Episode 48: Pick Your Poison

In our long, evolutionary history, modernity is just a blip. The wiring of our brains took place over hundreds of thousands of years of hunting and gathering food out in the wilderness, and nothing proves that more vividly than the practice of mushroom hunting. It’s incredibly addictive, even to those who know all too well the associated dangers.

Photo © 2012  J. Ronald Lee

Photo © 2012 J. Ronald Lee

***DISCLAIMER*** Don't pick and eat wild mushrooms based on photos you find in this post, or really anywhere on the internet. Please consult professionals. ***DISCLAIMER***

|This story comes to us from Barbara Paulsen, the host and producer of Midway: A Podcast about Midlife Transitions.

To tell that story, we’ll start with a woman named Donna Camille Davis. On a November day a few years back, Donna and her boyfriend got in their car and drove north for a weekend getaway from their home in San Francisco.

“We were finding the most amazing mushrooms,” she says, “I think we counted seven different types of edible mushroom, from hedgehogs, to chanterelles, to black trumpets, to blewits, and matsutakes.”

The difference between those mushrooms and the ones you find in your grocery stores (besides not tasting like styrofoam) is that wild mushrooms can’t be cultivated. So if you want to eat wild mushrooms—and lots of people do because they’ve got way more interesting mushroomy flavors—you have to go into the forest and find them yourself.

And when it came to foraging, Donna knew what she was doing. She’d been mushroom hunting for years. She’d found porcinis the size of her head. She had no trouble telling a black trumpet from a chanterelle.

They took one look at me and wheeled me right upstairs immediately, because they knew that this was not good.
— Donna Camille Davis

But, as it turned out, on that particular day in November, Donna made a mistake. Within days, she was living every mushroom hunter’s worst nightmare.

On the way home from her trip up north, the first symptom appeared: drop dead fatigue. She slept for three whole days. When she got up, she looked at herself in the mirror and saw that her skin was jaundiced, and she rushed to the hospital.

“They took one look at me and wheeled me right upstairs immediately,” she says, “because they knew that this was not good.”

When the doctors told her, “We think this is mushroom poisoning,” all she could think was this is going to be interesting... this is going to be interesting.

Scratching a Primal Itch

Salt Point Park in Sonoma Valley California is an oak and pine forest perched on the Pacific Coast. It’s a mecca for mushroom hunters—and one of the few parks that permit foraging in California. | Photo by Barbara Paulsen

To understand why mushroom hunters would take the risk of getting poisoned, you’ve got to go hunt mushrooms. So last Spring, I went to the very place where Donna Davis got herself into trouble: Salt Point State Park in California’s Sonoma Valley. I drove there with a self-taught mushroom expert, Patrick Hamilton. He’s got a ponytail and a soul patch and he became fascinated with mushrooms back in the 80s, after smoking some really strong Maui Wowie. These days, he teaches groups of beginners how to identify edible mushrooms.   

There was a steady drizzle as about a dozen of us gathered in the parking lot. First, Patrick sent us off to pick any mushrooms we could find, declaring, “If you see something fun, bring it!” After 15 minutes we met up to share what we’d picked, and Patrick had us lay all the mushrooms out  on a log. Most of them, he told us, were inedible, and one was a particularly poisonous specimen called a Deadly Galerina.

He proceeded to tell us how to identify the three or four mushrooms we wanted to find that day: black trumpets, hedgehogs, candy caps, and chanterelles. And then he sent us off again. Only this time, we knew what we were looking for.

But it was really hard!  I came across a British couple who also couldn’t find anything. We told Patrickour plight, but he wasn’t having it. He knew that our eyes just hadn’t adjusted yet—we were looking, but our eyes didn’t know what to see. He told us to get on our hands and knees  (“For Chrissakes!”) and look underneath things.

