Category Archives: Environment

A Sand County Almanac

Over the years, this book by Aldo Leopold has been recommended by many as a good read. I was born and raised only 30 miles from his hometown. My farm life and closeness to nature were strong influences on how I saw the world. A month ago while browsing a used bookstore, I found this copy of his book and decided it was time to read it. I am so glad I did. Leopold’s reflections on the natural world and our place in it fit squarely with mine. If you have not yet read the book, I encourage you to do so.


Farming Concerns in Iowa

Farmers are facing a very difficult spring in 2019. We recently drove 2 hrs through southeast Iowa and western Illinois. It appeared less than half the fields were planted. Late for this time of year. Nearly all plantings were corn less than 4 inches tall. Of those, there were large areas drowned out by recent heavy rains. The soybean crop has not been planted. Iowa normally supplies 13% of the nation’s soybeans. Much of the rich agricultural land of mid-America has received more than twice the normal precipitation for the year which has slowed work tremendously.

Several challenging issues for farmers are converging. Here are a few. Do they have crop insurance to cover losses? Is the federal government Market Facilitation Program recently announced going to help soybean farmers? What funds are available to help mitigate the growing problem of nitrates and nutrients in the watershed?

Chris Jones of the Iowa Institute of Hydraulic Research (IIHR) blogged on these issues. He explores these questions in his blog post This is why we can’t have nice things. I invite you to read his observations. Quoting:

Yes, I know we are having an unusual weather condition right now, and it is a factor in those numbers. But the fact of the matter is, we made weather a factor by wiping out the ecosystems that provided weather resilience. The landscape has no resilience to extreme weather. We see this year after year after year. Heck, when it comes to nitrogen loss, it has no resilience to even average weather… I think we deserve better.

Climate Encyclical | Will It Move Us To Act?

How I See It

There was much anticipation about the recent encyclical from Pope Francis on climate change. You can see and read the document at this link. No doubt you have seen and heard the news about it with some analysis of what is contained in it. I offer my impressions of the broad picture described in the 184 page document.

I’ve written a lot about climate change. It is one of the most important challenges faced by mankind. It will force us to deal with issues we already know about and some that we have yet to encounter. It will not go away if we ignore it.

Whether the encyclical is accepted by the world of Catholic leaders and followers will only be known by our actions in the future. There was a flurry of attention for a few days. Like many stories today, the attention has faded. I hope its messages are…

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A Visual Illustration of Plant Diversity’s Importance

Some views by our neighbor to the west.

The Prairie Ecologist

Last week, I took some photos that powerfully demonstrate the importance of plant diversity.

DCIM100GOPROG0080136. Research plots at The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies.

Several years ago, we created some research plots to help us learn more about how plant diversity interacts with ecosystem function.  As you can see above, the plots include a grid of squares (3/4 acre in size), each planted with one of three seed mixtures: monoculture (big bluestem), low diversity (grasses and a few forbs harvested in the fall), and high diversity (100 species).  Working with academic partners, we have several research projects underway, including a couple that demonstrate the influence plant diversity has on the spread of invasive plant species.

Other researchers have found similar relationships between plant diversity and resistance to invasive species, but that is only one of many benefits from having a wide variety of plants in a prairie.  Both herbivores and pollinators benefit…

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Drought 2015 | Several Things To Know

How I See It

The Sierra Nevada mountains provide California with about 30% of its water supply. On April 1st 2015, the Department of Water Resources did its annual analysis of the snowpack. It was declared ‘virtually gone‘…lowest since 1950. It was only about 6% of normal.

snowpack California Data Exchange Center (CDEC) | 

  • The recent 2014-2015 winter was not the driest on record, but close.
  • Temperatures this winter for California and the western states have been the warmest on record.
  • Reservoirs in California are running well below average levels. They will drop quickly because of the lack of snow melt and rain.

reser1 California Data Exchange Center (CDEC) |

  • The dry winter conditions and heat are setting the stage for high-elevation fires this summer.
  • The agriculture industry is facing unprecedented low levels of groundwater. Continued pumping is lowering ground and water levels which may never be regained even with possible future wet seasons.
  • Power…

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River Cleanup | Sustainable | Natural

How I See It

Sometimes a solution to a problem comes along that is simple and elegant and deserves to be promoted. This is one of those situations. The Inner Harbor of Baltimore, MD, is fed by the Jones Falls river watershed to the north. People carelessly leave trash on the ground and in the streets instead of in proper receptacles. When it rains, this trash is washed into the river and then into the Inner Harbor. It is ugly and unhealthy. Clean-up has been an ongoing chore for the city.

