Sunday, August 06, 2017

Old-School Microdistricts

In 2010-2011, I was writing quite a lot in on this blog about the advantages that would accrue from regionalizing some services in Massachusetts -- consolidating the work of towns that is done by counties in most of the United States. 

It would simplify communication between state agencies and local workers, and increase the proportion of funding that would go directly to services. As logical as some county-level service provision would be, it is not going to happen in my lifetime, because of the "illusion of local control," as Gov. Patrick and I described it in a 2009 discussion. We used the word "illusion" because the small scale of governance allows taxpayers to make detailed decisions -- like a town-meeting vote on whether to buy new tires for a police car (I exaggerate only slightly) -- while unfavorable economies of scale very much constrain those decisions. Overhead is quite high, with thousands of people employed managing things who could be much more usefully employed doing the things. Search the word "regionalization" on this blog to see some specific example or read my case for regionalization page for a detailed explanation.
Old Stone Schoolhouse. Image: Fairhaven Office of Tourism
This all came to mind yesterday as my favorite librarian and I visited this Old Stone Schoolhouse in the Oxford Village area of Fairhaven. Our main goal was to learn more about the history and geography of the seaside town that began being our part-time home about two years. The outing was certainly successful -- in less than an hour we learned a great deal from the "schoolmaster" docent who connected this 1828 structure to many Fairhaven events, personalities and structures. He also helped us to understand the daily life of teachers and students in nineteenth-century New England towns.

It was the story of the school's construction, though, that gave us new insight into the current resistance to regionalization. When Fairhaven was incorporated in 1812, it included what is now the town of Acushnet, immediately to the north. The two towns cover just under 35 square miles and today have a combined population of less than 25,000 people. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts required that school districts be formed within towns, with each district required to provide for the education of children in that district.

Here is the amazing bit: within this small town, NINETEEN districts were created. This made some sense, in an age when every child would walk to school. But by the end of the century, reform movements would consolidate districts at the town level to reduce variations in funding and in the quality of instruction.

So the town-level administration we find today — with 250 school districts where 20 would do, but where a couple thousand had been — is regionalization enough by nineteenth-century standards. And as anybody who has been in New England very long knows, nineteenth-century standards are, well, standard in many aspects of life.

Lagniappe: Climate Change

Among the many interesting stories we heard during our brief visit to the Old Stone Schoolhouse was one about the commute of a teacher who lived in the center of town, about a mile and a half south of the school to which she was assigned. This was unusual enough that stories were handed down of her walking to school along Main Street in the warmer months -- and ice skating along the Acushnet River in the winter. I have been rowing year-round in the Acushnet River for the past five years, and although I have encountered some ice along the margins and even slabs of ice in the open water, I have never encountered ice that one would even consider skating on.

Saturday, August 05, 2017

Water Mosaic

We live on a water planet, yet clean water is scarce. Even on my own university campus, some students do not have adequate access to clean water during the day -- though bottled water is for sale at a cost about 3 times that of gasoline.

Artist Serge Belo calls attention to the importance of water by coordinating the work of 100 volunteers to make a remarkable mosaic from recovered rainwater. I recommend watching the video above and then reading about their project on Viral Mirror and On Note.

Water is an important part of the work we do as educators in Project EarthView; I recently posted an article about the global scale of fresh water, in response to a question from a student at Rumney Marsh Academy in Revere.

Friday, August 04, 2017

Name That Learner

The first time I purchased a digital camera, it was with professional-development funds from my college. I made the case that the camera would help me to learn student names, because it would make it easy for me to take "mug shots" at the beginning of the semester and put the photos into a spreadsheet.

In most of my larger classes, I have announced on the first day that the next class meeting would be "picture day." When possible, I have used wall maps as my "studio" background. I have found the process of cropping and inserting the photos to be a good way to start learning names, and calling roll from the photo-spreadsheet has made me much better -- though still far from great -- at learning names throughout the semester.
"Yes, you there."

