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One Weird Trick to Fix Farms Forever

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Tom Philpott writes in Mother Jones:

Chatting with David Brandt outside his barn on a sunny June morning, I wonder if he doesn’t look too much like a farmer—what a casting director might call “too on the nose.” He’s a beefy man in bib overalls, a plaid shirt, and well-worn boots, with short, gray-streaked hair peeking out from a trucker hat over a round, unlined face ruddy from the sun.

Brandt farms 1,200 acres in the central Ohio village of Carroll, pop. 524. This is the domain of industrial-scale agriculture—a vast expanse of corn and soybean fields broken up only by the sprawl creeping in from Columbus. Brandt, 66, raised his kids on this farm after taking it over from his grandfather. Yet he sounds not so much like a subject of King Corn as, say, one of the organics geeks I work with on my own farm in North Carolina. In his g-droppin’ Midwestern monotone, he’s telling me about his cover crops—fall plantings that blanket the ground in winter and are allowed to rot in place come spring, a practice as eyebrow-raising in corn country as holding a naked yoga class in the pasture. The plot I can see looks just about identical to the carpet of corn that stretches from eastern Ohio to western Nebraska. But last winter it would have looked very different: While the neighbors’ fields lay fallow, Brandt’s teemed with a mix of as many as 14 different plant species.

“Our cover crops work together like a community—you have several people helping instead of one, and if one slows down, the others kind of pick it up,” he says. “We’re trying to mimic Mother Nature.” Cover crops have helped Brandt slash his use of synthetic fertilizers and herbicides. Half of his corn and soy crop is flourishing without any of either; the other half has gotten much lower applications of those pricey additives than what crop consultants around here recommend.

But Brandt’s not trying to go organic—he prefers the flexibility of being able to use conventional inputs in a pinch. He refuses, however, to compromise on one thing: tilling. Brandt never, ever tills his soil. Ripping the soil up with steel blades creates a nice, clean, weed-free bed for seeds, but it also disturbs soil microbiota and leaves dirt vulnerable to erosion. The promise of no-till, cover-crop farming is that it not only can reduce agrichemical use, but also help keep the heartland churning out food—even as extreme weather events like drought and floods become ever more common.

Those are big promises, but standing in the shade of Brandt’s barn this June morning, I hear a commotion in the nearby warehouse where he stores his cover-crop seeds. Turns out that I’m not the only one visiting Brandt’s farm. The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)—a branch of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) that grew from Dust Bowl-era efforts to preserve soil—is holding a training for its agents on how to talk to farmers about cover crops and their relationship to soil.

Inside the warehouse, where 50-pound bags of cover-crop seeds line one wall, three dozen NRCS managers and agents, from as far away as Maine and Hawaii, are gathered along tables facing a projection screen. Brandt takes his place in front of the crowd. Presenting slides of fields flush with a combination of cover crops including hairy vetch, rye, and radishes, he becomes animated. We listen raptly and nod approvingly. It feels like a revival meeting.

“We want diversity,” Brandt thunders. “We want colonization!”—that is, to plant the cover in such a way that little to no ground remains exposed. While the cash crop brings in money and feeds people, he tells the agents, the off-season cover crops feed the soil and the hidden universe of microbes within it, doing much of the work done by chemicals on conventional farms. And the more diverse the mix of cover crops, the better the whole system works. Brandt points to the heavy, mechanically operated door at the back of the warehouse, and then motions to us in the crowd. “If we decide to lift that big door out there, we could do it,” he says. “If I try, it’s going to smash me.”

For the agency, whose mission is building soil health, Brandt has emerged as a kind of rock star. He’s a “step ahead of the game,” says Mark Scarpitti, the NRCS state agronomist for Ohio, who helped organize the training. “He’s a combination researcher, cheerleader, and promoter. He’s a good old boy, and producers relate to him.” Later, I find that the agency’s website has recently dubbed Brandt the “Obi-Wan Kenobi of soil.

Soon, we all file outside and walk past the Brandt family’s four-acre garden. Chickens are pecking about freely, bawk-bawk-bawking and getting underfoot. In an open barn nearby, a few cows munch lackadaisically. I see pigs rooting around in another open barn 30 or so yards away and start to wonder if I haven’t stumbled into a time warp, to the place where they shot the farm scenes in The Wizard of Oz. As if to confirm it, a cow emits a plaintive moo. Brandt’s livestock are something of a hobby, “freezer meat” for his family and neighbors, but as we peer around the barns we see the edges of his real operation: a pastiche of fields stretching to the horizon.

Before we can get our hands in the dirt, Brandt wants to show us his farm equipment: the rolling contraption he drags behind his tractor to kill cover crops ahead of the spring and the shiny, fire-engine-red device he uses to drill corn and soy seeds through the dead cover crops directly into the soil. As some NRCS gearheads pepper him with questions about the tools, he beams with pride.

Finally, we all file onto an old bus for a drive around the fields. An ag nerd among professional soil geeks, I feel like I’m back in elementary school on the coolest field trip ever. An almost giddy mood pervades the bus as Brandt steers us to the side of a rural road that divides two cornfields: one of his and one of his neighbor’s.

