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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

September 23, 1994

Air Date: September 23, 1994

SEGMENTS

Smoking is Out, Eating is In / John Gregory

Some Kentucky tobacco farmers are anticipating the inevitable decline of the state's ubiquitous crop and are turning to other forms of farming such as organic vegetable production. John Gregory reports on the delectable success that a pilot program is yielding in the bluegrass state. (10:24)

The Bluebird's Happy Return / Dan Grossman

Dan Grossman spends time with Lillian Files, also known as "The Bluebird Lady," and reports on how human intervention is helping to bring back this rare species. (05:53)

Living With Wildlife

Host Steve Curwood interviews Shelly Stump, a co-author of the recent book Living With Wildlife. Stump offers practical advice on how to increase pleasant encounters with wild animals where they dwell. (04:27)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Copyright (c) 1994 by World Media Foundation. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold, or transmitted without the written authority of World Media Foundation.

HOST: Steve Curwood
NEWSCASTER: Jan Nunley
REPORTERS: Eric Westervelt, Alex Kirby, John Gregory, Daniel Grossman
GUEST: Shelley Stump

(Theme music intro)

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

The family farmers of US tobacco are in trouble. Smoking restrictions and foreign competition are rising. Incomes are falling. And even the staunchest supporters of tobacco are looking at new options. In Kentucky, one of the pillars of tobacco country is demonstrating an alternative: organic vegetables.

CLAY: I think in the past, when people have mentioned organic farmers, there have been some snickering going on: those crazy hippie types. No one's laughing this year.

CURWOOD: Also, North America's eastern bluebird was headed for extinction until it got some special attention.

FILES: This is the way we brought him back is by giving them human help. And if it wasn't for that, I'm sure the bluebird would have been gone by the way of the passenger pigeon.

CURWOOD: That and more this week on Living on Earth, coming up right after this news.

Environmental News

NUNLEY: I'm Jan Nunley with this summary of environmental news. A Federal panel has come up with a plan to protect the northeast forests after nearly 6 years of study and public debate. Eric Westervelt of New Hampshire Public Radio reports.

WESTERVELT: In its final plan the Council suggestions include tax incentives to keep large tracts of forest from being subdivided and developed, calls for money to explore acquiring more public lands, and proposals for better educating landowners on sound forest stewardship. Although the report calls for urgent and sustained action by state and Federal lawmakers, it's not clear if the Council's proposals will be implemented at all. The 26 million acres of forest stretch across 4 states - New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine - all with very different politics. New Hampshire's political culture, for example, will fiercely resist tax increases; and in Maine, some environmentalists say tax breaks, similar to what the Council is proposing, have already proved ineffective there. In addition, most of the forest is owned by large timber and paper companies who might resist the call for examining forest practices. Despite their disagreements, all sides say the Council started a reasoned, public dialogue on the northeast forests which they hope will allow them to avoid the lawsuits and bitterness that have marked forest fights in the Pacific Northwest. For Living on Earth, this is Eric Westervelt in Concord, New Hampshire.

NUNLEY: Disney's controversial plan for an American history theme park in northern Virginia may get final approval from Prince William County officials this fall after clearing 2 important local hurdles. The proposed 3,000-acre project sailed through a county planning commission, and a 3-state transportation board has approved millions of dollars to improve area roads. But the park may be tougher to sell to Federal officials. Among other things, they are concerned that thousands of cars carrying visitors to the park daily would push local air pollution over Federal limits.

Forty nations have signed the first accord binding countries to close unsafe nuclear power plants. The new pact requires the review of civilian atomic reactors by an international commission. But authority to inspect and close substandard reactors was stripped from the treaty. Instead, reactor safety will be judged using written reports from each country. The new agreement covers most of the world's civilian nuclear plants.

British scientists say there is more plant life in Antarctica today than 30 years ago, pointing to possible warming of the local climate. The researchers are with the British Antarctic Survey, which discovered the Antarctic ozone hole a decade ago. From London, the BBC's Alex Kirby reports.

