EARLY ONE MORNING in August 2005, a small team of game wardens and deputies climbed through coyote brush and manzanita in the Sierra Azul Open Space Preserve outside San Jose, California, searching for an illegal pot farm. As they crested a ridge, they discovered densely planted rows of cannabis stalks. Suddenly, a high-powered rifle cracked and an officer fell to the ground, shot through both legs. Seconds later, another deputy shot and killed a man wielding a sawed-off shotgun. "It was literally like a jungle firefight," recalls warden John Nores, who fired at the other shooter before he escaped into the woods. Left behind in a meadow just minutes from the heart of Silicon Valley were 22,000 marijuana plants worth some $88 million.
Over the past decade, marijuana patches known as "grows" or "gardens" have sprung up on public lands across the West, including a third of California's national parks and nearly 40 percent of all national forests. Where hippies once grew just enough weed to peace out, traffickers now cultivate more than 100,000 plants at a time on 30-acre terraces irrigated by plastic pipe, laced with illegal pesticides, and guarded by men with MAC-10s and Uzis. Grows have turned up everywhere from the deepest backcountry to the edges of suburban subdivisions. Farming pot on public land can be more profitable than smuggling it across the increasingly militarized border. The 3.1 million pot plants seized in national forests in the year prior to last September had an estimated street value of $12.4 billion.
Is the future of agriculture the neglected flower bed on Main Street? The San Francisco Chroniclereports today that Mayor Gavin Newsom has ordered all city departments "to conduct an audit of unused land--including empty lots, rooftops, windowsills and median strips--that could be turned into community gardens or farms." If the Mayor gets his way, you could just as well get an apple from the corner mart as from a tree growing on the street corner.
The announcement is the latest fruit from an "urban-rural" roundtable of food experts that Newsom convened last year to look for more ways to get locally-grown foods onto the plates of city residents. The effort began last summer with a quarter-acre "victory garden" in front of city hall--a big hit with locals and tourists; Newsom later announced plans to replicate the effort at 15 sites around the city. He also floated the idea of planting fruit trees on street medians, and experimented with a strawberry patch atop a bus shelter--ideas that could catch on under his new food directive.
Newsom's move builds upon a vibrant hyperlocal agriculture movement in the Bay Area and along the West Coast. Detailed in "Inside the Green Zone" in our March/April food issue, the movement encompasses everything from professional farmers who'll sow your backyard to urban fruit foragers who barter blackberries plucked from city parks. The efforts have taken on a timeliness in the midst of the recession as cities look for ways to fill lots that aren't being developed and provide healthy, inexpensive food. Indeed, the original "victory garden" was planted by Eleanor Roosevelt on the White House lawn in the waning years of the Great Depression to serve as a model for rugged self reliance.
Newsom plans to go a step further by also requiring the city departments serve only high-quality food. Within two months, he'll send an ordinance to the city's Board of Supervisors mandating that all food served in city jails, hospitals, homeless shelters, and community centers be safe, healthy, and sustainable. Of course, the switch will be much easier in San Francisco, which consumes a million tons of food a year but has 20 tons available within a 200 mile raidius, than it would in say, New York. Still, there's no reason an apple tree couldn't also thrive on a sidewalk in Brooklyn.
T. Boone Pickens' $10 billion plan to build the world's largest wind farm on the Texas panhandle has been scrapped. The high-profile project had benefited from the "Pickens Plan" media blitz in the lead-up to the 2008 elections, when the oil tycoon spent millions on TV ads promoting natural gas and wind power.
Though Pickens was lauded in the media at the time as an environmental hero, I was among a few reporters who questioned his motivation for building the wind project. His early plans would have used a right-of-way for the windmills' power lines to bring water from the Ogallala aquifer to cities downstate, draining a vast region of a fragile reserve. Pickens ultimately failed to find a buyer for the water, then faced a drop in energy prices due to the recession. In December, his Mesa Power LP put the wind project on hold before announcing last week that it would abandon it in favor of several smaller projects.
In making the announcement, Pickens cryptically cited problems associated with building his own power lines. It's odd that he can't tap those already being built to the Panhandle by the Texas Public Utility Commission. The Dallas Morning News reported that the lines "won't follow a path that Mesa had suggested" but didn't elaborate. Did Pickens' power lines fail because they needed the accompanying water pipeline to be profitable? A spokeswoman for Pickens didn't return a call.
Since I raised the possibility two weeks ago that sewage sludge fertilizer could have contaminated the Obamas' White House vegetable garden with lead, there has been a flurry of press on the subject. Various food and gardening blogs and dueling HuffingtonPosters weighed in, followed by the AP, Reuters, and the New York Times after a White House spokeswoman publicly addressed the lead issue on Thursday. Much of the coverage has sought to quell misperceptions that produce from the White House garden is unsafe to eat. Indeed, as I pointed out in my original post, the levels of lead in the garden are still well below those that the EPA says can cause health impacts. But in obsessing over whether the Obamas are poisoning themselves and their guests--and there's no proof that they are--most of the media missed the more interesting question: Is it really a good idea to grow vegetables on land that has been fertilized with sewage sludge?
The EPA thinks so, and has promoted the practice for decades as an alternative to landfilling sludge or dumping it in the ocean. In what was probably the single most effective component of a vast marketing campaign for sludge fertilizer, the National Park Service tilled it into the White House's South Lawn through much of the 1990s. Interest in the President's preferred brand of sludge spiked to the point that its makers had a hard time meeting the demand. Today, more than half the poop flushed in America ends up as fertilizer.
The safety of sludge might not be such a concern when it's spread your lawn and covered in a layer of grass, but chew on this: Food companies such as H.J. Heinz and Del Monte won't accept produce grown on sludge-treated land. The Netherlands and Switzerland effectively ban the use of sludge on farmland, and the practice is expressly prohibited by the USDA's organics standards. If sludge has been spread on the South Lawn anytime since about 2006, the Obamas' pesticide-free garden could not be certified as organic.
The human poop in sludge isn't necessarily the problem. Sludge can contain traces of anything that gets poured down the drain, from Prozac flushed down toilets to lead hosed off factory floors. The EPA sets concentration limits for several heavy metals found in sludge, including lead, but the limits are higher than what is deemed safe in some European countries. For example, the EPA permits sludge to contain up to 300 parts per million of lead, but the Netherlands raises concerns about soil with more than 40 ppm of lead.