David Read is a big guy, six-foot-two, but the grass behind him inches above the crown of his khaki fisherman’s hat. He gestures off toward his house across a swishing, dancing expanse of stems, leaves, and early-autumn wildflowers, and smiles. “We wanted to sit on our back porch and watch grass swaying in the wind,” he says. Which is exactly what it’s doing this September day, finally.
It wasn’t always so. In the 1990s when he and his wife, Alisande, bought this property, 38 acres in exurban Dexter, Mich., it was fallow farmland slowly succumbing to invasive shrubs. In 2003, after retiring, they set about restoring 11 acres of it to native prairie.
Read has done most of the work himself, at times putting in 20 hours a week or more lopping and herbiciding weedy brush, as well as seeding, mowing, and burning. He estimates they’ve spent nearly $15,000 on seed, equipment, herbicide, and some outside help. He might be a little nuts, Read concedes, but if so, he has a lot of company throughout the US Midwest and Great Plains.
Prior to settlement by Europeans, prairie blanketed an enormous swath of central North America, from Canada south to Texas, and from Indiana west to Colorado — nearly 600,000 square miles of grassland all told. This complex ecosystem was home to a diverse and teeming web of life, including now-tattered bison populations. Farming and development have reduced much of this iconic American landscape, particularly in the wetter eastern areas. There, tall-grass prairie, a habitat dominated by grasses that can grow eight feet high, now occupies less than 1 percent of its former range, putting it among the world’s most endangered ecosystems, according to the US National Park Service. In the central prairie zone, so called “mixed-grass” ecosystems have suffered similar losses, while in the drier, less populous West, short-grass prairies have fared better.
Government agencies and conservation groups, aided by volunteers, have undertaken numerous restoration projects across US and Canadian prairieland, some of them thousands of acres in scale. In recent years a cadre of private citizens has joined in, restoring prairie to their own properties, from city yards up to 100 acres or more around rural homes and farms. In some cases they’ve re-created prairie where it never was before — on land that was originally forest or wetlands before settlers plowed it for crops.
The hub of this do-it-yourself restoration activity is Iowa, southwestern Wisconsin, northern Illinois, and Minnesota, says Daryl Smith, director of the Tallgrass Prairie Center at the University of Northern Iowa. That’s probably because the region’s native prairie is so precious. Iowa’s, for instance, is down to 1/10th of 1 percent of its original extent.
Federal, state, and local programs offer financial and technical assistance, particularly for larger private projects on agricultural land. Conservation groups also offer some help. And a cottage industry of consultants, contractors, and native-plant nurseries has arisen for landowners who can’t do it all themselves. With so many players involved, no one seems to have a bird’s-eye view of just how much prairie is being restored on private land. By all accounts, however, the trend is growing, even if it may be all but impossible to quantify.
“I’ve been in this business since the early ‘70s, and there’s definitely been increasing numbers each year of prairie plantings,” Smith says. “We just haven’t kept a record of it."
As David Read wrote in an essay, “Prairie restoration is not for wimps!” it can be labor-intensive and technically challenging. People are educating themselves on the intricacies of grassland ecology, planting genetically modified “Roundup Ready” crops so they can blitz the soil clear of invasive species’ seed before sowing prairie plants, and bringing in heavy equipment to drill, till, spray, and seed. They are setting fire to their land to mimic nature’s way of keeping trees out and replenishing soil nutrients. In some places, they are banding together to swap work on one another’s properties, which one Wisconsin prairie buff likened to the barn raisings of years past.
“It definitely takes a combination of expertise in how to go about doing it and an investment up front either in money or in time,” says Chris Kirkpatrick, executive director of The Prairie Enthusiasts. “It’s a lot of doing things at the right time in the right order.” The 1,200-member group has 11 chapters in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Minnesota, up from five a decade ago. The work diminishes after a few years as the new prairie becomes established, Kirkpatrick says. Compared to lawn, prairie is cheaper in the long run, takes less work, and consumes no fertilizer and less water and fossil fuel for mowing, he says.
Folks who prefer that others do the heavy lifting can hire design, preparation, seeding, and maintenance for an acre of prairie for between $2,200 and $5,000, says Neil Diboll, president of Prairie Nursery in Westfield, Wisc. Diboll, an eminent advocate of native-plant gardening, says he has completed a few projects exceeding $100,000.
The payoff is the reappearance of native wildlife in places that for decades could not support it. That is abundantly obvious on the Reads’ property, where the shimmering trill of thousands of insects nearly drowns out the tidal roar of traffic from nearby I-94. Read says coyotes, foxes, deer, raccoons, skunks, possums, rabbits, owls, hawks, and numerous other birds are regular visitors, as are decidedly nonnative feral cats. A couple summers ago they had an explosion of enormous dragonflies that would cruise just above the grasses. “You could tell when they got outside the prairie,” he says, “they’d turn around and come back again.”
“We say build it and they will come,” says Mark Sargent, who runs a Michigan Department of Natural Resources program that helps landowners restore prairie and other native habitat to encourage vulnerable grassland and game bird species. That program has helped restore some 40,000 acres in the past decade, according to Sargent, “a lot” of it prairie. Twelve years ago, he and his wife began restoring prairie and wetlands on their 53 acres outside of Charlotte, Mich., and he says the difference in birdlife is striking. For the first two years, he says he would flush an average of one game bird every three times he went out hunting. Now it’s five every time.
Bigger prairies obviously offer more wildlife habitat, and connected ones allow species to spread over larger territories, preventing gene-pool stagnation, Sargent and other experts say. But even small patches count as pocket refuges for native wildlife that may have few alternatives.