KIRBY: Thirty years ago scientists surveyed the numbers of Antarctica's 2 flowering plants: the hair grass and the pole wort. At one site they found 700 hair grass plants. In 1990, another survey of the same site counted more than 17,000: a 25-fold increase. The pole wort also is more abundant, up from 60 plants to nearly 400. Similar increases were recorded at another base 600 miles away, in the south Orkney Islands. There, the scientists also found 2 new plants previously unknown in Antarctica growing in soil left there by retreating glaciers. The scientists say what's happening to the plants is evidence of global warming. Though how much is natural, and how much caused by human activity, is still unclear. For Living on Earth, this is Alex Kirby in London.

NUNLEY: It's good news and bad news from a joint US-Mexican study of the Rio Grande River. The good news is that the border river isn't as polluted as EPA officials thought. The bad news is it's still pretty filthy. Booming border industries and fast-growing communities with little if any sewage treatment have contaminated the river, often portrayed as an open toxic sewer dividing the 2 countries. But one EPA official quoted in the El Paso Herald Post says the chemical contamination doesn't pose an immediate health risk to humans. Still, researchers identified 48 toxic chemicals in Rio Grande water, sediments and fish, 30 exceeding US health and safety standards. The study is the first phase of a 1992 agreement between the US and Mexico to clean up the Rio Grande.

An innovative program to put cleaner vehicles on the road has landed its first big participant. United Parcel Service will convert several hundred of its Connecticut-based trucks to natural gas, and build fueling stations to keep them running. UPS is the first big fleet owner to take advantage of new state tax breaks for companies which convert to alternative fuel vehicles. The company tax bill is cut 50 cents for every dollar spent on conversion, and they avoid the state's 31 cent-a-gallon fuel tax. Environment Commissioner Tim Keeney says Connecticut's market driven program will work better than imposing clean vehicle sales mandates on car makers.

KEENEY: The problem with the program in New York and Massachusetts, from our standpoint, is it doesn't provide a market incentive for the purchase of the vehicle. It doesn't encourage people to buy them.

NUNLEY: Keeney hopes the Connecticut plan will stimulate the market for low emission vehicles and the services to keep clean cars on the road.

That's this summary of environmental news. I'm Jan Nunley.

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(Theme music up and under)

Smoking is Out, Eating is In

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Tobacco is under fire in the US. And tobacco growers are feeling the assault. The healthy incomes and vibrant farming communities that tobacco has supported for generations are eroding in the face of growing health concerns and cheap foreign labor. Thousands are hanging on, and it's not just that they need to make a living. Growing tobacco is an art of which they are proud to be masters. Fine tobacco, like the burley that's found in many popular American cigarettes, is hand-raised on small family farms. It requires close and constant human attention. It can't be done with machines. But some in tobacco country say they may have found an alternative, which requires many of the same skills while returning a living wage: organic vegetables. Reporter John Gregory grew up on a tobacco farm, and he has our story from the heart of the Burley Region of Kentucky.

(Footfalls through a tobacco field; tobacco leaves being cut)

GREGORY: This is a familiar sound in Kentucky during August and September: the sound of tobacco being cut. Like lumberjacks moving through a forest of 6-foot trees, the workers walk through the narrow rows of yellowish-green tobacco, using a small axe to cut each of the plants off about an inch from the ground. With temperatures often in the 90s, the work is grueling. After a 12-hour day of cutting and hanging, these men will be covered in a thick layer of sweat, dirt, and sticky black tobacco gum.

HAYDON: We ought to be able to start loading the by 7. Should be cooled down enough for then.

?: I think so.

GREGORY: Larry Haydon raises tobacco near Willisburg in Central Kentucky. As he talks, his eyes switch from watching his 5-man crew to the rain clouds gathering in the northwest. Like most other Kentucky tobacco farmers, Hayden raises a type of leaf called burley tobacco: a key ingredient in many premium cigarettes.

HAYDEN: I got 20 acres; I got a cousin got 25. I got another cousin; he's got about 12 or 14 acres.

