Thursday, September 25, 2008

Linking Livestock and Kids

I'm spoke last weekend at the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy conference in Kalamazoo, on the topic of engaging kids in livestock through 4-H.

Of course, 4-H has been putting kids and livestock together for the last 100 years. 4-H, and its parent organization Cooperative Extension, were formed at the turn of the last century to fill a technology gap. The nation's land grant universities were churning out research that had the potential to substantially improve farming practices, but the nation's farmers. set in their ways, were slow to take advantage of the new research. 4-H was formed to train the youngsters in more scientific farming methods in hopes that they would grow into better farmers. Soon the opportunity to meet others, demonstrate their skills, compete for fame at fairs, and sell their livestock for cold hard cash made 4-H the community organization of choice for farm kids across the nation.

In the past few generations the farm population has dwindled, but 4-H is still involving kids in livestock projects. It takes a little more imagination and flexibility to do livestock projects with kids who are city dwellers or suburbanites, but the principles remain the same.

The best projects take an established curriculum and tweak it to suit the situation. Many resources are available at the national 4-H websites:

National 4-H Council

National Directory of 4-H Materials

4-H Online Community:

Every county or regional fair has its own rules, expectations and record books. Here are some samples:

A Goat Project Book for the Cloverbud (age 5-9) member. The focus is on learning about the animal. I like the questions where the child is asked about their goat's diet and digestive system:
My goat is a ruminant. Unlike me, she chews her cud.
_____ I have watched my goat chew her cud.
_____ I have seen a cud.

Unlike me, she has four parts to her stomach. One of these sections is the rumen where food is fermented by tiny bugs or micro-organisms.
_____ I have smelled my goat’s breath to see how these bugs produce stinky gases when they are digesting her food.

Roughage is food that is high in fiber.
_____I have scraped grass with a serrated plastic knife to find the fiber in the grass.
A roughage I feed my goat is:
My goat started to eat this when he/she was _____ weeks old.

Record keeping is just one part of the 4-H livestock education. Most kids who show their animals at the fair compete in the showmanship ring. To excel at showmanship, you must be thoroughly knowledgeable and practiced with your animal and your animal must be thoroughly comfortable with you. 4-Hers must work with their animals, exercise them, handle them, brush them, wash them, hang out with them. You can't just toss them some food and water and go on your way. This Rabbit Showmanship Guide gives a good example of what is involved.

The livestock auction is a big part of our local fair. The profit from a successful pig or steer project is an important source of income for the older kids, but there are sales in the goat, rabbit, and chicken barns as well. This year the goat clubs cooked up some goat dishes and offered samples at the livestock auction to raise interest in their meat goats. One of the buyers at our auction is the Fresh Food Partnership representing local food pantries; people who want to support both 4-H and the food programs donate to this program, and some money for the program is raised by 4-H clubs.

At the ALBC conference, there was a lot of frustration with the 4-H fair system. Many of the rare and endangered breeds of livestock were developed before the era of cheap corn feed; they grow well on pasture and forage, but their mature size may be smaller and it takes longer for them to reach maturity.

Fair rules often specify the dates when the 4-Her takes possession of the animal and a minimum weight to show an animal at fair. The heirloom breeds don't grow fast enough to qualify. A 4-H leader from New Jersey wanted to get his kids involved in the ALBC mission by letting them try some Tamworth pigs, but he wasn't sure if they could make the weight minimum. A 4-H leader from Indiana was just plain frustrated with the fair schedule -- their county fairs were held in July to accommodate the State Fair schedule.

I ended up defending 4-H. 4-H was teaching kids how to better raise livestock 100 years ago. 4-H kept up with the tradition of livestock and kids through the years when the family farms were disappearing and the art of working with animals seemed quaint and anachronistic. If the 4-H fair system seems set in its ways, that's because there's a lot of momentum. It's not uncommon for 4-H volunteers to have 10 or 20 or even 30 years invested, or for a family to volunteer over two or three generations. If it is hard to change the direction of the program, that's because 4-H has a heck of a lot of momentum.

