Tag Archives: Agriculture industry

All episodes that discuss, relate to, or center around the industry of agriculture.

42: COVID-19 and the Food Supply Transcript

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

Listen to the full episode.

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

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

[Background music].

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

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


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

Chris: Okay. Where do we start?

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

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

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

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

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

Chris: Probably.

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

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

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

Chris: All right.

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

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

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

Chris: Oh, man.

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

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

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

Hallie: Right.

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

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

Chris: Okay.

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

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

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

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

Chris: I’m shocked I say.

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

Chris: Okay.

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

Chris: It sounds like capitalism is doing its job.

Hallie: What do you mean?

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

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

Chris: Got it. Okay.

Hallie: Do you want to move on to milk?

Chris: Oh boy. Do I ever?

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

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

Hallie: Yeah, there were pictures.

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

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

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

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

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

Chris: It’s just people not buying milk.

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

Chris: I do like to get milkshake.

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

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

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

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

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

Hallie: The cows were milked much less frequently.

[Laughter].

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

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

Chris: Dairy industry is so weird.

Hallie: Yeah, it’s intense.

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

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

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

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

Chris: Yeah, that’s just so weird.

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

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

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

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

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

Hallie: Absolutely, we can.

Chris: Love it.

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

Chris: All right.

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

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

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

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

Chris: Why?

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

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

Hallie: What do you do?

Chris: I take a break.

Hallie: Here we go.

[Background music].

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Background music].

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

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

Hallie: That’s a lot of milk.

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

Hallie: I could get in there.

[Laughter].

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

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

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

Hallie: It’s a weird thing we do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris: That sounds like a lot.

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

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

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

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

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

Chris: Okay.

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

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

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

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

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

Chris: Okay.

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

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

Hallie: Give him a ring.

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

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

Chris: That sounds expensive.

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

Chris: Wow.

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

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

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

Chris: All righty.

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

Chris: That makes sense.

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

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

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

Chris: You know what my prediction is?

Hallie: What?

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

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

Chris: Call your senators.

Hallie: Please call your senators. PRIME Act.

[Background music].

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hallie: But until then, keep on growing.

Chris: Bye everybody.

[Background music].


42: COVID-19 and the Food Supply

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

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

Read the transcript.

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

A silver dollar plant in a pot

40: Houseplants Transcript

Listen to the full episode.

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

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

[Background music].

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

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

Hallie: Oh brother.

Chris: As their house?

Hallie: Oh God.

Chris: Their house.

Hallie: Oh no. [Laughs].

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

Hallie: Pretty good.

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

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

Chris: Okay.

Hallie: No, not really.

Chris: All right.

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


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

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

Chris: All right.

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

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

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

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

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

Chris: All right. Cool.

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

Chris: Do people put houseplants on ledges?

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

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

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

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

Hallie: What a concept.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris: Okay. That’d be cool.

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

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

Chris: Nice.

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

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

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

Chris: Got it.

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

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

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

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

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

Chris: Why?

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

Chris: Am I in prison?

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

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

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

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

[Laughter].

Hallie: How do you feel, right?

Chris: No, it’s awful.

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

Chris: I guess it creates one point of interest.

Hallie: Yeah?

Chris: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris: Okay, cool. Magic plants.

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

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

Hallie: What’s that?

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

Hallie: Here we go.

[Background music].

Chris: Hey, Hallie.

Hallie: Hey, dad.

Chris: Do you know who probably has houseplants?

Hallie: Who?

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

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

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

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

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

Hallie: What’s up?

[Background music].

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

Chris: I do have a nature fact.

Hallie: Hit me.

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

Hallie: Sure.

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

Hallie: Who?

Chris: Little Brownie Bakers.

Hallie: Okay. [Laughs].

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

Hallie: Yeah, I know this.

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

Hallie: Right.

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

Hallie: [Laughs].

Chris: It’s not blowing your mind?

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

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

Hallie: I was in on something like a conspiracy?

Chris: Yeah, you knew the secret.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris: True.

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

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

Hallie: Tara-tarara. Nature fact.

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

Hallie: I hope so.

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

Hallie: What do houseplants need?

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

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

Chris: I can definitely supply carbon dioxide.

Hallie: Great.

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

Hallie: Correct.

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

Hallie: Probably.

Chris: Probably, really?

Hallie: But maybe not.

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

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


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

Hallie: Yeah, you can top dress with compost.

Chris: Really?

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

Chris: Okay. That makes sense.

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

Chris: Lay it on me.

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

Chris: Actually, it’s Jerry.

Hallie: Okay. Sorry, Larry.

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

Hallie: Terry, got it.

[Laughter].

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

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

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

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

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

Chris: Yes.

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

Chris: It goes great on chicken.

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

Chris: Flowers are great. Love a flower.

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

Chris: Cool. Lots of options.

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

Chris: Five plants. You talked about five plants.

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

Chris: [Laughs].

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

Chris: Do they follow you home?

Hallie: Wait, what do you mean?

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

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

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

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

Chris: Are they talking to the plant?

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

Chris: All right.

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

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

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

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

Chris: Got it.

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

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

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

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

Chris: Not even a green thumb.

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

Chris: Green rule of thumb.

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

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

Hallie: Yeah.

[Background music].

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hallie: But until then, keep on growing.

[Background music].

A silver dollar plant in a pot

40: Houseplants

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

Read the full episode transcript.

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

39: Good Food and Supply Chains Transcript with FamilyFarmed

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. I’m Hallie Casey and I studied and currently work in agriculture.

Chris: My name is Chris Casey. I’m Hallie’s dad. Each episode we pick an area of agriculture or food production to discuss. This week we are talking about, I don’t know, what are we talking about?

Hallie: [Laughs].

Chris: Local food and supply chains. Something that I don’t understand.

[Background music].

Hallie: Today on the show, we have two awesome folks from the Chicago Good Food non-profit FamilyFarmed. We have Anna Crofts who is a program manager and Bob Benenson the communications manager.

Anna: Hi. Great to be here.

Hallie: Welcome.

