All posts by Hallie Casey

49: Apples Transcript

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

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

[Background music].


Hallie: Okay, dad. What do you know about apples?

Chris: I know that some of them are delicious. Some of them are not. Some of them taste way too sour or like cardboard.

Hallie: Right.

Chris: I know that they can be stored for up to a year, which still blows my mind.

Hallie: That’s true. [Laughs].

Chris: I know they got little seeds in them and worms like to use them for houses at least in cartoons or something. I don’t know.

Hallie: Yeah, good stuff.

Chris: You can stick a crabapple on the end of a stick and fling it really far.

Hallie: We used to play like, I don’t know. I can’t remember if we had a name for it, but we had a crabapple tree up at the farm and we would take crabapples and throw them and the other person would hit them with a tennis racket and they would just explode. It was so much fun.

Chris: Oh boy.

Hallie: Probably not good for the tennis racket, but that tennis racket was probably like 45 years old.

Chris: Or crabapples. Sure.

Hallie: I mean, it was really not good for the crabapple. [Laughs].

Chris: Alright. So apples, what do you got? What’s so great about the apple?

Hallie: The apple also known as Malus domestica is in the Rosaceae family. We have talked about lots of things in the Rosaceae family, so I thought it would actually be interesting to talk about where in the Rosaceae family apples are compared to other things in the Rosaceae family. Listeners, I will put this on the Instagram and probably on the Twitter.

If you want to see what it is that dad and I are going to be talking about, you can find it there, but dad, this is basically a hypothesis of the evolutionary structure of the Rosaceae family that you can see here. Can you describe what it is for the listeners?

Chris: Well, I see Johnny and Maura up top and there’s also some David.

Hallie: What? No. [Laughs].

Chris: Okay. Now, what I’m looking at is this sort of ridiculous graph. On the left-hand side, it starts out as I guess, three lines sort of splitting out from each other at not quite, but almost a right angle and branching into a whole bunch of other little lines, which branch into even more little lines. It just sort of makes this little kind of tree like structure I guess and towards the lines become different colors I guess to represent different species of apple.

Hallie: It’s to represent different types of fruits within the Rosaceae family.

Chris: Oh, got it.

Hallie: Like if you see on the left, there’s like achene, druplet, follicles, capsules, dry drupe pome, et cetera. We’ve talked about some of these different types. We’ve talked about drupes on the show, we’re going to be talking about pomes today but basically, this is just like different structures of fruit within the family. You can see up here at the top, we have Fragaria and Rosaceae.

Rosaceae is roses like you have in your garden, Fragaria is strawberries and then you have rubrics, so those are all up at the top. Then down at the very bottom there’s Prunus, which is things like peaches and apricots and plums and then in the middle, you have Malus and Pyrus. Can you guess what Pyrus is if we know Malus is Apple?

Chris: Are Pyrus cherries?

Hallie: No, that’s Prunus.

Chris: Okay. Pyrus, I don’t know. Does it have to do with papyrus? Is it like little paper reeds?

Hallie: No, it’s pears. [Laughs].

Chris: Oh, that makes sense sort of.

Hallie: Yeah, apples and pears are quite similar. They’re both pomes.

Chris: Alright. Do they rhyme?

Hallie: No, not a poem. A pome, so P-O-M-E. A pome is a fruit consisting of a fleshy enlarged receptacle and then a tuft central core containing the seeds. A receptacle is basically the thing that holds the flower and it’s right below the ovary and this is actually what strawberries are as well as they’re mostly a receptacle. Then on the outside is where the actual fruit is.

Pomes are a little bit different where the enlarged receptacle is on the outside and then the seeds from the ovaries are on the inside. Basically, the inside bit is what comes from the ovaries and on the outside this technically vegetative part of the flower structure grows up and around it to protect those seeds.

Chris: Okay. When you say receptacle, basically, you mean the delicious part?

Hallie: Yeah, well, so the receptacle strictly speaking is like the stock that holds the flower and it’s the part on the stock that’s right below the ovary, but with like pears, apples, strawberries, when the ovaries are fertilized, then that part also grows as well as the ovary itself.

Chris: Cool.

Hallie: The fleshy part is the receptacle, the enlarged receptacle. The part we eat is the enlarged receptacle. We have talked about Amygdalin once on the show before. We talked about it actually in our Halloween episode last year when we were talking about apricot pits, but Amygdalin is also present in apple seeds, although in a smaller amount.

Chris: I do not remember what Amygdalin is.

Hallie: It is the thing that makes cyanide.

Chris: Maybe don’t eat those seeds in large quantities.

Hallie: I mean, you would have to eat a lot of them and honestly, it would be very hard because you would also have to like break them open. Usually, if people eat apple seeds, sometimes they just chew on them. Sometimes they swallow them whole accidentally. You’d have to basically make a smoothie of like 500 apple seeds and then eat all of it, which would be horrible and disgusting, so it’s not that big of a deal.

Chris: It definitely sounds unpleasant. Actually, now I do remember this. We talked about apricot seeds in foods that kill if you’d like to re-examine that episode, but yes, that’s where I’m remembering this knowledge from. Apple seeds have the same potential, but probably not a thing.

Hallie: Apricot pits have dramatically more Amygdalin. Definitely do not chew on an apricot pit.

Chris: Got it.

Hallie: But apple seeds are not that big of a deal. Like I have heard that as a fun fact, like, oh, apple seeds can kill you. They can’t really kill you unless you eat an immense amount, which is true for most foods.

Chris: Fair enough.

Hallie: Originally, it is thought that apples originated in Central Asia, but modern apples actually share more genetic material with European apples just because of hybridization along the Silk Road. We started domesticating apples a very, very, very long time ago and Malus domestica is just such a distinct species and has genetic material from many, many different kinds of apples that is really like its own thing now, which is why it’s its own species, even though it was just hybrids from all these wild species. But that’s super cool.

Chris: This sounds like the kind of question that would get you thrown off a bridge on Monty Python.

Hallie: [Laughs]. One of the interesting things about apples is that they are self-incompatible. We’ll talk about this later on in the show when we talk about breeding. But that basically means that one apple tree cannot fertilize itself. It needs a second other apple tree to make apples. This plus the long lifespan of apples plus it being involved in cultural practices and being eaten by a lot of people made for hybridization and a lot of genetic variation during domestication. It’s very different from corn that we have now where like we have a lot of different varieties of corn, but they’re very genetically similar because apples cannot self-fertilize, you have so many, so many, so many different kinds of apples and they’re very, very genetically distinct.

Chris: I know we’ve got a lot to talk about and I don’t want to go off on too much of a tangent, but how common are self-compatible plants versus self-incompatible plants? That’s not something that I ever would have really thought of.

Hallie: With herbaceous plants, things like tomatoes, they have a year to live and then they’re done, so it’s much more common for them to be self-compatible and self-fertilizing just because it makes much more sense. If you have a year and then you’re done, then you really want to be cranking out those seeds as quickly and as easily as possible. If you have a tree crop, that’s really their goal is to live as long as possible, it makes sense to want to have a lot of genetic diversity because that will make you more resistant to disease.

Chris: Got it.

Hallie: That’s really your goal. If a disease gets to a tree, that tree might be done. If there are a lot of other trees that are very similar genetically, then they also might be done. Having like self-incompatibilities just makes a lot more sense evolutionarily as an advantage to trees versus if you’re talking about more short-lived species.

Chris: So every apple tree is unique and special just like people.

Hallie: It’s true except for it’s not which we will be talking about. [Laughs].

Chris: Alright.

Hallie:
I want to talk about Johnny Appleseed. Dad, for any non-Americans that we have listening to the show, can you give a very brief summary of who Johnny Appleseed is?

Chris: Actually, I’m not sure that I can.

Hallie: What do you know about him?

Chris: Johnny Appleseed is one of those names that you hear here in American, even if you don’t know a lot about him. He’s like a guy that planted a lot of apple trees and had this philosophy of life that I’ve got everything I need, the sun and the rain and the apple seed and I’m thankful to God for all of these things.

Hallie: Yeah, that was a great summary.

Chris: Thanks. That’s all I know.

Hallie: Johnny Appleseed is based on a real man called John Chapman who was born in 1774 right before the American Revolution in Massachusetts. As he was growing up, where he was living was going through like a lot. Capital, A capital L, A Lot. Eventually, he moved west to Ohio and he was in Pennsylvania for a bit as well. Basically, he moved to Ohio during a land deal. The rules of it basically were the settlers could take land from indigenous people “settle it” up to 100 acres of land in what we now call Ohio if they planted 80 trees. You had to plant 80 trees to be able to claim your 100 acres. So Johnny Appleseed moved to Ohio and he would go up to the cider presses in the winter and load up on apple seeds that were a leftover a by-product and then come spring, he’d go and plant them all by a river with a little fence of brush around them to keep the deer out.

Then five years later, he’d come back, get all the saplings out of the ground and sell them to new settlers.

Chris: Sounds like a lot of work.

Hallie: Well, but the thing is it’s not a lot of work. You plant seeds and then five years later you have something to sell. It’s not like he was tending these apple trees. He was basically setting up little nurseries that he would just leave by themselves to function. Sometimes he would come back in once or twice to check on them and make sure everything was going well, but he wasn’t doing much.

Chris: So he made money off the land rush, basically.

Hallie: He made money off a land rush. It was like a very capitalist opportunity facilitating settler colonialism, but he was a weird guy. He took this money and it’s not like he went and bought a bunch of land or bought a bunch of people or resources or tried to make himself rich. He started to run a horse rescue with the money he was making. He would take in horses that he thought were being abused. He really couldn’t stand to see animals or plants abused or hurt, which is why he didn’t graft apple trees. We will talk more later about grafting apple trees, but that is something that was really, really common for hundreds of years. By the time Johnny Appleseed rolled around, it was very common to graft apples and he wouldn’t do it because he thought it was hurting the trees. He didn’t really live any particular places. He was a wanderer. He was very religious, so he would kind of wander around and spread the gospel.

He was a vegetarian later in life. There was this account that I found that Anthony Banning Norton, who was a journalist and historian he called Chapman the oddest character in all of our history in his 1862 History of Ohio. I copy and pasted a little account because I just thought it was really interesting. He said, “One cool autumn night while lying by his campfire in the woods, he observed that the mosquitoes flew in the blaze and were burned. Johnny who wore on his head a tin utensil, which answered both as a cap and as a mush pot, filled it with water and quenched the fire and afterwards remarked, God forbid that I should build a fire for my comfort. That should be the means of destroying any of his creatures,” meaning God’s creatures. Then in that same account, they talk about him sleeping in the woods, him walking around barefoot in the snow. I don’t know how truthful these accounts are just because it’s history and this guy wasn’t there. He was a journalist and he was talking to people who said that they were there, but boy, what a picture they draw.

Chris: Indeed.

Hallie: This really reminds me of if you’ve seen the Good Place you remember Doug Fawcett.

Chris: Yes.

[Laughter].

Hallie: This is what this reminds me of.

Chris: Right. Living on his own trying to make no impact whatsoever and just to backtrack super quick, as you said it very casually. He said he didn’t buy anything. He didn’t buy any land or people or whatever. Just to be clear, he did live in a time when buying people was possible.

Hallie: Exactly. I did want to be clear at the front, he did facilitate settler colonialism. He was taking advantage of these capitalist structures in this late time of oppression and he was able to benefit from that, but he was a weirdo amongst those systems. For sure.