I started the spreadsheet approach when I was in my 30s, and eventually started using it in my smaller classes. Whenever I have failed to do so, I have ended the semester being unsure of at least a few names. And even with this help, I am sometimes at a loss to name the student in front of me. I learned that for a person over 50, this becomes increasingly common, even with long-time acquaintances. So I will continue to whatever help I can get.

Much of that help can be found in Maryellen Weimer's recent article, The Importance of Learning Students' Names, in which she describes a number of additional techniques that I plan to try. More importantly, she makes a convincing case for involving students more directly in the process. Networking, after all, is an important benefit of education at all levels, and it is worth spending a little bit of class time to facilitate connections.

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Medicare and Small-d democracy

Seminary was where I got my questions answered, and life was where I got my answers questioned.

Bill Moyers values both halves of this couplet -- he gained a lot in seminary school, and he gained a lot by moving beyond it. He goes on to say that he knows religion is a powerful animating force in people's lives, and that he has seen both great good and great harm motivated by it.

"You can't treat grandma this way."
These remarks come near the end of a remarkable and wide-ranging conversation between the best interviewer we have -- Terry Gross -- and an accomplished journalist (with a cabinet full of Emmys) who once held Sean Spicer's job under a very different president.

The conversation begins with Moyers describing how Lyndon Johnson patiently and skillfully did his homework to bring about the passage of Medicare. The discussion then ranges across broad themes of democracy, journalism, work, and mortality -- this is 36 minutes well spent.

Actually 72 minutes, because I will probably listen to this a second time soon.


I am glad that the conversation eventually turned to Moyers seminary days. One of the first things I learned about him was that he had attended on of the six Southern Baptist Seminaries that were in place in the 1970s -- I think some of them have since closed and all of them have been taken over by ideologues who pushed out the educators. He attended Southeastern in North Carolina; my father, mother, and I all attended Midwestern in Kansas City. (Though my dad attended "for reals" and my mother and I were in a non-credit program. I think I was the only teenager ever to do so.) In those days, both seminars had a reputation for both deepening one's religious understanding and broadening one's thinking.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Bridges and Habilitation

Earlier this month, I very much enjoyed listening to this story as I prepared our morning coffee. Although I did not know the people or projects described, I did know the setting, and the story felt familiar in at least two ways.

BSU students at PLUSAA in León
First, the project described is very much like the work of the Polus Center in León, Nicaragua -- more specifically the local projects supported by its Coffeelands Trust. As in the projects described by journalist Mónica Ortiz Uribe in northern Mexico, the clinics in Nicaragua -- PLUSAA and Walking Unidos -- empower people with limb loss or other severe injuries by providing prosthetic limbs or wheelchairs. The latter are made from simple, locally available materials and are adapted to local terrain. Even more importantly, much of the work is performed by people who themselves have suffered such injuries.

I was very pleased to hear that a very similar set of projects is underway in Sonora, northwest Mexico, near my former home in Tucson, Arizona. Both the objectives and the methods are very much like the projects many  students have visited with me in León. The immediate goal in all of these projects is mobility, but the ultimate purpose is to allow people to develop independence and an ability to contribute to the well-being of their families.

Both in Mexico and in Nicaragua, the projects are driven by local individuals and partners from the United States. In both cases, support from the U.S. Federal government plays a small role. In Nicaragua, this has been in the form of grants from the State Department's Agency for International Development (US-AID), directed at ameliorating some of the harm done by the 175,000 landmines that U.S.-backed insurgents placed throughout the country in the 1980s. In the case of Sonora, Mexico, aid has come in the form of equipment donated by the U.S. Northern Command.

