The Billings Outpost

1st Energy Day slated

In an effort to highlight and respond to the increasing focus on oil, natural gas and coal resources in Montana, as well as the oil play in the Bakken formation in Eastern Montana and western North Dakota, prominent energy industry leaders and businesses will provide a forum for local businesses to develop and exchange information at the first Energy Day at the 2012 MontanaFair.

In partnership with MetraPark, Synergy Station of Billings, Kinetic Marketing Group, Blast Creative, Montana Energy Forum, the Billings Chamber of Commerce and collaborative community partners bring the “Best of Show” agricultural theme typically seen in a traditional fair setting to Energy Day on Aug. 16 in the Heritage Building with a full day of educational exhibits, entertaining events and numerous networking opportunities for local business people to connect with oil industry and energy companies, job seekers and potential employers and workforce developers.

Although Energy Day is formally on Thursday, Aug. 16, the energy focus continues for the duration of the MontanaFair through Saturday, Aug. 18. More than 40 exhibits will be housed inside the classic Heritage Building, while a number of static equipment displays will be featured outside. Oil field companies plan to display various pieces of oil field equipment for fair goers to get a firsthand look.

Energy Day partners have developed a website at to keep those interested informed of activities during Energy Days at MontanaFair. Events for business owners include a “Best of Show” competition, speed dating for businesses, and a private pre–Yellowstone River Roundup PRCA rodeo reception. For the public touring the Heritage Building there will be various presentations on various topics of interest such as mineral and water rights and Bakken oil field community impacts. 

For information on Energy Day contact at 696-5433 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

An additional contact is MontanaFair sponsorship coordinator Melody Dobson at 690-5503.


Last Updated on Thursday, 09 August 2012 22:18

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Chris Isaak follows Sun on album of rock covers

By ALAN SCULLEY - Last Word Features

Chris Isaak has known for a long time that he wanted to do a CD of his versions of songs by the early rock and roll artists that inspired his own music.

Not only did Isaak want to pay tribute to his musical heroes, he wanted to correct the issues he had with albums by other artists that covered the same early rock era.

“I always thought that most people who played it didn’t do it the way I wanted it done,” Isaak said in a mid-July phone interview. “They either rocked it up too much, didn’t have the right kind of voice for it or something. They just didn’t have the right feel that I wanted, so I was really happy to get to do this.”

Fans are getting to judge Isaak’s vision for a ’50s covers album themselves now that his latest CD, “Beyond the Sun,” is out. But one thing that can’t be debated is that he did things that bring a real authenticity to the album.

For one thing, Isaak and his longtime band made the CD at Sun Studio in Memphis – the very facility where the artists he covered recorded the classic songs that played a huge role in shaping rock and roll.

The studio was ground zero for owner/producer Sam Phillips and the artists he discovered – including Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash – who recorded for Sun Records.

And Isaak said the studio more than lived up to his expectations.

“The only thing that could have been better about Sun is if I would have had Sam Phillips or maybe if Jerry Lee Lewis would have dropped by for a moment,” Isaak said. “But the studio is an amazing sounding room. I recommend it to anybody who’s making a record. It doesn’t have to be a rockabilly record. It’s just a great sounding room for guys to make a rock record.”

Beyond choosing an ideal studio for “Beyond the Sun,” Isaak also approached the recording much the same way albums were made in the 1950s, setting up as a band and recording the songs live in the studio. And as with those early records, the idea was more about getting the right feeling in the take than a note-perfect performance.

“If you listen to those old rock and roll records, there are little mistakes, but the overall thing is you can hear everybody playing together in a room,” he said. “You can hear it. That’s where the fun is.”

And Isaak and his musicians (bassist Rowland Salley, drummer Kenney Dale Johnson, guitarist Hershel Yatovitz, pianist Scott Plunkett and percussionist Rafael Padilla) definitely had fun at Sun Studio. In all, some 40 songs got recorded. Fourteen of the songs went on the standard edition of “Beyond The Sun,” while the deluxe edition added another 11 songs from the Sun sessions.

