Cleaning up water, passing a farm bill and squashing squash bugs

June 24, 2012

Debra Shore of the MWRD

It’s a pleasure and a privilege to have Commissioner Debra Shore of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago back on the program…especially on Pride Day. The LGBT community couldn’t find a better representative in public office than Shore, who, in the March 22 primary, once again garnered the most votes–more than 190,000–and who will undoubtedly be elected to another six year term in November.

That’s a good thing because Shore is a true environmentalist in a job that calls for people with that sensibility. After all, as she says on her website,

…water matters. The District, with its mission to protect the drinking water supply for five million residents of Cook County (by treating sewage and keeping it out of Lake Michigan), has enormous impact on our quality of life. Through its policies and practices for stormwater management, the District affects flooding, beach closings, and the health of our streams and rivers. As owner of more than 7,000 acres of land, the District protects vital habitat, including several dedicated Illinois nature preserves.

Perhaps the most important accomplishment of the MWRD during her tenure was the vote last year to (finally!) approve disinfection of the wastewater discharged into the Chicago waterways at two large treatment plants to improve water quality and recreational use. But there are many issues to address. After all, the MWRD has an annual budget of more than $1 billion and most people have no idea what it does.

Debra Shore will help us understand that on the show today. Then she’s marching in the 2012 Pride Parade. Good thing that rain isn’t in the forecast. She would be spending most of her time explaining how the MWRD is helping to keep it out of our basements.

Understanding the 2012 Farm Bill…one issue at a time

Many of you are aware that the 2012 Farm Bill is making its way through the hollow…er, hallowed halls of Congress. But even if you saw the headlines the other day trumpeting the fact that it managed to survive 73 amendments in the U.S. Senate, I’m pretty sure that most of you don’t have a clue as to what is actually in that bill. I’ll bet that many of our lawmakers are just as clueless. Probably more so.

And since most of us don’t have the time or energy to figure out the byzantine ways of Congress, I can give you a crash course on what you can expect from the bill by offering this article by author Michael Pollan and this op-ed in the New York Times, which present a slightly bigger picture of how the more things don’t change, the more they remain the same, to coin a phrase.

But back to the accomplishment of the Senate. It’s been non-stop voting in the Senate on amendments on the 2012 Farm Bill (S.3240 Agriculture Reform, Food, and Jobs Act of 2012) lately. As I said, seventy-three amendments were proposed. The Senate rejected some that needed to be rejected but also rejected an amendment that would have allowed states to label GMO products. The bill puts limits on the crop subsidies that are given to the wealthiest farmers, thanks to an amendment co-sponsored by Dick Durbin, who came through all this looking darned good. The full Senate voted 64-35 to pass the final bill. According to Wes King of the Illinois Stewardship Alliance, who commented in an Advocates for Urban Agriculture post,

The sustainable agriculture and good food movement did fairly well when it came to positive amendments that improved upon the committee’s bill and defending against attacks on commodity subsidy reform, conservation and local foods. Senator Durbin voted with the good food movement and sustainable agriculture on nearly every single pertinent amendment.

Click here for a list of some of the key amendments . You can also get a pretty good overview of the Farm Bill at Huffpost. King also suggests that you look at what the Environmental Working Group and Food & Water Watch have to say about the bill.

And if you feel overwhelmed by all of this, welcome to U.S. legislation in the 21st Century: hard to understand, even harder to control.

When squash bugs attack

In other breaking news, it’s time to protect your squash, cucumbers and other cucurbits from some critters who are determined to do them in. Cucumber beetles, squash vine borers and the like are poised to wipe out your crop, but you can do something about them.

Cucumber Beetles are a triple threat. Adults that have overwintered munch on young plants and deposit larvae in the soil. The larvae eat tender young roots and then turn into a new generation of adults that chow down on plants leaves and blossoms. They also transmit bacterial wilt and squash mosaic virus, according to the University of Minnesota .

The Integrated Pest Management (IPM) approach is to begin with delayed planting, floating row covers and trap crops, which are only practical if you grow lots of cucurbits. (Trap crops are squash varieties that beetles love even more than your zucchini. The pests go after them and leave your less tasty (to beetles) plants alone.) Predatory organism can help you out—if you don’t mind trying to attract bats and wolf spiders to your garden. More attractively, there are some earth-friendly insecticides, such as neem oil and cedar oil.

