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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

January 24, 1997

Air Date: January 24, 1997


African-American Farmers: Working the Plough

In 1910, roughly 15 million acres of land were owned by African-American farmers in the U.S. That has declined to less than 4 million acres. It has been predicted that by the year 2005 black farmers in this country will have disappeared. Steve Curwood traveled with producer John Rudolph to southern Arkansas for a look at some African-American farmers who are striving to hold on to the land. (17:30)

Letters from Listeners

Listeners respond to some recent programs. (03:00)

The Living on Earth Almanac

Facts about... breakfast cereal. (01:15)

Western Floods Good for Migratory Birds / Luce Salas

While the recent flooding in the western United States has been devestating to humans, the conditions have made life good for some creatures. Luce Salas reports from California where some migrating birds are thriving amidst their newly flooded habitat. (04:05)

New York City: Garbage Down the Drain / Neal Rauch

Concern that organic waste from kitchen garbage disposals will add harmful material to the waste stream in New York City has lead to their banning in most New York neighborhoods. But as Neal Rauch reports, there is growing momentum to trash the law itself. (06:40)

Eco-Poets: Voices in the Wilderness / Kim Motylewski

Many poets look to the natural world for inspiration and internal reflection. Living On Earth producer Kim Motylewski recently traveled to an "Eco-Poetry" festival and spoke with four ecology oriented poets about their work and writings. (13:40)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Copyright (c) 1997 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: Lisa Mullins
REPORTERS: Constantine Von Hoffman, Jason Paur, Steve Curwood,
Luce Salas, Neal Rauch, Kim Motylewski

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

Today in Arkansas and across America, black farms and black farmers are disappearing, and may be gone from the landscape by early in the next century.

LEWIS: Average age of a black farmer in Arkansas is about 59 years old. Farmers are getting old.

CURWOOD: Are black farmers an endangered species?

LEWIS: Yes. And I'd go as far as to say there's a concerted effort to keep us an endangered species.

CURWOOD: But there are signs of hope in the next generation.

MILLS: I love the smell of the soil. Plus I love tillaging the soil. That's all I've ever done all my life. I played farmer when I was a little kid, so I liked playing it, so I wanted to become a real farmer. So I got that chance, and I went for it.

CURWOOD: The future of African-American farming this week on Living on Earth, right after this news.

Environmental News

MULLINS: From Living on Earth, I'm Lisa Mullins. The Clinton Administration says it wants mandatory limits on the greenhouse gases produced by all industrialized nations. At an international conference on climate change, US Undersecretary of State Tim Wirth said voluntary efforts which the Administration had previously backed have failed. A 1992 climate change treaty committed all developed nations to reduce emissions to 1990 levels by the end of the century. So far only 2 nations, Great Britain and Germany, are on track to meet those targets. Greenhouse gases produced by smokestacks and tailpipes are believed to be a major cause of global warming. A spokesman for a group representing US oil, mining, chemical, and auto companies attacked the Administration plan, saying it would force Americans into a second-class lifestyle.

Since 1900 the number of blizzards and heavy rainstorms has jumped by 20% in the US. A study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also found that total winter precipitation is up 10%. The study is based on data from a century of rainfall reports. Many scientists believe this trend is linked to global warming. Thomas Carl, a senior scientist at the National Climatic Data Center, says that while it's impossible to link any particular storm or series of storms to global warming, he does expect to see an increase in both the number of storms and droughts in the US.

In a finding that could lead to huge changes in energy industries, researchers have found how microbes convert methane, or natural gas, into liquid methanol. Constantine Von Hoffman reports.

VON HOFFMAN: For years, chemists have sought a way to open up the methane molecule's structure and insert a single oxygen atom, thus converting the gas into a more easily handled liquid. Now researchers at the University of Minnesota and Carnegie-Mellon University have found the configuration of iron and oxygen atoms that microbes use to convert methane to methyl alcohol. Currently, methane is converted synthetically into methanol in an expensive 2-step process. Understanding how the natural configuration works could help develop a cheap process to make methanol a less polluting and cost effective alternative to gasoline. It could also help in developing new processes for making plastics and other chemicals now made from crude oil. And it would also lower costs of using natural gas for cooking and heating homes. For Living on Earth, I'm Constantine Von Hoffman.

MULLINS: Most endangered plants and animals in the US are clustered in very limited areas. That's the conclusion of a study that suggests this may make it easier to protect the threatened species. According to research in the journal Science, nearly 1000 threatened species are concentrated in a small number of counties with nearly half the endangered plants confined to a single county in Hawaii. Scientists hope these small areas will be easier to protect than larger ecosystems. But researchers say that still won't be easy, as many of the hot spots for species protection are also areas of major growth and development.

The Northwest continues to be plagued by mudslides caused by a storm that hit the area around Christmas. From KUOW, Jason Paur reports.

PAUR: Landslides have continued to shape the earth around the Seattle area since the snow melted around the new year. A recent landslide hit a waterfront home on Bainbridge Island, pushing the third story into the water and burying a family of 4 who were sleeping in the basement. Many of the nearby homes have been evacuated. The Seattle area is particularly susceptible to landslides according to University of Washington geology professor David Montgomery.

MONTGOMERY: The geology under a lot of Seattle consists of a very permeable sand and the rain seeps down into that sand and keeps going down until it hits the relatively impermeable Laughton clay, then flows sideways downgradient and emerges as seepage along the hill slopes in the area.