Take a peek into the bag of a novice mushroom hunter who’s delighted to have found chanterelles, black trumpets, and other edible mushrooms. | Photo: Barbara Paulsen

Fungi hunting is a muddy business. Mushrooms pop up a week and a half after a rainstorm and thrive in moist environments, like the sides of streams. | Photo: Barbara Paulsen

It’s extremely important to keep the entire mushroom intact for correct identification, as Donna Davis learned when a bit of poisonous mushroom contaminated an entire bag of edible mushrooms. | Photo: Barbara Paulsen

After I found this yellowfoot chanterelle, I finally got my “mushroom eyes.” Yellowfoots are a chef’s favorite for their delicate, mushroomy flavor. | Photo: Barbara Paulsen

And then something weird happened. He pointed to some black trumpets right there, hidden under leaves, and once Id seen them, they began to snap into focus everywhere I looked. It was like one of those Magic Eye books from the ‘90s, the ones with the meaningless pattern that hides a 3-D image. You stare and stare and stare, and then all of a sudden…Pop! There’s the picture.

I was drenched by the rain. My pants were smeared with mud. But I was crazed with the hunt. And right then is when Patrick said it was time for us to head back.

As it turns out there’s a term for what happened to me in the woods of California: Scientists call it the “pop-out effect.” Mushroom hunters call this “getting your eyes on.” I used to work for National Geographic, and for years I sent reporters all over the world to hang out with hunter-gatherer tribes. When they got back, their feet would be cut up and they’d be covered with insect bites, but they’d all tell me the same thing: Even though it’s really hard living off the land, there’s something deeply satisfying about finding your own food.

Veteran mushroom hunter Patrick Hamilton sorts the mushrooms our group has collected on a log in the forest. He’s taught thousands of people in the San Francisco Bay area how to safely identify edible mushrooms. | Photo: Barbara Paulsen

And that makes sense, right? I mean, our eyes are built to do this, to scour the ground for food. And every time we find something tasty, our brains give us this little chemical jolt. That’s what foragers call mushroom fever.

Invasion of the Death Cap

And that’s exactly what happened on that day in November 2014, when Donna and her boyfriend went mushroom hunting. They stuffed bags full of mushrooms, and they brought them back home to sort through.

“We didn't see anything unusual,” she says, “There were some pieces there that didn't have the caps so we tossed them out just to be safe.”

The next day, Donna invited friends over for wild mushroom soup. It was so delicious that she had a second bowl—and you know the rest.

Three days later, Donna was in the hospital, where they told her about an earlier patient who’d gotten poisoned and died. Before she was told it was the mushrooms that were making her sick, the thought of having picked the wrong mushroom never crossed her mind.

The reason Donna didn’t realize she’d been poisoned is that it took so long for her symptoms to appear. That delay was actually a clue, since it suggested that Donna had probably eaten a mushroom called Amanita phalloides, or the “death cap.” Other mushrooms can poison you—make you so sick you might wish you were dead—but it’s the death cap that’s most likely to kill you. Its toxins work slowly, and by the time you begin to feel really sick, it’s got a head start on digesting your liver from the inside out.

“There are people that accidentally poison themselves with death caps just about every year,” says Cat Adams, who studies mycology at the University of California at Berkeley. She says the death cap is responsible for 90 percent of fatal mushroom poisonings worldwide.

Despite its deadly reputation, Cat is enchanted by it. “I think it’s a really beautiful mushroom. It starts as a cute little button,” and grows up to be an elegant, mostly white mushroom that has  gills underneath and a greenish tinge to its cap.

It’s so common, it smells good, it tastes good, apparently. I’ve read a lot of reports of people who’ve been poisoned and unanimously people report that it was a very delicious mushroom, even as they’re dying.
— Cat Adams

But (and this perhaps is no terrible surprise) it’s actually not even supposed to be in North America. The death cap arrived here around 1930, when American botanists imported certain oak trees from Europe and the native soil around the trees’ roots were laced with death cap spores.

The deadly mushroom has been spreading across North America ever since. It’s been spotted in forests from Maryland, north into New Hampshire and Maine, and on the West Coast from Los Angeles all the way up to British Columbia. It’s especially plentiful in northern California, where Donna got herself into trouble. When you combine this with so many amateurs now cooking up wild mushrooms in their risotto, the number of poisonings is going up.