Chris: [Laughs]. That’s awesome. Now, I’m curious. I wish we had more firsthand historical accounts of him. I’m sort of interested to learn more about the individual.

Hallie: Yeah, there’s a lot of interesting history, but the really interesting thing about Johnny Appleseed is really the impact he had because he wasn’t grafting plants and basically making clones, he was planting from seed and making genetically distinct individual trees. He dramatically increased the genetic diversity of apple trees in North America and made it really possible for genetic apple breeders today to have a lot of material to work with.

Chris: Okay. If apples are so genetically diverse, then how do apple growers predict how an apple is going to come out?

Hallie: We’re going to talk about that after the break.

[Background music].

Chris: Welcome to the break.

Hallie: Welcome everyone to the break. Dad, did you know we have a Patreon.

Chris: I did.

Hallie: We have a Patreon. It has several tiers on it. They are all super fun and I would encourage anyone who is listening and interested in supporting the show to just mosey your way on over there to patreon.com/onetogrowonpod.

Chris: We have several tiers. One of which includes our starfruit patrons, who should have just gotten a shipment of salt, which is amazing.

Hallie: It’s not just salt though. I want people to understand it’s not just salt. We worked very closely with this extremely cool shop that is based out of San Diego and they got like six specialty salts all of which I tried with you and oh my God, were they amazing?

Chris: Let me tell you a piece of sourdough bread with some butter and a little dash of the truffle oil salt is amazing. Also, the other night I had some corn on the cob with some butter and the Havana spice salt. Wow. That was incredible.

Hallie: That’s one of our tiers over on Patreon.

Starfruit patrons get a shipment every six months of very cool goodies that we love and we think they’ll love, but mostly we are just extraordinarily grateful for everyone on Patreon and all of your support of the show. You make it possible for us to do this and make it as wonderful as we are able to make it and thank you, especially to our wonderful starfruit patrons, Vikram, Lindsay, Mama Casey, Patrick and Shianne.

Chris: Thank you so much. We could not do the show without you.

Hallie: Back to the episode.

[Background music].

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

Chris: I do have a nature fact.

Hallie: What is it?

Chris: One of the things that apples are used for is apple pie and I love me a good apple pie and there’s the expression American is apple pie, but did you know that apple pie actually originated in the UK and the first known recipe that was recorded that we have written down was by Geoffrey Chaucer?

Hallie: What? No way.

Chris: Yeah.

Hallie: Really?

Chris: Author of the Canterbury Tales often referred to as the father of modern English literature.

Hallie: Wow. That’s an incredible nature fact.

Chris: It included apples, figs, raisins, and pears in a pastry shell. But no sugar, which I’m guessing was probably much more expensive at the time.

Hallie: Honestly, that sounds pretty good. I feel like the raisins would bring that sweetness. It sounds like it would not be too sweet, but just right.

Chris: I was saying at the time I would probably be really happy to eat that pie.

Hallie: I feel like I would be happy to eat that now. Apples and pears and raisins, I could totally go with that and figs. I love figs. Figs are my favorite.

Chris: Figs are great.

Hallie: Tara tarara! Nature fact. Okay. You want to know about apple breeding.

Chris: You have no idea how much I want to know about apple breeding.

Hallie: A lot of the crops we eat as mentioned before can be pollinated by other flowers on the same tree or plant. Some flowers can even be pollinated by itself, like tomato flowers can just be pollinated by themselves. Apple pollen cannot fertilize flowers from the same plant. Their system to reject their own pollen actually also reduces the likelihood that parent or sibling plants can breed with them. As I mentioned, this makes for healthier plants more resistant to pathogens and pests, but it also makes it impossible to breed. The apples that Johnny Appleseed spread around North America, which were created by seed were mostly cider apples because for cider, you really just need the sugar content. They don’t have to taste good. They don’t have to look good. It’s very rare for an apple planted by seed to taste good and look good. It’s not common. The spread of apples across North America precipitated by Johnny Appleseed, but of course, not exclusively to John Appleseed, did lead to things called chance seedlings. Some of which led to varieties. We now know like the Golden Delicious, which is where you just have a random seed and eventually, wow. Something great comes of it, but almost never does that happen. We now have genetic sequencing, which does take some of the guesswork out of it. But honestly, if you think about it, if you’re trying to create a new apple, you can’t crossbreed between two apple trees necessarily that are related and you’re trying to isolate specific like genes, specific traits. Really, it’s just roll a dice. You have to plant a seed and then you have to wait 15 years to get an apple to see if it is good.

Chris: 15 years?

Hallie: That’s how long apple trees take. It’s like 10 to 15 years until the apples are ready to be harvested. It takes a long time. Sometimes it can be earlier if you have ideal conditions, but generally, that’s about how long it takes. It’s very hard. It’s very, very hard to breed apples. It’s very hard to breed apples. I cannot stress this enough.

Chris: Okay. Let me try to sort of clarify this in my mind. Let’s take Golden Delicious as an example because it’s like one of my favorite apples. Love me a Golden Delicious. If I want an orchard of Golden Delicious, then I get Golden Delicious apple seeds or do I start with saplings or whatever and plant them and then wait for years for them to become trees and then they keep producing apples forever or how does that all work?

Hallie: If you want a Golden Delicious apple orchard and you start with Golden Delicious apple seeds, you will not get Golden Delicious apples.

Chris: Really?

Hallie: Because the flowers on the Golden Delicious apple tree were pollinated by some other random tree, right?

Chris: Okay.

Hallie: The seeds are half Golden Delicious, half something else. How we breed plants is we do a lot of back crossing, so you cross with something else and then you cross back with the original plant. You cross with something else and you cross back with the original plant. That’s almost impossible to do on apples because of the self in compatibility and because they take so long to get to maturity. We don’t have these specific genes isolated. We don’t have the traits isolated. So Golden Delicious is really just totally random. How we get Golden Delicious apples, we take a root stock and we graft onto the top of it. Meaning we take part of a Golden Delicious apple tree and we cut off the top part of an apple tree and we stick on the top part of a Golden Delicious apple tree and they grow together and it’s basically cloning. This is how apples have been grown for a very long time. The oldest apple variety might be the Annurcha Apple, which some people think is the one mentioned by Pliny the Elder in his naturalist historia as maaleh or celer before the year 79.

Chris: Oh, that’s a while ago.

Hallie: We have been doing this for a very long time. We have been grafting apples because it’s very hard to breed apples, so we just clone them. We just clone them because that’s how you get good apples.

Chris: Okay. What’s the difference then between breeding and cloning? In this case, cloning, you’re taking an existing plant and you’re taking a piece of it and you’re growing that or you’re grafting something else on to it to grow it.

Whereas when you say breeding, you mean growing from seed and hoping that they’re pollinated by plants close enough to it to produce something predictable, except it sounds like that won’t happen. It’s just going to get pollinated however it gets pollinated and have fun with whatever you get that could be really interesting or it could be awful.

Hallie: Right. For example, say we’re breeding like sunflowers. You want a bigger sunflower seeds so that you can put them in the Piggly Wiggly’s and you also want something that is resistant to sunflower blight or whatever diseases affect sunflowers. So you take a sunflower that might be really affected by whatever disease is affecting the sunflowers but it has big seeds. Then you take another sunflower that has small seeds and is really resistant to this disease and you cross pollinate them like 200 times. Then you look at all of the babies that came out of those and see, do any of these have both of the traits that I want. You just keep doing that over and over again until you’re able to breed the specific traits that you want. That’s a really simplified version. Plant breeding is a lot more complicated than that, but you can’t really do that with apples just because of that self-incompatibility. You can’t keep breeding back and forth because of this mechanism to reject pollen that is related to the original tree. We just have to clone it. We roll the dice. We go out into the woods. Literally, this is how they found the Golden Delicious apple. They were just talking to farmers, going out into the woods, being oh, I heard so-and-so has an apple that’s good. They went and they found it in the woods and they took it and they said, this is a good apple. We will now take part of these branches and go clone them and now you can eat them in the grocery store.

Chris: Thank you to those people.

Hallie: Yeah, absolutely. But also, it’s roll the dice. They didn’t really do anything other than facilitate the growth of the apple tree.

Chris: Fair enough.

Hallie: We graft all the apples. They’re all clones. All the Red Delicious apples are exactly the same. All the Golden Delicious apples are exactly the same. All the Granny Smith apples are exactly genetically the same. Of course, this creates issues with genetic diversity and disease. But because we just have so much apple genetics, apples as a whole are not really at risk of a disease wiping out a monoculture, but like specific apple varieties might be.

Chris: Okay. As long as Golden Delicious are safe, I’m fine.

Hallie: Well, as of 2008, 90% of the apples produced in the US were just 15 varieties.

Chris: Wow.

Hallie: So Golden Delicious is probably one of those 15. That’s a lot of Golden Delicious apples. They’re probably okay, but compared to every other apple out there, they are definitely at a higher risk in terms of risk to diseases.

Chris: Sure.

Hallie: That’s how we make apples. In terms of who eats apples, China eats 40 million tons of apples. The US eats 4 million tons of apples, which is second place. So China eats the most apples.

Chris: I mean, they got a lot more people, so I guess it makes sense.

Hallie: The highest per capita, I was actually really surprised by this is Poland, Turkey and then Iran.

Chris: Interesting.

Hallie: Very interesting. China also grows the most apples. They grow 41 million tons. The US grows 4.7 million tons and then Turkey comes in third with 3 million tons.

Chris: The little good Turkey.

Hallie: I know. Apparently, very big apple people over in Turkey, had no idea. Post-harvest, this is the thing that you really wanted to talk about when I brought up talking about apples, you wanted to know how we get the apples off the trees and into storage and then to the grocery store.

Chris: Indeed.

At some point, we have to blame Hollywood for the need for them to be red, but we will come to that.

Hallie: No, that’s the first thing I have.

Chris: Oh really?

Hallie: Yeah, red color is normally just cosmetic. Like Gala apples, it’s an indicator of maturation, but that is pretty much the only apple that we eat commercially where that’s really an indicator. Normally, it just is consumers won’t eat an apple unless it has some red on it or it’s specifically not a red apple.

Chris: I remember in the nineties, there were a bunch of farmers that tried to breed some really great bright shiny red apples, but they all tasted like cardboard.

Hallie: Yes.

Chris: They ended up going out of business and there was this whole thing about farmer relief for these people who were losing a bunch of money because they grew really not good apples and some of them were like, you know we’re in business. We tried and we failed. That’s it. That’s what happened.

[Laughter].

Hallie: I mean, it is very hard to breed apples to be fair. As you mentioned at the top of the show, apples can be in storage for up to 12 months. Their storage period is 1 to 12 months in storage. Usually, that has to be in the right conditions though, so like the temperature is usually between 30°F and 40°F. The humidity has to be like 90% to 95% just so that they can stay good and edible and delicious.

Chris: You can’t just put it in the cupboard for a year.

Hallie: Can’t just put it in a cupboard for a year.

Chris: Alright.

Hallie: The next thing I wanted to talk about was browning. Do you know why apples go brown, dad?

Chris: I assume it’s some sort of oxidation.

Hallie: It is. Great work.

Chris: Thank you.

Hallie: Yes, I found a really helpful article in the Scientific American, which is called, “Why do Apple Slices Turn Brown After Being Cut?” When apples are cut or bruised, oxygen is introduced into that injured plant tissue and then when the oxygen is present in the cells an enzyme called polyphenol oxidase also known as PPO, which is in the chloroplasts will rapidly oxidize phenolic compounds. Then that oxidation creates a brown colored secondary like product. You can use lemon or pineapple juice to coat apple slices, which will slow enzymatic browning both because they have antioxidants in them and because they have a lower pH so all in all that causes the enzyme to be less active.

