They’re really thick. Basically, it just means that on top of the leaf skin, there is a really like thick layer of wax that’s protecting those pores from having water pulled out of them.

Chris: Got it.

Hallie: Another good example is like succulents. If you have like a jade plant or something in your house, then those have pretty waxy cuticles usually. But another difference could be the leaf size or the leaf shape, whether or not the leaf is folded inward.

If you look at desert plants, then usually they have really, really small leaves because they’re less likely to be losing water through those and then another factor is actually the pubescent on the leaf. How much pubescent there is, which is like little bitty leaf hairs.

Chris: This is something that makes middle schoolers laugh hysterically I’m sure.

Hallie: I’m sure it is.

[Laughter].

Chris: All right.

Hallie: Maybe that’s why we don’t teach plant anatomy to middle schoolers.

Chris: Maybe so.

Hallie: But yeah, we were talking about hairs earlier. This is another way that have hairs. They have root hairs and they have leaf hairs. The leaf hairs are called pubescent.

Chris: I had no idea and these are ways for plants to release water.

Hallie: These are basically ways for plants to not release water.

If you’re an understory plant and you might not be getting a lot of water, maybe you’re a small little bush and you’re sitting next to a big tree, you might develop a lot of pubescent so that you can hold onto as much water as possible or if you’re out in the middle of a prairie and it’s really sunny and there’s not a lot of water to go around because you’re surrounded by all these hungry grasses, then maybe you develop really small leaves so that you’re not losing water whenever willy nilly so that you’re able to survive or you know we have live oaks here in Texas and we have really unpredictable rainstorms. We have a drier season and in the wetter season, usually our live oaks have these pretty waxy leaves, so they’re not losing water throughout that dry season.

Chris: A plant on a prairie is wetter when it’s hairy.

Hallie: [Laughs]. Great work, dad. Absolutely great work.

Chris: Thank you. I mean, it’s basically like an animal in the cold is hairier and they don’t lose as much heat. A plant in the shade has these pubescent and doesn’t lose as much water.

Hallie: Right. We have been talking about this from the beginning as a way to regulate temperature as well.

Chris: Got it.

Hallie: All accurate.

Chris: All right. Well, I think about these poor little plants when they do lose too much water, part of what they need other than more water is a break.

Hallie: Here we go.

[Background music].

Chris: Welcome to the break.

Hallie: Hello. I would like to talk to you about the census.

Chris: Why do you want to talk to people about the census? I mean, really.

Hallie: Well, if you live in the US once every 10 years, we do this big count of everyone living in the US and it’s extremely important for things like representative apportionment, which is how we decide what your political power as an area or region looks like or things like funding your schools and hospitals. The deadline to fill out the census is September 30th, 2020. It takes like two and a half minutes. It’s not a very long process and it’s extremely, extremely important. You don’t have to be a US citizen. All you have to be is living in the US. You don’t have to be a voting age. You don’t have to be anything like that. You should just be filling it out for your household. You can go to census2020.gov to fill out the census. It will not take you very long.

Chris: You know who I bet has filled out the census?

Hallie: Who’s that?

Chris: Our patrons, especially our starfruit patrons, Vikram, Lindsay, Mama Casey, Patrick, and Shianne. Thank you so much patrons. We can’t do this without you.

Hallie: All of our patrons, including and especially our starfruit patrons are absolutely amazing and we are so, so grateful for you all.

Chris: You’re all counted.

Hallie: In the census of our heart.

Chris: That’s right. [Laughs]. Back to the episode.

[Background music].

Hallie: We talked about thermal regulation. We talked about structure. Now, let’s talk about the use of water as a solvent. Plants use water as a solvent inside of the phloem.

Chris: All right and the phloem is down.

Hallie: Phloem is not the xylem. It is in fact both up and down.

Chris: Oh, all right. Xylem goes from the root to the leaf.

Hallie: There’s not another way it can go because it’s passive transport. Phloem is active cells, so there is actual energy that is expended because it is moving against a concentration gradient. The phloem moves things like glucose, amino acids, some nutrients. The xylem also moves some nutrients, but it does not move all of the nutrients. The main thing that the phloem is moving is these sugars and proteins.

