Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Learning to Brew Through Saint Louis University

This past Fall semester I took "Agroforestry I: Theory, Practice and Adoption" at the graduate level through the University of Missouri. Although I did this as a non-degree student, it is my intention next year to return an actually enroll in either the Master of Science or Graduate Certificate program in agroforestry. This year (2022), I'm learning to brew.

Saint Louis University offers a certificate program called "Brewing Science and Operations" that runs from January through December every year. People who take it are a mix of complete novices like myself, homebrewers looking to get better, and people actively working in or intending to break into the beer industry. For me, it's a matter of building a solid skill set for the future. The details of what I'm working towards, however, I'll save for later posts. 

For now, enjoy this intro to the brewing program I'm attending.

Sunday, January 16, 2022

The Three Conditions of the Secret of Life


As I currently see it, there are three fundamental conditions to unlock the secret of life. Not the meaning of life, mind you. I believe that we make our own meaning for our lives, or else borrow it from something pre-established, like a formal religious belief. This goes beyond meaning to what makes a life satisfying, whatever the conditions. It doesn’t deny or neglect the reality of psychological pathologies, but rather considers them part of the human condition to be managed through the course of life.

These three conditions are as follows:
  • Work at getting really good at something.
  • Be part of something bigger than yourself.
  • Matter to people you care about.
There was a time in my life that lasted far longer than I care to admit that would have denied these conditions, at least in part or with modification. To me, none of it mattered if there wasn’t some ‘ultimate purpose.’ It wasn’t enough for me if the end result was a life well-lived, or even a world left a little bit better. Once you’re dead, that’s it for you and the world moves on, eventually forgetting about you. Even if you’re remembered, that does nothing for you personally, as a dead person.

And so, I sought solace in religion, finding it for a good while within Christianity. I figured that if I devoted my life and everything I did to God in Christ, then it didn’t matter whether I was remembered by anyone but God. This eventually broke down when I couldn’t hold together the core commitment to theism due to cognitive dissonance. Frankly, I had come to know too much.

The three conditions I listed are not new. Psychologists, philosophers, and theologians have been discussing them and other, similar ideas for many centuries. And yet, for me, they seem pretty powerful, likely because viewed in this way, they contradict some of my core prejudices.

Growing up, I observed that generations had come and gone in the place where I lived. In the depression I experienced from my adolescence onward, I interpreted the pattern of growing up, going to school, getting married, and working until at least retirement before dying as utterly futile. I had a classmates in high school who strove to achieve the honor role and who immersed themselves in ‘extracurriculars.’ This was all senseless to me, because it would only lead to college, work, marriage, and death.

Here’s the thing: with my faith, I went on to go to college, get married, and work. Death will come soon enough. I’ve raised children and changed careers along the way. I’ve experienced betrayal a few times before the one closest to my heart, which ended my marriage. Life has happened, whether I wanted it to or not. And, of course, I’ve come to understand that there is no known life beyond this one, and that if there is any omnipotent God, that God is not benevolent. I’ve set aside such supernatural beliefs in favor of beginning and ending with informed, empathetic reason.

So, instead of fighting against the pattern of life, I think it better to approach it with the three conditions in mind. They really aren’t in any particular order, but I’ll go through each one as listed below.

First, work at being really good at something. There’s nothing like watching a master at work. I’ve watched a woodworker make sculptures that didn’t seem possible. My late father planted gardens that flourished and produced more than we could eat as a family, so that we gave away produce to friends. In Brazil I saw people playing soccer with grace and ease that could only come through devotion to the game and a great deal of practice. When I first started learning Portuguese in 1997, while in Brazil, I couldn’t see the day in 2012 I would be interpreting for American religious scholars at a conference in that country. It started small, with flash cards, a dictionary, and many halting conversations, but with time came fluency.

We can be good at more than one thing. I don’t accept the ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ cliche. A person can develop admirably in more than one area. Sometimes, it’s not even about the individual areas of expertise, so that even if someone doesn’t have mastery in any one area, the sum of their skillset is something greater that focus would have provided for them. It is important though, I believe, to try to find some harmony or sense in the skills that one develops, so that they can be put into practice usefully.

Whether in a single concentration or a broader selection of skills, doing what one knows well is deeply rewarding. It’s possible to ‘enter the zone’ while at work, losing track of time and all else. This is a profound and, I find, satisfying feeling. Further, there’s that incidental ego boost when someone else notices your skill. While this isn’t about doing something to draw attention, but rather satisfying oneself, the admiration of others can be a rich part of the human experience, making what we do seem all the more meaningful.

Second, be part of something bigger than yourself. It can be a cause, a religion, an industry, a political ideology, or any number of other possibilities. Betty White, who passed away not long ago as I write this, had her cause in animal rights and protection, but also referred frequently to her joy at being in ‘show biz.’ She felt part of things bigger than herself, while also demonstrating the first condition above, that of being really good at something. More negatively, QAnon believers find their part in a movement that deals in misinformation and delusion. Being with others of similar fears and hatreds, even if mostly or only online, gives them a sense that they are involved in something that transcends themselves.

This isn’t always about something grand and showy. A person who runs a shop in a small town, participating in local events and organizations, will find that role in something greater in precisely the circles of community in which they find themselves. My late grandfather McAnulty was quite a socializer, very active in his local Methodist church, and known for his skill as an auto mechanic (again, we see the first condition with the second). That had to be satisfying for him.

Third, matter to people you are about. Note that this is not about fame. That’s already been covered, in that well-earned admiration from others can be a joyful, life-affirming experience. No, this is about having people in your life who would miss you if you were gone. Friends who want to see you, family who wants to spend time with you. These are the ones with whom you have been yourself, and have had that self embraced by them. When my aforementioned grandfather passed away, the funeral home was full to overflowing. That wasn’t mere fame. Many people loved him, and no one better than his family.

This might seem a condition beyond one’s control, and sometimes it will be. Someone who is lonely right now might find that unfair, and I’m sorry for that. Why is there loneliness? In my teens it was depression and anxiety that kept me from connecting with others, as well as the practical limitation of living out in the country before I had a driver license. I had no one I wanted to see specifically, and no easy way to go see them if I’d wanted to do so. In none of that I had blame, but I would have had my circumstances changed but I’d remained lonely. Instead, first a driver license, then church, then college and beyond opened up a world of worthwhile relationships to me. Now, there are people who matter to me, and for whom I am an important person in their lives. It’s no concern if it’s 5 or 25 people. The fact that I had any number of people in my life with whom this affection is shared is what matters.

This all calls us not to give up. We should keep developing our skills, in whatever we enjoy. We should look for what we each find to be a noble cause, and join others in moving it forward. We should show genuine love, patience, and forgiveness in our relationships so that we can enjoy the same in return. At times life will give us setbacks. No one lives long without experiencing some hardship and loss. Still, we keep going, and with these three conditions being met as much as possible, we can uncover the secret of life.

Friday, January 14, 2022

A Quick Intro to Hops

Photo by Logan Jackson (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Did you know that the hops plant is in the hemp family (Cannabaceae)? I had no idea until I started
learning more about how beer is made. Maybe you don't know anything at all about hops, so hopefully this post can serve as a quick intro.

The hops plant has a scientific name that sounds quirky: Humulus lupulus. The actual 'hops' are the cone-like strobiles that form on female hop vines. That's right, H. lupulus has male and female. In reality, they aren't even really vines, as that term refers to plants that send out tendrils to latch on to objects, while bines encircle vertical objects. In common parlance they're often called vines anyway, so I'll stick with that for the remainder of this post.