GREGORY: Haydon says this year's crop is one of the best in years. It's the future that concerns him. In addition to growing medical evidence and political pressures against smoking, American tobacco farmers are having to compete against increasing amounts of cheap imported tobacco. And the Federal Government could require farmers to cut tobacco production by as much as 30 to 40% next season. That would be a major blow to a state where tobacco farming generates $800 million in income, and where there are more tobacco farming families than any other state in the nation.

HAYDON: A lot of the older ones is just going out completely. You know, there's - don't think it's too good where I look forward, but I don't know. Maybe they're right.

(Beans being dropped into a wooden box)

GREGORY: About 70 miles southwest of Larry Haydon's farm, Allison Hamm is also busy trying to get her crop in before it rains. Her crop is yellow wax beans. Hamm is an organic vegetable farmer. On about 2-and-a-half acres atop a ridge line near Mammoth Cave National Park, she grows just about everything from beans and tomatoes to broccoli, sweet corn, okra, squash, peppers, and peas.

HAMM: I don't grow burley, and it's a personal decision not to. But my grandfather did. My dad put himself through college growing it. I've worked in it myself, and I have - all my neighbors grow it.

GREGORY: Hamm is about 1 of 20 farmers participating in the Kentucky Organic Growers, a pilot project to see if organic vegetable production can keep small family farms in business in the face of declining tobacco income. Pam Clay is a former environmental lawyer for the state of Kentucky, and is now the director of the organics program.

CLAY: I think that anybody who buys something in Kentucky that can be produced in a farm, it ought to be bought from a Kentucky farmer. And the first thing is that Kentucky farmers need to start producing it so that it's available to consumers.

GREGORY: Clay says the bulk of the produce goes to about 100 members who pay a $500 subscription fee for weekly deliveries of vegetables from May through October. The rest of the goods are sold to local restaurants and grocery stores. Although the project is not even through its first year, Clay says its success so far has caught the attention of some tobacco farmers.

CLAY: I think in the past when people have mentioned organic farmers, there have been some snickering going on: those crazy hippie types. No one's laughing this year.

HAMM: And the prices have been excellent.

GREGORY: Again, organic grower Alison Hamm.

HAMM: They've been better than good. They've been excellent. They've been better for the most part than I can get at the farmer's market in town, and I don't have to sit there and deal with 50 people to get it sold.

GREGORY: Food co-ops and subscription farming operations are increasing across the United States. But what makes the Kentucky program unique is its sponsor: the Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative Association. The organization created to help farmers market burley tobacco. John Berry, Jr. recently retired as president of the co-op. He's credited with bucking Kentucky's tobacco establishment to support this effort to explore alternative cash crops.

BERRY: They felt like that was a sign of weakness. That it was displaying to the world your belief that it was over for tobacco. Well, I disagreed with that, because I think any time that you're dependent on one crop, and a little handful of buyers for that crop, that you don't have to tell the world you're weak; everybody already knows it.

GREGORY: The tobacco co-op provides office space and equipment for the organics program, but no funding. That's come from private contributions and grants. Kentucky Governor Brererton Jones went out on a political limb last winter when he suggested that 10% of any new Federal tobacco tax be used to help support alternative crop programs. The idea was resoundingly rejected by Kentucky's Congressional delegation and farm leaders. John Berry also opposes the tobacco tax, and he says he wouldn't want the organics project to be dependent on tax dollars. But Berry still sees the need for additional capital to help this type of program expand.

BERRY: That project ought to include conventional production as well as organic. It ought to include beef and pork as well as vegetables. It ought to include any other option that Kentucky farmers have. So that we could compare all of the results and be able to take it in black and white to tobacco farmers not just in Kentucky but all of them who are members of the Burley Co-op.

GREGORY: But skepticism about the organics program runs high among Kentucky tobacco farmers, many of whom have heard numerous proposals over the years for a variety of alternative crops. It's a difficult sell, especially since tobacco generates more income per acre than any traditional farm crop. Paul Hornback grows tobacco near Shelbyville, Kentucky.

