Thursday, April 19, 2018

How to take soil samples

The 75th Sustainability Salon will feature XRF soil testing, as I described in a previous post.  It seems like a good time to review good practices for taking soil samples. Jon Burgess, who is leading the urban soils project, provided this diagram and the written instructions below.

How to Take a Soil Test
Tools Needed: gloves, shovel, bucket, plastic sandwich or freezer bag
*Wear gloves when taking a soil sample to protect against potential contamination.
Step 1: Identify one area of interest at a time (yard, garden bed, playground, etc.). This area should not exceed 100 square feet (10’ by 10’). If it is larger, split it into separate areas.
Step 2: Use shovel to collect 3-5 small scoops from different spots in that area. If the soil is wet, lay it on a piece of paper in the sun to dry out
Step 3: Mix those 3-5 scoops together in a bucket.
Step 4: Remove any large debris like large rocks, leaves, grasses, or trash.
Step 5: Transfer 1 cup of the mixed soil into a clear plastic bag that is labeled so you know where it came from.
Step 6: Repeat steps 2-5 with other areas of interest for soil sampling like a different garden bed or area of the yard.
Step 7: Bring sample(s) to the Allegheny County Conservation District’s free soil screening events. Our event schedule can be found at or by calling (412) 291-8017.

 Grow Pittsburgh has a very detailed tutorial, including where to send samples for a conventional test and some other informational links,  on their web site here.  

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Frack Free Farm List

As a supplement to my Local Food Resources list, I am pleased to include a compendium of information on the involvement (or lack thereof) of local farms in unconventional gas development (i.e. fracking and ancillary activities).  This information was kindly provided by Stephanie Ulmer, who has taken pains to contact every local farm, and continues to update the list as new information comes in.  Below is the seventh edition of the lists, with explanatory information from Stephanie.

The Frack Free Farm List is meant as a consumer guide and not as a recommendation in any way.  The intent of the list is to support the farmer who goes the extra mile (or is just lucky enough not to be surrounded by well pads) to keep their land frack free.  


Blackberry Meadows Farm
Cal-Organics (N)
Champion Chicks
Cherish Creamery
Churchview Farm
Clarion River Organics--"We are a cooperative of 15 farms. None of the farms has a fracking operation on it. No farmer has signed a lease agreement with a fracking operation. Some of the farmers who moved here more recently bought farms that had been leased because there is no land for sale that does not have the mineral rights leased. These farmers will not profit from any fracking that may occur and they will try to prevent it from being done on their land despite pre-existing agreements."
Earthbound Organics (N)
Five Elements Farm
Foxy Organics (N)
Friendship Farms
Goat Rodeo
Goodness Grows -BEDFORD (not Butler)
Grapery (N)
Hazelwood Urban Farm
HGOfarms (Homegrown Organic Farms) (N)
Josie Organics (N) 
Jubilee Hilltop
Kalona Supernatural (N)
Kistaco Farm--"Kistaco Farms leased their land over 100 years ago. Therefore the current owners have no control over their mineral rights.  There are several conventional wells on the farm  and Kistaco doesn't plan to have any Marcellus wells."
Koch Turkey
Kretschmann Farm
Lady Moon Organic Farms
Lancaster Farm Fresh Coop
Natural by Nature Dairy
Providence Acres Farm
Organically Grown Co./Ladybug/Andersen Organics (N)--To the best of our knowledge the geology of this area is not conducive to fracking. A quick review of fracking maps supports this perspective.
Smith's Organic Farm
Snowville Creamery
Spring Street Farm and Apiary
Stemilt Artisan Organics (N)
Sunview Grapes (N)
Tait Farm Foods
The Family Cow
The Farm at Doe Run
Tuscarora Farms
Trickling Springs Creamery
Triple B Farms--"The mineral rights were leased in 1912 by previous landowners. This farm has not profited in any way from that sale. Triple B Farms does not and would not voluntarily host any fracking operations on their farm." 
Vital Farms (N)--"After checking with our farms, we are able to say that none of our farms currently participate in any sort of fracking, nor have we leased any of our land for further fracking, and to the best of our knowledge, there is no fracking going on underneath any of our lands." 
Who Cooks For You--"My father's property where we started the farm has 5 shallow wells on it, and no Marcellus.  Those wells were put in the 60's and 90's.  There are two wells on our new property that are also shallow wells from the 60's.  We have no wish to have any future wells on the property."  WCFY goes on to say that since the leases were signed and the wells were drilled before they took possession of the property, WCFY has "no say".  They "intend to keep [fracking] out" to the best of their ability.