Chris: Wouldn’t have known that plants need proteins, but, okay.

Hallie: Where did you think the proteins in the plants come from? We eat plants and they have protein.

Chris: That’s true. I never really thought about it. I thought maybe they could just build proteins. But to me, if you need proteins, it’s because you have muscles you got to build because you’re working out. You’re getting jacked. I’ve never seen a rose with a six pack.

Hallie: Plants do build proteins. They don’t eat other plants that have proteins in them. They just build them themselves. But usually they’re building them and then they have to go around to all the different cells because one of the main things that we use proteins for is things like DNA synthesizing.

Chris: Oh, that’s important.

Hallie: There are lots of important amino acids out there. Lots of important sugars as well, but every single cell has to have sugars and amino acids. You have these little cells they’re alive. They have to expend little ATPs, little energies as they’re moving these proteins and sugars around the plant because oftentimes they’re going against a concentration gradient. When we’re thinking about like a straw for the xylem, the phloem is more kind of a well, so like pulling something up with the well. You’re moving energy to get a resource out of somewhere and into somewhere else.

Chris: Xylem is like a straw. Phloem is like a well or like something with an active pump.

Hallie: Right.

Chris: Got it.

Hallie: That’s the third one. The fourth one is bio chemical reactions.

Chris: Chemical reactions are great.

Hallie: You’re a fan?

Chris: I am a fan. Good old chemistry.

Hallie: Cool. Do you know the reaction for photosynthesis? Don’t look at the notes.

Chris: I don’t, but I think it’s like glucose in light makes carbon dioxide in water or something like that.

Hallie: Well close, but no. If we think about how plants function, it’s actually carbon dioxide and water plus light makes glucose and oxygen. When we think about what plants are creating and giving off, the end product is that glucose they’re able to store and utilize and then the oxygen is coming off of the plant. We’re starting with the carbon dioxide. That’s what the plants are taking in and they’re also of course taking the water in from the roots. Then once you have energy from light, then they’re able to convert that into glucose and oxygen.

Chris: It’s weird to me that it’s synthesizing sugar from carbon dioxide and water because I mean, I never studied biochemical reactions I guess, but I don’t think of carbon dioxide and water as reactive, but I guess this is how we talk about plants taking carbon dioxide out of the air. I guess this is reaction where they do it and they make sugar for us to eat and for them to use and oxygen for us to breathe, which is very nice of them. Thank you, plants.

Hallie: Exactly. That’s how it works. Of course, that’s not just how it works and I don’t have time to go all the way into all the intricacies of the photochemical reactions that are happening throughout photosynthesis.

Chris: Sure.

Hallie: But I did want to talk about one example of where water comes into play because like you said, you don’t just like take a carbon dioxide molecule and a water molecule and you stick them together and you make sugar. There are a lot more biochemical reactions that have to go into it. I will link in the show notes an incredible comic that is made by a guy called Jay Hosler who’s a great science communicator. I was actually shown this comic when I was first learning about photosynthesis when I was in grad school and really trying to understand every single step of photosynthesis. This comic is like a little ant and a little bee and they jump inside of the plant and they walk you through photosynthesis in the most engaging way.

Chris: That sounds awesome.

Hallie: It’s great. I am going to link it in the show notes. I very strongly recommend anyone who’s interested to go check it out.

Chris: Why haven’t I rewritten something like this? Gosh.

Hallie: [Laughs]. In order to create the sugar and the oxygen you have to have water to be present. The xylem and the phloem are moving that water up and down the plant. How is the water actually used in the reaction of photosynthesis? Here’s one example. Inside of the plant, there are plant cells. Inside of a plant cell there are these things called chloroplasts.

Inside of chloroplasts, there are these little things that look like a stack of pancakes and they’re called thylakoids.

Chris: I like pancakes. That’s a word I’ve never heard before.

Hallie: The thylakoids is actually the thing that absorbs light during the photosynthetic reaction.

