Friday, June 7, 2013

Midwest Nature Quote of the Week

In some of the quiet places, where leaf mold is heavy and old logs decay on the forest floor, lives the world's most savage mammal. It's a ravening little beast seldom seen by man; an irascible, twittering phantom that kills incessantly. Even the weasels and great cats can't match its talent for bloodletting, for each day it must devour its own weight in food or starve.

But the same nature that grants a genius for death always stops short of fatal perfection. This terrible hunter--the shrew--may weigh no more than a dime.

John Madon, Stories from Under the Sky

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Interview with Brandi Janssen

(Interview continued...)
Catherine: What’s going on with Farm to School in Iowa, and in Iowa City specifically?
Brandi: In Iowa, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship and the Iowa Department of Education partner to coordinate statewide Farm to School efforts. In 2007, state funding was granted to Farm to School to support local efforts around the state. These funds have been distributed as start-up funds for new Farm to School chapters in Iowa and as grants for various projects at the local level.
The Iowa City Community School District (ICCSD) Farm to School Chapter started in 2010 as a project of Field to Family. (This organization is a nonprofit working to promote local foods; I am on the board of directors.) Now the ICCSD Farm to School Chapter works closely with both Field to Family and the ICCSD Food Service staff on a variety of projects. For example, ICCSD Farm to School organizes “Farmer Fairs” twice each year in area elementary schools. These in-school field trips bring growers and nutrition educators into schools to give presentations, lead hands-on activities like seed planting, and have students taste-test local foods. Additionally, the ICCSD Farm to School chapter has offered support for school gardens around the district. There are currently fifteen active school gardens spread throughout the district’s twenty-five schools, and at least one provides produce directly to a school kitchen. Finally, Farm to School has helped facilitate purchasing local food for use in school lunches. Products include local apples, watermelon, lettuce, and sweet potatoes.
Catherine: Where can people learn more?
Brandi: There are lots of great Farm to School resources out there; here are a few:
The US Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service,
The National Farm to School Network, at
The Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship’s Farm to School Program, at

Monday, June 3, 2013

Want to know more about the flooding in Iowa?

A Watershed Year: Anatomy of the Iowa Floods of 2008 by Cornelia F. Mutel is a great place to start.

From an earlier interview with Ms. Mutel

In the course of working on this book, you did an enormous amount of research into the causes of floods. What surprised you most?
The disjunct between what we know and what we do. A Watershed Year clearly indicates that we understand our weather and flooding with increasing sophistication, and we know what to do to prevent flood damage: change land use and floodplain policies, increase perennial plant cover on uplands, increase water infiltration, decrease impermeable surfaces in cities, etc. We need to look at long-term changes over the entire floodplain and plan for major as well as minor flood events. Yet policies and actions are too often based on short-term interests and ignore the greater long-term good for the greater number of people. This needs to change.

How toxic were the floodwaters? Can we safely farm and garden and picnic in areas that were flooded?
We have an entire chapter discussing the many pollutants picked up by floodwaters—ranging from farm chemicals (e.g., pesticides, fertilizers, animal waste and all its bacteria and hormones) to complex urban chemicals, including industrial and residential chemical contaminants and the overflow from wastewater treatment plants. Tests of 2008 floodwaters indicated that the total amount of these contaminants was very large. The effect of this “chemical cocktail” of contaminants was worrisome for both humans and wildlife who came in contact with floodwaters. However, these contaminants would have been diluted by the tremendous volume of floodwater. Ongoing tests do not indicate any harmful accumulation of toxics in Cedar Rapids soil. Thus people can consider it safe to garden, farm, and picnic in previously flooded areas.

Were there any positive results from the flooding?
John Pearson’s chapter on nature’s response points out that floods have always been part of our landscape and that flooding is positive for floodplain ecosystems. Native floodplain species are adapted to the disruption caused by floods, and some even require periodic flooding for successful reproduction. Floods are considered destructive because we put ourselves and our structures in the wrong places at the wrong times.

On another level, data on climate indicate that midwestern weather is intensifying and becoming more extreme. The result is likely to be more extreme floods. The 2008 floods can serve as our wake-up call, prompting us to take steps that will reduce future flood damage. If we act appropriately, we could have a far better response to the future flooding that is sure to come—and that would indeed be a positive result.

Tell us more about the Iowa Flood Center.
This is an exciting new center at the University of Iowa. The IFC is the nation’s first academic research and training center devoted solely to flood research. It is a unique resource for Iowans and already has a number of products available on its website. For example, anyone can access current stream-level data from the IFC’s statewide network of 50 stream sensors. The web-based “Iowa Flood Information System” allows Iowans to view maps of watersheds upstream from their communities and overlay other data on these maps, such as current precipitation, river stage data, and water travel times throughout the watershed. This is an example of a powerful new tool that will help Iowans better understand flood risk and prepare for imminent floods. I’d encourage readers to look up their community and bookmark the website (

A Watershed Year will appeal to a wide range of general readers. What can the average citizen of Iowa and the Corn Belt do to help prevent floods?
Each of us can take steps in our own manner. Some people may work to reduce runoff, for example, by increasing soil health and water infiltration on our own property or by installing a rain garden or native plantings. Some may put pressure on public officials to revise flood policies or to prevent new construction in floodplains. Some may work to restore wetlands and uplands so they absorb and hold water more effectively. While only a few of us can address future flooding through our professions, all of us can continue to raise awareness of the potential damage of future floods.  I do believe that if each one of us took a few small steps to address future flooding, the results would be tremendous.

