3rd Anniversary Show: Coal (burning) plants, wicked bugs, rabbit poo and Sustainable Food Fundamentals

April 24, 2011

“The Mike Nowak Show”: Three years and still kickin’. Thanks!

Who’da thunk it? That three years and 156 shows later, I’d still be turning on a microphone at Chicago’s Progressive Talk every Sunday. Of course, the starting hour has changed a couple of times, as has my producer, not to mention the length of the program, but the boat is still relatively without leaks and I’m looking forward to doing this for a long, long time.

Thanks to everybody who has made my show possible: Newswebradio Company, which owns Chicago’s Progressive Talk; Harvey Wells, who first hired me; Joe McArdle, who shepherded me through the first few tricky months; producers John Uher and Heather Frey; the beautiful Kathleen Thompson, who is my sweetie and webmaster (go wherever you want with that); my first class meteorologist Rick DiMaio; Intrepid Green Reporter Leah Pietrusiak, who helps behind the scenes with much of the ad copy; my fabulous advertisers; and last, but certainly not least, all of the people who listen to the show, whether regularly or not. My heartfelt thanks to ALL OF YOU!

Coal power plays hardball at Chicago City Council

Last week I talked to Lan Richard from the Eco-Justic Collaborative about Thursday’s City Council hearing about the Clean Power Ordinance introduced by, 49th Ward Alderman Joe Moore to force the Fisk and Crawford coal-fired plants to reduce or clean up their emissions or shut down permanently. The measure was introduced a year ago but had been consistently denied a hearing. However, with 26 co-sponsors now supporting the measure, retiring Alderman Virginia Rugai, chair of the Energy, Environmental Protection and Public Utilities Committee finally agreed–in the eleventh hour of the Daley Administration–to hear discussion, and possibly bring the ordinance up for a vote.

Lan and the more than 50 organizations that comprise the Chicago Clean Power Coalition were savvy enough to know that, in Chicago politics, very little happens without some kind of shenanigans. The idea was to encourage Chicago citizens who want cleaner air to show up at City Hall to voice their support. Furthermore, to encourage the aldermen who had co-sponsored the ordinance, a website called “WHERE’S MY WALDERMAN?” was set up, where folks could keep tabs on the whereabouts of aldermen during the hearing.

Three days after Thursday’s hearing, environmentalists are still trying to get the license of the truck that hit them.

Midwest Generation, which owns the two plants, got there early with hundreds of its workers that it bused in from all parts of the state and quickly grabbed most of the seats in the council chamber, effectly excluding all others from participating in the hearing.

Lan Richart was one of the few environmentalists who got into the room and he sent me his observations of the proceedings:

MWG representatives testified that the Fisk power plant has 65 employees, 13 of whom are Chicago residents. The Crawford plant has 120 employees, but they did not know how many were Chicago residents.

Alderman Rugai…refused to set a hearing until the very last week of the administration, then opened the hearing by saying the committee would not be taking a vote, because the issue warranted a great deal of study and consideration.

MWG pulled out all stops. Despite all of this, the Coalition widened public understanding of its message, got excellent press coverage and maintained momentum that will assure that the issue will be addressed by the new administration. We walked away having learned a few lessons about chicago politics, but even more determined to see this through. I think that that is the real message.

Lan’s wife Pam Richart, also of the Eco-Justic Collaborative, is on the show today with a look back at how things went down at City Hall.

Amy Stewart is baaaaack…with “Wicked Bugs”

It was last November when I last had author Amy Stewart on my show. At that time, she regaled–and terrified–Heather and me with tales of plants that are poisonous, hallucinogenic or otherwise harmful. That was the subject of her book Wicked Plants: The Weed that Killed Lincoln’s Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities. Of course, Heather immediately wanted a copy, which is now part of her bathroom decorations. And if you thought that knowing about plants that could kill and maim you was enough to keep you awake nights, you ain’t heard nothing yet.

Amy is back, with her latest book, Wicked Bugs: The Louse that Conquered Napoleon’s Army & Other Diabolical Insects. I haven’t slept in months, since I read her first book, and I’m preparing for a sleepless decade. Before I get into the gory details, here’s a short passage from Amy’s book that should give you pause:

To date, over one million species of insects have been described worldwide. It is estimated that there are ten quintillion insects alive on the planet right now, which means that for each one of us, there are two hundred million of them.

It didn’t help much when I saw this article on Mother Nature Network earlier this week. If that isn’t enough to send your reaching for the Raid, here’s more:

  • Female praying mantids are notorious for biting the heads off of their mates during copulation. However, that particularly un-ladylike behavior is also exhibited by fireflies, golden-orbed weavers, crab spiders and more.
  • Speaking of the dainty sex, the “fact” that the bite of a black widow spider is almost always fatal is a myth. And regardless of whether you think you’ve seen a brown recluse spider, let alone been bitten by one, you probably haven’t. They get blamed for a lot.
  • If you’ve spent most of your life in northern climes, as I have, you might not be aware that you can scorpions glow under ultraviolet light, making them easy to spot next to your Jimmy Hendrix poster. Scorpion stings are rarely fatal–expect in children. Fortunately, there is a new antivenin called Anascorp, which is saving lives. In case you haven’t figured it out, there’s a reason I stay in northern climes.
  • After Columbus’s second trip to the New World and his establishment of a colony on Hispaniola, it’s likely that his crew found it necessary to cut off some of their toes because of infestations of the chigoe flea.
  • Over half a million English drivers have had a car accident caused by the distraction of a bug in the car. Please don’t do that study in the United States. I don’t want to know.
  • The Colorado potato beetle is so devasting that in World War II the Germans believed that Americans were dropping the beetles from planes as a form of aerial agricultural warfare.
  • Some ant facts: Fire ants are not just feared for their sting. Their chewing ability has disabled traffic lights, shorted out air conditioners and even imperiled the now-defunct super-collider project in Texas. The bullet ant gets its name from the unfortunate fact that its bite feels like a gunshot. And entomologists believe that the population of Argentine ants that extends from San Diego into northern California is one giant supercolony of genetically similar ants. Have a nice day!

