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Aquapunx And Permaculture

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(Earth Eats Theme Music)

KAYTE YOUNG: From WFIU in Bloomington Indiana, I'm Kayte Young and this is Earth Eats.

ROBERT FREW: Our overall mission is to grow a variety of food, that is adapting to the changing climate.  

KAYTE YOUNG: Today on our show, we visit a permaculture farm near Unionville Indiana, and learn about an integrated farming system growing food, building community and connecting people to the land. 

We also hear about an aquaponics project in a middle school. And Harvest public media has a story about changing land values near urban areas, and what it means for farmers. That's all just ahead in the next half hour, so stay tuned. 

Renee Reed is out this week, but we have news from our partners at Harvest Public Media. The Trump administration says the president will sign a phase one trade deal with China this month. But as Harvest Public Media Christina Stella reports - maybe in agriculture aren't sure how to interpret its limited details. 

CHRISTINA STELLA: Brad Lubben an ag economist at the University of Nebraska Lincoln, says a tariff cease fire is good news. But so far that's all the deal seems to be. 

BRAD LUBBEN: There are still big picture questions on the table that says this is not a free trade agreement with China. This is one agreement with to forestall the escalating conflict. 

CHRISTINA STELLA: But Whendong Zhang of Iowa State University says, that wouldn't be much of an increase over pre-trade war numbers. He'll judge progress by whether tariffs continue to loosen. 

WHENDONG ZHANG: China buying 40 to 50 billion dollars of ag product is the easiest portion of the trade deal. The significance is this is the first time we have seen tariffs actually go down rather than keep going up. 

CHRISTINA STELLA: President Trump confirmed this week, phase two negotiations will start soon. Christina Stella, Harvest Public Media. 

KAYTE YOUNG: Though meat alternatives have been in the news a lot this past year, people are still eating a lot of beef, both in the U.S. and around the world. As Harvest Public Media's Amy Mayer reports, that could be good news for the cattle sector in 2020.  

AMY MAYER: There's a cycle to beef production, Iowa state University livestock economist Lee Schultz says, at the current point in that cycle the number of cattle should be leveling off. Traditionally that would mean lower prices, but as he looks ahead to predictions for 2020, Shultz sees better prices than the ones today. 

LEE SCHULTZ: That certainly setting up that we could continue to hold inventories or not see... you know, very large declines or liquidation of the cattle herd because of those supportive prices in the horizon. 

AMY MAYER: Schultz says export sales grew by double digits in recent years and a bit more modestly in 2019. The new trade deal with Japan and the likely implementation of a new North American agreement could keep beef exports strong in 2020. Amy Mayer, Harvest Public Media. 

KAYTE YOUNG: With the holidays behind us, maybe you're wondering what to do with the wilting live tree in your living room. You might think about repurposing after the ornaments come down. Here's Harvest Public Media's Dana Cronin.

DANA CRONIN: Every year more people are recycling Christmas trees versus throwing them in a landfill, according to the National Christmas Tree Association. For some trees that means being tossed into a lake.

BILL INKS: The become fish habitat for bass, and perch, and stuff to spawn in, in the spring.

DANA CRONIN: Bill Inks sells Christmas Trees at AB hatchery in Bloomington Illinois. His unsold trees end up at the bottom of the appropriately named Lake Evergreen. Local governments are providing or looking for alternatives like this says Doug Hundley with the Christmas Tree Association. 

DOUG HUNDLEY: They wanna take all of the compostable, or easy to biodegrade products, out of the waste stream. 

DANA CRONIN: He also says that people are chopping up trees for firewood or turning trees into mulch. I'm Dana Cronin, Harvest Public Media.  

KAYTE YOUNG: And that's news from Harvest Public Media, cultivating stories from the ground up. Find more at 

Across the Midwest, most farms are tucked in for the winter. Some growers are still harvesting from low tunnels, hoop houses and heated green houses, but production generally slows down for the winter. 