City planners, engineers, and policy makers will be particularly interested in this book. What’s the main message that A Watershed Year conveys to these specialists?
Don’t try to return to business as usual. By doing so, we return to an unacceptable vulnerability to future extreme floods, which are not only likely to continue but also (according to climate change predictions) likely to increase. Treat the 1993 and 2008 flooding as wake-up calls. Section 4 of A Watershed Year gives many recommendations for preventing or reducing the magnitude of future flood damage. The time to act on these recommendations is now.

—Cornelia F. Mutel, editor, A Watershed Year: Anatomy of the Iowa Floods of 2008

Interview with Brandi Janssen

University of Iowa Press acquisitions editor Catherine Cocks is helping the press build a new list of publications on a topic everyone’s interested in these days: food. Recently, she asked Brandi Janssen, an anthropology PhD student at the University of Iowa who’s writing her dissertation on local food production, some questions about the rapidly growing “Farm to School” or F2S movement.

Catherine: What is “Farm to School” and what are the reasons for it?
Brandi: Broadly, Farm to School includes programs that link locally produced foods to K-12 schools. These efforts include, but are certainly not limited to, adding locally produced foods to school lunches and classroom snacks, providing nutrition and agricultural education, and developing school gardens. Farm to School programs generally aim to improve the quality of food served in schools and increase student knowledge of agriculture and food production, both in the classroom and through hands-on gardening activities and farm field trips. In addition, Farm to School programs develop and expand markets available to local farmers by increasing institutional purchasing of local food.
Catherine: When did these efforts start, and how widespread are they?
Brandi: It’s difficult to pinpoint an exact start date, as Farm to School efforts have been developing independently across the United States over the past ten to fifteen years. In 2004, however, the National Farm to School Program was officially authorized in the Farm Bill. [This is the omnibus act on agriculture and food policy that Congress enacts every five years.] While no funds for Farm to School were appropriated in that bill, the federal recognition was significant. In 2010 the Farm Bill included over $5 million in funding for Farm to School projects. Currently [in 2013], the National Farm to School Network reports that there are over 2,500 individual Farm to School programs serving over 10,000 schools, spread throughout all 50 states.

Put frogs, toads and turtles in your pockets

With most schools just ending for the summer break, perhaps some of you will get help from children or grandchildren in your garden or your yard. It is great to nourish this interest and now many schools have their own gardens. Our Iowa City Public Library has a garden on the walking mall and, of course, even the White House is raising its own vegetables and flowers.
The University of Iowa Press has just published two laminated foldout guides that I think will pique children’s interest and adults, too. It’s all about frogs, toads and turtles in our Midwest.
“Frogs and Toads in your pocket” and “Turtles in your pocket” have just been published by the University of Iowa Press. Terry VanDeWalle is the author of both guides and Suzanne L. Collins has photographed the subjects in their natural habitats.
The guide for frogs and toads has at least 16 colorful pictures of frogs and about eight toads, plus a plethora of information about each one. Yet the guide folds up and is easily held while you search for these remarkable amphibians.
Toads are my favorites, and I look for them just outside our garage in a damp area and among the mums we have planted there. Of course I jump when they jump, but I really do admire them. They take care of all the pesky bugs each night while I am sleeping.
The American toad probably is the one I have seen most. They are gray, brown or reddish brown and warty, the guide says with dark spots on the back and a mottled chest and belly. They like prairies, forest, marshes, ponds, ditches and urban areas to live and breed.
Poisonous substances that spray from the warts on their back are their weapons to defend themselves from small animals. They also can inflate their bodies with air making it hard for another animal to swallow them.
The Great Plains Toad is gray, brown or greenish also with warty skin but with very distinctive large spots outlined in white and cream, the author says, and also has an unspotted belly. The large spots hold the warts that are their defensive mechanisms.
Frogs are so like toads that we get them mixed up. This wonderful guide will show and tell you all the differences.
An interesting statement on the back of the guide says, “Frogs and toads have become canaries in the coal mine when it come to conservation, as the discovery of malformed frogs has brought increased attention to global habitat loss.” The loss of agricultural ground had greatly affected their decline.
As to the turtles in your pocket, this guide gives descriptions of the many Midwest species. It’s colorful, filled with information regarding turtle habitat, what they eat, how they behave and where they keep their young. Did you know that during dry periods, like last summer, they survive by burying themselves in the sand?
Even if you have been hanging out by the water or fishing for years I think you will learn something new about turtles and be able to identify them if they cross your path or fall off a log in the water.
Both these guides, as well as one about snakes, can be purchased at, and each is $9.95. Send for these, put on your old clothes and muck around in the water and dirt for some different summer fun.
Judy Terry is a freelance garden writer. Questions or comments should be sent to her at Iowa City Press-Citizen, P.O. Box 2480, Iowa City, IA 52244-2480; faxed to 834-1083; or emailed to