May 8, 2016 – Seedfolks; MPAC Spring Fling; How IDOA enables CAFOs in Illinois

“Seedfolks” explores the “community” in community gardens

Every now and then, all of my previous lives come together to create a moment that makes perfect sense on my radio show. My interview this morning with actress Sonja Parks is a perfect example.  She has just opened in a superb one-woman show called Seedfolks, which is the Chicago premiere of a production by Children’s Theatre Company of Minneapolis, now playing at Chicago Children’s Theatre through May 22.

SeedfolksThe play is based on a children’s book by Paul Fleischman.  He reflects on the success of his book:

Seedfolks has led an exciting life: translated into other languages, ,produced on the stage,  ready by whole cities and states. A Japanese band has named itself for the book.

Like the ancient Egyptians, we recognize that contact with nature can heal. Hours after the 9/11 attacks in New York, scores of people were standing in wait for the gates of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden to open. The city’s public gardens waived admission fees and were thronged with those seeking solace and serenity. In the uprush of altruism, we also saw that a sense of community–the knowledge that we’re know, that we care, that we will be cared for–provides an even greater solace.

You might be wondering about my comment about “my previous lives.” Some of you know that, back in the pre-Intertubes days, I helped to run a theatre company here in Chicago, where I was an actor, director, writer and often cleaned the bathrooms.  That went on for about a decade, so I know a little bit about the business.

Meanwhile, I’ve been a radio guy for most of my adult life, and in the 90s (1990s, not 1890s) I found myself interested in all things horticultural, which led to my gardening and environment programs at WGN Radio, WCPT and now at Que4 Radio.

Along the way, I moved into Logan Square in Chicago (now becoming a very la-dee-da place). About eleven years into that mission, a group of us in the neighborhood decided that the drug corner on my block, adjacent to junk- and weed-choked empty lot, needed to go.

So we started our own community garden, Green on McLean, and for five years, we grew every kind of food and a lot of ornamental plants.  And without breaking my arm patting myself and my friends on the back, we chased the gangs out of the neighborhood. True story. Just ask the Chicago police in the 14th District.

This is where Seedfolks comes in. I’m not going to say that the story of the empty Cleveland lot where the neighborhood comes together to grow things is exactly like what happened here in Logan Square, but there were enough similarities to make me reflect on the power of organizing people to work in a community garden.

By the way, Sonja Parks plays 14 distinct and memorable characters in this play, which runs about an hour. Their ages range from the single digits to octogenarians, with dialects from all over American and the globe. Sometimes, a character springs full-blown, unexpectedly, out of nowhere. Other times, the lights and sound help with the transitions.  But her work is meticulous and precise and fascinating to watch.

I attended a preview shortly before the show officially opened, and Ruth Page Center for the Arts was filled with kids, ranging from 3rd graders to 8th graders. No  matter. The moment the lights went down and Parks appeared on stage, she had them in the palms of her expressive hands. I’m not a particularly sentimental guy, but even I got a little verklempt at a couple of key moments.

The promotional literature with the play says that it is for ages 7 and up.  While I think that children should see this piece, I think that the “and up” crowd–especially if they have ever gardened–will be delighted by the work.  I highly recommend it and I’m very pleased to have Sonja Parks in the studio with me this morning.

Midwest Pesticide Action Center Presents Spring Fling 2016 at Revolution Brewery…and I’m the MC!

Ruth Kerzee, executive director of the Midwest Pesticide Action Center,  MPAC (formerly Safer Pest Control Project) returns to the program today to invite you to their fundraising event on Monday.

It’s called Spring Fling 2016 and If you care about the MPAC’s work MPAC springflingof protecting people and the environment, you should show up at Revolution Brewing Brewpub, and not just because I’m going to be the Master of Ceremonies.