Since May 2014, the job of trash removal from the river has been made much easier with the use of a current-driven and solar-powered water wheel. Current flows from right to left. This perspective view shows two floating orange booms which guide the trash into the device. The device brings the trash up a conveyor and dumps it into a dumpster. If you…

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Did You Get Enough to Eat?

Ah, the holidays… From Thanksgiving until after New Year’s, it’s like the feast that never ends.

Turkey and ham, oysters and smoked salmon, potatoes and green beans, casseroles and fruit salads, pies and cream puffs. Not to mention all the cheese, crackers, cookies, and nut bars that seem too small to count. We taste and nibble, take more than we intend, fill ourselves, then fill our trash cans with food waste. When clearing the table and scraping plates from one holiday meal, we dump enough food to nourish several other people.

But what about the rest of the year? Did you get too much to eat to even finish it? Did some go to waste in your cupboard, your fridge, on the counter before you even had a chance to fix it? What left your plate or serving dishes for the trash can? How many times did you find forgotten leftovers and bid them adieu?

In the U.S. we waste a shocking amount of food at all points in the farm-to-fork chain. At the consumer level, you may waste more than you know. The National Geographic says, “Spills, spoilage, table scraps, and other losses from the typical American family of four add up to 1,160 pounds of uneaten food annually.” Doing the math, that means in that average household, there are 24 pounds of waste per person per month. This doesn’t include food loss at the producer’s end of the chain.

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC,)

In households, fresh products make up most of the wasted food. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that a typical American throws out 40 percent of fresh fish, 23 percent of eggs, and 20 percent of milk. Citrus fruits and cherries top the list for fruits, and sweet potatoes, onions, and greens are commonly wasted vegetables.(12)

Much of household waste is due to overpurchasing, food spoilage, and plate waste. About 2/3 of household waste is due to food spoilage from not being used in time, whereas the other 1/3 is caused by people cooking or serving too much.(13)

It can be hard to visualize the consequences of wasted or lost food. says

The environmental toll for throwing away so much uneaten food is also costly. Of the millions of tons that we waste in America each year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates 96 percent ends up in landfills. And currently, food waste is the number one material taking up landfill space, more than paper or plastic. This produces methane gas, one of the most harmful atmospheric pollutants.

In case you didn’t get that, let me repeat: food waste is the number one material going into landfills, creating methane gas. Methane gas is a greenhouse gas, trapping heat in the atmosphere and contributing to climate change.

If that weren’t enough, production of food we don’t eat requires tremendous resources including petroleum, chemicals for fertilizers and pesticides, and fresh water for irrigation. Again from the NRDC, wasteful production and use of food requires 25% of all freshwater used in the U.S. and 4% of total U.S. oil consumption. It costs $750 million per year just to dispose of the food and creates 33 million tons of landfill waste (leading to greenhouse gas emissions).

There is no way to soften this: producing and landfilling wasted food is environmentally hazardous.

What can you do to help? These tips from NRDC give great ideas for using your food dollars more effectively, and reducing resources used for producing, delivering, and landfilling unused foods.
Screen Shot 2014-12-03 at 4.20.55 PM

Or for much simpler tips, consider these created during World War I. Nearly 100 years ago in the depths of the war, we recognized that wasted food was wasted resources, which could otherwise be used to support freedom from tyranny. We are fighting a different kind of tyranny now, that of environmental change. This tyrant, too, must be defeated, and we have a role in that fight.