Chris: If you want lemon juice on your apple, it’ll stay better longer.

Hallie: It’s true, but in 2017 there was an apple approved. There was a GMO apple called the Arctic Apple and there’s actually several different varieties of Arctic apples.

Chris: Interesting.

Hallie: They basically just took out that PPO, that polyphenol oxidase enzyme out and so now, there’s no oxidation process happening. Other than that, the apples are the same, so they don’t brown. There was a lot of talk when these were first released about like kid’s snacks, pre-cut apple snacks, the apples that you can buy from McDonald’s and stuff like that when you are on the go, you have small kids that need the apples already cut up and you don’t have time to cut them up. There was a lot of talk about those consumer packaged goods, ready to go apples. But of course, apple trees take a long time to grow and they weren’t approved until 2017. So we still have a ways to go until we know really what the market’s going to be.

This year was their highest harvest to date, according to Growing Produce, which is like an industry publication. This article was published on October 28th, so pretty recently. We’re recording this on Halloween. This is pretty up to date. They had almost 8 million pounds and of course, fall is usually when apples are ready, like early fall. 8 million pounds of Arctic Apples this year. Probably will be more next year.

Chris: I wonder how they taste.

Hallie: I mean, they taste the same. They took like existing apple varieties and then just took out that enzyme, so they probably taste exactly the same.

Chris: Also kids, you don’t need time to cut up an apple. You can just take an apple and bite it directly.

Hallie: What if you’re like a tiny baby with the little tiny baby teeth or a small little baby mouth?

Chris: Your parents can cut it up for you. But I mean, let’s face it. That’s not who these things are marketed to. They’re marketed to kids that are 8, 9, 10 years old, who don’t want to be bothered with whole apples or parents that don’t want their kids to be bothered with whole apples and would rather just get them pre-cut apples. I don’t know.

Hallie: Maybe probably. I don’t really mind a pre-cut apple. I mean, we’ve talked on the show before about the question ability of pre-cut fruits, whether that’s apples whether that’s pineapples whether it’s watermelon, when you go into the store and there is like a precut section, one creates plastic, but two, also makes it possible for people to eat fruit that that it might’ve been challenging otherwise maybe because they have a disability maybe because they just don’t have enough time in the day to really take time to prepare fruits like that. There’s a lot of reasons why pre-cut fruit is complicated in terms of creating plastic, but beneficial. It’s complicated.

Chris: Well, pre-cut fruit is fine. Sure. I’ll keep an open mind.

Hallie: [Laughs].

Chris: That’s really cool apples. Love an apple. I’m not going to try to breed an apple, but I will definitely eat an apple and I might try some medieval apple pie.

Hallie: Absolutely. That sounds great. Got to go get me some figs.

Chris: Also Mama Casey, if you’re listening, we haven’t had apple pie in a while. Just saying it.

Hallie: You can make an apple pie. It’s not hard. No, dad come on. You can make an apple pie. You don’t need mom to make an apple pie.

Chris: I mean, she really makes good pie. Just saying it.

Hallie: Oh my God.[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].

Rocks with weeds

48: Xeriscaping with Leah Churner and Colleen Dieter 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’re talking about xeriscaping.

[Background Music].

Hallie: This week we have on the podcast two amazing women. We have Leah Churner, the founder of Delta Dawn Sustainable Gardens here in Austin, Texas. She’s also the creator of Hothouse Podcast and a co-creator of the Horticulturati Podcast. And we also have Colleen Dieter on. She is the creator and brains and brawn and everything behind Red Wheelbarrow Plants and a founder of Central Texas Seed Savers, as well as the second half of the Horticulturati Podcast. Welcome you all.

Chris: Welcome. Thank you for being here.

Colleen: Thanks.

Leah: Thanks for having us.

Hallie: Was there anything that I missed in you all’s intro?

I know you have many accolades to your names.

Colleen: No.

Leah: I think you got it.

Colleen: Generally, awesome people.

Hallie: Yes, absolutely.

[Laughter].

Chris: Those are the only kind of people we ever have on the podcast, so here we go.

Colleen: [Laughs]. Okay. Good. We’re in good company then?

Chris: Absolutely.

Hallie: I know I mentioned that both of you all have two different gardening companies, but I was wondering if you guys could give a little background about the work you do and how you got there.

Leah: Colleen, you start.

Colleen: Oh, okay. Alright. I was going to tell you to go first, but I’ll go first. I help my customers by alleviating their anxieties about their yards. Primarily, I help homeowners who are do it yourselfers who want to garden and want to landscape their properties, but they just don’t know where to start and they just have a lot of worries and trouble and so I can come in and give people advice about what to do and how I got into it was through 20 years of experience as a personal gardener in Austin. Before I had my consulting business, I had a set group of customers who all had really complicated yards and I took care of their yards basically and learned all about plants in Central Texas that way along with a short stint, working at Natural Gardener. I studied horticulture as my minor in college at the Ohio State University and I was a philosophy major. That’s my story.

Leah: I’ll go. I’m Leah speaking here. I’m a landscape designer and gardener and like Coleen, my background is into the maintenance side of things and so I was doing that sort of same personal gardening maintenance for people for a long time. I still do that, but now I also do design and consulting and I’m very hands-on from the point of conceiving of ideas to putting them in to trying to maintain them over time. I’m a control freak in that way. Yeah, that’s what I do and I am also teaching planting design at ACC starting on October 12th and that’s what I do.

Hallie: Super cool.

Chris: Yeah, very nice. I got to ask is the Ohio State University, the only university in Ohio State or the only university called Ohio State or is the, just part of the name?

Colleen: The, the is just part of the name. It’s like a branding thing.

Chris: Got it. Okay.

Colleen: It’s silly when I say it, I’m saying it partly with pride, but also partly sarcastically.

[Laughter].

Chris: Very good.

Leah: It’s like Talking Heads, when you talk about the band Talking Heads, you don’t call them the Talking Heads.

Colleen: Yeah, or Sustainable Food Center. Is it the Sustainable Food Center or is it just Sustainable Food center?

Hallie: A lot of people think there’s a the, but there isn’t. In fact, no the.

Colleen: But with Ohio State, there is a the.

[Laughter].

Leah: I did not know that.

Colleen: It started like around the time when I started in school there. They did that branding thing. It’s just a silly thing.

Hallie: You two both have immense experience and you guys are both so knowledgeable and you guys highlight that beautifully in Horticulturati, your podcast. But I specifically asked you guys here to talk about xeriscaping because one it’s like something we’ve gotten a lot of questions about from our listeners and I know a bit about it, but I was pretty sure you two would have a lot to add.

Leah: Oh, great.

Hallie: Two, it’s like a big buzzword here in Texas. It’s something that a lot of people talk about, but I think that the idea of what it actually is, is very incorrect, so I was wondering if you guys could give a little definition about xeriscaping.

Colleen: That’s a good question.

Leah: Well, I’ll hazard.

Colleen: Go.

Leah: Or do you want to go Colleen?

Colleen: No, you go.

Leah: Okay. So xeriscaping is an approach to landscape design that I believe originated in the eighties in Colorado in Denver and I think it was the Denver watershed protection department that came up with it and trademarked it. I might need to fact check that, but it was definitely out of Denver and it was a trademarked term just to refer to designing landscapes in a way that they require very little water and very little supplemental irrigation. I think there’re seven principles and they include things like using mulch, using plants that are well adapted to the landscape. Colleen, do you remember any of the other xeriscape principles?

Colleen: I think one of them is like keeping plants like do you need more water up closer to the house and grouping them together so that the higher water use plants are up near the house? I’m trying to remember what some of the other ones are, but yeah, it was really laid out. I mean, the spirit is that it really was a concept that was laid out in a really specific way with these seven principles and now has evolved over time to mean something different as a buzzword like you were saying.

Hallie: I guess from you all’s perspective as designers and gardeners, what is the perspective now of xeriscaping? What do you guys hear people referring to when they talk about xeriscaping?

Leah: Well, do you want to go first, Colleen? Then I’ll tell my part.

Colleen: Well, yeah. The term that is being used instead, so xeriscaping is X-E-R-I, like xeri and that refers to a dry environment, but now people hear that and they think it means zeroscaping, like the number zero where it involves removing a lot of plant material from the landscape and then just putting rocks or gravel on top of the soil and then calling it done. People will often call me and say I’m interested in xeriscaping. Excuse the pun, it’s gotten watered down over time.

[Laughter].

Chris: Very good.

Colleen: It has lost a lot of its meaning and has been sort of I guess not purposely co-opted, but sort of transformed into a concept that has been divorced from its original intention I think of creating rich landscapes that use less water than a conventional landscape that has a lot of turf grass in it and plants that demand a lot of water use.

Leah: I had a chance to look up the seven principles and they’re really quick. I’ll just throw them out there. They are planning and design, soil improvement, practical turf area, not having the entire yard be St. Augustine lawn if you don’t need that much turf grass, you would have to irrigate, efficient irrigation, mulch, low water use plants and appropriate maintenance. Never anywhere in that definition is take all the plants out and cover everything with rocks. There is no nowhere in there.

That is what as a buzzword xeriscape has come to mean, unfortunately, is that idea that just put rocks everywhere and gravel and there’s a lot of problems with that.

Hallie: You mentioned problems and you say, unfortunately, can you talk a little bit about the issues with this rock scaping and the crushed granite with cactuses look of a landscape?

Leah: There’s a few things and I’ll let Colleen chime in too. First of all, there’s two really big problems. One is that gravel reflects light and heat and raises the ambient temperature, whereas plants and mulch absorb light and heat and they lower the ambient temperature, especially if we’re talking about like trees. There’s a heat Island effect when you use lots of rocks and that can be very uncomfortable during the summer and raise your energy bills and be really hard on the plants and trees that you do have. Then the other issue is that because we’re not actually in the desert and we get what 34 inches of rain a year and the most of those rain events happen in a few big storms throughout the year, things are just going to get super weedy because we don’t live in a desert where we can just cover everything with rocks and have a kind of a Southwestern landscape. Doesn’t quite work where we are because we just get a little too much rain and then plants really want to grow anywhere where there’s a sunny spot.

Chris: I’ve seen people put like trash bags or whatever all over their lawn to sort of kill the grass to put something new and usually, they follow up with covering it with rocks and maybe some succulents, but even giving it that treatment after some time, some weeds are going to sprout up.


Colleen: Yes, for sure because as long as the wind blows and birds fly, there’s going to be weeds because there’s just seeds everywhere.

Chris: Got it.

Colleen: In fact, especially with decomposed granite, the grittiness of decomposed granite, which is almost like sand that grittiness of that texture, catches more seeds and that material holds water for quite a while too and so it’s really a nice place for little tiny plants to start their lives. It becomes really weedy over time. At first it seems fantastic, but it doesn’t take more. Usually, after a year or two it becomes really weedy and can be really high maintenance and it’s counterintuitive because you would think it would be really low maintenance, but as Leah and I have both found as professional gardeners, when we’re caring for those types of yards, they tend to be the highest maintenance yards.

Chris: Oh boy.

Leah: Because it’s not very fun to weed gravel.

[Laughter].