The standard CD leans notably toward Presley songs, as seven tunes, including such hits “Can’t Help Falling in Love” and “Now or Never,” as well as lesser known tunes by “The King,” such as “I Forgot to Remember to Forget” and “She’s Not You.”

Other artists represented include Cash (“Ring of Fire” and “I Walk the Line”), Lewis (“Great Balls of Fire”), Roy Orbison (“So Long I’m Gone”) and Perkins (“Dixie Fried”). Isaak has a ready explanation for the Elvis-centric nature of the CD.

“If you think of the songs that are known to have come out of Sun, Elvis got the bulk of them,” he said. “So when you cover those songs, his are the ones that people are going to know.”

What’s also clear in listening to “Beyond the Sun” is Isaak’s knowledge and understanding of early rock and roll in general and the Sun Records canon in particular. His versions of the songs stay fairly faithful to the originals, but Isaak doesn’t try to imitate the original singers.

For instance, he doesn’t try to do a baritone Johnny Cash on “Ring of Fire,” and even though Isaak’s voice is often compared to Presley and Orbison, one gets the sense on Presley’s “Trying to Get to You” or Orbison’s “So Long I’m Gone” that Isaak is singing in his natural voice, just as he does on his original songs.

Isaak first heard the music of his early rock heroes while growing up in Stockton, Calif. When Isaak started his recording career with the 1985 release “Silvertone,” the influences of artists like Presley and Orbison were readily apparent is his sound - although Isaak’s music has branched out considerably over the course of his 11 studio albums.

Songs from “Beyond the Sun,” Isaak said, have fit seamlessly into his live show.

“I say I’m going to play something off of my new record and it’s Johnny Cash’s ‘Ring of Fire,’ Elvis Presley’s ‘Let Me Down Easy’ or ‘I Forgot to Remember to Forget’ or ‘Great Balls of Fire’ by Jerry Lee Lewis. It’s like a bunch of songs people know and they have a lot of fun hearing them,” Isaak said. “And we put on a good show with them. So those songs fit into a set really easy.”


Last Updated on Thursday, 09 August 2012 22:26

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‘Ninja chips’ of kale healthy, appealing to kids


Story and photo - By ARI LEVAUX


It appears that kale is succeeding where spinach and other green things have consistently failed: in the task of getting swallowed by children. The key is to bake the kale into crispy chips. In kale chip taste tests recently conducted in Montana, it was determined that kids will eagerly turn their mouths green with extra helpings.

The evidence was convincing enough that the food purchaser for Missoula County Public Schools placed a kale order with a local farm, to be delivered for the fall term. Edward Christensen, assistant supervisor of food and nutrition for Missoula schools, says the taste test was the final and most crucial hurdle, but the fact that kale is so healthful and grows so well in his region makes it especially attractive.

“Kale is disease and pest resistant, and cold tolerant,” he says. “It’s the low-hanging fruit of Montana.”

Jason Mandala is the community education director for Garden City Harvest, the nonprofit Missoula farm that got the contract to grow kale for the schools. It was Mandala who sold Christensen on chips as a kid-friendly way to serve a dark-green leafy vegetable in school cafeterias. Though Christensen was impressed, his opinion wasn’t the only one that counted.

Only after successful taste tests were conducted at area schools was the deal done.

“The kids gobbled them up,” Mandala says. “They taste similar to a potato chip but they’re a lot better for you.”

Mandala recently applied for a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to fund a project that would use school district land to grow even more food for students.

Plans include a project developed by students at Missoula’s Sentinel High School that aims to create positive environmental and public-health changes by molding consumer habits at an early age.

Consumer habits, in this case, would mean kale appreciation. The plan includes greenhouses outfitted with grow lights and hydroponic gear to be donated by the Drug Enforcement Agency.

Such repurposing of confiscated marijuana-farming equipment is not as unusual as you might think, says Mary Stein, associate director of the National Farm to School Network. “That’s happening in several places around the country,” she told me.

And it’s just one example of how individual farm-to-school programs can adapt to local opportunities and conditions.

“Farm to school programs are as different as the communities they’re part of across the country. In Sitka, Alaska, fish to school is a big deal.”

