At Home in Nature

  (Agate, Colorado)
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Those in prison: a prayer for the immigrant

Let us tonight remember those in prison, both those who suffer for their crime, and those who are wrongty held to account for the crimes of others, or for those crimes which they had long ago suffered and atoned for.  Let us remember those in prison whose only crime was desiring democracy and human rights.  Let us remember their suffering with compassion, and encourage their families who are by their imprisonment bereft of their family's leadership and support.  Let us remember their discomfort and humbly thank the almighty God of justice who knows their pain more than we can.

Let us today remember our immigration law, a law whose inhospitality is a shame to our nation, placing those who seek our friendship and help in prison, or returning them to their torment far from the home of their hearts.  Let us remember the fear of our prisons compels even good citizens to acts of cowardice when their hearts would have them undertake righteous acts of goodness on behalf of their brothers and sisters.

Let us remember today that these are our prisons.  That we are a free people, a democratic people, a people of laws of our own making.  That we build these prisons with our own money, that we staff them with officers of our courts, undertaking the orders of our own Judges.  Let us today pray that when we ourselves are Judged, in the courts we made or before our own maker, we shall have greater mercy than we have bestowed upon our own condemned.  Let us remember the limits of human mercy, and stand in awe of that tremendous mercy we needlessly fear.

Tonight we pray, remember us, these wretched beggars, who ask for what we do not deserve, who fear that which loves us, and hates that which would do us homage.


contest from the fallowfield art, craft and technology guild

AGATE -- A new Fallowfield Art, Craft and Technology Guild is already planning five contests to assist in recruitment, with cash and other prizes. A fine arts competition using recycled materials, a culinary arts competition using pine needles, a motion picture competition for musicians, actors and other performance artists, an alpaca fiber competition for crafters and a dam designing competition for technological scientists. Contact Aaron Brachfeld at 303-335-9952 or brachfeldbrachfeld-AT-gmail-DOT-com for more information, or for an entry application. 

The FACT Guild is forming as part of the Brachfeld Corp.’s recycling efforts. “We seek to empower local artisans in ensuring that agricultural recycling efforts (which are encouraged by the laws of Colorado) are undertaken tastefully and beautifully,” explained Aaron Brachfeld, President of the Brachfeld Corp. “This way, the walls, pens, and numerous agricultural structures of participating farms and ranches may serve not only the economic and practical needs of agriculture, but serve to inspire greatness within the community. Recycling is a thing which must occur. It is undertaken for the benefit of nature and for the economy of the public which cannot afford fantastic trash bills. Agricultural industry can make better use of most trash than any other industry, transforming waste products into lower food prices, affordable medicine, inexpensive fuel, and quality clothing for the poor. We can no longer afford to throw away the greater part of our wealth and it is fitting that our community’s artists should direct this necessary effort.”

The first meeting of the Guild is scheduled for December 10 at the Brachfeld facility in Agate, Colorado, but a second meeting on December 17 will be held in the Denver area.

You can


Debris essential to reforestation

Drs. Tomasz Zielonka and Mats Nildasson (Ecological Bulletins, 2001. 49:159-163) of the Institute of Botany in the Polish Academy of Sciences and the Southern Sweedish Forest Research Center of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences remark how important it is for dead wood to be present in a healthy forest. However, when reforesting, it is necessary and beneficial to introduce your own deadwood. In establishing the windbreaks you read about in today’s Herald, remember that the deadwood, as it decomposes, improves the soil and, in the time that the lowest levels of the windbreak decompose, the tree roots will be seeking the vital organic material there. A thick layer of mulch near the trees will not go amiss, either. Deadwood, according to the Doctors, significantly assists the establishment of new trees and the regeneration of forests.

We investigated regeneration patterns and dead wood dynamics in high altitude natural Norway spruce Picea abies forest in the Tatra Mountains, Polish Western Carpathians, and used dendrochronological cross-dating to asses the age of fallen logs. We compared the exact time since tree death with physical features reflected in a 5-degree classification of the decomposition stage. In more decayed logs where wood samples were impossible to cross-date we used the maximum age of saplings growing on logs as an indicator of minimum log age. The total volume of dead wood on the forest floor was ca 60 m³ / ha. Dead wood covered ca 5% of the forest floor. The log ages were for class A (least decayed) -- up to 4 yr, for class B: 8-44 yr and for class C: 44-115 yr. The minimum age of the most decayed classes D and E was estimated to 50 and 60 yr, respectively. One year-old seedlings were present on logs of all decay stages except on fresh windbreaks and windthrows of class A. The highest number of seedlings was found on logs in decay classes C and D which indicates that the middle stage of decomposed wood is the best substrate for germination. The successful cross-dating of over one hundred years old spruce logs is an evidence that some portion of fallen logs may escape fast deterioration even in species normally regarded as not resistant to decay.

