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farming

The freeze effect on farmers

As you might imagine, single digit temperatures are not good for agriculture.

Well before the sun finally broke through the cloudy and icy haze in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley last week, Dale Murden knew he was in for a bad spell.

After a few days of clearer skies and warmer weather let him assess the damage to his grapefruit orchard in Harlingen more closely, the South Texas citrus grower confirmed his fears.

“As time goes on, it’ll start to look worse,” said Murden, who is also the president of Hidalgo County-based Texas Citrus Mutual.

The winter storm that paralyzed Texas for days last week is going to have lasting effects on Murden and his fellow citrus growers in the Rio Grande Valley after the extended freeze killed millions of pounds of citrus. The storm also brought the state’s dairy industry, concentrated in the Panhandle, to a near standstill when widespread power outages halted processing.

Though it’s still too early to put a dollar amount on the losses, industry leaders are urging patience as they try to restock grocery shelves.

“As a grower, I would appeal to consumers to stick with us and, when we do get back on the shelf, please support us,” Murden said.

The 20-year annual average for grapefruit produced in the Rio Grande Valley is about 460 million pounds, Murden said. More than half of this year’s yield will be lost after the storm, and Valencia oranges, which are considered late-season harvests, will be nearly a total loss, he added. The damages will extend into next year because the freeze also damaged citrus blooms that would become fruit for the next season’s harvest.

“This will last well into 2021 and 2022,” he said. “The ability for Texas grapefruit growers to get it to your shelf right now is zero until we start growing a crop.”

The effects on the state’s dairy industry will be shorter, but the duration will depend on how quickly milk and other products can be processed, said Darren Turley, the executive director of the Texas Association of Dairymen. Most of Texas’ livestock survived the harsh weather, he said, but a loss of power meant processing and production was at a standstill and will need time to recover.

Turley said Panhandle livestock are used to severe winter weather, “But our natural gas was turned off and so much of our processing relies on that.”

It was reported during the freeze that a lot of milk was being dumped by dairy farmers (who still had to milk the cows because otherwise they stop producing) because there was no power for them to process it. Unlike the citrus growers, their supply should bounce back pretty quickly.

More from the Chron.

The kids in sweaters pix were cute, tho

Constant Ngouala pulled carrots from the ground on his farm, a Plant It Forward site in Southwest Houston, and held up the intact bunch victoriously for his team to see. The vegetable is one of the few that survived the winter freeze in Texas last week. Ngouala lost 80 percent of his crop.

In the raised beds around him, vegetation was wilted to the ground, some slimy and still wet from the snow and freezing rain, others dried and a lifeless shade of brown.

This is a familiar scene on farms across Texas after the historic February storm. The state was plunged into darkness as temperatures dropped in the teens, leaving millions without power, heat or water for days. On farms and ranches, the freeze decimated crops and killed or hurt livestock.

The Plant It Forward team had prepared for the storm, harvesting everything they could the weekend before. Some crops were ready, others weren’t quite but could still be sold. What remained in the ground was protected by frost cloth or mulch for insulation.

Ngouala and his teammate Guy Mouelet lifted a tarp on Saturday to assess damage. It wasn’t long enough to cover the bed’s whole length. Small, just-emerging heads of romaine lettuce were still bright green under the cloth, but browning around the edges outside it. Ngouala thinks the onions, radishes and other root vegetables that were underground during the freeze will be fine, but he has to wait for them to sprout up to confirm.

Liz Vallette, president of Plant It Forward, said even though the farm lost a lot, she had expected it would be even more dire. The damage is worse than Hurricane Harvey, but the 2017 storm prepared them well for this.

They were in good spirits that day, but there was work to do. Ngouala has to clean his beds and replant with spring crops as soon as possible in order to have cash flow 30, 40, 50 days from now.

[…]

Within the larger food system, shoppers will feel the freeze’s effects at the grocery store in the weeks to come.

“Prices for consumers are going to go up, there’s no question,” said Texas Department of Agriculture communications director Mark Loeffler. “The vast amounts of gaps that have been caused in the food supply chain are pretty amazing.”

