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‘What they put on the fields contaminates our water’: Iowa’s pollution problem | Anna Jones

Decades of adding fertilisers and manure to drive Iowas crop production has loaded the land with nutrients that are ending up in the water supply

Brent Bierbaum climbs into the ditch running alongside one of his corn fields and dips a nitrate testing strip into the water. He checks the strip: the reading is somewhere between 10 and 20 parts per million. It confirms the water running off this field contains nitrates at levels that would be unsafe, and illegal, in drinking water.

Brent, whose family have been farming in this part of south-west Iowa for five generations, never used to worry about the runoff from his fields. On a hot day, cutting thistles in the corn fields, hed go down to the creek and drink straight from the tile line the water coming off the fields. Cold, clean its the best water around, he says.

Things changed when his local town, Griswold, started having problems with their drinking water. Nitrates are a soluble form of nitrogen that is added to fields as synthetic fertiliser and animal manure; nitrates from Brents fields, and other neighbouring farms, were making their way into the towns wells. Nitrate from farmland in Iowa is already a major contributor to the chemicals making their way to the Gulf of Mexico via the Mississippi river, suffocating marine life in the dead zone. Suddenly what had been a distant problem, more than a thousand miles away, was on the doorstep, threatening the health of friends and neighbours.

Oh my gosh, he says. We all have friends who drink the water in town; we drink the water in town, so we all had an interest in it.

Like most small towns in rural Iowa, Griswold is surrounded by vast fields of corn and soya bean. Giant grain silos glinting in the spring sunshine are all that punctuate the landscape for miles around.

Iowas world-famous soils are packed with nitrogen a gift from nature that allowed commercial agriculture to take root here but decades of adding synthetic fertilisers and animal manure to drive production has loaded the land with nutrients it cant hold on to. Crop production in Iowa is still the main source, but animal manure from the states 20 million pigs has contributed to the problem.

Brent Bierbaum tests the water in a ditch alongside one of his familys fields. Photograph: Anna Jones/The Guardian

The legal limit for nitrates in drinking water in the US is 10 parts per million, equivalent to 10mg per litre. It was introduced in 1962 to guard against blue baby syndrome, a potentially fatal condition affecting newborn babies and infants under one year old. Its caused by nitrates starving the body of oxygen, literally turning babies blue.

Three public wells, fed by an underground aquifer, provide drinking water for Griswolds 1,000 residents. Between 2012 and 2019, according to Griswold City Council, a single well recorded 21 incidents over 9mg/l and four incidents over 10mg/l. Another recorded 18 incidents over 9mg/l.

Studies by the National Cancer Institute found that drinking water with an average level of 5mg/l of nitrate, over a long period of time, may increase the risk of certain cancers. Other studies have linked nitrate intake above 5mg/l with birth defects in babies.

Julie Adams, one of Griswolds busy city councillors, took it upon herself to knock on doors and ring around new mothers and daycare nurseries, warning them of the risks: I tell them, If you have small babies do not use the tap water when youre making formula. Use bottled water. Just to be safe.

The dead zone

The problem is that nitrates are on the move, and in higher volumes than ever before. Iowa is 90% farmland and exports more nitrate and phosphorus to the Gulf of Mexico than any other US state, killing marine life there.

Its not an isolated problem. A report from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) revealed that, across the US, 1,700 municipal water utilities most of them rural regularly have nitrates above the 5mg/l safe limit. Worryingly, 120 public waterworks breach the 10mg/l legal limit. On top of that, Iowa has up to 290,000 private wells, many on remote farms like Brents, which are not required by law to be tested.

The state of Griswolds wells set alarm bells ringing at Iowas Department of Natural Resources, which oversees water quality. They called a meeting and delivered a sobering ultimatum either bring nitrate levels down or the council would be ordered to spend $1m on a nitrate removal facility. It would wipe out a third of Griswolds $3m annual budget.

Councillor Julie Adams at her home. Photograph: Anna Jones/The Guardian

We cant afford that, says Adams. We need a new fire station, we need to knock down a derelict building, we need a new park for the children to play in. We have many more needs than we have money.

Fellow city council member Ryan Askeland, who owns and runs the towns only restaurant, was also at the meeting: They described the harm it could do to infants under one-year-old and I thought, Holy cow, what theyre putting on the fields is poisoning us.