Leah: It hurts your fingers and it’s hot. I mean, also another problem with doing that solarizing thing where you put the plastic down is that one of the principles of xeriscape is soil improvement and if you are basically zapping the landscape with the sun and the plastic, you’re actually really going to degrade the quality of your soil because you’re going to kill not just the grass, but also although microorganisms and the soil biology that you have in the soil, and it’s going to become a real sterile soil and that can also make it hard for plants to do well as I’m sure you guys talk about a lot on One to Grow On.

Colleen: Yeah, and not to mention if there are any trees growing nearby, you can also damage the tree roots by heating up the soil to try to kill other plants. You can inadvertently damage tree roots too and that’s the thing in Austin. We’re so fortunate to have such tree cover in this city and it’s very rare that you find a property that doesn’t have any trees on it and surrounding trees with gravel can have a negative impact on their lives as well.

Leah: I think Colleen and I would both agree that even though it sounds kind of counterintuitive, one way to really, if you want to keep weeds down, plant more trees because you want to shade those weeds out. Then also if you do have a bunch of grass that is growing in the shade or something that you want to get rid of, you can actually do a similar thing. You can smother it by sheet mulching, so that would be using a ton of organic material, cardboard, compost, and mulch just piled up lasagna style on top of the soil and that will actually help do that same thing that the solarizing is doing, but it’ll do it a little more gently and it’ll not harm the soil biology, but it is a little bit harder to do that. It’s just a little bit more intensive.

Chris: How terrible is my St. Augustine?

Leah: You’re saying Augustine? It’s not so terrible.

You don’t have to feel bad about having some grass. I think there’s a place for it.

Chris: Excellent.

Colleen: For sure, like Leah was saying when she was reading off the xeriscaping principles, you could have turf grass where it makes sense. If you have established St. Augustine grass, that’s in a dappled shade situation, which is where St. Augustine grass likes to be and you’re caring for the soil underneath it, which is another one of the principles, you’re caring for the soil underneath it so that the soil is so spongy and will hold water for longer and you’re caring for the turf grass using organic methods and mowing correctly, like mowing with the mower blade on the highest setting possible and leaving the clippings on the grass. If you’re doing all of that, then it’s not the worst. It just depends on what your perspective is and if it’s providing a service for you, then I think it’s fine. [Laughs].

Leah: Sometimes you want a little bit of lawn to be some kind of nice negative space of green and I think there’s a place for that. There might be some tiny little spots in what I would design.

Chris: Awesome.

Colleen: I agree. Like, at my house, I’m a plant collector. I have tons and tons of plants and the grass doesn’t really serve a purpose for me, but if I had dogs or children or I didn’t collect plants, then I would have kept some of the St. Augustine grass that I had in my yard that was really well-established and in the right light and actually didn’t need that much water.

But if you’re trying to grow St. Augustine grass where there’s full hot sun and you have to water it all the time, then that’s a problem. I think that’s the spirit of xeriscaping. I that’s when they developed this in Denver. I think that’s what they were after was just getting people to be cognizant of how much water they’re using on their landscapes and to put a little bit of thoughtfulness into it.

Hallie: That’s what I really wanted to dig into on this episode. We did an episode in the past on turf grass and we talked about the water needs, but I would love to hear you all’s perspective. Like say, you get a client who calls you and says, I want to xeriscape because I want no water and I’m just going to do cactuses. I don’t want any of those stinking flowers that I have to prune and fertilize and all that stuff. What would your response to them be?

Colleen: I would educate them. Sometimes that’s all people need and that’s why as a consultant, people call me because they want ideas and they want to be educated and so sometimes people think that that’s what they want, but when I come to them and I say, okay, listen. In my experience, those landscapes are the highest maintenance and here’s the alternative. You could have some relatively low maintenance plants that only need to be trimmed like once a year, that will attract butterflies and other wildlife and we can design it in a way that we can handle any like erosion problems that you’re having or something like that. I make sure that they understand that what they think they need is not what they actually need because people will usually say, I want a landscape that is really low maintenance, so I’d like to just install rocks over the whole thing. Then I’ll say, well, there’s this misconception that we’re talking about right now and then people are like, oh, okay.

Then I’ll show them photos of other landscapes and tell them what care they require. I have a stable of plants for customers who just really don’t want to do any maintenance at all, who maybe are retired and travel a lot and plants that are like evergreen and need very little care that I’ll do for those particular customers, which is actually a rare situation. Most of my customers are interested in gardening and don’t mind doing some trimming and transplanting and stuff like that, so it just depends on the situation, but I try to really listen to people and hear what they really want and then educate them about the best way to go about getting what they want.

Chris: I’m definitely one of those no maintenance people, if I can help.

Colleen: Sure.

Leah: I actually had someone that I talked to on the phone today say that she wanted to xeriscape part of the yard and like her neighbors had done. When that comes up, I’m like let’s look at it. Let’s talk about it and I try to use the term water-wise, which is a term that I borrow from the sorry, Austin watershed protection department that they use a lot and I like that term because it’s not always appropriate to use Zurich plants. You might need plants that can tolerate periodically wet conditions, like maybe plant something by a downspout or in a low spot in your yard and also just the term Zurich, in terms of ecology, it refers to an upland location, a higher elevation where the most of the water runs downhill. So that’s why it’s so low water because it’s up high and then you have the mesic zone, which is kind of in the middle. Then you have the hydroxyl zone, which is low down in the valleys where the water congregates or whatever. You got to think about not every situation is correct for cacti and succulents.

There’s certain places that it’s going to be much more appropriate and effective to use plants that can handle a little more wet conditions.

[Background music].

Chris: Welcome to the break.

Hallie: Welcome to the break. Dad, did you know that on our Patreon, we have outtakes and extra research.

Chris: We do have outtakes that are frequently hilarious. I’ve heard your sister laugh at them on more than one occasion.

Hallie: [Laughs]. Very often hysterical and hilarious.

Chris: Extra research.

Hallie: Yes, we have extra research from the episodes as well as other miscellaneous cool articles or additional reading. I try to put tons of really cool information into the Patreon and so if anybody is interested in learning more about the topics that we’re talking about on the show, if anyone is interested in laughing out loud, who isn’t? In these times, am I right?

Chris: You are right.

Hallie: You can find all that info on our Patreon, which is patreon.com/onetogrowonpod.

Chris: You can join our wonderful patrons, especially our starfruit patrons, Lindsay, Vikram, Mama Casey, Patrick and Shianne.

Hallie: We are so, so grateful for all of you. You do so many wonderful things to our hearts and brains. When we think about how much we love you, sorry, that turned a little bit weird there at the end, we are grateful for you. You make our world spin and you make this podcast happen and we hope that you are having a wonderful day wherever you are. Shall we get back to the episode?

Chris: Back to the episode.

[Background music].

Hallie: Can you tell me more about water wise gardening? What do gardeners need to think about and you all as professional gardeners need to think about when you’re thinking about water-wise gardening?

Leah: When I think of water wise gardening, I just think of really matching a plant to its site conditions carefully and one of the best resources for figuring out what goes where is the Grow Green Guide that the city puts out and it’s free and you can get it at any nurseries and a lot of different like hardware stores in places. It’s a little booklet that the watershed protection department puts out and has a list of all these native and adopted landscape plants and has their water requirements and pictures of everything and it’s just such a cool resource. Starting to think about, what plant would work here? What’s the right plant for this spot is part of what I think of when I think of water-wise gardening? Like Colleen said, maybe putting some of the wetter plants near the house. Did you say that Coleen?

Colleen: Yeah, near the house and around the downspouts like you said. That’s a great tip putting plants that require more water up near the house. If you have gutters, then you could plant those plants near downspouts and then if you don’t have gutters and you’re going to get more rain off of the roof. So just having higher plants that prefer a little bit more water up closer to the house. By the way, you can download a digital version of the city of Austin’s Grow Green Guide from the Grow Green website. Something else that I always think about too with water-wise landscaping is again building the soil. It’s really important to me. Leah was talking about sheet mulching as a way to eliminate existing grass or plants that are not desirable in a particular landscape. Sheet mulching is a really great way to build soil as well and building soil is important in xeriscaping like I said earlier because you want the soil to be alive with microorganisms and that soil that’s alive and healthy will act like a sponge and will hold water for the plants to be able to use in the long-term as opposed to a degraded soil. Degraded soils are going to be really hard. A lot of the water when it rains, the water will run off of a degraded soil and it won’t be able to soak in as deeply. Sheet mulching is a really good way to build more life into the soil and create a soil that’s going to be spongy and healthy to support the plants and will also reduce runoff during storms and prevent flash flooding.

Chris: I think if Hallie had a battle of cry, it would be soil health.

Hallie: [Laughs].

Colleen: Yeah.

Hallie: I do really like that word spongy though because I feel like talking about soil health is still something that’s harder to get across if you’re talking to newer gardeners because it can be abstract and I think that word spongy is so helpful.

Colleen: Definitely. You have to have metaphor because a lot of people I’ve never even really had the experience of trying to dig a hole before and understanding what it could be like and understanding what their soil is like in their particular situation. You have to use metaphor to make that real for people.

Leah: We’re not saying that Brock’s need to be banned or outlawed either.

Colleen: For sure.

Leah: Just like there is a place for turf. There’s also a place for rocks and one of my favorite things to design is dry creeks for helping storm water runoff and stuff like that, controlling the water in the landscape and doing it in a way that’s pretty more visually appealing than just putting in French drain or some elaborate underground system, making a dry creek bed. Those are really, really fun to design and they involve a lot of rocks, but you can also incorporate plants into those. We’re not against. I don’t think Colleen or I are anti-rocks and we both enjoy using rocks and boulders in the designs.

Colleen: No, for sure. Chris, you were saying that you really want to have a super low maintenance landscape and I often include boulders in my designs for folks who are in that situation because the boulders can add a lot of interest and can be really fun to look at because they attract a lot of lizards and stuff like that and they don’t require any care or watering. [Laughs]. But I don’t want the entire landscape to be just boulders. That would be really expensive and really hot and really weird.

[Laughter].

Colleen: But a boulder like here or there, it can be really, really cool.

Leah: I love boulders. I just wish they weren’t quite so heavy.

Colleen: Agreed.

Chris: Well, when I was a teenager, I was in Colorado with my mom and my cousin and we were driving around and every once in a while she would see a rock that she really liked and she would have me or my cousin get out of the car and pick up the rock and put it in the car and before long, we had a suitcase full of rocks that she really liked and I’m pretty sure they’re still in her garden somewhere, but when we went through airport security, we put it on the conveyor belt and the lady at the x-ray machine probably gave her the exact look that you’re imagining right now and said, mum, are those rocks?

[Laughter].

Leah: I get it. I understand that. I mean, sometimes you just see a rock and you’re like, wow. That rock is nice.

Chris: [Laughs].

Colleen: Definitely, your mom and I share that interest because I definitely have gone through airport security with rocks in my bags more than once.

Leah: I’ve got pictures of rocks in my camera roll on my phone.

Hallie: One time I saw a rock in Costa Rica where I was on vacation and I saw one, I was like, oh, my grandmother would love that rock, so I tried to bring it back and airport security actually confiscated it because they said it was a blunt object that I could use to bash someone’s head in on the plane.

Leah: Oh, no.

Hallie: Which I felt could be said for a lot of contents of suitcases.

Colleen: Seriously?

Chris: It’s true.

Leah: [Laughs]. Wow.

Chris: See the shoe. It’s a blunt object.

Leah: It’s imaginative.

Hallie: I’m curious, did you guys learn this stuff in school? How did you get educated on what xeriscaping is not and water-wise gardening?