In the Water Hill neighborhood of Ann Arbor, Mich., a number of residents have turned their city lots into prairie. Thirteen years ago Karen Sharp bought a house here, with a wild scraggle of vegetation shielding the front porch. The former owner returns occasionally to do carefully controlled burns of the little prairie, squeezed in between all the old wooden houses. “It looks really freaky. Cars will stop,” she says. “It’s black, charred front lawn. And it smells. It smells charred for a week or more. It really puts you off.”
The plants grow back quickly, though, and she says she has wildflowers with little effort and no water at the height of the summer when many of her neighbors’ yards are brown. “I love the privacy. I love the insects and the birds, and I love the flowers. And I love seeing how it changes every year,” she says.
In ecologically minded places like Ann Arbor, prairies have gained a measure of acceptance, but elsewhere would-be prairie planters have had to battle city nuisance codes, fines, and neighbors that regard their projects as weedy eyesores. There’s also the question of longevity. Most prairies will always require some maintenance to keep out trees, brush, and invasive species, which subsequent owners may or may not keep up, experts say.
There have already been casualties, according to Roger Anderson, a plant ecologist and professor emeritus at Illinois State University. He’s seen a few undone in real estate transactions or, in the case of one 25-year-old restoration on school property with over 100 native plant species, by a new school principal who just didn’t get it.
There are larger market forces at play, too. With grain prices skyrocketing because of the demand for ethanol, farmers have been plowing under native grasses they planted just a few years earlier with help from the US Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), according to Smith of the Tallgrass Prairie Center and other experts. CRP staff estimate that 11.6 million acres of land currently enrolled in the program in 14 prairie states have been planted primarily with native grasses. It would be a stretch to call many of these projects full prairie restorations, especially since landowners are only bound to keep enrolled lands out of production for contract periods of 10 or 15 years. Nevertheless, they do add a great deal of wildlife habitat, and the loss of it hurts, Smith says.
Lawn may long be king, but it is surrendering some ground as people increasingly welcome the helter-skelter beauty of prairie around homes and buildings, says Diboll, who remembers locals referring to his nursery as the “weed farm” in the 1980s. “It’s like any social-change event,” he says. “It’s a change in attitudes and styles, and those things take time.”
• Rebecca Kessler is a freelance science and environmental journalist based in Providence, R.I. A former senior editor at Natural History, her work has been published by ClimateCentral.org, Conservation, Discover, Natural History, ScienceNOW, ScienceInsider, and Environmental Health Perspectives. She has previously written for Yale Environment 360 about the fatal impact fishing gear is having on whales in the North Atlantic.
As we start 2013, many people will be thinking about plans and promises to improve their diet and health.
But we think a broader collection of farmers, policymakers, and eaters need new, bigger resolutions for fixing the food system – real changes with long-term impacts in fields, boardrooms, and on plates all over the world.
Here are13 resolutions that the world can’t afford to break with nearly 1 billion people still hungry and more than 1 billion others suffering from the effects of being overweight and obese. We have the tools – let’s use them in 2013!
Growing in cities: Food production doesn’t only happen in fields or factories. Nearly 1 billion people worldwide produce food in cities. In Kibera, Kenya, the largest slum in Africa, farmers are growing seeds of indigenous vegetables and selling them to rural farmers. At Bell Book & Candle restaurant in New York, customers are served rosemary, cherry tomatoes, romaine, and other produce grown from the restaurant’s aeroponic rooftop garden.
Creating better access: People’s Grocery in Oakland, Calif., and Fresh Moves in Chicago bring mobile grocery stores to food deserts, giving low-income consumers opportunities to make healthy food choices. Instead of chips and soda, they provide customers with affordable organic produce, not typically available in their communities.
Eaters demanding healthier food: Food writer Michael Pollan advises not to eat anything that your grandparents wouldn’t recognize. Try eating more fruits, vegetables, and whole foods without preservatives and other additives.
Cooking more: Home economics classes have declined in schools in the United Kingdom and the United States. and young people lack basic cooking skills. Top Chefs Jamie Oliver, Alice Waters, and Bill Telepan are working with schools to teach kids how to cook healthy, nutritious foods.
Creating conviviality: According to the Hartman Group, nearly half of all adults in the US eat meals alone. Sharing a meal with family and friends can foster community and conversation. Recent studies suggest that children who eat meals with their families are typically happier and more stable than those who do not.
Focus on vegetables: Nearly 2 billion people suffer from micronutrient deficiencies worldwide, leading to poor development. The World Vegetable Center, however, is helping farmers grow high-value, nutrient-rich vegetables in Africa and Asia, improving health and increasing incomes.
Preventing waste: Roughly one-third of all food is wasted – in fields, during transport, in storage, and in homes. But there are easy, inexpensive ways to prevent waste. Initiatives like Love Food, Hate Waste offer consumers tips about portion control and recipes for leftovers, while farmers in Bolivia are using solar-powered driers to preserve foods.
Engaging youths: Making farming both intellectually and economically stimulating will help make the food system an attractive career option for youths. Across sub-Saharan Africa, cell phones and the internet are connecting farmers to information about weather and markets. In the US. Food Corps is teaching students how to grow and cook food, preparing them for a lifetime of healthy eating.
Protecting workers: Farm and food workers across the world are fighting for better pay and working conditions. In Zimbabwe, the General Agricultural and Plantation Workers Union of Zimbabwe protects laborers from abuse. In the US, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers successfully persuaded Trader Joe’s and Chipotle to pay the premium of a penny-per-pound to Florida tomato pickers.
