Monday, August 31, 2009

Family and Friends-Part 1


One thing you find out on a trip like this is how important your friends and family really are. Toward the end of August, after nearly two months on the road, we were in need of some time off the road to catch up on our blogging, and some much needed maintenance and repairs on the truck and trailer. The dusty, bumpy back roads we had traveled had taken their toll on the Doris Mae, and she needed a rest!

We pulled into La Crosse, WI where Kate’s sister Terri, her husband Todd, and their precocious 7 year old daughter Stella have their home. Todd is a master craftsman at Dave’s Guitars which houses one of the largest collections of classic electric guitars in the world. Terri is a full-time Mom, and is home schooling Stella with an enthusiasm and curriculum that any school district would be hard pressed to duplicate. We pulled Doris Mae into their driveway and set to work on catching up on our blog. For the next couple of days we would enjoy their hospitality and make the best of our time off the road.

Stella is a joy and a wonder every time we see her, and this time was no exception. I delighted in showing her the large toad I found living under their front porch. I also learned first hand why you should never let a 7 year old girl help you wash your truck, unless of course you need washing as well!

Maybe it was because I was family, but not someone she sees every day, or maybe it was because we had named the trailer after her Grandma, but one evening Stella came in while I was alone and said “Can I ask you something?” Having never had children, I was about as comfortable with this as the average parent is talking to their children about sex! But what the hell, I decided to give it a try. “Why did Grandma die?” she asked. I took a deep breath and answered back, “Why or how?” She thought for a minute and said “How?” “She got cancer” I said “and that’s what happens sometimes.” “Oh” she said, tears welling in her eyes “I miss her”. “We miss her too” I croaked trying hard to keep from exploding into tears, “Boy do we miss her”. This seemed to do the trick, and she gave me a big hug and trotted off to play. Having seemingly passed a children test with little or no experience, I prayed I wouldn’t be around when the time comes for the sex talk!

We had scheduled a public showing in nearby Virouqa, a small farming community that is near the center of one of the largest groups of organic farmers in the country. We were also going to drop in on the headquarters of the organic dairy cooperative Organic Valley just down the road in La Farge, WI so that we could learn more about their extensive operations and innovative programs.

After five days of enjoying their superb hospitality we bid them farewell, hit the road, did our show, and toured Organic Valley. But the “Tour De Family” had just begun. We were soon on our way to visit Red Wing, MN where Kate grew up, and where most of the rest of Kate’s family still lives.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Natural Wool Sleep Systems Fresh from the Farm


One of the real pleasures of our trip has been sleeping on our natural wool bed. We had a chance to stop by and see The Wool Bed Company at Kerry Hill Farm in Oconomowoc, WI. This beautiful little town is nestled by the side of the lake it is named for, and many dignified older homes grace the shore of the lake and the towns’ tree-lined streets. Kerry Hills Farm is just a little ways out of town on a scenic plot of land that includes a lovingly restored farmhouse, the workshop where the beds are assembled by hand, and all the other accoutrements of a farm, horse barn, silo, etc.

The “Surround-Ewe” wool sleep system that we are using is the brainchild of Susan McCourt, and her proprietary process is unique in the world of conventional foam bed alternatives. This unique process is what gives her bed its delightful sleep properties. This is our first experience with an all wool bed, and I can honestly say that I have slept better for the last two months than I have slept in many years.

Our interest in wool beds began with our developing awareness of the toxic chemicals that are present in virtually all conventional mattresses. Once you learn that between the polyurethane foam that underlies most mattresses, and the fire retardants and other chemicals that are used to treat them, you are literally swimming in a toxic soup while you sleep, you will as we did want to look for alternatives.

Wool it turns out, in its pure form and free from chemical treatments, is the perfect material for a mattress. Its natural properties, which include the ability to wick moisture, to stay cool in the summer and warm in the winter, to be insect repellent and naturally anti-microbial, insure a safe, natural and wonderful nights’ sleep.

We were fortunate to have arrived on a day when they were getting ready to crank up the “new” wool batting machine Susan had recently purchased. 67 years old, this machine was brought in from Minnesota, and carefully reassembled in Susan’s barn. Machines of this kind are becoming a rarity in this country, and watching this Rube Goldberg device roar into life with dozens of spinning gears and belts, things popping and clanking back and forth and chewing up raw wool at one end and spitting out luxuriously soft wool batting out the other was a thing of wonder indeed. How machines like this ever got invented is beyond me, but it is a classic example of American ingenuity. Just keeping this thing running requires constant vigilance, so we tried to stay out of the way as the first wisps of wool appeared magically out of the machine and began to gather onto a large rolling wheel where they soon gathered into a thick wool batt.

One of the really inspiring features of Surround-Ewe bed is that it is entirely made in the USA. From the sheep from which the wool is gathered, to the cotton in which it is sewn, and the machines on which it is produced, you are getting that which is becoming increasingly rare; a handmade product that is made by U.S. workers, from natural materials that are made here as well. Since the company grows and cards its own wool, and manufactures its own product, they have complete control over what goes into the finished product. As we saw through the tainted paint scandals that plagued some large US toy companies who make their product overseas, this can be very important to the consumer.