PAUR: Numerous roads and bridges in the area have been damaged or washed away completely as the saturated ground continues to move underneath the city. For Living on Earth, I'm Jason Paur in Seattle.

MULLINS: South African officials say they want to encourage legal trade in white rhino horn. Government officials say they plan to ask the Convention on International Trade and Endangered Species to legalize trade in the South African species of white rhino. Rhino horns can bring in more than $50,000. They're highly valued in Asia for traditional medicines and in Yemen as handles for daggers.

Is the garlic you ate last night still on your breath this morning? Scientists think they know why. Garlic, it seems, stays in the blood, which may also explain why it can lower blood cholesterol. Austrian scientists analyzed the breath of volunteers for up to 30 hours after they'd eaten garlic and found most but not all of the strong-smelling chemicals declined after a few hours. Three compounds, including acetone, were still present in high levels in the blood 30 hours later. Acetone is known to be one of the chemicals produced when fatty compounds such as cholesterol are broken down. The study appears in the journal New Scientist.

And that's this week's Living on Earth news. I'm Lisa Mullins.

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(Music up and under)

African-American Farmers: Working the Plough

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood, and today we're visiting the Mississippi River delta.

(James Cotton blues harmonica music x-fade into ambiance of walking and then Ephron's garage)

CURWOOD: This fertile floodplain is flat as far as the eye can see. This is the home of the blues and former cotton plantations. Ephron Lewis owns a family farm on the Arkansas side of the Mississippi river near Memphis, Tennessee, not far from where his ancestors once toiled in bondage. On his farm there are no chickens in the yard or cows in the fields. Instead there's a huge garage where Mr. Lewis works on the giant machines that till his soil, plant his seeds, and harvest his crops.

LEWIS: This is something I really love doing, mechanical work. And I tell folk, I guarantee em I'll get it outside the door, but I don't guarantee it'll work (laughter).

CURWOOD: Well this is quite this is quite a shop you've got, full, all kinds of -- this is like a major garage, as it were, that we're standing in. There's a huge combine you pulled in here.

LEWIS: We try to do most of our work ourselves. We're just a kind of a one stop shop, as we call it. We don't build tractor...

(Ambience of Ephron's farm -- shop noise at a distance fades into birds)

CURWOOD: At first glance, the Ephron Lewis Farm doesn't look like much. The few rusting old trucks in the yard and peeling paint on the buildings belie the economic powerhouse this 3000 acre spread has become since 1917. Back then, Mr. Lewis's father and grandfather crossed the river, leaving the state of Mississippi to buy this land at a time when many of their neighbors were heading north to the big cities.


LEWIS: This is our land here. This is our -- this is what we will hope to keep in this family for a lifetime.

CURWOOD: I see that little building down there is a church?

LEWIS: Yes that church was founded by my father and some more people. And that's on one corner of our property here. My father gave a spot there for to build that church on. An old name for it was Colored Methodist Episcopal church and they changed the name from that to Christian Methodist.

CURWOOD: Ephron. Where does that name come from?

LEWIS: That name comes from the Bible. That name was found 23rd chapter of Genesis. It's about a Ephron, a landowner in the country of Heath where Abraham buries his wife. That's where the name comes from.

CURWOOD: Landowner, sounds like you.

LEWIS: Yes, uh huh, similar to me. Maybe he ate more than I do but it was where the name represents.

CURWOOD: Faith, knowledge of the land, and a good head for business have been the keys to Ephron Lewis's success. In addition to growing rice, soybeans and wheat, Mr. Lewis operates the nation's only black-owned rice mill. His story is an exception. Since the Lewises purchased this cropland during World War I, farm acreage owned by blacks has shrunk dramatically. Today black family farms are disappearing even faster than white family farms. Ephron Lewis is fortunate. His family has overcome the challenges that drove other African-Americans out of the South and out of farming.

LEWIS: When I was in High School we didn't have electricity .... Arkansas Power and Light came within a mile, less, within a half a mile of us, and came on our road to a white family that's just down the road and they cut it off there. And we tried to get them to bring it on down here, but they just refused to bring it that far. And on the other end of the road there was a white family on that end, they brought it to their place. And so we were just left in the middle without utilities.

CURWOOD: Left in the dark.



CURWOOD: Through the persistence of his father, the power company ultimately relented and brought in the lines. The house that got that first power hook-up still stands, though it used to be on stilts 3 1/2 feet above the ground. The stilts kept the house high and dry when the Mississippi river flooded its banks. The periodic floods were a nuisance, but they also were an essential part of agriculture in the delta region. Flood waters brought important nutrients to replenish the dark soil.

LEWIS: When we were children we called this "gumbo", but the real name for it is heavy clay. And this is what we have. We always talk about we wish we had some of that good light silt loam soil that we could work almost anytime. But this heavy clay is soil that, we had a saying when we were boys and girls growing up in this part of the country -- if you stick with it in the summer it will stick with you in the winter. And what I mean by that, as you walk on it in the winter it will stick to your shoes, and your feet keep getting larger and larger and larger so -- this is until a whole big clump falls off. This soil here is highly productive and it's real -- once you get it worked up and you work it right it will produce for you.

CURWOOD: Keeping that soil rich today is a challenge. Up and down the Mississippi, levees have been built to keep the river in its banks. And that means the natural fertilizers that used to come from river silt come instead from chemicals Mr. Lewis has to buy. It's all part of today's energy-intensive, mechanized agriculture.