Acknowledging the importance of farmers: Farmers aren’t just farmers, they’re business-women and men, stewards of the land, and educators, sharing knowledge in their communities. Slow Food International works with farmers all over the world, helping recognize their importance to preserve biodiversity and culture.
Recognizing the role of governments: Nations must implement policies that give everyone access to safe, affordable, healthy food. In Ghana and Brazil, government action, including national school-feeding programs and increased support for sustainable agricultural production greatly reduced the number of hungry people.
Changing the metrics: Governments, NGOs, and funders have focused on increasing production and improving yields, rather than improving nutrition and protecting the environment. Changing the metrics, and focusing more on quality, will improve public and environmental health, and livelihoods.
Fixing the broken food system: Agriculture can be the solution to some of the world’s most pressing challenges, including unemployment, obesity, and climate change. These innovations simply need more research, more investment, and ultimately more funding.
• Danielle Nierenberg and Ellen Gustafson are the co-founders of Food Tank: The Food Think Tank (www.FoodTank.org). Danielle is based in Chicago, Ill., and Ellen is based in San Diego, Calif.
Transporting firewood across state lines can spread insects and diseases, thereby wiping out swaths of forests. Because this can cause considerable economic and environmental damage, The Nature Conservancy oversees a "Don’t Move Firewood" website. The site, which gives state-by-state information, encourages people to buy locally harvested wood.
“We absolutely see that the longer there is a presence of a "Don’t Move Firewood" campaign in a state the more the public becomes aware. States without ‘Don’t Move’ just don’t get it,” says Lee Greenwood, coalitions and network manager for The Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit group that works around the world to protect ecologically important land and water.
The "Don't Move" site grew from an effort called the Continental Dialogue on Non-Native Forest Insects and Diseases, a loose-knit group of organizations and individuals working to keep ecological invaders at bay.
While The Nature Conservancy owns the site, other nonprofit and government organizations are involved. They include the American Forest Foundation, the National Association of State Foresters, the Society of American Foresters, and the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.
Native trees can defend themselves against native insects and diseases. But trouble ensues when non-native insects and diseases show up, hitching a ride on firewood transported from elsewhere.
"That’s What Tree Said" and "Tree shirts" are available for purchase on the "Don't Move" site – a humorous way to raise awareness about this issue.
The leaf-munching Asian longhorned beetle is one of biggest threats to New England’s maple trees, threatening the fall foliage season. Restaurants, hotels, farm stands, and maple syrup distributors count on the annual tourism: Leaf peepers account for nearly $300 million in annual revenue in Vermont alone, according to the state's tourism and marketing department.
In Oregon the more than 700 licensed Christmas tree growers produce about 8 million trees a year. This year slugs are hitching rides to Hawaii on these Christmas trees. As a result, nearly half of the trees shipped to Hawaii are in quarantine.
In Pennsylvania, environmental officials have thus far contained the Asian longhorned beetle. But many other fast-moving pathogens and insects lurk, says Sven-Erik Spichiger, manager for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture’s entomology program.
“Eighty percent of Pennsylvania’s forests are oak. If a fast-moving pathogen or insect threatened them, well, it really staggers the mind to think about it,” Mr. Spichiger says. Sap beetles, which carry oak wilt, are one such fast-moving threat.
That’s why signs on Pennsylvania state parks tell campers not to bring in their own firewood.
Some states, such as Connecticut, Vermont, and New Hampshire, simply advise against moving firewood while New York, Maine, and Massachusetts all prohibit importing wood from other states, or long-distance movement within their state. People are encouraged to check the "Don't Move" site to see the rules for their state.
How far is too far to move firewood? Generally 50 miles is too far, and 10 miles or less is best, according to “Don’t Move Firewood.” People are advised to check the website’s interactive state-by-state map.
In addition, “woody debris from storms is also a concern,” Spichiger says. It’s not a good idea to give away wood from fallen branches and trees, or leave it curbside for passersby. The final destination for the wood is unknown. However, it is okay to use such wood as mulch or for one’s own woodstove or fire pit.
“All it takes is one piece of wood,” Spichiger says, for a pest to infest a new area.
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As the new Richardsville Elementary School rose from its foundations on a rural road north of Bowling Green, Ky., fourth-grader Colton Hendrick was watching closely.
He would climb to the top of the playground equipment across the street and watch construction crews hauling in bamboo flooring and solar panels.
“He wants to be an architect some day,” recalled Manesha Ford, elementary curriculum coordinator and leader of the school’s energy team. “He would sit and draw, draw all the different aspects.”
But Richardsville Elementary would not only capture Hendrick’s imagination—it would come to inspire his classmates and school districts around the world. When Richardsville opened its doors in fall 2010, it was the first “net zero” school in the nation, meaning that the school produces more energy on-site than it uses in a year.
Solar tubes piping sunlight directly into classrooms eliminate much of the school’s demand for electric light, while a combination of geothermal and solar power cut down on the rest of the energy bill. Concrete floors treated with a soy-based stain don’t need buffing. The kitchen, which in most schools contributes to 20 percent of the energy bill, houses a combi-oven that cooks healthier meals and eliminates frying. This means an exhaust fan doesn’t pipe the school’s temperature-controlled air to the outdoors all day long. Meanwhile, “green screens” in the front hall track the school’s energy usage so kids can see the impact of turning off a light in real time.
These and other innovations make Richardsville better than net zero. It actually earns about $2,000 a month selling excess energy to the Tennessee Valley Authority.
But building a green school isn’t enough, according to architect Philip C. Gayhart, principal in the architecture firm Sherman Carter Barnhart, which built Richardsville and has helped the Warren County School District achieve Energy Star ratings for 17 of its 24 schools.