We start in Brandt’s field, where we encounter waist-high, deep-green corn plants basking in the afternoon heat. A mat of old leaves and stems covers the soil—remnants of the winter cover crops that have kept the field devoid of weeds. At Brandt’s urging, we scour the ground for what he calls “haystacks”—little clusters of dead, strawlike plant residue bunched up by earthworms. Sure enough, the stacks are everywhere. Brandt scoops one up, along with a fistful of black dirt. “Look there—and there,” he says, pointing into the dirt at pinkie-size wriggling earthworms. “And there go some babies,” he adds, indicating a few so tiny they could curl up on your fingernail.

Then he directs our gaze onto the ground where he just scooped the sample. He points out a pencil-size hole going deep into the soil—a kind of worm thruway that invites water to stream down. I don’t think I’m the only one gaping in awe, thinking of the thousands of miniature haystacks around me, each with its cadre of worms and its hole into the earth. I look around to find several NRCS people holding their own little clump of dirt, oohing and ahhing at the sight.

Then we cross the street to the neighbor’s field. Here, the corn plants look similar to Brandt’s, if a little more scraggly, but the soil couldn’t be more different. The ground, unmarked by haystacks and mostly bare of plant residue altogether, seems seized up into a moist, muddy crust, but the dirt just below the surface is almost dry. Brandt points to a pattern of ruts in the ground, cut by water that failed to absorb and gushed away. Brandt’s land managed to trap the previous night’s rain for whatever the summer brings. His neighbor’s lost not just the precious water, but untold chemical inputs that it carried away.

Aside from his fondness for WORMS, there are three things that set Brandt’s practices apart from those of his neighbors—and of most American farmers. The first is his dedication to off-season cover crops, which are used on just 1 percent of US farmland each year.

The second involves his hostility to tilling—he sold his tillage equipment in 1971. That has become somewhat more common with the rise of corn and soy varieties genetically engineered for herbicide resistance, which has allowed farmers to use chemicals instead of the plow to control weeds. But most, the NRCS’s Scarpitti says, use “rotational tillage”—they till in some years but not others, thus losing any long-term soil-building benefit.

Finally, and most simply, Brandt adds wheat to the ubiquitous corn-soy rotation favored by his peers throughout the Corn Belt. Bringing in a third crop disrupts weed and pest patterns, and a 2012 Iowa State University study found that by doing so, farmers can dramatically cut down on herbicide and other agrichemical use.

The downsides of the kind of agriculture that holds sway in the heartland—devoting large swaths of land to monocultures of just two crops, regularly tilling the soil, and leaving the ground fallow over winter—are by now well known: ever-increasing loads of pesticides and titanic annual additions of synthetic and mined fertilizers, much of which ends up fouling drinking water and feeding algae-smothered aquatic “dead zones” from Lake Erie to the Gulf of Mexico.

But perhaps the most ominous long-term trend in the Corn Belt is what’s known as peak soil: The Midwest still . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

17 December 2018 at 8:07 am

Criteria for a successful diet

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Someone on Quora asked “How can I keep a healthy diet? I try a lot but can never keep it for more than 1 or 2 weeks.” Here’s my answer

When you are having difficulty forcing yourself to do something (cardio exercise, for example), then spend some serious thought and time and perhaps even money to set yourself up so that the thing you must do becomes enjoyable. It becomes more fun to do than not to do. You are drawn to the thing rather than having to push yourself to it.

For me, the exercise I discovered was Nordic walking, and at the link are my criteria, along with some reference links for equipment and the like. Nordic walking is excellent cardio exercise: see “Aerobics” revisited and my current Aerobics score.

In another context, my guide to gourmet shaving describes how to use the same trick with shaving: making it an enjoyable activity so you look forward every day to the pleasure of your morning shave. (I hated shaving and had a beard for more than three decades. When my job required shaving, that’s when I decided to figure out how to making shaving enjoyable.)

So you just apply the same trick to your healthy diet, one that you will stick to indefinitely. Since it’s now your permanent diet, it must satisfy five basic criteria:

1. It must be nutritionally complete. It must provide all the necessary nutrients—vitamins, minerals, etc.—that your body needs to maintain health. For example, your (new, permanent) diet must include the essential proteins and the omega-6 and omega-3 fats that your body cannot make for itself, along with adequate calcium, vitamin C, and so on and on. This is a basic requirement. If a diet fails this criterion, move on. (Goodbye, celery-and-water diet.)

People who use nutritionally incomplete diets necessarily cannot stay on the diet for long, but that fits with their goal: to lose weight very quickly so they won’t be on the diet for long since such diets are sadly lacking in the “tasty” department (e.g., the celery-and-water diet). The dieter is willing to suffer through a tasteless diet (that generally also leaves them feeling hungry) for a short while to lose some weight, and then s/he eagerly returns to their regular way of eating—the diet that put on the weight in the first place. (It is to avoid this yo-yo effect that the change in your diet must be permanent, and that means it must be nutritionally complete.)