Loeffler said significant impacts could last between six to eight weeks, depending on the industry. Some sectors’ long-term recovery could take months or years.

In the same way that this past year has been a great and necessary time to support your local restaurants, this is a great and necessary time to buy your food from local farms as much as possible. Check out the labels, visit a farmers’ market or two, and buy from local growers. We’re all in this together.

Now we get to worry about food

Because the supply chain also suffered from the massive power outages.

Now would be a good time to donate

The state’s week of weather hell started with a deadly 133-car pileup outside of Fort Worth. A winter storm unlike any Texas has ever seen quickly followed, and seven days later, millions are without power and reliable water.

And now Texans are running out of food. From farm to table, freezing temperatures and power outages are disrupting the food supply chain that people rely on every day.

Across the state, people are using up supplies they had stockpiled and losing more as items start to spoil in dark refrigerators. Some are storing their remaining rations in coolers outside, and trips to the grocery store often do little to replenish pantries.

“It was out of meat, eggs and almost all milk before I left,” Cristal Porter, an Austin resident, said about her local Target which she visited Monday. “Lines were wrapped around the store when we arrived. … Shelves were almost fully cleared for potatoes, meat, eggs and some dairy.”

Two days later, one of Porter’s neighbors went to that same Target, and the store was completely out of food, with no sign of additional shipments arriving or employees restocking shelves.

With grocery stores across the state shuttered for lack of power, supermarkets that remain open have seen supplies dwindle, shortages that ripple over to food pantries that count on grocery store surplus to keep their own shelves stocked.

Meanwhile, fruit and vegetable crops in the Rio Grande Valley have frozen over in what The Produce News described as a “Valentine’s Day produce massacre.” School districts from Fort Worth to Houston have halted meal distributions to students for the next several days, and Texas Department of Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller said dairy farmers around the state are pouring $8 million worth of milk down the drain every day because they can’t get it to dairies.

Celia Cole, the CEO of hunger-relief organization Feeding Texas, said that so far, eight food banks have asked the state for extra help feeding their communities. Several food banks affiliated with Feeding Texas have also started providing food supplies to emergency warming shelters in the state’s major cities. Wednesday afternoon, the Central Food Bank of Texas canceled its deliveries scheduled for Thursday in Austin and Rockdale.

“The Food Bank’s fleet, equipment, facilities and operations have been adversely impacted by the extremely low temperatures, and hazardous road conditions are hindering our staff and volunteers from getting to our building safely,” the organization announced in a media alert. “These conditions are also keeping us from distributing food safely.”

[…]

Between the current strain on grocery stores and the potential for huge damages to the state’s agricultural sector, this storm could hamper food access for weeks to come. Miller and Cole emphasized that it’s impossible to know the extent of the losses until power returns, but the food supply will continue to drain unless farmers and stores get electricity back soon.

“They’ve been very, very badly hit – the agricultural sector, generally —by the pandemic, so they’re already struggling,” Cole said. “And so I think although the impact if the power gets restored quickly might not be huge in absolute terms, it’s hitting a sector that’s already reeling from the pandemic.”

There’s likely not much that we could have done about the effect the weather had on the crops and animals themselves. But the loss of power, and the extreme disruption it has caused not just in people’s daily lives but in the food supply chain, that’s a risk that cannot be considered acceptable. I’ve gone into this plenty of times now and won’t repeat myself here, but it’s important to keep the human misery factor in mind as much as the actual dollars-and-cents cost of this past week. That’s as good a segue as any to this reminder that the Houston Food Bank needs all the help it can get right now to meet the need caused by the storm and the blackouts.

Like many others in Harris County, residents at Big Bass Resort in Jacinto City had run low on groceries by Thursday. After the winter storm iced roads and kept millions holed up without water and power, Texas officials anticipate major food shortages in the days and weeks to come, prompting the Houston Food Bank to kick start mass food giveaways that are already ramping up through the weekend.

Calls from residents in need have led the food bank to expect long lines at facilities where its partner groups distribute their food. The food bank has a massive reach across southeast Texas, with 159 million meals provided across 18 counties during the past fiscal year, according to spokeswoman Paula Murphy.