A Promise

In farming and ranching, despite the boasts of science and technology against the so-called inconveniences of nature, there remains a lack of confidence in these powerful tools by those whom they were made. A sick animal can be taken into the barn, given antibiotic and medicine, warmed by blankets and even electric heat, and despite these cares, might still die if the veterinarian failed to either diagnose the correct disease or if the microorganism somehow mutated in adaptation. Fields might be worked with extraordinary care employing the most advanced understandings of soil chemistry to prevent disease, but may yet be eaten by deer. A cat might break into the chick brooder. Thieves and vandals may utterly destroy a farm, and perhaps even killing the husband and wife. A thousand things can go wrong.

But usually they don’t. The agricultural insurance agencies offer excellent rates because, due to the advances of technology and science, a crop failure need never happen except under force of God. Nature, at whom our worthy ancestors brandished bloody axes, sacrificed puppies, or in other ways attempted to placate or intimidate, has largely been tamed and so, in thanksgiving a farmer or rancher no longer needs to bestow great attention to the pantheon of minor deities who once mattered so much to their fathers and mothers, but to the single God who empowered them by knowledge and insight to defend themselves and who reserved the humbling trials of total disaster for some future day.

This Thanksgiving, let us contemplate how we would encounter such total disaster. Against thieves and the ravages of war, we have an honorable fight; against disease we have the patient pursuit of medical science; against floods we may build dams and dikes; we may alter the course of rivers, move mountains and, by powers exceeding those the ancient rites we have given up, aspire to even contemplate the magnitude of our blessings from our God, and catch a glimpse of those larger fields we till but a part of and those magnificent pastures into which we, ourselves, with our cattle, are daily led.


Scenic trash of Elbert County

In Elbert County we find many things put to use that find new life and are no longer rubbish.  We find many things, brand new, cast away on the roadside like soda cans and lunch wrappers that become rubbish.  But the State law is clear: farmers know best what to do for the raising of crops and animals, and should be allowed to employ whatever materials are necessary without the censure of their work being called rubbish.

        Prosperous Matheson is home to some of the most picturesque farms in Elbert County where the rolling hills of Agate begin to fall to the plains.  The communities are linked by road and spirit, and though you can find the old Agate School bus parked along Highway 83, soon, as Agate fades forever, the two peoples will finally sunder.  Yet there too you see rubbish, but of a different sort.  Instead of peacefully at rest, rubbish is laid aside for use, and is actively used as soon as it may.  This sort of zealous energy for farming is to be admired, and thankfully is encouraged by the protection of State laws.

        Down the Matheson Road, a beautiful windbreak for the cattle can be seen out of scrap metal and tires.  The tires are falling down in some places, but is still functional! Though our tire walls and pens are larger, we are not proud; we all do what we can and admire and learn from each other’s efforts.  Larger is not necessarily better: in the arts of recycling, efficiency and utility matter most.  The scenic trash of Elbert County is so because it reminds us of the beauty of utilitarianism, as each work of art speaks of the ingenuity and love for the animals and crops and land bestowed by the craftsmen responsible for it. 

        Even in prosperous western County where the horses are worth more than most of the inoperable vehicles in eastern County, tires are used as culverts and walls and gardens, and so many other uses besides.  Farms and ranches, no matter their wealth, need rubbish to work the land, it is often the only affordable material to choose.  State law protects farmers and ranchers in numerous ways, providing special protection and rights to farmers and ranchers who make their own food, who undertake the use of horses, who raise cattle or other animals, or in other ways secure our State’s economy with a dependable economic engine that has outlasted silver booms and busts, technology booms and busts and will even outlast those commuting revenues that Elbert County has in recent times attempted to cultivate.

        There is enough room in Elbert County for all of us, and whether on your farm you wear muck boots or sandals, whether you enjoy at the end of the day a hot plate of rice and tofu or beef and potatoes, the diversity of Elbert County’s farming and ranching community stands unified in the practice of recycling materials and keeping hold of things that may one day be again useful.


