Full Circle

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With the windows down, sunny blue sky on the horizon and Third Eye Blind on the radio, I drove up the New York Thruway the first week of August for my second visit to Raven Crest Botanicals, an organic herb farm.

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Monday

I arrived Monday afternoon to the open arms of Susanna and Thomas, eager to have more help harvesting the over 3,000 medicinal and culinary herbs and plants on Susanna’s property.  Before going out to the terraces to collect calendula, chamomile, blue cornflower, Mauritian mallow, I passed some interesting looking rocks on the table in the sun room.

While collecting herbs, I learned that, depending on the time of year and the type of herbal remedy needed, there are different parts of the herb that are harvested: aerial parts, root, blossoms, leaves, and buds.  Thomas explained that midday is the best time for harvesting because it is when all of the chemical processes and energy is present in the plant.

Thomas and I

Thomas and I

Also on Monday, Thomas gave me a tour of the strawbale house on the property.  It was an existing structure when Susanna and Yoav bought the farm and a few friends are clay plastering the walls.  The building is made of straw, sand and clay.  It is a breathing, natural house and it is beautiful.

Susanna and Thomas spoke with wide eyes about Burning Man throughout the day, a spiritual celebration on the Playa in the desert that they were attending in a few weeks.  Later that night, we talked about “the lost language of plants” over a bonfire and I listened to Susanna and Thomas play the didj and Susanna sing and play the Shruti Box.  I couldn’t have been happier to be back.

Tuesday

Shortly after I woke on Tuesday morning, I learned why farmers love the rain; watering crops takes a long time!  I watered the permaculture beds, tree guilds, strawbale gardens, vegetable garden and potted plants for almost two hours that morning.  I enjoyed it though.  It was soothing to be among the honey bees, butterflies, locusts, hummingbird moths and all different types of birds: Cedar Waxwings, warblers, goldfinches, and hummingbirds.

The Rainbow Goddess at work

The Rainbow Goddess at work

I spent some time reading on the hammock outside under great, big trees and met Susanna’s friends Ashley and Peter that day.  Peter is from Denmark and has the kindest eyes I have ever seen.  He listens to every word you say with genuine interest and sincerity and has a remarkable aura.  Ashley, his soul mate, goes by “Rainbow Goddess” when she is cooking her amazing raw food, but I think she is more like a ray of sunshine.  Her happiness is contagious and her presence can brighten any room.

Thomas and I harvested some holy basil and thyme and planted some herbs in the pasture.  I swam in the ice-cold pond water and we went up to The Vines to humanly take care of the Japanese Beetle problem on the grapes.  We would tap them off the leaves and into a bucket of soapy water.  The soap in the water breaks the surface tension and creates a painless exit for the invasive species.

Wednesday

By Wednesday, I had settled into a morning routine.  I would get up around 7-8 AM, post a few photos on Instagram, go for a run on some country roads of Albany County, and then come back to the farm and water the herbs.

Thomas and I harvested sage and chamomile and “garbled” the herb Eclipta (the oil is great for hair).  Garbling involves removing the stems of dried plants and crumbling them into smaller pieces for storage…and it’s so much fun!

View from the ATV

View from the ATV

Racing alongside deer on the ATV, Thomas and I went up to The Vines and to the pasture.  Susanna, Thomas and I went on a peaceful walk through Susanna’s natural “medicine cabinet” in the pasture.  Although none of the herbs felt ready to harvest, we did befriend a praying mantis.

On Wednesday, I met Ben, a natural builder from the East Coast.  We got along right away and he told me how he went to “university” in the UK as we humanely got rid of Japanese Beetles on The Vines.  Ben explained how he has been in the construction trades for around a decade, but got started in natural building a few years ago when he grew tired of “pouring concrete all over the world.”  He is currently helping to organize a community farming project in upstate New York and plays some mean Led Zeppelin on guitar.

I had one of many full-circle moments on the farm on Wednesday when I realized I had harvested almost all of the ingredients of my favorite tea that Susanna makes, her Happiness Tea, made from anise hyssop, Tulusi, and calendula blossoms.  On my first visit, I had planted some medicinal herbs, now I was watering and caring for them and also harvesting and drying them.  I was slowly seeing the whole process come together.