Squash Vine Borers are thedirty little sneaks of the cucurbit world. They get inside the squash vine and feed away. You don’t even know they’re there until your whole zucchini plant collapses in a heap.

It may be too late for the first line of defense. Dr. Wally of Pesche’s says you shouldn’t plant your vines until the first of July. He swears that’s the best defense against borers. The second line of defense also may be moot at this point. Baby borers hibernate in the soil over winter, so you need to get rid of them before you plant if you had an infestation last year. Cultivate your soil an inch or two down and kill the little buggers between garden-glove clad thumb and finger. The same thing applies if you’re using floating row covers.

Jennifer Brennan , my esteemed co-host on Dig In Chicago , likes to cover the vines with mulch so that the borers can’t get in. You can also wrap the vines with the row cover material. Finally, you can spray the vines with insecticidal soap or BTK, or even better, wipe them down with same every week. And watch for that tell-tale borer hole. If you spot one before the plant starts to collapse, you can slit the vine carefully with a razor, take out the borer and apply the afore-mentioned thumb and finger technique. You can find more information about Squash Vine Borers at Gardens Alive or at the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture .

And last, but not . . . well, actually, it is the least. The squash bug is nasty, but it’s somewhat easier to control than the cucumber beetle or the squash vine borer. For one thing, you can see their eggs. They lay them on the underside of the leaf, in the angle between veins. You’ll see groups of a dozen or so reddish eggs, and you can just wipe them off. You have two weeks to do that before they hatch. You can find out more at the University of Minnesota Extension .

Saving urban trees and creating a political food agenda

June 17, 2012

Are these Evanston trees in trouble?

A few days ago, I was copied on a letter that was written to Marshall Stern, host of Awakened America on Chicago’s Progressive Talk. Here’s how it read:

This is the story about the trees on Maple St. , Evanston, the block where the Century 21 movie [theater] is located.  A very tough cable has been wound around the trunks of all the trees on this block, both sides of the street.  It is meant for decoration, I think, posssibly electrical lights to be installed in the future.  The cable is very tight, you cannot get your finger under it, and it spirals up the trunk so that the entire surface of the trunk is covered.

The woman, Jane Alexander, said she believed that the trees had been paid for by Church Street Plaza Management, and that she had contected Mark Younger from the City of Evanston Forestry Department about the matter.

I wrote to her and asked whether she could send me some photos. She immediately responded with the pictures on the left side of this page. As you can see, the cable does seem to be wrapped tightly around the trees, and I suspected that the trees would soon be under stress, if not already. So I did what any red-blooded American radio host would do…I got a second, and a third, and a fourth opinion from some of my arborist friends. Here’s how they responded:

As long as the (rope lights?) are loose enough so that the trunk has adequate space to allow for development of the annual growth ring, they should be OK.  Eventually, they will need to be loosened to allow for that expansion.  Being in sidewalk cutouts, the trees may not be putting on a lot of radial growth each year, but that is determined by the size and quality of the soil allocated for them.  If the coils of the cable can slide up or down a bit, there is still some expansion room left.  If they can’t, then they should be removed or at least loosened.
Dr. Rex Bastian, The Care of Trees

Mike, I agree with Rex’s comments. The rope lights can probably stay up for the growing season but for sure check the tightens in the fall and think about loosening them or removing them in the fall.
Doris Taylor, The Morton Arboretum

Mike, they look like hollow tubing with the lights already inside. I’ve seen such things somewhere else but not up close. It’s possible that the tubing has some built-in stretch capacity, which would help. But Ginkgo often grows pretty slowly, especially during the first few years after transplanting, so you probably have a significant grace period for action anyway. Vandals might solve your problem before it becomes critical (!), but if not, be sure someone is aware that the light strings need to be rewound each year. On a more general note, I think it’s a little sad that people think they can improve upon the natural beauty of trees by adding gaudy plastic lights. 
Guy Sternberg, Starhill Forest Arboretum

Tree bondage. Would expect to see this in certain parts of Chicago.  As long as it is loosened each year, OK. If these are LED they emit no heat thus not injuring the bark. The zip tie is likely to cause more damage as it looks pretty tight. Most people forget to loosen, this is what then kills the tree.
Scott Jamieson, Bartlett Tree Experts