(Combine truck arriving)

CURWOOD: It's the peak of the harvest season. A huge tractor trailer pulls into the farm yard, carrying a brand-new shiny red combine just in time to pick hundreds of acres of soy beans. The machine rents for thousands a week. But it pays for itself in less than a day and brings joy to the mechanic in Mr. Lewis.

LEWIS: And this is the driver's seat, and this is the control right here, this thing here, you just keep your hands on this. And these buttons here to control the head up and down and all that.

CURWOOD: How much soybean can you cut with this?

LEWIS: This thing you can cut 100 acres a day with. Its a bean getting machine, I'll tell you.

CURWOOD: Ephron Lewis's face lights up when he's in the driver's seat, looking ahead to a good harvest.

(Tractor trailer leaving, fade to birds)

CURWOOD: But ask him about the long term, and he's not so sure about the future of his farm or those run by other African Americans.

LEWIS: The average age of a black farmer in -- well I don't know about all the United States but in Arkansas is about 59 years old. And they say the average age of a white farmer in Arkansas is somewhere around 51. And so this is one of the things that's happening, farmers are getting old.

CURWOOD: Black farmers an endangered species?

LEWIS: Yes they are an endangered species, yeah. And I go as far as to say there's a concerted effort to keep us an endangered species.


LEWIS: What I mean by that is it's a concerted effort -- what keeps you going is finances, and if they can keep the finances away from you that's a way to keep you from being sustainable.

CURWOOD: Unlike many farmers Ephron Lewis has been careful to build up a financial reserve. It protects him against fluctuating markets and racial discrimination by banks and government agencies that make farm loans. In the 1980s when family farms across the nation were going out of business at record rates Mr. Lewis was able to survive. The motto of the day was "get big or get out of farming." He got big, with some assistance from his family.

LEWIS: We've kind of prepared for this. And we have a large family and we are close, and if I get in trouble I can go to my sisters and brothers and they'll help me. And then I've built back in a little sustainability within my farming operation myself, so that even though you may tell me no, you don't really keep me from going because I have a way of kind of support, backing myself.

(Crickets chirping, wind whistling in the trees)

CURWOOD: Taking care of his own farm was not enough for Ephron Lewis. So in the early 1980s he helped to create an organization to fight racial discrimination by lenders, and to assist other African-American farmers to keep their land. He became the founding president of the Arkansas Land and Farm Development Corporation and hired Calvin King as the group's executive director.

KING: In 1910 there was roughly some 15 million acres of land owned by African-American farmers, you know, in the United States. That has declined to roughly some 4-million acres or less than that now. And predictions are that by the year 2000 or by the year 2005 that there will be a total disappearance of black farmers in the country.

CURWOOD: Mr. King and I chatted on the grounds of the Arkansas Land and Farm Development Corporation, about a hour's drive east of Little Rock. These gently sloping fields have been training grounds for African American farmers since 1919 when a disciple of Booker T. Washington established an agricultural school here. Today Arkansas Land and Farm researches sustainable farming methods and helps black farmers obtain the credit they need to stay in business. There's also a youth program that brings high school students from as far away as Chicago to learn about farming as a career. On this day Mr. King is launching a new project aimed at getting growers interested in raising hogs.

(Hogs grunting)

CURWOOD: But first he has to get 12 squealing sows off a trailer.

KING: You need to get 'em some feed out here. Put some feed out...

CURWOOD: Rather than being kept in pens -- the traditional way to raise hogs, these swine are being allowed to graze in a series of open fields. Yes, hogs do eat grass and in what's called rotational grazing when they eat most of the grass in one field they are shifted to another one. Each time they move, the hogs leave their manure behind. It fertilizes the field, instead of building up in a huge pile that could contaminate ground water. Calvin King says the project is designed to be low cost and environmentally friendly.

KING: Well hopefully it will bring more diversification with some of our smaller farmers, you know where they'll both understand the opportunities for diversification and the markets that exist as well as what we call some of the holistic approaches and production practices -- producing vegetables and corn crops, and how you can feed that back off through an alternative market through livestock, you know, as a support income area.

(Hogs, fading to trains)

CURWOOD: The trains that pass near the Arkansas Land and Farm complex are a reminder of how much has changed for rural southern African-Americans over the decades. For years the trains took them North, away from the threat of lynching and toward the promise of more opportunity. While the trains don't carry many passengers these days, African Americans still leave here for the cities, with a few notable exceptions.

(Cleophus tractor plowing the field)

MILLS: My name is Cleophus Mills Jr. from Marvel, Arkansas, and I'm 22 years old. And I'm a soybean, wheat, and milo farmer. I own two tractors and I work 220 acres of soybeans in the lower Mississippi river valley.

CURWOOD: If there is one person who represents the hope for the future of Arkansas's black farmers it is young Cleophus Mills. His is a classic American success story. In only four years he has built up a substantial farming operation.

MILLS: I started farming in 1993. My first experience with farming was I had a youth loan. And I went from one acre into six acres.

CURWOOD: And what were you growing?

MILLS: I was growing okra, very hot and sticky. I had to do it, I had no other choice, it was my only source of income.

CURWOOD: And the next year you went to 6 acres?