Thursday

View on my run

View on my run

After my morning routine, Ben, Thomas and I began putting lists together and calling stores for the supplies we needed to build the new rocket mass heater.  We were looking for recycled and refurbished items where possible, although one store did tell us, “If it ain’t kick your ass beautiful we ain’t got it.”  We didn’t go there.

It took all day to find the supplies we needed; even specialty stores told us that our do-it-yourself project had a “weird set up.”  When we stopped for lunch half way through the day, it took us a good twenty minutes to find a restaurant that wasn’t a corporate chain.  Look for small business owner restaurants next time you’re on a main road; it will take longer than you think.

It was an exhausting day, but it was fun driving the pickup truck around Troy and broin’ out with Thomas and Ben, and we came home to an incredible raw food dinner with raw lasagna and cucumber and zucchini noodles.

This is not spaghetti and meatballs! It is raw food! Zucchini and kelp noodles!

This is not spaghetti and meatballs! It is raw food! Zucchini and kelp noodles!

Friday

Middleburgh, NY

Middleburgh, NY

On Friday, it finally rained!  No watering for me.  Instead I got to make some medicine, Elder Wisdom tincture and aromatherapy sprays; Lovely Lavender Facial Mist, Peace and Calm Facial Mist and Sacred Mountain Facial Mist.  I made some jewelweed oil with Susanna, which is used to treat poison ivy, skin irritations, rashes and insect bites.  As we made medicine, we talked about fracking and what it would mean for Susanna’s farm if they opened Upstate New York to the natural gas industry, the Obama Administration and the pace of society.

Susanna received some excellent news on Friday, so I went into Middleburgh, NY to the liquor store to get some wine.  I had no idea I would be driving right into the town that time forgot.  It was refreshing to see families out on their front porches and folks walking from mom and pop store to mom and pop store.

Saturday

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On Saturday, I hung out in the strawbale house with Thomas and Ben and we listened to The Beatles. Yoav arrived later that night and made me laugh like a crazy person, as he usually does. That morning though, I had an epiphany while eating breakfast alongside a ruby-throated hummingbird.

On Susanna’s front porch, there are two rocking chairs and a hummingbird feeder hanging on a post near one of the chairs.  After my run in the morning, I liked to eat my granola and yogurt breakfast on the porch and watch the hummingbirds.  On Saturday morning, a particularly bold hummingbird kept flying over near where I was reading, about three feet from my face, stare at me, and fly off.  He would come and go, cock his head to the side at me, like a dog, and fly off.  As I watched him, I realized he was as curious about me as I was about him.  In that moment, I was made to feel small by a creature no larger than my palm. Not in a bad way, in a mind-opening kind of way.

Yoav and Susanna

Yoav and Susanna

We coexist with millions of beautiful creatures on this planet who are just as curious about our existence as we are about theirs; and that is something we must always keep in perspective.

Sunday

On Sunday, after visiting the rock lady (more to come soon), running and watering the plants one last time, I left the farm to go back to New Jersey.  I drove away with an insatiable appetite to contribute to the world and make it better, and I have my friends at Raven Crest Botanicals both to blame and to thank.

 

As Seen On MotherEarthNews.com

As Seen On MotherEarthNews.com

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Jersey Girl Gone WWOOFing

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“Gardening is the most therapeutic and defiant act you can do.”

I have to agree, digging in the dirt is awesome.  Ever since I was a kid, I loved playing in my backyard, getting dirty looking for insects, building forts and splashing around in creeks looking for frogs and crayfish.  Being outside made me happy, and continues to make me happy in my twenties.  I was not surprised to find gardening at Raven Crest Botanicals therapeutic, but was a little surprised to find that I now agree with the defiance of gardening.

I began my act of rebellion when I became involved with WWOOF, at the suggestion of some of my college friends.  Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) is a program connects people who would like to learn more about the organic movement, permaculture and sustainable agriculture, with farmers who want to share their knowledge. No money is exchanged between host farms and “WWOOFers,” just room and board for the volunteers.

After a few weeks of e-mailing host farms, I found an herbalist in Upstate New York who didn’t mind having a blogger stay with her for a long weekend to learn more about organic foods.  I took a few days off work, said good-bye to the ocean and made my way up toward the Catskills.

