The Aquaponics Guidebook (an e-Book)

January 13, 2010 by  
Filed under Agriculture, Aquaponics, Blog, e-Books, Front Page, Slideshow

Aquaponics is a closed system in which you grow both plants and fish, usually for food. Photo: © Terence Lee - Fotolia.com

The Aquaponics Guidebook by Bevan Suits is a solid, informational e-book with practical suggestions for starting your own small- or large-scale aquaponics operation. By the time you finish this book, you’ll have all the knowledge you need to get started creating your own aquaponics farm.

For the record, the author provided me with a complimentary review copy of the e-book. If I hadn’t found it to be an excellent resource, you wouldn’t be reading this review; we refuse to review any book or product unless we feel positively about it.

Fish and Plants Growing Together

"Aquaponics is growing fish and plants in one system, with fish waste feeding plants." Photo: © Alison Bowden - Fotolia.com

But just what is aquaponics? Here’s how Suits explains it:

Aquaponics is growing fish and plants in one system, with fish waste feeding the plants. It works in many variations of scale and form, though the basic concept does not change: Fish, bacteria and plants working together in a recirculating, soil-less system. It resembles a living organism, with a heart (the pump) and lungs (aeration). The bacteria remove waste like the kidneys and the liver. It will teach you a lot about food and this ecosystem we call home.

Perhaps, like me, you have walked past ponds and swamps without considering the symbiotic relationship between the plants and the fish living together in the same ecosystem. I’ve heard of growing tomatoes and other plants without soil, but I never gave a thought to growing vegetables together with tilapia, bass, or koi. Yet it makes sense. It happens in nature all the time.

Still, at first, I was only mildly interested in the concept of farming fish and vegetables in a controlled system. But, Suits’ writing style is warm and welcoming, and he quickly drew me in. He carefully describes how an aquaponics system works, what you’ll need to set one up, what pitfalls you might encounter, and how you can make money from your aquaponics farm.

A Simple Chemistry Lesson

To be a successful aquaponics farmer, you need to have a basic understanding of the nitrogen cycle. Suits explains in sufficient — but not burdensome — detail how the nitrogen cycle works and why this is important.

If you think of aquaponics as a system of fish and plants, you’re leaving out the most important group: bacteria. Without bacteria there is no connection between the fish and the plants. The ammonia from the fish would kill the plants.

All of life on earth depends on bacteria converting waste matter to nutrient matter. This is called the nitrogen cycle or nitrification. Growing “organically” means to strengthen and support this natural process, without using anything synthetic or man-made.

What makes aquaponics so unique is that it contains bacteria and uses nitrification in the system.

It’s been (ahem) a “few” years since my college biology days, and I’d forgotten everything I ever knew about the nitrogen cycle. Suits lays it out clearly with a simple diagram, text, and even a chemical equation. If you don’t understand by the time he’s finished explaining it, you haven’t been paying attention:

Aquaponics is dependent upon a delicate balance in the nitrogen cycle. Illustration: The Aquaponics Guide (Fish: Erik Engrbretsen; Roots: Public Domain; Bacillum: CDC)

If the nitrogen cycle gets out of balance, the fish or the plants — perhaps both — will die. Suddenly, biology and chemistry lessons matter in the real world. If you’re homeschooling your kids, setting up an aquaponics system is a perfect opportunity for hands-on learning about life and death in an ecosystem.

The Basics

An old, discarded bathtub can be cleaned up and used as an inexpensive aquaponics tank. Photo: © nicolas barthe - Fotolia.com

One of the most basic choices you’ll make if you try aquaponics is which kind of system you want to set up. The Aquaponics Guidebook provides simple drawings to illustrate three main choices for most small-scale operations: the Basic Drip System, the Ebb & Flow System, and the Hydroponic Raft System. For those of us with larger ambitions, he also provides a schematic of the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI) system, which he dubs “one of the largest and most productive aquaponics systems.”

While there’s enough detail included for even the most avid aquaponics enthusiast, Suits makes setting up a household-sized aquaponics system look easy enough for anyone who can read. What’s more, he shows in photos that a small system is doable on a small budget. Even discarded bathtubs and plastic rain barrels will work to hold the fish and the plants. (By the way, the fish and the plants are in separate tanks, with the same water circulating through both.)

As the “heart” of the system, the pump is an essential element. Suits provides the pros and cons of various types of pumps. He also tells the reader just what kind of tubing works best to connect the plumbing system. It would be hard to go wrong on the basic setup with his excellent guidelines.

Resources

Added to the text are loads of links to websites with additional information. The links, by the way, provide an advantage of e-books over paper books that I hadn’t considered before this. When the author wants to give more detailed reference information that might bog down the reader, he links to a website for further research. It’s a great way to maximize the power of the content without adding pages.

Suits has obviously done his research. And he makes it easy for the would-be aquaponics farmer by providing loads of tips, diagrams, and tables for easy access. He includes such helpful charts as these and others:

  • Water pump performance curves
  • How to plan water temperature to match tank size
  • Calculating water heater size in Watts
  • How many lights do you need for your growspace?
  • Water quality parameters for different kinds of fish

Art and Science

Fish and plants grow well in the same ecosystem, as long as the nitrogen cycle is balanced. Photo: The Aquaponics Guide

One of the things I like most about the book is Suits’ approach to the topic. Throughout, he encourages the novice to get started, to begin with a small system while learning, and then to expand once the process is familiar. His approach is comforting and virtually stress free.

There is both art and science to raising fish. The art is in the intuitive nurturing that we know as gardeners, pet owners and parents. There is a lot of creative freedom in putting your system together and making it fit your space, conducting experiments out of curiosity. The fish are beautiful to watch. Seeing plants grow so quickly is encouraging. Hearing the splash of flowing water is relaxing. This is technology that feels right, a model of an ecosystem.

He blends wisdom with instruction, without being heavy handed with either. I particularly liked this line:

After you grow successfully with aquaponics, you may feel like an expert, but it’s the failures that create experts.

Yes, the failures are what give us the experience to meet challenges with confidence the next time. I’ll remember that line, long after I’ve forgotten (again) how the nitrogen cycle works.

Do I Have to Eat Them?

In our house, we’re striving to be vegetarians. We aren’t entirely there yet, but we’re well on our way. So, when Suits writes about raising fish for food — and shows beautiful fish in an aquaponics system — I cringe. I can’t even buy tilapia at the grocery store because they’re swimming in a tank right there at the meat counter. If I ask for tilapia, the butcher will take it out of the tank and kill it — for me. No can do. So, if I can’t handle it at the grocery store, how could I possibly raise these beautiful creatures and harvest (kill) them myself?

You don't have to eat the fish you raise in aquaponics. You can watch them grow and harvest only the plants. Photo: © Reisbegeleider.com - Fotolia.com

Suits has an answer for that, too.

If you just want to look at the fish and use them as waste producers, that’s just as valid and easier because you don’t have to kill them. In that case, koi are ideal.

