You might think it, but farms in winter are not barren, sullen and empty. Fields are covered in the dark fluttering green of cover crops, often a mix such as rye, Austrian snow peas and hairy vetch. Chickens of every color, clucking in the early morning, dot the land. Walking through the doorway of the Rainbow Hill farmhouse in Charles Town, West Virginia, drops you directly into a welcoming kitchen and a sense of tranquility.
A rooster-shaped scale sits on the counter, while a fresh basket of eggs rests expectantly next to it. Old black and white movies are playing on the television in the next room, and hundreds of tender green seedlings grow in the sunny windows while snow flurries swirl outside. This is February on a farm, and winter preparations are clearly underway for the flurry of customers craving fresh spring produce.
At Rainbow Hill, customers pay a single sum at the beginning of the season and are then supplied with a box of produce on a regular basis. Customers know where their produce is coming from, can be confident in how it is grown and don’t have to hike to the store on a weekly basis for produce that has traveled thousands of miles. By offering shares, the farmer is provided with capital to run a successful farm, and relationships are built that benefit both farmer and customer. This arrangement is referred to as Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), and it is gaining in popularity across the country.
What about those who cannot afford a CSA share? Are they left to scout the supermarket? Not hardly! A small number of workshares are often offered in addition to traditional shares. In this model, a person will help do the work on the farm for a few hours per week in exchange for their full share of produce.
Gale, former federal consultant and current serene farmer of Rainbow Hill, knows the value of workshares. “When I started [growing vegetables in buckets on the porch], I realized I was so happy, so at peace,” she says. Now a full time farmer, she loves what she does but does not have the help to make full use of her land. Offering two workshares this year at four hours per week, she is hopeful the added hands will allow her to farm more of her land.
Each CSA, farm and farmer offers a different experience. Rainbow Hill’s share includes eggs from her free-range, leafy green-eating chickens. Last year she lost 30 percent of the flock to predation from raccoons, eagles and coyotes, but considers it an acceptable cost for the gain of giving her chickens space: “…because, you know, you want them to be happy!”
Contented birds on a diet of foraged insects and farm greens seem to make the difference in her chicken and duck eggs—several customers at her farmers market will go without buying eggs rather than purchase from another farmer.
Experiences like this are not unique. Farmers and the public forming relationships, along with enjoying healthy produce, is an intangible gain that cannot be overlooked. It takes a lot of time and effort for a farmer to sustain a CSA, but being part of this system offers a valuable peace. As Gale puts it, “you try to get away from it every year, but the community needs you and it feels good... to be self-sustaining and to give that kind of value to your community.”
The beauty of CSAs is they’re not just for those in close proximity to a farm. Even if you live in the heart of the city, there’s a CSA for you. In that spirit of forming relationships, farmers are connecting with each other as well. Rainbow Hill, which has the benefit of space to grow plants like tomatoes and peppers, partners at a farmers’ market with an urban farm in Washington, D.C. that grows greens, as well as another smaller farm. This three-part harmony allows smaller farms to be connected in their local community and still offer a variety of items, creating a web of community relationships that cross geographical boundaries.
There is great interest across the country in sourcing locally-grown produce and supporting local farmers. Among the younger generations, there is an increasing desire to personally grow food, but most don’t know where to start. Many people cannot afford the high cost of constantly keeping fresh vegetables on the table, but know the value of healthy eating. CSAs, and workshare options within them, offer those interested the opportunity to get acquainted with new vegetables and learn to work a farm. For farmers, markets and the burgeoning CSA communities offer the chance for urban farmers with vertical greenhouses or rural farmers with sprawling acres to get connected. Today is CSA Day, and there’s no better time this year to find your farmer.
Interested in joining a CSA? Chat with your favorite farmer at the market or hit the web and find your perfect CSA match:
Photos and captions by Will Parson
The inclusion of all types of voices and communities is critically important to the success of environmental protection and restoration efforts in an increasingly diverse watershed. Now, the Chesapeake Bay Program is taking steps to make sure the partnership and its staff reflect the diversity of that community through the release of its first-ever diversity profile assessment.