Image: Wikimedia, 2010 view of Nogales, Sonora from Nogales, Arizona.
Note the presence of a huge wall through the city, though short-term crossings in both directions are common for work, shopping, or even fast food.  As with most U.S.-Mexico twin cities, the population is larger on the Mexico side. In this case, it is more than a ten-fold difference, roughly 220,000 versus 20,000.
This brings me to the second way in which the radio piece was instantly familiar. It does not describe the cartoon version of the borderlands that has been created for political purposes over the past several decades. Rather, it describes a spirit of cooperation and recognition of mutual interdependence that I observed during my seven years in the Arizona/Sonora and Texas/Tamaulipas borderlands, and that is described beautifully in Border People by historian Oscar Martinez.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Thoreau at 200

Thoreau would have celebrated -- though in a subdued fashion to be sure -- his 200th birthday if he were still alive this week. He could have shared a cake with another great champion of justice 180 years his junior, as Malala Yousafzai ceased being a teenager and turned 20 on July 12.

Thoreau is one of those great figures whose work I came to know only gradually and a bit belatedly. I somehow earned all of my geography degrees -- with an emphasis on environmental geography -- without having any of his work assigned for my classes.

I have been mindful of that gap as I work with my own geography students -- particularly those who intend to pursue environmental professions. In an upper-level course on land protection, I introduce or reintroduce him through a children's book entitled Henry Hikes to Fitchburg. This does not include Thoreau's own writing, but it is a pleasant way to consider the importance Thoreau placed on slowing down and observing the landscape around him.

We then move into something a bit weightier, David Foster's book Thoreau's Country: Journey Through a Transformed Landscape, which was introduced just as I was preparing to teach a course on land protection for the first time. Foster manages one of the oldest research forests in the world -- Harvard Forest in Petersham, Massachusetts. Foster has curated some of Thoreau's writings that were never intended to be published. They are the journal entries based on his daily walks, and because they were based on close, regular observation sustained over many years, they are rich with details about forests, farmland, and the relationships between the two at a time of rapid landscape change. When combined with the insights of a modern forest ecologist, they allow my students and me to think deeply about the implications of change as we seek to set aside land for long-term protection. The most essential lesson is that we cannot freeze landscapes in time.

On the occasion of Thoreau's bicentennial, I was pleased to find some thoughtful discussions of his life and his contributions. Writing for the New York Times, John Kaag and Clancy Martin remind us that despite his reputation as a hermit in the wilderness, at his cabin in Concord he was not really alone with nature. Present-day visitors are sometimes surprised that authorities allowed a train track to be built so close to his famous retreat, when in fact it was he who built his cabin in the woods just a short walk from the tracks. In fact, his careful observations of the interactions between train-engine sparks and flammable materials in the forest provide some of the fire-ecology lessons for my students.
Thanks to Thoreau, biologist Primack knows
that this blueberry is flowering early.

WBUR journalists Bob Oakes and Yasmin Amir used the occasion of Thoreau's birthday to have an important discussion about climate change with Boston University biologist Richard Primack. Thoreau's careful notes provide direct evidence of climate change in Concord, just west of Boston -- from thinning ice to shifts in the timing of events related to the arrival of seasons for plants and animals. As difficult as these shifts might be for humans to notice otherwise, they can be critical to the integrity of food webs.

Learn more from the Thoreau Society.

Seed Saving

As I was driving across the Midwest yesterday, I crossed time zones and moved from one public-radio market to another, so that I was able to hear some programs twice. Although I had the car well-stocked with music CDs, I prefer to drive to good discussions. Our dog was the only passenger, and she either likes NPR or does a good job pretending to.
Image: Indiana Grain
So I came to hear an interview about the global seed vault twice, as I drove past field after field of identical corn. When I see cornfields, it seems my eyes are playing tricks on me. The lack of genetic diversity gives the fields an odd kind of harmonics, as the identical structures of each plant create wave patterns with an unsettling symmetry. When Hollywood uses CGI to create masses of soldiers in a field, some randomness is introduced to make the image more realistic. Not so in corn fields -- every stalk is the same.