Always Summer Herbs "We are not developed or fracked. BUT, if they offer the money I would [....] take it.  I do not want to be on your [Frack Free Farm]list".
Anthony's Vineyards (N) (NR)--"headquarters" is 3 miles from closest well
Bell & Evans--After checking with their contracted farmers, Bell & Evans replied that none of them had fracking on their property.  However, Bell & Evans did not reply to repeated inquiry as to whether any of their farms had leased their land for fracking--"headquarters" is 50 miles from the closest well.
Brunton Dairy (NR)--1.25 miles from closest well
Country Acres (NR)--30 miles miles from closest well 
Draper's Super Bee Apiaries--"There is a well not far from us and they did run just under the corner of the property [which they had leased]."
Freedom Farms (NR)--0.75 miles from closest well
Giving Nature--Giving Nature firmly believes that if it's is good for the planet, it's good for you.  While none of their farm partners have any sort of fracking operation on their property, some may have leased their land for drilling.  This is not information that Giving Nature collects.
God's Country Creamery--"We do not have fracking going on in our area or on our farm. Our farm has been leased for gas exploration, but none is planned at this time."
Goodness Grows-BUTLER (NR)--0.5 miles from the closest well.  This farm also distributes the products of other small farmers. 
Lakewood Organics (N) (NR)
Liberty Farms--12 mi. from the closest well.
Maple Valley Honey (NR)--10 miles from the closest well
McELHINNY Farm--While they have a fracking well on their property it is "not on the farm where they grow their corn."  The well is "approximately a mile away" from the corn growing portion of their farm.
Minerva Dairy--"This is not information that we have on file pertaining to our family farms."  About 5 miles from closest well.
Mock's Greenhouse (NR)--Its PA greenhouse is about 5 miles from the closest well.  Its WVA greenhouse is about 35 miles away from the closest well.
Nature's Yoke (NR)--100 miles from the closest well.  They source from a variety of farms.  I didn't research the location of these farms.
Niman Ranch (N) (NR)
Organic Valley (N):  "It is the position of our cooperative that hydraulic fracturing petroleum extraction techniques pose an unacceptable risk to the environment and should not be allowed to continue.  That said, each farm within our cooperative is an independent business and make the decisions for the land. I have worked here several years and have never heard of fracking on any Organic Valley farm. However, this not information that we specifically collect from our farms."
Sand Hill Berries Farm--"I believe in fracking.  My son's in the business".  About 0.50 miles from closest well.
Salemville--Unfortunately at this time there is no information we can provide you with regarding your inquiry.
Serenity Hill Farm (NR)--a little less than 0.5 miles from the closest well
Shaffer Venison Farm (NR)--36 miles from closest well
Toigo Organic Farm (NR)--50 miles from the closest well
Turner Dairy--They source from 5 small farms all of which they have had very long term relationships with.  You can see this on their website.  Turner Dairy wrote back to say one of those 5 farms hosts a well pad. 
Wexford Farms (NR)--about 5 miles from closest well
Whole Foods (N)--They sent a long reply saying how committed they were to environmentally friendly practices but then ended with this comment:  "we do not include in our review any operational or management decisions of the company outside of the direct production of the product in question, including the way that growers and producers choose to use their land."