Day 1: Wednesday

rainbow

I arrived at Raven Crest Botanicals safe and sound after driving on some COUNTRY roads in torrential rain just in time to see a rainbow across the trees of the farm.  My host farmer, Susanna, was extremely kind and hugged me right away.  Another WWOOFer, named Thomas, was also staying with Susanna.  His knowledge of herbs and permaculture was impressive, having only been on the farm a month.  Thomas had come to Susanna after backpacking through India and teaching English to children in Chile.

After an amazing dinner of fresh vegetables, salad and fish, I listened to Susanna play the didgeridoo, learned what the hell a didgeridoo was, and acquainted myself with Tibetan singing bowls.  I felt a planet away from the Jersey Shore, which was alright with me.

bowls

Day 2: Thursday

I followed the other WWOOFer, Thomas, around like a puppy all day.  He taught me how to drive the 4-wheeler and explained permaculture guilds and sheet mulching to me.  We drove around looking for the supplies we needed, got slightly lost, tried to help a few turtles cross the road, gave apples and carrots to Susanna’s horses on a different farm, and at Gordon Farms (where we got the manure for the sheet mulching) I got to try to feed a calf that was just a few hours old.

Day 3: Friday

Kiss of Venus on the greenhouse door

Kiss of Venus on left

My third day was a bit of a lazy day, Thomas had left to go up to Massachusetts to buy an archery bow and I spent the day with Susanna.  She has such a wonderful aura and an incredibly powerful presence, I could listen to her tell me about her herbs, her “babies” all day.  I learned that a tonic herb can be taken every day, to help build up and enhance your system.  Elixirs usually contain boiled-down roots and honey, while tinctures are alcohol/water based.

We spent a lot of the day watering her plants.  I had no idea that most farmers spend at least 2 hours a day watering, when it rains too.  Even a good rain only goes through about a half an inch of soil.

I loved going in and out of the earth-sheltered, passive solar greenhouse on Susanna’s farm.  The door has the Kiss of Venus on it, which is a beautiful symbol of sacred geometry that is formed by the orbits that Earth and Venus make around each other.

Susanna’s partner, Yoav arrived on the farm that night.  An immigration lawyer right outside Boston, Yoav is a bit of a smart ass and I liked him right away.  He spoils their cat, Forest, in the most adorable way possible.

Day 4: Saturday

Saturday was my favorite day on the farm.  Thomas and I went on another adventure in the old pickup truck to dumpster dive (reduce, reuse, recycle!) for more cardboard for sheet mulching and to get some bread.  Then, he took me to the dump…which was a lot more fun than it sounds.  We got some more cardboard there too.

Susanna at the Farmers Market

Susanna at the Farmers Market

We met up with Susanna and went to the Farmers Market in Berne.  After the market, we got ready to go to Woodstock.  Susanna was performing in a sound healing at SAGE Healing Center there with her friend Lea.  Thomas and I walked around Woodstock before the performance and I bought a turquoise ring from The Turquoise Lady who may or may not have wanted to make stones out of the color of Thomas’ eyes.  She was perfect for Woodstock.

Susanna and Lea’s sound healing incorporated didgeridoos, chimes, chanting and the singing bowls to send us all on our journeys.  It made me feel serene and balanced and gave me perspective.  I felt more like a being in the universe, instead of just a girl in Upstate NY.

After the sound healing, we went to pick up bees.  Susanna has one hive on her farm and wanted to start another one.  On country roads late at night in Hudson, NY, we somehow ended up in a scene straight out of Grapes of Wrath.  The bee keeper came out in suspenders and all his children ran out with him, barefoot and dirty.  Clothes were hanging on the line and I’d never seen so many stars.

Day 5: Sunday

On Sunday, I had to leave.  Which, quite frankly, sucked.  Every meal on the farm had been like a blessing, fresh, organic and wonderful.  No more swimming in the pond, drinking juices fermented by SCOBY (symbiotic community of bacteria and yeast) with Geranium ice cubes, watching “Drinkin’ Outta Cups” and laughing until my sides hurt, and spending time shoveling manure in the afternoon sun.  I made the best of it and had a great day setting up the bee hive.