Checking himself, he looks around his restaurant and softens his language. An uneducated person would say poisoning. What I mean is, it was contaminating the water.

Griswold is a close-knit community. The town folk value their farmer neighbours and are careful not to cause conflict. Over 80% of the people in here are from the farming community at any given time, says Askeland. Everything in this area is pretty much funded by agriculture. We are all on the same team.

Iowa is agriculture. The state produces the most of many things corn, hogs and eggs and jostles with neighbouring Illinois for the top spot in soya bean production. Hefty property taxes paid by farmers keep the lights on in rural towns, many with dwindling populations, right across the midwest. Its no surprise there is inexhaustible goodwill towards them even when some farming practices threaten their drinking water.

In Des Moines, the citys waterworks did blame the farmers, and brought a lawsuit, but it failed. Des Moines Water Works was bitterly disappointed particularly their outspoken CEO, the late Bill Stowe, who died from cancer earlier this year. A controversial figure in Iowa, Stowe waged war on unregulated industrial agriculture and what he called the powerful agro-elite. He likened those who downplay Iowas water quality issues to climate change deniers and held the farming industry responsible for the public health risks associated with high nitrates in drinking water. If a baby died, he said, there would be a clear path between agriculture and the death of that baby.

Speaking to the Guardian shortly before his death, he said: Its disheartening: the image of Iowa as a sacrificed state at the mercy of industrial agriculture. We will continue to be advocates for agricultural producers taking responsibility for the water pollution they are inflicting on the rest of us downstream.

A water quality notice hangs near the beach at Big Creek state park, in Polk City, Iowa. Photograph: Charlie Neibergall/AP

In rural north-west Iowa, Gordon Garrison, a retired corn and soya bean grower, hopes to succeed where Des Moines Water Works failed.

Garrison is allowing his farm to return to wetland. He points down to the creek where he has reintroduced beavers, and beyond to a single-storey white building in the neighbouring field a hog barn, or confined animal feeding operation (Cafo), housing up to 8,800 pigs.

That building has no consideration for environmental impact at all, he says. I have got algal blooms in my downstream water. After they bought the farm, the nitrate level almost doubled.

The pig farm is owned and operated by Minnesota-based company New Fashion Pork. They bought 77 hectares (192 acres) next to Garrisons farm in 2014 and started producing pigs two years later. The building sits over a pit that can hold more than one million gallons of liquified hog manure, and Garrison claims that the manure was spread illegally on snow-covered ground in December 2018.

Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) issued New Fashion Pork with a notice of violation and a fine of $4,800 (3,900). Garrison filed a citizens suit, which he believes will be a precedent-setting case in the US. Garrisons hope is that his legal action will set a precedent and pave the way for tougher regulation of pig Cafos in the context of water quality protection.

New Fashion Pork, which runs 53 pig confinements across Iowa, has said it complies with all manure application requirements and obtained permission from Iowa DNR to surface apply manure. Field conditions were not good in most of the state last fall and winter and the DNR routinely granted permission to producers to surface apply manure in December of 2018, said a legal advisor for New Fashion Pork. The company also said that nitrate loss from crop fields is affected by many factors, but that the source of the nitrogen (manure or commercial fertiliser) has little, if any, effect on the amount of nitrate loss.

The only way to solve this problem is if theres peer pressure, says Gordon. We cant let some guys abuse the system and profit from it. If they prevail in this lawsuit thats just a signal to build more and more.

An aerial view of the Iowan countryside: crop fields stretch out as far as the eye can see. Photograph: Charles Ommanney/Getty Images

Ditching the manure of 20 million pigs

There are already more than 7,000 hog farms in Iowa raising around 20 million pigs at any one time; thats a lot of manure for one state to dispose of. Its long been said Iowa needs a third cash crop to break the dependence on corn and soya bean. As one farmer put it: Weve found one. Its called bacon.

But its not without risk. In Marshall County, 25-year-old Ryan Pickard is a third-generation row crop farmer, growing 1,820 hectares of corn and soya bean who diversified into custom pig production in 2015 to spread the risk from low grain prices.

Ryan and his 29-year-old brother, Brandon, borrowed nearly $1.5m to build two Cafos, with one still under construction. They each house 5,000 newly weaned, 18-day-old pigs. Theyre thinned out as they grow bigger, with half being moved to another site. Ryan fattens the remaining 2,500, which are sent for slaughter direct from the farm.