Anna: Thanks for having us.

Bob: Yes, thanks a lot. It’s good to be here.

Hallie: Anna, you and I have chatted before, but Bob, you and I actually have never met. Neither of you guys have met dad. I was wondering if you guys could give a little introduction about you and what you do for FamilyFarmed and maybe a little background on FamilyFarmed as an organization.

Chris: Okay. Just for the record, we met 10 minutes ago.

Hallie: [Laughs].

Chris: I don’t know where you were or what you were doing, but we were chatting it up.

[Laughter].

Hallie: Well, then just for the listeners at home.

Bob: We are old friends by now.

Chris: That’s right.

[Laughter].

Anna: Well, I can start and then I can let Bob give the history of FamilyFarmed since he’s been around for quite a while. My name’s Anna. I work on our farmer training and market development programs mainly with the farmer training working with our farmer trainer Atina Diffley to carry out trainings all across the country. We’ve done trainings that are about 48 of the 50 states by now. A lot of those focus heavily on farm food safety and trying to make sure that we’re preparing beginner farmers or even farmers who just want to revamp their operations so that they can practice proper food safety, understand things like the Food Modernization Act and get them prepared for the GAP certification, which is good agricultural practices in case they want to become certified. Our trainings are a mixture of that. Then we also focus on helping them to get into new markets, whether that’s direct marketing, things like CSAs and farmers markets, or wholesale marketing if they want to sell to restaurants or to bigger distributors. On the market development side of things, what we do is we try and partner to get farmers products into stores whether it’s wholesale distributors or smaller retailers. It works across the organization with our other programs, like the Good Food Accelerator, which is a program that focuses on local beginning food entrepreneurs. What a lot of our market development does is it helps them to get opportunities with retailers so we get their products onto the shelf. My job is to just coordinate those programs, to make connections, to help with grant deliverables, make sure that we’re staying on track. That’s majority of my work.

Hallie: Awesome. That is so interesting. Bob, do you want to tell us a little bit about your piece and the rest of FamilyFarmed?

Bob: Okay, sure. I came to this as a second career. I’m a career journalist. I spent 30 years in Washington, DC covering politics, covering elections. My wife grew up in a farm about 45 miles South of Chicago. So I kind of literally inherited the farm after her dad passed away in 2008.

Hallie: Oof.

Bob: I’ve always had a passion for food. When I moved out here in 2011 we just loved Chicago, I decided that I really wanted to work with people who were working at the grassroots community level to affect positive change, and it could have gone a lot of different directions. Unfortunately, I met Jim Slama, our CEO about eight years ago and I was able to build a career in good food advocacy. FamilyFarmed evolved out of an organization. It started earlier in 1996 called Sustain, which was an environmental advocacy and marketing company. They would run up media campaigns and supportive environmental issues. He started working on some campaigns like in 1998 to enforce strong organic standards. This was when they were first creating the USDA organic standards and there were some ridiculous things that agribusiness was trying to push through like you could grow in sewage sludge and still get certified as organic. They played a big role of blocking that. Over the next few years, Jim recognized that there were a lot of major organizations doing environmental advocacy, but practically nobody was doing good food and nobody was working to connect local farmers with buyers. This was before anybody ever heard of the Good Food Movement. Really, it was very embryonic. Then in 2004, they launched the Good Food EXPO, which remained the flagship of FamilyFarmed until last year. Then we discontinued it because we were doing other programming. It was actually called the Local Organic Trade Show. That was its purpose.

It was to connect farmers with buyers. The name was changed to FamilyFarmed officially in 2006. Again, very farmer oriented. The farmer training program that Anna was describing became a reality in 2008. It has been based on a series of manuals that Anna will get into more detail. The first was Wholesale Success, which was aimed at helping farmers who are a little bit more advanced and mature to get into wholesale markets. Then Direct Market Success, which we published in 2016. I was already on board and I played a role in that. That was aimed at early stage farmers get their feet wet and build market by direct marketing, farmers markets and CSAs and direct restaurant, things like that. Then food safety has always been a premier issue and so the On-Farm Food Safety manual and website was created. FamilyFarmed has changed a little bit over the years because the market has changed. Now, there is the Good Food Movement. There’s a massive population that is concerned about health and wellness environmental sustainability. There are a lot of producers and investors involved in it. Other programs like our Good Food Financing & Innovation Conference, Good Food Accelerator, Naturally Chicago, which we started last year. I really engaged a lot in that. But I’ll turn it back over to Anna to tell you what we’re still doing for farmers.

Hallie: Bob, you mentioned the farmer success manuals. I got to say, I’ve used these manuals. They’re good manuals. The other day, like two days ago, I was talking to a farmer and he’s like, “Have you seen this manual? I saw it once. It looked like really good content and I just can’t seem to find it.” I was like, “Oh, do you mean this manual? It’s a great manual.” [Laughs].

Bob: Yeah, so many of the farmers who have used it have told us that it’s dog eared. [Laughs].

Anna: Yeah.

Bob: It’s in their workspace. They use it every day. It’s been a real mainstay.

Chris: I was going to say you talking about the Good Food Movement, I had never heard of the Good Food Movement. I think you described it pretty well, but I had never heard it called that.

Hallie: I was wondering if either of you guys could maybe give a more expanded definition of Good Food, because we’ve never actually talked about it on the show and I know it goes beyond just organic and local and those more commonly heard labels. I was wondering if either of you guys were able to give a more expanded definition of that.

Bob: I’ll jump in because I’ve actually done a lot of work on our mission and vision. We define it as accessible and delicious food that is produced as locally as possible using sustainable humane and fair practices. It covers a lot of ground, it covers environmental issues, it covers labor issues, it covers health and wellness issues and it covers food accessibility. The vision statement that FamilyFarmed has had for a long time is good food on every table. I would underline it all caps every because that’s the intention. Too many people are excluded from this. We’re expanding our programming to reach people in under resourced communities, lower income people to make sure that they have equitable access to the same good, healthy food, sustainable food for everybody and that people get a lot of financial means already have accessible to them. Anna.