MILLS: Yes, sir. But I also was raising southern purple hull peas, selling for 8 dollars a bushel. I had about 3 or 4 acres, plus I was doing a little off season work for a grain elevator, which is in Marvel, Arkansas, which I really got my start of raising my soybeans by scooping beans off the floor, bringing them out to my farm, and planting them. So now I don't have time to work for Farmers Supply, I work for myself 7 days out of a week.

(Tractor starts and runs, goes away and comes back)

CURWOOD: Cleophus Mills now farms 220 rented acres. He owns an old combine, and looks to the day when he can afford a better one. He got his first farm loan after participating in a special training program sponsored by Arkansas Land and Farm. One of the agency's goals is to get farmers to reduce their use of costly agricultural chemicals, to save money and protect the environment. But so far farmers affiliated with Arkansas Land and Farm grow only about 10 per cent of their crops organically. One reason is a lack of markets for organic produce in the region, something the agency is trying to change. It's also trying to convince banks to lend money to farmers who grow alternative crops in a more sustainable way. On an afternoon when Cleophus Mills is turning the soil in a recently harvested soybean field, his former advisor from Arkansas Land and Farm, Bryant Stephens, stops by for a check in.

STEPHENS: How's it goin', Cleo?

MILLS: I'm doing all right, Bryant.

STEPHENS: All right, how's everything been going?

MILLS: All going fine.

STEPHENS: All right.

CURWOOD: Bryant Stephens is the director of Integrated Farming Systems at Arkansas Land and Farm. Mr. Stephens admits that it's been hard to convince even young farmers like Cleophus to move away from chemical-intensive farming methods. But he says those who don't farm organically will eventually pay the price.

STEPHENS: The more and more they become dependent on those chemicals the more and more expensive their farm is going to be. And so we can get them to cut down on that. And then the health issue also, you know cause to handle those chemicals is not healthy for them either. We already have a situation where a lot of the farmers have not been able to make enough profit where they can be sustainable and stay on their farms. But the environmental problem is coming up now, so we got to make them become aware or else there's gonna be another situation we'll be faced with later on.


CURWOOD: Cleophus Mills once used organic methods to grow his crop of okra, but even with Mr. Stephen's advice, he says he can't afford to do it again.

MILLS: Why it doesn't make sense for me to go organic is because I don't have the labor. It take a lot of labor to grow organic because you can't use no chemical fertilizers. You got to use practically hand labor, that's about all you can do. The number of acres I'm working I wouldn't succeed right to use organic, because everything would get out of control for me.

CURWOOD: Control and independence are important to Cleophus Mills. But so is the romance of farming.

MILLS: I love the smell of the soil, because I love tillaging the soil. That's all I ever done all my life. I played farmer when I was a little kid, so I liked playing it, so I wanted to become a real farmer. So I got that chance, and I went for it.

CURWOOD: The smell.

MILLS: I love the smell of fresh dirt. I love to see the combines going through the fields. I like to see the dust. We can walk on a little further down.


CURWOOD: Though there may not be many young black people interested in farming today, Cleophus Mills is not entirely alone. He now shares what he's learned with new students at Arkansas Land and Farm, acting as a mentor.

MILLS: Most African-American farmers don't get the opportunity to get a chance to farm because they don't have the money, and they don't have the land. Without the land you cannot function. So you've got to have free working capital in order to get the money. You've got to have the experience, you've got to have land and you've got to have money. Without them three tools you cannot survive. And also, you've got to watch the next man from taking the land out from under you -- over rent, things like that. You've got to worry about the grain elevator taking your grain from you. Dockage, that's what hurts you.

CURWOOD: Dockage?

MILLS: When you raised the crop and they take it from you. See, if they can't get you in the field, they gonna get you at the end of it. There's some kind of way their gonna get the best of you. So it's tough, you got to love it in order to do it. If you don't love it, you can't do it.


CURWOOD: Cleophus Mills dreams of one day having a son who will inherit his love of farming. Ephron Lewis already has a son who lives in California. He left the farm a few years ago to explore the wider world. But Ephron Lewis hopes that soon his son will be drawn back to Arkansas to take over the family homestead.


LEWIS: This land is something near and dear to me. And it's near and dear to my brothers and sisters that's living. And I hope that it's near and dear to my son. And I'm looking forward to him coming back, where he can take pride in running this operation.

CURWOOD: But as Ephron Lewis and Cleophus Mills both know, it takes more than pride to survive as a farmer. It takes grit, thrift, and a willingness to change with the times. For African Americans there is the added burden of discrimination in lending. And though the Arkansas Land and Farm Development Corporation has helped many black farmers stay in business, the decline in the numbers of black farmers continues. Whether people like Cleophus Mills and Ephron Lewis will still be tilling the soil a decade from now remains an open question.


CURWOOD: Our report on black farmers in Arkansas was produced by John Rudolph and edited by Chris Ballman.

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(Music up and under)

Letters from Listeners

CURWOOD: And now it's time to hear from you, our listeners.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Many of you called in response to our interview with land use pioneer Wes Jackson. He's researching how to grow a variety of crops together, without rows, plows, or chemicals, the way nature does it. One listener to New Hampshire Public Radio wondered how such fruits and vegetables would be gathered. He writes, "I am very much in favor of pursuing the polyculture idea, but I don't hear any suggestions about proper harvesting. How do we separate one plant product from another?" Indeed, that is one of the very questions Mr. Jackson wants answered as well. He's calling for a massive government research program to find ways to make perennial polyculture practical.