Susanna and Thomas setting up the new hive.

I learned that two bee hives can coexist right next to each other because each queen has a different scent.  The bees would never fly into the “wrong” hive becomes it smells completely different.  I watched Susanna and Thomas gear up and take off the top of the box of bees.  Susanna took the queen (who was safely in a case sealed with sugar water) and put her in her pocket.  They shook the bees into the frames and put the queen in last.  Even though the bees were not raised with this queen, they will get used to her with time.  After a few days, the bees know her smell and will eat the sugar water cap off to release her from her case.

After the new bee hive was set up, Thomas and I took the 4-wheeler up to “The Vines,” one of my favorite places on the farm.  Yoav is growing grape vines for wine up there and is tilling some land to plant the Three Sisters.

The Vines

The Vines

Later that night on my way home, just like my way there, it down poured.  I like to think that the rain was cleansing me and symbolized some sort of rebirth back out into the world.

Susanna settled on the name Raven Crest for a few reasons, one of which being the symbolism of the raven in Native American culture.  They believed that the raven brought light to the world. Susanna and Raven Crest farm brought light into my world about how to live well, be well and treat others well and for that I am truly thankful.

Susanna and I in front of her greenhouse

Susanna and I in front of her greenhouse

Since I’ve been home from the farm, I haven’t had a so much as a sip of Diet Pepsi (I’m a recovering addict), have spent a decent amount of my paycheck at Trader Joe’s, committed to eating less beef and more seafood and veggies, and have looked into farmers markets in my area.  I even have a few small basil and parsley plants growing in my apartment.

Join me.  We don’t need GMOs, Monsanto and multinational corporations; we need to support our local farmers.  Start with small acts of defiance.  Let’s build a revolution.

I blog for MEN

As seen on Mother Earth News

 

Permaculture Techniques for a More Sustainable Organic Farm

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Deep in the sticks of Schoharie County in upstate New York, lays Raven Crest Botanicals, a 250-acre sanctuary of an organic farm. Over 80 herbs are grown at Raven Crest for a variety of teas, tinctures, elixirs and skin care products. Susanna Raeven, owner of Raven Crest Botanicals, strives to bring “non-toxic, safe and effective, hand-made herbal products, made in small batches with love and intent” to her clients to “help them find balance in their lives with the generous support of the plant kingdom.”

Raven Crest teas, elixirs and tinctures are derived from Mother Earth without harming her, made well for Susanna’s supporters to be well. Ms. Raeven uses a variety of permaculture methods to ensure that each and every one of her products is natural, organic, and pesticide and fertilizer free.

Through Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), I had the privilege of visiting Raven Crest Botanicals and learning about permaculture and organic farming.

To find out more about Raven Crest Botanicals, permaculture and Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), please read my post on Mother Earth News.

Canoeing the Conestoga: Agriculture and Water Quality

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Happy Earth Day 2012 everyone!  On this Earth Day, I have decided to center a post around an important environmental issue of our time: clean waterways.  Understanding the connectedness of nature is vital for taking on a “deep ecology” mindset.  A great way to explain the connectedness of our natural systems is through our waterways.  Every stream leads to a river, every river to coastal waters and eventually the ocean.  Even the smallest tributaries must be kept clean to ensure healthy, thriving rivers and oceans.

Yesterday, my classmates and I traveled to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania to canoe with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.  We found ourselves in Hinkletown, home of the Conestoga River.  The Conestoga is a 62 mile long tributary of the Susquehanna River.  The Susquehanna River provides the Chesapeake Bay with about 40% of it’s freshwater, making it a key component in the Bay’s health.  Since the Conestoga flows into the Susquehanna, it also plays a role in the water quality of the Chesapeake Bay.  See, everything is connected to everything else (Thanks, Rachel Carson).

Lancaster County is home to many high-order Mennonite and Amish communities.  These groups have an infamously traditional way of life, which creates an interesting challenge for keeping the Conestoga and therefore the Susquehanna and therefore the Chesapeake Bay clean.  They have been farming in Lancaster County for hundreds of years.  For years and years they have used the same traditional agricultural practices.  These practices may not pose well for the water quality of the Conestoga.  If livestock is allowed to roam free, fertilizers and pesticides are used and fields are left fallow in the winter, the water quality of the Conestoga River is at sake.  Livestock, fertilizers and pesticides all contribute to high nutrient levels in the River, while fallow fields contribute to soil erosion and sediment build up in the water.  With this in mind, my classmates and I had some predictions for what the water quality would be in the Conestoga.