In 2018, I had the chance to visit a farm with a holistic vision founded on the principles of permaculture. Sobramesa Farm is located in South Central Indiana, just outside of Bloomington. The farmers, Juan Carlos Aranga and Robert Frew had a larger vision in mind when they started their farm 5 years ago. Robert Frew shares the story:

ROBERT FREW: That really started with one person, and that was Lucille Burtuccio. And she was a guiding light for us in understanding the importance of land conservation, and caring for wildlife, and for an appreciation of native plants. So, through her, we started on this journey of really re-creating ourselves, and deciding that 'hey, we could probably do something more than what we were doing. Instead of just a backyard habitat, why don't we create a very large piece of land, that's a habitat, that grows food, and has animals, and that we can also create this sense of community around us?' 

JUAN CARLOS ARANGO:  We love food and community. I come from a Latino culture in which it's pretty important to be connected with people, and food is one of the best things... you know. And that's why also, we named the farm Sobremesa. In my culture, after you finished eating you stayed at the table, and chatting... you know, gossiping, things like that. And that's like Sobremesa, that's what we call Sobremesa. So that's why we are growing all kind of food here and connecting the food to the community. So, we have the market here, events, we have guests coming.

Also, we thought it would be unique, we learned that from the Amishes, you go to their farms and they harvest for you there. And that's what we do here at the market. People come and we harvest for them, they see the produce and they can choose, "I want that tomato." And it's a good way because the food becomes something else. It's not just an item, it has history, love, sharing information, and you get to know that person that is eating your food. So, it's really great.

KAYTE YOUNG: So, you haven't already harvested for the market, it's as people come, you might just go out into the garden and pick things?

JUAN CARLOS ARANGO: Some of the things we do harvest early in the morning, but we have some chairs, so when people come here, they breath and they wait. Or they come with us. So, it's an adventure I would say. You need your time, and also they meet other people who are buying stuff from us here. So, it's an event I would say, too.

ROBERT FREW: The Market is on Sunday from eleven to six, and we open the gates at the road, put out signs and wait [laughs]. I think that it's a way for people to better connect with their food. Because they meet the farmer, they see how it is being grown, and they see the entire ecology of the piece of land around the food.

We wanted a central feature at the farm, and we decided since we were both into refurbishing and salvaging things, that we would find a barn that was going to be torn down, that we could rescue. So, we found one up in Dyer Indiana, and we hired an Amish crew to disassemble the barn, put it on trucks and bring it here and reassemble it--in mostly the same way that it was, with a few alterations.

We got together with a sound engineer from IU, who suggested that we remove one of the lofts in the barn that had originally been in the barn, and then to eventually create a solid surface floor, which would help with better acoustics in the barn because our goal was to have concerts there and different musical events, and really to help educate people. Which again, this was part of the mission that we're carrying on from Lucille, and to help people connect with a piece of land, to understand the heritage of farms in Indiana. And in the case of the barn, the importance of conservation, of preservation of an important piece of architecture that really roots us here.

KAYTE YOUNG: Sobremesa also offers two lovely AirBnb spaces, and they host campers, interns and Woofers - people who travel to live and learn on organic farms. And they've connected with the local elementary school in Unionville. 

JUAN CARLOS ARANGO: They have a really an amazing idea for the whole school, in theme, it's called EARTH, and they have a garden. I mean that school is amazing.

We prepared a workshop to create a mound, Hugelkultur is the word they use in German, but it's pretty much a big raised garden, using some materials you have right there, on your place. And there were sixty-something kids, and they were fantastic. Oh, we loved it. There was one seven-year-old, came to me and said, "I could do this for the rest of my life!" And that really was the best, yeah. 

KAYTE YOUNG: So, they built the mound?

JUAN CARLOS ARANGO: We showed... so we divided all the kids in three groups. The ingredients we had was branches, paper, soil, cardboard. So, they all went through the whole process. They used shovels, all tools, wheelbarrows, I mean they work incredibly. I told one of them, "You're hired!" because they didn't want to stop, they went on and on.