“The food bank and all the partners we work with, we’re almost like the last resort,” said Brian Greene, president and CEO of the organization. “It can, for a lot of households, be the difference between getting by and tragedy.”

Aside from any issues grocery stores might have restocking their shelves, most food shortages equate to income shortages, Greene said. Families who were already struggling financially – some still recovering from past floods and others laid off during the pandemic – might be experiencing rougher situations after losing a week’s worth of income due to an inability to work during the freeze.

Some money that was spent on food before the storm likely went to waste, as a lack of electricity caused refrigerated or frozen items to spoil, Greene said. And unforseen expenses from building damage can make affording food difficult.

Greene expects food shortages to mirror experiences during hurricanes. A large number of households need aid in the first few days after a storm, and then the number trickles down to low-income households that sustained significant damage, he said.

Because of the anticipated needs, Harris County officials have urged out-of-state supporters to donate to the food bank.

“Even as the lights come back on, we’re facing a food and water crisis in Harris County, Texas,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo tweeted Thursday.

If you’re not Ted Cruz and are looking for a way to help go to and make a donation or sign up to volunteer. Direct your out-of-town friends and family who want to help there as well. This really is like the immediate after-effect of a hurricane.

Where have all the Christmas tree farmers gone?

They’re not growing them like they used to.

Across the U.S., Christmas tree farmers are getting out of the business. Illinois lost dozens of farmers in recent years, dropping from 212 growers in 2012 to 182 farmers in 2017, according to the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture census data.

James Farmer, an Indiana University professor who led a study that looked at farmers in the Hoosier state, said younger farmers aren’t taking the place of those who are retiring. Most growers in Indiana have plans to stop growing or planting trees in the next five years, Farmer said.

“The average farmer was 64 years old. A lot of folks get into Christmas tree farming and start planting trees when they are older. Most of them have smaller operations. But by the time they hit their mid-70s, they get out,” Farmer said.

The physical demands of tree farming can discourage growers from continuing the business, as can the amount of time it takes to turn a profit. About 30 percent of Indiana farmers reported revenues of $10,000 or less in 2017, the study found. And selling Christmas trees is a part-time endeavor for most growers.

[…]

Christmas tree farmers have also been hit by another competitor. Artificial trees sales have been steadily increasing, with 24 million purchased last year compared to about 21 million purchased in 2017, according to data by the National Christmas Tree Association.

“In the last few years, they have taken over a large percentage of the market. It’s hurt us more than we realized,” said Doug Hundley, a seasonal spokesman for the association.

Last year, the average price of a live Christmas tree was $78, and the average cost of an artificial one was $104, according to the 2018 consumer report by the association.

Older consumers who no longer have children living in the household tend to shift to artificial trees or don’t put one up, Hundley said. But there is demand from younger families who drive to farms to pick and cut their own tree. According to the association, 28 percent of the live Christmas trees purchased in 2018 were bought at farms.

“We think sales increase is coming from millennials,” Hundley said.

Hey, something millennials aren’t being blamed for – nice. This was a wire story from the Chicago Tribune, so I went looking to see if Texas Christmas tree farmers are making the same complaints. Far as I can tell, they’re doing fine, though there have been some tree supply shortages, which can be blamed on retirements, the 2008 recession, and hemp. Make a note to get your tree earlier next year, to mitigate against these risks.

Algae farms

Food for the future.

Inside a high-tech lab in a modular building in the West Texas desert here, a young scientist peered through a microscope at a slide of live and multiplying algae. She was on the prowl for “grazers,” a sort of cellular-level locust that could wreak havoc on the multimillion-dollar crop proliferating in thick green ponds outside.

It’s the equivalent of a cotton farmer walking rows in search of disease-carrying bolls, explained Rebecca White, the 38-year-old microbiologist who runs one of the world’s few commercially viable algae farms.

The harvest? For now, kilos upon kilos of biomass that is a plant-based source of omega-3 fatty acids, which in recent years have become all the rage for lowering cholesterol, promoting healthier skin and promising other health benefits. Common practice has been to consume them via a hunk of salmon or supplements derived from fish or krill. But since fish and krill actually get their omega-3 from algae, White and her team have figured out how to cut out the “middle fish” and capitalize on cultivating the source.