The brothers do not own the pigs and receive none of the profit. They are paid instead for head space in the building. They do own the manure, which drops through slats into a pit holding up to 800,000 gallons. They also own all the risk associated with it.

Ryan is ruled by the pit. When its full, its full and must be emptied. Its spread once a year on a nearby 80-hectare (200-acre) corn field. He tries to plan ahead, working around the weather, but if theres a spill or run-off, the full responsibility rests on him.

Its something I think about constantly, he says. If not managed properly it could give me a very bad name and I dont want that. If the pit leaks, we need to find the problem and fix it before we can go back into production.

For Ryan the threat of being shut down is all the incentive he needs to manage the pit properly. But across Iowa there are more, and ever louder calls, for real regulation to protect water quality.

At the moment there is nothing in place but a voluntary approach, as laid out in Iowas much-lauded nutrient reduction strategy (NRS) which calls for farmers to plant 5m hectares of cover crops, which are proven to reduce run off and pollution. Iowa-based environmental and citizen groups believe the NRS is a dismal failure, with no deadlines, no rules and no enforcement. The most generous estimate suggests cover crops have been planted on 307,500 hectares, just 2% of Iowas farmland.

Jennifer Terry, executive director of the Iowa Environment Council, says. Its unfair to pretend to Iowans that we can get there in a reasonable timeframe via voluntary means. It will take us thousands of years to get these practices in place at the current rate of implementation.

And do cover crops even work? In Griswold, faced with a $1m bill, the town started working with four local farmers to plant cover crops in the 250-hectare capture zone around the town wells. Brent Bierbaum is one of the farmers involved. We explained to the farmers what was going on and that we were really hoping they would help us, and they were all on board, says councillor Julie Adams.

But despite their efforts, water quality has still not improved. Nitrate levels spiked in 2017 and 2018. At the most recent inspection in February, one well showed an increase of nitrates to 10.5 mg/l.

According to the Department of Natural Resources, nitrates may continue to leach because of legacy nitrogen stored in the soil and continued rates of fertiliser application. One study of a row crop field that had been restored to prairie found that groundwater nitrate concentrations reduced at a snails pace of approximately 0.6 mg/l per year.

Adams is willing to give it more time but admits the trend is going the wrong way. Fellow councillor Askeland has resigned himself to whats coming.

I think cover crops are a band aid, he says. Weve got a wound thats bleeding and eventually were going to need something bigger than a band aid and thats the filtration system.

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Who keeps buying California’s scarce water? Saudi Arabia

Saudi-based Almarai owns 15,000 acres of an irrigated valley but what business does a foreign food production company have drawing resources from a US desert?

Four hours east of Los Angeles, in a drought-stricken area of a drought-afflicted state, is a small town called Blythe where alfalfa is king. More than half of the towns 94,000 acres are bushy blue-green fields growing the crop.

Massive industrial storehouses line the southern end of town, packed with thousands upon thousands of stacks of alfalfa bales ready to be fed to dairy cows but not cows in Californias Central Valley or Montanas rangelands.

Instead, the alfalfa will be fed to cows in Saudi Arabia.

The storehouses belong to Fondomonte Farms, a subsidiary of the Saudi Arabia-based company Almarai one of the largest food production companies in the world. The company sells milk, powdered milk and packaged items such as croissants, strudels and cupcakes in supermarkets and corner stores throughout the Middle East and North Africa, and in specialty grocers throughout the US.

Each month, Fondomonte Farms loads the alfalfa on to hulking metal shipping containers destined to arrive 24 days later at a massive port stationed on the Red Sea, just outside King Abdullah City in Saudi Arabia.


  • Alfalfa at Fondomonte Farms in Vicksburg, Arizona

With the Saudi Arabian landscape there being mostly desert and alfalfa being a water-intensive crop, growing it there has always been expensive and draining on scarce water resources, to the point that the Saudi government finally outlawed the practice in 2016. In the wake of the ban, Almarai decided to purchase land wherever it is cheap and has favorable water conditions to produce enough feed for its 93,000 cows.