HORNBACK: The idea that you can convert from tobacco with those same 30 acres that I have into corn or soybeans or some type of vegetable crop is not an idea that will work. Number one, there's not a market established for 30 acres of sweet corn or soy or green beans, some type of high dollar crop. So there's a lot of problems that a lot of people don't look at.

GREGORY: Organics program director Pam Clay agrees that vegetable production won't be for everyone. There are more than 60,000 tobacco farmers in Kentucky, and many of them already grow other crops or have jobs off the farm to supplement their income. But Clay says if she can get even 10 tobacco farmers to join the program next year, she will feel the project is a success.

CLAY: I know that that sounds like a really small number in comparison, and it is. But the good news is that, although the people who smoke in the United States and in Kentucky might be declining, that number, no one is going to stop eating. And from what I'm hearing from consumers, they want to be loyal to Kentucky farmers, if the farmers would just grow the products that they want to buy. And that's the key.

(Sound of an engine. Woman's voice: "Hi there! How are you today?" "I'm fine; how are you?" "All right." "Anything that needs explanation here?")

GREGORY: In the parking lot of the Burley Tobacco Co-op Offices in downtown Lexington, Clay helps distribute this week's vegetables to a dozen co-op members. The buyers also get recipes and a brief profile of the organic farmers that grow the vegetables. Lexington physician Barbara Phillips says this connection between farmer and consumer has been especially important to her.

PHILLIPS: I got interested in this because I'm one of those anti-smoking, pro-health zealots that want to see the end of tobacco. But in the course of this, have made friends with many of the farmers and some of the individuals involved here and have learned so much more than I ever thought I would about farming and land and soil and Kentucky and it's important to me, if possible, to see the inevitable weaning of farmers from tobacco without seeing the decline of the small family farm. This is one way that it might happen.

GREGORY: The Kentucky organic growers will distribute produce through the end of October. In November, the group will begin planting next year's crop and holding seminars for tobacco farmers and others who want to learn organic growing techniques. For Living on Earth, I'm John Gregory in Lexington, Kentucky.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: What do you think? Should tobacco farmers be changing crops? Should the government help them? Give us a call on our listener comment line at 1-800-218-9988. That's 1-800-218-9988. Or you can reach us through the Internet. Our address is LOE @ NPR.ORG. That's LOE @ NPR.ORG. Our postal address is Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238. That's Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238. Transcripts and tapes are $10.

The Bluebird's Happy Return

CURWOOD: With its cheerful call, bright blue back and red chest, the eastern bluebird has long been welcomed as a harbinger of spring. Henry David Thoreau observed that the bluebird carries the sky on its back, and John Burroughs added it has the earth on its breast. But earlier this century, those sprightly bearers of earth and sky nearly disappeared. English sparrows and starlings brought here from Europe squeezed the bluebird out of its springtime nesting and foraging areas, and pesticides further reduced their numbers. But today the bluebird is making a comeback, thanks to hundreds of volunteers. From Tyngsboro, Massachusetts, Daniel Grossman has our story.

(Birdsong. Woman's voice: "Ula! Hi there! I'm making a house call to see about your sparrows, okay? So can we go out in the yard and take a look now? "Sure." "Yeah, all right." "We'll go down this way...")

GROSSMAN: It's late in the day and a thunderstorm is approaching. But Lillian Files, known locally as the Bluebird Lady, has a mission to accomplish: to help get rid of a pair of English sparrows that has invaded the bird box of her neighbor Ula Quint.

QUINT: Yesterday morning I just thought it was strange because I didn't see the bluebirds any more. And then I looked out my window and the bird, a bird flew out, landed on the grass and I looked, and it was a sparrow. So um, you know, I came down here and I saw the mess. The eggs on the ground and, you know, it was - it's very discouraging.

GROSSMAN: The adults were spared. But the eggs were pecked with holes and tossed onto the ground. Files, past president of the North American Bluebird Society, says sparrows are only one of the many threats to the bluebird. Other birds such as house wrens and swallows also carry out aggressive attacks. And raccoons often eat the tiny eggs with chicks.

(Sound of metal scraping on metal. Files: "I have to hold this up right now. Oh boy, there it is...")