But for those who do want to raise fish for food, he has some sage advice:

Call them Oreochromis. Avoid names like Bubbles or Franny….

If you grow fish as crops, then you’re an aquaculturist. They are an investment that you expect will pay you back in food, cash or trade in a few months’ time. Do not give them names. It’s easier that way at harvest time.

A Sustainable Solution

Aquaponics can be a profitable hobby, or just a fun new way to grow vegetables and raise fish. But it can also be more than that. Suits proposes aquaponics as a very realistic way to help meet the challenges of world hunger that will face us in the not-too-distant future. With water shortages becoming an increasing problem, a self-contained system that requires the addition of very little water (to compensate for evaporation) will be an important food-production tool.

But we don’t have to wait for the future to come calling. We can use aquaculture effectively to remedy some of society’s ills today.

When the economy goes down, there is opportunity to put people to work in more sustainable ways. Aquaponics can help sustain communities when there are fewer jobs, sustain our spirit when we work together and sustain our health when eating local food.

Suits’ optimism is contagious. I’m already thinking of ways to implement aquaculture in my local community. How about you?

Where to Buy It

The Aquaponics Guidebook by Bevan Suits

The Aquaponics Guidebook is available for purchase on the web for $30 at the time of this writing. Suits is planning additional texts about aquaponics, for those who want to set up more complex systems or to learn more in depth information. For all the rest of us, this book is the place to start. It’s a solid value for the investment, and an essential tool for the novice aquaponics farmer.

As Suits says,

Take what you read online and in this book with a grain of salt. Take some risks and experiment. The best knowledge comes from your own experience and research. Expect some errors. If you are a “by-the-book” perfectionist, aquaponics is probably not for you. (On the other hand, you need to be technically-inclined and disciplined…this is farming, not gardening.)

Update from the Author

1/15/09: Author Bevan Suits sent the following update by email:

Wayne Dorband directs the set up of a large aquaponics project in Colorado. Photo: Bevan Suits

The book is designed to go beyond the typical “how-to” and actually serves as an introductory workshop/reference book, making active use of the internet and putting the reader at the gateway of a worldwide community. Also, those who buy the book are charter subscribers and will have the option of continued access to new material as it comes available.

My new partner and I, Wayne Dorband in Colorado, are going to be putting to use 80,000 square feet of greenhouse, north of Boulder, for the purpose of community aquaponics, and we will be updating everyone as things progress with new material, webinars, new learning. So there are many types of added value in The Aquaponics Guidebook.

Attached is a photo of Wayne in one of the greenhouses. He was able to buy a complete PetSmart aquarium wall, with filtering system, for super cheap, which we’ll be implementing into the greenhouse, so our goals are ambitious.

Discussion is also under way for TV programming called Earth: Agents of Change based in Costa Rica at EARTH University in April, where we would be doing workshops. Wayne, by the way, is a successful entrepreneur with a Ph.D. in aquaculture. — Bevan Suits

The Small Print

DISCLOSURE: Blue Planet Green Living received a free copy of the Aquaponics e-book from the author.

Blue Planet Green Living’s policy is to only review those books we feel merit an overall positive review. If we do not like a book more than we dislike it, we do not review it. We are not influenced by any free copies and provide our honest opinions, both positive and negative.

Julia Wasson

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Backyard Abundance – Reconnecting People to Nature

Backyard Abundance visitors tour Jason Taylor’s yard, which contains a large garden bed of native prairie. Photo: Backyard Abundance

Fred Meyer isn’t a man who lets a problem stop him — not even when the problem covers the entire planet.

“Most everyone feels a desire to improve the health of our environment, but when faced with our monumental environmental problems, the task seems too large — understanding how to proceed can feel overwhelming,” Meyer writes at BackyardAbundance.org.

Because Meyer understood that feeling of powerlessness and frustration, he wanted to do something about it — not only for himself, but to help others as well.

Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL) asked Meyer, a fellow Iowa Citian, to tell us about Backyard Abundance, the nonprofit he modeled on the principles of permaculture. — Julia Wasson, Publisher


MEYER: I started Backyard Abundance because I saw a need in our community for a holistic view of how we could improve the health of our environment. I have always been a big tree hugger. I had been hugging the trees, picking up roadways, planting plants, and doing all that for years — even in high school.

After a while, I had to take a step back and see if what I was doing was actually making a difference. When I did, I saw that the environment was continuing to crumble all around me.

Fred Meyer, founder of Backyard Abundance, speaks to participants at a workshop. Photo: Backyard Abundance

As I researched into this more, I saw millions of people and organizations doing the exact same things that I was doing; but despite how organized and passionate we were, the environment continued to deteriorate. At best, we were slowing the acceleration of our environmental problems. But we certainly were not fixing them or reversing them.

BPGL: That must have been a pretty depressing revelation. Many people might just give up. What was your response?

MEYER: At that point, I became really frustrated. All my efforts didn’t appear to actually be doing anything. So I started talking to a lot of people. I took some classes. I read a ton of books. And I learned that one of the fundamental problems we have — one of the fundamental causes of our environmental problems — is that we are disconnected from the natural world.

If you look at enough books, and read enough articles about this problem, that pattern comes up over and over and over again. We think we’re not a part of nature. We think we’re beside it. We think we’re above it. At best, we think we are stewards of the land.

Because we don’t think we’re a part of it, we don’t think we’re a part of its cycles and its processes. We don’t think we need nature for our survival. And because we don’t think we need it, we tend to abuse it.

BPGL: How did you plan to change people’s thinking on that?

MEYER: The thing that I set about doing is trying to get a better understanding of how I personally could get a better connection to nature — to make myself feel like I’m actually part of the process.

If you ask most people if they’re an animal, they’ll probably respond, “No.” But if we’re not animals, and we’re not plants, what are we?

We are animals. We’re just like any other animal on the planet, but we have special characteristics that other animals don’t.

So I set out to understand how I could feel like I was a more integrated part of nature. I was reading a lot of books, taking a lot of classes, and, at that time, I was really getting into gardening. I ran across a concept called permaculture, which is a contraction of permanent and agriculture; or, sometimes it’s referred to as permanent culture.

BPGL: What is the philosophy behind permaculture?

MEYER: The whole idea of permaculture is to create resilient communities or resilient agriculture that is modeled after healthy ecosystems. And within it, it has several ethics: Care of people. Care of earth. Return the surplus.

Fred Meyer uses a level to find the contour of a hill for a rain garden.

Permaculture has a lot of principles and patterns that are rooted in the natural world. I started applying those principles in my own garden, just experimenting with things in my own backyard. Initially, what I was trying to do was use less water on my garden, because I didn’t want to tap our water sources to water my garden.

And through that, I started learning how to create a mini ecosystem in my backyard that was self-maintaining and provided habitat for local insects and other visiting wildlife, like birds. I love to attract birds. I created this little, resilient ecosystem in my backyard, and I started seeing that I was helping the environment — actually, directly helping it in my backyard.

BPGL: What do you mean, you were “helping the environment”?