Three factors are essential to making a green school work: First, you need the participation of the community and the local power company; second, you can’t forget that a school is a dynamic learning environment; and third, you need to speak the language of money.
Since the economic recession began in 2008, school districts have suffered. Local tax bases were shaken as property values plummeted, and states have cut back on funding to districts, which were pushed to cut funds wherever they were able. Addressing energy use made a lot of financial sense.
Few states have been harder hit than Arizona, where the 21.8 percent decrease in per-pupil spending was the highest in the nation.
Sue Pierce, director of facility planning and energy with the Washington Elementary School District in Phoenix, watched as teacher positions were cut, furlough days were scheduled, and $6 million in annual facilities funding disappeared.
“We saw that energy was really an area where we could perhaps save money by simply changing behavior,” Pierce said. “I approached the superintendent and asked permission to develop a program.”
The district’s new energy policy aimed to cut energy consumption district-wide by 10 percent in the first year and 40 percent over the next five years. As part of the program, Pierce began to distribute monthly reports on energy usage, which included every school in the district.
Some schools took to the program more quickly than others.
“Just by changing behaviors, they were showing 10 and 15 percent reduction the first or second month,” she said. The reports then fueled a competition between schools, and by the end of the first year, energy use had been cut 15 percent district-wide.
Since that time, the district has hosted a pilot program that, for the first time, demonstrated the feasibility of geothermal power in Arizona. Another pilot used smart water sensors to cut outdoor water use, and was so successful that the cost of the sensors was recouped in less than three months. The district even won funding to build two “green schoolhouses.”
Including grants the district has won, Pierce concludes the district has saved more than $15 million.
And while the district’s commitment to environmental consciousness has never been stronger, Pierce thinks that broaching the issue as a financial concern, rather than an environmental one, was the smartest approach.
The school district initially adopted the changes “as a way to save money, to save jobs for teachers,” she said. “What started out as a way to save money for the district—and it has—has evolved into a commitment to sustainability.”
While Washington Elementary School District and many others like it were just kicking off their energy programs in 2008, Richardsville Elementary and the rest of the Warren County School District were already five years ahead of the game.
The district had kicked off its district-wide energy campaign in 2003 under the direction of a forward-thinking superintendent, according to district Public Relations Coordinator Joanie Hendricks. The district was growing by about 400 students per year, and construction projects seemed to be always on the agenda.
That first year of savings inspired the ambitious plans that came next, Hendrick said. “When you save half a million dollars in just changing your mindset, it just becomes a simple idea.”
Since 2003, the district has offset more than $7 million in energy costs. That equates to 45 teaching positions. It’s a number that really speaks to people.
“It makes you think twice when you’re going out the door to turn around and turn the light switch off,” Hendrick said, “when you know that could save somebody’s job.”
By the time Warren County decided to focus on greener schools, the architects at Sherman Carter Barnhart had been incorporating newer and greener materials in their plans for years.
“The perception is—and it’s not all wrong—is that it’s more costly, and we think if it’s done correctly it’s not really more costly,” Gayhart said. “I think the real ‘green’ is the dollars you can save the client in the life of the building. That’s the legacy you want.”
In 2005, Alvaton Elementary in Warren County opened using 36 kBtus of energy per square foot annually. That’s less than half the national average for schools, which is 73 kBtus. A few years later, Plano Elementary was using 28 kBtus, and today, Richardsville and two net zero-ready schools in the district use only 18 kBtus per square foot.
Net zero-ready schools have everything a net zero school has, minus the solar panels, which Richardsville was able to afford with the help of federal stimulus grants that have since run dry. Bardstown City Schools Finance Director Pat Hagan said although his district is implementing energy-saving measures, the up-front cost of solar doesn’t make financial sense right now.
Bardstown, situated in north central Kentucky, has two schools with geothermal systems.
“They’re a little more expensive to put in but you get your money back pretty quickly,” Hagan said.
Still, all options are on the table for a new school in the planning stages for Bardstown, which expects to see a bid from Sherman Carter Barnhart.
“When they built [Bardstown] High School in ’59 I don’t think anybody thought about energy at all,” Hagan said. “Nobody thought about it even from a cost or environmental view. Now, that’s the first two things you ask.”
For the next generation, this outlook may become a way of life. The schools described in this article have all integrated environmental and sustainability components into their curriculums, and students have adopted these issues passionately.
“For the students, it’s the learning opportunity” said Ford, leader of Richardsville’s energy team. “It’s something that’s going to be a part of their life for a long time, so we’re teaching them and we’re having them become the teachers.”
That energy team leads visitors from schools around the world on tours of Richardsville, and has audited just about every appliance in the building.
“They’ll leave a note that says, ‘Mrs. Jones, you have a cell phone charger plugged in, and you’re not using it. That’s going to cost us $5 a week,’” Joanie Hendricks laughed, “and you know, there’s nothing more powerful than getting a note from a kid.”
• Erin L. McCoy wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Erin worked as a newspaper reporter and photographer in Kentucky for almost two years. She is now a Seattle-based freelance writer specializing in education, environment, cultural issues, and travel, informed by her time teaching English in Malaysia and other travels. Contact her at elmccoy [at] gmail [dot] com or on Twitter @ErinLMcCoy.
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Tilling virtual crops from their urban apartments and assembling criminal empires from the comfort of suburban homes, online gamers seem to live in worlds far removed from reality.
Zynga Inc., the provider of some of Facebook’s most popular games like FarmVille and Mafia Wars, projects a different picture. This month, the company has partnered with Water.org to raise money for a resource precious to both FarmVille 2 farmers and actual communities all over the world – water.