GROSSMAN: For sparrows, the solution is obvious. Files shows her neighbor how to install a trap to capture the predatory bird.

(Files: "You set it up here." "Okay." "Okay. Then the bird flies in the box, and it lands on this, and then it can't get out. And from your house you could see this - you could see it's red or something, you know. Now the only thing is - " "And then I have to call you." Files laughs. "I'm the villain!" Birdsong.)

GROSSMAN: With luck, the adult bluebirds will return and raise another clutch of chicks this season. Lillian Files says the bluebird was once as common as the robin. Its exquisite coloring, a deep, iridescent blue back and rusty red breast and spunky boldness, made it a favorite farm bird. Forty years ago, when Files was in her late 20s, the bluebird was common near her home here. But she soon discovered that it was uncommon elsewhere.

FILES: Some folks came up and said Lillian, you have a rare bird. And it was the bluebird. And of course I did admire this bird because it's so beautiful. And then I wanted to know why it was rare. I thought everybody had them here in the country. And then I found out why they were rare, and I sort of dedicated myself and the rest of all these years through trying to make the bluebird come back.

GROSSMAN: The bluebird prospered in the agrarian landscape of 19th century America. It lived in the cavities of rotted trees on the edges of fields. But in the 20th century, small farms began going under. Pastures became forest and suburbs. Meanwhile, the European house sparrow and starling proliferated. And after World War II the country was doused with harmful, persistent pesticides, including DDT. By 1977, the population had plummeted by as much as 90%. But a ban on DDT, and the efforts of volunteer organizations such as the North American Bluebird Society, helped to bring the bluebird back. Among other things, the society encouraged people to build wooden birdhouses to replace natural habitats. Files says these boxes are still essential, and that they require constant tending.

FILES: We always say if you don't want to monitor your boxes at least once a week, forget it. Don't even put up a bluebird box. Because these birds need human help so badly...Take a look, take a look! He's beautiful! Right in front of us. See that blue? You gotta fall in love with a bird like that! (Laughs)

GROSSMAN: With a pace nearly as peripatetic as a bird, Files leads me on a tour of her own little piece of bluebird habitat behind her home. She stops at one of her 47 boxes and pulls open the front. Inside is one of the 2 pairs of bluebirds nesting here this year.

FILES: Let's see; hopefully everything is okay in here. Okay. Now wait a minute. Yep, they're alive, okay. Now those are 5 baby chicks that were just born last Saturday, but they're kind of sleepy right now, and the father and mother...

GROSSMAN: Files's gentle meadow appears like a pastoral paradise. But for the bluebird it could be more like a cool jungle full of vicious predators.

FILES: Looking right over there now, there's one of our worst predators, and that's the English sparrow. And the starling and the English sparrow's not a native bird, and it's open season on them; you can trap them and do whatever you want. But I sometimes say recycle them, give them to a rehabilitation center so they can use them to feed owls and hawks.

GROSSMAN: Files compares the alien sparrow to the destructive gypsy moth. She kills those she catches and donates them for food to people rehabilitating ailing birds of prey. But Files also uses her property as a sort of laboratory for less drastic ways to discourage predators. She says it's efforts like these that have helped the eastern bluebird population to more than double in the last 2 decades.

FILES: This is the way we brought him back is by giving them human help. And if it wasn't for that, I'm sure the bluebird would have been gone by the way of the passenger pigeon.

GROSSMAN: For Living on Earth, this is Daniel Grossman.

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(Music up and under)

Living With Wildlife

CURWOOD: Apart from birds, the animals North Americans most often meet in their backyards are deer, raccoons, and skunks. These chance encounters aren't always welcome ones, and often leave both sides wondering what to do. Shelley Stump has just co-authored a new book that answers that question, at least for the people involved. it's called Living With Wildlife, and it's drawn from her research and experiences at the California Center for Wildlife. Ms. Stump says too often, we act out of ignorance.

