Tales from the Sugar Bush: Friedman Takes a Trip to the Heart of Vermont’s Maple Kingdom

by Laura Barley

The maple syrup harvest has been a tradition in New England for centuries, and this March six Friedman students had the chance to help fellow student Hannah Kitchel’s family in their spring ritual

 

Maple tree vermont

Photo: Laura Barley

 

Hundreds of trees make up the sugar bush forest that connects the lives of a few devoted Vermont families. The small town of Danville, tucked neatly in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, is where second-year AFE student Hannah Kitchel grew up and where her parents continue to manage the neighboring maple stand. In a New England tradition that spans centuries and crosses cultures, the small group of families have collectively invested time and equipment to harvest syrup each spring to last them through the year.

A stand of roughly 50 trees – the sugar bush – all had metal buckets placed waist-high, secured by inch-long taps that drip sap as the weather warms. Historically, sugaring season in Vermont has started the first weekend of March, but the recent shift in warmer weather patterns has meant that sugaring season now begins a few weeks earlier, in late February.

“I remember sugar season used to start in March after [the] town meeting. They said starting in February was a mistake because there would be a long freeze which would mean re-tapping,” explains Fred Kitchel, Hannah’s father and one of the main harvesters in the group. “Now, a February start is common.”

Despite the cozy seasonal celebration that maple syrup receives each fall, the hallmark of sugaring season is this special blend of warmer days and cooler nights that signals trees to prepare for spring. The melted snow seeps into their roots, carries their stored sugars up the trunks to send life into new buds – though not before we take a piece of the magic for ourselves.

 

Maple sap freshly tapped vermont

This is what sap looks like when it first comes out of a maple tree (Photo: Laura Barley) 

 

We headed through the sugar bush armed with five-gallon buckets, excited to see what the trees had produced since the day prior, when the Kitchels last harvested. I’ve always loved imagining trees as straws, sucking water up from the earth to replenish their thirsty leaves; even though you may imagine sap to be a thick, brown, glue-like liquid, the sap that started to drip from the taps was in fact mostly water, clear and smooth. It turns out that a lot of sap is required to make syrup of any justifiable quantity. These particular sugar maples boast a 40:1 retention rate, meaning that the 19 five-gallon buckets we harvested would result in roughly 2.5 gallons of maple syrup in all.

 

aluminum labyrinth for making maple syrup

Photo: Laura Barley

 

Though the families try to share the workload as equally as possible and even manage a worklog together, the core of the operation is at Betty Lou’s (yes, wonderfully, that really happens to be her name) place just up the road. Once the buckets were loaded in the truck, we drove up to her beautiful yellow three-story farmhouse, which had a shed in the back devoted specifically for distilling the sap. What filled most of the inside was a shiny, aluminum that we first had to wash with vinegar, tilting it back and forth to ensure the utmost cleanliness.

Once we’d cleaned the labyrinth, we poured in the first bucket of sap and lit the gas burner that lay underneath. Over the course of a few hours the heat would evaporate off much of the water, leaving a slightly thicker, tanner substance. This was still not the final product – for that we had to head inside to Betty Lou’s kitchen, the laboratory of a woman devoted to the process of perfection.

 

concentrating pure maple syrup fancy

Betty Lou in the thralls of her work (Photo: Laura Barley) 

 

The kitchen was small but meticulously organized. Several burners heated pots of the sap in stages, which Betty Lou frenetically checked every few minutes for exactly the right characteristics. She whipped out what she called a hydrometer, a tool to test the specific buoyancy and density of the syrup’s sugar content, and after a few rounds of checking the hydrometer in small batches, Betty Lou was finally satisfied.

 

Filtering fancy maple syrup

A simple, cone-like apparatus filters the syrup one last time (Photo: Laura Barley)

 

Next the syrup entered one final round of filtering, designed to cleanse and thicken it. And though the process was precise, not all maple syrup is created equally. There is a set of USDA standards that outlines a gradient of maple syrup based on color, sweetness, and viscosity, which depend entirely upon the weather and the trees. Because it was still fairly cold in Danville that first week of March, the syrup we made was delightfully termed ‘Fancy’, the type of Grade A syrup that tends to arrive earliest in the season before the trees release too much sugar. Fancy, also known as ‘Delicate’ syrup denotes a lighter, sweeter syrup than the darker Grade B varieties typically found at the grocery store.

By the end of the afternoon, the kitchen was full of sweet steam and prolonged excitement – most of us had never made syrup before and had spent much of the last hour daydreaming about the buckwheat pancakes and Vermont we’d lather it on later that night. Finally, the syrup was ready to be poured into jars and sent home with us. Our bounty was a small fraction of the gift that the Kitchel family and Vermont’s sugar maples would afford this year, and to them I owe many moments of gastronomic happiness and endless thanks.

 

Pure vermont maple syrup

Some of Betty Lou’s finest products (Photo courtesy of the author)

Laura Barley is a second-year AFE student who loves to eat any food practically any time. She recently fell in love with the rich food culture that Vermont has to offer, and dreams of a time when she has her own land complete with dairy cows and maple trees.

Farmer Profile: Visions for a New Sustainable Vegetable Farm in Putnam, CT

by Nako Kobayashi

Farmer Yoko Takemura hopes to incorporate aspects of her Japanese heritage as well as her academic background in environmental sustainability into her new farm business.