These plants are typically grown commercially from rhizomes, which are pieces of roots taken from a fully mature hop plant. They are pretty energetic, as under the right conditions they can grow a foot a day. The preferred conditions include at least 15 hours of daylight, and while they do best in dry conditions, that requires a lot of water. Unfortunately they are susceptible to a number of fungal infections, diseases, and pests. In the United States there is a concentration of hop farming in the northwestern part of the country, but they can grow virtually anywhere between 33 and 35 degrees latitude. 

Prior to the advent of hops in brewing a mix of spices were used to add flavor and attempt to cover up defects from brewing or spoilage. Hops were used at times as a bittering agent, and at some point hundreds of years ago someone noticed that beer brewed with hops kept longer. What they didn't understand but were able to make use of anyway was that hops inhibits the growth of bacteria in beer, which helps stabilize it for shipping and storage. 

Hops are added during the brewing stage of beer, and different varieties are known to offer distinct flavor profiles. This aroma and bitterness comes from resins and essential oils contained in lupulin glands inside the strobiles (cones). The length of brewing and timing of the addition of hops can change the flavor profile. 

If you visit a hop farm you'll find fields with tall posts and lengths of line, as the vines are trained to go up the lines. I've wondered how well these hold up in a climate like that of my native northeast Missouri, where severe thunderstorms can send violent winds through the region. The climate reportedly does introduce obstacles to many varieties prospering there, with long, hot days of high humidity.

If ever I have a patch of land, as I would like, I'll certainly give growing a hop yard a try. It would be interesting to brew beer with hops I grow myself, and would be glad to offer to others a locally-sourced beer. 

Thursday, January 13, 2022

An Example of Grade vs. Quality

In the world of project management, which has been my professional area for over 10 years at this point, I learned very early on about the difference between grade and quality. The PMBOK Guide, the central tome of project management, defines grade in part as "a category assigned to deliverables having the same functional use but different technical characteristics." Clear as mud, right? Quality, for its part, refers to conformance to requirements and fitness for use. To explain the difference, let me tell you about my food dehydrator.

November of last year (2021) I brought some pears back from my trip home to Missouri. Realizing that I couldn't eat them all, even baking two pies from them, I ordered a food dehydrator so I could save some for later snacking. I found one online with nearly 5 starts and plenty of positive reviews. It's a straightforward device, which can sit on my kitchen countertop, and which has a few racks so layers of fruit can be dried at the same time. To turn it on, all I have to do is plug it in. There is no on/off switch, standby mode, remote control, temperature setting, or anything else. It's either on or off, based entirely on whether or not it's plugged in.

Someone else might have need for a lot of different features, but I don't. That food dehydrator does absolutely everything I need it to do, and it's easy to clean. I hope it lasts a good long while. This countertop appliance would be accurately described as low grade, but high quality. That is, it's an extremely basic model with no frills, but it precisely meets all my expectations. It would be possible for me to buy a more expensive and feature-rich model which would be high grade, but if features didn't work properly or it gave me other problems, it would be low quality. Then again, maybe it'd be fine, with plenty of features that all work as expected. In that case it would be both high grade and high quality. 

Hopefully that makes sense to anyone looking to understand grade and quality. With this explanation in mind, think about other products, from food to electronics and all points in between, and mull over for yourself what makes for high or low rankings on grade and quality for each. In doing so you might be surprised by what you discover.

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Growing Elderberries in the Midwest (Video)

The Savanna Institute has released the video below promoting elderberries as an agricultural product. While I wonder about the strength of the existing market for them, I found compelling the suggestions of using them as part of either an alley cropping or riparian buffer system. The latter in particular would be great for holding ground around ephemeral creeks (ditches) on farms. For more from Savanna Institute about elderberries, visit: savannainstitute.org/elderberries.

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Lost Grove Brewing Comes the First B Corp Brewery in Idaho


This impresses me. Lost Grove Brewing, of Boise, Idaho, has achieved Certified B Corporation status. In order to be designated as such, according to B Lab, the following standards must be met:
  • Demonstrate high social and environmental performance by achieving a B Impact Assessment score of 80 or above and passing our risk review. Multinational corporations must also meet baseline requirement standards.
  • Make a legal commitment by changing their corporate governance structure to be accountable to all stakeholders, not just shareholders, and achieve benefit corporation status if available in their jurisdiction.
  • Exhibit transparency by allowing information about their performance measured against B Lab’s standards to be publicly available on their B Corp profile on B Lab’s website.
According to the brewery's press release, the company's practices that brought it to this standard included the following:

Since 2018, Lost Grove has supported nonprofits through the Powerful Pints program, which highlights a different local nonprofit each month. Through this program, Lost Grove works to raise funds and awareness for the nonprofits and provides use of the taproom and brewery space for the organizations to use for events. Each year, Lost Grove also throws its annual BFF Block Party, which raises money for nonprofits during the Idaho Gives campaign. All Powerful Pint partners are invited to this celebration as an additional avenue for awareness and fundraising. Environmental responsibility has also long been a core value for Lost Grove. 

This year, Lost Grove installed solar panels on its patio bar, enabling the outdoor bar and cooler to be powered entirely by solar power. Lost Grove is committed to increasing the use of solar technology in the rest of the brewery in years to come. The brewery also began tracking employees’ transportation methods to find ways staff can reduce carbon emissions. In 2022, Lost Grove anticipates purchasing forest credits to help offset carbon emissions. 

In previous years, Lost Grove joined a pilot project to brew beer with reused wastewater, provided input on Boise’s new Water Renewal Utility Plan, supported fundraising efforts as part of the Idaho River United's Brewshed Alliance, and joined the Brewers for Clean Water campaign to show support to strengthen the waterways that provide drinking water. 

In addition to focusing on making positive changes in the world at large, Lost Grove is committed to being an ethical employer. In 2021, Black raised all staff’s wages to meet the living wage standard for Ada County as calculated by MIT. Lost Grove reimburses employees for up to 120 hours of volunteer work per year, provides incentives for employees using alternative transportation, and offers 25 vacation days per year to full-time staff. Lost Grove also provides training and resources for staff regarding sexual harassment prevention in the workplace and aims to offer health care support and 401k options to employees in the coming years. 

That's quite a lot for a brewery that only opened its doors in 2017 and has had, like everyone else, to adapt to the economic challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. This is the first brewery in Idaho to achieve B corp status, and nationwide it is the 19th. 

Monday, January 10, 2022

The Stories of Three Ethnic Groups Making It in Rural America

via flickr
In recent months I've seen some good articles about immigrants making a go of it in the United States, and these give me hope. The dominant narrative is of bigotry and exclusion in this country, particularly centered on people of rural areas. Meanwhile, some from diverse backgrounds are managing to get established in rural life. Here I'll share three scenarios; two stories from Indiana, and one from Minnesota. In the first we find a community self-organizing in a small town, and in the other two minority (from a US perspective) populations using formal means to get into farming in this country. It's all remarkable to me.

First up, we have the Chuj people in Seymour, Indiana. This state would seem pretty far culturally from that of indigenous Mayan people, and yet at least one of its towns has become such a destination for them that it's become a 'mirror city.' The immigrants in question, coming from a remote, mountainous region, are Chuj people. They began moving to Seymour in bits and pieces two decades or so ago from the town of San Sebastián Coatán. I have no idea how it started or who were the first, but Seymour now has over 2000 Chuj members of the community. That's small potatoes compared to something like the approximately 156,000 Haitian nationals who now call New York City home, but those 2000 Mayans consist of over ten percent of the overall population of the Seymour.