Star watching for farmers

Look to the skies just before sunrise and you’ll see something interesting: the planets Mercury, Venus, Mars and Jupiter appear to be in a line!  Though not actually in alignment, our perspective from Earth makes them appear so, but it is a good time to consider that in ancient times, people would look to the stars for an understanding of what to do in their agriculture.  It came naturally, as farmers used the light of the moon to get a few more hours of work done at night.

Though more recently, religious groups have claimed that stars and planets exert influences on our crops here on earth through their “energies,” in ancient times, the farmers would watch the stars to get a better idea of what time of year it actually was.  You see, the modern calendar and all its conveniences was not available then, and sometimes June would be in the middle of the winter, and November would be in the warmest part of the year.  It took the ancients a long time to perfect a solar calendar that actually worked.  Until they did, they relied on the stars to know the season.

The Dog Star, Sirius, was a good indicator that summertime was at its peak.  With the rising of Sirius, farmers would prepare to harvest potatoes and other heat sensitive crops, cease tilling, bring water to their fields, and otherwise bunker down for extreme heat.  By counting the moons, they knew when it was likely to be safe from frost to plant.  Each star and planet had its season.

The farmer LJ Columella was the first to describe an agrarian calendar based on stars and planets.  His work, On Agriculture, is still used by many farmers today even though we now have a reliable solar calendar to tell us the months and seasons. 

As superstition was gained after the age of reason, people began to become confused: did the stars cause the seasons, or did they simply mark the changes of the seasons?  The mythology associated with the stars and planets began to influence people, and new religions based on the ancient worship of the numerous deities that the ancients worshiped arose.  Permaculture is one such modern system that advocates utilizing planetary energies to improve harvests, but even Columella, who worshiped Mars thousands of years before Permaculture was ever considered, would tell you that the stars don’t tell you what to do: your knowledge that the stars are regular in their rising and setting against the passage of the seasons lets you anticipate seasonal trends in weather.

Today, farmers still work late by the light of the moon and still enjoy star watching, but now farmers enjoy starwatching for the joy of it, because they can look at a calendar to know what needs done at any given time.  But one of the greatest parts of that joy is remembering the days before the solar calendar and using the stars and moons to help in your farming.


How the banks are raising food prices

Money presumes a future payment of a commodity.  In antiquity, money meant cattle and grain. A “drachma” was a weight of grain. Japan's feudal system was based on rice per year – koku. Today, this system is still in effect for most farmers, who borrow against a future crop to gain money today for seed and operational expenses.  Well, the demand for metals or precious stones to fund this credit system allowed mines to become profitable, and as people dug deep into the earth looking for shiny things that farmers could exchange for seed money.  The mines were too complex to be owned and operated by a single person, and quickly came under the management of the government.  The government found it important to support farmers with seed money, developing the process of modern agricultural subsidy.

The farmers who borrowed from their future crop to gain seed money today and the investors who lent money for a future crop eventually learned how to form a corporation, a business entity in which investors own the farms and hire the farmers, and the profits are divided into equal shares based on investment and labor.  With labor becoming valued as highly as investment, the labor union was invented, allowing workers equal bargaining power to the investors.  With the organizational power of a corporation, suddenly private ownership of mines was possible and gradually governments got out of the mining business… and got into the banking business.

The banknote was first developed in China in the Tang during the 7th century, with local issues of paper currency. Its roots were in merchant receipts of deposit during the Tang Dynasty (618–907), as merchants and wholesalers desired to avoid the heavy bulk of copper coinage in large commercial transactions.  Before the use of paper, the Chinese used coins that were circular, with a rectangular hole in the middle. Several coins could be strung together on a rope. Merchants in China, if they became rich enough, found that their strings of coins were too heavy to carry around easily. To solve this problem, coins were often left with a trustworthy person, and the merchant was given a slip of paper recording how much money he had with that person. If he showed the paper to that person he could regain his money. The King was the most trustworthy person around, and soon banks were governmentally licensed.

But corporations began to offer their own notes, representing shares of future revenues (called “stock”) and debt notes (called “bonds”).  Non-farm and non-mine businesses gained the ability to earn investment money through bonds and stock.  Stocks and bonds have intrinsic value, just like the shiny objects that they can be traded for.  Marketplaces evolved where stocks and bonds were traded, just like farm products or construction materials.  Bought and sold, these markets facilitated the exchange of shiny objects to those who needed them most, who could pay them back best.