2. It must include a wide variety of foods from which to choose—otherwise, the diet in time becomes boring.

3. It must be tasty so that you enjoy your meals. Tastiness comes in part from the choice of food and in part from the preparation of the food: the recipes and cooking. Thus to meet this criterion, you must prep and cook the food in a way that makes it tasty, and since that is something you must do, you should spend some time and thought on how to make that something you enjoy doing. (My current diet advice includes some tips on that.)

4. The meals must be filling and not leave you feeling hungry — not at the end of the meal and not between meals. The trick here is to use one of the Low-carb diets. In those diets, you restrict your intake of net carbs (total carbs minus dietary fiber). You don’t restrict fiber intake because fiber is good: Fiber Is Good for You. Now Scientists May Know Why. Notice that unlike with proteins and fats, there are no “essential” net carbs that you must consume in your diet in order to be healthy.

The calories you lose by restricting carbs you replace with calories from good fats (e.g., extra-virgin olive oil). For example, if you cut net carbs by 100g, you increase fats by 45g: the calorie counts are the same, but fat is more slowly digested and so keeps you from feeling hungry so soon as you would from carbs of the same calories. Protein intake remains unchanged, at the recommended levels. It’s not a high-protein diet, since such diets carry health risks.

5. The diet must not require counting calories. I want to look not at the caloric content of the foods I eat but at their quality as food. Although 100 calories of refined sugar and 100 calories of extra-virgin olive oil are identical insofar as calories are concerned, they differ a lot in their impact on your metabolism and body. Read this: We’re in a new age of obesity. How did it happen? You’d be surprised. (Also, The Useless Concept of ‘Calories’ is pretty entertaining.)

My own adaptation of a low-carb diet satisfies these criteria, and I’ve had no problem sticking with the diet because I thoroughly enjoy the food.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 December 2018 at 7:37 am

Note on olive oils and a new direction for California Olive Ranch

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The olive oil industry is rife with corruption, with many “olive” oils being in fact other oils, perhaps with a little olive oil blended in, and many “extra-virgin” olive oils not actually being of that grade.

The book Extra-Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, by Tom Mueller, is an entertaining and informative look at the fraud and theft that seems common to the global trade in extra-virgin olive oil. (Link is to inexpensive secondhand copies; the book is also available in Kindle format.)

This post also discusses the fraud, but suggests some reliable brands to buy—brands so far untouched by fraud and sharp practice. I in fact bought one of the brands recommended:a large (101-ounce) tin of Partanna Extra Virgin Olive Oil, a “cold-pressed oil, unfiltered oil grown and packaged in Partanna, Sicily. The Asaro family has been producing it since 1916. This EVOO has been the winner of Gold Medals at the L.A. County Fair.” I just opened it, and the olive oil tastes really wonderful.

A commenter on Quora specifically recommend Partanna, and I am glad he did. Very tasty, and the price is quite reasonable.

However, in that recommended list linked above you will find another olive oil, one that I have used and enjoyed:

California Olive Ranch – Award winning olive oil brand. It is in a tinted glass bottle protects oil and is 100% grown and made in California. 

Things change, and not always for the better: Olive Oil Times notes that California Olive Ranch will be buying, packaging as “California Olive Ranch,” and selling non-California olive oils. Curtis Cord writes:

Maybe the New World isn’t so new after all.

Since, oh, the beginning of time, any olive oil that ever-so-briefly may have brushed the blessed shores of Italy were emblazoned with the mythical Made in Italydistinction and set forth unto the world to command much higher prices than oils that admitted where they were really from.

The public’s demand for transparency and authentic products and efforts by ethical producers led to national campaigns that sought to restore the “Made in Italy” brand and reserve its exclusive use for oils that were, well, made in Italy.

In fact, it was the public shaming of those old shenanigans and other unseemly practices that helped give rise to the value of homegrown oils from places like Australia, South Africa, Argentina and California.

Now, in a move straight out of the old Italian playbook, the largest American olive oil producer has announced a new “Crafted in California” range of imported oil blends.

California Olive Ranch (COR) explains on its website:

“It’s no secret that farming is a difficult business and growing olives is not without its challenges. This year, we, along with farmers of all kinds of crops throughout California, were hit with a freeze during our bloom season. This drastically reduced the size of our crop, compromising our ability to make good on our promise of providing Americans with high-quality extra virgin olive oil at a reasonable price.”

In other words, California’s leading olive oil company can’t feed its thriving sales channels with a limited supply of California fruit that’s commanding ever-higher prices.

The reality of the matter, of course, is that American consumers who have been led by campaigns fueled by COR and others to devalue imported oils will not take the time to check the origins of the new “Destinations” range.

The front label points out that the product is “Grown Globally, Crafted in California” which is reminiscent of the “Designed by Apple in California” that billions of us have seen on the devices in our hands (COR’s CEO, Gregg Kelley, is a silicon-valley veteran). The company predictably omits “imported” — the buzzword of the public-relations bashing COR helped finance. . .

Continue reading.

Olive Oil Times seems like a good thing to read, and subscriptions are free. Take a look, for example, at this article: “Greeks Moving Away from Med Diet, Survey Finds.”

Written by LeisureGuy

13 December 2018 at 6:55 am

As climate change bites in America’s midwest, farmers are desperate to ring the alarm

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These are, of course, the same farmers who fought tooth and nail against any efforts to mitigate climate change. And to be honest, this report shows little remorse for their stubborn and fact-challenged opposition. They don’t like the facts of climate change, but they have no regrets about their opposition to effective action.