During the month long campaign, three branded items – sprinklers, water pumps, and jerry cans – are available for purchase within FarmVille 2. Zynga will donate 100 percent of the proceeds to Water.org.
This collaboration marks a growing trend in gaming for social impact. Nonprofits welcome the opportunity to raise awareness for their causes within vast player networks. FarmVille 2 has more than 56 million monthly active users, many who play the game several times per day.
“We try to catch them in the place where they’re enjoying themselves,” said Mike McCamon, chief community officer of Water.org. “It’s an interesting place to introduce them to the problem.”
Ken Weber, executive director of Zynga.org, believes that the immersive environments of social games attract passionate players who invest their time for months and even years.
“These games are contextual for them,” he said. “Water is important in farming and in the world – it is a naturally occurring relationship. We are connecting something in people’s lives. We are interested in creating a dynamic that makes it work.”
That donors are having fun, increasing the production of their online farms while supporting development in communities worldwide, creates a parallel less prominent in other campaigns such as Facebook Gifts. Released earlier this year, that Facebook feature allows users to donate to one of 11 charities (Water.org included) on behalf of their friends. Although this brings publicity to both the cause and the Facebook user, it doesn’t help the virtual grass grow.
Developers linking virtual challenges to real world results capitalize on gaming’s allure. Game designer Jane McGonigal created SuperBetter while she was bedridden after a concussion. The game allows players to become superheroes fighting their own health battles by accomplishing tasks in their everyday lives. Bad habits are more exciting to break when reframed as “bad guys” in the virtual environment.
But gamer goodwill for the physical world should not be discounted. More than just a fundraiser, the Water.org campaign aims to educate users about the world water crisis. By clicking on the Water.org items for sale, players are presented with information about the organization and given the option to visit the nonprofit’s website.
Many players are willing to step out of the game world to learn about the real one. According to McCamon, several of Water.org’s highest web traffic days have been due in large part to visitors redirected from FarmVille 2.
Weber echoes this sentiment about the interests of Zynga’s users. He says that Zynga.org, the company’s philanthropic division, was developed in 2009 in response to employee and player demand for a connection to real world issues. One of the first campaigns raised over $1 million for Haiti earthquake relief in 2010.
This success led Zynga to focus on everyday philanthropic causes beyond unpredictable natural disasters. To date, Zynga has raised more than $13 million for nonprofits such as Save the Children, Habitat for Humanity, and World Food Programme.
So there you have it, virtual farmers, mobsters, and superheroes: Keep gaming, and recruit your friends.
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Will contract farming, done right, serve as the missing link between small farmers and markets?
Contract farming, an agreement between a farmer and a buyer, can offer many benefits to smallholder farmers. They guarantee a buyer and often provide extra perks like better access to yield-boosting inputs.
Anti-poverty organizations, as well as large grocery-store chains, are looking to contracts as a “win-win” solution that fights poverty while guaranteeing a reliable, year-round flow of organic and niche produce to national and international markets.
Here's the potential problem: Contract farming, in itself, doesn’t directly reach or benefit the farmers who need help most.
Corporations view farmers at the bottom of the income bracket as liabilities — likely to fail in meeting obligations. According to a study last year by AgWater Solutions (pdf), contract farming “is unlikely to reach the poorest farmers … Schemes tend to select better-off farmers who can bear risks or pay an initial commitment fee."
Additionally, poor farmers are smallholder farmers. Corporations are less likely to enter a contract with farmers who own small tracts of land and who are scattered and isolated geographically — the transportation costs are too high and the communication too unpredictable and difficult.
Then there’s the issue of power inequality and “information asymmetry.” Small farmers who aren’t members of a cooperative or farmer’s association lack the bargaining power, lawyers, and sophisticated technology of big buyers.
Here’s the beginning of a solution: The Rural Livelihoods Development Programme and AgWater Solutions are two great examples of organizations trying to find ways of using contract farming to fight rural poverty. RLDC's most recent annual report (pdf) and AgWater's website both offer guidelines for how investors and antipoverty organizations can ensure both the small farmer and the corporation fully realize the “win-win” of contract farming: They include:
- Offer legal education and institutional frameworks that let both the smallholder farmer and the corporation understand the terms of the contract and any local legal resources available.
- Support farmer organizations' and cooperatives' efforts to understand the risks and benefits of contract farming in general.
- Ensure poor farmers can participate in contract farming. An example: Buyers and processors could issue micro-loans, crop insurance, and agricultural inputs as a term of contract with poorer farmers.
- Identify some sort of incentive for companies to invest in poor smallholder farmers.
Contract farming offers a way for smallholder farmers to enter the marketplace. It can link an isolated rural economy to a globe full of potential buyers.
But contracts aren’t a silver bullet. A contract between vulnerable farmers and powerful agribusinesses is inherently risky for farmers, so it’s crucial they have access to education and legal services.
It’s also essential that contract farming is encouraged alongside established farmer cooperatives or another association that has access to market information.
More Americans volunteered in 2011 than in any year since 2005, a new study finds. Approximately 64.3 million Americans volunteered at charities last year, providing 7.9 billion hours of service valued at $171 billion.
The 1.5 million additional volunteers boosted the national rate to 26.8 percent of the population, a half percentage point higher than 2010. But the dollar value dipped by $2 billion, as the average number of hours Americans volunteered in a year dropped to 32.7 from 33.9, the Corporation for National and Community Service reported.
Robert Grimm, director of the Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership at the University of Maryland, said the increase was mainly the result of the growth in the American population, not a response to the economy or other factors.