Yoko on a large bag of potting soil. (Photo: Instagram @assawagafarm)

Yoko on a large bag of potting soil. (Photo: Instagram @assawagafarm)

While farmers represent an increasingly aging demographic group, a growing number of young farmers in New England and across the country are working to change the food system. Many of these new farmers, like Yoko Takemura of Assawaga Farm in Putnam, Connecticut, do not have farming backgrounds but instead have experiences that bring different perspectives and ideas into their farming practices. Yoko, who I was introduced to through my former boss at Cloverleigh Farm, is drawing inspiration from traditional Japanese agricultural practices in her effort to make her new farm a truly sustainable operation.

Growing up around the world due to her father’s occupation, Yoko always had a passion for the environment. She never thought, however, that she would end up becoming a farmer. After graduating from a university in Tokyo, she briefly worked in investment banking so that she could save money for graduate school. She eventually quit her job and moved to New York City to study environmental sustainability in graduate school. Living in Bed-Stuy, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, she became a member of a community garden and started developing a passion for growing vegetables and the way growing food can bring people together. It wasn’t until she joined her first Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) group while working for a consulting firm in NYC, however, that she really started to think about starting her own farm. Yoko’s “a-ha!” moment came to her when she visited Windflower Farm in upstate New York for the annual CSA member’s potluck. “On the ride back to NYC,” she reminisces, “I couldn’t stop visualizing myself as a farmer!” She then applied for apprenticeships on vegetable farms outside of NYC and eventually found Riverbank Farm in Western Connecticut, where she worked for 3 years.

Yoko and her husband, Alex, in front of a farm building they constructed. (Photo: Instagram @assawagafarm)

Yoko and her husband, Alex, in front of a farm building they constructed. (Photo: Instagram @assawagafarm)

To start their own farm business, Yoko and her husband Alex bought 22 acres of land in Putnam, Connecticut in 2016. Because the land had been previously used to farm hay for decades, Yoko and Alex had to build all of their own farm infrastructure from scratch. However, this actually works to their advantage as they now have the freedom to design their infrastructure with their specific sustainability goals in mind. For example, they were able to build their greenhouse in a way that accommodates SolaWrap, a durable greenhouse cover that lasts much longer than many other plastic films used in greenhouses.

SolaWrap being installed on Assawaga Farm's new greenhouse. (Photo: Instagram @assawagafarm)

SolaWrap being installed on Assawaga Farm’s new greenhouse. (Photo: Instagram @assawagafarm)

Yoko and Alex take a lot of inspiration from traditional Japanese agricultural methods in order to achieve their sustainability goals. The couple spent some time travelling around Japan and visiting many farms and learning about the various ways in which some Japanese farmers have cultivated a harmonious relationship with the natural environment. While organic agriculture can often be heavily dependent on inputs from fossil fuels, Yoko hopes to take her greenhouse off the grid by incorporating the Japanese practice of fumikomi-onsho, which involves mixing a large amount of leaves with some rice bran and chicken manure, applying water to it, and stomping on the mixture in order to generate heat. This variation of composting creates a fairly steady level of heat for weeks. This allows farmers to start their seedlings as well as have heat in the greenhouse without the use of electricity.

Building a relationship with the forest is another aspect of traditional Japanese agriculture that Yoko became enamored with when visiting farms in Japan. “The forest gave the farmers mulch, wood, bamboo, inoculant, etc. and the farmers gave back by maintaining and taking care of the forest through selective cutting, cleaning up, etc.” In comparison, Yoko explains that “the health of our forests around here” is “terrifyingly bad”. Yoko hopes to actively help better the condition of the forests that encompass her land in the coming years “because the forest is as much part of our farm as is our field.” One way Yoko and Alex want to give back to the forest is by applying “humanure” from composting toilets to the neighboring forests, after a two year composting period. For various health-related reasons, the “humanure” will not be used for their actual farming operation, but it is one way Yoko and Alex can create a more harmonious relationship with the forests that surround their land.

Yoko and Alex's DIY composting toilet. (Photo: Instagram @assawagafarm)

Yoko and Alex’s DIY composting toilet that will help them give back to their forests. (Photo: Instagram @assawagafarm)

For Yoko, the terms organic and sustainable are not one and the same. While Assawaga Farm has applied for organic certification, there are some additional practices that Yoko and her husband want to incorporate in order to reduce as much waste associated with and inputs required for their farm as possible. In addition to some of the Japanese practices they want to try out on their farm, there are many other sustainable practices not included in the certification that Yoko and Alex hope to take on. For example, they hope to use minimal amounts of plastic by not using any one-time drip tapes or plastic mulch, often used by organic farmers to help suppress weeds. They also plan to eventually create all of their own fertilizer, compost, and potting mix using the Japanese bokashi method of inoculating fertilizer with local culture taken from the nearby forests.

Believing that “organic originates in soil”, Yoko wants to take special care of the soil on their farm by using minimal tilling and eventually transitioning into no-till agriculture. This will help them “keep the delicate web of microorganisms and mycorrhizal fungi intact,” in addition to preserving the soil structure, maintaining carbon in the soil and keeping a steady release of nutrients in the soil “rather than short bursts of it.” They plan to have at least one field in their farm dedicated to cover crops year-round which will help prevent the depletion of nutrients and accumulate biomass. The couple also hope to save their own seeds and breed seeds that are adapted to their local environment.