MEYER: For example, every drop of water that falls on my property stays on my property. Most of the time, people take the water that falls on their roof, and the first thing they try to do is get it away from the house, get it out on the street as soon as possible. And that causes a lot of problems and flash flooding. That’s why the stream banks of urban streets are so undercut. The water goes up, and then it goes down, and it fluctuates really fast, undercutting the banks.

But, I was able to now hold all of that water on my property.

I did it first by pointing all my gutters into the yard, rather than into the driveway. Next, I put in swales — which are similar to rain gardens — to hold onto that water and allow it to infiltrate into the soil. This improves the health of urban streams, helps clean our groundwater, and waters my garden.

Then, I planted a lot of plants to attract birds and insects, especially bees. I started recognizing that when those insects visited my yard and fed from the nectar or the seeds that I was providing, they didn’t need to go as far to get food for themselves. That created a stronger hive or a stronger flock, and that was helping nature in some small way.

BPGL: So your mini ecosystem helps the larger ecosystem. That makes sense.

MEYER: I recognized that I was helping nature and doing this in my own backyard, and it felt really good — and empowering. I could actually help the environment in my backyard.

Liz Maas teaches people about rain gardens at a Backyard Abundance yard tour. Photo: Backyard Abundance

But the biggest thing it did for me is that I started seeing ways that I could actually improve the health of our environment in much larger ways. The patterns and principles that are rooted in nature and in permaculture scale to just about any size. So, they’ll work in a person’s backyard, but they’ll also scale to an entire park, or an entire neighborhood, or an entire city.

And those principles, because they’ve been tested for billions of years, are pretty rock solid. One of those principles is don’t pollute. Don’t create any waste that is not reused. If we did that as a society, if we composted everything — or made sure that, for everything we created, when its time span ended, it could be fed back into another process — we wouldn’t need landfills anymore.

“The Story of Stuff” is a little 20-minute video that basically shows how our entire economy is geared toward taking natural resources, processing them to create stuff, and sending them straight to the landfill. Our homes are just holding places for the stuff along its journey. Just about 95 percent of everything we create ends up in a landfill. I think, at the Johnson County [Iowa] landfill, half of everything that goes out there can be composted: wood or paper or whatever. If we just did that, it would be a phenomenal improvement. But what we have to learn to do is not allow anything to go to waste and reuse everything.

So that’s just one example of a principle that permaculture promotes. By applying those principles not just in my backyard, but city wide or country wide or community wide, I started to see ways that I could really be effective in my community at helping the environment. And it made me feel really empowered. How often does an environmentalist feel empowered when they’re faced with all these environmental problems?

Our environmental efforts have been so mediocre that we have lowered the bar to the point where we are just happy to do less harm. I learned that every plant and animal on the planet — in some way or another — creates abundance. When we follow those principles, we can go way beyond “sustainability” and create beautiful, resilient, abundant communities.

I was feeling really good, and I wanted to share this with other people. I went around in the community and talked with a lot of environmental groups. I said, “Hey, I’ve got this idea that I think is kind of intriguing.” They helped me refine it, and that’s how Backyard Abundance was born.

BPGL: What does Backyard Abundance do?

MEYER: Backyard Abundance’s mission is to connect people to the natural world by teaching them ecological skills that enable them to create beautiful, resilient communities and landscapes.

It’s not just landscapes we’re creating here, although it’s one of the things permaculture is good at. These patterns and principles apply to communities as well.

Pete Flynn teaches people how to start a new garden bed at a Backyard Abundance workshop. Photo: Backyard Abundance

All these things are modeled after healthy ecosystems. And when we look at a healthy ecosystem, it doesn’t have a landfill sitting off to the side. It doesn’t import chemical fertilizers and pesticides to take care of itself. It doesn’t need to dig up fossil fuels to provide energy for itself.

Someway, somehow, these healthy ecosystems, and these billions of organisms that provide habitat for them, have been doing so for millions of years, all just on the energy of the sun. So when we model our communities and our agricultural practices after those same processes, we will yield the same benefits with much less energy.

BPGL: What types of workshops do you offer?

MEYER: This will be our fifth year. Our mainstay event has been yard tours. We find people in the community who have consciously designed their yards to benefit not only themselves, but the environment. Then we open up that yard to the public for a couple of hours and allow them to funnel through, get ideas, talk with the homeowners. And we typically invite experts to talk about the features of the yard. We usually hold anywhere from four to six yard tours every year. They have been very popular — between 50–100 people show up at each event.

Over the past couple of years, we’ve been gradually moving from this passive education to more direct education — how to actually implement the features that we see in these yards. We held a workshop to show people how to plant a prairie garden and have a patch of water-cleaning, insect-feeding prairie in their yard. We held an event to teach people about rain gardens and rain barrels. We taught people how to easily start a new garden bed. And, just last summer, we showed people how to look at a landscape and figure out how to design it based on their goals and the characteristics of the landscape.

BPGL: What classes do you have coming in the near future?

MEYER: 2010 represents a defining moment in our history. We’re becoming more of an education organization. So we’re going to launch a series of six classes called “Create Abundant Landscapes.” Classes will begin in April and will be held on the weekends. We’ll teach people how to implement really resilient, beautiful landscapes that require very little energy, are self maintaining, and help the environment as well as the people who are managing them.

Molly Martlin teaches people how to design a garden beds to be self-maintaining. Photo: Backyard Abundance

Two things make these classes unique. First, we will be using the people’s personal landscapes as examples throughout all the activities and classes. The classes won’t be abstract. Participants will actually be using their own landscapes so that they will have something to take home and put to use right away.

The other thing that makes it really unique — and this is the thing that excites me the most — is it’s not just about landscaping; it’s about learning about nature and feeling like we’re a beneficial part of the natural world. When we design these landscapes, we design them with that connection in mind.

We are a working, functioning part of the system that we’re designing. We’re not just putting a patio in the backyard or planting a tree.

We’re not creating garden beds that mimic our industrialized agriculture system, which requires massive amounts of physical and fossil fuel energy to maintain it. We’re creating a healthy ecological systems of which we are a functional part. As people go through this process, they’ll start learning that they are a part of the natural world, because they’re designing a landscape that makes them feel connected to nature.

And as I pointed out when I started talking about this, that is one of the fundamental difficulties in solving our environmental problems: We don’t think we’re a part of nature. By showing people that we’re a part of the natural world, we inherently start solving that problem. We not only see that we need healthy ecosystems to survive, but we also see that nature provides solutions to many other problems our culture experiences.

In “Create Abundant Landscapes,” we’ll learn how to work with nature, rather than against it. We’ll learn these patterns and see how to upwardly scale them to create resilient communities that are run off the power of the sun and produce no waste. And we’ll find fulfillment in the beneficial connections we experience with nature and with our community because we will see the beneficial role our landscape and our efforts play in a much larger whole.

BPGL: What other activities do you have planned for your launch?

MEYER: We’re going to launch “Create Abundant Landscapes” in April. We have invited nationally acclaimed ecological designer Dave Jacke, author of Edible Forest Gardens, to give a presentation and a workshop in Iowa City March 12–14.