In 2016, the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, on behalf of the Chesapeake Bay Program, distributed a diversity profile to approximately 750 people who work for or with the partnership. The survey revealed that 84 percent of respondents identified as white, while just 13 percent of respondents identified as non-white. Meanwhile, 35 percent of the people in the watershed—which spans parts of six states and the District of Columbia—identify as non-white. In establishing this baseline, the Bay Program is taking an important first step in making its partnership reflect the watershed it represents.
“Setting a baseline and being transparent about the state of diversity in our partnership is a critical first step towards increasing the diversity of people who are engaged in the leadership and implementation of restoration efforts throughout the Bay watershed,” said Jim Edward, Chair of the Bay Program’s Diversity Workgroup.
Alongside goals like oyster health and water quality, the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement includes a goal to increase the number and diversity of people who support and carry out conservation and restoration work. Under this goal, Bay Program partners committed to increasing representation in leadership and are assisted in this effort by the Bay Program’s Diversity Workgroup. A dynamic assembly of diverse voices from around the watershed, the Diversity Workgroup is dedicated to creating meaningful employment opportunities, promoting environmental justice and engaging underrepresented populations in conservation and restoration efforts.
“We are delighted that the Chesapeake Bay Program has not only taken stock of its diversity but has truly committed to ensuring that it reflects the racial diversity of the Chesapeake region,” said Whitney Tome, Executive Director of Green 2.0. “We look forward to collaborating with them on this initiative.”
When diversity is taken into account in the planning and implementation of conservation and restoration work, this work is likely to benefit underrepresented and underserved communities. Increasing the inclusion of previously underrepresented communities in our work fosters creativity, drives innovation and ensures all people in the watershed can share in the vibrancy of the region.
Standing at the edge of the Jones Falls, amid polystyrene coffee cups and plastic soda bottles, dwarfed by vibrant graffiti on the surrounding concrete walls, it’s almost possible to hear the rush of water over the noise of the nearby interstate and train tracks. It’s a mild January morning, and Alice Volpitta and Rose Dunn—armed with sensors and sampling bottles—are carefully perched on boulders next to the water.
The two are with Blue Water Baltimore, a nonprofit that once a month monitors water quality at sites along the Jones Falls and Gwynns Falls, two streams that run through the heart of Baltimore City. Today, Volpitta, Water Quality Manager, and Dunn, her volunteer monitoring intern, are visiting five sites along the downstream portion of the Jones Falls. It’s one less than the typical six, because a locked gate is blocking the path to one of the monitoring sites.
“There’s hardly any access to the water,” explains Volpitta. “It’s tough to actually get to it.”
Locked gates aren’t the only obstacle: at various points along the five-stop route, the pair’s progress is slowed by steep, gravelly inclines; thick, viscous mud; and concrete barriers. “This is what I mean by lack of access,” Volpitta laughs at one site, as she and Dunn climb over the wooden railing of a staircase to get down to the water’s edge.
It’s the perfect illustration of how far-removed Baltimore can feel from the water. Apart from the tidal Patapsco River—which makes up the city’s Inner Harbor—Charm City seems mostly paved over. But amidst, and often beneath, the pavement sits a tangled network of streams, including the Jones Falls and Gwynns Falls.
“We’re only going to five sites, but you will see more of Baltimore streams today than most people will ever see,” says Volpitta.
It’s what’s unseen in the water that Blue Water Baltimore is concerned with. The organization tracks a variety of measurements typical of water monitoring programs: nutrient and sediment pollution, dissolved oxygen, pH, temperature and conductivity. They also track levels of fecal bacteria, which waterways in the Baltimore region are infamous for—especially after a rainfall, and it had just rained the night before.
This means that, even if you find your way to the water’s edge, it can be best to adhere to a “look, don’t touch” policy.
“We never touch the water directly,” Volpitta explains. Each time they gather their sampling supplies and head down to a monitoring site, she and Dunn pull on pairs of disposable nitrile gloves.
Bacteria can reach the water in a few different ways. When rain falls on non-porous surfaces like roads, sidewalks or buildings, it’s unable to soak into the ground. Instead, it flushes away whatever it can from the surface—from leaking motor oil to pet waste—and rushes it to the nearest waterway. And with as much pavement as a city like Baltimore has, that can add up to a lot of pollution-laden water.