We watched while the employees assembled a new bed before Susan invited us over for some dinner. Fresh chicken from her farm and some local corn, along with some wine for Kate and Susan and a couple of martinis for me, soon had us chatting like old friends while we solved the world’s problems. Funny how those solutions never seem as brilliant in the light of day! We spent the evening under the stars listening to the gentle sounds of the farm. Sleeping peacefully on our wool bed, we were soon awakened to the sound of Susan’s rooster welcoming the dawn. Bidding Susan farewell we headed off into the Wisconsin sunshine and watched wistfully as her silo and the farm faded from view.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The Treaties and The White Plumes First Hemp Crop


We came to understand that the Treaty of 1868 means a lot to the Lakota people. To them, these were instruments signed in blood and that the Lakota people gave their word to live by. To the White Man and our ancestors, it appears, the Treaty was all well and good until Gold and Silver were discovered in the Black Hills, part of the land guaranteed to the tribe under the treaty. Then it was time to renegotiate.

The struggle for the rights to this sacred land continues today. As far as the Lakota are concerned, there is no issue. The Treaty gave them clear rights to the land for all time. As far as the White Man is concerned, business is business, and we will be damned if we are giving back Deadwood! Once again the differences in our culture are blatantly clear. The Lakota have been offered hundreds of millions of dollars to settle the issue of the Black Hills. But this is money that still remains in trust as some of the poorest people in the country righteously refuse to take blood money for their sacred land.

As part of the Treaty of 1868, the tribes were also given sovereign rights. In 1998 the Tribal Council segregated the growing and possession of Marijuana, which is illegal on the Reservation, from Hemp, which is not.

The White Plumes, inspired by the decision and looking for a profitable future for their family that did not include the degrading reliance on the Casino, or the downward spiral of the bottle and began to formulate the plans for an enterprise that would look toward that future.

After having examined the per acre yield from a variety of crops suitable for their parched soil, in 1998, they planted their first crop of Industrial Hemp on 1.5 acres of their families land. With little experience at farming, the first crop didn’t make it. In 1999 they tried again but still had problems producing a viable crop. Learning from experience, in 2000 they planted again and this time the crop was successful, with the plants soaring into the brilliant blue South Dakota sky. Although the White Plumes had invited the U.S. Attorney to witness the harvest, at the end of the growing season they awoke one morning to the sound of helicopters. Armed with machine guns the DEA raided their farm, cut down their plants, and turned their dream into a nightmare.

As the DEA descended upon their farm, Alex went and took a shower. “If they were going to arrest me, I was at least going to be clean”.

But arrest him, they did not. The events that would follow next would be comical if it were not for the fact that they impacted people’s lives. Not just “Indians on the Reservation”, but Alex & Debra White Plume, their family and their friends. These are real people, and I am proud to have met them.

Next in this series: The Lakota Way

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Alex White Plume


We drove down the mile or so long dirt road that connects the White Plumes property with the main road. Pulling into the drive we saw a man standing by his pickup, and some large hemp plants growing nearby. This must be the place.

We were greeted by Alex, who was examining some damage to his pickup. We saw that his right arm was swollen like an overgrown zucchini. “Danged Buffalo tore up my truck!” Alex exclaimed. Sure enough, the front bumper of his Chevy was hanging down, and the headlight was smashed to bits. Never having had a run in with a Buffalo myself, but having seen what an Elk or Deer can do, I thought he got off pretty easy. He then explained that he had been trying to herd a wayward member of his stock back to his property from the nearby town of Wounded Knee where it had wandered off to and refused to come home from.

Apparently convincing a Buffalo to come back to the ranch is not an easy task. I asked him about his arm, and yes the Buffalo was responsible for that too, having caused him to crash his four-wheeler in another attempt to corral the huge animal. “Take a look to your left on the way back in to town” he told us. “He will probably be up on the little hill there.” After having seen what a Buffalo can do to a pickup, if you ever lose your Buffalo, my advice is to let him be.

We were invited into his back yard to sit and talk, and were greeted by a small pack of dogs. “These dogs take care of themselves” he told us. “We don’t give them no food.” Having never seen what amounted to a feral dog, I was surprised by their gentle demeanor and apparent health. Cats still know how to hunt, but for most dogs it is a lost art, one which they apparently can relearn.

Sitting among the hemp plants which grow wild around their yard, Alex lit up a hand rolled cigarette and began to tell us the story of his family’s battle to grow hemp, and in a way, telling a small part of the story of the American Indian to survive. What we would learn was in some ways just as appalling as the liquor stores we had passed. But in this case it was about how the U.S. Government continues to suppress and harass the Lakota tribe, just as it has done for the last 150 years. Alex reminded us that his ancestors were great warriors, and as we know they were responsible for the defeat of Custer’s 7th Cavalry at the Little Big Horn. “After the Treaty was signed, we were forced to become farmers” he said. “Now that we want to become farmers, we are forced to become warriors”.