Chuj migrants originally came to Seymour because of opportunities at a local car parts manufacturer and at a large farm, and they also find work in construction and cleaning. They haven't just come to take jobs, though. Entrepreneurs among them have opened grocery stores, restaurants, shops, and even a company that bakes and distributes a type of Guatemalan bread throughout the United States. There are also churches, like the Iglesia Evangélica Ríos de Agua Viva and the Iglesia la Nueva Jerusalén where the Guatemalans can worship together. All of these contribute to the economic and social life of the community as a whole, even if not directly to the non-Hispanic residents.

When this is referred to as a 'mirror city,' the idea is simply that people from one town or city (generally another country) form a unique and cohesive community in another city. This really isn't something new. For as long as people have been coming to North America from other lands they have been forming enclaves with their own businesses, churches, and social organizations. What makes it interesting, at least to me, is where many of the immigrants are winding up, as in this situation.

As I suggested above, life in general is positively impacted by such migration. The other residents of Seymour are benefiting from the presence of tax-paying people who through their labor and spending help make the economy prosper. In the case of Seymour, the population has gone from stagnated growth to an increase of twenty-five percent in just the past ten years. What's happening is called 'community-based migration.'

Second, the Burmese population of Fort Wayne, Indiana. There are currently more than 10,000 Burmese residents in that city, many of whom arrived as refugees in the early 1990s. Evidently quite a number of them had been farmers in their home country, but after arrival in the United States they took other forms of labor as employment. In order to open a door for those interested in getting back to agriculture, an incubator called Rose Avenue Education Farm was founded in 2020. Three non-profits collaborated in establishing the farm, with funding from a the Office of Refugee Resettlement, part of the US Department of Health and Human Services.  

On the farm, Burmese refugees are given plots of land to work along with equipment, training, and other orientation. All this is intended to help them start their self-sufficient farm operations.  In this setup, each farmer decides what they will grow, and as a result they tend to grow the squashes, bitter melons, radishes, cabbage, and so for that is typical for a Burmese diet. In turn, they sell mostly to other Burmese people at farmers' markets in the area, supplying a demand that wasn't necessarily being fully met by what Indiana stores generally offer. 

While success has been lacking in making sales to non-Burmese consumers, program leaders are looking at options like additional processing to make the products more attractive to that segment. One of the non-profits has recently received another government grant, which it plans to use to open a kitchen to further work the vegetables into the sort of prepared foods that a wider consumer audience would find appealing. This will include meal kits and other types of ready-to-eat foods. The added value can raise the price of unprocessed foods multiple times over once they are in final, prepared form.

Third, and finally, we'll leave Indiana and head over to Minnesota, where just this past November (2021), the Hmong American Farmers Association (HAFA), raised the last of the money it needed to buy the 155-acre Dakota County farm that it had been leasing for several years. Back in 2013 an anonymous individual bought that farmland and leased it to the HAFA, which in turn sublet it in plots to farmers. In 2020 the Minnesota state legislature put forward $2 million toward the purchase, and the association has now raised the remaining $500,000. 

The Hmong growers constitute more than half of the vendors at farmers' markets in the St Paul/Minneapolis area. They've been doing this for a lot longer than the HAFA has had access to the aforementioned farmland, using instead someone else's property and without assurances of continuous access over the years. 

It doesn't help that good, arable farmland is so expensive. Many immigrant farmers lacked access to the money, through loans or otherwise, for up-front costs aside from farmland, such as heavy equipment. Lacking security on the land and funds to make their operations more efficient, creating generational wealth was just a dream for the most part. 

With HAFA, Hmong farmers have received access to training and connections to institutions and businesses that purchase their products, moving them beyond just the farmers' market sphere. Being able to sublet land and increase revenue helps the farmers establish a foothold to prosper.

In all three examples above we have seen how people help each other. The Chuj people work in the US and send money back to their families in Guatemala, while also receiving newcomers. For them it appears to be more of an informal process, the type that has been the norm for centuries among migrant communities. The other two scenarios, however, with the Burmese and the Hmong, have formal organizations at the center, helping members of each group to put down roots both literally and figuratively in rural America. 

So much of what is said about the rural United States is negative, highlighting it as 'Trump country' where ignorance, poverty, and economic decline are the norm. As someone born and raised in rural northeast Missouri I can say that there are shreds of truth to that, but certainly not the whole story. 

The region where I grew up now has a vibrant community of Mexican-Americans and others from Central America, largely drawn by corporate ag operations, who have opened restaurants and other businesses that serve the community at large. That might be the nicest thing I'll ever write about corporate agriculture, but it's simply true that the industry brought in the people who are in some small way helping rejuvenate the economy. I'd just rather it be some other industry.

While some I knew growing up are ill-informed politically and religiously superstitious, others are astute in matters of civics and religion. That's not to say they're 'progressive' by the standards found in places like New York, but they are educated, compassionate people who want a better life for themselves, their families, and whoever their neighbors turn out to be. 

The future of small towns and family farms in the United States will likely not look entirely the same as it did in times past, if we are fortunate. Greater racial, ethnic, religious, and political diversity due to immigrants, urbanites shifting into farming, and other newcomers might well change the face of these places. Not ever small town will be revived, I'm sure, but it's not unreasonable to expect some to become more like the centers of commerce they once were, many decades ago. 

Sunday, January 9, 2022

Thoughts of Home

 
The novel entitled "You Can't Go Home Again" was published in 1940. It came from the unpublished work of Thomas Wolfe and was stitched together by his editor to make it presentable. I'll admit that I've never read it, but I've certainly heard the title as a saying over the the years. I've also felt in my person the reality of that statement. 

In 2013, after several years away from the farm in northeast Missouri where I'd been raised, I returned for a visit. I was getting ready for what I believed would be a permanent move to Brazil, and so this time in Knox County felt particularly significant to me. What I found surprised me.

The place was, to my eyes, both the same and different from what I remembered. Having lived in Brazil and then later in New Jersey, working in Manhattan, I think I'd become conditioned to seeing more people. The area where I grew up seemed somehow more remote, and so sparsely populated as to be practically vacant.

In reality, not a lot had changed there. Yes, the population has continued its gradual decline, but not really by that much since I'd graduated from high school in the mid-1990s. Many moved away each year as they too graduated, but others remained and carried on the business of life. It caught me off guard when I heard my uncle mentioned a couple of my friends from high school in passing, not thinking that I knew them. It'd never occurred to me that he would ever know who they were, as though there were separate worlds instead of one community that they all shared. 

It was a combination of factors that left me feeling more on the outside of the place that I'd known so well. My perspective had changed, and also subtle changed had taken place while I was gone. People had passed away, others had come into their own as parents and grandparents, businesses closed while others opened, buildings were torn down while others were built. 

One day during that 2013 visit I drove over to Kirksville, the nearby city where I'd been born, and almost ran through a stop sign on the highway that shouldn't have been there. While I was away a bypass was finally built around the town to alleviate traffic congestion. No one had told me about the bypass, I didn't know for about a minute what I was looking at, and the feeling of disorientation was a little overwhelming. This was a route I'd known like the back of my hand, and now 'suddenly' a whole new highway existed. In fact, it had been there for a few years at that point.