Times were good.  People began to bank, or save, excess money, and the banks in which they deposited the money found they could loan out banked money at interest and still be able to get enough money to those depositors when it was called for.  This doubled the money supply: the same dollar could be loaned and banked.  With a doubled money supply, economies grew and farmers found they could sell their production for a higher value: people had more money!  This encouraged more farming, which led to more babies being born, which allowed more people to undertake industry and bank more money. 

But this is the rule for free economies when banks are owned or regulated by the government to be non-profit.  Our own economy is somewhat different.  There is not free competition between banks to keep interest rates low, and banks here have a tendency to increase interest to the highest amount the market will bear, shrinking money supply, decreasing agricultural prices.


Drivers licenses for 14 year old farmers

Farmers who employ their children (or children self-employed in agriculture) may now obtain drivers licenses from the State of Colorado for transportation between the farm and their residence on the most direct route.  The same rules that apply to all underage drivers applies to these young farmers, including passenger limits.

HB 11-1024, sponsored by Representative Vigil and Senator Brophy, does not make allowance for urban farmers, granting this right to only children residing on land zoned Agricultural.  Even still, this will ease the burden on labor-strapped farms, which rely on family (sometimes 14 year olds) to operate, freeing older and more experienced labor (such as parents or older siblings) to do more complex work.

Senator Brophy, a farmer and mountain biker, has sponsored other bills include limiting liability for bikers and eliminating taxes on most agricultural products and clearly this fits right in with his other work towards empowering people to be personally responsible.  Representative Vigil also has a strong focus on agricultural matters, and an emphasis on personal responsibilities. 

Whether 14 year old drivers will live, and live up to the high expectations for personal responsibility of these two men will be seen.


Already not rotating crops? Try not planting

We have previously discussed not rotating crops.  Today, let’s get radical and discuss not planting them.

The revolutionary-Buddhist-monk-farmer-rancher-radical-crazed-genius-soil-scientist Masanobu Fukuoka had the thought one day while looking at his fields that he was doing too much work.  A smart farmer does one less thing every day, and Fukuoka was very smart indeed.  He stopped doing everything in one day. 

His farm did not go out of business because before he quit working, he did a lot of work.  He planted crops that would naturally reseed themselves, he cut down his orange orchards and replanted them so they might regrow without the effects of pruning, he undomesticated his animals so they would wander his lands and set up their own nests and homes.  He sold his tillage equipment, he himself began to go wild, wearing traditional and primitive Japanese clothes, living in a traditional and primitive Japanese cabin.  He wrote poetry every day in praise of the Buddha’s teaching.

His annual struggle was with his rice, barley and other grains.  They would not reseed by themselves, having been too long under domestication. 

His religious views obviously influenced his practice, but Fukuoka founded his revolutionary practices in sound scientific methodology, experimentation and observation, and discovered how to reclaim deserts, how to increase his farm’s profits.  It was through his science that he rediscovered his religion.

His books, especially The One Straw Revolution and Natural Agriculture are worthwhile reading, and present another tool in the farmer’s belt.  Large farms, such as Lundberg farm, and small farms, such as Colorado’s TwoInTents, employ his science, albeit no other farmer has accomplished his results so well: the temptation to do some work and see the benefits of that labor is too great, and it truly does take a Buddhist who has forsaken works and laid down the burden to accomplish truly natural agriculture. 

Yet, even lay followers of the great Fukuoka will find the blessings of nature in greater and increasing profits, greater and increasing fertility, and less disease and loss.  If you have the courage, read his books and try learning the hard lesson of this master farmer. 


The history of fungicide - A case study of Rust

Spring is the time when what we harvest in autumn is determined.  Planting is half the game, tending is the other.  Good forethought in both allows success.  For those of us planting wheat and other small grains this year, we should not fear rust – the war against rust has already been won.

A good place to start is with the god of war.  Incidentally, March is named after the Roman god of war, Mars.  But most people don’t realize that this fearsome god also was the guardian of farms and ranches!  March was an ideal time to begin war and begin the new agricultural season, and his festivals were celebrated in this month.

While his Greek counterpart, Ares, is similar in many ways, Mars is quite a different fellow.  He was venerated as part of an ancient trinity of Jupiter and Quirinus.