Next: The Treaty

Monday, August 24, 2009

Bring Back the Way-Our Visit to Pine Ridge


The contrast was staggering. After miles and miles of neat as a pin Nebraska farms and corn fields, just south of the Nebraska-South Dakota border we came across the town of White Clay. With a population of 22, this town sells an average of 12,000 CANS OF BEER A DAY. Not because the locals are big fans of Budweiser, but because at 9am when we pulled through, the Indians of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation whose borders begin another 500 yards down the road, were lined up with their brown bags, and already heavily into the days drinking. This city is a crime, and the citizens of the Pine Ridge Reservation are not the criminals, they are the victims.

We were on our way to visit Alex and Debra White Plume, Lakota Indians that have been trying to grow Industrial Hemp on their property in the Sovereign Nation of the Oglala Sioux since 2000. As we pulled through the dusty, dirty and utterly depressing town of White Clay we wondered what we had got ourselves into. After years of protests, and efforts to eliminate this blight from the face of the earth and the profiteering that allows its businesses to extract from the blood of the Indian Nation it borders, White Clay still exists. This is a travesty beyond excuse, and the people and the government of Nebraska should be ashamed.

Having been to a number of Indian Reservations throughout the country, particularly in the Northwest, and Desert Southwest, I was not surprised by what I saw. For so many of us, the image of the “drunk Indian” is all we know about life on the reservation. But like so many clich├ęs, there is so much more here than meets the eye. Later in the day we would talk to Alex about the problems with alcohol on the reservation, but first we would get to drive across the Pine Ridge Reservation that is just a small part of the Indian Nation, and see that there is as much diversity here as anywhere in this country.

The town of Pine Ridge was not much to look at, and we soon found ourselves on the edge of town where we saw a member of the Tribal Police struggling to change his own flat tire. I wondered how many policemen do that. As we passed through Wounded Knee, we came across a couple of young girls who couldn't have been more than 8 or 9 years old, attempting to herd a group of horses running wild across the road. We slowed to a crawl and realized while observing them that this was just a part of their everyday life. The horse, as it was 150 years ago, is still an integral part of life on the reservation.

This was only the first of a series of experiences that helped teach us about the basic and intrinsic differences between the day to day lives of the Indians on the Reservation and our own. As we spent the day with Alex and Debra, we continued to learn about these differences, and they range from the melodic and enchanting language that they speak, to the way they think about the natural world.

When they spoke about the past, what we call “history” (because I think it gives us a good way out of any guilt by association) it was as if it only happened yesterday. When Debra spoke of how their people ended up on this particular piece of land, she said “this is how WE got here”, not “that is how the Indians ended up at Pine Ridge”. It was in the first person, it was alive, and it was intense. Alex and Debra let us into their home, rebuilt after a devastating fire that destroyed not only everything they owned, but also years of research and documentation for the projects and causes they have heralded. They also let us into their lives by sharing with us the struggles they have been through and those that lie ahead.

Over the next few hours, through a combination of words and pictures, some in English, some in Lakota, we would learn many things about the ongoing battle to “Owe Aku”, or “Bring Back the Way” in the language of the Lakota.

Next: Alex White Plume

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The "Register Cliff"






We stopped by the “Register Cliff” outside Guernsey, WY. This is a fascinating spot where not only can you see the ruts carved in solid rock by the countless wagon wheels of settlers headed out West, you will also find a cliff where hundreds of them carved their names. Seeing dates like “1878” and the names carved next to them, makes them feel like real people. Not just a lesson in a history book, but living, breathing people. Touching the rock where their wagon wheels carved ruts, some of them 6 feet deep or more helps you understand the relentless and inevitable onslaught of settlers that soon overwhelmed the native peoples of this land. I don’t believe the settlers wished the Indians harm. And I don’t believe the Indians meant the settlers harm. They were both just pursuing their dreams. Unfortunately for all of us, those dreams collided, and at these cliffs, you can see the remnants of that collision first hand.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Sustainable Brewing Born on a Bike!


When we arrived at New Belgium Brewing in Fort Collins, CO and saw the shiny Airstream sitting in the parking lot, we knew we were in the right place! The Brewery is as well known for its sustainable business practices and advocacy as it is for its delightful beer. Despite the fact that we showed up unannounced, we were warmly greeted by Jennifer Orgolini, the “Sustainability Steward” at the brewery and given a quick tour and overview of their sustainability initiatives. The passion for the company’s efforts is apparent at every level, from the gentleman that greeted us at the door and pointed us in Jennifer’s direction, to the wonderful folks in the tasting room who spread the word around the brewery about the “cool Eco-Airstream” that was parked out in the lot.

This is a company that has a clear vision about their efforts to reduce their impact on the environment. Guided by the vision of their founder, they have set clearly defined goals and benchmarks for their sustainability programs, and understand that it is a journey not a destination. Their corporate culture helps its employees understand and wrap their arms around their vision. The company is a shining example of making a real effort, providing transparency on what they do, and looking toward the future. I urge you to visit their website (www.newbelgium.com)for what I consider to be one of the most well thought out Sustainability Statements that I have ever seen. Here are some of the highlights that we found on their site.