In 2012, they acquired 30,000 acres of land in Argentina, and in 2014, they bought their first swath of land in Arizona. Then, in 2015, they bought 1,700 acres in Blythe a vast, loamy, agricultural metropolis abutting the Colorado river, where everything but the alfalfa seems cast in the hue of sand. Four years later, the company owns 15,000 acres 16% of the entire irrigated valley.

But what business does a foreign company have drawing precious resources from a US desert to offset a lack of resources halfway around the globe?

What Fondomonte Farms is doing is merely a chapter in the long story of water management in the west, one that pierces the veil on the inanities of the global supply chain how easy it is to move a commodity like alfalfa, or for that matter lettuce or clementines or iPhones, across more than 13,000 miles of land and sea, how much we rely on these crisscrossing supply lines, and at what cost to our own natural resources.



An astonishingly good rate

Though Blythe is a desert, it is adjacent to the lower Colorado river, a river that supplies water to roughly 40 million people and irrigates 4m acres of land.

Bart Miller, Western Resource Advocates healthy rivers program director, says that over the last 80 years, due to the growth of proximate cities such as Denver, Los Angeles and Phoenix and the expansion of large-scale farms, demands on the river have steadily climbed. The river is also shrinking due to climate change. It has endured a nearly two-decade-long drought, with only waning rain and snowpacks to supply its flow. As a result, the river is at a record low.

The state of the Colorado river can be traced, in part, to a water claim approved by the federal government all the way back in the 1800s when a British gold rush-era prospector named Thomas Blythe first laid eyes on the desert expanse adjacent to the rushing Colorado river and submitted a water claim application to the federal government.

That 1877 water claim, now owned by the Palo Verde Irrigation District, ensures that Blythe has unquantified water rights for beneficial use; in other words, as much water as those living and farming within the district could possibly need in this water-scarce region, and for free.

The Palo Verde Irrigation District is not allowed to sell the water not to the company Calistoga, say, for bottled water, but not to their farmers, either. Blythe farmers are thus only charged to cover the water districts overhead $77 an acre-foot a year, an astonishingly low rate.

In other places, people are charged according to how much water they use and are thus incentivized to use less. In Blythe, no matter how much he uses, a farmer gets his water for a cheap, flat rate.


  • Alfalfa fields and storage warehouses at Fondomonte Farms

Its no surprise, then, that Fondomonte chose to set up shop here. While Saudi Arabia has enacted laws to manage their water resources, in the US we are still governing our water based on compacts made in the 1800s before the western cities had boomed, before suburban sprawl, before factory farming and a global supply chain and, of course, before climate change.

Water from the Colorado might be limited, but in Blythe, while they still have it, its there for the taking.

Getting the water from the river to Blythe is a complicated engineering feat. Its a really unique system, explains JR Echard, assistant manager of the Palo Verde Irrigation District, as he traces how the water moves throughout the valley on a map on his office wall.

Were in the desert, Echard said, but we live next to a massive river and have rights to it. Thomas Blythe might have appeared crazy to want to build an empire of agriculture out here in the desert but, in Echards eyes, Blythe was on to something.

The Colorado river powers a meticulously managed system of canals and dams. Southern water districts like Palo Verde estimate their constituents water needs and submit corresponding orders to the Parker and Hoover dams upstream which then release the requested water as though turning a great industrial tap. Once in Blythe, the diverted water moves downward into the valley below with the help of gravity and into a 250-mile system of canals that wind through 100,000 acres of cropland.

The canals are outfitted with electronic gates that can be opened and closed with the click of a mouse from the Palo Verde Irrigation Districts offices.


  • The Diversion dam on the lower Colorado river, regulated by the PVID

In California, everyones after whatever water they can get. Because of the low supply, the Palo Verde Irrigation District is currently three years into a 30-year fallowing contract when farmers are paid not to plant a portion of their fields so the water can instead be sent to cities with the Metropolitan Water District, which supplies water to big cities like San Diego and Los Angeles.

Fondomonte inherited a fallowing contract, so they are restricted from planting a portion of their land each year. This drives the company mad, an employee whom I will call Jim, told me. He asked not to be named for fear of reprisal from Fondomonte. Alfalfa-hungry Fondomonte would prefer to plant every inch.

Despite its agricultural prowess, 23% of Blythe residents live in poverty (compared with 12% nationally). The town is home to 21,000 people 6,000 of whom are incarcerated in one of the towns two state prisons. The prisons were supposed to bring economic development to the city, Echard told me on our way back from the dam as we sped alongside one of the primary canals. But it hasnt done much at all.

