RFC Joins USDA in Online Chat Re: Veterans and Farming

On Thursday, September 17, USDA Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden led a panel of veteran farmers and veteran training organizations, including Marianne Cufone on behalf of Recirculating Farms Coalition. The group discussed, via an online chat through Google+ Hangout, opportunities available for returning service members who are looking for long-term careers in farming and ranching.

Many veterans show interest in agriculture because they feel that working on the land helps them successfully transition to civilian life and provides them with a way to continue serving their community. As part of the beginning farmer and rancher community, many veterans are eligible for a wide variety of USDA programs and resources.

Recirculating Farms Coalition, through a grant from USDA’s Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Development Program, has been hosting market (commercial) farmer trainings in New Orleans, Louisiana throughout this year, especially focused on veterans, women, and socially disadvantaged communities.

The event allowed RFC to highlight the assorted benefits of water-based growing methods for veterans. During the talk, Marianne Cufone noted, “[w]e learned these growing methods are especially useful for more senior or disabled vets – they are very versatile in design and so inspire creativity, they can be inside or outdoors and so offer flexibility, growing food often leads to healthier eating, and socializing, and in terms of physical requirements these systems are usually vertical – in towers, or elevated in beds – so they don’t require much bending and there is no weeding!”

To read Marianne’s entire remarks, click here:

To watch the full Google Hangout, click here.

See the USDA’s blog at for more information.

Long Time Fish/Fishing Advocate Zeke Grader

givegraderA tireless advocate for fisheries and fishing families, Zeke Grader, died the night of September 7th.  And we all – no matter whether you loved, or loved to hate his messages – will miss him, his passion and genuine concern for the world we share. Learn more about Zeke, in an article from the party where he was honored for his life long advocacy, earlier this year.

I first met Zeke when an unusual coalition of people from all around the U.S. involved in fisheries – both commercial and recreational fishing groups, environmental advocates, scientists, lawyers and more (normally most of these people wouldn’t even speak to each other) – came together to jointly promote changes to the nation’s main fisheries law, the Magnuson Stevens Act. It was no small feat, getting all these opinionated, notoriously adversarial people in a room to work on a common project.

Zeke was one of the group, and right away, I noticed he was serious about these issues, straightforward in his manner, and given the temperature in the room, brave about speaking up. He didn’t care what people thought of him – he cared that people thought about his issues and his position on them. His constant energy and famously entertaining quotes got him spots on big time TV like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, the Sean Hannity Show, and also in many newspapers nationwide for years and years, raising awareness about important fisheries issues that likely otherwise would have been passed over.

I then learned Zeke was also a lawyer. Some people (mainly those he outsmarted in some political arena) would snarkily say “He’s a lawyer who thinks he’s a fisherman.” Turns out, he was really a fisherman who went to law school and was therefore better able to advocate for his friends, neighbors and fellow fishing families – oh, and the fish too. He was all about making sure our floppy friends went on living and reproducing for many years to come. I genuinely believe there would be no Pacific salmon today, but for the many efforts of Zeke Grader and friends.

His positive impacts were felt far and wide – in fact, Zeke helped create the Recirculating Farms Coalition.

One hot issue during the years that our unlikely coalition continued working together was development of fish farms in the ocean around the U.S. These would be giant floating cages filled with fish. There are a number of concerns with such an industry, including pollution from fish waste and excess fish feed falling through the cages, escapes of captive fish into the wild, intermixing with and perhaps causing illness or altering genetics of wild fish, the actual space these huge farms take up – making navigation and other problems for shipping, fishing and other ocean industries. And, notably, that these massive industrial farms can produce cheap fish – undercutting prices of seafood and hurting fishing families. Needless to say, Zeke was no fan.

We worked together to stop efforts to allow ocean fish farms in U.S. waters. Zeke had a lot of experience in the political arena and was happy to share and teach. He was an amazing mentor. When we were asked about what could be an acceptable alternative to ocean fish farms – we put forth recirculating fish farms (also called recirculating aquaculture) – the idea that fish could be produced on land in tanks in an eco-friendly way that didn’t hurt the ocean, or our fishing families.

Because recirculating farms are entirely closed loop – they recirculate waste and water within their own system, so a wide range of fish could be raised – especially those that do not conflict with what local fishermen catch. There is no pollution of the surrounding environment and no possibility of escapes. Additionally, turns out you can combine recirculating fish farming with hydroponics – raising plants in water – to create an amazing, innovative farming system, known as aquaponics. Support for this concept as an alternative to ocean fish farms grew – and Recirculating Farms Coalition was born.

