Posts Tagged ‘Sustainable’

Posted on March 2, 2011 - by

Cork Forests: Actually, Money Does Grow on Trees

Think about the last bottle of wine you drank. Was it sealed with a natural cork? A synthetic plastic closure? A screw top cap? Where does cork come from, and what’s with all the buzz about cork trees being endangered? To investigate, we ventured off to Alentejo, a rural region in south-central Portugal, and one of the world’s largest sources of cork oaks. All told, Portugal produces about 75% of the world’s cork, and about 75% of this goes into wine bottle stoppers. About 33% of all cork trees grow in Portugal, and 95% of these are in the Alentejo region.

At Herdade da Maroteira, Philip Mollet guided us on a tour of his 540 hectare farm. Much of the land is forested, with approximately 2/3 covered by cork forest, 1/3 covered by stone oaks, and some cleared land for vineyards and livestock. Mollet is a 5th generation farmer, whose family originally hailed from Britain. As the story goes, in the beginning there were two brothers who were on their way to Australia. They stopped in Porto to make repairs on their boat and look for cork stopper resources. The brothers ended up traveling to Alentejo, where they found this particular cork farm. One brother continued on to Australia, while the other stayed in Portugal. Later on, the brothers arranged for a cultural swap, with one brother sending eucalyptus to Portugal and the other brother sending cork acorns to Australia. However, the acorns that were sent were sterilized—nothing like a little sibling rivalry to help foment family feuds!

A cork oak has two layers of bark—the cork, which is the outer layer, and the inner bark. After the cork has grown to sufficient thickness, you can strip it by hand using an ax with a curved blade. To date, no mechanical harvesting method has been developed, and it requires skill and experience to harvest cork without damaging the tree. Workers must be able to gauge the cork sheet’s thickness, and not cut too deeply into the tree, or they will cause irreversible damage. Done properly though, cork is a renewable resource, and a healthy tree will produce cork almost indefinitely, or until its life expectancy of 600 years is up.

Cork can first be harvested at about 25 years of age, but this virgin cork is considered low-quality and is worth about the price of the stripping. Thereafter, cork is usually harvested every 9-10 years. To keep track of the last harvest, each tree is marked with a number to indicate the last year it was stripped. For instance, a “6” means the tree was last stripped in 2006.

When do you harvest cork? As it turns out, the cork layer usually sticks to the tree like glue, but there is a narrow 3-week window each year when you can strip cork. As the weather moves out of cold temperatures into warm ones, the trees “sweat” and it is possible to separate the cork from the inner bark. The timing of this window varies from region to region, and depends on humidity as well.

At Herdade da Maroteira, cork harvesting takes place for about ten days in June, and is done primarily by a team of 12 men with axes. Any more than that, and it becomes difficult to supervise workers and make sure they are doing the job properly, said Mollet. They are supported by a back-up team of employees who drive the tractors, paint numbers on the trees, and stack the cork sheets.

The quality of cork depends on the thickness and density of the cork sheets—the greater the better. Cork is traded in units called arroba, which is equivalent to 11.5 kg in Spain and 15 kg in Portugal. Top-notch cork, with high density and thickness, is sold for €40-50/arroba, while lower quality cork might be sold for as little as €8/arroba. Mollet’s cork is middle of the range, with high density but average thickness, and sells for about €18/arroba.

What about all the rumors of a worldwide cork shortage? According to Mollet, cork production is fully sustainable and there is no truth to these claims. “The problem is the wineries,” he said. “Everyone’s looking at cost.” He explained that natural corks cost 28¢ each, while lower-grade 1+1 conglomerate corks and powdered corks cost 8¢, and a 100% conglomerate cork costs 4-5¢. Meanwhile, plastic corks cost 3-4¢ each. Mollet lamented the rise of synthetic closures and said, “Look, this cork is ecological, biological and natural. If we lived in the US or the UK, we’d be marketing this product heavily. But the Portuguese government has their hands in their pockets. So, winemakers are moving to plastics to cut costs, not watching quality and not knowing what goes into the wine.”

In recent years, the demand for cork and value of the raw product has fallen sharply. At the market’s peak about ten years ago, Mollet was grossing about €120,000 for each cork harvest, but that figure has fallen to €42,000 today. Simultaneously, stripping costs total €30,000. And that does not even account for the year-round costs of maintaining the cork forest and fighting the coraebus undatus beetle that infects cork trees. It is a poor time indeed to be in the cork-growing business.