KAYTE YOUNG: They also hosted students from Unionville for a program called Reimagining Opera for Kids, presenting a food-themed opera in the refurbished barn. There's so much happening at Sobremesa Farm, too much to cover in one episode. But we'll check back with Robert and Juan Carlos later in the show, to hear about why they keep a special type of fowl on their farm. So, stay with us. 

[Earth Eats production support music]

KAYTE YOUNG: Production support comes from: 

Bill Brown at Griffy Creek Studio, architectural design and consulting for residential, commercial and community projects. Sustainable, energy positive and resilient design for a rapidly changing world. Bill at griffy creek dot studio. Elizabeth Ruh, Enrolled Agent with Personal Financial Services.  Assisting businesses and individuals with tax preparation and planning for over fifteen years.  More at Personal Financial Services dot net. And Insurance agent Dan Williamson of Bill Resch Insurance. Offering comprehensive auto, business and home coverage, in affiliation with Pekin Insurance. Beyond the expected. More at 812-336-6838.

KAYTE YOUNG: 2019 has been a tough year for farmers. Fortunately for landowners, farm land values are stable across much of the Midwest. But close to cities, encroaching development throws in a growing challenge for landowners and urban farmers. Harvest Public Media's Amy Mayer has more. 

AMY MAYER: Tika Bhandari accepts a sample of lettuce grown in Des Moines in a plot of land Lutheran Services in Iowa secured for immigrant farmers. Bhandari says, she and her dad wanted to grow ginger - the backbone of his business in Bhutan, but her dad passed away before they could make it work. 

TIKA BHANDARI: Almost three years I am growing something just in my greenhouse. I think that my dad is looking from up and he is proud of me. 

AMY MAYER: But Bhandari doesn't know where she'll grow her crops next year. 

TIKA BHANDARI: We are losing land.

AMY MAYER: Zachary Couture is the land and production specialist for LSI. 

ZACHARY COUTURE: I actually just came from that other site in West Des Moines, that was sold. They are going to build a parking lot on it. 

AMY MAYER: Throughout the region farmland near cities is growing houses, restaurants and parking lots. On the northern edge of Ankeny - a suburb Des Moines, LaVon Griffieon, has been witness to the creep for decades. 

She lures sheep toward her with corn and a bucket. A housing subdivision is visible just east of where we're standing. To the west directly across the gravel road from her home, a large sign announces the coming of a Mid-American energy substation. When Griffieon and her husband bought some land in 1982, they were still almost 3 miles from Ankeny. They paid $12,000 an acre. Now land near hers is going for $8-10,000 per acre. 

LAVON GRIFFIEON: If a developer wants it is $25-50,000, depending on how big a chunk he's buying. 

AMY MAYER: People sometimes comment that she could be wealthy if she sold. But she already feels rich. She says people around the world can only pray for such fertile ground. 

LAVON GRIFFIEON: Probably most of them don't even know such land can exist where you can plant a seed and it's gonna grow. So, it's ridiculous to be putting ticky-tack little houses on that. 

AMY MAYER: She's resolute, she will not sell - no matter the price. Perhaps paradoxically, now that the farm is close to people with money to spend, the family has expanded into direct marketed meat and eggs, in addition to row crops. Griffieon's children plan to continue the family farm. One exception, for 20 years or so they've rented a piece to Hmong farmers to grow vegetables. 

Lutheran Services hopes to forge a similar long-term relationship for displaced urban farmers like Tika Bhandari. West of Des Moines, Bob Winchell is the executor of his late wife's estate, which includes 25 acres of farmland.  

BOB WINCHELL: I'm responsible for seeing that her wishes are carried out, so that whatever happens to it in the future, its maintained in agriculture. And that's the reason that I contacted SILT. 

AMY MAYER: That's the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust - a nonprofit committed to preserving farmland. SILT connected Winchell with LSI, and some of the landless farmers have been out to see his wife's fields. Winchell had the land appraised and says, in the decade or so his wife owned it...

BOB WINCHELL: It has shown almost a 300% increase in the value of the property.  