I write an email or, if need be call, asking if a farm hosts any sort of fracking operation or if they have leased their land for fracking.  If they don't get back to me in a couple of business days I try again.  If they don't get back to me within 2 weeks they go on the list of farms that are not frack free.  Of course, this list is ongoing so a farm has a chance to correct the record.

For the purposes of this list, any farm located in PA, Ohio, or WVA is called a local farm even though some may be quite far away.  I haven't contacted any farms in NY, MD or VT because of their states' ban on fracking.  All the farms on this list are local unless they have an N (for national) after there name.  

In addition, I ask CA farms if they use fracking waste to irrigate their farms.  I ask midwest farmers if they lease their lands for frack sand mining.  

I would love for this list to be crowd sourced so if you have farms to add just send them to me, I'll try to keep the list up to date and send it out periodically.  

About The Fracking, Don't Ask Don't Tell, and Non Responsive Farm List:

Farms whose names appear in all caps are farms that are known to host well pads or have leased their land for the purposes of fracking.

Some farms serve as distributors for the products of others, like Organic Valley or Whole Foods.  Some smaller farms do the same.  If they reply by saying they don't screen their farms for fracking, I include their statements after their names.

Some farms just don't reply.  I'm sure there is a multitude of reasons why they don't.  But if I can't tell whether there is fracking on or under their farm or the farms that they put their label on, they all go on this list.  An NR after a farm's name indicates that I got no response.

I have checked out the Non Responsive Farms on Fractracker (Thank you Kyle for showing me how to use this wonderful resource) and put the approximate distance of their farm's home address from the closest well.  I have, of course, no way of knowing if the well sits on their property, whether drilling extends under their property (drilling laterals can run for up to two miles) or whether they have leased their land for fracking in the future.  If they source from multiple farms I often have no way of knowing the locations of their partner farms.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Local food resources

You can find information on Putting Down Roots Sustainability Salons (now in their sixth year!) and myriad other events on the main MarensList events blog.  The second Sustainability Salon (as well as the fourteenthfifteenthtwenty-sixthtwenty-seventh, thirty-eighththirty-ninthfifty-firstfifty-secondsixty-secondsixty-thirdsixty-fourth, seventy-fourth, and seventy-fifth) focused on food -- growing it, and sourcing it locally, food access, education, health, humane practices, and other food issues.  Afterwards, Maren put together a list of many local sources:  CSA farms, farmers' markets, grassfed and humanely raised meats and dairy, natural foods suppliers, bakeries, and advocacy organizations.

East End Food Co-op has a great selection of local organic produce, along with a fairly comprehensive selection of natural and organic groceries.  There's also a vegetarian deli with prepared foods.

Marty's Market is a locally-owned supermarket-scale natural foods market, cafe, and coffee bar in the Strip District.  (update:  sadly, Marty's closed last year!)

Schwartz Living Market on the South Side is an indoor marketplace, eatery, and venue for classes, workshops, music, and films -- all in an old supermarket building undergoing seriously green renovation.

Whole Foods (not locally owned) has a store in Eastside, which is what they're calling East Liberty next to Shadyside.  Or something.  Amazon now owns the Whole Foods chain, which apparently means the prices will go down some, but I don't know what if anything will happen to their standards for humane livestock practices and such-like.  Still, there are some things that they carry that other local purveyors don't.  And they do work with some local farms.

Frankferd Farms:  Originally a farm and grain mill, now a solar-powered grain mill *and* a regional organic and natural food wholesale distributor.  You may have purchased their wares at the East End Food Coop, or eaten their ingredients in products from Allegro Hearth Bakery in Squirrel Hill.  Individuals can visit their storefront in Saxonburg, and order for delivery.  In Pittsburgh proper, the delivery minimum is $250, but folks can group orders with or without a formal buying club, with individual minimum of only $35.  They also put out monthly sales flyers, both by paper mail and online.  I have a few extra catalogues, so just ask when you're here for a Sustainability Salon (or look for a stack on the literature table).