Quirinus, less known to our modern Greek-oriented society, had no Greek counterpart and was the god of the State, the spearholder, Janus.  Quirinus was the Sabine god of war, and later became the deified Romulus, and his priests were venerated for being able to prevent rust in crops by sacrificing puppies.  In the last days of Rome, the Roman trinity no longer was Jupiter, Mars and Quirinus, it was Juno, Minerva and Jupiter.  During these last days before Christian Rome, the Quirinus was worshiped only by his Priests, who, after turning over their rust protection job to the Priests of Mars, were content to have the only function in Roman society as proceeding the Pontifex Maximus (a title that literally means “Great Bridge Maker,” or the connection between the world of the gods and our human world).  During Christian Rome, the title was assumed by the Pope, who didn’t have much need for Quirinus, or the ancient roman trinity.  But I digress.

Mars was born out of jealousy.  Juno, jealous of how Zeus gave birth to Minerva after a really bad headache (when Minerva came out of his forehead, he felt better), Juno wanted to do the same.  Not the headache, but the self-propagation.  Flora, the goddess of spring, was consulted and prescribed a particular flower.  Dubious about experimental drugs, Juno tested the herb on a cow, who gave birth at once (PETA had not been invented yet).  Juno then took the drug and, after retiring to Thrace, gave birth to Mars.  For the brief time of the Romans, women looked to Juno for help in easy childbirth.  And Flora for conception. 

Mars was very much loved by Venus, but he loved Nerio, the goddess of Valor.  Nerio was originally a female version of Mars, but for whatever reason the Sabines decided that one god of war was better than two.  It seemed to work for them.  Mars was represented by both the woodpecker and the wolf.  Mars was one of the few Roman gods to be clean shaven – from head to toe.  When Julius Ceasar shaved himself all over, it was not just for cleanliness, it was to emulate and perhaps personify the god…a frightening tactic in ancient Rome!  When Mars was victorious, Nerio would decorate his spear with flowers or other vegetation.

His priests had several functions in ancient Rome.  They would leap and dance in full armor before war to gain the god’s favor, they would bless treaties and ask Mars to keep peace, they would supervise other Priests to make sure that all the ceremonies were done properly (securing the treaties with heaven – the Romans made deals with the gods, that if they did rituals in such and such a way, the gods would fulfill their promises to love them).  But they also sanctified farms and ranches.  Mars became associated with the supreme gods of all those whom the Romans conquered, and earned new responsibilities along the way. 

The god seems to be retired now, but his Priests are not available for comment.  Sacrificing puppies hasn’t worked for some time in warding off rust.  And many treaties have been broken.  Rumors disagree.  Perhaps he is happily retired, raising cattle, pigs and sheep with his wife, Nerio.  Perhaps he’s gotten into goats.  In any case, his wheat fields are as beautiful as ever, always free of rust.

Preventing rust begins with good soil maintenance.  Tilling in the aisles to maintain biodiversity of microorganisms and maintaining biodiversity of macroorganisms in the field is a great start.  But rust thrives where there is insufficient evaporation of excess moisture. 

Jethro Tull, the first scientific farmer, reviewed the work of his predecessors with disappointment in his Horse Hoeing Husbandry.

“The Ancients did not take notice that there were several kinds of blight, neither did they inquire after their causes.  This lack of curiosity and observation prevented them from learning their causes and developing effective remedies against blight.  They called it in general by the name of “rubigo” or “rust” for the likeness of the blighted straws and leaves to the color of rusty iron.  They thought it came from the gods since they were ignorant of the natural causes.  Virgil, who was very sincere when he had no hopes of great gain by flattery, tells the common farmer in plain terms that if his grain is eaten with the blight, that there is no better advice than to comfort their hunger with wild acorns. 

Virgil was a cheery, helpful and hopeful fellow. 