By the way, if the name Amy Stewart seems familiar, she is part of the Garden Rant crowd. The last time one of the gals dropped into the studio, Twitter Nation went berserk. I can hardly wait to see what happens this time. By the way, Amy is in studio, which means she’s in town for a bunch of appearances. You can catch her at

Monday, April 25, 2011 7 pm
Anderson’s Bookshop
Naperville, IL

Tuesday, April 26, 2011 5:30 pm
Boerner Botanical Gardens
Milwaukee, WI

Wednesday, April 27, 2011 6 pm
Overture Center for the Arts
A special event with artist Briony Morrow-Cribbs
Madison, WI

Thursday, April 28, 2011 7 PM
Morton Arboretum
Lisle, IL

Answering the “rabbit poo” question

Last week, listener Hannah called to ask if it was okay to use rabbit droppings as a fertilizer without composting them first. I did a little searching and came up with some information from Cornell University. I advise reading the whole post, but here’s a quote from the article:

Manures differ from each other because of their source, their age, how they were stored (piled, spread, turned over or not), and the animal bedding material, which may be mixed in. For that reason it is difficult to provide precise guidance about how long manure should be aged before use, or how much to use.

Composting is the safest way to make the most of manure’s nutritional potential – if the logistics of making and hauling compost are viable. For direct use in the garden, first aging manure for 6 months is a good rule of thumb. Many farmers and gardeners spread fresh manure in the fall or winter, and till or turn it in at spring planting time.

Farm animal manures provide NPK – nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). Generally, cow and horse manures are more readily available than other kinds of animal manures. For nutrient analysis of manure from eight kinds of farm animals, as well as other kinds of organic matter, refer to Cornell’s Eco-Gardening Factsheet #8, A Guide to the Nutrient Value of Organic Materials.

Some more information that might be useful is this from Plantea.com:

No matter what kind of manure you use, use it as a soil amendment, not a mulch. In other words, don’t put raw manure directly on garden soils. Raw manure generally releases nitrogen compounds and ammonia which can burn plant roots, young plants and interfere with seed germination. In fact, it’s recommended that all animal manure should be aged for at least 6 months. Many gardeners spread fresh manure in the fall and turn it in to the top 6 inches of soil a month before spring planting.

A better treatment is to hot-compost manure before applying it to the garden. Hot composting, where the pile reaches at least 150 degrees F) helps to reduce the probability of passing dangerous pathogens on to people who handle the manure or eat food grown with manure compost.

While the chance of contamination is slim, severe sickness and even death may occur if contaminated produce is eaten. To be safe, either compost your manure or apply it in the fall after harvest. Wash up after handling manure and don’t forget to rinse the vegetables and fruit well before you eat them–always a good idea whether your use manure or not.

I hope this helps.

Welcome to Sustainable Food Fundamentals:
How the USDA supports local food and local farms

Here are a few facts that might interest you.

  • The number of farmers markets has more than tripled in the past 15 years and there are now more than 6,100 around the country
  • In 1986 there were two community supported agriculture operations, today there are over 4,000
  • There are farm to school programs in 48 states, totaling more than 2,200 and up from two in 1996
  • All 50 states in the U.S. have agricultural branding programs, such as “Jersey Fresh” or “Simply Kansas”
  • As Governor of Iowa, Tom Vilsack started one of the first food policy councils. Today there are over 100 food policy councils
  • And the National Restaurant Association surveyed “locally sourced meats and seafood” and “locally grown produce” as the top two trends for 2011 .

You might be even more interested to know that those facts come from a United States Department of Agriculture website called Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food (KYF2). Yes, the USDA is a huge organization, with a budget of $25 billion dollars, give or take a few billion. And while they oversee agencies like The Farm Service Agency, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), Food and Nutrition Service, and even the Forest Service, the USDA is also supporting local farmers. Bet you didn’t know that, huh?

That’s why I’m pleased to have Alan Shannon, who is the Director of Midwest Region Public Affairs for the USDA Food & Nutrition Service Midwest. One of things I’ll ask him about is the Peoples Garden Initiative, which challenges USDA employees to establish People’s Gardens at USDA facilities worldwide or help communities create gardens.

And I’m happy to have Pearl Valley Organix as a sponsory for Sustainable Food Fundamentals. 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.

The Pearl Valley people were kind enough to give me a tour of their facility, about 150 miles northwest of Chicago near Pearl City, Illinois. I was astonished by the cleanliness of the the place (I swear you could have lunch on the floor of the egg-packing building). I was even more impressed by the way founder Dave Thompson approaches his business. It’s about health, and it’s about science. It’s also about respect for their neighbors and for the planet. Dave’s goal all along has been to produce eggs that are the best on the market by keeping chickens in a healthy, humane way, while taking pains not to despoil the land.

He has succeeded admirably. I challenge you to crack open a Pearl Valley egg next to a traditionally raised egg and tell me what you see. It will be no contest. As for their fertilizers, I’m just starting to use them. I’ll keep you posted on this website and on Chicago’s Progressive Talk. Meanwhile, if you want to know more about Dave and Pearl valley, check out this article that appeared in USA Today.