“It’s so common, it smells good, it tastes good, apparently,” says Cat Adams, “I’ve read a lot of reports of people who’ve been poisoned and unanimously people report that it was a very delicious mushroom, even as they’re dying.”

Last winter 14 people were poisoned in northern California in the month of December alone. Four were trying to get high on magic mushrooms, but most of the victims were just cooking up mushrooms for dinner. One meal poisoned five people, including an 18-month-old girl who now has permanent brain damage. In every case, a death cap was somehow mistaken for an edible  mushroom.

Adams says the death cap can grow intermixed with other edibles mushrooms, so if you’re not paying really close attention one may wind up in your basket. And since only a few milligrams of its toxins can be fatal, minor mistakes can become deadly.

Heart of a mushroom | Stanley Zimny by CC BY-NC 2.0 via flickr 

Heart of a mushroom | Stanley Zimny by CC BY-NC 2.0 via flickr 

Donna’s Path

“The whole episode of being in the hospital is like an Alice in Wonderland story in and of itself,” Donna says. Once doctors realized she had likely been poisoned by a death cap, they asked her more questions. Terrifying questions.

Do you have a will? …You need one, now.

Do you understand what it's like to have a liver transplant?  

Donna was in bad shape. She was throwing up the charcoal doctors had given her to extract the poison. Enzyme levels showed her liver was failing. “I was just in this kind of like dazed world of not really knowing what was going on,” she says.

And then she started to hallucinate. On the wall of her room in the intensive care unit, she saw a path.

“I could look down and the ground is like pebbles, clear, clear pebbles, and a canopy of trees and I could see the leaves and the veins and the bark,” she remembers, “and I'm beginning to walk down this path because it's like, ‘Wow, this is such a beautiful path!’”

But then, in her vision, things began to change. “As I walk down the path it was completely pitch black, and I thought … I'm not going there.”

Donna decided something remarkable, something that might have seemed—in that moment—nonsensical. Even though doctors were telling her to write a will, and that her liver was failing, Donna began to think otherwise. She didn’t believe she was going to die. Because of how badly she was doing, her doctor told her she was at the top of the liver transplant list, which has more than 14,000 people waiting on it. But when a liver became available, she turned it down.

She remembers the doctor looking at her and saying, “You don't want the liver?” and she replied, “If I don’t need it, I don’t want it.” She says they must have thought she was insane, or high (maybe a side effect of the mushrooms?).

But Donna was right. Her enzyme levels stayed dangerously high for several days, but on her fifth day in ICU, her levels came way down, and her liver started to regenerate. She says it was—inexplicably, unbelievably—a full recovery.

By Quinn Dombrowski from Berkeley, USA - Hedgehog mushroom, CC BY-SA 2.0,

By Quinn Dombrowski from Berkeley, USA - Hedgehog mushroom, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Backlash from the Mycophiliacs

This past summer, citing the rise of mushroom poisonings, the CDC issued a warning. They called the spread of death cap mushrooms a serious public health concern and issued a caution against eating foraged mushrooms.

Patrick Hamilton, the guy who took me mushroom hunting, wasn’t impressed.  

“Mushrooms have a notoriety, right? It’s like “Ow! Wow! Wild mushroom poisoning!” he told me, over the phone, “I think people fall off ladders a lot more, right? It’s a much greater public health concern!”

That’s true, but of course a lot more people climb ladders every day than go foraging for mushrooms. Regardless, Patrick is right that there are very few mushroom-related deaths, only 10 or so annually. And If you’re a mushroom hunter, this all fits into a maddening pattern: Even though very few wild mushrooms are poisonous, most Americans are afraid of them, because they don’t know which ones are safe to eat. That’s called mycophobia. But then when they do learn about mushroom foraging and try it out, a few get themselves poisoned. That triggers sensational press, warnings from the CDC, both of which feed Americans’ fear of mushrooms. A classic vicious circle.