Pipeline Across Iowa? | Why I Oppose It

An oil pipeline is proposed to bisect the entire state of Iowa from the northwest to the southeast corner. The route is superimposed over a map of our Iowa rivers. Public information meetings are scheduled. Iowa residents can express their opinions at those meetings. I plan to attend and voice my opposition to the proposal.


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Some of the cities near the proposed route…


The proposed route would deliver crude oil to an existing pipeline at Pakota, Illinois. From there, it parallels and crosses the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers down to the gulf coast in Texas. The company also plans to ship crude by rail to the east coast.


Why Do I Oppose This Plan?

  • Fossil fuel use around the globe is driving increased Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere. That in turn is raising our average global temperatures. Global warming is an issue we should be doing more to combat. This pipeline would not reduce our dependency on fossil fuels. The pipeline would increase our dependency by making crude oil more available.
  • Instead of pouring money into a pipeline, we should be investing more in alternative and renewable sources of energy such as solar and wind. Our children and grandchildren deserve a future with clean air and normal climate. By building another pipeline, we are not investing in technology that will help secure a better future climate. We are continuing on the same path toward global warming and the resultant problems. Our children and grandchildren will pay for our mistakes and lack of action today.
  • I worked as a public school physics teacher for my career. I understand the technologies of both the current fossil fuel infrastructure and the emerging alternative energy sources. These were discussed at length in my classrooms. The dominant attitude shown by young people is that we can do better than continue the status quo of high fossil fuels consumption. They know their lives will be impacted negatively and want to see change for the better. We can make a positive difference for them.
  • Pipelines leak or burst and spoil large areas of environment and water supplies. The residents of Mayflower, Arkansas experienced that in 2013 when a pipe burst spilling thousands of barrels of crude oil into their neighborhood. Trains of tank cars derail and cause death and destruction as experienced in 2013 by the residents of Lac-Megantic, Quebec. Forty two people died. Half of the town center was destroyed. These are not isolated one-time events. Similar disasters could occur with this proposed pipeline.
  • As shown in the first graphic, this proposed pipeline crosses the Missouri River, Floyd, Little Sioux, and Maple which feed into the Missouri. It crosses the Raccoon and Des Moines Rivers. It parallels between the Skunk River and Des Moines River as they reach the Mississippi River where it crosses into Illinois. Pipeline leaks and bursts anywhere along the route has the potential to permanently damage the environment of major Iowa rivers and the ecology of the two largest rivers of this country. I am not willing to accept such risk.

For these and other reasons not mentioned, I urge that this proposed pipeline not be built. We are at a turning point. We can choose to take the path of less fossil fuel use. We can choose the path of renewable alternative energies and reap rewards for the economy, the environment, and our grandchildren.

Milkweed | Seeds Harvested

Milkweed plants are disappearing according to Monarch Watch and other sources. The Monarch butterflies rely upon them for survival. I decided to gather a few seed pods so I can plant some in my backyard and along a trail near my house. I cruised around some places on my bike looking for patches of milkweed that had extra pods I could harvest and bring home. I only took seven and left the rest for nature. I placed them on the deck for a month to dry out. That worked well. They split open and revealed their many seeds with attached coma.


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Each pod had dozens of healthy brown seeds. The challenge was to remove them without getting coma fuzzies all over the place. The garage seemed the best place to do that job.


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I grasped each pod firmly by the end opposite the seeds. That is where the coma tails were bundled. Then, I ran a small stick along the seeds to make them fall onto this plate. Almost all of them came loose so I could set aside the pod and detached coma fuzzies without any trouble. One source I read said to put the contents of the pod into a paper bag and shake it vigorously. Cut a small hole in the corner and dump out the seeds. The fuzzies remain in the bag. I never tried that. Here is my crop of seeds for the spring.


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They are now stored in a paper bag in the refrigerator until April. At that time, I will vernalize them. They get exposed to very cold temperatures for several weeks before planting them in May when ground temperatures are above 70˚. Vernalization increases the germination rate. I will layer them between moist paper towels and put them into a freezer for several weeks.

More on this story in April and May.