Even in this article, the quoted farmer states that the Sierra Club wants to make both cattle and corn extinct. That is not only false but obviously false and not even close to being true. Conservatives, however, are remarkably comfortable with making false statements and (so far as I can tell) holding false beliefs, even those that are contradicted by easily available evidence. (And conservatives strongly oppose the teaching of critical thinking skills—and more important, the learning of such skills.)

Chris McGreal writes in the Guardian:

Richard Oswald did not need the latest US government report on the creeping toll of climate change to tell him that farming in the midwest is facing a grim future, and very likely changing forever.

For Oswald, the moment of realisation came in 2011.

The 68-year-old lives in the house he was born in and farms 2,500 acres with his son, some of it settled by his great-great-grandfather. The land sits where the Missouri river valley is about four miles wide.

Growing up, Oswald heard tales of a great flood in 1952 which prompted the army to construct levees.

“The next flood wasn’t for another 40 years, in 1993. Heavy rains day after day after day after day until the runoff water and the rain just overpowered the river and the levees,” said Oswald. “Both the ’52 and ’93 floods lasted three weeks. They were abnormal.”

Then came the big Missouri river flood in 2011.

“Heavy rains and heavy snow in the Dakotas and Montana created a huge amount of water. That flood lasted here almost four months. More rain than anybody really ever has any memory of coming down the river,” he said.

Oswald’s farm was underwater for much of that time and the corn lost. Missouri declared a state of emergency. Crops were ruined or never planted. Grain prices surged.

The flooding was memorable in its own right but Oswald also sees it as marking a shift in weather patterns which has forced him to farm differently.

“When I was a kid, my dad would say an inch of rain was a good rain. That’s just what we needed. Now we get four inches, five inches, six inches in one sustained wet spell that lasts two or three days. I don’t ever remember that as a boy. I’ve never seen the sustained wetness in the land that we have now. Even though the river hasn’t gone on the land it’s raised the water table so that the rains that we’ve had this fall, which have been unusually heavy, make it muddy. Continually muddy,” he said.

On 23 November, the National Climate Assessment warned of “substantial damages” across the US in the coming years from increasing wildfires in the west to flooding in the east. But the sharpest rise in temperatures will be between the coasts as the midwest endures longer and hotter summers, heavier rains and droughts that collectively are predicted to significantly reduce US agricultural production.

“Expected increases in challenges to livestock health, declines in crop yields and quality, and changes in extreme events in the United States and abroad threaten rural livelihoods, sustainable food security, and price stability,” said the 1,600-page report, the work of 13 federal agencies.

Climate change is likely to make it harder to grow crops, and to make those that do grow more vulnerable to diseases and pests because of rising humidity. The report said heat and diminishing air quality will take its toll on livestock. Farmers will collectively have to spend billions of dollars to adapt. The effects are already seen from prolonged drought in Kansas and torrential rains in Iowa.

Before the flood in 2011, Oswald, a Missouri river valley crop farmer, was skeptical about the warnings that rising temperatures heralded a more difficult future. Since then, the routines of planting and harvesting that his family has pursued on the same land for five generations have given way to a haphazard cycle governed by waves of extreme heat and intense rains.

“The changes have become more radical. The way the rains come down and the temperatures. You’re constantly trying to manage it,” said Oswald, a former president of the Missouri Farmers Union. “There’s so much unknown about the weather now that it’s pretty hard to do much about it.”

As his son, Brandon, works a combine harvester up and down a field, Oswald kicks the soil with his foot.

“If you look at this, it’s pretty dry right on top but not too far down it’s mud. Two weeks ago there was water standing here from all the rain and the inability of the soil to absorb that much moisture because the level of the river was such that the water level was pretty close to the top of the ground here,” he said.

That mud makes it difficult to plant and to harvest. The rains narrow the number of days when Oswald can get a crop in the ground. If it forces him to delay planting the corn, that means the soybeans will go in late. Worst of all, Oswald said, is that it is all so unpredictable. Where planting was typically spread over the same few days in spring and summer every year, now it can vary by weeks.

Gene Takle, one of the authors of the climate change report and director of the climate science programme at Iowa State University, traces the sharply increased rainfalls to rising temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico. He said that for centuries, the gulf’s waters have been carried as moisture into the midwest and delivered consistent rainfalls that made the region America’s breadbasket.

But as temperatures have risen so has the amount of moisture in a dome of vapour over the Gulf of Mexico. Takle said that at the same time climate change has moved a pressure centre in the Atlantic, known as the Bermuda high, westwards and closer to a band of low pressure over the Rocky mountains creating higher windspeeds across parts of the midwest. That, in turn, has intensified the flow of moisture from the Gulf of Mexico.

The result is heavier rains dumping huge amounts of water on to fields, alongside rising temperatures.

“Humidity is the the key, the smoking gun, for the increase in our rainfall,” said Takle, a professor of agronomy and of geological and atmospheric sciences.