In a sign of how commonplace the practice has become, White, whose family has for generations raised cotton and cattle in the Texas Panhandle, says her grandfather has begrudgingly acknowledged that domesticating aquatic microorganisms counts as real farming.

The farm in Imperial is owned by Houston-based Qualitas Health, which partnered with H-E-B for the alGeepa line of supplements and is now expanding into the $33 billion omega-3 market with iWi. The latter line rolled out at Amazon.com, the Vitamin Shoppe and Sprouts Farmers Market in June.

[…]

The United Nations in 1974 called algae “the most ideal food for mankind,” and the Food and Agriculture Organization declared it “the best food for tomorrow.” But so far not even NASA’s been able to get people to want to eat it. At least, not the average American.

With more people eschewing certain foods and a world population expected to approach 10 billion by 2050, however, a new generation of scientists says the mainstreaming of algae is inevitable.

“Most people’s experiences with algae are a contamination event of some sort,” White said. “Your pool, the dog bowl, the Great Lakes, your swimming hole — that’s all negative. But algae has been doing so many positive things for so many years that they don’t talk about in a way that gets people’s attention. … Our goal is to make people think about algae as food.”

If you can package it as a meat substitute the way soy is, you’re probably most of the way there. That won’t be for everyone, of course, but I’d bet the market will be pretty substantial over time. It’s a long story, so read it and see what you think.

Trump trade war troubles

I have three things to say about this.

There’s a Chinese proverb: Sow melons, reap melons. Sow beans, reap beans.

In other words, expect tit for tat.

President Donald Trump — and by extension many of the nation’s farmers — is seeing that lesson in action after he launched a bevy of tariffs against China on Friday, prompting the People’s Republic to retaliate with its own tariffs on imports from the United States. Among those American goods are some key Texas exports, including cotton, corn and sorghum. Some of the Chinese goods targeted in Trump’s tariffs are vital parts for Texas’ agriculture industry, such as livestock equipment.

“No question, it’s going to hurt,” said Gene Hall, a spokesperson for the Texas Farm Bureau.

[…]

“You couldn’t pick a worse time for agriculture to be in a trade dispute,” said Hall, the Texas Farm Bureau spokesperson, pointing to a 50 percent decline in agricultural income since 2013. He said the farm bureau always supports negotiating trade disputes over gratuitous tariffs — but that many farmers hope the president’s actions will force China, which has historically acted in ways that have harmed Texas agriculture, to the negotiating table.

“There is some patience in the agricultural community for what the president’s doing, but there is some angst as well,” Hall said.

1. Clearly, the well of “Trump Supporters Continue To Support Trump Even Though He Keeps Doing Things They Don’t Like” stories has not yet run dry.

2. I’ve been keeping an eye on Trump’s approval rating among Republicans for signs that they may be less engaged than usual in November. While Democrats are super enthusiastic, Republicans have stuck with their man, which if nothing else has kept the bottom from falling out. I wonder sometimes if Trump’s high levels of approval among Republicans is in part a sign that the GOP has shrunk, so that the disapprovers are mostly not calling themselves Republicans any more, but I have no way to know that. I feel pretty confident saying that Dems will turn out in stronger numbers than usual this year. I have no idea yet where turnout will be on the R side. I’m still hoping for something like 2006, but there’s no real evidence of that at this time.

3. Gotta say, after all the harm that has been inflicted on so many people by Trump, the fact that his staunchest supporters are feeling the pain as well gives me no small measure of grim satisfaction. Maybe if they feel enough of it, we’ll finally be able to get the country back on the right track.

Ostriching

Hey, remember when ostrich farms were the next big thing?

Over the last few years, there’s been renewed interest in ostrich farming in the United States, particularly in Texas. The industry peaked in the 1990s, before inflated prices for birds and eggs exposed it to corruption and market instability. By the end of the decade, it was in steep decline. Today, the American Ostrich Association, headquartered at the Birminghams’ ranch, claims both legitimate ostrich growers and demand for meat has increased noticeably in recent years. And Texas, once home to more than 250 ostrich farms, is still at the heart of the industry.