Wild Purveyors, a shop in Lawrenceville, has all kinds of locally-grown, -foraged, and -crafted foods from farm, field, and forest.  House-made delicacies, artisan cheeses, pastured meats, local produce, and all manner of wild foods in season.

Garden Dreams Urban Farm & Nursery is a small, community-oriented business committed to increasing access to healthy, fresh food by providing strong vegetable, herb and flower starts to home gardeners, community gardens, nonprofits, schools and retail markets.  This little oasis sits on two reclaimed vacant lots in Wilkinsburg, near Pittsburgh’s East End.  They specialize in heirloom varieties of tomato, pepper, and eggplant seedlings and also grow produce that is provided weekly to their "Mini-CSA" members.  They carry hard to find vegetable varieties as well as seed garlic, asparagus crowns, raspberry canes, cover crop seed, seed potato, and organic gardening products such as potting soil and fertilizers.  

Kretschmann's CSA farm (Don and Becky have been here for more than one Food salon; this photo shows them accepting an award at the annual PASA conference) has one of the (if not the) largest CSAs in the region, with year-round in-town deliveries of herbs, veggies, and fruits, as well as cheeses, meats, locally-roasted coffee, and other produce from other local growers and purveyors.  They've been growing organically near Zelienople since 1971.

Blackberry Meadows Farm not only has a CSA program but also a grow-your-own version where they provide seedlings and supplies for backyard gardeners.  Greg Boulos spoke at at the 38th Sustainability Salon.

The Guild of St. Fiacre New on the scene, in Carnegie:  for just $22.50/week you can have a share of their fresh, organically grown produce. If you live in Carnegie or the surrounding area Pamela will offer free delivery.  Bi-weekly shares and payment options can be arranged. 

Penn's Corner Farm Alliance, a group of local farms with a collective CSA, also à la carte preorder "farm stands".  You can even order online here.

Clarion River Organics, another multi-farm cooperative, is signing up members for 2015.  I just got word that they take food stamps, as well.

Who Cooks For You Farm can be found at farmers' markets including East Liberty (Mondays) and Squirrel Hill (Sundays), on the menu at Legume Bistro, and at your house via their CSA program.

Our friends at Farm to Table Pittsburgh have a searchable listing of CSA farms, more than I've shown here: .
Farmers' markets abound;  three that I frequent are at Phipps Conservatory (Wednesday afternoons), in East Liberty (Monday afternoons) and in Squirrel Hill (Sunday mornings):  Farmers at the Firehouse, run by Slow Food Pittsburgh and often featuring cooking demonstrations and tastings.  
Not all the farmers' markets are run by Citiparks, but the ones that are will be listed on 
The Pittsburgh Public Market in the Strip is host to many great local and regional producers on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays year 'round as well as occasional events and soon a community kitchen. Vegan and vegetarian delights, artisanal cheeses, pastured eggs and dairy, fine woodworking, garden plants and accessories, fresh pasta, wines... (update: O dear, another Strip natural food emporium has closed its doors!)

Another enterprise put together by the Slow Food folks is the Laptop Butcher Shop, through which individuals can place orders with local farmers for local pastured, humanely-raised meats, which are delivered via the Farmers at the Firehouse market every so often.  A typical lineup includes goat cheese from Lake Erie Creamery, Wil-Den's Fresh Air Pork, lamb and rabbits from Pucker Brush Farm, meat and eggs from the Farmer's Wife, and wild salmon straight from Alaska.

Gina Anderson of Starry Sky Farm raises pastured lamb and chickens in Butler County.  She's currently taking orders for half or whole lambs for the fall;  you can get on the Starry Sky mailing list:  email or call 412-450-8242 / cell 503-956-4736.  