Mandala agrees that different geographical locations will have their own low-hanging fruit, and it’s up to locals to find it. “You have to identify what grows well, wherever you are, and what your land situation is, and how much you need, and what kids are going to eat,” he says.

With the contract in place, Mandala recently seeded more than 500 kale plants. Early summer, it turns out, is a great time to start a fall crop of kale.

The seeds can be planted directly in the ground or started indoors, as Mandala did with his Red Bore and Winter Bore kale, which are the best varieties for chip-making, he says. Their extra-curly leaves grip oil and flavorings, while their high fiber (even for kale) makes for a solid crunch.

Plus, the shape of the leaf lends itself to easy stripping of the leaf’s flesh from the central vein, he says. But any kale would work, and all kale is good.

In addition to the chips’ pleasing taste, kale’s many health properties provide ample opportunity for creative storytelling to help entice the students.

“We tell kids it will help them see in the dark,” Mandala says, referring to kale’s high content of phytonutrients, which are important in a number of ways, including eye health.

Kale is also high in calcium, and one of the best sources of vitamin K, which helps the body absorb calcium. “Most of the calcium in milk goes through your body, and most of the calcium in kale gets absorbed by your body,” he says, though he admits that the joys of calcium absorption remain a tough sell.

More often he just calls them “ninja chips,” and lets the flavor and crunch seal the deal.

Ninja chips

The more curly the kale, the better, in terms of workability. But this recipe can be made with any kale, and even with collards, which take a bit longer because of their higher moisture.

Strip the leaf flesh from the central vein and rip it into bite-size pieces. Mix them in a bowl with 1 to 3 tablespoons of olive oil (depending on the size of the bunch; you want enough to coat all surfaces) and ½ teaspoon (plus or minus) of salt or garlic salt. Place the pieces on a cookie sheet (or sheets) in a single layer. Bake at 350 for 10 to 15 minutes, keeping close watch to make sure they don’t burn.

“You don’t want too much brown, because browning is the start of burning. If you burn them they taste horrible,” Mandala says.

Before they brown, the leaves turn a bit yellow. That’s your clue that the end is near. Since a tray’s contents won’t cook completely evenly, there will be overdone and underdone parts.

Remember that the chips will get crisper as they cool.

Christensen, who’s become an expert on kale chips, tells me, “Thirty seconds is the difference between a perfect kale chip and a burnt kale chip.” He also cautions against using convection ovens. The leaves, he says, blow away.

Once they’re out of the oven, the chips quickly cool and are ready to eat. You can toss them with any number of seasonings, from Cajun spice to garlic powder to old-fashioned salt and pepper.


Last Updated on Thursday, 26 July 2012 23:51

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‘Rim Haven’ attracts wide variety of animals

By JANE WHITE - The Billings Outpost

“Are kids so focused on their handhelds that they miss their surroundings?” asks Lynne Montague, whose recent self-published first book, “Rim Haven,” celebrates the appearances, for almost a decade and a half now, of  Billings’ Rimrocks-dwelling creatures that visit, drink, kill, threaten to kill, eat all the blossoms, sleep and migrate in and out of her backyard.

“It feels like we are all just too computer-conscious,” laments Montague.

On the contrary! Dedicated to close and penetrating observation of her surroundings, Montague is a painter. Blue horses, reminiscent of “Blue Rider” by the great Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky - the Father of Abstract Expressionism - amble across the walls of her home and many canvasses there. An entire bookcase strains to hold countless, heavy, coffee table books on art, artists and how exposure to the arts helps people learn.

An expanse of glass windows showcases the backyard, in which she observes, photographs and records every single sighting of the seven-point buck, his does and fawns, a red fox, a ferocious bobcat and her small litter, red and gray squirrels, several types of hawks, nuthatches, warblers, blue jays, wild turkeys, chickadees, screech owls, sparrows, hummingbirds, waxwings, buntings, wrens, finches, one pheasant and numerous types of butterflies and dragonflies. Through the glass windows, Lynne and her husband, Jay, create a microclimate that invites the fauna of the rims to descend and rest a while. Water is the key.

Two birdbaths, several sprinklers, and shade trees with about five comfortably spaced birdhouses anchored with suet offer sustenance and shelter to the birds and other Rim-inhabitants otherwise sweltering in the heat high above her studio.