At the same time, 4-H has been under siege as state and federal budgets become strapped and funding is cut or eliminated. Talking to people from across the US, I felt lucky that in Michigan and in Leelanau, that when we fought the budget battles we were largely successful. Still, it is hard to be forward thinking when we spend so much time in "Save 4-H" mode.

I challenged the audience to volunteer on some level, whether the fair process was immediately accessible to their breed or not. Dependable adults who know how to work with animals are needed for all sorts of jobs. Meet with the fair board to explain the conformation of your breed and how it's supposed to be shown. In Leelanau, there is a network of Scottish Highland Cattle owners; they were able to negotiate around a dehorning requirement and show their animals with their horn tips covered.

A club could also be primarily engaged in working with rare breeds, but raise a few standard breed animals to take to the fair. I appreciate my older breeds so much more after raising a few Cornish Cross "meat blobs".

Beyond the fair, sometimes instead of the fair, there are many ways to get kids and livestock together. Once kids become knowledgeable about their animals and secure in their skills they are eager to talk others about their animals, and are great ambassadors for their breeds. Here are some ways that 4-H kids in my county are teaching about their animals and helping to re-integrate livestock into the community.
  • We usually have 3 or 4 clubs that join forces to stage a petting zoo at the horticultural station during the National Cherry Festival, and again at the Horses by the Bay horse show.
  • We have a rabbit group that volunteers at the Tractor Supply Store every spring, bringing rabbits to sell but also giving demonstrations on all aspects of rabbit care and answering individual questions.
  • Family Llama Fair: Our local llama clubs cooperate to put on a fair for the llama loving public and other llama owners. It is a chance for 4-H kids to practice their skills, tell the public about their animals and learn from the invited speakers. This idea could easily be replicated by a breed association or even cross-species group of rare-breed aficionados. In our county, we do both a spring 4-H Expo and a July 4-H Livestock Achievement Day in addition to Fair. (The leader from Indiana who was so frustrated with her July fair schedule started thinking out loud about a "Heritage Livestock Fair", in late fall. )
  • Horseless Horse: learning about horses without actually owning a horse, or before owning a horse. This curriculum is a basic horse curriculum and would serve as a nice intro for draft horses as well.
  • Day camp for kids who want serious training, or as an introductory experience. One of our most successful horse groups never goes to fair. They can't see the logic of taking their animals off of pasture to spend a full week in a hot noisy stall at fair. They do a week long day camp to provide young kids with a first horse experience. The club members organize the event, limiting it to one camper per kids with two club members assisting each camper. I could see a similar camp-style training for kids who were already doing livestock projects but wanted more experience in draft horses or sheep shearing or butchering.
  • Michigan State Proud Equestrians Volunteers assist disabled riders. We had 4-H kids and leaders volunteering in this program for years.
  • Many kids are rearing livestock in backyards in residential areas, as in this headline: Suburban Kids Sell Their Livestock at Fair Auction. About 15 years ago we got a call from the 4-H office alerting us to a meeting of our local planning commission; they were contemplating an ordinance that would outlaw backyard livestock in our neighborhood. The 4-H families turned out in force and the idea was dropped.
  • Raise a pig for Rotary. Our local Rotary club approached 4-H a few years a go with an offer centered around their annual pig roast. The Rotary members offered to interview 4-H members, select one or two, and then have those kids raise an extra animal specifically for the fall pig roast. Local restaurants, especially the upscale restaurants that are selling a story along with the food, could be another place for kids to market their projects. Heritage turkeys? Christmas geese?
  • While not strictly a 4-H project, our local spring tradition of hatching eggs in the preschool and kindergarten classrooms could be a nice service project for a poultry group. The process of hatching eggs in an incubator, counting down the days, candling the eggs, letting the chicks work their way our of their shells, and then learning to gently feed, water, and handle the young chicks reinforces many parts of the kindergarten curriculum. A 4-H group could provide eggs, equipment, and mentoring to a classroom hatching project.
  • Our 4-H groups often choose, as a service project, to visit nursing homes with their animals. Small animals like dogs and rabbits are an obvious choice; larger animals like lambs or llamas are more unexpected but also appreciated. I'll confess that I've always thought about nursing home visits as sort of a knee-jerk response to the question of "What sort of service project shall we do?" One of the people at the ALBC talk pointed me to the Delta Society's research on the measurable benefits of including animals in the day to day lives of the elderly.
  • Arizona State University Hunkapi Program. I saved this example for last, as it has become, for me, somewhat of a muse on the meaning of the efforts to pair livestock and kids:
Hunkapi was founded as a research program in 1996. When compared to other sports, the research showed that horseback riding was the most positive intervention for children with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and Autism. The positive results prompted the launching of the community outreach program in 1999. Hunkapi believes that interacting with horses can serve as a non-drug intervention alternative.
and, from ASU's research magazine:
Animals have long been touted for their therapeutic benefits. Horses are especially effective. Crews says that horses are generally able to interpret a person’s emotions and will mirror those emotions. For example, if a participant is upset and tense, then the horse will be tense and upset. But when the child is comfortable and confident, the horse will relax and follow the child’s lead.

