Sustainable Opportunities in Central Texas

Citrus fruit from rom my garden
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Hi y’all! Hope 2017 has kicked off to a great start! I’m super excited to update you on all of the great sustainable transitions that have happened in the past few months! For those of you who were able to attend the Mother Earth News Fair in Belton, Texas in February, it was great to see you and thank you so much for attending my workshops! In case you missed either of them I’m pleased to tell you that you have another chance to attend the Small Farmer Value Added Workshop if you are in the Central Texas area this summer! I will be teaching that class June 22nd-July 27th on Thursdays from 6-9pm at Austin Community College through their Sustainability Program! Did you know that ACC offers the only sustainability program in the state, as well as many other awesome home and garden courses?

The Small Farmer Value Added Workshop is for beginning or existing farmers who want to incorporate a sustainable, holistic, values-based system that additionally brings to market niche products to help generate more revenue. Workshop will cover a wide range of topics including Texas Cottage Food Laws/Production/Food Sampling, Waste Management, Sustainable Marketing, Triple Bottom Line, Certifications, Whole Farm Planning, Branding, Agrobiodiversity, and Resource Development. There will be individual and group activities as well as a student workbook provided.

As a Farm to School Ambassador for the Sustainable Food Center and Austin Independent School District I have really enjoyed engaging elementary students during lunch by offering samples from local sustainable farmers! AISD has been integrating the salad bar at various schools and 135 schools are a part of the Farm to School program in Austin! It has been a refreshing opportunity to volunteer on  behalf of this social sustainability program! This past week we distributed a cilantro, carrot, and lime juice sample that the kids loved! Also check out School and Community Farm Stands or weekly SFC farmers’ markets which also allow customers to use SNAP and WIC benefits. SFC F2S team assisted with citrus fundraisers offered at some of the schools this winter from fruit grown in the valley. Above is a picture of some citrus I grew last year.

Chicken Flock Transitions

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It’s nearly December already and we haven’t had our first freeze yet. But, there is a chance that the predictions may be wrong and we have one tonight. For the past 2 years we have had our first freeze by November 15th. We are only a few days past, and I’m holding out on our green tomatoes, sweet peppers, and hot peppers that aren’t quite ready. I’m also created temporary low tunnels for nightfall in the event of a freeze. I suppose I must cut some of the herbs too, if I plan on preserving them for winter (it did end up freezing as I’d predicted! It tends to be roughly 4 degrees cooler in my backyard probably due to the greenbelt). Which meant a busier day in the garden removing all of the frozen plant mass. The bees and butterflies, especially the Monarchs, have been migrating through here the past few weeks. I saw the last hummingbird pass through and our regular clan mid September. They seemed to be on schedule. I read that if you keep a feeder up throughout the year you may likely see a few of the more rare species. I may test this out this winter just to see.

We have a new flock of 12 chicks. This will be our 4th flock to date. So far our second flock was by far the most superior health wise and we selected them from Ideal Poultry in advance. For whatever reason we didn’t fare well with our selectively bred spring flock in 2016. They weren’t given an immunization shot and perhaps that’s what did them in, or the heavy rains and potential chemical run off from neighbors, who knows. Our place has been pesticide free and “organic” for 7 years now. There were a multitude of issues with this flock and after contacting experts from various purveyors including Fertrell and Penn State experts, and doing a necropsy, our tests were inconclusive. We didn’t send them to A&M either.

The interesting thing is that the first days of a chicks lives are imperative and you may not see results of their first 5 days until weeks or even months later. So perhaps it was the feed, this seemed to be a concern when we lost a few chicks. We didn’t have this issue in the past using our favorite local feed mill, but all ideas aren’t off the table. We found ourselves giving them regular Vitamin E doses in their water when we thought it was feed issues. Again, any developmental issues that happened in the chicks first 5 days could have very well been the culprit.

We once again ordered a flock from Ideal and after 2.5 weeks old they are happy, lively, vivacious, and flighty as ever. In due part to the fact that we have Americaunas and they tend to be wilder to the core. We had a 20% success rate with our selective breed flock of Barred Rocks last spring, pretty brutal. One gloriously handsome Rooster that we recently culled (we aren’t supposed to have chickens, and he was no exception since he crowed at all times of the day and night, but we did almost have him for 1 year, he was spunky scaredy cat too), and one hen are all that remain from that flock.