Chris: It’s like a little plant solar cell.

Hallie: Kind of like that. The part that actually grabs the light energy are what are called photosystems, which are inside of a single thylakoid. They’re basically clusters of chlorophyll molecules along the thylakoid membrane. There are two photosystems. There’s photosystem one and photosystem two. I’m going to talk just about photosystem two.

Chris: Oh, you’re going to make photosystem one pill all left.

Hallie: Listen, there’s a lot of steps to photosynthesis. It’s extremely complex. I’m amazed that plants do it every single second of the sunshiny day. It’s an amazing, amazing process. I cannot possibly walk through every single part of it because I do not understand it. It is so complex. It is so beautiful. It is so amazing.

Chris: Yet we eat them.

Hallie: I know. We eat them after they’ve made these beautiful sugars with this amazing miraculous process.

Chris: Thank you, plants.

Hallie: Photosystem two. What photosystem two does is it chops a water molecule into two hydrogens and an oxygen and an electron. The oxygen just jumps off and it gets given off as a waste product. It left the picture. Inside of the thylakoid pancake, one of the thylakoids is called a lumen. Inside of that lumen, it’s like the vacuole. It’s the inside part. Inside of that lumen, it’s chock full of hydrogens, which creates what’s called a proton gradient.

Chris: Ah, that’s a word I’ve heard before.

Hallie: What’s that?

Chris: It’s a proton gradient.

Hallie: Correct. Yes.

Chris: I did take a semester of biochemistry. It’s something I remember us talking about and areas of differing charge, basically.

Hallie: Exactly. That’s exactly what it is.

There are several different ways that plants use proton gradients. Here is an example of a proton gradient, but one of the things that they do with all these hydrogens, they have a bunch of them chock-a-block in the lumen. One of the things that they do is once you have 14 of these hydrogens to rub together, there’s an ATP synthase guy who’s able to go in there gets 14 hydrogens together, builds an ATP.

Chris: Wow.

Hallie: An ATP is adenosine triphosphate and it’s kind of known as what a lot of people refer to as molecular unit of currency. It’s basically what plants use whenever they need to expend energy. ATP is what’s used in the phloem when they’re trying to move nutrients, glucose, amino acids, all up and down. They have to use those ATPs to get that movement.

Chris: These little energy cell guys build the ATPs from the photosynthesis.

Hallie: Here’s one example. You need ATP in order to eventually build a glucose. Photosystem two has a water molecule chops it into half, gives off the oxygen as just a waste product, goes off, gets hooked up with another two, goes out into the atmosphere, we breathe it in. That’s great. But eventually you get 14 of those hydrogens, right? You’ve got one oxygen, two hydrogens. You go through that a couple of seven times or whatever. You get 14 hydrogens and then you get an ATP. That’s one example of one of the many steps in photosynthesis. It’s not comprehensive. Water is used a lot of other places in photosynthesis, but there’s one example.

Chris: Nice. It’s the miracle of life.

Hallie: The miracle of photosynthetic life. The miracle of it. It’s amazing. I love plants.

Chris: It sounds pretty amazing. I think we’ll need to talk about photosynthesis more in another episode.

Hallie: We can do that. Do you want to do a little summary?

Chris: No. I mean, that was a lot. Plants need water to stay cool and to move nutrients and to make energy and oxygen for us to breathe. Everyone, make sure the plants get water.

Hallie: Water your plants, friends.

Chris: Water your plants, friends and water your plant friends. Plants are friends and food.

[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 sprouting in two weeks.

Hallie: But until then keep on growing.

[Background music].

plant cells

45: How Plants Use Water

In this episode we dive into the weird world of plant biology and answer the question of how plants use water. We learn about the xylem, the phloem, and how photosynthesis converts H2O into oxygen. Also, plants have hairs and cuticles!?

Jay Hosler’s photosynthesis comic (Gimme Some Sugar)

Read the transcript for this 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.
onetogrowonpod.com

44: Bananas 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 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.

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.

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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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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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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.

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