In addition to using Japanese farming practices, Yoko also plans to grow many Japanese varieties of vegetables on her farm. When asked why she wanted to grow Japanese varieties, she responded simply that she just wanted to grow vegetables that she craved from home and that she wanted to eat herself! In addition, growing Japanese varieties helps Yoko target a niche market within the oversaturated market for organic produce in the Boston area. She is particularly excited about growing edamame, as “it’s just not summer without edamames!”

Alex seeing Assawaga Farm's first crop - garlic! (Photo: Instagram @assawagafarm)

Alex seeding Assawaga Farm’s first crop – garlic! (Photo: Instagram @assawagafarm)

In the next few months, Yoko and Alex will be busy getting ready for their first growing season and transitioning into the full-time farming lifestyle. They start seeding in three weeks! Look for Yoko and Alex in farmers markets in the Boston area this coming season (locations yet to be decided). They also have some CSA shares available through their website.

Update, March 2, 2018: An earlier version of this article failed to clarify that the composted humanure would be used on Assawaga’s surrounding forest land only, and not on the farm itself. This has been updated for clarity, and we apologize if our omission was misleading to our readers.
-Editors

Nako Kobayashi is a first year AFE student from Japan who has experience working on a small organic farm, a biodynamic vineyard, for the agricultural sector of a Japanese municipal government, and on a food hub development project. Having a B.A. in anthropology, she loves talking directly with farmers from various backgrounds and hearing about their unique perspectives of the food system. 

Friedman Hosts the 2018 Global Food+ Symposium

by Sam Jones

The second annual Global Food+ Symposium was hosted at Tufts University’s Friedman School this year. Innovative research being conducted at Tufts, MIT, Boston University, and Harvard University in the realm of the global food system was presented in speed-dating style, with each speaker giving only a seven-minute talk. Only some of the takeaways are reported here; the entire event can be viewed online.

February 16, 2018 marked the second annual Global Food+ Symposium, hosted by Tufts University at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. This year, 23 researchers from Boston University, MIT, Harvard, and Tufts shared the findings of their work in seven-minute presentations on topics ranging from microbiology to nutrition to theology. I attended the conference in its entirety from 12:30 to 4:30 on a Friday afternoon because I wanted to learn about what other researching in our consortium of schools are investigating to gain insight into what the non-Friedman community has to say about the global food system.

Throughout the afternoon, speakers presented fascinating research that touched every corner of the food system. Several presenters from Harvard and MIT discussed how water affects our food system, covering everything from breeding crops to use less water, to developing more adaptable water conserving technologies, and the ramifications of developing a water market in which price reflects scarcity. These speakers together illustrated that whether in the Zambezi River Basin or in Melbourne, Australia, water use and availability affects our food system, but there are steps we can take right now to plan for uncertainty in the face of climate change.

Nutrition was, of course, the subject of several of the presentations. Tufts professor Will Masters discussed his findings on the nutritional quality of baby food. Spoiler alert: the global baby food supply is not actually that nutritious. Alison Brown, a post-doctoral fellow at Tufts presented the research from her dissertation comparing the diet quality and risk of hypertension in foreign-born non-Hispanic blacks to those of U.S.-born blacks. Her findings suggest that the former are better-off than the latter. While useful for developing culturally-appropriate nutrition strategies, it does not delve into the root causes of these differences. A more causal-based study would be useful if the intention were to narrow the gap in diet quality and health between these groups.

Most of the presenters at the symposium used or researched cutting-edge technology to answer some of the most vexing problems in our global food system. Karthish Manthiram from MIT, for example, presented his research on how electricity derived from solar panels can be used to create fertilizer. His research found that by using electric voltage in place of high temperatures, a low-footprint nitrogen fertilizer can be created and used by small-scale farmers in even the remotest parts of Africa.

Angela Rigden, a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University, presented exciting research derived from new satellite data. These data showed that vapor pressure and root zone soil moisture actually explain significantly more variability in crop yields than does temperature alone. Both Jenny Aker from Tufts and Alicia Harley from Harvard separately explored the effects of having access to technology for poor farmers in Africa and India, respectively. They found that even where a technology exists, the targeted problems may not be solved in exactly the way they were intended. For example, Alicia Harley’s research found that poorer rice farmers were not adopting a system of rice intensification (SRI) that used less water because such a practice required control over one’s water source—a luxury most poor farmers do not have. As Jenny Aker put it, one specific technology is “not going to be a silver bullet.”

Water, technology, health, and sustainability were the overarching themes that wove the presentations together. But one researcher stood alone both in his discipline and in his ability to wow an audience of entirely dissimilar mindsets. Dan McKanan, a senior lecturer in Divinity at Harvard University, revealed that the foundations of organic agriculture, organic certification, WWOOFing, biodynamic agriculture, community supported agriculture, and the environmentalist movement all sprung out of a religion called Anthroposophy. In his words, this was a religion that acted as an antidote to the ideological monoculture system—an antidote to the “monocultures of the mind.”

What the innovative research presented at the Global Food+ Symposium made me realize is that there probably will never be a “silver bullet” that can solve the issues of water scarcity, food insecurity, malnutrition, or climate change. But the research that is being done in these interdisciplinary and diverse fields is worth pursuing, whether it aims to solve a big problem in a small place or a small problem on a global scale.

Sam Jones is a first-year AFE student with a passion for sharing others’ stories. She is currently an intern at Culture Magazine nd hopes to pursue a career in sustainable agricultural development and food journalism.