To verify Mollet’s claims, I did some research on the sustainability of Portugal’s cork forests on my own. The cork oak is indeed listed on the World Wildlife Fund website as a priority species, but not for overharvesting. As stated by the WWF, “Harvesting of cork for use in wine stoppers is entirely sustainable,” but “increased market share for alternative wine stoppers could reduce the value of cork oak areas, leading to their conversion or abandonment.” In other words, not using cork stoppers will hurt the continued preservation of the trees.

Mollet realized long ago that it was risky to be dependent on the vagaries of the cork market, and decided to diversify his farm into other lines of business. Today, the farm also raises pigs, produces wine, olives, olive oil, honey and has two agrotourism guesthouses for visitors. The pigs are actually owned by Spanish livestock farmers, and are sent to Mollet’s farm in the fall to gain weight. These prized Iberian pigs arrive in October weighing approximately 80 kg, and leave in March at 180 kg. Mollet is paid based on the amount gained by each pig, which comes to about €120 per pig. “I make sure that they are happy and comfortable,” he said. “We keep them as calm as possible, in a stress-free environment.” The pigs are rotated from section to section of the forest, as they feast on acorns dropped by the oaks. They will later be processed into prized jamon iberico and other meat products, for a total value of around €3,000 per animal.

Why harvest the cork if it is a money-losing prospect? Mollet paused to reflect on the volatile prices and pests threatening Portugal’s cork oaks. “People used to say, ‘Money doesn’t grow on trees,’ and we would respond, ‘Actually, it does.’ But now I’m making just enough money to keep the tractor running. Fortunately, we diversified into wine, but the whole cork industry is in trouble, and if something doesn’t change, the forest will die.” Without protection, it is likely that the forest will be converted to other uses and the trees logged away.

Did your wine purchase for tonight’s dinner just get a little more complicated?

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Posted on October 5, 2010 - by


Hey everyone! We here at FRESH wanted to let you know that we are partnering with on October 10, 2010 to promote the 10/10/10 Global Work Party initiative. The 10/10/10 Global Work Party is a global event to raise awareness about carbon emissions and encourage folks to work towards a greener future by participating in community projects that will cut carbon. The day will also be used to pressure political leaders to take action on climate policies that promote clean energy and ways to reduce emissions.

Join with FRESH and during the 10/10/10 Global Work Party to change carbon emissions and bring awareness to the benefits of eating sustainably. Things such as putting up solar panels, planting a community garden, or hosting a bike workshop can be great ways to provoke community awareness and cut carbon in the environment. The website ( has other great ideas that you can do in your community during this global event and well as a listing of events happening in your area.

Together, we can make a statement and take strong steps to improving the environment we live in.  On 10/10/10 we hope to you will join with and FRESH to send the message to our countries leaders that, “If we can get to work on solutions to the climate crisis, so can you.”


Posted on September 1, 2010 - by

Farming’s Indispensable Woman

“Women Nourish Us” is FRESH’s femme-focused blog series. Every week, we turn to a leading woman in the good food movement for ideas and inspiration. Be sure to check us out every Wednesday for a new write-in. Then pass the post!

Nicolette Hahn Niman is an attorney and livestock rancher.  Much of her time is spent speaking and writing about the problems resulting from industrialized food production, including the book Righteous Porkchop:  Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms (HarperCollins, 2009, ) and four essays for the New York Times. She is regular blogger for The Atlantic online, and has written for Huffington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, and CHOW.  Previously, she was the Senior Attorney for the environmental organization Waterkeeper Alliance where she was in charge of the organization’s campaign to reform the concentrated livestock and poultry industry.  She lives in Bolinas, California with her husband, Bill Niman, founder of Niman Ranch, a natural meat company supplied by a network of over 600 traditional farmers and ranchers.  They now market the products of their ranch under the name BN Ranch.

A filmmaker recently asked me why so few women were involved in raising livestock. I paused before answering because the question surprised me a bit.  Over the past ten years, I’ve visited dozens of farms and ranches raising cattle, dairy cows, pigs, goats, sheep, and poultry in every region of the United States.  At every operation women were an absolutely essential part of the team.

At most of these farms, women kept everyone fed, dressed in clean clothes, and ran the household; they often kept the books.  Usually, they were also deeply involved with the stewardship of lands and animals.  These women are agile, nimble “Jills of all trades” who seamlessly flow from one varied task to another throughout their jammed packed days.

In my experience, women bring a unique sensitivity to animal husbandry, ensuring that each animal gets the individual attention it needs.  Our good friends Rob and Michelle Stokes run a cattle, heritage turkey, and goat ranch in eastern Oregon.  Both are skilled in the arts of agriculture and grazing, but during the kidding and calving seasons it’s Michelle who makes sure that every last goat kid and calf gets nursed and bonds to its mother.