Jacke’s book contains pretty much everything I’ve been talking about. It’s a how-to manual: how to create resilient communities and landscapes that are modeled off of healthy ecosystems.

Leading up to that, we’re holding a series of events called “The Seeds of Sustainability.” There will be two or three events every month starting next week until the mid March event. Film screenings, presentations, a book reading, a seed swap — it will be a lot of fun.

These events will talk about exactly what we’re doing in the “Create Abundant Landscapes” curriculum. It’s a lead-up to the kick off our classes.

Backyard Abundance screens a film and provides an educational session about choosing environmentally-friendly plants. Photo: Backyard Abundance

BPGL: What do you see as the greatest benefit of the new curriculum?

MEYER: A lot of people feel very helpless, not only in helping our environment, but just improving our culture. We have an economy that doesn’t seem to be working for us, an agriculture that requires tons of energy, a transportation system that pollutes everything, and an environment that is crumbling. People do not feel like they can help any of those problems.

Our classes are focused on showing folks how they can help those larger problems by learning the patterns and principles in nature and by applying them in their own backyards. It’s really about feeling empowered, feeling like we’re a part of our community, a part of something larger than ourselves.

For More Information

The calendar pages on the Backyard Abundance website provide a complete listing of upcoming Backyard Abundance events.

Julia Wasson

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Saving the Wolves, Saving Ourselves

A week ago, I responded to an online appeal from the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) to help save gray wolves from a current threat of removing them from the endangered species list, leaving this seriously threatened species vulnerable to mass killing. Then I perused my contact list and forwarded the appeal to many friends for whom I felt this would be of concern. Shortly thereafter, my inbox produced a brief message from someone near and dear to me: “Sorry, I can’t go there. Due to drought and wildfires, wolves are coming down from the mountains into urban areas and are becoming a threat to children.”

Help the NRDC fight to keep gray wolves like these on the endangered species list.

Kashia is helping the NRDC fight to keep gray wolves like these on the endangered species list. Photo: © Outdoorsman - Fotolia.com

Though not a person prone to depression, the impact of this brief message pulled me into a day of darkness and despair. All day, various thoughts and questions circled through my mind: How have we come to the place where we have to choose between wolves and children? Don’t we realize that saving wolves or the spotted owl or polar bears or rainforests is about saving the ecosystem of the entire planet including the fish and fowl, plants and animals and ourselves in the process? Is it already too late?

When will we humans wake up to the reality that we are not better than — or superior to — the rest of the natural world, but only one part of it? Look where our mistaken belief that we should have “dominion over” everything else in nature has gotten us.

The big talk about reducing carbon emissions by 15% (or whatever) by 2050 (or whenever) is ludicrous; we are on the brink of annihilation NOW. How can it be that we are not clamoring for the speed limits to be reduced? What about the millions of megawatts of electricity that are burned daily (and nightly) for huge displays of advertising, which do nothing but promote our unsustainable lifestyle? Is it possible that we ever managed to live without burying ourselves in plastic? (The same plastic that will literally never disintegrate and is filling our landfills, our landscape, and our oceans.)

The huge laundry list of global environmental problems swam around in my head all that day, pulling me down deeper and deeper with each passing hour. I even wondered at one point whether this deep hopelessness and despair ever happens to other people, or if I am the only one who: a) pays attention; b) cares; c) can’t handle it; d) all of the above.

As someone who has been paying attention to the global environmental crisis for 40 years, I have learned that it isn’t considered cool to be a prophet of doom or a pessimist or a naysayer. I’m told that we have to inspire, rather than scare, people into making lifestyle changes. I can see that. It is more pleasant that way. But I’m not sure it is working.

Even with the best of intentions, habits are hard to change — mine included. We have to want something different more than we want what we are used to and comfortable with. How many times do we need to be faced with this “Inconvenient Truth” before we make radical personal changes and demand the same from our government? While I am thrilled with President Obama’s wise and insistent movement toward sustainable energy development, there are many powerful, self-serving voices saying, “It’s too costly.” I wonder what the price tag is on the Garden of Eden! We have to be willing to examine and eliminate our sense of entitlement – especially in our privileged “First World.” How many worlds do we think there are?

2wolves

Must humans insist on a "them or us" mentality? Photo: © Outdoorsman - Fotolia.com

If everyone changed their light bulbs, used cloth bags rather than plastic, became a vegetarian and ate organic food, drove a smaller car, and recycled responsibly, would we save our planet? Of course, these actions are important; but, no, they will not save our planet. Until we stop the uncontrolled proliferation of our own species (which no one seems to be talking much about), dramatically reduce our personal and collective, unquenchable thirst for energy, alter the ways we acquire it, and stop poisoning ourselves and the earth, we haven’t a prayer.

There it is. I’ve said it. And on that painful day last week, as I was faced with the “them or us” mentality about wolves, I felt deeply hopeless. Sometimes I try to console myself with the knowledge that we can’t destroy the entire creative, evolutionary process, and that several million years without us on our planet will undo and heal what we are destroying. I wonder what kind of world will evolve next time. But for now, at least, life goes on.

The following day, I was less stuck in the despair. As the darkness softened, I could also see how the whole environmental/green movement is mushrooming daily. Many of my friends and acquaintances are becoming green activists. We’re much less likely to be ridiculed as “tree huggers,” now that the evidence is incontrovertible. The despair is always lurking about on the back burner, though. How can any thinking, feeling, conscious person not be holding, somewhere within their hearts and minds, the awful reality of what we are doing to our planet home? Is the problem that there are not yet enough thinking, feeling, conscious people?

Humanity Ascending, by Barbara Hubbard

Humanity Ascending, by Barbara Hubbard

Switch to Monday. I attended a regular meeting of a group of women who have met twice monthly for 18 years to share our lives and plumb our spiritual depths together. This particular evening was transformative for me. We watched Barbara Marx Hubbard, a remarkable thinker, researcher and futurist, as she outlined the cyclic evolutionary history of the earth, and described our current evolutionary leap in an extraordinary DVD entitled Humanity Ascending.

I will watch it again, or better yet, I will buy it and share it with others. You can see it online for less than the price of a movie, or purchase it from Hubbard’s website, where you can also look around at her other activities and projects.

There is no possible way to describe the scientific, philosophical, and spiritual magnificence of this work, but I shall try to present at least a glimpse. From the Big Bang to the present moment, creation has evolved through numerous evolutionary cycles. In each, there was some gigantic stimulus — most often a crisis of survival — which catapulted life into the next developmental stage. We are shown that life emerged and developed from the chaos that preceded it into a new, “higher” form. Through it all, there is a constant thread of Universal Creative Consciousness (call it whatever you like), that is palpably present throughout. We are normally only capable or willing to see snapshots of this moment in time, but Hubbard gives us an extraordinary overview of this cyclical path with a clarity and calm bordering on optimistic joy. Imagine tapping into optimistic joy at this juncture!