But the optimism of Virgil aside, Palladius at least contrived to, as Tull explains, “conjure sympathies and antipathies with the clouds.  And when prayers and sacrifices would not prevail with the clouds, the ancients proceeded to threats to scare them.  They brandished bloody axes against the gods  as a summons to surrender or expect no quarter, but unless these peasants had better means than the Titans  in besieging heaven, it may be believed that their menaces were in vain.  Palladius thought, as many of the ancients did, that Heaven was to be frightened from spoiling the fruits of the field and garden with red cloth, the feathers or the heart of an owl, and a multitude of ridiculous scare crows.  The ancients, having no rational, logical, scientific principles of agriculture, placed their chief confidence in magical charms and enchantments .  Those who have the curiosity and patience may read of them in Virgil, Cato, Varro and even Columella (as fulsome as any of them!), all written in very fine language (which, I freely admit, is not all the erudition that can be acquired from the Greek and Latin writers of agriculture in verse and prose). 

So, what is a modern farmer to do, if threatening atmospheric water vapor with axes doesn’t work, and they happen to be sort on red cloth, or can’t find owl heart at the supermarket, and you’re not inclined to slaughter your puppy?  Where does rust come from when all the gods are asleep in their marble ruins?

In our modern day, it is easy for a farmer to hop onto Wikipedia and learn that “Wheat leaf rust, is fungal disease that effects wheat, barley and rye stems, leaves and grains. In temperate zones it is destructive on winter wheat because the pathogen overwinters. Infections can lead up to 20% yield loss - exacerbated by dying leaves which fertilize the fungus. The pathogen is Puccinia rust fungus. Puccinia triticina causes 'black rust', P.recondita causes 'brown rust' and P.sriiformis causes 'Yellow rust'. It is the most prevalent of all the wheat rust diseases, occurring in most wheat growing regions. It causes serious epidemics in North America, Mexico and South America and is a devastating seasonal disease in India. All three types of Puccinia are heteroecious requiring two distinct and distantly related hosts (alternate hosts). Rust and the similar smut are members of the class Teliomycetes but rust is not normally a black powdery mass.”  Understanding (or not) about fungus diseases, an antibiotic is available, or if not, precautions can be taken to reduce fungus in the field.

There are plenty of natural and artificial fungicides (not one of them is made out of the intestines of a puppy sacrificed in March, though).  But we need not bother with them.  Nearly 300 years before Wikipedia was a dream, Jethro Tull discovered the source and solution to rust.

By understanding that the problem arose when too much moisture was on the field, he sought to reduce field moisture through wind and sun powered evaporation.

Air, being a fluid, moves most freely in a straight line.  A straight line offers the least resistance to its parts: a straight river runs swifter than a crooked one (at equal declivity) because less of the water strikes against the banks at turnings.  The banks slow the river.

          The air cannot pass through broadcasted wheat in a direct line because it must strike against and go around every plant (they stand all the way in its course and stop the current near the earth).  The air in the broadcasted corn (like water amid the reeds on the banks of a river) is stopped in its course so that it becomes an eddy.  And, since air is more than 800 times lighter than water, we may suppose its current is more easily retarded – especially near the earth where the wheat has the occasion for the most air to pass (for though the upper part of the wheat is not able to stop a flow of current of air, it can hinder it from reaching the stalks.  Thus the air around the stalks in broadcasted wheat remains stagnant).  The thicker the wheat is – where it stands promiscuously – the less the air circulates.  The greater the number of stalks, the more air they require.

          But the confused manner in which the plants of broadcasted what stand is such that they must all oppose the free entrance of air amongst them (from whatever point of the compass they come).  Now, it is quite otherwise with wheat that is drilled regularly with wide aisles .  Through the aisles the wind can pass as freely as water in a straight river where there is no resistance and communicate its fertilizer  to the lower (as well as) upper leaves.  The air can carry off the wastes the plants emit and will not suffer the plants to be weakened (as animals are when their lungs are forced to take back their own expirations and debarred from a sufficient supply of fresh untainted air).  The benefit of fresh air is plentifully and pretty equally distributed to every row in a field of hoed wheat with wide aisles.

Tilling in the aisles, besides improving root density, increasing soil fertility and improving the health of the roots, also improves the health of the leaves and above-ground parts of the plants as well. 

This spring, plant your grains in beds and aisles, and you won’t have much reason to fear rust.



Biodiversity better than pesticide

Doctors Dr. W. Wyatt Hoback and Dr. Kerri M. Skinner of the University of Nebraska at Kearney and Dr. Robert K.D. Peterson and Dr. Sharlene E. Sing of Montana State University have combined their efforts to form RELEASE (Risk Evaluation Learning to Explore Alien Species Establishment) to help improve the understanding of the decision-making process that precedes the release of biological control agents.