As we canoed along, we saw a lot of litter in the river.  Tire after tire, old oil barrels, even a basketball hoop.  We could see cattle and horses up on the shallow river banks.  I had never canoed in an area surrounded by so much agricultural land, I was used to the more forested river banks of the Delaware back in New Jersey.  Although, we could see that most of the cattle were kept away from the river by small string fences.  There were a few billy goats that had escaped fencing and were sitting under a tree close to the water.  A feral white cat was drinking from the river.  A few plots of land with horses were not fenced in, but overall the animals seemed to be kept away from the river.  That was a good sign for the water quality of the Conestoga.

I was surprised by the amount of songbirds we saw as we canoed down the river.  Lots of American Robins, Black-capped Chickadees, and sparrows.  We saw a few Mallard ducklings and many Belted Kingfishers.  I was disappointed when we didn’t see a single Great Blue Heron though; not many waterfowl.  I saw one Painted Turtle sunning itself on an old oil barrel.  At the end of our trip, we saw a stunning Bald Eagle in it’s nest.

All of these observations were turning over in my head and I still had low expectations for the water quality of the river.  We began chemical and biological testing with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to find out for sure.  We found the pH of the river to be 7.5, pretty neutral, although there is a large amount of limestone in the river that could balance out acidity.  The temperature was 63 degrees Fahrenheit.  Surprisingly, the dissolved oxygen level was at 9 ppm (above 5 being a good reading).  The nitrate level was at 4.1 ppm, 4x the recommended level and the phosphate level was at 0.3, 3x the recommended level of 0.1.  I thought these nutrient levels were very high and then our CBF guide, Tom, said that at one time the nutrient levels tested 45x higher than what is defined as healthy for Pennsylvania waterways.

We found a lot of macroinvertebrates too; crayfish, clams, leeches, snails and shrimp.  Blackflies were present, indicators of high nutrient levels, but we also found mayflies and scuds, species that are sensitive to water pollution.  In the end, we found the water quality index (a calculation that takes into consideration macroinvertebrates that are tolerant, facilitative and sensitive to water pollution) of the Conestoga River to be 28, with above 22 being excellent.  I couldn’t believe the water quality was excellent!  Tom had mentioned that a lot of the farmers were using cover crops in the winter, helping with sediment build up, in combination with the fences for livestock seem to be protecting the water quality from agricultural runoff.  He even said that between 1985 and 2009, farmers in Pennsylvania had reduced nitrate levels by 31%.

But then he said that we would see very different results in water quality after a storm event.  This Earth Day has been a rainy one and I’m curious what results we would find in the Conestoga now.  I was glad to hear that the Mennonite farmers had taken to fencing their livestock out of the river, but I think a lot more riparian buffers are needed along the Conestoga to help soak up nutrients after it rains.

In Pennsylvania, you cannot go one mile without hitting a stream.  Pennsylvania is also home to immense amounts of agriculture.  I think farmers and environmentalists must work together to ensure high water quality for the rivers and streams of Pennsylvania to protect the Chesapeake Bay.  Government funds should be allocated to farmers to help them implement best management practices.  I do think that the best management practices should strike a balance with the Mennonite/Amish traditional agricultural methods and environmentally-conscious methods.  Loving the planet is also about respect the people that inhabit it.

Above are a few (low quality) photographs taken with my cell phone at one of the mill dams along the Conestoga River.  We stopped here to eat lunch and discuss issues of shad migration, legacy sediment, and sediment restoration in streams/rivers in the U.S.  The River was very shallow at parts, so we had to do a lot of portaging.