The trouble with going home again isn't just in feeling out of place, I've found. As the years have passed my attitude towards that place has changed, as has my understanding of events that took place there. I don't gloss over the ugly parts, though perhaps some become more difficult to remember. It's more that I've come to understand that while different locations are unique in history, customs, and even language, no matter where you are...there you are. 

Normally when I 'go home' my time is kept to only 3 or 4 days there, and I only see a few people. This year, 2022, I'm thinking that unless COVID gets in the way, I'll try to spend a week there around Independence Day. Hurdland, the small town nearest the farm where I grew up, holds an annual 4th of July celebration in its park, and this will be the 150th occasion. Maybe by spending a little time there, catching up with folks, remembering the good and not being able to avoid the less-that-ideal, I'll be able to regain a sense of where I'm from and how I can relate to it in the future. 

That book by Thomas Wolfe I mentioned above includes the following, ellipses and all, towards the conclusion:

You can't go back home to your family, back home to your childhood ... back home to a young man's dreams of glory and of fame ... back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting, but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.

Going back isn't an option. Not for me or for anyone, really. Even those who remained in Knox County have moved forward. It isn't for me to 'go home,' but rather sort out how I'll go forward with home, whatever that will mean.

Saturday, January 8, 2022

Jackson Hop Farm (Video)

For a quick profile of a first-generation hop farmer, check out the first video below.

For more on this operation, here's a virtual tour of Jackson Hop Farm.

Friday, January 7, 2022

Collapse and Revival in a Rural Missouri Town

Screenshot from video by Echo Menges, The Edina Sentinel
This morning I awoke to news of a building collapse in Edina, Missouri. As someone who grew up in that area I can attest that the sense of decay and depopulation played into my mentality of moving away after high school. It doesn't have to be this way, in my opinion.

Knox County is where several generations of my family from most lineages lived for generations, and Edina is where my mother grew up. The town square was designated a historic district some years ago, and the reality is that many if not most of the buildings have been unoccupied for years. There are apartments above some of them that people use, and recently some new businesses opened, which concerns me because this isn't the first structural failure experienced there. 

Knox County was thriving in the late 1800s. The 1890 census, for example, showed 13,501 people residing there, which appears to have been the peak. The 2020 census reports that 3,744 now make the county home, a decrease in 130 years of slightly over 72%. The buildings on the town square were built for that larger population, and as the decades passed they slowly, sporadically, became unoccupied. It's my understanding that a mix of people now own them, at least some of which don't live in the area and pay much attention. Sitting right at the heart of the county, the degradation of these structures is as highly visible as pretty much anything can be. 

Screenshot from video by Echo Menges, The Edina Sentinel
My mother grew up on the west side of Edina, so she had a view toward the horizon, just over which was the small town of Hurdland, a mere 8 miles away. Periodically, thick billowing smoke would roll up into the heavens from the west, and people would say "Hurdland's burning again." By the time I came along in the 1970s most of the buildings that had been around Hurdland's square were long gone. It was quiet, even pastoral, having a green park with tall shade trees in its center. This is a stark contrast to Edina, with its practically abandoned buildings casting long shadows over its town square. Honestly, I think it's better that Hurdland lost its downtown buildings so early, rather than keeping them as vacant reminders of the past. 

There was a time when that model of retail, having streets lined with stores, seemed to be well on its way out. Shopping malls for a few decades were considered the future of retail, and yet now we'd seeing a turn to shopping centers instead. Speaking only for myself, I far prefer parking near the store I want to shop at and then leaving, rather than dealing with massive parking lots and then having to walk past 20 stores just to get to the one I want to visit. Even before the pandemic I didn't like hanging around in a place with so many random strangers. With that in mind, I certainly think Edina's downtown could be revived with more retail options. However, not all those buildings can stay.

With fewer than 4000 people in the entire county, the economy of the place is tiny. It's my belief that for a revival to happen, Edina's downtown needs to become a destination. This past Christmas the Chamber of Commerce did a great job promoting downtown Christmas shopping with events and later hours for the businesses. Given the popularity of Hallmark-style Christmas movies I believe that if they really laid it on thick with the small town holiday angle people could be persuaded to drive in from farther away. Still, for the time being, great capacity is not needed, and the buildings continue to decay.

A structural engineering firm needs to be brought in to inspect all of the downtown buildings. Any that do not meet safety guidelines should be condemned and torn down unless repairs can be effected. This will leave gaps, to be sure, but better that than people being injured or killed when the architecture fails.

Screenshot from video by Echo Menges, The Edina Sentinel
 In the meantime, the Chamber of Commerce should continue its good work of promoting the downtown. Some sort of outside investment would be incredibly helpful at this point, but there's no use waiting on a miracle. Little by little, with each passing season, they can fan into flame the spark of life that still exists there.

With time the gaps from lost buildings can be filled with new ones, if the economy revives. Population could even grow again, if business were to begin thriving and retirees could be attracted by the convenience and slower pace of life. An upward cycle from there would include families with children relocating, though I have to think more businesses that include manufacturing and technology would need to come along.

Perhaps that's a lot to hope for, but I don't think this pattern of slow decay punctuated by sudden collapse has to continue. There can be a future for Edina, and Knox County more generally, that includes growth and prosperity. 

Thursday, January 6, 2022

How Goats are Regenerating a Forest and Protecting this Town from Bushfire (Video)

A second cousin back in Missouri recently posted on Facebook about some work he'd done cleaning out fence rows on his mother's farm, mentioning in particular eastern red cedar and multiflora rose. I commiserated with him on the latter, which is invasive and a real nuisance. Someone else commented that he should consider getting some goats in there to clean things out, which sounded like a great idea to me. In the video above you'll get an idea, albeit from Australia, about the positive impact that planned foraging with goats can have on the land. They really are quite useful creatures.

Wednesday, January 5, 2022

The Man Who Plants Baobabs: A Burkina Faso Hero (Video)

YouTube description:

El Hadji Salifou Ouédraogo has nurtured thousands of baobab trees from tiny seeds to expansive forests for the past 47 years. The trees in turn help his family, his village and the Earth. Filmmaker Michel K Zongo’s uplifting film, The Man Who Plants Baobabs, meets this charismatic old man with a youthful spirit and a lifelong commitment to his trees, which are both a lifeline and a legacy for his community. 

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Brazil Shows You Can Harvest Sugar Cane Without Polluting the Air (Video)

Sugar cane farming is well outside of my wheelhouse. The closest I've come to it is traveling down highways in Brazil lined by kilometers of cane plantation. What this video demonstrates is the impact grassroots movements for change can, through appropriate government regulation, have on how our food is produced. Corporate ag businesses don't want change because it requires and investment in retooling and re-education, and they're driven not by the public good but by the obligation to increase value for shareholders. It's amusing to me how this is portrayed as being so effective in Brazil, and yet  the sugar industry in the US wants us to believe that somehow similar methods can't be implemented here. 

Monday, January 3, 2022

How to Start a Regenerative Farm from Scratch (Video)

This video from Heifer USA shares how Derrick and Paige Jackson got into farming in North Carolina. It's a lovely story, both informative and encouraging for anyone considering a move towards farming or else within agriculture to a more sustainable approach. One takeaway for me was the suggestion to lease rather than purchase land, because of the flexibility that can provide. I'd still rather have my own property and not have a land owner to satisfy, but they make a compelling argument.