Branchfood Holds First in 4-Part Panel Series on Technological Innovation in Food and Farming

by Laura Barley

On February 22, Branchfood hosted the first panel in a four-part series entitled The Future of Food, exploring innovation in agriculture, food products, nutrition, and retail. Second-year AFE student Laura Barley attended The Future of Agriculture panel, and reports on the exciting developments on the industry’s horizon. Don’t miss the rest of the series! (Details below.)

As part of its mission to connect food innovators from the local to the global, last Thursday February 22 Branchfood debuted the first in a four-part series of panels devoted to the future of food systems. The Future of Agriculture convened four ambitious leaders for a discussion on the role of data and technological innovation in agriculture, and how they can contribute to the greater vision of global sustainability.

The panel, moderated by the charismatic captain of the Entrepreneur Agrarian Fund, Aaron Niederhelman, focused heavily on one recurring theme: digital disruption. And for a field so central to the health of the planet, this kind of disruption may just be the type of makeover that agriculture needs to account for its externalities.

Water scarcity, greenhouse gas emissions, and chemical run-off continue to plague large-scale agriculture all over the world, so the implicit question underlying the panel remains: in a world where machines can now compile and analyze massive amounts of data, how can we teach sophisticated machines to solve agriculture’s most complex problems?

Lauren Moores, Vijay Somandepalli, Lawrence Wang, and Brett Brohl discuss their work in agriculture tech and data science. Aaron Niederhelman moderates. (Image source: Author)

Lauren Moores, Vijay Somandepalli, Lawrence Wang, and Brett Brohl discuss their work in agriculture tech and data science. Aaron Niederhelman moderates. (Image source: Author)

For Vijay Somandepalli, co-founder and Chief Technology Officer at American Robotics, the answer lies in automation, though developing this technology hasn’t always been as straightforward as it seems. “Lots of drones work, but almost none of them are actually used,” Vijay admitted.

To counter the trend, he and his team have developed the first fully-automated field drone, which independently collects and analyzes crop field data from launch to landing. From his point of view, automation is one step closer to ensuring that the benefits of drone technology are actually implemented—if farmers don’t have to manually monitor their field data, they and their workers can spend their time on tasks better suited to human hands. Given the continued trend toward farm consolidation, where the average size of an American farm is 234 acres and half are more than 1,100 acres, this can translate into an incredible amount of saved time and energy.

Essentially, automation has the potential to become the hallmark of precision agriculture, where farmers can build trust in technology to deliver the efficiency gains they need to remain profitable. This vision for technology was echoed by the other panelists, each of whom has the power to influence agricultural production trends on a global scale.

Lawrence Wang, Digitalization and Analytics Strategy Lead at Cargill, spoke to the promising commitment that the multi-national agribusiness company has made towards technological innovation and sustainability. Cargill has partnered with Ecolab and Techstars to create a Farm to Fork Accelerator, an entrepreneurship program dedicated to bringing some of the leading ideas in food safety, manufacturing, and food waste to fruition.

Brett Brohl, Managing Director of the Techstars accelerator program, contends that “The timing is right—there’s a bunch of venture capital moving into food innovation in the last several years.” For a behemoth processing and manufacturing corporation like Cargill, which largely contributes to the nine billion animals slaughtered in the US each year, re-shaping conventional systems of meat production could have widespread implications. Concepts like traceability and transparency have become increasingly popular among consumers, and in an attempt to gauge consumer interest and trust, Cargill has even started to trace each Thanksgiving turkey all the way back to the start of its supply chain.

But for Lauren Moores, VP of Data Strategy and Data Sciences at Indigo Agriculture, data amounts to more than the results it produces. She believes that data analysis is fundamentally a storytelling challenge, and in her line of work, that challenge means simplifying the vast complexity of the plant-soil microbiome. As a prominent Boston startup, Indigo works to tap the potential of the microbes that have evolved in conjunction with plants over time, ultimately to produce a seed coating that maximizes plant health and productivity. The universe of the microbiome is still so elusive, and the microbial cocktail of Indigo’s seed coatings is complex enough to warrant selection by machine learning just to refine the tens of thousands of possible strains available.

Lauren also acknowledges that “farmers know their land better than anyone,” and that Indigo’s role is to develop data to help them cultivate their land more sustainably. The standing paradigm of the microbiome, which Indigo is actively researching, suggests that the biology of bacteria and fungi can enhance crop water and nutrient uptake, so that excessive irrigation and synthetic nutrients won’t need to be applied as frequently.

Interestingly, Vijay’s drone technology aims to reduce the need for agricultural inputs from a slightly different angle—drone imagery can pinpoint nutrient deficiency and other crop ailments at a much higher resolution than even the farmer’s own eye. Where a farmer used to apply chemicals to a whole field just to cover their bases, they can now apply them only to the specific areas in need.

This is the story of technological efficiency—and optimism—that these innovators are trying to write. Collectively our minds are capable of pioneering solutions to the problems of our past’s conventions, and agriculture isn’t the only sector that could use a technological re-vamp. To bring awareness to innovation materializing throughout the whole food system, Branchfood is hosting three further panels on the Future of Food Products, the Future of Nutrition, and the Future of Grocery respectively on March 22, April 26, and May 24. The panels will continue to bring visionary food minds together, to share and inspire how our collective food story will evolve.

Correction, March 7, 2018: This article has been updated to clarify that Indigo Agriculture uses data about plant-soil microbiomes to develop seed treatments that enhance plant health and productivity. –Editors

Laura Barley is a second-year Agriculture, Food, and Environment master’s student ceaselessly curious about the complexity that global food systems has to offer. She’s always happy to indulge conversation at laurabarley88@gmail.com.