Besides providing online lessons in identification, ecology, entomology and other sciences (at, the Doctors provide information on successful alien species establishment.

On our farm, we rely on biodiversity to achieve a natural balance of predators and prey, and rarely suffer any crop damage because of our dedication to providing both habitat and food for the wild creatures who would not naturally want to eat our food!


The Successful Control of Saltcedar by Asian Leaf Beetles


In example, they point to the Asian Leaf Beetle to target Saltcedar (Tamarix spp.), a non-native, invasive tree that has been problematic in most southwestern states and some north-central states.

Saltcedar has infested about 1.5 million acres, increasing its range by a rate of about 50,000 acres per year.  It prefers riparian areas, especially waterways with receding surface water, and results in $127-$291 million in damages annually.

“The risk assessment for this non-native biocontrol agent release has been one of the most extensive and complete analyses to date. Research and testing of host-range parameters were conducted from 1992 to 1996 in Europe and Asia at cooperating facilities, along with select species tested in quarantine facilities at Temple, Texas,” encourage the Doctors.

Before making their recommendation, they test the alien species for host specificity and non-target effects (on phylogenetically related species, species in close proximity of infested areas, species with similar habitat requirements, and species of agricultural or horticultural concern).  Their tests utilize several experimental designs, including no-choice, choice and multiple choice for larva and adults. The survival of beetles and the extent of damage was measured.

In their tests, they found that the saltcedar was fed upon by both adult and larval stages, which enjoyed foliage, twigs and first-year shoots especially.  This caused the gradual dieback of stems, death of small plants and limited regrowth.

Expected results of beetle release are decreased saltcedar stand density, reduced saltcedar size (foliage cover), increased wildlife activity, decreased soil salinity, and restored groundwater.

And, proving their research, a northern Nevada release site has had considerable success with the biocontrol beetle release. In 2002, there were 5 acres noticeably affected by beetle defoliation, and in 2003 this increased to 500 acres. By 2004, the beetles damaged saltcedar trees in the surrounding 50,000 acres.

And, best of all, since the open field releases in 2001, there have not been any identified non-target effects of this biocontrol agent.

Similar success has been had with the decapitating fly controlling the fire ant, and the thistlehead weevil controlling the musk thistle.


How They Recommend Undertaking Risk Assessment


The scientists draw an example surrounding a salt shaker in a classroom.  11 Tablespoons would be fatal to a person weighing 150 pounds.  This threat is real, but risk assessment is required before taking action to prevent death.

First it is important to understand both the effects of exposure and the methods of exposure.

Analysis of how the salt could kill someone (exposure through ingestion, skin contact, inhalation, etc.) yields understandings of how to prevent that catastrophe, and might also illuminate the hazard of the shaker itself (which, if applied incorrectly to the body, could also be lethal). 

When these potential exposures are understood, probabilities of their occurrence can be calculated based on experimental or natural data. 

The Doctors fall short of requiring an examination of  requiring a financial analysis to determine whether it makes sense to prevent death by salt (or shaker), understanding that when lives are on the line, money is of little consequence.

In our opinion, this demonstrates uncommon ethical and moral fiber, and a loyal public service.  The cost of a person’s life (or the life of any other living  creature) cannot be quantified by money, even if their value as a resource to industry can be.




While it is impressive that these aliens have successfully controlled their target, it is more so that they have not complicated the ecology further by affecting other creatures.

A zero-tolerance for risk, while impracticable, is sometimes necessary when the lives of humans and other living plants, animals and microorganisms are involved.  Life is precious in all its forms, and it is better to do no harm  than to undertake something that will knowingly further destroy the delicate balance of an ecology.

While aliens are not uncommon, and species naturally migrate and disperse throughout the planet, the rapidity at which strange new creatures are being accidently and widely introduced has caused mayhem to the local environments that receive them. 

Change is best when it happens slowly, and the noble efforts of the RELEASE Group to help speed the stabilization of the biosphere are better than could be expected. 

By providing to industry another tool to rely upon in the control of pests besides chemicals, the RELEASE Group has performed a service to posterity.  The risks of further ecological collapse due to alien introduction are small when compared against the toxicity of many of the too-commonly used chemical control agents.

Besides, the cost of alien introduction is so small (and is, on top, a nearly one-time expense) that the savings to private and public purses is enormous.


In Motion Picture


An interesting video on the project is available online from the USDA at


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