I certainly agree w/ what both Rex and Guy said. Over the years I’ve seen plenty of cases where wires (covered w/ rubber hose at the point of contact with the tree’s trunk) used to stake trees after planting, have actually become engulfed by the tree itself. This is especially the case when they are left on too long and not adjusted or loosened to allow for the gradual expansion of the tree’s trunk, as it grows. The same goes for plastic collars left on too long and not adjusted, that were meant to protect a tree’s trunk from damage by string trimmers and deer rubbing.
Although these trees often appear to grow fine with a foreign object stuck beneath its bark/scar tissue, one can certainly conclude that it can’t be good for it in the long run, especially in cases where the wound doesn’t close fully, presenting an opportunity for disease or insects to harm the tree.  And in more severe cases, where a cable, for example, is wrapped very tightly around a tree, it’s certainly easy for such an object to girdle a tree’s vascular system resulting in eventual death.
In general, we recommend that nothing should be left on trees long term, whether it be ropes/wires used for staking, holiday lights, etc…Here at the Arb we take the time to both install and remove all holiday lights used on our trees for both the health of the trees and to recycle/reuse our energy efficient, costly LED lights.  In most cases, nothing should really be allowed to be hung, tied, draped, attached, etc…to a tree in the first place, otherwise it gives some people ideas which can quickly get out of hand, which include the installation of hammocks, garden art, baby swings, tree houses, outdoor lighting, outdoor speakers, bike racks, signage, etc…While bubble lighting in the photos is likely harmless in the short term, it sets a bad precedent for the average Joe who doesn’t fully understand the ramifications of such actions in the long run.
Todd Jacobson, The Morton Arboretum

And then I received a phone call on Friday. It was from City of Evanston Arborist Mark Younger, who said he was checking out the trees to make sure the the lights weren’t wrapped too tightly. He also sent this letter of Jane Alexander:


I wanted to follow up with you regarding the parkway trees located at Church Street Plaza along the 1700 block of Maple Street in Evanston.  I inspected the string lighting attached to the tree trunks again this morning.  As you mentioned they have become snug against the trunks.  I met with the Director of Operations for Church Street Plaza, Mr. Robert Gilbert, and we reviewed the trees together.  Rob is having all the lighting adjusted today, and has assured me that they will adjust the lights regularly as needed in the future.   The attached email from Rob shows the management companies commitment to our urban trees. Thank you for making us aware of this situation.  Please let me know if you have any further questions.

That’s what I call a rapid response. Mark Younger joins me on the program this morning to talk about the dangers of “decorating” trees with lights and other objects. We will also chat about an event that takes place this Saturday, June 23 in McHenry County. It’s the Ride for Research to benefit the TREE Fund.

It’s a 35-mile loop through McHenry County with members of Team Illinois (go team!) from the 2012 STIHL Tour des Trees. After the ride, there’s food, fun and music. The donation to ride is $50 and that gets you the post-ride barbeque. Or, if you just want to wave to the riders and eat barbeque, the fee is only $25. For more information, call April Toney at 877/617-8887 or email: Organizers ask that you RSVP by Wednesday, June 20.

I’m also pleased to have Mary DiCarlo, Fund Development Specialist for The TREE Fund on this morning’s show.

Is “food” a campaign issue in 2012?

If there’s a person more passionate about food issues than Debbie Hillman, I can’t tell you who it is. I met her several years ago, when I did the Rooted in Austin broadcast from the Third Unitarian Church of Chicago in the Austin neighborhood.

Debbie is a Chicago native who has lived in Evanston since 1976. For 25 years, she was a professional gardener for 25 years. But it was her work as an community activist that helped her use her horticultural background to become an urban agriculture zealot. In 2005, she co-founded the Evanston Food Council, a grassroots organization.

In 2006, Debbie and the Evanston Food Council began working with Evanston’s State Representative Julie Hamos and a large statewide coalition. They helped alert citizens to the awful truth that a state with some of the richest farm land on the planet was importing 95% of its food. As a result, the Illinois Food, Farms, and Jobs Act. was passed in 2007.

Debbie coordinated the 2-year task force created by IFFJA.  Based on the task force report  (Local Food, Farms, and Jobs: Growing the Illinois Economy , 2009), the Illinois General Assembly created a permanent state body (Illinois Local Food, Farms, and Jobs Council) to create an Illinois-based food and farm economy.

And now she is announcing the first project of her brand new food system consulting business,
D. Hillman Strategies: Food Policy for Voters. Debbie has created an Illinois Food Survey, which will measure just how important food issues are to Illinois voters. The Illinois survey is a pilot for a national survey which will be activated in June, following the June primaries in 15 states

As she explains on her website:

For 60+ years, American voters’ food attention and resources have been over-focused on creating a global food system, to the detriment of every local farm and food economy in the world, including local food economies in the U.S.  Symptoms of local food system disfunction are manifest in every American community, in every sector of community life.