Anna: Oh yeah. I agree with all of that.

I think that’s a pretty succinct definition of the Good Food Movement. It’s definitely like an intersectional approach to just providing from the environment to labor, to people, making sure everyone has access to good food and so I think you described it perfectly, Bob.

Bob: Thanks. [Laughs].

Hallie: This interview is going to be part of a larger series. We’re talking about local food. As a part of that, we talked to an urban farmer and we talked to a farmer’s market manager and I wanted to bring you guys on to get that more broader view of what it really looks like to incorporate local food into the food system and into the supply chain. I was wondering, Anna, if you could talk a little bit about your work, but also your views on what drew you to this work. One of the things that I’ve really enjoyed in these interviews is learning how people got to the Good Food Movement and the local food movement because I feel like people just often take the really interesting paths I guess to get here because it’s something that really draws you in.

Anna: After I graduated college, I went to school in New York and then I graduated and I moved down to Buenos Aires, Argentina and I was working for a software company. One thing that really struck me was one of my first grocery shopping experiences in the city. I went and my partner at the time wanted me to pick up some chicken and I went to the store and I realized they had run out of chicken. I asked them at the store. I was like, “Oh, do you have any more chicken left?” They were like, “No, you got to get in early for that.” It was like a big chain grocery store and I was just like, “How do you run out of chicken?” Coming from the United States, this is the land of abundance. There’s restocking the shelves all the time. It was really shocking to me.

After that realization, I met a woman who became a good friend of mine down there. She was really focused on intersectional veganism, and a lot of that had a huge food justice focus and so I just started to learn about all of this. It’s happening in Argentina, but it was definitely happening in the US just like food disparity, “food deserts.” These are things that I never had to think about growing up because I grew up in a privileged background and so we never had to struggle to find food. We had a grocery store less than a mile away from our house. I just started to think like, wow, food is such a fundamental human right. The fact that there are structures in place to prevent people from having access to something that is just so basic, and so really easy or should be easy to provide. It became something I care deeply about. I left the software marketing world and I moved back to the US and became an AmeriCorps VISTA for an organization called the Regional Environmental Council. The name is a bit misleading. They had more of a focus on urban farming and food justice practices. Working with them, I was able to learn a lot about the importance of local food. We did a lot of work around supplemental nutrition benefits, like SNAP, making sure that farmers markets are getting grants that would allow the local farmers markets to accept SNAP. Then doing a lot of advocacy for information outreach. People knew that if they shop at this farmers market their benefits would be doubled. You’re essentially getting $20 extra dollars in free produce. When we think about the importance of local food, it’s important for so many reasons. I think one thing that’s been really illuminating about COVID in this age that we’re living in is that it has really laid bare all of the structural flaws that big ag has caused, like having to ship to all these big grocery stores across the country. Not only is there like a lot of environmental degradation, but it’s just not sustainable. I think that’s what we’re really seeing right now.

There’s the environmental issue, but also like with what Bob said when thinking of labor, when you shop locally, if you go to a farmers market, you’re able to meet the farmer. Usually, the farmer or the people working on the farm are also the ones, I know this because I worked on a farm as well, and they’re the ones at the market selling you the products that they grow. There’s a transparency there. I think that where you spend your money it’s a lot of power and so you can make the choice like I’m going to give my money to this farm and to this farmer, because I know, or I can figure out if they’re using good labor practices whereas with big agriculture, you don’t know. A lot of the time it’s very predatory on migrant farmers and they’re making really low wages in very poor working conditions and our government allows that. There’s the human aspect. But then I think when we shop locally, we also realize like tomatoes aren’t in season in December. I think that seasonality and education around seasonality becomes really important because it can help people. It has all these residual benefits too. It’s like, okay, what’s in season? Like I have to learn how to cook it. I think it can help people to just really deepen their relationship with food. It’s all of these beautiful things coming together that makes shopping locally, so powerful and so important. I do want to add that it’s not always easy, right? I think that sometimes dropping at a farmers market you’re privileged enough if you live near one and sometimes prices are really high. That’s why I think it’s really important for benefits like SNAP and a lot of different farmers markets have double food boxes being able to get these grants so that people who are on supplemental nutrition benefits can get more bang for their buck because local food is great, but it can be expensive for a lot of people. I just think we all need to be mindful about never stopping to push for that fight for access. Sorry, that’s a tangent.

[Laughter].

Hallie: No, it’s so true though. I feel like accesses can be left out of the Good Food discussions. Edwin Marty, actually, I remember one time told me he’s the sustainability manager for the city of Austin. One time he told me, “Yeah, you can buy something organic, but technically something organic could be certified organic and it could still have been grown with slave labor.” That’s true, right? Having this more holistic view of what does it really mean for us as consumers to have these poor labor standards on the food that we’re consuming and how is it considered ethical to basically force poorer folks to have to buy food that can be grown with forced labor or slave labor or other manipulative or other terrible labor practices? How is that ethical? We need to be talking more holistically about how we can all vote with our dollars and eat food ethically and conscionably. Obviously, it’s a human need. Everyone has to eat, but also why do we think it’s okay that if you can’t go to the farmers market, then you just have to buy this food that is unethically produced?

Anna: Right. I think that obviously organic is super important and organic practices are fantastic, but certification is something that can be really complicated and the paperwork is hard. It takes a pretty long time, especially if you bought land that you then have to convert. That can take like three years. A lot of farms, especially if you’re just starting out and you don’t have a ton of capital or you don’t have a lot of money to put into it, the USDA organic certification process can be lengthy and costly and time consuming. What a lot of farms do is, in the farm that I worked on in Massachusetts did this, we followed organic practices. We did not use any pesticides. It was like totally old school, like organic farming, but we would go to the farmers market and people would come up to our table and be is this organic?