Takle said that heavy rains in 2013 forced farmers in north-western Iowa to abandon planting altogether on more than 700,000 acres, more than 10% of the state’s land. That came a year after Iowa was hit by widespread drought that also hit the crop harvest.

Some farmers are installing drainage systems to cope with the higher rainfalls, a sign that they know climate change is here to stay. Others are buying expensive new equipment that allows them to plant more seeds in the narrowing windows between rains.

Takle, who grew up on a farm and whose brother still farms in Iowa, said the intense rains have a long-term impact, too. Scientists calculate that dry soil is unable to absorb the water from a rainfall of more than about 1.25in over 24 hours. After that the water starts to erode the soil.

“You start to get excess water moving down slope surfaces and carrying with it any nutrients and nitrogen and phosphates or soil particles,” he said. “We’re getting more of the soil erosion promoting rainfalls. Farmers are using cover crops in the spring period to have some some residual vegetation on the surface to protect it from these extreme events.”

Standing amid his soybeans, Oswald nods north toward the hills on the edge of the valley.

“We farm some upland fields up over that hill a couple of miles,” he said. “They’re rolling hills and they’re terraced. They have structures on them to help control the runoff of the water. But when you have those big rains, none of the terraces or the dams can keep up with that as well as they should. So you have more erosion.”

The size of harvests is already falling. This year, heavy rains have hit soya bean crops, delaying planting or washing out the plants in parts of the midwest, including Iowa.

Alongside the rains are increasing temperatures.

“This year we saw 100-degree temperatures in May which is very unusual,” said Oswald. “I don’t ever remember that in my lifetime or even heard about it. That’s a first ever.”

The Missouri Climate Center recorded that temperatures were above average throughout the spring and summer this year, with September on average 3F warmer than during the 20th century

In the short term, higher temperatures have had some benefit because in parts of the region they extended the growing season and contributed to bigger harvests.

“In the midwest we have about nine days more now than we did 50 years ago,” said Takle. “Part of the increase in yields that we’ve been experiencing over the last 20 or 30 years definitely has been due to the earlier planting and the longer growing season.”

But Takle said those benefits are being lost, and will be reversed in the coming years, as rising temperatures combine with the heavy rains to make growing ever more difficult. He said corn is vulnerable to high temperatures during pollination.

A decade ago, Oswald was on the fence about climate change.

“At a certain point you just have to look at what’s going on in your own world and try to decide what you think the impacts of that are,” he said.

As Oswald’s thinking changed, so did his determination to persuade others of the reality of climate change. As president of the Missouri Farmers union, he had some success in getting a discussion going among its members. But he said climate change is politically charged among farmers in part because some see it as a stick to beat them over their practices.

“One of the problems farmers have is when we start talking about environment, a lot of times Sierra Club comes to mind and Sierra Club is pretty radical in their approach. When you have a group that says cows are the problem, you need to get rid of all the cows, and raising corn is a problem, we need to get rid of all the corn, then you’re not going to have a lot of farmers who want to join in and follow you,” he said.

Still, Oswald believes that denial is in retreat. Where farmers, including him, were once skeptical they now see the change with their own eyes. The problem is what to do about it.

“A lot of them will say there’s nothing we can do about it so we might as well not worry because we can’t have an impact, we just have to live with it,” he said. . . .

Continue reading.

And note that the idea is that climate change will help our crops is pretty much exploded as well. When the famines and food wars start, it’s going to get ugly.


Written by LeisureGuy

12 December 2018 at 10:13 am

The Vegetable Detective: Finding heavy metals in food

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Todd Oppenheimer has an interesting albeit unfinished story about an investigation that revealed the presence of heavy metals in some vegetables but has yet to track down the origin. Still, a fascinating report in Craftsmanship magazine:

Ernie Hubbard sees a very self-selecting group of patients and clients—“health fanatics,” he calls them—people who eat extremely well by current standards, exercise regularly, generally don’t smoke, do drugs, or drink to excess. In today’s world, however, especially in health-conscious Marin County, California, where Hubbard lives and works, these are the people increasingly showing up in doctors’ offices complaining of persistent but elusive problems: Chronic fatigue. Skin and hair issues. Arrhythmias and other neurological disorders. Foggy thinking. Gluten sensitivity and other digestive troubles. Sometimes even the possibility of Lyme Disease.

At one point, Hubbard got an opportunity to look more closely at what might be bothering some of these people. In 2010, a Cleveland company was developing a detoxification formula, called ZNatural. And its officers asked Hubbard and his colleagues at Preventive Medical Center of Marin, an alternative health clinic, if they would test the product.

As a molecular biologist with a background in biochemistry and genetics, Hubbard had been working with the clinic’s doctors to explore a range of tests and treatments not often found in traditional doctor’s offices. These include “bio-impedence” analyzers that measure cellular energy and “chelating” formulas like ZNatural, which aim to stimulate the body to release toxins. Chelating treatments have been controversial—some doctors consider them ineffective and, in some cases, even dangerous. After a bit of study, Hubbard and his colleagues concluded that ZNatural was far safer than its competitors, so they felt comfortable proceeding.