Leah: Well, we both worked at the Natural Gardener for a time. I didn’t go to school for horticulture or anything. I studied art history. But I learned a lot of stuff through doing some nursery work at the Natural Gardener, just doing garden maintenance and going to the Grow Green program that the city of Austin puts out. They do it every year, a couple of day seminar that teaches sustainable landscaping and just taking classes here and there, but I don’t have any formal training in this stuff.

Colleen: Yeah, my background is the same as Leah’s and how I picked up this stuff along the way. Just through that experience of firsthand caring for these properties as a personal gardener, one day I would be at a house without a garden that a master gardener put together. I had some customers who were master gardeners for example, and they loved gardening, but they hurt their back or something like that and couldn’t care for the garden. So they would hire me to take care of it while they were recovering and stuff like that and those yards are just so fun and rich to be in and just gave so much back to me as a gardener, but even more to the homeowners that had seen blooms and the animals that would visit and the changing of the seasons, these little subtle differences that you could enjoy throughout the years. Then the next day go to a yard with a much more professionally designed yard. By the way, a professionally designed and installed yard that was full of gravel, the whole thing is gravel and just a few plants here and there and it was hot and miserable and I would work for hours and hours and just feel like I didn’t even make a dent in how much work there was to do in that yard. It just got me thinking like, is this really what we should be doing? Is this really saving water? I noticed too, that even those yards, sometimes they were so poorly designed that they would end up using just as much water as the master gardeners yard that was providing so much joy and so many ecosystem services too. I just wanted to learn more about what the right thing to do was like, how do you create a yard that gives back to the homeowners and how do you create a yard that doesn’t require as many inputs and pays off?

One way that I have learned a lot about is just by talking to other gardeners and other landscapers, especially people who volunteer at the Wildflower Center or people who work at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. I learned a lot from just conversations like that.

Like, hey, are you having this experience with decomposed granite that you had to weed it all the time and stuff? People being like, yes. Then just doing my own research too in addition to taking the Grow Green classes and classes at the Wildflower Center and stuff like that. Yeah, just that accumulation of knowledge of just talking with other gardeners and people who work at nurseries and stuff like that is how I learned about water-wise concepts.

Leah: I was just going to say, that’s how I met Colleen as she was teaching a class on perennial maintenance at the Natural Gardener and I was working at the Natural Gardener at the time and they let me sit in on her class. After the class, I went up and asked her some questions about weeding gravel probably and I really think I was asking her about like, how do you get nutgrass out of ARD and how do you do that? That led us to become friends and so that’s a big way of making friends with gardeners and spending a lot of time geeking out about gardening things

Colleen: Especially around here where the climate is so different from so many other parts of the world. It’s so unique here that there’s not a lot written about gardening here. So you really have to ask other people because there’s very few books that you can pick up at that will tell you how to do any gardening in Central Texas. There’s some really good ones, but for the most part, you end up still having to collect information from other gardeners and be friends.

Hallie: I think that’s so beautiful and I think that Colleen your description of different types of gardens and this one garden that’s just so joyful is so evocative. I’m curious, this is my last question that I had. Is there anything that you all are seeing changing or any new things on the horizon for you all’s industries for you all sector?

Leah: I mean, for one thing, I will say that people are spending more time at home because of COVID and they’re thinking about their landscapes a lot so I don’t know. I feel like gardening is on the rise as far as like things on the horizon. I don’t know.

Colleen: What I’m hoping is that people will start to understand more about how regenerative the landscape can be and what’s going on right now with organic farming and people who are practicing regenerative farming to try to combat climate change by sequestering carbon in plants and in the soil. I hope that those ideas and concepts could get carried over to the landscape too because trees are so incredible at sequestering carbon pulling carbon out of the atmosphere to combat climate change. So right now, tree planting is a super-hot thing and it should have been hot all the time. I hope it’s not just a trend. Like we should all be planting trees all the time. What I’m trying to say is everyone’s excited about tree planting right now because of climate change and trees are one of those things where you do so little. It requires so little effort to plant a tree.

Depending on what tree you choose, like you could plant a live Oak tree in Central Texas and it could live for a thousand years, sequestering carbon, mitigating storm water runoff, providing shade, cooling the atmosphere around it, providing habitat for animals, providing food to us as humans. I mean, there’s so many things that trees do for us and they ask for so little in return. To me, that’s the thing I’m most excited about is the tree planting and the concept of regenerative landscaping, where trees are going to be helping to combat climate change and that individual people on their own properties just by planting trees can help fight climate change.

Leah: Colleen, can I piggyback on what you just said just for a minute?

Colleen: Yeah.

Leah: I was just going to add that in addition to planting trees, also just thinking about wildlife habitat and I think that’s because of climate change, I think that’s another thing that people have started to think about and that’s very important to me as well. I mean, definitely planting trees and also just having places for pollinators and birds to be and all kinds of little critters that you can connect with because I think having those connections with plants and animals and insects and stuff, does give you more of a feeling of connectivity toward nature and that is going to make you someone who was hopefully more active in regards to fighting climate change.

Colleen: For sure, oh my God. Almost every day, every new customer who calls me tells me that they want support bees because they’ve heard about the decline in honeybee population or they want to support butterflies because they’ve heard about the decline in the Monarch butterfly population or they’re just really interested in birding because they just want to see something cool out the window. So that’s like really been big lately. Even more, that was always something that my customers told me, but lately it seems everybody’s whose calling is asking for that.

Hallie: Yes, I love that. That’s amazing. Plant all the trees and it attracts all the birds and pollinators.

Colleen: Yeah.

Chris: Love a bee.

Leah: Bees and trees.

Hallie: Absolutely. Well, you all, it was absolutely phenomenal to have you both on. Is there anything that you all would like to plug or any places that people can find you if they want to know more about your work?

Leah: Sure. I’ll plug our podcast, the Horticulturati. It is kind of bi-weekly and we have a website that is horticulturati.com. Let me try to spell that. It’s H-O-R-T-I-C-U-L-T-U-R-A-T-I.com. Did I get that?

Colleen: I think so. It’s like the illuminati or the glitterati, but it’s about plants. So it’s just Horticulturati with an I at the end, without an E.

[Laughter].

Chris: Link in the show notes.

Leah: Yeah, okay. Thanks.

[Laughter].

Leah: Since we know everyone who’s listening to the podcast right now has a pen and paper ready to write it down. [Laughs].

Colleen: They’ve got their pens.

Chris: That’s right.

Leah: Mostly, I’m hoping that we’ll just get some of your listeners will check out our podcast too. That’s the main thing that I’d like to plug.

Hallie: Definitely go check out the Horticulturati. It is wonderful. Thank you guys both so much for being on. It was so wonderful.

Leah: Hallie has been on the Horticulturati, by the way. I’m just going to say that too if you want to hear it where we talked about soil with Hallie.

Hallie: It’s true.

Leah: Yes, it’s fantastic.

Hallie: It was so much fun.

Leah: It was good. Thank you so much for having us.

Colleen: Thanks.

Chris: Thank you for being here.

[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].

47: Superfoods VI – Wild Rice, Spirulina, Kombucha, and Acerola 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 episode we are focusing on superfoods for the sixth time.

[Background music].

Hallie: It is superfoods time again. It’s been a little while and we are back at it again.

Chris: We are. Hey, you know what I had for dessert last night?

Hallie: What?

Chris: Or actually no, I made it yesterday and I had it for breakfast this morning.

Hallie: Okay.

Chris: Chocolate chia pudding.

Hallie: Yum, right?

Chris: It was really good. I made chocolate milk out of oat milk using my hot chocolate recipe and then I put it some chia full. You got to mix the chia seeds up at some point because otherwise they get all gloopy at the bottom.

Hallie: True.

Chris: That’s takings I’m getting used to, but it was delicious.

Hallie: So good.

Chris: Yeah, oat milk is good stuff people.

Hallie: Oat milk is the best of the milks.

Chris: It is.

Hallie: Should we dive into it? Oh, first I wanted to tell everyone that these superfood ideas came from polls that we held on Twitter and Instagram.

Chris: That’s right.

Hallie: If you want to get involved in choosing the next superfoods for the next episode, then you should make sure you’re following on Twitter and Instagram because that is how we are now deciding which foods we’re going to be talking about.

Chris: You have questions, we’ve got answers.

Hallie: We’ve got answers, you all. First crop is wild rice.

Chris: Wild rice, the kind of rice that I never liked to eat as a kid.

Hallie: Why did you not like to eat it?

Chris: I liked white rice. That was enough rice for me.

Hallie: What do you mean that was enough rice for you? You didn’t like wild rice?

Chris: That was the best rice. That was the only rice that I thought was good.

Hallie: Because it’s plain and starchy and boring and not delicious?

Chris: Yes, just like me.

Hallie: Yeah, exactly. You’re plain, white, starchy and boring.

Chris: That’s right. Born and bred. No, but I don’t know.

Wild rice and brown rice, they just all tasted weird and different.

Hallie: I mean, they are different. That’s part of the thing that people don’t know about wild rice. Brown rice and white rice are very similar. Wild rice and white rice are actually quite different.

Chris: Really?

Hallie: They’re fully different species.

Chris: Because it looks like plain rice but it’s a bunch of different colors.

Hallie: Yeah, when you get the wild rice that’s mixed up and it is different colors, oftentimes it’s different kinds of rice that they have taken and mixed together. Like if you get wild rice off of one rice plant, they’re all the same color usually.

Chris: Are you saying they’re lying to me?

Hallie: I mean, it is wild that they do mix multiple kinds of rice and pack them.

Chris: [Laughs]. That is so wild.

Hallie: Because oftentimes the rice in those bags has different cooking times from each other because it’s different plants. It’s different kinds of rice.

Chris: Oh, that’s outright annoying.

Hallie: Yeah, it’s kind of annoying, but it usually ends up tasting good, but you can actually buy straight up one species wild rice if you want and we’re going to talk about that.

Chris: Okay. Talk about that.

Hallie: Wild rice is also called Canada rice. It’s also called Indian rice. It’s also called water oats. The ojibwe word for it is manoomin.

Chris: Is it called Canada rice because it grows in Canada or because Canadians are particularly wild?

Hallie: Because it grows in Canada.

Chris: Okay.

Hallie: [Laughs]. I think we all know Canadians are not particularly wild.

Chris: [Laughs].

Hallie: The species is Zizania. It’s related to as I mentioned Oryzeae, which is the white rice, but it is a different genus within a similar area of the family and it’s all within the same grass family, which Poaceae, which is the grass family has tons and tons of plants in it. It is native to North America and to Asia. Mostly, it’s found in small lakes and streams. There are four different species. You have Zizania palustris, which is Northern wild rice. It’s native to the Great Lakes region of North America and then a little bit further west up into the plains and forests of what is present day Canada and parts of the US. You have Zizania aquatica, which is wild rice. The common name is just wild rice. It is native to the Saint Lawrence River, which feeds into Lake Ontario and it’s also native to parts of Florida and the Atlantic and Gulf Coast. Then you have Zizania texana, which common name is Texas wild rice. Do you know about this rice?

Chris: I feel like I’ve seen it in the grocery store maybe.

Hallie: You have absolutely not.

Chris: Really? Okay. I know nothing about Texas wild rice then.

Hallie: So I think you probably should know some things about Texas wild rice.

Chris: As in, I need to know this for my survival?

Hallie: No.

Chris: Or is this something I should have picked up along the way?

