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. She manages Mother Jones' Ben Bagdikian Fellowship Program.
It's almost time to bid farewell to tomatoes. The stiff, tasteless orbs found in even California supermarkets come winter don't do the fruit justice, so I'll gorge myself now and then settle in for eight months of canned goods. But it's not just produce that's best at a seasonal peak: Farm animals also respond to temperature and light. In fact, some food experts believe that we should wait for the right season to eat fresh meat.
This isn't exactly a new idea. Cultures throughout history have slaughtered animals at certain times of year, and many of our traditional holiday meals—think Thanksgiving turkey and Easter ham—came from this practice. Steak also was once an autumn delicacy: After the first frost, ranchers would flood the market with steers fattened on summer's pastures. But that changed after World War II, when farmers—buoyed by a large new trove of government-subsidized corn and soy—found profit in confining cattle and selling meat year-round, and most turned to "finishing" cattle on grain, breaking beef's tie to grass growth cycles. The tender meat produced this way made "corn-fed" a compliment, but by now the downsides have also become apparent: Today upwards of 97 percent of US beef is grain-fed, and livestock consume more than 50 percent of the corn produced in the United States, requiring a system of massive monoculture, heavy pesticide applications, and overtilled soils. On the other hand, well-managed permanent pasture, where grasses are dense and root systems maintained, can improve the soil, prevent erosion, and sequester carbon.
Wild turkeys feast on abundant grass and bugs in the summer. Shorter days in the fall affect their hormones, causing them to retain more fat in anticipation of winter.
So lately, grass-fed meat has been enjoying a renaissance among both foodies and ranchers, with everyone from Whole Foods to fast-food chain Elevation Burger peddling pastured beef and lamb. But there's a catch: In order to sell their product all year long, farmers finish their grass-fed animals with hay and dry forage in the winter months. Those stored feeds are lower in fatty acids and precursors for antioxidants such as omega-3s—which make grass-fed beef healthier in the first place, says Cynthia Daley, an agriculture professor at California State University-Chico. "To optimize these antioxidants," she says, "cattle need to be finished off grass."
That's why Bill Niman, the founder and former CEO of Niman Ranch, sells his pasture-finished Black Angus beef only from early summer to fall—to take advantage of prime Northern California grazing time, which begins in spring. (The timing would be different in other climates; in Vermont, where grass remains lush through the summer, the meat would be best later.) Chefs at premier restaurants—like California's Chez Panisse and New York's Blue Hill—say Niman's rich steaks are worth the wait.
Even nongrazing animals traditionally were prepared at particular times: Farmers slaughtered hogs in the fall, after the barrows had gorged on acorns. Sausages were made when workers were finished in the fields and had time to help in the packing houses. Hams were cured all winter and ready in time for Easter. Meat birds also have a prime season: Turkeys that are allowed to forage outdoors feast on abundant grass and bugs in the summer. Shorter days in the fall affect their hormones, causing them to retain more fat in anticipation of winter. "There's a reason why turkey was the Thanksgiving bird," says Kansas heritage turkey farmer Frank Reese. "That's when it was ready."
But buying seasonal meat at its peak isn't cheap. Niman's ribeyes, sold as BN Beef, ring in at $21.99 a pound at one San Francisco market, compared to around $12.50 per pound for the average boneless ribeye. Frank Reese's heritage turkeys cost around $9.50 a pound; supermarket turkeys go for $1.68 per pound. "Grass-fed costs a lot more because it costs the rancher a lot more to make it," says University of California-Davis livestock specialist Jim Oltjen. And the consolidation of slaughterhouses hasn't made it easier for ranchers trying to buck the system: A lot of them would prefer to process meat seasonally, but industrial abattoirs run year-round, and they don't let ranchers choose when to bring their animals in. One recent University of California study found that small-scale beef ranchers in California's Mendocino County were "hampered by significant scheduling problems" at the few USDA-certified slaughterhouses in the area.