For a $35 advance ticket price, you gain entry to the Revolution’s Brewpub Brewers’ Lounge, are served hors d’ouvres from Revolution’s kitchen, and have a chance to sample five (count ‘em, 5!) house brewed beers, and participate in a raffle of fabulous prizes. There’s also an opportunity to tour the brewery.

You should know that MPAC are the good guys  because they are dedicated to reducing the health risks and environmental impacts of pesticides by promoting safer alternatives.  One of their latest initiatives is Midwest Grows Green (MGG), which is identified by their distinctive orange MGG stamp and unified by a single message – protect people, pets and the environment by practicing natural lawn care.

Visit the MPAC website to see how you can protect your family and this fragile planet from the useless and destructive chemicals that are part of the effort of big money companies to brainwash the American public. Unfortunately, for the past 60 years or so, those techniques have worked.

Ruth’s visit this morning will be short, but you can count on me to have her back in the near future to go into MPAC’s initiatives in depth. See you Monday at Revolution Brewing!

How the Illinois Department of Agriculture enables the creation of CAFOs in the state

How the IDOA is enabling CAFOs in Illinois

You’re probably not familiar with a group called Save our Sandy, though you probably should be.  It’s a group that has formed in Marshall County, Illinois, which is not all that far south of Chicago along I-39, with the city of Wenona at its heart.

In 2014, Sandy Creek Lane LLC, a company managed by VMC Management Corp. of Williamsburg, Iowa, submitted a proposal to build a hog confinement facility that would house 20,000 swine.  Following a six hour public meeting about the operation, which was attended by 300 people, the Marshall County board voted 10-1 against it, and later sent the IDA a seven-page letter stating they were “ADAMANTLY OPPOSED” to building the facility at the proposed site.

The Illinois Department of Agriculture summarily ignored the recommendation of Marshall County and approved the operation. This is the typical pattern of IDOA when it comes to an application for a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) in Illinois.


Let me lay it out for you plainly: as far as anybody knows, IDOA has never said no to a CAFO in this state.

Why is that a problem?  From an excellent series of articles in the Peoria Journal Star (which you can find here, here and here),

“In the days of old, people might have had a few thousand hogs, but now we’re getting these huge facilities,” said [Stacy] James [of the Prairie Rivers Network]. “The amount of waste they produce is enormous. This facility may produce 10 million gallons of waste a year. That waste has to be disposed of in a manner that doesn’t pollute nearby wells and streams. The waste pits under the buildings may be emptied out only once a year, which means the odors are being fanned out into the community year-round — they use fans to distribute the smell out of the facility so the animals don’t suffocate.”

But, as noted above, IDOA has never said no to such an operation.

So neighbors of the proposed Marshal County CAFO filed a lawsuit in Seventh Judicial Circuit Court against VMC. Part of the reason was that Big Sandy Creek is a major tributary of the Illinois River and, again, from the PJStar series:

“I would rate it in the top 10 best streams in all of Illinois,” said Wayne Herndon, fisheries biologist for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. “The Big Sandy is one of those streams that has the highest rating as far as the fish population that inhabits it, and the aquatic insects that inhabit it … high diversity indicates that even the most sensitive fish and aquatic insects are able to survive. It’s not a typical situation, especially here in northeast Illinois.”

But did you know that the Illinois Department of Agriculture has never said no to a CAFO?

And would you be surprised to learn that the citizens who took the IDOA’s decision to court lost? I wouldn’t.

Karen Hudson is regional associate of the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project and co-founder of Illinois Citizens for Clean Air and Water. She has been on my show a number of times and because she is a small farmer herself, she has the street cred necessary to be in the forefront of this conversation.

She is joined by Jessica Chipkin from Crate Free Illinois, which recently released an app called The Illinois Guide to
FACTORY FREE MEAT, DAIRY & EGGS, which you can download for iPhone or Android. She notes that The Humane Society of the United States has announced the formation of its National Agriculture Advisory Council. The council is comprised of family farmers and agriculturalists who practice and promote higher animal welfare standards within their operations.