National volunteer rates hit their peak of nearly 29 percent from 2003 to 2005 but have been stuck at around 26 percent ever since, according to a survey of about 100,000 people age 16 and older conducted by the US Census Bureau for the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The number of volunteers is down from a 2005 high of 65.4 million.
The average number of hours has declined from a high of nearly 38 in 2004. Researchers say the dip may not be a sign that volunteers are actually spending fewer hours at charities, but that they might not be accurately remembering every year exactly how much time they give.
Utah outpaced all states last year with the highest percentage of residents who volunteer. However, the volunteer rate for the heavily Mormon state fell from 44.5 percent in 2010 to 40.9 percent last year, and the hours per resident dropped by 19 to an average of 70.3 hours.
Iowa, which had ranked second for the past two years, dropped to third place as Idaho jumped eight spots in state rankings to take the No. 2 position.
But Iowans appear to have taken seriously a plea from the state’s governor, Terry Branstad, for every resident to volunteer at least 50 hours a year. The state average for volunteer hours in Iowa was 41.9 last year, up nearly eight hours from the state’s reported average of 34.2 in 2010.
In Idaho, the growth in volunteerism comes in part because tutoring services and employment assistance centers were pushing people to give their time, according to officials at the Serve Idaho commission on volunteering and service.
“Parents are volunteering much more in schools,” said Renee Cox, a Serve Idaho program manager. She said the commission had also gotten better at collecting data on volunteering trends, which could explain the increase as well.
Utah also tops all states in “doing favors for and helping out neighbors,” called “informal volunteering,” the study finds.
Among other key findings:
• Volunteer rates were higher in rural areas (27.7 percent) and suburban areas (27.5 percent) than in urban areas (23.4 percent).
• Religion, education, and social services attracted a bigger share of volunteers than other causes.
• Volunteers said they spent most of their time fundraising, collecting and distributing food, providing labor or transportation, and tutoring.
During her two decades living in Houston, Caroline Oliver, like any urban dweller, frequently encountered people in the streets asking for money. She struggled with how to respond. She wanted to help, but in a useful way.
And so when Ms. Oliver, a consultant and mother of two who recently moved to Austin, Texas, read about the New York police officer who was photographed giving a new pair of all-weather boots to a barefoot man on a cold street, she was moved.
"He saw a need and he provided for that need," she says. "He couldn't just walk away."
And when the story, which went viral thanks to a photograph snapped by a tourist, turned out to be more complicated, as they often do, Oliver admired the officer's gesture just as much. Sure, the man may not have actually been homeless, as many had first presumed. And yes, he turned up on the streets soon after, shoeless again, telling The New York Times he'd hidden the boots because they were "worth a lot of money."
But still, the officer, Lawrence DePrimo, "saw a need and fulfilled it," Oliver says. "Even though from his experience, he probably knew it might not necessarily work out the way he hoped."
One might think that advocates for the homeless and the poor would say the complicated shoeless-man saga shows precisely why people should give money to organizations, and not randomly on the streets. But two prominent advocates for the homeless, interviewed for this article, felt that giving on the street is a highly personal and sometimes deeply rewarding act — something they occasionally do themselves, and would never discourage others from doing.
"I probably am as conflicted as anyone about giving people money on the streets, and I've been doing this for 32 years," says Neil Donovan, a longtime advocate for the homeless and now executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. "I give as often as I don't give, and it's not connected to my financial state at the time."
Mr. Donovan applauds the NYPD officer for what he calls "an act of love" — regardless of the complications. "What motivates a person is important," he says. "What we find out later is less important. And I think we can nod to the fact that if someone's sitting without shoes on the street at night, something has gone wrong. If it turns out they have a place to live, it's a longer conversation."
Donovan notes that a number of municipalities across the country have tried to discourage panhandling by setting parking meters to accept donations for the homeless. But there's something important missing in that transaction, he notes.
"There's something very intimate about being asked for money," Donovan says. "The idea of leaving money at a parking meter strips us of the whole opportunity to give and receive, which are both great acts."
Donovan thinks so many have seized on the NYPD officer's story because he did what they hope they would do in the same circumstances. Oliver, the Texas consultant, agrees. "I wish I could say I would have done the same," she says. "I'm not sure, because I'm jaded. But I hope I would have."
She herself struggles to find the right balance. Living until recently in Houston, she encountered many homeless people near an underpass she drove by frequently. She wanted to know the money was going somewhere useful — not to drugs, for example. So she would stop her car and ask people to meet her in front of a 7-Eleven, where she would buy them food.
But often, she says, the food was rejected. "I once reached into my grocery bag in a parking lot and pulled out meat and milk," she says. "But the woman ran away."
Like her fellow New Yorkers, Kathy Zimmer constantly encounters people asking for money on the streets or in the subway — daily if not hourly. And this is the season — the holiday months, as temperatures drop — when she tends to give more.
And yet like others confronted with such a decision, Ms. Zimmer has a litmus test of sorts. She's sympathetic if someone is displaying a talent, such as singing a song or playing an instrument in the subway. "There are people who really have talent to lend," says Zimmer, a musician herself. "And I know how hard it is to make a living as a musician."
What inspires Mirko Todorovic, who owns a tie and accessories shop at Penn Station, is a little different. He feels more like giving when the person isn't asking. There's a guy he's seen for years, over on First Avenue on the East side, sitting near a garage. "He sits in a chair there, with all his stuff, and never asks for anything," says Todorovic. "I've given him something about 20 times" — maybe two or three dollars.
There's a common desire to help people who help themselves, says Nan Roman, president and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. "A lot of people think one shouldn't give on the street because it's enabling," Roman says. "They're afraid people will make a bad choice about what to do with the money."