[…]

Originally from Africa, ostriches were brought to the United States in the late 1800s, their feathers used in the fashion industry. American “feather barons,” as they were known, gambled on a notoriously fickle industry. Some made their fortune; others watched the market collapse when feathers became last season’s fashion news. Joel Brust, president of the American Ostrich Association and an ostrich farmer in California, told the Observer that one of the things that killed the industry was the arrival of the automobile (feather hats just didn’t work in open-top cars). The economic upheaval following the advent of World War I also precipitated the industry’s decline. The business resurged in the 1980s after breeders discovered that ostrich meat tasted like beef but was lower in fat. At that point, the world’s biggest producer was South Africa. Then in 1986, the United States passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, which banned trade with South Africa. The subsequent short supply of ostriches jacked up prices. American farmers decided to get in on the act, and Texas and Oklahoma became dominant in the industry. In the late 1980s, Fort Worth farmer Tom Mantzel founded the American Ostrich Association.

After the anti-Apartheid act was repealed during the first Bush administration, the United States once again permitted South African ostrich imports. Both supply and demand increased, giving rise to what media described as an ostrich-breeding boom. Americans were jumping into get-rich-quick schemes based on breeding and selling live birds. The Dallas Morning News noted in a 1990 article that the money was “in the mating,” partly because the population of ostriches needed to increase before it could sustain a meat production industry. A pair of adult breeding birds could command up to $50,000 — an increase of 500 percent in four years. “It was crazy,” Brust said.

People were buying chicks and eggs and raising them for a few months to sell to other people interested in high-profit breeding. Or they bought adult birds only to turn around and sell them at a profit shortly afterward. It was a breeder’s market, in theory until there were enough ostriches to supply the meat industry. Brust said people got into the industry with no intention of creating long-term ostrich farming businesses. Instead, “they acted more like brokers,” he said. “All they had to do was get a few chicks to hatch, since the price of birds as they got older just escalated beyond anything that made any sense.”

And just like Dutch tulips back in the day, what went up did indeed come down. This story is about the people who are raising ostriches now – a much smaller group – and who are trying to make something more sustainable out of it. Worth a read.

National ag groups not happy with Republicans

It’s all about immigration reform.

Craig Regelbrugge, who co-chairs the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform, says a large majority of his group’s members — which include large and small farming enterprises and growers all around the country — are Republican, and many give to the GOP. But he’s increasingly hearing from members who are so frustrated by the Congressional GOP’s failure to act on reform — which is central to maintaining a workforce in the industry — that they are considering withholding campaign donations.

“I hear from growers frequently who basically say, `I used to be a loyal check writer when the Republican Party called, but at this point, the checkbook is closed,’” Regelbrugge tells me. “I’m hearing from growers who are no longer writing checks supporting the party.”

Mike Gempler heads the Washington Growers League, which represents growers ranging from mom-and-pop outfits to enterprises spanning 10,000 acres, and he says that “well over 90 percent” of his members vote Republican, and many write checks. Some of them sit in the district of GOP Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington State, a member of the GOP leadership.

But, he says, they are increasingly convinced the GOP is no longer representing their interests in the immigration debate, if the failure to move on legislation is any indication, and are concluding that Republicans are very close to squandering a rare opportunity to achieve reform.

“We’re seeing a lack of response to our needs and concerns from significant parts of the Republican caucus in the House,” Gempler tells me. “They either have ideological issues or they are catering to a more reactionary crowd.”

“We want to see the leadership, including Cathy, move on this,” Gempler continues. “The chances for getting immigration reform are lessening quickly. If we don’t get this done by August recess, we’re going to be in trouble as an industry.”

[…]

All this gets to a point about the immigration debate that keeps getting lost: Major Republican-aligned groups want reform — from growers out west to the business community to to evangelicals — and when Republicans refuse to act because they fear blowback from anti-reform conservatives, they are prioritizing them over other core constituencies. Now the growers are increasingly convinced the chance for reform is slipping away and they are getting cut out as a result.