North Woods Ranch (Oliver has been to Salons, and spoke at one some years ago) is up in Marshall Township, with grassfed beef, pastured pork, honey, and maple syrup. You can find North Woods meats at the Co-op, at the ranch, and now, delivered to our house for local pickup! If you're going to eat meat, this is the way the animals should be raised. Oliver and Jodi also post adorable photographs of critters in the woods on Facebook and via their email list. Update: Oliver and Jodi have decided to leave ranching, and sold their animals to other local humane farmers, like Pittsburgher Highland Farm.

Cherry Hill Ecological Farm -- Will McGee and Gretchen Oat also raise grassfed beef and pastured pork at their farm in Albion, PA up near Erie, and deliver regular shares, sampler boxes, and à la carte orders to Pittsburgh (also with a monthly visit to our front porch).

Joe Rush of Rushacres Farm, who delivers to several locations around the 'Burgh every two weeks, with grassfed meats (beef, lamb, pork, chicken, duck, and turkey), raw dairy, eggs, and goodies like honey, jams, apple butter, maple syrup, and apple cider:

Weatherbury Farm, located 45 minutes southwest of Pittsburgh in Avella, PA, sells grass-fed beef and lamb and hosts visitors on the farm as well.  Their newest venture, taking off later this summer, is producing estate flours (think wine – from seed to processing everything occurs on the farm).  That will be followed by the production of pasta made from their grains (hard wheat, emmer and spelt).  They also hope to open an on-farm store to sell their and neighboring farms' products. 

The Burns family's Heritage Farm, a couple of hours east, also delivers to our area, including a stop at the East End Food Co-op (and you can find their products at the co-op through the week).  Fruits and forest-foraging pork, pastured poultry, grass-fed beef, vegetables, and eggs.

Further east but still in Pennsylvania is The Family Cow, which delivers raw dairy, grassfed meats (and nitrate-free cured meats), herbs, produce, and home-canned goods, to Swissvale, Ross Township, and Green Tree.
Also, right across the road from Don & Becky Kretschmann is the Lewis family's farm, with grassfed beef and pastured chickens for farm pickup.
Many of these farmers have periodic email newsletters that will keep you posted on what's available as the seasons roll around the year (or in the case of this winter, are skipped entirely).

Pick-Your-Own farms -- Here's a directory of all the U-Pick farms in Western Pennsylvania. Everything from apples, peaches, and pears to blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, cherries, and grapes -- and pumpkins in the fall.

You can buy dairy, eggs, and meats from many of these producers at the East End Food Co-op as well as breads from Allegro Hearth and MediterraSpring Creek organic tofu from nearby West Virginia, raw milk from Frank White, eggs from The Farmer's Wife, off-grid NuWay Farms, and Blackberry Meadows Farm, beef from Ron Gargasz, lamb and goat from Clarion River Farms, flours from the Frankferd mill, and cheeses from many local dairies.  Many of them, and lots of others, will be at the Farm To Table conference this Friday and Saturday!

Grow Pittsburgh works in many realms (community gardens, urban farms, school gardens, gardening classes, and more) to help more people grow more food in our city.  Check them out at

Slow Food Pittsburgh sponsors talks, demos, and classes at various venues around town.

The Pittsburgh Canning Exchange helps connect canners and create new canners by coordinating events and sharing resources for learning, planning, and trading.

Hazelwood Food Forest has transformed a space on Second Avenue into a lush, productive permaculture garden.  Join other volunteers on Tuesday evenings, and see what it's all about -- see the web site for more information!

The Farmer's Table presents elegant dinners at local farms several times a year, using meats and produce that are local (or even produced on-site) and naturally grown.

PASA, the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, hosts farm field days and networking gatherings through the year and, each February, a fantastic educational conference in State College.  Their Buy Fresh, Buy Local program is another way to connect with local producers.

The Pittsburgh Food Policy Council is a consortium of individuals and community organizations working to make the local food system more equitable and sustainable.