Sunday, January 2, 2022

Between Suffering and Hope

Greg Morss / Tree growing out of rock in Coire Earb / CC BY-SA 2.0
Often I remember my past and wonder how I got through some of it. Just as often I feel as though I wouldn't have the wherewithal to handle that sort of struggle again. I'm wrong about that, however real the notion might seem.

Honestly, it doesn't seem like I should be 46, but here I am. Soon enough I'll be 56, or else dead. Memory is a tricky thing, though. While I remember sitting in Mrs. Couch's English class in high school as clear as anything, including the spring breeze wafting through the open window near my seat, that was still about three decades ago, and quite a lot has happened since then. I graduated college, learned Brazilian Portuguese and got married, became a missionary in Brazil and minister in New Mexico while also becoming a father. I quit ministry and moved to New Jersey, started a career in project management after stints in teaching English, at a law office, and in customer service. I faced financial and personal hardships, from abusive church leaders and members to assaults on my family and marriage. 

Friends, I haven't given you even the first inch of the top of the iceberg. You don't need it. Just consider this, from Marcus Aurelius in his 'Meditations':

“Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.”

Fortunately, this isn't just about 'weapons of reason.' With the conclusion of what I term my 'four years of hell,' from 2012 through 2016, I discovered that I feared quite a lot less than ever before. It isn't that I believe life will be rosy and cheerful from now on. Indeed, it hasn't been, though it has been better. What I've found is a courage won through experience, a strength built on endurance.

That's not to say this is an inevitable conclusion. A person's spirit can be broken and their life marred through unyielding difficulties. Even just being bullied and alienated for a year as a 5th grader damaged my ability to trust and build relationships for at least a decade following. The greater oppressions suffered by individuals and classes of people throughout the world right now do far greater harm. That isn't to compare injuries, mind you. Each person's hurt is unique.

In the New Testament letter of Paul to the Romans, he suggests that "suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope." As I've indicated, I don't think there's a straight line from suffering to endurance to character to hope. This is a possibility, and one that is within our grasp if we are open to it and are willing to do the work to reach it. In my case, this work has included maintaining a vital connection to a community of people through my Unitarian Universalist congregation, though really any supportive relationship network would do. It has also meant taking seriously my mental health through psychiatric care and regular sessions with a psychologist. What this might look like for someone else, I cannot say. There's no one-size-fits all, although I'm certain that support and mental health must be prioritized.

The hope I enjoy is not pie-in-the-sky, waiting for someone else to come along and solve everything for me. It is also not a solitary slog into an uncertain future. The courage I've found comes from knowing what I have faced and overcome in the past, and knowing that I am the same person, albeit more seasoned, who made it through the hells that came before. Between the myriad difficulties of life there is joy, and so my hope is not that all will be well, but rather that life will always have these pockets of goodness mitigating the impact of the sorrows.

Saturday, January 1, 2022

Three New Jersey Craft Breweries

One of the new developments for me in 2021 was my increased interest in beer. Specifically, I've been learning about craft brewing, and I'm registered to begin a brewing program through Saint Louis University, starting this month (January 2022). Particularly satisfying has been becoming familiar with some of the many great breweries in my area. Although I've only visited a few tap rooms thus far, I've been buying craft beers through liquor stores to expand my knowledge base. In connection with that, I've been listening to audio books about brewing and beer history, and listen regularly to some podcasts on the topic. In this post I'd like to share about the three New Jersey breweries I've enjoyed visiting so far.

First, there's Wet Ticket Brewing. Located in Rahway, this brewery and taproom is only about 20 to 25 minutes by car from where I live. 

Adam Gonnerman (CC BY 4.0}
The name of this brewery is explained on their website:

“Wet Ticket,” refers to the individuals who ran for office during the 1930's with the intent to repeal prohibition. Thankfully, the people spoke, and once elected, the Wet Party candidates went on to help repeal Prohibition.

This has become my go-to brewery, and not simply because they appear to be the closest to my home. The beer is, generally speaking, really good. They have a decent range to satisfy most tastes, including ales, lagers, and IPAs. My favorites are:

  • Fully Juiced Imperial NEIPA,Wet Ticket Brewing,Adam Gonnerman (CC BY 4.0)
    One Way Ticket (Mosaic)
IPA - New England / Hazy
6.8% ABV
69 IBU
  • Fully Juiced Imperial NEIPA
IPA - New England / Hazy
8.5% ABV
72 IBU
  • Kölsch
5.5% ABV
22 IBU

As you can see, I'm a sucker for a nice, cold, hazy New England IPA. The Kölsch is just a solid beer that I could imagine getting for someone who wants something like mainstream beers...only way better. 

Next up is Highrail Brewing Company of High Bridge, New Jersey.
 The name of this brewery connects with the history of High Bridge as a railroad town, and the borough has even deeper roots going back to the US Revolutionary War and before. You can see their full selection of beers on tap here: highrailbrewing.com/beer, but my favorites thus far have been as follows:
Tart & Thankful, Highrail Brewing Company, 
Adam Gonnerman (CC BY 4.0)

  • Tart & Thankful
Fruit Beer
4.9% ABV
No IBU
  • Trails
IPA - New England / Hazy
7.1% ABV
55 IBU
  • Power's Out Pale Ale
Pale Ale - American
4.5% ABV
42 IBU

My preferences are pretty clear at this point, I'm sure. Although I always imagined that I'd gravitate towards dark ales and stouts, because I have such a fondness for Guinness Draught, it turns out that NEIPAs and sours are more up my alley. 

The third and final brewery I'll highlight is one I'm pretty excited about, because it's both a brewery and a hop farm operation: Readington Brewery & Hop Farm.
via Dan Wightman
Visiting the day after Christmas meant that I didn't get a chance to see hops growing in the field, which is situated next to and behind the brewery itself. Here's a clip from the company website that shows what it looks like in 'full bloom':


I ordered a flight with the first four beers listed on the menu, and next visit I intend to go for the next four, assuming it doesn't change before I get there (which is possible). Of the four, my favorite was The Patriot. It's a clean, fresh American IPA (6% ABV) that hits the spot. That's not to say I didn't enjoy the other beers. Rather, this was the one I liked most. I'm sure as I try more of what they offer I'll be adding to the list.

It would be interesting to work on this farm, perhaps in a 'volunteer' role during some crunch time for the business. I'd like to learn about growing hops, with a view to possibilities for my future. I can't help wondering what an agroforestry design would look like for hop farming. That might be worth pursuing.

Those are the breweries and their beers that I've enjoyed in just the past couple of months. This is new territory for me, and I look forward to learning—and drinking—more.

Friday, December 31, 2021

The Potential for Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) As Part of an Agroforestry Design

Photo: Adam Gonnerman (CC BY 4.0)

Introduction and Objective

Going into the initial survey of available literature for this paper, I did not have high expectations. While the field of agroforestry focuses on the integration of woody perennials into diverse types of agricultural practices, and autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) is a type of shrub that has potential in such a system, its status as an ‘invasive species’ limits practical application. While peer-reviewed literature on the uses of autumn olive is limited generally, I found in particular that studies delving into the potential for this plant dropped off even more after the 1980s. One application in particular, that being the use of Elaeagnus umbellata as a nurse plant for black walnut trees, was effectively discontinued after 1989, only being picked up again more recently in this century, and then only in a cursory fashion.

In this paper I will review the history and status of Elaeagnus umbellata along with research that explores the use of this shrub in agricultural production.