It also gets at a point that I’ve made here many times, which is that while all these groups may want reform, they continue to support – or at least, not oppose – plenty of Republican officeholders that stand in their way. The Texas Association of Business and the late moneybag Bob Perry were and are classic examples of this in Texas. The Texas Farm Bureau has joined in this unhappy chorus this year, and it remains to be seen if they will be as all-talk-no-action as their peers. We’ll know by their actions in the Lite Gov race. As for the national groups, withholding financial support is something, though with the latest SCOTUS shenanigans it may not amount to much. The bottom line is that they have the power to do something about this. A few well-placed primary challenges could do a world of good, and wouldn’t even require them to support any icky Democrats. Until they actually try to use that power, I’m not going to waste any time feeling sympathy for them.

More on the foodie caucus

The Trib has an update.

Rep. Eddie Rodriguez

On a mission to advance the local food movement, a Democrat from Austin is finding common ground with Republicans and rural Texans.

When Republicans hear a Democrat saying there’s “too much regulation, their ears perk up,” state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, that Democrat, said with a smile. He founded the Farm to Table Caucus, the nation’s first bipartisan legislative caucus focused on advancing the local production of healthy food. Ultimately, Rodriguez says, the caucus could help address health issues in Texas like obesity and the scarcity of healthy food options in poor urban neighborhoods.

While their large-scale counterparts receive agricultural tax relief, urban and small-scale family farms do not qualify under many county appraisal districts’ definitions of agricultural land use. And a lack of consistency in local health regulations makes it difficult for farmers and chefs to know what is permitted, what requires a permit and what is off-limits when selling or distributing locally produced foods.

[…]

“We have to look at the balance of the concern about food safety versus food freedom,” said state Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, who co-chairs the Farm to Table Caucus. Although she usually favors local government control, Kolkhorst said the state should provide consistent definitions on what type of food production is allowable.

She authored the Cottage Food Law, which was passed in 2011 and allows Texans to sell baked and canned goods from home as long as they meet certain requirements.

Rodriguez has drafted a variety of ideas for the caucus to consider, such as reducing barriers to tax exemptions for urban farms, allowing onsite processing of feral hog and deer meat that could be prepared at soup kitchens, and expanding the Cottage Food Law.

See here for the background. While I generally agree with the goals here, I’d feel better about adding more exemptions to our tax code if we had a sunset-like process in place to review them periodically see which ones are still useful and desirable and which have morphed into money-sucking boondoggles and special-interest-protected sacred cows. But that’s a separate fight. In the meantime, as I said I generally support this effort and wish them well in the next session.

The foodie caucus

Sure, why not?

Rep. Eddie Rodriguez

State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, an Austin Democrat and admitted foodie, is creating the Farm to Table Caucus of the Texas House. Rodriguez is expected to send letters to all of the House’s 150 members Monday and invite them into the bipartisan group.

As it seeks to ride the wave of popularity of buying local food, the caucus will be focused on making it easier for small producers of healthy food to expand their markets, while allowing for increased availability of their locally produced food.

“It’s the outcome of a movement that’s happening around the state,” Rodriguez said. “It’s about time for something like this to happen.”

The caucus will focus on educating policymakers and the public about the value of small food producers, making sure government agencies don’t get in the way of small operations’ progress and helping to remove obstacles to the development of the market.

The result could be a new form of local economic development, Rodriguez said.

He also said that the caucus will marry the interests of rural and urban Texas, two factions that regularly find themselves at odds in the Legislature over a variety of issues such as transportation, public education and access to health care.

Rep. Lois Kolkhorst of Brenham, who along with Rep. Rodriguez sponsored the Cottage Food bill that was passed last session, will be the caucus’ vice chair. The Lege recently had its first ever joint hearing between the House Agriculture and Livestock committee and the House Urban Affairs committee, so there’s clearly some momentum on this. I’ll be interested to see who joins up and what they do with it next session.

Urban farming

The Lege wants to be more supportive of it.

Rep. Borris Miles

For the first time that anyone could recall, the Texas House Agriculture and Livestock committee had a joint hearing with the House Urban Affairs committee to discuss ways to help expand community gardens and urban farming. The goal: increase access to affordable and healthy food.

