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Rick Steves’ Carbon Tax Helps Farmers Feed Themselves

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(Earth Eats theme music)

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

RICK STEVES: In the last year we took 30,000 people, and the year up, and frankly I made too much money because I didn't have to pay for the carbon, we generated by flying those people to Europe and back. 

KAYTE YOUNG: This week on our show we talk with Rick Steves about a self-imposed carbon tax on his European travel company. And we talk with Janice ?? of Food for Farmers about coffee growers shifting their farming practices for greater community food security. That's all just ahead on Earth Eats so stay with us. 

Renee Reed has some news for us. Hello Renee. 

RENEE REED: Hello Kayte! Coronavirus fears have shaken up the food industry on both the supply and the demand sides of the checkout counter. The pneumonia-like virus is linked to more than 3,000 deaths worldwide and this week has seen a slow trickle of new cases and fatalities in the U.S. 

Consumers worried about possible quarantines are pulling bulk items off the shelves and waiting in epic lines at stores. Unlike climate disasters, such as hurricanes and wildfires, disease outbreaks don't take utilities like power and water offline. But experts say those preparing for the worse should take time to plan before rushing into the supermarket scrum. Data from February shows a surge in purchases of durable food items such as fruit snacks, energy drinks, dried beans, pretzels and water. 

The department of homeland security recommends having a two-week supply of food and water to prepare for a possible pandemic or quarantine. Nutritionists who spoke to Business Insider said shoppers should plan meals carefully instead of buying too many staples that won't get used. Clearing out expired items and taking stock of what's already in the cupboard is a key step in planning. At the supermarket, balance durable protein sources like canned fish and beans with canned and frozen vegetables, whole grains and dried pasta, plus beneficial fats like olive oil and nuts. They also suggest making large batches of favorite meals for storage. Produce with the best shelf life and nutritional bang for pound include potatoes, cabbage, onions, and citrus fruits. Those? spike at the checkout counter, big food companies have taken a hit along with the rest of the stock market, even as companies such as Nestle and Cardell have curtailed non-essential travel for employees. 

Supply chain woes have companies like Coca Cola's scrambling for sweeteners and other materials that normally come from China. After ten seasons of cover crop use, fields retain more moisture as less soil is lost to erosion. Those are among the results of a “Learning Farmers/Practical Farmers of Iowa” study. Farmers planted cereal rye as a cover crop on strips of fields next to areas without a cover crop. Liz Ripley of Iowa Learning Farms says in the first years, some farmers saw modest yield declines. But over time yields were the same or slightly better where cover crops grew. And soil health improved. Ripley says the study sites were all in Iowa, but the findings should hold up throughout the corn belt. 

LIZ RIPLEY: They're gonna see very similar results in terms of the impacts on crop yield. When it comes to some of the other variables, here in Iowa we have some really great soils. For a little further south, you know they start with a little bit lower organic matter, and so they can have the opportunity for faster increases in soil organic matter. 

RENEE REED: Ripley noted that where small yield losses occurred, farmers made adjustments to how they plant their cash crop and were able to return to their expected yields. Thanks to Amy Mayer of Harvest Public Media and Chad Bouchard for those stories. For Earth Eats news I'm Renee Reed. 

KAYTE YOUNG: Thanks for that Renee. 

RENEE REED: You are most welcome Kayte. 

(Earth Eats news theme music) 

(Guitar plucking song played, wistful)

KAYTE YOUNG: Some of you avid public radio listeners out there will be familiar with our next guest. Rick Steves. He's best known for his show Travel with Rick Steves on public radio and on public television. He's also the head of Rick Steve's Europe; a U.S. Based European Travel and Guidebook company. 

RICK STEVES: What I do is I teach Americans how to travel, in Europe that's my beat, and I see Europe as the wading pool for world exploration. And I work with over a hundred people here in Seattle and our mission is tuned by our Americans to venture beyond Orlando, to get out of our comfort zone and to come home with a broader perspective. And our radio show is carried by I think 400 stations around the country in public radio, and the main way I make money by taking people to Europe on tours, we took 30,000 people on over a thousand tours last year. We have well over a hundred European guides that we employ, and this is an exciting way for Americans to be able to connect to smartly and efficiently and economically with Europe. 

KAYTE YOUNG: We're talking with Rick Steves here on Earth Eats this week because of the new climate smart commitment he's launched. I’ll let Rick explain this initiative and what's behind it. 