Game Changer: How Cellular Agriculture is Poised to Revolutionize Dairy and Meat

by Kathleen Nay

We already know that conventionally-produced animal products are problematic—animal agriculture is land, water, and energy intensive, and potentially harmful to human health and animal welfare. For most people though, meat and dairy are also delicious. What if there was a cleaner, greener way of producing our favorite animal-derived foods? Turns out, the science already exists.

Henry Ford With 1921 Model T. (Image source: Ford Motor Company / Wikimedia)

Henry Ford With 1921 Model T. (Image source: Ford Motor Company / Wikimedia)

Nearly a century ago, Henry Ford had a vision. What he’s best known for is a vision of the modern automobile: a future where humans on four-wheeled machines hurtle through space at 60 miles per hour. But while that particular vision revolutionized the world as we know it today, Ford also dreamed of another future—one that minimized the role of animals in agriculture.

In 1921, Ford told the New York Tribune, “The cow is the crudest machine in the world. Our laboratories have already demonstrated that cow’s milk can be done away with and the concentration of the elements of milk can be manufactured into scientific food by machines far cleaner than cows and not subject to tuberculosis,” (a pathogen transmitted through raw milk, and a major public health concern at the time).

What Ford envisioned was probably similar to the soy and nut milks we’re familiar with today. He also happened to be a big proponent of the soybean as a meat substitute: in 1939, he caused a kerfuffle among American butchers when he predicted that soy-based foods would entirely replace our need to raise cows at all. His predictions were likely in the service of his goal to decentralize car manufacturing and put farmers to work in factories instead of in barns. In that sense, his prediction was right. The mechanical revolution of the 1920’s fueled migration from fields into cities, where factory work was more promising than life on the farm that was increasingly reliant on mechanical efficiency.

Fast-forward ninety-seven years, and advances in food technology are inching us ever closer to realizing Henry Ford’s wildest cow-less dreams. Enter Tufts University alum, Ryan Pandya. Three years ago, I wrote about Muufri, the company Ryan cofounded with Perumal Gandhi. Together, they’re using what’s called “cellular agriculture” to commercialize the first animal-free dairy milk. Cellular ag is the production of animal products like meat, milk, eggs, and leather from cell cultures, rather than a farm. In other words, their product is not one of the many plant-based milks that are already on the market today, but real dairy proteins—namely, casein and whey—that are grown using yeast cells specially engineered to produce them using fermentation. Essentially, Ryan and Perumal are building milk protein by protein, without all the expenses, energy, water, land, or emissions associated with growing, feeding and housing cattle.

Image source: Perfect Day via Food Navigator

Image source: Perfect Day via Food Navigator USA

Much has changed for the company in the last three years. For starters, Muufri has undergone rebranding as Perfect Day. Ryan says that the new name more accurately reflects their forward-looking philosophy. Muufri (“moo-free”) felt limiting; they wanted to focus on what they are bringing to food, not what they’re leaving out of it. They came across a 2001 study by two psychologists which demonstrated that certain songs, when played for Holstein herds, increase milk yields. Lou Reed’s 1972 track “Perfect Day” was one such milk-maximizing song. “As a company on a mission to make cows, people, and the planet happier,” reads Perfect Day’s FAQ page, “it seemed like a perfect fit.”

Over the last few years Perfect Day has expanded their target market, graduating from products confined to the refrigerated dairy section to… well, the whole supermarket. “Fundamentally, milk proteins add functionality or nutrition to products in every part of the grocery store,” Ryan told me. Dairy is found in products you may not expect, from soups and tomato sauces, to dressings, condiments and baked goods. “If you can name a part of the grocery store, I can find you a product where dairy is involved.” Although they still plan to produce some fresh dairy products, from a business perspective, Ryan sees a much larger market for Perfect Day’s milk proteins that would extend their reach beyond the fresh dairy case. Since their process omits lactose, even those who suffer from lactose intolerance would be able to enjoy dairy-containing products without compromising digestive comfort.

Food manufacturers that use dairy in their products are watching Perfect Day with interest. They’re used to using milk proteins with a specific ratio of components, but it’s cost-prohibitive to separate and isolate the proteins they need for specific functions in their foods. Since Perfect Day has the advantage of making these proteins individually, saving food manufacturers the added cost and effort of breaking down whole, unprocessed milk into its component parts, the company is able to tap into a much broader functionality.

The food industry, investors, even the government—according to Ryan, they “get” it. Perfect Day is well on its way toward establishing GRAS (“Generally Recognized As Safe”) designation through the FDA. In fact, the regulatory process for the product is relatively straightforward—Perfect Day’s milk proteins are created in much the same way as many other products we use every day. All kinds of flavor and fragrance additives are made using fermentation processes. Look at the label of almost any cheese made in the US and you’re likely to find a reference to “non-animal rennet” or “microbial enzymes.” Rennet, a key ingredient in cheese, used to be obtained from slaughtered calves, but is now more commonly made using fermentation. Perfect Day’s process is similar, and the tech it uses is by no means new—it’s the application that’s novel. “Although we’ve had the technology for about 40 years, Perfect Day is first company to really care about it and talk about it,” says Ryan.