In response to our story about environmental education in the Grand Rapids, Michigan, public schools, Larry Brown, a listener to KWMU in St. Louis, related his own tale of environmental ignorance. Mr. Brown works with dairy farmers, and one of his colleagues was explaining to a city dweller that many dairy farmers are getting out of the business due to rising costs and falling prices paid for milk. The urbanite responded, "Well, that's okay; we can still get our milk at the store."

"While people in suburbs and cities, especially the young, have no ties to rural life, nature, or ecology," Mr. Brown writes, "we in this nation cannot hope to secure the future of food production on the one hand and on the other sustain and improve the quality of our ecological life as long as a large segment of our society does not really understand how nature works."

Ian Henry, who hears Living on Earth on WMRA in Harrisonburg, Virginia, was surprised to hear our story about the man in Austin, Texas, who collects and stores rainwater for his household use.

HENRY: One of the things that amazed me the most when I came to live in the United States 10 years ago from Australia was how few people use rainwater as a resource. Where I come from, everybody uses rainwater. It's just so common and there's not much ground water in Australia, of course, so I thought it was incredible that people here didn't use more rainwater.

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CURWOOD: If you would like to comment on anything you've heard on Living on Earth, here's how. You can give us a call on our listener line any time. The number is 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. Our e-mail address is LOE@NPR.ORG. Once again, LOE@NPR.ORG. And check out our web site at www.loe.org.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: It's NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

(Music up and under)

ANNOUNCER: Living on Earth is made possible with major funding provided by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for reporting on western issues; 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.K. Kellogg Foundation; the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; the W. Alton Jones Foundation; and Patagonia: a clothing company committed to making quality outdoor clothing with the earth in mind. For a free catalogue call 1-800-336-9090.

(Music up and under)

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: You have to figure that somewhere there's a law against just about everything, including the kitchen sink, right? Well, there is a place where that's almost true. Kitchen sink grinders, garbage disposals, are illegal in New York City. The move to lift that ban is next on Living on Earth

(Music up and under: Grieg's Peer Gynt Suite)

(Theme music up and under)

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

(Music up and under)

The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: Among the odder anniversaries that come our way this year is the centennial of the introduction of Grape Nuts. Mr. C. W. Post came up with the name for the breakfast cereal because he thought erroneously that grape sugar was formed during the production process. Mr. Post also thought the cereal could cure everything this side of appendicitis. He was the latest in a succession of 19th century dietary prophets who reformed how Americans ate. Before Mr. Post and others, including W. K. Kellogg, William Metcalf, and Sylvester Graham, Americans ate mostly meat and fowl for all their meals. Post and Company urged people to try grains and fresh fruits. Today, nearly half of all Americans start the day with cold cereal. As a nation, we buy nearly 3 billion boxes of breakfast cereal each year. Much of it is sweetened to the tune of 816 million pounds of sugar, or 3 pounds for every American. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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(Music up and under)

Western Floods Good for Migratory Birds

CURWOOD: A new round of winter storms is threatening to cause more floods in already saturated northern California. Meanwhile, families and businesses in the state's central valley are still trying to recover from the devastating New Year's floods in the area. Those floods caused an estimated one and a half billion dollars worth of damage to communities along the San Joaquin and other rivers. But for at least one community, the floods brought a long-needed boost. Luce Salas reports from Rancho Cordova just east of Sacramento.

(Bird calls)

SALAS: Starting in the fall thick flocks of geese, terns, ducks, swans, and other water fowl from as far away as Alaska begin their yearly migration to warmer climes in Mexico. It's called the Pacific Flyway and California's a major thoroughfare. Historically, the central valley had over 4 million acres of wetlands during the winter rainy season, providing a vast area for migrating birds to feed and rest. Because of water diversions, agriculture, and urban sprawl, less than 5% of the wetlands remain, and the number of winter birds has fallen. But millions still squeeze into the few wildlife refuges and artificial wetlands on dormant rice fields. Bill Huffman is with the Farmer's Rice Cooperative near Sacramento.

HUFFMAN: This is what we call our bed and breakfast program for millions and millions of ducks and geese that come here and winter in the Sacramento Valley. It's wonderful to go out and see 3,000 tundra swans out there in our family rice fields.

SALAS: A few years ago Bill Huffman and a few other rice farmers began leaving behind a portion of each harvest for the visitors, and they have seen a steady increase of migratory birds. But the drought of the late 80s and early 90s cut into that progress. Andrew Ingles is regional biologist for Ducks Unlimited. He says the few wet spots were too crowded.

INGLES: When they flock in areas of drought into these wildlife areas it increases the chance that disease is going to decimate a population. The main disease here in the valley that we get in the winter is called falcholera, which is a viral disease that affects birds' nervous system. When we have floods the birds can spread out across the valley floor. They'll still be in flocks, but they'll be smaller flocks.

SALAS: That's just what's happened this year in the central valley. Mr. Ingles says the torrents have created an abundance of puddles and shallow wetlands over a large expanse of the valley. This also means less fierce competition for food. Ironically, while the flooding has helped the water fowl, it has created a problem for wildlife officials.

INGLES: It's going to be very difficult to survey birds this year because there are birds everywhere but birds nowhere. The birds are spread out so far and they're in so many flocks that they're going to be very difficult to count.

