Slogging away in Springfield, talking to Dr. Earth, and going retro

May 22, 2011

Illinois Extension funding: going down to the wire

Last week, Extension Partners spokesperson Pam Weber brought us up to date on the continuing budget negotiations in Springfield. As we near the end of the session, Pam says that “it has been a wild week in Springfield.” Of course, there’s much more going on than just the vote on the Agriculture budget. But the battle over funding for Illinois Extension is the one I’ve focused on, because I know first-hand what good work is being done in the Master Gardener, 4-H and other programs sponsored by the University of Illinois.

As I mentioned last week, it looks as though the most drastic cuts might be avoided–with the possible exception of the money that has been allocated to Cook County in recent years. There’s still time to contact your legislators to make your voice heard. To preserve funding for Extension, contact you your legislators and ask them to support the House’s version of the Department of Agriculture’s budget, House Bill 124 House Amendment #1.

Says Pam Weber, ” Let them know there are cuts, but they are cuts we can live with!” You can view the bills and amendments at the General Assembly website Enter the bill number and then click on “full text” at the top of the page and then the amendment number.

Speaking of legislative action…

Jennifer Walling is hard at work protecting Illinois air, water and land…and she’s just five months into the mission. In January of this year she became the executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council, after working as chief of staff to State Senator Heather Steans. She and Senator Steans won the Outstanding Government Leadership Award from the Illinois Recycling Association in 2010 for their work on the passage of Illinois’ first commercial food scrap composting legislation.

As this spring’s legislative session wraps up, IEC is keeping an eye on a number of environmental bills. The easiest way to keep tabs on them is to follow the IEC’s Action Alert List. Here’s a partial list of the issues that are front and center:

  • Electronics Recycling – On Friday, SB2106, a bill that will strengthen the 2008 electronic recycling law, passed the Illinois House. It had already passed the Senate. IEC believes this bill will spur economic development creating jobs and revenue. The DCEO funded 2010 Recycling Study estimated that the electronic recycling industry and the appliance recycling industry created nearly 8,000 jobs in Illinois and $622 million in revenue.
  • CAFOs – An bill that addresses water pollution from Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) passed through a critical committee this week. This bill has a new number – SB1682 Amendment 1 – and is carried by Representative Mike Tryon.  CAFOs are the only industrial water polluters in Illinois that do not pay a pollution (NPDES) permit fee.  This bill would require a fee for some CAFOs and fund the IEPA program to regulate CAFOs.
  • Exec committee – Several priority bills for the environmental community were being held in the House Executive committee, but have been posted for hearing on Wednesday, May 25 at 9AM.  These include SB664 (hydraulic fracturing chemical disclosure), SB2010 (agriculture pollution prevention), and SB38 (rainwater harvesting).  These bills are agreed to and are expected to move through committee.
  • Lake Michigan Disposal Facility – A bill is moving forward that would allow PCB laden sediment to be stored in a disposal facility in Lake Michigan, just outside of Waukegan. The result would be a 14 acre peninsula filled with contaminated sediment on public lakebottom outside of Waukegan. A similar facility in Indiana has been strongly opposed by local community members. IEC opposes this bill, as does Sierra Club – Illinois Chapter, Alliance for the Great Lakes, Environmental Law and Policy Center, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Natural Resources Defense Council, Bird Conservation Network, Environment Illinois, and others.

Milo Shammas’s “Healthy Garden, Healthy You”

Regular listeners to the show know that Dr. Earth is a great sponsor of The Mike Nowak Show. In fact, last year, we did a broadcast at Pesche’s Garden Center in Des Plaines during “Dr. Earth Days.” At that time, Dr. Earth himself, Milo Shammas, sat in and answered questions.

This year, he’s back, and he has a new book, Healthy Garden, Healthy You, which is chock full of information about how to grow nutritious food. As a matter of fact, the book lists 100 easy to grow plants, including overall benefits, growing tips, vitamins and mineral content, insect control and more. From alfalfa sprouts to blueberries to peppers to Swiss Chard (Go Team Chard!) to wheatgrass, there’s information about most plants you might want to grow.