We have a small backyard flock; 12 elder hens (3- 3.5 yr olds, 8-2 yr olds, 1-nearly 1 yr old), and 12-2.5 wk old chicks (4 Black Australorp, 4 Cuckoo Marans, 4 Ameraucanas). We have learned a lot, and experimented a ton! From building multiple brooders and chicken coops, to experimenting with various dual purpose breeds, visiting multiple farms, researching how to sex chickens, to culling them and dissecting them, attending workshops, tours, clubs, fairs, and events. We are not chicken experts but we have had our share of trials and tribulations that would make one give up. Since we are a fan of pastured organic chicken egg production we also joined APPPA last year and nearly launched a joint venture with a neighboring farmer to go into a larger small scale pasture raised chicken egg production operation. I wasn’t quite ready to handle that operation on my own but it’s in my husband’s mind that’s what he wants to do when he retires. We shall see. Until then, we will keep our backyard flock manageable and try to be as simplistic as possible. I must note that this time instead of using a 250w heat lamp we used a heat mat and it has cut our energy bills in half. Once I placed the chicks in the brooder on our back patio, I also added a reptile black light for additional warmth. They seem to be fine and we are pleased with the savings and the hassle. Plus they have normal sleep patterns without a light on all of the time. One thing that has remained constant throughout all of the changes is that we harvest rainwater and the chickens love it as their main source of drinking water.

How a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) Measures Up With Energy Flows For Our Food System

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Figure 1. Life Cycle Assessment (Anctil and Fthenakis 2012).

Understanding methodologies in calculating the energy flows of food systems is an essential part of making systems more sustainable and efficient. Is a good tool to measure the environmental impacts of a food product the life cycle assessment? The first LCA studies in the 1960s researched the impacts of beverage containers like Coca-Cola (Pray et al. 2012).

Within our food system, an LCA analyzes the various stages of the food cycle to prevent a shift to other life cycle stages (Pray et al. 2012). For a candy bar, this could include the impacts of manufacturing it through the production chain, including sourcing of ingredients, fuel to extract material, transportation for ingredients and candy, as well as the resources used in the “cradle-to-grave” life cycle (Pray et al. 2012).

The LCA can potentially measure emissions, water, waste, and help minimize costs but there are many downsides of the LCA model (Pax 2013). A standard life cycle assessment (LCA) has three phases; goal and scope, inventory analysis, and impact assessment (Pray et al. 2012). A fourth element could be life cycle interpretation (Reap et al. 2007). A survey was conducted on problems with the LCA model and it identified 15 problems concerning this scientific system (Reap et al. 2007). One of the six problems of utmost importance in using the LSA model is that the impact (phase 3) only takes the environment into consideration and not the economic and social impacts of the good that are being manufactured (Reap et al. 2007). Ingredients like corn syrup and synthetic chemicals that are used to flavor and color the candy impact nutrition, and the health of those who manufacture the candy, and unfortunately were not measured.

The functional unit for measuring food is unclear as caloric values, nutrition, and emotional value also play a role (Pray et al. 2012). Others argue that LCAs on food systems measure food systems differently like by mass or volume which makes it challenging to compare different food items (Pray et al. 2012).

We should create policies that provide solutions for methodologies that are more sustainable. In regards to sustainable development, the LCA model doesn’t necessarily promote sustainable decision making as sustainable production and consumption are lacking (Reap et al. 2007). These are a few reasons why we should question methodologies behind energy flows in our food systems so that we can create a smaller footprint for our planet. After I conducted three LCA assessments on an organic vegetable and fruit farm, an organic dairy cow farm, and a goat meat farm, I came to the conclusion that each farm is unique and presents it’s own challenges when analyzing data and computing formulas.

Multiple considerations must  be taken into consideration when conducting an LCA. Which includes incorporating the availability and access to resources, waste management streams, value added value chains, regional location, marketing channels, the farming operation and management system, and energy measured as consumed by humans and machinery from a cradle-to-grave perspective. Ultimately a farmer, small business, non governmental organization (NGO), corporation, and so forth, must determine if the LCA will add value and improve a company’s triple bottom line. Otherwise it can be extremely inefficient due to the lack of accurate data, thus taking an extensive amount of time to conduct an analysis, while it is extremely expensive to conduct a thorough assessment. Therefore conducting a SWOT analysis on a quarterly basis will allow you to measure your targeted areas of opportunity and weaknesses , perhaps in a more efficient manner so that your business enterprise can address alternative solutions for a more sustainable future head on.

Bibliography

Anctil, Annick and Vasilis Fthenakis. “Chapter 4 Life Cycle Assessment of Organic Photovoltaics.” In Third Generation Photovoltaics, by Annick and Vasilis Fthenakis Anctil. Creative Commons, 2012.

Reap, John, Felipe Roman, Scott Duncan, Bert Bras. “A survey of unresolved problems in life cycle assessment: Part 1: goal and scope and inventory analysis.” International Journey of Life Cycle Assessment, June 28, 2007.

Pray, Leslie, Laura Pillsbury, Maria Oria. Exploring Health and Environmental Costs of Food: Workshop Summary. 2012.

Pax, Sara. “Food LCA: The Elusive Quest to Go Beyond Carbon.” Environmental Leader: Environmental & Energy Management News. June 4, 2013. http://www.environmentalleader.com/2013/06/04/food-lca-the-elusive-quest-to-go-beyond-carbon/ (accessed November 15, 2015).