Hallie: Yes, the second one.

Chris: Okay.

Hallie: Texas wild rice is endemic. It’s extremely endangered and it’s pretty much endemic to one river in Texas.

Chris: Really?

Hallie: Which is the San Marcos River.

Chris: Oh, no kidding.

Hallie: Yeah.

Chris: Were we around it when we went swimming?

Hallie: All the time.

Chris: Oh wow. [Laughs].

Hallie: Yes, constantly. The San Marcos River is a spring fed river.

Chris: Yeah, it’s cold.

Hallie: There used to be a place right at the spring called Aquarena Springs known for dressing ladies in mermaid costumes amongst other things.

Chris: Yes, and swimming pigs.

Hallie: But yeah, Aquarena Springs was home to the Texas wild rice for the decades it was open.

Chris: What?

Hallie: Yeah, Texas State has a research station there and they study wild rice. It’s very endangered. It’s kind of weird because part of the main park in San Marcos, I went to school in San Marcos. We didn’t mention that. I went to school in San Marcos, Texas and the main park where all of the college students swim every single day and they jump in and they do challenges and they throw Frisbees, that is where that rice is native to. If you jump in and you swim, there’s all this rice around you and people are always complaining about getting tangled up in the rice and all that.

Chris: It’s so wild to me that it could be endangered because rice is something that I think of as so common, but we just have this little rice plant in Texas that you say I’ve never eaten it. Has anyone eaten it? Is it edible?

Hallie: It’s totally edible, but generally, no. You definitely don’t want to eat it because it’s so endangered. It’s just really, really hard for the flowers themselves to get pollinated because the pollen moves very slowly and it doesn’t move very far, so it’s hard for the pollen to get into the flower and it’s hard for the flower to make fruits. When the fruits are made, we really want those to turn into rice plants because it is hard to get those little rice fruits.

Chris: Then with fewer bees around, that’s probably just making things even more difficult.

Hallie: Well, rice is actually not pollinator pollinated. It’s wind and water pollinated.

Chris: Oh, kill the bees. Rice don’t care.

Hallie: Not relevant.

Chris: Don’t kill the bees. Is there like a black market restaurant where I can pay a thousand bucks a plate to eat Texas wild rice?

Hallie: You didn’t hear this from me, but not no. The answer is not no to that question.

[Laughter].

Hallie: But don’t go looking for it at all. Do not go looking for this.

Chris: Oh, wow. Okay. Alright. That might be in the outtakes. We’ll see.

[Laughter].

Hallie: The fourth species of Zizania is Zizania latifolia, which is native to China. Manchurian wild rice is the common name. It’s native to that part of China, which used to be called Manchuria. It’s also really hard to find it in China in the wild, so it’s also kind of endangered in China, but it’s actually invasive species in New Zealand.

Chris: That’s where their candidate is from.

Hallie: Yeah, is that the one thing you know about Manchuria?

Chris: It’s the Manchurian candidate.

Hallie: Great, dad.

Chris: That’s it. That’s all I got.

Hallie: The first two species that we talked about Zizania palustris and Zizania aquatica are the species that are most commonly eaten. They’re not endangered. You can find them in the grocery store. They are eaten both today and also have been eaten for centuries by indigenous people that are native to Turtle Island or what we call North America.

Chris: Alright.

Hallie: I mentioned earlier the Ojibwe word for this plant because that’s the one that I was able to find online, but I want to make it clear. This plant was and is very important to many first nations’ people including the Menominee, the Odawa, the Chippawa. If this is a food crop that you personally really like eating, I really highly recommend that you learn more about the people that cultivated it. You can find really great resources and info at nativewildricecoalition.com, including sources on where to buy native grown wild rice.

Chris: Oh, very cool.

Hallie: Extremely cool.

Chris: Thank you.

Hallie: The largest market producers today, unfortunately, are not really first nation’s people. It’s folks in Minnesota and California because everything is grown in California and parts of Canada. Usually, it’s grown on wetland. As I mentioned, it’s native to streams and small lakes. That is usually where it’s grown. Oftentimes, it’s grown on Peats.

Chris: How does Pete feel about that?

Hallie: Oh my goodness gracious.

[Laughter].

Hallie: P-E-A-T, as in like a bog.

Chris: Alright. A peat bog is like a marshy grassy puddle thing. Cool.

Hallie: Yeah, marshy grassy puddle thing. Otherwise, it has to grow in these wet conditions otherwise the rice would just be less productive or it would be all the way unproductive. It’s grown somewhat because there’s a market for it, but it does take a lot of water, which is problematic if it’s not growing in its native places where there is already a lot of water.

Chris: Got it.

Hallie: I couldn’t find any specific numbers on how big the market for wild rice specifically is, but as you and I both know it is widely available and very popular. The claims around it. Let’s get into that. Claims are it boosts your energy. It helps with your weight loss. It helps with your immune system. Lots of questions around those claims. No proof around any of those claims.

Chris: Okay. Is it healthier than white rice?

Hallie: It is. It is healthier than white rice. White rice is a whole grain, but it is not terribly healthy. Wild rice does have a good amount of protein.

Chris: Really?

Hallie: It’s a whole grain. Whole grains are pretty much universally good for the hearts. They’re good for all kinds of stuff. It is gluten-free as you know rice is, but also wild rice because it’s really grown differently it’s not usually processed in the same processing facilities as white rice, which can sometimes have gluten contamination. Sometimes with certain wild rice brands, you can get like a more gluten-free brand if you are really, really sensitive to gluten and even if it’s processed in the same bagging system or something like that.

Chris: Got it.

Hallie: Sometimes that can cause issues for folks. Wild rice, not usually a lot of crossover with gluten, which is helpful. It has got good nutrition. It has got good antioxidants. There’ve been several studies that have showed that wild rice compared to other whole grains particularly is very heart healthy, but you know all whole grains are heart healthy, but there have been some studies that show wild rice might have a little bit of an edge over other whole grains.

Chris: I’m going to go get me some wild rice.

Hallie: Pretty cool stuff, right?

Chris: Good stuff. I’m not going to put a cape on it, but I’m going to eat it.

Hallie: It’s a great grain. It’s a great rice. Very important to a lot of native peoples. You can go to nativewildricecoalition.com to learn more about tribal producers. It’s a great grain.

Chris: When I hear the phrase great grain, I just imagine this sort of images of fields of wheat and this majestic music and maybe David Attenborough’s voice narrating something.

Hallie: The great grain god.

Chris: There you go.

Hallie: Probably not cape worthy, but a great grain.

Chris: Go wild rice.

Hallie: Shall we move on?

Chris: We shall move on.

Hallie: Spirulina. What do you know?

Chris: It’s algae, is it not?

Hallie: No, actually. It is not.

Chris: Okay.

Hallie: You know anything else?

Chris: I know it’s in some smoothies that I used to buy.

Hallie: Back in the before times in the smoothie times.

Chris: [Laughs]. Very much in the before you times actually.

Hallie: What?

Chris: Yeah.

Hallie: I didn’t know there were smoothies invented before I was alive.

Chris: It’s true. They existed.

Hallie: Wow.

Chris: We had blenders and everything.

Hallie: Blenders and everything. Spirulina is a cyanobacteria, which is called generally a blue-green algae, but is not an algae.

Chris: Okay. I was about to say. Did I not just say it was an algae?

Hallie: It’s not an algae. It’s a blue-green algae. It’s microscopic. It’s a bacteria. It grows like algae, so we say blue-green algae. That blue-green is quite important because if you cut it off, it would just be algae. But a blue-green algae is an algae like thing that is blue-green and not an algae. Very confusing I know.

Chris: That was very confusing. If I take a giant antibiotic and kill the microscopic bacteria, will this fix my gut?

Hallie: What?

Chris: If it’s bacteria I don’t know, can it fix my gut bio?

Hallie: Oh, I see. Well, we will get to that.

Chris: Okay.

Hallie: These things photosynthesize much like plants and algae.

Chris: Really? That’s pretty cool.

Hallie: It’s quite cool. Love an autotroph.

Chris: What’s an autotroph?

Hallie: An autotroph is something that creates its own food as opposed to us heterotrophs meaning other and then troph meaning like food energy, so we have to source something else for our food as opposed to like a plant creates an onset.

Chris: Man, if I could create my own food, I would have to leave the couch even less.

Hallie: Wouldn’t that be great?

Chris: [Laughs]. That would be so great. Autotroph made some ice cream.

Hallie: Cyanobacteria is very important on our planet. There is a theory that it is responsible and it seems very likely that it’s responsible for what is known as the Great Oxidation Event, which was a geo historical time period where oxygen levels of the ocean and the atmosphere rose.

Chris: Okay. I was actually going to ask that as this blue-green algae that’s not algae, is it the thing that lives in the ocean along the surface or whatever and you can see little spots of it?

Hallie: Well, it is microscopic.

Chris: But if there’s like a lot of things.

Hallie: Exactly. If there are many microscopic things, it becomes macroscopic.

Chris: There you go and it very possibly raised the oxygen level of the whole earth.

Hallie: Very possibly, but also it just creates a lot of oxygen, like way to go cyanobacteria.

Chris: I was going to say that sounds pretty important.

Hallie: Extremely great. There are species of cyanobacteria that are also responsible for fixing nitrogen in soils, which like way to go.

Chris: Oh, that’s nice. Got to have the nitrogen for the plants to grow.

Hallie: Right. Spirulina specifically is made from three cyanobacteria species, Arthrospira maxima, Arthrospira fusiformis and Arthrospira platensis.

Chris: Alright.

Hallie: It’s confusing because there is actually a species of cyanobacteria called Spirulina where that’s the genus, but that’s not what this is. It used to be called Spirulina and then they changed the genus and I would think that you would just change the other animals gene or the other bacterial genus because this one you had a common name that people were using, but I digress.

Chris: Okay. I’m confused more now, but that’s okay. There’s multiple genuses of this bacteria. Do they all live together or do you find them separated out?

Hallie: That’s a great question. I do not know the answer to it, but great question, dad.

Chris: Thank you.

Hallie: Absolutely.

Chris: I try to pay attention.

Hallie: How do you grow Spirulina?

Chris: Well, I mean, it just sort of exists in the ocean, does it not?

Hallie: It does grow in water, but if you’re going to create a product of it, then you have to have some method of producing it.

Chris: Okay, so I presume you start with some water.

Hallie: You do start with some water. Naturally, it occurs in lakes. We talked about the ocean. These species specifically occur more often in lakes, particularly lakes with a higher pH. For production, they’re usually grown in a controlled environment. You got like a tank of some kind, tanks have to be oxygenated with water movement and then when it’s time for the Spirulina cyanobacteria blue-green algae to be harvested, the water is pumped up. I saw that you also have this, so it’s pumped up through a faucet and you place a really fine mesh screen over the tank. They have a little fountain that comes up with the water and then it just goes back down onto the screen that’s placed over the tank and then the water just goes back into the tank and the blue green algae is caught on that net. Then they have like a little, have you ever made like dough and you have like a dough scrapper. Do you know what I’m talking about like a little pastry dough scraper?

Chris: Yes.

Hallie: They have one of those. They just scrape all the algae together and then they just gloop it into a five gallon Home Depot bucket.

Chris: Okay. You can look at that mix of spirulina and water with a slightly higher pH and say, yeah, basic.

Hallie: [Laughs]. Then the spirulina gloop in the Home Depot bucket is taken away and it’s dried and then processed. What is it processed into? Most commonly, it is a powder and this powder can be put in things like smoothies or tablets, which has become much more common.

