Maddie Oatman

Maddie Oatman

Research Editor

Maddie worked as a travel guide in Argentina and a teacher at several educational nonprofits in San Francisco before joining Mother Jones. She’s also written for Outside, the Bay Citizen, and the Rumpus. A proud Boulder native, she makes time for mountain climbing, stargazing, and telemark skiing.

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A Map of Crowded Cows

| Thu Dec. 2, 2010 7:53 PM EST

In "Big Meat vs. Michael Pollan," reporter Wes Enzinna profiles the Master's in Beef Advocacy program, an industry-funded crash course on how to bolster the reputations of cattle farmers and meat producers in a time when livestock prices are falling and beef consumption is the lowest it's been since 1961.

But rather than focusing so much on the PR battle, cattle farmers might woo consumers by downsizing. Much of the bad rap associated with the meat industry relates to the transformation of the small family farms into overcrowded feedlots managed by agribusiness monopolies—at least, according to a new project by Food and Water Watch, called "Factory Farm Nation."

"For several decades, agricultural policy in the U.S. has been based on this 'get big or get out' approach, which is incompatible with a sustainable food system for consumers and producers," says the project's website. Along with an extensive report on why this is true, Food and Water Watch also unveiled an interactive "Factory Farm Map," which shows the population density of pigs, cows, and chickens in each state. Both fun to play with and aesthetically eye-popping, the tool seeks to shed light on how "family farms are being replaced by factory farms, and these facilities are overwhelming some regions of the country."

Factory Farm MapFactory Farm Map: From Food and Water Watch

Take California: The map's dairy filter reveals that huge swaths of the state contain "extreme density levels" of dairy cows. Switch to the hog filter, and you'll notice how almost the entire state of Iowa is crowded with pigs, and a surprising number of meat plants too. The map allows you to click on regions within each state, so you can learn, for instance, that the number of animals in Buena Vista County, Iowa nearly doubled from 2002 to 2007. Also interesting to note: Factory farms tend to be clustered around meat packers (shown by blue dots on the map), which reflects the control these increasingly consolidated slaughterhouses exert over farmers. Just four firms processed more than four out of five beef cattle in 2007, according to the report.

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Is Kombucha Really Good for You?

| Mon Nov. 22, 2010 6:30 AM EST

As an occasional kombucha drinker, I enjoy the strange, sour aftertaste of the trendy fermented beverage. But after spending as much as five bucks for a 16-ounce bottle of the stuff, I decided to see if I could successfully—and safely—brew my own batch. I also wondered whether the claims about kombucha's health-enhancing properties had any merit.

Often mistaken for a mushroom, the culture used to make kombucha is actually a collection of yeast and bacteria. After 10 days of natural fermentation, the amalgam forms a thin pancake-looking colony referred to as a SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast) surrounded by a fizzy, vinegar-like tonic—the stuff you drink. Remnants of the living mass make their way into bottled kombucha, which creeps some people out. "But really, it's no more frightful than when yogurt first reared its head in health stores across America in the 1970s," states one Whole Foods website. Kombucha has been consumed for thousands of years—some say it originated in Manchuria in 220 B.C.; others trace its roots to Russia—and enthusiasts prize the drink for its beneficial probiotics, organic acids, vitamins and antioxidants.

Because the fermentation happens naturally, I needed no special equipment besides a one-gallon mason jar to get the project bubbling. Brad Koester, a local kombucha brewer who also sells pickled beans and onions to San Francisco restaurants, presented me with my very own "mother" SCOBY; a gelatinous mass that resembled a small jellyfish asleep in amniotic fluid. I brewed about a gallon of green tea, added eight tablespoons of sugar, and poured all the liquid that would fit into the gallon jar with the SCOBY, making sure to cover the top of the mason jar with a thin cloth to prevent fruit fly infestation.

Maybe because kombucha brewers refer to this mass as the "mother," I couldn't help feeling like I was caring for a pet. Would I kill my SCOBY if I shook it? Would my SCOBY wither and die in my chilly Victorian house? I voiced my anxieties to Brad, who shot me back a text that said: "Patience grasshopper." I could do nothing but wait and see if the "mother" would work her magic, and I'd have little control over the results.

Basia Bulat's Northern Exposure

| Mon Nov. 1, 2010 6:45 AM EDT

If you remember June Carter Cash then you'll certainly recall her autoharp, the fretless cousin of the zither, with buttons that allow the musician to play automatic chords. Canadian folk singer Basia Bulat deserves some credit for reviving the instrument in the contemporary music scene, although, as she will tell you, she's far from the only person strumming one. "Sufjan Stevens uses it in almost every song," she insists, then ticks off a list of others: "Grizzly Bear, PJ Harvey; the first time I saw it was at a Bonnie Prince Billy concert." At performances, fans can catch Bulat clad in brightly colored skirts, blond hair streaming, cradling her autoharp and belting out lush folk tunes—her Tracy Chapman-like voice has almost the opposite timbre as Cash's.

Her instrumental talent is extensive. The daughter of a music teacher, she grew up playing piano, upright bass, flute, guitar, you name it. She  experiments with all sorts of obscure instruments, like the hammered harp and the ukelin (a cross between a mandolin and a ukulele). "A lot of them that I found, you would get out of an old Sears catalog as a novelty," she explains. "I think they were trying to sell them as the next big thing, but they never quite made it."

These instruments don't tour well and get out of tune very easily, so why bother? "I think I just like hybrids, I think I like weirdos," Bulat replies.

Foggy With a Chance of Increased Unemployment

| Mon Oct. 25, 2010 6:03 AM EDT

In "Will Obama Put Up a Fight?" MoJo DC bureau chief David Corn traces how Obama has struggled to connect with voters on their fears and uncertainties about the economy. By spending too much time on health care, underestimating his opponents, and banking too much on banks, Obama failed to engage his base and lost control of the narrative. "It wasn't just what Obama did, but how he did it," writes Corn. "He did not effectively present voters with the key question: How would—how could—a post-industrial, post-dot-com, post-Big Finance economy work?" The results from a recent New York Times/CBS poll reveal some of this voter confusion; 57 percent of those polled did not think Obama had a clear plan for solving the nation's problems, and 53 percent didn't think he had a clear plan for creating jobs.

Unfortunately for Democrats struggling to engage their constituents on November 2, voter confusion about the economy at election time can actually hurt the economy even more. Dennis Jacobe, chief economist for Gallup, suggests that the mere presence of the midterm elections could have a negative impact on consumer spending and employment. Jacobe points to a graph of the increasing unemployment rate (see below), and writes:

Often, political opponents disagree not only about what has caused the poor economy, but also on how best to get it going again. This political rhetoric may generate even more confusion and uncertainty as the midterm elections draw near and more Americans listen carefully to the political debates. If true, this could mean the economy will get worse in the weeks ahead as political debate exacerbates economic confusion. Of course, whether it means things will get better following the elections is a whole different discussion.

Graph courtesy of Gallup.com

 

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