Before long, Hubbard had a pilot study underway, with 20 people happily peeing into cups. As he started gathering results on their samples—taken before, during, and after the detox regimens—he noticed an odd pattern: Several people registered high in thallium and cesium, two heavy metals generally not on anyone’s radar. “At first, I just thought, ‘Oh, another one of those. By the third or fourth, I started scratching my head.”

As the tests progressed, the detoxification regimens seemed to prove effective (and with no side-effects), but thallium kept showing up. Then, in July of 2014, he stumbled on a 2006 study out of the Czech Republic showing how the “cruciferous” family of vegetables behave as “hyperaccumulators” of thallium. Crucifers include many of our more intense green vegetables such as kale, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, mustard and collard greens. These are also the vegetables often touted—and consumed—most heavily these days, supposedly for their outsized health benefits.

The most popular member of this family has been kale, promoted for its prodigious supplies of calcium, magnesium, potassium, Vitamin K, and various healthful phytochemicals and anti-oxidants. It’s even been described as “the queen of greens.” Not coincidentally, kale consumption has exploded. In 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, kale was harvested on 954 farms across the country. By 2012, that figure had more than doubled, to roughly 2,500 growers. In the last five years, the number of restaurants serving kale has reportedly risen by some 400 percent. People are juicing it, cooking it, eating kale salads, even making chips and other foodoid products from this hearty plant. “It suddenly hit me,” Hubbard said, “I thought, ‘Oh, my God!’”

In fairness to the realities of industrial life, one can expect to find pollutants anywhere you look these days, if you look hard enough. “When I touch my desk right now, I’m picking up chemicals,” says Bernadette Burden, press officer for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and its investigative little sister, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. “A lot of these elements occur in nature. For example, we now know there is arsenic in apple juice. And in rice.”

True enough, but the question is whether there has been a recent spike in these toxins, especially newcomers to the scene like thallium. That’s a difficult question to answer right now, given how recently people started gorging on kale.


As Hubbard poked around, he kept turning up more worrisome information. It turns out thallium was once a common ingredient in rat poison. It was also Saddam Hussein’s favorite poison to use on his enemies. (The metal works exquisitely for poison because it is tasteless, odorless, and nearly colorless.) While none of Hubbard’s test subjects had been consuming doses even close to poisonous levels, the medical and scientific literature linked low-level doses to many of the complaints brought to his clinic: fatigue, heart arrhythmia, and—in more extreme cases—nausea, neurological problems, and hair loss.

To test this link, Hubbard started playing a little game. Whenever the clinic would send him someone with the kind of chronic problems associated with thallium, or any other complaints that were hard to pin down, Hubbard would scribble kale on a little note-card and turn it face-down on his desk. After a short work-up, he’d ask the patient to list his or her favorite vegetables. Over and over, people would mention the crucifers, especially kale. Hubbard would nod, say he expected as much, then show them the note-card on his desk to prove it.

One such client was Laura Fenamore, an outwardly healthy, 52-year-old vegetarian. Fenamore works out vigorously—“for two hours every day,” she told me. “I’m in ridiculously great shape.” She even runs a body image consulting business. In fact, when she first joined Hubbard’s study group, Fenamore didn’t feel particularly unwell, by her recollection. (She enrolled, she said, primarily because Hubbard was a friend and she was curious.) She admits, however, that at times she felt fatigued and foggy in the brain. But there was one other problem: She had always been admired for having beautiful hair, and now it was starting to fall out – “in clumps,” she says. Fenamore’s favorite vegetable? Kale, and cabbage even more so. How often did she eat it? “Pretty much every day. I joke with my clients that I’m the cabbage queen.”

When Fenamore’s urine samples came back, even Hubbard was surprised. Her thallium levels measured at .7 parts per million (ppm), which is 7 times higher than what’s considered the “threshold” limit in the workplace. That threshold is according to a 2009 CDC report, the agency’s most recent statement on toxic exposures. Her test was not a perfectly accurate reflection of her toxicity levels, however. During the time she was drawing her urine samples, she had been taking the ZNatural detox formula, infuses  urine with more of the problem element than would normally be the case. Still, her urine measures were so high, the exaggeration created by ZNatural very likely pales by comparison.

For some frame of reference on this point, the CDC offers this data point: In one of the more widely studied instances of thallium contamination, at a cement plant in Germany decades ago, nearby residents suffered “a slight increase in nonspecific symptoms” when their urine showed thallium levels as low as .02 ppm. Fenamore’s thallium count was 35 times higher than that. And one more: The thallium levels in Fenamore’s urine were 4,700 times higher than the CDC found in most Americans—at least when the agency last measured. That was in 2012, when the kale craze was still warming up.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Hubbard told me, regarding his reaction to Fenamore’s samples. He promptly put her on the clinic’s detox regimen, which tends to saturate the urine with any toxics as they are coaxed out of the body. Two months later, he tested Fenamore again and her numbers had more than doubled, to 1.8 ppm—nearly 12,000 times what the CDC found in the average population. Fenamore was also carrying around slight excesses of other metals, primarily cesium, cadmium, and arsenic—all toxins in their own right.