But that’s not all. Milo walks you through the basics of what you need to know about plants, starting with your soil (microbes and probiotics, mycorrhizae, structure, humus), moving on to plants (macro and micronutrients, pests and disease issues). Finally, he explains how the health of your plants can be transferred to you and even your pets. He lays out some of the basics of home gardening–sun and shade, raised beds, staking and trellising, watering and drainage–just in case you’re new to the game.

I’m pleased to have Milo stop by (on the phone) and chat about his life and his passion.

Sustainable Food Fundamentals: Go RETRO this Thursday

I have to hand it to LaManda Joy and the folks at The Peterson Garden Project: they don’t tend to do things in a small way. Last year, all they managed to do is create the city’s largest community–and an award-winning–garden devoted to growing edibles. I’m talking about 157 raised-bed gardens that appeared over the course of just a few months, at the corner of Peterson and Campbell in Chicago’s 40th Ward.

What’s cool about this garden is that it’s on the site of a World War II Victory Garden, which has led The Peterson Garden Project’s members to recruit, educate and inspire a new generation of gardeners who want to follow in the footsteps of their grand and great-grandparents.

And they’ve managed to drag me into all of this–not exactly kicking and screaming, of course. This Thursday, May 26, I’ll be hosting Swing Into Spring 2011 – A Fundraiser for The Peterson Garden Project. The theme is Retro…and I’m not talking 1980s, kids. The event is at Architectural Artifacts in Chicago’s Ravenswood neighborhood at 4325 North Ravenswood, amidst a warehouse of historic architectural treasures. Diane Ott Wheatley, founder of Seed Savers Exchange, is Guest of Honor. Live music will be provided by Joel Patterson & the Modern Sounds, swing dance performances by Cartier Collective, and swing dance lessons from JiveRoc. (I’m getting in line for that.) Tickets range from $35 to $75 and can be purchased here .

Sustainable Food Fundamentals is sponsored by Pearl Valley Organix. They produce HEALTHY GRO™ products for your lawn and garden, as well as Pearl Valley Eggs. And they do it in a way that is sustainable, turning their chicken manure into several OMRI listed fertilizers, and even recycling their waste water on site at the Pearl Valley Farm. I’m proud to have them as a sponsor on The Mike Nowak Show.

GMO protest lands my guest in the slammer

Last Sunday, Alexis Baden-Mayer, Political Director of the Organic Consumers Association, stopped by the WCPT studios to tell me about an action in which she was going to be involved on the following Tuesday. The idea was to go shopping at the Whole Foods Market at 1550 N. Kingsbury Street in Chicago and purchase items that contain GMO ingredients, then dump them into hazardous waste containers, while wearing hazmat suits. As I said on the show, “very agit-prop.”

On Thursday, I received a Facebook message from Julia Moran Martz, a.k.a. @SnarkyVegan on Twittter: “Your guest from Sunday was arrested for protesting outside Whole Foods.”

Whoa. Looks like “agit-prop” sometimes has consequences.

Julie attached the link from the OCA website about the arrest. A follow up post on the Eat Drink Better blogsite raises some interesting questions about the action. Basically, the debate boils down to whether it makes sense to protest at markets that, to some extent, are aware of the issue and willing to move towards stocking fewer GMO products. Wouldn’t it be better to go after the Wal-Marts and Safeways of the world, who seem to have turned a blind eye to the question? The back and forth of this issue continues in the the comments that follow Becky Striepe‘s (Eat Drink Better) post.

In case you’re wondering if Whole Foods Market had the protester arrested, Chicagoist did some checking and reports that they deny it.

Which leads me to wonder: Who DID call the cops?

Meanwhile, if you’re concerned about buying foods that haven’t been genetically engineered, The Non-GMO Project is a site you should visit. It’s North America’s only organization that has third party verification and labeling for non-GMO food and products.(The European Union already requires labels on GE foods.) I’ll keep an eye on this story.