Fondomonte, on the other hand, has been a boon. Everyone wants to be working here, Jim told me. Not only does the company employ more than 100 locals full-time as compared with the part-time or seasonal labor found on most farms and with 401ks, vacation and health insurance, but they also support local farmers by purchasing their alfalfa to add to their bales and ship overseas.

There are a lot of exporters here, Jim said of US farmers and farm operations selling their crops to overseas markets. They have been exporting from here for 30 or 40 years. I dont see how this farm is any different.

The Saudis, theyre here buying up at a good price, Echard explained. Theyre just the same as everyone else. They buy local. Its a shot in the arm for the economy.


  • A field of alfalfa in Blythe, California

But is it an outrage?

The thing about alfalfa is that its perennial; you can grow it all year and stagger the planting in the fields so that theres nearly always a new crop of alfalfa ready to be cut as well as planted. Once its cut, it keeps growing, and they cut it again. A crop can last up to five years, but Fondomonte generally rips up and replants after two or three; any longer than that and the alfalfa grows more stem-heavy, and thus drops in quality.

Each day on their massive, gated farm headquarters, Fondomonte employees take samples of the alfalfa and test its quality: the higher the ratio of leaves to stems, the better the quality, and thus the better the milk the cows will produce.

Almarai only wants the highest quality, Jim explained. He broke open a bale with his hands as if tearing off a piece of bread. The outside of the alfalfa was brown, but just inside, was a vivid and surprising green.

Fondomonte employs some of the most hi-tech mechanisms big ag has to offer computer programs that combine with satellite and drone imagery to delineate the soil characteristics of each speck of land, drones take videos of production in progress, and the company is currently improving their own system of intra-farm canals and electronic gates so that they can irrigate each field with the touch of a button from behind a computer screen in the office. Its all part of their ongoing effort to maximize their efficiency and crop quality, thus their profit, thus their empire in Saudi Arabia perhaps, eventually, here as well.

If its raining, the employee told me, the farm manager can just farm from behind his desk. They are entirely self-sufficient, and have expertise in constructing a hi-tech alfalfa empire having already done it in Saudi Arabia.


  • The storage barns at Fondomonte Farms and a PVID irrigation ditch in Blythe, California

Dan Putnam, an alfalfa expert and UC Davis professor, explained US-grown alfalfa has long been shipped overseas, long before Almarai. Alfalfa is the third largest economic product in the US, but only 4% is exported annually. In the western states, however, which are high producers close to shipping ports to major export markets like China, Saudi Arabia and Japan, about 15% is exported each year. These high-export states are also the states that happen to be grappling with drought, meaning that the most water-strapped states are shipping much of their water overseas, in the form of alfalfa.

When Almarai first began purchasing land in the western US, environmentalists, and many average citizens, were outraged. Saudi Hay Farm in Arizona Tests States Supply of Groundwater, said an NPR article in November of 2015. Saudi Arabia is Outsourcing its Drought to California, wrote Gizmodo.

Yet Putnam takes umbrage with the outrage over alfalfa exports. Why, he wonders, are people so much more outraged over alfalfa using water here only to be shipped overseas, what about almonds, a water intensive crop of which 70% of Californias harvest is shipped overseas. Or oranges? Or lettuce?

I suggested to him that it might have something to do with the fact that alfalfa isnt seen as food its just a plant, a mega-crop divorced, in common perception, from its value as food. But as the basic element of a larger food chain of the dairy and meat industry, alfalfa, Putnam claims, is critical.

I have a T-shirt, he told me. Alfalfa: ice-cream in the making.



  • Grant Chaffin, owner of Chaffin Farms (left). The baby potatoes grown at Chaffin Farms, Blythe

Putnam, along with many farmers I spoke to, urges people to consider how much water crisscrosses the globe in the current supply chain. Its not just alfalfa, and its not just agriculture. People will find goods at the cheapest prices, and companies in areas with unstable resources will relocate elsewhere.

While its hard to then make a clear calculation of exactly how much US water is being poured into alfalfa and then shipped overseas (some evaporates, some filters back into the soil, some is deposited back into the river downstream) its clearly not nothing. But who knows how long it will last. For the survival of that country, Putnam said of Saudi Arabia, they will look to other parts of the world.