We would explain we don’t have the certification, but it’s organic. A lot of people would walk away because they wanted us to have that stamp. It was unfortunate. I’m empathetic because I understand you want to make sure that your food is coming from a place that is using organic pesticides. But I think that more people are becoming aware that USDA organic doesn’t necessarily mean all of these great, wonderful things. I think things like certified naturally grown, which is an alternative to certified organic is really great. It’s a lot less costly. It’s a lot less time consuming and it’s basically like a peer review. Like farmers in your area coming to your farm to ensure that you are in fact using organic practices and I think it’s a great alternative for a lot of farming folks.

Hallie: Right. For sure.

[Background music].

Chris: Wow. This is awesome.

Hallie: Wait, what’s awesome?

Chris: This episode that we’re recording right now with Bob and Anna.

Hallie: You know what else is awesome?

Chris: What is awesome?

Hallie: All of our patrons on this episode. [Laughs]. We just wanted to take a minute to go through and we’re going to be thanking all of our patrons by name. In this episode, we’ve really loved doing the series on local food and these patrons made it possible and they made all of our series possible and they make it possible for us to continue making the show. We wanted to go through and thank them all. If you’re interested in joining our Patreon family and supporting the show, you can find it at patreon.com/onetogrowonpod.

Chris: So thank you to.

Hallie: Lindsay.

Chris: LD.

Hallie: Andrew.

Chris: Vikram.

Hallie: Christopher.

Chris: Shianne.

Hallie: Leah, Nicole.

Chris: Dan.

Hallie: Megan.

Chris: Maggie.

Hallie: Carrie.

Chris: Kate.

Hallie: RC.

Chris: Hope.

Hallie: Tim.

Chris: Pat.

Hallie: Lux

Chris: And Andrew.

Hallie: You guys totally rock our worlds. You make all of this possible and we are so, so, so grateful for you every day and especially today.

Chris: Thank you so much. Back to the episode.

[Background music].

Hallie: I guess it’s a pretty linear line to knowing where your food comes from and shopping at the farmers market. But I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what that looks like when you start to scale up and try to get into retail or institutional purchasing.

Anna: With wholesale, I think the reason that our farmer training program focuses so heavily on food safety is because when you start selling to institutions or selling into wholesale market streams, you need to be able to track everything you’re doing and have a record for everything you’re doing, because if say something like an outbreak happens that can shut your farm down forever. A lot of things that farmers aren’t thinking about when they’re just doing like direct to consumer marketing really becomes a liability and something they have to think about in a very serious way. I think another thing that we talk about when it comes to breaking into wholesale markets is your farm may not be in terms of like the produce that you’re growing or the products that you’re growing, it may not be as diversified as if you were doing direct to consumer marketing, because you might want to figure out what grows really well in your soil and focus on those crops. Because the thing about wholesale markets is that you need to be able to give them the product they want.

It needs to look really great because grocery stores don’t like to have what we call ugly produce. A lot of the focus is about food safety. It’s about figuring out what you grow really well, and then maybe growing more of that, and less of something else. I think the reason in the beginning that they’re resistant towards breaking into the wholesale market is because they have to lower their prices. If you’re selling a bundle of Swiss chard at the farmers market for $4 to $5 a bundle, at wholesale you’re not going to be able to sell it that high because you’re selling it at larger quantities, so you will get the return you want. But I think if you’ve been doing direct marketing for so long and you see those prices cut in half, or sometimes even sliced further, I think it scares a lot of farmers away from moving into wholesale streams because it’s like, oh, well, I’m not going to make any money on this. But the great thing about wholesale is that it usually is a bit more secure. That’s what we try and tell farmers in the long-term, if you can build these relationships and that’s sort of what these workshops will try and help them do and that’s definitely what the manual does. I think that’s why a lot of farmers refer back to it so often. We help them with figuring out a pricing structure. I don’t know if that answers your question.

Chris: My head has gone down a little bit of a path of doom because I’ve heard you all mention food safety several times. The first time you mentioned it I’m like, oh yeah, people need to wash their vegetables. But then you said outbreak and I’m like, oh, it sounds much more complicated and in depth than that.

Anna: Your farm, the operation needs to be laid out in a certain way, and you need to even be washing your vegetables in a certain way.

So that when someone from the health department shows up, because there is an E coli outbreak in romaine and you’re in California and you sell romaine, you need to be able to show them day by day how you were harvesting, how you were washing, they need to come see where your washing stations are, where your compost pile is. All of that matters so much because you want to make sure you want to have a very detailed log that ensures that the outbreak was not from your farm. That’s what these food safety logs really help you do is to avoid any liability. It’s like, look, here’s my log. Our farm is good for this. We are following all of these practices. It’s really, really important especially for folks who want to go and get further certifications.

Hallie: Food safety is an issue for all farms, not just farms that are local and starting to sell into wholesale, but it’s one of those carrying costs that like the bigger you are, the less percentage of the money you’re spending it’s going to cost. It’s just one of those overhead costs. If you’re switching from direct marketing out to a farmers market into something like a wholesale market to a grocery store, then it’s going to be a much larger part of your costs because you’re one, starting all of these practices from scratch. They don’t exist and so you’re having all of this startup labor and then two also, because you’re often coming in with smaller production. It’s a lot of work and it just can freak out farmers sometimes. But because food grows in the world, there is always a risk that there will be some kind of bacteria or something that will start to grow on food at some point.

Chris: Men, farming’s complicated.

[Laughter].

Bob: One of the interesting thing is that the [inaudible] series of studies over the year and they actually say that most food borne illnesses do not happen at the farm. It happens sometimes, and we’ve got all these regulations with our farmers have a really significant burden in making sure that the best practices are followed, but most of the problems that occur are because of food handling after it leaves the farm. The supply chain world, wholesalers, retailers, people at home not washing their vegetables correctly or not storing them correctly. It’s a conundrum that the farmers really face the heaviest regulatory load here and they may not be the people who are really very responsible for a lot of the food borne illnesses [inaudible] that occur.

Chris: What are some of the big challenges that you all face in your line of work?