Of funding fights, GMOs and “Beetniks”

May 15, 2011

Update on funding for Illinois Extension

The budget negotiations continue in Springfield and the amount of funding for Illinois Extension is still up in the air, though things look more promising than they did a week ago. Last Sunday, I talked about how Extension lost $7.6 million for Fiscal Year 2011. That meant that the number of units across the state were reduced from 76 to 27, counties were forced to combine operations with neighboring counties, and 120 academic professional positions were cut. Last week, it looked as though Extension might suffer even more cuts for FY2012.

This week, the numbers look better. On May 13, both the House and Senate passed their versions of the Department of Agriculture’s budget. As you can see below, there are some differences. The House version is House Bill 124 (HB124), House Amendment #1 and the Senate version is Senate Bill 2408 (SB2408, Senate Amendment #6. Here are the Extension numbers for those competing versions:

County Board Match:

Governor’s Proposed Level – $10,800,000
House Version – $10,800,000
Senate Version – $10,000,000

Youth Educator:

Governor’s Proposed Level – $1,047,100
House Version – $994,700
Senate Version – $1,047,100

Cook County Initiative:

Governor’s Proposed Level – $2,893,900
House Version – $2,749,200
Senate Version – $0

Now the House and Senate will hammer out the final numbers that will result in a bill being submitted to Governor Pat Quinn. As you can see above, the real hit seems to be in the allocation to Cook County, which the Senate version zeroes out completely. Speaking as a Cook County Master Gardener, I think that would be a shame. As Beth Botts points out in her excellent blog post on the subject, Cook County contains 40 percent of the state population. Because Cook County Extension serves so many people and does so much good work, it’s only fair that more money be alloted here. After all, the Cook County Initiative was at $5 million until last year. There has been plenty of belt-tightening in the unit already, and eliminating the the special monies would certainly gut many local programs.

Pam Weber is a spokesperson for Extension Partners, a group dedicated to furthering the work of Illinois Extension. She stops by the show to bring me–and you–up to speed on what is likely to happen in Springfield in the next couple of weeks. You can view the bills and amendments at the General Assembly website Enter the bill number and then click on “full text” at the top of the page and then the amendment number.

Of course, there’s still time to contact your legislators to make your voice heard. Please do.

GMOs: Time for truth in labeling?

Sometimes it seems as though GMOs are a tidal wave that will eventually wash over and obliterate any vestiges of organic growing in America. In January, the Obama Administration surprised and disappointed many supporters of organic food when USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack okayed the planting of genetically altered alfalfa without restrictions. Little more than a week later, the green light was given to Monsanto’s GE sugar beets. To some people, it signaled the beginning of the end for organics in America.

However, the organic industry continues to fight back. In March, a group of organic farmers and food activists, with the help of the not-for-profit law center The Public Patent Foundation, turned the tables on Monsanto. They sued the agricultural giant, which has a history of taking farmers to court for patent infrigement when Monsanto’s GE seeds drift onto the farmers’ lands. The activists hope that their lawsuit will put an end to Monsanto’s “patent infringement” cases.

Another area where consumers are starting to make themselves heard is in the area of labeling food products that contain GMOs.If you believe several polls that have been taken on this issue, somewhere around 90% of Americans want labels on GMO food. The Non-GMO Project is North America’s only third party verification and labeling for non-GMO food and products.(The European Union already requires labels on GE foods.) And now the Organic Consumers Association, is calling attention to the fact that “the overwhelming majority of non-organic processed foods currently sold in the U.S. contain unlabeled Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) derived from GE soybeans, corn, canola, sugar beets, cottonseed oil, or growth hormones.”

Alexis Baden-Mayer, Political Director of the OCA, just made a shopping trip to the Whole Foods Market at 1550 N. Kingsbury Street in Chicago. On Tuesday, she will dumpher purchases in front of that store in an effort to get the nation’s grocers to voluntarily adopt Truth-in-Labeling practices for non-organic foods sold in their stores.