In her book, Montague provides quotations that aptly reflect her own fears about the future of the animals and the rims. Here is the most apt: “What is man without the beasts? If all the beasts were gone, man would die from a great loneliness of spirit. For whatever happens to the beasts, soon happens to man. All things are connected.” Chief Seattle of the Dwamish Tribe in the state of Washington, 1780-1866, said those words in response to then-President Franklin Pierce’s request to buy his tribal land.

Ms. Montague says she created Rim Haven because she fears that someday all the animals may depart forever. She says she could not exist without passing on to her three grandchildren her knowledge and love for the beauty of the animal life that populates Rim Haven. Ms. Montague says she and her grandchildren, like many Billings residents, look out over Zimmerman Park and quake with fear at the reality down below: all the beautiful farmland swallowed up by homes, strip malls, businesses and other residue of suburban sprawl. Disappearing land is a prominent concern of virtually all Montanans, both human and non.

How did all these animals come to prefer the Montague home? Ms. Montague thinks that in the 1930s, when the city of Billings dynamited the Rimrocks to put in a road to get to the airport, the city’s repositioning of that rim face may have pushed some animals out of the road-construction area and onto other parts of the Rims.

Perhaps ongoing construction, city-county zoning efforts and the ever-increasing drought that smites Western states contribute to the delightful, dangerous and surprising interaction between wildlife and humans. But it was not until the last 15 years or so, she and her husband say, that the animals began to more actively hunt and forage on the game trail behind her house.

And they actively travel it at night too. The Montagues have emplaced a night camera with motion detection sensors that might invite a book on the nocturnal activity at Rim Haven. Perhaps they can show us the mountain lion, other powerful predators and sharp-clawed scavengers that inhabit the night.


Last Updated on Friday, 20 July 2012 10:57

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Business Kit offered

Big Sky Economic Development

When starting a business, not many entrepreneurs think to ask themselves questions such as: How good am I at making decisions? Am I prepared if necessary to temporarily lower my standard of living until my business is firmly established? Or how will my business affect my family?

Big Sky Economic Development recently released, for the first time, a New Business Startup Kit – a 28-page resource guide - complete with everything a business needs to get started in Yellowstone County. The new guide asks entrepreneurs business questions and provides a directory of resources needed to get their business established before actually putting ideas into action.

The New Business Startup Kit includes the “The New Business Checklist,” which provides entrepreneurs with a balance of questions that help guide what the business will be, its structure and how it will be funded. Then the kit walks through starting a formal business plan encouraging future business owners to complete a feasibility strategy, determine cash needs, research demographic information, legal aspects, zoning and employer tax responsibilities. The guide goes so far as sharing how to connect to utilities and includes a complete glossary of terms.

“We always encourage entrepreneurs to reach out to resources such as the Small Business Development Center when thinking about launching a business,” said Rebecca Hedegaard, the director of the SBDC housed at Big Sky Economic Development, “but the New Business Startup Kit provides some really great on-the-ground information all in one document.”

Steve Arveschoug, BSED’s executive director, says small business growth is part of Big Sky Economic Development’s core mission and the organization saw a real need for this guide.

“Entrepreneurship and small business development are vital to the success of a strong growing economy in Yellowstone County,” Arveschoug said, “It can be daunting starting up a new business as entrepreneurs search for all kinds of information. We hope this startup kit is just one more tool in our organization’s arsenal to encourage and support business startups.”

The New Business Startup Kit was completely underwritten through advertising in the guide. The new resource can be found at Big Sky Economic Development at 222 N. 32nd St. (second Floor) in Billings or at City Hall, the Downtown Billings Association or Billings Job Service.


Last Updated on Friday, 13 July 2012 00:13

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Billings Clinic tops for safety

YONKERS, N.Y. - Billings Clinic was rated the highest scoring hospital in the nation for safety in a recent report by Consumer Reports.

It was the first time Consumer Reports has rated U.S. hospitals for safety, combining six key measures into one composite Rating. Overall, Consumer Reports rates 1,159 hospitals in 44 states in four special regional editions of its August issue and online at

Billings Clinic got the top score in part because it reported very low rates of double CT scans and bloodstream infections.