This was no ordinary interview about seeds. This was Terry Gross talking with Cary Fowler. Terry Gross is the best interviewer -- I have heard her interview hundreds of people over a period of more than 30 years. I remember Johnny Cash ending their interview by telling her, "You are really good at what you do." This is why I was happy to listen to the same interview twice in a row. Cary Fowler has the ultimate pursue-your-dreams. He went from thinking there should be a global repository of seeds to figuring out the perfect location for it (geography!) to building and directing it.

His sense of humor about the work comes out in his discussion with Gross, as do some of the ways that he and his spouse promote crop genetic diversity in their daily lives.

Back to those fields I was driving past. Agriculture is more productive than it has ever been, but it is also more vulnerable to perturbation. The very specialization that gives us high yields and disease resistance also cuts us off from the genetic richness from which such specialization is drawn.

Listen in:

Friday, July 14, 2017

Grazie, Agricoltori!

When the alarm sounded this morning -- ever-so gently -- I was tempted to roll back over. But I pushed through, knowing that in order to have the coffee, I would need to make the coffee. Most of the steps had already been taken care of by others -- planting the tree, tending the soil, harvesting, drying, milling had been done in East Timor, on the other side of the world. I had taken care of the roasting a couple of days ago, so all that remained was the grinding and brewing, which I would do with the accompaniment of Morning Edition.

After a few short items about the latest political fiascos, the hosts got my full attention by admitting that on many days, the program seems as if it is hosted by a giant cup of coffee. These people get up even earlier than I do, after all!

As I continued to prepare the Chemex, my industry was rewarded by the mellifluous voice of Sylvia Poggioli intoning on the virtues of Italian coffee culture.
In five minutes, she explains a lot about the geography of coffee shops in general and of Italian shops in particular, along with some interesting insights into some of the varieties of espresso drinks and the time of day it is considered appropriate to drink each. 

Poggioli's reporting draws on the expertise of the Coffee University, also known as the Illy training center. It was in the U.S. training center of Illy's rival Lavazza that I first became acquainted with the rudiments of caring for coffee at the brewing stage. I believe some of the voices I heard from Illy are also featured in the film Black Gold, a bold documentary that contrasts the refinement of coffee consumption with the destitution of coffee production in Ethiopia.

I enjoyed this report as much as I enjoyed the coffee in my favorite (and now twice=emptied) cup. But the report lacked one idea that I think should be part of any coffee discussion, so I supplied it in the title of this post: #thankthefarmers 

Saturday, July 01, 2017

California Coffee

Geographers often study agriculture, and for several good reasons. As a discipline concerned with earth systems, we can help to ascertain how a given crop fits into -- or does not fit into -- the ecology of the places where it is grown. Because agricultural systems move food grown in some places to people living in other places, it is rich with questions of movement, networks, and connections. Agriculture operates at the interface between people and the land, and so does geography.
Jay Ruskey on his coffee farm in Goleta, California.
This comes to mind as I read a story that a friend in the coffee industry recently shared about California coffee. Many people already associate coffee with the Golden State, because significant players in the specialty coffee movement have come from there, especially from the San Francisco area. One of these is Paul Katzeff, founder of Thanksgiving Coffee and a key importer for my friend Byron. The definitive coffee history book Uncommon Grounds includes subchapter entitled "God's Gift to Coffee." I met him briefly in Matagalpa during my very first trip to Nicaragua in 2006, and among many important things I learned in that quick conversation was that it is possible to grow coffee in California, as he was doing near his home.

This was not a complete shock -- geographers understand that a given crop can be grown just about anywhere if cost is not a factor. A classic example is that greenhouses can provide tomatoes for miners in Siberia. A lot of the work geographers have done on agriculture concerns identifying factors that influence crop choice, which include both climate and soil as one would expect, and the costs of labor, machinery and transportation.

Katzeff's coffee is akin to the Siberian tomatoes -- something he is willing to do at a high cost because of his passion for the crop, but not something that would be considered commercially viable.

CCC? Commercial California Coffee?

Until now, possibly. The photograph above was taken at an elevation of just 650 feet in Goleta, just west of Santa Barbara. That is a fraction of the elevation of most world-class coffee farms, and more than 10 degrees of latitude outside the traditional Coffee Belt.