But Mr. Roman, like Donovan, would not advise people to avoid giving. "It's a personal decision as to whether you want to help or not," she says. "Most people, I think, make a decision based on how they feel. That's what I do."
Roman understands how some people may have been disappointed at reading of the complicated circumstances of the NYPD case. But she points out that most cases involving people living persistently on the streets are, well, complicated.
"People don't generally live on the streets unless they have complicated problems," Roman says. "The majority of people would enter some program until they got back on their feet. If it's a chronic case, they have other problems too, like a disabling condition of some sort."
But even if the shoeless man had complex circumstances, she points out, he still was sitting on the street with no shoes on, in the cold. "He wasn't making the wisest decision — but he still needed help," Roman says. "What are you going to do, interview him? Ask 90 questions?"
Roman sees the public's response to the NYPD story as a need for simple, quick solutions.
And so she suggests giving to advocacy organizations, which she does herself. "I think that's the longer-term answer," she says. Adds Donovan, of the National Coalition for the Homeless: "Maybe this [NYPD story] will be something that causes people to say, 'Hey, why don't I give to the shelter this year?'"
But still there will be the spontaneous, daily calculations of people like Zimmer, the New York musician who favors giving to musicians like herself. She also tends to be generous, she says, "when I see someone with an obvious physical impairment." If they look healthy and more able to work, she says, she's less likely to give.
When reminded of the NYPD officer's story, she shrugged and smiled. She said it hadn't affected her calculations. It was just another odd story in the big city.
"You never know in New York what the real story is," she said.
• Associated Press writer Verena Dobnik contributed to this story.
Susana Trimarco was a housewife who fussed over her family and paid scant attention to the news until her daughter left for a doctor's appointment and never came back.
After getting little help from police, Ms. Trimarco launched her own investigation into a tip that the 23-year-old was abducted and forced into sex slavery. Soon, Trimarco was visiting brothels seeking clues about her daughter and the search took an additional goal: rescuing sex slaves and helping them start new lives.
What began as a one-woman campaign a decade ago developed into a movement and Trimarco today is a hero to hundreds of women she's rescued from Argentine prostitution rings. She's been honored with the "Women of Courage" award by the US State Department and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize Nov. 28. On Dec. 9, Argentina's president, Cristina Fernandez, gave her a human rights award before hundreds of thousands of people in the Plaza de Mayo.
But years of exploring the decadent criminal underground haven't led Trimarco to her daughter, Maria de los Angeles "Marita" Veron, who was 23 in 2002 when she disappeared from their hometown in provincial Tucuman, leaving behind her own 3-year-old daughter, Micaela.
"I live for this," the 58-year-old Trimarco told The Associated Press of her ongoing quest. "I have no other life, and the truth is, it is a very sad, very grim life that I wouldn't wish on anyone."
Her painful journey has now reached a milestone.
Publicity over Trimarco's efforts prompted Argentine authorities to make a high-profile example of her daughter's case by putting 13 people on trial for allegedly kidnapping Ms. Veron and holding her as a sex slave in a family-run operation of illegal brothels. Prostitution is not illegal in Argentina, but the exploitation of women for sex is.
A verdict is expected Tuesday after a nearly year-long trial.
The seven men and six women have pleaded innocent and their lawyers have said there's no physical proof supporting the charges against them. The alleged ringleaders denied knowing Veron and said that women who work in their brothels do so willingly. Prosecutors have asked for up to 25 years imprisonment for those convicted.
Trimarco was the primary witness during the trial, testifying for six straight days about her search for her daughter.
The road to trial was a long one.
Frustrated by seeming indifference to her daughter's disappearance, Trimarco began her own probe and found a taxi driver who told of delivering Veron to a brothel where she was beaten and forced into prostitution. The driver is among the defendants.
With her husband and granddaughter in tow, Trimarco disguised herself as a recruiter of prostitutes and entered brothel after brothel searching for clues. She soon found herself immersed in the dangerous and grim world of organized crime, gathering evidence against police, politicians, and gangsters.
"For the first time, I really understood what was happening to my daughter," she said. "I was with my husband and with Micaela, asleep in the backseat of the car because she was still very small and I had no one to leave her with."
The very first woman Trimarco rescued taught her to be strong, she said.
"It stuck with me forever: She told me not to let them see me cry, because these shameless people who had my daughter would laugh at me, and at my pain," Trimarco said. "Since then I don't cry anymore. I've made myself strong, and when I feel that a tear might drop, I remember these words and I keep my composure."
Micaela, now 13, has been by her grandmother's side throughout, contributing to publicity campaigns against human trafficking and keeping her mother's memory alive.
More than 150 witnesses testified in the trial, including a dozen former sex slaves who described brutal conditions in the brothels.
Veron may have been kidnapped twice, with the complicity of the very authorities who should have protected her, according to Julio Fernandez, who now runs a Tucuman police department devoted to investigating human trafficking. He testified that witnesses reported seeing Veron at a bus station three days after she initially disappeared, and that a police officer from La Rioja, Domingo Pascual Andrada, delivered her to a brothel there. Mr. Andrada, now among the defendants, denied knowing any of the other defendants, let alone Veron.
Other Tucuman police testified that when they sought permission in 2002 to search La Rioja brothels, a judge made them wait for hours, enabling Veron's captors to move her. That version was supported by a woman who had been a prostitute at the brothel: She testified that Veron was moved just before police arrived. The judge, Daniel Moreno, is not on trial. He denied delaying the raid or having anything to do with the defendants.
Some of the former prostitutes said they had seen Veron drugged and haggard. One testified Veron felt trapped and missed her daughter. Another said she spotted Veron with dyed-blonde hair and an infant boy she was forced to conceive in a rape by a ringleader. A third thought Veron had been sold to a brothel in Spain — a lead reported to Interpol.