Mark Rumans, the hospital’s physician-in-chief, said that doctors who practice there are part of an integrated system, which fosters teamwork.

No other Montana hospitals rated either in the top or bottom 10 on Consumer Reports’ list.

The six categories that comprise the safety score are: infections, readmissions, overuse of scanning, communication about new medications and discharge, complications, and mortality.

Infections, surgical mistakes, and other medical harm contribute to the deaths of 180,000 hospital patients a year, according to projections based on a 2010 report by the Department of Health and Human Services.  And that figure only applies to Medicare patients.

More than half (51 percent) of the hospitals rated by Consumer Reports received a score below 50 (on a scale of 1-100). “The safety scores provide a window into our nation’s hospitals, exposing worrisome risks that are mostly preventable,” said John Santa, director of the Consumer Reports Health Ratings Center.

 “A consumer who enters a hospital thinking it’s a place to get better deserves to know if that is indeed the case.”  Some highlights:

* Overall Safety Performance: Even the highest scoring hospitals have room for improvement. Billings Clinic in Montana was at the top of Consumer Reports’ list, but it got a safety score of just 72. As noted above, 51 percent of hospitals rated by Consumer Reports earned scores below 50 on a scale of 1-100.

· Deadly Infections: About one in 20 hospitalized patients will develop an infection that can be devastating, deadly even. Many can be prevented. Of the hospitals rated by Consumer Reports, 202 hospitals reported infections at rates higher than the national benchmark, and only 148 reported zero infections.

· Radiation Overload: CT scans can provide essential diagnostic information. But they pose risks, too. Radiation from CT scans — which are equivalent to between 100 and 500 chest X-rays—might contribute to an estimated 29,000 future cancers a year, a 2009 study suggests. Consumer Reports’ Ratings report on the percentage of chest and abdominal CT scans that are ordered twice for the same patient, once with contrast, and once without. Only 28 percent of the hospitals in CR’s Ratings had double-scan rates of 5 percent or less in both categories.

· Readmissions: Research suggests that up to three-quarters of readmissions may be preventable. Consumer Reports includes readmissions in its safety composite score in part because the more often a patient enters a hospital, the greater the chance something will go wrong. No hospital earned CR’s highest score for readmissions; 166 hospitals received CR’s lowest score.   

· Communication: For Communication, again, no hospital earned CR’s top score while almost 500 hospitals earned CR’s lowest score for communication about new medications and discharge plans. The Communication scores are based on questions answered by millions of discharged patients in a federally mandated survey.

· Medical Harm: Peter Pronovost, senior vice president for patient safety at Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore, Md., told Consumer Reports: “Medical harm is probably one of the three leading causes of death in the U.S., but the government doesn’t adequately track it as it does deaths from automobiles, plane crashes, and cancer. It’s appalling.”

The report outlines steps the government should take to fix the system, including the implementation of a national system for tracking and publicly reporting medical errors, as recommended by the Institute of Medicine more than 10 years ago. “The public assumes that someone keeps track of all that goes wrong, but that is just not the case,” said Lisa McGiffert, director of the Safe Patient Project at Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports. For more details about what needs to happen to improve hospital safety, go to



Last Updated on Friday, 13 July 2012 00:12

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Chamber board named

The Billings Chamber of Commerce/Convention and Visitors Bureau has announced its 2012-2013 Board of Directors and Executive Committee.

Greg Kohn of Rocky Mountain College is the new board chairman. He heads the Executive Committee, which also includes:

Karen Fagg of H-B Property Montana, chairman elect and chairman of business advocacy.

Ron Yates of Eide Bailly, treasurer and chairman of the Finance Committee.

David Irion of St. Vincent Healthcare, immediate past chairman.

Ginny Hart of Bighorn Resort, chairman of the Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Butch Bratsky of Stockman Bank, chairman of member development.

News Chamber/CVB board members for 2012-2013 are: Patrice Elliot, Wells Fargo; Julie Dial, Western Heritage Center; Bill Cole, Cole Law Firm; and Mark Mueller, SM Energy.