It begins with a clear mission statement that defines their sustainable business philosophy:

We believe, to be environmental stewards, we need to:

• Lovingly care for the planet that sustains us.
• Honor natural resources by closing the loops between waste and input.
• Minimize the environmental impact of shipping our beer.
• Reduce our dependence on coal-fired electricity.
• Protect our precious Rocky Mountain water resources.
• Focus our efforts on conservation and efficiency.
• Support innovative technology.
• Model joyful environmentalism through our commitment to relationships, continuous improvement, and the camaraderie and cheer of beer

It then outlines the achievements they have made so far.

• Increased efficiencies in the brewing process
• Utilized green design throughout our building
• On-site energy production
• Wind-powered electricity since 1999
• Employ a High Involvement Culture
• Sustainable Eventing
• Actionable Advocacy
• Constant benchmarking
• Partnering to support innovative technology

And finally they define clear goals for the future.

Below are the lofty goals we've set as we continue to learn and grow:
• To reduce our carbon footprint by 25%*
• To reduce our water usage by 10%
• To increase our landfill diversion rate from 89.5% to 95% (note: brewing by-products like spent grain and yeast are NOT included in these figures. If they were included, it would be 99%).

If your company is interested in reducing your carbon footprint, reducing waste, reducing water usage, and creating social responsibility programs within your company, New Belgium Brewing is a shining example of how it can be done. And I love their beer!

Before we left the tasting room for the next leg of our journey, the wonderful folks who were serving that day hooked us up with a couple of hemp T-shirts, and a six-pack containing one of each of their beers. As I sat around the campfire that evening I remembered our visit fondly with each sip!

Friday, August 21, 2009

A Toast to Solar Roast!


We had heard about a company that was roasting coffee using solar power when they had brought their roasting machine to our home town of Bend, OR for a promotional display. Still in the early developmental stage at that time, we were anxious to see their 4th generation machine at work. We took a little detour to see them at their new home in Pueblo, CO, where we found brothers Dave & Mike Hartkop at their coffee shop in downtown Pueblo and anxious to share their solar story with us.

After spending a little time chatting and drinking some of their excellent coffee, we headed a little ways out of town to see their amazing roasting machine. The roasting machine is the brainchild of Dave, an inventor and master tinkerer who was persuaded by Mike to use his talents to create this masterpiece. The recently completed roaster is the 4th generation of roasting machines they have built, each larger than its predecessor, and it is impressive to say the least! With over 700 mirrors focusing the sun on the collector box, this 11 ton gleaming monster produces 20,000 watts of power, heating the air in the collector to over 900 degrees Fahrenheit! The hot air is then pumped down to the roasting machine where it turns out 30 lbs of fresh solar roasted coffee every 20 minutes or so.

After a few minutes spent getting the mirrors focused on the blazing Southern Colorado sun, Dave grabbed a 2X6 board and jumped up on the machine. He then gave us a demonstration of the roasters incredible power. Holding the board up into the collector, it began smoking within seconds, and then burst into flames almost immediately!

We soon left Dave & Mike to roast, but as we drove away we were left thinking. When you realize how much power you can generate with just one solar array, the potential for generating solar power and eliminating our dependence on fossil fuels is mind-boggling. What is even more mind boggling, is that with all this power streaming down from the heavens, why we aren’t doing more? Yet again another opportunity to create jobs and help the environment. I guess it makes more sense to give money to GM to continue to build crappy cars.

Find out more about Solar Roast at: www.solarroast.com

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Boondocking in Boulder-A New Urban Opportunity?

The night before we did our show at REI in Boulder, CO we had arrived in town a bit late and were having trouble finding a place to park for the night. As we were cruising around looking at a couple of potential campsites, I noticed what appeared to be an abandoned restaurant off to the side of the road. Hidden behind some trees, and sitting in a parking lot that had 3 or 4 inches of grass growing up through the cracks in the asphalt, it was obvious no one had used it in several years. I decided that no one was going to even see us there let alone tell us to move. We pulled in, snuggled up behind some trees and bedded down for the night. Other than a couple of lost cars that passed nearby, and a man walking his dogs in the morning, we spent a quiet and uneventful night.

The next morning we pulled into the REI, where we had made arrangements with the Outreach Director to do our show in the parking lot in front of the building. Being a Saturday in Boulder, the REI was busy from the moment it opened, and despite the lack of pre-event publicity, thankfully so were we! Boulderites on the whole are very eco-conscious and there was a steady stream lined up to see the Airstream. Perhaps because of their above average awareness, they asked a lot of great questions and we ended up staying an hour longer than we had originally planned. All in all, a splendid time for all!