Thirty years ago, I heard Barbara Marx Hubbard speak about paradigm shifts and how the old paradigm has to go through a process of disintegration, chaos and collapse before it reorganizes and reemerges as something better – the ancient metaphor of the phoenix rising from the ashes. Her message today is fundamentally the same, but beautifully expressed, both visually and verbally, as the cyclic evolution of creation and consciousness. Hubbard is gloriously hopeful in her observation that the development of higher human consciousness is both the impetus of our current evolutionary leap and its outcome.

The writer at Stonehenge. Photo: John Barr

The writer at Stonehenge. Photo: John Barr

The tragedy of the human condition at this moment in history is that we find ourselves on the confusing and chaotic brink of self-created annihilation. The good news is that what we have created and what we are going through are very possibly the annihilation of a way of living which must collapse before we can emerge as fuller, more conscious, more whole — or in Hubbard’s terminology — more “Universal Humans.” Whether we make it or not is up to us.

Miriam Kashia

International Editor

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Namibian Research Project Leads to Unforgettable Adventure

Washed out roads and flash floods challenged Kieckenbush and colleagues.

Washed out roads and flash floods challenge Kiekebush and colleagues. Photo: Elsita Kiekebusch

When Elsita Kiekebusch agreed to conduct an environmental awareness campaign for Integrated Environmental Consultants Namibia (IECN), she expected to face challenges. After all, the Namibian landscape can be harsh and inhospitable at times, and she would be driving across some of the most remote and desolate areas of the nation. While the results of her survey proved unspectacular, the journey itself contained surprises that made it an unforgettable adventure.

Miriam Kashia, international editor for Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL), interviewed Kiekenbusch by email to find out about both her experiences and the work that sent the young woman on her remarkable journey.


BPGL: What type of work have you been doing for IECN?

KIEKENBUSCH: I’ve been focused on a coastal awareness campaign along the Atlantic coast of Namibia. My co-workers and I have interviewed approximately 250 local citizens and members of affiliated institutions — such as the provincial Councils and environmental Conservancies — to assess the impact of the campaign since its commencement a year and a half ago.

As the entire western border of Namibia is the ocean, you can imagine the incredible distances that we had to cover in order to carry out the survey. In one week, we went south to the small German-style port of Lüderitz, stopping at various sites along the way for the interviews. Then last week, we headed out into the unbelievably remote Kunene Region with the IECN land cruiser packed full with jerry cans, food, camping equipment, 2 spare tires, a toolbox and more.

BPGL: I understand you had quite an adventure. What are some of the more memorable experiences you had along the way?

With the Jeep's battery dead, Kiekebusch is stranded — but cheerful.

With the Land Cruiser's battery dead, Kiekebusch is stranded — but cheerful.

KIEKEBUSCH: We experienced bad roads like never before. At times sandy; at times stony; at times wet, steep, and muddy. It seemed like our car had seen it all, when we drove straight down a dry riverbed composed solely of boulders. We had to race to catch up with our translator-guide, who enjoyed driving his Government-owned truck as fast as he possibly could. (I’m talking 75 mph on gravel roads!) And this was just the first day.

That night found us camped next to the beautiful Hoanib riverbed. We were up late, because we had decided to blend in with local culture and slaughter a goat for dinner. By dinner, I mean that we ate the meat for the next three days straight. We were unable to buy purified water anywhere, but beer was available everywhere, so we drank that for three days straight, too.

The food and drink put us in high spirits even after we discovered that our car battery had died when we left the lights on in the dark, and we had no jumper cables. The next morning, we found ourselves stranded in practically every way you can think of.

Our translator-guide had awakened early in the morning. He drove across the riverbed, and went to the nearest small settlement, Purros, to find jumper cables. When he didn’t return, we suspected the worst — if he wasn’t dead or maimed, then we figured he was drunk and gone forever.

Water rages across

Water rages across a road in the Kunene Region, near Bergsig in Torra Conservancy. Photo: Elsita Kiekebusch

But soon we realized that the dry river to Purros had flooded overnight, so our translator-guide couldn’t have returned even if he wanted to. It was the flash-flood season in Namibia — a country with no permanent rivers within its borders — so in the rainy season, dry riverbeds in the desert can suddenly fill with water from rainfall miles away.

Certainly, the Hoanib was no calm stream that morning! It had become a raging torrent about 100 feet across, with rapids, rocks, unreliable sandbars — altogether impassable by any sort of vehicle.

So that was how we found ourselves trapped on the wrong side of the river from where we had to go next. Our car battery was dead, the petrol (gas) was low. There was no cell phone service. And we had no food, as our goat-meat and pots were in the back of the truck that our guide drove — and he had gone AWOL.

Somehow, we made it out of there. With the help of some tourists, who were also stranded at the campsite, we jump-started our car. A nice British lady fed us breakfast and directed us to a nearby lodge where we could buy petrol. And then there was nothing to do but wait for the water level to drop.

Around 3 p.m., we heard honking across the river and looked up to see our guide on the other side. He gestured wildly, and somehow managed to communicate to us that we should go to another spot further downriver. We felt we had no choice but to attempt the crossing before any new afternoon rains could catch up with us.

We put the Land Cruiser into 4-wheel drive and ventured forward. The roar of the engine clashed with the sound of rushing water, as she swayed perilously from side to side. Somehow she finally made it across, and we were able to continue on our way towards the coast.

Dunes in Namibia make travel difficult and treacherous. Photo: Miriam Kashia

Beautiful wind-sculpted dunes in the Namib Desert of Western Namibia. Photo: Miriam Kashia

I’m pleased to report that we ultimately survived the trip. We had a nice few days at Swakopmund on the coast, and we’re now back in Windhoek, where I’m writing up a final report.

BPGL: You mentioned that you work for IECN. Tell me about what they do.

KIEKEBUSCH: Integrated Environmental Consultants Namibia (IECN) is a private consulting company in the environmental field. It focuses on capacity building and sustainable development, basically applying the science to environmental issues. They do multiple consultancies (short-term projects) for many organizations, including the UN, Ministry of Environment and Tourism, the Namibia Polytechnic, and University of Namibia.

This consultancy — the one for which we did the project — was for the Namibian Coastal Management Project (NACOMA), which was developed by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism. NACOMA’s main goal with this research consultancy is to develop a legal framework by writing a white paper for the sustainable management of all of Namibia’s coast. The project has been ongoing for five years.

NACOMA wanted to have civilian input during the process, so they also began a coastal awareness campaign in 2007. They worked in four coastal regions of Namibia (Kunene, Hardap, Erongo, Karas).

The group distributed informational pamphlets, produced educational materials, worked with schools and youth groups, produced various media communications — newspaper articles, went on radio talk shows, television interviews, etc., about the white paper development process. They also addressed general issues of concern, such as quad-biking, which is a serious threat along the fragile coastal environment.

BPGL: What is particularly special about this coastal region?