AMY MAYER: That value considers something Winchell won't - selling to developers. Annual land surveys in Iowa, Nebraska, and other Midwest states reflect this development pressure. Iowa State University economist Wendong Zhang conducts the Iowa Land Value Survey. He says intentions don't really factor in. 

WENDONG ZHANG: It's because your proximity that you... although you are currently in crop, or livestock production, that you have the potential to be developed into urban development, that will be translated... capitalizing into the the land market. 

AMY MAYER: Back in Des Moines, Zachary Couture closes the gate on a fence that LSI will try to salvage. Maybe next spring some of the immigrant vegetable growers will reinstall it on Winchell's 25 acres. Amy Mayer, Harvest Public Media. 

KAYTE YOUNG: Learn more at Sustainable agriculture comes in many shapes and sizes. In Louisville Kentucky, middle school students are learning about one system involving fish. Producer Taylor Killough brings us the story. 

MICHAEL GEORGE: So, since we're doing basil we can make some pesto. 

Girl: Oh, that was me! Oh, my goodness... 

TAYLOR KILLOUGH: It's a Thursday afternoon at Western Middle School in Louisville Kentucky. And a group of teenagers are huddled in a classroom. They're not talking about Fortnight or the latest snapchat filters. They're talking about vegetables. 

They’re in the Student Technology and Leadership Program called STLP for short, and they're working on a unique project, an aquaponics system. Meet the Aquapunx. 

BRIANNA WOODS: So Aquapunx is a play on the word aquaponics, because we have the aqua in there, and at the end - punks, is where it gets a little feisty. 

Yeah, we're punks. Even though we're saving the world, we're cool while we do it. 

TAYLOR KILLOUGH: That's Brianna Woods, an energetic 8th grader and one of the Aquapunx leaders. Now if you're thinking "Aqua what now?" you're not alone. 

Aquaponics is an ancient but sophisticated method of growing food that combines aquaculture with hydroponics. It's recently seen a major come back in urban agriculture. In short, aquaponics is the process of turning fish poop into vegetables. I'll let 8th grader Riley Stansbury help me explain. 

RILEY STANSBURY: So basically, we have a fish tank and then on top of our fish tank there's a media bed.

TAYLOR KILLOUGH: The media bed holds clay pellets instead of soil. 

RILEY STANSBURY: So, when our fish produce waste it goes up through a tube into the media bed 

TAYLOR KILLOUGH: Where the clay pellets filter the waste and turn it into nutrients for the plants. 

RILEY STANSBURY: The plants then take up the nutrients and they send the water back down into the fish tank so it's a sustainable system and natural filter.  

TAYLOR KILLOUGH: The Aquapunx arrived at this project with purpose. Western Middle is located in the Portland neighborhood of Louisville's West End. The West End is a huge area of the city, made up of eight neighborhoods and around 65,000 people. By now you've probably heard the term "food dessert". 

RILEY STANSBURY: Places with little to no access to fresh foods. 

TAYLOR KILLOUGH: Which definitely describes the West End. The Aquapunx supervisor - Michael George, knows this particular food dessert well. He grew up in the Shawnee neighborhood west of Portland and went to Western Middle himself. 

MICHAEL GEORGE: We're on 22nd, the closest grocery store is on 28th, Broadway or 34th and Portland Avenue. But you can go to McDonalds, and Dairy Queen, and Indi's Chicken, and all these other places, but if you want some broccoli, or some greens, or something you gotta put some work into it. 

TAYLOR KILLOUGH: So, when Mr. George taught the kids about food desserts, there was no turning back. 

TAYLOR KILLOUGH: It was something once you open your eyes you can start seeing. This is more then just like what's going on in Western, it's like what's going on in the community. 

MICHAEL GEORGE: So, we decided that it wasn't just going to be a project, it was gonna be a movement. 

(Classroom chatter)

TAYLOR KILLOUGH: The Aquapunx have been working hard all school year to build their own system, and to educate as many people as possible - from local restaurants and gardens to other middle schools in eastern Kentucky and beyond, about food deserts and the benefits of aquaponics. 