Of course there is much more to this story all around – both relative to Zeke as an advocate and to the creation of RFC, but it would take pages and pages more to go through all the details. Rather than drag on, I’ll follow Zeke’s advice to me long ago – “keep it simple, so people understand.”

I’ll leave you with my favorite quote from Zeke when he was waxing poetic about the proposed ocean aquaculture bill that we ultimately killed in Congress many years ago. He told a reporter that he could sum up the bill in two words, “It sucks”. Couldn’t be any simpler, and that’s exactly what was printed in the paper the next morning.

That’s exactly how I feel about Zeke’s far-too-early departure too.

Marianne Cufone

We did it: Urban Ag and Farm to School Laws!

Serving School Lunch 2Two new bills in Louisiana that support bringing more good food to communities through local agriculture are now law!! The first creates a “farm-to-school” program, which allows Louisiana public schools to communicate directly with local farmers to buy food. Previously, for any food item over $25,000, schools had to go through a complicated and difficult public bidding process, which often left out local farmers because they could not participate, be it due to lack of time or technology. Now, schools can connect with farms for any items under the federal minimum purchasing threshold, which is currently $150,000! This will bring more fresh local food to Louisiana schools. As over 65% of students in Louisiana public schools qualify for free or reduced price meals, the new law will promote providing children with fresh food who may get their primary meal, or even most or all of their meals at school.

Pepper Sarah EbonyThe second new law is an urban agriculture incentive, which allows Louisiana cities to reduce taxes on land usedRooftop hydro towers with herbs smaller for farming. The hope is that more landowners will be motivated to allow use of their properties for urban agriculture and share the tax savings with farmers by leasing at more affordable rates. The intent is to increase access to affordable land in cities for farming and thus also increase availability of local fresh food.

Marianne Sen Thompson and Katie cropRecirculating Farms Coalition, working with students from Loyola New Orleans Law, various farmers, food advocates and especially the National Farm to School Network and Louisiana Farm to School Alliance successfully moved these 2 very important concepts through the Louisiana Legislature with Rep. Ebony Woodruff and Sen. Francis Thompson. On August 1st, with unanimous approval of the House and Senate, they both became law. Hooray for local food and farming and CONGRATS to all involved.

USDA “EQIP”s Urban Growers!

hoop houseJune 26th was an exciting day for us here at the Recirculating Farms Coalition! That’s when we found out we had been accepted to participate in the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP).

EQIP is a financial assistance program sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture through its Natural Resources Conservation Service. EQIP is designed to aid farmers in implementing practices that improve conservation and quality of soil, water, animals, land and other agricultural resources.

Through the Seasonal High Tunnel Initiative, a program funded by EQIP, the USDA supported our farm in New Orleans, Growing Local NOLA, in the planning, and purchasing of a brand new hoop house!

“Hoop houses” can help extend the growing season for various crops, like tomatoes or leafy greens. High tunnels are not greenhouses, but rather rounded structures covered in a plastic-like covering. These tunnels can add six or more weeks to a growing season by modifying the climate inside of the hoop house to more favorable growing conditions, protecting the crops from harsh weather or extreme temperatures. Crop yields are usually better not only because of the extended season, but the improvement of nutrient and water management that the hoop houses can provide, as well as the reduced incidence of pests and diseases due to the covering.

Three cheers for USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Services EQIP program! To learn more about the EQIP program, and to determine if you may qualify to participate, please visit the USDA NRCS EQIP website.

Urban Farmer Trainings in NOLA!

What a great weekend we had June 12 -14! We hosted the first in a series of intensive urban farmer “market” trainings for new and beginning growers. In a combination of classroom-type presentations and discussions and on-the-farm real activities, 38 excited participants learned the basics of growing food, sustainable urban style.

We kicked the weekend off with a “meet and greet” party – so attendees and presenters could mingle and chat before the class began. We had great snacks and drinks from local farms, prepared by Chef Tracy Koi.

The 2-day course ran all of Saturday and Sunday, and included topics such as: what kind of farm to choose (why and how), legal matters, land access, pest and disease identification and natural management, in-ground and raised bed growing, hydroponics and aquaponics and so much more!

We kept everyone well hydrated and fed too – with tons of good fresh food.

Thanks to a generous New and Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Development grant from the USDA- NIFA we are able to provide this training completely free – including all materials!

Next up is the intermediate class August 1- 2, then advanced in August. Get more information or to register for those classes here. The series will repeat September – November.

All participants will also be part of our mentorship program – being paired with a local experienced grower, and offered that opportunity for an internship on a working farm.

This is based upon work that is supported by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture, under award number 2015-70017-22880