A view of the Namibian desert. Photo: Miriam Kashia

The Namib Desert has biodiversity not found anywhere else on Earth. Photo: Miriam Kashia

KIEKEBUSCH: The harsh Namib desert all along the coast is where the cold, wet air from the South Atlantic polar currents meet the hot and extremely dry air of the desert.  That confluence has resulted in a unique ecology and biodiversity not found anywhere else on Earth.

The Namibian coast contains many different types of natural resources. They need to be used wisely and in a way that one type of resource does not damage another. We need to plan how to use resources and protect them at the same time.

BPGL: Aren’t there laws that protect the area?

KIEKEBUSCH: While Namibia has a comprehensive draft set of environmental laws applicable to the entire country, there is no specific coastal legislation or national coastal area policy. Laws dealing with coastal management issues are currently outdated and totally inadequate. They’re also reactive, rather than proactive, in achieving integrated coastal area management objectives that meet our current ecological, economic and social needs.

BPGL: What are some of the threats to the ecological integrity of the Namibian coast?

KIEKEBUSCH: The Namibian coast is sparsely populated, so overpopulation isn’t the primary environmental threat. The significant threats to this fragile area come from several sources:

  • Uncontrolled activities in protected areas, such as mining, tourism, off-road driving, and recreational fishing
  • Land reclamation for urban and commercial development
  • Marine pollution from the fishing industry, mining, oil and gas extraction, and harbor activities
  • Overfishing and over-harvesting
  • Introduction of invasive alien species through mariculture development
  • Excessive water exploitation for mining and consumption
  • Environmental variability and global climate change
Namibia's coastal region is a sensitive ecosystem. Photo: Elsita Kieckebusch

Namibia's coastal region is a sensitive ecosystem. Photo: Elsita Kieckebusch

These activities have a cumulative impact on the coastal environment, causing steady degradation and threatening not only the environment, but the economy and health of all Namibians as well.

BPGL: What did you discover with your research survey about the environmental impact of the coastal awareness campaign in Namibia?

KIEKEBUSCH: We traveled to the four coastal regions of Namibia and interviewed members of the public and members of related institutions (Ministry of Fisheries, Regional and Town Councils, etc.). Our survey tested knowledge of coastal issues and knowledge of NACOMA and its goals.

We traveled as far as Lüderitz, Opuwo, Terrace Bay (Skeleton Coast Park) and, of course, Swakopmund and Walvis Bay. The results weren’t amazing. Our main conclusion was that NACOMA had spread itself too thin during the awareness-raising process, so we recommended that they target certain interest groups more than in the past. We also recommended that they stay away from the more inland areas. People in these areas were less informed and had less of an interest, because they don’t live near the coast anyway.

BPGL: To what degree has the campaign succeeded in its goals so far?

KIEKEBUSCH: We saw increases in environmental awareness in some areas. We also saw a large increase in the usage of the website, which was another thing we were evaluating. That was a good sign. NACOMA certainly completed many different communication activities that they intended to, and I think they got a lot of public interest in the white paper process. People came to the discussions to give input. Involving various shareholders in this process is a key to its success.

BPGL: I understand that Namibia is the only country in the world that has environmental protection written into its constitution.

KIEKEBUSCH: Yes, Namibia is one of the only countries that has a phrase in the constitution something along the lines of “every citizen has the right to a healthy and clean environment.”

This coastal management process is certainly something that should be commended — in fact, the whole of the Namibian coast at the moment is being considered to become a national park. It’s hard to provide environmental protection for a large and diverse area of land such as Namibia, particularly with limited resources and staff.

Tourists climb a giant dune in the Namibian desert. Photo: Miriam Kashia

Tourists climb a giant dune in the Namib Desert, the largest dunes in the world in the oldest desert in the world Photo: Miriam Kashia

One of the biggest problems faced along the coast — our area of concentration for this study — is the destruction left by holiday-makers during the Christmas/New Years holidays. People have been leaving trash and driving around the desert in off-road vehicles, which is very damaging to the environment. 2007 was a particularly bad year, but serious measures were taken to control that destruction in 2008, and it seems that they were successful in limiting the damage.

BPGL: Earlier, you mentioned “quad-biking,” and now you’ve just mentioned the use of off-road vehicles. How are quad-biking and off-road vehicles threatening the coastal environment?

KIEKEBUSCH: Quad-bikes are also called ATVs (all-terrain vehicles). Imagine a motorcycle with four wheels. A big problem is holidaymakers (mostly from South Africa) coming up to Namibia in December to do a lot of off-road driving in the dunes and gravel plains of the desert. These are very vulnerable areas. Track marks disrupt the soil micro-environment and leave scars on the land that take many years to go away. They also run over small animals and bird eggs along the way.

BPGL: Now that the research project is finished, what’s the next likely step in your career?

KIEKEBUSCH: Actually, I have a new job. I recently joined the staff of the Gobabeb Research and Training Centre in the Namib Desert. The centre is basically a research station/environmental education institution. My project, in association with NASA (the US National Aeronautics and Space Agency), is a study of bacteria capable of living underneath rocks in extremely arid conditions. We are hoping to inform the search for life on Mars.

Miriam Kashia

International Editor

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

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Green Living — A Beginner’s Guide

If you’re just beginning your green journey, it may seem like there’s so much to catch up on: organic food, holistic medicine, natural fibers, hybrid vehicles, and so much more. In general, green living is about making changes to reduce the amounts of natural resources we humans use (and, more importantly, waste), and to becoming a caretaker of our remaining natural resources. It’s about working toward sustainability for our society and our planet.

Watere

Individual Americans use 100 to 176 gallons of water at home each day. Photo: © Ieva Geneviciene - Fotolia.com

Historically, industrialized societies have acted as if resources and land were infinite — and burned through them with that mindset. We Americans use a relatively large amount of resources — much more than our fair share. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, “The average African family uses about 5 gallons of water each day, while the average American individual uses 100 to 176 gallons of water at home each day.”

The following statistics from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and James Madison University provide a startling picture of Americans’ waste habits and the powerful effects of recycling:

  • The average American family produces 100 pounds of trash per week, that’s 3 pounds of waste per person per day.
  • More than 1 billion trees are used each year to make disposable diapers.
  • Americans throw away about 10% of the food we buy at the supermarket. This results in dumping the equivalent of more than 21 million shopping bags full of food into landfills every year.
  • In a lifetime, the average American will throw away 600 times their adult weight in garbage. This means that a 150-pound adult will leave a legacy of 90,000 pounds of trash for their children.
  • The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries estimates that more than 200 million trees are saved each year due to current recycling efforts.

1 ton of paper made from 100% recycled stock saves:

  • 7,000 gallons of water (recycled paper uses 35% less water)
  • 60 lbs. of air pollution effluent (recycled paper creates 74% less pollution)
  • 4,000 kWh of energy
  • 17 trees
  • 3 cubic yards of landfill space
  • $35 per ton of waste disposal fees

Avoid the Hype

As businesses realize there’s money to be saved by “going green,” they also realize there’s much money to be made by selling the green movement in a consumerist fashion. For example, I witnessed earlier this year many businesses giving away or selling so-called reusable shopping bags to customers. These polypropylene bags were hardly thicker than a plastic shopping bag and lasted about as long. That’s not helping anything but a company image. We have to get real — and that means distinguishing what’s really helping from what’s hype, and then making real changes.