Ethanol is Not the Answer

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With oil at $104/barrel, it seems only logical to invest in alternative sources of fuel for our cars in the United States.  The increase in oil prices has led to the apparently beneficial act of diverting grain from food supply to ethanol production.  Ethanol is an alcohol made by fermenting sugar components of plant materials, usually sugar and starch crops.  In its purest form, ethanol can be used as fuel for cars, but it is most commonly used as a gasoline additive to increase octane and improve emissions from automobiles.  As long as oil prices are above $80/barrel, grains, mainly corn, will be diverted from food consumption to ethanol production.  It has even been announced that the percentage of ethanol in gasoline in the United States will shift from 10-15% by summer 2011 driving season.  Without further investigation, ethanol seems to be another green or environmentally friendly innovation of the 21st century.  However, with the use of ethanol has come an increase in food prices, poverty, deforestation and believe it or not, carbon dioxide emissions.  In 2009, 19 billion gallons of ethanol were produced.  What has this done for the planet and its populations?  Nothing but harm.

Using grain for ethanol has no doubt been a key contributor to rising food prices.  People in less developed countries spend an average of 60-70% of their income on food, while those in more developed countries spend only 10% of their income on food.  Therefore, rising food prices affect the most poor the most quickly and deeply.  We must recognize the marginalizing effect on of the very rich and very poor as exacerbated by ethanol production.  The UN’s Millennium Development Goal of halving poverty by 2015 seemed to be a light at the end of the tunnel for the Third World.  Trends were even reversing, until 2007, when food prices sky rocketed because of the emergence of ethanol in gasoline.  By 2008, poverty had increased across East Asia, Middle East, South Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa.  Adding ethanol to gasoline is a moral and political question.  Should we choose to benefit a car owner whose income averages $30,000 annually over the two billion poorest people in the world who average an income of only $3,000 annually?  It is obvious that big business, investors and lobbyists choose to benefit the car owner in order to make a larger profit, a practice that is entirely unethical.  U.S. grain used to produce fuel for cars in 2009 would feed 340 million people for one year.  Developed countries have an obligation to assist less developed countries; the people of the Third World have little opportunity to advance because of their focus on immediate needs for survival.  Are we going to make food unattainable too through our addition to fossil fuel consumption, which drives ethanol production?

As if the catastrophic effects of ethanol on poverty is not enough, the production of the allegedly “ecologically friendly” fuel source only adds to the land paucity issue we face today in 2011.  Clearing land to plant corn for ethanol means more land must be cleared to plant grain for food.  With little to no new land accessible for farming, rainforests across the globe are being destroyed as a direct result of adding ethanol to gasoline.  Forests in Brazil, Congo Basins, and Indonesia have become a prime target.  Release of sequestered carbon, loss of plant and animal species, increased runoff and soil erosion are just a few consequences of deforestation, the “Biofuel carbon debt” as named by a 2008 study in Science conducted at the University of Minnesota.  Not only does ethanol production contribute to land use issues, it contributes to water shortages, as well.  It takes 1,000 tons of water to produce 1 ton of grain.  If we are now farming more grain to compensate for both ethanol and food supply, we are contributing to aquifer depletion and falling water tables.

Ethanol must at least be an efficient source of energy to outweigh all of the above costs.  When looking at resource efficiency, natural resource managers view the resource from extraction to production, namely “cradle to grave.”  When applying the cradle to grave concept to ethanol, it can be concluded that ethanol is not in the least bit sustainable.  Combining the total energy used for farm equipment, irrigation systems and transportation of crops to processing plants and later fuel terminals and retail pumps, ethanol seems hardly “green.”  Not to mention the fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides made from petroleum necessary to maximize yields in a Post-Green Revolution world.  Cradle to grave analysis suggests it is time to put an end to ethanol.  Even if the entire U.S. grain harvest were to be converted into ethanol, it would satisfy at most only 18% of U.S. automotive fuel needs.

The repercussions of ethanol production pose severe threats to both the environment and impoverished countries.  Perhaps the most detrimental threat of all however, with Cinco de Mayo rapidly approaching, is the effect of ethanol on the market for tequila.  As if rainforest clearing, substantial water use, skyrocketing food prices and trend-reversing poverty rates were not enough, ethanol is threatening margarita consumption.  Farmers in Mexico are shifting from harvesting blue agave, a cactus-like plant from which tequila is made, to more profitable cash crops such as wheat and corn to keep up with ethanol production.  Ending ethanol production for gasoline additives?  I’ll drink to that.