So when people get poisoned by mushrooms, there’s often this backlash against the victims by the mushroom hunting community. Patrick says whenever he hears about these poisonings, he just thinks it’s “people doing stupid things.”

“Really why would you put something in your mouth and eat it when you don’t know what it is?” he asks.

He must have used the word stupid a half dozen times when I asked him about this.

Really why would you put something in your mouth and eat it when you don’t know what it is?
— Patrick Hamilton

“How many red lights do you have to go through?” he sputtered, “Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupider, stupidest!”

Given the mushroom hunting community’s sensitivity to this issue, it’s no surprise that when Donna Davis’ poisoning became public, they weren’t exactly sympathetic. They seized on a detail from a news report that said Donna had confused a hedgehog mushroom, which has pretty distinctive toothy spikes under its head, with a death cap mushroom, which has gills underneath.

The backlash to Donna’s story on the internet was just as dismissive. Mushroom hunters were like, this lady doesn’t know her ass from her elbow. She hasn’t bothered to learn to identify the number one deadly mushroom! If you know what you’re doing, you could never make that mistake.

Patrick cites this old adage: “There are old mushroom hunters and there are bold mushroom hunters, but there are no old, bold mushroom hunters.” In other words, experienced mushroom hunters don’t accidentally eat deadly mushrooms.

But Cat Adams disagrees. “I’ve read like every paper there is about the death cap,” and she says even super-experienced mushroom hunters can make mistakes. She says she’s read cases of people who have been hunting mushroom for decades and —who accidentally poisoned themselves by eating  death caps.

“I really...I think sometimes a lot of people that do mushroom hunting are scornful toward those who get poisoned as a way to sort of make themselves feel better, but I think that really this could happen to anyone,” says Cat, “I think that really we should see them as examples of the fact that what we do is inherently a little dangerous and that we have to stay vigilant, always.”

But She Can’t Put Down the Basket

True mushroom hunters collect their bounty in baskets, to prevent the fungi from getting squashed. Plastic bags are a no-no: By day’s end, mushrooms turn to mush. | Photo: Barbara Paulsen

I asked Donna where she thinks she went wrong that day she got poisoned, and she told me it’s hard to say. Her best guess is that she accidentally slipped a death cap into her bag of hedgehog mushrooms, and that must have been one of the capless stems she’d discarded when she and her boyfriend sorted through the mushrooms after the hunt.

While it’s remarkable that Donna survived, it’s maybe more remarkable that she was the only one at the dinner party who got sick. She thinks this is because she actually made two batches of soup, one with chanterelles, the other with only hedgehogs. “Lo and behold, I was the [only] one who ate the soup that had the poisonous mushroom,” she says. “Thank God, they didn’t eat the poisonous soup.”

In retrospect, Donna says her real mistake was that she got overconfident, and that made her careless. Given the minute amount of toxin needed to kill you, the safest thing would have been to throw out all of the mushrooms from the contaminated hedgehog batch…no matter how delicious they were.

But Donna doesn’t beat herself up over her mistake. She never thought, how could I be so stupid? “It was,” she says, “just something that happened.” Since her recovery, she’s slowed things down in her life. But she still forages for mushrooms.

“You know you make your decisions. How you want to live your life. Do you want to live your life in fear?” She says, “Yes there are things that I did learn from that. Absolutely. But is it going to stop me from ever eating mushrooms again? No. I don't choose to live my life that way.”


Outside/In was produced this week by:

Barbara Paulsen with help from Sam Evans-Brown, Taylor Quimby, Molly Donahue, Jimmy Gutierrez, Ben Henry, Hannah McCarthy, and Logan Shannon.

***DISCLAIMER*** Don't pick and eat wild mushrooms based on photos you find in this post, or really anywhere on the internet. Please consult professionals. ***DISCLAIMER***

Music from this week’s episode came from Podington Bear, Blue Dot Sessions, and Antony Raijekov.

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder.