Taxonomy, Description and Natural History

Elaeagnus umbellata is a perennial shrub in the oleaster family, part of the order Rosales. It is native to parts of northeast Asia, including China, Korea, and Japan.It is also prevalent in Pakistan and northern India. In its native range it it is widespread and readily found in open and disturbed areas. In Japan, for example, it often colonizes riparian zones. It was brought to the United States in 1830, and through the 19th century and into the 20th it was planted to serve as windbreak and wildlife cover (Oliphant et al., 2016; Black et al., 2005). It has also been introduced in Europe and Australia (Pasiecznik & Rojas-Sandoval, 2008)

E. umbellata was first introduced to the UK in 1829, one year prior to its introduction in the United States, and it was in this same general time period that it was also brought into continental Europe. In the US it has been employed in conservation efforts, as already indicated. State and federal agencies as well as private groups actively promoted it for erosion control and in strip mine reclamation projects. It’s also been marketed as an ornamental, although it is unclear whether this remains the case today (Pasiecznik & Rojas-Sandoval, 2008).

Description & Characteristics

Elaeagnus umbellata, as a perennial woody shrub, does not naturally take the form of a tree with a single trunk, although with proper pruning it can be trained in such a fashion with limited success. Without intervention it grows as as a large shrub, reaching 3.5 to 5 meters (11.5 to 16.4 feet) in height, and roughly up to 6 meters (almost 20 feet) in diameter (Black et al., 2005). Shrubs that reach this size do not lend themselves well to animal forage and need to be coppiced in order to provide tender, young shoots for livestock (Judy, 2017). The height and spread of individual specimens have been observed to inhibit the growth of other plants, including native varieties in reclamation areas (Oliphant et al., 2016). At the same time, this straining effect in competition for light has been shown to be beneficial to walnut trees in terms of fostering straighter trunks and better upward growth (Clark & Williams, 1979).

In northern India the shrub flowers in April, with fruiting taking place in July and August. In China it flowers between April and May and fruits in July to August. Meanwhile, in North America it fruits closer to August with the berries ripening in August/September. Fruit can remain on the plant well into late winter. One of the earliest plants to put out leaves in the spring, it is known in Illinois to break dormancy in mid-March (Pasiecznik & Rojas-Sandoval, 2008).

Referred to as ‘autumn olive’ in the eastern United States, a term that will be used interchangeably for the remainder of this paper with the scientific name Elaeagnus umbellata, it is known in other regions by such names as autumn elaegnus, asiatic oleaster, umbellate oleaster, aki-gumi and Japanese silverberry (Black et al., 2005). For marketing purposes, Dustin Kelly refers to the product as ‘autumn berries’ (Kelly, 2021).

The autumn olive has characteristics that make it particularly effective at colonizing otherwise inhospitable land. Although it responds to cold stratification, a winter season is not strictly necessary for it. Once it sprouts, E. umbellata grows quickly and is tolerant of both drought and salty winds. It can handle soil that ranges from alkaline to acid, and while it is not a legume, it does form nitrogen-fixing root structures in symbiosis with Frankia bacteria (Ahmad et al., 2008). This later characteristic means it can thrive even in poor, mineralized soil with little organic matter present. This was a key factor in the intentional use of this plant for reclamation of disturbed sites and in tests of autumn olive specimens as nurse plants in an agroforestry system (Black et al., 2005).

Humid temperate climates are ideal for E. umbellata and it is tolerant of a range of rainfall. However, while it is drought tolerant, this is not the case for dry periods lasting more than a season. High temperatures in the summer and very low temperatures in the winter pose little problem for autumn olive (Pasiecznik & Rojas-Sandoval, 2008).

Non-Native Range

Autumn olive enjoys a wide distribution in the eastern United States, from Maine all the way down to Florida, and west as far as Kansas. It can also be found in Ontario, Canada and even Hawaii. On the northern extreme it does appear to be limited by the extreme cold, although one cultivar has been identified as hardy to zone 6 (Munger, 2003).

As noted above, there are concerns that as an invasive with significant height and width it can keep down regeneration of native species, it is not known to colonize within woodlands. It favors the periphery of wooded areas as well as places that have been distrubed by deforestation, mining, and other human activity. It is only moderately shade tolerant, and thus is found most commonly in open canopy areas, fields, and pastures (Edgin & Ebinger, 2001; Munger, 2003). Research appears to indicate that it is unlikely to become an invasive understory species, given its shade intolerance (Brym et al., 2011), although there is potential for the shrub to establish itself in wooded areas where the loss of trees to emerald ash borer and dutch elm disease leave open canopy (Dornbos et al., 2016).

As noted above, autumn olive can thrive in riparian zones. These areas are naturally disturbance-prone and tend to provide the open space that the plant requires, and as such it dominates in many Japanese rivers ​​(KOHRI et al., 2011).

This species is also spreading across Europe. France, Italy, Belgium, and the Azores have autumn olive listed as an invasive species. Oddly enough, it does not seem to be invasive in the United Kingdom. Though it was introduced in 1829, it wasn’t observed in the wild for nearly a century and a half afterwards. In mixed planting trials with black walnut in the UK it did not naturally regenerate (Pasiecznik & Rojas-Sandoval, 2008).

Tropical climates can be amenable to E. umbellata as well, as it is naturalized in Costa Rica. There is spreads in disturbed sites and along roadways (Pasiecznik & Rojas-Sandoval, 2008).

Invasive Qualities

From its arrival in the early 1800s, autumn olive has been used as an ornamental shrub and in reclamation projects, particularly on the sites of former mines in the Appalachians (Oliphant et al., 2016).

Means of Distribution

Autumn olive plants produce large numbers of fruit, and in North America these ripen between September and October. Birds in particular consume them through the winter and subsequently scatter the seeds through droppings. There are well-established populations throughout the eastern United States, largely due to intentional planting for conservation purposes followed by natural dispersal. The shrubs do not spread through roots, although once established they will grow back from the roots when cut down. Autumn olive is listed as a noxious weed in West Virginia, and in New Hampshire it is labeled as a prohibited invasive species (Black et al., 2005).

Disturbance of sites and the knock-on impact from that on the local ecology and available resources provides an opening for autumn olive to invade a region. This can be seen especially on Appalachian mine sites where soils are low in organic matter and nitrogen, being composed largely of rock fragments. As a nitrogen-fixer autumn olive has a strong competitive advantage over other plant species in such nutrient poor soils. The lack of competition leaves them ample room to flourish in such environments. The intentional propagation of these shrubs as part of mine site reclamation projects into the 1980s gave them a solid foothold in such regions. As already noted, prolific masting and wide dispersal by birds and other animals are key components of this plant’s success in spreading (Oliphant et al., 2016).

Impact on Ecosystem

Autumn olive can easily outcompete native plants on poor, disturbed soils. Putting out leaves in early spring, before many other plant species begin to leaf out, they obtain a head start on season growth (Pasiecznik & Rojas-Sandoval, 2008). Further, they have been observed overtopping young planted trees, limiting their access to light and slowing their growth. The shrubs at one post-mine location continued to dominate 4 years into a project to reforest the area with native trees. When established at such locations it spreads with relative ease to adjacent land, such as a pastures and unmanaged fields (Oliphant et al., 2016). Research has also indicated that the presence of autumn olive populations in riparian zones can result in increased nitrogen in runoff, which in turn alters the biochemistry of waterways (Singh et al., 2019). As is seen with artificial fertilizer, such nitrogen-shedding into waterways can result in adverse effects, such as algae blooms that deplete water of oxygen and other resources, choking out fish and fouling it for use by aquatic and non-aquatic species of plants and animals.