On our way back from the dam to the district offices, Echard drove me up along the access roads to get a panorama of the canals, and past some bright fields of alfalfa. We then drove to a part of valley where, in partnership with various environmental organizations, the Palo Verde Irrigation District had planted a large grove of trees to revive some of the habitat that once stretched so abundantly along this part of the Colorado. In August, he told me, it can be 115F (46C) outside, but under this canopy of trees, it might be 20 degrees cooler.

Here in the middle of the desert, weve got a little forest, he said, proudly. Like the river, this forest, too, is a manmade environment; mans footprint is everywhere.

As we drove back to the office, I pointed out some nice bushy trees along the canal. Oh, those are saltcedar, Echard said. An invasive species from Asia that drain the water table and leave salt deposits in the soil, which destroys the other plants. No one wants it, he said, as he yanked the truck into gear and headed back out again amid the bright carpets of alfalfa stretching in all directions.

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The hunt for black gold: is California the world’s next truffle hotspot?

For decades, enthusiasts have hoped truffles can follow wines path to success in the state. Charlotte Simmonds joins a search for the delicacy

Staci OToole is lying face down in the dirt. I can smell it! she cries, nose to the roots of a hazelnut tree.

A funky, fungal odor emanates from a shallow hole in the ground of this Sonoma Valley orchard. It hints at a hidden treasure many years in the making: a French Prigord truffle, grown right here in California.

Commonly known as black truffles or even black diamonds, Prigords are one of the worlds most sought-after delicacies, selling for $800 or more per pound. Revered for lending an intoxicating flavor to everything from tagliatelle to sushi, they remain widely adored and shrouded in mystery.

With wild truffles increasingly scarce, scenes of affable farmers trawling the woods with a pot-bellied pig are becoming a rare sight. Most black truffles these days come from farms, where they are hunted by specially trained dogs. Cultivation secrets in this lucrative industry have traditionally been closely guarded, with the market dominated by France, Italy and Spain. But in recent years New World upstarts have been gaining ground: Australia is expected to produce 15 metric tons this year, while New Zealand, South Africa and Chile all have burgeoning industries.

For decades many have pinned their hopes on the Mediterranean climate, robust wine industry and thriving food scene of California as the worlds next truffle hotspot. Now, it appears, such hopes are paying off.

OToole and her truffle-hunting dogs in Santa Rosa. Photograph: Talia Herman/The Guardian

The birth of an industry

On this bright winter day, OToole, AKA the Truffle Huntress, has brought her pedigree truffle dogs to survey a property in the heart of northern Californias wine country. Mila, the more experienced of the lagotto Romagnolo dogs, is leading the charge. Panettone, still in training, bounds close behind.

The pair survey the orchard with enthusiasm and ruthless efficiency: several quick sniffs at the base of a tree are enough to determine whether a truffle lurks beneath. They comb several rows of trees without luck before Mila pounces and paws at the ground: the sign to start digging.

Wearing knee-high wellies and oversized sunglasses, OToole uses a delicate truffle trowel, a tool that looks more like a blunt dagger than a shovel, to turn the soil, occasionally lowering herself to the ground to sniff at her progress. I can tell if Ive got something here because it will make my mouth start watering, she explains, brimming with optimism.

Truffles can take up to 10 years to produce, and growing them is like farming in the dark: fiddling at the surface in the hopes something magic is taking root below.

OToole came to truffle hunting after a career as a health insurance executive living in Silicon Valley. She wasnt ready to retire but wasnt sure what to do next.

Turned out her dog held the key. The lagotto Romagnolo is a traditional Italian truffle hunting breedso attuned to its craft that, when she bought Mila from the breeder, they made her promise she would train it up properly. Mila was a natural, finding her first truffle at just 12 weeks old. OToole now works as a hunter on various orchards while running her own farm, which this year harvested almost 2lb.

OToole had Truffle Huntress sewn on to her shirt. Photograph: Talia Herman/The Guardian

She is hardly alone. The orchard where I met her belongs to Harshal Sanghavi and Matt Hicks, a San Francisco couple who harvested their first truffle just before Christmas. The Sonoma winery Jackson Family Wines, meanwhile, found its first truffles in 2017 and this year hauled out slightly over 30lb.