In less than a decade, Food & Water Watch has become one of the leading food-system activist organizations around the country, with victories from Starbucks (eschewing rBGH in the dairy they use) all the way to the EPA (regulating per chlorates).  Their latest campaign focuses on the abuse of antibiotics on factory farms, the biggest contributor to the loss of effectiveness of many such drugs to treat human diseases.

GMO Free PA is working on the state and local level to educate consumers and policymakers about genetically-modified foods, and advocate for mandatory GMO labeling.

There are quite a few local food blogs you can browse or follow to find even more regional food resources, amazing recipes, and new insights.  Among my favorites are
This is just a broad sampling off the top of my head of the many fantastic local food resources in our agriculturally rich region;  I hope it's useful!  I'd love it if you let me know about connections you make as a result.  Many of these outfits can also be found on Facebook.

We talk some about gardening during each of our Food salons;  I'd also be open to hosting more detailed workshops, if there's interest.

Be well, eat local, share food, and grow your own if you can!

-- Maren.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Local businesses worth supporting: Garden Dreams

I grow a great many plants, and make them available to area gardeners through occasional plant sales.  My operation is very small, though, with a broad but rather eclectic assortment of vegetables, herbs, and perennials, including forty varieties of tomatoes, lots of cucumbers, lush ferns, and many other plants that can find homes in your garden.  However, if I don't have what you want, I encourage you to visit a fantastic urban farm not far away, in Wilkinsburg.  Garden Dreams, run by my friends Mindy Schwartz, Hannah Reiff, and Bob Madden is a go-to source for a much larger selection of vegetable and herb plants each spring.  You can also find their plants at the East End Food Co-op.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Local businesses worth supporting: Sylvania Natives

Autumn is a great time to plant perennials. A former neighbor of mine, Kathy McGregor, has a native plant business right here in Squirrel Hill called Sylvania Natives. She has wildcrafted everything -- meaning that she has gone out and collected seeds of native plants, which she then propagates. Kathy got her start with natives by working as a volunteer for Beechwood Farms Nature Reserve (an Audubon facility in the North Hills). Sylvania Natives -- now in its 14th year and offering more than 120 species of locally native perennials, shrubs and trees -- is on Ira Way, a little alley off of Shady near Monitor; Google Maps knows about it, too.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Dynamic Soil Testing for Safe Urban Food Production

                                                                   © 2012  by Maren Leyla Cooke, updated May 2015

Urban farming
Pittsburgh is now home to a vibrant and growing urban farming movement.  It's one part of a hopeful trend in which Pittsburghers are helping to empower young people, restore local economies, rebuild communities, reduce crime, protect the environment, improve public health, and enhance local food security.  Our city is particularly well positioned for this development, with a vast stock of unused land (more than 14,000 vacant lots plus additional land in private hands), people needing employment, youth from all walks of life looking for constructive things to do, and countless citizens strongly motivated for positive change.  Amazingly, urban farming programs can address all of these issues simultaneously.

Local food security 
Agriculture is the number-one industry in Pennsylvania, but we grow mainly for export -- while importing most of our food from elsewhere.  In an age of increasing concern about both energy and security, this approach is clearly unsustainable.  Food consumed in this country travels an average of 1500 miles from farm to table, at great cost in terms of fuel use, emission of climate-changing carbon dioxide and other pollutants, and quality of the food.  Moreover, monocultures on big industrial farms are ripe for crop failures, and large centralized systems for food production and distribution present a significant risk for contamination or interruption -- either accidentally (think beef, spinach, and green onions) or intentionally.  We need to begin producing more of our food in our region, and that includes rural, suburban, and urban farms and gardens.  And to do that, we need to both keep the remaining farms in business and nurture a new generation of food producers.  With the average age of Pennsylvania farmers approaching 60, there is cause for concern -- as well as great opportunity for today's youth.