“There’s so much impervious surface in the city that every time it rains it just flash floods, basically,” says Volpitta. At one site, the cover of a sewer manhole had shifted, revealing an opening a few inches wide. The movement seems slight, but it was the result of hundreds of pounds of metal being lifted just by the force of rushing water.
Aside from polluted runoff, Baltimore’s aging water infrastructure plays a role in the presence of fecal bacteria in the Jones Falls. When it was first put in place, the city’s sewer system was state-of-the-art. But when rainfall overwhelms the now 110-year-old system, sewage can be directly discharged into the Jones Falls and other waterways.
The City of Baltimore is actively making repairs and upgrades to the system, but with more than 3,000 miles of sewer lines—some of which are cracked, clogged or simply too small to accommodate the necessary amount of water—progress has been slower than some had hoped for.
In 2002, repeated sewer overflows led the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Maryland Department of the Environment to sue the City of Baltimore. As part of a settlement, the city agreed to fix the sewer system by 2016. Last year, this agreement was revised, giving the city until 2021 to stop its sewage discharges into the Jones Falls and until 2030 to complete all repairs the sewer system requires.
At one monitoring station—near Lake Roland, a former Baltimore City reservoir—it’s easy to forget how close you are to downtown. The loudest noise is the piercing rattle of a belted kingfisher as it flits from tree to tree, followed by the soft murmurs of visitors walking their dogs along the wooded pathway. It’s almost serene enough to persuade you that the water seems less polluted.
But that day, the fecal bacteria count at the Lake Roland site was 260 colonies per 100 milliliters of water. For reference, 151 is considered safe for limited contact with the water, and 61 is considered the safe threshold for full-body contact with the water.
Due in part to the rainfall the night before, none of the sites sampled that day had safe levels for human contact.
All of the monitoring data collected by Blue Water Baltimore undergoes a quality control check before being posted on Harbor Alert, which offers the most recent monitoring data for each site. Data is run through an algorithm to see if it’s safe to swim in the water, and each site is given a red, yellow or green indication of safe contact. In 2015, none of the sampling sites along the Jones Falls or Gwynns Falls were safe for swimming more than 60 percent of the time.
Each year, all the data collected is rolled up into the Waterfront Partnership’s Healthy Harbor report card, which last year gave Baltimore’s streams a grade of D-minus (the Inner Harbor and other tidal waters received an F).
Although plenty of work lies ahead, Volpitta and her colleagues remain focused on the long-term goal: healthy Baltimore waterways.
“I think it’s safe to say that Blue Water Baltimore, and for myself personally, we all are really looking forward to a future where we have swimmable and fishable waterways,” Volpitta says. “Sometimes people think that that term ‘swimmable and fishable’ is a pie in the sky, it’s never going to be attainable. But that’s a phrase directly from the Clean Water Act. So if our legislators thought it was good enough for the Clean Water Act, I think it’s good enough for Baltimore City.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
Video, images and captions by Will Parson
Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) seeds and seed pods are arranged in a still life. Native throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed, the plant’s bright-orange coloring and copious nectar production attract bees, hummingbirds and other native pollinators. Milkweed seeds’ fine, feathery fibers—called silk or floss—allow the seeds to be carried on the wind.
As its name implies, butterfly milkweed is perhaps best known for its importance to butterflies. Also called butterfly flower or butterflyweed, the plant—along with other types of milkweed, including common milkweed and swamp milkweed—is the only food source of the monarch butterfly. Milkweed produces toxic chemicals that accumulate in the insect’s body, making them poisonous to predators.
But historically, milkweed has played an important role for humans as well. Pillows and mattresses have been stuffed with milkweed silk for centuries. During World War II, the plant gained national fame when war with Japan cut off access to the soft, cottony fibers of the seeds of the kapok tree, which the U.S. had used as filling for military life jackets. Through a national campaign, an estimated 11 million pounds of milkweed were collected—primarily by children using pillowcases—as a substitute filling.
Although potentially poisonous, the plant has been used for medicinal purposes as well. Many indigenous tribes applied milkweed sap for wart removal and chewed its roots to treat dysentery. It was also used in salves and infusions to treat swelling, rashes, coughs, fevers and asthma. Milkweed was even added to dishes for flavor, or to thicken soups—although special care was needed in the identification and preparation of the plant, to avoid its toxicity.
Image by Will Parson