She is also appearing at 5th annual Chicago Green Festival, which is in its second and final day at McCormick Place.Some highlights include:

• Twelve thematic Pavilion/Stages areas including the Main Stage, Mother Earth News Pavilion, Green Business Pavilion, Green Building & Renewable Energy Pavilion, Fair Trade Pavilion, Green Living Stage, Sustainable Home & Organic Gardening Pavilion, Green Kids Zone, Community Action Pavilion, Yoga & Movement, Music Stage and Green Cinema.
• Organic Food Court with Local Restaurants and the Organic Beer & Wine Garden
• Green Festival’s Café and Store

Note: for the past two days, I have been unable to log onto the Green Festival Chicago site. Perhaps they’re having issues. Just an FYI.

Sustainable Food Fundamentals: Are you a “Beetnik”?

The 2011 Farmers Markets season just kicked into high gear this week with the start of the 32nd Chicago Farmers Market season. So this is the perfect time for Rob Gardner to stop into the beautiful showcase studio on South Pulaski Road to talk about what’s new at his blogsite, The Local Beet.

Rob says that there are a bunch of new “Beetniks” on board–new market correspondents, CSA subscribers and more. But he’s really proud of the site’s New Local Beet Farmer’s Market Locator, which includes over 110 markets. It focuses on Chicago markets, as well as places like Evanston and Oak Park. It also currently include some markets from Wisconsin, they expect to add more markets from downstate Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan.

Sustainable Food Fundamentals is sponsored by Pearl Valley Organix. They produce HEALTHY GRO™ products for your lawn and garden, as well as Pearl Valley Eggs. And they do it in a way that is sustainable, turning their chicken manure into several OMRI listed fertilizers, and even recycling their waste water on site at the Pearl Valley Farm. I’m proud to have them as a sponsor on The Mike Nowak Show.

Garden Writers Association launches GRO 1000

Because I have been known to do some garden writing from time to time (sometimes even on this very page!), I am a proud member of the Garden Writers Association. One of the best things about GWA is their Plant A Row for the Hungry program, which is all about getting folks to donate surplus garden produce to local food banks, soup kitchens, and service organizations to help feed America’s hungry.

Now GWA and Plant a Row have teamed with ScottsMiracle-Gro, Keep America Beautiful, National Gardening Association and Franklin Park Conservatory (Columbus, Ohio) to develop and install 1,000 community gardens and green spaces in the U.S., Canada and Europe by 2018.

This Thursday, May 19, work will begin on one of those gardens, as land is reclaimed from two unused tennis courts in Chicago’s Gage Park on the southwest side. In their place will be a series of edible gardens, a sensory garden and a bird habitat. The new gardens will be integrated into the Chicago Park District’s Harvest Garden Program, which focuses on in-depth edible gardening education for children. And in the spirit of Plant A Row for the Hungry, a portion of the Gage Park garden harvests will be donated to a local food pantry.

But wait! There’s more! ScottsMiracle-Gro is also supporting two Chicago-area gardens through its GRO 1000 Grassroots Grants program, including the Iron Street Urban Farm Project, which will transform an abandoned seven-acre industrial warehouse to a sustainable garden, and an Inspiration Kitchen project, which will create a 2,000 sq.ft. edible garden in Garfield Park.

Congratulations to all involved!

Illinois Extension under the knife, EAB treatments under examination, Truck Farm in the parking lot, and more

May 8, 2011

Here we go again–General Assembly threatens to obliterate Illinois Extension

Just a couple of weeks ago I celebrated my third anniversary on Chicago’s Progressive Talk. The very first segment on my very first show three years ago was about threatened financial cutbacks to Illinois Extension. At that time, supporters of Extension programs were successful in preserving the funding levels for the coming year.