Were witnessing the birth of an industry, says Charles Lefevre, a longtime truffle consultant and the founder of New World Truffieres. Lefevres Oregon-based company sells trees whose roots have been inoculated with the black truffle fungus. When he started in the early 2000s, Lefevre recorded small flurries of success in places such as Idaho and Tennessee.

The truffle industry, he says, is no longer just a pipe dream but is seeing exponential growth. Of his 22 farms now in production, 10 have harvested their first truffles within the last two years. It may be the start of something big.

A truffle, sliced in half, at a Jackson Family Wines property. Photograph: Talia Herman/The Guardian

We proved them wrong

The quest to grow truffles in California began decades ago when William Griner, a Vietnam veteran turned pot farmer, took a leap of faith and bought 100 hazelnut trees inoculated with the truffle fungus from a young Frenchman named Franois Picart.

Picart had arrived in California in the mid-1970s, determined to sell truffle trees and help America embrace truffle agriculture. He ultimately found few buyers, returned to France frustrated and went on to launch a highly successful chain of American-themed barbecue restaurants.

But Griners gamble paid off. He cultivated what is considered the first truffle ever grown in North America in 1987. His farm, Mendocino Black Diamonds, would go on to produce 35lb of truffles a year until his death in 2008.

California really was the first state to get involved in growing truffles in North America, says Griners old friend Todd Spanier.

Spanier, who founded California Truffle Orchards, a farm management company, sees clear parallels between the birth of the Napa Valley wine industry, originally viewed with skepticism by Europe, and the truffle pioneers of today. In the 1970s we had the French saying: No one can grow wine outside of France. And we proved them wrong, he said.

A truffle hunter shows off his harvest. Photograph: Talia Herman/The Guardian

Since then, truffle farmings bohemian origins have been replaced by an ambitious entrepreneurialism with a distinctly Silicon Valley edge. Truffle fever has taken root not just among professional farmers but many first-timers, bringing new players and new ideas to the industry.

Take Dr Paul Thomas and Robert Chang, a mycology scientist and a former tech executive who are building a giant database of truffle knowledge. Thomas had founded a UK-based truffle research company, Mycorrhizal Systems LTD, before teaming up with Chang for a new venture: the American Truffle Company. Now with orchards in the US and more than 20 other countries, this network feeds real-time information about climate, soil and irrigation back to their server in the Bay Area. This is the big data of truffles, Chang likes to say.

Truffle farmers now benefit from two major festivals the Oregon truffle festival, founded by Lefevre in 2006, and the Napa truffle festival, founded by the American Truffle Company in 2010 which provide a platform to mingle, learn and share breakthroughs.

In Italy and France its all very secretive, but here its much more collaborative, says OToole. Thats why were having so much success. The California way is kind of different: we all share data. We are trying to build an industry.

Farmers areencouraged by the prospect of serving the states ambitious dining scene, and in this regard time is on their side. A truffles odor and flavor drops precipitously once its out of the ground; a good truffle should be served within a week.

Jackson Family Wines, currently the jewel in Californias truffle crown, produced so many this year that it sold the extras to several Michelin-starred San Francisco restaurants. The winerys executive chef, Justin Wrangler, says it has more demand than it can meet.

Justin Wrangler, the executive chief at Jackson Family Wines, and his daughter Delanie, nine, cook pasta with truffles, butter and cheese in Santa Rosa. Photograph: Talia Herman/The Guardian

A tipping point

Its hard to imagine Californias truffles will stay secret for long. Rivalling Europe in volume wont happen overnight, and many who have planted truffles are still waiting for results. But the mood is one of cautious optimism.

OTooles truffle hunting expedition that day comes late in the season, but shes confident theres more to be found on the Jackson Family Wines property.

She heads out with her dogs, Wrangler, and the farms manager. In the end, the afternoon yields a couple of small truffles. Specimens found several days prior, however, are truly monumental.

From a ziplock bag, Wrangler produces an inky orb as thick as two tangerines. A portable burner is plugged in, red wine swiftly poured, and before long the chef is tossing slabs of truffle butter through hot pasta. He shaves a black cloud over each bowl before we slurp it up. OToole raises her glass to toast the moment: This is what its all about.