RICK STEVES: The whole passion I have for inspiring Americans to get out there and travel is to deal honestly with challenges confronting us, and there's a lot of challenges. American has never been so fearful and ethnocentric, and there's a lot of fearful people that don't have a passport, that think that everybody's scary out there and world's a dangerous place, and we should build walls, and I find that, the more you travel, the more you realize the world's a beautiful place and we could work with the family of nations, and deal smartly with the challenges confronting us. A big challenge of course is climate change. When you travel you realize it's here. You can see it in just kind of silly ways, for fluent travelers, not to be able to ski in the summer, there's no air conditioning in Germany because they didn't use to need it, now they do need it. There's so many ways that you can see that things are changing in the climate and but that's, that's just kind of little annoyances for wealthy people. I find in my travels that it's the poorest countries, and the poorest people in the poorest countries that are impacted most severely by climate change. And when you travel you gain an awareness of that. And I think you when you fly home you realize "Yeah, we gotta get on boarded, and help stop this". So, you know one thing that I’ve done lately is our climate smart commitment. We've given ourselves, basically a self-imposed carbon tax. Something that I feel very committed to is helping my company travel in an ethical way when it comes to climate change. in the last year we took 30,000 people to Europe, and frankly I made too much money because I didn't have to pay for the carbon, we generated by flying those people to Europe and back. And I wish our government made us account for that in an honest way, but there in the United States our government just wants to have the short-term economic prosperity with no honest concerns about about sustainability in the long term. Well, I just don't think that's ethical. So, I gave myself a self-imposed carbon tax. 

There's a consensus that when an American flies to Europe and back, they generate about as much carbon as you typical American generates by driving their car for six months. And you can solve that by not traveling, but I think, I wanna travel, you know it's fun. As in the world's a fun place to explore and it's just very constructive to get out there and have a broader perspective. But if we want to travel, we can travel in a way where we can mitigate the carbon, we produce by investing in organizations that are fighting climate change. 

And again this is consensus among the scientific community, that if you spend $30 smartly, you know investing in geo?? that are fighting climate change, that creates enough good to mitigate the bad you create when you fly to Europe and back. So, I thought I'm taking 30,000 people to Europe, let me pay $30 for each of those people in a smart way, and we can create as much good as we create bad and we can then fly essentially carton neutral. So, $30 dollars times 30,000 people is $900,000 dollars, rounded up to a million dollars, and our annual tax is a million dollars. I took it out of our profit. I'd like to do it in a way that is kind of a two-fer, that helps people in the developing world, because I know that half of humanity is small, older, family farms living on, trying to live on $5 dollars a day. We decided to choose ten companies that are doing good work, and we give them a million dollars that's an average of a 100,000 each. And each of them are doing their work, we're empowering them, and that gives us the joy and the peace of mind knowing that we're flying to Europe ethically. It's nothing heroic, I'm not doing anything extra, it's simply ethical. I should not be able to run my tour business without covering my carbon costs and I want to support farmers in the developing world. And I also wanted to support advocacy organizations that are lobbying for the environment in our government in Washington D.C. to educate and encourage our legislators to be ethical when it comes to having government policies that fight climate change rather than maximize our economic environment in the short term. So, when I support an advocacy organization, I'm supporting lobbying for the environment, lobbying for poor farmers south of the border, lobbying for sustainability. You know that's the advocacy agenda that I'm supporting with this self-imposed carbon tax. 

KAYTE YOUNG: I really appreciate that some of the funding that you're providing to these advocacy organizations because I think a lot of times in individuals, initial response to what can I do about climate change is turn down their thermostat, or recycle or something, and it the impact that you can have is so much greater if policy changes. 

RICK STEVES: You know that's such a good point, Kayte that's a very important point to me, personally, the lion's share of my philanthropy goes to advocacy organizations when it comes to economic justice and environmental issues and so on. I really believe that well I know, that all of the charity and philanthropy and hard work by NGOs put together, when it comes to fighting poverty, doesn't amount to much at all, compared to the impact of government policies on those same issues. As a philanthropist I like to... it's just fun for me to support organizations that resonate with me. 

(gentle guitar music)

KAYTE YOUNG: That was Rick Steves, talking about his climate smart commitment. After a short break we'll hear from someone involved with one of the organizations that his self-imposed climate tax is supporting. Stay with us. 