Like all good relationships, the bond between a horse and child must be based on mutual respect. Horses can be loyal, obedient, and good listeners. But their respect must first be earned.

Horses are immense animals. They can be intimidating. They also can be frustrating because they force the child to communicate congruently with words and body language. Hunkapi specifically uses these qualities, challenges, and opportunities to encourage change and growth in each child....

.....For Crews, these positive results come with the hope that interventions such as equine therapy may some day reduce or perhaps even replace medication for these children.

“Medication often simply allows these kids to sit in the classroom at school, to just be there. It doesn’t help them excel. They might be ‘C’ students, when really they could be ‘A’ students,” she says. “The physical interventions are meant to help them actually exceed to their ability and, maybe in some cases, to reduce or eliminate medication.”
Humans evolved alongside animals for countless generations; yet in the last two or three generations we have contrived to live lives in isolation from our animals. Somehow, we are losing much more than eggs, milk, and meat when we leave animals out of our lives, and out of our children's lives. The ALBC's work centers around forgotten breeds of livestock, but I found myself wondering if "made to work with livestock" might be a description of a forgotten breed of kid, one that we might soon wish we had nourished.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Dan Scripps with News on Michigan Energy

I would read Dan Scripps' blog even if he wasn't running for the State House in my district. He writes about the things that I'm interested in, about the issues and problems that keep me up nights.

Two weeks ago he wrote about the differences between himself and his opponent on climate change. What a treat to be able to cast a vote for someone who is willing to confront climate change without a lot of mealy-mouthed caveats or head-in-the-sand denial.

Last week Dan broke the news on Michigan's comprehensive energy package.
The legislation passed by the state legislature yesterday is an important first step in building a long-range energy plan to make Michigan more competitive and in creating jobs now in this exciting growth area. What’s more, the fact that the legislation was supported by groups ranging from the Michigan Environmental Council to the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and the Michigan Manufacturers Association shows that renewable energy solutions can help slow global warming and protect our natural environment while creating jobs and sparking investment in Michigan. This truly is a win-win, and a step towards a more diversified economy and a more prosperous Michigan. The cost for this: $3 a month. Not bad for a plan that can add 30,000 jobs to Michigan, and as part of an overall clean technology strategy than can reduce our highest-in-the-nation unemployment rate by nearly two points.
Pretty good stuff if we can slow climate change while putting people back to work.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Future of Livestock

I've been revisiting livestock issues in preparation for an invitation to speak at next week's American Livestock Breed Conservancy conference in Kalamazoo.

I first became aware of the livestock breed conservancy back in 2005 when I was writing about avian flu, and watching TV footage of culled flocks in Hong Kong headed for the incinerator.
Keeping chickens is a sort of window to the wider world. The everyday chores of caring for poultry is something that humans have been doing in similar fashion for most of recorded time. It is also something that is done, with little variation, almost everywhere that people live.