The group made it all the way to the Kentucky State STLP competition last week and had high hopes of making it to nationals. 

BRIANNA WOODS: We do get to go to nationals, then we get to present our project in front of a ton of states and everybody. And we want our project to be known, we want aquaponics to be known. And we feel like it can be used throughout the country in areas that are food deserts and so we do want to help a lot of people, it's really important to us. 

TAYLOR KILLOUGH: But the Aquapunx came in second at the state competition, which means they won't be going to nationals this year. But they did have the highest ever STLP score in Jefferson County Public School's history and being part of this group has changed the students in ways bigger than winning competitions. 

RILEY STANSBURY: Since joining this club, I learned so much cause like I always think like now "Should I use this plastic?" or, "Should I use these straws?" or "Should I use the extra water?" Because I know, like aquaponics has taught me about like the footprint that I’m leaving. 

It's just made me a well-rounded person and it's really sad that I have to leave next year because if I could stay here and just be aquaponics farmer I really would, that's what I’d do all day. 

TAYLOR KILLOUGH: Say one-two-three fish

CLASSROOM: One-two-three fish [laughter]

TAYLOR KILLOUGH: For Earth Eats, I'm Taylor Killough. 

KAYTE YOUNG: As promised, we're back at Sobremesa Farm. Juan Carlos and Robert have an integrated approach to farming. No component of the farm works in isolation. For instance, they've planted a pollinator zone near the road with native flowers, attracting bees, insects and birds. The birds help keep the cabbage moth caterpillars off the broccoli and kale. Systems work together.

They keep chickens for eggs, but they also contribute manure, they scratch up the soil in garden beds and keep bugs under control.

JUAN CARLOS ARANGO: But the ones that are totally, totally out, working and making noise, is the guineas. 

KAYTE YOUNG: They also keep guinea hens. 

JUAN CARLOS ARANGO: Their main gift to us is they control ticks. We used to have so many, many, here and now we have less because of them.

They wander. They can't really be contained. They are free spirits, I'd say...they even go to the neighbors, and we have to try and bring them back here.

KAYTE YOUNG: But then do they come in at night, to have shelter?

ROBERT FREW: We did train them to go into a coup. But essentially, their food and water, for the most part, they get out on the land here as they're wandering around and eating a lot of ticks.

KAYTE YOUNG: Yeah, I would just think that predators would be a problem if they're out in the wild, but maybe they've realized that it's good to come inside.

JUAN CARLOS ARANGO:  Yes, they know that, yeah. Like last night, for example, I was busy emailing people about the market on Sunday, and it was already dark. They were calling, [as if to say] "Hey! Come, close the door!" So, after I closed the door, they were totally silent.

This is the house of the guineas and now it is time for them to come out. 

(chirping and squawking sound, guineas moving out of coop)

KAYTE YOUNG: The guineas are black with white speckles, they're larger than chickens, with almond-shaped bodies and tiny heads colored bluish white and red. They're quite striking.

As we walked around the farm, I notice the guineas in the tall grasses, stretching their necks to the top of the stalks.

JUAN CARLOS ARANGO:  Catch! Chicky-chicky-chicky, look--ticks love to be on top of the grass.

KAYTE YOUNG: So that's what they're eating, they're not eating the seeds?


KAYTE YOUNG: Oh, that's great.

I noticed one of the birds making a lot of noise on top of a covered bale of straw.

(very loud guinea squawking)

JUAN CARLOS ARANGO: They like to go on a high spot and tell the others that everything is fine. So, after that, he will go there, and another one will come here, [and alert the others].

KAYTE YOUNG: [laughs] That's amazing! They're really cool looking.

JUAN CARLOS ARANGO:  Oh, I love them, yeah. They're noisy, they are, but they're so fun to watch - the way they run, they play, just like kids!


JUAN CARLOS ARANGO: Oh, yes! They chase each other, you think they are going to kill each other. They get very close, and then the one chasing goes back, and then the other one goes again and [seems to say] "hey, no, come follow me again, chase me again!" It's like they could go on and on and on.