(Production support music)

KAYTE YOUNG: Production support comes from: 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. Elizabeth Ruh, Enrolled Agent with Personal Financial Services.  Assisting businesses and individuals with tax preparation and planning for over fifteen years.  More at And 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 GriffyCreek.Studio.

(Calm piano music) 

I'm Kayte Young, you're listening to Earth Eats. Before the break we were talking with Rick Steves about his climate smart initiative. His travel company has selected ten organizations to support this year, as a way to offset the impact of his company's overseas air travel. One of those organizations is food for Farmers. I spoke with Janice Nadworny, a cofounder of food for Farmers. They work with coffee farming cooperatives in Latin America on building community food security. When they started in 2010, they were interested in a different development model then what they'd been seeing in coffee producing regions. 

JANICE NADWORNY: Often the NGO comes in, or the organization comes in, the consultant comes in, without ever really asking the community "what are the core issues at the heart of this problem?" Food insecurity looks very different in communities around the world, and its cause for different factors. And so, what we decided to focus on was the diagnostic. That's where we sit down and ask the community and at different levels, we ask the board, we ask the staff of the cooperative, we ask families who are members, individual and collectively, what is affecting their livelihoods, their quality of life, and so through focus groups and surveys and conversations, we get an understanding of what is at the heart of this problem, what does food insecurity look like, what are the challenges to livelihoods? And so often times you'll find that the cause of food insecurity is not lack of food, it might be depleted soils or lack of reliable water throughout the year, it might be no electricity, no roads, importation of processed packaged foods that are very unhealthy, people are not cooking, they've lost their traditional recipes, they've lost their seeds, and so before we could design a strategy, we asked those questions of everyone in the community. 

And then we work with local partners, and cooperate with families to develop strategies and set goals and then together we co-design a plan, a long term plan for food security, and then we find expertise locally from partners who can teach families and the coop how to implement those strategies and manage them independent. So, our role becomes guide and auditor and teacher and connector. 

KAYTE YOUNG: I asked Janice if she could explain the goal of cooperatives in coffee producing communities. 

JANICE NADWORNY: I'd say 70 to 80% of all coffee is produced by small scale farmers, who own farms of less than 10 acres, a lot of them own farms of about an acre. So, all of that beautiful specialty coffee that people love, is produced entirely by hand by families all over the world. And with very little land. And because coffee's a cash crop it's a way for people to earn money to send their kids to school, buy clothing, all the things they can't do in a barter economy. And because the promise of coffee prices has been so strong, and demand has been so strong, the people have put most or all of their land into producing coffee. And over time, same time, they stop producing food, so they've been using cash from their coffee crop to buy food. So rural areas now which were agricultural, producing food, have now become food desserts, and so food is now brought in trucked in, or flown in, from the city or from other countries, maybe even the U.S., and people are consuming really unhealthy processed foods. So, you'll go to very remote communities and people will be drinking coke and eating Fritos, and they're not growing it anymore. 

So small scale farmers, because they produce so little coffee on their one acre or five acres, even if they put all of theirs and into it, they have no pricing power, they have no ability to determine the price for their coffee, so they grew together into cooperatives. 


JANICE NADWORNY: Coffee cooperatives, they're membership organizations, it's a business. It's coffee growing business. And what they do is they aggregate all of the coffee from their members and sell it in larger volumes, they can get a better price. Some cooperatives are small, 90 or a hundred families, some are, in Africa they tend to be larger, they could be 100,000 families. Latin America, our partners range from 200 to 5,000 families depending on where they are. They grow their coffee independently, they get support from the cooperative, technical support for growing coffee, and then the coop collects and sells their coffee. 

So, the cooperative is a membership and it represents small families. And that's who we work with. 

KAYTE YOUNG: And what are the countries that your organization works in? 

JANICE NADWORNY: We work in Mexico, in ?, in Guatemala, with two organizations there, in Nicaragua, and in Colombia. And three of the coops we've worked with are indigenous, three are led by women. I think all of them are fair-trade, they all produce organic coffee as well. 

KAYTE YOUNG: You were talking about the food security issues in these communities because they're not growing food anymore. And so, what is your organization's role in that? In dealing with the food insecurity. 