And then there are the farms and ranches that are being taken over by women.  The latest Census of Agricultural shows that the number of women farmers is increasing.  One of these is my friend Cory Carman.  She graduated from Stanford with a degree in political science with no intention of ever returning to the cattle ranch she grew up on.  But when family circumstances drew her back to the ranch, she decided to stay.  Now she and her husband have taken over her family’s cattle ranch, which she has converted to a totally grass based operation.  She direct markets her beef on the Internet and sells it to restaurants.  “It’s a totally different beef industry today than the one I grew up in, which was totally dominated by men,” she told me recently.  She had the revelation when she sat down to talk about meat at a business meeting with two other women, both also in their thirties.

Women make up the vast majority of the membership in animal protection organizations.  Moreover, as an article in E Magazine noted, women have an innate environmental ethic.  It quoted Theodore Roszak, director of the Ecopsychology Institute, which studies the relationships between individuals and nature. While men traditionally viewed Mother Nature “as a devious female to be put in her place, to be tamed” by technology (just as they historically viewed marriage in terms of domination and submission), women have shifted the emphasis from using science to subjugate nature to finding ways to accommodate nature.  “Women in the environmental movement have always had sense of being on Earth’s side,” says Roszak.

It naturally follows that the more women are involved in farming and ranching, the better agriculture will be toward natural resources and farmed animals.  I’m proud to be among their ranks.

To get in touch with Nicolette or learn more about her work, visit her website where you can buy her book, Righteous Porkchop:  Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms (HarperCollins, 2009)

If you believe in the power of women’s words and our growing sustainable food movement, please spread the word about our Women Nourish Us blog series via email, Facebook & Twitter ( If you would like to host a screening of FRESH for your friends or organization, please – be in touch!


Posted on November 16, 2009 - by

12 Things Kids Should Learn on their Own about Food

By: Orren Fox
Guest Blogger: Orren Fox is 12 years old and lives in NoBo (North of Boston). He goes to school where there is a greenhouse and a bee hive! Orren has 24 chickens and four ducks (three Call Ducks and one beautiful Mandarin). He is really interested in farming and the ethical treatment of animals. Orren would love to change the way egg layers and meat birds are raised. He says he has a lot to learn. He blogs and tweets about these issues.

There are all sorts of really interesting things to learn about food, actually I imagine you might not have really THOUGHT about food. Maybe someone hasn’t taught you about food. Most kids would rather think about other stuff.

But just for a minute, right now, stop and ask yourself – What did I have for breakfast? Ok now, think – Where did all those ingredients come from? Who made that bagel? What time did they have to get up? Where did that egg come from? Where did the chicken live and how did it live? If you knew the animal was poorly treated would that make a difference? Or not? Where did the orange juice travel from? Florida? California? Have you ever traveled to those states? Is it a long way from California or Florida to your house? How much gas did it use to ship the OJ that far?

All really interesting questions I think.
1. Vegetables taste great with butter and cheese

Honestly, what doesn’t. Even asparagus, really even asparagus. I know there are some people who will say butter and cheese aren’t healthy, but hey I’m a kid and actually I think these are true foods or “real foods.” They aren’t chemically made in a laboratory. They come from recipes not chemical compounds or lab experiments. Maybe that is too harsh. But I understand eggs and cheese, I know where they come from. I don’t know what SODIUM TRIPOLYPHOSPHATE is, so I Googled it (here is what Wikipedia says – Polyphosphates are moderately irritating to skin and mucous membrane because of their alkalinity). Hmm. Not really interested in eating that.

Actually most veggies that you grow yourself or that come from your neighborhood farm taste completely different than those from the buckets in the supermarket. I actually think the veggies in the supermarket don’t really taste like much. A carrot that was harvested yesterday tastes very different from one that was harvested a few weeks ago, then spent the next few days on a truck, then the next few days sitting in the supermarket. I think the flavor must just drain out of everything as time passes. Also in the supermarket there are very few types of veggies or fruits. Very rarely would you see a Green Zebra or a Brandywine, and those are just tomato variations! Each of these variations tastes completely different, we are only really offered one or two types of tomatoes at the supermarket. These two types of tomatoes are the kinds that travel well and that are easiest to ripen or harvest. I actually don’t like the kind in the supermarket, I like Brandywines. They are sweeter.

I think kids might like veggies if they could choose the varieties they like, but they can’t because the choice is so small. I wouldn’t eat tomatoes if I could only eat the kind in the supermarket.

2. Food taste better when you grow it yourself

Food tastes better because your work is in it. I am an impatient gardener, so for me the food tastes great because I have had to wait for it to go from seeds to seedlings to flowers to fruit to ripe fruit. Somehow that makes it taste like you did it. So i guess there is a little bit of pride in those vegetables.