Consumer choices can help sustain regional farms, through farmers' markets and subscriptions to community-supported agriculture (CSA) farms, and by demanding local foods in area stores.  But there are many consumers without such choices -- in some low-income areas of the city, there aren't even any grocery stores;  such regions are called "food deserts."  This is another side of food security -- the secure ability of every segment of the population to obtain healthy, affordable food.

Empowering youth 
Many young people in our urban core face uncertain futures.  Numerous programs are in place attempting to address this issue, but there are few activities that can be as fun, educational, motivational, and rewarding as growing food.  And while kids are having fun and being physically active outdoors, they're also learning about nature, health, nutrition, and good citizenship.  And they're gaining leadership skills and learning practical crafts that will open up job opportunities in fields like agriculture, horticulture, landscaping, building, and business.  Perhaps even more significantly, as at-risk youth in underserved communities take part in producing food for their families and neighbors, they gain a sense of ownership and responsibility that they may have lacked before.

Revitalizing neighborhoods
Pride of place is not limited to the people participating directly in the projects.  A piece of land that is obviously cared for is much less of a target for litter, dumping, and crime.  It has been observed again and again that urban farms and community gardens increase real estate values for the surrounding properties, and can bring neighborhoods together.  Add to these effects the generation of local jobs, more young people engaged in creative enterprises, increased access to fresh food, and beautiful and functional landscapes, and it's a winning combination.

Local economies
Whether or not large corporations see fit to locate stores in low-income neighborhoods, residents can begin taking control 
of their economic and nutritional destiny.  Creating the means of food production within our urban core is a great first step.  Pittsburghers can keep food dollars in their local communities by starting businesses that grow and sell food right in the neighborhood where it's grown.  This will create jobs for youth growing food, as well as fostering business skills and generating additional opportunities through value-added products.  Individual families can also become part of this urban renaissance, as residents who are generations removed from gardening and preserving foods will be able to participate in workshops and classes to learn those skills.  Those lacking outdoor space, or with unsafe soil, will be able to join community gardens.  Right now, there are people gardening where it's unsafe, and others not gardening at all.

Urban soils
Although urban land has tremendous potential for growing food crops, it is essential to go about it with care.  The history of any piece of land affects its present and its future;  in many places there may be residual contamination from past land use (known or unknown).  One of the most common contaminants of known concern is lead.  While Pittsburgh's public health pioneer Dr. Herbert Needleman was still at Harvard, he began investigating the link between childhood lead exposure, learning deficits, and behavioral problems.  With persistent research and advocacy, progress was made on the public policy front, but it took years;  lead paint was not banned until 1978, and lead was not completely phased out of gasoline until 1996.  Thus, soils near busy streets or painted houses is always suspect.  And Pittsburgh, a hub of steel production and coal-fired energy generation, has regional residues as well.
Subtle sources
Urban soils may also be contaminated by illegal dumping, application of pesticides or herbicides, or industrial emissions into the air, water, or soil -- whether they are long past (and perhaps invisible) or ongoing.  In addition, because of Pittsburgh's hilly topography many sites have had fill material brought in from elsewhere, or soil moved from one place to another on the property.  Whenever and wherever they came from, toxic heavy metals and organic pollutants can be taken up through plant roots or splashed onto plants from the ground below.  In order to turn some of Pittsburgh's vacant land from a liability into an asset, we first have to make sure each site being considered for farming, gardening, or play is safe.

Vulnerability of young people
It is well-established that children are far more susceptible to the adverse affects of environmental contamination than adults:  their bodies are still developing, with critical phases of nervous system and reproductive system development continuing into the teen years.  They also spend more time outside, and are generally more active than adults -- their more-rapid respiration takes in pollutants from today's industry and transportation, but also dust kicked up from the ground on a dry day.  And especially for younger children, hands often find their way into mouths.  Is the answer to keep kids away from soil?  Hardly;  a much better solution is to make sure the dirt on their hands is safe.