That day, as we were leaving Boulder, I realized that the current economy had left literally dozens of empty buildings in and around the city. Surely this is being repeated across the nation. Had I found a new source for mobile urban living?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Future of Hemp-Part 3 of 3

Having learned a great deal about the history and the current status of hemp production, we asked Summer about the future of hemp both in the U.S. and worldwide. As a textile manufacturer, the answer we received from her was a bit of a surprise. Although the U.S. was once one of the major textile manufacturers in the world, most of those mills have now shut down, and the jobs have gone overseas. While many of us would like to see those jobs come back, from Envirotextiles perspective, they believe that each region of the world should focus on the production of hemp products that best fit the infrastructure they either already have in place, or that can be readily converted to use hemp as a raw material. As many of the textile mills in this country are not only shut down, their looms and other machinery have also been sold off or scrapped as well. The machines that do remain would require significant retooling to make them suitable for hemp.

Other countries such as China, Romania, and Mexico are already producing textiles, and this is providing jobs in those countries. In other parts of Europe, there is significant production of rope and twine, and in Canada, they industry has focused on seed and seed oil production. Australia has begun a commitment to become a leader in hemp composites and plastics. As we look to the future and consider a worldwide economy, it only makes sense to preserve the jobs we have in some areas and to create new ones in others.

According to Summer, this leaves the U.S. with a golden opportunity to create jobs and fill a missing gap in the worldwide hemp product assortment. With the infrastructure already in place to produce paper, particle board and other composite construction materials, and with many of these factories sitting idle and requiring little tooling to switch to hemp, the U.S. could rapidly become a world leader as of supplier of hemp building materials. This would create a vast array of jobs, for farmers, workers in the mills, manufacturing the machinery needed for production, worldwide distribution of the materials and much, much more. It would also allow us to preserve the slow growing forests that we need to so desperately to help in the fight against global warming, in favor of the rapidly renewable and ecologically friendly production of hemp.

The other clearly obvious use for hemp as a renewable resource is as a source for fuel. Hemp is the number one biomass producer on the planet, producing up to 10 tons per acre in just 4 months. Here again the opportunity to create jobs and replace fossil fuels’ is just crying for attention. Instead we spend 3 billion dollars on the “Cash for Clunkers”. A program designed to support an archaic auto industry that deserves to die for failing to research and develop sustainable fuel alternatives and high mileage vehicles despite the clear knowledge that fossil fuels are a finite resource and well on their way to being depleted.

Paper, textiles, fuel, food, plastics, the list goes on and on. And the list itself is the reason for hemps “seedy” reputation. Take my word for this, and I have some experience from dealing with the companies that are responsible for the insanity that soy and corn production has become, the minute that big agriculture figures out a way to control hemp production, it will be legal in a minute, but right now these companies have all their eggs in soy, corn and petroleum.

Once again, I urge you to learn more and do more to make hemp a huge part of a sustainable future.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Story of Industrial Hemp in the U.S. Part 2 of 3

Summer from Envirotextiles is the Vice-President and a member of the Board of Directors for the Hemp Industrial Association (HIA), and she gave us an update on the battle to legalize its production. The HIA is just one of a growing number of people and organizations that support the legalization of hemp production in the U.S. Others include a diverse cross section of society ranging from pro-marijuana groups, farmers from around the country, and a number of politicians including former Presidential candidate Ron Paul.

With consumers becoming increasingly exposed to and aware of the use industrial hemp in a variety of products, it is surprising how many people are not aware that it is currently illegal to grow industrial hemp in the United States without a special DEA permit. As it is virtually impossible to get a permit, the growing of hemp is effectively illegal. The history of how and why hemp was controlled dates back to the 1930’s, and involves some of the most powerful people and companies in America. And like so many things in this country, it is all about money. As the story of hemp has been told many times and in great detail, I will only give the short version here. However, I urge you to learn more and there is an excellent series of articles available online at: www.hempnowbook.com.

From the early 1600’s and up until the 1930’s, hemp was grown freely in the U.S., and was prized for its incredible array of uses. An article from the 1930’s extolled the virtues of hemp and stated that there were over 20,000 potential industrial uses for the crop. By that time, it was being made into a huge variety of products including rope, paper, textiles, and food products. Today it is believed that we could use hemp in over 50,000 products, and the list has grown to include many items that are made from petroleum based materials including plastics.

But somewhere along the way, the powers that be decided that the products that were being made from hemp would be better made from the raw materials that they controlled like oil and timber. With the development of natural fiber substitutes made from petroleum and the vast tracts of western timber to feed the paper mills, several powerful lobbies including the DuPont and Hearst companies pushed through the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937. This began the effective illegalization of hemp by making it prohibitively expensive to produce. Working closely with William Randolph Hearst who had permits from the federal government to log large tracts of federal land to supply paper to his newspaper empire, they began a smear campaign to convince the public of the evils of Marijuana. This was accomplished through a tabloid type campaign conducted by Hearst’s newspapers that blurred the lines between “pot” that contains the psychoactive ingredient THC, and industrial hemp, which does not. The classic film “Reefer Madness” to which many of us were subjected in school is representative of these efforts. Having scared the crap out of the public, Andrew Mellon who was not only the banker for the DuPont family as well as Secretary of Treasury, had Harry Ansligner who was married to Mellon’s niece appointed as head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics which would later become the DEA. Together they helped pushed through the tax stamp legislation that resulted in the demise of the hemp industry in this country.