It was hard to stop thinking about those first bird flu reports from Asia. I saw fleeting images of beautiful birds on the evening news as they told of killing all poultry in whole provinces. At first I wondered how many interesting breeds of chickens were going extinct.
Later, I became worried that we were destroying the generations of intellectual property, and the secret to the avian flu problem, in this wholesale culling effort:
Each breed is the result of generations of breeding. I suspect the smarter, thriftier birds are the result of breeding that spans human generations, not poultry generations. There are countless more varieties of chickens, a different variety living in each little corner of the world, bred for centuries to best suit the microclimate and needs of the people who live there.

This is the old-fashioned method of genetic engineering: selective breeding and cross breeding to secure the traits that are favored. In good times, you might breed for a fancy tail. In bad times you might breed for survival in famine or resistance to the latest disease.

Now, confident that the only answer is in gene splicing, we are depopulating the country sides of their locally-bred chickens, in a losing battle to contain the virus. The disease is devastating to flocks; the birds look fine one day and the next morning 80 to 90% are dead. One wonders if the clue to flu resistance in poultry lies in that small sliver of surviving birds, the ones that are being culled with the rest. Or maybe it lies with the flock next door that appeared untouched by the disease but was culled anyway.

The first images of avian flu showed us armloads of chickens, held upside down by their feet, on the way to incineration. As someone who has catalog shopped chicken breeds, I wanted to shout: "Wait! What kind of chicken is that? Show me again, right side up! What a cool bird!"

Just those few short years ago, it seemed that, except for a few of us hobby farmers and the tiny boutique foods market, the trend would continue towards out-of-sight, out-of mind, larger and larger factory farming operations. All cows looked alike because they all were alike; in 1997 it was estimated that 60% of our dairy cows came from the same four breeding lines. Every commercial specie of livestock had been bred to be the most efficient at turning cheap corn into edible protein. Traits like ability to forage, curiosity, even the common sense to get out of the rain took a backseat to feed conversion or disappeared altogether.

That was then. These days, avian flu takes a back seat to bigger problems. Cheap corn is no longer cheap -- beyond the lunacy of trying to run automobiles on corn-based ethanol, there is a new awareness that corn yields depend on large doses of nitrogen fertilizer and that nitrogen fertilizer is made from ever more pricey natural gas. Feedlots are implicated in the rise of new, deadly E.coli strains. Climate change, and the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and sequester CO2 is front and center, and we are looking at the role of pastures and grasslands in global carbon sequestration. In the US, our current food production is dependent on the rapidly depleting aquifers of the western states; we use our expensive fossil fuels to move food long distances to the food producing areas of the 1900's which are now covered with homes on one or two acre lots where the fertile soils and abundant rains now grow shrubs and lawns.

I'm intrigued by a comment that I read in a discussion of home food production. A person familiar with the history of her suburb noted that the original lot size was meant to provide a family with the land they would need to raise most of their own food in gardens, orchards, and with some small livestock. Last summer we saw many families return to gardening in response to higher food and fuel prices. If trends continue, we may see many more backyard poultry flocks, rabbits, or even milking goats.

If you see suburban poultry, goats, or even pigs these days, chances are it's a 4-H project. 4-H has fostered the relationship between kids and livestock for all of its 100 year history, even as the bulk of us have moved away from the traditional farms. Rabbit and poultry projects are ever popular for small yards, and there are new projects like Horseless Horse, Small Pets and Goldfish for kids with no yards at all.

The traditional large animal projects prosper around here. Northwest Michigan Fair's livestock auction signed up 125 new buyers this year, not surprising considering the renewed interest in eating local, and knowing what you are eating. Where else can a person choose meat for the table by perusing growth, feed, exercise and medical records of each animal and interviewing the person who raised it?

Kids learn responsibility, business skills, grace under pressure, time management, teamwork, and a host of other skills from working with livestock. 4-H folks have been extolling these character building themes for years as the rest of the world asks why we want to keep doing something as old-fashioned as raising livestock in our backyards.