STUMP: A couple of different examples, a baby fawn that was found in an urban area, downtown San Rafael, California. The person who found it thought it was orphaned, took it to the center. Usually fawns, though, are not orphaned; their mothers are feeding and come back to gather them later. So a volunteer took it back to the place where it was found, hid in a nearby area for about 3 hours, and sure enough, mama deer came back and gathered up her fawn and they headed to the hills.

CURWOOD: Ah hah.

STUMP: Now, the, unfortunately the contrary experience is one we heard of where an apparent sick raccoon was found near an elementary school and the police were called, and unfortunately a police officer beat the animal to death in front of a bunch of small schoolchildren.

CURWOOD: Eeuww.

STUMP: So that gives you sort of the range of experiences that the Center can encounter.

CURWOOD: Right. Now your book is entitled Living With Wildlife: How to Enjoy, Cope With, and Protect North America's Wild Creatures Around Your Home and Theirs. And what are some of your most important suggestions?

STUMP: The most important suggestions are basically preventative in nature. First of all, we encourage people to share the land if at all possible. That means don't fence your property; that means plant native plant species that act as a food source for the animals. Build small ponds for water sources. That sort of activity. Another suggestion is to make sure that on a regular basis you check your home to close up any openings that wild creatures can get in through.

CURWOOD: Now those are some things to do. What shouldn't we do?

STUMP: What you shouldn't do is approach wild animals too closely, ever. Wild animals are wild; even if they have seemingly adapted well to living around human beings, they still can be dangerous.

CURWOOD: What about feeding them?

STUMP: Feeding animals generally is not encouraged. Because a dependency can be created for wild creatures. Bird feeding is very popular, and we understand that many, many people enjoy doing it. And we don't necessarily discourage that entirely. What we do say, however, is people need to understand the responsibility they're undertaking by starting it. The other important thing to remember with bird feeding is to keep the bird feeders clean, because non-clean bird feeders are a large source of passing disease between birds.

CURWOOD: Okay. Now you say bird feeding is okay, but only in certain circumstances where you keep it up regularly. But we just had a story from Dan Grossman that says some species like the bluebirds rely on humans for their survival. What about this apparent contradiction?

STUMP: Well, that's true. There are species that have been so impacted by human contact and also by non-native species that humans have introduced to the continent, that without human intervention they will not survive. One way around that, though, is not just to undertake putting out bird seed and undertaking the feeding in that way, but to plant native plant species in the area, so that the animals, the birds or whatever other species are around, have their natural food source. And those plants then live year-round and are there whether the humans are there to put the bird seed out or not.

CURWOOD: So people with large yards or even larger amounts of land, should they be trying to attract wildlife to their property or not?

STUMP: Well, our position is yes they should be, because as humans continue to move into rural areas and develop wild land, the habitat of wild animals is increasingly disappearing. So unless we do things to encourage homeowners to share their land, to encourage the purchase and protection of corridors of land between, for example, national parks and national monuments, state parks, wildlife refuges, many species ultimately will disappear because they don't have enough land on which to survive.

CURWOOD: Shelley Stump is co-author, along with Diana Landau, and the California Center for Wildlife, of the new book Living With Wildlife: How to Enjoy, Cope With, and Protect North America's Wild Creatures Around Your Home and Theirs. Thank you.

STUMP: Thank you.

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Our program is directed by Deborah Stavro and produced and edited by Peter Thomson. The coordinating producer is George Homsy, and our associate producer is Kim Motylewski. Our production team includes Jan Nunley, Julia Madeson, Colleen Singer Coxe, Jessika Bella Mura, and WBUR engineers Keith Shields and Louis Kronin. Our theme music was composed by Michael Aharon. Special thanks this week to member station WFPL in Louisville, Kentucky.

Living on Earth is a project of the World Media Foundation, and recorded at WBUR, Boston. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

ANNOUNCER: Major contributors to Living on Earth include all-natural Stonyfield Farm Yogurt - whether supporting worthwhile causes or producing healthy foods, Stonyfield's goal is to make you feel good inside; the W. Alton Jones Foundation; the National Science Foundation; and the Pew Charitable Trusts. Additional support is provided by the Jessie B. Cox Foundation.

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