Last Updated on Friday, 13 July 2012 00:10

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Study projects impact of Otter Creek mining

University of Montana Bureau - of Business and Economic Research

MISSOULA – Construction of the Otter Creek coal mine would significantly boost Montana jobs, household income and tax revenues as the Asian demand for the resource expands, according to an economic impact study conducted by economists Patrick Barkey and Paul Polzin of The University of Montana Bureau of Business and Economic Research.

According to the report, “The Impact of Otter Creek Coal Development on the Montana Economy,” construction of the Otter Creek mine proposed by Arch Coal, new rail development and related infrastructure represents a total investment approaching $1 billion.

During the permitting and construction phase, the project is expected to create 2,648 construction jobs in Montana in the peak building year, with most new jobs created in Eastern Montana, the study found.

Statewide impacts on income for Montana households during the peak construction year would be similarly substantial, with $103.5 million of new personal income generated. In Eastern Montana total household earnings would increase more than 8 percent.

BBER’s study found that Otter Creek would generate substantial economic impacts during the operations phase as well. About 1,740 new permanent, year-round jobs would be created in the Montana economy while the mine is operating, increasing household income by $125.4 million per year. The overall state population would increase by 2,850 people and the school-aged population by more than 560 students.

Otter Creek mine operations would raise state and local tax revenue by almost $92 million per year, due to both coal-specific taxes and growth in the overall tax base, the study found.

BBER director and study co-author Barkey notes that though domestic markets are unlikely to provide significant growth for Montana coal, demand in China is projected to swell rapidly and drive Otter Creek’s fate.

“The anticipated increase in coal demand in China between 2010 and 2035 is more than twice the current U.S. production of coal, and Southeast Asia does not have sufficient capacity to satisfy this growth,” Barkey said. “Because Montana coal fields are closer to Northwest ports than those in Wyoming, Montana has a geographic advantage in serving fast-growing Asian markets.”

The Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the UM is a research center producing economic and industry data for Montana. For more information go online to


Last Updated on Tuesday, 03 July 2012 09:33

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Tongue River Railroad to reapply for permit

DEB COURSON SMITH - Big Sky Connection

Tongue River Railroad Co. will have to backtrack a bit on plans to build a new rail line to haul coal from Otter Creek.

The federal Surface Transportation Board has directed the company to reapply for a permit because the project has changed, and court rulings found the review of possible environmental impacts wasn’t complete.

Tongue River rancher Mark Fix says it gives his family a reprieve, since their property was targeted for the project - without their consent.

“The way it sat before all of this happened is basically, they could have come out and condemned me at any time,” he said.

The Tongue River Railroad was first proposed in 1980 when coal mining was expected in the Ashland area. The proposed route was changed to serve shipping of Wyoming coal – and, more recently, coal from Otter Creek – eventually reaching ports in Oregon and Washington for shipment to Asia.

The Otter Creek tracts are leased by the state, thus bringing in new revenue. Fix, who chairs the Northern Plains Resource Council’s Tongue River Task Force, says he hopes discussion of the project will broaden to include how it could negatively affect revenues in agriculture and tourism.

“Obviously, we hope that it will never get built. We think that it’s more important to leave that coal where it is.”

The Surface Transportation Board’s decision is online at


Last Updated on Tuesday, 03 July 2012 09:32

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Which is more efficient: organic or conventional?



On April 23, the science journal Nature published a paper titled “Comparing the yields of organic and conventional agriculture,” by Verena Seufert et al. The mainstream press waded into the paper’s implications but had a hard time packaging them in a headline. CNN announced “Organic yields 25 percent lower than conventional farming,” while the Los Angeles Times proclaimed “Organic farming, carefully done, can be efficient.”

Pundits have used the paper to support contrary arguments in the ongoing debates about organic agriculture. Such cherry-picking isn’t a huge surprise, given the issue’s divisiveness, said co-author Dr. Navin Ramankutty of McGill University.

“We made everyone equally unhappy,” he told me by phone.