Bob: Well, one is public awareness. Food has been so readily available and cheap in our society that a lot of people haven’t really given a second thought, especially people who are aware that food insecurity is never an issue. Getting people to understand the health and wellness consequences of what they eat, why they should eat better. The huge rise of food related illness in our society, it’s costing lives. It’s costing a lot of human suffering, it’s raising our healthcare costs enormously and getting that message through the people though is really hard. The high cost of cheap food. If your food is grown with pesticides that will poison the soil, and then the waters maybe get ingested into your system, or it’s grown by cheap labor practices that victimize lower income workers. Most people don’t realize that. They don’t realize that the long-term consequences what they are because they’re in separate buckets. You’ve got the healthcare bucket, you’ve got the labor bucket, you’ve got the equity bucket and all these things.

All they see is the price tag. This bag of apples is $0.99 and that one is $3. People still mostly buy food because they’re price conscious, so this is an educational effort that’s really challenging. The only thing is we’ve always seen a gradual rise in consumer awareness and then caveat it. I think this may be an inflection point. I hope I’m not being over-optimistic when I say that, but people are so much more focused on health and wellness because of the outbreaks, the hotspots that occurred in the factory production of meat, especially they’re are now more aware of factory farming and factory production practices. A lot of people are becoming uneasy about that. That’s a good thing because of the higher level of awareness that not everything is right about our food system and the seemingly infallible supply chain that gets you food to your table like that. There’s never been an issue before. Now, it’s got weaknesses. It’s got flaws. People may be are starting to recognize that buy from local farmers, know your farmer, know your food as the old Anthem is important. Then when you add in the multiplier effect for local anything, buy local. If your dollars stay at home, they actually have a bigger impact on economic health and economic by telling instead of sending your money away to Arkansas or someplace like that. Communication is a big challenge on this aspect, but I think we’re making progress.

Anna: For the farmer’s trainings, the thing that has always been difficult is sometimes just being able to get farmers to come to our trainings. Farmers are really busy. They don’t have vacations, they don’t take breaks, their farm is their life. So we try and structure the trainings in the off season, like in the winter time. January is a pretty good month, but it can be really hard to get folks to get them to come out and that’s just because they have like a ton of work on their plate. I think one thing that I’m excited about and have been talking to Atina Diffley, our farmer trainer is this new opportunity of doing virtual sessions.

Hopefully, a lot of our trainings are grant funded and so we would have to go to specific regions, but I think now this opportunity to host a training and then just have a more national audience attend virtually, I think it’s going to be a really major opportunity. I’m excited about that because I do think the outreach has been a difficult aspect in the past.

Chris: I would just like to take a moment to say thank you, because I have found nothing positive about this COVID-19 outbreak and finding some bright spots is great. Let me tell you.

Bob: Definitely, if we learn from the experience and move in the direction of a [inaudible] society, because one of the things about COVID-19 it’s establishing those people. We’ve said that people with underlying health conditions who are the most likely to contract the disease and most likely suffer severe or fatal consequences. If we can get people to eat better and provide better food for all people, then we’re going to reduce the rise, or maybe even reduce the rate of diarrhea related disease and reduce this degree of vulnerability. There’s one positive takeaway.

Hallie: I just wanted to thank you guys so much for coming on. It’s been such a joy talking with you guys. Do you guys have anything else that you want to leave our listeners with or any calls to action, anywhere to connect with FamilyFarmed or anything like that?

Anna: I think that I just want to make a plug for Illinois, but also it’s a national coalition, but Buy Fresh Buy Local is a really great resource. It’s definitely not in all 50 states, but you can look it up and you can see if your state is participating.

It’s basically an online resource where you can find farmers in your area, farmers markets in your area, retailers that stock their shelves with products from local farms. We are a part of the steering committee for Buy Fresh Buy Local Illinois, and then a lot of amazing folks and organizations have put a lot of work into it. If you’re someone who has moved to a new area, or you’re just not even sure where your local farmers market is and especially if you’re in Illinois, definitely look up, Buy Fresh Buy Local, because that will point you in the right direction to whatever you need in terms of local farms and food.

Bob: If any of your listeners want to reach out to Anna and connect with her on farmer training and market development, just send an email to [email protected] and put farmer training or market development in the subject line. If anybody just needs general information about FamilyFarmed, they can reach out to me on [email protected]

Chris: If you were to say one thing, people should eat local because?

[Laughter].

Bob: One word? Are you kidding me? [Inaudible].

[Laughter].

Chris: Not one word. Sort of the most important reason why you should really eat local because.

Anna: I would say, because it really strengthens your community. I think that building a really strong regional food system, it’s supporting your farmers. That will just provide access to better food and more farmers will be able to flourish. I just think, like getting to know your farmer, going to the farmers markets, it’s these moments that when you’re alone in the aisle at a grocery store, you’re not able to have that exchange and so I think it really does build community. There are a ton of other reasons that we talked about, but I feel like the community building aspect is a really great part of buying and eating local food.

Bob: It’s better in so many ways. That’s the reason we’ve all been discussing, but let’s face it. You’re not going to definitely eat anything if it doesn’t taste good. I’ve often described food for farmers markets or local food as the starter drug for the Good Food Movement.

Chris: [Laughs].

Bob: If all you’ve eaten at a supermarket through your whole life, it’s food that’s been shipped in, unless you’re living in the Southwest or the deep South it’s been shipped for thousands of miles. It’s probably been sitting in a warehouse for many years or even a couple of three weeks, it’s lost its freshness. It’s lost its vitality. When you go to a farmers market, you’re often eating food that was picked yesterday. When you taste that, you’re tasting that food the way it’s supposed to taste, maybe for the first time in your life and it’s a game changer. It really isn’t epiphany.

Chris: That’s awesome. Thank you so much.

Hallie: Thank you guys so much.

Anna: Yeah, of course.

Bob: Thanks. [Inaudible].

Anna: [Inaudible].

[Laughter].

[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].

Crates of produce at a local market.

39: Good Food and Supply Chains with FamilyFarmed

For the third part in our local food series, Hallie and Chris sit down will Anna Crofts and Bob Benenson from the Chicago Good Food non-profit FamilyFarmed. They discuss the Good Food movement, what it means to bring local food into the supply chain, and why you should eat locally when you can. Also, we finally find out if Hallie or Chris show up to an interview first.