JANICE NADWORNY: We're walking into a situation where they're are decades of kind of food policy, and agricultural policy has really promoted in chemical, fertilizers, pesticides, all of that, monoculture, all of those policies now have degraded the soil that they're farming. They've graded the environment around the farms, and at the same time small producers have been pressured to grow organic. To grow ??, other certifications that will give them a premium over their low coffee prices. And so, the focus has been on coffee, improve the quality or productivity or coffee, and you'll get more money and you'll be okay. And they're not okay. Poverty is worse than ever, coffee prices have dropped 29% the last 10 years, food prices are up anywhere from 40 to 70% over the same time period depending on the country, and so people have been leaving their farms for years to find work. And then typically go to the city, or immigrate north like they are now, when prices are low, and they can't sustain through farming. Women are left to farm. There's no investment available for making their coffee quality better. 

So, when we come in, they're already things going on in the community that are working and really exciting. Somebody's keeping chickens, somebody's selling eggs, somebody's keeping bees, and cacao, that's another strategy. So, there are things already going on that is already an asset that could be expanded. So, we come in, we look at farms from the farmer's perspective, not necessarily producing anything to meet the buyer's needs, but what will help sustain them, and helping them look at all the different markets they can sell to. They can sell locally, or nationally, or in their own country, they could export. And then we look at the farms and see ways to diversify those farms, restore environmental health through composting, organic practices, soil restoration, water systems that will allow to grow vegetables. We look at each farm as a food hub, and then we help each family develop plans for their own farms and help the coop tie those plans together through a strategy. So the community chooses home gardens, organic home gardens so they can produce food, what we found is for example that they're growing organically, they're diversifying their farm, they're supporting pollinators, they're expanding the agro-forestry system in by planting native trees to shade their veggies. We also work with communities to help them bring back traditional recipes, traditional seeds, so that they can maintain the biodiversity of food farming thorough Latin America. 

So, depending on the community the strategies will look different. Cacao is something we're doing, basic grains, maize and corn. Organic vegetables, eggs, but it depends on first what the community is interested in. And second what's feasible. 

KAYTE YOUNG: It sounds like it's messy, and complicated, and individual to each family or each farm, or each cooperative, like it doesn't sound like you just have a plan and go out and implement it. Like it sounds like it that messy complicated kind of work. 

JANICE NADWORNY: It is and each case, I have to say, each of our programs - there are now six. Six community partners, whatever we planned at the beginning, I assure you it's changed drastically since we developed our long-term plan. Because things go wrong, somebody finds a wonderful new opportunity, things just change. And so, I think the challenge and the exciting part of the work is that you go with it. And so, there are things that happen at each place that were unanticipated that have made the project so much better and so much successful. 

KAYTE YOUNG: Can you give an example of that that comes to mind? 

JANICE NADWORNY: We had started a program with the ?? coop in Nicaragua. They wanted to develop their organic brand for food. So Supexca produces very high-quality organic coffee, and we had a home garden program, and they wanted to start a women's organic farmer's market. All women growing organic fruits and vegetables and selling at this local market cause it was no healthy organic produce readily available. So, we worked on training, women were growing beautiful crops, they were very entrepreneur, excited, energized to get going. And then in April 2018, the political unrest in Nicaragua stopped everything. There were protests over I think it was social securities, retirement benefits, great increases, there were student protests that expanded throughout the country. It became very dangerous and violent over the next several months, people couldn't leave their homes, they couldn't travel. And so, what happened was the coop food security coordinator couldn't get to the villages where the women lived, to help them. They couldn't bring their produce to market, they were stuck, and everything stalled. And so we were concerned that it would stop and we wouldn't make progress and they wouldn't make progress, but what happened was, because people were stuck at home, they couldn't go out to buy foods, so all the families that had these gardens, that had this produce, were able to get through the 4 or 5 months when this was going on and feed themselves, and then they had enough food to sell or give to their neighbors so they got by as well. It became their safety net, their only safety net. There's been so much immigration because of the lack of opportunity for food, that people were leaving when they could. Lots of people fled Nicaragua. These families stayed and they helped their neighbors through it, and my co-director was just there last week, and the market is thriving, they’re adding a third day, they want to go to five days a week, it was packed, produce is beautiful. Women are selling, and they’re becoming powerful small business women, and have so many ideas about how to grow this business, but that worst case scenario that we saw as a huge problem, ended up being a benefit, a really key benefit of the work. 

KAYTE YOUNG: I asked Janice to talk about Food for Farmers and climate change. 