Consumer demand could help tip the scales in favor of these small farmers. "We started with a very small group of people who cared about the seasonality of tomatoes, and that group has grown," says Maisie Greenawalt, a strategist for a large sustainable-food-focused catering company. Seasonal seafood is gaining popularity too, she says—eating wild salmon only during the summer run, for example. "There's a possibility for meat to follow that same pattern."
And what happens in February when you're hankering for a burger? "The great thing about meat is you can freeze it," Oltjen says. "It does fine." So if you're one of the growing number of omnivores adding pasture-raised meat to your diet, it might be time to invest in a chest freezer—or kiss that cheeseburger goodbye for a few months.
Radio producer Dave Isay first made his mark with stories like Ghetto Life 101, for which he enlisted a pair of precocious eighth-graders to document their lives in a Chicago housing project. He saw how putting the kids in charge of the recording gear gave them license to ask questions they might never have asked otherwise—and how the mere act of participating in these very personal interviews "could transform people's lives."
Click on the arrows below to listen to some greatest hits from Ties That Bind:Stories of Love and Gratitude from the First Ten Years of StoryCorps.
In 2003, he launched a project called StoryCorps, setting up a booth in New York City's Grand Central Terminal where anyone could walk in and interview a relative, a friend, or even a complete stranger for 40 minutes. The project's mobile recording booths have ambled through 174 American cities to date, helping collect more than 50,000 interviews involving 90,000 people. The recordings are archived in the Library of Congress, and choice bits are broadcast weekly on NPR's Morning Edition. For its 10th anniversary this month, StoryCorps is releasing a greatest hits book, Ties That Bind, and throwing a gala hosted by Stephen Colbert.
StoryCorps has also launched initiatives to capture the voices of special demographics: ethnic minorities, teachers, seniors, people with memory loss, even one dedicated to preserving Alaskan heritage. The archive is a paean to unsung heroes—people like Ted Weaver, a janitor and chauffeur in pre-civil-rights era Knoxville, Tennessee, who stayed up late to teach himself algebra so he could help his son Lynn with homework. (Lynn tells of his father's modest feats in a recording embedded in the box above.)
Isay, the recipient of six Peabody awards—radio's highest honor—and a MacArthur "genius" grant, calls these recordings "poems of the human voice," but artistic merit is hardly the point. "People know that their great-great-great-great-grandkids are going to get to hear their voice someday, and this will be maybe the only thing they leave behind," he told me recently. "There'll be pictures and other things, but the soul is contained in the voice."
Mother Jones: I've read that StoryCorps was inspired by the oral history projects that came out of the New Deal.
Dave Isay: I used to go to the American Folklife Center in DC and listen to those interviews. There may have been less than 100 recorded on these discs—a bunch of them by John Lomax. I remember a recording of guys in a pool hall right after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and you can hear the balls, people shooting pool in the background and these guys, very beautifully and clearly recorded, talking about about what was about to happen. It just kind of transported me back in time.
MJ: I gather some academics don't consider StoryCorps true oral history?
DI: Yeah, I think because the people who are asking questions aren't academics, and there's a time limit. And that's fine. We feel like we walk in the footsteps of oral historians and Studs Terkel, who loved StoryCorps! I'm not so concerned about what people call it, I'm just kind of concerned that people take the time to have these conversations.
MJ: Did you set up StoryCorps this way in the hope of eliminating the biases an outside interviewer brings into the process?
Scientists have found that drought means Engelmann spruce trees (pictured on Red Mountain Pass, Colorado, above) have weaker defenses against spruce beetles, triggering an outbreak in hundreds of thousands of acres in Colorado's forests.
Since the late 1990s, mountain pine beetles have swept through millions of acres of forest in the Rockies, turning hillsides of trees a rusty red and then grey as they populate trees and kill them. In Colorado, this outbreak seems to have peaked in 2008 and 2009; but just as one species slowed, another—the spruce beetle—has picked up steam. A new University of Colorado study published in Ecology reveals how drought was the driver of the rise in spruce beetle activity and resulting tree deaths in Colorado's high-elevation forests in recent years. The drought is in turn linked to changes in sea surface temperatures that are expected to continue for decades to come. In the long-term, such massive insect infestations could dramatically diminish North American forests' ability to retain water and sequester carbon—meaning trees will be less effective at balancing out the human toll on the environment.