And the powers that be are still at work. Having spent the last couple of weeks driving the back roads through the heartland of America, past miles and miles of genetically modified corn and soy, for which the seeds, fertilizers and pesticides are supplied by companies such as DuPont and Monsanto, we were reminded daily of the clout these companies hold. As Hemp requires no pesticides or fertilizer and very little water to grow the production of hemp threatened these interests in every way, and this fact alone doomed its commercial production in the U.S.

In the 1930’s DuPont had developed an “improved” process for making paper from trees that used of course the chemicals supplied by DuPont. Also being developed were many new plastics and natural fiber substitutes, which were taking advantage of the cheap oil that the large corporations like Gulf Oil (Secretary Mellon was a major shareholder) had begun pumping out of the ground. The potential use of hemp as a source of fuel for the growing automobile industry was particularly threatening to them. As many of the richest Americans were making their fortunes from oil and timber, they made sure that hemp would be eliminated from the list of raw materials available to American industry. They were hugely successful in this, and the ban is still in place after over 70 years despite the overwhelming evidence in favor of its growth.

The more one reads about hemp, and I hope you will, the more one realizes that is nearly the perfect crop. Every part of the plant can be used in one form or another, and it is very beneficial for the environment. As of this date, 11 States have approved for their farmers to grow hemp under close regulation. However,the Federal Government continues to ban its production. Each year the DEA spends millions of dollars eliminating hemp, which grows wild in many parts of the U.S., despite the fact that it has no intoxicating effects. Until such time as the grassroots efforts (no pun intended!) combined with the growing number of States that realize both the ecological and economic benefits that growing hemp can bring, becomes stronger than the “big boys” efforts to squash it, it will no doubt remain illegal. You can do your part to end this travesty by learning more about hemp, and writing your Congressman and Senator to let them know where you stand on this issue.

Next-The Future of Hemp Production Part 3 of 3

Sunday, August 16, 2009

What goes around......

Today I bought a couple of ears of corn from a young Amish gentleman who was parked by a Mexican restaurant we were about to frequent with his horse and buggy selling corn. He had waved at us as we pulled in, and he was either fascinated by the sight of the Airstream or just wanted to sell us some corn.

After we finished a pretty darn good Mexican meal for the middle of the Midwest, we stopped by and bought two ears of fresh picked corn off his buggy. As he was used to selling a dozen ears or more at a time, we had to explain that we only had room for two in the trailer. He quickly did the math in his head and told us that we owed him fifty cents. I handed him the dollar I had in my hand and said "how about a dollar." After advising me that he could certainly make change he gratefully accepted the dollar that I offered.

On the way back to the Airstream while watching his horse wait impatiently in the shade, a lonely dollar bill floated down the street and landed at my feet. Looking down I said to Kate.."look at that, there's a dollar". It wasn't until I had a chance to reflect on it that I realized that the dollar I had given the Amish man without him asking was coming back to me. The lesson was clear.."as you sow, so shall you reap", or as we say now "what goes around comes around". Either way I think, the more we give without asking, the more we get without expecting.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Envirotextiles-Part 1 of 3

Envirotextiles in Glenwood Springs, CO, is a pioneer in the development of hemp and hemp blend textiles. We were fortunate enough to spend several days with them recently and not only had a chance to learn more about their business, they shared a bit of their philosophy with us as well. Spearheaded by their tireless and charismatic founder Barbara Fillipone, they are leading by example the efforts to improve corporate responsibility and transparency in manufacturing processes and labeling. Her daughter Summer, through her work with the Hemp Industry Association, in addition to running the day to day operations, directs their efforts to help legalize industrial hemp production in the U. S.

Working out of an old log church which they have lovingly rescued from a state of disrepair, Barbara, Summer, and their dedicated staff, designs, imports, and distributes a beautiful array of hemp and hemp blend textiles to manufacturers here and abroad. Barbara’s expertise in all aspects of the textile trade, and her dedication to sustainable manufacturing practices is reflected in the company’s products and culture. Barbara splits her time between their operations in Glenwood Springs and their manufacturing partners overseas. Her “hands-on” approach to every aspect of their business, from the raw materials to the social equity and manufacturing transparency policies of their suppliers insures both the quality of their goods and the quality of life of their suppliers’ work force. When we arrived, Barbara had just returned from Mexico where she is working on a variety of projects to benefit the locals many of whom work on her products, often at her own expense. Her passion for her products and the people that help make them is inspiring.

There are so many stories that can be told about both Barbara and the company she leads, that it is hard to know where to begin. What started out as a one day visit, soon turned into several very enjoyable days trying to absorb all the projects they are involved with. It also helped lead us to our next stop, but that’s another story.