Read the full episode transcript.

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One to Grow On is a podcast that digs into the questions you have about agriculture and tries to understand the impacts of food production on us and our world. We explore fascinating topics including food, gardening, and plant sciences. One to Grow On is hosted by Hallie Casey and Chris Casey, and is produced by Catherine Arjet and Hallie Casey. Show art is by Ashe Walker. Music is “Something Elated” by Broke For Free licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license.
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38: Farmers’ Markets with Amy Gallo 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 it. Each episode we pick an area of agriculture or food production to discuss and this week we’re talking about local food with Amy Gallo.

[Background music].

Amy: Hello.

Chris: Hello.

Hallie: Amy is the farmer’s market programming manager at the Sustainable Food Center, which happens to be where I work.

Amy: Yes.

Hallie: No, are you the marketing manager or the programming manager?

Amy: Yeah, I’m the programming manager.

Hallie: Okay. Good. [Laughs].

Amy: But I can maybe explain a little bit what that actually means.

Hallie: Yeah.

Amy: Sure. I’ve been with SFC since 2017 in various roles. First off, I was just hired to run the Downtown Farmer’s Market and then sort of moved up or maybe sideways into some marketing and communications work for our entire department, the farm viability department, which probably takes its own bit of explaining what that term means. [Laughs].

Chris: Actually, I would love that. I think Hallie has done a cursory job once or twice I’m saying. This is what the Sustainable Food Center does, but I don’t know. There’s other people out there that have no idea. What is this thing?

Amy: Well, the Sustainable Food Center has been around in one form or another for maybe 40 years. In Austin, it’s been a community garden organizing body. It has run farmer’s markets, done some cooking classes and trainings, facilitator programs for both home gardening and home cooking and now sort of pivoting the organization where we’re at the tail end of pivoting the organization away from individual behavior, change programming and towards more of systems level work on food systems and local agriculture.

Right now a main focus of our programming is farm viability, which I take to mean assisting local, small to mid-scale farmers, where they need help to continue to be viable on whether that’s operationally, financially, with backend policy work, maybe some administration, business management, marketing assistance. Wherever small to midsize farmers are feeling that pinch, we’re hoping that we can step in and fulfill a little bit of the help for them.

Chris: Cool. Okay. Yeah, all kinds of good help with agriculture stuff.

Amy: Everybody I think is familiar or under the belief that farming is hard. It’s not just long hundred degree days outside digging holes and stuff like that, but the whole business of it is pretty difficult. We’re sort of finding our niche of where we can provide some relief and support.

Chris: I’m used to being able to type some code into a computer and get something working within a few hours or a few days. I can’t imagine putting something in the ground and waiting months or a year to see the results of your labor.

Amy: Exactly. Dealing with that unknown and with these factors outside of your control, battling the weather constantly, it’s almost biblical.

Hallie: This episode is part of a larger series that we’re doing where we’re trying to talk about local food and what it means and I actually don’t know that much about your background professionally. How did you get into the farmer’s market and local food space?

Amy: I sort of fell sideways into this. This is not maybe where I thought my professional career was going to go. I studied neuroscience in school.

Hallie: Oh, wow.

[Laughter].

Amy: Maybe not a linear trajectory, but I moved to Austin in 2010 from the Northeast. I’m from New York and went to school in Boston. My partner and I moved down here and I started volunteering first at Springdale Farm and then at Johnson’s Backyard Garden. Just a shift for exchange of free, fresh, local delicious vegetables and I really liked it. I picked up a part time job helping out at the farmer’s markets on the weekends and then ended up quitting my full time job in healthcare and helping to run the farmer’s markets department at JBG, so I was there for about four years. I went to California briefly to work on a farm and found myself back here and Sustainable Food Center was hiring. I took the job helping to run the downtown market.

Hallie: That is very interesting.

[Laughter].

Hallie: But I feel like I hear a lot of people who come to the local food scene are kind of more I guess like values based eating area in one of those less linear paths I guess.

It seems like it’s something that really just draws people in and if you believe in it and if you’re into it, then you just have to end up there.

Amy: I’m a pretty emotional person and I have always been better at working at something I really care about and I sort of figured this is the thing that I really care about.

Hallie: That thing being like farmer’s markets specifically?

Amy: Yeah, farmer’s markets are definitely a tangible hands on sort of product that I really thrived in, but I always thought I would be a therapist or doing something to help people individually. When I came to farmer’s markets and just thinking about this connection people have with food and how that can heal both people on a one on one basis and communities and maybe a society to be a dreamer. For a second, I thought this is maybe having more of an impact. People coming together around food, people physically handing food over to one another, seeing how things are grown, eating food that is nutritionally dense and really healthy. All of these things sort of wrapped up and clicked in my mind of this is where I need to be. I need to be helping this process.

Hallie: Wow. In this series, we’re hoping to talk to an urban farmer and we’re hoping to talk to someone higher up who’s doing more like institutional buying, focused on value chains, but I would love to hear your thoughts on where farmer’s markets fit into that and what role they serve both to farmers and to consumers. I know it’s kind of a big question.

Amy: We can dive right in. Where do farmer’s markets fit? Farmer’s markets maybe traditionally, and I’m not exactly studied in this, despite how long I’ve been working with farmer’s markets, we are a way where farmers could sell off sort of excess food. This wasn’t people’s first or only outlet. A lot of people would have their farm growing corn or soy or doing whatever they needed to do and then have their personal garden for their own home use and then come to market with excess stuff. I think it’s always filled sort of that role in a community where you can get a lot of very things, where you can sort of get to know your farmers, where there’s this breakdown of the urban rural divide. Then now I think farmer’s markets fill definitely a different role. A lot of people maybe think markets are a little pretentious or inaccessible or expensive or just some fun thing you do on the weekend and not necessarily your main outlet for groceries. I think maybe a little bit of that perception is breaking down now during this pandemic. Farmer’s markets have been at least in our city and stayed open since the beginning and people have really been coming to market to stock up, to get their groceries, to come to a place where they know is safe. That there’s a high level of trust, where they know the farmers, where they know that they’re going to be supporting local people to feed their families and stay healthy through everything. I don’t know if I actually answered your question.