Public health : Reduced lifespan, skyrocketing healthcare costs
Increasing infant mortality
Hunger, malnutrition, over-nutrition, mono-nutrition, eating disorders
Epidemics of obesity, diabetes 2, cardiovascular disease
Suicides and chronic mental health problems of farmers, mothers, and other caretakers who can’t make the $$ and hours add up no matter how hard they work

Education : Loss of basic life skills and cultural heritage
Loss of food literacy (nutrition, health, soil, water, climate, energy, history, culture, biodiversity, farming and food traditions)
Loss of food skills (growing, shopping, storing, cooking, feeding, preserving, composting)
Reduced competency in collective decision-making, especially through government
Confusion about money, banking, basic financial operations

and more.  Can Debbie Hillman help draw attention to food issues in time to make a difference in the 2012 election? We’ll know in a few months. Meanwhile, she stops by to talk to me in studio this morning.

Two bills: Governor Quinn, sign one, veto the other

As the General Assembly in Springfield wrapped up its legislative business at the end of May, one of the victories for Chicago environmentalists was the passage of HB 3881, which will effectively ban landfills in Cook County…assuming that Governor Pat Quinn signs it.

Right now, it sits on his desk, and the Southeast Environmental Task Force (SETF) is urging its supporters to call the governor’s office to tell him to affix his signature to the legislation.That number is 312-814-2121. You can keep track of the progress of the bill by loggin on to the No Chicago Landfills Facebook page.

And while you’re on the phone to the governor, you should tell him to veto another bill that is on his desk. That one is SB 3766, which, according the SETF, would force Ameren, People’s Gas and Nicor to purchase more expensive synthetic gas produced by Leucadia’s proposed coal gasification plant on the southeast side. In addition to being bad for Illinois gas customers, it’s yet another environmental slap in the face to the southeast side of Chicago.

Repeat after me: There is No Such Thing as Clean Coal.

The Illinois Chapter of the Sierra Club agrees and you can log in here to voice your concerns to the governor. In the words of the Sierra Club, “SB3766 would not only force NICOR and Ameren ratepayers to buy the dirty synthetic gas produced by Leucadia, it also forces themto finance 100% of the construction costs for the scuzzy coal-to-gas plant!”

This sweetheart deal is bad for our pocketbooks and bad for the environment. The plant is planned for the heart of Chicago’s southeast side, just two blocks from Washington High School. The project’s pollution will impact more than 10,000 students and the many families who live nearby over the 30-year project life.”

You know what to do. Let’s get it done.

Getting food to people who need it

June 10, 2012

Connecting food with people: Every Last Morsel

I received an email from listener Rob Berry last week about a Kickstarter campaign that some of you might find interesting. It seems that last year he and his wife hired a guy named Todd Jones, who runs an outfit called Every Last Morsel, to install organic raised beds in their suburban Elmhurst backyard. But creating organic gardens isn’t what the Kickstarter proposal is about…though it’s related.

Jones discovered, in the course of his business, that he needed a platform in order to keep track of all the gardens he was building. Here’s what he told The Huffington Post:

I had this idea of creating a sort of platform that would allow me to do it more easily. The idea has grown tremendously since then to include a network for gardeners, what they are growing and how much of it — data used in aggregate to create these marketplaces. There are untold thousands of gardens in Chicago that grow thousands of pounds of food each year. I’m sure a lot of that goes to waste or could certainly go to better use if gardeners had an outlet to sell it from their own back yards.

He views that as only the beginning. If all goes well, farmers and consumers from all over the country will be logging in. Here’s how it will work:

The gardener, when setting up their profile, will visit the homepage, see a map and be able to drop or drag a pin onto that map and claim where, geographically speaking, their garden is. After they define its location, they will be able to add information to that data point and will be able to say how much and what kind of plants they’re growing. When it comes time to harvest, there will be another column where they can push some of those amounts out into the social sphere where they can either accept payments online for food or meet their customers in person and exchange cash and product. We want to connect people who have food with those who want it, that’s the goal.