Lately I've been rethinking the purpose of making sure that kids get experience raining livestock. When I think of the challenges facing us, I want to everyone -- our leaders, our families, our communities, our kids -- to have as all available tools. When policymakers are working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while ensuring our food supply, they need to know a lot about cows, not just that they produce methane. Community planners need to recognize that backyard food production is part of the health of a community and not just reflexively zone out livestock because they want to head off potential factory farms. If times get really tough, we could send our 4-H livestock kids, leaders and alumni out to the suburbs to teach people how to feed themselves from that good farmland under those lawns.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Thisledown Yarn Shoppe Warms the World

The community organizers at Thistledown Yarn Shoppe are at it again.:

Warming Northern Michigan One Hand Crafted Project at a Time

The Goodwill Inn estimates that any any point in time there are 591 homeless individuals in the surrounding five county area (Antrim, Benzie, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska, and Leelanau.) Local shelters serve approximately 700 to 800 folks per year; many are turned away due to lack of room. Some are double up with friends or family some live on the streets and in parks.

We estimate the number of people who knit or crochet are three times the amount of the homeless in the five county area.

We are calling on Northern Michigan yarn lovers to pick up your needles and create just one hat, one scarf, one pair of mittens or socks (adult or children size) for donation to the Goodwill Inn where they will be distributed to the homeless in Northern Michigan.

We will start collecting donations October 15, 2008.

For more information contact us at 231-271-YARN (9276) or Demarie Jones at 231-271-4812.
I need to pick up knitting again, Mittens are easy, as the pattern is always close at hand.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Dan Scripps Talks Broadband

Dan Scripps, our Democrat for State Rep, wrote his weekly Thursday economic issues column on the importance of broadband internet to the rural economies. He described the rural Electrification Project of the 1930's and spoke of how a similar effort to provide broadband service today could provide a boost to our area:

By making loans available to local electrification cooperative, which were often driven by farmers, the Rural Electrification Act helped farmers modernize their operations, provided the encouragement necessary for private electric companies to connect rural households (which ultimately lowered electric rates), and made it possible for businesses to remain and grow in rural America.

So what?

Well, as important as extending electricity to rural areas was to reviving the economy of the 1930s, access to broadband is at least as important to growing Michigan’s economy today. Indeed, as former White House Chief of Staff John Podesta and media expert Robert McChesney noted, broadband represents “a technology that, in terms of powering economies, could be the 21st century equivalent of electricity.” Moreover, while many assume that access to broadband is universal, 60% of American households do not have access to broadband either because it is unavailable or unaffordable, and our global position is getting worse: “since 2001, according to the International Telecommunications Union, the United States has fallen from fourth to 16th in the world in broadband penetration.”

I'm told by local real estate people that "Can I get broadband here?" is one of the first questions that prospective buyers ask about properties in Leelanau county. Recently Higher Grounds coffee company, after struggling to get broadband access in Leland Township's only zoned industrial district, relocated to Traverse City. Broadband is the key to attracting and keeping the right-sized businesses in our township, and to keeping our farms and businesses competitive.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Saying No to Coal

One of the questions at Bill McKibben's talk was about the meaning of the phrase on many politician's lips: "clean coal".

McKibben was very clear that, from a climate change point of view, there is no such thing as clean coal. We know how to use stack scrubbers to take out the sulphur and lead from coal plant emissions, but any technology to remove the carbon and put it back underground is only imagined, not in in use.

After the talk, the Sierra Club organizer was overwhelmed by the people lining up to sign a petition to Governor Granholm asking her to:
fight against climate change by issuing an executive order that prevents the permitting of more coal plants until stronger protections are put in place against dangerous global warming carbon dioxide pollution.
You can sign the petition too, online, just click here.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Notes from Bill McKibben's Traverse City Talk

About halfway through McKibben's talk it dawned on me that I had posted, last fall, parts of his essay entitled Climate Crisis in National Geographic magazine. I quoted from it with abandon because I so admired his calm way of talking about a situation that tends to overwhelm people into ignoring or denying it. I also admired his ability to break this big problem down into manageable pieces.