Trimarco's campaign to find her daughter led the State Department to provide seed money for a foundation in Veron's name. To date, it has rescued more than 900 women and girls from sex trafficking. The foundation also provides housing and medical and psychological aid, and it helps victims sue former captors.
Argentina outlawed human trafficking in 2008, thanks in large part to the foundation's work. A new force dedicated to combating human trafficking has liberated nearly 3,000 more victims in two years, said Security Minister Nilda Garre, who wrote a newspaper commentary saying the trial's verdict should set an example.
Whatever the verdict, Trimarco's lawyer, Carlos Garmendia, says, the case has already made a difference.
"Human trafficking was an invisible problem until the Marita [Veron] case," Mr. Garmendia said. "The case has put it on the national agenda."
But Trimarco wants more. "I had hoped they would break down and say what they'd done with Marita," she said.
"I feel here in my breast that she is alive, and I'm not going to stop until I find her," Trimarco said. "If she's no longer in this world, I want her body."
At the peak of the shopping and giving season, consumers are increasingly combining both activities.
They are buying products that have charitable tie-ins, shopping through web portals that send savings to nonprofits, and donating at the registers when they check out at physical stores. They're buying product lines like Newman's Own, which channels profits to a foundation, and TOMS Shoes, which gives a pair of shoes to a needy child for every pair the company sells.
These charity-linked purchases might give consumers a good feeling, but are they good for charities? And for shoppers?
Laura Brooks is a stay-at-home mom and lives in St. Louis with her husband, Steve. After one of her three children asked for a pair of TOMS shoes last year, it occurred to her that she could incorporate giving into her regular shopping. She now also buys most of her children's books through the Kohl's Cares programs, which donates 100 percent of proceeds to children's causes.
"I bought all these things before – shoes or salad dressing – but now it feels like I am doing good, too," Brooks said.
Maybe so, but only if those shopping decisions aren't taking the place of her other charitable giving, say some experts.
Charitable shopping "undermines the philanthropy of a nonprofit through diminished charitable donations," said Sondra Dellaripa, principal consultant for the nonprofit consultancy Harvest Development Group.
In fundraising development for charities, she said, it is important to build a relationship with a donor – something that doesn't happen in these transactions.
So, how can you make your shopping turn into giving while keeping in mind how much you're really giving to charity?
Direct donations at merchants are one of the biggest cash generators. For instance, St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital's holiday season has a "Thanks and Giving" campaign that collects dollars at cash registers – and is now its single largest fundraiser.
More than 60 companies, mostly retailers, participate in the two-month drive that raised nearly $65 million for St. Jude's last year – up from $8.4 million in 2004, when the program started.
Rick Shadyac, CEO of ALSAC/St. Jude, the fundraising organization of the hospital, said connecting with consumers when they're shopping has been extremely successful, both in terms of dollars raised and awareness. The ease of making a contribution while a transaction is already under way is likely why it has worked, he said.
"It is a very easy thing to do when you're going through that process anyway," Mr. Shadyac said. Generous consumers should remember that they can take a charitable deduction for their at-register contributions if they remember to get a receipt that details the gift.
One step removed from this are consumer products that give a portion of profits to specific charities. This is soaring – from pink ribbons during Breast Cancer Awareness Month to campaigns that donate loyalty rewards from companies like Amazon.com Inc and airlines.
The broad array of products makes it difficult to tally the overall retail impact, but companies will spend about $1.7 billion this year on sponsoring causes – more than double their spending a decade ago, according to IEG Sponsorship Report. And, increasingly, retailers are trying to connect with shoppers by aligning their brands with charities.
"It's been proven that working with a charity enhances your favorability," said Joe Waters, who writes the Selfish Giving blog and is the author of "Cause Marketing for Dummies."
"While most marketing gives you visibility, cause marketing gives you favorability that gives you a competitive edge that goes beyond product and price," Mr. Waters said.
Not all products with charity tie-ins are created equal. Some deliver no money to charity at all – they're just for awareness. Consumers can check this, before they buy, on the product's website or by reading the tiny print on the product's packaging.
Others yield a percentage of the purchase price or a fixed amount to a specific charity. For instance, when you mail in or enter a code from a pink lid on a Yoplait yogurt container (or several other General Mills Inc. products), between now and June 30, 2013, 10 cents will be donated to Susan G. Komen for the Cure.
For those shopping online, there are pass-through sites where a charity get money every time a consumer makes a purchase. For sites like iGive.com, GoodShop.com, We-Care.com, the Social Good Network, the user picks the charity, which could be as small as their local school, and donations are not regarded as tax deductible.
The donated percentage of the purchase price varies from 1 percent to 25 percent. Major retailers, such as Nordstrom Inc. and Lands' End are at 2 percent on iGive.com. So, a $250 purchase from one of those retailers would result in a $5 donation to a charity. Magazine and newspaper subscriptions tend to have the highest returns, sometimes in excess of 20 percent.
We-Care.com, one of the largest sites, offers access to 2,600 merchants and has about 1,000 charity beneficiaries.
"Consumers want to help, and buying something that has a donation built in is easy and makes them feel good," Waters said.
We-Care said it raised more than $500,000 in the 2011 holiday shopping season. Its top recipient is the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
"Our relationship with We-Care has been a particularly successful one, with a contribution of over $2 million to the ASPCA over the last two years," said Jim Echikson, senior director of corporate partnerships for the ASPCA. That's not a large percentage of the more than $100 million a year the ASPCA raises, but the contributions are noticed.