Let’s keep this process focused on what it’s about: love for the Earth, respect for Earth’s resources, and keeping ecosystems functioning and abundant for Earth’s creatures and the generations to come.

Plant a Tree

Planting trees is one of the most impactful actions we can take to help restore balance to the Earth. Trees are incredible — sucking up carbon gases like gigantic sponges, creating habitats for innumerable creatures, purifying the air and water, building soil by the ton, feeding us with fruits and nuts, sheltering us from wind and sun, creating rainfall through transpiration, giving us timber and fiber to build our homes, heat them and make other products. They hold the soil together with mazes of roots, preventing it from washing away in rains. Our very lives and the life of the planet depend on trees.

Here are some tips to get you started with tree planting:

  • Go Native. Native trees have evolved for millennia to be perfectly adapted to your area — withstanding bugs, drought, storms, and snow with ease. Trees also fit into the ecosystem with other native creatures, giving them shelter and food. I’ve noticed after large storms that nonnative trees are damaged much more severely than native varieties. Depending on your location, the native trees vary widely. In much of the US, oak trees, maples, birch, elm, hemlock, redwoods, red bud, poplars, walnuts, and chestnuts are all fine choices. A bit of quick research will tell you which trees are native to your area.
  • Consider Fruit Trees. You can grow the best fruit you’ve ever tasted in your own backyard. Get trees from a local, reputable nursery that specializes in fruit trees. In temperate regions, such as the Midwest, you can grow native varieties of apples, plums, cherry, peaches, paw paw, pears, grapes, persimmon, walnuts, or mulberry. In warmer climates, go for avocado, citrus, carob, olive, pomegranate, almonds, pecans and dates. In tropical regions, choose coconut, cherimoya, guava, mango, soursop, bananas, rambutan, lychee, breadfruit and macadamia. Dwarf trees are genetically very small and can fit in nearly any back yard to produce bountiful fruit. Get healthy, medium-sized trees and follow growing directions found online or at the nursery. Nut trees are an excellent choice too, grow very big, and produce prodigious crops.

Buy Local Food

With peak oil looming around the corner, and the multinational corporation-based food system in serious question, supporting local farmers and food systems is critically important. Most supermarket fare is trucked in from across the US or around the globe, traveling thousands of miles in refrigerated trucks, to the great expense of petroleum and food quality. Without new technologies, it is an unsustainable system.  And because food shipped long distances must be picked before it’s fully ripe, it often lacks the full flavor of its locally harvested counterparts. Fresh food tastes wonderful, and local food is thousands of miles fresher than food that travels long distances.

So what counts as local?  Some definitions of “local” recommend staying within a hundred mile radius, and this is sensible.

Support local farmers by purchasing food at farmers' markets.

Support local farmers by shopping at farmers' markets. Photo: © Average American - Fotolia.com

You can support hardworking local farmers in many ways. Farmers’ markets are a great option. They’re now popular throughout the US, and some are open throughout the year. Many health food stores sell delicious local produce. Online, you can find sources for local u-pick farms, specialty foods, meat and dairy products, honey, and other items. Every time I go food shopping, I buy local food. It’s the first step to reweaving the local food web. If the farmers stay farming, we stay fed. Try it — you’ll love the fresher, tastier, more distinct, and much more nutritious food.

Reduce Waste

Reducing waste isn’t just about recycling more and throwing away less. It’s also about the amount of disposable things you buy and use. This includes items such as shopping bags, plastic bottles, disposable razors, diapers, and cheap goods that will likely break soon.

Buy or make a sturdy, long-lasting shopping bag, or use a backpack when you go shopping. Obtain a quality metal or glass water bottle, and fill it with filtered tap water, instead of using imported, bottled water. Choose organic-cotton, cloth diapers to use at least part of the time, to help reduce waste from disposables. Always buy the best-quality goods that you can afford, and avoid flimsy, plastic goods that will soon be in the trash. In the long run, you’ll save money, while providing a better quality of life for yourself and your family.

Recycle

Recycling reduces the waste sent to landiflls.

Recycling reduces the waste sent to landfills. Photo: © Joy Fera - Fotolia.com

Recycling is an absolute necessity. We all produce trash, and most of it is recyclable and valuable when reincarnated into a myriad of other items. If you don’t already recycle, it’s a very important step toward green living. If your local trash company does not provide recycling services, request them. Recycling is easy and fun, and brings about a sense of responsibility and accountability for what we use and where it ends up.

Compost

Hundreds of tons of biodegradable kitchen waste get lost in landfills every year. Consider starting a compost pile in your yard. Then you’ll have plenty of excellent fertilizer for the fruit tree you just planted. There are many resources online and in your local library on how to start a healthy, productive compost pile.

Make a Commitment

Going green is a process and a commitment. It’s a commitment to living healthier and more in harmony with our Mother Earth. But don’t expect to achieve a green lifestyle overnight. As philosopher Lao-Tzu wrote in the sixth century B.C.E., “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” So take one step at a time, if that’s all you can do. But begin your journey to green living today. It’s not that hard to do, and every bit you do makes a difference. So what are you waiting for?

Blake Cothron

Contributing Writer

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)_

Nell Newman: “Late Bloomer” to Organic Ecopreneur

By anyone’s reckoning, Nell Newman is a successful ecopreneur. She heads Newman’s Own Organics: The Second Generation, her original spin-off from her father’s Newman’s Own brand. In Part 1 of our interview, Newman told about the life experiences that fostered her dedication to environmentalism and sustainability. In Part 2, she speaks about her nontraditional educational path, her work on environmental projects, and the business of organic food production. We invite you to get to know more about this remarkable human ecologist and wonderfully human being.

BPGL: How did you decide to become a human ecologist?

NEWMAN: I was a high school dropout. Mom and Dad went cross-country a lot, and I went to so many schools. By the time I was about fifteen, I was so far behind (everybody let me slide; it was terrible) that I finally just got frustrated and quit. Then I worked at a peregrine release site.

Nell Newman, co-founder of Newman's Own Organics

Nell Newman, co-founder of Newman's Own Organics

I finally started trying to find someplace to go back to school when I was about 19. I took courses at University of Bridgeport, Sacred Heart University, Fairfield University. I really didn’t like any of them. Mainly, I didn’t like the teachers. I had one wonderful teacher at Bridgeport University, who was probably in his late 70s, maybe even early 80s. He invented the electric blanket. He taught a beginning chemistry course, Chemistry and You or Chemistry and the Environment. I think his name was Dr. Greenhalls. He was a fantastic professor.

