According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the past decade is the first in more than fifty years that has actually witnessed a net gain in the number of reported farmers. Since 2002, almost 300,000 farms have begun operation, representing about 13 percent of all farms nation-wide. The majority of these new farms share several characteristics—smaller acreage, more diversified, operated by younger farmers and targeting local markets.
Many of these new farms confront a common challenge—degraded land and eroded topsoil. In rural areas, many farms have a history of invasive plowing, a lack of off-season cover-crops and compaction from heavy equipment that lead to poor soil conditions. In urban areas, land has frequently been stripped of topsoil, is heavily compacted, and contains old foundation stones and other urban debris.
Every new farm has to have a strategy for restoring topsoil, which provides the natural capital necessary to acheive a viable farm enterprise. For example in 2001, the 70-acre George Jones Farm and Nature Preserve in Oberlin began to transition from corn and soybean production to a more diversified farm that combined habitat restoration with the provision of food for local markets.
The soil at the farm faced significant compaction resulting from the loss of soil organic matter, a lack of worms and other soil micro-organisms, and historic use of heavy equipment. During the first couple of years of production, the young farmers joked that they would be better off starting a pottery business utilizing the heavy clay soils. As a result, production yields were severely limited during the first few years of operation.
Over time, the farm employed a wide-range of strategies to improve topsoil, eventually leading to a viable farm operation that supplies food to the college dining halls and a number of other local markets. The strategies included incorporation of municipal leaf mulch, cover-cropping, rotation of chickens and other livestock, and use of vermicompost—food waste processed by worms.
At present the Oberlin community is engaged in a broader, community-wide initiative to build on this example by converting urban wastes generated by the college, residents and local businesses into productive inputs for local agriculture.
As a part of the Oberlin Project, an effort to transition away from fossil energy dependency, the community is currently considering a mix of techniques and strategies aimed at solidifying the links between organic waste and the productivity of local farms. Options that could be considered by any community of any size, include:
• Commercial/Municipal Scale Composting—Large-scale composting systems involve a centralized facility that accepts large volumes of food waste and processes it into compost that can be sold or, in some cases, donated to area farms. These systems can provide employment opportunities, but can also be capital intensive and costly to establish and maintain.
• Vermicomposting—Vermicomposting feeds food and organic waste to worms who produce worm castings- nutrient rich compost. Vermicompost systems can cover a variety of scales, from restaurant basements to greenhouses or open fields on a farm. They can be managed at a commercial-scale or maintained by an individual farmer or business owner.
• On-Farm Composting Options—Dairy or livestock farms can work in partnership with municipalities or landscape companies to mix wood mulch or leaves with manure generated by their operations to produce compost that can be used to fertilize fields or support vegetable or grain production on other parts of the farm.
• Waste-to-Energy—Bio-digesters facilitate anaerobic composting (composting without oxygen), which releases methane as a by-product. The methane can be burned directly to produce fuel for cooking or heat for a greenhouse. Methane can also be stored and run through a generator to produce electricity.
Bio-digesters can include large-scale systems which can process large amounts of waste or can be scaled at the home or individual farm scale.
This year, the Oberlin community will be assessing these different options with the goal of creating a viable community composting system that utilizes waste to spur the growth of the community’s local food economy.
Even though it’s a small town, Oberlin spends more than $17 million per year on food. Present local food efforts between the college, student coops and local businesses circulate more than $1 million in the local economy.
Finding a way to more effectively collect, distribute and process the abundant organic wastes of this small town can go a long way in improving economic opportunities in the local food system.
Think about the potential of similarly engaging larger cities with urban farmers or rural farms in the surrounding countryside.
Follow Oberlin’s community process and learn more about options for your own community, by visiting www.neofoodweb.org.
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Kevin T. Smiley
When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
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