Hallie: I mean, it was a very big question, but I think that you answered it in a very beautiful way. I think that that part of bringing people together and farmer’s markets as a community building tool beyond just like the economic value that it brings, is something that is so hard to describe and to really get people to buy into and understand the value of.


Amy: To me, it’s definitely been this cultural institution as much as it’s been a true place where financial transactions happen. Farmer’s markets are great at letting people who are maybe smaller or starting out, get their start. Farmers who are just starting, who are maybe trying to pick which crops they will then become known for, or to try to make those initial connections to restaurants because they need to be seen, you can’t just pop up out of nowhere, to maybe figure out their brand identity, to work those kinks out in the sort of like live on the ground. Maybe people in micro economics should study farmer’s markets. [Laughs]. It feels like a really good testing ground for working all of these things out. There’s a real immediate result there.

Hallie: I know it. I definitely hear that. You mentioned inaccessibility earlier, and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about that idea as it relates to farmer’s markets and at least in your experience, how the margin that is versus how real it is.

Amy: Farmer’s markets are a little bit inaccessible. They’re temporary popups. They only last a few hours. They’re not necessarily in a place that’s easy to get to. There’s not a huge wide parking lot always outside of a central location where you know that you can just get everything and check everything off of your list. You have to know how to be flexible, how to cook seasonally, how to have a list, but go off of it a little bit. So for all of those reasons, farmer’s markets definitely attract a different crowd. A crowd that’s comfortable and maybe excited about dealing with those challenges, but for most, that’s not really what you think of when you think of food shopping, you don’t want to be challenged maybe.

Hallie: Right.

Amy: I think there’s a little bit inherently of that inaccessibility in a farmer’s market, but I think that the things on the flip side, maybe to challenge that a little bit are the opportunities there to happen upon half price, fresh peaches, first of the season, because there were too many. Though that’s not something that you’re going to necessarily get at a grocery store. To be able to know where your food came from, to meet the farmer who picks something and grows something for you is sort of an invaluable thing. To walk around and just have strangers or market staff shout a recipe at you when you look kind of quizzically at purple green beans or something, you’re not going to necessarily get that in a grocery store. I don’t have as many of those friendly interactions when I’m just shopping for normal things.

Hallie: Right. Totally. For me, at least when I’m shopping at a farmer’s market, I find it so much easier to try new things and experiment with new ingredients because there is someone there who knows literally the entire lifespan of this plant and can tell me everything they know about it just right in front of me.

Amy: Absolutely, that’s always what initially drew me to this work. When I was working at Johnson’s Backyard Garden, I was a market manager and I would drive the box truck downtown and set up and take out hundreds of pounds of produce out and display it all. I was really trying to get inside the mind of the shopper and make everything look beautiful and abundant. Then all day, I would just talk to thousands of people all day. Just every time somebody side eyed a weird looking cauliflower, I’d just be there ready trying to identify it.

[Laughter].

Amy: I definitely came by that. Honestly, that’s my favorite thing to do is to help people with weird food problems. [Laughs].

[Background music].

Chris: Welcome to the break. Who’s excited to go to a farmer’s market? I am.

Hallie: I’m always excited. I go all the time and I’m always excited to go.

Chris: It’s true.

Hallie: This episode is the second in a series of three episodes we’re doing about the local food system. If this is something you’re enjoying, I would really love it if you could share this episode with a friend.

Chris: Sharing this episode with a friend is the best way for us to grow the podcast and get more people involved in the discussion.

Hallie: The more people we have that are listening and engaging with us on Twitter and Discord, the better the show can be. The show is all about learning out loud and growing together, no pun intended.

If you have someone who you think might be interested in what we’re talking about, we would love it if they could show up and join the conversation.

Chris: Speaking of people being involved. Thank you so much to our patrons, especially our starfruit patrons, Lindsay, Vikram, Mama Casey, Patrick, and Shianne.

Hallie: You guys are such superstars and we’re so grateful to you.

Chris: You are a superstar fruit.

Hallie: Hey, all right. Back to the episode.

[Background music].

Chris: Do you know much about the impact of having a pop up and having a bunch of people go to the pop up and all the individual farmers take their food to the pop up versus having some giant truck take a bunch of food to a grocery store and people just go to that larger distribution center?

Amy: The benefit to farmers for farmer’s market is if there’s a nice large central farmer’s market in the town or city where you are and a farmer can make that one stop, and unload a lot of things. The financial benefit for the farmer is pretty great. There are no middlemen, there are no wholesale pricing.

All of that money over $0.90 on the dollar goes directly into the farmer’s pocket. When you start getting into distribution models and wholesaling and selling to grocery stores, or even restaurants or institutions, farmers are going to start incrementally seeing less of the money end up back in their pocket. It’s easier. It’s less personal time or staff time or waiting out in the sun and maybe the unknown. What if you have a rainy day and the farmer’s market isn’t that profitable for you that day? But there’s definitely a sense of less of it is going into your pocket. Unless if it’s going into your pocket also from just being able to personally sell someone on something. If I had all really small zucchinis or something like that, I can unload them at the farmer’s market and I can’t sell those to a grocery store. I can convince people that they’re better for frying or zucchini salad or something and I’m not going to be able to make that same pitch to a school district or something along those lines.

Chris: Interesting. Now I’m curious about tiny zucchini.

Amy: Tiny zucchini are so good.

[Laughter].

Hallie: They can be so much sweeter.

Amy: They’re very tender at that size. I would almost never cook them.


Hallie: Well, I guess me asking you these questions, I’m trying to put myself in our listener’s shoes for folks who don’t work at the Sustainable Food Center and think about these questions that you and I think about all the time, but I was wondering my work and I’ve talked about that on the show before is much more like further down the line I guess. Kind of that next step from the farmer’s market, trying to see how farmers could connect to a school or a grocery store or something like that. We’ve touched on this a little bit, but could you talk a little bit more about the things that farmer’s markets do uniquely for customers beyond just taste and meeting farmers, but more broadly, I guess. Well, now I don’t know. I feel like I had a question now. I don’t really know where I was going.