It’s just interesting, when you’re trying to find someplace. You go to different schools. And they have great reputations. But their beginning biology teacher just graduated, and they’re boring. I was very disillusioned. I would sleep through the lectures. And I thought, What’s wrong with me? This is the thing I found so fascinating when I was a kid! Then I realized it wasn’t me. I had a lame professor. She was new, and she was really boring.

Finally, I discovered College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine. I went back to college when I was 25 and graduated from there. I was a late bloomer.

BPGL: Did you get a GED?

NEWMAN: I got three-quarters of a GED. Somebody asked me, “Where’d you graduate high school?” But I couldn’t lie. When I was at College of the Atlantic, the teacher-student ratio was very high. It was the perfect place for me, because I could get all of the help I needed to catch up and be a functioning student after being out of school for so long. I had wonderful teachers, and that’s really what kept me going — having the attention that I needed when I finally went back to school. It was unintimidating, because it was small. And their only degree was human ecology.

BPGL: So, what is human ecology?

NEWMAN: It basically means that whatever area of interest you’re looking at — architecture, etc. — that you’re looking at the environmental and human effect as seen through the eyes of … an architect, for example. It takes into account, How is what you’re doing affecting the environment, if you’re an architect? Even then, when I was there, it was loosely defined. I basically focused on anatomy and biology.

BPGL: What was your next stop?

NEWMAN: When I graduated and got a degree, I worked at the Environmental Defense Environmental Defense Fund. I went from Maine to Connecticut, then moved to New York. That lasted about a year. I loved my job, but couldn’t handle the city. I tried commuting, and then I tried living in New York. I loved working for the Environmental Defense Fund. I put together the database for their recycling campaign, all the recyclers in 50 states — which, 15 years ago, was not a lot; and in some states there were none. But New York City was just too much for me. I moved there for February, March, April — but being surrounded by cement and trying to do that rat race of the commute was too much culture shock.

BPGL: What did you do when you went to California?

NEWMAN: When I moved out here, I got a job working for the Ventana Wilderness Sanctuary, which was in the process of trying to re-establish a population of bald eagles on the central coast of California, where they once had been. I worked at a release site for young bald eagles up in the Big Sur forest. It’s what they call a hack site. That’s an old falconry technique for releasing young birds.

We would go collect them from Vancouver Island, bring them back over. We’d put them in the box to be acclimated. They could see outside and see where they were and get acclimated to their new area. Then, when they were able to fly, we’d release them and track them until they were able to feed on their own.

Nell Newman inspects a Newman's Own Organics supplier's crop.

BPGL: Was it a successful venture?

NEWMAN: It was, except they didn’t nest in that area as much as we would have liked, because there are not as many dead whales or seals on the beaches anymore. A lot of the traditional food sources are dragged away. I think it’s probably one of the difficulties in that area. And probably they were also feeding on salmon, and there were fewer salmon areas up and down the coast. I think it was mainly a limit of food source.

They ended up going inland to Lake Nacimiento and feeding on the fish that were in that lake, because there wasn’t enough of a food source out in the ocean. The road kill would probably have been good, but [highway workers] tend to pick them up. They don’t leave them now for birds of prey to eat.

The birds are still around, but they didn’t end up utilizing the coast the way we wanted them to. Now they’ve been doing condor releases there, but I think last year, the hack site burned up in the fire. I was just down there, and you can see the fire came right down to Route 1.

BPGL: So now you’re in another kind of environmental work, making and selling organic food products. One of the quotes attributed to you is, “My niche will be to support the growth of organic agriculture.” Besides selling your products, is there anything else you’re doing to promote organic agriculture?

NEWMAN: What I meant by that quote is by utilizing certified organic ingredients, we were supporting the growth of sustainable agriculture. By utilizing these ingredients, we’re growing the percentage of organic agriculture in the United States today, which is unbelievably small when you look at the big numbers.

BPGL: Tell us a little bit about your certification process. Why did you choose Oregon Tilth as the certifying agency?

NEWMAN: When we started, it was under the Organic Food Act of 1990. We came in before any standards were actually implemented, but they had been passed. The reason we picked Oregon Tilth is they were the only independent, third-party certification agency that would certify a processing plant. Everybody else was just concerned with farm processing. Now, of course, it’s standard procedure.

I went with Steve Harper, who was the certifier, when they certified the pretzel plant that was making our pretzels for us. I just wanted to learn what things they’re looking for. What they’re really looking for is maintaining the integrity of your organic ingredients, that there isn’t any opportunity for cross-contamination in the factory, or confusing bags. They have to be stored separately, they have to be labeled as such. There has to be a complete clean-down before anything’s run through the machinery, and there’s very careful tracking from the farm all the way through the process. So that’s what they do in a plant certification.

That’s pretty much standard practice now. It’s certainly growing pains in terms of the growth of the industry and the government regulating it.

BPGL: So the farm must be certified organic, and the processing plant must be certified organic. What else?

NEWMAN: The main point is that you’re maintaining your organic integrity the whole way through the process. Every step of the way, there’s a certification process. The farmer’s certified, the transportation is certified, the processing of the grain is certified. There is a tremendous amount of integrity all the way through the process of manufacturing an organic food product.

The trucks have to be cleaned out before grain is put in them. They have to think about the processing of the grain before it gets to the plant. They really do go to a lot of effort trying to maintain the integrity of that product as it goes through the process.

Newman preparing organic vegetables at home.

Newman preparing organic vegetables at home

BPGL: How big a staff do you have? If you can’t trust regulation, somebody has to be involved in product guidance.

NEWMAN: We have a food technologist, who travels to all the plants. She checks on all of that at each plant. She goes there for the runs of products so that she gets to see. She gets products sent to her house from every run and has to go through it and check, and make sure it’s the same size and same color for things that she’s keeping an eye on. There’s somebody in the office that does tracking of ingredients, etc. But you really do depend on collecting your paperwork from Oregon Tilth, because that’s why they’re the independent third party. Our food technologist does the review of products.

BPGL: I wanted to ask you about the cacao used to make your chocolate products. You’re quoted as saying that it’s grown in an ancient way.

NEWMAN: If I’m not mistaken, all organic cacao is shade grown. The way it grows now is the way it’s always grown, which is in the jungle. Because it’s shade grown, it preserves the forests. That allows migrant species of birds to continue to exist there and works within the natural ecosystem.

We just reformulated chocolate. It’s such a difficult thing to make, and you’re so dependent on who’s making it and the quality of your manufacturer as well as your beans. There are so many elements. This new chocolate’s really lovely.

BPGL: We tasted the caramel chocolates, and they were delicious.

NEWMAN: Those are the kinds of things I don’t keep around. Actually, my new favorite, which I don’t keep around either, is the peanut butter sandwich creams. I had one bag in the house, and I was taking it apart and double sandwiching them. And I said, “I can’t even have these in the house!” There’s not a lot of things I can’t have around, but that was one of them. [Laughs.]

Part 1: Fishing with Nell

Part 2: Nell Newman: “Late Bloomer” to Organic Ecopreneur (Top of Page)

My 5: Nell Newman, Newman’s Own Organics

Joe Hennager

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)