The word "connections" is in the title of this blog because I'm usually quite good at connection ideas from many different sources. But I've been overworked this summer. I knew I wanted to go see Bill McKibben, and so did Liz. I wrote a rather lame announcement of his appearance, forgetting that I could have quoted myself from a year ago.

Back then I described how the people around me were living in two different worlds:
Most folks seem to recognize that the world is getting warmer, and that something needs to be done. I have seen the average size cars in the parking lot shrink. I am seeing people considering relocating to be closer to work, or looking for jobs closer to home. Nobody brags about their new snowmobiles anymore. I also have small, concerned conversations with people who are worried about the future but unable to figure out the best way to prepare for change or to shoulder their responsibility.
Watching the Republican convention last week was truly watching another world. While most of the people I talk with are looking for strategies for using less energy, the people chanting "Drill, Baby, Drill!" on the floor of the Republican convention seemed to think that finding more oil to burn would automagically fix everything.

McKibben's talk was calmer, more thoughtful, and much more grounded in everyday reality. McKibben has a quiet, everyman persona, much like talking to one of my more reticent neighbors. He has a habit of rubbing the back of his head as he formulates his thoughts, much like a farmer swatting flies away with his tractor hat. He used a lot of self-deprecating humor; it was interesting to me that after a while the women were still responding to these jokes but the men were silent.

He spoke of two different worlds. He described the mood in the world of climate scientists as "terrified" and related the new evidence that suggests that climate change is progressing faster than most had believed possible. He described the response in the world of policy making that was basically no response at all, and told the story of a walk across Vermont that eventually included about 1000 people meeting in the capital and asking their elected leader to pledge support for a goal of an 80% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

"80% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050" is included in Obama's platform. (McCain's goal is 66% by 2050). Nobody was talking about any goals fro 2050 before McKibben and his friends started walking. This was one of his main points -- that regardless of how cynical the American people have become about the political process, the process can still be made to work.

McKibben's new goal is to publicize the number 350. He wants the world to embrace a target of 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, the number that we need to attain in order to stop the course of dangerous climate change. Before the industrial revolution, before we started burning large quantities of fossil fuels, the Earth's atmosphere was about 280 parts per million of CO2. This year, in 2008, the number is 387 and gaining every year.

How do we do this? McKibben spoke of how we keep looking for a "silver bullet" that will fix things without too much individual effort. We tried that approach with ethanol, and the results have not been good. He introduced a new metaphor: "silver buckshot" to describe the many smaller changes that are going to add up to the change we need:
Make no mistake--getting back to 350 means transforming our world. It means building solar arrays instead of coal plants, it means planting trees instead of clear-cutting rainforests, it means increasing efficiency and decreasing our waste. Getting to 350 means developing a thousand different solutions--all of which will become much easier if we have a global treaty grounded in the latest science and built around the principles of equity and justice. To get this kind of treaty, we need a movement of people who care enough about our shared global future to get involved and make their voices heard. ( from
The video at the top of this post is part of the international effort to publicize the 350 goal worldwide. The is more of an explanation of this effort at McKibben was enthusiastic about the potential of using the internet to organize a worldwide citizens' movement, saying "If there is a reason for the internet, if God decided that humans needed to create the internet at this point in history, it is surely so that we can use it to solve the climate crisis, the most dangerous problem we have ever faced."

I think that we are not facing this problem because we are scared. We have amped up our our economy on cheap energy for so long that we fear that no more cheap energy means, as one audience member put it, "a return to the horse and buggy days." McKibben cited surveys in which Americans have been asked, every year since 1956, how happy they are. Every year since 1956 we report that we are less happy, even though our consumption of material goods has increase threefold since then. McKibben spoke of how our bigger homes, spread out across the landscape and the miles of roads to connect them all have left us all more isolated and lonelier.