Soil testing
It is clear that soils need to be tested prior to any food-growing enterprise, both for the safety of the food itself and for the health of the people working the land, especially young people.  However, the distribution of contaminants is often highly uneven, with variations related to former buildings, roads, and dumping.  Furthermore, soils have often been moved around due to redevelopment, construction, and landscaping over the years, and one can neither discount the potential of land near roads nor trust that land away from them will be safe.  Hence, soil testing needs to be systematic and detailed for each site.

New technology
Conventional soil testing at a state laboratory requires charting a grid, clearing the surface, digging samples (usually just a few), preparing and packaging them, shipping them off and waiting weeks for results, not knowing how optimal the grid placement was relative to often-uneven distribution of contaminants, nor how many samples are warranted.  Now, however, there's a hand-held instrument that uses X-ray fluorescence spectrometry (XRF) which is designed for soils, and which is safer than the similar devices often used for lead paint testing because it uses a battery-powered X-ray tube instead of a decaying radioisotope as an X-ray source.  This unit allows for dynamic selection of sample locations and on-the-spot analysis for dozens of elements at a time (conventional lab tests would cost ~$10-40 each for just a few heavy metals, and a grid sample could be three feet away from where a car battery sat for twenty years).  It can be linked to a GPS transceiver to further streamline site mapping, and can even detect contaminants in plant tissues.  And while the XRF is not solely oriented toward nutrient testing like the basic state lab tests, several key nutrients are detected including phosphorus and potassium. (Nitrogen, the third macronutrient, is volatile and moves through soil freely, so generally needs to be renewed each season anyway.)

This program could produce substantive research results while providing for some of the real needs of real people.  How effectively certain crops are affected by and can remediate contaminated soil -- the rate of remediation for different contaminants and different crops, and in what plant tissues the elements are sequestered;  the impact of various contaminants on plant growth and food safety;  the results of different land-use histories;  and how contaminants move through soil under different conditions are among the many important questions that can be addressed.

Funding needs
The major obstacle to this enterprise is the cost of the XRF device, upwards of $30,000 (including a nonprofit discount);  additional initial expenses would include the device-linked GPS unit, software, and training.  The XRF instruments can be rented (typically ~$600/day for short periods, often plus several hundred for an operator), but we propose to get a unit into the hands of the local nonprofit community so that testing can take place as needed without trying to coordinate people, instrument availability, and weather -- and then being unable to go back and check more samples.  Because of the extensive skill-set required for the XRF operation and data analysis, it is far more cost-effective to bring the equipment into the community than to hire the service each time it is needed.  Since the ultimate goal of this work is to strengthen our community by working with urban youth, building local economies, and creating a sustainable local food system, we are hoping that the foundation community will be able to help with startup costs.  We had an initial contribution from the Allegheny County Health Department for a small demonstration project, and hope to gather additional funds to begin a soil testing program in earnest.

Financial plans
Several models are possible for this program.  It could be an arm of a nonprofit organization, or a social enterprise.  In the latter case, once we can secure funding for the instrumentation, software, and training we would operate on a fee-for-service basis, at rates intended to make the service accessible to everyone (perhaps with a sliding scale based organizational size or individual income, and/or different levels of service).  In either case, we'll be able to provide testing and analysis for farming projects, community gardens, school gardens, homeowners, and soil remediation projects -- more quickly, at substantially less cost, and with far more detailed results than other approaches.  Using the XRF results, spatial data from the GPS and logged sample depth, and geographical information system (GIS) software we will be able to produce maps of soil contamination, and can couple these with recommendations for mitigation and cultivation.

To discuss this project, please email Maren:  maren dot cooke at gmail dot com

Saturday, April 9, 2011


Group Against Smog & Pollution GASP is a non-profit citizens’ group in Southwestern Pennsylvania working for a healthy, sustainable environment. Founded in 1969, GASP has been a diligent watchdog, educator, litigator, and policy-maker on many environmental issues, with a focus on air quality in the Pittsburgh region.