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Blog | June 19, 2015

The power of the pickle, Imperfect produce & Other news

With some states in the lower Midwestern and Plains regions recording their wettest months in history this year, farmers are questioning whether or not to replant their drowned crops (or plant anything at all). While overall planting progress for 2015 has hovered around the five-year average for the U.S., certain states have taken major hits, falling behind their averages. Colorado’s planting progress is down from its 97% five-year average to 79%, Texas is at 86%, and Kansas and Missouri are severely delayed in getting soybeans planted, but expect to replant once conditions dry out. Darrel Good, a University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign professor in agricultural and consumer economics, sees potential for the season to recover. “Overall, some negative impact on average yields might be expected, but yield prospects remain generally quite good for much of the country,” Good says. The other factors that may affect yield prospects this year are July temperatures and the amount of precipitation during future critical growth stages.

“When we shop with our eyeballs in the produce aisle, our expectations for perfection contribute to the problem,” reports Allison Aubrey of NPR News. The problem here, of course, is food waste, making imperfect produce one of the largest contributors to landfills in the United States, and a $2.6 trillion problem according to the United Nations. Aubrey took to the cauliflower fields with Art Barrientos of Ocean Mist Farms to discuss the difference between the up-to-standards cauliflower, and the ugly, unmarketable cauliflower. “You see how it just has that yellow tinge to it,” Barrientos points out. Though there may be nothing wrong in its flavor profile and nutritional value, the yellow tint from sun exposure renders it un-marketable. “This just doesn’t meet our standards,” Barrientos says, so the heads are plowed under. Depending on the crop, anywhere from 1 to 30 percent of food grown by farmers doesn’t get to the grocery store, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. Efforts to recover wasted food like the yellow cauliflower include the Environmental Protection Agency’s Food Recovery Challenge, which diverts about 375,000 tons of food waste, “unmarketable” produce donations to California food banks, and a new venture called Imperfect Produce, which seeks to deliver the less-than-perfect but equally delicious produce CSA-style for 30-50% less cost than its perfect counterpart.

Following a conversation between President Obama and the governors of Arizona, California, Colorado, Montana and Wyoming, and the lieutenant governor of Utah, federal agencies pledged another $110 million in aid to help these states struggling with the crippling drought. Funds will be allocated to a variety of programs, including a jobs program, which will help Californians who are unemployed due to drought find work in communities to help make them more drought-resistant; one to help farmers who’ve suffered 1-2 years of low production due to drought not lose crop insurance; and a program to reduce the threat of wildfires by cleaning up landscapes. A portion of the funds will also be used for grants in water management improvement projects, and to address the drought-related needs of water utilities and households. “This aid will provide new opportunities for farmworkers and rural communities most impacted by the drought and make the state more water-efficient and drought resilient,” said California Gov. Jerry Brown.

Microbes. “In our bodies, they help fight off disease. In the soil, they help deliver nutrients to plants, and perhaps much more,” reports Dan Charles. Using microbes as weapons against insects and weeds is a practice that has been around for decades, but recent interest has sparked since big name pesticide corporations like Bayer and Monsanto have begun putting money behind it. Pam Marrone of Marrone Bio Innovations has been searching for these little microbial pesticides for most of her professional life, cultivating colonies to see whether they can kill crop-eating insects such as cabbage loopers, beet armyworms, corn rootworms, green peach aphids, spider mites and more. While bio-pesticides have long been popular in organic farming, conventional farmers are turning to them to reduce their use of toxic chemicals. All of the big chemical companies – DuPont, Monsanto, Syngenta, Cropscience, Bayer – are making deals to boost their microbe-discovery capacity, betting that microbes could be the next big tool for farmers to grow more food.

An estimated 19 million Americans suffer from social anxiety, and boy do we hope they like pickles! Recent research from Virginia’s College of William and Mary and the University of Maryland shows that eating fermented food such as yogurt, sauerkraut, pickles and kimchi reduces social anxiety. The microbiome, or population of bacteria that inhibits the body, plays an essential role in mental health. Studies in mice showed that bacteria-free mice were anxious – they had increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and decreased levels of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), a protein associated with depression in humans. When anxious mice were given probiotic lactic acid bacterium Lactobacillus, their stress hormone levels dropped and anxiety- and depression-related behaviors disappeared. Researchers guess that the “good” bacteria in fermented foods (or probiotics) boost the production of gamma-aminobutyric acid, a chemical messenger in the brain that has the same effect as anti-anxiety medications. So next time you’ve got a stressful situation ahead, crack open that jar of pickles and relax.

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