New Harvest Cultured Tissue Fellow Natalie Rubio. (Image source: Natalie Rubio)

New Harvest Cultured Tissue Fellow Natalie Rubio. (Image source: Natalie Rubio)

Milk isn’t the only cellular ag product on the horizon. Although we’re a little further away from commercializing cultured meat, one Tufts University PhD student is advancing the research that may one day make it possible to buy a piece of steak that was never attached to a cow. Natalie Rubio got her start in cellular ag first as a volunteer with New Harvest—the institute that gave Perfect Day its initial seed money—and later as an intern during the early days of Perfect Day (when the nascent company was still known as Muufri, in 2014). Since then, New Harvest has launched a research fellowship, naming Natalie as the first New Harvest Cultured Tissue Fellow.

Natalie says that even as an intern at Perfect Day, she knew she wanted to work on meat. “The biotech industry has been using cells to produce proteins [for various products] for many years,” she tells me. “The idea of using whole cell cultures themselves as a product is more novel. We can use the tissue engineering techniques to create meat from cell cultures without involving livestock, besides donor animals for the initial biopsy.”

She explains that there are three main focus areas in the emerging field of cultured tissue research. The first area aims to develop new, animal-free sources of growth media used to feed the cells. When tissue cells are growing, they basically float in a liquid mixture of sugar water, some proteins, and a substance called fetal bovine serum. While the base formulation of sugar water, vitamins and minerals is animal free, the bovine serum supplement is a byproduct of the meat industry. It makes for a great environment for growing tissue cultures, but since the goal of this field of research is to avoid using animals, scientists are searching for substances to use in place of fetal bovine serum.

Another focus of this work, says Natalie, is obtaining and tinkering with new cell lines. The initial cells are biopsied from domestic species like turkey, bovine, fish, or any other species of interest. Stem cells, which are capable of prolific growth and differentiation, are isolated and extracted for use in tissue cultures. Scientists are then able to tell the stem cells how to behave and what to become; in the case of cultured meat, they become muscle, but scientists can also direct stem cells to become tissues with other properties, like fat.

The focus of Natalie’s research is scaffolding. “Think of the scaffold as everything besides the cells themselves,” she tells me. “In our bodies, we have muscle cells, but that’s not all that our muscle is. It’s also surrounded by this matrix of proteins, primarily collagen, that make up muscle. I’m trying to emulate these other substances by using animal free materials.” Her work overlaps with the engineering of human skeletal muscle tissues that are already used routinely in regenerative medicine. Someday in the not-too-distant future, we could grill animal-free steaks with the same fibrous, muscle-y appearance and texture that we expect from meat.

Lest the idea of lab-grown meat or milk stoke anyone’s fears of genetic modification, Natalie sets the record straight: these products do not contain GM ingredients. She explains that tissue culturing does not involve manipulating any genes. She describes the cells they use in her field as “proliferative,” meaning they are naturally inclined to grow and multiply according to the instructions encoded in their DNA—no gene tinkering required. And while Perfect Day’s process does involve genetically modifying yeast cells to make milk proteins, the GM yeast is carefully filtered out of the milk before being added to any food products. This process of altering yeast’s genetic code to make proteins is exactly the same way vegetarian rennet, vanilla, insulin, and many other everyday products are made. (New Harvest’s FAQ goes into further detail about the role of GMO in cellular agriculture, as well as other common questions that come up around this emerging industry.)

Natalie Rubio conducts her research at the David Kaplan lab at Tufts University. (Image source: Natalie Rubio)

Natalie Rubio conducts her research at the Kaplan Laboratory at the Department of Biomedical Engineering, on Tufts University’s Medford campus. (Image source: Natalie Rubio)

Cellular agriculture is not so much a new technology as it is a new application for the technology we’ve long used in medicine and pharmaceuticals. It seeks to avoid some of the ongoing problems we have with animal agriculture. For example, producing meat and milk in sterile environments reduces the risk of contamination from pathogens. (Remember Ford’s concern about tuberculosis?) The ability to scale up these processes could also have positive implications for agricultural land use in the U.S. Imagine converting some of the 170 million acres currently planted with corn and soy into specialty crops, expanding our ability to produce and harvest solar energy, or reaping the ecological benefits of putting more land into conservation—all while reducing the emissions associated with animal agriculture.

While Henry Ford may have envisioned a world devoid of cattle, Ryan Pandya, for his part, is quick to assure me that the goal of cellular agriculture is not to upend the dairy or meat industries. “Demand is increasing for animal products all over the world—such a demand that the world’s farmers can’t keep up. I hope we can create a complementary supply chain that will take some of that pressure off.” He sees a future where, instead of abolishing animal products entirely, consumers are willing to pay a premium for products that have the traditional touch of animal farming.

It’s a future that’s increasingly easy to imagine.

Kathleen Nay is a third-year dual degree student in the Agriculture, Food & Environment and Urban & Environmental Policy & Planning programs and a co-editor of The Friedman Sprout.

Paradise Lost

by Laura Barley

Climate change is a globally felt human experience that recently hit home for California native Laura Barley. Here, she reflects on the wildfires in her home state and takes a look at some policy tools aimed at climate mitigation.

California is on fire. Needless to say, the past two months have been a terrifying series of events. The Thomas Fire has devoured almost 275,000 acres, granting it the all-too dynamic status of the largest wildfire in California’s recent history. It wraps up the most destructive wildfire season California has on record, capping off at over 500,000 acres burned—more than double the total acreage burned in 2016. To add insult to injury some of those acres, charred of all vegetation by the Thomas Fire, bore the burden of a flash flood that killed 21 people in Montecito.