So far, fewer acres of trees have been affected by spruce beetles than mountain pine beetles, but there are more spruce forests in Colorado than Lodgepole pine, so there's "no reason to expect the percentage mortality to be less or acreage affected to be any less" than it was for the mountain pine beetle epidemic, said Tom Veblen, coauthor of the study and a geography professor at CU.
Radio host Roman Mars, creator of the architecture-and-design podcast 99% Invisible, wasn't always interested in the structures around him—"I found architecture kind of distancing, quite honestly," he says—until the day he embarked on a boat tour of Chicago. The guide pointed out how one of the Montgomery Ward buildings was explicitly designed without corner offices to prevent squabbling among company vice-presidents over who should get one. It "made me realize I wasn't invested in the aesthetics of buildings, but I loved the stories of buildings a whole lot."
In 2010, when an architecture trade group partnered with San Francisco radio station KALW to launch a bite-size design segment, Mars, who'd gotten his start at the station nine years earlier, jumped in to produce. Soon he was doing longer stories about things most if us take for granted: a decrepit bridge in Golden Gate Park, highway stripes, the modern toothbrush, the dark logic of solitary-confinement cells.
Flames from the High Park Fire west of Ft. Collins in June 2012.
The severe flooding that barreled through the Colorado foothills last week and took at least 8 lives resulted from a freak tempest that's been deemed one of the worst in the state's history. In just a few days, Boulder received more than half its normal annual precipitation. It's quite a reversal from the persistent drought and destructive wildfires Coloradans have recently contended with; in 2010, the Fourmile Canyon fire outside of Boulder became the state's most destructive to date, until it was surpassed last summer by the High Park and Waldo Canyon fires of 2012, which caused tens of thousands of evacuations along the Front Range. These extreme swings—from parched and burning to flooded—have led some to wonder if climate change is at play; Chris Mooney does a great roundup of the thinking on this in a piece yesterday.
Torrential rainfall, rather than past wildfires, was the biggest factor in Colorado's flooding.
There's also been speculation that effects from these recent wildfires could have worsened the flooding: A National Geographic post points to how a lack of vegetation causes denuded hillsides to fail to trap enough water, and Live Science notes that debris slides were spotted in recently burned regions like the High Park Fire area and Boulder's Fourmile Canyon. There's good reason to wonder if burn-scarred areas might've exacerbated the problem. Wildfires affect soil quality and can increase stream flows and erosion by 10 to 100 times compared to normal forests. Scorched hillsides can send more debris down canyons.
The experts I reached out to with this question agreed that flash floods are often a result of thunderstorms hitting burned areas with repellent soils and lack of vegetation. But most of Colorado's recent flooding doesn't exactly fall under this scenario: "Remember that the area that has been burned compared to the area where rain fell is relatively small," says Lee MacDonald, a hydrology expert at Colorado State University. Some of the rivers that were flooding and causing problems last week, such as in Big Thompson Canyon, weren't coming out of large burn areas, he says. Instead, the unusual rainfall—deemed "biblical" by the National Weather Service—was the biggest factor in all the runoff.
Wildfires have a large effect on small and medium flooding events, but when rainfall is off the charts, the effect of burned areas shrinks. "It's going to be difficult to separate out the part of the flooding that was increased because of fire because it was just so much water," says Kevin Hyde, a post-doc studying post-fire erosion at the University of Wyoming. Proximity could play a role: "the closer you are to the burned areas," Hyde adds, "the more impact the rainfall has."
Still, the compounded damages from the cycle of wildfire and flooding could very well be amplified on the Front Range in coming years. Climate models foretell larger regional storms, and scientists have also predicted bigger, more intense wildfires in Colorado's future. "What is that going to mean for the people living in the mouth of these areas?" wonders Hyde. If the 100-year flood that turned Boulder inside out last week is any indication, living at the base of the Rockies—while arguably worth it—isn't getting any less complicated.