Bill McKibben's new book is Deep Economy, The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. His premise is that rebuilding our communities is neccesary for both energy efficiency and to reach the sense of well-being that we have been seeking, but not finding, through our last half century consumption binge. While I'm skeptical of uniform measures of happiness, I find such satisfaction in the nuances of community that I'm interested to read the new book.

Bill's Traverse City talk can be heard online here.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Bill McKibben in TC on Sunday

Nationally acclaimed author Bill McKibben will speak at Lars Hockstead Auditorium this Sunday from 6-9 pm. McKibben is an author, educator, and environmentalist with a respected voice among those who are envisioning the post peak-oil world. His latest book, Deep Economy, advocates reviving local economies as a tool in fighting climate change.

Liz and I will be attending this event together. One thing I have heard over and over again from college kids this summer is the idea that, for them oil is the past. They want to face climate change instead of avoiding it. They don't expect oil to last through the next decade, let alone through their lifetimes. They are looking for walkable lives, or at settling in places where there is public transportation (and, of course, a night life.). Nobody is interested in investing their careers in old technology. The guy who was at mechanic's school said "Nobody wants to waste time learning gasoline engines. There's no future in it. We're all learning diesel."

The McKibben should be interesting, both for the speaker and the crowd.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

The Lake Shore Septic or Sewer Question

My Grandma Mimi, as a child, with a bow in her hair, on a mule at Castle Rock in Colorado.

I had hoped to base my campaign for Leland Township Trustee on opportunities for economic development in our township, with a serious effort at expanding broadband internet in our township. Instead I have been talking about septic systems and sewers because that's what people want to talk about.

Last month's Leland Town Board meeting featured a spirited discussion of the role of septic systems, sewer systems and government. This is not a new topic. We had questions about sewers and septic systems at the Leland Township candidates night. There was more talk about septic system inspection at the county candidates night. I was surprised to hear some of the candidates for county board saying that inspection of septic systems was a township issue. The county health department regulates the building of septic systems. The county Board of Commissioners has been trying for over a decade, unsuccessfully, to draft regulations that would require some sort of septic system inspection. The regulations as they stand right now do not require any septic inspections, not even when property changes hands.

Of course, a person would be nuts to buy any property without having the septic system inspected. But many lake front properties change hands within families, passing from one generation to another. According to Michigan State University, the life expectancy of a septic system is 20 to 30 years; septic haulers estimate more like 40 years. Eventually the gravel in the drain field becomes clogged with small particles and the drain field will no longer accept water.

Replacing a drain field is a big expense and it may be impossible for a lake front property owner. Every time you add a bedroom or a bathroom the required drain field area goes up, and overall standards are stricter these days. The septic system that was installed fifty years ago to serve a two bedroom seasonal home is much smaller than what is required to serve the same home after multiple additions and upgrades. If, over the years, that two bedroom cabin has gained another bathroom, turned a few porches into bedrooms, and installed a furnace, you may well be trying to serve a four bedroom year-round residence with an antiquated system designed for a two bedroom summer home. According the the Leelanau County Health Department's codes, a three bedroom home on a site with sand loam, a typical lake front soil type, requires 1050 square feet of drain field. It must be no less than 10 feet from any building, and the lowest part of the drain field must be at least four feet above the maximum high water table. The whole system must be 50 feet from the lake, 50 feet from any well or spring, and 10 feet from the property line.

If a homeowner can't fit a modern septic system onto their lot, they may be able to use a mound system. The county health department defers to the Michigan DEQ on these regulations; DEQ requires that the mound, essentially a thick, above ground drain field fed by a pump instead of gravity, be located over 100 feet from the lake.

Property owners who find that they cannot build a new drain field usually opt for a holding tank. The health department will allow other alternatives, but they are considered experimental and the property owner is responsible for the cost of regularly monitoring the performance of these systems and for replacing them if they don't work.

If a holding tanks seems like a less dicey option, it is certainly not cheap. We have friends who are renting a lakeside holding tank house while their new home is being built. They have two elementary age boys, not a demographic known for excess bathing, they are actively conserving water, even to the point of only flushing every third or fourth use, but they are still paying $270 every three weeks to have their tank pumped.