It has gotten ugly in the last two years, however, due mainly to the ugly debt that the State of Illinois has managed to amass. Last year, the General Assembly took out the long knives and cut $7.6 million for Fiscal Year 2011 from all public sources of funding for Extention. What did that mean? For one, it meant that the number of units across the state were reduced from 76 to 27. Many counties were forced to combine operations with neighboring counties. In addition, 120 academic professional positions were cut. Long-time educators and administrators found themselves in competition with each other for the remaining jobs.

And now, according to Robert Hoeft, Interim Associate Dean for Extension and Outreach, the General Assembly is proposing even more drastic cuts–perhaps removing another $13.7 million, including almost $3 from Cook County alone. Beth Botts writes eloquently about this action on her Growing in Chicago blogsite.

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that these cuts would basically eviscerate Illinois Extension. What would that mean to the people of Illinois?

  • Extension provides research-based educational programs in the areas of Healthy Society, Food Security and Safety, Environmental Stewardship, Sustainable and Profitable Food Production and Marketing Systems, Enhancing Youth, Family and Community Well-being. The most familiar programs are 4-H and Master Gardeners.
  • 4-H Youth Development positively impacts nearly 300,000 youth throughout Illinois.
  • Master Gardeners receive 11 weeks of training and then provide 60 hours or more of community service every year, in order to maintain their standing as MGs.
  • Statewide, more than 2.5 million Illinois residents take part in Extension programs each year.
  • Extension web pages draw more than 10 million views per month and people in over 200 countries access Extension’s web-based information.

The State Senate version of the bill has the most draconian cuts. Right now, focus seems to be on Senator Heather A. Steans (Democrat of Chicago – 773/769-1717) Senator Dan Kotowski (Democrat of Park Ridge – 847/656-5414), and Sen. John M. Sullivan, (Democrat of Quincy, 217/222-2295) who sponsored Senate Bill 2408. They are defintely three legislators who should be contacted. But it’s important to call or write to your own state respresentatives and, especially, senators to express your concern about the damage that this bill can do. Contact information can be found here.

The time is NOW. According to a lobbyist for Extension (yes, even Extension has lobbyists) most of the negotiations for the final budget will occur during the last two weeks in May, and that state legislators should be in their offices on Monday, May 9 and Saturday, May 14. But CALL ANY TIME. Illinois Extension is important and valuable, especially in a time of economic uncertainty. It should not be a victim of a rush to prove who can cut the most out of the state budget.

Hope for Emerald Ash Borer treatment

In the aftermath of the devastation of American Elm by Dutch elm disease, people often turned to ash trees to repopulate their backyards and parkways. It might seem ironic that those very trees are now being attacked by yet another pest–Emerald Ash Borer–but it’s really not irony. It’s truly our inability to learn that planting monocultures is bad horticulture and bad policy.

That being said, EAB is here and we’re now trying to adapt. With 10 to 40% of our urban forests now at risk, scientists and arborists, like those at The Care of Trees and the The Davey Tree Expert Company, are beginning to develop strategies to combat that destructive pest. Just this year, a group of university scientists and industry professionals called the Coalition for Urban Ash Tree Conservation created and endorsed a consensus document that states:

“…despite availability of cost-effective treatments, many municipalities, property managers, and homeowners continue to rationalize tree removal as the only viable management strategy for EAB. This is based on erroneous beliefs that tree removal slows the spread of EAB , or that treatment is not effective, economical, or environmentally sound. Current science supports conservation via treatment as a sensible and effective tool for managing healthy ash trees in urban settings. In many cases, tree conservation is economically and environmentally superior to tree removal .”

I’m pleased to have Shawn Kingzette and Jim Zwack from The Care of Trees on the show today to talk about EAB and how you might be able to preserve your ash trees. Of course, The Care of Trees is a sponsor of The Mike Nowak Show and is owned by The Davey Tree Expert Company.

Truck Farm Chicago rolls into the WCPT parking lot

If you want to know how easy it is to grow vegetables almost anywhere, all you have to do is go back to my home page to see pictures from what I call the WCPT Parking Lot Farm. It’s not really a farm, of course. It’s just a few Earth Boxes planted with vegetables. The point, though, is that we’re growing stuff on asphalt and concrete, next to brick walls. Not particularly hospitable to plants, but we make it work.