JANICE NADWORNY: Coffee and other crops like it are hugely impacted by climate change, and they also impact climate change through monoculture and chemical inputs. And so if you look at the number of small scale farmers that are growing coffee, moving them away from chemical inputs and monoculture, to diversified agricultural farms, these organic practices, conserving soil, conserving water, increasing biodiversity, that has a huge impact on climate change. The farmers change their practices. Not only their farming practices though, it's what is happening with the food systems globally. Where you look at the rural communities, now if you know, before there were producing food, now they're getting food shipped to them from halfway around the world. Through food aid, through general market trends, and dietary trends. They're getting their unhealthy processed food shipped in from other countries. They've lost their food traditions, their health is deteriorating, malnutrition looks like obesity and diabetes and heart disease now. So, by growing food locally, and organically, they're improving their health and diets. They're reducing all those transport costs, and processing costs of unhealthy food, and they're also impacting climate change in that way. So thirdly is that they become thriving food hubs themselves. Then everybody in their communities can have access to healthy food. Everybody in their communities can have locally produced foods. And so, the cost of transporting all of that food, goes down drastically as well. So, we feel that we definitely have a direct relationship between the climate smart commitment and our work. 

(Somber piano music)

KAYTE YOUNG: That was Janice? cofounder of Food for Farmers. An organization that works to build food security in coffee growing communities in Latin America. Thank you so much for speaking with me Janice, I really appreciate it. 

JANICE NADWORNY: Thanks, anytime. 

KAYTE YOUNG: Food for Farmers is one of the recipients of funding from the Rick Steve's Climate Smart Commitment. You can hear more about these projects on our website. 

(Earth Eats Theme Music)

That's it for our show, thanks for listening. We'll see you next week. 

RENEE REED: The Earth Eats team includes Eobon 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 Rick Steves, Daniel Winslow, Hailey Ryan Holt, Kyle Freund, and Janice Nadworny. 

Production support comes from: Elizabeth Ruh, Enrolled Agent, providing customized financial services for individuals, businesses, and disabled adults including tax planning, bill paying, and estate services. More at 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 GriffyCreek.Studio. 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.

Women at a farmers market with a box of limes on the table and a Spanish language banner in the background

Sandra Isabel Obando selling her produce at SOPPEXCCA’s organic farmers market in Jinotega, Nicaragua. SOPPEXCCA is one of the farming cooperatives that Food4Farmers partners with. (Courtesy of Food for Farmers)

“In the last year we took 30,000 people to Europe and frankly, I made too much money because I didn’t have to pay for the carbon we generated by flying those people to Europe and back.”

This week on our show we talk with Rick Steves, about a self-imposed carbon tax on his travel company. Rick Steves is the host of Rick Steves' Europe on PBS, and the syndicated public radio show, Travel With Rick Steves. He’s also the head of Rick Steves’ Europe, a US based European travel and guidebook company.

This year he launched his Climate Smart Committment where he taxes his company $30 per flight to Europe and back through Rick Steves' Europe. He rounds up to a total of $1 million, which he takes from his profit. He then divides the funds between 10 or 11 organizations with climate smart practices.

A few of the organizations are advocacy groups pushing for climate smart policy in the US congress. The rest of the organizations work with farmers in the developing world, building sustainable practices in agriculture.

One of the organizations is Food 4 Farmers. Earth Eats spoke with co-founder Janice Nadworny about their work with coffee growers in Latin America who are shifting their farming practices for greater community food security.

Hear the whole story on this week's episode.

Music on this Episode

Gentle Soul, by Nick Brown from Universal Production Music

The Earth Eats theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey.

Stories On This Episode

Health Experts Urge Prep, Not Panic For Coronavirus

crowded store

Fears of a coronavirus pandemic have spurred grocery shopping sprees and a run on staple foods as experts caution against hoarding and urge smart choices.

A Decade-Long Study Finds Cover Crops Help Farmers Improve Soil

A Decade-Long Study Finds Cover Crops Help Farmers Improve Soil

Iowa Learning Farms and Practical Farmers of Iowa conducted a 10-year study on the conservation benefits of planting cereal rye as a cover crop on corn and soybean fields. Their results show the practice improves soil health. The cover crop may cause a slight dip in yields the first year or two, but that can be overcome and eventually small increases in soybean yields may occur.

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