SALAS: Indeed. It's now difficult for bird watchers and hunters to get close to water fowl because of washed out roads, deep water, and broken levees. But initial surveys earlier in the fall indicate this year's population of migratory birds to be the highest since the 1950s, when another period of heavy rains struck the state. And wildlife watchers are ecstatic. David Rosen is also with Ducks Unlimited.

ROSEN: Ducks, water fowl in general, tend to be a good indicator species of the health of our wetland ecosystems. And if water fowl populations are doing well continentally, then most likely a lot of other wetland associated species are going to be doing well, also.

SALAS: Here in the central valley, these species include salamanders, insects like Mayflies, mammals such as beavers, and plants like the California hibiscus, which is a candidate for threatened status. But David Rosen says the floods have provided these species only temporary relief. He says a lot more conservation and habitat improvement are needed to ensure a place in the central valley for wintering birds. Even during normal years. For Living on Earth I'm Luce Salas.

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(Bird calls; fade to music up and under: "Birdland")

New York City: Garbage Down the Drain

CURWOOD: These days garbage disposals are standard equipment in most modern American kitchens, but not in New York City. Grinding up food waste and dumping it into the sewer is illegal in most New York neighborhoods because of concerns that added organic matter could foul city waterways. But now, as Neal Rauch reports, there's a new push underway to trash the old law.

RAUCH: The closest many native New Yorkers have come to a garbage disposal is through the television, while watching old sitcoms.

(Gurgling water. Woman: "What was that? Millie, where's my brooch? You don't think -- oh, that's what happened!" Audience laughter.)

RAUCH: In this episode of the Dick Van Dyke Show, the garbage disposal eats up more than food after Laura drops in a family heirloom.

(Van Dyke: "The Petri brooch?" Moore: "Yes, Rob, it was an accident." Van Dyke: "In the garbage?" "Moore: "I didn't do it on purpose." Van Dyke: "Well why did you do it not on purpose?" Moore: "Oh Rob, what kind of a question is that?" Van Dyke: "Well honey, when a wife grinds up the husband's family... -- " Audience laughter.)

RAUCH: Despite the dangers, New Yorkers may soon get the chance to purchase their own disposals. A study by New York's Department of Environmental Protection is underway to determine if legalizing the devices will in fact harm the surrounding waters in this city of islands.

VAN CLIEF: I was just peeling potatoes like this, or carrots or whatever. I mostly eat vegetables.

RAUCH: In a large apartment building in South Brooklyn overlooking the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, Doris Van Clief demonstrates her new garbage disposal.

VAN CLIEF: Open this thing.

(Loud buzzing sound, followed by gurgling)

RAUCH: Ms. Van Clief is one of several hundred participants in the city water quality study who was given a garbage disposal for 10 months. The Department of Environmental Protection will monitor nitrogen levels in the water during the trial period. But for now, department commissioner Joe Miely remains leery of allowing the devices.

MIELY: We're in a major program to keep the waters clean. The perception is that this does not assist us to keep those waters clean but, you know, possibly to the contrary tends to degrade the water quality somewhat because of the nitrogen levels in food wastes.

RAUCH: The problem is that when most city residents flush their toilets or use their sinks, the wastewater flows down the same pipes as does rainwater. In dry weather all the water is processed in sewage treatment plants, but during some storms the plants get overwhelmed and raw sewage goes directly into New York's rivers and bays. It's in this situation that the ground up food waste from garbage disposals could increase nitrogen levels. This can lead to excess algae growth which kills fish by depleting oxygen. Again, Joe Miely.

MIELY: Is it logical to put additional nitrogen into the waters around the city at a point in time when the Federal Government is requiring us to lower our limits on nitrogen that we emit into the waterways around the city?

RAUCH: But while allowing disposals could make life more difficult for Hudson River fish, it's actually made life a little easier for test participant Florence Staderman.

RAUCH: So what do you think?


RAUCH: A garbage disposal is more than a simple convenience for Ms. Thaderman, who uses a walker.

STADERMAN: You don't have to run to the compact room too much.

RAUCH: So not having to lug the garbage out.

STADERMAN: That's right. Big for me. Yeah.

RAUCH: She demonstrates with a banana peel.

STADERMAN: Isn't that great?

(Swirling noises)

STADERMAN: There it goes.

RAUCH: The use of garbage disposals has not been an issue in most other large cities. In some they're actually required. George Whalen is a consultant for the National Plumbing Foundation.

WHALEN: I'm thinking of Detroit was the first city in the country in 1956, said every time we put up a new apartment building or a new office building or a new whatever, we want the restaurant owner or the homeowner to have one of these installed. The history of the waste problems in Detroit are nonexistent because they've been doing this for so many years.

RAUCH: The Plumbing Foundation makes other environmental arguments in favor of garbage disposals. Less food waste rotting in landfills also means less methane, a greenhouse gas, will be released into the atmosphere. And Ethan Getto, who does public relations for the Plumbing Foundation, says less trash will have a more immediate effect on the urban environment.

GETTO: Eventually the garbage bags are waiting out on the street for the Department of Sanitation collection. That is the major source in this city for vermin. Cockroaches are a big problem in New York City. So to the extent that food waste disposers immediately dispose of smelly, wet food waste we think is going to have a tremendous environmental and public health benefit for the city.