Management and Removal

Natural Management

As would be expected of any species in its place of origin, there are natural competitors and predators for E. umbellata. In its native range throughout northeast Asia, autumn olive is susceptible to attack from various species of fungi. In particular, the species-specific rust Aecidium elaeagni-umbellatae (a pathogenic fungi of the order Pucciniales) has been identified as one that attacks Elaeagnus umbellata in China (Huang et al., 2004). Aside from that, several other fungi have been found on specimens of the genus Elaeagnus. Over 20 arthropods have also been found to consume plants of this genus, including autumn olive (Zheng et al., 2006). It is possible that such fungi and other pests from the native range of E. umbellata could be used as biocontrol agents. However, the introduction of additional non-native species to North America opens the possibility that they too will be invasive, causing unexpected damage to native plants as well as agricultural crops, along with other unforeseen consequences.

Physical and Chemical Intervention

Different approaches for direct intervention to eliminate autumn olive are available, with varying degrees of effectiveness. While the chief of these will be reviewed here, it is important to bear in mind that such methods are difficult to apply at scale due to cost and logistical challenges (Oliphant et al., 2016).

Physical/Mechanical

The most straightforward method of removing autumn olive would appear to be mowing or cutting such plants. However, they resprout vigorously, so physical methods alone will probably not be effective. Repeated and routine cuttings are also ineffective without also treating stumps and resprouts with herbicide (Munger, 2003).

Hand pulling young seedlings can be effective, particularly in moist soil.This entails a great deal of literal manual labor and assumes that such seedlings can be located in sufficient numbers to make a difference while they are still young. While they put out leaves earlier than most native shrubs and can be fairly easy to identify in early spring in the United States, close examination of the ground is required to single out the smallest specimens (Pasiecznik & Rojas-Sandoval, 2008). Once they have a fair amount of growth it becomes untenable to remove them from the roots manually, at least not without enormous effort.

Fire

In prairies infested with E. umbellata and other invasive plant species a study was carried out over a period of 25 years. The prairie was expanded and the invasives removed through cutting and controlled burning. Bear in mind that prairie fires are a natural occurrence for which native species are largely prepared Thus, it may be appropriate in some circumstances to use such methods to control or entirely remove populations of autumn olive (Pasiecznik & Rojas-Sandoval, 2008). A similar method would not be advisable in wooded areas or near permanent structures where a conflagration can get out of control.

Chemicals

Among the herbicides that have been found useful in controlling populations of autumn olive are dicamba, glyphosate, 2,4-D, and triclopyr. Used alone or in combination these can be effective in foliar and bark applications, as well as on resprouts. Summer foliar herbicide application has been shown to be the most effective at achieving total mortality (Byrd et al., 2012). However, use of biocides has been found most effective only in small areas and with repetition over the course of five years, which is resource-intensive and can prove unaffordable to sustain. Over larger areas there has only been moderate success in controlling populations (Pasiecznik & Rojas-Sandoval, 2008), and again escalating cost becomes a concern at scale (Oliphant et al., 2016).

Uses and Benefits

Ornamental

As ornamental plants that bear flowers and fruit, having silvery leaves, autumn olive can be seen as having a positive social impact in that sense (Pasiecznik & Rojas-Sandoval, 2008). Further, they attract birds in winter months for their berries, which also can be enjoyable for people to observe. The value of this shrub goes well beyond aesthetics, though.

Soil Quality

Nitrogen-fixing and tolerant to salt winds, autumn olive has been used in Japan for fixation of coastal sand dunes. It is also planted there along with black pine (Pinus thunbergii) to improve soil quality. In mountainous areas of that country it is used to secure eroded areas and promote further vegetation growth (Pasiecznik & Rojas-Sandoval, 2008). This shrub’s tolerance of poor soils that are unsuitable for other commercial crops makes them ideal for disturbed areas (Black et al., 2005). Autumn olive can hold soil in place along roadsides and in otherwise barren fields while also contributing significant amounts of nitrogen to soil, which in turn promotes the growth of other types of plants.

Nutrition

While having no real value for its wood, the fruit of the autumn olive is edible, and can be described is sweet to acidic. The red berries can be kept at room temperature for up to 15 days, and they are high in protein. In India a bush can yield about 650 grams of fruit in 2 to 3 pickings (Pasiecznik & Rojas-Sandoval, 2008). The berries of this plant offer an excellent source of nutrition, including vitamins A, C, and E, as well as flavonoids and essential fatty acids (Sabir & Riaz, 2005; Ahmad, 2006). Additionally, autumn olive berries have high antioxidant enzyme activities and nonenzyme components (Fordham & Wang, 2007). As such it can serve as a healthy supplemental food source for people in resource-poor regions.

Autumn olive is also being investigated for its potential use in pharmaceutical compounds, due to the berry being exceptionally high in the antioxidant carotenoid lycopene and several other carotenoids. While the human body does not produce lycopene, it is available from a handful of plant sources, chief of which in western diets is the tomato. Lycopene can also be found in watermelon, papaya, and pink grapefruit. Studies point to lycopene reducing the incidence and severity of prostate cancer, and it may also reduce the risk of a few other types of cancer as well as cardiovascular disease (Black et al., 2005; Sabir & Riaz, 2005) .

Human Consumption

Autumn olive can be cultivated for food, as should be readily apparent from the analysis above. Since the berries grow along the stems, the fastest way to harvest them manually is by running a hand along the stem and letting them fall into a basket held in the other hand. Although this brings some debris with it, it is arguably easier to clean that out than to pick one berry at a time (Pesaturo, 2019). In one of the studies reviewed for this paper a commercial blueberry-harvesting machine was used to securely reap the fruit, indicating that labor-intensive manual harvesting is not necessary where such machinery can be obtained. Potential markets include using the fruit to produce jam, syrup, or preserves. Fundamental to making products from the berries the preliminary process of boiling and mashing the berries, then running them through a food mill to remove the pits. With the now pitless mash it is possible to make products such as jams, jellies, and syrup (Pesaturo, 2019). It would also be possible to extract the lycopene for use as part of a dietary supplement (Black et al., 2005). On a personal note, I purchased a jam and a jelly produced using autumn berries (Kelly, 2021) and found them comparable to any other berry-based jams or jellies.

Wildlife Cover and Food

Ripening in late autumn, elaegnus umbellata is available to birds and other wildlife as a food source, and after leaf fall the red fruit become especially conspicuous, attracting more attention from wildlife in the winter months (KOHRI et al., 2011). Autumn olive was originally introduced and promoted by government agencies and private groups throughout the United States with the intention of attracting wildlife and securing areas against soil erosion, and it certainly serves for both of those purposes. Aside from birds, both migratory and residential, the fruit and at times the foliage is browsed by raccoons, skunks, possums, black bears, and deer (Pasiecznik & Rojas-Sandoval, 2008). With increased forage and cover, seasonal hunting opportunities will conceivably be improved.