It accompanies Stephanie Strom's recent New York Times article Your Coffee Is From Where? California? A widely-accomplished journalist who has recently focused on food, Strom's reporting on the emerging coffee-growing scene in California touches on several interesting aspects of the geography of coffee.

The first thing I noticed is that the coffee is associated with avocados. It was from coffee farmers we met during a 2008 visit to the Atitlan area of Guatemala that I learned that the two tree crops could thrive in the same environment. As coffee farmers throughout the world seek to diversify their crops as a protection against climate change, related pests, and market volatility, avocados are therefore one possibility.

Avocados do not, however, provide the shade needed for genuine shade-grown coffee, of which there are several kinds. Real shade-grown coffee conserves water, provides an ideal habitat for coffee as well as birds, other wildlife, and perhaps epiphytes. It provides appropriate conditions for organic and biodynamic coffee. Simply planting coffee next to trees of a similar size provides minimal shade benefits, and only the slight ecological benefits of duoculture over monoculture. (I made that word up, but I think I am correct on this critique.)

Second -- and even more important -- is the insights the article provides into the costs of growing coffee. As I write this, coffee futures are trading for $1.26 per pound of green, ready-to-export coffee; see the widget at the top-left of this screen for up-to-the-minute prices (shown per 100-pound bag). Customers tend to pay several times more than this, of course, to cover packaging, shipping, transportation, processing, brewing, and profits amounting to many hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

Fair-trade prices are based on the minimum cost to produce coffee, and although this varies geographically, certification currently requires a payment of $1.40 or more. A story far more important than California coffee, therefore, is the story of how farmers get locked into agreements in which they do not even meet costs most years.

As the article points out, production costs in California are much higher, mainly because of prevailing labor and land costs. As with Hawaiian coffee, the higher costs will only be justified if truly remarkable flavors can be developed.  This presents California growers with an interesting challenge: mechanization is the only real way to keep costs under some kind of control, but mechanization -- particularly in the harvest -- is likely to reduce quality.

Brazil and Nicaragua Comparisons

Mechanization in coffee usually involves harvesting methods that simply shake each tree over a large pan that catches the fruit. Because Arabica coffee does not ripen at the same time, high-quality coffee is harvested by hand four or five times during the season. All of my friends in Nicaragua do this; my friends in Brazil do not, because the low elevation of their farm means that they cannot command a premium for quality, and therefore cannot afford to pay for handpicking at Brazil's higher labor costs. Hand-picking would improve the quality of their coffee, but not enough to justify the cost.

It remains to be seen whether California can square the circle of commanding a higher price without paying for human harvesters. As the article mentions, California growers are placing a great deal of their faith in selecting the best varietals. These are cultivated sub-species of Arabica, analogous to grape varietals. The Caturra mentioned in the article, for example, is commonly grown in Nicaragua as well as Colombia, and is known as Coffea arabica var. caturra. Each is best suited to particular conditions of soil and microclimate.

Coffee Calendar Countdown

Strom points out that the quantity of coffee being grown in California is still very small? How small? Much smaller than the quantity grown on Hawaii's 800 farms (it grows on every major island in that state -- it is not all about Kona). But Hawaii is small, too, in comparison to the huge quantity of coffee grown in the world.

As I thought about how to represent these differences graphically, I struggled with how to make California's crop visible on the same image as the world's crop. As I was playing with the math, I realized that another analogy might be helpful. Consider the year's coffee production, which in 2016 totaled just over 20 billion pounds -- enough to make something like a TRILLION cups of coffee.

Imagine the crop being consumed in this order through the calendar year: biggest producer, next biggest, then all the rest, followed by Hawaii and California at the very end. This is not possible, for a whole host of reasons, but as a thought experiment it is telling.