Without a requirement to inspect septic systems, it is easy to just procrastinate. A homeowner can procrastinate, saying "Well, the system only floods the yard when our house guests stay too long." My son-in-law, Jordan Fehrenbach, worked for his father's septic pumping company, Bay Pumping, when he was in high school. Although it is recommended that we pump our septic tanks every few years, he said that many of the calls he answered were from people who had procrastinated until their systems didn't work right anymore. "People just don't know much about their septic systems. The subject doesn't come up in polite conversation, so there's not much opportunity to learn about it."

A township can be pressured to procrastinate, worrying that sending out a questionnaire about a possible new sewer district could be construed as "drumming up business" for the township. The people who think that government is already too big jump on sewer projects as an example of "big government getting bigger." They decry "a shotgun approach" and encourage us to wait until we know each septic system goes bad before deciding that there's a problem.

I heard Leelanau County Commissioner Melinda Lautner say these lines at the Leelanau County candidates night. Unfortunately, she is also one of the county commissioners standing in the way of any sort of septic inspection. If you don't have inspections, you may procrastinate until your well, or a neighbor's well, is contaminated. You may procrastinate until your family, or your neighbor's family, falls ill from hepatitis or blue baby syndrome or dysentery.

Or we could use a conservative, common sense approach. In Leelanau County, we have required permits for all septic systems installed since 1972. Since it is now 2008, we could expect that any property that does not have a permit on file probably has a septic system that is living on borrowed time. It is easy to drive around North Lake Leelanau and see plenty of homes that are on lots too shallow to site a septic system 50 feet away from the lake, or too low to site a system four feet above the maximum high water table. These people need a sewer or holding tanks, whether they want to think past the flush or not. Both sewer systems and holding tanks are expensive options, but they are both better options than sticking your head in the ground while your effluent seeps into the lake.

David Marshall, Democrat for Leelanau County Commissioner District 6, described the common sense approach this way: "You fix the bridge before it collapses." Most of my conversations with township residents express the same expectation that county and township government should be proactive and prudent in protecting our lakes and groundwater with appropriate inspections of septic systems and construction of sewers where necessary.

The talk at last month's meeting was of creating a new sewer district to serve Leland Township's lakefront properties, with its own assessment so that the lakefront property owners were paying for their service, not the township at large. There was a chicken-and-egg discussion about whether we could assess interest without knowing the cost, and whether we could estimate cost without knowing interest. I'm afraid the discussion ranged far towards the philosophical while ignoring the idea of aging septic systems as a simple math problem.

Congratulations if you've followed me this far! You've earned the right to know why I would preface this piece with a photo of my grandmother on a mule. Writing this piece reminded me of the stories that my Grandma Mimi used to tell of growing up in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. Every summer all who could afford to would flee the city, taking the train west or north, to escape the waves of cholera and typhoid fever that plagued American cities in the early 1900's, largely due to poor sanitation. Mimi was riding that mule in Colorado, where her family spent summers. Lake Leelanau has hosted city refugees for over 100 years, with travelers at the turn of the last century taking the train to Perrins Landing the south end of the lake and the ferry up the lake from there. Here in Leland Township, where our century-old resort economy is benefiting us in so many ways, it is imperative that we protect our reputation for clean, safe water.

Note: 9/4/08 The ads that appear on this blog are chosen by web robots, or "web bots", programs that attempt to read each article, decipher its content, and then assign relevant ads to each piece. I earn a negligible amount of money from these ads, but I keep them because I find it interesting to see what an artificial intelligence thinks of my writing.

Today I see that I am advertising several "miracle cures" for septic system failure. That these ads appeared so quickly, and that there are so many of them, is further evidence that many people worry privately about their septic systems, even if they don't talk about them around the water cooler. Every reputable source of information about septic systems, from MSU to my son-in-law, tells me that those products that claim to fix an aging septic system are bunk, and may actually make your problems worse. Feel free to read the ads for your own amusement, but please don't think that I, or anyone else, is endorsing these products.