May 1, 2016 – Another Bad Day at Starved Rock; the Downsized Veggie Garden

Another Bad Day at Starved Rock

It was in December of 2011–more than four years ago–that I became aware of an environmental threat to the lives of people living in LaSalle County, Illinois.  First, the LaSalle County board gave permission to a company called Mississippi Sand LLC to dig an open pit sand mine adjacent to the crown jewel of the Illinois State Park system–Starved Rock.

Why in this particular location? Well, the silica sand mined in the region is sometimes describe as the “perfect” sand for hydraulic fracturing, or, as it has become known, fracking.  And that has led to companies eager to get into the “frac sand rush” descending on the county and transforming farmland to frac-land.

Frac sand mine LaSalle






It has had an effect on the quality of life in those communities along the banks of the Illinois River. When the wind blows even moderately, the frac sand particles sting any exposed flesh, making even simple trips outdoors more like running gauntlets.

How do I know? I was given a tour of the frac sand mines by the locals a couple of years ago. I’ve experienced it myself.

Not surprisingly, in 2012 the Illinois DNR opted to facilitate mining interests rather than protect the natural areas in and around Starved Rock, and issued permits to Mississippi Sand. It was at that point that three environmental groups–the Sierra Club, Prairie Rivers Network and Openlands–sued the State of Illinois, claiming that IDNR failed to adequately review Mississippi Sand’s plan to reclaim the area when the mining operations cease, and that the decision was out of compliance with the Illinois Natural Areas Preservation Act.

It was at that point that the case pretty much dropped out of sight. Some of the locals confided in me that they held little hope for a decision that would favor preserving the character of LaSalle county as a farming and tourist area. After all, other frac sand mines were springing up like Creeping Charlie in a compacted lawn–this part of Illinois was already under assault and a victory over Mississippi Sand might simply be symbolic, not substantive.

Fast forward to the Good Food Festival this year, where I ran into Albert Ettinger, a lawyer who has represented environmental organizations since the 1980s and who was one of the counsel representing Sierra Club, Prairie Rivers Network and Openlands in the Starved Rock case. I asked him how the case was proceeding.

“We lost,” he said in his particularly dry manner.

I was stunned. I hadn’t seen or heard anything in any media outlets anywhere. So, I arranged for Ettinger to be on the show tomorrow and began searching the Intertubes. Somebody must have covered the story. But the best I could do is find reports from 2014–two years ago.

About the only good news in all of this is from The Mike Nowak Show contributor Ashley Williams, who notes that the downturn in oil prices has led to a commensurate slowdown in frac sand mining in LaSalle County.  But while things are quieter right now, that could change with the availability of oil worldwide.

I welcome attorney Albert Ettinger and Cindy Skrukrud, Clean Water Program Director for the Illinois Chapter of the Sierra Club to the program to talk about why this lawsuit failed, why there doesn’t seem to have been any coverage of it, and what’s in store for natural areas in the State of Illinois as a result.

The Downsized Veggie Garden

You say you want to start growing your own vegetables? You say you’ve never done it before? You say that you have limited space–perhaps just a patio or a balcony?

Have I got a book for you!

Longtime gardening buddy Kate Copsey has written a marvelous Downsized Veggiebook called The Downsized Veggie Garden for people who are space challenged. In under 200 pages, she teaches you how to evaluate your gardening area, pick containers, fill them with soil, choose seeds and/or starter plants and grow almost anything in a small space.

This book is going to be especially helpful to gardening novices, who are daunted by the very idea of growing things. Copsey clearly and methodically explains how to set up your own “home farm,” whether it’s in a small yard, on a porch or even indoors (yes, there are veggies that can be grown inside!)

The book is accompanies by hundreds of helpful photos, as well as suggested plots for your gardens, and season-by-season descriptions of plants and their characteristics.

This is a book that you will turn to over and over again and which would make a great gift for that gardening friend or relative.