And, well, he doesn’t need my help. Not only is he getting great coverage on media websites and with bloggers, on Friday he broke through his goal of $10,000. As of Saturday evening, the amount was up to $11,357. With five days to go in the Kickstarter campaign, Jones willl be able to pad that amount (thanks to “The Mike Nowak Show Bump” he is getting today) and, well, from that point, the sky is the limit. Todd Jones joins me this morning to talk about connecting food with the people who want it.

Fixing an urban food desert, one high school student at a time

Almost three years ago, I did a broadcast of The Mike Nowak Show from a community garden in Matteson, Illinois. I was approached by a man who introduced himself as a teacher at Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos High School (PACHS) in Humboldt Park. His name was Carlos DeJesus and I was interested in that he was trying to teach his students how to grow their own food.

As these things happen, I lost track of him until earlier this year, when I noticed that PACHS had contructed a greenhouse on the roof of their building at the corner of Division and California. So I’m making up for lost time by having him on the show this morning.

PACHS is a charter school, but is unlike many charter schools in that it caters to high school students who have dropped out, been kicked out or been pulled out of other schools. Often they are girls who have gotten pregnant. There are only 175 students in the school but, as DeJesus points out, at any given time, 25 to 30% of them are parents. Reflecting the neighborhood, 85% of the students are Latino–about 60% Puerto Rican, while 25% or so are other Hispanic groups, including Mexican. In fact, though the name of 20th Century political figure Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos is used, the official name of the institution is “The Puerto Rican High School.”

And whatever they’re doing at the school, it’s working. While only one third of Chicago Public School (CPS) graduates read at college level, Campos will not let their studients graduate unless they can read at least at a 10th grade level. (Most magazines and newspapers are written at the 8th grade level.) Considering that many of the students enter the school with 2nd or 3rd grade reading skill levels, that’s quite an accomplishment. Even more stunning is that in the last five years, according to DeJesus, 100% of their graduates have been accepted into college.

The point is that, unlike the charter schools that “mine for gold,” PACHS looks for “diamonds in the rough.”

And now, DeJesus, who started as a science teacher, is assistant principal and looking for ways to teach his kids how to change not only their own lives, but the lives of many in Greater Humboldt Park. According to the Healthy Urban Food Enterprize Development,

The community’s median household income of $29,000 is 26% lower than Chicago’s median income. A study by the Sinai Urban Health Institute (SUHI) indicates that the proportion of adults with diabetes among Puerto Ricans in this community is 21%, three times higher than the national rate, and the diabetes mortality rate among Puerto Ricans in Humboldt Park is 68 per 100,000 people, a rate that is 172% greater than the national diabetes mortality rate. Only 35% of community adults consume at least one serving of fresh fruits or vegetables per day.

The community is what is now commonly called a “food desert.” And DeJesus wanted his students to understand what that meant. But he didn’t want to tell them. He wanted them to figure it out for themselves. So he sent them out into the community to talk to people about what food they had access to and what they ate. And, not too surprisingly, they determined that people in the neighborhood needed to grow their own food because it wasn’t readily available.

But how can you grow food if there are few vacant lots in your community and the ones that are there are prohibitively expensive?

Again, it was a student who suggested that a greenhouse should be built on top of the school. The location would be above the cafeteria, adjacent to the science lab. That shouldn’t be too difficult, right? Think again. DeJesus says it took three years to get funding, and another two years of fighting the city (code compliance, zoning issues, etc.). All you need to know about this is the heartache that Zina Murray at the Logan Square Kitchen endured for years before she finally threw in the towel

Miraculously, everything came together, and the new greenhouse opened on March 3, 2011. Since then, they have grown hundreds of pounds of tomatoes, cucumbers, green peppers, herbs and more. And PACHS is partnering with the Puerto Rican Cultural Center (PRCC) on La Cosecha, or “The Harvest.”

The idea is not too difficult: grow local and sell local. DeJesus took me to the store at Division and Washtenaw that he hopes will be open in a few weeks, allowing Humboldt Park residents to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables. There is also a half acre of Chicago Park District land next to the PRCC, where seedlings from the rooftop greenhouse are being grown. If all goes well, that lot will expand to an acre and a half in a couple of years. In addition, PACHS is working with three community gardens in the area.

Incredibly, that might only be the start. The high school has already changed the neighborhood but DeJesus envisions buying nearby properties to create even more greenhouses–including one that could be as large as 20,000 square feet. Much of this isin the future…but who could have predicted five years ago that PACHS would have gotten this far? Stay tuned, and witness the power of a few “drop outs, push outs and pull outs.”