“It’s a well worthwhile deal. I see a great need,” said House Agriculture Chairman Rick Hardcastle, R-Vernon. “I see it as a true change in demographics because the big grocery stores don’t build in urban Texas, or they close up and move out to the suburbs and the average mom-and-pop grocery store doesn’t carry fresh vegetables. ”

Community gardening in inner cities has gained momentum in most big cities around the country but Texas ranks last, Scott Howard, vice chair of Houston’s Urban Harvest, told lawmakers: “It’s kind of embarrassing.”

He believes vegetable gardens should be developed at every elementary school across Texas.

“This is where kids learn where their food comes from and how it’s grown,” Howard said.

Rep. Borris Miles, D-Houston, is playing a key role in trying to expand urban farming in Texas and appears to have won support from rural lawmakers, who said they would help him move legislation next year when the Texas Legislature returns to a regular legislative session.

“Urban farming would help fight obesity and diabetes in the inner city,” Miles said.

“This is not a Republican or Democratic issue. It’s a people issue,” he said. “It’s part of the Republican thread to be self-sufficient, so how can they deny it? All we’re asking to do is be able to sustain life for ourselves.”

State and local governments could help increase interest and support for urban gardens with tax incentives for land owners who allow community residents to grow vegetables on vacant city lots that otherwise could turn into eyesores. Utility companies could be granted liability waivers on easements and agriculture exemptions could be expanded to encourage inner city gardening.

Rep. Miles discussed this issue when I interviewed him. Our school does in fact have a vegetable garden, and they periodically send some veggies home with the kids. I don’t know how much that encourages better eating habits, but it’s pretty cool in itself. Certainly, using vacant lots as vegetable gardens is better than letting them be overgrown eyesores, and to the extent that the Lege can help cities encourage that it’s a good thing. It looks like this effort has some momentum behind it, so it’ll be worth watching next session.

Hens for Houston

Looking for a new cause to get involved in? Here’s a movement to allow people to raise hens in Houston.

Vision:

“Hens for Houston” is working to promote a sustainable and progressive Houston in which city dwellers can keep 4-6 hens on the small city lots such as those found inside the Beltway and the 610 loop.

Why?

The current ordinance is outdated and based on the idea that chickens do not belong in an urban setting. This view is at odds with our current understanding of the necessity of green living to make our cities more sustainable, combat food deserts, and reacquaint our children with the food cycle. Plus, hens make great pets!

Many urban cities, such as New York, Chicago, and Dallas have progressive, forward-thinking ordinances permitting the keeping of 4-6 hens on city lots. Even Bellaire, TX has chickens!

You can learn more about their mission on the Why Hens? page and at their FAQ. This is still a work in progress, as they do not yet have a proposed ordinance prepared. If you want to support the effort, they’ve got a petition at Change.org to sign.

Local food

One of the more interesting results from this year’s Houston Area Survey was the attitude expressed about locally grown food. From a Houston Tomorrow press release:

An overwhelming majority of Houstonians feel that it is important to be able to buy locally grown food, with 42% responding that it is “very important” and 41% that it is “somewhat important.” Only 16% of Houstonians report that access to locally grown food is not important to them. Rice University sociologist Dr. Stephen Klineberg released the new Houston Area Survey today, revealing these results for a question that he asked this year for the first time.

The local food movement in the 13-county Houston region has been gaining strength following the Food & Sustainable Prosperity conference hosted by Houston Tomorrow in 2008. A broad coalition of nonprofits, government agencies, growers, and engaged citizens meets monthly as the Houston Food Policy Workgroup, hosted by Houston Tomorrow. The mission of the workgroup is to nurture the growth of a sustainable local food system, accessible to all, through education, collaboration, communication, and creation of a food policy council for the Houston region. Interested parties from across the region are welcome to participate.

You can read the full release here. As I’ve mentioned, my wife is the Chair of the Central City Co-op board, so this is near and dear to her heart. She was very happy when I showed her the release. For more information about local food in Houston, visit Central City or Urban Harvest; the Chron had a nice story about one of their more successful projects this past weekend.