The paper is a meta-analysis of previous studies comparing organic and conventional agriculture, and purports to be the second of its kind. The first, by another team in 2007, concluded that organic agriculture could outperform conventional agriculture, but parts of that study’s methodology were criticized. Seufert et al took those criticisms into account, hoping to avoid similar challenges, and considered 66 studies that compared the yields of 344 different crops.

In this sample, conventional techniques outperformed organic methods in terms of overall yield.

In some circumstances, and with some crops, the difference is statistically insignificant. There are counterexamples as well.

Yield alone, the team writes, is “only part of a range of economic, social and environmental factors that should be considered when gauging the benefits of different farming systems.”

This point is often overlooked in discussions of how best to feed the world. Farming methods impact the lives of all who share the ecosystem. They can pollute the environment or make use of what would otherwise have become pollutants. They can affect the nutrient levels in food and the health of farm workers. To assume that the best farming practice is the one that produces the highest yield is like observing that a Lamborghini outraces a bicycle, and thus should be the world’s only vehicle.

The paper asserts that the efficacy of various farming systems is context-dependent, and proposes that the apparent dichotomy between organic and nonorganic is overly simplistic. Hybrid systems, the paper suggests, should be considered in some contexts.

Ramankutty used his personal approach to food procurement as an example of how a hybrid system might work.

“I often buy organic food,” he told me. “Partly it’s because of some maybe nonscientific fear of pesticide residues in food-although it looks like scientific evidence for that is not hard to get.

“On the other hand, I wouldn’t mind if a farmer was applying a little bit of chemical fertilizer. I may not buy food if somebody was applying pesticides, but I would certainly not mind if my farmer applied a little bit of chemical fertilizer on his farm. It’s when we use 200 kilograms per hectare compared to maybe 40 or 50 kilograms that the problem arises.”

The paper notes that many organic agriculture systems are deficient in nitrogen, and that production on such farms would benefit from more of it. But most conventional systems have more than enough nitrogen, thanks to the ease and cost of applying chemical fertilizer.

“The problem we have with nitrogen is that we use too much of it, in some parts of the planet,” Ramankutty told me. “Then it gets left behind in the soil, it leaches out into groundwater, causing water quality problems. It runs down rivers and into lakes and causes algal blooms.

“There’s a diminishing return to nitrogen application. If you’re applying more and more fertilizer, plants take up less and less of it. If nitrogen is heavily subsidized, that is if there’s no cost to applying nitrogen, then farmers won’t have any incentive to reduce the amount of nitrogen.”

Organic sources of nitrogen include manure, cover crops, fish emulsion, compost, and other sources, many of them labor-intensive. These sources of nitrogen do more than simply add “N,” as it’s called in the paper. They also add organic matter to the soil, which is crucial for the soil’s microbial activity and helps retain moisture.

Shoveling shit is a lot more work than applying chemical nitrogen. But as long as fuel is cheap, chemical nitrogen will be too.

In developing countries, the farms considered in the studies analyzed by Seufert et al are export-oriented operations, usually certified organic by international third-party organizations.

Ramankutty makes a distinction between subsistence farming (which may be organic by default due to lack of resources, but not intentionally organic), and “intensive organic” methods, which involve active techniques like composting and mulching.

Subsistence farmers might not need to become certified organic if they’re not catering to an organic market, but nonetheless the use of organic methods can build soil, conserve water, and grow better crops.

“There is a hypothesis,” Ramankutty said, “that in developing countries, switching from subsistence to intensive organic can be beneficial. We unfortunately couldn’t test that, so all we could say in the paper is that there’s no evidence right now that the hypothesis is true. But that does not mean it’s not true. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

Looking forward, Ramankutty said, the team’s next step is “to look at the other side of the equation, the environmental outcomes. What do the environmental outcomes of organic vs. conventional farming look like?”

Those results, when they come, will no doubt further stir the pot in the ever-spirited debate over the best way to produce food.

Ramankutty expressed regret that their paper has probably breathed new life into a polarized debate that’s a lot more complicated than a simple dichotomy between organic and conventional.

That said, the data does provide clues as to which practices might help in certain contexts. Several of the studies they analyzed demonstrated that organic techniques offer clear yield advantages in drought conditions, he said.


Last Updated on Tuesday, 03 July 2012 09:31

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