Enter Tim Magner of Green Sugar Press and Shari Brown from Seven Generations Ahead, who are doing something even crazier…or perhaps smarter. It’s hard to tell, really. They’ve planted vegetables in the back of a pickup truck and they’re rolling it across Chicago to show kids just how things grow. They call it Truck Farm Chicago and they must be onto something, because they’ve already been on local television, on Channel 5 and Channel 7. Hey, when is a TV station coming out to tape a segment about MY farm? But I digress.

Tim and Truck Farm Chicago are rolling into the WCPT parking lot this morning (I’ll be sure to direct him around the parking lot farm.) Depending on the weather, I’ll be outside of the beautiful showcase studio to investigate this latest gardening phenomenon. By the way, the truck runs on biodiesel and the goal is to visit more than 100 schools and farmers markets before the end of the growing season.

The Second City takes on the real Second City

I never thought it would come to this. But next Saturday, May 14, Friends of the Chicago River is engaged in a battle to the death with Friends of the LA River to win the Urban River Challenge. Okay, maybe not a “battle to the death.” More likely a friendly way to get people in both cities to participate in restoration and clean up activities and become Facebook “friends.” Gosh, I’m glad they used quotes. Otherwise, I would have been terribly confused.

To help Chicago win, volunteers should go to and sign up for Chicago River Day at a river-edge site or for home-based river-friendly activities AND become a friend at

Friends of the Chicago River Executive Director Margaret Frisbie drops by today to tell us that there’s a lot more going on in the month of May when it comes to the Chicago River:

  • May 13 – 7th Annual Chicago River Summit: Systemic Solutions to Climate Change Impacts – Merchandise Mart Conference Center – $20 admission – guests can register at
  • May 14 – Chicago River Day and the Urban River Challenge: Join Friends and over 4, 000
    volunteers at 60 sites along the river to clear garbage, restore trails, remove non-native plants.Get involved at
  • May 14 – FREE Day at the McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum: a
    one-of-a-kind opportunity to explore a historic landmark bridgehouse. Plan a visit at
  • By May 18 Fish Hotel returns to the Chicago Riverwalk: This award-winning floating aquatic
    habitat at Dearborn St. on the south bank of the Main Stem demonstrates how habitat can be
    created in urban areas and engages the public in Chicago River issues. For more information go to

Sustainable Food Fundamentals:
The Annual Kilbourn Park Organic Greenhouse plant sale

I’m constantly amazed at how different parts of the city support so many wonderful institutions and events. The Kilbourn Park Organic Greenhouse is one of those places. Next Saturday and Sunday, May 14 and 15, they are holding their annual organic plant sale, where you can pick up more than 150 varieties of vegetable, herb and flower seedlings and more for a song! Actually, they will ask you to pay for the plants (cash only) but if you sing something about gardening, I’m sure they will be very grateful.

Kirsten Akre is Floraculturist for Kilbourn Park and she notes that there are two websites for the event, one for Saturday and one for Sunday. Don’t ask me–or her–why. We don’t have an answer. They also have a Facebook page, and there’s even a Facebook page for the event. This event focuses on open-pollinated tomatoes suitable for Chicago , in addition to seasonal organic vegetables, herbs and flowers.

The plant sale is from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. on both days at 3501 N. Kilbourn Ave., just west of Milwaukee Ave. and Addison St. This year they are asking our patrons to help them and the environment by bringing their own tray or box for carrying plants. It’s a pretty darned reasonable request.

Sustainable Food Fundamentals is sponsored this week by Pearl Valley Organix. They produce HEALTHY GRO™ products for your lawn and garden, as well as Pearl Valley Eggs. And they do it in a way that is sustainable, turning their chicken manure into several OMRI listed fertilizers, and even recycling their waste water on site at the Pearl Valley Farm. I’m proud to have them as a sponsor on The Mike Nowak Show.