Barbara is currently leading the charge in developing a “Product Information Transparency” system that includes detailed information for the consumer on how and from what a product is made. We soon found that we shared a common distrust for the plethora of “organic”, “green” or “eco-friendly” third-party certifications that seem to be sprouting up everywhere. As we found out from our work in the furniture industry, these are often nothing more than thinly disguised front groups for the industry they are supposed to be regulating.

Others seem to start out with good intentions and principals, only to lose track of their goals through the necessity of raising money to fund their operations. Frequently the best source for these funds are the companies that are mostly interested in obtaining a “green” stamp for their products from a marketing standpoint, and may or may not be truly dedicated to improving how they run their business. From the consumers’ standpoint, it is difficult to know the difference between a product that comes from a company that is truly doing their best to reduce the impact of their manufacturing and distribution operations from one that is simply interested in the label. Barbara’s proposal focuses on complete transparency, and allows the consumer to make a choice based on clear information. She shared with us some of the product labeling she has designed for this and which will be rolled out for public comment in the near future.

We were impressed by the detailed information this labeling will provide and agree that letting the consumer decide, similar to the way the food industry was regulated through the product labeling system developed for that industry is the best way to go. Third-party certifications, as we found out can range from good to meaningless, and the consumer being hard pressed to know the difference, will often develop distrust for all of them. Clear, detailed product information is hard to fudge, and gives the consumer what they need to make a choice without the layers of bureaucracy or the potential for the wolf to be guarding the hen house. The information contained on the label ranges from where, how, and from what it is made, the social responsibility of the company that makes it, its uses and biodegradability, and more.

For the consumer who really doesn’t care, they can just buy it because they like the product. But for the increasing number of consumer’s who want to know, the information is right there and there is no need for a stamp to tell them it is “green”. We applaud Barbara for her efforts in developing and pushing for the adoption of these standards.

Next-The Story of Industrial Hemp in the U.S.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Recycling on the road and Cash for Clunkers

Likely to disappear altogether under the budget cuts necessitated by the current economy, recycling in the State Parks of Washington and Oregon is something we have taken for granted for some time if you live in those areas. Most of the Park systems in both states have extensive on site recycling. Once we left for points east however it was a different story. Both Wyoming and Montana it seems do not recycle glass at all. Not at curbside, not at the dump, let alone at the parks. Nada, zip, zilch. This made it difficult at best to recycle glass and liking as I do a beer or three now and then, we found ourselves accumulating bottles. Recycling like everything else still has a ways to go.

Recently Congress appropriated an additional Two Billion Dollars to keep the “cash for clunkers” program going. I think of how many recycling programs TWO BILLION DOLLARS would fund and then I remember, glass bottles don’t vote or contribute to campaign funds for politicians. The people that run (into the ground) the automotive industry in this country do. I don't know about you, but I see the program as just another thinly veiled bailout for the auto industry. The amount of energy required to build the new cars that will replace the old ones eats up all the difference in the mileage between the two. And this program does in reality nothing to compell the auto makers to improve the fuel economy of their vehicles, but I'm sure they hope it will sell some cars and get some votes.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Mountain Pine Beetle-Part 3 of 3

Our conversation moved on to the subject of what the Forest Service is doing about the problem, and what their long-term strategy may be. There sheer magnitude of the problem and the reduced demand for the wood, means that millions of these trees will not be able to be harvested before they either fall over or become commercially unviable. In many areas they are already too hard to get out without causing other damage to the eco-system.

The Forest Service is therefore focusing its efforts on removing those dead trees that pose a threat to people or property. For the rest of the trees, nature will have to take its course, and in many cases that natural course will be fire. Like the beetles, under normal circumstances fire is a friend of the forest. It will burn out the undergrowth and allow more light into the forest. The heat will actually germinate and not kill new seeds. A healthy forest will often survive and then thrive after a fire. However, many years of man-made fire suppression has left many forests full of dead undergrowth and teeming with fuel. This supports the kind of fires that “crown-out” in a forest and kill almost everything in their path. These fires may pale in comparison however to the fires that will come in the future when the dead pine trees will provide a mountain of fuel.

One thing is abundantly clear. The nearly endless pine forests of the Western U.S. will never look the same in our lifetime. Not in our children’s lifetime. Maybe not in their children’s lifetime. These forests take 100 years to mature and the disruption to the eco-systems that global warming could create may mean these forests will never return. Only time will tell, and it may be running out.

The Mountain Pine Beetle-Part 2 of 3

Unfortunately, in the case of the Mountain Pine Beetle, the worst is yet to come. Those trees that cannot be harvested, and there will be millions of them, may continue to stand for 15-20 years. Eventually wind will knock them down and the fuel will pile up. Finally, when something like a lightning strike triggers a fire, there will be so much fuel that the scope of these fires could be staggering. In western British Columbia alone, there are over 30 million acres of dead trees. And in the U.S. the number of affected acres is growing at an astonishing rate. What I did not know, and what shocked me even further, is that in most cases the mortality rate in these affected forests will approach 100%. That means that in many areas, every living pine tree as far as the eye can see will be dead. This will not only have a huge effect on the environment; it will completely change the look of those areas and the lives of the wildlife and people that live there.