If you’ve got a question for our Ask Sam hotline, give us a call! We’re always looking for rabbit holes to dive down into. Leave us a voicemail at: 1-844-GO-OTTER (844-466-8837). Don’t forget to leave a number so we can call you back.

Episode 45: Bright Lights, Big Salad

Lēf Farms built a $10 million dollar, state of the art, automated greenhouse, hoping to sell baby greens branded as fresh and local to area grocery stores and restaurants. But even local foods can meet with local opposition when the neighbors see a farm that doesn’t match their expectations for what agriculture should look like. 

The inside of the Lēf Farm’s 50,000 square foot greenhouse sort of looks like a cross between a computer chip factory clean room, a Ford automotive factory and an Ikea. They’ve invested in a way to grow baby greens incredibly fast. Two weeks fast. They currently have one crop that takes 13 days from germination to harvest, and another that’s 17 days.

And this greenhouse, at full capacity, will be able to grow 1.3 million pounds of baby greens each year, with growth happening year round, even in the middle of a harsh New England winter.

That is… a lot of salad.

How Does it Work?

This Ford factory style greenhouse is almost completely automated. But instead of Mustangs, it’s cranking out baby greens. Instead of pots, the plants are grown in long trays they call “gutters” and they take up the entire greenhouse floor.

“[It] looks like a miniature rain gutter, specially designed to hold our growing medium, and also work with automation. About 19 feet long, just under 2 inches wide.” Says Bob LaDue, Vice President and COO of Lēf Farms.

It’s basically an assembly line for growing lettuce. First, a machine fills each of these gutters with a really thin layer of nutrients. Next, a robotic arms swings that gutter over to a different machine which sprinkles a precise number of tiny seeds into the soil. Robotic arm number two then swings the gutter out onto the greenhouse floor.

Hydroponic technology is much more efficient in terms of getting nutrition to the plant. So we can essentially cut the growth time in half.
— Bob LaDue

Once these gutters are position, the plants receive a steady dose of liquid food from underneath the gutter. There are large storage tanks of this solution on the property. It’s what you’d expect to see at a big industrial chemistry lab.

No humans touch these plants.

Bob explains that the, “hydroponic technology is much more efficient in terms of getting nutrition to the plant. So we can essentially cut the growth time in half.”

So now you’ve got this image: a big greenhouse, about the size of a football field. Glass roof, glass walls.

Inside Lef Farms 50,000 sq. ft. greenhouse | Photo: Todd Bookman

And the whole thing is actually a conveyor belt. The gutters start at one end and move down the length of the greenhouse. When they get to the opposite end they start their slow motion journey, back towards the other end.

And so as you walk the length of this greenhouse, you can actually see the plants get taller and taller.

“As we walk down the greenhouse, each one of these groups is one day older than the last, so you can see the crop growing. Getting bigger, a day older than the last one.” Says Henry Huntington, the CEO of Lēf Farms.

So, at the end of their plant journey, they get swept away by yet another conveyor belt that runs the plastic gutter through a harvesting machine, which snips the greens down at the stalk.

The leaves get bagged by another machine. The plastic gutters get rinsed out, what’s left of the stalk gets composted, and the process starts all over again.

So How Much Does it Cost?

Henry invested $10 million dollars to get this greenhouse up and running. Which is a LOT of money for a greenhouse, but think about how much baby greens cost. Lēf sells those 5 ounce clam shells you see lined up at the grocery stores for somewhere between $3.99 and $4.99, a package.

Baby Greens are the Prada of produce, the Lamborghini of lettuce, the Stradivarius of salad.

But just to be clear, this isn’t exactly an easy thing to pull off: lettuce usually does not want to grow in the middle of the New England winter. Lēf needs to mimic June weather—a warm and humid, 75 degrees—365 days a year. Plus, lots of natural light.

“Essentially, we have to feed the plants the same amount of light every day, [a] 24-hour period day, and we want to get as much as we possibly can from the sun, and anything that we don’t get from the sun, we have this lighting system to provide whatever is in deficit.” Says Bob LaDue

So high powered, specialized lights turn on in the greenhouse when the sun goes down. And this is great news if you’re a baby green, but stop and think about this for a second. A glass building, in a cold and rural part of the world, inside of which, at night, they have to turn on extremely bright lights.