RAUCH: Of course, all this depends on how many residents run out and get garbage disposals, and it's in those ghetto neighborhoods where vermin infestations are the worst that residents will almost certainly never be able to afford a garbage disposal. It costs a minimum of a couple of hundred dollars for the device and for a plumber to install it. But the plumbing industry is hoping the city will be so taken with the test results that it will not only allow the devices but consider giving subsidies to property owners in New York slums. Commissioner Joe Miely is not impressed. He says preliminary figures from the Sanitation Department indicate the amount of garbage has not gone down significantly in the disposal test areas. And he's determined that nothing will contribute to a deterioration of New York City's waters, which have come a long way over the last 2 decades.

MIELY: We used to get owners of ocean-going vessels to spend a week in New York Harbor so that their hull could be cleaned because nothing was living. Well, the work that we've done over the past, you know, 20 years or so has had a tremendous impact on that. The quality of the water has immeasurably increased and we're very, very pleased with it.

RAUCH: Environmentalists contacted for this story haven't taken a stand either way yet. But one spokesman objected to food garbage being treated as, well, garbage. He said that composted organic wastes are a valuable resource that shouldn't be simply thrown away regardless of the method.

(Swirling water)

RAUCH: The results of the study are expected by summer. The final decision is then up to the Mayor and the City Council. So if disposals get a thumbs up, that small sucking sound you hear may soon become as common in the Big Apple as it is in most of the country. For Living on Earth, I'm Neal Rauch in New York.

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(Music up and under: theme from The Dick Van Dyke Show)

CURWOOD: A festival in the hills of northern New Jersey celebrates the sounds of poetry.

(Milling crowds)

WOMAN: When I listen to the poets here there -- they rattle my brain open. You hear scary things and it makes you start waking up.

CURWOOD: Poets and our place in nature. That's just ahead on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Eco-Poets: Voices in the Wilderness

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. For those who write poetry, expressing what's going on inside sometimes means looking outside: to the forest, the beach, or the desert. What poets find there among the trees and fish and heat can satisfy curiosity, salve a wound, or speak for a soul. Nature is a long-recurring theme in poetry, and recently Living on Earth's Kim Motylewski traveled to the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in search of eco-poetry. It wasn't hard to find at this biennial event in northern New Jersey, that features some of the nation's most famous poets and attracts a thousand or so spectators to its panels, workshops, and readings.

ROGERS: If I were a female hummingbird perched still and quiet on an upper myrtle branch...

KOMENYAKA: Brother the blow fly and godhead, you worked magic over battlefields, and slashed...

DOTY: Something retrieved from a Greco-Roman wreck, patinated and oddly muscular...

ROGERS: And I would bless the base of each of your feathers and touch the time...

MOTYLEWSKI: These are the voices of poets reading their work at a panel on poetry and the earth beneath a giant striped tent at the center of the festival. Yusef Komunyakaa, Mark Doty, and Pattiann Rogers, all of them turn to nature for image and metaphor. But it's not enough just to think of them as nature poets and be done. Better to start by thinking of them as investigators. Their tools are observation and language. Poet Pattiann Rogers has always been fascinated with the smallest details of nature: the shape of a pine cone, the texture of a mushroom. Ms. Rogers grew up in rural Missouri exploring the woods. As an adult she's lived in the Texas desert and the Colorado Rockies. She wonders about her relationship to these vastly different places and that overwhelming feeling when she encounters something new and wonderful in the landscape.

ROGERS: We want to possess it but we also want it to maintain its mystery at the same time. So this is a poem that kind of addresses that issue and how we assimilate the beauty we see around us: A giant has swallowed the earth. What will it do for him to have internalized the many slender stems of rivulets and funnels? The blunt toes of the pine cone fallen, to have ingested lakes and gold slabs at dawn and the peak branches of the fir under snow. He has taken into himself the mist of the hazelnut, the white hairs of the moth and the mole's velvet snout. He remembers by inner voice alone fogs over frozen gray marshes, fine salt on the blunt of the cliff. What will it mean to him to perceive things first from within? The mushroom's fold, the marten's tongue, the spotted orange of the wallaby's ear? To become the object himself before he comprehends it, putting into perfect concept without experience the den of green gully and spring mosses. And when he stretches on his bed and closes his eyes, what patterns will appear to him naturally? The schematic tracings of the vanessa butterfly and migration? Packs and red strings marking the path of each mouse in the field? New clay chromosomes aligning their cylinders in purple before their separation? The wind must settle all that it carries behind his face and rise again in his vision like morning. A giant has swallowed the earth. And when he sleeps now, oh, when he sleeps, how his eyelids murmur. How we envy his dream.

(Music up and under: Bach cello)

DOTY: It's almost over now. Late summer's accomplishment. And I can stand face to face with this music, eye to seed-paved eye with the sunflower's architecture. Such muscular leaves, the thick stem's surge. Though some are still shiningly confident, others can barely hold their heads up. Their great leaves wrap the stalks like lowered shields. This one shrugs its shoulders. This one's in a rush to be nothing but form.

MOTYLEWSKI: This is Mark Doty reading me his poem "In the Community Garden." We've slipped away from the admiring crowd to a quiet spot behind the main tent. At first, it seems to me that like Pattiann Rogers, he's moved by a sense of wonder to detail this stand of sunflowers. But many of Mark Doty's poems, including this one, are really attempts to deal with death. Three years ago he lost his partner to AIDS.