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Landmark lawsuit claims Monsanto hid cancer danger of weedkiller for decades

In June, a California groundskeeper will make history by taking business to trial on claims it reduced damage of Roundup

At the age of 46, DeWayne Johnson is not prepared to pass away. With cancer spread through many of his body, medical professionals state he most likely has simply months to live. Now Johnson, a partner and dad of 3 in California , wants to endure enough time to make Monsanto answer for his fate.

On 18 June, Johnson will end up being the very first individual to take the international seed and chemical business to trial on claims that it has actually invested years concealing the cancer-causing risks of its popular Roundup herbicide items– and his case has actually simply gotten a significant increase.

Last week Judge Curtis Karnow released an order clearing the method for jurors to think about not simply clinical proof associated to exactly what triggered Johnson’s cancer, however accusations that Monsanto reduced proof of the dangers of its weed killing items. Karnow ruled that the trial will continue and a jury would be enabled to think about possible compensatory damages.

“The internal correspondence kept in mind by Johnson might support a jury finding that Monsanto has actually long understood the danger that its glyphosate-based herbicides are carcinogenic … however has actually constantly looked for to affect the clinical literature to avoid its internal issues from reaching the general public sphere and to boost its defenses in items liability actions,” Karnow composed. “Thus there are triable concerns of product truth.”

Johnson’s case , submitted in San Francisco county remarkable court in California, is at the leading edge of a legal battle versus Monsanto. Some 4,000 complainants have actually taken legal action against Monsanto declaring direct exposure to Roundup triggered them, or their enjoyed ones, to establish non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL). Another case is set up for trial in October, in Monsanto’s house town of St Louis, Missouri.

The claims obstacle Monsanto’s position that its herbicides are shown safe and assert that the business has actually understood about the risks and concealed them from regulators and the general public. The litigants point out a variety of research study studies suggesting that the active component in Monsanto’s herbicides, a chemical called glyphosate, can result in NHL and other disorders. They likewise point out research study revealing glyphosate formulas in its commercial-end items are more harmful than glyphosate alone. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified glyphosate as a likely human carcinogen in 2015.

Monsanto “promoted falsified information and assaulted genuine research studies” that exposed risks of its herbicides, and led a “extended project of false information” to persuade federal government firms, farmers and customers that Roundup was safe, inning accordance with Johnson’s claim

“We anticipate exposing how Monsanto concealed the threat of cancer and contaminated the science,” stated Michael Miller, Johnson’s lawyer. “Monsanto does not desire the reality about Roundup and cancer to end up being public.”

Monsanto has actually increasingly rejected the accusations, stating its items are not the reason for cancer. The IARC finding was incorrect, inning accordance with Monsanto, as are research studies discovering glyphosate and glyphosate-based herbicides like Roundup to be possibly carcinogenic. Monsanto indicates findings by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other regulative authorities as backing its defense.

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might.”src=” “/ > A march versus the effective agrochemical business Monsanto in Bordeaux, France, on 19 May. Picture: Mehdi Fedouach/AFP/Getty Images

“Glyphosate-based herbicides are supported by among the most comprehensive around the world human health and ecological impacts databases ever assembled for a pesticide item,” Monsanto mentions on its site. “Comprehensive ecological and toxicological fate research studies carried out over the last 40 years have time and once again showed the strong security profile of this extensively utilized herbicide.”

A business spokesperson did not react to an ask for extra remark.

How the Johnson claim plays out might be a bellwether for how other complainants continue. There might be lots of more years of expensive lawsuits and large damage claims if Johnson dominates. If Monsanto effectively reverses the difficulty, it might hinder other cases and lift pressure on the company.

According to the court record, Johnson worked as a groundskeeper for the Benicia unified school district where he used many treatments of Monsanto’s herbicides to school homes from 2012 up until a minimum of late 2015. He was active and healthy prior to he got the cancer medical diagnosis in August 2014. In a January deposition, Johnson’s dealing with doctor affirmed that more than 80% of his body was covered by sores, which he most likely had however a couple of months to live. Johnson has actually enhanced given that beginning a brand-new drug treatment in November however stays too weak often to even get or speak from bed, his physicians and lawyers state in court filings.

Monsanto’s attorneys prepare to present proof that other aspects triggered Johnson’s cancer, to challenge the credibility of the science Johnson’s claims depend on, and to provide their own specialists and research study supporting security. The business has an EPA draft danger evaluation of glyphosate on its side, which concludes that glyphosate is not most likely carcinogenic .

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