Chris: That sounds weird.

Hallie: Like a little spirulina pill to take with all your supplements and vitamins.

Chris: Everything’s got to be a pill.

Hallie: Exactly. There are other specialty products, obviously with spirulina, but pills is what I saw a lot of.

Chris: I guess gloop is not efficient enough for transport.

Hallie: Definitely not.

Chris: [Laughter].

Hallie: I found a couple of different numbers estimating how big the market was, but on average it was between like $5 and $8 million, so it isn’t nothing. It’s definitely a niche, but it’s like, certainly there is some money there. A lot of claims that it’s helpful for high cholesterol, hypertension, diabetes. That it will cure malnutrition, all this stuff, improve your kidney function, improve liver function. Lots of these claims.

Chris: Sure.

Hallie: It is a good source of beta carotene. It is a good source of minerals, a good source of gamma linoleic acid, which is an essential fatty acid.

Chris: That sounds good.

Hallie: It’s about and I don’t know how, 60% protein.

Chris: Really?

Hallie: I don’t know how at all, but also to be fair, you would have to eat a lot of spirulina to get your daily protein content.

Chris: Oh, yeah.

Hallie: Like a lot. You had it in just like in a powder in your smoothie. How many smoothies would you have to have? A lot.

Chris: You could still eat a spoonful of powder.

Hallie: But like compared to a steak. If a chicken breast is like your daily protein and that’s like 100% and this is 60% and you had like a tablespoon, how many tablespoons? It’s probably not the most efficient way to get your protein, but for an algae or a cyanobacteria blue-green algae, I should, say it seems like a lot of protein.

Chris: Way to go spirulina.

Hallie: Way to go. It does not seem bad for you at all, but probably will not cure your liver malfunction.

Chris: Is that a claim?

Hallie: It’s a claim. I mentioned that earlier.

Chris: Okay. Sorry, I missed that. That’s out there. I almost want to put a cape on it for being a bacteria with that much protein. Way to go.

Hallie: It is impressive. It is not regulated by the FDA. We are talking about superfoods. I would not necessarily call this a superfood as it is not really regulated by the FDA in the same way. There are technically nutrition labels, but there’s not a lot of science around how accurate those nutrition labels are. I would say if this was like more in the mainstream, if there was better regulation around it, if it was more clear what it was and what was going into all of the things that were on all the shelves, perhaps we could put a cape on it, but I don’t want to tell people to go out and buy spirulina and they’re buying like 50% sawdust, 50% spirulina. Not saying that that’s what’s happening.

Chris: But it’s possible.

Hallie: But what I’m saying is there’s very little regulation and it’s unclear.

Chris: Well, when someone’s trying to sell me something that’s not regulated by the FDA for efficacy or safety, I need a break.

Hallie: A break. Here we go.

[Background music].

Hallie: Dad, do you know what time it is?

Chris: It’s 7:43.

Hallie: It’s time to vote.

Chris: Get out there. Vote your votiness. Use your voting right.

Hallie: Do all the voting.

Chris: I did it today. It took me about 15 minutes and it’s the first week of early voting still. Just because the lines were super long on the first day, doesn’t mean you can’t find a place to go on a quick vote and there’s a lot of resources like VOTE411 that you can go and get sample ballots and see how candidates stand on certain issues. Get out there. Do your thing.

Hallie: Absolutely, I personally am using Ballotpedia as well as the League of Women Voters and my local newspaper who compiled a bunch of statements from local candidates I would never have been able to access this much information on the people running for school board in my area without their amazing work. If you are able to vote in the US we have this election coming up, please, please, please go out there and vote.

Chris: You know who I would vote for?

Hallie: Who’s that?

Chris: Our patrons.

Hallie: Oh, you mean like Paul, who recently upgraded his patronage and our starfruit patrons, Lindsay, Vikram, Patrick, Mama Casey and Shianne.

Chris: Exactly like them.

Hallie: We are so grateful for every single one of our patrons, new, old, medium. You guys are all amazing. We love you so much and we hope you’re having a wonderful day wherever you are and I think that it’s now time to get back to the episode.

[Background music].

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

Chris: I do.

Hallie: Terrific.

Chris: Listener, you’re going to have to bear with us for a little bit because this is an audio medium and the nature fact that I found is visual in nature. But part of the joy of this will be Hallie’s reaction to it I’m sure. We will put a link in the show notes where you will be able to go see this amazing feat of nature factness.

Hallie: Now, I’m really confused.

Chris: The next item that we’re going to talk about is kombucha. Alright. Wonder Woman is coming out. The next Wonder Woman movie is coming out.

Hallie: Is it?

Chris: I don’t know. In the next few months or so.

Hallie: How nice?

Chris: It gets delayed for a year from COVID. I don’t know. Check your local listings.

Hallie: [Laughs].

Chris: But apparently with kombucha, you can shape it.

Hallie: What?

Chris: As you grow it, you shape it.

Hallie: Oh, like the SCOBY? We will talk about what a SCOBY is.

Chris: I don’t know what a SCOBY is. I just found this cost player who made a wonder woman costume out of kombucha.

Hallie: No.

Chris: Listener, we’re currently looking at a three piece set. There’s a pair of boots on a pedestal. There is the wonder woman. I don’t know. What is that? The dress thingy?

Hallie: The little corset with the skirt.

Chris: There you go on a stand and a tiara and then her cufflinks, her bracelets.

Hallie: Listener, first of all is if it’s safe for you to look, you should pause this episode and go look at this. To be fair, where are you going? You shouldn’t be going anywhere. You should be at home. Go take a look at this. Second of all this, if I’m picturing a costume made out of a SCOBY, I’m picturing something pretty disgusting, right? If you know what a SCOBY is, that’s gross. This is very much extremely cool and not gross.

Chris: It is. It’s all a different color. It’s got all the colors right. Got all the structure right and it’s got a picture of her wearing the pieces.

Hallie: Is that shield made of a kombucha SCOBY?

Chris: I don’t know if the shield and the sword are made of the kombucha or not.

Hallie: This is wild. This is an excellent nature fact, dad.

Chris: Thank you. Thank you very much. I apologize for the visual nature, but once you see it, you will be blown away.

Hallie: What is the artist’s name?

Chris: Christine Knobel. Knobel, K-N-O-B-E-L.

Hallie: Great work, Christine. Absolutely amazing.

Chris: Good job, Christine.

Hallie: So kombucha, what do you know, dad?

Chris: I know that you can make it in the kitchen and it doesn’t taste that great.

Hallie: What? You don’t like kombucha?

Chris: I think it’s one of those things I’ve tried I don’t remember. I’ve tried Yerba Mate once. It definitely did not taste good. It tasted like grass or dirt or something. It tasted like the ground.

Hallie: [Laughs].

Chris: I may be conflicting Yerba Mate and kombucha, but I’m pretty sure I’ve tasted kombucha and I was just like, no. That’s not for me.

Hallie: I’m quite surprised that you have not had kombucha. I feel like it’s very popular these days like you can get it everywhere.

Chris: In fact, I think I got in a jar. I forget what flavor it was supposed to be or whatever and I just remember being no.

Hallie: That is very surprising to me. I like kombucha, but when I was in grad school, two of my three roommates were growing kombucha in the kitchen so we had a lot of kombucha on hand all the time.

Chris: Well, the kids like it. What can I say?

Hallie: It’s good. You should try. It’s like a drink.

Chris: It’s not good.

Hallie: It’s good. It is fermented black or green tea.

Chris: Which just seems like a bad idea. It seems like you’re going to leave the liquid out it’s going to grow mould on it. You’re going to get sick when you drink it.

Hallie: But the thing is you don’t get sick because it’s supposed to have microbes on it. How you make kombucha, you have the tea.

Chris: You know what’s a microbe?

Hallie: What?

Chris: COVID-19. That’s a microbe.

Hallie: Oh, my God. Cut that out and put it in the outtake.

Chris: [Laughs].

Hallie: We’re not making COVID content anymore.

Chris: Alright.

Hallie: How you make kombucha? As I mentioned, it’s fermented tea, so you got to have the tea and then you add in a lot of sugar and then you add in the SCOBY, which is an acronym for a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast.

Chris: So wait. Are you making a SCOBY treat, SCOBY snacks?

Hallie: Yeah, you make SCOBY snacks. Exactly and the SCOBY eats it all up and then it all gets fermented.

Chris: I can’t possibly be the first person to think of that joke.

Hallie: [Laughs]. If you’ve never seen a SCOBY, I want to describe it for you. Dad, have you ever seen a SCOBY?

Chris: No, I don’t know what a SCOBY is. You said it was an acronym.

Hallie: It is a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast.

Chris: Symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast, SCOBY.

Hallie: So I want to paint you a picture. You have like one of those glass containers with the little spouts you would put lemonade in or something on a cold day.

Chris: Sure.

Hallie: Instead on the inside, there is some black tea with a lot of sugar and on the top, there is approximately half a centimeters worth of slimy organism symbiosis and it’s very slimy and it takes up the whole width of the jar. When it is big enough, you lift it out of the water and you peel away the layers.

Chris: You peel it?

Hallie: You peel away the layers and you create a wonder woman suit or you throw it down the garbage disposal or you send it away with your friends to start their own kombucha at their own house.

Chris: You peel it.

Hallie: You kind of peel it away in a way that’s very weird and I did not believe until I saw it with my eyes, but it just peels away. It’s like little sheets of paper, but it’s a SCOBY. It’s wild. It’s very slimy. It’s very delicious though.

Chris: It sounds disgusting.

Hallie: But it’s very delicious.

[Laughter].

Hallie: Kombucha possibly originated in China. There’s a lot of theories though. It’s kind of hard to tell because you can peel the SCOBY away and give it away, so it was widely circulated. It is alcoholic as it is fermented, but it’s less than 5%, so it is not regulated.

Chris: Also the fact that it’s made with green or black tea is probably another reason that I don’t drink it because I don’t drink caffeine in general.

Hallie: I don’t know what the final caffeine level is. If like the fermentation breaks down any caffeine molecules I don’t actually know.

Chris: If Texans turned sweet tea into kombucha, is that a [inaudible]?

Hallie: Absolutely. The market for kombucha now is huge. I looked it up. It is billions of dollars.

Chris: Oh, boy.

Hallie: Billions and billions of dollars. It gained popularity in the nineties as a health food and now it has just exploded and you can find it in most grocery stores.

Chris: Alright.

Hallie: There is also a new product called Kombrewcha or hard kombucha.

Chris: Kombrewcha or hard kombucha, so it’s kombucha with more alcohol.

Hallie: It’s like a Mike’s Hard kind of thing, but for kombucha. Claims, it rids your bodies off toxins. It can treat hair loss, it can treat arthritis, cancer, constipation. It can treat diabetes and prevent aging. Lots of claims. It was widely and still is widely promoted as a health food.

Chris: Listener, if you were putting alcohol into your body, you are not riding your body off toxins. You are putting toxins into your body.

Hallie: Probably the same with caffeine, not untrue. Nutritionally in actuality, in reality, it has whatever nutrition was in the teas. Green tea has antioxidants in it. Black tea has some antioxidants in it. That’s pretty much how nutritious the kombucha is. However, there have not been any human trials on kombucha to look at any benefits or risks.

Chris: I thought part of the supposed benefit of kombucha came from the fact that it was an active bacterial culture or something like that.