DOTY: Even at their zenith you could see beneath the gold the end they've come to. So what's the use of elegy? If their work is this skyrocket passage through the world, is it mine to lament them? Do you think they'd want to bloom forever? It's the trajectory they desire. Believe me, they do desire. You could say they are one intent, finally, to be this leaping green, this bronze haze bending down. How could they stand apart from themselves and regret their passing when they're a field of lifting and bowing faces? Faces ringed in flames.

MOTYLEWSKI: That's a wonderful one.

DOTY: Thank you. Thanks.

MOTYLEWSKI: Mark Doty says he survived his grief because nature provided so many powerful metaphors for his feelings.

DOTY: You can watch something move from seed to brilliant flowering to decline to death over such a short period of time, and see the progress and pattern of your own life and the lives of those you love, therein mirrored back.

(Cello music up and under)

MAN: He has taught at the University of Indiana and next year will be coming to New Jersey as a permanent member of the faculty at Princeton. Yusef Komunyakaa.

MOTYLEWSKI: For Yusef Komunyakaa, nature is almost background to his poems about human experience: black identity, racial and economic injustice, and jazz. It's rare that he singles out one creature or event to write about. Rather, the poet intends for his work to bridge the divide between people and the rest of life. Yusef Komunyakaa is a Vietnam veteran, and in his poem called "Thanks," his sense of belonging to nature comes through, even though he's writing about surviving in enemy territory.

KOMUNYAKAA: Thanks for the tree between me and a sniper's bullet. I don't know what made the grass wait seconds before the Vietcong raised his soundless rifle. Some voice always followed, telling me which foot to put down first. Thanks for deflecting the ricochet against that anarchy of dust I was back in San Francisco wrapped up in a woman's wild colors, causing some dark bird's love call to be shattered by daylight when my hands reached up and pulled the branch away from my face. Thanks for the vague white flower that pointed to the gleaming metal reflecting how it is to be broken like mist over the grass as we played some deadly game for blind gods. What made me spot the monarch on a single thread tied to a farmer's gate hauling the day together like an unfingered guitar string is beyond me. Maybe the hills grew weary and leaned a little in the heat. Again, thanks for the dud hand grenade tossed at my feet outside Chu Lai. I'm still falling through its silence. I don't know why the intrepid sun touched the bayonet, but I know that something stood among those lost trees and moved only when I moved.

It's interesting, because when I went to Vietnam I didn't really feel extremely threatened by the landscape. And I think it has a lot to do with growing up in Louisiana, where I was used to tall grass. I was used to vines. I knew about snakes, you know. But if I had come out of a totally urban environment, it would have been entirely different, I think.

MOTYLEWSKI: Yusef Komunyakaa, Patti Ann Rogers, and Mark Doty. Each is writing in response to his or her place in the world, from the dark waters of Louisiana to the woods of Missouri to the shores of Cape Cod. Nature poets are as varied as the landscape itself.

HASS: It's a very, very old tradition, maybe the oldest...

MOTYLEWSKI: One person who's thought a lot about the use of this poetry is Robert Hass, the nation's poet laureate. Back at the festival's panel on Poetry and the Earth, Mr. Hass remarks that poetry can have a powerful influence on thought and action. For example, he says, it helped create the country's conservation ethic.

HASS: Wordsworth was read by Thoreau, and by Muir. So when John Muir walked into Yosemite, he had this English romantic idea that he was in a holy place.

MOTYLEWSKI: The effect of that idea on the American landscape has been long-lived, says Robert Hass. John Muir shared his sense of reverence for the land with Teddy Roosevelt, whom he took camping in the Sierras. Soon after, all of Yosemite became a national park. And in 1906, President Roosevelt pushed the Antiquities Act through Congress. The act gave presidents the power to create national monuments, and, Hass reminds us, President Clinton recently used it to set aside nearly 2 million acres in the Utah desert.

HASS: ...desert and extract it. So the power of this turning to nature that happened in Blake and Wordsworth is still bearing fruit 200 years later. Which is to say that the power of poetry is the only case where trickle down theory actually works. (Audience laughter)

MOTYLEWSKI: Joking aside, poet laureate Hass says with our global worries about climate change and ozone hole and species loss, the need for a new idea about the human place in the world has never been greater. Poets, he believes, could write the new story, provide the new insights and perceptions we'll need to survive.

MAN: William Butler Yeats. I will arise and go now...

MOTYLEWSKI: As the day at the Dodge Poetry Festival draws to a close, the poets and their fans gather to celebrate the power of the craft and draw inspiration for the future.

(Music in the background)

DOTY: (From Yeats)... nine bean rows will I have there. A hive for the honeybee. And live alone in the bee loud glade.

MOTYLEWSKI: For Living on Earth, I'm Kim Motylewski.

DOTY: And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow. Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings. There midnights all a-glimmer, and noon a purple glow. And evening full of the linnet's wings.

(Music up and under; applause and cheers; more Paul Winter Consort music)

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CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Our production team includes Julia Madeson, Peter Shaw, Constantine Von Hoffman, George Homsy, Liz Lempert, and Susan Shepherd. Peter Thomson heads our western bureau. Jennifer Schmidt edited this week's program. Chris Ballman is our senior producer. We also had help from Michael Giammusso, Kim Chainey, Jason Kral, and Colin Studds. Michael Aharon composed our theme. Our program is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with WBUR, Boston, and Harvard University. Our engineers are Mark Navin at WBUR and Jeff Martini at Harvard. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

(Music up an under)

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