Agroforestry Implementation

Silvopasture

Greg Judy, a self-styled ‘regenerative rancher’ in mid-Missouri, has written favorably about the use of Elaeagnus umbellata to heal soil in pastures and to feed livestock (Judy, 2017). While he does not advocate for planting autumn olive, he has observed that on land that has been made poor through excessive haying, this shrub fosters new growth. Beneath the trees green grass grows, while just outside the dripline poor soil and inedible weeds are all that’s present. Rather than cut them all down and paint the stumps with herbicide, he now coppices every specimen in order to maintain the branches and leaves tender and within reach of livestock. Every part of the plant is non-toxic, and while cows can forage on them, pigs and goats in particular relish the autumn olive.Meanwhile, the nitrogen-fixing microbes in the soil thrive around this shrub, providing a means for the soil to come back to live, sustaining fescue, orchard grace, and legumes (the latter of which also in turn contribute to soil health as nitrogen-fixers.

Given its status as an invasive, it would be ill-advised to attempt sowing Elaeagnus umbellata with a view towards restoring soil health in pastures or as forage, but if they are already present, there is no immediate need to remove them if they are actively maintained, and they can be used to some advantage.

Food Forest and Forest Farming

Since 2011, Dustin Kelly has been foraging Autumn Olive berries around Urbana, Illinois for the purpose of making food products (Kelly, 2021). He sells jellies and jams created using what he refers to as ‘Autumn Berries’ online. While he does not intentionally plant them, he makes use of them to turn something of a profit. As they will not grow well in shaded areas, favoring instead disturbed, degraded locations with full or partial sunlight, they might not be strictly considered part of a ‘food forest’ as such. However, they do commonly grow in liminal spaces between field and forest, at the woodline. An astute forager out looking for mushrooms or mint will no doubt be able to locate these bright red berries and harvest an ample supply in the correct season. Further, their status as woody perennials at least puts autumn olives within the realm of agroforestry if they are actively managed as part of a larger system that includes annuals and possibly other woody perennials. Limited as invasives, as with silvopasture (or simply, ‘pasture’) applications, this is more of a matter of managing an existing population than promoting a new one.

Mixed Walnut/Autumn Berry Production

Research has been done on the use of E. umbellata as a nurse plant in walnut production. As a juglone-tolerant species that is also a nitrogen-fixer, autumn olive is capable of not only coexisting with walnut groves, but also providing essential nutrition that promotes walnut growth and production.

In 1967, black walnuts were planted at a site in Indiana, and two years later autumn olive was interplanted along with them. European alder and black locust were also planted there. In 1973 the black locust trees had to be removed because they were overtopping the black walnuts. Between 1975 and 1978, when the study concluded, the walnut trees grown with autumn olive were taller and broader than those with other co-plantings. Furthermore, walnuts grown with nurse trees (whether autumn olive or one of the other varieties) grew straighter and required less pruning than those in the control group (Clark & Williams, 1979).

Another test was carried out in the 1970s as well, in five plantations located in Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana. The results from this study demonstrated that walnut trees grown with autumn olive were taller after 9 years than those growing without the shrub. Two plantings in particular in Illinois showed a 134% increase in height among walnuts grown with autumn olive over those without. During the growing season, soil and air temperatures were lower, and soil moisture was lower as well, than among pure walnut stands. Meanwhile, there was markedly greater soil nitrogen among the mixed plantings (Funk et al., 1979).

Nitrogen concentration is not high solely in the soil around mixed walnut/autumn olive plantings. Nitrogen content is also much higher in walnut leaves from such mixed plantings when compared to walnut leaves growing on trees without autumn olive shrubs in the vicinity. And, it isn’t just higher nitrogen that can be found in such leaves, but also greater levels of phosphorous, potassium, calcium, and magnesium. This higher concentration of other minerals in walnut leaves from mixed plantings is likely due to the metabolic improvement brought about with higher levels of available nitrogen. The end result is a longer growth period in which better growth takes place (Ponder, 1983). Black walnut trees that benefit from weed control survive better and grow taller and wider than those without, and the addition of autumn olive plantings only increases the benefit of such treatment to walnut trees (Ponder, 1988).

While walnut is often grown in pure stands or as isolated specimens, perhaps due in part to the presence of juglones that suppress many other types of plants, the foregoing research demonstrates that walnut trees can benefit from mixed plantings in certain circumstances. During the first several years following planting growth is measurable enhanced among walnuts in mixed plantings with autumn olive. There is an improvement in microclimate, the walnuts are naturally trained to grow straighter to reach for the available light (a favorable competition with autumn olive), increased nitrogen availability, and an improvement in weed control. While autumn olive can crowd out other species, the walnut seems to actually do better in terms of consistent upward growth in response to the proximity of autumn olive plants that compete for light. Additionally, protection from the wind is observed to be provided by autumn olives encompassing walnut plantations. (Clark et al., 2008).

Research on the use of Elaeagnus umbellata in walnut groves appears to have been discontinued in the 1980s, likely with the identification of autumn olive as an invasive species and its designation as a noxious weed in some places. It has thus been largely ruled out as a potential nurse species (Pedlar et al., 2006). While its prolific reproduction cannot be ignored, along with the risk of spread to areas where such plants would not be desirable, it is possible to conceptualize a design that incorporates autumn olives with walnuts. Given that many other species are not juglone-tolerant, and that autumn olive works as a nitrogen fixer, a mixed planting of walnut and autumn olive for commercial production would be feasible. The primary crop would most certainly be the walnuts, as there exists a ready market for them. The fruit of the autumn olive, however, could also function as a fine secondary crop. It would be a niche product more likely to appear at farmers markets rather than to be delivered for industrial use, but as we saw above, jams and jellies are among the possible products derived from the berries.

Further, as wildlife cover and forage for wildlife, walnut groves with autumn olive plantings could promote an environment conducive to seasonal hunting.

Conclusion

Evaluation

As a designated invasive species in North America, E. Umbellata should not be actively cultivated in an agroforestry system where it is not already present. Managing an existing population, however, presents certain opportunities in agroforestry design that can take advantage of the hardiness of this species, with its nitrogen-fixing capacity and abundant berry production.

In a pasture setting, as we have seen, a managed existing population of autumn olive shrubs can provide food to livestock while also enriching degraded soil. Regular foraging and stomping by livestock will keep the shrubs under control under normal circumstances, although they can also be coppiced if the need arises to produce more tender and accessible shoots. If never allowed to go fully to seed this plant will not spread, as it does not propagate through shoots, but only through seed.

While planting autumn olive among walnut trees is unadvisable due to the tendency of E. umbellata to spread through seeding to other areas, it is not beyond the scope of reason to make use of an existing population of this shrub by planting walnuts alongside them. With proper cutting the autumn olive shrubs will not block sunlight to young walnuts, and with time their competition for light will benefit the quality of growth experienced by the walnut trees, as we have seen in this review.

Ideally, what we would want to see is the development of a cultivar that produces fewer berries while still providing the benefit of nitrogen fixation. One with no berries would be ideal, though of course it would have to be manually propagated in perpetuity through cuttings in other to maintain the benefit of its use. At the same time, removing the berries from the picture also takes away a key benefit to having this shrub, which is its nutritional value for wildlife and humans alike.

Final remarks

Further experimentation with cultivars that have less invasive qualities could produce a variety that is particularly useful in agroforestry applications. In the meantime, the pandora’s box has already been opened and the autumn olive is unlikely to disappear from North American landscapes due to the enormous expense and difficulty of complete eradication. Therefore, I conclude that it is in the best interests of agroforesters to learn to work with existing populations, exploiting them in ways that do not indulge this species’ propensity to reproduce.

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