Hallie: Right. That is something that’s widely spread around. Again, there have not been any trials and there’s not really any reason to believe that the bacteria in the kombucha is going to bolster the bacteria in your gut. They are very different and we don’t have any science showing that kombucha is good for your microbiome. There are some risks with kombucha because a lot of people grow it at home and because there is fermentation involved, there are risks of pathogenic microorganisms getting introduced, so you do have a risk of something bad being in there. Also because kombucha has a very low pH, you do also have the risk of, if you put it in a metal container, it can actually leach metals out of the container. It’s very, very acidic. There are serious health consequences to drinking super acidic things. There are some people who drink kombucha like every single day and it’s not always good to be drinking something that’s as acidic. But again, there are no human studies on the risks or benefits of kombucha.

However, it does not seem to be the best thing for you to be drinking all the time.

Chris: Not only will I not put a cape on this, but unlike wild rice and spirulina, I’m going to say hard pass.

Hallie: I would not say hard pass.

Chris: I would say hard pass.

Hallie: It’s delicious and there’s not a lot of risks. Don’t put it in a metal container. Be aware that as with anything fermented, there are risks to pathogens, but no, I wouldn’t say hard pass. I would say once in a while, if it’s a lovely drink, it’s nice cold drink you’re looking for something, kombucha is a good option. There’s lots of flavors. It’s very delicious. I would not say it should be a habit of yours to drink kombucha all the every time and don’t put it in metal containers, but it’s not going to cure anything. But it’s an okay drink.

Chris: Maybe sit down to dinner my steak potatoes made with some asparagus and I swirl a glass of kombucha.

Hallie: Exactly.

Chris: [Laughs]. Oh, men.

Hallie: Sniff it. Look at the legs or whatever.

Chris: The legs?

Hallie: It’s a wine thing.

Chris: Whatever. Hard pass.

Hallie: Should we do our last thing?

Chris: Let’s do the last thing.

Hallie: It’s acerola.

Chris: Hey, Hallie. What the flat Jack is acerola? I have never heard of that.

Hallie: Acerola. The scientific name is Malpighia emarginata.

Chris: Wow.

Hallie: The family is Malpighiaceae. One of the common names for acerola is Barbados cherry. Acerola is a malpighiales. It is not a rosid. Cherries are rosid, not a malpighiales. They’re not actually that related.

Chris: It sounds like it’s a bad big.

Hallie: As I mentioned, common name for acerola Barbados cherry, Acerola cherry, West Indian cherry and the wild crepe myrtle.

Chris: Wow. Is that what dumps those stupid flowers all over my car once a year?

Hallie: There is a plant that we grow here in Texas that is native to Southeast Asia called the crepe myrtle. However, and I tried to find this and I could not, they are definitely not at all related. The one that grows in your yard is [inaudible] indigo. It is in the [inaudible] family. This is in the Malpighiaceae family. So different families I don’t know. I don’t know why they’re called the same thing. I couldn’t find it.

Chris: Someone probably saw the flowers and said, “Hey. That looks about right.”

Hallie: Quite possibly. The acerola is from Central America, South America and parts of North America. Generally, it is mostly available in capsules or an extract form. It’s not often eaten fresh except for in the areas where it grows native to. In the Gulf coast areas of what we call North America and in parts of Central America down to South America and the Caribbean, it is consumed in those areas.

Chris: In those areas, what form does it take?

Hallie: Well, it’s a fruit. In those areas where it’s native to it is eaten fresh and other places it’s eaten as an extract or a capsule.

Chris: It looks sort of like a cherry likish.

Hallie: It looks like a cherry, but it’s very different from a cherry.

Chris: Alright.

Hallie: The extract, I found some numbers between $8.6 and $5.8 million for the extract is the market in 2017. Again, similar to spirulina, it’s quite niche, but there is definitely money involved. As an extract, it’s put into supplements. It’s used as a food preservative in packaged foods, snacks, beverages, stuff like that. It’s also used for meat preservation, but most commonly you’ll see it as a supplement. There was a lot of interest back in the sixties after some cool science found some cool things about acerola, which I’ll get to in one second, but no one’s ever been able to make it marketable either fresh or juiced or canned, so all we really have is like the dried extra.

Chris: Was it the same science where they did LSD research on prisoners or whatever?

Hallie: Definitely not, dad. What a weird thing to say? What an energy to bring to the end of the episode?

Chris: You said back in the sixties. I just figured that’s all they did.

Hallie: [Laughs]. That’s I will tell you not what agronomists were doing. The claims, it improves your athletic performance, can fight infections, provide health benefits to smokers, can act as a natural cancer treatment. It can boost your eye health, yada yada yada. There’s a long list of claims as it is marketed generally as a health food supplement. Widely, those are disproven.

Chris: That’s too bad because that sounds great.

Hallie: Right. Almost too good to be true. It does in fact actuality have good levels of Vitamin A, good amounts of iron, good amounts of carotene.

Chris: Excellent.

Hallie: It has good amounts of Vitamin C. Now, I want to play a little game with you. Some of the other food crops that we eat that have good amounts of Vitamin C are oranges, broccoli and kiwi. I’m going to read you the amounts of Vitamin C that those three crops have and then I want you to guess how much acerola has because this is the thing in the 1960s that they were researching and this was the thing that led people to try to propagate it as a food crop, so it does have high Vitamin C.

Chris: I feel like I already know the answer.

Hallie: [Laughs. Hang on. Oranges have 53 milligrams of Vitamin C per 100 grams, broccoli it’s 89 and kiwi it’s 93. What do you think acerola has?

Chris: 200.

Hallie: 200 is your guess?

Chris: 200 is my guess.

Hallie: The answer is 1,676.

Chris: Holy snapdragons.

Hallie: It’s a lot milligrams per 100 grams of acerola.

Chris: It is a lot. Wow.

Hallie: It’s like a whole lot. It’s like, wow! It’s a whole, whole lot.

Chris: Do you know what I remember from biochemistry?

Hallie: What?

Chris: Is if you consume an excess of Vitamin C, it all comes out. It just makes you pee faster and you just slough it all out.

Hallie: Exactly. It is water soluble, so it just all goes out. That’s one of the cool things about this is there are a lot of vitamins where if you eat too many, bad things can happen to you.

Chris: It’s true.

Hallie: This one, not the case. Imagine if you’re sailing the seas and you get scurvy and then you stumble upon an island in the Caribbean and you find an acerola tree, how lucky are you?

Chris: Oh man, I’m getting me some.

Hallie: Cure that right up. Vitamin C is great. It’s great for scurvy. It’s very crucial to immune system function. It’s important for tissue repair. It’s a good antioxidant. As you mentioned, it’s water soluble. If you’re going to be a food and you’re going to have a lot of all nutrient, I feel like Vitamin C is the one to have because there’s no downsides to having a lot of Vitamin C. You can just max people out immediately. It’s like a chip code.

Chris: If I’m ever lost at sea and I get stranded on the island and I find some acerola in that case, I will put a cape on it.

Hallie: Absolutely.

Chris: [Laughs]. But I still don’t feel like we can play the song.

Hallie: What? No, let’s play the song.

Chris: You think deserves the song?

Hallie: Absolutely. Why not?

Chris: I mean, I love the song.

Hallie: [Laughs]. Here comes the song.

[Background music].

Chris: Alright. If you have a smoothie, maybe have a little spirulina in it. If you want some extra protein any morning, maybe put a giant scoop on your cereal or just take a big spoonful and crunch it away. Eat some wild rice. Wild rice sounds great. I’m going to try it again. It doesn’t cook as quickly as white rice. Doesn’t taste as good as white rice. Maybe you just have to get used to the flavor. I don’t know, but it sounds like pretty great stuff. If it’s native to Texas, it’s endangered. Don’t eat it. Stay the heck away from kombucha.

Hallie: No.

Chris: It’s bad stuff.

Hallie: Disagree.

Chris: Hard pass and give acerola a try.

Hallie: If you can find it.

Chris: If you can find it, especially in cherry like form.

Hallie: Cherry like form seems great.

[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 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].


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].

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.

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].

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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41: How Plants Communicate Transcript

Listen to the full episode.

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

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

[Background music].

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

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

Hallie: Okay.

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

Hallie: What?

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

Hallie: That doesn’t make any sense.

Chris: [Laughs]. I agree.

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

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

Hallie: Because they rode the fungus.

Chris: Yeah, they rode the mycelial network.

Hallie: Mycelia is basically fungus.

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

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

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

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

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

Hallie: Wait, you said five plant kingdoms.

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

Hallie: Yeah, right. Yes.

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

Hallie: Separate from plants.

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

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

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

Chris: Wait, are they a berry?

Hallie: No.

Chris: [Laughs].

Hallie: Oh my God. Absolutely not.

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

Hallie: Yeah, pretty much.

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

Hallie: It’s what produces the reproductive parts.

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

Hallie: [Laughs].

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

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

Chris: It’s not that kind of podcast.

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

Chris: Got it. Okay.

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

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

Hallie: Then the hyphae is a branch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hallie: Under the ground in the soil.

Chris: There are fuzzy bits.

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

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

Hallie: Yes, fine.

[Laughter].

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

Hallie: Sometimes.

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

Hallie: Yeah.

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

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

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

Chris: Like a rhizome?

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

Chris: Mycorrhiza fungi.

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

Chris: Fungus and rhiza meaning root.

Hallie: Exactly.

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

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

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

Chris: Why is that?

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

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

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

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

Hallie: Well, yeah.

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

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

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

Chris: It’s fungi like the peanut butter.

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

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

Hallie: Oh my God.

[Laughter].

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

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

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

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

Chris: Ecto, does it mean outer?

Hallie: Exactly. Right.

Chris: Okay.

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

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

Chris: That sounds amazing.

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

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

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

Chris: Got it.

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

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

Chris: Because they’re socialists?

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

Chris: [Laughs]. Oh, mad respect.

Hallie: I think it’s good.

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

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

Chris: Dude.

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

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

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

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

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

Chris: Oh, boy.

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

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

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

Hallie: No, oh my God.

Chris: [Laughs].

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

Chris: Oh, okay.

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

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

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

Chris: What?

Hallie: Compost. You should compost, dad.

[Laughter].

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

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

Chris: Got it.

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

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

Hallie: Sure, dad?

Chris: Yeah.

[Laughter].

Hallie: Absolutely.

Chris: Site not found. I don’t know.

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

Chris: Internal server error.

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

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

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

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

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

Chris: True.

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

Chris: That is good.

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

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

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

Chris: [Laughs]. Into the break.

[Background music].

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

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

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

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

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

[Background music].

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

Chris: I do.

Hallie: Great.

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

Hallie: Yeah.

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

Hallie: No way.

Chris: Oh, yeah way.

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

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

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

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

Hallie: What?

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

Hallie: That doesn’t even make any sense.

Chris: [Laughs].

Hallie: Oh, my God.

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

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

Chris: [Laughs].

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

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

Hallie: No.

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

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

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

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

Chris: [Laughs]. Thank God.

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

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

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

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

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

Hallie: It’s wild.

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

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

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

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

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

[Laughter].

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

Chris: That is true.

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

Chris: They’ve got mycelia privilege.

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

Chris: Oh, that makes sense.

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

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

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

Chris: It’s a metaphor for life.

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

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

Hallie: That’s the stuff of it.

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

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

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

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

Chris: That’s true. Okay.

[Background music].

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hallie: But until then, keep on growing.

[Background music].

41: How Plants Communicate

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

Read the full episode transcript here.

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