Fenamore was even more surprised by these numbers than Hubbard, given the mildness of her health problems. With reluctance, she cut way back on her cabbage consumption (which she now calls “getting off the sauce”), continued taking her detox potion, and watched her numbers slowly drop. “I do feel better now,” she says, “more even—hormonally, mentally, and emotionally. Energetically. And the brain fog cleared a lot.” Fenamore’s wife, Kathleen, also saw a change—a quick and marked difference in Fenamore’s alertness.

One might expect a person’s spouse to be biased, but her observations are credible for a few reasons. First, she didn’t completely buy Hubbard’s story, or his testing and detox procedures; and she does not like or eat cruciferous vegetables. Hubbard loved hearing that, because it handed him a convenient, mini-control on his study, suggesting that environmental factors may not have caused Fenamore’s toxicity. As coincidence would have it, two others in Hubbard’s study were twins, offering two people with the same genetic palate. “So I had a genetics control and an environmental control,” Hubbard says. “I had the kale haters and the kale lovers all getting their urine analyzed, and I think it’s hilarious.”

A strange subject to find amusing, maybe, but Hubbard is clearly having a ball with these inquiries. To follow these leads, Hubbard created a lab in his home (a houseboat). The first thing he wanted to confirm was exactly how much thallium was in the vegetables his clients were eating. He wanted to test everything he could, but time and resources wouldn’t permit it. So he focused on crucifer’s queen green: kale. After calling a few professional testing facilities, he came up with a set of protocols that turned the houseboat’s kitchen into a cross between a university laboratory and a movie set for a Frankenstein film. There were a few false starts. “I had an explosion that left glass and kale and molten slime all across this room,” he says.

Hubbard seems to thrive on obstacles. So he put his kitchen back together, and soon created some legitimate samples. Then he sent them to a well-established lab (Curtis & Tompkins, which was founded in 1878, in Berkeley, Calif.). When he got the samples back, he thought they weren’t analyzed in sufficient detail. So he looked for another lab. That led him to Doctors Data, a federally licensed laboratory near Chicago that does specialized testing, offering views of how elements function in the body on an intra-cellular level. By September of 2014, Hubbard was getting reports back showing heavy metals in virtually every kale sample he sent in. There were also traces of nickel, lead, cadmium, cesium, aluminum, and arsenic. Some of these metals are famously bad actors, or at least suspicious ones. For a touch of exploration, Hubbard also crunched a few jars of baby food. Lo and behold, they too contained heavy metals.


One day, Hubbard called Dr. David Quig, the lead scientist at Doctors Data, to better understand his lab results. Their conversation set off even more alarm bells. When Hubbard pointed out the prevalence of thallium in his subjects’ tests, Quig wasn’t terribly surprised. He said he, too, was seeing thallium in more and more tests from various clients. “It’s not high, it’s just frequent,” Quig told me, when I called him. “We never used to see thallium at all. Now, everybody who touches a report, it jumps out at them.”

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

8 December 2018 at 12:11 pm

My picks for best cast-iron skillets

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I’m basing this post on my own experience in cooking with several brands of cast-iron skillets. In alphabetic order:

I don’t include Stargazer only because I’ve not actually used one, but it is definitely worth considering.

I’ve also used a variety of cast-iron dutch ovens, but here I am talking purely about skillets. Taking them in order of my experience and desire to own:

Le Creuset: Overpriced—heavily overpriced, in my opinion. The enamel cooking surface did not wear well and the enamel chipped over the years. No longer interested. (And for dutch ovens, I prefer Staub, though there are other good makes.)

Finex: A beautiful example of steam-punk chic, but I found the pan impractical. First, it is extremely heavy—too heavy for me to use comfortably. The handle looks cool, but functionally it’s mediocre (and that brass finial on the handle gets very hot). The 12″ pan has a cooking surface that’s only about 9″ in diameter: too small. The cooking surface is polished—a definite plus—but the seasoning used is flaxseed oil, which results in an inferior seasoning—brittle, so it chips and flakes away as you use the pan. Don’t use flaxseed oil for seasoning if you’re actually going to use the pan. (I finally removed all the seasoning that was on it and re-seasoned with Larbee unscented pucks.) Finex is much too expensive for what it is: a heavy pan awkward to use.

Lodge: To keep the price low Lodge doesn’t finish the cooking surface. Cast-iron pieces are created using a sand mold and the Lodge’s cooking surface has the same rough and bumpy texture you’d expect from something cast on sand. In fact, there’s a large YouTube collection of people who bought a Lodge skillet doing their own finishing work: grinding and sanding the cooking surface to make it smooth (not so easy) and then re-seasoning the pan (easy). See this post for more information. This approach is not bad if you have the tools and time. (I have the latter but not the former.)

Griswold: This company stopped production the year I was graduated from high school, but so far as I can tell that’s just a coincidence. Griswold made a lot of very fine cast iron, and Griswold pieces sell briskly on eBay. I still have a Griswold No. 7 with lid that I use a lot. The did indeed polish the cooking surface of their skillets, which is one reason they are so desired. But you will probably pay a premium, and I’ve heard people say that used pans that have been mistreated can have a warped bottom, so inspect them carefully.