Call in with your gardening questions–312-985-7834. Or do the same on Facebook (like the show while you’re there!) or Twitter.


April 24, 2016 – Watching our water, native plants in your own backyard

I have never thought that my life was particularly interesting–at least not worthy of writing about. After the past year and a half, I’m beginning to reassess that view. And when I finally pen my memoirs, you’ll hear in graphic detail about my rendezvous with our medical system, which happened in the past couple of weeks. But that’s for the future.

Chicago Farm Report

For now, Peggy Malecki, intrepid publisher of Natural Awakenings Chicago Magazine, is back in studio to assist with hosting duties. Also back with another Chicago Farm Report is Patrick Barry.

He will be reporting on something called the “Whole Foods Effect”: when small, local producers face the daunting task of ramping up Farm stormproduction to meet the needs of large grocery chains.  He’s also looking at eighteen local sustainable farmers who were awarded 2016 grants from the nonprofit Frontera Farmer Foundation, which was started in 2003 by Rick and Deann Bayless and the staffs of the well-known Chicago restaurants, Frontera Grill and Topolobampo.The capital-development grants, worth $12,000 or less, help farmers buy necessary supplies and equipment to expand operations and improve the flow of good food in the Midwest.Barry wants to call attention to the deadline of the Food to Market Challenge, which will award $500,000 to a team that can design an innovative solution to re-conceive supply chain practices that limit scale of the local food market in the Chicago region. That deadline is Tuesday.

We might even touch some more on local plant sales that are happening all over the area, even thought that was covered in some depth last week by Peggy and Sarah Batka.

Stopping water privatization

Next up is Jessica Fujan, senior Midwest organizer for Food & Water Watch. She warns that

In the past four sessions, the Illinois legislature has sponsored bills that would challenge our rights to defend our water or force ratepayers to foot the bill for risky acquisitions. Food & Water Watch has fought many successful battles at the state and local level, and is now taking the fight to Congress. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that our utilities need more than $700 billion to address infrastructure needs over the next 20 years.

I can think of few things more dangerous than putting our public safe waterwater supplies in the hands of for-profit companies.  lThink healthcare industry, and you know what I’m talking about. But in this era of concern about lead in our water systems, you will see the fear mongers–who stand to profit from our fears–rise up and make their pitches.

Fujan says that you can sign this petition to ask your lawmakers to keep our water supplies controlled by democratically elected (more or less) municipalities and water boards.

Using native plants in your own backyard

I’m pleased to welcome a new sponsor to The Mike Nowak Show, though you’ve already been hearing their ads for the past few weeks. Natural Communities Native Plants, in their own words,

Offering retail native plant sales with simple online ordering & delivery, and sales at green events throughout the growing season. Providing a impressive selection of fairly priced woodland, wetland, and prairie plants, shrubs, and trees native to the Chicago region and Greater Midwest. We sell plants both individually, and at bulk discount rates with convenient local pick up on Rt. 25 in Batavia, IL and at green events throughout the season.

Owner/Principal Ecologist  Nick Fuller notes that while their are a number of native plant suppliers in the Chicago region, it can be difficult to purchase those plants retail. He understands that many homeowners create their gardens piecemeal–even when it comes to 20150416_122806natives–so he wants to offer gardeners an opportunity to purchase plants on a smaller scale.

He’s joined by an old friend of mine, Keith Nowakowski, landscape architect in Illinois and author of Native Plants in the Home Landscape, for the Upper Midwest. He’s also author of the blog Sustaining Beauty. He works to create native plantings around residences that meet the needs of those particular spaces.

With Nick and Keith in studio we will attempt to demystify using native plants in the home landscape, offering tips and techniques about growing the best that the Midwest has had to offer for thousands of years.

By the way, Keith says that if folks are looking specifically for natives, they can go to the Native Plant Sales page of the Illinois Native Plant Society.