Right now the standing forests of red trees and the pockets of affected but not yet dead green trees, still creates the illusion of a forest. At some point however, the illusion will fail and we will be left with a landscape bereft of pine trees.

There are other severe consequences of this. These forests are sequestering massive amounts of CO2, both on an active and passive level. Once they die, they will no longer be doing this job. Indeed their carcasses will begin to give up all the CO2 they have been quietly holding for many, many years. At a time when we need all the carbon sinks we have, many of these dead trees will become CO2 emitters.

I asked Andy point blank if the any of the forest management practices used by the Forest Service were responsible for the current situation. He thought for a moment and gave us an answer that basically said “no”, but with the caveat that we also just don’t know. If anything he felt that some of the practices such as thinning and prescribed burns may have helped lessen the impact. I am not so sure. I see an eco-system that is stressed. And that stress may just be some of the first really visible signs of the coming disaster that is global warming. But admittedly, I don’t know, they don’t know, nobody knows. But something is terribly wrong in these forests.

Next-Where do we go from here?

Friday, August 7, 2009

The Mountain Pine Beetle-Part 1 of 3

We spent a couple of days with our friends Jennifer & Michael in the lovely but sometimes sulfurous town of Steamboat Springs. Here the hot water bubbles out of the ground and in addition to the large Hot Springs Resort downtown, there are a number of natural hot springs in the area as well. Jennifer & Michael took good care of us as we worked laboriously to catch up on the website and blog. When you are traveling nearly every day, it can be hard to get some writing done!

While we were there, we got a chance to meet with Andy Cadenhead who is a Timber Management Specialist with the U.S. Forest Service in Steamboat. In every state we have been in since our departure, we have seen the ravaging effects the Mountain Pine Beetle is having on the Lodgepole Pine forests. In many areas stretching from Oregon to Colorado, the Pine Beetle has severely damaged or in many cases destroyed vast tracts of Lodgepole Pines. We wanted to learn more about the cause of this epidemic, as well as the short and long term consequences. Andy was an excellent resource for this information, and we spent about an hour with him one afternoon. This turned out to be a somewhat long but interesting story, so I am going to break it into several blogs.

For those of you who have not seen a forest affected by this, let me tell you, the sight is both shocking and depressing. Where once stood miles and miles of beautiful green trees, now stands a dead or dying forest that first turns red as the pine needles begin to die, then ultimately just becomes a bunch of dead tree trunks waiting to either blow down in the wind, or turn into a raging inferno when they catch fire.

Our first questions centered on how and why this current epidemic has gotten so devastating. We quickly found out that the Pine Beetle is not an invasive species, and that it has coexisted with the pine forests here for as long as anyone knows. In a healthy forest, it helps kill of the weaker trees so that the healthy may proper. It is only when the pine forests become distressed that the beetle will get out of hand and cause this kind of wide spread destruction. Historically, there have been periodic increases in the population resulting in some damage every 20 or so years. This time things have taken on a new dimension, and the scope of the kill is without precedent in modern times. The causes of this are not completely understood, but here are some of the things that are believed to have contributed.

First, in the early 1860's, and then again around 1879, there were some very large fires in some of the pine forests of the western U.S. It is unknown what triggered these fires, but it could have been the result of a previous beetle kill leaving large tracts of dead forests. At any rate, this resulted in large areas of deforestation, and eventually reforestation all occurring in a relatively short time frame. As pine trees begin to become mature at around 80 years, and then ripen into old age around 120 years, they become more susceptible to the beetle. With large tracts of trees all maturing around the same time, as opposed to the more natural mix of young and old trees, these forests become a breeding ground for the beetle which is normally kept in check by the healthier young trees and the cold winters.

Next over the last decade came some long periods of drought. The trees natural defense against the beetles is sap, which they produce at the points where the beetles enter the bark in an attempt to drive them out. For a healthy tree, this is usually enough to keep the beetles at bay so they do not end up killing the tree. However under drought conditions, the tree is not able to produce enough sap to stop the beetles, and in its already weakened state becomes a target.

And lastly, a series of mild winters, triggered perhaps by the effects of global warming, reduced the normal mortality rate for the beetles by 1-2% resulting in more larvae making it to mature beetles, which then have more offspring and so on.

The combination of these three factors, plus perhaps some of which we do not have a clue, resulted in the perfect storm. The pine beetle population has skyrocketed, and the stressed forests are falling victim. Everywhere we go, and in some areas as far as the eye can see, the red forests stand as a grim reminder.

Next-The Worst is Yet to Come

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Glenwood Springs Post & Aspen Times Cover the Eco-Discovery Tour!

We are spending a couple of days with our friends at Envirotextiles in Glenwood Springs, Co. While we were here, the local paper came by and did a quick story on us. This inspired quite a few locals to drop by and see us! You can check it out at:

'Eco-Discovery Tour' rolls into Glenwood Springs