Field: I bought a Field No. 8 a few years ago and I love it. It does not have a lid, but I find I seldom use a lid with my cast-iron skillets (though I do occasionally, and I would bet they will eventually offer lids). The sides have an elegant flare, and the handle in cross section is like a flattened Gothic arch. The skillets feel skookum but relatively light (for cast iron) and certainly comfortable to use. The cooking surface is very smooth, and they do their seasoning with grapeseed oil, and they have good advice on their site about how to do it—and when they say “Wipe off all visible oil,” they mean it. You apply the oil, and then try to wipe it all off. You can’t, of course, but the very small amount that remains in the very thin coating is just right for seasoning. (I did try grapeseed oil, but I much prefer an unscented puck of Larbee or Crisbee.)

In my opinion, the Field skillets are the ones to get. I have the No. 8 and the No. 12 is en route to me now. At some point I might buy the No. 10.

At the time I bought the Finex 12″, I almost purchased the Field No. 10 but I wanted a larger cooking surface, something close to a 12″ diameter. The No. 10 cooking surface diameter is 9.75″ — so I got the Finex 12″ instead (and, I must admit, I also loved that steam-punk look). But the Finex cooking surface diameter turns out to be only about 9.25″.

The Field No. 12 just became available this week. Its cooking surface diameter is 11.5″. (The size of the cooking surface is important because uncrowded food sautés better. You’ll note that the typical diner has a cooking surface the size of a countertop—and that surface is very smooth.)

I should note that there is an inexpensive but attractive cast-iron skillet made in Colombia. I have not used this skillet, though, and so I have no opinion. It does have an impressive number of good ratings. It’s pre-seasoned with flaxseed oil, unfortunately, but that’s quite easy to chip off with a scrubber (the very reason it makes rotten seasoning). Use Larbee or grapeseed oil to reason, and after you apply the oil to the skillet use a cloth to wipe off all the oil you can. What remains will be a very thin layer, ideal for seasoning adherence. If you don’t wipe off every bit you can, what is left becomes sticky.

And let me point out Stargazer cast-iron skillets, highly recommended by a blog reader for having a glassy smooth cooking surface (CNC machined, it turns out). Their 12″ model (which corresponds roughy to the Field No. 10) will become available in February and their prices are somewhat less than Field’s. This one is worth considering.

As to that skillet itself? I’ve not tried it, so I’m not sure about how smooth the cooking surface is. I con’t see that they could do much finish work and sell the skillet at that price. The photo looks good, but this is exactly why one needs to try one. And the next cast-iron skillet I’m getting is the Field No. 10, not this one.

Addendum: I should note that I also like carbon-steel skillets a lot and have a couple of those. For some things (and in some moods) I prefer one or the other, but I definitely like having both carbon-steel and cast-iron cookware.

Written by LeisureGuy

7 December 2018 at 9:14 am

Posted in Daily life, Food, Recipes

A fine lunch in a Field No. 8 skillet

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Let me first tell you the skillet story. A while back I wanted a new cast-iron skillet, but it had to have a smooth cooking surface. I already had the Field No. 8 and it was a delight: very smooth cooking surface and elegantly flared sides, and it felt both skookum and lightweight: just right.

When I wanted a larger cooking surface, I looked at the Field No. 10, but I didn’t think it would be large enough. Also, I sort of feel for the steam-punk look of the Finex 12″ skillet, and 12″ was just the size I was looking for.


  1. The Finex is way too heavy for the cooking surface it delivers; and
  2. The cooking surface was only just over 9″ (I was going for 12″ for a reason: a larger cooking suface.
  3. Minor alas: Seasoning with flaxseed oil results in a brittle coating that will chip off. Finex uses that. (Field does not.) I had to scrub off the entire flaxseed coating and then give it a proper coating. I favor Larbee unscented pucks.

In the meantime I did get my Matfer Bourgeat carbon-steel skillet in the 11 7/8″ size. Still, I wanted cast-iron, and ideally by Field. If only they had a No. 12.

Lo and behold, this morning I discover an email: they now have a number 12 that will become available at 12:00n EST.

I can assure you I was there clicking refresh every 3 seconds. I did order a No. 12, and it’s on the way. (Now I’m thinking I should get a No. 10 and have a complete set—but I think not.)

So in the light of all that, I cooked lunch in my Field No. 8 skillet:

1 Tbsp expeller pressed canola oil
2 tsp hot chile sesame oil
1/2 yellow onion, chopped
3 Red Russian garlic cloves, minced (about 2 Tbsp or a little more)
1-2″ ginger root, grated
1 jalapeño pepper and 1 red Thai chile pepper, stem removed, chopped small (including core and seeds)

Put all the above in the skillet and sauté for a few minutes until onion is transparent. Add:

2 baby bok choy chopped
2 large clumps oyster mushrooms, chopped—caps and stems only
3 Tbsp oyster-flavored sauce

Sauté, stirring, and let simmer for a few minutes. Stir in:

8-10 oz sockeye salmon, cut into chunks, skin on

Simmer for 8-10 minutes.

I really do recommend Field cast-iron cookware very highly. It’s expensive, but it’s first-rate and it will last you for your entire life: look at the cost per year.

Written by LeisureGuy

5 December 2018 at 3:46 pm

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