And their babies are so cute, have you seen their babies?

KAYTE YOUNG: No, I don't think so.

JUAN CARLOS ARANGO: Yeah, they look like a little chipmunk.

KAYTE YOUNG: So, you say you don't eat the animals, but do you eat eggs?


KAYTE YOUNG: And what about the guineas, do they lay eggs?

JUAN CARLOS ARANGO:  Yes, they do, yeah. They have a short period, they start like end of April until September, that's it. We collect the eggs, and we sell them at the market. They're really rich. Especially if you 

KAYTE YOUNG: Are they smaller?

JUAN CARLOS ARANGO: Yes, they are smaller, yeah. But in comparison with a chicken egg, they have a bigger yolk, not much of the white, so for baking, yeah, they are great.

KAYTE YOUNG: Juan Carlos says the guinea eggshells are hard as a rock, and light brown in color. 

We have photos of the guines and a few other shots from Sobremesa Farm on our website so be sure to check it out. 

(Earth Eats Theme Music)

Renee Reed: The Earth Eats team includes Eoban Binder, Chad Bouchard, Mark Chilla, Abraham Hill, Taylor Killough, Josephine McRobbie, Daniel Orr, The IU Food Institute, Harvest Public Media and me, Renee Reed.  Our theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey. Earth Eats is produced and edited by Kayte Young and our executive producer is John Bailey.

KAYTE YOUNG: Special thanks this week to Robert Frew and Juan Carlos Arango, Michael George, Riley Stansbury, Brianna Woods, and all the Aquapunx at Western Middle School. 

Production support comes fromInsurance agent Dan Williamson of Bill Resch Insurance. Offering comprehensive auto, business and home coverage, in affiliation with Pekin Insurance. Beyond the expected. More at 812-336-6838.Bill Brown at Griffy Creek Studio, architectural design and consulting for residential, commercial and community projects. Sustainable, energy positive and resilient design for a rapidly changing world. Bill at griffy creek dot studio.And Elizabeth Ruh, Enrolled Agent, providing customized financial services for individuals, businesses, disabled adults including tax planning, bill paying, and estate services.  More at Personal Financial Services dot net.


Barn and greenhouse with pond in the foreground

The pond at Sobramesa Farm plays a role in the integrated systems of a permaculture farm. (Juan Carlos Arango)

Today on our show we visit a permaculture farm near Unionville Indiana and learn about an integrated farming system growing food, building community and connecting people to the land. 

We also visit an aquaponics project in a middle school, and Harvest Public Media has a story about changing land values near urban areas, and what it means for farmers. 


Across the midwest, most farms are tucked in for the winter. Some growers are still harvesting from low tunnels, hoop houses and heated greenhouses. But production generally slows down for the winter. 

In 2018 I had the chance to visit a farm with a holistic vision, founded on the principles of permaculture. Sobramesa Farm is located in South Central Indiana, just outside of Bloomington. The Farmers, Juan Carlos Arango and Robert Frew (could have them say their names) had a larger vision in mind when they started their farm 5 years ago. They share the story of Sobramesa on the show this week.

Stories On This Episode

Meet The Aquapunx: Middle Schoolers Saving The World With Aquaponics


A group of teenagers in an afterschool program learn about food systems and food deserts, through aquaponics.

For Beef And Pork Producers, 2019 Wasn't As Bad As It Could Have Been


People are eating a lot of meat, both in the U.S. and around the world, and that could be good news for the cattle sector in 2020. Things are looking up for pork, too.

As A Phase One Trade Deal Nears The Finish Line, Some Details Still Aren't Clear


The Trump administration confirmed this week negotiations for the first phase of a US-China trade agreement are finished. President Trump also elected not to enact additional tariffs planned for December 15th.

Near Cities, Land Owners And Urban Farmers Confront Pressure From Development


On a side street near the Des Moines Water Works, a tall fence surrounds three garden plots. Geese fly overhead while trucks drive past a sign between the road and the fence. It says: “Industrial Development Land For Sale, Contact City of Des Moines.”

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