On January 1, we could begin drinking coffee from Brazil. In 2016, Brazil's coffee could have supplied the world right up through my birthday in early May. The second-largest producer is Vietnam, whose coffee could supply the world from then through Independence Day on July 4. That is correct -- well-known Brazil and little-known (in coffee terms) Vietnam supplied over half the world's coffee in 2016, though almost none of its specialty coffee.

From the summer months until Christmas, we could drink coffee from about 50 other countries throughout the coffee belt -- Mexico, Peru, Indonesia (mainly Java & Sumatra), Kenya, Ethiopia, and many more.

On Christmas Eve -- as a special treat -- we could start drinking coffee from Nicaragua, where my friends grow some of the highest-quality coffees in the world. On the afternoon of New Year's Day, perhaps around 5 p.m., it would be time to drink some Hawaiian coffee, which would take us through our evening celebrations. And then ONE SECOND BEFORE MIDNIGHT, the world could slurp down all of the coffee produced in California!

Monday, June 26, 2017

Second Coffee Myth: Busted

The first myth of coffee is the myth of its origin about 1500 years ago in Abyssinia, in what is now Ethiopia. A goatherd named Kaldi is said to have noticed his goats dancing with extra energy. He also noticed that they were eating the fruit of some tall shrubs, so he chewed on them, got energized, and the rest is history.
Coffee: Fruit to grounds
The rest is also geography -- the Abyssinians only got as far as mashing the fruit into something like a power bar; it was across the Red Sea in Yemen that coffee as we know it began to emerge about a century later.

The second coffee myth comes much later, in the 1970s, and it actually includes the word "second." The myth goes like this:
Myth: Coffee is the second-most actively traded commodity, after oil.
This is a myth that I have repeated online, in classes, and in public lectures. I have read it on coffee web sites and many kinds of books about the beverage. And I have heard it in almost every documentary film about coffee that I have watched.

And, it appears, it is about as likely to be true as the legend of Kaldi. Perhaps less so.

Over the years, I have intended to look up the numbers behind the claim, to make sure that they were "still" true. The possibility that the claim was never true simply did not occur to me.

And then an alum shared Jon Greenberg's PolitiFact article No, Coffee Is Not the Second-Most Traded Commodity After Oil. The article is a bit blustery and inexplicably centers on Starbucks, but it usefully cites a couple of statistics and authorities that cast doubt on the second-most ranking. One of those incorrectly says that the claim was once true, which would give me comfort, but it turns out that even this is not the case.

Fortunately, Greenberg cites one authority I know personally -- Mark Pendergrast. When I first began preparing to teach coffee classes in 2005, I chose his book Uncommon Grounds as a text. Coincidentally, a teacher who was attending a geography workshop at which I was giving a short presentation on coffee said, "My uncle has written a book about coffee." It was the book I had already chosen, and I was able to arrange for him to speak on our campus as part of the send-off for my first coffee travel course. I later took a group of students who had read his book to meet him while we were touring a roastery near his home.

I mention those meetings because they took place after the book was published, but before Pendergrast had been made aware of the error shared by so many scholars of coffee. Scholar that he is, he doggedly researched the topic, going much deeper, of course, than the PolitiFact author could go. Details of his retraction were published in a 2009 issue of Coffee & Tea Trade Journal  with the cumbersome title Coffee second only to oil? Is coffee really the second largest commodity?, which is helpfully republished on The Free Library.

Pendergrast's best theory as to the origin of the myth is that it originally referred not to global trade, but to exports from developing countries. He explains this distinction clearly, and also explains why apples-to-apples comparisons (as it were) between the 1970s and today are no longer possible.

As careful as he is in the retraction, Pendergrast is also careful to emphasize that the ranking is not so important. However it is measured, the coffee business touches tens of millions of lives directly, along with wildlife habitat and water supplies throughout the tropics. Those of us who care deeply about those people and places should never have taken the "big is important" bait.

A second edition of Uncommon Grounds includes the correction, but as we all know -- retractions never travel as widely or quickly as errors. I am making it my duty as Coffee Maven -- beginning with this post -- to set the record straight.