Even though the Friedman School pulled me to Boston, California is and always will be my home. For the most part, I watched the coverage of the Thomas Fire from afar. Tucked away in the icy confines of my Somerville apartment and Jaharis 118, I checked my phone every few hours to see who of my friends had been evacuated, which of my sun-streaked memory lanes had been destroyed. I couldn’t believe what I saw—apocalyptic images of scrubby hillsides swallowed by flames, plumes of orange clouds encompassing the whole sky. Each picture I saw boomed the same message over and over: that nothing would ever be the same again.

Photo credit: CNN.com

Photo credit: CNN.com

The frequency of large-scale devastation speaks for itself: California’s climate is changing. It appears that the massive strain on the state’s agricultural and urban water resources, fueled by the longstanding lure of its eternal growing season and illustrious vision of paradise, have come to a reckoning. Years of prolonged drought followed by a sporadic year of intense rainfall have created ecosystems irresilient to the rapid shifts—groundwater and river basins have all but dried up, leaving forest and chaparral ecosystems as little more than tinderboxes. The euphoric agricultural and commercial boons of the twentieth century have lurched into a twenty-first century defined by scarcity, uncertainty, and dramatic change.

So, what’s really at stake here? Climates change, they have for eons. Species perish and adapt in the great equilibrium of life. And we—Californians, Americans, humans—will adapt too, hopefully in a timely manner. But much of the world finds itself in the middle of a cycle that feels beyond our control, where the climate interventions we make barely seem to break even. The tons of carbon dioxide emissions from a single large-scale wildfire, like the Thomas or Napa Fires, are estimated to equal the annual emissions of all motor vehicles in the state, and definitively offset much of the progress made by the state’s cap-and-trade program.

For the foreseeable future, California and much of the American West will continue to battle climate change on multiple fronts—greenhouse gas emissions, sea level rise, flash flood and wildfire mitigation, to name a few. Encouragingly, Governor Jerry Brown’s administration has made significant headway towards a baseline system of climate accountability across the state. In addition to the emissions cap-and-trade program, since 2009 the Safeguarding California plan has established a template for large-scale climate change adaptation strategies, and continues to convene action plans across multiple state and municipal departments. Additionally, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014 has finally enacted groundwater monitoring protocol in a state that will continue to rely almost exclusively on subterranean water stores for agricultural production. These are positive signs of political responsiveness, and hopefully yield noticeable impacts in the years to come.

But at the heart of climate change, there exists a loss more worrisome than any policy analysis or statistics could project. For me, for now, the loss is purely psychological. The sense that all of us feel to some extent, which is felt especially strongly in California and the developed world at large, the sense that nothing bad can ever happen to us—that’s gone now.

Enduring the human experience of losing the places we’ve built from scratch, places with cultural and spiritual significance, places we call home—this is the global price many of us will have to pay in the coming decades. The stories of devastation and loss are the stories we should be paying attention to, the stories that make the numbers real. More importantly, they’re the stories that motivate us to action, out of fear and compassion that nothing so terrible should ever happen to us again. Because every time it happens, it shouldn’t.

Laura Barley is a second-year AFE Master’s student, who grew up in the Bay Area and lived in Southern California while attending UC Santa Barbara. She is a member of the Water Systems, Science, and Society research program aimed at mitigating water constraints to healthier diets. Most importantly, she strives to be a climate optimist.

My Summer as an Inferior Species

by Sam Jones

Farming is hard, especially when animals are involved. Sam Jones recounts her time working on a chicken and pig farm in Colorado where only the fearless survive.

I am a white female, five-feet-three-inches tall, weighing in at a whopping 115 pounds. I spent my summer wrangling hogs and killing chickens. The following is a harrowing account of my survival.

My first day of work at Jodar Farms in Fort Collins, Colorado involved kicking a rooster in the chest, learning how to drive a manual truck with the back window blown out, and navigating 50-mile-an-hour winds while trying to fill five-gallon buckets with pig feed. It was everything I could have hoped for as a job-seeking college graduate.

While the demands of the job remained the same throughout my five-month stint, they did become less taxing over time. Upon arriving at the farm around sunrise, I would immediately open the doors to the five chicken coops scattered across the farm. Releasing thousands of chickens into the great outdoors with a buffet of chicken feed waiting was how I pictured Black Friday. That is, thousands of hungry consumers bottlenecking at the doors to paradise, some of whom are inevitably trampled in the scuffle.

It was this first duty of the day that already indicated to me that chickens are stupid creatures. All of you animal-rights activists out there—bear with me. Every day, with the rising of the sun, chickens are prompted to wake up and find food. On a free-range chicken farm like Jodar, these chickens knew, at the very least, that food laid just on the other side of those wooden doors. What they were repeatedly unaware of was that piling on top of one another was not a good solution to their problem. Alas, human intervention was all that could spare them from suffocating one another to death. For those that didn’t make it, I merely tossed their sad souls into the dumpster—and on an empty stomach no less.

Next, I would check on the brooders. These are essentially stacked metal cages attached to a source of heat that give young chicks being raised for meat a better chance of survival during their most fragile life stage. Refilling the feed and water trays and verifying that the heat was set at the right temperature would have been my favorite job had it not been for the poop trays. That’s right: six massive cookie-sheet-like trays onto each of which the feces of roughly 86 chicks collected. As I mentioned before, I am only 5′ 3”, which was incidentally shorter than the top two trays. Slowly and methodically, I would slide one poop tray out with both hands over my head, carefully lower it to a trash bin, and fold the underlying newspaper in a way that prevented the poop from breaking through the paper and onto either the tray or my hands. Finally, and with much satisfaction, I would roll the steaming wad of poop into the bin. I repeated this glamorous task five more times, every day.