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Bright Lights, Big Problem

The Lef Farms Greenhouse at night in March of 2017 | Photo: Sam Evans-Brown

Tom Schneider was not thrilled, to put it mildly, when the greenhouse went up and got turned on. “I was pissed when I saw that light. I just couldn’t believe it. And I saw it, and I thought, now how can you do that?” He says. “I mean, in the annals of fucked up business moves, this seriously rates its own chapter.”

Tom and his wife and kids live in Loudon, in an old farmhouse high up on a ridge that he bought a little while back. “It’s 360-degrees of just beauty. It is hard to describe. It is better than I thought it was going to be. The sunrise, the sunset, are like nothing I’ve seen. And I think that’s probably what concerned me at first. What’s this going to do to the view? And I think that sounds kind of selfish. I should be more concerned with the ecological, and the physiological, and the psychological impacts this might have, but initially I thought: aesthetics.”

It’s worth mentioning that Tom’s house is 6 miles as the crow flies from Lēf Farms. And when these lights were switched on for the first time this past winter, Schneider says he didn’t even understand what it was. He just saw this strange haze gobbling up a section of the sky.

“Unnatural. It wasn’t a natural color, like a sunset.” He says.

I was pissed when I saw that light. I just couldn’t believe it. And I saw it, and I thought, now how can you do that?
— Tom Schneider

Now, Tom is not the only one being impacted by the light pollution from Lēf Farms. Molly and Dan Sperduto live in the opposite direction from the greenhouse. They’ve got this great house out in a clearing.

Here’s how Molly described the greenhouse: “So the sky is just an orange glow. Actually the first night we were driving up Route 106, and we all thought maybe there was a horrific accident because the sky was so bright, we thought there was a fire, or a conflagration of some sort.”

Molly says the light is so bright, she doesn’t need a flashlight when she takes her dog on early morning walks in the woods. And since their bedroom window faces Lēf Farms, even with their blinds closed, the light seeps into the room. Dan has taken to wearing a sleep mask.

“If you were into star watching, sky watching, constellations and stars and all that, it would pretty much ruin it. If you were here on a good star night, and that light came on, show would be over.” Says Dan.

You Have to See it to Believe It

Since people started getting mad about the overnight lights, Lēf switched the hours they use the lights. Instead of turning them on in the evening, they wait until the middle of the night to turn them on, and they’ve cut back on the number of hours when they’re lighting up the greenhouse.

We went to see it for ourselves, at around 4 a.m. on a cold morning, and we could see the glow from miles away. This wasn’t like the vague bloom of a city that lays just over the horizon, it was a much more intense and all-encompassing incandescence, as if you might expect to see a massive structure fire when you turned the corner. Seeing this greenhouse in all its glory, you can understand the neighbors displeasure.

But who is really being impacted by the light? Night owls and insomniacs? Stargazers? There aren’t any neighbors in the immediate vicinity of the greenhouse—it’s in an industrial district that used to be a gravel pit.

But here’s where it get’s even more complicated: it’s a problem that could have been solved.

This crazy bright light is only about as half as bad as it could have been. When the company designed and built the greenhouse, it did attempt to cut back on light pollution by installing shade curtains. The problem is, the curtains they chose are porous instead of being a true blackout curtain. They only block about 50 percent of the light from the greenhouse. And that 50 percent winds up being enough light pollution to pack a town hall meeting.

“Anybody Have an Answer?”

In January of 2017, the Loudon Planning Board met for their regularly scheduled Thursday evening meeting. It’s important to note here that Henry Huntington, CEO of Lēf Farms, is on the planning board, so the first thing he did wass recuse himself from the discussion and take a seat in the front row.  Now usually, these meetings are small town government at its most idyllic (which is to say, unremarkable). But instead of sleepy talk talk of zoning amendments and easements, it was standing room only... to bitch about the lights.