Amy: Beyond I think the sort of intangibles about going to the farmer’s market just that connection piece and the community building piece, I think there are real benefits to shopping at a farmer’s market. A lot of times produce has been picked very recently. If I’m a farmer and I’m selling to Central Market or something along those lines, I’m sending 24 cases of lettuce on Tuesday, and it’s going to be sold at that grocery store all week. They’ll restock it. They’ll move it. Customers will come pick it up, put it down, but it’s been in and out of cold storage for a week or more. At the farmer’s market, someone picked it, boxed it up and it went to the farmer’s market. I’m the first person who’s really been handling it and taking it home. There’s an argument there for food lasting longer. If people are concerned about food waste, if you’ve ever gotten something home and opened the fridge two days later just made to find that it’s gone bad. I found that that’s a lot more rare at the market than anywhere else.

There’s a sense of the nutritional value being higher in something that was picked ripe versus something that was picked unripe and traveled a long way, but it’s difficult when you start thinking about the difference between local food that’s bought at a farmer’s market and local food that’s procured by a local institution. If it’s coming from the same farm, is there much of a difference? There’s a lot of evidence that the food that you can get that’s local versus conventional or as cross state lines. There’s a big difference there.

Hallie: Totally. I guess I have some more practical questions that I would love your expertise on as a food expert.

Amy: [Laughs].

Hallie: Are there things that you tell people if you’re going to get anything farm-fresh at your local market or from your local farmers here, the specific crops to get, because they’re so much different if you get them fresh. I mean, everything’s better fresh. Don’t get me wrong.

Amy: [Laughs]. I always say carrots definitely.

Hallie: Oh my god.

Amy: You haven’t tried a carrot until you’ve tried a really fresh local carrot. I thought I didn’t like carrots I think until I got it from the market.

[Laughter].

Hallie: Oh yeah.

Amy: Fruit is always popular. It’s rare I would say if you get to know the seasonality of things come to the market early in those times. We have raspberries and blackberries that grow here for maybe three weeks out of the year. [Laughs]. It’s very important to get to the market earlier on.

Chris: I was listening to another podcast the other day, and they were interviewing someone who said they had a friend that grew kale and their fresh kale was just unlike any other kale they’d ever had and it was the best kale and the only kale they ever ate.

Amy: Oh, yeah. Absolutely.

Chris: I don’t know. Maybe there’s no limit.

Hallie: There are very few limits. Like fresh produce it is so much tastier in my experience.

Amy: Oh, absolutely.

Hallie: I remember the first time I had farm-fresh romanesco and I was like, what is this food? Because I thought I’ve tasted broccoli and this is like nothing I’ve ever tasted.

Chris: Wait, what is that food?

Hallie: Romanesco. It’s like a fancy broccoli. It’s like broccoli, if it like had a Pinterest board.

Chris: [Laughs]. Okay.

Amy: It’s like a broccoli cauliflower. It has beautiful pointy fractals all over it. I think it’s much more convenient to cook as well. I usually just rip it apart with my hands into individual little triangles and throw it in the oven to roast and they just come out perfect.

Hallie: It’s a great vegetable.

Chris: I like the idea of eating fractals.

Amy: Yes.

Hallie: [Laughs]. I don’t think I have any other questions. Dad, do you have any other questions?

Chris: Let’s say you were talking to someone who either had never been to a farmer’s market before, or was sort of reluctant because of things like cost. I guess in your mind, what’s the one thing, like sort of the top item you would say you should try a farmer’s market because of this one thing?

Amy: You should try a farmer’s market to just experience a new way of interacting with your community. I find a lot of joy in just walking the farmer’s market, talking to people, picking up a new recipe or technique, working at the beautiful produce, all aligned straightly in a row just appeals to me, aesthetically, running into neighbors, people you didn’t think you were going to see there. I like to make a morning out of it. I like to go to this place that’s not a bar or work and really get to be with people.

Chris: I love that. Do you have a favorite one?

Amy: Favorite farmer’s market?

Chris: Aha.

Amy: Well, yes. Definitely the SFC Farmers Market downtown. It’s a classic urban market. It’s in a beautiful park.

Chris: Is that the one at Republic Square?

Amy: Yeah, that’s the one at Republic Square.

Chris: I don’t think I realized that was an SFC market.

Amy: That’s sort of our flagship market. It’s been open for 17 years.

Chris: Wow.

Amy: Approaching that coveted heritage status pretty soon.

Hallie: [Laughs]. I would also like to say, Amy, you mentioned running into neighbors that you don’t expect to see, and if I’m not mistaken, I think many of your neighbors are farmers at the market.

Amy: I am living in Bastrop County on a farm and a lot of my neighbors are farmers.

[Laughter].

Chris: Hallie told me you had chickens and you are very excited about them.

Amy: Oh yes. I have many chickens. I’ve been lucky enough for the past year to be living and working on Milagro Farm with Kris Olson. He’s the owner. My partner and I moved out here. Two days a week, we take care of the chickens. We have about 5,000 of them.

Chris: Wow.

Amy: So yeah.

Hallie: They make the best eggs.

Amy: [Laughs].

Hallie: They love to eat their eggs.

Amy: They do make the best eggs.

Hallie: Awesome. Well, Amy, thank you so much. I really appreciate your time. This was super fun.

Amy: Thank you. This was 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 sprouting in two weeks.

Hallie: But until then keep on growing.

[Background music].

38: Farmers’ Markets with Amy Gallo

This week Hallie and Chris sit down with Amy Gallo, the Farmers’ Market Programming Manager at the Sustainable Food Center. They discuss how farmers’ markets impact consumers and their communities, as well as what crops are the best to buy fresh. They also develop an interest in tiny zucchini. Who do you have to help you with your weird food problems?

Read the full transcript.

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