Now, about kicking a rooster in the chest. If you have ever been exposed to the wrath of the rooster, you might sympathize with my aggression. The chickens were fed twice each day, which I accomplished most efficiently by carrying one five-gallon bucket of feed in each hand and dumping them into the feed troughs. Perhaps due to my size or the scent of fear emanating from my pores, these roosters went into full-on Kill Bill mode every time they saw me. They chased me and trapped me in the back of the coop while I collected eggs. And at feeding time, while my hands were filled with buckets of feed, the two black and white speckled roosters (whom I affectionately named Umbridge and Voldemort) would stand up straight, flare their neck feathers, and charge at me from behind. Despite kicking Umbridge (out of self-defense) so hard that he developed a limp, I still sustained many above-the-knee bruises in the shape of a chicken’s foot—farming is dangerous business. To add to my bruised legs and ego, I learned that I was the first and only employee at Jodar to be attacked by these roosters. The problem became so cumbersome that my boss and coworkers rounded up all the roosters on my day off and gave them to a neighbor just so they would stop karate-chopping my kneecaps. I am eternally grateful.

 

Another of my glamorous duties included collecting the eggs of roughly 2,000 laying hens, which amounted to 1,600 eggs daily, give or take a few hundred. This was my favorite job (once the roosters were voted off the island) because I always felt like a toddler on Easter Sunday. Some eggs were blue, pink, brown, or white. Some were massive double-yolkers while others were the size of a gumball. The only downsides to egg collecting were the incessant screeching of thousands of chickens, the occasional chicken jumping on my back while I was bent over, and the necessity of yanking three or four chickens out of a lay box by the neck just to see if there were eggs to collect. Otherwise, this duty was by far the most enjoyable.

Compared to the hens and roosters, about whom I had unwavering opinions, I developed a complicated love-hate relationship with the pigs on par with the one between Americans and democracy. First, Jodar’s pigs lived outside in the mud and pasture, so the smell typically associated with pigs was not a factor in our love story. I loved these pigs because they were smart.  I lost count of the number of times the pigs got out of their pens by busting through weak wire or finding a malfunctioning section of electric fence. Rounding up pigs at 9 o’clock at night is maybe the most frustrating thing I have ever done. At the same time, the ridiculousness and humor of the situation reminded me how lucky I was to work outside with cute animals every day. On hot days, I would use the hoses to spray them down and create cold wallows—it was the closest thing to a wet t-shirt contest I’d ever seen.

The hate part of this love-hate relationship can actually be blamed on the poor infrastructure that was set up for feeding. Most farms have one large trough or automatic gravity feeder for their pigs, but not at Jodar. Not even close. I filled five-gallon buckets with feed and beer byproducts (which we called brew), lifted the buckets over to the outside of the pigs’ fence, set them down, climbed over the fence, bent down to lift the buckets into the pen, then proceeded to walk to all of the small feeders scattered around the large encampment. All the while, the pigs became unbelievably and unmanageably excited that it was breakfast or lunch time. And there I was in the mud with them—a small, helpless, feed-hauling mammal. It should impress you to know that they only knocked me to the ground once in my five months of feeding them. I’m pretty proud of that.

Lastly, the most memorable job was the weekly chicken slaughter. Every Tuesday, the person with the closing shift would accompany our boss, Aaron, in rounding up the fattest 250 broilers from the oldest of the four chicken houses, each containing 500 broilers (give or take the few temperamental birds that lost their will to live at some point in their 10-week journey to slaughter). My wrists would be so sore the next morning from repeatedly grabbing three chickens by the legs in each hand (the guys could lift five), that the only way to drink my coffee was to perform a graceful tipping bird motion of my face onto the rim of my mug, and slurp.

On Wednesdays, we hung the birds by their ankles on metal hooks that closely resembled the large paddle attachments for an electric stand-up mixing bowl. They became rather calm and limp as they lay upside down, blood rushing to their heads as they glimpsed the ominous black bins below, with the sun beaming off their white feathers.

First, one of my coworkers would painlessly zap each chicken in the neck with a stun knife that essentially put them to sleep. Then, my other coworker (both of them men—actually all of them men except for me) would follow by slitting their throats with a knife, allowing the blood to spill into the black bins underneath. Once enough blood had been spilt, the chickens were placed 10 at a time into a hot water bath and rotated on a timed cycle until they were properly sanitized.

This is where I came in. First, I removed the steaming chickens from their bath and placed them breast-side up on the plucking machine. Then, I would lock the door of the plucker and slide the birds into a cylindrical basin fitted with black rubber fingers that spun the birds at high speed before the machine automatically unlocked and flung the chickens onto a metal catch. My sexy job in this process was to pluck the few remaining feathers off the chickens’ armpits and butts. Lastly, several Hispanic women processed the chickens until they eventually resembled the whole chicken you buy in the store and roast with a salt-brine and a few sprigs of rosemary. From start to finish, including cleaning, it took 10 people about three hours to slaughter 250 chickens.

Not too shabby for a hard day’s work.

Sam Jones is a first year student in the AFE program who worked on farms for two years after graduating from the University of Puget Sound. Her interest in agriculture began in the summer of 2012 when she WWOOFed in France and Scotland. She likes to cook, be outside, drink wine, and dreams of one day living in Italy.