“What’s this going to do to property values, for the realtors. Who is going to want to buy a house in London when the sun is out at midnight?” said Loudon resident Skip. “I want to know what the plan is from the planning board on cutting these lights back. You guys got a plan, have you talked it over? What’s the plan, planning board? Anybody got an answer? What are you going to do about the lights? Anybody have an answer?”

This went on for about 30 minutes. People like Skip, standing up and asking pointed questions about whether Lēf farms had the right permits, which the planning board kept saying they did.

Was an environmental impact study done? No.

A regional impact study? No.

Were planning boards in other towns notified? No.

Does Loudon have a dark sky ordinance on the books? Again, no.

And finally, after everyone who wanted to say their piece had said it, Henry Huntington stood up. And he turned to the audience and he asked for their understanding. “We built a business that is extremely sustainable. It is answering the question for folks that are looking for local food production, instead of having all their food grown in California and trucked across the country. It’s all these things that are really good for the region. The last thing we thought was that this as going to be a problem.”

But here’s the thing: the Huntington family have been in the greenhouse business for 40 years. They own other financially successful greenhouses in Loudon that grow flowers. And neighbors of those greenhouses have complained about light pollution. That’s in part why they installed the shade curtains to begin with. They just didn’t opt for the really thick ones, and because of how the assembly line is set up, you can’t get to the shades without shutting down the whole operation. And that’s likely the mistake Henry is really kicking himself over.

We built a business that is extremely sustainable. It is answering the question for folks that are looking for local food production, instead of having all their food grown in California and trucked across the country. It’s all these things that are really good for the region. The last thing we thought was that this was going to be a problem.
— Henry Huntington

He continued, “I apologize for where we are at. We’ve made a huge investment in this operation, I can’t afford to shut down and do this now. It would require me to completely shut down to be able to do this, and so that is why I’m asking for some patience, to be able to get this done.”

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Local Isn't Always Best When it Comes to Carbon

Which brings up this question: why are we trying to grow a plant that doesn’t survive a frost in a place where it’s freezing 5 months out of the year? If you’re worried about carbon emissions coming from lettuce, it takes two to four times less carbon to grow that lettuce in a place like Florida or Mexico, load it onto a truck and ship it north.

We’ve reached this point where “local is good” no matter what local is, and it sort of skips right over the fact that growing semi-tropical plants in a heated greenhouse in a place near the Canadian border has some issues.

Local Food has recently been held up as a solution to all of the problems with our food system, from carbon emissions, to bad labor practices, to massively subsidized agribusiness. But it’s important to ask yourself, what problem are you trying to solve? Because if it’s reducing carbon emissions, than buying lettuce, grown locally, in a greenhouse that operates all winter, you’re not really solving the problem.

Greenhouse growing does use water and space dramatically more efficiently, so if you’re worried about California’s water issues or about the amount of land that we devote to agriculture, this is an alternative. And it does produce vegetables without being really exploitative of migrant workers (though it does that by cutting way back on workers in general), but those are really different problems than carbon.

We’ve reached this point where “local is good” no matter what local is, and it sort of skips right over the fact that growing semi-tropical plants in a heated greenhouse in a place near the Canadian border has some issues. But now that Americans are accustomed to eating any vegetable they like, any time of year, it’s probably too late to turn back the clock.


Outside/In was produced this week by:

Outside/In was produced this week by Todd Bookman with help from: Sam Evans-Brown, Maureen McMurray, Taylor Quimby, Molly Donahue, Jimmy Gutierrez, Hannah McCarthy, and Logan Shannon

Special thanks to Dan Barrick, the NHPR News Director for letting us borrow Todd while he worked on this story.

Music from this week’s episode came from Blue Dot Sessions, Podington Bear, Jason Leonard, and Latch Swing.

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder.

If you’ve got a question for our Ask Sam hotline, give us a call! We’re always looking for rabbit holes to dive down into. Leave us a voicemail at: 1-844-GO-OTTER (844-466-8837). Don’t forget to leave a number so we can call you back.